As writers, we must ALL strike while the iron is hot. Every writer tries to get into the castle (the publishing houses) over the drawbridge. The drawbridge however is crowded, heavy laden from the weight of writers that would love a meeting with the Queen or the King, (the editors). It is necessary, and beneficial to keep your eyes wide open for a secret passage that presents itself to you where nobody else is looking.
This is EXACTLY how my newest picture book, STILL A FAMILY, Albert Whitman & Company, illustrated by Jo-Shin Lee, was conceived and transpired. I was trolling on Facebook one day, and there was a conversation that began on the wall of Tracey Adams, co-founder of the esteemed literary agency, Adams Literary. Josh Adams was my first agent, and so we have a wonderful relationship still, and I frequently read their posts as they are the most amazing people and such incredible agents. Tracey was in Maine visiting, and her daughter made a comment wondering why there were so many homeless people in Maine.
Tracey wondered why a book about the homeless, and how to explain homelessness to children, hadn’t been written yet. I was circling the castle and I saw that small light in the window of opportunity open. Nobody else had yet discovered it, and so I sat down and wrote a first draft of Still a Family. In doing so, I struck while the iron was hot.
It was quick writing session, 30-minutes maybe. I originally didn’t write STILL A FAMILY to sell it. I wrote it because I truly wanted to write something for Tracey’s daughter. It was a story written in rhyme, and I posted it on my Facebook wall.
Immediately…within seconds, I got a message from a Facebook friend who works in a homeless shelter saying, “This is GREAT! Can I share it with people at my shelter?”
I was encouraged by this response, and answered with, “Let me run this by my agent, the beautiful-friend-to-all Karen Grencik, of Red Fox Literary to see if there might be a calling for a book like this,” and I took the story off my Facebook wall if there were indeed a need for this story.
I sent Karen a message. “Do you think there is a calling for a book about a child living in a homeless shelter?” She pinged back a response…”No, I don’t really think there is a calling for a book like this, sorry.”
Well, I continued walking around the castle, and I saw another door open that nobody had yet seen, as two editors had responded on Tracey’s Facebook wall post. Their commentaries went like this. “I would LOVE a book like this for OUR house.” “YES, us too, we would like a book like this.” I scribbled down names, and found out what houses the editors worked at. I ping-ponged back another message to Karen. “There are two editors asking for this manuscript, will you send it?”
And just like that, before the day was over, we were out on submission with STILL A FAMILY.
I know this is highly unusual, I know the way this happened was nothing short of a miracle, but in saying this, had I not been open to getting into the castle other then over the drawbridge, had I not been willing to write something on cue, to write to what a specific editor had requested, STILL A FAMILY might never have come to fruition.
Karen and I received immediate responses (within a day or two) regarding this manuscript. And within 6-weeks, STILL A FAMILY was sold to Albert Whitman & Co, this is record speed in the land of publishing. The manuscript changed a LOT, it was revised and revised, rewritten and tweaked, it went from rhyme, to prose. I had never written in prose before and it was a scary process for me, but I listened intently to my editor, Andrea Hall, and I was able to write the story (which took just about a year of revision) and is now being released on January 31st.
Albert Whitman wanted the story to be about a family, and how a family STAYS a family while living in different homeless shelters. Oftentimes families are separated, the mom lives with the children in one shelter, and the dad lives in a different shelter with men. I researched and wanted to write a story that would speak to the homeless, but also to librarians, educators, parents, grandparents, depicting the story compassionately, and with respect, it is a story of hope but most of all it is a story about LOVE.
I wrote the story to bring the plight of the homeless to light, to humanize this epidemic that is taking over our country and enveloping our world. 2.5 million children are affected by homelessness every single year. Sometimes the ONLY thing that separates the homeless from people with a home is a medical crisis and/or a few paychecks.
One thing led to another, Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly have given STILL A FAMILY glowing reviews. There is a news anchor in New York that is going to blog about this book and report on it, and I have paired with Schinnell Leake, an Oprah Woman of the Year and founder of Extra-Ordinary Birthdays, an organization that provides birthday parties to children in homeless shelters. This is quickly becoming my life’s work, getting STILL A FAMILY to the children that need it most, to the children in the shelters, to the families to give them hope, to the schools for understanding and educational purposes…this is my new mission.
In closing, I reiterate to you to keep looking, keep searching, keep writing, and keep walking around the castle trying to get an audience with the Queen or the King. Keep your eyes open for trap doors, for a different access, for another way in, because you just never know how wonderful it all might be and how what YOU have to say can make a difference. Not only for people that you didn’t even know needed you, but for your own life, your unique purpose and your individual writing journey as well.
A percentage of every sale of STILL A FAMILY will be donated to homeless shelters across the country.
Brenda Reeves Sturgis is the author of 10 TURKEYS IN THE ROAD, illustrated by David Slonim, THE LAKE WHERE LOON LIVES, a cumulative rhyming book, illustrated by Brooke Carlton, and TOUCHDOWN, illustrated by Trey Chavez.
Brenda is the winner of the 2007 Smart Writer’s contest and the Grand Prize winner of the 2014 MeeGenius Author Challenge contest. Her latest picture book, STILL A FAMILY, will be released by Albert Whitman & Co on January 31st, 2017. You can visit her at BrendaReevesSturgis.com, or on Facebook, and you can see the trailer of STILL A FAMILY on You Tube.
Brenda is giving away three copies of STILL A FAMILY—one to a winner here, one to a homeless shelter of the winner’s choice and one to a children’s library selected by the winner.