When I was seven, I wrote my first “book”—The Silly Pumpkin—with accompanying illustrations. Poor Silly Pumpkin: whenever crisis struck, he cried. A lot, like I’m talking monsoon rain amounts. The sensitive soul that penned that tale now dumps her characters into all kinds of disaster to test their mettle. I make my people choose more than a good cry. Maybe I’m not so sensitive? Or maybe I’m thinking of awesome teens who are social justice warriors?
My mom was handing me books before I could read and so I saw how artists shaped their world through story before I could pen my own. I wrote a play in fourth grade about a girl who ran away from home. The orphan was a bold rogue. I think Ramona the Pest and Beezus may have had something to do with this character.
From then on, if I wasn’t scribbling a new story, I was gobbling up series like Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie, with doses of Judy Blume and Ellen Conford mixed in. I loved old-school girls and modern girls-ones who brought the brains, wit, and a good dose of weird. I read The Robe and The Hobbit when I was 10, and even if I didn’t get a bunch of the words, I was hooked. I loved sniffing that musty whiff from a good library book. Oh how I remember To Kill a Mockingbird, with bad-ass Scout and beautiful prose, blowing me away. Reading those words again and again shaped my writing style. And then, wow, Romeo and Juliet? I stared over and over again at the Bard’s iambic pentameter, craving understanding. When I cracked the code, how delicious was that?
This was before SparkNotes and online explanations. Words and phrases were puzzles. They made my mind work overtime and no one could steal my interpretation early. How blessed were those moments alone in my room building worlds in my mind!
Growing up in Northern California and North Carolina with parents who had a penchant for world travel, I found I couldn’t stay complacent in one social milieu or with the same expectations of people and places. Moving across state lines and time zones opened my heart to stories from other cultures and centuries. Attending an international school in Belgium taught me the world was a big place, and when I lived in France and traveled Europe, I came home wishing I were un petit peu française. In the last few decades, I’ve roamed places like Sri Lanka, Singapore, Ghana, Bali, and Delhi.
Thanks to great teachers, I made the decision to become one myself. Catholic school taught me the word vocation, and I never doubted that this was a spiritual call. After five years at Stanford and a BA and an MA, I started teaching high school in Silicon Valley. I met students who could expect a Porsche for their 16th birthday and immigrants with harrowing survival stories. I continued my teaching career in North Carolina with another diverse pool of students who taught me much. One of my most memorable experiences was directing a group of gifted actors in A Raisin in the Sun. Today I design online lessons for students and train teachers.
The whole time, I wrote fiction, chipping away at what I’ll call The Novel and various short stories. Most of my energy stayed with teaching and writing books for teachers: The Compassionate Classroom: Lessons That Nurture Wisdom and Empathy (co-authored with Jane Dalton); Teaching Romeo and Juliet: A Differentiated Approach (co-authored with Delia DeCourcy and Robin Follet), and Teaching Julius Caesar: A Differentiated Approach.
Then in 2003, another call: I was accepted to the North Carolina Writers’ Network Elizabeth Daniels Squire Residency, taught by the legendary Doris Betts. Author of nine novels and three story collections, she treated my work with tremendous respect. Thanks to her wise and incisive feedback, I decided to make a real commitment to my lifelong dream of author.
Today you can read my first set of literary short stories, The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future and my debut YA novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought.
In 2015 I collaborated with the wonderful illustrator, Robin Follet, to bring Minerda into the world: a graphic novella about a writerly kid who’s been bullied and finds salvation in a new friend. This is the prequel to the other book I began in 2012, the sequel: How Minerva Mae Christopoulos Set the Record Straight. Minerva is now an aspiring teen journalist in high school.
Then I found my wonderful second agent, Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency, after a whole lotta queries and even pitching my book live to agents at the Chicago Writers Workshop. Amy pulled me from the slush pile, and then subbed out the book after some great edits. We called it Nerve. After a few rounds of subbing, we couldn’t place it, but we both still believed in the project. We decided I should begin working on another teen journalist novel titled No Small Thing.
When Amy left the business in the summer of 2018, I felt a bit lost, but I girded up those ovaries and searched for a new agent. (Amy’s an awesome developmental editor now at Feral Girl Books—do check her out!)
This industry is ever-changing and its volatility keeps one flexible. So whoever is reading this, with or without agent, on sub or about to go on sub, know that you must stay the course if you really love to write. Maybe reading “5 Questions to Ask Your Author Friend on Sub” might give you some consolation during a difficult slog.
By January 2019, I’d found Tara Gelsomino of One Track Literary, and boy, do I give thanks for such an amazing editor and agent. Together we put No Small Thing, a tale of an intrepid podcaster and student journalist fighting to expose academic fraud in her school’s athletic program, through some paces. Tara did amazing work putting it in front of editors; I learned so much interviewing incredible sources such as basketball coaches and an award-winning journalist, Dan Kane. Alas, it wasn’t the right time for the book, so after a round of subbing that, we shelved it. Still, I’m excited to share it with the world because I believe it’s a story worth knowing. Hope springs eternal.
In January 2020, I joined the incredible writer’s community that is the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Blessed to work with such greats as Will Alexander, Fran Wilde, An Na, Martha Brockenbrough, Martine Leavitt, David Gill, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and A.S. King, and take workshops and hear lectures with Anna-Marie McLemore, Martine Leavitt, Kathi Appelt, Cori McCarthy, and Alan Cumyn, my head reeled all the wondrous learning. I have the best colleagues, too, who will be with me throughout my writing career. Graduating in July 2022 and getting to walk the stage in Vermont was incredible, since my last time on campus was a snowy January 2020, before the world went to pieces, masks, and lockdowns.
I emerged from this magical place with When Pigs Fly finished and Here Comes the Dog Parade started. I wrote short stories, and picture books, and lots of fun stuff. I wrote a critical thesis, “Is YA Literary? The Search for an Abundant Canon.”
When Pigs Fly is about a teen songwriter trying to get a country superstar to help save her small Southern town from toxic hog farm pollution, only to find grassroots organizing might be the real star of the show. It won the Norma Fox Mazer award at VCFA, and Tara and I are currently subbing it out to editors.
Meanwhile Wendy got a new cover and some updates, and is celebrating her 10-year anniversary in 2023!
I have also expanded my college essay consulting business, Success Story, and what a joy it is to coach young storytellers making their next foray into the world. Teaching Macbeth: A Differentiated Approach released in 2022 and helps teachers connect the wonderful world of young adult literature with old-school canonical works like Shakespeare’s. I continue to add more lessons to my Teachers Pay Teachers store as well.
In April 2023, @nervesofsteel releases, the second book in my series begun by Minerda. I am so excited. This project of my heart begun with Amy Tipton and shopped out in 2016-2017 finally gets to be shared with the world.
I’m married to Americana singer-songwriter Greg Hawks. He won my heart with a guitar and an abiding, artistic faith. The Hawks Nest also includes an orange tabby named Sonny who runs the place. My stepson, Henry, pursued sound design and other artistic enterprises at DePaul University in Chicago. He now resides in L.A. where he works in a sound studio. He’s mixed sound for two award-winning films, Hilum and The Headhunter’s Daughter, which have won prizes at the Clermont-Ferrand Film festival and Sundance. Our home hums with the soundtrack of acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo and the chatter of computer keys. And purring. Lots of purring.