In August 2012, I drove through the golden-yellow Flint Hills for the first time. I’d applied to K-State’s Children’s Lit program because I wasn’t sure what else to do after college. I liked kid’s books and I liked school, and the thought of getting a job gave me existential dread. It ended up being the best choice I could’ve made.
My two years in Manhattan were a blast. I loved hanging out in the Bullpen with my fellow GTAs, grabbing drinks at Auntie Mae’s, listening to my friends read at Poetry on Poyntz, and hiking Konza Prairie whenever I got the chance. And I loved everything I was reading and learning—especially in my children’s lit classes. For my master’s project, I researched giant food in picture books (think Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) with Phil Nel. People laugh when I tell them that.
In a final-semester panic, I signed up for Han Yu’s Technical Communication course and an editing internship. Those experiences helped me land a job as a technical writer for a healthcare IT company called Epic in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s one of those Google-ish places with slides and funky statues and gelato in the cafeteria. I literally applied because my friend Kylie told me they had a treehouse.
In the meantime, I kept growing a children’s book career on the side. I joined a couple writing workshop groups in Madison, and I made time in the mornings and evenings to work on my own novels. I attended events with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and made friends with everyone I could in the industry. I even landed a literary agent. But I still didn’t know how to turn my love of children’s books into a career.
In 2019, a dream opportunity landed in my lap: Content Development Editor at American Girl. I’d never played with the dolls or read a single AG book—but here was a children’s lit publisher right in my city. What a dream! Ahead of my interview, I checked out every AG book I could find at the library and figured out which historical girl was most like me (Kit, the writer) in case my interviewers asked (they didn’t). My experience at K-State absolutely helped me land the job. During the interview, I talked about my master’s project, the expertise I’d gained in my K-State courses, and the children’s lit class I taught. When I got the offer, I burst into tears.
I fell head-over-heels in love with my new role. On paper, I was supposed to write articles for AG’s parenting blog and create comic books featuring doll-sized accessories. But quickly, my responsibilities evolved. I started writing nonfiction advice books: Love the Earth, Pets, A Smart Girl’s Guide: Body Image, and a few I’m not legally allowed to mention before they’re published. Watching ideas spring from my imagination and become beautifully illustrated books felt like magic.
Next, I started editing fiction books. My first assignment was to develop the two-book series for Corinne Tan, the first Chinese American Girl of the Year. I hired the author, Wendy Shang (she’s a rockstar), and worked with her to create Corinne’s story. I also hired an advisory board—experts in ski patrol, ice skating, anti-racism, and Chinese American history—and worked with them to make the story as accurate as possible. When the books finally came out, I made my first visit to the American Girl store in Chicago. Yes, my Corinne doll and I ate lunch in the café. Yes, a group of seven-year-olds were celebrating a birthday at the table next to us.
American Girl is most famous for their historical characters, so when I got the chance to develop a book series about twins living in 1999 (yes, the 90’s is history), I jumped at it. I worked with real-life twin authors Julia DeVillers and Jennifer Roy to develop two journal-style books and one novel. I had so much fun reminiscing about my own childhood, jamming out to my favorite tunes from fourth grade, and looking through my Y2K time capsule. Isabel and Nicki Hoffman were released on February 22, 2023, making my entire generation feel old.
Working for a high-profile brand did have its downsides. In December 2022, my advice book, A Smart Girl’s Guide: Body Image, hit the headlines. Right-wing media found out that the book deals with gender identity, and they started spreading lies and hatred toward me, AG, and the transgender community. The Daily Mail posted pictures from my Instagram account, and I started getting hate mail and death threats. (I printed out the messages and turned them into a rainbow collage, which I hung above my cats’ litter box. That helped.)
A couple months later, I got laid off. (The day before the 90’s launch. Womp.) I was devastated to leave my favorite job ever. But deep down, I was also excited to start a new chapter of my career. I’d been toying with the idea of freelancing and had started getting advice from other professional writers I knew. Now, I’m reaching out to children’s book editors for work-for-hire projects, writing my own novels, and continuing to learn everything I can about the freelance writing life. (Hit me up if you have tips!) I’m excited to have more freedom over what I write and when I write it, without having to get my ideas approved by anyone.
When I drove through the Flint Hills to Manhattan ten years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. But K-State felt right, and my degree set me on a path to a career I loved. Today, the landscape around me looks new all over again. But the path still feels right.
I’d love to talk more about kids books, freelancing, or the fact that Tamagotchis are now historical relics. You can reach me at melhammondbooks.com.
— Mel Hammond (MA ’14)