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Feeling My Way to the Write Side of the Desk

Or: In Which I Tantalize the Other Kidlit Bloggers by Not Naming Names

During graduate school, I wrangled myself a part-time job at a local children’s bookstore. This was not exactly a responsible thing to do at the time. After all, I’d taken out student loans in order to finance my two years in the MFA writing program at UNC-Greensboro, so that I could have the privilege of studying under the great Fred Chappell and also so I could apply myself seriously to writing and see if, given the time to devote to craft, I was really cut out to earn my living by the pen. Or keyboard.

Scott was off to New York to begin his internship at DC Comics, pursuing his own dream, and my plan was to spend my two years of grad school doing nothing but writing. I had to work, of course, and I landed a paying position on the editorial staff of The Greensboro Review, the MFA program’s national literary magazine.  The demands of my job as assistant poetry editor, and, in my second year, poetry editor proper, were more than enough to fill the hours not already consumed by my classes, homework, and the composition of original poems and stories for the demanding creative writing workshops.

So naturally, the first thing I did was trot off to the children’s bookstore and pester sweet-talk the owners into hiring me. I just loved that store so much. I wanted to spend time there, among those lovely books, so many of them my old friends. I didn’t know, yet, that children’s literature was my genre—it may sound obtusely un-self-aware, but honestly, it just hadn’t occurred to me that the kind of books I wanted to write for a living were going to be children’s books. No one in the program was a children’s writer, or talked much about children’s literature. We were Serious Poets who read Kumin and Larkin and Heaney; we were Serious Short-Fiction Writers who spoke of The Atlantic Monthly in tones normally reserved for sacred texts. We were all going to write Serious Novels or go broke publishing chapbooks of earnest, intensely serious poetry.

Yet there I was perched on a stool behind the counter at the Dolphin, between the spin rack of beginning readers and the endcap display of Newberys, contentedly reading my way through our inventory. I couldn’t even pretend I needed the job to supplement my poet-in-a-garret paychecks from the Review; I spent every dime of my bookstore earnings on books. I could not, after all, let that tasty employee discount go to waste.

Eventually a classmate pointed out to me that all of my narrators—even in my poems, for I (alone among my peers) favored narrative verse over lyric poetry—were children or elderly people. Sometimes both, in the same poem. Gradually it dawned on me that my comrades-in-ink were approaching writing from a different landscape than I was. The vistas that informed my work were golden-brown Kansas prairies and blossom-clad Prince Edward Island lanes—not the gritty urban streets of the late 20th century. The characters who peopled my imagination were leprechauns, maiden aunts, and barefoot lasses. The stories I was interested in telling had to do with getting into scrapes and getting out of them again, or discovering lost things, or coping with eccentric and boisterous relatives who had a way of putting you in awkward yet ultimately hilarious situations.

By the time I graduated in 1993, I had learned how to articulate my interests, and when I went looking for a job in publishing, hoping to get my foot in the door (and also ready to settle down in New York, where that comic-book-editing boyfriend of mine was shopping for engagement rings), the doors I knocked on were all marked "Children’s." FSG passed on me because my sample reader’s report made no beans about the fact that I thought the manuscript I’d been given to peruse was sloppier than the junk drawer in my kitchen. I didn’t mind, because they were only offering a salary of $15,000—hardly enough to pay for half a month’s expenses in the New York City of the mid-90s. "To be honest," admitted the senior editor who interviewed me, "most of our entry-level staff relies on help from their parents."

Random House offered a more reasonable starting salary—still small potatoes, but at least you could afford your own potatoes instead of having to mooch off Mom and Dad’s. And the executive editor I interviewed with there thought my reader’s report showed sufficient common sense to warrant an offer. I had been given the manuscript blind, unaware that the author was actually a person rather highly regarded in the field. I thought his concept was appealing, and there was a fun, quirky quality to the writing that I quite enjoyed, but the plot, in my opinion, was riddled with holes. The manuscript, I summed up, had potential but would need a tremendous amount of work.

The editor, it turned out, agreed with me one hundred percent. One of my first tasks upon taking up residence in my cubicle was to draft a letter, to be tweaked and signed by my new boss, laying out the points of revision necessary to turn the manuscript into a publishable novel. I found out who the author was, and I gulped at my audacity in issuing so blunt and stern a critique.

(It was right about then I knew for certain I did not want to pursue a career on that side of the desk; the editor’s life was not for me. The job, I hoped, would be a stepping-stone to a writing career—and so it was.)

The Esteemed Author politely and calmly disagreed with the editorial feedback, averring that he viewed writing as an art akin to the Chinese craft of painting on rice-paper, a fiber so fragile that revisions are impossible. He cordially withdrew the manuscript from our consideration, offering to write a new book for our house and amiably confident that another publisher would be happy to accept the manuscript we had problems with.

He knew his business. A year later the book was published by that same FSG editor who had passed me over for his assistant position.

Hanna and Me

Around this time of year I begin to get lots of inquiries about my little picture book, Hanna’s Christmas. Since you can’t even find a copy on Amazon this year, I thought I’d better post about it.  It was published in 2001 as a joint effort by HarperFestival (an imprint of HarperCollins) and Hanna Andersson, the clothing retailer. (I used my married name, Peterson, not my pen name, Wiley.) The Hanna folks carried it in their catalog for a season or two, but the print run was small and it was not expected to live much longer than that.

I was commissioned to write the book as a work-for-hire, which means there’s no royalty—the writer gets a flat fee and that’s that, no matter how well the book sells. Most books involving licensed characters or merchandise tie-ins are work-for-hire projects. I don’t do work-for-hire anymore, but it was a good way to hone my craft when I was young and hungry. It was also a good way to pay scary medical bills when we were self-employed and under-insured.

I’m fond of the Hanna book, although it was a bear to write. Like every other work-for-hire I’ve done, there were too many editors involved, each of them contradicting the others. There was a Harper senior editor, a Harper junior editor, the Harper merch director, and an editor who worked for the packager (a kind of middleman publishing company that put together the deal between Harper and Hanna Andersson). I was hired by the Harper folks to write "a picture book about a little Swedish girl named Hanna who moves to America and is homesick, and it’s Christmas. Oh, and also we’d like there to be a tomten in it."

They already had sketches of Hanna and the tomten—adorably and whimsically drawn by artist Melissa Iwai. From there it was all up to me, sort of. I came up with the storyline, which had to be approved by all the aforementioned folks plus someone at Hanna Andersson itself. Then I wrote a draft, which got bumped back and forth a zillion times as every editor weighed in with contradictory remarks.

Like this. In the first draft, I described the tomten’s hat as "red as a rowanberry." One of the editors bounced it back with a strikethrough.

"Change to ‘his hat was bright red,’ " read the note in the margin. "American readers won’t know what rowanberries are."

Sigh. I argued that "bright red" was flat and boring. Okay, I wasn’t that blunt, but that was the gist. I pointed out that we’d be better off cutting the whole sentence, since the artwork would clearly show that the tomten’s hat was red anyway.

Nope, said the editor, go with "his hat was bright red." So I did, growling at the screen. That’s just dumb writing. When you’re reading a book to your kids, you don’t want to get stuck dragging through pedestrian sentences like "his hat was bright red." Bleh.

And then the next person up the line—the merch director, whom I’d worked with before and who happens to be a first-rate editor—read the manuscript. She sent it back with her comments. There was a note by "his hat was bright red."

"Flat. Can you punch up?"


I changed it to "red as a hollyberry" and that’s the line that made it into the book. I still think rowanberry was better.

But I digress. Anyway, I loved the story and am really very fond of my slightly grumpy Hanna and her even grumpier tomten friend. I was quite pleased that I got to work in the St. Lucia feast day tradition, since that was already such a happy tradition in our little family. I got a kick out of having Hanna and the tomten make a construction paper crown, because that was what I had done for Jane the December before. I loved the artwork—I have never met or even spoken to Melissa Iwai, but I thought her work was gorgeous. (I keep meaning to check out her other books. Looks like she has a lot of them! Her website is cool, too, especially the process section.)

In the end, I was really happy with the book and was a little bummed it was a merch tie-in, because of course that put it in a different category of book and I knew it would never be reviewed by the critics. To my surprise, it did get a nice little review in School Library Journal, but still, it was a merch property, not intended for a long and dignified life on library shelves. After all, the characters are all wearing Hanna Andersson clothing. Even the endpapers are Hanna prints. (We actually have a baby outfit in the same pattern.) Is it a book or a commercial?

That’s the trouble with work-for-hire, and that’s why I’m glad I don’t have to take on that kind of project anymore.

But in the end, I’m glad I took on the Hanna project. I liked the challenge of trying to tell an engaging and well-crafted story within the confines placed upon me by the various bosses. There’s a certain satisfaction in trying to make art out of something so commercial.

Originally, Harper had asked me to write a sequel, but that book got
killed somewhere between the second and third draft. Apparently sales
of Hanna’s Christmas were less than impressive.

So last year I was amused to discover that the book had taken on a new life in the resale market. People were actually hunting for it, trying to land a copy. This year it seems there are no copies on the market at all. I guess everyone who bought it last year decided to hold on to it, which is nice to think about.

Over the years, I gave away almost all of my author comps. The book really is going to disappear for good soon, save for a few scattered copies on people’s Christmas shelves. So to the very nice folks who have written me in recent weeks, asking if I know where you can find copies, I’m afraid I have to tell you I’m unable to help you out. But I deeply appreciate your interest!

Unearthed: My First Story

While going through boxes in the basement, I found my baby book. My mother had tucked this piece of paper inside:


I don’t know how old I was, but I had to have been pretty young. (Mom, do  you remember?)

If you click to enlarge, you can just barely make out that: 1) I had yet to master the lower-case a; 2) the spelling of the word "cousin" had me completely flummoxed; and 3) my understanding of story structure has come a long way. "Look! Look! A bird nest. We will have to take care of it. If we don’t it will die." "OK. Let’s go to the store and buy a big Ice-Cream." "OK. A big big big one!"

So much for the poor little bird. But, I mean, come on! Ice cream!

At the bottom of the page, my mom wrote: "She wrote this story completely by herself. Maybe we have a budding author on our hands."

Aw, Mom! Sniffle…

My Children: Test Audience

One of the best things—maybe THE best—about writing children’s books for a living is getting to try out your stories on your own children first. When they get caught up in the tale you’re reading and forget that you’re their mom and you wrote this, when you get to the end of a chapter and they beg for just one more and you laugh and say there ISN’T any more, I haven’t written it yet and they wring their hands and implore you to just TELL the next bit, oh pleeeease, you have to!—that’s when you know you have the very best job (or combination of jobs) in the whole world.

(As opposed to, say, when you’re writing out giant checks to various medical practitioners because as freelancers you and your husband no longer enjoy the cushy benefits you did when on staff at giant publishing conglomerations.)

Lately I’ve been wondering how many other children’s book authors out there are revelling in the same delicious experience. I can think of one. Like mine, I believe that particular author’s flesh-and-blood critics are brutally frank, which is of course the most useful kind of critic you can have. That’s why children make the best test audience; if they fidget or go “huh?” you know you’ve got some polishing to do. But when you get it right, oh, there is nothing, nothing better than the sight of their heads thrown back in laughter, the sound of their belly laughs in all the right places.