Cynsations

Survivors: April Pulley Sayre on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author-Illustrator

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

April Pulley Sayre is a successful children’s author-illustrator with a long, distinguished career.

In children’s 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 goal is to share wonder. But doing this through a 30-year career in book publishing is a wild and woolly thing. My first book contract came when I answered an ad in the Washington Post for biographies for children.

Alas, a few years later, as I was fighting an asthma attack and about to go to urgent care, I got the call. No—not the fun one, but a common one in the rough-and-tumble publishing business.

The publisher had been acquired, my editor had been laid off, and the book had been cancelled.

Yup, my first book. I shed tears. (By the way, that book, which grew from my travel to Madagascar to study lemurs with my mentor, MacArthur Foundation Genius Patricia Wright, never found a home.)

This could have been a career ender, except for a bit of entrepreneurial chutzpah. Sitting on the bed in the tiny room upstairs at my in-laws’ house (where we lived for years because freelance writing is not well paid), I wrote a letter. I wrote to the new owner (Holt) and explained that I had done my part for that book, and that I should receive the rest of my advance. And, by the way, I introduced myself and asked if they needed an author for other things.

They paid. Even better, they hired me to do six new books, including my first book, Desert (Exploring Earth’s Biomes), published in 1994. Being bold—even if you can only pull it off for a few minutes before you dissolve into insecurity—is key to survival in publishing.

I went on to write about 28 books for that publisher. Later, I pivoted from writing school library books to writing nonfiction picture books then to illustrating, through photography, my own books.

Now, more than half of my career is photography.

The creative energy and joy of this work has carried me through adventures and misadventures in life. It’s given me excuses to wander in swamps, photograph in rain forest canopies, and stare at frogs. It has soothed my heart and returned joy and normalcy to me in between doctor’s visits and funerals and national news.

Charlesbridge, 2019

Along the way, there were business bumps more than a few times. Editors leave; books are cancelled; publishers are acquired.

But I also built relationships with a few special editors, regardless of where their careers took them.

Even if an editor stays at one publisher, their needs may change over the years because of what is dictated by industry trends, executives, and marketing. For a time, they may not publish what you do; it’s hard not to take that personally.

But if you avoid drama and absorb it with perspective and professionalism, you will likely thrive.

Later, that same editor may circle back to working with you again. Being professional, and solid to work with, means that people remember you when they go to new places and they find ways to work with you again and again.

Perhaps it sounds like this was a strategy—but really it has more to do with being able to listen to others and see from their perspective during the journey. Now I enjoy consulting with other authors and media creatives to think bigger and more businesslike about what they do.

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

I would take more breaks and more walks and be less miserly about investing in my writing career by going on retreats and workshops and the like.

Those adventures are gold and so nourishing, but it’s easy for me to talk myself out of these things for practical reasons. I wish I had known to invest in myself more.

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 think the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling (Bloomsbury U.K., 1997 to 2007) marked a time when suddenly everyone was allowed to write as long as they liked. That was fabulous, although one still has to fight for it.

And I love the rise of graphic novels and novels in verse. I’m excited by these different ways of turning pages and making scenes thrilling and worthy of exploration.

Nonfiction, as a field, has also grown and developed; new formats and genres that no one would let me do years ago are now the standard.

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

Learn to code, do plumbing, or master something in health care so you can always fill in with jobs and not put constant pressure on your writing to make your full living.

Boyds Mills Press, 2019

I’ve made a living as a full time writer for 30 years, and it’s definitely a stressful way to live, at times, even if you are doing well.

Try many kinds of writing, to see if they suit you. See where you feel flow, and don’t underestimate the value of what it is you can do well.

Don’t despair if some kinds of writing seem impossible at first. Because they may be just right for you later in life, after more writing practice and more experiences.

Do not throw away those early pieces. They may be compost for great things to come!

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

I would wish for those writers to have loving support, comfy writing spaces, and a few blocks of uninterrupted time. And to have writing friends, like mine, who have supported my spirit through so many doubts. I hope for a day when our literature is as diverse as a prairie, and rich with many voices and traditions.

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

I would like health, nature, friends, family, and time with colleagues; and to write and photograph for books that bring wonder into people’s lives.

Beach Lane, 2019

Some of my early writerly cravings and goals have fallen to the wayside as my work as a photographer has taken center stage in my need for creative fulfillment.

Mostly, I just want opportunities to play in the creative space, to let the ideas rise up and fuel the day.

What will that mean in ten years? I don’t know. I love video and tech, startup companies, science, and creative flow in new media. So I suspect that I will move pieces of work into non-book form.

Every day I am learning in diverse fields—coding and new software and video techniques and new cameras and website programming. I am intoxicated by leaping into the tech possibilities and partnerships with art directors, artists, game designers, and programmers.

People always tell me how surprised they are that I am funny and tech-oriented. Learning, often through online seminars and wide scale chats, is my daily vice and intoxication.

That’s the gift of this career: the creative joy that soothes and sweetens daily life and challenges.

Being a writer is my excuse to let my inner learner roam.

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.