Deborah Ruddell has tackled many careers—everything from an art teacher to a freelance artist to a volunteer. But it was her most recent position in public relations at Peoria Public Schools which helped her to launch her most fulfilling career choice.
“My last job, which I held for eight years, was as a graphic designer/ newsletter editor for the Peoria Public Schools,” Ruddell said. “In that job, I did everything from photography to writing, editing and layout and I gradually discovered how much I loved writing.”
After her youngest child graduated from college in 1998, the Peoria resident decided it was time to pursue what she really felt was calling her. “It was a natural time to think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” Ruddell said. “Even though it seemed a little crazy at the time, my husband Brian completely supported my decision to leave a good job to take a chance on becoming a writer. He believed in me even when I didn’t completely believe in myself, and his encouragement gave me the time and space to find the work that I think I was meant to do.”
Ruddell decided to focus on poetry, enjoying its short simplicity and the universal effect it can have on everyone.
“I couldn’t write a novel if my life depended on it, so I guess I’m a poet by default,” Ruddell said. “I like the satisfaction of saying what I have to say in as few words as possible. I love the way a poem can freeze an experience so I can remember it forever. I love creating a memorable image and finding humor in the everyday. Mostly, though, I like the way a poem can get to the heart of things in a way that’s easy for most people to understand.”
Inspiration can come from anywhere. In order to capture the everyday special moments, Ruddell carries a small notebook to record anything that catches her interest. She has also had to perfect her writing space, claiming that at first she couldn’t work at home.
“The distractions of the house were too much for me,” Ruddell said. “I found quiet spots at the Peoria Public Library and at the Bradley (University) library, but campus parking tickets and the effort of dragging all my stuff with me sent me back home. Gradually, I got comfortable with working at home, interruptions and all, and now I can’t imagine working anywhere else.”
Ruddell’s first writing success was a short story published in the Highlights for Children magazine, which happened shortly after she started writing for children in 1998. For years, much of her time was spent researching and tuning her craft. Success arrived again in Feburary when a complete collection of her poems called Today at the Bluebird Café: A Branchful of Birds was published. “When I started writing poetry in 1998, I wrote a few good poems, but I recognized that some of them were mediocre,” Ruddell said. “I started reading all the children’s poetry books I could find, found the poets I truly loved, and studied their work to see how I could improve. What did they have that I didn’t have? I learned that I had a long way to go, but rather than demoralizing me, it inspired me.”
She then joined a critique group that she says “praised me when I deserved it, and was gentle when I didn’t.” She also joined a professional organization, the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), which hosts an annual conference in Los Angeles.
“If you attend the conference, you have the option of a manuscript review with one of the faculty members,” Ruddell said. “When I went in 2003, the poet who reviewed my manuscript loved it. She made calls on my behalf and introduced me to her agent. Within a few weeks of the conference, I had a contract offer from Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry Books.”
Over three years later, these contacts helped to publish Ruddell’s first full work, Today at the Bluebird Café. The collection of 22 rhyming poems centers on birds and is intended for children ages 4 to 10.
“Readers can stand beside a stoic puffin guarding his icy cliff, compare table manners with a vulture or tuck a drowsy penguin into bed,” Ruddell said. “I think the poems are lighthearted and fun, as are the illustrations.”
As an unknown author, Ruddell had little say in who would illustrate her book. Her editor, however, had previously worked with an artist that she thought would be good for the project.
“My editor had worked with the South African artist, Joan Rankin, on several other projects and thought that her watercolor paintings would complement my words,” Ruddell said. “Joan and I didn’t communicate until the book was finished which was terrifying for me, but I’m ecstatic about the results. Joan’s illustrations are beautiful, yet slyly witty, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Ruddell’s second book, A Whiff of Pine, a Hint of Skunk, is already in the works with Simon & Schuster/ Margaret K. McElderry Books and is a collection of poems set in the forest. A future plan for the author is to develop a picture book. She would also like to work with her identical twin sister Robin who has just finished illustrating her first book, How Do You Say Goodnight?, by Raina Moore (HarperCollins, 2008). “We’d love to (work together) some day,” Ruddell said. “Publishers are reluctant to pair two unknowns, so we’ve decided that we each needed to find our own paths first.”
Ruddell claims that growing up with a twin was really one of the best parts of her childhood. “She was the perfect accessory for a shy kid like me,” Ruddell said. “I had a companion right from the start—one who understood me perfectly, laughed at my jokes, reassured me when I was 7 that I was cute, somewhat self-servingly, and was fiercely loyal.”
Robin also has a large influence on her twin in both her professional and her personal life. “She influences everything I do—my writing, my hair, my clothes—just about everything,” Ruddell said. “Because I respect her sensibilities so completely, I constantly ask myself, ‘What will Robin think?’”
But no matter where the path may take her, writing children’s poetry is a career that Ruddell feels she would like to continue for the rest of her life. “I remember the way I felt as a child when I was reading about the idyllic lives of the Bobbsey twins or the adventures of Nancy Drew,” Ruddell said. “I vividly remember my parents reading Madeline to me. Her dramatic, late night trip to the hospital in an ambulance, and those delicious first lines: ‘In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines…’ I was no longer in Oblong, Illinois, I was in Paris!”
After years of working different types of careers, Ruddell finally thinks she has found her calling and her passion. “For me, there’s still an element of disbelief that, at age 57, I could be starting a whole new adventure in my life,” Ruddell said. “I’ve found work that I love to do, I’m working with creative people, and I feel like I could do it forever.” tpw