Home » Blog

Meet Mentor Andrea Wang

We are thrilled to welcome Andrea Wang to Writing with the Stars. Andrea has written seven nonfiction books for libraries and schools, plus her own fiction book, The Nian Monster (Albert Whitman & Company), and a nonfiction biography, Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando (March 2019 from little bee books). In addition, she has a title slated for release in 2020 called Watercress. Andrea lives in Denver with her family.

You were an environmental consultant before starting your career as a picture book author. How did you make the switch from that job to picture books?

I left my consulting job shortly after my second child was born. I took my kids to the library all the time, and spent hours reading to them at home. That reawakened my love of writing and inspired me to try my hand at writing my own stories again.

What inspired The Nian Monster? It seems to have some environmental overtones—a greedy monster seeking to devour anything he can. Did any of your environmental work inspire the character?

That’s so interesting—I’ve never thought of the book that way before. The Nian Monster is a retelling of an ancient folktale that explained the use of loud sounds, fire, and the color red during Chinese New Year. The monster himself is a symbol of the old year, as the word “nian” means “year” in Chinese. I think you could view the monster as the bad events or natural disasters that may have destroyed crops or livestock during the year. Scaring the monster away meant that the people had survived another year—definitely a cause for celebration.

The artwork for The Nian Monster is just,“wow!” The monster looks cuddly and not scary at all. Did you request this approach or were you as blown away as I was when I saw it?

I was totally blown away! 🙂 My editor had asked what I thought about making the illustrations “whimsical,” but I didn’t really understand what she meant. It was my first picture book, so I just said, “Sure!” I’m so glad I did! Alina Chau’s art is amazing and added so much depth and authenticity to the book. 

Your nonfiction biography should be on every college student’s reading list. What prompted you to write Magic Ramen?

Ha! I hope the book does find its way into college students’ hands! I was inspired to research the inventor of instant ramen by my younger son, who loves eating it. Once I discovered the reasons Momofuku Ando felt compelled to invent instant ramen, I knew I had to write about him. 

Can you tell us a bit about Watercress? Do you have other projects in the works

Watercress is a very different and much more personal story than my other two picture books. It’s based on an actual childhood experience of gathering watercress in the wild with my parents, who were immigrants from China. It sounds like a fun activity, but in reality, I was mortified. The story was my way of processing that event, as well as showing how important family histories are when it comes to understanding ourselves.

I have another picture book being published by Neal Porter Books after Watercress. Right now it’s called Luli and the Language of Tea, and it’s about the evolution of the word for tea from the original Chinese and how it brings immigrant children from around the world together. I’m also working on a middle grade novel and several other picture books, both fiction and nonfiction. All my WIPs are about immigrants or the children of immigrants, their experiences, and how that shapes their identities

How did you get into the educational writing market, and did it help you once you moved to your own work?

A good friend who is also my critique partner introduced me to an editorial company she was working for. They were looking for science writers and I had a science background, so it was a good fit. The experience definitely helped me once I started submitting work based on my own ideas. It gave me publishing credits, taught me to work on deadline, and showed me how to extract the most relevant and interesting information out of a mountain of research. 

What has surprised you most about writing picture books?

I think it has to be the variety of structures and formats. You’re not limited to the typical plot arc or linear storytelling, and you can use the physical form of the book itself as part of the story, like how some authors have used the gutter. I just read Blue by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, and the way she uses cutouts and conveys the story through simple text (just two words per page, and one of them is “blue”) and gorgeous art work is masterful. I’ve also been learning about layers of text and circular structure—the possibilities with picture books feel endless, which is so exciting.

Thank you, Andrea, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.

Meet Mentor Tim McCanna

We are very grateful to have Tim McCanna join Writing the Stars this year. Tim is the author of Bitty Bot, Bitty Bot’s Big Beach Getaway (both illustrated by Tad Carpenter), Barnyard Boogie (illustrated by Allison Black), Teeny Tiny Trucks (illustrated by Keith Frawley), Watersong (illustrated by Richard Smythe), Jack B. Ninja (illustrated by Stephen Savage), Boing! (illustrated by Jorge Martin), and So Many Sounds (illustrated by Andy J. Miller). He’s also been an actor, musician, musical theatre writer, graphic designer, and played accordion in a folk band—so of course the next natural step was picture books. Seriously though, Tim’s books reflect a keen knowledge of both musicality and visual appeal.

You sold your first book, Teeny Tiny Trucks, before you had an agent. How did that all happen?

I started writing picture books in 2009. In early 2012, I joined author Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 challenge. After six months, I was enjoying 12×12 so much, I wrote and recorded a little song about the experience and sent it to Julie. It just so happened that her book, A Troop is a Group of Monkeys, was in the process of being published in hard cover and as an interactive iPad app. Julie asked if I’d write a sing-along version of her text for the app and connected me with the editor at Little Bahalia Publishing. After that job, I submitted my manuscript to them and a year later Teeny Tiny Trucks came out! Unfortunately,the publisher eventually closed shop and my book went out of print. I was in it for the long haul, though. So I kept writing and submitting to editors and agents. In 2014 I signed with Caryn Wiseman at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

How did your writing career change once you got your agent?

By the time I signed with Caryn, I had a portfolio of polished manuscripts. Over the next two years she sold nine of my stories to houses like Simon & Schuster, Abrams, and Scholastic. Does everything I write now automatically sell? No way. But a good agent like Caryn knows the best editors to match your work to, handles the contracts, improves offers, gives creative feedback, and is a friend who listens.

You write successfully in rhyme. What is it about rhyme that attracts you? How have you learned to do it so well?

Thanks! Rhyming is a real challenge, but is so fun when it works. I just love playing with words. I have a background in musical theatre and songwriting, so I approach my picture book texts with performance in mind. After all, the reader is performing for the listener. Becoming a strong rhymer takes practice, reading lots of rhyming books, and developing an ear for language that sparkles.

Watersong, which you won some pretty cool awards for, is fascinating for its sparse text and the manner in which the illustrator took that text and made it such a dramatic picture book. Did you know when you wrote it that it would come to life like that?

NO! I had a fun time stringing that spare text together, but I really wasn’t sure if it was book-worthy. I added some art notes about fairies and water sprites to give it a story arc. But the illustrator, Richard Smythe, took it in a more naturalistic direction and I couldn’t be happier. We added some non-fiction back matter, and now there’s a sequel in the works!

What are some of your writing rituals?

I will often blast through the first draft of a manuscript using no formatting and a san serif font like Arial. Then, as I start editing and shaping, I duplicate the file, convert the text to Times New Roman, put in my standard title page,and get persnickety about tabs and spacing. Then I read the story out loud to myself like a hundred times, making changes here and there. I also try to regularly visit my local independent bookstores to read the latest releases and buy some books.

Who are some authors who have influenced your style?

I could list a bunch, but I have to mention my critique partner, Sue Fliess, who is an amazing rhymer and a superb author. We’ve critiqued each other’s work for over seven years, and her feedback and encouragement have made me a better writer. And, we both have truck books, robot books, and ninja books!

What stories do you have in the works that you can tell us about?

I mentioned a follow-up to Watersong … that one is going to have DINOSAURS! I can’t wait. I also just saw a couple spreads of a book called In a Garden with beautiful art by Aimee Sicuro. Both are coming in 2020.

Which of your books is the favorite of your children?

They’d probably say Bitty Bot. When the first Bitty Bot book came out, I made a big cardboard robot costume. At my bookstore events, the robot would bring a copy of the book to me to read aloud. Both of my kids were good sports and occasionally played the part of the robot. Those are fun memories they’ll always have.

You mention that you wanted to start writing picture books after becoming a dad and reading to your own kids. Were there any particular books that inspired you the most?

Back in those days I was reading everything coming out by Dan Santat, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Peter Brown, Adam Rex, Tammi Sauer, Oliver Jeffers, and Mo Willems. As a rhymer, I was also studying the works of Julia Donaldson and Chris Van Dusen.

You have some pretty fun videos on your site. Did you make them yourself? How important has your platform been in marketing your books?

Thanks! Yeah, I made all those. I’m especially proud of the 12×12 jingle video. People still come up to me at conferences and start singing that song to me. Making videos is time-intensive, though, so I only do the occasional book trailer nowadays. But as I’ve developed my career, having an online presence has been essential. Even if you’re not published yet, it’s good to get a head start on your social media platform.

Thank you, Tim, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.

Meet Mentor Laura Gehl

We are excited to welcome author Laura Gehl back for her third year as a mentor for Writing with the Stars! Laura is the author of eleven picture books, including the popular PEEP AND EGG series, illustrated by Joyce Wan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR), and most recently, the hilarious DELIVERY BEAR, illustrated by Paco Sordo (Albert Whitman, 2018).

In ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, you have an impeccable rhyme scheme AND the word “underwear” in the first line—two things universally irresistible to kids! Good rhyme is incredibly difficult to master. What advice do you have for writers who would like to attempt rhyme?

The biggest problem I run into when I am writing in rhyme is letting the rhyme lead the story. Like … I have the word ROCK at the end of a line, so then oh-wow-my-characters-suddenly-care-about-the-time-because-I-need-to-get-to-the-word-CLOCK. You need to have a clear idea of what story you want to tell, and make sure you force the rhymes to follow your story (without sounding forced), and not the other way around. This is very hard for me, and I imagine for others as well!

ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR has internal rhymes as well as rhymes at the end of sentences, which I think is one reason people enjoy reading it. And I personally love books where the rhyming words are not all one syllable. If I visit a school and ask for a list of words rhyming with “bear,” kids’ suggestions are typically one syllable. But then I show them all the two and three syllable words (like underwear!) they could use as well. Multi-syllable rhyming is beautiful and satisfying when it works. You know who is really REALLY good at it? Lin-Manuel Miranda. So just do what he does. No problem, right?

As a former reading teacher, you’ve likely seen the exact moment a reader makes a connection with a story. How do you create opportunities for your readers to make connections in your books? Is this a conscious effort, or something that develops organically as you write?

I think it is important to hook a kid right away, so I try to make the first line of each book as engaging as possible. Even as an adult reader, I make a decision quickly about whether or not I want to continue reading a book. Many kids are the same way. Whether the first line is funny or mysterious or introduces an intriguing character, it is the most important line of the book (except for the last line). But in the middle of the book, the key connection is made when the reader sees the heart of the story and feels a strong emotion—whether happiness or sadness or relief or satisfaction. I often start my stories with a funny idea, so I have to work hard to put heart into the story as well.

I GOT A CHICKEN FOR MY BIRTHDAY is such a celebration of imagination and humor! How do you tap into this deeply funny and creative vein when brainstorming ideas? What advice would you give to writers who long to “write funny”?

Whenever something strikes me as funny, I write it down immediately. Lots of these are just two-word scribbles on post-it notes, like yodeling pigeon or broccoli beard. Others are silly situations, or funny scraps of conversation, or plays on words. I email myself all of my notes and keep a file of ideas. When I’m ready to start a new project, I scroll through all of those random nuggets and pick one to develop into a story. I GOT A CHICKEN FOR MY BIRTHDAY started with a child finding a chicken in her bathtub (the bathtub got ditched in one of the early drafts) and grew from there. 

I also think reading funny picture books, comics, and novels helps—as well as listening to stand-up comedy, watching funny movies and TV shows, and observing really good improv comedy groups. Of course you aren’t going to steal someone else’s funny idea directly, but getting all that humor percolating in your brain can only be a good thing. (I’m pretty sure this means you can also deduct all those movie tickets from your taxes. Netflix too.)

Tell us about the journey for your latest book, DELIVERY BEAR, and where the idea spark for that one came from.

I had the idea of a cookie delivery service … possibly because my mom once gave me a subscription to the Dessert-of-the-Month club as a gift. I also had the idea of a large, fierce-looking animal applying for a customer service job. Those two ideas ended up complementing each other like raspberry and chocolate (one of my favorite combinations). DELIVERY BEAR is about a large bear named Zogby who wants to work for the Fluffy Tail cookie company, a company run and staffed by adorable little bunnies. The book is packed with both screaming and singing, which makes it lots of fun for story time. 

Purely out of curiosity—with a PhD in neuroscience, you must know all about the benefits of reading aloud to children. What, in your opinion, is the most important benefit, and why should authors and illustrators continue to endeavor to create picture books for our youngest readers?

Ha! I actually know absolutely nothing about the neuroscience behind this. But as a parent, I think the most important benefit of reading aloud is the shared experience. Whether it is a funny picture book, or a sad picture book, or an inspirational picture book, the adult and child share the way the words and pictures make them feel. The shared experience of that book leads to conversation directly after reading, but can also create a shared reference point for future conversations, can spark an inside joke that sticks around into adulthood, and can of course fuel the desire to read MORE BOOKS together. As creators, we are so privileged to have a role in shaping that special time adults and children spend together.

Thank you so much for your time, Laura, and for mentoring a lucky writer again in 2019!  Look for Laura’s next four books this spring: DIBS!, EXCEPT WHEN THEY DON’T, and the first two books in the BABY SCIENTIST series. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online and tell your local librarians how awesome they are. You can find all the mentors and details on how to apply to Writing with the Stars on the WWTS Contest tab.

Meet Mentor Diana Murray

We are happy to welcome Diana Murray to our Writing with the Stars mentor lineup this year! Diana is a children’s poet and the author of nine picture books, with six more coming soon. Her published books include the delightful DORIS THE BOOKASAURUS, illustrated by Yuyi Chen (Imprint, 2017); NED THE KNITTING PIRATE,illustrated by Leslie Lammle (Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan, 2016); and GRIMELDA: THE VERY MESSY WITCH, illustrated by Heather Ross (Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, 2016).

On your website you say that, because of your background in design, you are a more visual writer. Can you explain what you mean by this and how it affects your writing process?

When I write, I visualize what each page will look like. The final images may be quite different (since the illustrator will add his or her own perspective and expertise), but during the process of writing, imagining the illustrations is very helpful to me. I think about having enough variety from page to page and consider bits of humor or surprises that might be added. I consider the climax and try to have text that will lead to an image that pops. Visualizing also helps me leave room for the illustrations and to keep the text tight and not overly descriptive.

Your children’s poetry has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, and has also won several SCBWI Merit Awards and Honors. Why is poetry so appealing to you,and what do you think makes it so kid-friendly? 

I was always really into art and drawing. I remember my kindergarten teacher commenting on it. But it wasn’t until high school that I discovered that words can function as a kind of art, too. That words could paint a picture in a whole new way.That just a few words could leave a reader with a deep sense of emotion or truth. And then, when I had my first child in 2005, I came across children’s poetry, rhyme, and humorous poetry. As someone who is bilingual, I have a special appreciation for words. I delight in their various sounds and nuanced meanings. I feel that poetry plays that up to the maximum—even more than prose. As far as being kid-friendly, metrical poetry has rhythm, much like music. Research shows that music is even more ancient than speech, so I feel like it hits us on a deep, visceral level. Also, the end rhymes set up an expectation that allows children to actively participate by guessing what comes next. And then there’s alliteration, metaphor, and all those other great poetic devices that are so useful for writing and expressing ourselves.

In your books you employ sophisticated rhyme patterns and manage to make this kind of writing look (deceptively) easy. How do you approach a story when writing in rhyme so that the plot, structure, rhyme scheme, etc. all come together into a cohesive unit? What advice do you have for authors who are interested in mastering this writing style?

One of the most common mistakes people make when writing in rhyme is to let the rhyme lead the story. I often did this, too, when I first started writing. It’s fine if the rhymes lead to surprises, but the writer needs to take control of the reins. It’s best to figure out most of the story before getting into the rhyming. I like to type out the page numbers and then write a sentence or two under each spread to explain what should be happening. That also helps with pacing the story arc. Others may have a different approach, but methodical planning is what works for me.

And as far as learning to write in metrical verse, I recommend reading tons of rhyming picture books, poems, and articles/books on craft. Then practice, practice, practice and join a critique group with other rhymers.

And here is a resource for learning how most picture books are paginated: https://taralazar.com/2009/02/22/picture-book-construction-know-your-layout/

Doris in DORIS THE BOOKASAURUS is such a voracious reader! What was the inspiration for this particular book? What inspires YOU to write books that kids will never want to stop reading?

DORIS THE BOOKASAURUS was mostly inspired by my kids. One daughter was always a voracious reader while the other is more reluctant.

In the story, I wanted to show that it’s just a matter of finding the right book. That there’s a book for everyone. Some people might enjoy non-fiction books about world records. Others may prefer fantasy, or joke books, or books on some specific topic. I truly believe that anyone can become an enthusiastic reader if they just find the right book. I also wanted to show that reading and playtime don’t have to be separate things. My kids would often read books and then act out parts of the story with their toys, for example. Books can be active and engaging and can actually enhance playtime.

Finally, I feel that reading together with a child creates such a special bond. It’s like taking a journey together. My kids are older now and I miss those times, but I feel so lucky that I still get to be part of that experience by creating picture books and early readers.

In your bio, you mention that you sometimes hear bagpipes playing while you’re writing on your patio. This sounds very romantic and mysterious–please tell us more! 

One of our neighbors, who is in the volunteer fire department with my husband, was giving bagpipe lessons to a student. They were several blocks away but the sound of bagpipes really carries. The student was very good! I enjoyed imagining I was in the Scottish countryside—a place I’ve always wanted to go. I also found it amusing because when I lived in midtown Manhattan, my next door neighbor was an opera singer and I used to always hear her practicing through the wall. The contrast is funny. If I move again, I wonder what I’ll hear next.

Thank you so much for your time, Diana, and for mentoring a lucky writer in 2019! Diana’s next book is UNICORN DAY, illustrated by Luke Flowers, so look for that in June. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are. Details on how to apply for the Writing with the Stars contest can be found on the WWTS Contest tab.

Meet WWTS Mentor Pam Calvert

Pam Calvert is the author of two character-driven picture books series, Princess Peepers and Briana Bright, Ballerina Knight, as well as the Multiplying Menace math series. And keep reading to find out more about her upcoming book. Pam is back for her third year of mentoring for Writing with the Stars. Both of her previous mentees rave about Pam, and her first signed with an agent and has two books slated for 2021. So Pam is very excited about helping someone else this year!

Both Brianna Bright and Princess Peepers are strong female main characters. Is this something that was a conscious choice when you created them?

I’ve always been a proponent of strong women (since I’m a strong woman myself). And encouraging little girls to believe they can do anything if they believe in themselves is really a huge theme in whatever I write. That said, it’s not the only topic I write about. My math series has a male lead and the theme is the basic good vs. evil. My newest books don’t have girl leads either. In Flash: The Little Fire Engine (Two Lions, November 2019), the theme is that Flash must not give up if he wants to succeed. I want to encourage children, regardless of gender, to never give up and to see that, if they are determined, they can accomplish their dreams.

You’ve stated that perseverance is important for authors. Seven years passed between the publication of Princess Peepers Picks a Pet and Brianna Bright, Ballerina Knight. What were the keys that helped you “stick with it” during that time, even after having initial success?

Well, there was a lot happening in the background over those seven years that you didn’t see. I’d gotten an eyewear option by a company who wanted to produce Princess Peepers eyewear. I also had my first agent, who was sending out one of my novels to publishers. But circumstances happened where our relationship didn’t work out (she was close to retiring) and things fell through with the eyewear option. I still wrote more novels and picture books in the meantime, while I found my second agent. When you find an agent, even if you haven’t sold anything, it still feels like you’re accomplishing something. And they give you hope to not give up.

Fast forward a few more years, and I sold Brianna Bright (I sold this in 2014, so only three years had passed since the publication of my last book). It took FOUR years to publish this book. Yes … you have to persevere even when you’ve sold something! I was redoing a novel during this time, too. I eventually parted ways with my agent and this hit me hard. I almost gave up (even though I had Brianna Bright coming)!

But after I took a break, I came back and sold my next book. I think it’s important to give yourself breaks if you’re feeling down about the creative process. Then you can go back to it when you feel better. The biggest thing, though, is to keep writing, because you never know when that big break will happen. But it won’t if you stop writing.

We often hear that editors are looking for characters that might be engaging enough to turn into a series. You’ve managed to come up with two characters who fit the bill. Did you initially intend to write a series based on either Princess Peepers and/or Brianna Bright? 

I did set out to write a character-driven book for both Peepers and Brianna Bright (and now, my most recent book, Flash: The Little Fire Engine). There are some rules you must follow if you want to have a book that a publisher will want to publish a series around.

1. It must be unique! This is the most important quality of a series character. There were no princesses who ever wore glasses before Princess Peepers. For Brianna Bright, there are NO ballerina princess knights. You can find princess knights and princess ballerinas but NOT the combination. For Flash, there weren’t ANY main characters that are little fire engines (that I know of). You’ll see tons of garbage trucks, backhoes, monster trucks, trains, etc. You need to look at the market to find out what is NOT being published, then you know you have a great idea for a character.

2. The character must be recognizable. A child should be able to dress up for Halloween in your character’s costume and people know who they are. Put on glasses, a princess hat, and a dress and you have Peepers. A sword and a tutu will do for Brianna Bright. For Flash, he might be harder, but it could be done. When you see his cute eyes (cannot WAIT to reveal his character to the world!), you’ll know it’s him.

3. It must have an emotional connection with children—my characters are children! Even Flash, although he’s a fire truck, seems childlike in that the story starts out with him just being “big” enough to go out and help in his first emergency.

There are more qualities for these types of books, but I just hit the highlights here for brevity’s sake. If anyone is interested, I’ve written an article about it on my blog: http://wwwpamcalvert.blogspot.com/2013/07/picture-book-university-character.html

Tell us more about your upcoming book, Flash: The Little Fire Engine.

Since I now have two grandchildren (yes, I’m a young grandma! ;)), babysitting them gives me inspiration. They LOVE any kind of vehicle—dump trucks, monster trucks, backhoes, race cars, etc. When I’m with them, there are zooms, crashes,and alarms going off all the time. I knew I wanted to write something they’d like—about a vehicle! But what?

There’s a glut of dump trucks, monster trucks, etc. in the market. But I noticed there were no firetrucks! And so, the idea for Flash was born. Since I didn’t know much about emergency vehicles, I did some research. And my son-in-law (who is a physical therapist) helped me with some of the ideas for it, too. It was a family endeavor! That book sold shortly after I submitted it—without an agent, I’m proud to say!

You have a critique service. Can you tell us more about that?

Yes! I love to help other people fine-tune their manuscripts, or help them make the jump from mediocre to masterpiece! I’ve had several of my clients go on to sell, and then come back and thank me for my help. I get excited to see others succeed. All they need is a little help and guidance, and I’m glad to assist in that. If anyone would like to use my services, they can go to my blog here: http://wwwpamcalvert.blogspot.com/p/pb-critiques.html.

Thank you, Pam! I can’t wait to read Flash: The Little Fire Engine. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your librarians how awesome they are!

You can find all the details on how to apply for a mentorship with Pam and the other author mentors on the WWTS contest tab. 

WWTS Mentee Update: Bennett Dixon

Bennett Dixon won a Writing with the Stars mentorship with author Alastair Heim.  Here are a few words from Bennett about his experience.

Has it really been six months?

Time flies when you’re having fun, and working with Alastair Heim has indeed been fun. A good thing when you loathe making revisions as much as I do.

Yet here we are, nine revisions later, with a fully-polished manuscript (and query letter) ready for submission. How did Alastair do it?

I could say it was due to his creative talents as an author. I could say it was because of his first-hand experience bringing numerous picture books to life. Or his spot-on editorial insight and hard-won understanding of the publishing world. Or maybe his mad FaceTime skills. All of these things would be true, but they wouldn’t explain what made the process of revision so much more enjoyable for me.

Rather, I think it was because Alastair challenged me to try things I probably wouldn’t have dared (or even thought to try) on my own. Because he set ambitious goals and urged me to stretch for them. Because he encouraged me when I was down. And because he gave me unfiltered honesty—in both compliments and criticism.

But perhaps more than any other reason, I think it was Alastair’s sense of humor, generous spirit and genuine interest in helping another author. That’s really why I always looked forward to our FaceTime sessions (the accompanying glass of wine also helped).

I’ve been lucky getting to work with Alastair and getting to know him, and I highly recommend you get to know him, too. A great place to start is http://www.alastairheim.com/. Alastair’s Hello Door is a favorite in our household.

Similarly, I‘ve been fortunate getting to know Tara Luebbe, creator of the Writing With the Stars contest. From all of us who’ve participated—thank you, Tara. Be sure to check out the latest work from Tara and her writing partner (and sister!) Becky Cattie at https://beckytarabooks.com/books/ .

My sincerest thanks to Alastair, Tara, Becky and all the other talented authors who’ve generously given their time to Writing With the Stars. May the good fortune I’ve come to find here extend to others who aspire to create children’s books.


Thank you, Bennett.

WWTS Mentee Update: Vicky Fang

Vicky Fang won a mentorship with author Peter McCleery in the inaugural Writing with the Stars 2017 season. Here are a few words from Vicky about her experience. 

Well, here I am, a 2017 WWTS mentee sneaking in my blog post with the 2018 class. What took me so long? In truth, I did write a blog post last year, but I was too embarrassed to post it. I overthought it A LOT… mostly because I didn’t want to write something so lame that it would be an embarrassment to my amazing mentor, Peter McCleery.

But now I find myself, one year later, in a position where I owe so much to my experience with the WWTS mentorship that I have to say THANK YOU!

When I applied for WWTS, I had very little idea of how to write an actual story. I had manuscripts, but not really stories. This mentorship truly opened my eyes to the craft of storytelling. Peter reviewed my manuscripts, identified the ones he thought had potential, and pointed out what he saw as my strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

I spent the next couple of months struggling quite a bit. I churned out some half-hearted manuscripts that never really made it past an early draft. And I started to feel dismal, like I was wasting this amazing opportunity because I was so incapable of writing anything, let alone anything decent.

But Peter was patient and waited for me to get through it. He took the time to help me past creative blocks, pointed me to resources to help my craft, and gave spot-on feedback that forced me to improve. His guidance enabled me to turn concepts into actual stories. He shared his insights and experience from pitching his hilarious book series, Bob and Joss Get Lost! (if you haven’t read them, go get these books now!). And I got to watch the exciting and eye-opening process of his debut book launch.

With Peter’s help, I finally had a breakthrough and drafted a story we both really liked. I continued to hone and revise that manuscript, with the help of critique partners, agent reviews, and editor feedback until—finally, it led me to my amazing agent, Elizabeth Bennett at Transatlantic Agency. And last month, I signed the contract for that very same story, now set for publication in fall of 2020!

In the past year, I’ve continued to grow and explore as a writer. I love being a part of the kidlit community. I have several other projects in the works, from board books to early chapter books. The WWTS mentorship continues to be a strong part of my writer life, with the 2017 crew keeping in touch and providing each other with updates and support.

None of this would have been vaguely possible without the amazing opportunity that WWTS provided, the hard work and generosity of Tara Luebbe, and the talent and generosity of Peter McCleery. I am a writer today in huge part because of this program and these people. THANK YOU.

Before I overthink this, it’s time to hit send.



Thank you Vicky. 

WWTS Update Adriana Bergstrom

Adriana Bergstrom won a Writing with the Stars mentorship with author/illustrator Brianne Farley. Adriana posted about her experience, and included some illustrations over on her blog. Here is a re-post of the text. To view the illustrations please click the link to her page.



It’s only summer, but already this year I have a lot to be thankful for. Back in February, I was very fortunate to win a spot with a mentor in the Writing With the Stars program organized by Tara Luebbe of Becky Tara Books site and author of Shark Nate-O and I Am Famous.

The incredibly generous and fabulous mentor that decided to take me on was Brianne Farley  (pronounced /BREE-ehn/ rhymes with ‘Ian’). She’d never met me before, but took a chance on me and was my mentor earlier this year. Brianne’s got a wry sense of humor and was the perfect match. If you’re not familiar with her work, you can see her quirk-tastical illustrations in her author-illustrated books Secret Tree Fort, Ike’s Incredible Ink and also in the Charlotte the Scientist series (by author Camille Andros).

The Goal: create a kidlit friendly portfolio to exhibit at my regional SCBWI conference in Orlando this past June. Brianne had an excellent plan which I set about executing.

This is something I know about myself – I need accountability by way of a deadline or art direction. It’s hard for me to work on projects strictly for portfolio purposes. I’m very pragmatic so it feels too indulgent, so the WWTS program gave me the opportunity to have an accountability mentor.

I learned in a studio environment, and worked in studios, but these days I work from home. I miss having that rapport with other artists and designers. Getting that outside perspective is absolutely critical to getting out of my own head and so Brianne was a great guiding force to bounce ideas off of. She guided me with regularly scheduled critiques and I managed to make the most of the experience to create these portfolio pieces…

Thank you Adriana. 

WWTS Mentee Update: Justin Colón

Justin Colón won a mentorship with Pam Calvert in the Writing with the Stars contest. Here are a few words from Justin about his experience. 

It was January 31st and I was sitting at my kitchen table, eyes fixed on my computer screen. I watched in anticipation as Tara tweeted the names of the writers selected to be 2018 PBWWTS mentees. Then, my notification icon lit up blue and (I’m pretty sure) I jumped out of my chair yelling and fist-pumping into the air (before I’d even checked to see if I’d been chosen). When I finally did click, the following message greeted me: “Pam Calvert has selected Justin Colón as her mentee. Congratulations!”

But let’s backtrack before we proceed further…

I’d written for many years, but my writing was primarily research-oriented. However, I naively assured myself that I was a natural-born writer and with my talent and tenacity, plethora of quirky ideas and familiarity with picture books (from reading to the little one), I’d be a breakout author. After all, writing picture books is easy and the entryway for breaking into the publishing industry as a writer. ::CRINGES::

I exhausted Google and befriended blogs (Tara Lazar’s and Josh Funk’s blogs come to mind and every pb writer should check them out). I befriended the librarian and connected with the industry via Twitter. FYI, Twitter is a really valuable tool. Sure, you can connect with fellow writers and agents and even enter pitch contests. But most importantly, many established writers, agents, and editors tweet entire threads packed with valuable insight and information (craft and business-related) for writers. I joined SCBWI on Christmas and lived on the Blue Boards for a while, and that’s how my PBWWTS mentorship really came to fruition. A fellow member and writer, Sarah Floyd (@kidlitSarah), took an interest in me and recommended I apply to the mentorship. I dismissed the opportunity as being too good to be true, but with some pushing I caved. I researched all of the mentors and, about two hours before the deadline, submitted an application I felt proud of. I then banished all thoughts of the mentorship from my mind and resumed querying agents.

Now, let’s fast forward to about an hour or two after I’d been notified of my mentorship status…

My new mentor, Pam Calvert, emailed me, introducing herself and officially initiating the mentorship. She also provided me with a brief analysis of my writing strengths and weaknesses, and requested I send her my completed manuscripts and any ideas I was considering turning into manuscripts (for her to assess and select a few to work on with me that she found to be most marketable). Most importantly, she encouraged me to ask questions during the months to follow.

One of the first things I did, upon Pam’s suggestion, was launch my website and begin interviewing agents and editors for a blog. You can now check out those interviews, join my blog’s mailing list, and even request  specific agents and editors for future interviews by visiting the following link: www.justincolonbooks.com/blog.

I began the mentorship with three manuscripts, all of which Pam critiqued (two of which we later decided would be best shelved or heavily revised). I completed the mentorship with four fully polished manuscripts (three of which were conceived and completed during the mentorship).

Pam and I communicated via email on a near-daily basis. I often emailed her with updates and questions (and lots of ‘em), ranging from those about specific critique notes to ideas, marketability, and branding, to querying, staying motivated, and more. Pam graciously answered all of them.

With Pam as my mentor, my writing skills skyrocketed, as did my industry savvy. She encouraged me to take specific picture book classes and join critique groups (both of which I did), steered me toward specific mentor texts, and provided me with honest critiques, notes, insight, and information that pushed me immensely as a writer. She even shared bits and pieces of her own manuscripts with me as well as her own journey and the obstacles she faced, and that was both motivating and inspiring. And she wasn’t limiting; if I had questions, thoughts, or ideas about writing for other audiences (e.g. chapter books and middle grade), she was happy to shift gears for a bit.

Pam is professional, positive, and patient. And she’s brilliant when it comes to story structure and pushing and polishing ideas so that they’re fun, marketable, and up to publishing standards. She has a free resource (that I still frequent): http://wwwpamcalvert.blogspot.com/p/picture-book-university.html, and I highly recommend it to all picture book writers I work with. And for those looking to take their work to the next level, Pam offers a critique service that you can learn more about at http://wwwpamcalvert.blogspot.com/p/pb-critiques.html .

Since completing the mentorship, things have still been tough, but in a new way. Securing representation rests on many factors beyond the quality of your writing and the strength of your stories. With that said, I’ve had two agent requests for additional picture book manuscripts. I also had two manuscript requests from editors based upon pitches my mentor helped me craft. And while those requests resulted in passes, I’ve received great feedback regarding my voice, the quality of the storytelling, and the originality of the stories. And I was left with valuable advice in some cases. Two industry professionals (as well as my mentor) even suggested I expand one of my picture books into a chapter book series. Come September, I’m also planning to query with a middle-grade novel that I began working on post-mentorship (it’s an ownvoices, LatinX spooky mg fantasy adventure set in Puerto Rico). I also formed a critique group that’s been very helpful and supportive, was selected from an application process to join another critique group, and am applying to a few publishing internships at the moment.

A mentorship isn’t a magic wand, though. It’s cliché but true: you reap what you sow. To whomever is lucky enough to be mentored (by any mentor, for any mentorship), be prepared to put in the work. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes, look like a noob, or ask questions; it’s part of the process.

In short, this mentorship exceeded my expectations and set me light-years ahead as a writer, and I highly recommend it to anybody considering applying next year. Thank you Tara Luebbe for creating and organizing this opportunity, Sarah Floyd for encouraging me to apply, and Pam Calvert for selecting and guiding me as your 2018 PBWWTS mentee.

To all of next year’s applicants and selected mentees, good luck! And most of all, happy writing to all!

Justin Colón