Several years ago, I came home to find a box in a puddle in my driveway. It was wrapped in plastic, marked with tire tracks, and was postmarked from China. It looked – and smelled - like it had been on an epic journey. As I unwrapped it, an image came into my mind of this tiny package aboard a huge container ship, sailing across the ocean with the sky full of stars. That image was the spark of inspiration for what would eventually become LOVE, MAMA, although it did not end up in the book.
I started writing a nonfiction story about a book being written, printed, and eventually shipped to a little boy. It had interesting technical details, and it had a great image of a huge container ship sailing through a starry night, carrying a tiny package with a heart drawn on it. But the story was lacking something, so I set it aside.*
Around that time, I had a preschooler who lived every moment as the eternal now. When I dropped her off at preschool in the morning, she would cry like I was leaving for the other end of the world and she might never see me again. Trying to give her sense of connection while I was gone, I made a little photo book with pictures of our family that she could look at during the day. I tucked little heart shaped rocks into her pockets and put heart-shaped notes in her lunch box.
One day, as I was rushing to get us out of the house, my daughter noticed her lunchbox was missing a note and said “But how will I know that you love me if I don’t have something from you to hold?” And I realized that, as a pre-reader, she didn’t care what the note said. She cared that I had held that particular piece of paper, and when she opened her lunch box after the longest three hours of her life, that piece of paper still had a magical connection to my touch.
Driving her to school, that image of the container ship came back to my mind, but now I knew that whatever was inside that little package with a heart wasn’t important, it was the tangible connection between two people that mattered – the ability to hold onto the same object, even when separated by time and space.
I rewrote the story as fiction, trying to keep the sense of awe that I felt about the journey of my small package across an impossibly huge distance. I tried to convey the magic of my daughter’s paper heart and connect to the universal experience of missing someone who isn’t with you. Every child is separated from their mother sometimes, whether for a daily drop off at child care, an evening with grandma, or a longer separation.
My children love to pretend to be penguin chicks and sit on my feet, and at some point in my revision I thought about how penguin mothers leave their eggs to go out to sea and catch fish, and then return and sing to find their chicks. I changed my human characters to penguins and created the watery, magical world that Kipling inhabits. The container ship was replaced by a whale and her baby swimming under the stars.
Because there are all kinds of families, and children have all kinds of caregivers in the real world, I chose to make Kipling’s caregiver a blank slate. He or she can be a babysitter, a grandparent, a father, another mom, or whomever the child reading the book imagines that penguin to be.
My hope is that LOVE, MAMA can help reassure children of their mother’s love in her absence, and perhaps inspire some comforting family rituals. My editor, Connie Hsu, tells me that the book is being printed at this moment, and soon it will be loaded onto a huge container ship, which will make its way across the ocean. I imagine it sailing through a night full of stars, bringing this story from my heart to yours.
May it arrive at your bookstore, or your home, in a dry box.
LOVE, MAMA written and illustrated by Jeanette Bradley
Coming January 2, 2018 from Roaring Brook Press.
Available for preorder on IndieBound and wherever books are sold
*Luckily I did not decide it was missing a tiger, since it turned out someone else was writing that book.