Writers Alex Sanchez, Anica Mrose Rissi & Sheela Chari Reflect on Teaching Writing

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By Michael Leali

The world of children’s literature is a rich landscape of teaching and learning. Many acclaimed writers seek to share their knowledge, building up the next wave of writers for young people. Featured in this article are perspectives from esteemed teacher-writers Alex Sanchez, Anica Mrose Rissi, and Sheela Chari.

Alex Sanchez with Gracie

Alex Sanchez

Can you tell us a little bit about who you are as a writer and a writing teacher?

I write mostly queer-themed, young adult and middle grade stories about love, family, and friendship. My first novel, Rainbow Boys (Simon & Schuster), came out in 2001, when literally only a handful of books for teens featured positive portrayals of LGBTQ+ people. With the publication of that book, libraries, schools, and colleges began inviting me to teach writing workshops.

School group with Rainbow Boys

Since then, I have taught thousands of students. I love to teach writing by “looking under the hood“ of mentor texts and examining the craft elements used by authors to create reader reactions. It’s so much fun! But the greatest reward of teaching is watching a student find their voice.

Could you tell us about the mentors or teachers who encouraged your writing early on?

In the 1980s, when I first explored writing stories, I had never heard of the term “mentor text,” but I figured that transcribing a passage from a book might be a way to learn how an author made me laugh, cry, gasp, or feel some emotion. In that sense my first mentors included Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, and Cather. To this day, I still transcribe passages when I’m reading.

I went to grad school to study creative writing, but the instructor’s criticism in the one class I took so turned me off that I never wanted to take a writing class again. Instead I got a master’s in counseling. But I continued to write and later discovered the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center summer workshops, and there I learned from wonderful encouraging teachers like Michael Cunningham, Alan Garganus, and Jacqueline Woodson.

What advice do you have for writers who are interested in furthering their education?

  • Read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
  • Do what I do: when you read a passage in a book that moves you, transcribe the passage and study it.
  • Take a variety of writing workshops.
  • Find teachers who you resonate with.
  • Join
  • Surround yourself with people who encourage you.
  • Find a mentor who both encourages you and teaches you. (You can find out about my mentoring opportunities at

What advice do you have for writers who are interested in teaching?

Writing and teaching require different skill sets. Being a writer, even an award-winning bestselling one, doesn’t automatically make the person a good teacher. Additionally, teaching creative work is different from teaching academic work. As Kafka, van Gogh, and countless other writers and artists have proven, in creativity there is no right or wrong, or good or bad. Instead of passing judgment, learn and practice the Socratic method: question, challenge, and empower students. Our job as teachers of creative work is not to judge or criticize, but to show students skills and techniques they can use to better express themselves and inspire each student to claim their unique voice.

Author Anica Mrose Rissi, photo by Kim Indresano

Anica Mrose Rissi

Can you start by telling us a little about who you are as a writer and a teacher of writing?

I’ll try! I publish picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and young adult, so I’m a little bit hard to pin down. My most recent book, Wishing Season (HarperCollins, 2023), is a middle grade novel about twins, grief, and impossible things, set on the island in Maine where I grew up. I also write personal essays, articles about craft and the writing life, and lyrics for the band Owen Lake and the Tragic Loves (in which I play fiddle). I am always chasing new challenges.

Despite that, I draft slowly—usually two to three hundred words per writing day—and indulge in constant rewriting, which for me is the heart of the process and where I find the most joy. I tend to have multiple projects going at once, with one primary focus and several side manuscripts in different stages. This allows me to engage with my many varied interests and to give each project time and space to grow.

My goal as a writer is to tell distinct and specific stories while hitting universal notes that will resonate in readers’ hearts and cause them to feel, hear, and understand the chords in new ways. I strive to delight, surprise, and entertain both the reader and myself. Humor is important to me, as is emotional honesty. I am writing my way toward greater vulnerability and seeking the strength and power in that. Talking with other writers—including my students—about the details of our processes always brings me closer to and expands my ambitions.

Before I started writing, I worked as an editor at three major publishing houses, and my writing life and teaching style were immeasurably shaped by those years of working closely with authors, nurturing and championing their writing and careers. I left my last publishing job one month before my first book was published, and since then, teaching has become a core part of my creative practice.

Through school visits, mentorships, writing workshops, and talks—and as faculty at the Writing for Children & Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts—I’ve worked with writers of all skill levels and ages, in large and small groups and one-on-one, tackling every stage of the writing process, from ideas and drafting to revisions and beyond.

Teaching feeds and inspires my own creative work, and I’m honored to be trusted with other writers’ drafts and processes. It’s a fun way to use my brain.

What do you enjoy most about teaching writing? Why?

My love for teaching is rooted in genuine enthusiasm for the creative process itself, and for the creative energy, ideas, and output of others. When I offer feedback on another writer’s work, I begin with the sincere belief that they can and will create something wonderful—and that they ultimately know better than I do what’s best for their work (though I can help them see and discover more ways to fully realize the possibilities). From there, the work and the writer—their ambitions, tastes, and needs—are what guide the conversation. Every writer and every manuscript need something different. My role is to understand what a writer is trying to do and what they need from me to help them get it there. My goal is to guide them toward finding their own best solutions.

My approach to teaching is rooted in openness: openness with my own process, setbacks, and discoveries. Openness to questions, uncertainties, challenges, and ideas. Openness to vulnerability. Openness to being wrong. Openness to a diversity of approaches and understandings. Openness to play, exploration, experimentation, and fun.

In my editor days, when I described my wish list to literary agents, I said the kind of book I wanted to acquire was one that could only have come from that author’s pen (or fingertips). As a teacher, it’s an honor and pleasure to support my students in the creation of that kind of work: to empower and encourage them to write the stories they are drawn to tell, as only they can tell them, and to work closely with them to recognize and narrow the gap between what a manuscript is and what they want it to be.

I also love, love, love talking with students about process, by which I mean the physical act of writing and how we approach it: the ways we psych ourselves up, psych ourselves out, push through, and get stuck. I am a process junkie—as interested in dissecting a writer’s mindset and approach as I am in analyzing craft—and I consider it an essential part of the work. Paying attention to process is how you pull back the curtain and learn to create your own optimal conditions for magic.

What advice do you have for writers who are interested in furthering their education?

I believe that the key to creating good and interesting art of any kind is to figure out what moves and excites you—as a reader, thinker, writer, feeler, person, friend—and to follow that passion unreservedly. I encourage you to develop your artistic voice by paying exquisite, specific attention to what you love in the world and why: what annoys or delights you, makes you furious, makes you laugh, makes you pause, think, notice. In lectures, workshops, and conversations with other writers, I often ask: What lights up your brain? How specific and weird can you get about that? Where else might it lead you?

There is no right or wrong way for a story or sentence to go—it is all according to taste—so part of becoming a better writer and reviser is learning to recognize the choices you have made (or might make) on the page, and understanding how those choices affect the plot, the characters, and the book’s ideal reader. One of my skills as a teacher is helping writers demystify that process, but you can also learn to do this on your own through paying this kind of attention.

When you read—and I hope you read widely—probe the hows and whys of what works for you on the page and does not. Read strategically and deliberately, applying close attention to the minutiae, the big picture, and the mechanics of the infinite choices an author makes. Notice the effects of each choice on the reader and the story. Imagine what could have been done differently. In this way, “how to” meets “what if?” and you’ll hone your best instincts on both.

What advice would you give to pre-published writers?

Study, evaluate, build, and believe in your own strengths. Find and follow your own joy. And take the time to build real friendships with other writers and creators.

Every writer is an aspiring writer, no matter how oft-published or accomplished they might be. We’re all striving to figure out how to write or revise the stories we have not yet completed or perfected. The work is always a puzzle, and part of figuring out the puzzle is observing, studying, and learning from other writers’ approaches to their own puzzles. I have learned so much from being part of a vibrant creative community and privy to the details of how other writers work.

Writer friends make the world go round.

Sheela Chari

Can you start by telling us a little about who you are as a writer and a teacher of writing?

I have been writing and telling stories my entire life but it wasn’t until I was in college that I began to think seriously about having a writing career. The class that changed my life was Fiction 90, a creative-writing workshop that was so popular at my college, that we had to sleep outside the door of the English department in order to be the first people to sign our names on the sign-up sheet. In that class, I had my writing read and discussed for the first time. Not only did it teach me to share and revise, but the support and encouragement I received from my teacher gave me the confidence to keep writing. From there I went on to study creative writing in graduate school and get my MFA. Today I teach in an MFA program.

That journey of being a student, writer, and teacher has been non-linear (with many steps back before I made any progress), but each of those identities have contributed to the understanding, practice, and love I have for the craft of writing. I have spent so many hours with words that they have shaped the way I understand daily life, my relationships with others, and find hope during the dark periods of my life.

What steps did you take to become a teacher?

After receiving my MFA degree in creative writing, the first place I taught was a local community arts center. The center was located in a charming Victorian house where I taught a course in writing for children and young adults for several seasons.

From there, I went on to Mercy College, a liberal arts college in Dobbs Ferry, New York, where I taught an undergraduate course in fiction writing for several years before joining the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA).

Each teaching job was significant and instrumental in preparing me for my next teaching job. The community arts position allowed me to get my feet wet, to think about how to work with students who were often retirees or young parents trying to balance family with writing, while expanding my idea of what stories for young people meant.

From there, teaching at Mercy taught me to work with college students, to think about how to structure a class over a fifteen week semester, while teaching the elements of fiction, and encouraging students to find their voices.

Today, I get to meld those different experiences together as a faculty member who works with graduate students pursuing their MFA in writing for children and young adults. Now I devote my teaching to pedagogy, language, and critical thinking specifically related to children’s literature, which complements my career as a children’s author. It is the perfect teaching job for me, and I could not have got here without taking those first incremental steps in the beginning.

What inspired you to become a teacher?

During my childhood, my father was a professor of mechanical engineering at a public university. Growing up, I loved living in a college town. I played the violin and so I was involved with many orchestral ensembles when I was in high school, including the college symphony. So my childhood was informed by campus life, being around students, attending concerts and readings and other events that came to the university. My dad was also a consummate teacher in everything, and his day to day life of preparing lessons for class, his ongoing research, and the intellectual environment of our household made me always want to return to the classroom someday. My dad is now retired, and I’m glad that I am continuing the tradition of teaching.

Tell us about the mentors or teachers who encouraged your writing early on.

If there is one mentor for whom I owe so much gratitude, it’s Uma Krishnaswami. From the very first book I published, Vanished (Hyperion, 2011), Uma always took an interest in reading my work, guiding my growth, and encouraging me to push myself as a writer and teacher. No one asked her to reach out to me. She simply advocated for me because she’s a marvelous teacher, and she knew that her experience as a South Asian American writer would be valuable to me when I first started off as a debut author so many years ago.

Author Uma Krishnaswami

Over the years, she has checked in with me, celebrated my work on her blog, and was the one who encouraged me to apply to be on faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she taught for many years, and where I teach today. I would not be where I am without Uma’s encouragement and loving support. I have also learned so much from her own varied work and contribution to children’s literature – from her nonfiction titles on Martin Luther King, Junior and Mohandas Gandhi, to her picture book on Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay (the first climbers to summit Mount Everest), and her many delightful picture book and middle grade novels, she has been a role model for me on how to balance writing with teaching.

Cynsations Notes

Alex Sanchez’s ten novels for young people have won the hearts of readers around the world. Honors include the Tomás Rivera Mexican-American Book Award; American Library Association “Best Book for Young Adults;” Lambda Literary Award; Florida Book Award; and Time Magazine’s “100 Best YA Books of All Time.”

For many years Alex worked as a youth and family counselor. He now teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program on Writing for Children and Young Adults and the University of Chicago Writer’s Studio.

Anica Mrose Rissi is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books for kids and teens, including picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and YA. Her essays have been published by The Writer and the The New York Times, and she plays fiddle in and writes lyrics for the band Owen Lake and the Tragic Loves.

Anica grew up in Maine and spent many years in New York City, where she worked as an executive editor in children’s book publishing. She currently lives in central New Jersey with her very good dog, Sweet Potato, and teaches in the Writing for Children & Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Sheela Chari is the author of several critically acclaimed novels, including Karthik Delivers, a Bank Street College and Chicago Library Best Book, and The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel series, based on the Peabody Award-winning mystery podcast.

Her other titles include Finding Mighty, a Children’s Choice Award finalist; and Vanished, an APALA Children’s Literature Honor Book and Edgar Award finalist. Sheela holds an MFA from New York University and is a faculty member of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She lives in New York.

Michael Leali (he/him/his) is an award-winning writer and veteran educator. He earned his MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he wrote the first draft of his second novel, Matteo. His widely-praised debut novel, The Civil War of Amos Abernathy, won the prestigious Golden Kite Award in 2023 and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary award among many other honors.

Michael’s next middle grade novel, The Truth About Triangles, will be available nationwide on May 21, 2024 from HarperCollins Children’s. Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, Michael currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his partner and many, many books.