Career Achievers: Deborah Wiles on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Deborah Wiles is a successful children’s-YA author with a long, distinguished career.

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

It took me a long time to learn to write my own story. I was born in Mobile, Alabama and grew up around the world in an Air Force family, but spent my summers in Mississippi, where my parents were from. Some of my earliest and most profound memories involve issues surrounding fairness, race, justice, and confusion, along with a deep desire for home and the love of a family, kinship, and connection, although I wouldn’t have been able to articulate any of this then.

My first picture book, Freedom Summer illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue, was published in January 2001 by Atheneum/Simon & Schuster/Anne Schwartz, followed a few months later by my first novel, Love, Ruby Lavender, published by Liz Van Doren at Harcourt Books. Both of these books are still in print and going strong. I hope to celebrate their 20th anniversaries in some meaningful way in 2021.

Both of those books, and each of my successive books, is about those earliest and most profound themes in my life. I take my life and I turn it into stories. That’s all I do. When I teach, I teach personal narrative writing, because that is the backbone of all other writing, and if you can dive deep into personal essays (which are my first love), your fiction will thank you.

I got married as a teenager and had two children before I was 21, so am very self-taught as a writer, and worked my way into freelancing by basically asking for the job and then teaching myself how to do it. It’s kind of how I do everything.

I became a single parent very young as well, so I was working at a construction site by day—the only woman on the job, in the trailer, ordering the supplies and making the coffee and, once I got my feet under me, writing the newsletter—helping to build the D.C. subway system in the 1970s. I spent my lunchtimes across the street at the Tenley Circle branch of the D.C. Public Library, reading through the 800s on how to write, and practicing at night, after my kids were in bed, writing longhand on a yellow legal pad.

I got remarried and had two more children in the ’80s, and I was astonished at how much children’s books had changed. I stumbled on Cynthia Rylant’s first book, When I Was Young in the Mountains, illustrated by Diane Goode (Dutton, 1982), and said, “I want to do that.”

It took me ten years of rejections, before anyone was willing to work with me, and during those ten years, I applied myself to learning all I could about the business, about writing for young people, and about finding my own voice.

I joined SCBWI. I faithfully attended the Children’s Book Guild of D.C.’s annual Children’s Literature Festival and also their annual non-fiction award ceremony, which still continues today. Back then, there were few avenues to hear from editors and published writers, and I cherished these opportunities. I took notes. It makes me smile to remember young me, sitting at a round table with seven others, a white tablecloth and china in front of me, scribbling in my notebook as each speaker’s golden words rained down.

These were formative experiences, and they gave me hope. And I wrote bad stories. I didn’t understand yet how to harness my own life and turn it into stories. But along the way, I came to know the canon of children’s literature intimately through the books at my excellent public library in Frederick, Maryland, where I lived at the time. The more I read, the better writer I became.

There is no replacement for knowing your canon and learning how to read like a writer. I was engaged in that work for a long, long time. A story I wrote about my aunt’s childhood in Mississippi in the 1930s got the attention of an editor at Knopf in 1990 but I didn’t understand revision then…and again, it wasn’t my story.

On the advice of a poet friend, I took a writing class at my local community college in the mid-’90s, and it was there that the light bulb came on. I wrote a “20-Projects poem” about my childhood in Mississippi that I titled “We All Be Jovie and That’s the Truth.” The little girl in that poem became Ruby Lavender and five years later the poem became a novel, working with Liz at Harcourt, who read the poem when I sent it to her and didn’t reject it.

Liz and I bled over every revision of that book. I can build you a world, I can characterize, I can write some killer dialogue, and I could not for the life of me understand how to plot. I still work very hard at plot (and everything else).

When the book was done and about to be published, Liz laughed in relief and said, “We can’t go on like this,” and wrote the recommendation that accompanied my application to attend Vermont College, or VCFA as it’s known today, to get my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

But the biggest bump along the way to publication was becoming suddenly single two weeks before the publication of Freedom Summer (the words “internet” and “soul mate” were used) and three weeks before my first semester in Vermont.

I don’t remember a lot about that first year of being a published writer, but I do remember going to Vermont College and how good everyone was to me, and how fortunate I was to have had this anchor waiting for me.

That was a hard year, and the years after held their share of challenges and difficulties. It often felt like I was trying to climb the slippery pole at the county fair. I wouldn’t publish another book for over four years.

But there was a lot of luck in those four years, too. Ruby made her way onto 32 state book award lists. Freedom Summer was multi-awarded. I received the PEN/Naylor Working Writer Fellowship. I joined the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. and felt less alone.

I met Jim Pearce, who I would marry seven years later (another story), and when Each Little Bird That Sings (Harcourt, 2006) was published, all about my grief and loss, it was a National Book Award finalist.

Who knew? It was totally surprising to me, as was the new life that stretched ahead, where I was on the road for over 100 days a year, teaching in schools, speaking at conferences, making a living on the road, graduating from VCFA, teaching at Leslie University in their MFA program and teaching teachers in the education department at Towson University, figuring out a life in books.

If you had it to do all over again, what – if anything – would you do differently and why?

I wouldn’t change anything, because I can’t, but also because, at this stage of my life and career, I can see how it has all been for my benefit, the work and the heartache and the failures and the triumphs, too. That lesson has been a long time coming, for me.

I sometimes wish I had been better positioned to swim in the sea of my peers. It took many years to right the ship of my life, and to make sure my kids were okay and on their way, and I had little wherewithal left for staying in touch or nurturing the friendships and relationships that were started in those early years.

I have loved and admired so many folks that I’ve drifted from only because of my limitations. But I do have a tiny group of dear ones that I hold close, and maybe that is about all I am able to tend to properly, along with my work, and my family.

Here are some things — along with making sure you have a few dear ones to hold close — that I wouldn’t change. I consider these my publishing anchors:

Dig deep for the most important thing.

When I despaired of ever selling a book after ten years of rejections, a friend asked me: “If you only got one book to publish for young readers in your lifetime, what would it be?”

And I knew, it would be about the summer the pool closed in Mississippi – the year everything closed – and I couldn’t understand why. It was 1964 and the Civil Rights Act had been passed, and it was the year I began to “pay attention.” That experience became Freedom Summer 35 years later, and also Revolution (Scholastic, 2014), book two of the Sixties Trilogy.

Write about what breaks your heart or scares you.

When I became so suddenly single, Liz wrote me to say, “Don’t forget you are a writer. A writer writes. Write about what’s breaking your heart. Promise me that every day you will sit at your desk and ask yourself, ‘what can I write?’”

That was the genesis of Each Little Bird That Sings.

Take advice from those who know more or understand better than you do. Learn to listen.

When I called a friend from outside the lecture hall in Vermont and said, “I can’t do this. I should have stayed home. I can’t even think,” my friend said, “Listen to me. Someone in that room you just left is dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Someone in that room has just been left like you were. Someone in that room has a dying parent…or spouse…or friend. Someone in that room has gone into deep debt to be there. Someone in that room just lost her job. Someone in that room…” she went on.

And then she said, “You are no different from anyone else in that room. Get back in there and go to work.”

College Hall, VCFA

I’m glad I listened. I had great teachers at VCFA. Marion Dane Bauer, Carolyn Coman, and for my last two semesters, Norma Fox Mazer. Each taught me something I could never have learned on my own, not only about writing, but about how to live.

In Vermont I leveled-up, in the power of the workshop – it was breathtaking to learn at those tables. Workshop was my favorite thing about Vermont, next to the nightly readings in the Nobel Lounge and the cookies. I was hungry for an education.

I graduated in January 2003, I returned to speak in 2004, and I joined the faculty for a year in 2006. I facilitated workshop with Jacqueline Woodson and loved having a teaching partner. I loved the entire experience of being in-country with like-minded people once again. There is a synergy in Vermont, and it has been gratifying to watch the WCYA program grow.

Have a business plan and be specific about it.

Be willing to tweak it as necessary. A self-employed friend gave me these three “rules” of self-employment years ago and I still conduct my business life by these rules:

  1. have one or two permanent, paying gigs.
  2. create passive income.
  3. diversify.

Have a publishing partner and work to cultivate enduring, meaningful publishing relationships and editorial connections.

Steven Malk, at Writers House, is my agent. We started working together in 1999 and we celebrated 20 years together last year. We have worked very hard to become excellent partners to each other, and Steven is my most important business connection. He will listen and strategize and use phrases like “action items” – hahaha – and I will listen, too, and plot and plan with him.

Case in point: I lost Liz as my editor just as I finished writing The Aurora County All-Stars (Harcourt, 2007). Publishing imploded spectacularly along with the economy, and so many lost their jobs in 2008. After going through two more editors at Harcourt who both moved elsewhere, Steven and I took two novels I had written partials for, added a third to them, created a proposal for a Sixties Trilogy, and sold it to Scholastic, which became my new publishing home, and that has been a happy collaboration.

I now think in terms of “projects.” The Sixties Project. The Rachel Carson Project. The Kent State Project. I know writing is an art, but it is also a business. I need to be adept at both. Steve and I plot and plan where to go next based on what I want to write next. I do keep the market in mind, as does Steven, but mostly I gravitate toward what speaks to my heart and figure out how to tie that to the market.

Take risks.

I like making up new structures, rebelling against the standard norms, and flexing my voice in new ways, all in service of the story I want to write. It made sense to offer the Sixties Trilogy as “documentary novels,” as my years working with young writers in schools taught me that students think of history as a set of dates, names, and events, when history is so multi-layered and full of stories.

So Countdown, published in 2010; Revolution in 2014; and Anthem in 2019 are documentary novels, the first of their kind, a hybrid of fiction, non-fiction and biography. They each have scrapbooks of primary source material embedded in the story – song lyrics, photographs, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera of the time.

They were a big risk for Scholastic, too, as we were inventing a genre as we went, and we didn’t know how it would be received, and yet these books have been so gratifying to work on (and grueling, I think my editor, David Levithan, would add!), and they took a village to pull off. Revolution was also a National Book Award finalist as well as a Jane Addams Peace Award honor book and an NAACP Image Award finalist, another huge and unexpected surprise.

Know when to make a major change and be willing to do it.

Eighteen years into my road warrior life, I knew I had to give it up, even though it was my biggest source of income. But it got in the way of the writing, and the travel it required was hard: I missed home. In 2018, I was able to get mostly off the road and try to make the writing pay my way.

I timed this move to coincide with a years-long effort to pay off my mortgage, create savings, retirement, and emergency funds, and – to be honest – be eligible for Medicare, which drastically reduced my health care costs. I worked at this plan diligently for over ten years.

I created a new plan, as my “permanent paying gig” of being a road warrior was ending (just as, years before, I had ended teaching as my permanent paying gig in order to be fully on the road). The new plan is to create a pipeline of books that will take me into social security at age 70, books that might have the possibility of paying royalties, i.e. passive income. It’s also a way to diversify, as I’m once again writing picture books, and I have my eye on a few other plans as well.

So that’s what I’m doing now. I sold a picture book about Bobby Kennedy to Scholastic – it’s being illustrated now – and a picture book about Rachel Carson, Night Walk to the Sea, illustrated by Daniel Miyares (Schwartz & Wade2020), edited by my first editor, Anne Schwartz, who is now at Random House.

I’ve sold a picture book about gratitude to Roaring Brook, and I got the rights reverted to One Wide Sky (Gulliver Books, 2006), my only out-of-print book, a picture book about the natural world, morning-noon-to-night, and a counting book, and have resold that book to Sounds True. It publishes in June 2021.

I wrote a fourth Aurora County Book, titled A Long Line of Cakes (Scholastic, 2018), which features Ruby Lavender’s comeback along with a new cast of characters and story.

And I’m under contract for probably my most ambitious book yet, a second YA novel, this one about The Lost Cause of the Confederacy and the Rise of White Supremacy, a book I proposed long before this year’s unrest, when few I talked about it knew what The Lost Cause was, but I grew up in it, and I want to dismantle it in print, for young people. (It’s threatening to dismantle me, at the moment.) The working title is Charlottesville.

Think outside the box.

I’ll end here by saying that Kent State (Scholastic, 2020) is my newest novel, which felt like a natural outgrowth of the Sixties Trilogy, just a different treatment and structure. I’d kept bumping up against the Kent State tragedy in my research for the Sixties Trilogy books, and I finally said to David, “I want this to be my next book.”

Emotionally, the book comes, like every other book, directly from my own experiences growing up in the Sixties. I was 16 years old on May 4, 1970, and three days before my 17th birthday, living in Charleston, South Carolina, where my dad was stationed at the time. He flew C-141 Starlifters into Vietnam with supplies and back home with bodies.

Kent State is a departure for me, another risk, as it’s my first YA book, a novel that adheres closely to the oral histories and newspaper reporting about what happened on May 4, 1970 when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War and killed four of them, wounded nine more, effectively ended the Sixties, and sent the nation into a shattering tailspin.

The book has received seven starred reviews and is making some noise out there in the book world, thanks to a huge national marketing campaign that Scholastic put together for the book – the first time I’ve ever had such noise-making for a book.

And then! We were ready to knock this book out of our little park, and – wham! – along came COVID-19 and we are all home, bookstores and libraries and schools were/are closed, festivals and conferences are cancelled, millions of Americans have lost their jobs, and many are losing their homes. Hundreds of thousands have been sickened and tens of thousands have died in the United States alone in this pandemic year. This is such a hard, hard time for so very many.

This is also a publishing challenge, of course. As we moved from shock to reality, we realized and reminded ourselves that stories still matter, that they are still important, that they remind us of who we are, and they will help steer us through. It took Scholastic about three weeks to reconfigure, and of course like so many others, we shifted to an online, virtual tour, as have many conferences and festivals and bookstores…and we will see what happens in this new paradigm we all find ourselves in.

Deborah’s work space

But I wrote the book I wanted to write, in lineated prose, in six voices on opposite sides of the page, using the collective memory of townspeople, students white and black, and the National Guard all telling you the story of this time and place and linking it to First Amendment rights and the long historical arc of government overreach in this country right up to today.

That’s a lot for a slim 140 pages. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before, and I think that is one way to craft a long life in this crazy book business, by challenging yourself to try something entirely different and new, by stretching your voice and your skill set, and by leaping into the unknown and having good partners to catch you and run with you.

Mostly I have just put one foot in front of the other for 20 years and have kept on trying. And there is also pure blind luck. There just is. And bad luck, too, I suppose…or bad timing. I mean…who knew? So many of us are here right now, publishing into a sort of strange new publishing world, but also…who knows.

For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world of children’s-YA writing, literature, and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

I used to read the majority of everything published every year. Not anymore. There are so many books published now, there is no way to keep up, at least for this writer. I miss the days when it was possible to read almost the entire season of novels and picture books and discuss them with friends who had read them, too. There seemed to be time to savor them, then.

The other thing that has changed is technology. I used to send in manuscripts with self-addressed stamped envelopes, snail mail. I still remember writing my first email thank you. It felt like a cop out…I should write a real letter, shouldn’t I? And that was just the beginning of the digital avalanche.

I have a like/hate relationship with social media. At heart I’m a very private person. I deleted all my social accounts in 2015 and made my Blogger blog (which I had loved keeping since 2007) private (and didn’t blog) for four years. My work and my mind vastly improved. I got back on social media to support new books two years ago and mostly use Instagram now, but my goal is to own my own content on my own website blog, which I’ve started doing at Field Notes, but I miss Blogger (which I’ve once again made public), which is owned by Google, so I have mixed feelings about posting there, as I want to own my content. Basically, I recommend watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix.

The other trend is inclusiveness and diversity in children’s-YA literature. The body of diverse books I knew about as a consumer of children’s literature, before I was published and while I was studying it and learning how to write for young readers, was so small. And it still is, when you look at the overall picture or percentages.

It is changing too slowly, but it is changing. From my first book, Freedom Summer in 2001, to my newest book, Kent State in 2020, I write from the viewpoint of a white person who was a white kid who didn’t recognize her privilege until that privilege came up against people of color who didn’t have that same privilege, those same comforts, assurances, rights, and safety, which is what Freedom Summer is all about. Same with Revolution, and you’ll find this theme running strongly through All-Stars and A Long Line of Cakes and Anthem as well. It’s perennial work for me, personally and professionally.

We Need Diverse Books is long overdue for all of us, readers and writers alike, not to mention publishers, and it is doing good work in the world for young readers. We need diversity and inclusion in stories, in writers and illustrators, and in publishing and book-sharing positions as well. Book sharers being all those helpers and partners, from booksellers to librarians to caregivers, who put books into young people’s hands.

It’s very exciting to see the emergence of more #ownvoices stories. I think there is great opportunity here for new writers in crafting these stories. We are at an exciting moment in publishing history that is filled with promise. Now to make that promise a reality.

What advice would you give to your beginning self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Be happy! A new book is a marvelous accomplishment. Have anchors! Chart a course ahead and create a path with your partners, whomever they may be.

Treat your publishing career like a business. Your job is to write – no one else can do that for you. Don’t stop reading – it will feed you.

Write what you are passionate about. Marry your passions with a story, and allow it to come from your heart.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers and readers, looking to the future?

I wish for them all to have benefactors! I wish for health (and health insurance) for all, for compassion from our leaders, for wisdom from our elders, for activism for those who lead, for critical thinking for those who make decisions (which is all of us), and for the elevation of story as a means to peace.

To that end, I also wish for what the amazing author and poet Claudia Rankine writes about in her new book Just Us (Graywolf Press, 2020), and what she talked about in her interview with The Guardian, about having the ability to be curious about one another, to ask questions, to listen, to learn, in a call-in culture that insistently lends itself to self-awareness and change for the “dominant” (i.e. white) culture, and to enlargement, visibility, and justice for BIPOC and so many identities and cultures that have been sidelined or marginalized…and worse.

Books where all children can see themselves reflected in story – that’s one path to true systemic change. Until we get at the root of our troubles as a nation, which have been showcased at the forefront of our lives in this pandemic year, we have no way to heal and move forward.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I would like to have the time to write what’s on my heart to write. I’d like to find like-minded people – writers, readers, editors, publishers, partners – to share the road with.

I’d also, because I am still a hopeless idealist, like plenty of time alongside the writing to pursue solitude, and the domestic life I left behind when I became a road warrior, and to spend time with my family. I’m always searching for that elusive balance in my life, even when I am crazily on deadline, tilting at windmills.

Then I think about those great lines from John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire (Dutton, 1981): “Coach Bob knew it all along: you’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed. You have to keep passing the open windows.”

I’m old enough now to have a certain sense of “this much time left,” and what do I want to do with it, which gives me a kind of armor against the vagaries of publishing and allows me to follow my curiosities and questions. As I’ve created a body of work that I can reflect on, I see that one of my themes is the importance of every living thing, how we all have value, and how every human being is worthy of dignity and respect.

I’ve said that to countless thousands of school children over the years, at the end of an assembly or workshop, hoping to energize them – and their teachers – to want to tell their stories. Sing them, I tell them, paint them, write them, draw them, dance them, but tell your story. I feel fortunate to have been able to say that, and to impart one of my most fervent beliefs: that it’s hard to hate someone when you know their story.

I want to leave that legacy in my books for whoever stumbles upon them, opens them, and begins to read.

Cynsational Notes

Deborah Wiles is the author of several highly acclaimed books, including the beloved Love, Ruby Lavender and two National Book Award finalists–Each Little Bird That Sings and Revolution. Her first picture book, Freedom Summer, received the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award.

She is also an NAACP Book Award finalist, E.B. White Award winner, Golden Kite Award winner, Jane Addams Peace Award Finalist, and recipient of a PEN Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Working Writer Fellowship. Her newest book is the YA novel Kent State.

She lives in Atlanta, Georgia. You can visit her on the web at, follow her on Instagram at @deborahwiles_ or on Twitter at @DeborahWiles101.