the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Clete Barrett Smith and MR 60%!

Posted by Adi Rule on Wed, Aug 23, 2017 @ 10:08 AM
We are 100% thrilled for the launch of Clete Barrett Smith's Mr. 60%, a young adult novel out now from Crown Books for Young Readers!
Mr. 60 cover.jpg 
Matt Nolan is the high school drug dealer, deadbeat, and soon-to-be dropout according to everyone at his school. His vice principal is counting down the days until Mr. 60% (aka Matt) finally flunks out and is no longer his problem. What no one knows is the only reason Matt sells drugs is to take care of his uncle Jack, who is dying of cancer.
Meet Amanda. The overly cheerful social outcast whose optimism makes Matt want to hurl. Stuck as partners during an after-school club (mandatory for Matt), it’s only a matter of time until Amanda discovers Matt’s secret. But Amanda is used to dealing with heartbreak, and she’s determined to help Matt find a way to give life 100 percent.
Welcome, Clete! So, tell us . . .
What was the spark that ignited this book?
When I was taking time off from teaching to start at VCFA, a beloved family member who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live came to stay with us and I helped care for him. It was my first up-close experience with death, and it had a deep impact on me. Jerry was a funny, charming, charismatic mess of a guy, and I adored him. His experience with his final days was much different from what I had read in most books; he was not ready to die and did not want to pass on any pearls of wisdom. He was angry and defiant and the process was messy. I knew that I would have to write about this experience, to honor his memory and also as a way to work through my own feelings.
Also, as a teacher for twenty years, I knew many kids who existed on the fringe of high school society, and I wanted to tell their story.
Those are such important stories to tell. 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?
Bringing this book to publication was a strange process. It is coming out nearly ten years after I wrote it. Mr. 60%  was my second-semester project (with Uma Krishnaswami), but by that time I had already signed a deal with Disney-Hyperion to publish a fun, lighthearted middle grade book. My agent at the time loved Mr. 60%, but his advice was to not follow up a humorous middle grade book with a grim, gritty YA book. So I wrote four middle grade books for Disney-Hyperion, and then we talked about sending out Mr. 60%. My agent (the late George Nicholson at Sterling Lord Literistic) was very passionate about the story and about finding the right home for it, and he stuck with it for a long time.
What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?
God bless Rita Williams-Garcia, because she taught me where the Delete button was on my keyboard, and how to push it. Before meeting her, I was so invested in all of the hard work that I had done to write a first draft in the first place, that it was very difficult for me to “throw it all away.” But Rita taught me that the effort in writing the first draft was still a valuable experience, and what I wrote after I hit “Delete” on large chunks of my manuscript would be much better.
I hear you. I think a lot of writers struggle with Delete!
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?
It’s not weird, but yesterday I had to Google a “travois.” I can NEVER remember that word. (And because a lot of my books are set in the forest with kids having to solve their own problems out there, I have had to use this device on multiple occasions.)
What's your writing superpower?
The only thing that comes easily for me is dialogue. (Writing any other aspect of a novel is filled with cringing, wincing, despairing self-doubt.) As a kid, I read a ton of crime fiction by writers like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, where the dialogue is snappy and tight and is structured how people actually speak, with half-formed sentences, interruptions, unexplained allusions, etc.
Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.
Artwork from my daughters.
How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
VCFA created my writing life. Before I enrolled, I had been writing for nearly ten years, but doing it completely on my own: no critique group, no professional editing, nothing. Stepping onto that campus and finding people who were passionate about the same thing that I was absolutely changed all aspects of my life. I went from being a closeted writer to having amazing friends and collaborators all over the country. Attending VCFA was, by far, the best professional experience I have ever had.
What is your favorite VCFA memory?
It’s hard to pick just one, but reading from Mr. 60% for my graduation residency was probably the proudest moment of my life. I think that people were expecting something lighthearted and fun, because that is usually what I write, but I took a risk and read something very serious and even grim. It’s a story that is very personal and emotional to me, and I had never been able to read that passage without breaking down and sobbing. The support I received was amazing.
It was an incredible reading! What was special about your VCFA graduating class, the Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines?
There were only nine of us, so we became very close. I love those people.
Clete Smith 1.jpgThanks so much for stopping by, Clete. Welcome to the world, Mr. 60%!
Clete Barrett Smith graduated from VCFA in 2010. His first semester project with Rita Williams-Garcia was a humorous middle grade sci-fi story titled Aliens on Vacation, which was published by Disney-Hyperion in 2011. Two more books followed in the series, Alien on a Rampage and Aliens in Disguise, while his fourth middle grade novel, Magic Delivery, was released by D-H in 2014. Mr. 60% is his first YA title.

Topics: young adult, Penguin Random House, Penguin, Clete Barrett Smith, 2017 release, Crown Books for Young Readers, Crown Books


Posted by Adi Rule on Wed, Aug 02, 2017 @ 08:08 AM

We are dangerously excited about Stephen Bramucci's new middle grade novel, The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo, illustrated by Arree Chung, out now from Bloomsbury!


Ronald Zupan is a daring master adventurer! But he hasn’t actually gone on any grand adventures . . . YET! When his world-traveling parents are kidnapped on his 11th birthday, Ronald seizes the chance to prove himself with a dazzling, death-defying rescue operation. Teaming up with his trusty butler Jeeves, his quick-witted fencing nemesis Julianne Sato, and his pet cobra, Carter, Ronald sets course for the jungle of Borneo where his parents were last sighted. As their journey becomes more and more dangerous, can Ronald and his companions muster enough courage to see this adventure through?

Welcome, Stephen! Thanks for bringing us along on the adventure! So, tell us . . .

Who was your favorite character to write and why?

My favorite character to write in The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo! was Ronald Zupan -- the narrator of the book. It was just so much fun to dive headfirst into his bluster, his swagger, and his hyperbole. Especially when he was wrong. I loved to see his ego get checked and, eventually, wanted to give him space to reevaluate ideas that he once seemed so sure of.

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

The title was the most difficult element to change in the book. The original title, Ronald Zupan and the Pirates of Borneo! made it past four advisors at VCFA. The book found an agent with that title and sold with that title. But ultimately, the title didn't reflect the contributions of the novel's other heroes. Changing it was prompted by my editor, but it was absolutely the right call. I had a hard time finding the phrase "the danger gang," but once I did it was locked in almost immediately.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

This book was actually born from those Old Spice commercials from 2010. I loved the hyperbole of the character. And that hyper-confident voice. Around this same time, the Most Interesting Man commercials were on the air and the actor bore a striking resemblance to my dad. I started to wonder what it would be like to be parented by the "Old Spice guy," or the "Most Interesting Man." I was fascinated by the pressure that would create for a character -- there would be a constant need to be impressive (something I've often felt, myself).

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

Neil Gaiman says something that I've heard a few times and will paraphrase: "If someone tells you something isn't working, they're almost always right. If they tell you how to fix it, they're almost always wrong." In writing this book, I asked for a lot of input -- from friends, family, my partner, my writing group, and the VCFA community. In order to parse all that feedback, I had to believe that it all made the book better. I absolutely believe that, even though the eventual answers to the questions posed by beta readers had to be uncovered on my own.


Who were your advisors at VCFA?

Alan Cumyn, Betsy Partridge, Uma Krishnaswami, and Tim Wynne-Jones.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

It gave me a writing community, craft tools that I needed, and taught me how to edit a whole novel (which is a nut I just couldn't manage to crack on my own).

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

One night in my first term, Mary Winn Heider, Rachel Hylton, and I spent hours sliding around the ice rink on the field outside of Noble with our sneakers. We buzzed on ideas, shared big dreams, and got to know one another. Since then, the two of them have become two of my closest friends on earth. I think of them every month, when I make my loan payment -- it's well worth it for bringing them into my life.

What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

The Dystropians were an incredibly supportive class: Kind hearted, positive, and not overly competitive. It was just such an idyllic group to share stories with.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Go to focus on writing and let the industry stuff come later.


Thanks for swinging by, Stephen! Ahoy, Danger Gang!

Stephen Bramucci is an award-winning travel writer and adventurer. He’s rowed down the Mekong Delta, crossed the Australian outback in a car powered by French fry oil, and explored ancient pirate islands in Madagascar. A lifelong animal lover, Stephen’s encounters with endangered species often come up in his classroom presentations. A portion of the author's proceeds from this book have been donated to orangutan research.

Visit him online at, and follow him on Twitter @stevebram.

Topics: middle grade, Stephen Bramucci, 2017 release, Bloomsbury, Arree Chung

Bonnie Pipkin: Aftercare Instructions

Posted by Amanda West Lewis on Tue, Jun 27, 2017 @ 17:06 PM
Celebrating the release of Aftercare Instructions, Bonnie Pipkin's YA novel, published by Flatiron Books/ Macmillan



 “Troubled.” That’s seventeen-year-old Genesis according to her small New Jersey town. She finds refuge and stability in her relationship with her boyfriend, Peter—until he abandons her at a Planned Parenthood clinic during their appointment to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The betrayal causes Gen to question everything.

As Gen pushes herself forward to find her new identity without Peter, she must also confront her most painful memories. Through the lens of an ongoing four act play within the novel, the fantasy of their undying love unravels line by line, scene by scene. Digging deeper into her past while exploring the underground theater world of New York City, she rediscovers a long forgotten dream. But it’s when Gen lets go of her history, the one she thinks she knows, that she’s finally able to embrace the complicated, chaotic true story of her life, and take center stage.

Aftercare Instructions, an electric, format-crushing debut, full of heart and hope, follows Gen on a big-hearted journey from dorm rooms to diners to underground theaters—and ultimately, right into readers' hearts.


Welcome to the Launch Pad, Bonnie. This is a really powerful book, on a difficult, sometimes taboo, subject. Can you tell us how it started?

The first spark was a vague idea that I wanted to write about abortion, but not have it focus on the journey to the choice. I also wanted to tell a story that didn’t attach any shame to this. Reflection, yes, but no judgement. Once that was floating around in my head, a complete vision of the opening scene came to me. One of those magic writing moments. I knew there was a girl named Genesis who would have an abortion, come out into the waiting room expecting to find her boyfriend to take her home, but find herself abandoned. After that, I knew it would have to get worse for her before it got better, and that was hard considering I jumped in at such a low moment. The rest took some exploration of Genesis’ past and her desires for the future.

Clearly it was a creative leap that paid off. What was it like when you found out you had sold the book? Did you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?

I feel very fortunate that I signed with my agent, Emily van Beek, just one month out from graduation. Emily is a very editorial agent, so it was like inheriting another advisor just out of the VCFA nest. I revised Aftercare Instructions with Emily for nearly two years. It was grueling, and there were definitely moments where I questioned if I could ever finish. One afternoon, I was walking through Times Square with my mom and her friend after seeing a Broadway matinee, and I got an email from Emily with her feedback. I stopped and read it right there in the middle of the mayhem—she didn’t think a new scene I wrote was working. My response was to start sobbing right there on the street, under the blinking marquees, surrounded by tourists with selfie sticks. Now, Times Square is breakdown inducing anyway, but this really was a very low moment for me.

But I pulled myself together, and went back at the manuscript shortly thereafter. When it was finally in shape to go out on sub, it sold in three days in a pre-empt to Flatiron Books / Macmillan. I did another couple rounds of revisions with my editors at Flatiron, but I had already done the soul crushing revision, and it was actually quite joyous taking it to the finish line.

I'd love to hear about your writing community. Are you in a critique group? Does a family member read your early drafts? Who do you turn to for creative support?

I am not in an official critique group, nor do I have a regular critique partner, but I do have a handful of people (most of whom I collected at VCFA) that I know I can send work to whenever I need to. One thing I did during the last round of editing of Aftercare Instructions was to put out an invitation to my friends (readers, not writers necessarily) to come over to my apartment and listen to me read the whole manuscript out loud. Two of them accepted. They came over to my house for two afternoons, and I provided lunch, snacks, tea, to keep them happy. I knew I was close to finishing, and I wanted to see which parts still made me squirm when I had to witness people actually absorbing my words. I planned to mark an X next to anything that made me feel self-conscious, or I knew I wanted to change later. I didn’t stop though. I just kept reading. I only asked their opinion about one scene at the end of the story, but for the most part, I just needed to see how it flowed. They were both engaged the whole time! And I swear I didn’t slip anything into the snacks! It really helped me to make sure everything was tight, and I know I will use this method again as part of my process.

Do you have a writing superpower?

I like to think that my writing superpower is GUTS. Is that a superpower? I love the Ernest Hemingway quote that says: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Well, my office is pretty much a mess of blood and guts at all times. When it’s too clean, that means I’m not writing much.

I think "guts" is a great superpower! And of course it took guts to go to VCFA in the first place. Who were your advisors at VCFA?

Coe Booth, Alan Cumyn, An Na and Martine Leavitt. A perfect example of one of those magical, trust-the-process things that happens at VCFA: the sequence of the advisors you work with seems to be fated. Too perfect. Each one of them changed me for the better.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

I live in Brooklyn and have a pretty expansive creative community here. My social life can be overwhelmingly active at times. I went to VCFA expecting to keep my head down, finally develop a regular discipline, and not make a single friend. (Insert scoffing laughter here). I had more friends than I could keep track of as it was. I signed up for yoga at the first residency and really planned not to talk to anyone. Well, this changed the first night when Varian Johnson, our GA, told us how important it was for us all to drink wine together in the “wine pit” and you don’t have to tell me to drink wine twice! The very first night we were all bonding and I was sharing so many personal stories! But I’m not one to tuck away when experience is happening. Life is for living. And it turned out there actually was lots of room in my life. Or maybe I grew? But what I really got out of VCFA was an amazing community. And this community has 100% affected my writing life and helped me get to where I am today. There is no question.


Bonnie Pipkin recording the audio version of her book Aftercare Instructions

 You are a member of the MAGIC Ifs (Melancholy Agents’ Guild Investigating Cruxes In Fiction), from the Winter of 2014. What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

The most special thing about The MAGIC Ifs is how close we were and how we’ve managed to stay so since graduating. We have a serious track record for supporting each other. Last year, at least a dozen people attended both Cynthia Surrisi’s launch in Asheville and Jenn Bishop’s launch in Cambridge. Then this year, fifteen of us went to Estelle Laure’s launch in Nashville, and I think about twelve or so IFs are coming to Brooklyn for mine. I love that about us! The book launch pilgrimage!

Thanks so much, Bonnie, for sharing some of the process for Aftercare Instructions. Congratulations on the book and have a great launch!



Bonnie Pipkin believes in prose, performances, puppet shows, and public displays of affection. Originally from California, Bonnie now lives in Brooklyn. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, teaches literature courses at Kean University, officiates weddings, and looks after a very cute cat. Aftercare Instructions is Bonnie’s first novel.

Aftercare Instructions is published by Flatiron/Macmillian, June 27, 2017. For more information on Bonnie Pipkin check her on Facebook : and Twitter: @bonnie_pipkin

Bonnie Pipkin:





Topics: YA contemporary, 2017 release, Bonnie Pipkin


Posted by Adi Rule on Thu, Jun 15, 2017 @ 10:06 AM

Today, we're singing the praises of Leda Schubert, whose picture book biography Listen: How Pete Seeger Got America Singing, illustrated by Raúl Colón, is out now from Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press!


There was nobody like Pete Seeger.
Wherever he went, he got people singing.
With his head thrown back
and his Adam’s apple bouncing,
picking his long-necked banjo
or strumming his twelve-string guitar,
Pete sang old songs,
new songs,
old songs with new words,
and songs he made up.

Welcome, Leda! I am thrilled to get to celebrate your work and the release of this wonderful new PB biography. What was the spark that ignited this book?

I always knew that Pete Seeger would die someday, but I also always hoped that he’d be the one to beat the odds. On the morning of January 28, 2014, I turned on NPR as I usually do and heard the announcement of his death. I began crying and couldn’t stop. I cried on and off for days, and I found myself beginning to write. I had had no intention of doing this, since my good friend Anita Silvey was working on a book about Pete already.

Sometimes you have to listen to the voices. Speaking of, do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?

I almost always write in silence, except for the pacing of the dogs and the barking of the dogs and the scratching of the dogs to go in and out. Sometimes I can listen to the hum of NPR news, but I absolutely cannot listen to music. Because I listen to music. For this book, however, I listened to a lot of Pete Seeger. Such a surprise. And, of course, I cried some more.


Leda Schubert plays some Pete Seeger.

As one of your former advisees, I have to say you had a huge, positive impact on both my writing and my VCFA experience. But how did teaching at VCFA affect your own writing life?

So many answers here, so I’ll focus on a few. First, teaching reminded me how hard writing can be. My students worked and worked, and I was the beneficiary of their efforts. I loved it. Second, I learned how to talk more effectively about writing, which, in turn, helped me analyze my own efforts better. I had to be able to express inchoate ideas so others could understand them. Third, I was constantly amazed at the richness and originality of my students’ work. Fourth (and I could go on), it was fascinating to see how students went about solving problems. The world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle. Fifth, I realized I had to walk the talk.

What do you think is special about the VCFA-WCYA program?

Everybody reading this post knows the answer already. To me, the most important aspect is the community that has developed over the years of the program. I see students change their lives for each other, I see alums supporting each other’s work for years; I see small and large communities building around friendship and writing. I used to tell first semesters that their lives would never be the same, and in large part I still believe that. Then there’s the program itself: there is no guarantee that writing can be taught to a specific individual, but there sure is vast evidence that the program is doing something right! It’s wonderful to celebrate so many successes—so many that nobody can keep up.  I do think people should get my permission before moving here, however.

Ha! Taking note! Thanks so much for stopping by the Launchpad, Leda. Keep singing, everybody!

Leda Schubert holds an MFA from VCFA (class of January, 2006) and was a core faculty member for six years. She lives in Plainfield, VT, the center of the universe, with her husband and two dogs, one of whom is a saint and one a sinner. Visit her online at

Topics: picture book, Roaring Brook Press, picture book biography, 2017 release, Leda Schubert, Raul Colon, Neal Porter

Jenn Bishop's 14 Hollow Road

Posted by Amanda West Lewis on Tue, Jun 13, 2017 @ 14:06 PM

We're here to celebrate today's release of Jenn Bishop's middle grade novel 14 Hollow Road.

14 Hollow Road

The night of the sixth-grade dance is supposed to be perfect for Maddie: she’ll wear her perfect new dress, hit the dance floor with her friends, and her crush, Avery, will ask her to dance. But as the first slow song starts to play, her plans crumble. Avery asks someone else to dance instead—and then the power goes out.

Huddled in the gym, Maddie and her friends are stunned to hear that a tornado has ripped through the other side of town, destroying both Maddie’s and Avery’s homes.

Kind neighbors open up their home to Maddie’s and Avery’s families, which both excites and horrifies Maddie. Sharing the same house . . . with Avery? For the entire summer? While it buys her some time to prove that Avery made the wrong choice at the dance, it also means he’ll be there to witness her morning breath and her annoying little brother.

At the dance, all she wanted was to be more grown-up. Now that she has no choice, is she really ready for it?

Jenn, this is a fabulous premise. Can you tell me where the story came from?

I’m an avid listener of This American Life and years ago remember listening to a very memorable episode about a tornado interrupting a prom in the heartland. One minute, you’re dancing the night away, experiencing this seminal life moment, and the next, everything changes. Fast forward several years to 2011, and an unlikely tornado crossed the street where I grew up, and where my parents still live. Thankfully they and their home were spared, but the experience lingered with me. What if there had been a dance that night, but for middle schoolers? The first 15-20 pages flew out of me as I imagined these events happening in a hometown like my own in rural Massachusetts. I brought those pages to my next-to-last workshop at VCFA, with A.S. King and Alan Cumyn. I loved using the first 15-20 pages of a new story idea as a workshop piece—it served as a great litmus test for whether or not the concept really had legs.

I remember that This American Life episode! How fabulous to take that idea and play through the "What ifs" scenarios. As you developed the story, who became your favorite characters to write, and why?

I had a lot of fun writing the middle school boy characters in this one, particularly Gregg, the boy in Maddie’s class who has a bit of a crush on her. There’s something about boys that age—I spent a lot of time around them as a teen librarian, serving grades 5 and up. They can be so self-assured at times, and usually with hilarious results. We see that with Gregg, but we also see the flip side with Avery, the object of Maddie’s crush, who she ends up living with for the summer. There’s a tender core to boys and their emotional experiences that I think our culture is uncomfortable around sometimes. On the outside, Avery tries to live up to the cultural standards, but in his downtime, he’s crumbling a bit under the pressure and struggling with his uncertain future, having lost his home in a tornado.

Your affection for that "tender core" is clearly an important motivating force in your creation of these endearing boys. Can you tell me what was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?

This was the first project where I had to really reshape the entire middle of the book in revisions with my editor, which seemed scary at the time. Plotting still doesn’t always come easy to me, and my editor, rightly, pointed out that the friendship thread in 14 Hollow Road needed to build to a satisfying climax instead of just being filled with momentary tension. To rectify this, I ended up changing the relationship between the three girls (Maddie, her best friend Kiersten, and Gabby), so that Gabby was now the new girl who threatened Maddie’s longtime friendship with Kiersten. So now, not only was Gabby, in Maddie’s mind, going after the boy she liked, but she was also gunning for her best friend. I tend to struggle with seeing the way the parts of my book create a whole—I think that I’m often just too close to see it—so it was a good challenge to have to reframe a plot thread.

Clearly you are continuing to challenge yourself as a writer, and to keep learning. When we're at VCFA, we are encouraged to read like a writer. Tell me, when you are reading other authors, who do you love for their sentences? How about plot? Character?

Sentences: Lois Sepahban. Her debut last year, Paper Wishes, was so spare and lyrical and moving. For plot: Rebecca Stead. I’m in awe of When You Reach Me and Goodbye Stranger. And finally, character is a toughie. There are many writers who do character well, but one I keep coming back to is Elizabeth Strout.

On the subject of VCFA, you graduated in January 2014 as part of the M.A.G.I.C. I.F.s. Can you tell us what was special about your graduating class?

Can my answer be everything? My VCFA classmates are simply the best. It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than three years since graduation. I’ve had the chance to see many (most?) of them in the time that’s elapsed. What’s particularly impressive about our group is that we show up. We support each other, trekking across the country to celebrate each other’s launches and convening for writing retreats. I feel so fortunate to have met this amazing group of writers.

Lastly, what advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Try everything. That was the advice given to me by alums and it is something I adhered to as much as possible. Still, I wish I had spent a semester focused on picture books. You know there’s something in the water in Montpelier when just a few years out of the program I’m already crossing my fingers to someday come back and do the picture book semester. (Once I’ve paid off my VCFA loans, I tell my husband. Only then! Promise.)

Thanks so much Jenn. Congratulations on 14 Hollow Road!


Jenn Bishop


Jenn Bishop is also the author of The Distance to Home, a Junior Library Guild selection and a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book. After many years in Chicago and Boston, she now resides in Cincinnati, OH.

14 Hollow Road is published by Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House.




Topics: middle grade, Random House, Knopf, 2017 release, Jenn Bishop, Alfred A. Knopf


Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, May 30, 2017 @ 09:05 AM

It's the launch of Sarah Aronson's new chapter book/middle grade, The Wish List #1: The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever (Scholastic)! We couldn't wish for anything more. Except a visit from Sarah herself!

COVER ART-1.jpgQ: What do you need to become a great fairy godmother?

  1. kindness

  2. determination

  3. gusto

  4. all of the above

Fairy-godmother-in-training Isabelle doesn't know what gusto is, but she's pretty sure she has what it takes to pass fairy godmother training with flying colors.

But then Isabelle is assigned a practice princess who is not a princess at all. Nora is just a normal girl -- a normal girl who doesn't believe in fairy godmothers, or wishes come true, or happily ever afters.

Isabelle has to change Nora's mind about magic and grant a wish for her. If she can't, Isabelle will flunk training and never become a great fairy godmother!

Welcome, Sarah! And I see two very special friends with you today -- the girlgoyles, straight out of your new book! (They don't say much, but look at those knowing smiles.) Thanks for being here, everyone.

Girlgoyle 1.jpgWho was your favorite character to write and why?

Sarah: I don’t like the “favorite” question!! (Neither does the girlgoyle!) Especially in this case. The truth is, I love all these characters. They were refreshing and fun to think about. A lot of them made me laugh. But they also touched my heart. I was a kid who never felt like I’d ever measure up. I had trouble focusing. I had great intentions, but not always the best delivery. In our world today, it is SO IMPORTANT to think about happiness! And doing good for others. This series has tapped into so many things that get me jazzed up.

Girlgoyles: (crickets) Girlgoyles are made of rock. They can’t talk.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

Sarah: I’ve told this story before (as the girlgoyles can attest), but I think I can get away with it one more time.

For a long time, I referred to Isabelle’s story my “peach sorbet.” In other words, I worked on her story only when I was tired of thinking about my “important” project. It was my literary palate cleanser. I had no intention of ever showing it to anyone.

For better or for worse, I wanted to be a writer who grappled with tough topics. I went for it all—unlikeable characters, themes filled with conflicts, questionable morals, provocative endings. Although I found these books grueling to write, I told myself that the work was worth it—these characters and ideas were calling me. And up until 2014, I felt pretty good about it. I had a great agent. There were editors willing to read my next WIP. My family might have been confused about why I wrote such dark, sad books, but they supported me. 100%. I was not deterred by the mixed reception my last novel received.

That changed, when teaching at Highlights in Sept 2014, I got some bad news that had followed other bad news: the editor who loved my newest WIP (a story I had taken two years to write) could not get it past the acquisitions committee.

My agent and I agreed. It was time to put that story in the drawer.

Lucky for me, I was surrounded by friends. I also had the best kind of work to do—writers to counsel—writers who trusted me to help them work on their novels. It gave me some time to think about the advice I was offering them. More important, it gave me time to think about my process. This was what I realized: I was letting my intellect override my intuition. I was thinking too much about product. And my ego.

I also found myself talking about my peach sorbet. I remembered some sage advice my first editor and mentor, Deborah Brodie, once offered me. She said, “Eat dessert first. Write what makes you happy.” At the end of that retreat, I stood at the podium and read Isabelle’s story for the first time. I made them laugh. It felt great!

For the next six months, I gave myself a challenge: I was going to PLAY.

I was going to only play with ideas that made me happy, or in other words: books I had convinced myself I couldn’t/shouldn’t write: picture books, humor, essays, an adult novel, poetry, and most important, my peach sorbet: a chapter book about a very bad fairy godmother. I was going to write fast. I was not going to edit myself. I was going to put INTUITION over INTELLECT. I like to say: Think less. Smile more. I was going to access my subconscious with drawing and writing and listening to new music. If I liked an idea, I was going to try it. Bottom line: I was going to eat a lot of dessert.

Girlgoyle 2.jpgAmazing things began to happen.

As I played, I found a new voice. And confidence. And other things, too: I found that when I turned off my phone and walked without interruption, new ideas emerged. My memory map trick worked! Working with clay gave me time to think. Doodling—pencil to paper—gave me the answers to my questions.

(There is a lot of scientific evidence about the benefits of play. Studies show that when we play, we develop imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. All good things. Right?)

As Picasso once said: Every child is born an artist. The trick is remaining one as an adult.

When the challenge was over, I felt great. I loved writing and creating stories. Not too shabby, I had written two nonfiction picture books, an essay, the beginning of an adult novel, ten picture books, and what I hoped could be the first chapter book in a series. It’s the book that is launching today. I could not be happier!

Girlgoyles: If they could talk, they would tell you that they were the spark of inspiration. But they can’t. So they won’t.

That's a wonderful story that every writer should hear!

What's your writing superpower?

I can turn ANYTHING into a writing lesson. (Yes, I’m fun at cocktail parties.)

FullSizeRender 17.jpg

What do you hope you can do with this book?

I am going into the happily ever after wand making business! I’m launching a #BeAFairyGodmother campaign to encourage others to become fairy godmothers and fathers and make someone else happily ever after. As people send me pictures and posts, I will post them on my website!

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

I made great friends. I found my first story. And voice. It is still my safe place—and magic happens for me every time I return. It is the place that ignited my writing journey. That’s why I started the Writing Novels for Young People Retreat!!! Every March! It’s my birthday present!

Did you hear that, folks? Make plans now to get on board the WNYPR!

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

Another favorite question? You can’t be serious!

We think big!

I loved hanging out with Kellye Carter Crocker and Ed Briant, putting names of advisors into the magic hat! Or planning events with Tami Lewis Brown! Or dancing to "Play That Funky Music." I will never forget the first time Kathi read from The Underneath—when it was still a manuscript. Or Louise’s lecture on telling. I loved opening up all my letters—such exquisite gifts—and all different. They were motivating and exciting and I felt supported and full of energy. (I hope my students feel that way when they open my letters.) And I still reread them! I will always be grateful to Carolyn Coman for teaching me how to story board, to Ellen Levine, for re-igniting my inner feminist, and Norma Fox Mazer for pushing me to learn to write an outline.

head shot new 3.jpgWhat advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Let go of your expectations. PLAY. Experiment. Ignite your intuition—not just your intellect. Bring a travel mug for coffee. And a bottle of something nice for celebrations.

Thanks for stopping by! Welcome to the world, The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever!

Sarah says, "I write books for kids of all ages and work with writers on books for kids of all ages. Basically, all day long I think about creativity and story, and I love it!" Visit her online at

Topics: Scholastic, middle grade, chapter book, 2017 release, Sarah Aronson


Posted by Adi Rule on Thu, May 18, 2017 @ 08:05 AM

The wait is over! Waiting for Sophie, Sarah Ellis's new chapter book with illustrator Carmen Mok, is out now from Pajama Press!

WaitingForSophie_Website.jpg“Waiting is my worst thing. I want to jump on waiting and smash it to smithereens and flush it down the toilet.”

It’s hard to be patient while your baby sister is being born. It’s even harder to wait for her to grow up into a  real playmate. Luckily Liam has Nana-Downstairs to help him with wisdom, humor, and construction advice for a very special machine.

Welcome, Sarah! So, tell us . . .

What was the spark that ignited this book?

I had been thinking about the passage of time. For me, time gallops. (Another birthday! Didn’t I just have one?) For children, time crawls. (How many sleeps?) So I asked myself what children have to wait for and I came up with the one human event that technology has not managed to speed up, waiting for the birth of a baby. The other spark was a book by James Gleick, Time Travel : A History, a study that took my mind and bent it like a paper clip. From these two interests I devised the story of Liam who builds a time travel machine to get his baby sister to grow up faster.

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

This short chapter book was a kind of assignment. Pajama Press (with whom I had done a couple of picture books) had published a several books in this mode and asked me if I was interested in giving it a try. I adore assignments. And the more restrictions the better! Here’s where it gets to be a fairy tale: I wrote the story quickly. It was easy. I never write quickly. It’s never easy. I gave it a once-over-lightly and then I emailed it in. The publisher replied the same day accepting the ms. as is. As is! That never happens. In the end there were a couple of edits in response to the illustrations, but they were minor. I figure this was my once-in-thirty-years gift from the writing fairies.


What authors do you love for their sentences?

My taste in sentences is omnivorous. For classic restraint I go to Beatrix Potter. (Her punctuation makes your heart sing.)  For lush baroque excess, Frances Hardinge. (Pile on the metaphors. More, more, more, said the baby.) For poetic that is by no means “poetic” I’m currently enjoying Flannery by Lisa Moore. (Is that even a sentence? Who cares? This y.a. novel bypasses your brain.)

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

This bear, drawn in ink on rock, was made by illustrator Fritz Eichenberg for Margaret K. McElderry. He came to live with me via Susan Cooper. He reminds me of the amazing people in the world of children’s books and my great good luck in having known some of them.

bear.jpgHis posture is casual, but look at those claws! I bet he's great at revision.

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

I’d like a small, compact, efficient, well-designed, affordable, solar-powered and reliable time machine that does not involve coltan in its manufacture and will never wear out or require updates. Too much to ask?

I was one of the VCFA students lucky enough to get you as an advisor. You gently whipped my WIP into shape! :) How did teaching at VCFA affect your own writing life?

The acquisition of a group of writerly friends from the pool of faculty and students has been the main legacy of VCFA as regards my writing life. As for my actual writing it was new vocabulary that had the greatest effect. It’s like bird-watching.  Until you know the name of a rufous sided towhee you are unlikely to spot one. Similarly, until I heard “pause button violation” I didn’t see such misdemeanors in my own writing.

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

Graduation July 2007, The Unreliable Narrators. Reneé Critcher-Lyons belting out the Abba song “I Have a Dream” accompanied on the ukulele by none other than moi. (I noticed that subsequent graduating classes did not avail themselves of the opportunity to have me perform. I can’t imagine why. But that just makes the memory all the more special. :)  )

Thank you so much for stopping by the Launchpad, Sarah Ellis! Welcome to the world, Waiting for Sophie!

Sarah Ellis is the award-winning author of over twenty books for children and young adults. In 2013 she was awarded the B.C. Lieutenant Governor’s Award For Literary Excellence. This year she was one of Canada’s nominees for the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Having retired as a children’s librarian and then retired from college teaching she is now writing and reading fulltime in the rain in Vancouver.

Visit Sarah online at

Topics: chapter book, Sarah Ellis, 2017 release, Pajama Press, Carmen Mok


Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, May 16, 2017 @ 07:05 AM

What should you do if you're craving a twisty new whodunit? Elementary! Pick up Caroline Carlson's first middle grade mystery, The World's Greatest Detective, out now from HarperCollins!

World's Greatest Detective hc c.jpgCaroline Carlson, author of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series, returns with The World’s Greatest Detective, a story of crime, tricks, and hilarity for those who know that sometimes it takes a pair of junior sleuths to solve a slippery case.

Detectives’ Row is full of talented investigators, but Toby Montrose isn’t one of them. He’s only an assistant at his uncle’s detective agency, and he’s not sure he’s even very good at that. Toby’s friend Ivy is the best sleuth around—or at least she thinks so. They both see their chance to prove themselves when the famed Hugh Abernathy announces a contest to choose the World’s Greatest Detective. But when what was supposed to be a game turns into a real-life murder mystery, can Toby and Ivy crack the case?

Welcome, Caroline! I'm going to jump at the opportunity to pick your brain about this genre. What makes for a satisfying mystery story?

I’m a lifelong mystery reader, and I think the particular quality that most of my favorite mysteries share is a solution that’s both surprising and fair. When I reach the end of reading a mystery story, I want to guess the true solution to the mystery only a page or two before it’s revealed, and I don’t want to feel cheated. As a writer, it’s impossible to ensure that every reader has this experience—some will uncover the truth of the mystery long before you want them to, while others might not be able to guess it at all—but in The World's Greatest Detective, I tried to create a puzzle that was tricky enough to keep readers on their toes while also planting enough clues to give them a chance to solve the case on their own.

Of course, in addition to a great twisty plot, a satisfying mystery story has to have compelling characters, conflict and tension, high stakes, interesting settings, well-chosen turns of phrase, and all the other things that make any book stronger. My hope is that readers will enjoy spending time with the book even if they solve the mystery quickly or are reading it for a second or third time.

magnifying_glass_black_handle.jpgDo you approach writing mysteries differently than, say, your Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series?

I try to include a few surprising twists in all my books, so I guess you could say that they all have some elements of mystery, but the main difference in my writing process for The World's Greatest Detective was that I had to plot the whole book very carefully in advance. I usually do some plotting before I start to write, but for this book, I couldn’t play anything by ear, even the minor details: I had to know every character’s movements, motivations, backstory and alibi. I planned out the details of how the crime was committed, and then I planned out a few red herrings as well. I made lots of lists: lists of suspects, lists of clues, lists of mistakes and wrong turns my detectives would make on their way to uncovering the truth. It took a long time to write the first draft. The structure of the book didn’t change very much after I’d completed that first draft, either, because any small change I made could have affected the entire mystery plot!

Do you have any advice for writers who want to try their hand at a whodunit?

Read lots of mysteries and study their structure! If you notice a twist that an author does well, take notes about how she does it. And if you feel intimidated by the process of writing a mystery, remember that under the surface, a mystery novel is just like any other story about an interesting character facing a challenge he or she has to overcome. That challenge just might involve a little more murder than usual.

Poison_Vial_2.jpgWhat’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

I had to learn a lot about cyanide for this book.  Did you know that when you die from cyanide poisoning, you might turn purple?

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

I worked with Sharon Darrow, Julie Larios, Franny Billingsley, and Martine Leavitt. I wish I could keep sending them my writing in the mail every month!

I hear that. What is your favorite VCFA memory?

There are so many specific moments I loved, but one image that’s stuck with me over the years has been waking up in my Dewey dorm room during winter residencies and watching the smoke rising out of people’s chimneys, up out of Montpelier and past the mountains. I loved those peaceful moments at the beginning of each day; I always felt really lucky to be in such a beautiful place among so many wonderful writers and friends. Even when it was several degrees below zero!

Thanks so much for visiting the Launchpad, Caroline! We're glad you're on the case!

Caroline Carlson graduated from VCFA in July 2011 and is a proud member of the League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches. She lives in Pittsburgh with her family.

Visit her online at

Topics: middle grade, Caroline Carlson, HarperCollins, 2017 release

Sheryl Scarborough and TO CATCH A KILLER!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, May 09, 2017 @ 07:05 AM

The evidence is piling up: we're thrilled about Sheryl Scarborough's new young adult novel, To Catch a Killer, out now from Tor Teen!

catchakiller.jpgErin Blake has one of those names—instantly recognizable; a name inextricably linked to a grisly crime. As a toddler, Erin survived for three days alongside the corpse of her murdered mother. The case—which remains unsolved—fascinated a nation. Her father’s identity unknown, Erin was taken in and raised by her mother’s best friend.

Fourteen years later, Erin has become a relatively normal teen in spite of the looming questions about her past…but then she discovers the body of her biology teacher and once again finds herself at the center of a brutal homicide investigation. When questioned by the police, Erin tells almost the whole truth, but never voices her suspicions that her mother’s killer has struck again, in order to protect the case work she’s secretly doing on her own.

Inspired by her uncle, an FBI agent, Erin has ramped up her forensic hobby into a full-blown cold-case investigation, looking into her mother’s death. This new murder makes her certain she’s close to the truth. But when all the evidence starts to point the authorities straight to Erin, she turns to her longtime crush (and fellow suspect) Journey Michaels to help her crack the case before the killer strikes again.

Welcome, Sheryl! We're on the edge of our seats!

Tell us about how you sold this book.

I have the best “sales” story! It was Friday, September 5, 2015. This is easy to remember because it was my birthday and I was on my way from Los Angeles to Omaha to speak at an SCBWI conference. I hired a car to take me to the airport because these guys are genies. They can get you there on time, no matter what. Except this guy…two and a half hours early to go 25.9 miles and he tells me I’m going to miss my plane when I get in the car. He wasn’t wrong. The missed plane caused me a five hour layover in Phoenix and I wouldn't arrive in Omaha until midnight. Worst birthday ever, right?

Except, as we land in Phoenix, I turn my phone on to find a message from my agent that just says “call me.” I hadn’t heard from her in months. She was calling to tell me an offer was coming in on Monday! I seriously could have flown the rest of the way to Omaha without a plane.

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

Because my forensic mysteries are based on true crime stories my Google search history is pretty terrifying. I have searched for how long will it take to die in a van filling with carbon monoxide…stab wounds and how fast they will be fatal…and lots of information on profiling and detecting liars.

Who was your favorite character to write and why?

My favorite characters to write are the three girls: Erin, Spam and Lysa. I love writing each of them because they are so different, I get to experiment and try on different personalities and that is so much fun. Some days I’m Erin and other days I’m Spam or Lysa.

This was a story you brought with you to VCFA. How was it shaped during your time there? Were you surprised by any turns it took?

So, I came to VCFA with this idea of teens using forensics to solve a murder. Coming from a background in TV, it had all the elements. It was high concept and I clearly had the chops to pull it off. But for some reason, it hadn’t sold. One of the first things my advisors (in this case I credit both Susan Fletcher and Rita Williams-Garcia) did was to insist that I find myself in this story. I was a little grumpy about that because I had this great idea and twenty years of writing experience, couldn’t I just execute on that? Well, anyone who has been through VCFA knows the answer to this. But here it is. My main character wants to know three things: who killed her mother, the identity of her father and that he was not the killer! She’s coming from a deep sense of abandonment, but has learned to cover that up and soldier on in her quest for the answers about her life.

Mid-way through grad school, what I realized is that I was that girl! I grew up without a father. It was just a fact about my life…which I covered up while I soldiered on. I didn’t realize how much that event had not only shaped me…but how it shaped everything significant that I had written over all these years—TV, comic books and my fiction. It made me understand that denial might be what gets us through the day. But no matter how deep down you push it, your truth is going to find its way out. Needless to say, this was exactly the depth my book was lacking and finding it made all the difference for me as a writer.


Who were your advisors?

My advisors at VCFA: the incandescent Sharon Darrow…the insightful Susan Fletcher…the buoyant Tom Birdseye…and the one-and-only Rita Williams-Garcia.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

My advice to a prospective VCFA student would be don’t wait. If you’re thinking about it, DO IT! Do it right now. Today. Throw yourself into the deep end and trust the process. Don’t try to guide or direct your experience. Just immerse yourself and be ready to be transformed. You won’t regret it.

You heard it here, folks! Thank you so much for stopping by, Sheryl. Congratulations on the launch of To Catch a Killer!

headshot w typewriter.jpgSheryl Scarborough spent twenty years writing for children’s television and comic books, as well as restaurant and theater reviews (for great seats and free food!) before she finally came to her senses and began writing what she really loves, YA mysteries and thrillers. She lives and writes in Kalama, WA.

Sheryl graduated from VCFA Winter 2013 and she was a Dystropia. Visit her online at

Topics: young adult, 2017 release, Tor, Sheryl Scarborough, Tor Teen

Mary Atkinson and TILLIE HEART AND SOUL!

Posted by Adi Rule on Mon, May 08, 2017 @ 07:05 AM

We're celebrating heart and soul with Mary Atkinson, whose new middle grade novel Tillie Heart and Soul is out now from Maine Authors Publishing! Tillie's polishing a shiny new starred review from Kirkus, and Mary is here to chat!

tillit.jpegTen-year-old Tillie practices roller skating wherever she can—even in the old Franklin Piano Factory where she lives with her guardian Uncle Fred. She has to be in the Skate-a-thon with her friends Shanelle and Glory. Surely Mama wouldn’t miss it! But skating in the city is tough, three-way friendships are tricky, and the stupid rules in Mama’s rehab program could mess up all her plans.

Welcome, Mary! So, tell us . . .

What was the spark that ignited this book?

Many, many (!) years ago I had an artist friend, Harvey Low Simons, who lived and worked in an old piano factory in Boston that had been converted into artists’ studios. Like Uncle Fred, Tillie’s guardian in the novel, he was also a single parent of a young daughter, Kerry. Kerry’s “room” was a loft Harvey had built for her. For years the image of Kerry reading and playing in her loft like a regular little kid while her dad created wild and amazing art stuck with me. Gradually, my imagination took over, as it does, and their situation morphed into Tillie Heart and Soul. Kerry wasn’t a roller skater. That spark came from my feeble attempts as an adult to learn to roller skate while my then 8-year-old daughter whizzed around me.

Harvey and Kerry don’t look anything like my characters, but here’s their picture from long ago.

HarveyKerry.jpgWhat's your writing superpower?

Persistence. Persistence in holding onto a spark of an idea for years, persistence in slogging through shitty first drafts and a gazillion revisions and critiques, persistence in believing in myself as a writer with self-doubt always knocking at the door, persistence in showing up to do the work. And trust in and respect for the artistic process.

That's a fantastic superpower! Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.

This tile sums it up!

MagicisBelieving.jpgWho were your advisors at VCFA?

Rita Williams-Garcia, Deb Wiles, Marion Dane Bauer, David Gifaldi, and Kathi Appelt (picture book semester). Quite a line-up, eh?

Absolutely! How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

It got me in the habit of making writing time a priority in an already busy life. And reading! Reading and annotating all those books. (Rita W-G had us read 100 books the first semester!!!) I loved reading on the couch thinking, “I have to do this. It’s for school. Don’t bother me.”

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

Leda Shubert doesn’t remember this moment, but she gave me permission to tell it. Sharon Darrow was giving an excellent, serious, heart-felt lecture on “going deeper” in our work. I was just beginning to get a grasp of what this meant when I heard Leda blurt out, “I can’t go any deeper. I’m on antidepressants!”

Ha! What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Stay away from the cookies.

If only we could. Thanks so much for visiting, Mary! Welcome to the world, Tillie Heart and Soul!

Mary Atkinson lives in Maine. She’s the author of Owl Girl. She graduated from VCFA with the Dedications in 2008. She loves old buildings and playing the piano. She wishes she knew how to roller skate.

Visit Mary online at and follow her on Facebook at maryatkinsonauthor and on Twitter @AtkinsonMary.

Topics: middle grade, 2017 release, Mary Atkinson, Maine Authors Publishing

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