the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Sarah Johnson

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Katie Bayerl and A Psalm for Lost Girls

Posted by Sarah Johnson on Tue, Mar 14, 2017 @ 06:03 AM

Congratulations to Katie Bayerl. She visits the Launchpad today and discusses her young adult mystery, A Psalm for Lost Girls. 

When Katie isn’t penning her own stories, she coaches teens and nonprofits to tell theirs. A summer 2010 graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katie currently leads the VCFA Young Writers Network, which connects alumni authors with underserved kids and communities.


Tess da Costa is a saint—a hand-to-god, miracle-producing saint. At least that’s what the people in her hometown of New Avon, Massachusetts, seem to believe. And when Tess suddenly and tragically passes away, her small city begins feverishly petitioning the Pope to make Tess’s sainthood official. Tess’s mother is ecstatic over the fervor, while her sister Callie, the one who knew Tess best, is disgusted—overcome with the feeling that her sister is being stolen from her all over again.
The fervor for Tess’s sainthood only grows when Ana Langone, a local girl who’s been missing for six months, is found alive at the foot of one of Tess’s shrines. It’s the final straw for Callie. With the help of Tess’s secret boyfriend Danny, Callie’s determined to prove that Tess was something far more important than a saint; she was her sister, her best friend and a girl in love with a boy. But Callie’s investigation uncovers much more than she bargained for—a hidden diary, old family secrets, and even the disturbing truth behind Ana’s kidnapping. 

 Welcome Katie.  What was the spark that ignited this book?

About a month before I began at VCFA, I took a trip to Portugal. Before I left, a friend (who knows I’m obsessed with saints) sent me info about the recently deceased and soon-to-be-beatified Lúcia dos Santos, the last of the Child Saints of Fátima. I dragged myself away from Lisbon for a day to see what that was all about. The básilica is basically a hideous tourist trap, but I found myself sucked into the history. You see, Lúcia was just 10 years old when she and two cousins claimed to witness apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1917. The cousins passed away young, leaving Lúcia to carry their story. I couldn’t stop asking myself what it would be like to be in her position, on track to sainthood (and confined to a life as a nun) at such a young age. What if, at age 16, she had a change of heart? What if all she wanted to live a normal life, make mistakes, fall in love, be a regular girl. 

It was a series of “what ifs” that stuck… and at the end of my first semester at VCFA, I found myself writing a response to those questions from the perspective of a young saint’s grieving sister. Psalm Headhot.jpg

Tell us about how you sold this book. Were there a lot of revisions along the way?

I wrote the first two drafts at VCFA and really wanted to have a submission-worthy draft upon graduation. That didn’t happen. Not even close. I got the core of it down in my last two semesters, but I still had so much to figure out before I could find the story’s shape. I spent three more years revising the manuscript—giving up for about a year in the middle—and then coming back to it when I had a major plot breakthrough. (My stints as a VCFA graduate assistant helped a lot!)

My agent, Erin Harris, had a revision idea that excited me: include Tess (the alleged saint) as an alternating point of view. I’d tried to include Tess in early drafts; this time, I saw a way that would work. I added about 80 pages to the book at that point, and Erin cracked a whip, getting me to tighten the rest considerably.

I lost track of how many drafts it was in the end. There was still some significant revision after I sold the book to Putnam, but those final drafts—with agent and editor—were the most satisfying because I could finally see the story emerging in its true form. 

 Who was your favorite character to write and why?

I had the most fun writing Tess (the saint). Those scenes, constructed as diary entries, poured right out. I love her warmth and sense of humor and had fun being with her, even in the agonizing moments.   

The main protagonist, Callie, was much harder. Much. She has a tough skin and didn’t want anyone—least of all her author—to see her true self.  You know what? I get that, and I respect her for it. It was a tricky dance, recognizing her boundaries while showing enough of her underbelly for let readers into her story. In the end, Callie is the one I fell for the hardest.

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

I will trade plot for great sentences and heart-tugging characters any day of the week. Also? I really think that character is established at the sentence level, so basically, I’m cheating on this question.

Three authors who slay me with their sentences: Benjamin Alire Saenz (especially his YA), Edwidge Danticat (especially her works for adults), and VCFA’s own Jandy Nelson. That’s just a sampling. I’m such a sentence slut; if I start listing all of the writers who knock me over with their sentences, it would get embarrassing.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

Sharon Darrow, Tim Wynne-Jones, Shelley Tanaka, Rita Williams-Garcia

How did attending VCFA affect your (writing) life?

I learned a lot about craft, obviously, but it was the community that had the greatest impact on me. I made the best friends of my life at VCFA and, as a result of those relationships and so many meandering conversations about craft and art and politics and life, I feel like I became not just a better writer but a better me.

You can visit Katie at or on twitter at @katiebayerl

Topics: young adult, Putnam, Penguin, 2017 release, Katie Bayerl

Linda Oatman High and ONE AMAZING ELEPHANT

Posted by Sarah Johnson on Tue, Feb 14, 2017 @ 06:02 AM

Linda Oatman High visits the Launchpad today to talk about her new middle grade book, One Amazing Elephant. She graduated in summer 2010 and is a Thunder Badger. She says, "I live in Lancaster County, PA, where I read, write, eat chocolate, drink coffee, and have as much fun with grandkids as humanly possible."


A poignant middle grade animal story from talented author Linda Oatman High that will appeal to fans of Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. In this heartwarming novel, a girl and an elephant face the same devastating loss—and slowly realize that they share the same powerful love.

Twelve-year-old Lily Pruitt loves her grandparents, but she doesn’t love the circus—and the circus is their life. She’s perfectly happy to stay with her father, away from her neglectful mother and her grandfather’s beloved elephant, Queenie Grace.

Then Grandpa Bill dies, and both Lily and Queenie Grace are devastated. When Lily travels to Florida for the funeral, she keeps her distance from the elephant. But the two are mourning the same man—and form a bond born of loss. And when Queenie Grace faces danger, Lily must come up with a plan to help save her friend.

Welcome, Linda. Who was your favorite character to write and why?

I loved writing Queenie Grade. It was an honor to attempt to get inside an elephant’s heart, soul, mind, and body.

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

Oh, what a fun question to think about! Hmmmm. I’d go with Queenie Grace pillows, sleeping bags, tote bags, bath toys, plush animals, and spin tooth brushes. And a stuffed animal Queenie Grace and her baby Little Gray that can be velcroed together for life.

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

Every nugget gleaned from my time at VCFA has been useful and has helped me grow as a writer. Using a basic plot outline, such as one I learned from the “Save The Cat” workshop, has helped enormously in planning and outlining as I write.

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

Probably “How much do elephants poop?” Answer: “A lot.”

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

Marion Dane Bauer, Martine Leavitt, Rita Williams Garcia, Louise Hawes. Geniuses, all!

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

So many great memories: waiting late at night to see the announcement of advisors, listening to winter lectures in Noble as knitters knitted, sitting near the huge air conditioners to cool off during lectures, eating in the cafeteria (yes, I loved NECI!), making snow angels on the lawn of College Hall, sitting by the fountain talking about writing and life, laughs in the dorm rooms, unexpected fire alarms in Dewey, bonding with my spectacular class mates.


Linda's book is published by HarperCollins. You can find out more about Linda and her other wonderful books at

Topics: Linda Oatman High, middle grade, HarperCollins, 2017 release


Posted by Sarah Johnson on Tue, Jan 31, 2017 @ 05:01 AM

Terry Pierce joins us in the Launchpad to talk about her new rhyming picture book, My Busy Green Garden. Kirkus Reviews says this "action-filled" book has a "lovely literary and artistic rendering." Terry is a member of The League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches, a July 2011 graduate. After graduating from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Terry went on to teach Youth Market courses for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Welcome, Terry!


This is my busy green garden.

There’s a surprise

In clever disguise,

That hangs in my busy green garden.

Bugs, birds, and other creatures make this garden a busy place. From the shimmering dew of early morning to the lengthening shadows of late afternoon, there is one small miracle after another for anyone who stops to see, and the last one is the most surprising of all.

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

The most challenging aspect of this story was finding the final “spark” that made it sell. I wrote it in 2006, subbed it to a few editors but only received “declines.” At a 2007 SCBWI retreat, I read the first page to an editor who asked to see the full story. She wrote me back while I was in middle of the MFA program, telling me that she liked the concept and the language, but that it was missing something, a spark. I set her note aside and didn’t get back to it until 2014! It was then that I thought to add a repeating line of three words, “In clever disguise.” Kids love disguises and mysteries, so why not add a mystery element to the story to spark reader interest? I subbed it to Tilbury House and within two hours, they wrote me back saying they loved it and were very interested in acquiring it! (and I only had to revise one word for them)

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

I adore Phyllis Root’s picture books. Her playful and engaging language coupled with plots and characters with young reader appeal make her books a joy to read for any age. Also on my bookshelf are the works of Eve Bunting and Lisa Wheeler. They too are wonderful writers of rhyme and playful language. As far as characters go, Kevin Henkes is the king of picture book characters, at least in my book.

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 fortunate to be in two wonderful writing groups. One is comprised of VCFA picture book writers and the other is formed from clients of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency who write picture books. Both groups have highly talented writers who give me incredibly useful feedback on my work.

The only time I ask my husband to read a manuscript for me is if the story rhymes. Because he doesn’t typically read rhyming stories aloud anymore (our son is grown now), he’s a great representation of a potential read-aloud reader. Whenever he “stumbles” over a word or phrasing, I note in on my own copy and know it needs more work. 

Twitter? Ha! Because I’m part of a group blog called EMU’s Debuts, I’ve had to learn how to navigate Twitter. I can’t say that I’m 100% comfortable with it, but I’m learning!

Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.

I keep a small pile of three flat stones (descending in size) near my desk. I have it there as a reminder to keep my life balanced. For good health, I need to balance work and play, social and solitude, writing and exploring, my physical and mental being.

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

A-mazing! Carol Schwartz is an incredible illustrator. She uses bold colors with astonishing detail, which works perfectly in MY BUSY GREEN GARDEN. When I saw the opening double-page spread, I cried because it’s incredibly beautiful. Imagine one of those “hidden pictures” you’d see in Highlights magazine, but in color and on steroids! Everyone who I’ve shown the book to stays on that page pouring over the details, trying to find all the animals.

Months later, I saw the cover image and the interiors, and they brought a similar response. All I could think was how fortunate I am to have Carol create the art for my words. Her illustrations lift the text to a new level. If you’d like to see a treat, visit her website!

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

Kathi Appelt was my advisor for the Picture Book Certification semester (my first semester in the program), followed by Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, and Leda Schubert. If you see a common thread, it’s because I chose advisors with a strong background in picture book writing (although I learned much about novel writing too). I affectionately called them my “Picture Book Dream Team.”

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

I’m probably saying what others before me hPierceHeadshotUCLA (2).jpgave said but VCFA took my writing to whole new level. The individual work with advisors and the insightful lectures at the residencies revealed aspects of writing that I had never thought about or been exposed to through the other means of my writing education. It was as if the VCFA experience peeled back the layers of high-quality writing, allowing me to soak them in and apply them to my own work.

The other way it affected my life was by opening doors of opportunity. Having an MFA from Vermont College was a factor in my being hired by the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program (the program director knew of VCFA, having already hired a few of its alums). I’ve also had other writing opportunities since I’ve graduated that were because of networking through VCFA. I still recall at
 my very first workshop, Kathi Appelt and I were the first to arrive, and while chatting, she said, “The Vermont College experience will open doors to you that you can’t even imagine yet.” She was right! (as always ;-)).

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

My Picture Book Certification semester was the best writing experience I’ve ever had. I was fortunate to have Meredith Davis, Mary Cronin, Abby Aguirre and Barbara Bishop in my group (dubbed “Everything Under the Moon”) with Kathi Appelt at the helm. We bonded over picture books in a way I hadn’t thought possible. We loved reading each other’s work and having lively discussions. I still remember while visiting my son for the Thanksgiving holidays, that rather than sitting around chatting with family, I wanted to get on our forum to discuss Maurice Sendak and his philosophy on writing children’s books. The Picture Book semester was a tremendous experience, one which I strive to replicate for my own students.

Terry is represented by the Erin Murphy Literary Agency and has four children’s books coming out in 2017 and 2018, including MAMA LOVES YOU SO (Little Simon March, 2017). You can visit Terry at her Website.


Topics: picture book, Kirkus, WCYA, 2017 release, Terry Pierce, Tilbury House, garden, rhyme, Carol Schwartz

Eric Pinder and How to Build a Snow Bear!

Posted by Sarah Johnson on Tue, Sep 13, 2016 @ 02:09 AM


 Winter is coming early with How to Build a Snow Bear, a picture book by Eric Pinder.

Thomas wants to build the biggest and best snowman ever. Since he can’t do it alone, he’ll need a helping paw. But bears love to hibernate. How do you wake up a snoozing bear? By tickling him? Singing to him? Maybe making his favorite snack? How to Build a Snow Bear is a story about two siblings sharing a wondrous wintry day.

How to Build a Snow Bear cover

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

Writing this book was a new experience, because it was part of a two-book deal, along with the already written How to Share with a Bear. Finding out was an exciting surprise (“Woohoo, two books at once!”) but also a little scary, because I had no idea what the second book would be about, except that it needed to have a winter setting and, of course, a bear. For the first time, I had a contract, an advance, and (gulp) a deadline before I’d written a single word. I didn’t even have a clue what the title would be yet. In the contract it was simply called “Untitled Bear Book,” and it stayed that way for the longest time. That added to the pressure. What if I couldn’t think of a good sequel?

Revisions for the first book kept me busy and distracted for a while, though possibilities for a follow-up story started to percolate in the back of my mind. I jotted down a few notes, but the deadline seemed safely in the far-off future, the way a December packet deadline does in August—until suddenly it was almost due, and I still had a mostly blank page.

The working title of my first presentable draft was How to Share with a Polar Bear. I sent it off to my editor, exhaled a “whew, done!” and anxiously, eagerly awaited her reaction. Again, it felt a lot like sending off a packet. A few days later she replied. The good news was that she only wanted me to fix three things. The bad news was, those three things were the plot, the title character, and the inciting incident. 

(Book Fort: If there’s no snow, you can always build a book fort instead.)

Panic, woe, despair! Visions of tossing my computer in the dumpster and fleeing in shame from the literary community to go become llama shepherd or a rutabaga farmer. That’s what I felt, for the first hour. Or maybe the first day. Then I got back to work. I scrapped the polar bear storyline and started from scratch. Soon enough I had a new brainstorm, and a new, much better draft. This one clicked, and eventually it became How to Build a Snow Bear.

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

The other day I had a legitimate business reason to Google “vampire onomatopoeia.” I’m sure there have been weirder things. I wonder how often FBI agents get all excited at seemingly nefarious Googling, only to look closer and go, “Aw, crap. It’s just another one of those darn writers. 

Tell us about your writing community

I teach creative writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art (even though, deep down, I still really want to be an astronaut). It’s definitely inspiring to be part of a community where everyone loves books. Every day, you can walk into a room and immediately get drawn into a conversation about slam poets and stage fright, a debate about the “whiteness of the whale” chapter in Moby Dick, or a constructive critique of someone’s newest creative work. We all learn a lot from each other, just by talking about our passions and interests.

Teaching is exhausting but rewarding. I love it when students turn in stories or poems that make me go, “Wow! I wish I’d written that,” and it’s a thrill to see them get their first publications in literary journals. A couple of former students have gone on to pursue their MFAs at VCFA, and I can’t wait to see what they produce in the years ahead. I’ve saved a shelf for students’ future books.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

Driving to school in the winter, I see fantastic snow sculptures in people’s yards. Snow is like sand at the beach, or Play-Doh, just colder. You can build almost anything with a little snow and a lot of imagination. 

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

Uma Krishnaswami, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ellen Howard, and Tim Wynne-Jones, all of whom have influenced every children’s story I’ve since published. I started with the picture book semester, which was eye-opening. I like picture books because of how much they’re like poetry: each word, each syllable, each nuance has a purpose. The sound and shape of words matters. There’s a lot going on in every line. In fact, I learned so much on the very first day of my first residency at VCFA that I immediately wanted to rewrite parts of what was about to become my first picture book, Cat in the Clouds. The only problem was that the final galleys were already at the printer. I sent a panicked message to my editor, who let me rewrite a couple lines at the eleventh hour, right before the printing presses rolled. That was day one. Four equally inspiring semesters followed.

Eric Pinder What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?
The same advice I’d give to undergraduates: You have to know about the world to write about it. Always keep learning new things, whether it’s in Noble Hall during a graduate lecture (which often are just as mind-expanding as the faculty lectures; don’t skip them, even on the ninth day of a busy residency when you really want a nap!) or by literary eavesdropping or reading or exploring a new town, or even by helping your local rutabaga farmer. Everything a writer does counts as “research,” as long as we’re paying close attention.

 Eric is the author of eight books. 

You can find Eric at You can also follow him on Twitter at and find him on Facebook at







Topics: eric pinder, Farrar Straus and Giroux, picture book, Stephanie Graegin, 2016 release


Posted by Sarah Johnson on Thu, May 05, 2016 @ 08:05 AM
Today we celebrate Julie Berry's novel, The Passion of Dolssa, published by Viking Children’s Books.


Buried deep within the archives of a convent in medieval France is an untold story of love, loss, and wonder and the two girls at the heart of it all.  

Dolssa is an upper-crust city girl with a secret lover and an uncanny gift. Branded a heretic, she’s on the run from the friar who condemned her mother to death by fire, and wants Dolssa executed, too.

Botille is a matchmaker and a tavern-keeper, struggling to keep herself and her sisters on the right side of the law in their seaside town of Bajas.

When their lives collide by a dark riverside, Botille rescues a dying Dolssa and conceals her in the tavern, where an unlikely friendship blooms. Aided by her sisters and Symo, her surly but loyal neighbor, Botille nurses Dolssa back to health and hides her from her pursuers.  But all of Botille’s tricks, tales, and cleverness can’t protect them forever, and when the full wrath of the Church bears down upon Bajas, Dolssa’s passion and Botille’s good intentions could destroy the entire village. 

From the author of the award-winning All the Truth That's in Me comes a spellbinding thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the final page and make you wonder if miracles really are possible. 


Welcome, Julie! Can you share who was your favorite character to write and why?

Favorites are always tricky for me, because I love all my characters, but I can say this: the hardest was Dolssa, my ethereal mystic; the most playful was Sapdalina, who is a bit of a comic-relief character with a bit of a “My Fair Lady” arc; the two that had the tightest hold on my heart were Botille, who probably gets the Main Character crown in this large ensemble cast, and Symo, the surly grump of a newcomer to town who exasperates Botille to no end, but is always there when she needs help.  

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

I’m not sure if I’ve recovered enough yet from the revision process for this book to be able to talk about it without my eyeballs twitching. This novel went through more iterations than I can count. Not just revisions, but structural overhauls, charts, spreadsheets, color-coding, cutting, trimming, honing. It was a nightmare, perhaps, but in a way, it was also an incredibly stimulating puzzle to unravel. It was worth it.  

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

 I belong to a writing group and a critique group, and both are vital to my sanity and productivity. In fact, as I write this response, I’m sitting in a library quiet study room with Larissa Theule (S3Q2, Summer 2009) and Catherine Linka (Winter 2006). We meet weekly to write together. I also belong to a critique group of Boston area writers that has kindly let me stay involved via Skype group chats. We meet when someone has finished an entire novel and we give it a global critique and love-fest. Their input has been lifesaving. My dearest and lifelong bosom buddy, Ginger Johnson (S3Q2, Summer 2009) always reads my manuscripts, bless her, and I treasure her input. My husband Phil is a brilliant reader. He reads my completed drafts, and occasionally I’ll let him see a partial. He’s my canary in the well – I know if he survives my early pages, I’m onto something.

What's your writing superpower?JulieBerry_2013_HiRezPublicityPhoto.jpg

Hm, I wish I had one! My husband would say that it is my ability to throw out what I’ve written and start over. A capacity for taking out the trash feels like a dubious power indeed. Also, I’ve seen a handful of bloggers say things like, “Julie Berry is unafraid to make her characters suffer.” Another curious accolade. Is sadism a superpower? I know what they mean, though, and I guess I’ll take it.  

Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.

A catastrophic mess. I’m sort of a Pigpen of domestic clutter. Unlike Pigpen, I’m not proud of it. But maybe that’s my superpower. Someone once asked me at an author event how I managed to write books with four kids. I told them that I was capable of functioning amid a level of mess and chaos that would drive many women smack out of their minds. It’s true. But I should really try harder to find the floor.

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

It isn’t swag, but I want make a live-action cinematic trailer for this book. I think it screams for one. Who knows; perhaps I will.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

I worked with Cynthia Leitich Smith, Brent Hartinger, and Tim Wynne-Jones. (I transferred in from Simmons College, so I only needed three semesters.) I was incredibly lucky in each case. Cyn held me together as I came face to face with all my writing weaknesses, and rewrote the beginning of The Amaranth Enchantment five times, once per packet. The poor dear! Brent worked with me on my critical thesis, which was a transformative experience, and he helped me channel the momentum I’d been building with Cyn into a completed draft of Amaranth. He was wonderfully encouraging and kind. With Tim’s wisdom and affection buoying me up, I wrote All the Truth That’s in Me and the first draft of The Rat Brain Fiasco. They launched me. I love them all.

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

Oh, where to begin? The dances! The nervous excitement of waiting to learn who my instructor would be. The sleepless jitters the night before giving my graduating lecture, nearly rewriting the entire thing. Goofing around and bonding with others in the dorms. NECI breakfasts and cookies – I’m easy to please. J Tromping through the snow. Finding kindred spirits.

One of my best VCFA memories now is that experience I’ve had, more than once, of helping an applicant who is considering VCFA overcome their hesitation and take the plunge, and then hearing afterwards how blissfully happy they are with that choice, and how grateful they are for the nudge. Advice is a tricky business, fraught with peril, but this one’s a slam-dunk, and it’s wonderful to see the glow in their eyes afterwards.

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

I suspect that the thing I wish I’d known was knowledge that I could only learn from submitting to the VCFA experience, a perspective I could only earn with time. I needed to learn to surrender my ambitions, my competitive urges, my eagerness to prove myself or find validation in writing achievement. I needed to let myself be a beginner and a student. I needed to give myself full, genuine permission to fail, and I needed the courage to allow others to see me fail. I needed to learn how to keep on going when no progress seemed evident, and I needed to let myself be taught and inspired by everyone around me – not just the most popular instructors, but every student. In other words, I needed to get out of my own way and patiently do the work, without saddling it with expectations. It was only when I began to learn to do that that my writing began to reach toward progress.

Can you tell us about your graduating class?

I entered VCFA with the Cliffhangers (Summer 2008) but because I transferred in, I graduated before them, with the Dedications  (Winter 2008). So I guess I’m a Cliffcation. Ooh, no, a Dedhanger. 

Sleep-deprived, wild-haired, rarely tidy, usually tardy, constantly grazing, generally fretting, and increasingly forgetful, Julie Berry writes teens and raises books.  She is the author of many books including The Amaranth Enchantment, Secondhand Charm, All the Truth That’s In Me, The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, and the Splurch Academy for Disruptive Boys series.

 Visit Julie online at

Topics: young adult, Julie Berry, 2016 release, historical fiction, Viking Children's

Emily Wing Smith and ALL BETTER NOW

Posted by Sarah Johnson on Wed, Mar 09, 2016 @ 08:03 AM
Congratulations to Emily Wing Smith for the release of All Better Now, a memoir about how a near-fatal car accident when she was twelve saved her life.  
ALL HER LIFE, EMILY HAS FELT DIFFERENT FROM OTHER KIDS. Between therapist visits, sudden uncontrollable bursts of anger, and unexplained episodes of dizziness, things have never felt right. For years, her only escape was through the stories she’d craft. But it isn’t until a near-fatal accident when she’s twelve years old that Emily and her family discover the truth: a grapefruit-size brain tumor at the base of her skull. In turns candid, angry, and beautiful, Emily Wing Smith’s captivating memoir chronicles her struggles with both mental and physical disabilities, the devastating accident that may have saved her life, and her way through it all: writing.
Emily tweets at @emilywingsmith

Topics: memoir, 2016 release, Emily Wing Smith, Dutton

Meg Wiviott and PAPER HEARTS

Posted by Sarah Johnson on Tue, Sep 01, 2015 @ 02:09 AM

Today we celebrate the release of PAPER HEARTS, a young adult novel by Meg Wiviott.


An act of defiance.

A statement of hope.

A crime punishable by death.

Making a birthday card in Auschwitz was all of those things. But that is what Zlatka did in 1944 for her best friend, Fania. She stole and bartered for paper and scissors, secretly creating an origami heart. Then she passed it to every girl at the work table to sign with their hope and wishes for happiness, for love, and most of all, for freedom.

Fania knew what that heart meant, for herself and all the other girls. And she kept it hidden, through the bitter days in the camp and through the death marches. She kept it always.


Paper Hearts is based on the true story of Fania and Zlatka, the story of the bond that helped them both to hope for the best in the face of the worst.

Welcome, Meg. What was the spark that ignited this book?


I read an online article about the release of the documentary film, “The Heart of Auschwitz” in November 2010 and was immediately intrigued. In January 2011, before going to my fourth Residency at VCFA, I visited the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, saw the Heart on display, and then met with one of the filmmakers, Luc Cyr from Ad Hoc Films. Then I knew Fania and Zlatka’s story had to be told.



Who was your favorite character to write and why?


I can’t say that she was my “favorite” but writing Fania’s voice was easier than Zlatka’s. I am not sure why, perhaps it was simply because I could hear her more clearly in my head. For researc

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

 I relied heavily on the film “The Heart of Auschwitz” in which both Fania and Zlatka appear. Fania speaks in English while Zlatka speaks in Spanish with subtitles. I also had several conversations and emails with Fania’s daughter, so perhaps I felt closer to Fania for those reasons. Perhaps, also, I see more of myself in Fania than Zlatka.

I originally wrote this story as a middle grade nonfiction during my fourth semester at VCFA. After putting it in a drawer for a year, I decided it needed to be written for older readers, so I began writing it as a “traditional” young adult novel. I was committed to telling the story as honestly and accurately as possible, including the gruesome truths of Auschwitz. Prose quickly became restrictive, so I switched to free verse. The problem was (see answer below) I knew nothing about poetry—reading it or writing it. I had a lot to learn. 

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

Caroline Carlson, one of my classmates at VCFA and one of my early, early readers, kindly suggested that if I was going to write in verse it would be a good idea for me to read some verse. That was when I stopped writing and started reading.

Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.

I have a bulletin board where I keep images, notes, maps, photos relating my to my wip.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

I had the pleasure of working with Sharon Darrow, Alan Cumyn, Shelley Tanaka, and Rita Williams-Garcia. I was working with Shelley when I first started researching this story. Her advice was, as always, invaluable. Rita was my advisior when I wrote the first, and now forgotten, middle grade version. 

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

Before I attended VCFA, I heard people say that it "changed their lives," and I thought, really? But I can say that it did change my life. Not just my writing life, but my life. The bonds made at VCFA are forged in communal bathrooms, in shared dorm rooms with uncomfortable twin beds and no privacy, in the dining room over questionable cafeteria food, in lectures, in readings, and in the late hours in wine pit. They are forged in something stronger, more subtle, more durable than iron. They last a lifetime. And how can such friendships NOT change one’s entire life?


What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?


Thanks, Meg, for joining us at VCFA Launchpad today.

Meg Wiviott graduated from VCFA in July 2011 and is a member of the class of The League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches. You can find her online at ehr website. and on facebook. She also blogs at Through the Tollbooth, a VCFA alumni blog.

Topics: young adult, 2015 release, Simon & Schuster, Meg Wiviott, Margaret K. McElderry Books


Posted by Sarah Johnson on Sat, Aug 22, 2015 @ 00:08 AM

Today we celebrate the release of Another Kind of Hurricane by Tamara Ellis Smith. 


 A hurricane, a tragic death, two boys, one marble. How they intertwine is at the heart of this beautiful, poignant book. When ten-year-old Zavion loses his home in Hurricane Katrina, he and his father are forced to flee to Baton Rouge. And when Henry, a ten-year-old boy in northern Vermont, tragically loses his best friend, Wayne, he flees to ravaged New Orleans to help with hurricane relief efforts—and to search for a marble that was in the pocket of a pair of jeans donated to the Red Cross.

In this stunning debut novel, two very different characters—a black boy who loses his home in Hurricane Katrina and a white boy in Vermont who loses his best friend in a tragic accident—come together to find healing.

Rich with imagery and crackling with hope, this is the unforgettable story of how lives connect in unexpected, even magical, ways.

Tamara, thanks for visiting the Launchpad today.

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

So Another Kind of Hurricane took a long time to get right. Nine years from the idea (which came to me my first semester at VCFA) to finally telling the story as it was supposed to be told. The core of it never ever changed—two boys from vastly different places meet, begin to help one another heal, and become friends—but the details around it changed tremendously. At first I had Zavion and Henry meeting in Vermont, way at the end of the story. That didn't work. Then huge revision #1: I had them meeting in New Orleans way at the beginning of the story. THAT didn't work either. So huge revision #2: I had them meeting 1/2 to 2/3rds of the way through.  I was getting closer. But they met too easily. So I added an almost-meeting that prolongs the wait. Bingo.

Writing plot is definitely a challenge for me. And in the early stages of Hurricane, it was especially so. I had to really break it down into each small, logistical moment and even then I had to (clearly!) figure it out by trial and error. It was daunting each time. I remember feeling this underwater-feeling at the start of each revision, like I couldn't see clearly and couldn't catch my breath.  EVERYTHING had to change when the timing and location of Zavion and Henry 's meeting changed. But with each revision, the story made more and more sense.

It's incredibly interesting to me. Finding a story's shape is kind of like what I imagine sculpting to be. The shape is in the piece of rock already and the sculptor's job is to find it.


Do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?

I wrote most of Another Kind of Hurricane in a bakery at the end of my block. So my soundtrack was a background kind of chorus of voices, other fingers tapping other keyboards, the whooshing of coffee drinks being made, and whatever music the bakers were into on any given day. Along with the soundtrack was the scenttrack. When I smell coffee brewing and bread baking I am instantly ready to write!

I love writing in the midst of other people doing whatever they're doing; being busy while other people are busy. I love feeling that collective buzz-y kind of energy. I always have. I always loved doing any kind of work as a kid if other people were working too. There was some odd comfort I drew from it.  Some visceral recognition that I was both an individual with a mission and a part of the whole.

Anyway, it's still the way I work best. That, and with a mocha latte and a cinnamon raisin bagel with peanut butter!

Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.

I'll tell you about something special I keep on my finger as I work. This is especially relevant with regards to Another Kind of Hurricane because special—or lucky—objects play a very important role in the story. I have so many of these objects. They're mostly in the form of jewelry, for whatever reason.

So I was terrified to go off to grad school. The day before I set out for my first residency, my friend, Maryanne MacKenzie, took a ring off of her finger and gave it to me. She said I could borrow it for the two weeks I would be at school. She said every time I felt nervous I should look at it and remember that she believed in me. I did exactly what she told me to do—and it was like magic! It worked. It calmed and centered me. After the residency was over, I gave the ring back. Then 6 months later, when it was time to go for my second residency, she gave it to me again.  We did this for the 2 years I was in school.

After I graduated, I gave the ring back to her for good. But at my graduation party she handed me a present – a little box. Guess what was in it?

I wear it every single day. It still calms and centers me.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

Oh my gosh. How did attending VCFA not affect my writing life?

It changed everything for me. I felt like I had found home the minute I stepped foot onto the VCFA campus—home inside of me and home outside of me. Every aligned. And crackled. And burst forth. In terms of real-deal specifics, there are two things that stand out the most for me.

The first is that I learned how to be productive no matter what. While I was at VCFA I had two (of my now four) kids at home. And they were young. So I was a full-time mom on top of being a student. I had to get words on the page when I sat down at my computer because I didn't have a lot of screen time. So I'd sit down, immediately start writing, and not stop until a kid woke up from a nap or my husband had to go to work. Doing this over and over again—the rhythm got engrained. I think a lot of us VCFAers find this lesson while we are students.

The second thing is that I found my community. (I think a lot of VCFAers find this too.) The writers who I met at school are some of my dearest, closest, life-line-est friends today. The secret about being a writer is that you appear to be this loner, typing madly away, tucked up in some corner somewhere, but in reality you so desperately need people—for advice, support, company, reassurance, love. At least that is true for me.

VCFA nurtured in me the very best way to support and be supported. And that has meant everything.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

My advice to a prospective VCFA student is to be open. As wide open as possible. Let the wisdom of the faculty come in, let the experiences of your fellow students come in, be present for each moment on campus as it unfolds.  My guess is that each student comes in with a specific idea of writing goals and desires. I know I did. Be willing for those to change.

Here's a story: I arrived at VCFA knowing I was a picture book writer (note the assuredness of that verb: knowing!), and so that first semester I wrote a picture book about a boy in Vermont who gave a pair of pants with a lucky marble in the pocket to a boy in New Orleans.

It was terrible. The picture book, not the idea. My advisor thought the idea would make a great novel—but I wasn't a novelist, so that was the end of that story.

Except it wasn't the end of that story—because I couldn't get these two boys out of my head.

You know what happened with that.

Yeah. My advice to students is to be open. Take risks. Tap into your heart. Reach out. Hold hands. Be curious. Work hard. It's the stuff I remind myself to do every single day.

Thanks for stopping by, Tamara

Tamara graduated from VCFA in Class of Summer 2007, The Unreliable Narrators. 

Sales from her book supports several non profit organizations which help New Orleans. is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the long-term recovery of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the levee breaches of 2005. is working to bring home more Lower Ninth Ward families than any other single organization. A portion of the profits from the sale of Another Kind of Hurricane goes directly to

Big Class is a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating and supporting the voices of New Orleans’ writers ages 6-18 through creative collaborations with schools and communities. Big Class offers a variety of free, innovative programs that provide under-resourced students with opportunities to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills. Readers all over the country are donating copies of Another Kind of Hurricane—as well as other vital books—to Big Class, getting meaningful stories directly into the hands of the community they represent.

Information about both of these organizations—and how you can help—can be found at

You can visit Tamara at her website,, on twitter at @tsesmith and on facebook at


Topics: 2015 release, middle grade, Random House, Tamara Ellis Smith

JoAnn Early Macken and Baby Says “Moo!”

Posted by Sarah Johnson on Sat, Jun 06, 2015 @ 11:06 AM

Today we welcome JoAnn Early Macken to the Launchpad.


She is the author of five picture books, the poetry instruction guide, Write a Poem Step by Step, and more than 130 educational books for young readers. She contributes to the Teaching Authors blog, and she speaks to writers of all ages at schools, libraries, and conferences.


Ask Baby what birds say, what horses say, or what dogs say, and Babhas only one answer: "Moo!" Ride along with Baby and family from the busy, dizzy city to the quiet countryside. They just might spot the animal that actually makes Baby's favorite sound!


What was the spark that ignited this book?

I’m one of seven sisters. While we were growing up, we Big Kids took it upon ourselves to teach the Little Kids. One of our lessons taught the sounds that different animals made by asking questions like “What does the birdie say?” When my husband and I had our own sons, we played the game with them. One day as I walked the dog, I thought about a baby who answered all the questions wrong. Then I decided it would be funnier if the baby gave the same wrong answer to every question. I wanted Baby to be right at least once, so I knew that a cow would have to be part of the story.

What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
Baby Says “Moo!” was a cumulative rhyming picture book first. Before she accepted the manuscript, the editor asked me to rearrange the stanzas in a more logical order. Because of the cumulative structure, I had to toss whole stanzas and replace them, but the story was much stronger afterwards.

After the book was published, the editor left the company. I was pleasantly surprised when a different editor asked me to revise the manuscript for a padded board book format. We cut all the cumulative stanzas and added some food-themed terms of endearment.

I hope younger kids will enjoy the new format as a read-aloud and chime in when Baby says “Moo!”

Do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?
Silence, if possible, except for the sounds of kids playing outside at recess on the school playground down the block. Most days, I take a break and walk to Lake Michigan, where I can listen to bird songs and waves on the beach.

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?
I’m a member of a wonderfully supportive writing group with two other VCFA grads (Ann Angel and Gretchen Will Mayo) and five other children’s book authors. I contribute to the Teaching Authors blog, along with three other VCFA grads (Carmela Martino, Mary Ann Rodman, and Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford). I also rely on SCBWI-Wisconsin and all my VCFA classmates in The Hive. I'm fairly active on Facebook and barely so on Twitter. My family is a huge help, although I no longer bribe the kids to read my manuscripts.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?
I worked with four brilliant and generous advisors: Ellen Howard, Norma Fox Mazer, Phyllis Root, and Amy Ehrlich. I learned valuable lessons I’ll never forget from all of them.

What is your favorite VCFA memory?
JoAnn_Early_Macken I couldn’t choose just one! Here are five I can't forget:
•    Brock Cole naming our class “The Hive” when he saw us buzzing around campus
•    Poetry Nights•    calling home from the phone booth outside the lecture hall
•    Ron Koertge giving away his poems
•    our graduation, when my family came to campus and our class read a poem I wrote for the ceremony

Thank you for visiting the Launchpad today. 

You can visit Joann at her website, and at the Teaching Authors group blog,


Topics: 2015 release, picture book, Disney-Hyperion, board book, JoAnn Early Macken


Posted by Sarah Johnson on Tue, Mar 31, 2015 @ 03:03 AM

We celebrate the launch of Lindsay Eyre's debut novel today, a middle grade book published by Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic.

Screen Shot 2015 03 26 at 12.50.29 PM

Sylvie Scruggs doesn't like Georgie Diaz. He always calls her Scruggs. He always beats her in baseball. He didn't invite her to his party. Plus, he's a boy. Now Georgie is trying to steal Sylvie's best friend, Miranda Tan. He's giving Miranda a super-special birthday present, so Sylvie will too -- only her present will be ten times better. With the help of her twin brothers, a ferret, a castle, and some glitter glue, Sylvie sets out to make Miranda remember who her REAL best friend is, and forget about Georgie forever.

Thanks for joining us today, Lindsey.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

I was extremely fortunate to hear Sylvie's voice early on in the drafting process. The book is written in first person, so having that voice in my head made everything easier. Plotting this novel was so difficult for me, so I needed the gift of hearing my narrator’s voice!

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

I had a scene where Sylvie and her twin brothers tried to capture a rogue rat. It was extremely funny (at least, it made me laugh!), and it was one of my favorite parts of the manuscript, but my agent gently pointed out that she wasn’t sure it actually helped the story (I think Margaret Bechard pointed this out as well in fourth semester...). When I stepped back and stopped thinking about being funny (and clever), I saw that I could remove that entire scene without really changing the novel. That has become my biggest red flag as I edit my books. If I can remove a scene or even a paragraph from the manuscript without having to seriously change everything that follows, it has to go. It is not intrinsic to the story and serves no purpose, no matter how brilliant I think it is! We tend to fall in love with so many parts of our manuscripts (or maybe we just fall in love with ourselves for a bit), and it is difficult to see clearly. 

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

Someone somewhere along the way told me that every criticism has an element of truth, and if you can filter through whatever issues you or your critique-giver may have and get to the heart of the problem, you can find something fixable. For example, my mom is a terrible critique-giver. She always begins by saying, “Oh, I loved it! I thought it was really great. Well, I did for awhile. I did think this one part was a little bit weird. But still, it was wonderful. Except, I wondered about the setting, and I couldn’t buy the ending. I also thought the beginning was boring. And I really didn’t like this character.” And so on. Critiques like that used to leave me deflated, as if the whole thing was a sham, including my career as a writer. But I’ve learned now to ask good questions that get to the root of the problem. “When you say you didn’t buy the ending, was it because you wanted something else to happen instead? What would you have believed?” Things like that. We really do need thick skins as writers. We also need to believe that everything is fixable, however, I will add that I am beginning to encounter instances where this is not true. When someone really wants me to change something intrinsic about my story, part of the “spark” that ignited the flame, I’m learning to tread carefully. When those core pieces disappear, it is difficult to remember where the story was headed in the first place, and if I have no direction, the story is lost.

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?

My husband is my best critique partner, hands down. He is eager to help, and he knows that being kind is not helpful. Also, he is not a writer, so he doesn’t give me craft advice based on what he’s been pondering lately, he just tells me parts that really aren’t working for him. He’s learned I can fix most issues eventually so he gives me his questions in a very positive, you-can-do-this sort of way. Also, he’s not a reader, so he’s not comparing my book to other books he’s read. He’s simply telling me what he believed and what he didn’t. Simple, I’ve realized, is often the most helpful. 

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

Leda Schubert, Tim Wynne-Jones, Shelley Tanaka, and Margaret Bechard. Every one of them saw some version of this book and can take lots of credit!

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

I had some classmates who were extremely nervous about giving their lectures. I remember feeling incredibly proud of them when they gave those lectures beautifully.    

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

To not begin the program with the goal to be published! Everyone should begin their program with the intention of learning all they can. I also wish I’d understood that everyone at VCFA (students, advisors, published writers) are first and foremost human beings! I wish I had listened to everyone’s advice, filtering out my pride as I responded, but never ignoring my own intuition. I can’t count the number of times I “started over” when I should have kept going. Most importantly, I wish I’d understood that writing is not a competition (even if it feels like one!). This is my favorite quote from Martha Graham: “… if you block it [your creative endeavor], it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. Keep the channel open.”

Thanks for joining us in the Launchpad today.  

Lindsey graduated in January 2012 with The Keepers of the Dancing Stars. Visit her online at and

Topics: 2015 release, Scholastic, middle grade, Arthur A. Levine Books, Lindsay Eyre

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