Hello friends and welcome back to the First Stories series, where I talk to writers (published, unpublished, agented, unagented) about their first story – the one that really compelled them to pursue writing and publishing. 2022 started off with a bang, with some great interviews from Bonnie Kelso and Laura Zimmermann – I learned so much from each of these writers, and I hope you did too! And I have some amazing interviews lined up for the next few weeks, you won’t want to miss it!
Today’s featured author almost shares my birthday and is a fellow member of Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 challenge. Chelsea’s debut picture book releases this year and she’s dropped by First Stories to chat about this book and how her first stories led her to this amazing moment!
Chelsea Lin Wallace is a children’s author and a poet with a Master’s in Education. She is a former elementary school educator who loves teaching poetry and creative writing to children. Her debut picture book, A HOME NAMED WALTER, is set to release in April, 2022 with Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan. She is represented by Jen Rofé at Andrea Brown Literary Agency and is a proud member of SCBWI and the 12×12 Challenge. She lives in Los Angeles, California with her husband, her daughter Charlee, and her dog, Lucky.
Me: Thanks for stopping by to chat today, Chelsea!
Chelsea: Thanks for having me!
Me: 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?
Chelsea: I like to call my first story my lighthouse. It’s the story that showed me my way home; my way back to writing.
I had always been a writer, ever since I was little. It was all I did and all I loved. Life took zig zags, until I found myself, as an adult, teaching story writing to children. But it wasn’t until I saw my daughter’s backup lovey sitting lonely on the shelf that I felt the spark that made me realize I was meant to be writing stories too.
I’ve always felt that everything has energy, a spirit, even if it’s inanimate. My daughter’s lovey, Bunny, certainly did. But so did the backup we got her when we realized she was so attached to Bunny.
While Bunny seemed happy, backup Bunny looked so sad to me. I could feel his loneliness, his left-outness, his wanting to be loved.
His story poured out of me: BACKUP BUNNY.
Backup Bunny was not a lovey and he knew it. A lovey was loved, warm, played with, torn. Not Backup. But maybe love and friendship were closer than he thought.
Me: Oh, so many parents can relate to the “backup” lovey! Our oldest and youngest have special lovies (STILL – even though they are older!) – Ernie and Bear Bear. Ernie is irreplaceable; his tag was rubbed off early so we have no idea who made him or where he came from. Bear Bear is irreplaceable in another way. Like you, we bought an identical white bear, but NOPE. Our daughter would have none of it. This backup bear found new life as “Beatrice.” Our family has a whole series of stories featuring Bear Bear and his wife Beatrice! Ha!
Chelsea: I LOVE that story so much!
Me: So where is “Backup Bunny” now?
Chelsea: This story was sent to my agent but for several reasons, we couldn’t sub. With stories that don’t sub, I generally just tuck them away in a drawer. But I couldn’t do that to Backup. He was special, and maybe he wasn’t going on the publishing journey, but he still had to be.
Luckily, my dear friend and critique partner Gela Kalaitzidis agreed and we partnered to illustrate and make it a book for our own. It turned out beautifully. It’s the most perfect keepsake for both my daughter and Bunny (whom she still loves intensely), but also a keepsake for me and my writing journey.
Me: That is wonderful! You felt such a connection to that first story that you had to honor it. What a beautiful keepsake!
Are there any themes in that story that you can see in your writing today?
Chelsea: Oh absolutely. In fact, when I sent this story to my agent, I sent it along with two others. One of those stories will be my debut, A HOME NAMED WALTER. My agent said she felt I had something I was trying to express and it was in all three stories but I did it best with WALTER. I had not even realized that all 3 stories were about loss and a wanting to be loved. It blew my mind. I wondered where that emotion was coming from. I’m someone who is not shy to dig deep into my emotional cavities. A memory came up and suddenly the ache that had been in all of these stories surfaced like thundering waves.
There is so much catharsis in writing.
Me: This is so true. I find myself gravitating toward certain themes in my writing as well – friendship, hope, redemption, family. I recently made a list of my favorite books from ages 8-12 – you know that golden age of reading – and listed the themes that I remember loving. Guess what they were? Yep, the same ones I love to explore in my own writing.
You are exactly right; there is so much power in writing.
Looking back, what elements of that first story made it unmarketable? Did you receive feedback on that story? What did that feedback teach you?
Chelsea: One of my agent’s reasons for not wanting to sub the story was she worried the backup bunny might be perceived like a second child or younger sibling. I could certainly see how that would be problematic in the marketplace. So I learned that while it can be empowering to write stories through inanimate objects because they give you more liberty, it can also be tricky if the inanimate objects are representative of children or people in a story. In my case, while the stuffed bunnies were meant to be stuffed bunnies, the child in the story acted like the mother to them. Therefore, the bunnies were, in many ways, like the children.
Me: I would not have thought of that connection, but good agents can offer such helpful insight and experience, can’t they?
Why is that “first story” special to you? How was it important for your writing journey?
Chelsea: Backup Bunny was the story that pulled me back into what I was always meant to do. It felt like a star in the sky at night, shining down, pointing me home. It is also a personal story for our family; a story that inspired empathy from my daughter. After I wrote this story, she pulled Backup Bunny off the shelf and started sleeping with both of them. She said they were best friends. Backup Bunny doesn’t look quite as new as he used too.
She is 9yo now and still sleeps with Bunny & Backup.
Me: Precious! I love this so much!
I would love to hear about your upcoming book release – A HOME NAMED WALTER! What can you tell us about this book? How did you come up with the idea for this book? Does it relate at all to your “first story”?
Chelsea: Ever since I was teeny tiny, I could feel a spirit in most everything around me. It used to drive my parents bananas because I’d never ever dare throw anything out. I’d feel so sorry for that thing sitting in the trash. I soon became a rescuer of discarded toys and abandoned stuffed animals.
Then there was Woolly. Woolly was my lovey, a stuffed wombat. He was most certainly alive and I don’t say that with a wink-wink – I honestly believe to this day my love loved him alive. Unfortunately when I was 12yo, I lost Woolly on an airplane. I still grieve that loss. The first few picture book stories I wrote (including Bunny) had so much to do with that ache but I wrote the ache from Woolly’s point of view. Like – if I felt these feelings, what must he have felt? And what became of him?
On top of all of this, I moved around a ton as a kid. Gosh, a dozen houses and 4 states before the age of 10. Can you imagine how I felt about each house we left and each home we made?
All of this is to say, Walter likely has been living with me for a while and decided it was time I tell his story.
In this story, a home named Walter learns how to heal his broken heart after a family he loves moves away in this poignant picture book about loss and renewal.
A HOME NAMED WALTER couldn’t be without the amazing people who partnered with me to make this a book. Ginnie Hsu, with her warm and authentic art, not only brought Walter to life but she made me want to move in with him. She is an immense talent and an incredible human being. I am so lucky to call her my friend. Anna Roberto is our fabulous editor who saw the magic in Walter right away and had the best vision for him and this book. Super grateful to them both.
Me: Chelsea, talking to you is making me think of some of my favorite books – THE VELVETEEN RABBIT and THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE. (Reader, if you haven’t read these yet, drop what you are doing, and find a copy at your local library! :)) And I just cannot WAIT to read about Walter! I feel like I know him a little already.
And check out these other fabulous interior spreads that Chelsea shared! Isn’t Ginnie Hsu’s artwork fun and evocative?
And if you want to tease something about ODE TO A BAD DAY? How exciting to have another release next year!
Chelsea: Oh gosh, this book is WAY too much fun! This book is illustrated amazingly by Hyewon Yum and edited by the one and only Taylor Norman from Chronicle. It’s the story of one child’s terrible day written in an arc of odes. I had a blast writing this; exploring the seemingly small but emotionally agonizing hiccups in a kid’s day and their response to it all. But mostly, I can’t wait to write odes with kids when this book comes out. We are going to have a blast!!
Me: Anything else you would like to share about your writing journey? (Or more upcoming release news!)
Chelsea: My writing journey has had its ups and downs and sideways-es. It’s had quick sells and slow sells and no sells. It’s had yeses and noes and maybes and sort-ofs. It’s had quiet and loud, happy and sad, calm and confusion. I can’t do anything else but write for kids. I don’t want to do anything but write for kids. Except maybe do theater with kids too. I know this is where I’m meant to be.
I do have several more projects on the horizon. I have another book in 2023 called A TRIP TO MISS PEATREE (also with Chronicle, illustrated by Alison Farrell) and three yet to be announced books in 2024. They are going to be epic!!
Me: WOW! What fantastic news! And I have absolutely adored our interview today. I wish we didn’t have a whole continent separating us – I would love to talk childhood stories with you over a cup of coffee! Maybe via Zoom one day…and at a conference…if we start doing in-person writing conferences again. Regardless, thank you SO much, Chelsea, for sharing your lovely First Story with me today!
Chelsea: Thank you for inviting me!
Chelsea has generously offered to giveaway a picture book critique to one lucky reader! ANY picture book manuscript up to 700 words (even RHYME! She has sold FOUR picture books in rhyme!). To be entered in this giveaway, you must do one or more of the following: 1) comment below and/or 2) retweet/ quote tweet the Twitter link. I will do a random drawing and announce the winner on Twitter on March 14, 2022.