My parents always described me as being stubborn, and it’s true. While this might not be such a desirable character trait when trying to get me to like peas (which I will never like), sometimes this works in my favor.
Because I generally don’t like to talk about things before they are solidified, few people know that for the past couple of years, in between adult projects, I’ve been working on a middle-grade fantasy novel that’s a retelling of a Japanese fairy tale, MOMOTARO. I’d always loved the tale and I’d never read a fully realized version of it. I wanted to set it in contemporary times and introduce the story to English-speaking readers.
It went through countless drafts before I got it right. It was entirely possible at one point that I’d never get it right.
Fantasy, unlike what some people think (like this woman who scoffed that Harry Potter isn’t stimulating enough for adult minds), is an extremely difficult genre. You have to create a whole world with different rules than ours– and those rules have to make sense all the way through. The adventure needs to start pretty soon, but not too soon. The way the characters get into the world must be believable. The main character has to be fighting some kind of inner struggle, too, and all the characters have to pop (which isn’t really different than other genres).
I stopped working on it for long periods. I cut out many characters. I restarted the whole story from ground zero three different times. I wrote it from third person and from first. It was never quite right.
But one day, I had a breakthrough.
Maybe it was when I decided to go for broke and not listen to my inner adult anymore. To put in the things that me the mother might have thought were a little shocking or rude or whatnot but that kids adored. (In other words, I had a LOT of fun).
Then I test drove it in my daughter’s 3rd grade class. The kids loved it. I mean, they responded so raptly and with such laughter that I got goosebumps.
The best compliment I got was from one little boy who said that one passage, “sounds like poetry.”
Thus bolstered, I sent it off to my agent, who is very picky. He loved it and sent it out immediately. After my agent sent it off to the publishers, I sat around, chewing my nails. At that point, there’s zero you can do except wait.
My main character, Xander, is half Japanese (of course, like me) and I have this whole big world and plan imagined for him. I was a little bit afraid that nobody would buy it– I’d heard through the grapevine that publishers say that Asian characters (especially boy ones) simply don’t sell well. (Some of you might be following the #weneeddiversebooks movement, which asks publishers to provide more multicultural children’s books. Here’s an infographic showing how the number of children’s books with by/and/or/about people of color hasn’t changed over the past 20 years).
Well. My boy Xander is going to prove everybody wrong. I’m beyond happy to announce that MOMOTARO has sold to Disney-Hyperion in a two-book deal to editorial director Stephanie Lurie. Stephanie edits Rick Riordan and others.
We spoke on the phone and it was finding the one stranger at the party who laughs at all your jokes and feels like an old friend after you’ve been standing in the corner all evening. There’s no better feeling for a writer. What you’ve been trying to do has, at last, been understood.
Here’s some of what she said about my book:
As you might imagine, I have received several Percy Jackson-esque submissions over the last few years. They always pale in comparison to Rick’s writing due to slow pacing, lame attempts at humor, a generic main character, and a lack of heart. Margaret Dilloway’s MOMOTARO was a refreshing change.
And then I collapsed into a puddle.
I have to admit, Disney-Hyperion was my first choice. They have a small list (maybe 4-5 middle grade books per season as opposed to 20) but the power of Disney. It will have illustrations! It will have a second book! (I already had ideas for the second book and talked to Stephanie about them during our conversation).
Now that my heart has started pumping again, let me share the Publisher’s Lunch announcement:
Author of How to Be An American Housewife Margaret Dilloway’s middle grade debut, MOMOTARO, about a half-Japanese kid whose father disappears in an unexpected storm, and who discovers he’s the latest in a line of Momotaro heroes when he embarks on an epic journey to find him, along with his best friend and his dog, with only a comic as a guide against a maze of of obstacles (acid waterfalls, angry giants, volcanoes, and more!), to Stephanie Lurie at Disney-Hyperion, in a pre-empt, in a two-book deal, by Daniel Lazar at Writers House (World English).
And that is where being stubborn gets you.