WWTS Update: Debbie Day

Today, we have another update from one of the Writing With the Stars mentees. Debbie Day was the recipient of a mentorship with Paul Czajak and she wrote a bit about the experience. 


Working with Paul Czajak has been great! I’ve gained a lot from the experience and feel infinitely more prepared to tackle my goals going forward than I ever have before.

First of all, it was so nice to have a mentor who has successfully published a rhyming series. Before this mentorship, I thought I had rhyming down pat. How grateful I am to have been shown the light of rhyming meter! After understanding the importance of consistency and how meter actually works (rather than relying on how good it sounds in my own head), I’ve been able to improve my rhyming manuscripts in ways I didn’t realize it needed. I’ve also been able to write new rhyming stories with the proper form from the get-go. Last February, I even submitted one of them to a writing contest and won a prize, woohoo!

Paul also just explained some basic information about proper form, the publishing process in general, and other do’s and don’ts that I’ve always wondered about. It was so helpful to be able to ask him questions face to face via skype and discuss the answers together.

His critiques on my picture book manuscripts were really insightful as well. I truly appreciated how honest he was, and he gave me some creative ideas on how to improve my stories – ideas I never would have thought of on my own.

I also appreciate that being a part of this mentorship has given me a greater level of motivation to complete new projects and up my writing game. I don’t think I’ve ever written more picture book manuscripts or researched more writing articles in a shorter period of time than I have in the last few months. I needed that motivation!

Because of this mentorship, I was able to send out my manuscripts to 17 different publishers, something I knew I just wasn’t ready for previously. This experience took me to the next level and gave me the confidence I needed to move forward.

I just want to say thank you so much for this generous opportunity Tara! I feel so lucky to have been able to participate. And thank you so much to Paul for sharing his tips, tricks, and especially his valuable time!

WWTS Update: AJ Irving

After providing 22 Writing With the Stars mentorships, I thought it would be nice to follow up with the recipients, and ask them to share a bit about the experience.  First up is AJ Irving, who won a mentorship with Laura Gehl.

AJ’s kids reading a book by Laura

From AJ:

First, I would like to say thank you to Tara for the opportunity to participate in the Writing with the Stars mentorship program. Laura Gehl is an absolute gem!

This mentorship has helped me more than I could have ever imagined. I came to Laura with zero submission-ready manuscripts. I now have three ready to go, three that are close, and several much stronger query letters.

Laura helped me put together a stellar submission for the PB Party contest, and my manuscript was selected for the agent/editor round.

I have also never had so many manuscripts out at one time. I’m waiting to hear back from six agents/editors!

I was amazed at how quickly Laura responded to my questions and offered feedback on my work. Everything in the publishing world takes so long. It was refreshing to hear back from an expert the SAME day!

Most of all it was a pleasure to get to know Laura. I am proud to call her my friend. She is an incredibly talented PB writer, but she’s also an incredibly wonderful person. She will be the first person I call when (being positive 😊) I am offered a contract.

My kiddos are huge fans of Laura as well.

Dream big! Never give up!





Writing with the Stars 2017 Winners!

We wanted to start by giving a great big “Thank you!”  to everyone who applied to Writing with the Stars. For a first-year contest, we had a great turnout, with 850 manuscripts entered. Every single mentor told me how hard it was deciding, because there was so much talent among the applicants. In the previous blog post, Katy Duffield gave a wonderful description of her experience and I would encourage everyone, whether you were selected today or not, to read it.

Some of the mentors wanted to give critiques on work that stood out to them, but that they ultimately didn’t pick. So some lucky people will still receive a critique of their submitted manuscript from one of our mentors.

Please remember to support these mentors for their generosity in any way you can. I am already looking forward to next year as we’ll be back to do it all again.

So, without further ado, I am happy to announce the mentee class of 2017.


Andrea Zuill’s mentee is Rebecca Rhodin.


Peter McCleery decided to take two mentees, running concurrently.

Peter’s first mentee is Vicky Fang.

Peter’s second mentee is MK Resk


Paul Czajak’s mentee is Debbie Day.


Camille Andros’s mentee is Carolyn Le.


Melissa Iwai and Denis Markell’s mentee is Cassandra Federman


DJ Steinberg is also taking two mentees running consecutively.

DJ’s first mentee is Susie Sawyer. (February-April)

DJ’s second mentee is Suzy Levinson. (May-July)


Vanessa Brantley- Newton is taking three mentees!

Vanessa’s first mentee is Mariana Ikuta. (February-April)

Vanessa’s second mentee is Andrea Osiek. (May-July)

Vanessa’s third mentee is Thrace Mears.  (August-October)


Megan Bryant is taking two mentees to run consecutively.

Megan’s first mentee is Lindsay Metcalf. (February-April)

Megan’s second mentee is Jen Bagan. (May-July)


Lori Richmond’s mentee is Lauren Soloy.


Katy Duffield’s mentee is Colleen Paeff.


Penny Parker Klostermann’s mentee is Amanda Sincavage.


Laura Gehl’s mentee is AJ Irving.


Pam Calvert’s mentee is Derick Wilder.


Marcie Colleen is taking two mentees running consecutively.

Marcie’s first mentee is Kirsten Bock. (February-April)

Marci’s second mentee is David McMullin. (May-July)


Stacy McAnulty’s mentee is Samantha Altmann.


Beth Ferry’s mentee is Melanie Ellsworth.


Congratulations to all! The mentors will be in touch to kick off the mentorship.

And Now a Word From a Mentor—Katy Duffield

Hello, WWTS applicants!

I was so wonderfully overwhelmed as I read your applications and your manuscripts that before I was even a third of the way through I knew I had to email Tara and ask if she’d allow me to write a short post. Thankfully, she agreed. So here I am.

First, I want to say: WOW. You guys have outdone yourselves. And I mean that with all my heart.

I was completely blown away by your humor, your heart, and your passion for books and writing. You shared heartfelt, imaginative ideas and strong, wonderful writing. You’ve shown that you’ve paid your dues as evidenced by the looooong list of classes, conferences, and workshops you’ve attended. And you touched my heart with your backgrounds, strengths, weaknesses, and favorite books. Your personalities and determination came through loud and clear. You guys are doing all the right things. Keep it up!

It was an absolute honor to read your work, and I promise I did not take my job lightly. A great deal of time was spent reading and rereading and thinking and considering (and obsessing over!) each and every application and manuscript, and I have no doubt that the other mentors did the same.

As I read, I made notes. I added stars next to manuscripts. Cripes! You should see all the stars! I’m sure the other mentors will agree that narrowing the list down to one mentee has been challenging and difficult (almost impossible!). I tweeted earlier that I wish I could take you all, and I wish I could.

When it comes right down to it, what I really want to say is this—and I mean it from the bottom of my heart—even if you are not chosen as a mentee this time, PLEASE believe me when I say that you are ALL worthy. And I don’t mean that in a “rah-rah,” “chins-up” way. I mean it sincerely. You guys have SO much talent. You’ve worked hard and dedicated yourselves to your writing—and it SHOWS. Your applications and manuscripts affected me so strongly; I couldn’t miss the opportunity to tell you what reading your work meant to me.

I’m excited about being a mentor. I sure don’t claim to know it all, but I’ll assist my mentee in any way I can. Kidlit folks are the kindest, most giving people, and I’m thrilled to be able to be a part of this great community and a part of WWTS. I believe that we never stop learning, and I can’t wait to see what I learn from you guys!

One last note:  Don’t give up. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t!

~Katy Duffield


Meet mentor Megan Bryant

Megan Bryant has written over 250 children’s books. She is a literary Jedi Master, an Auror, Mr. Miyagi, and Master Builder all rolled in one. She has a plethora of experience in all categories of children’s books from board books to young adult. Wait—there’s more! Megan is the only Writing with the Stars mentor who has also been an editor. (Hint to people applying, this is a huge asset!) She can teach her mentee how to use the Force, pass the N.E.W.T.s, wax on and off, and build that 1000 piece Lego set without the directions. Some mentee is going to be very lucky indeed!

You are a very prolific writer and have written in many kidlit formats. Is there one you favor over the others? Do you find it hard to transition from writing for young readers to writing young adult?

Conventional wisdom in children’s publishing used to be that you should find your niche—the particular age group for which you were most comfortable writing—and stay there. I’m so glad that’s not the case anymore! My book ideas have always refused to focus on one particular age group, so I feel very fortunate that I’ve had opportunities to write and publish books for ages from babies to teenagers. I don’t find it particularly hard to transition from writing for one age group to another; the different types of books tend to be so varied, and so distinct, that there isn’t much overlap in tone, diction, and pacing.

You mentioned in another interview that you got rejections for four years on one book. That is a long time and it’s impressive that you didn’t throw in the literary towel. Was there ever a point when you thought that perhaps you weren’t cut out to be a writer? What helped you stay in the game?

It was a very challenging, often dispiriting period of my career! As difficult as it was, though, I’m grateful for the experience now (isn’t that always the way?). There was, in fact, a specific time—I remember it was in August—when I sat, for a few weeks, with the painful thought that maybe I didn’t have what it  took—the talent or the skill or the ideas or the fortitude—to be a professional writer. I started to actively imagine what a different career might look like for me. What other passions might I pursue? Which doors might open? What might my life look like in five, ten, or twenty years? Then I had a powerful epiphany: No matter what other career I might pursue, I would never stop writing. Even if I never went on submission again; even if no one else ever read another word I wrote; I would never stop writing. That realization gave me the encouragement to keep writing and pursuing publication, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, as it turned out I was very close to getting some very good news: In less than a year, I sold eight new books, including my YA debut, my picture book debut, a board book series, and a chapter book series. Now, when I feel discouraged—because I think that happens to all writers and artists, at all stages of their careers—I draw strength and determination from this memory of perseverance.

You have said that the idea for Dump Truck Duck came from a pile of buttons in which a duck-shaped one and a truck-shaped one were together. I get a lot of my ideas from weird ways too but that one takes the cake! What is your second-best idea spark story?

When my son was nine months old, he got his first ear infection one cold January night. He was so uncomfortable from the pressure in his ears that he could only sleep upright, so we spent long hours together in the rocking chair. It was snowing, and as I watched the snowflakes drift past the window, it was easy to imagine it was like being inside a snow globe! I started wondering how that feeling could be translated into book form, and how a snow globe—something that kids are usually forbidden from touching—could be made safe and accessible for them. That’s how the I had the idea for My Snow Globe, a novelty board book with layered, die-cut pages and lots of sparkly snowflakes!

How has your previous life as an editor helped you be successful as a writer?

My experience as an editor gave me the opportunity to spend years thinking critically about what works—and what doesn’t work—in children’s books. Editors also spend a lot of time writing, and I truly believe that every word we write helps us become better writers. Perhaps the most important thing, though, is that my editorial experience gave me insight into the business side of publishing–and the understanding that even though my name is on the cover, a book is truly a team effort. Behind every traditionally published book is a deeply passionate and professional group of people who have put every ounce of their creativity and experience into making that book the best it could be.

Thank you Megan! For a mentorship opportunity with Megan- http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

Meet mentor Camille Andros

One of the perks of my own mentorship under Stacy McAnulty, was being introduced to Camille Andros. Camille is an amazingly nice person with a great sense of humor, and she’s talented to boot. But when I found out she has six kids, I could not believe it. How could anyone with six kids find time to write, and look so put-together doing it? I got as jealous as Burr looking at Hamilton (I would never make it out of sweatpants if I had 6 kids). Camille’s first book, Charlotte the Scientist is Squished, debuts March 2017 and it is amazing. My hypothesis is that Charlotte the Scientist is Squished will get rave reviews, and Camille Andros will make a name for herself quickly.

I am one of the lucky people to have a sneak peek at your debut picture book Charlotte the Scientist is Squished, which releases March 14. Where did the inspiration come from and how long did this book take you to write?

The inspiration for Charlotte originally came from my husband. He is the sixth of ten kids and really knows what it’s like to be squished. But really if I’m honest, Charlotte is probably more me than anyone else. 

The original manuscript was only 78 words, so it has changed and developed a lot from that first draft. I worked and reworked the story for about a year before it was bought and then I worked with my editor some more on it after that. 

You are the proud mama of SIX kids! I think that a lot of writing moms out there want to know how you manage to find time to write. What are your time management secrets?

I wish I knew some secrets. Balance and time management are things I think about a lot. I don’t think there is any magic system, and if there is, please tell me. I could really use it. For me it’s a lot of early mornings and/or late nights. But you do it because you love it and you want to tell the stories that keep showing up in your head. I try to find some quiet time everyday to think and flesh out stories. Showers are a great time for this. I had the idea for Charlotte to be a scientist while I was taking a shower.

Tell us about your journey to becoming a children’s book author. What made you decide to enter this industry?

It was something I always wanted to do but never thought would happen. I remember I was sitting with my dad when I was a little girl, and him telling me he thought I would be a writer because I came from a family of writers. He was a writer (he actually owns his own film production company but he writes and directs his own scripts) and his mother was a writer so he thought I would be a writer too.

I was a huge reader, especially of picture books, and I never outgrew them. I would want to know the story behind different things-old houses, antique toys, vintage clothing…if those objects could tell their stories what would they be? I kept a notebook with me all the time (I still do) and would write down the ideas for these stories. 

The career I thought I would have was in medicine. I always wanted to be a doctor or a Physician’s Assistant. I volunteered all through high school in the hospital and loved helping people. I loved the idea of being able to figure out what was wrong with someone and helping them get well. I loved the adrenaline rush of helping someone in an emergency and found I was very good at being focused and thinking clearly to figure out the best way to help. In college, I worked in the student health center and many years later after I had all my kids, I got my EMT license and worked in the emergency room of the hospital with plans to go to PA school when my youngest started school. I had a few years until then so I thought I would try this other dream of writing down all the stories I had in my notebook and see what it would really take to become a published author. One of the first things I did was join SCBWI. Then I found a critique group. Their help and input has been invaluable. I went to a few conferences and worked on revising my work from the input I was getting. I entered contests, I queried agents, I got lots of rejections. Then one day I got an offer from an agent.

How did you find your agent, Lori Kilkelly, and was the process of agent hunting hard for you?

I was sending out queries to a carefully curated list of agents I thought would be a good fit for me and my work. I had gone to conferences based on the agents that were going to be in attendance, so I could meet them and see if they were someone I would like to work with, and to be able to say I had met them at the conference in my query letter. I was also entering quarterly pitch contests on Twitter and received an initial offer of representation this way. After the offer, I sent emails to all the other agents I had queried to let them know I had received an offer of representation, and to see if they were still interested. There were a few other agents who expressed interest and Lori was one of these. I was able to chat with her on the phone and thought we would be a great match. Lori is fantastic and I feel very fortunate to have her help and guidance with my career. 

At the time, looking for an agent was tough tricky work, but I was lucky to find one as quickly as I did. From the time I got serious about writing and started looking for an agent to when Lori and I started working together was just over a year. 

What else are you working on?

Right now I have several projects in the works…a second book for Charlotte the Scientist, a picture book called The Dress and The Girl due out fall of 2018, illustrated by Julie Morstad, and a few other picture books, a middle grade novel, and a young adult novel.

Thank you Camille. To apply for a mentorship with Camille- http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

Meet mentor Lori Richmond

It’s an understatement when I say Lori Richmond is multi-talented. She writes, illustrates, looks good on TV, and can embarrass her kids like a pro. I was thrilled Lori agreed to participate in Writing with the Stars! Her first book as an author and illustrator, Pax and Blue, comes out in February and looks adorable.

You have been a guest on TODAY, as well as other television shows. What is your favorite memory of a televised appearance?

There are too many to count! Live TV is always pretty crazy, and you never know who you’ll run into. My favorite segments were the Halloween costume ones … we’d have families, kids, and even dogs dressed up in crazy costumes. One family was giant Tetris pieces made out of boxes. The poor things had to waddle through Rockefeller Center like that to get to the studio! The best behind-the-scenes moment was in the green room at the TODAY show. I heard a squeaky voice that was so familiar, and turned around to see Cyndi Lauper right behind me. No big deal.

In addition to writing and illustrating picture books, you do some incredible work with graphic notes. What inspired this line of work?

Like many artists, I have always been a doodler. I started taking notes visually at conferences a few years ago, and translated the style to my travel journals. It’s a really fun way to capture memories. I do it for myself, and also have used the style for some of my client work.

You mentioned in an interview that mornings are chaotic in your home, and your go-to threat is belting out show tunes from HAMILTON at school drop-off in front of your kids’ friends. I am also an obsessed Hamilnerd. The show has given me a few new book ideas in the most unexpected ways—to look at things differently, and to mix things up. Has HAMILTON had any effect on your own work?

Hamilton. OMG Hamilton. I love it so much. I have seen the show on Broadway twice already and am going back next year. I also went to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s parents’ garage sale in Washington Heights and bought a bunch of Lin’s old books, directly from his dad! We tweeted a photo and Lin retweeted it. Best social media day ever, never to be topped. Lin has really inspired me more than the show itself … his incredible work ethic, kind heart, love and respect for his fans, closeness with his family, telling of New York stories … it all just resonates with me so much and makes me want to work harder and make great things.

Your forthcoming book, Bunny’s Staycation, is about a bunny who attempts to foil his mom’s upcoming business trip with adventures of his own. If you were planning your own staycation, what would it include? Did the idea for this book come from a real-life experience?

This entire book is an autobiography, just you wait (see what I did there with the Hamilton reference?) We have done living room camping—my husband set up a full-size tent with lanterns and even put a fake moon (that really glowed!) in the window. I made the boys watch “Troop Beverly Hills.” They were not pleased.

Your kids were named after typefaces. I am dying to know what they are.

Yes! And they are good typefaces too. My older son is Cooper, and my younger son’s middle name is Rockwell.

Thank you Lori. To apply for a mentorship with Lori- http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

Meet mentor Melissa Iwai

When I began putting out feelers as to what illustrators would be a good fit for this contest, one name kept coming up—Melissa Iwai. My sources were correct and she said yes! Melissa is living out her life-long dream of writing and illustrating children’s books. Her detailed attention to balancing art and story truly makes her work shine, and her thoughtful approach to each project is evident in her published books. Melissa is a member of the very select group of “kidlit authors or illustrators who are married to kidlit authors or illustrators (her husband is Denis Markell).” She can also claim membership in an even smaller group of “kidlit authors or illustrators who have published a book with their spouse.” Finally, she belongs to the most elite group of all, “author/illustrators who have illustrated a Writing with the Stars mentor’s book”—Megan Bryant’s Snow Globe. Melissa is also the only mentor who has a partner-in-crime for this contest; she’ll be teaming up with her husband Denis, a brilliant writer in his own right.

Your composition is very dynamic. How did you develop your style, and which artists/illustrators were your biggest influences?

Thank you! My style has evolved over the years, and I think it keeps on changing. Some of my illustration heroes who have influenced me are Mary Blair, Garth Williams, Marc Simont, Gyo Fujikawa, Ezra Jack Keats, Bruegel, Diego Rivera, Honore Daumier, Richard Scarry and Eyvind Earle.

When you get another author’s manuscript, how do you initially approach the new project? Do you read and sit on it awhile or immediately start sketching ideas as you read?

I definitely wait and think about it awhile! I like to mull it over and live with it in my brain and let it percolate. Often my best ideas and imagery come to me when I am waking up in the morning or lying in the sauna at the gym. Then I get down to sketching.

Your husband, Denis Markell, is part of your team for this mentorship. You illustrated two of his books, The Great Stroller Adventure and Hush Little Monster. How did you both approach those collaborations? Did you work together or develop your ideas separately?

Since we live together, we are always talking about our work with each other. We eat lunch together almost every day. He is the only author I have collaborated with at the concept stage of a story! So yes, we worked on both stories together from the beginning. Denis came up with the ideas for both, and then we bounced ideas off each other when developing it further. I would sketch things and then show him and we’d discuss it. 

If you could re-illustrate any classic, what would you choose and why?

I have a fascination with the Pied Piper of Hamlin. It is such a strange, dark tale. I’ve always wanted to illustrate that story, and even made a dummy of it many years ago when I was an art student. Last year, I chose a scene from it to create for a painting that was in a group show of fairy tales at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.

How do you choose your color palette for a particular project?

I try to capture the mood of the story with color. It depends on the manuscript. For example, I recently illustrated two books for Scholastic—one takes place in the winter and one in the spring. So the seasons really informed the color palette of each book. The winter book, My Snow Globe, by Megan E. Bryant (one of the WWTS mentors), has a lot of blues, purples and deep greens in it, with accents of red and orange. The spring-based companion book, My Easter Egg, has an array of light greens along with bright colors such as magenta, lilac, gold, and turquoise, capturing an Easter feel.

After I have an idea of the kind of color I want to include, I look at various sources of color inspiration: my own collection of swatches I keep in a folder, Pinterest, clothes catalogs, shop windows etc. Then I paint swatches of color in watercolor and scan them into the computer. I compile a specific file of my color swatches, and I use this color palette file for reference for all of the illustrations in the book. I find that when I do this, it is easier to keep my colors consistent. Also it gives the book, as a whole, a sense of cohesiveness. 

Thank you Melissa! To learn more about Melissa, and the opportunity to win a mentorship with her and Denis, enter Writing with the Stars at http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/

Meet mentor Katy Duffield

I “met” Katy when a friend recommended her critiquing service. Katy helped me tremendously with my manuscript. So when I began recruiting authors who I thought would be great mentors, Katy came to mind immediately.

You’ve written several non-fiction books about U.S. presidents, tech icons, animals, battles, and poltergeists. How do you do research for all those different topics?

First, I have to say that I truly love the research process. I like the challenge of trying to ensure accuracy, and I like digging for interesting, little known facts. Research for each book can take different approaches, but I generally begin scouring the internet for reputable sources. I search for both general information and for primary sources. Looking up articles in old newspapers, magazines, and on specialized sites can lead to good info. I also use library e-databases, and, of course, print books to find detailed information on my topic. Depending on the topic, I often interview people and sometimes visit various places for more hands-on research. I try my best to leave no stone unturned, and I often have a difficult time letting go of the research process to begin the actual writing.

Did you get the willies while you were writing your poltergeist book?

Nah. I don’t believe that stuff. J One thing I liked about writing for this series (I wrote another book for the series about the Bermuda Triangle) is that the publisher wanted me to present both sides of the story and allow readers to make up their own minds on what they believed. Yay for critical thinking!

Farmer McPeepers and Loud Lula have a very natural folksy voice to them. Where did you pick that up?

I’m from Arkansas and I’ve lived all my life in the South. If you could hear me talk, you would have no doubts as to where that voice derived. People say I have a bit of an accent.

What challenges do you have in writing fiction that you don’t have in non-fiction? Vice Versa?

This is a great question. The main challenges of nonfiction for me are ensuring factual accuracy and finding the perfect “heart” of the topic. The “heart” for some of my nonfiction books for the educational market is not quite as difficult, as these are generally more fact-based informational books. Nonfiction books for the trade market, though, need that perfect throughline—the “heart” that ties everything together. Another challenge is trying to figure out what to leave out when you find SO many cool facts you’d like to include but can’t.

As for fiction, my challenge is ALWAYS the overall plotting of a manuscript. I can come up with fun characters, the perfect title, interesting settings, a strong story problem, a compelling voice, and so forth, but sometimes combining all of those elements into a cohesive plot with a spot-on story arc can be a definite challenge. But I’ve learned if I stick with a story I love, it usually works itself out.

Thank you Katy! To learn how to apply for a mentorship with her check out  http://beckytarabooks.com/contest/