Career Achievers: Monica Brown on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

Learn more about Monica Brown.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I think the bumps I’ve encountered have come both from within and without. The publishing industry is constantly in flux and there are so many things that have to happen to bring a book into the world.

I’ve had difficulty getting certain manuscripts published, but I’ve been stubborn enough (and had enough self-belief) not to give up, to wait for the connection, to seek out, with the help of my agent, Stefanie Von Borstel, visionary editors and publishers, like Adriana Dominguez, Nikki Garcia, Alvina Ling, Jason Low, Louise May, and Reka Simonsen.

One of the biggest challenges as a writer is knowing when to hold tight to your vision and when to allow others to help you shape a story. A great editor will make your writing better, but there are some situations when you need to stand firm.

When I’ve made editorial changes I haven’t felt good about (which has been rare) I have indeed regretted it. Conversely, when I have stuck to my vision, my perseverance has paid off.

Now available from NorthSouth, 2017!

Another challenge has been managing not the writing, but everything else. Few people realize how much non-writing work goes into a successful writing career.

I’ve made sacrifices of sleep, family time, and balance to accomplish what I have as a writer and professor.

Writing is a creative process that, if we are so lucky, yields delight—stories, art, inspiration, connection, change, celebration, affirmation—of our young readers and in our own lives.

Publishing is also business, that requires negotiation, compromise, marketing, social media, appearances, interviews, tweets, taxes, Facebook posts, website updates, talks, school visits, conferences, and book festivals.

 There are many delights in the latter list—like connection with readers and comraderie with other writers—but one thing is sure, while you are doing the latter, you won’t be doing the former—the actual writing and researching.

And then there’s the whole world—I am a teacher and an activist and a mom and a partner and a sister and a tía and a friend. Try to enjoy it!

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

The only thing I would do differently is take better care of the body my brain is housed in.

I feel like I’ve put my heart, soul, and time into my craft and making sure my books get into the hands of children, so I have no professional regrets.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

This is an impossible question, because it does seem that, in terms of diversity in children’s literature, we take one step forward and two steps back.

I feel part of some positive changes in children’s publishing, by introducing my mixed-race, multicultural protagonists—Marisol McDonald of Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/no combinaMariso McDonald and the Clash Bash/y el fiest sin igual, and Marisol McDonald and the Monster/el monstruo (all Children’s Book Press); and my beloved Lola Levine, the star of my chapter book series depicted a multiracial girl with a mixed religious background from Little, Brown, edited by Nikki Garcia.

Not only did Angela Dominguez and I publish one of the first Latina-authored and edited chapter book series, but in books like Lola Levine and the Vacation Dream (Little, Brown, 2017), we have an exploration, in a chapter book, about Indigenous identity in the Americas and colonization. That feels slightly revolutionary and was an amazing experience to write.

In this series in particular I feel like I’ve been able to create a world not unlike my own—politically aware, whole multicultural families, children that aren’t described in fractions, and strong, ambitious, athletic girls who are allowed to be, well, loud! And live out loud.

I’ve also, through my biographies, been able to share models of activism and art and music and the creative process. I’ve been luckily able to work with presses like Lee and Low and Children’s Book Press and Arté Público, alongside presses like HarperCollins, North South, and Little, Brown & Co. And I’ve noticed that in publishing, big, small, or medium, it’s the people who shape the vision.

For this reason, we need to make sure that the doors to publishing are open to all—not just the writers, but the editors and marketing and publicity folks too.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Sleep and exercise more, worry less. Becoming a published author is really, really, hard. It’s supposed to be. There aren’t really any short cuts—read, write, revise, repeat.

Network, join SCBWI, and find mentors. Find your people in publishing. They are there, and this is especially important for writers of color. You can come find me. I sought out advocates like Cynthia Leitich Smith for early support of my books.

And if the idea of finding a mentor is intimidating, just make friends. I don’t know what I would have done as a young writer without Malín Alegría, René Colato Láinez, Reyna Grande, Rafael Lopez, John Parra, and also Adriana Dominguez and Stefanie Von Borstel and Meg Medina to name only a few.

I’m mentioning these names because we’ve all known each other almost from our very first books around a decade ago, and that is something.

 If we can do it, you can too!

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Success, satisfaction, and art that is in service of a more socially just world.

 Art that makes children’s hearts sing, or gives them an escape from pain. Art that gives them glimpses into a future and helps them choose and imagine their lives.

That’s what books did for me as a teenager.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

Hmmmm. This is a fun one for me. I want to keep telling and writing stories and I’d like to spend more time by the ocean while writing them. I want to become a better writer and finally write what I am scared of, which is project for an adult audience.

 And though I’m only 48, I’m going to go ahead and say that I’d like to live long enough to read my stories to the next generation, and hopefully, my future grandchildren.

My daughters will cringe when they read this.

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

One thought on “Career Achievers: Monica Brown on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

  1. This is such a fantastic series — fills me with hope! And I love the advice about if finding a mentor feels too much, just try making friends. The kidlit world is filled with loving, fascinating people! Thanks, and now I am off to request LOLA from my library!

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