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WWTS Mentee Update: Deb O’Brien

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


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

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

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

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

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

Deb O’Brien

WWTS Mentee Update: Manju Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



WWTS Mentee Update: Becky Scharnhorst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




WWTS Mentee Update: Jolene Gutiérrez

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

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

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

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

Jolene Gutiérrez

WWTS Mentee Update: Catherine Friess

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thank you Catherine! 

WWTS Mentee Update: Elaine D’Alessandro

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


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

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

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

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




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   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




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       

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:  

To learn more about Rachel visit

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