Today we celebrate the picture book debut of VCFA graduate Nora Ericson (and illustrated by Nora's sister, Lisa Ericson)! Dill & Bizzy: An Odd Duck and a Strange Bird is out NOW from HarperCollins.
Dill is a duck.
An ordinary duck.
At least that's what he thinks.
Then he meets Bizzy.
What a strange bird!
Can a perfectly ordinary duck and a strange bird become the best of friends?
Welcome, Nora! Please tell us...
Your book started off as an early reader. What kinds of changes did you undergo when morphing it into a picture book?
So many changes! I sold the story as an easy reader, but HarperCollins wanted to turn it into picture books (the conventional wisdom being that it is much better to introduce characters in picture books and maybe later move on to easy readers). So I still had my characters and my setting, but basically had to start from scratch with the actual storyline. I (naively) assumed that I’d be able to pick one of the vignettes from the easy reader and turn it into a picture book. But none of the original vignettes had enough action or illustratable moments to carry 32 pages. So there I was, post-sale, staring at a blank page! Quite a shock, as in all my fantasies of selling my first book, that book was magnificent and, um... done. Luckily I was working with brilliant editor and dear friend, Abby Ranger, who guided me quite expertly through the process. Wow, was she patient with me as I stumbled around for the first few months.
I know Dill and Bizzy went through a couple of rounds of name changes. Can you share some with us?
The characters in my easy reader were just named Odd Duck and Strange Bird, but since Harper wanted to change those, we had to agree on new names before the sale could be announced. For a few weeks, I thought of nothing but bird names. I still occasionally find a random scrap of paper or napkin buried on my desk with lists of bird names! Paddy & Pia were the initial suggestions given to us, but Lisa (the illustrator, who also happens to be my sister!) and I didn’t love them. A few of our favorites were Dunk & Dotty, Fergus & Feather, Beaker & Plume and Quack & Batty. It took a lot of back and forth to come to an agreement! Last week, I searched my emails and looked at all the names we exchanged and the funniest thing was finding Birdie on the list (Dill & Birdie). I hadn’t remembered that Birdie had been in the running. We didn’t end up using it for the book, but I did name my daughter Birdie just a few months later (well, her full name is Beatrix, but we only ever call her Birdie)!
What was the most fun part of the process for you?
Seeing my characters and story come alive in the hands of my sister was exceptionally fun. We shared many squeals as she revealed each new illustration and brainstormed ideas over family dinner. I loved seeing the new angles and new details that she brought to each page.
Tell us about your favorite illustration in the book.
I think my personal favorite is the second-to-last spread where we back up to take in the whole scene at sunset, with Dill and Bizzy perched on the top of their (well decorated) fountain. It’s gorgeous.
Did you use any real-life inspiration for any part of the book?
Yes, I used my experience of growing up as a duck. Quack. Just kidding. But seriously, my best friend and I lived next to a pond and were obsessed with ducks. We were always trying to commune with them and built boats to sail to their nesting island. Yeah, we were pretty weird! And of course we felt like odd ducks a lot of the time. Who hasn’t? But I think like a lot of kids, we had a complex relationship to the idea of being odd or strange. Fitting in felt so important and yet we also craved uniqueness. We wanted to stand out from the crowd as much as we wanted to blend in. I think the push and pull of those opposing desires explains a fair bit of childhood angst. And adult angst, for that matter! I know for me, finding a friend with whom I could completely embrace my inner weirdo was the best thing that ever happened in my youth. So in that way, Dill and Bizzy are a pretty natural outgrowth of my own experience. Quack.
Give us three picture books you'd recommend to a reader after they've read (and loved!) DILL & BIZZY.
Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller, because it is such a fresh friendship story (girl and squash), but mostly because I just LOVE IT SO and can’t help but recommend it to everyone I know.
Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always by by Tao Nyeu, because the quirky aquatic duo are darling and the illustrations are stunning and unique.
And Amos & Boris by William Steig because it’s the classic unlikely friendship story and, of course, just STEIG!
Who were your advisors at VCFA?
Martine Leavitt, Kathi Appelt, Ellen Howard and Shelley Tanaka. All of them kind and brilliant.
Did you write or experiment with picture books while attending VCFA, or did that come after?
The vast majority of what I worked on at VCFA was middle-grade. One particular historical fiction piece, in fact. I was obsessed. But I did write a few picture books and short stories along the way. I actually wrote the first incarnation of Dill & Bizzy (then called Odd Duck & Strange Bird) for workshop with Leda Schubert and Ellen Howard, and then worked on it briefly with Kathi Appelt. I think Kathi suggested turning it into an easy reader, which I later did in an easy reader class taught by VCFA alum Terry Pierce. So even though the book in its final form was written quite a few years post-graduation, it still has some deep VCFA roots.
Fascinating! The roots of VCFA do run deep! What piece of writing advice that you learned at VCFA will always stick in your mind?
I think just “always be a writer”—as simple (and yet hard!) as that. Everything else is only ups and downs along the way.
Thank you, Nora!
Nora Ericson received her BA in Art from Yale University and her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from upstate New York, she now lives, writes and wrangles in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, young children, and middle-aged dogs.
Visit her online at noraericson.com!