Mary Newell DePalma has written and illustrated a number of books for children, including Uh-Oh! and Now It Is Summer. In this post, she tells the story behind the creation of her newest picture book, Bow-Wow Wiggle-Waggle.

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I find that the process of creating a picture book is very much like solving a puzzle. Ideas appear as word or picture fragments, and then I try to make sense of them. Sometimes I write the words first; sometimes I draw the pictures. Most times I go back and forth between the two.

In the case of Bow-Wow Wiggle-Waggle, the words came first. One day a little verse just popped into my head:

Bow-Wow Wiggle-Waggle
Bow-Wow Wiggle-Waggle

“Bow-wow wiggle-waggle yip yap yowl…paw, paw, pitter-patter meow growl!”

What a catchy little rhyme! I thought it might be the beginning of a fun picture book. First, though, I had to figure out what made the verse so appealing. Looking at the structure, I found that the words describe animal sound and movement; that there is quite a bit of alliteration; that it has a particular rhythm; and that the last word of each line rhymes. I figured if I followed those “rules” I could write additional verses that were every bit as catchy as the one that had popped into my head.

I consulted my thesaurus. Words percolated in my subconscious for months. In the grocery store I’d suddenly think, “squirm-squinch-squinch!” and rummage for a scrap of paper to scrawl it on.

I wrote a sea of silly verse. There was no plot, no plan, no order. But there were characters. Animals. Plenty of them. Turtles, horses, cows, crabs, frogs, fish . . . but which ones would my story be about?

I reasoned that the cast of characters had to be physically near each other in order to interact in a story, so I sorted them by habitat. Ultimately, I decided that the story would be about creatures I see in my urban neighborhood because they are familiar to me and there is such an amazing variety of them.

That was a big turning point. There were many other wonderful possibilities. I could have written about jungle or farm animals, but I’ll save those pieces. They belong to future picture book puzzles.

Now I had a nonsense rhyme and a cast of characters. But what was the story? At this point, I simply closed my eyes and tried to see what the dog and the cat were doing . . .

They were happy, surprised, playful. And suddenly it came to me . . . a chase!

“Bow-wow wiggle-waggle yip yap yowl…paw, paw, pitter-patter meow growl!”

Meow Growl! from Mary Newell DePalma's Bow-Wow Wiggle-Waggle

I imagined that one morning a dog surprises a cat and chases it so far away that the dog becomes lost and is found just in time to go home to bed. The pictures would tell this story.

Originally, the first scene showed a startled boy in his pajamas, cereal flying in all directions as the chase begins under the breakfast table. We didn’t have a dog or a cat, but I had fun pretending with my son; I took reference photos of him looking startled and waving around a cereal box. We did more of the same for all of the scenes in the story. The illustrations were lively but complicated and full of detail.

The puzzle should have been complete. But something was still missing.

It was a list of the dog’s encounters, not a story.

I didn’t know how to fix it. It sat in a drawer for several years. That first catchy line “bow-wow wiggle-waggle, yip-yap yowl . . . ” continued to nag me, so I knew I would have to figure out the rest of the puzzle someday.

Eventually I realized that many of the details in the drawings — the patterned pajamas, cereal boxes, cars, houses, traffic signs, etc, — were distracting and irrelevant. It was difficult for me to let go of the sketches of my son, but making the illustrations as simple as possible revealed to me – at last – the emotional core of the story.

The boy and the dog are friends. The little dog is easily distracted. He enjoys chasing the cat and is oblivious to the disturbance they cause the other animals.

Yip-Yap Yay! from Mary Newell DePalma's Bow-Wow Wiggle-WaggleWhen the dog loses sight of the cat he also realizes that he has run far from home and has lost his friend. It is a poignant moment. He has unintentionally been thoughtless, and now he is lost and sad. But happily, he is still distractible, so when he sees the bird he resumes a chase — only this time he happily scampers in the direction of the boy who has been looking for him all along.

Now that is a story worth telling! There had been twists, turns, and dead ends in the course of solving this picture book puzzle. I didn’t even find out what the story was until the very end, when I was already almost finished writing it!

I hope that readers of Bow-Wow Wiggle-Waggle will enjoy its silly slapstick, rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay. I hope that they will feel the friendship of the boy and the dog and be amused and amazed, as I am, by the fascinating creatures that live all around us. Most of all, I hope that they will have as much fun reading the book as I had solving what turned out to be a delightful puzzle of a picture book.


Click to order Mary Newell DePalma’s Bow-Wow Wiggle-Waggle.

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