the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

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: Putnam, Penguin, 2017 release, Katie Bayerl


Posted by Adi Rule on Fri, Feb 17, 2017 @ 12:02 PM

Are you ready for another alarmingly great middle grade novel from Lisa Doan? I have good news -- The Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone is out now from Sky Pony Press! Even more good news -- Lisa has briefly switched hats here at The Launchpad, from interviewer to interviewee. Welcome, Lisa!

final cover Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone 9781510711228.jpg

Twelve-year-old Henry Hewitt has been living by his wits on the streets of London, dodging his parents, who are determined to sell him as an apprentice. Searching for a way out of the city, Henry lands a position in Hampshire as an assistant to Sir Richard Blackstone, an aristocratic scientist who performs unorthodox experiments in his country manor. The manor house is comfortable, and the cook is delighted to feed Henry as much as he can eat. Sir Richard is also kind, and Henry knows he has finally found a place where he belongs.

But everything changes when one of Sir Richard’s experiments accidently transforms a normal-sized tarantula into a colossal beast that escapes and roams the neighborhood. After a man goes missing and Sir Richard is accused of witchcraft, it is left to young Henry to find an antidote for the oversized arachnid. Things are not as they seem, and in saving Sir Richard from the gallows, Henry also unravels a mystery about his own identity.

Hi, Lisa! Why was the setting of Victorian England perfect for this story?

I’m a huge Dickens fan and go back to those books whenever I would like to be living in a different time. Now is a good example of that. Nobody ever worried about what Queen Vic would tweet out, though I suppose it would be amusing to imagine it. “Palace - WINNING! East India Company HUUUUGE LOSERS! SO SAD.”

But I digress. I had in my mind a story that would tip a hat to Oliver Twist and have a fairy-tailish rags to riches element. Then, of course, it’s ever so much easier to have a giant tarantula roaming the neighborhood when nobody has a cell phone camera. That said, I actually feel that this story may take place slightly earlier, in the Georgian era, though I only reference a queen and not a king and I never say her name.

What are the differences in how you approach a standalone novel as opposed to a series?

I suppose that would be creating the large problem that will hang over all of the books in the series and not get resolved until the end of the last book.  That’s very difficult if you don’t know it’s going to be a series or you do know but don’t know how many books. The first book in the Berenson Schemes was written as a standalone so when it was bought as a series I rewrote it to wrap up the local plot but leave the overarching plot/internal conflict hanging. Then I created an arc of the internal conflict over the three books instead of just the one. It allowed me to approach it as both a series and a trilogy of sorts. I was lucky in that I knew upfront that it would be three books.  Had I not known, I would have had to reinstate the internal conflict in some way when I got to book two.


Any craft advice for writers who want to write funny?

I’m so glad you asked! I could go on and on with tips and tricks, but will stick to the idea that everybody can write humor. So many writers say things like, “I’m just not funny.” Well, maybe not yet, but the only people who have no ability to be funny are people who never laugh. (And also, Sigmund Freud. Maybe he was a total jokester in his personal life, but his humor theory is dreadful.) I have my own theory about why writers end up believing they aren’t funny. It’s because they don’t understand how a humor piece develops. When a writer not accustomed to writing humor tries to write something funny, it ends up being a milquetoast haha moment. Then the writer concludes they don’t have the skill. The very same milquetoast haha moments happen to writers who specialize in humor. The difference is, they know it.

So why does that first effort end up being a milquetoast haha moment? Because that’s how our brains operate. Our brains are efficient and work hard to associate a new thing with a known thing. The writer ends up writing a pattern the brain remembers that is closest to what the writer was going for. That’s why, as a reader, we’ve all had the experience of reading something and maybe smiling a little and recognizing, “Oh, that’s humor,” but we don’t laugh out loud. That’s the first pass that never got changed or refined. Even though the scene might use different words or a different structure than you’ve seen before, it’s the same joke you’ve read a hundred times.

If you are attempting humor, go ahead and write that milquetoast haha moment. Just recognize that it is only a place holder, a sticky note on the skeleton of your manuscript. You will go back and refine and change and rearrange. Once you have the sticky note on the skeleton, you can tinker and that’s where funny lives, in the tinkering. Writers of drama do this very same thing, it’s called a crappy first draft, but I do think this process gets overlooked in humor because humor feels light, and light feels easy. Light is not the same as lightweight!

One other thing I’ll say about writing humor – it takes nerve and daring. When you tell your reader a joke, they know it. Even when they don’t laugh, they know you told it. In drama, you might get a little bit more leeway. Perhaps you meant for your reader to sob but they only feel saddish. They may not understand that your intent was sobbing. No such way to skate by in humor. On top of that, humor doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It is a science and an art and, most importantly, it’s vital and necessary. I would argue that it is especially necessary during this particular time in our history.  Don’t we have enough to cry about?

Hear, hear. I hope you've given lots more people out there the courage to write funny. We can do it, friends! Lisa, your writing and your presence is always a treat. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Lisa Doan is a proud member of two VCFA classes – the Dedications and the Cliffhangers. She is also the author of The Berenson Schemes series, the first book of which she wrote at Vermont. Should you happen to attend the Alumni mini-res this year or any other year – say hello! She, like the bad penny that she is, turns up every year.

Visit Lisa online at, find her on Facebook (lisadoanauthor), and follow her on Twitter (@LisaADoan).

Topics: Lisa Doan, middle grade, Sky Pony Press, 2017 release

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: 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

Sarah Johnson and CROSSINGS!

Posted by Tami Brown on Tue, Jan 10, 2017 @ 08:01 AM

Welcome Sarah Johnson to the Launch Pad! Sarah moves every couple years to a different foreign country and she wrote Crossings while living in Finland. She enjoys spending time with her family, music, travel, and chocolate. She's not just an alum of the WCYA program- she's part of the Launch Pad team. So twice the cheers for Sarah's debut novel CROSSINGS!

Crossings Johnson Cover small size.jpg 

Eliinka, a young, orphaned harp player, was born with the gift of influencing people around her with her music. But in her home country of Pelto, she’s forced to hide this ability to avoid persecution from government authorities. When she contracts to work for Jereni, a woman from the neighboring country with whom Pelto has been at war, she soon finds herself trying to reconcile the two countries. Can Eliinka use her musical gift to bring peace to Pelto and Viru while protecting the people she loves?

Welcome, Sarah and congratulations! Who was your favorite character to write and why?

Jereni was my favorite character to write. She is a multi-faceted, strong character and held back secrets. It took several revisions and writing many extra scenes to get to know her.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

A dream. I rarely have dreams, but one dark Finnish morning, the two main characters of Crossings woke me up. They propelled me out of bed to the computer, and I wrote so I could find out what would happen.  

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

I love so many authors!

Martine Leavitt and Kathi Appelt craft such beautiful sentences. I often read their books more than once; the first time for the story and the second time to savor the sentences.

A good story and an engaging plot is what keeps me in the pages of a book. Meghan Whalen Turner and Kimberly Loth are two authors who craft plots I love.

A list of authors who write characters I love would need to include E. B. White and J. K. Rowling.

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

A super talented designer created the cover of Crossings. Priscilla sent me some initial image ideas, asking me about the direction she was going. We corresponded and she designed a cover that really captures the atmosphere of the story and introduces the main character.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

My advisors were Margaret Bechard, Uma Krishnaswami with the picture book semester, Shelley Tanaka, Kathi Appelt, and Martine Leavitt.

Johnson, Sarah 2016 author small size.jpg

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

It’s impossible to pinpoint a favorite memory, but I loved the discussions about books and writing craft—both in workshops and in casual conversation.

Thanks so much for visiting us at the Launch Pad, Sarah. It's great to celebrate your new novel. CROSSINGS is published January 10 by Cedar Fort. You can learn more about Sarah, her writing and her travels on her website at and her blog at 



Topics: young adult, Sarah Blake Johnson, 2017 release, YA, Sarah Johnson, Cedar Fort

Cover for The Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone by Lisa Doan

Posted by Lisa Doan on Wed, Feb 10, 2016 @ 08:02 AM

final_cover_Alarming_Career_of_Sir_Richard_Blackstone_9781510711228.jpgThe cover is here! Lisa Doan, 2008 VCFA grad and proud member of both the Dedications and The Cliffhangers, has a middle-grade coming out in February 2017.  The Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone features a knight, a boy who would prefer to be an orphan but isn't, and, of course, a tarantula the size of a horse-drawn carriage. Let the hi-jinx begin.

Twelve-year-old Henry Hewitt has been living by his wits on the streets of London, dodging his parents, who are determined to sell him as an apprentice. Searching for a way out of the city, Henry lands a position in Hampshire as an assistant to Sir Richard Blackstone, an aristocratic scientist who performs unorthodox experiments in his country manor. The manor house is comfortable, and the cook is delighted to feed Henry as much as he can eat. Sir Richard is also kind, and Henry knows he has finally found a place where he belongs.

But everything changes when one of Sir Richard’s experiments accidently transforms a normal-sized tarantula into a colossal beast that escapes and roams the neighborhood. After a man goes missing and Sir Richard is accused of witchcraft, it is left to young Henry to find an antidote for the oversized arachnid. Things are not as they seem, and in saving Sir Richard from the gallows, Henry also unravels a mystery about his own identity.




Come see me at

Topics: Lisa Doan, middle grade, Sky Pony Press, 2017 release

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