New Voice: Nora Carpenter on Yoga Frog

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

September is yoga month!

So as a former preschool teacher I was thrilled to interview Nora Carpenter about her fantastic new picture book Yoga Frog, illustrated by Mark Chambers (Running Press Kids, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Frog loves to practice yoga. And he will inspire kids to enjoy doing yoga, too. Follow Frog’s yoga flow, from warming up to cooling down. 


Start with the mountain and chair poses, then work into giraffe, cat-cow, downward-facing dog, butterfly, and bridge. 


End with the quieting happy baby and savasana poses to help your muscles relax before going to bed or starting your day. 


For fans of Yoga Bunny and I am Yoga, Yoga Frog‘s simple, meditative text is complemented by playful yet instructive illustrations by Mark Chambers to teach youngsters how to start their very own yoga practice—and to have fun while doing so, too.

I love this book because it’s perfect for teaching preschoolers yoga! What inspired you to write a picture book on yoga? 

Thank you! I’ve dreamed of publishing a kids yoga book for so long! About a year after college, I took a job teaching preschoolers. (Shout out to the JCC of Northern Virginia!) For the record, that job was one of the best experiences ever and ended up re-awakening my creative writing energy, which had been a bit stifled by academia. But that’s another story!)

Anyway, at the same time I was also becoming more and more engaged with yoga and yogic philosophy, and decided to further my own study through an intensive teacher training program.

I began teaching yoga to my preschoolers and found:

  1. They loved it.
  2. Due to their age and limited attention spans, I had to jazz the poses up a bit with imagination and fun.

I looked for resources, but at that time, the only things available were some flash card sets and a couple wordy books geared toward much older kids.

Fast forward a few years. While attending the MFA program at VCFA, I decided to write the book I wish I’d had for my preschool classes. To be clear, Yoga Frog is nothing like that first attempt, which emerged as poetry! But my teaching (both of pre-K kids and of yoga) is what inspired that initial attempt.

The selection of poses is perfect for the preschool crowd and the prose for each is clear yet poetic. How did you decide what poses to include, what to call them, and how did you go about writing the prose for each pose? 

Again, thank you! I chose the most popular poses from my classes that would both enable kids to release energy and also calm down/de-stress. During yoga teacher training, you’re taught to construct flows that warm up the body for “peak poses,” or the most challenging/intense pose in the flow, and then cool down/relax the muscles that were just worked.

You also learn which poses make good transitions to other poses so that you’re not having students bounce back and forth between seated and standing poses. I drew on that knowledge and my experience teaching lots of kids’ yoga classes to construct the flow of the book.

I did wrestle with what to call some of the poses. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to include the proper Sanskrit names, but some of the English translations just aren’t very kid-friendly or engaging. For example, baddha konasana literally translates to “bound angle pose” and ardha matsyendrasana means “half lord of the fishes.” I never used those names in my kids classes.

My experience teaching kids yoga quickly showed me that kids have the most fun when there’s an imaginative element at play, and the most popular imaginative elements in my classes were pretending to be animals and other things relating to nature.

Nature names lend themselves so easily to interactivity. I mean, I have yet to meet a kid whose face doesn’t light up when “kabooming” during Volcano (malasana).

So I took some artistic license and included some of the English names I used in my classes, while still including the Sanskrit names underneath.

At the end of the day, the goal of kids’ yoga is for kids to have fun. If they do, they’ll want to practice yoga again. And again. And again. Before you know it, they’ve developed a healthy and incredibly beneficial self-care habit.

You recently sold your first novel—a contemporary YA titled, The Edge of Anything—which is slotted for spring 2020 publication. Can you give us a quick pitch? 

Sure! The Edge of Anything is the dual narrative of high school volleyball star, Sage, and Len, an outcast teen photographer with a guilty secret. The book explores the transformative power of friendship and how it can help you find yourself and the goodness in life, even when everything feels broken.

A novel is such a different beast from a picture book. How do you juggle working on such different kinds of projects simultaneously? Wait, do you work on them simultaneously, or do you write a novel, then a picture book, etc? 

You aren’t kidding about how different the forms are! I started my creative writing career focused on novels, so I’ve had a steep learning curve with the picture books. (I’m actually gearing up for a picture book intensive regional SCBWI conference, and I’m so excited for everything I’m going to learn!)

Anyway, I’ve heard people make comments about how picture book writing must be “easy” because the stories themselves are short. That could not be less true. A great picture book story has to achieve an incredible amount in a terribly short format, usually 400-600 words.

It really is like writing poetry, and the process works a very different part of my brain and challenges a different part of my creativity.

I’ve noticed, in fact, that after working on the picture book form for a while, my novel writing flows better and smoother. For that reason, yes, I have started writing picture books in the midst of drafting novels. Each serves as a good “break” or “switch” from the other.

Honestly, no matter what form or genre you prefer, I think writers should constantly be testing and challenging their skills. Believe me, I know how hard it can be, but forcing yourself out of your writing comfort zone almost always improves your work.

As I’ve matured as a writer, I try to do this more and more. For example, a while back I joined a picture book critique group with some of my agent-mates, even though I am by far the greenest picture book writer in the group.

But that’s okay. I’m learning a ton and it’s a safe space to ask questions and get valuable, constructive feedback. And that feedback improves my writing as a whole, not just my picture book skills.

Even if one (or a bunch) of projects don’t work out, the skills you’ve learned from those projects will enhance your writing in unexpected ways.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

Once you get a book contract, there are suddenly all of these other professional responsibilities you have to juggle along with the process of writing itself: social media presence, interviews, panels, readings and any other type of marketing/promotion you and/or your publisher might set up. It’s exciting, but it does take away from writing time, so if you’re also balancing another job, kids, time with a partner, etc., it can definitely get overwhelming.

In addition to the short-term bouts of promotion that go along with book releases, I do carve out time to keep my website updated with links to reviews, blog interviews, upcoming events, etc.

Otherwise, I try to focus on the actual craft of writing as much as possible. That’s what I find rewarding and fulfilling (and yeah, also crazy hard and maddening at times).

I will say, I do love events. I’m pretty extraverted, so I love meeting readers and other writers and talking about writing and books. But I’m always eager to dive back in to the actual writing and creating process.

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

 Keep writing. Write through the inevitable fear, the “what-if-it’s-not-good?” insecurity. And know that every writer has that angst, often with every book. All you can do is write through it.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Leigh Bardugo, who also happens to be one of my favorite authors. She says: “I think the hard work of writing is just how long a book is terrible before it’s good.”

You must embrace the terrible. Get the draft on the page. You cannot craft a good book without first writing down its messy insides. Revision, re-vision, and revision again make a book great.

 Also, find a supportive writing community, people who will boost your confidence when needed but also provide you with honest, constructive criticism. Go to author and writing events, readings at local bookstores. Even if you’re introverted, force yourself to talk to at least one person there. You will find people just like you, looking for the same thing.

Cynsational Notes


Nora Carpenter grew up in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. After college she lived in Washington, D.C., where she became a Certified Yoga Teacher, before settling into the mountains of North Carolina.

She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and writes picture books and young adult fiction.

When she’s not writing, she’s doing something outdoorsy or chasing her three rocket-fueled kids. Check out the book trailer for Yoga Frog:

Cynsations Intern: Stephani Eaton on The Joy of Writing

Stephani Eaton, photo by Tanya Odom

By Stephani Eaton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I was in second grade, I wrote a poem about an impending storm that pleased my dad so much that he hung it in his office. It stayed there for years.

I recently asked if he remembered what it said and he rattled off: “This dark and rainy noon will soon pass the sunset of time.”

I had to laugh at the melodrama of my seven-year-old self. Laughed and said, “What on earth does that mean?”

He defended my first “serious” writing attempt as the start of my writing journey.

Second grade was a pivotal year, one in which words came alive for me. I remember bringing a story to Mrs. Giannone’s desk and in the middle of reading it she put her head on her desk and fell asleep!

Well, she didn’t really fall asleep, but I had used the word “nice” and she was showing me how boring that was for a reader. Her reaction amused me to no end. It lit up my brain and made me want to write, write, write.

Young Stephani at the keyboard

Yet, I learned later that too much pizazz in the writing just gets in the way of meaning. My dad would harp on me to “say what I mean” and not to embellish too much. In a book report on Ivanhoe, I had cooked up some flowery sentences. He asked what they meant and I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t know. Finally, after much back and forth and lots of frustration, I told him that I was just trying to say that the book made me think.

“Say that!” he said.
He taught me not only the importance of clarity but precision. That’s what you get when your dad has a PhD in biochemistry but loves to read literature and history. The copy he gave me of Ernest Hemingway’s On Writing (Grafton Books, 1986) is still on my shelf.

In sixth grade, Mrs. Siltman told me I was good at reading and writing only after she told me I needed to stay in for recess because I talked too much. This is probably the year that I discovered Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabitha (Crowell, 1977) and Gilly Hopkins (Crowell, 1978). And it was one year before I met Anne of Green Gables (by L.M. Montgomery, L.C. Page & Co., 1908).

I wore those books out.
All the while I was writing, writing, writing at home. We had gotten a new Apple IIc computer and it had Print Shop software on it. I obsessively made newspapers filled with stories of our family life to send to my out-of-state-grandparents. Grandparents are the best audience. 

In high school, the boy who sat in front of me in AP English frustrated me to no end. He aced all the timed writings and our teacher frequently used his work as the model to which to aspire. I was a good student, but no standout.

The same was true of my undergrad experience. I earned a BA in English and secondary education with a journalism add-on, but not with stellar grades. After graduation, I taught middle school and loved it. I had a whole crop of kids to introduce to books and writing. An added bonus, I got to teach my beloved Gilly Hopkins.

I needed to get a Master’s to continue teaching, so I decided I would pursue my first love and what I felt I never had time for in undergrad: creative writing. I worked and worked on a manuscript. I had no idea what I was doing.

I was promptly rejected.
Several years and two babies later, I sat back down to write. It felt familiar. It felt right. But it was hard. I realized quickly that I needed and wanted to learn more. I wanted to take all those creative writing courses that I never took in undergrad, that I wanted to take in graduate school. So, I applied to four MFA writing programs.

I was promptly rejected.

It would have been wise for me to remember what I knew as a second grader, that: “this dark and rainy noon will soon pass the sunset of time.”

I boxed up my seventeen drafts that weren’t getting me into school.

And I started over.

I did what I could. I joined a critique group, went to some conferences, and listened to webinars. I read craft books such as A Sense of Wonder by Paterson (Plume Books, 1995) which fueled my purpose to write. I read blogs like this one (but few as good).

About eighteen months later, I had something that looked more like a story. A friend invited me to go with her to an SCBWI conference in New York.

By chance, we met some Vermont College of Fine Arts alumni, who were gracious when I confessed I had been rejected from their program. Later, one of them came to find me and introduced me to VCFA’s recruiter. They both sincerely encouraged me to apply again.

I texted my husband in a flurry of eagerness.

Seconds later he texted, “Do it!”

I did.

Even though I didn’t get in on the first try, when I did get to VCFA it provided me with everything my seven-year-old self could have dreamed of: encouraging mentors, a community of writers, a place to grow and experiment.

Katherine Patterson and Stephani in Oxford

I added to the champions in my corner a hundredfold. I even traveled for a week with, Katherine Paterson (the author of those books I wore out), during a VCFA writing residency in Bath.

But most importantly, VCFA gave me an excuse and a reason to don my favorite hoodie and sit down at the keyboard and write.

Stephani and family on a research trip
to the Bodie Island Lighthouse in North Carolina

Writing has become a family activity. My husband loves to write. My kids write. We share our writing with each other. We go on research trips together.

It has become part of the fabric of our family life.

The writing life is full of refusals, rejections, and revisions. No writer’s life is free of those storms, those “dark and rainy noons.” But those pass.

And even amidst those storms there is joy.

Joy in creation, joy in community, joy in those moments alone with the blank page and the promise of what’s possible.

Oh, and that boy who frustrated me to no end in AP English?

Reader, I married him.

New Voice: Adrienne Kisner on Dear Rachel Maddow

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Adrienne Kisner is a Vermont College of Fine Arts alum and a hilarious fellow classmate, so I jumped at the chance to interview her about her funny and heart-wrenching debut YA novel,  Dear Rachel Maddow (Feiwel & Friends, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Brynn Harper’s life has one steadying force—Rachel Maddow.
She watches her daily, and after writing to Rachel for a school project—and actually getting a response—Brynn starts drafting e-mails to Rachel but never sending them. 



Brynn tells Rachel about breaking up with her first serious girlfriend, about her brother Nick’s death, about her passive mother and even worse stepfather, about how she’s stuck in remedial courses at school and is considering dropping out. 


Then Brynn is confronted with a moral dilemma. One student representative will be allowed to have a voice among the administration in the selection of a new school superintendent. Brynn’s archnemesis, Adam, and ex-girlfriend, Sarah, believe only Honors students are worthy of the selection committee seat. Brynn feels all students deserve a voice. 


When she runs for the position, the knives are out. 


So she begins to ask herself: What Would Rachel Maddow Do?

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

I think the worst moments of my publishing journey were figuring out that the first manuscript (and second and third) I wrote wasn’t going to get an agent or probably ever see the light of day.


I’m not embarrassed by any of my earlier work. I spent years and countless hours on something that I hoped someone else would read, only to realize that no one will ever see it beyond a handful of friends who were too polite to refuse. That was rough. But it taught me that I can finish a manuscript and move on. That’s just what you have to do.

I have a spiritual advisor who says, “That’s the writing life. Isn’t that what you always wanted?”

And it’s true. I did. She’s always right and it’s annoying.

The best moment was probably when Rachel Maddow and Susan Mikula (her partner) sent me flowers. This is notable particularly because I’ve only received flowers about twice before in my life.

Dear Rachel Maddow won the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award, and somehow she got wind of it.

They weighed about ten pounds, but I carried them around my campus and forced everyone to admire them.

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

 You can start writing your book any time. You should write it, in fact. You can finish it, too.

You aren’t too old or too young. You have the time. We always have time, us writers. We say we don’t. The kids need this, the day job needs that, the house is on fire, the car just got sucked under inky black waves by writhing tentacles, blah blah blah. Whatever.

 It will always be something. But if you really want to write, have to write to survive, you will.

Do it in ten minute spurts every other Thursday. Those Thursdays add up.

Just write the damn book already.

As an author-teacher, how do your various roles inform one another? 

I teach composition and creative writing. (I’m also a residence hall director, but that is another story…) I like putting up my editor and copyeditor’s notes on the PowerPoint to demonstrate how even after six drafts there are approximately forty-seven errors on every one of my pages.

Writing is a journey. Revision is a slog backwards through that journey. How can I really hold typos against a student? I cannot. I circle them in cheerful purple ink, mind you. But my own process has made me more humble.

 I also now pick books to teach that I can rant about, both good and bad. I’ve become a more informed ranter.

As an MFA in Writing graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

I think getting an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts made all the difference for me. I’ve read on advice blogs and in craft books that one does not need an MFA to write. Certainly I think that’s true.

But after a few years of writing, trying to find an agent, and getting nowhere, I was tired and ready to quit. I needed to be plugged into something bigger than myself, an instant community of writers and scholars around whom I could bask in the shared love of words.

I made amazing, supportive friends and had my butt kicked in terms of craft by brilliant mentors. VCFA flipped a switch in my head in terms of not only getting my ideas down, but taking a step back and revising the crap out of them. Many, many times.

Cynsational Notes

Publishers Weekly said,

“Revealing Brynn to be an individual with realistic insecurities, biases, and complexities, Kisner playfully explores the very human manner in which a stranger like Maddow might come to feel like a friend and confident.”

Adrienne Kisner has lived her entire “adult” life in a college dormitory working in both Residence Life and college chaplaincy.

She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Dear Rachel Maddow was awarded a 2016 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award.

New Voice: Jessie Janowitz on Finding a Literary Agent & The Doughnut Fix

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Jessie Janowitz is the debut author of The Doughnut Fix (Sourcebooks, April 2018). From the promotional copy:

Tristan isn’t Gifted or Talented like his sister Jeanine, and he’s always been okay with that because he can make a perfect chocolate chip cookie and he lives in the greatest city in the world. 


But his life takes a turn for the worse when his parents decide to move to middle-of-nowhere Petersville–a town with one street and no restaurants. It’s like suddenly they’re supposed to be this other family, one that can survive without bagels and movie theaters. 


His suspicions about his new town are confirmed when he’s tricked into believing the local general store has life-changing, chocolate cream doughnuts, when in fact the owner hasn’t made them in years. 


And so begins the only thing that could make life in Petersville worth living: getting the recipe, making the doughnuts, and bringing them back to the town through his very own doughnut stand. 


But Tristan will soon discover that when starting a business, it helps to be both Gifted and Talented, and it’s possible he’s bitten off more than he can chew… 


As an admitted doughnut lover, I was very excited to interview Jessie about her writing journey and this delicious middle grade novel.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book? 

The Doughnut Fix was inspired by a sign. It’s in the window of a small market in a very small town I drive through all the time.

It always made me laugh and wonder what the story behind it might be. There was something about the store, one that had seen better days, that made me suspect that it didn’t actually have chocolate cream doughnuts, which made the sign so much better, not as a potential doughnut source, of course, but as story material.

A lying sign really got my imagination going. What kind of character would advertize selling something he or she didn’t have and why? What kind of character would would go gaga over chocolate cream doughnuts, and what would he or she do if it turned out there were none to be had?

I was off and running…



In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher? 

I joined SCBWI! I went to two winter and two summer conferences and participated in the Round Tables where I received feedback on first pages. I did manuscript and query critiques.

And finally, when I felt I had a fully revised, finished manuscript, I participated in the amazing Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (“RUCCL”) One-on-One Conference which pairs you with an agent, editor, or author for feedback on first pages, synopsis, and query letter.

Unlike SCBWI conferences, the sole purpose of the RUCCL conference is to help aspiring authors get published.

As a result, the application is fairly extensive (cover letter, excerpt, synopsis), and only ninety applicants are selected.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted on my first try and was paired with a junior agent from New Leaf Literary. The conference does not guarantee that your mentor will be looking for the kind of project you’ve submitted, and in my case, my mentor did not represent middle grade.

However, she did pass my query along to another agent at New Leaf who did, and she requested a full manuscript.
In November of 2015, after incorporating the feedback from the RUCCL conference, I began querying in earnest.

I’d send out five queries at a time and kept a spreadsheet cataloguing when the email was sent, the specific agent’s response policy, and the response I received. After receiving similar feedback from multiple agents, I revised both the manuscript and my query letter.

Two valuable tools in my search for an agent were Publishers Marketplace (“PM”) and the #MSWishlist.

#MSWishlist allowed me to identify agents who were looking for the kind of story I was writing. Ultimately, the agent who offered me representation was one I identified through PM.

Though you must pay to use PM, I would argue that it’s worth the subscription fee because you can see all the books than an agent has sold, so you really get a sense for the kinds of books and writers that interest him or her. You also have access to data on how actively an agent is selling, for example, how many books he or she has sold in the past twelve months, in what categories and genres, and to which editors.

In total, I sent queries to thirteen agents. I sent my initial query to my agent, Carrie Hannigan at Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency, in December of 2015 and received a reply with a request for a full manuscript on April 29, 2016!

I am not, by nature, a patient person. Querying taught me patience. Carrie offered me representation a week after I sent her the manuscript. We submitted it to editors in June and had an offer for The Doughnut Fix and a sequel in October.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

As a parent and aspiring middle grade writer, I was blown away by the timeless appeal of Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (Dutton, 1972). I observed my kids and others read this book again and again, more than any other with the exception of Harry Potter. What is it about Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing?

To answer that, I read the book myself and listened to the audiobook along with my kids more times than I can count. There are so many marvelous things about the book, but for me, the element that really draws kids in is the voice.

The narrator Peter has a great sense of humor, but it’s not just that, it’s his humor combined with something else, something unexpected: vulnerability.

In only the second paragraph, Peter admits to the reader that he “felt bad” that he didn’t get a goldfish like the other kids at the party. It is this honest, confessional quality that makes kids feel like a friend is telling them deep, dark secrets. It’s the combination of humor and vulnerability that is the voice’s secret sauce.

In experimenting with humorous voices, I had learned that they can sometimes veer into sarcasm or snark, thereby alienating readers, but what I learned from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing was that endowing a humorous voice with vulnerability allows the character to be more relatable.

I realized that if you could get that balance just right, the middle grade reader would follow your narrator anywhere.

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

I wrote an “apprentice novel.” It is very long and deeply flawed. It isn’t sure what genre it is, and not in an intentional how-cool-is-that, genre-bending way. It is simply confused, because I was.

There is magic in the story, but the rules of that magic are unclear. My characters are in their heads too much. The plot is predictable. The personal stakes feel manufactured.

One might argue that this project was an expensive “mistake,” writing multiple drafts of a three-hundred-page novel that simply sits on my hard drive. Couldn’t I have just read a craft book? Couldn’t I have taken classes and solicited feedback?

I did, and I do, but I could have read every craft book there is and had Pulitzer Prize-winning mentors, I was never going to learn to write a novel without just doing it. I cherish that unpublished book and all the mistakes in it for all they taught me.

What would you have done differently?

I think I could have improved (and could continue to improve!) my writing faster by doing less wordsmithing and more writing. Polishing is what I do when I’m chickening out on the hard stuff.


As an MFA in Writing student, how did that experience impact your literary journey? 

As a current MFA student in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I am grateful for a space that encourages me to take risks and try new things. I have found incredible mentors and peers who have pushed my writing to the next level and have offered invaluable guidance on both craft and career.

In addition, the program provides structure and community in a profession where those can be hard to come by. Writing can feel incredibly isolating, and when that writing is not going well, that isolation can be hard to bear.

VCFA is, and will remain long after I graduate, my antidote both to that isolation and to figuring out how to push through the rough patches.

Cynsational Notes


Photo of Jessie by Amanda Chung

Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Tristan is a charmer; he’s earnest, loving, wistful, and practical, and he narrates his own tale without guile.”


Jessie Janowitz fell in love with the French language (and French pastry) in high school. When she went to Princeton, she majored in comparative literature because it allowed her to study French and all the other things she was interested in, including creative writing.

She has taught in a French public high school for cooking and restaurant service, worked with translations rights for a publishing house and studied law.

She is currently a student in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Guest Post: Agent-Author Tracy Marchini on Page Turns in Picture Books

By Tracy Marchini
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve been thinking a lot about page turns in picture books recently, and all of the amazing things they can do, including:

  • Show the passage of time 
  • Create humor 
  • Dictate pacing 

Show the passage of time 

Using page turns to show the passage of time is probably the usage that everybody is familiar with. The story progresses as you turn the page, and with each page turn some time has elapsed.

In a book like Chicken Wants a Nap, illustrated by Monique Felix (The Creative Company, 2017), only a few minutes may have elapsed between each page turn.

But a page turn can also represent the passage of whole seasons, as we’ve seen in a number of picture books that quickly take us through Fall, Spring, Summer and Winter, or through years – as we’ve seen in a number of nonfiction biographies.

In every picture book, a page turn brings us forward in time – be it by a second or by a decade.


Create humor

In my own picture book, Chicken Wants a Nap, the page turns are vital for creating humor in the story. On the first spread, we’re introduced to Chicken and her primary goal – getting a nap.

The text reads:

“It’s a good day to be a chicken. The sun is up. The grass is warm. And Chicken wants a nap.” 

Illustration by Monique Felix, used with permission

With a page turn though, everything shifts, and suddenly Chicken’s nap isn’t looking so likely. The next page reads:

“BACAWK!
It’s a bad day to be a chicken. The rain is falling. Her feathers are wet. Chicken cannot nap.” 

Illustration by Monique Felix, used with permission

With each page turn, the tone of the story shifts – it’s a good day and Chicken’s problem is solved! It’s a bad day and Chicken’s solution is ruined. The humor needs a ‘pause’ in between each shift in order to work – and that would be completely lost if, for example, it was a good day on the left page and a bad day on the right. (More on the pause later!)

Page turns can also bring the humor in escalation – particularly when you’re working in the traditional picture book structure of three tries and fails until a success.

With each attempt, there should always be an escalation. So if a character wants to build a sandcastle, they’d start with a shovel, move on to a bucket and then maybe end with a bulldozer. And each escalation would come with a page turn – a pause to sit with the character’s current idea before the surprise on the next page.

Dictate pacing

One of my favorite spreads in Chicken Wants a Nap is the one where Chicken is interrupted by the cow. In the art, Monique Felix has Chicken on the left side of the page looking oh-so-annoyed, and the cow has its head turned towards her.

Illustration by Monique Felix, used with permission

In this spread, the art is subtly telling the reader to linger by having the cow turned away from the bottom right corner and instead back towards the page that’s already been read. It subtly asks the reader to take just one more good look at that chicken (and her hilarious expression!)

In this way, the artwork puts a “pause” on turning the page, and those two work in tandem with the text to help dictate the pace of the story.

When I’m writing my own work or editing a client’s picture book, I like to think of page turns as a “beat” of their own.

When I submit picture book manuscripts, I don’t include spread numbers, because I know that the publisher and/or illustrator will work those out on their own.

But when formatting a manuscript, I think it’s safe to give a little “nudge” by how you break down the text itself. (Usually this means separating intended spreads with an extra space between lines – so you create a pause yourself while an editor or agent reads.)

 As an agent, I’m always on the hunt for more humorous picture books!

I love humor that plays with juxtaposition of text and art, or a clever/witty reversal of expectations. And – of course – manuscripts that can make excellent use of a page turn!

Cynsational Notes

Tracy Marchini is a Literary Agent at BookEnds Literary, where she represents both debut and award-winning authors and illustrators of fiction and non-fiction for children and teens.

To get a sense of what she’s looking for, you can follow her Twitter #MSWL, see her announced client books, and read her submission guidelines.

As an author, her debut picture book, Chicken Wants a Nap, was called “A surprising gem” in a starred review from Kirkus Reviews.

She’s been accepted for publication in Highlights Magazine and has won grants from the Highlights Foundation, the Puffin Foundation and La Muse Writer’s Retreat in Southern France.

She holds an M.F.A in Writing for Children from Simmons College and a B.A. in English, concentration in Rhetoric.

Author-Teacher Interview: Gene Luen Yang on Writing, Teaching & the Hamline MFA Program

Lean more about Cartoonist and Teacher Gene Luen Yang.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Welcome to Cynsations. We last spoke to Dean Mary Francoise Rockcastle about the Hamline MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults back in 2006.



When did you join the faculty? What appealed to you about teaching in a low-residency program?

I joined the faculty of the Hamline MFAC program in the summer of 2012. I visited maybe a year or two before that as a guest speaker. I was only there for a day or two, but I was immediately impressed by the sense of community.

Hamline is a community centered around stories. Everyone is there to learn, and everyone is there to teach.

The low-residency program makes for an intimate experience. This past semester, for instance, I worked with three students. Some faculty take on more, of course, but not that many more.

 When you’re working at that scale, you can give a lot of individualized attention. I can get to know them as writers. I can be more invested in their stories.

What has teaching taught you about your own creative craft and process?

Laura Ruby at Hamline; cover of The Real Boy by Anne Ursu (Walden Pond)

I can give you very, very concrete answers here. This semester, one of my students wrote a critical essay on metafiction. Another wrote one about panel shapes in graphic novels. Both were thoughtful and well-researched. Both made me think differently about the project I’m currently working on.

A few semesters ago, my fellow faculty member Laura Ruby (winner of the 2016 Printz Award) gave a lecture on the objective correlative. I think about that all the time now, whenever I’m writing.

Like, all. The. Time.

And those are just a handful of examples. A community has collective wisdom, so when you’re a part of a community, you get to tap into that wisdom.

In addition, preparing and delivering a lecture forces you to really wrestle with your ideas. I’ve always worked through plot and characterization and setting by instinct, which is kind of like walking through your own room in the dark. You know where everything is, generally speaking, but you’re still going to stub your toe every now and then. Teaching plot and characterization and setting is like turning on the light.

Who else is on the faculty, and how would you describe the culture of your learning community?



I have to tell you, the Hamline faculty roster is stacked. Here’s the full list of my fellow faculty members: Swati AvasthiKelly BarnhillCoe BoothMarsha Wilson ChallMatt de la PeñaLisa Jahn-CloughEmily JenkinsRon KoertgeNina LaCourMary LogueJacqueline Briggs MartinMeg Medina, Claire Rudolf MurphyPhyllis RootLaura RubyGary SchmidtEliot SchreferSherri L. SmithLaurel Snyder, and Anne Ursu.

Learn more about Emily Jenkins.

My co-teachers have won practically every award offered by the literary world. Plus, we have folks working in every kids’ book age demographic, publishing format, and genre.

I’ve experienced Hamline to be a place that welcomes every kind of story. The MFAC folks are willing to grow and push and learn.

From your own experience (and those who came before), what growth and changes have you/they seen in your program?

I’ve seen students grow in skill, of course. They come away with better understandings of the craft itself. They learn to critique constructively. They learn to structure and revise. They learn to give from themselves through story.

And just as importantly, they learn to call themselves writers. Many of us write in isolation. Many of us are in families or friend groups that enjoy stories, but don’t really see their relevance. Many of us feel embarrassed to call ourselves writers.

Being a part of a writing community, getting to discuss the minute details of what makes a story work… if you haven’t yet given yourself permission to call yourself a writer, it may be because you need to join a writing community.

Could you describe a typical residency?

Residencies are about nine days long.

Kate DiCamillo teaches a master class at Hamline.

Most mornings, we break into small groups to critique student work. In the afternoons, we have lectures about the residency’s topic.

Topics go through a five-residency cycle: point-of-view, setting, plot, character, theme.

Faculty will sometimes lead workshops focusing on a specific skill.

 Gary Schmidt has done one on writing a great opening chapter. Swati Avasthi taught one on manipulating time.

I’ve done a workshop on writing a graphic novel script.

How about a typical advisor-advisee semester of writing and study?

At the end of the residency, students are assigned a faculty advisor. Each student meets with their advisor to talk over goals and figure out a game plan. Then, over the course of a semester, the student turns in four packets, typically one a month. Packets usually contain forty pages of writing.

Based on the previously-discussed goals, faculty will go over the packet and write a response letter. Some faculty also do phone calls. I usually have an email exchange in addition to the response letter. My relationship with my students is a bit like my editor’s relationship with me.

What do you like best about teaching at Hamline?

I love being a part of the Hamline community. I know I’m there to teach, but I feel like I learn so much.

I love hearing how other writers working in other formats and genres approach their craft. I love seeing my students grow in their storytelling prowess. I love seeing them grow in their confidence.



What would you say to a prospective children’s-YA writer who is considering graduate study?

Find yourself a writing community. Hamline isn’t right for everyone. Low-residency programs in general aren’t right for everyone. However, if you haven’t been able to find a community that suits your needs, or if anything I’ve said up to this point strikes a chord, check us out.

More personally, what was your own apprenticeship like?

I found a community. Early on, I fell in with a group of other comic book creators. We were all in our twenties. We were all at the start of our careers. We were all living in the Bay Area.

For years, we met once a week to write and draw together, and to look over each other’s work.

I never went to an MFA program, so I consider that experience my MFA program equivalent. Almost everyone in that group has now been published in one form or another.

Do you have any particular insights to share for those interested in creating graphic-format literature?



Read lots of comics.

Read lots of everything, but especially comics.

Read all of Scott McCloud‘s craft books: Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2006)(all William Morrow).

Work through Jessica Abel and Matt Madden‘s Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (First Second, 2008).

After that, give it a go. There are no rules to making comics.

You can write a script or go straight to thumbnail sketches. You can use just about any drawing implement you want to make your pictures. Pick a strategy and a set of tools – don’t worry about whether they’re the right choices because you’re not going to know until you’ve given them a try – and go.

What do you wish you had done differently? What choices were especially fruitful?

I am so, so fortunate to have had the journey I’ve had. I’m not sure I would have done anything differently, for fear of jinxing the whole thing.

I’ve just been incredibly blessed.

My most fruitful choice was joining that group of cartoonists when I was starting out. I got my first publisher through that group. Once one of us got connected, we would introduce everyone else.

What new or recent release of yours should we be sure to read?



I hope you’ll check out Secret Coders (First Second, 2017-), the middle grade graphic novel series I’m doing with my friend Mike Holmes. Mike and I are blending a mystery story with coding lessons. The fifth and sixth volumes come out this year.

I also hope you’ll check out the New Super-Man monthly comic series from DC Comics. I’m writing and Brent Peeples is doing the pencils.

We’re telling the story of a brand-new character in the DC Universe: Kenan Kong, a seventeen year old Chinese kid who inherits Clark Kent’s powers and becomes the Super-Man of China.

What about that project sparked your imagination? What did it teach you in terms of craft and process?

Secret Coders is my first explicitly educational project. I was a high school computer science teacher for 17 years, so I’ve always been interested in education. Mike and I wanted to figure out how to use comics to teach.

I’ve done some things well and some things not so well. There are a few instances when I let the educational aspect overwhelm the narrative aspect. I think balance is key. Balance is always key.

What was it like, being a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature? Is there a moment that stands out in your memory?

Serving as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature was perhaps the biggest honor of my life. I loved meeting Dr. Carla Hayden for the first time at the National Book Festival. I loved meeting young readers, young authors, and young cartoonists. I don’t care what anyone says about videogames or YouTube or whatever. Kids today love books. Kids today are absolutely hungry for stories, and they love getting their stories through the pages of a good book.



What do you hope for the children’s-YA creative community, looking into the future?

I hope for diversity in every sense of the word. I hope people from every corner of our society will tell their stories, and I hope they find folks who will listen to their stories. I hope authors will try out different publishing formats and genres. Heck, I hope authors invent new publishing formats and genres! I hope our world will be guided and nourished by good stories.

Guest Post: Ann Jacobus: Critique Group Makes Frances Lee Hall’s Publishing Dream Come True

By Ann Jacobus
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

It’s an unusual moment when our writing group is in full agreement. But in this case, we knew we had to bring our friend Frances Lee Hall’s wonderful middle grade story to young readers.

The question was how?

Frances Lee Hall

We had all just attended her memorial service. Frances died suddenly on Nov. 26, 2016.

She had also been through hell and high water, as only a writer can, with her middle-grade manuscript, Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker. We had critiqued it through more than one revision and loved her story like our own.

One of Frances’s favorite expressions was “Yaaaay!”

She had always been so supportive of each of us and we couldn’t imagine letting her dream go unrealized.

The story really begins at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) in the Writing for Children and Young Adult program.

I met Frances, a San Francisco native, there in 2005 during her first residency. We were in a workshop together and both her writing and her ability to critique others’ work made a deep impression on me.

As author Annemarie O’Brien says, “Frances would often let everyone speak, and then at the very end she’d toss out some profound comment that would make us all stop, think, and reevaluate.”

When my family moved to San Francisco in 2009, Frances and I formed a writing group. Naturally, we had to name ourselves and chose “Beyond the Margins.” Annemarie, Helen Pyne, Linden McNeilly, Christine Dowd, and Sharry Wright soon joined us.

Ann, Frances and Annemarie O’Brien

“Frances was a terrific cheerleader, role model and editor,” Helen says, and in late 2013, we celebrated with homemade fried wonton and California wine when Frances’ agent Marietta Zacker sold Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker to international publisher Egmont USA.

We had been expecting it. As her former VCFA advisor Cynthia Leitich Smith says, “Frances’ writing came from a place of light and tenderness. Throughout her process, she thought of the child readers and drew on her own inner child to inform how best to lift them up. Her work exhibited a heightened emotional intelligence and a loving respect for tradition, elders, and intergenerational relationships.”

Indeed, Frances’ protagonist Lily is a determined and energetic third-grade soccer player who finds her Grandpa, Gung Gung, and his traditional ways perplexing in their newly dependent relationship. Lily struggles to find common ground with him, and in her mounting frustration alienates some of her friends and teammates. The story is heart-felt but also very funny.

“Frances did such a great job capturing goofy kid humor,” says Helen.

Lily Lo is a universal story about family and friendship, and it’s also the kind of children’s novel Frances wished she’d had access to growing up in the Bay Area. She said that, although her elementary school was 75-to-80 percent Asian-American, she had never read a story as a child that featured a character or a family like hers.

Cynthia says, “I know the heightened challenges for authors of color and their writing weighed heavily on her. It’s something we talked about.”

Frances was an early fervent supporter of We Need Diverse Books. Cynthia continues, “My heart contracts at the thought of how much more welcome she might feel today than even a few years ago. I know she would be encouraged by progress made and delighted that her book will become a part of that rising conversation centered on inclusivity.”

In 2014, things moved very slowly at Egmont with Frances’s book, but we were all shocked when the publisher closed its U.S. operations a year later, leaving Lily Lo and other stories stranded.

Frances and Marietta re-submitted and almost sold Lily Lo a second time, only to have that fall through as well.

Frances persisted, although she was deeply disappointed. She continued working and submitting until tragedy struck. She suffered a brain aneurysm in November 2016 and died a week later leaving behind her husband Lance and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Emmie.

Everyone who knew Frances was heartbroken. So many people turned out to celebrate her life at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in Chinatown, San Francisco, a week after Thanksgiving. Friends and writers across the country celebrated her life online.

Before Frances became a children’s writer, she worked in television. We knew she had an Emmy, but she never mentioned she had won three from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for her work in TV writing and production. We learned this after she died.

Beyond the Margins, along with several other of her writer friends, decided to do something to honor Frances and her writing.

Another one of her manuscripts that we love is called Paper Son. It’s about a Chinese boy who goes alone through the San Francisco Angel Island Immigration Station in the 1930s, driven by the dream of reuniting with his father in the United States.

Helen says, “Frances’s young protagonist, Moon, suffers hardship and heartbreak, but he’s strong and resilient and an inspirational main character.”

However, as Annemarie says, “We selected Lily Lo (for publication) because it had proven debut promise and was ready, requiring no revisions beyond copyedits.”

None of us were willing to revise Frances’s stories or change her words on a deeper level. Lily Lo had been through many, many drafts and had already been revised with an outstanding editor.

With Lance’s support, Marietta followed up on a few leads for possible posthumous publication. But traditional publishers understandably proved reluctant to take on a debut without a living author behind it. So, we began a search for an alternative.

Annemarie knew of a hybrid publisher in Oakland called Inkshares. Their model involves crowd-funding with pre-orders to cover all the upfront costs of traditional publishing—or editorial development, cover and book design, sales, promotion and distribution.

Annemarie says, “Promoting Lily Lo for pre-orders was a group effort led by Ann who made it simple for us to email friends, create posts on Facebook, and tweets on Twitter. It was easy to advocate for Frances because of the support we got from her family and friends, as well as from the VCFA community.”

The original goal for was 750 pre-orders. In the funding phase, Inkshares asks $30 for a pre-order package that includes the book, an ebook, and “updates” from the author. But we soon opted for the Inkshares “Quill” path which only required 250 pre-orders.

This route is closer to a self-publishing model in that it does not include a developmental edit or cover design. But it also returns a larger percentage of net sales to the author–or her estate in this case, and specifically, her daughter Emmie’s education fund.

Rita Williams Garcia

A graphic-artist friend from Frances’ TV production days, May Key Lee, designed a dynamite cover. We funded ahead of schedule and now Lily Lo is in pre-production. Inkshares will do the copy-edits, and we provided front and back matter, blurbs (including one from Rita Williams Garcia!), forewords, and a bio.

Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker should be printed and available by late summer.

Frances’s family joins us in thanking all those who have taken part in bringing this story and its author’s memory to life. Yaaaay!

Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker is available now for pre-order at $10.99 a copy.

Cynsational Notes

Ann Jacobus writes children’s and YA fiction, blogs and tweets about it, teaches writing and volunteers on a suicide crisis line.

She’s published short fiction, essays and poetry in anthologies, journals, and magazines, and is the author of YA thriller Romancing the Dark in the City of Light (St. Martin’s Press, 2015).

San Francisco is home to her and her family.

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 Interview: Author Cheryl Lawton Malone on Elephants Walk Together

By Helen Kampion
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cheryl Lawton Malone is the author of the picture book, Elephants Walk Together, illustrated by Bistra Masseva (Albert Whitman, 2017). From the promotional copy:

As calves, Asian elephants Precious and Baba roam the wild together, curious and proud. 


But when they get captured and are split up, their time together seems like a distant memory. 


Still, separated by many miles and over many years, their friendship remains, and there’s hope they will once again roam wide open spaces together.

Congratulations on your second picture book! What inspired you to write about captive elephants?

I’ve always been keen on elephants and interested in elephant conservation programs, but it wasn’t until I watched an HBO documentary narrated by Lily Tomlin and titled “An Apology to Elephants” that I was inspired to learn more about the hardships facing captive elephants.

My hope is that Elephants Walk Together will inspire others to help these amazing animals.

Interior spread from Elephants Walk Together, illustrated by Bistra Masseva. Used with permission.



You came to children’s writing later in life than some. Can you describe what you did before you started writing picture books and how you made the transition?

Before I started writing for children, I worked as a biotech attorney in the Boston area for 22 years—first as an associate in a law firm, then a staff attorney with a medical services company, general counsel to a medical device company and a science-based biotech, and finally as owner of a consulting company that launched biotech startups. The work was hard but interesting; my coworkers were fantastic.

Sometime in 2008, I decided I needed a change so I signed up for a creative writing seminar at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That week-long program engaged my imagination in a way I’d never experienced before. I was hooked!

I entered the Lesley University low-residency MFA program in Writing for Young People. Two years later, I gave up law altogether and began teaching classes in writing for children at Lesley and Grub Street (Boston Writing Center). The transition from law to writing has been difficult on many levels, but the intellectual and creative satisfaction are indescribable.

Interior spread from Elephants Walk Together, illustrated by Bistra Masseva. Used with permission.



Has your past career helped or hindered your goal of becoming a professional writer?


Both! As an efficient, productive lawyer, I was passionate about helping clients achieve their goals. My organizational skills have been a huge help in the transition to full-time professional writing.

On the other hand, the corporate world operates at light speed. As a writer, I’ve had to adjust my expectations and accept that the creative process functions in a time vacuum.

Stories are like babies. They come when they come.

I imagine the requirements for writing contracts and legal memos might not allow for much creativity. How different is writing for children?

Writing for children is as different as providing legal advice as you might expect, and yet there are overlaps.


When writing for children, I first decide on my audience. What age group am I writing for? Will my story entertain them or connect with them or even inspire them?

As a lawyer, I always focused on my clients first. What did they really want to know?

As a children’s writer, I strive for simplicity and elegance. The same was true for law.

Notwithstanding all the jokes, a lawyer who can’t communicate is not going to help anyone. Of course, the big difference is that I now get to write about whales, elephants, and wolves as opposed to product regulations and public offerings. I couldn’t be happier.

Which profession is harder? Writing for children or being an attorney?

Writing for children, hands down. The difficulty of telling a heartfelt story with a beginning, middle and end, and populating that story with lovable, unforgettable characters who entertain a four to eight-year-old plus their parents in less than 500 words tops any contract I’ve ever had to write.

What’s the easiest and hardest part of creating a book?

Nothing about writing a book is easy, but for me, the hardest part is finding the story’s emotional core—the answer to the question: What is the story about?

Before I write a single word of prose, I spend time on the structure: the characters, setting, point of view, story problem, plot and scenes.

Then I give myself permission to write horrible first, second, and third drafts.

By the fourth draft, the story typically starts to gel. That’s when the process becomes rewarding. Writing and revision becomes easier. I’m thinking: I need to place this piece here, put that piece there, I’m missing something—what is it?

I keep working until the pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.


Are you working on any other projects?

Currently, I’m obsessed with another fascinating, endangered species—wolves!

Lastly, tell us something quirky about your writing habits.


I get up between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., make a cup of coffee, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and get back in bed with my two dogs.

I drink the coffee, eat the sandwich, and write, with no internet, no email, until the dogs have to pee around 9 a.m. That’s the honest truth!

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews described Elephants Walk Together as “heartwarming…A sweet and sensitive encouragement of wildlife conservation.”
Cheryl Lawton Malone is a retired attorney, and professional writer and manuscript consultant. 
She taught creative writing for children at Lesley University after she received her MFA there. She now offers manuscript consults through Grub Street in Boston. 
Cheryl’s short stories and award-winning poetry have been published in numerous magazines and journals, including the Lutheran Journal, YARN, and Bumples.

Her debut picture book, Dario and the Whale, illustrated by Bistra Masseva (Albert Whitman, 2016) was recognized as a CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center) Choices 2017 selection, and a Book Best Debut Picture Books of 2016. 

She is also a professional dog trainer. Cheryl and her husband and two wheaten terriers migrate on weekends to Martha’s Vineyard where they enjoy spending time with their favorite animal neighbors.

Helen Kampion is a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College, and also holds an MBA from Boston University.

After a successful career in business, she became a writer of both fiction and nonfiction for young readers, including middle-grade novels and picture book biographies. Her picture book manuscripts have been recognized by The Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing sponsored by Hunger Mountain (“Paddy Cats,” Special Mention, 2015) and by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (“Francesca’s Funky Footwear,” Finalist, 2013).

When she’s not at her desk busy writing, you can find her helping fellow authors with marketing events targeted to get their books into the hands of new readers, volunteering at the New England SCBWI conference, or supporting The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance as Treasurer.

New Voice: Liara Tamani on Calling My Name

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Liara Tamani is the debut author of Calling My Name (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2017). From the promotional copy:

This unforgettable novel tells a universal coming-of-age story about Taja Brown, a young African American girl growing up in Houston, Texas, and it deftly and beautifully explores the universal struggles of growing up, battling family expectations, discovering a sense of self, and finding a unique voice and purpose.

Told in fifty-three short, episodic, moving, and iridescent chapters, Calling My Name follows Taja on her journey from middle school to high school. 


Literary and noteworthy, this is a beauty of a novel that deftly captures the multifaceted struggle of finding where you belong and why you matter.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I started writing Calling My Name to explore and heal the wounds of my teenage self. 

Like Taja, the protagonist of Calling My Name, I grew up in a very loving and religious family. My family was always in church—Bible study, choir rehearsal, Sunday services, Vacation Bible School, Church conventions—you name it, we were there. Also like Taja, I had a lot of doubts and questions about religion but quickly learned that I wasn’t supposed to have these doubts and questions, that their presence meant I might not be saved. So I dealt with them internally, fighting against the fear of hell, which was very real to me at the time. 
And when I became sexually active in my later teenage years, my fears were compounded by guilt and shame. Let me tell you, it wasn’t fun.

While Calling My Name is not my story, it was definitely born out of my experience. And I wanted to share my truth, to give voice to the struggle of sexual shame and guilt (which a lot of teenagers deal with, especially girls), and to speak to the terrifying experience of departing from one’s family and community teachings to find one’s own way.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

Because Calling My Name is written in vignettes, I mostly studied novels that were composed of interrelated vignettes and short stories. 

I read any short-story cycle or novel-in-vignettes I could get my hands on, but my favorites were The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros ( Arte Público Press, 1984), Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (Harper & Brothers, 1953), and Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997). I loved the lyricism, economy of language, voice, and characterization in these books. I love their liberated story structures. 
I studied their linking devices and transition techniques. These books taught me how to construct relationships between my vignettes and stories in order to connect them and move the larger story forward. 
They taught me how to take the images, observations, ideas, and threads of dialogue in my individual vignettes and stories and expand them within the larger social, cultural, and emotional context of my book.

As an MFA in Writing student/graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

I wrote Calling My Name during my MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I started the first piece at the very end of my first semester, fell in love with the voice, and spent the next year and a half adding to the novel piece by piece. Upon graduation, I had a finished, polished book. I didn’t plan it that way, but I was very fortunate to have it happen that way.

It was great to have each new chapter of my novel critiqued every month by an adviser. It was also nice to be able to dedicate the critical analysis part of the program to studying books and techniques that would help me write Calling My Name. And the structure and discipline of the MFA program was invaluable. I don’t think I would have written Calling My Name so fast without the deadlines.

Obviously, an MFA isn’t essential to becoming a fiction writer. There are so many paths, but this one was the right one for me. And one of the best things about the program is the lifelong community of writers it creates. 

I can’t tell you how much inspiration and support I’ve received by being connected to the VCFA community. And that inspiration and support has been vital to me through all parts of my publication journey.

Dream Keepers YA Authors Panel with Renée Watson, Nic Stone,
Liara Tamani, Jacqueline Woodson, Ibi Zoboi, and Vashti Harrison 

As a member of a community underrepresented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

Taja is a young African-American girl, and her culture is on full display in this book; it’s embedded in the story. Some issues with race come up because race is always a factor for black people, and I wanted to be honest about the ways it’s a factor in Taja’s life. 

One issue involves the time when the neighborhood families of Taja’s white friends move away when the neighborhood starts becoming too black. Another issue surrounds the hard time Taja has with the new black girls at school who thinks she talks too white.

These issues are present, but they aren’t the focus. While books that explicitly deal with America’s race problem are very important (especially in these times), books that remind readers that black people and people of color have more than race problems, that we are whole human beings, with the whole spectrum of human problems and human joys are equally as important. 

Taja is African-American, but she is also just a teenage girl who is trying to figure out her path in life—a human experience so many of us can identify with.
Cynsational Notes

Booklist gave Calling My Name a starred review, “An excellent portrayal of African American culture, gorgeous lyrical prose, strong characters, and societal critique make Tamani’s debut a must-read.”

Liara Tamani lives in Houston, Texas with her daughter.

She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College and a BA from Duke University.


Read about how illustrator Vashti Harrison designed the cover for Calling My Name at Epic Reads.