Guest Post: Carmela A. Martino on Pulling a Novel From the Drawer & Playing By Heart

By Carmela A. Martino

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

If I’d known how long and difficult the path to publication would be for my new young adult novel, Playing by Heart (Vinspire Publishing, 2017), I might never have started down this road. The journey began when I set out to write a picture book biography of a little-known 18th-century female mathematician.

Long before entering the Vermont College MFA program, I’d been a computer programmer, and my undergraduate degree is in Mathematics and Computer Science. Yet I’d never heard of mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi until I came across her name in an article about forgotten women of history.

Born in Milan, Italy, Agnesi was fluent in seven languages, some say by age eleven. Later, she wrote the first math textbook that covered everything from basic arithmetic to the new-at-that-time science of calculus. The textbook brought her acclaim throughout Europe.

Intrigued by Agnesi’s story, I began working on a picture book biography of her around 2002. 
After Candlewick published my middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola in 2005, I submitted the biography to my editor there. We went through several revisions. Unfortunately, not much remains of Agnesi’s writing besides her textbook. My editor felt there wasn’t enough information about Agnesi’s life and personality to write a nonfiction book that would engage young readers. 
She suggested I write a novel instead, one inspired by Maria Gaetana and her younger sister, Maria Teresa, a composer who was one of the first Italian women to write a serious opera. The Agnesi sisters both struggled to please an overbearing father who put his ambitions ahead of their happiness.

I took my editor’s advice and began writing a historical romance based on the Agnesi sisters. Researching not only their lives but the culture of Milan in the 1700s was rather daunting. 

I finally finished a rough draft in January 2009. 
The story was from the younger sister’s point of view. Having changed the family name to Salvini, my original title was “The Second Salvini Sister.” After numerous revisions, I finally sent a polished manuscript to my Candlewick editor in September 2011. Unfortunately, she turned it down.

I kept revising and submitting, sending the novel to editors and agents, and entering it writing contests. The manuscript took second place in the YA category of the 2012 SCBWI Midsouth Conference. I continued to revise, eventually changing the title to Playing by Heart.

The novel did well in several more contests, including first place in the YA category of the 2013 Windy City Romance Writers Association Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest.

The contest success meant several editors and agents read the full manuscript, yet none of them were interested in publishing or representing the novel.

The feedback I kept hearing was that Playing by Heart was well-written but “historical YA is a tough sell.”

I eventually gave up and put the manuscript in the proverbial drawer. I focused my efforts on freelance writing instead. Still, deep down, I hoped historical YA might eventually come back in vogue. I shared that hope on our TeachingAuthors blog back in 2014.

Then, in March of 2016, I signed up for the Catholic Writers Guild Online Conference, which included pitch sessions with publishers. I’d planned to pitch my biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Given her religious devotion and service to the poor, I thought a Catholic publisher might be interested. 

As it turned out, not all the publishers were Catholic, but none were a good fit for the biography. However, Vinspire Publishing was there accepting pitches for YA fiction. With nothing to lose, I pulled Playing by Heart out of the drawer.

Dawn Carrington, Vinspire’s editor-in-chief, liked my pitch and asked for the first three chapters. In April 2016, she requested the full manuscript. Less than three months later, Dawn emailed to say she wanted to publish the manuscript!

Before signing a contract, I did my due diligence regarding the publisher. 

Vinspire is a small press based in South Carolina. They publish only paperback and ebook editions and they typically don’t pay an advance. They are not a Catholic publisher, but, as it says on their website: “. . . we are a family-friendly publisher, we do not allow extreme violence, any profanity, drug use or references to drug use, smoking, or the use of alcohol by minors, or sensuality or sex in our books.” 
After weighing the pros and cons of working with a small press, I signed the contract.

My experience with Vinspire led me to pitch the article “Working with Small Presses: Bigger Isn’t Always Better,” that will appear in the 2018 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books).

For the article, I interviewed three award-winning authors who share their advice and experiences working with small presses. Two of them are fellow VCFA alums Laura Atkins and Nancy Bo Flood.

When I held a copy of Playing by Heart for the first time, it really didn’t matter that it was published by a small press.

The book was beautiful.

That’s when I decided it had been worth the journey after all.

Cynsational Notes
See an interview with Carmela’s editor, Dawn Carrington, at Teaching Authors.
Carmela Martino’s middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola (Candlewick, 2005) was her creative thesis for the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. The novel went on to be named a Booklist “Top Ten First Novel for Youth.”

After the novel went out of print, she reissued a new edition with a revised cover and a Discussion Questions section. The new edition recently received a Catholic Press Association Book Award in the “Children’s Books” category.

She founded TeachingAuthors, a blog by six children’s authors who are also writing teachers, with several fellow Vermont College alums. She has taught writing classes at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, IL since 1998. Her current co-bloggers include alums Mary Ann Rodman, JoAnn Early Macken, and Bobbi Miller
Carmela’s credits for young readers also include short stories and poems in magazines and anthologies. Her articles for adults have appeared in such publications as the Chicago Tribune, Catholic Parent, and the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (CWIM). She will have two articles in the 2018 CWIM: “Working with Small Presses: Bigger Isn’t Always Better” and an interview with bestselling author Carolyn Crimi, a member of Carmela’s Vermont College class. 

Survivors: Margaret Peterson Haddix on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Margaret Peterson Haddix.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed
to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Oh, I did so many things wrong!

A lot of my struggles in the beginning were just about having the confidence to think that it was possible to be published.

And I was so green and stupid and ignorant, starting out. I think I expected everything to be easier after that—because then I would know what I was doing. And I certainly do know more than I did back then, but every book is like starting over, with its own challenges and struggles. And its own opportunities.

I think one thing that helped me was that I had worked as a newspaper reporter and copy editor before writing my first book. That forced me to learn how to write (and edit) consistently and on deadline, and to have a thicker skin about people criticizing my work. (I’m not sure I ever developed a thick enough skin for journalism, but it gave me some perspective and definitely helped in the kinder world of children’s publishing.)

I was also very, very fortunate in many ways with things that weren’t exactly under my control. I worked hard (counting books that aren’t out yet, I’ve written 43 books in 26 years) but it was what I wanted to do. Some people want to be writers so they can say they’ve written a book, and some people want to be writers because they like to write, and I was lucky/blessed that it’s almost always been the writing itself that I’ve enjoyed most.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been plenty of days when I think all my ideas are stupid and I delete more than I write and I question whether I even know English and I wonder why I didn’t go into an easier field, or at least one where I could know for sure if I was doing things right, instead of endlessly flipping back and forth between multiple choices. (Should it be “and” here, or “but”? Or maybe “so”? Arrrgggghhhh!)

But overall, I am still just having fun. And I was lucky that my books (overall—not every single one) did well enough that I could just keep writing.

I was lucky that the agents and editors who pushed my career along were a lot savvier than I ever was about a lot of publishing issues. (The credit here goes mostly to Tracey Adams at Adams Literary and David Gale at Simon & Schuster, both of whom I’ve worked with the longest.)

Beyond that, I have been lucky with a lot of issues that affect a writing career in less obvious ways. I was lucky that I had health insurance through my husband. I was lucky that the emergencies/crises/day-to-day problems in my family and personal life were the type that could be handled alongside a writing career, instead of supplanting it.

 I was lucky that I’d grown up on a farm, and seen my father manage being self-employed with all its ups and downs and everything that’s good and bad about being your own boss, and so I had a good role model for that. (That farm background was also good because, no matter how much I can tie my brain into knots agonizing over some writing problem, this is still a much, much easier and more pleasant job than shoveling manure or many of the other chores I did as a kid.)

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

It’s tempting to say yes, of course if I could go back, I would learn from my mistakes and do better the second time around. But there’s that lesson of time travel (which I’ve thought about a lot, having written an eight-book time-travel series): if you eliminate a problem, you might also eliminate all the good results.

I’d like to say that I would be less stressed and obsessive, but I’m not sure I can stop being that way going forward with my career, let alone going back. I think it’s a basic personality trait for me, and being stressed and anxious and slightly obsessive pushed me through the difficult parts of just about every single one of my books. There were a few years that were crazy because I’d over-committed and agreed to too many tight book deadlines, along with too much book-related travel, and it would have been wise not to have done that. But I’m not sure which book I would want to have not written.

I do wish I had not been so intimidated and shy the first, oh, let’s say ten to fifteen years of my writing career. I think I missed out on the opportunity to get to know a lot of interesting, thoughtful people in the publishing world back then, as well as a lot of wonderful educators, librarians, booksellers, and other authors.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing,
literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

The biggest changes are because of the internet and social media, and now the ever-presence of smartphones. Like most technological advances, those are all mixed blessings.

In the early years, even when I was writing a book under contract, most of the time it felt like I was just playing around with my ideas on my own, in total isolation. And then I would go to a school or library or bookstore or conference, and it was always a little stunning to me: Wait, these people know my characters, too? And… they like them? Amazing!

In many ways it is wonderful now to be able to interact with readers (and others in the publishing world) over social media, and to get feedback on a regular basis. It’s not so wonderful when the feedback is negative or outright vitriolic (or abusive). I’ve read articles about how damaging it is to kids and teens to have so much of their self-esteem tied to an online world and the Pavlovian effect of seeking likes on social media. Adults should be able to keep perspective better, but I’m not sure it’s healthy for any of us.

If nothing else, social media and constant connectedness take a lot of time and energy. And among my other worries about society and the future, I worry that we’re all going to be reduced to having the attention spans of gnats, which of course would be terrible for the future of books.

The other big change recently is the emphasis on diversity in children’s books and the children’s book world, and I applaud the opportunity for everyone to learn more about one another, and for kids from a variety of backgrounds to see themselves more in books. And for authors who would have been automatically discriminated against in the past to get more attention.

 I know we are a long, long way from an ideal situation, but I want to believe we are making progress. I am trying to listen and learn and read more widely myself.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

That’s a little mind-blowing to contemplate. I think, though, that I’d give the same advice for a first book or a fortieth, or for any career in general. Do your best with what you can control, and let go of what you can’t.

Of course you want your book to succeed, but understand that timing and luck can play a huge role; sometimes good books fail, and sometimes mediocre books succeed.

If your book is a success, of course rejoice and be happy, but remember that that success doesn’t actually define your worth as a person. And if your book fails (or just doesn’t live up to expectations), then of course mourn for that book and the impact you wanted it to have, but even more than with a success, don’t let that failure define your worth as a person.

Be glad if you have friends and family members who don’t know or care anything about your book, except for knowing and caring about you.

And have I managed to follow all that advice myself? Sometimes. Not always.

I could do better. I have managed to follow another part of the advice I’d give, which is to then focus on writing the next book.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

This is a selfish wish, because I am a reader, too: I wish to see a lot more great books from other writers! And beyond that, I would wish for every kid to find at least one book (and hopefully many, many, many books) that speaks directly to him or her.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I am still figuring that out!

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Author & Illustrator Interviews

YA Authors Nic Stone and Jared Reck Chat About Crafting Characters, Their Paths to Publication, and More by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek from Nic Stone: “For me, the best thing about being a debut author is also the worst thing: having no idea what’s going to happen. On the one hand, it’s this exciting adventure…seeing our books pop up on these ’10 YA Must-Reads This Fall!’–type lists…But, it’s also all terrifying, you know?”

Author of Young-Adult Books Sees Writing as the “Best Buzz” by Tom Stoelker from Fordham News. Peek: “(A.S.) King said she has little interest in fame and writes because she wants to help people. Regarding the nuts and bolts of her writing process, King called herself a ‘pantster’ as opposed to a ‘plotter,’ meaning that she writes by the seat of her pants.”

John Green talks about his first novel since ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ by Mary Quattlebaum from The Washington Post. Peek: “…as a person who struggles with obsessiveness, I find it odd that Sherlock’s obsessiveness is often linked to his powers of observation….in my case, obsessiveness makes me a terrible detective, because when I’m unwell I struggle to apprehend anything about the world outside my self.” See also John Green Tells a Story of Emotional Pain and Crippling Anxiety. His Own from The New York Times.

Icebreaker: Kathryn Otoshi by Cat Acree from BookPage. Peek: “I had planned the whole book to be black and white, and then we’d negotiate the gray zones. But it was [my editor, Connie Hsu]—thank god for Connie—who said, ‘Could we add a splash of color?’ . . . Suddenly I realized the color in the illustrations could represent emotions, because I didn’t have words.”

Cynthia Levinson: “The Youngest Marcher” by Alison Goldberg from M Is For Movement. Peek: “I learned about Audrey’s audacity while researching my first nonfiction middle-grade book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012)….When I read the transcript of Audrey’s interview, in which she described carrying her board game on a protest march and then to jail, I knew I needed to talk with her.”

They’ve Got Moxie-In Conversation with Celia C. Pérez and Jennifer Mathieu by Daryl Grabarek from School Library Journal. Peek from Celia C. Pérez: “In (The First Rule of) Punk (Random House, 2017), Malú’s relationships with her new friends, both the kids at her school but especially the adults…allow her to see herself in a way she hadn’t before. It’s through her interactions with them that she begins to think about what it means to be Mexican American and what it means to identify as punk.”


South Asian Narratives to Help Children Embrace their Cultural Backgrounds and Identities by Sania Zaffar and Armeen Sayani from ALSC Blog. Peek: “With the recent political climate and fast-moving changes to immigration policy, we have tailored the booklist to better represent narratives of immigrants, refugees, and informational texts about Islam, not only a faith we both identify as, but one that has influenced our political climate.”

13 YA Books With Bisexual Boys by Casey Stepaniuk from BookRiot. Peek: “But novels with male bisexual characters are especially scarce, meaning YA books with bisexual boys as characters are even more scarce.”

A Secret From History, Two Books, and Breaking Barriers by Lee Wind from I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? Note: Lee serializes his #ownvoices YA novel Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill on his blog. Peek: “The best response to fear that I can think of is courage. And so what I’ve written – these two books – aren’t complete without readers reading them. Waiting is no longer an option. Given the state of our country, our current leadership, and the anti-LGBTQ atmosphere that is directly impacting Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Questioning, and Queer youth, this truth – these books – can’t wait any longer.”

An Introduction To The Queer Bookternet by Danika Ellis from BookRiot. Peek: “Though there are more LGBTQIA+ books being published all the time, it remains difficult to find them without being armed with the knowledge of the titles and authors to seek out….With that in mind, I thought I’d put together a quick primer to some of the most helpful sites on the internet where you can find queer books.”

From “Race Neutral” to “Melting Pot” by Varian Johnson from Kirkus Collections. Peek: “I used to worry about whether I had the choice or the responsibility to portray people of color in my work. Now, I freely choose this responsibility. I want all kids, especially kids that look like me, to see themselves in books….I also want people from other backgrounds to see black kids in these books.” Note: Varian will teach a workshop, Crafting Nonlinear Narratives this Saturday (Oct. 14) with the Writers’ League of Texas.

Writing Craft

Good Endings: What Should Yours Include? by Roz Morris from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “So if you’re struggling to identify what your ending should be, the first place to look is the genre expectations. All stories provoke curiosity and raise questions. That’s what keeps the reader’s attention through hundreds of pages. Your genre is characterised by where you direct that curiosity.”

Wait, that’s Not Broccoli. It’s Chocolate Cake! Part 5 by Melissa Stewart from Celebrate Science. Peek: “I know lots of writers who love to create characters and make up worlds. But for me, the real world is so amazing, so interesting that I just want to learn as much as I can about it and share it with other people. That’s why I write nonfiction.”

Editor Tip: 6 Ways to Strengthen Your Supporting Characters by Phil Stamper-Halpin from Penguin Random House. Peek: “Think about the time and energy you put into building your main character: planning out her ideals, her interests… See if you can do that for each of your supporting characters. Everything doesn’t have to be shown in the story, of course, but if you have a better idea of the character in your mind, he’ll seem more ‘real’ to the reader.”

7 Tips for Finding a Critique Group by Erin Shakespear from Thinking Through Our Fingers. Peek: You need a critique group!… But how do you find these magical people? Do you scribble, ‘Will write and critique for thrilling conversation about plot lines and character development!’ on cardboard and sit near Walmart hoping the right people find you?”


Follett Enters School Book Fair Market by Jim Milliot from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “The launch of Follett Book Fairs is a direct challenge to Scholastic, which has long dominated the business and does 120,000 fairs in the U.S. School book fairs generated $508 million for the company in the fiscal year ended this May.”

These Badass Women Are Redefining What It Means To Work In STEM by Erin Kelly from Bustle. Peek: “…it’s not uncommon for an individual to have more than one job….Yet the unlikely pairing of ‘children’s book author’ and ‘STEM educator’ is still bound to raise some eyebrows. Luckily, this unique mashup plays to Christina Soontornvat’s favor, as she wants youth to know that the number one benefit of pursuing a STEM career is flexibility.”

Thought-Provoking Picture Books | A Selection of 2017 Titles for Older Readers by Wendy Lukehart from School Library Journal. Peek: “Wise educators know the value of introducing a unit with a visual narrative—whether it’s found within a single image or a well-chosen book. The images provide a focus, a unifying, common experience of the subject for the class, along with an affective connection and aesthetic pleasure.”

One Important Question You May Not Be Asking Your Publicist by Emily Adams from Writer unBoxed. Peek: “…you want to make sure you get a hold of the clips of reviews, interviews and features your campaign generates. Then you can get more mileage out of press coverage and magnify your book’s visibility by posting them to your social media channels.”

Let’s Hear It for The Short Story! by Esther Hershenhorn from Teaching Authors. Peek: “…Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Indian Shoes, illustrated by Jim Madsen (Harper Collins, 2001)….was ahead of its time as an early chapter book for 3rd through 5th graders. Each of the six interrelated stories is a stand-alone tale of but one adventure Ray Halfmoon, a…Cherokee-Seminole living in Chicago, shares with his grampa.”

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Insights

Interview: Uma Krishnaswami & Cynthia Leitich Smith on Writing Humor by Hannah Ehrlich from Lee & Low. Peek from Uma: “…I think it’s important as a children’s writer to lean toward kindness in my own heart. I try to write humor that nods to readers in the know and at the same time invites others in.”

More Personally – Gayleen 

Tara, Jeannie & Christina

Congratulations to Tara Dairman – The Great Hibernation (Random House, 2017), Jeannie Mobley-Tanaka – Bobby Lee Claremont and the Criminal Element (Holiday House, 2017) and Christina Soontornvat – In a Dark Land (Sourcebooks, 2017) on their triple middle grade book launch party last week at BookPeople in Austin!

Cynthia is teaching a writing humor workshop with Uma Krishnaswami at Highlights Foundation in Pennsylvania, but she’ll be back next week.

Personal Links – Gayleen

Cover Reveal: Donna Janell Bowman on Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Check out the cover of Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, a nonfiction picture book by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Peachtree, April 2018). From the promotional copy:

Long before he was our beloved president, Abraham Lincoln was known for his smarts and his knee-slapping humor. 

In 1842, that got him into a heap of trouble. When he clashed with James Shields, a political rival, Lincoln came up with a rascally plan.

It was silly.

It was clever.

It was a great big mistake!

Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel!

Lincoln would need his wit and a healthy dose of humility to save his career—and even his life.

A rare look at the more human side of Abraham Lincoln and how the lessons he learned made him a better man.

Donna says:

“It always happens that, when I’m researching for one book, ideas for other books pop up. That’s what happened in 2012, when I came across a one-line mention of Abraham Lincoln’s duel. 

“At first, it was as if my brain couldn’t register that our most revered, monumentalized American figure did something so controversial and dangerous. 

“The research journey that followed revealed a great deal about the evolution of Lincoln’s character. He was a real, fallible, sometimes-naughty guy, just like the rest of us. How refreshing!

“Lincoln could have allowed his mistakes to define him, but he chose instead to learn from them. 

“Now that is something to admire, isn’t it? How lucky for our country that his duel ended without arrest or death. Either of those outcomes could have changed the future of the United States.

“I was fortunate that my Peachtree editor, Kathy Landwehr, included me in the illustrator-selection process. At the top of both of our wish lists was S.D. Schindler, the artistic talent behind many books for children, including Barb Rosenstock’s Ben Franklin’s Big Splash (Calkins Creek, 2014), Verla Kay’s Hornbooks and Inkwells (Penguin-Putnam, 2011), and Phil Bildner’s The Unforgettable Season (Penguin, 2011).

“Wait til you see the interior art when Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words releases April 1, 2018 (no fooling!). 

“Til then, check out this gorgeous cover! Don’t you love how oppositional Lincoln and his foe appear and how the placement of the book’s title—and its reference to the inciting incident—divide the men so intensely? 

“I love, love, love it. I hope you will, too.”

Donna Janell Bowman is the author of the picture book biography Step Right Up: How Doc And Jim Key Taught The World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016), which earned many accolades, including three starred reviews, a Writer’s League of Texas Book Award, and a Carter G. Woodson Award Honor from NCSS. It was also named an ALA Notable Book, a NCTE Orbis Pictus Recommended book and a Junior Library Guild Selection.

Donna has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and enjoys speaking with and mentoring writers of all ages. She lives near Austin, Texas and is represented by Erin MurphyErin Murphy Literary Agency.

Guest Post: Cate Berry on VCFA at Bath Spa University

By Cate Berry
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Looking back on your undergraduate years, do you have remorse? What got away?

Mine is easy. I regret not spending a semester abroad.

Enter my grad school: Vermont College of Fine Arts. I graduated this July with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, but not without savoring a wonderful and rich residency in Bath Spa, England the previous summer. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Corsham Court
Summer Residency in England is now in it’s third year. A select group of VCFA students in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program travel to Bath Spa each summer for a week of scholarship, study and cultural immersion alongside fellow children’s writers, who’re attending Bath Spa University.

Suma Subramaniam, Michele Prestininzi, Tricia McLaughlin Carey, Cate Berry & Ginny Dukek

Bath, England is a tidy one-hour train ride from London. As I speed past quaint English villages, I caught myself humming the “Downton Abbey” theme song and counting sheep dotting the countryside.

Donna Janell Bowman at Jane Austen Centre

The elegant city of Bath is my retirement fantasy. It holds all the necessary requirements: small population, ample bookstores, lush English gardens, great restaurants and a bustling artistic scene.

The Jane Austen Centre boasts rare portraits of the author, her history and fabulous period clothing you can actually try on.

We toured the Roman Baths during our stay and dined at The Pump Room. Also, the world famous Thermal Baths (not to be missed if you attend residency) are situated discreetly downtown.

On our first day of residency, we traveled to Corsham Court where Bath Spa University is located. This is a real castle inhabited by a real duke.

As our bus arrives, peacocks strut around the manicured grounds.

The vastness and beauty of the estate left us gob-smacked.

We were going to study here?

David Almond and Louise Hawes

Esteemed Bath Spa faculty David Almond, Lucy Christopher and Julia Green greeted us along with the current Bath Spa writing students. Throughout the week faculty shared lectures, readings and group discussions, alongside our own two VCFA faculty members, Jane Kurtz and Louise Hawes.

In previous and post years, VCFA faculty Martine Leavitt, Tim Wynne-Jones, Sharon Darrow and Tom Birdseye led and attended residencies.

Julia Green, one of the Bath Spa University faculty members, commented on mixing workshops with students from both programs.

“It was a great experience, working with the MFA students from VCFA alongside our MA Writing for Young People students at Bath Spa University. 

“We found the exchange of ideas about the selected picture books, middle grade and YA novels from either side of the Atlantic an enriching experience.

“For me, there was something truly exciting about bringing together people from around the world, from different backgrounds and cultures, and finding how much we had in common, as passionate, committed writers for young people. 

“This is surely how we change the world, create understanding, and help create a more peaceful and compassionate society—for ourselves and for young people.”

Since this was part of our accredited residency at VCFA, we also attended writing workshops with our own faculty, Jane Kurtz and Louise Hawes.

Michele Prestininzi and Jane Kurtz at the Pump Room

Compared to residencies in Vermont, our group of students were smaller and more intimate. “It was great to have the same small group of writers seeing everything together,” Jane reflected. “Being part of the same lectures and readings, doing workshop together–I think the intimacy built a feeling of trust so we could all let go a bit more and play and let our creativity zing.”

In Oxford, next to the Narnia Lamppost 

Quickly, we bonded as our own group: “The Bath Goddesses.” Our workshops were generative. We tromped outside gathering sensory objects and honing our critical “observing” eye. Jane and Louise gave powerful and provocative lectures.

Gardens at Oxford University

As a writer, being so far away and immersing myself in craft and culture for a week resulted in a brand new project. The following semester, these “pages” became my creative thesis and resulted in a finished novel by graduation.

Illustration from The Hobbit.

Perhaps my favorite part of the week was our excursion to Oxford University. Our guide took us on a specific Children’s Literature tour, pointing out the colleges of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis among others.

High Table at Oxford University

We had lunch and conversation at the High Table with acclaimed novelist Meg Rosoff. And finished our day with a tour of the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe.

VCFA alum Anita Fitch Pazner said: 

“Oxford was one of my favorite stops on the Bath Spa journey. Not only did we get to walk near Alice’s Wonderland and Harry Potter’s dining hall, but we also got a glimpse of the original Narnia map.”

At the end of the week, flying back for a few treasured days on the main campus at VCFA, I thought back on my Bath Spa experience.

Bath at dusk

Did I still have remorse about missed opportunities abroad as an undergraduate?


VCFA and the Summer Bath Spa Residency gave me the luxury of marrying an intensely satisfying learning experience with a cultural feast. Thanks, VCFA!

Cynsational Notes

Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Summer Residency in England: “Students seeking an international experience have the opportunity to attend the program’s summer residency abroad in Bath, England. This alternative residency is open to students entering their second semester or above, as well as alumni.”

About the VCFA MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Program: “The Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts allows students to earn a 64-credit MFA degree over a period of two years through a combination of ten-day, on-campus residencies followed by six-month semesters of self-created study, [each] supported and guided by a faculty mentor.
A semester’s study may focus on a particular area such as picture book, middle grade, or young adult and include in-depth reading and critical writing of the wider field, including poetry and nonfiction.”

Cate Berry is a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adult MFA program (July/2017), receiving her Picture Book Intensive Certificate in the process.

Cate is an active member of SCBWI and the Austin children’s literature community. She teaches numerous picture book classes at the Writing Barn in Austin, including the upcoming Picture Book III, starting November 1.

Her debut picture book, Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! (Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins) releases in May, 2018.

She lives in Austin with her husband and two children.

Author Interview: Shenaaz Nanji on Child Slavery & Ghost Boys

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Shenaaz Nanji is the author of Ghost Boys (Mawenzi House Publishers, September 2017). From the promotional copy:

Fifteen-year-old Munna lives with his Ma and sisters in a small town in India. 

Determined to end his family’s misfortunes, he is lured into a dream job in the Middle East, only to be sold. He must work at the Sheikh’s camel farm in the desert and train young boys as jockeys in camel races. 

The boys, smuggled from poor countries, have lost their families and homes. Munna must starve these boys so that they remain light on the camels’ backs, and he must win the Gold Sword race for the Sheikh. 

In despair, he realizes that he is trapped and there is no escape . . .

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I grew up in East Africa amidst a fusion of cultures: East Indian, British Colonial, African, and later, American and Canadian.

The multicultural exposure made it difficult for me to raise my children in North America in the 1980s. I was troubled by questions like: Can my children embrace our traditions as well as fit in with their peers? Can they be cool if they are different?

In desperation, I searched the libraries and bookstores for relevant fiction to answer my questions, but came up empty handed. Frustrated, I began to write my own stories for my children.

Once, my son commented: But Mom, why are your stories not books?

I replied: Because I am not an author.

He pursued: Why can’t you be an author, Mom?

Hmmm, I thought. I should try, I told myself without knowing zilch about publishing.

Truly, sometimes ignorance is bliss.

So I tried to publish the stories without a smidgen of knowledge on how long the publishing cycle takes. Several years flew by before my stories were published.

Indeed, my children grew up faster than my books did.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I first learned about camel-slave jockeys from my daughter who was researching on human rights topics for Persuasive Speech and Debate. I saw images of young boys of four-to-five years of age in racing body armor and helmets but bare feet, working in the blistering heat of the desert and was horrified.

An eight-year-old jockey who suffered a fall on the racing track with serious abdominal injuries said in a local newspaper:  “I wish there were no camels in this world.”

Another said: “I only remember death was dancing on all sides, we were falling down and the cars following the race were taking away the bodies of those who were killed or injured.”

The words lingered in my mind, often echoing eerily. Like Munna in Ghost Boys, the young camel jockeys became ghosts inside of me, haunting me, refusing to rest until I told their story.

What research did you do to learn more about child slavery?

I went to Middle East three times. I visited a racing track early morning before the sun rose and watched a camel race take place. Photographs were forbidden, but I managed to converse to a few camel trainers brought from Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

I scoured the information in international newspapers about the lives of the camel jockeys and reports by UNICEF. I watched documentary films on camel jockeys in BBC as well as CBC.

Bryant Gumbel on HBO told us about the camel jockeys in The Sports of the Sheikh, in which the British photojournalist, David Higgs and Ansar Burney, a Pakistani human rights crusader, secretly visited several camel camps with a hidden camera.

Their story of young camel-slave jockeys chilled me to the marrow.

What aspect of the subject surprised you most? 

That the laws were flouted even after the robots replaced young boys as camel jockeys. In 2005, a
law in the United Arab Emirates prohibited the use of children under the age of 18 as camel jockeys.

But the cover page of Time Magazine, Dec 14, 2011 featured a 35-year-old mother of five, an acid attack survivor, Azim Mai. Her husband allegedly threw acid in her face after she refused to sell their two boys to a man in Dubai to use as camel racers.

I was surprised by the statistics of modern slavery. Modern slavery includes debt bondage, forced marriage, child labor, human trafficking, and forced labor. According to World Map Slavery, more than 29 million people in the world today live in slavery, the size of a nation.

What do you hope readers take away from Ghost Boys?

I hope to raise an awareness of modern day child slavery and the horrors of dowry. I want to offer hope to the readers, that regardless of our inherent weakness or flaws in life, our flip side is strength. The beast is two headed but they share the same heart.

In Ghost Boys, Munna thanks his curse that has turned him into a bad luck brother. He says, “While I hate the curse, it gives me courage. It’s like a two-headed beast in my heart. If I lose it, my courage might go.” Banish the beast and the heroism vanishes.

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

In Doggy language: Sit. Stay. Write.

Writing may be a long journey, but there are ‘ah ha’ magical moments along the way. Writing is the most emotional and personal tasks ever. For me it is a love-hate affair. Writing is that rich, sweet, golden ladhu, Indian sweetmeat that melts in my mouth. If I eat it, I will regret it. But if don’t eat it, I will also regret it. I always profess to my hubby this is the last book I am writing, but then there is another. I believe words have the power to change lives, especially the young minds. Writing will help us understand the strange breed of humanity. It will enrich our lives as well as the lives of the readers.

I believe the next magical thing in the universe after giving birth to babies is giving birth to books. Our stories will last longer than we will. In the end, they are all that will be left.

What would you have done differently?

A major mistake was not having a proper outline on paper. Of course, the fuzzy plot of the story was in my head, but after several months of writing, I found to my astonishment, suddenly lost, stuck in the middle-muddle with no road map.

What should happen to Munna in the Ghost Boys after he faces the sandstorm? For months, I’d stare at the half-written story on the computer screen and hastily divert to other tasks such as emails etc.

Thankfully after recalling ‘The Story of the Weeping Camel’ in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, in which the camel gives birth to a rare white calf and refuses to nurse her baby, I moved on.

I learned the importance of drawing a sketch of the setting where the story takes place. It added a lot of clarity to the plot.

A big thing I learned was humility. After my last novel, Child of Dandelions (Boyds Mills Press, 2008), that garnered a lot of attention, I thought I knew it all. That I could easily whip out the next book.


Every story faces new challenges. I forgot that I was climbing another mountain with different peaks and valleys. The smugness cost me years of confusion and re-learning about writing all over again. Next time around, I hope to start with the basics and with grace.

Cynsational Notes

Shenaaz Nanji‘s Child of Dandelions, a novel about the expulsion of Uganda’s Asians, was shortlisted for the 2008 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature.

It was also named a finalist for the Manitoba Young Readers Choice, a finalist for the Rhode Island Teen Book and a Notable Book Global Society from the International Reading Association.

Her other books include:

She holds an MFA from Vermont College and lives in Calgary.

Cover Reveal & Author Snapshot: Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots by Margarita Engle

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover of Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez (Atheneum, June 2018). Note: a young adult novel-in-verse about the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943.

Margarita says:

“During World War II, my hometown of Los Angeles, California became the scene of riots so strange that they don’t seem real, unless viewed through the lens of modern trends toward increasing racial violence.  

“Sailors on their way to the battlefields of World War II attacked
Mexican-American teenage boys, beating them, stripping them of their zoot suits, and setting the clothing on fire. Unwilling to arrest men in
uniform, police arrested the zooters instead.  

“Clothes were not the real motive behind these shocking attacks. Interracial swing dancing was the trigger for white supremacist violence.  

“I chose to narrate this complex story in free verse, using many voices, including a Mexican-American family, a Cuban musician, policemen, sailors, reporters, and the ghost of a murdered man. 

“I hope Jazz Owls will help young readers understand how World War II changed the roles of women, as well as the hopes and dreams of Latinos in the U.S.”

Cynsational Notes

Margarita Engle is the 2017-2019 national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor.

She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award recipient.

Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and Arnold Adoff Poetry Award, among others.

Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.

 Her newest verse novel about the island is Forest World, and her newest picture books are All the Way to Havana, and Miguel’s Brave Knight, Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote.

Books forthcoming in 2018 include The Flying Girl, How Aída de Acosta learned to Soar, and Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots.

Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She was trained as an agronomist and botanist. She lives in central California with her husband.

Book Trailer: Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley (Dial, 2017). From the promotional copy:

From the New York Times bestselling author of Circus Mirandus comes the magic-infused story of a golden gator, two cursed kids, and how they take their destinies into their own hands.

When the red moon rises over the heart of the Okefenokee swamp, legend says that the mysterious golden gator Munch will grant good luck to the poor soul foolish enough to face him.

But in 1817, when two fools reach him at the same time, the night’s fate is split. With disastrous consequences for both . . . and their descendants. Half of the descendants have great fates, and the other half have terrible ones.

Now, Tumble Wilson and Blue Montgomery are determined to fix their ancestors’ mistakes and banish the bad luck that’s followed them around for all of their lives. They’re going to face Munch the gator themselves, and they’re going to reclaim their destinies.

But what if the legend of Munch is nothing but a legend, after all?

Full of friendship, family, and the everyday magic and adventure that readers of Savvy and A Snicker of Magic love, Cassie Beasley’s newest middle grade book is another crowd-pleasing heart-warmer—perfect for reading by yourself, or sharing with someone you love.

Book Video: An Evening of Ectoplasm

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

From the acknowledgements: “Icky paranormal history with award-winning authors William Alexander, M.T. Anderson, and Kekla Magoon. Special thanks to Alice Dodge for her spirit photography, Kelly Murphy for the gorgeous illustrations, and The Parlour Trick for graciously granting us permission to use ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and ‘Pandora’ from their album ‘A Blessed Unrest.'”

About A Properly Unhaunted Place (Margaret K. McElderry, 2017)

From National Book Award–winning author William Alexander comes a wryly humorous story about two kids who try to save their town by bringing back its ghosts.

Rosa Ramona Díaz has just moved to the small, un-haunted town of Ingot—the only ghost-free town in the world. She doesn’t want to be there. She doesn’t understand how her mother—a librarian who specializes in ghost-appeasement—could possibly want to live in a place with no ghosts. Frankly, she doesn’t understand why anyone would.

Jasper Chevalier has always lived in Ingot. His father plays a knight at the local Renaissance Festival, and his mother plays the queen. Jasper has never seen a ghost, and can’t imagine his un-haunted town any other way. Then an apparition thunders into the festival grounds and turns the quiet town upside down.

Something otherworldly is about to be unleashed, and Rosa will need all her ghost appeasement tools—and a little help from Jasper—to rein in the angry spirits and restore peace to Ingot before it’s too late.

Book Trailer: Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh (HarperChildren’s, 2017). From the promotional copy:

We Need Diverse Books founder Ellen Oh returns with Spirit Hunters, a high-stakes middle grade mystery series about Harper Raine, the new seventh grader in town who must face down the dangerous ghosts haunting her younger brother. 

A riveting ghost story and captivating adventure, this tale will have you guessing at every turn! 

Harper doesn’t trust her new home from the moment she steps inside, and the rumors are that the Raine family’s new house is haunted. Harper isn’t sure she believes those rumors, until her younger brother, Michael, starts acting strangely. 

The whole atmosphere gives Harper a sense of déjà vu, but she can’t remember why. She knows that the memories she’s blocking will help make sense of her brother’s behavior and the strange and threatening sensations she feels in this house, but will she be able to put the pieces together in time?