the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Amanda West Lewis and THE PACT!

Posted by Tami Brown on Mon, Oct 10, 2016 @ 06:10 AM

Current student Amanda West Lewis is visiting the LaunchPad. Amanda is a member of the Dead Post-Its Society, graduating July 2017. Her new historic novel THE PACT, a follow up to her very successful first novel SEPTEMBER 17,  was published recently to great acclaim. Welcome, Amanda!

Cover.jpgAs the tide turns against the Nazis, a radicalized youth must come to terms with the waves of destruction that destroy the only world he knows. The Pact is a powerful novel inspired by a true story.

Peter Gruber is a ten year old German boy who, in May of 1939, is dealing with the drowning death of his closest friend, living with his mother in Hamburg. The novel follows his life through the war years and the ultimate defeat of Germany – and explores how an intelligent, sensitive youth responds to the propaganda and posturing of the Nazis. It also provides insights into the realities of living in a country at war, seen through the eyes of a boy who is drawn into the Hitler Youth and who has growing misgivings about what he is being told about his country and its destiny.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

The genesis of this book came from a revelation by a neighbor, Hans Sinn. I’ve known Hans for over 25 years, but I knew nothing about his background until one day about 15 years ago. We were sitting together by a lake, watching our children play in the water. The children were singing songs and playing games – the kinds of things kids learn at camp. My husband Tim (Wynne-Jones) innocently asked Hans if he had ever gone to camp. Hans replied, with a sad smile, “Yes. Hitler Youth camp.” It was quite a shock! Hans then went on to describe his escape from an SS training camp in Denmark. It was an amazing story, and perhaps even more striking to hear it while we were sitting beside a peaceful lake in Canada.

            However, it wasn’t until 2012, after I visited Mainz, Germany, that I decided to delve deeper. I had just finished my first novel, September 17, which was about a particular group of English children who were evacuated during the Second World War. After being in Germany, I realized that I knew nothing about the experience of German children during the war. It’s not something that anyone discusses. In fact there was a whole generation whose childhood experiences were silenced after the war. Today they are called the Kreigskinder – the War Children.

            So I began interviewing Hans. I spent over a year talking with him about his life before, during and after the war. I steeped myself in research, and slowly a fictional story began to emerge. I wouldn’t have tackled this story had I not started with Hans as a primary source.

The other huge thing was that Hans had photos. I’m most comfortable when I can use photos as ignition points. Here are a couple

that we used for the book, but there were many that helped me to set the stage.

Hamburg_0003.jpg                                Boys_on_hill.jpg

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?

My first novel was published by Red Deer Press, so it was natural for me to go to them with this second. In fact, it was because of my editor at Red Deer, Peter Carver, that I decided to tackle this subject. We’d worked together really well on the first novel, sharing an obsession with the minutiae of daily life during the Second World War. When I floated the idea for he loved it because he saw it as a companion piece . That book was much harder because it had multiple viewpoints, and Peter gave me incredibly detailed notes about perspective, story arc and pacing. This novel was more of a challenge because the historical information I was trying to get across was less familiar, and also much more controversial. There were times when I was quite scared. But Peter helped me to keep focusing on the story and on the characters. He’d say: “How would they [the children] have known about this?” and that would get me back inside their heads. It is hard not to write about the war with what we know now to be true. I had to keep blocking off my “hindsight” brain.  

My first novel was second. In fact, it was because of my editor at Red Deer, Peter Carver, that I decided to tackle this subject. We’d worked together really well on the first novel, sharing an obsession with the minutiae of daily life during the Second World War. When I floated the idea for The Pact he loved it because he saw it as a companion piece September 17. That book was much harder because it had multiple viewpoints, and Peter gave me incredibly detailed notes about perspective, story arc and pacing. This novel was more of a challenge because the historical information I was trying to get across was less familiar, and also much more controversial. There were times when I was quite scared. But Peter helped me to keep focusing on the story and on the characters. He’d say: “How would they [the children] have known about this?” and that would get me back inside their heads. It is hard not to write about the war with what we know now to be true. I had to keep blocking off my “hindsight” brain.

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

Doing Internet research for this book was scary. Type the word Nazi into your search engine and you are going to get a lot of things you don’t want to know about. Checking and double-checking issues to do with education was fascinating, and trying to figure out the equivalencies in currency was a challenge. What was the cost of a cigarette? A day of care in a hospital? The daily wage of a worker?

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

I was in the midst of my second set of revisions when I came to my first residency at VCFA. I knew that I wasn’t going to work on this book at VCFA, but I had submitted the first 20 pages for my first residency workshop. There were some amazing suggestions that came out of that session, and both Cynthia Leitich Smith and Mark Karlins helped me to see some problems with the opening that I hadn’t been aware of. They helped me to get much closer to my protagonist, just by the way that they talked about him. But even more importantly, they took me and my work seriously. They helped me to believe that I could become a better writer. Also at that first residency David Gill gave his “Turn, Turn, Turn” lecture. He talked about a “significant and irreversible change.” I knew immediately where that was in the manuscript, and knew that I hadn’t made that moment do what it needed to do. I raced out of that lecture and re-wrote the turn of the book. I read it at the class reading session that night. My head and heart pounded all day just thinking about it. That lecture changed everything, because once I could see that turn, I could see where my protagonist was really going.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Don’t come here to write something that you are trying to get published. Come here to write, to experiment, to try things out of your comfort zone. Be prepared to play, laugh and cry. Know that you will be given more support than you ever imagined possible. Be brave. Say yes.

Thanks for dropping by the LaunchPad, Amanda! You can find out more about Amanda West Lewis and her books at her website  and you can find her novel THE PACT in bookstores now.


Topics: young adult, 2016 release, historical fiction, Red Deer Press, Amanda West Lewis, YA


Posted by Sarah Johnson on Thu, May 05, 2016 @ 08:05 AM
Today we celebrate Julie Berry's novel, The Passion of Dolssa, published by Viking Children’s Books.


Buried deep within the archives of a convent in medieval France is an untold story of love, loss, and wonder and the two girls at the heart of it all.  

Dolssa is an upper-crust city girl with a secret lover and an uncanny gift. Branded a heretic, she’s on the run from the friar who condemned her mother to death by fire, and wants Dolssa executed, too.

Botille is a matchmaker and a tavern-keeper, struggling to keep herself and her sisters on the right side of the law in their seaside town of Bajas.

When their lives collide by a dark riverside, Botille rescues a dying Dolssa and conceals her in the tavern, where an unlikely friendship blooms. Aided by her sisters and Symo, her surly but loyal neighbor, Botille nurses Dolssa back to health and hides her from her pursuers.  But all of Botille’s tricks, tales, and cleverness can’t protect them forever, and when the full wrath of the Church bears down upon Bajas, Dolssa’s passion and Botille’s good intentions could destroy the entire village. 

From the author of the award-winning All the Truth That's in Me comes a spellbinding thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the final page and make you wonder if miracles really are possible. 


Welcome, Julie! Can you share who was your favorite character to write and why?

Favorites are always tricky for me, because I love all my characters, but I can say this: the hardest was Dolssa, my ethereal mystic; the most playful was Sapdalina, who is a bit of a comic-relief character with a bit of a “My Fair Lady” arc; the two that had the tightest hold on my heart were Botille, who probably gets the Main Character crown in this large ensemble cast, and Symo, the surly grump of a newcomer to town who exasperates Botille to no end, but is always there when she needs help.  

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

I’m not sure if I’ve recovered enough yet from the revision process for this book to be able to talk about it without my eyeballs twitching. This novel went through more iterations than I can count. Not just revisions, but structural overhauls, charts, spreadsheets, color-coding, cutting, trimming, honing. It was a nightmare, perhaps, but in a way, it was also an incredibly stimulating puzzle to unravel. It was worth it.  

Tell us about your writing community. Are you in a critique group? Does a family member read your early drafts?

 I belong to a writing group and a critique group, and both are vital to my sanity and productivity. In fact, as I write this response, I’m sitting in a library quiet study room with Larissa Theule (S3Q2, Summer 2009) and Catherine Linka (Winter 2006). We meet weekly to write together. I also belong to a critique group of Boston area writers that has kindly let me stay involved via Skype group chats. We meet when someone has finished an entire novel and we give it a global critique and love-fest. Their input has been lifesaving. My dearest and lifelong bosom buddy, Ginger Johnson (S3Q2, Summer 2009) always reads my manuscripts, bless her, and I treasure her input. My husband Phil is a brilliant reader. He reads my completed drafts, and occasionally I’ll let him see a partial. He’s my canary in the well – I know if he survives my early pages, I’m onto something.

What's your writing superpower?JulieBerry_2013_HiRezPublicityPhoto.jpg

Hm, I wish I had one! My husband would say that it is my ability to throw out what I’ve written and start over. A capacity for taking out the trash feels like a dubious power indeed. Also, I’ve seen a handful of bloggers say things like, “Julie Berry is unafraid to make her characters suffer.” Another curious accolade. Is sadism a superpower? I know what they mean, though, and I guess I’ll take it.  

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

A catastrophic mess. I’m sort of a Pigpen of domestic clutter. Unlike Pigpen, I’m not proud of it. But maybe that’s my superpower. Someone once asked me at an author event how I managed to write books with four kids. I told them that I was capable of functioning amid a level of mess and chaos that would drive many women smack out of their minds. It’s true. But I should really try harder to find the floor.

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

It isn’t swag, but I want make a live-action cinematic trailer for this book. I think it screams for one. Who knows; perhaps I will.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

I worked with Cynthia Leitich Smith, Brent Hartinger, and Tim Wynne-Jones. (I transferred in from Simmons College, so I only needed three semesters.) I was incredibly lucky in each case. Cyn held me together as I came face to face with all my writing weaknesses, and rewrote the beginning of The Amaranth Enchantment five times, once per packet. The poor dear! Brent worked with me on my critical thesis, which was a transformative experience, and he helped me channel the momentum I’d been building with Cyn into a completed draft of Amaranth. He was wonderfully encouraging and kind. With Tim’s wisdom and affection buoying me up, I wrote All the Truth That’s in Me and the first draft of The Rat Brain Fiasco. They launched me. I love them all.

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

Oh, where to begin? The dances! The nervous excitement of waiting to learn who my instructor would be. The sleepless jitters the night before giving my graduating lecture, nearly rewriting the entire thing. Goofing around and bonding with others in the dorms. NECI breakfasts and cookies – I’m easy to please. J Tromping through the snow. Finding kindred spirits.

One of my best VCFA memories now is that experience I’ve had, more than once, of helping an applicant who is considering VCFA overcome their hesitation and take the plunge, and then hearing afterwards how blissfully happy they are with that choice, and how grateful they are for the nudge. Advice is a tricky business, fraught with peril, but this one’s a slam-dunk, and it’s wonderful to see the glow in their eyes afterwards.

What do you wish you had known before you first set foot on the VCFA campus?

I suspect that the thing I wish I’d known was knowledge that I could only learn from submitting to the VCFA experience, a perspective I could only earn with time. I needed to learn to surrender my ambitions, my competitive urges, my eagerness to prove myself or find validation in writing achievement. I needed to let myself be a beginner and a student. I needed to give myself full, genuine permission to fail, and I needed the courage to allow others to see me fail. I needed to learn how to keep on going when no progress seemed evident, and I needed to let myself be taught and inspired by everyone around me – not just the most popular instructors, but every student. In other words, I needed to get out of my own way and patiently do the work, without saddling it with expectations. It was only when I began to learn to do that that my writing began to reach toward progress.

Can you tell us about your graduating class?

I entered VCFA with the Cliffhangers (Summer 2008) but because I transferred in, I graduated before them, with the Dedications  (Winter 2008). So I guess I’m a Cliffcation. Ooh, no, a Dedhanger. 

Sleep-deprived, wild-haired, rarely tidy, usually tardy, constantly grazing, generally fretting, and increasingly forgetful, Julie Berry writes teens and raises books.  She is the author of many books including The Amaranth Enchantment, Secondhand Charm, All the Truth That’s In Me, The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, and the Splurch Academy for Disruptive Boys series.

 Visit Julie online at

Topics: young adult, Julie Berry, 2016 release, historical fiction, Viking Children's

Shawn K. Stout and A TINY PIECE OF SKY

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Jan 19, 2016 @ 09:01 AM

We're sending up huge hoorays for A Tiny Piece of Sky, a new middle grade novel from Shawn K. Stout (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House)!



The summer story of three sisters, one restaurant, and a (possible) German spy.

World War II is coming in Europe. At least that’s what Frankie Baum heard on the radio. But from her small town in Maryland, in the wilting summer heat of 1939, the war is a world away.

Besides, there are too many other things to think about: first that Frankie’s father up and bought a restaurant without telling anyone and now she has to help in the kitchen, peeling potatoes and washing dishes, when she’d rather be racing to Wexler’s Five and Dime on her skates. Plus her favorite sister, Joanie Baloney, is away for the summer and hasn’t been answering any of Frankie’s letters.

But when some people in town start accusing her father of being a German spy, all of a sudden the war arrives at Frankie’s feet and she can think of nothing else.

Could the rumors be true? Frankie has to do some spying of her own to try to figure out her father’s secrets and clear his good name. What she discovers about him surprises everyone, but is nothing compared to what she discovers about the world.

In a heartfelt, charming, and insightful novel that is based on true events, Shawn K. Stout weaves a story about family secrets, intolerance, and coming of age that will keep readers guessing until the end.

Welcome, Shawn! So, tell us . . .

Restaurant_Stout-1.jpgWhat was the spark that ignited this book?

A few years after my grandmother died, we were cleaning out her apartment and found letters from 1939 addressed to my grandfather Albert A. Beck, who had died many years before. These letters were from local civic organizations, which voiced their support for my grandfather and the restaurant he owned, denouncing the accusations that he was a German spy. I knew about the rumors of espionage and the boycott of his restaurant—I grew up hearing stories about Beck’s Tavern and Restaurant in Menu_Stout.jpgHagerstown, Maryland, about my German-American grandfather, and about the anti-German hysteria in post-WWI America.

I held onto these letters, knowing that someday I would use them as an entre’ into my grandparents’ story, and the story of their three daughters. The letters were, in fact, the spark, which eventually grew into a middle grade narrative of the three sisters’ attempt to discover the truth about their father, and while doing so seeing for the first time the intolerance and racism of their world.

Incredible. And thank you for sharing these wonderful pictures as well.

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

In my house silence is an impossibility. That being said, each book is different. Although generally I write without music or intentional background noise, for A Tiny Piece of Sky, I was listening to a lot of blues from the 1920s and 1930s, like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson.

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

I think the best advice I’ve received is to make a mess out of my first draft, to just write and get the story down, no matter how ugly it is, no matter how much it makes me cringe. I still struggle with this quite a bit and have to force myself just to keep going and to stop going back to fix things before I have an understanding of what the story is about. And I really never know what the story is about until I’ve written it out, mess and all.


What’s your writing superpower?

I can make characters do things I wish I were brave enough to do myself.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

My advisors were Kathi Appelt, Jane Kurtz, Uma Krishnaswami, and Tim Wynne-Jones. (I tear up just thinking about how wonderful they are.)

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Apply today. Beyond that, I would figure out a way to collect all of the wisdom and inspiration that comes with each residency and stuff it inside a bottle so that you can pull out the stopper whenever you need to and take a whiff.

Excellent advice! Thank you so much for stopping by. Welcome, A Tiny Piece of Sky!

SKS_portrait.jpgShawn K. Stout is the author of several books for children, including the critically-acclaimed Penelope Crumb middle grade series. Her new novel, A Tiny Piece of Sky, a summer story of three sisters, one restaurant, and a (possible) German spy, is out now.

Visit her at

Shawn also stopped by The Launchpad to talk about Penelope Crumb is Mad at the Moon. Read it here!


Topics: Shawn K. Stout, Philomel/Penguin, Philomel, Penguin Random House, middle grade, 2016 release, historical fiction

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