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Interview with Debi Gliori, author of Where Did That Baby Come From?

Debi Gliori has illustrated many picture books, including Joyce Dunbar's Tell Me Something Happy Before I Go to Sleep and Tell Me What It's Like to Be Big, Alan Durant's Always and Forever, and her own Penguin Post and No Matter What. She lives near Edinburgh, Scotland.

From the creator of the beloved No Matter What, this exuberant take on the chaos surrounding the arrival of a new baby is sure to be a welcome addition to the lives of bewildered older siblings everywhere.
Q: Where Did That Baby Come From? playfully addresses the issue of siblings dealing with a new baby in the household. Where did this story idea originate?
A: Being an only child, I never had to deal with the mixed joys and traumas of having a new sibling, but watching my own children's reactions to the arrival of their new siblings was highly instructive. One of my children (who shall go nameless), after two sleeplessly wailful weeks with the newborn, did in fact ask if we could take "that baby" back to the hospital. I look through the photos of all of them holding their new siblings on their laps and their wee faces say it all: expressions composed of equal parts of horror and wonder; eyes shiny with what looks suspiciously like unshed tears; little jaws set in stubborn sulky mutiny—Oh boy, those early weeks! I subscribe to the theory that introducing one's existing child to the new baby is every bit as traumatic as being told by your husband that he's bringing a new wife home because he loves you so much, and no, nothing will change, and no, he'll still love you exactly the same as always. On the other hand, I also believe that having brothers and sisters is the best thing that can happen to a child. So, I guess then that Where Did That Baby Come From? came from fifty percent observation and fifty percent wish fulfillment.

Q: In creating Where Did That Baby Come From?, what was your first step?
A: I curled up on the feathery sofa in my studio and wrote, "Where did that baby come from? And can we take it back?," chewed the end of my pen, tried to climb inside the head of a three-year-old looking at his or her new sibling, and wrote, "It wails and squeaks. Its diaper leaks." And then I couldn't resist the juxtaposition of putting in a gloriously adult rhyme that no three-year-old in the universe would ever come up with, but one that, to me, seemed delightfully apposite. Newborns, in my experience of ours, are born insomniacs. Already I could hear that this story, even at such an early stage—I mean four lines, hardly a story yet—had a distinct and irreverent voice that offset the potential descent into sentimental schmaltz that new baby books can be prone to. This book was such a joy to write. This is not always the case, alas. Some stories have to be hacked out of my subconscious with ice picks, but this one was like mining a mother lode. The pictures came much, much later.

Q: On the first page of Where Did That Baby Come From?, the toddler-age tiger is holding a stuffed animal bunny—one that closely resembles Willa from Tell Me Something Happy Before I Go to Sleep (Harcourt, 1998) and Tell Me What It's Like to Be Big (Harcourt, 2001) written by Joyce Dunbar. Are there other hidden elements that tie your work together?
A: My toddler tiger is indeed holding a Willa "plush," as they're known in the UK trade. I actually put this in for the delight of my youngest daughter (the child notably born a scant few hours after I finished, parceled, and posted the artwork for Tell Me Something Happy Before I Go to Sleep off to its UK publisher), who has loved her Willa plush almost to destruction. I don't think that there are any other Joycean Dunbarish hidden references, but I have to 'fess up to having plundered several of my own other books (both picture books and novels) for pictorial elements in Where Did That Baby Come From? This is because each book I do doesn't exist in a vacuum; they're all part of a continuum, and as such, they meld and overlap and are self-referential in a fashion that sometimes I can only see with hindsight.

Q: You've worked on three Harcourt books with Joyce Dunbar—the two aforementioned and The Very Small (2000). What makes you two an award-winning combination?
A: I have no idea what particular element it is in our combined work that seems to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, but I'm just very thankful that the books have worked so well for so many families across the world. Also, being a sort of superstitious, fey artist type, I'm wary of attempts to try to analyze what exactly it is that makes a particular book work—almost as if too much daylight shone on the creative process will make it vanish. After all, if we knew the answer to what makes a classic picture book, we'd all be turning out Where the Wild Things Are till our fingers fell off.

Q: Many of the books that you've worked on—including Always and Forever (Harcourt, 2004) by Alan Durant and No Matter What (Harcourt, 1999)—deal with social situations and family. Why have you chosen those themes?
A: These themes chose me. No Matter What started off as a story to comfort my eldest daughter during a particularly unpleasant custody/divorce scenario. As I wrote, I discovered that I had something else entirely, and thank heavens, I let go and let the story go in the direction it wanted to go and, thus, write itself. From the moment my editor in London e-mailed me Alan Durant's beautiful story Always and Forever, I loved it. There was something so tender yet so truthful about the story of Fox and his friends' reaction to his death that made me utterly determined that I would illustrate it, even if I had to wait for over a year before beginning the paintings.

Q: How would you describe yourself as an artist?
A: Responsible—I take my work very seriously. Funny—because the weightiest concepts (moral, ethical, social, spiritual) can be leavened with humor. Loving—after all, these are books for our littlest citizens, and if I cannot actually be there in person to read the stories to these tiny readers myself, the next best thing is to pour as much love as possible into the creation of the books.

Q: Since 1989 you've published more than fifty picture books and five novels. With five kids, where do you find the time—and energy—to write and draw?
A: I have to confess that I get up at 5:30 a.m. three mornings a week and go and do a hellacious two hours at a local gym. And I bake all our bread. We never eat fast food, either, because, I have to confess, I'm a food fascist and love cooking. (Yes, I know, you hate me already.) Compared to this, writing and drawing is easy. As for energy, I write sitting down, you know. It only burns about seventy calories an hour— I checked. The trick is the Mediterranean siesta in the afternoon. I have a sofa in my studio, and occasionally I fall onto it with grateful squeaking sounds and fall into dribbly, snoring slumber. And I don't watch TV, or have anything approaching a social life, since no one is brave enough to babysit for The Tribe.

Q: Are your picture books kid-tested by your children?
A: Not until they (the books, not the kids) reach the stage where I'm painting watercolor final artwork. My two teenage sons and one adult son are not even remotely interested in my picture books anymore, but that may well change when they have children of their own. My daughters are fascinated by the whole process of making pictures. They always come into my studio after school, are visibly disappointed if I'm "only writing," are delighted if there is evidence that Mummy has been painting, and teeter dangerously on my swirly spinning seat as they breathe hotly over the artwork and tell me that I'm "really good at coloring in." I don't read the stories to them without supporting pictures, but sometimes I will show them my initial character sketches to see what they think of them.

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Debi Gliori

Debi Gliori

Where Did That Baby Come From?

Where Did That Baby Come From?

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