February 23, 2012

My Path to Publication

One of the most common questions I’m asked by other writers is, “How did you get published?” With the recent release of 8 new picture books in the Story Time with Signs & Rhymes series, it seems like a good time to answer that question.  This is an updated version of a blog post I shared when I was a guest at Wordstock back in 2009.

About twelve years ago I started SmallTalk Learning, a company that specializes in teaching sign language workshops for parents and caregivers of hearing infants and toddlers, aimed at helping babies communicate before they can talk.  I discovered early on that the most effective way to help people learn and remember particular signs was to teach them catchy songs they could sing and sign while they interacted with their babies.  I wrote all kinds of ditties for this purpose, modeled after familiar children’s songs and rhymes like “Old MacDonald Has a Farm” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”    
After awhile I discovered that preschoolers and elementary school children were also interested in learning sign language, and I developed an interest in expanding my reach beyond that which I could manage in my own classes.  I wanted to share the joyful experience of signing with children and their grown-ups across the miles and decided the best way to do that would be to publish a handful of my songs in the form of picture book stories.  So, I put out word to my network of friends and professional associates that I was looking for an illustrator and a publisher to help me get my books out into the world.  And then I discovered that’s simply not how it’s done.
The good news is that through this networking process I heard about the annual Pacific Northwest Children’s Writing and Illustrating Conference facilitated by the amazing Linda Zuckerman.  I attended that conference in the summer of 2004, full of enthusiasm and eager anticipation to get on with the business of getting my books published.  Back then I was completely naïve about how the publishing industry works, and I boldly asked every ignorant question I could think of.  Thank heavens I was completely unaware that the guest editor at the conference (Arthur A. Levine, Mr. Harry Potter himself) was famous in publishing circles, or I might have died of embarrassment.  And, thank heavens that Arthur Levine was so kind and encouraging, or I might not have continued to pursue my goal of getting my books published (because truth be told, my stories were not ready for publication back then). 
I learned so much about the publishing industry in that amazing conference, but most importantly, I learned that I was not just an enthusiastic instructor who wanted to publish some books.  I rediscovered that I was a passionate creative writer.  I remembered that I loved writing short stories when I was a young child.  I remembered that I authored a poetry book when I was in a middle school that I gave to my mom for Mother’s Day.  I remembered that I used to journal diligently, and I remembered how much I loved the stories of my childhood, in particular the rhythmic stories of Dr. Suess. I reflected on how high school essays, college term papers and corporate white papers had slowly replaced my creative writing time.  And so it was, at this conference, that I rediscovered the creative writer lurking within me, and I shifted my attention from getting books published to learning how to craft stories for children.
After that conference I formed a critique group and I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  With the support of these groups I worked diligently on one of my stories, SEE THE COLORS, and when I felt it was ready, I submitted my first manuscript to Arthur A. Levine Books.  Arthur was again, kind and encouraging and I will always treasure the personal letter he sent to me, gently declining my story.  Over the next several years I continued to do the work of a writer, inventing new stories (many of them unrelated to my original signing idea), revising, and asking for critique over and over again.  I was helped and encouraged along the way by the other writers in my critique group and by the many talented authors and editors I met at writing conferences. 
As I developed an inventory of manuscripts that were ready for submission, I studied publishing houses and began the task of submitting my work.  Some day I need to count how many times I’ve submitted my stories for consideration over the years.  That might be inspiring.  Or not.  What I can tell you is that I have several huge file boxes filled with manuscripts in various stages of revision and correspondence from editors across the country.  Over time, the editorial correspondence I received shifted from form letters to personalized notes with suggestions for revision and/or ideas for other publishers that might be a better fit for my work.  The message was coming through: Several of my stories were publishable; I just needed to find the right publisher.
And then I went to Book Blast at Cedar Park Middle School.  That was my moment of serendipity.  It was a dark and stormy night in October 2007.  I almost didn’t go.  My kids were squabbling.  It would have been easier to stay home.  Thank goodness my daughter desperately wanted to meet Bart King, the author of “The Big Book of Girl Stuff.”  So I piled the kids into the mini van and we went to Book Blast.  And then I met David.  David Michael Slater.  His picture books had an educational element in them.  I could see my signing stories being a good fit for his publisher.  I told him about that aspect of my writing, and he was kind enough to put me in touch with his editor at Abdo Publishing Group.  And the rest is history, as they say. 
Abdo was a good fit for my signing stories.  My work was ready for consideration.  And on January 22, 2008, at 12:02 PM, I received an email from the Magic Wagon division of Abdo Publishing Group indicating that they would like to publish not one, but eight of my stories.  And then the real work began: the editing, the revision, more research, development of the back matter, input about design elements, marketing. And finally, the wonderful opportunity to share my stories with children.  And that is what makes it all worth it.
In January, 2012, eight more books in the Story Time with Signs and Rhymes series were released.  I'm so happy to meet these new books, and I hope you will enjoy meeting them, too!


  1. Hi Dawn - what a journey you have had. This is proof that hard work and perseverance, not to mention paying attention to feedback, does pay off. Thanks for sharing your story!

  2. Dawn-I loved reading your blog post. It's always fascinating for me to learn each writer's path towards publishing. Thank you so much for sharing! -Trudy Ludwig

  3. Dawn, thank goodness you persisted! Signing you congrats :)

  4. Thanks, all. Yes, persistence is the name of the game...

  5. Book Blast! What a great story. The only fly in the ointment is that it involves David Michael Slater in a heroic role. As he is my nemesis, this is understandably galling. :)

    1. Love it! (And do you wonder, as I do, how long it will take for David Michael Slater's Google Alerts to bring him into this conversation and allow him to defend his good honor? : )