Once upon a time…

Four little words that, from childhood on, signal the start of a story.

Sometimes, if we’re lucky, though, they start a writer’s story too.

Once upon a time there was a boy or a girl who…fell in love with letters and the sounds of words or heart-grabbing stories or pens and even writing machines.

As Melissa Sweet shared in her biography of E.B. White, Some Writer! (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), Elwyn Brooks was six or seven when he eye-balled a sheet of paper and knew, “This is where I belong, this is it.” He admittedly became smitten with a typewriter’s sounds.

Young writers delight in learning – and seeing, when possible – their favorite author’s early creative efforts. “Oh!” they exclaim. “I keep a journal, too!” Or, “Yes!” they whisper, “my teacher made me enter a writing contest!” The childhood works of authors they adore often serve as glimmering touchstones, resonating, affirming and best of all, encouraging and inspiring.

Fortunately, middle grade author Elissa Brent Weissman offers up a bounty of such childhood efforts in Our Story Begins (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, July 4, 2017), her collection of essays penned by many of today’s award-winning and beloved children’s book creators. The subtitle says it all: Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids. Contributing authors and illustrators, from Kathi Appelt, Ashley Bryan and Gordon Korman to Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Brian Selznick and Cynthia Leitich-Smith, reveal their earliest attempts, celebrate the stories that spoke to them and applaud those who cheered them on – parents, teachers, librarians, friends.

Our Story Begins Indie Bound cover

How heartening for a middle grade writer to learn that Rita Williams-Garcia began writing in her lock-and-key diary. She eventually journaled her junior high experiences, kept a sketchbook of story ideas and wrote 500 words nightly for her elementary school memoir, Highland. By the time she’d turned 13, she’d penned 39 full notebooks!

R.J. Palacio, author of Wonder, loved horses and Greek mythology. Her first published work, the poem “Winged Steed,” paired both subjects and appeared in her school’s newspaper when she was in third grade.

A third grade writing assignment also sparked Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s artistic efforts.
An oft-revised Mother’s Day poem launched Kwame Alexander’s writing.
Linda Sue Park credits an ocean trip, a new typewriter and her poetic license for the start of her career.

Within each account there are those truthful admissions all writers need to know. Getting from that once upon a time beginning to their story’s proverbial Happy Ending can be fraught with challenges.

Think: rejection, failure, dashed hopes and dreams.

Still, thankfully the contributors implore their young readers to honor and follow their childhood heart tugs.

It’s a tried-and-true way to become “Some writer!”

-Esther Hershenhorn

Reference sources:
Publishers Weekly, January 30, 2017 – ‘OUR STORY BEGINS’/pages 19-23
Atheneum Books for Young Readers catalogue Spring 2017
Website: Elissa Brent Weissman
SOME WRITER!, Melissa Sweet, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

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