In Print : Kate Feiffer's once upon a time
"Pennybaker for President," by Kate Feiffer, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, August 2008, $16.99.
It's as if happiness is a room that Kate Feiffer moved into. Her smile broadens as she says, "This has been a dream. I love every part of this process: I love writing these stories."
The author could serve as the model for one of the characters in her picture books: an approachable, sweet smiling mom with a lilt in her voice, a musical laugh, and a kiss-it-and-make-it-better manner. She writes children's books in a little house decorated in country prints and pastels a few steps from the Oak Bluffs home she shares with husband, Island native Chris Alley (a civil engineer at the firm of Schofield, Barbini, and Hoehn), their precocious 10-year-old daughter Madeline (Maddy), and Henry, their Australian shepherd. Picture book perfect.
But there is a well-demonstrated work ethic, and a meticulous follow-through in the Sarah Lawrence educated Ms. Feiffer. The 44-year-old Manhattan born and bred author (daughter of author Judy Feiffer and Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist, playwright, and author Jules Feiffer) worked as associate producer for Frontline, and as a producer for WHDH-TV, Boston, before moving to the Island. She wrote and produced the documentary film, Matzo and Mistletoe, and began writing children's books that just as quickly Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers began publishing.
Ms. Feiffer says, "I'm trying to be more focused. I was doing 80,000 things before: public relations work, freelance writing, volunteer work. I was all over the place. Now I'm just trying to write children's books."
She enjoys visiting schools to read her books to children. (She received a grant from the Martha's Vineyard Permanent Endowment Fund and brings authors to the Oak Bluffs school.)
"The great thing about schools is that you have a built-in audience," she says. "You can share the stories. They often ask about writing and about the process of publishing a book."
And while it may still be too soon to know she can earn a living as a children's book author, she revels in the fact that the projects have been ongoing.
"Double Pink," in 2005, was followed by "Henry the Dog with No Tail," illustrated by Jules Feiffer, in 2007. Released this month is "President Pennybaker," illustrated by Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Diane Goode. "The Problem with the Puddles," and "My Mom Is Trying to Ruin My Life," which Ms. Goode will again be illustrating, are both scheduled for release early in 2009.
Conversation stops while Maddy, all freckles and beguilement, is summoned from her artwork, to offer an opinion. Her mother boasts of her editing skills: "I try it out on Maddy always. She's a good critic."
She explains, "I think I find writing more difficult now, because I think I was maybe freer then. I have so many half-finished stories in my computer now."
She has no problem with the execution, but - "You can find your voice, but you may not have found your story, and the stories are what are hard for me to find. I don't want to get redundant."
"President Pennybaker" originated from a suggestion from her editor about doing a book about a boy who doesn't want to go to school. "It just sort of wrote itself," she says. "I know if I'm sitting there and making myself laugh, then it's working."
Ms. Feiffer adds, "Part of why this story was fun for me to write was because in 1993 and '94, I worked as the political producer at Channel 7 in Boston."
The character Luke Pennybaker is named after Maddy's second grade teacher's aide, Chelsea Pennebaker (now a violin teacher). "The minute I heard Maddy's teacher's name, I thought, well, I've got to use that."
The book tells the story of Luke Pennybaker, who has to clean his room, brush his teeth, and do all things expected of well-behaved children. But having done all his tasks, he is still denied television privileges.
Deciding life was unfair, Luke announces his candidacy for Presidency: "I promise that if I am elected President, you'll be able to eat dessert any time of day and go to sleep as late as you want to.
"I promise that if I'm elected President, every child in America will get a dog or cat or a hamster or a gerbil or a rabbit or an iguana." But when Luke wins the election, things don't turn out quite the way he expects.
"I hope people take things away from it, but I don't necessarily write morality tales," says Ms. Feiffer. "But I want to write stories complex enough for kids to take more away from it than just a story."
The book's release party is Saturday, August 16, from 10:30-12:30 am, at the Chilmark Library, and includes a candidates' party, complete with voting booths, a White House cake, and special live musical entertainment. Call the Chilmark Public Library, 508-645-3360 or Edgartown Books, 508-627-8463.