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WWTS Mentee Update: Becky Shillington

Becky won a mentorship with Pam Calvert in Writing with the Stars 2019. Here are a few words form Becky. 


Earlier this year, I was thrilled and honored to be chosen as Pam Calvert’s Writing with the Stars mentee. From day one, it was clear that Pam and I were a perfect match. Her kids are a little older than mine (I have 17-year-old twin boys), so she understands the current stage of “mom life” I’m in. We both have Texas roots and an affection for the Lone Star State. And our writing styles and interests are very similar (I love all of Pam’s books, but the first time I read PRINCESS PEEPERS, my little five-year-old-heart glowed!). To say I was excited to be chosen is an understatement!

Pam began our time together by reading several of my picture book manuscripts and choosing the ones she thought she could help me with the most. Then she sent me my first critique, along with lots of resources and suggestions of comp titles to read. I was so ready to get started, and studiously requested every book she suggested and read every resource she pointed me toward. Then I tackled my manuscript with renewed energy and focus. From that point on, we went back and forth with the first manuscript until she was 100% happy with my progress and thought it shone bright enough to submit to agents and editors.

We repeated this process several times, until we’d polished several of my picture books. Through each book’s revision, I gained new insights from Pam and learned more about her writing process and style. Her suggestions were consistently thoughtful, detailed, and fully explained. She encouraged me to think deeper, expand my use of language (which I loved!), and to step away from my manuscript and look at it through a different lens. She was also super excited about a new project of mine and coached me as I cultivated that idea from tiny seed to full draft. Pam’s positivity, encouragement, and energy was inspiring and helpful on so many different levels!

Going into this mentorship, I decided I would set aside all my other projects and focus solely on picture books during those months. I’m so glad I invested this time, and so appreciative of Pam for investing her time in me. I know I’ll continue to reap the benefits of this mentorship as I move forward in my writing career, and I hope that one day I can pay it forward and help other writers as Pam has helped me. Thank you so much for mentoring me, Pam! This has truly been a gift.

I would also like to say a huge thank you to Tara, as well. Since the inception of Writing with the Stars several years ago, she has spent countless hours recruiting mentors, sorting files, and performing all kinds of behind-the-scenes tasks. She has poured her heart and soul into this contest, creating a program for the kidlit community that hadn’t existed before. I know I am not alone when I say how much you are valued and appreciated, Tara!


WWTS Mentee Update: Jennifer Broedel

Jennifer won a mentorship with Tim McCanna. Here are a few words about her experience.

As a rhymer, I’ve always respected Tim McCanna’s skill, and aspired to produce work of his caliber. He’s actually the first author I emailed with a craft question when I started writing (he remembered me after we began working together). When Tim selected me as his mentee, I shrieked. I cried and scared my kids (ha)! It was one of the proudest moments of my writing journey. I was deeply honored, and determined to make him proud.

Looking at WWTS as an opportunity for growth, I didn’t need someone to tell me my work was perfect; the gem was in the challenge. Tim was genuinely there for me, enthusiastic about my writing and motivated solely by his desire to help me make my work better. I decided I owed it to him, to myself, and to my work, to trust him completely. I put all queries on hold to get the full benefit of his guidance. Any edits or improvements that Tim suggested, I decided to give an honest try. A full rewrite? Sure! Reconsider my approach to a narrative arc? Sure! Try a new style of rhyme? I’ll do whatever you tell me, Yoda! I embraced every exercise he gave me, because I knew his method had been tested.

Tim was unfailingly enthusiastic and generous with praise. All the while, he balanced that with criticism that strengthened my work, pushing me to be the best version of my creative self. He validated my struggles by sharing his own, and let me know that I’m on the right track. I felt encouraged, by Tim’s success, especially knowing he was once where I am now. Our conversations flowed easily, with Tim letting me direct our focus. He kept me accountable to my personal writing goals, and made sure I didn’t let life steamroll my progress. It was so much fun to interact regularly with someone I respect immensely, and I may have blushed when he called me “prolific” (let’s stick that in the highlight reel).

It’s been six months since our mentorship, but I feel comfortable reaching out to Tim anytime, as a mentor and friend. I’ve returned to querying, and I’m in the midst of an R&R with a Big 5 house. I find myself quoting Tim’s advice, whenever I critique peers’ work. During our time together, Tim helped me revitalize long-anguished work; we revamped three manuscripts to query-status, and trouble-shot several others. On Tim’s recommendation, I launched a website (which I love). His industry knowledge was invaluable—it was wonderful having not only fresh eyes on my work, but fresh eyes that have “been there, done that.”  I know his ideas can help me reach my goals, and I have faith in him as my coach and cheerleader. And when someone like Tim McCanna says you can do it, you believe it.

Deepest thanks to Tara, and all of the mentors, for making this unforgettable experience possible. What a blessing you are to the budding creators of our community!



WWTS Mentee Update: Anna Cosper

Anna won a mentorship with author Carter Higgins via Writing with the Stars. Here are a few words from Anna on her experience.

Some months ago, I was selected by the brilliant Carter Higgins for a 2019 WWTS mentorship – just being chosen for the mentorship was like a huge happy balloon filling and bursting in my chest! Carter wrote the nicest, most enthusiastic introduction email that put me in a good mood for months. I wanted to buy you a huge bouquet of flowers Tara, or a kitten – or a car! The good this program does for its participants is hard to measure (and some people like flowers better than cars). For now, this blog post will have to do.

​Carter was a great fit for me for the mentorship—she jived with my style, my personality and my goals and was very accommodating and supportive.

I am super charmed by Carter’s books and love how they are completely themselves. I am also super charmed by Carter, the sweetest, happiest, funniest, most enthusiastic mentor I could have wished for. ​​We had marvelous fun. She helped me find a context and framing for my work within the industry by really helping to describe my work in new ways – she has been a huge confidence booster (like winning the Olympics kind of confidence boost)​. Everything she told me was multiplied ​by​ my admiration for her​, kind of like that kid who’s been practicing guitar in his garage and all of a sudden gets a compliment from ​Keith Richards.​ I soaked up everything Carter said​. I​t has ​made my work stronger and ​has given me the needed boost to go out and submit more.​​

Tara, you have hooked me up with a wonderful new friend in the industry and I am so, so grateful for that. ​Your work on this program enriches the work of so many budding authors and illustrators – I hope WWTS continues for many years and that I can return the favor somewhere down the road.


WWTS Mentee Update: Joan Maher

Joan won a mentorship with author Laura Gehl. Here are a few words from Joan about the experience.

I had the incredible honor of being selected by Laura Gehl for the WWTS mentorship.

I applied to Laura because she clearly knows the craft of picture books; she’s got an impressive number of published books to her name, with more on the way, and all of them have a great voice, a clear vision, wonderful humor, and a compelling hook. I was hoping to absorb as much as I could from her about the art of storytelling, and that some of her skills might rub off on me!

Laura was a dream. Right off the bat, she critiqued the stories I had sent her, and then a number of additional ones. She has an uncanny knack for getting right to the heart of the issue for each story — what’s working, and what’s holding it back. After a while, I started to hear her voice as I revised or drafted anything new, and I felt I was able to better direct my stories from the start. She made herself super accessible; no matter how many questions I had or manuscripts I sent her, she never made me wait for a reply. I truly felt like she was in my corner.

About midway through the mentorship, Laura encouraged me to start querying agents and helped me craft my pitches and query letters. She has a phenomenal gift when it comes to crafting a pitch, and after a while, again with her voice in my head, I felt I started to get the hang of it, too.

One of my queries found its way to Natascha Morris at BookEnds Literary Agency, and shortly after my mentorship with Laura ended, I signed with Natascha. It was a dream come true and it wouldn’t have happened if not for Laura’s guidance.

Working with Laura propelled me to the next level in my writing career. It turbo-charged my revision process, and while I may have gotten to the same point with my stories eventually, it would have taken who-knows-how-many more months (or years!) to get there. I ended the mentorship feeling like I had a better grasp on the craft of writing, which is exactly what I had hoped for going into it.

I am so grateful to have had this opportunity. I want to give a heartfelt thanks to Tara for creating this invaluable program, and to Laura for believing in me. You are both incredible and the kidlit community is much indebted to you!


WWTS Mentee Update: Laura Lavoie

Laura Lavoie was the recipient of a mentorship with author Jason Gallaher. Here are a few words from Laura about her experience.

I’ll never forget the moment when I found out Jason Gallaher picked me to be his mentee. One of my critique partners sent a message to our group chat around the time Tara was making the announcement that read: Get. On. Twitter. My CP Jen Broedel, who is amazingly talented, had also applied for a mentorship, and I immediately saw that Tim McCanna had selected her. I figured that was the big news, so when I scrolled and saw that I’d been chosen by Jason, I literally slid out of my chair and onto the floor. Winning a mentorship felt like a huge vote of confidence for my writing career.

One of the best things about working with Jason was how he automatically got my sense of humor. I write funny picture books, so I knew I needed a mentor who would appreciate my cheesy puns and quirky characters. For the first six weeks of the mentorship, I sent Jason one manuscript per week for critique. After I’d read through his written feedback, we’d hop on a video call and discuss what was or wasn’t working. Jason is a fantastic brainstormer, and talking things through with him gave me so many “Aha!” moments. We then picked the strongest four manuscripts to revise, knowing that I planned to start querying at the conclusion of the mentorship. Jason also helped me with my query letters and let me barrage him with general questions about publishing. His genuine enthusiasm for my work meant the world to me. I felt like I had my own personal cheerleader heading into queries, and knew that I was absolutely putting my strongest work forward.

Shortly after sending my first batch of queries, I was offered representation by my now-agent, James McGowan of BookEnds Literary. I’d admired BookEnds for a long time, and had my sights set on James from the moment he announced he’d be taking on clients. I signed the contract a few days before my last video call with Jason, so we got to live-share our excitement!

Writing with the Stars was truly transformational. I feel like I’ve come leaps and bounds from the writer I was just six months ago. My first drafts feel stronger, and I’m able to absorb feedback more quickly and run with revisions. I’ve also connected with several of the other mentees, and it’s great to have a whole new batch of talented writing buddies! A huge thanks to Tara, Jason, and all the WWTS mentors who donated their time and expertise. I’m so grateful to have had this immensely valuable experience!




WWTS Mentee Update: Leigh Anne Carter

Leigh Anne was the lucky recipient of a mentorship with Author/Illustrator Melissa Iwai and author Denis Markell. Her are a few words from Leigh Ann about her experience.


As an author-illustrator, I was very honored to receive the mentorship with both Melissa Iwai and Denis Markell. My mentors provided illustration and writing advice on my manuscript.

We met over Skype, and while you may think two-on-one critiques of your work would feel overwhelming, I was pleasantly surprised by how wonderful, candid, and helpful Melissa and Denis both are. They guided me to focus my manuscript down to my main theme, advised me to amp up the emotions in the language, and also told me what was and wasn’t working in my illustrations. Not once did a reassurance go wasted, and my shaky author-illustrator legs found solid ground to stand on. My manuscript is now well on its way to being a completed dummy, which I will be querying soon to agents.

Another great thing about being on Skype was that Melissa was able to share on camera some of the stories she was working on—seeing another illustrator’s visual thinking was an added benefit of this mentorship.

The check-ins were great incentives to work extra hard, find the perfect word, and create the perfect image. Each time I got great advice, and that made me strive harder with each revision. Having a team behind my story and supporting my efforts was the icing on the cake.

Thank you, Melissa and Denis, for sharing your time, your talent, and your guidance.

Thank you so much, Tara and Becky, for all of the hard work that goes into creating this mentorship program and giving us the opportunity to grow and learn!



WWTS Mentee Update: Danette Byatt

Danette Byatt was the recipient of a mentorship with the talented Deb Pilutti. Here are a few words from Danette about her experience.

I am thrilled to have been chosen by Deb Pilutti and am so grateful for all of the time and expertise she gave me as her mentee. Thank you so very much, Deb, for your insights; it’s been a wonderful experience! And thank you to Tara, as well, for making WWTS a reality.

I applied for a mentorship with Deb because I was immediately drawn to her work. She’s not only an author-illustrator, but like me she’s also a designer, and all three of those aspects are very apparent to me in her books. Sparse, poignant text combined with endearing illustrations are laid out so effortlessly on the page and paced perfectly throughout her books. Two books of hers that brilliantly capture all of these things (the pacing is so great!) are Bear and Squirrel are Friends and The Secrets of Ninja School. I was also lucky enough to see some sneak peeks of the printer’s proofs for an upcoming book of hers and I’m so excited for it to hit shelves! It looks so great.

Right off the bat we had a lot in common as author-illustrators (and designers!). We met a number of times over Skype during the mentorship to discuss my goals (what I needed help with most), her feedback on my stories, and things about the industry in general.

Going into it, I leaned towards needing more help with writing than illustration, since I’ve been writing for a shorter amount of time. But of course, as an author-illustrator, much of the storytelling is done through the illustrations as well, so while we were more focused on the writing side of things, we did discuss both. I also wanted her thoughts on which stories of mine I should scrap – I had a hard time discerning which were my best story concepts and which should be laid to rest. Of the initial 7 stories I sent Deb, she identified 3 that she thought were my strongest and we moved forward with those. Her feedback was spot-on! She was able to offer so many amazing insights I hadn’t noticed or thought of before, and I was able to go back and revise based on her suggestions.

I am now starting to query literary agents and am confident with my submissions, knowing that I have a strong arsenal of stories ready that Deb helped me to revise if an agent asks to see more of my work. I’m so appreciative to her for everything she’s done for me. She’s a kind-hearted person who’s friendly and easy to work with, as well, and I’m sending her much loving gratitude and joyful vibes from the bottom of my heart.

Danette Byatt


Twitter @danettebyatt

Instagram @danettebyatt


WWTS Mentee Update: Pamela Couvignou

Pamela Couvignou was the lucky recipient of a mentorship from author/illustrator Lindsay Ward. Here are a few words from Pamela about her experience. 

Writing With the Stars was a gamechanger for me. There was me and my work before WWTS and then there is me and my work after WWTS. I feel like I jumped a chasm.

I was extremely fortunate to be selected by Lindsay Ward, who is a generous, accomplished, kind, and talented mentor. I pinched myself constantly after our weekly conversations by phone or email. She was always available to me, even if that meant sneaking in a call between her son’s naps or school visits.

As an author/illustrator like my (aspiring) self, Lindsay helped me balance my words and images to tighten my stories and reach my goal of creating submission-ready work. I have attended critique groups for writing and illustrating, separately, and they always seemed to miss half the story. Finally, I was able to work with someone who knew how to combine words and images to create impact and emotions.

What I valued most was our honest exchanges. When reviewing my work, Lindsay was always insightful and direct, but supportive with practical recommendations on moving forward. I will never forget the generosity she exhibited throughout the process. When talking about the industry, Lindsay shared important insights that will probably save me a lot of time and heartache. As a novice, I had so many questions. Lindsay always responded with enthusiasm to help clarify and provide creative options. She has shifted my approach to storytelling and has freed me from some of the prior limitations of “must do’s.”

Now when I approach a new story, I recall conversations and notes from Lindsay and it’s like having a little mentor on my shoulder to guide and support. This makes it much easier to touch pen to paper.

Thank you, WWTS. And Lindsay, thanks to you I gained so much knowledge, motivation, confidence, and a valued friend.



WWTS Mentee Update: Vong Bidania

Today we have an update from the 2018 contest. Vong Bidania won a mentorship with Jennifer K. Mann and is sharing her experience with us today. 

I was really fortunate to win a mentorship with Jennifer Mann in 2018. Jennifer’s picture books are so charming and her illustrations are beyond adorable. I felt honored that she picked me as her mentee.

At the time of the mentorship, I had two manuscripts I was working on. One was a picture book that I was hoping to query.The other was a folktale chapter book I had submitted to a publisher. The publisher requested I revise this chapter book into a picture book. I had been struggling with this revision for months because I found it so difficult to cut it down to picture book length. Jennifer graciously helped me with both manuscripts.

First she gave me feedback on my picture book and query letter for that book, and then after some edits she said they were ready to go. Next she read my folktale chapter book. Jennifer talked to me about mentor texts, gave me incredibly helpful comments about paring down text, and asked me important questions about my character. After that, she advised me to scrap my original manuscript and start from scratch instead of trying to cut it. It seemed like this would be overwhelming, but because I had already answered the questions she provided me, I was able to rewrite the entire chapter book as a picture book in just a few days. I absolutely loved my new manuscript.

When I felt I had polished this manuscript enough, I resubmitted this to the publisher. They got back to me and said they were interested! They even asked for more picture book ideas because they wanted them to be part of a whole series. When I sent them my other ideas, I decided to pitch another chapter book series I had started writing. A few months later, I received a publishing offer for my chapter book series! Shortly after, I found an agent. I am now represented by Tina Dubois of ICM and my chapter book series ASTRID AND APOLLO is being published by Capstone in 2020. For now, Capstone is holding off on the folktale picture book series and they plan to relook at this at a future date.

This mentorship helped set off a chain of events that led to my publishing deal. Because I won the mentorship with Jennifer, I was able to revise my folktale manuscript into a picture book and submit it to Capstone, who requested more picture book ideas from me, and when I shared ASTRID & APOLLO with them, they wanted to publish it. This would not have happened if it weren’t for Jennifer’s comments and guidance. I learned so much about writing picture books from her. Her revision notes were extremely useful and I will continue to use the process she taught me for all of my picture books. I am really grateful for WWTS and for the time and thoughtful feedback that Jennifer gave me. She was supportive, kind and encouraging. I gained so much from working with her and I still can’t wait to publish that folktale picture book series someday! I will always be thankful for this mentorship, which helped set me on my path to becoming a published author. 

Thank you Vong, for that update and I’m so happy for your success. 


WWTS Mentee Update: Jen Raudenbush

Jen won a mentorship with author Cate Berry in the 2019 WWTS contest. Here are a few words about her experience.


I  was deeply honored to be chosen by Cate as her mentee. With the many rejections and downs of this industry, just being picked was a huge affirmation of my children’s book writing dream. It also meant so much that someone was willing to take a chance on me.

Cate was warm, generous, accessible, and fun. She’s a teacher of picture book writing, so she brought many gifts and strengths to the mentorship. Most of all, she impressed upon me the need to bring a sense of play to writing. For instance, she had me reading fifteen minutes of poetry each day and doing both poetry and free writing exercises. This helped boost my imagination, creativity, and language. She also helped me get in touch with my senses and emotions, which translated into richer picture books. Cate encouraged me to read and analyze many picture books in-depth.

I really hit the jackpot with having Cate as my mentor! During the internship, we emailed, texted, and spoke on the phone. Once per month, Cate critiqued several of my manuscripts and reviewed my picture book analyses and writing exercises. She gave me frequent recommendations of picture books and craft books to read, as well as new picture book structures to try. Cate also challenged me to query. Widely.

It was a privilege to work (virtually) alongside and get to know Cate as a mentor and friend. She expected a lot from me, but I was enthusiastic to soak up as much from our time as possible. What I loved most was how Cate kept telling me in a dozen different ways how much she believed in me. Her faith instilled greater confidence in my abilities. As I told Cate, now that I know I have the skills and talent, I will never give up!