Playborhood Interview with Linda Lodding, author of “The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister”

Written by Linda Lodding, illustrated by Suzanne Beaky

The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister, available for the first time this week, is a great new children’s book about children’s play. Ernestine is scheduled to the max, and she’s not enjoying her life that much. After seeing her next-door neighbor, Hugo, play with abandon in his yard every day, she decides to blow off some of her activities in favor of play. So, she goes to the local park with her nanny, and she plays with Hugo, too.

As I’ve written recently, I’m very concerned about the widespread censorship of play in books, TV shows, and movies aimed at young kids (9 and below). Ernestine is one of my favorite new books in this genre.

Here I present a fascinating interview with the author, Linda Lodding. She provides some great insights into the backstory of the book, as well as how it might contribute to the play movement.

Q: On your web site you note that you didn’t play a lot during your childhood.  Why do you consider play so important now that you would write a children’s book encouraging play?

I don’t remember a play-filled childhood in the sense of spending carefree days outside in nature. Thinking back as to why that might have been, I can point to two reasons. Firstly, since my parents grew-up in the New York City, I don’t think they knew how to offer a nature-filled childhood to my sister and me. Secondly, when I was about five, we moved to a house in the wilds of New Jersey, surrounded by dense forest, situated on what was once an Indian reservation. The woods seemed frightening. Grizzly things with fangs, and child-eating witches with gnarly fingers lived in the woods!  And, of course, so did the tomahawk-wielding Indians whose land we were living upon. My mother tried to coax me outside to play, (she even took her ironing board outside so that she could iron while I was outside) but I was happier inside with my Barbies. But I did do a lot of imaginative “pretend” play – alone and with friends.

I never set out to write a book encouraging play per se, but was inspired by my own family’s ludicrously funny situation. Like many parents, I set out to enroll my child in as many classes as possible so that she’d quickly find her passion and excel.  Of course my daughter’s schedule wasn’t nearly as exaggerated as poor Ernestine’s, but she was falling asleep in her “Ballet for Tots” class and had little energy for her African drumming class. But I also recognized that play time was fundamental to her growth and we eventually pulled back on activities.

Q: In a previous conversation you told me that you added the nanny character in a later revision.  What did you have Ernestine doing alone before you added the nanny?  How do you think the nanny changes the central message of the story?

Like all books, The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister went through many revisions. In earlier drafts of the book, I had Ernestine running away after school — breaking free from the demands of her after-school schedule to experience play. There was a lot of interest in the book from large publishing houses, but a few editors were concerned that this scene could be perceived as reckless. It’s every parent’s nightmare to lose their child and a few editors were concerned that Ernestine’s actions would alarm to parents. So, I later introduced the character of Nanny O’Dear to allay any potential unease with Ernestine being alone. The added bonus of having Nanny in the book is that she is also a play companion for Ernestine – together they share the joy of play. There’s a lot to be said for adults also participating in play. I don’t think adding Nanny changed the central message of the story which is, ultimately, to let children experience the joy of play.

Q: Why are there so few children’s books depicting children playing outside?  Why are there practically none that depict children playing with no adults directly supervising them?

There are books depicting children playing outside, but it’s hard to think of contemporary picture books where children are depicted as playing outside unsupervised. I think this is a direct result of societal fears for our children’s safety. We are bombarded with stories of pedophiles and missing children and these stories send us a chilling reminder that we must be vigilant for our child’s safety or else…As a parent, I can appreciate that it’s a thin line to walk between protecting our children from genuine threats and giving them challenging opportunities in which to learn and grow.

I’m aware, however, of our need to bring in some common sense into this dialogue and blogs and organizations such as yours, 50 Dangerous Things, Re-Thinking Childhood and Free-Range Kids are asking parents to question if our eagerness to be over-protective is detrimental to our children’s maturation process. My focus in The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister was on allowing children to experience unstructured play, whether supervised or not.

But back to your question. While I’m not an editor and don’t make acquisition decisions for publishing houses, my take on the reluctance of depicting unsupervised play in picture books is that since adults are the primary picture book buyers, children’s book publishers are leery of putting stories out there where the child could be perceived as being in danger and thereby alienating book buyers. Naturally, publishing is a business and in order to protect their investment in a book, publishers need to make sure that the book will have a wide-enough appeal.

Interestingly, in older fiction (Easy Readers, Middle Grade and beyond) you can find an abundance of stories where children are playing and exploring unsupervised. I do think that children are drawn to stories where the protagonist  is given freedoms that today’s children don’t generally experience — characters that are orphans, or are somehow left to fend for themselves in an adult world. One of my favorites growing up was From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, where a brother and sisters run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This wouldn’t be the same story if their mother was in tow. And I do think that the hugely popular Magic Treehouse series partially owes it’s kid-appeal to the fact that the kids are on their own solving mysteries. Perhaps this is a way for children to experience freedoms that they haven’t been allowed. But in picture books, you won’t see this kind of characterization – unless they’re talking animals.  Pigs and rabbits are  allowed to take some risks!

Q: You told me that you weren’t very aware of the play movement before you wrote this book.  How do you think that it can contribute to the play movement?

While I was aware of the over-scheduled child phenomenon, I was less aware of the pro-play movement. It wasn’t until  The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister  was accepted for publication, nearly two years ago, that I started to research the benefits of play. Articles such as “The Virtues of Play” (Wired Science) and “Want your kids to get into college? Let them play!” (CNN) dramatically focus the debate not only for parents but also for students, academicians, and policy experts.

Research shows that children can greatly benefit from unstructured playtime — imagination flourishes, emotional maturity develops, and certain life skills are honed. I learned that play is essential to physical, intellectual and social development and contributes to healthier and happier children. The bottom line is that children who play do better in school and are more likely to become successful adults.  The irony is, if our child could take a class that guaranteed that sort of outcome, I think we’d all enroll our kids immediately!

While there are many wonderful organizations that are crusading to put play back into children’s lives and recess back into schools, I’ve yet to come across a picture book that squarely addresses this issue. Hopefully, through the book’s humor, parents will be able to see the light-hearted side of this subject and, if they aren’t already doing so, just may decide to get their kids playing.  If my book gets kids and parents laughing and playing, then maybe I can make a small contribution to this important movement.

Q: Let’s say a real-life Ernestine reads this book.  Ideally, how would she react?

Ernestine is an exaggerated character, but I don’t think she’s too far off from what some children experience. There are many children who cope beautifully with full-schedules and those kids probably won’t recognize themselves in Ernestine but will enjoy the book on another level. But I also think there are many Ernsts and Ernestines out there who are wishing for time to just be — not to perform, to train, to compete — but just to play. And those young readers may feel sympathetic to Ernestine.  If the book starts a family dialogue then that’s a great bonus. But as a writer, my aim is also to entertain and tell a fun story.

Q: In the Netherlands, where you live now, you told me that children have more freedom than they do in the US.  Can you characterize the difference?

When we moved to The Netherlands nearly four years ago, I remember being shocked to see children as young as first grade riding their bike to school alone (and without a helmet). Kids were also congregating in the parks and playground or walking their dog without parental oversight. This was such a breath of fresh air. We moved to Holland from Vienna where we lived in the center of the city and this kind of child-friendly, carefree attitude didn’t exist.

I think the Dutch parenting style is a lot more laissez faire than in the US. This could be attributed to the country just being so much smaller — and therefore, safer — than the US. That’s not to say that they haven’t had their share of child-snatching stories, but they seem to be more resistant to changing their mode of parenting in the face of these news stories.  In fact, a recent British-based study found that Dutch children were the happiest in Europe and with the highest sense of well-being in the Western World. And I think the Dutch parents are pretty happy too. They seem to be caring and sensible without being neurotic. But this also has a lot to do with their social system and small village atmosphere which is pervasive.

Q: You have a 13-year-old daughter.  What’s her childhood been like, in terms of free play versus structured activities?

I wish I could say that I’ve been a free-range parent, but I’ve been more like a Mrs. Buckmeister meets Mary Poppins. My daughter was involved in a lot of after-school activities but, at about the age of 7, I started to pull her out of activities and let her focus on just a few activities. Nowadays, her academic year is so hectic  (as are her interests in the arts) that we opt for an activity-less summer. We visit family in the US and then spend time in our summer house in Sweden where the days are long, lazy and kids also run about freely.

Q: What does she think of the book?  If she were writing its second half, how would it be different?

Well, I just asked Maja and she said “I think it’s a really great book! It really shows how today’s kids don’t have time to play!”  Then again, she’s one of my  biggest supporters (and a pretty good editor too!) so her answer isn’t too surprising.

As for the ending, I do remember working on this with her input. One of the original endings had Ernestine opting out of all her structured activities in favor of only play. But after some debate, we decided that this wasn’t realistic. Today’s kids do have after school activities and they benefit from many of these classes so it didn’t seem conceivable that the Buckmeister, being high-flyers themselves, would agree to a total back-to-play schedule for their daughter. Hopefully the ending as it is now will seem more likely to resonate with readers.

Q: On your web site, you mention that you have a neighborhood hangout in your small Netherlands town.  How often do you go there, and when you do, what’s the probability you’ll run into someone you’ll chat with?  Are you aware how lucky you are to have a place like that in your life?  99% of Americans don’t and have to resort to a virtual hangout like Facebook…

I’m originally from New York City so moving to our small village of Wassenaar (with one main shopping street and one windmill) was a leap of faith for me. I wasn’t sure how I would adapt. But what I found was a welcoming community (albeit mostly of expats) where we would inevitably see each other at the grocery store, biking in the neighborhood and shopping on our main street. Many of us meet for coffee or lunch at the local Bagel Alley where, I’d say, I’m 98% certain to run into someone I know. What’s nice is that Bagel Alley (and Langstraat) is also the hang out for the kids as well so there is the chance of inter-generational mingling.

Having this community feel also gives parents a sense of security when it comes to letting our children bike to friends’ houses or shop alone – something that the anonymity of a big city just doesn’t give. I feel very fortunate to experience this kind of village life.

Q: Do you have plans to write any other children’s books with the play theme?  How do you envision that they may be different?  Will the kids have more freedom?

The next book that I have coming out is called Hold That Thought, Milton! (from Gullane Children’s Book, London) and this book explores the value of listening to our children and placing importance to what they have to say. But the book isn’t heavy-handed and this message is packaged in a very funny, and quirky, way.

My third book, Oskar’s Perfect Present, also coming out with Gullane, is set in turn-of-the-century Vienna and follows young Oskar as he searches (alone and unsupervised!) the old town of Vienna for a perfect gift for his mother (while meeting all the famous historical figures of the day such as Gustav Klimt and Johann Strauss). Of course, since this book is placed in a historical context, this gave me more freedoms to have Oskar wander Vienna alone.

So while I don’t have any immediate plans for another book that is specifically play-focused, I’m always thinking up the next story idea and I’m sure there is more on that subject that can be said. So stay tuned…

The interview can be found online.

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