|Anna Grossnickle Hines * Articles and Talks Home Guide|
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REACHING THE GOAL: THE MAGIC INGREDIENT
Anna Grossnickle Hines
Stockton Symposium on Children's Literature, October 1985
I feel I need to begin by setting a few things straight. You may remember reading in the brochure that I enjoy a rural life style, including gathering wood, keeping a summer garden and occasionally baking bread.
I used to bake bread regularly but I've done it maybe once in the last year.
I also plant a garden every spring, but for the last three years it has been an near total failure because of the weather and lack of attention. This past year, I decided to plant mostly flowers, so I wouldn't feel as guilty about neglecting the garden and buying my vegetables in the market. The deer enjoyed them very much.
As for the wood, well, one doesn't gather wood. One lugs, loads, and stacks it, and while I still do it I want to make it very clear that I do not, and never have, enjoyed it. Some friends of ours, who go wood cutting with us and whose company I greatly enjoy, read the brochure and decided that since I enjoy it so much they'd schedule more wood cutting days for me.
I do live in a beautiful setting, surrounded by trees, but my life, far from the serenity and calmness that comes to mind when one says rural life style, is usually hectic bordering on frantic. I thought it might get better this year when my oldest child went off to college, but the two younger ones have easily taken up any slack.
I am particularly excited that I've been invited to speak today, because for the past four years I've been sitting out there in the audience at this event.
The first two years I was an aspiring author, submitting work and collecting rejections. It was inspiring to me to hear the "real" authors up here and to think to myself, "I feel that way. I know what she or he is talking about. Maybe I am a real author, too."
The third year I couldn't resist bringing along a copy of my first book, and by last year with three books out, two being published and contracts for three more, I was, at last, starting to feel like a real author.
I know from the questions that are asked that several in this audience have stories or ideas that you hope one day to have published.
I've thought a lot about what it takes to go from where I was five years ago to where I am now and I hope that my remarks today will have some meaning to those of you who are aspiring authors and illustrators as well as to those who are educators, librarians, teachers and parents.
After all, we are really talking about the same thing...the development of potential.
I've thought about what it takes to be successful, to develop that potential, and concluded that there are basically four ingredients. The first is interest, the second is ability, the third is information and and the fourth is commitment.
The first is easy. I had the interest very early. I knew when I was seven years old that I wanted to write and illustrate books for children. The moment I knew is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.
I can see the room, and me sitting in my father's chair looking at a Little Golden Book version of Heidi. I looked up at my mother and said, "When I grow up, I want to make picture books for boys and girls." She said, "If that's what you want to do, that's what you should do."
I think it's important to encourage children in their own interests. No amount of external motivation can compare with something that comes from within the individual.
I think too often, the way our educational system is set up, the child's own natural curiosity, interest, motivation is ignored or turned off and then we try to manufacture an interest in what our curriculums tell us the child should be interested in. Not only is it not good for the children, but what a huge burdensome task it ends up being for the teachers. I know, I taught for several years, and I've been there.
The second ingredient is ability and I think this goes hand in hand with interest. I know for me, I always loved to draw. My first grade teacher put my pictures on the board, and as a shy child I loved this attention, so I kept drawing. As I did, my ability increased.
I also loved singing, and when I was in sixth grade auditioned for the school choir. Unfortunately, I had to do it alone, in front of a whole auditorium full of kids, and under those conditions, did a terrible job. I was rejected and convinced that I had no musical ability, and from then on barely sang an audible note in any group situation and never solo.
It wasn't until about twelve years years ago when I took a class in music for children and was given a harmonica and told to play that I began to realize there was music in me.
I'm not at all sure that I have anymore natural drawing ability than I do musical ability, but in one I was encouraged and in the other discouraged, so that I developed one and not the other. I don't think I'm unique, and I think it is best to encourage all potential in all children.
Interest can lead to the development of an ability and I think the reverse is also true. As a third grade teacher, I attempted to do a lot of creative writing. The first two years I was only moderately successful. The children resisted it.
The third year I developed a whole new spelling program based on the words used most frequently. As the children mastered these words, writing was much easier for them and their enthusiasm for it grew.
In my own experience then, my interest in books, in reading, in writing and drawing was encouraged, and my ability grew.
Writing also became something else for me. My parents separated when I was eight and divorced five years later. Those were difficult years for me and my mother encouraged me to use writing as a way of dealing with my feelings. She told me I didn't have to show what I wrote to anyone, but she said, "Sometimes it helps to write down how you feel."
I did a lot of writing. I never shared any of it. In fact I tore all of it into tiny little pieces and slipped it into the bottom of the trash when I was sure no one was looking. I wish now I'd saved all of it, but at the time it seemed too much to risk having someone find it. I'm sure my ability to write and express feelings grew by leaps and bounds through that writing though.
I did other writing as well, class assignments and also stories on my own. I really didn't think I had very good ideas though, and as I remember them, the "stories" I wrote were shallow and flat compared to my feelings writings which I wouldn't dare share. I was too shy about my writing to take a creative writing class in either high school or college.
I was a good student and could always give right answers and at home I was an obedient child and always gave right opinions as well. If I was asked to give a real opinion of my own, I panicked. I didn't have any. I didn't think I had anything to say, any good ideas of my own. I decided that I would let someone else write the books and I'd just illustrate them.
I attended college as an art major for three years. I had the interest, I had the ability. What I didn't have at that point was the information, and I didn't even have the ability to get the information. I was terrific at answering other people's questions, but I didn't know how to ask my own or look for my own solutions. So getting the information was for me a long struggle.
The first two years of college were fine. I took all the core classes in basic drawing, design, printmaking and painting and I learned a lot.
But when it came time to specialize I had a problem. I wanted to do children's books. That was not an option at that college and at the time I didn't think I could afford an art school. I was married to another art student.
When I told the fine arts instructors about my goal they told me that it was unworthy of my talents. Children's books were not true art, they were not significant or important. I should aim for higher things. They told me that "only Picasso gets away with drawing children", that it was just sentimental, and that I should "go have a baby and get it out of my system".
When I persisted they sent me to the graphics department where I was told that children's book illustration was too limited, I'd never make any money at it and should go into advertising design.
I didn't want to do advertising design. I didn't want to do art for galleries and museums. I wanted to do children's books. To me there is something very special about a book. You can hold it in your hands, own your own personal copy, take it to bed with you. To me it's a more special personal communication than a piece of art on a wall. So I persisted in my intentions.
I managed to get an independent study with an instructor who suggested I design something I could print myself with linoleum blocks. He didn't know anything more about children's books or publishing than I did and I didn't know the questions I needed to ask yet.
I took the only two classes the college offered that had anything to do with young children or their books, one in Child Care and Management and the other in Children's Literature, then I quit school.
I decided I'd have to find my questions and answers on my own, and that I'd start with children. I got a job in the LA City Daycare Centers. Every week, I went to the library and checked out twenty children's books. I read them with the children. I studied them. I noted the names of the publishers.
I wrote some poetry and shared it with a couple close friends. They liked it. I tried a couple stories.
I submitted a story to Viking, since at that time Viking was publishing my favorite authors...Taro Yashima and Ezra Jack Keats among others. I did everything wrong in this first submission. I completed all the illustrations...in full color. They were not reproducible. I didn't type my manuscript. I didn't find out the name of the editor. I didn't know I should and if I had I wouldn't have known how to go about it. I received a form rejection and put the manuscript in a drawer where it remains to this day.
I began reading books about children's books, especially about writing and illustrating them. One that was especially helpful was by Henry Pitz. From it I learned about limited color and color separations.
I did some experiments with posters, separating the colors. I managed to sell enough to cover the printing costs. I taught myself to do silkscreening so I could experiment some more.
I had two daughters and my marriage ended. I decided to go back to school and get a teaching credential, so that I could work with children, support my own two and have summers and holidays to spend with them.
I went to Pacific Oaks College for two years, learning more about children and books.
Just as I completed my credential, I found out about the Society of Children's Book Writers* and attended their conference. This was in 1974. There I learned how to submit a manuscript, how to type it up, how to get the name of the editor, how to select a publisher, what to submit...a lot of very practical information. Plus, inspirational and helpful information on the art of writing and illustrating, perfecting the craft.
At this time I had two manuscripts that I felt good enough about to show to people, plus a number of poems. I received a lot of encouragement at the conference along with the information that I had sought for so long.
Don Freeman saw me sketching as I took notes, and took me under his wing. He introduced me to Marjorie Thayer, his editor at Golden Gate Junior Books, who was enthusiastic about my work. He also told her that he was not going to deliver a book he had promised to her that year and suggested she take one of mine instead. She liked the idea, but after six months told me that the company had decided to publish only three books that season instead of taking a risk on a new author and illustrator.
There was a surplus of teachers at that time and my newly acquired credential did not get me a job. Not wanting to raise my children in the city, I moved to Tuolumne County where I substituted and started seriously writing and submitting my work to publishers, almost all of whom are in New York. I received a high percentage of encouraging personal rejections as opposed to form letters. Many asked me to send other work.
The next fall I managed to get a teaching job. For the next three years, my writing time, was pretty much limited to summers. I continued to receive encouragement for the things I managed to submit.
I took a very helpful two week workshop with Uri Schulevitz one summer, and continued to attend the SCBW conferences about every other year.
Meanwhile I married, and my generous husband and I agreed that I would quit teaching to stay home with the two children we had and the one we hoped to have, and pursue my writing.
Which brings me to the fourth ingredient, commitment. Since I had the time that first year home, I planted a garden, and did a lot more sewing, and volunteered in my children's classrooms, and there was a new baby to prepare for and care for and, oh, just endless numbers of worthwhile things.
I did some writing and continued to get encouragement, but I wasn't doing what I knew I could have done.
One day, I went to the bank and had to fill out a form. My name and address and birthdate were easy, but then it asked for occupation. I didn't really expect to go back to teaching. I didn't want to put housewife. I wanted to put writer, but I knew I couldn't. I wrote homemaker and went home depressed.
I realized that I was using all the other activities as an excuse. As long as I had too many other important things to do to give writing and illustrating my best effort, I could point to my impressive collection of encouraging letters and tell myself I could have done it, if only I'd had the time. But if I really committed myself to the goal of doing children's books and didn't make it, I would have failed. I knew then, that I had to either give it up...or go for it ...and that not to go for it, would be the worst kind of failure of all.
So I made it a priority. With a six month old baby as well as an eleven and an eight year old, it wasn't always easy, but writing and or drawing was on my list of things to do everyday, somewhere between washing dishes and diapers, and vacuuming. The dishes and diapers had to be done, but a little dust wasn't going to hurt anyone. I stopped waiting for the uninterrupted time. I wrote while the baby crawled around the floor. If she bumped her nose and needed me, I set the writing aside for a few minutes.
Somedays I accomplished a lot. Other days I was lucky to manage five minutes of writing. But I found that my attitude changed. I really started thinking of myself as a writer and would have had no problem declaring that on a bank form, whether I ever published anything or not. I had finally made a commitment to my goal...one hundred percent.
Eighteen months later, after a total of over one hundred rejections, eighteen from Greenwillow alone, I sold TASTE THE RAINDROPS to Greenwillow. People often ask me how I could keep going after all those rejections. How could I not keep trying? Commitment...and something else I think. The magic ingredient that makes commitment possible and worthwhile. Joy.
Joy in the process of learning and creating. I love doing this work. It is not always easy. It is often frustrating. The results are not ever as perfect as I want them to be. Deadlines can be agonizing. I still get rejections. But I love it. It is joyful and fulfilling and rewarding. It has been a long road but it is a good one.
I think in our culture, we look too much for instant gratification; television, videos, microwave, fast foods, quick effortless cleaning products and weight loss programs, and instant money in the lottery.
Everything is supposed to be fast and easy. Work is a dirty word. We want instant products, instant ability, instant success, instant results.
I'm not promoting unnecessary labor, but most things that are truly satisfying and rewarding take some effort and some time. Learning something new, developing an ability, creating something, all take time and effort. But there is joy in the process. Working at something you love is fun. It is joyful.
When I show children all the steps, the revisions, the work I do for one book, they almost always ask, "Isn't it hard?" I tell them, yes, it is but I don't mind, because I love to do it.
It takes work and practice to be good at anything or to do anything really well; any sport, dancing, playing a musical instrument, writing. or drawing pictures, but if it is something that you love to do, it is fun as well. Hard work does not have to be gruesome.
Usually when adults impose a task it becomes labor, and the joy goes out along with the learning. But if you watch a young, unspoiled child, who has set himself a task, he works incredibly hard and experiences great satisfaction when he accomplishes his goal. This is joyful work.
I think these are important things to remember when dealing with children. Whatever their gifts or potential, the things that need to be nurtured are interest, and ability, not only ability in the particular area, but their ability to pose their own questions and gather the information they need.
And they need to be given space...time and encouragement...to make commitments and to develop an understanding that a commitment involves work, practice and doing something over and over until you get it right, not because somebody tells you to, but because you want to, that even though it is sometimes tedious or frustrating it is a satisfying and joyful process, not one to be avoided.
It's almost a bonus that, having experienced the joy of working to create my books, I now have the joy of sharing them with others.
*Since this article was published the organization added "Illustrators" to it's name to become the SCBWI.
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