What Rush Limbaugh, the publishing industry and children have taught me.

I am sitting in a hotel room drinking hotel coffee from one of those tiny coffee pots while I write this. I admit the coffee is terrible, but I just love those tiny coffee pots – I pretend I am a giant sneaking around in a sleeping fairy’s room and going to surprise her with coffee. What? I am a children’s book author and illustrator. It’s how our minds work.

Yes, I make books for kids. I travel all over the country every other week starting in August or September until May. Last year I traveled 19 weeks. This year it was just 15 weeks. I visit up to ten schools in a week. I have talked to over 250,000 children since I began. My publisher has over a million dollars in sales from over 100,000 of my books and plushes sold in less than 3 years. And I have really NO clue if those numbers are good or bad.

And finally? FINALLY I don’t care about those numbers and if they mean anything.

Oh, I used to care. When I used to dream years ago of being published it included the fantasy of book signings at Barnes and Noble and Borders (remember poor old Borders, y’all?) and New York Times Best Seller lists; of being asked to be a speaker at SCBWI and the Children’s Book Council; being flown around the country on book tours and school visits; winning awards. I mean, c’mon, don’t we ALL imagine being up at the podium and feeling IMPORTANT, like we MATTER SO MUCH.

And then? I got published. And sh*t got real. And fantasy and reality? They COLLIDED, y’all.

AHAHAHAHAHAAHHAHAHHAHAHAHA! Sorry, I still have to take a moment and guffaw at my naïve, little self back in the beginning of this process. So sweet, so young – and so damn EGOTISTICAL.

Did you notice back in that last paragraph – the fantasy one – how I never mentioned CHILDREN? I mean, sure, I was writing for them, but I knew I had to cater to the adults – I mean, those were the ones that BOUGHT the books that would guarantee my airplane rides and becoming very, very famous, right??

But then? I got published by EDC Publishing – a direct sales publisher. (They are Usborne Books and Kane Miller combined.) I had no idea what that meant when I got the contract; BUT WHO CARED, I WAS PUBLISHED!!

But then? I did care. I needed to know more. I found out direct sales meant I would not be in retail. There went my dreams of bookstore signings and any possibility of New York Times Bestsellers. My publisher pulled all their books from Amazon 2 years ago because Amazon price cuts so deeply that both the sales consultants and ultimately authors, would not make as much money. There went any online sales presence. My publisher was very small. They did not have the money or desire to send authors on book tours – that is not how they worked, they simply didn’t need to and it didn’t make sense for them to spend money like that. There went my fantasy of book tours to bookstores all over. Bookstore owners would have no idea who I was.

What was left? I admit I was disillusioned. WHAT WAS LEFT?

Oh. Wait.

THE CHILDREN. They were right there waiting for me.

And I realized that with the amazing and incredible direct sales force I had access to – you know, the ones that sell directly to school librarians and moms and dads in their homes? They were the key. And guess what? It wasn’t about sales numbers and lists and awards and podiums for these sales people. These sales people? They cared deeply and richly about getting a GOOD book into the hands of children. It was that simple. And it was AMAZING.

So I began talking to my (now beloved) sales consultants and three years ago organized my own school book tour. These women book me for a week at a time all over the country. In one week I talk to 6-10 school. I talk with the children – remember them? The ones I WAS WRITING FOR? Suddenly, I realized my purpose. And it had nothing to do with sales numbers, awards or who knew who I was. It was about the children.

And in the past three years, not only has my definition of success in this industry changed, but I have changed. So when this whole Rush Limbaugh thing came out? I laughed. I smiled. The publishing industry was UP IN ARMS!!!! People FREAKED OUT, people wrote blog posts about how WRONG THIS IS!!! It is UNIMAGINABLE!

Really? REALLY?!?! Rush just played by the rules that have been set up in the publishing industry for a VERY long time. Yes, the vast majority of the time a very, very good book wins these awards by a very deserving author/illustrator. But in the vast majority of even those cases? Those awards are still bought to a certain extent. People know about that book because of all the money that book’s publisher has pumped behind it. The publisher decided a long time ago it would be a best seller and used lots and lots of money to make that happen. Now like I said, they are usually very good books, but let’s not kid ourselves that the New York Times Best Seller list can’t be bought. Oh, what? You didn’t know that? Oh, sweet one. I have a bridge for sale I’d like you to see.

So yeah, all Rush Limbaugh did was learn the system and use it. People in the industry just got mad because they were not the ones that got to choose the book this time. Is his book good? I have no idea, maybe it is awesome. But that is not why it won. It won because of votes that he could get. Just like any book could for that award. So please, stop going around with that shocked look on your face and stop pretending how much of this isn’t all about money. Children’s book publishing is an industry with a dark side just like all businesses. Best sellers and awards matter to a publisher. Not just for money, but for clout, prestige. Sometimes the quality of the book comes second. Again, this is the United States. Are you really shocked by Rush’s award? I mean, REALLY?

If you’re really so up in arms about it? Go do something for a child. That will make a difference. That will matter. Sounding off and calling names (stop calling him names just because you don’t agree with him, by the way – don’t you realize your children CAN HEAR YOU?) won’t change anything. Move on. As my mom would say, “Life is not fair. Get over it.”

Now. To end this on a high note? Yesterday was my last day of school visits this year. And in the past three years talking to over 225 schools and over a quarter of a million children? I have learned a few things. I’d like to share what I think REALLY matters.

(And what matters to me will never, ever be on a plaque on my wall that I got because of sales numbers or inflated votes.) But it might be on a piece of paper like this:
bob_whatif

 

Ten Things Children in Our Country have Taught Me:

1. Children know the difference between being ‘talked to’ and ‘talked with’.
If the child you’re talking with isn’t engaged and responding? Chances are? You are talking at them. (And you hate that as much as they do. So stop.)

2. Everybody, no matter how old, loves having a picture book read to them.
Whether it is a pre-K class or a tough group of inner city eighth-grade boys? When I get to the part where I say, “And that is why I wrote this book for you, do you want to hear it?” There is always, ALWAYS a resounding and enthusiastic “YES!!!” Being read to is comforting and safe – we all love it.

3. Children NEED to be heard. Wait, let me write that again. Children need to be HEARD.
Whether they want to tell me their name, ask a question or just tell me a story, I make sure I look that child in the eye and HEAR what they have to say. It is shocking how much children don’t get heard in this busy world – they need to know their voice matters at an early age. Makes sense, but we don’t take the time to do that – too often. (Quick side story: at the end of a presentation I ran out of time for questions. I saw a first grade girl was a sobbing mess as she was leaving the gym. I went up to her, asking if she was okay. They teacher waved me off saying, “It’s nothing she just wanted to tell you something and you didn’t call on her, don’t worry.” Well, I did worry. I took the little girl’s hand, knelt down to look her in the eye and asked what she wanted to tell me. As she half sobbed and half talked she said, “I…(sniffle)..have…(sob)..a….dog…(sniffle)..named….Buddy.” That was it. But she NEEDED to tell me that. I hugged her and told her I was so happy she made sure to tell me that and I was so glad that she did. The smile on that child’s face? Could have lit up a city. We all need to be HEARD.

4. Children love books. Many, many do not have books at home. More than we realize. More than you think. If you ever have the opportunity to buy a book for a child in need? PLEASE DO IT.

5. The kindness and generosity of children is overwhelming. So many stories of this, but one that just happened this past Wednesday: I was talking to kids in the front row before I was going to start and there was a little first grade boy that looked so sad. I asked what was wrong. “I was going to buy a Bob stuffed animal for my baby brother, but someone stole my money.” His brother was 10 months old. Of course I bought a Bob for him myself and told him how sweet he was. It was our secret and I said I was so sorry someone did something bad, but I would do something good to make up for it. I found out later he had money for himself too – to buy himself the Bob book – but he never mentioned that part. He just worried about his brother. We made sure to get the book to him too, don’t worry. Amazing, right?

6. We don’t give our children NEAR enough credit.
Children rise up to their expectations. Set the bar high – they will surpass it if they know that you believe they can. The look of disbelief and shock on pre-K teachers faces is proof when I say that I can engage 4 year olds for 45 minutes. The teachers worry. They fret. And then their kids are amazing. Because they rise up to my expectations of them. It works every single time.

7. Children learn faster, easier and better with art. Bring art and music into any lesson plan from history to math and watch the children LEARN. Try it. For reals.

8. Children are not a test score. Children are not all the same. There is not a test that will accurately define ANYONE and certainly not our children. We are giving these children stress and anxiety starting as early as first grade. The testing needs to STOP. If I see one more Whatif Monster sign a child made that says, “Whatif I fail the < insert test acronym > I am going to SCREAM. And drive to Washington and make every legislator fill in bubbles for 12 hours straight with NO RECESS.

9. Children need a new definition of RICH in this country. I get asked by kids all the time if I am rich. The teachers always shush them because it is supposed to be a rude question. I always say that I would very much like to answer it. I say, “I make enough money that I can pay my bills, I make enough money that if I save up I can take a vacation. I have enough money that if I save up I can buy my kids presents at holidays and birthdays. I get to do what I love for a living and not a day in my life feels like work. I am ridiculously happy and satisfied and I would not trade my life for anyone else’s in this world. Yes, I am rich. And if you make that your definition of rich? You can be rich very, very easily too.” (Media, stop glorifying pop stars and sports stars that have gobs of money and telling our children THAT is what rich is. It’s a lie.)

10. And finally. Children need to be told often and by many, that who they are matters. That what they have to offer this world is NEEDED. They need to be told that they are inspiring. That we believe in them. Something I say at my visits is this: “I don’t want you waiting 5 years, 10 years, more than 20 years like I did until finally you say to yourself: ‘You know what? I KNOW who I am! I KNOW what I have to offer this world! I am AWESOME!’ I want you guys starting TODAY. Listening to that little whisper inside your heart and trusting in it. Believing in it. It will lead you to a magical life. I promise.”

People worry about the future. I don’t. I meet the future everyday. I cannot wait until it is their turn to take over. And if we let them? And we tell them we believe in them and trust them? Maybe, just maybe? They can fix the messes we have made.

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