Interview with Literary Agent, Jen Chen Tran

Jen Chen Tran

Jen Chen Tran caught my attention when she asked a question during a panel discussion at the Virginia Festival of the Book in 2014. She looked and sounded so approachable that I decided to introduce myself after the panel. I’m very glad that I did!

At that time, Jen had her own literary agency in New York City. Since then, she moved to Northern California and is currently an agent at Bradford Literary Agency. It’s been a pleasure to keep in-touch and watch her career grow. I’m excited to host her on my blog today!

After dinner in Northern CA in August 2018

Amy: Welcome, Jen! Thank you for making the time to be here.

You hold both a B.A. in English Literature and a J.D. That sounds like a winning combination for an agent. How has your educational and professional background benefitted you as an agent and hence your clients?

Jen: I have always been an avid reader, and I think my background as an English major really helps me see both the artistry and mechanics behind writing. I consider myself an editorial agent and read widely, which helps inform my work with my clients.

You might be surprised to hear this, but quite a few literary agents started out as attorneys. There’s definitely a lot of overlap in terms of transferable skills, one of which is being a stalwart advocate for your clients. I am licensed to practice law in New York (and soon to be licensed to practice law in California–I passed that beast of an exam!), and I have helped review the occasional publishing contract for non-clients.

Amy: How did you find your way to agenting? What makes you stay?

Jen: It’s a long story, but basically I graduated law school in 2008 at the height of the recession. I wanted to be a government attorney, but most government agencies weren’t hiring and law firms were imploding left and right.

I did practice for a few years but found that my heart wasn’t in it. I’ve had some health issues that really made me evaluate what my strengths are and what I’m passionate about. I think it’s so important to find meaningful work since we spend most of our days working.

A few years after I graduated from law school, an opportunity from The New Press materialized–they were looking for a volunteer Of Counsel. After a successful interview, I was brought on board to help the press with their permissions, contracts, and some related publicity efforts.

That’s when I started liaising with literary agents and learned through the grapevine that one of them went to my law school. I was able to intern for this agent and his agency as well and started my own agency shortly after.

When I moved to California almost five years ago, I joined a West Coast agency, then in late 2017 moved to Bradford Literary. I am truly passionate about what I do. I love my clients, I love the written word, and I love stories. It is truly a privilege and an honor to be able to make a living as an agent. I am grateful.

I love my clients, I love the written word, and I love stories. It is truly a privilege and an honor to be able to make a living as an agent. I am grateful.” — Jen Chen Tran

Amy: How would you describe your agenting style?

Jen: First and foremost, I am a champion for my authors. I see myself as a problem-solver and creative thinker. I help my client get to the “next level” and reach their goals as an author. I’m very collaborative and try to be transparent about the process, whether that means sharing my pitch list with my client, or working on a pitch letter together.

I truly appreciate the trust that each one of my clients places in me, and I work hard to get my client what she or he deserves. I try to be extremely communicative and responsive–I’m known to text or e-mail my authors often!

Amy: How do you know when it’s time to offer representation to a writer?

Jen: For fiction, when I can’t stop reading the manuscript and am absolutely enthralled by the voice and the characters. Sense of place is also really important to me. For me, it’s either there or it’s not. A lot of the time I rely on my instincts–I have to have a visceral reaction, an emotional reaction, when I’m reading fiction.

For non-fiction, it’s a little different. If I feel that the author is an expert in his or her field, is truly passionate about what he or she does, has a message, wants to change the world, and/or wants to share entertaining information, then I’m interested. But all of these elements have to come together in a persuasive way. I’m looking for cohesion and clarity for non-fiction projects.

If our goals align, then I am more likely to offer representation. I also take the long view. Ideally, I’d like to work with the author over the course of her career and not just for one book.

Amy: What would you like to see more of in your inbox?

Jen: I’m a huge foodie, so I’d like to see more unique cookbooks in my inbox. I’m also trying to grow my list in terms of visually-driven and graphic projects, meaning graphic novels (for adult, YA, and MG) and guided journals.

I also would love to see more fiction written by underrepresented minorities and marginalized people. Publishing, as an industry, is still very homogeneous, but the world around us is not. I want to contribute to diversifying the written word, so it’s important to me to represent diverse clients.

I also would love to see more fiction written by underrepresented minorities and marginalized people. Publishing, as an industry, is still very homogeneous, but the world around us is not. I want to contribute to diversifying the written word, so it’s important to me to represent diverse clients. ” — Jen Chen Tran

Amy: You represent an eclectic range of genres including non-fiction, women’s fiction, graphic novels, and select YA and middle grade novels. How do you keep up with that range in the industry?

Jen: Good question! I’m a Gemini so I have a lot of interests. I’ve never been the type of agent who believes you should specialize in one area. I think that’s the beauty of being an agent–building your own list and not necessarily having to specialize.

It is a challenge to keep up with industry changes, and there are days when I think I should just do one type of book. But because I am so passionate and interested in a variety of topics, I think, why limit myself?

I read widely across genres and that helps. I do try to talk to as many editors in the areas that I represent so I know what the editors are looking for. It’s a challenge and I love being challenged! 

Amy: What are some books in your to-be-read pile?

Jen: Too many. I have a variety of graphic novels (MG and YA) such as Glitch by Sarah Graley, on my list. I also am trying to read more contemporary fiction–both literary and commercial. Normal People by Sally Rooney is on my list. I also read non-fiction, multiple books, at a time. I’ve been making my way through Bad Blood by Jon Carreyrou. 

Amy: Thank you, Jen! Best wishes to you and all of your lucky clients.

If you’d like to get to know Jen more and/or you’d like to query her, visit her at Bradford Literary Agency.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Social Media: To Show Up Or Not Show Up?

As many of my friends know, I came late to the social media party–joining Facebook in spring of 2016 and Instagram in spring of 2017.

I had stayed away for so many reasons. I felt busy enough already. I remained in touch with friends in other ways. I’m a private person, preferring to share my personal life with close friends. And so on.

Social media just didn’t seem like the best match for me.

But I’d heard that it’s pretty much a must for writers to maintain some kind of social media presence. I took the plunge!

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What has my experience been in the intervening three years?

At first I felt like I’d landed in a whole new world.

So much news and information (not all true, as we know!). Humor. Interesting tidbits. Wow, I’d been living without all of this?

I connected with friends in the writing world. Made new writing connections. Reconnected with long-lost childhood friends, former colleagues and students, and my kids’ former teachers.

It was fun!

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However, as soon as I joined Facebook, I found myself reading fewer books. Reading the newspaper less often and less thoroughly. Even writing less often. These had filled my cup for a long, long time.

I tried to “keep up” on social media and headed to bed later. I grappled with what to post, how often to post, and how much to share. I wanted to show up for all of my friends (impossible!).

I also felt as if a switch had turned on (or off) in my brain. Whereas I had never had concentration issues, I suddenly needed to make an effort to not become distracted.

I turned off notifications on my phone and on my laptop. I limited my time on social media. But still, it took up plenty of room in my life and in my head.

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When I made the decision one year ago this month to get recertified as a teacher, I simply had less time to be on social media. When I took a teaching job this past fall, I had even less.

I just can’t be on social media as often. Period.

When I’m not teaching, I write. I consider it my other job.

When I have down time, I find that the speed, intensity, and public nature of social media often doesn’t call me. Teaching is already fast-paced, intense, and highly interactive.

You know what calls me?

More writing. Reading. Taking walks. Meeting a friend for coffee. Because these things are quiet. They feel soothing. And that’s what I need to restore my energy for myself, my family, and my students.

I’ve got to give them my best. Look at what my students give me:

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Most days, I pop on to my social media accounts to check my notifications. I respond to comments, then maybe make a quick post and/or check my newsfeed for a few minutes. There are some days when I don’t check my newsfeed at all.

I wonder what I’ve missed. It bothers me to know that I’ve undoubtedly missed wishing someone a happy birthday or cheering someone on or sending someone a condolence. Or sharing something that my friends would appreciate. They’ve got lots of other friends, I tell myself. It’s fine!

But still, it nags. It’s less from a fear of missing out (FOMO), and more from a desire to show up (DTSU?) for my friends and a desire to take part (DTTP?) in the community.

Should I just delete my accounts? Well, my writing dream lives on. And beyond that, I still enjoy the interactions, however infrequent they may be.

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So for now, I’ll continue to practice self-care — and live with the unsettled feeling that comes with not showing up even when I want to. I’ll just do so when I can. See you there… or here… or in person…

Happy Spring! I plan to enjoy the quiet moments that come my way.

An egg in the nest on my front door wreath

Until we meet again,

Amy

What’s on Your Shopping List? How About Some… Inspiration?

As the old saying goes, you never know when or where inspiration will strike. Earlier this week, it struck me at… PetSmart.

Not inspiration for a book idea. Or inspiration to adopt another cat (although I pretty much feel the urge whenever I see a homeless kitty). It was more like inspiration, along with affirmation, to keep doing what I’m doing.

Vague? It’s because what I took away was a generalized feeling; it wasn’t about doing any one particular thing. Another reason for the vagueness? Well, I hope to keep you reading!

So. I was in the check-out line at PetSmart chatting with the woman in front of me. For the sake of this post, I’ll call her Susan. Susan mentioned having a severely autistic son and we were discussing her frustration with some of his current and prior services. At some point, I mentioned being a teacher.

She said that the very best years of her son’s education were in elementary school. Susan asked where I taught and when I told her, she lit up. Big. Time.

Guess which school he had attended? You got it! Her son (and daughter) went to the same public elementary school where I now teach.

The view from my school

Susan gushed with warm, funny stories about her son’s experiences at the school. Her stories reflected his great sense of comfort and belonging with his peers, the faculty, and the administration.

Although I just joined the faculty this year and had nothing to do with her son’s experiences, the three adults that Susan mentioned still work at my school; and it made me even prouder to be their colleague.

More than anything, I felt such joy for Susan’s son. It was clear from what she relayed that his positive elementary school experiences still bolster him (and her!). That’s what I want for all kids — for school to be a source of strength.

If that wasn’t enough for me to get the warm fuzzies, Susan told me about her now college-aged daughter. In an essay for a course, her daughter, who is white, discussed how the high degree of diversity at her former elementary school has benefitted her as a person.

This woman’s takeaway from elementary school means the world to me. I believe deeply that interacting with people from various backgrounds is one of the most valuable things about school; and is one of the most promising ways for us to work toward understanding and peace in our world.

And here’s my general takeaway from my chat with Susan, something I’ve long believed as a teacher, writer, mom, and person: If we go with our gut and trust our process, which can sometimes be difficult to implement, good things come of it – and sometimes we don’t know what those things are until far down the road. Often we never find out (and that’s okay).

I told you — vague! But this “feeling” or way of living has helped guide me. And it was lovely to see it play out, albeit through other people.

I let my three colleagues know about my encounter with Susan. It felt like a rare and deep honor – confirming for them that the seeds they had planted years ago had blossomed in Susan’s children. My colleagues were delighted to hear it.

Daffodils in my yard from 366 days ago today; they’re on the verge of blooming again today.

This is why most teachers teach (and why most children’s writers write). Despite how challenging our work may be at times, we love kids and want to make some kind of positive difference in their lives — today and tomorrow.

Little did I know when I raced into PetSmart to pick up cat food that I’d leave with that happy message to deliver to my colleagues. And with all that inspiration and affirmation for me to keep plugging along.

Hey, next time you head into a store, keep your eyes and ears open. You never know what else you may pick up along with the items on your shopping list!

Until we meet again,

Amy

Want to Write Children’s Books? Study The Craft and The Business

Photo Credit: Susan Yin via Upsplash

Recently, my friend Greg emailed me asking for feedback on his first picture book manuscripts. In addition to specific manuscript feedback, I offered him general thoughts on getting started in the children’s book industry. I wanted to save my friend some time and energy. And maybe some headaches and heartache, too.

Turns out that Greg appreciated my thoughts. And then it dawned on me: If you’re beginning to write children’s books with the goal of seeking publication (or contemplating doing so), you might appreciate my thoughts, too.

As I was working on this post, it became clear that my email to Greg could become the basis for at least two posts: studying the craft and the business; and writing and submitting manuscripts. For this post, I’ll focus on the former.

My suggestions are by no means exhaustive. They’re just a start. After all, there are whole books on this subject! Still, my list is quite a bit to tackle. So choose a thing or two and go from there.

My suggestions are also not original or esoteric. (And yet someone else might send you off in a different direction.) These just happen to be steps that I’ve taken. I’m still working away and hoping they’ll pan out!

A neat thing: You can do a lot of learning for free (with your feet up and while sipping on a cup of coffee or tea or whatever suits your style).

via GIPHY

Read and study lots and lots and lots of current books. Did I say lots? Hang out at B&N and read what’s on their “featured” tables and shelves. Ask the children’s bookseller for recs that fit the kind of books you’re writing and attempting to publish. Ask your local children’s librarian. Head to the “new” section at your library for recently published and/or acquired books. Find popular and recommended books online and locate them at your library. Mine offers an online hold service which I utilize often, maybe too often for busy librarians, but I sure do appreciate it. Put that library card to good use!

Google away! Google can give you an education. One website, blog, podcast, etc. will lead to other links that will increase your knowledge of craft and business. Of course, not all of the info is current or worthy, but much of it is. You’ll figure out the difference.

Subscribe to free e-newsletters, blogs, etc. There are so many good ones out there that you’ll need to be choosy! If you oversubscribe, just unsubscribe. If you wish you hadn’t, re-subscribe. No biggie, either way. When these pile up in my inbox, I steal an hour here or there to catch up. I relish the time and info! Here are several that I subscribe to:A

Children’s Book Council

Jane Friedman

KIDLIT411

Lee & Low BooksM

Picture Book Builders

Publishers Weekly Children’s BookShelf

Sub It Club

We Need Diverse Books

Writing for Kids (While Raising Them)

Join social media. You don’t have to live there and you don’t have to be on every platform. After all, you need to write! And do the dishes and laundry and… To start, choose a platform that appeals to you, somewhere you think you can show up regularly. You’ll make connections, learn about opportunities, and yes, even learn about craft and business. Some of the above links also have Facebook Groups that you can join. I avoided social media for years; now I miss it when life gets too busy for me to show up.

Join a Critique Group. You’ll gain a lot: accountability, feedback, camaraderie, and support. It’s par for the course to deal with rejections and self-doubt as well as plenty of alone time. So it’s helpful to have some peeps who get the journey and keep you company (and commiserate and celebrate with you) along the way. Here’s an interview with my critique group.

Take classes and workshops at your local writing organization. If you’re lucky enough to have a local writing organization, check out their website for offerings. I met my critique group at a local workshop at WriterHouse. If you can’t afford a class or workshop, keep an eye out for free events like author readings and social get-togethers.

Join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). If there’s only one thing you can afford to spend money on in order to further your writing life, choose this! It’s the biggest and most reputable professional kidlit organization nationally and internationally. The first year fee is $95 ($80 to renew) and grants you access to invaluable resources. There’s a place for any writer there, from beginner on. Here’s a blog post I wrote about the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference.

Those last four suggestions go beyond studying the craft and business to making connections. Get involved with others in the kidlit community to whatever extent you’re able. It’s a big, vibrant community filled with writers, illustrators, editors, agents, reviewers, librarians, booksellers, and readers. Connections are key in kidlit, and the neat thing is, most people in it are very nice. They love writing and reading, just like you. I think it’s safe to say that most of them also love kids.

If you decide to go for it, congratulations on that first step! Truly. You’re pursuing a dream and that takes courage. Your journey will have ups and downs, as all journeys do. Every now and then, take stock of where you’ve been and where you want to go. Each step counts and is cause for celebration.

via GIPHY

It’s helpful to go in, from the very start, thinking long-term. It takes time to develop craft, understand the business, and make connections. And yes, to earn some income. Patience and persistence will be your best friends throughout the process (for me, it’s also coffee and chocolate).

Goodness knows, I’m still very much learning and finding my way through this wonderful world. There are so many steps I’d like to take including reading more books on craft, taking an online class, and attending a national SCBWI conference. One step at a time. The journey is endless which I love; it means that the learning is endless, too.

And to state the obvious: write. While everything else counts, it’s the writing that will teach us the most.

Oh! And have fun along the way.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Hey! Look Up: A New Year’s Perspective

My older daughter as a preschooler

When my girls were younger, they added a magic to our household during Christmas. Their belief. Their joy. Their innocence.

Now that they’re teenagers, they add a different kind of magic. They carry on our holiday traditions: decorating the tree, baking the homemade cookies, making the holiday cards.

Part of the magic is watching them grow up into thoughtful, capable individuals. The other part is… I get to put my feet up!

A bit. Mostly, their contributions free me up to do other stuff. This year, Christmas passed by before I made photo cards; my older daughter volunteered to make New Year’s cards, as she had last year. Yes, please!

I scrolled through my photos from 2018, searching for ones to text her. I noticed a theme across many of them (not the ones I sent her, but my photos in general): Things Above My Head (literally, not figuratively). I know — it’s an odd theme, but stay with me.

Yes, I’m short, so a lot of things are simply higher up than I am! But I got to thinking… I do tend to look up. Like, I literally look up. Even when I don’t have to.

I unknowingly took a selfie, 8/15/18

It had dawned on me a while ago that I look up, often, while walking in my neighborhood. The tall trees and the big sky are a pretty sight. But there’s also something about looking up that fills me with hope and possibility.

And makes me believe. Like a little kid during Christmas. That thing that I’m looking up at — whatever it is, even if it’s a small bird — seems big in spirit. Magical, really.

On a walk, 2/24/18

On a walk, 2/26/18

It wasn’t until my daughter prompted me to look back at my 2018 photos that I noticed my upward gaze. During the first three days of holiday break, I looked up at three different sights — each cheerful in its own way:

On a walk, 12/20/18

While Christmas shopping, 12/21/18
“Somewhere Over the Strip Mall”

On a walk, 12/22/18

Here are a couple of other things that I looked up to in 2018. These still speak volumes to me given the plight of our nation and world:

On the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, 6/25/18

At O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, 8/3/18

As for 2019, I’ll just keep looking up. 2018 went by in a flash, and I want to make the most out of this one, too.

At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1/15/18

Happy New Year! May yours be filled with inspiring sights, no matter which way you look.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Writing, Teaching, and Momming: Living Three Dreams, Connected by Kids

Photo via Visualhunt.com

The day after Donald Trump was elected President on 11/8/16, America woke up to a country on the verge of a seismic shift. The next four years would bring earth-shattering change.

No. Doubt. About. It.

For many Americans — the majority, according to the popular vote — this news was shocking and devastating. Was I devastated? Yes. Was I shocked? No. Had I continued to live in my liberal bubbles of Brooklyn, Boston, and San Francisco, I probably would’ve been shocked.

But I had spent the previous 15 years living in Central Virginia which had vastly changed my view of America. On the one hand, it had challenged some stereotypes I had held of the South — partly because I’d been living in another liberal bubble, Charlottesville. This college town had shown me, first-hand, many fiercely inclusive individuals and groups.

On the other hand, it had shown me, up close and personal, a side of America that had not before been part of my Northern urban experience. Like Confederate flags waving proudly from cars rolling down the highway I take daily.

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So, that fateful morning, when I broke the news to my younger daughter, then eleven years old, she said matter-of-factly, “Well, there goes America as we know it.” She paused for a few seconds. “You know, Obama is the only President I’ve ever known.”

And that gave me pause. I felt a seismic shift within myself.

I hadn’t considered that fact. She was three years old when Barack Obama was elected. Then, as a first grader, she heard him speak in Charlottesville on his re-election campaign tour. Yeah. She had spent her preschool and elementary school years growing up in a country where the man who occupied the White House was a person of color. A highly intelligent and compassionate man who loves people including, and perhaps most of all, kids.

She, too, felt the loss and a concern for America.

Waiting on a very hot day — one hour for tickets, then another 1.5 hours before hearing President Obama speak. Miya was a trooper — and excited!

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Once upon a time, becoming a reading teacher to kids had been a dream. And it came true. As two educators, my husband and I moved from Brooklyn to Charlottesville to buy a house and start a family. At the age of 35 years old, I left the classroom and stayed home with our girls, my next dream realized. I stayed busy taking care of the girls and the house, volunteering at their elementary school, and working on my first picture book. When it came time to commit to a career in 2014, I chose writing for kids — yet another dream.

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When I woke up on 11/9/16, writing was still front and center. I was only 2.5 years into it, had just launched my website eight months prior, and hadn’t yet started submitting manuscripts. But suddenly, writing didn’t feel like enough.

Kids had long been at the heart of my goals, but now I felt a deep sense of urgency to be with kids — literally.

I was working hard at writing. Despite the blood, sweat, and tears, I was loving it. Yet the longer I worked at it, the more I realized that it would take a long time to publish another book… and to reach kids (and frankly, to also earn income — but that’s another blog post).

And each day that Trump continued in office as President, I sat in front of my computer screen in horror as kids were suffering at the hands of his administration. Economically disadvantaged kids. Kids of color. LGBT+ kids. Migrant kids. Kids seeking political asylum.

KIDS!

This is not to say that life had been perfect for them before — far from it — but this was a whole different ballgame. I felt helpless and, like so many other Americans, wanted to do something that would make an immediate and continuous impact.

Well, there goes America as we know it,” said my then eleven-year-old daughter. She paused for a few seconds. “You know, Obama is the only President I’ve ever known.”

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If I had multiple published books and others under contract, I’d have continued full steam ahead. I’d be reaching kids (and earning an income), as are many children’s authors with their books and school visits. I admire and applaud their hard-won achievements and continued efforts.

While chasing my writing dream, another dream re-emerged. Without letting go of writing, I found myself wanting to step back into teaching. I pursued my recertification in VA and applied for part-time jobs. On 11/7/18, nearly two years to the date when Trump became President, I started a job as a reading teacher at a highly diverse elementary school.

It feels right to be back with kids. And to be in a community with adults who are working, day in and day out, on behalf of kids. Each morning I fill up with hope and see the possibility for a better America when I walk through the school doors.

I’m making my way back into the classroom and learning alongside my students every day. I’m eager to help them gain skills to become better readers and writers. Just as much, I hope they’ll know that I’m on their side.

Getting to know my students, as they share favorite authors and books

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Especially during this transition time, I’ve had to pace back from writing. I miss it, like I missed being with kids. I’m lucky to be able to work part-time and continue to write; I’ll do so as long as my family can afford it. Regardless, I’ll always find a way to write.

I’ve been working on a historical fiction picture book manuscript, off and on, for 1.5 years. I’ve taken it as far as I can and will be submitting it soon. Fingers crossed! Then I’ll be returning to a picture book biography manuscript that I set aside last month. Can’t wait!

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We can carry multiple dreams in our hearts. They don’t die. They just need to be patient until it’s their turn again. Sometimes it takes a seismic shift, sometimes not.

I’m very lucky that I can pursue two dreams: teaching and writing. Wait, make that three: being a mom. Teaching, writing, and momming – for me, that’s the stuff that dreams are made of. They bring challenges, including the challenge of juggling it all, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My new classroom, filled with books!

Until we meet again,

Amy

The SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference: My Annual (Re)Treat

Back in 2013 or 2014, a writer friend suggested that I join SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. I don’t remember exactly what went through my mind, but it probably went something like this: That sounds so established. That’s for real writers, and I’m not sure that I’m enough.

I’m so glad that my friend brought SCBWI to my attention (Thanks, Sue!) and that I joined. As it turns out, members are writers and illustrators on every point of the publishing spectrum, from those who’ve published dozens of books to those who are unpublished. There’s a place for every writer who is passionate about writing and illustrating (and reading) children’s books. And yes, if you write or illustrate, then you are real and you are enough.

One of the things that I most love about SCBWI are the conferences which are skillfully organized by teams of children’s writers and illustrators. I’ve been attending the annual Mid-Atlantic Conference since 2014. Each one has been a different experience, depending on where I am in my writing life, who’s on faculty, and whom I happen to meet. But I always walk away with new knowledge, connections, and inspiration. Always.

Am I sounding like an ad for SCBWI? Really, I don’t enjoy being a saleswoman. I find self-promotion hard. I give away too many copies of my book. And I’m that mom who avoids fundraisers. If I’m enthusiastic about something, it’s only because I believe in it. (Like, I will spread the word when my daughter is selling Girl Scout cookies. Want any come January?)

Conferences are a good fit for me, because I enjoy learning and connecting with people in person. And who doesn’t love inspiration? Besides, I savor the get-away from life and a hotel room all to myself.

When I attended my first Mid-Atlantic Conference in 2014, I was so excited that I could barely sleep the night before. And when day came, I felt that I had met My People. People who understood the deep desire to create books for kids, were working hard to make that happen, and were helping each other along the winding road.

When I attended my fifth Mid-Atlantic Conference a couple of weekends ago, I felt all the more that I was with my people. People who understood what it feels like to have work rejected by editors and agents. People who keep going despite (and maybe even partly because of) the rejections. People who still have the deep desire, who are still working hard, who are still helping each other.

Why, this conference has become so much like a second home that… the morning of the conference, I grabbed my tote bag, stepped out into the hallway, and realized that… I still had my slippers on! Okay, maybe that was just absentmindedness at work, but in any case, this conference has become a writing home-base. I did change out of my slippers, by the way.

Over the course of two days, I met new people and hugged old friends. I filled up my notebook with so many craft ideas and inspirational words from writers, illustrators, editors, and agents who gave speeches, sat on panels, and taught workshops. I will, as I have in the past, turn back the pages to those notes.

Pat Cummings leading her workshop, “The Plot Thins: Getting Brutal, Getting Published… How Harsh Self-Editing Can Turn Unsold Projects Into Marketable Stories”

The wise and wonderful Pat Cummings gave the keynote address and led a three-hour workshop. Her words, especially, have continued to resonate:

The bottom line is do it. If you love it, put it down on paper. You’re 90% there. Somebody else will love it, too.” – Pat Cummings

And…

If you won the lottery today, would you still be doing it?” – Pat Cummings

And…

How long are you going to be on the planet?” – Pat Cummings

This year’s conference felt extra special to me. Ever since, I’ve tried to put my finger on why. It was likely due to several factors including the very lovely faculty and my own comfort level. More than anything, though, I picked up on an particularly kind, gentle vibe. I wonder if others who attended felt it, too.

Given the divisive state of this country, I appreciated all the more the haven that this conference is. I took solace in connecting with others who believe in the power of books to build bridges between people. During a time when I’m grieving for our country (and our world), it was healing to be in the presence of a people who are trying to birth beautiful books for our greatest hope: children.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference. I hope to see some of you there next October!

Attendees browsing the faculty’s books

Until we meet again,

Amy

A Non-Bloggy Post

When I started this blog one-and-a-half years ago, I didn’t know what I’d write about or how often I’d post. I’ve taken things day by day, and as it’s turned out, I’ve posted once a month about something that has resonated with me that month (save for the planned interviews which have also resonated!). This has worked well for me.

Until now. As September has rolled along, I’ve wished that something would stand up and say, “Blog about ME!” But nothing has spoken. For sure, national news has been very loud and consuming, and I’ve had a hard time hearing much else. Maybe I haven’t been listening carefully enough, because I know there’s got to be inspiration, even there .

In general, though, I’ve not been without inspiration this month. I’ve had plenty for two writing projects (one historical fiction and the other narrative non-fiction) that I hope will ultimately add some positive energy to our world. I wish I could share more than that, but I can’t; that’s the way this business goes. If things pan out, I’ll be more than happy to blog about them down the road.

Maybe next month, blog worthy inspiration will strike. Or maybe, I’ll change my strategy and not wait for inspiration. Or yet again, maybe I’ll change what has become a once-a-month goal. I’ll be thinking on this.

In any case, I wanted to touch base before we turn the calendar to October. Wishing you a wonderful fall — filled with inspiration!

Until we meet again,

Amy

Sometimes Things Are What They Seem… And Sometimes They Aren’t

My daughter Liana found this four-leaf clover last spring.

Saturday

It was a quiet morning, the start of what was to be an unscheduled day for me. Ahhh.

In the previous two weeks, my family and I had flown back from our family reunion in California… I had finished up an accelerated summer education course… I had had a routine screening colonoscopy… I had taken my girls to various annual appointments, gatherings with friends, back-to-school shopping, and their school open houses to meet their new teachers.

Having a great time with family in CA! That’s me in the dragon’s mouth.

All good. But busy. (OK, the colonoscopy prep was no fun. But the results were good, so I’ll take it!)

I was planning to head out that afternoon to indulge in some writing which had taken a backseat during the spring and summer to teaching recertification. I would hide out at the library or a café… and escape from life for a while.

Not!

The door bell rang. A friend of my daughter Liana had arrived to pick up Liana so that they could go for haircuts. (Suddenly, over the summer, several of Liana’s friends had attained their driver’s licenses. And they were willing and, dare I say, eager to chauffeur. Yay!).

I rushed to get dressed, greet her friend, and say, “Bye and have fun.” What happened next happened so quickly that I’m not sure exactly how it happened. All I can say definitively is that I ruptured a tendon in my left pinky.

As I was getting dressed. Yes, I hurt myself getting dressed. More specifically, as I was yanking up my jeans. I heard “SNAP” and… I’ll spare you the details of what it looked like.

Ouch. I know it sounds crazy, and almost two weeks later, I’m still shaking my head. And laughing about it. Kind of.

My husband, Rob, rushed me to the nearby urgent care center owned by one of the local hospital systems. The nurse joked with me that I must have been doing something heroic. Ha!

I had x-rays taken and my pinky was put in a temporary splint. Good news! The tendon hadn’t pulled off any bone.

But! I would need surgery. Bummer. I was given a referral to an orthopedic doctor with directions to call on Monday morning.

Saturday (continued) & Sunday

I iced and elevated. And continued on with life, disturbed that I could hurt myself getting dressed and sad whenever I peeked at my limp pinky in the splint. Every now and then, I fantasized that it would bounce back to life and not require surgery.

All the while, though, I felt grateful that it wasn’t worse, that I had family at home to help me, and that we have good health insurance (while feeling very acutely that everyone deserves good health insurance).

I contacted a friend who had had a hand injury last year, inquiring where she had been referred to and cared for. She raved about the UVA Hand Center (where I had not been referred to) saying that her child had also received excellent care there. Having great trust in my friend’s judgment, I decided to make the call there, first thing on Monday morning.

Monday

The kind person who took my call got me onto the schedule that very day. Indeed, I received excellent care. And then I heard these words: “I don’t think you’re going to need surgery for this.”

What?!

“We see this type of injury all the time. It usually heals on its own. We’ll get you into a custom-made splint and show you how to dress it.”

I’d come in fully expecting to schedule surgery. Instead I felt like I’d won the lottery.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll need surgery in the end. But I’m going with this until we know more. And I’ll be keeping my fingers, umm, crossed.

Wall-E checking out my handy-dandy splint

******

I’m under doctor’s orders to air out my pinky for 15-30 minutes every day. Since I have to support it with my other hand, I can’t be my usual self during that time, i.e. either buzzing around doing stuff or sitting still reading and writing. So I’m doing something I’ve barely made time for since my kids were born: watching TV. Rob got a big flat-screen TV ten years ago and I barely know how to work the thing.

So, there we are, Rob and I, watching a half-hour of TV together each evening. Often it turns into an hour. I’ve laughed a lot. And I wonder why I hadn’t joined him in front of the TV sooner. I like to think it’s just what the doctor ordered.

******

Wednesday

While I grew more skilled at washing the dishes and my hair with one hand covered in a plastic bag, my girls started their new school year learning algebra and trigonometry. They came home with stories to tell and I felt grateful to be a recipient.

After dinner Liana pulled the ice cream tub from the freezer. “Uh, this is really soft.” She took a close look into the freezer. “Everything is soft and melting.”

Oh no. This fridge was 14 or 15 years old. It had been a tad too tall to fit underneath the cabinets, and the delivery guy (with our OK) sawed off the bottom part of the cabinet frame so that it would fit.

About 10 years, the crushed ice function had stopped working. More recently, the filtered water had stopped working. And it had started making strange sounds.

We had just needed to replace the entire heat pump a few months before. The stove, dishwasher, clothes washer, and dryer were all older than the fridge. Don’t go, fridge! Not yet!

I left the kitchen table and crept toward the fridge, not wanting to face reality. On the way, I peered into the ice cream tub, and the ice cream resembled soft-serve. I reached into the freezer, touched the chicken, and it sprang back. Water was dripping from the ice container, dribbling down the walls of the freezer and onto the kitchen floor.

And yet for the second time since Saturday, I hoped against hope. Maybe it wasn’t really completely broken. Maybe we wouldn’t have to deal with another bill, another inconvenience, another thing to do.

Rob had had to work late. Fifteen minutes later he came home and was convinced that we had to deal with it. Well, all right, if we must…

I remembered that our neighbors had a deep freezer in their garage. I called them. Even better! They had replaced their fridge recently and moved their old one into the garage. It was working and nearly empty! They welcomed us to use it.

We packed up everything except for essentials for the next day’s breakfast and lunch. Rob and Liana brought over the food to our kind neighbors. Then Rob went out to get Ready Ice for the freezer where we then stored the essentials.

Thursday

Leaving four dishtowels on the floor in front of the fridge to sop up the dribbling water, I spent the better part of Thursday shopping for a fridge that would fit our smaller space. At Lowe’s there was one more in stock! On sale! To be delivered on Sunday! Score!

We knew we would survive with our food just down the cul-de-sac road. And we marveled at how people in our world live without a fridge and other privileges that many of us take for granted.

Friday

On Friday morning, Liana raced up the stairs to my bedroom. “Mom! Everything is frozen! My lunch is frozen!”

What?!

I ran down to the kitchen and threw open the freezer door (careful to protect my pinky, of course). It was working! I threw open the fridge door. Working, too!

No more water dribbling out of the freezer.

Maybe a mechanical part had gotten clogged with ice, shutting down the machine until the water had drained? I really had/have no idea. There’s a reason I stick to books.

I voiced the possibility of canceling the new fridge, but the other three people in my house vetoed that right away. Yeah, it had become too flaky. Sometimes it’s best to let things go. And we were lucky that we could afford to let this one go.

Bye, fridge. Thanks for all the years!

******

Friday (continued)

Later that day I was headed home at the start of rush hour. First, I planned to make quick stops at the library and supermarket. The cars were going the usual 60 mph on this stretch of a two-lane highway. I was traveling in the right lane, preparing to exit soon, when I noticed that a line of stopped cars had suddenly started to form. Maybe an accident? Or an overflow of exiting cars?

The-car-in-front-of-me stopped. I stopped. I looked in my rearview mirror. The-car-behind-me stopped.

But the-car-two-cars-behind-me DID! NOT! STOP!

It was coming. I would be rear-ended.

I heard it: “CRASH!”

But wait. Where was the second “CRASH!”? You know, my car? My car hadn’t budged from the impending impact of the-car-behind-me. Why hadn’t my car been jolted?

And then I saw the-car-behind-me fly to my left-hand side and stop beyond me in my lane.

And then I saw the-car-two-cars-behind-me fly between our two cars and continue beyond the-car-behind-me.

I pulled over to the break-down lane and looked around, trying to process what had just happened during the last few seconds.

The-car-behind-me was smashed in the rear and in the front. The-car-in-front-of-me had sustained less damage, but still, it had been hit and was further up in the right lane than the-car-behind-me. The-car-two-cars-behind-me was behind the-car-in-front-of-me, but in the break-down lane.

So, the-car-two-cars-behind-me had hit the-car-behind-me AND the-car-in-front-of-me.

And my car was untouched. Untouched.

What?!

I took a photo (which I’m not posting to protect the privacy of the other drivers), then got out of my car.

The road was littered with car debris. The traffic behind us had halted. Including the semi who was the first vehicle in the left lane. Oh, what a scary thought I had when I saw that truck…

Everyone said they were OK. Thank Goodness.

A police officer came quickly. Traffic started to move in the left lane.

Each driver talked to the police officer. I was free to go and got into my car. The police officer waved me forward, my car tires crunching pieces of the other cars that were all much newer and nicer than my 17-year-old car.

As I drove, I replayed the scene in my head over and over, trying to make sense of this accident that happened all around me but had left my car (and most importantly, my body) unharmed.

I hadn’t seen it all unfold. As with my pinky, it happened so quickly. But given the aftermath and after several mental replays, I think this is what transpired:

After the-car-two-cars-behind-me hit the-car-behind-me in the rear, the-car-behind-me steered into the left lane, presumably to avoid hitting my car, and then steered back into the right lane. The-car-two-cars-behind-me steered between the-car-behind-me and my car, presumably to avoid hitting either one of our cars. However, because it was traveling so fast, the-car-two-cars-behind-me hit the-car-behind-me again, this time in the front; and then went on to hit the-car-in-front-of-me.

Intense.

Unreal.

I could not believe how lucky I was to be able to go on with my day. If my pinky had been like winning the lottery, this was like winning countless lotteries.

I made it to the library ten minutes before closing to drop off some books and take some books off of hold. I picked up a few groceries for dinner at the supermarket and headed home.

Rob met me at the door. I said, “I was almost in a bad car accident.” That, of course, made no sense.

So he said, “What?” And I explained, feeling ever so grateful. And wishing the very best for the drivers and passengers of those three cars.

******

Sunday

The weekend had been uneventful, thankfully.

And then the highlight arrived on Sunday afternoon: the new fridge.

It fit! It worked!

******

For the past six days, we’ve been enjoying crushed ice and filtered water.

We love our new fridge. Well, everyone except for the cats who are wary of it. Maybe it looks like a gigantic animal. It certainly looks and sounds different. And probably smells different, too.

But unlike the pinky that needed surgery, the fridge that had drawn its final breath, and the car accident that was bound to happen, this new fridge is indeed what is seems to be.

Wall-E and Howie trying to decide what to do with that big thing

******

What did I take away from that week?

A LOT. I won’t mention every teeny tiny thing, but here are Amy’s Top Three (oldies but goodies):

  1. Be mindful; stay in the moment. I’m trying to use my pinky as a wake-up call. When I’m getting dressed, let that be what I’m focusing on instead of thinking about a zillion other things that may distract me… Or maybe I’ll just stay in my pajamas the next time the doorbell rings.
  2. Be kind. I interacted with a number of people, mostly strangers, as I dealt with these three situations. I was met with way more kindness than not, and every bit of it mattered. I would go into things more, but this is already a super long post! Thanks for making it this far.
  3. Be hopeful. Like the saying goes, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. There is always hope.

Have a wonderful Labor Day weekend! Whether you’re traveling far or staying close to home, safe travels to you and yours. And everyone.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Meet My Writing Critique Group!

(from left to right) Me, Priya Mahadevan, Marc Boston, Jane Jackson

If you’d like to get to know my writing critique group, read on! This interview appeared in the spring issue of Highlighter, the newsletter for the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). (Wow, that’s a mouthful!)

The interview is reprinted below with permission from Highlighter. Thank you to author Dionna Mann, Highlighter’s Content Editor, for interviewing us!

Photos credits go to Delaney Boston, Marley Boston, and Liana Tai.

Critique Group Spotlight: ImagineInk

Members

Amy Lee-Tai, Jane Jackson, Marc Boston, and Priya Mahadevan

How It Formed

In May 2014, Amy, Jane, and Marc met at a writing workshop led by Kathy Erskine at WriterHouse. Two months later, Amy contacted the others about forming a children’s critique group that nurtures diverse voices. ImagineInk was born! Priya joined in May 2017 after Amy learned of her through a local magazine. All members are committed to helping each other transform ideas from imagination to ink.

What stood out the most was that empathy and love were the driving forces in all their writings and interactions.” — Priya Mahadevan

How It Functions

Each member sends a manuscript four to seven days before each meeting, with the understanding that sooner means more consideration. Every three weeks, usually on a Tuesday, they gather at a coffee shop downtown. While they remain flexible with the day of week, they meet during the school day since they all have young children. Meetings last about three hours. After some chitchat, they begin critiques. The person receiving a critique remains quiet (or is supposed to!) and takes notes. They share business news as time allows. Since they get along so well, their biggest challenge is not going off on tangents about their personal lives or politics. Amy, the former school teacher, is usually the one to keep them all on track.

What They Love About Their Critique Group

AMY: I feel lucky to be part of a diverse group filled with kind-hearted deep thinkers who are passionate about kids’ books and social justice. All of this shines through in their stories, critiques, and interactions. While meetings are meaty, the camaraderie and humor keep things fun; I leave feeling reenergized to do the hard work of writing and revising.

JANE: The shared experience, incredible support, humor, understanding, and fun combine to make this group shine. I have so enjoyed their wit and wisdom as I continue to grow as a writer. Also, these are three of the most thoughtful, kind, patient, and interesting people I know in Charlottesville.

MARC: I’m blessed to be able to commune with a fantastic group of creative, intelligent, and spiritual souls. It’s the personal connection I feel with each of them, which has grown over the years, that I hold dear. I trust their opinions, relish their support, and am energized by their open-minded objectivity, genuine hearts, and authentic spirits.

PRIYA: When I was invited to be part of this group, it seemed like I had already known the others for a long time. What stood out the most was that empathy and love were the driving forces in all their writings and interactions. I am constantly amazed at the subject matter that inspires their writing and at the presentation of those ideas. This allows my own creativity to expand.

How They Have Grown as Writers

AMY: The group has served as a reality check regarding my characters. Do my young characters ring true? Their emotions and thoughts? Their motivations and choices? Their actions and reactions? Given their parental experiences and open hearts, these writers help me keep it real! Their rich use of language has also been instructive: Marc’s playfulness, Jane’s wit, Priya’s poetry. I learn more from seeing them shape their words over drafts than I would from merely reading a final draft.

JANE: The critiques have informed and improved, dramatically, my understanding of plot points, structure, and flow. I have learned to manage the action sequences, and do so with humor and fun phrasing, making my work more readable and enjoyable. I absolutely credit the group’s positive attitude and expertise in delivering such helpful critiques!

MARC: Our group is truly interested in seeing each of us flourish as writers. They hold me accountable! I write much more than I otherwise would, and they make great suggestions for each manuscript. They’re not afraid to be honest—always sending me back to the drawing board if a piece appears to be missing something. We’re a beautifully diverse group, which inspires me to be very mindful of seeing life and the world from a broader perspective.

PRIYA: In a word, accountability. This group has instilled in me a discipline to write, no matter what. We help each other tweak our pieces to a point that we feel confident enough to submit them. We each have a special something we bring to the table, and each of our perspectives ends up helping us grow not just individually but also as a collective.

Member Bios:

Amy is the picture book author of A PLACE WHERE SUNFLOWERS GROW, winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. Connect with her at amyleetai.com and on Instagram.

Jane writes middle-grade fiction along with some short stories and the occasional essay. While she plans to seek publication one day, for now, she’s simply enjoying the writing process. Jane can be found on Instagram and Twitter.

Marc is a freelance writer and the author of two picture books: THE GIRL WHO CARRIED TOO MUCH STUFF and WHAT ABOUT ME?. Find Marc at marcboston.com and follow him on Instagram.

Priya is the author of two picture books: PRINCESSES ONLY WEAR PUTTA PUTTAS and FEY FEY SAYS NO. Find more details at priyamahadevan.com and follow her on Facebook.