So you want to be a writer, eh?
Laura Numeroff, bestselling author of the popular children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” and more than 40 other titles, joined the Writing Club from Cherry Hill High School East via Zoom on Jan. 6.
With an audience of 30 odd students and educators present, she gave a wide-ranging perspective on the pits, pratfalls and persistence necessary to be successful as a wordsmith.
A native of Brooklyn whose foray into fashion failed, Numeroff quickly reversed course, ending up on the West Coast, primed to hit it big in television writing. It didn’t take, and her journey toward becoming a children’s author began.
Numeroff later studied communications and visual arts, including animation. In the mid-1970s, she felt confident enough in her writing to solicit opinions from publishers for her first story, called “Amy for Short.” While initially rejected outright or told she wasn’t ready for the big time, MacMillan Publishers saw enough in the story to give her a $500 contract.
Success continued to be elusive, however. Numeroff drifted through a series of temp jobs in San Francisco, and though she was well-acquainted with the drummer of a popular 1980s band, that connection didn’t prove fruitful, not in the conventional sense.
“You know that you’re making a living when you’re living off your royalties and not your advances,” she warned.
Inspiration managed to strike one day during a boring, hours-long drive from the Bay Area to her paramour’s parents’ home in Eugene, Oregon. An image formed in Numeroff’s head about a needy rodent.
“By the time we got to his parents’ house, I had the whole book in my head, “ she explained. “When we came back to San Francisco, I sat down with my $50 typewriter (and wrote it).”
The original plan was to have that new work published by HarperCollins, but the company kept her dangling before sending a rejection letter. She received nine dismissals in all before that crucial acceptance. But still, Numeroff said, there was little enthusiasm for book signings or promotion.
After a while, “Mouse” began to gain recognition and Numeroff pressed for a follow-up. “If You Give a Moose a Muffin” was released in 1991, then “If You Give a Pig a Pancake” arrived in 1998, the books being the first three in an eventual series of 16 titles revolving around animals and their personality quirks.
“A lot of people don’t realize I have books that don’t begin with the word ‘if,’” she mused, citing what she called her most cherished offering, “Raising a Hero,” a 2016 book about a young boy training a service dog.
Numeroff told students on the call that her best motivation to succeed in the face of continued rejection was her stubbornness; her desire to make it; a love of authorship; and, most importantly, not taking rejection personally.
On how it feels being rejected for a story idea, Numeroff was blunt, offering, “It sucks. I’m not really good at disappointment. You just have to learn to get over it.”
Club President Alena Zhang related that her peers wanted to find out how to make their own children’s book, and were seeking expert guidance. Having grown up reading her previous works, Zhang suggested the group check Numeroff’s website for more information, saw how she was an advocate for education, and thought she would be the perfect person to help.
“The call was a huge ‘whoa’ moment for me,” she added.
Numeroff added that, when thinking about crafting a children’s book. brevity is key because of kids’ attention. Each word becomes important, because they have to both read well, and sound good when read aloud.
Club co-president Vivian Rong revealed the group was poised to start the process as soon as the call was complete.
“I’m really thankful to be able to build a club like this with Alena, and have such an amazing opportunity to be able to listen to Laura, and learn how I can apply that to our club and what we are trying to do for the community,” Rong said.