Rosemary Wells interviewed by Anita Silvey

The Horn Book Radio Review

Max's First WordAnita Silvey (AS): I’m Anita Silvey, editor and chief of Horn Book Magazine. Books for babies, often called board books because they are printed on cardboard, have proliferated at an amazing rate in the past ten years. But it is only recently that books of any quality for the very young have been published. The chief creator of them is our guest today, Rosemary Wells. Her books about Max have virtually become classics in a few years. Unlike other board books which identify numbers or objects, her books convey emotions, and grew out of her own experience with her two children.

Rosemary Wells (RW): As an avid reader to my children, I couldn’t find a single thing appropriate for either of my girls when they were very young. I had the dialogue — I had the example of a young baby and an older child who was trying very hard and being very bossy, right there in front of me. Max and Ruby, I believe, are the quintessence of an older and younger sibling relationship. They are universal, and I had it in my house and it became a book.

AS: Do you do most of your picture books out of emotion and character or out of story idea? How are they generated?

RW: All of them are out of emotion or character because I think that that’s what makes a story. Emotion and character and humor are what makes a children’s book right. And it’s what makes it original, and it’s what makes it want to be read again and again. Children’s books must be written — published to be read a hundred or two hundred times because they want to sit down and read it again and again. Children love to read about themselves, to read about their older or younger brothers and sisters, to read about their place in the family, and parents and librarians who sit on beds and read or do story hours like to have something funny and brief and very understandable in their hands.

AS: Is the text very crucial to you in what you do, every word in the text crucial?

RW: The story comes first, the pictures come second and there’s a trend now in children’s books to to make it so that the story is a vehicle for pictures. This is a very bad idea, because children want the story. Remember, children — young children are listening most of the time. If you can go back to the finest children’s books in the past thirty or forty years you will find that the classics that stand up are always books where the story is wonderful.

AS: Rosemary, I know you do a lot of talking to aspiring artists and illustrators. What books do you use when you talk to be the finest examples of picture books that you can thing of?

RW: I always use one book first, and it was published in I think 1969, somewhere around there, because it is a true classic of learning. It’s called Whose Mouse Are You? published by Macmillan. Robert Kraus wrote it and Jose Aruego illustrated it. It’s sixteen lines long. It has every ounce of emotion that an adult novel could have. It is, to my way of thinking, one of the most perfect picture books ever written. It’s very brief. Other than that, I would direct people to, more recently, Cynthia Rylant’s When I was Young in the Mountains because the text is absolutely like poetry — like the finest poetry. I can’t leave Maurice Sendak and Bill Steig out of this, and I would say Slyvester and the Magic Pebble, Dr. DeSoto and particularly Amos and Boris, which is so touching. These are all books that have a very wonderful story: humorous, dramatic — and if there is such a thing as a picture book that you can’t put down, Bill Stieg writes them, and that’s a direction I would advise young aspiring writers to take.

AS: Rosemary Wells, author of Max’s Breakfast, Max’s Bath, Max’s Bedtime and other delightful titles about Max and his bossy older sister Ruby, all published by Dial. I’m Anita Silvey, editor and chief of Horn Book Magazine.


Child’s voice: This series of reviews is produced by Greg Fitzgerald and is made possible by the Horn Book Incorporated, publishers of the Horn Book Magazine and books on children’s literature.horn book radio review


This program originally aired on National Public Radio in July or August of 1986. The Radio Review was moderated by Anita Silvey and produced by Greg Fitzgerald.

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