A Little Braggin’

Elizabeth Bluemle -- January 31st, 2013

Recently, when I was working on updating The Stars So Far project, which rounds up the year’s starred children’s books, I noticed something that made my heart happy: two of my twelve classmates from the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults (now called VCFA) have books on the list: Kelly Bingham for Z Is for Moose (six stars), and Leda Schubert for Monsieur Marceau: Actor Without Words (three stars). Leda’s book also just won the 2013 Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children, given by the National Council of Teachers of English. And Kelly’s hilarious picture book about an overly enthusiastic, impatient moose (read: a typical four-year-old) was on several national mock Caldecott lists. Their achievements this year have made all of us in that little VCMFA gang proud!

There were only a baker’s dozen of us in that class, but for a tiny group, they pack a lot of writerly oomph! Down to a person, that group was and is wildly gifted in a variety of ways. When I look at all they’ve accomplished in the years since we were mostly unpublished authors honing our craft at that amazing program in Montpelier, I am so proud of the work they’ve done and the riches they’ve added to this world, both in the realm of books and beyond.

This is my chance to do a little bragging, so here they are, alphabetically presented – the Vermont College MFA-WCYA Class of 2004 — or, as we sort of disjointedly and non-unanimously called ourselves: The Zoo.

Andrew Auseon — Andy was our token male in the class, as well as one of its youngest members. Andy writes terrific edgy, funny YA novels—FREAK MAGNET (HarperTeen, 2010), JO-JO AND THE FIENDISH LOT (HarperTeen, 2009), FUNNY LITTLE MONKEY (Harcourt, 2005)—and has co-written a hilarious middle-grade novel, ALIENATED (Aladdin, 2009) with Hollywood screenwriter David O. Russell. He is also a celebrated video game designer (which makes all of us extremely cool by association).

Kelly Bingham — In addition to six-star picture books–the aforementioned Z IS FOR MOOSE, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (Greenwillow, 2012)–Kelly writes novels in verse. SHARK GIRL (Candlewick, 2007) is about a girl adjusting to life after her arm is bitten off by a shark. It was written about a year before Bethany Hamilton had her accident; you can imagine how freaky it was for Kelly and the rest of us who had read the manuscript when that news broke. Kelly took a little writing hiatus while raising her family, but has come back full force. Her sequel to Shark Girl, FORMERLY, SHARK GIRL (Candlewick, 2013), will hit bookshelves in May, and there are other books in the works. I believe Kelly also may be the only member of our gang with actual merch (a plush doll of Moose from Merrymakers).

Elizabeth Bluemle — You all know me, but mainly in my context of blogging here in Publishers Weekly’s Shelftalker about children’s bookselling, and as co-owner of The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt. Wearing my authorial hat, I’ve got three picture books with Candlewick Press — MY FATHER THE DOG (2006), DOGS ON THE BED (2008) and HOW DO YOU WOKKA-WOKKA (2010), with a fourth, TAP TAP BOOM BOOM due in 2014. I was thrilled to receive the 2007 Wanda Gág Read Aloud Book Award (for ages birth to age 8) for My Father the Dog from Minnesota State University Moorhead, and the 2010 Kids’ Choice Award from the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia for How Do You Wokka-Wokka? I rarely wear my author hat in the ShelfTalker blog and feel sheepish tooting my own horn here, so on to the next Zoo member!

Bethany Dellinger — In addition to creating a beautiful big family in the years since we were at Vermont College, Bethany writes a blog called “Literary Crush,” about children’s and young adult literature. I love how she invites readers into her posts: “I am a YA writer with a serious case of literary crush. It’s not that I’m unfaithful, it’s just that I love stories…especially those that shed light on the human condition. Come ponder the things that makes some books a fling and others a life-long love. And please join the conversation!” In June 2010, Bethany’s YA mythic fantasy manuscript, THE DARKENING, (now titled DARK WHIMSY) won an Honorable Mention in the First Annual SCBWI Carolina’s Art and Writing Contest judged by Sarah Shumway of Katherine Tegen Books.

Laura Greene: Laura is a keen-eyed historical fiction and political writer for teens and adults. Her manuscripts take years of research, and I believe at least one, if not two, is finished and out making the rounds. I still remember a scene Laura read about a young boy in an ancient marketplace; it’s pretty impressive when a scene still sticks in the brain after ten years! Laura also conceived, spearheaded, and established The Alumni Gift Award Scholarship Fund at Vermont College, which is given to a student who demonstrates some or all of the following characteristics: leadership, inspiration, support of fellow students, and/or contributions to the program.

Helen Hemphill — A lovely Southerner with that enviable southern flair for storytelling and combining heart with humor, Helen has published three marvelous novels that deserve a wide audience: LONG GONE DADDY (Front Street, 2006), RUNAROUND (Front Street, 2007), THE ADVENTUROUS DEEDS OF DEADWOOD JONES (Front Street, 2008). She also teaches writing for the Highlights Foundation and will be doing a workshop with Linda Sue Park and guest Alvina Ling in October 2013. Keep your eyes out for more books from Helen!

Karyn Henley —Karyn was one of the members of the Zoo who came into the Vermont College program already published, though it took us quite a while to know that about her. (She was and is extremely modest about her successes.) She has written and published dozens of children’s books, including THE BEGINNER’S BIBLE, which (I just discovered via Karyn’s website) sold 5 million copies and was translated into 17 languages! Holy cow! Most recently, Karyn has written two fantasy novels of a projected trilogy entitled The Angelaeon Circle, beginning with BREATH OF ANGEL (Waterbrook, 2011) and EYE OF THE SWORD (Waterbrook, 2012).

Michelle Roehm-McCann —Michelle came into the VCFA program already a children’s book editor and author. During her time in the program, she published a fabulous picture book based on her interviews with a heroic Jewish woman, Luba Tryszynka-Frederick, who saved dozens of children’s lives during her time in a concentration camp. LUBA: THE ANGEL OF BERGEN-BELSEN (Tricycle, 2003) won several awards, including a Jane Addams Peace Prize Honor. Another of Michelle’s books, GIRLS WHO ROCKED THE WORLD: HEROINES FROM JOAN OF ARC TO MOTHER TERESA was recently reissued (Beyond Books, 2012), along with a new title, BOYS WHO ROCKED THE WORLD: HEROES FROM KING TUT TO BRUCE LEE (Beyond Words, 2012).

Shenaaz Nanji — Shenaaz, a superb storyteller, is a Canadian citizen who was already published in both Canada and the United States coming into the program. Shen grew up in Africa and has the most marvelous way of retelling the stories that animated her childhood. She also drew from another side of her family’s heritage in the marvelous INDIAN TALES (Barefoot Books, 2007). And her most recent novel, CHILD OF DANDELIONS (Front Street, 2008), is a powerful fictionalized account of a family’s experience in Uganda, when British Indians were forced out by the Idi Amin regime and even Indian citizens of Uganda became unsafe in their homeland. Can’t wait for the next Shen stories to come out!

Ann Parr — Ann is a teaching dynamo, bringing children and seniors together for writing workshops. She has published two biographies for young people, COACH TEX WINTER: TRIANGLE BASKETBALL (NDX Press, 2006), and GORDON PARKS: NO EXCUSES (Pelican, 2006), about the remarkable African-American photographer, filmmaker, and writer who didn’t let racism stop him from pursuing his great artistic gifts.

Leda Schubert — I met Leda on the Vermont state Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award Committee, where she wowed me with her terrific sense of humor and honest, clear-eyed critical faculties. She is the one who first told me about the VCFA program. We all graduated together, but Leda is the only Zoo member who has gone on to become faculty at Vermont College, where she helps nurture the careers of many budding and established writers. Leda has published a boatload of fine books since her VCFA days, including the award-winning BALLET OF THE ELEPHANTS (Roaring Brook, 2006), FEEDING THE SHEEP (FSG, 2010), READING TO PEANUT (Holiday House, 2011), and this year’s gorgeous Orbis Pictus winner, MONSIEUR MARCEAU: ACTOR WITHOUT WORDS (Roaring Brook/Flash Point, 2012). It must also here be said that Leda loves dogs, because somehow this must always be said about Leda.

Trina St. Jean —Trina was one of the funniest members of our class, and a delightful writer. Her publishing career was stalled a bit when she, like Bethany, started her family. Trina taught ESL while raising her children. Happily, she has continued to write, and recently made final polishes to a terrific MG novel that has just started making the rounds. Another Canadian citizen, she and Shenaaz represent the Zoo up north. Keep your eyes peeled for Trina’s name. We will be reading her books one day soon!

Desiree Tolbert — During her time at Vermont College, Desiree wrote fabulous stories about the refugee experience in the United States. She and her then boyfriend (now husband) worked closely with several refugee families, helping them settle in to their new lives here. Desiree’s ear and eye were sensitive and thoughtful. I have no doubt she would be published had she continued pursuing that avenue, but her social work proved to be the more compelling passion. I still hope some day we will see Desiree’s books on our shelves, but in the meantime, she inspires all of us Zoo members with the wonderful work she does with humor and grace.

Betsy Wernert — Betsy writes a cool, crazy, fun blog about children’s books called Bigfoot Reads. Bigfoot and his cryptid pals (Morzant the Alien and his lab assistant Mortimer, along with Penny C. Monster, Norman and Beverly the Half-Invisible Turtles, and Lenny, Oliver, and Violet, the Paranormal Puppies) review books, interview authors, and offer writing exercises to aspiring writers. Betsy has recently begun library school to become a children’s librarian. Plus, she is a very funny, inventive novelist and picture book writer. Can’t wait to have her books on the Flying Pig shelves one of these days. Woot!! Betsy also conducts the best family contest ever: a reading competition that involves two or three generations of family members vying for the most pages read during the year. The family members compare and recommend books to one another; it warms my heart when Betsy’s dad willingly picks up a middle-grade or young-adult novel simply on the basis of his daughter’s trustworthy recommendation.

Thanks for sharing this pride-fest with me. I really am so bowled over by everything this little group has done since graduating from the program. It was a life-changing experience, an incredible writing program that focused on craft instead of publication, and it was chock full of wisdom, laughter, giant cookies, and the occasional meltdown. One thing that holds true for class after class: people become lifelong friends and loyal writing compatriots.

A final note: I took one semester off during my time at Vermont College, which means that I was part of another talented class, as well. I may have to brag about them in another post down the road.

12 thoughts on “A Little Braggin’

  1. Sundee Frazier

    So fun to read about all that your fun and inspiring class has accomplished over the years — as the class ahead of my own, I looked up to you all (and still do). And super grateful we got to have you for a semester, too :)

  2. Bethany K. Dellinger

    Fantastic to see this here, Elizabeth! I’m so proud of everyone, and forever grateful for VCFA for making us comrades. Here’s to another 10 years of friendship and writing success!

  3. Elizabeth White

    This was so inspiring to read–thank you! I’m graduating from VCFA this July, and facing the big unknown . . . it’s exciting to think of the possibility of blooming in the years following graduation, as you guys seem to have done. Congratulations, and . . . thanks!

  4. Lyn Miller-Lachmann

    What a lovely profile of a wonderful VCFA class! As the winner of the Alumni Award in summer 2011, I am especially grateful to Laura Greene for her work in establishing this award. I am a Secret Gardener, Class of Summer 2012, and I hope one day to put together a lengthy profile of our accomplishments–and it will be lengthy because there are 32 of us!

  5. Jen

    Makes me proud to be a VCFA grad! …wonder how all my classmates are doing, too! We’re a larger group, and I think more happy news is coming down the road.

  6. Sarah Lamstein

    What a generous post, Elizabeth! And a wonderful and well-deserved shout-out to VCFA.

    I was so happy to read about Desiree Tolbert, and many others, and to see that she is walking the walk. I remember her ms. about a refugee family from a VCFA workshop we took together. I wonder if she knows the work and writing of Terry Farish. They seem to have similar interests.

    I hope Desiree can find time for her writing at some point in her social work career. I very much enjoyed her early manuscript.

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