We all love a success story. By success, I mean Drew Daywalt’s book, The Day the Crayons Quit, with over 1.1 million copies in print in 17 languages. TIME magazine named this book one of “100 Best Children’s Books of All Time.” It was on the New York Times best-seller list for 100+ weeks (No. 1 in its category for more than half that span) until recently, when bumped from this spot by its sequel, The Day the Crayons Came Home.
It gets better! This talented, amazing author is an SCBWI member who writes, lives, and raises his kids here in Los Angeles. You may have seen him on the cover of this month’s Writer’s Digest magazine.
Ask any child about “those Crayons books” and they’ll know what you mean. Why are these books so insanely popular? They give humor and voice to our first, and most beloved, writing implements: crayons.
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: Welcome! Tell us a little about the road to success with The Day the Crayons Quit.
DREW DAYWALT: Crayons was one of several manuscripts that I’d sent Jeff Dwyer. I thought for sure that another one that I’d written, about a lonely boy and a rabbit, would be the one to sell. Jeff, on the other hand, knew it would be Crayons that sold first and become a book. That’s one of the primary elements that an agent can bring to a writer—a knowledge of the market, trends, tastes and preferences. I never keep track of that stuff. I’m a very selfish writer. I write books I want to read, books that entertain me. Sometimes that’s great, and the stars align and it also happens to be what sells. Other times, I’m apparently the only person in the entire universe interested in a particular story I’ve written. And I’m okay with that. You gotta be. I really think you just have to write from the heart, and to entertain yourself. If you try to write for someone else, you’ll fail. Every time. At least I have.
The interesting thing about getting the first agent I queried, was that I thought the journey was over. I thought, well that was easy. I’m such a dork that way. So naïve. It goes hand in hand with being stupidly optimistic. Being stupid, that is. I thought, “Now it’ll sell and there you have it.” But it took Jeff over half a decade of constant rejections to sell Crayons. But he had faith. And he knew. Me? I had no clue. I just kept writing for myself and whistling in the dark, while he laid siege to the publishing houses in New York for six years.
I had hope that it would publish, but I admit that my hope dwindled as the years went by. One of my great failings as a human being is that I can get discouraged easily. Luckily for me, Jeff was confident. That, and I have absolutely no other skill set. I suck at everything except writing. So it was either write or die. I was also a working screenwriter and while I wasn’t Hollywood A-list, at least it paid the bills. So I had a day job, only my day job could be just as desperate and fleeting as my dream job. It’s like a hopeful actor trying to take a job as a rock star until the acting pays off. Ridiculous, I know, but then again, my life has had a pretty ridiculous, albeit interesting path. When Crayons didn’t sell in the first year, I figured, well, maybe children’s writing isn’t for me after all. But now that I think about it, that’s crazy talk, because, in that year, not one child saw my writing. A lot of adults did. Adults who said no. But yeah, no kids. When the kids finally read what I wrote, they accepted me as one of their own, a six-foot-tall, two-hundred-and-fifty pound first grader.
DD: Parenthood changed everything. Now I just steal everything my kids say. Life is tough and it’s good that they learn that now. And when they complain that I’m taking all their ideas, I just remind them that it’s paying for their college, so shut up.
CVZ: Instead of a third Crayons book, your next planned book is a middle-grade novel. Is your writing “growing up” along with your children (ages 6 and 11)? In a few years, maybe YA?
DD: That’s interesting. See, ignorance is my friend, once again. I didn’t even know there was a “taboo” about crossing categories. Granted, I would ignore it even if I knew about it, but that illustrates perfectly my earlier point about writing selfishly. I write for me. If I can satisfy my own inner child, inner critic, inner A-hole Internet troll, then I’m happy. And if I feel like writing a picture book this week and starting a novel next month, then I’ll just go for it.
Curiously, I was terrified of writing a novel. The time, the research, the finality of it as a piece of art. I’ve written over 30 screenplays for film and TV, and with those, I always knew that it was ultimately just a blueprint, something for a whole team of people to then take and turn into something else, but with a novel, that IS the final product. And that was horrifying. I got past the fear though, once I realized that, like screenplays and picture-book manuscripts, it’s all just storytelling, and that’s always the same. People read a book or watch a film or TV show to see a character grow and change. It’s that simple. Keeping that in mind allowed me to stay sane while completing the novel.
CVZ: To date, which accomplishment are you most proud of?
DD: My kids. Being a great writer is an aspiration, sure, but I always think back to my mom and dad, whose greatness lay not in their careers or accomplishments, but in the love they gave out to the world. Mom used to say that the only thing you take with you when you die is what you give away. So while writing accomplishments are all wonderful, at the end of the day, I’d rather be remembered as kind, than successful.
CVZ: In closing, I have to ask: What color would the “Drew Daywalt” crayon be?
DD: Plaid. Yellow and purple and orange plaid.
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