Fairfielder's book chosen as notable one by Smithsonian
By Rita Papazian
Nina Nelson has had many adventures in the travel and tourism industry, but it took one experience during a family vacation in the Amazon to give this mother of two the spark that catapulted her imaginative mind into writing a children's book that captured the hearts of a giant publishing company.
This Henry Street writer still marvels at her success with writing "Bringing The Boy Home," yet remains steadfast in her conviction that, finally, after many years following other career paths, including a stint at becoming an actress, she has found her true calling in writing children's books. Her first book, with her pen name N.A. Nelson, to keep the Amazon adventure gender-neutral, targets young readers ages 8 to 13. She is working on her second novel, "Walnut Girl" for Young Adult readers.
In 2005, Nelson's manuscript won HarperCollins' Ursula Nordstrom Fiction Contest, an annual children's book contest for debut authors. It was the winning entry among more than 200. In selecting "Bringing The Boy Home," Susan Katz, HarperCollins Children's Book president and publisher, said her book was "genuine, original and filled with suspense all key elements of a winning book for young readers."
"I'm a big believer in contests, It's a great way to break into publishing," said Nelson, during a recent interview in her home. Nelson was still in a state of exhilaration knowing her book had just been selected by Smithsonian magazine as one of 2008's "Notable Books for Children." In compiling the list, the editors described the books as "surprising, inspiring and outstanding."
The Smithsonian synopsis states: "Shared destinies entwine deep in the rainforest of the Amazon, where adventure, magic and hardship exist in equal measure."
In writing the book, Nelson's imagination took off from her experiences growing up on a farm in rural Missouri, between St. Louis and Springfield, where using the five senses is part of the everyday tools for a farm-girl childhood. She wanted to take that concept and drop it into a new environment somewhere outside the United States and she thought of her experience with her husband, mother-in-law and sister when the family traveled to Peru. Among their travel experiences was a guided boat trip down the Amazon. In the jargon of a writer pitching a story, Nelson said her children's book is "Lord of the Flies" meets "National Geographic" meets "The Sixth Sense."
The book is about two young boys, Tirio and Luka, an unforgiving jungle and one shared destiny. According to the publisher's notes, "Tiro was cast out of the Takunami tribe at a very young age because of his disabled foot. But an American woman names Sara adopted him, and his life has only gotten better since. Now, as his thirteenth birthday approaches, things are nearly perfect. So why is he having visions and hearing voices calling him back to the Amazon? Luka has spent his whole life preparing for his soche seche tentre, a sixth-sense test all Takunami boys must endure just before their thirteenth birthday. His family's future depends on whether or not he passes this perilous test"
In discussing her setting the story in the Amazon, Nelson said, "It's important that kids know what is going on in the Amazon and with the tribes who are being destroyed. The Amazon should be protected."
Nelson described one incident during the family vacation when she had developed a stomach ache. Their guide talked to one of the chefs where the family was staying. He grabbed a machete and went outside and cut some leaves, which he proceeded to chop up and seep in a tea. The medicinal tea cured the stomach ache. The author said that brought back memories of her own childhood growing up on the farm when her mother would serve her a remedy native to the family's environment to cure some ailment.
The author is interested in eco-botany and believes it is important that the plants in the jungle are protected. Therefore, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of her book will be donated to the Amazon Conservation Team, whose mission is to work in partnership with indigenous people on conserving biodiversity, health, and culture in tropical America.
When asked about the message in "Bringing The Boy Home," Nelson said she didn't set out to write a book with a specific message but when thinking about it, she said, "to never give up."
That message could very well apply to Nelson's own approach to getting her first book published. She had won second place with her debut children's book in another contest before submitting the book to the HarperCollins contest. Nelson won her first writing competition when she was in eighth grade and has been an advocate for contests ever since. She believes entering book competitions is one of three steps new writers should take in getting their first book published. She also believes writers should attend conferences and belong to groups to share their works and to get feedback from peers. For the past two years, Nelson has a joined a panel of writers at the Fairfield Public Library's annual Winter Words: A Writers Conference. In recent months the panel has spoken at Fairfield County libraries sharing their knowledge in how to break into publishing and find an agent. She is also a member of "The Class of 2K8," a marketing coalition of 27 debut authors who work together to promote and market their books.
"Walnut Girl," which unlike her first novel, "is a little closer to home." The storyline deals with a girl who lives on a farm and wants to live in a big city where she goes to high school. She describes it as "John Deere Meets Dear John" and follows a similar trajectory as her own childhood growing up on a Missouri farm in the town of Edgar Springs with a population of 197, and traveling thirty miles away to attend high school.
With two young children, a son, Rafferty, 5, and daughter, Soleil, 7, Nelson does not have a set writing schedule, although she finds time for writing usually after the children go to sleep. She recalled when she was pregnant with Rafferty she had insomnia and would go into the living room, put her laptop on her lap and write from midnight to 3 a.m.
Nelson is thrilled she has finally found her niche writing children's books after a very circuitous life journey. She was born in London, England, to German parents. Her father was in the U.S. Air force. As she notes on her Web site www.ninanelsonbooks.com , " After leaving England, my life becomes less spy novel, more Little House on the Prairie as my parents bought a thousand-acre farm in rural Missouri." Here, she cared for the farm animals, rode her BMX bike, built hay houses, and read "lots and lots of books" and when she got bored, she wrote mostly poetry. After high school, she attended the University of Missouri and the University of Hawaii-Manoa. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in travel, tourism and recreation. She has been an aerobics instructor, personal trainer, sales rep at a health and racquet club and even studied acting in Manhattan before she and her husband, a financial adviser with Wachovia-Wells Fargo in Southport.
As she says on her Web site: "So there you have it, my life: spy novel turned 'Little House on the Prairie,' turned chick lit, turned travelogue."
Nelson certainly has those "elevator book pitches" down pat.