How I Got Here: Notes from My ‘Wordtrip’
Something my young daughters and I love to do is to vote on our favorite and least favorite words. For example, my eight-year-old Cecilia loves the word Zamboni and cringes at the mere mention of buttocks. Our votes keep changing, though some perennial stars include xylophone, Galapagos, and exoskeleton. As of today, rigmarole tops my list with nostril way at the bottom.
Cecilia and Yvette, the six-year-old, find this game roll-on-the-floor funny, but it’s more than that. It shows what creative sparks fly when you combine kids with words. Invariably, we end up talking about what the words mean. Their curiosity takes us down a path into a world as diverse as a rainforest canopy.
“Did you know exoskeletons are made of fingernails?” (Well, the same stuff, anyway.) “How old do you have to be to drive the Zamboni?” (16?) “Can girls drive them?” (Yes!) “Why do we need two nostrils?” (Let’s find out.)
We talk about assonance, consonance, rhymes, and off-rhymes, though we don’t use those terms. We wonder where all these words came from, anyway. In short, this game encompasses everything I love about writing for children—breaking down ideas, seeing the connections between them, and thinking and wondering about words as words.
I started writing books for children in 2005, but looking back on my professional career, I can clearly see how my previous experience led me here. I could describe those experiences as my professional journey, but I don’t care much for that overused word. So, I’ve coined a new term I think Cecilia and Yvette would like—my wordtrip. Like a cross-country drive, my wordtrip has had its share of metaphorical bumps, flat tires, and whining. But it’s had a lot more of the good stuff: close-up views, memorable conversations, impromptu excursions, funny roadside sights, and a big-sky feeling of endless possibility.
Typist in Training
My wordtrip began as a typist for the opinion section of a weekly newspaper in Washington, DC. It was 1997, and I had just a year to get my foot in the door before my job became obsolete. I typed in the manuscripts that arrived on clean white paper. Later, I typed in the red scribbles the editors marked all over those crisp sheets.
It was the best job training I could have hoped for. I saw what kinds of changes editors made and what they left alone. I observed how they handled queries and noticed which editors had the most success working with authors. Most of all, I learned that all writers—even high-profile policymakers and famous academics—need editors.
Next Stop: Magazine Editor
And so I knew what I wanted to be. After a move to St. Paul, Minnesota, I arrived at the next stop in my wordtrip. I landed a job as a real editor at a monthly magazine at a local college. I couldn’t believe it—I was getting paid to read all day! My boss was an English major who could spontaneously quote poetry for almost any occasion. He’d drop everything to talk about a manuscript with me. He bought me a tape recorder and a pedal-operated transcriber so I could do interviews and start writing articles myself.
One piece, “Alphabet on the Wing,” profiled the Norwegian photographer Kjell Sandved, who’d spent the last 24 years traveling around the world taking pictures of butterflies. In his youth, he’d serendipitously noticed an F hidden in the design of a butterfly’s wing. So, he took off to find the rest of the letters—and Arabic numerals to boot–on living butterflies. This was hard-core stuff. He went to the most remote places on Earth, crawled through rainforests, waded up to his armpits in swamps and rivers, all to get one more photo of one more butterfly’s wing.
I loved this story. It was about beauty and skill and adventure. It showed the fine line between a fool’s errand and breathtaking success. My passion for the subject must have shown through, because the article earned me a professional coup—a Page One Award from the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists.
Round and Round the Water Cycle
Then, all at once, my wordtrip came to a halt. The magazine was moving, and I was out of a job. It was only 2001, so I turned to the Sunday classifieds. There it was: “Educational publisher seeks editor.” I made my pitch and . . . I got the job.
The company specialized in art-illustrated nonfiction picture books. Some of these books were only 500 words long–how much work could that be? Then came my first project, the water cycle book. It told one of the best science stories of all time–how water is never used up. It just changes from liquid to vapor to ice as it moves from clouds to lakes, rivers, and oceans. The book was for second graders, so I had to assume the key concepts were unfamiliar.
For a long time, I was stuck on evaporation. What exactly does that mean, really, and how in the world would the artist illustrate that? It took more than a day for me to figure out my way in—puddles. What happens to puddles? That seemed like a question a real kid would ask. With that as a starting point, the puzzle unraveled. The sun comes out. It heats up puddles. Little by little, water breaks up into tiny, invisible pieces. They float into the sky. . . .
Discovery and Rediscovery
I went on to edit books for upper-elementary and middle-school audiences, entering some pretty scenic territory along the way. I edited books on rainbows, rocks, animal noses, countries of the world, gardening, Greek myths, the planets, dinosaurs, soil, the War of 1812 . . . you name it. I learned (or perhaps relearned) a host of amazing facts that I’d relay to my husband every night:
“Did you know that butterflies taste with their feet?”
“I don’t think I ever realized the moon’s sky is always black.”
“You know who just doesn’t get enough credit? Dolley Madison, that’s who!”
I loved how this business forced to me look at familiar topics in new ways. I realized the best way to truly understand a topic was to figure out how to explain it to a kid.
My Two Rules as a Writer
I was home full-time with a toddler and an infant when my wordtrip’s next destination came into view. This opportunity arrived in the form of a call from an old colleague who was starting his own book-developing company. Would I be interested in writing some titles for a new series he was doing on national parks?
My first book assignment was to write about Glacier National Park in Montana. I was anxious about blowing my big chance. This book had to be good. I thought hard about the most successful manuscripts I’d edited. What did they have in common? The answer was obvious—research. I could always tell when an author truly understood her topic and presented information with insight and flair as opposed to just rehashing a bunch of facts.
So, with this first assignment, I picked up two rules that have served me well as a writer and editor. The first rule is, Research the competition. I checked out all the kids’ books I could find on the subject and scrutinized them. What was done well and not so well? What could I do differently?
A lot of the books I read were a little dry, I thought. I’d visited Yosemite and Yellowstone as a child. These books didn’t capture that feeling of adventure I’d experienced in visiting these grand places of natural beauty. What if instead of the usual expository, third-person narrative, we used the second person and wrote these like guidebooks? Each title could be written in the voice of a park ranger taking kids on a tour. Along the way, the guide would point out interesting or unusual facts, to be accompanied by gorgeous photography. The publisher loved the idea, and, under the name Visitor Guides, the series earned good reviews and sales–and I got more assignments.
The second rule I established was, Talk to an expert. I called a park ranger at Glacier National Park who spent two hours taking me on an imagined tour over glaciers, through forests, and up mountains. It would have taken me days to get that much information on my own, and my facts would have been far less reliable and interesting. Even for a book about a long-past historical event, I always try to find an expert who can orient me to the topic. I ask, What sources should I use? What would be an omission not to include? What pitfalls might I fall into during my research? Can I call you with further questions?
Back to Today
My colleague’s business grew, and in 2007, I joined his team, first as a part-time editor and then as the company’s part-time assistant managing editor. I continued to take writing assignments. One of my duties became to write prototype manuscripts for developing series, manuscripts that could be vetted and revised several times to send out as examples to other writers assigned to a series.
I also hired authors. One week I must have sent out more than 200 emails getting authors signed up for dozens of projects. I didn’t mind this work. I liked answering their questions. It was satisfying keeping everything straight in a neat spreadsheet. I was kicking off a new season of books. So . . . what was wrong?
I was jealous. I wanted an assignment, too. I wanted to spend long days at the library, to write, to revise, to have an editor help me.
It was time to hit the road. I left my editing position, and in September 2011, I entered the land of freelance writing. Fittingly, my very first assignments involved learning about motorcycles and off-road vehicles. Once again, I’m speeding off to someplace new. I can’t wait to see where my wordtrip takes me next.