Career Achievers: Vaunda Micheaux Nelson on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson is a successful children’s 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? 

My first book, Always Gramma, was published in 1988. Many writers would agree my first contract came fairly easily. I received only five rejections (a couple were detailed—unusual for new writers today—and helped me revise) before it was accepted by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

The frustrating part came after.  My second book, Mayfield Crossing (Harper, 1994), wasn’t published until five years later.

Rejections filled the interim, and I lost confidence. I started to believe that Always Gramma was a fluke, that I would probably be a one-book author.

I learned I had to do what my heart kept telling me—live my life the best I could and write. Everything I submit isn’t successful. I still get rejections. But I try to be true to who I am and learn from the failures.

For years, a bigger challenge was one common among writers—juggling my writing life with my day job. Although I have loved and learned from the make-a-living work I’ve done (newspaper reporter, teacher, librarian), I don’t much like multi-tasking, and I’ve never been very good at it. I need focused time to create, and this was often hard to come by.

Retiring from my day job has given me the gift of time and choice about how I spend each day. I am truly grateful.

I sometimes wonder where I’d be if I’d had the courage to take the leap sooner, to play it less safe.

But, I know if I had done so, it would have changed the course of everything. The butterfly effect (like in the movie “Frequency”) might have left me without things that I love—like my husband, Drew, and friends who came into my life through my day jobs and other serendipitous moments.

Probably my biggest personal challenge along the way has been losing loved ones and finding my way back from grief, figuring out how to move forward without each of them in the world.

My writing has sometimes been stalled by the pain, but my writing has also been just the therapy I’ve needed.

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

I tend to keep editing in my head even after a book is published. You grow as a writer and, as a result, find weak areas in your work that you didn’t see at the time. I wish I could go back and fix some things before they had been published.

Also, If I’d realized the value of family history when I was younger, I would have asked more questions of my parents and relatives while they were still here.

And, perhaps, I would have begun writing for children earlier so I’d have had more time to grow and improve. What if….  But again, there’s the “Frequency” effect to consider. I’d probably be better off not changing a thing.

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 decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores.

New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards 2012 – Best in Show

This saddens me. There’s nothing like spending an afternoon in a cozy independent book store.

Searching online cannot compare to browsing the crowded shelves of a real bookstore and stumbling upon that unfamiliar author, that gem of a book you never knew existed.

The possibilities are boundless. And like the National Memorial African Bookstore in No Crystal Stair (Carolrhoda Lab, 2012), the draw of an independent store is not only the books.

It’s the people you encounter there. Independent bookstore employees are generally knowledgeable and passionate about what they sell. Your visit becomes an interactive and human experience.

Lewis Michaux (of No Crystal Stair) knew and loved his stock. But he also made it his business to connect with his community. He gave as much time to people who came to look or talk as to those who came to buy.

Editors changing publishing houses.

This can make it harder to establish the kind of long-term relationships that enable those involved to grow together as “family.” When editors change houses, it can complicate the sense of loyalty creators may feel when they’ve worked with a house for a long time.

However, I understand that editors sometimes need to move in order to grow and, if a house is reorganizing, they may have little choice.

More adults reading YA and children’s literature. 

J.K. Rowling, of course, played a large part in this wonderful trend. Many adults, who may have been dismissive of literature for youth are discovering what we in the field have always known—that children’s literature contains a depth and complexity, beauty and emotion, creativity and fun often unmatched by adult genres.

More efforts by publishers to get behind children’s book creators of color and children’s books featuring characters of color.

This is not new and I know there is still work to be done, but the push seems stronger now, and I am optimistic.  Bravo!

Social media.

Old-fashioned soul that I am, I see technology as an inescapable, beckoning train. I’m holding on to the back of the caboose and it’s dragging me along to places I’m not sure I want to travel, but I’m afraid to let go and be left behind.

With the help of family, friends, and colleagues, I’ve managed to embrace aspects of this new world yet resist when I’m being forced out of my comfort zone. My approach to technology is “Proceed with Caution.”

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

Read more. Write more. Take more risks. Spend more time with your family. And go ahead and eat the bread pudding.

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

A continued demand for print books.

George Fletcher Statue in Pendleton

The return of thriving brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Caring and outside-the-box editors. (I’ve been lucky enough to have some.)

An environment that continues to value the classics (faults and all) while growing with the times (faults and all).

A publishing world in which the sensitivity pendulum finds a healthy place in the middle, allowing writers, illustrators and editors the freedom to create their best work while honoring diversity, tradition, and trusting young readers.

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

Good health so that I can continue to do (and get better at) the work I love, have many more years to enjoy my family and friends, and have many more years to read good books.

And, every now and then, some bread pudding.

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.