by Laura Gehl
Unless you live in a cave (a real cave…hiding from the cold under your covers doesn’t count), you know that Kwame Alexander won the Newbery Medal on February 2nd for his book THE CROSSOVER.
On February 19th, I was lucky enough to hear Kwame speak informally in a Question & Answer session at the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C.
Listening to Kwame was so inspiring that I began furiously scribbling notes, with the idea that I could share the experience with other children’s writers.
Ten things I learned (all over again!) from Kwame Alexander:
1. Kwame can’t write at home because his six-year-old daughter tries to make him dress up like a princess. So he writes at Panera instead.
My Takeaway: We all have distractions in our lives.
2. Kwame also likes to write at Panera because he can steal from those around him…a snippet of conversation, the way a man touches a woman’s cheek…
My Takeaway: You are always working as long as you are aware of the world around you. Yes, this means you can totally go to Hawaii, sit on the beach, and consider it work. (Please consult your tax advisor before writing off the trip, however.)
3. THE CROSSOVER took five years from concept to sale.
My Takeaway: Be patient. (My critique partners know that this is not exactly my strong suit.)
4. Kwame got twenty-two rejections on THE CROSSOVER and was considering self-publishing before he finally got an acceptance.
My Takeaway: Those twenty-two editors must feel like idiots. Just kidding. My real takeaway: Don’t give up. Or, as Kwame put it, “You have to say yes to yourself.”
5. When he needed to revise THE CROSSOVER, Kwame Googled “novel in verse writing coach” and then worked with his coach for months.
My Takeaway: Revision is hard. Nobody can do it alone. Also, thank goodness for Google.
6. Kwame said, “Publishers don’t know what they want until they get it.”
My Takeaway: Write what you are passionate about, not what you think editors are looking for. If your book is great, it will get published.
7. When Kwame was speaking, every single person there…from picture book writers to YA writers to nonfiction writers to illustrators…from the unpublished to the multi-award-winning…was captivated. Enthralled. The whole room crackled with excitement, and with happiness and pride for Kwame.
My Takeaway: The kidlit community is amazing, and we can all gain knowledge, inspiration, and support from one another.
8. Other Newbery winners told Kwame, “The price of a Newbery is a book,” meaning that he should give himself a break this year and just enjoy the ride.
My Takeaway: Successes can be few and far between in this business, and it is easy to immediately go from “YAY! I GOT A CONTRACT TODAY!” to “Okay, now I need to sell another book.” We should all take time to truly appreciate and enjoy every success—big and little—along the way.
9. The night before the Newbery announcement, Kwame couldn’t sleep. He drank root beer, watched TV, worried and wondered…could all of those who said THE CROSSOVER was a Newbery contender maybe, just maybe, be right? Around 3:00 am, Kwame decided to re-read the book. He found a bunch of errors and decided that his awful book could not possibly have won the award.
My Takeaway: We all doubt ourselves. Especially at 3:00 am.
10. Kwame said, “We are at our best when our passions become our jobs.”
My Takeaway: We are incredibly lucky to be writing books for children. Who could possibly ask for a better job???
Oh…and one more thing I learned, as a bonus for those of you who read this far:
11. A year and a half ago, Kwame was selling his books from a small booth at Eastern Market in Washington D.C. (and had happily paid $100 for the privilege of selling books from that booth).
My Takeaway: Just like the boys in SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE don’t realize just how close they are to an enormous diamond, you never know just how close you may be to enormous success. [Refer back to #3…Be patient…and #4…Don’t give up.]
Laura Gehl’s newest picture books are AND THEN ANOTHER SHEEP TURNED UP and HARE AND TORTOISE RACE ACROSS ISRAEL. She is also the author of ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, a Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book, and the PEEP AND EGG series (hatching Spring 2016). You can visit Laura online at LauraGehl.com and Facebook.com/AuthorLauraGehl.