Christmas and New Year’s have come and gone, and Valentine’s Day has yet to arrive. It’s cold and windy, and everyone needs a little pick-me-up.
That’s where Groundhog Day comes in.
Each Feb. 2, we pin our hopes for warmer weather on the small, furry groundhog. If the groundhog comes out of its burrow and doesn’t see its shadow, we expect winter to end soon. If, on the other hand, the groundhog sees its shadow, we get ready for six more weeks of winter.
Wisconsin authors Kathryn Heling and Deborah Hembrook liven this ritual up in their recently released picture book Ten Grouchy Groundhogs (December 2009, Cartwheel Books).
Here, they share how the book came to be.
How did you get the idea for Ten Grouchy Groundhogs?
As with many of our books, Debbie had the original idea. She had noticed there were almost no Groundhog Day books for very young children. She started with a rhyming draft in which a group of 10 groundhogs dwindled down to one as each little critter found a reason to leave the group.
In Debbie’s original draft, each groundhog was grouchy from beginning to end. For each groundhog that left the scene, a human character entered, until at the end of the story one groundhog remained along with a television crew of 10 people gathered to record whether the groundhog saw his shadow.
How did the story evolve? Did you try various approaches before finding one that worked?
We knew we wanted the story to be in rhyme, but we decided early on to leave the people out of the story and just concentrate on the groundhogs. We wanted to keep the idea of starting with 10 groundhogs and having them leave the den one by one.
Kate had the idea of introducing refrain-like phrases into each verse and having the groundhog attributes change from stanza to stanza. We liked the alliteration in the phrase “grouchy groundhog,” so we spent some time developing a list of adjectives starting with a hard-g sound – grinning, grubby, graceful, etc. In that way, we could create a different scene for each spread and give more personality to the groundhog characters.
Once Kate got the basic idea for the structure of each verse, the first serious draft flowed pretty smoothly. After that, it was just a matter of collaborative fine-tuning.
Your book is described as, “a hilarious countdown story about a den of grouchy, grubby, gobbling, gabby, giggly, groovy, graceful, glitzy, gleeful, groggy groundhogs getting ready for their great big day.” How do the groundhogs’ personalities drive the story?
It’s really more a matter of a group personality – at first, there is so little room in the den that we see 10 grouchy groundhogs; then nine grubby groundhogs, and so on. But as the den empties out, there’s more room for fun and we see scenes like those in which graceful groundhogs dance and groovy groundhogs sing.
But then at the end, when one groundhog has the whole den to himself, he’s lonely and grumpy and goes looking for his friends. We were aiming for two important aspects of each verse: the hard-g adjective that would allow us to carry on the alliteration and an accompanying scene that would be lively and amusing.
You both work in schools. Did you design the book to be used in classrooms?
Absolutely, although we certainly hope that its appeal goes beyond the classroom. Debbie is a kindergarten teacher; Kate is a school psychologist and former special-ed teacher. It is almost impossible for us to conceive of a story that does not have educational underpinnings. Indeed, for most of the 10 books we’ve published, we can easily envision extension activities in the classroom, how the book fits into elementary curriculum, and how the vocabulary and other language aspects of the story support the young reader.
You’ve also written a Halloween book, Midnight Fright. Do you have more holiday books in the works?
Well, yes … but none that are currently under contract. We are in the process of submitting manuscripts for two other holidays that we feel are underrepresented in children’s literature. Hoping for good news soon on this front.
How do you work together as writers? Do you set aside specific times to meet and write together? Or will one of you start something and then share it with the other for more ideas? What do you do if you disagree?
These are questions that we are asked ALL the time!!! We’ve been writing collaboratively since 1997, and we feel incredibly blessed that our writing partnership has endured and flourished!
Our process can vary somewhat depending on the project, but it is often the case that Debbie has a creative idea that she develops in rough form. After some discussion and brainstorming about where we see the story going, Kate usually takes over on the more formal writing process leading to a first draft. There may be variations in how we approach the beginning stages of our projects, but in EVERY case, we are fully collaborating by the final drafts.
We are extremely disciplined about meeting one night a week to work together, and we have ‘homework’ assignments in-between. We keep in constant contact during the week through e-mail and voice mail. We both feel enormously privileged to be working with children on a daily basis. As a teacher, Debbie is immersed in the authentic activities, language, voice, interests, and developmental milestones particular to the young child. Besides her own personal and professional experiences with young children, Kate brings technical writing skills – and somewhat of a knack for rhyming – to the collaborative process.
After 12 years of writing together, we have such respect for each other’s talents and opinions that we rarely disagree. We have learned to be very open and accepting of each other’s ideas and suggestions because over and over again, it’s worked!
You’ve written picture books, early readers and bilingual books. How does your approach differ for each audience?
We learned long ago to start with the story and to write it in all its wordy glory, without regard to a particular audience. Once the story is written, we have a better idea of the audience that it seems to fit, and we begin to revise accordingly.
Like most writers, we generally end up cutting about half the words from early drafts. For some genres, such as early readers and bilingual books, the text needs to be so very sparse that a great deal of paring is necessary. It’s at that point in the process that our approach may differ depending on our ultimate audience.
Finally, how do the two of you plan to celebrate Groundhog Day this year? And would you prefer more winter or an early spring?
We have some very exciting Groundhog Day plans!
For starters, we’ll be at Martha Merrell Bookstore in Waukesha, Wis. on Saturday, Jan. 23 in the afternoon, as part of “Janboree,” the city’s winter festival. We’ll be doing Groundhog activities with any big or little kids who happen along. Waukesha will be hopping that day, so come on by!
Then on Saturday, Jan. 30, we’ll be in Woodstock, Ill., where the movie “Groundhog Day” was filmed. The city celebrates Groundhog Day every year with a busy day of various activities. We’ll be doing morning and afternoon readings, book signings, and groundhog craft activities at an independent bookstore called Read Between the Lynes.
We’re also trying to arrange an appearance on the Milwaukee TV show “Morning Blend.”
As for our personal feelings about what we’d like those little groundhogs to predict … Debbie is hoping for an early spring, no later than end of February. Kate LOVES winter … until about Valentine’s Day … then bring on the tulips!
If you’d like to learn more about Debbie and Kate, visit their Web site. If you’d like to purchase Ten Grumpy Groundhogs, it’s available on Amazon.com, through the Scholastic Book Fair and at various bookstores, including Martha Merrell’s in Waukesha, Wis. and Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock, Ill.
What do YOU hope the grumpy groundhogs will predict? More winter or an early spring?