Toni Buzzeo is passionate about children’s literature. Having been a classroom educator and then a school librarian for many years, she has been surrounded by it. That’s also why she writes for children, though that’s not the only reason. “Just as importantly,” she says, “I love children and consider them, wherever they may be, to be the most important people on our planet.”
Toni — who is the author of several picture books for children, including The Sea Chest, illustrated by Mary GrandPre, Dawdle Duckling, illustrated by Margaret Spengler, and most recently No T.Rex in the Library, illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa — told Cracking the Cover that as a child, it never occurred to her that being an author was even a career.
“By the time I was in junior high and had started writing lots of poetry, I definitely identified myself as a writer,” she said. “Still, I didn’t know I could pursue it as my career and so opted to become a teacher and eventually a school librarian.”
When Toni first started writing for children, she was still a school librarian, and that meant oodles of children’s literature was immediately available. But she says she still hadn’t mastered the “necessity of finding excellent published models for characterization, structure, and plot.” It was through the help of her mentor, children’s author Jane Kurtz, that she slowly learned how to do it.
She also struggled with creating an authorial voice that would stick with her through completion of a story. “Each manuscript was a new challenge for me as I slowly learned how to impose structure on an idea, how to identify my main character’s problem and intensify that problem as he or she struggled to solve it,” Toni said. “Those early years were an exciting time of learning so many of the skills that I now readily put to use each time I set words on paper (or screen).”
The ideas for behind the words she sets on paper come from numerous places — TV, movies, daily life, the radio, or someone she talks with. If something piques her interest, she goes in search of more information. If all that connects with Toni on an emotional level and connects to her own experience, she’ll move forward to writing.
That’s what happened with her latest book, “Stay Close to Mama.” In 1995, she went on a safari in Kenya with her husband, Ken, and son Topher. There, she fell in love with the beautiful giraffes of the savannah. During the second week of the trip, she heard the story of a small giraffe that had wandered away from his mother and fallen into a swimming pool.
“That so sparked my imagination that I came home and wrote it — my very first story for children,” Toni said. “Of course, it was a different story from the “Stay Close to Mama” book you have read, as it underwent years of rethinking and revision before it was published this spring.”
What makes “Stay Close to Mama” successful as a book, Toni says, is that familiar tension all children understand of obeying a parent or following our own path.
“While giraffes are known to be exceptionally curious creatures, so are children!” Toni explains. “And sometimes, even when children don’t mean to be naughty, they simply forget what their parents ask them to do (“No, little Twiga. Stay close, stay safe.”). … Besides, who can resist a giraffe? With their long necks, pointy faces, and patchy coats, they are just about the most adorable animals on the planet.”
Those adorable animals come to life in “Stay Close to Mama” in the capable hands of Mike Wohnoutka. His illustration style is a perfect accompaniment to the story, Toni says. “I love the warmth he portrays in the relationship between Mama and Twiga and his brilliance in adding a morning-to-night time frame to the sequence of events in the story. I feel so fortunate to be working with Mike on the companion book, ‘Just Like My Papa’ (Hyperion, spring 2013).”
***Toni took a lot of time and care to answer Cracking the Cover’s questions. Read a complete transcript of her interview.
**You can download a free Mother’s Day card.
*Learn more about Toni at Lille Punkin’ Reviews.
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