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Author Interview: Joseph O’Donnell

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Holly Connors is talking with Joseph O'Donnell, author of The Tall Tree.

FQ: So many children’s books today just tell a goofy, silly, or adventurous story without delivering a teachable message. Was it important for you to write a children’s book that conveys an important message (the value of diversity)?

O'DONNELL: My three granddaughters are biracial so a story that conveys a theme of the importance of diversity is important to them while they are young and will, hopefully, become even more meaningful when they get older.

FQ: While the message of the importance of diversity comes through strong in your story, there’s also a message about not wandering off by yourself (as Sammy does, and as many young children might be tempted to do). Was that intentional or did it just happen as you wrote the story?

O'DONNELL: I needed a way to introduce “Mister Gray” into the story. So Sammy’s adventurous nature was a convenient way to do so. But, I knew I had to send a message to the little readers later by including a line about Sammy’s regret for running away and his vow to never wander off again. I loved the way my illustrators made this point very clear by showing Sammy shivering and afraid in the forest when he realized he was lost.

FQ: Where did the idea for The Tall Tree come from? Why a tree in the forest full of animals, rather than, say, a group of school children? Did you know before you solidified the plot that you wanted to teach children about diversity?

O'DONNELL: When our oldest granddaughter, Alessandra, was almost three, she had a very difficult time falling asleep at night. When she was visiting us at my in-law’s home in New York one holiday weekend, our daughter asked me to tell Alessandra a story that might help her fall asleep.

I thought for a few seconds and remembered that my mother-in-law had a feral cat that she named “Mister Gray.” Alessandra always ran to the back door with great excitement whenever her great-grandmother put food out for Mister Gray to be fed. Then Alessandra waited patiently for him to appear. She was truly fascinated by this cat.

With this thought in mind, I tried to come up with a little story that featured many different animals that lived together in perfect harmony until one day something happens that “opens the door” for Mister Gray to come to the rescue.

I made up the story in about five minutes—most of it “on the fly” as I held Alessandra on my shoulder and worked my way to a happy ending with Mister Gray as the hero. By the time I finished, Alessandra was sound asleep.

The next night, Alessandra was still awake at 9 PM and showing no interest in bedtime. Once again, our daughter asked me to tell Alessandra a story that would help her fall asleep. So I went into her bedroom and began telling her another made-up story. But she stopped me immediately and said, “No, Grandpa. Tell me about the tall tree.” I must admit, I had to gather my thoughts for a few seconds to remember the details of the previous night’s story—I had never written it down! However, I was able to pull it together and get to the same happy ending.

Sure enough, by the time I was finished, Alessandra was sound asleep. A week later, my wife and I were back at our home in Florida. Our daughter called to say she was still having a difficult time getting Alessandra to fall asleep at night. She asked my wife to make a video of my telling the story of The Tall Tree so she could play it for Alessandra at bedtime. My wife has a “flair” for such assignments and jumped to it without delay. Like a Hollywood director, she instructed me to sit on our bed, adjusted the lighting, and surrounded me with a large group of stuffed animals. Then she recorded my reading of the story of The Tall Tree. When we were finished, she sent the video via email to our daughter. Our daughter reported back to us that the video worked like a charm—from then on, Alessandra fell asleep to that story every night.

Alessandra is now age 8 with two younger sisters—Shira, age 5 and Hasana, age 3. All three of them love to listen to The Tall Tree. It seems to be the perfect non-pharmaceutical sleeping potion.

FQ: You’re known for writing mysteries, in particular, the “Gallagher” series. What made you decide to try your hand at a different genre? And why children’s books?

O'DONNELL: As you can see from the above statements, it really happened by pure circumstance. But I am so pleased that I have been able to make a small contribution to this important genre. Children need more books that are not only entertaining, but stimulate their imagination and teach them about values. In The Tall Tree, Sammy, the little mouse, comes face to face with a large cat that would normally be considered a mortal enemy. But Mister Gray is gentle and comforts the frightened Sammy to not be afraid. Then he encourages Sammy to hop on his back for a thrilling and exciting ride back to his family of friends at The Tall Tree. The message is subtle but profound: Don’t pre-judge someone as your enemy until you know more about him/her.

FQ: As a retired pediatric dentist, did you tell stories to your young patients to keep them relaxed during their exams? I see, also, that you have three granddaughters – do you make up stories for them? And did you test The Tall Tree out on your grandchildren?

O'DONNELL: There were many occasions in my career as a pediatric dentist where I had to “talk a child through” a difficult procedure. I learned very early that, in these situations, children need a steady, low-speaking voice with a repetitious cadence to help reassure them that everything is fine and that they will be all right. I believe that the success of The Tall Tree as a bedtime story is that I have incorporated this concept of a repetitious cadence into the story.

As far as my granddaughters, they love to play “made-up” games with me. The current favorite of the two younger girls (ages 5 and 3) is “Pizza House.” All that is needed is some red construction paper, a scissors, a sheet of white paper, a piece of cardboard, a medium size cardboard box, some adhesive tape and a cell phone. With the scissors, I help them cut the red construction paper into a circle. Then we tear off some small pieces of the white paper, crinkle them, and attach them to the red circle with the adhesive tape. (This is the cheese.) Then we cut triangular “slices” of the pizza, re-arrange them in a circle and place them on the piece of cardboard (the tray) in the delivery box. When all of this is done, I give the girls my cell phone and ask them to hold it while I go into another room. Then when I get to the kitchen I use another phone to call my cell. When they answer, I order a pizza. Taking my pizza order over the phone and then delivering it is the best part of the game for them.

FQ: Speaking of changing genres, many people who have never written a book seem to think that writing a children’s book is much easier than adult genres/novels. What would you say to those people?

O'DONNELL: I believe that, in many ways, the challenge of writing a good children’s book is no different than that of writing a good novel. The author in either genre needs a “hook” in the beginning, a compelling story and a narrative that leads to a satisfying ending. In the case of a children’s book, the author also needs the assistance of a talented illustrator. I was fortunate to work with two very talented and creative illustrators.

FQ: Now that you’ve written a children’s book, do you plan to write more? Or will you be returning to mysteries? Is there another genre that you’d like to try?

O'DONNELL: I have thoroughly enjoyed writing in both genres and may do another children’s book. However, at the present time, I am writing the biography of a man who has been “connected” to The Mob through friendship and a legitimate business for his entire life. His experiences are nothing short of fascinating and help to shed light on the personal side of this criminal enterprise that has previously been largely unreported. I expect to finish this book by the end of this year. Stay tuned.

FQ: You used two illustrators for this book, Kasidy Sinteral Scott and Kestrel Erickson. This is the first time I’ve seen a team of two illustrators work on the same book. How did that work? Do they always work together?

O'DONNELL: I was very fortunate to have been introduced to two very talented young illustrators—Kasidy Sinteral Scott and Kestrel Erickson. They worked closely with me throughout the production phase to develop an understanding of the images I imagined for the story. As we progressed, they provided dozens of samples for my approval. In the end, they beautifully captured exactly what I had in mind—a group of different little creatures and birds that lived happily together in perfect harmony. The colors are bright, vivid and, as you stated, the characters are wonderfully adorable. No doubt, the illustrations help to move the story along. I could not have been happier with the end result.

FQ: Speaking of the illustrations, I mentioned in my review how much I enjoyed the bright and cheery artwork. Since this is your first children’s book, I’m guessing you didn’t have an illustrator in mind before you began this project. How did you find your illustrators and what was the creative process like between you and them?

O'DONNELL: Kasidy is the daughter of my publishing representative at Outskirts Press. Kestrel is Kasidy’s friend from their days in art school. Our working relationship was conducted via the frequent exchange of emails and telephone calls. It worked out perfectly. I recommend them to any author who is considering an illustrated children’s book.

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