It is perhaps the catchiest children’s rhyme since “Sam I am.” It launched a book, a career and helped lull millions of kids to sleep.
“Llama llama red pajama” was Anna Dewdney’s breakthrough, a refrain that announced a modern classic and begot a cottage industry. The children’s book “Llama Llama Red Pajama,” published in 2005, spawned more than 20 spinoffs, an array of stuffed toys, theatrical performances and musical interpretations, including one by Dolly Parton at Dollywood and just last month a rap by Ludacris that went viral. “Llama” is soon to come to the small screen in an animated Netflix series narrated by Jennifer Garner. All told, the “Llama” books have sold more than 12 million copies.
On June 6, Viking will publish “Little Excavator,” one of the last books Dewdney wrote and illustrated to completion before her death in September, at age 50, of brain cancer. There are no llamas in the book, but the character Little E is much like Baby Llama and its creator: full of pluck, a sly smile and a knack for witty verse.
“Little Excavator” is not, however, Dewdney’s final book. This summer, Viking will publish “Llama Llama Gives Thanks,” and 2018 will bring “Llama Llama Loves to Read.” And there are other llama and non-llama books in the works.
At Dewdney’s former home in southern Vermont, llamas abound – not real ones but in sketches and journals, on storyboards and in elaborate drawings and notes in manila folders and drawers that overflow with Dewdney’s exuberant vision. In the front garden is a llama topiary, now overgrown. Throughout the house, stuffed llamas and paintings of Mama Llama and her endearingly impatient child are happy reminders of the joy her work continues to give millions of children – and a hopeful sign of a happy future.
In the midst of it all is Reed Duncan, Anna Dewdney’s longtime partner, who helped the artist harness her ideas and bring them to the page, especially at the end of her life. Though the pair never married, they were together for 18 years, raised Dewdney’s daughters from a previous marriage and remodeled the sprawling, quirky house that served both as their home and studio.
Now Duncan has taken on the responsibility of preserving the “Llama” legacy without the llama’s mama. The volume and complexity of the material is daunting. Though some books are clearly mapped out, in other cases “it’s like you have four or five different doctoral theses and mixed it up in a shredder,” Duncan says. “My job is to tape them all back together.”
Duncan says there are about a dozen books in various stages of development and at least 30 more that could one day be published. “Some projects have fully painted canvases, some have lots of heavily rendered sketches, and some have only loose sketches on the backs of envelopes,” Duncan says. Other projects have no art at all, and Duncan says he may have to hire someone to finish them. His hope is “to preserve the integrity of her creativity,” he says. “They are her books. I hope to do justice to what she would have done.”
The task is both an honor and a bittersweet reminder of the woman he lost. “It’s wonderful and soul-scraping at the same time,” Duncan said. “It’s a privilege to be able to do it. A lot of the time I have a grin ear to ear and tears pouring down at the same time. The joy and the pain are inseparable.”
Duncan speaks candidly, sometimes haltingly, about his task and the woman he met more than 20 years ago, when the pair worked at a boarding school for boys with special needs in Putney, Vt. While Dewdney’s beloved English bulldog, Rollo, barks in another room, Duncan recalls a woman of boundless energy and creativity.
“Anna was very passionate about her work,” Duncan says, whether it was painting, writing, drawing, teaching or just being with children. (She also had a passion, it turns out, for the music of Ludacris.) As a child, “she was always telling stories, doing dramatic dress-up, walking around with a pipe or playing an Indian princess in the backyard, shooting bows and arrows,” he says.
Dewdney was nearly 40 when “Llama Llama Red Pajama” was published. It was the first book she both wrote and illustrated; it was an immediate best-seller. The entire verse came forth in nearly one sitting, he says – “in toto, from the muses.” The idea was sparked by llamas Dewdney had seen on a drive through rural Vermont with her daughters. “What sound do llamas make?” one of the girls had asked, and in Dewdney’s reply, “llama llama llama …” was the beginning of an unforgettable ditty.
Dewdney was surprised by the popularity of her books and loved traveling widely to do one of her favorite things: read to children. Her presentations were always dramatic – full of laughter, exaggerated facial expressions and frenzied easel drawings.
It was during a long tour in March 2015 that Dewdney came home very tired, and one morning had a grand mal seizure. The brain cancer was found soon after; surgery to remove it left her with some eyesight loss and motor skill impairment. Dewdney was devastated, but her playful spirit remained intact: One of the first things she did when she got home was slide down the fire pole that connects the first two floors of the couple’s house. (The property also features an indoor rope swing and, around the yard, whimsical little statues that Anna left for Duncan to find.)
Dewdney’s prognosis was grim, but it emboldened her to work harder for as long as she could. “One of her greatest regrets,” Duncan said, “was not living for 1,000 years because she had idea upon idea, and she just wanted to put them all out there.” Dewdney decided that instead of working on one book from start to finish, she would focus on a few books and do just enough so that Duncan and her editors could get them on shelves.
In her final months, Dewdney worked tirelessly, often bringing art supplies to the hospital while she underwent treatment. She and Duncan played word games and read poetry to keep her mind sharp. He encouraged her to do exercises in their home gym. Toward the end, he recalls tearfully, “I’d pick her up and dance with her to give her body the sense of movement.”
The disease moved more quickly and more aggressively than the couple expected. On Sept. 3, 2016, Dewdney went into her studio with Duncan, her children – now grown – and her two dogs. She asked Duncan to read her favorite children’s book, “The Princess and the Goblin,” by George MacDonald, a classic 19th-century tale.
Just as he reached the part of the story where the princess makes her way to safety, Dewdney died. It was, in its own way, “a storybook ending,” Duncan says.
The value of Dewdney’s work reaches far beyond her witty verses and adorable drawings. Her books convey a remarkable understanding of children and their fears – nighttime, bullies, being alone. They also show adults ways to provide comfort and encourage independence.
Even if Dewdney’s unfinished projects remain so, her legacy is secure in the books she’s already given us. As her literary alter ego famously put it: “Mama Llama’s always near, even if she’s not right here.”