Years ago, when I was struggling to write my first children’s book, a noted writing teacher and expert in the field of children’s literature, offered some advice. “If you want to get published,” she said, “don’t write fantasy, don’t write seasonal material and for heaven’s sake, don’t write about dolls!” She suggested instead that I wrote about “real life”-my own authentic childhood experience. This was sound advice, as far as it went. The trouble was, my idea for a Christmas story about an ambitious ballerina doll was my authentic childhood experience. As a little girl, I had been deeply impressed by the seeming dedication and discipline of a lovely ballerina doll sent by a favorite aunt. When I explained this, my teacher shook her head, “It’ll never sell.”
I went home and told my husband about what happened. To my surprise, my usually kind and supportive spouse said something so infuriating and outrageous that I hurled a china vase against the wall.
What he said was, “Do you think she might be right?”
After shattering the vase (which I didn’t like that much anyway), I settled down to write my story, a Christmas fantasy about a ballet doll who longs to dance in the Nutcracker Ballet. Since, according to my teacher, no savvy, experienced editor would publish my book, I decided to send it to an obscure regional publisher who might not have heard that seasonal doll fantasies were out.
My friend, Debbie, had other ideas.
“Send your story to a leading publisher, before you decide no one else wants it,” she said. She had just graduated from law school, and was into giving advice.
“You don’t understand!” I told her, “this is a seasonal fantasy about a doll!”
Debbie refused to grasp the subtleties of the children’s book market. Finally, just to prove my point, I queried Houghton Mifflin about the book. I didn’t even try to make the story sound appealing.
“It’s a Christmas fantasy about a little girl and a ballet doll,” I wrote bluntly. The editor responded quickly, “Please send your story.”
Six months went by and I didn’t hear from the publisher. Finally I worked up the nerve to call. “I’m so glad you called!” the editor said. “We were just getting ready to offer you a contract.”
Nothing in my experience had prepared me for this moment. I was like the cartoon character who hurls himself at a closed door that opens unexpectedly at the last minute, sending him flying through. All my life I’d heard “No.” No, you’re not smart; no, you can’t write. No, you can’t have written this story (my eighth grade teacher, Mr. Eul). Suddenly I was hearing “yes!” I was practically speechless.
“What about revisions?” I managed to croak. I knew from my class that the editor would expect a major rewrite.
“I don’t want to change a single word, although the copy editor thinks there’s too much starlight.” The editor paused a moment, “But I don’t think there can ever be too much starlight.”