Welcome to the tale of how I got to who I am today, author of Testing For Kindergarten, self-proclaimed “Testing Mom” and blogger for The Baby Ivy Chronicles. Grab a cup of hot chocolate and curl up in a comfy chair. It’s kind of a long story…
When I was growing up in Texas and Colorado, I dreamed of becoming an artist or a writer. However, I’d never actually met anyone who made a living doing either job. So, I opted to become a lawyer instead. Somehow, it made sense at the time. My legal career lasted until my firm sent me to the SEC to represent a guy whose financial futures fund was under attack. I didn’t know what a financial futures fund was. I still don’t. But I represented him anyway, falling asleep during the proceedings. The room was hot and the discussion soooo boring. I’m only telling you this because the statute of limitations for malpractice has run. I took this experience as a sign that I should find a different path. [Note: a year later this man was murdered. My lawyering had nothing to do with it, but isn’t that sad?]
My next pursuit – advertising for American Express – lasted fifteen years. I worked my way up to Vice President. Then one day, my world came crashing in. My boss called me into his office and said the two words dreaded by corporate drones everywhere: “You’re downsized.”
Psychic #1. Having no idea what to do with my life, I went to a psychic. The psychic told me to relax. In a few years, something huge would happen. It would change my life forever and I would finally have the career of my dreams. In the meantime, with two kids to support, she suggested that I find something meaningful to do that paid the rent.
A Business is Born. Lucky for me, a personal experience with my son gave me inspiration to start a business for myself. Sam was one of those toddlers who had an ear infection every other month. By the time he turned 3, we noticed that he wasn’t developing the way his older sister had. Eventually, we mustered up the courage to take him to a doctor who ran a battery of physical and psychological tests.
“I have good news and bad news,” the doctor told us. “The good news is…Sam’s speech and motor delays stem from the fact that he can’t hear, the result of fluid build up from all his ear infections. Physically, we can fix that.”
“The bad news is that we gave him the WPPSI – the same test he’ll need to take next year to get into school. He failed miserably. I don’t believe he can catch up.” And then came the kicker. “Mrs. Quinn, no private school in town will accept your son.”
I was devastated. We lived in one of the worst performing public school districts in New York City. With Sam’s delays, I felt he would need the small class size of a private school in order to thrive. Naturally, I called my mother. I’m lucky. My mother was a Professor of Early Childhood Education. With her guidance, she and I mapped out a program I could do with Sam at home to build the skills he would need for kindergarten. Every night, Sam and I worked together. To him, we were just playing. But in reality, each activity was selected to develop the 7-abilities he would need for testing and school.
One year later, Sam took the test again. I’ll never forget the call I got from our nursery school director a few weeks later.
“Sam’s results are in,” she said. “You’re never going to believe this, but he made the top scores in his class!”
Sam was admitted to our first choice school. Today, he’s a bright high school student taking honors and advanced placement classes. In fact, by first grade, his teachers were surprised to learn that he ever had any developmental delays.
The experience with Sam inspired me to co-found Smart City Kids, a company dedicated to improving every child’s chance of acceptance to the school
of their parent’s choice. We helped NYC families through every step of the admissions process with workshops and one-to-one consultations for nursery school and kindergarten, private, gifted and talented programs, and public school. While there, I taught parents how to work with their children, just as I had worked with Sam. To create the business, I partnered with a friend who had tons of experience (and a Masters Degree) in counseling families on education matters.
The Smart City Kids years. After researching the ins and outs of Manhattan school admissions, I turned myself into a beginner expert on school admissions in NYC. Happily, our families fared well. More importantly, I had a ringside seat at the crazy Manhattan admissions circus. Don’t get me wrong. 99.99% of our families were fabulous. And the children we worked with were wonderful, as children naturally are. We were written about in Forbes and the New York Times. I appeared on 20/20. It was an exciting time, but there was one problem. At the time, the business could support one person, but not two. I decided to quit so that at least my partner could make a good living. She has gone on to turn the company into a million dollar plus business, so I’m really proud of her and not jealous at all. I swear!!!!
Psychic #2. I needed a new direction so I went to see another psychic. Like the first one, she told me a change was in the offing. It was huge. “Can you give me a hint?” I asked. “I don’t want to miss it.” “Don’t worry,” she said, “it’ll be like hitting a brick wall at 100 mph.”
Chasing my dream. After leaving Smart City Kids, my husband and children held an intervention imploring me to get a real job with a regular paycheck and paid vacation. I had a better idea. Why not write a bestselling novel inspired by my experiences helping kids get into schools? “How long will that take?” My husband asked. “Three months,” I assured him. Did I know anything about writing a novel? No. But everyone said that my annual Christmas letter was really funny. How much harder could this be?
Lots of Hard Work. Okay, it was a bit harder. Working day and night, I finished the first draft in three months. A friend arranged for me to show it to a well-known editor. When I took it to her mailroom, the magnitude of the odds I faced became clear. That room was filled with dozens of huge containers holding thousands of rejected manuscripts sent by others who, like me, fantasized about living the writer’s life. Still, I dropped my script off and waited anxiously. A few weeks later, the editor called. She said she liked the first 100 pages, but then lost interest. “Good luck,” she said. “Be sure to show it to me if you rewrite it.” Ouch.
Setbacks and Breakthroughs. For three weeks, I was too discouraged to write. When my son told me to get a job like a normal mom, I went back to the computer with new resolve. For the next two months I edited and polished, working fourteen hours a day. Then it hit me. Maybe this was the big thing those psychics had predicted. I finished the book with new confidence. If two independent psychics predicted it, how wrong could they be? With my second draft complete, I needed an agent. Agents can be as tough to get as publishers. But the stars aligned in my favor. I mentioned to our babysitter that I had written a book called Telling Tales Out of School. “Oh, I know an agent. Do you want me to call her for you?” “Absolutely,” I said. Even though our babysitter had not talked to this woman in ten years, she got her number from directory assistance and dialed her immediately.The agent told me she wasn’t taking new clients, but she’d read the book and give me advice. A week later, she called to say she loved it. Could she represent me?
You Never Know Who Can Help. Meanwhile, my husband mentioned that a couple we had recently met and were traveling with to the World Track and Field Championships both worked in publishing, but he had no clue what they did. Still, he offered to call them for me to see if they could help. The next day, he asked, “have you heard of a book called The Devil Wears Prada?” “Sure,” I told him. It turned out that Stacy Creamer, one of our traveling companions, worked at Random House at the time and was the editor of that book. As a favor, she agreed to read my manuscript. At the track meet, I asked her if she liked it. She apologized, saying she hadn’t had time to read it. I figured she must have hated it but didn’t want to tell me and ruin our vacation. By the way, that’s a picture of Stacey winning a race. Besides being a book publisher, wife, mother and talented artist, she’s a world class athlete who runs triathlons ever weekend – not an inch of fat on her. But I digress.
The Most Exciting Day Ever! We came back to New York on a Friday. The next Monday morning, I received an e-mail from Stacy. “Karen, I read the book over the weekend. Love it and want to publish it! My screams of joy could be heard all the way in Harlem (and I lived downtown). I called my agent to tell her the good news. She alerted the other editors to whom she had already submitted the book that an offer was coming. By evening, we had three other offers. An auction was held that went on for three days. The book was sold to Viking. They later changed the name of the book to The Ivy Chronicles. I got my picture in Publisher’s Weekly! Let me tell you, this was way more exciting than hawking credit cards and defending financial futures funds (whatever those are).
Then Hollywood Called. Before The Ivy Chronicles was even published, my agent sent it to a CAA agent she knew in Hollywood who gave it to Catherine Zeta Jones. Catherine absolutely loved it and wanted to play Ivy. Now, if you read the book, you’ll agree that Catherine Zeta Jones is the last person you could ever imagine in the role of Ivy, but I wasn’t going to complain. Catherine took the property (in Hollywood that’s what they call it) to Jerry Weintraub (Ocean’s 11, 12, 13). He agreed to produce and got Warner Brothers on board. A very good script was written (I thought). After Catherine read it, she said she thought she was too young to play the role of Ivy and dropped out. She had two kids at the time and was married to Michael Douglas. Too young? I think not. Warner Brothers brought in two new script writers who started all over again. They wrote a screenplay that, again, I thought was excellent. Next thing I knew, Sarah Jessica Parker was on board to play Ivy. Yay! I love her and think she’s perfect for the role. For the third time, a new screenwriter was brought in – Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote the screenplay for The Devil Wears Prada. Do you see how my life has gone full circle here? Aline wrote yet another script and now, well, that’s where we are now. All I can say is that I’m emitting positive energy to the universe (ala The Secret) so that the movie gets made, but only the Hollywood Gods know for sure (and they’re very fickle from what I’ve seen so far). I’ll keep you posted.
Richard and Judy. The other exciting thing that happened with The Ivy Chronicles release was that Richard and Judy picked it for a summer read. Who is Richard and Judy, you ask? Obviously you aren’t from the UK. Why, they are the Oprah of the UK! When Richard and Judy pick your book, it becomes an automatic bestseller. Every bookstore from London to Limerick puts your book in the window with a “Richard and Judy Pick sticker” on it! Richard and Judy do a big show segment about your book (the segment is posted in my Media section). Ivy became a big bestseller there, which gave me a wonderful audience in that part of the world.
Post Ivy Chronicles. After Ivy was sold, I went out and bought every book on “how to write a book” that was ever written. I decided that if I was going to do this for a living, I should learn more about the craft. I also joined a writing group, which I recommend to anyone who wants to write. In the years after Ivy was published, I wrote three more novels – Wife in the Fast Lane, Holly Would Dream, and The Sister Diaries. Holly Would Dream is my personal favorite among those three. It’s about a woman who wishes her life could be like an Audrey Hepburn movie (who doesn’t, right?). At first, it doesn’t resemble one in the least, but by the end, she’s living her Audrey Hepburn – Cary Grant dream. This book combines three things I love: Old movies, fashion history, and cruising. Yes, I adore cruising. Don’t judge me for this. The book has been optioned to be made into a movie and the screenwriter is typing away as we speak. I’m an executive producer, which means (hopefully) they’ll listen to me when I try to cast my first born in the role of Denis King’s bratty teenage daughter. What we won’t do to help our kids, right?
Testing For Kindergarten. Have you ever heard the expression, “It was a book I had in me?” Actually, I may have just made that up. Anyway, I had two books in me. The Ivy Chronicles and Testing For Kindergarten. These were two books that I feel I was meant to write. It was a pleasure to write both and the words flowed through my fingertips as if I were taking dictation from the Big Writing Kahuna in the Sky. I wanted to explore the absurd side of kindergarten admissions in New York City, and I did that with Ivy. There were so many funny moments when I worked at Smart City Kids, and they all found a place in the book. I also wanted to be sure that everything I discovered about helping children get ready for testing didn’t simply vanish because I left my company. The information that I gathered and lessons I learned teaching Sam and other children were too valuable not to document and pass on to other parents. So I did that with Testing For Kindergarten. My other three books were also a pleasure to write, but they weren’t quite as easy and natural to produce as these two.
At this point, I don’t know what book I’ll write next, but I’ve been working on test prep/school enrichment website, TestingMom.com, since 2011. Here, we offer test prep support and information to parents who are looking for the best school options for their children. We also have an amazing school enrichment program there where kids can work on all their skills from math to English Language Arts to reading to computer programming and more! I love this helping children get better in school and want to continue to learn and write about it. Plus, I like the idea of writing and having parents write back to me, even if they disagree.
For the last twenty + years, I lived in New York City with my husband, Mark. We have two children, Schuyler and Sam, two Pomeranians, Olive and Bronco, and two cats, Smokey and Cookie. We recently moved to Coronado Island, CA and we’re really loving the good weather and beautiful ocean views. Contact me anytime at karen@Testingmom.com. I would love to hear from you.