New Voices: Jacquetta Nammar Feldman & Sean Petrie: From Poetry to MG Novels

By Gayleen Rabakukk

I’m thrilled to welcome two Austin/VCFA authors with debut middle grade novels. I met Jacquetta Nammar Feldman at an intensive at The Writing Barn, and Sean Petrie and I were Vermont College of Fine Arts students at the same time. It’s very exciting when passages you’ve read in a workshop become a published book!

Jacquetta Feldman

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

I don’t have a background in creative writing, so when I conceived of the idea for my middle grade debut, Wishing Upon The Same Stars (HarperCollins, 2022), I needed a lot of help. I had taken some picture book classes at The Writing Barn where I learned about short form story structure, character arc, and pacing, but I still didn’t know how to put the pieces of my longer story into place. So, I signed up for Christina Soontornvat’s middle grade novel foundations class, and it help tremendously.

Then I spent a weekend at a Writing Barn middle grade novel intensive and took a second novel course with Carolyn Cohagan. I also took as many classes as I could through Austin SCBWI and The Writers’ League of Texas and attended their conferences as well. I wrote and wrote. I revised, then revised some more. It took well over a year before I felt like I had a solid enough manuscript to begin querying agents.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My initial inspiration for Wishing Upon The Same Stars came from a poem I had written. It was a poem about me as an adult tucking away my feelings into desktop poems, and it was a poem about a middle school version of me who found a way to dance her feelings into the light.

The poem turned into a story about Yasmeen, a girl who is a little like me—she moves to Texas from the Midwest, and she dances in her Maronite church’s dance troupe—but she’s mostly like herself. Then Yasmeen’s story became about more than her learning to appreciate her Arab heritage through her dancing. It became about Yasmeen making the best friend she never thought she’d have, Ayelet, the Israeli girl across the street.

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

Wishing Upon The Same Stars is a story that draws on my life experiences. I never made a middle school best friend like Ayelet, but I did make a Jewish best friend when I was eighteen who later became my husband.

My Palestinian heritage and his Jewish heritage have not always been easy to mix, but we’ve been able to overcome our challenges because of our friendship. We are not Yasmeen and Ayelet, of course, but many of the sentiments that run through the story are very familiar so at first, they were a bit scary to share. I wrote Wishing Upon The Same Stars to give middle grade readers a glimpse of what a special friendship like Yasmeen and Ayelet’s could do.

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

I’m a candidate for an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I started the program right after I did my first big revision for Wishing Upon The Same Stars with my editors at HarperCollins. Reading and analyzing texts critically like a writer has given me so much insight into what works and doesn’t work when writing for children. It has also helped me hone a child-centric voice. I’m now better able to see what parts of my manuscripts need rewording, reframing, or reimagining. Plus, being immersed in the world of kidlit inspires lots of ideas for new stories!

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

Like many children who have been traditionally under-represented in literature, I grew up feeling somewhat isolated in my life experiences. There weren’t many Arab characters or families that resembled mine in children’s books. Sadly, there still aren’t. I hope that Yasmeen’s journey in Wishing Upon The Same Stars will give young readers with backgrounds like mine an opportunity to see a bit of their culture and history in print.

Sean Petrie

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The publisher (JollyFish) had the core idea — Jett Ryder, a kid who does dirt-bike stunts at famous landmarks. I loved it, because it combined action and history. And I got to pick the landmark for each book, along with design each stunt. Those were fun challenges! And, as the stories developed, I discovered the main characters had this wonderful blend of doing extreme stunts but always with safety first, along with a big dose of environmentalism and respect for the places where the stunts took place.

Perhaps the best part, though, was the relationship that developed between Jett and his mom; in each book, Jett has a wreck while practicing the stunt, and his mom is always the first one to his side, calming him and giving him the strength to keep going, to literally get back on the bike. Those are my favorite moments of each book.

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

Oh, there were a ton — but all so fun! The research aspect was way more challenging than I expected, but I loved diving into it. And it was threefold: researching the landmarks, designing stunts that were physically possible, and learning about dirt bikes.

For example, in the Niagara Falls book, I had to research the area (even took a trip there!), to find a place for the stunt — which ended up being a back-flip over a statue of Nikola Tesla. Then I researched the history of Tesla and how he tried to harness the power of the Falls, and worked that into the storyline. Which led to designing a “flashy” yet not-too-unsafe stunt — doing the back-flip at night, between two active Tesla coils. I had to find a back-flip stunt someone had done in real life, that was at least as long and as high as Jett’s would need to be — I had to make sure the stunt I’d dreamed up was actually possible to perform. And lastly, in terms of the dirt-bike, I learned that Jett had to ride a bike with a one-stroke engine, because those are the only ones that can work upside-down.

In the end, Jett does the Niagara stunt (and the crowd goes wild!), but he ends by tipping his hat (helmet) to the power of the Falls, and to the trail-blazing history of Tesla.

Each book was like that — I researched the landmark and its history, wove that into the storyline and created a doable stunt, then had Jett pay tribute to the landmark — and often to the power of nature — in the end.

And I love that the books show some of that research off! All have a glossary of dirt bike terms at the end, a “fast facts” section about the landmark, and a description of a real-life stunt related to the one in the book.

As an unagented author, how did you identify your editor and connect the manuscript with the publishing house?

I’ve been both agented and (am currently) unagented. When I was agented, I was connected with a work-for-hire publisher called Heinneman by a fellow writer friend (thanks, Jenny Ziegler!), to write several short books for classroom use. I talked with my agent about it at the time, and she said to just do that deal on my own, since the money wouldn’t be that big.

So I did, and ended up doing six books with them — one of which was about a female motocross racer. That book caught the attention of JollyFish (actually of their editorial side, RedLine Editorial), who contacted me about the Jett Ryder books.

At that point I was unagented, and so I negotiated all of those books myself. Moving forward, I think I’d like to get an agent again, but am not in a rush — my latest book, Pet Poems (Burlwood Books, 2022), a collection of poetry and art, I was able to do without an agent, and I love how it’s turned out. So we’ll see!

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

Try to write every day. Go easy on yourself if you don’t.

For me, I tend to write in spurts — I’ll have a week where I write every morning and am super-productive, followed by a week (or more!) where I don’t do that. I think we all have different patterns and work habits. But I’ll say, above all, it’s simply practicing that helps you improve. And by practicing I mean writing. Whether it’s a story or a poem a day or whatever. I also do typewriter poetry with a group called Typewriter Rodeo, and have probably written over 20,000 poems with them over the past several years. Just working that writing muscle makes a huge difference.

Sean’s writing space.

Lastly, I would say to be a bit careful of the two-edged sword of critique groups. They can be awesome! But. They can also hold you back. Specifically, if you try to please everyone in your critique group, you run the risk of deadening your unique voice. There is something to be said for just trusting yourself, trusting that you are writing what no one else can.

There’s a quote by Neil Gaiman along those lines, about how, when you have someone else read your story and they say, “This doesn’t work for me,” pay attention. But when they say, “And this is how you should fix it,” be wary.

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

It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made! I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts, in my late thirties. I worried I was too old to go back to school, but it was wonderful. Not only did I learn so so much about craft, the relationships I made at Vermont are invaluable. I still keep in touch with so many of my classmates and teachers, and go back to VCFA at least once a year.

Yes, an MFA program is expensive, but for me the fact that it was focused on what I wanted to write — books for kids — made it so worth it. It gave me the confidence, connections, and skills to take the next step in my writing path. Which I am still on, still figuring out, and still loving every new twist and turn!

Cynsations Notes

Author Jacquetta Nammar Feldman, photo by Kim Francois

Jacquetta Nammar Feldman is the author of Wishing Upon the Same Stars. She loves writing poetry and stories of all kinds, and when she’s not curled up with a book or typing at her computer, she can be found hiking the beautiful hills of Austin, Texas, with her husband, two labradoodles, and a Havanese.

She earned her bachelor of science in advertising from the University of Texas at Austin, and she’s currently a candidate for a master of fine arts in writing for children and young adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Jacquetta is a member of SCBWI and the Writers’ League of Texas, and she is represented by Pete Knapp of Park & Fine Literary and Media.

Sean Petrie is an award-winning poet and author. His poetry books include Pet Poems, Listen to the Trees (Documentary Media, 2020), and Typewriter Rodeo (Andrews McMeel Universal, 2018). His kids’ books include the Jett Ryder adventure-history series, as well as several educational books for Fountas & Pinnell.

Sean has an MFA in Writing for Kids from Vermont College and a law degree from Stanford. He teaches poetry workshops for kids and adults, and legal writing at the University of Texas Law School.

As a founding member of Typewriter Rodeo, Sean has written over 20,000 poems all across the country.

Gayleen Rabakukk teaches creative writing classes for the Austin Public Library Foundation, is an active member of the children’s literature community and Austin SCBWI.

She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Follow Gayleen on Twitter and Instagram.