Making “Zoo Zen”


Like most writers, I knew from a young age that I enjoyed putting words together. My teacher nominated me to attend a Young Authors conference in 4th grade, and I published poems in my middle school’s literary magazine. I grew up with a secret enjoyment for writing essays. (And boy, did I love books and magazines!)

But I never thought I would be a writer.

Write What You Know

Fast-forward through a degree in environmental science, a few stints in newsrooms and starting my own writing business. I had written it all…website content, brochures, magazine articles, and three non-fiction books. There was one thing that I still hadn’t written that I always wanted to–a children’s book. I just had no idea what to write about. I wanted it to be based on something I “knew,” which is what made writing my other books so wonderful.

One day, I was at a book fair encouraging my nephew to sit at the table and promote my third book (a business book for creative professionals) when I saw the glum look in his eyes.

“Aunt Kristen, nobody wants to buy this book,” he grumbled. Honesty comes from the purest place when it is granted to us from children. I asked him if he wanted me to write a book for kids like the others featured at the fair–he nodded enthusiastically. My heart melted, of course.

Zoo Zen is Born

A few months later, I was promoting that same non-fiction book at a Barnes and Noble book fair. While I was thrilled about my accomplishment, I couldn’t help but notice the children’s book authors…the fun, splashy illustrations on their covers, whimsical rhymes inside and the captive audiences or both children and adults that they drew in. That was what I wanted to do.

I lit up on the drive home when the idea came to me: A kids story about yoga. I would incorporate the fun animal poses I was learning in yoga class. That character would be named after my niece, Lyla Rhen, mostly because her name rhymed with Zoo Zen. And the book would be called just that–Zoo Zen. While I sputtered out snippets of rhymes, my mother told me how amazed she was by my creativity–don’t’ all moms do that?–and that she knew this was the children’s book that she always wanted to see me write. With a solid idea in my mind (finally!), I worked on early drafts of “Zoo Zen Lyla Rhen.”

From Zoo to Circus

When I gave it to the agent that sold my third book, she was enthusiastic as was I because she represented such a broad range of book genres (not all agents do). Upon her recommendation, I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and began attending conferences. My agent didn’t have much luck pitching the book. She encouraged me to write more nonfiction titles. Even though I wanted to write more nonfiction books for adults, I wanted to write a children’s book even more. We amicably parted ways. Choosing to do that seemed crazy to me at the time, but sometimes you have to trust your instincts and take risks. At that time, I was solely leaning on my Christian faith at that time.

I continued to refine my book, even though I heard just about every reason why agents, editors and other kidlit authors thought it wouldn’t be published. The book wasn’t marketable. A first-time author “can’t” write a rhyming picture book. The niche was too small. The book was too cute. Rhyming books were “out.” They didn’t like my niece’s middle name, Rhen. (I tried not to take that one too personally!)

Rejection.

Long story short, I continued to attend SCBWI conferences and participate in critique groups. I sat face-to-face with agents. I even started a few other manuscripts.

More rejection.

I never gave up on the idea of the book, but I admit I had my doubts about how long it would take to happen. I took the feedback from the writing groups, though, and a slight an arc into the book.

Finally, a few publishers and agents bit, but it always came back to more of the same–they were concerned about the market, and they were concerned about sales. One publisher wanted the idea but wanted to change it so much that the book was unrecognizable to me–after trying to work with their team, it just didn’t feel “right.” As a faithful person, I knew that God had a time and a place for my book, but I just didn’t know how or when it would happen.

Sounds True Sounds Good

About two years later, I was in Barnes and Noble, just back from another SCBWI conference. I was just about out of agents to pitch–yes, I had been rejected that much–and trying to think of “alternative markets” that would appreciate my book. That’s when I saw Good Night Yoga for the first time. When I showed it to my husband, I knew just how subjective the book publishing market was–there was definitely a market for a kids yoga book, I just hadn’t found it yet.

“If this company can publish one yoga book, they can at least consider publishing another,” I said, noting the publisher’s name. Turns out, I had gotten some of their other books in the past. Little did I know that they just opened a children’s book division.

I sent my manuscript to Sounds True, and was ecstatic when they said they wanted to publish my book. Not only did they want it, but they loved the manuscript. When they paired the text with Susi Schaefer’s delightful illustrations, I knew it was Sounds True was the perfect home for my baby.

Like most authors who finally got their break, I can give you all sorts of advice. Definitely use the feedback that people give you. Keep revising. Be open to changing things, even if you can’t see how they will make the manuscript better. At the same time, stick to your ideas and your gut. Don’t believe anyone–not even the biggest bigwig from the most massive publishing house–who tells you that your book will never get published. Really, though, you have to do what works for you. I’m not the most innovative children’s writer that ever walked the Earth–that’s all you, Dr. Seuss–I’m just a girl who held steadfast to her dream and waited patiently until she found the right people who believed in it as much as she did.

Hopefully, as I write more books in the future I will have more success stories to pass along. In a way, I hope getting books to the right publisher isn’t so challenging but I’m okay if it is. I do know, however, that any books I publish going forward will have stories of their own–and hopefully sharing those tales inspires others to pursue their dreams.