Friday, August 11, 2017

When We Were Young

Today, I’m continuing the Teaching Authors series that Bobbi started on Monday about what we wrote when we were young. I especially appreciated this thought: “It is the  nature of reading that every story we’ve read stays with us, and its characters become a part of our lives.”

I grew up with six sisters, a mother who read us Dr. Seuss books and occasionally wrote rhyming poetry, and a father who built a huge blackboard on a kitchen wall where we big sisters taught our little sisters their letters and numbers.

My earliest known writing was on that yellowish double-lined paper we used in grade school back then. I wrote about walking my neighbor’s black cocker spaniel Zsa Zsa. As I remember, the story was enthusiastic and joyful. The dog, however, was mean. I was writing fiction. I wanted to bring that paper along on my school visits, but alas, I couldn’t find it.

In high school, I spent much of my time in the biology room. My friends and I took care of the plants and snakes and frogs at lunch time and after school. We went off to the Trees for Tomorrow conservation camp, marveled at the really truly dark, and brought back tiny trees to plant at home. One of the two I planted at our old house is still standing tall.

My sisters and I swooned over the Diary of Anais Nin. I wrote poetry back then, but alas, I didn’t save any. My sister Judy and another friend and I memorized a collection of poems by Joseph Pintauro called A Box of Sun. I couldn’t find any online to share, but I still remember.

In a college creative writing class, I wrote a poem about my sister Judy’s cats. Twenty years later, I was reading a rhyming picture book to our sons. I thought it might be fun to write a children’s book, and I remembered that poem, which I had saved in a file cabinet. When I dug it out, I was amazed to find a note from my instructor saying that it might make a good children’s book.

Cats on Judy 
Judy sleeps with cats on her bed.
One in her arms and one on her head.
She rather likes their company
Because they keep her warm, you see.
So she’s content to get her rest
With one on her stomach, one on her chest.
She cannot make them go away.
When she rolls over, so do they.
She thinks they’re really very sweet,
One on her back and one on her feet.
And so they dream the whole night through.
When Judy wakes up, the cats do, too.
And into the kitchen for breakfast she goes,
With one at her heels and one at her toes.

I sent it out to a number of editors, got some helpful feedback (in those days, they had time to respond), revised it, and sent it out again. After a year or so, that poem, expanded to fit a 32-page format, was accepted to become my first published book, Cats on Judy.

That’s when I decided to get serious about writing for children.

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at Reflections on the Teche. Enjoy!

JoAnn Early Macken

14 comments:

Kay said...

So many writing memories. I enjoyed the story behind your first published books. I only had one cat instead of Judy's two, but she slept with me just like that.

Molly Hogan said...

Thanks for sharing your trip down memory lane and your writing journey. Did you ever let your instructor know that you'd written and published the book?

JoAnn Early Macken said...

Kay, the funny thing about the book was that although I wrote the poem about two cats, the illustrator kept adding cats to the illustrations until she had six at the end!
Molly, I tried to locate that instructor, but I wasn't able to find him. I wish I could have told him!

Margaret Simon said...

My cat wakes me up when I sleep beyond 6 by sharpening her claws on the side of the bed. That sound! Wakes me up every time. Love your cat poem that became a cat book and the story of your background in writing. Children's literature became a passion for me in college in my children's lit class for elementary ed degree. When we look back at our path, we can see more clearly where it was leading all along.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thank you for sharing how CATS ON JUDY came to be, JoAnn!
Your teacher was right!
I'm thinking your Mom's Dr. Seuss readings took hold. :)

Linda B said...

I love hearing about your sisters, that blackboard and how that first picture book came to be, JoAnn. Your sister Judy must love it! All that happened 'when we were young" keeps popping up to guide us. Thanks for sharing!

Ruth said...

Thank you for sharing this! I loved reading it!

Donna Smith said...

A college early childhood course required me to write a story for kids, so I did. Wrote "Gilly Grows Up" and the instructor loved it. I don't know where it is now, but maybe someday...
Loved hearing your journey!
And I'm not surprised that the illustrator kept adding cats! That's what I was picturing, too. Isn't it funny how we get pictures in our heads of a story/poem that are different from another person's view. That's the best.

Bobbi Miller said...

Zsa Zsa sounds like a grand character for a book!

Thank you for the lovely poem, too. I really enjoyed reading about your journey. Nice!

Brenda Harsham said...

Very inspiring story. Love the poem and the light rhyming voice.

Jane @ www.raincitylibrarian.ca said...

Oh, I love this story! It's fascinating to hear how writers got their start, and the journeys that stories take from idea to publication.

My first "published" story was also about cats - I entered a kids writing contest in my hometown and got my story printed in the local newspaper - one of the highlights of my young life! ;-)

April Halprin Wayland said...

That blackboard! Our family had a giant one, too!! Great memory ~

Carmela Martino said...

I didn't know the story behind Cats on Judy. Thanks so much for sharing it!

michelle kogan said...

I love the poem that inspired "Cat's on Judy," So lively and moving, It's on my list to read now. Thanks for sharing the history of how it came about JoAnn, and tidbits about other poems from your school days.