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The Century Plant

June 2, 2014
Most illustrators believe they have a picture book lurking inside them and I was no exception, especially since I also enjoyed writing. Twenty years ago during my illustration career I decided to pen a children’s book based on a story my paternal grandmother told me about a century plant growing in front of her grandfather’s house when she was a girl. For those who don’t know, a century plant is a large cactus said to bloom once every hundred years. In fact, it doesn’t take a century for them to bloom but it does take an exceptionally long time.






My story revolved around a little Hispanic girl who waited her entire life for a century plant to bloom, even hiring a truck to move it to the city when her parents passed away and the country house was sold. The little girl in my story, Maria, never married and became a school teacher. She grew old waiting for the transplanted cactus to bloom in the front yard of the little house where she lived on the edge of town. She used the century plant to teach her students about patience, and children often showed up in front of her house to observe the plant and check for blossoms.




When Maria was old she became very sick. As you might have guessed, the plant bloomed when she was in the hospital. Not wanting her to miss this long anticipated event, her students, many of them now grown with children of their own, drew pictures of the plant’s flowers and pasted them on the walls of Maria’s hospital room. I won’t bore you with all the details except to say my goal was to create a warm, sentimental story with an ethnic flavor. I never say the events took place in Mexico but I leave the readers with that impression. (I’d read somewhere that stories with an ethnic slant were easier to sell.) The pictures included in this post were samples of how I intended to illustrate this tale, with acrylic paintings and pen and ink sketches. I altered my style to simplify shapes and I reinforced them with strong lines to appeal to children, like a coloring book.





One day during a conversation with my art agent I mentioned The Century Plant. My agent asked to read it, was impressed and informed me she had an uncle in New York who just happened to be a literary agent. She sent him my manuscript along with these sample illustrations. We held our breath and waited.


Two months later we received a response. He wrote back saying that in the forty years he’d worked as a New York literary agent, my submission was by far the worst, most depressing children’s book ever submitted to him.


I’d briefly entertained thoughts of becoming a famous children’s author/illustrator, but my literary aspirations never got off the ground. I know I shouldn’t have given up so easily but my focus at the time was illustration, not writing. I still think this is a good story and one day I’ll probably resubmit it. Times have changed since I wrote The Century Plant.  Someday there might be a market for this story. I’m a patient fellow, but I don’t have a century to wait.



Yesterday my friend Bruce at Oddball Observations posted some beautiful photographs of a blooming Century Plant. Check them out (here). 




A week or two ago on the news they talked about one of those that's getting ready to bloom in Ann Arbor. It is kind of depressing that the flower waits almost 100 years to bloom, spread its seeds, and die, but it is a good metaphor for life. If you want to publish a children's book these days it's best if you're a celebrity of some sort. My avatar the late Butler Blue II even has a children's book now.
By: PT Dilloway on June 2, 2014
Is the red ball the bloom? I thought she was an old lady, not a girl, when it finally came out. Anyway ... I like your illustrations, esp. the truck.
By: Tom Sightings on June 2, 2014
Tom, when Maria was a child she hated the century plant because her favorite red ball kept rolling into it and she'd get scratched retrieving it. She asks her grandfather if he will cut down the cactus and instead he tells her a story of how special the plant is and how he's been waiting years for it to bloom. Eventually, she comes to love the plant.
By: Chubby Chatterbox on June 2, 2014
OUCH!!! what a review! now, off to see the bloom.
By: TexWisGirl on June 2, 2014
I don't think that literary agent knew his stuff. You story and pictures had me from the beginning, and I know it would have been a big seller in my area. I hope you try to get it out there again~
By: Shelly on June 2, 2014
I guess that agent never heard of "Bambi" or "Old Yeller!" What an asshole. He could at least say he doesn't see a market for such a story at this time or some nicer let down. I think with your illustrations it would be a successful story. Kids don't only need to hear happy sappy stories, plus the students painting pictures of the flowers is a happy ending to anyone with a heart.
By: Cranky Old Man on June 2, 2014
Yes, Stephen, I think that editor was having a bad hair day. You should definitely re-submit the story.
By: Catalyst on June 2, 2014
I cannot imagine that it was the most depressing, but it certainly hit a chord with him! I hope that you think about revising it ever so slightly and once again sending it out with a more modern view in mind.
By: Tabor on June 2, 2014
Well, what did he know anyway? I think it's a great story about patience, and the relationship between a good teacher and her students. Pishaww on the critic.
By: Coloring Outside the Lines on June 2, 2014
It is said that those, who can no longer do, teach. Could it be that those, who can no longer read and write, become literary agents and publishers? In any event, your story sounds wonderful to me, and your illustrations make it even more so.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on June 2, 2014
Dang, what a sourpuss literary agent. Maybe he was just pissed that his first career choice, motivational speaker, bombed. Hang in there Steve. I think your illustrations and writings are both awesome. :)
By: Scott Park on June 2, 2014
That agent didn't know what he was talking about. I love the concept. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on June 2, 2014
I agree, your story sounds lovely. Try again.
By: Pixel Peeper on June 2, 2014
I love the illustrations!
By: Val on June 2, 2014
You're right , you should have continued. You learn something from each story. The guy who rejected your story should have at least commented as to what could be done to improve the story or what he didn't like . Submit it to a different agent.
By: red on June 2, 2014
Perhaps he was annoyed at having to do this as a favour for his niece. In any event he was quite unpleasant and I wouldn't take his opinion as gospel. Do try again.
By: Hilary on June 2, 2014
We love the illustrations and the story sketch. I think you were probably too discouraged by the first rejection. Glad to know that you are breathing new life into it. Best wishes. The sample you have shared with us a fine piece of work.
By: Tom Cochrun on June 2, 2014
Well that was one hell of a punchline from that literary agent. I love the story and the illustrations!
By: Mitchell is Moving on June 3, 2014
I like the storyline, and the illustrations. Maria has a sweet, endearing face. Agents can be pompous. That one sounds like a rude jerk. Don't let one person stop you. Get it out there. You've an audience of customers here in blogland, for starters.
By: Robyn Engel on June 3, 2014
I like the story and its sentiment.
By: John on June 4, 2014
Sadly everything has to have a happy ending. But times have changed so try again!
By: LL COOL JOE on June 4, 2014
He thought of himself a little too much... an elitist type. The story line is wonderful, I think it is worth another try.
By: Daniel LaFrance on June 4, 2014

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