Fifty, “Enchanted”

This blog began as a birthday tribute to beloved author Gail Carson Levine. After a decade of rejections from publishers, her first novel “Ella Enchanted” was an instant commercial and critical success. It went on to earn the Newbery Honor from the American Library Association, one of the most prestigious prizes in literature for young people. I was surprised to discover that prior to publication, Levine worked 27 years for the state government of New York, mostly as a welfare administrator. Born Sept. 18, 1947, she made her literary debut at 50 years old.

I turned 50 this year. My own trajectory as a middle grade and Young Adult author differs greatly from Levine’s. I sold my first attempt at a novel. It received recognition from the ALA, though nothing as notable as the Newbery. Between 2001 and 2022, ages 28 to 49, I published 14 books translated into 14 languages. Three were instant New York Times bestsellers. One flopped so hard my publisher incinerated 2,500 unsold copies instead of even making an attempt to persuade readers to buy them. Yet another was made into a movie. I had career highs and lows and everything in between. 

Writing is a solitary vocation. For two decades I cut myself off from people in my real life to fully inhabit the characters in my imagination. In September, 2021, I found myself at a crossroads. I didn’t want to spend any more hours alone, squaring off with the blank screen. I’d defined myself by my writing for so long that I struggled with a mid-life identity crisis: Who was I if not an author? The question was terrifying … and liberating.

Taking a break from writing books freed me to explore opportunities I hadn’t time or energy to consider before. Princeton Public Library has always been my favorite place in town. I’m so proud to enter my third year as part of the phenomenal Youth Services team dedicated to promoting so much more than literacy: We foster a sense of community. More improbable, I’m performing in a band with professional musicians for the first time in my life. When I sang in Hinds Plaza with New Yacht City as a part of PPL’s Listen Local series in June, I fulfilled a dormant dream I’d long believed was way too late to come true. 

I’m continually inspired by unexpected mid-life pivots. I think of Carolyn Cochrane, Michelle Newman and Kristin Nielsen, three Minnesotans in their fifties who taught themselves how to produce and promote their hit “Pop Culture Preservation Society” podcast. Or Pamela Robinson and Catrina Dyer-Taylor, who formed the Over 40 Double Dutch Club. A documentary chosen for the PPL Student Film Festival titled “Evolene” followed Zhang Xiaohua, a 49-year-old painter who left a corporate career to pursue her passion for abstract expressionism. 

And, of course, Gail Carson Levine. Though her story is the inverse of my own, it propelled me to take this post in a direction I hadn’t originally anticipated. What a perfect metaphorical takeaway for this next phase of life.

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