Doreen Cronin is best known for Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type and the several books that it spawned. Or you may have come across her through the Diary of a Worm (or the two follow-ups, about a spider and a fly). She’s entered the world of chapter books this March with The Trouble With Chickens. And her latest book, M.O.M. (Mom Operating Manual), just out this month, is one that will have parents (especially moms) chuckling with her keen insights about what makes moms tick.
Chances are, if you’ve got young kids, you’ve probably read at least one Doreen Cronin book (probably several times, again and again). I spoke to the prolific author at Wordstock, where we talked about being a writer, seeing her book turned into a stage musical, and my favorite duck joke.
GeekDad: Of course, where I first heard about you was Click, Clack, Moo. But it was only recently that I read that before you wrote that, you were an attorney. How long had you been an attorney before you wrote Click, Clack, Moo, and what inspired you to write it?
Doreen Cronin: I started writing stories when I was six years old. I was a very shy kid, extremely shy, and I had a fabulous first-grade teacher who told me to write. She said if I wasn’t comfortable talking, don’t talk, just write. And so I was writing, and she would make me write stories, and encourage me to write poems, and stuff like that. She told me I was a writer. So literally at six I was a writer. Because of what she said to me and how she encouraged me, I always thought of myself as a writer.
I did that for the rest of my career. In junior high I was still writing poems and stories. In college I was a journalism major. When I got out of college I went to work for an educational publisher, so I was still writing, developing curriculums. Then I went to law school, still writing. It was more like a hobby that then made a crossover when Click, Clack, Moo got published. I was practicing law for only three and a half years, but I didn’t go to law school until I was 30, so I was already in phase two of my various careers.
I had done the educational publishing, and then I loved practicing law, and then after this I had to choose. I had to choose one or the other. So I made the switch, and that was about ten years ago. You know, the hours are a lot better [being a writer] than being a junior associate.
GD: How old are your kids?
DC: Five and seven.
GD: Ok, so you wrote this before you had kids of your own.
DC: Yes. I have a lot of nieces and nephews. I was always around kids, I was like the family babysitter because I was the only one that wasn’t married. Right? I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, and had the most flexible schedule, so I did a looot of babysitting. I was like the neighborhood babysitter growing up, too. So I’d always been around kids and when you don’t have kids you have a lot more time to do things. Before I had kids, I was a lot more prolific and wrote books a lot faster. Now it takes me a lot longer, because it’s hard to be a parent and do anything! The time management becomes much more crucial.
GD: I’m sure I came across Click, Clack, Moo before I had kids. My wife and I both liked picture books. I had quite a collection before we even got married. So then when we had kids we already had this whole library. I have two kids also, 5 and 7. When I told my daughter that you would be here, the first book she thought of was Diary of a Worm. She read that one, checked it out from the library, and read it over and over again.
DC: Teachers use those books a lot. I hear that from a lot of kids, saying “I read your book in school” or “the librarian read your book to us.” Yeah, those books, the worm, the spider, the fly, they get heavy reading in first and second grade.
GD: Tell me a little bit about your newest book, M.O.M. (Mom Operating Manual). I got to flip through it briefly this morning at the Powell’s booth but haven’t been able to read the whole thing yet.
DC: The Mom Operating Manual is kind of how to take care of your mother. It’s like: look, moms have bad days, okay? We are happy and joyful people and we love you to death, but every now and then we get a little … crispy around the edges, we get a little tired.
It was one of those moments: I had a sixteen-month-old, I was pregnant with my second. I was tired, I was bloated, I was cranky. I was cruising the internet, just clicking around, and I found myself on a page about what to do if you encounter a grizzly bear, how not to provoke it and how to get away safely. Out of boredom, I printed it out and literally crossed out “bear” and wrote “mom” on every single line. And just for kicks, I sent it to my friend who’s also my agent, who has three kids, and it just cracked us up. It made us laugh.
Then I realized I have a manual for everything in my house. Every thing that you own that has value has this warning not to overuse it, not to use it improperly, it has to be clean, watch the temperature, it can’t run too hot… You know, all this stuff. I started gathering up manuals and we just started playing around with it. That’s how M.O.M. came about. We had such a good time with it.
My sister, my cousins, my friends, we all have these moments, like the “malfunctioning mom.” Every kid cracks up when they see it, and every mother does, because we’ve all been there.
We have this sort of general slide we do sometimes, and this is one of the first things that my agent and I were laughing about. “You do not have this model.” I drew this picture of this big happy face, and perfect hair, and I said “I don’t know anyone who looks like this, do you?” So we made this “going, going, gone” page.
Laura Cornell is this great illustrator, and she adds so much to it. The point that hits home with a lot of moms is this: “It’s important to know that if you find yourself with a malfunctioning mom, it may not be your fault. It may be your father’s fault.” Kids always laugh about this stuff. And the dads are like, “No kidding!”
When you first have your kid, this thing happens where the mother — not always, but usually — the mother is in the trenches more. But there’s a point, and every married person I’ve talked to has had this happen, where you’re like “I don’t know what’s wrong with him! He just can’t do anything right!” And it’s because you’re tired, and you’re feeling overwhelmed. So this book hits home a little bit.
GD: When you write a book, do you have any pictures in mind?
DC: No, I never do. I love that I don’t, because when I get the first round of sketches on a book, it’s like this joyful, magical day. These flat words — and I only see words, I only construct sentences, the rhythm and pace and overall outline, I only build with words. I’m not a visual person. So when the drawings come in, it’s like an epiphany. It’s like, oh, this is what this book looks like. I didn’t know what it would look like — it’s like when your baby comes out, you don’t know what it’s going to look like and then you say, “Oh, you’re here! This is what you look like, I can finally see you!” And that’s just great.
GD: M.O.M. has a lot more text than a typical picture book, compared to your other books.
DC: This one is not a story. I like to try different formats. The Diary books are diaries, not one continuous thread of a story. So I do like to play around with different formats. One thing that I learned, particularly from my older nieces and nephews, is that we do make fun of each other. When you get to be a certain age, you can laugh at your parents a little more about their mistakes. When your kids get a little older and they realize that you’re not doing everything right and that you don’t know everything —
GD: Well, I know everything, of course.
DC: Oh, I’m sure you’re the exception to the rule, so this doesn’t apply… But I’m sure this is a book that you can share with your kids and laugh. Some things will apply, and in some places you’ll see yourself and some places you won’t.
I’ve been on tour for a week, and the kids and I have been really having a good time. I talk to them about using their families to write books. Kids don’t realize that they’re authors, they’re already authors. I never want kids after meeting me to think, “Oh, I met an author today.” I want kids, when I’m done, to say: “I am an author. She’s one. I’m one.” There’s no difference between us. I tell them, use your family, do whatever you want with them. Switch them up, make them different animals, put them on a different planet. Start there and build out. It’s a comfortable place for the kids to start, and then they can just be silly and take it as far as they want.
GD: How long does it take to go from start to finish. For example, with M.O.M., how long between that night with the grizzly bear list to now, this finished book?
DC: Oh, boy. Well, in between I had a baby so you can knock a year off the calendar right there, where I’m not even thinking clearly, let alone coming up with a cohesive sentence. This book was a couple years in the making. Soup to nuts, it was probably three years. The chapter books take me about six years because I’d never done a chapter book before.
But, again, I don’t go to my desk every day and write for eight hours. Now that my kids are older they’re both in one school all day. Life-changing event! You’re not running to preschool, then running to elementary school…
GD: Yeah, I’ll be there next year.
DC: When it happens, your life will be so different. When you’ve got different pick-up time, or somebody’s sick. My daughter was in preschool three days a week last year, before that two half-days… so how much time you have to work really depends on what the kids are doing. When I say “six years,” that’s not eight hours a day. That’s catch as catch can.
GD: And you’re writing a bunch of different things at once, right?
DC: Always. I might be brainstorming one thing while writing another. I’m revising a Dad manual now. It’s so much harder to write, because I’m not a dad. I have to do research! I know what it’s like to be a mom, and I know we’re all parents, but the dad experience is just different from the mom experience. It’s not the same thing.
I’ve been talking about this for a week, and dads are always saying, “I could send you notes. I’ll tell you what it’s like to be a dad.” So I’m revising that, and then the art will start on that, and I’m working on a new Click, Clack, Moo book now, and two more chapter books. Everything’s kind of at a different stage.
Now that both of my kids are in one school, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do with this block of time! So I’m trying to be very productive.
GD: I told a friend of mine in New York just this morning that I’d be talking to you, and he said he’d heard fantastic things about the Click, Clack, Moo musical. He said it’s better than a lot of theatre done for adults.
DC: Oh, I agree. I agree with him completely. There was a theatre in Chicago that was the first one to do a play based on Click, Clack, Moo. It’s the Lifeline Theatre, with James Grote, and he does this wonderful production. That toured for a long time, and then Theatreworks also did a full-on musical of Click, Clack, Moo as part of something they do for school kids over the summer where it’s free. All these kids come in on class trips to introduce them to theatre.
When you write a book, it starts off as this black and white manuscript, three typed pages long. Then you get this art, and it really brings it to life. And then, five, six, ten years later, you go see it on stage with choreography, and a score! Both of those plays get great reviews and pack the house. Parents enjoy it, the kids enjoy it. The production quality is so phenomenal. It’s one of my favorite things. Of everything that happens with my books, theatre is one of my favorite things. Now, Diary of a Worm, a Spider, and a Fly is now touring the country.
It’s so much fun to sit there, and be kind of an arm’s length away from it. Because when you read a book or give a presentation on something you’ve written, you feel really fully invested in it, and if you fall on your face, it’s not fun. You’re really putting yourself out there. When someone else does it, like in the play, you can laugh. It might have this much of me in it, but all the rest of it is al these others: the actors, and the writers, and the directors, and the producers. They put so much into it. I’m enjoying it even more so than the person sitting next to me, since I wrote the original story. It’s so much more than the original story.
But they’re awesome. If it ever comes to town, you should take the kids.
GD: Would you have believed it, when you first wrote Click, Clack, Moo, that it would be a musical?
DC: Still don’t believe it! It’s very surreal. It wasn’t my plan: I was going to be a partner at a law firm, you know? I had different plans. But I think it’s great that life makes those weird turns. I like things to be open-ended.
GD: I had one question from my wife, because I was asking her “What should I ask Doreen Cronin?” and she gave me this one: Why are ducks so funny?
DC: That is an awesome question! First, in general, I think part of the reason you see so many farm books for kids is that the creatures on a farm are so incredibly different from one another. What cows look like, and their physicality: they’re so huge, and the giant eyes and the horns. Their physical being is so different from, say, that of a sheep, or a pig.
Ducks — part of it is their walk, and … I don’t know. Your wife is very observant because in Click, Clack, Moo Duck is really kind of a minor figure. He’s important, but if you look at his face in Click, Clack, Moo and then in Giggle, Giggle, Quack… he’s on the cover, front and center, because when kids started writing me letters about Click, Clack, Moo, nine times out of ten the letters said “What is Duck gonna do next?” They homed in on Duck, where Betsy [Lewin, the illustrator] and I were like, Farmer Brown and the cows, Farmer Brown and the cows. Duck, you know, he knocks on the door, he does what he does, he moves the story along.
But look at his face. Betsy had to change his face because he went from this kind of extra to front and center. Then it was Duck for President and he’s always front and center now because kids respond to the duck!
So, I don’t know! Their sound is funny, their whole being is funny. Also, I guess we don’t know what to do with ducks: cows give us milk, sheep give us wool … but what the heck does a duck do? What is its purpose? It’s just fascinating.
GD: Have you heard this duck joke? Why do ducks have webbed feet?
DC: I don’t know.
GD: To stamp out fires. Why do elephants have flat feet?
GD: To stamp out flaming ducks.
DC: Ha! That’s funny, I’d never heard that one. I’m going to use that!
GD: So that’s my favorite duck joke.
DC: That is a great duck joke. I’m taking that on the road with me.
For more about Doreen Cronin and her books, visit www.DoreenCronin.com.