SEELEY LAKE – Author Betty Vanderwielen met with students from Seeley Lake Elementary School on May 25 to talk about her new book ‘Raccoon Summer’. The students not only learned how she came up with the idea for the book, but also the process of its publication.
In the mid-1970s, the Vanderwielens volunteered for an animal rehabilitation program through the Kalamazoo Nature Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan. For nearly 10 years they have been home to small animals including raccoons, birds, possums and squirrels. Baby raccoons were their favorite.
Vanderwielen wanted to write a book where a young boy rescued and raised a baby raccoon. She started her first version of the book in 1992. However, it wasn’t until 2003 that she started writing seriously.
To help SLE students get into the story, she had them do some of the things main character Lance did when he found the orphaned baby raccoons. The students first suggested names for the raccoons based on their personalities or behaviors they saw in the photos.
Second, Vanderwielen asked the students to suggest ways Lance could introduce new foods to raccoons, questions Lance posed to his classmates in the book. The students shared tips on how they would help encourage raccoons to try eating different foods, including worms, beetles, fruit, fish and crayfish.
Vanderwielen said that after earning two master’s degrees, in English literature and medieval studies, and teaching English composition, research and report writing, and children’s literature, she thought she knew everything about writing.
“But I found there was always more to learn,” Vanderwielen said.
To improve her writing, she did a lot of research, attended workshops, and started a review group with other local writers. Once his book was finished, it was time to find a publisher.
When Vanderwielen began submitting her manuscript, she would send an entire copy with a stamped envelope addressed to her to the publisher and await a response. More than 20 years later, she couldn’t even send directly to a publisher, she had to go through an agent.
For each submission, she had to write a cover letter and submit a part of the book based on the publishers’ requirements.
“Then you wait and wait and wait,” Vanderwielen said.
Refusals and non-responses began to accumulate. Vanderwielen said agents and publishers often passed on the book because they weren’t passionate about it.
“It’s not that it’s not good, it’s just that they’re not passionate enough to put a lot of time and energy into it because [the agent] isn’t paid until it’s published,” Vanderwielen said.
Vanderwielen pointed out that Harry Potter author JK Rowling received 12 rejections before a publisher agreed to publish it. Dr. Seuss received 27 rejections before publishing his first book “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” and Steven King received 30 rejections.
“But here’s the secret,” Vanderwielen said. “The first manuscript that JK Rowlings or Dr Seuss or whoever sent to the first agent or publisher, is not the same as the one they sent to the last publisher who accepted it because all along the way they revised it. You continually revise, revise and revise.”
While Vanderwielen told herself that as long as she liked to dive back into the story and revise it, she would continue to submit it for publication. However in 2019, she stopped because she didn’t know how to overcome an obstacle with one of the main symbols of the book.
Lance’s phone, a new phone shaped like a red Corvette, was a landline with a program button. Throughout the book, the telephone was an important means of communication between Lance and his mother. It was also a way for Lance to avoid his mother’s calls by unplugging him. However, in 2019, everyone had a cell phone.
“I couldn’t expect kids to believe at 12 or 13 anymore that Lance was going to have that toy phone,” Vanderwielen said.
A friend recommended that she submit her manuscript to Chicken Scratch Books. Editor Kiri Jorgensen loved the story, however, “I should make changes.”
Vanderwielen was tasked with reducing it from 85,000 words to less than 60,000 words. She also set the story in the 1980s, making it historical fiction. This forced her to research popular movies, video games, TV shows, books, LEGO sets and slang used in the 1980s to make sure everything matched.
Vanderwielen also changed the conflict between Lance and his mother. She wanted a parallel between raccoon babies and a human baby, so in the end, Lance’s mother wanted to adopt a baby with Down syndrome. Vanderwielen shared information about Down syndrome with SLE students.
Chicken Scratch Books published “Raccoon Summer” in April 2022.
“Now I’m a bona fide author,” Vanderwielen said. “For me, the best part of being an author is knowing that kids can now step into the world I’ve created and meet the characters I love.”
Vanderwielen added that she was 76 and had published her first book.
“The moral of this story is that it’s never too late and you’re never too old,” Vanderwielen said. “If it’s something you really want to do and you keep working on it, eventually you can get there.”