December 11, 2002
The Accidental Children's Writer By Susan Heyboer O'Keefe
"You should write children's books," suggested my mother.
Me? A children's writer? I possessed the language of Shakespeare, the insight of Dostoevsky, and (I just knew it) the marketability of Danielle Steel. Why waste all that on children? I was a SERIOUS writer, and I had a brand-new advanced degree to prove it. Besides, whoever listened to their mother?
Rejection led to rejection led to writer's block. After many years of banging my head against that block, I happened on an adult ed catalog. Listed was a course on children's books by the now recently deceased Maia Wojciechowska, Newbery Award winner for the novel Shadow Of The Bull. I'd never heard of the book or its author. And Newbery -- wasn't that an old chain of bargain stores?
I signed up, figuring a change of pace might help break my block. I thought the aim of the course was to study children's books, like a junior version of a lit class. I never expected I'd have to write one.
Though I'd been out of school a while, my inner Goody-Two-Shoes came out of lurkdom at the first assignment to make sure I had something to hand in. I wrote a counting book with monsters. There. I'd done my homework.
Wojciechowska liked it and told me to pick a place and mail it off.
That, at least, I knew how to do. I mailed out the manuscript, was quickly rejected, mailed it out again -- and got back a letter from Little Brown saying they liked it and wanted me to rewrite. It was mainly a matter of length since, not knowing anything about children's writing, I had submitted enough material for probably a hundred-page counting book. I cut and rewrote, re-submitted, and had an acceptance.
Wow! Was that easy, or what?
On the strength of my whopping $2500 advance, I did what any rational person would do and quit my job. My new game plan was this: I'd knock off a couple of children's books a year. Then, between my profit-sharing from my old 9-to-5 and the new children's book advances destined to roll in, I'd have time to write that Shakespeare-Dostoevsky-Danielle Steel adult book. Once that was written, the huge royalties and movie rights would fund my next novel.
Please, it's not polite to laugh at the reality challenged.
I didn't have another children's trade book accepted for almost ten years. So the advances did not roll in, and my profit sharing was quickly spent. What about my adult blockbuster? It was actually picked up by an agent who brought it to auction. But nobody bid, and the agent soon dropped me. I plugged on anyway, almost masochistically persistent, fueled by acceptance of a few children's books by a religious publisher and a steady flow of editing assignments that miraculously dropped into my lap. Surely they were a sign that I should keep going!
At last things began to happen -- a picture book by a trade publisher, then another, and another. Sales to bookclubs. My first book reissued as a board book. Finally I combined my old love with the new one that I'd fought so hard, and I wrote a young adult novel. It was just published this spring.
Am I trying to "grow into" adult writing? Maybe. Do I still think SERIOUS adult writing is superior to children's writing? Not a chance. A 50,000-word novel is l-o-n-g-e-r than a 50-word picture book, that's all. You'd think by now we'd have learned at least that; different is not necessarily better.
Now I think of myself as someone who writes for all ages.
And I try to ignore my mother when she says, "I told you so."
Susan Heyboer O'Keefe's YA novel is My Love And Death By Alexandra Canarsie, about a teenager who attends the funerals of strangers and ends up solving the mystery of her own life. The first chapter is online at http://www.susanheyboerokeefe.homestead.com/cover.html. She also has a dozen picture books published or under contract. For anyone who's wondering, she still relies on editing to pay the rent.
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