New Voice: Interview & Giveaway: Jeanette Bradley on Love, Mama

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I am pleased to shine the spotlight on a fellow Epic Eighteen debut picture book, Love, Mama by author-illustrator Jeanette Bradley (Roaring Brook, 2018). From the promotional copy:

When Mama leaves her young penguin Kipling, he knows she’ll return home soon—yet he still can’t help but miss her. 


After all, Pillow Mama won’t read, Picture Mama won’t laugh, and Snow Mama is too cold to cuddle.


But then Kipling receives a special delivery from Mama, including a note that reads:

My love for you stretches across the wide ocean,
through day and night,
from earth to sky
and back again.

And Kipling knows that no matter where Mama is, he is loved. Soon, Mama comes home, and Kipling ends the day where he belongs—right in her arms.

Jeanette’s story about young Kipling, a penguin in the Antarctic, missing his mama away at work features a beautiful color palette of red, blue, and gray that immediately drew my eye to the illustrations.

One of the other aspects I appreciated and she talks about in our interview below is that Kipling stays home with a caregiver which could be anyone – the other parent, a grandparent, older sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle, or babysitter.

Many children have this experience when a parent is away working, so I appreciated that portrayal in addition to the deep longing Kipling has to be in Mama’s arms again.

Jeanette, as an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa?


I started out studying painting, and then illustration. I was sending out postcards, trying to get noticed in this highly competitive industry, when a wonderful thing happened.

My father told me that he had run into my eighth grade English teacher and told her that I was doing illustration and that she had asked him to convey to me a message. The message, delivered with her intonation, was: “Don’t forget that You. Are. A. Writer. Too.”

Teachers really do change lives. I am grateful that Mert Smits changed mine more than once. She was absolutely right, and I got serious about learning the craft of writing picture books. Three years later, here I am.

Interior illustration from Love, Mama

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?


Love, Mama is fiction with anthropomorphic animal characters, but I rooted the story in science.

I researched the location and spoke with Antarctic scientists about the animals that migrate in the Southern Ocean, the types of boats that are used in the sea ice, and what souvenirs are available in Antarctic gift shops. I used a lot of reference photos to create the fictional island that Kipling lives on.  I wanted to create the sense that Kipling lives in a real, but alternate Antarctic.

If you type “do penguins have” into Google, you will discover that many other people struggle with the existential question of “do penguins have knees?”

When designing an anthropomorphic character, there is always a tension between the animal elements and the human elements. It’s a challenge to combine those in a way that is cute and appealing, instead of falling into the “uncanny valley” of psychologically disturbing not-humanness.

The most difficult part of drawing the cuddly penguins in Love, Mama was figuring out how they sat on a sofa. (Penguins do have knees, but you can’t see them, because they are hidden by their belly flaps. Real penguins would not be able to sit on a sofa. This is my public service announcement for science.)

Jeanette at Book Launch party

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

My book has been released out in the world for two days, and the best part has been seeing photos of kids all over the country enjoying Love, Mama. So much love!

The runner-up best moment was when my agent Emily Mitchell sent me an email telling me that not only had she sold my book, she had sold it to Connie Hsu. I wouldn’t say that Connie was my dream editor, because it hadn’t occurred to me to dream that big. I felt like Cinderella, except visited by the fairy godmother for introverts.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?


I queried my agent because her bio made me laugh. Seriously, its funny, go look at it.

(Traci – Jeanette and I actually have the same agent and I couldn’t agree more.)

What advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators or author-illustrators?


In art school I was taught to draw from the masters, which is the best way to really get inside someone else’s visual thinking. So, I read a lot of recently published picture books. I choose a few to analyze more deeply, and type them out and/or sketch from them.

Interior illustration from Love, Mama

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

There are so few picture books in which my children can see their two-mom family mirrored that aren’t books explicitly about family structure. I wanted to write a book about family which the family structure was not the point of the book, but was also not locked into a mother, father, and child. I wanted to leave space for children who live with a grandparent or a single parent or who have same-sex parents to read their own family into the book.

Love, Mama is focused on the relationship between mother and child, and the ability of love to transcend distance. But the toddler-like main character felt too young to leave home alone, so I needed to create another adult without shifting the focus of the story or closing the space I had created.

I solved this by creating another adult penguin with no identifying characteristics, who is never mentioned in the text.

Some children will assume Blank Slate is a babysitter, others will map a parent or grandparent onto that penguin. (I have already witnessed a debate between kindergartners about Blank Slate’s true identity!)

Whatever the reader brings to the story, the focus remains on the deep emotions of missing a parent when she is gone, even if someone else is home with you.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews wrote of Love, Mama, “The artwork works with the spare text to keep the focus on how Kipling is feeling; readers are sure to empathize. This will provide both reassurance to children missing their own loved ones and ideas for staying connected.”

Jeanette Bradley has been an urban planner, an apprentice pastry chef, and the artist-in-residence for a traveling art museum on a train. Her debut picture book contains no cities, pastries, or trains, but was made with lots of love.

She currently lives in Rhode Island with her wife and kids. To see more of her art, follow her on Instagram @jea_bradley.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on September 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures. In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.


Enter to win your own copy of Love, Mama!

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No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on March 14, 2018 and 12:00 AM on Mar. 28, 2018. Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about Mar. 28, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

New Voice: Caroline Leech on Wait for Me

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Caroline Leech is the debut author of Wait for Me (HarperTeen, 2017). From the promotional copy:

It’s 1945, and Lorna Anderson’s life on her father’s farm in Scotland consists of endless chores and rationing, knitting Red Cross scarves, and praying for an Allied victory. So when Paul Vogel, a German prisoner of war, is assigned as the new farmhand, Lorna is appalled. 


How can she possibly work alongside the enemy when her own brothers are risking their lives for their country?

But as Lorna reluctantly spends time with Paul, she feels herself changing. The more she learns about him—from his time fighting a war he doesn’t believe in, to his life back home in Germany—the more she sees the boy behind the soldier. 


Soon Lorna is battling her own warring heart. Loving Paul could mean losing her family and the life she’s always known. 


With tensions rising all around them, Lorna must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice before the end of the war determines their fate.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My Wait for Me journey back to World War II was prompted by a conversation with a friend in Wales who mentioned in passing that her father had grown up during the war on a farm which had German prisoners of war working as farmhands.

Craigielaw Farm farmhouse, where Caroline
imagined Lorna would’ve lived

The proverbial light bulb went off in my head, and I immediately started researching how these prisoners came to be working alongside British people on farms, in parks and forests.

I grew up on a reading diet of Colditz and The Great Escape-type books, so I expected all prisoners to have stayed locked up in prison camps, plotting their escape. But I quickly found out that many of these men—who were screened on arrival to weed out the hardened Nazis—were relieved to be far from the war, and from Hitler’s brutality. 

Life in Germany had been terrible for more than a decade, and many had been forced into the army under threat of harm coming to their families.

I also discovered that many of the men chose not to go home again at the end of the war, especially those who had lived in what was to become the Russian Zone and then communist East Germany. 

I found numerous stories of prisoners who had fallen in love with local girls, and once they were released, they petitioned to stay so they could get married and settle down in the place which gave them safe harbor. 
Even those who did return to Germany had made such close friendships with the British people they’d worked alongside, they would be friends for the rest of their lives. 
Suddenly, all my writer’s alarm bells were ringing and I knew I had my opening scene—a young German prisoner arrives on a Scottish farm, injured and traumatized, and receives a less than friendly welcome from the farmer’s daughter. But in time, she starts to see him less like her enemy and more like the intelligent and caring young man he is, a boy who is very far from home. And then perhaps he becomes something even more to her . . .

Aberlady Bay, the regional setting for Wait for Me

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



I was very lucky to have great sources to aid my research. 
Both my parents were involved in the war—my mother was evacuated from London as a child, and my father followed his four older brothers into the army when he turned 18 in 1944—so I was never without that primary source material. 
But what was challenging to find was the balance between historical accuracy where girls lived in a very different set of societal expectations, and writing characters who were relatable to modern readers. 
By 1945, when the book is set, young women had been liberated from domesticity only to a certain extent. They were required to go out to work as part of the war effort—often doing previously “male” jobs in factories and dockyards—but ultimately, they were still expected to get married, settle down and stay at home to look after the house and children. 
Teenage girls now, of course, rightly expect to go on to further education, have a career and financial independence, even if they do later choose to get married and become mothers. 
Therefore, I had to find a middle ground where my protagonist was assertive and confident, so she would connect to my readers today, without dismissing the reality of the rules of the society in which she lived then.

Although the same rules applied for the time period of my second book, In Another Time (HarperTeen, August, 2018), it felt quite different.

My main character is one of the girls who chose to leave school and take over a job usually done by a man, that is being a forester in the Highlands of Scotland. Maisie joins the Women’s Timber Corps—the Lumberjills—and she rather makes her own rules after that!

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 did everything the wrong way around. Normally, you’re supposed to get your agent, who then shops your book out to editors, but I actually got my editor first.

I was still working on revisions to my WWII book when I won the Joan Lowery Nixon Award at SCBWI Houston conference. My prize was a year’s mentoring from the amazing Newbery Honor winner, Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt and Caroline
at the Texas Library Association Conference

Even though I was still working my way through revisions under Kathi’s expert guidance, I entered the first few pages into two contests with Romance Writers of America chapters in Houston. 

I was amazed to win the YA categories of both contests, the Emily and the Lone Star, and even more stunned that one of the judges—Alice at Harper Teen—emailed to say she wanted to read the whole manuscript. 
She was patient enough to wait for me to finish the revisions I was doing, and she then read it almost as soon as I sent it.

Within two weeks, she’d offered me the deal. I still didn’t have an agent, so several writer friends in Houston and Austin offered to make some introductions. 

It’s amazing how quickly agents pay attention to your emails when you approach them with a book deal in your hand! I was thrilled to sign up with New Leaf Literary & Media in New York within only a few days of getting my deal.

New Leaf’s client list includes the most stellar list of authors: Veronica RothVictoria Aveyard and Leigh BardugoJordan Hamessley is my agent, and she’s wonderfully supportive.


What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?

While there’s romance in the image of a struggling author sitting alone in a chilly garret, hunched over a sturdy typewriter bashing out the next great novel, it couldn’t be further from the truth. 

My books have mostly been written sitting in a Barnes & Noble café or a Starbucks, while my writing buddy, Penny, sits alongside me, working on her own novel. I find it very hard to write in my house—far too many distractions, even when no one else is there—so whenever I need to focus and write for more than an hour or so, I escape to a coffee shop, preferably with a friend or two. We keep each other focused, and only chat a little (honest!).

The other enormous influence on my writing has been my membership of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I went to my first SCBWI conference with the sole purpose of meeting one particular agent. 

It was in Austin and even though the agent gave me a big “no, thanks,” I gained so much from that weekend, not least of which meeting other writers who became great friends. I then went to the Houston SCBWI conference, too, and met even more wonderful people.

Back then, most of my new friends were still dreaming of publication; now, one by one, we have almost all got book deals, but we are all still supporting each other’s writing from “the other side of the fence.”

Caroline at the Brazos Bookstore launch of Wait for Me,
photo by Penny Linsenmayer

I can track my book deal directly from attending that first SCBWI conference, through winning the Joan Lowery Nixon competition, straight to publication, so I cannot stress how much I owe to everyone in SCBWI.

Getting a book deal is not only exciting, it is truly terrifying! 

You are suddenly thrown into a professional world, with its own jargon and unwritten rules, and it can feel incredibly intimidating. However, I discovered that I was not alone. For years, a support group for authors debuting in any given year has developed organically – the Fearless Fifteens in 2015, the Sweet Sixteens in 2016.

Since I was having my debut in 2017, I joined the Swanky Seventeens, now called the 2017 Debuts

We share our experiences, ask and answer questions about how publishing works, and lead the cheers for each other every Tuesday when a new set of debuts were released.

Now there are second books being published, and we support those, too. My second book, In Another Time, comes out in August, by which time a couple of my debut friends who write fantasy series will be on their third publication! 

Within the group, we’ve also had some very serious conversations about how race, gender, disability and sexuality are portrayed in YA and MG books, and I’ve learned so much from my fellow debuts.

I don’t know if I could have got through this last year without their support. Even though I’ve met only a few of them in person, I have made so many fantastic friends via the chat forum and our Facebook group, it feels like I’ve known some of them for years. Over the last year, I’ve been privileged to read some of the most amazing books in advance of their publication. 

What were the best moments of your publishing journey?


One of best is certainly that lightbulb moment when suddenly this new story exploded in my mind, and I had to rush to grab a pencil to get it started. 
Women’s Timber Corps memorial statue
in Aberfoyle, Scotland

And of course, I’ll never forget the moment when I received the email offering me my book deal. We were in Scotland on a family vacation and were in the middle of my daughter’s 18th birthday party. 

I knew that Alice Jerman, an editor at HarperTeen, had read my manuscript and loved it enough to take it to her bosses that day for acquisition approval, but because of the time difference between Scotland and New York, it was already mid-evening and I was still waiting to hear.

When I felt my phone buzz in my pocket, I had a quick look without making it obvious I was checking my phone during a party. The email from Alice not only said she wanted to buy that book, but wanted another one after that. 

I had never expected to get a two-book deal, so I was totally thrilled.

From across the room, my husband saw me check my phone and looked questioningly at me. He was the only other person who knew that I was waiting for news, so I nodded and forwarded the email to him, meaning that both of us were sitting on opposite sides of the room grinning madly.

But of course, we didn’t want to distract from my daughter’s birthday, so we said nothing until the very end of the evening. It was so hard to keep the secret , even if it was only for a couple of hours.

Women’s Timber Corps, also known as the Lumberjills,
photo courtesy of Women’s Timber Corps.

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



Read, read, read and write, write, write! And keep on writing, no matter how bad you think your first draft is. You can’t revise and perfect words that haven’t been written down yet, so sometimes you need to switch off your inner editor and just get the words onto the page. You can concentrate on making them pretty later at revision stage.

Also, try to find your “writing people” as soon as you can, even if it just starts out as one buddy to sit beside you as you work, someone to keep you accountable for the time you’ve promised yourself you’ll give over to writing each week. 

Also, for me, SCBWI membership is a vital tool for any children’s/teens’ writer, and I’d say don’t just join, take part! Go to meetings and conferences, so people get to know your name and face and join in the online discussion groups. By the time you get your book deal, these people will have become your biggest cheerleaders.

And finally, even when it gets hard, keep going. As you can see from my publication story, it only takes one editor to like your story for your whole life to change. That might happen next year, or it might happen tomorrow, you can’t know. But if you stop now, you will never know.

Cynsations Notes

Photo by Priscilla Dickson

Kirkus Reviews wrote of Wait for Me, “Clandestine meetings and stolen kisses will satisfy die-hard romantics, while history buffs will be drawn in by the details of war-torn…Scotland.”


Caroline Leech is a Scottish writer who moved to Texas for an adventure ten years ago. 
Her career in public relations with performing arts companies in the United Kingdom culminated with her editing a glossy photographic book, Welsh National Opera – The First Sixty Years (Graffeg, 2006).

She has written numerous feature articles on the performing arts in a number of newspapers and magazines in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Her next novel, In Another Time, will be published in August 2018. 
Caroline lives in Houston with her husband and three teenage children.

Get a peek at the Wait for Me launch party at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. 

New Voice: Nic Stone on Dear Martin

William C. Morris Award Finalist

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Nic Stone is the debut author of Dear Martin (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Raw, captivating, and undeniably real, Nic Stone joins industry giants Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers as she boldly tackles American race relations in this stunning debut.

Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates.

Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?


Reading books written for young readers! I didn’t pick up a YA book until I was 26. That first foray was The Hunger Games  by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008), and I read the entire trilogy over the course of five days.

That then started a dystopia kick for me, and I read the first two books of the Divergent  series by Veronica Roth (Katherine Tegen Books, 2011) and the Delirium series by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins, 2011). Then I picked up my first John Green book, and that was that.

There was something about the Young Adult category that spoke to me in ways literary fiction hadn’t, and I think it had a lot to do with the fact that YA wasn’t a thing when I was a teen, so there was this hole in my reading life.

Now I write for the kids like me—specifically the African American ones—who are still underrepresented in the YA sphere.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

The first time I went through professional copyedits, there was a note about the spelling of a particular curse word. I’d spelled the first part of it (because of course it was a compound curse word) “motha” and the note said something to the effect of “I think this should be ‘mutha*****’ because this way it looks like ‘MOTHa*****’. Okay?” I will never ever forget this note.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

The answer to this changes depending on the book I’m working on, but for Dear Martin  there were five specific ones:

1. A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan (Anchor, 2011), which is the book that helped me to see that I could play with various storytelling formats in one single novel;

2. When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum, 2014), which helped me settle into my black boy character’s voice;

3. Grasshopper Jungle  by Andrew Smith (Dutton, 2014), which loosened me up a bit and made it clear that irreverence is an okay thing in books written for teens;

4. Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (Atheneum, 2011), which was so beautiful and lyrical and helped me find my prose rhythm; and

5. Going Bovine by Libba Bray (Delacorte, 2009) which showed me the power of reaching into the heart of a story and keeping the plot from taking over.

These books will always hold a special place on my shelf.

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?

For me, this part of the journey has been the most surprising part and it’s largely because of the way the world is changing with regard to author visibility and accessibility. It’s weird to me that people want to see me and hear from me and connect with me as a person above and outside of the work I create.

Right now, I’m in the process of connecting my writer self with my selfie-taking self and connecting two of my creative outlets: books and makeup. Working on a concept for a Youtube channel, actually. Stay tuned!



Cynsational Notes

In a starred review of Dear Martin, Booklist says, “Teens, librarians, and teachers alike will find this book a godsend in assisting discussions about dealing with police, as well as the philosophical underpinnings of King’s work. Vivid and powerful.”

Dear Martin was named a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award by the American Library Association.

Nic Stone was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, and the only thing she loves more than an adventure is a good story about one.

After graduating from Spelman College, she worked extensively in teen mentoring and lived in Israel for a few years before returning to  the U.S. to write full-time.

Growing up with a wide range of cultures, religions, and backgrounds, Stone strives to bring these diverse voices and stories to her work.

You can find her goofing off and/or fangirling over her husband and sons on most social media platforms as @getnicced.

New Voice: Jonathan Rosen on Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Jonathan Rosen is the debut author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies (Sky Pony Press, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Devin Dexter has a problem. 


Well, actually, many of them. His cousin, Tommy, sees conspiracies behind every corner. And Tommy thinks Devin’s new neighbor, Herb, is a warlock . . . but nobody believes him. Even Devin’s skeptical. But soon strange things start happening. 


Things like the hot new Christmas toy, the Cuddle Bunny, coming to life.


That would be great, because, after all, who doesn’t love a cute bunny? But these aren’t the kind of bunnies you can cuddle with. These bunnies are dangerous. 


Devin and Tommy set out to prove Herb is a warlock and to stop the mob of bunnies, but will they have enough time before the whole town of Gravesend is overrun by the cutest little monsters ever?


What first inspired you to write for young readers?

When I was a kid, the big thing for me was when my parents took me to the bookstore. Back then, there were bookstores in all the malls–sometimes two–Waldenbooks and B.Daltons. And every time we went, we’d stop in one, or more likely, both.

My parents would let me buy a book or two every single time, because I read them so fast. I always loved that excitement of buying a new book. There was nothing like it to me. My favorites, were the Choose Your Own Adventure Series (Bantam Books, 1979-1988).

Even back then, I remember thinking how great it would be to see my name on a book.

When I started writing, I wanted to try and recapture some of the magic of those stories that I loved.

I wanted kids to get excited about some of my stories because I still have vivid memories of going in and picking up favorite books. I dabbled in it, until my kids started to get to reading age, and then I made it a serious endeavor. I wanted my kids to love my stories.

My youngest has read Cuddle Bunnies a few times, and I love watching her do it.

I coach a girls softball team and they’re always telling me what books they like. And now, they’re all excited about mine.



What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This one, has kind of convoluted answer. I had wanted to do something fun, with a kind of dark humor. The movie “Gremlins” kept coming to mind. It was one of my favorites as a kid. I love the idea of these sweet-looking things containing a dark side, and that’s where Cuddle Bunnies came in.

At around the same time, I had just come at two different houses with a previous manuscript. Both places eventually turned it down for one reason or another, but both said they loved the humor in it.

So, while this evil stuffed animal book was fresh in my mind, I decided to go ahead and write the funniest book that I could. Evil stuffed animals were very funny to me.


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

There were so many ‘worst’ moments, that I could write a book just about those. This isn’t an easy field. You have to brace yourself for a lot of rejection. Not everyone is going to like you and your work, so you just have to accept that.

Funny enough, some of the very worst moments were after I was at the point where I felt good enough to be published, and it didn’t happen. I got so close that when I went to the brink at those two houses and then got turned down, it kind of felt like it might not ever happen.

The best, was when I signed with my agent, Nicole Resciniti. It was real validation that someone in the industry believed in my work. It wasn’t too long after that when she told me that we had an offer. Soon, we signed the contract. That was the overall, best moment, so far!

What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?

I like to remain heavily involved in the children’s writing community as well as the larger literature community. Besides being in a regular critique group, I go to as many SCBWI events as I can and read blogs to keep up to date with what’s going on in the industry.

Jonathan’s critique group, The Tuesdays

I think it’s important to know what people in the industry are looking for, who’s working where, what types of books are selling as well as just maintaining friendships within the community.

It’s always good to support others and know you have like-minded individuals, who you can confide in and who share similar experiences.

As much as writing seems like a solitary endeavor, it isn’t really. It’s very tough to make it alone.

It’s good to have people who can pick you up when you’re down. To critique your work and offer opinions. And discuss what’s happening in the writing world.

I also look all the time to see what new books are released. There’s nothing like digging into a new middle grade book!

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

I wish I could give some eye-opening, insightful, new piece of information that’s never been given before, but I’m saving that for my pay-per-view special. Truth is, my advice has been given over and over again, but it’s so true. Never give up.

Seriously, it’s so easy to give in to the rejection. Most of the time, that’s what you get.

Remember, that’s what will separate you from those who don’t get published. They gave up. Keep going. Work on your craft. Always try and get better.

And one of the most important things: don’t be stubborn when someone offers opinions or advice. Take note of everything and use what works for you. If it doesn’t, then you don’t have to follow it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen.


Cynsations Notes

Jonathan Rosen is a teacher and freelance writer who spends his “free” time being a volunteer coach for his daughter’s softball team and a chauffeur for all of his kids.

Jonathan was born in New York and is of Mexican descent. He contributes to From the Mixed Up Files…of MG Authors and Tuesday Writers.

A sequel to Cuddle Bunnies, From Sunset Till Sunrise is now available as an e-book and will be released in print in August 2018 from Sky Pony Press.

Jonathan lives with his family in sunny South Florida.

New Voice: Ismée Williams on Water In May

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Ismée Williams is the debut author of Water In May (Amulet Books, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Fifteen-year-old Mari Pujols believes that the baby she’s carrying will finally mean she’ll have a family member who will love her deeply and won’t ever leave her—not like her mama, who took off when she was eight; or her papi, who’s in jail; or her abuela, who wants as little to do with her as possible. 


But when doctors discover a potentially fatal heart defect in the fetus, Mari faces choices she never could have imagined.


Surrounded by her loyal girl crew, her off-and-on boyfriend, and a dedicated doctor, Mari navigates a decision that could emotionally cripple the bravest of women. But both Mari and the broken-hearted baby inside her are fighters; and it doesn’t take long to discover that this sick baby has the strength to heal an entire family.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I love reading young adult literature. I love the fast pace and the fact that no matter what happens over the course of the story, there is hope at the end as the characters are young and change is possible.

In much the same way, I was drawn to pediatrics when I was in medical school. Kids are just so much more fun and interesting than grown ups! And kids are strong. Even when they are very sick, they have a higher chance of pulling through than us old(er) folks.

Also, I vividly remember what it was like to be a teen. I can still feel the excitement, the acute awareness of approaching potential. I spent so much time dreaming. There was so much I wanted to do with my life. The time that is on the cusp between childhood and adulthood is special and unique. I naturally believed it would be the most interesting time in my characters’ lives.

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

I didn’t set out to write about a Latina character. I set out to create a story that would move the reader.

It just so happened that I am a half-Cuban pediatric cardiologist who took care of a number of young Dominican/Dominican-American women pregnant with babies with heart defects. I was one of the only Spanish-speaking fetal cardiologists at my hospital, so these women tended to come to see me.

I remember the exact moment I thought of the premise for Water In May.

I was coming up out of the 168th Street subway, mulling over a scene in my first manuscript. My brain switched to my upcoming patients for the day. I stopped dead on the sidewalk outside the hospital front entrance. Throngs of people in scrubs passed me, headed for the glass doors.

What if there were a young Latina who wanted a baby desperately? Who wanted someone who would love her and not leave? What would she do if the baby had a heart defect and might not survive? That would make a great story.

Ambulance bay at hospital where Ismee worked.

I wasn’t ready to put my first manuscript aside. But when I got home that evening, I jotted down some notes. And I thought of that character, that strong Latina woman, over the next few years.

When I was ready, I sat down and wrote the novel in three months. This was fast for me and I think it was because I had such a strong grasp of my protagonist. Mari wasn’t based off any single patient. She was a mix of many of them, and of me as well.  Her contrary, feisty nature is me unfiltered.

But I do believe my Cuban abuelos, who took care of my brother and I growing up as both our parents worked, gave me stronger insight into my Latina patients that went beyond the common language. I understood how crazy they were about babies.

My abuelos, my mother and I were the same. And in Cuban and Dominican culture, family is muy importante. Which makes Mari’s wound of feeling abandoned by her parents and her grandmother even more acute.

Ismee’s mother, her Abuelo and teenage Ismee.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

Perhaps the funniest moment of my publishing journey was the day my agent, the illustrious Jim McCarthy, called to offer me representation.

I was working in the library, immersed in another manuscript, when my phone buzzed. I ran out to the hallway, murmuring, “Please hold on,” so I wouldn’t disturb my fellow library-mates.

The connection was so poor I could barely hear what Jim was saying. Perhaps only every third word came through. I was running up and down the stairs of the old building, trying to find a spot with good reception, my heart hammering.

Silent curses against my cell phone carrier and the very loud thunderstorm that was no doubt disrupting service streamed through my mind. After trying for a few minutes, Jim hung up!

But then he emailed me explaining that he normally likes to make the offer verbally but email would suffice. It all worked out in the end, but it was nerve-wracking while it was happening!

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

First of all, attend as many writers’ conferences as you can. I live in New York City and was able to attend the SCBWI Winter conferences five years in a row.

I attended breakout sessions with agents and editors where I learned the do’s and don’t’s of writing a query letter along with practical writing tips such as cutting extraneous scenes that do not move the plot forward.

The keynotes speeches from established authors were equally influential. Who knew that famous authors spent years trying to get published, working menial jobs or living off significant others or parents while fine-tuning their writing? That they, too, submitted to hundreds of agents and editors before finally breaking into the publishing world?

These conferences gave me the desire and hope to keep plugging away along with concrete tips on how to fine-tune my craft.

My second piece of advice is to join a writers’ critique group. I was starving for feedback for a very long time, not realizing I was surrounded by people who could help me. Find local authors/aspiring authors who write in the same genre as you do. Share your work. Offer up feedback and they will do the same. The experience is invaluable. I found my critique partners online through SCBWI.

Cynsations Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Water in May a starred review. Peek: “Full of spot-on cultural texture and packing an emotional punch, this is an unusual take on the teen-pregnancy problem novel. Mari’s is a voice and path that are often dismissed or derided, but Williams presents her experience in a way that demands not pity but respect….”

Ismée Williams is a pediatric cardiologist who worked at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City for fifteen years.

As the daughter of a Cuban immigrant, partially raised by her abuelos, her background helped her understand the many Maris she met along the way. She lives in New York with her husband, three book-loving kids and a dog who looks like a muppet.

New Voice: Ruth Freeman on One Good Thing About America

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Although Ruth Freeman has authored several picture books, she made her debut as a novelist earlier this year with One Good Thing About America (Holiday House, 2017). From the promotional copy:


Is it ever easy being new?

Anaïs was the best English student in her class in Africa. Now in Crazy America she feels she doesn’t know English at all. Nothing makes sense…chicken fingers


In letters, she writes to her grandmother back home about Halloween, snow, mac ‘n’ cheese and princess sleepovers. She misses her father and brother and hopes the fighting is over soon. 

In the meantime, she writes about the weird things Crazy Americans do, and wonders if she will ever feel at home in this strange new country.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

When I found that I could read chapter books, it was like falling in love. My seven- or eight-year-old self wouldn’t have known to call it that, but it absolutely was. I couldn’t believe the places I could go and the people I could meet, all between the covers of a book! Words melted away on the page, time stopped, and I would go off with fairies, pioneer girls, knights or rabbits. Being so absorbed and transported at that age was as close to real magic as I will ever get.

I think when you’re young and fall in love with reading, it never leaves you. You’re hooked.

As I got older, the notion of recreating the magic I found in books began to take hold. I wanted to reverse the process. Could I weave words together in such a way that the picture in my head would show up (similar but different) in someone else’s head? How cool would that be?

Of course, it’s one thing to catch the desire to write and another thing to do it, as I found out. But that’s another story (see below).

Students reading at Ruth’s school

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?


Two words: my students. I teach English language learners (ELL) at an elementary school in Maine, so everyday I work with young people, some of whom arrived in this country a week ago, some of whom were born here but speak another language at home.

It takes five to seven years to become fluent in English, both the basic conversational language as well as the academic language.

As ELL teachers, we often work with the same students over several years, which means we get to know them, hear their stories, answer their many questions and meet their families.

I wrote this book for two reasons. The first was so that my students, and students like them, could see themselves in a book. There aren’t enough children’s books about the experiences of newcomers. At least, not yet.

The second reason was so that all readers could get a glimpse of what life might be like for a girl new to this country.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, I write that there’s no way I can truly understand the experience of a refugee or asylum seeker but my hope, and expectation, is that one day my students, and others like them, will write their own stories…and I can’t wait to read them!

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

Because I was writing from the protagonist Anaïs’ point of view, the biggest challenge was to make her writing, her voice, sound authentic.

I limited the words I could use to the ones used by a typical newcomer.

I added a few expressions she might have picked up such as, “for sure,” “for goodness’ sake,” and “crazy” to describe anything that didn’t make sense (which was a lot of things!). She uses “cool” and “bingo” she hears from her teacher. Because her vocabulary is still growing, she repeats words for emphasis, such as “I am not happy. Not not not happy.” Other vocabulary lessons spill over into her writing, too, such as her use of comparative adjectives: “big, bigger, biggest.”

Anaïs’ grammar and spelling was also a challenge. I wanted her writing to look as realistic as possible, so I decided it shouldn’t be perfect. I tried to include enough misspellings to make it authentic but still keep it legible.

As time goes by, her spelling, verb tenses, grammar and vocabulary improve. I worked long and hard to make the progression plausible (though her improvement is probably faster than it would be in real life). It was tricky remembering what words she had learned and what misspellings she had corrected as the story unfolded!

A fourth grade class decorated their door as the cover.

Using an entirely epistolary format must have been particularly challenging, but it works beautifully. Can you tell us what drew you to this format?

I have to admit I had never thought about writing a story in letters before. The idea for a “school” story was rolling around in my head, but that was as far as I’d gotten with it.

One spark came when I was helping some ELL students in a 2nd grade classroom. The class was writing persuasive letters, first having to state an opinion, then writing a letter to persuade someone to their point of view.

However, it wasn’t until later that the letter writing and the “school” story idea came together.

I had these bits and pieces in mind, but in the end, it was my students’ voices that made everything click. I can often hear their distinctive voices and accents in my mind long after we’re together, and it was these voices that I wanted to preserve on paper.

I felt the best way to do this was writing from my character’s point of view through letters she was writing home to her grandmother.

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


If you have a burning desire to write for young people, try it! Even though I had wanted to write for a long time there came a point when I felt time was passing and it was now or never!

But…there’s always a but…be prepared for a long, slow, hard slog. If you want it badly enough, you will stick with it. If it’s not for you, you’ll find that out and discover some other wonderful creative path to follow. It’s a journey, right?

But, if you get more and more determined to write, here are a few tips from one (and only one) writer:

Ruth in her elementary school library.

Read children’s/YA books! Haunt your local library, make friends with the children’s librarian, ask what everyone is reading, but don’t forget to read the classics as well.

Learn about the publishing business. One excellent way is to join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). They have a lot of information online, they hold great conferences, and they can hook you up with local chapters and writers groups.

Find what works for you in the way of writing. You can read everyone else’s tried and true methods, but in the end, you have to figure out which way is best for you.

For example, I cannot wake up at 4 a.m. and write! I work full-time at the moment, so I take notes and glean ideas during the week and carve out Sundays for writing. And I work hard on stories in the summer when I’m not teaching. It is not easy. When I had small children, I wrote nonfiction picture books partly because I could do the research whenever I could find the odd moment of free time.

Write about what grabs you and you’re passionate about–not, I repeat not, what you think will sell and make you a million dollars. Your heart won’t be in it. Don’t get hung up on “brands” and “platforms.” Keep it real.

Lastly, when you are ready to plunge into your first draft, learn to banish the critics sitting on your shoulders (they keep coming back, so keep shooing them away), take a deep breath and enjoy making a mess!

You have the freedom to write whatever you want…and it in no way has to be perfect!

Keep an image of a mud puddle in mind.

Later, you can make everything pretty.

In the beginning, it is time for delight, freedom, creativity, humor and the joy of being subversive. Readers come later. In the beginning, you’re writing just for you. Go for it!

Ruth Freeman
(photo by Molly Haley)

Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal called One Good Thing About America “highly recommended for libraries seeking timely stories about the immigrant experience.”

An educator’s guide is available from the publisher.

Ruth Freeman grew up in rural Pennsylvania but now lives in Maine where she teaches students who are English Language Learners, including many newly arrived immigrants. She’s worked with students from every continent except Australia and Antarctica. She has also authored several nonfiction picture books on subjects ranging from hairstyles to the history of chocolate.

New Voice: LaTisha Redding on Calling the Water Drum

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

LaTisha Redding is the debut author of Calling the Water Drum, illustrated by Aaron Boyd (Lee & Low, 2016) From the promotional copy:



Henri and his parents leave their homeland, Haiti, after they receive an invitation from an uncle to come to New York City. 


Only able to afford a small, rickety boat, the family sets out in the middle of the night in search of a better life. Out at sea, Henri dreams of what life will be like “across the great waters.”

Then the small boat overturns, and Henri is placed on top of the boat as his parents drift further out at sea. 


Overcome with grief, Henri retreats into himself and is no longer able to speak once he reaches land. Encouraged by his uncle and neighbor, Henri takes a bucket and plays on it like a drum. The drumming becomes a link to his past and a conduit for his emotions. 


Slowly, through his drumming and the kindness of his uncle and friend, Henri learns to navigate this new and foreign world without his parents.

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

more from illustrator Aaron Boyd

I keep a notebook with me almost all of the time. But I didn’t write down the idea for this story right away. It stewed in the back of my mind for several months. When I finally stilled myself to write it, I let the story pour out onto the page without editing.

As I wrote, the first challenge was capturing Henri’s voice. Henri narrates the story and it took me a few revision rounds to discover how much dialogue he would have. I’m not a poet or a musician, but Henri’s voice had formed a certain cadence when I read the draft out loud.

Then I immediately tucked the story away. After that, I researched details of the Haitian language, which is Kreyol, and the culture; it was important that I presented it properly. I also researched drumming, the origins, and its ceremonial use within the African diaspora.

When I returned to the story months later, I shaped it with those elements, chose more precise words and tightened the structure. Later, when I worked with my editor Jessica, she helped me revise it further by adding the day-to-day details of life in Haiti, which required more research. That added another layer to Henri’s story.

For the psychological aspects of the story, I knew from the onset that Henri was dealing with great loss, which was balanced with hope. But I never considered the themes in Calling the Water Drum too heavy for a child to understand.

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

The advice that I have, is what’s been given before and it’s advice that I followed, and still practice. Read a lot and write a lot. That’s the bedrock of being a writer. I have yet to personally meet another writer that didn’t begin as a voracious reader. The reading comes easily. The writing can be the hard part. Over the years, I’ve discovered that just because I’m compelled to write and I enjoy telling stories doesn’t mean it’s not hard.

LaTisha at a classroom visit

One piece of advice that I always found interesting was the adage to “write what you know.” I like to modify that: write what you want to know more about. I write what intrigues me or gets under my skin. And centering a child as the protagonist in a story gives me the chance to explore with wonder. Kids are curious about the world and, as a writer, so am I.

When it comes to actually learning how to write, I view it as a skill, like anything else. You read something, a poem, a short-story, a picture book, a novel and then you apprentice the story–you take it apart to see how the author put it together. Of course the “recipe” of read a lot, write a lot has to be seasoned with patience. Life gets so busy sometimes and it gets difficult to make time for writing.

It helps to set realistic reading and writing goals. I read the classics and read what’s on the market. I decide how many stories to write and complete in a month or three-month time frame if a year feels too lengthy. And completing the story is key. It’s better to complete two short-stories or one novel than have a hard-drive worth of half-finished stories.

What would you have done differently? 

I’ve been a storyteller since I was a child. But, I’m not one of those writers who have been writing since I was a kid or wrote for my high school newspaper or took creative writing classes in college. I had graduated from college and worked for several years before I took a writing class.

If I could do it differently, I would’ve taken creative writing classes in college and started to learn the craft earlier. I also would’ve sought out other writers and writing organizations sooner.

The community has been invaluable. It’s important for me to gather with other writers; but it was critical for me in the beginning stage to be around other writers and experience that camaraderie. I’ve learned that writing in isolation doesn’t benefit me at all.

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?

More from illustrator Aaron Boyd

Being an author is still very new to me. It’s true that having a book published is a delicious feeling. I’m still amazed. But I keep my focus on getting my butt-in-the-chair and writing. I have more stories to tell. And since I want to get more of my stories out into the world then I need to write more.

The pragmatic side of me has approached marketing and promotion with the understanding that it’s part of the book publishing process. It’s a business, after all. So I setup a website and I’m on Twitter joining the conversations about writing or the writing life, which is fun. I’ve been steeped in the writing world for years, but publishing is a whole other beast.

In terms of my self-image, it’s pretty much the same, again, because I’ve been a storyteller since I was little. So for me, at the end of the day, it’s all about story.

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

I’m African-American and the story is from the vantage point of a Haitian boy named Henri. But there’s another child named Karrine in the story, who is African-American.

Now, I didn’t write a Haitian story or the Haitian experience. There are Haitian writers who can express that from a place of vision that I never could. But, I wrote this story entwining two children from different cultures and that was intriguing to me.

Since I grew up in New York City, I’m familiar with being immersed in my culture while living parallel to many other cultures. I definitely wanted to give life to that experience and I did.

Cynsations Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Calling the Water Drum a starred review, calling it “a powerful story of loss and survival, human connection and hope… Redding’s distinguished text sensitively portrays the tragedies young Henri and Karrine have faced…”

A teacher’s guide is available from the publisher.

LaTisha Redding is a 2010 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and busy working on a middle grade novel. She lives in Florida and when she’s not wilting from the humidity,  she writes!

New Voice: Leah Henderson on One Shadow On the Wall

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Leah Henderson is the debut author of One Shadow On the Wall (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, June 6, 2017). From the promotional copy:

An orphaned boy in contemporary Senegal must decide between doing what is right and what is easy as he struggles to keep a promise he made to his dying father in this captivating debut novel laced with magical realism.

Eleven-year-old Mor was used to hearing his father’s voice, even if no one else could since his father’s death. It was comforting. It was also a reminder that Mor had made a promise to his father before he passed: keep your sisters safe. Keep the family together. 


But almost as soon as they are orphaned, that promise seems impossible to keep. With an aunt from the big city ready to separate him and his sisters as soon as she arrives, and a gang of boys from a nearby village wanting everything he has—including his spirit—Mor is tested in ways he never imagined. 


With only the hot summer months to prove himself, Mor must face a choice. Does he listen to his father and keep his heart true, but risk breaking his promise through failure? Or is it easier to just join the Danka Boys, whom in all their maliciousness are at least loyal to their own?

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

Their endless imaginations.

The imagination of a child is unparalleled. They are willing to take journeys many adults are not. They have a critical eye and I love that they will question anything that doesn’t seem quite right. Young readers challenge writers to be better in ways most adult readers never could or would.


So, I write for children because I want every child to see their inherent potential through their own imaginations, their varied possibilities, and to encourage them to believe they can be the stars of their own adventures. I write for them because I want every child to experience the diversity of our world.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

During a trip to Senegal, I saw a young boy sitting on a beach wall and wondered what his day might be like. 

I had no idea at the time I would try to create a story out of that question. But all through the day, the image of that boy sitting tall on that crumbling wall stayed with me. And when I saw him again later, a short story started to form. 
Of course I had no clue where it was going, but that didn’t matter. I was curious about his experiences that were probably so different from mine (though I did also wonder what might’ve been the same) and attempted to recreate a snippet of an imagined day. 
It really wasn’t meant to go any further than the ten pages I ended up writing, but one of my graduate school professors read it and had another idea. Regardless of my doubts, she thought it should be a novel. And so the journey began . . .

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

The main challenge was believing I could tell this story about a boy and a circumstance I knew little about. I did not want to assume I knew this young boy’s life or what his dreams looked like. 

I did not want to do harm. We have had enough of that in books already. 
What would you have done differently?

Surprisingly, not much. 

The journey I’ve taken in creating this book, with all its pitfalls, frustrations, smiles, and tears, is the journey we were meant to take together. 
But I do wish I could have whispered in my own ear long, long ago to trust the wonder of revision, to be kinder to myself about my writing, and to get out of my own way so the story could figure itself out. That would have been a tremendous treasure back then!

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


I think more than anything I brought a level of compassion and fear to this project that some who have not seen themselves misrepresented in books time and time again might not understand. 
I was overly mindful of the damage that could be done if I did not take the time to do the research, ask questions, and have people of the Senegalese community read my words.

Every day that I worked on this story, I reminded myself how important it is for kids who look, sound, and live like my characters do to be able to hold their heads high when they read my words or see someone else reading them. 

I do not want them to feel like caricatures as we have in so many other instances. 
I want them to feel as if they really are seeing themselves on the page and can be proud of what they see.
As an MFA in Writing graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

Writing can be a very solitary experience, so to instantly be a part of a community that understood what I was feeling—my apprehensions, my need to write, my love of stories—it was wonderful. 

I didn’t have to explain to anyone why I stayed glued to my chair all day writing when no one was forcing me to. Or why I was picking out clothes for a character I had created in my mind (okay, sometimes I still had to explain that one), but for the most part, I entered into a community that instantly understood and welcomed me in. 
The level of support, encouragement, and instruction I received was priceless. In a way, my experience gave me a (much needed) nod that it was okay to try and tell my stories.
Cynsational Notes
Kirkus Reviews said, “In her debut, Henderson paints a detailed picture of life in Senegal. The author’s experience, research, and sensitivity shine, making this distinctive novel a valuable addition to the literature.”

Leah Henderson has always loved stories—short ones, long ones, sad ones, funny ones, and all those in between. 
When she is not frantically scribbling down the adventures of the characters jabbering in her head, she is off on her own adventures. Traipsing around the globe, venturing down meandering paths, soaking up the vibrancy of tantalizing souks and making lasting friendships. 
Many of the hopes, struggles, and traditions she witnesses on her travels find a home in her stories and color her and her characters’ lives.
Leah holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University and calls Washington, D.C. home.

Guest Post: New Voice Katie Bayerl’s Path to Publication

By Katie Bayerl

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Katie Bayerl is the debut author of A Psalm for Lost Girls (Putnam, March 2017).

From the promotional copy:

“Tess da Costa is a saint — a hand-to-god, miracle-producing saint. At least that’s what the people in her hometown of New Avon, Massachusetts, seem to believe. And when Tess suddenly and tragically passes away, her small city begins feverishly petitioning the Pope to make Tess’s sainthood official. Tess’s mother is ecstatic over the fervor, while her sister Callie, the one who knew Tess best, is disgusted – overcome with the feeling that her sister is being stolen from her all over again.


The fervor for Tess’s sainthood only grows when Ana Langone, a local girl who’s been missing for six months, is found alive at the foot of one of Tess’s shrines. It’s the final straw for Callie.


With the help of Tess’s secret boyfriend Danny, Callie’s determined to prove that Tess was something far more important than a saint; she was her sister, her best friend and a girl in love with a boy. But Callie’s investigation uncovers much more than she bargained for: a hidden diary, old family secrets, and even the disturbing truth behind Ana’s kidnapping.”

I wasn’t the girl who dreamed of becoming a writer.

I loved reading, though, and I loved being around young people and being part of social change—so I found my way into a career as an urban teacher. In my classroom we talked about books, filled notebooks with big ideas, and wrote impassioned essays and heart-cracking personal narratives.


My first career didn’t go the way I expected.

First year at Boston International High School

Being a full-time teacher took a toll. I stockpiled anger at a system that treated my students as disposable. Daily injustices battered my heart badly. I was young, discovering my limits. When my mental health nose dived, I faced a choice: turn down the volume of my heart to survive or step away from the career that I’d believed was my calling.

I chose to walk away (a messy decision and the bravest of my life). My sleep schedule was erratic in the aftermath, and I found myself up late one night watching Lifetime version of Speak (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson.

And oh. A revelation.

Young adults and books. The two great loves of my life. I should be writing for teens! I drafted an outline of my first young adult novel that night.

I poured my wounded heart into that first story. And the next one. And the next.

10 years passed.

Dorm room at VCFA

I got a bit of recognition, discovered I still had a lot to learn, pursued an MFA, began submitting my work, found I still had things to learn.

You know this story. The writer who faces rejection, persists. Except I’d always been impatient. I went full blast at the things that came easy. When things got hard, I found an out.

I couldn’t quit again, though, not after the last defeat. Also, I could sense that the pieces were beginning to click. My stories were changing, becoming deeper, more true to me.

Things started to happen.

First, an agent. Then, a book deal. My born-again author career was suddenly becoming real.
But—plot twist—over the same period, my first calling had wormed its way back into my life. I picked up creative writing classes at GrubStreet and found that, in smaller doses, teaching teens still filled my heart in a way nothing else did.


I wondered: Was being a writer enough?


I’d been watching other writers carefully, noticing how they braided their work as authors with their deepest-held concerns. I looked to Kekla Magoon, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Dana Walrath, among others.


I wanted a career that could incorporate all sides of me.

I found myself circling around an idea that had been planted in grad school—a few of us had a notion that Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) could become a hub for diverse young writers. We had a solid idea. All we really needed was someone who had the time, passion, and persistence to make it happen. Passion I had. Persistence I’d learned. Time I could make.

VCFA Young Writers Network Kickoff event with author Kekla Magoon.

Shortly after my book deal became public, we announced the launch of the VCFA Young Writers Network.

It’s a balancing act.


Leading this work means I won’t be a book-a-year author. I’m ok with that. I want to be in the business of cultivating stories, plural, and elevating voices, most especially young writers from marginalized groups. I feel this as a white author in a severely unbalanced field and as an educator who still feels the tug toward social justice.



Last fall, I returned to the role of student. 


The Launch Lab, designed for soon-to-be-published authors, helped me get clear about my goals and weed-whack through the clutter of promotional activities to find those that can help me become the writer, teacher, and change-seeker I want to be.

There are still many questions about how this will go, what comes next. But if 10 years as a writer has taught me anything it’s how to stay the course.

Cynsational Notes

When Katie Bayerl isn’t penning stories, she coaches teens and nonprofits to tell theirs.

She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has taught creative writing in schools and a variety of community settings. She currently leads the VCFA Young Writers Network and teaches classes for teens at GrubStreet.

Katie has an incurable obsession with saints, bittersweet ballads, and murder.

Publishers Weekly gave A Psalm for Lost Girls a starred review, describing it as “richly and evocatively written.” Peek:”Through these two perspectives—alleged saint and grieving sister—debut author Bayerl unspools a gripping story of loss and grace.”

Kirkus called it “packed with vivid cultural scenery, this ambitious debut offers readers a journey worth taking.”


Enter for a chance to win one of five copies of A Psalm for Lost Girls in a giveaway from the publisher.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on March 13, 2017 and 12:00 AM on March 27, 2017.  Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about March 29, 2017. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.