TLDR: I’m a first-time author writing a picture book, and I’m taking readers along on the journey.
Many times since I began #RutBusterBook, I’ve been asked, “What’s your book about?”
I usually answer like this: “It’s about an obscure president and a woman who writes him letters and tries to convince him to embrace civil service reform.”
Most people respond with a faint smile and change the subject.
Recently I interviewed a poet, as my amazing position at The Writer sometimes allows me to do. At the end of our conversation, after we’d discussed craft and sentence structure and inspiration, he asked me what I was working on currently.
“A children’s book,” I replied sheepishly. I was hesitant to even mention my “little book” to him but eager to show my questions re: craft had come from a legit place.
“What’s the book about?” he asked.
I recited my standard reply. “It’s about an obscure president and a woman who writes him letters and tries to convince him to embrace civil service reform.”
He sat with that for a moment. Then he replied, “No. What’s the book about?”
I have never literally been struck by lightning, but I have used the phrase in moments of metaphorical laziness. Let me tell you: I now completely understand the meaning of that cliché.
What was my book about? I immediately knew what he meant, and yet for almost 15 extremely awkward seconds, I didn’t have an answer. I had never asked myself this question in more than a literal sense.
Finally, I fumbled out, “It’s about…hope?”
He smiled gently and probed again. “Hope?”
“Hope…and, you know, well, hope for a better…day?”
He nodded sagely. “Sometimes it can take me years to see what a poem is about. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
We ended the interview, and I walked away in a daze. What was my book about? What was my book about? What was my book about? I replayed this question in my mind over and over and over, landing on different parts of the phrase that whisked me down a new avenue of inquiry.
You need to have something to say, or it’s not worth publishing.
I’ve spent so much of my initial time working on this book focused on plot and words and syntax and, let’s be honest, just WANTING TO WRITE A BOOK.
But that is not enough, is it? You need to have something to say, or it’s not worth publishing.
So in the days after the interview, the poet’s question lingered in my ear. I thought about it as I loaded my car with groceries, did lunges at the gym, walked my daughter to the bus stop.
I kept returning to context. Why was this story important? Why now?
In the fall of 2018, I was attracted to the obvious way this tale of a presidential pen pal inspiring a not-so-inspirational figure paralleled today’s politics.
Whether you’re on the left or right, you can agree that it’s a time of fractured government and frustration – which mirrors the political climate in 1881, when Chester Arthur, my obscure president, ascended to the nation’s highest office. The guy was a party hack who came to power after James Garfield was assassinated. Even Arthur’s best friends were like, “well, this country’s screwed.”
Yet Julia Sand, the woman who wrote to Arthur, displayed unfettered optimism that “Elegant Arthur” was up to the job, at a time when he needed someone who believed in him.
Sand regarded him as a fixer-upper. She told him, “You are not perfect, but you got this.” He listened, and he did it – “it” being ending the corrupt patronage system in the federal government.
So, yes, this story concerns a general sense of hope for our country at an uncertain time.
But saying the story was about “hope” was still too generic, too broad.
A week into my existential (and, yeah, kinda navel-gazing) “what my book is about” quest, my daughter mentioned she sat beside someone different on the bus home from school that day – a girl I knew had bullied others before. I was surprised at my tween’s choice, so I asked why she changed seats.
“I’ve heard people say before there’s a reason why bullies act mean,” my daughter replied. “So I asked her how she was. And we started talking, and she’s actually not mean. I think she’s lonely.”
You can judge someone or you can encourage them. You make a choice.
You write to the president. You talk to the bully on the bus.
Often, nothing comes of it. But sometimes, something does. And that makes the choice worth it. That’s what I want kids to know when they read my book.
My book is about the wonderful things that can happen when you choose to be part of the solution.
So, where am I on my book today? I have:
- Obsessively read other historical nonfiction children’s books to get a sense of the marketplace. (The best of the best is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving. This is on my personal all-time top 10 list.)
- Crafted pitches for magazine and newspaper articles related to the subject of my book – because I am still a freelance writer between book-writing bouts, and I like to eat. This way, I’m squeezing in research I eventually could get paid for. (Kerrie Flanagan wrote an excellent piece on this approach for The Writer.)
- Followed so many awesome Twitter writing groups and chats to get ideas for writing, point of view, pitching, etc. My favorites include #7AMWritersClub, #5AMWritersClub, #OwlWriters, #StorySocial (send more ideas my way, please!).