New Voices: Meredith Davis & Nicole Valentine On Being An Author

By Gayleen Rabakukk

I’m thrilled to introduce two debut authors to the Cynsations audience today. I met both at Vermont College of Fine Arts several years ago while we were all working on MFAs in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Both write middle grade, but their books are very different, illustrating the depth and diversity that exists in children’s literature.

Meredith Davis is the co-author of Her Own Two Feet: A Rwandan Girl’s Brave Fight To Walk (Scholastic, October 2019), with Rebeka Uwitonze. The middle grade non-fiction book shares Rebeka’s journey from her Rwandan home to Austin, Texas; where she undergoes a life-changing surgery.

Nicole Valentine wrote A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity (Carolrhoda, October 2019). It’s the story of 12-year-old Finn, who clings to concrete facts in his physics books, but is forced to put his trust in something bigger than logic to find his missing mother.

Meredith Davis

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


It is a love affair that goes way back to 1995, when I got a job at Toad Hall, a local independent children’s bookstore.

I was surrounded by people who were passionate about children’s books, from the owner to booksellers to customers to visiting authors and illustrators.

Kathi Appelt helped me start the Austin chapter of SCBWI, and my eyes were opened even wider to the huge kid lit community in Texas and beyond. Over the years, I connected with authors and illustrators at conferences and workshops, monthly meetings and critique groups.

Fast forward to 2019, many of those relationships have endured and many more have been made. Advanced reader copies of Her Own Two Feet were distributed at the Texas Library Association conference where I met teachers and librarians. Kathi Appelt, the one who helped me start Austin’s SCBWI chapter back in 1995, will introduce me at my book launch Oct. 19, and in the chairs will be old and new kid-lit friends. My relationship roots run wide and deep.

Meredith and Kathi Appelt

As an MFA in Writing graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

Meredith and Gayleen at their favorite coffee shop.

Writing critical essays at Vermont College of Fine Arts helped me gain confidence in the national and international children’s literature conversation.

My class, the Bat Poets, was a group of passionate, talented writers I never would have gotten to know outside of VCFA.

In fact, one of those Bat Poets, Gayleen Rabakuk, moved to Austin and we meet almost weekly to write. And working with so many talented teachers pushed me to finish what I started, try new things, and be brave enough to re-envision my stories, equipped with the skills and guts to write and rewrite.

I signed with my agent after graduating, and the Bat Poets and my teachers cheered when I got my contract from Scholastic. Fellow Bat Poets Cori McCarthy and VCFA grad Amy Rose Capetta came to Austin where we all celebrated our new releases at TLA. The community and experiences have made my journey so much richer.

Amy Rose Capetta, Cori McCarthy, Meredith and Gayleen at the Texas Library Association conference.

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

My biggest challenge in co-writing Her Own Two Feet is that my co-author, Rebeka Uwitonze, is a teenager living in Rwanda with very limited access to the internet!

We first met when Rebeka came to live with my family for almost a year while she had surgeries on her club feet. Our book is her story.

In 2017, our collaboration became official when I traveled to Rwanda. We hashed out the general shape of the novel, what scenes to include and not include, and even ideas for titles. We walked around her home and school and talked to her parents and teachers. After I left, when I talked to Rebeka it was sometimes by proxy, sometimes through Skype.

Meredith and Rebeka in Rwanda.

A summer later, in 2018, the book sold to Scholastic. I brought CDs of our book recorded in Rebeka’s native language, and that week we edited, revised, and addressed our editor’s comments and questions. This summer, 2019, I traveled back to Rwanda with copies of the ARC. The challenges make our debut even sweeter.

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 have longed for the day I could say I’m a published author, and now that the day is here I sway between massive bouts of joy and happy dances, and moments of anxiety. There are days when I feel guilty for not working on my latest manuscript, and I have to remind myself that marketing and promotion are also works in progress.

In addition to my “to do” list, I keep an “I did it” list. Each day I celebrate small victories like learning how to make an animated gif or editing a video I’ll be showing at school visits. These help me keep moving forward with confidence toward our book’s publication date, book launch party and upcoming school visits. I am incredibly thankful for those who have gone before me and are willing to share their insights and advice. I hope I can do the same for others.

Joy Fisher Hein, Anne Bustard, Kathi Appelt, Meredith Davis, Debbie Leland, Cynthia Leitich Smith and Lindsey Lane.

Nicole Valentine

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?


The deal was inked and I realized I had no idea what I should be doing to prepare for debut year. I got to work and immediately found two resources that were incredibly helpful. A blog series called Debut Author Lessons by the Hugo/Nebula Award-winning author of The Calculating Stars (Tor, 2018), Mary Robinette Kowal. I can’t recommend it enough. Even though the series is old the information is remarkably timeless.

The other was from fellow VCFA alum, Deb Gonzalez, author of Girls with Guts, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (Charlesbridge, 2019). She offered an online class that helped me realize not only how to identify and schedule the many tasks in front of me, but how to look at all my work objectively and distill my message.

It’s easy for us as creatives to look at marketing as a distasteful task. We don’t like to commodify our art, but really what it boils down to is identifying the common themes across our life’s work. It doesn’t sound so bad when you think of it that way.

We all have a message. We have recurring themes and we need to talk about them so like-minded souls can find us. I realized the whole reason I’m doing what I do is for that moment when the reader takes that inhale of breath and realizes, I am not alone. That reader, the one who desperately needs to feel seen, has to be able to find me first. They won’t be able to if I don’t tell the world what I’m about.

For me, it’s clear. I’m passionate about defending science and rigorous thought. The study of science creates better analytical thinkers, a more informed citizenry, people who are better stewards of our world.

I believe when scientific discovery borders on awe-inspiring it is capable of giving hope. Reading about the expanse of both our world and the universe made my problems feel smaller as a child, it made me feel part of something bigger. This theme resonates in all my work.

I want to give middle grade readers an opportunity to find the magic in science and make sure they have the same mixture of reverence and skepticism. When so much about our current world places science under attack and constant denial, it is deeply imperative that children experience wonder in learning about their universe.

steaMG: The Middle Grade Sci-Fi Authors Alliance is an exciting new platform that you started. What prompted you to put it together and what sort of response have you received?

Thank you, I’m glad you like us! Once I realized what it was I had to say, I began to wonder what friends in the industry thought. I knew I didn’t see enough of the kind of science-minded middle grade books that saved me as a kid. Did anyone else feel the same? When I asked others what sci-fi middle grade books they recommended, they often referred me to the same five books or titles that were over twenty years old. I wondered if some of my friends had similar frustrations.

An alliance could promote the need for these books and highlight the ones that were out there. It could become a networking resource. I dreamed of a group that was representative, as diverse as our middle grade readership. It was very much a leap of faith. It was my “if you build it, they will come” moment.

I registered URLs and began building the framework and put a call out on author social media pages. I didn’t expect anyone to join me. I wasn’t well-known. It meant they’d have to put their trust in me to build something they wouldn’t mind having their name affiliated with. I fully expected to fail. I was wrong. They came! A leap of faith is a big part of any endeavor.

The initial group that joined me formed our identity. They are awe-some. I take no credit other than begging for help and gathering brilliant ideas. It’s been about seven months since we started and we’re building a following of educators, librarians, authors and readers. We’ve scheduled a few live middle-grade STEM events. We’ve grown and will be adding more members in the next few months, which means more content and more online resources.

Nicole teaching at Highlights

As an author-teacher, how do your various roles inform one another?

I teach the Brain Trust portion of the Whole Novel Workshop at the Highlights Foundation with fellow leader Rob Costello. I’ve been doing this for six years and I love being allowed in on the early part of the creative process. It’s an absolute honor when a fellow writer trusts you with a draft. I derive a lot of energy from the round table process as well as one-on-one mentoring.

Workshopping a whole novel versus first chapters or standalone scenes means you get to play with structure, pacing and character arcs.

Teaching at Highlights keeps me on top of my own craft too. I find myself lecturing on whatever I’m struggling with at the time and it feeds my work. I come home recharged.

Highlights now has a photographer on campus that takes some candid shots while we’re teaching and I have to say, some of mine are funny. I like the ones where I look like I’m casting spells.

Time travel seems to be a trendy topic right now, but I’ve noticed many middle grade time travel novels skew towards fantasy, rather than science fiction. What drew you to take the science fiction route and how did you address the extra challenges that presents?

Ha! Am I trendy yet? This novel took a long time to sell. I beat Madeleine L’Engle on number of editorial rejections, that’s for sure. You should do what you love and wait till the trends find you.

Time travel was a hard sell a few years ago, and the fact that A Time Traveler’s Theory Of Relativity is upper middle grade didn’t make it any easier. Twelve and thirteen-year old protagonists are no longer an automatic no, thank goodness. Librarians and teachers made it clear there was a need.

As for middle-grade sci-fi, I hope there will continue to be a place for it. It’s my wheelhouse. I didn’t start out saying I want to write sci-fi. I just knew I wanted to write this particular story as a time travel novel. It was the right metaphor for the family story I was telling.

It is about how grief turns us into time travelers, once you lose someone you are thrust from your own timeline, forever traveling backwards to think of them in the past, or bringing them forward to show them your life as it is now.

My tech and science background is where I get my love for the thorny details, but anyone well-versed in science fiction will tell you my book is soft sci-fi. It’s not surprising that this is where my heart resides. I grew up reading Ursula LeGuin and Madeleine L’Engle.

I read a lot of hard sci-fi too, but the works that continue to inspire me are the ones that move into deep theoretical territory.

I wanted my time travel to feel plausible to the middle grade reader, but I also wanted it to feel magical. I made conscious choices to introduce magical realism while also depicting heavier concepts in theoretical physics. My hope is to create a profound awe for science that neatly coexists with the already established love my middle grade readers have for fantasy.

Cynsational Notes

Meredith Davis writes, reads, and loves books for children. Her debut narrative nonfiction middle grade Her Own Two Feet: A Rwandan Girl’s Brave Fight To Walk was recently published by Scholastic.

Once upon a time, she worked at Toad Hall, an independent children’s bookstore, started the Austin Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), traveled her way through thirty-five countries in nine and a half months, and earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is married with three children and lives with a home full of books in Austin, Texas.

She’ll be celebrating Her Own Two Feet: A Rwandan Girl’s Brave Fight To Walk with her writing community at 2 p.m. Oct. 19 at BookPeople.

Nicole Valentine, author photos by Nina Pomeroy Photography

Nicole Valentine earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches writing workshops at the Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.

As the former chief technology officer at and, Nicole loves science and as a writer enjoys pondering the times when science falls short of explanation and magic has room to sneak in.

She’s the founder of, The Middle-Grade Sci-fi Authors Alliance. When not engaged in fictional world-building, Nicole can often be found with a hawk on her arm.

A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity is her debut novel. She lives in Pennsylvania with her human family, two giant dogs named Merlin and Arthur, and two small cats named Tink and Pickwick.

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. She’s worked with Cynthia Leitich Smith as a Cynsations intern since 2016 and also serves as assistant regional advisor for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Gayleen is represented by Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary Agency.