In the realm of children’s literature, there exists a long tradition of wild but friendly creatures making themselves comfortable in the homes of children. There’s Bernard Waber’s beloved Lyle the Crocodile series, in which Lyle is invited to live in the Victorian brownstone that is the Primm family’s home. Sophie’s afternoon tea with her mother is interrupted by the title character in Judith Kerr’s perennial favorite, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. And the hungry lion who pays a call to Pierre’s house in Maurice Sendak’s classic four-volume Nutshell Library just waltzes right in. Roof Octopus, the debut picture book of East Tennessee native Lucy Branam, takes this tradition to new heights, so to speak. A young girl named Nora wakes up to find an octopus on the roof of her apartment building, much to everyone’s confusion.
While the adults around Nora try to determine if the Coast Guard should be called, Nora merely smiles and waves at the octopus. After deciding to ignore it in the hopes it will disappear, Nora’s community discovers that the octopus is handy to have around. The creature’s long tentacles, quite neighborly in nature, walk the neighborhood dogs, assist the mailman in delivering mail, pull weeds from flower boxes, and more. Just after convincing the octopus to attend her school’s show-and-tell, Nora wakes up to discover it has disappeared. But her new cephalopod friend has a surprise up its (many) sleeves for Nora.
Branam, who was born and raised in Jacksboro, Tennessee, and studied creative writing and graphic design at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email.
Chapter 16: How and when did this notion of an octopus on a roof come to you?
Lucy Branam: I actually don’t remember where the initial idea came from. I remember that I started it as a short story (that I’ve yet to finish), and around the same time I was thinking that I ought to try to do another picture book. So, I went with the somewhat-already formed idea of an octopus on a roof.
Chapter 16: Can you talk about your path to publication and how your book found its way to Sleeping Bear Press?
Branam: In September 2015, I attended the fall conference of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators in Franklin, Tennessee. I signed up to be matched with either an editor, an agent, or author and have that person take a look at something I’d written. I was paired with Sarah Miller (now Rockett), an editor at Sleeping Bear Press. I’d sent Roof Octopus to her, and she suggested that I make some changes to it and send it back to her. I did, and I got the news that Sleeping Bear Press wanted to sign it in January 2016.
Chapter 16: What was it like for you to see Rogério Coelho’s illustrations for your story, especially as an artist yourself?
Branam: I am very impressed and mesmerized by his illustrations for my book. I enjoyed seeing the artwork at different stages in the process. I saw the full-color cover first. Then I saw all the interior illustrations in grayscale. Then I started seeing some of the interior artwork in color, and then, ta-da! It was all finished and amazing looking! Despite being somewhat of an artist myself, I am no seasoned illustrator, so I was very glad to be matched with someone so talented.
Chapter 16: Have you had a chance to share this story with children in school visits or at book festivals and, if so, what has been their response?
Branam: I’ve gotten to read it at a couple of events so far. A lot of the kids seem to enjoy it, and that makes me feel good.
Chapter 16: You refer to yourself in your bio as a “young writer.” Who are some authors, whether children’s-book authors or not, who inspire you as you build your career?
Branam: I really enjoy the work of Kate DiCamillo. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame is another favorite of mine. Also, Agatha Christie and Neil Gaiman. (I might be a bit of an Anglophile!)
Chapter 16: What’s next for you?
Branam: I’ve been working on some other picture books. I hope to have something under contract in the near-ish future. I’m also playing around with an early chapter-book series idea.
Julie Danielson, a former school librarian, blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and writes about picture books for Kirkus Reviews, BookPage, and the Horn Book. Her first book, Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, was published in 2014.