I am so pleased to introduce debut authors Vicky Fang author of Layla and the Bots (Scholastic, 2020) and Janae Marks, author of From the Desk of Zoe Washington (Katherine Tegen, 2020).
What first inspired you to write for young readers?
I started writing children’s books to inspire and empower kids in STEAM, particularly girls and minorities.
In my career as a technology product designer, I’ve had so much fun creating things like DIY robots, buildings that play music, and interactive storybooks.
For me, technology is magical, and I want kids to be able to see that too! My hope is that my books, such as my chapter books featuring Layla and the Bots, will inspire computer literacy in all kids—while inviting their imaginations to run wild with STEAM possibilities.
Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?
In June 2016, I decided I wanted to write children’s books. I had no idea where to start, but that December, I joined SCBWI and started scouring the forums. I signed up for the annual regional conference in Asilomar. I heard about a mentorship contest called Writing with the Stars (WWTS), run by Tara Luebbe. One of the questions on the WWTS application was whether I belonged to the 12×12 online community. I looked up 12×12 and joined.
At that point, everything started to click into place (even though I didn’t realize it at the time.) In 12×12, I was able to quickly learn a lot about the industry basics and get diverse feedback on my scattershot manuscripts. I received a WWTS mentorship with Peter McCleery, who was amazingly helpful and generous with his time. I went to the Asilomar conference and met my critique partners, Christine Evans and Faith Kazmi, who remain my CPs and good friends to this day. I continued to improve my craft through editor critiques, Storyteller Academy with Arree Chung, and lots and lots of writing. All of this, combined with the welcoming and helpful nature of the kidlit community, contributed to moving me from beginner to publishable.
Of course, that was only the very beginning of the journey and it continues to this day—I am always learning, growing, and thankful to those helping me along on my journey!
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
Find your people! The journey is so odd and long and I really don’t think I would have stuck things out if I hadn’t found camaraderie along the way—from my critique partners, my mentors, my agent, my launch groups, and quite frankly, the generous kidlit community at large. It really helps to have partners along the way to keep you energized and inspired!
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’m in the middle of this right now and feeling all the feels! To make it even more dramatic, my book launches also mark one year after quitting my day job. It’s exciting and unsettling at the same time. I have loved working with my editors and their teams so much—it’s been so exciting to see how everybody’s input shapes and improves a book.
At this very moment, I am thrilled that my books are about to launch, but I am also nervous about the reception and the emotional letdown that many debut authors seem to experience. I’m trying to enjoy my debut year, but also put my energy into the next book and the book after that! I’m not a proactive marketer (I think mostly because I don’t yet understand what’s worthwhile), but I do dive in when I get requests from my publisher or bloggers or launch groups.
Creatively, I’m also looking for ways to grow, like tackling new subject matters or formats. Huge shout out to my agent, Elizabeth Bennett, who always seems to know just what direction to push me in. I’m also starting to do a bit of illustration! Overall, it’s all just an evolution—there will always be new things that I am excited to try and ways in which I hope to grow.
What first inspired you to write for young readers?
When I first started taking creative writing classes during college, I wrote literary short stories intended for adults. I enjoyed writing them but didn’t feel like I’d found my voice yet.
Then during my senior year, I took an elective literature class called “Girls Books.” We read children’s books featuring girl protagonists, like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (Roberts Brothers, 1868), Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (Harper & Row, 1964), Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat (HarperCollins, 1989), Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (Scholastic, 1995).
I hadn’t read these books since I was a young girl myself, and reading them again reminded me how much I loved stories for children—and still connected with them as an adult.
Our final assignment in the class was to write a chapter of our own children’s book. I had the best time writing that chapter and it made me want to keep writing for a younger audience.
After college, I decided to get an MFA in Writing for Children from the New School.
What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?
The worst moments were all of the rejections I got on the first book I queried. Especially the rejection I received after doing a “Revise & Resubmit” for a literary agent who initially seemed really interested in my book.
I knew that most authors’ first books don’t get published. But I really believed in that story, and since I’d worked on it during my MFA program, I really thought at the very least, a literary agent would want to sign me.
Putting that manuscript aside was tough, but absolutely the right decision! Looking back, I see why it didn’t work. It took me several more manuscripts and five more years to get an agent.
I’ve had a lot of great moments, but one highlight is the phone call I had with my agent after From the Desk of Zoe Washington (Katherine Tegen, 2020) went to auction.
It received five offers from publishers. My journey to get to that point was long, and full of lots of up and downs, but I felt so happy and proud at that moment.
All my hard work had finally paid off!
The next best moment was celebrating my book’s launch, and seeing it in bookstores for the first time.
What would you have done differently?
For a long time, I wished it hadn’t taken me so long to finally get published. But having a longer journey taught me perseverance. I also had time to become a better writer.
So now, I don’t have any regrets about how long it took. The only thing I’d do differently is not be so hard on myself for not getting published right away.
As an MFA in Writing student/graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?
I learned a lot in my MFA program—how to write a novel, how to give and receive critique, and more. The program made me a stronger writer. I also made some wonderful, talented writer friends that are still part of my community today.
As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your perspective bring to your story?
For a long time, diverse books featuring Black main characters were predominantly pain narratives. In From the Desk of Zoe Washington, it was important to me to show the positive side of the Black experience.
So while the book does talk about incarceration and systemic racism within the prison system, it also shows Zoe experiencing a lot of joy in her life. She has a loving family, friends, and a fun passion for baking. I had a wonderful childhood, and a lot of African-American kids do, so I wanted this book to show that perspective.
Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology.
Through that work, she came to recognize the gap in education and inspiration, particularly for girls and minorities. She began writing books to provide kids with accessible STEAM-inspired stories that they can read again and again, learning from characters they love.
Her goal is for her books to inspire computer literacy for a wide range of kids—while letting their imaginations run wild with the possibilities of technology!
Janae Marks has an MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Writing for Children from The New School. She grew up in the suburbs of New York City, and now lives in Connecticut with her husband and daughter. From the Desk of Zoe Washington 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.