In 2003, my dad had two heart attacks, one of my best friends went into a coma, and my marriage fell into chaos. I felt like all of the happy endings I’d banked on — another holiday with my dad, talking music, marriage, and parenting with my friend, and a lifetime with my husband — were coming to an ear-splitting, guts-torn-out, unhappy ending.
I needed to do something to help me feel that the world was better than it seemed, so I wrote a children’s book.
I focused on my friend’s three kids, and my own social work background, to create a manuscript that they could use to make sense of their mother’s coma. It was a terrible book: cliché, lacking in story arc, and a blatant rip off of a popular publication. Still, it did the trick. I was able to offer comfort to my friend’s grieving children. And the crafting of the book gave me an outlet for my own sorrow.
Caldecott winner, Jane Yolen, once told me that the writing process:
…in some ways, can be magical thinking time. I can save my dog, husband, cat, house. Can be a hero, princess, magician, president of the USA. But I can also wrestle with real problems and with real solutions to hand. However, it is always clear to me that I am writing fiction and these endings most likely will not be available to me any time soon, if at all.
So I kept on writing. For the next seven years, I attended workshops, took classes, joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), participated in online and local critique groups, and immersed myself in the world of fiction. As a result, I met some of my heroes, and have been lucky enough to share a few meals or form friendships with authors whose stories influenced my life. I acquired a literary agent, had three short stories, a picture book, several articles and a play published. I now regularly participate in school visits, blogs, and continuing education programs. I’ve worked very hard to learn and practice the craft of writing.
I’ve also achieved a lot of healing and growth through writing. In real life, my dad pulled through and so did my marriage, but my friend didn’t make it. In my stories, I can always control the outcomes to make sure that the endings are more perfect than the tangled messes that real life often offers, though exploring those messes and the possibilities of unhappy endings can be cathartic, too. Picture books are so wonderful, in part, because we can always count on a dash of joy at the end of every tale.
I hope the students in my upcoming StoryStudio class can each learn a little about craft, a little about the publishing world and a lot about themselves in this course. After years of plumbing my own experiences to produce stories, I now know that each person carries inside them a host of tales yearning to be told. My goal is to help each student unearth her own stories and craft them into something she might someday share with the world. After all, we can all use a few more happy endings.
Juliet Bond is a professor at Columbia College and her picture book, Sam’s Sister, has sold over 50,000 copies. You’ll be in good hands in her Introduction to Writing for Children class beginning January 12. No matter what your inspiration, this may be the perfect opportunity to become acquainted, or reacquainted, with the genre.