Gwendolyn Hooks Shines a Light on an Unsung Hero – Author Interview and Book Giveaway!

Gwen Hooks Small Head Shot

I have the pleasure of knowing Gwendolyn Hooks as part of our close-knit tribe of SCBWI Oklahoma members. She works tirelessly to perfect her craft until her work shines, and she has such a beautiful soul. All of which comes through in her writing. I just love her.

The road to publication for her latest book, TINY STITCHES: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, was a long one. Some of us who have witnessed the progress of this journey are so thrilled to see this beautiful story finally come to light.

One lucky reader will win a signed copy! So stay tuned!

About Gwen

She was born in Savannah, Georgia. Her father was in the Air Force, so Gwen and her family moved a lot when she was a child. Her first stop in every new city was the local library where she got her new library card. Gwen now lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with her husband and their three children.

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.

Tiny Stitches – The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas  illustrated by Coretta Scott King Honor Award winner Colin Bootman (Lee & Low Books 2016) is her first picture book biography

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.


Before the interview, let’s learn more about Gwen’s latest book:

TinyStitches_jkt_cover_smallTINY STITCHES: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas written by Gwendolyn Hooks illustrated by Colin Bootman

Release Date: May 15, 2016

Publisher: Lee & Low Books

Genres: Picture Book
Plot Summary:

Vivien Thomas’s greatest dream was to attend college to study medicine. But after the stock market crashed in 1929, Vivien lost all his savings. Then he heard about a job opening at the Vanderbilt University medical school under the supervision of Dr. Alfred Blalock. Vivien knew that the all-white school would never admit him as a student, but he hoped working there meant he was getting closer to his dream.

As Dr. Blalock’s research assistant, Vivien learned surgical techniques. In 1943, Vivien was asked to help Dr. Helen Taussig find a cure for children with a specific heart defect. After months of experimenting, Vivien developed a procedure that was used for the first successful open-heart surgery on a child. Afterward, Dr. Blalock and Dr. Taussig announced their innovative new surgical technique, the Blalock-Taussig shunt. Vivien’s name did not appear in the report.

Overcoming racism and resistance from his colleagues, Vivien ushered in a new era of medicine—children’s heart surgery. This book is the compelling story of this incredible pioneer in medicine.

This book has already garnered rave reviews:

Booklist STAR review

“It is the work Thomas achieved, however, in spite of these enormous challenges, that will pique reader interest as they learn about his design of tiny operating tools and his role guiding surgeons through neonatal operations. Bootman’s lifelike watercolor illustrations beautifully and vividly evoke the carpentry shop, research labs, and the auditorium where, years later, Thomas was finally honored for his work and appointed to the faculty at Johns Hopkins.”


“. . . a rousing tribute to a man unjustly forgotten.”


I can’t wait to read this book! And the illustrations are just gorgeous.


The Interview

Gwen Hooks Head ShotValerie Lawson: What inspired you to tell the story of Vivien Thomas?

Gwendolyn Hooks: Thank goodness I have generous and talented writer friends and Anna Myers fits into that category. She called one night and in an explosive voice she said, “I just watched a movie about the man who saved my grandson’s life!”

Whaaat? Was all I could sputter.

The movie, Something the Lord Made, was the story of Vivien Thomas. Anna ended the conversation with, “You need to write a children’s book about him.” I watched the movie, too—several times. I kept thinking, why didn’t I know about him. There are probably plenty of kids who don’t know his story. After a lot of encouragement from Anna, I took on the project and I am so glad she called me that night!

VL: What a gift! And maybe a pretty big challenge. Good thing she knew you were up for it.

Tell us about the creative process of bringing this story to life. How was it different from your previous books.

GH: The creative process was extremely demanding for me. The beautiful phrases in my head did not magically appear on my computer screen. I have a stack of drafts about two feet high. I read other biographies and marveled at how the writing seemed so effortless. I worried what an illustrator would say after reading my manuscript. “Seriously. You expect me to illustrate this?” I doubted every step I took. But I did not give up. I kept reading picture book biographies and read everything I could find about how to write them.

When I write early readers, I always feel I can do it. I can visualize the whole book in my mind. With Tiny Stitches, it was a long time before I could see it. Before I could feel it. But I kept trying. I wanted to succeed. I couldn’t let Anna down. Or myself.

I don’t know what Colin Bootman thought when he first read my manuscript, but I’m so glad he accepted the project. I was excited when my editor told me he would be the illustrator. He’s very talented and his books are gorgeous. Colin won a Coretta Scott King Honor award, so he’s got talent! I think he really brought my words to life.


VT 16-17rev


VL: You didn’t give up. Exactly. And we’re so glad you kept trying. What a beautiful book!

What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?

GH: It took six years from idea to publication. During that time, I learned that I have a patience-gene and a determination-gene. I would finish it and find an agent and an editor who believed in it as much as I did. I had the encouragement of my family, friends, and critique partners.

And I had Vivien Thomas. A few years ago, I traveled to Baltimore and had a chance to see Vivien’s portrait that hangs directly across from Dr. Blalock’s in Johns Hopkins Hospital. I felt his energy. I felt his passion. He urged me to tell his story. And I did.

VT 22-23


VL: Ooooh! How inspiring! (That gave me chills.)

You’ve also written a series of Early Readers, the Pet Club series, did you ever have a clubhouse or a secret place of your own when you were a kid?

GH: In 3rd grade, my friends and I attempted to build a fort during recess. The school was next to a wooded area and every day, we added branches and anything else we could find. I don’t think we ever finished it. But one day, I took off my jacket so I could work better. Well, I forgot to put it back on and didn’t remember it until I got on the bus. I was a nervous wreck riding home. I knew my mother’s first words would be, “Where is your jacket?”

Somehow, I got to my bedroom and out the house the next morning before she had time to think about it. I jumped off the bus, ran to our fort, and found my jacket. I never forgot my jacket again. I never built or half-built a fort again either.

VL: Kids always sweat their parents’ reactions, don’t they? My leg could be broken from jumping out of a tree, but I’d be more worried about, “Did I rip my new pants? Mom’s gonna kill me!” I wish I could’ve seen that fort. Sounded pretty cool. 

What was the most embarrassing thing you experienced?

GH: I still remember it like it was yesterday. I had to present a math lesson in one of my college education classes. I practiced it until it was perfect. But when I stood in front of the class with all those eyes staring at me, I blanked out. It was as if my brain had disappeared. Evaporated. Vanished. Finally, the instructor suggested I present at our next class. I slunk back to my seat. I have never forgotten that.

VL: Wow. That is truly awful. I think I’ve had nightmares of that happening.  

What was the most memorable adventure you had with your family?

GH: My two sisters who are also my best friends and I had a fantastic time on our trip to Belgium. One sister is adamant about luggage. We were restricted to one carry-on bag and she sent instructions on how to pack. No waiting for luggage. No crying over lost bags. Plus you must be able to handle your bag without help. Apparently, my other sister forgot that part. When we arrived in Brussels, we took a train to the car rental agency. The forgetful sister couldn’t get her luggage situated and we had to stay on the train until the next stop. So we decided to walk to the rental agency instead of waiting for another train.

It wasn’t as close as we thought and we were not happy with sister #2. As the luggage obsessed sister was signing the rental papers, she realized she had not specified automatic transmission when she reserved the car and there weren’t any available. There was a little eye-rolling from the luggage challenged sister because the luggage obsessed sister is the only one who could drive a stick shift. I’m the middle sister and peace maker so I volunteered to serve as navigator. Which turned out okay except for a few instances of driving in circles multiple times in circle intersections. It was hard to stop gawking and look at street signs.

We toured buildings that were centuries old. We ate chocolate and more chocolate. Then we took side trips to Bruges and Antwerp. Bruges was a fairy tale city with live chickens for sale in the market square. At a restaurant, I ordered a ham dish that appeared in front of me as a huge ham hock in a soup bowl. It was delicious! In Antwerp we visited the diamond center. I was blinded with all the glitter. Then it was time to drive back to Brussels and fly home. I loved that trip!

VL: That certainly was memorable! How fantastic!

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

GH: I can’t just pick one.

I met Christina Gonzalez at the Nevada Reading Week conference in Reno. She gave me a copy of her The Red Umbrella, so of course I had to read it. It’s a great book set in Cuba. I love reading about other cultures and countries.

Recently, I read Thunder Boy by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Yuyi Morales. It’s a beautiful picture book with a fun, but powerful message about the importance of a name.

The other day, I complained to a friend that I wanted to do a better job with setting. She suggested I read The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County written by Janice N. Harrington and illustrated by Shelley Jackson. Janice does a fabulous job of showing setting through her language. I will probably read it 10 more times before I return it to the library.

I read two adult nonfiction books over the last year that I really enjoyed for different reasons.

The Superhuman Mind: Free the Genius in Your Brain by Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow. Who doesn’t want to free their genius!

Gwen and author pic
Gwen with author of THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. Not only was it an epic story, the book was epic at 622 pages! But I love history and I learned so much about the migration of African Americans from the deep south to the north and west. I also liked Wilkerson’s narrative nonfiction style.

To-Be-Read: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth. She feels that exceptional achievement is a result of passion and persistence and not genius or talent. That means I can achieve something exceptional because I’m passionate about books and writing and I can be persistent when I set my mind on it.

VL: Ha! You’re so like me! I can never pick just one book EVER! And my nightstand has about ten books covering it right now. Thanks for some excellent reading suggestions.

What would your dream assignment be? What would you most like to write about?

GH: I’d love to have an all-expense paid assignment with a six-figure advance that required traveling to another country for research. One of my favorite television shows is Mysteries at the Museum. One Saturday, while eating breakfast, I watched an episode about Sir William Henry Perkins. He was an English chemist who accidently discovered a purple dye in 1856. Up until that time only royalty and the rich could afford purple clothes. Soon all the ladies were strutting around town in purple frocks. And since I love purple, it only makes sense for me to visit England and work on that project.

VL: Now that’s an excellent dream assignment! And of course you’ll need a co-writer to help you…carry your luggage. I’m volunteering now.

Tell us what’s coming up next for you. What are you currently working on? 

GH: I wrote two early readers for Lee & Low’s Confetti Kids series. Block Party and Music Time are scheduled for 2017. Pearson Educational UK is publishing a chapter book next year. And I’m writing another early reader that I can’t talk about yet-top secret. I will say, it’s something I’ve always been interested in, but I see a challenge ahead making it young-kid-friendly.

VL: How exciting! And I love top secret projects. We know you’ll be up for the challenge🙂  

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

**As an added bonus for those in the local area, Gwen will be hosting a book release party on June 9th, in Oklahoma City. The event will be from 6-9pm at the Chi Gallery.

Please come! It will be a fun event!


The Giveaway

Gwen is giving away a SIGNED COPY of her new book TINY STITCHES to one lucky reader of this blog!


To enter, all you have to do is enter below!

ENTER HERE!!!  ➤➤➤  Gwendolyn Hook’s 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 June 15th.



Learn more about Gwendolyn Hooks here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Follow her on Facebook here.

Follow the Brown Bookshelf blog here.



L.S. Mooney – Author Interview

LS Mooney pic 1

L.S. Mooney is the second TGNA alumni member I’m interviewing here on the blog. (Jenny Adams Perinovic was the first – and one day, I shall have them all!) I first met L.S. Mooney while working together on the TGNA group blog, The Great Noveling Adventure. I’ve enjoyed being a part of that group so much! We’ve all grown in our writing and been through so much together, and we continue to support each other through our creative journeys. Such a fantastic group of ladies! 

L.S. is a binge reader, ballet dancer, and crazy cat lover. And she sometimes writes contemporary YA about quirky girls, the friends who love them, and the boys they don’t really need. She is a big fan of roadtrips and exploring new places, but she is a Midwest girl at heart and an enthusiastic alumna of The Ohio State University.

She is also the Social Media Manager for the Bookish Group Press, an indie publishing collective dedicated to producing Young Adult and New Adult books of all genres. Through this entity, she has her first novel, THOROUGHLY MODERN MIRELLA.

First, let’s learn a little bit about her debut novel:

The Booktmm-front


Published by: Bookish Group Press

Release Date: April 12, 2016

Genres: YA Contemporary

Order the eBook:  Kindle Edition (US)  · Kindle Edition (UK)  ·  Nook  · Kobo  
Order a Paperback:  Amazon



Plot Summary:

In a small town like Paradise, everyone has a role.

High school senior Mirella Danville is a proud “theatre nerd.” That is, until she makes a scene at the Halloween party she shouldn’t have even gone to, flirts with the football captain, and reunites with an old friend who ditched her for the popular crew.

It’s a dream come true when Mirella lands the lead in the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, and it should put her firmly back in her usual role. Instead, it only fuels her desire to change up her boring existence so that her first kiss won’t be onstage with a gorilla-handed junior. The line between Mirella and her character blurs as she dives head first into a world of fruity flavored cigarillos, sweet and sour schnapps, and college boys.

But when her antics–and the expectations of her hot college boyfriend–start to cause drama off the stage, Mirella questions her decision to be more “Millie” than “Mirella.” With her friendships, family, and performance on the verge of crumbling, Mirella has to get back into character…or risk losing herself.

The Interview

LS Mooney pic 1
LS Mooney with Jenny Adams Perinovic at her book launch for THOROUGHLY MODERN MIRELLA

Valerie Lawson: Tell us about the inspiration for this story.

L.S. Mooney: Thoroughly Modern Millie was my senior show in high school and it was an incredibly fun show to be a part of. Now, before you run off thinking Mirella’s story is mine, I assure you I was not Millie even if my experience in the show was the first spark. Except, it really wasn’t. Not really. I started writing this book 7 years later after choreographing my first high school show and full of pride for my wonderful students.

VL: Ah! I have fond memories from my teen theatre life, too! Great source of inspiration.

I love the title of you book – the play on words and the plot summary all add up to the promise of a really fun read. What else can you tell us about this story?

LSM: Ah! I’m blushing!

I have such a hard time knowing what to say about this story without it feeling like it’s a spoiler. But fundamentally, TMM is about friendship, boys, small town life, and musicals. There is also definitely a vintage Firebird involved. Just saying.

VL: I love how you injected your love of theatre into your book. Tell us more about your background working in theatre and how it influenced Mirella’s story.

LSM: I’ve been in a lot of shows and worked on even more. And it has really shaped me as a person. My ideas of hard work, commitment, fairness, dealing with disappointment, and staying humble, etc. They all come from my experiences in the arts (both theatre & ballet). And some of my BEST memories also come from those long hours spent in the auditoriums, studios, dressing rooms, and everywhere in between.

My book is dedicated to my musical families, past and present, and I sincerely mean that. I was a weird kid in high school – still am actually – and my high school musical helped me find my family and realize weird was fabulous. However, it was coming back as an adult to the program I had been a student participant in that really made me want to write this story. I had the incredible experience of working as choreographer on 14 elementary school musicals then stage manager & choreographer on three high school shows with phenomenal groups of students that have forever changed my life.

There are pieces of those lessons, those families, and those experiences throughout Mirella’s story.

VL: That’s fantastic! The theatre is definitely a welcoming place for the weird (aka TALENTED and CREATIVE) to find a home, and to flourish. 

Who were your heroes/role models growing up? What drew you to them?

LSM: This is going to sound weird, but we’ve established that I am weird. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was absolutely my role model. I loved that she was kickass and feminine. That she could slay in her halter top and boots and was still stronger than Riley in more ways than one. That she could go on a date and save the world in one night. I realize as I’m typing this that it explains A LOT about my allergy to free time and severe penchant for over-committing myself. I watched Buffy slay hell hounds and still make it to prom, why can’t I stage manage a show, perform in one myself, and write a book all while in grad school?

VL: I love Buffy. She kicks ass. And I heard Stephen Chbosky (of PERKS OF A BEING A WALLFLOWER fame) say at a conference once that he learned a lot about the page turn from watching Buffy. Excellent endorsement right there.

Who was your childhood best friend?

LSM: I am so fortunate to say that I met my childhood best friend Megan in dance class when we were five. We were in the musical together in junior high and high school and, although we now live several states apart, she is still one of my best friends. And she flew nearly 1000 miles for my book launch party.

My other best friend, Ashley, and I met freshman year of high school. She was never a huge fan of the time I spent at the musical but we were doubles partners on the tennis team, and there were definitely a few lesbian rumors. Though our lives are in very different places, we are still incredibly. She helps me be my most me.

VL: What’s the worst job you ever had while going to high school?

LSM: In high school I worked the dunk tank at my town festival (I lived in a town a lot like Paradise) for three summers. It was …intense. I wasn’t properly dry for four days, we recited Shakespeare to annoy people, and literally everyone I knew threw balls at me.

But actually, it wasn’t that horrible; it’s hilarious looking back on. Way worse was the summer in college that I spent making phone calls to alumni asking for donations. That was pure torture.

VL: Ugh! That would be way worse. Drown me, please.

You took on the daunting process of self-publishing for the book. Tell us about that decision and why it was right for you, for this project. Did you have that goal in mind when you started out or did this evolve throughout your writing process?

LSM: I definitely did not originally think I wanted to self-publish. We all have that big book deal dream, right? So I did a few pitch contests on Twitter and did two small rounds of querying. However, after watching Jenny Adams Perinovic rock the socks off self-publishing with her debut, I realized I didn’t even want to sell this book anymore because it was too close to my heart to let anyone else control it.

So, yes it was an evolution, but a short one. And after release I’m still positive it was the right choice for me but I couldn’t have made that choice without Jenny and Sarah at Bookish Group Press. They are literally the best.

VL: They do put out some beautiful work! If you’re going to self-publish, I say, do it right and get a great team behind you. That seems to make all the difference.

What surprised you most about the process of writing this first book and publishing it yourself? What wisdom would you impart to fellow writers thinking about going through the same thing?

LSM: Oh, geez. I’m not an expert, and I asked Jenny Adams Perinovic SO MANY QUESTIONS about everything. But I think my best advice would be to find a community, find critique partners, find people who love your characters as much as you do.

I horded my writing for a long time and realized that you can’t get any better if you’re the only one reading it. Also, I recommend following you gut. Whatever that means to you!

VL: Excellent advice! My critique group is my creative lifeline. They keep me going when I want to give up, and they know how to push me farther than I thought possible. I’m a much better writer because of them.

What has been your favorite book to read over the past year?

LSM: I am incapable of choosing just one. I read too many phenomenal books this year. I will say that Jenny Bravo’s THESE ARE THE MOMENTS ripped my heart apart in the best way and Sarah Rees Brennan’s conclusion of THE LYNBURN LEGACY was perfection. Also SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA and FIRST FROST by Sarah Addison Allen.

VL: LOVED loved loved SIMON VS THE HOMO SAPIENS! And thanks for some more interesting titles to look into.

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

LSM: Technically I’m currently writing my Masters thesis but I’m pretty sure that isn’t what you meant…

Fiction wise, I’m not doing a ton but I’ve got a bunch of things started. I’ve got a NA retelling of the ballet Giselle that I’m kind of obsessed with but it’s incredibly hard to write so it’s slow. I’m also tentatively drafting a companion novel to TMM set 7 years later. It might never see the light of day, but it’s fun to play with my teenage characters as 25 year-olds!

VL: All sounds intriguing – and the thesis is a fairly big deal! Can’t wait to read more from you! Thanks so much for stopping by and speaking with us, L.S. It’s been a pleasure! Good luck with your book!


Learn more about L.S. Mooney here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Jodell Sadler – Agent Interview


JodellSadlerI’m excited to welcome another one of our conference speakers to the blog. Jodell Sadler with Sadler Children’s Literary and Kidtlit College will be part of our faculty for 2016 SCBWI OK Spring Conference on April 16th in Oklahoma City.

Jodell will be discussing the topic of pacing in picture books. The title of her talk is Pacing Picture Books (& Beyond) to WOW. “Attendees will walk away with oodles of editing options and a renewed excitement for just how fun crafting a story can be.”

About Jodell

Jodell wrote her critical thesis on pacing picture books and earned her MFA in Writing for Children & YA from Hamline University, 2009 and started agenting a few years later, and most recently launched Kidlit College.  She hosts workshops and presents on pacing with Writer’s Digest. At Kidlit College, she brings in editors and agents to present and offers participants direct critiques. The webinars span from picture books (fiction and nonfiction) to MG/YA.

She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) and is passionate about helping writers pace their stories well because it allows writers the opportunity to enhance emotional resonance, tension, and find exciting ways to improve story arc with jumps and twists and pauses and stops that garnish editorial attention and help them get published.


The Interview

Valerie Lawson: Jodell, thank you for doing this interview. It’s a pleasure to speak with you, today.

Your agency is considered a boutique literary agency. Can you tell us more about what that means and why an author or illustrator would benefit from choosing it?

Jodell Sadler: My focus has been on craft, and, particularly, Pacing Picture Books (& Beyond) to WOW. I’ve taught and shared this material in libraries with young learners, in middle school classes, and from secondary education to graduate classes in picture books and publishing.  I come from a marketing/design background where deadlines were tight and I juggled multiple projects a week. I’ve worked with thousands of writers and students and have been sharing my pacing study since 2008.

As I started the agency, I wasn’t in a position to move, and really wanted to stay where I lived, so I also taught full time as an AP/Dual Credit English teacher as well.  Like writers, agents are not much different in that we do whatever it takes to achieve our goals. I started KidLit College for this same reason. I wanted to give back, celebrate editors and agents, and help them share their expertise, while also providing a great option for writers and illustrators looking for an agent or who would benefit from an editor’s webinar and critique.

VL: You come with a lot of teaching experience. That is excellent. We should all keep learning our craft.

What makes you stop reading a query?

JS:  Writers really do need to know that if they submit out a solid query and simply follows submission guidelines, that’s half the battle. So often I receive submissions for projects I do not take on, and they are addressed in a generic fashion: Dear Sir, Dear Agent, etc, and I no longer read these.

The ideal submission is one that focuses on the manuscript. It’s short and direct and gives me a glimpse at the author’s personality. Like most agents, I look for a short query that shares that connection and answered the question: why me? A pitch for that top-quality manuscript that’s been through a number of editors and has received favorable feedback from a critique group. And the ideal bio is simple and focused and screams you are serious about your writing and actively participating in conferences.

VL: Short, direct, and with a glimpse of personality. Got it. 

What hooks you when reading a manuscript? What doesn’t?

JS: Voice, direction, great pacing, and freshness: This gets the attention of most agents.

Some manuscripts I read, I love but cannot take on because I rep something similar, and there are manuscripts I love but I just feel I cannot sell well. I also steer clear of holiday books and much prefer the true story and narrative nonfiction book: PB or older.

VL: What manuscripts are on your wishlist?

JS: Nonfiction, narrative nonfiction picture books as well as author-illustrators top my wishlist right now. I am closed to submissions except through conferences and events like this one.

VL: Yes, conference attendees will be permitted to submit to our speakers, SO EVERYONE SHOULD COME TO THE CONFERENCE!!!

Besides being an agent, you also teach webinars about writing. Tell us more about this.

JS:  I teach. I teach. And I teach. I’ve been teaching since I completed my MFA in 2008, and I actually taught full time in order to jump into agenting, to even be able to afford that time to grow the agency. KidLit College is really a dream community I thought about creating back in 2010 when I started my doctoral studies.

I really wanted to make a difference, make connections, and create that way to share craft learning fun with other writers and industry professionals. We all have so much to share. I invite everyone to join us on our closed Facebook page  and visit our KidLit College website and just see what we have going on, including a writing retreat and cruise!

VL: Sounds like a wonderful resource. 

Speaking of teaching, I was fascinated by a discussion you had about the difference between using rhyme versus poetry in picture books, could you address this? 

JS: A quality rhyming picture book is one is 100% committed to quality rhymes. It often focuses on end rhymes and shares poetic forms in creative ways, but for me, poetry is a huge gift to picture book writing, and it’s one of the 20 tools I talk about in my Pacing Picture Books to WOW class.

Poetry lifts our writing through the power of enjambment, prosody, page turns, poetic devices, and it shifts the language to this contagious level. There’s nothing like that quality picture book that provides that beautiful poetic or comedic pause that suspends the emotion and lifts a piece to this loftier universal level. Nothing like it. When we write, we must write to mind, heart, and ear, and poetry is a big part of that. I will be discussing this more in my presentation and here’s a little overview of what I will share.

VL: Write to heart, mind, and ear. I love that. I think we could all learn to be better writers by studying more poetry.

Tell us what happens after an author or illustrator signs with you. What’s the next step?

JS: It differs and depends on a number of factors, but the first thing we do is meet online to really determine focus, discuss manuscripts, and plan next steps.  The clients I work best with are those driven to move their work out into the world, who are actively participating at conferences, and constantly providing me with updates and new work. That’s just such a gift.

Recent sales include Brunhilda’s Backwards Day by Shawna J.C. Tenney (Sky Pony Press, 2017)  Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs (Sleeping Bear Press, 2016) by Linda Vander Heyden, Snow Beast Want Play and Untitled (Roaring Brook Press, 2017) as well as the Friday Barnes MG illustration series project (Roaring Brook Press, 2016) by Phil Gosier, a picture book/board book (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan) by Ann Whitford Paul, as well as 5 NF MG projects, including my own (Rowman & Littlefield) and Medical Mavens (Chicago Review Press) by Susan Latta.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, today, Jodell. I look forward to hearing your talk at our conference! 

Learn more about Jodell and her agency here.

Learn more about Kidlit College here or on Facebook.

Follow Jodell on Twitter here.

**Jodell does not accept unsolicited manuscripts, however conference attendees will be permitted to submit to her for a limited time.

This is an excellent reason to come see her and our other fantastic faculty members speak at our conference in Oklahoma City on April 16th!



To register for our 2016 SCBWI OK Spring Conference CLICK HERE.

I hope to see you there!



Sara Sargent – Editor Interview

Sara Sargent headshot

I’m delighted that Sara Sargent, Executive Editor from HarperCollins Children’s Books, will be speaking at our 2016 SCBWI OK Spring Conference this April.

Sara will be discussing the topic of humor in writing. “Humor draws in and hooks readers, and it keeps them engaged!” In her talk, she will discuss different types of humor and how you can apply them to your own manuscripts.

About Sara

In her work as Executive Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, Sara focuses on fiction and nonfiction in the picture book, middle grade, and young adult categories.

Previously she was an Editor at Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Sara has worked with New York Times bestselling author Abbi Glines, National Book Award finalist Deb Caletti, Jennifer Echols, Julie Cross, Aaron Karo, and Martina Boone, among others. She also received her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern University. You can sometimes find Sara eating takeout and reading on the couch. You can always find her online at and on Twitter and Instagram @Sara_Sargent. Sara lives in Brooklyn.


The Interview

Valerie Lawson: Sara, thank you so much for doing this interview. It’s a pleasure to speak with you, today.

What makes a story an evergreen? What gives it staying power?

Sara Sargent: I’ve always wanted to edit books for the same reason I want to read them: for escapism. I love getting lost in a story, getting wrapped up in characters and their struggles. So, to me, a story with emotional heft and amazing characters will be perennial. It’s important to allow the reader to see the human experience reflected back at them from the pages of your book, to let them get entangled in the emotions and the drama.

We’ve all had that experience where a  book “doesn’t hold up,” where we re-read a novel we loved as kids and are no longer sure what we loved about it. Sometimes we grow up or move on or mature, and a story doesn’t have the staying power it used to. But, to me, all that matters is whether we connected with it emotionally at one point in time. For a book to be successful, it needs to find its mark and connect. Regardless of whether that happens when we’re 5 or 50, and whether it remains true always.

VL: Emotional connection with amazing characters – yes, that describes all my favorite stories. I must say, the idea of connections changing as we age is very intriguing. Our life experiences change, why shouldn’t our experience of a story change?

What hooks you when you’re reading a manuscript? What doesn’t?

SS:  I like to tell writers that, no matter what genre they’re writing, they are all mystery writers. Because you have to think like a mystery writer to plot an interesting book. For me, that advice comes from a personal place of loving twists and turns and surprises. What hooks me—and keeps me reading—is not knowing what’s coming next, whether that’s in the actual plot or for character development or with a romance.

VL: Fascinating idea! I love a good mystery.

You’ve mentioned that lack of character development is one major reason you might reject a project. What are some others?

SS: Weak world-building, especially in fantasy, is a tough sell for me. I am happy to edit fantasy projects and work with authors to improve their world-building and to help them transfer the wonderful images in their heads to the page. But, if the logic of the world doesn’t hang together, and there are strange twists or turns that feel aimless—I am likely to pass.

Also, when it comes to realistic contemporary novels, I love evergreen tropes that resonate time and time again. But I do not like stories that feel too similar to others I’ve read or edited. With the realistic genre, I need fresh and new and different for me to want to buy it.

VL: With your focus on social media and digital platforms, what can you tell authors and illustrators about the importance of online time?

SS: Pick one platform—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Tumblr, blogging—and really commit to it. There is no point in spreading yourself thin and trying to be active on every social network known to humankind. Develop an authentic and genuine presence for one profile, and then  focus your energy there. Getting people to connect strongly with you in one space is amazing, even if it feels limited. That’s how you start building your brand.

VL: NOT spreading yourself thin? I’m so on board. It’s so easy to overdo it and leave no time for real writing.

We often hear the advice to research before you submit your work, what’s the most important thing writers and illustrators need to know before they submit to you?

SS: It’s important to know what an editor likes, and it’s important to know what she’s acquired. But what’s even better is to recognize what she likes and what she’s acquired, and get to the next level of thinking. Which is to say: send me something with the essence of what I love and have already edited, but with a new twist or take—that’s the best way to go.

Sending me a manuscript and saying “I’m sending this to you because you acquired a book just like it, so I know you will love it!” is not the way to go. Show me that you recognize why your book is a fit for me, because you know I love the genre but also because I’ve never acquired anything like it before.

VL: Excellent advice. Well said.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, today, Sara. They have been very enlightening. I look forward to hearing your talk at our conference!


Learn more about Sara and read her Acquisitions Wish List here.

Follow Sara on Twitter here. Follow Sara on Instagram here.

**Sara does not accept unsolicited manuscripts, however conference attendees will be permitted to submit to her for a limited time.

This is an excellent reason to come see her speak at our conference in Oklahoma City on April 16th!



For more details on our 2016 SCBWI OK Spring Conference or to register online, CLICK HERE.

I hope to see you there!



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.