All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org
by Kristin Pazulski
Reading young adult and children’s author Denise Vega‘s online persona, you’ll learn she hates cheese, loves meditation and writes in a voice that is both all her own and that of her inner young self. Her sparkling online persona is real. In person s
he’s just as bubbly and energetic, and she took some time from her many projects—a young adult novel, prepping for her Lighthouse classes, and numerous picture books—to chat with me about writing for YA and children.
1. How did you know you wanted to write for children and young adults? How would another writer recognize signs or talent within their own work for this type of writing?
I started writing for kids because that was the age when books really impacted me. They were my best friends sometimes. I was able to explore topics without having to explore physically—I could explore without the risk. Those books were so important as a young person and teen.
When the stories I wanted to write started coming, that was my audience. I was writing for that teen in me who had some sucky situations that happened, and I wanted to give a story to a kid that was meaningful the same way I was affected by what I was reading at that age.
As for signs a writer might recognize … if you are interested in novels and find that the characters that are coming to you are younger and you want to write about that experience in a more immediate way as opposed to a looking back way, than you may want to consider writing for middle grade or young adult audiences. Curtis Sittenfeld wrote this awesome novel and the characters are younger, but because it’s written looking back, it feels more like an adult novel rather than young adult. If your connection is to that inner teen, inner child, you’re going to listen to that voice and follow it. If the stories that come to you are for the littlest humans, than picture books is definitely something you should explore.
2. Your online/blogging presence caters to the young adult audience. Does it come naturally to you, or do you have to be really intentional and mindful about the words and tone?
It does come naturally. I’m actually working on the website, hoping to share more about who I am as a person through my blog. I think a lot of times, when a person has a service to sell, it’s about using those social networking tools for marketing. I was doing that sort of, but not well. I took some classes on marketing and social networking and started to think, “What do I like to read about if I’m reading about an author that I care about?” and it’s the little stuff, the personal stuff that I’m interested in, and that’s what I want to share with my readers
A funny fact about me that kids get a kick out of is that I don’t like cheese—kids are shocked that I don’t like pizza. Without cheese, it’s just bread and tomato sauce, and that doesn’t appeal to me. I want to share, also, more memories of my being a teen or being a kid. For example, my mom would braid my hair or put it in pigtails every day. But when my sister was born, my mom was—of course!—in the hospital, and so she couldn’t braid my hair, and I remember being frantic because she wasn’t there to do it. Sharing that kind of a story is fun for your audience and reminds us all that we are human with human experiences that are relatable.
3. Your website and blog, Blab-o-Denise, has a lot of advice for writers—prompts every Monday, analysis of another author’s first page every Friday. The art of writing, and teaching and practicing it, seems really important to you (and we’re so lucky to have you joining our faculty!). Do you think it’s more important for children and young adults, and for people that aren’t writers to just play with writing?
I think that whether it’s writing or any artistic form, we are creative beings and we need to have creative outlets. I think writing is so vital for anybody who wants to express themselves through words. Not everyone is a writer, but it’s one of the best ways to share your view of the world. It’s amazing that through a story you can touch someone you don’t even know and change lives in ways that you can’t even imagine. And sometimes just getting it out and knowing you’ve been heard is completely cathartic.
My prompts are mainly for adults, but young writers should be able to get something out of the prompts, too. I created the Monday prompts because if you aren’t writing on the weekend, it’s a way to get you in the mode—we all need that little nudge. It helps me because they’ve sparked things in me. I used to be so anti-writing prompts. I wanted to write in a way that related to my work-in-progress and nothing else. But it shakes out the cobwebs and you often are completely surprised by what comes out! It might be something you can use. Most of the time it’s not too bad either, and it gives you the confidence boost you need to move forward with your other projects and deadlines.
4. I don’t want to reveal too much from what you’ll be teaching in class, but how, as an adult, do you get into the head of a young child? Do you pull from your experiences as a child, or from your children’s?
I am always observing kids. Observe kids, be around them. If you can volunteer in a classroom and just be a fly on the wall, you’ll learn and hear things that can help. What do they care about, get upset about, what makes them happy—those are the things you’re going to write about. Also reading picture books to see what’s out there and how these feelings are being addressed in different stories. My children inspired my picture books when they were younger, and now I have nephews, 3 and 5 years old, so that’s been fun. And talking to parents is really great because they have awesome stories about their kids.
Also, an important note: there’s a fine line between writing for young children and respecting them, and preaching to them. It’s not about teaching a lesson, at least not in my class for picture books. Kids get enough of that at home and school. A lesson might happen organically in a story, but that shouldn’t be the point of sitting down to do this (unless your goal is a niche or educational market and those have value). Lessons are valuable but that’s not what you’ll find in my class. Story comes first, and you will not walk out of my class with a lesson as your main focus.
5. What makes a good picture book? What’s your favorite picture book?
Come to one of my Intro classes to find out (just kidding). A good picture book author understands the symbiosis between the text and illustrations, that you need both to tell a really good story.
My recent favorite? I’m Bored by Michael Ian Black and illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi. It’s deceptively simple, but when you really look at the elements, you start to realize how much goes into a picture book.
6. How are you going to bring the importance of illustration into your Lighthouse workshop?
A visitor! In the 8-week class, since it’s long enough, I’ve invited an illustrator to come to the first class. Together we’ll talk about how the illustration is there, not just bringing to life the text, but to create a visual experience that often isn’t even in the text.