Colleen Murray Fisher’s life-long aspirations have always been geared toward benefiting children in some way. Today, she not only teaches fourth-grade students in the Livonia school system, but is an up-and-coming children’s book author and illustrator who has collaborated on several books and flew solo on one that earned her acclaim here in Michigan. Fisher wrote and illustrated “The One and Only Bernadette P. McMullen,” a USA News Best Books finalist. She also illustrated “Oh No! Ah Yes!” and “I Can Dance, Too!” Most recently, she wrote “Miss Martin is a Martian,” which was chosen as the Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principal Association’s “Children’s Book Award Winner.” Fisher graduated from Michigan State University, where she earned a master’s degree in teaching and curriculum. She has been teaching elementary children for 14 years. She and her husband reside in White Lake Township with their children, Sofie and Sam, who the couple recently adopted children from Ethiopia.
How did you make the transition from teacher to children’s book author/illustrator?
CMF: Actually, I was getting my master’s degree for teaching and my first book was actually a writing assignment for that master’s class, and it eventually became published.
You seem to target the elementary school-aged child. Do you have plans to write to an older age group or a young adult novel or series?
CMF: No, most of my ideas come from teaching or my experience teaching elementary school children, so that is my main focus and target audience.
Which of your books is your very favorite and why?
CMF: Oh, that’s hard. That’s like trying to decide between your favorite child. I have “The One and Only Bernadette P. McMullen,” (and it) is one of my favorites because it’s the first book that I wrote and illustrated. But if I was a child, my favorite book would be “Miss Martin is a Martian,” because that’s my sense of humor and the type of book I would enjoy reading the most — so both of those two.
As an educator and literary enthusiast, do you see a lag in literacy in our youth?
CMF: Yes, actually I do. I see kids that you know there’s too much exposure to television, movies and video games. It’s hard to get children to sit down and want to read a book. That’s what I would say. But in terms of the actual amount of literature, there’s a lot of good writing and good books out there. It’s just that children have to want to read them, and parents and teachers have to want to expose children to that as much as possible.
How do parents encourage their children to read?
CMF: That comes with starting off really early and helping them find really good books out there where they can see that there’s humor or adventure and different things like that and just sitting them down each day and reading with them and making it a special moment early on. My own children are adopted, and when they came home from Ethiopia, they did not speak English. We just sat every single day reading with them and they both loved to read. It’s enjoyment just to be in the bedroom either sitting down with us or finding a cozy spot in the house to do that. So get them early on and make it a special moment.
Do you see a direct correlation between reading and good writing?
CMF: Yes, actually I do. My own mother was a teacher and exposed me a lot to children’s books as a child. From that, you want to be a writer. I was exposed to young authors’ competitions in elementary school. My first book I wrote in elementary school was actually based on one of my favorite books as a child, “Alexander and the Terrible Horrible Very Bad Day.” I wrote a similar story based on that and I kind of looked at my favorite books to guide my own types of writing, so I believe there is a direct correlation, yes.
Where do you come up with ideas for your books?
CMF: Mostly they’re based on my experiences with my students in my classroom, and just the humorous events that happen, also some of the sad, like the teasing and things like that, as well as some of the funny things that come out of my own personal kids’ mouths, and the relationship between teacher and student, and mother and child.
What literary devices do you employ in your writing?
CMF: The “Bernadette” book is kind of a circular book where the meaning comes back around. “Miss Martin” is written in a journal format, a diary-type format. I don’t really use rhyme, prose things like that, just different snippets here and there of humor I add into every part of it.
How did you get your first book published?
CMF: It was initially rejected about 10 years after I wrote it for my master’s class, but I had hopes because it had “maybe” pile written on the envelope and crossed off. I basically sent it around to places, and one eventually accepted it. I went online and made changes to it based on what different publishers wanted and eventually a publisher at Ferne Press accepted it, but it was a rigorous process and didn’t come easily. I sent it probably to 18 different publishers and a few had positive feedback and eventually one accepted it. My next one was part of a writing contest.
For the serious writer, what advice can you offer in regards to getting a book published?
CMF: I would definitely say you need to do research. Get online or get a book about what each publisher is looking for, as well as just the rules for submitting. Some require you send a letter ahead of time asking permission to send it, others have certain stipulations. I went on and discovered that most children’s books are 32 pages long. That’s not something that you learn in school — that’s something I connected research to. I went through and did that certain formula of a children’s book and stuck with it and didn’t give up. I looked at each rejection letter as a way to make my writing better.
Do you belong to any writer’s groups and if so, how do these memberships help with the brainstorming or publishing process?
CMF: I belong to a group of local authors called the Page Turner Society. We formed about a year ago. Basically, we’re not so much a writer’s group — most of us are published authors — but basically we meet together and go out and promote our books to people, but also talk about our ideas because we want future books to come out of our group. We sit down and share what we have, as well as what we’ve seen work. That’s the only group I belong to. I used to belong to the Society of Writers and Illustrators, but that was initially early on and I have not rejoined that group.
How do you decide if you will be the illustrator? Do you like writing or illustrating best?
CMF: I will answer the second question first. I actually enjoy writing the most. I also love drawing. I’m not a big fan of the coloring aspect of the illustration. The first book I wrote and illustrated simply because I wasn’t sure how I was as a writer, and (I) have somewhat of a natural talent for the illustration. When I sent that off, they asked me to illustrate two more books by other authors. Since then, my “Miss Martin,” that I wrote was for a writing contest. For that one, they already had an illustrator in mind. I have one coming out the spring I was asked to illustrate and someone had already written it. It just depends. I do enjoy the writing part the most.
Since you are a freelancer by trade, how do you prioritize your time? Do you set aside a certain time of day to your craft?
CMF: Yes, as soon as my kids go to bed (is when I write). If I’m currently working on a book or project, then I will sit down and work as long as I can stay awake and still be enjoyable and be a great teacher. I also do that on my vacations from teaching. Of course, my role as a mom, wife and teacher come first, and then the writing.
What other events do you engage in to propagate your work?
CMF: I do book signings. I join with other authors and do fairs in the summer time like Milford Memories, ones like that. I just did an assembly in my hometown, Marlette, (Mich.), which was wonderful. That’s a little difficult as a teacher — it’s hard to have that time off, but it so happens it was Martin Luther King Day. My school didn’t have school, but that school did. I work it in there. Basically do different things with other authors and it’s a lot of fun.
What do you hope a child walks away with after he/she has read one of your books?
CMF: Both my books that I wrote — I have others I have illustrated — I hope that they first of all enjoy the aspect of reading and they love them both and enjoy them. As far as my “Bernadette” one — being proud of who you are, and my “Miss Martin is a Martian” one is about that relationship between a child and a teacher and that wonderful role between those two. I hope that’s what they walk away with.