By Karla Clark
The amazing human brain is hardwired to communicate with stories. Storytelling runs deep in my blood. I come from Italian immigrants and all through my childhood we gathered on Sundays around my grandparents’ kitchen table in Rockford, Illinois, and shared stories along with our pasta. We kids were always included at the big table; no separate children’s table at my Nana’s house. We pulled up a chair or sat on laps and soaked up the loud and wonderful voices of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Everybody talked at once, but somehow, we followed along just fine. Those simple tales shared while breaking bread sparked my life-long love of storytelling.
My dad was a consummate storyteller. He had the timing of a comic, and a heart for the underdog, and is the reason I am a writer today. As a kid, I was a worrywart who “what-iffed” everything and dramatically rehearsed tragedy in my mind. Dad suggested I keep a journal, and instead of worrying about my own (improbable) problems, hand those worries over to fictional characters and then solve their problems for them. Voila! A writer was born. My mom passed away before I became a published author, but my dad was there to celebrate the publications of my first three books. “Atta boy, girl!” he would say.
“My dad was a consummate storyteller. He had the timing of a comic, and a heart for the underdog, and is the reason I am a writer today.”
I still have my first novel—written on multi-colored loose-leaf paper, in different colored ink. It’s absolutely terrible! At fourteen years old, I was heavily influenced by S.E. Hinton, whose classic novel The Outsiders I had just finished reading. I was so naïve, I cast my main characters as identical twins, not knowing that boy-girl twins can only be fraternal. But I’m so glad I saved the manuscript. It’s a great reminder of how I learned to put pen to paper, to write dialogue, to advance a plot…to write a story.
Fast forward and now I have published three novels and a short story collection for adults, and five picture books for children, one published in 2020, two more coming out in 2021, followed by two more in 2023. Soon I will submit a new novel to my agent. To me, telling stories has been therapy, escape, entertainment, and my shout of hope. Looking back, I realize my books have mirrored my own life. In my first novel Between Courses: A Culinary Love Story, I embraced my big, loud Italian family. My second novel Annie’s Heaven helped me to come to terms with the loss of my mother from cancer and my nephew from suicide. My most recent novel Everybody and Their Brother was a tribute to my son who has autism. Writing has grounded me in a way nothing else has. It’s the closest thing to prayer.
I retired from my job in pharmaceutical sales in March of 2020, excited to devote all my time to my writing and art. (I am a collage artist.) The pandemic was certainly not on my radar, and I always feel guilty about complaining about how it spoiled my plans for a launch party, author signings, and school visits for my debut picture book. I was so blessed—here I was able to retire early, with a wonderful husband and two sons, family, friends, and a comfortable home. So many people in the country and the world had their lives turned upside down—mine just listed to the side a bit. Like so many writers, I managed to launch my book via virtual events. Not ideal, but we made it work.
But the pandemic didn’t just change how books were launched. For so many of us, it changed our writing process and output. I know for myself, during the early parts of the shutdown, I could barely write at all. I could concentrate on nothing more than keeping my husband (a heart patient) and my son (an autistic adult) safe. My husband said I “moaned” myself to sleep at night. What brought me back to the writing was…the children. I kept thinking about how the pandemic was stealing precious time and experiences from their childhood. They needed stories now more than ever!
I came a little late to writing for children, but that was always my dream. I finally found my voice, but at first, I found writing children’s books very difficult. (We authors smile when people tell us writing for children must be easier than writing for adults, but we know that good writing is difficult no matter the age of the reader or the length of the story.) I’m so blessed to be an author and an artist, but I would put the title of “children’s author” at the top of the list.
I wrote my picture book You Be Mommy (Feiwel and Friends) back in 2018, not knowing that mommies would need to add a couple inches to their already long superwoman capes. I saw my friends with young children juggle work, zoom meetings, remote learning, and kids who didn’t understand why they couldn’t play with friends or visit grandparents. It did warm my heart to hear from many moms who said my book “touched a nerve,” and was “a sweet tribute to everything moms do for their loved ones.” Release date for You Be Daddy (Feiwel and Friends) is April 27th. Release date for Three Ways to be Brave (Rise x Penguin) is August 24th. Two more books in the “You Be” series will come out in 2023 (a year delayed due to the pandemic). At present, I am polishing off a couple of picture book stories and am collaborating with my sister on a non-fiction adult picture book.
The SCBWI has been instrumental on my journey and I am grateful to this wonderful community! I will keep telling stories as long as anyone will listen. More than anything (and even more so because I have no grandchildren…yet?) I just want to make children laugh and smile. I want to make them feel safe and brave and smart and silly. Valued and important. What could be better than to know that somewhere in the world a child is cuddled up in a loved one’s lap listening to words that I wrote! Pure bliss!
Karla Clark writes fiction for adults and children. She is the author of three novels, a short story collection, and five children’s books. When she’s not writing, she creates decoupage collages that she sells at local art shows. A new novel and non-fiction adult picture book are in the works. She lives in Rockford, Illinois, with her husband and autistic adult son. You can find out more at karlaclarkauthor.com and www.instagram.com/karlaclark123