Far apart, writer, illustrator make beautiful music together

by Nancy Pate
Orlando Sentinal

Alison Jackson on a library visit The pictures and the words go hand in hand ot make Valentine a real darling for the kids.

Listen. Do you hear it? That hum?

It's Alison Jackson. She's been humming on and off for the past several years. She hums as she does chores at her Bay Hill home, as she sees her husband off to work, their two teenagers off to school. She hums as she drives her bright blue Aerostar van to her job at the Seminole County Library west branch, where she introduces toddlers to the wonders of storybooks.

And always she hums the same familiar tune -- "My Darling Clementine." But if she were to suddenly break into song, the words would be her own:

Oh my darling, oh my darling,
Oh my darling, Valentine.
I have written forty letters.
But you've never read a line.

This is the refrain of Jackson's new best-selling picture book, The Ballad of Valentine (Dutton, $16.99), the tale of a bashful admirer trying desperately to reach his sweetheart. Endearingly comic illustrations of Texas artist Tricia Tusa detail the suitor's plight as his missives -- sent by mail, homing pigeon, Pony Express -- all go astray.

Ironically, the story somewhat mirrors the relationship between author and artist. Jackson and Tusa have never met. In fact, they've never even spoken to one another.

That's often the case in the competitive, "bunny-eat-bunny" world of children's publishing, where artist and illustrator may well work independently. If every picture tells a story, a picture book tells two -- the story you read on the pages, and the story behind the book itself.

The Beginning

Alison Jackson, 49, first started thinking about the idea that became The Ballad of Valentine more than six years ago, when she and her husband Steve, son Kyle and daughter Quinn still lived in her native California. Achildren's librarian with three middle-grade novels to her credit, she had already sold a children's picture book to Lucia Monfried, senior editor at Dutton Children's Books.

"I did storytimes for the 2- and 3-year-olds, and I noticed there weren't many funny Thanksgiving books," she says. "Toddlers don't know about pilgrims. What they know about Thanksgiving is food."

So Jackson came up with a comic spoof of the song "I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly." In her story, the old lady is a Thanksgiving guest who devours the entire dinner, dish by dish, growing larger on every page. While waiting for I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie to be published, Jackson noticed how Valentine's Day was also underrepresented in the picture book department.

"I started thinking about well-known songs, and Clementine popped into my head," she recalls. "Since it rhymed with Valentine, it seemed a natural."

Not that the book wrote itself. Just because picture books look simple doesn't mean the writing comes easily. Jackson not only had to figure out her story but also choose the right words that echoed the song's rhymes. She wrote, rewrote, reworked and revised the manuscript before sending it to Monfried at Dutton.

I loved it," Monfried says. "It had such great visual possibilities, plus I really liked the writing. And because Alison's a librarian, she knew there was a gap that this book would fill."

Monfried commissioned Tusa as the illustrator.

She's always busy so I knew we'd have to wait," Monfried says. "But I thought her style would match Alison's. That's definitely my job, knowing what author and artist to put together."

But not literally. After Monfried suggested a couple of revisions to Jackson, who by this time had moved to Florida, the manuscript went off to Tusa in Texas.

The Middle

Tricia Tusa, 42, has been illustrating children's books for 20 years. She was immediately attracted to Jackson's manuscript.

"It was a delight," she says. "It was well-written, and it was funny. Sometimes you get well-written books, but there's no humor. I knew this was something I could have some fun with."

But not right away. She had three books in front of Jackson's, each requiring anywhere from six to nine months worth of work -- which is not unusual with professional illustrators.

Still, she thought about Valentine while she was completing those, humming Clementine too. And she remembered a big rag doll that she bought with her own money when she was 8 and named Amelia after Amelia Belelia books.

She's this wonderful, hilarious, elongated doll," Tusa says of her button-eyed Valentine prototype, which is now a favorite of her 7-year-old daughter, Rhe. "Amelia's missing her eyes now, and her red hair somehow ended up in a puddle of Clorox at some point. But she's still quite dashing."

Hair gets special attention in Tusa's drawings. Valentine, who lives "In a cabin, in a canyon / Near a mountain laced with pine," has a big, brown upsweep.

"Texas hair is big and sculptured," Tusa says, laughing. "I can remember when I was living in New York when I was in my 20s, and I would come home to visit and I would think how huge the sky was and how huge the hair."

While Tusa started on Valentine, Jackson, back in Orlando, was enjoying the success of I Know an Old Lady, illustrated by Judith Byron Schachner. Jackson also had written another picture book, this one about the old woman who lived in a shoe with so many children she didn't know what to do.

"In my version, the woman takes the children and meets other nursery characters like Humpty-Dumpty," Jackson says. "In the end, she comes back home."

If the Shoe Fits, with illustrations by Karla Firehammer, was published by Holt two years ago. Again, Jackson had no contact with the artists collaborating on her books.

"Once the text is done, they send it off to the art department," she says. "You have absolutely no say in what it's going to look like. I've always been so pleased because the illustrators are able to do so much more with it than I could do."

She knew that The Ballad of Valentine would be difficult to illustrate. The pictures had to convey what was happening with her words -- Valentine's admirer lamenting that his letters to his sweetheart aren't reaching her -- but also show Valentine herself, who doesn't appear in the text except through her suitor's references. She made some suggestions for illustrations in the margins of her manuscript, envisioning Valentine as a Calamity Jane / Annie Oakley-type character. But she also knew that the decision wasn't hers.

In Tusa's illustrations, readers see Valentine's admirer practically tearing out his hair every time a message doesn't make it to Valentine. A mail car derails in Denver. A cyclone eats his smoke signals.

Bought an airplane, wrote a message
With a big heart underlined.
But the wind erased three letters
And you're now my -al-n-ine.

But Tusa also creates an industrious Valentine going about her daily life, hanging out the laundry, painting pictures, baking a pie. And she deftly indicates that Valentine is thinking of someone special as well. A picture of her frazzled suitor sits on top of the stove.

Tusa confesses she didn't even read Jackson's notes until she had already finished the "dummy" - the mock-up of the drawings as they will appear in the finished book.

"I have to work indipendently," she says. "I like to play with what immediately comes to mind when I read the words, to go out on that limb by myself."

She didn't see Valentine the way Jackson did. Her character's more a plucky farm woman who knows how to connect with her admirer come Valentine's Day. It turns out the two don't live all that far apart, unlike Jackson and Tusa. Still, Tusa already has signed on to illustrate Jackson's next picture book, Thea's Tree, although she has other books to finish first.

"I'm thrilled she's going to do it," says Jackson, resigned that it will be several years before this next picture book -- written as letters by a girl trying to discover the identity of the plant growing in her back yard -- will be on bookstore and library shelves. "Valentine was worth the wait."

The Happy Ending

Publication is the really fun part for the author and illustrator, says Dutton's Monfried.

"They've spent years imagining the final project," she says. "They've been working alone all this time. They've seen it throught from start to finish, and now comes the book and this great response."

She thinks that The Ballad of Valentine will become a holiday classic, just as I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie already is a Thanksgiving favorite.

Reviewers agree. Publisher's Weekly called it a "clever adaptation." School Library Journal noted that "Without ever being treacly or melodramatic, this fun book is ideal for Valentine's Day programs." Booklist chimed in: "A parody of 'Clementine' is long overdue, and Jackson and Tusa make perfect harmony here -- the cadence and rhythm of text and the watercolor artwork are right on pitch in their genuine sweetheart of a book."

Music to Jackson's ears. "It's always a surprise. You never take it for granted."

From her New York office, Monfried is watching The Ballad of Valentine climb The New York Times best-seller list for children's picture books. In her Texas studio, Tusa is working on yet another picture book for another publisher. And in her Orlando home, Jackson is pondering a middle-grade novel. Still, they are all connected by The Ballad of Valentine.

No wonder Jackson is humming -- and smiling.

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