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'Froggy' author's many muses

Jonathan London, who penned the popular "Froggy" series of children's books, relaxes at home with his dog Toto in Graton.

KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat
Published: Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 27, 2012 at 1:56 p.m.

Sitting on his sunny back porch in Graton, Jonathan London reaches into a pocket and unwads a piece of newspaper he's scribbled on. Barely legible, across the movie ads it reads: “Just Right ... dog/ladder ... 2 dogs/sunset.”

Facts

JONATHAN LONDON

Age: 65
Occupation: Children's book author
Years living in Sonoma County: 34
Percentage of income from Froggy series: 80-90 percent
Odd jobs: Construction worker, dancer, trade-show assembly, poet
Daily ritual: Wakes up every day around 5:45 a.m., reads in bed, swims at Ives Park and starts writing by 9-10 a.m.
Number of books he's written: More than 100. “At some point I lost count,” he says.
Number of languages his works have been translated into: 7
Secret to writing for children: “It's me remembering my own childhood.”

It's a rare glimpse into the creative process of the best-selling children's-book author: “My wife and I were walking along the cliffs in Sea Ranch with our dog on a leash and she's small. These other people were coming in the opposite direction with a lot of tall dogs. Toto would arch up, trying to sniff them, and they would bend down to sniff her. But she couldn't really sniff them back because she was too short. So I just said to Maureen, ‘She needs a dog ladder.' That's how it works. Bingo. That's an idea. There will be a dog who carries a ladder around to sniff the other dogs and then finally finds another dog who is ‘Just Right' — just the right size. She'll leave the ladder behind and they'll walk off into the sunset.”

Then again, “Who knows, it may become nothing at all,” he says with a wink and a smile to his muse.

It's the same random, unexplainable process that has inspired his more than 100 children's books, including the hugely popular “Froggy” series that has sold nearly 20 million copies and been translated into seven languages.

Wearing a purple T-shirt emblazoned with a giant green tree frog wearing headphones, London is sitting at the back porch table where he often writes on his laptop. He and his wife Maureen, who works as a nurse, have lived in Sonoma County for 34 years. This is where they raised two sons, Aaron and Sean, who are now in their 20s, living in San Francisco and Southern California while making a go of it as chef and animator.

At 65, London hasn't always led a life of long dog walks and whimsical day-dream scenarios for picture books. He's been a minimum-wage day laborer, doing everything from roofing to digging ditches. He's been a dancer who stumbled upon a modern dance troupe rehearsing one day in Golden Gate Park.

“I saw people dancing and, being a hippie, I just started dancing with them,” he remembers.

Carlos Carvahal, director of San Francisco Dance Spectrum, asked him to join the company. A natural athlete who competed as a swimmer against a young Mark Spitz in high school, London danced with Carvahal for two years.

He spent his first 14 years living all over the country. Born at the Brooklyn Naval Hospital in 1947 as a Navy brat in a family of four, he lived in New Jersey, Minnesota, Virginia and Puerto Rico before his father, an anti-submarine warfare specialist, radio operator and commissary director, retired in San Jose in the early 1960s. Jonathan graduated from Willow Glen High School in San Jose and got his bachelor's degree and master's degree in social sciences at San Jose State University.

Among other odd jobs, he worked for 12 years setting up and breaking down conventions and trade shows at Moscone Center in San Francisco. When he wasn't working, he criss-crossed the country five times as a hitchhiker, meeting his wife Maureen along the way at a train station in Calgary, Canada.

As a starving poet in San Francisco in the 1970s and '80s, he was inspired by the Beat writings of Gary Snyder and Michael McClure and the poems of Pablo Neruda and Rainer Maria Rilke. Published in dozens of literary journals and anthologies, he made next to nothing but was still dedicated enough to write a poem a day.

That was until the late 1980s, when his young sons fell in love with his stories. As a poet, he wove lyrical passages that left them spellbound. One of them, a bedtime tale called “The Owl Who Became the Moon,” he decided to write down one night in 1989. Taking readers on a night-train journey that winds through a snowy forest and homes of the wildlife who live there, he evoked imagery like “the snow flutters like white butterflies in the steam” or “it ticktacks down the tracks and snakes through a tunnel blacker than night.”

Not having an agent or really any understanding of the children's-book market, he looked at the back of his kids' “Winnie the Pooh” book and noticed it was published by Dutton. So he sent them a copy.

His life would never be the same. Where most unsolicited manuscripts are left to wither on the reject pile, this time an editor at Dutton responded to say they would like to publish the book. One day he was planning to set up the American Library Association convention at San Francisco's Moscone Center. The next day he was invited to present his book at the annual literary trade fair.

On the flipside, the first “Froggy” book was not such an easy sell. One night on a chilly drive back from Point Reyes, in a car with no radio, his two sons begged for a story to pass the time.

“It just came to me,” he remembers. “ ‘It was cold. Froggy woke up and looked out the window. Snow! Snow! I want to go out and play in the snow!' It just wrote itself and they were cracking up.”

But, even with an agent this time, he had no luck. A dozen editors initially passed on “Froggy Gets Dressed,” saying it was “a one-joke book,” as Froggy puts on layer after layer of clothing to go play in the snow, but ultimately realizes he forgot his underwear. Prospective editors thought children wouldn't want to read the book again after knowing the punchline at the end.

Penguin Books finally took a chance on it, spawning the hugely successful Froggy series that takes kids along for amphibious life lessons and rites of passage, with titles like “Froggy Plays Soccer,” “Froggy Goes to Camp,” “Froggy's Halloween” and, coming in February 2013, “Froggy's Worst Playdate.”

Viking Press editor Nancy Paulsen, who worked with London on the first three Froggy books, was initially drawn to the playful onomatopoeia and the call-and-response dialogue in his writing.

“Kids adore chanting along as Froggy's mom calls to him, ‘FRRROOGGYY!' ‘Wha-a-a-a-t?,' ” Paulsen says. “The sounds Froggy makes as he gets dressed — the zoop, zup, zat, swit, zum, zip, zut and zap — make for a lively read aloud, as well. Kids also get to feel like they are three steps ahead of Froggy as he keeps forgetting to put on the appropriate clothing for playtime in the snow.”

When you walk into the London house now, more than two decades after his first book sold, you immediately see a shelf lined with “Froggy” books and other works like “Hip Cat,” “The Eyes of Gray Wolf” and “Let the Lynx Come In,” translated in Korean, French, Dutch, Japanese and Spanish.

“The Lion Who Had Asthma” was inspired by his son Sean's childhood battle with the breathing disorder. A family rafting trip led to “White Water.”

A nature trip to Big Sur brought about “Condor's Egg.” And seeing flamingos in the south of France led to “Flamingo Sunset.”

In his free time, London likes hiking Sonoma County trails or traveling. But one of his favorite pastimes is reading his work to Sonoma County school children.

“Without fail, every year he comes and reads to my class,” says Peggy Heil, third-grade teacher at Oak Grove Elementary School in Sebastopol. “He really gets into it. When he goes ‘flop, flop, flop,' he jumps from side to side and the kids just crack up.”

And when she assigns her students to interview someone famous every year, invariably many of them will write to London, asking for advice on becoming a writer. He always responds with a personal letter, usually accompanied by a copy of one of his books.

It turns out his advice and nuturing can go a long way. In 1999, while volunteering at a writing workshop at Santa Rosa's Willowside Middle School, he helped 11-year-old Sebastopol student Emma Kallok land a book deal when he recommended her work, “The Diary of Chickabidee Baby,” to an editor he knew at Tricycle Press.

“I feel like I stumbled upon something and I like to give something back,” London says. “I'm lucky. I'm a bit of a goof. I'm just glad to reach a lot of kids. I love kids and I'm really happy that they want to read books I've written. It makes me want to write more.”

(Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, john@sideshowvideo.com and follow on Twitter @becksay.)

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