Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy – Joint Author Interview

Today I may have to cut down on the caffeine intake because I’m already buzzing enough with excitement over my two guests. Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy both had extraordinary debut novels that made quite a splash in the world of contemporary YA fiction. (I seriously raced through them in record time. Loved loved LOVED!!!) And now, they are putting all of their fabulous talent together to host a workshop this February for Madcap Retreats. (Yes, THAT Madcap Retreats. The brainchild of Natalie C. Parker.)

One lucky reader will win $100 off this workshop! Stay tuned to enter!


Jennifer Mathieu PicAbout Jennifer

Jennifer Mathieu is an English teacher, writer, wife, and mom who writes books for and about young adults. Her favorite things include chocolate, pepperoni pizza, and the super hilarious 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls. She can basically quote every episode. Jennifer lives in Texas with her husband, son, one rescue dog, one fat cat, and another cat that is even fatter than the fat cat.

When it comes to what she reads, she loves realistic young adult fiction (obviously), creative nonfiction, super scandalous tell-all memoirs, and anything that hooks her attention on the first page. She is the author of THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE (2014) and DEVOTED (2015). Her debut novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE, won the 2015 Children’s Choice Book Awards’ Teen Choice Debut Author Award.


About JulieJulie+Murphy+Author+Photo+copy

Julie Murphy is a potty-mouthed Southern belle who was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but found her home in Fort Worth, Texas. She’s never seen Star Wars, but has yet to meet a made for TV movie she didn’t love. When she’s not writing, Julie can be found cruising Costco for free samples, watching Sister Act 2, stalking drag queens on instagram, obsessing over the logistics of Mars One, and forever searching for the perfect slice of cheese pizza. She lives with her bearded husband, two vicious cats, and one pomeranian that can pass as a bear cub.

Her debut novel, SIDE EFFECT MAY VARY (2014) was a NYT Bestseller. Her second young adult novel, DUMPLIN’ (Sept 2015), received glowing reviews including two stars from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and in less than a month after its release, hit #1 on the NYT best seller list for YA Hardcovers. The film rights for DUMPLIN’ have been optioned by Disney.


The Interview

Valerie Lawson: You both have written stunning debut novels, which received much critical acclaim. Tell us about life as a debut author. What was the most surprising experience? What lessons did you learn?

alice_finalJennifer Mathieu: To be honest, I’m still surprised that I wrote a book and it got published.  It took me seven years to publish my first novel. My first two manuscripts got very close but never sold. So I spent my debut year sort of in a haze that THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE was not only getting published but was getting a very warm reception. 

I’ve learned to approach this writing career with enormous gratitude. It’s my childhood dream come true. It’s so easy to get sucked into the worry cycle or the gossip of the industry. But the bottom line is that once my debut novel hit the shelves, I became a published author. Nothing can ever happen that can take that away from me.

Side Effect CoverJulie Murphy: First, thank you! I am that horrible type of person who believes they can handle anything no matter how many times and how many people have warned them that the road ahead is difficult. There were so many incredible highs, but there were also so many lows that I never believed I’d actually experience or thought I was more emotionally equipped to deal with. I’ve learned that no matter how sane you are, planning a wedding or large family function can turn you into a special kind of crazy. That’s how the debut year is. You’ll be yourself, yes, but it may not be a version of yourself you’ve ever met.

The good news is: you are not alone. You will make fast friends with fellow debuts, because no one else can relate to you like they can. I would have to say the friendships were the most surprising experience and I’d go through it all over again to for these women if I had to. I poured so much of myself into SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY that I felt like I had nothing left to give and that this was my one and only chance, because I would never be able to recreate this magic. But that’s not true. My second book just came out and I love it just as much. I’m working on my third and am contracted for a fourth. There will always be more books. Sometimes publishing them won’t be so easy, but you will write another book.


VL: Gratitiude, yes. And realizing you’re not alone sounds especially important. I love how supportive this writing community can be.

How was the process of writing different for you when you wrote your second novel?

devoted_cvr_revealJennifer: I will say writing my second novel, DEVOTED, was very difficult for me. I really had that classic experience you hear about where your debut is warmly received and you feel total paralysis with the second book. I ended up completely throwing out the first draft of DEVOTED and rewriting it from scratch. I was incredibly late on every deadline which is so not me. I cried multiple times. 

Fortunately, my amazing editor at Roaring Brook, Kate Jacobs, talked me through it and in the end, I’m so enormously proud of my second book. I stretched myself as a writer and I’ve had multiple readers tell me that they can see my growth as a writer in DEVOTED. That makes me feel so good.

CoverReveals_F15_DumplinJulie: I was totally blind when I wrote my debut. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong or what I was doing right. Because of my huge ego, I assumed that if it didn’t feel off, it must all be perfect. DUMPLIN’ was an eyes wide open experience.

I knew my flaws. I knew the mistakes I’d made in my first book. For me, that knowledge was almost crippling. I knew what a published book looked and felt like and nothing about those early drafts matched those expectations. I had to learn to forgive myself of those mistakes and explore the narrative.


VL: Throwing out an entire draft? How terrifying! 

Learning to forgive your mistakes and explore the narrative – love that. 

You are co-hosting an intriguing Madcap Retreat this February entitled “More Than a Beach Read”, how did you come to be a part of this project?

Actual location for upcoming Madcap Retreat event - workshop with authors Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy.
Actual location for Madcap Retreat “More Than a Beach Read” with authors Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy.

Jennifer: Well the lovely Julie Murphy approached me and told me about Natalie’s plan to create Madcap Retreats. I immediately wanted to be involved. I think there’s so much to be gained from working intimately on your art with other artists in a concentrated period of time. I’m a huge fan of Julie’s work and Natalie’s work, and I knew I just wanted to be a part of anything they were involved with.

Julie: Natalie Parker is my partner in crime in many ways and when she floated the idea by me, I said I’d think about it. When she said it would be on the beach, I couldn’t say no. I knew I wanted to do something voice and critique intensive, and I knew that would be a lot to carry on my own. When we began to discuss bringing another author on, Jennifer was my first and most obvious choice. I have so many writer friends that I love and respect, but our styles and approaches really click. We both love contemporary and have the same type of values when it comes to storytelling. Let the record show: if I dropped dead tomorrow, I would have faith in Jennifer to finish my work in progress.


VL: That is a stunning compliment, Julie! (Please don’t drop dead.) That does speak well to how you must compliment each other.

What can you tell us about the workshop? What special programming do you have in mind?

Jennifer: Julie and I have been working on the agenda and we are looking forward to having roundtable workshop-style critique sessions as well as one on one time with each writer. We’re also planning on bringing in guest authors to tackle different topics. Julie and I really aim to focus on voice and building your writer voice. Some say that voice can’t be taught. While I do believe most writers have an innate ability to craft some sort of voice, I believe there are techniques and strategies you can use to strengthen your ability to make your work really come alive.

Julie: We actually just finished the whole agenda! Jennifer did a great job answering this one, so I’ll just add that the attendees will spend their morning with us really focusing on voice and in the afternoons while Jennifer and I (yes, we’re both reading each attendee’s submission), and supporting faculty members will help paint a broader picture by discussing critique, revision, and plot. In the evenings we’ll also be doing casual but themed panels to discuss our dealings in publishing and the business aspect of all of this.


VL: That’s a wealth of knowledge crammed into five days. And so much focus on voice! Wonderful. I know several authors who’d jump at this opportunity. 

You both come from different occupational backgrounds – one an English teacher and one working with teens in public libraries – where you have worked intimately with young people. What has this experience added to your writing?

Jennifer: For me, the teaching feeds the writing. I mean, I basically get paid to do my research. I’m surrounded by the rhythm of adolescence on a daily basis, and it’s so energizing and inspiring. I hear snippets of teenage conversation all around me at all times. On a daily basis I’m reminded of the heartbreak and excitement associated with being a teenager. Of course, my plots are fictional, but my students certainly help me create what I hope are realistic characters.

Julie: Like Jennifer, working with teens hugely impacted my writing. I think it’s easy for young adult writers to romanticize the lives of teens, but seeing them every day, you are reminded of their limitations. The same limitations you most likely experienced as a teen, too. On the other hand, I was constantly reminded of how each generation is defying the boundaries set by those before them. I really miss working with my teens!

VL: Being surrounded by your inspiration. Excellent!

Your workshop focuses on enhancing character and voice in manuscripts. What can you tell us about your writing process that helps you bring these two elements to the forefront in your own work?

Jennifer: For me, the characters become real in my mind. I think about them all the time. I miss them when I’m done with the book and still think about them after the book comes out. For me, I believe crafting a character you almost believe actually exists out there is key to writing a memorable novel. 

For the first time ever I struggled with that when writing DEVOTED. I was writing a story about a young woman in a very insular and conservative religious sect. I’d done all this research on the sect and was just information dumping throughout the entire book, but the truth is, I didn’t know my main character Rachel at all. My editor was like, “Who is she really?” and I realized I didn’t know. 

That was such a terrifying experience because in my first novel (and in subsequent novels) my characters came into my mind fully-formed. I spent a full weekend fixating on Rachel, doing all these exercises like imagining what she kept in the drawer of her nightstand. Finally, she started to come alive for me and the book became much easier to write. I really do believe it all begins with character.

Julie: Voice and character are huge for me, and yet they never come first in my writing process. I never start with a detailed plot, but I always have the pitch and premise and from there is how my voice and character evolve. I usually like to hammer out setting as well since it’s such a huge contributing factor. I like dissecting the situation and deciding what type of person might exist inside the premise and setting.

But when it comes to actual writing, I can’t start anything in earnest until I have a fully formed character. That character and your voice are sort of like a lantern in a dark tunnel, especially in contemporary. You will get lost–and sometimes it’s even helpful to get a little lost–but as long as you’ve got that lantern, you will eventually find your way.

VL: Oh, that’s good!

So if you don’t know your character inside and out, maybe spend some time getting to know them better. Your story will thank you.

Tell us a little about your teen years growing up. What was the most embarrassing thing you experienced? What was the most memorable adventure you had with your friends?

Jennifer: Freud would have a field day with me. I hated high school so much and looking back I can see I was actually fairly depressed throughout my high school years. And here I am teaching high school and writing books for and about high school students. It must be some form of catharsis. There is no one singular embarrassing incident. I was embarrassed constantly, and most of it was over silly stuff I’m sure no one noticed. I ran with a very good girl crowd. I would say my most memorable adventure would be staying up all night at a sleepover and eating too much raw cookie dough. Honestly, that’s as crazy as it got for me.  

Maybe the most embarrassing thing for me happened after some girlfriends and I went to see that movie The Bodyguard starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. They were all so moved by the film they were sobbing hysterically as they walked out of the movie theater and everyone was staring at us and I wanted to die. And all I could remember thinking was, “That was one of the stupidest movies I have ever seen.” I loved old black and white movies from the 50s and 60s like The Bad Seed and The Last Picture Show. I thought there was something wrong with me. I just hadn’t found my tribe yet, but eventually in college, I did.

Julie: Those were some wild years. I was a horrible student. You know those videos of cats knocking things off tables? That was me and rules. I carried myself with this false but impenetrable confidence, so even if embarrassing things happened, I played them off as jokes no matter how mortified I really was, so I can’t think of anything in particular.

But I really did have great friends who on very rare occasions I was even vulnerable with. We always went on great mini roadtrips or had ridiculous parties or even went to some amazing concerts, but what I remember most is just hanging out at home with my closest friends, rolling around on the floor laughing and creating inside jokes. We were all theater kids though, so we were constantly performing and cracking jokes.

VL: Ha! Fantastic stories.(I’m really partial to The Bodyguard one. I can so relate to feeling like that!)

What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

Jennifer: Well I adored Julie Murphy’s DUMPLIN’ of course!  I remember her reading a few pages from it at a retreat she and I went on over a year ago now, and I was so excited for the book and I loved it even more than I thought I would. 

There’s another book I want to mention that I had the opportunity to blurb. I read an advance copy this year, but it won’t be out until March 2016. It’s called SAVE ME, KURT COBAIN and it’s by Jenny Manzer. She and I share the same wonderful agent, Kerry Sparks. I loved this book so very much.  It’s fresh and nostalgic all the same time. Gorgeous, lyrical writing and a plot that kept me guessing until the very end. I think she’s going to be a voice to watch.

Julie: Sadly, this has been such a dry reading year for me. I’ve bought so many books, but time hasn’t allowed for me to start most of them. (Here’s looking at you, DEVOTED!) However, I am listening to the audio of SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA and the voice is incredible! Simon is someone I would have been friends with in high school and that makes for an authentic reading experience if you ask me.

VL: More fab books to add to the TBR collection. Nice.

What can you tell us about what you are currently working on? 

Jennifer: I have my third book coming out with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan on September 20, 2016 and I am having the most infuriating time coming up with a title. But I can tell you it’s told in dual POV and it’s about two teenagers, Ethan and Caroline, and how their lives are linked by a tragic crime. It’s about healing from trauma and finding a soul-saving friendship in the most unexpected place.

(Update: Julie has a title! Her 3rd book has been christened AFTERWARD, and it comes out 9/2016.)

Julie: Sort of. Kind of. Maybe. Ha! I’m working on my third novel, which is currently titled RAMONA DROWNING. It’s about a too tall lesbian who lives in a trailer park with her well-meaning dad and pregnant sister. All is sort of okay until Ramona realizes she’s falling for a friend, who happens to be a boy. It’s a story about sisters and friendship and sexuality and the labels we assign to ourselves. I’m still drafting, so I’m sure it will end up being about more things. My publisher is referring to it is a YA Chasing Amy, which seems like a fair assessment.

VL: Ohh! Both sound exciting! Can’t wait to read more from you ladies!

Thank you both for sharing with us, today. It has been an honor and a great pleasure having you here on the blog.


The Giveaway

To entice you further to try out Madcap Retreats, we are giving away $100 off the cost of Jennifer & Julie’s upcoming workshop, “More Than A Beach Read“!


ENTER HERE!!!  ➤➤➤  Madcap Retreat Rafflecopter giveaway

(If you really, really want to enter, but are Rafflecopter-shy, you can post a comment below – along with your email address – and I’ll manually add you to the giveaway.)

Congratulations to the winner, Elisa J! 


Learn more about Jennifer Mathieu here.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter here.

Follow Jennifer on Tumblr here.

Follow Jennifer on Instagram here.

Follow Jennifer on Facebook here.

Learn more about Julie Murphy here.

     Follow Julie on Twitter here.

     Follow Julie on Tumblr here.

     Follow Julie on Instagram here.

    Follow Julie on Facebook here.

Learn more about Madcap Retreats here.

Tammi Sauer ROARS into Fall – Author Interview and Book Giveaway!

Tammi Sauer Author Pic

I have come to know Tammi Sauer over the years through many OK SCBWI events, and I have been delighted to watch her publishing career grow. We’ve been plotting and planning for her to stop by for an interview for awhile now, but busy lives and crazy schedules – mostly hers – have prevented this. I mean, what’s gal to do when the mayor names a day after you? This year she has three books being published, with the latest one, ROAR!, releasing in no time at all on October 6th!

Busy, busy busy!

Somehow, we finally managed to align the planets so this bright and shiny Oklahoma star could come by for a visit to the blog.

We’ll get to see the fantastical, star-studded trailer for ROAR! a little later in this post.

And one lucky reader will win a signed copy! So stay tuned!

About Tammi

Tammi Sauer grew up on a farm in the vast metropolis of Victoria, Kansas, where she liked to play tag with the pigs in her cheerleading uniform when not embezzeling money from her siblings.

She worked as a teacher and library media specialist before turning to a life of crime beginning her career as a full-time picture book author, and going on tour with some funky dancing chickens. (I may be mixing up some of my facts a bit, but I like this version.)

She really is a picture book author and has actually sold 24 books to major publishing houses. In addition to winning awards, her books have gone on to do great things. MOSTLY MONSTERLY was selected for the 2012 Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories program. ME WANT PET! was recently released in French which makes her feel extra fancy. And NUGGET AND FANG, along with Tammi herself, appears on the Spring 2015 Scholastic Book Fair DVD which is seen by millions kids across the nation.

Before we dive into the interview, let’s learn a little bit about Tammi’s latest book:

Roar coverROAR! by Tammi Sauer

Release Date: October 6, 2015

Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books

Genres: Picture Book
Plot Summary:
With scissors and tape a boy transforms himself into…a dragon! “ROAR!” he says. He is BIG. He is SCARY. Well, not really. When two dragons come over for a play date, what on earth will these three find to do together? The boy doesn’t have big teeth and he can’t breathe fire. He is just a boy. And the dragons can’t eat ice cream or do cartwheels. They are just dragons. Luckily, the dragons care more about what they all can do together, like make silly faces and do the funky monkey dance. What they really care about is being friends.

That looks so awesome, I just want to dust off the old dragon costume (doesn’t everyone have one?) and stomp around the office.

The Interview

Tammi Sauer Author PicValerie Lawson: ROAR is your first picture book written completely in dialogue, why did you make this creative choice?

Tammi Sauer: I have always enjoyed using the classic picture book structure: character has a problem/want, character faces obstacles of escalating difficulty, character encounters a black moment in which all seems lost, character manages to solve the problem by the story’s end.

A few years ago, though, I challenged myself to try a variety of different approaches for telling a story, and writing a book entirely in dialogue was one of them. I wanted to stretch as a writer.

It was fun. And hard.

VL: Even though you were successful with those classic structure books, I love that you took the chance on trying something new. It’s really paid off!

The only character in the book with a name, Stanley the cat, was the creation of the illustrator, Liz Starin. What other surprises did you find when you saw the drawings for the first time?

TS: I discovered that the story was set in the boy’s world. When I was writing the manuscript, I envisioned it set in the dragons’ world. Also, I pictured Standard Issue Dragons. Liz’s dragons were a fresh, wonderful, and welcome surprise.

Roar Full Spread

VL: You do a lot of school visits each year, what’s your favorite part about interacting with the kids? Any standout memories/stories from the last year or two?

TS: As a former teacher and library media specialist, I love visiting schools and getting kids fired up about reading and writing. These visits have resulted in marriage proposals, invitations to play dates, and lots of great fan mail.

There are beautiful, quiet moments as well. Following a recent presentation for a large group of fourth and fifth graders, a girl waited for the room to clear. Then she came up to me, gave a shy smile, and said, “I’m a writer, too.”

VL: Oh, that last one just gives you tingles! Inspiring another generation of writers.

And when can we expect to see another dance video like the Librarian?

TS: Ha! I think I am a one-hit wonder in that department. I do, however, make a cameo in the ROAR! trailer.

VL: Nice segue! We will get to view that wonderful trailer right here after this interview.

In many posts talking about revising a manuscript, you’ve mentioned being happy after taking an entire day to change or cut a single word. What can you tell us about your revision process?

TS: Oh, I am a revision nerd!

Getting a manuscript juuuuust riiiiiiight is my favorite part of the process. It feels like a game to me. I strive to use only the best words. I remind myself to tell as much as possible in as little as possible.

Reading my manuscript aloud is another must—it helps to ensure that the rhythm is there. I also step away from my manuscript and grab lunch or run an errand. Getting away from it for an hour or so helps me to return refreshed. OH. The revision process ALWAYS involves ice tea. I am currently hooked on OnCue’s unsweetened tangerine green tea. It sounds gross. But is it good. I promise.

VL: Great ideas! I always find taking a break works wonders, too. 

This is your thirteenth published picture book, what’s the best piece of advice you can pass on to fellow authors?

TS: My best advice came from a quote I once read in a Cynsations blog post (blog by author Cynthia Leitich Smith).

“My main considerations for any picture book are humor, emotion, just the right details, read-aloud-ability, pacing, page turns, and of course, plot. Something has to happen to your characters that young readers will care about and relate to. Oh, and you have to accomplish all that in as few words as possible, while creating plenty of illustration possibilities. No easy task.”—Lynn E. Hazen.

VL: No easy task, indeed. Fantastic quote.

What can you tell us about what you are currently working on/soon to have released?

TS: I’m usually pretty hush-hush about my current projects. They feel like eggs in the incubator to me. Not all of them will hatch, but I always hope for good.

I can, however, tell you what’s in store for 2016. I have four upcoming titles:

Mary Had a Little Glam, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Sterling), is my first rhymer. It was an incredible challenge. I recently saw Vanessa’s sketches, and I am in love with sweet and sassy Mary.

I Love Cake! Starring Rabbit, Porcupine, and Moose, illustrated by Angela Rozelaar (HarperCollins), is about some of life’s finer things—good friends and cake. It also involves some spectacular sweaters.

Ginny Louise and the School Field Day, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger (Disney*Hyperion), is a sequel to Ginny Louise and the School Showdown. In book two, the irrepressibly cheerful Ginny Louise takes on the Truman Elementary Troublemakers in a whole new way.

Your Alien Returns, illustrated by Goro Fujita (Sterling), is a companion to Your Alien. This time around, the boy goes on a play date that is out of this world.

VL: Whew! Another busy year for you! Two sequels, how wonderful! And cake! I can’t wait to see them all.

Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, Tammi. Always a pleasure.

And now for your viewing pleasure…

The Trailer

The trailer for ROAR! includes cameo appearances from some of today’s fiercest authors and illustrators. You’ve been warned. Please view responsibly.



To learn more about the making of the trailer and behind-the-scenes scoop, check out this blog post by Tammi on Picture Book Builders.

The Giveaway

Tammi is giving away a SIGNED COPY of her new book ROAR! to one lucky reader of this blog!

To enter, all you have to do is name every author and illustrator who appears in the ROAR! trailer, along with their complete body of work listed in chronological order from bestselling to – JUST KIDDING!


ENTER HERE!!!  ➤➤➤ Tammi Sauer Rafflecopter giveaway

(If you really, really want to enter, but don’t want to use the Rafflecopter feature, feel free to post a comment below as your entry, and I’ll manually add you to the giveaway.)

Winner will be selected on October 19th.



Learn more about Tammi Sauer here.

Follow Tammi on Twitter here.

Follow Tammi’s group blog Picture Book Builders here.

I AM OKLAHOMA – Gwendolyn Hooks – Interviews with Authors Behind the Series

gwen July 2
I am honored to be hosting five delightful and talented fellow OK SCBWI writers this week in anticipation of their fantastic new series for children, which debuts October 6th. It’s called I AM OKLAHOMA Children’s Series, and each book is a biography about an important Oklahoman who helped make this state great.
 I Am Oklahoma

Today, I am interviewing the final author in the series, the lovely and talented Gwendolyn Hooks. She is the author of twenty published books, including her popular Pet Club series. Two of her Scholastic early readers, The Mystery of the Missing Dog and Three’s A Crowd, sold over 100,000 copies each. She’s also written nonfiction picture books, including Arctic Appetizers: Studying Food Webs in the Arctic. In 2016, Lee & Low will publish her picture book biography, Tiny Stitches – The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas. 

Gwendolyn blogs on The Brown Bookshelf to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing and illustrating for young readers. The American Library Association selected The Brown Bookshelf as a Great Website for Kids.


The Interview


gwen July 2

Valerie Lawson: How did you become involved in this project? 

Gwendolyn Hooks: It pays to have wonderful friends like Darleen Bailey Beard. We’re in a critique group with Jane McKellips and Pati Hailey. Darleen talked about the need for younger Oklahoma biographies and we agreed.


VL: The right critique group is so essential! And what an amazing group you have!


How did you choose your book’s subject? 

Leona Cover 2

GH: A few years ago, I went to a Christmas concert sponsored by Langston University’s music department. Leona Mitchell was the featured singer.

She was amazing. Her voice was so strong and beautiful; I sat mesmerized. She gracefully twirled around the room, sometimes a little flirty. The audience loved her.

How did this lady from Enid, Oklahoma, end up in opera houses all over the world? It was a question I wanted to answer.


VL: Excellent question! As a native from Enid, I grew up passing a street every day named after her. I never knew much about her life, except that she was an opera singer. I can’t wait to read this story!

What did you discover most surprising about researching Leona Mitchell’s life? 

GH: The number of brothers and sisters.


I listened to an interview when she was asked to name her siblings. She did it so effortlessly. I think I would have stumbled and forgotten a few of those names. Maybe more than a few.

VL: Astounding! I can barely keep my siblings straight, and there are only 4 of them.

What made her a great Oklahoman?

GH: Throughout her career, Leona has always said Oklahoma was her home. She credits her family, her high school music teacher, and the music department at Oklahoma City University for her success.

And I felt her state pride when I heard her sing our state song, Oklahoma. Sometimes it was hard for her to get back to Enid, but it’s forever in her heart.

VL: If you continue with this project, whom would you like to write about next?

GH: Oklahoma has a lot of fascinating people who have made this an extraordinary state. There are libraries and schools named after people, but I bet a lot of children have no idea who they are or what they contributed to Oklahoma. A few years ago, I taught at Kerr Middle School. I bet 95% of the students had no idea why Kerr was chosen for that honor. I think that’s also true about the Ralph Ellison library.

I moved to Oklahoma when I was in high school and attended Northeast High School. One year, I went to Dunjee High School in Spencer for a Student Council conference. At that time, Dunjee was just the school’s name. It was much later that I found out he was the publisher and editor of the Black Dispatch newspaper. He published it from 1915-1955. It continued to be published until the early 1980s.

The Black Dispatch was the paper the African American community read to find out when Count Basie was coming to play on Deep Second, what social club was hosting a gala, and the latest church news. Dunjee was also known for his commitment to civil rights and wrote editorials blasting unfair laws. He questioned why African Americans were required to pay for bonds that only supported white schools. He worked with Thurgood Marshal who became a Supreme Court Justice. The more I research Dunjee, the more I’m captivated by him.


VL: That is so fascinating. And a part of our history that isn’t really taught in schools. I’d love to read that story!

What are you currently working on?

GH: I am working on another picture book biography. I really enjoy reading and writing them. I love history and I would love to bring new life to these fascinating personalities and show young readers why they are important to all of us.

My next biography is scheduled to be published in April 2016 by Lee and Low Books. Tiny Stitches – The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas is the story of an African American who only had a high school education, and yet designed the operation that allowed doctors to save the lives of babies born with tetralogy of Fallot or blue babies.

VL: I am so beyond excited about this book. I know it’s going to be amazing. You’ve worked really hard to tell this beautiful and important story about Vivien Thomas. 

Thank you so much for sharing your time with us and your wonderful stories. 


Learn more about Gwendolyn Hooks here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Follow her on Facebook here.

Follow the Brown Bookshelf blog here.




I AM OKLAHOMA – Cheryl Schuermann – Interviews with Authors Behind the Series

I am honored to be hosting five delightful and talented fellow OK SCBWI writers this week in anticipation of their fantastic new series for children, which debuts October 6th. It’s called I AM OKLAHOMA Children’s Series, and each book is a biography about an important Oklahoman who helped make this state great.


I Am Oklahoma


Today, I am interviewing the fourth author, Cheryl Schuermann. She is the author of JORDAN TANG: Think…Create…Discover, a biography about Oklahoma scientist, Dr. Jordan Tang. This is her second published book, and her first one for children.


The Interview


SchuermC-113Valerie Lawson: How did you become involved with this project?

Cheryl Schuermann: Through conversations with media specialists in our state. Darleen Bailey Beard heard of a nonfiction gap on our elementary school bookshelves. Teachers were telling her they needed biographies of notable Oklahomans who have made significant contributions to our state.

Since 2000, I have been in dozens of schools in Oklahoma and across the country as a literacy consultant and staff development trainer. Teachers have often asked for recommendations of quality nonfiction text at the mid-elementary reading levels. So, when Darleen asked me to consider being a part of this writing team, the answer was an enthusiastic YES! All of us were thrilled to have an opportunity to work with Gini Campbell (Vice President of Publications & Education) and Oklahoma Heritage Association Publishing.

VL: What drew you to Dr. Tang for your book’s subject? 

CS: The significance of Dr. Tang’s work at Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation has far reaching implications around the world. Over the past fifty plus years, his discoveries in the lab have changed the landscape of medical research. Drugs have been developed to treat several diseases such as diabetes and AIDS and to increase the potential for cures. Many lives have been saved as a result of Dr. Tang’s dedication to medical research science.

I was also drawn to Dr. Tang for personal reasons. My mother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, a devastating disease that is stealing her most treasured memories. In 1999, Dr. Tang discovered an enzyme which he named memapsin 2. This enzyme is believed to be the cause of Alzheimer’s. Since his discovery, researchers around the world, including Dr. Tang, have worked tirelessly to find a cure.

So often, the greatest contributors to mankind are behind the scenes. Although Jordan Tang is known and respected in the medical research community around the globe, many in Oklahoma are not aware of his significant work. My hope is that everyone who reads about this scientist will be inspired by his commitment and children will be excited to learn more about science.

VL: That is incredible. He’s definitely an Oklahoman worth getting to know.

What will readers be surprised to learn about when reading this book? 


TANG Cover 2

CS: Possibly how many times scientists may go through the six steps of the scientific process before reaching the desired results. Most often it takes years of dedication in the laboratory, learning as much from those experiments that do not work as from those that do work.

When scientists reach Step Six in the scientific process, they take what they learned, and start all over again with Step One–a new question, hypothesis, and experiment. A good scientist will say, “Okay, now that I know this, what else can I learn?” Those brilliant minds do not stop after a discovery. They are only motivated to learn more.

VL: That sounds a bit like the never-ending revision process for writers!

What made Dr. Tang a great Oklahoman?

CS: Jordan Tang came to Oklahoma in 1955 as a graduate student in biochemistry. His commitment to the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation and his many scientific discoveries helped to make the foundation the well-known and well-respected facility it is today. Dr. Tang’s breakthroughs in the laboratory have forever changed medical research and the health of millions.

VL: This isn’t your first experience in publication. What can you tell us about your first book?

CS: No, this is my second published book. When the Water Runs: Growing Up with Alaska was released in 2008. A work of creative nonfiction, this book details my mother’s extraordinary childhood north of the Arctic Circle in the Territory of Alaska. She spent the first thirteen years of her life in an Eskimo village and gold mining camps. Her parents, my grandparents, were teachers in Selawik, a remote village of about 300 Eskimos. In addition, they wore the hats of physician, midwife, postmaster, and reindeer superintendent. After writing this book, I was hooked! I love writing about people who inspire us.   Jordan Tang: Think … Create … Discover is my first book for children.

VL: Sounds like a fascinating life, indeed. I can see why it would inspire you.

What did you learn about the process of writing from this project?


CS: Well, I learned how hard it is to stay within a designated word count when there’s so much to know about Jordan Tang! I could have gone on and on about the man and his work. He is amazing.

Another challenge was to write about laboratory research science and make it interesting for children. When I told Dr. Tang that I wanted to include a chapter about “life in a laboratory” he said, “Oh no, that is very boring!” Hopefully, children will find those chapters appealing and will wonder what they themselves might discover one day. I said this earlier, but I definitely learned how much I love writing about people, those who encourage us to be better, learn more, and accept a challenge with commitment, enthusiasm and energy.

VL: Ha ha! I love that he recognized what children would find boring. Clever man.

What’s next for you? Are you working on another book? 

CS: Hopefully, I will continue to write for the I Am Oklahoma series as the experience has been most rewarding. These books hold a significant place in our elementary school curriculum. We anticipate great success with this series and I have already begun researching and writing about other Oklahomans who have contributed much to our state and beyond.


Your question made me laugh! As most writers, I have an assortment of other works in progress on my desktop to include ones that are near completion, halfway there, and several “just an idea” that popped into my head at 2:30 in the morning. My main focus is on children’s books, though my husband and I are working on a new blog site and book to help and encourage parents as they raise their children.


VL: I can relate to that “assortment of works in progress” for sure! I wish you luck on them all, and congratulations on this new book!

Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Cheryl.

Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up this wonderful series with author Gwendolyn Hooks.

Learn more about Cheryl Schuermann here.

I AM OKLAHOMA – Pati Hailey – Interviews with Authors Behind the Series

Pati Hailey Pic
I am honored to be hosting five delightful and talented fellow OK SCBWI writers this week in anticipation of their fantastic new series for children, which debuts October 6th. It’s called I AM OKLAHOMA Children’s Series, and each book is a biography about an important Oklahoman who helped make this state great.
 I Am Oklahoma

Today, I am interviewing the next author in the series, the dynamic and divine Pati Hailey. Over her career, Pati has written state legislation, online training for large corporations, lesson plans for teachers, and literature for children and adults. She is a frequent speaker at conferences and schools. Pati’s articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines, including Cricket and Hopscotch. Her contribution to this series, TE ATA: Oklahoma Cultural Treasure, is her first published children’s book.


The Interview


Pati Hailey PicValerie Lawson: What excited you about this project? 

Pati Hailey: People have fascinated me since my earliest memories – picture a preschooler, so shy she can’t tell you her name, sent to stand in the corner for asking a grownup personal questions. Although I never found those corners interesting, what I heard while standing in them was.

How people live and dress, what they believe and value, what they think about, what they find entertaining, who they love and hate, what motivates and demotivates them, and so much more intrigues me.

The idea that I could share that fascination with kids by writing biographies about important Oklahomans was my first surge of excitement. When I began the project, Te Ata was unknown to me. Getting to know her through my research sustained that initial excitement. Talk about a fascinating person!


VL: Curious from the beginning – perfect for a writer’s temperament. 

How did you get involved in the project? TE ATA Cover 2

PH: Darleen Bailey Beard brought the idea to our critique group after a school librarian told her of the desperate need for biographies about Oklahomans written at 3rd and 4th grade level.

When Darleen asked if the group was interested in pursuing filling the need, I immediately wanted to be involved even though it would pull me away from other projects of great importance to me.

VL: Good thing you took advantage of this opportunity when it presented itself.

You’ve had many writing occupations, how did that prepare you for the world of children’s writing? 

PH:  My B.A. is in Human Resources with an emphasis in juvenile delinquency. My first profession was as a caseworker and counselor. Soon after I started, my boss assigned the projects requiring writing skills to me. I didn’t know then that many professions require strong basic writing skills, and it was years before I understood that many, many people find writing difficult, even the basics. I never had.

What I’ve learned along the way is that those basic writing skills transfer regardless of whether I am writing case notes, legislation, technical or people-management training, online communication or marketing, processes and procedures, articles for newspapers and magazines or even emails. All require concise wording, carefully structured so that the meaning is not misinterpreted. (Okay, legislation might be an exception!) Writing for children requires the same basic skills.

VL: So true! Wish more of an emphasis were placed on strong writing skills for all, but I digress.

How did you choose the subject for your project in this series?

PH: We wanted the series to be reflective of Oklahoma’s diversity in ethnicity, sex, and vocation so our design had specific criteria for the first set. One was that each of the five subjects represent a different part of the state. When we first came to the drawing board, two of us had chosen someone from central Oklahoma and we had no representation from southeastern Oklahoma. We also needed another female. So, I started researching and when I came across Te Ata’s story, I was immediately hooked.

VL: How was she a great Oklahoman?

PH: Te Ata faced incredible challenges as a Native American and as a woman throughout her life. She was a talented performing artist from the Chickasaw tribe and even performed on Broadway. What made her a great Oklahoman was that for more than seventy years, she used her acting talent to show people around the world the beauty and wisdom of Native American cultures through her one-person performance of Indian folklore Her determination, passion, and conviction helped change opinions about Native Americans held by both powerful and ordinary people. Oklahoma honored her work by inducting her into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and by designating her as the first Oklahoma Cultural Treasure. The following quote says so much about her.

“I wanted to be of some service to my people and I wouldn’t allow myself to do anything in the program that would harm my people. I wanted to do something different from all the scalpings and wars that people were seeing in movies, and show the creative and spiritual side. I selected with care the things I did.”

Te Ata died in 1995 shortly before she turned one hundred. Today, people from all over the world come to the Chickasaw Cultural Center to learn and experience the Chickasaw culture. If Te Ata were born today, practicing Chickasaw traditions would not be taboo. What a great Oklahoma role model for living a thoughtful, purposeful life.

VL: Wow! She was indeed a fascinating person. 

What have you learned from this publishing experience?

PH: This was a challenging project for me. I’ve always admired writers who work in early chapter books because not only are you restricted to a low word count, you are restricted to a specific readability level. I often found that the word that best conveyed what I was trying to say was too advanced for this age group.

As I came to know Te Ata through my research, it became ever more important that I write about her life with the same thoughtfulness, care and honesty that she exhibited. My biggest challenge was writing about Te Ata’s work and its impact in contextual terms third and fourth graders could grasp.

I could not simply say she was born in Indian Territory and move on, I had to discuss the impact Oklahoma becoming a state had on her life as a Chickasaw. I could not say she grew up to be a talented actress without discussing how she used her talent as the means to achieving her life-purpose of preserving the culture of Native Americans. Which meant discussing why the culture was being lost. In 1900 words.

VL: That seems quite the daunting task, and yet you did accomplish this. Wonderful!

What advice can you pass on to other writers?

PH: Hone the basic skills until they are automatic. Don’t be lazy or afraid to stretch and pick up advanced skills and knowledge. If you aspire to writing as a profession, be open to varied publishing opportunities. I had dreamed of writing biographies but I never imagined writing biographies for children as part of a series for the publishing arm of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. Dare not only to dream, but to say yes to opportunities that stretch you.

VL: What’s next for you? What are you currently working on?

PH: A good night’s sleep! Then back to finishing my final semester of classes in pursuit of a MFA in Creative Writing at UCO with the goal of being an artist-in-residence.

I’ve turned my focus back to the two young adult novels I was working on before this project came along. One is in final revision (hopefully) and I’m about two-thirds through the rough draft of the second. Last week, characters from a third began talking to me, so I’m jotting down notes about it.

VL: What a wonderfully busy time for you! I can’t wait to read all about Te Ata and I wish you the best of luck with this book!

Thank you so much for sharing your time with us and your wonderful stories. 

Tomorrow, we’ll talk with author Cheryl Schuermann about her book from this series.






I AM OKLAHOMA – Jane McKellips – Interviews with Authors Behind the Series

Jane McKellips
I am honored to be hosting five delightful and talented fellow OK SCBWI writers this week in anticipation of their fantastic new series for children, which debuts October 6th. It’s called I AM OKLAHOMA Children’s Series, and each book is a biography about an important Oklahoman who helped make this state great.
 I Am Oklahoma
Today, I am interviewing the second author, Jane McKellips. She is the author of BILL WALLACE: Author of Adventure and Animal Stories, a biography about Oklahoma native and children’s book author, Bill Wallace. This is her first published book. Her second, DUST STORM, will be released in early 2016.


The Interview


Jane McKellipsValerie Lawson: Welcome to the blog, Jane.

Jane McKellips: Thanks for asking to interview me about my book. It was a pleasure to meet Bill Wallace and to write this book about him. His children’s books are known all over this country and some have even been translated into Korean and Danish.

VL: You were involved with this project from its inception, what did you think when Darleen Bailey Beard brought this idea to you? Did you ever think it would become a reality?

JM: When Darleen first told me about the need for biographies of Oklahomans on a 3rd to 4th grade readability level, I thought it was a great idea for us to write them. I’d been a freelance writer for educational publishers for over 30 years and believed we could not only write text on that level, but make it interesting for that age group.

My only hesitation was in wondering what publisher would want to publish books only about Oklahomans. When we discovered Oklahoma Heritage Association Publishing, the publishing arm of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, was interested, it seemed like a match made in heaven!

VL: That was amazing! We need more stories like these in publishing!

WALLACE Cover 2How did you choose your book’s subject? JM: I chose the Chickasha, Oklahoma, children’s author Bill Wallace as the subject of my biography. I’d been a fan of his for a long time. I remember when his first published book, A Dog Called Kitty, was published. I enjoyed reading it, and knew many young students at that time who also loved the book. I was particularly interested in learning more about his writing career and believed students would, too.

VL: What was most surprising to you when you learned about Bill Wallace’s life?

JM: The most surprising thing I found out about Bill’s life was his reluctance to read when he was young. He said that he was a daydreamer in elementary school. His second-grade teacher thought he couldn’t read well, but an adult friend of the family brought him a book about reptiles. When Bill read the name of one of the reptiles in the book, the friend realized he could, indeed, read. He just needed to read books about things that interested him. Then, after he finished college, when he began teaching fourth graders, he realized there weren’t many books about adventures, a subject his fourth graders loved. He began writing adventure books so his students could enjoy reading the way he himself enjoyed it as a young student. And most of his adventure books also had animals in them.

VL: Yes! It’s all about engagement. Love that he did this for kids.

What made him a great Oklahoman?

JM: I believe it was his genuine love of his students and for students everywhere that made him a great Oklahoman. He saw a need for children’s adventure books and fulfilled that need. After he quit public school life, he not only continued to write children’s books, but also traveled all over the United States, speaking at schools and conferences. He made a huge impact on students when they heard him speak. For many, it was the first time they had heard of an adult who didn’t like to read as a young child. He was someone students could identify with and from him could learn how to better enjoy reading.

VL: This is your first published book, what’s next for you?

JM: My chapter book about Bill Wallace is my first published book, but I also have another book due to be released in early 2016. It’s an historical fiction picture book titled Dust Storm. Many of my ancestors lived in rural Oklahoma during the dust bowl era. One of them was a great aunt named Clara who, as a young child, had suffered from polio. It left her crippled and in need of braces and crutches for the rest of her life.

The main character in Dust Storm is Clara, an eleven-year-old girl who is loosely based on my great aunt. When most of the character’s family goes to a nearby town to shop, a ferocious dust storm strikes her farm. Clara works hard to save her little brother, the farm animals, and herself. I’ve always wanted to honor my great aunt and others in my family who were handicapped and had to struggle in life. I hope readers can feel my main character’s struggle and determination in Dust Storm. I so enjoyed writing Bill Wallace: Author of Adventure and Animal Stories and Dust Storm that I’ve already started researching facts about my next book about past Oklahoma life. I don’t want to give away the subject matter yet, but hopefully I’ll be ready to talk about it in 2016.

VL: Both books sounds fantastic, and I can’t wait to read them. Thank you so much for joining us, today. I wish you success with the new books!

JM: Thanks so much for interviewing me, Valerie! I enjoyed it.


Tomorrow, we’ll talk with another author from this series, Pati Hailey.


I AM OKLAHOMA – Darleen Bailey Beard – Interviews with Authors Behind the Series

I am honored to be hosting five delightful and talented fellow OK SCBWI writers this week in anticipation of their fantastic new series for children, which debuts October 6th. It’s called I AM OKLAHOMA Children’s Series, and each book is a biography about an important Oklahoman who helped make this state great.
 I Am Oklahoma

This series is the brainchild of Darleen Bailey Beard, author of six published books, including The Babbs Switch StoryTwisterThe FlimFlam ManOperation Clean SweepThe Pumpkin Man from Piney Creek and Annie Glover is not a Tree Lover. I’ve interviewed Darleen previously on the blog. It was right after she let me hang out with her during a school visit a few years ago. She really knows how to connect with kids, and get them excited about reading. (Read the interview here.)

Let’s find out more about this brand new series and how it all came together.

The Interview


Valerie Lawson: What was the inspiration for this project? 

Darleen Bailey Beard: I got the idea for this series when I did an author visit many years ago at Houchin Elementary in Moore. The librarian there, Nancy Marshall, told me that I should write a series about famous Oklahomans on a 3rd-4th grade reading level. She said she couldn’t find enough books on that level for her students who study Oklahoma history.

She even showed me a coloring book that she was actually giving to her stu-dents (ripping out pages for them to use) which featured famous Oklahomans and each page had just a sentence or two describing each person. So . . . as I finished out my author visits that year and even the following year, I mentioned this to the many librarians I met and received an overwhelming “YES! WE NEED THIS SERIES!”


VL: That coloring book scene is rather pathetic, and makes me want to get involved, too – what a lack of available resources! Yet at the same time, how creative was that librarian?


What was your next step in bringing this project to life? 

DBB: I mentioned the series idea at Encyclo-Media and I realized that there was indeed, an overwhelming need, when 90% of the room raised their hands when I asked if there was a need for this series. So . . .  I met with Jane McKellips, an author friend of mine, and we discussed the possibility of writing such a series. We mentioned it to our other writing friends who said they’d like to get in on the series, too, and here we are.


VL: Once you took on this major project, how easy was it to sell this much-needed idea to a publisher?

DBB: We tried getting several publishers interested in our series but no one wanted to take it on until we met with the Oklahoma Heritage Association (OHA). The only problem they had, though, was that they needed a donor to come up with the money needed to publish the series.

It was a l-o-n-g five year wait, we almost gave up—but our patience paid off—and a donor came through and here we are with our first set of five books about famous Oklahomans. And what made it even more special for us, is that OHA is donating a FREE set of all five books to every public elementary school in the state of Oklahoma. Now how cool is that???


VL: That is fantastic! And this is the first set of five? Does that mean we can expect more books in this series in the future?

DBB: We “hope” there will be more in the series.  Since OHA is a non-profit organization, that means OHA has to get donations/grants from outside sources to fund their publishing endeavors. So we are hoping another donor will come up with the necessary money for the next set of five biographies, especially when he/she sees the success of the first five books. So for now, OHA is looking for donors. Any donors out there who want to support OK history and education? Let OHA know!


VL: Looks like a worthy cause to me. I wish you luck!

Tell us about your book in the series.

WILL Cover 2


DBB: I was fortunate enough to write my book on Will Rogers. I say “fortunate enough” because I found so much information, so many fun and intriguing stories, and thousands and thousands of photos which made the writing of my book much easier. I went through his museums in Claremore, looked through album after album of photos of him and his family, talked with the museum directors and staff, and absolutely loved writing this book.

Will Rogers, obviously, was before my time, so I didn’t really know a lot about him, but I soon learned how wonderful of a man and humanitarian he was. He’s known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son” and is still to this day one of the most quoted men who ever lived. He was the highest-paid actor of his time, the highest-paid radio host of his time, an international star at the Ziegfeld Follies, and one of the most-loved men in the world during the 1930s. But what impressed me even more than his talent, his fame, his humor, and his roping skills, was his simple, honest heart of gold. Really.


VL: Can you give us an example?

DBB: Here’s a story that’s in my book that all of us can learn from: When Will started first grade (there wasn’t kindergarten in his day) he was six years old. The closest school for him to attend was near his grown sister’s house, so he moved in with his sister and rode a little chestnut mare to school every day. Little Willie, as he was called, was only six years old, yet he was concerned with the welfare of his classmates. He noticed that they didn’t have much to eat in their lunch buckets, so he always shared his lunches. He also noticed that the girls in his school wore ripped and ragtag dresses.

This bothered him. So he wrote a letter to his mother, asking if she would buy a bolt of calico and send it to his teacher so that his teacher could sew new dresses for all twelve girls. And that’s exactly what happened. So here he was—only six years old!—already showing love and concern for others. This con- cern and love for others lasted his entire life and career. And that’s just one of the many stories in my book which show what kind of a special and loving man he truly was.  After I finished my biography, I was so inspired by this man that I wanted to be a better person. It’s my hope that readers of my book will also be inspired to be better people because of Will’s true love for others.


VL: Amazing story! I’m sure kids would love to learn more about him, too.

What are you currently working on?

DBB: Just the other day I got an agent! Yea!  Marietta Zacker whom I met through one of our SCBWI conferences. She is going to represent me and said that she wants to mail my book out to several editors at once and we’ll see what happens.

My book is called, “Wiley, Muley, & Me” and it takes place during the Great Depression in 1931, is set in southeast Oklahoma in a lumber camp, and is about a girl who moves to a new lumber camp and finds a starving mule in the woods. At the same time, a very famous flight (a real historical flight) was taking place—the flight of Wiley Post and Harold Gatty who were hoping to break the world record for the fastest flight around the world. As the book moves along, the adventure to save the mule and the adventure to fly around the world become entwined. It’s about 220 pages and I’m crossing my fingers it will sell this year…

So for your readers out there who haven’t sold a book in a while don’t give up hope. Keep trying and your day will come. And for those readers out there who haven’t sold a book yet, you will. But you’ve got to keep writing and keep revising (revision is the only way to sell a book!) and keep believing in yourself. You can do it!


VL: Yes, perseverance is the key! Congratulations, Darleen! Well done! Thanks so much for sharing your time with us, today.

And congratulations to all the authors contributing to the series. Tomorrow we talk with Jane McKellips. 

Learn more about Darleen Bailey Beard here.

Follow her on Facebook here.