the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog


Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Sep 19, 2017 @ 07:09 AM

Raid the fridge and power up your spaceship! We're taking a trip with Joe McGee, whose new picture book, Peanut Butter & Aliens, illustrated by Charles Santoso, is out now from Abrams!


The Aliens have arrived in Quirkville. And they are hungry.

Reginald and Abigail Zink taught the zombies and the humans how to live together peacefully. But when the aliens land, they have a new problem on their hands. The aliens are demanding an out-of-this-world snack, and when their taste buds aren’t satisfied, they zap the residents of Quirkville with cosmic grape jelly. But what goes best with jelly? PEANUT BUTTER!

Will Reginald and Abigail be able to convince the aliens that PB&J is the best sandwich in the universe?

The creators of Peanut Butter & Brains have crafted a delicious sequel about the power of working together…and enjoying a good PB&J.

Greetings, earthling Joe! So, tell us . . .

What's something special you keep on your wall or desk?

I was an early and avid reader, writer, and doodler. When I was in 4th grade, I was selected as one of a handful of students from my grade to attend a regional “Young Authors’ Day.” Students from schools in the district were all bussed to a day-long series of writing workshops. There was a menu of sorts you could choose from and I remember taking workshops such as “Writing Puppet Plays,” “Writing Superhero Stories,” and “Writing Mythology and Folktales.” It was an incredible experience, one that cemented the idea in my head that I was going to be an author one day. I went on to holding 6th-grade recess readings of short stories I’d written, to entering contests and submitting to magazines. I just kept going from there, but I’ve never forgotten that one day. I still have that laminated, blue piece of paper and I hang it near my desk to remind myself of my journey and how special this achievement of publication is.

Hooray for young authors everywhere!

Alien1.jpgTell us about your writing community.

I am really fortunate to have an extensive community of writers, artists and super creative people – my tribe. Our tribe. Writing is a lonely endeavor when it’s just you and the blank page. It’s a terrifying and vulnerable place when we let it out of our hands and let it become something bigger than ourselves. And that is why a community is so important . . . people who get you, get the strange place we inhabit, as writers. People who will celebrate your good news and rail their fists at the sky with you when dark clouds descend.

My writing community consists of the faculty and alum and students of VCFA, especially my class of July 2014, the Allies in Wonderland. I teach at Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program and I have built up a wonderful group of friends and writing family there. I have met and befriended so many amazing and wonderful people (and talented writers, of course) in the course of doing writing visits, events, and conferences. And it’s always expanding, which is really so awesome. I am in a small critique group, which meets once a month. There are four of us, all agented, working writers. We get together for dinner and to workshop works in progress. It’s been so valuable and I love the feedback that I get from them.

But, my biggest support system is my partner, Jessica (also a VCFA alum). She pushes me, challenges me, inspires me, and offers poignant, honest, critical feedback on everything I write. I’d like to throw out here that her book, What Gloria Heard (Bloomsbury) – a picture book biography of Gloria Steinem – will be published in 2019. So, we’re both working writers and that’s cool! And, I’m happy to announce that we’re engaged! ☺

Congrats to you both for all your happy news!

What was it like watching the illustrations come together?

I could not be happier with what Charles Santoso has done with my story. When we sold Peanut Butter & Brains, I had no idea (and no input) on what the zombies, the town, what anything would look like. Part of the reason that the other publishers did not buy the first book was because they had no idea, no vision, on how to do zombies in a picture book. But Abrams got it and they found Charles, who clearly got it. So, when I first saw his art, I was blown away. I’m not sure I had an exact picture of what these zombies might look like, but Charles nailed it.

And so, when it came time for Peanut Butter & Aliens, I had no worries that he would create something “out of this world” (pun intended). We communicate via email, or social media, and so I just asked him to make sure they had tentacles. And again, he killed it. I love the level of detail he puts onto each page, and the way he is able to layer and add depth. He’s brought my world to life and I couldn’t be happier!

What’s your writing superpower?

I’m going to say my ability to write anything. And I am not staking some claim to being the only one who can do this, but I can (and do) write across the spectrum – picture books, middle grade, YA, graphic novels, screenplays, adult genre fiction, comics, etc….and I have the ability to create something out of any zany kind of combination that might come my way. Space leprechauns that travel through time to find the perfect coffee beans for their unicorn overlords, only to become embroiled in a struggle to save Earth from a wereraccoon motorcycle gang intent on Armageddon? Yeah, I can do that.

Do you write in silence?

I do. I really can’t listen to music or anything when I write. I mean, I don’t care if there’s noise around me or anything. I can write with people talking and televisions or music playing on speakers somewhere, but I cannot put headphones on and write. It somehow gets in my way . . . But, nevertheless, I continue to try. Maybe one day it’ll work?

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

I had the great fortune of working with Sharon Darrow my first semester. I took the picture book intensive semester and she was instrumental in opening the door to that world. I really believe that her mentorship, teaching, and support was a large part of me finding my way as a picture book writer.

My second semester, I worked with Tom Birdseye. Amy King, my third semester. And finally, Mama K, Kathi Appelt, for my fourth semester. They all taught me an incredible amount and I will always be indebted to them for their knowledge, support, belief, for challenging me, for being proud of me, and for being my friends and family. I love them all very much.

alien6.jpgHow did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

Wow. VCFA changed my life. It was the portal that propelled me into the world that that 4th-grade boy at “Young Authors’ Day” dreamed of stepping into. I’d just finished my Master of Arts in Writing degree at Rowan University and thanks to Lisa Jahn-Clough (a former VCFA faculty member), I was introduced to VCFA. I wanted more than what my MA gave me. I wanted to fully embrace my creativity and I wanted to write for children. Attending VCFA was a commitment to my art. It was a statement that I was going to do everything in my power to take myself seriously as a writer, to commit to improving, to push for seeing my work published, to pursue the life that I had wanted for so long. Prior to that, I’d not been giving my full attention to my writing. Life has a habit of getting in the way – the practicalities of other careers and such – but I made a choice. Attending VCFA was a life decision to commit to my art, and it quickly led to acquiring an agent, to selling my first book, to becoming a better, stronger writer. I can truly say, with complete confidence, that VCFA set me on my path to where I am today. Thank you, VCFA – you are always in my heart.

What's special about your graduating class, the Allies in Wonderland?

There are so many things that I could say about our class . . . our intense camaraderie? Our incredible diversity? Our bar-setting reveal? The high percentage of our class publishing? There are so many things, BUT. . . for me, the most special thing about our graduating class is that I am marrying my best friend, my absolute love, my VCFA classmate, Jessica Rinker, this July.

Thanks for stopping by, Joe! Welcome to the galaxy, Peanut Butter & Aliens!

Joe McGee is the author of Peanut Butter & Brains, Peanut Butter & Aliens, and the forthcoming (2019) Peanut Butter & Santa Claus. He has his MA in Writing from Rowan University and graduated from VCFA with his MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults in 2014. He teaches creative writing at Rowan University and is faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s low-residency MFA program. He is a former airborne Army officer, an amateur cartoonist, and the father of three boys (16, 14, 10). He lives in a wonderful, artsy, river town in New Jersey with his fiancée, Jessica (also a VCFA alum).

Visit him online at, and check out his cartoon about the writing life at Read more from Joe about Peanut Butter & Aliens in his blog post, "My love letter to the world."

Topics: picture book, Joe McGee, 2017 release, Abrams, Charles Santoso


Posted by Lisa Doan on Tue, Apr 04, 2017 @ 11:04 AM

Congratulations to Marianna Baer on her latest release, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn, published by Amulet/Abrams Books and launching april 4th. Marianna is a member of the '08 Cliffhangers and a resident of Brooklyn (the most unoriginal place for someone in children's publishing to live!) Her first book, FROST, was published by Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins in 2011. When not writing, she edits and develops novels for the YA and adult markets.

marianna cover TILOQ final cover.jpgQunn Cutler is beyond shocked when the doctor says she's pregnant. She's sixteen, the daughter of a prominent politician, and -- far more important -- she's never had sex. At least, not that she can remember.


Is she repressing a traumatic memory? Was she drugged? Before Quinn can solve this deeply troubling mystery, her story becomes public. Rumors spread, jeopardizing her reputation, her relationship with a boyfriend she adores, and her father's campaign for Congress. Religious fanatics gather at the Cutlers' house, believing Quinn is a virgin, pregnant with the next messiah.

As the chaos grows, Quinn's search for answers uncovers a trail of lies and family secrets -- strange, possibly supernatural ones. And despite what seems logical and scientific, Quinn can't help but believe the truth about her pregnancy isn't an ugly one. Might she, in fact, be a virgin?

In this thoughtful and heartfelt book, Marianna Baer dives deep into Quinn's world, the pregnancy that can't be possible, and the choices and secrets that for who Quinn Cutler really is.


What was the spark that ignited this book?
Years ago, I used to see this teenage girl training cross-country in the park near my apartment. Something about her intrigued me--a sense of innocence combined with a seriousness and intensity that suggested (to a writer's mind, at least!) that she was dealing with heavy burdens. Around that same time, I came across a painting of the Virgin Mary by Caravaggio at the Met, and… WHOA. It was the girl from the park! Right there, in this painting from 1602! I was blown away by the resemblance. And, as I looked at the painting, I wondered: what would happen if a girl in present day Park Slope believed she was a pregnant virgin? Once that question popped into my head, I knew it was a book I wanted to write.

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

Quick fact: I have a Word file titled "Deleted Scenes" for this book that is 64,675 words long. And that is only one of THREE files of marianna Caravaggio.jpegdeleted material! But, believe it or not, none of that cutting was nearly as difficult as some of the other changes I made. Among the hardest: In early drafts, Quinn's boyfriend, Jesse, wasn't her boyfriend -- he was her platonic best friend. She had no romantic interest in him whatsoever. At some point it became clear, though, that he needed to be her boyfriend to strengthen the plot. Problem was, since Quinn had no romantic interest in him, neither did I! When I tried to write scenes where she was attracted to him, I felt like I was making her kiss her brother. I struggled with it for a long time. Amazingly, the way I finally cracked it was ridiculously simple. I changed his name from Jesse to Jeremy. That one simple switch freed up my brain to re-envision their relationship. Now I can't imagine him NOT being her boyfriend! (I changed his name back to Jesse, eventually, because he never stopped being Jesse deep down.) 

Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out?

The backstory of selling this book is a long one. But I'm going to focus on the best/most important moment here, and you'll see why.

September of 2015 followed a very difficult year in my life. My agent (the miraculous Sara Crowe at Pippin Properties) had recently sent out QUINN, but because I wasn't in the best place emotionally, I didn't have high hopes. Anyway, I was at a retreat that I go to every September with a group of incredible VCFA grads. (The yearly re-set of my creative energy/well-being.) We had just finished dinner on the final night of the retreat and I did a quick email check. It was a Sunday night, so I wasn't expecting anything important. But there was an email from Sara. It said that Maggie Lehrman at Abrams loved/wanted QUINN. Now, not only was this INCREDIBLE news, but Maggie is a VCFA grad! She was in a class that I GA'd for and we had stayed in touch after, seeing each other occasionally in our mutual Brooklyn 'hood. I have immense respect for her writing (THE COST OF ALL THINGS, Balzer & Bray, 2015), and the books she's edited for Abrams, and I had no idea that Sara was submitting to her! So, here I was at the retreat, surrounded by a group of the most loving, supportive VCFA friends ever, and I found out that the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel was Maggie! The moment couldn't have been more perfect.* (Especially since there was a hot tub warming up outside!)

*For those new to publishing, I don't mean to insinuate that this moment was when I knew the book had sold. Maggie had to get other people to read it and approve the acquisition, Sara and I talked to editors at other houses, etc. Rarely is anything in publishing as quick as one email!

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

(This advice applies to revision, not early drafting.) It's common wisdom that concrete, specific details are crucial. And yes, that's true. But what I didn't fully get early on was that the details also need to be purposeful and only used where necessary. That sounds so obvious! But I used to  flesh out a scene with description willy-nilly. I thought the more detailed it was the better. Now, when I'm revising, I ask myself, "Do we really need to know what color her dress is in this scene? And if so, why is it yellow? What is that signaling to the reader?" I don't mean to suggest that everything has to be deeply meaningful or symbolic -- not at all. But there is a difference between a girl who wears a bright yellow dress and a girl who wears a khaki dress. And yellow has a strong association with sunshine for most readers. You need to be aware of the small clues you're planting.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

Cynthia Leitich Smith, Brent Hartinger, Sharon Darrow, and Tim Wynne-Jones. I hear their voices in my head every time I write.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

How did VCFA not affect my writing life?! It changed everything. But the one thing I'll mention here is the importance of the friends and community it gave me. I'm in touch with VCFA friends on a daily basis. Their support, advice, and camaraderie are the foundation of my ability to navigate this tough career without losing my mind. (Or, more accurately, they help me find my mind when I lose it.)

marianna Authorphoto.jpegContact marianna at:, @mariannabaer at Twitter and Marianna Baer on Facebook. 

Topics: young adult, Amulet Books, 2017 release, Amulet/Abrams, Marianna Baer, Abrams

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