Children's & Fantasy/Sci-Fi Books

Interview with Picture Book author Denise Mortensen


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.

What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?

Without a doubt, the most challenging aspect of writing is finding the discipline to write consistently every day. I’m a busy mom, having raised five children (one still in high school), and I work outside the home. There are always a million and a half physical and mental distractions when I sit down to write: the laundry pile, the dust bunnies, my latest knitting project, family drama, my kids’ texts, and of course all of my social media vices lurking right underneath my computer screen… I could spend an entire day lost in my many random distractions. I find that I write best when I force myself into hermit mode–holed up my room, with the shades drawn, my phone turned off and my butt glued to the chair!

Henry: I feel your pain. I am a self-employed management consultant, and I work out of my home. Or rather, I try to work out of my home when my boys are home from school. Distraction is one of the bête noires of writing.

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?

I’ve learned that it’s okay to be neurotic and different. As a writer, especially as a writer of children’s books, you’re constantly going back to the places in your childhood that are both dark and delightful. All of my writing has been inspired by my worst fears and my best memories. I’ve learned to embrace those qualities and use them to create humorous, quirky, tender and meaningful books. I’ve learned to never be afraid to put my creativity out there.

Henry: This is a shorter journey for me than for most adults…

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?

Experiencing the joy of hearing a three-year-old recite my picture book verbatim!

Henry: Exactly! I was tickled to hear a two-year old properly pronounce “Nimpentoad”, the protagonist of our eponymously named book.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

I have an entire section on my website devoted to advice for aspiring authors http://www.denisemortensen.com/For_Writers.html. However, the best advice I can give is to read as much as you can in whatever genre you’re writing, paying particular attention to character development, plot, dialogue, conflict, resolution, voice, and setting (all of which are present to some degree—even in board books and picture books). You will begin to notice common threads throughout AND you will become an expert on the authors and books in your particular genre. By doing this, you will hopefully develop your craft—and your own unique voice, which is really what gets editors and agents excited.

Henry: The lion is the product of all the zebras it’s eaten. In my case, I’m the product of all the pie I’ve eaten.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

The ability to predict the title and words of the next #1 New York Times best selling children’s picture book.

Henry: Ha, I see what you did there!

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

Roz Chast (wacky), Tina Fey (wackier), David Sedaris (wackiest). I don’t think much eating would take place at that meal.  

Henry: I’m pretty much seeing a food fight happening. “This is why we can’t have nice things!”

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

When I’m not writing, I like to knit, garden, workout, cook, and spend time with my husband and kids. I probably spend most of my free time knitting. It’s very centering and calming, and I love the challenge of learning new techniques.

Henry: I know what you mean. I used to paint Warhammer fantasy miniatures, and it is very relaxing. Plus, it engages a different part of your brain than speaking.

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

“She laughed herself to death.”

Or, more accurately, “Wife. Mother. Daughter. Sister. Friend. Lover of words, life, and people.”

You can find out more about Denise at www.denisemortensen.com

This interview also appears in the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.

Click to Tweet: Interview with Picture Book author Denise Mortensen at http://wp.me/p31Xf4-M2 via @Nimpentoad

Author: Henry Herz

Children's book author

3 thoughts on “Interview with Picture Book author Denise Mortensen

  1. OK, first: Go, New Jersey! 😀

    Denise, I, too, cannot STAND bugs! If I had a cicada on my collar, actual feathers would’ve been flying! lol Seriously, they are necessary to the ecosystem, but I want them away from ME! 🙂 I once wrote a poem to that effect, its ending not being appropriate for a PB unless you’re Shel Silverstein 😉

    Thanks for this wonderful interview, and hearing about the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature, I always get the itch to go. I can’t afford the events, so always choose SCBWI, but someday I hope to afford them ALL! 🙂

  2. LOL! Thanks for the Jersey love! I may have grown up in New York, but I love growing old in New Jersey! What’s not to like about a state that’s bursting with so much sass and class?!

    And yes, the bugs here just as evil as anywhere else, but I’ve become friends with my exterminator and he takes good care of me.

    Rutgers is a great bang-for-your-buck conference, I highly recommend. The one-on-one sessions are life-changing for some. Do think about applying come April!

  3. Denise, I was born in the Bronx then moved to Jersey at 11. Both are good in their own ways 🙂

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