Interview with Laura Numeroff


About the Author: Laura Numeroff is a Brooklyn, New York native who grew up influenced by the arts. She developed a passion for reading at a young age and so began her celebrated relationship with her local library. As she fostered her love for reading, she began to write her own stories and create various illustrations to accompany them. Eventually, Numeroff went on to attend Pratt Institute and graduated with a contract for her very first book. She has come to be an acclaimed, bestselling children’s author and illustrator, who is best know for her book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California, and is involved in several children’s charities.

Find Laura Numeroff on the following platforms:

We like to thank Laura Numeroff for taking some time to talk with us about her successful publishing career and her inspiration for her children’s books. Some of her books include If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Raising a Hero.

Sarah Devaney: I read that you originally studied fashion. What made you decide to become an author?

Laura Numeroff: I wanted to be an author since I was eight. I would write books and illustrate them, and since I read so much when I was little, I always knew I was going to be a children’s author. When I got older, around sixteen, one of my older sisters, Emily, was my idol. I just loved her and she was a fashion designer. So since I wanted to be just like her, I went into fashion. I hated it and couldn’t sew. After that, I wasn’t sure what I was going to major in, so I took a bunch of classes on stuff I was interested in, which included photography, creative writing and animation. My last year, I was short two credits, so I ended up taking a class on writing and illustrating children’s books and we had a homework assignment that instructed us to write our own books. I took my book around to the publishers in New York City, and I got a couple rejections, but eventually got my first offer. The book was Amy for Short and I sold it to Macmillan. I graduated with a diploma and my first contract for five hundred dollars in 1975.   

SD: What was one of your first experiences you had where you learned that language had power?

LN: I think it was when I got my first library card, around six or seven, and I would take out as many books as I could (actually you were only allowed six). I would read them all when I got back to my home in Brooklyn, New York. I started to realize that they were making me feel happy and I was learning things. I loved science and animals, and I found that I could learn so many new things from what other people had written. I could experience different emotions—I could feel sad or happy, just by reading a book. I never read anything scary and I don’t like science fiction. My favorite things to read are biographies and memoirs. Memoirs I love because it’s coming straight from the authors mouth, if you will, and they are a way in which one can get to know somebody through their experiences, which is not something you get while reading a biography. That was exciting for me. Memoirs were so inspiring to me, they got me to recognize that I could use words to make other people feel different emotions or get little kids to laugh. I’m really lucky that I have been able to make a living at it.

SD: How did publishing your first book change your writing process? Did you change anything based on the feedback you received from publishers?

LN: As I mentioned earlier, for my college class, our homework assignment was to write our own book. My book was about the tallest girl in the third grade, and when I visit kids, I ask, “Who thinks I was the tallest girl in the third grade?” I slowly start raising my hand and then I say, “No, I wasn’t the tallest girl in the third grade, but I have an imagination.” So of course, there was a lot of critiques, we had to bring our book in and tell each other what we thought might work a little better. I was able to take the criticism because I knew it was going to help me make the book better. I really think it did. It’s the same thing now. When I write something, I read it aloud as I’m writing it, because I want to know how it will sound when I read it to somebody. Then I do read it to somebody, and a lot of the time, they catch things that just don’t sound right. Actually, one of my favorite things is re-writing or editing because writing is really hard. Once I’m finished with the story, it’s kind of a relief. Having the basis for my book, then going back and reading through it and hearing the way I’ve written it, I decide what could be clearer or determine what words don’t work. I even enjoy editing other people’s work.

SD: Did you have an idea of how you wanted the illustrations for If You Give A Mouse a Cookie to look before HarperCollins employed Felicia Bond to illustrate it? Since you also illustrate children’s books, did you have your own ideas for the illustrations?

LN: Yeah! I illustrated my first nine books and I will admit it, I was not the best illustrator. It was not my forte, and when I sold If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, I don’t think I would have been able to illustrate it at that point. So they chose Felicia Bond and I’d say about ninety-eight percent of children’s publishing companies don’t allow the author to choose the illustrator because basically, that’s what the publisher’s job is. Their job is to create that collaboration. I think the illustrations for If You Give a Mouse a Cookie are cute, and they are very colorful and people seem to love them. So, after I did a whole bunch of books, I was then able to choose my own illustrator and that was a great thing for me, because when I write, I do illustrate what I think it would look like or should look like, or the way I visualize it, so it has been great getting to pick my own illustrators.

SD: On average, how long does it take you to complete one of your books?

LN: That’s such a hard question to answer. I wrote If You Give a Mouse a Cookie in two hours. The idea just came to me. But, if you do a series, a formula develops. The second book in the series wasn’t as easy to write, because one thing has to lead to another thing, then it has to relate back, so basically, the books gradually become harder to write. I had used a lot of the activities, the characters in the books had already done this and done that, so the rest of the books in the If You Give series took me a couple of months. I would put it away and work on something else. The one that took me the longest was the last in the series If You Give a Dog a Donut. The time it takes really varies with each book.

SD: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process? Would you say it is the original writing process?

LN: Just coming up with a story is difficult, but the hardest part is coming up with an ending. I have a lot of ideas but some of them don’t lead to a story. I’ll come up with something such as: there are squirrels that live near a big house and they get all the things that were supposed to be delivered to the house. Although, I can’t figure what should be in the boxes delivered to the house, so that’s as far as I get. I have a lot of ideas, but many of them don’t end up being an actual story.

SD: What does literary success look like to you?

LN: Well, I think using the word “success” is very hard for me. It’s surreal. I’ve had people meet me and start crying! I’ll give them a big hug and I’m like, “Oh my God.” What “literary success” means to me is inspiring kids to use their imagination. I get a lot of tweets and emails and letters saying that kids have been writing their own books because of my books and that makes me feel great, to be able to inspire kids to write. I think that’s success. The biggest area of success that means the most to me is when I get letters or emails from parents or teachers who have kids with autism and they let me know that my books really resonate with the kids because they can grasp the cause-and-effect aspect of the books. I sponsor a horse for therapeutic writing and I wrote a book called Ponyella, which is Cinderella, but with a white pony, so the horse that I sponsor is white. I call her “Ponyella” but they call her “Sadie.” She was in the international games with a couple athletes, one was from Bulgaria, one was from Iceland, and they both won medals on her, so that made me feel successful as well.

SD: Your book Raising a Hero is the first children’s book I have come into contact with that deals with service dogs. And it was also one of the only children’s books that made me cry. What inspired you to write this book?

LN: Aw thank you! Well, I’ve always wanted to write a book about therapy dogs. It’s easier for me to write in first person, so a lot of my books are in first person. They’re more fun to read. I have a series called The Jellybeans where I use different voices so I can make it funny and make kids laugh. I was at a big book convention and this woman was walking with a large Australian Shepherd. I used to have one, so I said, “What is your dog doing here?” and she said, “Oh, she’s a search-and-sniff rescue dog.” I learned so much that I had never known about service dogs! I decided dogs have jobs too and I was going to write a little bit about service dogs and firehouse dogs, but it didn’t work out. In regards to Raising a Hero, it started when I met this young man named Sean, who was helping me design my website. He shared that he has a younger brother who has Cerebral palsy and who has had a dog for quite some time. When I met Sean’s younger brother’s service dog, Ellie, Sean and I ended up coming up with a story about a service dog. It’s not a story about a therapy dog, which was my original intention, so I had to let people know there is a difference between therapy dogs and services dogs. We got 85 five-star reviews on Amazon! Later, Barnes and Noble called Sean and said they wanted to have our book in their stores, which is unusual, but it was great.

SD: Is there a reason you prefer to write your books as a series?

LN: The If You Give… and The Jellybeans series weren’t written as a series. I wrote the first books and that spawned the other books, so I am very, very lucky. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie became a series, and then I was given a contract for another five or seven books. That was very daunting. I am not good at being asked to do something specific. It is much easier for me to come up with an idea on my own so the other books were a bit of a challenge.

SD: Where is your favorite place to write?

LN: In my office. I am not one of those people that sits in a café or at Starbucks.

SD: Lastly, what advice would you give to a young adult who is looking to write their own book one day?

LN: First, I always recommend reading. Read, read, read, read. See what you are interested in, see what other authors write, and absolutely take a class. One thing I can say to people who want to write is: take a class. I learned so much about children’s books from my college course. Make sure you want to write, and don’t write because you want to make money. It is really hard and the thing about books is you don’t make a living off of advances; you make money when the royalties start coming in. It is a crapshoot. It is. That’s why I say write because you love it and not because you are looking to make a career out of it.

PRR Writer, Sarah Devaney