A Very Long Road Trip

Posted on Tue, Sep 19 2017 9:00 am by Molly Beth Griffin

Artist: Claudia McGehee


When I was pregnant with my son, I took a road trip with my mom to see the Sandhill Crane migration. We drove south from Minneapolis, across the Minnesota border into Iowa, turned right at Des Moines, and drove west a long ways into Nebraska. Our destination was the Rowe Sanctuary on the Platt River Valley, where the cranes stop over to rest and fatten up on their way north to their nesting grounds. It was early April of 2009, and we got caught in a snowstorm.

I’d driven that route many, many times. As a kid we road tripped to visit family in Colorado at least twice a year, and then when I went to college in Iowa, I drove that first leg of it constantly. The road is familiar, the big upside-down bowl of sky, the tingling legs, and, of course, the boredom. And the car games—anything to keep you entertained as the fields roll past.

After that trip to see the cranes, I spent months writing and rewriting this long, complicated picture book called Migration with a dual narrative. On the left side of the page: a girl on a road trip. On the right: a flock of cranes migrating. At the climax of the story, they meet. The girl is transformed. It was over 2,000 words.

It did not fit the usual picture book format, and I knew that all too well. I had an MFA in children’s writing by then. I’d sold one picture book already (Loon Baby), and I’d begun teaching at the Loft. But this, I was convinced, was different. It was amazing and perfect, the best thing I’d ever written. And it was meant to be a picture book. I started submitting it. It was Summer, 2009.

My son was born in July. That fall the rejections, slowly, started coming back. It was too long, they said. It didn’t fit the form. It’s lovely writing, they said, please try us again.

After awhile, a year maybe, I decided that my amazing and perfect mold-breaking manuscript just didn’t work as a picture book. So I sliced it down the middle.

The girl’s story became Ten Beautiful Things, a story about a kid and her grandmother on a road trip through Iowa. A melancholy story about finding beauty even when you’re not in the mood, even when you’re sure there’s none to be found. A story about a game you play in the car, to help the miles pass. The cranes’ story became SANCTUARY, a picture book poem about finding safety in a changing world. I submitted them separately.

And the rejections, slowly, started coming back. Again, they were mostly personal, and kind. Too quiet, too sophisticated. Lovely writing, please try us again.

Loon Baby came out in 2011. My novel Silhouette of a Sparrow came out in 2012. My daughter was born in 2013. I continued submitting picture books as I wrote them, continued chugging away on novels in my small slivers of childcare time. These two stories that I remained attached to kept going out, and coming back. Neither story was finding a home.

I published Rhoda's Rock Hunt, and that same year Ten Beautiful Things, submitted as a writing sample, won me the 2014 McKnight Fellowship.

The judge, a prominent editor, was blown away by it. And I was over the moon thrilled to have financial support for the next year. But, he declined to publish it. Like many of the previous rejections, he thought it was too sophisticated to work, it didn’t fit his list. He suggested I try it as a novel, which I’d also heard before, but didn’t want to do. I had other novels in the works. I didn’t stop submitting the stories, but part of me figured that the McKnight was the endpoint (a wonderful endpoint) for Ten Beautiful Things.

Later that year, I started working with an agent, and she took over the job of submitting my manuscripts. I sent her lots of manuscripts to choose from, and among the first ones she chose to send out were Sanctuary and Ten Beautiful Things. The rejections, slowly, started coming back. Too quiet, they said, too sophisticated, not a good fit. Lovely writing, try us again.

Years passed. Meanwhile, Sanctuary found a temporary home as a poem in the pages of Rootstalk: A Prairie Journal, alongside crane prints I’d asked Claudia McGehee to try out. Meanwhile, my agent had moved on from the original submissions and started sending out newer work. Round after round. Nothing was selling.

But then, in March of 2017, an editor from the second round of submissions on the original group of manuscripts my agent had sent out (one year earlier? two?) somehow stumbled across Ten Beautiful Things. And she loved it. She said, it’s too sophisticated for a picture book, and here are a couple things you could try. I was shocked. Her suggestions made so much sense. And now I had a seven-year-old of my own to hold the character up to, to compare. I revised and resubmitted the story within a week.

And we waited.

And we heard back: the revision had made her cry. She’d talk to her publisher.

I tamped down my excitement. The publisher or marketing team could easily say no. They could easily say too quiet and it would be over. We waited some more.

And we heard back: things were taking some time on her end. But she’d gone on a road trip with her daughter and played the game in the car, counting beautiful things. And that email made me cry.

And then we waited some more.

Finally, we got a yes. A yes! And contract negotiations started. Back and forth.

My son, who was in my belly when we trekked to see the cranes in 2009, turned eight.

Finally, on August 11th, 2017, I signed a contract.

I know that the waiting has just begun. I’ll have to wait for an editorial letter. And maybe another. And for the house to pick an artist. And for the artist to make art. And for the copyedits to come. And for the house to design the book, the marketing team to write the copy, the printers and binders to print and bind. It might come out in 2019, but probably 2020. And that’s if everything goes smoothly.

The road, I know, is long.

But the journey will be worth it, and I will try really hard to look for beautiful things all along the way.

Molly Beth Griffin is the author of the YA novel Silhouette of a Sparrow (Milkweed Editions 2012) and the picture books Loon Baby (Houghton Mifflin 2011) and Rhoda's Rock Hunt (Minnesota Historical Society Press 2014). Her first poetry chapbook, Under Our Feet, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in 2018, and two new picture books will follow sometime in the next few years. She is a Hamline MFAC grad and a teaching artist at The Loft Literary Center, where she critiques manuscripts and hosts a monthly Picture Book Salon. Her writing has been awarded two Minnesota Arts Board Artist Initiative grants and a McKnight Fellowship. She lives in Minneapolis with her partner and their two young children. Find her at www.mollybethgriffin.com or on Facebook, where she facilitates an online writing support group called #1kTuesday and also posts lots of photos of food and flowers.

Molly Beth will also be at the Loft for an upcoming event, Second Story & Queer Voices on Sun, Oct 8 at 2 p.m. More info can be found here.

*Artwork Credit: Claudia McGehee. More information at claudia-mcgehee.com