Cloud Residency: An Inside Look at Online Learning

Residency is coming up soon, and for those unsure about making the trip to campus to attend a physical residency, Cloud residency is an alternative growing in popularity. Today, we hear from former Cloud GA and Coordinator, Anne-Marie Strohman about why Cloud residency is an option just as viable as in-person residency.

  1. Tell us a little about what makes Cloud a viable, enriching option equal to the in-person residency.

AM: We’ve worked hard to integrate Cloud and Campus wherever possible, ensuring that all students have access to all faculty, relationships can grow between Campus and Cloud students, and the celebration, encouragement, and engagement among the community stays rich and connected. That said, Cloud is a very special place of its own. So much of the benefits of learning happen outside of workshops and lectures, and we foster those places with morning coffee, after-lecture discussions, lunches with faculty, and a dedicated Discord channel.

  1. What are some benefits to the Cloud residency format and how have you seen students make these benefits work for them?

AM: I first served as a Graduate Assistant for Cloud, expecting to leverage that into a Campus GA position. But I loved the Cloud experience so much, I went on to serve as Cloud Coordinator for two residencies! I loved being in my own space, sleeping in my own bed, and seeing my family. I could stand up and walk around or stretch while listening to lectures. If you can’t attend a lecture, it’s available on our online platform quite soon after the lecture. One student this summer said they watched more lectures on Cloud than they ever had at a Campus residency, including lectures people recommended from the WCYA archives.

Some of the best parts of Cloud are the opportunities we provide for informal connection to other students, faculty, and graduate assistants. 

  • Morning Coffee is a space for students to ask questions, talk about writing, and get advice from each other. 
  • Post-lecture discussions, typically led by faculty members, allow for reflection immediately after the lecture and often include great craft tips and book recommendations. 
  • Each lunchtime, a faculty member or graduate assistant hosts Cafe Anna lunch, each one focused on a different topic. 

These events, while more formal than running into a faculty member in the hallway or chatting with friends after a lecture, give some of the feel of those informal moments.

  1. How do the Cloud GAs and Cloud faculty keep the magic and academic rigor we expect from a VCFA residency?

AM: Translating the academic rigor from in-person to online is the easy part. Workshops and lectures contain the same rich, high-quality content. Smart people are as smart online as they are in person. 

The harder part is building community and creating trust in an online environment, and making sure everyone knows what time things start and which Zoom link to click on!

Each night, as Cloud Coordinator, I sent out an email highlighting upcoming events and deadlines, as well as detailing the schedule for the following day. We kept online schedules updated with accurate Zoom links. I worked with GAs to provide individualized accommodations and support to students who needed it. We also want to keep the fun happening! From GA readings to Poetry Off the Page, from supporting the student-led Juvenilia to planning the Cloud Social, GAs are actively providing spaces for students to come together as a community. One of the downsides of Cloud is that spontaneous fun is harder to come by, so we intentionally build in events that provide ways to connect outside of the academic schedule.

  1. What were some ways you’ve seen students be pleasantly surprised with Cloud? 

AM: I know some introverted students who find that they are better able to engage in the events they go to because they have true downtime in between. Some students who switched from Campus to Cloud were worried it wouldn’t be as rich an experience, but they ended up liking it better than they expected–they felt connected to faculty and other students, were able to watch more lectures, and were able to manage the intensity of residency more easily. For some, just being around their pets made for a calmer, more engaged residency. I’ve also seen students who were afraid of technology take the risk and really enjoy it. The GA staff was able to offer tech support before and during residency that made it possible for students to come into residency with less tech anxiety and then grow to manage the technology on their own. It wasn’t the distraction they expected it to be.

  1. What are some challenges, expected or unexpected, that came with building an effective Cloud residency?

AM: Writers sometimes describe their writing process as “planning” or “pantsing” (writing by the seat of your pants). My motto is: “You can’t pants Cloud.” Planning ahead, communicating effectively, and having back-up plans for when things go awry are essential. I’ve worked in online education for a while, so I expected that community building would be the hard part. I feel like we’ve made great strides. I’m still constantly talking with people and thinking about how to make it easier to connect with others in the Cloud (and not only in ways that are easier for extroverts). Technology always brings new and unexpected surprises. While we’ve pretty much figured out the Zoom part of it, connecting with Campus for hybrid events can sometimes be a challenge. We’ve learned a lot over the past hybrid residencies, and now we test the tech in every room well before events start. That doesn’t mean everything works perfectly, but we’ve established effective communication between Campus and Cloud to handle problems when they inevitably arise. 

  1. What are some of the highlights of Cloud residency for you?

AM: I love that we now have true hybrid events–a graduate reading may have a Cloud faculty member introducing a Campus grad reader, or vice versa; two faculty members gave a lecture together, one on Campus, one on Cloud; graduation includes all the graduates as well as faculty from Campus and Cloud. In January, we happened to have our visiting writers and visiting editor speak from Cloud. Cynthia Leitich Smith and Brian Lee Young stayed for the post-lecture discussion and answered questions from Cloud students and faculty. Editor Nick Thomas came to a Cafe Anna lunch, in conversation with Campus faculty member Evan Griffth (who joined us on Cloud) to talk about the publishing industry in an informal setting. And always, the student-led Juvenilia, where those who attend bring writing from any stage of their childhood to share. On Cloud, people can share childhood photos and images of their work. And Children’s Book Jeopardy at the Cloud Social is the best.


  1. What would you say to people who might be considering Cloud residency?

AM: Try it! Cloud is a really special place. It’s a robust experience where you’re steeped in craft knowledge, develop relationships with faculty and fellow students, and can also be in your own space.

  1. What advice do you have for first-time Cloud students?

AM: First, as many of us found working from home during the pandemic, it can be difficult to separate home and work when they’re happening in the same location. It’s important to set aside residency days as much as possible, even in your home environment. Be in a room with a door that closes. Put a sign on the door to remind family members and housemates that you’re at residency. Prep food ahead so you can be well-fueled.

Second, STRETCH! Make sure you’re moving around between events, moving locations when you can, turning off your camera to do some yoga. Just like on Campus, you have to pace yourself. Last residency, I ended up eating all my meals standing and walking around the house, just to make sure I got some movement in my day.

Third, find ways to connect that work for you. Some ideas: Introduce yourself on Discord before residency starts. Ask some questions of people who are ahead of you in the program. Take advantage of the small group workshops to get to know people. Come to events like Morning Coffee and Cafe Anna Lunch. Reach out to a GA by email or on Discord. And if you have ideas for student-led events or other ways to connect, reach out to the Cloud Coordinator.

Lastly, take care of yourself. Residency is intense, and layering the technology piece on top of the residency schedule can be a lot. Discover where your limits are, and don’t push past them. There are a few mandatory events (like workshops–don’t miss those!), but many things can become asynchronous. So take breaks when you need them, get outside every day, and stay hydrated!

To learn more about our WCYA program, check out our website.

To learn more about Anne-Marie, read about her at

Fault Lines and the Triumph of Tenacity: An Interview with Nora Shalaway Carpenter

The world of kidlit is a beautiful, many-faceted place, filled with beauty both whimsical and dark. Few authors can inhabit all areas of that beautiful world like Nora Shalaway Carpenter. A graduate of VCFA’s Writing For Children and Young Adults Program, proud Appalachian author, and a multiple-time graduate assistant, Nora’s work spans many genres and age groups. Her titles include her picture book Yoga Frog, two short fiction anthologies, Rural Voices and (AB)solutely NORMAL, both of which she edited and contributed to, and two acclaimed young adult novels, The Edge of Anything and Fault Lines, the latter of which was published in September, 2023. In this interview, the award-winning author and alum gets real about her experiences both in and out of the program, what motivates her as an author and activist, and her latest young adult gem, Fault Lines! So grab a virtual coffee, and join us!


1.Can you tell us a little about yourself and your most recent YA novel, Fault Lines?

I grew up in rural West Virginia and went to undergrad thinking I was going to be an English literature professor who wrote creatively on the side. That still makes me laugh, thinking I’d have so much free time as a professor. Anyway, to make a very long and roundabout story shorter, while pursuing an MA in English literature, I finally admitted that what I really wanted–what I’d always secretly wanted–was for creative writing to be my main focus. I started attending writing conferences, discovered a love for YA fiction, and after my day job, I’d work on a novel. I’d only ever written really short creative pieces before, so when I proved to myself that I could do it—I could write an entire book—I decided that I was going to learn to do it well. That led to my applying to VCFA (shout out to my fellow Summer 2012 Secret Gardeners!). Since graduating, I’ve become a published author, a writing instructor, and a parent of three kids, the first of whom was born two months before my VCFA graduation! I’m a passionate advocate for normalizing mental health care, debunking the stereotypes surrounding rural people, and protecting the earth.

Fault Lines tells the intertwined story of two rural teens—one with a secret energetic connection to the earth, suffering immensely from damage caused by fracking—and the other depending on fracking completely, his mother’s pipelining job being the only thing keeping them off the street. The book takes place in rural West Virginia, where I grew up. West Virginia and its people are rarely seen in YA literature, though often ridiculed and maligned in popular media.

  1. Mental health is a recurring theme in your works, including the anthology AB(solutely) NORMAL and in your YA debut The Edge of Anything. How is mental health explored in Fault Lines as opposed to the other works, and what conversations or increased awareness do you hope the novel sparks?

Mental health isn’t a main theme in Fault Lines, but it nonetheless shapes the experience and worldview of Dex, one of the two point-of-view characters. I don’t want to spoil the book, but suffice it to say that Dex doesn’t realize this until close to the end of the novel. There are certainly conversations to be had about how the mental health of those close to us informs our identities, but I suspect (and hope!) Fault Lines will also inspire readers to examine their assumptions about rural people. Even more importantly, given the state of the world, I hope readers consider how real solutions to complex world problems are only possible if we humanize people who believe differently than us, consider why they might feel as they do, and work together respectfully to create new policy and innovative ways of living and doing. As I explain in my author’s note: “We are allowed to care about many things simultaneously and to fight fiercely for them, even if they, at first glance, seem utterly at odds with one another and maybe even the people we love.”

  1. Fault Lines and your anthology AB(solutely) NORMAL were both named to the prestigious TAYSHAS state reading list by the Texas Library Association. How does it feel to have your work recognized in such a way, especially in a state currently banning other books?

Gosh, I am incredibly honored and grateful that librarians gave these books such recognition. Of course the Texas librarians are not the people banning books. Instead, they are on the front lines of the fight, working tirelessly to combat the minority threatening to take away readers’ essential freedoms.

  1. As an Appalachian author, you’ve worked hard to combat stereotypes about rural people and to write authentic rural characters. Can you tell us why this is a driving force in your writing?

This one’s pretty simple: I’ve internalized, rejected, and combatted those stereotypes my entire life. I’ve code switched and hidden my rural roots in certain situations to be afforded more respect, and I’ve been demeaned for nothing more than where I call home. I am accustomed to being overlooked, undervalued, and having to fight for any space at numerous tables. But rural tenacity is a real thing. I know my rural truth, and I know it’s not reflected in most popular media. I will forever work to change that.

  1. Serving as faculty for the Highlights Foundation’s Whole Novel Workshop and Intro to Short Fiction class, what aspects of teaching do you find most rewarding, and how does it influence your own writing?

I love encouraging and uplifting writers so that they find their confidence. That’s what I needed most as an aspiring writer. Even if there’s a lot of craft work to do, craft is learnable, and I enjoy teaching students craft ideas that took me a lot of trial and error to figure out. Confidence is a trickier thing. In fourth grade I had to do a research project on Calvin Coolidge, and this quote has stuck with me: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” This is true in so many aspects of life, and writing is no exception. There are loads of talented, smart writers out there. To become a traditionally published author, you must keep going.

It is easy to give up. It is easy to believe you could have written a great book if you’d tried but protect yourself from the possibility of failure by never doing the work. “Failure” is necessary. “Failure” is how writers grow (and how characters grow!), and you will not last long in this business if you cannot persist in the face of adversity. This is the hardest part of being a writer, I think, and it’s not something you magically learn overnight and never have to worry about again. Every author I know (myself included) has writer friends who feed their confidence in moments of self-doubt and rejection. Every writer and aspiring writer willing to do the work has within them the potential to produce extraordinary stories. They just need someone to help them see that possibility. I am honored to be one of those champions for my students. The VCFA faculty members have been so supportive of me, and I strive to emulate their example.

In regards to how teaching influences my own works, I find it impossible to ask writers to challenge themselves and then not want to challenge myself, too. Plus, when you see what’s not working in someone’s else writing, you notice places that you struggle with that same issue. And every time I craft a lecture or workshop, it allows me to study craft issues that strengthen my own work, too.

  1. You have an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and have come back more than once as a GA. How has your time at VCFA shaped your craft?

When I started VCFA, I was mostly a self-taught creative writer. Compared to students who had degrees in creative writing or even published books already, I knew next to nothing about actual craft. The first residency lectures blew my mind wide open. Then my first advisor, Coe Booth, gifted me much-needed permission: I didn’t need to write to impress (hello, recovering perfectionist here!). I needed to write to tell a good story, and that involved allowing myself to produce a sh*tty first draft. I wish I could say I learned that lesson immediately, but as I told my fourth advisor, Uma Krishnaswami, after graduating with my MFA, I finally felt ready to begin it! I still love taking workshops and classes from other authors. Everyone has something to teach, and I am always constantly learning.

As for GAing, my second and third semesters were, unfortunately, filled with personal tragedy and a mental health crisis, much of which I hid from friends and classmates. I wish now I hadn’t done that because I cut myself off from support, but hindsight, you know? (See author’s note in The Edge of Anything.)

Serving as a GA allowed me to experience some social aspects of the program that I’d missed while also learning from new faculty members. My fellow GAs came to be some of my closest and most supportive writing friends. And so many of my beloved (and mega talented!) Secret Gardeners continue to help me with craft by reading drafts, answering questions, and publishing incredible books that teach me so much.

Writing is so much about community. I’ll forever be grateful to VCFA for helping me establish mine.

  1. With such a diverse range of works, from novels to anthologies, what genre or theme do you find most fulfilling to explore as a writer, and are there any upcoming projects you’re particularly excited about?

All of them! What I mean is, I cannot do a project justice if it doesn’t excite me, and honestly, I find limiting myself to a particular genre creatively stifling. How am I supposed to grow as a writer and person if I do that? For that reason, I’m particularly stoked to be contributing poetry about life with chronic migraines and OCD to a forthcoming anthology for adult readers featuring Appalachians with disabilities, edited by Read Appalachia founder Kendra Winchester. I’m midway through co-writing a contemporary middle grade with my agent mate Chris Barton, and I’m currently finishing up edits on my third anthology. Look for the announcement any day! It feels very rural of me, actually, to refuse to be contained within one specific box.

I’m also finding joy in revisiting my academic roots. I’m continuing to partner with Literacy in Place and rural scholar Dr. Chea Parton, most recently in an interview about rurality in literature with YA scholar Steve Bickmore, founder of The Summit on the Research and Teaching of YA Literature. If you haven’t checked out this virtual conference, you definitely should! It’s a great place to see how your critical papers can be used in your career (and to find sources for your critical stuff!). Chea and I are also presenting together, along with author Michael Thomas Ford at the 2024 Appalachian Studies Association conference.

The aforementioned are opportunities that came about because of, shall we say, my rural-instilled scrappiness. My debut The Edge of Anything released March 24, 2020, literally days after COVID shut down most of the world. With all my events cancelled, I scoured for virtual opportunities. That’s how I found The Summit. I submitted a proposal, was accepted, then gave a presentation that led to some incredible friendships and professional connections. Not every writer is going to enjoy public stuff like this, but I love collaborations that evolve from mutual respect and excitement. Life, after all, is all about authentic connections (and not just between people!) and the interconnectedness of all things, which is probably the theme I explore most in my writing.


  1. What is the most valuable piece of advice you can give about writing?


Write what excites you. Write a story that you want to read. You cannot control most things in this highly subjective business, but you can control whether or not you write a story you’re proud of, one that matters to you.

To do that, take as many classes as you can, and find other writers you connect with on a personal level. You might have to step outside your comfort zone to do that—attending author events, craft seminars, or a program like VCFA. And if you want to be a writer, you must write. It doesn’t have to be every day, or for very long each time, but it does need to happen. If you write only a page a day every other day, squeezing it between other work and/or care taker obligations, you’ll produce a 365-page book in two years. (P.S. it’s amazing how much writing time you’ll have if you limit social media.) And chances are, you’ll get so excited about the project, you’ll finish way before that.

Above all, write to the end so that you have an entire piece to revise. And keep persisting!


You can learn more about Nora at

Music Mavens: An Interview with Ashley Walker and Maureen Charles


As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” It has been compared to breath, to life, and is generally understood as something mankind simply cannot be without. In celebration of this universal language and amazing women who contribute to it, VCFA alums Ashley Walker and Maureen Charles combined forces to give young audiences everywhere an all new biography collection, Music Mavens: 15 Women of Note in the Industry. Join us as we learn more about this amazing new book and the authors who co-wrote it!


Ashley Walker                                    Maureen Charles


  1. Tell us a little about Music Mavens. How did you approach writing it together?

Music Mavens: 15 Women of Note in the Industry is a biography collection in the Chicago Review Press Women of Power series, which features high-achieving contemporary women. We were free to approach the world of music from any direction and decided to come at it from many angles, exploring multiple genres and industry roles to show young creatives a variety of paths through the music industry.

This broad approach also served us well as writers. We split the work in half, independently interviewing women in our respective areas of expertise/interest before sharing each story for feedback. Later in the process, we both read and commented on the entire manuscript so many times that we can honestly say we jointly own every word. 

“Writing together” extended beyond the two of us. Many authors from the VCFA WCYA program contributed authenticity reads and proofreading. And each artist featured in the book read and responded to her chapter, leaving us confident that what we’d written was not only accurate but truly captured each subject’s unique voice and perspective.


  1. Tell us a bit about yourselves. Did you meet at VCFA?

Mo: Yes, we met at VCFA. I started out in the same graduating class as Ashley (Writers of the Lost Arc, July 2018) but graduated with the Wrights of the Round Table (January 2019). In addition to being a writer, social entrepreneur, and educator, I’m an amateur musician. I’ve played the guitar and ukulele since age ten and began singing in choirs at age four. I am also the widow of Jon Charles, an Emmy-winning music arranger, composer, and orchestrator, who passed away suddenly just after I completed my first semester at VCFA. 

Ashley: I’m an author, amateur musician with experience in classical and traditional music, and educator with a background in engineering and artificial intelligence. During my VCFA years, my teaching schedule could only accommodate summer residencies, so I came to campus with the Themepunks in 2014, graduated with the Writers of the Lost Arc in 2018, and met Mo while waiting for a shuttle from the Burlington airport in July 2016. Without her, without VCFA, Music Mavens wouldn’t exist in anything like its present form. 


  1. What were some of your challenges writing this book?

We wanted a diverse, international cast drawn from every corner of the music industry, so coming up with the right mix of artists was a big challenge. Because we were required to interview each music maven, we spent many months casting and recasting our list as potential subjects accepted or declined interview requests.

At the writing stage, we grappled with word count. The information we collected during research, combined with long interview transcripts, resulted in far more material than we could include in each chapter. In determining which charming-and-never-before-reported details contributed to each narrative arc, we endured the sweat and heartbreak of deleting many a darling. 


  1. What were some surprising things you learned as you wrote Music Mavens (life, writing, publishing, music, etc.) 

We were surprised and delighted by the educational diversity of our cast. (We didn’t select for that.) Music Mavens features musicians who worked their way through top conservatories alongside artists who taught themselves core skills from YouTube videos and hustled their way up from entry-level positions in studios and record stores. We hope the variety of educational paths taken by our mavens will inspire young creatives to forge their own.

We also marveled at how fast the mavens’ careers are advancing. We submitted our first full draft in December 2021 and had new information to include right up to the final proofread in August 2022. 

For example, Marvel’s Thor: Love & Thunder was released just in time for us to include it in the chapter on film composer Nami Melumad. On the other hand, songwriting and producing duo Nova Wav (Brittany “Chi” Coney and Denisia “Blu June” Andrews) wrote/produced eight of the tracks on Beyonce’s Renaissance album and received three 2023 Grammy nominations shortly after Music Mavens went to print. It has been thrilling to watch all 15 win awards, put out new music, and get cast in new shows. Young creatives can visit the book’s website (www.musicmavensbook) to see performances discussed in the book and recent news.


  1. Which artists were you most excited to share with the world? Why?

Oh, that’s like asking which child is your favorite! We got to know all of these artists well and appreciate their unique characters and contributions, including how each maven uses her position to uplift others. 

For example, renowned rock photographer Katarina Benzova established her own foundation, Mission11, to create campaigns with photography, video, and even celebrity support for charitable organizations. Oram Award-winning multidisciplinary artist Lia Mice designs accessible instruments, such as the one-handed violin, created in collaboration with the One‐Handed Musical Instrument (OHMI) Trust. Two-time world champion beatboxer Kaila Mullady does school visits and has also developed a speech therapy program that uses beatboxing for articulation skill development. 

Though we’re fans of the art and activism of ALL mavens, we hope young people will find faves to add to their playlists and follow as role models.


  1. What are some unique challenges in writing young adult nonfiction?

When it comes to music, every teen and young adult reader has some knowledge, but we had to assume nothing. We tasked ourselves with defining every musical term without getting too pedantic or taking the reader out of the story. 

The other challenge was bringing everything we know about compelling storytelling to the page while at the same time telling the absolute truth. We made up no dialogue, attributed no unexpressed feelings, embellished nothing. 


  1. What does music mean personally for each of you?

Ashley: Music provided solace for me as a child, and in adulthood, I use it to connect with my kids. I took up the violin alongside my sons, and with my daughter, I learned the đàn tranh, a traditional instrument from her birth country. Beyond family, playing for an audience has given me powerful storytelling opportunities. In Musicophilia, the late Oliver Sacks said, “Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional.” My experience of conveying emotion in music (from my little chair at the back of orchestras and ensembles) made me curious to meet the mavens who wield that storytelling power at the frontline of music.

Mo: Music has provided both a soundtrack for my life and an art form for my self-expression. Marrying an arranger/composer, who was part of a music industry family, greatly expanded my knowledge of and appreciation for all genres of music. Writing about musicians was also a way to honor and connect with my late husband.


  1. Did you learn anything at VCFA in particular that helped you write this book?

We both studied fiction writing at VCFA, and everything we learned applied to biography writing.

Ashley: My work on a series of MG novels filled my box with tools I pulled out every day of this project. I’m thinking about studies of setting with Rita Williams-Garcia (1st semester) and Alan Cumyn (3rd), character with Kathi Appelt (2nd), and narrative arc with Shelley Tanaka (4th). 

Mo: With a page limit for this book and 15 stories to tell, we had to write lean, and my work with advisors Mary Quattlebaum, Linda Urban, and Jane Kurtz on scene, story structure, and revision really paid off. During my VCFA picture book semester with Uma Krishnaswami, I worked on a PB biography, and I delivered a Picture Book Panel presentation (July 2017) on ways to home in on the story for a PB Bio. Those explorations proved extremely helpful as I wove together a narrative for each maven.

After graduation, we both took VCFA grad Donna Janell Bowman’s awesome picture book biography class. Most of what we learned from Donna applied equally to writing YA.

A big shout out to Martha Brockenbrough, whose lectures on nonfiction research we revisited and whose YA biographies (Unpresidented and Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary) served as mentor texts for this book.

And we received incredible support from classmates and mentors with industry platforms. Special thanks to Stephani Martinell Eaton, Gail Vannelli, and Cynthia Leitich Smith for including Music Mavens in Cynsational News and the Cynsations series on Nonfiction for Older Readers.


  1. What has been the most rewarding about this process so far?

First and foremost: our partnership. We went into this aware of the challenges of co-writing, and we came out closer due to careful communication and commitment to the project. Second: meeting and befriending some of our musical heroes.


  1. What can we look forward to from each of you in the coming years?

Ashley: I’m working on a nonfiction narrative project about artificial intelligence (my former field) and drafting an MG novel exploring a life-long interest in technology and empathy. At this time, I don’t have plans to write about music, but musicians always wander into my fiction.

Mo: I have nothing new under contract now. However, I’m still working on my MG “lamb” novel that was part of my creative thesis, I have several picture books in progress (including two about musicians), and I’m working with my son Shakib on the story of his childhood in Kabul, Afghanistan. 


For more information, visit Maureen at and Ashley at You can also meet all 15 music mavens at, where the authors have curated photos, videos, and Spotify playlists for each artist.

Publishing Crash Course Part 1: Querying Simplified

Hello! I’m Kate Pentecost (aka Ceredwyn Bagley, the Program Assistant for the Writing for Children and Young Adults Program) and I’m excited to introduce our Publishing Crash Course blog series. This blog series, which will have multiple, detailed installments, is meant to help demystify the process for alumnx and current students preparing to begin their journeys to publication. Fellow alumnx and author Autumn Krause will be joining me for future installments, so definitely stay tuned!
As for today, it’s all about everyone’s favorite topic: QUERYING. Yes, the querying process can be soul-suckingly slow, and sometimes mind-bendingly frustrating, but with these tips, hopefully it doesn’t have to be as awful for you, dear reader. So bookmark this tab and buckle up,  because I’m going to cover everything from making the list to getting The Call. Ready? Here we go!



1. Make your agent list (while you’re in the program, if possible.)

  • Get a feel for it. During your time at VCFA you’ve read hundreds of books, discovering new favorites, noticing trends and learning valuable craft lessons. Take this time to notice the Acknowledgement pages of the books that are similar in theme, age group, and subject matter to yours. The agents who made the deals for your favorite books will always be listed there. Notice who represents what and begin making your list. You can also take the time to talk to your VCFA connections, whether they be classmates, advisors, or the vast alumnx network that connects us all, odds are good that someone from VCFA is working with your top agent picks, and they might be open to referring you if their agent only takes referrals.
  • Use valuable online tools! (Bookmark these!) One you have an idea of who you’d like to work with, check out the resources available to you as a member of the 21st century. Publisher’s Marketplace is a great resource for learning about specific agents and what they’ve represented recently. Agent Query is another wonderful source, and it allows you to search by genre and age group. Manuscript Wishlist is another great source. Between these three (and the Twitter accounts of your top picks) you can get a good idea of what your favorite agents want, if they’re open to queries, and what their requirements are.

2. Draft your query letter. (With this quick and easy breakdown!)

This is the actual query letter I used when I queried my agent, Sara Crowe. Here’s the general format I used:

Paragraph 1 – Show that you’re familiar with the agent’s work and their clients. This is also the place to acknowledge referrals and to introduce your project by genre, age group, and title.


    Dear Sara,

I’ve long admired the wide range of projects you represent, and when fellow VCFA alums Amy-Rose Capetta, Rachel Wilson and Varian Johnson suggested you specifically, I just had to query you for my dark YA fantasy project, Things Lost and Gained.

Paragraph 2 – Summarize your project. Make sure a bit of your style and the overall tone of the work comes through. I tried to sound like the movie version of the book, but with most spoilers intact. (This can also often be used as or built upon to create a synopsis, which may or may not be requested.)


 Every day for the past three hundred years, the Ankou, Valacia’s most famous—and mysterious—mercenary, has died and been reborn, rebuilt, only to repeat the process at sunrise. He travels endlessly in his solid black caravan, fighting monsters, binding ghosts, and banishing demons as he searches for something that appears to be impossible to find: his final rest. But when he finds Flora, handmaiden to the princess of Kaer-Ise barely alive on a beach, everything changes, and the two find themselves on a quest to gain back the things they have lost: her family and his mortality. Their journey leads them into a fight with a mountain monster, through a haunted forest, into the workshop of a lightning-mage (based on Nikola Tesla,) across a barren desert, and to the sentient Rose Gold City, where one can have his or her heart’s most impossible desire granted. Flora and the Ankou become partners and begin to help each other heal from wounds both visible and invisible. But when the Ankou begins to make a deadly transformation into an undead being bent on destruction, their quest becomes a race against time, the unseen, and their very selves. For in the Rose Gold City, only one of them can gain back what he or she has lost. But which one?

Paragraph 3 –  Back to the project, but in more detail. Let them know that it’s complete, what the word count is, where it could go in the future, series-wise, and add in any special credentials you have, like being a VCFA student or alumnx.


That Dark Infinity is complete at 87,000 words and stands alone, though I have plans for a second book (The Dawn of Nothing) and a supplementary book of short stories. I have an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and work as a writer for Writers in the Schools and Writespace, both educational organizations in Houston. Through my work as an educator, I spend countless hours directly interacting with my target audience.

Conclusion – The cordial, polite ending. Let them know if this is a simultaneous submission, let them know that you’ve attached or included whatever they require along with your query, thank them, and say goodbye! Think of it like a cover letter, and keep it short. Remember, they read hundreds of these a day.


I would be thrilled if you would consider my novel for representation, though a few other agents are considering simultaneously. Per your guidelines, I have included the first five pages in the body of this email, pasted as plain text. Thank you for your time and consideration, and I hope you have a wonderful day.

Kathleen Bagley


3. Begin sending your queries!

Working in batches of however many are comfortable for you, start sending your queries!

Pro-Tip: Think twice before sending to your top picks right off the bat. I know you want to *immediately* sign with that rockstar agent you’ve been reading so much about, but often writers don’t really hit their querying stride until they’ve sent about five or six queries. This isn’t to say your first few have to be throwaways, but do understand that if you’re going to have typos, misspellings, pronoun problems or attachment-less emails, it’s more likely to happen in the first few queries.

4. WAIT and prepare for responses.

Publishing goes through faster and slower seasons, but waiting is part of the deal no matter what. If you start querying in the holidays, know it’s usually incredibly slow, and the wait time to hear back from an agent can be as little as a couple of days all the way up to a YEAR. Some agents may not get back to you at all. And that’s just part of the process. But remember that each agent has multiple clients who all have projects, and agents are people with kids and partners and pets and, well, LIVES outside of work. So be patient, and comply with any full manuscript requests you get, while letting the agents know who else is considering.
  • Rejections.

They’re part of the process. Just shrug, send a polite “Thank you for considering,” response, and keep on trucking.

  • Revise and Resends

When you get an R&R request from an agent, it’s not a yes or a no. It’s a MAYBE. Follow the agent’s directions as you revise your manuscript, send back, and wait to hear back! However, if a revision goes against your idea of what you’re really trying to say with the project, consider passing on the R&R and that agent in particular. Artistic differences matter, and you’d rather have no agent than an agent who doesn’t understand your work.

  • Acceptance(s)!

When you get an acceptance, your prospective agent will send you an email requesting a phone call. This is to get a good idea of your personality, your plans for future work, your editorial  expectations, and more. It’s to make sure the proverbial shoe fits. Don’t get so excited about being chosen that you forget to ask any important questions on your mind. In fact, it might be a good idea to have a list of questions to ask your agent when you do get an offer of representation. (Hint: “How regularly do you communicate with or check in on your clients?” is one that will save you a lot of overthinking.) You can get multiple offers of representation at once! When this happens, weigh the pros and cons, ask LOTS of questions, listen carefully, and honestly, trust the vibes as you make this very important decision only you can make.


That’s it for querying, but stay tuned for the next installments of the series: Preparing For Submissions, Submissions, Publication and Deals, and finally, Launching and Marketing!

Got a question I didn’t cover?

Email me at [email protected]!

Dealing With Stress: A Q&A With VCFA Alumnx Christie Cognevich

If there’s anything the past few years has taught us, it’s that stress is something that can no longer be pushed aside and ignored or accepted as simply part of being human. In her newest nonfiction book, Dealing With Stress, author, artist, mental health advocate, and VCFA alumnx Christi Cognevich tackles the topic of dealing with stress, tailoring the approach to help teenagers growing and changing in times that seem to always be unprecedented.

1. Tell us a little about this book. What was your goal in writing it?
Empowering readers through knowledge. “Knowledge is power” may sound like a cliche, but it is an enduring truism. Because stress responses are an essential gear in the much larger system of our bodies’ complex survival mechanisms, I wanted to demystify and destigmatize it. I wanted my readers to come away with more resources, identify with some of the anecdotes, and add some coping skills to their emotional toolbox.

I believe when we understand the function of something like stress, it’s much easier to not beat ourselves up for normal physiological and psychological responses. When we know why they’re happening, it becomes a little less difficult to roll with those stress responses instead of working against them. When we understand why we’re thinking and feeling the way we do, we can also recognize with a little more clarity when we’re overwhelmed or when we’re making ineffective or unhealthy choices for ourselves.

2. When did you notice the need for this book?
I wrote up the proposal for Dealing With Stress sometime in early 2021 when the enduring COVID-19 pandemic had made life very surreally confusing and difficult for many. Getting adequate mental health support is itself an ongoing international crisis, one that existed long before the pandemic. The pandemic just emphasized how, as a global community, we’re still a long way from where we need to be with accessible mental health resources.

At the time I was writing the book proposal, I was still teaching high school juniors and seniors full time. For many years I’ve worked very closely with adolescents who were stressing about their futures beyond high school—choosing whether college was right for them, deciding on professions, applying to colleges and scholarships, and so on. It’s a daunting task under the best of circumstances. Then the pandemic started. Thinking about their futures when the world had suddenly turned upside down was clearly nightmarishly stressful for so many of them. They were trying to figure out who they would be beyond adolescence in the middle of a storm of stressors, so it seemed really timely to be working on something that would provide the information and resources they needed.

3. What was something surprising you learned during the writing of this book?
The “amygdala hijack” is a concept I learned while working on Dealing With Stress that I think is fascinating and useful to know. It is, in fact, harder to think and make rational decisions when we’re under duress because the amygdala (the part of the brain that detects threats and triggers stress responses) works significantly faster than the frontal lobe (which controls conscious decision-making). Once the amygdala is in the driver’s seat, it begins issuing hormonal alarms that get our bodies ready to act, and it also prevents the frontal lobe from taking control.

That “hijack” serves a purpose. Our amygdalas need to function that quickly for our own survival. If we spend three seconds trying to consciously make a decision to jump aside when we’re about to get hit by a car, that’s not going to go well. Our amygdalas take over and send the signal to move out the way in a fraction of a second before we’ve even realized what’s happening. Of course, that’s an ideal situation where the amygdala hijack ensures our survival. Sometimes we’re stressed over things we can’t do anything about or things that aren’t true dangers. That’s when the “hijack” can be really problematic.

In one way, just knowing how and why our brains respond to stressors the way they do can help destigmatize our experiences. We might feel irrational in stressful situations because we really aren’t fully rational. There’s no shame in that. However, knowing the basics about how it works also gives us more options for later. It’s okay to realize that we’re not in a position to make effective choices or think clearly if we’re too stressed, so we need to step away to think.

And while we can’t necessarily take control of our amygdala responses in the moment, in calmer moments we can begin thinking through certain stressors where we’d prefer to stay calm (like, for example, taking tests). When we think them through outside the stressful moment, we can feel more prepared for when we encounter them later. By identifying and reviewing stressors in calming ways, we can, over time, help prevent our amygdalas from viewing those situations as a danger.

4. How did you choose the teens and adults who participated in the interview process?
I asked anyone and everyone who I thought might be willing to share their anecdotes! I’m quite grateful for the power of social media and friends/family being willing to share my interview requests with others! It was quite heartening and inspiring how many people are willing to share their really personal and even painful experiences with the hope that sharing their stories might help others.

5. What do you think is the most damaging effect of stress on teens and young adults?
Honestly, I think what’s deeply damaging isn’t from dealing with stress itself, it’s from how we hear people talking about it, which we then internalize ourselves. That can solidify views that promote ineffective or damaging coping mechanisms that carry on into adulthood. When we frame stress as “bad,” something to be avoided, something we can and should just “toughen up” about, that leads to deeply unhealthy, stigmatizing, and invalidating experiences when we experience stress. It’s easy to internalize that mindset: Why do I feel this way? What’s wrong with me? Am I just too weak, too sensitive? I should chin up. Other people had it worse. Just get over it. We will never avoid experiencing stress. Our bodies are designed to feel it. We wouldn’t survive without it. Invalidating ourselves only compounds the stress.

6. Did you do any research for this book during your time at VCFA?
I did! Dealing With Stress was researched and written during my second and third semesters in the WCYA program. My work on this book fueled significant inspiration for my critical thesis on highly sensitive protagonists. I’d spent so much time thinking about our neurological and psychological processes that it fed my interest in very internal characters and how we represent rich inner lives (as opposed to external action) on the page.

7. Your grad lecture was on highly sensitive protagonists. Can you explain what being highly sensitive means?
A small but significant portion of the population (about 20 percent) is what psychotherapist Elaine N. Aron terms “highly sensitive.” This isn’t a disorder but a neurological trait measured in four tendencies: depth of processing, overstimulation, emotional reactivity, and sensing subtleties. That is, highly sensitive people take in a lot of information about their environment and process it deeply, but can get overstimulated or stressed as a result of all that input. The upside about it is that even though highly sensitive people seem very “internal”—maybe seeming like they’re overly cautious and slow to act while they think through all the subtleties they’ve noticed—they act more intuitively and quicker in situations they recognize. They might overthink things and react slowly in an initial encounter, but if they can see the similarities between previous experiences and new ones, they have excellent intuition.

8. Does high stress affect highly sensitive young people differently than others?
In some ways, yes. They are more sensitive to their stressors because their nervous systems are wired for more stimulus: to notice more and be more reactive to it. But again, I’d say the biggest issue here is not the stress itself, but societal attitudes. Often, Western cultures deeply stigmatize sensitivity.

It’s not that highly sensitive young people aren’t wonderfully resilient and capable. It’s that they can regularly get mocked or invalidated for needing a break from a noisy room or wanting to avoid being in a big crowd. Needing a break or knowing their limits isn’t a weakness. When that experience gets labeled as a disorder or flaw, young people can internalize some pretty unhealthy (and, by extension, increasingly stressful) messages about themselves.

9. Tell us more about you! What are some cool things that people don’t know about you?
A lot of people know that I’m a huge book lover and cat enthusiast, but one of my biggest foundational passions (that I discuss rarely, for some reason) is for classic video games. I’m obsessed with the Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest games which I’ve been playing and collecting for over thirty years. I still have my boxes, booklets, and maps for all my childhood Dragon Warrior games on the Nintendo. They’ve been made (and remade) across lots of game systems over the decades, so sometimes I have to dust off the old NES or PlayStation or Nintendo DS to play them. And yes, I’m really, really obsessed and do, in fact, buy new consoles solely based on DQ releases; I bought a Nintendo Switch because of it. I do play other games, but I buy new consoles just for that series. And I’m a big fan of some classic roleplaying adventure games on the PC, too.

It’s not just that I like to play them. I love thinking about the nuts and bolts of the game narrative, learning about the history of their making, and thinking about their technological/gameplay innovations. Watching the games evolve (while keeping much-loved familiar elements) is so much fun. Also, I spend a lot of time reading the Digital Antiquarian blog ( about the history of computer games. I think that I love some of these games because it’s just a different kind of storytelling and narrative immersion.

10. Right now you’re working on a project that centers around growing up introverted and have invited our readers to be interviewed about their experiences as introverts. Can you tell us anything about that project?
Yes! Last month I signed the contract for my third YA non-fiction book tentatively titled Introverts: Insights and Tips for Teenagers. Some of it was, in fact, Inspired by the research I did for my critical thesis and graduate lecture on highly sensitive protagonists. Like my other YA non-fiction books, it will include anecdotes from interviews with teenagers and adults discussing their real-life experiences relayed directly in their own words. I welcome hearing from anyone in our wonderful community if you’re interested in doing an interview (either via email or Google Form) about their experiences growing up introverted. I can be contacted here via Google Form: Also, that link contains more detailed information about the online interview process.


You can learn more about Christie and her books–and valuable, printable resources on dealing with stress and more–at her website,

The Fight for Intellectual Freedom: an Interview with Amy King and Tirzah Price

Throughout the past several months, challenges and outright bans of books (most frequently books with LGBTQIA+ themes and/or books by BIPOC authors)  have swept the nation, beginning in pockets of unrest and spreading like disease. According to PEN America, nearly 140 school districts in 32 states across the US have issued more than 2,500 book bans during the 2021-2022 school year alone. It is clear to us at VCFA that a simple week or month of awareness isn’t enough to fight against the attack on intellectual freedom. VCFA alumnx, author, and librarian Tirzah Price, and faculty member Amy King, interviewed over Zoom, gave their thoughts on why these bans and challenges seem to be growing in frequency and intensity, discussed their personal experiences with bans and challenges, and offered recommendations for joining the fight against book banning. (Video/audio coming soon.)


Ceredwyn Bagley: Hello everyone, and thank you for joining me to discuss this increasingly pressing topic, not just in kidlit but all over the US: the recent spate of book bans and challenges. Let’s start with introductions.

Tirzah Price: I’m Tirzah, I’m the author of the Jane Austen Murder Mysteries, I’m a former bookseller, and I’m the director of a small library in Iowa.

Amy King: Hi, I’m Amy King. I write books for a living and I love my job. I have been a literacy teacher since 1997 and do all kinds of other stuff but mostly I’m in the business of lifting children up and not limiting them.

It seems like we’re going to have a lot to talk about! So first, how have you seen the recent spate of book bans manifest in your area?

Tirzah: Iowa has recently been in the news. There have been libraries in Iowa that have literally shut down because there have been challenges. Not just challenges to the materials but also challenges to the staff and really horrible harassment campaigns against the staff who are queer, staff who support diversity of books, and what’s really insidious about these campaigns is that they happen on social media, they happen in the communities and not through official channels. So people quit, and I don’t blame them. If I were being harassed and doxed I wouldn’t want to go to work every day. So that has definitely been happening in my area. It’s very unsettling to see it happen in small towns that are an hour’s drive from me. You just don’t know if it’s going to hit you next.

Ceredwyn: What is the difference between a challenge and a ban?

Tirzah: A challenge is when someone comes to the library, says “I don’t think you should have this book,” and then there’s an official process for challenges. Every single library should have a democratic process by which challenges can be processed. A ban is a complete pull from the shelves after a challenge.

Amy: We’re finding here in my area that schools, who didn’t have a policy like libraries do, suddenly invent their own versions of the challenge process. So there are suddenly “panels” –and often it’s just a superintendent choosing one person as the head of the process after he’s already decided to ban the book—to address book challenges. We’ve seen special interest groups rallying against school libraries, basically just going for lists, lists of LGBTQIA books or books with diverse authors, without reading any of the books, and challenging all of them at once. So even instead of having “opt out” they’re trying to make everyone have to “opt in.” It’s political, it’s distracting, and it’s just sort of keeping people busy.


Some of the most commonly currently banned books across the US.

Ceredwyn: So why now, why all of this?

Tirzah: It’s an escalation of what’s been going on politically for the past six years. People are getting organized, and basically issue hopping. I think it’s also a reaction to marriage equality, which is still recent in the US. I used to think “that’s safe,” we’re good, though now I don’t really think that anymore. But what do they go after if marriage equality is the law? They start targeting trans people. And it’s really easy to target trans kids because they don’t have as much agency and support as they ought to. So it’s all snowballing.

Amy: This is a smaller, louder minority. And from the down low, this is about dismantling public education. It’s been a goal for longer than the last six years, though that’s when it began being vocalized. It’s a very fraught time in American politics.

Ceredwyn: How is it affecting you personally in your various roles?

Tirzah: I’m taking the opportunity to make sure our policy language surrounding challenges and bans is very clear, and mentally preparing for when, if this happens. We’re having to really consider our process here. It’s hard not to be a little fearful. I mean, there was this case in Michigan recently where these special interest groups actually convinced voters to defund the library. And even though that library had a GoFundMe and Nora Roberts donated $50,000, that’s not sustainable. The problem is still there. And that is really scary! So far my books haven’t been challenged, but who knows? I try not to think about it because at the end of the day, I can’t write thinking of whether or not some random parent in Kansas is going to ban my book. I try to put my energy toward fighting this in my day job and as a citizen.

Amy: I’ve seen our school board meetings start to go four or five hours, with people being removed and police involvement. That means it’s not a safe place. I think it’s a very important thing to note that when you’re getting doxed, getting the police called on you as a librarian for ordering books, which happened in my community, or when teachers are being labeled groomers and pedophiles for having queer books—not even assigning them, just having them—it’s not a safe place anymore. The language surrounding the issue, “pedophile,” “groomer,” “pornography,” even “CRT.” It’s really incendiary and it’s doing its job. It’s drumming people up, and now we have teachers who can’t have classroom libraries, can’t have certain books on display. Even like Liz Garton Scanlon’s books, Varian’s books, biographies of important POC. Students fought back against that ban. Seniors.
As for me, I’ve seen a lot of my books get outright banned. Everyone Sees the Ants, though I don’t know why—maybe I say “vagina” too much. Of course Ask the Passengers due to sexuality, and Dig. That one’s been interesting. I’ve seen a lot of my books banned.

Ceredwyn: There’s the idea that any publicity is good publicity and that having a banned book is good for sales. What’s been your experience with that?

Amy: No, it doesn’t make you more money to have your book banned. Absolutely not.

Tirzah: And, related, Stephen King has this quote basically saying that if a library bans a book, you should go buy it and read it. And no shade to Stephen King, but it’s a really privileged idea to think that everyone has the access to just go buy a book after a library has banned it. I work in a town of 2000 people. If a book were to get banned in my library, students probably wouldn’t have the ability to access it, even online, because to buy a book online requires money they may or may not have. And I think that’s what kind of rankles me about Banned Books week sometimes. The reality is this: books get banned, kids lose access. Full stop.

Ceredwyn: So what are some ways we can be more active and fight against banning books?

Tirzah: Get involved. You don’t have to join a library board, but take the time to read meeting minutes online. Stay informed. Read the school board meeting minutes. Read the library meeting minutes. Sometimes it’s boring. It’s great when they’re boring. But you as a stakeholder owe it to yourself to use this public resource to know what’s going on in your community and to be able to offer support in early stages of challenges. It’s a very easy thing that all of us can do at any time.

Amy: Go to protests. Learn how to write a good letter. Say “I don’t like this.” Don’t say “that’s bullshit,” because that’s not nice, but make sure to encourage students to express themselves and use their own ability to fight. It also means a lot to students to see that people are fighting for them and that they are wanted. We have to keep talking about it, and we have to keep fighting for intellectual freedom.

You can learn more about Tirzah Price and Amy King at their respective websites,

Additional Resources – Censorship News Roundup

The National Coalition Against Censorship

NCAC Resource for Defending LGBTQIA+ Stories (link to printable pdf)

Ethel’s Song: An Interview with Barbara Krasner

In increasingly Unprecedented Times, we often look to the past to inform our actions as we move into the uncertain future. Historical books, especially books for young readers about people who have thus far had their particular histories unsung, have been and continue to be invaluable to education, not only on the subject of history itself, but on the subject of humanity.
Author and alumnx Barbara Krasner has written one such historical novel–in verse!– about a powerhouse of a woman tried and executed for espionage post WWII in the US: Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems, a Novel in Verse.
Check out our interview with Barbara below and learn more about her and her fascinating new book coming out September 13, 2022!
1.Tell us a little bit about Ethel’s song in your own words.
Ethel’s Song: Ethel Rosenberg’s Life in Poems, a Novel in Verse puts a woman accused of and executed for conspiracy to commit espionage in the context of place and time. Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg was a victim of her circumstances and represents an American tragedy.
2. Who was Ethel Rosenberg and why is her story especially important for young readers right now?
Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg was born in the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an area swarming with poor Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Whip-smart and talented in acting and singing, Ethel’s hopes to go to college were dashed by the Great Depression and the family’s need for her to go to work. She became active in workers’ rights. When she met Julius Rosenberg at a charity benefit, she met her soulmate. Accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets, Ethel dealt with challenges in the American legal system against a backdrop of fear of communism in the post-World War II period and ever-present antisemitism. We still see these challenges today.
3. You chose to write this historical novel in verse. Why was this the best choice to portray Ethel and her story?
I originally drafted this narrative as non-fiction prose. But at a Highlights Foundation retreat, Calkins Creek editor Carolyn P. Yoder suggested I rewrite it as verse. I felt immediately relieved and liberated. Using verse, I could use poetic form to convey Ethel’s emotions (e.g., a villanelle for her despair), repetition to communicate obsession, etc.
4. Tell us a bit about you. What makes you tick as an author?
I write history in a variety of forms–picture books, historical fiction, novels in verse. I have a Ph.D. in Holocaust & Genocide Studies and teach courses in those areas as well as American history.
5. What are some social justice issues that are close to your heart right now?
I am concerned about giving voice to those who either have no voice or have little to no opportunity to get their voice heard. I just read the UN Declaration of Human Rights to my genocide class the other day and that exercise reminded me of how those rights do not exist in many parts of the world, including really our own country.
6. What was something that surprised you while writing this book?
I wanted Julius to speak up for his wife and tell everyone she had nothing to do with the charges levied against them. She was not a member of the communist party, had no code name, and did not pass any secrets.
7. What was the biggest challenge you faced writing Ethel’s Song?
The biggest challenge was sorting through the legalese and getting all the legal points correct. I thank Ethel’s son, Robert Meeropol, for bringing those errors to my attention.
8. You have another project in the works. What can you tell us about it?
Yes, thanks! I’m working on another young adult novel in verse called Camp Nordland. It deals with the unraveled friendship between two Newark, NJ teenagers starting in 1937 when the teen one of German heritage (the other is Jewish) attends a Nazi paramilitary training camp in rural New Jersey. Camp Nordland operated in Andover from 1937 until 1941. It’s due for publication in Fall 2023 from Calkins Creek/Astra Books for Young Readers.
9. What do you do to decompress when the ills of the world seem too heavy?
That’s actually not one of my strong suits, unfortunately. I play a lot of Freecell, watch Bravo TV, and lead writing sessions on family history and memoir.
10. What are some social justice resources you can recommend for your readers?
Facing History and Ourselves is a fabulous website I can recommend. I also recommend Echoes and Reflections and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website.
You can learn more about Barbara and her works at

Be Real, Macy Weaver! An Interview With Lakita Wilson

Art cannot exist in a vacuum. This we understand completely at VCFA. Each form of art influences and is influenced by the other art forms, creating the web that connects The Arts (big A.) It’s no surprise, then, that VCFA WCYA alum Lakita Wilson explores and celebrates a separate art (the art of fashion design) in her upcoming middle grade novel, Be Real Macy Weaver, which will be released on July 12, 2022 from Penguin Random House. We got to interview her about writing, fashion as an art form, and capturing the longing for friendship and understanding that is part of the experience of childhood.

1. Tell us about Be Real, Macy Weaver in your own words.
Be Real, Macy Weaver is a novel about a girl who wants more. More love. More acceptance. More support. More friends. But, she’s going to have to discover who she is, what she likes, and what’s best for her to get it.

2. Tell us about your main character. What parts of you or others did she come from? What about her makes you proud?
There are definite similarities between Macy and me as a kid. I desperately wanted to be seen, and I definitely did the most at times. I didn’t always have friends, and I wasn’t always the best at being a friend. But I made it through, and I knew Macy would too, if she just kept going, owned up to her part in the mess, and worked toward better. Roadblocks and disappointments are hurled at us every day. The only thing anyone can do—child or adult— is work to get to a better place the best way they know how.

3. Fashion is a big part of this book. What drew you to fashion and did you have to learn anything new about fashion before writing this book?
I am obsessed with fashion—fashion can be a tool for expressing individuality, or your community as a collective. When I wear a unique piece, I am telling you who I am. When I wear something that symbolizes my collective group—whether it has cultural significance, school gear, or even something that is generation-specific, I am telling you who we are. I think when chosen with care, your wardrobe has the power to say so much without you ever having to speak. I’ve always loved browsing through fashion magazines and looking at what is coming down the runway (even though I could rarely afford the pieces.) Studying fashion, and Haute Couture specifically for this book, forced me to see fashion design as a true art form. The same way I try to give my readers a story, fashion designers tell an entire story in one collection. And I love looking at fashion in that way. What is the story coming down this runway? What does the designer want me to know about what they created?

4. What do you think are some of the things children struggle with when it comes to learning to be their true selves?
Being yourself is so hard when you’re young, because in the short term, it’s so much easier to blend in, and become acceptable by peer and societal standards. But the long term havoc this does to your heart and self-esteem isn’t worth it. So, it’s definitely a struggle, and a social risk to showcase what makes you unique . However, I will say that this generation feels a lot braver than my own. This generation embraces and celebrates uniqueness a lot more. And I find that so refreshing. Maybe our generation saw the emotional damage of masking ourselves to fit in and taught our children better. Or maybe the children today are just smarter.

5. Trying to find a best friend–not just any friend, but a BEST friend–is a theme that shows up often in middle grade. Why do you think the yearning for best friendship is such a big theme for that age group?
I teach early childhood education at a college here in Maryland, and one of the things I teach my students is about the progression of play and friendship—and what that looks like in a child’s development. Children move from parallel play (playing side by side, but not necessarily together), to playing together in preschool, and actually choosing their own friends, instead of selecting friendship based on convenience and proximity. By the time children reach the 8-12 age range, they understand the value of friendship, and how it can really be an asset for the heart. So, the next natural stage of development for them is choosing the best or the favorite. Who am I closest to? Who do I feel comfortable sharing my deepest secrets. Who gets me the most? They are also beginning to think critically about these friendships. “This person is my friend, but they make me feel horrible inside all the time. Is this really my friend? Do friends treat each other this way?” Friendship is a popular theme, because it’s one of the first times children get to make their own choices about what’s happening in their lives and are forced to trust themselves. The best decisions aren’t always made in this stage, but it’s a necessary part of our development so that we can look back on our missteps or mistakes, and choose better next time. I could write ten more books around the friendship/best friendship theme because there’s always something friendship-related going on with this age group.

6. What was the most surprising thing you learned (about fashion, about your characters, or about yourself) while writing this book?
I loved the fact that the original designers of Haute Couture clothing were literally painting designs that had symbolic meaning onto the fabric. The fact that a designer could make this very unique piece, and it be something that can’t be duplicated is priceless. I realized as I studied that, that we had teens in my high school who did the same thing. They would airbrush clothing and sell them, and we called it urban wear. But honestly, they weren’t mass producing it (at least not the ones who were creating stuff in their bedrooms.), they were creating unique pieces to wear themselves or sell off to a classmate. So, technically, they was this renaissance of Haute Couture Urban Wear going on right in my high school, and we all treated it like it was no big deal. Those guys deserve their flowers for having the guts to create on that level!

7. What was something you learned at VCFA that helped you write this book?
When I started VCFA, I had one novel drafted, and I thought I would fix this novel at school, and graduate ready to publish that one work. VCFA turned my “one and done” idea on its head as soon as I arrived. My advisors and the school in general encouraged me to write widely and take risks—to free myself to be as creative as possible while I was there. I shelved the original novel halfway through the program, and started MACY on a blanket in the grass during my third semester residency. I had just attended Evan Griffith’s grad lecture:
Give the Hero a Pet: How Animals Can Reveal and Deepen Human Characterization and I was determined to put what I’d just learned on the page. So, I created this spider as Macy’s friend/pet. And it’s the only thing from those first typed lines in the grass that remained in the final copy of the novel. Thinking about it, I should’ve named that spider Evan. Missed opportunity, lol!
Also, I had a lot of inspiration behind using fashion as a form of expression by just going to residency. I mean, have you seen Ann Cardinal and her uniquely amazing eyeglasses? She’s basically a fashion icon. Will Alexander, and the way he’s used his cane as the greatest style accessory to hit College Hall’s Chapel? Put him on the cover of GQ immediately. I respect someone who goes out of their way to showcase their individuality. I recently saw Amy King on the cover of School Library Journal in her trademark ripped jeans, and the joy it brought me is unexplainable. Because, Amy brought herself to that cover. It’s brave and fun to see.

8. What was the most challenging part of writing Be Real, Macy Weaver?
The most challenging part of writing BE REAL, MACY WEAVER was finding the emotional foundation that ultimately led to many of her choices. Macy needed so much character development at first. For so long, when I would write scenes in novels, I would include a lot of action. Things were always happening. And I could make something humorous. But, I never looked inside my main character’s heart, and I believe this is what made it so hard to get an agent at first. I would always get feedback from agents saying, “This is fun concept, but it lacks emotional resonance.” One time I got this same feedback three times in one week from agents who had rejected me, so I knew I had to work on elevating my craft. For BE REAL, MACY WEAVER, I had to sit down, and really think about how I’ve felt in similar situations, or how I might feel in the situations my characters were in. Then I started rebuilding my characters from the inside out. This is when I really got to know Macy and her friends.

9. You’re also writing a young adult book. What was the most stark difference for you in writing YA and writing MG?
I am very childlike at heart, so middle grade is naturally easier for me to write. I remember my childhood angst very well. I remember the feelings of not belonging, of being too much, of not being enough. YA is completely different for me. I spent so much of my teen years, expertly pretending not to care, that it’s harder to remember how I truly felt during those years—making it harder to put those feelings on the page. You also have to be so much more romantic in YA and for a person who would rather tell a fart joke than say “I love you”, this is extremely hard. However, longing for more/better for yourself is a theme that has no age limit, so regardless of MG or YA, I always start there.

10. Do you have any advice for other middle grade authors?
Find your inner child, and spend lots of time getting to know them again. Technology changes throughout the years, but wants, needs, hopes and dreams don’t. They find their way into children’s hearts throughout the generations. You may have written a pen pal using a letter and snail mail. Your children may leave comments under a friends post on social media. Both of you still want(ed) the same thing. A connection. A friend. To find someone that gets you. Write from your inner child, and you will find readers that can relate to your story.


Lakita Wilson is the author of several novels and non-fiction projects for children and young adults, including What Is Black Lives Matter?, a part of the New York Times Bestselling HQ Now series; Be Real, Macy Weaver, a coming of age middle grade friendship story; and a few other secret projects she isn’t allowed to tell you about yet.

You can learn more about her and her books at

Interview with Alum Robin Kirk on Two New Releases!

There seem to be two schools of thought on what to read during Unprecedented Times: fantasy to indirectly inform as one escapes reality, and nonfiction, to prepare, learn, and inform about the world in which we live. But with her two new releases, the middle grade nonfiction Righting Wrongs 20 Human Rights Heroes Around the World and the final book in her young adult fantasy trilogy, The Mother’s Wheel, Winter 2014 alum Robin Kirk has readers of both schools covered.

In addition to being a children’s book author, Kirk is also on the faculty at Duke University, where she serves as Professor of the Practice of Cultural Anthropology, Faculty Co-Chair of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute and a founding member of the Pauli Murray Project. Her lived and academic experience in this field has served to deepen and inform her writing, helping it to ring true in increasingly unpredictable times.

You have two very different books to discuss today! Righting Wrongs: 20 Human Rights Heroes Around the World and The Mother’s Wheel, Book Three in your YA fantasy, The Bond Trilogy. What can you tell us about each of these books?

In my life, I’ve written in virtually every format: essays, op-eds, poems, fiction (novels, novellas, short stories, and flash fiction), press releases, technical reports, etc. I even drafted an opera based on my neighborhood list serve! For me, format is a choice that leads to the audience you are seeking as a writer and what effect you hope to have. But in all of these formats, my theme is very much the same: justice. In Righting Wrongs, I wanted to highlight that rights are envisioned, then won, then defended. Human rights were always something people had to think up, then work to achieve. I want kids to know about the people who did that on women’s rights, the laws of war, animal rights, and much more. In The Bond Trilogy, I use story to explore how rights work in an alternate world. My heroine, Dinitra, is raised to believe that men are inherently violent and should be eliminated. That’s one of the real-world ways of thinking that leads to genocide. In the course of the series, Dinitra comes to question everything, even the idea that animals and mutants—mixtures of animal and plant—don’t have rights equal to hers. The main character in The Mother’s Wheel is a mutant, Sil, who ends up saving her and creating a found family that is just as loving and intertwined as any purely human one.


You’re one of the rare authors who writes fiction and nonfiction, and who writes for multiple age groups. What were the different challenges you faced writing these two books?

I think writing both is actually more common than people realize. One of the great examples of this is Margaret Atwood, who is so talented in so many genres (including picture books, a format I admire and very much hope to ad to my list). I think one challenge is to ensure that nonfiction is as gripping as fiction. People and especially kids learn through story. In Righting Wrongs, I was challenged to make sure that the sometimes messy lives I was working with had a coherence and theme that kid readers would find interesting. At the same time, I wanted to reflect that these heroes also went through times of doubt and uncertainty, as do we all.


Fantasy can be such a great tool for self-discovery. Where did the inspiration for The Bond Trilogy come from? What did you learn while writing it?

I had just finished the draft of an adult novel and was pretty sad. I was on vacation with my family and ended up walking down a mountain largely by myself (everyone was ahead of me). I’d just finished The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and was so impressed by how he tackled the incredibly difficult theme of humanity in the midst of the Holocaust. Doubly impressive that he did this with kid readers in mind. I wanted to do something in the same spirit in a fantasy world. So I thought, ‘What group of people would most of us say has damaged the world the most – and who many would then believe should be controlled or even eliminated?’ The answer was easy: men. And that’s the seed of The Bond, where Dinitra has been taught that it’s not only natural to confine men. Getting rid of them entirely is the best and most ethical way to protect the world. What I learned is EVERYTHING. This early draft was what I sent as part of my application to VCFA. Looking back, it was TERRIBLE from start to finish and in every way. But it became the template that helped make me a better writer, good enough, at least, to turn this idea into a publishable book.


Righting Wrongs is such an important book for these increasingly unprecedented times. Did anything from your personal or work experience motivate you to write it?

The idea was very much born in the classroom. I teach human rights to undergraduates. Again and again, I understood that they thought of human rights as something everyone got, kind of like a driver’s license, and that was consistent through time. This is in part a huge failure of the US educational system, but it goes further than that. My students simply couldn’t see that real people were behind the rights they took for granted. And real people are also constantly pushing at the boundaries of ideas of rights to include more people—women, children, LGBTQIA+, the disabled, even animals. I wrote this book not only to highlight the very real people behind human rights, but also show them, these new generations, that human rights now belongs to them and they get to continue to expand these ideas.



Tell us about your characters in The Bond Trilogy. What made you realize you HAD to tell their story?

I was inspired by Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series to shift point-of-view leads for each book. I love series that do that since the reader gets a new perspective with beach one and the author gets to explore the themes from different backgrounds. Dinitra is the main character in The Bond. I really wanted her to be that character that helps the readers walk through a reality that isn’t so far from our own in terms of how the logic of genocide works. She comes to see males as human and realizes she’s been lied to. The Hive Queen is from the perspective of the warrior she falls in love with, Fir. His struggle is different: how can you be free when all you’ve known is bondage? He wants to free his brothers but make serious mistakes and has to live with the consequences and still figure out what it means to be free. Sil is the main character in The Mother’s Wheel. In her case, she’s the only one of her kind since she was a failed genetic experiment. Can she ever have a family—or love someone and be loved back? I loved telling these stories since they all had to do with justice in different ways. They are all a piece of me, and I learned a lot about myself in writing the story.


What surprised you about writing these three books?

When I finished the first draft of The Bond, I thought that was it, that I was done with these characters and this world. But my son, about 10 at the time, said to me, “Boys love series. They want to know what they’re getting into. You should write a series.” I immediately dismissed this. Then gradually, I started to see how rich this world could be. The Hive Queen was terrifying to write but also so satisfying. I’d completed The Mother’s Wheel when the original published canceled the contract (in the midst of COVID). So I was faced with a choice–leave the story as is or find a way to complete the trilogy? I realized that I couldn’t leave the story behind; I needed to finish. Otherwise, I realized, this world, these beloved characters, would be no more. I HAD to finish.


What are some challenges you’ve encountered in publishing a trilogy during Covid?

Having the publisher bail on the project was a real blow. But for a number of reasons, I came to see that I was much better off. I got to commission new—AND FABULOUS—covers that more accurately reflect the books. I also redesigned the interiors, a creative task I really enjoyed.


Which of the human rights heroes’ stories in Righting Wrongs were you most excited to share with your readers and why?

If I had to choose one, I’d say Judith Heumann, a champion of disability rights. At the time the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was agreed to in 1948, there was no recognition at all of the rights of the disabled. This is despite the fact that the person who chaired the effort, Eleanor Roosevelt, had lived with a disabled person, her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (he died on an unrelated cause in 1945). Like FDR, Heumann contracted polio. She began to use a wheelchair as a young girl. At seemingly every turn, she was faced with discrimination. Instead of giving up, she and other disabled activists fought back, often very creatively. It’s largely due to their persistence that we have many accessible buildings, close-captioning, accommodations in the classroom and work, elevators, and so, so much more. Heumann is constantly reminding people that we all face potential disability because of life, especially as we age. Acknowledging and defending the rights of the disabled is good for us all.


How do you see your body of work evolving in the future? More fantasy? More nonfiction? Or maybe branching out into other genres and age groups?

I am so excited about the future! I have a number of projects lined up: more stories in the world of The Bond Trilogy, a space opera, picture books, even a middle-grade novel. And I hope there will be a second volume of Righting Wrongs. There are so many heroes to write about!


What advice can you give new VCFA students and recent alums for keeping the joy in your writing life despite uncertainty? 

Find a way to be at peace with the uncertainty.

You can learn more about Robin and her books at her website,

Manatee Summer – An Interview with Alum Evan Griffith!

As the summer gets underway, our thoughts often turn to fun in the sun and frolicking on the beach, hoping for an encounter with sea creatures like dolphins, or, in VCFA alum Evan Griffith’s case, manatees! We were able to interview Evan about his middle grade novel, Manatee Summer. Learn more about this delightful book here!

1. Tell us what the story is about in your own words.

It’s the last summer before middle school for 11-year-old Peter and it’s a time of head spinning change. As Peter and his best friend, Tommy, try to complete their Discovery Journal—a scientific catalog of all the animal species they can find in their central Florida town—Peter must also take care of his grandfather, who has rapidly progressing Alzheimer’s, while his mom works to salvage her real estate career. Then, on the same day, Peter discovers a manatee injured in a boating strike and learns that Tommy is moving to Michigan. As Peter scrambles to save the injured manatee, take care of his grandfather, and somehow keep Tommy from leaving, his summer becomes a breathless race to fix everything that feels broken in his world.

2. This story centers around wildlife conservation, specifically manatees. What inspired you to write a story about manatees?

I grew up on the Indian River on the east coast of Florida. A group of manatees lived in the canal that ran into my neighborhood, and I used to sit on the banks and watch them swim slowly through the water. There was something about the gentleness and steadiness of such large creatures that stuck out to me. I knew that manatees are a vulnerable species and I remember seeing manatee zone signs posted in the waterways—a reminder to boats to go slow. It was my first exposure to wildlife conservation issues and the conflict between the natural world and the manmade world. After leaving Florida at age 18, I realized that manatees seemed otherworldly and almost mythological to people elsewhere in the country, and those childhood memories by the canal became more precious and nostalgic to me as time went on. So, when I became broadly interested in wildlife conservation as an adult and wanted to explore it in fiction, it made sense to return to my first exposure to it: manatees.


3. In Manatee Summer, your protagonist, Peter, finds himself taking on the responsibility of caring for his grandfather. Why was this an important aspect to include?

So many kids find themselves in positions of caretaking for parents, grandparents, or other adults in their lives. I wanted these kids to find themselves in this story. I wanted to honor kids’ natural caretaking instincts but also the overwhelming sense of responsibility these situations can cause, and the way that a reversal of the caretaker relationship can force kids to grow up too quickly. That moment in childhood when you start to realize that the adults in your life are vulnerable and fallible—that’s always been interesting to me, and it plays out in Peter’s relationship with his parents, too.

4. Your protagonist seems like the type to take on a lot of responsibility to fight against things that are largely outside his own control. What else can you tell us about this character?

Peter has a big heart and big feelings. He cares so deeply about the people and the animals he loves that it often hurts. He has a strong sense of injustice, and his temper flares when he sees it. He’s excitable, quick to act and quick to anger, but he has a hard time connecting with sadness, grief, and fear—the feelings that make him feel vulnerable and out of control. So part of his journey is learning to make room for these feelings, too, and finding a way to accept what he can’t control. Peter was so much fun to write—he’s always concocting ambitious plans and he sees himself as a leader, so he has lots of agency and really drives the story.

5. What surprised you about your characters while writing this book?

I was most surprised and delighted by Tommy, Peter’s best friend. I didn’t know much about Tommy when I started writing the book, so there was a real journey of discovery for me there. I was moved by how much of a steadfast friend he proved to be—he loves Peter unconditionally, and he’s such an anchor when Peter is spinning out. At the same time, he has his own challenges to overcome—exploring how he faces and overcomes his many fears was rewarding. We all need a friend like Tommy!

6. What can we do to help in the fight to help endangered animals?

As Peter says in the book, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when confronting the countless struggles and injustices that animals across the world are facing at our hands—and when that overwhelm happens, it helps to pick one one cause to devote your time, attention, and resources to—at least as a start. While the Florida Manatee Society in my book is a fictional organization, it was inspired by the Save the Manatee Club, which does fantastic advocacy and conservation work. I recommend checking out their work and donating, if you can. Of course, there are many more organizations out there devoted to different species, so if there’s an animal that you’re passionate about, see who is working to protect them and how you can get involved. On a larger scale, we all have to reckon with climate change and widespread environmental devastation—politically, culturally, ethically. My hope for kids like Peter is that they get to witness the human race making a concerted effort to move back into balance with the natural world. Kids—and all the animals of the world—deserve better.

_ _ _ _ _

Evan Griffith is the author of the middle-grade novel Manatee Summer (Quill Tree, 2022) and the picture book biography Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist (Clarion, 2021). He studied creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received his MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

He worked for several years as an editor at Workman Publishing, where he specialized in non-fiction for children and adults, and he continues to edit books on a freelance basis. Through his role as the youth programming specialist at The Writing Barn, a creative writing education center, he also teaches online writing classes for kids.

He lives in Austin, Texas with a mischievous tuxedo cat and several overflowing bookshelves.

You can learn more about Evan and his books at