The Truth about Writing Picture Books When You Are Past Your Prime

Perhaps it’s my bucket list, but I have recently jumped into a flurry of production that I only wish I had jumped into 50 years ago. But at that time, I was marrying the wrong person, trying to be a decent single parent, trying to survive doing anything I thought might earn a dime.

I can’t say that what I am doing now is financially productive, but I’m finally able to do what I have wanted to do all my life—I’m creating up a storm.

About a year ago, I moved back to Mississippi, which is the state where I’ve lived most of my life. I hope that this is the final shuffling of my deck. This move nearly killed me, and it silenced me for well over a year.

About 6 months before I moved back to Mississippi, my debut picture book The Donkey’s Song was published. That was a moment of grace for me. It was something I had always wanted, but I had long been a closet picture book writer. It was something that I hoped for while I was doing what I needed to do to pay the bills.

Over the years, I perioically peeked out from behind the curtain, and I wrote a verse from time to time—but honestly, I didn’t believe that I’d ever have anything published. I simply didn’t believe that I had been born under the right star for that.

Getting published is a Magic Carpet Ride. If a notable editor picks up your manuscript for a thriving company, you are told that your book will be published two to three years before it finally hits the bookstores. I spent those two to three years absolutely tongue-tied, and to be honest—doubtful.

I was stunned when my manuscript was purchased, and the process by which that happened was nothing short of a miracle. With my typical sense that the sky would fall any moment, I opened an umbrella and dared to see if the dream would ever come true. “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can,” whistled in my ears.

You would think that having gotten a nod from a great publishing company would have opened all my writing valves and would have ushered forth an unparalleled stream of new work, but that didn’t happen right away.

You see, I was confused. I wasn’t quite sure why my editor had chosen the book she did, and I was afraid that if I moved only slightly out of step, the miracle would disappear.

Beyond that, I feared that I had written my only publishable manuscript.

So I waited.

About a year later, I peeked out from my curtain again, and I began writing other potential picture books, and I sent the manuscripts to my editor—one by one. But one by one, she politely [but promptly—thank goodness for that] rejected my new tries. One time she commented, “This sounds like Robert Louis Stevenson.” If you don’t know who that is—he was a famous writer a long ago. Among other things, he wrote Treasure Island.

But I think she was saying that my writing sounded like the sweet little nursery tales and verses in Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. That is understandable. For many, many years, that was the only children’s literature in my life.

No doubt about it, my mother was my greatest supporoter of all time, and my most recent silence followed her death. She was 97, and she had supported me 74 years. It is hard to walk alone after 74 years of having been propped up by a good mother, but that is fodder for another story.

Back to my tale of Robert Louis Stevenson. When I told my mother that my editor had said that my writing sounded like Robert Louis Stevenson, my mother beamed: “How wonderful!” She didn’t realize that my editor wasn’t complementing me at all.

In the most polite way she could, my editor was making an honest observation: I was over the hill. At the age of 70, I was trying to compete with books like “Walter the Farting Dog.” I had grown up when no one I knew would say the word “fart.” Even now, mouthing the expression still makes me blush. I must admit that I loved the book “Aliens Love Underpants,” but again, when I was a child no one talked about underpants unless they said in a hushed voice, “I See Christmas, I See Stars. I See Someone’s Underdrawers.” And having heard those words, I knew that my pettitcoat was showing again and that I needed to yank it up.

Kids today have no idea what a petticoat is. They don’t care. The stuff of my childhood is irrelevant—at least most of it is–

But not entirely–

The rain will never be irrelevant. The stars and the moon will never be irrelevant. Two of my all-time favorite pieces of literature are about a Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon and about how the Owl and the Pussy Cat Danced by the Light of the Moon.. But someone else said those things— Again, a long time ago.

Geting older has its downside, but it also has its benefits. Yet, my opinon about aging is irrelevant. Aging Happens. What We Do with That Reality is Up to Us — I just woke up and smelled the coffee again. I am not ready to quit.

The Cow Jumped Over the Moon
Jacki Kellum Illustration

I am ready to jump over that same old moon–but in my own way.

Here’s to the next 74 years:

I’ll always respect, admire, and appreciate the ladies who have cradled me all these years that I have been learning  to be a better writer. In March, which is Women’s History Month, I’ll tell you a little bit about each of the following ladies and how they have changed my life: