I'll start with the man behind it all, the author, Mark Reibstein. He grew up in the same town as Roni Schotter (children's book author of Hannukkah! and Passover!), and his family was extremely close to hers, and he was thus exposed to the children's book publishing world.
Mark spent some time living in Japan, and while there he was introduced to the concept of wabi sabi. He asked many people about it, and they all paused and said, "That's hard to explain." but they would offer a poem, or a photograph, a small description, and gradually, Mark began to piece together the meaning of wabi sabi.
So, what is wabi sabi? Well, as I understand it, it is a Japanese philosophical belief in finding beauty in the imperfect, the unexpected, in simplicity and modesty. For example, a old, cracked clay tea cup is wabi sabi, but a fine china cup is not. Fallen leaves in muddy water is wabi sabi. A scruffy, multi-colored cat can be wabi sabi. Mark actually named his cat in Japan Wabi Sabi!
And so, Mark was taken by the idea of wabi sabi and started thinking about writing a children's book about this. Many years passed, and when he finally wrote the text, he showed it to Roni; she loved it and volunteered to introduce him to another local children's book author/illustrator who she thought might be interested in illustrating the project--Ed Young. At the time, Mark really wanted a Japanese illustrator for the project, and also, with life in the way (his teaching, his family), ended up putting the project aside for a bit.
A few years later, Mark was at a local book festival and looked closely at Ed Young's books and realized that he was actually the perfect illustrator for the book after all. He asked Roni to make the introduction, and thus began Ed's involvement in the project. Ed was immediately intrigued and told Mark he would like to illustrate it. He told Mark not to worry, that he would find a publisher.
He showed it to various publishers with no success--at the time, the text was very rough, too long, a bit convoluted. Nobody was seeing the vision for it. And then one day, Ed was talking to fellow author/illustrator Molly Bang, and she said, "Send it to Andrea Spooner. She likes challenging picture books!"
And so he did...
To be continued!
Edited to add: Jump to Part 2!