Meet Matt Phelan, Our Newest Faculty Member

At VCFA, our faculty members are the beating heart of our program. Recently we were privileged to sign on a brilliant addition to an already star-studded faculty: author and illustrator extraordinaire Matt Phelan! Matt Phelan first joined VCFA as a Visiting Writer, and joined the faculty shortly afterward. Today we’ll hear about his first semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Get a glimpse into his teaching adventures this semester (and a glimpse at his favorite coffee mug.)

  1. What drew you to join the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Art’s Writing for Children and Young Adults program?

I had been interested in teaching and was very much aware of the VCFA program through former students and faculty members. It sounded like an amazing opportunity to not only share my experience but also to be inspired by others in a grand pursuit of creativity.

 2. How do you think your background and experiences as an author/illustrator inform your approach to teaching and advising?

Before becoming an author myself, I spent many years illustrating books by other authors. That perspective—how an illustrator interprets a text, what an illustrator looks for in a story—is valuable for an author to understand. And my own books always have a visual component, so I feel like I can speak to how an author can write in a way that leaves room for illustration, whether that’s a picture book, chapter book with spots, or a full graphic novel.

3. How have you found the experience of remotely guiding students through their creative work this semester?

It’s been fascinating and invigorating. I actually think the model of remote study is a good one. It puts the focus squarely on the work, where it should be.

4. What was the most surprising or unexpected thing you learned from your students this semester?

I’m not sure if it is a surprise given the nature and reputation of the program, but I am impressed with the quality and variety of work within each packet.

5. What author, living or dead, would you love to collaborate with and why?

Frank Cottrell Boyce is one of my favorite authors because his books constantly surprise me. He knows the rules and knows how to break them. I don’t know what a collaboration with him would look like exactly, but I’d be game to follow his lead. (Bonus answer: there are many illustrators that I would love to collaborate with in some way. Handing a graphic novel manuscript over to LeUyen Pham would be a dream.)

6. What’s your favorite picture book from your own childhood, and do you see its influence in your work today?

It’s hard to decide between Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson and The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. I can see the influence of both in my own work. The humor and pacing of Ferdinand and the lovely quiet moments in The Snowy Day have stayed with me.


7. Last, what’s your go-to comfort food or snack when you’re deep in the creative process? 

I actually don’t think I’m much of a snacker when deep in the process. Coffee, definitely. I have a favorite mug that was made for me by one of my best friends. The mug appears in several of my books, probably because it was sitting on my table while I was drawing. (See below!)

You can learn more about Matt Phelan at Matt will be a Cloud faculty member this semester and is looking forward to working with the next batch of brilliant WCYA students.

From Page to Screen: Abigail Hing Wen on Love in Taipei

Many writers (if not all writers at one time or another) secretly dream of having a book become a bestseller. In reality, only a handful of books of the thousands published each year become bestsellers. For your book to land on the New York Times Bestseller List, you have to sell around 10,000 copies, usually within the first week. From that narrow category, the odds of having a book optioned for film (and actually getting made into a film or series rather than sitting forever on a shelf somewhere) are even more astronomical. But after the publication of her first book, Loveboat, Taipei, VCFA WCYA alum and former GA Abigail Hing Wen found herself in just this enviable position. Loveboat, Taipei, a young adult romance featuring an all-Asian-American cast, became an instant international bestseller, was optioned for film, and while the book(s!) are available now wherever books are sold (in several formats and languages) Loveboat, Taipei was also adapted to film and can now be streamed online under the title Love In Taipei. We got the opportunity to interview Abigail about the process from book to bestseller to film–and what’s next!

1. Congratulations on the massive success of “Loveboat, Taipei”! Could you share the initial inspiration behind the story and how it feels to see it become a bestseller?

Loveboat is an actual program in Taipei! Similar to Birthright in Israel and other cultural programs, where youth get to visit the land of their ancestors.

I attended Loveboat the summer after my freshman year of Harvard. When I first received my invitation, I thought I was going to Taipei to learn about the culture and language, but there was so much more to it – as you can see in the book and film than just language and culture. All of the experiences I had during my trip like sneaking out, clubbing, dancing and taking glamour shots are all core memories I will never forget. The story has been inside me for years, and after going through the VCFA program, and burying four novels along the way, I finally felt ready to write it.

In Loveboat, Taipei, 18-year-old Ever Wong is set by her parents from Ohio to Taipei for the same reasons I went. But instead, she finds herself on a journey of self-discovery, learning how to pursue her passion for dance (for me, writing), while honoring her family, who wants something very different for her.

Seeing “Loveboat, Taipei” become a bestseller was unbelievable! At that point I’ve been writing for 10 years and received one rejection after another, setting aside, as I mentioned four novels, two of which had come close but couldn’t get through marketing. I’m grateful to the community, who really helped to get out word on Loveboat, Taipei. Some of my VCFA classmates even hand-sold copies at their local Barnes & Noble and indie bookstores. Cynthia Leitich Smith featured me on her Cynsations blog. We would not be here today without all of you.

2. Young adult romance novels have a dedicated fan base. What unique elements do you think contributed to the widespread appeal of “Loveboat, Taipei” among readers of all ages?

With a cast of over 30 Asian/Asian American characters, being Asian American was no longer their defining, most interesting characteristic. And so they could just be themselves — friends, sisters, daughters, lovers, and above all, flawed and deeply human. At the same time, we could discover what was uniquely Asian American about the community — the centrality of family and food, for example. Which I think readers of all backgrounds enjoyed! The themes of self-discovery, parental pressures, and pursuing your passions are also relatable across many cultures.

3. Your educational background includes an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. How did your academic experience shape the way you approached writing “Loveboat, Taipei,” particularly in terms of crafting relatable characters and themes?

Vermont College of Fine Arts was a game changer for me. I learned so many valuable lessons from my brilliant teachers, A.M. Jenkins, Alan Cumyn, Kathi Appelt and Martine Leavitt, as well as in workshops with Will Alexander, Rita Willams Garcia, Varian Johnson (who was my first intro to VCFA!) and so many others.

I’ll highlight one key lesson from Amanda Jenkins in particular — she taught me how to find the emotional core of every scene — and every story. Before studying with her, I used to plot based on events — exciting ones! Bigger! Better! I now plot according to the emotional arc. That’s helped me craft stories that explore the depths of each character, which in turn, I think, helps readers relate.

 4. “Loveboat, Taipei” touches on cultural identity, family expectations, and personal dreams. How did you balance these complex themes while maintaining the engaging pace of a young adult romance novel?

My novels are actually unusually long for YA contemporary. Each of them is over 90K words, which is closer to a fantasy novel. In fact, I think of Loveboat, Taipei as a fantasy novel, which is my first love: A girl goes into another world, experiences a new culture with new people and new rules, and comes home transformed. I think the space to build out the universe helped with reader engagement and the sense of immersion. As for pacing, it goes back to plotting along the emotional arc — every plot movement has to move the emotional story along, which then allows both the internal and external journeys to work together for double the impact.

5. The book’s protagonist, Ever Wong, undergoes a transformative journey. How do you think her growth resonates with readers, and what elements of her character do you believe were key to making her story so compelling?

Ever’s growth throughout the novel is a similar journey many go through during that transition between high school and university. She has to make that hard decision of choosing a path you “have to” follow — for Ever it’s honoring her parents’ decisions — versus pursuing her own passion. It’s so tough and I think readers can empathize and related to her thoughts and emotions along the way.

6. Becoming a bestselling author is a significant achievement. How has your life changed since the success of “Loveboat, Taipei,” and have there been any unexpected or particularly heartwarming interactions with readers that stood out to you?

I have been so honored to hear how many of my readers say they feel seen. I’m so glad that I was able to bring alive Asian American characters that can do anything and be anything. As far as my life being changed, I think becoming a bestseller has pushed me to continue my writing and now producing journey and not give up. Like Ever, I am grateful I get to keep doing what I love!

7. Adapting a novel into another medium, such as film, can be both exciting and challenging. How do you feel about “Loveboat, Taipei” being adapted into the recently released film “Love in Taipei,” and how involved have you been in the adaptation process?

I’m thrilled that readers can see the characters and Taipei come to life on screen, with the rest of the story continuing in the three novels: Loveboat, Taipei, Loveboat Reunion and Loveboat Forever, which follows the whole gang six years later.

Condensing a 400-page novel into a 100-page script was definitely the biggest challenge, but fortunately our screenwriter, Charlie Oh, was incredible at condensing the story and character introductions. For example, in the novel Ever connects with a dance teacher in Taipei who becomes a mentor, but in the film, that character is Ever’s Auntie Shu, who does double duty for the story by helping Ever stay connected to her family.

I worked on set through the entire filming in Taipei, which was a magical time. We filmed during COVID while Taipei was closed to the world, so everyone became very close. It was almost like our own Loveboat. I also did make a cameo in the film!

8. The transition from page to screen often involves changes to the story and characters. Were there any specific aspects of the book that you were particularly keen to see translated faithfully into the film adaptation?

It was really important to me that the characters were true to who they were. I wanted the characters on screen to be themselves at their core, and our screenwriter, Charlie Oh, did a great job of doing that as well as the actors, who played each role so perfectly.

9. The title change from “Loveboat Taipei” to “Love in Taipei” for the film adaptation might indicate some shifts in emphasis. Could you tell us if there are any new elements or perspectives that the movie will bring to the story?

The title change was a choice by Paramount+ as it’s a bigger title that’s relatable to international audiences, who may be less familiar with Loveboat than Americans and Canadians. While publishers and authors always prefer the title to be the same, in this case, I think it was a good choice. Some of my foreign translations are also Love in Taipei (Hungarian) and the Brazil translation is actually Vacation in Taipei and Return to Taipei (book 2).

The film does a fantastic job of portraying the beauty of Taipei and the kinetic energy of dancing. Those visuals can’t be fully captured by words alone!

10. As readers head to Paramount+ to watch “Love in Taipei” (with a subscription, currently!) what do you hope both longtime fans of the book and new audiences take away from this cinematic interpretation of your novel?

That their power comes from being fully themselves, and that they too can be the main characters of their own stories.

The Loveboat series can be found wherever books are sold. And stay tuned for Abigail’s next young adult romance, Kisses, Codes and Conspiracies, coming in 2024!

Learn more about Abigail at!


Alumnx Callie C. Miller and Kelly Dyksterhouse Join Forces for Hunt for the Hollower

At VCFA, the Writing for Children and Young Adults program is famed for its ability to open doors in the world of kidlit. For Kelly Dyksterhouse and Callie C. Miller, an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults opened two different doors which led to two different paths: those of literary agent and author, respectively. These paths converged when Kelly signed Callie as a client and sold her debut middle-grade fantasy novel, Hunt for the Hollower, which will be released on June 13, 2023. Today, we have the privilege of delving into their shared educational background, their collaborative process, and the inspiration behind Callie’s enchanting debut!



1. Kelly and Callie: You are both graduates of VCFA’s Writing for Children and Young Adults program and now you’re working (together!) professionally in two different areas of publishing. How has your time at the Vermont College of Fine Arts’s Writing for Children and Young Adult program influenced your work now as an agent (Kelly) and as an author (Callie)?

Kelly: There is so much of what I learned at VCFA that I rely on every day. I so often hear the voice of Betsy, or Mary, or Mark and Tim in my mind as I evaluate a text. Or refer to notes from a lecture or workshop from Rita, Na, Susan, Sarah, or Amy or Amanda or Martine or Tom (the list goes on and on) as I look for ways to explain something in an edit letter to a client. But I think the best skill that VCFA taught me was evaluating craft through writing all of those critical essays. Interestingly, those critical essays caused me the most trepidation initially and they became something I looked forward to by the end. It seems to me that VCFA’s commitment to developing a critical eye is what sets their students apart as writers upon graduation–it creates a habit that all successful writers need, and that’s to constantly be looking for ways to pursue their craft.





Callie: There is no way I would be the writer I am today without VCFA. As Kelly said, to this day I still hear the faculty whispering to me as I write or revise, and I have a deep understanding of how to approach craft. And to further add to Kelly’s answer about the critical essays: studying craft so thoroughly has not only equipped me to tackle particular snags I run into during projects, but it has also allowed me to recognize when I’m running into an area I need to better understand and study. I still have my blind spots (which is where critique partners and having a fabulous editorial agent come in!) but being able to identify areas that need improvement, whether overall in my writer toolbox or on a project-by-project basis, has been not only crucial but empowering.



2. Callie: How does it feel to have your middle-grade debut novel, Hunt for the Hollower releasing soon? Can you tell us a bit about the book?

Callie: I am overwhelmed in the best possible way! I started thinking about THE HUNT FOR THE HOLLOWER right after graduating from VCFA in 2014, and it’s publishing in 2023, so it’s the culmination of nine years of work. THE HUNT FOR THE HOLLOWER is a fantasy adventure romp about a wizardess who is terrible at magic, but must learn to come into her power in order to save her brother, who has been kidnapped by the mythical, magic-stealing Hollower. She sets off on a quest with her best friend (who longs to be a knight), a wandering musician (who is fleeing from his past) and her brand new familiar (who yearns for a taste of funnel cake). Ultimately HOLLOWER is about Found Family, and learning to embrace who you are and be true to yourself.

3. Kelly: As Callie’s literary agent, what drew you to Hunt for the Hollower?

Kelly: No matter what the genre or target audience age, I am drawn to books that kids will want to pull off the shelves, but that also say something important so that they demand a place on the shelf in the first place. Books that add to the conversation. THE HUNT FOR THE HOLLOWER is exactly that kind of book. It’s enormously fun–full of action, high stakes and grand adventure. Great characters that make you laugh out loud and also feel deeply. And important themes of friendship, loyalty, sacrifice, forgiveness, and learning to be who you are meant to be.

4. Callie: What inspired you to write Hunt for the Hollower? What do you love most about writing middle-grade fiction?

Callie: This book has been quite the process! I nearly always start with character, so this began with Merlynda: a wizardess, descended from Merlyn, who is terrible at magic, but has a charming wyvern familiar who enjoys being wrapped around her wrist like a bracelet. I’ve always loved Arthurian myths and stories, and did a lot of research into the Middle Ages for inspiration about the time period Merlynda might live in, if this story took place in our world. As I started drafting, things snowballed in a wonderfully zany way.

Many of the books I read during my own middle grade years have stayed with me! Middle grade is such a wonderful age, and has the potential to be filled with magic. Kids this age are starting to figure out who they are, and trying to sort out where they belong, but are also very willing to embrace and come along for the story’s journey.


5. Kelly: What do you think sets Hunt for the Hollower apart from other middle-grade novels in the market?

Kelly: The voice and the themes. Callie writes with a remarkably consistent, humorous narrative voice that permeates the entire story. It invites the reader into the story as a participant in a way that is very unique for an omniscient narrator and shows a lot of respect for the reader. That in turn, I think, allows the themes to hit home in a more powerful and personal way. So, for instance, when a character feels betrayed and needs to forgive, the reader also feels betrayed and is invited to consider the cost and the benefits of forgiveness themselves.

6. Callie: How did being part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts community support and inspire you as you worked on Hunt for the Hollower and your other writing projects?

Callie: Writing is inherently isolating, so belonging to a writing community is essential! When I started at VCFA I had no idea just how crucial this community would become, and am so so SO grateful every day for it. Even though I started HOLLOWER after I graduated from the program, I was armed with the echoing cheers of my advisors, the encouragement of my cohort, and the resources that come from being an alumnx. I continue to listen to lectures on the Alumnx Commons and look up Critial Theses that are relevant to areas I’m trying to grow in or study or that I’m just curious about. I am fortunate to write professionally in a number of areas, but engaging with the kidlit community and VCFA in particular always feels like coming home.

7. Kelly: How do you think attending the Vermont College of Fine Arts’s program sets you apart as a literary agent and enhances your ability to advocate for authors in the children’s and young adult market?

Kelly: Agents wear lots of different hats. On any given day, I’m an editor, a sales person, a negotiator, a market analyst, a career/project manager, a networker, a a strategist, an advocate and a cheerleader–and I am probably forgetting something! No day is the same and no day is predictable, which is actually why I love what I do. It’s never boring! There are skills I’ve developed through training under fantastic mentor agents and agencies and that I also picked up in law school (long ago). A skill that VCFA has given me that undergirds so much of what I do is being able to think like a writer, and in particular, a writer for children and young adults. This allows me to connect with my clients on a level that I believe elevates our partnership and helps me to work with them to achieve their vision for any given project.

8. Callie: What challenges did you face while writing Hunt for the Hollower, and how did you overcome them? Any memorable moments you’d like to share from the writing process?

Callie: Nine years is a long time to face challenges! For me personally, I am MUCH more of an outliner now, and do my best to understand the broad strokes of a story before drafting. Another huge takeaway is to always work on your craft. I absolutely am a better writer for all of the time spent on HOLLOWER, and I see that reflected in my other projects. A key moment after I was several drafts in (and, if I’m being honest, feeling pretty discouraged about the querying trenches) was realizing how to make the stakes more personal for Merlynda and apply a greater sense of urgency. It required a significant rewrite, which felt daunting. But I still loved this story and these characters, and I thought they deserved me trying at least one last time to do them justice. That revision is what got me my amazing agent, Kelly!

9. Kelly: As a literary agent, what do you find most rewarding about working with middle-grade authors and their stories?

Kelly: I love all kidlit, from board books to YA, fiction and nonfiction, but I do think that middle grade holds a special place. I think because these years are so formative in the life of any person, and it’s when kids start getting some agency in choosing what they want to read. And they will remember the books that make an impact on them at this age–and return to them over the years. I think being a small part of bringing such books into existence is really a true honor.

10. Kelly and Callie: Finally, what message or key take away would you like readers to have after reading Hunt for the Hollower?

Kelly: Wow, this is hard. There are so many. Maybe that sacrifice for those you love is an act that will never return void, that forgiveness is something we all need at times, and that each of us has unique purpose and worth that no mistake we make can negate.

Callie: Awww Kelly, I’m blushing! I’ll add to that with: embrace all of you with your whole self. Many people will try to write the narrative of You, but ultimately you are empowered to decide who you are.


You can learn more about Kelly and Callie at their respective websites, and

The Oxford/Bath Spa Residency: FAQs Answered!

Bath Spa Residency is BACK! Originally developed to offer students the opportunity to explore the literature and culture of England while broadening their understanding of our two separate cultural approaches to writing for young readers, the Oxford/Bath Spa Residency is a popular residency option open to 17 students and alumnx each summer. Packed with excursions to natural, artistic, and historic destinations, this residency option includes meetings, lectures, and readings within the VCFA group and with faculty and students from Bath Spa University.
The Oxford/Bath Spa residency is a full residency experience, complete with its own faculty – Martine Leavitt and Linda Urban this time – along with the residency Coordinator Ginger Johnson. The dates for the UK residency are July 12 – 19, 2023 with flexible arrival and departure options. The VCFA group will be housed at Wolfson College in Oxford   which will serve as home base as they take their meals, tours, and free time, exploring the literary wonders of Oxford. Today we have Ginger Johnson, our Program Coordinator, to answer some of the pressing questions.
     Wild Things:  So how does the Bath Spa residency abroad work?
      Ginger: It works just like a regular residency with workshops, lectures, and readings, but it‘s in England, so it comes with a British accent and a side of magic. 🙂 There are two faculty members and 17 students and alumnx. Last year, attendees were divided into two generative workshop groups led by our faculty. Two days were spent with our colleagues at Corsham Court, the location of the Bath Spa University program. And amongst all that, there is writing, general revelry, and delightful shenanigans.
     Wild Things: In addition to this, two full days of academic programming will be with counterparts in Bath Spa University’s MA in Writing for Young People. Graduating students do their graduate lectures and graduate readings live at the UK residency. And though shenanigans are to be expected, it is a true academic residency, in which all lectures, workshops, and scheduled group activities are mandatory.
    Wild Things: Do you get the same credit for attending that you would get for a normal residency?
     Ginger: Yes, indeed! It is meant to be as rigorous as a normal residency, but instead of laundry day, we have high tea. I must admit, I prefer high tea to laundry day. I think you would too, if you were offered a tower of tiny sandwiches, scones, clotted cream, jam, with a fresh mint infusion out on the patio of a centuries-old building with flowering vines climbing up its stone walls. I‘m swooning again just thinking of it.
Wild Things: What often surprises people about this residency program?
Ginger: Though I can’t speak for other people, what surprised me was how very VCFA it felt—that even though we were far from College Hall, it was still residency. I may be a bit biased, but it was residency with a magical twist. Did I mention yet that it‘s magical?
Wild Things: What are the accommodations like?
Ginger: We were in modern single dorms with our own bathrooms en suite. All the mod cons, as they say.
Wild Things: Can you leave campus during this residency?
Ginger: Yes and no. The cities of Oxford and Bath are our campus, and who would want to leave that? But all events are required, as it is a bit more condensed than a regular residency. There is free time scheduled though, so folks do have the opportunity to do some exploring on their own.
Wild Things: What are some offerings you can get only at the Bath Spa residency?
Ginger: I daresay you won‘t have the opportunity to see Philip Pullman‘s ponytail in any other residency

. Some of the delights include a children‘s literature walking tour, a visit to the Bodleian library, punting in the Cherwell, and dining at a traditional pub. Aside from the regular tourist sights (and more importantly), you have the opportunity to infuse your writer‘s soul in a setting unlike any other. Immersing yourself in another culture can be transformative both personally as well as in your writing.

Wild Things: What is learning with our faculty members in a new setting like? Does it still feel like VCFA?
Ginger: Yes. It still feels very much like VCFA, but with the benefit of some cross-cultural conversation with our colleagues at Bath Spa University, who are just as passionate about children‘s literature as we are.
Wild Things: What are some Dos and Don’ts of the Bath Spa residency?
Ginger: There is really only one Do: Dive in and submerge yourself with an open mind and an open heart. It is a unique opportunity to explore the literature and culture of England and let that sift its way into your own writing.
Wild Things: Do you have any recommendations for things students shouldn’t miss at Bath Spa?
Ginger: I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent in the Christchurch cathedral—each night for Evensong (free) and once for a concert (not free, but not too expensive). I also recommend getting lost by yourself in the Botanical Gardens with a notebook, a pen, and some strawberries.
Wild Things: Why is this something students and alumnx should apply for?
Ginger: Have I mentioned yet that it‘s magical? It‘s magical.
For those of you with additional questions, there will be a Zoom Information Session on Wednesday, March 29th at 8pm ET/5pm PT:
Meeting ID: 990 5852 9894
Passcode: 361201
(Yes, we will record it, but please come if you can!)

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)

Cinderelliot: An Interview with Alumnx Rachel Smoka-Richardson

The story of Cinderella is a classic one, dating back thousands of years. Some say the nation of origin is Greece, some say China, some say Egypt. But no matter its origin, the story is one that has resonated with countless generations. Now, VCFA alumnx Rachel Smoka-Richardson has created her own retelling of the story, featuring a gay protagonist with a talent for baking. Check out our interview here!

 1. Cinderelliot is such a fun book! Can you tell us the story?
Running Press Kids (our publisher) perfectly describes Cinderelliot as “A gay retelling of the classic fairy tale–a scrumptious love story featuring ungrateful step-siblings, a bake-off, and a fairy godfather.”

2. Where did this book come from? What inspired you?
The original idea for Cinderelliot actually came from my friend Mark, who I met through SCBWI. We had swapped manuscripts before – and in the summer of 2018 he sent me the original draft and asked me to help him edit the length. I started working on it, and I fell in love with the idea of a gay Cinderella retelling that could be filled with humor and heart. I sent it back to him and asked if he might consider co-writing it with me. Luckily, he said yes!

3. What can you tell us about the writing of this book? What were the challenges of writing a fairy tale retelling?
It took us about a year to get the manuscript to the point where we felt it was ready to show it to my agent. We passed the manuscript back and forth via email, and hired a professional editor (Rob Sanders, author of Two Grooms on a Cake: The Story of America’s First Gay Wedding) to give us feedback. Originally Cinderelliot and his stepfamily participated in a palace-sponsored athletic skills competition, and eventually the plot evolved into a baking competition.

Cinderelliot would not exist without VCFA. I started my MFA with a (still) half-finished (terrible) YA novel, but I decided to challenge myself and spent my second semester in the Picture Book Intensive with the incredible Uma Krishnaswami as advisor. During that life-changing experience I fell in love with the picture book form.

I really enjoyed writing a fractured fairy tale – it allowed us to be creative within an existing familiar story. For example, in the original, Cinderella’s fairy godmother really just exists to advance the plot. Writing a fractured fairy tale gave us the liberty to use dialogue and illustrations to develop Ludwig, a memorable character with a unique personality.

4. Tell us a little about Cinderelliot. What, besides his gender, sets him apart from the classic Cinderella?
Cinderelliot is not good looking in the classical sense – our extraordinarily talented illustrator Stephanie Laberis described him as having “unkempt hair and noodly poses.” But Prince Samuel falls in love with Cinderelliot not only for his looks, but for his baking talent. I feel that our new telling allows Cinderelliot’s kind, earnest personality and exceptional culinary skills shine through.

5.You have two other books–mysteries!– that came out in 2022: Cheer Fears and Track and Field. Can you tell us a little about them?
Cheer Fears and Track and Field Trick are part of Capstone Press’s expansive middle grade sports series “written” by the fictional athlete Jake Maddox. In Cheer Fears, a ghost seems to be haunting cheerleader camp, and it’s up to Robert to figure out who is trying to sabotage his team. Track and Field Trick features discus-throwing Kwan investigating the culprit intent on getting the track coach fired.

6. What were the major differences for you in writing Cinderelliot vs. Cheer Fears and Track and Field Trick?
There was actually one major similarity to all three books – prescribed form and story. With Cinderelliot we were bound to not only the classic plot, but also the picture book form. Since Cheer Fears and Track and Field Trick are part of an established series, I was committed to the style and form of the others – ten chapters of approximately 1,000 words each, a specific reading level, and accompanying back matter relating to the story. My editor asked me to write a cheerleading mystery with a boy main character and a track and field mystery about a girl who participates in a field sport like shot put and discus.

I did need to conduct more research for the Jake Maddox Mysteries, which included watching videos, attending a local high school track meet, and interviewing a girl discus thrower, which I very much enjoyed. While at VCFA I participated in a special residency workshop about research led by Leda Schubert and Bonnie Christensen, which centered around the idea that most books require some form of research, not just nonfiction and historical fiction books.

7. What excites you about putting these stories into the world?
As advanced copies have made their way out into the world, adult readers (including our illustrator) have shared that Cinderelliot is the book missing from their own childhoods. Representation matters, and I’m thrilled to be part of a book that makes readers feel seen. Everyone should be able to fall in love and marry “their person,” regardless of gender, race, or social status, just like Cinderelliot and Prince Samuel.

8. Tell us something cool about yourself!
I’ve recently been accepted into the Doctorate of Education program at Hamline University, during which I plan to study the college writing low-residency model. In January I will start the program by spending a semester in Hamline’s writing for children and young adults program. I’m really excited!

Readers can learn more about Rachel 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

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