Davidsonville author Melissa Stanton once had the world's best excuse for cutting work meetings short.
"I have to go," she would say. "George Clooney is on the line."
It worked because it was true.
Stanton, now 48, spent more than a decade at Time Inc., where she was a senior editor at Life and People magazines and worked on special projects such as the annual "Sexiest Man Alive" issue of People.
Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Stanton's husband went into work late that morning. As a result, he was walking toward the World Trade Center instead of inside the Twin Towers when the buildings collapsed.
The family relocated from New Jersey to Anne Arundel County, and Stanton suddenly found herself embarking on her second career as the stay-at-home mother of three small children.
Two very different books grew out of that experience. "The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide" was published in 2008. This fall, Random House released Stanton's children's book, "My Pen Pal, Santa," which was illustrated by Jennifer A. Bell.
"Santa," inspired by letters that Stanton's then-6-year-old daughter, Ava, wrote to St. Nick, imagines how he and Mrs. Claus spend their time during the 11 months of the year when they aren't making toys and loading their sleigh.
"I tried really hard," Stanton says, "to make this book work both for the kids who believe in Santa Claus and for their older siblings who might not."
Stanton is signing copies of "My Pen Pal, Santa" at several area bookstores in the next few weeks.
How did Ava start writing to Santa?
When Ava was in kindergarten, she began complaining that she never got any letters in the mail. I told her that to get letters, you had to write letters. One day in January, she appeared with this letter to Santa Claus. I thought, "Oh jeez, why couldn't she have written to her grandmother or grandfather?"
We went through the motions of mailing her letter. Then she kept checking the mailbox in case he had written back. Finally, I got some special stationery and I wrote a reply in Santa's voice. I put the letter in our mailbox and said, "Oh, look, Ava, you got a letter."
She wrote back to Santa maybe five times. It wasn't consistent, but every once in a while she'd write about something that happened to her, or something that was bothering her. She also wrote to the Tooth Fairy. And, maybe a year or two ago I was cleaning under her bed, and I found a letter she'd written to a leprechaun.
How closely do the letters in the book adhere to Ava's actual letters to Santa?
The book was inspired by her letters. I couldn't publish the actual letters because they were in kindergarten-speak. Sometimes I changed the situations. For instance, in real life, Ava was studying karate, and she wrote a letter to Santa asking, "If a bully is bothering me and I fight back, will I get coal in my stocking next year?" In the book, I changed it to a fight she was having with her brother after she went into his room without permission to look for the cat.
What was your relationship like with illustrator Jennifer Bell?
She and I were not allowed to talk while she was working on the book, though now we're in communication a lot. Once the publisher buys a manuscript, their art department finds the illustrator. The author has no say in who the illustrator will be or what the pictures will look like. The only thing I did was to send her a photo of the real Ava, and I asked that when she drew the Tooth Fairy that she make her pretty and not scary.
What Jennifer did that was so great was that she put all three of my children in the book. My editor thought that it would be too confusing if I gave Ava a twin sister, as she has in real life. So in the book, I made my other daughter, Corinne, into a cousin instead. There's also a drawing of my son, Jack, teasing Ava and telling her that Santa isn't real. There's even a drawing of our family watching fireworks, so my husband and I are in the book, too. I wrote Jennifer a letter saying, "Thank you. I can't tell you how much that meant to me."
How do your children feel about being in the book? Are Corinne and Jack jealous of Ava?
Ava is a very mellow kid, so she thinks it's cool. She's not overly excited about being in a book, but she's not embarrassed about it, either. As we were paging through the book for the first time, Corinne kept finding drawings of herself at the beach, or trick-or-treating or watching fireworks or attending a birthday party. She actually feels like she's in the book a lot.
When Jack was a baby, he was a Ford model. His picture was on the cover of Parenting magazine. So he's had his time in the spotlight.
Did the success of your first book, "The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide," make it easier to publish your second?
You'd think it would, wouldn't you? But I started trying to sell the book when the twins were 6, and they're 11 now. But it's a completely different industry. My first book required a lot of reporting and writing. This is a children's book.
Even after "My Pen Pal, Santa" was accepted, it wasn't until a few months ago that I told many people that I had a second book coming out. First, Random House merged with Penguin Books, and then my editor got laid off. I kept expecting them to tell me, "Keep the advance, but it's not going to be published."
"The Stay-at-Home Survival Guide" came out 2009. If you were writing that book today, how would you update it?
I wish I could update it. I would put in a portion about returning to the workplace after you've been a stay-at-home mom, and how people respond when you try to explain what you've been doing for the past 10 years. I would also talk much more about technology, which makes it possible to stay home with your kids while still being engaged in the workplace. With Facebook, you can stay in touch with your colleagues even after you quit your job and move out of state. I would also write more about stay-at-home dads. Society isn't as forgiving of men who voluntarily leave the workforce.
Author Melissa Stanton has book signings scheduled at 11 a.m. Nov. 30 at Edgewater Books in Edgewater; at 4:00 p.m. Dec. 1 at Greetings & Readings in Hunt Valley; and at 5 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Annapolis Barnes & Noble. Free. Readers also can download the book's Santa stationery for free. Details at http://mypenpalsanta.com/santa-stationery/
About the Book: "My Pen Pal, Santa" was published Sept. 24 by Random House Books for Young Readers. Recommended for ages 3 to 7. $9.99, 32 pages.