Survivors: Marion Dane Bauer on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Marion Dane Bauer.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

My first response to that question was . . . how can I talk about bumps? I have been so darned lucky! In 1976, the first novel I ever attempted to write was published, and in the more than forty years that have followed I’ve seen 100 more books into the light.

And yet, of course, there have been bumps.

I’ll talk about just one, though, the one I’ve found most important to overcome in order to “defy the odds.” That bump is isolation. Complete and utter isolation.

When I made the decision to take this writing habit seriously, to attempt actually to produce something publishable, I was a young mother and clergy wife living in Hannibal, Missouri.

In our society in that period—the 60s and 70s, a time of stay-at-home moms almost completely without support systems—motherhood was profoundly isolating.

Being a clergy wife then, when clergy wives were seen as their more important husband’s unpaid assistants, deepened the isolation and gave it a fish-bowl quality.

And living in Hannibal . . . well. I’ll say only that during the years I lived there I was aware of a Mark Twain roofing company and had tried Mark Twain fried chicken, but I knew no one else who was attempting to do the writing thing Mark Twain had made the town famous for. For that matter, I knew no other adult who had the smallest interest in children’s books.

What did I do with that isolation?

First, I found the Hannibal Public Library. I went back and forth and back and forth bringing home armloads of books. My children were young, so I was already filled to the brim with the picture books of the time, but I knew nothing of contemporary novels for young people. The novels of my own youth had come from my mother’s childhood home, most of them written in the nineteenth century.

At the library I encountered a shelf labeled Newbery. The Newbery Award had been around for a long time, of course, but I had never heard of it. The elementary school I attended didn’t even have a library of its own, and, of course, the English professors at the colleges where I studied never spoke of children’s literature. But I figured somebody liked these books, so I took some home . . . and I fell in love.

Not with the award—I still didn’t know what the Newbery Medal meant—but with the books those award committees had chosen.

I fell in love with what a children’s book can be, with the deep honesty those books demonstrated. I needed that kind of honesty to tell my stories, and I needed to know such honesty could be received before I could put my first words down on paper.

The second thing I did with that isolation was eventually to move to a larger, more literary community, Minneapolis/St. Paul. (Actually, my husband was called to a church there, and the children and I were part of the package, so that was another piece of luck.)

There I actually began to meet other writers, and equally important, I found opportunities to teach writing. I set out to teach other aspiring writers even though I had yet to be published myself except in the most minor ways.

Teaching broke through my isolation. At last writing wasn’t just some odd activity I did in a hidden corner of my house; it was something I could talk about with other adults. Teaching legitimized my own writing by bringing in family income, too. Money made my efforts serious, real, especially—and this is what mattered most—in my own mind.

Defining, again and again, what makes a manuscript work, explaining point of view and voice and story trajectory, examining the field I was entering and bringing my findings back to my students, I taught myself to write. I taught myself to write by writing, of course, but my process was energized, amplified, augmented by my teaching. In defining for others what makes a manuscript work, I learned how to make my own manuscripts work.

My teaching was part time—I have always been a writer who teaches, not a teacher who writes—and after fifteen years of intense work on the writing side of the equation, I had published five novels. 

Combining my teaching and writing income I had in all those years never come close to earning an income that would support me, but I left my marriage anyway, desperate to keep my writing front and center. I left with $2,000 in my pocket and not a clue where the next penny was coming from.

It was a bit like leaping out of the fourteenth floor of a burning building.

That was also the moment, completely coincidentally, that my novel On My Honor (Clarion, 1986) received the Newbery Honor award. (Both the timing and the fact of that award represent another enormous piece of luck.)

Receiving a Newbery Honor brought increased writing income for a time and also more opportunities to earn money by lecturing around the country. But always I continued to teach, because I needed the connection to other writers that teaching brought me.

I taught in many different adult-education venues in the Twin Cities, including the University of Minnesota and The Loft Literary Center, and spent my final teaching years in the low-residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts as one of the founders and the first Faculty Chair of their Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

The teaching saved me. It made my career possible. It brought me out of my isolation. It gave me soulmates.

Few of the people close to me have ever understood or appreciated this compulsion that is writing, even after that writing began to show results. I empathize with them. It must be hard for non-writers to live with us.

My partner will sometimes say to me with just a touch of exasperation in her voice when we are riding in the car or sitting outside on the deck, “Are you writing?” But my students and my fellow teachers share my world without explanation or apology.

Of course, teaching isn’t something that comes naturally to every writer. I taught literature and composition both in college and high school before I turned to teaching writing to adults. But learning comes naturally to all of us, and in front of the class or in it, much the same is accomplished.

A chance to discover others who are on the same journey, to analyze the process, to evaluate others’ work and carry that evaluation back to our own. It’s the best way I know out of the isolation in which all writers exist while still serving our writing. Isolation is a part of our journey. Few of us could produce without it. But when the isolation grows too deep, it’s difficult to keep our bearings.

Marion speaks with students at LoonSong.

I’ve retired from formal teaching through VCFA, but these days I have a once-a-year opportunity to return to the company of other writers and to the stimulation of teaching. It’s a writers’ retreat called LoonSong that meets on the shore of a pristine lake in the wilderness of northern Minnesota. 

The retreat was created by National Book Award finalist and VCFA graduate, Debby Dahl Edwardson, and joining it each September is part of what keeps me “defying the odds.” LoonSong keeps me fresh and energized and connected.

My advice, find your own LoonSong or try ours or seek out an MFA program or a writers’ group or teach a class yourself. Isolation is a writer’s greatest hazard.

 Bumps are less bumpy when navigated in company.

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

One thing. I would have found an agent, the right agent, and stayed with him or her.

In these days when most writers work through an agent because access is difficult if not impossible without one, the emphasis is not on agent-or-no-agent but rather on what makes the right agent.

I started out with an agent, a woman so long established in the field that I never met anyone who remembered a time before she was a fixture. She placed my early novels with a publisher who remained my publisher for many years and did little more for me.

I left her after two incidents. One, my editor said to me one day, “You know, Marion, A. has never done anything for you.”

Curious, I talked to an unagented writer publishing with the same house and discovered that she had been offered an escalation clause and I had not. Presumably my editor expected an agent to ask. Mine hadn’t.

The second, while I was still with that agent, I spent a couple of years working on an adult novel. She presented it to an editor at Random House who expressed interest but wasn’t yet ready to make an offer.

The editor had suggestions, though, and I revised. When we presented the novel again, however, the editor said, “Frankly, I liked the first version better.”

I lost faith, told my agent I was going back to children’s books, and did.

Later, too much later for me to be able to resurrect my energy for the adult novel, my agent made a comment to a friend who reported it to me. She said, “It’s too bad Marion put that novel aside. It would have been an important book.”

But she never said it to me!

I want two things from an agent: knowledge of what a reasonable contract should cover and complete and unflinching honesty.

I worked without an agent for many years after that. In fact, when discussions came up at Vermont College of  Fine Arts, about agent or no agent, I always argued on the no-agent side. It’s hard enough to earn a living writing without having 15% skimmed off the top.

I have, in fact, over the years encouraged some of my friends to leave their agents, not because I didn’t think they should have one but because they complained so often about their agents’ failure to communicate.

And that is my third and perhaps my greatest requirement for an agent, communication.

I refuse to share my royalties with someone who pretends in between royalty checks that I don’t exist.

Marion with authors Gary Schmidt & Candace Fleming

Why then did I decide, more than thirty years and many book sales later, that I needed an agent? And why do I regret not finding him or someone like him sooner?

The first and most obvious and probably least important reason is that my brain goes soft when I read contracts. Especially when the elements of contracts surrounding e-books were in flux I got overwhelmed. And I wanted not to have to think about it.

But there were more important factors, and these are the reasons for my regret.

In my early publishing years, things were pretty simple. You began with a certain house, and that was your publisher. Your first editor pretty much owned you and decided what kind of work you could publish. If you took a manuscript to another house, you were a whore.

My first editor told me, “Marion, you are not a picture book writer,” and therefore through those early years I could not be a picture book writer.

Eventually, rules changed, though, and I found access on my own to different publishers, large and small, and I began to sell different kinds of work. Board books, picture books, fiction and non-fiction early readers, non-fiction books on writing, novels. I found many open doors.

Why an agent, then?

Candlewick, Sept. 11, 2018; more @ Elizabeth Bird

Because one day I walked through one of those doors to an editor I had a good working relationship with and handed her a manuscript I loved. It was a serious literary story, a story about mortality, in fact. It was the first thing I wrote after my son’s death.

This editor’s list, however, was not meant to be serious and literary, and the book came out titled and jacketed to look light, even frivolous. Not only did the book miss its mark, but I received furious letters from teachers and librarians who had used the book as a read aloud, presuming it was just something fun. I knew they had a right to their fury (though I wondered at their not reading the book themselves before deciding to read it to their kids). I also knew I was not serving my work well.

Once I did sign on with an agent again, I discovered not only that having an objective eye on decisions about where a manuscript should go is a good thing but that there are a great many editors out there I had never met, a great many doors I wouldn’t have found on my own.

Had I had a good agent throughout my career, some things would have been different. Maybe they would have been important things, maybe just a better decision here or there. But I am grateful these days to have another mind, another perspective to support my own.

My agent, by the way, is Rubin Pfeffer and he is a dream. He spent many years on the editorial and administrative side of publishing. He knows the field and the people in it inside out and is known and respected in return.

He is always honest.

And he communicates!

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

The most obvious change is that publishing has finally opened its doors to diversity, and long may that door stand open. The changes have been too slow to come, but now that they are coming I can’t imagine publishers/book sellers/writers/teachers ever backtracking on our commitment to producing and supporting books for the world as it is, not the world we once chose to acknowledge.

White writers are inevitably feeling the squeeze of that shift. We’re accustomed to the dance floor being ours alone. But while the transition is sometimes a difficult one for everyone, we are heading toward a good place. No, a great place.

I feel blessed to have been in this field long enough to witness such a profound awakening!

There is another shift, though, one that impacts all of us, though I seldom hear it mentioned. The number of books being published every year has grown exponentially.

In 1976, my first novel, Shelter from the Wind (Clarion), was published along with 2,209 other books meant for children and young adults. (Or what was being called YA in that time, then meaning books for eleven to thirteen-year-olds.)

In 2015, 15,032 children’s and YA books were published. That breaks down, now that young adult is truly young adult and more legitimately its own publishing category, to 12,988 children’s books and 4,338 YA.

Even if we eliminate all of today’s YA books as a category that didn’t quite exist in 1976, those numbers represent nearly a six-fold increase over the numbers published forty years ago.

And that doesn’t count all the self-published books indistinguishable from traditionally published books on sites such as Amazon.com. Nor, of course, does it consider the thousands of books available in publishers’ backlists.

All seeking buyers.

In this market, fine books emerge every day only to slip into oblivion. With so many more books being published, I presume it is growing easier to bring our books into the light of day, but it is definitely getting more difficult to get them noticed once they are out there.

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

Cynthia Leitich Smith & Marion Dane Bauer.

Ah . . . advice to the self. I wonder if I would have taken it.

Relax more. Don’t quit working, but take more breaks.

Laugh more. Truth can sometimes be told better with laughter.

Exercise a whole lot more. Don’t take your strength and mobility for granted. (This from someone about to enter her ninth decade.)

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

Just more wonderful, thoughtful, funny, entertaining, sad, truthful books. Write them. Read them. Love them. Share them.

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

Every now and then I read an obit in the Authors Guild Bulletin that says, “He was writing a few hours before he died.”

That’s the way I want to go. Writing and reading every single day until it’s time to say good bye!

Cynsational Notes 

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


Marion Dane Bauer is a co-founder of LoonSong.

LoonSong: A Writer’s Retreat is scheduled for Sept. 6 to Sept. 10 at Elbow Lake Lodge in Cook, Minnesota.

Faculty include children’s-YA authors Nikki Grimes, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Bruce Coville, Marion Dane Bauer, Jane Buchanan, Sarah Aronson, and Debby Dahl Edwardson as well as agent Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary and editorial director and publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. Note: author Susan Cooper, who was previously listed on the site, will not be able to make the event.

See more on the faculty. Peek:

“We offer a smorgasbord of activities for writers to pick from: stimulating lectures and panel discussions, writing prompts and workshops, readings and one-on-one marketing, agent, and editorial consultations. 

“An agent and editor will be present at all readings. Our presenters include seasoned writers, an agent, and an editor who will help you grow your career, develop new approaches to craft, and think deeply about the writing life.”

See video.

LoonSong Turtle Island is scheduled from Sept. 11 to Sept. 14 at the same location. Faculty include authors Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee (Creek)), Tim Tingle (Choctaw) and Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe), author-editor-publisher Arthur A. Levine of Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic and editorial director and associate publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. See more on the faculty.
Peek:

“…a writing retreat for Native American writers only, a place where writers can come together with a talented faculty of published Native writers and industry professionals to share their writing, spark their imaginations, and make the kinds of connections that help set a career on course.”

Please note that a few publisher-sponsored scholarships are available (thank you, Candlewick and Charlesbridge).

LoonSong: A Writers Retreat & LoonSong: Turtle Island


LoonSong: A Writer’s Retreat is scheduled for Sept. 6 to Sept. 10 at Elbow Lake Lodge in Cook, Minnesota.

Faculty include children’s-YA authors Nikki Grimes, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Bruce Coville, Marion Dane Bauer, Jane Buchanan, Sarah Aronson, and Debby Dahl Edwardson as well as agent Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary and editorial director and publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. Note: author Susan Cooper, who was previously listed on the site, will not be able to make the event.

See more on the faculty. Peek:

“We offer a smorgasbord of activities for writers to pick from: stimulating lectures and panel discussions, writing prompts and workshops, readings and one-on-one marketing, agent, and editorial consultations. 

“There will also be lots of ‘fresh air’—space to simply write and retreat, kayak, canoe and connect, informally, over a campfire or on a pontoon cruise, with other writers. Participants will be invited to read their own work. 

“An agent and editor will be present at all readings. Our presenters include seasoned writers, an agent, and an editor who will help you grow your career, develop new approaches to craft, and think deeply about the writing life.”

LoonSong Turtle Island is scheduled from Sept. 11 to Sept. 14 at the same location. Faculty include authors Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee (Creek)), Tim Tingle (Choctaw) and Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe), author-editor-publisher Arthur A. Levine of Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic and editorial director and associate publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. See more on the faculty.
Peek:

“…a writing retreat for Native American writers only, a place where writers can come together with a talented faculty of published Native writers and industry professionals to share their writing, spark their imaginations, and make the kinds of connections that help set a career on course.”

Please note that a few publisher-sponsored scholarships are available. Thank you, Candlewick and Charlesbridge!

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

Learn more about Louise Hawes.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

What was wrong with this picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret K. McElderry, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Vertigo, 2013

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

But above all….

Slow down.

Savor.

Have fun.

Oh, and give thanks.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Louise with fellow author David Almond.

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

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

What do I wish ahead?

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

Cynsational Notes 

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

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.

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

Learn more about Martine Leavitt.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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


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


I had to think for a minute when I read the word career. Had I really had a career in writing? And if it wasn’t a career, what was it?

Certainly, it was something much more demanding, insistent and darker than a hobby. It had elements of an addiction, though it had no physiological symptoms. It might have come close to a calling, though one is leery of blaming everything on God.

It has seemed to me that career had the connotation of something slightly more refined that a job – newspaper delivery, for example, is a job, but it wouldn’t be a career because it doesn’t pay that well and doesn’t seem to offer a whole lot in the way of advancement.

Per hour, my writing has probably paid me about the same as a newspaper delivery person. And it hasn’t offered much in the way of promotions. Maybe my writing was a job?

So I looked it up, and it appears that a career is “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life.” So, yes, that would be me. If you count the beginning of my career from the publication of my first book, I’ve been in the business for 26 years.

I suppose that is rather a commitment.

The thing is, I made choices at every juncture of my life that narrowed my options until the saying became true for me: I’m a writer because I can’t do anything else.

When I became a single parent of six children and had no education beyond high school, I enrolled in university. I could be practical and study nursing, or I could study English literature. Literature won out. After completing my undergrad degree, I could choose to attend law school, or I could get an MFA in writing. The MFA won out. After graduating, I could work as an editor for a technology company and make a very good salary, or I could teach college, and make… well, good memories. College won out.

If I’ve been hanging on by my financial fingernails, I’ve nobody to blame but myself.

One could say, “What a miracle to have always done what you loved! No matter you were paid less than a newspaper delivery person! You have taken joy in every minute of your work as a storyteller and teacher! Yes, you gambled on the big advance that never came, but oh well!”

One could say that. One often has.

But that is a rather big “oh well.” I think any young writer reading this should be made aware.

If you are like me, you may one day come to a point, 26 years into a respected career, and face up to the fact that you weren’t able to help your children get their educations, that they may be paying off student loan debt well into their forties. You will be adept at the little prayer one offers to the car gods, asking that the old gal makes it one more day. You will watch “House Hunters” and realize you will never know the peculiar and life-changing joy that seems to come with a new kitchen makeover.

You may one day realize your friends are all looking at retirement, and there shall be no retirement for you. You will work until you drop into the grave.

It’s only fair to warn you.

On the other hand, what a way to go.

Some writers make so much money they don’t have to care what anybody thinks about their stories.

Some writers made so little money they don’t have to care what anybody thinks about their stories.

I have been among the latter. I have had the freedom to write the stories I wanted, the stories that felt like truth. That is not to say that I disparage a good review – Lord knows they have been my consolation.

But I have had the privilege of writing what I needed to write, saying what I needed to say, playing my brains out, and putting whatever graffiti I wanted on the wall of the universe.

My work is witness. That is the only success I can truly say I own, but I own it with my whole soul.

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

If I had been more self-promoting, I would have sold more books. On the other hand, if I’d been busy doing that, I may not have been at my writing notebook one quiet morning when the most important revelation of the book came.

The truth is, some writers do the world a favor by not foisting themselves on their reading public. Some writers do better to just stay home and shut up, let the work speak for itself.

Well, thank goodness we can’t go back in time and change the past, fix all the bad stuff that happens to us…. It would be like extreme plastic surgery of the soul, erasing all the mistakes we made, avoiding all the pain and disappointment… we’d become infantile, without moral fibre, without capacity for compassion or judgment… they’d have to build institutions for the care of those who had no self-context…

It might become trendy to have a life without alterations… of course, that would drain some of the tragedy out of things… I’ll stop now.

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

Yoko Ono, 2007; photo by Aleksandr Plyushchev

I saw an interview with Yoko Ono once. She was asked, “To what do you attribute the extraordinary success of The Beatles?”

People have written doctoral theses about the success and phenomenon that was The Beatles, so I was intrigued to think what she might say.

She answered simply, “They wrote good songs.” Ultimately, that’s what it comes to: they wrote good songs.

In the field and body of literature, trends will come and go. Long ago it used to be that kidlit was considered a sneaky way to indoctrinate children. We eventually became appalled by such an approach. But now I worry that we are creeping once again toward an ideology in which books for young people are expected to teach correct cultural practice.

Kids don’t care much about the field and body of literature. They don’t want to be manipulated. In the end, for them, it’s all about a good story. An honest story.

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

Sometimes put your pen down and close your eyes and practice radical empathy. Be that character, that homeless boy, that teenaged prostitute, that schizophrenic boy.

Inhabit their bodies, know their souls.

Then open your eyes and respect your reader.

Give your young readers a multiverse to dream in.

What would I tell my beginner self?

Just tell a good story. If you do, even a non-existent retirement plan isn’t going to bother you for long.


Cynsational Notes 

Announcing Martine Leavitt’s New Official Author Website! See her thoughts on writing fantasy, novels in verse, voice, grammar, theme, metaphor and finding time to write.

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

New Voice: Lindsey Stoddard on Just Like Jackie

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lindsey Stoddard is a Vermont College of Fine Arts alum and our time there overlapped, so I jumped at the chance to interview her about her debut middle grade novel, Just Like Jackie (HarperCollins, 2018). From the promotional copy:

For as long as Robinson Hart can remember, it’s just been her and Grandpa. He taught her about cars, baseball, and everything else worth knowing. But Grandpa’s memory has been getting bad—so bad that he sometimes can’t even remember Robbie’s name.

She’s sure that she’s making things worse by getting in trouble at school, but she can’t resist using her fists when bullies like Alex Carter make fun of her for not having a mom.

Now she’s stuck in group guidance—and to make things even worse, Alex Carter is there too. There’s no way Robbie’s going to open up about her life to some therapy group, especially not with Alex in the room. 


Besides, if she told anyone how forgetful Grandpa’s been getting lately, they’d take her away from him. He’s the only family she has—and it’s up to her to keep them together, no matter what.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?


I grew up loving reading, and from a very young age it was my dream to be a teacher and to write books. I used to line up my stuffed animals and read out loud, and then I’d write my own stories and try them out on my animal class.

Little Lindsey with baseball glove

I majored in English at Carleton College and took every creative writing class I could, and continued to be involved in workshops in New York City when I moved to Washington Heights to be that middle school English teacher I dreamed of being when I was reading to my animals.

It wasn’t until I met my first class of students that I knew I wanted to write for kids. I love that middle school age. They are really starting to figure out who they are, and their sense of justice is high— “That’s not fair! That’s messed up! That’s not right!”

They can be moody and defiant and emotional, but all of this makes for excellent questions and discussions and points of view.

I spent 10 years teaching English in that middle school in Washington Heights, and in the middle of those years, I pursued my writing career more purposefully, and received my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts

Being on that campus, surrounded by such incredible mentors and inspirations, confirmed for me what my students in New York City taught me. I wanted to be a part of this community who writes for kids.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?


I spent much of my time at VCFA working on my creative thesis, a novel that was inspired by a student of mine. 

In fact, most of my writing for kids had been stories I wrote for my students. I wrote a story for Malcolm, and Franmy, and Anthony, and José, and Ilcy. 
During my second semester, my advisor, Tim Wynne-Jones, told me that I couldn’t just write for my students and that I’d benefit from tapping into my own stories. That I should try writing for my own ten-year-old self.

Just Like Jackie came from taking the time to reflect on the things that made me feel big emotions when I was young. 

First was the time I spent with my own grandpa, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

I remembered feeling uncomfortable and sad when he couldn’t finish his own sentences. I didn’t know if I should guess at its end, and finish it for him, pat his hand as if to say it’s okay, or just change the subject. I wondered what it might be like if he had been the person taking care of me, how scary it would be, and how protective I might become.

Lindsey spent a lot of time with her grandpa in his sugarhouse in the Vermont woods.

The second was a time when I felt such rage that, like Robbie, I balled my own fists in anger.

A neighborhood boy swung his whiffle ball bat at my backyard tree and knocked from its branches a perfect robins nest, full of eggs I was watching and waiting to hatch. I remember the eggs splattering on my lawn, and before I knew it my fist connected with his face.

These emotions and memories from my own ten-year-old self, as Tim advised, led to Robbie’s story.


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?


The first manuscript I submitted to agents was my creative thesis from VCFA. I made a list of middle grade books I loved and admired and thought had a similar writing style to my own. 
Lindsey writing at her favorite cafe. She was
working on revisions when her son was born.

Then I found the agents of those authors, and, in each query letter, wrote a couple lines about that one special book and how I thought my manuscript might reach the same type of readers.

Though most wanted to read the full manuscript, I was very kindly rejected by every single agent. The comments were similar: my writing was strong, and full of voice, but the story wasn’t for them.

This was when I returned to Tim’s comment about writing for my own ten-year-old self. It was so hard to put that first manuscript in a drawer, and to refer to it as my practice book, but that’s what I had to do to make way for Just Like Jackie.

People say that a writer has been writing her first book her whole life, and that is definitely true of Just Like Jackie. When I finally put the pen to the page, Robbie’s story came easily. It felt honest and right and the whole time I felt like I was writing my way home.

I submitted Just Like Jackie to mostly the same list of agents who had previously rejected my work, and this time I heard many yesses. 

My agent, Stephen Barbara’s yes, was the most confident I-love-this-just-as-it-is yes. I met a couple agents face to face and my time with Stephen confirmed what I thought— that his confidence in my book was exactly what I needed going forward. He compiled a list of editors he thought would love Robbie the same way he did, and submitted my manuscript. 
Lindsey at the launch party for Just Like Jackie.

There were many yesses, but my editor at HarperCollins, Erica Sussman’s yes, was the most enthusiastic I-cried-on-my-couch-the-whole-way-through-and-have-to-have-this-book yes that I received.

I met several editors face to face and some on the phone and I just loved the way Erica spoke about Just Like Jackie and I immediately felt comfortable with her.

I’m so thankful for Tim’s comment all those years ago at VCFA. He helped me find an authenticity in my writing that I think will connect with readers, and it helped me learn the hard lesson that sometimes a whole book, that took years and years to write and revise, was just practice. Excellent practice.

Cynsations Notes


Just Like Jackie received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

“Stoddard debuts with a quiet but powerful narrative that gently unpacks Alzheimer’s, centers mental health, and moves through the intimate and intense emotional landscape of family—what seems to break one and what can remake it. Validating, heart-rending, and a deft blend of suffering and inspiration,” wrote Kirkus Reviews.

Lindsey Stoddard was born and raised in Vermont, where she loved to play in the snow and ski, learned to boil sap in her grandpa’s surgarhouse, and began her lifelong love of reading.

She always wanted books to be a big part of her life, so when she graduated college she moved to New York City, where she taught middle school English for 10 years.

She loves reading and writing with middle schoolers, hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

She received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  

Guest Post: Kim Purcell on The Alternate Epistolary Novel


By Kim Purcell
from Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There are so many types of epistolary novels, and I love the ones that play with the form. In my second novel, I tried to shift the traditional epistolary novel format.

In This Is Not A Love Letter (Hyperion, 2018), Jessie writes her missing boyfriend an account of what they’re doing to find him, entirely in her head. The reason I chose to do it this way is rooted in what happened to me when my friend went missing in high school.

My friend Al stopped by a barbecue in the middle of a run and I talked to him, said he should stay, and he said he’d be back. He never made it home.

I searched through the woods, in the pouring rain, thinking of what I’d tell him when we found him.

In real life, we feared a hate crime, since he was one of the only African-Canadians in our small mill town in Northern British Columbia. Finally, the search was called off, and I returned to school to do finals, talking to him in my head, worrying he was missing them.

For that whole summer, I ran every day, and every time I ran, I imagined him running beside me, grinning at me, making wry comments, or just listening to me talk.

Those runs taught me how to tell this story.

Apparently, talking to people in your head isn’t strange. A lot of people experience this when someone drops out of their life all of a sudden due to a disappearance, death, or a sudden break-up.

It’s jarring. The brain just can’t adjust. For sure, my brain couldn’t adjust. I couldn’t believe that I’d never see him again.

At first, I wrote this story as a traditional epistolary novel, one long letter that started with Dear Chris. It was written in the past. No dialogue. But this version had one major drawback of a traditional epistolary novel that I wanted to avoid: a lack of immediacy and tension.

So, I rewrote the book in several short letters, which Jessie wrote at the end of each day as she searched for Chris. The struggle in this rewrite was in figuring out when she’d write the letters.

Then, I thought it could be in journal form, written at various points throughout the day with time stamps, but who’s going to pull out a journal in the middle of a search for her boyfriend?

Finally, I swung back to the way I wrote to my friend, in the moment, in my head. This was the only true way I could tell this story. I rewrote this book from scratch, again, in the present tense. I could interweave Jessie’s moment-to-moment story, and keep the reader in her body, and in her emotional journey. Also, the reader could stay in her thought process when a song or an object would throw her into a memory of Chris or into an ESP communication with him.

I could also incorporate other alternate epistolary forms within the narrative, such as text messages from the friends to one another, old texts from him, an old voicemail message, and one love letter from him that Jessie finds after he’s missing. In this way, the reader gets to peruse the pieces of evidence that give clues to what happened.

Kim’s writing companions

In shifting to an alternate epistolary model, my hope was to provide a challenge to the reader and increase the suspense. Because Jessie writes the love letter in her head, the reader is essentially living in her brain, seeing what she hopes to share with Chris when he returns.

The reader very likely sees the answer before Jessie sees it, and this also increases the tension, because the reader is calling to Jessie through the pages, interpreting the evidence.

It turned out this was the only way for me to write this story, and I think that’s when epistolary novels work best, when there’s some underlying emotional reason to write the story in that format.

In the end, you have to write a book for your own heart, and hope it connects to others.

For me, it was a love story to my friend. And I like to think he’s looking down at me, and saying, “Hey, I love you back.”



Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave This is Not a Love Letter a starred review and wrote, “Purcell handles the nuances of interracial relationships with a remarkably sensitive and observant eye and challenges readers to view racism under a broader category of generalizations.”

Kim Purcell grew up in British Columbia, Canada, and now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two kids, two dogs, and three cats.

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

She loves loud laughter, random elevator dancing, cold bodies of water and hot chocolate with extra whipped cream.

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.