Jennifer Black Reinhardt is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Playing Possum. Her other books include Blue Ethel. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Playing Possum?
A: Several years ago, a possum got into our trashcan. It was nighttime and when our porch spotlight turned on the possum froze, open mouthed, head popping out above the top of the can.
As I stared at the unattractive and unfortunate fellow, I thought that what he probably wanted to do was to run away. But, instead, because of his instinctual trigger to play dead, he was forced to freeze like that until his body relaxed and he could get away.
About four years ago while remembering this incident, I drew a prone possum and wrote the words, “Alfred was a very lonely possum.” I thought about how difficult Alfred’s life would be if he played dead every time he felt uncomfortable.
It occurred to me that there were other animals with similar, uncontrollable behaviors. If Alfred had a friend who understood his problem, perhaps that compassion would help them both feel safe and accepted?
Q: Did you need to do much research on the various animals you portray in the book?
A: I read a lot online and studied books about odd animal defense mechanisms. As I say in my author note, I didn’t want to draw anything icky as some animals squirt blood or lose appendages.
Q: Did you work on the pictures first or the text first, or both simultaneously?
A: I worked on the manuscript first. Then my editor and I worked on both the text and the pictures as I started sketching and making a dummy book.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?
A: As with all my books, I would like a reader to see themselves in, and relate to, my characters.
With Playing Possum, I hope kids can remember feeling nervous or uncomfortable and recognize that others feel that way, too. That through empathy, understanding, and kindness we can nurture a safe and caring community.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I recently finished a book that I wrote and illustrated called Always by My Side, that will be out next spring. Right now, I’m working on a fun book project with local roots. And I have several stories and ideas in different stages of development.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I always loved finding secret hidden “things” in picture book illustrations. If a reader looks carefully, they will see a lot of Alfred and Sofia’s “friends” throughout most of the pages of Playing Possum.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb