American writer-illustrator Rosemary Wells’ stories have been delighting children and adults alike for over 40 years. The award-winning author has published over 120 books, and her whimsical animal characters are loved around the world.
Among her best-known creations are Max and Ruby, a pair of perky bunny siblings, and McDuff, a West Highland terrier. Recently in Tokyo for visits to several international schools and a workshop with local members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI Japan), Wells took time out from her busy schedule to speak with The Japan Times about writing for children.
Many of her fans assume Wells must have strong ties with Japan because of her popular series starring Yoko, a Japanese kitten coping with life in an American school. Asked about this assumption, however, Wells, shakes her head.
“Japan is a country I enjoy and I want to visit again, but I have never lived here. I am, however, a lifetime admirer of Japanese design,” she enthuses. “I think it’s the best in the world and I never tire of looking at it and discovering more. Only in Paris can you find such visual genius, dedication and sensitivity as you find here.” She is particularly charmed by traditional washi paper, which has served as the source for some of her illustrations.
Like many of Wells’ books, the first story about Yoko was inspired by a real-life incident.
“There were a number of Japanese families on transfers in the area where we lived and there happened to be three Japanese girls in my older daughter’s class,” she recalls. “I heard from my daughter that the other children were making fun of these girls for having ‘weird’ lunches.”
While this was certainly unkind treatment, Wells notes that with three girls, there was safety in numbers and so the trio probably just commiserated with each other and moved on.
“But then I thought: What if it was just one Japanese child? How would she cope?”
The problem of bullying at school is universal, and rears its head regularly in the news here in Japan. Wells says that regardless of where or how it occurs, adults can only do so much.
“Parents are often the last to know. They’re on the outside of the plastic bubble that characterizes their child’s world at school — they want to get inside but they can’t. Even teachers have limited influence. Yoko’s teacher really tries to help this little girl but she is unsuccessful.
“In the end, it is Yoko herself who must find the answer, and she does so in a very natural way. Another child in the class is hungry and extends the paw of friendship, which Yoko accepts.”
The trio of girls who provided the inspiration for the first Yoko book have no inkling that they have been immortalized in a picture book.
“It wasn’t necessary, or desirable, for them to know,” Wells says firmly. “While they were the catalyst for the story, it developed a life of its own beyond that.”
Wells’ two young daughters were the original models for two of her most endearing characters, Max and Ruby. The curious preschool bunny and his officious older sister have won her legions of fans over the years. Readers might reasonably expect Wells to have a special affinity with rabbits in real life, but that isn’t the case, she says.
“I have never had a relationship with a rabbit due to the fact that I’ve always been a terrier owner.”
In addition to rabbits, Wells populates her stories with badgers and foxes, kittens and puppies.
“Animals can serve as a metaphor and they are easier to write about than human children. For example, with the Yoko series, it might not be considered politically correct for a non-Japanese writer to pen a story about a Japanese character. Since Yoko is a kitten, I can work around this,” she explains. “I don’t know so much about Japanese culture, so it wouldn’t be right for me to try and produce a story about children in Japan, but I do know about children and their universal concerns and issues.”
Wells points out that when “Yoko” was first published in 1998, her heroine was one of the first Asian characters of note in the world of children’s picture books in the West. Interestingly, while several of Wells’ most popular stories have been translated into Japanese, none of the eight books in the Yoko series are among them.
As a child in New Jersey, Wells grew up in a home where creativity, music and books were encouraged.
“My father was a playwright and my mother was a ballet dancer, so it was an artistic household,” she says. “But we were also very much in favor of riding and running around with the family dogs.”
After working in the publishing world as an art editor and designer, Wells began writing books in the early 1970s. She notes that many people underestimate the work that goes into a children’s book.
“People tend to think that anyone can write a picture book. They’re wrong! It requires the very minimum amount of text, and should only say what really needs to be said. On the other hand, it needs pictures that tell more than the story, adding to the situation.”
Passionate about the benefits of picture books, Wells also created the “Read to Your Bunny” book and supporting material to help launch a national literacy campaign, promoting the merits of reading aloud to the very youngest of children.
“Read to your bunny often, and your bunny will read to you,” she says.
She has illustrated a number of books for other writers, but admits it can be difficult.
“The writer in me sometimes wants to make changes to their text and, of course, that is something you just can’t do. As both author and illustrator of my own work, it’s a perfect marriage with no conflict.”
She continues: “I write books for intelligent children — those who want a story they can think about and where not every last detail is laid out for them. In this sense, I think today’s children are not so good at dealing with conflict by themselves. Parents and teachers want to step in and micromanage everything for children, but this isn’t necessarily doing children any favors.”
Although she concentrated on international schools during this trip, Wells says she would welcome the opportunity to meet with Japanese schoolchildren in the future.
“The writer’s workshop with the international schools were full of energy and creativity,” she says. “I’d love to come back again and talk to children in regular Japanese schools, and I’m curious to hear what they have to say.”
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