New Voices: Former Teachers Bea Birdsong & Vivian Kirkfield Discuss Their Storytelling Journeys

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

I am thrilled to get to introduce Cynsations readers to Bea Birdsong and Vivian Kirkfield, two former teachers turned writers.

With their background in education and having spent years reading to children, it is no wonder that their passion is writing the absolute best stories that they can for kids.

Bea Birdsong

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

Roaring Brook

In the fall of 2016, I attended my first SCBWI Carolinas conference. I had no completed manuscripts, no agent, and no idea I would ever be a picture-book author.

My half-finished manuscript was a middle-grade fantasy. In February of 2017, I wrote I Will Be Fierce, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani (Roaring Brook, 2019) and sent it to my critique group. Two of my critique partners contacted me early in the week to say, “I can’t even wait until we meet to say you have to send this book out to agents.” When we met later that week, the rest of the group was just as encouraging.

So, I went on Twitter, because that is what all productive writers do with their time, and I looked up the hashtag MSWL (Manuscript Wish List). Agents and editors use this hashtag to tweet what they are looking for in their submissions.

That particular week, it seemed like every other agent tweeted that they wanted something fitting the description, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

So, I sent a query letter and my story to four of them. The first agent I queried is the one I ended up signing with, Melissa Edwards of Stonesong Literary Agency.

Melissa was the perfect advocate for my book. We had interest from multiple editors, which was something I never expected. Melissa set a date for an auction, but before we got there we accepted a preempt deal with Connie Hsu at Roaring Brook (Macmillan). Connie then brought Nidhi Chanani on board to illustrate.

It was a dream scenario, and I will never stop being thankful I experienced it.

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?

I thought I was prepared for the transition from writer to author. I had more than a year and a half from book deal to publication day. During that time, I read many blogs, articles, and tweets about what to expect your debut year. I made sure I had a website. I ordered stickers and tattoos to give away. I planned my wardrobe for the book tour my publisher arranged. I agonized over the perfect refreshments for my book launch party.

Three months post-launch I can tell you that (with the possible exception of the website) none of these things are important.

Fun? Yes.

Necessary? No.

What is important during your debut year?

The people.

Pre-launch, my relationships within the world of publishing were limited to my agent, my editors, my illustrator, my critique group, and my publicity team. I am grateful for each of these connections. They are important to me personally and professionally.

What I did not anticipate was how that small group would grow the minute I Will Be Fierce hit the shelves.

Booksellers, librarians, teachers, other authors, and readers of all ages suddenly knew who I was. They were excited to meet me. They sent me emails and direct messages. They stood in lines to get my autograph. They told me what my book meant to them. They recommended my book to others.

“Fierce” art projects by the students of Beaumont Magnet Academy in Knoxville, Tennessee

All of these connections led to the second thing I hadn’t expected (and was totally unprepared to handle): a rollercoaster of emotions. Even casual praise is difficult for me to accept, and suddenly I was in a position to meet so many people who went much further than that.

The woman battling stage-four cancer who told me she felt I’d written her story. The children who were told by parents and grandparents they could only buy one item and chose my book. The girl who practiced saying “I will be fierce!” all day before coming to meet me. The boy who whispered I’d written the best book he’d ever read. I am humbled beyond words they connected to my story.

So, how am I planning to deal with all of this moving forward?

I am going to do my best to appreciate each moment and each person who is a part of my journey in publishing. I’m going to try to see myself as a real author and not as the imposter who will surely be thrown out of this bookstore/library/school the minute the truth is revealed.

Finally and most importantly, I am going to keep in mind every single reader—those I’ve met or heard from and those I haven’t—as I write more books.

I’m writing for them. And they deserve the very best I can do.

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

The basic advice every beginning writer needs to follow is to read everything you can, write what you want to write rather than what you think will sell, find critique partners who will give you honest and constructive feedback, and be open to feedback and willing to make changes if necessary.

Chery Munns, Diana McCarthy, and Bea

But once you’re doing all of that, what will take you to the next level?

When I visit schools, I give a talk for students on the power of purpose, positivity, and persistence. It focuses on helping students understand how to define their purpose by setting specific goals, work toward their goals with a positive attitude, and persist in the face of challenges.

Writers need this same talk. In order to move to the next level, from pre-published to published, writers need to embrace the power of P. You must define your purpose.

Just saying, “I want to be a published author” is not enough.

Be specific about what you want and what you will do to achieve it. Write your goals down. Then, work toward your goals with a positive attitude.

In publishing, misery loves company. Conversations between writers and illustrators are very likely to focus on how difficult this business is. And there is value in acknowledging the challenges.

But then, you need to reaffirm your commitment to overcoming them. To focus on what you can do instead of what you fear you will never do. And, finally, don’t give up.

There are children in the world who need to read your stories. You owe it to yourself and to those children to keep going.

Vivian Kirkfield

 What first inspired you to write for young readers?

The path of my life seems to have been paved with picture books, so I think it was probably inevitable that I would write for children at some point.

As a kid, I loved books. They were my window on the world—my way of connecting with people I had never met and places I had never seen. In fact, I took out so many that when I left the library, people probably thought I was a stack of books come to life.

Early on, I knew I wanted to become a kindergarten teacher (more picture books, right?). That was a big dream for me. As a teacher, picture books were my go-to activity. When I retired and my own children were grown with children of their own, I wrote a book about using picture books to build self-esteem and develop math, science, and literacy skills.

Vivian visiting Lane School in Hinesdale, Illinois.

Show Me How! Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem Through Reading, Crafting, and Cooking (MoneyPenny Press, Ltd, 2010) gave me the nudge to start blogging because I needed to spread the word and get the books out of boxes and into the hands of parents and teachers.

But blogging also introduced me to a whole community of writers who wanted to become picture book authors. Aha! Now I had a new dream! I wanted to become a picture book author, too!

And the best thing about that dream coming true is that I get to share my own books with children, and when they turn the pages, they can step into the world I’ve created and they can find information and inspiration for their own journeys in life.

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

At conference presentations, I talk about the path to publication. I compare it to making a pizza. You’ve got to have ingredients and combine them in a process. Passion, productivity/practice, patience, and persistence are the ingredients I found most important as I took this journey.

And the process included reading lots of picture books, writing lots of stories, revising over and over and over again. I was very fortunate, so I guess the element of luck does come into play.

Just when I decided I wanted to write for children, Julie Hedlund decided she wanted to start a challenge called 12×12 – write twelve picture book drafts in twelve months in 2012. I was on board immediately and I credit 12×12 with helping me build an important foundation.

As Jane Yolen says, BIC…Butt in Chair. And in order to write twelve picture book drafts in one year, my butt was definitely in the chair.

I also took classes…yes, I know…I waited till 2014 to do that.

Why, you might ask? Because after all, I got A’s in English…I certainly knew how to write, right? But no, writing picture books requires specific tools and techniques, skills I learned while enrolled in five online picture book writing classes that year.

In addition, I joined critique groups…lots of them…because I realized that getting feedback…and embracing it…was the only way I would make my stories strong enough to attract the attention of editors. I participated in online writing challenges and contests…lots of them…because I believed that the more I wrote, the better my writing would become.

And by 2015, three years into the process, I started getting very positive feedback from agents.

By the end of 2015, I signed with my fabulous agent, Essie White from Storm Literary Agency. She sent out the first story I had sent her and within two months, we had a book deal.

And please remember…there is that element of luck. You can write the most fabulous story…but it has to cross the desk of the editor who falls in love with it. And just because the editor falls in love with it, doesn’t mean you will get a book deal…maybe they just published a similar book or the sales and marketing team don’t think they can make enough money on it.

My best advice? Write with passion. Keep practicing. Be patient. And never ever give up… Persistence is the key because the only failure is the failure to keep trying.

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

Creston Books

I think that each story we write has its own specific challenges. But writing nonfiction picture books, especially about people who are deceased and not well-known, can be difficult to research.

This happened with Sweet Dreams, Sarah illustrated by Chris Ewald (Creston Books, 2019).

In researching Sarah E. Goode, I reached out to my local librarian…who reached out to librarians at some of the bigger libraries: The Schlesinger Library which is part of the Radcliff Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the Harsh Research Collection at the Chicago Public Library.

One of the librarians responded: “Wow! Your author seems to have amassed much more information than we ever dreamed there would be. We have nothing in our files on Goode and her name only comes up every Black History Month when some unlucky child has her name assigned for a report. All we’ve ever been able to lead them to is a photo of the patent and a brief blurb in a ‘Black Inventors’ book. Essentially nothing more than can be found on the internet.”

And that response made me even more determined to dig deeper and write this story! I found information in census records and city directories and even contacted the cemetery where Sarah E. Goode is buried. They were very helpful and sent me a printout of a list of people buried in Sarah’s family plot. I’m happy to say that on a recent visit to Chicago, I was able to lay flowers and, at the request of my six-year old granddaughter, I read the book at Sarah’s gravesite.

Sarah Goode’s gravesite with Vivian’s book and flowers.

But in addition to the challenge of finding enough information, I had to find something in Sarah’s story that kids could relate to…I think most kids have dreams. They might want to be a fireman or an astronaut or own a horse or drive a car. So, right in the beginning, I establish that Sarah had dreams…and throughout the story, with every page turn, she works at building her dream into a reality. Kids are looking to connect with the characters in the books that they read.

My ten-year old grandson and I went to the library, and he took out a pile of Big Nate books by Lincoln Peirce (Andrews McMeel Publishers). On the way home in the car, he read one. And had finished the second by the time his mom picked him up early that afternoon.

“Why do you love these books so much?” I asked him.

“I can relate to the characters,” he told me.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

Okay. I have to share this because even though it may make me look like not such a good researcher, it’s totally funny and it shines a light on the importance of collaboration.

A book is the product of teamwork, right? The author, the illustrator, the editor…all bring a vision to the table. And then the art director, book designer, publicist, and others join in to add their strengths and expertise. But collaboration doesn’t always happen in the publishing industry.

In the past four years, I’ve worked with five different publishing houses and five different editors and five different illustrators, and at every opportunity, I advocate for collaboration!


I was very lucky because my agent paired one of my manuscripts, Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book, illustrated by Mirka Hokannen (PomegranateKids, 2019), with art samples from one of her illustrator clients. An editor fell in love and bought my words and her art. And the magic began.

And it was magic, because Mirka Hokannen shared with me all of her early sketches and her vision for the story.

I was also very lucky because Mirka is an illustrator who understands the importance of research.

Before she began drawing, she researched each animal. One afternoon, early into the process, she called me.

Mirka: Vivian, we have a problem.

Me: What’s up, Mirka?

Mirka: The Golden Cheeked Warbler doesn’t live in the Colorado ecosystem.

Me: Sure it does…it lives in Colorado Bend State Park.

Mirka: Look at the map.

Now, if someone were to ask you where Colorado Bend State Park was, I’m sure you would say…Colorado. But no. It is not! Colorado Bend State Park is in…Texas.

Thank goodness for collaboration. We quickly found another animal to takes its place. And of course, I informed the editor right away. He was fine with it. But how much better it was that we fixed the problem before time was spent on an illustration that would have to be trashed.

What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?

I’m a huge fan of reaching out and connecting with others in the writing/illustrating community. Although I grew up in the pre-computer era, I’ve embraced the internet and celebrate the ability to be chatting with friends in Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand, and Switzerland…in fact, I love connecting so much that I actually traveled around the world earlier this year. Invited to speak at an SCBWI conference in Sydney, I flew to Australia at the end of February.

Then I spent three weeks with a wonderful critique buddy who lives in Auckland. She arranged book events for me since my three debut picture books were launching during the time I was going to be away. Over 100 first graders enjoyed hearing about the endangered animals in Four Otters Toboggan. And we had a fabulous library story time in Glen Eden.

Then it was on to Switzerland and a couple of weeks with another fabulous critique buddy who set up a school visit at an International School where she teaches. Since she had two books that debuted, we both read stories and did crafts with the little ones.

Making masks with children in Auckland.

My last stop was the Bologna Book Fair—what a thrill to see my books there!

The final day of my trip, we trained to Florence where we met up with one of my mentors who lives in Italy, Renee LaTulippe, whose wonderful Lyrical Language Lab course taught me so much about the rhythm of a picture book story.

I’m back now, but continue to reach out via social media to lift up other authors and their books with my Perfect Picture Book Friday book reviews, Will Write for Cookies author/illustrator interviews, and posts that feature cover reveals and book birthdays.

I host the 50PreciousWords Contest every March and the 50PreciousWordsforKids International Writing Challenge every May because I truly believe that there is a storyteller in the heart of every man, woman, and child.

And I’ve just been tagged to be a mentor in Justin Colon’s PBChat Mentorship Program which makes me so very happy because there is nothing better than helping someone else follow their dreams…as I tell kids at school visits: Nothing is impossible if you can imagine it!

Cynsational Notes

Bea Birdsong is a former teacher whose time in the classroom left a lasting impression of the awesome power of books to educate, entertain, and empower. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and Sisters in Crime. Bea lives in North Carolina with her husband, son, and spoiled rescue dog. She spends her free time reading, traveling, and searching for hidden doors to other worlds.

Bea is the author of I Will Be Fierce! (Roaring Brook) and the forthcoming Sam’s First Word (Little, Brown). She is represented by Melissa Edwards of Stonesong Literary Agency. Visit Bea at her website or on Twitter. Download the I Will Be Fierce Storytime Kit.

Writer for children—reader forever…that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words. Her bucket list contains many more than five words – but she’s already checked off skydiving, parasailing, banana-boat riding, and visiting critique buddies all around the world.

When she isn’t looking for ways to fall from the sky or sink under the water, she can be found writing picture books in the quaint village of Amherst, New Hampshire where the old stone library is her favorite hangout and her young grandson is her favorite board game partner.

A retired kindergarten teacher with a masters in Early Childhood Education, Vivian inspires budding writers during classroom visits and shares insights with aspiring authors at conferences and on her blog, Picture Books Help Kids Soar where she hosts the #50PreciousWords International Writing Contest.

She is the author of Pippa’s Passover Plate, illustrated by Jill Weber (Holiday House, 2019); Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book illustrated by Mirka Hokannen (Pomegranate, 2019); Sweet Dreams, Sarah, illustrated by Chris Ewald (Creston Books, 2019); Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe (Little Bee Books, Jan. 14, 2020); and From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fall 2020).

You can connect with Vivian on her website, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Linkedin, or just about any place people with picture books are found.

Stephani Martinell Eaton (also a former teacher) 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.