New Voices: Remy Lai & Cory Leonardo Reflect on their Middle Grade Debuts

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Remy Lai, author and illustrator of Pie in the Sky (Henry Holt, 2019) and Cory Leonardo, author of The Simple Art of Flying (Aladdin, 2019) reflect on the debuts of their middle-grade novels. For both, finding fellow writers as mentors or critique partners along the journey proved invaluable.

Remy Lai

What first inspired you to illustrate for young readers?

I’ve loved reading and writing and drawing since I was very young. I started writing and drawing for myself (as a kid) and never grew out of it. As an adult, I discovered that I really do love writing and drawing for kids, and I decided to stay.

I can’t say why I love writing and drawing that much. Sometimes I feel it as a curse, to have a passion for something that is terribly fickle and un-guaranteed.

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with their representation, connecting your work to a publisher?

As for finding an agent, I spent many, many years querying so, so many manuscripts and getting rejected. I think I have more than twenty rejected full manuscripts.

I finally got my agent through Pitch Wars. When I applied for Pitch Wars, I knew that I had something good with Pie in the Sky, but I also knew there were problems with it that I needed help seeing.

So what I wanted the most out of Pitch Wars was the edit letter from my mentors. I didn’t think much about the agent showcase until it was actually happening. That was the icing on the cake.

Before Pitch Wars, I wasn’t on social media and didn’t have any writer friends. It was a very solitary thing. That might actually have kept me going, because I already spent a lot of my time on writing/drawing, so having interests and friends outside of that world took my mind off all the rejections. But now that I have writing friends, I think people on the journey with you is also invaluable. I can’t imagine not having my Pitch Wars mentors, fellow Pitch Wars ’17 mentees and my critique partners in my life to commiserate and celebrate the ups and downs of publishing.

Earlier this year, I got to go to the U.S. and hang out with two of my critique partners. We had the best time ever.

Remy and her critique partners

I’m glad I got to experience both sides. And I’m still very glad that some of my best friends are not writers. This might sound horrifying, but some of them haven’t even read a book since high school.

For connecting my work to a publisher, all the credit goes to my agent. He got me the best home for Pie in the Sky. When Pie in the Sky went on submission, he started telling me about all the editors and imprints that requested my manuscript and I told him to zip it. I did not want to know who and where had it because I knew I’d be obsessing about it and making myself ill.

My agent, being the awesome agent he is, tailored his methods to his clients’ needs and put me on a need-to-know basis. In the future, I might want to know more things, and I’ll only have to tell him that.

What were the most striking ways your life changed after you transitioned to published author?

When I’m just sitting around with my dogs and staring into nothing and people ask what I’m doing, I get to reply, in a way that’s totally free of guilt, “I’m working out a story plot.”

Before that, whenever I said that, people assumed I was being lazy. Now my daydreaming is valid. Some might even say it’s cool. Ha!

But in other very, very important invisible ways, getting published will not change things. Getting published is fantastic and a dream come true, but it’s not a magic pill. It will not fix you.

I have to keep reminding myself not to neglect people or other things in my life in order to achieve my writing goals.

One other thing about being published is that now I have even more writing and illustrating goals. When one dream comes true, I think you start taking all your other dreams, which might seem ludicrous, more seriously.

Remy’s Illustrations of her friends’ dogs.

How did the outside (non-children’s-YA-lit) world react to the news of your sale?

My close friends were thrilled for me because they have endured years of my whining and crying trying to get a sale. We celebrated. They were all: “Finally! We don’t have to hear any more whining from you!”

Their joy was short-lived. Soon after, they discovered publishing is a never-ending roller coaster of emotions.

Meanwhile, my family’s reaction was very muted—they still don’t get why I chose such a hard path for myself, and I understand where they’re coming from.

I also appreciate that they never told me to quit outright despite not agreeing with my choice. But they probably know that telling me I can’t do something is the surest way to get me all fired up to prove them wrong.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

There were quite a few. There’s this thing that I think is hilarious but my agent might think otherwise. Last year he broke his foot when he tripped on his way to a SpongeBob SquarePants musical. After his surgery, he mentioned that he’d try to catch that musical before it closed.

I sent him a gift—a SpongeBob ebook and told him this was probably a lot safer for him.

He said, “You jerk!” Hahaha.

There was also my Australian/U.S. English battles with my relentless editor over at Holt. He wanted to change all the “toilet” in my manuscript to “bathroom.” I said no at first, when I finally relented, he said, “Thank you!” I don’t know why, but that cracked me up.

Uncolored Illustrations from Remy’s Pie in the Sky

For Pie in the Sky, I had a terrific time working with my agent and relentless editor and the team at Henry Holt (including my book designer Carol Ly and colorist MJ Robinson). I think my experience with them has spoiled me. And I’m ecstatic that I get to work with the same team for my second middle-grade novel, Fly on the Wall, which comes out May 2020.

Cory Leonardo

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

Writing wasn’t really part of the plan. It scared me, actually, to the point that I hold a degree in English but avoided every creative writing class (which is hard to do, so you really have to be committed to the whole no-writing thing).

But after staying home with my kids, figuring out what was next became imperative.

So, eons after college I began researching all the things I could do. I came up with many possibilities, but none felt right.

All the while, the idea of writing kept pestering me, but I kept pushing it away as it was the least “practical” of all my plans.

Years in, and out of sheer desperation, I began to dabble in blogging, considered journalism for a hot second, and then began to reread the novels I grew up with. (Just to see, of course—no way was I really going to make a go of it.)

I went through C.S. Lewis, E.B. White, then turned to the classics I’d missed and the Newbery shelf. DiCamillo. Applegate. Lowry. Paterson. Woodson. Hesse. By then, I was hooked.

And I’d begun to wonder and really consider. To be able to weave fantasy, humor, wonder, beauty, and hope all together within the pages of a story was the best job description I’d ever come across. And I finally gave in. I haven’t wanted to do anything else since.

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

Well, we grow up reading and unconsciously ingesting things like theme, plot, sentence structure, and dialogue, don’t we? Writing starts there.

But from there I closely studied the novels I loved, reading and listening to them again and again and picking them apart for things like voice, narrative/dialogue balance…etc. I read books on craft.

And then I did everything else we’re told to do. I followed kidlit blogs, joined SCBWI. I found critique partners.

I practiced, because at a certain point it’s about doing the thing—and doing it over and over. As someone who still feels intimidated by the prospect of writing, I can’t stress enough the importance of showing up and making yourself write. Do it afraid if you have to.

What do you have to lose? And when you finish one project, start the next.

The turning point for me was being chosen for Pitch Wars by the incomparable Amanda Rawson Hill, author of The Three Rules of Everyday Magic (Boyds Mills, 2018) and Cindy Baldwin, author of Where the Watermelons Grow (HarperCollins, 2018).

Working through my manuscript with them felt like getting a degree in creative writing. Their insights allowed me to see my work with a more critical eye, and it made all the difference.

I’ve noticed that the more times I go through a manuscript with critique partners, betas, my agent, and editors, the more confident I feel. Writing isn’t a science. You’ll never know all there is to know. But there’s always more to explore, so surround yourself with good teachers (and finding them takes time, so don’t lose heart!).

To be brief: read, study, practice, and be on the lookout for extremely wise CPs/beta readers!

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

Not very well, I’ll be honest! I’m much more comfortable wearing my writer hat. (Now that I’ve gotten used it, I’m kind of attached.)

Putting on an author hat requires a completely different skill-set. I’m an introvert that plays a good extrovert—just not online. I feel an odd sense of embarrassment, even guilt every time I tweet.

I’m also not great at putting myself out there and asking for things: appearances, reviews, and the like. Heck, it took courage to recently introduce myself as an author to my local library’s children’s librarian.

I guess the way I approach it is to “know thyself” in this area. I’m never going to be a terrific marketer, and I’m not all that gregarious on social media, though I’m trying.

But I’m committed to writing the best books I can, books with as much heart as I can squeeze inside the pages. And I absolutely love meeting people, whether it’s at conferences or interacting with kids at school visits, places where I can be fully present.

So, if what I can try to do really well is write great books and love on people, I will, and I’ll hope it’s enough. Not necessarily a great marketing ploy but it’s one I can live with.

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

I’m not sure I’ve had a worst moment. The eight-year journey to find an agent wasn’t exactly fun, but it was probably good practice for the glacial pace of publishing.

Losing my editor to another publisher was bitterly unexpected, and sixteen-hour days at the computer editing the same pages for the twentieth time definitely made me face some things about myself that I need to work on, namely perfectionism, procrastination, and how I cope with stress.

Debut year has a lot of anxiety and self-doubt. You never really know what’s going on; and every time you turn around, you’re tempted to stack your book’s accomplishments against someone else’s. It has the potential to rob you of the wonder of it all, if you let it.

But I’ll tell you what. Celebrating that crazy long journey at my book launch was more than enough to make up for any sobbing fit on my kitchen floor, and to do it with all the people who’ve supported me, fits to finish line, was everything I could have asked for.

That day will stay with me forever.

Having the book get picked up in the U.K. and titled Call Me Alastair (Scholastic, 2019) and chosen as an OwlCrate Jr. pick was a dream come true, and I never imagined the friendships that would blossom out of debut year.

And lastly, interacting with kid-readers is the absolute best. I don’t have the liberty to share their stories, but kids are amazing, and I’m honored to be given a platform in their worlds. I don’t take that responsibility lightly. It’s such a gift.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

Hands down, my first visit to Simon & Schuster’s headquarters in New York. It wasn’t long after I stepped off the train that I realized I’d worn the wrong shoes (read: massive blisters for weeks). And lugging a very large tub of homemade pumpkin bread and caramel corn a dozen blocks proved…sweaty.

To top it off, I got my visitor’s pass at the security desk, promptly busted through the turnstiles, and set off the alarm. (I think one of the guards actually rolled his eyes at me.)

I managed to keep the whole thing quiet throughout introductions and breakfast, but by the end of my visit with my delightful editor, Tricia Lin, I fessed up. Just so you know, you’re supposed to scan that visitor’s pass, not throw it in your back pocket!

Cynsational Notes

Remy Lai writes and draws for kids. She was born in Indonesia, grew up in Singapore and currently lives in Australia. She loves dogs. Sometimes, she eats ice cream for breakfast.

Cory Leonardo, author of the Parents’ Choice award-winning book The Simple Art of Flying and Call Me Alastair, grew up believing she’d replace Vanna White on “Wheel of Fortune.” When that didn’t work out, she decided she’d turn letters and phrases in a different way (but minus the glittery dresses, sadly).

A born and bred upstate New Yorker, she currently lives in the Syracuse area with her husband, a collection of snow shovels, and her three plucky children.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction.