Marlo and Me

Marlo-and-MeHere is an essay that appeared in June 2007 in Publishers Weekly BEA Show Daily:

Forget Scarborough Fair. Are you going to BEA is the refrain I hear among my book producing friends. Yes, we create the raw materials; the words, the illustrations, which then get packaged, and hopefully sold. But do our publishers love us enough to give away what we have created? To create a buzz? To invite us into their crowded booths, and introduce us to their thirty six thousand and eight hundred closest friends?

Years ago, when I was a brand new children’s book writer, I wanted to burst on the scene and play house with the big boys and girls. Publicity, I knew, is everything. I cajoled my publisher, against their better judgment, into giving me a shot. I wanted to meet my public. I am an art dealer (curb your astonishment—some writers do have “day jobs”) and I know how to promote my artists. I handle some of the biggest names in book illustration, and I’ve become close friends with many of them. Over the years I’ve invited these friends to dinner, only to hear them say to me: “I can’t make it that weekend—I’ll be at BEA.” Now I had my own major publisher behind me and, sure I wanted sales, but I will admit I mostly wanted to be able to say, “Sorry I can’t get together that weekend; my editor needs me at BEA to meet my fans.”

So there I found myself, on the signing floor with boxes of books at my feet, and feeling great because on one side of me was Marlo Thomas. I am now grown up enough to confess that my thirteen to sixteen year old self had a wild crush on That Girl, and I was surprised to see how quickly it reignited. We had our picture taken together (okay, holding up her book—in front of her book display). On the other side of me was John Lithgow. Less pretty, but equally cool. I got an autographed book.

Then their lines started to grow, and grow, and grow while, I tell you, fellow mid-list author, there was not one—not one person coming forward to meet me.

I am a poet with two prestigious university press books published. That means I am used to low turnout. I have driven four hours to sign books for three people, two of whom still know me as Little Rickele. But reader, there is no feeling like dying of thirst in the middle of the ocean. I kept a smile plastered on my face and finally a single soul walked towards me. I pulled out my pen and a book. “Excuse me,” they asked, is this the end of John Lithgow’s line?”

Am I bitter? Of course not. This is no screed against celebrity books. On the contrary, I think it takes guts to risk ridicule in a new field where you are untested. I encourage creative people to try to spread their wings. So what if Dom DeLouise got Simon and Schuster’s publicity dollars instead of me. Frankly, if I were a publisher, I would find it difficult to tell Madonna that I decided to put my money behind Michelson instead. So what did I learn? That I need to build a network, one bookstore, one librarian, one reader at a time. That I need to have patience and to continue to write the best books that I can.

This year I again asked my editor about BEA, but he didn’t recommend I go and I didn’t push the issue, so I will not be signing copies of Tuttle’s Red Barn at Putnam’s booth. I will stay home and plan dinner. Or maybe I will drop by one afternoon and wander the halls. After all that first conference wasn’t a total waste. Two years ago I was clearing out my shelves and I sold Lithgow’s signed book on eBay. But you’ll have to be invited to dinner if you ever want to see my most prized possession. That picture of Marlo and me is not for sale.

Richard Michelson’s latest book of poems is Battles and Lullabies (U. of Illinois Press, 2006). His picture book, Across the Alley (Putnam), was a finalist for the 2006 National Jewish Book Award. You can RSVP with your dinner plans at

Man Gives Birth! Three times!

It is mostly men, of course, who compare the writing of books to giving birth. “Oh, the agony,” we say. But I have learned never to say this when my wife, or any other woman who has actually given birth is in the room. As women know, the world would soon be depopulated if men had to actually experience labor pains.

Still, I wasn’t surprised to hear some other guys use the old publication process/courting comparison at a recent writer’s conference. One suggested the classic multiple submission method: propositioning any publisher, large or small, young or old. No matter how many times one is turned down, there is always the hope of a next hook-up.  Another preferred to fall in love with one editor at a time and learn everything they could about his/her history and family imprint before beginning the long courtship. It made me want to add that most writers die virgins and others masturbate (self-published authors, please hold your hate letters). Still, for the lucky, there is the ecstatic moment when one finally hears “yes,” and the contract is consummated.

And so I have segued back to the birthing process. Now come the months of waiting, when there is little to do but worry and hope, and tell everyone you meet the titles/names you are considering. You spend your days accepting advice and congratulations, but as the due date nears, the hours seem never-ending and you get impatient as you pace in the waiting room.

Then finally you get see to what he/she/it looks like—yourself—but your better self, and more beautiful than you ever imagined (maybe she looks a little bit like the editor too, but nobody tells you that). You proudly go to schools and bookstores and hold up your baby for everyone to see. You do whatever you can to provide a leg up on the competition. Those other parents with their “prodigy” claims drive you crazy, especially when the public seems to agree. “What about my handsome, smart child?” you want to scream. But sooner than you ever imagined possible, you realize that there is little more you can do.  Maybe one last shout out to the world, to treat your babies well, as they head off on their own.

2008 brought me three new children’s books, by three different houses. I know what that sounds like. Please don’t judge. Each time it was I who was told to pack my bags. I loved each editor and would have happily stayed for life, but they weren’t interested in having my next baby. Perhaps I wasn’t pulling my own weight. So how are my motherless children doing?  As it happens, their birth order corresponds to proverbial wisdom.

My eldest is As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom.  She is a serious child, much praised, and well adjusted. She likes to impress librarians and teachers, and they have adopted her, promoting her virtues. I get regular and good report cards marked with stars.

My middle child Animals Anonymous: Poems for Teens and Immature Adults was the class cutup, rowdy and irreverent. He is floundering badly. Lately I have gone four months without hearing one word of his whereabouts.  I fear he has fallen on hard times, but I am hoping that sometime in the future, someone will pick him up out of the gutter, dust him off and notice that behind the silly posturing is a child with great potential to speak to other children.

My youngest is A is for Abraham: A Jewish Family Alphabet. She has big plans, but it is still too early to know what her future holds.

If you see my children, please buy them a meal, or even better, just buy them. I love them all equally, but I fear none of them will support me in old age. I am hoping for better luck with my next child. It’s already spring, 2009. I think I’ll proposition some old lovers.

Guild member Richard Michelson is the author of four books of poetry and 12 children’s books, including Across the Alley, a – 2006 National Jewish Book Award finalist and Tuttle’s Red Barn, a Publishers Weekly “Best Book” of  2007. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

From Cold Feet to Happy Feet

I’ve gotten close to stardom. When my daughter attended the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, I went to see her introduce the person who was going to introduce Bill Cosby. But I missed her minute of fame because I had excused myself to the men’s room, where I found myself standing at a urinal alongside Billy Crystal. After we both returned to our seats (he up front, me to the nosebleed section), I could see him settling in next to Robin Williams and doubtless mentioning meeting me, just as I was mentioning our encounter to my wife.

This is the only story I have to tell, when kids ask me if I got to hang out with Robin Williams. Why do they ask? Because lately, when I speak at schools, I am introduced as the author of, among other books, Happy Feet. Happy Feet? The movie with Robin Williams as the voice of the dancing penguins Ramón and Lovelace, which opened Friday?

Well, no. My Happy Feet is a story of Harlem’s old Savoy Ballroom. It’s about a father who gives up his dream of stardom as a dancer so that he can provide a stable life for his son (much as my father gave up his fantasies for me). He opens his own business–a shoe-shine shop–across the street from the legendary ballroom. Happy Feet was published last year to good reviews and middling sales. It was praised in African-American and trade publications, and last fall, when the New York Times Book Review featured one of E.B. Lewis’s brilliant illustrations from the book, I watched the book’s sales ranking climb from the mid-700,000s on Amazon to the top 7,000s. And then I watched it quickly return to where it had started. There was a much smaller spike after I published an essay titled, “No, I’m Not Black and I Can’t Dance Either,” to answer those critics who felt Jews (like me) should stick to writing stories about Jews, and leave children’s tales of African-American history to African-Americans.

But it seems nobody has reservations about Jews writing in the voice of penguins. Maybe it’s the black-and-white tuxedo look that allows all races to identify. “I can’t wait to see your movie,” the kids say, and I’ve even received an errant e-mail asking for my autograph. Suddenly, my book sales are picking up momentum, so I have hatched this plan to help them along. I am urging all booksellers to set my Happy Feet amid their Happy Feet merchandising displays. There are enough similarities to mislead even an astute shopper.

The Warner Bros. film’s tag line is “Warning: May Cause Toe-Tapping.” My story begins, “My toes are tappin’ and my knees are swingin’.” In the movie, Lovelace says, “Turn to the penguin next to you… and give him a great big hug!” The boy nicknamed Happy Feet in my book says, “Daddy catches me and holds me close.” It’s almost a case of pure plagiarism, but rather than sue, I am planning on selling more books by mistake than I previously had by design. Maybe my publisher can print a new dust jacket alluding to the tie-in. It was, after all, the actress Lana Turner who named the Savoy “the home of the happy feet,” so the Hollywood pedigree already exists. I do regret not cybersquatting on the Web site, but Birkenstock got there before me.

I’m not bitter, though. I’m too busy working on my next picture book. I’m calling it Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture–Coming to a Bookstore Near You.

Published in Publishers Weekly – Volume 253 Issue 46 11/20/2006