At a time when video games and other forms of electronic entertainment absorb an increasing amount of young people’s attention, a number of gifted storytellers are determined to re-ignite the magic of books. Some of the most talented of these authors are here in DeKalb County.
Terra Elan McVoy, program director for the Decatur Book Festival, is an up-and-coming author who has already made significant contributions to children’s literature.
Since 2009, she has published four books through Simon & Schuster in the young adult contemporary genre. Her teen-oriented books focus on friendships and coming-of-age stories.
Pure, her first novel, explores the relationships of teenage girls who pledge to each other to remain virgins until they get married. The five friends wear purity rings as a symbol of their decision. But one of the girls meets a boy, struggles with her promise and begins keeping secrets from her best friends. When things become really complicated, she re-examines her friendships, faith and the meaning of purity.
“The teenage years are a fabulous time and the hardest period in life,” McVoy said. “That is the time in life that you will always remember—for good or ill—more than any other period. So much happens for the first time: learning to drive, your first job, your first love...”
For McVoy, books have been a fundamental part of her life from the start. When she came home from the hospital as a newborn, the first thing McVoy’s father did was read a book to his daughter.
“From that time, reading became an important part of my life,” recalled the Tallahassee, Fla. native. “At 3 years old, I dictated my first book to my mom, which she wrote with a typewriter. And in the sixth grade, I wrote my first novel.”
Avid readers like McVoy always say it is important to instill a love of books in children as early as possible. Children whose parents frequently read to them are likely to become lifelong readers.
Carmen Agra Deedy attests to that principle. The New York Times bestselling author has been writing children’s books for more than two decades. Born in Havana, Cuba, Deedy and her family came to the United States as refugees in 1964 and settled in Decatur.
Deedy said she was about 8 years old when she was able to read English proficiently, so her first exposure to children’s picture books came when she began reading to her young daughters.
“I can’t explain why, but my mind ignited whenever I were reading to my daughters,” she said, with excitement still in her voice as though it were yesterday. “Reading those books for the first time sparked my interest in wanting to write children’s stories.”
Storytelling, in fact, has always been a part of Deedy’s life, which she says comes from her Cuban and Southern roots. Her passion for storytelling propels her career. Building on early successes, she continues to earn numerous accolades for her books, written for readers who range in age from 4 to pre-teen. Deedy is now expanding into chapter books for older children.
What makes children’s books special to Deedy is the marriage of two art forms: storytelling and artwork. She underscored that picture books are often a child’s first exposure to art.
Indeed, it was art that drew Decatur’s Elizabeth Dulemba into children’s books. Dulemba, known fondly in children’s book circles as “e,” is an award-winning author/illustrator with 15 books to her credit. She is also illustrator coordinator for the Southern chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Dulemba said humorously that she was “beamed to this planet with a [drawing] pencil in her hand.” Actually, she considers herself an illustrator who writes, although writing has taken an increasingly central role in her work. Her encounter with The Golden Books of Elves and Fairies, illustrated by Garth Williams, sparked a passion that has not waned over the years.
“As a kid, I used to stare at the images in that book for hours, diving into the worlds Mr. Williams created,” she recalled. “I always wanted to create that sort of magic for other people. Of course, back then I didn’t make the distinction between kid’s books and adult books. But the genre stuck with me.”
Creating children’s books is no easy task. For Deedy, the most challenging part of the process is telling a good story in the constraining 200-word to 1,400-word range for children’s books. “That’s a huge challenge, especially when trying to write stories children will want to read over and over again,” she said.
Many people have “write a children’s book” on their bucket list, Dulemba noted. “Despite what people think, children’s book publishing is one of the toughest businesses out there,” she said. “If you’re working hard at it, you can expect rejection continuously and on a monumental scale.”
Despite early success, Deedy said, “If I knew how difficult it was to get a book published, I probably would not have done it.”
Dulemba added that it could take 10 years to get your first book published. She was fortunate; it took just three years to get her first contract to illustrate a book, The Prince’s Diary. “Believe it or not, that is considered fast,” she emphasized.
McVoy, who once worked in the editorial department of a major New York book publishing house, didn’t foresee that writing would become a job. “It’s so competitive to get a book deal and so many authors get rejected that I thought it would be a hobby,” she stated.
Even though she has a string of titles to her credit in a few years’ time, McVoy still does not consider herself a full-time author. “I made a conscious decision in graduate school to not become dependent on writing for income,” said McVoy, who is in her second year as Decatur Book Festival program director. She also spends time tutoring and teaching writing to children and adults.
Dulemba, too, is a popular speaker on creating children’s books at conferences, festivals and workshops. And Deedy speaks frequently at schools throughout the country. Deedy revealed that she is preparing to return to Cuba—the first time since she left as a child—to do a presentation to children at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay.
The three authors offer the same advice to those who dream of writing for younger readers: work hard and do not give up.
“Children’s books are not for the faint hearted or the under-dedicated,” Dulemba said. “Research, read and buy as many children’s books as you can.” She also encouraged writers to “Support your industry—it needs help right now.” She emphasized that children’s book publishing is similar to other businesses that require knowledge of the market.
McVoy added that networking is important, as well as a little bit of luck. “It’s important that you understand that because it’s all a part of the process,” she said.