New Voices: Kelly J. Baptist & Jess Rinker on the People Who’ve Influenced Their Writing

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

A big welcome to middle-grade debut authors, Kelly J. Baptist and Jess Rinker. Both authors share with us how the people around them influence their writing as well as moments along their journeys to publication.

Kelly Baptist 

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I think it was when I was reading Laura Numeroff’s If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, illustrated by Felicia Bond (HarperCollins, 1985) to my daughter for the hundredth time! It hit me that moments like that were very special and that writing for young readers was a route worth taking. My previous writing had included both adult and kid characters, but from that day forward, I decided to focus on writing specifically for young readers.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Isaiah Dunn is My Hero (Crown Books, 2020) began as a novel titled, “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn,” and I was inspired to write the overall story because I wanted to explore how a kid would chronicle his family’s path to homelessness and how he would process what was happening.

The issue of homelessness has always troubled me; having consistent shelter is one of our basic needs as humans and it is difficult to function without it. The thousands of kids who do are my heroes, and I wanted to write a book that showcases their resilience and hopefully opens our eyes and hearts to see the story behind their story.

As an author-teacher/librarian/agent/publicist/editor, how do your various roles inform one another?

I work in a middle school as a Social Emotional Learning Interventionist. What’s interesting is that I wrote Isaiah before I landed this amazing role, but now that I’m in it, I see life imitating art, art imitating life all the time.

I had students living in motels, students getting into fights with one another because the teasing went too far, students who didn’t recognize their worth and how valuable they are.

Now when I write, I have them in mind, and I think readers will be able to feel the realness of my characters.

And of course, my role as a mom definitely informs my writing! I’m around kids at work and at home so there is always plenty of material and inspiration to draw from!

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your perspective bring to your story?

I think my perspective brings a strong sense of reality to my story. Things like how a Black mom speaks to her kids, the prominence of barbershops to Black culture, and how fictive care and the importance of community has had a huge impact on us as a people are infused in this story.

At the same time, issues like depression, alcoholism, teasing, and getting into mischief with your friends are universal themes.

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

Read, read, read, and write, write, write! Be aware of what’s happening in the kidlit world, but more importantly, Be around kids! They are our target audience, so it makes sense to spend time around them. You learn a lot about how they speak, what they like, and what’s cool/not cool just by being in their vicinity. Talk with them, listen to them, learn from them.

Also, join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). This fantastic organization gives you access to blogs, podcasts, conferences, workshops, critique groups and so many more resources to help you along your journey.

Jess Rinker

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

Honestly, a lot of the time I feel like I am still a beginner. Writing is one of the few things in my life that has not only always challenged me, but has always been a welcome challenge.

“Published” doesn’t mean a better writer, necessarily. It means a writer who has also embraced the challenge of the business, but frankly some people are better in the business than the craft!

For the most part a writer does have to, at the very least, learn how to structure a story and that was a slow bloom for me.

As a kid I was a voracious reader and writer, introverted and highly imaginative so in some ways I feel like I was born with the potential to be an author, but I didn’t realize being an author was a job. I took less notice of an author of a book than the characters, who became part of my universe—many still feel like people I grew up with.

But once I started reading books to my own kids, a light popped on. I could do this. I was writing all the time, why hadn’t I tried writing a book yet?

For me, anything new I try requires research and, preferably, a lot of school. Around 2005, I took a community class called “How to Write your First Novel” and then I wrote my first novel. I really just dove in and did it, and even though it was terrible, I knew that I could indeed be an author. It’s been a long road though.

First I got an AFA, then my MFA, and then finally an agent in 2015. I wrote nine novels before The Dare Sisters (Macmillian, 2020) sold in 2018.

Looking back, I know I had the talent to be published earlier on (I came very close several times), but I did not have the persistence or backbone needed to withstand the rejection. Now I know it’s part of the game and I accept the challenge.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

When The Dare Sisters went out on submission, I was 43, working as a barista, divorced with shared custody of three kids, and about to lose my medical insurance. That’s clearly not the funny part. To say it was a struggle is putting it mildly. I had many weekends I could hardly feed my kids and depended on donations from a local church—which was not the first time in my parenting life—and I felt like a complete failure. I’d put all my eggs in the publishing basket when I graduated from VCFA and here, four years later, had little to show for it.

But then Dare Sisters went out and suddenly two houses wanted it. It wasn’t an official auction, but we were getting offers from both and it was a terribly exciting couple weeks. On the day we were expecting the final offer, I also had a mammogram appointment. My agent texted me to say we should hear by 3:30 p.m. and of course, at 3:30 p.m. I was scheduled to be squeezed half to death. I told her if she didn’t hear from me right away, that was why. I could not lose this appointment, because as I said—end of medical benefits.

I had never been to this office, so I had my GPS on and I was driving in New Jersey, known for its nutty roundabouts—or circles as a proper Jersey girl says—and suddenly my agent calls. It’s about 3:20 p.m.. She says, “Are you driving? Pull over.” Her voice was almost stoic, but I think it was shock because the second publisher—Macmillan—had come back with a pre-empt that blew all previous offers out of the water. Proper game for a book about pirates.

Cars were whirling round and I had to get back on the road so I wasn’t late, but I was shaking like crazy when I walked into the appointment. Blubbering in the waiting room about how my life was changed in an instant and I’m pretty sure the receptionist has never seen a mammogram patient quite so happy.

What was your initial inspiration for The Dare Sisters? 

My dad took my sister and me to the Outer Banks in North Carolina several times when I was a young teenager. On one trip we visited Ocracoke, which is at the most southern point of the cape and it always stuck with me.

Springer’s Point, Ocracoke, NC

As an adult, I knew I wanted to eventually write a story that took place there. I wanted to immerse myself in island life, capture a small town that’s nothing like any towns on the mainland and yet hope to capture something universal, too.

Ocracoke, and the rest of the Outer Banks, has an incredible history—from the first flight in Kitty Hawk to the lost city of Roanoke to Blackbeard and the Golden Age of pirates. Talk about non-stop material! I didn’t think it would be a book for kids, however, and it just hung in the back of my mind.

But in 2016, my (now) husband and I were visiting friends in Miami and we took a drive through the keys which is very similar to the Outer Banks. There is one road like a vein right through the middle—route 1—just like route 12 of OBX.

As we were driving, I noticed three blond girls, who had to be sisters because they looked identical except for size, skateboarding down the highway.

The eldest skated in front, pulling her sisters. The middle sat on her board and the youngest was on her belly and they were tied together with a rope. Down Route 1 they went: an Elizabethan line on wheels. I was equal parts horrified and completely enraptured. But I knew I had just discovered three new characters.

I eventually plopped them in Ocracoke and the story revealed itself.

How do your various roles inform one another?

Over the years, I’ve worked in almost every facet of publishing and writing. I freelanced for a long time—both as a writer and an editor. I interned for a literary agency and a literary magazine. I taught reading/literacy to all ages. Now I teach both undergrad and grad school writing, and of course am published.

All of these experiences have given me a healthy appreciation for what goes into this industry, as well as jaded me a little bit. It’s to be expected, I suppose, once you understand the inner workings and disparities and contradictions of any working machine.

But for me personally, because my entire world is literary, I’m constantly learning—from my students, from my own teaching, from experiences with my books or friends’ books and so on. I do not envy the green author who simply wrote a book and it sold—I’ve seen many people in this place where they have no idea what comes next or how to handle the continued roller coaster after publication.

This is where I’m grateful for all of the education I’ve had—both the degrees and my own seeking. And this is where I feel obligated—in a good way—to share the knowledge, to give back, to help new writers and authors figure it all out.

Recently I wrapped up an online course for debut authors which I facilitated through Highlights Foundation and that was really fun, despite the fact the 2020 pandemic has changed debuting and future courses like that one. I certainly don’t know everything, but the children’s writing community has always been so good to me that I naturally want to put the same back out in the world any way I possibly can.

Helping others connect, sharing resources and cross-promotion, uplifting marginalized writers, and anything else I can contribute feels right. We are a rising tide, and I’m not a pirate.

Jess with husband, Joe McGee

Cynsational Notes

Kelly J. Baptist has been writing since…well, since she learned how to write!  She won the 2015 We Need Diverse Books short story contest with “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn,” which is included in the middle grade anthology, Flying Lessons and Other Stories (Crown Books For Young Readers, 2017).

As a result of her work in an urban school district, Kelly felt compelled to continue Isaiah’s story. Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero (Crown Books For Young Readers, 2020) is her debut middle grade novel. Kelly has also written a picture book, The Electric Slide and Kai, illustrated by Darnell Johnson (Lee & Low) which is set for publication in the spring of 2021.

When she’s not actually writing, Kelly is usually thinking about new story ideas…and dreaming of palm trees while living in Southwest Michigan. Kelly works as a middle school Social Emotional Learning Interventionist, is a Hamline MFAC student, and keeps beyond busy with her five amazing children, who always give her plenty of story ideas and background noise to write to.

Jess Rinker is the author of Gloria Takes a Stand, illustrated by Daria Peoples-Riley (Bloomsbury, 2019), a picture book biography about Gloria Steinem, and the chapter book Out of Time: Lost on the Titanic, illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe (Andrew McMeels, 2020) and her first middle grade novels, The Dare Sisters (Macmillian, 2020) duology.

Her forthcoming titles include: Send a Girl: The Brenda Berkman Story (Bloomsbury, 2021).

Jess has a BA in Social Welfare and received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has won many awards for her work including short story, creative nonfiction, and most recently an honorable mention for the Katherine Paterson Prize from Hunger Mountain for her middle grade manuscript, The Young Traveler’s Club.

In addition to writing, Jess also teaches in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada University and undergrad English at Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College, as well as in collaboration with the Highlights Foundation.

She lives with her husband, Joe McGee, who is also a children’s author, and was recently inspired to buy a metal detector and start her own treasure hunts.

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. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency.