the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Adi Rule

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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!

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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!

 

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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

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!

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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

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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

Mary E. Lambert and FAMILY GAME NIGHT AND OTHER CATASTROPHES!

Posted by Adi Rule on Thu, Nov 09, 2017 @ 08:11 AM

We're thrilled that Mary E. Lambert's middle grade novel Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes is out now from Scholastic. She stopped by to give us the scoop!

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Annabelle has a secret…a secret so big she won't allow friends within five miles of her home. Her mom collects things. Their house is overflowing with stuff. It gives Annabelle's sister nightmares, her brother spends as much time as he can at friends' houses, and her dad buries himself in his work.

So when a stack of newspapers falls on Annabelle's sister, it sparks a catastrophic fight between their parents—one that might tear them all apart—and Annabelle starts to think that things at home finally need to change.

Is it possible for her to clean up the family's mess? Or are they really, truly broken?

Welcome, Mary! Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent?

After graduation, one of my VCFA classmates, Linda Camacho, became an agent. She read my creative thesis, which was a contemporary middle grade novel, and offered to represent me. Linda put my manuscript into the hands of an editor at Scholastic. A few weeks later, I was teaching an eighth grade class when my cell phone rang. Usually, I silence my phone, but when I saw it was my agent, I answered it. Linda was calling to let me know that my book had sold! I started dancing, and so, of course, I had to explain to my students what was going on. They burst into applause when they heard my news.

Love these pics of your launch party!

Launch Party 1.jpgWhat nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?

Finish a project.

Like many writers, I always have new ideas. New ideas are fresh and exciting and seem much better than whatever old idea I have in front of me. Other than attending VCFA, the best thing I ever did as a writer was forcing myself to complete a manuscript. I learned so much from the process of writing an entire novel from start to finish.

Launch Party 2.jpgWhat’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

I wish I kept a record of this. I've Googled so many bizarre things for my writing. A few of the stranger things I've Googled include…

What color is spider blood?

What to do if a bear attacks you?

What does it feel like to get shot?

How to shoplift?

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

VCFA provided me with such a wonderful community of writers. It was the first time I felt I really had permission to take myself seriously as an author.

Since graduation, I have found a great group of middle grade and young adult writers in the Phoenix area. They have formed a truly supportive community of like-minded authors who promote and encourage one another.

I am also in a small critique group called The Charglings. We read one another's first drafts and give feedback. In addition to their valuable insight, meeting with The Charglings helps me stay productive. We meet every other week, which means I need to have fresh pages for them at least that often.

Launch Party 3.jpgWho were your advisors at VCFA?

I had such a fantastic experience with every single one of my advisors! I worked with Tom Birdseye my first semester, and he taught me to look for humor in my writing. Next I was paired with Shelley Tanaka who helped me gain confidence as a writer and taught me the questions I should ask myself about a work-in-progress. Martine Leavitt was my third semester advisor, and she taught me to really explore my characters' inner-lives and emotional development. In my final semester, my advisor was Sarah Ellis. She showed me how to revise, which is something I really struggled with before working with her.

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

One of my favorite VCFA memories is when the Allies in Wonderland revealed our class name. My classmates turned our name reveal into a choreographed, interpretive dance, which corresponded to a video. We had elaborate costumes, and I had a ton of fun that day!

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Attending VCFA is a huge commitment in terms of money, time, and emotion. For me, it was worth every bit of it. I loved the residencies, the lectures, the friendships, and the walks into town. My advisors were amazing. I learned and grew as a writer, and so much of my success is because of my decision to attend this school.

Thanks so much for stopping by! Welcome to the world, Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes!

Author Photo.jpgWhen Mary E. Lambert was eight years old, her grandma told her that she should be a writer. Mary said, “No.” She thought she’d rather be a teacher. Mary started teaching middle school in 2006, but not long after that, she realized there was no avoiding one of her grandmother’s pronouncements. So she started writing novels. Mary lives in Tempe, Arizona where she spends her days explaining to students that five paragraph essays really do have five paragraphs. Most evenings she can be found writing in local coffee shops and consuming truly lamentable quantities of caffeine.

Mary is a member of the class of summer 2014, Allies in Wonderland. Visit her online at maryelambert.com, and find her on Twitter @MaryUncontrary.

Topics: Scholastic, middle grade, 2017 release, Mary E. Lambert

Jane Kurtz and PLANET JUPITER!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Nov 07, 2017 @ 07:11 AM

We're delighted that this orbit around the sun has brought a new middle grade novel from Jane Kurtz. It's Planet Jupiter!

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Everything has gone all wobbly for Jupiter. She comes from a spirited, loving family of buskers—musicians who move from place to place and make a living playing on street corners and at fairs—and she revels in her wandering life. But now her mother has rented an actual house (Jupiter prefers to live in their van) and she is pretty sure that her brother is deserting the family and their musical act just like her dad, the Prince of Adventure, did a while ago. To top it off, some cousin from Ethiopia who Jupiter never even knew existed is coming to live with them, and Jupiter is in charge of watching her. Seriously? Not fair!

Jupiter is not in the mood to appreciate her new house, hew new neighborhood, the bees and bridges of Portland, or her newly discovered cousin. How will she get back on the road, rid herself of the wobbles, and orbit the sun happily once again? Clearly what Jupiter needs is a Grand Plan…

Welcome, Jane Kurtz! So, tell us . . .

What was the spark that ignited this book?

I was listening to an NPR program about young musicians when I heard an interview with a girl who was the spark for Jupiter—living an alternative kind of life centered around music and street performances. Although I didn’t grow up as a busker, I do sing with my sisters every week. And I first moved (from Portland to Ethiopia) when I was two years old. And I did recently discover soil and bees and bugs in a whole new way in Portland. So I immediately connected with the love of adventure/traveling vs. the pull to cultivate roots in a specific place.

Photo: Cousins in Jane's family meeting for the first time.

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

I keep trying to write a simple plot line, so I re-read middle grade such as Because of Winn Dixie and Liar and Spy to see how other people do it. I love Sarah Plain and Tall for its lyrical sentences and character emotions that are not spelled out but vivid (and moving) on the page.

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

I’m constantly learning new craft skills. When I was revising Planet Jupiter, it was the concept of microtension (including the book The Fire in Fiction) that handed out some great advice about how to make the reader uneasy and curious.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

How (and why) to eat a bug.

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

A cute and compelling guide to saving the bees and a mini cookbook about eating bugs.

Photo: Oxalis from Jane's Backyard Habitat, where she learns about roots and soil.

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How does teaching at VCFA affect your writing life?

I learn so much about the craft of writing fiction and creative nonfiction every single bingle residency. At this point, I like to have some work in progress open on my computer and force myself to practice—on the page—one thing I’m hearing from each lecture. Otherwise it’s too easy to nod and say “uh-huh, uh-huh” without actually getting the insight from my brain through my fingers and into my work.

Great idea! What is your favorite VCFA memory?

While I was part of the Bath, England residency, I was doing a final big revision of Planet Jupiter. The work we did together to mine our innards and our outer world added some details to my manuscript in a compelling and fresh way. I have a powerful memory of the day we all gathered something from outside—and created poems in invented language to describe them. Wow! What a blast of a sensory experience!

Bonus Bath pic: Here are Cate Berry, Jane Kurtz, and Margaret Mayo McGlynn. Jane says the three of them used to sing in 3-part harmony at residencies! It helped set the stage when she read from WIP Planet Jupiter.

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What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

The first time I had an intensive workshop with a published author, I read everything I could get my hands on that she had written, so that I could ask her specific questions about craft decisions in her picture books and novels. I’m always surprised that more VCFA students don’t take advantage of residency time to learn from their fellow writers who are faculty but still trying daily to solve craft problems in our own work.

Thanks so much for stopping by! Welcome to the universe, Planet Jupiter!

Jane Kurtz has taught at VCFA MFA in Children’s and YA Literature since 2006. She was born in Portland, Oregon, but grew up in Ethiopia and has written about the joy and pain of cultural connections in many different ways. She also helped start the nonprofit Ethiopia Reads and is using her volunteer time to develop local language ready-to-read books for Ethiopia—when she’s not teaching, writing, and cultivating her Backyard Habitat.

Visit Jane online at www.janekurtz.com and at janekurtz.wordpress.com. Learn about Jane and her sister Caroline's Open Hearts Big Dreams book project at http://openheartsbigdreams.org/book-project/.

Topics: middle grade, HarperCollins, Greenwillow, 2017 release, Jane Kurtz

April Pulley Sayre and FULL OF FALL!

Posted by Adi Rule on Wed, Oct 25, 2017 @ 07:10 AM

Pour yourself a mug of cocoa and slip on your woolly socks. We're celebrating the release of April Pulley Sayre's latest picture book, Full of Fall (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster)!

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So long summer, Fall is here . . .

Welcome, April Pulley Sayre!
 
What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
Fall is such a beautiful season that it was very hard to choose which photos to use. As always with these books, there were many photos I loved as a photographer but which did not serve the trajectory of the book and design. As with writing, in photo illustration you have to set aside your ego and do what is best for the book.
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What's your writing superpower?
My writing superpower is flexible thinking in terms of wordplay.  For some reason I’m unusually good at coming up with titles and poetic and alliterative language. I think it’s like a muscle, though, and improves with use. Despite my early signs of talent in this area, it also helps that I just goof around and have done this work for over twenty years.
 
What was it like watching the illustrations/cover come together?
I’ve now photo illustrated nine of my books with photos so I’m deeply involved in the illustrations from the start. It’s an exciting process and yet has an intense amount of struggle and stress at points, handling the competing demands of text and illustration. The advantage is that because I am responsible for both sides of the book, I can decide  to chuck words or illustrations at any point when the book is not flowing well. All this occurs without bothering another person. Only my writing ego or professional photographer ego is bruised. Still ouchy, though, to discard words and photos I love! But then, when you feel it all come together with better pacing, it is worth it.
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How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
Attending VCFA took me from being a very isolated full time writer to being more a member of the writing community. It connected me with colleagues who are still my friends to this day. They have supported me through many decisions and pathways both in the career and in life itself. VCFA is so valuable in support of career and quality of life as an artist/writer. VCFA stretches you in the best way possible.
 
What’s next in your career? 
Well, it’s been a wildly busy year in terms of book production for my 2019 photo books, Warbler Wave and Thank You, Earth. My husband and I traveled 5,500 miles to CA and back to photograph landmarks and wildflower bloom for these and other upcoming books.  And I’ve been stepping outside the usual with some books that mix nonfiction text with fiction illustration, such as my 2019 book Did You Burp: How to Ask Questions (Or Not). Between this work, and conference talk travel, this career keeps me on my toes.
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Thanks so much for stopping by the Launchpad, April. Welcome to the world, Full of Fall!
Visit April Pulley Sayre online at www.aprilsayre.com and at her Simon & Schuster page.

Topics: nonfiction, picture book, Simon & Schuster, Beach Lane Books, 2017 release, April Pulley Sayre

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