It’s been exactly one year since my last blog post. In the past 365 days, a lot has changed.
For one, we’ve moved out of a one-bedroom, walk-up apartment in New York City and into a three-bedroom, two-bath house in a small town in Oregon. For another, our infant son is now a toddler, who chases birds and eats string cheese and is suddenly obsessed with trucks.
But along with these good things, an unthinkable, horrible thing happened, too:
I completely and totally missed the deadline for turning in my elephant book.
Every publisher has a different set of rules when it comes to deadlines, but at Macmillan a picture book is due about 12 months before it comes out—unless it has a fall release date, in which case it’s due 16 months (or more) in advance. HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT was originally scheduled for release within two years of NEIGHBORHOOD SHARKS, so the art and manuscript were due by May 2015 for a September 2016 release. May 2015 came and went… as did June and July… and by August I’d finished the interior paintings, but I hadn’t touched the diagrams or the cover and the manuscript was something of a mess. Thirty-nine weeks pregnant, I waddled into the Flatiron Building and turned in everything that was done (read more about that here), but unbeknownst to me it would take a cross-country move and a year’s worth of time to complete the last remaining pieces.
Looking back, even without the pregnancy, the deadline was perhaps too ambitious—second books are notorious for being difficult, and after my research trip to Kenya I had less than a year to write and draw it while also touring for NEIGHBORHOOD SHARKS. But that didn’t change the way it felt to break my word about making that deadline; I’d let my readers down, I’d let my husband and agent and publisher down, and I felt like I’d irreparably lost the momentum I’d gained from the success of SHARKS. Here I was, supposedly this award-winning author—why couldn’t I just finish a 48-page picture book about a baby elephant?
But missing the deadline also resulted in a lot of good things, too.
1. I learned that my career wasn’t over, that the world wasn’t going to end, and that I wouldn’t be stoned or exiled; authors and illustrators miss their deadlines all the time, and while it isn’t great, it doesn’t mean the death of a project. It turns out that having a baby is a good excuse for needing an extension, and my team at Macmillan was incredibly gracious, even if it meant doing a bit of extra juggling in their publishing schedule.
2. I got to spend time with my infant son, and set up a new work-life balance that is better suited to our needs as a family of three. Some of those early days were desperately hard—the chronic sleep deprivation, the anxiety, the loneliness—but they were also full of everyday miracles as our son grew from an eight-pound bundle into a giggling, reaching, rolling baby boy. We left New York when he was five months old, and even though I intensely miss certain people and places in the city, there’s no question it was the right decision to leave when we did. Our new life in Oregon is abundant with space—for work, for play, and for building towards bigger goals—and as a result we get to spend more hours doing the things we love to do.
3. HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT is unquestionably a better book because of the break. The time away gave me the distance I needed to reconsider certain decisions in the manuscript, and to evaluate the story beat by beat and line by line. It took enormous emotional energy to continue working on the project long past when it should have been over and done with, but the writing improved, the diagrams got clearer, and I feel much more confident in the story I chose to tell. This book is as heartfelt and accurate and gutsy as I know how to be, and I’m proud of the work I poured into it.
4. Most importantly, in the course of making this book I became a mom, and as a result HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT means so much more to me personally than it did before I got pregnant. I may be a human raising a human baby, but with each passing day I see new parallels between my son and the main character. Like an elephant, my son is a “social learner,” which means he mostly learns by copying what he sees instead of by way of instruction. And like an elephant, he has to learn almost everything—walking, talking, eating, drinking, playing, bathing, and so on. The final spread of the book was always meant to represent my future child, but now that I’ve met my son (and know how much he loves to chase birds!) the image has become a true portrait of him. This isn’t just my second book—it’s my book about becoming a family.
To my readers, family, and friends, I’m so sorry for the wait, but I couldn’t be more proud of HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT, and I’m so excited to share it with all of you. Our pub date is set for September 19, 2017. I hope you’ll all join me in welcoming it into the world!