I’m a late bloomer. I’ve been writing for kids for about 30 years, and I sold my first picture book in 2010.
In college, my favorite class was Introduction to Children’s Literature, better known as Kiddie Lit, an elective in my elementary education curriculum at the University of Iowa back in the last century – in the 1960s.
We poured over the history of children’s books and discussed folktales, fairy tales and tall tales but barely touched on recent authors or picture books. It wasn’t until I started teaching first grade in Los Angeles that I paid much attention to books for kids. I was amazed at the poetic genius and the simple beauty of picture books. A picture book is like a small gem, sparkling and shining in a child’s hand. Frederick by Leo Leoni, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and Elmer by David McKee are among the best.
During my 15 years in the classroom, I even rediscovered picture books I had enjoyed as a child: Caps for Sale, The Story of Ferdinand, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. These books are classics – though some were not current even in 1967. Ferdinand was published in 1936. I loved it as a child. When I found the book again, the story tumbled out of my memory: “Once upon a time in Spain there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand.” Ferdinand rarely played with the other bulls. He would rather sit under his favorite tree and smell the flowers. Then one day Ferdinand sat on a bee and was picked for the bullfights in Madrid. Would he be fierce and fight? Not Ferdinand! An exquisite book.
I began flirting with the notion that I could write for children and wrote riddles and rhymes, poems and stories to use in the classroom. My students seemed to appreciate my silliness.
Then one day a fellow teacher pulled me aside on the playground. “Dianne, you are so creative,” she said. “You should be doing something more than teaching in a classroom."
Could I really write? Could I pursue a career as a word artist?
I spent the summer of 1984 in the Hamptons, staying with my younger sister. I became so enamored of the beautiful landscape and the flourishing artist community that I quit my job with the Los Angeles school system and moved to Southampton, N.Y., to write picture books.
Over the years, I’ve learned a few things. The main thing? Never give up your day job. But I was young then, enthusiastic, naïve (extremely so) and full of hope. I also believed that writing for kids would be easy. It’s not.
Still, I studied, read, wrote and submitted. I had a smattering of small successes. I sold some adult articles to the New York Times, others to a few magazines. I was a stringer for a local newspaper. I created and wrote a crafts column for a children’s newspaper and published many poems in journals around the country. These jobs combined earned me enough money, total, to pay for about one month’s rent. Poetry doesn’t pay at all. So I opened a small cleaning service, tidying up after wealthy New York City weekenders, doing all of the work myself. I liked cleaning, I was good at it, and I had plenty of time to write in my spare time. Thirty years seems like an eternity now, but I’ve kept my dream alive.
In March 2010, I spotted a call for picture book manuscripts in the Children’s Writer newsletter. I thumbed through my files, took out a promising story, spiffed it up one last time, and mailed it off. I had a contract signed, sealed and delivered a couple of weeks later. Hush Little Beachcomber was sold. It could take up to 18 months, but my first picture book would be published. I quickly sent the publisher – Kane Miller Books – a companion book 1, 2, 3 by the Sea, and had a second contract by May.
Twenty complimentary copies of Hush Little Beachcomber, illustrated by Holly McGee, arrived at my door at the end of February 2011, a complete surprise on that dreary winter afternoon. Naturally, I think my book is witty, wonderful and absolutely adorable. Friends, family, folks at Kane Miller and kids down the block seem to agree with me.
I may be a late bloomer, but I’m in full flower now and, like Ferdinand, I’m enjoying myself no end.