Music Mavens: An Interview with Ashley Walker and Maureen Charles


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


Ashley Walker                                    Maureen Charles


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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.)


‘Making Social Media Work for Your Book’ – Autumn Krause, ’14

We’ve all heard it. If you are a traditionally published author, unless you are the Chosen One of your publisher and they give you a huge marketing campaign or unless you somehow have old money and can hire a fancy publicist, your own efforts to market your book won’t make much of a difference in the long run. And it makes sense. For example, even if you get 100 people to buy your book, for a traditionally published book, that isn’t very significant (though I’m certain I speak for all authors when I say it is very significant to us. Every single book I sell feels like a miracle to me!). But social media can be used to make your marketing work and help your books reach more readers.

Throughout the years, social media has changed in ways that make it easier for authors to reach their readers.I intentionally use social media as my own little department of marketing for my books and have had the most success with reels on Instagram. Reels and TikToks specifically can be helpful for authors because they are put into their own algorithm that reaches beyond people who are following your profile.

Even though I’ve only been posting about two reels a week, my reels reach 747k individual accounts a month (you can check your insights to see your reels reach). And there are concrete results: after a few went viral, my book dropped down into a Top 100 Bestseller list on Amazon (it beat Shadow & Bone for about a day! Gonna carry that with me).

How I create reels that work for me:

  1. Have an interesting audio. And it doesn’t have to be trending! I’ve had a few reels go viral without a trending audio. I pick audios that I find interesting or funny and try to link them to experiences most of my audience have had or will have. For example, this is me illustrating my writing process, a universal experience.
  2.  Tell a story. This works great for me because I love using reels to capture the writing life as I experience it. Here’s the story of how I got my deal with Harper Collins.
  3.  Be original, but conscious of trends. I try not to copy trends exactly but I’m aware of them so I can take part but put a little spin or variation to my reels. I always love making them my own.

With consistency and creativity, reels and TikToks are a fantastic way for authors to have fun and reach readers while spending zero dollars!

Autumn Krause is graduate of VCFA’s Writing for Children and Young Adults program (Winter 2014,) and works as a writer in Orange County, California. In addition to writing for young readers, she provides editorial content for a wedding website and interior design magazines. She is most often found wearing a black lace dress and boots.

‘The Healing Power of Writing and Why I Love VCFA’

Hi! I’m Ceredwyn. You may also know me as Kate Pentecost, VCFA alumnx and author of Elysium Girls and That Dark Infinity. I’m the new Program Assistant for VCFA’s Writing for Children and Young Adults program, and I’m thrilled to be taking over the Wild Things blog, the various VCFA social media accounts, and helping with residency. But today I want to talk about writing, death, and VCFA.

The first time I considered dying was also the first time I considered the alternative: living forever. I was eight years old and I’d just come back from a church service that heavily featured the idea of eternal life, how when we got to Heaven, there would be no end. I contemplated that. The idea, however terrifying, lodged in my brain and would stay there for what seems so far to be my entire life.

Four years later, when I was twelve, a character appeared in my mind one day and decided to stay there. He was a tall young man of around nineteen or twenty, tall and lean, almost gaunt, with olive skin, dark eyes, and black hair that touched his shoulders. He liked the color black, I knew, and was some sort of a solitary mercenary. A girl followed after that, with chin-length red hair she’d cut herself, wearing a man’s tunic and clearly out of place. Her name, I knew, ended with an “a” and went from Dahlia to Dara to eventually Flora. The young man’s name was much more difficult to find. And there in the year 2000, typing away ay my enormous, blocky desktop I set about penning what I concluded was the most epic of fantasies at 149 pages.

The original story was nothing spectacular. It was derivative (I was twelve!) and had little in the way of style (I was twelve!) and honestly was similar in tone to the Shrek films (again, I was twelve!,) but my life had a direction. I was going to be young adult fantasy author! I continued revising and submitting and getting rejections throughout high school and was accepted to the University of Houston’s Creative Writing program.

Then life became hard.

During my first semester of college in Houston, I was sexually assaulted off-campus. A month later, my grandmother, whom I’d spent almost every day with growing up, died after a stroke and I wasn’t able to be there at her deathbed. Suddenly, I found myself dealing with two very different types of grief: the major but inevitable grief of a loved one dying and the grief for oneself and one’s body that accompanies PTSD, and which I wouldn’t admit to myself I had. I failed three classes in my major that semester as I insisted that nothing had really happened and that I was just being lazy or weak.

Still, it hurt so terribly. It hurt all day and the only relief I got, in sleep, would begin all over again whenever I woke the following day. Desperate to heal from this unending cycle, but afraid to tell anyone what had happened, I did the only thing I knew how to do: I tried to write my way out of it, to escape into the fun fantasy world I’d created and loved so much. But a writer can never divorce oneself from one’s circumstances.

The story changed from underneath me, grew darker, even as I was accepted to VCFA’s WCYA program, my dream writing program. My second semester advisor, April Lurie, encouraged me to lean into the darkness and stop trying to make the story fit what I wanted it to be but couldn’t be anymore. I allowed a darkness to fall over the book. The appropriate darkness. I scrapped what I’d written and rewrote it, starting over seven times before April told me that it felt authentic.

In this new version, Flora came to share my story of survival of sexual assault. As for the male character, I wanted my readers to feel what I felt through him somehow, that cycle of pain and grief that resets every morning and never seems to end. And as I let myself confront that and examine it, the character finally began to speak to me authentically. He had a curse, I realized. A curse that hinged on, not quite immortality, not quite death, but the worst parts of both. Something that caught him in an endless cycle of death and resurrection but never peace or permanence. That was his quiet yearning, I learned, and finally, as I studied poetry, he told me his name.

I am Lazarus, come from the dead/ Come back to tell you all. I shall tell you all.
– T.S. Eliot, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
– Lady Lazarus, Sylvia Plath

I studied craft and characterization, drafted chapter after chapter, packet after packet, and as I did so I threw myself also into studying death, to make it feel real, to understand what it would feel like to die. I studied grief, depression, PTSD.  I learned that when you die your hunger goes first, then your smell and taste, followed by your sight, which dims as you slowly lose sensation and finally hearing. I threw myself into understanding this strange character who had always been with me and who was so important to me for some reason. But it is to the other character, Flora, that I owe the most.

As I learned more about her with Mark, April, Susan, and Louise, I realized that since her struggle was my own, I had to understand how to make myself better to help her reach the healing she needed by the end of the book. I sought therapy, worked as a crisis counselor for RAINN, examined my sense of guilt about what had happened, and eventually was able to forgive myself and ultimately heal. Even death, which I had always feared, I came to understand and to accept.

I found that what I was learning at VCFA helped me to deeply study these characters whom I realized eventually were parts of me, and thus study myself. Just as the characters help each other to heal in the book I was writing, what I’d learned about grief from studying death for Lazarus helped me understand how to help heal Flora. Both of them (and my advisors’ guidance) helped me to heal myself through the power of my own creation.

This book, That Dark Infinity, has a special place in that it is the book of my childhood, my adolescence, and my growth into a healed adult. It became my creative thesis and was the book that got me my agent, Sara Crowe, who is fantastic, and it was published in October 2021.

A lot of this I owe to VCFA and my advisors and classmates, which, I suppose, is one of the reasons I’m so excited to be able to work here. But I wanted to share the greatest wisdom, writerly or otherwise that I have been able to learn so far: wherever you are, whatever you’re going through, look your situation in the face, come to understand it, and keep going.

Release Interview: DEPRESSION: INSIGHTS AND TIPS FOR TEENAGERS by Christie Cognevich (Current Student)

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