Many children’s book writers find inspiration in their own offspring. Wellfleet resident Corinne Demas, the award-winning author of five novels, two short-story collections, a poetry collection, a memoir, and numerous children’s books, takes this inspiration a step further: from the outset of her career, she has involved her son and daughter as collaborators in her creative process.
When they were young, they were a test audience. “I’ve learned a lot about my own writing from my children,” Demas says. “Kids are relatively polite, but when they are bored, they stop looking engrossed. When I read to them, I could tell when their attention would waver. When they laughed, when they were emotionally involved, I could see that in their faces as well. That is better than any praise from a literary critic, because children are the people you’re writing for.”
Demas’s daughter, Artemis Roehrig, now with daughters of her own, has recently joined her mother in co-writing five children’s books, two of which — Do Jellyfish Like Peanut Butter? and The Grumpy Pirate — were published this April and June, respectively.
“Artemis has been a wonderful audience and critic to me her entire life,” Demas says, speaking to the Independent with Roehrig via Zoom. Mother and daughter sit side by side, sharing the screen, their closeness evident not only in their body language, but in the ease with which they finish each other’s sentences. They have been living together since the pandemic, Demas says, when Roehrig’s family began “podding” with Demas and her husband.
A retired professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, Demas wrote her first published book, That Dog Melly!, for her son. Since then, Demas’s books have often started out as gifts for her two children and, later, four grandchildren. “There were always little handmade books around the house,” Roehrig says. “It was amusing to me when they actually got published, because, after going through the whole editing process, they were nothing like the books I had been given.”
The family regularly summered in Wellfleet, and Demas fondly remembers Roehrig as a young girl posing for illustrator Ted Lewin for one of her best-known children’s books, The Disappearing Island (2000). Lewin, a Caldecott Honors winner, based his images on photographs he took of Artemis with his wife on the beach in Wellfleet, where the story is set. “When you look through the book,” Demas says, “you can still recognize Artemis!”
Roehrig sighs and shakes her head. “Every time I went to a book signing with my mom, she would show people those pictures,” she says. “I’m fine with it as an adult, but as a teenager, it was hard.”
Roehrig’s familiarity with children’s book publishing did not spark a desire to become an author herself. “I always loved writing,” she says, “but I didn’t grow up saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a children’s book writer.’ I grew up seeing what the process is like and that people don’t make a lot of money. So, I went to school for biology precisely because I didn’t want to become a writer. Then, of course, I fell into it by accident.”
Roehrig was living with Demas when her first child was born. “I was home with my baby, spending a lot of time with my mom, and that got us writing together,” she says. The mother-daughter author team published their first book, Does a Fiddler Crab Fiddle?, in 2016.
Roehrig, a part-time lab scientist at UMass Amherst, believes that children’s books are the best way for young children to learn about science. For example, Do Jellyfish Like Peanut Butter? teaches marine biology in humorous rhymes that will make both kids and adults giggle. “We wanted to package the information in a way that would be really appealing,” Roehrig says.
The generosity with which Demas approaches her work is reflected in her most recent project, Remember Me? When the pandemic hit, she knew she needed to write a story for children that focused on how creative and resilient they can be. “There are so many people suffering right now,” she says. “I wanted to show how children can still have happy lives.”
Demas wrote Remember Me? in one night. The next day, she sent it to her agent, who replied, “This is wonderful — what do you want to do with it?” Demas answered, “I want kids to have it now.” So, it was published online, on her website (corinnedemas.com), without illustrations. Children can download it for free, illustrate the story themselves, and send it back to the author. “It’s been a very interesting project for me, because it’s so immediate, dealing with what is happening right here, right now,” Demas says. “Kids started to send me illustrations, and parents and teachers wrote to me to share how useful it was to get children talking about the pandemic.”
Though children are the main focus in her books, Demas always keeps in mind the adults who read to them. “There is nothing worse than reading a book aloud that you can’t bear. Kids often thrust the same book at you to read over and over and over again,” she says with a laugh. “It has to sound good in your ear and feel good in your mouth.”