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Month: January 2018

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 https://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  https://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  https://beckytarabooks.com/wwts-contest/