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Peter Brown on Writing Fred Gets Dressed

As both a writer and an illustrator, my stories come about in all kinds of ways. Some ideas begin as a little doodle on a paper napkin. Other ideas begin as words I type on my phone. Some ideas turn into funny stories, like Flight of the Dodo, about a penguin who builds a hot air balloon so he can finally experience flight. Other stories are quieter, like The Curious Garden, about a boy who tries to brighten his gray, dreary city by growing gardens. From Chowder to Children Make Terrible Pets to My Teacher is a monster! (No, I am not.), all my story ideas turned into picture books written with very few words. But then I began developing a story about a robot learning to survive in the wilderness, and it just wouldn’t fit into a picture book format. Eventually, that idea became my first novel for children, The Wild Robot, which was followed by a sequel, The Wild Robot Escapes. I’m now working on the third book in the series, The Wild Robot Protects.

After creating numerous picture books and novels, and even writing a screenplay, I feel free to develop almost any story that captures my imagination. However, I’ve got to be selective with the projects I pursue. Creating a children’s book is a slow process. I have tons of ideas, and there simply isn’t time to develop each one. If I’m going to spend months (or years!) creating a book, the idea has to be really special.

And that brings me to my newest picture book, Fred Gets Dressed, which was inspired by a special experience I had as a boy. One day, when I was 5 years old, my mother found me playing with her makeup. I didn’t know what I was doing, of course, and bright colors were smeared across my face. My mother’s reaction speaks volumes about her. She sat with me and cleaned my face, and then she showed me how to put on makeup, and we had a great time trying on makeup, together. On separate occasions, I played with her clothing and her jewelry, and I tried walking in her high-heeled shoes. It’s perfectly normal for a child to experiment like that, but not every parent would respond as my mother did. In each of those instances, she responded with the same playfulness and love and open-mindedness that she always showed me. And those sweet moments were the inspiration for Fred Gets Dressed.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I should make a book about a boy dressing up like his mom. But then I had a conversation that convinced me to go for it. While visiting an elementary school, I had lunch with a group of students who really loved reading. One of them asked me what I was working on, and I described my ideas for a picture book about a boy exploring his parents’ closet and dressing up in his mom’s things. The students were absolutely enthralled. We then had a fascinating conversation about families and the differences between moms and dads. Finally, I asked the group if they thought I should go through with making this book. The answer was a resounding “YES!” And that’s when I knew I had to make Fred Gets Dressed.

I wanted the story to reflect my own childhood experiences, but I wanted to be sensitive to any readers who might feel a little different from their peers, and I also wanted to make a story that everyone could enjoy. It was a tall order, but I love a challenge.

Since the story is about a boy getting dressed, it made sense that he would start off undressed. Humor seemed like the perfect tool to win over readers, and the first few pages of the book are full of laughs as we see Fred joyously romping through his home, au naturel. My hope was that a funny beginning would pull readers in, and they’d keep turning the pages even as the story evolved into something unexpected.

And then there was the art. This was a personal and delicate story, and I wanted the illustrations to match. I spent weeks experimenting with digital art until I came up with a style full of warm colors and textures that set the perfect tone.

I agonized over every word, every brushstroke, every little detail, and it paid off. I couldn’t be prouder of how it all turned out. Of course, some people don’t think it’s appropriate to tell a story about a boy dressing up like his mom. That’s okay. Fred Gets Dressed isn’t for them, it’s for anyone who can relate to Fred and his loving family, people like those students who encouraged me to create this book. I’m so glad I listened to them.