Author: Tara Luebbe

Meet Mentor Laura Gehl


Laura Gehl is back for her second year as a Writing with the Stars mentor. I cannot thank Laura enough for her generosity, especially as she has THREE books launching during the contest. MY PILLOW KEEPS MOVING, illustrated by Christopher Weyant, debuts January 16, 2018; PEEP AND EGG-I’M NOT USING THE POTTY, illustrated by Joyce Wan, debuts February 13, 2018; and I GOT A CHICKEN FOR MY BIRTHDAY, illustrated by Sara Horne, debuts March 1, 2018.

Is this the last adventure for PEEP AND EGG? Did you have all the stories figured out when you sold the series or did you create as you went?

I don’t know yet whether there will be more Peep and Egg adventures, but I would certainly welcome the opportunity. We originally sold the first two books together. After receiving a very positive response to PEEP AND EGG: I’M NOT HATCHING, Macmillan wanted two additional books. I’M NOT TAKING A BATH was one of those two from the beginning. The fourth book was scheduled to be I’M NOT EATING THAT, but then our editor Janine O’Malley had the brilliant idea to do I’M NOT USING THE POTTY. I’ve already heard lots of excitement from both parents and kids about that title.

Your new book, MY PILLOW KEEPS MOVING, is about an older man whose pillow keeps moving because it is not a pillow at all, but a dog. I am very curious about how you came up with the idea for this delightfully wacky concept.

 I used to play a silly game with my kids at bedtime. I would pretend to fall asleep—with lots of loud snores, of course—using one of them as a pillow. Of course, the “pillow” kept wiggling and giggling and I would say, “My pillow keeps moving! I need to return this pillow to the pillow store!” That bedtime game grew into this sweet, wacky book, which is dedicated to my oldest son.

Can you give us a synopsis of I GOT A CHICKEN for MY BIRTHDAY? The title is hilarious.

Ana begs Aubela Lola for tickets to the amusement park for her birthday. But Abuela Lola gives Ana…a chicken. Fortunately, the chicken turns out to be no ordinary chicken. After recruiting Ana’s pets and giving Ana a loooong list of supplies to gather, the chicken builds something in the backyard that turns out to be THE BEST BIRTHDAY GIFT EVER.

Do you have any creative ways of idea generation (besides having four kids)?

I am one of the people who believe ideas are EVERYWHERE. A comment you overhear at the grocery store. A funny rhyme popping into your head in the shower. A headline you read in the newspaper. So I keep post-it notes in every possible location, from the bathroom to the nightstand to the kitchen to my purse. Any time even the slightest sliver of an idea presents itself, I scribble it down. Later, I email myself all the scribbled thoughts, and I keep them in a file on my computer titled “Picture Book Ideas.” Usually these ideas are just a silly phrase or an interesting play on words when they go into my file. But later, I can think of a story to fill out the idea, or combine a few of the ideas into a full-fledged story.

Is there something you know now as a published author that you wish you had known when starting out?

The job never gets easier. Every multi-published author I know is working very hard all the time. This might initially sound discouraging to someone starting out…but I actually think the underlying message is ENCOURAGING. For the most part, authors are not getting contract after contract by connections or luck. They are getting those contracts from consistent hard work. Which means anyone willing to put in a huge amount of consistent hard work has a real shot in this business.

I know you are a serious chocoholic. How does chocolate figure into your writing? Do you eat it when things are hard? Or when celebrating? Both?

I like to eat small amounts of chocolate before I start writing. It gets my brain buzzing. I try to save milkshakes for big rewards, because they are just too unhealthy to eat regularly. I actually attempt (not always successfully) to avoid eating chocolate when frustrated. Because I feel better for about five minutes post-chocolate and then slump back into frustration again.

What are you working on next?

I have lots of projects at various stages in the pipeline. One book I am very excited about, which will be published by Albert Whitman, is called DELIVERY BEAR. It is about a bear whose dream is to deliver cookies for the Fluffy Tail Cookies company…only to discover that they only hire bunnies. The story depends in part upon songs, which satisfied my love of writing in rhyme. It also carries messages of both inclusion and playing to your own unique strengths. Paco Sordo is currently doing the illustrations, and I can’t wait to see them!


Thank you, Laura! Please remember to support these authors by buying their books, asking for them at your library and leaving reviews.

WWTS Update: Cassandra Federman

Cassandra was the lucky recipient of a Writing With the Stars mentorship with Melissa Iwai and her husband Denis Markell.  Here is what Cassandra had to share about the experience. 

I was the lucky WWTS winner to receive two mentors for the price of one! The husband and wife power-couple Denis Markell (primarily a writer) and Melissa Iwai (primarily an illustrator) were a mentorship dream team! I had a manuscript and dummy that was getting me close to being represented by an agent, but ultimately no one was pulling the trigger. It had already been through roughly a million rounds with my critique group and I needed a fresh pair (or two pairs) of eyes. Denis and Melissa were able to hone in on what my story was missing and I went through several drafts of the manuscript based on their suggestions. Once the manuscript felt finished, it was time to begin an entirely new dummy. Melissa and Denis provided invaluable advice there as well. They were always available when I needed notes, advice, or positive reinforcement. Once the mentorship came to an end, I set about querying with my new work and landed an agent that I couldn’t be more excited about. I can’t thank Denis, Melissa, Tara, and Becky enough for everything they have done for me!

Congratulations Cassandra on landing an agent! Success! Melissa Iwai’s new book, Pizza Day, will be released October 31. Also check out the great MG novel, Click Here to Start by Denis. 


WWTS Update: Carolyn Le

Carolyn was the lucky recipient of a Writing With the Stars picture book mentorship with author Camille Andros. Here is what Carolyn had to say about her experience. 


I was looking for a fresh perspective on my manuscripts when I applied for the Writing With the Stars Mentorship. They had gone through several revisions with my writing group, plus rounds of rejections and silence from agents and editors. From the comments I did receive, I knew there was something missing. When I read Publishers Weekly’s descriptions of Camille Andros’ picture books Charlotte the Scientist is Squished (Spring 2017) and The Dress and the Girl (Fall 2018), I knew she was someone I wanted to work with. Her books were the type of stories I enjoy reading and were the type of stories I aspire to write: humorous, character–driven and full of heart.

Besides providing a fresh perspective, Camille Andros was encouraging and enthusiastically supportive. She patiently answered my questions, provided links to websites and gave clear examples that addressed the issues I was having with my manuscripts. She was honest in her critiques and provided specific writing exercises to help me tell my story better, create stronger characters and develop a stronger story arc. She challenged me to push myself. When she suggested I rewrite one of my stories, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I had been working on it for three years with many stops and starts, and I couldn’t imagine what else I could write. The exercises she suggested helped me find the heart in my story. I was able to rewrite the story, and I found myself excited about the manuscript again.

Thank you, Tara and Becky, for this amazing mentorship opportunity. And thank you, Camille, for sharing your time, your experience in navigating the industry and your enthusiastic encouragement. This has been an invaluable experience. I’ve developed new skills and have a better understanding of the picture book genre. I look forward to querying agents with the manuscripts that I have edited with Camille’s help.


Thank you Carolyn. Camille’s next book, The Dress and the Girl comes out Fall ’18. IF you have not seen her book, Charlotte the Scientist is Squished, check it out. It is amazing.  


WWTS Update: Sam Altmann

Sam Altmann was the lucky recipient of a mentorship with Stacy McAnulty in the Writing With the Stars contest.  Here is what Sam had to say about her experience. 


I am infinitely grateful to Tara and Becky for hosting this contest, and to the incredible Stacy McAnulty for choosing me and my work. We now have a dedicated Stacy bookshelf in our home library, and are eagerly awaiting the release of Brave.

Stacy and I connected immediately, and set up a plan for the next few months. Our goal was to have three polished manuscripts and a kick-ass query letter. Initially, I sent her my top manuscripts, and she weeded through and shared her thoughts on marketability. That was the first thing I learned; you can write a humorous, grammatically correct, well-paced picture book, but without that “hook”, it’s probably going to remain in your practice pile. And that’s okay.

Genius writing ability aside, one of the many other reasons I was so thrilled to work with Stacy was her approach to editing and revising. She pushed for big revisions when something wasn’t working, and, at times, we needed to completely overhaul a manuscript. I learned to look at character motivation, plot, and pacing from so many different angles. For certain manuscripts, I wrote three or four different endings before choosing the one that fit the best. Sometimes we would think something was working, but in the end, it just wasn’t right. So we’d start again.

I am happy to say that we met our goal of having three polished manuscripts and a strong query letter. But the most important thing I learned is to always keep writing. Again, some manuscripts might live in the practice pile, but others may just become “the one”.

I am so appreciative of Stacy’s infinite patience during this mentorship. Under her guidance, I feel as though the quality of my writing has improved, and I have a better knowledge of marketability and industry insight. It’s a tough industry, but I feel so lucky to have someone as brilliant as Stacy in my corner.

Stacy was the muse behind the contest and so I want to triple thank her for all she has done to pay it forward.  Be on the lookout for her next two books. Brave, the companion book to Beautiful, is out October 3, 2017 (illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vreithoff) and Earth on Jan. 23, 2018 (illustrated by David Litchfield).


WWTS update: Melanie Ellsworth

Melanie Ellsworth was the recipient of a free picture book writing mentorship with the amazing Beth Ferry in our Writing with the Stars contest.  Here is what Melanie had to say about the experience. 

Sometimes writers need a little kick in the pants.  Sometimes we need clarity. Sometimes we just need someone to believe in our work. With Beth Ferry, I got all three – and more. With help from her sharp editorial eyes, I now have three picture books I am happy to send out in the big, wide world. And I have a renewed desire to dig out all those old, shelved manuscripts. Maybe I can prod them into shape using Beth’s amazing editorial tips.


Here are some of my favorite Beth tips (paraphrased):

  • Make them care! Add heart! Ask yourself, “Why do we care about this friendship? Why do we want to read this book again?”
  • Imagine that you’re reading your story to a group of kids. How would they react?
  • Try reading already published books to groups of kids. Choose some picture books you love, and some you don’t. What do kids like about them?
  • Keep your sentences short. Try the no-wrap rule. If your sentence wraps onto the next line when you’re typing, break it into 2 or more sentences.
  • Remember that agents and editors may not read past your 2nd Make them want to! What are you writing that will knock their socks off? Agents will say NO unless they can’t say NO.
  • Write every idea you have. The writing will be good practice.
  • Push yourself out of your comfort zone for one of your books. Give yourself some parameters. Try to write that 200-word book with a universal theme even if your happy spot is 700 words.
  • There are still lots of challenges after you are published! (See – there’s a plus side to being pre-published.) You might get harsh reviews; Barnes and Noble might not carry your book; an illustrator might not want to illustrate your work; etc. There are 100 ways to feel bad about yourself as a writer. So – enjoy this time of writing freedom. Rejections are a chance to develop that thick skin that you are going to need when you’re published. Sorry, folks. The self-doubt never ends!
  • When you’re reading a picture book, ask yourself, why does this satisfy me? This will give you insight into what works and what doesn’t. Which line in a story makes you happy?
  • Consider what librarians want. Write a story with them in mind.
  • Attack a different layer each time you revise. It could take 10 drafts just to get the story arc and plot right. Then make sure the heart is there. Finally, make sure each word is the just-right word.
  • Again – it’s all about heart! A reader has to care about at least one thing in your story – maybe a character, maybe something else.
  • You know you’re a writer when you see ideas and stories everywhere!

Working with Beth was like taking a university writing course. I still can’t believe it was free. As Beth says, it all comes down to heart. And Beth gave so much of hers! I can’t thank her enough for the enthusiastic coaching. And many thanks to Tara for offering this contest. “Writing with the Stars” is aptly named! Be sure to pick up Beth’s wonderful picture books. PIRATE’S PERFECT PET is a favorite in my house.

My heartfelt thanks,

Melanie Ellsworth


Thank you again to Beth for your amazing generosity. As always I ask that we support these authors! Give them reviews, buy their books, tell your librarians!  I am very excited to see her next book, A Small Blue Whale illustrated by Lisa Mundorff, due out October 24. 

WWTS Update: Lauren Soloy

Lauren Soloy won a mentorship with Lori Richmond in the Writing With the Stars contest. I asked Lauren to share some of her experience. 

The months I spent under Lori’s mentorship were some of the most productive, educational, and exciting weeks of my life. It was so incredible having someone to answer ALL of my many, many questions – someone who has been through it before, and who was completely willing to be honest and open (and also very, very patient!)

The format we decided on was to meet over Skype for an hour every other week, with lots of emails in between. We decided right off the bat that we would spend the first three sessions (over 6 weeks) going over my dummies and getting them ready for submission.  This was such a wonderful process, as Lori’s experience at thinking through page turns and pacing was invaluable. She was also open to reviewing some of my less-polished manuscripts, and gave me lots to think about as I go through the revisions (which I’ll be doing for a while!) 


The next three sessions we mainly focused on the submission process itself, so Lori helped me get organized, write query letters, and figure out how to navigate each agent’s submission processes. By the end of the mentorship, I was actually hitting send on my first-ever round of submissions. I would never have gotten there as quickly as I did without all of Lori’s help – I had originally been planning on beginning the submission process by the end of 2017, and I was full of apprehensions and questions about the whole process.  Lori not only had me submitting in April, but just knowing that she believed in me gave me a huge boost of confidence. Also, now that I’ve been through it, I am far less intimidated by the whole thing!


At the same time, we began the second track of sending out illustrated postcards to various publishers and art directors. Again, Lori helped me figure out how to organize these submissions, and also helped me figure out an image to use for my postcards, and cheered me on as I prepared to mail them out.


Now I feel much more confident, and have a pretty good idea of my next couple of steps.  Also, I have systems in place for submitting to both agents and publishers, which is an incredible feeling. I am so grateful to Tara and Becky for starting this contest, and to Lori, for everything! Maybe the best part of all is, I have a wonderful new friend!

You can see Lauren’s craft at

Thank you again Lori for your generosity and participation. Lori’s next book, Bunny’s Staycation (Mama’s Business Trip) is due out in February 2018 and looks adorable. 

WWTS Update: Kirsten Bock

Kirsten Bock was the lucky winner of a mentorship with Marcie Colleen in the Writing With the Stars contest. Here are a few words from Kirsten about her experience. 

I was lucky enough to be chosen by the fabulous Marcie Colleen for this mentorship. My kids and I absolutely adore the Super Happy Party Bears – Slide to the left, step to the right, shimmy-shimmy-shake, strike a pose! So, I was super happy to work with Marcie.

Needless to say, my experience with Marcie far exceeded my expectations. She read a giant, teetering pile of my dusty old manuscripts and helped me to decide which ones would be best to pursue. Once we decided on a batch that were the most viable for the market, she helped me to polish them to a gleaming shine. And, although the process was sometimes very painful (version 101 of MILLIE still isn’t working??), it was eye-opening, educational, and extremely necessary. My manuscripts are infinitely better now and I feel confident that they are ready to go out into the world. Well, as confident as I will ever feel 🙂

I am forever in debt to Marcie’s tireless efforts and patience…infinite amounts of patience. I feel like I have not only taken a bear-sized leap forward in my writing career, but I have also gained a brilliant friend. And, of course I can never thank Tara and Becky enough for putting together this opportunity. I can’t imagine how much time and work it must have required to develop this contest, but hopefully my Super Happy Party Bear dance will show them that it was all worth it! – Slide to the left, step to the right, shimmy-shimmy-shake, strike a pose!

Marcie has a new book coming, her PB debut (that I have been waiting FOREVER for it seems) Love, Triangle due out on my birthday, October 3. Can’t wait. Thanks again, Marcie for your time and participation. 

Shark Nate-O Cover

We have an official cover! Shark Nate-O is coming April, 3, 2018.

Nate loves sharks. He reads shark books every day, watches sharks on TV, and talks about them nonstop. He even likes to pretend he’s a shark wherever he goes! However, there is one small problem.

Nate can’t swim. Not even like a minnow.

To get his bite back, Nate must channel his inner shark to face his fears so he can learn to swim, join the swim team, and be a real Shark.

Available for pre-order wherever books are sold.

WWTS update: Derick Wilder

Derick Wilder won a mentorship with Pam Calvert in the Writing With the Stars contest. Here are a few words from Derick about his experience.

I’d like to start by thanking Tara and Becky for putting on such an awesome contest! And, of course, there would be no Writing with the STARS without the amazing array of talented authors who generously agreed to donate their time and effort! We owe them a virtual round of applause.

I was fortunate enough to mentor under Pam Calvert. My daughter and I are both big fans of her Princess Peepers series. Pam was a great fit for my work on multiple levels. She not only provided encouraging, insightful feedback on facets such as story arc, humor, characters, pacing, and word choice, but also took the time to dig beneath the surface and comment on each tale’s underlying heart.

In addition, Pam called on her expertise to help with one of my bigger challenges—namely, determining which manuscripts are potentially the most viable in the marketplace. This required her to go above and beyond, as I came up with my “Top 10”, and she diligently critiqued each one. We eventually winnowed the list down to five, prioritizing the stories and identifying their relative strengths.

Finally, Pam shared something that was invaluable (and only available from established authors)—industry insights from her own experiences. These nuggets helped give me a better feel for the editors and agents who might be a good fit.
So, for me, this mentorship has resulted in a set of improved and prioritized manuscripts, as well as a clearer understanding of the industry as a whole. Thus, I feel like I can approach the nerve-wracking querying process with more confidence.

We all realize that writing picture books and getting published is a team effort, and Pam has proven to be a big part of the reason that I hope to, with hard work and the right timing and a touch of good fortune, take that next step …

Write on!

Besides mentoring Derick, Pam has been busy with her own writing. She has another book in the Princess Peepers series launching this fall, Princess Peepers Picnic Party, (illustrated by Ceila Martina) and I am thrilled to share a sneak peek. 

Additionally, we can look forward to another adorable book from Pam, Brianna Bright Ballerina Knight, coming summer 2018.  Thanks again Pam!