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

Learn more about Lisa Wheeler.

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 biggest bump (aside from pre-publication days when I was gathering all my rejections) came during the recession.

I know I am not alone in this.

During that time, I had one editor retire and two leave for other houses. This made selling a manuscript even more difficult, and it seemed everything I wrote for about five years (except for the Dino-Sports series with CarolRhoda which continued throughout this time period) got rejected.

I was fortunate to have that series during that dry spell because it gave me deadlines and I still felt like a “real” writer.

I also took a writing job for Pearson. I wrote four short stories for use in our state testing program. These were pay-per-project, but I didn’t think twice about taking the job. The money was decent and it kept my brain occupied while also allowing me to be creative.

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

Hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it? I wish I hadn’t stressed so much. I wish I would’ve believed more in myself and my abilities.

I tend to turn inward when things go wrong and point fingers of blame at myself, my talent, etc.

In truth, looking back, lots of writers had trouble selling during this time. It was a market thing, combined with being orphaned at three publishing houses.

I should have listened to my agent who kept assuring me that things would turn around. He was right!

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?

I have seen picture books get shorter and flashier.

I used to tell the folks who participated in my Picture Book Boot Camps that they had to keep their word count at 1000 or less. Now I advise keeping it below 500.

I also think that social media has played a huge part in making some books very successful. People are celebrities now because they have an online presence.

Twenty years ago, the internet was a new world and I never foresaw how it would change our world.
I am uncomfortable with all the social media showy marketing stuff and actually have mini panic attacks when I try to sit in on workshops about this topic. It’s all so out of my comfort zone.

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

Hire someone to handle your social media.

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

As always, I wish them successful careers and many book sales.

I also hope that children’s books will continue to be made with real paper.

With Deb Aronson and Lisa Rose at Book Beat in Oak Park, MI.

I love that this medium allows families to take their eyes away from the screens, experience the feel and smell of real printed books, see art that isn’t backlit, slow down, ask questions, discuss story. . .oh, all things I recall from reading aloud to my kids when they were small.

Such a precious memory!

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

Like I tell the kids, I will continue to write books until my brain or body breaks down. I hope neither thing happens anytime soon.

I love my job!

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.