WWTS Mentee Update: Bennett Dixon

Bennett Dixon won a Writing with the Stars mentorship with author Alastair Heim.  Here are a few words from Bennett about his experience.

Has it really been six months?

Time flies when you’re having fun, and working with Alastair Heim has indeed been fun. A good thing when you loathe making revisions as much as I do.

Yet here we are, nine revisions later, with a fully-polished manuscript (and query letter) ready for submission. How did Alastair do it?

I could say it was due to his creative talents as an author. I could say it was because of his first-hand experience bringing numerous picture books to life. Or his spot-on editorial insight and hard-won understanding of the publishing world. Or maybe his mad FaceTime skills. All of these things would be true, but they wouldn’t explain what made the process of revision so much more enjoyable for me.

Rather, I think it was because Alastair challenged me to try things I probably wouldn’t have dared (or even thought to try) on my own. Because he set ambitious goals and urged me to stretch for them. Because he encouraged me when I was down. And because he gave me unfiltered honesty—in both compliments and criticism.

But perhaps more than any other reason, I think it was Alastair’s sense of humor, generous spirit and genuine interest in helping another author. That’s really why I always looked forward to our FaceTime sessions (the accompanying glass of wine also helped).

I’ve been lucky getting to work with Alastair and getting to know him, and I highly recommend you get to know him, too. A great place to start is http://www.alastairheim.com/. Alastair’s Hello Door is a favorite in our household.

Similarly, I‘ve been fortunate getting to know Tara Luebbe, creator of the Writing With the Stars contest. From all of us who’ve participated—thank you, Tara. Be sure to check out the latest work from Tara and her writing partner (and sister!) Becky Cattie at http://beckytarabooks.com/books/ .

My sincerest thanks to Alastair, Tara, Becky and all the other talented authors who’ve generously given their time to Writing With the Stars. May the good fortune I’ve come to find here extend to others who aspire to create children’s books.


Thank you, Bennett.

WWTS Mentee Update: Vicky Fang

Vicky Fang won a mentorship with author Peter McCleery in the inaugural Writing with the Stars 2017 season. Here are a few words from Vicky about her experience. 

Well, here I am, a 2017 WWTS mentee sneaking in my blog post with the 2018 class. What took me so long? In truth, I did write a blog post last year, but I was too embarrassed to post it. I overthought it A LOT… mostly because I didn’t want to write something so lame that it would be an embarrassment to my amazing mentor, Peter McCleery.

But now I find myself, one year later, in a position where I owe so much to my experience with the WWTS mentorship that I have to say THANK YOU!

When I applied for WWTS, I had very little idea of how to write an actual story. I had manuscripts, but not really stories. This mentorship truly opened my eyes to the craft of storytelling. Peter reviewed my manuscripts, identified the ones he thought had potential, and pointed out what he saw as my strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

I spent the next couple of months struggling quite a bit. I churned out some half-hearted manuscripts that never really made it past an early draft. And I started to feel dismal, like I was wasting this amazing opportunity because I was so incapable of writing anything, let alone anything decent.

But Peter was patient and waited for me to get through it. He took the time to help me past creative blocks, pointed me to resources to help my craft, and gave spot-on feedback that forced me to improve. His guidance enabled me to turn concepts into actual stories. He shared his insights and experience from pitching his hilarious book series, Bob and Joss Get Lost! (if you haven’t read them, go get these books now!). And I got to watch the exciting and eye-opening process of his debut book launch.

With Peter’s help, I finally had a breakthrough and drafted a story we both really liked. I continued to hone and revise that manuscript, with the help of critique partners, agent reviews, and editor feedback until—finally, it led me to my amazing agent, Elizabeth Bennett at Transatlantic Agency. And last month, I signed the contract for that very same story, now set for publication in fall of 2020!

In the past year, I’ve continued to grow and explore as a writer. I love being a part of the kidlit community. I have several other projects in the works, from board books to early chapter books. The WWTS mentorship continues to be a strong part of my writer life, with the 2017 crew keeping in touch and providing each other with updates and support.

None of this would have been vaguely possible without the amazing opportunity that WWTS provided, the hard work and generosity of Tara Luebbe, and the talent and generosity of Peter McCleery. I am a writer today in huge part because of this program and these people. THANK YOU.

Before I overthink this, it’s time to hit send.



Thank you Vicky. 

WWTS Update Adriana Bergstrom

Adriana Bergstrom won a Writing with the Stars mentorship with author/illustrator Brianne Farley. Adriana posted about her experience, and included some illustrations over on her blog. Here is a re-post of the text. To view the illustrations please click the link to her page.



It’s only summer, but already this year I have a lot to be thankful for. Back in February, I was very fortunate to win a spot with a mentor in the Writing With the Stars program organized by Tara Luebbe of Becky Tara Books site and author of Shark Nate-O and I Am Famous.

The incredibly generous and fabulous mentor that decided to take me on was Brianne Farley  (pronounced /BREE-ehn/ rhymes with ‘Ian’). She’d never met me before, but took a chance on me and was my mentor earlier this year. Brianne’s got a wry sense of humor and was the perfect match. If you’re not familiar with her work, you can see her quirk-tastical illustrations in her author-illustrated books Secret Tree Fort, Ike’s Incredible Ink and also in the Charlotte the Scientist series (by author Camille Andros).

The Goal: create a kidlit friendly portfolio to exhibit at my regional SCBWI conference in Orlando this past June. Brianne had an excellent plan which I set about executing.

This is something I know about myself – I need accountability by way of a deadline or art direction. It’s hard for me to work on projects strictly for portfolio purposes. I’m very pragmatic so it feels too indulgent, so the WWTS program gave me the opportunity to have an accountability mentor.

I learned in a studio environment, and worked in studios, but these days I work from home. I miss having that rapport with other artists and designers. Getting that outside perspective is absolutely critical to getting out of my own head and so Brianne was a great guiding force to bounce ideas off of. She guided me with regularly scheduled critiques and I managed to make the most of the experience to create these portfolio pieces…

Thank you Adriana. 

WWTS Mentee Update: Justin Colón

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

It was January 31st and I was sitting at my kitchen table, eyes fixed on my computer screen. I watched in anticipation as Tara tweeted the names of the writers selected to be 2018 PBWWTS mentees. Then, my notification icon lit up blue and (I’m pretty sure) I jumped out of my chair yelling and fist-pumping into the air (before I’d even checked to see if I’d been chosen). When I finally did click, the following message greeted me: “Pam Calvert has selected Justin Colón as her mentee. Congratulations!”

But let’s backtrack before we proceed further…

I’d written for many years, but my writing was primarily research-oriented. However, I naively assured myself that I was a natural-born writer and with my talent and tenacity, plethora of quirky ideas and familiarity with picture books (from reading to the little one), I’d be a breakout author. After all, writing picture books is easy and the entryway for breaking into the publishing industry as a writer. ::CRINGES::

I exhausted Google and befriended blogs (Tara Lazar’s and Josh Funk’s blogs come to mind and every pb writer should check them out). I befriended the librarian and connected with the industry via Twitter. FYI, Twitter is a really valuable tool. Sure, you can connect with fellow writers and agents and even enter pitch contests. But most importantly, many established writers, agents, and editors tweet entire threads packed with valuable insight and information (craft and business-related) for writers. I joined SCBWI on Christmas and lived on the Blue Boards for a while, and that’s how my PBWWTS mentorship really came to fruition. A fellow member and writer, Sarah Floyd (@kidlitSarah), took an interest in me and recommended I apply to the mentorship. I dismissed the opportunity as being too good to be true, but with some pushing I caved. I researched all of the mentors and, about two hours before the deadline, submitted an application I felt proud of. I then banished all thoughts of the mentorship from my mind and resumed querying agents.

Now, let’s fast forward to about an hour or two after I’d been notified of my mentorship status…

My new mentor, Pam Calvert, emailed me, introducing herself and officially initiating the mentorship. She also provided me with a brief analysis of my writing strengths and weaknesses, and requested I send her my completed manuscripts and any ideas I was considering turning into manuscripts (for her to assess and select a few to work on with me that she found to be most marketable). Most importantly, she encouraged me to ask questions during the months to follow.

One of the first things I did, upon Pam’s suggestion, was launch my website and begin interviewing agents and editors for a blog. You can now check out those interviews, join my blog’s mailing list, and even request  specific agents and editors for future interviews by visiting the following link: www.justincolonbooks.com/blog.

I began the mentorship with three manuscripts, all of which Pam critiqued (two of which we later decided would be best shelved or heavily revised). I completed the mentorship with four fully polished manuscripts (three of which were conceived and completed during the mentorship).

Pam and I communicated via email on a near-daily basis. I often emailed her with updates and questions (and lots of ‘em), ranging from those about specific critique notes to ideas, marketability, and branding, to querying, staying motivated, and more. Pam graciously answered all of them.

With Pam as my mentor, my writing skills skyrocketed, as did my industry savvy. She encouraged me to take specific picture book classes and join critique groups (both of which I did), steered me toward specific mentor texts, and provided me with honest critiques, notes, insight, and information that pushed me immensely as a writer. She even shared bits and pieces of her own manuscripts with me as well as her own journey and the obstacles she faced, and that was both motivating and inspiring. And she wasn’t limiting; if I had questions, thoughts, or ideas about writing for other audiences (e.g. chapter books and middle grade), she was happy to shift gears for a bit.

Pam is professional, positive, and patient. And she’s brilliant when it comes to story structure and pushing and polishing ideas so that they’re fun, marketable, and up to publishing standards. She has a free resource (that I still frequent): http://wwwpamcalvert.blogspot.com/p/picture-book-university.html, and I highly recommend it to all picture book writers I work with. And for those looking to take their work to the next level, Pam offers a critique service that you can learn more about at http://wwwpamcalvert.blogspot.com/p/pb-critiques.html .

Since completing the mentorship, things have still been tough, but in a new way. Securing representation rests on many factors beyond the quality of your writing and the strength of your stories. With that said, I’ve had two agent requests for additional picture book manuscripts. I also had two manuscript requests from editors based upon pitches my mentor helped me craft. And while those requests resulted in passes, I’ve received great feedback regarding my voice, the quality of the storytelling, and the originality of the stories. And I was left with valuable advice in some cases. Two industry professionals (as well as my mentor) even suggested I expand one of my picture books into a chapter book series. Come September, I’m also planning to query with a middle-grade novel that I began working on post-mentorship (it’s an ownvoices, LatinX spooky mg fantasy adventure set in Puerto Rico). I also formed a critique group that’s been very helpful and supportive, was selected from an application process to join another critique group, and am applying to a few publishing internships at the moment.

A mentorship isn’t a magic wand, though. It’s cliché but true: you reap what you sow. To whomever is lucky enough to be mentored (by any mentor, for any mentorship), be prepared to put in the work. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes, look like a noob, or ask questions; it’s part of the process.

In short, this mentorship exceeded my expectations and set me light-years ahead as a writer, and I highly recommend it to anybody considering applying next year. Thank you Tara Luebbe for creating and organizing this opportunity, Sarah Floyd for encouraging me to apply, and Pam Calvert for selecting and guiding me as your 2018 PBWWTS mentee.

To all of next year’s applicants and selected mentees, good luck! And most of all, happy writing to all!

Justin Colón

WWTS Mentee Update: Deb O’Brien

Deb O’Brien was the lucky recipient of a mentorship with the amazing Corey Rosen Schwartz. Here are a few words from Deb about her experience.


What a delight it has been working with Corey Rosen Schwartz. From the first time we talked on the phone, I knew it was going to be a good match.

I had been working on a rhyming story that I knew needed tweaking. Corey quickly made some suggestions that tightened up the whole thing. She also liked the story which really helped boost my confidence. I have proudly sent my manuscript out to agents while I continue to work on new projects.

Corey prefers to work in rhyme, so I threw her a side ball when I sent her a story written in prose. Again, Corey came through. She pointed out areas that needed work and even gave me a dynamite title that solidified where this story needed to go.

Kids, travel, sickness, schedules, and deadlines created a couple of hiccups on both of our parts; Corey graciously offered to extend our deadline so we could keep working together. She has been a great mentor and I feel I’ve made a new friend.

Many thanks to Tara Luebbe for coordinating this contest, and to all the mentors who participated. It meant so much to me to have this opportunity and I thank you for your time.

Deb O’Brien

WWTS Mentee Update: Manju Howard

Manju was the lucky recipient of a mentorship with author Rachel Ruiz. Here are a few words from Manju on her experience. 

I’m grateful to Tara and Becky for creating the Writing with The Stars Mentorships. I applied for this mentorship because I’d hit a submissions rut. Most of the replies I received from agents read something like, “Although your writing is strong, your story isn’t a good fit for my list.”

Thankfully, Rachel Ruiz connected with my ownvoice based story. During our initial phone call, I learned that Rachel is easy to talk to, passionate about writing, and on deadline. We agreed to push back the mentorship a month so that Rachel could finish writing and editing her Martin Luther King graphic novel.

I used the month of February to design an author website. There’s nothing like a deadline to make me complete a project that had been on my to-do list for months. Visit me here: https://www.authormanjuhoward.com/

In March, I started emailing my stories to Rachel. The PB manuscripts that needed to be polished, she graciously line edited. The manuscript that didn’t work as an early reader, she nudged me to rewrite as a picture book.

Having Rachel in my corner along with my critique group, gave me the confidence to leap from submitting to agents to submitting to select editors. Time will tell if this strategy leads to my first traditionally published book.

No matter what happens, I’m really grateful that despite all the craziness life has thrown at both Rachel and I over the past few months, we’ve become friends. And I look forward to sharing stories, pitches and life’s twists for years to come.



WWTS Mentee Update: Becky Scharnhorst

Becky won a mentorship with author Laura Gehl. Here are a few words from Becky about her experience.

When I found out that Laura Gehl had chosen me to be her mentee for the WWTS contest, I completely flipped out. In a dignified way, of course. I’d always admired Laura’s succinct writing and humor, and was also impressed with her ability to convey emotion with so few words. I was grateful and honored to be picked by her, and I knew this opportunity would have a huge impact on me and my writing.

Soon after the results were announced, Laura contacted me by email and asked what I’d like to focus on during our time together. We decided on a plan of action and hit the ground running.

First, Laura critiqued several of my manuscripts. She helped me decide which ones were ready for submission and which ones needed more work. She also critiqued my query letters and helped me with my pitches. She said writing pitches was her super power. She wasn’t kidding! Soon I was referring to her as “the amazing Laura Gehl” all over social media and in person to anyone who asked. And even to some who didn’t.

In addition to working on manuscripts, Laura helped me create a submission plan. I made a list of 30 agents I was interested in querying and added notes detailing what they were looking for and why I thought we might be a good match.

After reviewing my notes, Laura pointed out that many of the agents on my list were looking for character-driven manuscripts. She encouraged (pushed) me to step outside my comfort zone and write one. After my first miserable attempt, she kindly told me to toss that one and try again. After my second slightly less miserable attempt, she encouraged me to revise and try again.

I’ve now written three character-driven manuscripts, each one a little better than the last. It was frustrating and difficult and I ate way too much chocolate. But I’m so glad I did it! Laura was there to offer support, encouragement, and honest feedback every step along the way. She was quick to respond to my questions, generous with her praise, and kind in her critiques. I could not have asked for a better mentor.

I will be forever grateful to Tara for creating the WWTS contest. As expected, it had a huge impact on me and my writing. I revised old manuscripts, wrote new ones, stepped outside my comfort zone, grew in confidence, and gained a new writer friend. Thank you, Laura, Tara! For everything.




WWTS Mentee Update: Jolene Gutiérrez

Jolene Gutiérrez won a Writing with the Stars mentorship with author Stacy McAnulty. Here are a few words from Jolene about her experience.

My time with Stacy McAnulty has been such a gift. This mentorship has been like winning the lottery—when I saw the tweet saying Stacy had selected me as her mentee, it was one of those out-of-body moments. I felt like the entire world was vibrating, moving in and out of focus.

My husband isn’t a writer or a picture book reader, so when I told him I’d been chosen as Stacy’s mentee, he didn’t understand the magnitude of this event. I said, “This is a really big deal!” He just nodded, and I knew he wasn’t getting it. If I could explain it in terms of money, I knew he’d understand that, but as I tried to estimate a value for this mentorship, I struggled. The truth is, a WWTS mentorship is priceless. Stacy has given so much of her time, expertise, and support. She’s been incredibly patient as I’ve taken my characters on adventures that don’t work and played around with scenes that aren’t serving the story. She’s reminded me that characters need to solve their own problems and of the power of three attempts before success—make that character work for it! Sometimes, I feel like I’m stumbling along in the darkness, but Stacy has taken me by the hand and guided me. She has given me a key that is unlocking my talent and opening doors. So slapping a monetary value on this mentorship doesn’t work. I finally told my husband, “Look, Stacy is a really successful and busy author. She’s working on her writing all the time and has books in various stages of the publication process. And she’s interrupting her work to help me with my books. She’s doing everything she can to make sure I’m successful and supported.” Then, my husband understood, at least a little bit. In the business world, people don’t want to interrupt their own work for months at a time by tying themselves to beginners. But through the supportive community that Tara has created, numerous authors do just that, joyfully and willingly.

I am so grateful to Tara for offering this incredible opportunity and to all of the mentors—especially Stacy—for giving of themselves like this. You’ve given me focus and you’ve changed my world.

Jolene Gutiérrez

WWTS Mentee Update: Catherine Friess

Catherine Friess won a Writing the Stars mentorship with author Lori Degman. Here are a few words from Catherine about her experience.

I would like to say a huge thank you to Tara for organising the #PBWWTS contest and to Lori for choosing me as her mentee. I couldn’t believe it when I first saw my name on Twitter, it was a wonderful surprise!

I applied for a mentorship with Lori because I felt that I needed help with my rhyming picture books, and her picture book Cock-a-Doodle Oops is so easy and fun to read. I enjoy writing in rhyme and although I knew that I needed to make improvements I wasn’t sure how. Lori gave detailed comments in her critiques and showed me how and where my rhymes didn’t work. I now feel that I have a better understanding of how to write in rhyme.

At the beginning of our mentorship Lori and I had a Skype call, which gave us an opportunity to get to know each other and decide how we could use our time. At first we focused on the story that I had originally submitted. We also worked on a novelty picture book based on a poem that I had written, which I had put away in a drawer while I decided whether it would work as a book. Thanks to Lori, both stories are now ready to submit.

Lori also critiqued picture book pitches as well as more of my picture books. Her comments were insightful and led to changes, which also led to me rewriting two picture book endings. She also suggested where I could submit work and how/where I can get more information about the US market, and it was useful for me to learn how US submissions can differ to those in the UK. When critiquing, Lori also indicated where I could change British English to American English so that I can tailor my submissions where necessary.

I have really enjoyed working with Lori and her critiques have helped me to move my work forward to a point where I can start submitting. Being chosen as her mentee gave my writing confidence a huge boost and we achieved a lot in three months. Lori is lovely and very easy to work with, and it’s fabulous to have made a new writing friend too! :o)


Thank you Catherine! 

WWTS Mentee Update: Elaine D’Alessandro

Elaine D’Alessandro won a three month mentorship with author Annie Silvestro. Here is an update from Elaine on her experience.


As a chosen mentee for the 2018 WWTS contest, I had t  he honor of working with Annie Silvestro over the last few months. I received valuable and in-depth feedback on two of my manuscripts and their accompanying queries.  Annie and I spoke on the phone at length about both of my stories before she critiqued them. She also gave me new suggestions and various venues for my agent searches, and counseled me on my query hooks to entice an agency.

The first draft for one of my stories, a multicultural themed manuscript, originated about six years ago. After many rounds of critiques through my writing groups and a professional editor, I found an agent that liked my story and submitted it to a few publishers seeking multicultural picture book manuscripts, but received no positive results. The agent then decided she wasn’t the right person to find it a home. I submitted it to many other agents, but kept receiving rejection after rejection. I came to the conclusion that something was missing in my story, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. After Annie and I discussed my history of submissions, she studied my manuscript and provided constructive and insightful feedback. She gave my main character a few more tasks before he solved his dilemma.  The outcome is the same, but the reader gets to know the main character even better. I will now submit it with a newfound enthusiasm.

My other story has two main characters—siblings dealing with the recent death of their grandmother. One is more demonstrative and wants to celebrate their grandmother’s birthday, just like they always had. But her sibling is sad and doesn’t want to participate.  Annie helped me with my word count. And she made concrete narrative suggestions that provided a role reversal toward the end of the story, resulting in the girls working together to celebrate their grandmother’s birthday.  As I edited and revised. I was very pleased with the results.

I am so appreciative of the time and personal effort Annie provided me, making both my stories stronger and submission-ready again. And she boosted my confidence as a writer with her words and actions.