Every story needs to start somewhere. So does every author writing one. That’s what Our Story Begins is all about.
Author Elissa Brent Weissman (Nerd Camp) has put together a collection of stories and illustrations from some of the best children’s books authors today, offering a glimpse into their creative starts at the same age as most of their readers may be when they pick up their books now.
Included in the collection are Tim Federle, Kwame Alexander, Brian Selznick, and Alex Gino (all of whom you can see exclusive excerpts of below), as well as Dan Santat (Are We There Yet?), R.J. Palacio (Wonder), Marla Frazee (Roller Coaster), Jarrett J. Krosoczka (The Force Oversleeps) , Thanhha Lai (Inside Out and Back Again), Eric Rohmann (My Friend Rabbit), Linda Sue Park (A Long Walk to Water), and even Weissman herself.
Also in the collection are works by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (Shiloh), Gordon Korman (Schooled), Kathi Appelt (Bayou Lullaby), Gail Carson Levine (Ella Enchanted), Chris Gall (Dinotrux Go to School), Rita Williams-Garcia (One Crazy Summer), Cynthia Leitich Smith (Rain Is Not My Indian Name), Peter Lerangis (Seven Wonders series), Candace Fleming (The Family Romanov), Tom Angleberger (Rocket and Groot: Keep On Truckin’), Grace Lin (When the Sea Turns Silver), Chris Grabenstein (Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library), Yuyi Morales (Viva Frida), and Ashley Bryan (Freedom Over Me).
Below, Federle, Alexander, Selznick, and Gino offer some background (and insight) into the excerpts from their childhood creations.
Our Story Begins hits bookstores July 4th. But you can preorder it here.
Tim Federle (‘Better Nate Than Never‘)
“When I was twelve years old, I was a completely average student with one above-average ambition: to be on Broadway. Other daydreamers had their heads in the clouds. I had my head in Times Square—inspired by a touring production of Cats that I saw in third grade and never forgot. The following piece was written as a sixth-grade diary when I went away to my first sleepaway camp in the Poconos (I grew up in Pittsburgh), where kids got to choose either an “arts” major or a “sports” emphasis (guess which one I chose). Camp lasted three weeks— an eternity, it seemed, before I got there, since I’d never been away from home before—but one audition for Annie later, it all worked out. (Or, most of it, anyway, if you didn’t eat the food.)
I ought to note here that I’d never kept a diary before those wonderful, eternal weeks in the mountains, but my mom had the good sense to know: (1) that I loved gifts, so sending me away with a brand-new journal felt cool simply because it was “brand” and “new”; and (2) that twelve is a really good age to start reflecting on your life and figuring stuff out. I treasure this written record of that time in my life, because, frankly, I felt like such an outsider that to read these pages again reminds me that I was adorably normal in a lot of ways. I only wish I’d never stopped journaling. If nothing else, it’s really good source material when I need to get back into the headspace of the only-slightly-shorter-than-I-am-now version of me.”
Kwame Alexander (‘The Crossover‘)
“This was my first ‘real’ poem. My mother still has the same frame in her living room. (I spent most of my paycheck as a busboy on that frame. Back then, minimum wage was $3.35 per hour.) What I lacked in actual craft and skill, I certainly made up for in confidence. It took me two days to construct this epistolary poem, because it was my first poem and I wanted it to be perfect and I kept starting and stopping and trashing and the wastebasket in my room was overflowing with drafts and I’d get discouraged and eventually it kinda gelled and all the while I found it quite fun to be in control of the words in that way. When I finished, I just knew I was the next Langston Hughes. My mother cried when she read it, and I remember saying to myself, Wow, words are powerful!”
Brian Selznick (‘Wonderstruck‘)
The story in my family is this: My grandmother’s maid gave me tinfoil to keep me out of trouble. I’d use it to sculpt things like flowers and dinosaurs. According to the lore, this was my introduction to art. I’ve drawn and made things ever since. In kindergarten, I remember getting a lot of attention when we all had to draw a seal with a ball on its nose and mine was the best. My kindergarten teacher wrote on my report card, Brian is a good artist.
I grew up in East Brunswick, New Jersey, and was very lucky because there was a really good art program in the schools. My teachers Mr. Jones, Ms. Feder, and Mr. and Mrs. Koppel were all very important to me. I also took art classes after school with Eileen Sutton. I was her student from around fifth grade until I graduated high school about seven years later. I learned so much from her, and we’re still in touch. The first thing she taught me was to put a little white highlight in people’s eyes. It’s the little white highlight that really brings the face to life. I think of her every time I put a little white highlight in people’s eyes.
By the time I was ten years old, I’d discovered the art of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and other artists from the Renaissance. I’d copy their work from books for hours. My favorite painting was Madonna of the Rocks by Da Vinci. The angel’s sublime face was a particular favorite. I began to experiment with crosshatching (building up the image with lots and lots of little lines that cross back and forth). I still use crosshatching when I draw.”
Alex Gino (‘George‘)
“As a kid, I was determined to write a book. I still have a folder full of world-building first chapters and mostly empty charts to track my progress through writing the rest of the story. No plots to speak of, though, which is still my biggest challenge as a writer: Okay, so I’ve got these cool people with an interesting life situation . . . but what do they actually do?
I had written away for information on vanity presses, before self-publishing on the Internet was a thing, and I pored over the booklet that explained how, for a fee, they could turn your story into a real-live book. They would even design a cover for you. Of course, I didn’t really want to pay them. I would send my book out to “real” publishers first (once it was done, or at least more than one chapter long), but it was good to know I had a backup.
A Background of the Future is the book I wanted to send out on submission, the fact that it is only one chapter long notwithstanding. In this draft that I share with you, I was typing my full contact information on every page, like it said to do in the booklet. There are several versions in my folder, as I added details and “perfected” the story. (I put “perfected” in quotes because I’ve since learned that “perfect” isn’t actually a word that describes writing. As much as the perfectionist in me hates it, there is always a matter of style and preference, and while writing may be astounding, or gripping, or gut-droppingly life-changing, it’s never actually “perfect.” Okay, enough with the writing lesson. Moving on.)
I hope you find my twelve-year-old white kid from New York City views of 2035 as seen from 1990 half as hilarious as I do: modern slang, my theories on education, and my own notion of an invented, international language. And if you’re only about twelve yourself and half the references don’t make sense, just trust me: Everyone in the eighties was named Jennifer.”