As much as I love celebrating my friends’ work for Friend Friday, it is an especial delight to celebrate a debut book. And it is a delight to be reminded that authors (and other artists) have a superpower that goes beyond a way with words, as Colleen Paeff does in her essay below. Her debut picture book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Margaret K. McElderry Books) not only offers a whiff of history, it provides a launching off point for family or classroom discussions of more contemporary problems regarding water pollution and what we can do to help. And be sure to hop over to my IGTV channel to watch the replay of my conversation with Colleen in which we discuss all things nonfiction.
The Great Stink is my debut book, which means I’ve enjoyed a slew of new experiences since it came out two months ago. One of them has been the #KidsNeedMentors program, which pairs one class with one author for a full school year. To my delight, I was paired with a class of 5th graders in Ipswich, MA. The students were encouraged to ask me questions during our first interaction via FlipGrid video and one of them wanted to know what it takes to become an author.
The familiar answers came to mind first: it takes a lot of reading, writing, and revising to become an author. It takes a willingness to be vulnerable, to have the work of your heart dissected. It takes a growth mindset––there is always something new to learn as an author. But the more I thought about it, the more I recognized that, in the long run, none of those things will do an author much good without belief. To become an author, you need to believe in yourself.
Belief is what enables authors to spend days, months, and years researching, writing, or revising with no guarantee that their words will ever be published. It’s what allows them to submit query after query and take rejection after rejection––and then sit down to write another story. Belief creates a level of persistence that is pretty darn impressive!
After I’d answered this student’s question, I realized it would have required a similar kind of belief for Joseph Bazalgette to get London’s sewers built. After all, the odds were against him.
Parliament had been passing the buck on sanitation for centuries. Bazalgette’s predecessor had died from over work. And even after the Great Stink jolted parliament into approving funding and, later, Bazalgette’s design for the new sewer system, there were naysayers who felt Bazalgette wasn’t the right man for the job.
But, as far as I can tell, Bazalgette plugged along with a single-minded sense of focus worthy of the most determined author. He certainly received criticism and rejection. He simply refused to be derailed by them. This dogged sense of purpose is visible in Nancy Carpenter’s illustrations of him in our book. In fact, it was one of the first things I fell in love with when I saw her sketches. (That and the skeletons––Oh, how I love those skeletons!)
After spending so much time reading about Joseph Bazalgette, it’s nice to finally realize that he and I share something in common. To be honest, I feel a little like I’ve unearthed a super power that, until now, I didn’t know I possessed. If you’re an author (or any kind of artist, really) who continues to create, revise, and submit new work, there’s a good chance you have it, too.
Now that you know you have it, what will you do? Me, I’ve got a manuscript to revise!
Fueled by English breakfast tea, a burning curiosity, and a love of research, Colleen Paeff writes picture books from a book-lined office in an old pink house with a view of the Hollywood sign. She is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi (Chronicle Books, 2023). Find her online at www.colleenpaeff.com and on Twitter and Instagram @ColleenPaeff.