Denise Dowling Mortensen is the award-winning author of Good Night Engines, Wake Up Engines, a combination flip book of Good Night Engines/Wake Up Engines, Ohio Thunder, and Bug Patrol, all published by Clarion Books/HMH. When she is not writing, she works as a special education assistant and teaches writing and knitting to elementary students after school. She also mentors aspiring children’s book authors as a council member for the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature. She is the mother of five children and lives in New Jersey.
For what age audience do you write?
I write rhyming picture books for children ages 2-8. I recently submitted a longer picture book for older children that took me almost ten years (on and off) to write. It’s an historical fiction piece, which is way different than anything I’ve ever done before. It’s about my adopted sister’s journey from Vietnam to the United States as a boat person in the 1980s. It follows her harrowing journey, five-year separation and ultimate reunion with her mother. It took me forever to write because, as a writer of short verse, I labor over every single word. I also struggled to find just the right framework for the story and wrote at least ten different versions before I came up with the right one. I’m hoping to hear some good news about it very soon.
Henry: Wow. You are really bending some PB traditions. Good for you!
Tell us about your latest book.
My latest book came out in 2013. It’s called Bug Patrol (Clarion/HMH), and it’s illustrated by Cece Bell, who in my mind is one of the funniest illustrators out there. It follows Captain Bob, an adorable police officer, who keeps the peace and rescues bugs as he drives through town in his bug mobile. All of the incidents involve bugs acting in ways that are all-too-familiar to humans: beetles fighting over parking spaces at the mall, crickets keeping the neighbors up too late, ants without manners overindulging on food. Its catchy refrain, “Wee-o, Wee-o, Wee-o, Woo, Bug Mobile coming through,” makes a really fun book to read aloud, especially to groups.
I was inspired to write about bugs because I’m actually terrified of them. My brothers used to chase me around the house and torment me with spiders and other creepy crawlers when I was a little girl. As an adult, I find that bugs seem to gravitate towards me. I’m always the one at a party who will have a beetle crawl up my leg or a spider land in my hair. Once, when I was nine months pregnant, a teenage cashier in the supermarket informed me that I had a cicada sitting on my collar. I think he is probably scarred for life after witnessing my crazy, preggo lady chicken dance. So I wrote Bug Patrol because wanted to avenge this fear of bugs and write a children’s book that would present bugs in a whimsical, totally non-neurotic way.
Henry: I can totally see ants in a traffic jam! And I think you just gave us another picture book idea: Preggo Lady Chicken Dance! Bugs make great subjects for picture books. I recently drafted one about a snoring ladybug.
Read the rest of this interview at Henry’s blog on KidLit, Fantasy & Science Fiction.