Many times I get asked how I began writing and publishing children’s books in my 50’s. I have told bits and pieces in the past, but now that my third book has just been released, I thought I would share the entire story.
In July of 2012, I lost my job when the small electric company I worked for in Denton, Texas was sold to a larger company in Houston. I was recently divorced and hadn’t lived in Texas for long and really didn’t know very many people.
I applied for a few jobs in the area without much luck. I also applied for unemployment for the first time in my life. It barely covered the mortgage payment but it helped.
By Christmas, I was still unemployed and living off of savings but not working gave me the chance to enjoy having all of my children home for the holiday. I remember that December vividly because I was worried about running out of money and I sold some of my good jewelry to help pay for Christmas presents.
Over the holiday, my two sons asked me what I intended to do for an income and I told them I didn’t know. I was still applying for jobs and while I had been one of the top two applicants for two different jobs, each time they had picked the other candidate. One of my sons casually suggested that perhaps the time had come for my writing hobby to become a profession.
I had over 20 years of writing on my computer…short stories, essays, newsletter articles and even some very bad poetry. I thought about my son’s words and in January of 2013, I emailed several regional publications to see if they were hiring writers. I secured a job writing feature articles for Lifestyles of Denton County Magazine and I also decided to see if I could figure out how to turn my short story, The Button Box, into a book.
The Button Box had been published previously in the Kalamazoo Gazette on Christmas day of 2001 as the winner of the “personal memoir” category of the Community Literary Awards. After it was published, many people encouraged me to turn my story into a book. At the time, I was too busy to consider it but the idea had been knocking around in the back of my mind for years.
In April of 2013, I attended the North Texas Book Festival to see if I could meet some potential illustrators for the book I wanted to publish. One of the authors there, Danna Walters, gave me the name of one of her artist friends who she thought might be interested in illustrating a book.When I got home that day, I called her friend…a woman named Vicki Guess.
I learned that Vicki was a middle school art teacher at a private Christian school in Grapevine, Texas. Vicki had recently written and illustrated a picture book for her grandchildren but she hadn’t made it available for sale. I told Vicki about the story I wanted to turn into a book and I asked her if she might be interested in illustrating it. She told me she was interested but she would have to read my story before she could give me an answer.
Vicki read The Button Box and called me that same weekend and told me how much she loved my story. She said she was definitely interested in illustrating it and we arranged to meet at a restaurant halfway between our homes.
We met and hit it off immediately. I told Vicki about my vision for the book and she listened intently and added ideas of her own. I was honest with her when I said I didn’t know how to self-publish a book but that I intended to learn. I also told Vicki about the graphic designer named Crystal Wood who I had met at the North Texas Book Festival. Crystal had said she could help me navigate the publishing process.
Vicki and I didn’t know what we were doing when we started working on our first book. All we knew was that we liked one another, we worked well together, and we wanted to create something really special.
We worked on The Button Box for over a year. At one point early in the process, I gave Vicki a small box of Crayola Crayons and told her I saw the pictures for my story in the basic crayon colors. Vicki said she understood and she created the beautiful, realistic pictures for The Button Box. I emailed her acrylic painting of the actual button box to one of my sons and he responded asking me if it was a photograph.
Because The Button Box was based on a sentimental true story from my own life, I wanted it to be perfect. The quilt that is pictured in the book is a painting from a picture of a quilt my mother made for me when I was a teenager. I still treasure it today…40 years later.
Crystal did the graphic design of the book and it was her idea to use the checked background. We looked at yellow and blue before we settled on the tan check, which I loved.
The Button Box was published in August of 2014 and I prayed that I would find a way to sell books. In November of 2016, our little book was named a finalist in the 2016 national Best Book Awards. Last month, we had our second printing.
After The Button Box was published, I asked Vicki if she would like to work on another book together. She said she did and so I sent her two more stories and told her to pick the one she wanted to illustrate next.
She chose Which Came First?, the story I had written about gathering the eggs on my grandparents farm when I was a little girl and being terrified of the chickens and the rooster named Pretty Boy. Vicky liked the fact that the story was about me and she asked for a picture of me as a little girl.
As we began work on Which Came First?, we were more knowledgeable and we were able to refine our work process. Vicki suggested that the pictures for this book be less realistic and more kid friendly. She told me she would water down her paint so that it looked almost like water colors.
The use of a bandana in the story was deliberate because as a girl, I always wore one around my neck, in my hair, or around my wrist or leg. Crystal had the idea of adding the strip of bandana at the bottom of each page as an accent and I loved it!
I told Vicki about my grandparent’s farm and all the things I remembered such as the old-fashioned clothesline, the tractor tire flower garden, the birdfeeders and the barn with all of the animals and the various items on the walls.
For fun, we decided that kids would enjoy finding a little mouse in each of the outside illustrations. (Adults seem to enjoy this too!) As a surprise for me, Vicki painted the button box and the quilt in the living room picture in Which Came First? The clock on the wall of the kitchen in the book is a painting of the clock my family had all the years my brothers and I were growing up. I have it now.
We did not have a cover concept for Which Came First? until the very last minute. During one of our final monthly meetings, it suddenly dawned on me…we needed a barn on the cover…after all it was a farm story! I was hoping that Crystal could add some kind of chicken wire to the book and she did not disappoint. It’s there in all the right places.
Which Came First? was published in April of 2016 and in April of 2017, it was named Best Children’s Book at the North Texas Book Festival. As soon as Which Came First? was published, we began planning and working on our third book together, The Day The Turkey Came To School.
The Day The Turkey Came To School was published less than a week ago. It’s a fun story about an unexpected event involving a turkey that happened one November morning. Crystal did the graphic design once again and found a fun way to add turkey tracks to the book!
Vicki painted the school in the story from pictures of the actual elementary school my three children attended in Portage, Michigan. Thank you to my friend, Galyn, for taking those pictures!
Vicki also painted both of our grandchildren in the illustrations in this book. The heroine of the story, Miss Thompson, is based on my daughter-in-law, Paige Thompson Sever.
The Button Box and Which Came First? are both true stories from my childhood and I wrote each of them in the very personal first-person point of view.
The Day The Turkey Came To School is a fictionalized version of something that really happened when my daughter, Anna, was a little girl. It’s written in the third-person point of view and was the first story I wrote after I moved to Texas.
One of the things our books are known for are the factual sections we include after the stories. From “A Short History of Buttons” to “Fun Facts About Chickens and Funny Chicken Sayings” to “Turkey Trivia”, we wanted to add a little more content and to also make our books extra fun for kids, parents and grandparents to read.
Writing and publishing books is a dream come true and some days I have to pinch myself to believe that I really get to do this work. I’m honored to be able to tell my stories and if you have the chance to read my books, I hope you will see all of the time and effort and love put into them by Crystal and Vicki and me.