Out of the Closet: Children’s Book Junkie

E.B. White, A.A. Milne, Laura Ingalls Wilder. They did it.

Growing up, I remember tree houses, mud pies, baseball games and reading. When I thought my parents were asleep I’d switch on my light for that ‘one last chapter.’

“Eliz-a-beth!” My mother would call out syllable by syllable.

“Oh p-lease,” I’d beg. “Just five more minutes.”

My mother, deep into an Agatha Christie mystery, would be sympathetic. We’d negotiate a time deadline.

In my teenage years, I ‘graduated’ to adult novels and dutifully read Hemingway and Faulkner, but I’d sneak in a Cleary and Estes for fun.

One day, while in my high school library, I forgot to cover Harriet the Spy with a Donald Westlake book jacket.

“You’re reading a children’s book?” accused a high school jock with disdain.

“I have to read it to my little cousin,” I lied, trying to cover my embarrassment.

In college, I double majored in elementary education and children’s theater.
A fellow drama student asked me, “When are you going to get out of kiddie theater and do a real play?”

Would this scorn never end?

After college graduation, I taught elementary school. Suddenly it was okay to read and collect children’s books, for my students’ sake. Whenever caught engrossed in a stack of picture books I’d defend myself, “I’m a teacher.” Never mind that I taught sixth grade.

When I had my son, Tofer, I never realized, he, too, would become another excuse for my addiction. We indulged our habits together as he grew: from picture books to easy readers, chapter books to young adult. Books gave us a bond that bridged our relationship from the terrible twos – and later – through the terrible teens. We became co-dependants.

Once, while caught in a doctor’s waiting room without reading material, I resorted to telling my toddler a story. One that I made up. Homegrown, so to speak. He liked the story and clamored for more, which gave me a high like I never experienced before.

Next, I started writing the stories down. It gave me an adrenaline rush which lasted for days. Then I found people like me.

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. http://www.scbwi.org Nearly everyone I meet either wants to write for children or knows someone who does. It’s a world where Mary Jane is a character, not something to smoke; a magic mushroom is a plot device, not a hallucinogen, and a muggle is merely a character in J.K. Rowling’s series.

When I took classes and went to conferences, I’d feel a buzz for days.
My addiction turned into a career, when I started selling my stories.
If my tales entice you to try this trip, be forewarned. Writing children’s books isn’t as easy as it looks. And I’m not feeding you a line. It’s a tough business to crack.

There’s a well-known story among children’s addicts – I mean authors, about Dr. Seuss, a.k.a. Theodor Geisel. He met a neurosurgeon at a party. The neurosurgeon said to him, “I write children’s books as a hobby.”

“I too have a hobby,” Geisel replied. “Brain surgery.”

Besides a loving kids’ books, wanna be children’s writers must have some talent and a whole lot of persistence. The slush pile rejection rate is high, competition is stiff, and the monetary rewards are slim.

With the exception of J.K. Rowling and a few celebrity children’s authors (that’s another article), writing for children won’t make you rich. Many of us supplement our meager royalties with speaking engagements, author visits to schools, and other part-time employment.

I love my career, not for the money (or lack of it), but because I love children’s literature and the process of writing for children. . .

. . . Going back into my childhood memories, mining them for stories. Remembering my father’s rusty old Chevy, liberally sprinkled with holes. When it rained, my mother and I opened umbrellas to keep us dry. Dad yelled, “Get ‘em up!” as we’d approach a mud puddle. Our legs raised high, water plinking and plunking into a bucket on the seat, later became the origin of Help! My Life is Going to the Dogs. . . . Using what I see and hear around me. My son, Tofer, and his kindergarten classmates inspired Louise the One and Only. . . . bonding with kids in schools and talking about books and creative inspiration. I hope to give them the idea that reading children’s books is cool. And writing them is even better.

Now when I read the children’s classics – Charlotte’s Web, Winnie-the Pooh, Little House in the Big Woods, I enjoy them not only because, as any true book-lover realizes, a good book gets better with each and every re-reading, but for the appreciation of the children’s authors’ craft.

Recently, while searching a bookstore for reading material, I ran into an acquaintance.

“Buying gifts?” she asked me, eyeing the stack of children’s books in my arms.

“No,” I said. “They’re for me. I love them.”
She raised one eyebrow. “Reading that stuff actually entertains you?”

I glanced down at the Danielle Steele novel in her hand.

I was tempted to ask her the same thing.

Writing Exercises: 1. What children’s book is your favorite? Why? Pick up a children’s book today and read it. 2. Use a childhood memory to inspire your own writing. 3. Use part of your daily life to create a humorous story!

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