Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site (see our review here) hurled Sherri Rinker’s star into the picture-book firmament. Accepted by the first publisher she submitted it to, the cheerful tale of five construction vehicles settling down for the night went on to become one of the top-selling picture books of 2011. Now the same talented team (Sherri and acclaimed illustrator Tom Lichtenheld) are back with another excursion into bedtime, Steam Train, Dream Train. Who doesn’t love trains? My quick search for “Picture books about trains” turned up 87 titles without half trying. Dream Train is off to a brilliant start toward matching Construction Site’s success, and may even surpass it. Sherri left such a nice comment on our review post, I was emboldened to get in touch with her for an interview. You’ll enjoy her perspective as a Christian and a mother who happens to be a best-selling author in the tough field of picture book publishing:
1. Can you tell us a little about your family and how they influence your writing?
My grandmother was the one that read to me as a child. That early exposure to books, to artwork… that influenced the entire rest of my life. Now, I’m a working mom with a wonderful husband and two boys, now twelve and seven. My boys have been the inspiration for my writing — at least in terms of the subject matter. My second son was truck-obsessed and tireless (literally!) in his enthusiasm for those big, powerful machines! At night, after reading books like, Construction Trucks, Dig It, Build It or I Stink!, and then saying goodnight prayers (with his little hands clasped and his brows furrowed, “Dear Lord, thank you for excavators, thank you for dump trucks, thank you for cement mixers…!”) sleep was pretty much the last thing on his mind. Hence, I was (exhausted and) inspired to write Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site. And, both of my boys have enjoyed trains. (I have spent the hottest days of summer standing in line for Thomas at the Union Train Museum in Illinois, and my floors are covered with train tracks.
2. Unlike Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site, the dream train is not personified. Was that your decision, or the illustrator’s? Do you work with the illustrator at all during the publication process?
This time, Tom Lichtenheld and I worked really closely together. I wasn’t particularly interested in personifying the trains (I felt like the Thomas series covered that pretty fully.). But, my kids were always fascinated by the different KINDS of train cars and the different kinds of cargo they each carried. I was intrigued with the idea of taking those non-fiction aspects (that I’d learned from so many of the non-fiction train books the boys had had me read) and combining them with the kind of cargo that my sons would love: ice cream, toys, bikes, blocks, dinosaurs, etc. Tom actually came up with the idea that animals were the “crew.” I was initially resistant, because I didn’t want to take anything away from the glamor and glory of the train… but I think it was a perfect addition to the magical, dreamy quality I was aiming for. Tom’s initial sketches instantly won me over.
3. Both your books are great read-alouds. Did you try out your rhymes on your own children before submitting them to the publisher? Do you have any read-aloud tips or ways that you particularly like to read your own books?
Thank you for the compliment! With my first book, my editor was obsessed with rhyming perfection and perfect meter. She demanded syllable count, and I wrote and rewrote a TON, changing words to make the syllables strike properly. It paid off: many of the reviews talk about the verse and how it hits easily, even on a first read-through. I’d learned so much the first time around that it was less work with Steam Train. Of course, my poor family had to listen to countless versions of both books as they progressed. (They were really patient, but, I think, may have lost interest by the thousandth time!)
I have, obviously, read both of my books out loud dozens (hundreds?) of times at school presentations and events. I read with tons of enthusiasm, quieting my voice during the sleepier parts, getting loud during the peaks, acting out the movement… but that may be to amuse myself more than my audience, at this point!
4. I like the fact that your books dignify work. All the vehicles in GGCS spend their days on the job, and at night they enjoy their well-earned rest. But they seem to enjoy working, too. Likewise the animals in STDT have work to do before tucking in for the night. How do you encourage a work ethic at home?
I’ll admit: this is a constant struggle in my house. My kids would rather sit on their bottoms and have me bring them things than do for themselves; they would much rather that I pick up their laundry and toys than do it on their own. And, I really enjoy taking care of them because my own childhood sometimes lacked that for me; I often didn’t feel cared for or that I was a priority for my own mother. And, so, there’s a tension there: I DEFINITELY don’t want my boys to grow up to be lazy, self-centered men who feel entitled, I DEFINITELY don’t want to be taken for granted, BUT I want them to know that I feel that part of my calling is to care for them.
My siblings and I are really hard workers, all of us. All of us have a good work ethic, and I really want my boys to inherit that. I try to teach my kids that there is value in hard work, and in earning what we have, and that there’s value in contributing as part of a team (to our family, our church, etc.). I want them to know that life isn’t fair sometimes and that we can’t expect to just be handed things — which is often difficult, because some of their peers have so much. I try to encourage them to find their passion, so that they will enjoy their life’s work but, also, that sometimes (often) we have to do things simply because they need to be done. I don’t particularly love picking up after the dog, or cleaning the bathrooms, but I try to instill in them the idea that our lives and all we have are God’s gifts to us — and that we honor Him by caring for these things. But, grace is hard to teach young children. I think it develops over time as they become less self-centered and more aware. At least, I hope so! I certainly pray about it.
5. How does your faith affect your books? Or, how are your books different because you’re a Christian? (Even though construction equipment and trains don’t appear to have any Christian context!)
Well, first, I need to say that these books, and their success, has been God’s gift to me and my family — truly a miracle for us, and I don’t say that lightly. This success came at a time when I as deeply unhappy with my career as a graphic designer (the long hours, the crazy deadlines, the weekend work, direction based on budget and not quality, etc.), and I prayed constantly for “another option.” Additionally, we were on the verge of losing everything because my husband’s career had been so devastated by the economic downturn. (But, of course, the bills: the mortgage, health insurance, utilities, tuition, those didn’t stop.) We turned to prayer, but, admittedly, also lived with a lot of fear. We know the Bible’s admonishments about worrying, but that is certainly easier said than done. It was a very tough time.
The inspiration for Construction Site hit me so definitively that I know, without doubt, it was a gift from God. And, I promised God that, with the books’ success, I would continue to glorify Him and exalting His name. Honestly, we owe Him everything.
Ultimately, my stories are inspired by God’s love for me and by my love for the children He gave me. Additionally, I hope that the books will be a positive force in children’s lives, and in their family life. The idea that I might encourage a child’s imagination or their reading skills, the idea that a child curls up with his parent and reads my book, maybe laughing together or dozing happily to sleep surrounded by love — I think that that’s, in part, The Lord’s will for all children. I love that I might play a small part in that.
6. Goodnight, Goodnight has sold well and Steam Train is off to a good start—obviously the books have wide appeal. How do you explain that appeal?
Well, God’s leadership and gifts, first. But, also, I think I understand kids – boys especially – and I think that my early exposure to literature has given me a good imagination! And, I’m about love: love for God, for children, for the world. Love never hurts.
7. What’s coming up next?
I’m working on a number of things! My next book is titled, “Since There Was You,” and it’s a humorous look at how a child changes everything.
Steam Train, Dream Train, by Sherri Duskey Rinker, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. Chronicle Books, 2013, 40 pages. Age/interest level: 2-6.
Through the darkness, clickety-clack . . . / Coming closer, down the track . . ./ Hold your breath so you can hear/ huffing, chuffing, drawing near.
This train boasts a big furry engineer who looks like a bear, and large animated crew of freight haulers with work to do. Before it’s too late, they need to load the boxcar, reefers, hoppers, tankers, gondolas, autoracks, and flat cars—with what? As Sherri said, everything boys and girls like: Toys, sand, paint, ice cream, trees, and finally themselves. The red caboose is last in line/ from the lookout all looks fine./ The freight and crew are tucked away,/ the next stop . . . is another day. Our last view is a majestic double-page sweep of the entire consist rolling into the night as the headlight fades into the stars . . . Last view, that is, until we turn to page to the little dreamer’s bedroom, with train and locomotive pictures on the wall and track on the floor. The Tom Lichtenheld’s midnight-blue landscapes and colorful crewmen cast a soothing spell over the flawless rhymes. If this doesn’t put your little conductor or engineer to sleep with a smile, nothing will.