One morning in early September, I noticed that I had a new follower on Instagram. Her name was Barbara and she was a a storyteller. I took a closer look at her profile picture and realized that I knew her in a completely different context… and that I had no idea that she was a writer! I immediately scrolled through all her posts. Yes, it was true! I was delighted. After following her back, I messaged her to see if she’d like to meet me for lunch and asked if she would bring along her new book LITTLE LOVEDOG’S LONG WALK HOME.
A few weeks later, on a crisp October day, we met for lunch. I loved her sweet book about a little dachshund who’s having a part that no one wants to come to, or so it seems. Delightfully written and illustrated by Barbara, it warmed my heart with messages of hope and kindness. My kind of book for sure!
But the best part of our lunch was getting to know each other in this new context. How wonderful to discover that we share a passion for instilling themes of kindness, acceptance and love in the next generation. Pictured above is a snapshot we took that day holding our books. Afterwards, I asked if she’d be up for an interview on my blog. She said yes! So now, without further ado, here it is with my questions bolded. I hope you find her as inspiring as I do.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey into picture book writing and illustrating.
Barbara: Sharing stories through children’s picture books has been a dream of mine since I was seven years old when my best friend and I would sit under a cherry tree, writing and drawing stories about a very busy bunny family. I pursued art and writing in college, and not long after I graduated, I landed a job in the art department of Jim Henson Productions (The Muppets) in New York City. I was over the moon! It was such an exciting time working with incredible artists and storytellers. I went on to work for a number of years in educational publishing at a graphic design firm. We had wonderful clients like Scholastic, the Museum of Natural History, and many others. At the risk of sounding like a bit of a nerd, I spent a bunch of my free time checking out children’s books from local libraries. I drew and drew and drew and wrote and wrote and wrote. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing about and drawing little characters.
What inspired you to write Little Lovedog’s Long Walk Home?
Barbara: One of the things that makes me mad is bullying, especially when someone is made fun of for being seen as a bit different from others. Different is what makes life interesting! It’s so hard not to want to fight back when you get bullied, but sometimes, the best thing to do is walk away and remember that being kind is always the better path. And, hey, you never know what bright spot may be just ahead.
As a fellow champion of kindness, your story really resonates with me. I’m also charmed by your skilled use of both text and image to tell the story. Which came first in your creative process — the theme, the written story or the illustrations?
Barbara: As an illustrator and writer, the process is super interwoven. That said, I’d have to say that the theme bubbles up first. I’m always playing around with stories about feeling left out, or being different, or not quite fitting in with the crowd. It’s so easy, at any age, to get discouraged and feel like you don’t quite stack up to everyone else. I was working on a completely different story called The School for Cats and Dogs about a dog who just didn’t fit in. As I began to sketch dogs and cats while I thought about the story and the school and what it all looked and felt like, I sketched a dachshund…with very short legs and a very long back. I fell in love with him because I knew, the moment I saw him, that he was the one excluded by the other dogs.
He spoke to me because he was so full of love with no one to share it with. I thought, what are some of the worst feelings, especially when you’re little? Two biggies: Being laughed at and having a lonely birthday because no one wants to come to your party! And so, Little Lovedog’s story began. It built from there—sketching, getting to know the characters, their personalities and the unfolding of the story. I asked myself questions: Where does he go after being laughed at? What happens on his way home? Does he encounter more foes? New friends? Is everyone a bully or just some dogs? I wanted the story to speak to how important it is to keep treating others the way you want to be treated, no matter what. Once I had a bunch of character sketches and a sense of what happens, I wrote the manuscript. Then it was a back-and-forth process of working through editing text as the images emerged.
In addition to Little Lovedog, there’s a sweet little dog who trails behind as Little Lovedog heads home for his birthday seemingly without any party companions. (SPOILER ALERT: He’s holding a string.) How did he come to be part of the story and what do you hope kids will notice/learn from him?
Barbara: I love that you ask that! At the start of the story, he’s part of the crowd of other dogs, yet he stands apart, not laughing. I think he too has been bullied for being small, being a little Chihauhau (the number one smallest dog breed). He thinks for himself and does the right thing—he’s nice to someone who needs a friend. He even brings a balloon, since Little Lovedog’s balloon burst.
Tell us the story behind Potato Publishing and how it came to be.
Barbara: Why Potato Publishing? Every so often while I was growing up, my dad would tell me the story of the mysterious potato bag. It was the early 1930s and the Great Depression raged on. My dad’s family was pretty darn poor. They were good-hearted people who worked hard, but finding enough food every day to feed their family of seven wasn’t easy. One day, my dad walked into the kitchen and saw my grandmother–who was a strong and faith-filled woman–crying quietly. When he asked her what was wrong, she said she didn’t have anything to feed them for dinner. But, true to her spirit of positivity, she lifted her chin, squeezed his hand, and said not to worry, all would be well. Sure enough, a short while later, my dad thought he heard a noise at the screen door. When he went to look, he saw no one, but he found a big bag of potatoes on the step. That night they had the most delicious potato soup ever.
It is my hope that the books from Potato Publishing will bring smiles, inspire positive thinking, and remind us all that our world is a brighter, happier place when we are kind to each other.
My books are dedicated to my family, especially my encouraging husband Mark and two amazing grown kids, Laura and Nat, and to my friends and colleagues who have helped me on a difficult journey. My books are also dedicated to my doctor and the caring nurses and staff at Memorial Sloan Kettering. They are truly a silver lining on this journey I can honestly say I didn’t want to take. My doctor advised me to do what makes me happy. And so began Potato Publishing.
(Potato Publishing supports MSK Kids and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital because cancer is rough enough on adults, let alone kids!)
Finally, where can readers find your books?
Barbara: Little Lovedog’s Long Walk Home is available on Amazon, on potato-publishing.com, and at the beautiful little shop in Hopewell, New Jersey, called twine. And, it’s available at the Hopewell Public Library, where I’ll be holding a story time reading in February. Potato Publishing is a new little spud but growing every day. I am grateful for this opportunity to talk about Little Lovedog!
And if you follow me on Instagram at @barbara.valenza.storyteller, you’ll meet plush Little Lovedog who is often out and about in Hopewell having his photo taken.
Thank you so much, Barbara, for taking the time to share Little Lovedog’s and YOUR story with us today. I wish you the very best. And, let’s have lunch again soon, eh?