Athens Author Bettye Stroud’s First Children’s Book, Down Home at Miss Dessa’s, Published
by Donny Seagraves
Athens native Bettye Stroud, a former library media specialist at Barnett Shoals Elementary School, had always planned to write a book some day. After retiring three years ago, she fulfilled her literary aspirations and has just sold her first children’s picture book, Down Home at Miss Dessa’s, to Lee and Low Books, a New York publisher that specializes in multicultural children’s books.
Down Home at Miss Dessa’s is the story of a lonely old woman who is visited by two young girls.
“When they get to her house, Miss Dessa walks out on the porch to greet them and falls on the steps, spraining her ankle,” explains Bettye, “so the girls get a chance to spend time with her as they help her. They thread the needle for her quilts because she doesn’t see very well. They take care of her.
“That night, the girls put the woman to bed, tuck her in, and read her a bedtime story. The book ends with the girls climbing onto the bed as the sweet smell of honeysuckle drifts in through the window.”
Although Down Home at Miss Dessa’s is her first book sale, it is not the first book Bettye has completed and submitted to publishers. Her first book, Running With the Wind, is a children’s middle-grade novel (written for readers approximately eight to 12 years of age, usually from a child’s point of view and with children as the main characters).
After sending it to a number of publishers and receiving rejections, one editor wrote back and said she couldn’t use the book because her company didn’t publish much middle-grade fiction. But, she added, she would love to see a down-home, regional picture book.
“So I wrote her back and said that I was working on a picture book, which wasn’t really true until she showed an interest,” says Bettye.
After Bettye wrote Down Home and sent it to the interested editor, the book was rejected again. “So I started sending it out to other publishers,” she says. After about 20 submissions, Lee and Low bought it early this year.
Before signing a contract with Lee and Low, Bettye worked for several months with an editor who suggested changes in the manuscript, such as switching from a third-person point of view to first person.
“After I changed the point of view, the editor picked up the phone and called and said, ‘I like it; it’s getting better. But you need to do more rewriting.’ So we went through a couple of revisions.”
By the time the editor called in February and said she was buying the book, Bettye was thrilled but not surprised. “We had quite a relationship by then,” she says. “I expected something to come of it.”
Bettye’s work has a definite “Southern feel,” she says. “Most of my stories are intergenerational. My mother died of tuberculosis when I was five, and my dad was away in the army. I grew up with a great-aunt and uncle.
“My Uncle George, who was a minister, had a great influence on me and I loved him dearly. When my dad got remarried, he moved to Michigan. But I stayed behind in Athens with my extended family.”
The editors at Lee and Low were looking for a regional flavor, explains Bettye. “But some other editors didn’t care for it at all. Each editor has a different idea. That’s why a writer needs to send her work out to many different publishing houses. You don’t know who wants your work. One company is taking one thing, another is taking something else.”
Bettye also writes magazine articles and has sold several to regional publications, such as Athens Magazine and Georgia Journal, and to a national publication, Country America, published by Meredith Publishing Corp. of Des Moines, Iowa.
A member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers, Bettye subscribes to several publications that offer help and inside publishing information to children’s writers. She sold her first book without an agent. “But I did have a lawyer look over the contract to explain all the legalese,” she says. She also negotiated with the editor on terms. “She gave in on some of the little things,” says Bettye, “but on the big things like royalties, she wouldn’t budge.”
The Georgia Council for the Arts recently awarded Bettye a $1,000 grant to complete a new children’s middle-grade novel, Gone North. At the Sandhills Writers’ Workshop in Augusta last year, she won Honorable Mention for Children’s Literature. This year she will attend the Highlights Foundation Writers’ Workshop in Chautauqua, N.Y. This conference features top editors and writers in the children’s field. “Everybody I know who has been to Chautauqua has had wonderful results,” says the author.
Bettye’s husband, Howard Stroud, who retired as assistant superintendent for Clarke County Schools three years ago, will accompany her to Chautauqua. She calls Howard one of her most enthusiastic supporters.
In addition to Down Home at Miss Dessa’s, which is scheduled for publication in the fall of ’96, Bettye has three other picture books and a middle-grade novel making the rounds of publishing houses.
“Publishing is a tough business,” says Bettye. She advises aspiring writers to “hang in there and hone your skills while sending your manuscripts out to publishers over and over, simultaneously. It is possible to sell a book.”
This article by Donny Seagraves originally appeared in Athens Magazine, October 1995, Vol. 7 No.4. and will also appear in the forthcoming book, Athens Writes: Authors With an Athens, Georgia Connection by Donny Bailey Seagraves. For more writing by Donny Seagraves, return to the Writing page.