This past April, I made my authorial debut with It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw. It’s a picture book about outsider artist, Bill Traylor. When I think back over the year, many words come to mind. A few: Overwhelm, anger, relief, excitement, worry. Not to mention, happy, happy, happy! Here was my year:
As the illustrator of many books, publication birthdays weren’t new to me. They were usually quiet. They came with little fanfare. I rarely even bothered to celebrate publication days, too busy illustrating whatever book I was working on at the time. But as a debut author, I wanted publication day to be special.
The problem was that I didn’t have time to celebrate. I was completing a tour of 25 school visits in Irving, Texas, followed by three days of visits in Alexandria, Va. I was finalizing illustrations for my next book, Hope’s Gift. I was preparing to deliver keynote speeches at the Texas Library Association and International Reading Association conferences. Then there was the High Museum presentation. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed and stressed. In fact, I stressed until I made myself sick. Stress is not good on the body.
What did I learn? To prepare better. As the author of a book, it’s especially important to make time for promotion and celebration. With my next authored book, I’ll allow my schedule to slow down during the few weeks leading up to publication day. Book birthdays are supposed to be fun!
The path to publication for It Jes’ Happened was a long and winding road, filled with many breathtaking views and potholes along the way. The path, however, was not out of the ordinary for publishing. Some books simply take longer than others to publish. It Jes’ Happened required a few years of simmering.
I wrote the book in 2004. It won Lee & Low Books New Voices Honor in 2005. Lee & Low acquired the manuscript in 2007. It was supposed to publish in 2009. Then it was supposed to publish in 2010. Then in 2011. Possibly in 2012, I was told.
During that 8 year span, I began to avoid talking about the book because I was angry and embarrassed. My author friends knew how long book publishing could take. But other people — family, newspaper colleagues, church friends — I feared might think I was lying about having a book coming out.
What did I learn? To be patient. As an illustrator, I get a polished manuscript and a deadline. I know nothing about the author’s path to acquisition. I have no idea how many how many agents or editors passed on the manuscript before it found a publishing home. I don’t know how many times the book was revised, or how long the revision process lasted.
When I voiced my frustrations, about the long process with my editor, she finally said, “The book will publish when it publishes. There’s no hurry.”
No, that didn’t make me feel any better.
Looking back, however, my editor was right. Luck and timing in this business is crucial, I’ve come to believe. Had the book published in 2009, would it have found the same success? I don’t know. What I do know is that I recently lost my job. Soon I’ll be a full time author and illustrator. The success of It Jes’ Happened came along at just the right time. With all the attention from the book, school visit requests are pouring in.
When my editor sent an email congratulating Greg and I for having received our first review — a starred one from Kirkus — I quickly got over my anger issues. Soon after that, we received another review. It came from Booklist, another star! And then the wonderful review from Elizabeth Bird at A Fuse #8 Production. I was elated. I couldn’t stop smiling. The stars and positive reviews were the highpoint of my publishing career.
I had three book launch celebrations. One at Menchaca Elementary school where my son attended at the time. Two others at the High Museum in Atlanta and at BookPeople in Austin, respectively. In spite of the fact that I suffered immense back pain at both events, I had the time of my life. Soon after, we received our third starred review from School Library Journal. This led to more excitement — and more worry.
I really hate to admit this in public, but the past month or so has been filled with anxiety and worry. In the past few months, It Jes’ Happened has been recognized on several end-of-year Best-of lists. Good thing, yes. This has never happened to me.
Friends, colleagues, teachers, librarians, they get excited upon hearing the news, and they say things like, “You’re gonna get a big award.”
Really? I mean, one hopes. But I never, ever — EVER — considered being in that category. And now that I have, it kinda ruins everything, because . . . what if that doesn’t happen? Would folks feel let down? Would I let my publisher down? And how would I feel?
Typically this is one of my favorite times of the publishing year, when all the best-of lists come out. I’m kind of a children’s book author and illustrator fanboy. I love cheering on all of my favorite children’s books and creators. I love to predict who will get this or that award. But this year, I stopped cheering. I’d see books written or illustrated by my favorite creators and instead of responding enthusiastically with, “Yay, I love that book!” I’d feel sweat beading up on my forehead and and respond with, “Oh my freaking gosh, look at that damn good book!” I even cursed a few really wonderful books. This is crazy talk, I know.
Ug, I didn’t anticipate this. Not at all.
Another thing I didn’t anticipate is that I started to fear writing in public. I love to blog, but this year, I cut way back. As a published author, I feared putting stuff out there unedited, wrongly tensed, or written with bad grammar. Before the book published, I didn’t worry about that stuff too much. I figured, I’m an illustrator, I’m supposed to spell bad. But as an author, with a starred book, I’d somehow prove myself a fraud. “Look at his awful writing on the blog,” they’d say. “Did he really write that book?”
What I learned: I’m in this business because I love to write and illustrate for children. Not because of lists or awards or blog mentions. For whatever reason, those things cause anxiety for me anyway, more than anything else.
From here on out, I’m going to focus on the real prize: Writing and illustrating my next best book. Because that’s what truly makes me happy, happy, happy.
It’s been an incredible year. Thank you for all the support.