Penn State alumna Doreen Cronin advises future writers: ‘Don’t sit and wait’
For students who were toddlers in the early 2000s, Penn State alumna Doreen Cronin’s work probably holds a special place in the heart.
Inspired by her journalism classes while at the University, the 1988 graduate adored the melodious chaos of the classroom typewriters so much that it led to her first published children’s book, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type. It became a Caldecott Honor book in 2001.
Its success resulted in Cronin’s ambitious switch of careers and now, twenty years later, a musical adaptation of her children’s book series. Dallas Children’s Theater will perform Diary of a Worm, a Spider, and a Fly Sunday, November 11, at Eisenhower Auditorium.
To get a better understanding of her transitions from journalism major to law student to award-winning children’s book author, Cronin explains the importance of perseverance and the progress still to be made in the children’s book industry.
Question: What made you choose journalism for your original undergraduate degree, and what made you choose publishing after graduation?
Answer: The simplest answer is that I loved to write. From the first grade on, writing was always my sweet spot in school. Even in subjects where I struggled a bit, if you gave me a pen, a notebook, and a few hours to research, if I could write about it, I could make sense of it. It never occurred to me that writing was an occupation until I found Brenda Starr, Reporter in the newspaper comics. She was an adventurous reporter: It was her job to research, investigate, and write. She also got herself into all kinds of dangerous situations, and she had a cool boyfriend with an eyepatch. For some reason, she just resonated with me!
Q: What is your view of the gender distribution in writing and publishing, i.e. who ends up with all the success and who is distributing that success?
A: The overall picture in children’s publishing is a positive one. I’m happy to report that since the beginning of my career, I’ve been surrounded by women at every level. So many people’s talents and skills are necessary to shape a book, bring it life, market it, and sell it, and there have been women and men at every level of that process.
Women are well represented at every level of publishing, from executives and publishers, to editorial assistants, editors, publicity, and marketing. I’ve also been blessed to work with the most incredible illustrators, breathing life and color and movement into the books—Betsy Lewin, Harry Bliss, Laura Cornell, Scott Menchin, Juana Medina, David Small, Renata Liwska, Kevin Cornell. Editors have a way of finding the best illustrator for a manuscript. Gender is irrelevant in that process.
I remember years ago, I was walking the floor at a publishing conference in New York City where I had spent the morning signing books. On my way out, I came across a well-attended panel entitled something akin to The Funniest Names in Picture Books. There were four authors on the panel, and they were all men. I promise you, there were—and are—plenty of humorous picture books written by women. I wanted so badly to take the mic during the Q & A and ask why there weren’t any women up there. Why wasn’t I up there? I had a few New York Times best-sellers under my belt at the time—all funny—and I thought I should have gotten an invite. I’m sorry to say, however, that I didn’t have the nerve back then.
The good news is, according to Forbes, in 2016 the top five earners in children’s books is a good mix: Jeff Kinney, J. K. Rowling, Dr. Seuss, Rick Riordan, and Rachel Russell.
Q: How would you describe the classroom when you were a journalism major at Penn State?
A: One of my favorite places, and the inspiration for Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type, came from one of my classrooms. We sat in a U-shape configuration of tables in my newswriting class; all twenty or so of us spent the hour clicking and clacking away on manual typewriters. I loved how tangible writing seemed back then. The paper was moving, the keys were striking, the bells were ringing at the end of a line, and then that enormous carriage was zipped back to a new row. The entire room was filled with writing that you could hear.
Q: Did you write for The Daily Collegian or any student/local paper when you were at Penn State?
A: I did write for The Daily Collegian, although, sadly, I don’t have any clippings. I think I may have only done it for a semester or two. I spent most of my time working at the Roy Rogers!
Q: What brought you to studying law at age 30?
A: I come from a family of law enforcement, and although I was writing and editing at an educational publishing company, I felt like I wanted to write about and edit something else, and law school seemed like the perfect fit. In law school, all you do is read, research, and write for hours and hours and hours on end. Practicing law was much the same—hours and hours of legal research and then draft after draft after draft of legal memos and motions, each one coming back to me marked up in red ink and not politely, either. I learned so much about writing in those years, and I also learned to develop a thick skin about it. I’m not sure which one was more important. My original plan was to apply to the district attorney’s office and become a prosecutor, but the economic realities of undergraduate and graduate student loans pulled me in a different direction: litigation.
Q: What do you think held up Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type from being accepted for five years?
A: Like most things, it required the right time, the right place, the right editor, and the right market. I tell new writers all the time to send your manuscript out and then get back to work at your day job, your career, the next book, etc. The worst thing is to send your work out into the world and then sit and wait to see what the world does with it. Get used to rejection letters. Keep them in a box, and then put them out of sight and write the next thing. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I was not waiting for five years. I was writing, going to law school, sending out more manuscripts, etc. I know too many people who sit and wait. Don’t sit and wait.
Q: What kind of hoops did you have to jump through to get to that first success of Click, Clack, Moo?
A: I wouldn’t call it hoops, I’d call it perseverance. Click, Clack, Moo came with a small advance—enough to pay for some law school books—and it had no marketing budget. The publisher sent it to NPR, and Daniel Pinkwater read it on All Things Considered. I had never once, at that time, ever listened to NPR. The book took off from there, and then Betsy Lewin received a Caldecott Honor for her illustrations. It still feels like a bit of a lightning strike!
Q: Was it truly the publication of Click, Clack, Moo that brought you to quit being an attorney, or were other reasons stacking up?
A: I really liked practicing law. I didn’t practice law long enough to burn out! Sure, I didn’t always love the hours or the workload of a junior associate, which can be daunting, but I was young, relatively, and didn’t have a family competing for my energy. And I really enjoyed the work and the people. When teachers and classrooms started sending me letters at the law firm, I knew I was going to have to make a choice. I had lunch with my then-editor and a colleague and asked them if they thought it was a good idea to quit my job and focus exclusively on writing. They both answered with a resounding no. I did it anyway.
Q: What gender disparities might you have noticed from working in the children’s book industry?
A: Unfortunately, the children’s book industry was rocked by its own sexual harassment scandal last year. There’s been plenty written about, it so I won’t go into detail here, but once the lid came off, it really blew off. Men abusing their positions of power as the “rock star”; authors, illustrators, and editors exploiting their power particularly at events meant to encourage and nurture young talent. The industry is still doing some soul-searching as a result. So many of us were initially shocked by it, but then really, why would this industry be different than any other?
When it comes to honoring the best in our business—the Caldecott Award for picture books—there is definitely a gender issue. In the past thirty years, twenty-five of the thirty Caldecott Medal Awards have gone to male illustrators. That’s a problem.
Q: A 2015 Washington Post opinion piece expressed concern over the skewed gender distribution of children’s book characters, both human and animal. Have you actively tried to counteract in your own work the studies finding male characters are written more than twice as much as female characters?
A: Early in my career, I didn’t think much about the gender of my characters, but at some point, I took a closer look, and all the main characters were male. In the Click, Clack, Moo books, both Farmer Brown and Duck are male. In Diary of a Worm, the main character is a boy. In Diary of a Spider, the main character is boy. I did not realize that I was writing all my main characters as male until I sat down to write Diary of a Fly. Finally, a girl! But only because I had some kind of epiphany! I think it may be a product of my generation that the default main character is male.
When I was kid, everyone in power was a man. I had female teachers, but the principal was male—grade school, middle school, and high school. My pediatrician was a man, my dentist was a man, the manager of the supermarket was a man, all the cashiers were women, etc. I’m happy to report that in my first middle-grade novel, Cyclone, most of the characters are female, from the protagonists to the pediatric neurosurgeon. The main character’s family includes a single mother and a woman who chose to not have children. In the novel I’m writing now, women are also at the forefront. I wish it hadn’t taken me fifteen years to get here, but I’m grateful I did.
A few years ago, I wrote a picture book about a powerful fairy covered in mud and bugs, with a heavy footstep and a big voice. I have two young daughters, and the idea for an unintentionally destructive, yet happily dirty fairy, grew out of my own growing dislike—OK, rage—at all the tiny, shiny, pretty, sparkly female characters I was reading about with them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being tiny, shiny, pretty, and sparkly if that’s who you are, but it is not a requirement.
I wish I could say writing Bloom was all about showing my daughters there are different ways to be, but some part of it was likely written for myself. Bloom was included on the 2017 Amelia Bloomer List of Recommended Feminist Literature, along with titles like Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass by Dean Robbins, illustrated by Sean Qualls, and Selina Alko; and Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow. That was a proud moment.
Q: What advice would you give to women trying to make it as an author?
A: Fear is your enemy. Afraid your writing won’t be good? Some of it won’t be very good. Afraid you will be criticized? You will. Afraid you will be rejected? You will. Afraid you will get bad reviews? You will. Do it anyway.
From a more practical standpoint: Do your research! I cannot count how many people write to me and ask, “Where do I begin?” Begin with your research. I started at the library and read every single book I could get my hands on. Then I went to the reference section—pre-Internet—and found books about publishing and a book called Children’s Writer’s Market. Start there. Ask for help, by all means, but do your research first. You’re much more likely to get help from others in the field if you’ve taken the first steps on your own.
Q: What careers do you hope for your daughters to pursue?
A: I want both of my daughters to find their own Brenda Starr, in whatever shape or form resonates for them. Luckily for their generation, they see intelligent, independent, adventurous women every single day.
Audrey Sakhnovsky, a Penn State senior majoring in journalism and English and minoring in psychology, is a marketing and communications intern at the Center for the Performing Arts.