There was a time when a young Barb Joosse thought she might become a nun.
“They really had a great outfit,” she said, with a mischievous smile. “They had this really neat veil; they had stuff up their sleeves. I wanted the pitch pipe and thehankies and everything they had up there.”
Every morning and night, Joosse would take a towel and manufacture a nun-like veil.
“And then they changed their outfit. And I thought, if the outfit matters that much, perhaps it wasn’t my true calling,” she said.
Joosse grew up, but she never lost that sense of imagination and mischievousness. Eventually, Joosse discovered something for which she had true and strong calling: writing children’s books.
For more than 30 years, she has written books that entertain, amuse and teach children. And with 43 highly acclaimed and honored children’s books penned with lyrical style and spunk, the Cedarburg author who is married to C.T. Whitehouse, a sculptor and metalsmith, continues to enjoy the craft she honed after the birth of her own children.
“I needed my mind to work. I adored being a mom. I made it a very creative job, believe me,” she said.
But she also decided she wanted to write for her children and about them
“Children have a huge adventuresome spirit and that is what I wanted to write about,” Joosse said. Joosse embarked on her writing career not knowing that breaking into the children’s market was one of the most difficult to conquer, not to mention one of the most revised and edited genres.
“It can take 500 revisions for me to write a picture book,” she said, adding that it can sometimes take
years to produce a book. “There have been manuscripts that I’ve worked on for six years and there have been some that I nailed in the first two months.”
Over the years, she has perfected the writing process, often writing several versions of the same
story, sometimes as many as 15 different times. She then will select a word here, a phrase there, a concept here until she has a rough idea of the story she wants to tell.
“I know my way now … I didn’t know my way in the beginning. Somewhere along the line, about 20 years ago, I realized this was a really fruitful way to write,” Joosse said. “There are tricks that I have learned along the way that help me avoid mistakes. And rejection is still a huge part of my life.”
Something that is also constant in her books is that air of mischief and imagination that she maintained since her own childhood that keeps her characters believable and children-relatable. So does her choice of words, some of which are the subject of some creative liberty.
Children falling to sleep by having books read to them with words like “socksies” and “shoesies” and word combinations like “overnighty trunk” and “tippy end of our sleepover day” have been graced with a lyrical lullaby through Joosse’s words.
Sometimes that draws criticism from adult reviewers and readers. Joosse recalled a review that said, “How come she is using words that are not real? I do not want to read books to my child with words that are not real.”
If some of her words are not always parent- friendly or Webster-friendly, they are certainly children-friendly. And Joosse explains why the lyrical aspects of her books appeal to children.
“I did research into the way children learn language. Sight, when they’re brand new, is new … hearing is not. For nine months they’ve listened to their mom’s voice that is typically run-on, tumbling sentences, up and down and they are hard-wired to learn that. By the time they are 9 months old, they will babble in their own language. They have learned the patterns of language. By giving them dull word books, we have not captured their attention,” she said, adding that words like higgledy piggledy, razzle dazzle or upsie daisy will transfix young children.
Joosse, a mother of three and grandmother of three, loves words and said she keeps them in a little “treasure sack” for future use. She is also not afraid to use words that children might not necessarily know, but which she explains in a dictionary at the end of the book. She did that with arguably one of her most successful and celebrated books, “Mama, Do You Love Me?”
“Mama, Do You Love Me?” celebrates a parent’s unconditional and everlasting love, despite challenges and situations posed by the child. It also explains the Inuit culture and takes advantage of a dictionary to explain words like “igloo,” “mukluk,” “ptarmigan,” and “umiak.”
“A child is born knowing no words … they are not daunted by new words,” she said.
Author Barbara Joosse will be at the Cedarburg Cultural Center, W62 N546 Washington Ave., Cedarburg, for a book reading and signing on Saturday, Nov. 17 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Her new book, “Cedarburg” is available for $17.95 through the center. To order, visit
Recurrent themes in Joosse’s books are true, unconditional love, family as a resource, hopefulness, a sense of musicality and, she added, “kindness.”
“I played around with some that are just clever and they don’t sing with me – they don’t come from the heart,” she said.
Something else that comes from the heart is Joosse’s faith.
“I am Catholic to the bone, and that has heavily influenced my writing and always, always will. I find Mass is so beautiful, it brings me to tears. There is an air of spirituality in all my books,” she said.
“There are things in Catholicism that you cannot see with your eyes. That’s faith. My Catholicism has a lot to do with my writing and my life. Huge,” she continued. Part of Joosse’s email address centers around St. Joan, someone she admires for her courage and willingness to do the right thing.
“If it’s the right thing to do, I have to do it,” she said.
Joosse’s latest two projects are somewhat the same – yet different – from her past projects. She was approached by Mark Meckel, a Grammy-winning publisher, to produce the lyrics for the debut album of the Happy Racers, a “kindie-rock” band led by Meckel’s son, Nathan.
According to Nathan’s website, “My father assembled a talented team of day dreamers and chance takers … (including) award-winning children’s author Barbara Joosse.”
Meckel continues, “The books and the songs reaffirm one another. The books become illustrated version of the songs, while the songs become audio versions of the books.” Joosse penned the lyrics for several songs on the album, which is being considered for a Grammy nomination in the Best Children’s Album category.
“It was really cool,” she said.
She recently released a book about her hometown, Cedarburg, which she calls a “valentine to the town I love.” According to a press release from the Cedarburg Cultural Center, “’Cedarburg!’ is a joyous celebration of childhood in this charmingly special place. It is believed to be the first book in the country to celebrate life in a specific small town.” Joosse has many projects going, and a huge box of future ideas. Other books will likely bear her name and share her sense of fun, adventure and, yes, love.
“This is something I really think I was born to do,” she said.