A New Dream Begins

by Nancy Stidham Boutin '79

The New York Times Bestseller list, a review on NPR, and Oprah’s Book Club are the stuff of writers’ dreams. Readers, and most aspiring authors, have no idea how distant these goals are from the ordinary world or what it takes to get there. Children’s author Bonny Bulmer Becker ’72 knows the journey by heart. Last summer, Daniel Pinkwater, NPR commentator, read her picture book, A Visitor for Bear, on Weekend Edition. Scott Simon called it “a gem.” The book nestled for eight weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list; Oprah’s inclusion of Bear in her children’s book club represents one more dream realized.

The book that generated so much buzz tells the story of a tenacious, bright-eyed mouse determined to befriend a grumpy bear, despite the barricades Bear erects. On the flyleaf, Becker says there may be a lot of herself in Bear, but the petite blonde could have been her own model for Mouse. Anyone who has ever tried to break into the world of publishing probably suspects that there must be a grumpy bear inside, sealing the doors, windows, and chimney flues. But like Mouse, Becker kept working the barricades until she earned that invitation to stay for tea.

In the 1950s and 60s, while other little girls dreamed of becoming rodeo princesses or dancing on Broadway, Becker dreamed of creating the kind of children’s books she loved. Growing up in a house “with thousands of books on the shelves,” she still went to the library every Saturday to pick out more. Becker knew she wanted to be an author, but in Wenatchee, Wash., “the Apple Capital of the World,” she had no template, no role model, and no clear path for how to move from apple boxes to bookstores.

Although she continued to write nonstop through high school, by the time she arrived in Claremont, she had sidelined the notion of becoming a full-time fiction writer. “I just couldn’t see any way to get there,” Becker says. Instead, she chose a “real” major, psychology, and satisfied her creative urge with an endless supply of humanities papers.

She might have found a mentor when Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers visited Scripps and attended a Browning Hall formal dinner, but Becker received no encouragement from her “dream” author. “I got to sit next to her,” Becker says, “and gushed about how much I loved her books. But she was so cold and indifferent; I didn’t have the nerve to ask her anything. Travers did leave me with a bit of Mary Poppins magic, as ambiguous and deniable as that of her character. When she left, the salt shaker I just know was on that table disappeared.”

A year or so after graduation, Becker’s passion for words overcame her more practical side. Despite the experience at Browning, she realized some authors had to be more like her. “I figured writers must be real people— they’re not from Mars,” she says now.

“And if they could write, so could I.” Four years at Scripps had taught her that when you can’t see the path— find a map. Becker’s eyes brighten when she says, “So I thought, ‘I know, I’ll go back to school.'”

She took classes “here and there,” completed a master’s in creative writing at San Francisco State, and earned a living through her talent with word-craft and storytelling. The paychecks, however, came from journalism, free-lance assignments, and corporate communication—a world away from Mary Poppins and the Little House books.

Eventually, Becker returned to Washington, met her husband, and started a family. Although she’d written children’s manuscripts before her daughters came along, reading to the girls introduced her to picture books for the first time. “They were wonderful,” she says. “I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, found a critique group, and really started improving my craft.”

She did, however, keep her day job.

Subversive writing teachers advise, “If you have to have a job, write at work as often as possible.” Becker adopted that wisdom wholeheartedly at the aerospace company where she headed the communications department. “As much writing as I could sneak in at work, I sneaked in at work. And if I had a break, I’d close the door and be working on my picture book.”

“Children’s stories can be among the most fulfilling to create,” Becker says. “It’s a real challenge to tell complete, full stories that blend characters, action, dialog, and description very, very smoothly, all in a small number of words. You can write profound human truths and sheer nonsense simply for the fun of it.”

Then, one winter morning in 1994, trying to get her girls out the door to school, the phone rang. The acquisitions editor at Henry Holt wanted to buy her manuscript for The Quiet Way Home. “I started jumping up and down—silently. My kids knew something big was up and they started jumping, too, all of us there in the kitchen.”

Reviewers liked Quiet Way. She followed up with another picture book about senses, Tickly, Prickly. But Christmas Crocodile (Aladdin, 2001), put her on the “A list.” In the New York Times, Judith Viorst called it “a zany tale.” At Amazon, Brangien Davis described it as “a rollicking reptile romp.” Pinkwater read the story on NPR and a national cable channel featured Crocodile in its Christmas day book marathon.

Over the next few years, Becker published two middle-grade novels and two picture books, but none of her previous success prepared her for the grand tea party Visitor for Bear has become.

In addition to writing the next Bear book, Becker teaches at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, a low-residency MFA program on Whidbey Island in Washington State. There, her students say they find her warm and interested, “with a heart as big as her brain.” Available for questions and generous with advice, Becker works hard to help them make their own dreams come true.

 

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