This is the third in a series of posts about the 2008 Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Mentoring Conference. Click on the RUCCL tag above to read them all.

Author Kay Winters is a RUCCL success story. Who better to give the introductory speech? She attended the one-on-one conference three times before she was published, but now has 14 books in print with 5 more under contract. She came to inspire. And she did with this simple yet powerful statement: “I’m here to tell you: it can be done.”

Ms. Winters spoke of her journey to becoming an author, which began in childhood with a love of books. She always wanted to be a teacher, however, and that is what she became. But she still wrote for pleasure, penning articles, short stories and poems that never made much money. Writing to make a living didn’t seem possible.

She eventually co-authored a book about teaching. But the long hours writing plus being a teacher created a tiring pace that she could not sustain. When a local author visited her school, he told her, “Give yourself five years to break into the business.” She thought, “I need to get going!” Shortly thereafter, her school offered an early retirement package. Her letter of resignation was on the Principal’s desk the next day. She wanted to write full time.

“When I quit teaching, I worried that I would miss the hugging,” Kay said, referring to her students. “But children’s writers are hugging.” We all laughed. We know. She was already hugging us.

After her retirement, Kay took classes at The New School and spent afternoons at the Children’s Book Council reading every single picture book that they received. Thousands of them. She joined two writers groups. She subbed her manuscripts. Wolf Watch was rejected 17 times.

But she came to RUCCL with hope and left inspired. The encouragement she received at the event kept her spirits up despite the rejections. “I think I can” became “I know I can!”

And on her third trip to Rutgers, Kay’s agent-mentor took a look at her picture book manuscript and said, “This is publishable.” And then another. “This is publishable.” She left fired up!

It was soon thereafter that the offers came pouring in. They say good things come in threes. This was true for Kay, who sold Teeny Tiny Ghost to HarperCollins, and the oft-rejected Wolf Watch was snatched up by Simon & Schuster just two weeks later. Viking then offered a contract for Did You See What I Saw? Poems About School.

Kay now spends her time writing, speaking at conferences and making school visits. She especially loves hearing from her student-fans:

Dear Ms. Winters, thanks for coming to our school. Your assembly was awesome. I wasn’t there.

and another charming young man asked:

How old are you? Were you on the Titanic?

OK, she doesn’t have as much experience as that child thought, but she has been in this business long enough to impart three very important tips for all aspiring writers.

  1. Word Hard.
  2. Let your manuscript breathe. Don’t send it right out. Give it some time and revise.
  3. Have persistence. Because there is a lot of talent out there, but persistence is in shorter supply.

Kay ended with something a mentor once told her: “I’ve never known anyone who wanted to do this, who worked really hard, and didn’t succeed.”

Thunderous applause for Kay Winters! She gave us her own magical story.