New Voices: Nikki Barthelmess & Laura Sibson on Using Memories to Create Authentic Fiction

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Both Nikki Barhtelmess, author of The Quiet You Carry (Flux, 2019) and Laura Sibson, author of The Art of Breaking Things (Viking, 2019), revisited personal memories to write authentic stories of teens.

Nikki Barthelmess

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

Growing up in an abusive family, I read books to escape. My maternal grandmother, who was a wonderful supportive influence in my life when I was a child and who I remain close to, often took me to the library when I was young. I ate up all the stories I could. I enjoyed getting lost in the pages of a book, but I also learned about the kind of person I wanted to be. I didn’t have many real-life role models, so I tried to emulate the characters I admired in stories.

Reading continued to help me cope with the difficult circumstances when I went into foster care at 12 years old.

Similarly, I’ve always loved writing. I tried to make sense of the chaos in my life by putting my thoughts down on paper.

When I was in college studying journalism, I got an idea for a YA dystopian novel. I remembered how books transported me to another world when I needed it most. So I wrote all hours of the night, no matter how busy I was with classes, extracurriculars and working. Though that novel never sold, I kept writing YA fiction. I’m so glad I did!

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Before my dad went to prison, I didn’t know much about foster care and neither did the kids around me at school. Things were already tough for me in my first group home. I ended up separated from my siblings, and my mom died of cancer within a year after I went into the state’s custody. The way both kids and adults sometimes treated me like I was a bad kid, like it was my fault I was in foster care, didn’t help matters. I felt so unwanted and, sometimes, even hopeless.

When I set out to write a story about a teen in foster care, I wanted to show the struggle of a foster kid, but more importantly, I wanted readers to see how she pushes hard for a better life for herself and the ones she loves.

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

My main character in The Quiet You Carry isn’t based on me, but there are similarities in our stories. I’ve had, and sometimes continue to have, the emotions I gave Victoria.

Victoria desperately yearns for freedom as she tries to hold her life together because that is how I felt in foster care. I am all too familiar with the sadness she feels from being abused and abandoned. At times, it was painful reliving those feelings. But I felt it was an important to draw from real emotions to help me write an authentic story.

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

Live a full and thrilling life. We can’t write well about the things that excite readers if we don’t get out there and experience some of them. Do things that invigorate and scare you.


Meet new people and listen to their stories. Doing so can help you learn about others, why they do what they do, and how those actions affect them.

The way we see the world comes from our backgrounds and our experiences, along with the people we meet along the way and what we learn from them. The more we push ourselves out of our comfort zones, the more material we have to draw from to write our books.

What would you have done differently?

If I could force my past self to listen to reason, I would try to live in the present rather than thinking everything would get better once I got an agent or once I had a book deal. Because there’s always another thing to strive for, even after reaching those milestones.

The struggles and experiences I had prior to publication were meaningful and helpful in their own ways. Though I realize while it’s good to keep pushing yourself professionally, it’s important to learn how to be content where you are and enjoy the journey, too.

Laura Sibson

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I’d always wanted to write a novel and a little over ten years ago, I found space in my life to pursue that dream. Right around that time, I’d picked up Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (Little, Brown, 2005) at my local library. Although I’d devoured the entire Harry Potter (Scholastic) series by J.K. Rowling by then, I had never read a young adult novel with a teen girl as the main character.

Suddenly, everything fell into place for me. I knew that I wanted to write from a teen perspective. Ever since then, I’ve loved crafting stories centering on the adolescent experience–whether they be contemporary stories like The Art of Breaking Things or stories featuring paranormal or fantasy elements like my earlier manuscripts.

I am interested in the ways that teens navigate the tension between their growing need for independence and their relative lack of agency.

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

After reading Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Eternal (Candlewick, 2009) and adoring it, I was intrigued to find a bibliography at the end of the book. That led me to Cyn’s website, which was packed full of advice for budding writers. I was so grateful for the information that she shared with hopeful writers like me. I noted that she taught at VCFA, but I had no idea what that was.

I reached out to Cyn and she explained all about Vermont College of Fine Arts and encouraged me to apply. I was accepted and though Cyn took a break from teaching there during my time (July 2010-July 2012), I’ve always been grateful for her encouragement.

While at VCFA I worked with four advisors and I also developed a network of writer friends who are my beta-readers and support network to this day. I’ve never stopped writing–even when I wasn’t sure that my books would ever be published. I don’t think that I could stop at this point!

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

I was inspired to write The Art of Breaking Things based on something that happened to me when I was young. In some ways, the story flowed out of me. But in other ways, it was psychologically challenging. The story is fiction, but it was important to me to be as emotionally authentic as possible, so that meant revisiting difficult moments from my past. The distance from the actual event and the work I’ve done in therapy allowed me to be in a strong place to tell the story in a way that has resonated with readers.

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

Landing an agent has been the most difficult aspect of my journey. When I was ready to query The Art of Breaking Things, I developed an excel spreadsheet of about 80 agents. I received full requests almost immediately, but eight months later, none of them had turned into offers.

I took a break from querying and started working on a brand-new project. By the time I started querying again (encouraged by a writing friend), the #metoo movement had hit the mainstream.

Suddenly, there was increased interest in stories like mine. Brianne Johnson of Writers House read the manuscript and offered representation within a few weeks. She then sold the manuscript at auction within six weeks.

What would you have done differently?

Every manuscript has made me a better writer and a stronger person. By the time I queried The Art of Breaking Things, I fully understood that publishing is a subjective business–that a pass from one agent did not mean that the work was without merit.

I certainly wish that I hadn’t allowed rejections to affect me as much as they did. Perhaps I wish that I hadn’t given up so soon with my earlier manuscripts, but at the same time, I’m grateful for the setbacks and the lessons. Every experience has prepared me for where I am today.

Cynsational Notes

Nikki Barthelmess is an author of young adult books, including The Quiet You Carry (out now!), Quiet No More (Flux, fall 2020), and Everything Within And In Between (HarperChildrens, fall 2021).

Nikki entered foster care in Nevada at twelve and spent the next six years living in six different towns. During this time, Nikki found solace in books, her journal, and the teachers who encouraged her as a writer.

A graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, Nikki lives in Los Angeles with her husband and her pride-and-joy Corgi pup.

After a career in undergraduate counseling, Laura Sibson pursued an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she’s not writing in a local coffee shop, you can find her running the neighborhood streets or hiking with her dog. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and their two sons. The Art of Breaking Things is her debut novel.

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.