the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

Laura Atkins and FRED KOREMATSU SPEAKS UP!

Posted by Adi Rule on Mon, Apr 24, 2017 @ 06:04 AM

Today we're talking to Laura Atkins about Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, the first book in the new Fighting for Justice series, written with Stan Yogi and illustrated by Yutaka Houlette, out now from Heyday Books!

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Fred Korematsu liked listening to music on the radio, playing tennis, and hanging around with his friends—just like lots of other Americans. But everything changed when the United States went to war with Japan in 1941 and the government forced all people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes on the West Coast and move to distant prison camps. This included Fred, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Japan many years before. But Fred refused to go. He knew that what the government was doing was unfair. And when he got put in jail for resisting, he knew he couldn’t give up.

Inspired by the award-winning book for adults Wherever There’s a Fight, the Fighting for Justice series introduces young readers to real-life heroes and heroines of social progress. The story of Fred Korematsu’s fight against discrimination explores the life of one courageous person who made the United States a fairer place for all Americans, and it encourages all of us to speak up for justice.

Welcome, Laura! How did this book come together?

The process of coming to being for this book was unconventional. I was invited to work with my co-author Stan Yogi after he’d already been drafting the book, and was brought in because of my children’s book background. I’ve worked in editorial for over 20 years (Children’s Book Press, Orchard Books, Lee & Low Books and freelance), and then with my spangly MFA from VCFA, brought a new writing string on my bow. Stan had co-written a book for adults called Wherever There’s a Fight - a history of the fight for civil liberties in California. He had amazing historical background, including having worked at the ACLU for 14 years. So he had enormous knowledge and a personal connection to Fred Korematsu’s story. Stan’s family was also incarcerated during WWII, and he became an activist himself.

Laura-Yutaka-Molly-Stan.jpgL-R: Illustrator Yutaka Houlette, Laura Atkins, editor Molly Woodward, and co-writer Stan Yogi

I ended up proposing the format, which includes a biography in free verse, and what we call “insets,” which extend the themes of the book. There were a couple of motivations here. We worked with various advisors, and one librarian said that while the book was going to be aimed at a fourth grade audience, it would be great if we could write it below a 4th grade reading level, because so many of her students read below level. That was part of the inspiration for the biography in free verse. We figured readers of many ages could engage with that, and made sure to keep the biography portion very immediate and emotionally engaging. We wanted kids to think: How would I feel in the same situation?

With the insets we used lots of images, knowing that kids love to engage visually. And in this space we could give explanations. For instance, we talk about historical discrimination against many immigrant groups including the Japanese, or we introduce the ACLU, or we describe Fred Korematsu’s legal battle up to the Supreme Court. We were also able to show photos of the incarceration camps, and unpick the use of images and words for propaganda, asking young readers to look and read critically.

Prospect_Sierra_middle_school.jpgWe also wanted the book, and the Fighting for Justice series as a whole, to engage young readers to think about how they might also stand or speak up. So we include questions for them in their own lives, and end the book with the “activist spread,” which includes suggestions for way kids can get involved in speaking up for what they believe in, and provide links and resources.

We worked closely with Karen Korematsu, Fred Korematsu’s daughter, so the book would reflect her father in a way that felt right to her. And we had an amazing editor, Molly Woodward, who was really the third leg in this table (fourth, if you include Yutaka, the illustrator).

It was amazing to work in such a collaborative way. I took the lead in writing the poetic biography, while Stan took the lead on the insets. And Molly was there advising on all of it, including helping to write definitions and finding images we could use. It was a “takes a village book,” which I love, because the process really mirrored the message and spirit of the book. We are stronger together, and need each other to build a more just world.

Stan and I have been speaking to young people since the book released on January 30th, or Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution (in California and a few other states). We’ve reached almost 3,000 kids, mainly from 4-8th grade. And we’ve been inspired to see how motivated young people already are to speak up, especially in these challenging times. In Davis, when visiting the Fred Korematsu Elementary School, three girls, Jana, Mona and Batool, told us proudly how they raised money to repair their mosque after it had been vandalized. They were clearly supported by their teacher and community, and felt inspired to share how they had already spoken up.

17022186_10155816341650830_3382624422802570045_n (3).jpgJana, Mona, and Batool at Fred Korematsu Elementary School

We post on our Facebook page when we visit schools or are speaking in other places, in case people want to follow: http://www.facebook.com/groups/1099825273412247/

What’s next in the series?

Stan decided to step back after finding that this book was so involved, and also learning that writing for children brings its own challenges. Heyday asked me if I would like to write the rest of the books in the series, but after seeking advice from my wonderful radical children’s book women group (Zetta Elliott, Maya Gonzalez and Janine Macbeth), I went back and proposed that I co-write each book with a different co-author whose lived experiences reflects the story being told. Luckily, the non-profit Berkeley-based publisher was open to this. So I’m writing the next book about Biddy Mason with poet Arisa White. We have a full draft of the poetic biography and are currently working on the insets, this time with Arisa taking the lead on the former while I take the lead on the latter.

Biddy Mason was an enslaved woman who won her freedom through the courts in Los Angeles, and then went on to earn money as a midwife and doctor’s assistant, buy property and become wealthy, and become a philanthropist and community activist. It’s an exciting story, and brings its own range of new challenges. I’ll look forward to giving more details here when it comes out in the fall of 2018.

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We can't wait! Who were your advisors at VCFA?

I had a great array of advisors, and they all had a hand in the creation of this book, but in different ways.

Betsy Partridge helped me find my way deep into non-fiction, and she helped me to brainstorm the writing of this particular book. When I talked through the story with her, she suggested that it should start with Fred Korematsu trying to get his haircut, and being turned away because he was Japanese American. She said that all kids will relate to getting a haircut. It was a great idea! And I’m lucky that she’s based in Berkeley so I get to see her, including at a bookstore event where she sat next to the son of one of Fred Korematsu’s lawyers. Also, Betsy’s godmother Dorothea Lange took very important pictures of the WWI Japanese American incarceration, so she has her own connection to the book.

Louise Hawes helped me to explore my creative voice, especially through meditation and journalling to find character. While I didn’t work on this particular story with her, I did creativity develop and extend non-fiction projects about an historical botanist who I’m still desperate to write and publish about. Louise gave me great tools for dream-storming and playing with my craft.

Mary Quattlebaum gave me enormous help with my critical work (thesis semester), but also editorially. I dove into poetry with Mary, and that experienced definitely informed the writing of the free verse biography. I wouldn’t have had the confidence (which I still barely have) to attempt poetry without her.

Jane Kurtz was my wonderful creative thesis advisor, and we did work directly together on the Fred Korematsu book. She always had the perfect words of encouragement, and also questions to push me to dig deeper. Jane will talk about the life, the universe and everything, and our friendship and work together expanded my world. She’s been an amazing advocate and friend.

I feel so lucky to have had all of these advisors. My work, and my life, wouldn’t have been the same without them. Being at VCFA helped me believe in myself as an author as well as an editor, and gave me the confidence to take this next step. It was life-changing and worth every moment and every penny (even if I will be paying back those pennies for many years to come). I am so grateful for my time there.

Thank you so much for chatting, Laura. Welcome to the world, Fred Korematsu Speaks Up! And here's looking forward to more great books in this series and more young activists!

Laura Atkins is a member of the Inkredibles (January 2017). Laura is an author, teacher, and children’s book editor who worked at Children’s Book Press, Orchard Books, and Lee & Low Books. With an MA in Children’s Literature and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, she co-wrote Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, and is the author of the light-hearted picture book, Sled Dog Dachshund. Passionate about diversity and equity in children’s books, Laura is based in Berkeley, California.

Visit Laura online at www.lauraatkins.com.

For more information about Fred Korematsu Speaks Up and the Fighting for Justice series, visit the series website, the publisher's Fred Korematsu Speaks Up page, and the series/book Facebook page. You can also check out the Facebook page for activist children's books and their creators.

Topics: middle grade, biography, 2017 release, Laura Atkins, Heyday Books, middle grade biography, Yutaka Houlette, Stan Yogi

Lisa Doan and THE ALARMING CAREER OF SIR RICHARD BLACKSTONE!

Posted by Adi Rule on Fri, Feb 17, 2017 @ 12:02 PM

Are you ready for another alarmingly great middle grade novel from Lisa Doan? I have good news -- The Alarming Career of Sir Richard Blackstone is out now from Sky Pony Press! Even more good news -- Lisa has briefly switched hats here at The Launchpad, from interviewer to interviewee. Welcome, Lisa!

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Twelve-year-old Henry Hewitt has been living by his wits on the streets of London, dodging his parents, who are determined to sell him as an apprentice. Searching for a way out of the city, Henry lands a position in Hampshire as an assistant to Sir Richard Blackstone, an aristocratic scientist who performs unorthodox experiments in his country manor. The manor house is comfortable, and the cook is delighted to feed Henry as much as he can eat. Sir Richard is also kind, and Henry knows he has finally found a place where he belongs.

But everything changes when one of Sir Richard’s experiments accidently transforms a normal-sized tarantula into a colossal beast that escapes and roams the neighborhood. After a man goes missing and Sir Richard is accused of witchcraft, it is left to young Henry to find an antidote for the oversized arachnid. Things are not as they seem, and in saving Sir Richard from the gallows, Henry also unravels a mystery about his own identity.

Hi, Lisa! Why was the setting of Victorian England perfect for this story?

I’m a huge Dickens fan and go back to those books whenever I would like to be living in a different time. Now is a good example of that. Nobody ever worried about what Queen Vic would tweet out, though I suppose it would be amusing to imagine it. “Palace - WINNING! East India Company HUUUUGE LOSERS! SO SAD.”

But I digress. I had in my mind a story that would tip a hat to Oliver Twist and have a fairy-tailish rags to riches element. Then, of course, it’s ever so much easier to have a giant tarantula roaming the neighborhood when nobody has a cell phone camera. That said, I actually feel that this story may take place slightly earlier, in the Georgian era, though I only reference a queen and not a king and I never say her name.

What are the differences in how you approach a standalone novel as opposed to a series?

I suppose that would be creating the large problem that will hang over all of the books in the series and not get resolved until the end of the last book.  That’s very difficult if you don’t know it’s going to be a series or you do know but don’t know how many books. The first book in the Berenson Schemes was written as a standalone so when it was bought as a series I rewrote it to wrap up the local plot but leave the overarching plot/internal conflict hanging. Then I created an arc of the internal conflict over the three books instead of just the one. It allowed me to approach it as both a series and a trilogy of sorts. I was lucky in that I knew upfront that it would be three books.  Had I not known, I would have had to reinstate the internal conflict in some way when I got to book two.

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Any craft advice for writers who want to write funny?

I’m so glad you asked! I could go on and on with tips and tricks, but will stick to the idea that everybody can write humor. So many writers say things like, “I’m just not funny.” Well, maybe not yet, but the only people who have no ability to be funny are people who never laugh. (And also, Sigmund Freud. Maybe he was a total jokester in his personal life, but his humor theory is dreadful.) I have my own theory about why writers end up believing they aren’t funny. It’s because they don’t understand how a humor piece develops. When a writer not accustomed to writing humor tries to write something funny, it ends up being a milquetoast haha moment. Then the writer concludes they don’t have the skill. The very same milquetoast haha moments happen to writers who specialize in humor. The difference is, they know it.

So why does that first effort end up being a milquetoast haha moment? Because that’s how our brains operate. Our brains are efficient and work hard to associate a new thing with a known thing. The writer ends up writing a pattern the brain remembers that is closest to what the writer was going for. That’s why, as a reader, we’ve all had the experience of reading something and maybe smiling a little and recognizing, “Oh, that’s humor,” but we don’t laugh out loud. That’s the first pass that never got changed or refined. Even though the scene might use different words or a different structure than you’ve seen before, it’s the same joke you’ve read a hundred times.

If you are attempting humor, go ahead and write that milquetoast haha moment. Just recognize that it is only a place holder, a sticky note on the skeleton of your manuscript. You will go back and refine and change and rearrange. Once you have the sticky note on the skeleton, you can tinker and that’s where funny lives, in the tinkering. Writers of drama do this very same thing, it’s called a crappy first draft, but I do think this process gets overlooked in humor because humor feels light, and light feels easy. Light is not the same as lightweight!

One other thing I’ll say about writing humor – it takes nerve and daring. When you tell your reader a joke, they know it. Even when they don’t laugh, they know you told it. In drama, you might get a little bit more leeway. Perhaps you meant for your reader to sob but they only feel saddish. They may not understand that your intent was sobbing. No such way to skate by in humor. On top of that, humor doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It is a science and an art and, most importantly, it’s vital and necessary. I would argue that it is especially necessary during this particular time in our history.  Don’t we have enough to cry about?

Hear, hear. I hope you've given lots more people out there the courage to write funny. We can do it, friends! Lisa, your writing and your presence is always a treat. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Lisa Doan is a proud member of two VCFA classes – the Dedications and the Cliffhangers. She is also the author of The Berenson Schemes series, the first book of which she wrote at Vermont. Should you happen to attend the Alumni mini-res this year or any other year – say hello! She, like the bad penny that she is, turns up every year.

Visit Lisa online at lisadoan.org, find her on Facebook (lisadoanauthor), and follow her on Twitter (@LisaADoan).

Topics: Lisa Doan, middle grade, Sky Pony Press, 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."

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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 www.lindaoatmanhigh.com

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

Carmela A. Martino and ROSA, SOLA!

Posted by Adi Rule on Wed, Oct 05, 2016 @ 13:10 PM

Today we're celebrating the paperback release of Carmela A. Martino's middle grade novel, Rosa, Sola!

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“Rosa didn't know which she hated more—being lonely or being different. One thing she did know—she wanted a baby brother . . . one just like Antonio.”



Rosa Bernardi, an only child living with her Italian immigrant parents in 1960s Chicago, often feels alone, or sola, as her parents would say. But after she holds her best friend AnnaMaria’s baby brother for the first time, Rosa is sure that if she prays hard enough, God will send her a brother of her own. When Rosa’s prayers for a sibling are answered, she is overjoyed—until tragedy strikes. Rosa is left feeling more sola than ever, and wondering if her broken family will ever be whole again.

Welcome, Carmela! So, tell us . . .

What was the spark that ignited this book?

Interestingly, I never planned to write Rosa, Sola. And I never would have if I hadn't gone to Vermont College (which is what VCFA was called back then). The novel grew out of an assignment suggested by my first-semester advisor, Marion Dane Bauer, when I was having difficulty getting my characters’ feelings to come across on the page. Marion asked me to write a short story about an event from my childhood that still aroused emotion in me. It could be any emotion, so long as it was something I could still feel in my gut. I chose to write about fear—the fear I’d experienced at age ten, when my mother nearly died in childbirth.

After several drafts, the story evolved into “Rosa’s Prayer,” a short story about losing and regaining faith. It focused on only a few weeks in the life of Rosa Bernardi, an Italian-American girl growing up as an only child in 1960s Chicago. (There are many similarities between Rosa's life and my own childhood, but I’m not an only child.) Marian was pleased with the piece and encouraged me to submit it for critique at the next residency workshop. Meanwhile, I decided that instead of returning to the middle-grade novel I’d been struggling with, I’d write a collection of short stories for my creative thesis.

At the residency, my workshop group provided terrific feedback for improving “Rosa’s Prayer.” They also encouraged me to expand the story into a novel—they wanted to know what happened to the fictional family I had created. Did they ever recover from their loss? How were their relationships affected by it? Would Rosa always be an only child—sola? Their enthusiasm and curiosity for Rosa’s story inspired my own. I spent the next year or so of the program expanding the short story into a novel that was eventually called Rosa, Sola.

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

I had a completed draft of Rosa, Sola by the end of my third semester. At that point, my advisor was willing to sign-off on it as my thesis, but she recommended I wait and have my fourth-semester advisor critique it first. That advisor, Amy Ehrlich, provided wonderfully insightful feedback, especially regarding some weaknesses in the plot. However, one of her suggestions was rather daunting: she wanted me to rewrite the entire 125-page manuscript from third-person limited point of view to first-person. I resisted the idea, in part because I liked it in third person, and in part because of all the work such a change would require. In the end, though, I gave in and did the rewrite. At the same time, I revised the plot issues. When I was done, Amy loved the first-person voice of the new draft. She signed off on that version as my official thesis.

There was only one problem—I still preferred the voice in the earlier, third-person draft. The first-person narration didn't ring true to me; it felt too mature and thoughtful to come from an average ten-year-old struggling with complex emotions. After graduation, I decided to go back to third-person limited viewpoint before trying to sell the manuscript. Of course, since I'd changed the story's plot in between, I couldn't just go back to the earlier draft (which I had saved on my computer). I had to do another FULL rewrite. Knowing how much work that would take, I procrastinated for a long time. However, I eventually bit the bullet and did the rewrite. To my surprise, the revised third-person draft was MUCH better than my earlier third-person version, and it wasn't just because of the plot changes. The process of rewriting the story in first person had given me a better understanding of my main character, and that new understanding now made the third-person version much richer.

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?

I didn’t have an agent, but this was back around 2001-2002, when you didn’t need an agent. I submitted the manuscript to several editors, including one at Candlewick Press that Amy, my fourth-semester advisor, had recommended. After receiving a couple of rejections, I sent follow-up emails to the Candlewick editor and a Dutton editor who had requested the manuscript after critiquing the opening for an SCBWI conference. The Candlewick editor replied fairly quickly, saying she loved the manuscript and had “cried buckets” while reading it. Her email made ME cry! But when she called to make the offer, she mentioned wanting some revisions. My first thought was “Oh, no, she’s going to ask me to change it back to first person!” I didn’t say that, though. Instead, I carefully asked, “What kind of revisions?” She replied that it was “nothing major.” She basically wanted me to deepen the characters. Still, I was on pins and needles until her editorial letter arrived. To my great relief, there wasn’t one word about point of view!

My editor asked insightful questions that did indeed help me deepen my characters, especially Rosa’s parents and their neighbor, Mrs. Graziano. I worked diligently over several months to address all the issues my editor raised. I finally sent off the revised manuscript and waited. When the editor called one day, I assumed it was to discuss my revisions. Instead, it was to let me know that she was leaving Candlewick and was turning over my manuscript to another editor. I was devastated. I’d heard horror stories from some of my Vermont classmates about how their manuscripts were orphaned after the departure of their acquiring editors—the next editor never seemed to have the same enthusiasm. But I was one of the lucky ones. My new editor loved Rosa, Sola, too. She sent me a long, thoughtful editorial letter in response to the revision I’d submitted, along with numerous yellow sticky notes on the manuscript pages themselves. But now I faced a new problem: some of her comments contradicted those of my first editor. For example, she recommended I cut Mrs. Graziano from the novel altogether. Fortunately, the Vermont MFA program had given me experience in handling conflicting feedback. I kept Mrs. Graziano in, but I did edit her role in the novel. In the end, working with not one but two talented, dedicated, editors helped make the story much stronger.

By the way, the Dutton editor eventually contacted me to say that she, too, was interested in acquiring the manuscript. But by then I was already working with Candlewick.

Rosa, Sola was originally published traditionally, but you’ve self-published the new edition. Can you tell us why and what the process was like for you?

Although Rosa, Sola met with critical acclaim, including a starred review in Booklist, Candlewick never published a paperback edition. Part of that was probably my own fault—instead of writing another middle-grade novel, I focused on picture books for awhile. While those manuscripts got some encouraging rejections, they never found a publisher. I think if I’d written a follow-up novel for Candlewick instead, they probably would have done a paperback edition of Rosa, Sola.

When Rosa, Sola went out of print, I got the rights back and began looking for a company that would bring the book back into print for me. However, none of those I found seemed a good match. I eventually decided to self-publish. I asked a successfully self-published friend for advice and she recommended I read Susan Kaye Quinn’s Indie Author Survival Guide. Quinn’s book and website contain lots of great information and resources for indie authors, including links to recommended cover artists, formatters, editors, etc.

cabbage_white_butterfly.jpgOne of the first steps in re-publishing Rosa, Sola was to design a new cover. I didn’t have the rights to the original cover, and while that cover was beautiful, I always feared it was a bit off-putting for middle-grade readers. Since I’m not an artist myself, I started out by creating a Pinterest board of middle-grade covers I liked, with as many historical titles as I could find. I discovered I was especially drawn to covers that used silhouettes to portray their main characters. Then I made a list of themes and images from my novel that could work in a cover. One of those images was the cabbage butterfly that Rosa watches flutter up out of her Uncle Sal’s garden the day she learns her prayers have been answered. I then searched photo websites for visuals of girls with butterflies and found several where the girl was in silhouette. I sent my favorite of these images to my cover designer, Steven Novak, along with a description of the plot, character, setting, etc. Steven came up with a draft fairly quickly. We went back and forth a few times, with him revising based on my feedback, until he created the version that became the new cover. I loved it, but still wondered how young readers would respond. Fortunately, the week I received the proofs of the paperback edition I was teaching a writing camp for girls ages 11-14. I brought the proofs to camp and the ALL girls preferred the new cover to the original! In fact, one of the girls kept repeating “I LOVE that cover.” :)

The cover isn’t the only new thing about this edition. An author I know who self-published an ebook edition of her own out-of-print traditionally published novel gave me some great advice: she recommended I include new material so I could call the new Rosa, Sola a “revised” edition. I followed her advice and added a “Discussion Questions” section that I hope will be helpful to teachers.

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

Probably the weirdest thing I Googled for Rosa, Sola was “wringer washer.” I have a scene in the novel where Rosa helps her mother do laundry. There was an old wringer washer in the basement of my childhood home that my mother used for years, but I couldn’t remember exactly how it worked. I wanted to make sure I got the details right.

 

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

My advisors were Marion Dane Bauer, Jane Resh Thomas, Carolyn Coman, and Amy Ehrlich. I couldn’t have asked for better teachers and mentors. I still use some of their lessons in my own classes—always making sure to credit them, of course. I left the program amazed at how much my writing improved over the two years of the program.  

What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

We were called the Hive, because we were always “buzzing” about something. One of the first things that impressed me about my classmates was how well-published they were—I was one of only a few in my class of 14-15 who didn’t already have a published children’s book. (My credits were a few short stories and poems in children’s magazines, and nonfiction articles in magazines and newspapers for adults.) We seemed to “click” right from the start and we’re still a tight-knit group. After graduation, we formed a Yahoogroup to make it easy to stay in touch. Sixteen years later, that group still has 12 active members. We share industry buzz, celebrate sales, commiserate over rejections, offer manuscript feedback, and support one another through personal and professional challenges. When I decided to start the group blog TeachingAuthors.com back in 2009, I invited my fellow Bees to join me. Two of my classmates are still blogging with me, and one of our newest TeachingAuthors is another Vermont College graduate we met while in the program.

VC_Grads_2000_cropped.jpgWhat a talented bunch of Bees! (Check out the fuzzy friend perched on one Bee's shoulder!)

Thank you so much for stopping by, Carmela. And welcome back, Rosa Sola! (We love the new cover!)

Carmela Martino is a writing teacher, freelance writer, and author of short stories, poems and novels for children/teens. She is co-founder of TeachingAuthors.com, a blog by six children’s authors who are also writing teachers. Four members of the TeachingAuthors are graduates of the Vermont College MFA program.

Visit Carmela online at www.carmelamartino.com and at www.teachingauthors.com, and find her on Facebook!

 

Topics: Candlewick Press, middle grade, 2016 release, Carmela A. Martino, indie

Welcome to THE MAGE OF TRELIAN!

Posted by Adi Rule on Mon, Jul 04, 2016 @ 11:07 AM

We're shouting a magical welcome to the third book in Michelle Knudsen's Trelian middle grade series, The Mage of Trelian!

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The reviewers are just as excited as we are! 

  • "An exemplary middle-grade fantasy trilogy concludes with a blast." —Kirkus
  • "Begun in 2009 with The Dragon of Trelian, this excellent fantasy trilogy finally receives a worthy ending." —Booklist
  • "[A] Harry Potter meets Game of Thrones mash-up ... Recommended." —School Library Connections 
Visit Michelle online at http://www.michelleknudsen.com.

Topics: Candlewick Press, middle grade, Michelle Knudsen, 2016 release

Jenn Bishop and THE DISTANCE TO HOME!

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.)

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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. 

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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 http://www.jennbishop.com.

 

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

Carrie Jones and TIME STOPPERS

Posted by Tami Brown on Mon, May 16, 2016 @ 06:05 AM

Guess who's at the LaunchPad today... CARRIE JONES! Carrie is a on-call firefighter, internationally and New York Times bestselling author, and lover of all furry things. She lives in Maine. She's a Whirligig and graduated in January 2017. Carrie is the author of loads of novels for young people, including her brand new middle grade TIME STOPPERS.

9781619638624.jpgAnnie Nobody thought she was, well, nobody, living in a nowhere town where nothing goes her way. Day 1 at her newest foster home proves to be dreadful, too . . . and things get even worse when she's chased by something big and scary that definitely wants to eat her. 

Luckily for Annie, not everything is what it seems, and she gets swept up--literally--by a sassy dwarf on a hovercraft snowmobile and taken to Aurora, a hidden, magical town on the coast of Maine. There, she finds a new best friend in Jamie Hephastion Alexander--who thought he was a normal kid (but just might be a troll)--and Annie discovers that she's not exactly who she thought she was, either. She's a Time Stopper, meant to protect the enchanted.

Together, Annie and Jamie discover a whole new world of magic, power, and an incredible cast of creatures and characters. But where there's great power, there are also those who want to misuse it, and Aurora is under siege. It's up to the kids to protect their new home, even if it means diving headfirst into magical danger. - See more at:http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/time-stoppers-9781619638624/#sthash.jLzhsirD.dpuf

Welcome, Carrie! I love your YAs and picture books and I can't wait to see what you do for middle grade readers. Who was your favorite character to write and why?

There’s a secondary character (Please don’t tell her that.) in TIME STOPPERS that’s named Eva and she is really a kick-ass dwarf. She has mechanical skills. She only passes out when faced with trolls. She boasts. She’s tough. She’s totally not me. She was so much fun just because she would say things that overly polite Carrie Writer Person would never think of saying. 
 
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 have absolutely no writing community. It’s so sad. I know! I know! I’m supposed to be positive and I am! I promise! It’s just that I don’t actually have beta readers or a community of writers that I hang out with. I’m pretty far up the coast of Maine and I live on an island, so my community is really the people of my community. Firefighters. Grocery store cashiers. Random tourists in the summer. And it’s okay. I get pretty bored if I just live writing and I get pretty bored if I just talk about writing. Also, people on Facebook are super kind to me when I have what I call my AGH WRITER ANXIETY MOMENTS. These happen all the time.
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What's your writing superpower?
 
The ability to just say ‘yes,’ to pretty much anything. No matter how weird the idea, no matter how quirky the character, no matter how foolish it seems, I always say, ‘yes.’ I think of writing a first draft as improv, so I use the tools of improv to write. That way I never get writer’s block and never dismiss something that is a little bit… um… weird. 
 
 
Who were your advisors at VCFA?
 
I was lucky enough to have Tim Wynne-Jones, Sharon Darrow, Kathi Appelt and Rita Williams Garcia endure the torment that was having me as a student. But, I have to say it was Lisa Jahn Clough who calmed me down enough during my first residency to make me stay. She listened to all my excuses, about how I was from Maine and not used to people, about how everyone knew more about writing than I did, and she really convinced me to not quit. And then I had all these amazing workshop leaders who made my life so great - Louise Hawes, Brent Hartinger, Marion Dane Bauer. It was incredible. And I always think of Cynthia Leitich Smith as the advisor I never had. She inspires me constantly.
 
How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
 
It isn’t about how it affected it. It made it happen. I really was clueless when I went to Vermont. I was a newspaper editor and a bad (horrible) poet. Vermont taught me everything. I think the fact that I had a book under contract less than a year into the program speaks volumes about what Vermont can do. 
 
What do you wish you had known before you first set foot on the VCFA campus?
 
Vermont is special. It isn’t just school. It’s a community. It isn’t just a community. It’s a bunch of awesome, brilliant, loving people coming together to celebrate story and craft and you, the writer. If you let it, Vermont becomes family. I still call a classmate of mine ‘bro,’ and he calls me “Sister Carrie” all the time. 
Thank you so much, Team Launchpad! 
 
Thanks for dropping by Carrie!  TIME STOPPERS was published by Bloomsbury Books for Young Readers and it's available at bookstores everywhere. You can find out more about Carrie at www.carriejonesbooks.com Follow her on twitter at https://twitter.com/carriejonesbook or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/carriejonesbooks
 

Topics: middle grade, 2016 release, Bloomsbury Children's Books, Carrie Jones

Erin Hagar and AWESOME MINDS THE INVENTORS OF LEGO TOYS

Posted by Tami Brown on Tue, May 03, 2016 @ 07:05 AM

Today we welcome Erin Hagar, a member of the class of January '12--Keepers of the Dancing Stars- a sparkling writer and friend to celebrate the publication of her new non-fiction AWESOME MINDS THE INVENTORS OF LEGO TOYS . Erin Hagar lives in Baltimore, helps college faculty design their online courses, shuffles kids around to activities, and occasionally strings words together in a semi-coherent sequence.  Welcome, Erin!

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Everyone has played with LEGO® toys, but not many people know who's behind this awesome invention. This fun and engaging book tells the story of how a Danish carpenter and his family turned a desperate situation into the most popular toy in history. With full-color illustrations and lively text, and chock-full of interesting facts, Awesome Minds: The Inventors of LEGO® Toys is the perfect read for those with creative spirits and curious minds.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

The idea behind the "Awesome Minds" series is explore the history of objects that are so ingrained into our everyday lives that we take them for granted. It's hard to imagine a childhood without LEGO--but where did it all start?
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What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?

We knew early on that it would be impossible to include information about everything LEGO has done in a book this size. It's a massive operation, and we really wanted to focus on how the brick came to be.  But in my school visits and book talks I see that kids really love the Robotics and Mindstorms product lines, and we only briefly mentioned those.
 
What was it like watching the illustrations/cover come together?
 
Thrilling! Paige Garrison did such a great job bringing this story to life and making it so kid-friendly. She did some amazing technical work, but one of my favorite illustrations is the one that goes with the factoid about plastics. For environmental reasons, LEGO is trying to move away from using plastics in their products, and Paige created this illustration of a humanized LEGO brick with its arm around a smiling planet earth. It seems so simple, but it's really powerful--and cute! 
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Here's another factoid: If you took all the bricks produced in ONE YEAR, they'd wrap around the earth 18 times. Crazy!
 
What unusual swag do you wish you could make for this book? 
 
Apparently, you can 3-D print a picture of your face in the shape of a minifig head. An Erin Hagar minifig to give to kids at book events--that wouldn't be weird, right? 
 
Who were your advisors at VCFA?
 
I was so lucky to work with Laura Kvasnosky, Uma Krishnaswami, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Alan Cumyn. (Say those names five times fast, I dare ya!)
 
How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
 
I edit myself in a more layered way now--focusing on different things in each layer. I think of VCFA as a pressure cooker. I might have learned the same skills on my own, but it would have taken me much, much longer.  
 
What is your favorite VCFA memory?
 
Watching Rita get a standing ovation when ONE CRAZY SUMMER won the Newbery Honor and the CSK award during the January '11 residency. 
 
What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student? 
 
Don't think of this as a "two-year" program. It's a lifelong experience if you want it to be (and you'll want it to be!) 
 
Erin's new book AWESOME MINDS THE INVENTORS OF LEGO TOYS is in bookstores now. It was published by Duopress. You can learn more about Erin and her books at www.erinhagarbooks.com.

 

Topics: nonfiction, middle grade, Erin Hagar, Duopress, 2016 release

Ally Condie and SUMMERLOST

Posted by Tami Brown on Tue, Mar 29, 2016 @ 15:03 PM

We're celebrating the launch of current student Ally Condie's big new book SUMMERLOST.  

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Sometimes it takes a new friend to bring you home. It's the first real summer since the accident that killed Cedar's father and younger brother, Ben. Cedar and what’s left of her family are returning to the town of Iron Creek for the summer. They’re just settling into their new house when a boy named Leo, dressed in costume, rides by on his bike. Intrigued, Cedar follows him to the renowned Summerlost theatre festival. Soon, she not only has a new friend in Leo and a job working concessions at the festival, she finds herself surrounded by mystery. The mystery of the tragic, too-short life of the Hollywood actress who haunts the halls of Summerlost. And the mystery of the strange gifts that keep appearing for Cedar.

SUMMERLOST is a middle grade novel published by Dutton. It's available in bookstores everywhere today.

 

Topics: middle grade, 2016 release, Dutton, Ally Condie

Janet Fox and THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Mar 15, 2016 @ 09:03 AM

We're under the spell of Janet Fox's new middle grade novel The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, out now from Viking Children's. This book has already scooped up stars from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist, and is a Junior Library Guild selection and an Indies Next pick -- wow!

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Twelve-year-old Katherine Bateson believes in a logical explanation for everything. But even she can't make sense of the strange goings-on at Rookskill Castle, the drafty old Scottish castle-turned-school where she and her siblings have been sent to escape the London Blitz. What's making those mechanical shrieks at night? Why do the castle's walls seem to have a mind of their own? And who are the silent children who seem to haunt Rookskill's grounds?

Kat believes Lady Eleanor, who rules the castle, is harboring a Nazi spy. But when her classmates begin to vanish, one by one, Kat must face the truth about what the castle actually harbors - and what Lady Eleanor is - before it's too late.

Welcome, Janet! So tell us, what was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?

I always struggle with my middles, and this novel was no exception. My problems are usually tied up with getting my character arc true, and deepening her arc. In this case, I had an epiphany during a weekend-long intensive with Donald Maass, in which he asked us to select a scene, write down the five things that happen in the scene, and then turn the last one around to its opposite. At that moment everything I'd been struggling with came into focus as I realized that Kat, my main character, needed to find the antagonist "beautiful" and "perfect" - the epitome of what she wanted to be herself. When I realized what had to happen in that scene I was then able to go back through Kat's development and structure the story so that things she did and things that happened to her all culminated in this scene.

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

The book I pull out every time I need sentence-level inspiration is Kathi Appelt's The Underneath. I love the lyrical quality of her writing. It feels both magical and like a traditional fable. For plot, I'm a huge fan of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. It has a plot that races, yet feels true and emotional - which is probably the reason for its success. I keep a plot chart of that novel on my wall. And for character, I'll admit I'm a fan of JK Rowling's Harry Potter. She was able to take an 11-year-old boy through his entire adolescence, touching all the points of change in development through the lens of a magical world. And her secondary characters are just as rich and nuanced. It's clear she spent a lot of time developing all of her characters' backstories.

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

I have a trove of plot charts, both linear and free-association/bubble-style, of other books on my wall. I have several inspirational quotes posted, including my favorite from Tobin Anderson via Kathi: "Write what you think you can't." And I've begun to post, for whatever book I'm working on at the moment, a statement of the theme, boiled down to its simplest premise. Plus there are my magical weapons: my family pictures, my Vermont College and my agency mugs, things I've collected or that have come from family. These things keep me going. They have power.

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How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

It changed everything for me! First, I was no longer alone. I now have a tribe that speaks the same language, understands the same concerns. Second, I learned a TON. I was forced way outside my comfort zone, and then made to build a new one. I had a new vocabulary for what I was trying to do. And most importantly, I was encouraged to push myself and my writing, to try new things, to venture into realms I might never have thought to try. "Write what you think you can't."

What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

You are all my friends for life. Seriously - I've made friends for life. Plus, we had fun. And when we went through all the VCFA stages - beginner, middle, grad - we had each other's backs. We still do! I read every one of your books as they come out. (I love every one of your books!) I would relive that experience again and again if I could.

I heartily concur on all points! Kek kek kek! 

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Don't focus on one thing the entire four semesters. I worked on four different books, several short stories, and my critical thesis. The critical thesis has been the subject of several published articles (I'm still hoping to frame a craft book around it.) My creative thesis became my second published YA. One of my stories appeared in a regional anthology. Be prepared to learn. Be prepared to push. Say yes. Read more than you think you can. Know that you'll make life-long friends, but that you will also cry, more than once (mostly in a good way.) You'll be exhausted but exhilarated. You'll be miserable but elated. Apply yourself and you will have a career. 

Write what you think you can't.

Great advice, Janet. Thank you so much for visiting, and welcome to the world to The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle!

IMG_8226b.jpgJanet Fox is the author of four previous books: the middle grade non-fiction Get Organized Without Losing It, and three YA historical novels, Faithful, Forgiven, and Sirens. She graduated from VCFA in Summer 2010, a member of the Thunder Badgers.

Visit her online at www.janetsfox.com.

Topics: middle grade, Viking, 2016 release, Janet Fox, Viking Children's

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