My Journey to Writing Children’s Books Began with a Colicky Baby
Christina Geist on Her Picture Book Playbook
Many parents recall their children’s early years as a blur, and some have a hard time remembering anything from newborn and toddlerhood. But not me! I remember the summer my daughter turned two and my son was born like it was yesterday. Every night, I felt like I was preparing for battle. My husband bunked on the living room couch so he could sneak out the door at 3am to write and host a morning news show called Way Too Early. Our toddler was sequestered in one bedroom (whatever happens, do not wake a toddler).
I was embedded with a colicky newborn in the next room, surrounded by a makeshift changing table, snacks, gripe water, nursing tank tops and spare onesies. My mission: get enough sleep so I could face the morning, and keep my eyes open long enough to keep everyone safe. Every night, I felt like a failure.
To top it all off, our growing baby needed the one crib we owned, forcing our two-year-old to graduate to a toddler bed way too early. Choosing a cute little mini bed with an Elmo comforter was fun. Tucking my daughter into it, however, only to watch her pop right out and saunter into the kitchen just as we were ready to open the sesame chicken delivery, was an entirely new bedtime nightmare. One desperate evening, I remembered the progressive muscle relaxation technique I had learned in a high school health and wellness class and began to—beep!—turn off my toddler’s little body parts, one at a time.
A year later, still not sleeping through the night, I waved the white flag and took a hiatus from corporate life after 15 years of writing for TV, public relations, marketing and branding jobs. Suddenly, the creative energy I brought to work each day had nowhere to go. Bedtime in our apartment, hours in New York City playgrounds, and drop-offs at preschool and baby gym class developed into stories and characters dancing around in my mind. When the kids were three and five and both in school five days a week, I decided to write them all down.
Like children, every picture book has its own unique personality and DNA. Sure, to achieve commercial success your story will need to connect with as many little readers, parents, teachers and librarians as possible. But, your inspiration needs to come from you. Your story, like any invention, should fill a gap in your own life. My books were all born from my “N of 1” experiences raising two little people in New York City, and the challenges we faced with each developmental milestone.
The first manuscript I wrote, Buddy’s Bedtime Battery, meets an exuberant, imaginative Buddy looking in the mirror at his new robot jammies, and follows him through a bedtime routine that meets him where he is (in a three-year-old’s imaginary world where he answers only to Ro-Buddy), and helps his very patient parents guide him through an age-appropriate process of “powering down” his body. I wrote this story because I needed this story. Did it always work? Of course not. Did it help? Yes.
My second manuscript, Sorry Grown-Ups You Can’t Go To School!, was sparked by the seemingly insane amount of time I invested trying to emotionally prepare my kids for separations, from preschool to music and gym class. The summer my daughter turned three, it was a toddler summer camp close to my in-law’s beach house. Our propaganda campaign began weeks before camp.
Everyone (even the dog!) would beg to go to camp, get dramatically rejected and sob as we watched my daughter strut around the house adding essentials to her Dora backpack. By Day 1 of camp, the backpack weighed more than she did, and she was out the door without so much as a wave goodbye. This technique became my go-to tactic for negotiating new situations and changing the drop-off dialogue from, “Don’t be sad,” to “Hey, why can’t I come?!” This story was simply missing in our library. So, I wrote it.
I actually wrote about ten manuscripts in one creative “sprint” during the fall of 2012. It took me two years to get a meeting with a publisher (thank you, Random House), and another two years before Buddy’s Bedtime Battery was published. Another three years later, Sorry Grown-Ups, You Can’t Go To School!, debuted at #4 on The New York Times bestseller list. While getting published and achieving commercial success is a thrill, I honestly see my books as a golden ticket to spend time with imaginative little people all over the country, and freeze time as my own kids grow taller and taller than me.
Time hop to 2022. Our family relocated and started a new school this past year. Though my kids are all grown up themselves and wrapping up 9th and 6th grades, we still experienced “all the feelings” over the past year of saying goodbye to best buddies, starting a new school, meeting new friends, and embracing the unknown. My new book, Buddy’s New Buddy finds Buddy in 2nd grade, feeling a little lost after his best buddy moves all the way across town. With the support of his ever-helpful big sister, Lady, who knows a lot about this stuff, and other stuff too, Buddy sets out to find make a new friend. All it takes is finding something they have in common. I wrote this manuscript in the fall of 2019 and never could have imagined how much we’d need this message in 2022.
Somehow—poof!—my toddler is now 15, and her baby brother is 13. We are embracing each new chapter as it comes and writing the playbook as we go. I’m happy to report that, until they learn to drive, I am sleeping through the night like a baby.
Christina Geist’s Buddy’s New Buddy is now out from Random House Books for Young Readers.