Helen Lester is the author of many books for kids, including Laugh-Along Lessons: Five-Minute Stories, Tacky the Penguin, and Me First. She was a second-grade teacher for many years, and she lives in Pawling, New York.
Q: How do you come up with the ideas for your stories?
A: Basically because I was a second-grade teacher. All the ideas come from kids I knew or issues that came up in the classroom. I take my second-graders and turn them into animals!
You can get away with more with an animal. [My penguin character] Tacky is slightly overweight. If you’re a penguin you’re okay. [Longtime illustrator] Lynn [Munsinger] likes to draw animals, although she’s good with people too.
Q: Do you have any favorite types of animals that you especially like to feature?
A: I’m very fond of Tacky. He’s wonderfully weird like some of the wonderfully weird kids I knew. No particular animals really, as long as they are furry and cute. I try to pitch animals to Lynn that she has not done before—a sloth, or a lemur. I write with her very much in mind.
Q: Can you say more about your writing-illustrating partnership?
A: She makes it like Christmas every time! We started working together in 1983 and didn’t meet until 1986. We’re really good buddies. I love to turn her loose with a situation like sheep at a costume party. I pitch lines to her and she comes up with home runs. We laugh a lot.
Q: You mentioned you were a second-grade teacher. What age group do you think would especially enjoy your work?
A: They seemed to have the age 3 to 7 or 8. Hopefully I also write for the adults that have to read it to them. I’m a big fan of James Marshall. He was so wonderful. His books would make me laugh at 7:30 at night, when things aren’t that funny, when I was reading to our kids. It’s like Mo Willems now. I try to amuse myself.
Q: What are some of the lessons featured in your Laugh-Along Lessons collection?
A: Listen, Buddy is a biggie for a teacher! I did like Princess Penelope’s Parrot—such a nasty piece of work! I love the picture toward the end when the princess and the parrot run away together. They’re sitting on the beach and each has a bottle of sun-proof oil. That’s typical Lynn.
The Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing was fun to do—it goes back and forth. I love the fact that she had one sheep dressed in a costume of Elvis.
Q: Which books did you especially like as a kid?
A: In first grade, Susannah the Pioneer Cow. Our teacher would read it to us at the end of the school day. Wanda Gag, Millions of Cats. And dear Winnie the Pooh…
Q: Over the years has your writing style changed, or has it remained pretty consistent?
A: It’s pretty much the same. I set up the problem, I have a wonderful time, and then I need a solution. They go in an arc. I do have to solve this problem! It’s pretty much the same. It probably has gotten better over the years, with more detail. I’m in a happy little rut.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The message to kids when I go to schools is don’t take no for an answer, just keep trying. When I first started out I was getting rejections--it’s important for kids to know I still get rejections!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb