DEAR SUBSTITUTE: How the epistolary form grabbed hold of Liz Garton Scanlon’s new picture book.

Dear Reader,

This is not how today was supposed to go.

Where’s Mrs. Giordano, and why is this substitute mixing everything up? VCFA Faculty member Liz Garton Scanlon has co-authored Dear Substitute with Audrey Vernick, with illustrations by Caldecott medalist Chris Raschka. We’ve invited Liz to WILD THINGS to tell us a bit more about the genesis of this new picture book, and about her writing process.

Liz, What was the spark that ignited this book? 

Unlike most projects, the genesis of this one was the form. My pal Audrey and I became fascinated by (ok, obsessed with) the epistolary form. We wrote letters to the tooth fairy, letters to the dentist, letters to autumn – and we didn’t stop until something stuck. That something became Dear Substitute.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing?

The beauty of writing this particular book is that Audrey and I both have sisters who are elementary school teachers. (Hi, Chris! Hi, Ellen!) So, we went straight to them and bypassed Google! They helped us remember some of the things that really matter in 1st grade classrooms – things like being line leader and chair stacker. Stuff like that.

What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?

The thing about filling a whole book with letters (to teachers, turtles and various inanimate objects) is that you could go on forever. The material is bountiful! So, we had to cut some along the way. Goodbye, Eye Test. So long, Story Nook. In the end, we think we got to just the right number of letters, lines and moments.

What was it like watching the illustrations/cover come together?

When someone as brilliant as Chris Raschka says yes to illustrating your book it’s a high point, but a hypothetical one. It’s when the actual art comes rolling in that it becomes real and true and kind of staggering. I already worshiped his work, but what he did for this book – part Gauguin, part child prodigy, all Raschka – really brought me to my knees. I mean, look what’s hiding under the book jacket! And it’s equally perfect inside.

What would you want a prospective VCFA visiting writer to know about VCFA?

Along with all the other amazing resources at VCFA (passionate faculty, inspiring peers, lectures, readings, workshops and more), there is a semester-long Picture Book intensive for folks who particularly love or lean toward this form. I just facilitated it for the first time (alongside my friend and colleague Jane Kurtz – lucky me!) and I want everyone to know what a rich, immersive, connected, experimental adventure it is. I feel newly inspired myself!

Liz Garton Scanlon is the author of more than a dozen beloved picture books, including the Caldecott-honored and best-selling ALL THE WORLD and her newest release — DEAR SUBSTITUTE, co-written with Audrey Vernick. She’s also published a middle grade novel, THE GREAT GOOD SUMMER, and has a second one forthcoming. Scanlon is on the faculty of VCFA and is a frequent and popular presenter at schools, festivals and conferences. She lives in Austin, Texas. Visit her  on her website or at

This blog post was written by Amanda West Lewis.

AMANDA WEST LEWIS combines careers as a writer, theatre artist and calligrapher. Her eight books for children and youth range from non-fiction books to historical novels. September 17: A Novel was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award, and the Violet Downey IODE Award. The Pact was listed as a 2017 USBBY Outstanding International book. Amanda has a particular interest in creating historically relevant stories for young people and is currently working on a new novel about youth activism in 1968. She is the founder of The Ottawa Children’s Theatre, a company dedicated to drama education for children aged 3 – 17. Amanda has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA and is a proud member of The Dead Post-Its.

Other Books By Liz