Today I’m an author of books for young readers, but the journey I took getting there was an improbable one. It started in New York City when I began the MFA writing at Columbia University. Our program had a high-powered faculty: Gail Godwin, Richard Price, Joseph Brodsky. I even got to take a seminar with E. L. Doctorow! I dreamed of writing fiction in the tradition of Ken Kesey, Raymond Carver, and Wallace Stegner.
One day I strolled from Columbia University uptown to Teachers College on 120th Street. Eventually I wandered into the office of a woman named Lucy Calkins, who had just started her career at Teachers College. After speaking with Lucy, I signed up for her course on the teaching of writing.
I loved that class. What a professor! The woman was on fire. Lucy would become an important mentor me, as she has to many others. One day she told me: “You know, Ralph, you could be a leader in the field of literacy.”
Me? Me? You could have knocked me over with a sheet of paper.
A few months later Lucy invited me to teach at the Teachers College Writing Institute. I found that I loved working with teachers, helping them discover themselves as writers.
When I graduated from Columbia I started working full-time at the Teachers College Writing Project. I worked in classrooms all over the city, helping teachers fine-tune their writing workshops. I dragged around a big canvas bag stuffed with picture books. What books did I have in that bag? Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger. Dear Al by Arthur Yorinks. Brave Irene by William Steig. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka. Gorilla by Anthony Browne. My bag included many books by Cynthia Rylant—The Relatives Came and Birthday Presents, just to name a few.
Whenever I did a demonstration lesson I shared those books with students. After we closed the book I told them: “See what this author did? You could do something like this in your own writing….”
Here’s where the story gets interesting, at least to me. As I shared those books, day after day, I began to fall in love with them. Falling in love isn’t something you can plan for—it just happens—and it happened here. These picture books moved me deeply. They spoke to the child within me, but also me as adult. I was struck by the beauty of the writing. I watched those kids react, enthralled, to the powerful language.
Until now I had aspired to be the next Ken Kesey (no, I have never quite given up on that goal) but now I saw that writing for children might also be an honorable way to live as a writer.
So I set my goal—I would write a picture book and get it published. I wrote three, four, five different manuscripts, stories that I considered QUITE good, thank you very much, and sent them off.
These manuscripts got rejected. Rejection wasn’t new to me. I was tough inside. I tended to reject rejections and keep on submitting, except in this case the rejections all had a similar theme. The readers told me that my stories were too didactic.
I met with the great Adrian Peetoom, a man who had been kind enough to read my work. Adrian told me the same thing.
“You’ve written lessons instead of stories,” he told me. “Kids don’t want a lesson. They want to be captured by a marvelous story.”
I chewed on that for several weeks. Then I went back to the drawing board, and revised those stories. Meanwhile I had written a collection of poems, Water Planet, and decided to publish it myself with the help of a high school friend.
During that time I had started speaking at various educational conferences where I got the chance to meet my heroes: Bill Martin Jr., Jane Yolen, Cynthia Rylant. When Water Planet got published I sent a copy to those authors.
At first nothing happened. Then a month later I got a letter from Bill Martin—the author of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom had written to me!—saying that he liked one of my poems, “A Rainbow in Ice.” He asked if he could reprint it. You bet he could!
A few weeks later I received a formal permissions request from Bill’s literary agent, Marian Reiner. I picked up the phone and called her.
“Do you represent other authors?” I asked. “Because I, uh, well, see, I’ve got a bunch of material, stories and such, that I’m trying to sell.”
“Send them to me,” Marian said.
So I sent her some of the chapters for a book I was working on.
A few days later she called me up, laughing.
“These stories are hilarious!” she exclaimed. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll do my best to sell them.”
My new agent sent those stories to Nina Ignatowicz, an editor at Clarion Books. Two weeks later Nina telephoned me.
“These stories are wonderful,” she said, “though they don’t quite work. Not yet.”
I tried not to get defensive. “No? What’s wrong with them?”
“Well, the stories have a reminiscent quality to them,” Nina replied. “It sounds like an adult looking back fondly at his childhood.”
Which, I realized, is exactly what I had done.
“That reminiscent tone rings false to children,” Nina continued. “Kids aren’t looking back on their childhood. They’re IN it. So these stories have to feel more immediate and dramatic. Understand?”
“Sort of,” I murmured.
“One more thing,” Nina said. “The narrator, Cliff, is the least developed character in the book. He tells the story but he doesn’t really participate or react. We’ve got to know what he thinks and feels.”
“Oh, right,” I said, trying not to sound too crushed.
“Take another crack at it,” Nina told me. “You’ve got great material…now your job is to bring it alive.”
So I did. Nina liked the revisions enough to offer me a contract for Fig Pudding. Nina was my editor for Spider Boy, Flying Solo, Twilight Comes Twice, Grandpa Never Lies, and The Circus Surprise.
There’s a Ralph Fletcher who writes books for writing teachers, and a Ralph Fletcher who writes books for young readers, and yes they are the same person. Ralph’s newest professional book, Making Nonfiction From Scratch, will be published this fall by Stenhouse. Right now, he’s working on a new collection of Marshfield Dreams stories to be published by Henry Holt. When he’s not writing, traveling, or working with teachers, Ralph enjoys taking photos and hanging out with his grandson Solomon.
GIVEAWAY INFORMATION (from Stacey):
- This giveaway is for a copy Making Nonfiction From Scratch, which will be published this fall. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader.
- For a chance to win this copy of Making Nonfiction From Scratch, please leave a comment about this post by Wednesday, July 8th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, July 10th.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Stenhouse will pre-order Ralph’s book for you. You will be one of the first people to receive his book when it gets published this fall. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
- If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – Making Nonfiction from Scratch. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
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Thank you to everyone who left a comment about Ralph’s forthcoming book. Laurie Pandorf’s commenter number was selected so she’ll receive one of the “hot off the presses” copies of Making Nonfiction from Scratch. Here’s what she wrote:
What a nice surprise! I met him once when he keynoted at TC writing. He was eating lunch in the lounge; I pulled up my chair and we had a great conversation. His books are a mainstay in my writing workshops, especially the ones on fiction and nonfiction writing. Can’t wait for this new one, which I am sure will be just as dog-eared as the others!