About eight years ago, I "came out" ... as an aspiring children's book author/illustrator.
I publicly declared to my friends and family that this thing that I'd been doing on the sly for years, was my biggest dream. And I vowed to them and to myself that I would see one of my books on bookstore shelves ... or die trying. I declared that I'd be sitting in my wooden rocker at the Peaceful Gardens Rest Home still sending out queries if that's what it took.
At that point in my life, I started writing with a sense of purpose and a feeling of accountability. I actually forced myself to finish stories (I had a bad habit of beginning to write children's books and then moving on to the next thing when it got too hard). I painted scenes from these stories.
When I felt like I had a fabulous story and a full-blown painted book dummy (a mistake to finish it to that degree, I now know ... sketches are better to send out!), I started to show my work to people. I showed my book to my family, and they loved it (of course). I showed my book to some friends, and they all loved it, too.
Then I got bolder. I had a friend with a PhD in children's lit. I took her to dinner and showed her my book ... and she loved it! I showed it to bookseller friends, and what do you know? They loved it too!!
Enter Sheldon Fogelman ...
Sheldon Fogelman was Maurice Sendak's agent and attorney. He's kind of a big deal in the world of children's books, to put it mildly. And since Maurice Sendak's death, this encounter has been on my mind:
I was helping with our annual Conference for the Book here in Oxford, and Richard Peck was our featured children's author. Sheldon Fogelman is his agent and came along with him for his visit.
I was standing in our wonderful indie children's bookstore, and the then manager of the store opened her desk drawer and pulled out my book dummy (I had left one up at the store with her because, well, you never know, right?). "I'm going to show this to Sheldon," she whispered. I nodded and followed behind her as she pitched my manuscript and handed it to him. He flipped through it quickly and then a little more slowly.
And then he looked up at me with a look that I can only describe as "bless your heart". You know the one--the closed mouth smile and head shaking back and forth. My pounding heart lodged somewhere in my throat as I tried to keep my hands from shaking. I reached toward my manuscript. I wanted to snatch it away from him and then run like a maniac from the store.
But before I could grab it, he started talking.
"This is terrible," he said.
The room started closing in around me.
"I mean, what IS this? It's rhyming, first of all. How are you going to have that translated into other languages. And this art? It's too fine art and painterly. Kids don't want to look at this--they can't tell what's going on ... and why are some of the paintings in black and white and then they're in color? Are you just trying to PROVE to people that you can paint in black and white."
"Well," I choked out. "The story is about this little curmudgeon who refuses to see all the colors in the world around him. But gradually he begins to see. That's kind of the point of the story."
"And, my GOD! There's not even a child in the story."
(Can I just say that all of these words are being said in a thick New York accent with lots of exasperated sighs and grunts--he's clearly offended all around, as if it's insulting to him to have to be looking at this piece of drivel.)
"I mean, this is just AWFUL."
"Um, okay. Thank you so much for looking at it. I really appreciate it ..." I stammered along, still reaching for my book and trying to get it back from him as he continued to flip through it and loudly sigh. Finally, I just grabbed it and got out of there.
And, yes. I ran home and cried. I licked my wounds for days. I went through the stages of grief (yes, including anger, denial), ending up with hope. Yes. Hope.
After a few weeks of processing what he'd said and really thinking through it. I realized something.
He was absolutely right.
This book would never, ever be published. And who was I kidding--this was Maurice Sendak's agent and he took the time to look at my manuscript. I should be grateful.
And now I am.
I learned many, many things from this encounter--things besides the fact that my manuscript was horrible:
1. I realized that I still had a lot to learn about children's books, and with a little nudge from my friend Katie Anderson (whose YA book Kiss and Makeup will be released by Amazon Publishing in October), I joined SCBWI and started going to conferences.
2. It is best to listen to advice from people who are currently IN THE BUSINESS (agents, editors, other published writers). Also, you need to get advice from people who aren't friends or family. I actually picked a pretty good group to look at my manuscript, but I needed to expand my circle a bit more.
3. Be nice when critiquing other people's work. Mr. Fogelman could have been a little more sensitive and saved me some anguish. There actually were some good things about the book that I showed him--things I was able to extrapolate and use later--but he didn't mention any of those things, and to be fair, he might not have seen anything good about my book at all.
Besides, I don't think it's his style to be and hand-holding, butter-you-up kind of guy--and really, once you've reached his level, you've earned the right to be as blunt as you want to be. It wasn't personal, and again, his remarks were dead-on.
But I like to start every manuscript critique with something positive to say. What can I say? I'm a Southern girl!
4. Most importantly, it set me up for years of rejection letters and critique groups. Nothing I went through later was quite as humbling as this face-to-face encounter with one of the moguls of children's literature. Nothing. And Mr. Fogelman taught me an invaluable lesson in taking criticism and developing thick skin. But mostly, he taught me that when I felt beaten down and hopeless, I had the ability to pick myself up and put myself right back out there.
And it was because of that ability to keep trying new things and to keep sending books out no matter what the response, that I've finally reached my dream of having that book on the shelves.
And, I do want to reiterate that this post isn't meant to be a slam of Sheldon Fogelman. The man's a genius (I mean, he discovered Mo Willems as well!), and I truly am grateful to him.