Meet Mentor Lindsay Ward

I discovered Lindsay’s book, WHEN BLUE MET EGG, and have been a fan of her work ever since. Lindsay has sweet books—PLEASE BRING BALLOONS and THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING THREE. But she is also great with humor—ROSCO VS. THE BABY, BROBARIANS, and DON’T FORGET DEXTER. All of her books are beautiful works of art.

I am not sure what to call your style? What do you call it? How do you get that amazing look?

Safari Chic. Just kidding. I’ve never really thought about this. I don’t really define my style by any particular term. In the beginning of my career I used a lot of cut paper for my books, so much so that I stopped considering other mediums to create my illustrations. Now I try to consider which medium will allow me to tell the story in the best way possible. I still love working in cut paper, but I enjoy stepping out with other mediums on occasion to stir things up a bit. In any illustrator’s work, I find that it’s their line work that ultimately ties everything together. I try to keep my line work light and fresh, so the work never feels stale. To achieve this I usually spend many, many, hours redrawing the same thing over and over again until it become second nature to draw. That way, when I sit down to work on the finishes for any of my books, I don’t hesitate in my line work and the characters come to life.

How long does a book with this method take to make?

Typically, it takes me 1-3 days to do a finished piece in cut paper depending on how intricate the cutting and details are in the illustration. My most time-consuming pieces to date are still the Brooklyn Bridge scene from WHEN BLUE MET EGG and the polar bear rumpus scene in PLEASE BRING BALLOONS. Working in any other medium, it’s usually less than 2 days per piece for me.

The Brooklyn Bridge foldout scene from Blue.

(This blog post by Lindsay making BROBARIANS was a fascinating behind the scenes look.


How do you determine the color palette?

Determining the color palette always takes me a while to decide no matter what medium I’m working in. With cut paper I find it’s a little easier because I can pick and choose paper that already exists. I just have to find the color combination I like the best. Usually, with cut paper, I make a swatch book where I cut out bits of each paper I like so I can keep track of it all while I’m deciding. To date, the palette for the DEXTER T. REXTER Series was the hardest to come up with. I knew I wanted to do a limited color palette but I wasn’t sure how to go about it especially knowing that I would need to stick with said palette for future books. I didn’t want to limit myself for future Dexter books, so I had to come up with something that would endure throughout a series. Thankfully, after I decided Dexter was going to be orange, the rest fell into place. The obvious choice became a blue palette (as blue is the complimentary color to orange), with hints of yellow here and there.

I love your book, WHEN BLUE MET EGG. I swear that is someone’s math homework cut up to make a skyscraper in there. Am I right? 

Thank you! Yes, I found old notebooks filled with math equations at a garage sale once. I loved the handwriting of the woman who wrote them. She was a math teacher. I love to collect interesting bits of paper like that to use in my work.

Also, how did the idea for a snowball being mistaken for an egg come to you?

After many, many, many, many, many rounds of revisions. I probably wrote 10-15 drafts of that story. At one point I think I may have even considered egg being a cloud … those early drafts were not pretty, to say the least. I remember I had just gotten off the phone with a friend of mine that I’ve known since we were kids. I was in the middle of writing WHEN BLUE MET EGG and my recent draft was still awful. I was thinking about how we’d been through so much together and, although we didn’t live in the same state anymore and rarely got to seen each other, we were still connected by our shared experiences. I was interested in telling a story about friendship that focused on a connection strengthened by shared experiences. Blue never questions her friendship with Egg, which is one of things I love most about her. And in the end, even after Egg has changed, Blue accepts Egg no matter what. I had lived in New York and wanted to show the magic of the city that I felt when I had been there. Exploring the city and snow was a huge part of that for me, which is something I tried to show through Blue and Egg’s adventures. Eventually, the two ideas merged together through this idea of a snowball. I could reveal what Egg had really been without the story having an unhappy ending. Blue is a glass-half-full character, so naturally she would pack Egg in her bucket, even after discovering that Egg wasn’t an egg at all, and they would be off to their next adventure.

Going out on a limb here, am I correct in assuming ROSCO VS. THE BABY was an idea generated from your real home life?

Yes. But oddly enough, not in the way you would think. Most readers think I wrote this book when I was pregnant with my first son as we would be bringing him home to our dog Sally. But in fact, I wasn’t pregnant when I wrote this story. We used to live next door to a dog that barked constantly. His name was Rosco. At the time I was trying to come up with a new book idea and I couldn’t think straight with Rosco’s constant barking in the background. So, I did what any writer would do and used what was right in front of me: Rosco. The funny thing was that not only did I end up experiencing my own book just over a year later, but the family who owned Rosco later had twins after I wrote the ending. True story. Sometimes life follows fiction.  

Your new book that was just released, DON’T FORGET DEXTER, is about a poor stuffed animal getting left at the doctor’s office. Was this based on true events?

Yes. When I was pregnant with our first child, my husband was required to get a T-Dap booster shot prior to our son’s birth. While sitting in the waiting room to get the shot, my husband texted me a photo of a toy dinosaur that had been abandoned under a chair. Beneath the photo he texted “well, they left me here.” I laughed and immediately sat down to write Dexter’s story.

How did you connect with your agent, Emily Van Beek?

I was lucky enough to connect with Emily through another editor. I was in the middle of working on HENRY FINDS HIS WORD when I found out my first agent was leaving the business altogether. It was a bit overwhelming to think of querying while I was in the middle of a book. I spoke with my editor at the time and she asked me who I would be interested in querying. I gave her a short list of agents and she said she’d be happy to reach out to them on my behalf. If you’ve ever queried agents, you know how tremendous of an offer this was! Emily was at the top of my list: I admired the work of many of her clients, I knew she had a great eye, plus we both loved the art of Polly Dunbar (my favorite contemporary children’s book illustrator). I had a feeling we’d be a good fit. Thankfully, Emily called me the next day offering representation and now, almost five years later, we are still working together.

On your blog, you posted some pictures that children made for you based on your art. One iteration of your book MUST BRING BALLOONS, had me flipping out. What was your reaction when you saw this? I hope that the Force is with this student, wherever he or she is …   

Seeing the artwork kids make in response to my books is one of my favorite things about being a children’s book author and illustrator. I love to see all the interesting directions they take my stories, like the piece you mentioned. I think it’s safe to say the Force was definitely with them.

You have stated that Mary Blair is someone you admire artistically. Did you read the picture book biography, Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire by Amy Gugliemo and illustrated by Jaqueline Tourville?

I haven’t! It’s been on my list to read, and life and babies have unfortunately kept me from doing so. I definitely need to read it! I adore Mary Blair! She was such a pioneer and had an exquisite sense of color.

When did you know you wanted to illustrate children’s books?

When I was 15 I got my first job working at children’s book store, Hicklebee’s. There I met a lot of visiting authors and illustrators and realized that I wanted to be an illustrator too.

Was anyone in particular influential or helpful to you as you were learning the craft?

I studied illustration in college, but there wasn’t much offered on children’s book illustration at the time. Most of what I learned I had to figure out on my own through trial and error. However, there was one class I took that had a rotating professor who came in every 6 weeks to teach us a new medium. One of the 6-week sessions was all about cut paper. At the time, cut paper didn’t really click for me, but a few years out of college, suddenly it did. I don’t think I would have considered cut paper as a medium without that class.

What is the one thing aspiring illustrators should be doing to move forward?

Be observant. There is a whole world out there filled with ideas just waiting for you to capture them.

Thank you, Lindsay! Please remember to support the mentors by buying their books, leaving on-line reviews and telling your librarians. 













Meet Mentor Lori Degman


Lori Degman is a master rhymer and the author of rhyming picture books COCK-A-DOODLE OOPS! And 1 ZANY ZOO. Lori is also the author of NORBERT’S BIG DREAM, which is equally delightful and in prose. If you write rhyming picture books and you have not read COCK-A-DOODLE OOPS!, you need to go get it right now. It is the prefect example of a picture book in rhyme done right. It should be required reading for all rhyming picture book writers learning the craft. Someone out there will get to learn directly from the rhyming virtuoso herself. I can’t wait to see who it is!

The rhythm and rhyme in COCK-A-DOODLE OOPS! and 1 ZANY ZOO is wonderful! Have you always been drawn to poetry? Which poets have influenced you the most?

Thanks—I work really hard to get the rhythm and rhyme just right. I’ve always enjoyed writing funny, rhyming poems, so writing rhyming picture books seemed like a natural next step. I think Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein have influenced my style of writing—I love how they use humor, irony, and surprise. I’m inspired by contemporary rhymers: Jon Agee, Corey Rosen Schwartz, and Karma Wilson.

What do you think is the biggest hurdle writers face when trying to publish a rhyming picture book?

Rhyme gets a bad rap! Editors get so many rhyming picture book submissions, with overly simple rhymes and inconsistent meter, that they get turned off of rhyme. So, your meter has to be perfect and your rhyming words must be creative—and a great story doesn’t hurt either.

You also write in prose. How do you decide which to use for a certain story?

Typically, the stories I write in rhyme begin with a single, rhythmic sentence that pops into my head and it just has to be written in rhyme. Other stories begin as ideas—not specific lines—and they tend to be better-suited to prose. I’ve tried rewriting some of my prose stories in rhyme, but it has never worked, so I stuck with prose.

You have been a teacher of hearing-impaired students for many years. Has working with students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing impacted the way you use language and craft your stories?

I wish I could say it has – that would make a more interesting answer—but it really hasn’t. But, my love of rhyme and picture books has helped when teaching students phonics and reading.

Animals are a big theme in all of your books! What is your favorite animal and why? 

It’s so hard to choose just one! I love both dogs and cats for their companionship. I also really love horses and lions because they are beautiful and seem really Zen to me!

If you could go back in time and give your pre-published self one piece of advice, what would it be?  

I’d tell myself to be more assertive, have more confidence in my writing, and not to be afraid to submit my work. It took a while to realize that, when editors and agents read your manuscript for the first time, they’re hoping they’ll love it.

You have a new book coming in 2019, JUST READ. Can you give us a synopsis?

JUST READ is a series of rhyming vignettes about kids in a reading club, who celebrate where, when, how, what, and with whom you can read. Victoria Krylov is illustrating it and I couldn’t be more thrilled! I’ve seen several finished illustrations and they are magnificent!

Thank you, Lori! Please remember to support the mentors. Buy their books, leave online reviews and tell your librarians.


Meet Mentor Alastair Heim


Alastair Heim became my hero the minute I saw the sales announcement in Publishers Marketplace for NO TOOTING AT TEA. Anyone who gets a flatulence book through an editorial board is someone I am in awe of! Then I read an interview where he talked about Star Wars and I knew I had to ask him to be in Writing with the Stars this year. Luckily, he is as nice as he is funny and said yes! Also, I ended up at the SCBWI KS/MO conference this year and got to meet Alastair in person, where he was kind enough to give me a specially signed version of NO TOOTING AT TEA (pictured below). If fart books are not your thing, no worries. His other books are fart free and equally delightful. I can’t wait to see who Alastair will pick as his Padawan! 


You have been asked before, but please share the inspiration story for NO TOOTING AT TEA.  

Gladly! The inspiration for NO TOOTING AT TEA came from an imaginary tea party I was lucky enough to attend in March of 2014. Everything was going perfectly properly, until one of the other guests (not me!) broke the most important of tea party rules … she TOOTED. The hostess remained calm and politely reminded the flatulent party interrupter, “There’s no tooting at tea.” I started writing the story immediately.

I think Sara Not, the illustrator of NO TOOTING, has a great sense of humor. I am pretty sure that on page 4, Sara illustrated the littlest girl picking her nose and then on page 5, eating it. My son thought this was very funny. Had you noticed that before and do you agree with my assessment?

It is funny you should mention that! When my agent and I first received the illustrations back in 2015, she immediately thought that, too. I didn’t even notice it until she emailed me about it. When we reached out to my editor to confirm whether or not the little sister did, in fact, pick her nose and eat it, she responded back with, “Let’s just leave that up to the reader.” I completely agree with my editor ;-).

How did you find yourself writing for kids? Did you start before you had your own children or no?

I didn’t start trying to write children’s picture books until after my first child was born. My wife and I received tons and tons of picture books as baby shower gifts and, after reading every single one of them, I was inspired to write my own.

You worked for a long time to get published. Tell us why you persevered. What did you tell yourself to keep going?

Yes, it was roughly nine years from the time I started writing to when LOVE YOU, TOO was released.  I will be completely honest and tell you that when I was three years into trying to get published, I had every intention of giving up.  I had spent two years writing, another year and a half trying to get an agent, and was rejected by everyone I queried (including my own agent, Kelly, at first).

In May of 2011, I was having lunch with Ed Ball, one of my very best friends and the person I dedicated THE GREAT PUPPY INVASION to. (Side note … Ed is a published author and one of the foremost experts on the Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Guitar. He’s written two books about it that you should totally check out.) Anyway, I told Ed at that lunch that I was giving up on trying to get published. His exact words were, “No, you’re not.”

It was the encouragement from my wife, kids, and the other people in my life that kept me going. I hadn’t stopped writing new stories (I’m unable to stop), but I had gotten to the point where doubt was clouding everything and failure was starting to set in as inevitable. It wasn’t until a year and a half later, after a very strange series of events (that Ed Ball played another large part in), that I signed with Kelly Sonnack at Andrea Brown Literary in September of 2011.

How do you find time to write with a day job and three kids? What is your writing schedule like?

Whenever we don’t have an event or activity to go to on the weekend, we try to stay home as much as possible. It is on those weekends that I like to start new work or, at the very least, think up new book titles. I don’t usually write on weeknights, except when I have revisions from my agent or an edit to finish, of course.

I usually start my Saturday morning with eggs, coffee and an All the Wonders Podcast (recommended listening). From there, I usually work on one of my in-progress stories or, if I’m stuck, stare out of my back window until a new idea pops into my brain. I can’t tell you the number of book ideas that have come from simply staring out of a window. Most of them are not that good, but every once in a while, the scenery provides me with a winner.

Was there anyone who helped you on your way up?

I didn’t have any contacts in the publishing industry, nor was I a celebrity who wanted to write a picture book, so I can’t say I really had anyone on the inside help me out (until I signed with my agent). I did, however, have a wonderful network of friends and family who read my manuscripts, told me whether my stories sucked or not, and supported me when I was at my most doubtful. I also have a critique group (shout out to the Heartland Writers’ Critique!) who gives me wonderful and sometimes painful feedback on my stories.

I wish there had been a mentoring program like Writing with the Stars when I was first starting out. While a mentorship is not a guaranteed path to publication, having someone (who has been through the trenches) to consult with, learn from, and ask questions of is, to me, an invaluable tool I would have counted myself lucky to have had.

How many manuscripts did you write before you wrote your first one that sold?

LOVE YOU, TOO was the 21st manuscript I had written.



What were the best things you did to learn the craft?

There are a few things I did, and still do, that help me immensely. First, whenever I’m writing in rhyme, I read my writing aloud (multiple times) after I finish a stanza. I’m trying to make the rhyme as tight and effortless-to-read as possible. I will also, from time to time, record myself reading it so that I can hear it back and edit further, and even have my wife or friends read it aloud in front of me so that I can hear other people’s interpretations of it.

While I buy a ton of picture books for my kids, I try not to let other people’s work influence what I write—from a topic and subject matter standpoint. I want to come up with my own, original ideas, and trying to emulate someone else’s is never a good way to go. I do, however, pay close attention to writing craft and great rhyming when I find it.

What was the idea spark behind THE GREAT PUPPY INVASION?

The idea for THE GREAT PUPPY INVASION actually came from a piece of art located where I work. The sculpture is of five Dalmatian puppies stacked on top of each other “cheerleader pyramid” style. One day, I looked at the sculpture and thought, “Hundreds of puppies suddenly show up in a town that has never seen puppies before.” The title popped straight into my brain and I started writing the manuscript the following weekend. I found it wonderfully entertaining to imagine what people would think and how they’d react if they were experiencing puppy behavior for the first time.

Your new book, HELLO DOOR, debuts in January. Can you tell us a bit about it and how you got the idea?

HELLO, DOOR was actually a book title that I thought of back in 2012. A few years later (in 2016), I was flipping through a journal, in which I write down all of the titles I think of, and rediscovered it. It got me wondering about what a book called “HELLO, DOOR” might actually be about. So, I blurted out the words, “Hello, door. Hello, house…” and from there, it became the story of a sly and sneaky Fox, who greets everything he sees (and steals) with a polite, “Hello!”

The lovely ladies of NO TOOTING will be back for a sequel, NO PEEKING AT PRESENTS in 2018. What else can we look forward to from you?

Yes! Except NO PEEKING AT PRESENTS will now be released in the Fall of 2019. I have one other book coming out before or after that (I’m not sure which) in 2019 that I’m not legally allowed to announce quite yet. I can tell you that it’s a fun, rhyming read aloud book.

If there is anything you are dying to be asked in an interview, please feel free to ask yourself.

I’m not going to tell you what the question I’m dying to be asked is, but I will tell you that the answer is, “A Superman T-Shirt.” Like my editor once told me, “Let’s leave it up to the reader to decide” what the question is ;-).

Thank you, Alastair! Please remember to support these mentor authors by buying books, leaving online reviews, and telling your librarians. (But please, no tooting in the library.)


Meet Mentors Melissa Iwai and Denis Markell


I am so happy to welcome back Melissa Iwai and her husband Denis Markell for the second year of Writing with the Stars. Some lucky mentee will get expertise times two (maybe three if their son Jamie helps, too). Melissa is the author and illustrator of the recently released PIZZA DAY, SOUP DAY, and the illustrator of many more. Denis is the author of two picture books, HUSH LITTLE MONSTER and THE GREAT STROLLER ADVENTURE (both illustrated by Melissa), and the wonderful middle grade novel CLICK HERE TO START. Their efforts helped their mentee from last year polish her dummy and land an agent.


We will start with Melissa.

Your book, SOUP DAY, was inspired by your son but the MC is a girl! Why did you decide to change the gender?

MELISSA: I actually dreamed of a scene in SOUP DAY before I wrote it—in my dream I saw a woman cooking with a little girl, and cutting onions. I had a vision in my head of the artwork. So I combined that image with my experience cooking with Jamie, and decided to stay true to the dream vision.       

You have been very open about your injury to your drawing arm. You taught yourself to use the other hand. Are you all healed now and, because you can now use both hands, are you alternating?

MELISSA: Thankfully, I am 98% back to normal. I still do my physical therapy exercises daily to avoid a relapse, and I’ve really changed my diet to reduce inflammation. When I was drawing and painting a lot with my left hand, I started to have a flare up in my left shoulder from an old rotator cuff injury, so I quit. Now that I am stronger and healthier, I should try and do that again! I often switch sides using the mouse on the computer, and occasionally force myself to eat with my left hand, though.

You have a DIY birthday activity book coming out in 2020. Are you a big DIYer and what inspired you to make this book?

MELISSA: I am a big crafty and cooking person. This book was born out of discussions I had with my editor, Christy Ottaviano, at Henry Holt/Macmillan. When Jamie was little I would always do theme parties for him, complete with a themed cake, foods, décor, games, etc. Denis and he and I would brainstorm together. Sometimes they were kind of random —Jamie was really into Jeopardy one year, so we did a whole party revolving around that. One year it was Greek Mythology. Christy had the brilliant idea of doing a collection of twelve themed parties – one for every month. In it, I’ll be sharing ideas for décor and crafts to do at the party, as well as recipes for cakes and party foods. I’ll be designing and photographing and illustrating it, so it’s going to be quite a huge project!

What is the most important thing you would you tell artists interested in getting into children’s books to do?

MELISSA: Read a lot of picture books! Read them out loud. Read them to kids, if you can. Figure out what you like. What works. If you are more focused on the art side of things instead of writing them yourself, do the same—look at a lot of picture books. I can’t emphasize that enough. Even if you are not writing the text, you are telling a story with your images. Familiarize yourself with the language and the visual language of children’s books.

Did anyone specifically mentor you or help you when you were starting?

MELISSA: Yes! I was fortunate to have Marla Frazee as my Children’s Book Illustration instructor at Art Center College of Design where I studied in the mid-90s. She also helped me to find my agent, Chris Tugeau, when I moved to NYC after graduating. Many years later, when I wanted to start writing stories I took a wonderful class at the School of Visual Arts taught by Monica Wellington. Soon after I took her class, I sold SOUP DAY.

You have been doing this illustrating gig for a while now. Is there anything you still find challenging about illustrating picture books?

MELISSA: Seriously, each book has its own unique challenges. I just finished completing one that was totally out of my comfort zone (non-fiction, 40 pages, different style). It actually required tons of research and even accurately painting actual military aircraft and submarines.  There were days when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it—that I was going to fail miserably. Thankfully I had Denis and Chris to talk me off the ledge! But there were many days when I felt like I didn’t know how to draw or paint. So, yes, I think the uncertainty and doubt never completely goes away. Each story has its particular needs and spirit, and so the job of caring for it and giving it what it wants is kind of a minefield of uncertainty, I think! The good thing is that it never gets old—it never gets boring!

And now questions for Denis:

My son read and loved your novel, CLICK HERE TO START. We are looking forward to your new one, THE GAME MASTERS OF GARDEN PLACE (July 2018). The pitch of “Dungeons and Dragons inspired adventure that will appeal to gamers” sounds so nerdy (in a really good way).  Can you tell us a bit about it, and what inspired it?

DENIS: Sure! It’s actually based on the real D&D group my son was in for years. I took some of the attributes of the real kids (who are all amazing, by the way) and changed a lot of the details, but the basic thrust of the story stems from kids creating an adventure together. I started to learn more and more about RPGs (Role Playing Games like Dungeons and Dragons) and how they are unlike any other gaming experience in that the players not only work together as a team to solve the puzzles and counter adversaries, but also are essential in helping the person leading the game (the Dungeon Master in D&D and the Game Master in other RPGs) create a unique story. And then when Jamie had played for a year, he said to me, “Wouldn’t it be neat if our characters came to life?” and well…that was all I needed to hear to get the idea for the book!

Are you a big gamer in real life?

DENIS: I’m actually not that big a gamer myself, more of an observer as my son spends many hours playing various games and going so far as to build his own gaming PC! I do love escape the room games, and still play them when I need a break. And I do appreciate the skills game playing can give to kids, especially when it comes to problem solving. You learn that just because you can’t figure something out right away, with practice or another approach, you might just find the answer!

You are the author of two picture books, HUSH LITTLE MONSTER and THE GREAT STROLLER ADVENTURE (both illustrated by Melissa). Do you have plans for more picture books in the future? 

DENIS: I would love to write more picture books. They’re not my priority right now, but so many of my best friends in the kidlit world are picture book writers and illustrators (I’m even married to one!) it makes me want to get back to it. But I need to find the right story, one I can tell in a way no one else could.

What was the hardest scene you ever had to write?

DENIS: Wow! I’ve never been asked that one before! Hmm….let’s see…I’ll change it to scenes. There are scenes in the new book which take place in the fantasy realm, and that’s a genre I really haven’t written before. I loved writing them, but it was hard to not to fall into the trap of just imitating Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. The readers will have to decide if these scenes ring true or not. I hope so!

Besides kidlit, what other types of things do you write?

DENIS: I started out writing for theatre with a partner, who moved on to become massively successful writing for politicians and corporate events. He brings me in occasionally to write these sorts of things, which are fun and pay pretty well. Also, we have worked and continue to work with certain celebrities to give them material for talk shows and interviews. And I hate to say it, but most of the writing I’ve been doing when I’m not writing books is tweeting, which is both very addictive, and not exactly profitable!

What is your favorite under-appreciated novel? Picture book?

DENIS: Hmmm. Is James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks under-appreciated? It’s my favorite novel for kids and has been ever since it was read to me as a little one. Can a novel sell a zillion copies and still be under-appreciated? I think Tom Angleberger’s Origami Yoda books are the best Middle Grade series, bar none. Sadly, most adults (including many librarians and teachers) have only read the first one, if any at all. I could go on and on about how many big topics these books tackle while staying light and fun. They’re really masterful.

As for picture books, I don’t think Marc Boutavant is not nearly well-known enough in this country (he’s beloved in France). He has a book called Around the World with Mouk, which our whole family adores. He’s better known for his Ariol series of graphic novels he’s done with Emmanuel Guibert, which are about a little donkey and his school friends.

How do you structure your writing time every day?

DENIS: That depends on where I am in the process. If I’m drafting a book (I’m about to do my third Middle Grade next month), I am very disciplined and try to write between 1,850 and 3,000 words a day, averaging in at 2,000. If possible I do this every morning, which works out when our son is at school, harder when he’s hanging around.

If I’m revising or outlining, I’m more flexible and grab time during the day where I can. I don’t write in coffee shops or libraries (too self-conscious), and like to have no distractions other than music. Revising is a little easier. As is rewriting. But getting it all down on paper, even in the messy, badly written first draft, is for me a solitary activity, and I don’t show it to anyone at this stage. Then I hand it off to my editor (unless it hasn’t been sold, in which case I’ll give it to my agent) and wait for the verdict!

Do you think living with another creative is a big plus? Are there any negatives?

DENIS: I like to think we inspire one another, and it is essential for me to be with someone like Melissa who is also creative and who I think is gifted and good (okay, brilliant) at what she does. The only negatives are when your partner has something happen in their career that is disappointing (a rejection, a bad review, a book going out of print) and you really can’t do anything but be there and be supportive. But with us, when the other person gets good news, it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world.

And I need to correct the question: Is living with two creatives a plus? Our thirteen-year old son is a fantastic writer and artist (when he wants to be, ahem) and also a very astute critic of my work. He doesn’t pull any punches. Considering he’s my target audience right now, it’s been hugely valuable!


I love it and am so grateful I can always talk to Denis about what I’m working on, what’s going on in kidlit, a problem I’m trying to solve, etc. We both work at home, so we see each other constantly, and it’s a blessing that we don’t get sick of each other! We are also aware of each other’s space as well. I really can’t think of any negatives!

(NOTE FROM DENIS: It’s a good thing you asked about creative stuff. Melissa LOVES to cook all sorts of food, and I am a famously picky eater, so if you asked her about that there would be a whole lot of negatives!)

Thank you, Melissa and Denis for participating in Writing with the Stars! Please remember to support the author mentors by buying their books, leaving online reviews and telling your librarians.  


inside spread of PIZZA DAY

Meet Mentor Pam Calvert

Pam Calvert is the author of the adorable Princess Peepers and Multiplying Menace picture book series. Pam is back for her second year of mentoring with Writing with the Stars. Last year, her mentee went on to sign with an agent and Pam is looking to help someone else this year.


Tell us a bit about your new book, BRIANNA BRIGHT, BALLERINA KNIGHT (June 5, 2018) and the idea spark behind it.

My editor was looking for a “pink” book and I’d had an idea for a ballerina book for some time. I thought about what if this ballerina also wanted to be a knight—there weren’t very many princess knight books out at the time, but there were NO ballerina knights. I also got my idea for a fighter who dances from Game of Thrones—when Arya Stark was training with her sword, eloquently using her blade as if she was dancing.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received from an industry professional?

Well, the best advice came from Anastasia Suen in her picture book intensive workshop. She said we needed to look at our story from a picture perspective. Think in pictures. Without this, most picture books are actually short stories and will never sell. Once I reoriented my mind, doors opened for me where picture books were concerned. I sold almost immediately after taking her workshop.

If you could star in a picture-book-made-to-movie, what PB character would you want to play (besides Princess Peepers)?

I’d want to play Vampirina from the Vampirina Ballerina series by Anne Marie Pace. A vampire and a ballerina? A perfect blend of fun!

What does your writing schedule look like? Do you write every day? 

I write about three days a week in the mornings. On other days I usually critique, catch up on emails, etc. I don’t always write picture books. I’m working on a young adult novel as well!

During school visit season (in the spring), a lot of days I’m working or traveling. I don’t get any writing done then. 😉

What do you find to be the most difficult part of the artistic process?

Getting that great idea then molding it into a good story with enough emotional depth for an editor to like it. It’s a lot of luck finding that golden nugget but when it happens, it’s magical!

What is a writing goal you are still working towards?

I still would like to write novels as well as picture books. I’ve come close to selling several middle grade novels but twice the editors that wanted my books were laid off during the process. Publishing can be so frustrating. I’ve had an easier time with picture books because my editors have stayed. Thank God!

You also have a picture book critique service. When is it the best time to use your services?

When you’ve exhausted all other avenues and you believe your manuscript is ready to go. I’d advise you take classes first before using a critique service because one critique cannot tell you what dozens of classes can. Additionally, have it critiqued in a group of fellow writers. After that, sending it to a professional is a good way to hone your already good manuscript into a masterpiece. Because your story needs to be at masterpiece level in order to sell!

(Info on critique services can be found at

Thank you, Pam! I am looking forward to reading BALELRINA BRIGHT this summer. Please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your librarians how awesome they are. 

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).