The following story, to be told over the 12 days leading up to Christmas, is from a picture book manuscript I wrote years ago. I finally decided to post it here for all of you, and a friend agreed to do an illustration for each day. Every day, the latest installment will be added to the bottom of this post.
A little over a month ago, my new book came out. I was so thankful my publisher organized a tour for me because my favorite part of being an author is meeting readers. In this post, I want to share with you a research trip I took while writing the book, but first I'll share some pics from the tour that were a result of finally...finally!...finishing WHAT LIGHT.
The first stop on my tour began as perfectly as I'd hoped. I had a great school visit, and then gave a talk at a local bookstore where I saw my book's floor display for the first time. So beautiful!
After spending a full day speaking and meeting people, signing books, and taking selfies, there can be a lonely adjustment period. So even if it's late, I often grab a dinner and read before going up to my room. This time, I noticed John Cho sitting at a nearby table, but I didn't want to interrupt his dinner. And then Kal Penn joined him, and I...well...come on! So I told them I just started a book tour and would love to get a photo if it wasn't an inconvenience. But those two were so cool, and said they were huge readers, they invited me to join them for dinner. How cool is that!?
(It's very cool.)
Throughout the tour, the school visits were incredible. I'm so grateful that I continue to get asked to speak about the serious issues in THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, and I love discussing how much fun I had writing THE FUTURE OF US, but it's been so nice to also talk about the uplifitng aspects of my new book. And schools used its setting to create some very festive art for my visits!
Schools also used the concepts of forgiveness and reaching out to others for projects, like writing encouraging thoughts...
...and words of kindness on thematic art hung throughout the library.
Bookstores got into the theme, as well. Many offered hot cocoa (with the WHAT LIGHT hot cocoa packets my publisher provided), to be stirred with candycanes like Sierra does in the book.
All of that was wonderful and made me feel great. But it was still all about the students!
So about that research trip...
The idea for WHAT LIGHT came from a newspaper article about a family that lives seventeen hours to the north of me, but for one month a year, they turn this local lot...
...into this Christmas tree paradise!
The idea of having two homes during the year, one on a small lot selling trees while living in a trailer, and the other living in a house on hundreds of acres of farmland, intrigued me. So I headed seventeen hours to the north!
I visited the Hopper Bros. farm and received a tour by the owner, Dennis (who makes a cameo in my book as the owner of the other tree lot in town). Before I went on my research trip, I read a few books on growing and selling Christmas trees so I could ask specific questions instead of merely getting a feel for the basics.
Something that makes me feel like a professional author is when I don't write interesting details I've learned that won't add to the feel or progress of the story. But I learned so much! And while I didn't use the majority of what I learned, the mere confidence I gained to write about people who live this life most definitely made it into the book.
I visited two other Christmas tree farms while in the Pacific Northwest, and sometimes things that I saw inspired scenes.
I also visited a Christmas tree farm tradeshow going on that weekend. My namebadge didn't list a farm or company. It said: author. And you don't walk around a tradeshow telling people you're writing about their business unless you do it. So I did!
When I landed in Cleveland, Ohio last week, I zoomed straight to the house used as Ralphie's in A Christmas Story. I took a tour of the place previously, as seen here, but this time I just wanted to get a couple shots with it as a background for my soon-to-be released Christmas story.
In earlier trips to the area, I never got to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but this time I was determined to change that. So I did! And I got to see one of Slash's hats...
and Bruce's outfit from his Born in the U.S.A. album cover...
and the scribbled lyrics to Jimi's originally titled "Purple Haze Jesus Saves".
But in beweent the Christmas house and the hall of rock, I visited Holy Name High School in Parma Heights.
They were a lovely bunch of nicely dressed students.
And they had some of the best questions. There were questions about character motivation, my own take-away from my books, and even a request to try to get Selena Gomez as some dude's prom date.
Then I had snacks and further conversation with 13 students. (The number 13 was just a coincidence...they said.)
After Ohio, I took a brief breather in California, then it was back on a plane to Texas. There, I visited several very nice art museums in Fort Worth, featuring artists I've studied a lot recently, like Thomas Cole.
The first presentation I went to was for Kid Chef Eliana. She is an incredible presenter...
and a delicious cook! I had her book Cool Kids Cook: Fresh and Fit signed for Isaiah.
One of the most entertaining while educational presentations I've seen was Nathan Hale's discussion of his "Hazardous Tales" series. Is there any better combination than hilarious and historical? I mean, if Nathan and Eliana did a program together, that would unbeatable!
I gave a keynote presentation, which is always fun (though slightly intimidating when other authors are present), where I got to get rid of more packets of my What Light hot chocolate in exchange for questions.
That was followed by a panel about social media with Julie Murphy and Kelsey Macke. So this pic, I guess, is Murphy, Mac and Me!
I want everyone to read my next book. But I'll be plenty happy if the only people who read it are those who want a story exactly like the one I wrote. (Although, I do think the world would be a better place if everyone read it, which I feel morally obligated to say.)
The most important job of a cover is to grab the attention of someone looking for a story like the one behind that cover. A good title helps, too, which is why I'm glad we settled on What Light over my other ideas.
Until I publish something illustrated (just checked, and I can't say anything...yet), one of the most exciting parts of having a book in production is seeing the cover. With What Light, my publisher offered five potential designs. I went back and forth between two. When I showed all five to some people I trusted (friends, authors, librarians...), none of them agreed with me. What they kept landing on, whether they knew the premise or not (I wanted both perspectives) was this:
I liked that one, but didn't love it. When they told me what they liked about it, I understood, but imagined myself giving a presentation at a school or library, excitedly showing the covers of Thirteen Reasons Why and The Future of Us, and then casually putting up What Light.
So, how could I tweak that cover to become one I loved? Thankfully, it was winter, and as I was strolling downtown, I came across this poster in a store window:
I snapped a photo of it and emailed it to my publisher and editor. Based on their lukewarm reaction, I didn't do a good job describing how I thought the cover could be enhanced by adding light "flares" or "bursts" or "shimmers" (or whatever I called them). But I was determined to showthem.
To repeat myself, it was winter. That meant I didn't have to climb into the attic to fetch a string of Christmas lights. I could simply remove them from our tree! Then I loaded the original design onto my laptop, plugged in the lights, and snapped a photo that included reflected light flares/bursts/shimmers.
I emailed them the following:
Now they understood! And they sent back this:
Thank you, Theresa Evangelista, for working on this beautiful cover! It looks and feels exactly like the story I wrote.