John McCutcheon is an American folk music singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who has produced 34 albums since the 1970s. In addition to his career as a renown musician, John has also written several children’s books including Happy Adoption Day!.
What led you to becoming an author?
It was reading that first got me into the motion of writing. Every writer I know starts off as a really voracious reader. It’s how you learn how to write; you see what other people have done. That kind of narrative storytelling just imbeds itself in you.
I originally wrote Happy Adoption Day! as a song. Then I got a call from Little Brown and Company who said, “I love your song and we’d like to make it a picture book.” After that, I knew all my friends who were authors were going to be jealous that I had a major publisher call me and ask me to write a book.
What motivated you to start writing children’s books?
Well, one of the things that I do with my music is that I tend to take stories that I think are really powerful and that people ought to know about. My most well-known song is Christmas in the Trenches. It’s the story of German troops during WWI who started singing Christmas carols. English troops started singing the Christmas songs back.
This went back and forth until the Germans began to sing Stille Nacht, originally written by Franz Gruber in Austria. The English troops began to sing the song in English at the same time. I thought this commonality could not go unanswered. They had an unofficial truce and I thought that it was just a wonderful story that was not shared in American schools.
I wanted children to grow up knowing stories like this one. The children’s books I have written since then have all been stories that I thought would not be shared in schools and I wanted children to grow up having this information as part of their vocabulary.
Children’s books are the last vestige of tactile, real books. Children’s books don’t work on an iPad. You need to have the experience of cuddling up before bed time, which was so important to my life as a parent and now as a grandparent. One of the most wonderful parts of the day is when you read a book with a child.
Why did you make adoption a focal point in Happy Adoption Day?
Happy Adoption Day! was a surprise to me. I was moved to write this story by a friend who approached me with her young son, Ben. The family said we’ve used your songs a lot in our home and we have a holiday in our house that is more important than Christmas so we need you to write an adoption song.
I’m used to having my audiences writing my songs for me by suggesting ideas. I thought a lot about it because this was an old friend of mine and I love the family. I remembered that my mother, before she was my mother, was a social worker. She was the youngest of twelve and she was the only birth mother among all her sisters. She had arranged the adoption of all her sisters on that side of the family.
I realized that I had grown up around adoptive families so the whole notion of a family being born in adoption all of a sudden came to me.
Are you working on any upcoming projects?
Well I’m actually with great trepidation starting to write a novel. My wife is an acclaimed children’s book author; she wrote a YA (young adult) novel and I watched the process from beginning to end.
Writing Happy Adoption Day!, a thirty-two-page children’s picture book, felt a lot like song writing. It requires a real distillation of language and you’re letting another kind of medium do the work. You’re letting your vocal accompaniment do some of the work. In the children’s picture book, you’re letting the illustrator do some of the work. It’s a really taught muscular form.
Writing a novel is more lyrically luxurious and the words have to do everything. That’s one thing I’m launching and its really scary, but I’m of an age where I’m not looking to do the easy stuff.
I also have an album, that came out in January, which honors Pete Seeger’s 100th anniversary. He was a great friend; we played together and his music was a big influence on my life.
A Note from John:
One thing I should mention is that Little Brown and Company remaindered all the hard covers of Happy Adoption Day!. You can’t go onto Amazon to get a hard cover. However, I bought every book left from their warehouse. I said, “I will buy every copy you have – this is a book that families will want to keep forever. It is a gift book.” The only place you can find the hard copy is on my website.
To learn more about John and purchase Happy Adoption Day go to www.folkmusic.com.
A Note from the interviewer:
As an adoptee born in the mid-nineties, John’s book, Happy Adoption Day!, was a family favorite. My mother and father read it to my siblings and me countless times and twenty-three years later, it is still sitting on our bookshelf.
When my mom got remarried in 2012, I was the maid of honor and therefore expected to give a toast. So many years later John’s words still rang in my head and I was able to use them in the speech I shared at her reception. My family was touched by adoption and “all of a sudden this family was born” once again with the addition of my stepfather. My mom cried. I cried. I will never be able to thank John enough for the confidence that his song and book gave me.
There aren’t that many books about adoption out there, which makes Happy Adoption Day! that much more special. Thank you, John, for taking the time to speak with me about the book that changed my family’s life and continues to provide a beautiful representation of adoption in the world of literature.