Toni Buzzeo was kind enough to share some thoughts with us on how Stay Close to Mama came to be.
“What’s your favorite animal?” The question comes again and again from audiences of children at the schools that I visit.
“Well,” I say. “My favorite animal that I can have is a dog.” Cheers go up.
“And my favorite animal that I can’t have . . .” pregnant pause here, “is a giraffe!” Everyone laughs. You can’t help but picture that giraffe head peering out from the chimney of my old Maine farmhouse.
Of course, now that Stay Close to Mama is published, the children understand why I say “giraffe.” They have seen that curious, handsome little fellow as illustrator Mike Wohnoutka conceived him following his curious senses into all sorts of potential danger. But there’s a long story that precedes this book, and it started here. . . .
It was July 1995. I’d come with my family and a small tour group to meet with the Craig family who had started the Lewa Conservancy near Isiolo, Kenya to protect endangered rhinos. They showed me a grainy, gold-framed black-and-white photo of a poor little giraffe standing terrified in the middle of a swimming pool. I had not come to meet this little giraffe in a photograph—a little giraffe who would change my life. I didn’t know then how frightened giraffes are of the water, but I quickly learned that as my research unfolded.
My husband, Ken, who has known me almost as long as anyone in my life has, leaned over to look. He said, “You’ve always said you wanted to write books for children. I think you’ve found your story.” I’m sure he could not have imagined how true this was.
I returned home from that trip to write a ponderously long draft of a story about that little giraffe, not so cleverly entitled The Giraffe in the Swimming Pool. Oh, but it was bad! That’s the way of first drafts. I knew I had a lot of work—and a lot of learning—ahead of me. In fact, I spent fourteen and a half years working and learning. In the interim, I sold fifteen other picture book manuscripts, but I never—not once—gave up on The Giraffe in the Swimming Pool.
I worked with critique partners—other professional children’s writers who read my work, as I read theirs. I also worked with several editors over the years who fell in love with Twiga, just as I had. Each one took me through several revisions, getting that manuscript closer to what it was meant to be. However, each one, in the end, let the manuscript go. That is, until my good friend and now editor, Stephanie Owens Lurie, fell in love.
“Let’s think about that swimming pool,” Stephanie said. “Might we replace it with something more universal?” She wasn’t the first to ask me that question, but she was the first one I said yes to. That’s why now, Twiga has a whole series of adventures, from skirting past the hyena at the termite mound to falling into the waterhole where a crocodile lurks.
Every step of the way, though, Mama keeps her little one safe, reminding him gently and repeatedly to “stay close, stay safe” no matter how delicious the wide world may be to the ears, eyes, nose, and tongue of a curious little giraffe. After all, what’s a Mama for?
This is a beautiful story that is perfect for cuddling up at bedtime with your little one. As I read this book to my daughter we talk about all the things she does as she's getting bigger and braver and becoming more independent. We talk about staying safe and knowing that her mama is always there no matter what. And I let her know that I will do everything I can to keep her safe. Pick it up for Mother's Day and share it with your children.
You can print your own free downloadable Mother's Day card HERE. And be sure to visit the next stop on the Stay Close to Mama book tour over at The Children's Book Review.
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