Survivors: Louise Hawes on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Louise Hawes.

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 (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I’d say the first and most severe “bump” in my writing life was…success!

Because I met with one version of “fame and fortune” early in my career, I nearly lost sight of my own convictions about what it means to be a truly successful writer.

When I joined the stable (yes, we were legion!) of authors creating the bestselling Sweet Valley Twins books (Batam/Random House) under the pen name, Jamie Suzanne, I had published only two novels for middle graders—humorous, literary books whose sales figures hardly made a dent in my single-mom budget.

But the Sweet Valley books? Their royalties were staggering; enough, at only a few percent, to put my son and daughter through college! And as to fame?

If I happened to let slip—at a conference, in a cab, during casual conversation—that I was partly responsible for the adventures of identical twins, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, I achieved instant rock-star status, complete with worshipful jaw-dropping, pledges of undying love for the books that had been passed from bunk to bunk at summer camp, and requests for autographs.

What was wrong with this picture?

Unfortunately, I didn’t stop to ask myself that question until I’d begun to lose what little artistic freedom and integrity I’d acquired via the normal route—submitting, being rejected, persisting.

Instead, I fell into the insidious habit of writing formula fluff (sorry, beloved fans of Jessica and Elizabeth, but if the shoe fits, I can’t call it by another name); of consulting a “cast bible” to find out how characters would react in any given situation; of perpetuating a white-bread world where pimples on prom day were as bad as it gets; and yes, of letting the checks roll in.

But no, I haven’t enjoyed “continued success,” at least not the kind that’s measured via sales figures or income. And it’s my students who taught me the way out of Sweet Valley.

You see, once I started working with new writers, beginners who modeled courage and risk-taking, I couldn’t very well stay stuck in that fictional California town, where it never rains and happiness is a new sundress with spaghetti straps.

I’ve heard folks in academia complain that reading student work drains their creative spirit. All I can say is that, so far as the students I’ve been privileged to work with at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, it’s been life-giving. And story-saving.

Because now what motivates my writing is what sparked it in the first place—the need to fuel fiction with my own pain and joy, to transmute them into something larger and more redemptive through the alchemy that is art.

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

When we look back over the years, most of us can usually see the way our mistakes, like black stars, have lit the way to who we are.

So while I’m not sure I’d untie any of those tangles, I wish I’d valued myself and my writing a lot more. I wish I’d been strong enough to realize that almost no advance is worth signing away your own voice.

That would have saved me seven years of struggling to reclaim it.

(Once you settle repeatedly for clichés and stereotypes, it gets harder and harder to remember the sound of your unique truth.)

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

Margaret K. McElderry, 2017

In a career that’s spanned twenty years, I’ve seen a lot of changes, but two stand out. One is, perhaps, inevitable: it’s gotten rough out there!

In terms of the sheer volume of submissions to publishers, a new writer today is facing much more difficult odds than I did when I began. Which makes it much less likely that new work will find a publishing home without an agent.

(I worked for decades without agency representation, using a literary attorney to vet contracts, but relying on connections, dumb luck, and the work itself for all the rest. Today? I wouldn’t think of jumping into the fray without my agent’s contacts and publishing savvy behind me.)

The second change isn’t really new; it’s Sweet Valley redux.

“High concept” has become increasingly important to many publishers and agents, and with this emphasis, characterization sometimes takes a back seat to premise.

As publishers continue to buy each other out, the audience each serves grows exponentially, and the temptation to make one book fit all grows.

So while I see the increased competition and the rise of agents as an historical imperative, I sure hope publishing can make more room to accommodate “quiet” books and stories written without one eye on the market.

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



Above all? Take the time to actually enjoy this year.

Have you noticed the way debut authors are forming internet sites and going on tour together? Join with some writer friends, so you can share advice and appearances (and parties!) Your first galleys to proof, your first author’s copies, your first bookstore signing, your first school or conference gig—these won’t ever come again.

Vertigo, 2013

First reviews? If you’re strong of stomach and sure of who you are, you may be able to read them. If not, ask your agent or publisher to filter and summarize!

But above all….

Slow down.

Savor.

Have fun.

Oh, and give thanks.

You’ve achieved what thousands of writers are still wishing, hoping, and sweating bullets for!

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

I wish children’s writers increasing respect for one of the most important jobs in the world. YA has gained a kind of grudging acknowledgment from the rest of publishing, as its sales figures have risen.

My hope, though, is that the talent, imagination, and courage of authors for children also get recognized; that their impact on young readers is accepted for what it is: life-changing and future-shaping.

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



As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more at home with saying, “I don’t know!” Coupled with, “but I’d like to find out,” this limitation has actually proved to be a freedom.

It’s opened doors to new ways of being a writer in the world.

Louise with fellow author David Almond.

Collaboration among arts and artists, for example, is something I find more and more exciting and invigorating.

Which may be why in the last few years, I’ve written my first graphic novel (a collaboration with four other authors for DC Comics); published a novel in prose, poetry, and play scripts; made electric blues an integral part of my most recent book launch; given a creativity workshop with my three sisters (a painter, a musician, and a film animator); and done my last poetry reading with backup singers.

What do I wish ahead?

More books, of course. And more juicy, cooperative mixed-media adventures!

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.

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?

Nope.

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: Louise Hawes on The Language of Stars

By Louise  Hawes
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

From the promotional copy of The Language of Stars by Louise Hawes (McElderry, 2016):


Sarah is forced to take a summer poetry class as penance for trashing the home of a famous poet in this fresh novel about finding your own voice.


Sarah’s had her happy ending: she’s at the party of the year with the most popular boy in school. But when that boy turns out to be a troublemaker who decided to throw a party at a cottage museum dedicated to renowned poet Rufus Baylor, everything changes. 

By the end of the party, the whole cottage is trashed—curtains up in flames, walls damaged, mementos smashed—and when the partygoers are caught, they’re all sentenced to take a summer class studying Rufus Baylor’s poetry…with Baylor as their teacher.



For Sarah, Baylor is a revelation. Unlike her mother, who is obsessed with keeping up appearances, and her estranged father, for whom she can’t do anything right, Rufus Baylor listens to what she has to say, and appreciates her ear for language. Through his classes, Sarah starts to see her relationships and the world in a new light—and finds that maybe her happy ending is really only part of a much more interesting beginning.



The Language of Stars is a gorgeous celebration of poetry, language, and love.

What was your initial inspiration for The Language of Stars?

In 2008, I stumbled on a newspaper article about a group of Vermont teenagers who’d been caught throwing a party in the historically preserved summer home of Robert Frost. They’d vandalized and set fire to the place, but few of them were over eighteen.

A resourceful judge, who couldn’t send them to jail, sentenced them to something some of them may have enjoyed even less—they had to take a course in Frost’s poetry!

As soon as I read this, my writer’s “what-if” machinery kicked in: what if, I asked myself, the poet in question weren’t Robert Frost, but an equally famous, Pulitzer-prize winning, world-renowned Southern poet, someone who made his home in North Carolina, where I live? What if, unlike Frost, who’d been dead for decades when the vandalism happened, my fictional southern bard was still alive when young party-goers destroyed his house? And what if he decided to teach those kids himself? What if one of those students was a young girl who showed a natural ear for poetry?

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

It was a long gestation period! First, I needed to find my narrator, who turned out to be sixteen-year old Sarah Wheeler, a character who came to me almost immediately, but whose voice and interior life took me months of free writing to uncover.

Next, I read all the biographies on Robert Frost and everything he ever wrote (including some pretty awful plays modeled on seventeenth-century court masques!). After that, free writes helped me hear the voice of Rufus Baylor, my book’s poet, who shares some life experiences, artistic convictions, and teaching approaches with Frost, but whose personality and poems are all his own.

Next, it was time to write a draft, submit it to my agent, Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown Ltd. in New York, and then tighten and re-think major aspects of the book. (No, great agents don’t line edit; but yes, they do ask crucial questions about readership and story!)

When it was time to submit, I found out the hard way that a YA novel in which an octogenarian is a major character is not an easy sell! I also learned to treasure the judgement and eye of the brilliant editor (Karen Wojtoyla at Margaret McElderry) who trusted my book enough to acquire it and to ask me to rewrite it. Again?!

Grand total?

Seven years from inspiration to completion! Which may be why, in comparison, the year between signing and publication seems to have flown by!

What were the major challenges (research, craft, emotional, logistical) in bringing the book to life?

Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet

You’ve named the usual suspects, Cyn. Research and craft, as well as sustaining emotional and artistic investment through so many years, most of them without a contract—all of it was far from easy. But the thing I found most difficult and at the same time most rewarding, was combining the three formats I wanted the novel to include.

First, Stars is written mostly in prose; it’s not a novel in verse. Second, of course, it also features poetry. I mean, hello? Most of the major characters in the book have chosen to study poetry rather than do hard time!

Lastly, because my narrator, Sarah, is a wannabe actress whose role model is Sarah Bernhardt, and because she and her mentor, Rufus, hear the whole world talk, talk, talking to them, I’ve also included play scripts that feature an on-going dialogue between things and people.

In the vibrant and highly auditory place Rufus and Sarah inhabit, grills sputter, furniture squeaks, sand crabs burrow, seagulls squeal—not just as background noise, but as active, contributing participants. Fun? Yes. But challenging to write!

Talk to us about your audition to read the audio edition of the book for Brookstone.

I have a theater background, so I asked my agent to write an author audition into the audio contract for Stars. After all, I reasoned, I had been a national finalist in the National Academy of Dramatic Arts competition; I had endured NYC audition rounds, portfolio in hand; and colleagues and students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts had listened attentively to my readings from each draft of Stars. Who was better suited to bring the audio book to life?

A lot of people, it turns out! Blackstone Audio required a short five-minute sample—a cinch, right? It took me days to come up with that recording, but it took the company’s studio director exactly three hours to respond to my emailed mp3.

What he told me, kindly but firmly, was that audio listeners have well-developed tastes and high expectations, the least of which is that a teenage narrator’s voice will sound as if she’s between the ages of 14 and 20. To soften the blow, and because I did have prior recording experience, he asked if I would help him select our reader from among their final candidates.

Here’s the humble pie part: the part where I tell you that any one of their top ten voice actors were about 900 billion times better qualified to read my book than I was!! Yes, I got to make the final call: Katie Schorr is a full-time actor, an all-round stage talent, and gives one of the most nuanced, sensitive readings I’ve ever listened to on audio. I can hardly wait for everyone to hear it!

What’s new and next in your writing life?

A lot! Current works in progress include The Gospel of Salomé, YA historical fiction about the young woman the new testament credits with having danced off the head of John the Baptist; Love’s Labor, an adult novel about an aging playwright; and Big Rig, a brand new middle-grade novel.

In addition to working on my own projects, I’m also cooking up another Four Sisters Playshop with my three sisters—a painter, a musician, and a film-maker. We’ll be exploring a new theme in August 2017: Death, Cradle of Creativity. We hope to share writing, movement, music, sculpture and painting with participants, and in the process destroy a lot of stereotypes about death and aging!