Lisa Wheeler is the highly successful author of more than 40 children’s books. She calls writing books for kids her “dream come true.” Thank you, Lisa, for joining me!
As soon as I read an excerpt of The Pet Project: Cute and Cuddly Vicious Verses, I was smitten! As a female physician and literary enthusiast, the theme of a young girl relating scientific investigation via poetic verse swept me off my feet. This is the kind of character I wish I’d seen in books as a child. How did the concept for this book develop?
It started, as many of my books do, with a walk. My husband and I were walking when we came across a dumpster surrounded by seagulls. I made a comment about ‘rats with wings’, which prompted a discussion on how every animal has a ‘dark side’. What I meant was, no matter how beautiful or cute, wild animals are well. . .wild!
Originally the book was called The Other Side of Cute. But when my editor at Atheneum (at that time it was Ginee Seo) saw the manuscript, she wanted there to be more of a reason for this collection and she threw out some ideas. One of her ideas was a kid wanting a pet. I immediately dismissed the idea as something that has been done before.
But as it germinated, an idea began to develop. I have a son with a biology degree who was science-minded from the time he was small. What if, I thought, such a child had parents who were also scientists? And what if those scientist told their child that in order to get a pet, they must do their research first? To me, this concept was fun and fresh and I got busy on revising right away.
The vocabulary in The Pet Project: Cute and Cuddly Vicious Verses is stellar and features words rarely seen in other picture books. Were you aiming to create a vehicle for such vocabulary or did it develop more organically with the book concept as a whole?
For me, vocabulary is always organic. I LOVE words! If you look at some of my earliest books, you will find the same thing—lots and lots of delicious words that are not seen in many picture books. I try to use them in context when possible so that a kid like me—a kid who adored new words—can figure out the meaning on their own.
You’ve authored more than 40 books in your career, which began after having your three kids. And you mention on your website a longstanding love of children’s literature. Did you always aspire to writing children’s books? Do you think there was any advantage to starting your career after having small children?
I have always enjoyed writing short rhyming poems, jingles, stories, songs and such. I began to dream of being a children’s book author in the late 1980s. But I didn’t actually do anything about that dream for several more years.
I worked in a children’s book department hand-selling books to parents, teachers and kids. I really loved that job because I loved kid’s books. But after two years of reading all the picture books that came into the store, I thought, “I can do this. I can do better than this!” My youngest was 9 by then, and I realized I couldn’t use the kids as an excuse anymore.
So, in 1995 I made decision to start submitting and I began gathering my rejections. Along the way I was learning and growing and getting better. In 1997, we finally went online and I found SCBWI. After my first event, I was on fire. After my second event, I knew there was no going back and I was in this crazy publishing world for life.
Nearly 4 years from the day I made the decision to get started, I sold my first book. Along the way I gathered more than 225 rejections. I still continue to get more rejections than acceptances, but that’s okay. I’ve realized that one cannot take it personally. All I can do is keep doing what I do best and hope someone else will gel with my work.
On your website, you mention having only one children’s book in your home while growing up. But you had access to library books via your school and loved to read. Was there any particular book that triggered your love of reading? Any particular book that inspired you to write for children?
I, of course, loved Dr. Seuss. How could a wordsmith like me not fall in love with his nonsense rhymes?
I also fell in love with Lorna Balian’s Humbug Witch. I checked it out of the library so many times that the school librarian had to ask me to leave it and let someone else see the book. (I now own about 4 copies of this book!) I think what drew me in was the surprise ending. I recall that even though I knew what was coming, I was always delighted by the end. I wondered how the author/illustrator made that happen.
Another book I loved as a child was Over and Over by Charlotte Zolotow. It’s a prose picture book which features a very young girl going through a year of holidays and asking “What comes next?” I remember falling in love with Garth William’s art in that book. I wanted to crawl into those pages and become that little girl.
And last but not least, Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day. I loved that book because it showed a diverse neighborhood like mine. I hadn’t seen that before in picture books and that book really spoke to my world.
Your Instagram account shows several posts of you engaging with elementary schools and their students. What is your favorite thing about school visits? How does the experience differ from book signings or public library visits?
My favorite thing about school visits is getting to meet and engage with my readers. The kids are so awesome and they make me feel terrific! When the school prepares the students for my upcoming visit—by reading my books, sharing my website and having the kids do fun projects that are based on my books—the whole day becomes a joy. From the minute I walk into a school and hear kids whispering, “Look! That’s Lisa Wheeler. The author is here!” I know it is going to be a great day.
Think about it this way, we authors work in a vacuum. Our books leave home and we often don’t know where they end up. (Like kids who go off to college and never write or call!) But when i go to a school, and see all those faces and hear them tell me which of my books are their favorites, it’s like getting a call from my long-lost child, checking in and telling me where they are now living.
A book signing in a store feels more like work to me. If I am just ‘showing up’ to sign books, it is hard. I’m not good at selling myself in that way. I much prefer speaking or doing a reading in conjunction with a signing because the books sell themselves.
You’ve written a series of articles designed to help fellow writers succeed via tips, camaraderie, and humor. What is the best piece of help or advice you were given when starting your career?
My best advice came from my husband and it works in every aspect of my career: Be yourself! he said. Once I listened to his advice, my manuscripts got better because I wasn’t trying to second guess what editors wanted. I wrote what made me happy.
Then, when I began visiting schools and doing public speaking, I was a nervous wreck. Again he repeated, “Just be yourself.” I listened and it made all the difference. I love speaking to fellow writers in children’s books. They are my people and we speak the same language!
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I have been very fortunate in my career and I never take that for granted. My 43rd book comes out on April 3 (People Don’t Bite People, illustrated by Molly Idol) and I still get just as excited for this book as I did my first. I love my job and I hope never to disappoint my young readers.