Sometimes, getting back to basics helps us appreciate what is truly valuable. This type of reality check certainly had an effect on Leslie Connor, inspiring her to write her first picture book, Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Houghton). In the story, Miss Bridie leaves her thatch-roofed cottage in 1856 Ireland and sets sail for America. Of all her prized possessions, Miss Bridie chooses to bring a shovel to her new homeland, for reasons that soon become apparent in a most practical way.
Connor formed the character of Miss Bridie as she worked the earth with her own shovel in a much more modern era. "A number of years ago, my husband and I were building a home into a hillside," Connor explains. "We hired a backhoe to do much of the major work, but there was still a lot of digging and earth moving to be done. Even though we were nearly penniless at that point, I bought myself a really good shovel. I started to think back on the Laura Ingalls Wilder books I enjoyed as a girl and wondered, 'What would it be like in those days? What would you want to have on hand?' "
Connor believes she entered children's book publishing via a side door. "I came to the field thinking of myself as an illustrator, but I don't leave much evidence of that yet," she says. In fact, Connor's bachelor's degree from the University of Connecticut is in fine art. Still, she notes, "Writing chose me. I took some local continuing education classes in writing to get a manuscript that I could submit with my artwork. After a while, I began to acknowledge that I was a writer at heart. It was a surprise to me, but it was there all along."
Writing classes helped Connor find a group of like-minded friends who serve as a critique group. "We cheerlead for each other," she says. Participation in an annual writers' retreat in Maine, organized by a friend, has also proved pivotal. And in 2001, when her tale about Miss Bridie seemed in good shape, Connor entered it in a statewide contest in her home state of Connecticut. Before long, she walked away with the Tassy Walden Award for New Voices in Children's Literature—and an agent. "The contest had two levels of judging," Connor says. "One at an editor level and one at an agent level. Jennie Dunham [of Dunham Literary] happened to be at the award reception where I read my text and a few weeks later she offered me representation."
Dunham soon placed the manuscript with Houghton's Ann Rider, who, in turn, paired Miss Bridie with the artwork of Caldecott Medalist Azarian (Snowflake Bentley). "As an illustrator myself, I knew what that meant," Connor recalls. "I felt honored that they would put my text in Mary's good care."
The result has been what Connor characterizes as an experience in warmth. "You don't know much about what happens in publishing until you get a foot—or a knee, maybe—in the door. I was so impressed by the care that was taken after it was out of my hands. It's been amazing to me to read reviews and to feel 'oh, they got it!'—to feel so completely understood."
These days, Connor more than understands the key role that writing has come to occupy in her life. "This is my job now," she says. "I had previously been a kept woman," she jokes, "dedicating a decade to raising three kids [ages 16, 14 and 11]. I always kept a finger in writing and art, but it started to pay off right when it had to—before I had to take a job that I wouldn't love."
Following in Miss Bridie's footsteps is a "kind of spooky" YA novel for Dial that is slated for spring 2005, as well as "two or three picture books I'm honing and one that I badly want to illustrate," says Connor. And as for Connor's shovel, it's still around—just like readers imagine Miss Bridie's would be.