When my book first came out in June 2015 I knew I wanted to do school visits.  The only problem was, I had no idea how.  To be honest, I was a little scared of the idea.  On paper, it sounded great.  In real time, it sounded like a panic attack–me in an auditorium with 300 elementary school students?  The prospect sounded daunting.

Soon I received my first invite from a friend who taught 6th grade to come and do presentations for his students (four classes in total, around 120 kids).  Now I had a deadline and I had to deliver.  I needed to create content, craft a presentation, and make sure that I could speak in front of a crowd. I immediately scoured the internet to see what information could be found on school visits.  I don’t know if you know this, but there is very little on the internet regarding school visits for children’s authors.  I was surprised, and then worried, because I needed help, and fast.

Here are a few things I learned in my “Year of School Visits”.


Jen and Bookseller, Alexandra Uhl—The Whale of a Tale Bookshoppe

Ask for Advice from a Seasoned School Presenter: After my internet search fail, I reached out to talented author, presenter, and friend, Julie Berry.  (Hi, Julie!)  She is amazing.  For the price of a delicious bowl of ramen she walked me through her awesome presentation, told me how to talk to schools about author and administration expectations, and opportunities for book sales.  Julie was a gem and helped me see in a very real fashion the logistics of creating a great school visit that would be beneficial to me, the students, and to the school.  From her example I was able to tailor a presentation fit to my needs.  At the end of our chat, she also gave me a great bit of advice: Do as many school visits as possible in my first year to gain experience.  So that is what I did.  I presented to whole schools, small classrooms, book fairs, book expos, book clubs, writing groups, elementary schools, middle schools, and to teachers.  It has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.

(Best advice, Julie!  Thank you again.)

Julie Berry

Jen and Julie Berry

Look-Act-Be Professional: Of course as authors, we want to look the part and like we know what we’re talking about.  So shower, wear clean clothes, perform basic hygiene, and don’t forget to smile.  Looking professional seems pretty straightforward. But something I hadn’t really thought of was if my presentation looked professional.  In my case, I created a PowerPoint presentation, with various pictures and videos, along with written content. Think of yourself as a logo or trademark.  What do you want to convey?  What kinds of books do you write?  What images or ideas do you gravitate towards?  Whatever it is, make it visual and place it throughout your PowerPoint so it looks cohesive.  In my opinion, a well-placed theme makes you, as the author, more professional.  Another important point is to create a document that outlines what you present and for how long, so the school can get an idea of what to expect.  You want to inspire the students, but that won’t happen until you get past the gate keepers (teachers and school administrators) and show the school how valuable you can be as an inspiration and a teaching tool.


Lone Peak Elementary

Think Like a Kid: As authors for children and young adults, this probably isn’t very hard. But it goes without saying, that whatever your younger self would find interesting, would now interest your younger audience.  In my case, I wanted to show videos of various animals in their natural habitats and talk with my listeners about how to survive. (After all, my book is SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE.)  The videos were a huge hit and a favorite of both teachers and students.  I loved talking with the students about survival strategies, Darwin, how humans have their own survival skills.  I also talked about the writing process, creativity, reading, my book, and my journey as an author.  Which brings me to my next thought….  think like a kid



Jen with her sisters when she was young. Grand Canyon.

Get Personal…But Not Too Much: Of course you want to tell the audience about yourself.  They are interested in you as an author— what you were like as a kid, what books you liked then, what you like now, and maybe an embarrassing author photo or two, but don’t make the mistake of top loading your presentation with ME, ME, ME.   The students want to relate to you, but they also want to learn something about reading, writing, and your book.  If you’re too busy telling stories about yourself, you can’t convey the rest…which is really important, too.



Indian Hills Middle School

Expect the Unexpected: In my “Year of School Visits” I learned that what can go wrong, probably will.  Sometimes you plan, prepare, check and double check, and things still go wrong.  All you can do in these circumstances is smile and work through it.   To help with any technology glitches, makes sure you carry whatever you need on an extra thumb drive.  Also, I always brought my own computer and ran my presentation through it.  This was helpful because the software I needed to run my presentation was already there.  One time the presentation on my computer wasn’t translating well into the school’s media and speakers, so I did the presentation without sound, but we rolled with it.  Be prepared for your media not to work.  What will you do then?  Do you need handouts?  An activity where the kids can get up and help you?  A game?  A writing prompt? Are you going to read from your book(s)?  I always suggest doing a short reading, it makes everyone in the room your instant fan.


Over Prepare: Sometimes you think you have your presentation planned out perfectly and then you end twenty minutes early.  Now what?  I always over prepare.  Before your visit ask the teachers to read a chapter of your book to the kids, or have your books on hand in the classroom and the library.  Kids and teachers who have read your work, are generally more excited to have you there.  Place your first chapter on your website so everyone has an opportunity to sample your work.  Also, plan extra content.  In my PowerPoint presentation I have extra quotes, writing activities, a game, and sections of my presentation that mostly go unused, unless, SURPRISE, I have more time than needed.  After presenting at a middle school and an elementary school, I now have two PowerPoint presentations:  one for elementary, and one for 7th, 8th, and 9th  You can tailor the same content for different ages.  You must have a bag of tricks to pull out when things don’t go as expected.  Consider it your SURVIVAL BAG.Felix


If You’re Not Having Fun, You’re Doing It Wrong: Have fun! If you don’t look like you’re having fun, the audience will feel it. Act like you’re speaking to some of your closest friends—they like you, you like them, and it is fun to be together.  A school visit should be the same kind of experience.  If you hate getting up in front of an audience, but love to talk about writing, maybe a smaller group is your best choice.  Figure out what works for you and then do that.


Rancho Canada Elementary



Vista Verde Elementary

I have to say, after I got over my initial nervousness, and built a great presentation with fab content, doing school visits is one of my most favorite things.  The kids are awesome!  How often can you interact with kids who have read your book, or who want to read your book, or who are just plain happy to see you?  I have made great friends– especially lovely librarians and booksellers who have, and still continue, to give me their best help and advice.  So get out there, people!  Share your genius.  School visits are a very good thing.

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


Yes, You CAN Do That At A School Visit!

Before my first children’s book was published, I hadn’t set foot in a fourth-grade classroom since I was a fourth-grader. I’d been to plenty of author visits in my time, but I’d always been the kid sitting cross-legged and wide-eyed on the floor, not the wise, adult author who (presumably) knew exactly what she was doing. I’d never been much of a public speaker, and the prospect of walking into an elementary school and talking to students about my writing was terrifying: What if I forgot what I was saying? What if I bored the kids? What if I offended the teachers? What if no one called my name in Red Rover, which is what happened the last time I was in fourth grade?

Two books and a bunch of school visits later, I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but I’m slightly less terrified and a little more knowledgeable about the ingredients that go into a successful school visit. There’s a wealth of excellent advice on the topic out there already, so I won’t attempt to cover the basics here. Instead, I thought I’d share a few of the more surprising and unorthodox tips I’ve picked up so far:

Embarrass yourself! There is no more suitable place to be publicly shamed than an elementary school. Kids love to laugh—with you, at you, they don’t much care which. Show photos of yourself as a youngster, but be sure to choose a picture that’s as cringeworthy as possible. Wear a penguin hat. Read aloud from your very worst draft of that picture book you wrote when you were six. If the topic of your talk presents an opportunity for you to sing or dance (terribly), so much the better.

Scare the children! Just like the rest of us, kids face adversity and disappointment on a daily basis. It can be encouraging for them to see that even you—a famous author!—were rejected and humiliated and forced to type draft after draft until your fingers wore down to nubbins, which is why you should proudly present to them the terrifying visual evidence of your hard work. I like to show kids the lengthy editorial letters I receive, the pages of writing covered with crossouts and changes, and the piles of revisions I print out en route from rough draft to final book. Shannon Hale has a long, laminated scroll of rejection letters from publishers that she unfurls to kids’ horror and delight.

A terrifying tower of drafts

A terrifying tower of drafts

Create a ruckus! For kids, an author visit is a really special part of the school day: it doesn’t happen very often, it’s much more exciting than their regular classes, and since you’re not their teacher, the normal rules of school behavior don’t quite apply. You’ll have to take the temperature of each group before you attempt to create a ruckus, but if you think the students (and teachers) can handle it and you’re confident in your crowd control techniques, let the kids take a quick break from sitting quietly and listening. Have volunteers join you for an interactive storytelling game or a readers’ theater. Write a Mad Libs-style summary of your book and have kids fill in the blanks; then read the hilarious results. Write serious or silly questions on index cards, put them in a bag, and have kids draw cards and ask you the questions. Ask them to vote for their favorite character. If there’s a chance for kids to clap, cheer, or scream their lungs out, take it! (And then challenge them to get super quiet.)

Be honest. This might be my most radical tip, though it’s not nearly as much fun as the others. Kids are great at asking questions, and some of those questions can be tough. Is writing hard? Do you ever get scared when you’re writing? What’s your least favorite part of being a writer? Why don’t you have kids? Are you rich? Were you cool when you were my age? Who’s your favorite member of One Direction? These sorts of questions might make you want to reach for your SCBWI-branded whiskey flask before answering. Be tactful, of course, and be vague if you’d like (“Um, the one with the hair? Is his name, um, Larry?”), but please don’t lie. You’re a role model for the students you speak to, and they can handle the truth, delivered in a kid-friendly and down-to-earth way.

What am I missing? What unconventional school visit techniques have worked best for you? Let me know in the comments!

A Shameless Plea

As the author of a funny adventure story for middle grade readers, I’ve found myself in a sort of unusual position over the past few months following my book release. I’ve been fortunate to appear on several panels with other middle grade authors, and I have often been the only woman on the panel. (Author Anne Ursu wrote a great post about one of these appearances; you should read it immediately if you haven’t already.)

Without exception, my male co-panelists have been wonderful people, great writers, and thoughtful and funny speakers. I’ve been honored to sit alongside them, and I hope I’ll get many more chances to do so in the future. But the gender breakdown of our panels doesn’t usually come close to representing the gender breakdown in children’s publishing as a whole, or even in middle grade fiction in particular. My YA-writing friends tell me that in the world of teen lit, the reverse is sometimes true, and it’s not unusual for a YA panel to consist mostly of female authors. I’ve also seen panels about “books for girls” populated entirely by women, and panels about “books for boys” populated entirely by men; if you’ve attended a children’s literature conference recently, you probably have, too.

Lately, writers and readers have been asking for more representations of diversity in the books we read, the authors we’re exposed to, and the opportunities presented to all of us, regardless of our race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or the other traits that make us unique. While I can’t speak to all of these issues in the space of this blog post, I’d like to take this opportunity to make a shameless and specific plea for bringing groups of both male and female authors to speak to kids.

Here are just a few of the great things that can happen when men and women share the stage at an author panel or school visit:

Kids see themselves in the authors standing in front of them. I love speaking to elementary school students, telling them about how I became a writer, and showing them silly photos of myself when I was their age. I do this because I want kids to know that I was a lot like them when I was growing up, and that if they want to write books someday, that’s an utterly achievable dream. Bringing a group of both male and female authors to an elementary school shows kids in a concrete way that both boys and girls can grow up to be authors—and engaging, interesting speakers, too!    

Kids learn that both men and women can write all sorts of books. There’s a general perception—more of a stereotype, really—that men write funny, adventurous stories and women write quiet, heartwarming stories. A quick romp through any library will illustrate how inaccurate this idea really is. When we include women on panels about funny, adventurous stories, and when we include men on panels about quiet, heartwarming stories, we bust those stereotypes wide open, and that’s nothing but good for the kids (and adults) who attend these events.

Kids understand that both men and women write for boys and girls. Why do we so often assume that men write for boys and women write for girls? When I visit schools, I want boys to know that it is totally okay for them to read and enjoy my books, and I want girls to know that, too. I don’t write “for boys” or “for girls;” I write for whoever wants to read the stories I have to tell. I also know that my male author friends feel the same way. Some of our books might be about death-defying adventures, and others may be about friendship or family, but all of our books are for anyone who wants to read them: boys, girls, adults, postal workers, foreign dignitaries, and swamp monsters.

The elephant in the room gets a chance to leave. When there is a noticeable gender disparity on a panel, gender suddenly becomes a salient topic, even if it has nothing to do with what the speakers are actually talking about. This can be stressful, awkward, and distracting for presenters and audiences alike. As important as it is to discuss issues of gender, most of us would usually rather get down to the business of what we really love: talking about books written by—and for—everyone.

There’s far more to say on this subject, of course, and other smart people have already said much of it wonderfully, but I hope that all of us who write, publish, curate, share, and love children’s literature will keep this conversation going over the next few months and years. And if you find yourself organizing a panel, getting author friends together for a group school visit, or inviting speakers to a conference, please take a few moments to consider whether the authors in the group will represent a wide, diverse range of backgrounds and viewpoints. It’s important, and it matters—not only to us, but also to the kids who read our stories.

A Mentor Talks About Mentoring: Kathryn Fitzmaurice

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s keynote at the Women’s National Book Association Writers Conference. Kathryn spoke eloquently about her mentor, her grandmother, science fiction writer Eleanor Robinson.

At lunch, Kathryn and I talked about how after becoming the successful author of several award winning/starred middle grade novels including The Year the Swallows Came Early, Diamond in the Dust, and Destiny Rewritten, she is now mentoring an aspiring writer.  I asked Kathryn if I could share her experience.

Imported Photos 00073

Tell, me who are you mentoring and what are you working on together?

KF:  Her name is PB Rippey and she’s a member of  SCBWI in Northern California.  The title of her work in progress is “Trouble Beneath the Waves,” a wonderful story about a young girl with special powers.  I won’t say any more!

How were you two connected?

 KF: We were connected when I received an invitation from Catherine Meyers, who is the ARA to Patricia Newman, the RA for the Northern California SCBWI chapter.

 I understand this is a new program that the chapter is trying out and that you are one of several published writers who are mentors in this “digital mentorship” program. What are you expected to do?

 KF:  I am expected to stand along side her and do everything I can to help her bring her work-in-progress to a place where it is publishable.  I would like to see her obtain an agent and have the agent sell this story.

DestinyRewritten hc c

You wrote in a blog post that there are several mentors in the program that you would have liked to have been paired with as a young writer. Who among your fellow writers would have been your dream mentor? 

KF: I would have loved to have been paired with someone like Gary D. Schmidt, who is my very favorite middle grade author.  I was able to meet him last year at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, where I was on a middle grade panel with him, and Katherine Applegate, and Linda Urban.  Mr. Schmidt is so talented as an author, with one of his novels winning a Newbery Honor Medal, (The Wednesday Wars).  My favorite book he has written is Okay For Now.  Every time I read it, I find some genius page where Mr. Schmidt has made me cry, or laugh.   But even more, he is very nice.  In addition to writing, he teaches English at a college in Michigan.

 The aspiring writers had to submit several pages of a manuscript and a synopsis, and then the mentors chose their mentees based on the work. Can you remember what about PB’s story resonated with you? 

 KF: I remember when I read her pages, I thought to myself, I can see what might be missing, (it wasn’t much really), and I think I can help her bring the manuscript around to a place where we can cut some of the things that don’t need to be there, and bring in some things that will move the story forward faster.  PB is really quite lovely, she wants her story to be published and I believe it will be.  She is a hard worker.  She’s also a poet and has published a few poems.  Not every one can be a poet.  You have to understand rhythm and how words work together in a sentence.  It’s complicated to see this sometimes.  But she sees these connections.  She understands how words can be written to make the reader fall in love.

This is a one year program  in which the mentor is expected to read the writer’s entire manuscript between November and January, then do a video chat and provide a first round of editorial notes. The writer is supposed to have a rewrite by the end of March,  which the mentor then reads, and does a second video chat and editorial notes. 

Is this how the program is actually working for you and PB?

KF: After I go through her manuscript, I send my notes, (using track changes on word), to her and she reads through them.  Then we make an appointment for a Skype call and go through everything together.  We probably speak a lot more, though, than the rules say, because I have told her that she may contact me whenever she needs to.  I want her to know that I am available to her any time of day, for whatever reason she may want to discuss.  Because sometimes every author has, (including me), times when we need to discuss a very important idea.

 What do you find yourselves talking about during those Skype calls?

KF: We really discuss her main character and how she is growing, what she has learned, and how she sees the world differently than she did at the beginning of the story.  Together, we do everything we can to cut out the things that aren’t working, and keep the things that are working in her story.  But honestly, her story is really very good.

What is the best part of being a mentor?

 KF: It’s always nice to help other people realize their own dreams.  I remember when my agent, Jen Rofe, of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, called to tell me she had sold my first book.  I want PB to have that same feeling.  I want her to be able to jump up and down and say she sold her novel.  That would be so wonderful!

 Lastly, I understand you’re working on a book that’s very different from your other novels. Can you give us a peek into what you’re writing now?

 KF: I’m on my third revision of a novel that I will continue to write until it is good enough to sell.  I keep going back and fixing it.  Everyday, I revise the story, so that my main character is growing, so she sees the world differently than she did at the beginning of the story.  I am using a bit a magical realism, which I have never done before.  This is the part that is testing me.  I keep coming back to these sections and reworking them.

 Kathryn, thank you so much for sharing your mentoring experience. We look forward to watching PB on her journey. 

 To read Kathryn’s moving blog post about her relationship with her own mentor:

Writer as Entrepreneur: A Silicon Valley Mentality


thinking brain

Welcome to the newest member of the Tollbooth Crew, writer, editor and teacher, Helen Pyne!


“Failure is success if we learn from it,” said Malcolm Forbes.

My mantra.


I live outside of San Francisco in the heart of Silicon Valley—Facebook, YouTube and Google country. A place where creative young entrepreneurs sit inside bare-bones offices, noses to their computer screens, writing code late into the night.  I imagine them hunched over the remains of their take-out dinners, drafting business plans and dreaming of the legacy they want to create. Who will become the next Bill Gates?

Writers, too, are a type of entrepreneur. With words as our product, we work late and rise early to find time to write our stories. We compose query letters and loglines to pitch our books, dreaming of the legacy we want to create. Who will become the next J.K. Rowling? It’s these commonalities that have convinced me that writers can learn from the successes of Silicon Valley:


Precept #1.  Don’t Be Afraid to Fail:

Many entrepreneurs start businesses that bomb—sometimes multiple times—but if they focus on figuring out how to learn from their mistakes, they’re more likely to find success when they move on to the next big idea. The only real sin is not trying.

As a writer, I try to remember this—especially on the days I’m forced to kill my darlings, delete whole chapters from my story, or change my protagonist’s point of view—again. There’s nothing like a fresh rejection letter to make one reconsider a career in real estate or perhaps a nice niche job like snake milking. But if entrepreneurs can go back to the drawing board after losing millions of investor dollars, I guess I can’t complain about revising an old novel or starting up a new one. Gearing up again is hard, but I’m learning not to feel like a failure just because I have unpublished stories in my desk drawers.  At Vermont College, when my advisors told me to cut lines, I’d save my words in a folder so I could use them again. After all, I reasoned, I couldn’t just throw them out. But gradually, I’ve come to understand that the more good lines I write, the more good lines I’ll write.

Every sentence we slave over, used or not, serves a purpose. Each of our drafts functions as the foundation on which we build our future work. Ideally, better work. Like the entrepreneurs around me, I’ve come to see the value of companies that flop—and fiction that fails. I recognize that practice usually leads to progress, but that there are no shortcuts to success. As my venture capital husband says, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

Remember how the Velveteen Rabbit looked just before he became real? He had chewed up ears and matted-down fur; he was battered, worn and shabby. Well, on some days, after hours of agonized writing, I feel like the Velveteen Rabbit. Alone, abandoned by the muse, and all used up. But here’s the thing. The process of becoming Real (as in a Real Writer) may not be quick or pretty, but what we receive in return for the teeth-gnashing frustration we force ourselves to work through in order to keep our B.I.C. (butts in chair), is that elusive elixir that transforms us. In other words, the work is the reward.

helping picPrecept #2.  Pay It Forward

Take a page from the high tech world’s how-to manual. Sure, Silicon Valley’s competitive, but there’s also an emphasis here on community. And it’s not just wealthy philanthropists who are providing assistance and dishing out the dough. People realize that it makes good business sense to pay it forward. Mentoring is now the new model. Just look at the growing body of philanthropic foundations, nonprofit venture funds, and company-sponsored competitions. Business incubators and accelerators offer resources, services, and funding in exchange for a small equity stake in a company. And Angel investors (affluent individuals who provide capital for a start up) often invest for altruistic reasons.

Mentoring in publishing is on the rise too. Like the tech industry, the book business is changing so fast we must be innovative to stay afloat. Resourceful authors are banding together for book signings, community appearances, promotional tours and group blogs. We promote each other’s work by posting reviews on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads and use social media sites like tumblr and YouTube to share video blogs and book trailers. Last summer, I met filmmaker and novelist, e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, who used Kickstarter to raise funds for a cross-country tour to publicize her latest film and YA fiction. Or check out the innovative ways author John Green combines high tech (like his VlogBrothers YouTube channel) and high touch to create new fans and sell his books.

Online contests for aspiring authors are pulling in participants too. Last year, I was the lucky recipient of one of those slots when writer/blogger Krista Van Dolzer ( mentored me through novel revisions for an online agent auction. No money exchanged hands; I had nothing to offer her other than my undying gratitude and willingness to work hard. But Van Dolzer, whose first two novels are coming out in 2015, understands that it really is about paying it forward by creating community and providing opportunities for others.

Which is why I am thrilled to be joining this blogging community of VCFA writers. Whether we’re selling books or businesses, we are all risk-takers willing to work hard to see our dreams become reality. Writers and entrepreneurs are the kind of people who strive to generate breakthrough ideas that disrupt the status quo. Could there be a better calling?

A Brilliant Campaign–Part 2

Yesterday, I described how Kristen Kittscher launched her debut middle grade mystery THE WIG IN THE WINDOW. Today, I’ll share a little of what I took away from our discussion.

wiginthewindowCoverSept copy

Kristen urged me that when it came time to debut to “do the things you like doing and focus on those.” She also cautioned that while I might feel I have to do a book trailer or a blog, “if you’re doing the same things that everyone else is doing, they aren’t going to stand out.”

Now that she’s been through the debut experience, she has a better understanding of how to reach her market. “I thought that as a middle grade author, I needed to do the same things that YA authors were doing. If I had to do it all over again, I’d pay more attention to what authors were doing for books like mine.”

She recommends that you invite everyone you know to your book launch, seconding what my friend Allyson Valentine Schrier said. Allyson’s book, HOW NOT TO FIND A BOYFRIEND launched this summer, and her Penguin sales rep was blown away by the crowd. I asked Allyson what she did to attract them and she said,


I invited people from all walks of life using evite. Thus, I had people like my accountant attend, my old babysitter, a bunch of folks from the Altzheimers Association. I think it is worthwhile to invite people from all walks of life because you will be surprised to find that many of the outliers show up.

Kristen was astounded by how many of her former middle school students, some of them now adults, were in the audience. To be honest, her experience and Allyson’s have given me the courage to add people to my invite list who I might have felt too self-conscious or shy to include otherwise.

Kristen also encourages writers to say yes, if someone offers to use their connections to help you reach decision makers– even if it’s a long-shot. A politico friend in DC offered to get the book to the Obamas. Nothing came of it, but Kristen tried. And her mother’s cousin, Pete the Produce Man on the Today Show? Kristen’s ready to remind him that she will stop by any time and talk about beets. (Read the book and you’ll understand.)

And don’t be shy about suggesting marketing or promotional ideas to your publisher. “I try to be mildly annoying about it, but pleasant,” Kristen said. Publishers are squeezed for time, she says, so think of things you’d like to do, but don’t be sad if they don’t happen.

One thing she’ll definitely keep doing is supporting indie bookstores and other writers. “Indie bookstores have true grassroots power and can make a real difference in a book’s success.”

 Many thanks to Kristen Kittscher, debut author of THE WIG IN THE WINDOW, available through indie bookstores and online.

Launch Your Book–Lessons from a Brilliant Campaign


This spring, Kristen Kittscher’s middle grade mystery, THE WIG IN THE WINDOW, was due out in June, but her brilliant campaign to promote her book was already underway. I was agog, verily agog, as I saw prepublication school events and photos in Publishers Weekly online.

wiginthewindowCoverSept copy

Next, Facebook posts informed me that pre-orders offering a FREE spy pen with purchase were available through two local bookstores.

Then I was blown away when I attended her launch party at Vroman’s where over 200 people shoehorned themselves into the second floor. Kristen played her professionally done trailer, and her taped comedic interview with two girls who claimed to be the real amateur spies from WIG IN THE WINDOW. Kristen followed it up with a dramatic reading from the book with professional actors taking parts. “Holy –,” I muttered to Tracy Holczer, my fellow debut 2014 author. “Kristen has really raised the bar.”

But the campaign didn’t stop there. THE WIG IN THE WINDOW appeared on the weekly Indie bestseller list–three times.  I saw people wearing wigs while holding up books at a San Diego launch in the e-newsletter for indie bookstores.  A tweet linked me to a radio interview.  Another announced Kristen’s appearance at the Grove B&N with her audiobook narrator. Kristen was everywhere!


Now that I am planning my own debut campaign, I decided to exploit/consult Kristen. How had she done it?

Truly, she insisted, there was no strategy. “I knew I had to be scrappy and I made it up as I went along.” But, the more we talked, it was clear that her experience offered valuable lessons for other debut authors.

When Kristen started to write, she was a middle school teacher, and she treated writing as if it was a new job. She went to local bookstores and observed YA panels and events. She joined a YA book club and met other writers. She joined SCBWI and learned about the business side of writing.

When the time came to start marketing THE WIG IN THE WINDOW, Kristen followed some well-tested advice. “It’s a marketing cliche to do what you’re comfortable with, but that’s exactly what I did.” Kristen knew she liked doing things with kids, having been a teacher for years.

By volunteering at a local graphic novel event, Kristen met the dynamic duo of Alyson Beecher and Alethea Allarey. Alyson, a former school principal, and Alethea, a blogger, co-founded Bridge to Books to champion literacy. When Kristen suggested a mystery books event, Alyson and Alethea invited her to be on the 7 author panel of “Get a Clue” even though her book was not due out for weeks.

A photo of this event made its way into Publisher’s Weekly after Kristen sent it to her publicist. Take advantage of the fact these online publications are looking for quality photos to make their content interesting, Kristen said. You don’t have to be a big name  to make them consider you.

You’d think Kristen would crow about her success, but she shrugged and said that 95% of what she tried, failed, and she’s not convinced she got the word out. “Hey,” she said, throwing up her hands. “Am I on the Today Show?”

Not yet, I say. But come back tomorrow to find out how Kristen Kittscher plans to use her blood relationship with Pete the Produce Man to achieve that goal.





My 30 Days of Middle Grade Project

About a year ago, I noticed I wasn’t reading enough middle grade. I’m a children’s book buyer for an indie bookstore, and it’s my job to know the market. But like a lot of kidlit readers, I was being sucked into the drama and thrill of YA instead of its more mild younger sister.

So I decided to devote one month to reading middle grade. It’s like Lent, because I give up all other genres. Newspapers are allowed, and yes, I did indulge in the Vanity Fair article about Channing Tatum, but that was for research purposes.


This is the 2nd Annual 30 Days of MG project. Books are stacked at my bedside, and I’m working my way through them. How did I choose what to read from my boxes of advance copies?

Books By Writer Friends like Sarah Sullivan, Kristen Kittscher, Greg Pincus, and Caroline Carlson
Books by Authors I’ve Loved in the Past including Kate DiCamillo, Polly Schulman, Neal Schusterman, Gennifer Choldenko, Blue Baillet, and Catherine Fisher
Books That A Sales Rep Gushed Over like BEHOLDING BEE and TWISTROSE KEY

I didn’t expect to have such a wonderful time reading these books and now I feel quite silly for not reading them earlier. I’m not done, but here are some of the things I’ve loved the most about this project.

Wonderfully wacky fun. A squirrel sucked into a giant vacuum cleaner is reborn as a poetry writing superhero in FLORA AND ULYSSES by Kate DiCamillo. A boy demands that a mad scientist transplant a cat’s 9 lives into his body in THE 9 LIVES OF ALEXANDER BADDENFIELD by John Bemelmens Marchiano, a Charles Addams flavored story. MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT, the first in the adorable VERY NEARLY HONORABLE LEAGUE OF PIRATES, sets an escapee from a girl’s finishing school and her magic gargoyle on a pirate ship with hilarious results.

Poetry. In THE 14 FIBS OF GREGORY K, by Greg Pincus, an aspiring writer in a family of math geniuses finds a way to finally connect with his family through his tender, perceptive and funny 20 syllable Fibonacci poetry. FLORA AND ULYSSES is the only middle grade book I know that quotes from both a poetry-writing squirrel and Rilke. And Blue Baillet spotlights Langston Hughes in her tender, often lyrical mystery HOLD FAST as the poetry provides comfort and clues to a young girl whose librarian father goes missing.

Main characters to love. I fell in love with Early from HOLD FAST, Moose from AL CAPONE DOES MY HOMEWORK and Arlo from ALL THAT’S MISSING, and I sense it’s because all three assumed more responsibility for their families than they should have at their age. It’s not fair that these characters carry the burden of a special needs sibling or a parent in trouble or falling apart, but the stories were richer for the very real challenges these characters faced.


Diversity. I get tired of middle grade books with an all white cast. In HOLD FAST the family is mixed race, part of the working poor who become homeless when the father disappears and thugs invade the family’s apartment. Sarah Sullivan’s lovely ALL THAT’S MISSING is set in a small Southern town with a mix of races and generations that enrich the story as a boy’s grandfather becomes infirm and he tries to connect to a relative he’s never met.

Physically or mentally challenged characters. In AL CAPONE DOES MY HOMEWORK by Gennifer Choldenko, Moose’s sister Natalie is most likely autistic, and while she’s portrayed as difficult, at times it is her unique power of observation that saves the day. In ALL THAT’S MISSING, Arlo’s grandfather succumbs to Alzheimer’s and we see Arlo trying and failing to hold their family of two together. In WILD BOY by Rob Lloyd Jones, Wild Boy is covered with a thick coat of hair damning him to a place in a freak show.

Intriguing settings. The fantasy THE TWISTROSE KEY has its roots in Norway and its snowy, magical landscape of Sylver is populated with trolls. Choldenko takes us back to the unique community of Alcatraz where normal life for the guards’ children is and isn’t normal. And in HOLD FAST Baillet takes the reader behind the doors of homeless shelter.

Wordplay. I laughed at the cat named Shaddenfrood in THE 9 LIVES OF ALEXANDER BADDENFIELD and all the other silly references that adults will especially enjoy. FLORA AND ULYSSES is full of lines you’ll want on a tee shirt. (Do not hope. Observe!) And MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT is full of the kind of twisted, Jane Austin-like quips you’d expect when a governess forces her way onto a pirate ship.

I hope this inspires you to do your own 30 Days project. While I’m collecting books for post-project reading, I’m tempted to expand my project longer so I can get to the gems I’ve missed.

In Celebration of PARCHED


Cover art by Stephanie Dalton Cowan

Getting an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts is a little bit like going to school in a nebula. All around you, new stories are flaring to life. In workshops, at student and faculty readings, and especially at the readings given by graduating students, snippets of early drafts blind you with their brilliance, and you know those stories will have half the planets in the galaxy begging to orbit them in a few years’ time.

One of the brightest stars in my VCFA nebula was a little novella called WATER, which my friend Melanie Crowder began during our third semester of grad school. We shared an advisor that semester, so we talked occasionally about what we were up to. I was banging my head against my critical thesis and wrestling with a draft of my recalcitrant YA novel, which turned out to be more of a black hole than a star. Melanie, on the other hand, was working on a poetic and spare, almost fable-like story of children and dogs struggling to survive during a devastating drought. “That sounds cool,” I probably said to Melanie. (I was in a thesis-induced haze and cannot actually remember anything that happened in those six months.)

I first heard Melanie read from WATER right before our graduation in 2011. By then, of course, we all knew that WATER was something special—it had won a very competitive scholarship and earned a first look from the editors at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But hearing Melanie read the book aloud sent chills down my spine. The opening chapter is narrated by a dog, Nandi, and if you’d told me two years ago that I would fall in love with a dog’s narrative voice, I would certainly not have believed you. But this dog is different. She speaks in bursts of poetry, and I couldn’t get her voice out of my head.

When Melanie asked me to read the manuscript a few months later as she prepared to send it to agents, I said yes right away. I was still dying to find out what happened to Nandi; to Sarel, Nandi’s human; and to Musa, the boy they meet on their search for water. Within one page, I was sure the book would sell. Within five pages, I was sure I would not be able to recognize Melanie after the book was published because she would be buried under a Melanie-shaped pile of medals and trophies. I admire Melanie’s language precisely because I will never be able to write like she does; the attention she pays to each word and sound is so intense and focused that most writers would crack under the strain. She describes herself as a “thin writer,” and even though the draft I read was significantly longer than its first incarnation had been, it was still barely 100 pages. I am most definitely a “fat writer,” and my style is very different from Melanie’s, so to me, WATER seemed almost like a new species of book—the sort of book I could never write, but the sort of book I could fall deeply in love with.

When WATER quickly found a great agency home and sold to HMH, I may have done a little bit of dancing around in my living room. (Sorry, neighbors.) Now, almost two years later, WATER has become PARCHED. It was published at the beginning of June. (Naturally, I danced around again, but my neighbors have moved out, so it’s ok.) I’m sitting here on the same sofa where I read that early draft, and PARCHED is right next to me—a real book! It’s got a beautifully illustrated cover, pages that feel soft to the touch, and the perfectly chosen font. Melanie and her editor have done a lot of work in the past two years; the story is still itself, only more beautiful.

I have loved watching my own book turn from a VCFA manuscript into an almost-published novel, but there’s something even more satisfying about watching a friend’s story go through the same process. (This probably has something to do with the fact that I didn’t have to work on any of Melanie’s edits.) I feel extraordinarily lucky to have known PARCHED since it was a bright young manuscript with a cowlick in its hair and a grand destiny, and I can’t wait to see what it does next. As for me, I already know what I’ll be doing next—curling up on this sofa and reading PARCHED again from cover to cover.

You can find PARCHED online or at your local bookstore, and you can visit Melanie Crowder at her home on the web.