Long ago at UCONN, I had the privilege to attend Francelia Butler's Children's Literature class — and the luck to raise my hand before she was done asking if anyone wanted to drive Maurice Sendak from his home to hers so they could attend a conference together.
Mr. Sendak was lovely, gave me a tour of his studio, and signed my five-year-old copy of Where the Wild Things Are. I was blown away by the honor, but knew he was in for a "bad surprise." His ride was an elderly Chevy with two colors of primer and Bondo comprising most of its outside and no heat on the inside, due to a mouse living in one of the heater ducts.
He managed to hide his dismay after one shocked second. Once he realized, 1) the engine was in working order, and, 2) he'd never get to the conference in time if he refused to get in, he consigned his fate into my hands. He sat, shrugged under the quilt I'd brought for his comfort (early spring in Connecticut, snow still in the tree shadows) and proceeded to chat amiably the whole two hours of travel time.
I'll never forget how open and hilarious he was. It was my first close-up experience with how wonderful children's book authors/illustrators could be.
Maurice Sendak died May 8, 2012, of a stroke. While we still have the legacy of his groundbreaking work and its effect on children's literature, I miss his truthfulness.
When I was young, my books were well loved—sometimes doing double duty in block towers, other times, as a source of past-bedtime sneak-reading under the covers, lit by the glow-in-the-dark eye of my owl puppet, one word at a time.
When I was old enough to write, my stories were mighty similar to ones read by owl light. After my mom went back to college, my seaweed poem somehow ended up in a gallery window next to her artwork. It was the first time unfamiliar people could read what I wrote. I still remember that thrill—plus the unexpected feeling of vulnerability.
Writing is like that. Actually all creativity is—whether it’s art, dance, music, science, math—you need to be both brave and vulnerable to create something new. Otherwise, you stick with what’s safe and you (and others around you) eventually leave or go nuts with boredom.
Kindness and Good Advice
Over twenty years ago, after reading Jane Yolen's Touch Magic, I wrote her an enthusiastic fan letter, enclosed some enthusiastic picture book manuscripts, and sent it to her publisher with a request to forward it.
Amazingly, they did. Even more amazingly, Ms. Yolen wrote back . . . from Scotland . . . diplomatically suggesting that I might like to join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.
I did, and still am a member. The SCBWI taught me how much I didn't know about writing and illustrating for children, how badly I wanted to learn, and inspired me to share what knowledge I had. It provided a whole world of encouragement for staying open, vulnerable—creative!
I'm shy in crowds but co-created/ran three SCBWI events with author/illustrator Carol Heyer. I even spoke in front of nearly 200 people at a Writers' Day conference without crying. My illustrations were published with the help of longtime rep (now retired) Ann Remen-Willis: five non-fiction trade books, countless educational books, and many illustrations in Ladybug, Cricket, and Highlights magazines.
Okay, children’s illustration—check! I want to do more, but bravery's already there. Writing’s been my last holdout. Fear and necessity squeezed writing into the spaces between freelance work and family. Lots was written, but almost no submitting. Just two children's poems published in Ladybug.
It’s taken decades of reading, experimenting, and revising to write at what I’m hoping is a professional level in a way that resonates with children. I love writing, even the frustrating parts. It unscrambles my brain, makes me laugh, and fills my heart.
Now that I’m semi-retired, I get to write. And submit. I’m no longer closeted. I'm coming out.
Hopefully, it won’t take anyone as long as it took me. If you’re wondering, please know it doesn't matter who you are or what your initial skills are. Keep at it. Keep learning. Read new books, Read aloud. Keep being as brave as possible. Join SCBWI. Surround yourself with encouraging, funny, and open people. Listen to your own inner voice. Listen to real children. Volunteer at a school like I did, or do your own bit with sharing and be ready for surprises, chance, and change. It's never boring and it just might be what fills your heart.
Works in Progress: