the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog


Posted by Adi Rule on Mon, Apr 02, 2018 @ 10:04 AM

En garde! Today we celebrate the release of Donna Janell Bowman's new picture book biography, Abraham Lincoln's Dueling Words, illustrated by S. D. Schindler!

high res -Abraham Lincoln's Dueling Words_cover

Long before he was our beloved president, Abraham Lincoln was known for his smarts and his knee-slapping humor. In 1842, that got him into a heap of trouble.
    When he clashed with James Shields, a political rival, Lincoln came up with a rascally plan.
    It was silly.
    It was clever
    And it was a great big mistake!
    Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel!
    Lincoln would need his wit and a healthy dose of humility to save his career—and maybe even his life!
    A rare look at the more human side of Abraham Lincoln and how the lessons he learned made him a better man.

Welcome Donna! So, tell us ...

What was the spark that ignited this book?

Oh, goodness, I think it sparked from the realization that Abraham Lincoln, the man I had always envisioned to be as polished as his posthumous memorials, was actually as flawed and human as the rest of us. It was a complete accident that, in 2011 or 2012, I stumbled upon a one-line mention of his duel while researching for another book. The realization of Lincoln’s foibles collided with my preconceived notions, which launched a new research journey. As I dug into biographies of Lincoln and the letters and documents that survive him, I began to admire how he overcame his foibles. Lincoln’s mean-spirited mistake landed him on the dueling ground. He ultimately had a choice to either allow his great big mistake to define him or to teach him. Obviously, he chose the latter.

As I always do before I begin writing, I searched for mentor texts—picture book biographies—that focus on a less-than-stellar side of a famous person. Needless to say, there were few. Initially, I was a bit nervous about shining a light on an event that Lincoln himself was ashamed of, until I read his law partner’s recollection that Lincoln complained that biographies magnified perfections and suppressed imperfections. In fact, Lincoln argued that they “commemorate a lie and cheat posterity out of the truth.” It felt like Lincoln himself was giving me his blessings to share his story.

The more global spark of the story for me lies in a lingering question that I hope all readers will consider after reading my book. What would have happened if the events of the duel had gone another way and Abraham Lincoln had never been president?

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?

In 2012, I had a first draft of the Lincoln manuscript (then titled En Garde!). I showed it to my agent, Erin Murphy, then continued to revise for several months while simultaneously revising Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness for Lee and Low. Once my Lincoln manuscript shined, I snagged a critique with Peachtree editor Kathy Landwehr at the February 2013 Austin SCBWI conference. By conference time, she had already contacted my agent to express interest. Kathy was most impressed with my voice in the manuscript. As you can imagine, being complimented on voice—that most difficult craft element to cultivate—made me giddy. Soon, we were under contract.

We did go through more revisions to further finesse the voice and the direct-address narrator, and to simplify and streamline the complex historical aspects of the story. It was a joy to collaborate with an editor whose vision for the book so closely matched my own.

Erin, Kathy, CynthiaAgent Erin Murphy, editor Kathy Landwehr, and author Cynthia Levinson toast Donna from afar at a conference.

What surprising things did you research for this book?
Geez, so many things! Bloody Island, the gentleman’s code of conduct, 19th-century dueling procedures, the differences between swords and sabers, the financial panic of 1837, Andrew Jackson and his specie circular currency (which was VERY different). So much of what I researched doesn’t appear in my narrative, but I had to understand it all.

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 blessed to be part of the Austin creative community, which is populated by a large group of talented, supportive, and prolific authors and illustrators. Our SCBWI chapter is active and fueled by heart and a desire to produce quality works for young readers. It’s an inspiring group!

I have been in critique groups throughout my entire writing/publishing journey, but my regular critique partners have gotten as busy as I have, so we most often email or chat by phone when we need feedback. I rarely ask a family member to read my manuscripts, in part because they aren’t writers and can’t offer the kind of craft feedback I seek.

As for Twitter, I admit to being a bit of a doofus. I’m still trying to navigate my way through the Twitterverse.


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

Oh, my goodness, it is so exciting to see art for the first time and to watch it evolve through revision! In fact, I just received Adam Gustavson’s first sketches for my 2019 book King of the Tightrope and am reminded how I felt when I first saw S.D. Schindler’s art for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words. With every turn of the PDF page, it was like opening another Christmas present. I am always fascinated by how illustrators add layers through their choice of images, colors, perspectives, symbolism, expressions, scene-setting. I’ve been lucky that my Peachtree editor has included me in the illustration process. Not all editors include the author, which can be especially problematic with nonfiction.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

People often ask me why I chose to go to VCFA when I already had an agent and books published. Initially, I justified it as a way to enlarge my craft vocabulary, expand my writing interests, and acquire necessary credentials to teach. That was all true and the mission was accomplished, but it affected me in ways that I hadn’t expected. I gained new self-confidence in multiple genres, an incredible new family in my beloved classmates and the VCFA community at large, and broader credibility in general.

Harried Plotters moments before graduationThe Harried Plotters with their graduation wands, moments before graduation.

What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

Hold on while I get my family-sized box of tissues. The Harried Plotters are the most spectacular human beings that any girl could hope to link arms with. No matter our diverse backgrounds, our first day at VCFA made us equals. We bonded immediately and spent the next two very stressful years holding each other up during MLA-formatting crisis, essays, family deaths, essays, illnesses, essays, bouts of self-doubt, creative metamorphosis, exhaustion, critical thesis pressure, lecture rehearsals and cheering, wine pit laughter, tears of exhaustion, a book launch, tears of joy, hugs, random smiley messages—everything you could ask for from a family. I went enrolled in VCFA to earn three new letters, MFA, but I emerged with so much more!

Harried Plotters - Cafe AnnaThe Harried Plotters at Café Anna.

So true! :) Thanks so much for stopping by, Donna. Welcome to America and the world, Abraham Lincoln's Dueling Words!

DJBB IMG_1627a 5 x 7 72Donna Janell Bowman is the author of many books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book biography Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee and Low, October 2016) and Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Peachtree, April 1, 2018). In 2019, her book King of the Tightrope: The Great Blondin, illustrated by Adam Gustavson, releases from Peachtree Publishers. Donna has an MFA in Writing (WCYA) from Vermont College of Fine Arts and enjoys mentoring and teaching writers of all ages. She lives near Austin, Texas and is represented by Erin Murphy of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Visit Donna online at

Donna Janell Bowman's headshot by Sam Bond Photography.

Topics: picture book, picture book biography, Donna Janell Bowman, 2018 release, S. D. Schindler, Peachtree Publishers

STEP RIGHT UP with Donna Janell Bowman!

Posted by Adi Rule on Thu, Feb 02, 2017 @ 10:02 AM

Today on the Launchpad, we're celebrating kindness! A big welcome to Donna Janell Bowman (aka Donna Bowman Bratton), whose new picture book biography, with illustrator Daniel Minter, is winning the hearts of readers everywhere. Let's talk about Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, out now from Lee and Low.

STEP RIGHT UP FC hi res small copy.jpg

A horse that can read, write, spell, and do math? Ridiculous! That’s what people thought in the late 1800s—until they met Beautiful Jim Key.

Born a weak and wobbly colt in 1889, Jim was cared for by William “Doc” Key, a formerly enslaved man and self-taught veterinarian who believed in treating animals with kindness, patience, and his own homemade remedies. Under Doc’s watchful eyes, Jim grew to be a healthy young stallion with a surprising talent—a knack for learning! For seven years, Doc and Jim worked together perfecting Jim’s skills. Then it was time for them to go on the road, traveling throughout the United States and impressing audiences with Jim’s amazing performances. In the process, they broke racial barriers and raised awareness for the humane treatment of animals.

Here is the fascinating true story of a remarkable man and his extraordinary horse. Together they asked the world to step right up and embrace their message of kindness toward animals.

Doc and Jim Key. Do not reproduce without permission."Doc" Key and Beautiful Jim Key. (Image may not be reproduced without permission.)

What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
This is an easy question to answer. It was incredibly difficult to leave so much fascinating detail on the cutting room floor. The story of William “Doc” Key and Beautiful Jim Key is humongous, powerful, and full of drama. Whittling it down to the teeny tiny space of a picture book was such a challenge!

What was the spark that ignited this book?
The simple answer would be that the idea of an “educated” horse, trained only with kindness, fascinated me. The deeper answer is that Doc and Jim’s story resonated with me in a very personal way. I grew up on a Quarter Horse ranch, where I developed a deep and abiding love of animals, especially horses. All my free time was spent training for horse shows. I know what it’s like to spend so much time with a horse that you predict each other’s movements and practically read each other’s minds. But, I had never considered trying to teach a horse to write, spell, calculate, identify words, operate a cash register, file letters, etc., as Doc had with Jim. When I first heard of Doc and Jim, I was smitten but skeptical.

When I learned that Doc’s training principles were built on positive reinforcement and kindness—during a time of rampant brutality toward animals—I was hooked. I was even more invested when I learned about Doc’s extraordinary life journey, from enslavement to successful businessman, facing racial prejudice and other obstacles along the way. This was a story ripe for young readers. Ironically, while I am still awed by the horse’s feats, what’s even more significant to me now is how Doc and Beautiful Jim Key advanced the cause of the emerging humane movement, inspiring millions of people to be kinder to animals and to each other. In fact, an estimated two million people signed the Jim Key Pledge of Kindness! I knew I would revive that pledge. The new Step Right Up Pledge of Kindness has been reworded to be inclusive of animals and people, and is downloadable from my website.

What a beautiful pledge! I'm on board.
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?
For anyone looking for a romantic story of being “discovered,” this might be a disappointment. I learned about Doc and Beautiful Jim Key in 2006, but the idea of writing a children’s book about the topic didn’t sink in until 2007, which led me to deep research that never really ended. That research included a trip to Tennessee, white-gloved perusal of documents at the Tennessee State Archives, hundreds of archived newspapers (digital and microfilm), promotional pamphlets from 1897-1906, research about the Civil War and Reconstruction, and about the heartbreaking history of the humane movement. In 2009, I submitted the first five chapters of my then-intended middle grade or young adult nonfiction book to the agent I would eventually sign with. But, she suggested I rewrite the book as a picture book biography. I was aghast! But I was also eager. I spent the next year and a half dissecting hundreds of picture book biographies to figure out how they worked. After a whole heap of very bad drafts, I finally had a version that attracted the attention of three editors in 2011—three editors with radically different visions for the book. When the first call came in, I was sitting in a sling chair at a lake, laughing at my pre-teen son and his two friends who were struggling to pull each other out of a mud bog. So, you see, I will never forget that call!

I knew Lee and Low was the right publisher for this story because of their commitment to exceptional multicultural books. I revised for my editor for two years before they offered the contract. Then, I revised many more times after that, scaling the story back in some places, while expanding it in others. The published book is significantly longer than my original manuscript.

Spelling contest lo res.jpgBeautiful Jim Key competed in spelling bees! Illustration by Daniel Minter.

What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?
Honestly, the best advice I’ve ever received, especially in terms of this book, was Cynthia Leitich Smith telling me, back in 2009, that I shouldn’t be afraid to start over. As in, open a new blank document where you can re-envision the tale. It took me a long while to realize that she was absolutely right. And, let me tell you, I’ve started over many times with most of my manuscripts that followed Step Right Up. Though it’s still a struggle at times, I’m getting better at finding each book’s unique voice, while not falling in love with the arrangement of my own words.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?
I was honored to work with Sharon Darrow, Jane Kurtz, David Gill, and Shelley Tanaka over the last two years. I’ve enjoyed how different they are in terms of strengths, advising styles, and personalities. I always heard that, as a student, you get the advisor that you’re meant to have. Boy, do I believe that now! I adore each of them, and I’ve certainly learned a lot from them.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
Oh, gosh, how shall we count the ways!  I don’t graduate until January 2017, and I just sent my creative thesis this week. Later, when I have distance from my school experience (and have a chance to rest up), I’ll probably have a better answer to this question. Though I came into the program with seven books already sold, the program has deepened and expanded my vocabulary, analytical skills, and writing skills. But, being a student while juggling a writing career has been a challenging juggle. This has required me to compartmentalize my energies and time commitments—not an easy task when you throw family and personal commitments into the mix. The glorious VCFA community makes it all worth it— through conversation, commiseration, lectures, advisor feedback, and generous sharing, I have grown as a writer. And I have a gaggle of amazing new friendships that will last far beyond graduation.

What was special about your VCFA graduating class? (Shout out to our newest alums, the Harried Plotters!)
I get a little choked-up when I think about my class, The Harried Plotters. I am in awe of each and every one of my classmates/friends. Besides being incredible talents, they are funny, caring, sensitive, compassionate, amazing human beings. When one person is having a bad day, phone calls and texts fire up. When anybody has good news, we all celebrate. When packet work is hard (always), postcards and letters arrive in mailboxes. Heck, six of my classmates travelled to Austin for my book launch last month! That sums it up, doesn’t it? And those who couldn’t travel were here in spirit. As a whole, we have become family, and I am so grateful for them.

Thanks so much for stopping by. We're so happy this amazing story and your wonderful telling of it is out in the world!

You can visit Donna at her website,, and Daniel Minter at

Topics: picture book, picture book biography, 2016 release, Donna Janell Bowman, Daniel Minter, Lee and Low Books

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