The Backstory: WILLOW AND BUNNY
Today's guest Anitra Rowe Schulte, is here to share her stunning book, WILLOW AND BUNNY (Two Lions, 2023). This book is equal parts gorgeous lyrical language and breathtaking illustrations. Anitra and Caldecott honor artist Christopher Denise partnered for this book and the result is pure magic. Keep reading to learn all about the inspiration behind WILLOW AND BUNNY and for your chance to win a signed copy.
AH: Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind WILLOW AND BUNNY.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
AS: It would be my pleasure! WILLOW AND BUNNY - words by me, illustrations by Caldecott honor artist Christopher Denise - is a picture book about the ways that friends care for and support each other, especially in trying times. The story begins with Bunny, a character seeking a safe place to grow. He finds Willow, who instantly welcomes him. When a storm whips through the wood, Willow provides protection to Bunny and all of the forest’s creatures, leaving the tree forever changed. It is then that Bunny discovers that he, too, has the power to help and support a beloved friend.
AH: This is such a beautifully written and illustrated story. The themes of friendship and compassion are perfect for young children. I can't wait to bring WILLOW AND BUNNY into my classroom to share it with my students.
AH: What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
AS: I wrote WILLOW AND BUNNY quite a few years ago. One day, as I was driving in my family van, the radio reverberated with devastating details of an event happening in our country. My heart felt all of it, but my head couldn’t make sense of it. How does darkness of that magnitude manifest in a world so filled with beauty? When it whips through our communities, directly at us, where can we turn? Who will be with us when we are there? And, what if we are spared but the darkness deeply harms those we love most? The story started as a list of these desperate wonderings, on the back of an endless drug store receipt. It was a toggle between seemingly unanswerable questions and things I knew to be true. Those things, the things in which I believed in unbending ways, evolved to become the characters Willow and Bunny.
AH: What an evolution! It is easy for our minds to wander down dark paths with all that is happening in the world. I love that you found the beauty that does exist and created these characters to show us there is a way through the darkness.
AH: How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now WILLOW AND BUNNY? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
AS: Quite early in the writing process, on that receipt, I had a sense that the darkness was a tornado. This was well-before I realized that what I was scratching down was a story. I also found myself grounding my emotions in things that could be counted on – friendship, loyalty, love. When these ideas moved off of the receipt and into a Word doc, two roles arrived on the page - personifications of who we might be in these trying moments, given our age or role in our world. Sometimes, we are the strong and brave ones. Sometimes, we need protection. With each revision, the setting came more into focus - a natural, vibrant environment that readers would recognize, without it being too close or parallel to something harmful that they might have personally experienced. As I wrote and revised with my own children in mind, it was important to me to care for young readers’ hearts, above all else.
AH: I admire the care and thoughtfulness you put towards the development of this story so that children could find hope and comfort while not having the events of the story hit too close to home. I also completely adore the way in which you personify Willow and build this authentic, emotional relationship between Willow and Bunny.
AH: Did WILLOW AND BUNNY undergo any major changes/revisions from the original version? If so, what led you to make these changes?
AS: While the core of the story was always quite solid, research evolved the narrative in ways that I never would have predicted. The story is fiction, but the characters are living breathing creatures in our world, which have their own patterns of being and unique characteristics. In my research, I learned that bunnies leave their mothers very early. It is unsafe for them to all stay together. It’s also part of growing up. I found this to be an apt metaphor for waves of worry and independence we experience throughout life, as well as an opportunity for foreshadowing and introducing the idea that when we hear a voice inside of us, we can trust it and act on it, especially in scary times. I also learned that Willow trees thrive next to water and are easily propagated. Growing a new willow is as simple as burying a cutting. I was so taken by the notion of Willow’s love being spread widely and how impactful that could be. Research gifted those layers, deepening the story. I cannot imagine WILLOW AND BUNNY without these details.
AH: The research you put into this book parallels the care you took with your approach to the subject matter. I am inspired by the way in which you let the research inform your fiction writing and by the impact those additional layers provide to the reader.
AH: Are there any books/authors that you feel influenced your work on WILLOW AND BUNNY?
AS: That is something that I have never considered, Andrew! Pondering it now, I recall that I was quite deep into William Steig’s stories at the time – Doctor De Soto, Brave Irene, Shrek!, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble – and I can see how these books were absolutely an influence. Their storybook style, setting selection, personification and characterization. I’ve also always loved Winnie-the-Pooh. The characters in those stories, and the familiarity of the Hundred Acre Wood, occupy an enormous place in my heart and imagination.
AH: Stories from our childhood have a special way of sticking with us and creeping into our creative work. I think Christopher Robin would be very happy to stumble upon Willow and Bunny.
AH: As writers there are so many amazing resources available from books to webinars to organizations. What kidlit resources have been the most beneficial to you?
AS: I’m horrified to admit that I asked a writer from my area (a very well-known picture booker) the dreaded question: I’ve written a book, what should I do? He sent me a very kind reply recommending SCBWI, and I went right in. I attended every conference I could, virtual and otherwise. That first story was never published (which will surprise none of you!), but in sharing it, I found my agent (three cheers for Stephanie Hansen of Metamorphosis Literary Agency!) and I met critique partners, most of who are still my writing confidantes today. Together, we have helped each other grow and – as picture book magic would have it – three of us all debuted within months of each other. I also cannot overstate the role that The Children’s Book Podcast and 12x12 have played in my journey. Listening to professionals share their journeys on those platforms provided great ideas for nurturing creativity and honing craft, as well as better understanding the publishing industry.
AH: We are so glad that kind author pointed you in the right direction. And thank you for pointing our readers in the direction of such fabulous resources.
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
AS: I’m excited to share that my chapter book series STARLIN will be published by Beaming Books in the not-too-distant future! Stay tuned for updates on that, as well as other projects. This fall also marks the start of the 7th annual Holiday Book Drive Chi, a book joy collaboration with my friend and longtime partner Pastor Michael Neal of Leading with Literacy in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Book creators, if you’d like to donate a copy of one of your titles to young readers in Chicago (or if you think your publisher might be willing to donate a full class gift of 30 books), please let me know! You can reach out through my contact form at www.anitraroweschulte.com. Any and all new books are deeply appreciated!
AH: Congratulations on the chapter book series! I can't wait to read the first one. Also, what incredible work you and Pastor Michael are doing. The Holiday Book Drive Chi is such a thoughtful idea and a great way to get books into the hands of young readers. Book creators, please consider donating to this cause if you are able to.
AH: Where can people connect more with you?
AS: I’d love to connect with each of you! You’ll find me on Twitter at @anitraschulte, on Instagram as @anitraroweschulte, and on my website at www.anitraroweschulte.com.
AH: Readers, please connect with Anitra on social media and check out her website for more information about WILLOW AND BUNNY. And while you are at it, please consider supporting WILLOW AND BUNNY in any way you can.
This could include:
- ordering from your favorite indie
- marking as want to read on Goodreads
-leaving a review
- making a library request
Anitra, thank you so much for joining us! It was wonderful learning all about how WILLOW AND BUNNY came to be.
Anitra would love to give away a signed copy of WILLOW AND BUNNY! (US only)
Ways to enter:
1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Post about this interview on social media and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT ANITRA ROWE SCHULTE
Anitra Rowe Schulte is the author of DANCING WITH DADDY, illustrated by Ziyue Chen (Two Lions), which published Dec. 1, 2021. Her second picture book WILLOW AND BUNNY, illustrated by Christopher Denise (Two Lions), publishes on Oct. 10, 2023. Her chapter book series STARLIN, illustrated by Katie Crumpton (Beaming Books), releases in 2024 and 2025. Anitra is member of PB Debut Troupe 21 and PB Tales of 2022. She is represented by Stephanie Hansen of Metamorphosis Literary Agency.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew Hacket is a teacher by day, parent by night, and writer in the nooks and crannies of life. When it comes to his books, Andrew aims to create stories that tickle the funny bone and hug the heart of readers both young and old.
Andrew is the author of the early reader, CURLILOCKS AND THE THREE HARES (The Little Press, 2024) and the picture books, OLLIE, THE ACORN, AND THE MIGHTY IDEA (Page Street Kids, 2024) and HOPE AND THE SEA (WorthyKids, 2024). Additionally, his short story, THE TUNNEL, has been chosen for inclusion in the SCBWI anthology, The Haunted States of America.
Andrew lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three young children, and puppy, Gus.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Page Turner Literary.