2018 Writing with the Stars Winners


Congratulations to the following people who won mentorships in the 2018 Writing with the Stars contest.


Hui Li will be working with Melissa Iwai and Denis Markell.

Becky Scharnhorst will be working with Laura Gehl.

Manju Howard will be working with Rachel Ruiz.

Justin Colón will be working with Pam Calvert.

Deb O’Brien will be working with Corey Rosen Schwartz.

Kellie Byrnes will be working with Adam Lehrhaupt.

Vong Bidania will be working with Jennifer K Mann.

Adriana Bergstrom will be working with Brianne Farley.

Sandra Salsbury will be working with Lindsay Ward.

Pamela Courtney will be working with Andrea Loney.

Elaine D’Alessandro will be working with Annie Silvestro.

L.Michelle Quraishi will be working with Jody Jensen Shaffer.

Jamie Nanfara will be working with Josh Funk.

Jolene Gutiérrez will be working with Stacy McAnulty.

Bennett Dixon will be working with Alastair Heim.

Catherine Friess will be working with Lori Degman.

Meet Mentor Adam Lehrhaupt


Warning! Do not open this interview. Anyone who has toured with Dave Matthews, helped David Copperfield make magic on stage, and lived with turkeys on a kibbutz can’t possibly have anything interesting to say. Kidding aside, I am thrilled to have Adam as a mentor this year, and one of you is going to be so lucky to work with this creative powerhouse!

Your books cover a wide range of kid-friendly topics. Are there any key ingredients you stir into every one to make it an “Adam Lehrhaupt” book?  

Whenever I want to add an ingredient, I add a lot of dark chocolate. But we’re not talking about desserts. We’re talking about stories. For my stories, there isn’t really one specific ingredient I add. It’s more of a way of approaching things. I don’t want to approach an idea the same way as anyone else. I try to think outside-of-the-box whenever possible. I’ll try to create a character from something unexpected (personifying the parts of speech), make a reader interact with a story in a new way (have interacting with the book be part of the story), or approach a familiar idea in a new or different way (an art book about someone who doesn’t draw). These are the hallmarks of an Adam Lehrhaupt story.

You’ve had an array of fascinating jobs in the past (from working with the WWF to David Copperfield). How did your previous career choices help prepare you to be a children’s book author?

Yeah, I’ve had some pretty crazy jobs. And those jobs have presented me with some very unusual problems to solve. How do you make 13 random people disappear? How do you light up a stage, in the middle of a field, in a thunderstorm? Now, how would you do it without electrocuting anyone? Where can you find six identical red ties in Moscow at 6:30 am? Sometimes, the answer is simple. Ask the guy at the front desk of the hotel where to find ties. Sometimes it isn’t. We’re gonna need 350 feet of industrial grade aluminum, six grey ferrets, and a kite. Figuring out how to solve these problems helped me learn to think about difficult situations in new, unique ways. It helped me learn to be more creative. To try out different solutions in order to find the best one for a specific problem. To experiment. Does this sound familiar? It should. This is exactly what we should be doing in our writing. I’m not always successful at it, but my past careers have helped me become pretty good.

The CHICKEN series was sold as a six-book deal! That may be a record. Did you and your agent pitch this as a six-book series or did it morph into that once an editor came onboard? 

It morphed! I actually submitted CHICKEN IN SPACE as a stand-alone tale of adventure between two great friends. HarperCollins liked it so much they decided to give these delightful characters five more books. Which was totally AWESOMESAUCE! I just finished working on book six a few months ago. I’m sad knowing these two great characters will be finishing up their adventures in a few short years. Maybe they’ll have more. We’ll need to see.

Do you see any common mistakes writers make on their journey to getting published?  

I do. Lots of them. From new writers to established authors. Including myself. We all make mistakes. One of the easiest to fix is when you get married to an idea so passionately you don’t want to change it. I’ve always been a big believer in the concept that everything can be made better. You just have to be open to improving it.
It can be difficult.
It can be painful.
It can be amazing.
When we are truly honest with ourselves, we understand that trying out a different tactic, using a new tone, or revising, isn’t saying our idea was bad. Or wrong. Or poorly executed. Just that it could be better. Don’t you want your stories to be better? I sure do.

Was anyone in particular especially helpful to you on your journey to published author?

A ton of people were helpful, but I’ll call out Lee Harper. He initiated the connection between me and Alexandra Penfold that turned into my first book and led to her eventually becoming my agent. Also, Lee is an awesome illustrator. So, check out his books if you haven’t before.

Do you have any advice or unusual ways to deal with writer’s block?

Do something you wouldn’t normally do. If you only write at home, go out and write. If you don’t go to the movies, go see one. Go out shopping instead of online. Eat milk chocolate instead of dark. Drink wine instead of beer. Mix up as much as you can. Then, sit down and brainstorm. Don’t reject anything. Just capture any and every idea you can. Whether it’s related to what you’re working on or not. You’ll be surprised at what happens.

IDEA JAR comes out February 6, 2018. Do you have your own idea jar where you get new ideas?

I do. It’s a digital idea jar. I keep every idea I come up with. Dragons. Mice. Pixies. Talking rocks. I jot them down in my digital notebook and go back through when I need something new to work on. And they all exist in the cloud. So, if you wave your arms around, you’ll be touching my ideas. Cool, huh?

Are your fellow children’s book authors, many of whom are female, jealous of your locks?

HA! I wish. Actually, I grow my hair out in order to donate it. I gave my first donation in 1991, and I’ve been donating my hair every few years ever since. Somewhere there’s a wig store full of my hair. Eww.

What is this we hear about you creating a new kind of picture book writing program?

WOW! Great question. Yes. I have. And it’s super exciting. I originally started thinking about this program during the first writing conference I attended as a published author. I was sitting in a room full of potential authors and feeling a bit confused. The presenter was talking about how difficult it was to get published. I was baffled. I knew, KNEW, that it couldn’t be that hard. I mean…I did it. If I could get something published, then ANYONE could. I started thinking about how I managed it. And I realized something. Anyone really CAN do this. So, I sat down to figure out how to demonstrate the methods I use to get my books published. Methods that anyone can use. Methods that will help someone write picture books that sell. And that’s what my program is.
Get your free ‘Tips and Tricks for Knocking Revisions Out of the Park’ booklet and learn more at http://writepicturebooksthatsell.com/   The first classes will be starting soon.

Thank you, Adam. Look for IDEA JAR (illustrated by Deb Pilutti) on February 6. Please remember to support the mentors by buying their books, leaving online reviews and telling your librarians.
Adam is accepting mentee applications for writers in the categories of prose and nonfiction. Because of his art director background, he is also accepting applications for author/illustrators. Details can be seen here http://beckytarabooks.com/wwts-contest/




Meet Mentor Brianne Farley

Last year in Writing with the Stars, one of the mentors was Camille Andros, who wrote a book called CHARLOTTE THE SCIENTIST IS SQUISHED. I tell any aspiring picture book writer who will listen that this is the perfect specimen of a picture book to study. It has a marketable hook, clearly sets up the main character’s problem, has a clear arc, uses the ”power of three” beautifully, infuses humor, has kid-relatable issues, and does this all to perfection. And the cherries on top of this cake are Brianne Farley’s hilarious and appealing illustrations. So, this year Writing with the Stars is proud to have the other half of the CHARLOTTE THE SCIENTIST team as a participating mentor!  

Can you give us an overview of your artistic process and the mediums you used?

Each book has been a bit different, but I normally start working in black and white with pencil, ink washes, and dip pens. I make several layers of these black and white drawings, scan them into my computer, and color them digitally. It’s quite a bit like printmaking. The drawings are my screens (if I were screen printing) or blocks (if I were block printing), and I use Photoshop in place of colored inks.

You previously worked at Random House as a book designer. Does that influence your thinking while creating a book?

Certainly! My very first book sold only a few months after I started at Random House, and it was incredibly reassuring to see what went on behind the scenes and discover what was to be expected in the publishing process. I felt like a double agent. I saw the many varied ways other authors and illustrators approach their projects, and what went into making a book into A BOOK after it left my hands. It taught me the importance of reading as many picture books as one can get their hands on and finding a group of people who, like you, want to talk about and think seriously about them. Hopefully it also made me a better author/illustrator to work with! At the very least I try to name my files consistently.

What is the best piece of advice you received from someone in the industry?

Despite what I said above, the best piece of advice I’ve received is to look outside of picture books for inspiration. I believe this is true for writing and illustrating.

The worst piece of advice?

Someone warned me that quitting my day job would put an enormous amount of pressure on book-making, but I did it anyway. They were so right! So it wasn’t bad advice at all (am I even answering this question??) but I’m still very glad I ignored them. So, it’s the best piece of advice I did the worst job heeding.

When reading SECRET TREE FORT, I had a sense that this had to be semi-autobiographical. Is it and, if so, which girl are you?

Your spidey-senses were spot on. I wrote this book while living in New York and missing Michigan. It was inspired by my childhood tree houses and my younger sister’s uncanny ability to sense when I was reading a book and try to tempt me to play with her instead. I am the eye-rolling, book-loving older sister and my sister is the charming and inventive one.

Do you ever have creative blocks and, if so, how do you overcome them?

This is the age-old question, isn’t it? I love coming up with story ideas. I keep a notebook in my purse for drawing and jotting down ideas. I transfer my favorite ideas to 4”x6” index cards that live in a box on my desk. The hardest bit is expanding these ideas into manuscripts. Sometimes I’ll say to myself, I’ll just work on this manuscript for 15 minutes. Then once I’ve started I won’t be able to stop and I’ll feel very clever for tricking myself. I also like to create deadlines and tell them to my friend or agent or editor and tell myself they’ll be very disappointed if I miss that deadline and very pleased with me if I make it. I’m sure they don’t notice either way, but it works for me.

What is a typical work week like for you?

I’m very fortunate to work from home. I work a typical work week, though Monday is usually spent doing chores I should have done on the weekend. When I’m working on final art I’ll often work through the weekend, though, so perhaps it comes out in the wash! During the summer I work on a vegetable farm every Friday. It’s the perfect foil to my typical routine of sitting indoors at a desk using only my brain muscle.

I love CHARLOTTE THE SCIENTIST IS SQUISHED by Camille Andros, which you illustrated. I think that picture of the bunny’s face on the other side of the beaker is hilarious and genius. How did you think of that?

Thank you! Who knows where these things come from. I do know that, on the facing page, there is a bunny stuck inside a beaker that was there in the initial sketch but my editor asked that he look “more squished” and attached a photo of a cat in a wine glass for reference. I loved that email.

Thank you, Brianne. And good news, there is a CHARLOTTE THE SCIENTIST sequel coming soon. Brianne also illustrated the upcoming BUILDING BOOKS written by Megan Wagner Lloyd. Please support these mentors by buying their books, leaving on-line reviews and telling your librarians. To apply for a mentorship with Brianne, please see details here  http://beckytarabooks.com/wwts-contest/       

Meet Mentor Rachel Ruiz

My sister Becky met Rachel through a common network of TV production friends from her casting days. A natural storyteller, Rachel had been creating content for Reality TV, news, and documentaries for National Geographic, A&E, the History Channel, and the Oprah Winfrey Network. So, it is not surprising that while working on the Obama campaign and trying to explain who POTUS was to her three-year-old daughter, she was inspired to write her first picture book, WHEN PENNY MET POTUS.  

Your book, WHEN PENNY MET POTUS, was inspired by your daughter’s questions about President Obama. But in the book, the POTUS is a woman. Was that your idea, the publisher’s, or the illustrator’s? 

It was my idea. Other than shortening the manuscript a bit, my publisher left the story intact. I wanted Penny’s journey to end on an inspirational note. I wanted Penny to realize she can be president one day, or anything else she dreams of being. And hopefully, that’s the takeaway for all readers and listeners.

WHEN HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON PLAYED ICE HOCKEY and WHEN ROSA PARKS WENT FISHING are about two important women. Who else would be on your wish list to write about?

Oh, so many! Michelle Obama, Katherine Johnson, Eliza Hamilton, and Sally Ride are just a few.

Do you know if Hillary Clinton read your book?

Yes, she read both WHEN PENNY MET POTUS and WHEN HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON PLAYED ICE HOCKEY because I sent them to her! She wrote back the most kind, supportive, and inspiring words.

As someone who has worked in entertainment for years, what surprised you most about the publishing industry?

In the world of television production, things move very fast and there is a lot of deadline pressure. So, I guess I was surprised at how much slower things move in the publishing world.

Is there a difference between how you approach your storytelling for TV versus for books? Any similarities?

There is. When I write for TV or the Internet, I have to be a lot more concise than when I’m writing books. I have to figure out the most interesting way to tell the whole story in 2-3 minutes, as opposed to 32 pages. This skill is helpful when writing children’s books because it helps me drill down to the heart of my story, and then expand on it.

What specific things did you do on your road to publication that were the most helpful to your success?

Doing lots (and lots) of research on children’s books! Learning what’s already been published on the topics and the stories I want to write about.

What are you working on next?

I’m writing a graphic novel about Martin Luther King Jr. for kids, and it will be available next year. I’m super excited about it because my daughter and I are very into graphic novels at the moment. I’m especially excited about the opportunity to tell a non-fiction story in a new and fun way.

Rachel also incorporates her film-making and storytelling skills to create promotional book trailers. Through her production company with her husband, Flash Rock Films, Rachel has produced trailers for her own books. She would love to help more authors with their own book trailer needs. If you are in the market for a book trailer, you can check out some of her projects here:  http://www.flashrockfilms.com/  

To learn more about Rachel visit https://www.rachelruizbooks.com/

Thank you, Rachel. Remember to support our mentors by buying their books, leaving on-line reviews, and telling your librarians.

To learn how to apply for a mentorship with Writing with the Stars  http://beckytarabooks.com/wwts-contest/


Meet Mentor Stacy McAnulty

Some days I pinch myself. Am I really about to be a published author? Did Stacy McAnulty really take me under her wing? When do I wake up? From helping me with my writing and holding my hand through my auction to dealing with publicity departments and how to prepare for the professional reviews smackdown, Stacy’s tutelage has been invaluable in countless ways. This is where it all began folks—with this amazing, generous author. Without Stacy, there wouldn’t be a Writing with the Stars. Her career is on fire and she deserves every bit of it! So, raise a glass to Stacy!

When you offered a free mentorship a few years ago, did you ever imagine your good deed would lead to this?

NO! I wanted to do something to help new writers, but I didn’t have the time or skills to start a big program. I basically wanted a pyramid scheme. I’d help someone, then he/she would help someone else. (That doesn’t exactly make a pyramid. More of a chain reaction.) But you blew it up! Now we are rewarding dozens of aspiring writers. And it doesn’t cost the writer anything. The kidlit community has been very generous.

You recently released your first nonfiction picture book, EARTH! MY FIRST 4.54 BILLION YEARS. Can you tell us how this was a different process from writing fiction picture books?  

I didn’t mean too. I started writing a book about a pet rock, and it just wasn’t working. I realized I was trying to tell Earth’s history. So I switched to NF. All writing is scary and difficult. With nonfiction, you need sources and “proof” (and there’s a lot of contradiction in science and history). It’s also challenging to create a plot because you can’t manipulate a story to fit your writing goals. Yet somehow, I’ve fallen in love with NF and have five more coming out with Henry Holt.

Did you know from the pre-writing phase that the story would be from the Earth’s POV?

After I dumped the pet rock story, every draft of EARTH was from her POV. I subscribed to the Oscar Wilde saying, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.” (Which he may or may not have actually said.) I wanted to make kids laugh and Earth—imagined as 4.54-year-old child—was the perfect character to do that.

Your books, BEAUTIFUL and BRAVE are impactful to readers. What are some of the coolest responses you have received from kids about those books?

I love when I see these books used in schools. One teacher had the kids write “I’m beautiful because…” and the students could not use physical descriptions. They had answers like because I’m a good friend, because I work hard, because I love Jesus.

What about adults?

With BEAUTIFUL, I’ve signed and personalized the book for lots of kids but also for high school graduates, for grandmothers, for teachers, and for a teen finishing treatment for an eating disorder. Women are connecting with it in ways I hadn’t considered.

Your first middle grade novel comes out next year, THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL. Can you tell us a bit about it and where the idea came from?

MLG is about a 12-year-old who was struck by lightning and is now a math genius. After being homeschooled for 4 years, she’s technically ready for college, but her grandmother sends her to public middle school instead. She doesn’t exactly fit in. Which is how I felt—and probably most kids feel—in middle school. The idea for MLG came from reading books about acquired savant syndrome. It’s a real thing! Major head trauma can rewire our brains. This idea fascinated me. My character sprang from this.  

You are extremely prolific. Currently published are 7 picture books and 6 chapter books and you have several more under contract, including 2 novels, 3 chapter books, and 9 picture books. How do you schedule your writing time?

I have three kids, and I work while they’re at school. That’s when I do most of my writing and editing. In the evenings and on weekends, I do most of my marketing. I estimate I put in 60 hours per week. (My husband thinks it’s closer to 80.) Unfortunately, writing is only half the job for an author. The other half is spent on website design and maintenance, social media, arranging school visits, doing school visits, running to the bank and post office, travel for festivals and conferences, taxes and other financial paperwork, mentoring, blogging, critique groups, creating presentations, emails, designing swag, emails, teaching, etc.

Have you ever messed up somebody’s book with a sharpie while signing it?

YES. Recently I spelled birthday wrong. I CANNOT chat while signing. I always mess up if I talk while writing.

What is something about the industry that still surprises you?

There’s always more to want. There’s always a next level. Of course, I was excited to land an agent. Of course, I was thrilled to get a book deal. But then you want the NEXT book deal. Then, when the book nears publication, you want good reviews. When it’s out, you want decent sales. Then you want… basically, the WANT LIST is never ending. You want it in B&N, Target, Costco, on the Indie Next List, reviewed in NYT, Entertainment Weekly, Wall Street Journal, added to best-of-year lists, considered for awards, on bestseller lists, etc. I’m thrilled to have the career I have, but I need to keep hustling (and writing) to get to those next milestones.

Tell us a bit about your newest funny picture book (April 10, 2018) MAX EXPLAINS EVERYTHING, illustrated by Deborah Hocking. Is he like your own son?  

Max was inspired by all three of my kids. He’s a funny know-it-all with a big heart. In the books, he advises readers on subjects on which he’s an expert. The first book comes out in April and it’s about the grocery store. (Aren’t all kids experts on the grocery store? They probably have to go there a lot.) Book 2 is about soccer and book 3 is about caring for a puppy.

When you finish a book, who reads it first?

Either my online critique group—we’ve been together for almost 5 years—or my oldest daughter. She’s 16 and has been reading PB manuscripts for a decade. She’s well on her way to being a kick-butt editor.

What would you tell struggling writers on the verge of quitting? Your struggle is not unique. Most writers have felt this way at one time. I still threaten to quit almost weekly. (It’s basically a running joke in our family now.) It took me over ten years to get published. I used to say that I could have been a doctor or lawyer, if I’d gone back to school instead of spending those years churning out manuscripts. If you really want to quit, perhaps you could set a deadline before making this decision. I’d suggest this: 12* polished PB manuscripts** with 50 rejections on each***. If you still want to quit after this achievement, so be it. (But you KNOW number 13 was the one that would have gotten published.)

*12 is a good number because Aaron Rodgers wears it. Go, Pack, Go!

**by polished PB manuscripts, I mean you have at least 6 saved revisions on your PC and the final version has been mercilessly critiqued by another writer

***rejections can be from agents or editors, but 50 is the minimum

Thank you. Stacy. Please remember to support these mentor authors by buying these books, leaving online reviews and telling your librarians. For all the details on how to apply to Writing with the Stars click here: http://beckytarabooks.com/wwts-contest/


Meet Mentor Annie Silvestro

BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB is one of those books that, when I saw it, I thought, “Yes! Brilliant idea.” And the book delivered, as it was every bit as good as it looked. So, when thinking about my Dream Team of mentors for Writing with the Stars, Annie Silvestro immediately came to mind. Anyone who conjures up such a great concept for a picture book is someone I would want to learn from. Fortunately, she said yes, and one lucky mentee (maybe you?) will not only discover the secrets of reading bunnies and skating mice, but a whole lot more.   

BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB is one of my favorite picture books. What was the idea spark behind the book and how long did you work on this book before it was sold?   

Thank you so much! Believe it or not the idea was sparked while I was dressed as a bunny for a Parent Show we put on for the children at my son’s preschool. It was a couple of years before I wrote it down and the story had a few major revisions (and tons of minor ones!) before it sold.

You were a member of Picture the Books, a group of picture book authors who had debuts in 2017. What was the best part of being in a debut group?

I am so grateful for Picture the Books—an extraordinary group of authors and illustrators who have been so incredibly supportive and helpful through every step of the process. The best part has been the bond and friendships it has created between us that will certainly carry on well beyond 2017!

How did you select the name Lucy for the character in MICE SKATING?

It’s one of my favorite names! I have two boys—if I had a girl I would surely have named her Lucy. This is the next best thing.

How long, on average, does it take you to write a new book, and how many do you write in a year?

Great question—that totally varies depending on the idea. MICE SKATING was relatively quick to write which was great. Bunny was much longer. I’m not sure how many I write in a year—this has been a slower writing year because of the learning curve with having books out in the world, doing school visits and signings, and all the fun that comes with marketing and publicity.

What were the things you worried about pre-publication that now, as a published author with two great books under your belt, you don’t worry about anymore?

I am a natural worrier! But now that I have been through the process I’m definitely more relaxed about how things work with bookstore events and school visits. The unknown is always the hardest part.

What do you think are the most important things you did while learning the craft? What would you recommend to all the aspiring picture book writers out there?

I think the most important thing is really taking your time. Be patient. Read and write as much as you can. Join the SCBWI, go to conferences, attend workshops, get critiques. Know that not every manuscript is necessarily a winner, but everything you write is part of a bigger learning process. Last but not least, try not to compare yourself to others.

You have a new book coming out next Christmas, THE CHRISTMAS TREE WHO LOVED TRAINS. Do you want to give us a mini-synopsis? 

Sure! Thanks for asking! THE CHRISTMAS TREE WHO LOVED TRAINS, illustrated by Paola Zakimi, tells the story of a train-loving tree who, with the help of a little holiday magic, learns to love so much more. It’s particularly special to me because my oldest son is a train lover and, as a result, our family has spent lots of time on trains and at train stations. Our train under the Christmas tree is always a highlight of the holiday season.

What other projects are you working on?

I’m very excited for the upcoming Bunny sequel, BUNNY’S BOOK CLUB GOES TO SCHOOL, out in Summer of 2019. And I have a few ideas percolating that I’m looking forward to digging into next.

Thank you so much for having me and for including me as a mentor this year, I’m thrilled to participate and to share all I’ve learned thus far!

Thank you, Annie! Please remember to support the mentors by buying their books, leaving on-line reviews, and telling your librarians. Details on how to apply for a Writing with the Stars mentorship with Annie are here: http://beckytarabooks.com/wwts-contest/

Meet Mentor Jody Jensen Shaffer

I have to thank Alastair Heim for introducing me to the brilliant Jody Jensen Shaffer. I was fortunate enough to be at a conference with both of them, and he recommended I ask Jody to be part of Writing with the Stars. When I looked at her body of work, I immediately knew she was great mentor material. Luckily, she said yes, and some mentee is going to be very happy she did.

Your new book, A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK, illustrated by Daniel Miyares, comes out February 20, 2018. Can you speak a little about the inspiration behind it? It’s such a clever concept. 

Thanks, Tara! I had been thinking about Kate DiCamillo’s inspiration for The Tale of Despereaux and loved the idea of an “unlikely hero” as the main character for a picture book. A rock was about as unlikely a hero as I could imagine—since Kate had already used a mouse, ha—and my first line in an early draft was “Rocky loved his rock star relatives,” so I combined an unlikely hero with rock puns, and it was, er … rock and roll from there.

PRUDENCE THE PART-TIME COW was the Missouri Center for the Book’s pick to represent the state at the National Book Festival this year. Congratulations! What was that like? Did you attend the event? 

Yes, such a nice surprise! I was super excited to learn that Prudence was chosen to go to D.C.! I didn’t attend the festival, but several friends who did sent me pictures, and it was great to see my STEM-loving cow represent my state!

In addition to over 30 books for children, you have a long list of magazine credits. Did you start writing for children’s magazines before or after your first book was published? What are some of the differences in storytelling for magazines versus picture books? 

I started writing for kids’ magazines first, since I thought I might be able to break into that market more quickly than I could by writing picture books. My kids subscribed to all the great magazines, so I had lots of current market information available. I still mainly publish poetry for magazines, rather than stories, but I’ve done both.

There are several differences between storytelling in magazines and storytelling in picture books. One of the main differences is the number of spreads at your disposal. With magazines, a story might cover two spreads, while in a picture book, you usually have around 14 spreads to work with. As a result, in magazine storytelling, you include more visual description, more transitions, and more dialogue tags. With picture books, one spread might be set in Africa, and the next spread might take place in a child’s room. Also, the art helps tell the story, so you don’t include many descriptions. And many times, the page turn serves as the transition, so you don’t need to add one in the text. I find writing magazine fiction more like writing an essay, while writing picture books is more like writing poetry.

Several of your non-fiction credits include books on celebrities, including Taylor Swift, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Taylor Lautner, and The Rock. Did you get to interview them? If not, how did you research a living celebrity? Do you have any idea if they have read the books? 

Wouldn’t that have been fun! No, I didn’t personally interview any of the celebrities I wrote about, but I did use lots of reliable, first person resources, like interviews others did with the celebrities, YouTube interviews with the celebrity, and interviews from their hometown newspapers when they were first beginning their careers. And, of course, now that they’re well-known, there is lots of information to choose from, sometimes even autobiographies. I don’t know if any of them read my books, but that would be a hoot!

How did you get into that type of work?

While I was learning how to write fiction picture books, I began freelancing with a few book packagers and publishers to write nonfiction picture books. Most of my nonfiction work is a result of those relationships.

You wrote a book about the history of cookies, THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED, so I have to ask—what is your favorite cookie?

That was a fun one to write and research! In terms of pre-packaged cookies, probably Oreos—double-stuff, please—and for homemade, probably Snickerdoodles, my dad’s favorite.

What kind of writing schedule do you keep?

Now that my kids are in school during the day, I write most days during those hours. I also frequently write or edit in the evenings.

How did you connect with your agent?

Stephanie Fretwell-Hill spoke at the Missouri-Kansas SCBWI conference in 2016. I really liked her and subbed to her six months later. We’ve been working together since January 2017.

What are you working on?

I’ve got lots of things in the hopper, as we say. I’m working on another celebrity biography I’m excited about, and we have several projects out with editors now. I’ve also got a new idea I’m playing with, either on paper or in my head. I’m excited to see what 2018 holds!

Thanks for including me in Writing with The Stars, Tara!

Thank you, Jody.  Look for A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK on February 20, 2018. IT’S YOUR FIRST DAY OF BUSY BUS! releases July 3, 2018.  All details about applying for a mentorship with Jody can be found here http://beckytarabooks.com/wwts-contest/

Meet Mentor Josh Funk

Unless you have been living under a kidlit rock, you know Josh Funk. He is, hands down, one of the busiest and most prolific people in the industry. In addition, he’s a huge supporter of both established authors and new writers. It would have been so easy for Josh to say he was too busy for Writing with the Stars, but he rearranged his fridge and found some space behind the condiments, making me as happy as a Pirasaur with treasure! So to thank Josh, I asked my friend and fellow writer, Derick Wilder, to kick things off with a rhyme (I hope it doesn’t leave a  stinky stench).

Josh’s Funky Beats


Derick Wilder


All of Josh’s children’s books

have his distinctive style.

He is known for flawless rhyme,

his beard, and playful smile.


Authors conjure characters

to keep the kids engrossed.

So, of course, Josh brought to life

a pancake and French toast.


Check out Josh’s writing guide.

Each lesson is sublime.

Oops, I just read number 8—

to never write in rhyme.



What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a school visit?

In truth, I don’t do too many school visits due to the day job (I’m a software engineer).

One of the things I like to do during school visits is to create characters with students, asking volunteers for their input. I often ask one student for their favorite food and then another for a job they want to have when they grow up—and then we combine them to create a character. Usually it’s something basic like Professor Pizza or Doctor Hot Dog. But every once in a while, I get a great one.

At one particular visit, I got a President Peanut—which was incredibly spot on. At another, a tiny toddler gave me “geneticist”—which was brilliant—and the most adorable thing coming from someone so small (it’s possible I misheard her and she was saying chicken nugget, which would have answered the previous question; in retrospect, she might not have been that brilliant after all).

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Hmm. Twitter, I guess? I dunno. I’m not sure I have one Kryptonite that rules them all. I actually don’t think too much about my time management issues and it’s been working out pretty well.

When writing picture books, I often get really excited about a particular idea and spend a frenzied amount of time on it for a few days. If I don’t have any ideas at a given time, I have enough to do regarding revision, publicity, events, etc., that I’m always busy with something.

Now I feel like I should have a writing Kryptonite. Maybe not having a writing Kryptonite is my writing Kryptonite?

What is the best thing you ever bought with your earnings?

Earnings? You know I write picture books, right? I started getting large coffees instead of medium, I guess.

Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad ones?

I’ll read the professional journal reviews. And also Kirkus (zing!). And if an educator or blogger has taken the time to review my book, I’m happy to tweet back to them.

But user reviews—I try not to. At the beginning of 2017 I stopped looking at weekly sales numbers, sales rankings, star ratings, etc. I thought “What would Ame Dyckman do?” And then I asked Ame Dyckman what she does—and her answer was to act like a five-year-old.

So that’s how I approach reviews—I act like a five-year-old.

How many stories do you write a year that never make it to your agent?

As the years have gone by and I have less free time to just write, I’ve had to be more calculated about how I spend my writing time. I’m definitely very picky with the ideas that I decide to pursue. I’d say that I probably send 80% of what I write to my agent, but not everything gets shopped to editors for various reasons (timing/quality).

What is the best money you spent on learning the craft?

Going to the Annual New England SCBWI Regional Spring Conference. In 2012, my first writing conference ever, I went for a single day of the three day conference and it was a life-changing experience. As soon as I walked into the conference hotel I knew this was the place for me. I was fortunate to meet a few people who suggested I volunteer the following year, which was exactly what I did in 2013.

And in 2013 I met all the right people—new critique partners, mentors, friends, and lo and behold, in 2016 and 2017 I was co-director of the NESCBWI Conference.

If you live anywhere near New England, mark your calendars for April 20-22, 2018. Registration usually opens in early February, and it WILL fill up—so sign up fast!

You are a huge supporter of independent bookstores and spend a lot of time in them. What is the weirdest thing that has happened to you while doing an event? Best thing?

I think the weirdest and best thing were probably the same.

At Bookbug in Kalamazoo, MI (which you should totally visit if you can), about five minutes before my event, Joanna Parzakonis (owner of Bookbug) whispered to me, “Sarah Stewart and David Small just walked in.”

As I’m sure you know, Sarah Stewart and David Small are an incredible husband and wife author/illustrator team (fwiw, David Small has a collection of seals marked ‘Caldecott’). Their book, The Gardener, is one of my all-time favorite picture books (one of four books that I often credit with making me want to become a writer).

Now don’t get too excited. David and Sarah didn’t come to Bookbug for my event; they’re locals and were there to sign some orders that had come in. But of course, Joanna introduced me and when I told them that The Gardener is one of my favorites, Sarah looked at me sternly and asked, “Why is that?” It was almost as if she was testing me, because, truth be told, The Gardener is one of their most famous books, so any respectful person might say the same thing even if they didn’t mean it—or even know the book that well.

I said, “Because of that wordless spread at the end when Uncle Jim comes to the roof and sees the garden … I get chills every time I read it.” Then Sarah gave me the warmest smile and a hug (apparently I’d passed her test). Joanna had them sign a copy of The Gardener for me, and Sarah wrote the sweetest inspiring note inside.

I was certainly flying pretty high for the rest of the day after that one!

If you ever had the opportunity to open your own indie bookstore, what would you call it?

Since this is totally hypothetical (running a bookstore is soooooo much more work than just ‘reading books all day’ like we all dream), I’m waffling between going with something sassy like Between the Sheets or something on the nose like Coffee and Books.

Did anybody mentor you while learning, officially or unofficially? If you could choose someone to mentor you right now, who would it be?

Starting in the fall of 2011, I took a class through the Lexington (MA) Community Education program taught by author Jane Sutton (The Problem with Cauliflower, Don’t Call Me Sydney, the upcoming Paulie’s Passover Predicament). The course (that I took 8 times between 2011 and 2014) was an incredible introduction to the world of picture books – and it’s still being taught today!

When I met author Anna Staniszewski (Dogosaurus Rex, Power Down, Little Robot, The Dirty Diary MG series) in 2013, she offered invaluable writing insight via critiques of my manuscripts as well as terrific and timely career advice.

And there are so many others who helped me along the way: Heather Kelly, founder of The Writers’ Loft, author Kristine Asselin who connected me to my agent, a plethora of critique partners over the years, and so on. I don’t think there’s anyone in particular I’d choose to mentor me—I’ll just keep soaking up as much information from as many talented individuals as I can.

You are a Little Free Library steward. What is the most unusual book you have seen in there?

Multiple novelizations of the Olsen Twin movies. Hands down.

Thank you, Josh. Please remember to support these mentor authors by buying their books, leaving on-line reviews and telling your librarians.

Bio: Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as books—such as the Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast series (including The Case of the Stinky Stench and the upcoming Mission: Defrostable), It’s Not Jack and the BeanstalkDear DragonPirasaurs!, and the forthcoming Albie NewtonHow to Code a Sandcastle (in conjunction with Girls Who Code), Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude (in conjunction with the New York Public Library), It’s Not Hansel and Gretel, and more coming soon!

​Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences.

Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes manuscripts.

Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys _______ during ________ and has always loved __________. He has played ____________ since age __ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __________.

​For more information about Josh Funk, visit him at www.joshfunkbooks.com and on Twitter at @joshfunkbooks.

Meet Mentor Andrea Loney

I first noticed Andrea Loney as a fellow member of 12 x 12. I so loved TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE! that I immediately knew I wanted to ask her to participate in Writing with the Stars. With amazing works in fiction and nonfiction, Andrea’s someone I know we’ll be hearing much more from in years to come!

TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE!, won the Lee and Low New Voices Award and was recently nominated for an NAACP Image Award. That must be an amazing feeling of accomplishment. Were you shocked when you found out?

Yes, I was totally shocked. I just got back from the NAACP Image Award Nominee Luncheon and I’m still shocked. What an amazing honor.

How did you celebrate?

First I texted my whole family from coast to coast to let them know. Then my guy took me out to Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles to celebrate!

You volunteer with the organization Reading to Kids. What was it like reading your own book to the kids?

At Reading to Kids I usually read the assigned picture books, not my own. I did get to share my BUNNYBEAR picture book with a Pre-K class, a special needs class, and a third grade class, and it was awesome to listen to the insightful conversations the children shared in regards to the book.   

What is the most amazing thing you have witnessed while working for this program?

I am constantly amazed by how many girls and boys in the Reading to Kids program tell me they want to go to space someday. This is especially thrilling because the aerospace industry is huge in Los Angeles, with Space X, Virgin Galactic, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and more just a freeway ride away. We even have the Space Shuttle Endeavor here at the California Science Center. These kids are just a 45-minute drive away from their dreams.

What do you think are traps for aspiring writers?

I know that one of the biggest traps I fell into as an aspiring writer was getting too attached to one story, then feeling devastated when that story was rejected. What works for me is to work on multiple projects, submit multiple stories, pass the time waiting for responses by writing new projects, note but shrug off the inevitable rejections, and keep generating more new stories.

Do you have a preference for writing fiction versus nonfiction? Do you think one is easier than the other?

As a history buff, it’s always fun for me to imagine what life would have been like in another era, so that makes writing nonfiction a treat. But I also love writing fictional stories. I’m not sure that one is easier than the other—whether real life or a made-up story is the starting point, all books require some level of world-building, structure, and an emotional hook to create an immersive experience.

Your next book, DOUBLE BASS BLUES, is due out in 2019 from Knopf. Can you give us a synopsis share and how you got the idea?

DOUBLE BASS BLUES is a picture book about a young black boy who plays the double bass in his school orchestra on the suburban side of town and has to transport this huge instrument to the city side of town for a surprise performance. The idea came to me while I was teaching computer classes at an at-risk youth center in the heart of the city. My students had to overcome all sorts of logistical, transportation, and social obstacles just to make it to our little two-hour class. But they made it and I was so proud of them. And they were proud of themselves too.

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


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. http://lindsaymward.com/category/making-a-picture-book/)


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.