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Originally published Sunday, May 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle author hits the big time of the children's book world

Northwest author Bonny Becker has hit the big time with her children's book "A Visitor for Bear." At least as big as big time gets in the world of children's publishing.

Seattle Times book editor

Author appearance

Bonny Becker

The author of "A Visitor for Bear" will read from her book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Secret Garden Bookshop, 2214 N.W. Market St., Seattle. Free (206-789-5006 or secretgardenbooks.com).

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Have you ever thought about writing a children's book? If you've had a child, or kept company with a child, and have read aloud to them, of course you have. Maybe you've thought, "Hey, I could do this! 500 words, 32 pages — how hard can it be?"

Easy to start, hard to master, and harder still to achieve the status of a household name. Bonny Becker knows — the North Seattle author has hit the big time in the children's book world, but not until after years of hard work, modest gains and a few dead ends.

After 20 years writing children's books, Becker officially made it big last year, and her winning streak has stretched into 2009. Her whimsical picture book "A Visitor for Bear," illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton (Candlewick Press), was named Amazon's 2008 Picture Book of the Year, a selection of Oprah's Book Club for Children, and an American Library Association Notable Book for Children. Not to mention a New York Times best-seller.

This year, "A Visitor for Bear" won the Golden Kite Award from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, a coveted jury-of-her-peers award for which writers and illustrators of children's books vote. The book has been a commercial as well as a critical success: Typical sales of children's books are on the order of 10,000 copies; "Bear" sold 60,000 in hardcover and 190,000 in an inexpensive paperback version published by Scholastic for its schools-based book club.

Becker grew up in Wenatchee, the daughter of a school-board member, a voracious reader in a house full of books. After college in California (Scripps), she worked in the mental-health field, including a job as liaison between a mental-health clinic and the Harborview psychiatric ward, then as a writer in corporate communications.

She always regarded writers as "magical creatures," she recalls — jobs were for keeping her family afloat. But then, when she was pregnant with her second child, "I realized that I really wanted to write for kids."

That was the first step. She got serious about writing in 1988; she made her first sale in 1994. She finally published "The Quiet Way Home" in 1995.

"That's a very typical apprenticeship," she says, "Five, six, even 10 years once you get into it."

Other books followed, including "My Brother the Robot," "Just a Minute," "An Ant's Day Off" and "Holbrook, a Lizard's Tale."

Along the way, she developed a sense of what makes a good children's picture book.

A sense of timing, a whiff of suspense

"A good picture book, it has to be simple but profound," she says. "You have to be able to take a strong idea, turn it into a metaphor and compress it. You have to tell a complete story in 1,000 words ... or often 500 words or less."

And reading a picture book is an interactive activity between reader and child. "Timing is huge," Becker says. "Page turns create a suspense and a pause. A good writer and illustrator will take advantage of that."

The best picture books are sublime interactions of words and pictures, but readers of children's books might be taken aback to know that the writer and illustrator do not work hand in hand to develop the book (unless the writer and the illustrator are the same person). A children's book editor picks the artist — "always shocking and horrifying news to most picture-book writers," Becker says with a laugh. Editors keep a large file of artists' work and try to match artists with texts. "I have to think that that must be one of the best parts of the job," she says. Some publishers solicit input from writers; others don't.

With "A Visitor for Bear," Denton's illustrations brought a dimension to the character Becker hadn't imagined on her own. "I didn't know he would have a big bottom, and would wear an apron," she says.

Lonely bear, ebullient mouse

"A Visitor for Bear" has all the above elements — great timing, winsome illustrations and an idea, or metaphor, at its heart: Someone's strength may also be their greatest weakness, and everyone needs a friend.

It's the story of a neatnik bear who lives in a cottage in the woods. It's a lovely home, but only Bear knows it; there's a "NO VISITORS ALLOWED" sign on the door. Bear has a distinct distaste for surprises. One day a dapper little mouse shows up, offering friendship and slowly wearing down the lonely old bear's defenses in a hilarious series of surprise encounters.

Mouse is "the thing that won't go away," Becker says. "Bear is fastidious, pompous, grouchy. Mouse is ebullient and wry. He just wants to be around Bear; let's have a fire, let's have tea, let's open things up!"

In part, Becker says, it's a "peekaboo" book. The bear thinks he's banished the mouse, the mouse pops back up, with a "this is the house that Jack built" kind of rhythm and a happy ending. Mouse is the antidote to Bear's worst impulses — something all humans, kids and grown-ups alike, long for.

The book is a happy ending, and a beginning, for Becker, too. Her publisher has planned a series of five "Bear" books in the early reader format (more like a read-alone book, less like a picture book). They will include Denton's delightful illustrations. The first, "Birthday for Bear," will be published in September.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at www.king.org/community/bookdrive.aspx

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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