These Books Give Me Courage

In Tammi Sauer’s last post, she mentioned that “The Watermelon Seed” made her want to be a better writer. Reading that simple statement led me to know immediately what I had to write about next. Don’t you love it when inspiration strikes like that? (Thanks, Tammi!)

MissMaple_ewheelerMy first book, MISS MAPLE’S SEEDS, came like this post, in lightning strikes of inspiration. I wrote the first full draft in a few hours. First it was this little idea kernel, and then it was just there. My next book, well . . . the truth is, I’ve been trying to write my next picture book for . . . I was going to say two years, but looking at my first draft from 2012 . . . THREE years now. While I have been busy illustrating and concepting other book projects in those three years (one coming out next month with fellow Picture Book blogger, Pat Zietlow Miller!), all the while this Elusive Book #2 has been on my mind in countless ongoing drafts.

The story I’m writing is based on my grandma’s childhood and centers around the years she lived in a shack in the woods with her single mom and seven siblings. I feel magnetically drawn to this time and place. Part of the reason this book has been hard to write is because of how much information there is – so many family stories, so many options, so many angles. And I’ve tried MANY. Yet something at the heart of each telling always feels missing.

WhenIWasYoungBut I’ve realized that the bigger part – the real part—that keeps me from capturing this story’s heartbeat and voice is my own doubt. Thoughts that creep in like pesky little bugs; what if this story is irrelevant? Hasn’t this been done enough? Will anyone really be interested in this? My grandma is not famous. She’s a quiet homebody who’s lived in Northern Wisconsin all her life.

Thankfully, there are books that I keep nearby that remind me not to give up. Books that give me courage. The main one is the picture book WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN THE MOUNTAINS by Cynthia Rylant and Diane Goode, about Rylant’s childhood in the Appalachian Mountains. It’s simple, sweet, tender, and personal. Each time those nagging doubts creep in, I pick up this story and let it tell me what I need to hear. No one’s story is irrelevant.

GrandfatherJourneyAnother encouraging picture book is GRANDFATHER’S JOURNEY, by Allen Say. The book description says it best:
At once deeply personal yet expressing universally held emotions, this tale of one man’s love for two countries and his constant desire to be in both places captured readers’ attention and hearts. Winner of the 1994 Caldecott Medal, it remains as historically relevant and emotionally engaging as ever.

Those words deeply personal yet expressing universally held emotions, I think, are the key to those writers of personal stories. That also describes other classic novels that I love; A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, LITTLE WOMEN, and the LITTLE HOUSE books; all highlighting characters and their families in a specific time and place.

At present, my big dose of courage comes from the new novel by Jacqueline Woodson, BROWN GIRL DREAMING, which captures her own childhood as an African American girl growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. The entire story is told in verse, and so, while not a picture book, it feels especially relevant to the rhythm that’s often captured in picture book writing. And it is intensely personal — yet, infused with universally held emotions . . . her South Carolina is my Northern Wisconsin. Her family’s cornbread is my family’s lefse. Our homesicknesses are the same.

BrwnGrlDrmngFor the past month, I’ve been getting up in the morning and reading BROWN GIRL DREAMING half a dozen pages at a time, savoring it. It puts me in the headspace to write, and piece by piece, my story is coming into focus for me. And as of last week, I hope – I believe– that I have found its heart.  To make BROWN GIRL DREAMING feel extra special to me, its editor and publisher, Nancy Paulsen, is also my editor. Nancy has been extremely supportive and patient with the process of finding my grandma’s story – loving the idea and gently encouraging it along the way. At this point there’s still no knowing whether it will happen or not. But I have all the right pieces waiting to be put together – minus the doubt.
Plus the courage.

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If you have more examples of great, personal stories to share, please do so in the comments below!

Eliza Wheeler

Eliza Wheeler is the author-illustrator of MISS MAPLE’S SEEDS (Penguin), which debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list. She also illustrated Holly Black’s Newbery Honor winning novel DOLL BONES (Simon & Schuster), Pat Zietlow Miller’s picture book WHEREVER YOU GO (Little Brown), Mara Rockliff’s picture book THE GRUDGE KEEPER (Peachtree), and Tricia Springstubb’s new middle grade series CODY (Candlewick). Eliza received the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Grand Prize Award for best portfolio at the 2011 SCBWI National Conference. Eliza is a northern Wisconsin native currently living with her husband in Los Angeles, California. See her work at www.wheelerstudio.com

24 Comments:

  1. Eliza, Thank you for this wonderful post. Good luck with your Grandmother’s story.

  2. Eliza, this whole post puts a lump in my throat. You’re definitely on the right track. Stick with it.

  3. Oh, I love the titles you named and their personal yet universal description. Isn’t that what we strive for? And hooray for breakthroughs and perseverance! Keep on, Eliza. I want to read, and the world needs to hear, your grandma’s story. <3 kristin

  4. I will come back and reread this post every time I hear that voice of doubt.

  5. I loved your post. I too am working on a story that I believe in, of my mother and aunt. I’ve had critiques that say it should be a chapter book but I see it as a picture book. I will keep working on it. You’ve given me books to delve into. Thanks

  6. I have no doubt that you’ll find a way to tell your grandmother’s story, Eliza–and that it will be beautiful. Interestingly enough, I just returned from the library with some Dan Yaccarino books, one of which — ALL THE WAY TO AMERICA — tells the story of Dan’s great grandfather and the generations that followed. He connected the generations through a small shovel that was passed down from one generation to the next — a very touching and effective way to tie it all together.

  7. All the ingredients (pieces), minus the doubt, plus the courage. That’s the right mix! I love the fact that you’re reading a book each morning that portrays courage before returning to your project. Great approach!

  8. I love the idea of reading, before you start writing, from a book that has qualities you want in your writing or WIP . Grandfather’s Journey and Miss Maple’s Seeds are favorites of mine, and I’m going to read the Rylant book. I also enjoyed Brown Girl Dreaming. It’s interesting that the first book that came to mind for me when I thought of books that are “deeply personal yet expressing universally held emotions” was another Rylant book–The Relatives Came. And then I started thinking of even her simplest books, and I think that is one key to her books. The Mr. Putter and Tabby books or the Henry and Mudge series or even the Brownie & Pearl books have these qualities.

    It’s also nice to know that others have “elusive books” that aren’t satisfied with how they look no matter how many years of revisits and revisions they have had from their hopeful author.

  9. Thanks for this, Colleen — great reminder to explore more of Cynthia Rylant’s books again to observe her ability to mesh personal and universal qualities in her stories. You’re going to love WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN THE MOUNTAINS!

  10. I do love Miss Maple’s Seeds! And you’ve sold me on the others–I will have to check them out.

  11. Ha! Glad I proved to be inspiring. 🙂
    I look forward to one day reading your grandma’s story.

  12. Thank you for your thorough study of inspiring children’s books that address writing our personal stories. I have been working on a couple personal stories, and just haven’t found the ‘hook’ for them yet. I will read/re-read your books mentioned and dig deeper to see if the perspective needed appears. Thanks for the encouragement.
    Susan

  13. Eliza, what a wonderful post! Thank you! Cynthia Rylant is an incredible inspiration when it comes to writing… if you haven’t read Missing May, you MUST read it as well. It is a novel, but exquisite in it’s prose. This also made me think of McCloskey’s One Morning In Maine, and many of Barbara Cooney’s books as well… Emma, Miss Rumphius, even Roxaboxen… which is my 5 year old’s current favorite of hers. 🙂

    • Thank you so much for the wonderful comment and list of books, Corinna! I’m currently revisiting a lot of Barbara Cooney books, it’s so great to hear that your girl is loving them, because they are such personal ones. Yay!

  14. Wonderful and inspiring post. Good luck with your story, I am sure you will get it right. My very first picture book I ever wrote (and was what got me started writing) was about picking berries with my grandmother. I wanted to share it and keep the memory of it alive. It is a simple story. But, I am still working on it all these years later – trying to get it right and get it interesting. This year, I think I finally got it! I just hope publishers will think I got it right, too.

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