New Voices: Lisa Moore Ramée & Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo on Questions Arising During Middle Grade Years

by Stephani Martinell Eaton

I am excited to share the publishing journeys of Lisa Moore Ramée and Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo. Both are members of the Novel Nineteens author group. Both of their middle grade novels debuted this month.

Lisa Moore Ramée

What was your initial inspiration for writing A Good Kind of Trouble (Balzer + Bray)?

Initially, I started writing about my own experiences growing up in Los Angeles and how I struggled to understand certain race questions. I grew up in the time of bussing and it was hard to tell if the racial divide I saw at school had to do with who was bussed and who wasn’t, or something more.

There was also a lot of racial clashing, and as a kid who had friends of all different races, I didn’t know where I fit in or how to make sense of any of it. It seemed like good fodder for a novel, but I definitely didn’t want to write a memoir, so I wrote a fictional story that included some personal details.

I worked on the book for years and all the while, my daughter was getting older and eventual started junior high herself, and I was shocked to see she experienced some of the same issues I had. The book moved away from any of my own experiences and started including more current issues.

And then it was 2016 and the number of Black young men being killed by police was being reported in alarming numbers. I was so personally affected by these reports.

Non-Black friends didn’t often understand. They didn’t get how I could care so deeply when I didn’t know any of the people involved. They didn’t understand the message of Black Lives Matter, thinking incorrectly that we were saying Black lives mattered more than anyone else’s, when all we were saying is that we mattered, too.

And I thought how horrible it might be to be a young person, seeing the same news reports and thinking that not only were people saying you didn’t matter, but also that you were so scary because of your skin color, that you could be killed. I had to include all of that in a book about a Black girl living in 2019.

As fate would have it, at the same time, there was a large call for more diverse representation and many more agents and editors were specifically looking to fill the huge representation hole in children’s literature.

What were the best and worst moments in your publishing journey?

Let’s get the bad out of the way. It’s not one moment that is the worst, but it is all the times that I got a full request from an agent, and allowed myself to get really excited thinking it was finally going to happen, only to get emails many months later saying the book wasn’t working for them.

One time in particular was hard as the agent requested a partial, and then requested the full soon after, saying how much they were enjoying the read and how excited they were to continue reading . . . but alas. They didn’t connect with the rest of the book.

After so much rejection, of course one of my favorite moments is when I signed with my agent, Brenda, but probably my best moment so far was when Angie Thomas shared on her Instagram account that she loved my book. (And the first time I met her in person was pretty awesome too!)

It’s always lovely when friends and family say they like your writing but it’s a whole other thing when an author you admire so much shows you some love.

Lisa and Angie Thomas

How did you take your writing from beginner level to publishable?

I was lucky enough to have agent-interest in my book when I first started querying, so I knew there wasn’t a problem with the idea, but my huge stack of rejections clearly yelled out that something about the writing wasn’t working.

Recognizing that fact was definitely the first step in getting better. A few friends questioned whether I should be writing for kids at all because my writing to them sounded older. I wasn’t all that surprised. I had gotten a Master’s in English Literature and had certainly spent a lot of time on academic papers and short stories for the adult market and it showed.

The reason I advise writers to read, is because that’s what helped me. I had gone to workshops and conferences and those made me feel like part of the writing community, but weren’t really improving my skills.

Reading books of successful middle grade authors (especially Erin Entrada Kelly and Corey Ann Haydu) pointed out things like sentence structure and tone. The other thing that was a huge help was whenever I saw an agent offering to provide feedback to anyone who submitted, I would always submit to them. (Now, I’m not going to lie, part of me hoped the agents would recognize my brilliance and offer representation instead of feedback, but that never happened).

The feedback I heard over and over regardless of which book I was querying at the time was the need for clear stakes. My focus is always on character before plot, so finding the stakes can be difficult for me, but without them, you don’t really have a book.

So, I guess what it boils down to is learning how to see your weaknesses and then set about improving in those areas.

What is your relationship to the children’s YA community?

When I first started on this journey, it was pre-social media. I didn’t know anything about a writing community. My first brush with it was attending an SCBWI summer conference in Los Angeles. I’m from LA, so it was partly an excuse to visit my mom; I had no clue what to expect.

I forced myself out of my comfort zone and talked to people, sat at tables with strangers, went to critique sessions.

After the weekend I felt exhilarated. Sitting in the large ballroom I realized I wasn’t alone (although then, as is now, there were not that many writers of color around) and I had met a very sweet writer, Jenn Kompos, who, although I didn’t know it then, would become my CPF (critique partner forever).

Years later, I joined Twitter and at first just followed every agent I’d heard of, but that led me to other writers and exposed me again to this idea of “community.”

My connection to this community got a huge boost when I decided to start going to as many author events as I could. I still remember seeing Sabaa Tahir at the launch of the second book in her Ember series. Hearing a well-known author talk about her journey and process was incredible along with eavesdropping on book bloggers and other writers/authors in attendance. The experience broadened my sense of how broad the writing community is, that it is bloggers and booksellers and authors and not-yet published writers.

At that point, I was solidly in that last group but I mentioned my aspirations to the wonderful Angela Mann at Kepler’s Bookstore and she would start introducing me to authors. I went from eavesdropping to being a part of the conversation.

By the time I got an agent and book deal, I already felt like part of the kidlit writing community. (So that’s another bit of advice I’d give to folks—go to events at your local bookstores!)

All the authors I met were so generous with their time and advice. And all so human! I’m still active on Twitter and Instagram and keep in touch with most writer friends that way, but it’s really the in-person contact that I treasure most of all.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s –YA writers?

I give the same advice all the time . . . because it’s true. The best thing you can do is read (people say it all the time, but it is so true). Read books in the genre you are writing and note what you like and what you don’t. Find authors you wish you could write like, and then consider what they are doing that you admire and how you might develop these skills in your own writing. But also read outside of your genre to give yourself a wide breadth.

The other piece of advice is to get at least one critique partner—better if you can find a group (there are lots of online resources if you don’t know any local writers). And then listen to and apply the feedback you get.

Too often we think “they just don’t understand” and think we can explain how what we’re doing actually does work. This is not the purpose of feedback. If you have it in your head that your writing can’t improve, you are wrong.

Also, keep in mind that you won’t be able to sit next to every reader explaining to them what your perfect prose is doing. And I get that it can be scary to show your work to someone—especially knowing that they are going to critique it—but if you aren’t ready to show your work for feedback, you definitely aren’t ready to query.

Just keep in mind that if you change your goal from finding an agent/getting published to making your writing the absolute best it can be, then the publishing dreams will also come true!

Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I have always loved middle grade books because of the way they share a simple, yet beautiful truth. Getting middle grade stories just right is important because (let’s face it) those years can be rough.

For me, it was a time when everything seemed to change – best friends became less friendly, cliques emerged, my thick glasses and thicker braces became glaringly obvious and awkward.

Each day seemed to bring another challenge as I navigated new school hallways and old friendships. But no matter how difficult a day had been, I could always find comfort in books.

I’ll never forget reading A Wrinkle in Time (by Madeleine L’Engle (FGS, 1962)) and connecting to Meg Murry who seemed as misunderstood as I felt.

The idea that I wasn’t alone – that someone else was having the same feelings I did – was so powerful for me. It continues to drive me to create stories where kids can find themselves and hopefully feel less alone.

What was your initial inspiration for writing Ruby in the Sky?

Everything in Ruby in the Sky (FSG, 2019) is inspired by experiences in my life – from hand-feeding chickadees, to waiting tables on the overnight shift, to working as a public defender.

I’ve always been an introvert, but as an attorney representing the indigent, I discovered it was a lot easier to find my voice when I needed it to speak up for someone else.

This is the essence of Ruby’s story – that we all have super-powers within us that can be found when we are willing to dig deep enough.

The initial spark that ignited Ruby’s story, however, was a memory of an elderly neighbor who used to bring my brother and me to hand-feed the chickadees at an abandoned house in our rural town.

Now, as I think back, I realize how magical that time was – a lonely man, in the darkest days of winter, making sure the birds were fed.

I’ve often thought about how only the tiny chickadees were brave enough to trust my outstretched hand – the rest of the birds (especially those bully blue jays) flew away as I stood with my seed offering. To me, the chickadee is the perfect symbol of bravery and trust.

Describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

When I first decided to write a middle grade book, I had a lot of experience writing, but not writing for children. The first thing I did was join SCBWI, where I was able to connect with other writers and writing conferences. I joined a critique group and attended as many workshops and retreats as possible.

I quickly learned that when you submit to an agent and get a pass, you usually can’t submit to that agency again, but you can submit repeatedly to writing contests – so I did.

With each submission, I revised, tightened and re-worked Ruby’s story, making it stronger and better. The New Voices in Children’s Literature: Tassy Walden Award was Ruby’s first success and it changed everything for me. I am so honored that Ruby in the Sky has also been recognized by the Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award, the Ruth Landers Glass Scholarship at the spring NESCBWI conference, and the SCBWI Work-in-Progress Award.

I was also very fortunate to get accepted into Brenda Drake’s 2016 PitchWars contest where the amazing authors, Laura Shovan and Tricia Clasen read the full manuscript and worked with me to find the true heart of Ruby’s story. I am so grateful for each vote of confidence that kept me writing, revising, submitting, and ultimately led to publication.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

Ruby’s story is about finding your own kind of brave.

In drafting this book, I couldn’t help but think back to my grandparents’ stories about immigrating to the United States. My grandmother, especially, never seemed to understand why people could be so cruel when all she wanted to do was work hard and make a better life for her family.

So when, in the book, Ruby finds inspiration from a peer, I could think of no better example of courage than someone who came to this country as a refugee.

But I am not a refugee, so to ensure the authenticity of Ahmad Saleem’s character, I contacted the amazing organization, Integrated Refugee and Immigration Services, (IRIS) in New Haven, Connecticut.

With incredible kindness and generosity, they helped put together a group of refugee youth who read Ruby in the Sky and provided critical advice and counsel to ensure that Ahmad’s story was told accurately and authentically.

The reading group advised me on all kinds of things from Syrian foods and culture, to the spelling of characters’ names, and how Ahmad would keep in touch with friends and families scattered all over the world. I learned so much from these young men and women, not only about the countries they came from, but about their resilience, tenacity and great courage.

One of the most wonderful discussions we had, was when I asked them, “If you could go back to when you first arrived in the United States, what is something you would want to tell your peers?” Their answer was as simple as it is powerful, “Be kind.”

I continue to work with IRIS and am constantly inspired by these amazing young men and women.

Jeanne with Mahmood Mahmood at an IRIS Reading Group event

What advice do you have for beginning children’s writers:

It is my theory that middle grade writers (perhaps unknowingly) try to “fix” something from our past when we write. I had written many drafts of Ruby before I even figured out what that something was. The same is true of my second middle grade novel, A Galaxy of Sea Stars.

All good writing comes from deep inside the heart. Sometimes it eludes us, but it is there and the only way to find it is to keep digging. For me, this is done through meditation, long hikes in the woods with my pal, Meadow, and lots and lots of revision.

My advice to writers is to find the story that your heart is trying to tell, then keep writing and revising it until it rings true. Most of all, don’t ever give up – there is a child out there waiting to read your beautiful words.

Cynsational Notes

Lisa Moore Ramée wrote her first book in second grade. It took some time before she got around to writing her second one. A Good Kind of Trouble (Balzer + Bray, 2019) is her debut novel. See the Teaching Guide.

Outside Lisa’s childhood bedroom was a hallway lined with bookcases. It was like having a magical portal to thousands of other worlds right outside her door. She read everything. Fantasy, contemporary, adventure, mystery, classics, romance. Kids books, adult books—some that her mother took out of Lisa’s room and hid because they were too mature.

And when Lisa wasn’t reading, she was in her room pretending. Picturing herself in the stories she read. Instead of writing fan fiction, she practiced fan drama. Creating complicated further adventures of her favorite characters, with herself planted right in the midst of it.

Things went a little sideways when in fifth grade, after reading Harriet the Spy (by Louise Fitzhugh (Harper & Row, 1964)), she started carrying around a notebook, and scribbling thoughts about her classmates. You can guess what happened. The notebook was found, friendships were broken. Lisa learned a valuable lesson: keep the notebook at home. Skip ahead many years later and while getting her MA in English Literature, Lisa discovered her words didn’t need to stay hidden any longer. And could even be a source of joy.

She started writing short pieces and even got a few published online and then tried her hand at a novel. The first one was an adult horror story, due to her long love of Stephen King novels, but she couldn’t quite capture the darkness King is such a master of. She sputtered around with other tales and finally settled on a book about a young girl struggling to figure out how race impacted her life. As a black girl going to predominantly white schools, Lisa had similar questions growing up, and although A Good Kind of Trouble isn’t autobiographical, it does capture some of the confusion and questions Lisa had about friendship and romance and race at that time. Originally hailing from Los Angeles, Lisa now lives in Northern California with her husband, two children, two cats, and more yard than she can control.

Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo writes middle grade books about kids discovering their inner Brave! Her debut novel, Ruby in the Sky (FSG, 2019) won the SCBWI work-in-progress award, the Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award, and the New Voices in Children’s Literature: Tassy Walden Award.

Her second book, A Galaxy of Sea Stars, also will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Jeanne has worked as a public defender, taught English at a high school in Czechoslovakia, and worked for U.S. Congressman Sam Gejdenson. She lives in Ellington, Connecticut with her husband, two children and hiking pal, Meadow.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.