I once wrote a story to comfort my young daughter Lauren, who felt rejected by classmates for bringing her beloved black Cabbage Patch doll to school. Lauren was deeply hurt by their rejection.
The bedtime story I wrote for Lauren was about a purple turtle who goes to extreme lengths to change her colour so she can fit in with the others. Myrtle the purple turtle became part of our family’s life but we had no idea how she would affect our lives in the decades to come.
Fast forward nearly 28 years to October 2017: Myrtle makes her big debut. Her story, illustrated by artist Jo Robinson, is published. It receives rave reviews from readers and various media.
Canadian Living, Canada’s top magazine on family, food and home, publishes a glowing review:
“Inspired by the experience of one of her own daughters, Canadian writer Cynthia Reyes has penned a story with delightful characters and an ever-important message: every one of us is different, and we’re all extraordinary.”
Lauren and I hit the author circuit, talking with well-known media interviewers, parents, teachers — and hundreds of children in their schools.
I need her help. I still struggle with the impacts of a car accident; she senses immediately when I’m flagging and steps in at the right moments.
But Lauren brings her own strengths to these visits. And though I’m the author, we’re equal partners. She eloquently tells interviewers and audiences how being read the story of Myrtle, over and over, renewed her confidence in herself as a young child, and helped influence the adult she became.
Listening to her being interviewed that first time, I’m stunned. It’s fascinating to hear her talk about Myrtle’s impact on her life.
We listen to the children.
We realize that we’ve hit on a key theme in the lives of children: everyone feels different in some way, and everyone wants to be accepted. Surprisingly, almost everyone has a story of a time they were left out, rejected, and the times when others came to their help.
Lauren had been an excellent storyteller all her life. Long before she learned to write, she drew pictures, told us what was happening, and asked her sister, her dad or me to write down the accompanying words.
As the years passed, and my books were published, I often said she should be the one writing books. I was only half-joking.
During our book tour, I ask Lauren to co-write the next Myrtle book. She agrees.
We sit at the harvest table in the family kitchen, a pen in my hand, a notebook between us. We bat around ideas until she comes up with a storyline about turtles playing a game.
We trade ideas across the table, back and forth.
What’s the obstacle Myrtle is trying to overcome?
How do her friends help?
I make notes.
We remember the many experiences the children we visited related to us.
The times they tried to join a game, or simply a conversation in the playground.
Their experiences at a new school, or a new class.
The friends who saw their distress, and reached out to include them.
And we remember the remarks of parents and grandparents. The beauty of Myrtle the Purple Turtle, we heard repeatedly, is that it engages and empowers children, while giving the adults in their lives a starting point for an important conversation.
We also know that Myrtle and her friends must be as real to the reader as they are to us. These main characters must act and react as children might, in a similar situation. We want them to talk the way children do, to come up with plausible solutions to a problem they face.
So while we share the values of inclusion, friendship, self-esteem and the importance of not giving up – while these are subtle messages throughout the book — the story itself must be entertaining and compelling to our young readers.
We go back to the drawing board – well, the notepad on the kitchen table.
Then, over the following weeks, we email each other drafts and edits, till we have a story that will both engage and empower children. We share it with some readers of the first book, who share it with their children. Their reactions are immediate, strong and positive.
We then send the text to illustrator Jo Robinson, and wait. Her illustrations take longer than we expected; she’s dealing with series of personal challenges. We wait.
Finally, the illustrations and layout are complete and the book is ready.
The ebook is published first on Amazon. It takes off: it makes the number 1 spot for its category on amazon.ca and is a Hot New Release on amazon.com. It’s a great start.
But just as we start rejoicing, we hit a big roadblock: Createspace, the online printer, has merged with Amazon’s KDP and our print book is caught up in the transition. Wait- times to speak to a KDP representative stretch to an hour, and we know something is wrong but not exactly what.
Meantime, we have promises to keep.
We have promised the book to two groups of elderly people who had bought the original Myrtle book for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren and now want Myrtle’s Game as Christmas presents. We also promised the book to a variety of young children whom we know – our own Christmas presents to them.
And then there are the reviewers who are waiting, and the bookstores who have already placed their orders.
This is my fourth book, but Lauren’s first. I can feel her anxiety as the delay stretches out. Worse, I can’t really explain why this holdup is taking place, because I don’t understand it. Neither can Jo. The three of us have many online conversations, and resubmit the manuscript many times, still trying to figure it out.
“I’m so sorry, Lauren”, I keep saying.
And she keeps replying, “Oh, Mum. It’s not your fault!”
A bookstore owner recommends a local printing company. We order a limited run. The print quality is excellent; for a paperback, the cover and pages are impressively thick.
The cost is also much higher than our budget allows. But my husband steps in, and lends us the money.
It becomes a full-on family affair. My husband and sons-in-law send regular messages of support, as do my sisters. Older daughter Nikisha gets directly involved: she takes over communication with Amazon’s KDP on our behalf. Lauren, Jo and I are thankful: the three of us have been frustrated by the delay.
A week before Christmas, Nikisha’s efforts have paid off. KDP approves the manuscript for release, but as I read the proof, I discover a glaring typo that was made at our end in the last version we submitted. This time, the fault is ours.
Two more days pass.
The local printer emails us. The books are ready for pick-up.
Later that same day, a KDP manager contacts us to say the paperback will be released on Amazon within days.
The release will be too late for online Christmas shopping – the busiest period for children’s books — and many sales will be lost. We know that, and it hurts, but there are more immediate things to do.
We need to pick up the locally-printed books and distribute them. We have promises to keep.
As Lauren stands in the living-room of her Toronto home, I watch her, remembering how I felt when my first book was published.
She holds Myrtle’s Game in her hands – a book with her name on the cover. For a long moment, she says nothing at all, and I’m transfixed by the look on her face: I see awe, wonder, and gratitude.
We sit beside each other on the living-room sofa, her husband Dan standing nearby. Dan smiles at her with pride.
“Your first book!” One of us tells her, echoed by the other.
A few minutes later, Lauren’s marketing-strategist hat is firmly back in place. She begins to identify families, teachers and reviewers who need to read the book right away. We draw up a list, and, before I leave, we sign both our names on the title page of more than a dozen books and make a plan for distributing them.
Then we wait, trying to quell the anxiety every author feels over a new book: will readers like it? The little purple turtle has been a member of our family for more than 28 years, and we are once again sending her out into the world. We hope readers will love her.
We don’t have long to wait.
Social-worker Julia posts a review on Facebook within days.
“Myrtle’s back! My kids absolutely LOVED the first Myrtle book, and the second one is now their new favourite book!
“This is a must-read for any parent or teacher looking to find age-appropriate material to teach their children and students about understanding and accepting the differences amongst us all”, she writes.
Teacher Erin also posts a review.
Daughter Layla, she says, “thoroughly enjoyed this book. We talked about how Myrtle and her friends persisted and continued to be who they were even when faced with adversity. We chatted about how even though someone may be different than us, or we are different to them, we are still equal and deserve to be treated respectfully.”
And she added:
“Myrtle’s Game is an excellent library addition for parents and teachers. I will continue to use this book with my own children and my students, to open the dialogue about acceptance, friendship and never giving up!”
One by one, the reviews start coming in.
Esteemed blogger Andrea Stephenson, a writer and librarian in the UK, quietly orders her copy online and surprises us with a beautiful review.
“This is a great book to read with a child to prepare them for their first visit to nursery school or their first group situation where they are trying to find their place,” she writes. “This story is about friendship, supporting one another and showing that we should never let what others’ think stop us from doing what we love.”
Sometimes, the responses we get bring tears to our eyes.
A grandmother writes: “I LOVE Myrtle! So happy she made friends, and proved that you can do anything you wish. You may not be the star forward, but the goalie is at leastas important!”
Lauren and I smile, but we are moved. We wanted Myrtle to feel real to children, but here is an older reader, writing about Myrtle – a soccer-playing purple turtle — as if she’s a real person.
I visit a local business and a staff member recognizes me. She’s bought Myrtle’s Game for her grandson who struggles to fit in with his classmates.
As she reads the book to him that first time, he’s totally absorbed in it.
She interrupts to asks him: “Does this happen to you?”He nods emphatically. The same thing happens as they read the next page, and he nods his head again, eyes still glued to the page. She wants to explore the topic more. But he’s impatient and asks: “What’s next? What’s next?”
Realizing he’s entirely caught up in Myrtle’s story, she continues reading till the end. Then they stop and talk. It’s a great talk, she says.
It’s fair to say Lauren and I are learning as much as our readers. We are grateful for every letter — from children, parents and grandparents, teachers and librarians. We reply to them all.
Right now, we’re also handling requests from nursery and elementary schools, libraries and bookstores.
Lauren is responsible for almost all of the digital media promotion. She has her tasks, I have mine.
But one of these days, when things calm down a little, we will be back together at the harvest table in the family kitchen, puzzling out the storyline for book # 3 of Myrtle’s adventures.