Oftentimes being a writer can be an isolating and challenging experience. There is so much uncertainty and waiting for things to happen in this industry that are beyond one’s control. Three years ago, while I was in the midst of supporting a family member and his young family as he faced a serious terminal illness, I felt utterly overwhelmed and pondered whether I should continue my path toward publication. I was deep in the query trenches and feeling too emotionally drained to develop my manuscripts. I almost walked away from my dreams of becoming a published author.
One sleepless night I was scrolling through Facebook, Vivian Kirkfield’s post about her writing contest caught my attention. I decided that writing a story in fifty words would be challenging, but achievable with all I had going on in my life. It was an opportunity for me to take a small step back into doing what I love and share my writing. The encouraging comments I received about my entry sparked in me a desire to complete the picture book manuscripts I’ve set aside. I reached out to Vivian to thank her for her thoughtful feedback about the story I submitted for her contest and to let her know how grateful I was to be writing again. Vivian responded with the most thoughtful letter. Her words were reassuring and needed. She said, “Life often gets in the way of our dreams, and I’m so impressed you are finding ways to continue to follow your passion to write.” Vivian’s 50PreciousWords contest was the catalyst for me to continue to pursue my dreams of becoming a children’s book writer. Vivian has been a dear friend and an ally to many in the kid-lit community. She embodies all the qualities of what it means to succeed with grace, humility and kindness.
Hanh: What/who inspired you to become a writer? Is there a special theme that is a part of all of your books?
Vivian: Hello Hanh! Thank you so much for inviting me to have this conversation. And I love this question because I think that writing…and perhaps everything we do…stems from someone or something that inspired us to do it. For me, writing has always been a part of my life – even as a child, I loved scribbling poems. And, even as a child, my goal was to become a kindergarten teacher – I loved reading to younger children in the neighborhood. But it wasn’t until my son gave me a very unusual birthday gift for my 64th birthday that I seriously considered becoming a writer: he took me skydiving and, when my feet touched the ground, I knew that if I could jump out of a perfectly good airplane, I could probably do anything. And the next year, I jumped into the world of writing for children.
Many of my books center on ordinary people who did extraordinary things…visionaries whose inventions or actions made a difference…folks who overcame naysayers, discrimination, and other huge obstacles because they refused to give up on their dreams.
Vivian skydiving with her son. Vivian sewing at 5 years old.
Hanh: Do you remember a time in your childhood that sparked your love of books? What do you hope readers will feel when they read your books?
Vivian: My love affair with books began at the age of two, sitting on my mother’s lap as she turned the pages of The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. By the time I was old enough to get a library card, the librarian at our local library already knew me by name. And summers were spent pretty much inhaling books. I always felt that books were a window on the world – I loved finding out about people, places, and things – and even read the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover.
My hope is that readers will feel the same thing when they read my books as I felt as a child: engaged and entertained by the story, as well as curious to learn more. I hope my books inspire kids to believe in themselves, and to have hopes and dreams and plans of what might be…and to realize that nothing is impossible if you can imagine it. Because once you have the idea in your mind, you can start taking steps to make it a reality.
Hanh: Please share the 5 P’s that have guided you on your writing journey.
Vivian: The 5 P’s…thank you for asking about them, Hanh. Once you have the idea of what you want to do, you need to take steps to make that hope or dream a reality. And the 5 P’s apply to anyone setting out to accomplish anything in any field. These ingredients/steps are crucial for success:
Passion: Honestly, if you don’t absolutely LOVE the story you are writing, it’s probably not going to work for you. Having your own connection with the subject or person and having a desire to connect with your readers will help you pour your heart on the page.
Preparation: When I first started writing for children in 2012, I thought that since I got A’s in English, I could just sit down and write picture book manuscripts that would be instantly acquired by editors…but that was not the case. I needed to take picture book writing classes, attend webinars, study mentor texts, and join critique groups.
Practice: To get good at anything, we need to do it over and over, right? Playing basketball, becoming a dancer, learning to speak a foreign language. And writing is no different. We need to write and revise, write and revise, write and revise.
Patience: The path to publication is a process…it takes TIME! And lots of it. It’s important to have patience with editors and agents – they are overwhelmed. With critique partners – they are juggling their own responsibilities and obligations. And most importantly, be patient with yourself…be kind to yourself…surround yourself with positive people who can encourage and support you.
Perseverance: Never. Give. Up. Success comes to those who push through the rejections and just keep on going.
Hanh: What is the best advice you’ve ever received on your journey as a writer? Please share resources that have been helpful to you. What would you say to your younger writer-self about the process and journey to publication?
Vivian: This is a three-part question…and I think the answer to part one and part three is the same: Don’t compare yourself to others! We are each on our own individual journey – and no two journeys will look the same. Some folks juggle full-time jobs. Others have family responsibilities – young children and sometimes, aging parents. Plus, we are different types of writers – some people love to set aside a dedicated writing time each day. But some write when the muse strikes. As long as the fire to write is ignited in your heart – and you are finding joy in what you are doing, you are on the right path.
Regarding resources, we are so very lucky because this kid-lit community rocks – filled with generous mentors and supportive friends. Here is a very short list of some helpful links:
Hanh: I’m excited for your annual 50PreciousWords contest. It is a wonderful opportunity for writers at all stages to hone their craft, receive encouraging feedback and share their stories in a warm and welcoming space. Please share with us more about your uplifting contest.
Vivian: Thank you for asking, Hanh. #50PreciousWords grew from a whim to challenge writers to tell a children’s story with only 50 words or less into an amazing international writing contest that garners 700+ submissions every year. Back in 2016, I’d been reading how editor Bennett Cerf challenged Dr. Seuss to write a story for children with only 50 unique words. And I thought…I’ll go one step further and try to write a story with only 50 words TOTAL! When I opened the challenge to the kid-lit community, the response was phenomenal. And the great thing about it, other than the comment thread of thousands of positive comment and other than the fabulous prizes awarded each year, is that many writers are inspired to be writing, revising, and submitting (exactly what writers need to be doing) and almost every day, someone emails me or messages me to tell me about the agent they got or the book deal they signed with THAT manuscript – sometimes fleshed out – other times edited drastically – but always sparked by their contest entry. I also added a Literacy Initiative – and for the past two years, thanks to the generosity of contest participants, we’ve been able to donate hundreds of brand-new children’s books to local schools in need.
In addition, since 2018, I’ve hosted a children’s writing challenge: #50PreciousWordsforKids. Young people around the world are invited to write a story for children in 50 words or less…and they can add illustrations, which is a lovely incentive for students who prefer to express themselves with art. Entries are emailed to me by teachers and parents, every child receives a Certificate of Participation, and then ALL the submissions are published on my blog in a special Mother’s Day post. How amazing for the children to see their stories in print! That could be a life-changing moment!
Thank you, Vivian, for your encouraging and inspiring responses to my questions. Beyond my admiration for you as a writer, I am grateful for our friendship which has been one of the greatest blessings on my creative journey.
Wishing everyone peace, joy and blessings for 2024. May we continue to write stories that will give us hope and create a kinder world for all.
You can learn more about Vivian's 50PreciousWords Contest on her website.
Writer for children—reader forever…that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words. A retired kindergarten teacher with a master's in early childhood education, Vivian inspires budding writers during classroom visits and shares insights with aspiring authors at conferences and on her blog where she hosts the #50PreciousWords International Writing Contest and the #50PreciousWordsforKids Challenge. Her nonfiction narratives bring history alive for young readers and her picture books have garnered starred reviews and accolades including the Silver Eureka, Social Studies Notable Trade Book, Best STEM Book K-12, Bank Street College of Education Best Book of 2022, and Junior Library Guild Selection.
To connect with Vivian and learn more about her books and 50PreciousWords Contest:
Inspired by her first teacher at the refugee camp, Hanh Bui pursued a master's degree in early childhood education and taught second grade. Her stories are inspired by her immigrant experiences and Vietnamese heritage. She hopes to help all children feel seen and know that their experiences matter. Hanh’s commitment to celebrating her heritage includes giving presentations in school visits about her refugee experience to children studying immigration as part of their school curriculum. She is a member of Diverse Verse and serves as co-chair of the Equity and Inclusion Team for the Mid-Atlantic region of SCBWI. She is the author of The Yellow Áo Dài and Ánh's New Word.