New Voices: Evan Griffith & Sajni Patel on Reflecting Strength in Stories

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Above image: downtown Austin from Lady Bird Lake, photo by Ron Rabakukk

Today I’m chatting with two debut Austin authors with very different books, but both feature strong female protagonists who were envisioned by creators dedicated to letting readers see themselves in stories.

Evan Griffith‘s picture book biography Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist, illustrated by Joanie Stone (Clarion, 2021) celebrates the inventor of aquariums, while Sanjni Patel‘s young adult novel, The Knockout (Flux, 2021) explores the world of a Muay Thai fighter aiming for the Olympics.

Evan Griffith

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

The books I read as a kid were so formative for me. As a fairly shy child, books were sources of delight and comfort, and they took up a lot of imaginative space in my mind—especially fantasy books, from C.S. Lewis to Susan Cooper to Lloyd Alexander. I started writing my own stories at a really young age, and I suppose they qualified as children’s literature—after all, they always starred characters who were my age!

I continued to explore writing through my teenage years. My undergraduate creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was wonderful, although stories for young readers—along with any kind of genre fiction—weren’t very welcome.

After graduation, free to write anything, I had to ask myself what stories I was most drawn to tell. My heart naturally turned back to children’s books. I began reading recently published children’s books, and found renewed inspiration in the works of many contemporary authors. I was working at an art museum part-time in Los Angeles and reading Rebecca Stead’s Newberry-winning When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009) when I decided that I wanted to write for kids, and I wanted to take it seriously.

On a day-to-day basis, I’m inspired when I think about the potential a good book has to change a kid’s life; to help them see the world, or their self, in a new way. I write about the things that I loved as a kid—animals, adventure, mysteries—and also the things I wish I had seen more of as a kid: boy characters who experience fear and sadness without repressing it in the name of masculinity; realistic depictions of anxiety, depression, and neurodiversity; all the messiness of life, and how to embrace it.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

After committing to focus on writing children’s books, I pursued an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults through the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I entered the program thinking I would focus on middle-grade fiction, but with a little encouragement from my advisors, I ended up exploring a range of genres and forms. It was a desire to try my hand at writing nonfiction that led me to uncover the story of Jeanne Villepreux-Power.

A children’s magazine had put out a call for biographical essays on lesser-known inventors from history. I wanted to submit something, and as I was poking around for inspiration online, I found Jeanne referred to as the inventor of aquariums. This piqued my interest. I’d never paused to think about the origins of aquariums before.

Upon further digging, I learned that Jeanne was a marine scientist who had devoted her adult life to studying marine creatures—and then lost a portion of her research to the bottom of the sea in a shipwreck. That’s when I knew there was a dramatic and satisfying story to be told here. While I first wrote the story as an essay, my VCFA advisor at the time encouraged me to adapt it into a picture book biography. I’m glad she did!

This was a story I was excited to tell because, like Jeanne, I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean and its inhabitants. I grew up on the east coast of Florida and, as a kid, felt drawn to any and all bodies of water. The underwater world—and how different it is than our human world—is so intriguing.

My debut middle-grade novel, scheduled for release in summer of 2022, is set in Florida and also centers on marine life.

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

Writing about a relatively obscure figure was both a blessing and a curse—a blessing, in the sense that I could read just about everything I could find on Jeanne’s life, and feel a sense of mastery over the material; and a curse, because there just wasn’t as much material as you might find for someone better-known or better-documented.

That said, I absolutely fell in love with the research process. I had the opportunity to connect with several international scientists and historians who were well-versed in Jeanne’s life and work; they were all so generous with their time and knowledge.

With any picture book biography, one of the craft challenges is finding the main theme or message you want to convey about the subject’s life, rather than just listing a series of facts or events. After several early drafts that lacked focus, I honed in on Jeanne’s intense curiosity about the ocean and her drive to uncover its secrets, making this the heart of the story.

Interior spread from Secrets of the Sea, illustration by Joanie Stone, used with permission.

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

My professional background is as a book editor. I like to think my editorial work has sharpened by ability to revise and reflect on my own stories. It has also prepared me for collaborative relationships with editors, and to recognize the care and effort that editors put into the books they acquire.

I’ve also recently started teaching online creative writing classes to kids through The Writing Barn, an Austin, Texas-based writing education center. It’s been such a pleasure to work directly with kids—their creativity and ingenuity amaze me, and it’s been a great reminder that we don’t write for kids in the abstract; we write for specific kids who develop specific relationships with our stories.

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

An MFA program was my way of taking my writing dreams seriously and making sure that I was prioritizing them. Of course, the program advanced my craft; but equally meaningful was the opportunity to plug into an incredible writing community. Today, many of my closest friends are from the world of VCFA, and I find my fellow grads to be constant sources of support and inspiration.

That said, I strongly believe that an MFA is not the only path forward. Many of the features of an MFA program can be replicated outside of school—workshops can be arranged with a critique group of trusted writers, for example, which provides accountability and structure to the writing practice. There’s also a wealth of craft resources offered through organizations like SCBWI.

Even post-MFA, I’m still very much on a journey with my writing education. It never really ends. I think that’s the fun of it.

Sajni Patel

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My inspiration for writing The Knockout came from my experiences growing up just like Kareena and hoping that others could see themselves in her. She goes to my high school, feels the pressure of trying to keep grades up among competitive classmates, has a major crush, faces bullying and body shaming, has an amazing best friend and parents, and deals with the insecurity of not feeling “Indian enough.” Which is a loaded sentiment. Amid all these things, Kareena finds solace in Muay Thai.

I was involved in MMA in high school and was exposed to female Muay Thai fighters in college, and it’s such an awe-inspiring thing. My first interaction with a fighter was meeting a friend of a friend. She was beautiful and energetic and bubbly and so friendly, and I thought: I’d love to be friends with her! She invited me to see her practice. Suddenly, she was this… fighter taking guys down.

I wanted to show how multi-faceted fighters can be and take away the stigma. Muay Thai does not equate to violent, cruel people. It actually teaches a lot about meditation and harnessing positive energy and leveling out more draining and negative energies and emotions. Kareena uses these teachings to calm herself when she finds that life has thrown way too much anxiety and burdens at her.

I also wanted to bring out that an Indian girl can be comfortable in her skin even when she doesn’t fit the mold set by the community. Additionally, I wanted to write something that had a hint of Indian culture but not have it be a focal point or a “teaching book.” Indian teens can be just teens. Kareena is a fighter, friend, student, high school senior, self-taught nutritionist, coder, hustler, love interest, Texan… she is so many things and no one thing defines her.

A field of Texas spring flowers.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

Some of the best moments in my publishing journey are the people I meet and the relationships I developed. I have author friends whom I met a decade ago. We have writing dates and writing retreats, and it’s just a great way to be productive while eating and drinking and getting to know others!

The Knockout was the book I queried agents with. It brought three agent offers within a few weeks before I signed with my incredible agent, which is a definite highlight of my career. Selling my next YA within weeks in a four-house auction was thrilling! Being scouted by TV/film agents and signing with an amazing agency was definitely a surreal moment, too!

Having readers tell me the powerful impact my story has had on them, seeing themselves in these pages so much so that it brings them to tears, is the best thing I, as an author, can ever experience.

The worst moments in publishing are definitely rejections, whether from editors or readers. My books are my creations, so even though rejections are subjective, it’s difficult not to take them personally. There were times when editors declined my book because they considered my little brown main character a “niche market,” which was frustrating. We are a diverse world and have diverse experiences and diverse readers. Readers need to see themselves in stories.

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?

I utilized QueryTracker to find my agent. It’s a great resource in finding agents who represent your genres with information such as agent website, social media, interviews, wish lists, etc. all in one, convenient place. There are stats and comments from querying writers to get a sense of how the agent responds and what they’re requesting/making offers on.

My agent is actually at an agency that represents one of my long-time author friends, so I knew that we would make a match and felt immediately at home with her. Over the years, I’ve met many authors and have seen their journeys with their agents, so I was able to get a feel of which agents might be best for me.

My current agent is my third agent. I took my previously bad experiences and turned them into lessons learned, so my agent list was narrow and streamlined this time around. I knew exactly what I wanted and needed. The Knockout…brought three agents offers within a few weeks. I felt my approach this time around was definitely thorough!

My agent has been agenting for a long time and is with an established agency with some major clients. My agent knows what she’s doing and has built relationships with editorial contacts. She knew where and how to pitch my book to editors and found the right home for it. I’ve had a wonderful experience with my publisher since the day they offered on The Knockout.

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

Find your voice and find the right agent, not just any agent, who will be your partner and guide. Know what makes you and your work unique but also relatable and build on that. Don’t try to be like others; be yourself!

Continuously build your craft. Find a strong inner circle and a supportive community. Be prepared for criticism and rejections, but don’t let it break you. Learn from those comments, be humble but also know what works best for you. Stand up for yourself. You’re a person with a life and hardships and feelings, so make sure that others know they can’t walk all over you. I doesn’t matter if you’re a brand new author or not. Know your worth from day one.

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

With The Knockout, I bring insight to being an Indian woman, an immigrant, and growing up in Texas. My experience is not universal and it in no way represents the entire Indian diaspora, but I do offer a window into what it might be like to be an Indian teenage girl who happens to be a phenomenal fighter and brilliant coder.

Cynsational Notes

Evan Griffith is the author of Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist (Clarion, 2021) and Manatee Summer, a middle-grade novel forthcoming from Quill Tree/Harper in 2022. He studied creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received his MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

He worked for several years as an editor at Workman Publishing, where he specialized in non-fiction for children and adults, and he continues to edit books on a freelance basis. Through his role as the youth programming specialist at The Writing Barn, a creative writing education center, he also teaches online writing classes for kids. He lives in Austin, Texas with a mischievous tuxedo cat and several overflowing bookshelves.

Sajni Patel was born in vibrant India and raised in the heart of Texas, surrounded by a lot of delicious food and plenty of diversity. She draws on her personal experiences, cultural expectations, and southern flair to create worlds that center around strong Indian women. Once in MMA, she’s now all about puppies and rainbows and tortured love stories.

She currently lives in Austin where she not-so-secretly watches Mathew McConaughey from afar during UT football games. Queso is her weakness and thanks to her family’s cooking, Indian/Tex-Mex cuisine is a real thing. She’s a die-hard Marvel Comics fan, a lover of chocolates from around the world, and is always wrapped up in a story. Her debut women’s fiction, The Trouble With Hating You (Forever/Grand Central Publishing, 2020), was featured in Apple Books’ Top Ten Debuts to Read in 2020, Oprah Magazine’s Top Romances to Read in 2020, and Cosmo Top 12 Summer Reads for 2020.

Gayleen Rabakukk teaches creative writing classes for the Austin Public Library Foundation, is an active member of the children’s literature community and the former assistant regional advisor for Austin SCBWI. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.