Today we're celebrating the paperback release of Carmela A. Martino's middle grade novel, Rosa, Sola!
“Rosa didn't know which she hated more—being lonely or being different. One thing she did know—she wanted a baby brother . . . one just like Antonio.”
Rosa Bernardi, an only child living with her Italian immigrant parents in 1960s Chicago, often feels alone, or sola, as her parents would say. But after she holds her best friend AnnaMaria’s baby brother for the first time, Rosa is sure that if she prays hard enough, God will send her a brother of her own. When Rosa’s prayers for a sibling are answered, she is overjoyed—until tragedy strikes. Rosa is left feeling more sola than ever, and wondering if her broken family will ever be whole again.
Welcome, Carmela! So, tell us . . .
What was the spark that ignited this book?
Interestingly, I never planned to write Rosa, Sola. And I never would have if I hadn't gone to Vermont College (which is what VCFA was called back then). The novel grew out of an assignment suggested by my first-semester advisor, Marion Dane Bauer, when I was having difficulty getting my characters’ feelings to come across on the page. Marion asked me to write a short story about an event from my childhood that still aroused emotion in me. It could be any emotion, so long as it was something I could still feel in my gut. I chose to write about fear—the fear I’d experienced at age ten, when my mother nearly died in childbirth.
After several drafts, the story evolved into “Rosa’s Prayer,” a short story about losing and regaining faith. It focused on only a few weeks in the life of Rosa Bernardi, an Italian-American girl growing up as an only child in 1960s Chicago. (There are many similarities between Rosa's life and my own childhood, but I’m not an only child.) Marian was pleased with the piece and encouraged me to submit it for critique at the next residency workshop. Meanwhile, I decided that instead of returning to the middle-grade novel I’d been struggling with, I’d write a collection of short stories for my creative thesis.
At the residency, my workshop group provided terrific feedback for improving “Rosa’s Prayer.” They also encouraged me to expand the story into a novel—they wanted to know what happened to the fictional family I had created. Did they ever recover from their loss? How were their relationships affected by it? Would Rosa always be an only child—sola? Their enthusiasm and curiosity for Rosa’s story inspired my own. I spent the next year or so of the program expanding the short story into a novel that was eventually called Rosa, Sola.
What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
I had a completed draft of Rosa, Sola by the end of my third semester. At that point, my advisor was willing to sign-off on it as my thesis, but she recommended I wait and have my fourth-semester advisor critique it first. That advisor, Amy Ehrlich, provided wonderfully insightful feedback, especially regarding some weaknesses in the plot. However, one of her suggestions was rather daunting: she wanted me to rewrite the entire 125-page manuscript from third-person limited point of view to first-person. I resisted the idea, in part because I liked it in third person, and in part because of all the work such a change would require. In the end, though, I gave in and did the rewrite. At the same time, I revised the plot issues. When I was done, Amy loved the first-person voice of the new draft. She signed off on that version as my official thesis.
There was only one problem—I still preferred the voice in the earlier, third-person draft. The first-person narration didn't ring true to me; it felt too mature and thoughtful to come from an average ten-year-old struggling with complex emotions. After graduation, I decided to go back to third-person limited viewpoint before trying to sell the manuscript. Of course, since I'd changed the story's plot in between, I couldn't just go back to the earlier draft (which I had saved on my computer). I had to do another FULL rewrite. Knowing how much work that would take, I procrastinated for a long time. However, I eventually bit the bullet and did the rewrite. To my surprise, the revised third-person draft was MUCH better than my earlier third-person version, and it wasn't just because of the plot changes. The process of rewriting the story in first person had given me a better understanding of my main character, and that new understanding now made the third-person version much richer.
Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?
I didn’t have an agent, but this was back around 2001-2002, when you didn’t need an agent. I submitted the manuscript to several editors, including one at Candlewick Press that Amy, my fourth-semester advisor, had recommended. After receiving a couple of rejections, I sent follow-up emails to the Candlewick editor and a Dutton editor who had requested the manuscript after critiquing the opening for an SCBWI conference. The Candlewick editor replied fairly quickly, saying she loved the manuscript and had “cried buckets” while reading it. Her email made ME cry! But when she called to make the offer, she mentioned wanting some revisions. My first thought was “Oh, no, she’s going to ask me to change it back to first person!” I didn’t say that, though. Instead, I carefully asked, “What kind of revisions?” She replied that it was “nothing major.” She basically wanted me to deepen the characters. Still, I was on pins and needles until her editorial letter arrived. To my great relief, there wasn’t one word about point of view!
My editor asked insightful questions that did indeed help me deepen my characters, especially Rosa’s parents and their neighbor, Mrs. Graziano. I worked diligently over several months to address all the issues my editor raised. I finally sent off the revised manuscript and waited. When the editor called one day, I assumed it was to discuss my revisions. Instead, it was to let me know that she was leaving Candlewick and was turning over my manuscript to another editor. I was devastated. I’d heard horror stories from some of my Vermont classmates about how their manuscripts were orphaned after the departure of their acquiring editors—the next editor never seemed to have the same enthusiasm. But I was one of the lucky ones. My new editor loved Rosa, Sola, too. She sent me a long, thoughtful editorial letter in response to the revision I’d submitted, along with numerous yellow sticky notes on the manuscript pages themselves. But now I faced a new problem: some of her comments contradicted those of my first editor. For example, she recommended I cut Mrs. Graziano from the novel altogether. Fortunately, the Vermont MFA program had given me experience in handling conflicting feedback. I kept Mrs. Graziano in, but I did edit her role in the novel. In the end, working with not one but two talented, dedicated, editors helped make the story much stronger.
By the way, the Dutton editor eventually contacted me to say that she, too, was interested in acquiring the manuscript. But by then I was already working with Candlewick.
Rosa, Sola was originally published traditionally, but you’ve self-published the new edition. Can you tell us why and what the process was like for you?
Although Rosa, Sola met with critical acclaim, including a starred review in Booklist, Candlewick never published a paperback edition. Part of that was probably my own fault—instead of writing another middle-grade novel, I focused on picture books for awhile. While those manuscripts got some encouraging rejections, they never found a publisher. I think if I’d written a follow-up novel for Candlewick instead, they probably would have done a paperback edition of Rosa, Sola.
When Rosa, Sola went out of print, I got the rights back and began looking for a company that would bring the book back into print for me. However, none of those I found seemed a good match. I eventually decided to self-publish. I asked a successfully self-published friend for advice and she recommended I read Susan Kaye Quinn’s Indie Author Survival Guide. Quinn’s book and website contain lots of great information and resources for indie authors, including links to recommended cover artists, formatters, editors, etc.
One of the first steps in re-publishing Rosa, Sola was to design a new cover. I didn’t have the rights to the original cover, and while that cover was beautiful, I always feared it was a bit off-putting for middle-grade readers. Since I’m not an artist myself, I started out by creating a Pinterest board of middle-grade covers I liked, with as many historical titles as I could find. I discovered I was especially drawn to covers that used silhouettes to portray their main characters. Then I made a list of themes and images from my novel that could work in a cover. One of those images was the cabbage butterfly that Rosa watches flutter up out of her Uncle Sal’s garden the day she learns her prayers have been answered. I then searched photo websites for visuals of girls with butterflies and found several where the girl was in silhouette. I sent my favorite of these images to my cover designer, Steven Novak, along with a description of the plot, character, setting, etc. Steven came up with a draft fairly quickly. We went back and forth a few times, with him revising based on my feedback, until he created the version that became the new cover. I loved it, but still wondered how young readers would respond. Fortunately, the week I received the proofs of the paperback edition I was teaching a writing camp for girls ages 11-14. I brought the proofs to camp and the ALL girls preferred the new cover to the original! In fact, one of the girls kept repeating “I LOVE that cover.” :)
The cover isn’t the only new thing about this edition. An author I know who self-published an ebook edition of her own out-of-print traditionally published novel gave me some great advice: she recommended I include new material so I could call the new Rosa, Sola a “revised” edition. I followed her advice and added a “Discussion Questions” section that I hope will be helpful to teachers.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?
Probably the weirdest thing I Googled for Rosa, Sola was “wringer washer.” I have a scene in the novel where Rosa helps her mother do laundry. There was an old wringer washer in the basement of my childhood home that my mother used for years, but I couldn’t remember exactly how it worked. I wanted to make sure I got the details right.
Who were your advisors at VCFA?
My advisors were Marion Dane Bauer, Jane Resh Thomas, Carolyn Coman, and Amy Ehrlich. I couldn’t have asked for better teachers and mentors. I still use some of their lessons in my own classes—always making sure to credit them, of course. I left the program amazed at how much my writing improved over the two years of the program.
What was special about your VCFA graduating class?
We were called the Hive, because we were always “buzzing” about something. One of the first things that impressed me about my classmates was how well-published they were—I was one of only a few in my class of 14-15 who didn’t already have a published children’s book. (My credits were a few short stories and poems in children’s magazines, and nonfiction articles in magazines and newspapers for adults.) We seemed to “click” right from the start and we’re still a tight-knit group. After graduation, we formed a Yahoogroup to make it easy to stay in touch. Sixteen years later, that group still has 12 active members. We share industry buzz, celebrate sales, commiserate over rejections, offer manuscript feedback, and support one another through personal and professional challenges. When I decided to start the group blog TeachingAuthors.com back in 2009, I invited my fellow Bees to join me. Two of my classmates are still blogging with me, and one of our newest TeachingAuthors is another Vermont College graduate we met while in the program.
What a talented bunch of Bees! (Check out the fuzzy friend perched on one Bee's shoulder!)
Thank you so much for stopping by, Carmela. And welcome back, Rosa Sola! (We love the new cover!)
Carmela Martino is a writing teacher, freelance writer, and author of short stories, poems and novels for children/teens. She is co-founder of TeachingAuthors.com, a blog by six children’s authors who are also writing teachers. Four members of the TeachingAuthors are graduates of the Vermont College MFA program.