In early November, actor Ethan Hawke promoted his new children’s book on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” About the same time, Donna Warwick was selling copies of her new children’s book to random diners at the St. Louis Bread Co. on New Ballas Road.
Such is the glamorous life of the novice author. Warwick, a St. Louis native, hawks “There’s a Mouse on My Head!” whenever an opportunity presents itself. That included the recent Jewish Book Festival, where Warwick and her illustrator, Dayne Sislen, spoke to a group of 70.
“They treated us like we were celebrities,” Warwick said.
She may not be as recognizable as fellow author and festival speaker Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, but Warwick will happily accept any sale of “Mouse!” Naturally, it’s available on Amazon.com (with a solid five-star rating) and other online booksellers. Nevertheless, for an author of books for children, it’s a jungle out there.
“Sometimes it feels like we have this little lemonade stand,” she said.
Warwick began her journey into the world of children’s books when she attended a critique session held by the Association of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
“Donna brought a poem to read,” Sislen said. “And I said, ‘I really like this, I think it could be a picture book.’ ”
Thus, a collaboration, partnership and friendship was born.
“Mouse!” is the story of a special relationship between a grandparent and a grandchild. The grandmother is the protagonist. She’s a caring caregiver, a tough but cagey disciplinarian. The grandchild is the antagonist. He’s a clever kid who has no intention of eating his peas but has no such issues with pie.
A stuffed mouse comes to life, and a wisecracking sister enters the picture. High jinks ensue, and lessons are learned.
“I had a really fabulous grandma who lived with us from the time I was 5 until I was 14,” Warwick said. “I wanted to write about the special bond between a grandparent and a grandchild, and I left it open in the story as to who grandma was — was it a guardian, a sleepover — you don’t really know the actual relationship. If you have a grandparent in your life who’s special, this is the book or you.”
Warwick has a fertile imagination but she learned early on that a whimsical poem does not immediately reveal a full book. The first step in a series of rewrites and critiques was to flesh out the story.
“Initially, it didn’t have what they call a story arc,” Warwick said. “They said it needs an exciting scene, so we created a chase scene, where the mouse goes through an obstacle course of jumping on a trampoline, through a cheese hole and dribbling peas.”
This is the fantasy world of the children’s book author: to dream up implausible scenarios that are perfectly acceptable to a 5-year-old.
In the formative stage, Warwick and Sislen listened to critiques from other aspiring and published authors. Of course, they also got feedback from a tougher audience: kindergartners. The reviews were positive, and the pair were off to the races.
Parents, grandparents and kids who have read the book seem to love “Mouse!” So far, though, the pea-eating rodent and his human family have not exactly financed a limo lifestyle for Warwick and Sislen. Are they even running in the black? The duo laughed at the question.
“It will be years before we recover our labor costs,” Sislen said. “We haven’t even covered printing yet. With print on demand, if you want books to sell, you have to print them first.”
“Mouse!” is a self-published book, which gave the author and illustrator carte blanche on creative freedom. But self-publishing is a double-edge sword. It’s rare that a big publishing house will touch a book that surfaces organically. That means it’s up to Warwick and Sislen to create awareness of, promote and sell the book.
There are school visits, possible partnerships with nonprofit agencies and deals with local bookstores. It’s a daunting task, and glitches are inevitable. Like the speaking gig at the Jewish Book Festival, when the Square Credit Card Reader on Sislen’s smartphone quit working.
One would assume Dr. Seuss probably experienced some rookie problems, too.
Warwick and Sislen say they’d collaborate again if they ever broke even on “Mouse!” That could be a while.
“It takes me five or six months to illustrate a book,” said Sislen, who put most of her other paying design projects on hold during the completion of “Mouse!”
“We kept our sense of humor and our friendship,” Sislen said. “We actually work together quite well in a lot of ways but, so far, maybe not making money.”
How do you make money self-publishing? Volume. For every hardbound copy sold on Amazon for $14.99, the profit is a whopping $1.87. It’s about the same in the few remaining brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Still, Warwick and Sislen made an excellent choice in the color scheme of the book.
“At the Jewish Book Festival bookstore, they sold quite well, especially for Hanukkah gifts,” Sislen said. “It may be because the color of the cover is blue and white.”
“There’s a Mouse on My Head” is available locally at Imagination Toys, 9737 Clayton Road in Clayton; Webster Groves Bookshop, 100 W. Lockwood Avenue in Webster Groves; and Sound Mind Café, 662 N. New Ballas Road in Creve Coeur.