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Classical Jazz 2005: Home

An Interview with Debut Children's Author Coleen Paratore

by Debbi Michiko Florence

Debut author Coleen Paratore proves that wishes can come true. Her first book, a picture book, HOW PRUDENCE PROOVIT PROVED THE TRUTH ABOUT FAIRY TALES (illustrated by Tamara Petrosino, published by Simon & Schuster) is available in bookstores today. She lives in Albany, NY with her husband and three sons.

NEW: Coleen Paratore's newest picture book, 26 BIG THINGS SMALL HANDS DO (illustrated by Mike Reed, published by Free Spirit Publishing), is now available for purchase.

Tell us a little about your journey as a children’s writer. When and how did you decide you wanted to write for children?

When I was a little girl, every Saturday, my mother and I would take the city bus to the Troy Public Library. It was our favorite tradition. I’d stick my hand in the mouths of the stone lions, gaze up at the white marble facade, then pull hard to open that heavy wooden door. I felt like I was entering a castle in a fairy tale. Inside, I’d breath in that familiar leather smell and begin collecting my book-treasures for the week.

It was then that I knew in my heart, I loved to read.

In 4th grade, there was a poetry contest and I won first place for a poem about a robin. My teacher invited me to read it in front of the class and I was very excited. My mother, a gifted writer, taught me to write from my heart. My father, a talented orator, taught me to speak in a loud-proud voice and so….

Oh wait, you need to know a bit of backstory…

In first grade, I was a Brownie and we were playing that game, Red Rover, Come Over — two lines of kids, with outstretched arms, holding hands, one team calls for Rover and Rover comes running over, trying to break through the assumed “weakest link” in the opposing team’s line. I was the weakest link. When Rover barreled through, wham, my arm hurt so bad I turned and fainted face down on a concrete floor.

My two front teeth cracked perfectly into the shape of vampire fangs. Thus began a decade of “temporary caps” which had a wicked habit of falling off when they felt like it, especially if I was talking in a loud-proud voice.

Okay, forward to 4th grade…

So I’m up in front of the class reading my robin poem in a loud-proud voice, revving up for the dramatic finale when foop, out flies my slimy little tooth-cap onto Edward Gray’s desk. (It woke him up.). “Oh, gross!” he shouted. Everyone laughed. I ran out of the room crying. My teacher comforted, “this too shall pass.” I was a bleak mouse, indeed. Yet, that night, as I lay awake replaying that scene in my mind, it wasn’t the embarrassment I remembered most, it was the joy of winning that writing contest.

It was then that I knew in my heart, I loved to write.

In elementary school, I won the fire-prevention essay contest so many times, the thrill of riding the fire truck through town soon lost its initial spark. In high school, I won first place in the play-writing category of a nationwide contest sponsored by Scholastic, based on a theme from the book, Alive, by Piers Paul Read (true story, rugby team plane crashes in the Andes).

I majored in English at The College of Saint Rose, in Albany, and after two internships in advertising and public relations, decided to enter the communications field, which is a place where writers can write and make a living too. I got married three months after graduation—my husband Tony and I will be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary next August (!)—and we moved to Connecticut. I worked at a large advertising/pr firm during the day and got my master’s in English at Trinity College nights. When we moved back to the Albany, New York area a few years later, I took a job as a publicist for Russell Sage College in Troy and soon became Director of Communications for the Sage Colleges. Our son, Christopher, was born in 1989. Two years later I took out a small-business loan, left my “safe job” and founded Books Worth Writing, to develop and publish The Remembering Book, an heirloom-quality tribute to a loved one’s life (created after losing my best friend to cancer and wanting to be sure the story of her life was remembered and celebrated). This book-product is now in its 3rd printing, 10,000 copies sold. Around that same time, I began teaching as an adjunct instructor in the English Department at Russell Sage, doing freelance public relations assignments for business and nonprofit clients, and leading public-speaking workshops for women. Our son, Connor, was born in 1992 and then our third son, Dylan, in 1994.

After Dylan was born, I hopped off the career train for a few years to chase after three boys under the age of 5. I wrote a song for each of my sons and sang their special songs to them as bedtime lullabies. I kept a journal (I have on and off since college), wrote poems, and “roasts” for friends’ birthdays, planted a perennial garden, a vegetable garden, read tons of books, started a book club, cleared a walking trail in the woods behind our house…and with my three young sons in tow, I returned to my “library days.”

We devoured books together, morning, noon and night. We’d fill an L.L. Bean sack full of picture books every week, snuggle up on the couch, and read, read, read. I didn’t know it at the time, but in addition to it being enormously FUN, this was fabulous research. As I was devoting my best creative energy to my children and sharing my love of books with them, I was soaking in lessons in characterization and plot and structure and language… feeding my writer’s voice in happy hibernation.

I still didn’t know that I would write children’s books, yet everything in my life was leading me on that path. Ironically, I’d meet former business colleagues out and about and they’d say, “you’re writing children’s books, right?” I can’t tell you how many people asked me that. It wasn’t my goal or my intention.

Then, one evening in 1996, I was sitting on the floor playing with the boys when I heard this spunky little girl in my mind. She was complaining about being schlepped around on boring errands and how places like the supermarket could be much more fun if she was in charge. I wrote my first little rhyming story, When Cassie Crowder Rules.

After that, more ideas for stories came, quick and bright as lightning bugs. Some I caught and wrote down. Other times I was too busy and they flew off, forgotten.

In September 1999 I was out early running on my son Christopher’s 10th birthday (I get my best “firefly moments” when I’m running or driving in the car) when a whole book flashed full-blown into my head, the story of a boy who gets a magical box on his 10th birthday that inspires him throughout his life. Wow. I ran home and typed the story out at a furious pace, start to end, not stopping to edit, laughing and crying as I typed. It was the most wonderful feeling. Luminous, euphoric. Like falling in love.

It was then that I knew in my heart, I wanted to write for children.

In November 2000, I believed that story, "The Possibilities Box", was ready, and I began submitting it to publishers. It was rejected 37 times. Meanwhile, I kept on writing. Every day. I took classes and went to SCBWI conferences, formed a writer’s critique group, devoured all the books on “breaking in.” I kept reading, reading, reading the best children’s books of present and past, most of all, I kept on writing. I wrote six more books and submitted them widely, receiving many nice personal rejections from editors who liked my work and wanted to see more, but no contract offers.

The wonderful writer Laurie Halse Anderson, Printz Award for Speak, critiqued two of my early pieces and was encouraging. I’d see her at conferences and she’d say, “keep kicking that door 'till they open it.” I worked very hard at writing and very hard at marketing. I studied publishers from Atheneum to Whitman and kept copious notes on editors at houses I admired. I’d get a rejection, write a thank you, then send out a new piece. I worked harder than I ever had before without one cent of compensation. I was a maniac on a mission. I’d write a new story every few months and mail it out in batches of twelve at a time. The rejections multiplied, but got better as time went on. Eventually I narrowed the field to those editors who repeatedly sent personal letters with specific suggestions and asked to see more of my work. In retrospect, I may have cast my submissions net too widely, but it got me in the game, made me feel like a player, and I learned volumes in the process. I am so thankful to the editors who took time to nurture me with a kind line or two. Those comments kept me going through those two long years of trying to break in.

In August 2001, I was feeling particularly discouraged because editors were telling me my writing was evocative and lyrical and great voice, but the stories were “too quiet to break through in this market.” My wonderful sister Noreen pulled me out of my pity party with a wake up call: “Well, then, write something that will break through.”

As I drove home from her house that day I distinctly remember thinking, “okay, I’m ready.” I started thinking about “big ideas” in the world of children. The notion of fairy tales flipped through my mind and was gone. Then, a few miles later, I heard this line, “Once there was a girl who didn’t believe in fairy tales.” Ooh, that gave me chills. I laughed aloud. This could be fun. And then the whole story poured out. I propped a white lined tablet on my steering wheel and wrote the first draft by the time I got home.

When I read it to my crit group I was so nervous and excited I nearly fainted. I had a good feeling this was a winner. I didn’t submit it anywhere.

The very next month, the weekend after 9-11, I drove 41/2 hours to the SCBWI Fall Philly Conference, where I heard Simon & Schuster editor Alyssa Eisner give a firecracker speech about historical fiction. I was so impressed with her wit, knowledge, and jeannie-out-of-the bottle energy that I ran up to her afterwards and introduced myself.

“I wish I wrote historical fiction,” I said.

“Well, what do you write?”

“I have a new funny picture book.”

“Great, send it to me. My boss, Kevin Lewis, said we’re looking for funny.”

I drove home the next day with a very good feeling and do you think I mailed the story off to Alyssa? No. I didn’t. Which was very unusual for me. Me who had been in this high-gear-maniac-on-a-mission mode.

Then, the very next month, I was accepted into the Rutgers One-on-One Conference (fabulous program). I turned around in the Ladies Room and there was Alyssa Eisner again. “I remember you. You were going to send me that story.” Kismet or what? We sat down to lunch together, chatted nonstop, felt a kindred connection, she took the story home with her.

I followed up with light, cheerful e-mails in November, then December and in January she e-mailed to say she was interested if I was willing to revise. “Revise? Absolutely, I love to revise.”

That day I put my grandmother’s china bell from County Cork, Ireland on my desk and told my sons I’d ring it when I got that call offering a contract. I then focused my best creative energy on getting to the heart of that story. I revised and revised and revised and revised. Through the winter, through the spring, through the summer, closer and closer, but need to fix this, tweak that, pump up this scene, omit that one, closer and closer, with rejection letters from all the earlier stories still arriving in my mailbox (179 in total)….still I kept on believing…

Finally, on September 18, 2002, I got that long-awaited call. It was a full year after Alyssa took the manuscript at Rutgers…. two years after I submitted my first story to a publisher….six years after I wrote my first children’s story. It was after 8 pm and our family had just gotten home from a harrowing time at the orthopedic surgeon’s -- my youngest son, Dylan, had fallen on the playground and broken his arm in two places – the answering machine was beep, beep, beeping in my office – probably a long-distance provider pitch – I hit the message button – “Hello Coleen! This is Alyssa Eisner from Simon & Schuster calling with some very, very good news. I am delighted to offer you a contract for the publication of How Prudence Proovit Proved the Truth About Fairy Tales….” I started crying, shouted for my family, ringing that china bell, and we all listened to that message again. Dylan said, “Mom, it was the best day of your life and the worst day of my life.” (A young Dickens I've got blooming here.)

And that’s how I got to be a children’s author.

I love Prudence Proovit in your debut picture book How Prudence Proovit Proved the Truth About Fairy Tales. Is she based on anyone you know? How did you come up with this story idea?

Thanks, I love her too. Pru just showed up in my imagination one day as I was driving home from my sister’s house. Like all of my characters, she bubbled up out of that mucky menagerie inside, that mind/heart compost heap of memory and emotion. Pru’s a pip. I have such fun with her. She’s a know-it-all showoff on the outside, but inside she just wants to have fun like the other kids.

What is your favorite Fairy Tale?

What a fun question, Deb. I love fairy tales because they are memorable stories that offer hope. As to my favorite, hmmmm, I’m a character person – I can take or leave plot – I need to connect with a character on an emotional level. That rules out Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and all the “rescued princesses.” I guess I’d pick Hansel and Gretel because Gretel saves the day, outwitting the witch through her ingenuity. You go Gret!

What do you think Prudence’s favorite fairy tale is?

Gosh, I don’t know. You’d have to ask her. That girl’s got a mind of her own.

I laughed out loud reading this story. Does humor come easily to you? Do you have any advice to writers wanting to write humorous stories?

Thanks, again, Debbi. I have fun playing around with language in particular. I read my lines aloud over and over again to hear how they sound. I don’t set out intending to be funny, because that would be too scary. Audiences are tough on comedians. I think humor is the absolutely hardest stuff to write, but if “fun” shows up, heh, I’m a happy camper. I love to laugh and I love to make people laugh. It’s a good thing all the way around. As to advice to writers wanting to write humorous stories? Study funny books. Read the comics. Notice what makes you laugh. Notice what makes children laugh.

What other things are you working on? Do you have other books coming out?

I had the whoopee-wonderful thrill of selling my first four children’s books in one year. How Prudence Proovit Proved the Truth About Fairy Tales, illustrated by Tamara Petrosino, Simon & Schuster, is in stores now. (Go Prue!!!)

My second book, 26 BIG Things small Hands Do, an ABC celebration of children beautifully illustrated by Mike Reed, Free Spirit Publishing, debuts this September (it’s on the cover of their Fall Trade Catalog - yeh! yeh!).

My first middle-grade novel, The Wedding Planner’s Daughter, Simon & Schuster, will hit stores this Spring 2005 (I love this book!)

And the talented Peter Catalanotto is painting the illustrations for my picture book, Catching the Sun, Houghton Mifflin, due out in Spring 2006.

There’s a fabulous sequel to Prudence all set to go (How Prudence Proovit Proved the Truth About Santa Claus). I’m revising a second middle grade novel for Alyssa Eisner at Simon & Schuster; awaiting word on a new Free Spirit proposal; my wonderful literary agent Tracey Adams is looking for happy homes for three new picture books; and once my big promotional pitch/book signing schedule for Prudence is finished, I look forward to delving in to several new projects. It’s important to get out there and create buzz for new books, but I can’t wait to get back to my writing.

What are some of your favorite books from childhood?

Charlotte’s Web — I loved how that spider saved her friend Wilbur with words.
Little Women — I loved how each sister found her path and especially how Jo became a writer.
Anne of Green Gables — I loved Anne’s strong determination and sweet vulnerability and most of all, her indefatigable enthusiasm.
Nancy Drew — I saved my baby-sitting money and bought each new bumblebee jacketed volume. I think this is why I wanted yellow on the cover of my first book.

Where and how do you work? Do you have a writing schedule?

As I’ve said before, I get my best stuff on my early morning run or when I’m driving somewhere. I try to capture the good stuff when it comes. Often I’ll be out running and not thinking about a story at all and then a line will come into my head and I’ll realize, oh, yes, that’s right, thank you, thank you, and I pray I remember it until I get back home. I wish I could write all day long. I’m in love with writing
In terms of a schedule… after I get my three boys (Chris, 14, Connor, 11 and Dylan, 9) off to school, I run, shower, meditate (for me that’s about two minutes), make a cup of lemon tea, answer e-mails and then, finally, whoopee! show up on the page. I write from about 9 until noon; eat lunch, take a five minute nap, then generally write/revise again until 3 . After I schlep the boys through homework/after-school activities, I try to get in an hour of e-mail returns, correspondence. I try to force myself not to write on the weekends, but I often don’t succeed.

What is the best advice you can give aspiring children’s authors?

Keep on writing. If you want to be a writer, write. Don’t talk about it. Do it.

Breaking into this business was the hardest and longest race I’ve ever run. I wrote stories for four years before I felt the work was ready. And then, once my writing was of publishable quality, it took two years of submitting before I got a contract. 179 rejections later. You’ve got to want it badly. You’ve got to read, read, read, and write, write, write and revise, revise, revise, and listen to people who are wiser than you, and learn from your rejections, and take comments from editors very seriously, and be willing to catch the fireflies of inspiration before they fly off forgotten, and, most of all, you’ve got to BELIEVE in yourself. Believe, believe, believe.

Emerson said “nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Write on.

If you know in your heart that writing for children is your gift to give, and you want to do this more than anything in the world, then keep your eyes peeled on the horizon and expect that sun to rise. Don’t worry about whether your work is good enough or original enough, if you want this so badly it hurts, then go for it.

I don’t think the universe puts a fire like that inside you unless it is meant to be. Believe, believe, believe.

And don’t be embarrassed to “honk your own horn.” Get out there and talk about your books in a loud-proud voice. The competition to break in to this field is fierce. You’ve got to learn to sell yourself. Don’t expect someone to “discover” you. Garfield said, “if you’re patient…and you wait long enough…nothing will happen.” Smart cat.

Oh, and, join a critique group. I don’t know what I’d do without the honest feedback and loving support of my wonderfully talented writer friends in WOW, Tuesday Muse and Food for Thought.
Oh, and, get to those smaller SCBWI conferences where you can make real connections with editors and have your work professionally critiqued. Networking alone will not sell a book. But if you’ve got a good manuscript, it helps enormously to meet someone you connect with on a personal level.

Keep on writing.

For a more recent interview with Coleen about her new novel for kids, click here.

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For more about Coleen and her books, see her web site.

See also my follow-up interview with Coleen, in 2005.