New Voices: Sara Holly Ackerman & Elle Gonzales Rose Celebrate Debuts

Cynsations is celebrating its 20th anniversary by switching to a quarterly publishing schedule, featuring in-depth interviews and articles. Thank you for your ongoing support and enthusiasm!

By Mitu Malhotra and AJ Eversole

Sara Holly Ackerman – interviewed by Mitu

Today we welcome Sara Holly Ackerman to share her writing process with regards to her debut picture book The Gabi That Girma Wore, co-authored with Fasika Adefris and illustrated by Netsanet Tesfay (Little Brown/Hachette, 2024). Having trained as a textile designer, I was immediately drawn to this story about a traditional handwoven textile from Ethiopia. When I heard Sara read from this book during a retreat at the Highlights Foundation, I became curious about the journey that two writers from two different continents, would have to take to co-author such a book.

Here on Cynsations, Sara shares with us fascinating tidbits of the research and the real writing that happened behind the scenes during the gestation of this book.

Can you tell us about your personal connection to the protagonist of your picture book and their world? What inspired you to write this story? Could you tell our readers about the time you have spent traveling or researching in Ethiopia?

When I lived in Ethiopia and taught a kindergarten unit about how fabrics are made and used, my colleagues and I wished there was a book about local weaving traditions. I decided to write one, but I couldn’t do it alone. I am grateful to have collaborated with my colleague, Fasika Adefris, who also taught this unit, and with whom I participated in a writing group.

In The Gabi That Girma Wore, it is the process of creating a Gabi, and not the eponymous Girma, that acts as the protagonist of the book. Girma arrives at the end of this cumulative tale, but the story is really about how it takes an entire community of skilled people to create this one beloved piece of cloth.

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

Since I began learning this craft during the five years I lived in Ethiopia, I didn’t have access to in-person classes, and even attending online was difficult with my unpredictable internet. During that time, I joined 12×12 and read and wrote as much as I could.

When I moved back to the United States, all of these classes and conferences were now at my fingertips, except…they weren’t. There were many barriers to attendance from cost to childcare to my work schedule. But once we settled into our new lives, and my daughter was able to reasonably entertain herself, I started taking online courses in the evenings, and two in particular gave me the skills I needed to improve my writing.

Those are Renée LaTulippe’s Lyrical Language Lab, and Rob Sandersintermediate picture book biography course at the Writing Barn. It’s difficult to invest in expensive courses, but the sales I made as a direct result of those classes made them worth every penny. I also have wonderful critique partners who push me to dig deeper and revise more bravely. My second book is dedicated to the critique group I formed through Renée’s class.

Sara’s writing group in Addis Ababa, she is far left and Fasika is second from left.

What were the challenges in bringing this particular text to life? Could you tell us a bit more about navigating writing as a co-author? During your writing and revision process, what mentor texts did you find useful and how?

Co-authorship is a beautiful, enriching experience, but it is not easy. We started writing this book after I left Ethiopia, and because of our distance and time difference, I often drafted at 5 am in my pajamas, whispering to Fasika on Zoom, and trying not to wake my child in our small apartment. We were constricted by one-hour increments carved from our teaching schedules, iffy internet connections, and time zone miscalculations.

We had to agree, not just on every plot point and scene, but on each word, each punctuation mark, and whether two words rhymed or not in our unique accents. Amharic doesn’t use capitalization, so we went back and forth for weeks on which Amharic words in the text to capitalize. It was demanding work that our book could not exist without, and publishing is so scary, I am eternally grateful I didn’t write my first published book alone.

Screenshot of Fasika and Sara drafting on Zoom. Sara in bed in her pajamas because it was 5 am, and Fasika was in the classroom possibly on her lunch break

Because our book is written with the structure of the classic nursery rhyme “This is the House that Jack Built”, I researched and borrowed every cumulative picture book I could find. Because the English picture book selection available in Ethiopia is limited, I typed each one in a Google doc that I shared with Fasika, and we studied these texts.

Even though we had the “This is the House that Jack Built” structure to guide us, we had decisions to make from whether to write in rhyme or prose, and how much text to repeat from spread to spread. Investigating the choices other authors made and the impact of those choices was an illuminating exercise for us.

What were the best and worst moments of your debut book publishing journey? If you have a funny incident to share please do.

The best moment was opening the first copy of the book on Zoom with Fasika. I received my copy before Fasika did, so I waited to open it so we could have the first look together. We hope to meet again for a book event, but since we wrote our whole book over Zoom, it fit that the unboxing happened on Zoom as well. Netsanet Tesfay, the illustrator, saw the video and reached out. Now the three of us are connected and it has been wonderful to share and celebrate together, and collaborate on materials to go with our book.

What do you hope kids will take away from your debut book?

I hope our book will support children’s understanding of how objects are made and the love and skill that goes into creating a Gabi. A School Library Journal review said among other things, that our book, “will send [readers] off to do further research on textiles and cultures.” As a school librarian, this is such a thrilling thought!

While in Ethiopia, Sara took her students on a field trip to a weaving workshop. These photos highlight the hand weaving process that begins with yarn being looped into bundles, dyed into colors, then loaded onto bobbins using a spinning wheel.

Bobbins loaded with yarn are pictured above. Below are frame looms with foot pedals that are used to weave simple cotton fabrics, like a Gabi.

What other book projects do you have brewing? Can you tell us about any forthcoming books?

I have two other books out in 2024. Not Just The Driver!, illustrated by Robert Neubecker (Beach Lane Books, April 9, 2024) and Challah For Shabbat Tonight  illustrated by Alona Millgram (Algonquin Young Readers, September 3, 2024).

My other forthcoming books include a picture book biography of Mary Oliver and several unannounced deals.

If you want to read Fasika’s many other picture books, you will have to go to Ethiopia! Or you can check out the early readers she created through a literacy initiative, Ready Set Go Books, here. [See also, a Cynsations guest post from Jane Kurtz on the beginnings of Ready Set Go Books.]

You can learn more about Net’s stunning art on her Instagram.

Elle Gonzales Rose interviewed by AJ

A few months ago I was given an ARC of Caught in a Bad Fauxmance (Joy Revolution, 2023) and fell in love! I was super excited to invite Elle Gonzales Rose to an interview for Cynsations! Caught in a Bad Fauxmance is Elle’s debut novel, but her second one already has a title and release date, 10 Things I Hate About Prom (Joy Revolution, 2024) will be out on May 15 of next year.

What is the heart of Caught in A Bad Fauxmance? 

The heart of this story, even before I officially started writing it, has always been joy! A lot of my writing career felt defined by certain expectations—that, to be taken seriously, I was only allowed to write about ‘serious’ topics, in ‘serious’ genres. And if I wanted to write about my Latinx or queer identity, the focus had to be on trauma.

My first love has always been romance, and when the time came that I felt ready to try to write something new after taking a long hiatus from original fiction, I knew I wanted to finally write the story that I wanted to tell. Something that was shamelessly queer, romantic, and completely self-indulgent. And that’s remained true across several dozens of rounds of revisions!

Even as I revised to make the main character and his family Puerto Rican, I knew I never wanted to introduce pain or trauma in relation to the characters’ identities—because that was never what I wanted the story to be about. That’s not to say the story is 100% happy go lucky—the characters still deal with grief, and divorce, and the struggles involved with coming of age, but the pain that they experience isn’t rooted in their respective identities. At the end of the day, this is a story about queer kids of color falling in love, and dealing with some messy family drama along the way! And I’m incredibly grateful that the heart of the story has never had to change.

What was your initial inspiration for this story?

There were two layers of initial inspiration! The first was a joke I’d made with a friend. At the time, I was cranking out shorter fiction at rapid speed, and I once said I could come up with a story based on anything. Enter the movie Cheaper by the Dozen 2, which I had to watch for a work assignment. Enemy families competing for dominance during a summer lakeside competition? Perfect romcom vibes.

The movie gave me the initial spark, but it didn’t really come to fruition until a family trip I went on about a month later to the Poconos. We stayed at a lodge that ran different fun family activities, and talked a lot about how families would rent the cabins around the lake, or come to stay at the lodge during holidays and summers—creating their own little vacation community. Getting to experience that kind of setting firsthand finally made all of the pieces click together, and I could actually envision what the world of the story would be like, and what kind of antics they could get up to. I started writing as soon as we got home!

Did the editing process for your debut book offer any insights that you’ll be using in your writing process going forward?

Absolutely! I spent a lot of time editing Caught in a Bad Fauxmance—including three total rewrites—and the most important thing I learned from that process was story structure. I came from a fanfic background, where a 300k+ word story is child’s play. Definitely didn’t work for my first draft, though. Revising taught me not just how to outline effectively, but what story beats are generally expected in traditionally published novels. Beat sheets like Save the Cat were my saving grace for outlining revisions and character arcs, and I still use them now whenever I start initial brainstorming for a new idea. I don’t always stick to the structure 100%, but having a road map to follow has made the process of fleshing out an idea from start to finish such a breeze, and saves me so much time in revisions later down the road!

What advice do you have for beginning YA writers?

I know it’s cliché, but read in your genre! One of the biggest mistakes I made when I first started writing Caught in a Bad Fauxmance was that I hadn’t brushed up on some recent YA romcoms. If I had, I probably could’ve skipped several rounds of revision since I would’ve had a greater understanding of the expectations of the genre, and what does, or doesn’t always work. Plus, you may discover your comp titles for later down the line!

How do you celebrate success?

Food! I’m lucky to be surrounded by so many different types of amazing food in my neighborhood, so I always order takeout to celebrate publishing wins—big or small! When I found out we sold Caught in a Bad Fauxmance I treated my mom and some friends to a seafood boil! We also popped a bottle of fancy schmancy champagne I’d gotten as a gift when I graduated college, but was told to wait to open it until I had something exciting to celebrate. Only took four years to find something worth popping it for!

What is next for you?

My next YA romcom, 10 Things I Hate About Prom, is coming from Joy Revolution as well on May 14, 2024! Then I’ll be switching gears with a YA thriller, The Girl You Know, which will be with Bloomsbury in Winter 2025!

Cynsational Notes

Author Sara Ackerman, photo by Kym Fajardo

Sara Holly Ackerman is a children’s book author and school librarian in Brooklyn, New York. Find her online at and on Instagram @sarahollyackerman.

Elle Gonzalez Rose is a television producer from New York who’s better at writing love stories about short, queer, Boricuas than she is at writing bios. Her dog thinks she’s okay. She is the author of Caught in a Bad Fauxmance, 10 Things I Hate About Prom, and The Girl You Know. Elle, not the dog.

AJ Eversole covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing, and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She grew up in rural Oklahoma, a place removed from city life and full of opportunities to nurture the imagination. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and writes primarily young adult fiction. AJ currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas; with her family. Follow her on Instagram @ajeversole

Mitu Malhotra holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the 2021 winner of the Katherine Paterson Prize for Literature for Young Adults and Children. Her short story Toxins is part of ELA curriculum. In previous avatars, she was a textile and fashion designer. When she is not writing, Mitu paints, sews, and builds miniature dollhouses out of recycled materials. More on Follow her on Instagram @mituart or Bluesky @mitumalhotra.