New Voices: Austin Authors Kari Lavelle & Anne Wynter Celebrate Community

By Gayleen Rabakukk

I’m thrilled to welcome two debut Austin picture book authors to Cynsations today! Please join us in celebrating Kari Lavelle‘s We Move the World, illustrated by Nabi H. Ali, released in May (HarperCollins), and Anne Wynter‘s Everybody in the Red Brick Building, illustrated by Oge Mora published October (Balzer + Bray).

Kari Lavelle

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I read a lot as a kid and my passion for children’s literature never stopped!

In graduate school, I wrote my master’s thesis on children’s literature and language development. As a speech pathologist, I utilized children’s books during my therapy sessions with kids. I started writing for kids out of my own need for creative expression when I became a mom.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I missed the first two Women’s Marches (in 2017 and 2018) and experienced serious FOMO (fear of missing out). I started reflecting on why people do things for various causes, and from that, I wrote the manuscript that eventually became We Move The World.

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

Oh, the challenges of this creative life! Eighteen different individuals, groups and events are represented in We Move The World and I had to dive deep into the research for just a few sentences of text. I intentionally selected examples that would make the narrative as diverse in any way I could imagine: age, gender, race, interests, geography, etc. So I had to do extra research to represent information as accurately as possible.

I found discrepancies in information so that created a need for even more sources. Since this was my first nonfiction book sale, I also had to establish more organized research practices along the way (I learned the hard way that I should have been documenting everything!).

Also, launching a book during a pandemic is certainly challenging!

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

One of my most memorable rejections (for my second unannounced picture book) came from Disney/Hyperion while I was actually in Disney World. I was in Epcot so I bought a glass of wine and a chocolate pastry to drown my sorrows.

Selling We Move The World was absolutely a highpoint. It went to auction so it was very weird to go from years of rejections to phone calls from interested editors. This industry is full of ups and downs!

What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?

I’m so grateful to SCBWI, specifically my amazing Austin chapter. I’m in two promotional groups that are so wonderful – thank you, Picture Book Playground and StoryJammers!

The Writing Barn and 12×12 communities have been essential in my growth. Finally, my relationships with my critique partners are so special to me. I absolutely would not be where I am without the supportive people in my life!

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

We Move The World is about the big – and small – actions we take to change the world. I wholeheartedly believe that manuscripts can be written with lots of small steps! Move that needle, butt in chair!

Anne Wynter

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

When I was young and reading lots of chapter books, I noticed that the vast majority of book series had white protagonists. Encyclopedia Brown, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, Nancy Drew . . . I loved them, but I wanted to see stories about characters who looked like me. I was about age 8 or 9, and I decided I was going to write those stories (I had no idea how hard writing was, or how long it would take to get published!)

So for a long time, I wanted to write chapter books and novels for kids. But picture books were a different story. It didn’t occur to me to try writing for that age group until I had my own children and we started reading tons of board books and picture books together. Because we were reading and re-reading so many, I felt like I gained a strong understanding of picture books – what worked, why it worked, why my kids loved certain books, etc.

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

A few months before Everybody in the Red Brick Building came out, I started having a few book events. They were all pretty low-pressure and casual, but I would get so nervous I’d feel physically awful right beforehand. Even with them being virtual! That was one of my low points because I thought: “will it always be like this?” and it was hard for me to enjoy the experience. Thankfully, it’s gotten better.

My high points are whenever people tell me how much their kids are enjoying the book. Hearing that kids want to read it over and over, or that they’ve become attached to a certain character or moment—it’s the best.

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?

When I first decided to look for an agent, I got a copy of the most recent Children’s and Illustrators’ Market book (Writer’s Digest, 2021) and read it cover-to-cover, with highlighters in hand. I used the book—plus a lot of online research—to make a detailed, color-coded spreadsheet of agents who might be a good fit with my work.

I thought I would be querying for a long time, so I wanted to have an up-to-date, comprehensive list I could reference over and over. Also, I kind of like making spreadsheets . . . it’s a nice break from writing.

But as it turned out, I didn’t get much use from my spreadsheet because I found my agent—Steve Malk—after the second manuscript I queried. After I signed with him, he asked me what publishers I hoped to work with. One of the two I named was Balzer + Bray. Steve sent the manuscript out to Donna Bray at Balzer + Bray, along with several other editors. We ended up getting five offers, but Donna’s was the one I went with. She was super passionate about the manuscript right from the start.

What would you have done differently?

I absolutely would’ve gotten a professional headshot earlier. Much like having a good website, I don’t think it’s ever too early for a great headshot. I dragged my feet on getting one because of the pandemic, but the professional photos obviously look 100 times better than the ones I took myself (in a few minutes, outside my home, with barely any makeup on!) That early, non-professional photo still pops up in various places. So even if you’re pre-agented and pre-book deal, it’s smart to go ahead and take care of those more practical steps.

Tiny Pies to celebrate Everybody in the Red Brick Building.

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

I used to be a book publicist, and those skills turned out to be useful when I was querying agents. The structure and language I used to pitch titles to the media was really similar to the structure and language of query letters.

Once the book was on its way, I thought having a publicity background would help me be more confident in promoting my book. But the truth is, it’s still hard. It’s much easier to promote other people’s books than it is to promote your own.

Cynsational Notes

Kari Lavelle hopes to inspire this generation of readers to move the world! She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, their two children, and two dogs.

Photo credit: TJ Bright Photography

Anne Wynter is originally from Houston, Texas, and currently lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, their two children, and a cat. In addition to writing children’s books, she’s written more than a dozen short plays that have been produced around the country. Anne earned a degree in drama from Washington University in St. Louis, received a certificate in short story writing from the University of Chicago, and studied writing for children at the Writing Barn. Everybody in the Red Brick Building is her debut.

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.