Saying Yes: How I Built a Career in Children’s Nonfiction

I loved writing about archaeology in Ancient Maya.

I didn’t graduate from college planning to become a writer.  I loved working in archaeology but took a new job at the university when it became clear that the department in which I worked wasn’t going to be around much longer. I didn’t much care for my new job. 

One day I was paging through the university continuing education catalog when I found a class on writing for children.  I loved reading.  I loved buying books for my nieces.  Why not take the class? 

St. Louis author Patricia McKissack was a wonderful teacher.  Throughout the class, she explained story and character, plot and setting.  She showed us how to work in details.  She critiqued and encouraged. She always had something positive to say about your work. Honestly, I don’t know how she did that. During this class, I wrote a series of picture books.  I recently reread them. They were not amazing. They weren’t even mediocre.

After the class, I joined SCBWI. That’s the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. As my manuscripts slowly got better, a fellow writer bought Young Equestrian, a magazine for middle schoolers.  Not one issue.  She bought the whole thing and became the editor and publisher.  She came to a critique group meeting and asked us to write for her.

Horses fascinate me, but I wasn’t a magazine writer.  I wasn’t even a nonfiction writer. Still, someone was asking me to write for them. Thus began several years writing about horses and the people who love them.  I learned a lot.  

By the time the magazine folded, I thought of myself as a nonfiction writer.  A friend’s editor needed someone to write an article on writing.  There would be more work to come.  This seemed kind of risky.  After all, I didn’t write about writing.  Still, someone was asking for writers and I had an in. For years after this I wrote for Children’s Writer newsletter.  My work also appeared in annuals like Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market and Writer’s Market.  But editors move on. 

I’ve cycled through various types of writing. I’ve written crafts, activities and science fair projects.  I’ve written materials for the preschool classroom and testing materials.  I’ve written books for school libraries and books for reluctant readers. Sometimes I got into a new type of writing because I saw a call for writers. Other times a friend let me know about an opportunity. 

At any point, I could have said no. And I have said no. But I generally look for a way to say yes. After all, I never know where the next opportunity is going to take me.

–SueBE