Now in its second year of sponsoring a mentorship program for diverse writers, The Word, A Storytelling Sanctuary has selected three children’s writers to partner with editors from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers to revise and fine-tune their manuscripts. Denise Adusei, a Cape Verdean expat living in New York City who aspires to create picture books, will be working with Andrea Spooner, editorial director of picture books at Little, Brown. Dionna L. Mann of Virginia will work on her middle grade fiction manuscript with editor-in-chief Alvina Ling. And Mexican-American writer Rosario Martinez, who lives in Dallas, will work on her YA science fiction/fantasy novel with associate editor Nikki Garcia.
This year’s sole adult fiction mentee, Nigerian writer Samuel Kóláwolé, will work with Amber Oliver, an assistant editor at Harper Perennial.
Under the auspices of the Denver-based project—associated with Fractured Atlas, a national nonprofit arts service organization—these four aspiring writers from marginalized backgrounds will not only partner with the editors to prepare their manuscripts for submission to agents and editors, but also will be advised on best practices in submitting their work via traditional channels.
The program is free to the accepted applicants and editors are volunteering their time.
“The program is meant to help [writers] bring their work into its final form and then get them into the publishing pipeline,” founder and executive director Viniyanka Prasad told PW. Disclosing that 150 writers—about 50 in each category—applied to the program in its inaugural year, and “several hundred” this time around, Prasad explained that applicants answered four short essay questions and also provided 40 pages of their manuscript to be considered. Three finalists in each category were chosen from the pool of applicants, and asked to send on the entire manuscript. Each editor then made the final decision on whom they wished to mentor.
Reflecting upon the growth of the program since its launch, Prasad observed, “There is a large, vibrant community of writers from underrepresented communities who are clearly being missed by traditional submissions channels.”
There are no restrictions as to subject matter, Prasad said, “Often writers [from marginalized communities] are asked to write about their pain. We don’t tell them what to write. We want them to have the freedom to share what they want to share.”
Prasad, a lawyer, disclosed that she founded The Word in 2016 to promote more inclusive representation in literature that reflects the diversity of people’s lives and experiences, after serving as a public defender in Denver for many years. “A big part of my job was to tell other people’s stories,” she said. “I was aware of my power and thought about how much power these people would have if they could tell their own stories.”
Due also to having two sisters who are writers, Prasad said that she was made aware that the publishing process presents obstacles for writers from marginalized backgrounds, and thus was inspired to address this issue as well. “I wanted to focus on opening the pipeline, to change the nature of which books are making it through.”
There were three mentees last year, two of them working on children's books, one on adult fiction. Nadine Johnson, an expat of Jamaica who lives in South Carolina and has self-published 10 picture books, worked with Scholastic editor Andrea Davis Pinkney—who is herself an award-winning children's book author—on her middle-grade manuscript, Me and My Drum.
Johnson described the program as "a priceless opportunity" for her. Pinkney gave her "great advice" she said, which strengthened and tightened up her writing.
"Writing is challenging," Johnson wrote in an email to PW, "so it’s extremely beneficial to get constructive feedback from professionals in the industry." Johnson is currently querying agents, which she describes as "a long process." In a recent email, however, she promised "a great update" that she will be able to share at a later date.
Mentoring, Pinkney explains, "is a two-way street;" she said that she learned just as much from this experience as did Johnson. “It’s about co-creation,” she noted. "My role is to hold the flashlight while the mentee does the digging. [Johnson] made tremendous progress: she was so wide open. She really went for it, and I think it paid off. It was so inspiring to see someone take suggestions and run with them."
Maleeha Siddiqui, a Virginian who is the child of Pakistani immigrants, worked with Taylor Norman, a children’s book editor at Chronicle Books, on her contemporary YA novel, Holy Treachery.
"The experience was fantastic and eye-opening for me," said Siddiqui, who is working on her M.S. in biotechnology, and describes herself as hesitant to effectively revise drafts. Siddiqui emphasized that she has "so many good things to say" about Norman. "She was always a quick responder," Siddiqui said. "Taylor lay the groundwork for how I would learn to revise in general and helped me understand how to tackle all the aspects of strong storytelling. The whole experience felt so personal and one-on-one."
Norman confirmed Siddiqui’s assessment, telling PW in an email, "It was definitely worth my time. I learned a lot both practically and intangibly. My future- and current-selves are so glad my past-self said yes."
Siddiqui reported that she subsequently "set the manuscript aside," and is currently working on another novel.
For those participating in this year’s mentorship program, Siddiqui offers up some advice: "Learn what you can from your mentor because they know what they’re doing. After all, they’re professionals in their field. But also don’t rely on your mentor to help you fix everything. Take the time to hone your writing skills by watching videos and reading books on craft. There’s always something new out there to learn."