Folks often assume that the first book published by a writer is the first book she or he has written. I suspect that is rarely true, and is certainly not true for me. Before I first published a book I had been working at being a playwright. A couple of plays were staged when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin (Madison). Another play was plucked up by a director for a Broadway production, but that never happened. Still another play was fully produced in a NYC theatre workshop, but nothing ever came of that either.
I wrote another play and, when I gave it to my theatre agent, she said she could only think of one producer who would read it. That was depressing. Meanwhile, my writer friend and mentor, Joe Berger, was urging me to write books, assuring me of more opportunities.
I did write a short novel, and again, via the support of Joe Berger, I found a publisher who offered to read it—because Joe was his writer. That publisher, John Erickson, declined my book but was sufficiently impressed to send it on (to his friends) at the Paul Reynolds agency, one of the top literary agencies in NYC. They liked it, offered it around to no avail, and then handed me over to one of their new young agents, Phoebe Larmore.
Meanwhile, I had a son, Shaun, who, like many kids, liked to climb on my lap and ask for a story. I would, in turn, ask what the story should be about. “A garbage truck. The rain,” and so forth. I invented such stories for him.
During the previous years I had been doodling (I’m not an artist) and had produced a series of cartoon greeting cards for a friend. Another friend took these efforts to a publisher, who in turn called me and asked me if I would be willing to illustrate a picture book. “I am not an artist,” I said. “I’m a writer.”
“Then, write a book and illustrate it.”
The problem was, my wife and I were about to embark on a year’s journey to England.
What I did was sit down and write up all those stories I had told to my son. I gave them to my agent, Phoebe Larmore, who offered them around. After a number of rejections, it was picked up by Doubleday as a picture book.
The book, Things That Sometimes Happen, had a complex publishing history. The selected artist simply handed in her work and then, for all practical purposes, disappeared. At Doubleday, there were a series of resignations from the editorial staff, so that the book had three successive editors.
Nonetheless, the book was published in 1970, received tepid (at best) reviews, and went nowhere. Then in 2001 an editor at Atheneum saw the book and asked if I would be willing to (in part) rewrite it and publish it with new art by Marjorie Priceman.
That happened, and in 2002 it was reissued, and received very good reviews.
So, in one sense, that first book has been around for fifty years and is still in print.