I am proud to say I come from creative genes. My paternal grandmother was an artist, and my grandfather was a musician. They bred three sons (one an architect) who all have/had amazing creative problem solving skills. My maternal grandmother was a baker, sewer, knitter, crocheter-extraordinare; and my grandfather loved writing about family history (he journaled every day). They bred two daughters and a son, all of whom are creative in their own right. My aunt and I share a love for children’s books. When her children were young (and long before stores sold plush toy characters as book companions), she began making them stuffed animal versions of their favorite story-book characters. Then she made them for her nieces (me!) and nephews. Then she designed a few of her own. She started her own business, selling her toys at craft fairs, a few stores, and to a fabric designer. As her biggest fan, we have a huge collection of Carolyn Cook Toys. I love them all, but there is one that I think is particularly unique. I told her I thought he needed his own story.
So I remember this in the moments between barely-queasy-but-not-quite-able-to-get-off-the-couch-for-fear-of-falling-over and almost-normal-appearing-enough-so-the-kids-think-it’s-fine-to-jump-all-over-you, and I grab a pen and paper and start to write. I let the mouse in long enough to nibble some crumbs and then whisked him away again. But I didn’t bolt the door shut. I filed the story away and, somewhere along the line, began to keep a notebook. The visits from Mouse were brief and secretive. It was a hobby; a far-fetched dream. I had no real talent, and I could never compare to “professional” writers. But because I couldn’t seem to stop the ideas from popping into my head, I felt better when I wrote them down.
Well, this job turned into another and another, and before I knew it I had a small side business going. I even branched out and designed my own items, mostly using left-over trims and pieces of fabric from bigger projects. I learned how much to charge for my time and designs, where to get sewing supplies wholesale, how to create a website and Facebook page for my business, the ins and outs of record keeping and tax paying, and places to sell my wares beyond word-of-mouth. This was by no means a full-time job (I already had one of those taking care of five children), but it was a creative outlet that earned a little money on the side. Of course this was also another reason to muffle the mouse . . . .
Over the years, I’ve made several friends at my local gym. One of these friends was Nancy. Through weekly small talk before or after class, we grew to know each other a little. I can’t remember how it came up in conversation, but one day she mentioned that she was a children’s book writer and, after some time away, was getting back into it. For the first time out loud (to anyone other than immediate family), I told her I was too. I had found a writing buddy. She encouraged me to join SCBWI. I finally did. I attended my first local conference with her. She recommended I read Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul. I read it cover to cover. I shared a manuscript draft with her and she gave me an honest, insightful critique. I revised it. I made that mouse wait a long time, but now I was ready to let him in for regular visits, and no longer in secret.
I would like to tell you that, on one of his visits, Mouse brought a friend with him who loved my work and wanted to represent me. And that some of those stories I dreamed up became published books. But I can’t. Not yet. As I said, it took a long time just to let Mouse in, but I believe the timing wasn’t right then. And when Mouse’s agent or publisher friend comes for tea (or, hopefully, something in the form of chocolate), the timing will be right, and I will be ready. And I will have new visitors to tell you about in a Part 3. Stay tuned . . . .
My journey to writing for children has been long, bumpy and full of twists and turns. Along the way I have been a little like Bear from A Visitor for Bear written by Bonnie Becker. The summary on the book jacket reads: "Bear is quite sure he doesn't like visitors. He even has a sign. So when a mouse taps on his door one day, Bear tells him to leave. But when Bear goes to the cupboard to get a bowl -- there is mouse! Small and gray and bright-eyed!"
I don't think I've been quite as grumpy as Bear (though my children might argue that point), but like him, I have pushed away a persistent visitor for years. The first time this visitor (fittingly, in the form of a mouse) arrived, I was in fifth grade. Steven Kellogg gave a presentation at my elementary school. I sat in awe as he talked about writing picture books and drew characters from his stories.
It was a revelation that real, live, actual people wrote books (kind of like I thought teachers lived in school, not realizing that they had families & homes of their own). Mr. Kellogg helped plant that first seed. I started writing about, and even sketching, my own characters and worlds for them. But that dream began to fade -- initially because I began to doubt my ability to illustrate (and didn't quite grasp the concept that you could, indeed, be a writer and not an illustrator); later because I began to doubt my ability to write.
Still, like Mouse, that little visitor managed to squeeze in again. As I got older my desire to read for pleasure waned as my required school reading increased. But when I babysat (which became a much preferred, and very steady, source of income), one of my favorite things to do was read picture books. I started to appreciate this genre in a new way. I admired the creativity of these authors and illustrators and marveled at their ability to connect with their audience. But I denied any thought that I could create such wonderful pieces of art.
Of course that job involved children. And children like to read what? You guessed it! That persistent visitor was at it again!
Even though all my jobs and graduate school studies involved children, they didn't always involve books. So I gave myself "permission" to purchase a picture book once a year. Starting way back in my college sophomore year, I gave my boyfriend a picture book for Christmas. I chose it because it's theme was meaningful to us. The next year, I chose a new one, and so on. I eventually married that boy, and, needless to say, he has quite a collection.
Then came our first child.Trips to the bookstore! Story Time at the library! And another "excuse" to purchase a picture book for her every Christmas. I could usually find a book that had some significance, but as I added to my family and continued to carry on the tradition, I sometimes found myself wishing there was a book about . . . . but, no. Those bright eyes looked longingly at me again, but I pushed the visitor out. Besides, I was way too busy doing what I loved (and still do!) -- being a mom -- to think about writing any of these ideas down.
Heather is a busy wife and mom of five rambunctious children and one lovable pup They all provide lots of distractions, but oodles of inspiration. Sometimes the pictures and ideas in her head turn into her own children's stories, but she always makes time to read other people's books. Sometimes she reviews them here.