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Karen Hesse.

The Arts

Ode to a thumbsucker

Award-winning author Karen Hesse aims for younger readers with her newest book, ‘My Thumb’

“My Thumb,” written by Karen Hesse and illustrated by Rich Deas, is published by Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan.

BRATTLEBORO—Award-winning author Karen Hesse published a new book this summer, adding to her ever-expanding collection of literature for children and young adults.

Of all Hesse’s books, “My Thumb” is intended for the youngest audience, ages two to four. Hesse has written other picture books, but she said those are for older children.

“My Thumb” is a first-person account of a determined little red-haired girl who insists upon sucking her thumb, regardless of what challenges it may bring, such as eating a plum and playing a drum — or anyone’s opinions about it.

“It’s like there is some kind of glue,/that no one, nothing, can undo,” the narrator says in the book.

A reader may wonder, is “My Thumb” autobiographical?

No, Hesse does not admit to a childhood of thumb-sucking.

“Usually, the narrator is me,” Hesse told The Commons, “but this book is definitely [inspired by] my great-nephew, Asher."

“My Thumb” began as a poem about the word “incessant,” Hesse said.

Her “dear friend in Minnesota is a librarian and she chooses a word of the day,” then sends the word to Hesse to use as a writing prompt.

Hesse usually finds an image representing the word. Then, she puts the image at the top of her paper and begins writing in her journal. She usually comes up with a poem.

“I found a picture of my great-nephew sucking his thumb” Hesse said.

“Asher was an incessant thumb-sucker. He would not take it out, regardless of what his parents did,” Hesse said.

“My Thumb” is very close to the poem, Hesse said.

A few lines got moved; very few were removed. In the poem, the narrator’s thumb “tastes of cork and cheese fondue;” in the book, the thumb has a “scent of milk and honeydew."

Hesse’s poem made the leap from her journal to a picture book at the suggestion of her writers’ group. She, Eileen Christelow, Liza Ketchum, and Wendy Watson have been writing together since 1984.

When Hesse read the poem to her group, the response was, “That should be a picture book!"

Although Hesse did not choose the illustrator — she said that is very rare in the publishing world — she thinks Rich Deas “did a totally delightful job."

She mentioned the “little visual jokes” in the pictures and how important it is for children’s books to have them. While the grown-ups and older kids are focusing on the words, when the little ones are being read to, “they’re focusing on the pictures,” Hesse said.

Because of the sometimes lengthy process of writing and publishing a book — in this case, about four years — Asher had time to grow up between inspiring the book and reading it.

“He’s seven now, and he loves the book,” Hesse said.

But he’s “on the fence” about bringing the book to school for show-and-tell, Hesse said. Although Hesse had Asher in mind when she wrote it, she gave no indication of the subject’s gender. Deas drew the narrator as a little girl.

“He doesn’t feel confident [his classmates] will believe it’s really about him,” Hesse said, but, because the school year is still fresh, Asher still has time to change his mind and bring “My Thumb” to school.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #374 (Wednesday, September 14, 2016). This story appeared on page B1.

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