Crafting a Trilogy: Origins

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In figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up, the journey took many twists and sharp turns. In addition to merely considering many different fields, I worked more jobs than anyone I know at my age. At the tender age of 34, I’ve crossed more occupations off the list as “attempted, not quite right” than other people will attempt in a lifetime. (And more power to them. I sincerely believe it’s possible to graduate high school, know exactly who you are and what you’re good at, and find success in that career for a lifetime. In my experience though, it’s not possible to do that and also be me.) I’ve been great at a lot of things, I’ve done a lot of introspection and reflection, but I’ve never felt sure-footed on my career journey until recently.

Other people seemed to know my path long before I did. It’s a consensus I’ve heard since I was literally 5 years old, back when I thought I’d grow up to be an Egyptologist, or an architect, or a dancer. Many people pointed to me and screamed “You’re a Writer!” I was chosen to write and speak for groups, chosen to receive writing awards, pointed at by veritable strangers who heard me talk for a few minutes and declared, “You should write a book.” Many teachers requested acknowledgment when the then-imaginary book was published. On any number of subjects, people indicated, “If you wrote the book, I’d read it.” The constancy of their collective belief made it impossible for me, rebel with 1,000 causes, to agree and declare “I am a writer. I will write a book.” It seemed ludicrous that I should admit that everyone else, strangers even, knew me better than I knew myself.

So I finally did it. I wrote a children’s book, a picture book, about starting something new, setting a goal, and working to achieve it. I turned a poem I’d written about crafting into a story about a girl with a dream. I hired an illustrator to see my vision through. I self-published and advertised. Instantly, I had big dreams for the book and for the universe it insinuates. I created a brand, I set up at festivals and fairs, and I talked about my motives and what I know to be true with everyone I encountered.

The resounding, unanimous response was “This is the book? Is this all you have?” Disappointment and confusion were evident in their incredulity.

I do indeed have other kids’ narratives ready to go, stories that need editing, illustrating, and querying, stories that I still hope to air out and share with the world.

Amidst the constant inner turmoil of “Finding Myself” in my late 20’s, I conceded. I thought back on the words, wise and otherwise. I remembered the picture book series I’d invented when I was a kid, the many hours I spent running my fingers down spines in the library stacks, and how I’d often pass the time by improvising radio plays starring multiple people and a Foley artist, all played by me and my indeterminate accents.

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Unfortunately though, this first book left me, and my readers, unfulfilled. I demonstrated my way with rhythmic meter, rhyme scheme, and teaching empowerment – a lifelong pursuit – but it did little to encompass the creative waterfall crashing down in my brain. I was getting more out of talking about my values with adults than I was out of creating books and resources for kids. I began to wonder if I had a novel in me, a novel to be enjoyed by the adults saying “I would have loved this picture book when I was kid.” Rather than writing for the next generation in a wistful way to make up for lost time, perhaps I could write to their parents instead – give them the love letter to our existence that encompasses my thoughts and feelings about life itself.

A lofty goal, to be sure.

The Scientist and I, searching for ways to pass the quaran-time together, began to talk about writing a book – but the subjects varied. He’s more comfortable in the realm of (who’d have guessed it?) academic nonfiction, and we may have a joint project in us yet about neurodiversity and the natural world. Neither of us was very motivated to write it, though, and the idea was shelved.

Then, one day, we started with the What Ifs of fiction – what sorts of books do we love? What sorts of stories do we crave? What hasn’t been done? A speculative, fantasy world which existed within and expanded upon our own called to us- a story of one man, that evolved into an epic battle, that began to cross time and existential planes. We stuck post-its to a posterboard and drew circles, connected by arrows, which became webs. I doodled in the margins of our collective, creative brain and he drew more tethers across environments and ecologies. We tried to explain to mutual friends but it wasn’t something that could lend itself to a this-then-that narration. They needed more. They wanted more. We had based our idea in our mutually shared interests and dedicated the themes to our values and suddenly we knew we had a trilogy on our hands.

A year passed and the idea stagnated. It would come up when we were hiking or on a road trip, but the actual process was mysterious and elusive.

I’d sit down to write a scene from the trilogy and feel overwhelmed by the scope of it.

I’d start on page one – I must have written 12 different page ones.

I’d bounce ideas off the Scientist who would look at me dumbfounded for reaching the story further and further outside our original scope. Was it fantasy or science fiction? Was it comedic, horror, speculative or historical? Was it intended for young adults or more mature readers? Was it a novel, a graphic novel, or something else entirely?

I’d awaken in the middle of the night (or somesuch) and think – it’s not THIS kind of story, it’s actually a parody of THIS kind of story, and I’d scrap every short piece and description, and start it all over again. Maybe it wasn’t a trilogy – it was a series of short stories. Maybe it was scifi, not fantasy. Maybe it was 2 separate ideas that don’t actually work together.

And so, as I’ve done with every bit of spiraling doubt that surrounds every project or interest I undertake, I researched process. How-to’s and what-for’s. For nearly another year, I took notes on saving the cat and creating a screenplay, looking for tropes in every movie and series, learning about arc, plot, and character development, and revisiting some of my favorite fictional works for clues as to how they were put together.

One answer kept coming up: There is no right way. There are no right answers.

There’s no one way to get a story of this magnitude down on paper. It won’t be written from start to finish. It can’t be outlined like an academic work or written in a single draft. Much of what is written first won’t be included in the final edit at all.

It isn’t like building a house – get the pieces, put them together in a reasonable order, stand back and admire the work. I could watch and read all the house building tutorials I wanted, but no one had ever built THIS HOUSE before.

Writing a story like this one is more like growing a garden of wildflowers. Start with the idea – I want to grow flowers – sculpt out the general flower bed-fertilize and aerate the soil, plant seeds and nourish them – then see what grows from there. What thrives and what outcompetes the others. What attracts the right insects and meshes well with the natural ecology. What would do better transplanted into another garden patch.

To paraphrase the great Neil Gaiman who was paraphrasing someone else he considers great, You never learn how to write a book, you only learn how to write THIS book. And to paraphrase Neil Gaiman again, you write the story to find out how you feel about the story.

And with that final burst of confident steam, I know, I’m writing this fantasy trilogy. It may take years. It may look and feel entirely different from where it is currently. But the more I write, the more I confer with the Scientist, and the more I speak about it, the more confidently I feel that I have something here. I am writing a story that needs to be told, a story that feels important, a story that keeps me going back every day, to take notes, to read research, to create settings and scenescapes and tonalities.

I’ll keep track of my journey here under the subheading: Writer, Meet the Internet.

Hey look Mom (and all the others out there who said so) – I’m a writer!

What about Maddie?

The author explains it all.

MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER is the first picture book for Kid Lit Motivates, but hopefully not the last. After a weekend of networking with young readers and parents, I realized there were things I wanted to explain that won’t be obvious in the first read and also some background about the work itself.

Since publishing the book, my best friend/partner/love has joined me in the KLM mission -(Sunshine and the Scientist) – and while I tend to refer to the book as mine, it is now ours, and we consider “I” and “we” interchangeable here.

Cover image of Maddie

The Plot

Maddie is a can-do girl on a mission to make a new outfit for an Art-Show-Style-Party (whatever that is), and she’s never done that before. She RSVP’s to the party, but makes a few mistakes in the response. Then she dreams up a gown she’d love to wear, researches how to design, then gets to work shopping, sketching, sewing, and adding embellishments. The story ends with her arrival at her friend’s house, wearing her crafty, new dress and excited to get partying.

“It’s the book I would have loved when I was a kid!” 

I hear this often. Thank you, same here. I wanted books I could read over and over again, with complicated illustrations, pictures in pictures, jokes within jokes. 

Spoiler alert: It is not ABOUT fashion design.

First, to dispel the notion: this book will not teach your child how to sew. There are no patterns included in the back of the book and no direct instructions for budding fashion designers.. (We are currently creating these as an extension workbook, due to the popular demand and the curiosity the notion seems to instill. It likely won’t be available before the end of the year, and was not part of the original idea.) MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER was never intended to be a sewing manual for kids – but this is the primary criticism I receive., so it’s worth noting.

Maddie checking the mail.

Inspired by Real Life

The book was inspired by a particular client I worked with when I was doing in-home work with autistic children. At 10-years-old, L had been diagnosed with a learning disability and was struggling academically and socially. She had difficulty initiating choices, and at the gates of puberty, was starting to recede into her cell phone, her dark bedroom, and stormy, unpredictable moods. She loved fashion – wanting to look put together all the time – and it became clear early that she was a perfectionist, and one that struggled to accept average, but imperfect grades. Test stress suffocated her. As I got to know L., I realized she was becoming obsessive about boys and friends, and she had difficulty maintaining a conversation that wasn’t centered around her. L might have a learning disability, but it seemed clear to me that she was autistic.

(‘Female’ presentation of autism is generally much different than the more male-type presentations, which is not to say that boys won’t have the more ‘female’ traits or vice versa. There are generalizations, but every child should be treated with the respect of individuality. I can talk about autism and our culture for hours, so I won’t dive further in to that here.)

Necessity, as always, is the Mother of Invention

In any case, it was clear that my responsibility to L was not primarily academic support, as initially suspected. I had the opportunity to impart the social and emotional knowledge she was understandably lacking, the things that they don’t usually teach in school. Self-awareness and self-acceptance were primary goals. We found a lot of success after about 6 months in emotion identification, coping, and social awareness. We even made progress away from isolation and obsession. The hardest thing to work through was the desire to be perfect.

Perhaps it was so hard to approach perfectionism, in part, because it was something I struggled with until recently myself.

I spent hours in various children’s libraries around my county, searching for a picture book that might help me show, rather than tell, this particular lesson. Yes, L., was 12, and capable of reading middle grade chapter books – but the picture book format was a lot more accessible in an hour-long session, and the images could be more impactful than the words for a more youtube-centric generation. I believed, even before Kid Lit Motivates was born, that a picture book could open the door to any conversation. Despite endless searching, I was disappointed at the selection.

Maddie focused on JENGA.

We should encourage ALL girls, all kids, to think, whether or not they love STEM.

L.’s interests were narrow – and within those interests I could find nothing available that addressed her needs or represented her struggle. The thinking/planning books were all math- and science-based. There were books geared to much younger kids about making friends, but no picture books with the awkward struggle of the pre-teen. There were books where children finished projects, even books about overcoming perfectionism, but none that showed HOW to do it, only how to FEEL as you do it. And the only books available regarding fashion were vapid and useless – can’t a girl love clothes and still learn to think?

I shudder when I remember one Barbie book that was recommended to me by a librarian- Ken comes over to fetch Barbie for a date, and Barbie keeps him waiting on the porch while she quite literally gets lost in the wide expansive wonderland of her own closet. She returns much, much later, after an entire fashion show of dress and shoe options, to find him asleep on the porch. Not to worry, Ken says something degrading about how that’s the best he can expect from her, and off they go on a giggling, happy date. Book over. Jaw on the floor. To me, disgraceful. Is this really the best we can do for girls and boys?

I write rhythmic, rhyming bits to cope.

MADDIE, quite literally, began as a poem I wrote to cope with the absolute despair I felt in the search. Rooms full of craft supplies and I could not find the way to explain, model, or demonstrate to L how to get a project started without worrying about the way it came out. We tried a lot of craft projects together, any hobby she expressed the slightest interest in, but she couldn’t take pride in any of them or do anything twice, because she couldn’t accept the reality of a learning curve. Perfection or bust.

The poem stayed with me, reworking itself in my mind, line by line, at odd moments in time. It did nothing to help L. and eventually our time together ended. It was a year or so after our sessions terminated that I hired an illustrator to make my vision a reality. I had a poem that had a tight rhyming lilt, that felt like a folk song but for a modern audience. In my mind, I saw it unfolding like a mix between Looney Tunes-style animation, referential meta humor, and details that felt like real life.

Self-Publishing Amateur Style

I confess I was very directive with the illustrator, who was phenomenally skilled, patient and kind. He added the stuffed bear in homage to a beloved teacher (the bear appears on nearly every page). and he understood the pop culture nods and winks I hoped to add. He is solely responsible for every one of Maddie’s fun tees, for the Indiana Jones and Bob Ross reference images (and others), and for the humor inside the humor.

On the first edition of the cover, he didn’t put his name on the work, and I felt quite badly about it. I still do. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should tell him to add his name, demand it, implore him to take credit – I thought artists signed their work when they wanted to stand by it, and since I’d described each page in great detail, perhaps he just didn’t want to be associated with my project. When he reworked the cover for me (to add the giant picture of Maddie, as I realized was standard for picture books), I insisted he take credit. (If you ever read this, Aaron, thank you so much for everything. My desire to see my vision through was so intense that it wasn’t the collaboration it could have been. I was new to the industry, I’m very grateful for the character you added to her character, and I sincerely apologize.)

The interaction we had was only the first step of my lacking confidence in Maddie, there would be many other stumbles along the way.

Maddie pricks her finger.

Criticism is Understandable

MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER is not like other picture books. This was – sort of – the intention.

The text is too advanced for the picture book industry. Despite being an acceptable number of words and pages, the content and vocabulary level far outpaces the typical picture book audience.

Since the book was meant to be aimed at a preteen audience, it’s an honest, if unfounded, criticism. It wasn’t meant to be read by or to early readers. It was meant as an anchor activity to begin any number of difficult or tricky conversations, while modeling what it is to have a dream, set a goal, learn a skill, and accept the outcome.

Where are the Teens?

Teens and preteens are practically nonexistent in picture books. Mostly, the books involve human or animal characters ranging in age from baby to age 10 or so, and full-grown adults. Occasionally a teen sibling character appears as an aside.

Teachers know that picture books are excellent ways of jumping in to topics – so why can’t we use them with a slightly older crowd?

Maddie isn’t clearly identified as a teenager, but there are indications she is one. She eats takeout from containers and goes shopping for supplies alone. She’s got a full-sized desk in her bedroom and a lab coat in her closet. (She likes science after all. Science AND clothing.) At one point in the story she works so much that she falls asleep in a mess of scraps, paint, and glue. It’s real. She’s a young teen.

Why don’t we have representations of teenagers in picture books? Moreso, why don’t we show characters who have “unskilled”, “stepping-stone” jobs, while going to school – you know, like the ones real teens have? Cashiers, servers, retail store workers, babysitters, facepainters, the list is endless.

Where are the picture book characters who show what being a teen is like, emotionally, socially, psychologically? We model adulthood for children without even blinking- careers, parenthood, etc. But the teenage years are like a silent, shameful era we’d rather kids not be exposed to. Despite the fact that they will one day be teenagers with changing bodies, growing hearts, and questioning minds, we only show them children, adults, and the occasional teenage savant.

If we ever hope to ease the teenage transition, and limit dangerous rebellion, isolation, and attitude, we should probably demonstrate to kids in positive ways what will be expected of them. And embrace teens for what they are, not deny they’re growing up until they’ve already grown.

It Isn’t Just One Book

Maddie was meant to be a relatable girl, a real girl, with hobbies, interests, skills and struggles, a range of emotion and experience. I hoped to use it as an anchor to talk about socializing, texting, learning a new hobby, setting a goal with a defined deadline, and working hard to the finish. The posters in Maddie’s room tell us to “Tri, Trryy, Try Again,” to take “Caution: Mind at Work”. She may say she’s okay but her face tells us otherwise. She may say it was easy, but we can see the challenge. Just like reality.

I hoped it was something that could be read again and again, where illustrative Easter eggs might catch the eye on the second or third read, where the rhythm of the text and the notebook illustration might inspire future repetitions.

It occurred to me much later that its a book that exists within an entire world of possibility – a world where reality is represented and celebrated for being perfectly imperfect, awkward and emotional, exhausting and energizing.

I have big dreams for this book, and several stories of a similar, yet different ilk, demanding illustration, waiting to come to life. I’ve been learning the art form myself, counting down my hours of illustration practice, slowly but surely, because I believe all things are possible, and because I wouldn’t want to force my ideas on another artist ever again.

Maddie shopping and shocked at the inventory.

So Who and What is it for?

It’s a book about a teenager, written for a preteen, hoping to be included in the canon of younger readers who are looking for the next, best thing. It exists at face value as a simple story about a girl and her quest to make a dress, and then as a model for actual, awkward, uncomfortable, amazing adolescence.

It’s a book that shows how to set a goal, and see it through, despite the odds and imperfections. It can also suit nicely as an anchor for many other conversations and subjects, many of which I have since created worksheets and activities for which are available for free and for sale on the Kid Lit Motivates TeachersPayTeachers Store site.

The Wrap-Up

It’s a book I’m intensely proud of, despite the odd reactions it evokes. I stand by it and I hope that my vision for it, for our future work, and for the Kid Lit Motivates mission, is clear.

To purchase MADDIE STEINER, FASHION DESIGNER and support Kid Lit Motivates – please click here.

To receive free downloadable resources to use with MADDIE or without, or to purchase workbook packs, please click here.

If you’re interested in connecting about this or anything Kid Lit Motivates has to offer, please contact us at kidlitmotivates@gmail.com, or head to our contact page and fill out the form.

Thank you for your interest in Kid Lit Motivates.

Update: Getting Ready for Book Fairs and Festivals!

Unfortunately, and with a heavy heart, I need to inform you that we will Not be able to attend today’s event. 💔 Sunshine and the Scientist were both vaccinated and are now both suffering the feverish, aching, fluish effects. We feel it would be irresponsible to try and attend. I cannot stress how upset I am- I am passionate about Autism Awareness, fundraising for community programs like Play4Autism, and always uplifted to meet and provide resources for neurodivergent parents and children alike.

Saying that, however, the resources we prepared will be available online soon for download and we are itching for the next event, whenever that will be.

Keep reading and keep dreaming!

Getting Ready for Book Fairs and Festivals!