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Follow Your Dreams: A Talk for Kids
Anna Grossnickle Hines
When I was growing up I never met an author or an illustrator. I never heard one speak at school. But I knew somebody wrote the stories in the books I loved. Somebody drew the pictures. And when I was seven years old I knew that's what I wanted to do when I grew up.
I can remember when I first thought of it, just where I was sitting and what I said. I was in my Daddy's chair, near the kitchen door, reading a Little Golden Book version of Heidi and looking at the pictures. My mother was passing by, either on her way to the kitchen or from it, and I looked up and said, "When I grow up, I want to make picture books for boys and girls." She said, "If that's what you want to do, that's what you should do."
It's easy to understand why I decided that, because I loved to draw. I remember my first grade teacher putting my pictures up on the wall. All through grammar school, and even high school, I got lots of attention for my art work. Drawing was the one thing I always knew I could do.
But I didn't know how you got to be the illustrator of a book. I didn't know how books were published. At first I didn't even think about it. I just drew and later on, painted. Sometimes I wrote stories, and drew pictures to go with them.
In sixth grade I had a friend who wanted to write stories and for a while we kept a notebook with our work in it. I won the Junior Fire Fighter Safety contest that year with an illustrated story about a little girl who learned not to play with matches. Another girl in the class wrote a very funny story about Mrs. Bumble who was always having accidents because of her carelessness. Her story was much better than mine. I knew I won just because of my pictures, and started wondering if I could be a good writer.
I did a lot of writing actually. My parents separated and got back together four times before they finally got divorced when I was thirteen, I was very unhappy about it. One time, when I was ten, Daddy had gone and I couldn't sleep so I went to my mother. She was crying, too, and held me for a while, then she suggested that I write how I feel. She said I didn't have to show it to anyone if I didn't want to, but it might help me just to write it down. So I wrote, and then I tore it into tiny pieces and put it in the bottom of the trash where no one could ever see it. I was afraid if anyone knew how I really felt they would get upset with me, especially my father. It helped me to write, and it turned out to be good practice, but I didn't think what I wrote was anything I could ever put in a story. It was too private.
The writing I was willing to share usually got As. The ideas were clearly expressed, the sentences and paragraphs well organized, the grammar, spelling and punctuation correct, for the most part. I was good at doing what I was told. But I thought my writing was boring. So by the time I got to high school I had pretty much decided that I would just illustrate the books and let someone else write them.
My guidance counselor in high school didn't have children's book illustrator on his list of jobs, so he didn't really know what I should do to prepare for it. Go to college and study art was all he could tell me.
It was in college that I ran into my first discouragement. Not that the teachers didn't think I was good at art. They did. They just didn't think children's books were important enough for a real artist. "Books aren't real art," they said. One teacher told me I was just being sentimental, when I did sketches and paintings of children. "Only Picasso gets away with that," he said. Another teacher said, "Go have a baby and get it out of my system." He wanted me to come back when I was ready to do real art.
But I wasn't interested in doing pictures that were going to hang in galleries, or museums or even people's homes. I wanted to do children's books. The college art department had two sections, one called fine arts which is the one I was in first, and the other called graphic arts. I went to the graphics section and took some classes, but the teachers there told me that I couldn't make any money doing book illustration and should go into advertising design instead.
I was kind of stuck at that point. There were places I might have gone where I could learn about book illustration, an art school perhaps, but I didn't have the money. I decided I'd just have to figure it out on my own. That was hard. I'd learned in school, and with my dad, how to give the right answers, but I hadn't learned how to ask my own questions. I was so used to doing what I was told, that when I didn't have somebody to tell me the next step, I was pretty much lost.
I knew I needed to learn more about children's books themselves, and about children, so the last thing I did before I quit college at the end of my third year, was to take a class in Children's Literature and one in Child Care. Then I got a job teaching preschool kids in daycare. I went to the library every week and checked out twenty picture books. I read them to the kids. I started asking myself questions, about what I liked and didn't like, what the kids liked and why. What made one book better than another book?
I also paid a lot of attention to the kids, the kinds of things they talked about, the things that were important to them, and I remembered things from when I was a little girl. I started having ideas for stories! I wrote a few and worked up the courage to share them with a friend, who liked them and then another. I got married and had a baby and drew lots of pictures of her, and pictures for one of the stories I had written.
One company published most of my favorite books. I found their address in one of the books, and sent my story to them, telling them why I chose them. My story came back with a printed rejection slip. I just put it in a drawer and kept writing and drawing.
Then I found a section of the library that had books about illustration. One was even about children's book illustration. I borrowed it and studied it harder than I'd ever studied anything in school. I took lots of notes and started practicing some of the things the books suggested.
I knew I needed to learn what happened when a picture got printed, so I made a poster and paid a printer to make copies. We didn't have much money then and it cost a lot. I sold the posters at sidewalk art sales to earn the money back so I could get another poster made and then another.
From another book I taught myself how to do silkscreen printing, so I could learn more about what happens when something is printed. I sold those prints on the sidewalk, too.
Then I got divorced. I still wanted to do books, but by then I had two little girls and I had to be able to earn enough money to take care of them, so I went back to school for a couple years to get my degree and teaching credential. I went to a different college that time, one that mostly had classes about children and teaching. They thought children's books were very important and were glad to hear that's what I wanted to do, but they didn't know how to help me either.
They did however, have a book fair and they invited real authors. One of them was Don Freeman, who wrote Corduroy and Dandelion and Come Again Pelican. I had my posters and drawings displayed for sale at the book fair, and Mr. Freeman stopped to look at them. I stepped up beside him.
"Are these yours?" he asked.
I nodded and he said, "Nice work."
I told him I wanted to do children's books, which took every bit of courage I had.
Then he nodded.
"But I don't really know how," I added.
"You just do what you want to do and they'll print it," he said.
I still didn't know how, but at least I had been encouraged by somebody who was already doing what I wanted to do. It must be possible.
The next year a friend gave me a brochure about a Conference in Children's Literature. It was for people who were people who wanted to write children's books! I went to it and finally learned what I needed to know to really get started. I learned how to find out who to send stories to, and exactly what to send. I learned things about writing better stories, and got a list of books to help me learn even more about that.
By that time I was 26 years old. It had already been 19 years since I first had the idea. I had two stories that were in good shape and a couple more that needed work. I started sending them to the publishers. I'd send one story to publisher A and get a nice letter back saying something like, "This story isn't quite right for us, but we'd like to see more of your work." So I'd send that story to publisher B and a second story to publisher A. Then I'd get two nice letters back. So I'd send a third story to A, the second story to B, and a third story to another publisher. And get three nice letters back.
During the next eight years, I got more than one hundred of those nice letters. I also got a teaching job, which I kept for three years, and a new husband, much nicer than the first, and a third daughter. I took a two-week workshop with Uri Shulevitz one summer to learn more about writing and illustrating, too.
It was hard to find enough time to write when I was a teacher, so before the last baby was born, my husband and I decided that I should stay home to take care of the kids and spend more time on my books. I spent a lot of the time taking care of the kids. I volunteered at their school. I started a garden so we could have fresh vegetables, and I sewed lots of clothes them, and Christmas presents, and some things to sell at the craft fair...and sometimes I wrote or drew. But not much. I was still sending my stories out and still getting nice letters back.
Now, this is the sad part, one day I had to fill out a form at the bank. They wanted to know my name, address, phone number and birth date. All of that was easy, but then there was a blank that said occupation. I wanted to put writer or illustrator, but I couldn't, because I hadn't really been doing that much. So I wrote homemaker, not a bad thing to be, but I wanted to be a writer and illustrator. I went home depressed.
All those other things I had been doing were good things. They were important. But partly I was using them as an excuse. I could point to my nice big pile of encouraging letters from the publishing companies and tell myself, "See. I could be a writer and illustrator if only I had the time." But part of me was scared. I was afraid that if I gave it the time I still might not get a book published. I was afraid I would fail. But as soon as I thought that I knew that it would be a much bigger failure not to try. I either had to give up the dream I had had since I was a little girl, or give it my best shot. I decided to give it my best shot.
I started doing some writing or drawing everyday. Sometimes there were so many other things that couldn't wait that I could only do it for five minutes. Other days I got a lot done. Pretty soon I felt like a writer and I could put it on any form that asked for my occupation.
A year later I took another summer workshop, this one with Jane Yolen. When I came back I said I had to have my own place to work. I had been using a corner of the bedroom, where I could only work when my husband was awake, or the dining room table, where my stuff was in everybody's way. The two older girls shared a bedroom and had a separate playroom. We moved their beds into the playroom and I took over a small bedroom for my studio. My work was important not only to me but to my family. I was a writer and illustrator.
Then eighteen months after I made that trip to the bank, I sent a story to Greenwillow Books, and instead of a nice letter I got a phone call. They wanted to publish Taste the Raindrops. I had been sending stories there for five years. Taste the Raindrops was the nineteenth story I sent. It took me nine months to do the illustrations and then it took Greenwillow nine months to print and bind the book. My first copy came in the mail. It was the only thing in the box on Christmas eve in 1982, almost ten years ago. Since then, I've had 24 more books published and I have five more coming out in the next two years. And being an author and illustrator is just as good as I hoped it would be. It took a long time, and a lot of work, but my dream has come true, and it's just as good as I thought it would be.
Now here's the important part of this talk. And it's important whether you want to be a writer or a football player or a teacher or whatever. Follow your own dreams. Whatever it is you want to be, be it, and don't let anyone tell you you can't. You might have to do some other things along the way, it might mot be easy, but if you really want to, you can.
Pay attention to your own feelings and thoughts. Learn to ask you own questions, to follow your own curiosity. If there is something you want to learn about, learn about it. Ask your teachers, your parents, or the librarian to help you find books on it, or maybe a way to get in touch with someone who knows more about whatever it is.
Don't be afraid to try things. As long as you aren't hurting anyone, or putting them in danger, including yourself, there isn't any "wrong" in the creative process or in the learning process. I think they are very much alike, creating and learning.
There's a story about Thomas Edison that I really like. After trying four hundred different materials as a filament for his light bulb, one of his assistants said something about four- hundred failures. Mr. Edison answered, "four-hundred failures? No. We have found four-hundred things that do not work."
My computer is great. It lets me write a story or a thought a lot of dumb ways before I get it the way I really want it... and before I have to show it to anyone else.
A mistake is an opportunity to learn something new. People who don't risk making mistakes now and then, don't learn very much. I was so much afraid of being wrong when I was a kid that I spent most of my energy trying to figure out what grown-ups or even my friends wanted me to say. Even if they were asking if I liked something, instead of asking myself how I felt, I tried to figure out whether I was supposed to like it or not. Listen to your own self, as well as the people who care about you and want to help you learn and grow.
Don't be afraid to work. When we call something work, we think its something to be avoided, but the truth is we work hard all the time. We worked hard at learning to walk and talk when we were babies. All of us took many tumbles, "Fall down, go boom" but got back up and kept working. Often the harder you work, the better it is. When you've got a nice big snowfall, it's easy to make a puny little snowman, but doesn't it feel better to roll and roll and roll that big old snowball until you can't possibly budge it anymore. And then to make another almost as big and push it and push it, until you get the middle on and then the head, so you've got a nice big snowman.
Anything you really want to do, except maybe watching TV, takes work, usually some of it is tedious practice. Playing a musical instrument, football, gymnastics or any other sport, dancing, solving puzzles. A lot of it may be tedious, even painful when you get sore muscles from working out, but if it's something you really want to do, it's fun, too. It's fun to work hard and accomplish something. It's fun to develop the skills that make it easier in the long run, so you can work harder at the good parts. Like mastering basic dance moves, so you can put them together in a beautiful way. Or learning basic soccer moves, so when you're in a game running down the field, and somebody comes at you all you have to do is think, left or right, and your body knows what to do. Or learning how to spell and put sentences together, so you can concentrate on saying what you ant to say instead of worrying about every letter.
And even when you have the skills there is work, like rolling that big snowball, to do the best job you can. For me, that means, choosing just the right words, so every one is where it has to be to make that story have just right shape. It's starting over on a picture sometimes, because I see near the end, that my perspective is wrong, or it just doesn't have the same feel as the others in the book. It's working from seven in the morning to midnight every day for a week to do the thunder words in Rumble Thumble Boom by hand because at the last minute the art director and I decided that was the only thing that would make that book look right.
Sometimes there is disappointment too, and frustration. You don't win every game, or even get accepted on every team. Sometimes when a book is printed, I can see mistakes, things I'd like to do over. Some of them are my mistakes, and some are just because of the process. Maybe the printers couldn't get the colors exact so the faces look a little bluer than in my originals. Or they're too light. I can feel bad about it, but the best thing is to learn from it and try to do it better next time.
But if it is what you really want to do, if it is something you really love, it's worth it, even with the frustrations, and the hard work. It's worth it because of the joy you feel when the moves are just right, when the colors really work, when you make the touchdown. And for me it's worth it when I get a letter that tells me that a story I've written has meant something special to someone I'll never even meet.
Listen to your hearts and follow your dreams. It's worth it.
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