And here it is! The very first blog post in this First Stories series! I am so excited to officially begin hearing from both published and unpublished #kidlit writers about their First Stories – the ones that pushed them headlong into writing for kids!!
And my very first guest on this blog series is author Norene Paulson (Benny’s True Colors (2020) and What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair? (2021)). You can find Norene online at http://www.norenepaulson.com/ and on Twitter at @NorenePaulson.
Me: Hello Norene, and thank you for agreeing to talk with me about your first story!
Norene: Thanks for having me!
Me: Well, let’s jump right into the first question. Tell me about your “first story.” The one that really pushed you to consider publishing. What inspired you to write it? What was it about?
Norene: The first story that I seriously considered publishable was inspired by my oldest son who got his first pair of glasses in first grade. I remember the first day he wore them, he got off the school bus and came crying into the house.
He’d lost his glasses.
When I looked at him, I chuckled because – there on his nose – were his glasses! He didn’t realize he had them on!
That funny incident stuck with me and inspired me to write a story with a main character, Norman, who has new glasses he doesn’t want to wear because he’s embarrassed. However, throughout the school day, he slips them on and notices differences in what he normally sees. For example, normally the words on the chalk board were blurry, but when he slipped on his glasses, he could read every word clearly. In the end, just like my son, he thinks he’s lost his glasses, but when he looks in the mirror, he discovers he’s wearing them!
Me: I love it! What a great idea for a children’s picture book! So many kids begin wearing glasses in early elementary school (my daughter included), and it is quite an adjustment – especially having to keep track of one more thing. But where is this first story now?
Norene: Multiple hard copies of the story in its various states of revision can be found in old-fashioned hanging folders in an old-fashioned file cabinet! If I looked hard enough, there may also be copies saved from my first computer onto an external hard drive.
Me: A real file cabinet! How neat – my file cabinet only has paid bills and medical documents. Ha! Yours sounds more fun! But looking back at Norman’s story, are there any themes in that story that you can see in your writing today?
Norene: As a parent and former teacher, I witnessed firsthand how emotionally complicated growing up is – both physically and socially. That is why I write character-driven stories that weave together themes of friendship, empowerment, self-acceptance, resilience, and inclusion. These themes manifest themselves in each of my published stories, and it all started with Norman and his self-consciousness about wearing his new glasses!
Me: I love how we can catch glimpses of what our author “voice” is and what our heart is when it comes to writing stories for kids – all in our very first story…if we look hard enough. From your perspective many years (and two books) later, what elements of that first story made it unmarketable? Did you receive feedback on that story? What did that feedback teach you?
Norene: Norman’s story was the first manuscript I paid to have professionally critiqued and that was hard for me because – like Norman – I was (and to some extent still am) self-conscious about sharing my words. The fact that I sought out Jill Esbaum, an established, multi-published picture book author, was a huge step out of my comfort zone, but one I’m so glad I took. Jill’s kind and encouraging words coupled with her specific, detailed feedback gave me hope that being a published author might be doable.
The elements that needed work were the voice and lack of details along with more “showing” and less “telling”…the usual elements that plague many early drafts of stories written by pre-published (and published) authors. Jill’s feedback taught me that no one gets it right the first time (or the second or the third+…time), and that you have to be willing to consider constructive criticism (and not get disgusted and give up) which is why it’s vital to find critique buddies. Ironically, it wasn’t too many years later that Jill and I ended up in the same critique group and are still critique buddies today!
Me: What great advice! And I could not agree more, reaching out for professional feedback has improved my writing and given me courage. And my own critique group – Crit Happens 🙂 – I have learned so much about writing from them! Thanks, guys!
Back to Norman and his glasses. Why is this “first story” special to you? How was it important for your writing journey?
Norene: This story is so special to me because it was the first picture book I believed was marketable. I had been writing and publishing nonfiction magazine articles for kids for a number of years but writing fiction was different.
But I learned so much writing Norman’s story. Through it, I found my people…my village of writers. Because I believed in this story, I took chances I never took when I was writing for magazines. I joined SCBWI and attended conferences. I paid for conferences critiques. I found several critique partners and joined critique groups. I fell in love with picture books, and I learned and continue to learn so much from the people who write and illustrate them.
Norman’s story may never have gotten published, but it was definitely a huge step in the right direction on my journey to publication.
Me: As a pre-published writer, hearing about the beginnings of your writing journey has been so encouraging! Thank you, Norene!
And I would love to hear about your latest project! You had a book release this summer – WHAT’S SILLY HAIR DAY WITH NO HAIR! What a poignant idea. How did you come up with the idea for this book? Does it relate at all to your “first story”?
Thanks for asking. Yes, my second picture book WHAT’S SILLY HAIR DAY WITH NO HAIR? – illustrated by Camila Carrossine and published by Albert Whitman – released on March 24. It’s the story of a young girl with alopecia who, along with her best friend, Shaleah, has to figure out a way to participate in her school’s Silly Hair Day in spite of her baldness. It’s a story of inclusion, empowerment, and friendship.
As a former middle school teacher, I always felt uncomfortable with school events that sidelined some kids for whatever reason. For example, Spirit Week Dress-Up Days. One of my teaching colleagues had alopecia, and although he dressed up for each Spirit Week Day, he didn’t participate in Silly Hair Day. Of course, that made me wonder, what if it was a student with alopecia rather than a teacher. How would that student feel? That’s when I decided to write the story.
The theme of SILLY HAIR relates to my first story because, in both, the characters are dealing with something that sets them apart from everyone else. While Bea, the main character in SILLY HAIR, takes control of the situation and solves the problem herself, Norman in my “first story” didn’t control the situation. The situation controlled him which is one reason why SILLY HAIR became published, and Norman and his story are still in the file cabinet.
Me: So much great advice here for writers – showing not telling, finding a critique group, giving your characters agency and emotion! Thank you oodles and oodles, Norene, for taking the time to revisit your first story and give us a glimpse of Norman. Maybe we will meet him or a character like him in the pages of one of your books.
Norene: Thanks so much, Heather, for featuring me on “First Stories”.
Me: Thank you again, Norene, for giving us a peek into your journey as a picture book writer!
And thanks to you, reader, for following along with us on this look back at an author’s first story! To celebrate the kick-off of this series, I’d like to offer a full picture book critique to one of you! I will draw names from every picture book writer who comments on my blog post (below). You can get additional entries by quote re-tweeting the link to this article OR commenting on the Twitter post with the link to this article.
If you want to make sure that you don’t miss an installment, click here to sign up for my newsletter. I’ll be back soon with another interview about first stories!