Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rejections and Acceptances

The last time you heard from me I was whining about being called for jury duty.

I couldn't imagine anything worse.

I have since discovered that there is something worse than jury service: getting REJECTED for jury service!

The day actually started well.

I'd been worried about getting up at the crack of dawn and finding my way to the remote city where the courthouse was located. But I neither overslept nor got lost on the unfamiliar commute. And when I entered the jury waiting room, lugging my battered briefcase containing six or seven children's books (hey, they said we might have to wait around all day), I was cheered to see how many of the potential jurors had their noses buried in books or hovering above Kindles. I haven't been around that many readers in ages. A judge welcomed us, then we watched a movie about the civic duty of serving on a jury -- or, as the narrator called it, "one of the most important things you may ever do for your community."

I had barely begun reading my first book when my juror number (#110) was called over the loudspeaker and I joined about fifty others in filing to a courtroom. We were told that the pending case was for pre-meditated first degree murder. They began drawing numbers for the jury and -- surprise! -- I was seated in the eighth seat. The judge questioned each of us about our backgrounds, then the lawyers began asking questions of individual jurors. Some of the questions were odd. Example: "If someone with a knife attempted to cut your _____ off, would you have the right to shoot them first?" (This question was directed at males.) Another example: "If you hear bad words in this trial, words that rhyme with 'itch' and 'truck,' will you be offended?"

So anyway, I'm sitting there feeling pretty good. I woke up on time. I got to the courthouse without getting lost. I was seated on what looked like a fascinating trial. And I was suddenly bursting with civic pride about participating in "one of the most important things I may ever do for my community."

Then the lawyers began to use their "peremptory challenges" to dismiss people from the jury. This means they are kicking you off for no stated reason, though it could mean, among other things, that they merely want to change the balance, or make-up, of the jury. It could mean they think you will not be impartial. It could even mean that they just don't like your stinkin' looks. You're not supposed to take it personally.

So they dismissed the woman sitting in front of me. Then they dismissed the young father of six-month-old twins (he was showing pictures of the kids while waiting in line.) Next we said goodbye to the guy with all the piercings who had been in trouble with the law himself a few times. I felt fairly secure. I thought I'd answered the questions well and humbly figured that I'd be an asset to any jury.

That's when the lawyer said, "The prosecution excuses Mr. Sieruta."

I was dumbfounded.

It would have been bad enough if the defense attorney had released me, perhaps thinking I couldn't be fair to his client. But it felt even worse for the prosecution attorney -- or, as they called him in court, "the government" -- to dump me. THE GOVERNMENT kicked me off this case???

Here's the part where I have to share a little personal history.

"Rejection" is the main theme of my life.

I think it started when I was five years old and got kicked out of a swimming class within the first five minutes -- for reasons I'm still puzzling over nearly fifty years later.

And it's only gotten worse since then.

I've been fired from job after job. (Not my fault -- really!)

I've had stories, books, and plays rejected by publishers and agents. (I know: welcome to the club!)

So I guess I should have expected I'd be dumped from this jury since, Heaven knows, I've been dumped everywhere else! But it still came as a surprise and it still hit me like a hard punch in the stomach. I sat there in jury seat #8 for a second, thinking "What is wrong with me? Why don't people like me? What negative thing do people see in me that I don't see in myself?" These were questions worth reflecting on, and maybe someday I'll ponder them while sitting on the banks of Lake Woe-Is-Me, but it was time to leave and I departed the courtroom the same way I move through life: inching sadly along like a snail, leaving a slime trail of leaking self-esteem...and lugging a battered briefcase containing six or seven children's books.

Later that day, however, my thoughts turned from "rejection" to "acceptance" when I received an interesting bit of literary ephemera via e-mail. Open Road Media is releasing one of my favorite children's books, MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS (which, strangely, I did not even read until I was an adult) as an e-book. Those who read this blog regularly know that I'm a fan of books -- I love holdling them, smelling them, hearing the rustle of the pages as I turn them -- and I have not jumped on the e-book bandwagon. But what intrigued me about this e-book version of the classic Richard and Florence Atwater novel is that it comes with additional content, such as a biographical essay, photos of the authors and their family and other archival material. Learning about this, I actually began to see one advantage that e-books could have over their paper-and-ink counterparts; they could include supplemental information and ephemera...just like a DVD with extras and Easter eggs!

One of the most intriguing items offered in this new edition is a copy of the original submission letter for MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS. I'm including it here. Click on the image in order to enlarge it.

Pretty fascinating, isn't it?

I was aware that Mr. Atwater was ill when the book was written, but didn't really know the full circumstances till now.

And I wonder if Florence herself, while carefully explaining what type of penguins should be used in the artwork, could ever have imagined how perfect Robert Lawson's eventual illustrations would be for this novel -- the one and only book she or her husband would ever write.

And, hey, do you think she's dissing Laura Ingalls Wilder in that crack about pioneer stories?

Reading this letter made me think that someone who has access to the papers of many authors, or access to publisher archives, should assemble a collection of the submission letters and acceptance letters of famous children's books. It could even include rejection letters for books that were later published and became big hits. (I'd love to see some of the many rejections that Madeleine L'Engle received for A WRINKLE IN TIME before Farrar accepted it...and it won the Newbery. Or how about Ursula Nordstrom's rejection of Robert Cormier's now-classic THE CHOCOLATE WAR?)

Wouldn't that be a cool book?

Wouldn't it be a happy book?

I can just imagine myself turning the pages and reading the various submission letters (some, perhaps, hesitant and timorous; other perhaps boastful; some perhaps naive to the world of publishing) and the corresponding publisher acceptance letters. I can easily imagine the author's joy upon receiving a positive editorial response. Acceptance is so much better than rejection.

...Which brings me back to my jury experience.

Ever since being dismissed (rejected! expelled! ousted! ostracized! kicked to the curb!) yesterday, more than one person has asked me: "Why do you even care? You said you didn't want to serve on a jury anyway, so what difference does it make if you were let go?"

I tried to explain my feelings with this analogy: "What if you were invited to a party by someone you hardly knew and didn't particulary like? You really, really didn't want to go, but you somehow felt obligated to attend. So you FORCE yourself to go and when you arrive, the host tells you that they don't really want you there. How would that make you feel?"

It's bad enough losing jobs you've loved, having favorite manuscripts rejected, or being dumped by long-time friends...but to be rejected for something you didn't even want to do is the lowest feeling of all.

It's like being turned away from a party you didn't want to attend!

Next time I get a jury summons, maybe I'll conveniently ignore it.

I'd rather spend my time daydreaming about authors nervously sending out submissions, getting those happy acceptance letters, and then planning big parties to celebrate the event.

Now those are parties I'd like to attend!


Rebecca Stead said...

Hi Peter, former criminal defense lawyer here, reminding you of the prosecution's burden at trial - to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. You shouldn't take your jury excusal as anything other than the prosecutor's judgment that you might be someone with a strong imagination. (When it is your job to eliminate doubt, you don't want jury members inclined to ask "what if?") If it's any consolation, I'm betting the defense was sorry to see you go.


Peter D. Sieruta said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response; I hadn't thought of it that way.

As a big fan of WHEN YOU REACH ME, I'm honored that you dropped by and can't wait till your next book is published!

Collecting Children's Books

Anonymous said...

everyone knows they always throw out the smart people because dumb people are easier to fool

Nancy Werlin said...

Rebecca's right. A lawyer friend of mine said that the only way I'd ever have a prayer of staying on a jury was if I showed only my "I work for a software company" veneer. I imagine librarians are as dangerous as writers to a "matter of interpretation and point of view" sort of case.

Lisa Jenn Bigelow said...

What with the movie, tons of families have been asking for Mr. Popper's Penguins at my library, and those who have already read it are asking for more books by the authors. I'm glad to know the reason there is only one book by the Atwaters, even though it's a sad one, and will pass it on to those enquiring minds. Thank you!

P. J. Grath said...

Coincidences: First, another blog I follow has a post today on the same topic:
Then an article in an e-mail newsletter I get, "Shelf Awareness," wrote of an author event at a northern Michigan bookstore where the author (who was at my bookstore the next day) talked about small towns and acceptance and rejection.
Oh, and then there was the penguin that appeared on the beach in New Zealand, 400 miles off-course. Did you see that story?

Kathy said...

P.J. McGrath sent me over here...and I want to offer my condolences for your jury duty rejection. Having felt the sting of some rejection at a meeting this week, I can possibly understand your challenges. (When I was on jury duty, I think I would have been glad to be rejected. I think. You never know in these scenarios.)

Dawn said...

PJ sent me over too. What a story! I was always glad to be rejected at jury duty..but I understand your feelings. Might have been an interesting case. But Rebecca is right. You are just to thoughtful for the prosecution to risk.

Bybee said...

I got rejected for jury duty as well and it was right after a layoff. Oh. The sting.

I must read Mr. Popper's Penguins.

Anonymous said...

I must know what was so special about the Song and Dance Man speech that it has gone down in history. I pulled out our Newbery & Caldecott Medal books 1986-2000 Horn Book/ALSC reference book and there is no speech listed, just some comments from the editor.

Marta G. (A Bilingual Baby) said...

Hi! I'm a new reader of your blog. After reading your post, I now want to buy Mr. Popper's Penguins, it sounds interesting :)