the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog


Posted by Tami Brown on Tue, Jun 28, 2016 @ 06:06 AM

We're welcoming Jenn Bishop, a member 2014's M.A.G.I.C. I.F.s  class to the LaunchPad today! Jenn is also a  graduate of the University of Chicago, where she studied English. Along with her husband and cat, Jenn lives just outside of Boston, where she roots for the Red Sox. The Distance To Home is her first novel.

cover.pngLast summer, Quinnen was the star pitcher of her baseball team, the Panthers. They were headed for the championship, and her loudest supporter at every game was her best friend and older sister, Haley.
This summer, everything is different. Haley’s death, at the end of last summer, has left Quinnen and her parents reeling. Without Haley in the stands, Quinnen doesn’t want to play baseball. It seems like nothing can fill the Haley-sized hole in her world. The one glimmer of happiness comes from the Bandits, the local minor-league baseball team. For the first time, Quinnen and her family are hosting one of the players for the season. Without Haley, Quinnen’s not sure it will be any fun, but soon she befriends a few players. With their help, can she make peace with the past and return to the pitcher’s mound?

Welcome, Jenn! 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?

While plenty of writers I know can write in coffee shops or with friends, for me the act of writing is a solitary pursuit. But when I'm not actually writing, I find it completely rejuvenating to spend time with other writers. I belong to a critique group with several of my VCFA classmates, where we take turns each month sharing sections of our work and videochatting (since we're spread across the country). Once I have a full manuscript that I've taken as far as I can by myself, I'd be lost without my critique buddies. (It's truly amazing what other people can notice in your work that you'd never see; and vice versa!) And let's not forget the all-important wisdom of the hive mind. I've been known to call out to Facebook friends from time to time with all kinds of small queries. Writing a book definitely takes a village! (And a lot of Twitter breaks.)


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

The biggest revision The Distance To Home underwent was with my agent, Katie Grimm. When I queried the book, I had some chapters set in the past (leading up to Haley's death), but it wasn't half of the book. Katie saw the potential in this construct, spurring two large scale revisions as I worked to incorporate essentially two full stories into one book (the arc of last summer, and the arc of this summer). While I loved the potential she saw in the project, it also meant I had to fully realize last summer -- i.e. back to the drawing board! Making sure the alternating pieces worked perfectly was a little like constructing a puzzle, and just as satisfying when it finally locked into place.

Who was your favorite character to write and why?

Hector holds such a dear spot in my heart. I'm so inspired by baseball, and in particular, players that leave their home countries and families behind to follow their dreams. Much of my research for this book is hidden beneath the surface, but I spent a lot of time thinking about Hector and his back story, even though much of it never made it into the final book on the page. Maybe it was my excuse to read a bunch of non-fiction about minor league baseball life!

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

On the wall in my office is a shabby chic chalkboard left over from my wedding, which I refresh with inspiring writing quotes, depending on what project I'm working on at the moment -- and in particular, what stage of writing it's in. Since I'm drafting right now, I need a reminder to see the big picture and trust the process. 


What's your writing superpower?

I think it's that I don't get in my own way. I refuse to believe in writer's block and feel very comfortable plowing through messy first drafts. You can't work on making something better if it doesn't exist, so might as well make a big mess on the page, right? 

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

I worked with Elizabeth Partridge, Rita Williams-Garcia, Sarah Ellis, and A.S. King. I spent half of my time at VCFA working on two middle grade projects and the other half on a young adult novel, and all of them taught me so much. I'm so grateful for their mentorship and inspired by their careers.
What is your favorite VCFA memory?
There's so many to choose from! What will stick with me most, though, were the workshops my first summer. Mark Karlins and Louise Hawes were the workshop advisors, and when it was your day to be workshopped, you got to decide if you wanted to be workshopped outdoors or inside. There's a special creative energy to being outdoors -- at least, it's a place where I feel inspired. As a kid, any time a teacher took you outside for class was a good day, and that's how that summer workshop felt. Like the kindest teachers, taking the class outdoors. I had so many aha moments in workshop over my two years at VCFA, but that workshop was a time when I felt like I really started to understand what the reader needed from a story, and what I'd need to do to achieve that experience.
Thanks for dropping by, Jenn!  The Distance To Home is published by Alfred A. Knopf / Random House and it's available in bookstores everywhere. You can learn more about Jenn at her website


Topics: Knopf Books for Young Readers, middle grade, 2016 release, Jenn Bishop


Posted by Adi Rule on Sat, May 09, 2015 @ 11:05 AM

We're not at all shy about our love for Alicia Potter's new picture book, Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats, illustrated by Birgitta Sif, coming on May 12, 2015 from Knopf!

[UPDATE!] We're not the only ones who think this book is the cream of the crop. Miss Hazeltine has been named to the Summer 2015 Top Ten Kids' Indie Next List by the American Booksellers Association! Purr purr purr!


What if you were shy?

What if you were a cat?

There would be a place where you belong: Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats.

Miss Hazeltine has plenty of kitty company, and she gives her beloved scaredy-cats lessons in everything from Bird Basics to How Not to Fear the Broom.

The most timid of all is Crumb. He cowers in a corner. Miss Hazeltine doesn’t mind. But when she gets in trouble and only Crumb knows where she is, will he find his inner courage and lead a daring rescue?

Filled with adorable illustrations, Miss Hazeltine’s Home for Shy and Fearful Cats is a tale with many tails … and a story that’s perfect for shy and fearful children, as it both helps them face scary situations and accepts them just as they are.


Welcome, Alicia. Crumb's (the kitten main character) story rings so true to those of us who have loved shy cats (and people). What was the spark that ignited this book?

For several years, I volunteered in the foster program at an animal shelter here in Boston. Many of the kittens I fostered were feral, and it was my job to transform them from petrified, hissing balls of fluff to socialized, adoptable balls of fluff. I had kittens who stayed under the bed for two weeks, kittens who’d run and hide whenever I moved, and one who growled the entire time he was eating. But their metamorphosis was so gratifying and poignant to me. There were many times when I thought a cat wasn’t going to come around and then, one day, it’s purring and sleeping on my head.

Some kittens, though, never got to this point. After a month, it was clear that they weren’t ever going to sit on your lap or love being picked up. They were friendly but preferred to just relax nearby. I started to call them “Next-To-You Cats,” because, given their inherent shyness, this was how they expressed their trust and affection – and it was enough. All of them went on to find homes.

And as someone who was an extremely shy child, I really identified with the idea that shyness isn’t something that you need to get over in order make a contribution or be loved. My hope is that Miss Hazeltine honors these cats and these kids.


Who was your favorite character to write and why?

The cats. They demanded sharp, lively kitty verbs. And it was an interesting challenge to try to find the emotional overlap between cats and children. I wanted the cats, especially Crumb, to be true to feline behavior but also double as the point of identification for the reader. So their fears reflect some that I had as a child — I hated loud noises, hid from people I didn’t know well, and took a while to warm up to new situations.


Birgitta Sif's pictures have so much personality! What was it like to see the illustrations for the book come together?

Exciting! And surprising. During the writing process, I sometimes envisioned Miss Hazeltine as this wiry old woman, sort of the stereotypical cat lady. But I love that Birgitta goes the more unexpected route and depicts her as this young hipster in high tops. And the details in the illustrations add so much to the story. My favorite is the framed photo of the man on the chest of drawers. Who is he? On a school visit recently, I pointed him out to first-graders and asked if they thought Miss Hazeltine had a boyfriend and they all just went, “Ewww.”

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Tell us about your writing community and this book.

I talked about my incredibly helpful and supportive writing community in my last visit to the Launch Pad, but I wanted to give a shout-out to three VCFA alums who read a draft of Miss Hazeltine as part of a VCFA online picture book critique group. A big thank-you to Gretchen Géser, Barbara Santucci, and Dianne White! I was having some doubts about the manuscript at the time, and they gave me the confidence to stand by it.


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

I suspect that I know more about “sea lettuce” than the average person.


What is your favorite VCFA memory?

The overall feeling of “These are my people.” That I didn’t have to explain to anyone how I was able to write children’s stories without having children, or answer my all-time favorite tooth-gritters: “How can someone review a picture book? What is there to review? (Really.) From day one, the program was all about the writing, and how to make it better alongside people who deeply valued this goal. That these very same people also deeply valued dancing to Madonna in Noble Hall was almost too good to be true.


There are a lot of Triple Threats at VCFA -- Write-Critique-Boogie! :)

Thanks so much for stopping by, Alicia. We're all purrs about Miss Hazeltine (and feel free to send more kitten pictures anytime)!

Alicia Potter also is the author of Jubilee!: One Man’s Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace, illustrated by Matt Tavares, recipient of the Maine Library Association’s 2014 Lupine Award Picture Book Honor; Mrs. Harkness and the Panda, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, winner of the Cybils Best Nonfiction Picture Book 2012; and Fritz Danced the Fandango, illustrated by Ethan Long. 

Visit Alicia online at

Topics: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2015 release, picture book, Alicia Potter, Birgitta Sif

Hawaii Loves VCFA!

Posted by Adi Rule on Mon, Jun 09, 2014 @ 14:06 PM

The nominees for the 2015 Nene Awards are in, and we're thrilled to see some familiar names on the list. The Nene is Hawaii's official state children's book award, and the nominated books are read and voted on by grades 4-6 statewide. How cool is that?

Huge Launchpad congratulations to all the wonderful nominees, with a special shout-out to the following VCFA faculty members and alums:

trueblue  littledoglost  YouWillCallMeDroglarasgift  stealingair

Kathi Appelt and The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp (Atheneum Books for Young Readers 2013).

Marion Dane Bauer and Little Dog, Lost (Atheneum Books for Young Readers 2012).

Sue Cowing and You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda Books 2011). (Sue is an alum of VCFA's fantastic MFA in Writing program and is a wonderful advocate of children's lit in Hawaii and beyond!)

Annemarie O'Brien and Lara's Gift (Knopf Books for Young Readers 2013).

Trent Reedy and Stealing Air (Arthur A. Levine Books 2012).

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Of course, the biggest winners are the kids of Hawaii who get to read all these great books!

Topics: Marion Dane Bauer, 2011 release, Knopf Books for Young Readers, Carolrhoda Books, Kathi Appelt, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Trent Reedy, middle grade, 2013 release, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012 release, Sue Cowing, congratulations, Annemarie O'Brien

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