My summer program of re-posting favorite Featured Guests continues with June Rae Wood. Many of you enjoyed June’s comments on March 3, 2010. For those who missed them, or want to read them again, it’s my pleasure to say, “Here’s June!”
By June Rae Wood
I love words—printed words. When I was four years old and my sister Shirley learned to read in first grade, I was eaten up with jealousy. I couldn’t wait until I, too, could unlock the secrets of words on the printed page.
I’ll never forget the day in first grade when my teacher praised me for reading that big word, “chickens.” It was a lucky guess. I had peeked ahead and seen the picture of baby chicks, but oh, what joy in getting that word right. I’ve been hooked on reading ever since.
Shirley and I, being the oldest of eight children, had plenty of chores, but we nevertheless found time to read. We’d walk to the library a couple of times a week, check out our limit of books, and walk home feeling rich. We’d climb the tree in the backyard, drop onto the flat roof of the porch where the other kids couldn’t reach us, and lose ourselves in another world through books.
Although I loved reading, I didn’t particularly like writing. In elementary and high school, I wrote only what was required of me to get good grades. In college, I studied business education and didn’t stay long enough to earn a degree. However, I was a natural at grammar, punctuation, and spelling—the basics that help writers succeed.
My life changed when our family moved to the country, away from close neighbors and all the busy-ness of town. With my husband at work all day and our daughter in school, I needed something to do besides clean house and watch soap operas, so I tried my hand at writing. I could compose grammatically correct sentences, but I didn’t have a clue about how to develop character, dialogue, and plot. I learned from reading “how-to” books and, of course, by writing.
I honed my skills by listening to my work on a tape recorder. This helped me to catch overused words and the sentences that looked fine on paper but weren’t pleasing to the ear. My first venture was a children’s novel that I wrote at least six times. That was my “practice set,” with each rewrite being a little better than the last. Though each version came back with an editor’s rejection slip, my time was not wasted. I was learning how to develop characters and plot, how to prepare a manuscript, how to write a query letter to publishers, and how to market my work.
My first sale was such a shock that I lost my appetite for three months—and shed 11 pounds. It was a short story about my brother, Richard, who was born with Down’s syndrome. For 36 years, my family had catered to Richard, spoiled him, and loved him; and after he died, I wrote the story to cope with my grief. “The Boy Who Taught Love” was published in Family Circle magazine and was later reprinted in Reader’s Digest with a new title, “My Brother Who Brought Sunshine.”
Readers all over the United States sent letters telling me how much they appreciated the story. Eventually, it occurred to me that if I could touch adults with Richard’s story, perhaps I could touch children, too. After all, it was children who had laughed at my brother, been cruel to him, and been afraid of him. That’s when the idea for my young-adult novel, The Man Who Loved Clowns, was born. The main character is 35-year-old Punky, a man with Down’s syndrome, a comical and lovable personality, and some very unusual habits—such as telling people they’re fat, pouring shampoo down the toilet, and flinging chicken bones behind the TV. My brother Richard did all those things, and he was my pattern for Punky.
Nowadays, the letters I receive are from kids—kids who say they will never again make fun of or be afraid of someone who is different. Because this story was written from my heart, young readers have taken it to heart. My advice to fledgling writers is this: If you write about things you care deeply about, your readers will care, too.