Eileen Spinelli is not afraid of commitment. She has belonged to the same Wednesday-morning book group for 20 years. And, since the age of six, she’s been committed to the idea of working with words for a living.
“I fell in love with books and words as a child,” she says. “As I grew older, I wanted to be a poet and wear big hats and long dresses like Edna St. Vincent Millay.”
Although the author wasn’t wearing dramatic attire when she spoke with BookPage from her home near Philadelphia (where she lives with her husband, author Jerry Spinelli), she did share tidbits from her bibliophilic childhood.
“My best friend Gladys and I—she was eight, I was six—would walk to our town library and spend the day. It had swings, we’d bring a lunch, and take the allotted 10 books home in shopping bags,” she says. “The library was my amusement park, my mall—it’s where we went for fun. I grew up in that little world of books.”
Sixty years and 50 books (plus six children and 17 grandchildren) later, the author has created her own world of literature, including the new picture book Princess Pig, which tells the story of an accidental porcine princess.
One day, a hearty gust of wind yanks a “princess” sash from a parade participant and deposits it in Pig’s pen. She takes the sash as a sign—deciding that she is, in fact, Princess Pig—and sets about living the life of a royal. But as the obligations pile up (she must spend hours in the sun posing for a portrait, and she can’t roll in the mud anymore), Pig realizes her new role is a difficult one that’s alienating her from her friends. Ultimately, she tosses aside her teacup crown and cavorts with her barnyard pals once again, happy in the knowledge that a non-princess Pig is a good thing to be.
The author says, “I try to write about things I’m already interested in, or want to know more about.” Princess Pig was sparked by a combination of imagination plus reality (in the form of a documentary Spinelli watched about the royal family). “They work very hard—princesses have a lot of work to do, sometimes five appearances a day,” she says. “And I wanted to show it’s OK to be a pig, or a princess . . . it’s OK to be whoever you are.”
That message is shored up by Tim Bowers’ artwork, full-page illustrations that demonstrate his intuition and skill: the animals’ faces are expressive—hilarious, adorable and kind. Each page bears detailed, appealing art that meshes with the characters’ vivid personae and the book’s engaging rhythm.
Spinelli says of that rhythm, “Writing a picture book is a lot like writing a poem. Language is very important to me, and a lot of my picture books are really poems.”
Spinelli’s first book, 1981’s The Giggle and Cry Book, was a poetry collection, in fact, and numerous picture books and chapter books (including the Lizzie Logan series) have followed. “Every book has a different voice and calls for a different mode of writing,” she says. “I don’t set out to do one or the other, it’s more, how am I going to do this particular idea? The more you do it, the more you have a feel for what works.”
Good information for aspiring writers, to be sure, and Spinelli hasn’t stopped trying new things, either: her first collaboration with husband Jerry, Today I Will: A Year of Quotes, Notes, and Promises to Myself, is due out in October.
“It was great working separately and then coming together and critiquing, but not great being in the same room working on the same book,” she says with a laugh. “I’m really pleased with how it turned out.”
Attentive readers may be wondering how Spinelli’s childhood friendship with Gladys turned out. That story, too, has a happy ending: the girls lost touch when Spinelli’s family moved to a new town, but several years ago, the women reunited at their beloved library.
“That children’s department is now a storage room,” Spinelli says. “The places where the stacks were, and Mrs. Armstrong’s desk—it’s so tiny! But to me, it was the biggest place in the world.”
Linda M. Castellitto is pretty sure her cat is a princess.