Before I start on the background to this story you might like to hear me reading Hello Baby! elsewhere on this website under the ‘See and Hear Mem’ section.
I’m often asked where my ideas come from and I can usually explain. But with Hello Baby! I remember nothing other than where I was when the idea hit me. In 2004, about two weeks before Christmas, I was walking with my husband along the esplanade beside ‘our’ beach when something happened: was it something a child called out on the beach? Was it something I thought of saying to a child as we were passing? Was it something I said to Malcolm? I can’t remember. Darn!
But I do recall being so excited that I left Malcolm to finish the walk on his own and hurried back to the house to write down the idea before it disappeared. I was thrilled to have had another idea because I hadn’t had one for a long time and my beloved editor, Allyn Johnston, was coming from San Diego to stay with us over Christmas, with her husband and son.
‘Oh, great!’ I thought. ‘I’ll have another draft for Allyn to work on and she’ll be ecstatic.’
It then occurred to me that I could write the whole story by Christmas and give it to AJ as a real present, all wrapped up. I knew it would be almost impossible to do: usually a picture book text takes me 18 months to two years to complete. But I decided to try. Ooh, the pressure! It was intense but energizing.
I succeeded in finishing a moderately good draft on Christmas Eve—a draft that would at least show the potential of the idea, the patterns of the rhymes and repetitions, and the ending; and I made it into a 32 page book with a cover and everything. I wrapped it like a normal present, around midnight. My deadline was met! Aha!
On Christmas morning Hello Baby! was the very last of all the presents to be given and when Allyn opened it and realized what it was she went white. A new Mem Fox book! Given on Christmas day? But what if it were embarrassingly bad and she couldn’t adjust her face to be pleased and thrilled? What if she loathed it and had to reject it? I could read her face and I was pretty anxious too. What I had done was bold—too bold, really—and it put her in a very tight spot.
‘I’ll read it to you,’ I said, and I took it from her, opened it, and read the entire thing to the assembled throng. Applause followed. Hurrah! They all seemed to love it. But did Allyn love it? YES! Even though she could have killed me. Wow! What a Christmas!
Much of that first little book remains in the published edition today. Of course Allyn made me tidy this word and that in the text, to make it perfect, but it wasn’t the huge task that she and I had feared. She still has that little book. I think it’s one of her treasures.
The book should be dedicated to her but she already has a dedication in Time for Bed which is surely enough of a gift to any adored editor. Instead I’ve dedicated to four African friends in Zimbabwe because it’s probably the only African book I’ll ever write out of my childhood experiences: all the animals in the book are baby African animals, adorably illustrated in cut paper by the splendid Steve Jenkins.
Hello Baby! appeared in the USA on May 5th 2009, published by Beach Lane Books, Allyn’s personal imprint under the umbrella of Simon and Schuster, New York. It’s the first book under her own imprint which is very exciting for both of us.
In Australia Hello Baby! will appear on June 1st, published by my dearly beloved Penguin, in Melbourne.
Reviews from the USA are below:
THE FOLLOWING BOOK RECEIVED ITS FIRST STARRED REVIEW IN THE FEBRUARY 2, 2009 ISSUE OF PUBLISHERS WEEKLY. PLEASE SEE BELOW FOR THE REVIEW:
Hello Baby! Written by Mem Fox; illustrated by Steve Jenkins (Atheneum; ISBN 9781416985136; May 2009, Summer catalog page 8)
“Like her Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, Fox’s newest has all the marks of a lap-sit classic. In mellifluous motherese, the narrator poses a series of playful questions to a baby: “Are you a monkey with clever toes?/ Perhaps you’re a porcupine, twitching its nose.” After 11 more such guesses (featuring such animal faves as the gecko, the hippo and the warthog), the narrator finally gets it right: “Wait, let me guess—Are you my treasure? The answer is… Yes!” While Fox is cooing as only she can, Jenkins (What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?) works his usual magic with cut paper. In many of his large-scale close-ups—the images spill across and off the spreads-his subjects’ big, expressive eyes seem locked in a gaze with the reader. Ingeniously stylized shapes (like the coils of gray paper that form an elephant’s trunk) combine with sumptuous detailing that brings alive the parade of scales, fur and feathers.”
THE FOLLOWING BOOK RECEIVED ITS SECOND STARRED REVIEW IN THE APRIL 1, 2009 ISSUE OF KIRKUS REVIEWS. PLEASE SEE BELOW FOR THE REVIEW:
HELLO, BABY! By Mem Fox Illustrated by Steve Jenkins
(Beach Lane Books; ISBN 9781416985136; May 2009; Summer catalog pg. 8-9)
A warm authorial voice asks baby, “Who are you?” and a parade of potential animals follows. Rhyming questions introduce furry and scaly candidates, creating an irresistible call-and-response, conversational reading experience. Young readers will surely answer each erroneous guess with an emphatic, enthusiastic “Noooo…!” Jenkins’s vibrant cut- and torn-paper close-ups of exotic animals appear on double-page spreads of ample white space, giving readers room to thoroughly consider both illustrations and text. Vivid swaths of color and texture capture elephant wrinkles, crinkly gecko skin and even warthog whiskers. A small, full-body silhouette of each animal appears as well, providing a glimpse of the creature in motion. Fox’s original language offers equally strong depictions of wildlife. She all but animates the stellar illustrations: A monkey fidgets with “clever” toes, a crocodile sits “silent and scary” and an owl gives readers a “wicked wink.” Anticipation builds as baby waits for the right answer, which comes as a sweet finish on the final page. This picture book brims with fascinating animals, brilliant words and engaging artwork; it begs for cozy nightly readings.
Issue: May 15, 2009
Fox, Mem (Author) , Jenkins, Steve (Illustrator)
May 2009. 32 p. Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane, hardcover, $16.99. (9781416985136).
As in her best-selling title Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes (2008), a Booklist Editors’ Choice
selection, Fox creates an affectionate, singsong picture book directed straight at small children. Here, her
rhythmic, rhyming couplets take the form of queries inviting kids to compare themselves to a zoo full of
animals: “Are you a monkey with clever toes? Perhaps you’re a porcupine, twitching its nose.” A few
forced lines distract from the majority of the polished, smooth text: “Are you a leopard, dozing at dusk?
Perhaps you’re an elephant, wielding a tusk.” As a whole, though, the book has an almost hypnotic
rhythm, which, depending on readers’ inflections, could either lull sleepy toddlers into dreamland or entice
them to action. Working in his signature medium of cut-paper collage, Jenkins coaxes clear expressions
out of his animal subjects, even as his precision helps viewers zero in on the animals’ features noted in the
text. In the end, a clever visual matching game leads into a loving affirmation for every child.
— Gillian Engberg