Author Interview: Samantha M. Clark on Being a SCBWI Regional Advisor & the Austin Chapter

Learn more about Samantha M. Clark,
photo by Sam Bond.

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we take a peek behind the curtain at the planning and preparation required to organize a successful Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators chapter.

I chatted with Austin’s Regional Advisor, Samantha M. Clark to get the inside scoop.

How long have you been the Austin RA and what prompted you to take the position? 

I’m now in my fifth year as the RA.

I really love doing it, but it was not something I could do before. I’ve volunteered for SCBWI for the past 10 years, first running a critique group for the Houston chapter and, when we moved to Austin, coordinating the critiques for the conference, among other tasks.

When the former RA left, author Bethany Hegedus, a good friend and generally wonderful person, said I would make a good RA, to which I responded that there was no way I could do the job.

Author-illustrator Shelley Ann Jackson ended up taking over from the former RA, but she asked me to be her assistant. I was a little nervous, but ultimately thought it would be an amazing challenge and experience. And I was right, I loved it.

A few months into the job, however, Shelley was finding a big squeeze on her time. She was doing her MFA (in Writing for Children and Young Adults) at Vermont College of Fine Arts at the time, so she called me up one day and said, “You should be the RA.” I told her no and that she was doing great, but at every meeting she kept saying the same thing.

So finally I said that if she was serious, I was open to it. Even though I never imagined that I’d head up an SCBWI chapter, I’ve found that it’s something I really enjoy.

Amy Farrier, Samantha and Shelley Ann Jackson, Austin SCBWI’s leadership team in 2013.

How many members are in the Austin chapter? 

We have close to 330 members, which is double the number when I first took this job. I’m astounded at the growth we’ve had in the last few years and always excited to see so many first timers at our monthly meetings and conference. Come on, join us!

Tell me about the local conference. When do you start planning it? How do you choose speakers? 

I do love our local conference. When I took over as RA, I revamped the (now two-day) conference and gave it the name Austin SCBWI Writers & Illustrators Working Conference.

I had envisioned a blend of a retreat and a conference, and while we’ve never ended up with alone working time in the schedule, like at a regular retreat, we do try to offer sessions that go deep and get attendees working.

Our goal is the same every year—and we tell our faculty this when we send out invitations: For our attendees to go home able to lift their work to the next level.

We try to have something for writers and illustrators at all levels, from beginners to advanced, and we try to cover both craft and career.

For our Saturday breakouts, we have tracks for writers (picture books, novels or both), illustration and professional development for the business side. We also have keynotes that are geared at being more inspirational as well as learning, a panel with our speakers from the publishing side to answer attendee questions about the industry, and, on Sunday, intensives for picture books, novels and illustration.

A few years ago we added a panel of local authors and illustrators to kick off the whole weekend. I especially like this because everyone on the panel was once in the audience and I want all the attendees to know that, with hard work and perseverance, they could be the ones on the stage soon. 

We start planning at least a year in advance—I’m working on 2019 now but also thinking about 2020—and after organizing five conference, I’m starting to feel like I’m getting a handle on it.

It begins with deciding who our out of town faculty will be. We bring in one author, one illustrator, two editors, two agents and one art director. We aim to be as diverse as we can, with ethnicity as well as what they create. So, if we have an author who writes fantasy one year, we’ll try to get someone who writes a different genre the following year. Same with illustrators and their styles and mediums.

With agents and editors, we try to bring in people from different publishing houses/agencies, big and small, from year to year, as well as match agents and editors so that collectively, they represent as many age groups and genres as possible.

It takes a lot of planning, and we have to invite people early because speakers’ schedules fill up fast. We often have to do multiple invitations because people are busy, so to create the best faculty possible, it takes a lot of research and time.

While we’re looking for the out of town faculty, we also open up for proposals from our local faculty. We use a proposal system because we have so many amazing authors and illustrators in our local area and they have much better ideas about sessions than we do.

We do try to share the spots from year to year, so we can showcase as many of our local creatives as possible. But ultimately, we look at all the proposals along with the sessions from our out of town faculty and choose ones that combined will make a balanced conference that covers many different topics.
It’s a lot of planning, but my hope is that through it, we’ve got a conference that is living up to its mission to help attendees lift their work to the next level.

There are several scholarships connected to the conference. Can you tell me about those? 

Yes! I’m very proud of our scholarships and awards. Through our Betty X Davis Young Writers of Merit Award, named after our oldest member, who’s now 102 and a huge inspiration, we honor three young writers every year, giving a $500 scholarship to the high school student when they start college. We hear these writers read their work at the conference and I’m always so impressed.

Betty X. Davis with the 2017 Young Writers winners and Lindsey Lane,
SCBWI volunteer. Photo by Sam Bond.

Our Creators of Diverse Characters Scholarship offers one full scholarship and one half scholarship to a picture book writer, novel writer and an illustrator to go to our annual conference. This is designed to encourage the creation of diverse worlds, in race, sexuality, religion, etc. We’re also working on a program that will award scholarships to writers and illustrators in marginalized groups and hope to begin that next year.

We also have two-year-long mentorships, one for writers and one for illustrators. Our newest is the Emerging Voice Illustrator Mentorship. The winner is chosen from the Portfolio Showcase at our conference. We rotate the mentors, and this year, it’s Don Tate, who’s a wonderful author-illustrator.

For illustrators at the conference, we also have a Portfolio Showcase Contest, which awards two honors with gift certificates and a winner with gift certificates and a free year’s membership to SCBWI.

On the writers’ side, we have the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award, named after Cynsations’ own Cynthia Leitich Smith to honor how generous she is to those starting out. The mentorship is modeled after the Houston SCBWI chapter’s Joan Lowery Nixon Memorial Award.

I won the mentorship years ago with the manuscript that will be published by Simon & Schuster next month, The Boy, The Boat, And The Beast (June 26, 2018), so it was really important to me that Austin have a similar program to help other writers.

Cynthia was our first mentor for the award, and since then, other local authors have been the mentors on a rotating basis.

Our 2018 mentor is Jennifer Ziegler, who is choosing her mentee from manuscripts nominated by our conference faculty from their critiques.

How has SCBWI helped you in your path to publication?

I could write a whole blog post on this question alone!

SCBWI has helped me enormously, with learning at conferences, meeting people, making friends… But I can give you a specific example with the journey of my debut book, The Boy, The Boat, And The Beast.

Laurent Linn

I started writing the manuscript when I was volunteering for the Houston SCBWI critique group. They helped me hone the opening pages.

The manuscript won the Houston chapter’s Joan Lowry Nixon Award, which was a year’s mentorship with the fantastic Newbery Honor author Kathi Appelt.

I was recommended to my agent, Rachel Orr of Prospect Agency, by agent Liza Pulitzer Voges, who had met me at the first Austin SCBWI conference I organized. Liza loved my work, but said she wouldn’t be the right agent for it. She recommended me to Rachel, and after being in the query trenches more than two years, the manuscript finally found its agent home.

Coincidentally, the art director we had brought in for that same conference, Laurent Linn with Simon & Schuster, is now the art director for my book. I had told him about the book at the conference.

Four years later, when he heard my editor talking about it in a production meeting, he remembered the story and asked to work on it. I couldn’t be more grateful for the work he has done to make it beautiful.

All of these things I can directly point to SCBWI, but as I said, over the years, I have learned so much at SCBWI conferences, webinars, books, podcasts, articles…

And, perhaps, most important are the friends I’ve made through SCBWI. The organization promotes support and encouragement, and its members follow suit. I’ve made friends in the chapters where I’ve been a member and, as an RA, I’ve made friends with chapter volunteers from around the world. SCBWI has been and continues to be my teacher, my guide, my cushion. I wouldn’t have a career without it.

Samantha with other RAs at the 2016 SCBWI LA Conference

Are there other Austin events beyond the monthly meeting and the annual conference?

Oh, yes! We stay busy. We have webinars at various times throughout the year, but we also organize workshops, networking events, and new since last year, retreats.

Last year, we held our first Novel Writing Retreat, with workshops, roundtables and lots of writing and social time. This year, we’re working on our first Picture Book Retreat, Sept. 14-16.

We also have Online Book Clubs for PB, MG and YA, where members can discuss and analyze books to help their own work. We have critique groups all over the Austin area and more being organized all the time. And from time to time, we try to arrange a lunch with an author or illustrator so people can ask questions.

What’s the best part of being an RA?

This is a fun question because there are so many best parts of being an SCBWI RA:

  • Working with our fantastic Assistant Regional Advisor P.J. Hoover and Illustrator Coordinator C.S. Jennings, as well as our other wonderful volunteers.
  •  Meeting new writers and illustrators—I feel like I gained a huge friendly family when I took on the job.
  •  When one of our members says they learned something or made a positive connection through one of our events.
  •  Getting thank you emails from members after I’ve helped them in some way. Everyone is seriously so nice!
  •  When one of our members signs with an agent or gets a book deal that came out of a connection or advice received at one of our events…

    I could go on.

Being an RA is a lot of work, but the rewards are endless.

C.S., Sam and P.J. planning Austin SCBWI events.

Are there any downsides? 

Well… the job is a lot of work.

Outside of what our members see, the events require a lot of organization and brainstorming, much of which is time consuming. Plus, the RA has to submit a number of reports to the SCBWI HQ, keep up with what’s going on with international SCBWI programs as well as other chapters, and respond to emails from members, prospective members and people seeking information about kidlit.

A lot of emails…

Being an RA is a voluntary position and I have a lot of commitments outside of that—especially right now, with next month’s release of The Boy, The Boat, And The Beast—so I have to fit in all the SCBWI work when I can.

But I try to get as many volunteers involved as possible, which I think is key for two reasons:

  1. If I have less to do, I can do more for the chapter with the little time I have. And, perhaps more importantly, 
  2. It’s important for our members to feel like it’s their chapter and they’re contributing as part of the greater family. 

We give lots of perks to our volunteers to thank them for their time, but people sign up to volunteer because they want to get involved and meet other members. Volunteering is the best way to do that, so to me, having lots of people involved is the best all around.

Cynsational Notes

Samantha M Clark has always loved stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. After all, if four ordinary brothers and sisters can find a magical world at the back of a wardrobe, why can’t she? While she looks for her real-life Narnia, she writes about other ordinary children and teens who’ve stumbled into a wardrobe of their own.

In a past life, Samantha was a photojournalist and managing editor for newspapers and magazines. She lives with her husband and two kooky dogs in Austin, Texas.

Samantha is the Regional Advisor for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, and explores wardrobes every chance she gets. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Author Interview: Bethany Hegedus on Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Just about a year ago, I became a Writing Barn Fellow, which means I serve as a teaching assistant and provide logistical support for classes and workshops.


It also means that I’ve gotten to know author Bethany Hegedus better and I couldn’t pass up the chance to interview her about her new picture book biography, Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, illustrated by Erin McGuire (HarperCollins, 2018). From the promotional copy:
Nelle Harper Lee grew up in the rocky red soil of Monroeville, Alabama. From the get-go she was a spitfire.

Unlike most girls at that time and place, Nelle preferred overalls to dresses and climbing trees to tea parties. Nelle loved to watch her daddy try cases in the courtroom. And she and her best friend, Tru, devoured books and wrote stories of their own. More than anything Nelle loved words.

This love eventually took her all the way to New York City, where she dreamed of becoming a writer. Any chance she had, Nelle sat at her typewriter, writing, revising, and chasing her dream. Nelle wouldn’t give up—not until she discovered the right story, the one she was born to tell.

Finally, that story came to her, and Nelle, inspired by her childhood, penned To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). A groundbreaking book about small-town injustice that has sold over forty million copies, Nelle’s novel resonated with readers the world over, who, through reading, learned what it was like to climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it.

What drew you to Harper Lee? Did you feel a kinship with her?

The Writing Barn Players appeared as Jem,
Scout and Dill at BookPeople book launch

To Kill a Mockingbird was and is my favorite book. I read it over and over, each summer, for about 20 years.

In my childhood mind, Scout was Beverly Cleary’s Ramona, set in a different time—and I wanted to be both of those girls. And in some ways I was: outspoken, an ally, a questioner—but even though I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s I missed out on pageboy haircuts both Scout and Ramona don.

I always wanted to write about Harper Lee. I read anything and everything that came out about her—which wasn’t much—since she chose to live a very private life. 

I first became interested in her as a subject because of learning about the parallels to who she was a child and who Scout was.

Writing for children, I greatly believe our childhoods matter. They matter when we are young. And they matter as we grow older and are told to leave our childhoods behind. 

Nelle, which was the name Harper Lee was born with and that family friends still used, knew that childhood was a time of exploration– moral discovery internally—as well as learning about the outside world. That fascinates me and continues to fascinate me.

I lived in New York City during some of the years Harper Lee lived there, before returning home to Monroeville for good. I used to imagine bumping into her as I once did my mentor Norma Fox Mazer in Grand Central. I never bumped into Harper Lee—but the imaginary conversations we shared over cups of black coffee still do.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) of bringing the text to life?


The challenges are always numerous when beginning a picture book biography and here I knew I was not going to have any first-person sources since Harper Lee did not grant interviews and stopped speaking about her enormously successful novel in the 1960s before I was born. 

However, I was able to find Harper Lee’s last interview about To Kill a Mockingbird with Roy Newquist from 1964. He surely didn’t know it would be Harper Lee’s last interview. And I don’t believe Nelle knew it would be either.

Another challenge was circumvented when Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins made a pre-empt offer on Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird as they are the publishers of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchmen (HarperCollins, 2015), and my manuscript was contracted a number of months before Harper Lee’s death.

After Nelle’s passing, we went back into the manuscript and edited the ending to include the death and the publication of Watchmen.

I wasn’t Harper Lee’s friend but as a long lover of her work, I felt a connection to both her fiction and her desire to leave the South, but also stay connected to the South. Psychologically, this helped me dig into her life’s story and to find the arc of a writer who “lived a life of her own design.”

Bethany and Illustrator Erin McGuire at BookPeople for the launch of Alabama Spitfire.

I’ve heard you call yourself an “accidental biographer,” can you explain that and tell us about the threads of connection in your nonfiction books?



Yes! I am an accidental biographer—one who writes novels—and had two published and hopefully more soon—so I feel strongly rooted in story, not research. 
My hat always goes off to the real researchers. Folks like Donna Janell Bowman and Cynthia Levinson, who are friends and whose work astounds me.

But being an accidental biographer, has come to mean this to me, and I teach this when I teach biography; my flawed and beating heart needs to overlap somehow with the subject I am researching and sharing. We have to have a heart connection. And in telling their life story in book form, I am also subtextually telling my own life story.

I am not a journalist. I don’t believe in being impartial and removed from the subjects I am writing about. 

But, notice the word subtextually…while my heart, and my writer heart, may find common ground with my subject I am not making things up, or inserting myself into the story, but I am psychologically there—just as I am with my fiction. Voice, word choice, scenes to depict, narrative arc—those are all decisions innately made or consciously decided by me the author.

I said it this way in an editorial letter to one of my picture book biography mentees:

And what I am attempting to do with picture book biography is take someone who has lived a day, many days, many years, and to find their through line and to tie it to mine, with where I personally need to grow or heal or with what I want to offer and give to the world. I am the centerpoint. And I believe where the throughline begins is by seeing where the author may make his or her connection.

In fact, this personal desire to heal is where my desire to create non-fiction started. 

I heard Arun Gandhi speak a month after 9/11, where I was a fire searcher on the 31st floor of World Financial Center, where I worked as a receptionist, a writing receptionist. 
I witnessed all there was to witness that day and I went to Arun Gandhi’s talk hoping to heal myself. And his talk did heal me. And in hearing him speak about the two years he lived with his grandfather at the Sevagram ashram in India I knew I wanted to share his stories with picture book readers. 
Arun’s story and mine intersected when I heard his words. About how his grandfather taught him how anger is like electricity and it can be destructive when reactive like lightning but if channeled and transformed it can shed light like a lamp. About how his grandfather, the Mahatma, believed we were all one and how each of us could make a difference in the world, by being the change we wished to see.

I didn’t meet him that night, I didn’t shake his hand and it was months later that I asked him to work with me on what would become, over 10 years later, Grandfather Gandhi (Atheneum, 2014) and Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Atheneum, 2016), both illustrated by Evan Turk.

How does being the Creative Director at The Writing Barn and teaching classes inform and influence your work as an author?

I think one of the secrets to being a productive and prolific writer is you never stop learning and when you couple that with community—wow—the learning intensifies.

It is a gift to get to create programming for writers all over the country, and to create opportunities for their craft-tool boxes and living a literary life skill sets to grow and grow. 

And when I am teaching myself, it’s like school visits—it may take a ton of energy and time—but what I get out always inspires me. Even with the busyness around Alabama Spitfire, I’ve carved out the time to teach a half-day on-line class: Uncovering the Narrative Arc in Picture Book Biographies in mid-March to keep me engaged and that always means headed back to the page.

Tell us what you’ve got coming up at the Writing Barn that you’re most excited about.


Gosh, I am loving our online programming, which has allowed writers who have flown into Austin to study with us at intensives, the chance to do it again—now from home. Or for Austinites who don’t want to brave the traffic. This also allows us to work with artists from around the country: the amazing YA author Melanie Crowder, funny man Adam Lehrhaupt who is teaching an outside-the-box six-week picture book class, and more.

Intensive-wise, Lamar Giles, A New York Times bestseller who has a middle grade  book coming out on Kwame Alexander’s Versify imprint is heading the Mastering the Middle Grade faculty with Phoebe Yeh, who heads up Crown this May. 

And in fall, we have our Complete Picture Book Biography Intensive with Alyssa Eisner Henkin (RJ Palacio’s agent) who is actively seeking picture book bios. And we are super excited to have our inaugural Rainbow Weekend Intensive for writers on the LGBTQIAP+ spectrum.

Our Porchlight Podcast just wrapped Season One with episodes featuring Katherine Applegate, Sara Pennpacker, Jessixa Bagley and Jason Gallaher. And Season Two will feature my favorite middle author of the last year, Linda Williams Jackson and others!

And we launched our Write. Submit. Support. Six-month programs and those will be ongoing with the next set beginning in this summer for both picture book writers and novelists.

Can you tell us about the other books you have coming up?


You have to sit on announcements as a picture book biographer for so long. I have one I still can’t publicly chat about that is also set to release in 2019, but here is info on the one I can talk about. 

A picture book biography of my childhood President, Jimmy Carter!

And I’d like to thank the kidlit communityfor participating in the #BeASpitfire campaign where each Tuesday we post a video featuring a kidlit creator doing extraordinary work with kids!

Cynsational Notes


Publishers Weekly called Alabama Spitfire, “an affectionate ode to a writer who ‘carved out a life of her own design,’ as Hegedus eloquently puts it.”



Bethany Hegedus’ books include the award-winning Grandfather Gandhi and Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story, both co-written with Arun Gandhi, grandson to the Mahatma and illustrated by Evan Turk.

Bethany writes about the South in her picture book Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird and her middle grade novels Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010) and Between us Baxters (West Side Books, 2009).

Her novels are known for gracefully handling issues of race, class, and cross-group friendships.

A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults, Bethany is prior editor of the literary journal Hunger Mountain. She is the owner and creative director of The Writing Barn, a writing retreat, workshop and event space in Austin, Texas.

Guest Post: Bethany Hegedus on Writer Mama Survival Guide

By Bethany Hegedus
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There are craft books on writing and parenting books galore, but nothing on how to be a “Writer Mama.”

I’ve watched many friends make the transition, somehow blurry-eyed making it to the page in between breast feeding and diaper changes. 
I’ve witnessed my friends with kids in elementary school put in longer hours, taking their laptops with them to doctor appointments and school pick-ups. My friends with teens write with them at coffee shops, each one blissfully zoning out but still in each other’s company.

Still, I wondered—how exactly do we do this thing: write for a living or with a passion (passion earns us a living, I promise) and mother? 

My son is almost seven months old. I am not an expert and doubt I ever will be, but this is what I have cobbled together as my own Writer Mama Survival Guide.

1. Podcasts: In the first few months of life, babies spend six to eight hours a day feeding. Your hands and breasts may be busy but your mind needs stimulation. Find a podcast you love! (Bonus if it is about writing and creativity.) 

I loved the form so much, I began The Writing Barn’s Porchlight podcast.

2. Hunt for the Time: Friend and mentor, Kathi Appelt said when her kiddos were little she’d write in 15 minute increments. This is doable. 

Also, hunt for longer time. Hire a babysitter and go to a coffee shop. Breathe deep.

The clock is ticking—but even so the first torn moments away feel so heavy. Push through the worry and guilt and do the work you love. Craft one sentence then another. 

You will start to feel yourself returning and that is both good for you and your little one.

3. Enlist Help: My husband and I made the tough decision about childcare, finding a home daycare we love. 

As we are both freelancers, it was necessary. Do what you need to do for your family, your work, and your own peace of mind.

4. Circle of Creative Friends: As an older mama, I don’t have many friends with little ones—but I do have friends. 

Creative friends. Writer friends. Yes, we do talk about the baby, but we also still talk about books, deadlines, the industry, their work, my work, our mutual and separate struggles. 
Don’t isolate. Keep up your writer’s group if you can. If really brave, take a class. Or in my case, teach a class. The communion of other creatives feeds you. Bring that energy back to mothering.

5. Don’t Do It All: I have a full co-parent in my partner and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Nor would he. But no matter what the load is on your shoulders, don’t take it all on. I may have a cluttered living room for the next 15 or so years but I will have books on the shelves—or scattered across the floor—that this writing mama wrote.

Co-writer Arun Gandhi holding Taru

6. Look for Inspiration: I am a children’s writer. You don’t have to be a parent to be one. Now or ever—but if you are, use it. Seeing the world through my son’s eyes is changing my work, just as it has changed me.

7. Change Form: I am a novelist and picture book writer. I will continue to do both but since my son’s birth I’ve been crafting more creative nonfiction than working on novels.

I am finding pleasure in finding the through lines in the lives of my chosen subjects, as I give my guy his beginning.

8. Gold Stars: This one isn’t from me—as my son’s chores consist of drooling and pooping and making me laugh and surge with love—but it is from Printz-Honor author and mother of two, Ashley Perez.

Keeping a chart for her son, nightly he asks her, “Did you write your five pages, Mama?” And he watches her put a gold star next to her name.

9. Trial and Error: Anne Lamott has a saying I love: “Scooch, scooch, stall.” Trying is trying and tiring.

I prefer to take baby steps. And rest. Lots and lots of rest.

10. Be Real; Not Realistic: Just as there is societal pressure on women, there is societal pressure on mothers.

Know the pressure is out there—and in here. Feel it and then let it go. Talk about the joys and struggles both—with your partner, your friends, and even with the page. Be real. Your writing and mothering will be all the better for it.

There is no one-sized fits all for anything in life, being or becoming a writer mama included. Write your own list—you have your own wisdom to share, with yourself and others.

Additional resources and links:

Cynsations Notes


Bethany Hegedus, mom to now 19-month-old Taru, has sold three picture book biographies, since becoming pregnant. Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, illustrated by Erin McGuire (Balzer + Bray) releases in January 2018. She hopes one day to have enough brain power to write another novel.

She is also the owner and creative director of The Writing Barn, a writing retreat workshop and event space in Austin, Texas.

Her books include the award-winning Grandfather Gandhi (Atheneum, 2014) and Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Atheneum, 2016), both co-written with Arun Gandhi, grandson to the Mahatma, and illustrated by Evan Turk. Her pre-motherhood novels are Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010) and Between Us Baxters (West Side Books, 2009).

She is also a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and the former editor of the literary journal Hunger Mountain.

Taru now

Interview: Lee & Low New Voices Award Winners

Roberto Penas

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lee & Low Books recently announced Roberto Penas of Olathe, Kansas won the 17th annual New Voices Award.


His manuscript, “Pedro Flores: The Toymaker,” is a biography of the inventor of the modern yo-yo.


In the early 1900s, Flores emigrated from the Philippines to the United States, where he pursued an education and his entrepreneurial ambitions. He redesigned the toy and named it “yo-yo” (Tagalog for “come back.”)


Roberto Penas has a master’s degree in Philippine history and is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI.)


He is a second-generation Filipino-American, and became interested in the story after learning Flores was also Filipino. Roberto admired the way Flores valued education and became a successful entrepreneur during a time when many immigrants worked as agricultural laborers. Roberto will receive a $1,000 prize and a publication contract.


Roberto recently shared more about the inspiration behind his manuscript.

Tell us about how you discovered Pedro Flores and what about him made you want to share his story?


I don’t recall exactly how I stumbled upon his name, but I know it was accidental, for he is sadly not included in most lists of notable Filipino-Americans.

What I found inspiring is how his example dispels the usual story of Ilocano immigrants laboring in fields for the sake of their descendants. While it is true, for a Filipino to become a financially independent entrepreneur in the early 1900’s is inconceivable – and it happened!

Keep in mind, America back then was reacting against foreigners, making immigration more restrictive (targeting Eastern Europeans and Asians). And there were the infamous Stockton riots against Filipinos in California, too.

What sort of research did you do to learn more about him?





I
t was difficult, for there is little about Flores, he is practically obscure. There are no books about him but I gained valuable information indirectly through books concerning his invention (and of course, the inventor).

Fortunately, the Yo-Yo remains a highly popular toy to this day. I also used the Internet but one has to be careful – what I learned as a historian is that credible sources are everything.

So I double-check, triple-check all data: newspapers, archived articles, (there was a Washington Post rebuttal correcting an article in the New York Times), obituaries, university and industry sites, associations, blogs.


How long have you been working on this story?

On and off for a couple years. I started writing August 2014, didn’t do anything for a while, then came back to it the following spring and summer where I worked up three versions.

I even have a Word document called “Lee and Low version D” for September 2015 but I didn’t think it was ready, so the project lay fallow again. Then when I heard about the New Vision contest in 2016, I decided it was a now-or-never moment and got serious, submitting the manuscript a couple weeks before the deadline.

Were there particular classes or workshops you’ve taken that have helped you hone your craft?

I have been a member of the SCBWI for five years and classes in their conferences have been useful.

I also have books on writing but with picture books, articles on the Internet helped me more, especially when agents, editors and authors share their own tips.

The best education however is reading picture books. Personally, I love them for their gorgeous artwork – when you compare them to any other book in the store, the level of creativity and talent is simply outstanding.

But what probably helped me most was a short story group I belonged to eight years ago, where our stories couldn’t exceed 1,500 words. When you have a 1000-2000 word count in picture books, every word really counts – a chapter in middle grade would be only two pages in a picture book. Maximum.

Illustration by Dayne Sislan

Are you part of a critique group?

I was in a critique group via SCBWI, though currently the group is reorganizing. I found the group indispensable; unless you get feedback, you can’t objectively know how you’re doing. By submitting work – and critiquing that of others – over the years, (usually a chapter at a time, though we allowed for an entire picture book since it’s short), I have grown in my writing.

Have you entered the New Voices contest before?

No, this was my first time, through I was aware about it before. I actually had my sights set on the New Visions award for middle grade. But in the end, I felt what I had wasn’t ready.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a middle-grade novel, the one I got cold feet submitting for the New Visions Award last year.

Similar to Pedro Flores, I feel there is a dearth of Filipino-American characters – in fact, I can’t think of any except a good book that came out last year by Erin Entrada Kelly.

So my work features a Filipino-American girl trying to find her place in the American heartland, where I live, flyover country. It’s got loads of fantasy, adventure and humor and I’m having fun doing it – I want it to be totally magical for the reader.

Gloria Amescua

Gloria Amescua of Austin,Texas, received the honor award. Her manuscript, Luz Jiménez, No Ordinary Girl, is a story in verse about a Nahua educator and art muse in Mexico.


As a young girl Luz dreamed of becoming a teacher, but the Mexican Revolution left Luz’s family struggling to survive. Luz supported her family by working for various artists, sharing stories about her experiences and inspiring important works of art.


She went on to become a teacher and served as a living link to the Aztecs, preserving her Nahua culture and language.


Gloria is a poet and a member of SCBWI’s Austin chapter. She was inspired to write Luz’s story after reading about Luz and the obstacles she overcame. Gloria admires the message in Luz’s story: dreams may come true in ways that are unexpected. She will receive a prize of $500.



Gloria recently shared more about her writing journey and how she discovered Luz Jiménez.

Tell us about how you discovered Luz Jiménez and what about her made you want to share her story?

Pamphlet from Ransom Center at UT

Several years ago while visiting the University of Texas Ransom Center, I found a pamphlet entitled Luz Jiménez: Symbol of a Millennial People.

The symposium described in the pamphlet had actually taken place several years before, so I’m not sure why it was still available. I’m lucky it was.

As I read about this incredible woman, I knew I had to write about her, but I wasn’t sure how until I took some picture book courses a couple of years later.

I was greatly affected by Luz Jiménez’s story because of the many obstacles she overcame, including the shaming of her native language when she was a child, as has happened in this and other countries.

It was important to me to tell the story of this Nahua (Aztec) girl who, despite the difficulties in her life, achieved her dream of becoming a teacher by honoring her culture.

What sort of research did you do to learn more about her?

I searched online and ordered two books based on Luz’s Nahua stories.

The most important find was a dissertation published online, part of which was about Luz Jiménez. I contacted the professor at the University of Texas who offered to lend me two relevant DVDs and who put me in contact with Luz’s grandson in Mexico.

Her grandson also connected me with a professor of Nahuatl in Mexico who specializes in the same dialect that Luz spoke. I greatly appreciate their time and helpfulness.

How long have you been working on this story?

Bethany Hegedus

I first wrote a draft for a Picture Book II course at the Writing Barn in Austin.

I spent about two years doing further research.

Then I signed up for Bethany Hegedus’s Nonfiction Picture Book course last summer, which helped me get through many, many revisions. The instruction and feedback from teachers and participants was invaluable.

I noticed it is a “story in verse” – tell us about your poetry background and how that influences your writing.

I have been writing poetry since I was a child and throughout my life while I was an English teacher and in other positions in education.

In the 1990s, I became more active in the poetry community: meeting regularly with other poets, attending and giving workshops, participating in readings and getting work published.

In poetry, each word counts as it does in picture books. My love of metaphor and sensory details also influences the emotional impact of my current writing.

Cynsational Notes

Established in 2000, Lee & Low’s New Voices Award encourages writers of color to submit their work to a publisher that takes pride in nurturing authors who are new to the world of children’s book publishing. Submission period for the award takes place each summer.

Past winners include It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate, winner of the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award Honor, Bird by Zetta Elliott, an ALA Notable Book, and, most recently, Juna’s Jar by Jane Bahk, a Spring 2015 Junior Library Guild selection.

In Memory: Josanne La Valley

Compiled by Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Josanne La Valley obituary from The New York Times.

Peek: “Josanne received degrees from St. Lawrence University, Smith College and Vermont College of Fine Arts. She worked in arts management and as a professional musician before she turned to writing.”

A few members of the children’s literature community shared their thoughts about Josanne.

From Laurie Calkhoven:

I first met Josanne at a children’s writing class in 1998. We rode the M66 crosstown bus home together, and about halfway through our six-week course she mentioned that she and another writer, Shirley Danko, were planning to start a writer’s group and would I like to join them?

I liked the idea of a group, but it was a commitment to people I barely knew. I said yes, promising myself that I could make up an excuse and drop out if it became too much of a burden. That group did more for me than I ever could have dreamed. Not only was it the beginning of a 19-year friendship with Josanne, having the group to go to week after week to read my chapters kept me going through the early years of rejection.

Shirley left the city, and other writers came and went. Josanne and I were the two steadfast New Yorkers, the Thursday-nighters. We learned how to write together and how to critique together, and as happens when you’re laying yourself bare on the page week after week, we shared joy and heartbreak and became the best of friends.

Josanne was the first person to celebrate when someone else in the group had a success—always with champagne. She never complained that her journey to publication took a little longer. She was a traveler as well as a writer and found her voice in northern China, getting to know the Uyghur people. She published a middle grade novel with with Clarion about that community and lived long enough to see her second published and to read its very good reviews.

No one ever believed in me the way Josanne did—with optimism, enthusiasm, and a belief that I could break out of my comfort zone and dig deeper. I miss her generosity of spirit, her loving kindness, and especially her fierce commitment to making her words the best they could be.

The Champagne Sisters: Kekla, Josanne, Laurie and Bethany

From Bethany Hegedus

In 2001, I met Josanne LaValley at the Rutgers-One-on-One Conference and we began chatting in earnest as we waited for the train back to New York City.

Soon after I joined a critique group Josanne and Laurie Calkhoven had started. We met on Thursday night’s twice a month and then increased to once a week. Always Thursday nights. Always a pot of peppermint tea no matter whose home we met in.

In 2002, Josanne started her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She was in the class above me. Maybe this was a sign I would follow Josanne anywhere.

She was a trailblazer: smart, sophisticated, kind and in my mind, an ageless and timeless Eileen Fisher model. She was worldly and well-traveled. I hadn’t yet traveled out of the United States and in an earlier incarnation had lived in a trailer in the rural South as a young military wife.

Josanne and I couldn’t have been more opposite but we formed a deep friendship as we worked on our writing, week after week, with pot after pot of peppermint tea.


There were other rituals—writer’s pajamas—bought for Laurie when she transitioned out of her Scholastic editing job to be a full-time writer.

Champagne when one of us had a sale—and ever after we became known as the Champagne Sisters. The celebrations, hard work and sales continued as Kekla Magoon joined our group.

Josanne was the last in the group to publish. She landed her dream agent, Marietta Zacker, and the two sold her first novel The Vine Basket to Dinah Stevenson at Clarion, the right and perfect publishing home for Josanne. The book won an Amelia Bloomer award and appeared on many state lists. Josanne’s main character Mehrigul was inspired by one of her trips to China and depicting the Uyghur people’s hardships and hope was an integral part of who Josanne was.

Josanne’s second novel released this January, Factory Girl. I have a copy proudly on display at The Writing Barn, now forever without Joasanne’s signature—but more than an autograph in a book—Josanne La Valley, my friend and champion, autographed my life: teaching me what diligence, fierce intellect, and true kindness can achieve.

From Kekla Magoon

Josanne was consistently one of the most supportive people in my writing life. From the time we met as students at Vermont College of Fine Arts over a decade ago, she took me under her wing.

Kekla, Laurie, Bethany and Josanne

Our writing group, which we dubbed The Champagne Sisters, brought out the strengths in each of us, but Josanne’s warm and welcoming spirit clearly stood at the heart of our circle.

She refused to tolerate any self-deprecation, self-doubt, or hesitation about putting oneself out there, both personally and professionally. Her quiet but insistent encouragement fueled me through a lot of difficult decisions early in my publishing life.

It was always easier to go out into the world, knowing that Josanne had my back. I trust that she still does. I will miss her greatly, but her inspiration and influence remain in my heart, and will be reflected in my work for the rest of my life.

From Tim Wynne-Jones

“I had the great pleasure of working [as VCFA faculty] with Josanne on her creative thesis. She was such a warm person with such a lovely smile — a good soul and a good writer, too. I’m so sad to hear of her passing.”

Cynsational Notes:


Josanne’s most recent novel, Factory Girl (Clarion, 2017) focuses on Roshen, a 16-year-old Uyghur girl from northern China who is sent to work in a textile factory in the south. Kirkus Reviews  described the book as “A thought-provoking look at oppression and the power of words from a viewpoint not often heard.”

Josanne’s first book, The Vine Basket (Clarion, 2013) followed the story of Mehrigul, a 14-year-old girl forced to leave school to work on her family’s farm. School Library Journal gave The Vine Basket a starred review. Peek: “The realistic and satisfying resolution will resonate with readers, even as they learn the fascinating details of an unfamiliar culture.”