the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Jane Kurtz and PLANET JUPITER!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Nov 07, 2017 @ 07:11 AM

We're delighted that this orbit around the sun has brought a new middle grade novel from Jane Kurtz. It's Planet Jupiter!

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Everything has gone all wobbly for Jupiter. She comes from a spirited, loving family of buskers—musicians who move from place to place and make a living playing on street corners and at fairs—and she revels in her wandering life. But now her mother has rented an actual house (Jupiter prefers to live in their van) and she is pretty sure that her brother is deserting the family and their musical act just like her dad, the Prince of Adventure, did a while ago. To top it off, some cousin from Ethiopia who Jupiter never even knew existed is coming to live with them, and Jupiter is in charge of watching her. Seriously? Not fair!

Jupiter is not in the mood to appreciate her new house, hew new neighborhood, the bees and bridges of Portland, or her newly discovered cousin. How will she get back on the road, rid herself of the wobbles, and orbit the sun happily once again? Clearly what Jupiter needs is a Grand Plan…

Welcome, Jane Kurtz! So, tell us . . .

What was the spark that ignited this book?

I was listening to an NPR program about young musicians when I heard an interview with a girl who was the spark for Jupiter—living an alternative kind of life centered around music and street performances. Although I didn’t grow up as a busker, I do sing with my sisters every week. And I first moved (from Portland to Ethiopia) when I was two years old. And I did recently discover soil and bees and bugs in a whole new way in Portland. So I immediately connected with the love of adventure/traveling vs. the pull to cultivate roots in a specific place.

Photo: Cousins in Jane's family meeting for the first time.



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

I keep trying to write a simple plot line, so I re-read middle grade such as Because of Winn Dixie and Liar and Spy to see how other people do it. I love Sarah Plain and Tall for its lyrical sentences and character emotions that are not spelled out but vivid (and moving) on the page.

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

I’m constantly learning new craft skills. When I was revising Planet Jupiter, it was the concept of microtension (including the book The Fire in Fiction) that handed out some great advice about how to make the reader uneasy and curious.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

How (and why) to eat a bug.

What unusual swag do you wish you could make for this book?

A cute and compelling guide to saving the bees and a mini cookbook about eating bugs.

Photo: Oxalis from Jane's Backyard Habitat, where she learns about roots and soil.

oxalis roots.jpg

How does teaching at VCFA affect your writing life?

I learn so much about the craft of writing fiction and creative nonfiction every single bingle residency. At this point, I like to have some work in progress open on my computer and force myself to practice—on the page—one thing I’m hearing from each lecture. Otherwise it’s too easy to nod and say “uh-huh, uh-huh” without actually getting the insight from my brain through my fingers and into my work.

Great idea! What is your favorite VCFA memory?

While I was part of the Bath, England residency, I was doing a final big revision of Planet Jupiter. The work we did together to mine our innards and our outer world added some details to my manuscript in a compelling and fresh way. I have a powerful memory of the day we all gathered something from outside—and created poems in invented language to describe them. Wow! What a blast of a sensory experience!

Bonus Bath pic: Here are Cate Berry, Jane Kurtz, and Margaret Mayo McGlynn. Jane says the three of them used to sing in 3-part harmony at residencies! It helped set the stage when she read from WIP Planet Jupiter.

VCFA singing.jpg

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

The first time I had an intensive workshop with a published author, I read everything I could get my hands on that she had written, so that I could ask her specific questions about craft decisions in her picture books and novels. I’m always surprised that more VCFA students don’t take advantage of residency time to learn from their fellow writers who are faculty but still trying daily to solve craft problems in our own work.

Thanks so much for stopping by! Welcome to the universe, Planet Jupiter!

Jane Kurtz has taught at VCFA MFA in Children’s and YA Literature since 2006. She was born in Portland, Oregon, but grew up in Ethiopia and has written about the joy and pain of cultural connections in many different ways. She also helped start the nonprofit Ethiopia Reads and is using her volunteer time to develop local language ready-to-read books for Ethiopia—when she’s not teaching, writing, and cultivating her Backyard Habitat.

Visit Jane online at and at Learn about Jane and her sister Caroline's Open Hearts Big Dreams book project at

Topics: middle grade, HarperCollins, Greenwillow, 2017 release, Jane Kurtz


Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, May 16, 2017 @ 07:05 AM

What should you do if you're craving a twisty new whodunit? Elementary! Pick up Caroline Carlson's first middle grade mystery, The World's Greatest Detective, out now from HarperCollins!

World's Greatest Detective hc c.jpgCaroline Carlson, author of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series, returns with The World’s Greatest Detective, a story of crime, tricks, and hilarity for those who know that sometimes it takes a pair of junior sleuths to solve a slippery case.

Detectives’ Row is full of talented investigators, but Toby Montrose isn’t one of them. He’s only an assistant at his uncle’s detective agency, and he’s not sure he’s even very good at that. Toby’s friend Ivy is the best sleuth around—or at least she thinks so. They both see their chance to prove themselves when the famed Hugh Abernathy announces a contest to choose the World’s Greatest Detective. But when what was supposed to be a game turns into a real-life murder mystery, can Toby and Ivy crack the case?

Welcome, Caroline! I'm going to jump at the opportunity to pick your brain about this genre. What makes for a satisfying mystery story?

I’m a lifelong mystery reader, and I think the particular quality that most of my favorite mysteries share is a solution that’s both surprising and fair. When I reach the end of reading a mystery story, I want to guess the true solution to the mystery only a page or two before it’s revealed, and I don’t want to feel cheated. As a writer, it’s impossible to ensure that every reader has this experience—some will uncover the truth of the mystery long before you want them to, while others might not be able to guess it at all—but in The World's Greatest Detective, I tried to create a puzzle that was tricky enough to keep readers on their toes while also planting enough clues to give them a chance to solve the case on their own.

Of course, in addition to a great twisty plot, a satisfying mystery story has to have compelling characters, conflict and tension, high stakes, interesting settings, well-chosen turns of phrase, and all the other things that make any book stronger. My hope is that readers will enjoy spending time with the book even if they solve the mystery quickly or are reading it for a second or third time.

magnifying_glass_black_handle.jpgDo you approach writing mysteries differently than, say, your Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series?

I try to include a few surprising twists in all my books, so I guess you could say that they all have some elements of mystery, but the main difference in my writing process for The World's Greatest Detective was that I had to plot the whole book very carefully in advance. I usually do some plotting before I start to write, but for this book, I couldn’t play anything by ear, even the minor details: I had to know every character’s movements, motivations, backstory and alibi. I planned out the details of how the crime was committed, and then I planned out a few red herrings as well. I made lots of lists: lists of suspects, lists of clues, lists of mistakes and wrong turns my detectives would make on their way to uncovering the truth. It took a long time to write the first draft. The structure of the book didn’t change very much after I’d completed that first draft, either, because any small change I made could have affected the entire mystery plot!

Do you have any advice for writers who want to try their hand at a whodunit?

Read lots of mysteries and study their structure! If you notice a twist that an author does well, take notes about how she does it. And if you feel intimidated by the process of writing a mystery, remember that under the surface, a mystery novel is just like any other story about an interesting character facing a challenge he or she has to overcome. That challenge just might involve a little more murder than usual.

Poison_Vial_2.jpgWhat’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

I had to learn a lot about cyanide for this book.  Did you know that when you die from cyanide poisoning, you might turn purple?

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

I worked with Sharon Darrow, Julie Larios, Franny Billingsley, and Martine Leavitt. I wish I could keep sending them my writing in the mail every month!

I hear that. What is your favorite VCFA memory?

There are so many specific moments I loved, but one image that’s stuck with me over the years has been waking up in my Dewey dorm room during winter residencies and watching the smoke rising out of people’s chimneys, up out of Montpelier and past the mountains. I loved those peaceful moments at the beginning of each day; I always felt really lucky to be in such a beautiful place among so many wonderful writers and friends. Even when it was several degrees below zero!

Thanks so much for visiting the Launchpad, Caroline! We're glad you're on the case!

Caroline Carlson graduated from VCFA in July 2011 and is a proud member of the League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches. She lives in Pittsburgh with her family.

Visit her online at

Topics: middle grade, Caroline Carlson, HarperCollins, 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: Linda Oatman High, middle grade, HarperCollins, 2017 release

Heather Demetrios and BLOOD PASSAGE!

Posted by Adi Rule on Sat, May 21, 2016 @ 11:05 AM

Today we're celebrating Blood Passage, the second book in Heather Demetrios' Dark Caravan Cycle (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins)! Heather is a member of the Allies in Wonderland (Summer '14). 


A jinni who’s lost everything.

A master with nothing to lose.

A revolutionary with everything to gain.

When Nalia arrives in Morocco to fulfill Malek’s third and final wish she’s not expecting it to be easy. Especially because Malek isn’t the only one after Solomon’s sigil, an ancient magical ring that gives its wearer the power to control the entire jinn race. Nalia has also promised to take Raif, leader of the jinn revolution, to its remote location. Though Nalia is free of the bottle and shackles that once bound her to Malek as his slave, she’s in more danger than ever before and no closer to rescuing her imprisoned brother.

Meanwhile, Malek’s past returns with a vengeance and his well-manicured façade crumbles as he confronts the darkness within himself. And Raif must decide what’s more important: his love for Nalia, or his devotion to the cause of Arjinnan freedom.

Set upon by powerful forces that threaten to break her, Nalia encounters unexpected allies and discovers that her survival depends on the very things she thought made her weak. From the souks of Marrakech to the dunes of the Sahara, 1001 Arabian Nights comes to life in this harrowing second installment of the Dark Caravan Cycle.

Welcome, Heather! So, tell us . . .

Who was your favorite character to write and why?

My favorite character to write was Malek, one of the villains in the series. In this book, he’s a POV character and we learn so much about his motivations and how events in the past are affecting the present. I think the best villains are the ones that make you sympathize with them. I really wanted to show his humanity, his vulnerability. It’s been really interesting to see how many readers love Malek—they always make sure to say they “shouldn’t” like him because he’s a slave owner, but he’s charming, intelligent, and witty: very hard things for readers to ignore. I think it’s all about layers and it’s inherently interesting to see underneath a character’s armor.

It's exciting to come across a truly three-dimensional villain. Readers will love experiencing Malek's POV!

Do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?

I used to need total silence, but when I started working on this series, I found myself listening to a lot of Anoushka and Ravi Shakar, as well as a beautiful recording I heard of the call to prayer. Oh, and music from Game of Thrones because it’s so epic. The instrumental parts of movie soundtracks can be really great because they’re so dramatic. The music helped bring Morocco alive for me (which is where the book is set—I traveled there to do research). It can be really great for world building.

Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.

I have a jar filled with sand from the Sahara desert that I collected when I was on my trip to Morocco to research for this book. It grounds me in the world of the story, but it was also the most amazing place I’ve been on Earth, so it inspires me to plan for the next trip! I have lots of little things like that on my desk and wall. Luckily, I have my own home office, so it’s pretty tricked out.


How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

It gave me a sense of authority – I didn’t feel like a beginner by the time I was through at VCFA. It also gave me my wonderful class, the Allies in Wonderland (Summer ’14) – we all are very close and encourage/inspire one another. I don’t know what I’d do without them. Writing is such a solitary act and having them makes it feel less lonely. Finally, my writing life is deeply grounded in craft and understanding the process, two major things you get at VCFA.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Enjoy it as much as you can because it’s over before you know it! I would also suggest trying to get one book finished during your time there so that you have something you can go into the big wide world with. I already had publishing contracts when I started at VCFA, so I had to finish books, but my friends who were able to do that who hadn’t finished a book before were so proud of that accomplishment. There’s a definite melancholy that comes in the months after graduating and I think it’s a really good idea to set yourself up for the next steps. Your advisor can help with that, too. 

Great advice. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Demetrios_Author_Photo_2015.jpgHeather Demetrios's books include Something Real, I'll Meet You There, and Exquisite Captive, the first book in the Dark Caravan fantasy series. She is a recipient of the PEN New England Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls New York City home. Visit Heather online at




Topics: young adult, Heather Demetrios, Balzer + Bray, HarperCollins, 2016 release


Posted by Robin Herrera on Tue, Jan 26, 2016 @ 12:01 PM

Today we celebrate the picture book debut of VCFA graduate Nora Ericson (and illustrated by Nora's sister, Lisa Ericson)! Dill & Bizzy: An Odd Duck and a Strange Bird is out NOW from HarperCollins.


Dill is a duck.
An ordinary duck.
At least that's what he thinks.

Then he meets Bizzy.
What a strange bird!

Can a perfectly ordinary duck and a strange bird become the best of friends?

Welcome, Nora! Please tell us...

Your book started off as an early reader. What kinds of changes did you undergo when morphing it into a picture book?

So many changes! I sold the story as an easy reader, but HarperCollins wanted to turn it into picture books (the conventional wisdom being that it is much better to introduce characters in picture books and maybe later move on to easy readers). So I still had my characters and my setting, but basically had to start from scratch with the actual storyline. I (naively) assumed that I’d be able to pick one of the vignettes from the easy reader and turn it into a picture book. But none of the original vignettes had enough action or illustratable moments to carry 32 pages. So there I was, post-sale, staring at a blank page! Quite a shock, as in all my fantasies of selling my first book, that book was magnificent and, um... done. Luckily I was working with brilliant editor and dear friend, Abby Ranger, who guided me quite expertly through the process. Wow, was she patient with me as I stumbled around for the first few months.

I know Dill and Bizzy went through a couple of rounds of name changes. Can you share some with us?

The characters in my easy reader were just named Odd Duck and Strange Bird, but since Harper wanted to change those, we had to agree on new names before the sale could be announced. For a few weeks, I thought of nothing but bird names. I still occasionally find a random scrap of paper or napkin buried on my desk with lists of bird names! Paddy & Pia were the initial suggestions given to us, but Lisa (the illustrator, who also happens to be my sister!) and I didn’t love them. A few of our favorites were Dunk & Dotty, Fergus & Feather, Beaker & Plume and Quack & Batty. It took a lot of back and forth to come to an agreement! Last week, I searched my emails and looked at all the names we exchanged and the funniest thing was finding Birdie on the list (Dill & Birdie). I hadn’t remembered that Birdie had been in the running. We didn’t end up using it for the book, but I did name my daughter Birdie just a few months later (well, her full name is Beatrix, but we only ever call her Birdie)!

What was the most fun part of the process for you?

Seeing my characters and story come alive in the hands of my sister was exceptionally fun. We shared many squeals as she revealed each new illustration and brainstormed ideas over family dinner. I loved seeing the new angles and new details that she brought to each page.

Tell us about your favorite illustration in the book.

I think my personal favorite is the second-to-last spread where we back up to take in the whole scene at sunset, with Dill and Bizzy perched on the top of their (well decorated) fountain. It’s gorgeous.


Did you use any real-life inspiration for any part of the book?

Yes, I used my experience of growing up as a duck. Quack. Just kidding. But seriously, my best friend and I lived next to a pond and were obsessed with ducks. We were always trying to commune with them and built boats to sail to their nesting island. Yeah, we were pretty weird! And of course we felt like odd ducks a lot of the time. Who hasn’t? But I think like a lot of kids, we had a complex relationship to the idea of being odd or strange. Fitting in felt so important and yet we also craved uniqueness. We wanted to stand out from the crowd as much as we wanted to blend in. I think the push and pull of those opposing desires explains a fair bit of childhood angst. And adult angst, for that matter! I know for me, finding a friend with whom I could completely embrace my inner weirdo was the best thing that ever happened in my youth. So in that way, Dill and Bizzy are a pretty natural outgrowth of my own experience. Quack.

Give us three picture books you'd recommend to a reader after they've read (and loved!) DILL & BIZZY.

Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller, because it is such a fresh friendship story (girl and squash), but mostly because I just LOVE IT SO and can’t help but recommend it to everyone I know.

Squid and Octopus: Friends for Always by by Tao Nyeu, because the quirky aquatic duo are darling and the illustrations are stunning and unique.

And Amos & Boris by William Steig because it’s the classic unlikely friendship story and, of course, just STEIG!


Who were your advisors at VCFA?

Martine Leavitt, Kathi Appelt, Ellen Howard and Shelley Tanaka. All of them kind and brilliant.

Did you write or experiment with picture books while attending VCFA, or did that come after?

The vast majority of what I worked on at VCFA was middle-grade. One particular historical fiction piece, in fact. I was obsessed. But I did write a few picture books and short stories along the way. I actually wrote the first incarnation of Dill & Bizzy (then called Odd Duck & Strange Bird) for workshop with Leda Schubert and Ellen Howard, and then worked on it briefly with Kathi Appelt. I think Kathi suggested turning it into an easy reader, which I later did in an easy reader class taught by VCFA alum Terry Pierce. So even though the book in its final form was written quite a few years post-graduation, it still has some deep VCFA roots.

Fascinating! The roots of VCFA do run deep! What piece of writing advice that you learned at VCFA will always stick in your mind?

I think just “always be a writer”—as simple (and yet hard!) as that. Everything else is only ups and downs along the way.

Thank you, Nora!

Nora Ericson received her BA in Art from Yale University and her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from upstate New York, she now lives, writes and wrangles in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, young children, and middle-aged dogs. 

Visit her online at!

Topics: picture book, HarperCollins, 2016 release, Nora Ericson

Lisa Papademetriou and A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic!

Posted by Tami Brown on Wed, Oct 07, 2015 @ 10:10 AM

Welcome Lisa Lisa Papademetriou! Today in the LaunchPad we're celebrating Lisa's new middle grade novel A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic. Lisa graduated in July 2014 and is one of the Allies in Wonderland. According to her mother Lisa is a really, really big deal and you should get to know her immediately. You can chat with her on twitter @axyfabulous.

Bestseller and author of the popular middle grade series Confectionately YoursLisa Papademetriou is back with a magical, page-turning adventure for readers of all ages—a touching tale about destiny and the invisible threads that link us all, ultimately, to one another.

9780062371218Kai and Leila are both finally having an adventure. For Leila, that means a globe-crossing journey to visit family in Pakistan for the summer; for Kai, it means being stuck with her crazy great-aunt in Texas while her mom looks for a job. In each of their bedrooms, they discover a copy of a blank, old book called The Exquisite Corpse. Kai writes three words on the first page—and suddenly, they magically appear in Leila's copy on the other side of the planet. Kai's words are soon followed by line after line of the long-ago, romantic tale of Ralph T. Flabbergast and his forever-love, Edwina Pickle. As the two take turns writing, the tale unfolds, connecting both girls to each other, and to the past, in a way they never could have imagined.

A heartfelt, vividly told multicultural story about fate and how our stories shape it.

Hi, Lisa! What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?

A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic was part of my VCFA thesis, and three advisors told me essentially the same thing, which boils down to: You don’t have to put every single good idea into your book. Simplicity is best. It took a lot of revising to winnow my ideas, and I still ended up with a very complex book.

Tell us about something special you keep on your desk/wall as you work.

I have two special things on my desk. One is a large glass marble made by a friend of mine. Inside it are wispy clouds and blue sparkles, and sometimes when I get stuck, I pick it up and stare into it. It’s smooth and heavy and cool in my palm, and it always makes me feel calm. The other thing is a small happy Buddha that my daughter found on the beach in Miami. It feels like a harbinger of joy and good fortune, and I hope he smiles on my writing.

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

The cover for this book was very emotional for me, because it took me several moments to realize what the illustrator had done. A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic is set in two locations: Texas and Pakistan, and the illustrator subtly reflected both on the cover. The bottom edge contains a graveyard, a pickup truck, a factory, and other details from the Texas location. At first glance, the top edge appears to be an almost mirror image, but it contains elements from the Lahore, Pakistan location: a donkey cart, Badshahi Mosque, a parrot, and more. Every element in those edges is mentioned in the book. I couldn’t believe it. I have never had such a beautiful cover, or one that reflected such care and respect for what I had done. It was incredibly moving.

What unusual swag do you wish you could make for this book? 

I wish I could make a magic book!

Me, too! I'd love to have a book like Kai and Leila's! What is your favorite VCFA memory?

One of my favorite memories is of the very first moment I arrived in the dorm. My husband, Ali, and daughter were with me, and they dropped me off in my cinderblock room. Ali took a look around and said, “Wow. This program must be incredible, because people sure aren’t coming here for the facilities!” I actually adore the simple beauty of the VCFA campus, but it sure isn’t like some universities that have fancy gyms and—who knows—private valets, or whatever. And the fact is, Ali is totally right—people come to VCFA because they are dedicated to their craft, they come because the faculty is incredible, they come because the program is committed to helping people reach their full potential. Nobody comes to get pampered. 

What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

My class name is Allies in Wonderland, and we truly are each other’s allies, advocates, friends, and fans. I’m sure everyone thinks that his or her class is the best, but mine really is

A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic is published by HarperCollins and is in bookstores now. You can find out more about Lisa and her books at and

Topics: Lisa Papademetriou, 2015 release, middle grade, HarperCollins

Caroline Carlson and THE BUCCANEER'S CODE!

Posted by Robin Herrera on Wed, Sep 09, 2015 @ 06:09 AM

Today we have Caroline Carlson joining us for the release of the final book in her VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES series: THE BUCCANEER'S CODE! The book is on shelves now (along with hardcover and paperback editions of the previous books in the series) and we couldn't be more excited!


Hilary Westfield is a freelance pirate now. When Captain Blacktooth showed his entirely dishonorable side by teaming up with the Mutineers and threatening the kingdom, Hilary forfeited her sword and hoped that the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates would one day secure a new leader—an honorable one (or very nearly).

Hilary’s devoted crew—including the talking gargoyle—believes she’s the perfect person for the job, so she picks up her sword again and challenges Captain Blacktooth and his villainous friends to a High Seas battle. If she wins, Hilary will become the new president of the League. If she loses? She’ll perish or, at best, she’ll be forced to spend the rest of her days at the Pestilent Home for Foul-Tempered Pirates while the Mutineers steal all the kingdom’s magic. To gather supporters, Hilary and her crew set sail on a quest that may or may not involve fearsome pirates, even more fearsome finishing school girls, and... chickens.

Caroline Carlson returns once again to the world of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates in the conclusion to this fantastically funny and adventure-filled series.

I am tempted to have you list your Top Ten Favorite Gargoyle Lines, but that might take a while. So what's your favorite line from the gargoyle?
That's the hardest question I've ever been asked! It's got to be one of his first lines in the series, when he's worrying about what will happen to him when Hilary leaves for finishing school: "Oh, Hilary, what if I'm renovated?"
Is there a bit of piratical knowledge you have in your notes that never made it onto the page? Either from history or from your own world-building?
Well, this isn't exactly piratical knowledge, but it is a bit of secret information about the series: When I started writing MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT, Hilary's name was actually Robin. I ended up having to change her name because I had another character named Robin in a story I was working on at VCFA.
GASP! (There's a severe lack of Robins in children's lit. Though there are a lot of authors named Robin...)
Now that their adventures are coming to an end (at least the writing of them), what book would you recommend to each character as they take a week off to relax?
I think Hilary would probably like a story about another brave girl on a sailing ship, so I'd recommend THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE. For Claire, I'd recommend PRIDE AND PREJUDICE--she could read it aloud to the gargoyle, who goes nuts for a good romance. (Charlie would probably listen too, although he'd never admit it.) I'd give Jasper THE PRINCESS BRIDE, and I'd give Miss Greyson a big stack of newspapers (for the times when she's feeling practical) and the complete works of Agatha Christie (for the times when she isn't).
Which chapter from each book was your favorite to write? (No spoilers, readers, don't worry!)
I think the last chapter of each book has been my favorite! It's very satisfying to write final chapters. I love tying up loose threads and giving each character a happy ending—except for the villains, of course. I did get a little sniffly when I wrote the ending of THE BUCCANEERS' CODE, though; I'd been dreaming about the characters and their adventures for almost five years, and it was tough to say goodbye.
If you had to bury five books on a deserted island, only for some brave adventurer to dig them up a hundred or so years later, what would they be?
I'm not sure what the adventurer's tastes might be, so I'd try to leave a really broad selection of excellent reads: IN THE WOODS by Tana French, AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA by Michael Pollan, FATHERLAND by Nina Bunjevac, and A BRIEF HISTORY OF MONTMARAY by Michelle Cooper. That ought to see the adventurer through her deserted-island vacation.
Finally, was there any specific "VCFA trick" you used while writing the VNHLOP series? (I know, there were probably many.) Is there one you used above all others?
Plotting a story comes pretty naturally to me, but delving deep into characters' emotions is work that I still find tough and intimidating. Thankfully, VCFA gave me some tools to help things go a little more smoothly. Before I start writing any book, I ask myself how I want my character to grow and change emotionally over the course of the story. What internal goal does she want to achieve, and how will that help her achieve her plot goals, too? Sometimes I'll even write my character's internal goal on a Post-It and stick it to my computer monitor so I don't forget to write it into the book!

VCFA students, you heard it here first: stock up on Post-Its.


Thank you, Caroline, for stopping by the Launch Pad! We'll be waiting (in)patiently for your next series! Readers, you can find out more about THE VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES on Caroline's website here

Topics: 2015 release, middle grade, Caroline Carlson, HarperCollins

Maggie Lehrman and THE COST OF ALL THINGS

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, May 12, 2015 @ 09:05 AM

Today we welcome Maggie Lehrman's debut young adult novel, The Cost of All Things (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins). Maggie is one of VCFA's Keepers of the Dancing Stars, and we're delighted she could stop by for a chat!

CostofAllThings c resized 600

What would you pay to cure your heartbreak? Banish your sadness? Transform your looks?

The right spell can fix anything.

When Ari's boyfriend dies, she gets a spell to erase all memory of him. But spells come at a cost, and this one sets off a chain of events that reveal the hidden—and sometimes dangerous—connections between Ari, her friends, and Win, the boyfriend she can no longer remember.

Told from four different points of view, this original and affecting novel weaves past and present in a suspenseful narrative that unveils the truth behind a terrible tragedy. Part love story, part mystery, part high-stakes drama, The Cost of All Things is the debut of an extraordinary new talent.

Hi, Maggie! Wow, what a fresh, intriguing story. What was the spark that ignited this book?

The first glimpse I had of this book was a moment: two teenagers, in love, dancing. The next thing I knew about them was that the boy was dead and the girl had forgotten he ever existed. From there I had the great fun of figuring out what type of world would allow a girl to forget her dead boyfriend, why he was dead, and what the girl had to give up along with her memory. The world spun out from there. Who made the spells? Who else mourned the dead boy, and how did they feel about the girl forgetting him? What else could spells hide or change? 

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

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how the four POV characters' stories intersected, and when each character knew certain pieces of information and how they discovered those pieces. I wrote the entire first draft of the book by hand (see photo of the trusty notebooks) and so once it was in the computer there was still a ton of work to do crafting it into the shape of a book. It may not come as a surprise, considering I was dealing with four interrelated stories that all need to come to a head at the same time, but the ending was the hardest part to finesse. I must've re-written it dozens of times. But I'm pleased with how it came out. It needed those dozens of revisions!

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

I love Jandy Nelson and Nova Ren Suma's sentences. I admire anyone who can craft a plot even a little bit, but some masters for me are Melina Marchetta, Ellen Raskin, Gabrielle Zevin, and E. Lockhart. Libba Bray is quick and brilliant with characters, as are Terry Pratchett and Jaclyn Moriarty.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

I wouldn't call it too weird, but I googled a ton of ballet things when writing The Cost of All Things, went to the ballet a bunch of times, and watched every ballet documentary I could get my hands on. I even took a class taught by New York City Ballet dancers. But even from your home there's so much online to get a sense of the behind-the-scenes life of professional dancers. My absolute favorite thing is watching videos of toe shoe preparation.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

A.M. Jenkins, who kicked my butt and who's the person I imagine conversations with when I feel like I'm losing my way. Rita Williams-Garcia, whose enthusiasm and guidance made me excited about writing and finishing things. Franny Billingsley, with whom I started this book, and who made me really think about the costs of magic in my critical thesis. Tim Wynne-Jones, who convinced me to put this aside (he was right), and who encouraged me not to settle.

Maggie Lehrman HeadshotHow did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

In so many ways. I went to VCFA because I wanted to step up my skills and learn some solid craft, and I did, but the real surprise legacy for me has been the community. My class and the other students I've met there are an incredible support group, backbone, cheering squad, advice mavens, whatever you want to call it. The connections with the faculty are inspiring and priceless. I'm so, so grateful to have all of that.

Thanks for stopping by, Maggie. Huge congratulations on your stunning debut!

Visit Maggie online at her website,, on Twitter @maggielehrman, and on Tumblr.

Topics: young adult, 2015 release, Balzer + Bray, HarperCollins, Maggie Lehrman

Kelly Bingham and CIRCLE, SQUARE, MOOSE!

Posted by Tami Brown on Wed, Sep 24, 2014 @ 07:09 AM
We're welcoming Kelly Bingham-- and her lovely pushy pal Moose at the Launch Pad today. Kelly is a January 2004 graduate of VCFA- a member of The Zoo. How appropriate for the author of two great picture books that feature a whole menagerie-- lead by our friend Moose! Kelly is a former Disney storyboard artist and director. She lives in Georgia with her husband and children.

describe the imageMoose loves shapes.  Circles! Squares! Triangles! Hooray!   So when Moose mysteriously finds himself in a shape book (oh, please don't ask) he is the very picture of a happy Moose.  Life is great!  
Until, well, until he wrecks everything.  
Now, don't you worry!  
Zebra will handle it.  
Zebra always fixes Moose's messes.  
And what thanks does Zebra get? 
Really....does anyone ever think about Zebra?

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

The best piece of advice I've had was given to me by Jane Resh Thomas, who was my advisor during VC.  She said "trust in the process."   Over the years I have come to realize that I do have a process, and that it is unique to me, and that it is pointless to compare myself to others and their way of doing things.  I often apply arbitrary expectations on myself and then get frustrated or worried when the words do not come as fast as I randomly imagined, or the revisions drag on, or things are murky and hard.  Jane's simple advice has done wonders to keep me focused, rather than waste time getting all angst-ridden about my work.  There IS a process, and I have to trust in the ups and downs of that process, knowing that there IS light--and a finished book--at the end of the tunnel.

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?

This was a unique situation, in that I already had sold and published Z IS FOR MOOSE with Greenwillow. The book sold really well and got a lot of positive attention.  Still, imagine my shock when my editor contacted me and offered me a contract to write two more Moose books.  A two-book deal was something I had heard about (with great awe) while a student at VC. I mentally put it on my "bucket list" as something I wanted to have happen some day.  And to get this was a proud, happy moment.  And it came late at night while I was in bed--I was getting ready to read a book and go to sleep, but decided to check my e-mail one last time on my phone.  And there was the offer!  I told my husband and we both set our books aside and just stared at each other in stunned happiness.  After that I was too wired to go to sleep!

I did not have an agent at that time, but I got an agent very soon afterwards, who negotiated the contract for me.  She is wonderful and I am very happy and grateful to her, to my editor, and to Paul O. Zelinsky, the amazing illustrator of the Moose books.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

I had to research lots of gruesome things for my novel, SHARK GIRL.  I remember reading lots of accounts of shark attacks, which were awful.  And looking at pictures, which was also awful.  But I guess the weirdest thing I googled was, "How much blood loss before you are in a coma?"  Because my character needed to be put into a coma and be near death, but not actually die.  It was not the cheeriest research material in the world.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

Ellen Howard, Liza Ketchum, Alison McGhee, and Jane Resh-Thomas.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

I wish I'd understood ahead of time how precious and singular the experience would be.  You will never have another time like this in your life.  When I go back and visit, it's wonderful, but nothing is the same as when you're a student there.  Savor every minute.  Buy all the recordings of every lecture, save every handout, etc.  Just put them aside and know that someday you'll revisit them and they will be just what you need to hear as you work on your books.  Make friends while you're there and keep those friendships strong, because they will be priceless to you.  Writing is a lonely business, particularly once you graduate.  Having friends in the same boat is a wonderful thing.  I'd also suggest that new students go into the program with permission to relax and experiment with different forms of writing.  Don't view the two years as a make-or-break on one particular project.  This is a time of learning.  Embrace that time and learn all you can. Don't argue with your advisors--just listen.  They know a lot that you have yet to learn.  Work hard but have fun along the way--go to the dances, the auction, the cafeteria, etc.   Understand that some people will be published before graduating and some won't.  It's not a competition.  Recognize how far you've come in your writing and be proud, and keep the big picture in mind.  What you learn in these two years will last you forever.
Thanks so much for dropping by, Kelly! Moose's second book is already collecting stars-- our astrological prediction is that it will be just as successful as the first!
CIRCLE, SQUARE, MOOSE was published by Greenwillow/Harpercollins and hits bookstores on Sept. 23, 2014
illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

Topics: 2014 release, picture book, Kelly Bingham, concept book, HarperCollins, Greenwillow


Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Sep 09, 2014 @ 09:09 AM

Arr, mateys! We be happier'n a new peg leg to be jabberin' with Caroline Carlson, whose new middle grade novel, The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: The Terror of the Southlands (HarperCollins), makes land today! Here be the details:

describe the imageMore pirates, more magic, and more adventure in the second book of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series! Caroline Carlson brings the unceasing wit, humor, and fun of the first book in the series, Magic Marks the Spot, to this epic sequel. Fans of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events and Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society will love this quirky tween series and hope to join the VNHLP just like Hilary!

Hilary Westfield is now a bona fide pirate, but when her daring, her magical know-how, and even her gargoyle don’t convince the VNHLP that she’s worthy of her title, the Terror of the Southlands, she sets off with her crew on a High Seas adventure. But then Miss Pimm disappears and Hilary decides to find the missing Enchantress and protect the magic of Augusta.

Caroline Carlson wrote her first published novel, Magic Marks the Spot, while she was a student at VCFA. The Terror of the Southlands is the second book in that series.

Welcome aboard, Caroline! So, tell us . . .

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

Because The Terror of the Southlands is the second book in a series, one of my biggest challenges was to remind readers what had happened in the first book without simultaneously boring them to tears. Chapter 2, in particular, was my nemesis. I experimented with lots of different scenes as I tried (often in vain) to introduce characters and backstory and to explain the details of the book’s magical world. At various points in its lifespan, Chapter 2 contained timid country farmers, flying musical instruments, wheelbarrows full of magic coins, explosions blasting holes in walls, Mozart’s Sonata in C, and dozens of chickens. None of those elements ever made it into the final book (though the chickens do make a cameo in book three). Finally, during revisions with my editor, I ended up writing the chapter completely from scratch, and I’m really pleased with the way it turned out.

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

Some of my favorite sentences were written by James Thurber, who is an expert when it comes to both sound and sense. Re-reading books like The Thirteen Clocks encourages me to play around with the rhythms of language in my own writing. As far as plotting is concerned, I hugely admire Jaclyn Moriarty, who always manages to pull hundreds of disparate elements into huge, twisty, brilliant plots that surprise me at every turn. My favorite literary character, Cassandra Mortmain, was created by Dodie Smith in her classic, wonderful book I Capture the Castle.

Do you write in silence? If not, what’s your soundtrack?

I usually prefer to write in silence, and I can’t listen to any sort of music with lyrics while I write. For this book, I got myself into the story-writing zone by turning on Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks.” It might seem like a strange choice to set the mood for a pirate yarn, but there’s a grand High Society ball at the end of the book, and the overture sounds like something my characters might be listening to as they attempt to avoid dancing.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

I worked with four insightful and whip-smart writers: Sharon Darrow, Julie Larios, Franny Billingsley, and Martine Leavitt.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

It scared me to hear this when I was just starting out at VCFA, but it turned out to be intensely true: Don’t be afraid to abandon projects and try new things. I think a lot of us start out in the program with a novel we’d like to polish to perfection—the book we dream will be our first published work. And a lot of us spend most of our time in the program working on that book, but more often than not, that book isnthe one that leads us to publication. It’s the book we learn on, the book that teaches us to write the stories we’ve always been meant to tell. Until the second packet of my last semester, I thought my creative thesis would be the book I’d spent most of my grad school career working on—but then I wrote Magic Marks the Spot, and everything I’d learned over the previous two years finally came together.

Thanks for dropping by, Caroline! And a big, hearty salute to The Terror of the Southlands!

Caroline Carlson was a member of the VCFA class of July 2011 -- The League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches. Visit her online at!

Topics: 2014 release, middle grade, Caroline Carlson, HarperCollins

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