There is only one real reason anyone writes a book for children, and that is because they have children who pester them until they do. Or at least that’s what happened to me. I have eight-year-old twin daughters, and they are both avid readers. They know that I’ve written a couple of books for grown-ups, and they are not incredibly happy that they’re not allowed to read them. So they started lobbying me to write a book they could read.
This kind of thing does not always work, of course — I have successfully turned a deaf ear to multiple entreaties to get a dog, or a cat, or a hamster, or an iPhone. And, initially, I was able to deflect request to write a children’s book. “It’s actually harder to come up with a new idea for a children’s book than you think,” I would say. “You also have to illustrate it, and I have no idea how to draw.” I figured that would be enough to defuse the issue.
It might have been, too, except that I was driving the children home one day, and they were prattling to each other, pretending to be different people with different names. “Well, my name is Amanda,” one of them said to the other, and something about that struck home. (Amanda is their main babysitter.) Later that night, I wrote the first couplet for the book:
If my name was Amanda
I’d live in Atlanta
And I’d say hello to a shark.
If my name was Bonnie
Then I’d live in Boston
And catch fly balls in Fenway Park.
That was the easy part. (The “shark” reference is for the Georgia Aquarium.) Once I had the basic formula established, I had to figure out matching first names and cities for each letter in the alphabet, and then I went back and tried to get the rhymes to work. (I also ended up taking the Fenway Park reference out; I didn’t want to run into any trademark issues if I could avoid them.) After that, I had to get the meter just right, so it would be easy to read. That involved taking the entire text and putting it into a spreadsheet, with a separate syllable for every cell.
Once I got the text finished, and decided that the title should be If My Name Was Amanda, it was time to find help with the artwork. I lucked out and found an illustrator on Twitter — an English artist who turned out excellent work at a bargain price. Once I got the artwork put together, then it was time for the acid test — reading the book to the other kids at my daughters’ school. (They liked it, and their teacher was enthusiastic about the book’s use as a classroom aid to American geography.)
But why go through all the trouble to put out a children’s book in a market that’s already glutted with children’s books? There are already, literally, hundreds of rhyming alphabet picture books alone, many of them incredibly well-done and well-known. Why bother with another?
Ultimately, there were three reasons why I persevered and kept the project going.
1. I wanted to write a picture book that kids and parents could both enjoy.
This is sort of a cop-out — who wouldn’t want to write a children’s book that kids and parents can both enjoy? But there are a lot of picture books that don’t make for easy and convenient bedtime reading. Even the esteemed Dr. Seuss wrote Fox in Socks, which is just tongue-twister after tongue-twister; I finally put my foot down and refused to even touch it. I never did figure out why Goodnight Moon was so popular. The nearly-wordless Good Night, Gorilla is lovely, but requires the adult reader to fill in the blanks — and woe betide the tired parent who leaves out a key detail. I wanted my book to be short and concise, and I wanted it to have a simple rhyme pattern with a good rhythm for easy reading, and I think I accomplished that. (My model in this was Sandra Boynton; if you have a very small child in your house, you can’t go wrong with one of her board books for bedtime.)
But I also wanted it to be a book that wasn’t pushing any particular kind of behavior. A lot of children’s books focus on discouraging negative behaviors. We liked the Llama Llama books by the late Anna Dewdney, but they are almost all about how the young character has to learn not to throw tantrums every time something doesn’t go his way. (If that was, in fact, the intent of the books, they have been a spectacular failure at our house.) We also liked the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems, but several of those are behavior-related, too — like I Really Like Slop, which is all about Piggie trying to push “pig culture” on Elephant Gerald (sound it out) by making him try a nasty-looking bucket of slop. I have nothing against any of these books, you understand, but I also didn’t want something with a heavy-handed behavioral message. Kids get that sort of thing all day long; can’t they get the occasional break from it?
2. I wanted to write a picture book that showed that America is more than a collection of strip malls.
I live in a small town in central New Jersey that has a lot of the same big-box retailers and fast-casual restaurant chains that you probably have in your town. I dislike the essential sameness of the suburban outback; when I travel with my kids, I want to try to get away from it as much as I can.
If My Name Was Amanda was designed to introduce some of the beauty and majesty of our country to children. It also showcases just how different the different parts of our country are. The young girl who is featured in the story visits beaches and ski slopes, monumental structures and pizza joints, wilderness hikes and urban adventures. In her imagination, she crisscrosses the country from the badlands of South Dakota to a balloon ride over New York. This is a big, interesting, diverse country, and I tried to capture some of that flavor in the book.
3. I wanted to show children a positive vision of America.
One of the most depressing statements of the last decade was Michelle Obama’s declaration that she had not been proud of America until the point that her husband began his Presidential campaign. (One wonders how she feels nowadays.) Akin to that in spirit, although not in content, is Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again,” which of course implies that America is not great now (and that only Donald Trump can make it great again). Both statements are not only profoundly negative, but depend on the premise that politics — and only politics — can make America more praiseworthy.
What a pathetic lie to tell to children! America is great in spite of her political leadership, not because of it. There is not a whiff of politics in If My Name Was Amanda, outside of a background picture of the Capitol dome. That’s because the things that make America great have little or nothing to do with politics.
There are a few political children’s books out there. One of the top-selling rhyming alphabet books on Amazon is a book called A is for Activist, which features a raised fist on the cover. One reviewer says ““Reading it is almost like reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, but for two-year olds.” Charming. Chelsea Clinton published a book in May that riffed off of the rebuke Senator Elizabeth Warren received for criticizing the nomination of Attorney General Sessions; She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World features profiles of Oprah Winfrey and Sonia Sotomayor, among others. There are a few political children’s books on the Right as well — most notably by Rush Limbaugh.
I want my kids growing up with a sense of pride in our country and our people, unimpaired by political strife — to the extent that such a thing is possible anymore. I wanted If My Name Was Amanda to reflect that sense of pride, and to help strengthen it. It’s important for everyone, in spite of our political differences, to recognize that there is a great deal about our country that is worth celebrating, and if one little rhyming alphabet picture book can help do that, I feel like I’ve done a good job.