Coleen Murtagh Paratore never thought about a career writing children’s books. Not when she won first place in a poetry contest when she was nine. Not when she wrote and directed plays for her siblings to perform for holidays and family get-togethers. Not when she majored in English in college. And not even when she started her own publishing business for a product she developed called The Remembering Book.
Instead, her watershed moment came in September, 1999 while jogging. She remembers the precise day because it was her eldest son’s 10th birthday. “There was a [picture book] story playing in my head,” she says. “I could hear it. There was a chocolate cake baking and a doorbell ringing and a grandmother walking in.” Sweaty from running, she rushed to type the story, her “fingers flying across the keyboard” struggling to remember everything she had just experienced. “That opened me up,” she says. “I had a new idea for a story every three days!”
From that moment on, Paratore immersed herself in all things related to writing children’s books. She joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI), attended conferences, wrote, and submitted manuscripts in batches. Within 21 months, she amassed 197 rejection letters. “I was working it,” she says. “It was not for the faint of heart…but I knew I wanted this more than anything in the world.” In 2004 her first book,How Prudence Proovit Proved the Truth About Fairy Tales was published.
Paratore always starts with a character. “I don’t even begin until I have a character and I know what that character wants more than anything.” Each day Paratore rises at 5:00 am, reads several newspapers, and goes for a run. Over a cup of tea she says, “I close my eyes and breathe to clear my head, then ask for one day’s grace. Then I show up on the page and go with the flow.” Characters enter and exit, and Paratore listens to them and writes the story as it comes to her. Every day she returns to the first line and re-reads the story aloud, revising as she goes. When she reads the previous day’s work, she adds new pages one word (and several taps of the delete key) at a time until the book is finally complete. She never outlines or plots out each chapter. “Outlining is like knowing what’s under the Christmas tree,” she says. “It takes the surprise out, and that to me is the most exciting thing!”
Three events coalesced into the idea for her second book, 26 Big Things Small Hands Do. When news of the September 11, 2001 bombings reached Paratore, she was bathing her infant goddaughter in one of those tubs that fit in the kitchen sink. “Lauren’s little hand wrapped around my finger,” she says. At 4:00 the next morning she sat at her computer “needing to write something.” She happened to look at a hand-tracing her son had made in school with a list of things he was proud to do with his hands, and the first line of her next book popped into her head: “Your hands are small but they do big things that make this a wonderful world.”
When Willa Havisham from The Wedding Planner’s Daughter popped into Paratore’s head, she knew Willa wanted a father more than anything else in the world. Willa’s want was “not an intellectual decision,” Paratore says. “I get a character and I feel what she wants more than anything.” It was only much later that Paratore realized that Willa’s wish was also her own. “My father was an alcoholic and my house was often a scary place to live. I spent a lot of time writing in my journal and dreaming about how to get out of there.”
Paratore’s newest character, Sunny Holiday—an inner-city African American girl, was a gift from one of the children she met during a 2005 visit to a school in her hometown of Troy, New York. Paratore and several girls were discussing her book, The Wedding Planner’s Daughter, which takes place on Cape Cod. The young girl sitting to her left said, “I would love to go to the beach but we cannot leave this state for two months…My dad’s in prison.” Paratore says, “That wedged in my heart.” But Sunny Holiday didn’t make herself known until Paratore jogged past a row of dandelions some time later. She remembered the hardy, bright flowers that bloomed out of the cracks in a cement staircase outside her home when she was young, and a fourth grade girl’s voice spoke to her: “Bloom like a dandelion, Sunny. That’s what my daddy says.” Paratore remembers, “I wrote the first draft in ten days straight. Her voice was so strong in me. Sunny has some hardships, but she’s blooming where she’s planted.”
With each book, Paratore asks herself if she loves the character. If she doesn’t sob dramatically or laugh hysterically, she feels she’s failed. “I want to write things that a child remembers,” she says. “I am grateful that [my readers] read my books. There is a plethora of choices out there.” Perhaps one of her fans says it best: “I used to want to be a lawyer, but [The Cupid Chronicles] made me realize that you have to love what you do to achieve it.” Paratore made the right career choice; her passion for writing comes through in each word.