25 Years of Scribbling – My Journey So Far

Twenty-five years ago, September 7, 1992, my youngest kid went to first grade. While I was a little sad to see her get on the bus, I was excited that she would be out of the house all day, like her older sister. I’d been working as a freelance journalist for years, mostly working nights for newspapers and whatever magazine or trade journal that didn’t write rubber checks. Suddenly I had a few more kidless hours a day.

The dream I had been harboring for years demanded that I pay attention.

I wrote an oath in my journal: I would focus on writing for children in the hours before the kids woke up and when they were at school. I gave myself five years, until September 1997, to get a children’s book published. If I couldn’t make the goal, I swore I would go to nursing school, which my mom had been bugging me about since forever.

I should have given myself 10 years.

I had no idea what I was setting out to do. I didn’t know how tough it was to get published. I didn’t even know how to get published. And I certainly did not know how to write. But I knew that I wanted to try.

If you’ve ever heard me present at a conference, you’ve heard about my years of failure. The fact that I honestly thought I was supposed to send in a first draft instead of revising. That I wrote the world’s worst 7000-word picture book manuscript. I made every mistake possible and invented a couple of new ones just for fun. Rejections piled up for years.

The point is not that I screwed up. Everyone does that. The point is not that I almost quit many, many times. The point is that I kept trying. I had an audacious dream – to write books that kids might like – and it (mostly) made me happy to pursue that dream. So that’s what I did.

And a funny thing happened. I learned.

I attended SCBWI conferences and found a critique group. I started analyzing what worked and didn’t work in books. I found that revision was even more fun than writing first drafts.

I got better. I worked harder. I dreamed bigger.

I had huge plans for today. I was going to write poetry at dawn, write a letter than I could open on September 7, 2042. Thought about sipping champagne.

Instead, I worked. I’ll be on the road for most of the next 8 months, so today was a Dealing With Travel Email day. I walked to my local indie and picked up a copy of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. I treated myself to Tandoori chicken and saag paneer, with blueberries for dessert.  I made a cup of chamomile tea, instead of opening champagne.

My first book (a picture book now long out of print) was published in 1996, one year before my deadline. Since then I’ve published 35 books that have collectively sold millions of copies. More importantly, I’ve been blessed with the chance to meet readers, their families, and their teachers and librarians across America and around the world. I’ve worked with incredibly talented people, become friends with my heroes, and had the chance to give voice to the causes that I care about.

I am a very lucky and grateful girl.

I decided that the best way to celebrate the last 25 years was to do the work that got me here – some creative writing, some book tour preparation, too many email, and a nice walk to the bookstore.

Tomorrow morning I shall write a paragraph or two in my journal with a couple of goals for the next twenty-five years.

Who knows what adventures they’ll bring?


Writing grant to The Mothership Conference

Have you ever wanted to attend the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) national conference in Los Angeles? You know you have. (I’ve been once. Best. Time. Ever. Great workshops and amazing networking. Good parties, too.)

“But ….,” you say. But it’s expensive. But I can’t justify the cost because my career hasn’t taken off yet. But it’s on the other side of the country and planes aren’t cheap. But… But…

Here’s your chance. The SCBWI Martha Weston grant awards $1,500 to one lucky winner each year. The money is to “fund the tuition, transportation, and hotel expenses incurred by attending the SCBWI Annual Conference in Los Angeles.” That means win the grant and you get the golden ticket to the conference that could change your life.

Applications need to be postmarked by June 10th, so hop to it. You can get more information from grant administrator and my buddy, Elizabeth Partridge, or on the SCBWI website.

Tomorrow I will tell you about the evil caterpillar I came up against this weekend. Right now go apply for that grant.

NESCBWI Recap and Wings

Wow! Those New Englanders know how to do it!

BH and I spent a high-energy weekend at the New England chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrator’s” conference. It was HUUUUUUUGGGGGEE!. I think someone said there were 550 people there. Amazing. And incredibly well-organized. They even had vegan lunches for people who didn’t want beef or turkey or tuna. I was impressed.

I gave the keynote Saturday morning. It was a poignant moment for me. When I started writing for kids, all I had was a handful of dreams and a lot of ambition. Along the way I made every mistake possible, and a few that no one had heard of before. And somehow, I’ve moved from the newly-hatched dreamer in the audience to the person standing (well, pacing) behind the podium. Very, very strange and wonderful.

During the speech, I held up my rejection file, and read a few of those dastardly polite letters that hurt so much. I will never forget what it feels like to get those in the mail. I remember the tears and doubts and the fears. What am I talking about – I still have them!

That is the cool thing about writers’ conferences. It doesn’t matter where you are on your creative journey – published or pre-published – we all sit on the same raft in an ocean of doubt. Thank you to everyone for such a warm welcome and much-needed boost of camaraderie.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic Mitali gave a wonderful workshop about using the Internet to promote books. She should know: she has a wonderful site and a delightful blog. I took many, many notes! She is one of the forces behind Readergirlz which is featuring my book PROM in June. You’ll be hearing more about that later.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic Enjoyed dinner with Sarah Aronson (left) and Tanya Lee Stone (right), who has a great picture book biography about Elizabeth Cady Stanton out soon. Also saw Kate Messner there, and Kelly Fineman, and Harold Underdown (I’ll be talking about his new book in a couple of weeks), and Debra Garfinckle, who graciously signed one of her books for me.

Jo Knowles – were you there? Did we talk? I could be blanking here (I’m still pretty tired). Help me out. What did you think of the conference?

I also hung out with my buddies Nancy Werlin and Toni Buzzeo, but my camera messed up their photos. Go to their websites to see their shining faces.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic Like I said, the conference was packed!

Image and video hosting by TinyPic They had to turn away people at the door to keep the fire marshals happy.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic Here are a couple of the hard working souls who put the conference together: Jan Kozlowski, Sally Riley, Janet Arden, and J.L. Bell, who writes one of my favorite blogs: Boston 1775. The other organizers kept moving so fast, they appear in photographs as a blur. BH and I thank you all for a wonderful weekend!

The theme of the conference was “Stretch Your Wings”. I am flapping mine with great vigor as I head back to the Cave of Revision.

How was your weekend?