Guest Interview: Meredith Davis Talks with Carolyn Leiloglou about Writing a Middle Grade Series & Marketing Strategies

By Meredith Davis

Carolyn, I was so excited to meet you since we’re both publishing with Waterbrook (an imprint of Penguin Random House). I’m thrilled about your recent release, Beneath the Swirling Sky! Can you give readers a brief synopsis?

Sure! Beneath the Swirling Sky (WaterBrook, 2023) is the story of twelve-year old Vincent, who has given up on painting after a painful experience, until he learns his family are the last of the Restorationists, a secret society with the ability to travel into art and the duty to protect it. When his little sister disappears into van Gogh’s The Starry Night, he and his know-it-all cousin Georgia are the only ones who can rescue her.

What inspired you to write this book?

Growing up, my grandparents’ house was full of art! Going there was like visiting a cozy museum. It was really a magical place for a child to wander in, and we actually lived there for a few months during a move. Upstairs, there was even one room full of paintings they didn’t have room for, just leaning in stacks against the walls.

A few years ago, I was in an online webinar where they were walking us through a series of questions (I think it was based on Julia Campbell’s work), and one was “what was the most magical place in your childhood?” Of course it was my grandparents’ house. I thought of that room full of paintings and imagined what kind of kid would need an adventure with art. I’d already been reading quite a bit about art—I’d even tried to write a picture book biography of Vincent van Gogh’s sister-in-law Johanna Bonger, so all the story seeds were there ready to sprout.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and any major events along the way?

I got the initial idea in the fall of 2019. I had never completed a full novel before that year, though I’d been writing picture books and chapter books for several years. That November, I successfully finished NaNoWriMo (with another story idea), which gave me the boost of confidence to try this novel.

I started writing Beneath the Swirling Sky in early 2020 and was really kept going through the pandemic by an online writer group.

In 2021, I parted ways with my first agent, and decided on a whim to attend the Writing for Your Life Conference since it was online. At that time, I was still pitching picture books, though I was revising the manuscript for Beneath the Swirling Sky. My now agent (Keely Boeving) and editor (Bunmi Ishola) were both presenters at that conference, and I signed up for a pitch session with Bunmi. She seemed interested in several of my pitches but said WaterBrook (as all Penguin imprints) required an agent.

Carolyn, editor Bunmi Ishola and Meredith Davis at the Texas Library Association conference.

I submitted a book proposal to Keely, which was a new thing to me but typical in the Christian market. The proposal was for a picture book, but it mentioned a couple other manuscripts I was working on, including Beneath the Swirling Sky. She immediately asked to see a few chapters (since the whole wasn’t quite ready). To my shock, she signed me on those few chapters. We worked to get it polished and then put it on sub in the fall of 2021.

I signed the contract with WaterBrook in early 2022. Then we began extensive revisions that I think wrapped up in the summer. Of course there was more back and forth after that with copy edits and illustrations, etc.

What are your top three writing tips for authors with busy lives and limited writing time?

I definitely know about busy lives! I homeschool my kids and also help manage my husband’s pediatric practice besides writing.

  1. Commit. For several years I wondered if I was wasting my time dabbling in writing. And the truth is, I was. When I realized that not committing was the real waste, I finally started to make progress.
  2. Let go. You can’t do it all, and that’s ok. We all have seasons to our lives, and when I’m on a writing deadline, many other less essential things have to slide. That’s the tradeoff. The goal is not to let the important things slide. But if the house is a mess and we’re eating frozen dinners for a while, sometimes that’s the sacrifice for an audacious goal. (Let’s be honest, though… my house is usually a mess, even if I’m not on deadline). 
  3. Remember priorities. Writing is amazing, but it’s never going to be more important to me than my marriage or my kids. If you have a family, make sure they know that they are your real priority. I bet they’ll be happy to support your writing goals.
Full jacket cover for Beneath the Swirling Stars, illustrated by Vivienne To.

Tell us more about Vivienne To’s art, which is beautiful! Did she add anything to the story or inspire you to make any changes once you saw the art?

Wow, she is amazing, isn’t she? I love how placing the kids inside the frame on the cover pretty much tells you everything you need to know. Also, she incorporated five of the paintings from the book—including the obvious Starry Night—into the front and back cover of the book.

I’m not sure I changed anything based on her illustrations, but one interesting thing to note is the first illustration in the book. I’d described the house as having paintings on every wall (or maybe every available surface). When I saw Vivienne’s art, she’d drawn paintings even on the ceiling! I considered asking her to remove them, but my kids were all enchanted by the idea of paintings on the ceiling, so we kept it!

This is the first of a series. What’s it been like writing sequels? Harder or easier or just different than the first?

Both! The first book took me two and a half years to write and edit, but I’m needing to write and edit the subsequent books in just a year each. I knew it would be that way when I signed the contract, but I hadn’t considered the fact I’d also have to cram in revisions, proofreading, and book launch events into that supposed writing time. On top of that, in the middle of drafting book two, my mom had a major health crisis, and I wasn’t able to write at all for two months. Thankfully, my editor was incredibly gracious about extending my deadlines.

At the same time, two things have made writing the sequels a little easier. The first is that I’ve been required to submit a synopsis before beginning writing. I tend to be more of a discovery writer, but the extra structure of a synopsis has really helped me speed up the process. The second is that deadlines are very motivating to me. (If you’re familiar with Gretchen Reuben’s Four Tendancies, I lean toward Obliger). I completed my first novel during NaNoWriMo, and the structure of that deadline helped teach me that I could write quickly if I needed to.

Carolyn at Twig Bookstore in San Antonio

Were there things you learned from the editing process with Beneath the Swirling Sky that helped you on the second novel?

Before Beneath the Swirling Sky, I was mainly writing picture books. Transitioning from picture books to novels and going through the editing process, I learned my writing was light on descriptions in certain areas. So one of the main things my editor asked me to do with Beneath the Swirling Sky was to flesh out more details, both sensory and internal. Putting those details to good use was at the forefront of my mind as I wrote the sequel, Between Flowers and Bones (WaterBrook, September 2024), where the story picks up with a new main character.

Are you still writing picture books, or are you firmly in the middle grade camp now? What strategies do you have for shifting from one age category to another?

I’m not currently working on any picture books (my agents wants me to stick with one age group for now), but I’ve got a backlog of picture book manuscripts I’d love to see out in the world someday!

I think I gained a lot of strengths from starting out in picture books. I learned how to tell a story and not get lost in unimportant details. And I also learned good sentence-level writing habits. When every word counts, those sentences have to be clear and well-written. The challenges of coming from picture books to novels are learning how to tell a bigger story with more threads and to fill it out with the right details.

What would be your top three marketing tips for debut authors?

  • Say yes. Obviously none of us can do everything, but a book launch is a sprint that won’t last forever. I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity open or suggested to me from a prerelease book chain mail to a preorder bonus and launch team to podcast and radio interviews. I thought my audience would get tiered of me posting about the book on Instagram nearly every day, but instead, it only grew. My publisher made some lovely social graphics for me, and I supplemented those with photos and art memes.
An art meme for Beneath the Starry Sky
  • Get clarity. Find out what your publicity and marketing team is doing verses what falls under your responsibility. I always make this mistake in at least one area. Just because you filled out a survey for your publisher noting what days you are available and what the news outlets in your city are, it doesn’t mean they are booking everything for you. Ask as many questions as possible months in advance so that you have time to schedule bookstore appearances, etc.
  • Reach out personally. Don’t expect people to just support you. Ask author friends to endorse your book. Ask local friends and bookstores to host you. Build a launch team of friends and people from your email newsletter list. Ask everyone to review your book (No, you may not ask for five-star reviews or offer anything in exchange, just so we’re clear). If your publisher isn’t sending copies to influencers, reach out yourself and send your author copies to them.

Thank you Carolyn, this is all such great information! May your books find their way into children’s hands and hearts.

Cynsational Notes

Carolyn Leiloglou is the granddaughter of art collectors, daughter of an art teacher, and homeschooling mom to four wildly creative kids. She’s the award-winning author of the middle-grade fantasy Beneath the Swirling Sky, which is the first book in The Restorationists Trilogy. Carolyn’s poems and short stories have appeared in children’s magazines around the world including Highlights, Ladybug, and Clubhouse Jr. You can find her everywhere online as House full of bookworms.

Meredith Davis is the author of The Minor Miracle: The Amazing Adventures of Noah Minor, and a second untitled middle grade book (Waterbrook, 2024/25) and co-author of Her Own Two Feet: A Rwandan Girl’s Brave Fight to Walk (Scholastic, 2019) . She once worked at an independent children’s bookstore, started the Austin Chapter of SCBWI, and earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA. She is married with three children and lives with a home full of books in Austin, Texas.