For more than a quarter of a century, PW has been looking at each season’s crop of new children’s writers and illustrators and singling out those whose debut works were particularly noteworthy. Of course, the path of an author’s career never did run smooth, but we caught up with a dozen former Flying Starts who delivered on their promise—and then some.
Francesca Lia Block
Weetzie Bat (1989)
Francesca Lia Block was a student at UC Berkeley, missing her native Los Angeles, when she started writing about the punk princess Weetzie; her best friend, Dirk; and her boyfriend, Secret Agent Lover Man. The novel that ultimately resulted was unlike anything else being written for teens, though, at the time, Block says she didn’t feel like she was plowing new ground.
“There wasn’t a tremendous amount of press,” Block recalled. “But living in Los Angeles rather than New York City, I was a bit sheltered.” Twenty years after its release, Weetzie Bat won the Phoenix Award from the Children’s Literature Association, a prize given to a novel that didn’t win a major award, but should have, when it was originally published.
The daughter of artists (her mother was a writer, too), Block grew up surrounded by books, and, from an early age, imagined becoming a writer herself. “But I didn’t really imagine what it would be like when it happened. The only picture I had in my head was—don’t laugh—a piece in Vogue where I was photographed wearing a white cotton button-down shirt and blue jeans in my lovely Mediterranean-style home, talking about my books and lifestyle.”
A friend who read the Weetzie Bat manuscript sent it to HarperCollins on Block’s behalf. “The moment I heard my book was going to be published,” she recalled, “I burst into tears. I had a dreamy experience working with the legendary Charlotte Zolotow and Bill Morris, and with Joanna Cotler. They were so supportive of me in every way. Still haven’t had that piece in Vogue, though!”
In the decades since, Block has averaged at least one new book every year, though she didn’t then and doesn’t now consider herself specifically a YA novelist. “I was actually writing for people in their 20s at the time I started, and now I still write mostly with an older audience in mind,” she said. “But I am very grateful to have made my living as an author for the young, older, or old, for the past 20 years.”
The Houdini Box (1991)
It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than two decades since the youthful-looking Brian Selznick made a splash with the publication of The Houdini Box, an illustrated novel about a boy’s chance encounter with the legendary magician. Before its release, he was better known for the awe-inspiring window displays he created at Eeyore’s Books for Children (which closed in 1993) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I hadn’t heard of [Flying Starts] at the time—I hadn’t heard of anything at the time!—but I could tell how excited the manager, Steve Geck, was when it was in the magazine,” Selznick recalled.
The book went on to win the Texas Bluebonnet Award, but Selznick is proof that a Flying Start does not always ensure a steadily upward trajectory. “My next several books after The Houdini Box all disappeared very quickly, and years went by before I started making books that people read,” he said. But one of The Houdini Box’s biggest fans was Scholastic editor Tracy Mack, who contacted him about illustrating Pam Conrad’s Our House. She has been Selznick’s editor ever since, collaborating with him on The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, which won a 2002 Caldecott Honor, and The Invention of Hugo Cabret, his 533-page 2008 Caldecott Medal winner, which director Martin Scorsese turned into an Oscar-winning film.
Despite all of the accolades he’s earned in the intervening two decades, Selznick still remembers the very first person who told him she was a fan of his work. It was a woman named Barbara Gross, who tracked him down to tell him how much she admired The Houdini Box.
“She said, ‘I’m a librarian in Pennsylvania and I love your book. You’re going to come to my school and do presentations and you’re going to stay at my house and we’ll cook you dinner,’ ” Selznick recalled. “Somewhat overwhelmed and afraid to say no, I went!”
Christopher Paul Curtis
Christopher Paul Curtis was working in a warehouse, unloading trucks, when his first novel, about a Michigan family who travel to Alabama to visit relatives at a pivotal moment in Civil Rights history, was published to great acclaim. The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 won a Newbery Honor, a Coretta Scott King Honor, the California Young Readers Medal, and two dozen other state awards. It’s unlikely that Curtis could have imagined the eventual success of his book as he sat in the library writing it in longhand on legal pads.
“It’s been light years beyond my wildest dream,” said Curtis. “Before you actually publish a book, you don’t even allow yourself to believe you’ll become a fulltime writer. I was stunned at my success. I am still stunned. Some days, I’m sure this is all a dream and tomorrow I will wake up and have to go back to the factory.”
Curtis did not immediately quit his day job after his debut novel made a splash. “After I finished Watsons, I got a call from a principal who wanted me to talk to his students. He said, ‘We don’t have much money, but we could pay you $300 for the day.’ Well, I was making $250 a week unloading trucks! So I went and spoke there, and I started getting more invitations. I was finally able to quit the warehouse.”
Able then to write full-time, Curtis went on to win the 2000 Newbery Medal for Bud, Not Buddy, and another Newbery Honor for Elijah of Buxton. A memory he cherishes is of the first stranger he saw reading a book he had written. “I saw a girl sitting at a bus stop reading The Watsons. It really choked me up,” Curtis remembered. “I wanted to thank her. But I’m a large African-American man. Approaching a young girl at a bus stop? I might have been in PW for something else— ‘Author Beaten Up by Violent Mob.’ ”
Catherine, Called Birdy (1994)
Before she was published, Karen Cushman was told by writer friends to prepare herself for failure. “First novels don’t sell, history is not popular with young people, the Middle Ages are dead, and no one wants to read about girls anyway,” she recalled being warned while working on Catherine, Called Birdy, the diary of a 14-year-old living in the 13th century and struggling mightily to avoid the marriage her father is arranging for her.
Chalk one up for perseverance. Cushman’s vindication came when her debut effort was not only published, but to enthusiastic reviews. “I felt astounded, incredulous, and just plain gobsmacked,” she said. “I was certain I was going to be found out one day. But getting recognition early helped me to take myself seriously. It was no longer a matter of ‘Can I do this?’ but ‘Hey, I am doing this.’ And that changed my life.”
Cushman, who graduated from Stanford in 1963, had already had a career teaching at the university level by the time she turned to writing full-time in the 1990s. Though she started late, she gained traction quickly. “What surprised me was the incredible luck I had in finding an agent—the first one I queried; a publisher—Clarion is still my publisher; an editor—[Dinah Stevenson] is still my editor; and cover artist—Trina Schart Hyman did my covers until she passed away,” she said.
Also, she wasted no time resting on her laurels. Before Catherine had even been published, she went to work on book two. “It took me 50 years to write my first book! Once I got going, I wasn’t about to stop,” she said. And before Catherine won a Newbery Honor in 1995, she had finished that second one. There was no sophomore slump for Cushman. Book two, The Midwife’s Apprentice, won the 1996 Newbery Medal.
When she was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Giselle Potter was warned it could take five years to establish herself as an illustrator. Instead, she landed a job right out of school—at the New Yorker.
Okay, so talent will out. But then her magazine work “inspired a lucky chain” of more assignments, most notably from book editor Anne Schwartz (then at Atheneum), who spotted Potter’s offbeat style in the New Yorker and wondered whether she wanted to illustrate Mr. Semolina-Semolinus, a picture book collaboration between two first-time authors. PW’s starred review singled out Potter’s “gleeful, folk-inspired artwork.” In addition to Potter’s Flying Start designation, the book was named to ALA’s Notables list. “I was surprised and excited to be offered my first book,” Potter recalled, “but since the publishing world was new to me, I though any recognition my book got was just the way things go when you make a book.”
Even before Mr. Semolina’s release, Potter had two more picture books under contract. “When I first started, I think I was a little naive about how hard it can be to get published. I thought it was all a lot easier than it is,” she said. “It was only years later that I stopped to realize how lucky I was.” Writing, she knew, is a solitary occupation, “but I never thought about how doing children’s books also means reading, talking, and signing for occasionally frightening amounts of people.”
Potter has had to do a lot of that. Since her 1997 debut, she has illustrated 30 books, including two autobiographical picture books about her unconventional childhood, performing with her parents’ puppet theater company on outdoor stages throughout Europe. Her peripatetic days behind her, she now lives with her husband and two daughters in upstate New York.
“I used to get stressed about deadlines because I didn’t know how long things would take me,” she said. “Now that I have a better understanding, I don’t get stressed by work. Instead I get stressed when I don’t have work!”
Laurie Halse Anderson
Laurie Halse Anderson was struggling with the manuscript that would become her second book, Fever 1793, when she woke one night to the sound of a girl sobbing. It wasn’t either of her daughters; her own nightmare had startled her awake. Needing to clear her head of the troubling thoughts inside it, Anderson got a notebook and wrote pretty much a complete draft of a story, narrated by a girl who shuts down verbally after calling the police to a party at which she has been raped.
Mission accomplished, Anderson went back to sleep, never dreaming that her nightmare had just completely changed her life.
“I was quite confident that Speak would never be published and would live out its days, neglected, in a cardboard box in the attic,” Anderson recalled. Even after she found a publisher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Anderson’s expectations were modest: Her editor told her a “quiet book” like Speak would likely sell just a few thousand copies in hardcover.
Several million copies later—plus a Hollywood film and numerous awards (a Printz Honor, a National Book Award nomination)—Speak is not just somebody’s first novel. It’s a curriculum staple, a discussion starter, even a life-changer. “It took years before the reality of the book’s impact really sunk in,” Anderson said.
Success allowed Anderson to show off her range. She’s since written five more contemporary YA novels, three novels of historical fiction, half a dozen picture books, and 10 volumes in a chapter book series about kids who love caring for animals. Not that she had a deliberate strategy after Speak, or even enough confidence back then to think of herself as a fulltime writer.
“Heck, no,” she said. “I knew I wanted to keep writing for kids and teens, but it has taken until now for me to feel confident that I don’t need to go back to school and become an x-ray technician.”
David Almond had wanted to be a writer since he was a child. At age 30, he finally took action: he quit his job, sold his house, and moved to a commune where he could concentrate on producing stories. For nearly two decades, he supported himself and his family by taking odd jobs and teaching part-time. Eventually, he published two collections of short stories with small publishers in northern England.
Then the idea for Skellig, about a boy with a gravely ill baby sister and a mysterious creature living surreptitiously in the family’s garage, entered his imagination. He knew at once it was different than the stories he’d written before and he knew it would be his first work for children.
“When I was writing the book, there was a powerful feeling of liberation, of discovering my voice and my place as a writer,” he recalled.
The manuscript was acquired in the U.K. by Hodder, whose editors predicted (correctly) that Almond had written a “prize-winning” book. “There was a fuss about Skellig long before it was even published, lots of foreign rights sold, and a string of big events planned,” Almond said. “Then the book started getting rave reviews and winning major prizes [the Whitbread, the Carnegie, a Printz Honor]. It could have all turned a lad’s head!”
Kit’s Wilderness soon followed, winning the Printz Award; Almond’s name became a frequent sight on shortlists for the Carnegie Medal and the Smarties Prize. He won the Whitbread a second time for The Fire-Eaters. In 2010, he won the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international prize in children’s literature.
Best of all, six months after Skellig was published, Almond was able, at age 47, to become a full-time writer. Despite the long road, a belief that he would make it kept him going. “For all the years that I was writing before Skellig, I had many doubts and insecurities.” he said. “But part of me was always prepared for some kind of breakthrough.”
Because of Winn-Dixie (2000)
Everything that has happened to Kate DiCamillo since the publication of her first book, Because of Winn-Dixie, has pretty much taken her by complete surprise. This despite the fact that, because she had worked first at a large book distributor and later at Half-Price Books, she thought she had a reasonably good idea of what she was getting into: a highly competitive field in which very few people earn enough to support themselves entirely from their writing.
“I felt like I had very realistic expectations,” said DiCamillo. “I dreamed of selling 5,000 copies and fervently hoped that the ones that didn’t sell would be quietly remaindered to some distant foreign country so I wouldn’t have to see them at work.” So thoroughly had she steeled herself against disappointment, she only recognized in hindsight the ways in which she unconsciously tried to sabotage success. DiCamillo remembers Anne Irza-Leggat from Candlewick’s library marketing department calling to ask if she could speak at a school to promote Winn-Dixie. No dice, DiCamillo told her: “I don’t think I can. I have a shift from 8 to 4 at the bookstore that day.” Fortunately, the author recalled, Irza-Leggat persisted. “I remember her suggesting very politely, ‘Maybe you should ride this wave, Kate. Maybe the bookstore would hire you back when it ends.’ ”
Because it was going to end—of that DiCamillo felt sure. Her big hope was that somehow she could earn enough from her writing to drop from 40 hours a week to 30.
The rest, as they say, is history. Winn-Dixie won a Newbery Honor. DiCamillo’s sophomore effort, The Tiger Rising, was a National Book Award finalist. On her third time out, she won the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux. She’s published six novels to date, two picture books, six easy readers about the porcine wonder Mercy Watson, and a second series for beginning readers, written with Alison McGhee.
Long before most of those books were written, someone else took her 8 to 4 shift at the bookstore.
A set designer and illustrator for the New Yorker, Ian Falconer created a little book for and about his young niece, Olivia, as a present. He took some liberties. Though the character had an outsized personality like his niece, he drew her as a pig.
After giving Olivia a handmade copy, Falconer did what many a New Yorker illustrator before him has done: “I took it to an agent at William Morris, who said, ‘Nice, but it’s no Eloise.’ She wanted to put me in touch with a writer.” Falconer demurred. “I didn’t want this story I’d come up with to wind up as a book that said, ‘Illustrated by Ian Falconer.’ ” He put it away.
Several years later, editor Anne Schwartz, a voracious New Yorker reader (who a few years earlier had tapped 1997 Flying Start Giselle Potter, after spotting her work for the magazine; see p. 22), called Falconer to gauge his interest in book illustration. He hauled out the manuscript for Olivia. “She loved it,” he said. After the book was shown at sales conference, the reps insisted that the print run be doubled. Rights sold in 22 languages, “some of them written in alphabets I can’t read,” Falconer said. Sequels followed, then a TV show, board books, a plush doll—even a U.S. postage stamp. “I was in a cab crossing 56th Street near the Plaza and I glanced at FAO Schwarz and the entire store was covered with... Olivia,” Falconer recalled, describing one of the more surreal aspects of having birthed a legend. “It was a bit overwhelming.”
How do you follow an act like that? Well, Falconer’s other sister, Tonia, has sons. “She was always jealous of Olivia, so I started a book about my nephews, Augie and Perry, casting Tonia’s boys as twin dachshunds,” Falconer said. He intends to finish it, but an electrical fire destroyed his Greenwich Village apartment a year ago. Falconer lost all the drawings he had completed for the book.
“It’s not so bad,” he said. “I’d been trying to get out of the place for years but I didn’t want to move 20 years of stuff.”
Meanwhile, the original Olivia is finishing college. If she ever minded being Uncle Ian’s muse, she never let on. “Oh, no,” he said. “I think she worked it.”
A Great and Terrible Beauty (2003)
It takes conscious effort to remember that Libba Bray’s first novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty, contains a sober feminist critique of 19th-century British society—which taught girls to subjugate their individuality in favor of men’s wishes—because the Bray the world has come to know since then is so riotously funny. Ask her how she felt when that first book won praise and she responds, “I’m pretty sure it made up for my entire middle school career, especially that seventh-grade dance where I wore a homemade, white eyelet dress and glasses the size of stop signs, and never had reason to use the Binaca spray tucked into a corner of my mom-crocheted purse. For the record, I use that spray ALL THE TIME NOW, people.”
Bray grew up in Texas and came to New York City intent on becoming a playwright. She worked in publicity at Penguin and at an advertising agency before ghostwriting three novels for 17th Street Productions, one of which came to be edited by Random House’s Wendy Loggia. When Bray finally penned her own manuscript, Loggia happily took it on.
“I was surprised—pleasantly—by how enjoyable the revision/editorial process was,” Bray recalled. “Wendy got me to think in new ways about my story; in fact, she encouraged me to go darker because she could sense that that was the story I really wanted to tell.” Loggia also signed her up for two more installments about Gemma.
But Bray’s fervent imagination couldn’t be contained by the tension-filled spirit world she’d created for Gemma and her boarding school friends. While finishing the trilogy, she started work on Going Bovine, for which she won the 2010 Printz Award. Beauty Queens, a surrealist satire of pageants, reality TV, and rampant materialism, followed, and it was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The first in a new series, 2012’s The Diviners returned her to the historical thriller realm of the Gemma Doyle books, not that she actually planned that out or anything.
“No! I was just thrilled someone had been foolish enough to publish me,” she said. “I figured I’d be writing feel-good STD pamphlets by now: ‘When Your Special Hug Goes Wrong,’ and ‘Is Now a Good Time to Talk About the Warts?’ ”
Looking for Alaska (2005)
Just a dozen years ago, John Green was enrolled in divinity school, intending to become an Episcopal priest. Instead, after a stint as a chaplain at a children’s hospital, he took a job at Booklist, where he learned a lot of things, including just how fickle the publishing industry can be.
“I’d worked at Booklist for five years before Looking for Alaska was published, so I knew how many great books come and go with little fanfare,” Green recalled.
That was not to be the case with his debut, a boarding school story with an unusual amount of intellectual heft. Alaska won the Printz Award, and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. “The critical response to the book was extremely gratifying because I’d worked as a reviewer of YA novels myself and had a lot of respect for many of the people who reviewed Alaska,” Green said.
Though he was “terrified” he’d never finish another novel, Green wrote most of his second book, An Abundance of Katherines, before Alaska’s release and has produced a steady stream of award-winning work ever since—most notably The Fault in Our Stars, his 2012 novel about two cancer-stricken teens determined to make the most of the time they have together. The book received eight starred reviews, has sold more than a million copies, and is currently in production as a feature film.
Long gone are the days when his “average audience for a signing would hover between zero and five.” In January, Green hosted a sold-out “Evening of Awesome” at Carnegie Hall to mark the one-year anniversary of FiOS’s release. He feels… well, a religious person might term it “blessed.”
“I’m happiest when writing,” he said, “and feel so lucky to have the chance to publish the books I want to write for the audience I want to have.”
Very occasionally, wishing does indeed make it so. In the late 1990s, Ann Brashares was working at book packager 17th Street Productions (later sold to Alloy Entertainment), when she read one of PW’s Flying Start features. “I remember reading about a young writer’s excitement about her first novel—I can’t even remember who she was—and feeling so clearly ‘I want this,’ ” Brashares said. “I surprised myself with the clarity of the desire. I am usually so wishy-washy about wanting things. I asked myself, rather taken aback, ‘Do you really want this?’ And I answered myself with total certainty. ‘I really do.’ ”
For more than a decade, Brashares had been circling around authorship, working as an editor, ghost writer, and book doctor. A watercooler conversation with colleague Jodi Anderson sparked an idea for a book she could call her own. Anderson (who went on to write her own novels) told Brashares about a summer when she and a friend had “shared” a pair of pants that, magically, fit them both.
Brashares saw potential for a novel that would use a pair of jeans as a talisman shared by a group of friends as they headed out in different directions one summer. There was significant pre-publication buzz that almost fizzled because of the book’s untimely publication date. “I didn’t really do any touring or publicity after the book was published, partly because it was a first novel and partly because it was published on Sept. 11, 2001,” Brashares recalled.
But The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants could not be denied. It wasn’t just a good idea for a YA novel; it was a good idea for a franchise. The original story sold millions and generated three sequels and two hit films. “It was amazing and wonderful to have my stories and characters taken seriously by readers, to get to commune with them over the tender parts of the creative process,” Brashares said.
The author, who had three children under the age of six when she started SoTP, didn’t have time to revel in her smashing debut. “The more the first book showed signs of success, the more the publisher cared that I not blow my deadlines for the second. I am not to be trusted with deadlines,” she said.
But in hindsight, she fondly remembers the excitement of becoming an author whose readers cared passionately about what she was writing. “I felt very lucky indeed,” she said. “It was hard to see it for what it was at the time, mixed in with all the dramas and tribulations of every day, but I look back and think: that was awfully nice.”