About the Book
Nobody knows where an idea for a story is going to come from.
When my daughter was about two, I spent a week in Cambridge, alone in the apartment of a friend. This was the first time I had been away from my daughter, Monika, and I both loved the freedom and missed her very much.
Sometime about the middle of my stay, I thought up a poem for Monika and sent it to her. The poem was Ten, Nine, Eight.
I came home, life went on, and I found I had run out of ideas for books. Maybe I even went to Cambridge in the first place because I had run out of ideas; I can't remember. Monika and I went down to New York to see my editors at Greenwillow, Susan Hirschman and Libby Shub. We brain stormed about various possibilities for stories, and then somehow the poem I had written to Monika came up. Susan and Libby read it and they both liked it. Could I make it into a book? I talked it over with Monika and with my husband. It seemed sort of odd: I had made this for her, not as a book. Monika was quite happy for it to become a book. So was my husband. I thought maybe I could make it into a book.
The only word I changed from the original was "red nightgown" to "yellow gown". The rug was already red, and the nightgown looked better yellow.
When I made the characters, I knew it would be a Dad and his daughter, since I had made the poem knowing my husband would read it to her. But I didn't want to make it to look exactly like Monika and her dad. That summer I was part of a coop nursery group, and one of our jobs was to paint the rooms. I ended up doing it one night with a couple of friends who are African-American, and who have three children instead of one. So we three adults were painting the walls a sort of mustard yellow, and the four children were playing.
Paint and small children are not a mix that encourages either lack of curiosity on the part of the children or peace of mind on the part of the parents. One of the children was riding a tricycle in apparently random paths that came closer and closer to the can of yellow paint. Another child was crawling closer and closer to the can of yellow paint. I was getting very very nervous. I was wondering if I should take them all for a walk, or put up a barrier, or maybe yell at them.
The dad looked over and said to the children, "Did I ever tell you the story about the princess and the deep well full of honey, and how the princess's brother saved her from destruction?" No, they didn't remember that he had ever told them that story.
So he sat the children down and told them a story, while the two of us painted and the children were completely absorbed. When the story was over, the children went off, away from the pot of honey-mustard, and we painted for another hour or so until the walls were done. I was in awe.
So the dad and his daughter became African-American, as a tribute and thanks to George Langford. When I took the finished book down to New York, the editors told me I had most likely cut my audience by at least a half, with the child being a girl and the family African-American. I had hoped it would have to opposite result: that so many books were already about white children and families, this would be a way to begin to rectify the imbalance and enable white readers to identify with black. This seems to have become the case: the book has sold well to both white and black, and all shades in between.
One day a friend told me that her (white) little boy had sat in her lap the whole way through a reading of Ten, Nine, Eight, had put his little white feet on the page with the ten small, brown toes, and, when the book was done and she had just said, "One small girl all ready for bed," her son had said, "Just like me!" and curled up and gone to sleep. That story has made me happy.