Hard work, persistence.
I’ve always believed in them.
It’s there in my first picture book The Amazing Idea of You, illustrated by Mary Lundquist (Bloomsbury, 2019), which celebrates the journey from potential to fruition, be it for seed, tadpole, child or idea:
Hidden in this apple
is the idea of a tree
in this shiny seed.
If we plant that seed, “the idea might take root/ sprout/ shoot up into the blue”!
If we plant many seeds, work and persevere,
after blizzards and drizzles
scorches and gales
and all that work
and the long, loooooooong wait . . .
one day, our orchard will brim with fruit! Community!
And “every last [apple]/ has an idea inside./ Just like you.”
What a joyful vision of creative life!
Writing The Amazing Idea You felt like proof of this belief.
The words came swiftly; it sold even faster—
the fruit of years of labor and practice!
Between selling Amazing Idea in 2015 and its much-delayed launch in 2019, stretched a long season of struggle. With no fruit. Love, Violet, illustrated by Charlene Chua (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022), my actual first picture book (started in 2011), produced only bushels of rejections. Personal grief left my new work drowned, unworkable. And by the launch, my health had failed.
What about when fruit doesn’t come?
Do you just . . . keep working?
Is this the only answer?
Love, Violet was my first nudge to reconsider my single-minded approach to creative life. This sweet, unwanted manuscript portrayed a crush between two girls, something never done in picture books. And needed. Something I’d needed. In the story, Violet falls head-over-heels for Mira and dreams of adventuring together! So, she crafts a construction paper heart filled with her hopes and love. But whenever Mira comes near, Violet panics. How could Mira possibly like Violet back? If they are to adventure, Violet must dare to share her heart—even when it’s pounding!
Isn’t that how making art feels?
All the stakes?
There I stood, after years of work, offering my construction paper heart.
And, to switch metaphors, I’d planted the seed of Love, Violet years ago.
I’d watered and sweated, pruned and revised.
But this time? Hard work didn’t work.
Sometimes, there’s more at play.
In this case, this story broke a silence.
It shOUTed: Rainbow kids are real! Worth rooting for!
And the feedback was bewildering.
Editors, queer ones, too, said no, no, the market won’t allow this!
We dare not allow this.
It’s the “wrong” kind of queer story, one ally said.
It’s too queer, said most.
Make it less romantic,
No amount of revision could “fix” me
for the marketplace. I knew this. (I’d tried.)
Nevertheless: I doubted myself.
And kept revising till I’d mangled the story.
The work was hurting my work.
Finally, I stopped.
No more revision, submission.
It felt wrong. But the loving thing to do.
Several years later, an early version of Love, Violet sold quickly at auction!
What had most needed work? The culture, not the story.
During that wait, in a similar way,
I’d forced myself to “produce” new work, meet quotas
even through grief, tears splotching my notebook.
This unkindness didn’t bear fruit.
And now, in chronic illness, finally I’m learning
that some kinds of writing are too expensive.
Measurable goals irrelevant.
What does work for me
is a slow, loose, loving approach.
The one my heart needed all along.
And the new work is joyful
full of gratitude,
despite hard, sometimes painful limits.
And things I cannot do.
Increasingly, my creative life feels like an orchard
teeming with life
surrounded by community (online)
ideas germinating slowly underground.
I still believe in hard work and persistence.
But sometimes the best work is rest.
Time for grief.
Healing. Laughter. Escape.
Filling the compost messy and high.
Sometimes the work is releasing expectations, timelines,
the projects that don’t work.
Or loving and trusting the ones that are True
because of their Truth.
Sometimes the work is drawing together
to weather these “scorches and gales”
and the “long, looooooooong” waits.
Sometimes, it’s shOUTing for justice in creative spaces
singing from rooftops about each other’s work
especially when that work breaks silence,
drowns out hate with Love.
As Violet must realize, this was never about perfection.
Proving we are invincible. (We aren’t.)
Or lovable. (We are.)
No amount of revision can change these Truths.
And what is art for anyway?
A place we gather
to share the journey,
our pounding hearts.
We grow this art in our organic orchards
full of decay and mess
and new, climbing life.
So this work is vulnerable.
The most vulnerable thing we do.
Except for Love.
Maybe art is Love.
and the fruit.
this tattered construction paper heart
(the one some don’t want
and others will trample)
is the valentine someone else
longs to clutch
to their own pounding heart . . .
Maybe the only True work
our only work
Take a video peek inside Love, Violet, featuring conversations with Charlotte and illustrator Charlene Chua, plus several kidlit authors of LGBTQIAP2+ books and friends. It’s full of rainbow love!
Charlotte Sullivan Wild is the author of the picture books Love, Violet and The Amazing Idea of You (Lundquist, Bloomsbury 2019). She was first struck speechless by a crush in preschool. In grade school she may have crafted a special Valentine for someone but been too shy to sign it. But she’s not shy about love anymore!
She has loved teaching, bookselling, creating kidlit events, and chatting about books on the radio. Originally from snowy Minnesota, she now lives wherever her wife is stationed (recently Texas, now Italy), to see what they might find—together! She is represented by Minju Chang at BookStop Literary Agency.