The wonderful Donna Janell Bowman is our featured Fall Conference faculty spotlight today. Donna is the author of many books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book biography Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter, which has been nominated for six state book awards, including the Texas Bluebonnet award. Korey Scott interviewed Donna for our blog series. Read on to learn more about her writing journey.
What brought you to this career path?
I could begin this answer by mentioning me as a child on a ranch, writing in a spiral notebook while perched in a tree, but I don’t think we have time for that. Or I could simply say that I grew up with enough boredom and open spaces to allow a vivid imagination, a fascination with the power of words, and an insatiable curiosity to grow. But that might sound too nostalgic, as would me telling you that reading to my kids re-ignited my love of writing and set me on the long and windy path to my writing career. Instead, I’ll offer that, when one door closed (my corporate career), another one opened, and it involved time and space that brought me back to imagination, words, curiosity, and a new goal to write books for kids. It was a choose-your-own-adventure kind of path to publication, and I chose all of them.
Can you please tell us a little about your background and experience in the literary world?
I began by freelancing for regional newspapers, then writing for children’s magazines. When I set my sights on writing books for kids, I took countless writing classes, attended workshops and conferences, and joined SCBWI and became an active volunteer (the best decision I ever made for my career!). During these important years of apprenticeship, I flailed about with terrible manuscripts, joined critique groups, and read hundreds of mentor texts that turned out to be my greatest teachers, long before I pursued an MFA through Vermont College of Fine Arts. That long journey to publication makes it so much sweeter as I now gaze at the six books on my shelf with my own name on the spines, with space left for the books that will follow.
What advice do you have for new children’s book writers?
Oh, gosh, there’s the old standbys of read, write, rinse, repeat, never give up. And that’s all true, but I also think it’s important to step outside your door and observe the world around you. Allow yourself quiet time, away from screens, when you can truly notice details. How would you describe the sound of the wind through the trees, the color or movement of a caterpillar, the feel of heat on your back, or the point of view of a stranger? Stories always begin within us.
We all have our favorite children’s books, ones that we can read over and over again. What books are your favorites and why? For me, I grew up with Roger Hargreaves’ Mr. Books and Richard Scarry’s books. I can read those over and over again. With each read, I find more elements in the illustrations and writing to explore.
Yikes, this is an unfair question. I have a new favorite book every week. As a child, I was such an animal lover, my reading choices usually involved critters with fur or feathers. Among them were Where the Red Fern Grows, Old Yeller, Black Beauty, Flicka, National Velvet, the Benji books. As a pre-teen, I absconded with a copy of The Thornbirds that fed my burgeoning rebellious side (except for the clergy part). I was also a fan of a big book called Tell Me Why.
What are some hobbies you enjoy other than writing?
In a perfect world, I’d have time to do more camping, hiking, zip-lining, kayaking, skiing, traveling, going to movies and plays, playing games, laughing. Anything outdoors.
Name a food or that you love and could never grow tired of eating.
In a word, chocolate! Also, Tex-Mex.
Please tell us about any books you have coming out in the near future?
In 2019, my picture book biography titled King of the Tightrope: The Great Blondin, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, releases from Peachtree Publishers. It’s the story of the man who, against all odds, first engineered a tightrope across the Niagara Gorge—in 1859—on which he performed unbelievable feats for two summers. It was an engineering feat and an example of self-determination.
Other top-secret projects are forthcoming, so stay tuned.
How exciting! We can’t wait to hear about your projects, Donna, and learn from you in September. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences on our blog series!
Donna’s Bio: Donna Janell Bowman is the author of many books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book biography Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter which has been nominated for six state book awards, including the Texas Bluebonnet award—and newly-released Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler. In 2019, her book King of the Tightrope: The Great Blondin, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, releases from Peachtree Publishers. Donna has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and enjoys mentoring and teaching writers of all ages. She lives near Austin, Texas and is represented by Erin Murphy—Erin Murphy Literary Agency.