Around this time of year I begin to get lots of inquiries about my little picture book, Hanna’s Christmas. Since you can’t even find a copy on Amazon this year, I thought I’d better post about it. It was published in 2001 as a joint effort by HarperFestival (an imprint of HarperCollins) and Hanna Andersson, the clothing retailer. (I used my married name, Peterson, not my pen name, Wiley.) The Hanna folks carried it in their catalog for a season or two, but the print run was small and it was not expected to live much longer than that.
I was commissioned to write the book as a work-for-hire, which means there’s no royalty—the writer gets a flat fee and that’s that, no matter how well the book sells. Most books involving licensed characters or merchandise tie-ins are work-for-hire projects. I don’t do work-for-hire anymore, but it was a good way to hone my craft when I was young and hungry. It was also a good way to pay scary medical bills when we were self-employed and under-insured.
I’m fond of the Hanna book, although it was a bear to write. Like every other work-for-hire I’ve done, there were too many editors involved, each of them contradicting the others. There was a Harper senior editor, a Harper junior editor, the Harper merch director, and an editor who worked for the packager (a kind of middleman publishing company that put together the deal between Harper and Hanna Andersson). I was hired by the Harper folks to write “a picture book about a little Swedish girl named Hanna who moves to America and is homesick, and it’s Christmas. Oh, and also we’d like there to be a tomten in it.”
They already had sketches of Hanna and the tomten—adorably and whimsically drawn by artist Melissa Iwai. From there it was all up to me, sort of. I came up with the storyline, which had to be approved by all the aforementioned folks plus someone at Hanna Andersson itself. Then I wrote a draft, which got bumped back and forth a zillion times as every editor weighed in with contradictory remarks.
Like this. In the first draft, I described the tomten’s hat as “red as a rowanberry.” One of the editors bounced it back with a strikethrough.
“Change to ‘his hat was bright red,’ ” read the note in the margin. “American readers won’t know what rowanberries are.”
Sigh. I argued that “bright red” was flat and boring. Okay, I wasn’t that blunt, but that was the gist. I pointed out that we’d be better off cutting the whole sentence, since the artwork would clearly show that the tomten’s hat was red anyway.
Nope, said the editor, go with “his hat was bright red.” So I did, growling at the screen. That’s just dumb writing. When you’re reading a book to your kids, you don’t want to get stuck dragging through pedestrian sentences like “his hat was bright red.” Bleh.
And then the next person up the line—the merch director, whom I’d worked with before and who happens to be a first-rate editor—read the manuscript. She sent it back with her comments. There was a note by “his hat was bright red.”
“Flat. Can you punch up?”
I changed it to “red as a hollyberry” and that’s the line that made it into the book. I still think rowanberry was better.
But I digress. Anyway, I loved the story and am really very fond of my slightly grumpy Hanna and her even grumpier tomten friend. I was quite pleased that I got to work in the St. Lucia feast day tradition, since that was already such a happy tradition in our little family. I got a kick out of having Hanna and the tomten make a construction paper crown, because that was what I had done for Jane the December before. I loved the artwork—I have never met or even spoken to Melissa Iwai, but I thought her work was gorgeous. (I keep meaning to check out her other books. Looks like she has a lot of them! Her website is cool, too, especially the process section.)
In the end, I was really happy with the book and was a little bummed it was a merch tie-in, because of course that put it in a different category of book and I knew it would never be reviewed by the critics. To my surprise, it did get a nice little review in School Library Journal, but still, it was a merch property, not intended for a long and dignified life on library shelves. After all, the characters are all wearing Hanna Andersson clothing. Even the endpapers are Hanna prints. (We actually have a baby outfit in the same pattern.) Is it a book or a commercial?
That’s the trouble with work-for-hire, and that’s why I’m glad I don’t have to take on that kind of project anymore.
But in the end, I’m glad I took on the Hanna project. I liked the challenge of trying to tell an engaging and well-crafted story within the confines placed upon me by the various bosses. There’s a certain satisfaction in trying to make art out of something so commercial.
Last year I was amused to discover that the book had taken on a new life in the resale market. People were actually hunting for it, trying to land a copy. This year it seems there are no copies on the market at all. I guess everyone who bought it last year decided to hold on to it, which is nice to think about.
Over the years, I gave away almost all of my author comps. The book really is going to disappear for good soon, save for a few scattered copies on people’s Christmas shelves. So to the very nice folks who have written me in recent weeks, asking if I know where you can find copies, I’m afraid I have to tell you I’m unable to help you out. But I deeply appreciate your interest!
Booknotes: June 2010
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