A special thanks to Padma Venkatraman for her contributions today! Padma's writing is mentioned frequently on YA Wednesday; she has also participated extensively at the National Council of the Teachers of English annual conference. the ALAN Workshop, and the UNLV Summit on the Research and Teaching of Young Adult Literature.
Padma is the author of The Bridge Home, a 2019 Global Read Aloud, its companion novel, Born Behind Bars, and three other novels for young people: A Time To Dance, Island’s End, and Climbing the Stairs. She enjoys speaking to readers virtually or in-person (through her speaking agency, The Author Village).
The Power of Persistence by Padma Venkatraman
I’m an author now, but I spent many years as an oceanographer. In my opinion, the field of writing is far more capricious and subjective than science, especially when it comes to material rewards. This can be especially hard during a time such as the pandemic, when everyone, including authors, may experience very real financial stress.
In this two-part series, I share inspirational quotes from some phenomenal authors whom I admire for two reasons: their brilliant books and their shining dedication to writing through long lean years (especially early in their careers, pre-WNDB and well before the pandemic). I hope their powerful responses about what truly motivates them will inspire and bring us together in positivity as we move forward as a community of adults dedicated to serving young people.
Featured below are Nikki Grimes, recipient of the 2022 Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement; Cynthia Levinson recipient of the Robert F. Siebert Informational Book Award, Melissa Stewart who received a Siebert honor, and award-winning author Cynthia Leitich Smith who founded the Heartdrum imprint that published more than one of the titles that were highlighted during the ALA Youth Media Awards this year.
What has always kept me going? Readers.
I once addressed a group of students who’d just read The Road to Paris. One girl had adopted the passage about keeping God in your pocket and had brought with her a basket of plastic discs on which she’d written the word God in gold, which she then passed around so that each child who wanted to, could take one. In that moment I knew I had written that book for her.
Readers. They always keep me going.
Gratifying as they are to receive, we don’t write to win awards. Frankly, given the number of manuscripts I’ve written that never get past my agent or the dozen publishers who reject them, I’m pleased just to get published. So, why do I keep going? For me, it’s the need to understand what motivates people to do remarkable things—and then to share that understanding with kids.
*Why are children willing to go to jail to protest segregation—and why would adults allow them to go? (We’ve Got a Job and The Youngest Marcher)
*How do Arab and Jewish children learn to trust each other so much that they literally put their lives in each other’s hands? (Watch Out for Flying Kids!)
*What drives someone to run for president? (Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can)
*How did we end up with the Electoral College?! (Fault Lines in the Constitution)
I often say that I am honored to write for kids, which gives me the opportunity to ferret out the people, the documents, the events, the details that assuage my own curiosity—and to pique it in children. It’s a calling.
Cynthia Leitich Smith:
When I left law for children's publishing, it was a heart decision--not one inspired by dreams of riches or acclaim. In fact, a few of my horrified, former law school classmates assumed I was having a quarter-life crisis and made every effort to talk me out of doing something so supposedly frivolous.
I had two clear goals: make meaningful contributions to this bookish community and center the intended audience. What do I mean by that? Off the page, celebrating fellow literary citizens was essential, and sometimes the best way to do that was by passing the mic, widening the circle or making room in the spotlight. On the page, I resolved to continue stretching, taking risks, and daring to be vulnerable in hopes that it would all be in service of young readers.
I think weathering the ups and downs of publishing has a lot to do with mindset.
A piece of paper on the idea board above my desk says: “Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.” Those six simple words are a constant reminder of a lesson I learned the hard way at the beginning of my writing career.
My first book, Life Without Light: A Journey to Earth’s Dark Ecosystems, was published way back in 1998. At the time, I was working as an editor, and I continued working at that job until 2000. By then, I had published two more nonfiction books, and I had six additional titles under contract. I was confident that I could support myself as a writer. But (you knew it was coming, right?) two things I never could have predicted happened in 2001. There was an economic recession, and Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. These events along with the rise of the internet, which made straightforward, kid-friendly information widely available for free, spelled disaster for the nonfiction publishing market. Some publishers went bankrupt. Others adjusted their publication schedules, pushing books that were supposed to come out in 2001 to 2002, 2003, even 2004. They stopped acquiring new titles for several years. There was no work. Period.
I was single and had bills to pay, so there was only one option: I had to reinvent myself.
I began learning about other areas of the children’s publishing market. I wrote magazine articles for adults. I taught writing at a local community college. I worked as a substitute teacher. Most of all, I realized how foolish I’d been to put all my eggs into one publishing basket. I needed to diversify by writing for as many different markets as possible, and, going forward, I needed to pay close attention to how nonfiction writing for children changed over time. I needed to be flexible and adaptable. I needed to always be on the lookout for new opportunities. Some of the projects I’ve been involved with failed miserably. Early sales didn’t live up to publishers’ expectations, and books-in-progress were cancelled midstream. But enough of them worked out that my 191st book, Summertime Sleepers: Animals that Estivate, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen entered the world in April 2021 and won a Sibert Honor in January 2022.