Picture Book Biographies: Candy Wellins & Philip Hoelzel on the Importance of Critique Groups

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Critique partners can play a huge role in taking a manuscript to the next level. Today we’re chatting with critique partners Candy Wellins and Philip Hoelzel about their picture book biographies.

Candy’s book is The Stars Beckoned: Edward White’s Amazing Walk in Space, illustrated by Courtney Dawson (Philomel Books, 2021), and Philip’s is Planting Hope: A Portrait of Sebastião Salgado, illustrated by Renato Alarcão, forthcoming from Atheneum.

Candy Wellins

What drew you to this subject?

I was teaching a group of middle schoolers in 2018. We were discussing the U.S.-Soviet Space Race of the 1950s and ’60s. They wanted to know all of America’s firsts—first man and woman in space, first to spacewalk, first to land on the moon. I knew all the answers except who our first spacewalker was. I did a quick Google search and first learned Edward White’s name.

At the end of this short biography was a line about how he was so reluctant to go back inside the space capsule when the mission was complete.

When he finally reentered, he said, “This is the saddest moment of my life.” That line hit me square in the center of my picture-book-writing eyes. What young reader cannot relate to the strong emotions of not wanting a fun moment to end? Plus he’s an astronaut! I knew then and there that Edward’s story needed to be shared with the world.

What are your favorite structure tips? Since today’s picture book biographies are seldom birth-to-death stories, how do you zero in on the events or incidents to highlight?

For me, the key is finding the heart of the story first. For Edward, I knew I wanted to focus on that moment of being out in space and not wanting to come back inside the space capsule. How did he get to that moment in life? When did his love affair with space begin? What were all the steps that led him (of all people) to be that first American to spacewalk? And most importantly, what convinced him go back inside?

Using those questions as guideposts, I was able to create a narrative that showed his path to the stars and back home again.

The Stars Beckoned interior illustration by Courtney Dawson, used with permission.

By the way, I should point out that the story’s structure was inspired by work in my critique group. One of my critique partners, Phil Hoelzel, had written a lovely rhyming picture book biography manuscript. I was so enthralled with the text and the idea of telling a life’s story in rhyme that I wanted to try it.

At the time, I had completed the research on Edward, but wasn’t sure what to do with it. I decided to try writing in rhyme to see what happens. (It helped that his last name worked with so many applicable rhyming words—flight, height, night, sight!) I love how the story turned out—a sort of lullaby of soaring to the stars.

The Stars Beckoned interior illustration by Courtney Dawson, used with permission.

If your research turned up tough topics or difficult events not normally addressed in picture books, how did you handle that in the text?

The toughest part about writing Edward’s story was the fact that just 18 months after his spacewalk he died in a horrific fire on the launchpad as part of the Apollo 1 crew. My book is not a cradle-to-grave story; I end with his homecoming after the spacewalk, but I knew the information had to be included. In the back matter, there is a historical note and timeline with more information and his death is explained there. Since the book is written for very young readers (4-8), I like that the back matter is mostly a resource for educators and caregivers who want to provide more information.

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

For me, taking classes specific to learning the craft of picture book writing was invaluable. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism, so I knew how to write, and I have a master’s degree in literacy education, so I knew all about the importance of picture books. But I had never learned the craft of writing picture books.

In 2016, I took my first class (Picture Book 1) through The Writing Barn. I learned so much and met the people who would become my critique group. Since then, I’ve tried to soak up as much as I can (more classes, SCBWI meetings, seminars, etc.). But it’s true that the best thing you can do is put in the hours. Writing as much as you can as often as you can will help you more than anything else. By the time I sold this story, I had been writing picture book manuscripts for years.

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of connecting your manuscript with a publisher?

My agent, Erzsi Deak at Hen&Ink Literary has a knack for pairing manuscripts with potential editors. We sold it to Talia Benamy at Philomel who had recently worked on a middle grade nonfiction project about space disasters, so she was familiar with Edward White already. She loved this version of Edward’s story and was just as passionate as I was to bring it to life.

What advice do you have for others interested in writing picture book biographies?

Don’t just consider subjects you know a lot about or are in fields you are passionate about. I didn’t even know Edward White’s name a year before I sold this manuscript, and I am not a space expert by any means. It’s the stories that really matter.

When you think of someone’s life, ask yourself these questions: What resonates with you? What gives you pause? What makes you want to learn more? What will young readers connect to?

I would never in a million years want to spacewalk like Edward White, but I completely relate to his passion for doing what he loves (and not wanting to stop!)

What’s next on the horizon for you?

I have two picture books under contract. A fiction story about a girl growing with divorced parents and a graphic novel about geoducks, the world’s largest species of burrowing clams. (Google it, you won’t be disappointed.) And I continue to write as much as I can as often as I can.

Philip Hoelzel


What drew you to this subject?

I initially connected to Sebastião and Lélia Salgado’s reforestation project on his family’s former farm and cattle ranch in Aimorés, Brazil. From there, I connected to their photography projects that focused on the millions of people who might be deemed invisible to the world. In 2021, their new photographic exhibition and accompanying book about the Amazon Rainforest and its native inhabitants began its multiyear tour around the world. It is titled Amazônia (Taschen).

Philip at Sebastião and Lélia Salgado’s former farm, now the Instituto Terra.

What’s your research strategy when beginning a project? What tools do you use to keep the information organized once you find it?

I try to get to know my subject by reading anything I can get my hands or eyes on. Books, research papers, magazine articles, movies, videos, television/YouTube/radio interviews. I also read about the time period in which they lived and/or the history that led up to my subject’s big moment.

Donna Janell Bowman introduced me to the idea of maintaining a binder for each project. It is a good way to keep information organized. I also find information online and mark the places where I found the information, and when I send myself an email, I include my subjects name in the subject line.

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

In 2016, I took my first course on picture book writing with the incredible Bethany Hegedus at The Writing Barn in Austin, Texas. Several months later, I signed up for Bethany Hegedus’ in-depth class on writing picture book biographies. From there, I joined an amazing critique group, worked with Donna Janell Bowman, who is a talented expert in writing picture book biographies, attended the Nonfiction Picture Book Biography Weekend Intensive at The Writing Barn, attended SCBWI conferences and online workshops, attended Writers’ League of Texas workshops and read, read, read.

Philip at The Writing Barn.

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of connecting your manuscript with a publisher?

I found my editor Julia McCarthy on Twitter when she tweeted about my subject. Then, a dear friend of mine who works in the publishing business offered to connect me with Julia through a friend of hers as I did not yet have an agent.

Julia and I edited the manuscript for almost a year before a contract was offered for the manuscript. During this time period, I was a teacher’s assistant for Miranda Paul’s online class at The Writing Barn. Several months later and with offer in hand, I turned to Miranda for advice on finding an agent, and unbeknownst to me, she had been interning with the Erin Murphy Literary Agency and had just signed on to be an agent! Miranda having seen some of my work wanted to see more. She liked my portfolio and signed me as her first client.

What advice do you have for others interested in writing picture book biographies?

First, find a subject that really truly interests you as a writer. A lot of research will need to be done on the subject and if that research can also double as fun, all the better. In addition, the publishing process takes years and if your interest wanes, publishing a book and later promoting and presenting it could feel more like work instead of joy.

Cynsational Notes

Candy Wellins is a lifelong writer and book lover. A former elementary school teacher, Candy has a BA in journalism and an M.Ed. in literacy education. She’s now a full-time mom to three wonderful children who keep her up-to-date and immersed in kid’s literature. When she’s not reading, writing or mothering, Candy loves running, traveling and naps!

Her debut picture book Saturdays Are for Stella, illustrated by Charlie Eve Ryan (Page Street Kids, 2020) was named a Kirkus Reviews Best Picture Book of 2020. Publishers Weekly called her debut picture book biography The Stars Beckoned: Edward White’s Amazing Walk in Space “an introduction to a space pioneer that’s ideal for the youngest nonfiction readers.”

Candy and her family make their home in central Texas. You can follow her on Instagram @candywellins, on Twitter @candy_wellins or on Facebook @candywellins.

Philip Hoelzel is an author, outdoor enthusiast, and baseball fan who’s fascinated and inspired by the world around him. His debut book, Planting Hope: A Portrait of Sebastião Salgado, illustrated by Renato Alarcão, is forthcoming from Atheneum. Philip is a trained elementary teacher, fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, and has spent the last decade introducing folks to their outdoor recreation spaces.

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

This is the third post in our series on picture book biographies. See Bethany Hegedus’ interview, and Meghan P. Browne and Azadeh Westergaard’s interview. Watch for Carol Kim and Gloria Amescua‘s interview tomorrow.