Cynsations

Survivors: Lesléa Newman on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Lesléa Newman is a successful children’s-YA author with a long, distinguished career.

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 remember reading about a movie star who said, “It is easy to become famous. It is harder to remain famous,” and I think that the same can be true about success. It is easier to become successful than it is to remain successful.

I have been very, very lucky throughout my career. I have also worked very, very hard, and I think that combination is key. Also, I never had a Plan B. I knew if I had something to fall back on, eventually I would fall back on it.

When I tell writers who are just starting out to quit their day jobs, they think I am kidding, but I’m not. Hunger is a great motivator. Seriously.

I started my career as a poet, and poetry is still my first love. I still identify primarily as a poet (even my picture books written in prose are more like poetry than they are like fiction).

My first book was a chapbook of poetry called Just Looking for My Shoes (Back Door Press, 1981). I was studying at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado; which was part of Naropa Institute (now Naropa University).

My mentor was Allen Ginsberg, and my job was to help him answer his mail. An editor of a tiny press asked him for some poems, and Allen told me to stick some into an envelope (remember envelopes?) and add a few of mine as well. The editor asked if I had enough poems for a book, which I did, and that’s how it all began.

I moved to Northampton, Massachusetts; in 1982 and while I continued to write poetry, I needed to figure out a way to support myself. After short unsuccessful stints in a candy shop, a dentist’s office, and a clothing store, I got a job in a day care center. I worked there for a year and then I wasn’t rehired.

I went to a psychic and told her my situation.

“What kind of job should I look for?” I asked her.

She said, “You don’t need to find a job. You need to get to work.”

That day, I went home and wrote the first 20 pages of my first novel, Good Enough to Eat (Firebrand Books, 1986) and never looked back.

I started a business called “Write from the Heart” and taught women’s writing workshops in my home as a way to support my burgeoning literary career. I did that for about a decade.

I never intended to write children’s books, so it is ironic that my first children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies, is what put me on the map.

This is how that book was conceived: a woman stopped me on the street in Northampton, where I was living at the time, and which is famous for its LGBTQ+ community. She said that she did not have a book to read to her daughter that showed a family like theirs—a family comprised of two moms and their child—and someone should write one. So I did, and the rest as they say is history.

And then as the years went on, I wrote picture books, board books, middle-grade novels, YA novels, novels-in-verse, poetry collections for adults, short story collections for adults, novels for adults, books of humor, personal essays, pretty much anything except cookbooks (I’m a terrible cook, actually a “non-cook” is more accurate).

As I said, I’ve been very lucky. The only bumps I’ve really encountered are my own roadblocks of self-doubt, discouragement, lack of confidence, and lack of faith. (I have had an on-and-off meditation practice for many years which helps, when it is “on”).

So if I had to boil it down, here’s what I think one must do to persevere:

First of all: persevere!

Keep writing. That might seem obvious, but it’s often the first thing that goes by the wayside when one is feeling discouraged.

Accept the fact that publishing is a business. I think of myself as a writer and to support that vocation, I have a day job: being an author.

My job as a writer is to write. My job as an author is to publicize my work, do school visits, blurb other people’s books, attend conferences, answer the gazillion emails that show up each day, mentor other writers, etc. etc.

Be open to reinventing yourself. I don’t mean write to market. I mean be open to the journey that your writing takes you on. There will probably be many surprises over the years and in the end, your career will probably look very different from what you originally envisioned. Think of yourself in an expansive way.

Be a good literary citizen. Be involved in your literary community, on the local, state, and national level. Show up. Go to readings, conferences, literary salons. Give back.

Think of the writers who have helped you along the way and pay it forward. Be kind. Each time one writer succeeds, every writer succeeds.

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

I’m not sure I would do anything differently, as I believe that all my experiences have made me into the writer I am today. Perhaps I would spend less time mired in self-doubt, which still plagues me more often than I’d care to admit. Or perhaps that’s a good thing.

I have heard that when an actor no longer has stage fright, that actor is doomed, because that actor no longer cares.

Perhaps that’s also true for writers, who like myself, suffer from “page fright.” Every time I stare down a blank piece of paper (yes, I still write with a pen and notebook) I am terrified. It doesn’t matter how many books I’ve written.

Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, illustrated by Amy June Bates (Abrams, 2019) is my 71st book. I wrote this book in the same way I’ve written the previous 70 titles.

As the novelist Gene Fowler said, “Writing is easy. I just stare at a blank piece of paper and wait for three drops of blood to appear on my forehead.”

That’s pretty much my method. I am always afraid when I finish a project that I am all washed up. No one believes me when I say I am afraid I will never come up with another idea, but the terror is very real.

If I had to do it over again, I would spend less time being hysterical and have more faith in myself. But that is easier said than done, or as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

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?

In terms of literature, I am happy to say that the publishing world is definitely more open to children’s/YA books with LGBTQ+ content. When I wrote Heather Has Two Mommies in 1988, no one would touch that book, and so my friend Tzivia Gover who had a desktop publishing company called In Other Words, and I co-published it, by sending out actual letters (again, remember envelopes?) asking people for donations of ten dollars so we could publish the book (we raised $4,000 this way and everyone who donated was sent a copy).

In 2015, Candlewick, one of the most respected publishers in the industry, came to me asking if they could reissue the book with brand new illustrations. So that’s a huge change. The publishing world continues to make an effort to publish more diverse books which is absolutely necessary.

I saw firsthand how much it meant to kids with two moms to see a book like Heather Has Two Mommies for the first time. We have to do better to make sure that children’s/YA literature includes all children within its pages. No excuses!

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

I would tell myself to find other debut authors, band together, and help one another. I would tell myself to say yes to every opportunity that comes along, or as Jerry Garcia so famously said, “Accept every assignment. Build your fan base one person at a time.”

I would remind myself to be a writer first and an author second (in other words, keep writing!). Above all else, I would tell myself to have fun and enjoy the ride. And to be grateful to everyone who is part of this journey which includes your agent, your editor, everyone at your publishing house, your writers group and other colleagues as well as all your readers including teachers, librarians, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, children’s literature students, reviewers, and of course the children themselves, for whom we write.

It takes a village to raise a children’s book writer (I actually give a talk with this title), and it’s important to remember that and to be part of other writers’ villages as well.

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

For writers: I wish for you time and space in which to write. I wish you inspiration. I wish you joy in the writing life.

For readers: I wish for you fantastic books that touch your heart, that make you think, that entertain you, that teach you to see the world in a new way and that inspire you to make that world a better place.

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

For myself: I wish to continue writing of course! And to write books that matter. My friend, the novelist Tayari Jones, once said to me when we were discussing my book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick, 2012), “It’s more important for a book to do good than it is for it to do well.”

(I can hear my mother saying, “What would be so terrible if a book did good and did well?”).

While I have written books that are silly and fun, such as Cats, Cats, Cats! and Dogs, Dogs, Dogs! (both illustrated by Erika Oller (Simon & Schuster, 2001-2002)), I am most proud of books that tackle social issues.

In the Jewish tradition, there is a concept called Tikkun Olam which means “repairing the world.” It is every Jew’s responsibility to take this notion seriously and leave the world a better place.

I hope that by writing books that deal with important topics such as immigration (Gittel’s Journey), LGBTQ+ rights (Heather Has Two Mommies and October Mourning), gender equality (Sparkle Boy, illustrated by Maria Mola (Lee & Low, 2017)), and eating disorders (Fat Chance (PaperStar/Putnam & Grosset, 1996)), I am doing my part to make the world a better place.

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.