This House, Once + An Interview With Deborah Freedman


by Deborah Freedman (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017)

When friends come visit my blog, I always ask them who their story heroes are. Deborah Freedman is one of mine. Here’s why.

Your picture books are all lovely meditations on deeply important things: creativity, friendship, books, home. How do you turn a big idea into a small story?

Well thank you for this extremely flattering description of my books, Carter, although I’m not sure that it’s earned! It’s an interesting question.

I’ve never really thought of the themes in my books as “big ideas,” because they have all come straight from my small life, and often feel, to be honest, more self-indulgent than important. For instance, BLUE CHICKEN was inspired in part by my own messy and often fraught process of creating; BY FROG & MOUSE is about the challenges of collaboration, like on a book with my editor, or on a life with my husband; with SHY, I was thinking about how scary it is to put a piece of myself — each book — out into the world. And so on. Sometimes I have a specific theme in mind when I begin; other times, themes emerge while I’m writing.

So, turning the “big” idea into a story? See above re BLUE CHICKEN! Imagine drawing a huge scribble and then trying to find the beginning and end of the line— you know they are there somewhere, but all those squiggles, all those knots, and which end came first? I really don’t know how to explain how I get from big or small idea to story and which comes first. Because although I do begin with some sort of idea or concept, it’s often visual (like, hey, wouldn’t a book full of water be cool), and the storytelling part does not come naturally to me at all (uh, ok, but what is it ABOUT?). I’m pitifully plot-challenged.

snow-1000 This House, Once

Used with permission of Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

What’s the background of This House, Once?

The background to the background is that my agent, Stephen Barr, understands this anxiety of mine about crafting plots, and so we had been chatting for a while about the possibility of my trying non-fiction — not that non-fiction is easier, and not that non-fiction doesn’t require some sort of narrative arc, but perhaps it could give me a break from the character development/plotty part of writing. So I was thinking about that when, one day, a few lines of a non-fiction-ish idea called “This House, Once” came to me. I nervously sent them off: “This door was once a colossal oak tree, about four hugs around and as high as the blue…

Stephen immediately prodded me to continue. It took me a couple of months to wrap my arms around the bazillion different directions this vague idea about a house could go in, but compared to my other books, it poured out. Maybe it had been incubating for years in my former-architect self without my being fully conscious of it? I don’t know. In any case, Stephen and I were both passionate about the little dummy I’d made, but he had just sold SHY to Viking, so we agreed to put THIS HOUSE, ONCE on the back burner for a while. Then my daughter, who is an (amazing, talented, etc. ) editor at Atheneum, just happened to come home, and just happened to casually ask what I was working on…

Well, Emma fell in love with it immediately. And the rest… well, working on a book about home with my daughter — I can’t begin to express how special that’s been.


Used with permission of Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Can you tell us about your process?

Emma was moved by the text from her first read, and really didn’t ask for significant changes there. We did, however, revise the pacing of it; with Ann Bobco, Atheneum’s brilliant art director, we carefully adjusted the placement of the words to maximize the impact of each page turn, and we added a couple of spreads to the book. This involved going back and forth with thumbnails and sketches for a while, until everyone was happy. Then they both gave me a lot of input as I worked on the final art — really pushing me, which I truly appreciated.

house-thumb-1 house-thumb-2 house-thumb-3

Who are some of your story heroes? (Fictional or creators!)

A few Fictional favorites (among many) are Russell Hoban’s Frances, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, Ezra Jack Keats’s Peter — imperfect, conflicted, funny, endearing. Their creators, of course, are my heroes. Also, William Steig, Ruth Krauss, Maira Kalman… I could go on all day.


from Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life, by Maurice Sendak, 1967

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

Yikes, choosing favorites — not my favorite thing to do! Ben and I have a lot of art and art books (including picturebooks) in our house, and objects from all over the world. And our house is full of children’s art, made by our kids when they were little, and now our small grandchildren, and I have a wonderful collection of art from my readers… Inspiring, all of it.

What’s next for you?

The next official thing, assuming I make sense of the mess eventually, will be another picture book for Viking. And I always have a few things simmering, so we shall see…

df-studio Lovely, right? Thank you, Deborah!


© Deborah Freedman 2017



  • Posted May 9, 2017 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Very lovely! The story behind the story, and Deborah’s self effacing honesty is so endearing.

  • Cathy Ogren
    Posted May 9, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Absolutely lovely!

  • Posted May 9, 2017 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    I am a HUGE Deborah Freedman fan! Thank you for this post and for sharing the story behind the story. I bought both SHY and THIS HOUSE, ONCE when I was at the NESCBWI conference. I heard she was there and would have asked her to sign both copies if I spotted her. Perhaps another time. I am looking forward to her next picture book!