Local Philadelphia author Edmund Weisberg wears a lot of hats: science writer, bioethicist, nutritionist, editor, social activist — and children’s book author. In 2016, Weisberg realized a dream. After raising $7,600 through a Kickstarter campaign, he published his manuscript for the children’s book While You’re at School, which he had written 16 years earlier. It is a beautiful book in rhymed verse, which provides a series of quirky responses to a question raised by a little boy: “What do you do while I’m at school, Mom?”
The book is a sensitive and empathetic story of what an eclectic array of parents and caregivers do, including running a bakery, driving a tractor and more. It’s inclusive to LGBT families as well:
Your two daddies may work at the same job,
Which is confusing, since they’re both named Bob.
It’s also silly and playful, but don’t take my word for it — my 4-year-old makes me read it to her over and over again. She loves the text, which she has practically memorized, as well as the quirky, colorful illustrations. This is a book you can return to repeatedly, as it has story, humor and instructive — but not dully didactic — lessons about love and work. Read it while your kids are at school, and marvel at the rich language and engaging tales. Read it again when they come home, and laugh together.
Given how beloved this book is in my home, I was delighted to have this opportunity to interview the author.
LG: Tell me about how the book “While You’re at School” got started. Did a line come to you? Was it an easy book to write? Did you do a lot of editing?
EW: I had written maybe one or two unpublished picture books before the idea for “While You’re at School” occurred to me. So the mental stage was set in that I had primed myself to mine my childhood or ponder topics that I thought could be useful and entertaining for kids. Also, through several years, my mother’s recounting of my inquisitiveness, in particular, the time I returned home from school and asked her what she did all day, became essential family lore. In mulling over this anecdote, I felt sure that the experience was near universal. So “While You’re at School” sprang from an autobiographical kernel. It represented to me a way to activate kids’ imaginations while easing any separation anxiety they might be feeling in response to first-time or early schooling.
“Easy” isn’t a word that comes to mind. I enjoyed writing it, though. I did plenty of revising over the course of a decade plus, in response to advice in workshops, and wrote a narrative, non-rhyming version with a twin brother-sister tandem as the protagonists. Every reader preferred the rhyming version. Once I settled on that idea, I still had to pare it down for a reasonable book length and hone the language. I tried to squeeze a couplet about homeschooling into a previous version with an eye toward inclusivity, but it didn’t make sense in terms of the book’s conceit.
LG: Tell me about the beautiful illustrations. Is this how you envisioned the story when you wrote it? What is your favorite illustration?
EW: They are beautiful, aren’t they? I met Loel Barr in the mid-1990s when she shared studio space with a few other artists near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. In 2001, I asked her to provide a sample illustration for what would become “While You’re at School.” The result was an edgy, clever accompaniment to the couplet:
Your mom might spend all day picking her nose,
And your dad, the same, but using his toes.
I was pretty much wedded to the idea of working with Loel at that point, so it only seems right to call this one my favorite illustration. But, honestly, I’m not sure that I have a true favorite. I love the cover and enjoyed our back-and-forth over what was feasible to depict, choosing to include various scenarios pictured in the book and some that are just alluded to in the text but not accompanied by illustrations.
LG: It’s a very inclusive book — a book that is sensitive to various races, classes and sexual orientations. How conscious were you of these issues in writing the book? Did the story go through many changes?
EW: Very conscious, and in line with my personal politics. From the start, one of my main goals was to be inclusive, primarily in terms of the myriad possibilities for family arrangements and who might be serving as a guardian for young readers. The story did undergo several drafts, of varying lengths; most were in the style of the final draft.
LG: You write medical books, essays and limericks — and now, a children’s book. Do you find one genre more challenging than another?
EW: They’re all fraught with their own challenges. The type of mental energy that goes into them varies, of course. But each has its own structure, and both left- and right-brain activity is exercised in all cases, I think.
LG: Do you have any idiosyncratic writer’s rituals you go through before you sit down?
EW: I find a healthy dose of procrastination always helps. This can include throwing myself a little dance party before I put myself in front of the screen, then a few computer card games and internet surfing once I sit down. When I travel, I prefer the old school approach — pen and paper, no iPad, tablet or laptop.
LG: What is your favorite children’s book?
EW: It would probably be unfair not to mention Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” since I insisted that my parents read that to me on a nightly basis until I went off to college. I might be off on the timing somewhat. I also enjoyed Richard Scarry’s books as well as Shel Silverstein’s. Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” and Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” were later childhood favorites that should resonate for adults too. This might be stretching the bounds of the question, given that I think the TV version preceded the companion book, but I’m pretty partial to Marlo Thomas’ “Free to Be You and Me” too. That was a beautiful and uplifting model for inclusivity, understanding and acceptance of oneself and others.
LG: Would you recommend Kickstarter?
EW: Yes! Just make sure that you’ve done your homework, prepared your likely community of backers and set a realistic goal.
LG: Do you regret not launching the campaign earlier?
EW: Not at all. It didn’t really occur to me before I tried it in 2015. Online crowdsourcing had probably just progressed from its fledgling stage at that point, showing some genuinely impressive results, especially in the area of supporting individuals or families struck by tragedy. The realization that we were living in a new world of fundraising prompted me to investigate Kickstarter, Go Fund Me and other crowdfunding platforms.
LG: Any advice for writers out there with manuscripts? Has self-publishing been a good experience?
EW: Self-publishing is a ton of work, but it has been a good experience, and one that I’m considering for other projects that are in various stages right now. For writers using illustrations, particularly in children’s picture books, I recommend studying similar picture books to the one you intend to produce and choose the dimensions (width and length) based on those, but after selecting a print-on-demand publisher and confirming the dimensions that they offer. Also, opt for printing in hardcover. It’s more expensive, but it’s the best way to get libraries and bookstores to consider carrying your work.
LG: What has been most challenging?
EW: Learning how much is involved in the process, and proceeding anyway. There are so many steps after the creative work is completed. Choosing the right print-on-demand platform is just one of the many decisions that are necessary and key to getting your book listed on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and powells.com. Learning how to get your book into brick-and-mortar stores and libraries is also one of the challenges once your book has been published.
Edmund Weisberg obtained master of science and master of bioethics degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. He has several years of experience in medical writing and editing, including roles as managing editor and contributing author for three dermatology textbooks, with a fourth on the way. His career has included work with Greenpeace, the International Clinical Epidemiology Network, the American Association for Cancer Research and the University of Pennsylvania. His essays have been published in the Rutgers Journal of Bioethics, Voices in Bioethics and Impakter Magazine. “While You’re at School” is his first book for children. It is available through amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and powells.com, and can be purchased at the Penn Book Center, Book Culture on Broadway and the Towne Book Center and Café.