Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Audacity of Youth

Continuing my delicious read of Ursula Nordstrom's letters, and came across a bit of information that made me recall a wonderfully audacious moment from my adolescence.

Charlotte Zolotow started out in the world of children's publishing as Ursula Nordstrom's secretary. Later on she became a distinguished author and editor in her own right. OK, you say, that's great. So what?

I happen to have a letter from Charlotte Zolotow in my files. An actual typewritten (yes, typewritten) letter with a signature. It was a reply to a query I sent to Harper's when I was sixteen years old. I actually wrote to Charlotte Zolotow to pitch the idea for a picture book I'd already written.

The book was called Homer and was the story of a leaf that turned red on a tree where almost all of the other leaves turned yellow. He was teased and got embarrassed about how different he was, but in the end, he became immortalized in a little girl's beautiful collage. It was, if I say so myself, a pretty good story. I wrote a lot during my high school years, and my love of children's literature had given me a pretty good story-telling sense and rhythm. My dad helped me reproduce the text (we actually enlarged my typewritten sheets on a photocopier... this was still a few years before everyone had a computer) and we pasted the words on cardstock. He did beautiful illustrations for it and we actually bound it by hand. I still have the book -- I've not yet shared it with the Boop because it's sort of fragile now and I think she will appreciate it more later and treat it more gently too.

I'm getting sidetracked. I did not send the book or even a whole typewritten manuscript to Charlotte Zolotow. I knew enough to know that I should simply send a query letter and share my idea, which I did. I don't have a copy of that original letter I wrote, but I do have her very gracious reply. (I just re-found it in my files a few months ago. The fact that I can't find it right this moment is not an indication of how I feel about it but an indication of the utter disarray of my files. Sigh.)

CZ, as Ursula Nordstrom called her, took me seriously. She told me that she didn't think they could offer to publish my book successfully because the theme of someone mocked for being different but triumphing in the end was a tried and true one that had been done before, perhaps best in Hans Christian Anderson's "The Ugly Duckling," which had been one of my favorites in childhood. She told me I'd made an "impressive start" to my "writing career" (I still remember how much those few words meant to me) and encouraged me to read everything I could and to keep writing.

What a treasure of a letter. And what an audacious thing for me to do, to send a letter to such a respected editor at such an established publishing house. Of course, I had no clue then of what a part she had played in helping to publish renowned 20th century children's lit. I don't even think I knew any of her stories. If I'm remembering rightly, I picked her name out of a market listing because...I thought it was pretty. :-)

When I look back on all that now, I have to smile. And I have to marvel at a few things:
  • my early passion for writing
  • my early confidence in the stories I was writing
  • the fact that a letter from an unpublished and naive sixteen year old could get through to a senior editor at Harper's and actually elicit a personal response

The first two reflections make me glad; the third one sad. Harper's, along with most other major publishing houses, no longer accepts unsolicited manuscripts or queries. I suspect a letter from me now, twenty-two years later, would not even make it into a slush pile to be read by the most junior of editors, much less responded to in any way. As I read Nordstrom's letters, and as I reflect on how the world of children's book publishing has changed in recent years, I realize it's lost a certain kind of personal, family-like atmosphere, in which young talent could be welcomed and encouraged. Nowadays it's mostly just bottom-line business (which is one reason I think my recent reading of It's a Bunny Eats Bunny World left me feeling somewhat discouraged about any chance I might have to get published in this field).

Ah well. I've definitely wandered far afield here. Mostly just wanted to reflect on how grateful I am for the audacity of youth, and to celebrate a small (very small) connection with the historic Ursula Nordstrom whose letters I've been enjoying so much this week.


Erin said...

That sounds like a great story you wrote! And how cool that, though it didn't get published, you got such a personal response! I share your frustration with the impersonal nature of publishing today. All those form letters are not very encouraging! Still... perseverence is a powerful thing!

Beth said...

Yep! Keep at it, Erin! I'd really like to have some "McCarty" books on my shelves someday! (And thanks for the encouragement...)