Brigadoon Is Back– VCFA Writing for Children & Young Adults Winter Residency




ON MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY, MONDAY, JANUARY 16 AT 10 A. M. Kekla Magoon and Cynthia Leitich Smith will discuss Kekla’s book X: A Novel.  Written for young adult readers, the book follows the formative years of Malcolm X, one of the most influential African American figures of the 20th Century. Kekla co-wrote the book with Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcom X’s daughter. Released in 2015, the book won the 2016 Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award and the 2016 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens, among other honors.

It’s that time of year. Eager authors flock to the Burlington airport, then share cabs and shuttles on to Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Montpelier campus.

Brigadoon is reborn. The children’s writers are back!

This year’s winter residency runs from January 11 through 20.

We’ll welcome visiting faculty member Martha Brockenbrough.

Martha is the award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction for young readers and adults. Her novel The Game of Love and Death(Scholastic) was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and a winner of the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association and Washington State Book awards, as well as a YALSA Top 100 Readers Choice Award. Best- or scariest- of all Martha is a grammar guru and the founder of National Grammar Day.

We also welcome A. S. King and Uma Krishnaswami back to active faculty status! HIP HIP HOORAY! And congratulations in advance to their lucky new advisees.

Every winter residency features a visiting Author/Illustrator and a Writer-In-Residence. This year’s guests are stellar.

Don Tate has illustrated or authored numerous books for children.He is the illustrator of the critically acclaimed Hope’s Gift (Putnam Juvenile); Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite (Charlesbridge); She Loved Baseball(HarperCollins); and Ron’s Big Mission (Penguin), among others. Don is the author of the award-winning It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low Books). His other titles include The Cart That Carried Martin (Charlesbridge, 2013, Illustrator) and Slave Poet(Peachtree, 2015, Author/lllustrator). Don’s illustrations also appear regularly in newspapers, magazines, and on products for children such as wallpaper, textiles, calendars, apparel, and paper products.

Kathy Erskine is the author of five children’s novels including National Book Award winner Mockingbird, Jane Addams Peace Award honor book Seeing Red, and most recently, The Badger Knight, a Junior Library Guild Selection. Mama Africa, her first picture book, a biography of South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, will be published in fall 2017. Also coming next fall is a middle-grade novel, The Incredibile Magic of Being, about a boy with anxiety who believes in the power of the universe to save us.

Erskine draws on her life stories and world events in her writing and is currently working on several more novels and picture books.

Of course the schedule is packed with workshops, meetings, orientations and readings. But what about the lectures? The winter residency will feature some great ones! Look out for these superb faculty lectures:





I can’t wait to listen to them all!

Everyone who knows and loves VCFA gets a bit wistful when a new residency rolls around.  We hate missing out. But if you’ve graduated don’t despair. Lectures will be available for streaming soon and Zu Vincent (who’s back at the residency again, with her inspiring writing-based yoga sessions) will be here in the Tollbooth on January 29 making recommendations for DON’T MISS LECTURES.

Until then join us virtually at the VCFA commons. Don’t know how to log on there? Contact us here at the Tollbooth at and we’ll guide you through the process.

(gorgeous campus photo of VCFA in the Snow by Ingrid Sundberg)

As always there are several Tollboothers embedded at the residency ready to fill you in on all the comings and goings fit to print and share. What do you want to know? What do you wish you could hear more about? Let us know and we’ll bridge the gap from where ever you are all the way back to Brigadoon.

Doesn’t it feel almost as if you never left?

~ Tami Lewis Brown~

Do You Mind?

Today I’m writing the post I need to read, and more importantly, believe.

As we reach the end of year, and look back over the last twelve months, it’s natural to evaluate one’s progress. Or, perhaps, lack of progress.

I’ve worked on two novels this year. Despite my efforts, they both continue to be messy, untamed, flawed, frustrating, etc. etc. etc. It’s done a number on my confidence. It’s quite possible I don’t know how to fix them…


That word is fundamental to the psychology of growth. Carol Dweck, PhD, psychologist and professor at Standford explains the differences between a “Fixed Mindset” and a “Growth Mindset” in her book, MINDSET: THE NEW PSYCHOLOGY OF SUCCESS.

A FIXED MINDSET assumes I am who I am. There’s a defeatist attitude inherent to this kind of thinking. The surprising thing is the limits set once a certain level of success has been achieved. This kind of thinking leads to a desire to want to look smart. After all, if we did it (wrote and published a novel, for example) once, certainly we can do it again – more easily! 

In comparison, a GROWTH MINDSET assumes I can do better – this kind of thinking leads to a desire to learn.

A growth mindset embraces challenges, while a fixed one avoids them. When obstacles appear, a person with a fixed mindset is likely to give up while someone with a growth mindset will persist. This growth mindset sees effort and hard work as the path to mastery, while a fixed mindset may perceive it as pointless. Criticism prompts learning for a growth mindset while a fixed mindset is more likely to ignore feedback. People with a fixed mindset will see the success of peers as a threat, while a growth mindset sees these instances as inspiring and motivating.

Do you need a mindset-reset as much as I do? Let’s try these ideas… And please, share any tips you may have as well!


  1. Defeat doubt with YET.
    1. I can’t finish my novel…YET
    2. My novel isn’t working…YET
    3. I’m not smart enough to be a writer…YET
  2. Avoid trap of thinking never-always-every
    1. We can grow and change
    2. Each new work is an opportunity for surprise
    3. Writing is an organic process, never static
  3. Own the fear of failure
    1. Working is progress, regardless of output
    2. Struggle is a sign of growth
    3. Failure is proof of facing a challenge
  4. Visualize each step of growth
    1. Visualize big picture achievement – allow yourself to feel the success
    2. Break the process down into small, doable steps – visualize those, too
    3. (Remember to celebrate those steps)
  5. Journal for reflection 
    1. Keep track of process
    2. Expect ups and downs
    3. Revise goals and expectations
  6. Remember to play
    1. Find joy in the process, complete with struggle
    2. Explore along the way
    3. Even wrong paths can offer moments of beauty and inspiration

Here’s to a growth minded 2017 and onward!


Sarah Tomp

Let’s Get Physical

Maybe it’s my stage of life, or maybe it’s working in middle schools, or maybe it’s a matter of diversity, or maybe it’s something else entirely, but I’ve been thinking about bodies. (However, this particular post will stay G-rated, family friendly.)

pirate-7In my writing I’ve never been interested in descriptions of my characters’ physical being. For me what matters, and what I am most interested in, is their inner workings of emotions and thoughts. The outside shell simply is a vessel to hold the stuff that matters. And yet, that outer shell is what others react to. It’s our most reliable way read someone else’s emotions. Sometimes we get those reading wrong, but other times it’s a fairly accurate assessment.

We often make assumptions based on those physical forms – which is where things can get slippery. That’s where a lot of messages get mixed or misinterpreted.

pirate-6But we also make choices as to how we project our inner selves. Clothes, accessories, hair styles, all work together to create a visual signpost and introduction. Sometimes we have more control over these external clues than others. We can’t change our gender or race or body type, and sometimes we have to wear something we’d rather avoid (why hello, hospital gowns and fast-food uniforms!) – but other times we choose what people see first. (And yet… who is that masked man – or is it a woman? Superhero or bandit?)

The physical world of your character can tap into the physical experience of your reader. This is why sensory details add richness to our writing. Consider your character’s physical body and explore ways to make it more personal. Change is one way to explore and examine physicality.

  • Give your character a physical injury – temporary or permanent.
  • Have his/her weight change dramatically.
  • Put her/him in different kinds of weather.
  • Force him/her to wear something uncomfortable.

The physical body and circumstance can be a way to start a story, too. Get your own body involved and create an image to represent a character. One rough and simple physical brainstorming exercise utilizes doodling or sketching. Start with a simple circle – the head as a vessel to hold all the inner workings, then accessorize. Here I’ve gone with two basic articles – an eye patch, which conjures the idea of a pirate, and a crown, which usually means royalty – and then mixed them a bit.









If you create your own physical images and cues of the external world – you might be surprised where your mind takes you. I think some of the most satisfying stories are the ones that start with the expected, then change it up! Surprise and curiosity goes a long way in engaging a reader. This can create more poignancy, humor, or intensity.

Let’s get physical!

~Sarah Tomp

Notes From VCFA


Someone is playing piano in the lounge next to my dorm room at VCFA. It’s raining and a great rush of water pours off the roof and sends cooling air in on the breeze, and the sounds weave through the open window until you can’t tell where one stops and the other begins. The mingling is very like the alchemy which happens every Vermont College writing residency, since faculty lectures, no matter how disparate their titles and content, invariably evoke similar themes, and touch on the questions you have already been asking yourself.

Questions such as, how does our personal and cultural “truth”—that ever shifting truth—really inform our fiction? Where is the intersection of the personal story and art, where does one stop and the other begin? And how do you get to this crossroads and best tap in, to uncover the patterns you want to paint in fiction?

In last week’s post, Helen Pyne touched on the idea of writing with “mindfulness, honesty and play” as laid out by amazing authors Amanda Jenkins and Marcelo Sandoval. In the way of things, these themes have suggested themselves in the current VCFA residency lectures as well, so let’s visit them from a couple of new perspectives.


Liz Garton Scanlon, author of the Caldecott-honored picture book All the World, and middle grade The Great Good Summer, says that as writers we face a dearth of daunting, complex choices. So much so that sometimes it’s easier not to choose. Where do we show, where do we tell, where create poetry, where create prose, where inform, where entertain? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But no matter how hard to choose, it’s in answering such questions, Scanlon says, that writers find their power. Her advice for the next time you’re faced with this dilemma, is to play around with the intersection where two such opposites meet, because here you’ll find the sweet spot which holds a new way forward.

For example, bestselling author of the Raven Cycle and other novels, Maggie Stiefvater found her sweet spot while creating the Scorpio Races, in the meeting of myth and personal story. For her, a story comes alive when she uncovers its mood and emotional weight. _StiefvaterSo even though she was writing about a fantastical world where dangerous, mythological sea creatures rose up to be ridden, she needed to connect it to her own childhood memories of what it felt like to face danger and challenge. And then her novel was born.

Not that the deeper reasons you’re writing a novel are always easy to determine. Tim Wynne-Jones, who knows how to get things accomplished given his long list of award winning novels, just spent four years creating his new release The Emperor of Any Place.  Emperor-of-Anyplace

The work began as a series of vignettes he wrote in college—enter the element of play—and grew as he put it, from a “greedy curiosity” to write about so many characters, settings and situations that one book couldn’t hold them. To actually make this “morass” into a novel, he had to return to why he was writing it. To let go of “the stories that might have been” and find the pattern in his writing that revealed the one true story thread.

_KarlinsThat’s ultimately why we write, says Mark Karlins, author of the acclaimed picture book Music Over Manhattan, to discover a description of ourselves in the world, a pattern for our lives and an identity, a sense of who we are in relation to others. Story allows us to ask, as the muddy creature from Jenny Wagner’s The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek does, Who am I? And story, Karlins says, is a place to explore, deeply and honestly, the answers to this question.

In addition, Karlins believes we write best when we write for our own amazement, right down to the smallest details. For example, instead of calling a day sunny, call it bright as the back of a spoon. The very strangeness of the metaphor can lead your reader in, and make your fictional world come alive.

Daniel José Older, author of the YA Shadowshaper and other bestsellers, says there’s yet another way to make your fictional world live on the page. Proximity. As a former paramedic on the streets of New York, Older experienced firsthand that participating in events is very different than simply watching them. To paraphrase the author, you can’t really walk in another person’s shoes (or another character’s), unless you’re proximate. And when you are no longer a passive witness to events, but an active participant, you become the protagonist in your own story, too.  _Older

Enter crisis, growth and change, which Older believes is the heart of any novel. But he cautions not to stop here, because none of us live in a vacuum. “Context (setting) is time, place and power,” Older says. (You only have to consider the events of 9-11 to see how crisis reshaped a nation’s mythology.) So if you want to create authentic worlds for your characters, their lives need to reflect the social, cultural and historical factors that make us who we are.

–Zu Vincent



In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility. 

-Eleanor Roosevelt

You write your life story by the choices you make. You never know if they have been a mistake. Those moments of decision are so difficult. 

-Helen Mirren

Dear Writers,

It’s time for me to say goodbye to posting on Through the Tollbooth. I’ve learned so much preparing posts for this amazing blog, but now that I write my own newsletter, it is time to make room on this site for other voices.

Like everybody else, I’m also really busy. I am always trying to create balance in my writing life and my real life! I need to give myself time to play—to experiment and explore writing—to write without expectations so that  later, I can revise with intention. I’ve also been teaching a lot. And this month I’ve been reading submissions for the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship. This has been an extraordinary honor. My first job is the hardest: to choose a writer to work with.

This week, I’ve been thinking almost about nothing else. This month, I read and thought about 36 submissions. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

This process has taught me about reading. Or maybe I should say: reading like an editor. Or maybe: what an editor must do on a regular basis. Or maybe the problem is I am wishy washy!! Every day, when I look at the manuscripts, I think of Laura and I wish I knew her. I feel her enthusiasm and heart every time I sit down to read. I feel the weight of the responsibility.

I did not totally expect this.

I am used to reading manuscripts and stories of writers who I’m already working with. I open the document and I read–the first time like a reader. Then like a writer. That hasn’t changed. After reading all 36 submissions, I see so much potential. So many interesting characters. So many stories I would LOVE to work on.

I thought the perfect story would jump out at me.

The problem is: it has. All 36 times.

So what have I learned? What can I say about this process that might give you some insight as you start to submit?

  1. The first line is so important. I cannot say that enough. The first line tells me so much about the writer and the story. It tells me if the writer is fearless or if she is still dipping her toe. If she knows her character or if she is still unsure. The first line prepares me for the POV. The genre. The tone of the story. Time. Space.

This is true for every chapter’s first line. And every chapter’s last line, too.

Great first and last lines tell me that the writer has thought about pacing. It tells me that the writer knows where her story is going. It makes me want to read the whole thing.

**One of the BEST TIPS I ever received was from writer, Barbara O’Connor. She makes a list of all the first and last lines in her draft. It’s a GREAT way to analyze your pacing and see if you are managing your storytelling in parts that make sense. 


It is all about the characters!

The stories I can’t forget–that I’m grappling with–have interesting plots. But that’s because they already have distinct characters. Some are funny. Some are miserable. All are interesting. ALL YEARN FOR SOMETHING. There is some action early. Even if it comes too early, it is there.

  1. It’s about me, too. This is the hardest part for me to admit. The story has to appeal to me. The writing has to appeal to me. The writer’s topics must be interesting to me. I’m reading and wondering: who can I help the most? Will this story be fun to read five or six or ten times? (Sometimes a no really means no, not for me, but yes for someone else!)
  1. There can only be one. Oh, man. I hate saying no. I wake up thinking of ways I could say yes to at least six or seven or maybe all 36. I could start a class. Or a new workshop. I think about the story that will ultimately come in second and already, I feel awful!!! And I remember what that feels like–to come in second. And I think: how can I make this writer understand that her story has great, strong, amazing legs? And then I wonder if I’m making the wrong choice. I read the above quotes. Argh! I walk around the room second-guessing myself. I debate calling the organizers and asking if I can take two. Or three. Or four.

I remember when I was a young mother, I would take my kids into NYC for the day and tell them they could “beg” for one thing. (I really couldn’t say no to them either!!!) Most of the time, this worked. They waited until they saw something (a thing or an activity) they really wanted to do, and then the begging and giggling would commence. But a lot of the time, it meant, they never begged for anything. They held it in, waiting for something else to come along. Just in case. It gave me the opportunity to say no without saying no. It also gave me opportunities to surprise them with gifts and treats and celebration.

I also remember needing a “magic hat” to help me choose the advisors I wanted to work with during a semester at VCFA. My friends and I would write down all the names of the teachers we were considering. And then we would pull out names, one at a time. This was a sort of gut check. For me, if I felt great, I added the teacher to my list. It also relieved a lot of stress.

vermeer hat(Nice hat!)

Choices are hard. Making them is also essential–especially in the context of story. 

All our characters face choices. Really, those choices and actions are what keep the plot moving. They make our characters interesting. These moments are “show” moments. They change the vector of the protagonist’s journey. These are the moments that catch readers’ eyes and hook them. These are the moments that make our readers say YES.

Remember: Often, the plot starts turning when our characters do the wrong thing, even if they think it is right at the time.

Today, go to that first big choice in your WIP. Look at what your character does. Ask: could you make more conflict if your character did something else? Not sure? Ask yourself: who is this character? What does he/she want? What has happened in the past to get her/him to this moment? What are her controlling beliefs?

Does that first decision represent who your character is, including her/his flaws? Or are you being easy on your character. Or protecting her/him? OR are you expecting other characters to make the conflict happen? These moments make the difference between good and great stories and characters!

This post is also about the power of working together. About our writing community. About supporting each other. (An easy choice.)

This week, as I thought about how I wanted to say goodbye to The Tollbooth, I remembered a series of posts I did right at the beginning of this blog. They featured interviews with aspiring writers. Back then, we called the prepublished writers.

I have always hated that term.

Why? Because it means that becoming a “real writer” can only happen with a contract. It means our identities are tied to events we cannot control.

So this is what I say:

We are writers if we sit down and put words on paper. We are writers because we are committed to the craft. We should not wait for contracts to validate who we are and what we do and the power of story!

We are writers. Because we write. 

So back to those interviews. One of those writers was Elly Swartz.  She offered this advice:

Generally, my advice is to believe in yourself, stay dedicated to the story, and write, write, write! 


Don’t write for the market, write for yourself, the market will come. Eventually.

In the interview, she talked about a new manuscript. She talked about the need to have hope. And determination. She didn’t know when or if she would sell her book, but she believed in her story. When we had that chat, so long ago, we had just met. I hadn’t yet read her story about Molly. But now I have. And so will you. Finding Perfect is coming out October 18, 2016. It is a beautiful book. It is full of heart. It will make you laugh. And cry. It will change how you see kids who face internal obstacles that, at first, we do not see.

So… as I finish making my decision for the mentorship, I’m feeling a bit frustrated–I still want to work with them all–but I’m also feeling a bit sappy and grateful. I’m thinking a lot about all the writers I’ve worked with–in critique groups…at VCFA…at the VCFA Writing for Young People Retreat, in my classes and at Highlights. It’s such great work. Such great people. So many stories waiting to be shared.

The message I’d like to leave you with is this:

Work hard. Be true. Care deeply. Do not give up. Keep writing. Face your fears. Play, play, play, play, play. DO NOT GIVE UP!!! 

All of us have a story. Be a writer. Sit down and write it.

xo sarah

To sign up for Sarah Aronson’s newsletter, Monday Motivation, on her website, Look under tips. It’s there. All the way at the bottom!




As someone whose life has always been governed by school schedules – first as a student and then an employee – summer is a big deal. It has its own sense of time and space. Life is a different in the summer months. When I was a child, my father spent each summer doing research. So, on the first day of our vacation from school, we packed up our car and headed to a remote lake in Maine. He’d work, and we’d spend three months swimming, exploring the woods, making things, alternating between getting bored and being thrilled and amazed.

This past school year has been particularly hectic and busy – I’ve been looking forward to summer vacation since about October. And wrapped up in that eager expectation, is my desire to have more time to write.

Now that I am in the final countdown for summer break (5 more days!); I’m starting to worry about the exact thing I’ve been anticipating: More time to write.

amazinghappyMy two projects are A) finish a novel and/or B) revise a novel

More and more, I’ve been feeling like I don’t know how to do either one.

But then, last weekend, at my daughter’s college graduation ceremony (yay!), the commencement speaker gave some brilliant bits of advice to the celebratory crowd.

I’m hanging tight to one particular pearl of wisdom: STAY IGNORANT: Expertise and creativity make poor roommates. 

When you have your MFA, and have a book published, and spend a lot of time teaching writing; it’s easy to feel like you know how to write. Or, that you should know how to write.

Fact is, I don’t know how to write and/or revise these novels. Not yet. But… apparently, we’re more creative when we’re lost and confused. Reassuring, right?

junkmanSo, instead of the big grandiose plans of strict daily word counts and milestone achievements to get me through the summer, I’m planning my summer playtime and explorations. I’m going back to my days of running wild outside combined with lazing about on the floor, reading and doodling. Going exploring. Trying to find more creativity and less expertise.

As Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”


  • Walk somewhere new and/or at a different time. Evenings walks on the beach are completely different from those at noon.
  • eyeballSit. Force yourself to stay in one spot for longer than you want, longer than you are comfortable. Somewhere picturesque and quiet: in the woods, by a water, on a bench in an art museum. Or not: by a dumpster, on a busy street corner, in a barren lot. Be aware of all your senses. But stay still. You might even squirm.
  • Visit a museum.
  • Wander through a fabric store. Soak up the different colors, patterns, textures.
  • Collect. Rocks, seashells, pine cones, toys, anything.
  • Make something. Try using craft supplies from your childhood: paste and tape and scissors and paint.
  • youareniceKeep a doodle journal. I’m looking forward to exploring some of the exercises outlined in SYLLABUS by Lynda Barry.
  • Eat alone at a restaurant. You can even talk to yourself if you like.
  • Challenge yourself physically. Climb a mountain, swim laps, dig a hole. Get tired.
  • Listen. To music, is one possibility. Or try something new: listen to a favorite movie without seeing the pictures. Blindfold yourself and listen to your neighborhood. It’s okay if you fall asleep. Sleep is part of creativity as well!

What your favorite ways to boost creativity?

~Sarah Tomp


The Surprising Joy of Writing a Novel for Hire


This week I pressed send on a novel that I started, on contract, in December.
It was the most fun I’ve had writing a novel in, well, forever.

It was not the novel of my heart, though it has—I think—heart in it. I didn’t choose the age of my protagonist, or the fact that she was immersed in a real-life event from the Vietnam Era. But it had realistic characters, conflict, an emotional resolution, and was historically accurate. I had to keep the novel under 13K words, which sounds like it wasn’t a novel at all.

Which is what I thought when I contemplated writing this as part of a historical fiction series published by an educational media company. The constraints, the length, and the deadline intimidated me. But I thought I might learn something about writing quicker and cleaner, so I took the job.

They don’t tell you when you are doing your MFA that writing and selling a novel may take years, or decades. When you graduate you think your journey to a finished book on the shelf will be short and satisfying. For some, that’s true. But for most, it’s a long, slow slog that threatens to choke the life out of you before you ever see that ISBN number on the back cover of your very own book.

Enter Writing for Hire, a way many writers get books out quickly and with relatively less pain. I imagine that every contract is different, but mine was specific in some areas but open in others. The length was predetermined, as was the final trim size, the possible eras in which I could set my story, and the age of the protagonist. I had to include actual history—so I had to do research to maintain accuracy. I had a strict deadline. I had to write back matter so the book could be used in a classroom. Otherwise, I was free to make the plot up, provided it moved quickly.

After coming up with a possible plot and some characters, I read other books of that (short) length to see how to organize my chapters. I knew how often I needed beats and chapter endings. When I started drafting, I set the margins way in on my computer so that I could see how small the page would be. This led to the realization that everything had to be smaller. Like the builders of those tiny homes, I had to construct an efficient story. The sentences needed to be short, the dialog frequent. It would need brief, laden scenes with little description. I had to show and never tell. I had to move the characters through their difficulties quickly, with natural consequences coming up as rapidly as bumps in a freeway lane.

Operating within constraints worked for me. I felt happier, lighter and more motivated because I made fewer decisions. I felt no pressure to make it perfect, no need to explore every nuance or every possible motivation. I didn’t have the time to consider and reconsider. I just told myself to write quickly, stick to my outline (which I changed twice) and meet the deadline. Admittedly, there are not very many layers in my story, and there’s pretty much no set up for a sequel. I get a single payment but no royalties. My name is on the cover and so is my bio. I don’t have to promote the book, so I am free to move on to other things.

Within a year, kids in classrooms across the country will read this book, and that makes me very happy.

Best of all, I didn’t have time to build up doubt, that great crippler of writers. I hope that I can transfer that lightness, that optimism, as I return to my own works in progress.

Vicki Wittenstein Writes Non-fiction That Counts

This week we’re lucky to welcome my good friend and VCFA classmate Vicki Wittenstein to the Tollbooth.

profileVicki is an author whose passion has lead her to write brave and amazing books. I’m proud to call Vicki a dear friend and Vermont College classmate. But more than that, I’m grateful to consider Vicki a mentor, an example on how to approach topics that matter and to create great books that will make young people think… and maybe even change lives. Vicki’s newest book, Reproductive Rights: Who Decides? will be in bookstores everywhere on March 1, next week.

Like her earlier non-fiction, For the Good of Mankind? The Shameful History of Human Medical Experimentation and her first book Planet Hunter, this new book is destined for great things- I foresee many accolades and awards. Well, it’s not a stretch. The book is already wracking up fabulous reviews, including a starred review from Booklist who said “Though slim, this volume packs a wallop.”  And School Library Journal who said “Well written and impeccably researched, this volume will appeal to budding activists and feminists and to those concerned about human rights.” They’re the experts, but take it from me– this is an important and exceptionally well researched and written book that really makes a difference.

Without further ado let’s talk to Vicki! Tell me a little about your progression as an author?

Even as a young girl, I loved to read and write. But in my family of lawyers and doctors, academics were stressed rather than creativity, so I never seriously considered becoming a writer. The political activism I experienced in college in the 1970s inspired me to take a hard look at a variety of issues, including civil liberties, individual rights, racism and sexism. I decided to attend law school in large part to learn how to advocate for these rights. Years later, when I was an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan and a young mother, I began to think about writing for children, mostly as a way to connect with my own kids. I wrote short stories, enrolled in a writing seminar, and joined a writer’s group. Everything changed in 1998 with a newspaper headline about Shannon Lucid, the astronaut who broke records by spending six months in space on board the international space station Mir. I was telling my young son about Lucid’s accomplishment when I thought, Hey, shouldn’t all kids know about Lucid? Why not write about her? Lucid became the subject of my first published article for children, “Dr. Shannon Lucid: Space Pioneer,” in Highlights for Children. I continued to submit articles to magazines, went back to school to obtain my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and published my first book, Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths (Boyds Mills Press 2010). I still write fiction, but for the moment I am challenged by the research and writing of nonfiction.

ReproductiveRightsSo you’ve published books about undiscovered planets, medical testing and now reproductive rights. What is it about cutting edge topics that attract you?

I want to impact teens as much as possible. And cutting edge topics—particularly the societal issues discussed in Reproductive Rights and For the Good of Mankind?—force teens to confront important subjects facing Americans today. The need to understand these issues through an historical lens grows even more critical against the backdrop of political campaign rhetoric, media hype, and frequently false information, generated in the news. For example, in the area of reproductive rights, history can provide a roadmap for students to compare the struggle to fight for birth control centuries ago with the legislative restrictions on reproductive rights today. With a view to the past, students can discuss the roles political leaders, social norms, and economic issues play in determining how women and their families think and act on birth control issues. Historical data can help teens analyze this information and formulate their own opinions about availability of, access to, and funding for contraception, sex education, and abortion, as well as the new frontier of genetic and reproductive technologies. These issues are even more critical in light of the campaign for president and the opportunity to appoint a new Supreme Court justice. And as the next generation of parents and leaders, teens are the group who will be most affected by the laws our governments adopt and the individuals we choose to lead. I hope my book helps empower them to stand up for what they believe in and to protect reproductive freedom.

Have you encountered resistance from gatekeepers? Do you think there are more or less barriers to “edgy” topics in YA nonfiction than fiction? Have you encountered any resistance and if so how have you addressed it?

So far I haven’t encountered strong resistance from gatekeepers. One blogger did write that she was reluctant to buy the book for her middle school library (but called it “essential” for high school) because sex education was not discussed at her school. I expect some educators, fearful of parent reactions (particularly in more religious and/or politically conservative communities) may shy away from recommending the book. But I hope not. The hot-button issues surrounding abortion overshadow some of the central reasons why reproductive rights are so important, such as contraception, pregnancy and childbirth care, family planning, cancer screenings, and the like. I do think that gatekeepers seem to more readily accept edgy YA fiction than nonfiction. Perhaps this reflects the very nature of fiction itself—that the fictitious events and people are portrayed through the eyes of an imagined main character—whereas nonfiction, in its exploration of real life events and people, reveals factual truths that people may be uncomfortable with.

How did your background prepare (or not prepare) you for writing about science topics?

My legal background is a tremendous help in writing about science topics and nonfiction in general. In law school and in legal practice, I learned to back up information with several references, analyze both sides of an issue, and write clearly and concisely. I also learned that original or primary sources are always the most accurate, and that a phone call or an interview with an expert nearly always points you in the right direction and clarifies what you are most confused about. I am not a scientist (I majored in American Civilization in college), so for both Planet Hunter and For the Good of Mankind? speaking to scientists was vital to my understanding of astronomy and human medical experimentation.

What tips do you have for aspiring YA non-fiction writers?

Stick to the facts and don’t introduce your opinion, particularly when you are writing about an edgy topic. If you inject a bias, you will turn off readers who may share a different opinion, which defeats the purpose of letting students analyze and critique the issues for themselves. For example, in writing the chapters on abortion, I always stated both the pro-choice and the pro-life positions on various legal restrictions, such as laws mandating pre-abortion counseling, ultrasounds and waiting periods from the time a woman first meets an abortion provider and has the procedure. I was careful to define what it meant to be either pro-choice or pro-life, and to describe the political tactics on each side. The bottom line: it takes a lot of work to be impartial and unbiased, but it’s also essential.

How inspiring, Vicki. You’ve given us a lot to think about– just like your books! Thanks so much for visiting the Tollbooth, Vicki.

Thanks for having me, Tami!

You can read much more about Vicki and her books on her website at  She has lots of downloadable materials, too- teachers guides, videos, articles on similar topics, you name it! And you can catch Vicki the rest of the week all over the net. Read more at tomorrow at Unleashing Readers,  Thursday at The Pirate Tree and on Friday at Teach Mentor Texts.

Do you have questions about non-fiction for young people, edgy issues or anything else? Ask them in the comments here and Vicki will give you answers!

~tami lewis brown

The Writer, The Reader, and Mirror Neurons

Imagine that you are hiking and you trip on a slick section of the trail, Cactus detail and a cactus spine pierces your palm—the sharp, focused pain spreads through the muscle and nerves, and the end catches inside your skin as you work to remove it.

Sometimes when one of my kids has had a shot, I flinch and the skin in my upper arm tingles, even though I’m not the one getting the shot.

Why and how do we have physical and emotional responses to what we see and what we read?

The answer may be mirror neurons.

Current theory states that the mirror neurons in our brain mirrors the actions, goals, intentions, thoughts, and emotions of another person’s actions, etc.

Our neurons fire in the same location in our brain when we move and when we observe the same movement by someone else. (Note: additional research shows that we do distinguish the difference between our own action versus someone else’s action.)  Neuroscientist, Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, found that the brain shows the same activity with observing an action or reading words describing an action.

Perhaps mirror neurons are how readers can feel as if they have literally entered the story. “The discovery of mirror neurons explains why we respond to fictional characters as real even though we know they are not. It explains our emotional responses to scary movies or action movies even though we know ‘it’s just a movie,'” said Normal N. Holland, PhD.

Vittorio Gallese, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons, suggested that theater events “are more powerful than real life events.” This may be because we can “fully simulate them.” In essence we mirror more effectively because we feel safe, therefore “our emotional involvement may be greater.” (The Mirror Neuron Mechanism and Literary Studies: Interview with Vittorio Gallese)

One could theorize that stories and literature create greater emotional impact if we fully can connect with readers and directly access their brains (mirror neurons).

So what does this research mean to a writer?

  • Our writing needs to be specific and sensory filled.
  • Characters need to be well rounded and believable.
  • The plot needs to be well crafted and correctly paced.
  • The setting needs to be realistically described.

Good writing means readers’ mirror neurons will fire up and they will physically and emotionally experience the story along with the character. As they read, they will experience an illusion of reality.

Sarah Blake Johnson

Fear, Creativity, and Courage…in Front of People

The first time I remember feeling a paralyzing, shameful kind of fear, was when I was twelve.  I had dreams and even bigger plans (as most twelve-year-olds do) to become famous. Well, if not famous, at least I wanted to be seen. I had my eye on an acting class at what I considered to be a prestigious community theater, but instruction was expensive. Really, really expensive. I begged, pleaded, and somehow managed to convince my parents to sign me up. I waited for the first day of class with bated breath. I imagined all of the wonderful things that would follow once I stepped foot on stage.  As I sat in cushy theater seats and waited for class to begin, I practically closed my eyes and wished for my fairy godmother to make me

But what unfolded was not at all what I had imagined. An hour later I huddled in the back of our family car in tears, begging my dad to never make me return. I couldn’t bear to tell him what had happened. It was too awful. Too embarrassing. Too…revealing. In one hour I had learned this: I had nothing important to say. How could this happen in a short sixty minutes? I’ll give you a hint: improv. The class was working on improvisation, which essentially means, “winging it.” We were supposed to get on stage (in front of people!) and act out whatever the instructor desired, with other students I had never laid eyes on, or let alone had spoken to (in front of people!). In my whole “become famous” plan I had forgotten one small fact. If I wanted to act, I must get up and act (in front of people!). Almost famous

I wouldn’t call myself a shy kid. But at age twelve, I had already cultivated a healthy fear of looking stupid. I watched the other students get up on stage and easily make the audience laugh. They were clever. They were funny. And they were smart. In my twelve-year-old eyes, I was absolutely none of these things. When my turn came, I blurted out some sort of incoherent sentence and then bolted behind the piano and waited for the torture to stop. Afterwards, I slunk to the darkest section of the cushy theater seats and cried. It turned out, I wasn’t special at all. I had nothing to contribute. Fear had got a hold of who I thought I was. My dad, bless his fatherly heart, didn’t make me go back.

FearNow, thinking about it, I wonder what could have happened if I had faced my fear and tried again? As I got older I pushed back at fear in other ways….learning new skills, public speaking, writing, but I never ventured out onto the acting stage again. Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art, “Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.” It is in our human nature to face our fears. He goes on to say, “Mental toughness is a skill and like any skill it can be developed. Learning how to overcome fear is just like building a new habit.” Humans want control. Humans want to conquer and that includes taming ourselves. Some of us have had more practice at facing our fears than others. But I love what Pressfield says. Overcoming fear is creating a new habit; a habit of courage.

A few months ago I had the chance to rewrite my only “acting class” story. My eight-year-old daughters’ theater school sent out an email inviting parents to attend an open acting class reserved for adults. Even as I read the email my heart rate increased. For a moment I thought, just delete it. No one will ever know that you saw it. But, I couldn’t. The twelve-year-old in me whispered, “Come on. You can do it.”courage

Seth Godin says we need to practice overcoming our fears, even in inconsequential ways. He says, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people…?” This acting prospect seemed to fulfill the above requirements. I was determined to put my dramatic and traumatic childhood improv story to rest. I emailed a small group of friends and said, “Look at this opportunity! Doesn’t it sound fun?” I hoped they couldn’t sense my fear in the email. Luckily, I have very courageous friends. We went to acting class. And lo and behold, it was an improv class. We had to act stupid, and silly, and make people laugh…and we did it all (in front of people!). Let me add, it helped enormously to have friends who were by my side.

I'm clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’m clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’ve learned that fear and creativity are forever linked. What makes you afraid in your creative life is something that you must face and conquer in your real life. Years ago, the thought of writing a novel made me want to vomit. I hardly whispered it aloud. But that fear underscored what I had to accomplish. The more we practice facing our fears the braver we become. Surround yourself with people who inspire you and demand that you face your creative goals with zeal. And when you can’t muster zeal, surround yourself with people who have compassion but also tenacity. It is brave to live our creative life out loud. There is courage in choosing creativity, but we must surround ourselves with only the most honest, and bravest of innovative allies who help us, succeed or fail, in front of people.

(Additional sources:


Jen White has a degree in English teaching and also earned her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing for children and young adults. SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE is her debut novel and was born from the real experience of Jen being accidentally forgotten at a gas station with her younger sister and cousin.  Jen currently tries not to boss around her five children and husband in San Clemente, California.