The problem was it happened in a split second, as these things do. I was late and dashing out the door for book club at the Senior Center, when I glanced to my right. A young girl was standing near the Circulation Desk by the announcement of Essay Contest Winners. She was there with a woman I presumed to be her mother. In that split second as I’d rushed past my first thought had been, “I wonder if she’s one of the winners?” Now as I climbed into my car I realized the truth—the young girl had been crying.
My heart sank. It was clear she was one of the 125 essay contest entrants. She’d come to the library with hope, longing to find her name on that board. Beyond a doubt I knew she had poured her all into that essay, only to be disappointed. While my job had been to apply for the grant, organize the event and make those final calls to the winners, there was one thing I’d forgotten—the disappointment that follows. This young girl’s sense of rejection was as real and palpable to me as the summer air.
And so this article is for her and others like her. If I could go back, I would hug her and tell her that she is not alone. I’d also tell her that many authors have a trail of rejections covering their walls, and I am one of them. It took four years, a slew of revisions, rejections and workshops for my first picture book, My Sister, Alicia May, to be published in 2009 (Pleasant St. Press). After that I thought the next book would be a piece of cake, but that’s when children’s book publishing took a nose dive. It took four more years for my next bite from Chronicle Books (Double Happiness comes out in 2015), and more waiting.
I would also ask my young writer if she’s read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Many know J.K. Rowling’s rags to riches story, but it bears repeating. In 1993 Rowling’s life was anything but rosy. As a single mother, she was living on a welfare check of $100 a week in a mice-infested flat in Edinburgh, struggling to raise her daughter. With no heat in her place, she escaped to a local coffee house for two hours at a time. There she began to write an idea that had been percolating since the summer of 1990 when her train was delayed. Her character’s name was Harry, a boy who discovers he’s a wizard. While Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was picked up by Bloomsbury Children’s Books fairly quickly once Rowling submitted her work, her life demonstrates her tenacious spirit. One year after its British publication, Scholastic Books bought the American rights for $105,000. For a children’s writer with only one book to her name, this was unbelievable.
I’d tell her all this and more. After all there are so many writers who’ve had to find a road out of the rejection pile. Many of these rejection letters seem comical now. It’s hard to believe John le Carré was told that he “didn’t have a future in writing.” Now the famous spy novelist has over 96 books under his belt, and several movies, including his classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And then there’s William Golding. His Lord of the Flies was rejected by 20 publishers. It was called “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” Joseph Heller received a letter saying “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say” regarding his Catch-22. John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by a dozen publishers and 16 agents before a small New York publisher called Island Books signed him on. And poor Sylvia Plath was told that her poetic abilities weren’t anything to write home about: “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.”
Ironically, 20 rejections seems like a walk in the park compared to Kate di Camillo’s experience. DiCamillo’s success was anything but overnight. She spent a decade working odd jobs and simultaneously submitting her manuscripts. By the time her first novel, Because of Winn Dixie, was accepted, she had received almost 400 rejection letters. How’s that for depressing? As DiCamillo says, “I decided a long time ago that I didn’t have to be talented. I just had to be persistent.” Surely her persistence paid off. Because of Winn Dixie became a Newbery Medal winner. According to Kirkus Reviews it is a “well-crafted tale of community and fellowship of sweetness, sorrow, and hope. A gem.” Not to mention, it’s about a girl and her new-found dog, Winn Dixie. How can you go wrong?
I fully realize all these facts might not help soothe a young girl’s heartache. At times rejection can feel like mourning. The good news is it’s temporary. It may take a week, a month, or a year but true authors begin again. Maybe we change the plot or reword a sentence, maybe we write and rewrite, but we don’t give up because good things a wait.
Certainly, this is what I would say to that tearful, young writer—someday you will look back and remember this experience as a catalyst—something that spurred you forward to write more, to submit again, and, yes, to fly!