by author Heather Lang
“What was your favorite book when you were little?” As a children’s book writer, I’m always asked this question. People are surprised to hear my favorite was a little, square, soft-covered book with the simplest of illustrations. Mr. Tickle, by Roger Hargreaves, first published in England in 1971, doesn’t exactly look like the kind of book a serious writer would have adored. It’s true the story lacks many elements we’re told are important for a successful picture book. Mr. Tickle never faces a problem he needs to solve, and he never grows or changes. There’s no conflict and resolution. Mr. Tickle just goes around town tickling people, then comes home and laughs about his exploits. But as a child, I loved his cute little hat and long stretchy arms. I imagined myself bold and mischievous enough to tickle and surprise my stern schoolteacher or a policeman! Plus Mr. Tickle was part of a small collection of Mr. Men books, and I loved collecting things. Mr. Tickle, Mr. Greedy, Mr. Happy, Mr. Nosey, and Mr. Bump fit so perfectly inside my small hands I could bring them anywhere.
When my four children were young, they discovered my Mr. Men collection in an old box of childhood toys at my parents’ house. I doubted these books would appeal to them. My kids were used to picture books with beautiful illustrations, powerful stories, suspenseful plots, and plenty of humor. How could these simple Mr. Men books stand up against bedtime favorites like Owl Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Well . . . they did!
My kids immediately wanted to add to my collection. Now there were dozens of Mr. Men books available, as well as Little Miss books. Every night I enjoyed my kids’ lively debate over which book we’d read. My son argued for Mr. Rush, because he was so fast and ran off the pages. My other son wanted Mr. Sneeze, because he also sneezed a lot. One of my daughters begged for Mr. Impossible because she wanted to be invisible and fly. The other wanted Mr. Jelly because he was colorful and had a funny shape. Whether the book represented a personality trait they wished for or related to or feared, or whether the book appealed to them on some other level, each reason for wanting a book gave me a small glimpse into their personalities.
The more I read with my kids, the more I appreciated how each child valued different parts of books. And some were quite unexpected! I try to keep this knowledge in the back of my mind when I’m writing. It frees me to follow unexplored paths—different genres, formats, and styles. While the paths are often as long and wavy as Mr. Tickle’s arms, they are also full of surprises and delight!
Heather Lang researches and writes children’s books. Her latest title, The Original Cowgirl, takes us on a journey with Lucille Mulhall, who had her heart set on roping and riding. Soon she was thrilling the crowds at rodeos, where she’d compete against men—and win! Lang lives in Massachusetts with her husband and four children.