Career Builder & Giveaway: Lisa Wheeler

Lisa at the release party for Boogie Knights

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Lisa Wheeler is passionate about children’s books. “I love everything about them, including the smell.”

To date, Lisa has thirty titles on library shelves, with more to follow. She’s written picture books in prose and rhyme, an easy reader series, three books of poems, and creative nonfiction for the very young.

Awards include the 2004 Mitten Award for Old Cricket, given by the Michigan Library Association, the 2005-2006 Great Lakes, Great Books Award and 2005 Missouri Building Blocks Award for Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum, the 2006 Bluebonnet Award for Seadogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta, the 2006/07 South Carolina Picture Book Award for Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum and most recently, the 2008 The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for Jazz Baby given by the American Library Association.

Her newest titles include Dino-Football, illustrated by Barry Gott (CarolRhoda), Spinster Goose: Twisted Rhymes for Naughty Children, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Simon & Schuster) and coming in February 2013, Pet Project: Cute and Cuddly Vicious Verses, illustrated by Zachariah Ohora (Simon & Schuster).

Lisa shares her Michigan home with one husband, two dogs, and an assortment of anthropomorphic characters.

What memories of your debut author experience stand out? If you could offer advice to the new voice you once were, what would you say?

I began writing seriously in 1995. I set a goal to sell a magazine story in eight months and a picture book in one year. Well, nearly eight months later I sold my first magazine story, so I felt I was on track.

Alas, it took nearly four years and all of my patience before finally selling my first picture book, One Dark Night.

Like most writers, I had dreamed of what that moment might be like. I envisioned a call from an editor during dinner, when all of the family was home. I would be shocked! Elated! Terrified! Excited!

But when the real first sale happened, it didn’t go according to any script in my head.

By that time, I had acquired an agent. He’d accepted me on the basis of a chapter book I wrote. But five months later, when he wasn’t able to sell it, I was convinced he was going to drop me.

When I submitted One Dark Night to him, he called me immediately. He loved the manuscript and was certain it would be my first sale.

Then, he simultaneously submitted it to six houses. Four of them wanted it!

An auction for the book began and I was left shocked, elated, terrified and excited.

When the dust settled, Harcourt became my first publishing house.

After over two hundred rejections in four years, I had publishers begging me to sell them my story. It was awesome!

This just goes to show that anything can happen on this bumpy road to publication. Don’t give up! The difference between an unpublished author and a published author is one day.

How have you built an audience over time?

Years ago my agent said that he felt I would be one of those authors who slowly built her reputation one book at a time. He was right!

I really think it comes down to craft. I’ve had books get starred reviews, appear on state lists, and win awards. Those things are out of my control. What is in my control is my manuscript while it is still in my hot little hands. It is up to me to make sure I am sending out my best.

If you build it, they will come.

Did you ever consider giving up? What happened? What kept you going?

Lisa with Flat Stanley.

Yes–many times. Those four years in the trenches were not fun. And I know many writers who have waited much longer for their first book contract.

I recall days when I would come home from work to find three or more of my rejected manuscripts waiting in my mailbox. (Insert funeral dirge here.) I’d whine. I’d cry. I’d get discouraged.

There were even times when I would ask myself if it was all worth it. Could I chase this brass ring forever?

But then, the next day I would get a new idea and the process would begin again.




We writers are a crazy lot.

What advice do you have for the debut authors of 2012?

I would tell them to enjoy each moment. You only get one first book.

Looking back, I realize that I never gave myself enough credit for my accomplishments (probably still don’t). When my first book came out, I was so busy working on new books, trying to sell books, and trying to come up with ideas for more books that I never stopped and smelled the roses.

On the flip side, I would also tell them that this is just the first book. You want it to be the first of many. Don’t stop working, don’t stop submitting and don’t stop brainstorming new ideas.

If this is what you love doing, keep doing it. It is that simple.

Madcap Monster Ball

Cynsational Notes

The Career Builders series offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published books for a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to both the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business landscape of trade publishing.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Dino-Football by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Barry Gott (CarolRhoda, 2012). Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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9 thoughts on “Career Builder & Giveaway: Lisa Wheeler

  1. Lisa Wheeler was a guest author in our elementary school several years ago. It was a wonderful time for all the students and staff. In reading this essay it reminds me of how much zest she has for writing and her readers. Thanks to you both for this post.

  2. Great post! Lisa really inspires me to keep writing and trying. Her boot camps are so chock full of tips – definitely recommend. My son loves her Dino books, I would love to win a copy of the newest one!

  3. I am a HUGE fan, Lisa!!!! Huge! I keep the "Wheeler" section of the W's hot at my library. I have checked out Boogie Knights the most, I think…but I have checked all of them out many times so it's hard to remember. Also, I sold books to libraries for an independent distributor and the librarians love, love, love the Dino books!!! What a hit those have been.
    Your post is so encouraging. I am a writer looking for a home for my manuscripts and your words resonated on several levels.
    Thanks to both of you!

  4. What a great success story, all based on tremendous dedication and hard work of course.
    I love the comment "After over two hundred rejections in four years, I had publishers begging me to sell them my story."
    A great collection of books too. Lisa should be very proud.

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