For Dee Leone, reading to children is a profound, almost sacred rite that builds an invaluable bond between parents and their book-loving progeny.
Whether it was over her eight years as a teacher, the countless nights she spent cozied up with her two daughters, or the dozens of articles she’s written for children’s and educational magazines, Leone has spread her love of reading with unbridled enthusiasm. Now, with a pair of books published in the past six months, that calling has climbed to a whole new level.
Leone’s first book, 2014’s Bizz and Buzz Make Honey Buns (Penguin), was followed up in October by Dough Knights and Dragons (Sterling). In her third book, Nature’s Lullaby Fills the Night—released Feb. 6 by Sterling Children’s Books—Leone conjures lyrical verse inspired one night while looking through the photos she brings back from her far-flung travels. Coupled with artwork from illustrator Bali Engel, the result is an ode to nature captured in two dozen tender scenes that, she discovered in hindsight, fit nicely to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.
We sat down with the newly arrived Rancho Santa Fe resident to talk about her latest offering, her growing success and why reading books will always matter. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the inspiration behind your latest book?
I take tons of photos. I like to look through them every once in a while to remind me of my vacations. What happened is that I was looking through my photos of swans on a glistening lake in Slovenia, deer in Colorado, dolphins leaping in New Zealand, trying to pick a few of my favorites, and the images just kind of struck me and I thought I could make a book out of them. I wanted to try to use the most beautiful language I could think of and try to get that on paper.
How did you approach trying to create fresh imagery and engaging rhymes about a topic that is so well worn?
I looked at my photos and made a list of rhymes that I thought could work, just looked to see what it evoked in me. If swans were on a rippling lake, I tried to get that rippling in there. I had a photo of the Great Barrier Reef, so I tried to get kids to imagine what it would look like if they were under the sea. When you go to these writing conferences, they tell you not to talk down to children, especially when they’re being read to, because that’s one of the ways that they’re introduced to vocabulary. You might change the words and the voice when you’re writing for older kids and they’re reading it on their own. But as far as picture books, they say you don’t have a limit, so I don’t really hold myself back when it comes to what words I choose when I describe something. It’s a teaching opportunity when they do come across something that they can’t figure out in context.
Do you remember your reaction at seeing your verses brought to life?
I saw the art for the first time I think last January. This artist does really abstract sketches, and when they asked if I had any comments I said, ‘I have no idea what any of this means.’ There were zig-zags all over the place, I guess for point of view and depth and all that. So I was a little worried. But then when I saw the actual finished product, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, OK I love this.’ I love the color palette—the purples and blues and pinks. She did such a good job. Some of this is just magical the way she did it.
Does this book have a lesson in mind?
It doesn’t really have a lesson other than to learn to appreciate nature more, and maybe to think about using your senses to hear what’s going on, especially at night. It’s supposed to be soothing and calming, where the colors and the words are meant to calm children down and help them get to sleep.
Your second book—Dough Knights and Dragons—came out in October. What’s that one about?
It’s about not being stereotypical. Dragons and knights are supposed to fight, and in here it’s showing that you can be friends whether you live in a cave or a castle, whether you wear red or blue, whether you’re tall or small. And it teaches creative problem-solving because they get out of that conflict and end up saving the day.
What was it like seeing one of your books in a bookstore for the first time?
That was pretty surreal. The other day I was at another author’s book launch at the Mira Mesa Barnes & Noble and I saw somebody pick up [Dough Knights and Dragons], read it, and I was so nervous she’d put it back. But sure enough, the lady kept it in her arms and then handed it to her husband to buy. So I went up to her and was like, ‘I’m the author of that book if you want me to sign it,’ and she was all excited and told her kids and I signed it for her. So yeah, it’s kind of surreal and humbling, I would say.
You’ve had some enviable success, having been published by Penguin Press and now Sterling. How did that come about?
My agent was focusing on celebrity memoirs at the time, not picture books. So I sent some of the work I had piling up to Sterling. It was actually a monster book. The editor said she liked it but they had just acquired three monster books. So she asked if I had anything else and I sent this one and she decided to pick it up. Then, out of the blue, another editor said she wanted to work with me on the other book I had sent, so I lucked out and got two sold to them in one sitting, so to speak.
Did you always want to be a children’s author?
When I was younger, no. I wanted to be a teacher and a mathematician and an interpreter. So I wasn’t sure, and I ended up in elementary ed. And when I had children, I wanted to stay home but I wanted to still stay connected, and I thought one of the best ways was to write for teaching magazines. So I used to write tips, and then I was writing for children’s magazines like Highlights, Jack and Jill and Humpty Dumpty. I would write the little puzzles in there. And then one day an editor called me up out of the blue and asked if I could turn one of the poems I had written into an activity book reproducible for teachers. I ended up writing 20 of those. Then I took a break for a while, did some volunteer work and then I decided to get back into this.
What is it about the process of parents reading to their children that you find meaningful?
Well, of course, there’s the bonding. It’s been proven that parents who read to their children or teachers who read to their students, those children are at least a year ahead of their peers at the beginning.
Did you read to your two daughters?
Oh, of course. They loved reading. They were the kind of kids who would take the flashlight under the covers. At the beginning they liked the kind that they could remember, like Dr. Seuss, or that they could pretend to read along with. But after that they started liking everything. We would go to the library all the time.
You accompany your books with activities. What kind of activities do you come up with?
I used to be a teacher. I’ve taught in Ohio, California, Texas and I was an aid for gifted students in Alaska. So I was used to creating things like crossword puzzles and fill-in-the-blanks and creative writing activities. This new book has 32-page activity kit. My first book is about homophones and homonyms, so I built activities around that. The other ones have rhyming activities, creative writing activities like a recipe for friendship instead of just doughnuts. I did some for preschoolers all the way up to third grade, so there’s a wide variety.
Do you have a goal as an author?
My goal is to reach as many different levels as possible. I’m working on tons of things right now. Concept books, fiction and nonfiction picture books. One is about an invention—actually, it’s about toilet paper, I haven’t seen a lot of those, and it’s written in rhyme, too. I’m constantly revisiting and revising; when I get tired of one thing, I go to another thing. This is the first book I tried to write in a really lyrical language. I usually write silly. I like to write in rhyme more than in prose. I usually do silly, humorous things. I have a whole book of school poems—about things like water fountains, gym class, lunchrooms—that I’ll try to get published next, so we’ll see.
Nature’s Lullaby is available at major bookstores and through Amazon.com. Learn more about Leone’s work at DeeLeone.com