Kidlit Caravan Authors Debbie Zapata, Donna Cangelosi, Margaret Aitken, Rebecca Gardyn Levington & Robyn McGrath Discuss Picture Book Journeys

By Suma Subramaniam

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Kidlit Caravan authors Debbie Zapata, Donna Cangelosi, Margaret Aitken, Rebecca Gardyn Levington, and Robyn McGrath to Cynsations.

Kidlit Caravan is a troupe of authors and author-illustrators with debut picture books headed your way in 2022.

Could you tell us about your book?

Debbie: Up And Adam, illustrated by Yong Ling Kang (Kids Can Press, May 3, 2022), is an uplifting picture book about a boy with Down syndrome who helps his neighbors in the aftermath of a storm in a way only he can.

It’s the morning after the big storm. Adam and his dog, Up, are finishing breakfast when Adam sees the mayor on TV asking everyone to pitch in with the cleanup. She says, “Now, it’s time to get to work. Up and at ‘em!” When Adam hears the mayor tell him and Up to get to work, he’s on it! “We can help!” he says. All day, the pair do what they can — clearing the sidewalk, fixing a birdhouse, passing out cookies. But it turns out, Adam’s most important contribution to his community is one he doesn’t even think about — his smile. Because when anyone sees Adam smile, they smile, too. And as Adam says, “A pair of smiles can make a difference.”

Adam’s open-hearted and infectious smile lights the pages as he lifts spirits all over town in Yong Ling Kang’s illustrations, which thoughtfully feature details in Adam’s clothing and belongings that are sensitive to his needs. This sweet story features an endearing and authentic representation of a child with Down syndrome, focused on his abilities, not disabilities, and it offers an inspiring model of how everyone can make a difference in their community.

This story is inspired by my son who has Down syndrome and has brought so much joy to so many with his infectious smile.

Donna: Mister Rogers’ Gift Of Music, illustrated by Amanda Calatzis (Page Street Kids, 2022) is a picture book biography focused on the role music played in Fred Rogers’ life. Growing up with asthma, Fred was often stuck inside while other kids played outdoors. He discovered that playing the piano was a great way to express loneliness and other emotions.

As an adult, Fred Rogers shared his gift of music on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” My book shows how Fred’s reassuring songs made children feel special, gave them words for their feelings, and created a neighborhood of kindness throughout the country for generations.

Margaret: Old Friends, illustrated by Lenny Wen (Feiwel & Friends, 2022) is a heart-warming picture book about a girl whose search for friends after the loss of her grandmother inspires her to go undercover and join the local senior citizen’s group. There is baking, gardening, and a whole lot of cha-cha-cha-ing! The book is illustrated beautifully by Lenny Wen and it came out on July 26th from Feiwel & Friends.

Rebecca: Brainstorm! illustrated by the amazing Kate Kronreif (Sleeping Bear Press, 2022), is a rhyming concept picture book that begins with a little girl, sitting in a classroom, frustrated because she can’t think of anything to write about. As she stares at the storm brewing outside the window – kerplink! – a tiny thought falls from the sky. Gradually, the girl finds herself surrounded by a whirlwind of words, pictures, and ideas and becomes happily caught in a downpour of her own creativity.

The book is targeted to children in grades K-3, who are beginning to learn how to shape and sharpen their idea-generation and storytelling skills. It includes writing prompts and a glossary that parents and educators can use to encourage kids to have fun playing with new ideas.

Robyn: Dolly! The Story of Dolly Parton and Her Big Dream, illustrated by Ellen Surrey (Christy Ottaviano/Little Brown, 2022)is a lyrical picture book about the American icon we all know and love. In Dolly! we are transported back to Dolly’s childhood as she sets her sights on performing at the Grand Ole Opry. Dolly faced many obstacles, as well as being told you’re “just a kid” and “too young” for the Opry. But Dolly never gave up, she persevered with grit and determination.

When you look back on your writing and publishing journey, what are the challenges that stand out?

Debbie: In my twenties, I didn’t know how to go from creative writing to being a published author. Luckily, decades later I found my way to a supportive writing community through organizations like the Writer’s League of Texas and Austin SCBWI.

My greatest challenge quite possibly was not only learning the craft of writing picture books, but to believe in the value of my stories. Taking classes and becoming part of the Writing Barn family made having a writer’s life a reality for me. As someone who is shy, putting myself and my work out there has been the greatest challenge I’ve had to rise up to meet as a writer with the goal of being published.

Donna: The challenge that stands out most was when my original picture book about Fred Rogers was canceled for reasons beyond my control. It took a lot to get my feet back on the ground and my head back into writing. Luckily, Page Street gave me an opportunity to rewrite the story with a new hook. Looking back, it turned out for the best. I love the musical theme and Amanda Calatzi’s illustrations are nothing short of magical.

Margaret: One of the main challenges I have faced is learning to deal with the inevitable rejections in publishing. There have been occasions when my stories have made it to acquisitions meetings and then, for one reason or another, didn’t get taken on. The reality is that rejections, or ‘passes’, are part of being an author. Thankfully, they do get easier!

Rebecca: I think the biggest challenge for me has been my tendency to want to follow the rules. When I first starting writing for children six years ago, I thought I had to write books with a typical narrative story arc in which a main character has a problem to overcome. And I thought I had to write in prose (because “everyone” knows that agents and editors “don’t want rhyme.”). So, instead of listening to my instincts, I soldiered on, taking classes and writing character-driven formulaic stories in prose. And, of course, those stories kept getting passed over by agents and editors.

That’s when I started thinking about the books I love the most. I realized that most of them rhymed and didn’t follow a typical narrative arc. So, I decided to give myself permission to say “to hell with the rules!” and began writing stories from my heart – using the rhyme, rhythm and lyrical language that brought me such joy. That’s when my stories began to soar.

Robyn: Getting others to believe in your ideas/vision/writing has proved most challenging on the journey. And then navigating the feedback about your work, work that you’ve put your heart into. You have to make a big choice of trusting your gut, trusting others’ feedback, and/or finding the middle ground. Writing is ultimately a balancing act, because while you may be the writer, there is a reader on the other end who may feel or see your story differently. You have to allow yourself to be open, and that takes time, trust, and like Dolly… determination.

If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?

Debbie: Just keep writing! Everything that feels hard is meant to feel that way in the moment. Each new step will be filled with excitement and fear. It simply means that I’m trying something new.

Donna: I would tell myself not to worry when I didn’t have time or inspiration to write. Creative ideas and aha moments have a way of developing during walks, showers, visits to the museum, and just sharing a meal with family and friends. Sometimes, they even show up in the middle of the night.

Margaret: Keep going because all the hard work will be worth it one day!

Rebecca: I would say: “Listen to your Heart. Write about what feels natural to you. Don’t force it. Don’t write what you think you ‘should’ write. Forget about ‘rules.’ Forget about comparing your journey to others. Think less. Play more. Remember what you love about writing – having fun with language and inspiring kids to laugh or to connect with their feelings. Focus on those things and you’ll be just fine.”


  1.  Write what makes you come alive, what story do you get excited about telling?
  2.  Get your ideas down first, edit later.
  3.  If you write, you’re a writer.
  4.  Most importantly… have fun with the process!

What are you working on next?

Debbie: I’m currently working on several projects. One is a companion story to my debut picture book, Up And Adam. I am also working on a picture book biography about an unsung hero, the son of Mexican immigrants, whose hard work helped to win the battle for civil rights and equality.

Donna: I’m currently working on a picture book biography with an environmental theme.

Margaret: I have a few picture books bubbling away on my writer’s story stove, a couple of chapter book series baking in the oven, and a magical middle-grade project that is still at the recipe stage.

Rebecca: I have four more rhyming picture books that will be coming out in the next two years, so I’ll be working with my editors on getting those ready! Three have already been announced.

Whatever Comes Tomorrow, illustrated by Mariona Cabassa (Barefoot Books, Spring 2023), is a lyrical picture book about strength, courage and resilience in the face of the unknown, inspired by my own lifetime struggle with anxiety.

Afikoman, Where’d You Go?, illustrated by Noa Kelner (Penguin Random House/Rocky Pond Books, Spring 2024), is a Passover hide-and-seek rhyming romp about a smug and sneaky piece of matzah on the run, which i describe as “Where’s Waldo” meets “The Gingerbread Man.”

I Will Always Be… illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell (HarperCollins, Winter 2024), is an inspirational concept book that encourages kids to always celebrate their passions, whether or not they ever make it to Broadway or the big leagues.

“Doing what you love and loving what you do” regardless of what comes of it is a motto I really try to live by, especially in my writing. I have many other books in the works as well, including a poetry collection, that I hope will find their forever homes soon!

Robyn: My next book comes out fall 2023, There’s Always Room for One More, illustrated by Ishaa Lobo and published by Paula Wiseman books. And in summer 2024, my second nonfiction book releases with Beach Lane Books, A Mind of Her Own, The Story of Agatha Christie, illustrated by Liz Wong. In the meantime, I have several works out on submission and I’m tinkering away at new ideas that focus on mindfulness and common childhood experiences.

Cynsational Notes

Debbie Zapata is the author of Up And Adam, her debut picture book published by Kid Can Press and illustrated by Yong Ling Kang. Debbie enjoys helping others as a counselor and writing books for children that have heart and humor. She loves creating stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Debbie lives with her family in Austin, Texas. Visit her website.

Donna Cangelosi is a children’s book author and psychologist. Her debut picture book, Mister Rogers’ Gift Of Music, illustrated by Amanda Moeckel-Calatzis (Page Street Kids, 2022) hit bookshelves on Aug. 23.

Margaret Aitken is a Scottish children’s book author living in Maine. Her heartwarming and humorous debut picture book, Old Friends, illustrated by Lenny Wen (Feiwel & Friends, 2022) is available now.

Rebecca Gardyn Levington is a children’s book author, poet, and journalist with a particular penchant for penning both playful and poignant picture books and poems – primarily in rhyme. Her debut picture book Brainstorm! (Sleeping Bear Press, 2022) is available now.

She has four more rhyming picture books being published in the next two years, including Whatever Comes Tomorrow (Barefoot Books, 2023) and I Will Always Be… (HarperCollins, 2024). Rebecca’s award-winning poems and articles have appeared in numerous anthologies, newspapers, and magazines. She lives in the suburban jungles of New Jersey with her husband and two boisterous boys. Find out more about Rebecca on her website and follow her on Twitter at @WriterRebeccaGL.

Robyn McGrath has spent her career working with children as a dance and yoga instructor, reading teacher, school counselor, and now . . . children’s author. Whether she’s writing fiction or nonfiction, Robyn believes that books help us navigate life experiences while fostering an understanding of self and others.

Her upcoming books include There’s Always Room for One More, illustrated by Ishaa Lobo and and A Mind of Her Own, The Story of Agatha Christie, illustrated by Liz Wong. Robyn lives in Austin, TX with her husband, two children, a Labrador retriever, and a friendly cat they found camping. Visit her website.

Suma Subramaniam’s interests and passions in writing for children are mostly centered around STEM/STEAM related topics as well as India and Indian heritage. When she’s not recruiting or writing, she’s volunteering for We Need Diverse Books and SCBWI. Suma was the short story contest winner of the We Need Diverse Books short story contest.

She is also the author of Namaste Is A Greeting, She Sang For India, and other books for children and young adults. Suma lives in Seattle with her family and a dog who watches baking shows. She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College Of Fine Arts. Learn more on her website.