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

Learn more about Shutta Crum.

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?

Well, the first big bump was wasting approximately eighteen years before I really buckled down and educated myself as to the process of breaking into print. (This was well before the ease of self-publishing that we have today.)

What happened was that I had been a children’s librarian for more than a decade and loved the books I worked with. So one day, prompted by a wonderful poem I’d read, as well as Cynthia Rylant’s great book When I Was Young In the Mountains (Puffin, 1982), I thought Dang! They’ve written my history. Mine! 

So to make a long story short, I wrote My Mountain Song (Clarion, 2003) and sent it out. It got one nicely handwritten rejection from Paula Morrow. (Little did I realize that hand-written notes were not the norm.)

I thought, okay . . . so maybe I just wasn’t meant to be a children’s book author. I put that manuscript in a drawer and did not pull it out for almost eighteen years!

(It was eventually published by Clarion and it became my fourth book.)

When I began to look forward to retirement from the library, I thought what do I want to do for the rest of my life? Write, of course.

So I began researching how one goes about getting a book published. At approximately the same time I came across a comment by Jane Yolen online. She’d posted that she’d just had seven rejections. Seven rejections! And she had over 200 books out at that time. (Many more today.)

Suddenly, it hit me . . . I’d put my manuscript away because I’d gotten one rejection. One. And here was Jane getting rejections almost every week!

Who the heck am I to get all bent out of shape about one rejection?

I learned that authors are rejected all the time—and, abracadabra, it wasn’t personal any more. I decided then and there that I’d join SCBWI, go to conferences and damn the rejections. I wouldn’t care how many I got. I got a lot! I ended up with over 300 rejections on a number of manuscripts before I got my first acceptance. Whew!

I still get rejections—all the time. But I try to look below the surface of those rejections, evaluate what the editor says and either revise, or move on. For one of my books I kept getting rejections that said something like this is a perfectly nice bedtime story, but how will it stand out among the thousands of other bedtime stories available?

I gathered all the rejections, studied them, and then reset my story in Canada under the northern lights. When I sent it to a Canadian publisher it was bought right away! It’s important to remember that often rejections can be learning opportunities.

Being stubborn is a good trait for an author (there are famous family stories about my stubbornness), and it certainly contributed to my now having sixteen books out in sixteen years. (Some years with none, some years with several being published.) However, I also owe a great deal to my supportive husband, family and writing colleagues.

 I think it’s essential to surround yourself with folks who want to see you succeed. It’s so hard to weather rejection from the publishing world. One has to have a sunnier, hopeful world to be in the rest of the time. I’d say this is essential to a writing career.

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

First of all, I wouldn’t have wasted 18 years before I educated myself about this new career I wanted. After all, I worked in a library. I could have started this journey earlier.

But then, what have I got to complain about? It’s been a wonderful ride thus far.

Perhaps, the one thing I have to remind myself of is that I do know the field, the books that are coming out, the writers kids love.

And I do know how to write. I need to trust my gut and not second guess myself so much when I’m dithering about something.

Should this be in first person point of view or third? Does this novel need a prologue? Is this picture book rhythm/plot overly complicated?

It seems to me that I spend a lot of time arguing with myself . . . but maybe it’s no more than any other writer. In the end, it’s all good.

If nothing else, I’m educating myself about myself and how my writing makes it to the page. (Though that tends to change with each book. Ha!)

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

The big change, of course, has been the electronic revolution in publishing; eBooks, PODs, self and independent publishing, all that. Wow!

I sold my first book at the tail end of 1998. At that time you could self-publish, but the cost was high, you had to do massive print runs and you had to warehouse your own books. And, of course, you had to do your own advertising and soliciting of reviews, etc. Too much to deal with!

I told myself that my books had to be published by a traditional publisher or no one. However, since all this new technology has evolved, I’ve changed my mind about a few things.

I do see that there might be a reason for me to independently publish—for example, a book that had its day in the limelight but is now out of print. Out-of-print books have been vetted by an editor, etc., and the prices to self-publish have come down drastically.

 Also, I’ve seen big changes in YA and in picture books, as well as the advent of the category “New Adult.” YA or teen books seem to ride popular waves these days—more so than when I was a working librarian. (I retired from the library in 2004.)

We always considered YA novels as “problem novels,” full of angst. Well, there’s still angst and conflicts, but these are delivered through more layering of genres. These titles are no longer simply contemporary, fantasy, science fiction, or mystery. They can be dystopian vampire comedy mysteries!

Sometimes it makes my head spin—perhaps this is why I don’t write a lot of what I would consider true YA. I do have one novel for sixth through ninth grade readers, but it only inches upon the whole varied world of YA. And I do like the occasional use of New Adult as a term for those readers in their early twenties, late teens—crossover readers.

In picture books I’ve seen so much creativity lately! There’re plots upon plots, metafictional books for little ones, breaking of the fouth wall, and physical interaction with books beyond pop-ups. This is just to name a few of the wonderful techniques being applied to picture book stories these days.

Have you seen Dan Santat’s Are We There Yet? (Little, Brown, 2016)? It’s a doozie that thoughtfully deepens the dreaded road trip with a child into a real experience by manipulating the book to tell the story. And Press Here by Hervé Tullet (Chronicle, 2011) was such a fun winner of a book. So simple, yet so creative!

I love all this experimenting that is going on in the world of picture books. And the illustrators! OMG!

There’s so much experimentation going on there. I adore Shaun Tan’s surrealistic illustrations. I could go on and on.

It’s a wonderful era for picture books—though it may make it more difficult for the newbie to break in. What they are up against is formidable.

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

I’d certainly join SCBWI as soon as I could! And I’d make sure I had a critique group who cared for me and my goals, so that they feel comfortable being honest with me when critiquing. A good crit group requires trust . . . and sometimes that takes a while to build up.

I’d tell myself—over and over—these long waiting periods are par for the course. I’d remind myself to enjoy the scenery every time I got lost in the rough.

Simply putt, I’d allow myself to worry less, and play through.

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

I’d wish for a whole lot of things for writers in the future!

Oh, things like better advances and royalties (writers can rarely live solely on their earnings), more money for the publishers, lots of publicity backed by publishing houses, easier routes to recognition, and a whole slew of kiddies with their arms and hearts open ready to hold you and your books.

In addition to all that, how about attentiveness? I’d wish that on all writers.

Folks who want to write for kids—at any level—really need to do their homework and read, read, read!
(Not just the books, but the criticism of them.)

And they need to be attentive to the world around them and recognize movements like We Need Diverse Books, and #MeToo. (I’m waiting for a YA to come out with that title.)

Books are born into a cultural context—just like we are—not a vacuum.

For readers I’d hope that the concern for diverse books doesn’t die out. We need the proverbial mirrors and windows so that all kids can find themselves while losing themselves in books.

Also, I’ve just read about a new Navajo dictionary that’s being created. Wonderful!

So many languages have fallen along the wayside . . . and so many more are endangered. I love words! We need words! There is room in this world for all.

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

Can I have all those goodies I listed in my answer to the question above?

Plus more venues to spread the good word. (I do speaking gigs, folks!)

I also want more wonderfully inventive picture books that I can read aloud and laugh over—or cry over. I want novels that invite me in and then surprise me while leaving footprints on my heart.

And I want even more writing buddies! Children’s book writers and illustrators are the best! I want to continue celebrating the successes of my colleagues and good books everywhere.

(Okay…now I’ll put down my cheerleader’s bullhorn. But not my purple pomp pomps. You can’t make me. No…back off….)

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.

3 thoughts on “Career Achievers: Shutta Crum on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

  1. Shutta is one of the first published authors I met in Michigan at my first SCBWI event in this state. I've been cheering for her ever since. She is not only a great writer but a generous one as well.

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