By Candice Marley Conner
When I took the Craft and Business of Writing Children’s Picture Books course with Children’s Book Academy in 2019, Mira asked us to introduce ourselves so we could get to know our fellow classmates and build our writing community. Being in a silly mood, I included “gator slinger” as a past job (I grew up on a fish farm in rural Alabama and we occasionally had to remove alligators from the seine nets so they wouldn’t harm the fish, themselves, or us). Mira immediately latched on to this and through her encouragement and enthusiasm, it really sunk in that the old writing adage “write what you know” isn’t as limiting as one might think. It’s a way of giving our stories flavor and voice that only we can give. And it’s why making space for writers whose story it is to tell is so incredibly important and powerful.
I had two debuts release this June. A picture book, SASSAFRAS AND HER TEENY TINY TAIL, and a young adult novel, THE EXISTENCE OF BEA PEARL, both of which I started writing around nine years ago. And I discovered the inspiration to write these two very different books by “writing what I know.”
In the case of SASSAFRAS, it was a stroller-ride through our neighborhood. My daughter was around a year old at the time, so that’s about 365 strolls through our neighborhood streets. I had gotten to know them pretty well—which oaks cast the best shade on hot Southern summer days, which streets needed to be repaved (or avoided) due to the noise and vibration, and which gardens grew the best-smelling flowers.
Then one day in a neighbor’s lawn, a squirrel scurried down, looked at us, grabbed an acorn with its tiny paws, and scampered back up the nearest tree.
It had the tiniest, bristliest tail I had ever seen.
What did I already know about squirrels? That they communicate through their tail movement, and that they use their tail as counterbalance. So what could that mean for this squirrel? What if she was bullied by other squirrels because she was seen as clumsy and had a tough time communicating? And the more I thought about it…how could she use her difference as an advantage? By the time we made it back home, SASSAFRAS, my brave little bristle-tailed squirrel was born.
With BEA PEARL, one of my favorite pastimes growing up was reading Nancy Drew books creekside in the middle of the woods. The fish farm I mentioned earlier had been a recreational hotspot from the ’30s to the ’70s thanks to an artesian-fed pool, so I grew up listening to stories from teachers and old men in front of the hardware store of how they met their love out there as teens.
My family and I would find fossils in the limestone banks from when the whole area was under a primordial sea. We had ‘possums in the cat’s food, crawfish in the swimming pool, and had to check our boots for tadpoles or snakes before putting them on. It was a wonder-filled swamp-wild childhood with such history that I wanted to claim it somehow. Let the past and present exist together somewhere. Thus BEA PEARL was born. Her story is my love letter to the swamp and river that shaped me. As one of the most bio-diverse river systems in the U.S., I wanted readers to see past the mud and decay to the natural beauty and know it’s something valuable to treasure, so much that I had artwork commissioned and set up a merch shop where my proceeds go to the Alabama Rivers Alliance. (For more about the Alliance and a link to the shop: Bea Pearl Merch | candice marley conner)
I urge writers to ask themselves: what do YOU know? How can you turn your familiar surroundings and everyday observations into a tale of ability and bravery in the case of SASSFRAS, or a story of hope and believing in yourself as in BEA PEARL?
Happy writing! And thanks so much, Mira, for having me on the CBA blog!
Growing up between swamps, a river, and the Gulf Coast, Candice Marley Conner’s stories emerge from gnarled cypress knees, muddy water, and salty air. She’s the kidlit haint at a haunted indie bookstore (but not haunted how you’re thinking), a Local Liaison for SCBWI, and an officer for her local writers’ guild. Her picture book, Sassafras and her Teeny Tiny Tail, and her YA, The Existence of Bea Pearl, both debuted this June. She has short stories and poems in various anthologies and magazines including Smarty Pants Magazine for Kids, Highlights Hello, Cabinet of Curiosities, Babybug, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and more. She lives in Alabama with her husband, two children (one of whom is possibly feral), two cats, and a guinea pig.
We are so excited to be mixing things up at CBA, beginning with some delicious additions to the Blogfish. Meet our awesome new bloggers!!
Here's our lineup:
1st Mondays begin with editor/art director, & CBA Director Mira Reisberg PhD who is handing her Mondays over to awesome former now traditionally pubbed students to widen their audience.
2nd Mondays will feature super smart Melissa Stoller whose career is taking off with several new books.
3rd Mondays will feature Bryan Patrick Avery, published writer, man of mystery, and professional magician among other things.
4th Mondays will feature STEM, STEAM & SEL obsessed author Kourtney LaFavre sharing delightfully dorky, quirky, and fun info.
And 5th Mondays will feature Libyan American author Koloud Tarapolsi sharing wonderful diverse books.