By: Michelle Lee and Sophia N. Lee, MFA 2018
Earlier this fall, the Graduate Writing Program welcomed back Celeste Lim and Caela Carter, two authors from the New School’s Writing for Children & Young Adults (WFCYA) MFA Program. Attendees listened to the two authors in conversation as they discussed their new middle-grade books, their journeys to publication, and the challenges they faced as writers post-MFA. The panel was moderated by children’s book author and WFCYA Program Coordinator Caron Levis.
Caela Carter (class of 2012), is the author of a number of books, including Me, Him, Them and It (Bloosmbury 2014) and My Life with the Liars (Harper 2016). Her publication story is one that many aspiring writers dream of: she finished one manuscript during her first semester in the program, acquired an agent in the second, and got her first book deal in the summer before her second year.
Like Carter, Celeste Lim’s (class of 2014) road to publication began while she was an MFA student. Her debut novel was acquired after attending a master class on cross-cultural writing and diversity in children’s literature at The New School. The class was taught by Scholastic Vice-President and Editor-at-Large Andrea Davis Pinkney, who encouraged Lim to continue writing her story set in medieval China, about a young girl who was sold as a maidservant and child bride to a three-year-old boy. Lim shared that she worked on that story for her creative thesis, and that she spent the next three years working on the manuscript in order to get it ready for publication. That work became her debut novel The Crystal Ribbon, published by Scholastic in 2017, and edited by Pinkney herself.
Though both authors’ first publications came easier than most, both Carter and Lim were candid about the challenges they faced in writing their novels.
Carter’s latest book, titled Forever or a Long, Long Time (Harper 2017), centers around two newly-adopted siblings who are trying to fill the gaps in their history after years of being in the foster-care system. The writing of this story was more personal for Carter – she was writing a book about foster children while in the process of becoming a foster parent herself. But it was the difference in authorial perspective which challenged her the most. There was a distance in writing the first draft (prior to becoming a foster parent) that she did not have when she began the revision process as a new foster parent.
For Lim, the biggest challenge was switching the story from third person to first person narration, upon the suggestion of her editor. Such a huge change would have been a challenge for any writer, but for Lim, for whom English is a second language, the task was even harder. She related how the experience was akin to rewriting the whole book, and how she struggled with writing in first person because of her uncertainty about the colloquialisms and slang she had her characters use in her work.
Lim discussed too how working with an editor changed her story for the better. Upon Pinkney’s advice, she managed to trim the original manuscript from 90,000 words down to 70,000. “Andrea thought the story started after 100 pages in,” she said. And that was not the only big change that Pinkney asked her to make. “It became more of a personal story for (the main character) Jing rather than about all the magical things that happened to her,” she added. It bears mentioning that Lim was an international student at the time, and was grappling with concerns about her visa, and with the weight of expectations from her family back home in Malaysia, apart from revising the book. Lim was fueled by more than just motivation. “The key to my success was desperation,” she shared. She jumped on every opportunity to network that the school provided in order to give her manuscript the biggest chance at success.
The authors discussed whether or not writers had a responsibility to protect young readers from difficult themes and storylines. “In children’s literature, there is this notion of protecting the reader – letting them know that it will be okay in the end, particularly if the work in question is difficult, said Levis. Lim, whose main character in The Crystal Ribbon was sold into servitude, said that she believed young readers had their own instincts for self-protection when encountering difficult themes. “If they understand it, they’ll understand it in their own way – they’ll protect themselves,” she added. Carter approached this issue in a different way: in Forever, or a Long, Long Time, her protagonists found their forever home at the beginning of the story rather than at the end. She structured her book this way to reassure the reader of a happy ending, in spite of the difficult pages ahead. Done that way, her reader is made to focus on the payoff for the characters, rather than on the obstacles they face along the way. “The quest is about who loved them, not who abandoned them,” Levis added.
There was a strong sense of kinship that filled the room during the intimate event. The panel was well-attended not just by current students of the writing program, but by alumni who came to support the returning authors as well. In this conversation about finding family in their respective books, they shared about the family they found through the program. Author and faculty member Sarah Weeks captured the sentiment of the evening when she asked the authors this final question: What have you taken with you from this program that you’re using now? For both authors, the answer was easy – they agreed that it was the people they left with, that even though a structured group dynamic might not last, they would always have people to share pages and thoughts with. “They’re not just writing partners, they’re a lot more now,” Lim said.