Rising Stars continues in 2021! Hooray! The goal of this series is to highlight my fellow kidlit creators who are working their tails off to birth their beautiful book babies into the world. These interviews will cast a light on the wonderful work of these pre-published authors and author-illustrators who are destined to be stars!
Meet Rising Star
Author Laken Slate
Laken Slate is a former kindergarten teacher, toddler mom, and Navy spouse. She’s had a lifelong love of picture books, even though she once failed the Accelerated Reader test for Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Laken mainly writes humorous stories, and she enjoys all the things people tend to enjoy: travel, music, laughter, friends, family, and sunshine.
Welcome, Laken! Thanks for joining me for the Rising Stars in KidLit Series. I can't wait to hear more about your work, your inspiration, and your projects! Let's jump in!
AD: Let’s start with a speed round…
AD: Okay, now down to the serious stuff….Please dish us the dirt on who you are and your journey into the fabulous world of children’s books.
LS: It is a fabulous world :) Let’s see… I am a military spouse, stationed in Pearl Harbor. I am a toddler mom and former kindergarten teacher. I plan to return to the classroom when my little cutie is older.
I was a terribly unconfident child, and a teacher liked my writing. She read one of my poems over the intercom, and I felt like a celebrity. I always liked writing after that. Fast forward to last spring. I kept thinking of a quote from the movie, How Do You Know?, directed by James L. Brooks. Toni Shalhoub's character says, "Figure out what you want and figure out how to ask for it." I was a new mom, and as much as I adored that role, I suddenly had this urgency to pursue a dream that was just mine. I found the Twitter writing community, found fantastic critique partners, learned to craft much less embarrassing query letters, and wrote eight manuscripts in eight months- all during baby's naptimes.
AD: Amazing how that positive experience of having your poem read aloud to the school stuck with you and shaped your love for writing. A good reminder of how powerful our childhood experiences can be in molding us into the people we are today. I love that quote as well. How empowering. Our identities shift and change as we take on new roles in our lives but it is important to never lose our own voice and desires in the process. Congrats to you for following that voice and carving out the time to make your dreams come true!
AD: Did you always know you wanted to be an author? Have you explored other paths or had/have other jobs?
LS: My first job was at McDonald’s, when I was 16. I worked as a waitress at Outback Steakhouse through college. (If I ever venture into young adult, I’m definitely attempting a waitstaff novel.) I graduated with a degree in Early Childhood Education and began teaching only two days later. I think being a teacher fueled my love for writing. I love reading stories to children. I do all the voices, I make sound effects, it’s ridiculous. My classroom was right next to the library, and I probably drove the media specialist batty! I came in every day after school, just to look.
AD: What topics or themes do you tend to focus on in your writing/art? Favorite genres you like to write in or favorite art materials/techniques?
LS: I can’t write a story without humor. From gentle/ subtle humor to quirky or even dark, it’s the only common factor in all of my stories. I think it takes a lot of courage to tell jokes, especially for an introvert. I never know if people will agree with what I think is funny.
I wrote a story about a cricket who gets eaten by a squirrel on the first page. The narrator tries to pivot the story to focus on the squirrel, but then the squirrel gets eaten by a fox. When I first shared the pitch for this story, I was terrified! I thought my CPs would think it was gross and weird, but they were so encouraging. They always are.
AD: Yes, humor is quite hard and takes courage. That is a gap in my own writing that I am working to learn more about and sharpen. I love how you aren't afraid of your authentic voice-even if sometimes it may be out of the box or quirky. Aren't we all a little weird and strange in our own little ways?!?
AD: Breaking into the publishing industry is not easy! What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far? What have you done to persevere?
LS: I did theatre in high school, so I know that rejection is part of art. I suppose the biggest challenge is simply knowing that your dream may never pan out. But pessimism isn’t productive. I was quiet, for a theatre kid. My director always gave me great parts, but never the lead, because I couldn’t “project”. I knew I could play the lead, if given the chance. But that’s not how things work. You have to prove yourself in auditions, when you’re terrified, and you don’t know how to play the part yet. That’s what querying is like. You have to sell your book without knowing exactly what you’re doing or what the agent wants. To persevere, I keep my head down, write new stories, seek new opportunities, and stay open to inspiration.
AD: "Pessimism isn't productive"....so true!!
As creators (and humans), we tend to focus on the flaws of our creations or areas for improvement. This helps us grow and develop, but we need not forget the many things we are doing well. With this in mind, what has been your biggest accomplishment or something you are most proud of thus far on your writing journey?
LS: I was thrilled when I got my first request for additional manuscripts. It was early on, and I didn’t even know what a query package was (face + palm). I didn’t close the deal, but it was a huge confidence boost. I’m most proud of simply finishing a story. I used to have so many ideas, but not stories. Now I have stories that I read just to laugh. I always think, no matter what happens with publishing or not publishing, my kids will read these someday and smile.
AD: That's a beautiful mindset, and congrats on your request for more work. I like to say if we just KEEP GOING, we are bound to meet our goals. I know this will be the same for your publishing dreams as well, Laken. :)
AD: In a similar vein, what do you feel are your strengths as an author/illustrator? What makes your art/writing unique to you?
LS: My writing has lots of wordplay and a simple, cutesy, funny kind of voice. I’ve been told I tell fresh stories. I know there’s no original thought, but I can’t pursue a project if it closely resembles another. Coming up with unique ideas is one of my favorite steps of the process. I participated in Tara Lazar’s Story Storm this year, for the first time, and it was a blast! I sometimes hide inside jokes/ fun facts in my writing. For instance, even though THE ROVER RESCUE is fictional, I prioritized accuracy in describing the machines. I wanted space enthusiasts to catch the little details about Mars, Perseverance, Ingenuity, and Opportunity. When working on a story called THE HUMMINGBIRD DUEL, I contacted a fencing expert so I could sprinkle in lingo. I also gave the MC the name Hernando Colibrí, because Colibrí means hummingbird in Spanish.
Overall, I think my writing is unique because it’s mine. Writers sometimes get lost trying to model their voice to match another. Picture books are fascinating because you get to open little windows into different worlds, different moods, different perspectives. I write best when I let go and tap into who I am and what I’d really like to say.
AD: Yes! Those hidden little details are so fun for not just children, but adults and are perfect for repeated reads. It sounds like your stories could be classified as informational fiction, which is a bonus for educators and use in classrooms and curriculums, too!
AD: What inspires your work?
LS: I’m always incredibly inspired by movies. I used to have Oscar watch parties, every year, and see all the Best Picture nominees in theaters. Looking back to last winter, I felt most propelled to start writing again after watching the newest Little Women. I’m also constantly inspired by my beautiful friends and family. Many of them don’t even know that I write, but they’re in my stories.
AD: Tell us about your creative process and what you do to keep ideas flowing or what you do when feeling stuck?
LS: I’m one of those people that can’t stop having ideas. They come so quick it’s unmanageable. My trouble is weeding out the duds and remembering not to pluck the buds. Sometimes I waste time on the “duds”. I’ll work so hard to flesh out an idea that’s not worth pursuing. Sometimes I try to write the “buds” too soon, forgetting that they’re better left alone. It’s so much harder to revise an idea on paper. I’ve learned to let it sit in my mind for a while, until it’s ready.
AD: I totally relate to idea overload, too! It seems I always have phrases, images, or stories running through my head and if I don't get them down in my notes, they can easily be forgotten. What fun lingo, "duds" and "buds". I'd have to argue that even the "duds" have their place in our process by helping to sharpen our skills and perhaps lead us to our next "bud" :) Or, at least I like to tell myself this so I don't feel that I wasted time, ha!
What sorts of things have been most integral in your growth as an author-illustrator?
LS: Jesus and Twitter. HAHA. But really… I do feel like writing has always come in and out of my life in the most divine ways. The Twitter writing community has been such a life-changing surprise. I learn best by doing, so the most valuable resource I’ve found through Twitter is access to professional critiques. I’ve won a few critiques, but I’ve also invested in my work. Choosing to do so was hard for me, because I never wanted to spend money on what could be categorized as a “hobby”. But it was always so much more to me than a hobby. I’ve started asking for “critique cash” for birthdays and holidays. You helped me fix my rover story. Purchasing a critique from you drastically changed the way I write, because you taught me the value of “readability.” You didn’t change my voice, but you helped me tune it. Katie Frawley offers this awesome Red Light/Green Light service, where she ranks your body of work. I had shelved the story she ranked as my best. I’m working on it now, with Katie, and it’s shaping up to be my favorite.
I listen to Bookends YouTube videos on my morning run. James McGowan and Jessica Faust give detailed tips on the most specific and necessary topics. I’m always wishing I could run with a pen and paper to take notes. I joined Rate Your Story this year, and I know it will be a priceless tool. Last year, at this time, I knew I wanted to write someday, but had no idea where to start. I’m optimistic about this year, about this dream. We’ll see what happens.
Finally, I don’t know what I’d do without the community of support I have on the Discord app. My CP, Chris Nantais, created channels for picture book writers to ask questions, share tips, swap stories, commiserate, and celebrate. I’ve found so many opportunities simply from chatting with friends on the app.
AD: I'm so glad my critique services were helpful, Laken! It's so important to have a supportive community and invest in our professional development. There is always something new to learn! I think I'm going to start asking for some "critique cash," too! :)
AD: What advice do you have for fellow kidlit creatives?
LS: Listen to feedback. I know it hurts to hear someone say your “baby” is ugly but LISTEN! Maybe your baby is only ugly because you need to wipe its nose and brush its hair a bit. Enough with that analogy…All I’m saying is, if you defend your work so much that you can’t process criticism, you miss out on the benefit of change. Every rejection, every critique that you disagree with, may have insight that can take your story to the next level. So…don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater (wink) and listen.
AD: I just LOLed! This is a perfect analogy!
AD: Where can readers find out more about you and your work? Please include links to any social media, websites, blogs, etc.
LS: If you follow me on Twitter, I may not say much, but I will retweet funny, writing-related posts you may have missed :). I have a blog that combines my love for teaching and writing. When I taught pre-kindergarten, I started developing a creative writing curriculum for the littlest learners. I share some of my ideas on my blog, and I sometimes write about my own journey in writing.
Thank you so much for allowing me to be a part of the Rising Stars series. I took a chance when I applied, and it has been an absolute honor to participate.
Best of luck to you! I am SO looking forward to your debut!
Awwww, thanks, Laken! Cheers to taking chances! I can't wait to see your stories in the hands of young readers! Stay tuned for next week where we get to meet another Rising Star in Kidlit, and be sure to subscribe so you don't miss out and follow along on Twitter at #RisingStarsinKidlit! Feel free to drop a comment below to support Laken and her work.
Who Am I?
Amanda Davis is a teacher, artist, writer, and innovator who uses her words and pictures to light up the world with kindness. Amanda is the author of the award-winning picture book, 30,000 Stitches: The Inspiring Story of the National 9/11 Flag, Moonlight Memories (summer, 2023) and a yet to be announced forthcoming title. She also has poetry and illustrations featured in The Writers’ Loft Anthology: Friends & Anemones: Ocean Poems for Children. Amanda has over ten years of experience as a classroom teacher and was selected as Massachusetts Secondary Art Educator of the Year. When she’s not busy creating, you can find her sipping tea, petting dogs, and exploring the natural wonders of The Bay State with her family and her rescue pup, Cora. You can learn more about Amanda at www.amandadavisart.com and on Twitter @amandadavisart and Instagram @amandadavis_art.