the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Good Bye Launch Pad, Hello WILD THINGS!

Posted by Amanda West Lewis on Wed, Jun 13, 2018 @ 15:06 PM

Dear Launch Pad Readers: 

Thank you so much for reading up on all the wonderful new releases from the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at VCFA.  Please note that as of June 30, 2018 The Launch Pad content will now appear an our new program blog, Wild Things.

Wild Things will continue to feature interviews and new releases, and will add speaking engagements, new awards, and current happenings in the WCYA world. The new site will give a wider view into the VCFA community, recognizing the other achievements of our alumni, students, and faculty in the field of children’s literature as teachers, editors, agents, retreat organizers, and more.  There’s much to share!

 Please come join us on the new site and on our new social media pages:

· Facebook

· Twitter

· Instagram

 We want to sincerely thank the present and past contributing members of the Launch Pad team. This fabulous site was the brainchild of Tami Lewis Brown, Trent Reedy, and Adi Rule. Adi and Tami also brought on Lisa Doan, Robin Herrera, Sarah Blake Johnson, and Amanda West Lewis who have done a fantastic job researching VCFA writers’ new publications and interviewing authors. These volunteers have created rich and engaging content for the Launch Pad for several years, and we are delighted that many of them will continue covering new releases on the Wild Things blog.

Program logo for blog

Cate Berry on a full heart and a cozy snuggle

Posted by Amanda West Lewis on Tue, May 08, 2018 @ 00:05 AM

Today we are talking to VCFA grad Cate Berry as she launches her new book Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don't Do Bedtime!, illustrated by Charles Santoso and published by Balzer+Bray/ Harper Collins

Penguin and Tiny Shrimp DO NOT have a bedtime story to share with you. There are fireworks! And shark-infested waters! This book will never make you sleepy! Not at all. Not even a little…


 from Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don't Do Bedtime!, by Cate Berry, Illustrated by Charles Santoso (

Cate, I know you are really excited about this new picture book. Tell us about how you sold the manuscript. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?

I signed with my agent a month before starting VCFA. It was a grand bit of luck-meets-hard-work. She sent my manuscript out on submission during my first residency in July 2015. I was so busy and freaked out about grad school I didn’t have time to check my email every five seconds.

So, I checked it every ten seconds.

We waited. The rejections came. My first packet went off. More rejections came. I received what you call “lovely” rejections. Editors liked it, some of them a lot. But no one seemed to love it enough to buy it. My agent had faith and kept sending it out. More rejections came. My second grad packet went out. The months ticked by until it was October. I hit “send” on my third packet.

I had a massive panic attack the morning of October 23rd. It had been too long. My husband assured me, “It just takes one yes.” Driving home that afternoon my phone rang. Who’s calling? No one calls on the phone anymore, I thought. So, I pulled over. It was my agent and she said we had an offer.

I screamed. Several dogs howled, concerned, behind fences. It was hot. I screamed again. I called my husband. “We got the one yes,” I said.

I went home and within twenty-four hours we had another offer. Then, two more. My agent set up phone calls with all the editors. I remember thinking, “Wow. This is Science-Fiction. You spend years settling for scraps as an artist and suddenly— overnight—people are wooing you.”

In the end, we had a four-house auction. It was a fairy tale. It was remote and surreal.

After we accepted, I got in my car (why are my important moments always in cars?) and sobbed. Not from happiness, but from fear. In my gut, I guess I hadn’t truly thought I’d clear the final hurdle.

And what if it never happened again (I actually thought this)?

Then again, what if it did.

That’s the thing about publishing. You can’t control when it’ll be your turn. The stars have to be aligned ten thousand different ways for it to happen and that’s the truth. But, it’ll never happen if you don’t cast your stories into the grind of the business.

My second book has not been a fairy tale, by the way.

But who wants to write the same book twice?

What an amazing ride. Can you tell us what was the spark that ignited this book?

I like to write in rapid-fire succession, one picture book after the next, until I hit upon something worthy of revising.

When this book popped out, it felt joyful.

I’ve worried as my debut approaches that my book is not “important” enough faced with the world’s current landscape. There are huge problems we face and important things to write about for children.

But I believe in connection.

For me, that’s at the end of the day. After dinner, before sleep, when I slow down and read with my people at bedtime.

Cate family

Cate's family

I hope this book reaches lots of children, parents, care-givers, grandparents and many more. And I hope it helps us connect with a full heart and a cozy snuggle before we fall asleep.

I have to say I really appreciate your honesty about your doubts and fears. Can you tell us how attending VCFA affected your writing life?

It saved me time. I am sure that people learn craft in many ways, and you certainly don’t have to go to an MFA program to be a writer. But, even more than learning my craft, VCFA made me a jump into hyper-space and define myself as a writer. I learned how to meet deadlines, carve out and defend my writing time and gain confidence. I am most definitely a different writer post MFA.

Who did you work with in the program?

An Na, Mary Quattlebaum, Jane Kurtz, Martine Leavitt


Cate and An Na.

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

I loved the late night “Advisor Posting” each residency. It was thrilling to find out who you’d be working with that semester. Some called it the Sorting Hat. I just thought it was great drama and it felt like Grown-Up-Writer Camp.

What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

My class, the Dead Post-Its Society, is the best. Everyone says that. But we really are. We span five decades with our ages and we beat with one loyal heart.

What's special about the VCFA-WCYA program?

I love that it’s situated in a tiny Vermont city. It’s hard to get too! But that makes it all the more like a middle grade novel. You have to journey to this special place, tucked away from everything, and immerse yourself in writing.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

It will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. And it will be worth it ten-fold. In the end, you and your friends and family will never understand why you took so long to go.

What do you wish you had known before you first set foot on the VCFA campus?

I wish I’d known that there was nothing to be intimidated or scared of. Whether you are just beginning your first novel or picture book or your tenth, it’s the most welcoming place in the world. 


Cate Berry with fellow Dead Post-Its Michele Prestininzi, Jennifer Mann and Adrienne Kisner

Thanks so much, Cate Berry, for sharing your writing process and your VCFA experiences. Happy Book Birthday to your fabulous new picture book Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don't Do Bedtime!


cate Headshot

Cate Berry is the author of Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don't Do Bedtime! (Balzer & Bray/Harper Collins). It was pinned a Junior Library Guild selection and Publisher’s Weekly called it, "A buoyantly subversive anti-bedtime book. (Picture book. 3-7)." She has forthcoming publications TBA and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cate is a faculty member with the Writing Barn in Texas and an active member in the SCBWI and Writers' League of Texas. She also speaks at schools, libraries and conferences year round. Visit her at to learn more.



Topics: picture book

Daniel Abbott and THE CONCRETE!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, May 01, 2018 @ 00:05 AM

Today, we're celebrating the release of Daniel Abbott's new novel, The Concrete!


Set on the gritty southeast side of Grand Rapids, Michigan, an impoverished area known for drugs and violence, The Concrete centers around the home of Jackson and Mae Carter, foster parents of two boys―Isaac, who is white, and Miles, who is black―who share dark and intersecting histories that neither one is aware of. As the boys try to escape the grim reality of the violent streets―i.e. “the concrete”―in different ways―Isaac through basketball, Miles though music―the novel shifts back and forth in time, in the process revealing the story of an entangled community plagued by trauma and death, trying to confront the ghosts of its past, and seize a better life. A multi-point-of-view work of realistic and often graphic literary fiction, The Concrete is a striking debut that grapples with the effects of childhood trauma on teens, lost dreams, human sexuality, and the difficulties of marriage.

Welcome, Daniel! So, tell us . . .

Who was your favorite character to write and why?

Cesar Bolden, the novel’s villain. Cesar is a drug dealer, a pornographer, and an all-around destructive presence in the lives of the characters trying to make it in the world of The Concrete. Becoming a father inspires change in him, and he does change, but finds no redemption from those he’s affected. The change is not recognized by anyone but the reader, which I think is a pretty cool reading experience. I enjoyed writing the change, or rather, watching Cesar grow and become a better person over the course of writing the novel.

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

There isn’t one specific cut or change that stands out. The major difficulty I had was managing the points of view. The Concrete is written from twelve different POVs—any revision made to a character arc affected the novel’s arc as a whole. That was maddening. On a micro level I was writing with a specific character arc in mind, but then on a macro level I had to keep the story arc in mind as well. So ultimately I was dealing with twelve arcs within one arc, so I constantly had to go back and make sure the novel was consistent throughout my revision process.

What a daunting undertaking! But how fascinating, for both you and the reader, to explore how all those POVs intersect.

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 signed with my agent, Sarah Levitt of Aevitas Creative Management, ten months after graduating from VCFA. Sarah and I spent nine months working together on revisions before she put me On Submission with publishers. Being On Submission (no exaggeration) was the worse experience of my life. Sarah shared responses with me as the passes came in. We had so many close calls from major publishers before getting an offer from Robert Lasner of Ig Publishing. The waiting was brutal.  The close calls were brutal. When I got the email from Sarah it brought tears to my eyes. Seriously. I had spent two years writing six drafts during my time at VCFA. Had done a seventh draft during my agent query process. Then Sarah and I did another three drafts together after I signed with her. The offer from Ig was after I spent three and a half years writing ten drafts. So yeah, I was pretty emotional.

It feels like so many of us go through that dreadful side of being on submission, but we rarely talk about it. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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

What really moves me most in fiction is the juxtaposition of ugly worlds/situations and beautiful sentences. I love the work of Toni Morrison, specifically Beloved and The Bluest Eye, where she depicts racism, incest, and some truly despicable characters and situations, but she does so with such a graceful paintbrush. Or Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann where he depicts the downtrodden with such elegance. On a sentence level alone, Michael Chabon’s a beast! Theme wise I love the work of Zadie Smith. Much of her work deals with interracial relationships, which I find relatable on a personal level, being a husband to a black wife and a father to seven biracial children. I also love the work of Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

You're an alum of VCFA's MFA in Writing Program. Who were your advisors?

I worked with Domenic Stansberry, Ellen Lesser, and Connie May Fowler.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

You will get out of the program exactly what you put into it. Being there is not good enough. Meeting the packet deadlines is not good enough. The publishing world is an ultra-competitive industry looking for reasons to say “no.” You have the opportunity during your time at VCFA to work closely with an advisor, who basically serves an editor, a luxury you will not have post-grad when you are an unsigned writer beginning a career. Work. Work. Work. And ask questions about the publishing industry while you are there.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

Because of commute distance and family responsibilities, a full-residency MFA was not an option for me. Instead of the free tuition and a teaching stipend that most full-res programs offer, I had to choose low-res and take out student loans. I could not afford another $40,000 in student loans, so I entered VCFA knowing I was taking a financial risk and believing in both my own ability and VCFA’s ability to prepare me for a career in writing. For me that meant writing between 40-60 hours per week. I wanted to get the most out of my investment and I think I did. When I hit my stride with the novel in my second semester, my advisor, Ellen Lesser matched my effort, reading way more than she was required to. When I worked with Connie May Fowler my final two semesters she did the same. Having guidance and support for my work was well-worth the bill in the end. VCFA wants its students to succeed. But I cannot stress enough to incoming students:  you will get out of the program what you put into it.

Great advice! Thanks so much for stopping by, and congratulations on the release of The Concrete!

author photo 2Daniel Abbott is a novelist and short story writer from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He earned a BA in Writing from Grand Valley State University and an MFA in Fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Daniel’s short fiction has appeared in the Noctua Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, and Owen Wister Review. His debut novel, THE CONCRETE is forthcoming Spring 2018 with Ig Publishing.

Find Daniel Abbott on Twitter Twitter (@AbbottFiction) and Instagram (@abbottfiction).

Topics: 2018 release, Daniel Abbott, literary fiction, Ig Publishing

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!




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






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.


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

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"


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

Topics: Anthology, literary fiction, editing, Fairy Tales


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.


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

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


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!


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

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.

9781942186342-THINGS HAVENT SAID-cover.jpg

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.


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

Book Tour Poster.jpg

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


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.




"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!




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.




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


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

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