CAROL GORDON EKSTER: Abby, I read about you on a Nerdy Book Club post and was so touched by your experience teaching in a Harlem school. I taught in a small school in New Hampshire and there were still an amazing number of challenges. I connected to your post immediately. This was probably a path that led you to your writing. Can you tell us about that experience and your journey into writing for children?
ABBY HANLON: Yes, my job teaching in Harlem was the beginning of my path to writing for children. After that first grueling year as a roaming “creative writing” teacher for kindergarten to grade six, I was thrilled to have my very own first grade class. There was one little girl in that class who was my first inspiration to write for children. She came in the middle of the year, and had never been in school before. She was extremely scrawny, totally accident prone and incredibly naughty. She was chronically sneaking around the room — stealing chalk or trying to pinch the other kids or doing her graffiti art. When she got in trouble and I would put her name on the board, she would beg for my forgiveness and try to kiss me! Whenever I sat down, she would try and sit on my lap and braid my hair. She really didn’t understand the social norms of the classroom and would do anything for attention including sticking tissues up her nose. So, my first children’s book manuscript was inspired by her. Unfortunately, it did not go anywhere — although I may have captured her spirit it did not hold together as a story.
CGE: What was your path to publication like?
AH: Well, I sent that first manuscript out to about five agents. And I heard back from one, Ann Tobias. Even though she said the story wasn’t working, she could see some glimmer of talent in the details that I captured. However, the biggest obstacle was the illustrations. My drawings were very awkward little black line drawings. I had literally taught myself to draw that year — learning by drawing stick figures using a how-to book for kids. Ann told me to take some drawing classes and send her a postcard when I made some progress.
CGE: When and how did you secure your agent?
AH: It took at least 3 years communicating back and forth with Ann before she finally felt that I had made enough progress for her to shop my work around.
By this point, I had a new story that seemed more marketable about a little boy who can’t think of a story during his classroom writing time (also inspired by one of my students). Ann sold the book (Ralph Tells A Story, 2012) to a small publisher called Marshall Cavendish, which was purchased by Amazon’s children’s imprint Two Lions, just after I had completed the final artwork for the book.
AH: Yes, I would love to.
The biggest high has been writing books as a collaboration with my children – I have twins who are now nine who have been working on the Dory books with me since they were five.
I love having a job that entirely includes my kids. Being a part of the kid lit world has been so enriching for them and more fun than I could ever have imagined.
It’s always exhilarating to get a great review, especially a starred review, but Betsy Bird’s review of Dory Fantasmagory made me feel like I had accomplished my most important life goal. I am equally awed when I read a customer review where the person writes that reading the Dory books led them to recall something from their childhood they had forgotten, or a parent who writes that their child is now playing imaginatively in a new way after reading the Dory books.
Now for the lows… I am constantly convinced that my last idea is literally my last idea. I am in awe of fellow writers who see themselves as creative beings and have the faith that one way or another they will continue to generate new ideas. In contrast, I feel that every story I pull off is a total fluke, a stroke of luck or a gift from some mystical benefactor. So I guess because of that insecurity, I do feel a lot of pressure having a job as a writer. I tend not to celebrate anything for more than a day before I let the worry set in again about my next project.
Trying not to outsource any of my duties as a full time mom, I am always behind, and feel rushed in my work, though at the same time killing myself to try and make it “perfect.” When I’m struggling with plot, I become entirely consumed by the problem, even trying to figure it out in my sleep like a puzzle.
CGE: Can you tell us how you came up with your character Dory and when and how it was decided that this would be a series?
AH: Dory is a combination of myself as a kid and my own kids. The details and humor are from my own kids – but the feeling of being the youngest of three kids is based on my own life. I spend a lot of time studying my kids and paying close attention to how they play and what they find funny and then I pour it all into Dory.
My first contract with Dial was a two book contract for Dory. Ann presented it as a series, with the first book as an introduction to Dory’s imaginary world at home, and the second book as her quest to make a friend at school. Dial has been very supportive, and enthusiastic about continuing the series.
CGE: What are you working on now and what does the future hold for Abby Hanlon?
AH: Right now, I am working on the final artwork for the third Dory book, Dory Dory Black Sheep. In the third book, Dory is learning how to read. In order to portray Dory’s hard times with reading, I heavily drew upon my past experience as a first grade teacher and my experience as a parent of a struggling reader.
I think when my kids grow up a little more, that a balance between teaching and writing/illustrating would be ideal for me. As much as I love staying home and working quietly at my desk in my attic, I know that I need to be around children directly to feel inspired and to capture their experience authentically in my writing.
Find out more on Abby’s website.
And connect with her on Facebook.