Wednesday, May 23, 2012


About eight years ago, I "came out" ...  as an aspiring children's book author/illustrator.

I publicly declared to my friends and family that this thing that I'd been doing on the sly for years, was my biggest dream. And I vowed to them and to myself that I would see one of my books on bookstore shelves ... or die trying. I declared that I'd be sitting in my wooden rocker at the Peaceful Gardens Rest Home still sending out queries if that's what it took.

At that point in my life, I started writing with a sense of purpose and a feeling of accountability. I actually forced myself to finish stories (I had a bad habit of beginning to write children's books and then moving on to the next thing when it got too hard). I painted scenes from these stories.

When I felt like I had a fabulous story and a full-blown painted book dummy (a mistake to finish it to that degree, I now know ... sketches are better to send out!), I started to show my work to people. I showed my book to my family, and they loved it (of course). I showed my book to some friends, and they all loved it, too.

Then I got bolder. I had a friend with a PhD in children's lit. I took her to dinner and showed her my book ... and she loved it! I showed it to bookseller friends, and what do you know? They loved it too!!

Enter Sheldon Fogelman ...

Sheldon Fogelman was Maurice Sendak's agent and attorney. He's kind of a big deal in the world of children's books, to put it mildly. And since Maurice Sendak's death, this encounter has been on my mind:

I was helping with our annual Conference for the Book here in Oxford, and Richard Peck was our featured children's author. Sheldon Fogelman is his agent and came along with him for his visit.

I was standing in our wonderful indie children's bookstore, and the then manager of the store opened her desk drawer and pulled out my book dummy (I had left one up at the store with her because, well, you never know, right?). "I'm going to show this to Sheldon," she whispered. I nodded and followed behind her as she pitched my manuscript and handed it to him. He flipped through it quickly and then a little more slowly.

And then he looked up at me with a look that I can only describe as "bless your heart". You know the one--the closed mouth smile and head shaking back and forth. My pounding heart lodged somewhere in my throat as I tried to keep my hands from shaking. I reached toward my manuscript. I wanted to snatch it away from him and then run like a maniac from the store.

But before I could grab it, he started talking.

"This is terrible," he said.

The room started closing in around me.

"I mean, what IS this? It's rhyming, first of all. How are you going to have that translated into other languages. And this art? It's too fine art and painterly. Kids don't want to look at this--they can't tell what's going on ... and why are some of the paintings in black and white and then they're in color? Are you just trying to PROVE to people that you can paint in black and white."

"Well," I choked out. "The story is about this little curmudgeon who refuses to see all the colors in the world around him. But gradually he begins to see. That's kind of the point of the story."

"And, my GOD! There's not even a child in the story."

(Can I just say that all of these words are being said in a thick New York accent with lots of exasperated sighs and grunts--he's clearly offended all around, as if it's insulting to him to have to be looking at this piece of drivel.)

"I mean, this is just AWFUL."

"Um, okay. Thank you so much for looking at it. I really appreciate it ..." I stammered along, still reaching for my book and trying to get it back from him as he continued to flip through it and loudly sigh. Finally, I just grabbed it and got out of there.

And, yes. I ran home and cried. I licked my wounds for days. I went through the stages of grief (yes, including anger, denial), ending up with hope. Yes. Hope.

After a few weeks of processing what he'd said and really thinking through it. I realized something.

He was absolutely right.

This book would never, ever be published. And who was I kidding--this was Maurice Sendak's agent and he took the time to look at my manuscript. I should be grateful.

And now I am.

I learned many, many things from this encounter--things besides the fact that my manuscript was horrible:

1. I realized that I still had a lot to learn about children's books, and with a little nudge from my friend Katie Anderson (whose YA book Kiss and Makeup will be released by Amazon Publishing in October), I joined SCBWI and started going to conferences.

2. It is best to listen to advice from people who are currently IN THE BUSINESS (agents, editors, other published writers). Also, you need to get advice from people who aren't friends or family. I actually picked a pretty good group to look at my manuscript, but I needed to expand my circle a bit more.

3. Be nice when critiquing other people's work. Mr. Fogelman could have been a little more sensitive and saved me some anguish. There actually were some good things about the book that I showed him--things I was able to extrapolate and use later--but he didn't mention any of those things, and to be fair, he might not have seen anything good about my book at all.

Besides, I don't think it's his style to be and hand-holding, butter-you-up kind of guy--and really, once you've reached his level, you've earned the right to be as blunt as you want to be. It wasn't personal, and again, his remarks were dead-on.

But I like to start every manuscript critique with something positive to say. What can I say? I'm a Southern girl!

4.  Most importantly, it set me up for years of rejection letters and critique groups. Nothing I went through later was quite as humbling as this face-to-face encounter with one of the moguls of children's literature. Nothing. And Mr. Fogelman taught me an invaluable lesson in taking criticism and developing thick skin. But mostly, he taught me that when I felt beaten down and hopeless, I had the ability to pick myself up and put myself right back out there.

And it was because of that ability to keep trying new things and to keep sending books out no matter what the response, that I've finally reached my dream of having that book on the shelves.


And, I do want to reiterate that this post isn't meant to be a slam of Sheldon Fogelman. The man's a genius (I mean, he discovered Mo Willems as well!), and I truly am grateful to him.


  1. Holy Cow! That is one crazy story! The way you picked yourself up, kept moving forward and found things to learn from that experience is truly inspirational. Thanks so much for sharing this bump on the road to publication!

  2. Yikes! After that encounter, there really was no place for you to go but UP! Thanks for writing this post, Sarah. It will be so helpful for anyone trying to bust in to this business. Oh, and I agree with you about padding the criticism with a little kindness--some people would have been totally destroyed by this experience. Yes, you are one tough (talented) cookie!

  3. Wow. That is both amazing and terrifying. Good for you for learning from it!

  4. Oh this is such a great read! Thank you so much for sharing. I'm new to writing and still intimidated about sharing my work with my 12 x 12 critique group. This post demands that we take risk and that the reward is in that risk. The risk of continuing to write and send out work is lesson not missed on me anymore. Thank you.

  5. Thank you, Sarah Frances! I needed that story and advice for my art!!!

  6. Oh my, what a great story! Thanks for sharing. Have you browsed through the "Banana Peeling" series on Elizabeth Omlor's blog? You are in good company!

  7. This is one heck of a story! I admire you so much for getting going after that and not letting his comments stop you. And while I think you are right to ultimately be grateful for what he said, I still take issue with HOW he said it. He could have simply told you why it would never be published without being so pejorative.

    That said, it got you to where you are today, so it did work out. Good for you!

  8. Love it! When I got enough guts to show an editor my work, she handed it back and said "It doesn't suck." I was not sure how to interprut that. Then she saw the look on my face and said, "That's a good thing. Most of the stuff I get sucks." So not mean like the agent, but a heart dropper. LOL. She later ended up publishing my first book, but I so wanted to cry as I focused on the word suck.

    Good for you for going back and working harder! I agree that SCBWI has been a the best tool I've found, and I tell anyone who is serious about children's book writing, that if you are not a member, you can't be really serious.

  9. Wow, I so appreciate you sharing this! I don't know if I would have risen from the dust so graciously as you did. How glad am I/we that you didn't quit and trusted your gift/destiny!

  10. WOW! That is a crazy story! Hard to believe he said that, even if he thought it! And how great that you didn't let it stop you!

  11. I had to send this right away to my new critique group - all pre-pubbies! Thank you so much for sharing this straight-from-the-heart life-changing experience! I am from NY, and I believe every word of it! I can imagine his eyebrows too! Congratulations on your perseverance and ability to see through the rose colored glasses! You didn't just get published, you became a Mensch!

  12. Ouch! What a story! But look where you are now :)

  13. I'm impressed that you've been able to get past the anguish--and keep going. Kudos to you--and may the next version of this story be wonderful!

  14. Wow - what a story - thanks so much for sharing it!! I really admire your persistence!! And, congrats on your book :-)

  15. DUDE! This is absolutely the best publishing story I have read in a long time! It cracked my up and gave me a lump in my throat at the same time.

    You are the best!!



  16. I second Susanna, ouch! One of the first picture book stories I wrote was terrible and I had people tell me it was good including a published children's author. It wasn't until I went to SCBWI conference that I realized my story was terrible and since then have learned how to fix what I was doing wrong. Sometimes hearing something is crappy is better for a writer than hearing it is good when in fact the story needs work. I'm glad that you didn't give up.

  17. Thank you for sharing this...I enjoyed reading how the criticism simmered awhile and then took hold. It is SOOOOOOO hard to hear it and a thick skin is required, for sure!

  18. Wow! You're brave! I would have started bawling. Thanks for sharing this story! It's amazing how turmoils in our lives shape us for the better! Congrats on your new book!

  19. Wow is right! Good for you for taking it so well. I might have started crying on the spot. But he gave you great advice. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  20. Thanks for sharing. That is some tough news to hear. Good for you for sticking with it. He could have been less abrupt.

  21. I am so glad that you found your hope out of the experience and kept at it! I'm so happy for you!

  22. So glad you blogged about this, SF! You should tell this story at every presentation. xo

  23. What a great story and timely too. It's amazing how some of our darkest moments set us up for the hopeful silver linings of life. With how slow and calculated I am, I may be in that nursing home before my books are published. Well, I don't really think it will take that long, but sometimes it feels like it. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Great title, by the way, too!

  24. Love this story! Horrendous experience at the time, I'm sure, but you turned it around. Just fabulous. :)

  25. Wow. Wince-worthy! I do believe in The Happy Sandwich (the meat inbetween two slices of some nice doughy carbs to comfort you). Just because someone has a strong career doesn't earn them rude coins they can toss wherever. Luckily he helped you, but sheesh, have a heart, Sheldon!

    1. Katie, I love this: "rude coins they can toss wherever". Right on, girl! I thought the very same thing.

      Something similar happened to me at a conference in a big, sit-down circle of people with a query letter of mine that was being critiqued and I wanted to snatch it up and run out of the room. The editor (a very BIG name editor with his own imprint) had thrown my query letter across the floor. I felt humiliated.

  26. OHMYGOSH, what a story, SF! I was about to cry just reading your first experience. Gulp! But look at what you've accomplished, girl! I'm so proud of you and so happy to know you. And the kidlets and I all ADORE your book in my house!

  27. Ouch. It's hard to hear words like that. But look at you now! Way to go.

    I haven't been by for a long while. It's nice to see you again. :)

  28. What an awesome post! How did I miss this. And what a journey. You truly have the gift of storytelling as I was glued. And full of emotion. Congrats my friend. Love you!!!


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