Photo credit: Greg Preston
I’ve illustrated many books, but Little Brown
is the ninth book I’ve both written and illustrated. This is a big deal to me because I wanted to become an author-illustrator since before I started kindergarten. I say “before I started kindergarten” as if that was an easy process. I was a wreck about it and cried nearly every day leading up to it and all through the school year too. The book I clung to back then, the one that consoled me and set me on my vocational course, was The Carrot Seed
by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson. That deceptively simple book gave me my first inkling that I exist apart from my mom and dad and brother and sister and that I have my own feelings and that those feelings are different from theirs. A radical notion at any age, but particularly when you are four.
The books I’ve authored and illustrated have all started with a strong feeling, not with an idea for a book. It is never a safe and easy feeling. It is always one that has me by the throat and that I’m having trouble reconciling with my life. The feeling that preceded Little Brown
was extreme frustration mixed with not a small amount of anger. I was in a predicament and I was having trouble sorting out how it had happened. Was it because of the circumstances surrounding the issue? Or was it because of the particular person at the center of it? And if that was so, was that person the problem or was I the problem? Or were we both the problem? I had no answers. I simply couldn’t figure it out. Some relationships and situations are puzzling, and sometimes, in the most agonizing and frustrating ways, they never make any sense to us at all.
During the time that I was grappling with this, I started writing and drawing the story of a cranky dog named Little Brown. And just as I could not solve the puzzle of my own predicament, there were difficult questions being asked in the book. Is Little Brown cranky because none of the other dogs will play with him? Or do the other dogs not play with him because he is cranky?
As the story of Little Brown began to come into focus –– the problematic main character, the other dogs who weren’t playing with him, the setting of a chain-linked dog shelter –– it became clear to me that I would not be able to tie up this story with a neat little bow. As in life, there were no answers to the questions. The fact that the questions were being asked in the first place only reinforced how individual perspectives, histories, personalities, and circumstances influence the answers. We all stand apart, in The Carrot Seed
fashion, and feel what we feel.
We’ve got a real Little Brown-type at the helm of our republic. So what do we do?
As the book developed, my editor Allyn Johnston and I discussed this, ad nauseam. Allyn and I have been working together through many years and 16 picture books (each book quite different from the others, a fact that I think makes us both proud) but we’d not yet made a book with such an ambiguous ending. An ending with a bit of mystery, yes. A snarky one, yes. Wistful, surprising, funny, quiet, yes to all of those. But an unresolved ending for a picture book-aged audience? For us, this was new territory. We kept going back to the fundamental belief that has always guided us on the books we’ve made together — finding the beating heart of the story, the emotional center, the truth.
So we talked circles around whether or not young children could “handle” an ambiguous ending, and it always came down to this –– kids find themselves in difficult relationships just like adults do. In fact, it is even harder to navigate when you are a young child. Children have had less experience with social interactions and little agency over the situations in which they are placed. Most of us can recall times in our own lives when we were treated like Little Brown and no one wanted to play with us or when we behaved like the other dogs and didn’t want to play with someone like Little Brown. And grownups, as we all know, do not always grow into models of decency in this regard.
I sure don’t have to remind anyone who follows the news what it has been like to find some sort of equilibrium during the tumultuous and divisive time we’ve been living in during the last couple of years. It is also, fittingly, the same period in which I’ve been working on Little Brown
. Our entire country has been grappling with questions about who we are, what we want, and what civil discourse means. In my opinion, we’ve got a real Little Brown-type at the helm of our republic. So what do we do? How do we handle it? If the answers were clear, we sure wouldn’t be in this situation.
I have been reading Little Brown
to big and small school groups from kindergarteners on up to sixth graders. With no exception, once the story gets underway, I see serious concern on the faces of the kids. They do not want Little Brown to experience isolation. It appears to me as if every single child has already experienced both sides of the Little Brown dilemma of not being played with as well as not wanting to play with someone. Afterward, we have discussions. I listen as the kids express empathy and offer solutions. They really want to solve this problem and it is definitely not news to them.
The first idea I usually hear from them is that Little Brown should behave differently. Someone will blurt out, without raising their hand, that he should give back all the toys he has taken away from the other dogs. Other voices chime in. Yes, he should give the toys back! They all sit with this idea for a while, trying to sort out if it will actually work. They eventually come to the realization that it maybe isn’t a fail-safe solution. Soon a child who has been sitting quietly and often in the back will timidly raise an arm halfway in the air and suggest, haltingly, and in their own words of course, that maybe one of the other dogs can perhaps show a teeny bit of kindness in some immeasurable way to Little Brown, and that maybe, just maybe, that might change everything. Maybe.
Who knows? I sure don’t.
÷ ÷ ÷
was awarded a Caldecott Honor for All the World
and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever
, and the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for Picture Book for her wordless book The Farmer and the Clown
. She is the author-illustrator of The Boss Baby
, now a DreamWorks animated feature film, and the book’s sequel The Bossier Baby
, as well as many others. She is also the illustrator of The Seven Silly Eaters
, the NYT
series, and the picture book It Takes a Village
by Hillary Clinton. Marla has three grown sons and works in a small backyard cabin under an avocado tree in Pasadena. Little Brown
is her most recent book.