Thursday, June 14, 2018

Meet Our 2018-2019 Mentors: Nonfiction!

Meet our mentors from our Mentorship Program 2018-2019

Here’s what our Nonfiction Mentors – Clare Hodgson Meeker, Laurie Thompson, and Marin Younker have to say.

Tell us a little bit about what you are working on now and your current projects.

Clare: My current book project is a narrative nonfiction chapter book titled Growing Up Gorilla, the story of a baby gorilla named Yola at Woodland Park Zoo whose mother initially refused to care for her at birth. With patient help from zoo staff and support from a shy adult silverback in her family group, Yola was able to bond with her mother within five months. The book will be published by Millbrook Press in the fall of 2019.  

Laurie: Right now I’m focusing on promoting TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE: HISTORIES AND MYSTERIES, which releases June 26, and on completing the backmatter and photo research for the next book in the series. I’m also revising two picture books, one fiction and one nonfiction, and working on sample chapters for a YA nonfiction proposal that I’m really excited about. Somewhere in there, I’m also trying to find time to revise a MG nonfiction proposal and finish a draft of a new picture book!

Marin: My work-in-progress is tentatively titled Stuffed and is an exposé of taxidermy. Like Bleed, Blister, Puke, and Purge, it’s intended for middle and high school readers with adult crossover appeal. My agent, Michelle Witte, has a draft of the proposal and manuscript for editing. In the meantime, I am in the thick of research and note taking which are my favorite parts of the process.

How does being a mentor influence and inform your work and why do you do it?

Clare: I have had many writing mentors over the course of my career. They encouraged me to believe in my own voice as a children’s book author, taught me about the writing craft, gave constructive advice on my manuscripts, and helped me find my way in the writing business. I enjoy mentoring fellow writers at any stage of the process because that is how I learned and was able to get published.

Laurie: I love being a mentor because it gives me a chance to give back to the community in the same way other authors assisted me in my journey, but I also have a completely selfish reason, too! I firmly believe that one of the best ways to become a better writer yourself is to carefully critique someone else’s work. It helps me stay focused on the fundamentals of good writing, and I know that I invariably learn things about my own writing when I’m giving someone else feedback--both by being reminded of my weaknesses as well as learning new tricks. I also find a lot of inspiration through mentoring, because even if someone has a lot to learn there are always things they do well, too. Plus, people who are looking for a mentorship tend to be committed and passionate about their work, which is energizing and just plain fun to be around!

Marin: In mentoring another local writer, I hope to pay it forward. Like many, I’ve benefited from the eye and input of other writers, as well as librarians. As a former librarian, I am fortunate enough to have co-workers who are willing to read drafts in all their ugliness, as well as act as a sounding board for ideas. The same can be said for writers in the SCBWI community: those who focus on non-fiction are especially generous with their time and connections.

Mentoring is a great way to learn!

What are some challenges you have encountered in your writing/illustration
journey? How did you manage to survive through them and achieve success?

Clare: One of the challenges in writing nonfiction is that your story is based on fact, not from your imagination.  Careful research is key and that often includes interviewing people who know the subject you are writing about better than you do. One of my biggest challenges in my latest book project was being able to get access to interview the keepers and other zoo staff who helped raise Yola and her mother. The zoo wanted a commitment from a publisher ahead of time. But publishers don’t usually offer a contract without seeing a full draft first. So I had to write the story based on what facts I knew and use my writing skills and imagination to develop the story narrative in a way that would engage my target audience of 7-12 year old readers. That first draft along with a full proposal got me a publisher and access to the Zoo staff.  The short answer to facing these challenges is to be patient, determined, and never give up.

Laurie: The waiting is always the biggest challenge. It seems like EVERYTHING in this business moves at a snail’s pace… right up until it becomes an all-out sprint, at least! In addition to requiring inhuman amounts of patience, the waiting leaves a lot of time for self-doubt to grow while our confidence dwindles. Believing in the value of my work keeps me going even when I question my ability to actually DO it. (And yes, I still question it--every. single. day.)

Marin: Two areas of particular weakness are underwriting and narrative structure. I tend towards brevity, which can be both a benefit and curse. Crucial to my process is an editor who can eagerly ask follow-up questions. As for narrative structure, sometimes I get so caught up in research, I neglect to clearly connect the dots, leaving the reader unsure of what comes next and why. Flow is hard! With Stuffed, both of those challenges are in the back of my mind as I draft.

What advice would you give to your beginner self who is just starting out to make a creative career?

Clare: Do what feels right to you every step of the way. You need a good idea to start off with, and from there, be willing to put in the time and effort to finish your manuscript the best way you know how. Every story and every book is like your first book. Make sure you care enough about the subject to devote the time to make it great. Once your book comes out, put on your promotion hat to get your book out in the world and into the hands of kids and parents who will love it and want to share it with others. 

Laurie: First, you must be persistent. You will have to keep trying, learning, growing, and trying again, until you finally succeed. As long as you are making progress, no matter how slow, you are doing it right and you are on the right road. You just have to keep going, trust the process, and believe that things will happen when they are supposed to happen.
Second, you are going to have to allow yourself to be vulnerable. It’s not easy, but it is what will allow you to connect with readers, and thus what will open the doors to a career in the business. Don’t be afraid to show your authentic self and invite others along on your personal journey.

Marin: Get to know the business, from the craft of writing to the ins and outs of publishing. After going online and doing some basic research, treat your local bookseller and/or librarian to coffee and pick their brain. If there is a relevant book group at a school or library, ask to observe. Find a group of fellow authors or illustrators to meet with regularly, if for no other reason than accountability. Plus, read lots!

For more details of the mentorship program check here.

Clare Hodgson Meeker is an award-winning author of 11 published books for children including the Spring 2016 Junior Library Guild Selection Rhino Rescue! And More True Stories of Savings Animals, the Smithsonian Notable Book Lootas, Little Wave Eater and Soccer Dreams: Playing the Seattle Sounders FC Way. Her next book, Growing Up Gorilla, published by Millbrook Press, is scheduled for release in the fall of 2019.

Clare teaches writing in schools throughout the Northwest. She is a frequent speaker at conferences and will be presenting at the 2018 Southwest Washington Writers Conference in September. She is also a member of the literary nonprofit organization the Seattle7Writers.

A former software engineer, Laurie Ann Thompson writes for young people to help them better understand the world we live in and make it a better place for all. She strives to write nonfiction that encourages imagination and fiction that reflects universal truths, as seen in Be a Changemaker, an inspiring how-to guide for teens; Emmanuel’s Dream, a picture book biography of a man who changed perceptions of disability; My Dog Is The Best; and the upcoming Two Truths And A Lie series for middle-grade readers (co-authored with Ammi-Joan Paquette). Learn more at and on Twitter at @lauriethompson.

A self-described research junkie, J. Marin Younker worked as a public librarian for thirteen years, spending most of that time working with teens. Earning a degree in History from Western Washington University, Marin went on to graduate school for an MLIS at the University of Washington. Marin now lives in the Seattle area with her family and animal menagerie. Her first book, Bleed, Blister, Puke, and Purge exposes the dirty secrets behind early american medicine.

For more information, visit or follow her on twitter at @odddelights.

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