I was in AP Literature class when I got the text from my mom. A blurry, speckled black and white photo with a message: “Meet your little sister.”
Just a few short months before my departure for college, I found myself driving to the hospital at 3 a.m. I slept on the hard hospital room sofa for a while until they wheeled Mom away. Then I sat in the dark, eerily empty waiting room. And then I was holding a pink little stranger in my arms.
“Our lives just changed,” my mom said as she handed me the breathing bundle. We acknowledged it, and still, we had no idea.
Suffice to say, my life was a bit different than those of my college classmates. I spent my days studying writing under professional authors and editors, then spent my holiday breaks in a sea of stuffies and pacis and brightly colored plastic toys. But, most of all, my world was suddenly filled with picture books again.
After a few semesters of studying nonfiction, journalism, scriptwriting, and editing, a one-semester children’s writing class appeared in the course catalogue. Having spent so much time reading really great (and really not great) picture books, my interest was piqued. I had dabbled in children’s writing over the years, so I signed up for the class. At least I’d get to try something new.
The adjunct professor for the class, the prolific and ever-energetic Michelle Medlock Adams, was so much more than I could have expected in just about every way. She exploded with knowledge, had written more books than I could fathom, and bombarded us with encouragement. My class notes were a mess, with sparks of ideas scribbled in every margin.
For my first picture book assignment, I wrote a little rhyming story called Little Lamb’s First Christmas. When I got my graded manuscript back, there was a note written in the margin.
“5 out of 5 points. Such potential with this one! Fix your meter and rhyme, and I think you can sell it!”
I was hooked.
By this point, my sister had grown to be a toddler, and she spent much of her time pretending to be different animals. In fact, for a solid year she had introduced herself to new people by saying, “Hi, I’m Little Bear!” (She’s a little mortified at the story now —sorry, sis!— so I feel I should inform you that she’s much more grown up now. She can read maps, use chopsticks, and do multiplication tables like a pro.)
Our love of animals is quite mutual, so I continued the momentum I’d gained in Michelle’s class and started toying with this little rhyme about different animals and how they compare to a child. Old memories of books like It’s Time for Bed and I Love You as Much resurfaced and collided with the new books I was finding, like Nancy Tillman’s I’d Know You Anywhere, My Love.
As I wrote, this story quickly emerged. It was a story about animals, yes, but it was also so much more. It was the story of all the things a child could be, and the story of how love surpasses it all. It was everything I wanted to tell my sister as I watched her learn and grow before my eyes. In writing Creature from the Woods, I wanted to encourage that pretend play that is oh-so-important to little ones, but also remind them that they are loved no matter what.
I sent the manuscript it to my agent, who was just as fresh to the industry as I was, and she shopped it out to some publishers. Within a year, I was on the phone with a publisher. I paced around my dorm room, praying they couldn’t tell that I had been studying this for years yet simultaneously had no idea what I was doing.
“Oh, is this your first book?” the head editor asked.
“Yes,” I squeaked.
I held my breath. Then a contract appeared in my inbox.
Five years later, I’m holding a gold paint pen, hovering over the glossy board book page. No longer in a college dorm room, I’m at the desk in my home office, where I spend each day writing and editing in various corners of the publishing industry.
How do I say everything I want to say? That this book exists because of her? That I think about her whenever I write? That I’m a different person because of her?
I lower the pen to the page.
“For my sister.”