June 12, 2019

Birth Stories for Books, YOU KNOW WHAT? by Carol Gordon Ekster

You Know What? by Carol Gordon Ekster and Nynke Talsma
You Know What? It’s time for another Birth Stories for Books post. Today’s guest is Carol Gordon Ekster, author of the picture book, YOU KNOW WHAT? (illustrated by Nynke Talsma, Clavis Books, 2017).

I've long enjoyed Writers' Rumpus, a blog community Carol belongs to. I mentioned the blog in my introduction to Laura Sassi's recent Birth Stories post, and Laura was kind enough to introduce me to Carol. Next thing you know, I'm lucky enough to get the opportunity to feature Carol's work here!

So let's turn it over to Carol to learn about:

The Book That Was Born On the Way To Meet My Grandson
by Carol Gordon Ekster

My life before writing for children was filled with daily bells ringing and piles of papers to grade. I taught 4th grade for 35 years. Teaching was my passion. And though my Masters’ degree was in reading and language and I had writers’ workshops with my students a few times a week, I honestly never chose to write for myself. Writing was hard! But I was doing the prep work for writing picture books. I read a few picture books a day to support my curriculum. The school librarian delivered requested stacks of books weekly. My local librarians got to know my name and after my first book was published, requested me to speak at a library conference on a panel of authors who were avid library users themselves.

I can’t say I always believed other artists who talked about the way they received stories from the universe, but that is what happened to me. I didn’t come to writing, writing came to me…and not until I was 50 years old! Story ideas, sentences, and titles continue to come to me in dreams, during spin class, and at other unexpected times. I welcome each like a gift and am grateful this is a new way for me to continue communicating with children.

The first story that took me by surprise and was written on a beach with post-its and a pencil never sold. But stories kept coming. I got a few positive responses in the first few years and sold a magazine article. Then I got my first book deal for the twentieth manuscript I wrote. That took four years. And when I retired, writing for children took over as my new full-time passion. I recently submitted my 95th manuscript.

In order to tell you about my most recently published picture book, I have to tell you that I do some of my best writing on planes. Perhaps it’s the tight space or the lack of distraction….but I find focus in the cramped quarters. Usually, I use flight time to revise….work on each sentence to tighten, refine, improve. But in August of 2014, my grandson was born. We were flying out from Boston to New Mexico to meet him for the first time. I was hyped, psyched, emotional. I was surprised I could get any writing done at all! And then in the seat in front of me, I heard a little boy say to his parents, “You know what?” I immediately opened a new Word document and my fingers began typing as if they had a mind of their own. I brainstormed a list of actions and their consequences. My husband saw what I was doing and we had some fun with this. (Though I couldn’t use most of those ideas.)

I did not have time to plan or think about that story much while I diapered and cuddled this incredible new love in my life. But my process has always been that my work takes place at the keyboard and my fingers do the talking, which is odd compared to my teaching when I would plan weeks ahead. So on the plane trip home I was surprised by the story that developed. It became a little boy procrastinating his bedtime by asking his mom repeatedly, “You know what?”

This was the 60th story that I had written in these past 17 years that I have been writing. And I have collected 1600 plus rejections. Each of my previous manuscripts that were contracted by publishers have received no less than 13 rejections. But this one? It all happened pretty quickly…that is for the world of publishing. I shared it with only two critique groups (I’m in five). I revised a bit, sent it out and got a fast turn around with a lovely rejection. I used what that editor said about the story to send it out to the next submission, the international publisher, Clavis Books. I heard about them when they were holding a picture book contest. I entered with a different manuscript, and though I didn’t win, I became familiar with their beautiful books and sweet mission. So I submitted this new manuscript, You Know What? and in only about six weeks, I got that wonderful jump-for-joy acceptance e-mail. (I’ve waited two years to hear back about other manuscripts from other publishers.)

I won’t give the details of the time it took to actually get the contract in the mail or to learn who would be illustrating…because as much as I’m aware of the slow publishing process…I am tainted by my life as a teacher where everything felt immediate. Let’s just say that my grandson was almost two and a half before I held the Dutch version (Mama, Wist Je Dat?) in my hands.

He was three when the English version, You Know What?, hit the shelves, September 2017.

He was four when I held the Korean language edition in my hands, 2019.

(Arabic and Chinese language editions are in process.) I was so honored and beyond thrilled that it became a finalist for the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award in the New England region, 2018 and that it was a CLEL Bell Picture Book Awards Nominee for Talk, 2018.

This was a new type of picture book for me. Transitioning from a long-time teacher to an author has been a melding of skills for me. Most of the books I have written have messages…to have hope after divorce, to be organized, to be grateful. Most of my books could serve as mentor texts for a myriad of literary terms and writing tips. But this one? This mostly brings the joy of a shared reading with it…and maybe a few other things. And when the art director wanted me to think about changing the final page to the previous spread, I couldn’t do it. I knew that last page invited readers to imagine what the open ended “You know what?” might mean, what Oliver, the main character, might say next. I had already designed the sheet to go with it so that children could write and draw their own final page as a follow-up activity. I will forever be a teacher at heart.

And my next book, the 84th manuscript I submitted, will be out in 2021 with Beaming Books. I continue to want to touch lives with my books. This one, Some Daddies, celebrates the diversity of what it can look like to be a dad…a joyful book with a serious message. I look forward to going through the process of finding out the illustrator, seeing those first sketches, and holding the book in my hands…and perhaps sharing that book’s birth story here when it’s time. Writing for children continues to be an amazing journey!

Carol, this is such a wonderful birth story. I absolutely love how you have kept count of your manuscripts and submissions and rejections. I have a general sense of this sort of thing, but I couldn't say with certainty how many times each of my published manuscripts has been rejected, or how many manuscripts I've written over the years. It really puts some perspective on the commitment required to participate in the publishing world when you track stats as you do. 

I also love how you've tracked the progress and different translations of your book by the age of your grandson. I track my manuscripts by the ages and stages of my children (...this is the story I used to sing to my daughter when she was a baby ... this is the story that came to me when I was on my way to the informational meeting for the local arts school ... this is the manuscript I wrote when my son was in bed with the flu ... One of my upcoming books was inspired by something my son said when he was in diapers... he'll be a senior in high school when the book is released next fall!)

I'm so grateful you've shared your birth story for YOU KNOW WHAT?  You've inspired us all to keep writing, keep submitting, and keep being grateful that we get to do this rewarding work! (P.S. How lucky that 35 years of children had you as their teacher. Did you start teaching when you were five?!)

Carol Gordon Ekster is the author of Where Am I Sleeping Tonight?(A Story of Divorce) Ruth the Sleuth and the Messy Room, which received the Children's Literary Classics Seal of Approval, and Before I Sleep: I Say Thank You which won 3rd place in the children’s category of the Catholic Press Association Book Awards and was also a finalist for the ACP Excellence in Publishing Awards 2016. Her first e-book, Hip Hopping Books, came out spring 2015 as part of a digital library with Schoolwide, Inc. Her newest picture book, You Know What?, came out first in Dutch (Mama, Wist Je Dat?), December 2016 with Clavis Books. The English language edition released September 2017 and was a CLEL Bell Picture Book Awards Nominee for Talk, 2018, and a finalist for the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award 2018.  The Korean language edition released 2019 and Arabic and Chinese editions are in process.

Carol Gordon Ekster was a passionate elementary school teacher for thirty-five years. Now retired, Carol is grateful that her writing allows her to continue communicating with children. When not working on her writing, Carol does yoga and biking. She lives in Andover, MA with her husband Mark. Find out more about her and her other books at www.carolgordonekster.com.

Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? (forthcoming, 2019), and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to Oregon Reads Aloud and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at www.dawnprochovnic.com.

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