A Pen & Oink interview with Rebecca Emberley, in which she discusses birds and spiders

Indie Picture Books That Are Awesome / Interviews



Spreads from The Itsy Bitsy Spider, by Rebecca and Ed Emberley, forthcoming from Two Little Birds. All images courtesy Rebecca Emberley.

I love to champion great independent picture books. If only there were more of them! I was, therefore, delighted to see Rebecca Emberley‘s Kickstarter campaign. She’s starting a small press called Two Little Birds; their first title will be The Itsy Bitsy Spider, a book/ebook/music extravaganza.



THE DIRT ON: Rebecca Emberley

Hometown: Ipswich, Massachusetts; have lived lots of other places.
Now lives in: Kittery, Maine.
Tools of the trade: Paper, scissors and Freehand MX.
Artistic influences: Jackson Pollock, Matisse, Charley Harper, too many to list.
Caffeine of choice: Non-caffeinated…
Favorite children’s book: Little Blue and Little Yellow by Leo Lionni.
Favorite thing to read: Everything, I am a voracious reader.
YouTube video you can’t stop watching: Landfill Harmonic.
Dog or Cat: Cats, Tula and Oscar Wilde. Tula will only drink water from a fat stemmed martini glass.

You’ve just founded an independent children’s press called Two Little Birds. Tell us about how you got started.

I met my publishing partner, Deirdre Randall, at a songwriters festival where she was performing on the same bill as my daughter. We spoke briefly. Deirdre had purchased her father’s subsidy press a couple of years earlier, and three months later she called me about a freelance illustration job. During meetings for that book, we began talking about the changing face of children’s publishing. She was looking to expand her children’s picture book catalog and the next thing you know we started a company!

Two Little Birds is a “hybrid children’s book imprint.” What does that mean?

We are a hybrid of trade and subsidy, in which both the author/illustrator and the publisher are financially and physically invested in the books we publish. The author owns the books and all the rights. The profits are divided between the two.

Two Little Birds also has a charitable aspect. For every book we sell we will give a book to a child in need. I was inspired by my friend Jennifer Frances, who runs Bess the Book Bus. Working with her, I saw that kids love books and the thrill of owning one inspires them to keep reading.

rebecca-emberley-itsy-bitsy-spider-front-coverDo you plan to partner with her to distribute books?

Jennifer will be our giving partner, at least in the beginning. I will probably do some events with her. If we outgrow what she can handle we’ll work with Reach out and Read and First Book. We are also developing a line of early learning books for her as 5,000 copies of one title may not be the best use of books for her kids.

Last summer I read Blake Mycoskie’s Start Something That Matters. He encourages the idea that you don’t have to be a non-profit to do good things. He preaches keeping your overhead low and thinking in terms of reasonable profit. When looking at the figures from the printing of Itsy Btsy Spider [Two Little Birds’ first book], I saw that it would be possible to give books away and still make a profit if we kept overhead low. So of course I had to do it…

Let’s gaze into the misty future. What’s your vision for Two Little Birds? What will it look like ten years from now?

Happy, healthy little publishing imprint, supporting us by creating high quality creative picture and activity books, one at a time. And busily providing lots more books for kids whrebecca-emberley-pull-quoteo want them but may not have access to them. Hopefully inspiring other people to take a leap and making it easier for people to give back while doing ordinary things.

How has this venture has differed from your experience with traditional publishing?

I have a lot more freedom, and with freedom comes responsibility. Two Little Birds will allow me to create books that might not have a mainstream trade book market appeal, but may be a niche or gift market book. Trade publishers have huge overhead, therefore have to try to attain huge numbers. We won’t have that pressure. I’ll be able to work hands on with some great people who have already started bringing their book ideas to me. We will also be publishing some backlist Ed Emberley books from the 60’s and 70’s. That’s fun for us!

It is a challenge to be taken seriously. That’s why I chose to pre-sell Itsy Bitsy Spider on Kickstarter,  to help prove the business model.

I should add that I won’t stop publishing with the trade and that I love all my editors and publishers. Neal Porter is the editor on our newest book with Roaring Brook Press, Crocodile and Scorpion (2013).


A spread from Crocodile and Scorpion.

Well, it will be a paper book (actually a heavy-duty paper book for little hands) and since I have had the pleasure of working with an amazing children’s app developer, Night & Day Studios (who did Go Away Big Green Monster for Ed), I asked and they agreed to do the interactive e-book as well. We will release the two forms on the same day. There is also a song that you can download. That’s my husband you hear singing on the Kickstarter video.

What’s your collaboration with Night & Day been like?

Night & Day is great to work with. They care about quality kid’s content and have moved very quickly through the ever changing world of kids apps. We will work together to create the Itty Bitty Spider e-book–they license it and pay me a royalty.



Until Spider they have chosen the projects; we have lots of input and they cross promote with us which is great. I begged them to do Itty Bitty Spider. It was short notice, but my files work well for adaptation. They bought the song from us as well which was cool…that’s my daughter Adrian singing as well as writing it.

We love talking about creative process here at Pen & Oink. How did you make the illustrations for Itsy Bitsy Spider?

I cut and tear shapes out of brown kraft paper. I never draw anything. Then they get pasted onto sheets of paper and scanned into the computer. I color them on screen and begin to assemble characters. Sometimes it’s a complete surprise when they emerge; sometimes they look just like I saw them in my head.


An assembled frog king.

I still use Freehand MX and they’ll have to pry that program out of my cold dead hands. I have begun the process of collecting older Macs so I can keep an older OS on hand to operate FH until some geek genius re-creates it…

Sometimes I work with my father, Ed Emberley. We worked together on Itsy Bitsy Spider. Sometimes you can find us wrestling over the mouse laying out pages. Collaboration has proved stimulating for both of us.


Rebecca and Ed Emberley in the studio.

Who creates the songs for your books? That has been a really fun aspect of these last few years. My  daughter Adrian Emberley is a singer-songwriter and she does most of them so far, but my husband Peter Black and I have collaborated on a few and that’s a blast! We are all working on a musical, Beasties on Broadway, of one of my other books, Ten Little Beasties.


You’re part of a superhero clan, Team Emberley, whose mission is to bring great stories and songs to children everywhere! What’s your superhero name and special superpower?

ScissorGirl, snipping her way in the the hearts and minds of children of all ages!

Thanks, Rebecca! We look forward to Two Little Birds’ future offerings. Readers, be sure to check out the Kickstarter page for Two Little Birds! Their fundraising campaign runs until the end of the month.

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