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.

In Memory: Josanne La Valley

Compiled by Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Josanne La Valley obituary from The New York Times.

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

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

From Laurie Calkhoven:

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

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

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

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

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

The Champagne Sisters: Kekla, Josanne, Laurie and Bethany

From Bethany Hegedus

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

From Kekla Magoon

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

Kekla, Laurie, Bethany and Josanne

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

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

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

From Tim Wynne-Jones

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

Cynsational Notes:


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

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

Author Videos: Angie Thomas on The Hate U Give

Compiled by Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Check out these videos from debut author Angie Thomas on The Hate U Give (Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins, 2017). Peek: “I was inspired to write the novel in 2010, right after the Oscar Grant case…I wanted a way to find hope and I wanted to show the human side of all these cases. I look at books as being a form of activism because a lot of times, they show us a side of the world that we may not have known about.”

Cynsational Notes

The Hate U Give received a starred review from Kirkus. Peek: “Thomas cuts to the heart of the matter for Starr and for so many like her, laying bare the systemic racism that undergirds her world, and she does so honestly and inescapably, balancing heartbreak and humor.” It’s also received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist and School Library Journal.

Discussion Guide is available for teachers.


Angie Thomas was born, raised, and still resides in Jackson, Mississippi. She is a former teen rapper whose greatest accomplishment was an article about her in Right-On Magazine. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from Belhaven University. The Hate U Give is her first YA novel.

Author Interview: Lamar Giles on Writing Mysteries, Diversity & His Writing Journey

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lamar Giles’ last Cynsations visit was in 2014 as a debut author.

Since then, he’s had two novels named Edgar Award finalists by the Mystery Writers of America and helped found We Need Diverse Books.

He serves as senior vice president of fundraising for the non-profit organization dedicated to putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children.

I talked with him recently about the writing life and his latest mystery novel.

What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?

The thing I love most about being an author is the moment of breakthrough.

Every thing I’ve ever written is hard, so hard I want to quit almost every time. It’s a point of endless anxiety…until it isn’t. If I work long enough, and hard enough, the murkiest most non-sensical manuscript starts to clarify, then it flows, then when I’m at the end of the journey I have something enjoyable that feels like it came from somewhere else.

That feeling is remarkably satisfying. And, if I’m fortunate, I’ll get to do it over and over again for the rest of my life.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I write best in the mornings in my home office (that’s not very exciting, I know). That’s been my routine for almost two decades. Though, I’ve been experimenting with alternate locations and times due to having to travel more.

I’ve never been great at writing on the road, but it’s becoming more and more necessary as people ask me to visit their state/school/library. Recently, I wrote a book proposal on my iPad while sitting in a traffic jam (my wife was driving…I’m not that good). I’m evolving.

When you look back on your writing journey, what are the changes that stand out?


So, I’ve been writing stories since I was eight years old, and there are several milestones that stand out. Chief among them, my first pro short story sale at age 21 (then the subsequent three years I couldn’t sell anything).

Being awarded a Fellowship from the Virginia Commission of the Arts when I was 26, newly married, and close to giving up on writing for “more realistic” pursuits like being a real estate agent (I’m a much better writer than real estate agent).

The rise of digital/self publishing, which allowed me to put out material with no one’s permission. My first novel sale at age 31.

Then, understanding how few books were written for or about children of color, making me very fortunate to be working, and using my platform to open the door for more diverse material.

Could you tell us about your upcoming release?

Overturned (Scholastic Press, March 28, 2017) is the story of a teen poker player in Las Vegas trying to discover who framed her father for murder.

For those who know my work, it’s got twists and turns and action like my previous novels Fake ID (HarperCollins, 2014) and Endangered (Harper Teen, 2015). For those who don’t know my work, I think you’ll find Overturned is a great entry point into my brand of noir mystery.

Nikki Tate, the hero of the story, plays in illegal poker games as a way to earn money for college way on the other side of the country.

She wants to get away from her family’s failing casino and the stigma of having a dad on death row. But, when her father’s sentence is overturned, and he returns home bitter and obsessed, it turns Nikki’s world topsy-turvy. I’m not much of a gambler myself, but in this case I’m willing to bet you’ll have a hard time putting Overturned down.

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

At Matt de la Pena’s Newbery
acceptance speech

Well, the most obvious thing is Nikki’s Black (as am I).

Growing up, the lack of Black heroes in all the things I loved–books, TV, Film, Video Games–left me feeling deprived as a consumer of the arts.

In my teen years, I was outright angry and close to giving up on reading and writing (beyond what was required to pass classes). Discovering many black writers/characters in my late teens altered the course of my life, and made me believe storytelling was viable option for me.

That being said, Nikki’s blackness isn’t just surface level.

She and her family deal with things like false accusations and unjust incarceration. A local police force that’s cold to her family because they had the audacity to speak up. Nikki being viewed as older and more dangerous than she actually is because of her complexion.

These things are subtle–the mystery is front and center–but the circumstances are background constants, as they are for people of color in real life.

Additionally, Nikki has a diverse group of friends, classmates, and business associates. I tried to write Las Vegas as I saw it–and the world in general–populated with various people of all colors, shapes, sizes, etc.

What appeals to you about the mystery genre?

I like puzzles and Legos, and writing a mystery feels like the literary version of putting something together. You have all these little pieces that don’t really make sense scattered about, but through the progression of plot and character, you start to pull them together until you have this beautiful picture or structure that makes you appreciate the tough parts of the process even more.

Cynsational Notes:

Kirkus Reviews called Overturned “an utterly compelling whodunit” in a starred review. “Nikki is a totally appealing character: gutsy, practical, and strong, at the head of a cast of well-drawn supporting characters. The interracial romance between Nikki and Davis, who is white, is handled deftly, as is Giles’ skillful evocation of the townies-vs.-tourists of Las Vegas.”

Cover Reveal & Author Snapshot: Uncanny by David Macinnis Gill

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Check out the cover of Uncanny by David Macinnis Gill (Harper, Sept. 5, 2017). From the PW announcement:

Uncanny tells the story of Willow Jane Conning, who on her 16th birthday, gains strange powers and begins witnessing unnerving events, including evil spirits rising from the dead and time inexplicably standing still.

Was there any particular element that you had strong feelings about the way it would be depicted?

Black birds — crows, ravens, magpies, starlings, grackles — play an important part in the plot of Uncanny and also in various characters’ histories. They also help set the creepy, mysterious mood of the novel.

David Macinnis Gill

We wanted to make sure the birds were depicted in a way that shows both their beauty and the fearful emotions they can evoke. The designer of the jacket did a great job of using understatement to bring these qualities out and to show the feathers’ beautiful iridescence.

Why is there blood on the bird’s wing? You’ll have to read to find out!

Cynsational Notes

David Macinnis Gill has been a house painter, cafeteria manager, bookstore schleper, high school teacher, and college professor. He now lives on the Carolina coast with his family and two rescued dogs. He is a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Uncanny is now available for pre-order.