UPDATED, Oct. 5: It must be easy to write a children’s book: There are lots of whimsical pictures, not too many words and we’ve all been kids so we must know what they like. Right?

Toni BuzzeoToni Buzzeo: 'Essential to have others who can look at your work.' Carrie FinisonCarrie Finison: 'Great to be a part of these supportive groups.'

Wrong. Two Arlington writers who have published books for children were already accomplished writers when they decided to branch out and discovered they had to learn how it’s done. So they read scores of other people's books, went to conferences and classes and were willing to have their work criticized by others before sending manuscripts off to a publisher. The effort has paid off.

Toni Buzzeo, was a teacher and librarian before writing books. Ask her how many she’s written, and she laughs. “I’ll have to count them. I think it’s 27.” Her books range from the fanciful to the realistic. In One Cool Friend a boy goes to the aquarium and comes home with a penguin. In her newest book, When She Found Sue, which came out in May, Buzzeo tells the true story about the woman who discovered the largest tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found.

Carrie Finison is newer to the world of children’s publishing. Her first book, Dozens of Doughnuts is a rhyming story about a bear who makes doughnuts and was published in July. A second book, Don’t Hug Doug, will come out next spring. Three more are in the pipeline. 

Much in common

The two authors have much in common: Each had a childhood filled with books and early efforts at writing, and both had done educational writing and some poetry before making the leap to books. Each one credits the help they got from others. 

“Writing can be solitary,” said Finison,”so it’s great to be a part of these supportive groups.”

Said Buzzeo, 69, “There’s magic to this kind of group in having people at the same level of knowledge and skill. Also you have to trust each other.”

Finison, 48, grew up in Wellesley and loved reading as a child. At 7 years old, she made her own books, equipped with her parents' typewriter and a bunch of markers. As an adult, she worked in educational publishing for 15 years. When her son was small she looked forward to trips to the library and the books they came home with. While reading to her son, “I’d think to myself, ‘I could write this.’ And so I tried and found out that I couldn’t. At least not without a lot of practice.”

She embarked on a self-imposed study program. She took a course with Arlington resident Margaret Muirhead at Arlington’s Community Education program, and she found groups. One is an online challenge that requires participants to write a manuscript every month for 12 months.

Finison has been doing that for eight years. She’s also a member of a critique group in Sherborn called The Writers' Loft, which usually meets in person but now meets online because of the pandemic.

'Got brave'

Finally, she “got brave,” as she puts it, and submitted manuscripts to publishers. Dozens of Doughnuts, a rhyming book, was published by Putnam. It’s about LouAnn, a bear who decides to make doughnuts for her big meal before hibernating for the winter. But, one by one, animal friends drop by, and LouAnn gives away so many pancakes that there are none left for her. Kids enjoy learning not only how the problem is solved but also get a lesson in sharing, friendship and arithmetic.

Carrie Finison: Doughnuts

The book is a hit. “The Today Show” chose it for its list of summer reading for kids. A teacher who has a blog about children's books called it “a fantastic story that readers will enjoy hearing over and over.”

Finison is pleased with the book’s reception but misses the opportunity to schedule events at bookstores or library readings because of the pandemic: “Under normal circumstances you’d have a chance to see kids reacting to the story. That’s what we’re missing -- we can’t witness kids enjoying our books in person and that feels a little sad.” 

She does ask her own children, Eben, 15, and Mia, 11, to read her books out loud to her because it’s important for her to hear how they sound. 

On Oct. 16, kids will have an opportunity to hear how Dozens of Doughnuts sounds. Finison will be reading her book about the doughnut-making bear at a bedtime story hour online. To learn more and to register, click here >> 

Michigan, Maine

Buzzeo grew up in Michigan and for many years lived in Maine with her husband, Ken, in a 1700 farmhouse on 35 acres. When he died about five years ago, Buzzeo moved to East Arlington, where she shares a two-family with her son and his family, spending the winter in Florida. Her husband built her a writing cottage, which she moved to her Arlington backyard. There she works each day until 3 p.m. when it’s “nona time,” and she spends time with her grandchildren.

She thought about writing books for children for years before taking the plunge. “Despite the fact that I had written educational guides for teachers and was a children’s librarian well versed in children’s literature, I had no idea how to write a children’s book. I checked out a huge stack of books from the library and set out on a study course.” It included critique groups in both Maine and Florida and help from another children’s author, Jane Kurtz, who became a mentor.

Buzzeo said it’s essential to have others who can look at your work. In the past, she said, editors took the role of shaping a manuscript with a writer. “Nowadays editors and agents expect work to come in fully polished and ready to go. This isn’t to say editors don’t work with you, but they are not interested in looking at anything that is rough or still in development.”

Legend from real life

The first book Buzzeo published was, in essence, about her own life. The Sea Chest, she said, “very much grew out of my own experience as an only child for nine years and then have my life really change when we took in a foster child.”Toni Buzzeo: The Sea Chest

The idea for the book grew from a legend about a sea chest with a baby inside that washes up at a lighthouse where a lonely little girl lives with her parents, longing for another child to come along. The book is Buzzeo’s favorite, along with whatever her newest book happens to be. In addition to writing books for children, she has written 11 books for teachers and parents.

Her biggest thrill was when One Cool Friend, about a boy and a penguin, earned a Caldecott honor in 2013, one of the most important children’s book awards. “It was absolutely the pinnacle of events in a writer’s life” said Buzzeo. “I literally pinched myself during the ceremony and promised I would always be grateful and that it was the evening of a lifetime and if it never happens again,I’m good.”

Both Finison and Buzzeo look forward to seeing their next books published. Random House will publish Finison’s Hurry, Little Tortoise! about a tortoise who gets passed by all her friends while trying to be on time for school. Buzzeo, meanwhile, is waiting to hear back from publishers about four projects. Two books are coming out next spring - Caution: Road Sign Ahead (Rise x Penguin, March 2) and Whose Big Rig (Abrams, May 25).

Each has comprehensive websites with information about the authors and their books along with activities for kids and teachers.

Toni Buzzeo >>

Carrie Finison >>  

 This news feature by YourArlington co-publisher Marjorie Howard was published Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. It was updated Oct. 5.