The start of 2018 is as good a time as any to post about awards from 2017! Thérèse Makes a Tapestry won a Bronze PubWest Book Design Award in the Children’s/Young Adult Book, Illustrated category, as well as a 2017 Outstanding Achievement award from the Wisconsin Library Association. Hip hip hooray!
First, let me catch you up to speed a bit. I currently have about 10 picture book manuscripts that I’ve written in the last year. Two of these I have submitted a few places. I am unagented, and up till now I have focused my submissions more on editors, at first because it just seemed like a starting place, and then because I began to get good feedback. I went back and forth with an editor at a fabulous publishing house for a few rounds of revisions on one manuscript, and during that time I stopped submitting it (rookie mistake), even though I didn’t have a contract. Her feedback was immensely helpful and I have zero doubt that it made my story stronger. Ultimately after about six months, though, she passed. I stretched that manuscript every which way trying to improve it after that. But the stretch shows and the story is tired and I’ve tucked it away for the time being. A break will do us good, and I’ll come back to it in the coming months.
I have likewise received a couple of nibbles on the second manuscript I submitted; the encouraging not-quite-yesses and champagne rejections: editors that ask for revisions, dream agents that say not yet but to keep submitting to them. And in this business, when you get those responses, you, or at least I, do break out the champagne (okay, prosecco) to celebrate. I brought the second manuscript to Picture Book Boot Camp with me and to a critique at NESCBWI, and the feedback from both places launched a new round of revisions.
The story is ready for a new round of submissions and check-ins with the editors that asked for revisions. I began by submitting it to some agents that had been recommended to me this morning. Because of the short nature of picture book manuscripts, typically you either copy and paste the entire text within the body of your submission or attach it as a word doc or pdf. One of the agencies had me fill out a form and not include the text, though. It said something to the effect of if they were interested they’d request the manuscript. Again, this is unusual with picture book submissions.
Well I heard back from them in less than two hours that they were not interested in moving forward with representation. I.e. they didn’t even want to read the story! Oof! I guess it’s kind of a relief to hear back that quickly. In most cases it takes weeks and months to get a response, and in some cases you never hear back. But it also stinks.
What do I do after such a speedy, disheartening rejection? Well, I cut myself a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie (if you’re interested in my baking escapades you should follow me on Instagram), made a cup of tea, indulged in both. I wrote this blog post, because I promised I would include you in my process, and, as I expected, it’s already helping me.
And now I will get back to my lists and figure out who to submit to next. Onwards!
Almost two years after my mother’s death, Mother’s Day comes with a sting and a yearning. I still want to do something for her. On the Mother’s Day before she died (7/18/15), I gave her a poem I wrote for her. Last year, I shared some snippets of memories on Facebook. I thought that this year I would write for her again, and for me, too.
When I was 16 years old, Mom took me to Paris during my spring school vacation. I had longed to go to France for as far back as my memory would take me, possibly as a result of reading Madeline. Some French lessons from a family friend in first grade cemented my dreams. Mom loved to travel, did so fairly often for audiology conferences, and whenever she could beyond that. I was a lucky companion on many of these trips.
There are three things that I remember most about that first trip to Paris. I remember feeling overwhelmed and disappointed as we drove to the hotel. Paris was not the quaint city from Madeline (I did not watch much television as a kid, and my book knowledge was limited. I’m not sure I’d seen many images of Paris beyond Madeline). It had a largeness and in some parts a grittiness that I recognized from Boston and New York City, but the pictures I’d drawn in my head as I read stories about Paris had not included those identifying markers of cities. The surprise and sharp disappointment passed quickly, leaving me feeling foolish and much more grown-up now that I knew, but they left a distinct imprint.
The second thing was the concierge at our small hotel. Upon arrival my mom mentioned to him—a short, sturdy, middle-aged, dark-haired man— that I was learning French. From that point on, the concierge only spoke to me in French and insisted I respond in kind, a striking difference from many others who had no patience for my timid tongue. He made me realize I could speak French. That sounds silly, but my confidence before then had been nonexistent (except when given the chance to make fun of my mom’s attempts and accent. She never let me forget my meanness when it came to French either).
The third thing was the day Mom took me to Moulin Rouge. This was a month or two before the big motion picture by that title came out. I had read about the cabaret in French class. I asked Mom if we could go, and she said yes. So off we went to Montmartre and we took in an afternoon show. Mom and I were some of the only women at that particular performance, and I was, without a doubt, the youngest audience member in the building, a circumstance that Mom and I laughed about for years to come. Remember, I was the girl who, mere days before, had been shocked to find that things such as graffiti and business districts existed in Paris. I was the most naïve person I knew. So imagine my reaction to bare-breasted women dancing and swinging from acrobatic contraptions. And up till then, I had thought of Mom as conservative in her social views. She was my mom.
But that afternoon changed my understanding of her. At various points we laughed and oohed and clapped. Mostly we sat quietly in that loud celebration of music and tradition and beauty, of masculinity and femininity. I was acutely aware that I was experiencing something that, had I truly understood what the show would be like, I felt certain Mom never would have allowed. And here she was next to me, not insisting we leave. Indeed, having fun and elbowing me every now and again, but more than anything giving me room to react and process.
Afterwards, I didn’t feel ready to return to the hotel and read, or to some organized and guided activity. I wanted to keep exploring and discovering. “Can we walk?” I asked Mom. We were several miles at least from our hotel. “Sure,” she replied in her easy, agreeable, ready-for-an-adventure way.
We walked for hours, without a plan, sometimes talking, sometimes silent in that thoughtful way of silence that holds hands. Sometimes we walked arm and arm and sometimes follow-the-leader when the sidewalks narrowed and people hurried. The second my mood began to sour and my legs began to tire she sat me down at a café and ordered me a café au lait, herself an espresso, and elaborate desserts for the both of us. Then we continued. We walked until the sun went down and the lights came up. Then we went to dinner, and ate more dessert.
My mind was reeling from the day. My greatest discovery was my mom’s openness to letting me experience something completely new and outside my comfort zone, and welcoming my reaction, whatever it was, giving me the space to react. And yet, my reaction was informed by her good humor and enjoyment, too. I knew then that I wanted to some day be the kind of mother who would agree to her young teenage daughter’s request to catch a show at the Moulin Rouge, and be willing to ditch plans and wander.
Mom and I became even closer from that trip and through the years. And I still want and strive to be a mother like her.
In the last month I’ve attended Picture Book Boot Camp with Jane Yolen, spoken on a high school Creative Careers Panel, gone to NESCBWI Annual, and spent a day in Augusta at Reading Round-Up. In between I’ve worked on picture book revisions, and written some drafts of new picture books. I’ve also received notes from friends and acquaintances asking about next steps they should take as they write, prepare to publish, or think about marketing.
While I’m still processing all of these experiences, together they’ve made me think about how I tell stories. How I write my manuscripts, of course, but also how I write about my experiences here and on social media.
I noticed a common thread woven through the events of the past month, not a main theme, but a repeated sidenote: what we see of an artist’s experiences represents their successes. But even the most successful authors (and yes, I do mean J. K. Rowling), have faced loads of rejections and setbacks in their careers.
I’m at the beginning of my writing career, and I don’t have tons of books to celebrate. Maybe (hopefully!) someday, but not yet. I have one, and believe me, I continue to celebrate the heck out of it! The truth is I haven’t encountered the bulk of my rejection letters. The majority of them lie ahead.
And I think I’d like to share them with you.
The world of children’s book publishing is full of mystery, even to those of us in the thick of it. I have worked on both ends of it, and there remains so much I need to learn! At the same time readers, teachers, librarians, and other writers enjoy hearing about an author’s process and journey, especially the obstacles. After all, we share a love of stories, and any good story includes a good challenge. So while I can’t yet offer you news about my next book contract (I don’t have one), I can let you in on my process. I can include you on my journey. Maybe it will be useful to you. More likely it will prove helpful to me.
So let’s make it official: welcome. I am an unagented, traditionally published children’s book author, a librarian, a historian, and a mom. I’m scared to make public a path that includes sometimes personal and sometimes even bitter disappointments. At the same time one of the most important things I’ve learned so far in my career is that there are rejections worth celebrating, and closed doors that lead to open doors. We’ll talk more about those another time. For this next year I will try to offer you an honest glimpse of what it’s like to write, submit, revise, learn about a peculiar and secretive business, connect with readers, and find triumph in unexpected places. I invite you along on my steps and stumbles.* Here goes nothing!
*I reserve the right to end this experiment at any time and hide back in my writing/waiting hole.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. To those who say #Neveragain but support the new White House administration, or to those who didn’t vote for it but don’t feel like it is their battle to fight or perhaps feel that it is too big a battle to fight, this is the moment to speak up. Arguably it is past the moment, but do not underestimate the amount of damage that can still be done, that is actively being planned, the amount of damage that we cannot even imagine yet, and that that “damage” includes death: not just lives lost, because we know where they are and can help, but lives deliberately cast aside and rejected. Refugee lives & American lives. Future American lives. It isn’t all DT & co. either although they are empowering the meanness & smallness in this country, ironically making them grow. Here in Maine our governor has announced that on March 4th our state will no longer provide aid or help resettle refugees. (*offering my hope now that on March 4th we Mainers march forth). Instead all responsibility will shift to Catholic charities. But our federal government has suspended even interviewing refugees right now. This. Is. The. Moment. Your voice matters. Do not doubt that. Call your congressmen and women, your local elected officials. Those calls matter. Get involved. Grow our kindness, our empathy, our compassion, our essential American qualities. Not our fear. Grow our courage. Grow our voice. It’s a moment to be loud. Do so with respect, but don’t doubt for a minute that you can do both. Call it damage control, call it activism, call it goodness, call it faith & practicing your religion, call it an American right and tradition. But call. If you don’t know where to start, pick one thing and call. Do. Act. Reach. Write. Rise. Pull out all those verbs. Now is a time for verbs.
It is almost Thanksgiving, and two weeks have passed since an election that made me feel less secure in this country. When I think about gratitude this year, these events cannot be separated.
I am grateful.
I am grateful for my immediate family. They keep me grounded, and make me smile and laugh every single day.
I am grateful for the friends and family in my life that are expressing their outrage over the president-elect’s dangerous appointments and calling their congresswomen and men to ask them to take a stand against individuals who represent prejudice and hatred.
I am grateful that people who voted for Trump number among these friends and family making calls to protest Stephen Bannon’s appointment, grateful that they mean it when they say they are concerned, they are listening, they are trying.
I am grateful that people who didn’t vote for Trump who said “let’s wait and see” number among these friends and family making calls, because they have seen enough and do not want to wait to see the policies that follow such harmful appointments.
I am grateful for government employees and members of congress who speak out against racism, xenophobia, religious prejudices, homophobia, sexism and the appointments that would carry representation for all of those prejudices into the White House. Who refute or dismiss those that say, “white privilege is imagined.” Thank you for being ready to fight for and with us.
I am grateful to live in a country where dissent is allowed, where it is tradition, where it is a right. I remind myself of the many places around the globe where this is not the case and appreciate the ability I have to speak out and be heard.
I am grateful to live in a country where the people have a say in the government. Yes, it’s a democratic republic, and not a true democracy, and no, the election outcome was not the outcome I wanted, and there is a lot of fear for good reason right now. But still, I am grateful to live somewhere that there is a process in which the people have the right to be heavily involved.
I am grateful to live in a community that cares. I spent yesterday speaking to over 20 businesses in Bangor, and almost all of them contributed to a care package to deliver to an individual, a person of color, who was assaulted last week. I am grateful to live somewhere that comes out in force to say, “This is not okay.”
I am grateful for theaters and performance spaces. Theaters have formed the safest of spaces in so many people’s lives, including my own: the space where you can make yourself uncomfortable and step out and speak or sing or play or dance, and know that you are supported, the space where you can make your audience uncomfortable and it is expected and appreciated. It is part of the unspoken agreement, the invisible contract between an audience member and a performer.
I am grateful to teachers: those in my life, those in my children’s lives, those in my readers’ lives, and those all over this country, this world. I am grateful that there are people who fulfill that most precious of tasks, educating our children, and do so eagerly, willingly, and lovingly, despite the amount of time and energy involved, which goes far beyond the realm of other jobs. I am grateful for teachers who do not view the use of that time and energy as a sacrifice, but as an opportunity. I am grateful to those teachers and professors who taught me to push at the seams and pull at the strings of the narratives that pad our history, to ask, to listen, to respond, to create, to read, and read, and read.
I am grateful for libraries and librarians. I am thankful there are places I can go, more safe spaces, to seek out information and stories that help me undo those narratives and build my understanding of our society, our world. I am grateful to those librarians who actively build their collections and set out displays to allow me to do that, and to read, and read, and read.
I am grateful for children’s books. I am thankful I can return from the library with bagfuls of books to share with my children. I am grateful those books show brown and tan and pink and yellow and rainbow people making peace, making friends, making music, making signs, making rebellions, making adventures. I am grateful for the mirrors and windows and empathy in those books. I am grateful for nonsensical, nonhuman, fantastical books, too. They also offer mirrors and windows, but perhaps those mirrors came from a funhouse, and maybe the windows from a moving high-speed train.
I am grateful for the children’s book community. I am grateful to belong to a community that creates stories children and young adults (and let’s be honest, adults, too) can disappear into and/or absorb into their skin, after which they feel more visible. I am grateful for We Need Diverse Books and the conversations they push, and for The Brown Bookshelf and the commitment they’ve cultivated “toward the goals of equality, justice, and peace.” I am grateful to belong to a community that is able to self-reflect and critique and revise.
I am grateful for readers. Oh readers, I am above all thankful for you. You give us our purpose. You move our goals. You inspire us every time we type a word. You bring our stories to life. Your voice matters. You are powerful. We care. I care. Thank you for keeping us accountable.
Today is my birthday, and I have decided to share my wishlist of amazing gifts that you could give me or any other children’s book author or illustrator. I know you’ve been wondering. So here you go, my friends.
11 Meaningful Gifts To Give A Children’s Book Author Or Illustrator
- Stop by your local library and ask if they have their book. If they don’t because it’s checked out, great! But if they don’t yet own a copy, ask them to order it. If librarian tells you to add it to a suggestion box, please do! Chances are, it will be ordered.
- Stop by your local bookstore and ask if they carry their book. If not, ask them to order it.
- Stop by your local elementary/middle/high school and ask if the book is in the school library. If not, ask them to order it.
- Write a review of their book on Goodreads, Amazon, or another online platform of your choice.
- Add their book to your Goodreads to-read list. They won’t be offended if you admit if you haven’t read it yet. They’ll be delighted by the addition! Those numbers matter!
- Tell a friend about their book. Heck, tell a stranger about their book.
- Turn to social media. Post or tweet about their book. Like their author page. Suggest people like their author or illustrator page. Share a post they have written. If their book is new (and they have made one), visit, comment on, and/or like their SCBWI Book Blast page!
- If that author does school visits (hey, New England & tri-state area, friends, I do!), tell your school’s PTO, principal, and/or teachers that you think the author would be a fabulous choice for a school event. The NUMBER ONE way that authors schedule school visits is through word of mouth! That’s you, friends!
- Purchase their book to gift to a child in your life.
- Purchase their book to donate to a classroom, school library, public library, or literacy drive.
- Read their book to a child in your life. Read any book you love to a child in your life. Continue that circle of connection, communication, and compassion that occurs when you read aloud to someone.
Do you have any other ideas? Share them below! Thank you for your birthday wishes!
I am excited to announce that I am launching a series of workshops for young writers. These weekly writing workshops will be held in downtown Bangor starting in September. Stay tuned for more details and sign-up in the next few weeks!
I returned from my very first NESCBWI (New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference two weeks ago. I went into the conference excited and nervous, feelings not unlike those I experienced before going to summer camp or a new school. I expected to learn a lot, and I did, although not always the things I expected. Here are some of my overall take-aways.
- An author’s an author, no matter how small. Okay, so this was a joint Dr. Seuss and NESCBWI lesson. I heard some fabulous authors and illustrators speak. I felt daunted by their success, their ever-growing lists of publications, their awards, their name recognition. But by the end of the conference I noticed a common theme running through their speeches: they’ve all experienced self-doubt at some point in their career, and often in between books. Whether you’ve just published your first book or your ninth, you start all over again on the next one. At some point that new project will try to break your heart, be it at the writing, querying, revising, or post-publication stage, or possibly (but hopefully not) at all of them! That doesn’t mean you’re less of an author. It means you ARE an author.
- It’s all about balance. It was tempting to attend only workshops on subjects I already love. However, I realized through trial and error that balancing those close-to-home workshop topics with ones less familiar kept my creativity sparking and my wheels turning.
- Get uncomfortable. Likewise, whether attending a workshop on a topic that was out of my comfort zone or doing something like reading at an open mic event, I felt most energized and excited in the places I felt the least comfortable.
- Be kind. One keynote speaker mentioned he tries to be kind. The conference in general made me remember, for the thousandth time in my life, what a big difference kindness makes. Whether it was fellow writers telling me how much they liked my book or manuscript, or friends and hotel employees helping me find places to pump (fist bump to all the working nursing mamas out there!), those moments that glowed as they happened still glow now. I tried and am still trying to make some of those moments for others, too. That reminder to be kind never grows old for me.
- Make stories, not mistakes. At the end of a long first conference (and travel) day I realized I’d been walking around with a lint sheet stuck to my bottom for the entire day. It was at that point I decided to laugh and said, “I make stories, not mistakes.” So let me tell you about the time I walked around with a lint sheet stuck to rear end for an entire day…
- Drink water. Lots of it. I thought I’d learned this years ago, but I battled a migraine after an accidentally dehydrated first afternoon. All that excitement! Oops.
- Kidlit authors and illustrators are fun. Enough said.
- Take the energy and run. After I returned home I could have just collapsed. Well, no, I couldn’t have. My supervisors (ages 3.5 years & 18 months) would not have allowed it. But all that travel time and conference adrenaline caught up with me fast once I walked back in my door. I count myself lucky that I happened to have a school visit coming up one week later. It kept me motivated to open up my conference notes and get to work right away. I wanted to incorporate some of the fabulous ideas and information I’d learned. As soon as I cracked that binder open my to-do list grew. I had e-mails to write, events to plan, and stories to write. Plus that presentation to fine tune and practice. (I knew all those years of public speaking contests and theater classes would come in handy some day!) If I or my boys had allowed my collapse, I might have let a lot slide. Instead, I have a presentation I feel great about, new connections online and in real life who make my writing gig feel a little less isolating, schemes afoot, and stories simmering.
- (Re)invent yourself. The conference theme, “(Re)invention,” struck a chord with me. Beforehand, I had this vague sense of an impending comeuppance. Even before the conference I noticed that a new writer friend and I had both thought the other belonged in some way that the other one didn’t. I soon learned that “imposter syndrome” is a common symptom of being a writer. My (re)invention was just that, a re-identification, recreation, and recognition of myself as an author, a writer, and a member of a particularly fabulous and quirky group of people.
Thank you to all of the conference organizers, especially co-directors Josh Funk, Heather Kelly, and Marilyn Salerno, as well as speakers and workshop presenters, including Anna Staniszewski, Jane Yolen, Wendy Mass, Jen Malone, Ammi-Joan Paquette, Patrick Carman, Zaneta Jung, Tara Lazar, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Mary E. Cronin & Bonnie Jackman, Colby Sharp, Matt Forrest Esenwine, and Amitha Knight. And to the hotel employee who opened a locked door for me rather than making me trudge back to the jam-packed elevator. You all inspired me! Here’s to an imaginative year ahead!
What are some favorite events or sources of inspiration in your professional life? What have they taught you?
I am delighted to learn that Thérèse Makes a Tapestry is included in CCBC Choices 2016. I spent many hours in the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) during my library school days, poring over copies of CCBC Choices, and flopped on the floor reading piles of children’s books. It is truly an honor to have my own book included in such a thoughtfully curated collection!