Reaching Outside Your Comfort Zone by Guest Blogger Rona Shirdan

We’ve all faced times when we are asked to do something outside of our comfort zone. You have a choice. You can decline the opportunity and stay safe, or you can step out in faith and accept the challenge. My recent leap of faith led to my first leveled reader, Wangari Maathai: The Mother of Trees.


About five years ago, I attended a wonderful workshop at the Highlights Foundation called “Writing for the Educational Market. It was a comprehensive course that taught me how to research markets, create writing samples, and prepare a resume. They gave me all the tools I needed to successfully approach an educational publisher. I took a similar course at The Writing Barn. Even with my handouts, copious notes, and completed submission package, I was hesitant to reach out to submit. ATOS and Lexile levels were NOT part of my world. I am not a schoolteacher. I was certain that would be a disadvantage that would affect my application.

Last spring, I was approached by a writer friend, Lisa Crayton. She provided a referral to an editor at Benchmark Education. They were looking for someone to write a leveled reader biography for their “Represent” series. It would be a work-for-hire assignment and the subject was Wangari Maathai. Although the workshops prepared me for what to expect, it was still a new experience for me.

A work-for-hire opportunity means that the publisher establishes the topic, format, and guidelines that they want for the publication. The author’s job is to follow those specifications completely and meet the required deadlines – and those deadline dates come quickly!

My assignment was to write a 200-word, 16-page biography on Wangari Maathai on a first-grade reading level. The entire project was to be completed in six weeks. I was given 2 weeks for the research process – including an outline, 2 weeks for a rough draft, and 2 weeks for the final revision. I began by requesting books on the topic from the library. I used all resources available, including online videos. I wanted to find interesting tidbits that children would enjoy learning about. Then, I set to work on the outline. I was also tasked with providing suggested illustration ideas with captions. My editor was extremely helpful, providing templates and a sample of a similar project from their catalog. Each two-week checkpoint included feedback from her that I used to prepare for the next part of the process. I finished the project within the deadline and without any issues. The book was released in time to be used during the current school year. Several weeks ago, I received my author copies. It was wonderful to see my words matched with bright colorful illustrations. 

In September, I attended a Write 2 Ignite Masterclass on Writing Nonfiction for Kids and Teens, taught by nonfiction author Annette Whipple. She gave a fantastic presentation and provided a wealth of resources and tools to attendees. I was asked to share my experience with the group. Hopefully, it provided encouragement for them to also consider stepping out and taking a chance. Good things can happen from it!

I continue to focus on working with my picture book clients. I REALLY enjoy the relationships I’ve established with fellow picture book writers who are moving through the revision process. I am also currently working on a collaborative project that is quite exciting! I welcome future work-for-hire assignments, especially ones geared toward the youngest audiences. Because, after all, it’s now an opportunity that is within my comfort zone! 

If any first-grade teachers are looking for a biography for their students, please consider introducing them to Wangari Maathai. Benchmark Education provides a teacher’s guide and other great resources in their social studies package. Wangari Maathai: The Mother of Trees is available in bulk distribution only by the publisher. For more information click here.

Rona Bio Pictures for "Reaching outside our comfort zone"

Rona Shirdan is a freelance writer, editor, beta reader, and picture book mentor. She works with The Highlights Foundation as their Customer Experience Coordinator and Ambassador. She also serves as the Co-Regional Advisor for the Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of SCBWI .


3 thoughts on “Reaching Outside Your Comfort Zone by Guest Blogger Rona Shirdan

  1. Rona, this is excellent advice for adults, as well as children, who write! Congratulations on the reward of a published book because you dared to step out of your comfort zone. 🙂

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