The Rabbit Listened

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by Cori Doerrfeld (Dial Books for Young Readers, February 2018)

Here’s a book that you need to know about.

I read a lot of books. A lot. And this one nearly took me down. It’s a breathtaking look at grief in a few simple gestures. It’s stunning.

I got to chat with Cori Doerrfeld about this book, and I think you’ll enjoy her immensely.

When, how, or why did you get into picture books?

I have always loved to draw, even as a small child.

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I grew up wanting to be an animator for Walt Disney Studios. I loved how animation literally made drawings come alive. Right when I was about to go to college, however, computer animation began replacing traditional hand drawn techniques. Instead of studying animation, I went to small liberal arts school.

For a long time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but the more art classes I took, the more I realized that I still loved to draw. My professors began pointing out that my art always told a narrative and began suggesting a career in illustration. With this in mind, I decided to continue my education after graduating by taking some courses at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. It was there that I met my husband, Tyler Page. Now as much as I hate to admit it, he is really one of the main reasons I got into picture books.

Tyler was creating and self-­publishing graphic novels when I met him. To promote his books, he would travel around the country to various comic conventions and sometimes I would go with him. During this time, I was working as a nanny and a teacher at a daycare center. I read SO many picture books at these jobs, and worked with SO many different kids that I started to get my own story ideas. I had never really written or illustrated a book, but I thought I would try it.

I made teeny tiny paintings, Tyler helped me lay the books out on the computer, and then we printed them ourselves as little stapled paperbacks. From then on, I had something to sell whenever I went with Tyler to comic conventions.

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It was at these conventions that editors first discovered me. One of the editors that bought my little books worked for Harper Collins and because she brought the books back to the office, I got my first job illustrating a book for a big publisher. That editor also became my agent and together we went on to pitch and sell the ideas behind two of my original little books.

All of this happened about 11 years ago, right before I got pregnant with my first child. I have juggled being a full time stay at home mom with my career in picture books from day one. I sincerely believe that what is behind my career and what has kept me going is that love of drawing I have always possessed. It has been incredible to see what I love to do come alive in the picture books I create.

Can you tell us about the history of this story and how it came to be?

At some level, I feel like this book has been with me for many, many years. I was a senior in high school when I first learned about the rabbits. My boyfriend at the time was a year older and often wrote me letters from college. One of his letters described what it was like for him after his older brother died in a car accident. He wrote about how important his pet rabbits were in helping him cope with his grief because they were a quiet, peaceful presence he could turn to.

Even after we broke up, the story of his rabbits was something I thought about from time to time. I made art and stories over the years about rabbits. It wasn’t until more recently, however, that I really began to understand why those rabbits were so helpful to my high school boyfriend.

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Cori made this piece for her high school boyfriend

In the past few years, I had two friends go through the experience of losing a child. As a mother myself, I couldn’t begin to wrap my head or heart around their pain and emotions. I felt very helpless when it came to how to be there for my friends, and it was clear many of the people in their lives felt the same way.

Seeing how frustrating it was for my friends made me realize how lacking so many of us are in terms of our emotional intelligence. It is hard to know what to do in these kinds of situations, and even the best intentions can complicate things.

As I struggled with what to do or say, I once again thought of the rabbits and for the first time I truly realized the power behind their story.

When my high school boyfriend was an eight-year-old boy trying to face the loss of his brother, he didn’t need anyone telling him what to do or feel. What he needed and found in those rabbits, was a calm, reliable presence that was simply willing to listen. The more I thought about it, the more compelled I felt to do something.

I remember going on a long walk with my dog and the idea for a picture book began to form. Once I got home, I began sketching and writing and it all poured out. I have never had an idea flow out so quickly or so complete. At first, I wasn’t even sure if I should show the book to anyone, but I decided to at least share it with my critique group. Their responses were immediate that I needed to pass this book on to my agent, so I did.

With my agent’s support, I submitted the book for publication and could not believe when it not only received interest from multiple editors, but that the story was already resonating at a personal level with others. It is almost hard to describe the entire experience because it happened so quickly. I think a part of me still cannot believe that the book actually exists!

What are you most hopeful to see in this book’s readers?

I have many hopes for anyone who reads The Rabbit Listened. First and foremost I hope the book becomes something people of any age can read, give, or turn to as a starting place when those moments in life come along when it seems like there is nothing you can say or do to help.

I hope it is something people who are in pain can pass on to those around them to remind their friends and family to just be patient and to listen. I also hope it is a book supporters can offer someone they know who is hurting as an open-ended invitation and promise that they will be there for them no matter what. I also hope the book is something readers can absorb even if everything is just fine, so when times do get difficult they are more capable and confident about how to cope.

I hope if nothing else, the book starts conversations about grief, emotions, and about what people need from each other. Last, I truly hope this book makes people feel that they are not alone in their pain or in their struggle to understand how overwhelming emotions can be. You are not alone!

9780735229358_Interior_Image_8_91850   9780735229358_Interior_Image_12_91854 9780735229358_Interior_Image_15_91857 Can you tell us about your process?

All of my books start as a nagging idea, something I just can’t stop thinking about. I find I do my best thinking on a walk, laying in bed at night when I can’t sleep, or early in the morning. (Whenever it’s most likely I’ll forget.) It usually becomes clear pretty quickly if I can turn an idea into a full story. Sometimes the words and images simply begin to emerge like puzzle pieces all fitting into place. This was definitely the case for The Rabbit Listened.

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Once I have a solid idea, I try writing a really rough draft that just covers the basics of the story to see if I can get all the way from the beginning to the end without any major roadblocks. I almost always type my rough drafts on the computer. I use this rough draft to do a really quick tiny layout of the entire book using thumbnail sketches of the spreads.

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When I make a picture book the visual story is just as important to me as the text, so the thumbnails are essentially another rough draft of the story. I draw with a pen or pencil on paper spending no more than a minute or so on each thumbnail. I will re-­sketch the most at this stage trying to get just the right loose concept for each page in the book.

With most books, including The Rabbit Listened, I have already decided what the characters will look like in my head so however I draw them in the thumbnail is typically how they will look in the book. After I thumbnail the entire book, I scan all the drawings into my computer. I use a Wacom pen and Photoshop to turn my thumbnails into larger sketches.

Again, I do this relatively quickly. As I mentioned before, I have always had to split my time between being a stay at home mom and my career, so I have become really efficient with my time!

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Thumbnail (top); Sketch (bottom)

After I’ve made a sketch from every thumbnail, I place them in an InDesign document where I can add the text and consider how the book should be laid out. When I am done I essentially have something that looks like a picture book made of sketches. This is what I send to editors for feedback. My favorite part of the process is making the final art.

Making art is something I have done my entire life and nothing makes me feel more challenged, satisfied, or at peace. Unlike the earlier stages of the book, I can make final art listening to music, podcasts, or audio books. I used to create all my final art with acrylic paint on paper, but I eventually became curious about digital art making.

It took a lot of practice, but I eventually taught myself to use Photoshop to create digital paintings. All of the art for The Rabbit Listened was created with digital ink, a Wacom pen, and Photoshop. I work in my studio in our basement. It is nothing fancy, needs a dehumidifier and a space heater…but at least it has a door so this mama can work!

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Who are some of your story heroes? (Fictional characters or real-­life creators)

In terms of fictional character heroes, when I was younger I loved the odd characters who never quite fit in. I loved Barbapapa, Charlie Bucket, Matilda, Dickon Sowerby, Ebenezer Scrooge, Pee Wee Herman, Edward Scissorhands, Jack Skellington, and the Iron Giant.

Most of the creators I looked up to then were in animation-­-­Chuck Jones, Bill Peet, and Adreas Deja but I have always loved Jim Henson. And while I still hold many of these characters and people dear to my heart, now most of my story heroes are women and their creations.

Back when Tyler and I were going to comic conventions, we met Raina Telgemeier. She was inspiring to know way back then when she was also selling stapled together copies of her work, and she is beyond inspiring to know now as the accomplished graphic novelist she is today. I relate a lot to her character in Smile and Sisters having been an awkward art kid myself. Her books helped my daughter fall in love with reading and gave my daughter and I some of our first mutually loved stories.

Another story hero of mine is author Kelly Barnhill. Her work is pure magic, and the cast of various female heroes in her book The Girl Who Drank the Moon spoke to me on so many levels. This book celebrates the simple power of love but also how complex the bonds between women, mother and child, and our inner and outer selves can be.

What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

Picking the favorite piece of art in my house is tricky. My kids create art almost daily that astounds me. I do love a print I made from one of my grandma’s drawings. She passed away when I was only four. She loved drawing and animals as much as I did. But then again I also adore my Leo Lionni prints from Swimmy!

What’s next for you?

I’m always wondering what’s next for me. This industry is not always the easiest to navigate. I feel so proud that my career has evolved to a point where I am making books that have the potential to influence or help people, but I’ve also learned you cannot force those books.

I would love to create more books that deal with emotional topics like fear or anger, but will have to wait for the right idea to click. In the meantime, I do have three more books coming out soon that celebrate things like loving someone no matter what, goodness, and how wild parenting can be!

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6 Comments

  • Posted December 12, 2017 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    This looks wonderful. I’m really looking forward to reading this one.

  • Posted December 12, 2017 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Love Cori’s work and her great big heart!

  • Posted December 12, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    You are so darn talented, it’s ridiculous! Love that early Garfield drawing! Hahaa! And awesome sketches. Also, love that you have Leo Lionni prints in your house.

  • Posted December 13, 2017 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    This book looks very special. Looking forward to it.

  • Posted December 13, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Can’t wait to see the final product, Cori! Bravo!!

  • Mary Worley
    Posted December 15, 2017 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    I like this— a unique way to approach the topic of grief. Wish we didn’t have to wait until February to read it.