We had the good fortune of connecting with Ellen Leventhal and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Ellen, we’d love for you to start things off by telling us something about your industry that we and others not in the industry might be unaware of?
First of all, as a children’s author, I’m just a tiny cog in the publishing industry, and it’s not one with much power. But, of course, I am thrilled to be that little cog! What many people don’t know is that it can take years for one 500 word picture book to be crafted and find a home. And more often than not, authors have drawers filled with manuscripts that never find themselves as books on bookstore shelves. There are so many variables to what makes a book publishable. The market (which changes rapidly), the agent or editor’s list they have already, and what that particular editor is looking to sell that particular day are just a few. Even once the book is accepted and the contract signed, it still will take a few years to produce. Because of that, the act of crafting stories itself has to bring a writer joy. I have two new books on the horizon, and I believe it took as much luck as it took craft. Both books were years in the making.Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
The question of what sets me apart from others is an interesting one. In some ways, I don’t think anything sets me apart. I am just like everyone else. I try, I fail. I get up. I try again. And sometimes, a book that children love is born. But in another way, we are all set apart from each other because we each have our own story to tell. I am proud of all my books, but I am especially excited about and proud of my upcoming book, A FLOOD OF KINDNESS because of what it represents. It is based on children’s experiences after a flood and examines grief, loss, and resilience. Because I personally experienced this loss, to me this book is like the flower that peeks through the cracks in cement. It’s a story of beauty that flourished during difficult times. Getting to where I am today was not easy by any means. But where am I? Yes, I’m a published author, but I still get more rejections than book offers. I still have more manuscripts that I dump than those that are worthy of agents and editors’ eyes. And I’m still scared to death to hit the “send” button even when I think my story is good. When will I consider myself successful? After more books? After more awards? I’m not sure, but I’ve learned that this profession is like life. One big rollercoaster of trial, errors, and successes. With a tornado of swirling emotions thrown in for kicks! I started writing professionally very late in life. I had a teaching career which I loved for over forty years. I still love teaching, and my former students are never far from my mind. I have always taken any failure personally, but with this career, I needed to redefine failure. I’ve learned that rejection is part of the process; it is not failure. Yes, it’s hard and often requires doses of chocolate and wine, but it’s not devastating anymore. I’ve finally realized that it’s not about me as a person. If I have one piece of wisdom to impart to aspiring children’s writers it would be that. Rejections are not about you. This is a subjective business. In fact, I just signed a contract for a book because the editor loved something specific about it. It was the same thing that another editor didn’t like about it! The only story that will definitely not be published is the one you don’t submit. Yes, it takes courage and a leap of faith, but if it is something you want, it’s worth venturing out of your comfort zone. I do that, so in that way, I guess I am successful.If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
What a fun question! Of course, I have to think pre-pandemic. Right now, moving from the living room to the kitchen for a Grub Hub meal and then back to the living room couch for some Netflix is my idea of a night out. But let me live in the past and the hopefully soon future for a minute. I’ll definitely take my friends to Galveston because I love being near the ocean. But also, I love history, architecture, and good seafood. We’d check out all the small family owned restaurants and funky shops. We’d also check out the Tree Sculptures. We’ll come back and the next day go to the Menil Collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, and walk in the Japanese Gardens. We’ll got to Hermann Park and hang out at the Centennial Gardens for a bit. We’ll explore the Rice University Campus and Rice Village for some good food and wine. Another museum not to miss is the Holocaust Museum. If we’re lucky, we’ll see some school kids learning about tolerance and how to deal with prejudice and discrimination. On a more fun note, you can’t come to Houston without visiting some of its amazing street murals and eating great barbeque. There are a lot of choices for delicious barbeque, but we’d probably go to Goode Company on Kirby. Just to chill, we’ll go to Evelyn’s Park in Bellaire, get some ice cream at Betsy’s and people watch. It’s close to where I live, and after all our other adventures, we’ll need this.Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Besides my husband who supports my writing and endures my mood swings (Curse you, rejections! Hooray, book deal!), there are so many other people who have helped me navigate this twisty road. The actual crafting of a first draft may be a solitary task, but after that, it takes a village. I dedicate this shout out to my amazing critique partners, who have helped me every step of the way. I also wouldn’t be here without the support of the entire Children’s Writing (KidLit) community. I’ve taken amazing classes, gotten honest and helpful feedback, and I continue to learn every day with a group of like minded people. If it weren’t for them, I’d wallow in every rejection and possibly would have given up a long time ago.
Mark Katz (headshot) Blythe Russo (illustrator A FLOOD OF KINDNESS)