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 www.maureencharles.com and Ashley at www.ashleywalkerbooks.com. You can also meet all 15 music mavens at www.musicmavensbook.com, 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.

   Example:

    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.)

Example: 

 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.

Example: 

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.

Example: 

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.

Sincerely,
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 (filfre.net) 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: https://forms.gle/QFbeSXvDqKhQ5Umm6. 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, www.christiecognevich.com

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.

Ceredwyn:
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,

www.tirzahprice.com

www.as-king.com

Additional Resources

BookRiot.com – Censorship News Roundup

The National Coalition Against Censorship

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

Mediacoalition.org

PEN.org

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 www.barbarakrasner.com

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 www.lakitawilson.com

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, www.robinkirk.com

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 www.evangriffithbooks.com.

The Hike to Home – Jess Rinker (’14) on her Upcoming Release!

VCFA WCYA (Summer ’14) Alum Jess Rinker is set to release her fifth book on July 5th, 2022! Get the inside scoop on her middle grade adventure, The Hike to Home, here!

1. Tell us a little about The Hike to Home in your own words.

The Hike to Home is about a girl who sets out to find her own adventure. It was sold on proposal, and then switched imprints when my initial imprint closed. When it changed hands, it also changed editors and vision, which turned out to be a wonderful thing because my new editor really pushed me hard in developing my idea into a more complex, heartfelt story. But what didn’t change was what I knew I wanted to write about from the beginning: a story about kids hiking the AT on their own, an unconventional mother/daughter relationship that was still full of love, and a girl who knew a ton about nature but not so much about kids her own age. There are a lot of autobiographical elements in this story.

2. Tell us about your characters. Were they inspired by anyone you know or knew growing up?

Lin, the protagonist, is based on me, but with major changes in life experience/situations. We both grew up somewhat isolated from our peers and pop culture, but for very different reasons. Learning the names of flora and fauna everywhere is the constant that binds us. As a young person I devoured wildlife identification books and I’ve always had some kind of wonder and satisfaction at knowing the names of the little creepy crawlies as well as big beautiful blooms and more majestic creatures. I also had a TON of freedom as a kid to explore the woods, so I really wanted these kids to find adventure in their backyard like I used to. Tinsley is based largely on my expressive, creative daughter. And Leo really represents the smart, sweet boys I’ve known in my life, the boyhood that exists before it’s crushed by toxicity.

3. Finding a castle in the woods sounds like a great adventure. What motivates these characters to try to look for it? What does it symbolize for them? What did it symbolize for you (if anything?)

Lin is desperate for a grand adventure like she’s used to having, so when she lands in NJ she thinks there can’t possibly be anything exciting there, which just compounds her grief of missing her mom who was always her adventuring partner. (Mom isn’t gone, just away for a bit) When she makes new friends and learns of the legend of the castle, she thinks it’s exactly the kind of adventure Mom would have taken her on, so she sets out to prove she can do it herself, with a bit of revenge motivation. Besides, it’s just New Jersey, what could go wrong? The other two are not used to having the same kind of adventures or freedom that Lin has had, so they are pretty enchanted by her, which leads them all into some sketchy situations.

I think the castle mostly represents any goal or dream, honestly. Without castles, we don’t climb mountains. Without climbing mountains, we don’t know how strong we really are.

4. What draws you to middle grade as an age group?

Initially I wasn’t drawn to it, to be honest. I didn’t think I could get myself in that mindset because my own middle grade years were pretty fraught with chaos and dysfunction, and so when I channel myself back that’s where my brain first lands. It takes a lot of work to sift through that to get to the heart of a twelve/thirteen year old. It’s a wonderful age and now that I have landed in that category, I really love it. It’s become easier to separate my own traumas, and sometimes cynical outlook, and focus on the beauty of that age, how it straddles this amazing brink of childhood and adolescence where kids are still imaginative and dreamy, and yet becoming much more responsible and self-aware. I get to write stories that I would have read at that age–little escapes and adventures with a bit of life-lessons and hard knocks. There are resounding themes of friendship, feminism, and allowing girls to explore their world in all my middle grades books, and it’s really fun writing to those themes without knocking my readers over the head with didactic messages.

 

5. What were some of the things that inspired you to write this story?

Honestly, I wanted to write an adventure story that was set in an unexpected place–New Jersey. Most people don’t think of New Jersey as having particularly natural topography, but it is the Garden State for a reason! There might only be a small portion of it preserved, but that portion is completely gorgeous. And a small section of the Appalachian Trail does go through the northwest corner so it’s based on a real area. I wanted to showcase the small, sweet Delaware river towns I have lived in (Newbridge is a fictional amalgamation of them) along with the vast wildlife and beauty that might not be consistent with some people’s ideas of New Jersey.

I also wanted to show a family that looks very different from the nuclear example that tends to get put on a pedestal. Although Lin’s family is somewhat nuclear, they don’t live suburban, stationary lives. They are on the road almost all the time, Lin has never attended public school, and at the start of this story, her mom has gone away for a year, which Lin is very unhappy about initially. A big part of the story is Lin coming to an understanding that her family can change how it looks, but still be close and loving, and that dependable friends can also become family. It doesn’t all have to rest on Mom’s shoulders!

6. Tell us something cool about yourself! What have you done recently that you’re proud of?

Well, no big adventures for me lately, but I did recently learn how to blow glass and make actual functioning pieces. I’m working for a brand new glass studio in Wardensville, West Virginia, and learning the craft was part of the perks of onboarding. The fact you can walk into the shop, and come out with a vase is mind boggling. I never thought it was something just anyone could do, but anyone can do it! Doesn’t mean you’ll have a beautiful piece, but you can have a working piece.

A professional glass blower creates a beautiful work of art in Mallorca.

The really cool thing is that it’s such a different creative process than writing in that you cannot be in your own head. You must be fully present, aware of your surroundings, and in the moment. There’s most definitely a mindfulness that’s required to work with glass, something I don’t stretch that often because I’m usually on a computer. Anyway, it’s really fun, and challenging, and I’m super excited to be working there and to witness other people learn the trade.

7. Do you have a favorite urban (or rural) legend? If so, what is it?

I think the castle legend is my favorite. I mean, I made it up for this story, but it’s based on real abandoned castles which exist on the east coast, often Scottish or Irish replicas and usually built by rich white men, maybe trying to duplicate home? I’m not sure. But I love the idea of trekking through the woods in search of ruins and in fact this story initially sparked when my husband and I once did exactly that. We literally hunted down a castle through small-time explorer’s blogs and Google earth, and it was SO FUN. But I can’t disclose the castle name or location because technically it was trespassing. (Shhh!) But here’s a glimpse:

(Shhh!)

8. What area of the world would you most like to explore?

I would love to visit a lot of places, but lately the Scottish Highlands have been on my mind. I pretty recently found out I’m nearly half Scottish, which was surprising because I think I look more like my Italian family and have mostly identified with them. But I’ve also always lived on the Appalachian trail, be it in NJ, PA or now in WV, which isn’t actually on the trail, but certainly Appalachian, and where Scotch Irish settled. I’ve learned so much about the history here, and Appalachian history is my own history, so now I’m dreaming of going to the origin of that ancestry. This book explores a teeny-tiny bit of that, with the legendary castle and the creation of the Appalachian mountains, but I don’t want to give too much away…

9. Do you think the physical act of exploration enriches the childhood experience or may be a necessary part of the coming of age experience?

100%. Whether a child lives in rural and small town areas as I have, or urban, or anything in between, a little bit of freedom goes a long way. I worry that that freedom gets harder and harder for parents to grant because it seems like we live in scarier times than the 80’s when I was growing up. When my own children were growing up, I tried to give them as much freedom as I could but it was definitely a lot less than what I had. Freedom also means sometimes taking away things that kids enjoy, which is sometimes challenging. For example when my kids were little I would unsubscribe from cable service every summer to help enforce more outside time. (Cable? God that makes me sound old) But they became so used to it, it was never an issue, and all three of them have a strong appreciation for the natural world now, which makes me very happy. I think it’s really important to not always hold the reins too tightly and to push your kids towards self-entertainment.

10. As someone who has moved around a lot, experienced the loss of a home to a fire, and finally settled in a rural area surrounded by forest, what do you hope your readers learn about the meaning of home?

Home is, and always has been for me, the people I am with. I have moved dozens of times in my life, so I have never become overly attached to a building or even a place (although NJ has a special hold on my heart), but my true home rests in my children and my life-partner (even when that partner has changed) and my closest girlfriends. I’d like for young readers to know that surrounding yourself with the right people is what builds a real family and home. It doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s life, it just needs to be what you need/want. And I think the idea that “adventure is everywhere” echoes this in the sense that we can find wonder and mystery anywhere, if we look for it. It doesn’t have to be some grand world exploration, it can literally be in your backyard, or small town, or city.

You can find more writing from Jess at www.jessrinker.com!

Spicy Young Adult Books and Adult Readers

Writing for young adults can be a difficult world to navigate, especially if you’re writing a “spicy” or romantic/sexual young adult book.

Young adult books are more likely to be challenged or banned, as they often deal directly with subjects like love, gender identity, race, religion, and especially sex in ways that, for some, toe the line as to what is and is not “appropriate” for teens. Add in the well-known fact that a large percentage of YA readers are actually adults (often cisgender women) and writers of spicy young adult books often find themselves facing an odd question:

“Who am I writing for, exactly?” they might wonder, and “Is it possible to please two entirely different demographics reading the same material?”

What the two (main) groups of YA readers say they want from young adult books as far as sex is concerned seems to differ wildly.

Teens (notably mostly straight teens) often complain that there’s too much of an emphasis on sex and relationships in YA novels.

“The average teenager is just not out there having sex,” says Sarah (16,) a sophomore at Harmony School of Advancement in Houston, TX. “We really don’t care that much about relationships right now. There’s just too much going on in the world. So when characters in YA novels are obsessed with things like boys and popularity and losing their virginity or whatever it just feels fake to me. I honestly skip the sex scenes whenever I get to them in books because they make me feel uncomfortable.”

By contrast, some LGBTQIA teens are happy that queer sex is being featured in books for teens.

“There were authors writing about literal incest in the nineties and it was okay because the characters were straight,” says Jupiter (16,) a student (who is nonbinary and queer) at an undisclosed high school in Austin, Texas. “Queer kids basically had to take what they could get for a long time, and just now we’re getting books where queer sex is even a thing. Queer kids just haven’t had as much exposure to [depictions of] sex as straight kids have, so personally I’m for it. ”

Both are sentiments that can be found echoed throughout the internet in circles where teens discuss literature written for them.

Adult readers are also divided into camps.

There is a significant percentage of adult YA readers who seem to enjoy sexual content in young adult novels. These adult YA readers can often be found excitedly taking to BookTok and Bookstagram to discuss the “spice levels” (here meaning the level of “onscreen” sexual activity the main characters get up to) in books like A Court of Thorns and Roses and other (often YA fantasy) books. A search for “spicy books” on Instagram or TikTok brings back thousands of hits, mostly adult readers reading and reviewing young adult books, romance novels, or erotica novels, often mixed together or not clearly labeled (which is another problem in and of itself.)

“I like the worlds created in YA fantasy,” says Victoria, a stay at home mom (38) in Wilmington, NC. “I just like a little spice! It’s not like it’s porn. I don’t see what’s wrong with spicy young adult books. Kids are having sex, whether they say they are or not, and maybe if they read about it they’ll get some of the information that their parents are uncomfortable talking about. Maybe then they can make better decisions for themselves.”

Other adult YA readers differ in opinion.

“I think it’s creepy that adult women basically colonize YA looking to read about teens having sex,” says Kenia (22,) a teacher’s assistant in Sacramento, CA. “You’re telling me they have the whole world of adult literature available to them and they choose to complain about there not being enough sex in books for teens?  If they were men, online complaining about there not being enough graphic sex in kids’ books, we’d see them as a bunch of perverts.  Sit down, ladies. This isn’t made for you.”

As we can see, the topic is a fraught one among both demographics enjoying young adult literature, and I’m not about to tell anyone how or what to write.

But, as an adult writing YA, where should you draw the line?

That’s something I, a lowly blogger, can’t answer for you (and keep in mind that your publisher will likely have stipulations of their own.)

I can, however, simplify it to two points of view.

  1. Sex positivity:  We need to stop being weird about sex! So in order to dispel antiquated, harmful notions about sex and promote sex positivity, especially for LGBTQIA+ teens, (and titillate, to a degree, because it’s harmless) keep the spicy scenes in.
  2. Plot Necessity: We don’t need to rely on titillation! Only include sex scenes if they are necessary to the plot, fading to black unless the sex being being “onscreen” is necessary.

You, as a writer, probably fall  somewhere between these two ideas, and where you fall is a matter of personal taste and artistic goals.

My recommendation?

Figure out which point of view you plan to take with your work, then make an informed decision about what kind of sex you want to include, why you want to include it, and possible repercussions you’re willing to deal with as an author. And, most importantly, regardless of  the spice level of your book, make sure it’s the best possible book you can provide for your readers

(whoever they end up being.)