the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Mama's Belly, by Kate Hosford

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Apr 17, 2018 @ 00:04 AM

Today we have a special delivery from Kate Hosford! Her new picture book, Mama’s Belly, illustrated by Abigail Halpin, is out now from Abrams!

 

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Mama has a belly rising up like wave.

Inside is my sister, waiting to meet me.

As a curious little girl eagerly awaits the arrival of her sister, she has many questions about what her new sibling will be like. Will her sister have freckles? How will her family change? With lyrical language and unforgettable lush illustrations, Mama’s Belly is an honest and gentle exploration of the excitement and anticipation in welcoming a new family member, and assures young readers that Mama will always have enough love for everyone.

 

Welcome, Kate! So, tell us . . .

What was the spark that ignited this book?

In the winter of 2009, I did an amazing picture book semester with Uma Krishnaswami. I had found a picture of my son, Charlie, and myself when I was pregnant with his brother. I was looking down at Charlie with my hands on my belly. Charlie, who was two at the time, was facing me with his hands on his belly, and a look on his face that seemed to say, "I don’t know what we’ve gotten into here, but I may be in over my head." This gave me the idea to write a baby-on-the-way book from the point of view of a child who is focused on his mother’s pregnant belly.

However, when I started writing the story, I seemed to forget about that look on Charlie’s face, and instead wrote a story that was a relentlessly positive list of things that a boy would do with his new sibling. Uma suggested that perhaps the boy might be a little more conflicted about a sibling coming and about the ways in which pregnancy might change his mother. I then tried to remember what it had really been like to be pregnant and have a child waiting for a sibling. I revised the story so that the mom is sometimes tired and grumpy from backaches and her inability to see her own toes. I also had the protagonist express a variety of emotions about the impending birth. He might look forward to washing the baby’s belly, but also wonder if the baby would steal his blanket. At some point, I changed both the protagonist and the baby to females and the story became about a girl waiting for her sister to be born. 

Tell us how you sold this book. What was it like to find out?

I sold this book to Tamar Brazis at Abrams. I had probably been submitting stories to Tamar for over ten years at that point, and although she hadn’t bought anything before Mama’s Belly, she had always been kind and encouraging. After graduating from VCFA in 2011, I  continued working on the story. I knew there were already a lot of good baby-on-the-way books out there, but I hoped that I could make the voice of protagonist lyrical and unique.

I also wanted to give the story more of an emotional arc and come up with a really important question that the girl could ask her mother. I happened to run into a pregnant neighbor who had a five year-old daughter. When I asked her what her daughter wanted to know about the new baby, she said her daughter had asked, “Will there be enough love for both of us?” Once I heard that, I realized that this is the important question that every child needs answered when waiting for a sibling to be born. I tried to make this question, and the mother’s answer, the emotional climax of the book. When Tamar read the story, she liked the voice, and that emotional moment in particular.

I found out that Abrams was acquiring the story in 2015, on my birthday. I couldn’t have asked for a better present. The gestation period for this book was very long—nine years, from first draft to publication—but finding the right publisher, editor and illustrator was worth the wait.

What was it like watching the illustrations come together? 

When Tamar told me that Abigail Halpin had agreed to illustrate the book, I was really excited. First of all, Abigail had done the covers for Uma’s two middle grade books, The Grand Plan To Fix Everything and the The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic, which was a lovely coincidence. She had also done a picture book called Finding Wild, which had a gorgeous palette and wonderful patterns and textures throughout the book.

The problem
Grand plan

 

finding wild

 

Her sketches took my breath away. Abigail created a complete world with this lovely bohemian family living in a log cabin beside a lake. She interwove nature throughout the book, so that things are growing and blooming on every page, which seemed to be the perfect setting for a book about pregnancy. The palette is beautiful and she has used so many rich textures and patterns. It is a visual feast for the reader.

Mama's belly

When the finished artwork came in, I cried from happiness. The world Abigial created reminded me of my upbringing in Vermont in the 1970s. I’m also really pleased with book trailer that video editor Nick Oleson created for me. I think the small touches of animation he added really make the trailer sing. It was also fun trying out different sound tracks and seeing how they change the mood of the book.

Watch the Mama’s Belly trailer here! 

 

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

I’ve been out of school for seven years now, so at this point, I’m almost used to the fact that often when I read about news in the children’s lit world, I am reading about faculty members or fellow students from school. However, when I really stop and think about how VCFA has shaped the world of children’s literature, it is absolutely amazing.

The VCFA community is an essential part of my life. I turn to classmates for support, critiques and advice, but most of all for friendship. I also feel that VCFAers know that normal is overrated, so it’s liberating and interesting to be around people who are proud of the ways in which they are eccentric, and people who understand what it’s like to be in the wonderful, crazy, unpredictable world of writing for children. 

What advice would you give a prospective VCFA student? 

1) Use your time at school to experiment with different genres, both in your reading and your writing. 

2) The more open you are to the influences around you at VCFA, the more interesting your journey there will become. 

3) Remember that your classmates are probably going to be your support sustem, your critique partners and your friends after graduating. Spend time really getting to know them.

4) Also know that it’s fine to take some time for yourself at residencies. These days are wonderful, and you will remember them forever, but they are also exhausting.  

5) VCFA is an incredibly supportive community. Bask in that support, and also provide it for others. 


Great advice! Thanks so much for stopping by the Launchpad, Kate! Welcome to the world, Mama’s Belly!

Visit Kate Hosford online at khosford.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Topics: picture book, Kate Hosford, Abrams, 2018 release, Abigail Abigail Halpin

Karen Kane and CHARLIE & FROG!

Posted by Tami Brown on Mon, Apr 16, 2018 @ 08:04 AM

Today we welcome alum Karen Kane with her debut middle grade novel CHARLIE & FROG.

imagesAll Charlie Tickler wants is for his parents to listen.

Charlie's parents have left him (again). This time they are off to South Africa to help giant golden moles. And Charlie? He's been dumped with his TV-obsessed grandparents. Lonely and curious, Charlie heads into the village of Castle-on-the-Hudson, where a frightened old woman gives him a desperate message-in sign language. When she suddenly disappears, Charlie is determined to find answers.
All Francine (aka Frog) Castle wants is to be the world's greatest detective.
Frog, who is Deaf, would rather be solving crimes than working at the Flying Hands Cafe. When Charlie Tickler walks into the cafe looking for help, Frog jumps at the chance to tackle a real-life case. 
Together, Charlie and Frog set out to decipher a series of clues and uncover the truth behind the missing woman's mysterious message. Charlie needs to learn American Sign Language (fast) to keep up with quick-witted Frog. And Frog needs to gather her detective know-how (now) to break the case before it's too late. Discover the surprising ways people listen in debut author Karen Kane's page-turning mystery filled with humor, intrigue, and heartwarming friendships.

Welcome, Karen!

Who was your favorite character to write and why?

Frog was my favorite because she was so easy to write. I simply channeled the many strong and confident Deaf girls I have met as a sign language interpreter.

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What was the spark that ignited this book?

The spark was my advisor, Amy King. Amy felt I would grow more as a writer with new material, not by working on a manuscript I had brought with me to VCFA. So I started writing short stories. Then, one day, I began feeling my way into a new middle-grade novel, which became Charlie & Frog. Amy loved my story and said to keep writing. So I did.

What authors do you love for their sentences? How about plot? Character?

I adore the craft book Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Every single page of this book contains gems about writing. Plus, I just love the name Verlyn Klinkenborg.

As for characters, I am passionate about Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. The plotting in Career of Evil, the third book of the series, is fantastic. I can’t wait for the fourth book!


Who were your advisors at VCFA? 

Jane Kurtz, Amy King, Tom Birdseye, and Tim Wynne-Jones. All four are super-smart. Each one has a unique set of writing talents. Being their student was a truly a blessing.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Each faculty advisor brings something special to the table. Tap into that. Not to sound too “woo-woo,” but there is always an energetic reason why you are paired with an advisor. Be open to that reason why. Sometimes what you learn from an advisor is something you never even knew you needed to learn until you worked with that person. And all of it, the struggles and the joys, are part of your writing journey.

Congratulations, Karen!

Charlie & Frog is published by Disney/Hyperion and is available at bookstores everywhere. You can learn more about Karen and her books at karenkanebooks.com

Topics: middle grade, WCYA, Disney, debut

Sarah Blake Johnson and UNSPUN: A Collection of Tattered Fairy Tales

Posted by Amanda West Lewis on Tue, Apr 10, 2018 @ 09:04 AM

Today we're talking to VCFA alum Sarah Blake Johnson about the the art of content editing and writing for an anthology of new "Fairy Tales"

 

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Whatever happened to “happily ever after”?

Heroes search for happiness, villains plot revenge, and nothing is as easy as it once seemed. Gretel suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, an orphan girl questions Rumpelstiltskin’s legacy, a monster cat searches for a child to eat, and the Pied Piper realizes stealing a hundred and thirty children may not have been his smartest idea.

Fairy tales have endured for centuries even though—or perhaps because—their conclusions are often more unsettling than satisfying. In Unspun, eleven storytellers come together to challenge and explore a few of those classic tales. Unexpected twists are sure to provoke both thought and laughter.

 

Sarah, this is a great new anthology. How did the creation of the book come about?

Ruth Nickle wanted to put together a fantasy anthology with a group of other writers she knew, and she choose the theme "after ever after," or, in other words, what happens after the traditional fairy tale ends. After several stories were completed, she and Katherine Cowley invited additional authors to contribute to the anthology. From there, they divided tasks. Ruth focused on some areas, such as the artwork, including the interior art; Katherine did the logistics, such as sending out drafts to the copyeditors and proofreaders and formatting the print and ebooks. I was invited to assist on the editorial side of the process.

You were the content editor for this book. What’s that process like? Did you wear a lot of hats?

My role as the content editor was to give revision feedback to each writer. I look at a lot of areas of writing craft when I edit: characterization, plot and subplots, scene arcs, setting, theme, pacing, etc. I focus on the big picture aspects of the story at first. I also touch on issues such as voice and some sentence level structures. I send the writer an editorial letter and notes inside the document. After the writer finishes the revision, I read the revised manuscript and give more feedback.

Can you tell us what you discovered by working on this anthology?

This anthology was interesting because I was able to work with ten different writers. Some stories, such as the princess in “Princess and the Pea” and the piper from “The Pied Piper” were fun to edit because of these writers’ exploration of characters that I had known from the original tales. It was also a delight to meet Snow White’s son and the villain in Jack and the Beanstalk and experience their different points of view as secondary characters from these common fairy tales. Plus, I discovered some fairy tales I hadn’t read before, such as "Tatterhood" and "Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf."

I also have a short story of my own in this anthology: "Ásthildur and the Yule Cat." It is based on the Yule Cat, which is a tale from Iceland. I lived in Reykjavik, Iceland when I applied to VCFA.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

Kathi Appelt, Uma Krishnaswami, Martine Leavitt, Shelley Tanaka, and Margaret Bechard.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

All that I learned at VCFA helps me every time I sit down to write. My experience at VCFA also helps me as an editor. When I give editorial feedback, I try to achieve what my advisors did for me, which is to help the writer not only write to the highest standard they can, but to also achieve their vision for their story.

Thank you so much, Sarah, for telling us about your process and multifaceted work on Unspun!

 

Johnson, Sarah 2016

Sarah Blake Johnson is the author of the fantasy novel Crossings. She graduated with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2011, a proud member of the Bat Poets and the Thunder Badgers. She has lived in various countries around the world including Brazil, Finland, Iceland, Nigeria, Germany, and Egypt. She will be living in Beijing for the next few years. You can find her online at sarahblakejohnson.com

Topics: Anthology, literary fiction, editing, Fairy Tales

Donna Janell Bowman and ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S DUELING WORDS!

Posted by Adi Rule on Mon, Apr 02, 2018 @ 10:04 AM

En garde! Today we celebrate the release of Donna Janell Bowman's new picture book biography, Abraham Lincoln's Dueling Words, illustrated by S. D. Schindler!

high res -Abraham Lincoln's Dueling Words_cover

Long before he was our beloved president, Abraham Lincoln was known for his smarts and his knee-slapping humor. In 1842, that got him into a heap of trouble.
    When he clashed with James Shields, a political rival, Lincoln came up with a rascally plan.
    It was silly.
    It was clever
    And it was a great big mistake!
    Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel!
    Lincoln would need his wit and a healthy dose of humility to save his career—and maybe even his life!
    A rare look at the more human side of Abraham Lincoln and how the lessons he learned made him a better man.

Welcome Donna! So, tell us ...

What was the spark that ignited this book?

Oh, goodness, I think it sparked from the realization that Abraham Lincoln, the man I had always envisioned to be as polished as his posthumous memorials, was actually as flawed and human as the rest of us. It was a complete accident that, in 2011 or 2012, I stumbled upon a one-line mention of his duel while researching for another book. The realization of Lincoln’s foibles collided with my preconceived notions, which launched a new research journey. As I dug into biographies of Lincoln and the letters and documents that survive him, I began to admire how he overcame his foibles. Lincoln’s mean-spirited mistake landed him on the dueling ground. He ultimately had a choice to either allow his great big mistake to define him or to teach him. Obviously, he chose the latter.

As I always do before I begin writing, I searched for mentor texts—picture book biographies—that focus on a less-than-stellar side of a famous person. Needless to say, there were few. Initially, I was a bit nervous about shining a light on an event that Lincoln himself was ashamed of, until I read his law partner’s recollection that Lincoln complained that biographies magnified perfections and suppressed imperfections. In fact, Lincoln argued that they “commemorate a lie and cheat posterity out of the truth.” It felt like Lincoln himself was giving me his blessings to share his story.

The more global spark of the story for me lies in a lingering question that I hope all readers will consider after reading my book. What would have happened if the events of the duel had gone another way and Abraham Lincoln had never been president?

Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?

In 2012, I had a first draft of the Lincoln manuscript (then titled En Garde!). I showed it to my agent, Erin Murphy, then continued to revise for several months while simultaneously revising Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness for Lee and Low. Once my Lincoln manuscript shined, I snagged a critique with Peachtree editor Kathy Landwehr at the February 2013 Austin SCBWI conference. By conference time, she had already contacted my agent to express interest. Kathy was most impressed with my voice in the manuscript. As you can imagine, being complimented on voice—that most difficult craft element to cultivate—made me giddy. Soon, we were under contract.

We did go through more revisions to further finesse the voice and the direct-address narrator, and to simplify and streamline the complex historical aspects of the story. It was a joy to collaborate with an editor whose vision for the book so closely matched my own.

Erin, Kathy, CynthiaAgent Erin Murphy, editor Kathy Landwehr, and author Cynthia Levinson toast Donna from afar at a conference.

What surprising things did you research for this book?
Geez, so many things! Bloody Island, the gentleman’s code of conduct, 19th-century dueling procedures, the differences between swords and sabers, the financial panic of 1837, Andrew Jackson and his specie circular currency (which was VERY different). So much of what I researched doesn’t appear in my narrative, but I had to understand it all.

Tell us about your writing community. Are you in a critique group? Does a family member read your early drafts? Is Twitter your bastion of support?

I’m blessed to be part of the Austin creative community, which is populated by a large group of talented, supportive, and prolific authors and illustrators. Our SCBWI chapter is active and fueled by heart and a desire to produce quality works for young readers. It’s an inspiring group!

I have been in critique groups throughout my entire writing/publishing journey, but my regular critique partners have gotten as busy as I have, so we most often email or chat by phone when we need feedback. I rarely ask a family member to read my manuscripts, in part because they aren’t writers and can’t offer the kind of craft feedback I seek.

As for Twitter, I admit to being a bit of a doofus. I’m still trying to navigate my way through the Twitterverse.

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What was it like watching the illustrations/cover come together?

Oh, my goodness, it is so exciting to see art for the first time and to watch it evolve through revision! In fact, I just received Adam Gustavson’s first sketches for my 2019 book King of the Tightrope and am reminded how I felt when I first saw S.D. Schindler’s art for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words. With every turn of the PDF page, it was like opening another Christmas present. I am always fascinated by how illustrators add layers through their choice of images, colors, perspectives, symbolism, expressions, scene-setting. I’ve been lucky that my Peachtree editor has included me in the illustration process. Not all editors include the author, which can be especially problematic with nonfiction.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

People often ask me why I chose to go to VCFA when I already had an agent and books published. Initially, I justified it as a way to enlarge my craft vocabulary, expand my writing interests, and acquire necessary credentials to teach. That was all true and the mission was accomplished, but it affected me in ways that I hadn’t expected. I gained new self-confidence in multiple genres, an incredible new family in my beloved classmates and the VCFA community at large, and broader credibility in general.

Harried Plotters moments before graduationThe Harried Plotters with their graduation wands, moments before graduation.

What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

Hold on while I get my family-sized box of tissues. The Harried Plotters are the most spectacular human beings that any girl could hope to link arms with. No matter our diverse backgrounds, our first day at VCFA made us equals. We bonded immediately and spent the next two very stressful years holding each other up during MLA-formatting crisis, essays, family deaths, essays, illnesses, essays, bouts of self-doubt, creative metamorphosis, exhaustion, critical thesis pressure, lecture rehearsals and cheering, wine pit laughter, tears of exhaustion, a book launch, tears of joy, hugs, random smiley messages—everything you could ask for from a family. I went enrolled in VCFA to earn three new letters, MFA, but I emerged with so much more!

Harried Plotters - Cafe AnnaThe Harried Plotters at Café Anna.

So true! :) Thanks so much for stopping by, Donna. Welcome to America and the world, Abraham Lincoln's Dueling Words!

DJBB IMG_1627a 5 x 7 72Donna Janell Bowman is the author of many books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book biography Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee and Low, October 2016) and Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Peachtree, April 1, 2018). In 2019, her book King of the Tightrope: The Great Blondin, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, releases from Peachtree Publishers. Donna has an MFA in Writing (WCYA) from Vermont College of Fine Arts and enjoys mentoring and teaching writers of all ages. She lives near Austin, Texas and is represented by Erin Murphy of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Visit Donna online at www.donnajanellbowman.com.

Donna Janell Bowman's headshot by Sam Bond Photography.

Topics: picture book, picture book biography, Donna Janell Bowman, 2018 release, S. D. Schindler, Peachtree Publishers

Varian Johnson and THE PARKER INHERITANCE!

Posted by Adi Rule on Fri, Mar 30, 2018 @ 14:03 PM

Today we're celebrating The Parker Inheritance, faculty member Varian Johnson's new middle grade historical mystery!

PARKER

And we're not the only ones who are excited. The stars are out!

"A must-purchase.” — School Library Journal, starred review

“A candid and powerful reckoning of history.” — Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Johnson’s Westing Game–inspired tale is a tangled historical mystery, a satisfying multigenerational family story, and an exploration of twentieth-century (and contemporary) race and racism….His protagonist is intelligent, endearing, and believable.” — The Horn Book, starred review

“A compelling mystery and a powerful commentary on identity, passing, and sacrifice. Fans of The Westing Game, which gets several textual shoutouts, and other puzzling mysteries such as Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer will appreciate the twists and turns of this meaningful tale.” — Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, starred review

For more info about The Parker Inheritance and Varian's other books, visit him online at http://varianjohnson.com/.

Topics: Scholastic, middle grade, Arthur A. Levine Books, Varian Johnson, 2018 release

Erin E. Moulton and THINGS WE HAVEN'T SAID

Posted by Adi Rule on Thu, Mar 22, 2018 @ 09:03 AM

Today, we're talking about Things We Haven't Said, a new collection of pieces by survivors of childhood and adolescent sexual violence, edited by Erin E. Moulton, out now from Zest Books.

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Things We Haven't Said is a powerful collection of poems, essays, letters, vignettes and interviews written by a diverse group of impressive adults who survived sexual violence as children and adolescents. Structured to incorporate creative writing to engage the reader and informative interviews to dig for context, this anthology is a valuable resource of hope, grit and honest conversation that will help teens tackle the topic of sexual violence, upend stigma and maintain hope for a better future.

Welcome, Erin. This new collection is a departure from the middle grade and YA fiction you've published. What was the spark that ignited this book?

This is the only book that has come directly out of my experience in public libraries. I was working with a group of teens on a project and had split them up into groups. Then, as usual, I started circulating to see who needed help. From the other side of the room, I heard one of the boys say a rape joke. Or, rather, I heard RAPE and then I heard laughing. I didn’t catch much more than that. I started to navigate my way over to them. In the same group, there was a new girl. She’d come from a few towns over and had never attended any of my programs before. As I go there, she was addressing the boy who had spoken. She said “Hey, some of us have bad memories.” I’m going to be honest when I say I fumbled. I didn’t know how to handle the situation or address it, so I redirected them to task and we all moved on. But it stuck with me. And as I often do, I started to look to the books. Later that year, I was tasked with weeding the teen nonfiction section and I came upon the 300s. There were some great resources on rape and sexual assault for adult readers, but far less for teen survivors. I started to wonder, what would a good teen resource look like? I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And that’s how Things We Haven’t Said was born.

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What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?

This book was a little bit different in that I was the editor. And I was the editor of a book on a very sensitive subject. It’s incredibly hard to ask people to write and change and cut things from a piece that is so close to the heart. A piece that takes a lot of bravery to put out there, anyway. And I was always worried about hurting the anthologists who had shown up for the job. Because of this, most of my editorial notes focused on things we could do to enhance narrative style, create cohesion and clarity. It was also important to me that people had power over their piece, especially in the question and answer component of the book, where we talk freely.

Tell us about how you sold this book.

A nonfiction book about sexual violence for teen readers? It was a hard sell when it was on submission in 2015. I do have an agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, and she championed the project. We had a lot of very nice, very heartfelt, rejections. No one rejected us outright, everyone wished us the best. We had exhausted our list when Zest picked up the project.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

During my time at VCFA, I was encouraged to write creatively and critically, and to experiment with genre. I’m so glad I did. I’m not afraid to explore with my writing. I have a few middle grades, a YA, a PB on submission and a nonfiction anthology out. I love the versatility that was encouraged and I’ve carried that with me.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Drink up the time you have at VCFA and try to explore all possible avenues of the creative process without worrying about publication process. There will be plenty of time to vex over the publication process later. Let it go for a while.

Agreed! Thanks so much for stopping by, Erin. And thank you for bringing this important project to life!

Erin-Moulton-325x325.jpgErin E. Moulton is the author of Flutter, Tracing Stars, Chasing the Milky Way and Keepers of the Labyrinth. Her latest book is Things We Haven’t Said: Sexual Violence Survivors Speak Out.

You can find her online at www.erinemoulton.com

Book Tour Poster.jpg

Topics: nonfiction, young adult, Erin E. Moulton, Anthology, 2018 release, Zest Books

Leda Schubert and TRAILBLAZER: THE STORY OF BALLERINA RAVEN WILKINSON

Posted by Tami Brown on Mon, Feb 19, 2018 @ 11:02 AM

Welcome Leda Schubert, an alum, emeritus faculty member... and fabulous writer. Leda is the author of ten picture books. She lives in Plainfield, Vermont, with her husband and two much-too-large dogs (one of whom is very annoying).

Leda has an important new picture book, TRAILBLAZER: THE STORY OF BALLERINA RAVEN WILKINSON and she's here at the LaunchPad to tell us all about it.

 

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"All Raven Wilkinson wanted to do was dance. On Raven's ninth birthday, her uncle gifted her with ballet lessons, and she completely fell in love with the craft. While she was a student at Columbia University, Raven auditioned for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and was finally accepted on her third try, even after being told she couldn't dance with the troupe because of her skin color. She encountered racism in her travels while on tour, but the applause, along with the opportunity to dance, made all the hardship worth it. She would later dance for royalty with the Dutch National Ballet, and she regularly performed with the New York City Opera until she was fifty.

This beautiful picture book tells the uplifting story of the first African American ballerina to ever dance with a major American touring troupe and how she became a huge inspiration for the pioneering ballet dancer Misty Copeland."

Welcome, Leda!

 

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What was the spark that ignited this book?  I learned about Raven when Montpelier's Green Mountain Film Festival screened "Ballets Russes," a terrific documentary about the company Raven danced with in the 1950s. The clip about her was quite short, but it grabbed me just as the story behind Ballet of the Elephants did a decade ago. So I wrote her a letter  (actual snail mail, and she still doesn't use a computer), she responded, and I left Vermont (the horror!) to meet her in New York. That first conversation led to many phone calls and this book, which I revised too many times to count.

 

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The best part was getting to know Raven Wilkinson. She is extraordinary person: compassionate, graceful, gracious, funny, smart, thoughtful, and more. There's an advantage to writing a picture book biography about a living person! Because of the book, she's been interviewed here and there, and that makes me very happy. She deserves all the attention.

Tell us about your writing community. Are you in a critique group? Does your son or mom read your early drafts? Is Twitter your bastion of support?

For years I was a member of a very small critique group; then another one. Now I am not, and I really miss it. The VCFA workshop model--as both student and faculty--was a huge part of my life.  I'm not as interested in the potential of an online critique group, because it's the face-to-face give-and-take that worked best for me. So I have no first readers other than my very useful husband, who is incredibly patient. I don't do twitter. Life is too short, and I'm already overdosing on political news these days.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?When I entered the program, I had published two early readers with Candlewick. When I left, I had a picture book contract for a manuscript I worked on during the program. Within a few months, I had the next contract for something I wrote after graduation. I'm convinced neither would have happened without the depth of learning the program offers. In my journal from when I was 17, I wrote that all I wanted was to live in Vermont and write children's books. The first I achieved all by myself in my early 20s. The second I achieved through the help of faculty and students in the program. Too bad there was such a long gap in between, ha.

TRAILBLAZER is published by little bee books. You can buy a copy at any bookstore and learn more about all of Leda's books--and the amazing class she'll be teaching at the Highlights Foundation-- at www.ledaschubert.com.

 

Topics: nonfiction, picture book biography, Leda Schubert, 2018 release, little bee books

Sharon Darrow & Worlds within Words: Writing and the Writing Life

Posted by Tami Brown on Wed, Feb 07, 2018 @ 09:02 AM

Welcome our own Sharon Darrow to the Launchpad! Out January 1st from Pudding Hill Press, Worlds within Words: Writing and the Writing Life.

Sharon Darrow brings her experience in writing for children, young adults, and adults to these lessons taken from lectures she presented during twenty years of teaching in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program of Vermont College of Fine Arts. Sharon graduated from VCFA’s MFA in Writing in July 1996.

What was the most difficult element to change during the revision process?sharon darrow book.jpg

Most of these chapters began as lectures for VCFA residencies. I had written them to present in my natural voice and to an audience of students working in a rigorous academic program toward the MFA degree. The revision process was meant to change spoken lectures into written essays that would be easier to read and yet still retain something of my spoken voice. That meant cutting parts, reworking sentences for clarity and concision, and making sure that the book could appeal to a wider audience of writers than just those listeners sitting in Chapel Hall already familiar with me, with VCFA, and with some of our unique VCFA-WCYA jargon.

 What was the spark that ignited this book?

I suppose it was partly my love for thinking and talking about writing, especially writing for young readers. As I was coming to the end of my teaching career at VCFA, I felt the need to do a kind of review of where I had been, what I had been thinking about, and what I had discovered during those twenty years. It is so hard to leave this job I’ve loved so very much, and this book seemed to be a way to end with a flourish, I guess. I also wanted to find a way to give back, at least in my own small way, not just with the lectures, but also in a monetary way. I intend to donate a portion of my profits from this book to VCFA-WCYA scholarship funds. When I entered Vermont College, I had no idea how much my life would change. Now, looking back over those two years of intense study in writing, then coming to help start the new program and seeing it grow, seeing us become a strong self-sufficient Fine Arts college, and watching countless students’ lives grow and change, I am so proud. Now, I have a very strong and satisfying sense of accomplishment in finishing that long and exciting chapter of my life.

What’s your writing superpower?

Superpower, huh? I’m not sure how super it is, but ever since I began writing I have told myself that I have an “idiotic faith” in my life in writing. At first, “idiotic faith” meant I believed that if I worked hard enough, built a strong writing process, learned as much as I could, and never stopped learning, I would eventually see my work published. That took many years, but it did turn out to happen. I suppose I thought of that kind of faith as idiotic because there was no evidence that I’d achieve the hoped for outcome. I simply decided that if it were idiotic, then that’s what I’d be. I’d believe and work and surrender to the outcome, wherever it took me.

 Later, as a teacher, I found that “idiotic faith” I’d applied to myself transferred to my students. I believed in them, in their stories, and in their dedication to what was deep inside them, driving them to aim for excellence. I knew they could become stronger and stronger writers, and, eventually, authors of wonderful and important books, stories, essays, and poems.

 Now, that faith seems far less idiotic as I’ve seen it fulfilled in my life and in my students’ lives and work. Now, my superpower is hope for my writing future and a not-so-idiotic faith that I will keep learning and growing through story for the rest of my life.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

It changed my life completely, gave me new purpose and a new career, new friends, new characters, and new stories—a whole new world. I also started writing poetry, probably the biggest effect of the program on my life and writing. Not to mention, a whole new place to live! I moved from Chicago to Vermont in 2005 and never looked back.

How does teaching at VCFA affect your writing life?

Teaching has opened new ways of thinking and being in the world for me. It has made me more empathetic and made me more decisive about my opinions on aspects of life and writing. A drawback has been that I’ve spent a lot of my writing energy on other people’s stories and have ignored my own at times, but that may be due more to my own distractibility and tendency to procrastination than anything. I have awakened many nights thinking about my students’ stories instead of my own, but looking back, I have no regrets about that. To have been a part of life-changing experiences in my students’ lives, similar to those my teachers fostered in me, is one of the most satisfying achievements of my life.sharon darrow.jpg

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student? What do you wish you had known before you first set foot on the VCFA campus?

The answer to both of these questions is the same: Do not be afraid! Be excited, be thrilled, but put away any fear. If you have been accepted, then you can believe you belong here. Come with open mind and heart, and meet a whole multitude of new best friends, companions on your writing journey.

Work hard and have faith!

 

Topics: nonfiction, 2018 release, Worlds within Words: Writing and the Writing Life, sharon darrow, Pudding Hill Press

Eric Pinder and THE PERFECT PILLOW!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Feb 06, 2018 @ 08:02 AM

Hey . . . hey, wake up. I know you're all snuggly and comfy, but just wait until you hear about Eric Pinder's new picture book, The Perfect Pillow, illustrated by Chris Sheban and out now from Disney-Hyperion!

Perfect Pillow cover.jpg

Brody is having trouble getting to sleep in his big new bed, so with his stuffed dragon, Horst, by his side, he sets off to find the perfect pillow. Would dry leaves or a cottony cloud make the right pillow? Would a nest to share or a gently rocking boat make a more comfortable bed? Brody and Horst search through the moonlit night to find the ideal spot for peaceful sleep, and together they find the best place of all.

Welcome back, Eric! So, we're wondering . . .

What unusual swag do you wish you could make for this book?

A stuffed dragon! Or maybe a friendly little Lego dragon. After writing so much about bears, it was fun to switch gears to dragons.

People do like stuffed animals. My two animal assistants for elementary school visits, an alligator and a penguin, occasionally show up for my undergraduate college classes as well, if I’m teaching Writing for Children. One student, glancing into the room before class, exclaimed, “You brought an alligator!? NOW I’m excited for class.” Minutes later, an elementary school librarian emailed to request an author visit, adding, “Please bring your green alligator!” Wait a minute… It’s a humbling career moment when you suddenly realize you’re actually the stuffed animal’s sidekick.

Penguin in class.jpgEric's penguin assistant, Ice President Aaron Brrr, audits a class.

How does teaching affect your writing life?

A student once turned in a chapter that was completely different from the one I'd assigned, because her story had abruptly gone off in an unexpected direction. She seemed half-apologetic, half-excited by the creative breakthrough, and said, “The only way I can really explain this plot twist is that my characters have been talking behind my back, and only recently decided to tell me.”

Moments like that are why I love teaching.

More writing does get done during summer vacation than during the school year, because it takes a lot of mental energy to closely read and edit other people’s creative work. (I keep forgetting: every time I assign the class one paper, I’m really assigning myself a dozen papers.) But it’s a thrill to see students discover new authors or explore new interests, and to hear about their first publications. When you’re in an environment where everyone’s talking daily about books and ideas and creative projects, it’s impossible not to feel inspired. The best way to learn is to teach.

tsar wars.jpgTsar Wars, Episode IV: A New Syllabus. Sometimes this is what it's like preparing the syllabus for a college-level World Literature course. But as long as these books get used in class, this totally doesn't count as procrastination.

How do you approach picture books versus nonfiction essays? Is there anything about your approach to these two different kinds of projects that's the same?

With picture books, my first drafts tend to be handwritten on paper, with lots of cross-outs and scribbles and lines connecting this part to that part. Somehow it makes it easier to let the shape of the story fully take form. But essays and longer prose always start out being typed up on the computer.

The thing that’s the same is how long they take. I’m a painfully slow writer, whether writing picture books or nonfiction articles or shopping lists. What I like best about picture books, and poetry, is having fun with how words sound read aloud. It’s like using the language as a musical instrument.

I just wish I could do it faster. It shouldn’t be possible for a daily writing session to finish with a total new word count of one. Just one. But it’s happened. And at least my story-in-progress now contains the word “swoosh.”

I'd call that a success! What is your favorite VCFA memory?

Just being at the residency, surrounded by people who love to talk about books, always provides inspiration. Even little moments can spark new stories. I remember the night a bat invaded the Dewey dorms. I never even saw it, just heard the clamor and excitement afterward, and at some point jotted down this little rhyme in the margins of my lecture notes:

A bat! A bat! It flew inside.
Its teeth were sharp. Its wings were wide.
It swooped and soared above our heads.
We had to hide beneath our beds.
A bat! A bat! It stayed all night.
…at least it gave us things to write.

Who was it who said, “Bad experiences make good stories”? They were right. So I guess that’s not a favorite memory, exactly, but still an unexpectedly inspiring one.

Thanks so much for stopping by, and for the bonus bat poetry! Welcome to the world of dreams, The Perfect Pillow!

Eric Pinder still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In the meantime, you can often find him riding his bike or hanging out with bears in New Hampshire. Eric's books for children include If All the Animals Came Inside and How to Share with a Bear, and he has also written several books about mountains and weather for adults. He teaches creative writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art.

Visit Eric online at ericpinder.com, follow him on Twitter (EricPinder) and find him on Facebook (EricPinderBooks).

class visit.jpgAdi, Eric, and NHIA Administrative Director of Graduate Studies Beth Ann Miller excited about writing and learning during a classroom visit.

 

Topics: eric pinder, picture book, Disney-Hyperion, 2018 release, chris sheban

J. L. Powers and BROKEN CIRCLE!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Dec 05, 2017 @ 08:12 AM

Today, our souls are prepared to talk with J. L. Powers about Broken Circle, her new YA fantasy, out now from Akashic Books!

broken circle.jpg

Adam wants nothing more than to be a “normal” teen. But: His mother died when he was only four. His father is an assassin, a voodoo god, the reincarnation of Buddha—or something even stranger. And his grandfather insists that people are out to kill the entire family.

But maybe Grandpa’s not all that nuts. You see, Adam is set to collide with a world that hovers between life and death, where entities charged with shepherding souls of the newly dead compete to control lucrative territories known as Limbo.

“Adam can’t even grow a man beard yet, but he can do something his friends can’t do—go to Limbo and back. Prepare to root for him as he makes new friends, discovers who he is, and saves a few souls in the process. This is a fast-paced, page-turning story!” —Skila Brown, author of Caminar

“With a perfect balance of real-world and mythical, Adam’s story explores life, death, and everything in between. Anyone looking for a thoughtful take on life’s big questions will find it here, paired with fresh details, a fast-moving story, and bold world building.” —Amy Rose Capetta, author of Entangled

Welcome, J. L. Powers! So, tell us . . .

What was the spark that ignited this book?

I co-wrote this book with my brother. He called me up from Maine one day, which he was visiting with his wife, a pediatrician, who was interviewing for a job. He said, “I was sitting here at a coffee shop, thinking about death.” (My family is sort of weird, we do things like this.) “And I started thinking what if you had a kid who thinks he’s just living a normal life, and his father’s been keeping it secret all these years that he’s actually the Grim Reaper? Want to write this book?”

You betcha I did.

My brother and I grew up in a religious family, and we were confronted with the question of our eternal souls—where we were going after we die?—at a very young age. Like, two years old young! Death is something I’ve always thought about—I don’t know how to NOT think about it—and it’s interesting to me that it’s a topic we avoid talking about in western society, until we have to. And we have all sorts of euphemisms to avoid talking about it. I was reading somebody’s facebook post just the other day, and his partner is facing a terminal illness, and he was so angry that the doctor skirted the question and didn’t outright tell him, “Look, spend every waking moment you can with your loved one because you are nearing the end.” We are so scared of death—and yet it’s something we ALL do! Wouldn’t it be nice to be better prepared and to understand it as a normal part of life, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist until it does….? To not be afraid? Yes, it is an unknown, and we become attached to our lives here, and we all fear the possible nothingness. But since everybody dies, perhaps we should begin to see it as a natural process—and prepare ourselves better for it.

So our book is sort of funny, sort of creepy, and sort of philosophical. And I never would have written this exact book, which is the start of a series, without my brother.

19420704_10103186051858333_4740506912385214258_n.jpg

You have set a high bar for author pic fashion!

Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?

I do have an agent and she is a lovely person and somebody I’m very grateful to for the partner she’s been all these years. But actually, she did not sell this book. Somewhere in the process of writing and revising, I came to realize that perhaps this particular book wasn’t her “cup of tea.” There’s nothing wrong with that because it isn’t the same kind of book I’ve ever written, in fact, it’s distinctly different from anything I’ve done before. But I felt like perhaps I should be in charge of selling this one myself.

In addition, in the last number of years, I’ve become outspoken about my love for independent presses and my dedication to supporting them. I work for Cinco Puntos Press, one of the most important publishing companies out there if you care about “diverse” books, and this past year, I launched my own publishing company, Catalyst Press, and I’m publishing African writers and African-based literature. In fact, I’m politicized on this issue. Authors of all kinds need to support the critical and important work done by independent presses. So I sort of knew I wanted to direct this book towards an independent press. Cinco Puntos and Akashic are friends and allies, and it was very natural for me to see if Akashic wanted to publish this book. I couldn’t be prouder that they did!

What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?

Sara Zarr once told me that she re-types her manuscripts when she revises them. That has turned out to be brilliant advice. When you start off with a blank page, none of the words seem sacred. Everything is up for grabs. You cease to be afraid of changing things, and even vast, complicated revisions don’t seem as complicated when you aren’t cutting and pasting etc but rather re-typing. It might seem daunting to many, but fortunately, I’m a very fast typer…

What was it like watching the cover come together?

Akashic Books really works with their authors to create a cover that makes everybody happy. I’ve been published by many publishers, and the small independent publishers have been much more accommodating in this regard. For this one, Akashic asked us for our ideas on the cover.

Black BC tshirt back.jpg

What unusual swag do you wish you could make for this book?

My brother and I actually suggested cuddly throw pillows, manifesting your favorite personification of death. But maybe most people don’t want to sleep with the Grim Reaper tucked under their head….

Ha! I would totally buy one.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

Since I only went for two semesters before I had a baby and that sort of derailed my MFA at Vermont (I already had an MFA in writing from the University of Texas-El Paso, so I didn’t feel the need to complete the degree), I had just two advisors—Alan Cumyn and Sarah Ellis. Both of them are such lovely people with kind and generous spirits, and I’m grateful for both. Although I didn’t work with them, I also really enjoyed creating relationships with Tim Wynne Jones, Kathi Appelt, and Cynthia Leitich-Smith, among others. I did the picture book seminar with Sarah Ellis and that really stretched me. I had never spent a lot of time reading picture books before that, and I didn’t yet have my own child. (I do now and I “get” the picture book genre like never before!)

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

“Favorite” might be stretching it a bit but my goodness, the food offered in the dorm could be—let’s just say “interesting”! And when I was pregnant, it was doubly interesting. Sometimes offerings were amazing and other times completely inedible.

Mirroring our own amazing/indedible offerings, ha ha. What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

I was part of the Keepers of the Dancing Stars class. I’m sure everybody feels like their class is special, and I certainly can’t deny that they all are—but my class was extremely warm-hearted and supportive, and as we say, “keepers for life.”

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

I teach college writing and creative writing and the two semesters I was at Vermont, I was teaching online classes while there. I didn’t have a choice as the semesters overlapped. But it was extremely difficult to work (particularly in the summer, when I was getting roughly 60-70 new essays every other day) and do the program. I know I didn’t get to attend as many lectures as would have been nice, or participate fully in campus life while there. I’m not the only student who has faced these kinds of issues. I saw other students come with their families and rent a house, etc, and I know they, too, didn’t get to participate fully in campus life. If you can leave behind work and family obligations while you’re there, that really, truly is best. You’ll be able to take advantage of everything you can while there….

Thanks so much for stopping by, J. L. Powers! Welcome to the mortal realm, Broken Circle!

Jessica author photo small.jpgJ.L. Powers is the award-winning author of three young adult novels, The Confessional, This Thing Called the Future, and Amina. She is also the editor of two collections of essays and author of a picture book, Colors of the Wind, the story of blind artist and champion runner George Mendoza. She works as an editor/publicist for Cinco Puntos Press, and is founder and editor of the online blog The Pirate Tree: Social Justice and Children’s Literature. She teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at Skyline College in California’s Bay Area, and she served as a jurist for the 2014 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature.

Visit her online at www.jlpowers.net and www.powerssquared.com.

Topics: young adult, 2017 release, JL Powers, Akashic Books, fantasy

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