What about Maddie?
MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER is the first picture book for Kid Lit Motivates, but hopefully not the last. After a weekend of networking with young readers and parents, I realized there were things I wanted to explain that won’t be obvious in the first read and also some background about the work itself.
Since publishing the book, my best friend/partner/love has joined me in the KLM mission — and while I tend to refer to the book as mine, it is now ours, and we consider “I” and “we” interchangeable here.
Maddie is a can-do girl on a mission to make a new outfit for an Art-Show-Style-Party (whatever that is), and she’s never done that before. She RSVP’s to the party, but makes a few mistakes in the response. Then she dreams up a gown she’d love to wear, researches how to design, then gets to work shopping, sketching, sewing, and adding embellishments. The story ends with her arrival at her friend’s house, wearing her crafty, new dress and excited to get partying.
“It’s the book I would have loved when I was a kid!”
I hear this often. Thank you, and same here. I wanted books I could read over and over again, with complicated illustrations, pictures in pictures, jokes within jokes.
Spoiler alert: It is not ABOUT fashion design.
First, to dispel the notion: this book will not teach your child how to sew. There are no patterns included in the back of the book and no direct instructions for budding fashion designers.. (We are currently creating these as an extension workbook, due to the popular demand and the curiosity the notion seems to instill. It likely won’t be available before the end of the year, and was not part of the original idea.) MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER was never intended to be a sewing manual for kids — but this is the primary criticism I receive., so it’s worth noting.
Inspired by Real Life
The book was inspired by a particular client I worked with when I was doing in-home work with autistic children. At 10-years-old, L had been diagnosed with a learning disability and was struggling academically and socially. She had difficulty initiating choices, and at the gates of puberty, was starting to recede into her cell phone, her dark bedroom, and stormy, unpredictable moods. She loved fashion — wanting to look put together all the time — and it became clear early that she was a perfectionist, and one that struggled to accept average, but imperfect grades. Test stress suffocated her. As I got to know L., I realized she was becoming obsessive about boys and friends, and she had difficulty maintaining a conversation that wasn’t centered around her. L might have a learning disability, but it seemed clear to me that she was autistic.
(‘Female’ presentation of autism is generally much different than the more male-type presentations, which is not to say that boys won’t have the more ‘female’ traits or vice versa. There are generalizations, but every child should be treated with the respect of individuality. I can talk about autism and our culture for hours, so I won’t dive further in to that here.)
Necessity, as always, is the Mother of Invention
In any case, it was clear that my responsibility to L was not primarily academic support, as initially suspected. I had the opportunity to impart the social and emotional knowledge she was understandably lacking, the things that they don’t usually teach in school. Self-awareness and self-acceptance were primary goals. We found a lot of success after about 6 months in emotion identification, coping, and social awareness. We even made progress away from isolation and obsession. The hardest thing to work through was the desire to be perfect.
Perhaps it was so hard to approach perfectionism, in part, because it was something I struggled with until recently myself.
I spent hours in various children’s libraries around my county, searching for a picture book that might help me show, rather than tell, this particular lesson. Yes, L., was 12, and capable of reading middle grade chapter books — but the picture book format was a lot more accessible in an hour-long session, and the images could be more impactful than the words for a more youtube-centric generation. I believed, even before Kid Lit Motivates was born, that a picture book could open the door to any conversation. Despite endless searching, I was disappointed at the selection.
We should encourage ALL girls, all kids, to think, whether or not they love STEM.
L.’s interests were narrow — and within those interests I could find nothing available that addressed her needs or represented her struggle. The thinking/planning books were all math- and science-based. There were books geared to much younger kids about making friends, but no picture books with the awkward struggle of the pre-teen. There were books where children finished projects, even books about overcoming perfectionism, but none that showed HOW to do it, only how to FEEL as you do it. And the only books available regarding fashion were vapid and useless — can’t a girl love clothes and still learn to think?
I shudder when I remember one Barbie book that was recommended to me by a librarian- Ken comes over to fetch Barbie for a date, and Barbie keeps him waiting on the porch while she quite literally gets lost in the wide expansive wonderland of her own closet. She returns much, much later, after an entire fashion show of dress and shoe options, to find him asleep on the porch. Not to worry, Ken says something degrading about how that’s the best he can expect from her, and off they go on a giggling, happy date. Book over. Jaw on the floor. To me, disgraceful. Is this really the best we can do for girls and boys?
I write rhythmic, rhyming bits to cope.
MADDIE, quite literally, began as a poem I wrote to cope with the absolute despair I felt in the search. Rooms full of craft supplies and I could not find the way to explain, model, or demonstrate to L how to get a project started without worrying about the way it came out. We tried a lot of craft projects together, any hobby she expressed the slightest interest in, but she couldn’t take pride in any of them or do anything twice, because she couldn’t accept the reality of a learning curve. Perfection or bust.
The poem stayed with me, reworking itself in my mind, line by line, at odd moments in time. It did nothing to help L. and eventually our time together ended. It was a year or so after our sessions terminated that I hired an illustrator to make my vision a reality. I had a poem that had a tight rhyming lilt, that felt like a folk song but for a modern audience. In my mind, I saw it unfolding like a mix between Looney Tunes-style animation, referential meta humor, and details that felt like real life.
Self-Publishing Amateur Style
I confess I was very directive with the illustrator, who was phenomenally skilled, patient and kind. He added the stuffed bear in homage to a beloved teacher (the bear appears on nearly every page). and he understood the pop culture nods and winks I hoped to add. He is solely responsible for every one of Maddie’s fun tees, for the Indiana Jones and Bob Ross reference images (among others), for the humor inside the humor.
On the first edition of the cover, he didn’t put his name on the work, and I felt quite badly about it. I still do. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should tell him to add his name, demand it, implore him to take credit — I thought artists signed their work when they wanted to stand by it, and since I’d described each page in great detail, perhaps he just didn’t want to be associated with my project. When he reworked the cover for me (to add the giant picture of Maddie, as I realized was standard for picture books), I insisted he take credit. (If you ever read this, Aaron, thank you so much for everything. My desire to see my vision through was so intense that it wasn’t the collaboration it could have been. I was new to the industry, I’m very grateful for the character you added to her character, and I sincerely apologize.)
The interaction we had was only the first step of my lacking confidence in Maddie, there would be many other stumbles along the way.
Criticism is Understandable
MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER is not like other picture books. That was -sort of- the point.
The text is too advanced for the picture book industry. Despite being an acceptable number of words and pages, the content and vocabulary level far outpaces the typical picture book audience.
Since the book was meant to be aimed at a preteen audience, it’s an honest, if unfounded, criticism. It wasn’t meant to be read by or to early readers. It was meant as an anchor activity to begin any number of difficult or tricky conversations, while modeling what it is to have a dream, set a goal, learn a skill, and accept the outcome.
Where are the Teens?
Teens and preteens are practically nonexistent in picture books. Mostly, the books involve human or animal characters ranging in age from baby to age 10 or so, and full-grown adults. Occasionally a teen sibling character appears as an aside.
Teachers know that picture books are excellent ways of jumping in to topics — so why can’t we use them with a slightly older crowd?
Maddie isn’t clearly identified as a teenager, but there are indications she is one. She eats takeout from containers and goes shopping for supplies alone. She’s got a full-sized desk in her bedroom and a lab coat in her closet. (She likes science after all. Science AND clothing.) At one point in the story she works so much that she falls asleep in a mess of scraps, paint, and glue. It’s real. She’s a young teen.
Why don’t we have representations of teenagers in picture books? Moreso, why don’t we show characters who have “unskilled”, “stepping-stone” jobs, while going to school — you know, like the ones real teens have? Cashiers, servers, retail store workers, babysitters, facepainters, the list is endless.
Where are the picture book characters who show what being a teen is like, emotionally, socially, psychologically? We model adulthood for children without even blinking- careers, parenthood, etc. But the teenage years are like a silent, shameful era we’d rather kids not be exposed to. Despite the fact that they will one day be teenagers with changing bodies, growing hearts, and questioning minds, we only show them children, adults, and the occasional teenage savant.
If we ever hope to ease the teenage transition, and limit dangerous rebellion, isolation, and attitude, we should probably demonstrate to kids in positive ways what will be expected of them. And embrace teens for what they are, not deny they’re growing up until they’ve already grown.
It Isn’t Just One Book
Maddie was meant to be a relatable girl, a real girl, with hobbies, interests, skills and struggles, a range of emotion and experience. I hoped to use it as an anchor to talk about socializing, texting, learning a new hobby, setting a goal with a defined deadline, and working hard to the finish. The posters in Maddie’s room tell us to “Tri, Trryy, Try Again,” to take “Caution: Mind at Work”. She may say she’s okay but her face tells us otherwise. She may say it was easy, but we can see the challenge. Just like reality.
I hoped it was something that could be read again and again, where illustrative Easter eggs might catch the eye on the second or third read, where the rhythm of the text and the notebook illustration might inspire future repetitions.
It occurred to me much later that its a book that exists within an entire world of possibility — a world where reality is represented and celebrated for being perfectly imperfect, awkward and emotional, exhausting and energizing.
I have big dreams for this book, and several stories of a similar, yet different ilk, demanding illustration, waiting to come to life. I’ve been learning the art form myself, counting down my hours of illustration practice, slowly but surely, because I believe all things are possible, and because I wouldn’t want to force my ideas on another artist ever again.
So Who and What is it for?
It’s a book about a teenager, written for a preteen, hoping to be included in the canon of younger readers who are looking for the next, best thing. It exists at face value as a simple story about a girl and her quest to make a dress, and then as a model for actual, awkward, uncomfortable, amazing adolescence.
It’s a book that shows how to set a goal, and see it through, despite the odds and imperfections. It can also suit nicely as an anchor for many other conversations and subjects, many of which I have since created worksheets and activities for which are available for free and for sale on the Kid Lit Motivates TeachersPayTeachers Store site.
It’s a book I’m intensely proud of, despite the odd reactions it evokes. I stand by it and I hope that my vision for it, for our future work, and for the Kid Lit Motivates mission, is clear.
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