For Writers

Author Spotlight: Sandy Stark-McGinnis

Full disclosure: Author Sandy Stark-McGinnis, author of the grippingly beautiful MG debut, EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS, and I share four things in common: 1. an agent (the incredible Patricia Nelson, of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency); 2. an all-encompassing love for the iconic TV sitcom, The Golden Girls; 3. a penchant for cowboy boots (don’t judge); and, above all, 4. genuine friendship. Sandy and I “met” on Twitter last year and have been enjoying a back-and-forth flurry of messages—of support, encouragement, or just to vent—ever since. Today, I have the honor of interviewing Sandy, whose novel flies free from Bloomsbury on April 30. Enjoy!

MR: First off, Sandy, I need you to know how much I loved EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS. It gripped me from page one, and never let me go. I was also deeply moved by your main character, December—a truly remarkable heroine. Can you tell me a little about her, and what led you to tell her story?

SSM: December is a bundle of contradictions—that’s why I love her. She’s strong and knows how to survive, but is vulnerable and carries a lot of sorrow in her heart.

I had two inspirations that led me to write her story. One was students I’ve had through the years, and the other was a newspaper article that reported an incident where a mother, in a methamphetamine rage, physically attacked her young daughter. With December I wanted to explore how a child could endure an event like that. Where would she find the strength to keep going and find a better place, a place of healing?

MR: Obviously, birds are a major theme in your novel. December is obsessed with birds and flying, is fostered by a caring taxidermist named Eleanor, and keeps a journal/biography called Bird Girl: An Extraordinary Tale. What is it about the subject of birds that captures your heart and imagination?

SSM: Well, I thought birds and flight were perfect metaphors to use to explore how  December deals with her past.  And, I’ve always wanted to try and write a realistic story about a child who believes she/he can fly.

MR: Along these lines, December has an encyclopedic knowledge of birds, with facts and figures flying off every page. What kind of research did you have to do to make December’s interest in the subject authentic?

SSM: My researched focused on specific birds. December uses her knowledge of them to navigate her way through the world. So, the hard/fun part was exploring specific birds and their behaviors,  and using them to parallel December’s own interactions with people and/or situations in which she found herself.

MR: December is a foster child who has suffered extensive trauma and physical abuse in her young life. You handle this topic with great sensitivity and care. What was your approach to understanding the subject of abuse, as well as December’s mindset as a foster child? Was extensive research involved?

SSM: To get inside December’s head and heart, I focused on how she dealt with her own tragedy. I started from there and then spent a lot of time trying to find her voice and cadence, her perspective of the world based on her past experiences. Once I knew what motivated her, it was easier to capture her inner-life and how she responded to events that happened to her. When I had specific questions about foster care, I found someone who worked in the California system who generously took the time to answer any questions I had. Most of the inquiries had to do with making sure December’s experience was authentic.

MR: At school, December develops a strong friendship with Cheryllynn, a spunky transgender girl who stands up for December when she is bullied. December has never had a real friend before, and she has a hard time letting Cheryllynn into her heart. Can you tell us a bit about Cheryllynn, and her role in December’s story?

SSM: Cheryllynn is a heroine too. She, like December, is vulnerable and strong, but she’s more grounded than December. I think because she has roots—a home, a mom who is there for her—she’s able to navigate who she is and her own conflicts with honesty and a trust that December has to learn is possible.

MR: I know you’re a fifth grade teacher, as well as a mom to two young children. How do you balance work, parenting, and writing? What does your writing routine look like?

SSM: The only quiet time in my house is in the morning. I wake up at four o’clock—five o’clock on weekends—and write. I’m a morning person so it works well for me. Thirteen years as a competitive swimmer—getting up for practice before school every day of my high school years—trained me to have the discipline I needed to keep a consistent schedule.

MR: Can you tell us about your path to publication? Was it a straight shot or a long and winding road?

SSM: It was definitely long and winding. From the time I started writing Extraordinary Birds to when Patricia Nelson made an offer of representation was about five years (And in those five years, I sent out around fifty queries and revised many  times.) Then, Patricia and I took another year and a half for revision before Allison Moore at Bloomsbury made an offer.

MR: And finally, I know you’re a huge Golden Girls fan.  Who’s your favorite character, and why? Do you have a favorite episode?

SSM: Ugh. This is hard, but I think my favorite is Rose. She’s the character who always surprised me, and made me laugh the most.  And, she was a storyteller!  I don’t have a favorite episode, but anytime Rose started to tell a story about living in St. Olaf…Well, just hilarious!

MR: Thanks for chatting today, Sandy. It was a pleasure to have you on Mixed-Up Files!

SANDY STARK-McGINNIS is a debut author and award-winning poet whose work has appeared in Quercus ReviewIn the Grove, and Penumbra. She holds an MA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Sandy lives with her husband and children in California, where she teaches fifth grade. You can find Sandy at her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram

Children’s Authors Travel to Israel and Inspiration Blooms

Leslie Kimmelman in Israel







                                         Author Leslie Kimmelman has just returned from a tour of Israel, as one of eighteen  picture book and middle grade authors sponsored by the  PJ Library Organization. I wondered what a trip with so many creative and zany minds would be like. How would Israel look through their eyes? What details did they see that might go into a book? Did they come up with story ideas? Leslie is one of the most creative people I know and I couldn’t wait to ask when she returned.

Annabelle: Was there a single experience that you would like to share with young readers?

Leslie:Every single experience was a revelation–I think one of the most important things in life is to let go of preconceived notions as much as possible and be open to new adventures. The trip was everything I expected, only in the sense that it was an incredible trip. But it opened my eyes and enriched me in ways I never could have anticipated. You can see how meaningful the trip was to me by counting my (over)use of adjectives in answering your questions!         

Annabelle: What surprised you the most? How would you explain or dramatize it in a book?

Leslie: I’m not up to that yet–still processing everything that happened, and waiting to see what rises to the top. I will say that two things stood out to me. The first was how moving it was to be in a place with thousands and thousands of years of history. I am a huge history enthusiast, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt so strongly that feeling of walking in the steps of civilization after civilization–civilizations that thrived, then were gone, then replaced by another, and so on. Particularly in Jerusalem. We had an underground tour that gave me goose bumps. Being connected to the generations that came before us is one of the most compelling traditions of Judaism, I believe, but in Israel I felt that in a visceral way. I’m trying to get over the feeling that I may not have the words adequate to describe what I experienced. (Not something a writer wants to feel!) 

The second thing that struck me quite strongly and unexpectedly is how many disparate communities make up the country. Standing in Jerusalem and seeing and hearing so many different cultures, all at the same time–a bar mitzvah at the Kotel, the call to prayer from the minaret, the holy places of Christianity. I am not diminishing the very considerable problems of these groups living together in close proximity, but it was amazing to see. We also toured an extremely impressive school where Jewish and Arab children learn together in both languages. The person who showed us around and does outreach for the school is from, improbably, New Jersey. Either of these two themes would be a good underpinning for a children’s book.

Annabelle: Wow, agreed! So was traveling as a group of writers like being in an idea laboratory? Did you and your colleagues bounce ideas off each other?

Leslie: It wasn’t so much that we bounced ideas of each other, though there was some of that. It was more that we were experiencing all of these new and fantastic adventures in the company of a group of incredibly talented and thoughtful people, who just happened to also be children’s book authors and artists. (And did I mention funny? There were definitely a lot of really funny people on the trip.) It was exciting to be able to see each new experience through the eyes of so many interesting colleagues. Everyone had a different take, something to add.  As far as specific ideas go, I think we were all too busy taking it in to formulate specific ideas. At least, I was…. I can’t wait to see what kind of books this trip inspires from everyone.

Annabelle:Neither can I! Now tell me –did anything unexpected happen?

Leslie:  Everything was unexpected, especially for me, as I’d never been to Israel before. The trip was planned so beautifully. It approached Israel from every possible perspective: historical, archaeological, political, cultural, aesthetic. Each experience added to the mosaic. We got to do things that even Israelis don’t get to do–like a behind-the-scenes, close-up look at the Dead Sea Scrolls. That was very emotional. Kayaking on the Dead Sea was magical: The Israelis I spoke with didn’t even know that was a possibility! Celebrating Shabbat in an Israeli home (we divided into groups of three authors per home) was inspiring. From a purely practical standpoint, nothing unexpected happened, which was kind of unexpected! No one got lost or sick–oh, except that one person’s luggage didn’t arrive with the rest. (He was a really good sport about it.) Mostly everything went like clockwork. Everyone got along as if we’d known each other for years. Pretty awesome.

Annabelle: What stood out about the culture? In writing about it, would you focus on history, food, music, art, or something else?

Leslie: Again, I think the history and the multicultural aspect resonated most with me. I definitely want to find out more about some of the people who loom large in Israel’s history. We saw the kibbutz home of David Ben Gurion, the first president of Israel, and it was remarkably modest. But check back in a few months. And I have to add: The food was excellent, too!

Annabelle: Thanks, Leslie. I can’t wait to see how this experience blossoms into one of your books!

Leslie Kimmelman’s latest books are BELLY BREATHE, A VALENTINE FOR FRANKENSTEIN, and WRITE ON, IRVING BERLIN, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book.





The Business Of Author-Agent Relationship in Writing And Publishing

Today, at Mixed-Up Files, we discuss the business of author-agent relationships.

Behind every successful novel, the author-agent team works together for months and years to turn an idea into a finished product that the editor and the reader will love.

Author Yamile (sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez  and Agent Linda Camacho talk about how their enthusiasm to place a good book in the hands of readers propelled their relationship.

Suma:  Yamile, your novel On These Magic Shores will be published by Lee & Low/Tu Books in 2020. You also won the New Visions Honor Award for this manuscript in 2015. Although, it was one of your earliest novels, it was not the one that first sold. Tell us more about your journey with this novel, how you first got published, and what kept you motivated to keep writing?

Yamile: On These Magic Shores has been growing from the moment Minerva Miranda walked into my mind in 2014 until it turned into my love letter for the child I once was, a child with a lot of responsibilities but who still wanted to do all the things we associate with childhood. When I started writing it, I didn’t envision how deep into this character and her journey to reclaim her childhood I’d go. It’s amazing to see my growth as a writer as I see the growth of this story. Since it took such a long time for this story to finally be accepted for publication, I worked on different things in between revisions. When I won the New Visions Honor I was just starting my MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. While I was in the program I had the opportunity to try my hand at genres or age groups I’d never tried before, like picture books and poetry. In between semesters I wrote a poem for my children, which later I shared at my graduate reading. The public’s reaction was so strong and positive that I submitted my poem to my agent, believing it would be a wonderful picture book but not expecting much to happen from that. To my surprise, the story resonated with my agent and then several editors she shared it with. WHERE ARE YOU FROM? sold at action and it will be published by HarperCollins on June 4, 2019. After this contract, my agent and I have signed many others for middle grade and young adult novels, and I’m also a contributor in several anthologies. My publishing journey hasn’t been a straight line of overnight success, but the result of years of working on my craft, a wonderful team by my side, and a little fairy dust for good luck.


Suma: How do you balance your family responsibilities and your writing deadlines?

Yamile: Writing is my full time job, and I have a big family composed of five children, several animals, and a husband with a very demanding job. Like his job, writing is also very demanding, so my husband and I are equal partners in taking care of our family and home, and supporting each other in our professional endeavors. My writing time is sacred, just as time with my children is sacred. But we make it work one day at a time.


Suma: What advice would you give to writers facing rejections?

Yamile: My advice is twofold: keep writing and remember the why. My journey until I met my agent was also a long road paved with rejection notes, but in the end, I knew that if I stayed true to my voice, I’d find the right agent. And I did.
The novel my agent signed me with never sold, and I’m grateful that she was interested in my career as a whole and not just a book. My mind is always bubbling with ideas, so by the time the rejections start arriving, I’m already invested in a new story. Because ultimately I didn’t start writing for publication or acclaim. I started writing with a desire to share my vision of the world and to connect with the child living inside me, to hopefully connect with a child reader who could see themselves in the words that come out of my heart. Publishing and writing are such separate elements. Remember why you’re doing this, and pick up your pen, or open the laptop and write.


Suma: Linda, what impressed you about Yamile and her work when you took her on as a client? How would you describe your relationship with Yamile from the beginning to where you are now?

Linda: It’s all in the voice, really. Yamile’s writing has a beautiful, distinctive voice that comes from a genuine place, somewhere that’s as authentic as the creator herself is.

In terms of our relationship, while I’ve been in publishing for about fourteen years now, I was new to agenting when Yamile signed with me several years ago. I’m fortunate that she took a chance on me then, and I think it’s pretty special that we’re growing and learning together as the years pass.


Suma: What is the best line from a query letter or a manuscript or proposal that you read that made you want to sign the author right away?

Linda: Oh wow, that’s a tough one, since I’m the absolute worst at picking the best anything! This makes me think of Yamile’s picture book Where Are You From, actually. When I signed Yamile, I’d signed her on the basis of a middle grade manuscript. And I knew she was interested in writing young adult as well. Then one day she said she had a picture book manuscript and I was a tiny bit afraid, lol, since I had no idea if it would be any good. Needless to say, it was amazing. I read it, cried a little, then went out with it without editing it at all–It was that terrific. It went to auction and is now coming out from HarperCollins this June. Where Are YourFrom is about a little girl who gets asked where she’s from, so she turns to her grandfather for an answer. This is a line from it: You’re from hurricanes and dark storms, and a tiny singing frog that calls the island people home when the sun goes to sleep. Yamile’s writing is so lyrical and lovely and, above all, memorable.


Suma: What advice would you give to agents facing rejections?

Linda: As someone who experience rejections pretty much every day, I know it’s tough, but I would tell them to take heart. We took on a project for a reason and we have to keep the faith that if we keep submitting, the right editor will fall in love with it. And if not, then it’ll happen for the next one. The only way to get there, though, is to keep at it. Just like creatives do.


Yamile (sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez is a fútbol-obsessed Argentine-American who loves meteor showers, summer, astrology, and pizza. She lives in Utah with her Puerto Rican husband and their five kids, two adorable dogs, and one majestic cat. An inaugural Walter Dean Myers Grant recipient, she’s also a graduate of Voices of Our Nations (VONA) and the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Writing for Children’s and Young Adult program. She’s a PB, MG, and YA author. Yamile is also part of Las Musas, the first collective of women and nonbinary Latinx MG and YA authors. She’s represented by Linda Camacho at Gallt & Zacker Literary. You can find her online here and here.

Linda Camacho was always a fan of escaping into a good book, so the fact that she gets to make it her career is still surreal. She graduated from Cornell with a B.S. in Communication and has seen many sides of the industry. She’s held various positions at Penguin Random House, Dorchester, Simon and Schuster, and Writers House literary agency until she ventured into agenting at Prospect. She’s done everything from foreign rights to editorial to marketing to operations, so it was amazing to see how all the departments worked together to bring books to life. Somewhere in between all that (and little sleep), Linda received her MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Now at Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency, Linda continues to work with colleagues and clients who inspire her every day in both the children’s and adult categories. You can find her online here and here.