• Shannon Stocker

Lauren H. Kerstein: inHERview

All my inHERviews feel special to me. For one hour, I’m able to get to know someone who loves what I love (kidlit), so there’s always common ground. But there’s something particularly cool about doing an inHERview with a critique partner. In Lauren Kerstein’s case, I’ve critiqued dozens of her manuscripts, including ones from her adorable ROSIE AND CHARLIE series. We’ve exchanged ideas before ever jotting down a word. We’ve shared pictures of our kids, heartbreaking rejections, and proud mom moments. Lauren is more than my critique partner. She’s my friend. I’m delighted to be able to share her with you today.

“So, lay it on me,” I say. “Tell me about the first pivotal moment that made you so awesome.”

Lauren laughs. “Well, I’m gonna start with two teachers who were really pivotal in my love of reading and writing. The first is a teacher I actually had twice. When I was in the third grade, I got the stomach flu in class. There was this bathroom attached to the classroom, and I felt terrible, but she was awesome and helped me. I don’t have a great memory, so the fact that I remember this so vividly says something about this woman. She was so caring and empathetic. I remember sitting on the carpet listening to her read THE GIVING TREE, and she started crying in front of our whole third grade class. I remember thinking how much courage it took.”

“You remember thinking that as a child, or you think that now, in hindsight?”

“No, I thought that as a child! But I wanted to be a therapist from as early as I can remember, so it doesn’t surprise me that I had that thought. Anyway, I realized then how powerful a book could be. And that stuck with me forever—that notion that a book could bring you to tears.”

“You mentioned that you had her twice. How did that happen?”

“I also had her in sixth grade as my math teacher. That was a tough year for me because my parents separated for the first time. She was my rock.”

“She sounds amazing,” I agree. “Who was the other teacher who influenced you?”

“An English teacher than I had in high school—twice again, which is funny! I had him for AP English. He was SO hard. His expectations of the way you should analyze a text were so high. He really expected you to integrate information in a way I’d never been asked to do. I learned more from him than any other teacher in my whole life. He helped me learn how to write an essay in a way that was meaningful and taught me literary concepts (like symbolism and metaphor) at such a deep level.”

“Can you remember any particular moment that stands out with him?”

Lauren’s quiet for a moment. “I can picture him in his classroom, but there’s not one moment that stands out. I wanted to do well for him.”

Even though she can’t see me through the phone, I nod in agreement. “Isn’t that the little kid in all of us, wanting to make grown-ups proud?”

“Yes. I definitely wanted to. In fact, I still have some essays from him. He really took the time to comment on everything, and I remember relishing reading his reviews. This sounds really nerdy, but I marveled at his ability to analyze text and look at literature in a different way. I was upset if I didn’t do as well as I wanted, but his reviews allowed me to see what I was doing right for the first time. It’s cool that I’m still in touch with him because he’s really celebrated some of these moments with me, like my ROSIE THE DRAGON AND CHARLIE MAKE WAVES book launch.”

“Do you remember which year in high school he taught?”

“I think I had him junior and senior years. I attribute the fact that I rocked the AP exam to him. It’s important that teachers know how they’ve changed our lives.”

“Yes, it is,” I agree. “Teachers don’t often get the credit they deserve. Is there any particular book that you loved most during this time?”

“Yes! The Great Gatsby. I just picked it up to re-read it and it dissolved in my hands. I need a new copy, because it’s in four pieces from loving it so much. I remember loving the whole egg symbolism. When I think of that book, I think of these mystical, magical moments where the description is so vivid, you feel like you’re at a party there. And I loved that feeling of escape.”

I laugh. Having just reread my own disintegrating copy of The Great Gatsby from high school, I can relate.

“So tell me about your next pivotal moment. What’s your number two?”

Lauren sighs.

“Well, I had some challenges when I was little. Dad could be difficult, but he had wonderful strengths. For example, he was really good at studying information about colleges and grad schools; he helped me figure out what I was going to do. I ended up at Washington University because of him. All my life I wanted to be a therapist. I even wrote my college essay about private practice and how I envisioned my life as a therapist. So after I’d completed undergrad and was applying for grad school, I thought for sure I’d go into a PhD program. At the time, I was dating my now-husband, but I didn’t want to make a decision to stay based on him. But I also didn’t want to do research, which is basically what a PhD program is. At Wash U there’s a building called Brookings Hall that has this incredible set of steps that go up to it. I don’t remember why Dad was in town, but he was—I’m from New Jersey. Well, I remember sitting at the top of these steps with him when he basically gave me permission not to apply to PhD programs, if that wasn’t what I truly wanted to do. I told him I wanted to apply to this MSW program at Wash U called George Warren Brown School of Social Work, and he said ok. I think that really changed my life.”

Brookings Hall

“Do you think you would’ve applied anyway, had he not approved?”

“No, I don’t think so. As someone who was constantly trying to please him and stretch as far as I could, I think I needed his blessing. I really needed his permission to do what felt comfortable and right for me.”

“Did you recognize the importance of that moment while you were there, on those steps?”

“I think I did. I remember feeling palpable relief.”

As someone who spent a lifetime chasing my own father’s approval, I feel Lauren’s pain. I wish I could hug her.

“Did you tell him how much his blessing meant to you?”

Lauren sighs again.

“I don’t know. My guess would be that I did. At least I would’ve thanked him. Now that we’re saying this, I do remember hugging him and thanking him.”

“Was that moment uncharacteristic for him?”

“He was complicated. Yes, in aggregate, it was uncharacteristic. But it wasn’t shocking, because he did have this other side to him. In that moment, he was the dad that he wanted to be.”

“You’ve been speaking about him in the past tense. Has he passed away?”

“Yes,” Lauren says. “He died in 2005 of colorectal cancer. That was also a pivotal moment, of course.”

“Of course,” I agree. “You still have your mom?”

“Yes. I’m close with my mom and my sister, who has really helped me raise my girls in many ways. Sarah, my oldest, is 16 and Danielle will be 12 tomorrow. My sister is an amazing aunt. Josh, my husband, works long hours, and though he doesn’t travel, he often worked weekends when the kids were little. My sister just showed up and she helped. She’s younger than me by four years. I was not nice to her growing up.” Lauren laughs.

“Why not?” I ask.

“She was the eggshell-stepper, and I was the eggshell-avoider.”

As a younger eggshell-stepper sister myself, I completely relate.

“OK, what’s your third pivotal moment?”

“I’ve thought long and hard about what I want to say for number three. Because I know so many people struggle with health problems, I could talk about twenty years of medical problems with no diagnosis (we know now that I don’t make cortisol). But the thing I want to talk about most is becoming a mom. That changed my life on so many levels, as it does for all of us. For me, I’d worked with kids for years. For the first part of my practice, my specialty was working with children who were one to twelve. So when I knew I was becoming a mom I thought, I’ve got this! Josh was like, ‘Great! I’m with a child development expert, so we’re good to go!’ Then, my pregnancy was brutal. I was nauseated all the time. That was the first sign that I wasn’t going to have as much control over things as I thought I might. Then, we had the blizzard of 2003. It was massive, and it happened right when I was due. Josh stayed up pretty much all night shoveling, petrified that we weren’t going to be able to get out. But then she didn’t come! I ended up being induced because I was sure she wasn’t ever gonna come.”

“How far along were you?”

“I was ten days late! TEN DAYS! My labor and delivery was pretty traumatic, too. Teams of doctors kept flooding in, partly because my father-in-law is a doctor, but partly because she was distressing in utero. It was the first time in my whole life I really, truly realized I was not in control. That’s a hard realization for a Type A perfectionist. I think parenting for the perfectionist is not great—somebody needs to write that book. Having been a clinician for ten years, I thought I knew so much. Then this being arrived and we got into the car and Josh said to me, ‘Where the hell is the manual?’ Then, Sarah’s head flopped over and Josh said, ‘We broke her already.’” Lauren laughs at the memory. “That lack of control – that acknowledgment that I couldn’t write a list or create a spreadsheet and have it turn out the way I’d planned – that was astounding to me.”

“Did that change your approach as a clinician?” I ask.

“It definitely changed my work. I went from what I think was a decent clinician, to having a completely different perspective. For example, part of my work included birth-to-three home visits, and I remember so distinctly saying to a client, ‘OK. Here’s what might be helpful.’ I gave them a suggestion and then thunked myself on the forehead and thought, ‘I could’ve tried that last night!’ That lack of objectivity when you’re the parent is so salient. I got to a place where I began conversations with parents by saying, ‘I’m going to make this recommendation, and then you’re going to want to slap me.’”

“Becoming a mom really helps with empathy,” I say.

“Yes. That’s why it was pivotal. It impacted me personally and professionally. It taught me—well, I’m still working on this—it’s teaching me how to trust the process a little better.”

“What process?”

“Life. That we can’t always pre-plan everything. To trust that I’ll be ok if things go differently than I thought. Like when you write a book.”

I laugh. “Oh my gosh, it just struck me how funny it is that someone who struggles with control has chosen to write picture books, where there’s little to no control ever, or anything.”

Lauren laughs, too. “Yes! So now I’ve chosen a profession where I have control over only a tiny piece of everything that happens. There’s something maddening about that, but also something freeing. I don’t know. I’ll ponder that. I like knowing that it’s a team effort. I have to really embrace the things I can control like patience and flexibility, and the things that I can craft, and I need to step back from the bigger-picture things, like whether or not an editor or the rest of the world will love it. It’s not easy, but maybe there’s something freeing about that.”

I think about the bumps I’ve traversed through life. “You know, we really don’t have control over any of it. Our careers, parenting, our health…”

Lauren jumps in. “Right! It’s a metaphor for life in so many ways. And an important lesson for us to learn. Especially with our girls—this illusion that if they work themselves to the bone, it’ll work out for them. That’s an illusion. There’s something salient about spotlighting what we do have control over.”

I recall an article I once read about happiness and risk-taking. The article stated that the happiest people are those who trust and take risks, because without risks, we can’t ever achieve anything new. Goals aren’t reached if we don’t go after them, and we can’t really go after anything without taking a few risks. Lauren and I chat about this topic enthusiastically; it resonates with us both. We ponder the field of kidlit, and we both understand how much risk-taking is involved in the world of publishing.

Showing someone else a rough picture book draft is like walking around naked and trusting that no one will laugh and point. As authors, we expose our hearts and make ourselves vulnerable, and our trusted critique partners lovingly (and hopefully, gently) expose the flaws in our work. Then, our hearts pound against our ribs every time we query an agent or editor. Every time we press “send,” we’re taking a risk. But that payoff—whether it be, “I want to offer you representation,” or “We want to acquire your book”—that payoff is worth every single scary step.

Lauren and I say our goodbyes, and I suddenly realize that I’m asking authors to be vulnerable in new ways when they do inHERviews. I’m asking women to expose more than their work. I’m asking them to expose their hearts. Pivotal life moments that sometimes hurt to relive. But I’m grateful when they do. I’m grateful each and every time an author, like Lauren, takes that risk with me. I know that other writers will gain inspiration from these stories and, hopefully, come to feel that they’re not alone.

Because the reality is, you’re not alone. We are all in this together. So take that step. Write that manuscript, make those edits, and then hit that send button.

In the words of Rosie and Charlie…

You’ve got this!

Lauren’s debut picture book, ROSIE THE DRAGON AND CHARLIE MAKE WAVES, hit shelves in June, 2019, and is available for purchase from Amazon here. She can also be found swimming around the internet here:

TWITTER – @LaurenKerstein

WEBSITE – www.LaurenKerstein.net

FACEBOOK – Lauren Heller Kerstein

AUTHOR FACEBOOK – Lauren Heller Kerstein

INSTAGRAM – @LaurenKerstein

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