It started at the library – Liam Francis Walsh

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By Liam Francis Walsh

When I was just a sprout, growing up part of a big family on a Wisconsin dairy farm, we all looked forward to the weekly trip to town. Going to town meant hitting the laundromat, the grocery store, and, most importantly, the library. ♥

We had a sturdy box we called the book box, and every week we’d unload it at the returns counter and refill it to overflowing with new books to entertain us for the following week. We had no TV so that was it for entertainment, and we’d all get in on the act, carefully selecting the books that suited our fancies.

Even though we were great book lovers, how books were made and by whom remained mysterious. To some extent it seemed that books just came into being and appeared on the shelves of the library, or if they were actually created it was only through some impossibly exacting process, by people with imposing credentials and specialized training – something like the space program. It was a long, long time, and many fillings and emptyings of our book box before I began to think maybe I, too, could make books.

My first efforts at writing stories were invariably not completed. I began projects in the euphoria of inspiration and abandoned them at the first obstacle. I raced ahead, completing painstaking illustrations for unfinished stories, and losing heart when I discovered story changes were required that would necessitate redoing all the work I’d already done. I fell in love with my ideas and got frustrated when they wouldn’t bend to my wishes. It’s hard to reach a new world you don’t entirely believe in, and I was sailing without a compass, constantly anxious that I’d sail off the edge.

But even working naively and inconsistently one gradually gains some experience and improves. In my early twenties I wrote a picture book story in which a harried author races to complete the book in the reader’s hands, but is constantly stymied by his characters’ insistence in coming off the page into his studio and causing hijinks to ensue. In that story the author was the main character, and the book he was working on, about a little bear who professes a love of broccoli when his mother tries to give him donuts, was fairly circumstantial (and silly). Smash cut; ten years later. When I pitched that story to my editor he was less interested in the long-suffering author character than in the little bear with the peculiar culinary preferences, and he encouraged me to explore that idea.

I tried many approaches over a period of weeks, and didn’t get far. Then one day, laying on the couch with a nasty cold, I started wondering which of this little bear’s other preferences might be similarly reversed, and why. The story I wrote that morning (between sneezes) was more or less the story that would become Make a Wish, Henry Bear.

So how did a farm kid who thought books came from NASA become a published author himself? I think my most important epiphany came from hearing the sentiment repeated by authors in interview after interview that work, not inspiration is what brings books to life. (And many thanks to those candid, self-aware authors!) Once I understood that, I was able to keep working on an idea day after day, worrying at it from different angles, testing and refining it. I could get lost and take a break, take a walk, but I’d always return to my desk, resist the siren song of the glittering New Idea, and get back to work.

So, I hope a copy of Make a Wish, Henry Bear finds its way into your book box. And if you should happen to wonder, “How did this get made?” Well, it’s a long story, but it started at the library.

Liam Francis Walsh is a cartoonist, writer and illustrator who is originally from Wisconsin. His cartoons frequently appear in The New Yorker. Liam is also the creator of Fish, published by Roaring Brook Press. He currently lives in Switzerland.

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  1. Pingback: Today's Daily Cartoonist: John Cuneo; Article Of Interest: Liam Walsh | Inkspill

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