the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

April Pulley Sayre and FULL OF FALL!

Posted by Adi Rule on Wed, Oct 25, 2017 @ 07:10 AM

Pour yourself a mug of cocoa and slip on your woolly socks. We're celebrating the release of April Pulley Sayre's latest picture book, Full of Fall (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster)!

Full of Fall.jpeg

So long summer, Fall is here . . .

Welcome, April Pulley Sayre!
What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
Fall is such a beautiful season that it was very hard to choose which photos to use. As always with these books, there were many photos I loved as a photographer but which did not serve the trajectory of the book and design. As with writing, in photo illustration you have to set aside your ego and do what is best for the book.
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What's your writing superpower?
My writing superpower is flexible thinking in terms of wordplay.  For some reason I’m unusually good at coming up with titles and poetic and alliterative language. I think it’s like a muscle, though, and improves with use. Despite my early signs of talent in this area, it also helps that I just goof around and have done this work for over twenty years.
What was it like watching the illustrations/cover come together?
I’ve now photo illustrated nine of my books with photos so I’m deeply involved in the illustrations from the start. It’s an exciting process and yet has an intense amount of struggle and stress at points, handling the competing demands of text and illustration. The advantage is that because I am responsible for both sides of the book, I can decide  to chuck words or illustrations at any point when the book is not flowing well. All this occurs without bothering another person. Only my writing ego or professional photographer ego is bruised. Still ouchy, though, to discard words and photos I love! But then, when you feel it all come together with better pacing, it is worth it.
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How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
Attending VCFA took me from being a very isolated full time writer to being more a member of the writing community. It connected me with colleagues who are still my friends to this day. They have supported me through many decisions and pathways both in the career and in life itself. VCFA is so valuable in support of career and quality of life as an artist/writer. VCFA stretches you in the best way possible.
What’s next in your career? 
Well, it’s been a wildly busy year in terms of book production for my 2019 photo books, Warbler Wave and Thank You, Earth. My husband and I traveled 5,500 miles to CA and back to photograph landmarks and wildflower bloom for these and other upcoming books.  And I’ve been stepping outside the usual with some books that mix nonfiction text with fiction illustration, such as my 2019 book Did You Burp: How to Ask Questions (Or Not). Between this work, and conference talk travel, this career keeps me on my toes.
Thanks so much for stopping by the Launchpad, April. Welcome to the world, Full of Fall!
Visit April Pulley Sayre online at and at her Simon & Schuster page.

Topics: nonfiction, picture book, Simon & Schuster, Beach Lane Books, 2017 release, April Pulley Sayre


Posted by Adi Rule on Fri, May 05, 2017 @ 06:05 AM

Today, we're powered up for Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, a new nonfiction picture book written by Laurie Wallmark and illustrated by Katy Wu (Sterling Children's Books)! Laurie's here to give us the scoop.

Grace cover 96dpi small.jpgMeet Grace Hopper: the women who revolutionized computer coding.

An ace inventor, groundbreaker, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she coined the term “computer bug” and developed the program that taught computers to recognize words and not just endless 0’s and 1’s. Grace Hopper tells the inspirational story of this brilliant woman who had a passion for science and math and the firm belief that new solutions to problems were not found by those who said, “We’ve always done it this way.”

Rule breaker. Chance taker. Troublemaker. Amazing Grace.

Welcome, Laurie! 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?

The road to publication with this book started with a critique at the NJ SCBWI Conference. Meredith Mundy read the book and wanted to take it to acquisitions. There was no time before the meeting to make changes, but luckily, the manuscript passed this next hurdle. Now it was time to do revisions to get it past Sterling’s publication board. They had never done a picture book biography before, so it was going to be a hard sell. My agents, Liza Fleissig and Ginger Harris of Liza Royce Agency, were thrilled to tell me the news that Sterling was going to publish Grace, and I was over the moon to hear it. After that, there were several more big revisions plus a few tweaks here and there before the manuscript was ready to go.

clocks.jpgWhat's your writing superpower?

My writing superpower is not a very useful one—I’m the Grammar Queen. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly helpful, but I’d rather my superpower be queen of the elusive voice that editors say they’re always looking for.

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

Grace Hopper kept a clock in her office with the numbers running counter-clockwise to remind herself to think outside the box. I created this backwards clock on buttons. These have been very popular at book festivals. My publisher gave out a swag I’ve never seen before. They had lens wipes made up with a picture of the book cover on them.

lens wipe and clock.jpgSuper cool swag!

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

My studies at VCFA had a major impact on my writing, but there’s one way in particular that I’ve never heard others mention. I write faster now. I think this is because I can more quickly eliminate ideas and approaches that won’t work. I’m still a slow writer, but I’ve advanced from a snail’s pace to a turtle’s.

Yes! Go Team Turtle!

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

My advisors were the great Mark Karlin (picture book semester), Bonnie Christensen, Sharon Darrow, and Louise Hawes.

Thanks for visiting, Laurie. Here's to thinking outside the box with Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code!

Award-winning author Laurie Wallmark’s debut picture book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (Creston Books, 2015), received four starred trade reviews (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal). When not writing, Laurie teaches computer science at Raritan Valley Community College.

Laurie is a member of the class of January 2016, The Inkredibles. Visit her online at her website,, and her blog,

Topics: nonfiction, picture book, picture book biography, Laurie Wallmark, 2017 release, Sterling Children's Books, Katy Wu


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!


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?
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! 
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


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


Posted by Tami Brown on Mon, Feb 22, 2016 @ 10:02 AM

Today we're welcoming Vicki Wittenstein, a January 2006 VCFA grad and the author of REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS: WHO DECIDES? 


Throughout history, men and women have always found ways to control reproduction. In some ancient societies, people turned to herbs or traditional rituals. Others turned to methods that are still used in the twenty-first century, such as abstinence, condoms, and abortions.

Legislating access to birth control, sex education, and abortion is also not new. In 1873 the US Congress made it illegal to mail “obscene, lewd, or lascivious materials”—including any object designed for contraception or to induce abortion. In some states in the 1900s, it was illegal for Americans to possess, sell, advertise, or even speak about methods of controlling pregnancy.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Margaret Sanger, Mary Ware Dennett, and others began to defy these laws and advocate for the legalization of birth control and for better women's reproductive healthcare. By 1960 doctors had developed the Pill, but it wasn't until 1972 that all US citizens had legal access to birth control. And in the landmark decision Roe v Wade (1973), the US Supreme Court ruled that women had a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.

Disputes over contraception, sex education, and abortion continue to roil the nation, leading to controversial legal and political rulings and occasionally violence. As society changes—and as new reproductive technologies expand the possibilities for controlling and initiating pregnancy—Americans will continue to debate reproductive rights for all.

Before becoming an author, VICKI ORANKSY WITTENSTEIN prosecuted criminal cases as an assistant district attorney with the Manhattan District Attorney's office. She earned an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in January 2006. Vicki’s first book, Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths, won the 2011 Science Communication Award from the American Institute of Physics. Her book For the Good of Mankind? The Shameful History of Human Medical Experimentation was a Junior Library Guild selection.


Welcome, Vicki! profile.jpg

What was the spark that ignited this book?

The spark that fired me up to write this book was the topic. I was passionate about getting the word out to teens about the importance of reproductive rights. Many people, including adults, rely on the quick sound bites and video clips that the media projects over the Internet, such as rallies by pro-choice and pro-life advocates and the latest legal challenges to abortion. For many young adults, though, this news is heard without an historical context. For thousands of years—from ancient civilizations, through Colonial America, the development of the Pill, the legalization of contraception and abortion, and the Brave New World of reproductive technologies—men and women have always found ways to control reproduction. And although we constantly hear about the issues surrounding abortion, reproductive rights involve a whole panoply of rights, including the rights to contraception, prenatal, delivery and maternal health care, cancer screenings, and the like. Today’s teens are the next generation of parents. They are the ones who will have to live by the laws our legislators, courts, and president enact today. We can’t expect them to navigate through these controversial issues, understand what’s at stake with the hundreds of new laws that limit access to contraception and abortion, and form their own opinions unless we provide a roadmap of the history. Given the political campaigns for president and the opportunity to appoint a new Supreme Court justice, I hope the book ignites lots of classroom discussions and debates.

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

To avoid the hot-button reaction so many people have to these issues, I decided to stick to the facts as much as possible—and to let readers form their own opinions. So wherever possible, I cut out or revised the manuscript to present a calm, impartial view. This is hard when you are passionate about a topic! The other difficulty I faced during revision was sorting through the constant flow of media coverage, keeping up to date on new state laws and court cases, and reading the volumes of opinions expressed by lawmakers, nonprofits, and policy-making groups. No sooner was I finished with a draft than I learned about a new state law or issue that I thought should be included. I was continually shaving down sections of the book to allow for new information.

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

 The weirdest (and funniest!) things I Googled were the birth control methods used thousands of years ago. Let’s just say, when it comes to contraception, women are a whole lot better off now than they were back then. For example, through the ages, women have stuffed their vaginas with crocodile dung and dangled the testicles of a weasel between their thighs.

Wow, Vicki. You may have won the all time weirdest on the LaunchPad award with that fun fact! Who were your advisors at VCFA?

 I was so fortunate! My advisors were Ellen Howard, Margaret Bechard, Norma Fox Mazer and Louise Hawes, 

, a group of outstanding and brilliant teachers and people. I remain so grateful for their guidance and friendship.

 How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

The immersion into craft and the constant feedback from advisors and fellow writers jump-started my own creativity and voice. What I learned in two years at VCFA would have taken me ten years on my own.

 What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

 We were a very tight-knit, loyal group, who not only critiqued each other’s work and offered encouragement, but also became close, caring friends. Many of us are still in touch and share our writing. There will always be a special place in my heart for my class of VCFA-ers and the bonds we share together.

I couldn't agree more. Our class (The Class With No Name) was the best! And you're the best of the best, Vicki! Thanks for coming by the VCFA LaunchPad. REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS: WHO DECIDES? will be in bookstores and libraries everywhere on March 1. Booklist has already awarded it a starred review, saying "Though slim, this volume packs a wallop."  and School Library Journal adds "Well written and impeccably researched, this volume will appeal to budding activists and feminists and to those concerned about human rights." Like Vicki's previous book, For the Good of Mankind? The Shameful History of Human Medical Experimentation REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS is a Junior Library Guild Selection. You can read more about Vicki and her books at her website at Or catch Vicki last week and for the rest of this week all over the Net-- 

Mon, Feb 15



Tues, Feb 16

The Book Monsters


Wed, Feb 17

Library Fanatic


Thurs, Feb 18

Kid Lit Frenzy


Fri, Feb 19

The Nonfiction Detectives


Sat, Feb 20

Ms. Yingling Reads


Mon, Feb 22

The Launch Pad (right here!) 


Tues, Feb 23

Through the Tollbooth


Wed, Feb 24

Unleashing Readers


Thurs, Feb 25

The Pirate Tree


Fri, Feb 26

Teach Mentor Texts



REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS: WHO DECIDES? is a work of NonFiction for Young Adults, published by Twenty-First Century Books. 

Topics: nonfiction, young adult, 2016 release, Vicki Wittenstein, Twenty-First Century Books

Winifred Conkling and RADIOACTIVE!

Posted by Adi Rule on Thu, Jan 07, 2016 @ 08:01 AM

We are glowing with excitement about Winifred Conkling's new nonfiction YA book, Radioactive! How Irène Curie & Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World (Algonquin Young Readers).


In 1934, Irène Curie, working with her husband and fellow physicist, Frèdèric Joliot, made a discovery that forever altered the world: artificial radioactivity. This breakthrough allowed scientists to begin to alter elements and create new ones by changing the structure of atoms. Curie, a Frenchwoman, shared a Nobel Prize with her husband for their work. But when she was nominated to the French Academy of Sciences, the Academy not only denied her admission but also voted to disqualify all women from membership. Her exclusion from the Academy marked Curie’s gradual erasure from the history of atomic science.

Four years later, Curie’s breakthrough led physicist Lise Meitner to the scientific epiphany that unlocked the secret of nuclear fission. The Nobel committee ignored Meitner’s achievement in favor of her male research partner’s, but Meitner’s unique insight was critical to the revolution in science that led to nuclear energy and the race to build the atomic bomb.

With more than fifty period photographs and sidebars that help explain the related science, Radioactive! presents the story of two women still largely unknown despite their crucial contributions to world-changing discoveries.

Welcome, Winifred! So, tell us . . .

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

640px-FrzDuellImBoisDeBoulogneDurand1874.jpgWhen working on nonfiction, it’s easy to get sidetracked by fascinating factoids that are not-quite-on-point. I loved learning that Marie Curie slept with a dish of radium by her bedside as a nightlight and that her married lover was challenged to a duel by a newspaper editor to defend her honor. (After a spectacularly foolish showdown, they both surrendered without firing.) Ultimately, these and other bits of trivia had to be cut because I was telling Irène’s story, not Marie’s.

What was the spark that ignited this book?

I tend to do a lot of background reading on a topic as I’m trying to refine an idea for a book project. In this case, I had been reading about various women in science, initially thinking I was going to write something about the mother-daughter team of Marie and Irène Curie. (Marie discovered radioactivity and Irène discovered artificial radioactivity.) As part of the process, I read about Lise Meither, a physicist who was exploring some of the same questions that Irène was working on. That’s when it hit me: The more interesting story would be the tension between Irène and Lise, two women who were life-long pacifists who both made discoveries that were essential to the development of the nuclear bomb.

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

radioactive_sign_02.jpgFor this project, I researched some of crazy uses of radium. In the first part of the 20th century, radium was added to a number of consumer products, including paints, water, chocolates – even condoms. “Radium Girls” painted radium-infused paint onto watch dials and other instrument panels so that they would glow in the dark. These women licked the tips of their horsehair brushes to keep the points sharp. In my hunt for details I encountered some ghastly images of women deformed by facial cancers. (Avoid the nightmares; trust me on this.)

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

I think attending VCFA legitimized me as a writer. Lawyer and author Louis Nizer said: “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.” I aspire to be an artist; my work always falls short, but my experiences at VCFA have helped me identify the kinds of books I strive to write.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Just do it. You won’t regret it.

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

This is just the beginning. Even after graduation, the VCFA community provides opportunities for enrichment and support.  I’m lucky enough to be part of a critique group made of VCFA grads in the DC area. It’s an absolute joy to have the support and advice of a group of women who share my passion for writing books for children and young adults. It sounds so simple, but it’s a blessing to have found my peeps.

I couldn't agree more. Here's to our peeps! And congratulations on the release of Radioactive! Thank you for shining a light on these remarkable women.

WinifredConkling-25Edit.jpegWinifred Conkling is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction for young readers whose works include Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson’s Flight from Slavery (Algonquin, 2015) and the middle-grade novel Sylvia and Aki (Tricycle/Random House, 2011), winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Literature Award and the Tomás Rivera Award. She studied Journalism at Northwestern University and received an MFA in writing for children and young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She graduated in January 2011 as a member of the “Bat Poets.”

Unknown-2.jpeg Conkling_Pearl_jkt_rgb_HR_2MB-2.jpeg

Topics: nonfiction, young adult, Algonquin Young Readers, Winifred Conkling, 2016 release

Nancy Bo Flood and Water Runs Through This Book!

Posted by Tami Brown on Thu, Oct 08, 2015 @ 08:10 AM

Let's welcome Nancy Bo Flood to the LaunchPad this morning! Nancy graduated from VCFA in 2007. She is the author of a variety of award-winning books, most recently, Warriors in the Crossfire and Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo (NCTE Notable Poetry Book, IRA Notable Book for a Global Society, 2011 & 2014). Plus she's the greatest-- just like her books!

unnamed-1 Through photographs, verse, and narration, this book celebrates the most essential ingredient to life: water. Author and educator Nancy Bo Flood and award-winning photographer Jan Sonnenmair combine imagination and information to explore this ever-changing yet essential element. WATER RUNS THROUGH THIS BOOK is much more than an exploration of how water impacts life on Earth.  It is a guide for how readers of all ages can become conservationists and protectors of this endangered resource.

WATER RUNS THROUGH THIS BOOK has already received rave reviews like this one: 

"Conflicts are increasing over the ownership and use of something we often take for granted: water. In her newly released book, Water Runs Through This Book (Fulcrum, 2015), Nancy Bo Flood takes an inventive approach to exploring different perspectives on this essential resource. Through verse, narration, and eye-catching photographs by Jan Sonnenmair, the book is both a celebration and a guide for how readers of all ages can help conserve this endangered resource."

 Welcome, Nancy! 

Which character was your favorite to write? What was your approach?

In this information book the main character is water.  “We are water.”

My challenge was to create a character as complex and interesting as any character in a novel with problems, obstacles, and a heart – a character the reader would soon come to care about. I wanted my reader to not only learn about water, but also to feel a sense of wonder and a sense of concern.

I began with developing identity. A character in a book becomes real when the reader identifies with the character.  So I began: “You are water. Even your bones. Your brain is mostly water – eight out of every ten molecules in your head are water.  But I did not find my beginning until after many revisions.

Next I wanted to develop surprise. When we cry, our tears contain hormones that are part of healing. Flamingoes cry. Their tears contain salt.  “Flamingos are one of the few land creatures that can drink salt water and live.”

Imagine, the water we drink is as old as the dinosaurs and meanwhile astronomers are searching the universe for signs of water because where there is water, there can be life. But we are polluting and destroying this precious resource.  Can clean, drinkable water become extinct?

Drinkable water – the wonder of it and fragility of it – that realization was the initial spark that ignited two years of research and writing about water.

Breathing clean air should be the right of every child.  Drinking clean water also.

unnamed-1-1What were your goals for the book?

My last goal was my initial goal, wanting the reader to care enough about water to want to conserve and protect water. If we understand the importance of water and feel the beauty of water, how can we not care about water?

“The Navajo people share this story:  Earth fell in love with Sky, and Sky with Earth.  There was such joy!  Their happiness filled the clouds with laughing, splashing rain.

And in the end, perhaps beauty is water’s deepest mystery.

And so, thank you, for listening, reading, and thinking about water….  “Water talking with water.”

What nugget of craft advice do you carry with you from VCFA? 

The nugget of craft advice came from Ellen Howard – find the through line; keep your focus. Then ask, what will keep the reader turning pages?

What would be your dream swag for this book?

The swag that I would give away would be an empty one gallon plastic container and this question printed on the side:  how many containers are you willing to carry every day for your water?

 What was your time like at VCFA?

Vermont College is an amazing community of writers mentoring writers.  The best memory was my final week of listening to classmates read selections from their best works.  Tears and laughter, happy congratulations, hugs, celebratory toasts of wine-filled glasses, and just plain awe.  What accomplishments, what improvements, thinking back at those first workshops and the manuscript messes!

 Do you have any advice for incoming students?

My advice to prospective of beginning students – keep writing.  The reading and writing-revising-rethinking is unrelenting but nothing else will shape and polish your writing skills.  The combination of continuously reading, analyzing, critiquing, work-shopping, listening to talks and readings, and then in the evenings, taking long walks to re-think character development, story line, or how to create both surprise and satisfaction. The Vermont program is deep-core amazing and changed my writing career. My first published work from the program, Warriors in the Crossfire, received a variety of awards. Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo resulted from a graduate semester of poetry work with Julie Larios.  This hybrid book of nonfiction, poetry, and photographs, garnered even more awards.

Thanks so much for dropping by, Nancy! Nancy's next book will be SOLDIER SISTER, FLY HOME, which will be published by  Charlesbridge in 2016. WATER RUNS THROUGH THIS BOOK is published by Fulcrum Publishers and is available in bookstores and libraries now. You can learn more about Nancy and her books at




Topics: nonfiction, 2015 release, Nancy Bo Flood, poetry, Fulcrum Publishing


Posted by Adi Rule on Thu, Aug 20, 2015 @ 12:08 PM

Summer is the perfect time to cool off with Nancy Bo Flood and Jan Sonnenmair's refreshing new book, Water Runs Through This Book

We can't wait to dive in!


Topics: nonfiction, 2015 release, Jan Sonnenmair, Nancy Bo Flood, Fulcrum Publishing

Winifred Conkling and PASSENGER ON THE PEARL

Posted by Tami Brown on Wed, Feb 04, 2015 @ 06:02 AM

Winifred Conkling is in the LaunchPad today with her powerful new novel Passenger On The Pearl. I'm especially partial to this book since Winifred unveiled an early draft to our all-VCFA critique group in Washington, DC. Congratulations, Winifred, on the publication of this compelling novel!

Conkling Pearl jkt rgb 207x3061

The page-turning, heart-wrenching true story of one woman willing to risk her safety and even her life for a chance at freedom in the largest slave escape attempt in American history.

In 1848, thirteen-year-old Emily Edmonson, five of her siblings, and seventy other enslaved people boarded the Pearl under cover of night in Washington, D.C., hoping to sail north to freedom.  Within a day, the schooner was captured, and the Edmonsons were sent to New Orleans to be sold into even crueler conditions.  Passenger on the Pearl is the story of this thwarted escape, of the ramifications of its attempt, and of a family for whom freedom was the ultimate goal.

Through an engaging narrative, informative sidebars, and more than fifty period photographs and illustrations, Winifred Conkling takes readers on Emily Edmonson's journey from enslaved person to teacher at a school for African American young women.  Conkling illuminates a turbulent time in American history, showing the daily lives of enslaved people, the often-changing laws affecting them, the high cost of a failed escape, and the stories of slave traders and abolitionists.

Winifred Conkling studied journalism at Northwestern University and received an MFA in writing for children and young adults from VCFA in January 2011.  Her first book for children, Sylvia and Aki (Random House, 2011), won the Jane Addams Children's Literature Award for Older Readers and the Tomás Rivera Mexican-American Children's Book Award.  Passenger on the Pearl is her first work of nonfiction for young readers.

Hi, Winifred! Welcome! Tell us about your writing community (ha, as if I don't know!) Are you in a critique group?

I am lucky to be part of a VCFA Critique Group in the Washington, D.C. area.  We meet once a month and workshop one longer piece or shorter works from two writers.  Although we all went through the program at different times, we share a common understanding of what a productive critique discussion looks like.  I can't tell you how much I've learned from my critique partners.  I leave every meeting feeling inspired and encouraged.

Me, too! It's wonderful to keep surrounding myself with VCFA intensity and support! What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?

The lectures I heard at VCFA about point of view have proven immeasurably important to me in my nonfiction work.  History is big and unwieldy; it's tricky to figure out how to tell the stories of the past.  Choosing a point-of-view character has helped me focus my work and build a narrative arc in my nonfiction.  


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

I was lucky to have a lot of excellent primary sources for my work on Passenger on the Pearl. In addition to source material about Emily Edmonson, I used the autobiography of the captain who sailed the ship during the slave escape.  His story is fascinating in its own right, but I had to resist the temptation to tell too much about him because this project was Emily's story.  I tried to share the relevant highlights and to let readers know what happened to him, but I wanted to add all the details of his life.  (Since you asked:  He spent four years in prison as a result of his efforts to help seventy-seven enslaved people find freedom, and he committed suicide alone in a hotel room several years after his release.)

What advice would you give to a perspective VCFA student? What do you wish you'd known before you first set foot on campus?

Just do it.  If you want to write, learn to do it well as you possibly can.  I don't know a better place to do that than VCFA.

It's not what I wish I had known, it's that I wish I had known about VCFA earlier in my life.  I wish I had gone through the program 10 years earlier. Where is time travel when you need it?

Here here for time travel! Thanks for dropping in to the Launch Pad, Winifred!

Passenger on the Pearl was published by Algonquin Young Readers. You can buy it at any bookstore now!

Topics: nonfiction, 2015 release, Algonquin Young Readers, Winifred Conkling

Barbara Krasner and Liesl’s Ocean Rescue!

Posted by Tami Brown on Mon, Dec 01, 2014 @ 06:12 AM

Today we welcome Barbara Krasner back to The LaunchPad for the launch of her SECOND picture book biography this year, Liesl’s Ocean Rescue! Barbara is a member of the winter '06 class (affectionately known these days as "The Class With No Name")

liesl frontSmall Liesl’s Ocean Rescue, by noted children’s author Barbara Krasner, recounts the story of Liesl Joseph, a 10-year-old girl aboard the ill-fated MS St. Louis. On May 13, 1939, together with her parents and nearly 1,000 other Jewish refugees, she left Hamburg on the German luxury liner, attempting to seek temporary asylum in Cuba.

Great to see you back at The LaunchPad Barbara, and congratulations on your second new picture book this year. What was the spark that ignited this book?

I grew up hearing about the Jewish refugees on a ship that the United States would not accept. When the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a book about its survivors, Refuge Denied, my interest was once again piqued. I contacted one of the authors of the book and he shared with me a list of survivors in my local area. Within a few months, I interviewed seven survivors at their homes in the New Jersey/Pennsylvania area and one by phone in Florida. One of these was Liesl Joseph Loeb, whose father had been head of the ship’s passenger committee.

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

To keep the book at picture book length, I started the story when Liesl and her parents board the ship in Hamburg. But my publisher wanted to start at the defining moment: Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when Liesl’s father was arrested like thousands of other men across Germany. My publisher was right, of course.

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Tell us about your writing community.

I’ve been writing historical fiction and non-fiction with members of the Carolyn P. Yoder Retreats since 2005 or so. We’ve gotten to know each other’s work so well, strengths and weaknesses alike. Because we all pretty much write the same genre, I don’t have to hear suggestions that make no sense for nonfiction that I get in local writers groups. We focus on the narrative arc, emotion, and clarity.

What authors do you love for their sentences? Plot? Character?

I wish I could write like Neal Bascomb in The Nazi Hunters (Scholastic/Arthur Levine, 2013) and Steve Sheinkin in Bomb (Roaring Brook Press, 2012). They make nonfiction real page-turners. And they have their ways to weave in multiple viewpoints in a way that doesn’t confuse young readers.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

My advisors were Jane Resh Thomas, Liza Ketchum, Ellen Levine, and Marion Dane Bauer. For some reason, I only worked on nonfiction, in picture book format, with Liza, while I waited for her to read the middle grade novel I’d written with Jane. Still, the fictional techniques I learned apply to writing nonfiction. There still has to be characterization, setting, imagery, plot.

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

I knew you should take the opportunity to experiment with different kinds of writing, but I didn’t realize just how true that was. I wish I’d written more nonfiction for all grade levels.

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It's great to have you back, Barbara-- and best of luck with your next release, either fiction or nonfiction! We'll be on the look out!

Liesl’s Ocean Rescue is published by Gihon River Press and hits bookstores today. You can read more about Barbara and her both of her books at 

Find out more about Liesl and her incredible journey here and watch the trailer for Barbara's book here 




Topics: nonfiction, 2014 release, picture book, Barbara Krasner, picture book biography

Jessica Powers and COLORS OF THE WIND

Posted by Tami Brown on Thu, Sep 11, 2014 @ 08:09 AM

J. L. (Jessica) Powers, a member of the Keepers of the Dancing Stars class, is here at the Launch Pad today with her new picture book biography Colors of the Wind: The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza. Jessica is also the author of three young adult novels, The Confessional (Knopf, 2007); the award-winning This Thing Called the Future (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011); and Amina (Allen & Unwin, 2013). She is also the editor of Labor Pains and Birth Stories (Catalyst Book Press, 2009) and the award-winning anthology, That Mad Game: Growing up in a Warzone, Essays from Around the Globe (Cinco Puntos Press, 2012). 

Welcome, Jessica!

describe the imageGeorge was one of those kids. You know, the kind that never stays still. And then one day, the doctor said he was going blind. Did that slow George down? Not for a single second. In fact, he was so fast, he went on to break a world record for blind runners. And now he’s breaking more barriers—because ironically, George Mendoza, blind painter, paints what he sees.

George Mendoza started going blind at age 15 from a degenerative eye disease. It wasn't the sudden onset of blindness that many people experience. George lost his central vision and started seeing things that weren't there—eyes floating in the air, extraordinary colors, objects multiplied and reflected back. George describes this condition as having "kaleidoscope eyes."

He triumphed over his blindness by setting the world record in the mile for blind runners, and later competing in both the 1980 and 1984 Olympics for the Disabled. Now a full-time artist, Mendoza's collection of paintings, also titled Colors of the Wind, is a National Smithsonian Affiliates traveling exhibit.

This is his story, told through his paintings.

What was the spark that ignited this book? 

Honestly, I'm always looking for ways to turn what I write into books. I've written lots of articles and even if an article brings me more money than a book ever does, it doesn't feel real until it's being sold on Amazon. So naturally, when a magazine asked me to write an article about George Mendoza, a blind artist who paints what he sees, it was only natural that I'd try to figure out a way to make it "real"--that is, a book. The picture book biography idea occurred to me because I'd read Diego and Frieda, both picture book biographies, and I thought George's story was a natural one for the picture book audience, not to mention format.

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 do have an agent but she was unable to sell this book, though she tried. George and I gave up on it, or, to be fair, I gave up on it. I figured it was dead--some 25 or 30 editors had said no. A few years later, George got a phone call from Purple House Press. They publish reprints of classic children's books that have gone out of print and George's father had written one they wanted to re-publish. George couldn't give them permission--he's actually never  known his father--but he did tell them his story about becoming a blind artist and mentioned that he had a picture book ready to go. I was flabbergasted when he called me and took a "Let's wait and see" attitude but literally two weeks later, I had a contract, and 9 months later, I have a book on the shelves. I love small presses--they are so much faster than the big guys in New York (whom I also love, of course). 

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

Sara Zarr once told me that she re-types her novels several times during revisions. In fact, she does it so frequently, that sometimes she gets annoyed and thinks, "Do I really have to do this? This novel doesn't need it at this point"--but still she does it. It had never occurred to me to re-type my entire novel but now I see how useful it is as a revision tool. When you retype something, NOTHING is sacred. Everything is on the table for change, no matter how small or large. It makes it much easier to kill all those little darlings.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing? For my award-winning YA novel This Thing Called the Future, I googled a lot about witchcraft in South Africa, but of course, I also traveled to South Africa and spoke at length with people who had encountered those who practice witchcraft. (Lots of people in South Africa employ witches and some traditional healers work in witchcraft, but it's hard to get anybody to admit their involvement unless you have money and you're looking for somebody to do what you want done.) It has certainly been interesting to look deeply at the spiritual practices of ordinary, modern Zulus.

Thanks, Jessica!

You can read more about her work at and

Colors of the Wind: The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza was published by Purple House Press ( and is in book stores now!

Topics: nonfiction, 2014 release, picture book, J. L. Powers, Purple House Press, picture book biography

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