I’m as happy as a sheep in a jeep to host Nancy Shaw today. And a certain granddaughter of mine is delighted that there’s a brand new sheep book out! Can’t wait to read it with her.
Book ideas can come from anywhere—from a deeply felt experience, from a “what-if” question, from serendipity. The idea for my latest book came from a bookseller, two editors, and playing with words.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, we used to play a rhyming game—the goofier, the better–while cooped up in our Chevy on the 400 miles to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I got bored on a car trip in 1982. That early training kicked in. I was in the back seat of the car with my kids and we’d just read a book of animal rhymes. I tried adding some of my own. I put together “sheep in a jeep.” Then I thought, maybe a sheep wouldn’t drive well. The rhymes led to the story, but I had to go back and forth between the sounds and the sense. After two and a half years, a bunch of rejections, and tactful direction from Houghton Mifflin editor Matilda Welter, the words reached their published form. Illustrator Margot Apple blended human and animal expressions to bring the sheep to life. Matilda told me the sheep should eventually retire in Sheep Go to Sleep.
The flock went on to have more adventures—sailing, shopping, even space travel—but it was not moved to slumber until long after Matilda retired. The sheep were living placidly in their pasture when they got the call. I was asked to write about my favorite indie bookstore for Black Dog & Leventhal’s anthology My Bookstore. I tried composing haiku about Nicola’s Books, but the verses lacked a certain something. And Nicola was hoping for a sheep story, which led to “Sheep Phone It In.” Sheep and a smartphone—what could go wrong? They placed a random order with an online bookseller before blundering into Nicola’s and discovering customer service. When I told my current editor, Margaret Raymo, about their new adventure, she asked if I had ever thought of doing Sheep Go to Sleep. This time I was ready. I used a collie in loco parentis.
Ollie is driven to help, and exhausts himself. I started in lyric mode, with golden light spilling down the hill, but sheared off those lines to get on with the story. I had the usual trial and error to make the language work. I took the manuscript to my critique groups—one that’s been meeting for over 30 years, and my newer group of four friends. I read it to school classes to see where it was working, and where it didn’t come across. I started with issues when kids have trouble settling down. Snacks? Margaret didn’t think parents would appreciate the suggestion. We settled on hugs, a drink of water, a lullaby, a stuffed toy, and a quilt. (Sheep Go to Sleep is also a counting book, going from five insomniacs to five snorers.) Margot added her own touches, and Ollie takes joy in a job well done. I wish Matilda were still here to share it with.
Nancy Shaw is the author of SHEEP IN A JEEP, SHEEP GO TO SLEEP, and six other sheep adventures, as well as RACCOON TUNE and ELENA’S STORY, which was inspired by a visit to Guatemala. Nancy grew up as an avid reader and went on to study English literature at the University of Michigan and Harvard. Her books have received many honors, including PARENTS magazine Best Kids’ Books of the Year, SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL Best Books of the Year, and HORN BOOK Fanfare. Her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan hosts a whole flock of stuffed sheep. You can find her at nancyshawbooks.com.