Monday, January 11, 2021

Matt Forrest Esenwine: Picture Books, Poetry, and Voice


Today I want to welcome picture book author and poet, Matt Forrest Esenwine  Matt started out in radio, working behind the scenes and on the air. He still maintains a career as a voice actor. But the publication of one of his poems in a college journal when he was just a high school student led to a passion for poetry that’s never waned.  

Matt has written poems for adults and children. His lighthearted verses have appeared in prestigious children’s magazines such as Highlights, and in numerous collections including many edited by the renowned Lee Bennett Hopkins. Matt’s picture books include the spooky Flashlight Night and the rollicking Don’t Ask a Dinosaur, which was co-authored by Deborah Bruss. Once Upon Another Time, co-authored by Charles Ghigna, will be out in 2021. And I hear there is a lot more to come. I can’t wait!

What draws you to poetry, Matt?

I always tell people that one of the main reasons I love poetry is that you can say so much in a tight, compact little package. A poem can be full of imagery, emotion, wit, and beauty – and you don’t need 500 pages, or even 32. And with my attention span, I love that I can write a short little scene in just a few lines and then move on to something else!

Is it difficult to get published as a poet? Is it true that many editors discourage submissions of rhyming picture book texts? How do you approach marketing your work?

It is difficult, but I think the more you get your name and work out there, the easier it gets. I’d been writing poetry since I was in high school, but had never been published as a children’s writer, so it took some effort to show decision-makers what I could do. A lot of beginning children’s poets feel that they need to write silly poems, or write poems that rhyme, or use simple words…and none of that is necessarily true. There’s a wide variety of poetry out there for kids and the one thing you don’t want to do is try to be the next Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss. Be your own writer and develop your own unique style.

As for editors, it’s true that many discourage rhyme, but that’s because they see so much bad rhyme: words that are simple or expected rhymes; slant rhymes, which are words that almost rhyme but don’t quite (man/hand, down/loud, can/pans); words that are used only for the sake of the rhyme and not to move the story forward; and uneven rhythm/meter. So in my cover letters, I rarely tell editors I have a rhyming PB, lest they develop a preconceived negative expectation – I just say it’s a PB and let them read it for themselves!

I created my blog back in 2012 as a way of showcasing my abilities – knowing how difficult it would be to promote my poetry – so that has been a very useful means of marketing. Taking part in online events like #PoetryFriday and #PBPitch has helped me promote and market my writing, and I’m very active on social media, which also helps tremendously. Moreover, having spent 25 years in radio as an on-air personality as well as a commercial production director, I’ve learned a lot about advertising!

Do you have any suggestions for those of us, like me, who’d like to sharpen our poetic skills?

I’d say the first thing anyone should do is read, read, read! As I mentioned earlier, so many folks just getting started are unfamiliar with the variety of children’s poetry out there:  the witty rhyming poetry of Douglas Florian, the understated simplicity of Charles Ghigna, the emotional insight of Nikki Grimes, the variety of voice and style of Jane Yolen. And there are so many others! Joyce Sidman, Marilyn Singer, J. Patrick Lewis, Rebecca Kai Dotlich…the list goes on and on, and that doesn’t even include the long list of past children’s poets who have come before us.

As for honing one’s craft, I suggest paying attention to the story or scene; don’t just rhyme a word because you need a rhyme, don’t use words or imagery that a reader might already anticipate, and definitely pay attention that you’re not speaking down to the reader. Kids are smarter than you think! In fact, don’t even worry about rhyming in the first place –free verse poetry is a wonderful (and quite popular) option, and is a great way for beginning poets to practice learning their subject and honing their skills without worrying about rhyme and meter.

What suggestions do you have for teachers who’d like to share poetry with their students?

Again, introducing children to a variety of poetry is crucial, because I think the reason many adults don’t appreciate poetry is because they were never introduced to the right ‘kind’ of poetry – that is, poetry they actually enjoy – as children. People who love Shakespeare might not like the work of Charles Simic; those who love poetry slams probably can’t get into Robert Frost. But it’s all poetry, whether it’s Jack Prelutsky or Kwame Alexander! A few books I recommend:

       Catch Your Breath: Writing Poignant Poetry, Laura Purdie Salas (Capstone, 2015)

       Poems Are Teachers: How Studying Poetry Strengthens Writing in All Genres, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater (Heinemann, 2017)

       Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry, Myra Cohn Livingston (HarperCollins, 1991)

       Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader, Alice B. Fogel (Hobblebush Books, 2009)

You were one of the judges for the new poetry collection, Friends and Anemones. How did it feel to be on the other side of the desk, selecting poems instead of submitting them?

It was definitely an unusual experience! I’ve critiqued poems and manuscripts through critique groups and the SCBWI, but never in this particular situation. Kip and I used a spreadsheet program to vote 1, 2, or 3 (1 was yes, 2 meant good but needed work, 3 meant likely not) and then the editors compared our notes to theirs and we moved forward.

You wrote Don’t Ask a Dinosaur and Once Upon Another Time with co-authors. What was that like? How did you share in the creation of these books?

Jane Yolen has said in the past that co-authored books are twice the work and half the pay – which is funny, but true! However, the experience is extremely gratifying, as well, because you get twice the insight and joy of watching your baby grow with both “parents.” For each of these books, I was given the germ of an idea by my co-author, spent a great deal of time considering narrative possibilities, wrote the initial rough draft, and then worked with the co-author on 20 or so revisions before we’d finally polished it to the point of being submission-ready.

Even after the manuscripts were picked up by their publishers, it was a great deal of fun working on editorial revisions, bouncing ideas of each other and seeing what surprising, creative solutions we’d come up with. I’m actually in the process of submitting a poetry collection that is also a collaboration with a highly esteemed children’s poet, so fingers crossed!

Flashlight Night
was unique in many ways. You wrote it in second person, a device that invites the reader to participate in its adventure. You also the worked closely with illustrator in creating the book. How did this book evolve?

I wrote the manuscript after a long drive at night, when all I could see were my car’s headlights. The phrase, “Flashlight…opens up the night” popped into my head, and I had no idea what to do with it. So I worked on it as I continued my drive home and eventually nailed it down after a couple of weeks. I deliberately wrote it in such a way as to have the reader as the person on the adventure – there’s no “Billy did this” or “Sally said that” – there are no characters mentioned at all, save for the flashlight!

It’s interesting to note that a published author critiqued the manuscript and had a number of concerns, including:  a) I was using 2nd person POV; b) flashlights show reality, not imagination, c) a tomb was too scary for kids, and d) I needed a better opening line. Good thing I stuck with my instinct, or we wouldn’t have a book to talk about!

Illustrator Fred Koehler are Facebook friends, but we didn’t work together directly…although you might think we did! The seamlessness of text and picture are all due to editor Rebecca Davis’ magical juggling handiwork, keeping Fred and I apprised of what each of us was doing. At one point, there was one scene where Fred had a lot going on in a spread, but Rebecca felt it was taking the reader away from my narrative, so she had to “reel him in,” so to speak – but there was another part in the book where his sub-narrative of the flashlight showing the story didn’t really mesh with my initial ending, so I had to slightly alter my text to better match his vision. In the end, Rebecca’s work made for a beautiful blend of art and text, and the book has even been used as a mentor text for that very reason.

Once Upon Another Time
is coming out in March 2021. How exciting! What is it about?

It’s a poetic look at the natural world around us, what it used to be like before humans made their mark, and how we can all experience that world again. Charles Ghigna (aka, “Father Goose®”) initially shared with me the first 4 stanzas he’d written back in 2012; not knowing where to go with them, he asked if I had any ideas. So I thought about it for a while and came up with a proposal for a storyline, and sent it to him along with 4 more stanzas so he could get a sense of what I was thinking. Charles couldn’t believe how closely our writing styles matched, and suggested I finish writing the rough draft.

So that’s what I did! And after about a dozen revisions back-and-forth, we began sending it out. A lesson in tenacity and persistence to those who are just starting their publishing careers:  our manuscript was rejected at least 25 times before getting picked up by editor Naomi Krueger at Beaming Books. Twenty-five times – and that’s with the gravitas of Father Goose’ name attached to the project! So if you send out a manuscript once or twice and it goes nowhere, don’t give up!

You have an incredible number of other books in the chute. (Something like eight, right?) Certainly, something to look forward to in the future! Tell us more!  

Yes, eight more books under contract, including a board book to kick off the new year,
Elliot, the Heart-Shaped Frog (Rainstorm Publishing, 2021). I have two other board books on the way (possibly this year), a few more picture books, and a poetry collection I’m eager to talk about – but can’t yet!

Wow! That’s extraordinary! Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I would just say that if you’re considering writing for children, do your homework and read as much as you can – not only to get a sense of the varieties of storytelling and books out there but to get a sense of the market. Learn as much as you can about craft, the industry, and the people already doing what you want to do. What’s that saying, “if you want to get better at something, surround yourself with people who are better at it than you?” That’s absolutely true! It’s what I did, reaching out to as many folks  as I could through social media as well as through the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI).

In fact, I tell people I owe my entire career to lunch. I was attending my first SCBWI conference in 2011, and while chatting during lunchtime with my New Hampshire neighbor, the late Tomie dePaola, and SCBWI co-founder Lin Oliver, I mentioned that I write poetry. Lin told me I needed to contact the late Lee Bennett Hopkins, since he was “the” children’s poetry guy! I had no idea who Lee was, but we eventually connected and he was so taken with my work he said he’d do what he could to help me with my career. He eventually introduced me to his longtime friend, Rebecca Davis, who would become my Flashlight Night editor and the editor for several of Lee’s poetry anthologies to which I’ve contributed.

So don’t forsake networking, don’t forsake learning the craft, don’t forsake revisions – and keep at it!

Thank you so much for being my guest today. Whether you’re interested in Matt Forrest Esenwine’s work as a children’s author or a voice actor, you can find out more at

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Valerie Bolling: Let's Dance!

Today I’d like to welcome Valerie Bolling, to Lupine Seeds. She’s a master teacher and the debut author of the foot stomping Let’s Dance!, a snap, twirl, and spin through the world’s dances.

Let’s Dance! is your first published book. Congratulations! It’s a romp to read and set my preschool audience off jiggity-jigging.

What was it like to see your book in print?

It was amazing, Linda! After almost two years from the time I signed my contract, I was able to hold the actual hard copy of Let’s Dance! in my hands, and it was a wonderful feeling. I felt a sense of reality, accomplishment, and gratitude. Furthermore, I was thrilled with Maine Diaz’s beautiful illustrations that really made my book “pop.”

Is Let’s Dance! the first book you’ve written? If you’re like most authors, you have manuscripts in the drawer which never reached the public but were valuable because they served as your apprenticeship texts. Can you tell us about your book’s predecessors and your path to publication?

Let’s Dance! is my first book that’s been published, but I have many other manuscripts. Some of them will be published, and some won’t. That’s just the way it works in the publishing world.

The predecessors to Let’s Dance! may never be available for the world to read, but they did spark my pursuit to get a book published, so I have no regrets about writing them. Two were inspired by my nieces, and I recently revised another – so significantly that it’s a different story. I’m hoping that one will get published.

As you know, Linda, the publication journey is different for everyone. Let’s Dance! was acquired as a result of receiving a “like” in a Twitter pitch (#PBPitch) in June 2018 by Jes Negrón, an editor at Boyds Mills & Kane. Jes and I had a phone conversation on July 2; I signed my contract later that month; and the book was published on March 3, 2020.

When I do school visits, I ask students to guess how many times I rewrote my first published piece. (Hint: more than 10, less than 20.) In a short rhyming text like Let’s Dance!, every word has to be just right. Did you have to wrestle with this story to bring it to perfection or did it seamlessly spring into being? How long did that process take?

So far, my stories written in sparse, rhyming text don’t require as many rounds of revision as do my stories written in prose. That said, my first version of Let’s Dance! needed revision. In fact, my first version had a different title: I Love To Dance. An author-librarian-storyteller-friend, Marianne McShane, provided feedback that helped me transform my story and get it submission-ready. I’m forever grateful to her because I didn’t have a critique group at the time.

You’ve said that it was important that your book represented children of diverse backgrounds. Did you find many “mirror” texts when you were growing up? Do you think that modern children’s literature offers a wider cultural perspective to readers?

Unfortunately, Linda, I don’t recall reading any “mirror” books as a child. I loved to read anyway, but I should’ve had the opportunity to see myself in books.

In recent years, there’ve been more diverse books, but we still have a long way to go. According to 2018 statistics reported by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, only 5% of authors are Black. That means that often when stories have Black characters, the author isn’t Black. (The CCBC didn’t report the percentage of Black illustrators.) We need more diverse representation in the publishing industry and in books. All children deserve to see themselves in books and to learn about others who are different from themselves.

Moreover, I want BIPOC children not only to see themselves in books but also to realize the possibility that they can become authors, contributing to a canon of literature that represents more diverse voices.

Promoting a new book during a pandemic poses special challenges. How did you approach that?

Linda, I approached the promotion of my book like a parent with a newborn. I wanted to hold it close and love on it, but I also wanted to share it and have it bring joy to everyone who held (or heard) it. Thus, I went after book promotion with a sincere commitment. I contacted librarians and bookstore owners; I reached out to bloggers; I responded to requests on social media for authors to read their books to students. I was open to just about anything.

I believed that children needed to hear my book. They needed to see children who looked like themselves as well as those who didn’t. They needed to know that we can all be connected through dance. In the midst of the pandemic shutdown, children actually needed to dance! And they still do.

You’ve been a teacher for over 25 years, working in elementary, middle, and high schools, and now serving as an Instructional Coach, collaborating with teachers to implement strategies which will bring out the best in their students. How has your teaching informed your writing?

The fact that I know kids informs my writing. Children are always at the forefront of my mind as I write. I’m always thinking about what message I want to offer them to dissect –what I want them to take away. I know, however, that children need to make these discoveries on their own.

When I was a classroom teacher, I stressed revision as an essential aspect of the writing process – the most recursive part. As a writer, I constantly revise. Thus, I have become my own student. My former students might find irony, or even humor, in this realization, but they wouldn’t be surprised.

Do you have other projects in the works? Can we expect to see more picture books, more poetry? Or are you exploring other genres?

Linda, I have a number of projects in the works. Currently, I’m starting my research to write a non-fiction picture book.

You can definitely expect more books from me – two are due out in 2022 and two more are slated for 2023. All are picture books, similar in style to Let’s Dance!

Terrific! I can’t wait to read them. Thank you so much for being my guest today. I expect to read many more of your books in the future. If you’d like to learn more about Valerie Bolling, you can visit her website at

Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me, Linda. In addition to my website, readers can connect with me on Twitter and on Instagram




Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Anika Aldamuy Denise: Planting Picture Books


                                                                        (Photo by Stephanie Bernaba)

Anika Aldamuy Denise is the author of an astonishing array of picture books, from the sweet Baking Day at Grandma’s which was illustrated by her husband, Christopher Denise, to the rollicking Monster Trucks. Then came her glittering Carmen books (Staring Carmen and Lights, Camera, Carmen) and her powerful biographies of Latinx women, Planting Stories: the life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre and the newly released A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno.

Planting Stories racked up no fewer than 15 awards, including the coveted ALA Pura Belpre Honor. A number of Anika’s books have been inspired by her Puerto Rican heritage. While her stories are aimed at young readers, many delve deep. In fact, I recently used her thought-provoking The Love Letter with my adult English Language Learner.

Thank you so much for being my guest today, Anika. I’m in awe of the versatility of your work. What initially led you to writing picture books?

Thanks, Linda! I think it was my husband’s children’s book illustration career and seeing his process of choosing which manuscripts he felt connected to and wanted to illustrate that sparked my desire to try writing a picture book of my own. Though I was a professional writer, I’d never written for children. So I read as many picture books as I could, joined SCBWI, and was fortunate to have a mentor in Chris’s editor at the time, Patti Gauch, who really helped me understand and appreciate the art of writing picture books.

You’ve explored so many avenues with your writing. What was your vision of a career in children’s literature when you began? How has that vision changed? What led you into each new genre?

At first, I wasn’t confident enough to believe a career in children’s books was possible. I didn’t give up my day job(s) and pursued children’s book writing on the side. I remember reaching an inflection point when I realized that if I wanted a meaningful career writing for kids, I had to commit to it fully. So I began researching agents and was fortunate to sign on with Emily van Beek at Folio Literary. She helped me articulate the kinds of stories that excited me. And while I loved writing books for Chris to illustrate (and still do), I also had a desire to explore identity, culture, and girl-power in my stories. I’m not sure my vision changed necessarily. It’s more that I gained the confidence to try new things.

What was it like creating a book with your husband? How was the process different when someone else was illustrating your words?

It’s always such a joy to work on books together. They’re often inspired by our daughters so it’s fun to celebrate and preserve those memories in picture book form. The process is a little different when we work together in that each of us is more involved with the other’s process than we would be if we were working with other people. He helps me develop the manuscript and I consult on sketches and final art. If something isn’t working, he can ask me to tweak the text directly without an editor as go-between.

Your earlier books were fiction, but two of your recent titles have been biographies. How does your approach to a nonfiction differ from your approach to fiction? Do you prefer one over the other?

My approach is different in some ways and similar in others. For both, I need to find the heart of the story, make sure the structure is working, the language is lyrical, and the ending is satisfying. I want both to have kid-appeal and not to feel too adult or (yikes!) boring. With my nonfiction projects, the research component is a heavier lift. But even for fictional picture books I research and fact check. My Google searches are filled with random questions like, “How spikey are hedgehogs?” Ha.

You grew up in Queens, but you live near the water in small-town Rhode Island. Your dad was Puerto Rican and your mom Italian. You and Christopher have three beautiful daughters. How does your personal story echo in your work?

I think my personal story echoes, to different degrees, in every story I write. Food, family, the arts, poetry, language, urban and rural settings are threads that run through my stories and have run through my life.

Planting Stories garnered so much attention and won so many awards. What did that feel like? Can you share some of your most exciting moments?

It was surreal to be honest. I hoped people would read and like it. I knew that even though books existed about Pura Belpré, I had something to add to the literary canon. The journey became especially poignant because I lost my father during the period of researching and writing it. When the book was recognized with awards, I felt proud not only as an author but as my father’s daughter. I knew he was smiling down on me. The most exciting moment was getting “the call” from the Pura Belpré Awards committee. There were so many wonderful Latinx stories out that year. And a book about Belpré had already won an honor. So I wasn’t expecting it. It was evening, not early morning, when the call came. And when I answered, I literally dropped to the floor and could not believe it.

A Girl Named Rosita: The Story of Rita Moreno, Actor, Singer, Dancer, Trailblazer
was just released. Tell us all about it!

It’s an American Dream story and an immigrant’s story. Rita Moreno (Rosita) came here when she was 5 years old from Puerto Rico. Her beginnings were humble. Her mother worked two or three jobs at a time to pay for their tiny apartment and dance lessons for Rosita. Even after she landed Broadway roles and a movie studio contract she was discriminated against as a Puerto Rican woman. There were sacrifices, joys, trials, and triumphs. I hope young readers will enjoy learning about her and feel inspired by her talent and perseverance.

Many of your anticipated author events were cancelled because of the pandemic. How did you deal with that? Did you find other ways to reach out to your readers?

At first, it was really hard. This past summer, ALA was cancelled and that meant not getting to go to the Belpré luncheon and celebrate with the other honorees and my publisher. I had to mourn that. And then I had to move on. There was a new book coming that deserved my attention. Even though I couldn’t do in-person events, with the help of libraries, literacy organizations, and amazing independent booksellers across the country, I was able to connect with readers virtually for story times, panels, and book talks. I’m also offering free story times to classrooms throughout the school year. Teachers can email me for a link to the sign-up sheet and I’ll Zoom into their class, read, and answer a few questions.

What is your advice to those who would like to write picture books?

First, make sure you know what a picture book is. It’s not a chapter book. It’s not a lesson. It’s not that funny story your Aunt Irma told you about the squirrel who keeps getting into her attic. (Well, maybe that’s a start but it’s going to need one or two more key elements—such as a plot.) Pick up a copy of Linda Ashman’s primer The Nuts & Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books. Become a member of your local SCBWI chapter. Read picture books for the joy of it and for the master class they can deliver in 32, 40, or 48 pages. Then give writing one a go. And while you’re writing, think about what you loved in your favorite picture books as a kid. What made you laugh? What made you worry? What made you wonder?

What can we expect from you in the future? More picture book fiction? More biographies? Something entirely new? Are you working on a project now?

I have three new projects in the works. And they are all super-secret right now because they haven’t been announced yet. One is fiction. The other two are nonfiction. And somewhere in a deep, dark, neglected corner of my works-in-progress drawer, there is a middle grade novel, that once I meet all my deadlines, I plan to get back to. Middle grade is the next “new thing” I need to gain the confidence to try. Wish me luck!

Good luck with that middle grade novel. I know you’ll rock it! Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with our readers, Anika.

Thank you for having me, Linda! Be safe and have a happy, healthy holiday season.

You, too, Anika, and all our readers. If you want to find out more about Anika and her books, visit




Monday, October 26, 2020

Sky Gazing with Meg Thacher


My guest today is Meg Thacher, author of Sky Gazing, a brand-spanking new, bright and beautiful introduction to all things astronomy. Its chapters invite the reader to step into the sky, moon, sun, planets, and stars with clear explanations, tidbits from history, legends from diverse cultures, and hands-on activities. This comprehensive book is the perfect introduction to the universe for kids, and for adults. It even includes a star map you can cut out to use for your own night sky explorations. I can’t wait to try it.

Meg Thacher has also written over thirty science articles for kids on topics ranging from coral reef critters to chemotherapy. She is a Senior Laboratory Instructor for the Astronomy Department at Smith College. She’s also the Academic Director for Smith College’s Summer Science and Engineering Program for high school girls. She’s an advocate for women and underrepresented minorities in science.

Sky Gazing is your first book. What was it like opening your box of author copies?

Fantastic! It really hit home that Sky Gazing is now a real thing that I made that exists in the world. My book designer and illustrator made it look so much better than I ever could have imagined.

What do you love most about writing nonfiction?

Everything. I love writing an outline (I’m a plotter), getting lost in research, and even revising my work. I love learning new things. But the thing I love the very most is explaining cool science so that kids can understand it and also think it’s cool. I want kids to understand their world and be excited about everything we haven’t discovered yet.

Were you interested in science as a child? What got you hooked on the field of astronomy?

Yes and no. My dad used to take us on “nature walks”, and I was always interested in why and how things worked. But I didn’t really think about science as a career until college, when I took introductory physics and astronomy from two amazing professors. I love the hands-on nature of science and the way that math helps us explain natural phenomena.

Where has your career as an astronomer taken you? Do you have any science adventures to share with us?

I visited Kitt Peak National Observatory (outside Tucson, AZ) several times while I was in graduate school, to do research. It was amazing being around all those giant telescopes and hanging out with other astronomers. One morning, after a 13-hour night of observing, I ran into a coati (“co-WATT-ee”, a racoon-like desert critter) in the entryway of my telescope building. It had somehow gotten in and knocked over a trashcan to retrieve a Snickers bar. When it saw me, it didn’t know whether to eat or run. It finally gave a little snarl in my direction, grabbed the Snickers, and ran for the back door. *

You are an advocate for women and minorities in science. Have you faced any difficulties as a woman in science?

Author at Kitt Peak: 

I’ve had a high school teacher tell me and other girls that we should be in home economics class instead of physics, and I’ve been mistaken for a secretary while making copies in my department office. Only about 20% of astronomers are women, so I do feel underrepresented at professional meetings. But because I’m a middle-class, straight, cisgender white woman, no one has ever truly questioned my right to be in those spaces. The culture of physics and astronomy is much less welcoming to intersectional folks—people who differ from the majority in more than one way, like BIPOC or LGBTQ+ women. It’s past time for us to change the culture of astronomy and physics into one that is comfortable for everyone. Otherwise, we’re losing a lot of talent to fields that have already figured this out!

During the school year, you teach college students, and in the summer your students are teens. Yet your writing for middle grade readers is pitch perfect, clear, lively, and engaging. Was writing for this younger audience a challenge for you? How did you manage it?

Thanks very much! Most of what I know about writing for kids I learned writing for magazines. My first article in Ask (for ages 7-10) needed a ton of help from an extremely patient editor, but I’ve improved with each article. Magazines require an engaging voice and concise style. The first draft of Sky Gazing was really a series of articles, though it became much more coherent through my dozens of revisions.

Your articles have appeared in noteworthy magazines such as Highlights, Ask, and Muse. Most have been about astronomy, but you’ve also tackled other topics: the history of the text message, chemotherapy, ocean reefs, and wastewater treatment, to name a few. You even wrote a reader’s theater for an old Welsh tale. Where do you find your subjects, and how do you approach your research?

Subjects are pretty easy to find: most nonfiction magazines list either their monthly themes or a wish list of article topics. I check out their submission webpages and then let my mind wander. The chemotherapy article was for an issue on poison, and the wastewater article was for an issue on trash.

Honestly, the way I approach initial research is Google and Wikipedia! I also check out books from my local library about the topic—for both adults and kids. I look for articles about current research by professional scientists. I can read scholarly articles in astronomy and physics, but for subjects I wasn’t trained for, I stick to magazines written for popular audiences—like Discover, Scientific American, and Science News—and the News section of university and lab websites. These are very good sources of people to interview, too.

I take notes on my computer, typing them into the appropriate section of my outline. That becomes the an extremely rough first draft of my article. Most magazines require a list of sources; I list them in the draft as I go.

What is the hardest part of translating research into an engaging piece for young readers?

Probably figuring out what is developmentally appropriate. For that, I look to the Next Generation Science Standards, which is like the Common Core for science. It’s got topics arranged by grade level, so I can check if, for example, my target audience understands what atoms and molecules are. If not, I have to find another way to explain the concept, or provide a sidebar (a box with explanatory text) or glossary term. The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is another fantastic reference.

Sky Gazing is your debut book, though I’m sure there will be many more. What challenges have you faced in launching a book during a pandemic?

I really think the only thing I’ve missed is a fun, in-person book launch party. A lot of marketing is already done online. I’ve watched plenty of webinars about how to leverage your online presence; the best advice I’ve seen is to do as much as you are comfortable doing and what you have time to do. As long as I do something, I feel fine.

Do you have anything else you’d like to share with our readers? What’s the next project on your horizon?

I’d like to tell every pre-published author to write a few magazine articles. It’s a great way to get published, and it gives you experience working with editors and illustrators that is really valuable going forward. And it’s so satisfying to see your work in print and have your family and friends brag about you!

I’m currently working on a fact-based middle grade novel about a girl who loves astronomy and plans an adventure for her family that doesn’t go as expected. And like all kids’ writers, I’ve got several picture books that I’m slowly submitting to editors and agents.

Thank you so much for being my guest! Readers can find out more about Meg Thacher and her work at


*Coati photo:








Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Cameron Kelly Rosenblum and raffle for THE STEPPING OFF PLACE

Lets welcome, Cameron Kelly Rosenblum, author of The Stepping Off Place. Released in July 2020, her book has already earned high praise from Booklist and a starred review in Kirkus. Given the books passion and unforgettable characters, I predict it will receive many more accolades.

The Stepping Off Place deals with shifting friendships and romances, grief and mental health, with profound realism. When Reids inseparable friend Hattie leaves for her familys private island in Maine the summer before their senior year, Reid isnt sure she can navigate the dynamics of her new position in the popular crowd alone. Reid is devastated when, days before Hattie is due to return, she learns Hattie has drowned. As she uncovers the circumstances surrounding her friends death, Reid is forced to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about her friend.

I’ll be raffling off a copy of The Stepping Off Place to one of the lucky people who leave a comment on this post.

The Stepping Off Place is your debut novel, Cameron. Can you tell us about your journey to publication? Did you have mentors along the way?

Mine is the Aesop’s tortoise of publishing journeys. But, like the tortoise, I’ve enjoyed the trip! For eight years I worked (and reworked) the same middle grade novel. I remember speakers at workshops telling us that first novel attempts often end up in a drawer, that they’re a sandbox for honing your craft, and I thought, "Nope, not mine!" But that MG currently resides in a Staples box in a closet.

Through rejections and painfully close calls, I’ve been buoyed by wonderful mentors and writing friends, most of whom I met through SCBWI events in New England. During one Nashua conference, I met a pre-published woman named Lynda Mullaly Hunt at a peer critique roundtable. She read her first page and I remember the whole table going quiet. We all looked at each other, like, “You can go next.” “Oh no, you. I insist.” Lynda and I remain great friends, and she got me hooked on the Whispering Pines Retreat, which inspired me and my writing pal Julie Kingsley to start a small retreat on Squam Lake in NH. 

All along, I gained wisdom from the industry professionals at SCBWI events. Many gave me powerful feedback, and many are just excellent teachers. Laurie Hals Anderson, M.T. Anderson, Cynthia Lord, Jo Knowles, Jennifer Jacobson, editor Christian Trimmer and agent John Cusick left lasting impressions on how I think about writing and my career. SCBWI is a network like no other and I am so glad I joined, lo, those many years ago!

The novels settings of Scofield, CT and a private island in Maine are palpably real. So are the characters who inhabit them. You grew up in Connecticut and now live in Maine. How much of this novel is taken from your own experience?

Scofield is an enhanced version of my hometown in Connecticut, because this book is a highly fictionalized tribute to a dear friend of mine from childhood. My friend died by suicide when we were adults, but we were so close in our formative tween/teen years, her loss remains very powerful to me. I wanted to write about that kind of friendship. I also wanted to address mental illness in a nuanced, respectful way that encourages healthy conversations among readers. As for the characters, writing The Stepping Off Place was art therapy for me. I was processing a loss and I wanted to give myself distance. By exaggerating Reid’s dependence on Hattie, and also taking Hattie away from Reid when the girls are still in high school (not adults, as in my personal situation), I was able to tackle my subject with a clearer eye. I imagined totally different backstories for both of them, including adding Reid’s brother, Spencer, who has autism. My son has severe autism, so I felt comfortable imagining how that would shape Reid’s outlook on things. As for Maine, I moved here with my husband in 1999, and I continue to appreciate the bold  beauty of the landscape every day.  In The Stepping Off Place, liked how the dual settings ended up working as metaphor— Reid is groomed rosebushes and clean sidewalks; Hattie is wild sea roses and waves crashing on cliffs.

Love that metaphor!

You didnt write The Stepping Off Place in linear sequence. Instead you shifted back and forth between Reids current experiences and her memories, until sometimes the two seemed to bleed together. Why did you choose this format? What challenges did you face and how did you manage to keep your timeline straight?

In the first draft I wrote by instinct, focusing on alternating emotionally raw scenes with fun, carefree ones. In the process, I found this back-and-forth created its own tension, simply by the juxtaposition. The “before” scenes were built as Reid's memories, which came whether she was ready or not; I wanted the structure to reflect the chaos of a grieving mind. In revision, I nailed down Reid’s character arc. She grows from being a sidekick to a person ready to stand in her own light. As such, Reid’s story starts where Hattie’s life ends. So, for me, this format worked on a bunch of levels.

Challenges? Oh, yes! But mostly during revisions. The trickiest part was moving scenes around. I had to make sure all the details matched where the scene fell in the story. In a linear narrative, that isn’t so hard. Think: Goldilocks can’t sit on Baby Bear’s chair before she sits on Papa Bear’s chair. But without the traditional timeline of events, we needed to triple check all the details. Foreshadowing hints had to be traced through three timelines. It’s the difference between a domino effect and an echo effect. Thankfully, I had wonderful editorial co-agents (Brianne Johnson and Allie Levick of Writers House) guiding me, and later my awesome editor Karen Chaplin at HarperCollins.

Hattie appears to Reid after her death. Is that her ghost?

On a deep level, I was grappling with big questions through writing this story: Why would my friend take her own life? And more universally, what happens to a beautiful soul after its corporeal vessel ceases to exist? For Reid, its simply impossible to believe that Hattie is gone, poof. Maybe Reid is imagining Hatties appearances to cope with the shocking loss. Or maybe the essence of Hattie stays to help Reid. I don’t know the answer myself, but wouldn’t dismiss either possibility.

The Stepping Off Place tackles the topic of mental illness and you provide a number of resources where people can get help in the back of your book and on your website. Can you talk a little about this issue and why it is so important to you?

As I said, this book is a tribute to my friend. It’s true I saw myself as a bit of a sidekick to her superhero in real life; that’s why her loss remains difficult to wrap my mind around. I thought she had it all. But mental illness doesn’t discriminate.

Initially, I shied away from the teen suicide topic— it’s so important to do right. But I very quickly realized that the suicide is the story. And that for suicide loss survivors, there is often no answer to why, other than simply, she or he succumbed to depression or another mental illness. The deeper into the story I got, the clearer my mission became: To stoke constructive conversations about mental illness and its stigma so that we can address the alarming trends in suicide rates.

Originally you thought youd like to write middle grade novels. What made you pivot to writing for young adults? Do you think youll write middle grade books in the future, or have you discovered your true audience in teens?

When I finally surrendered my middle grade novel, it was because I had turned it into a Frankenbook. I made the mistake of listening to everyone’s advice over the years and choosing their ideas over my own. The narrative got all out of whack. It’s definitely important to listen, but I know better now when to trust myself. Our novels are our own, first and foremost! I was a more skilled and informed writer by the time I started The Stepping Off Place, so it may be a coincidence that I executed it better than my previous work. Or maybe I should have been writing YA all along. In any case, I’m staying with it!

Is there anything else youd like to share with our readers? Do you have a new project in the works? I certainly hope so! The world is eager to hear from you again.

I’m working on a second YA for HarperCollins, due out in winter 2022. This time I’m going after sexual assault in a #MeToo aware world, and the boys are coming in for the conversation.

To learn more about Cameron Kelly Rosenblum and The Stepping Off Place, visit her website at

And to be entered in our raffle for a copy of The Stepping Off Place, just leave a comment on this post. Good luck, people!

Monday, September 7, 2020

Heather Gerry Kelly on Collaboration and Community


Today I’d like to introduce Heather Gerry Kelly, founder of the Writer’s Loft in Sherborn, Massachusetts. As a teacher, editor, author, and director, Heather strives to find ways to help writers become more prolific storytellers.

Welcome, Heather! Collaboration is a theme that runs through all you do, from running the Writers’ Loft to publishing your remarkable series of anthologies. Could you tell us why you think collaboration is so important?

Thank you so much for having me! I am so humbled to be here with you! There are so many ways I could answer this question, but I’m going to say that collaboration is so important for two reasons—one: this writing thing is hard to do alone, and exponentially better when we do it with others. When we think about the work we do with our fellow authors—critiquing, supporting, cheerleading—something magical happens when we think of those jobs as collaboration rather than simple support. Two: every single time I’ve collaborated with another author, the outcome far exceeds my expectations. Alone, I can shoot for the moon, and I can also get there, but when I collaborate, I shoot for the moon and we find ourselves out on Saturn. I can’t stress enough how amazing books can become when you add collaboration into the mix. And it doesn’t hurt that you do so much less work when you collaborate. Imagine finishing drafting a book in half the time, and it’s ten times as good! I challenge every writer reading this to think about collaborating in some small way with someone right now.

What exactly is the Writers’ Loft and what drove you to create it? How has the function of the Loft changed during the pandemic?

I started the Writers’ Loft in 2013, and it was such a huge risk! I thought, if I am finding this writing business hard, I’m sure other people are too! I wanted to be a support for other writers to find a place to write, and start a community of serious and kind writers. We grew the Loft by word of mouth, so that we knew the caliber of writers joining us. We leaned on our roots with NESCBWI (I was helping to run the conference when I started the Writers’ Loft) and will forever be grateful to that community. We think of the Writers’ Loft as a yearlong conference, a place you can find critique partners, knowledge, support, and access to industry professionals, like agents and editors. We always wanted to have a virtual component to the Loft, but we were way too busy organizing in-person events to figure it out (we run exclusively on volunteer energy!). When the pandemic hit, we immediately brought all of our features and events online and started to expand our outreach to support writers no matter where they live. We’ll continue to offer virtual events even after things return to normal; we always seek to protect the most vulnerable among us. If you are writing, and are supportive and kind to other writers, please seek us out!

You mentioned that you’re collaborating on a YA series with Natasha Sass. How exciting! Can you tell us about it?

I LOVE collaborating with Natasha. She’s amazing. This project started with a mentorship opportunity with the founders of Sterling and Stone, and we met some blockbuster self-publishers along the way. Natasha and I are writing a very cool dystopian series together, utilizing our different skillsets—my favorite part of writing is world-building; hers is dialog. We can’t wait to publish the series in 2021. The most important feature of our collaboration is that every day, even when we are focused on our own projects and not the Surge series, we are pushing each other forward. Right now, my main focus is my non-fiction workbooks—Natasha helps me with those—while her main focus is her amazing cozy mystery series, featuring the sassiest cat ever. (Check her out under her pen name at—especially if you love cats with attitudes.) We support each other’s careers on a daily bases, along with our collaborations! 

You’ve written two craft books for writers, Jumpstart Your Writing in 30 Days and another book coming out this fall, Jumpstart Your Querying in 30 Days. How did those books come about? Where can our readers purchase them?

I love helping other writers—especially on a one-on-one situation. When the Loft was smaller, I used to try to support and mentor writers when they walked in the door. Now that it’s grown so much (we have over 500 active writers and illustrators involved) I found I couldn’t reach all the writers that I wanted to personally. My workbooks are a way to share my knowledge and support with writers doing the hard work on a daily basis. You can buy them anywhere books are sold—although the pandemic has certainly slowed down their delivery! I’m also busy writing a revision workbook and a marketing workbook. The workbooks follow the idea of small goals each day that make a big change over the course of a month. Kinda like I’m there, holding your hand, as you face the mindset, skillset, and knowledge barriers that can block the path to writing success.

You created your own publishing house, Pocket Moon Press, to publish these. How did you go about that? What special challenges did you face? What joys?

The idea behind Pocket Moon Press (another collaboration with my brilliant friend, Kristen Wixted) is that we all have moons in our pockets—amazing secret stories that need to be told! I love to think outside the box with publishing and I love the idea that I can be an entrepreneur and control the creative aspects of my production. We have amazing teams that assist in publication—editors, copyeditors, book designers (shout out to Bob Thibeault of Teabow Designs), cover artists, etc. But to be clear, this is a self-publishing venture. Everything that Kristen and I do, you can do too! We are learning the ins and outs of Kickstarted right now, to push forward some of our Pocket Moon Press ventures in creative ways!

Every two years the Writers’ Loft puts out an anthology created by its members. So far there has been three: An Assortment of Animals, Firsts, and Friends and Anemones all fine examples of creative collaboration. What is your process for pulling these anthologies together?

The Writers’ Loft Press is spearheaded by Kristen Wixted. We do a call for submissions for poems (for Firsts it was a call for short stories) in the summer and then we take the authors on a whirlwind process of critiques, edits, copy edits, etc. In the winter, we put out our call for illustrators and work with them on the same process—critiques, edits, art direction and book design. Right now, we are in my favorite part of the process—showing the authors their illustrated pieces. I can’t tell you how beautiful Friends and Anemones will be when published Nov. 2020! We have some blockbuster authors and illustrators involved—and that’s a part of the thrill. New authors sit alongside Jane Yolen. New illustrators rest side-by-side with Brian Lies.

You offer a number of workshops including “Creatively WIN Your Writing,” “Nurturing Big Ideas,” and “Stick with your Buddy.” Who are your workshops for and how did you develop them?

I’ve developed these workshops for several conferences; Hollihock (which will be online October 24,25,26) and NESCBWI (April 30-May 2 2021), along with various workshops I give at the Writers’ Loft. It’s always my goal to help writers become more effective and productive writers. I love talking to a room of writers and helping them connect and get to the next level! My workbooks are now an extension of these workshops and all the mentoring I still do.

What is your background beyond writing and how did it lead you to all you do today?

In high school, I was chosen to attend a journalism conference with other young writers from around the United States—two students from each state, I believe. One of the first speakers we heard from was Cornell West. Right then and there, I gave up my idea of being a journalist or novelist; I studied Sociology and Psychology at Colby College, instead of English classes which had originally been my plan. I thought I could always write, but I wanted to understand societal and psychological struggles and help people. I was on track to become a social worker, but the work I was doing was way too emotionally draining to also raise kids. So, I decided to put my mind to writing instead! I’ve been producing novels for over ten years, and am excited to start to see some of the fruits of my labor out in the world!

You are so prolific! Is there anything I missed? Anything else you do? Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I’d like to say that writing is still hard. I commend anyone who is on this journey. If you are looking for community, everyone is welcome at the Writers’ Loft, regardless of who you are or where you are on the road to publication. And now, where you live in the world! If you need community, check out our classes and webinars at our website or our Facebook group:

Thank you so much for being my guest today! You can find out more about Heather Gerry Kelly at




Friday, August 7, 2020

Meet Prolific Author, Debbi Michiko Florence


Debbi Michiko Florence is the author of a multitude of books for young readers, including the highly successful Jasmine Toguchi and My Furry Foster Family chapter book series. I don’t have room to list all the accolades she’s won. (Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen alone garnered ten awards.) She recently launched her debut middle grade novel, Keep It Together Keiko Carter which has already earned glowing reviews and been chosen as a New England Book Award Finalist.

I just finished Keep It Together Keiko Carter and I loved how Keiko cared so much about everyone around her and tried to make everyone get along. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t, but she learned much about herself and others in the process. You’ve captured the complex dynamic of middle school perfectly. How do you manage to connect so well with this age group?

Thank you so much! As for connecting with this age group, my strongest memories are from middle school – so many big changes and big emotions! And I think my internal age is stuck somewhere between 12 – 14.

Most of your previous books were early chapter books for 7-10-year-olds. My granddaughters adored them. How is writing for the chapter book set different than writing for middle schoolers? Which age group is more challenging?

I’m so happy to hear your granddaughters enjoyed my chapter books. While writing chapter books and middle grade novels both require strong character development, the plots for chapter books are more straight-forward. Since chapters books are for the newly independent reader, I focus on one main story arc and one main emotional arc with no subplots. While I am a pantser by nature and do not outline for my novels, I do outline for my chapter books. There isn’t a lot of room for me to stray and wander off. I think writing for any audience comes with their own challenges. I love writing for both chapter book and middle grade readers.

You draw on your Japanese heritage in your writing, yet each of your books is totally relatable for readers of other cultures, even when you address the difficult topic of bigotry. How do you decide what aspect of the Japanese culture to highlight in a book? Do you rely on your own experience or do you couple your experience with research?

It’s important to me to write contemporary stories starring Japanese American characters. When I was growing up in Los Angeles, I was fortunate to have a large Asian American community. While being Japanese American is integral to who I am, back then, I saw myself as a typical American teen. I loved reading contemporary stories when I was a young reader, but I never saw Japanese American characters dealing with friendship challenges, crushes, and family drama.

When writing my books, I always start with a premise – usually focusing on relationships, such as family or friendship or in the case or my middle grade novels, romance – and a character. My characters are always Japanese American, and being Japanese American involves more than just that identifier. Culture and tradition run deep and it’s natural that many of my own experiences and emotions become part of my characters.

I also research when necessary, making sure I get facts right, particularly in the Jasmine Toguchi series since Japanese culture played a big part in each book. For Jasmine Toguchi Drummer Girl, I took a taiko lesson so I would know how Jasmine would feel learning to play the Japanese drum. That was so much fun!

I remember that you had a group of Japanese drummers at your book launch, too. They were amazing.

You’ve volunteered as a raptor rehabilitator and worked as a zoo educator. Your family includes a rescue dog, rabbit, and duck. Your love for animals comes through in My Furry Foster Family series. A dog has an important role in the plot of Keep It Together Keiko Carter, too. How do you approach creating animal characters for your stories?

With the exception of the My Furry Foster Family series which obviously had to have animals as a focus for each book, I didn’t purposefully intend to add animals to my other books. It just kind of happened. It makes sense, though, because I have been an animal lover all my life and I have a degree in zoology.

The flamingo in the Jasmine Toguchi series came about because my editor asked me what Jasmine’s favorite animals was. I knew that Jasmine, due to her independent nature, wouldn’t choose a typical animal and because my editor was originally from Miami, the flamingo seemed like a fun choice. I did research flamingos, particularly for the fourth book Flamingo Keeper. The ultimate reward was getting to feed juvenile flamingos for my book launch at the L.A. Zoo!

For Keep It Together Keiko Carter, I gave Conner a dog because it added layer to make him likeable since he is not very nice to Keiko at the beginning of the book. He was a dog-lover so he couldn’t be all bad, right? And then it just became a great connection between Keiko and Conner that she loved dogs and wanted one, too.

Readers can expect to see other animals pop up in future books for sure. Having worked at a pet store, the Humane Society, and having now had six dogs in my life definitely helps me write dogs into my books. (I’ve also had fish, hamsters, a guinea pig, snakes, birds/parrots, and a cat.)

You’ve traveled widely and have lived in China and Mexico. Have you mined those experiences in your books? Will you in the future?

I haven’t yet, although I do have a few ideas for books set in Japan where I spent many summers when I was young and is one of my favorite places to visit. And I love books about traveling so don’t be surprised if I write a travel story.

Both Jasmine Toguchi and My Furry Foster Family were series. I hear that there will be a sequel to Keep It Together Keiko Carter, too. How is writing a series different than writing a one-off title? Do you have any advice for writers who’d like to see their books made into a series?

I think writing a series is not hugely different than writing any book, you need a strong main character and a good story. To be honest, I originally wrote the first Jasmine Toguchi book as a stand-alone because I had the idea for Mochi Queen and couldn’t let go of it. I’d been writing novels up till then and knew that the idea for this book wasn’t quite right for a middle grade novel since my main character was in 3rd grade. So, after studying many chapter books, I wrote my first chapter book. But when my editor made an offer on Mochi Queen, she asked for a series which was wonderful, and I came up for three more ideas.

A similar thing happened for Keep It Together, Keiko Carter. My editor asked if I had an idea for a sequel and I told her I really wanted to write a book from the point-of-view from Keiko’s best friend – and so I got to write Just Be Cool Jenna Sakai, which will be published in August 2021. I’m very excited about this book!

One thing I can share about writing series is to give your main character unique traits that can be carried throughout the series – such as Jasmine’s love for flamingos. I’m co-teaching a virtual workshop at The Highlights Foundation in a few weeks about writing chapter book series. I’m hoping it will become an in-person workshop in the future.

Do you have another project in the works? What final thoughts do you have for our readers?

I just turned in copyedits for Just Be Cool Jenna Sakai. I feel very lucky to have been able to write Jenna’s story. While Keiko is a people-pleasure, Jenna is a bit more prickly and independent, so she was a fun character to write. Readers will get to see Keiko in this book, too. I’m working on another middle grade book with my editor at Scholastic, hopefully to be published in 2022, and I’m currently revising a middle grade fantasy about a girl who ends up in a Japanese fable. I have ideas for a chapter book series, as well.

I co-authored a picture book biography with Jamie Michalek, Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites with gorgeous art by Yuko Jones that will be published in fall of 2021 (Farrar Straus Giroux). This will be my picture book debut and I’m very excited!

While at a glance one may be awed (as I am) that since 2016 I have had 16 chapter books and one novel published with two more novels and a picture book biography on the way, it’s important for me to share that I have had a very long journey. I started writing with the intention of getting published in 2001. I have collected hundreds of rejections. I have written books that will never see the light of day (rightly so). I didn’t give up. And now my dreams are coming true.

I am in awe, not only of the number of books you’ve published, but of all the projects you have in the works. Wow! Thank you so much for stopping by.

You can purchase personally signed copies of Debbi’s books from Bank Street Books through these links: Keiko Carter:

Jasmine Toguchi:

If you’d like to learn more about Debbi Michiko Florence and her books, visit her website at




Matt Forrest Esenwine: Picture Books, Poetry, and Voice

  Today I want to welcome picture book author and poet, Matt Forrest Esenwine   Matt started out in radio, working ...