Dear fellow PiBoIdMoers: my brave and beautiful sisters & brothers!
I’m going to keep this short and—hopefully!—sweet.
Several years ago, I was sitting in the far-too-messy front room of my apartment, glaring down at the notebook on my lap, pages blank as Antarctica.
There was a very specific theme I was trying to write—NOT because it had been handed to me, gift-wrapped, by a Muse with ivory wings. No. This theme had arrived like a toddler with a pan and a wooden spoon: having plopped itself down on the kitchen floor, it was going to beat its makeshift drum—CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!—until it damn well felt like stopping.
Furthermore, the theme had told me—in no uncertain terms—that it was going to be a picture book… and not a shoddy one, either. There would be a proper story arc, with a beginning, middle, and end; there would be believable characters, and it would all take place in an interesting setting. And the finished product had to appeal to actual children, not some fusty adult idea of same.
Oh, and did I mention that the theme of the book was transgender identity? You know, something EASY. Total Berenstain Bears territory…
So: me, blank page, glares. A pitiless, pot-banging toddler. A zillion different ideas and approaches in mind, all of them lame, all of them contradictory.
CLANG! CLANG! CLANG!
Finally, using a tactic that I don’t recommend, I bullied myself into the job at hand: I took a stab at the first few paragraphs. What came out was the story of a girl coming to terms with the transition of her beloved uncle to a female identity. And it was TERRIBLE.
Even as I wrote, I could picture the heavy, plodding illustrations that would accompany this heavy, plodding tale: ‘Here are a bunch of clunky, poorly-drawn children arriving at school! Now they’re hanging their coats up! Now they’re putting their lunch-bags away! Now it’s recess time, and the blocky kids hang off monkey bars! Now it’s carpool time—what a long line of station wagons!’ …I was starting to nod off, literally.
But then—thank GOD—something else kicked in. It was like being shook by the shoulders. Some inner voice (a grown-up version of the toddler-with-the-pot?) had decided to be all frank and no-nonsense with me. And this is what it said:
“Oh, Marcus, COME ON! Get real here! You don’t give a DAMN about this boring girl, her dreary uncle, or any of her ‘After-School Special’ life. NO. What you want to write about—since you can write about ANYTHING IN THE WORLD—is dresses. Magical dresses: a dress made of real gold; a dress made of CHOCOLATE!”
At last, the real me was starting to participate. “What about a dress made of crystals?” I asked. “And whenever light hits it, it would flash rainbows, like a prism?”
“Now you’re talking!”
“Or a dress made out of FLOWERS?” I said. “Actual living flowers? The skirt would be roses, and, uh, lilies… and the sleeves could made out of honeysuckle vines! The little girl wearing the dress could pluck honeysuckles right off her sleeves, to taste the honey – just like I used to do, in Georgia!”
“See? Now you’re bringing your own life into the story. That’s so much better…”
“Or what about a dress made of windows?” I said, interrupting. “Magical windows that would show you things like the Great Wall of China, or the Pyramids?”
And so on.
You see? Everything had changed. Now my story had a spine—a series of marvelous dresses—and at last I had a character I actually cared about: the little girl who could dream up such luminous creations.
And of course SHE would be the one—not some hazy uncle—with the soul-deep knowledge of her own true gender, the one that didn’t line up with others’ expectations.
And that’s how my book 10,000 Dresses came to be, and Bailey, its courageous heroine…
My dear fellow PiBoIdMoers, my brave and beautiful sisters & brothers!
Here are my two pieces of advice:
- Notice which ideas put you to sleep with boredom.
- And, when in doubt, SEIZE THE DRESSES!
Marcus Ewert wrote the children’s book 10,000 Dresses (Seven Stories Press, 2008; illustrations by Rex Ray). The first book of its kind, 10,000 Dresses has received wide critical acclaim, awards and honors from the American Library Association, and has become a staple of anti-bullying curricula throughout North America. It’s also been banned a few times!
Marcus is hard at work on several other picture books as well. Did you know that eclairs can come to life and fight crime?