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This Arizona author's book celebrates the sights, sounds of the Verde River for kids

Phoebe Fox and her book.
Phoebe Fox, Mamafox Books
Phoebe Fox and her book.

Later this summer, children’s author Phoebe Fox will be one of the writers representing Arizona at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.

Fox’s latest book, “On the Verde River,” takes the form of a poem, illuminated by watercolor illustrations done by her father-in-law. The book encourages readers to stop, take a deep breath and notice the sights, sounds and abundant forms of life that thrive along the riverbed.

Fox recently spoke with The Show’s Sam Dingman about her inspirations for the book, and why she loves writing books for children in particular.

Full conversation

PHOEBE FOX: Back in 2018, my husband and I acquired some land in Camp Verde on the Verde River and it was very rough and we started spending a lot of time there and we realized that it was also a great opportunity with our boys to teach them about, how do you take care of land? How do you take care of the river? And look at all the things we can do outside.

So we ended up getting a pop up and spending the night there and watching the beautiful stars at night and listening to the owls. And just sitting by the river was when I was inspired to write “On the Verde River.”

SAM DINGMAN: I couldn't help noticing, there's a couple of pages I guess where you bring humans into the narrative. We see a group of people with their pickup truck parked next to the river, having a campfire. There's also folks in a fishing boat. I know that part of the goal of the book is to raise awareness about the dangers that human activities pose to the river's ecosystem. So how did you think about the choice to include people in the story?

FOX: Interesting question. I think that from what I know about writing children's books, you always need to have some sort of a story. So the idea that a family is there camping in the beginning and then they go throughout the course of the day, you see a little boy up in the tree looking down at some of the things in the river, you see a man and a dog, the family watching the stars and the moon rise at the end.

Those are all things that my family has been fortunate enough to do on the Verde River. And I hope that people will be inspired to spend time on the Verde, but at the same time, appreciate it and take care of it.

DINGMAN: On your Youtube channel, which is called Mamafox Books, you have this recurring series called Story Time Saturdays, where you read children's books, your own and others. And I was, as I was watching those, I thought, you know, not all writers like telling stories out loud, but you seem to really relish it. What do you like about it?

FOX: I love reading to kids and it benefits kids who might not get a story time otherwise, during the pandemic, it was really important to me to keep those story times coming. So the kids who normally would go to the library and hear a librarian read to them were getting something at home. So I've also just always had a passion for children's books and my mom and dad read to us a lot. I collected them starting in college when I was getting my degree in education.

DINGMAN: You did?

FOX: Yeah, I have a huge collection and if they're signed that's even better.

DINGMAN: What were your favorite ones growing up?

FOX: Oh, I love Margaret Wise Brown. So of course, everyone loves “Goodnight Moon.” But her writing is so beautiful to me. I loved Dr. Seuss, Michelle Silverstein always made me laugh.

DINGMAN: What made you start collecting them in college? Was it because you were doing scholarly work about them or did you just like having them around?

FOX: I think it was both. Probably my favorite class was children's literature. So that might have been when I started collecting them. But I already had my childhood books because my mom kept them for us. Each book had, you know, our names in it. But also who gave it to us and the year and I love that. I do that for my kids, too. So I can see how long I've had the book.

But I remember going to the Changing Hands on Mill because I went to ASU and picking out some children's books there and just starting the collection. I knew I was going to either teach or do something that involved children's books. I just wasn't sure quite what at that point.

DINGMAN: Yeah. I mean, you're making me, I was not planning for us to talk about this, but you're making me think about the way that books that you have when you're a kid feel like more than books, experiences almost.

FOX: Yeah. When I think about how some people talk about music and how you, you are immediately brought back to a moment when you hear a song. I feel the same way about picture books. You know, when I read a book that I loved when I was a child to my kids or my nieces and nephews who are much younger than my kids, I'm brought back to that moment when I enjoyed it. So they're really wonderful that way.

DINGMAN: I remember going to the library at my elementary school after our teacher read us “The BFG” for the first time.

FOX: Roald Dahl was one of my favorites.

DINGMAN: Yeah. I mean, that book I had just never heard anything like the way he used language. And there were two copies of “The BFG” in the library and I checked them both out because I, I just wanted to have as much “BFG” as I could. I don't know ...

FOX: Wow, oh my goodness, that's a great story.

DINGMAN: What I was thinking.

FOX: But I remember that word frobscottle.

DINGMAN: Whizpoppers.

FOX: I wrote to him in fourth grade. We were supposed to choose an author to write to. I don't know if my letter got to him in England, but I never heard back. And I thought, you know, if I ever get a chance, I'm going to write back. I was reading “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator” at the time. There are so many good ones.

DINGMAN: Oh, yes. The Vermicious Knids.

Going back to you sharing your work on your Youtube page. The thing that struck me about the fact that you did that that feels related to, you know, what we associate with these authors that we love so much is that you're sort of giving your work away like there's this generosity to it. How did you think about that?

FOX: The way I look at it is that when you're a kid and you like a children's book, you're not going to want to hear it just one time. You're going to say I love that one. And let's get it right now. And Mom, can you please take me to the library at this very moment and pick it out or to the store or, you know, the bookstore.

And so I hope that when kids listen to the book being read to them that they'll find that they love it and that they will want to get it.

DINGMAN: Right. They want to have that relationship with it that we were talking about. Like, you know, that's, that's my time machine. That's my teleportation device to this world I like being in.

Yeah. Well, I also, I, I was very moved by what you said about some kids who might not be able to have a story time. Going back to what you said about your parents reading you children's books when you were growing up. Do you remember what you liked about that experience when you were a kid, of being read to?

FOX: I think it was mostly the one on one feeling that you get that time spent together. For me, it was the experience of being next to my Mom or Dad or even my big sister who would read to me sometimes and having that coziness, but also getting to experience something that I just naturally loved.

I had an appreciation for it when I was little and hearing the prose or rhyme and seeing the illustrations, I think that it's really unique that you can't have a children's book without one piece or the other. And you need those illustrations to tell part of the story and it's difficult sometimes as a writer to hold back and not describe everything in the text. But you have to always keep in mind that the illustration is gonna tell half the story.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.
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