the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Author Blog

STEP RIGHT UP with Donna Janell Bowman!

Posted by Adi Rule on Thu, Feb 02, 2017 @ 10:02 AM

Today on the Launchpad, we're celebrating kindness! A big welcome to Donna Janell Bowman (aka Donna Bowman Bratton), whose new picture book biography, with illustrator Daniel Minter, is winning the hearts of readers everywhere. Let's talk about Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, out now from Lee and Low.

STEP RIGHT UP FC hi res small copy.jpg

A horse that can read, write, spell, and do math? Ridiculous! That’s what people thought in the late 1800s—until they met Beautiful Jim Key.

Born a weak and wobbly colt in 1889, Jim was cared for by William “Doc” Key, a formerly enslaved man and self-taught veterinarian who believed in treating animals with kindness, patience, and his own homemade remedies. Under Doc’s watchful eyes, Jim grew to be a healthy young stallion with a surprising talent—a knack for learning! For seven years, Doc and Jim worked together perfecting Jim’s skills. Then it was time for them to go on the road, traveling throughout the United States and impressing audiences with Jim’s amazing performances. In the process, they broke racial barriers and raised awareness for the humane treatment of animals.

Here is the fascinating true story of a remarkable man and his extraordinary horse. Together they asked the world to step right up and embrace their message of kindness toward animals.

Doc and Jim Key. Do not reproduce without permission."Doc" Key and Beautiful Jim Key. (Image may not be reproduced without permission.)

What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
This is an easy question to answer. It was incredibly difficult to leave so much fascinating detail on the cutting room floor. The story of William “Doc” Key and Beautiful Jim Key is humongous, powerful, and full of drama. Whittling it down to the teeny tiny space of a picture book was such a challenge!

What was the spark that ignited this book?
The simple answer would be that the idea of an “educated” horse, trained only with kindness, fascinated me. The deeper answer is that Doc and Jim’s story resonated with me in a very personal way. I grew up on a Quarter Horse ranch, where I developed a deep and abiding love of animals, especially horses. All my free time was spent training for horse shows. I know what it’s like to spend so much time with a horse that you predict each other’s movements and practically read each other’s minds. But, I had never considered trying to teach a horse to write, spell, calculate, identify words, operate a cash register, file letters, etc., as Doc had with Jim. When I first heard of Doc and Jim, I was smitten but skeptical.

When I learned that Doc’s training principles were built on positive reinforcement and kindness—during a time of rampant brutality toward animals—I was hooked. I was even more invested when I learned about Doc’s extraordinary life journey, from enslavement to successful businessman, facing racial prejudice and other obstacles along the way. This was a story ripe for young readers. Ironically, while I am still awed by the horse’s feats, what’s even more significant to me now is how Doc and Beautiful Jim Key advanced the cause of the emerging humane movement, inspiring millions of people to be kinder to animals and to each other. In fact, an estimated two million people signed the Jim Key Pledge of Kindness! I knew I would revive that pledge. The new Step Right Up Pledge of Kindness has been reworded to be inclusive of animals and people, and is downloadable from my website.

What a beautiful pledge! I'm on board.
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?
For anyone looking for a romantic story of being “discovered,” this might be a disappointment. I learned about Doc and Beautiful Jim Key in 2006, but the idea of writing a children’s book about the topic didn’t sink in until 2007, which led me to deep research that never really ended. That research included a trip to Tennessee, white-gloved perusal of documents at the Tennessee State Archives, hundreds of archived newspapers (digital and microfilm), promotional pamphlets from 1897-1906, research about the Civil War and Reconstruction, and about the heartbreaking history of the humane movement. In 2009, I submitted the first five chapters of my then-intended middle grade or young adult nonfiction book to the agent I would eventually sign with. But, she suggested I rewrite the book as a picture book biography. I was aghast! But I was also eager. I spent the next year and a half dissecting hundreds of picture book biographies to figure out how they worked. After a whole heap of very bad drafts, I finally had a version that attracted the attention of three editors in 2011—three editors with radically different visions for the book. When the first call came in, I was sitting in a sling chair at a lake, laughing at my pre-teen son and his two friends who were struggling to pull each other out of a mud bog. So, you see, I will never forget that call!

I knew Lee and Low was the right publisher for this story because of their commitment to exceptional multicultural books. I revised for my editor for two years before they offered the contract. Then, I revised many more times after that, scaling the story back in some places, while expanding it in others. The published book is significantly longer than my original manuscript.

Spelling contest lo res.jpgBeautiful Jim Key competed in spelling bees! Illustration by Daniel Minter.

What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?
Honestly, the best advice I’ve ever received, especially in terms of this book, was Cynthia Leitich Smith telling me, back in 2009, that I shouldn’t be afraid to start over. As in, open a new blank document where you can re-envision the tale. It took me a long while to realize that she was absolutely right. And, let me tell you, I’ve started over many times with most of my manuscripts that followed Step Right Up. Though it’s still a struggle at times, I’m getting better at finding each book’s unique voice, while not falling in love with the arrangement of my own words.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?
I was honored to work with Sharon Darrow, Jane Kurtz, David Gill, and Shelley Tanaka over the last two years. I’ve enjoyed how different they are in terms of strengths, advising styles, and personalities. I always heard that, as a student, you get the advisor that you’re meant to have. Boy, do I believe that now! I adore each of them, and I’ve certainly learned a lot from them.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
Oh, gosh, how shall we count the ways!  I don’t graduate until January 2017, and I just sent my creative thesis this week. Later, when I have distance from my school experience (and have a chance to rest up), I’ll probably have a better answer to this question. Though I came into the program with seven books already sold, the program has deepened and expanded my vocabulary, analytical skills, and writing skills. But, being a student while juggling a writing career has been a challenging juggle. This has required me to compartmentalize my energies and time commitments—not an easy task when you throw family and personal commitments into the mix. The glorious VCFA community makes it all worth it— through conversation, commiseration, lectures, advisor feedback, and generous sharing, I have grown as a writer. And I have a gaggle of amazing new friendships that will last far beyond graduation.

What was special about your VCFA graduating class? (Shout out to our newest alums, the Harried Plotters!)
I get a little choked-up when I think about my class, The Harried Plotters. I am in awe of each and every one of my classmates/friends. Besides being incredible talents, they are funny, caring, sensitive, compassionate, amazing human beings. When one person is having a bad day, phone calls and texts fire up. When anybody has good news, we all celebrate. When packet work is hard (always), postcards and letters arrive in mailboxes. Heck, six of my classmates travelled to Austin for my book launch last month! That sums it up, doesn’t it? And those who couldn’t travel were here in spirit. As a whole, we have become family, and I am so grateful for them.

Thanks so much for stopping by. We're so happy this amazing story and your wonderful telling of it is out in the world!

You can visit Donna at her website,, and Daniel Minter at

Topics: picture book, picture book biography, 2016 release, Donna Janell Bowman, Daniel Minter, Lee and Low Books


Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Nov 10, 2015 @ 07:11 AM

We're buzzing with excitement over Laurie Wallmark's new picture book biography, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, illustrated by April Chu, out now from Creston Books! And we're not the only ones -- Ada has already gotten fabulous starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus, who calls it a “splendidly inspiring introduction to an unjustly overlooked woman.”

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine is a picture-book biography of the world’s first computer programmer. Ada was born two hundred years ago, long before the invention of the modern electronic computer. At a time when girls and women had few options outside the home, Ada followed her dreams and studied mathematics. This book, by Laurie Wallmark and April Chu, tells the story of a remarkable woman and her work.

Welcome, Laurie! So, tell us . . .

What was the spark that ignited this book?

I was drawn to Ada because I want to shine a light on technical women who have been overlooked by history. I teach computer science, and Ada was the world’s first computer programmer. I never considered anyone else for my first picture book biography.

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?

In June of 2013 I had a critique with Ginger Harris (Liza Royce Agency) at the NJ SCBWI annual conference. She and her partner, Liza Fleissig, had both read the manuscript and saw its potential. They thought it would be a good match for Marissa Moss of Creston Books. I did a revision for Liza and Ginger, and they sent it off. After that, I did four revisions for Marissa before she made an offer. After the sale, I did at least ten additional revisions with Marissa. She’s an incredible editor, and I was lucky to have her for my first book. Now, Liza Fleissig and Ginger Harris of Liza Royce Agency are my awesome agents.

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’m fortunate to have several writing communities. My husband is my first reader. He reads and makes suggestions for all my manuscripts. My critique group—the Squirrel Girls—has seen many a version of Ada along the way. NJ SCBWI members have also been part of my writing community for many years. I’m a former assistant regional advisor, so I’ve had the opportunity to become friends and writing colleagues with many skilled writers and illustrators. And of course I now have VCFA and my beloved Inkredibles. My classmates’ support has helped me immeasurable on my writing journey. Other than providing a daily link to a children’s writing post I find useful, I am not active on social media.

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

I am fortunate to have been paired with the talented illustrator, April Chu. The quality of her artwork truly brings Ada’s world to life. I loved being able to watch her illustrations grow from initial and detailed sketches to the final artwork. I have no artistic talent and am in awe of those who do.

Who were your advisors at VCFA?

My amazing advisors were: Mark Karlins (picture book intensive), Bonnie Christensen, Sharon Darrow, and Louise Hawes. They each contributed to bringing my writing to a new level.

What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

We Inkredibles are a family. When our writing is going well, we celebrate. When it isn’t, we commiserate. Either way, we’re always there for each other. Even those classmates who won’t be graduating with us are still Inkredibles. Once an Inkie, always an Inkie!

The VCFA class bond is so magical! What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

Apply! (But consider starting in the summer so you have fewer Vermont winter residencies.)

Ha ha! Thanks so much for stopping by, Laurie. And welcome to the world, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine!

Laurie Wallmark writes exclusively for children. She can't imagine having to restrict herself to only one type of book, so she writes picture books, middle-grade novels, poetry, and nonfiction. When not writing or studying, Laurie teaches computer science at a local community college, both on campus and in prison.

Visit Laurie online at and follow her on Facebook (lauriewallmarkauthor) and Twitter (@lauriewallmark).

Topics: 2015 release, picture book, picture book biography, Creston Books, Laurie Wallmark, April Chu

Matthew Clark Smith Talks SMALL WONDERS!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, Jun 16, 2015 @ 07:06 AM
We're all abuzz about Matthew Clark Smith's new picture book, Small Wonders: Jean-Henri Fabre and His World of Insects, illustrated by Giuliano Ferri (Two Lions Press)!
A moth with a sixth sense. A wasp that hunts beetles nearly twice its size. The lives of fascinating creatures such as these were unknown until one man introduced them to the world.
Meet Jean-Henri Fabre, one of the most important naturalists of all time. As a boy in the French countryside, Henri spent hours watching insects. He dreamed of observing them in a new way: in their own habitats. What he discovered in pursuing that dream was shocking; these small, seemingly insignificant creatures led secret lives—lives of great drama!
With its lively, lyrical text and richly detailed illustrations, this intriguing picture-book biography introduces the man who would forever change the way we look at insects, bringing to life the fascinating world of dazzling beetles, ferocious wasps, and other amazing small wonders that exist all around us.
Welcome, Matthew! So, tell us...
What was the spark that ignited this book?

Less of a spark and more of a gradual smolder, really. I've always loved exploring nature and have always been obsessed with knowing the names of things, so I fell hard for insects pretty early on. I must have seen Fabre's name (the "father of entomology," though this is both not quite true and not true enough) several times as I was growing up and reading whatever I could get my hands on. But it wasn't until I had a kid of my own that I realized what a compelling character he was, this dirt-poor country guy with nothing but boundless curiosity and empathy and patience, who finally took the time to bend down and ask the smallest ones among us what they were up to. He epitomized so many of the traits I admired in my kid and in kids in general, and so I figured it was high time he got the kind of tribute only a picture book can really accomplish. And I could not be more grateful to Giuliano Ferri, who drenched the whole book in just the light and magic that Fabre so deserved. 

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

In the original manuscript I had this very lyrical bit toward the end where you see the seasons passing as Fabre, my subject, reaches old age. "Spring, with its burst of white butterflies..." I had this precious little vision of four vignettes with some seasonally appropriate bug action in each. I wanted the book to read like a fairy tale, and so I wanted it to have those moments when the reader is transported, when she falls out of time -- especially since the book really is about "falling out" of our ordinary perspective and into the marvelous world at our feet. But my editor convinced me it wouldn't fit, and she was right, because...well, now that I think about it, I still do miss those darn vignettes. 

I guess the truth is that they were better suited for a different, longer version of this story. Writing a picture book, and especially a PB biography, is absolutely brutal work. You inevitably feel like you're hacking great hunks of flesh from your poor subject, in order to cram his barely recognizable body into the space of 32 pages. And you have to trust that you've opened just enough of a window to light up some reader's world, however briefly. Those vignettes were just window-dressing. I admit this grudgingly.

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

Googling is probably my single greatest skill. Sometimes I think it might be my only real skill. I get a little fanatical about crafting Google searches as efficiently as possible, so my search history is full of inscrutable little nuggets like "millimeters buprestis" and "lysenko tweezers" and "caterwaul haint" and "cut nose mayo." Do you know about the Googlewhack? It's an elusive beast: a two-word search query that returns only ONE result! There are people who hunt for Googlewhacks competitively. Not that I would ever waste my time on something so ridiculous. 

Anyway, as far as Googling for this book in particular, insect research can take you to some unusual places very quickly. One search that stands out was "egg dung sausage." I'll just leave that little image there for you to chew on, so to speak. 

What's your writing superpower?

If I were a writing superhero, I'm afraid I would be some version of Bizarro. I understand Bizarro is normally a villain, or at least some kind of annoying intergalactic stooge. But my son has this uplifting picture book in which Bizarro comes to Earth wanting to help, and he bumbles around doing the wrong thing over and over, while Superman and the rest of the DC Super Friends shake their heads paternally, and yet every couple of pages Bizarro bumbles in just the right direction by accident and nabs the crooks after all. This is a way of saying that no one should emulate anything about what I do as a writer. I don't read enough, I have no writing community, no routine and no self-discipline, I'm really awful about outlining and drafting, and I give up on 90% of projects after the first few pages. And yet I have bumbled into finishing a few books. How? Honestly I'm still not clear on whether it's a superpower or a curse, but it seems that I can hold a lot of stuff in my head at once. So when I get interested in a subject -- and it's always a race to get it done before the next shiny thing distracts me -- I devour what's been written on it, and then I carry that around in my brain for a few weeks, slowly digesting, before I finally sit down and dump a bunch of prose on the page, in a fashion on which I won't elaborate lest the metaphor become even more tasteless. 

I really am trying to train myself to practice writing in a more traditional way, because I really believe I could get more done. But creativity involves a constant tension, I think, between the way you are and the way you wish you were. The way you are might be all kinds of busted, but as we all know, if your stories don't ultimately come from that bustedness, then they'll be dead on the page. 

Sounds like a great future lecture -- the DDD (Devour-Digest-Dump) technique! Who were your advisors at VCFA?

I had the terrific honor of working with Julie Larios, Alan Cumyn, Sarah Ellis, and Tim Wynne-Jones, who are four of the funniest, most brilliant, and most humane persons on the planet, and I will defend that claim to anyone. In fact the latter three were, I believe, expressly sent by Canada as part of their foreign aid program to improve American wit, intelligence, and humanity. As for Julie she is simply the ambassador from Planet Julie, where everyone plays in the mud and speaks gorgeous nonsense. Go find their books and, better yet, find them. 

Couldn't agree more! What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

I don't really believe in advice. This might just be a lame excuse, given that advice from me is, for reasons detailed above, likely to be horrendous. But I've also come to understand that we writers are so endlessly different, in our motives, our methods, our scars and dreams, that there is almost nothing to be said about writing that will be relevant to everyone. But I guess there is one thing I'd like to do my part in hammering home. Like most wisdom of any universal value, it's already been enshrined in cliche for ages (or at least since Taylor Swift's third studio album): Speak now! Which is to say: if there's a debate in your head about whether or not to let something out, whether it'll just be too raw, too naked, too shameful on the page, then letting it out is the right thing to do approximately 99.999% of the time. It sounds so obvious, and yet if you're not naturally wired that way, then it's SO HARD to really commit to. I certainly haven't mastered it yet myself, but I'm working on it. I'm working on vulnerability. Because if you could boil down to one word what I love about the art I love, that's what it would be. 

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

I met my wife at VCFA, so this one's a softball. But aside from that, the memories that stick out fall into a couple of categories. Of course there are the bonding memories -- communing with the campus ghost in the forbidden attic of College Hall; inaugurating the proud tradition of Silly Horse on a basketball court buried in snow; getting sprayed by a skunk and rendering Dewey all but uninhabitable for a night...actually, oddly enough, that last one didn't lead to much bonding. 

Then there are the memories of learning to truly see other writers, and to be seen as a writer -- for the first time, or at least the first time in a long while, if you're like me. It's a powerful feeling, and if you're susceptible to it, all it takes is about 15 minutes in Noble Lounge on first-rez orientation day. You walk in, freshly dumped by the airport shuttle onto this idyllic hilltop, already feeling like you've come through the wardrobe, and right away you can tell that this new bunch of people is different from any bunch you've been a part of before. The openness, the genuineness, the unabashed nerdiness and hokiness, the purity of purpose, it all just hits you in the face at a hundred miles an hour and you realize you've made exactly the right decision after all and you're reduced to a sniffling wreck. Hypothetically, I mean. That could happen to someone.
Yes. All of this. Thanks so much for stopping by, Matt! Welcome to the world, Small Wonders!
Matthew Clark Smith is a member of the class known as the Thunder Badgers (the ones you hear kekking to each other across campus). Visit him online at

Topics: 2015 release, picture book, picture book biography, Two Lions, Giuliano Ferri, Matthew Clark Smith

Matthew Clark Smith and SMALL WONDERS!

Posted by Adi Rule on Tue, May 26, 2015 @ 11:05 AM

Big hoorays for Matthew Clark Smith and Giuliano Ferri's new picture book, Small Wonders: Jean-Henri Fabre and His World of Insects (Two Lions/Amazon Children's Publishing)! This book is already skittering, crawling, and flying away with a collection of starred reviews. Congratulations!


A moth with a sixth sense. A wasp that hunts beetles nearly twice its size. The lives of fascinating creatures such as these were unknown until one man introduced them to the world.

Meet Jean-Henri Fabre, one of the most important naturalists of all time. As a boy in the French countryside, Henri spent hours watching insects. He dreamed of observing them in a new way: in their own habitats. What he discovered in pursuing that dream was shocking; these small, seemingly insignificant creatures led secret lives—lives of great drama!

With its lively, lyrical text and richly detailed illustrations, this intriguing picture-book biography introduces the man who would forever change the way we look at insects, bringing to life the fascinating world of dazzling beetles, ferocious wasps, and other amazing small wonders that exist all around us.

Topics: 2015 release, picture book, picture book biography, Two Lions, Giuliano Ferri, Matthew Clark Smith, Amazon Children's Publishing

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.

liesl  14 (3)

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.

describe the image

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

Barbara Krasner and GOLDIE TAKES A STAND!

Posted by Tami Brown on Thu, Sep 04, 2014 @ 10:09 AM

Welcome Barbara Krasner and Goldie Takes A Stand! Like me, Barbara is a member of the class of January '06 (Go class with no name!)  She teaches creative writing and children's lit at William Paterson University. Although she's written hundreds of articles for children's magazines, and has published about local history and genealogy, this is her first full length book for children. Congratulations Barbara and welcome to The Launch Pad!

Goldie Takes a Stand (2)Even at the age of nine, little Golda Meir was known for being a leader. As the president of the American Young Sisters Society, she organizes her friends to raise money to buy textbooks for immigrant classmates. A glimpse at the early life of Israel’s first female prime minister, who was born in Russia and grew up in Milwaukee, this story is based on a true episode in the early life of Golda Meir.

What was the spark that ignited this book? 

The spark that ignited this book happened between two Highlights Foundation retreats, I needed something to read. I was heading to Rhode Island and the annual reading of the Moses Seixas and George Washington letters of religious tolerance at Touro Synagogue in Newport. I thumbed the books on the shelves in the farmhouse and came across Golda Meir's autobiography. In my flea-bitten motel that night in Narragansett, I read about Golda's efforts to raise money to buy schoolbooks for her classmates. I knew I had my story. Her voice was so strong, I made the decision to use first person. 

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

The most difficult element to change during the revision process with the editor was cutting Golda's sister and her father from the narrative. But that was okay, because my manuscript was way too long.

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

Here is the nugget of craft advice that I've found especially helpful: You have to have the courage to admit what's not working in your manuscript. You don't really need other people to tell you. (You just hope no one else notices!)

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

I do not write in silence. I tend to write with the television tuned into contemporary jazz - no words.

How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?

Attending VCFA affected my writing life in the following way: I came into the program as a lion and left with my tail wagging as a lamb. I didn't write for a full year after graduation. I continued to volunteer my services to the annual Jewish Children's Book Writers & Illustrators annual conference, though, and that kept me connected. Eventually, I began to write again--a complete revision of a historical novel I put under the bed before entering VCFA, which I'm shopping around at the moment.

Bkrasnerkhait p 210 exp

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student? 

The advice I would give to a prospective VCFA student is the following: Come in ready to roll up your sleeves and set your current works-in-progress aside. This is your time to experiment. I never for a moment thought my first children's book would be a picture book. But during my second semester, while my adviser read my novel-in-progress, that's what I wrote.

You can find out more about Barbara and her books at  or her blog  

Goldie Takes a Stand! Golda Meir's First Crusade was published by Kar-Ben, an imprint of Lerner Publishing Group. It's available now at a bookstore near you.

Topics: nonfiction, 2014 release, picture book, Lerner Publishing Group, Barbara Krasner, picture book biography, Kar-Ben

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