Cynsations

Survivors: Michelle Markel on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Michelle Markel is a successful children’s author with a long, distinguished career.

Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Let’s cut to the chase. There was a major turning point in my career—when I nearly quit writing for children.

A little background: My first book, about a girl and her Guatemalan caregiver (Albert Whitman, 1995), was an easy sell. But I didn’t have another “realistic fiction” book in me, as a follow up. So I just went with my gut.

I discovered some nonfiction books that were so fine they inspired me to write my own. Those books were my teachers (it also helped that I’d worked in journalism). I wrote a multicultural alphabet book, a picture book biography, some creative nonfiction stories.

I wrote for big, middle and small presses–the important thing was to get my stories out there. I guess you could could say I rebranded, but it wasn’t a conscious business decision.

But then…a few years passed without a sale. Sometimes my timing was off—someone else beat me to the subject (alas, the pitfall of nonfiction). In some cases—I realize now—I wasn’t the right author for the subject matter.

Each rejection was a weight on my soul, sinking me lower and lower. I wondered, was it time to give up this career? Was the universe sending me a message?

“Sleeping Gypsy” by Henri Rousseau (1897)(public domain)

Nope. It was a test of my commitment. My husband told me to hang in there, have faith—and the universe provided. I was preparing an art exercise for a school visit when I came upon Henri Rousseau. Intrigued by his “Sleeping Gypsy,” I looked him up, and we instantly connected.

Like me, Henri began his artistic pursuits in midlife. Like me, he was self-taught. And the two of us had both suffered rejection. At least my suffering was in private! From the start, Henri was publicly humiliated by snotty art critics. Yet he persisted. Year after year, he loaded his canvases in his cart and wheeled them over to the expositions in Paris. How could he do that, I wanted to know!

Writing about Henri was a healing experience. I channeled his rebellious attitude and broke a few rules myself, regarding picture book biographies (a breezy tone, fragmented sentences…). What did I have to lose?

In freeing myself up, I found my voice and a publisher. I was honored to receive a PEN award for picture book writing for The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau, illustrated by Amanda Hall (Eerdmans, 2012). Everything changed. I was validated, I got confident, I got attention. My ship was back on course.

I want to emphasize here a couple of things: taking risks, and loving the subject matter. I took a chance on writing about Rousseau, a self-taught artist who’s not as widely respected as the “masters.” I later went out on a limb with other picture biographies.

Most recently, illustrator Amanda Hall and I jointly submitted—and had published—a book about the lesser known surrealist Leonora Carrington. To be daring is energizing. I have to fight for my subjects, make a case for them, and the love comes through in the writing. It’s challenging, but I hope to offer editors something fresh and new.

What else has saved my career from tanking? Obstinacy, and staying tuned.

During the time I have described above, I worked several days a week as a substitute teacher in the elementary grades. Yes, those hours were draining, and deprived me of precious writing time- but they also inspired stories. The bad days compelled me to keep writing, to succeed, so I could quit—and finally I did.

After writing kids books—including commissioned work—for over 20 years, I wish I could say that it’s gotten easier. But every project is another adventure, and some are more perilous than others!

When I get discouraged about the writing, when I get stuck in the doldrums, I read—widely and mindfully. If I’m blown away by a technique or turn of phrase, I try it myself, as an exercise. It lifts my spirits.

To survive in this business, it’s also helped to be part of a community—to compare notes, share struggles, discover good books, to keep up with trends. I’m grateful for my writer’s group, and for the many years I taught at UCLA Extension’s Writing Program.

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?

I was sailing in nonfiction waters before the Big Wave—the advent of Common Core. Since then, there’s been a demand for quality informational texts.

Authors now have more freedom to be expressive, to experiment with form and style. Topics have expanded, in part reflecting social/political changes and educational priorities. There’s a trend for books about little known or overlooked achievers, people with diverse backgrounds and gender identities, bold activist women, STEM (and women in STEM).

I think the inclusivity benefits all of us. It helps kids understand themselves, and each other. It’s exciting to see the genre develop- some people are calling this the Golden Age of nonfiction writing.

The rise of social media has had a huge impact on the kid lit business. On the plus side, it gives us ways to connect and learn from each other, and to spread the word about ourselves and others.

But full disclosure: I don’t really enjoy promoting myself. Marketing is quite a different skill set than writing. It makes me crabby. So I do the bare minimum, and feel guilty.

Also, social media can be addictive. It clutters my brain, and prevents me from being still and reflective. Since I’m already on the computer, it’s the easiest way to procrastinate! Like when I’m having trouble with a blog post…(excuse me, I have to go check Facebook…).

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

Our writing is a reflection of who we are, of what we’ve learned, at a certain point in time. So I’m not sure I could go back and change things! I wish I’d started earlier—in my twenties even—but back then I didn’t have the slightest desire to write for children! I was more interested in writing cool beat-style poems. If I had started earlier, would I have gone on to write the books I’ve written? They’re my babies. I wouldn’t trade them for a (possibly) longer career.

All of our writing journeys are different. History is full of late creative bloomers, like Rousseau and me.

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

Be your own cheerleader—love yourself for being a brave sailor on this difficult, unpredictable journey.

Love yourself for being vulnerable, for being willing to flounder and fail and learn from your mistakes, to almost sink, but rise up….

With Amanda Hall, illustrator of Out of This World, at her home in Cambridge, UK.

You’re allowed 24 hours to be sad about a rejection. After that, throw yourself back into the work.

The work—this book you’re giving to children—is more important than your bruised ego.

Know that nothing is wasted—your crappy day job especially. If you’re alert, if you keep your antennae up, you’ll find stories everywhere. Put down your phone and pay attention!

Focus on developing your skills, rather than accumulating sales. It takes time to build your writing muscles!

Have faith. The universe will provide. You’ll go on to write more books, you’ll survive, and thrive- and write a post for Cynsations one day!

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

As a nonfiction geek, I wish for more books that are honest and thorough about our country’s history. Books that recognize unsung heroes, and aren’t afraid to reveal the darker moments.

I wish for literature that enlightens kids and inspires them to heal our wounded planet and its people. In my lifetime, we’ve never needed it more.

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

Can I have three wishes? I wish to publish more fiction- which I’ve dabbled in lately. I wish for tender, sparkling, beautiful stories! I wish for the continued privilege of making books for children.

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.