Panelists (l. to r.) Richard Peck, Brian Floca, and Jane O'Connor compared their routes to becoming successful authors.
In any discussion on how to be a children’s book author, questions naturally focus on the beginning of the journey—how to get started, how to get an agent, how to get published. Rarer is a focus on what it takes to be successful after that first book. That was exactly what author and editor David Levithan (Love Is the Higher Law) and his fellow panelists were challenged to explore at a panel discussion in New York City this past Monday. Titled “Crafting a Career as a Children’s or Young Adult Author—Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” the panel was presented by the PEN American Center’s Children’s Book Committee.
Levithan, who moderated the panel, was joined by authors Jane O’Connor, Richard Peck, Marilyn Singer, and Brian Floca. As the evening began and each of the panelists discussed their early days as writers, it quickly became clear that
Author/editor David Levithan moderated the panel, which took place Monday evening.
they had something in common—at the beginning, none of them actually knew what they wanted to do. “I was all over the map,” said Floca. And if he’d had his way after college, he said, he would have had his college newspaper comic strip syndicated. That love of cartooning led to a class at the Rhode Island School of Design, where a teacher introduced him to an author who needed some illustrations. The author turned out to be Avi, and the result was City of Light, City of Dark. But even after that early success, Floca said he had a hard time finding his own style. It wasn’t until he began putting his skill set as a history major to use writing nonfiction that he said, “I found my voice.”
Both Marilyn Singer (r.) and Richard Peck started their careers as English teachers.
Like Floca, Jane O’Connor had some trouble figuring out what she wanted to do after college. “I loved the ’60s,” she said, “because you were supposed to not know what you wanted to do. And I had no burning desire to do anything.” Her first job after graduation was as an assistant at a small, family-owned children’s book publisher. “If the job had been editing cookbooks, I would have spent the next 30 years trying out recipes.” But as her career as an editor progressed, eventually taking her to Penguin, she began writing her own books, inspired in part by her children.
Richard Peck (A Year Down Yonder) and Marilyn Singer (I’m Your Bus) both began their careers as English teachers. Singer taught high school, while Peck taught middle school. Both ended up quitting their jobs and eventually found second careers as writers. “I wanted to write just one novel that my students couldn’t call irrelevant,” said Peck.
Panelists Peck (l.) and Floca.
But aside from coming to their careers as if by accident, the four panelists seemed to have something else in common—something that may be a sort of secret weapon for staying the game for as long as they have. Over the course of their careers, they have been willing and able to write many types of book, from picture book to YA, and on many different subjects. When O’Connor’s children were young, she wrote early readers. When she dropped one of her children off at college for the first time, she began writing a novel for adults about a murdered college admissions counselor. Peck, though he still writes on a typewriter, has penned books where the Internet and rapid-fire texting play major roles. Singer has edited YA anthologies, as well as written picture books, nonfiction, and poetry. She sums up a successful career with the acronym TOWEL, which she said stands for talent, optimism, widespread interests, endurance, and luck. “This is a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “Don’t throw in the towel, use it.”
O’Connor said she was shocked by the runaway success of her book, Fancy Nancy. “I never thought I would do something that would be branded,” she said. The Fancy Nancy books are some of the easiest to write of her career, she said, and are always a lot of fun. “A writing career can take lots of twists and turns,” O’Connor pointed out. “Something can turn into the biggest surprise of your life.”