The Write Stuff

HUDSON VALLEY TALENT | People are talking about . . . Helen Lester

When Helen Lester became a second grade teacher, her goal was to brighten the minds of her young learners. Yet over the course of her ten years in the role, just the opposite occurred. Her students doled out though-provoking life lessons to her.

“I think kids are very funny,” she says. Lester, 81, is the award-winning author behind children’s tales like Tacky the Penguin and Hooway for Wodney Wat. She has been writing since 1979, with more than a dozen published works currently to her name. Her inspiration for the stories, as she will readily admit, comes from memories of her colorful second grade classes.

Quirky Characters

“There are some kids who are one beat off of everybody else,” she notes, amused. Those quirky youngsters are the ones who stuck with her, eventually transforming into iconic characters like Tacky, Wodney Wat, and Pinkerton the Pig. Famously, all of the caricatures have a standout trait to which little readers can relate. Tacky is an oddball. Wodney can’t pronounce his R’s. And Pinkerton loves to be first in all things. Sound like anyone you know?

That is precisely the point. Lester’s creativity and relatable writing are what charm her readership and make her such an endearing author.

It was not until she took a break from teaching to care for her two sons, Rob and Jamie, that she began to focus on the possibility of writing as a career. “My husband kept encouraging me,” she recalls. She and her husband, Robin, a noted author in his own right, were living in Manhattan at the time. During Christmastime one year, Lester ran into an acquaintance from the Trinity School, the private boys’ school where her husband was headmaster. The woman, who happened to work at a publishing company, offered to help Lester put together a sample “dummy” book for submission to book publishers. Lester accepted the offer and came away with a 32-page draft of Cora Copycat, the story that would become her first published work.

Understandably, the road to a writing contract was no easy feat. Lester attended school at the former Bennett College in Millbrook and Wheelock College in Boston, but she had no formal, professional writing experience.

A Partner in Design . . .

“I got a lovely little collection of rejection notices,” she reveals. Yet after only six or seven tries – a remarkably low number for an aspiring writer – she signed with E.P. Dutton in 1979. It helped that, as a resident of New York City, she was able to walk straight into publishing offices to submit her manuscripts. The publication of Cora, complete with illustrations by Lester herself, motivated her to continue writing. Unfortunately, afterward she hit a three-year roadblock of rejection after rejection before switching publishers to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The caveat of the new contract? She had to leave the illustrations to someone else.

“They thought my writing was very visual but my drawings were on the simple side,” she admits. Houghton Mifflin paired her with Lynn Munsinger, an illustrator with a penchant for animal pictures who had just graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design.

“She draws what I would if I could,” Lester says, adding that she loves to challenge Munsinger with new animals, such as sloths, to give her a bit of variety. The two women have worked together since 1983, although they did not meet in person until they had already completed three books. They both value the motivation behind Lester’s books, which is to take a serious concept, such as bullying, pushiness, or inattentiveness, and treat it with humor.

The ability to impart important lessons about life is why Lester loves to stop by schools and present her stories. It’s also just plain fun, she admits. She has visited classrooms everywhere from Pawling and Somers to Indianapolis and Atlanta. Speaking with students remains one of her favorite pastimes, since she never knows what the children will have to say. She notes that statements like “Do you have clean socks?” or “I can breathe through my eyes!” never fail to charm her.

“My main purpose is to encourage children to write,” she explains. She personally makes a point to scribble a line or two whenever an idea strikes her. Although the process to get a book together can be a challenge, it is always worth the effort when she sees it all in print.

. . . And a Partner in Life

“Being stuck is all part of it,” she assures. Luckily, she has her husband, Robin, to bounce ideas off of whenever she gets stuck in a rut. “With my kindergarten brain and his Ph.D. brain, it works very well,” she says. In addition to giving each other support and constructive criticism, the duo have also worked on a number of children’s books together. They spend their days in their Pawling cabin writing as often as they can.

“This was our escape,” Lester says of the couple’s Pawling residence. What started out as a retreat from their Manhattan home at Trinity School turned into a full time residence nearly twenty years ago. Although Lester has lived everywhere from NYC and San Francisco to Chicago and Minneapolis, Pawling remains close to her heart. She loves playing daily games of badminton with Robin and going for six mile hikes every afternoon.

“It’s a lovely place to be,” she states, adding that “it’s nice to look out the window and see trees” when she is hard at work on her writing. Currently, she is in the initial stages of a new book on bullying and another installment of Wodney Wat following her recent publication of Boris and the Worrisome Wakies in March 2017.

With a never-ending stream of ideas, a partner in crime, and a dreamy upstate retreat, Helen Lester has mastered the “write stuff” trifecta.

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