the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

JoAnn Early Macken and Baby Says “Moo!”

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

Today we welcome JoAnn Early Macken to the Launchpad.


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


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


What was the spark that ignited this book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for visiting the Launchpad today. 

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


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

Clete Barrett Smith and MAGIC DELIVERY!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Aug 05, 2014 @ 08:08 AM

Today we’re pleased to be chatting with Clete Barrett Smith (of the 2010 Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines), and has he got a special delivery for us! His new middle grade novel, Magic Delivery, is out today from Disney-Hyperion.

magicdeliveryThe magic details:

Nick is a natural born businessman. His schoolmates think he's a heartless hustler, but secretly he's just trying to earn money to help his mother, who works two jobs. Eager to be part of the popular circle, Nick wheedles an invitation to Hayley's upcoming Halloween party by agreeing to get her the answers to a test. His goofy friend Burger wants to be part of the deal too, and he nearly blows it for Nick, but desperate Hayley finally caves. Nick and Burger are riding home high on their success--even on their old, beat-up bikes--when they see a delivery van careen off the side of the road. The boys could have sworn that the driver was a bear . . . but that couldn't be right. Or could it? Turns out the van is carrying a load of costumes. With the driver nowhere in sight, Nick's first thought is about how much money he could get by selling the merchandise. Burger just wants to try them out, for fun. In the gorilla costume he chooses, Burger is very convincing. Is that just Burger fooling around, as usual, or is there something strange about these outfits?

Once again Clete Barrett Smith makes a wild premise believable and funny in a story perfectly pitched to middle graders.

Welcome, Clete! So, tell us . . .

What was the spark that ignited this book?

I wanted to write a book about magic Halloween costumes, but my first three drafts were terrible. The kids were finding the costumes in a stereotypically spooky, run-down, mysterious (and very cliched) Halloween shop. Then I was looking through my idea file, and some years ago I had written "Two kids are messing around on bikes and cause a truck to crash in the woods. They investigate but can't find the driver. What do they find in the back of the truck . . . ?" And then I wrote the story that became Magic Delivery. It was much better and more fun to write this time. The main characters (and I) had stumbled upon a secret delivery service that sends magical items all over the globe.

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

In my first semester, Rita Williams-Garcia helped me find the Delete button on my keyboard. Before that, I was terrified to throw away anything that I had written because I felt like I had worked so hard on it. In my first ever packet, Rita started by saying how much she liked one of the early scenes in my book (I was thrilled--Rita Williams-Freaking-Garcia liked one of my scenes!) and she went on to say that it made her smile (I made Rita smile!!!) and then she said it actually made her laugh out loud (!!!!!!). At the end of the paragraph she wrote: "The scene is not moving the story forward. Cut the whole thing out." After I picked my  jaw off the floor I realized it was the right decision for the story.

rampageTell 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 had fully written two books in my aliens series before the first one even came out. At that time, my agent advised not to start on the third one unless/until my publisher ordered another one (because no one else would want to buy it, of course, if my publisher passed). So I was just tinkering around with this story about magic Halloween costumes in the meantime. I was having lunch with my editor at BEA and she asked what I was working on. She liked the idea so I sent her the first 100 pages or so and then she was nice enough to send along a contract. But then the publisher wanted a third book in the alien series first, so I set this partial manuscript aside and wrote aliens book #3, and then came back to finish Magic Delivery a year later. So it was a very strange process for me (and it was the first book that I had not written at VCFA). And there were lots of revisions because I just couldn't get the idea right. I wrote three drafts with completely different settings and characters before I finally figured out the right angle for this one.

Tell us about your writing community. Are you in a critique group? Does your son or mom read your early drafts? Is Twitter your bastion of support?

My writing community and critique partners consist almost solely of wonderful writers I met while at VCFA. This is where I (finally) found my people! I could not do any of this without them. Although I do have one former high school student of mine who went on to get a degree in screenwriting and now writes for a Comedy Central show. She's brilliant and talented (and closer in age to my intended audience) and so we read each other's first drafts and offer feedback.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

Attending VCFA was one of the best experiences of my entire life, writing or otherwise. (If they would let me, I would just keep attending indefinitely. I really should have blown my graduation residency so that I would be forced to return . . . ) Before VCFA I had never received professional editing/criticism or been part of a writing community (or even critique group). At the risk of sounding maudlin, it completely changed my life.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Try everything your advisors suggest. Even if you don't agree with it at first (hey, you can always delete it). They're usually right.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Clete! And WELCOME, Magic Delivery! (Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have to go cut some scenes from our WIPs . . .)

Clete Barrett Smith has the strength of ten (very tiny) men. Visit him online at, and follow him (@CleteSmith) on Twitter!

Topics: 2014 release, middle grade, Clete Barrett Smith, Disney-Hyperion

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