Denise Flemingby Denise Fleming

Everyday life is what inspires most of my work. The problem is choosing what interests me enough to spend 6 months to a year working it out. For every good idea there are 50 stinkers.

For that reason, I have boxes full of 4×6 index cards with ideas, phrases, titles, and character descriptions written on them along with scribbled sketches. I keep every idea, because some of the stinkers eventually redeem themselves or lead to a new idea. Every now and then I read through the cards to see if I can find a workable idea. My next book is from the stinker box, inspired by an idea that is at least ten years old.

Sometimes, an idea crawls under my porch. A stray cat gave birth to four kittens under our front porch. We adopted all of them. Three of the kittens did everything mama cat did, but that fourth kitten just napped. This became the basis of the book Mama Cat Has Three Kittens.

Mama Cat Has Three Kittens

In reality there were four kittens, but three kittens made for a better story. Be assured that the fourth kitten was not harmed in the making of the story. The kittens in the book look nothing like the real kittens and, except for the napping kitten, their personalities are different. But the book was inspired by a real situation.

At the time we adopted the kittens we had a dog, Warfy, who had grown up with older cats. Poor Warfy was terrified of the tiny kittens. She wanted nothing to do with them. Warfy morphed into Buster, an only dog who had a perfect life until a small kitten came to share his home. Buster is my canine version of Niles Crane from the TV show Frasier. I always had Niles in mind when writing and drawing Buster.


My sister, Rochelle, needed to find a kennel for her pup, Hershey. She and her husband doted on their dog and she searched high and low to find just the right place for her baby’s first time away from home. She chose a doggy camp which gave me the idea for Buster Goes to Cowboy Camp. Of course I enlarged upon what happened, changed things, added things, and exaggerated. You do not have to stick to the actual facts of the incident that inspires you.

Buster Goes to Cowboy Camp

The physical look of Buster was inspired by dogs in a sculptural paper piece I created, titled Green Dogs at Night. That paper piece also led me to to the idea for Pumpkin Eye, which went through a complete transformation before I arrived at the finished story. Ideas evolve—this becomes that, a dog becomes a cat.

When my daughter was very young we would take snacks and a blanket over to the field behind where we live. We would watch the creatures in the tall grasses go about their lives. In the Tall, Tall Grass was the outcome these outings.

In the Tall, Tall Grass

Along with the field was a creek and a wood. I spent many hours walking this land. Sadly the land was eventually bought and developed. Where Once There Was a Wood was the story of this loss of open space. I did not want readers to feel hopeless after reading the book so I added back matter that shares how to create habitats with the land you have.

Sometimes a phrase will float through my mind “Cows in the pasture, moo, moo, moo. Roosters in the barnyard, cock a doodle do” and on and on, and before I know it I have a book. Barnyard Banter, Beetle Bop, and underGround all started this way.


The most important thing is to stay open to ideas. Write ALL your ideas down. Review them now and again. You never know when a new idea may pop up that helps you reimagine an old idea.

Even the stinkers may surprise you.

Denise Fleming is the author/illustrator of 25 picture books. Her books are illustrated by pulp painting, a paper making technique. See more of her work at

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Denise is giving away one of her books.

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