Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Self-publishing a YA Novel: Interview with Author Joyana Peters ~by Julie Phend


 The Girl in the Triangle

by Joyana Peters

Joyana Peters is the author of the award-winning YA historical novel, The Girl in the Triangle, about Ruth, a young woman who immigrates to New York in 1909, finds work at the Triangle Garment factory, and is caught up in the tragic fire that took place there in 1911. It’s also a love triangle between Ruth, her arranged fiancé Abraham, and her younger sister Ester. And it’s the story of a young woman who survives tragedy to work for change in her new country.

The Girl in the Triangle is self-published through Joyana’s imprint, Amaryllis Press. The book was a 2021 honor recipient of SCBWI’s Spark Award, recognizing excellence in a children’s or YA book published through a non-traditional route.

Joyana spoke at the 2022 SCBWI MidAtlantic Fall Conference on “How to Successfully Self-Publish.” I’m excited to share some of her insights with you.


Julie: Congratulations, Joyana, on your success with The Girl in the Triangle. Tell us a little about why you chose to explore this period in history.

Joyana: Thanks Julie. This topic is near and dear to my heart. Growing up in New York, I learned about the Triangle Fire in school. My dad was a steamfitter in New York City who stressed the importance of workplace rights and fire safety. The Triangle Fire, which killed 146 workers, is legendary for its role in fire safety reform.

I was still living in New York when 9/11 happened. Some newspapers printed photos of victims jumping from the Trade Center alongside photos of people jumping from the Triangle Factory. The images were chilling, and they stayed with me.

Ten years later, when New York was commemorating the fire’s centennial anniversary, I was searching for a topic for my MFA project. Once again, the photos spoke to me, and I knew I needed to explore the stories of the women who worked at the Triangle factory.



Julie: Few YA authors follow the path of self-publishing. Why did you decide to go that route?

Joyana: Several things led to this decision. One was timing. I wanted to have the book completed for the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Fire. The slowness of traditional publishing would likely make that impossible. I was also drawn to the autonomy and control I could have over my publication process with self-publishing. For example, I could choose all my own contractors. When you sign with a traditional publisher, you relinquish control. You’re assigned to an editor, they choose the cover, etc. Instead, I could hire an editor whose personality complemented mine and a cover designer whose portfolio I loved. I was so happy with both!



Julie: What things should a writer consider before self-publishing?

Joyana: There are many things to consider before deciding to self-publish. It’s not as simple as just loading a manuscript into Kindle Publishing. To do it well, you need to spend some money, and consider it an investment in yourself. Your book must stand up against traditionally published books. Therefore, you should budget at least enough for a professional editor and cover designer.

You should also prepare to become a jack of all trades. You’ll want to farm out some things, but you’re not made of money, either. So you need to put in time learning various aspects of the process. I learned to do my own interior layout. I also built my website and found out about search engine optimization and Amazon algorithms. Be prepared to never stop learning and trying new things. 



Julie: As a self-published author, you must do your own marketing. What are the most successful things you’ve done to market your book?


Joyana: I’ve done a lot of reading to learn about marketing. Some of my new best friends are experts like Joanna Penn, David Gaughran, Tammi Labrecque and Nick Stephenson. But it’s been a trial-and-error process because what works for some people doesn’t work for all.

I learned to capitalize on my strengths. For example, I love networking and having conversations with people. So, instead of learning how to place ads on Amazon and social media, I’ve taken to the festival circuit and gotten speaking engagements. Building up an email list for my newsletter and offering book swap listings with other authors has also been helpful.



Julie: Girl in the Triangle has won a lot of awards. How did that come about?

Part of my marketing strategy was to submit the book for contests and awards. I was gratified to receive the recognition I did. Besides the Spark Award, The Girl in the Triangle won the Book Excellence Award for Best Multicultural Fiction. It also won the Independent Book Publishing Association’s Ben Franklin Award for Best Historical Fiction. It’s honestly been a dream come true.



Julie: Can you tell us about a mistake you made, or something you would do differently next time around?

Joyana: Next time, I’ll worry less about getting into bookstores. This might come as a surprise, but it really wasn’t worth the effort. I make less on bookstore sales because I need to give them a warehouse discount, and bookstores pay smaller royalties than online sales. Plus, there’s the potential for returns. If a bookstore doesn’t move your product in a certain amount of time, they return it to the warehouse to be destroyed, and the author is charged the full price balance for the books. After learning this lesson the hard way—with a hefty return price tag—I now focus my efforts on my online and in-person sales.



Julie: You didn’t stop with just one book. Tell us about your follow-up efforts and what’s next for you? 

Joyana: This past summer I released a prequel to The Girl in the Triangle. It’s called The Girl from Saint Petersburg and follows Ruth’s escape from Russia at the start of the Russian Revolution. And I’ve begun work on the final book in the trilogy, which takes place after the Triangle Fire.

I’m also building opportunities to engage with readers and other writers. I want to share the knowledge I’ve accumulated, so I’ve started a self-publishing newsletter. I’ve built a Patreon page where readers can become involved in my writing process, and I offer coaching packages.


Julie: Joyana, thank you so much for sharing your insights with the Grog blog. As a final gift, can you give us some resources for those considering self-publishing?

Joyana: Be sure to check out my website, and my Patreon page, I post resources there regularly.

A few other favorites to check out:

Joanna Penn at

Nick Stephenson at

David Gaughran

Wednesday, October 19, 2022


By Suzy Leopold

Let’s meet the critically acclaimed author, Barbara Binns. I had the pleasure of interviewing her about her new middle-grade biography. 

This inspiring story is about a Tuskegee Airman and his fight for racial equality. Black and white photographs and illustrations support the well-researched text. Back matter includes a bibliography and source notes.

Yesterday was the release day for Unlawful Orders: A Portrait of Dr. James B. Williams Tuskegee Airman, Surgeon, and Activist. 

Welcome to the GROG Blog, Barbara. 

Q1: What was your inspiration for writing this biography, Unlawful Orders: A Portrait of Dr. James B. Williams Tuskegee Airman, Surgeon, and Activist?

A1: Honestly it was a teacher, just not one of my teachers. My inspiration was Clara Belle Drisdale Williams, the mother of James Williams, and his two brothers, Jasper and Charles. This began as a two-page tribute to her, but the more I learned, the more I fell in love with her entire family, especially her middle son, James B.

Q2: Did you have a critique group (literary agent or editor) who helped and supported your vision for this story?

A2: A friend who writes under the name Kayla Kensington, Finding Her Family’s Love, Mt Zion Press, 2022 and I have formed a critique duo. She writes adult romance, proving people can work with, and successfully critique, writers of differed genres. We’ve been meeting together for several years and it has helped both of our writing. We meet in person as much as possible, although 2020 and 2021 were the years we both got cozy via Zoom.

Q3: The official publication date for Unlawful Orders was yesterday--October 18th. What are some activities and events you are doing (or plan to do) to launch and promote your book?

A3: I have a list of activities I am counting down on.


This summer I had my website updated in preparation for the new book. You can see the result on my website.

In July, I sent an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) of Unlawful Orders to an SCBWI friend, who also does book reviews for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, to get the ball rolling. Her review was published in September.

I have also been in touch with Teaching Books, an internet book resource for children and adults. I recorded an audio interview for them, along with a reading from Unlawful Orders. It will be available soon in the book resources section of Teaching Books.

I am lucky enough to be able to work with a publicist provided by my publishing house. She got me an interview with a reporter for The Tribune in Seymour, Indiana – the site of the Freeman Field Mutiny described in the book. You can read the article in The Tribune.  

The publicist also put me on a Scholastic panel with another

author where we discussed nonfiction books for kids during the

recent National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)

Homecoming mini-conference, in Louisville, Kentucky. That was

the first NCTE first in-person event since Covid-19 and put me in

touch with dozens of teachers from across the country.

I did a video interview for Scholastic and School library journal

which is available on YouTube.

The next event occurs on October 23--a book launch at the 57th

Street Bookstore in Chicago, a southside independent bookstore.

I know, the official publication date is on the 18th, but we all

decided it was better to do an event on Sunday afternoon, where more people could attend. The store is located in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, which is where the book’s main character spent his adult life. Not coincidentally, I also lived in the area, so this is a homecoming for me and my book. I was lucky enough to recruit two people to interview me during the event, a fifth-grade teacher and a historian, both from the University of Chicago Lab School. It will be a happy, come-one, come-all, discussion and book signing.

And, of course, being featured on the wonderful GROG Blog. 

Thanks for the opportunity.

Q4: When did you become interested in writing children’s literature?  

A4: It was a two-step process. First, in 2008, after I attended an Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. They had a session about why teen and tween boys don't like to read (They only found one boy willing to attend and speak, but they had half a dozen girls). After that, reaching out to those reluctant readers became a mission for me. 

Step two happened at about the same time. I was trying to write an adult romance novel and the heroine had a truly obnoxious older brother. Controlling, interfering, and protective. I found myself wondering what made him that way (and yes, I know I created him so everything was my doing) so I decided to stop and write his childhood as a backstory. That became PULL, and the brother was seventeen-year-old David Albacore. He was at a point in his life when being controlling, interfering, and protective of his younger sister was a positive survival skill. I submitted it to a YA romance novel contest that was being judged by Andrea Somberg, and that’s how I got my agent, and my first book published. Because of that conference, I went out of my way to research and understand teen boys, and I think that made the difference in the writing that led to publication.

A decade later and I have never gone back to working on that adult romance novel.

Q5: Share a piece of advice or craft of writing tip.

A5: #1 Never forget who your readers are

YOUR reader is not “anyone” or “everyone” because no book, story, music, or movie is right for everyone. You will have to find your niche and target market when you want to sell. So start at the beginning thinking about the kinds of people who will like the words on your pages – what are their likes and dislikes, and what do they want in a book. My books are intended for tweens and teens, especially reluctant readers. Every chapter, every page, is deliberately organized to their reading habits, to make them want to read more.

#2 Get to know your own writing style

Yours may be different from every other writer in the world. That’s alright. Your style and your voice are the things that will make your stories unique and marketable. I found success when I realized my style was "fixing." I combined that with the best piece of writing advice ever received, "Give yourself permission to write crap." That means I don’t strive for perfection and get stressed when I find I have written a crappy first draft. Because I can fix the crap. Then I fix it and fix it and fix it again. Don't ask me how many times I revise a story, I no longer even try to count. My style takes a lot of effort, frankly, it’s exhausting. But that is my style. 

#3 Polish your manuscript. 

This is number three because it is of the highest importance, and related to number two. Revising and editing are two different things. Successful authors learn to do both or hire editors to help them before they send their stories out to their readers. And, if they did a good enough job, their readers will spread the word to others, and those authors might find that “everyone” really does like their writing. 

Q6: I understand you are an advocate for reluctant readers and support student choices. Expand on your thoughts, “I believe that anything that makes a student want to read is a good book, no matter the subject matter.”

A6: I believe the reading muscle is like any other, it needs to exercise and get strong.  If young people want to read a book, any book, no matter the subject matter, let them do so and exercise the muscle between their ears. Those are the young people who will grow up to understand their world and get the most out of life. They will make the speeches and policies, and be comfortable anywhere because they learned at an early age that there are indeed “more things in heaven and earth” that they would otherwise not have grasped. They will also be adults with empathy.  It is not “grooming” when a book shows kids how to care about others and refrain from being cruel.

On a personal note, I was still in middle school when my school librarian allowed me to take out a book about a serial killer–a first-person story about a “Dexter-like” villain holding a child hostage and prepared to justify why he had to take the boy’s life. Spoiler alert, that did not make me grow up to be a criminal. But my prolific reading habits put me on track to earn degrees in Biochemistry and Computer Science, and now to a late-life career as an author. Anything and everything that makes a young person want to read is valuable. 

Are you ready for some fun rapid-fire questions?

Describe yourself in five words. 

Thoughtful, cynical, happy, intelligent, and, procrastinator.

What is your favorite childhood memory? 

Almost anything school-related, except gym class. I loved school.

Sunrise or sunset? 

Sunset – I don’t do mornings.

When are you most productive? 

The middle of the night, unfortunately. Writing plays holy heck on my sleep patterns because I can get on a roll at midnight and stopping means things will get lost forever. When my daughter was young I worked all day in an office, then cared for her after work. I only had the leisure time to write after she went to bed. Although I am retired, and she has grown and gone off to live her own life, for some foolish reason my body and brain still think bedtime is creativity time. I've learned the hard way that if an idea strikes in the middle of the night and I try to wait, the idea has evaporated by the next morning. I can do minor editing during the day, but apparently, my creative muse requires late nights to get going. 

What was your favorite childhood book? 

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. Chuck and Dave built a spaceship on the beach and took their favorite chicken along on a voyage to an invisible planet circling the earth. What those boys never knew was that they had a stowaway, I rode along too.

Q7: Tell us why it is important for diversity in children’s literature and for readers to see themselves in books. 

A7: All you need do is check out the reactions of kids to the new Little Mermaid portrayed by Halle Bailey. 

Story has been important to human beings since they first learned to write. The very first time a child is read to, parents can observe how important those pictures and stories are to them. Books show children the things that adults feel are important. If a child never sees themselves in a book, it sends a message that they are not considered important. And, if they only see themselves, that gives the message that all others are unimportant. 

In today's world, neither of those messages helps young people do well in society. 

One final question, Barbara . . .

Q8: The nonfiction genre today is not the textbooks of the past with lists of facts and dates. Publisher’s Weekly reported, “both middle grade and young adult nonfiction works are more diverse and innovative than ever before, and the same is true for books for younger readers”. Share your thoughts about the importance of telling true stories, especially about unknown heroes and heroines.

A8: I love superhero stories. As a child, I was a DC and Marvel fan, and I loved Vampirella. But sometimes young people need to know that there are real live larger-than-life human beings doing important deeds. And that all heroes do not have to look alike. It helps them visualize the possibility they can do great things too. 

My history books were undeniably boring. Names, dates events, over and over, and students' jobs were to memorize and regurgitate it back to pass the test. I did not enjoy history until college when I took a Roman history class and found myself studying a drama, historical figures living real lives, loving and hating, fighting, and betraying. It was all better than anything on TV. Dates weren’t important, motives were, and I loved it. When I decided to write a nonfiction book, I knew I wanted to give readers a similar feeling. I want to present people who will remind kids that people like them, or like people they know, can make major accomplishments to the world. 

Initially, I considered leaving almost every date out of the book. Then I realized I needed the dates to keep track of actions, so the readers will too. But I wanted to emphasize what happens and why more than when.

Thank you for joining us on the GROG Blog, Barbara. Readers are sure to appreciate the inspiring story about “JB” Williams and his fight for equality. He accomplished much in his life. I salute Dr. James B. Williams. 🇺🇸

Additional titles written by Barbara:

Harper Collins, 2018
Being God . . .
All the Colors of Love, 2012
All the Colors of Love, 2008

Where can readers of the GROG Blog find out more about you?

Barbara’s Website

Twitter @barbarabinns


Wednesday, October 12, 2022

The Cat's Out of the Bag: Isabella Kung and NO SNOWBALL by Kathy Halsey

Book Review

Cat lovers rejoice, author-illustrator Isabella Kung’s regal NoFuzzball is back with a sidekick, NO SNOWBALL. This meow-velous picture book comes in on little cat feet November 1, 2022, for readers 4 - 8 years. But I paw-sitively believe any reader will enjoy these two personalities as they vie to charm their “subjects,” AKA  “family.”

Snowball is a cuddly ball of fur who embodies all the characteristics of very young children–their enthusiasm, their endless questions, and their boundless energy. Cat and kitten tussle for attention, but that energetic “cat-titude” captures NoFuzzball as she trains Snowball to be a proper princess.

Kung’s illustrations set up compelling interactive scenes between the main characters, while her use of perspective encourages readers to really emerge themselves in this magical queendom. Attention educators and librarians, NO SNOWBALL begs for more than one reading, is a great choice for read alouds, and is ripe for Readers Theater for older kids.

Craft Chat with Isabella Kung

KH: Fuzzball and Snowball are such diametrically different personalities. (That’s part of the fun of this picture book.) Tell us how you create characters.


Isabella: Fuzzball was inspired by my cats Bubo and Bella, her personality is basically a combination of both of them in the body of a fuzzy black cat (I just love how ambiguous their body looks under all that fur). She was initially designed as a set of emojis with Ree Stickers. Designing emojis is very similar to doing a character sheet, I drew her in all kinds of expressions and poses and I got to know her personality very well through this process. Her story eventually came a few months later. I’m glad I got to pay homage to her origins and use most of the emojis on the endpapers in the first book.


For Snowball, I had the concept a long time ago while I was on submission for NO FUZZBALL!  I love the idea of Queen NoFuzzball encountering her complete opposite – an itty-bitty, clueless, overly enthusiastic, and affectionate white kitten! Being a visual thinker, I was pretty clear about what I wanted her to look like. So I began by writing about their very first interaction with each other instead – immediately knowing Fuzzball

will want nothing to do with Snowball (an interaction inspired by Bubo and Bella’s first encounter with a foster kitten), and Snowball will fall in love with Fuzzball at first sight. After that, the nature of their relationship – the classic sibling rivalry and love, just fell into place.

KH: I know you worked on NO FUZZBALL off and on for four years. Was NO SNOWBALL easier and quicker? Did the process differ?


Isabella: Yes, definitely quicker and maybe a little easier because I know what works from the first book and there is a foundation to build on, but it’s hard to compare because it’s just different. NO SNOWBALL! has always been a seedling of an idea while I was submitting NO FUZZBALL! Unfortunately, due to deadlines and the passing of my late cats at the beginning of a global pandemic (2020), I was lost in grief and didn’t work on her story until after NO FUZZBALL!’s big debut, when my editor finally asked me about the second book. I zealously promised her a draft by the end of the month and gave myself a deadline for writing! (I’ve never done that before!) I thought since I already have the concept, the setting, and the characters, it should be fine! I ended up anxiously staring at my screen for more than a week before solving the puzzle of how to reach the end of my story. Boy was that stressful! After my ah-ha moment, it was a mad dash to finish my submission by the date promised. I was proud of myself for accomplishing a draft so quickly but I don't think I should attempt it ever again. Luckily, my editor liked it!


I found when writing a sequel, the process and challenges are completely different, mainly figuring out a good balance between introducing a new character to the book and adding new elements (eg. dialogue) to the story, while still staying true to the previously established voice, jokes, rules, and structures set up in the first book. I wanted the sequel to still be a No Fuzzball book but with a new co-star! Initially, I was worried about Snowball taking too much spotlight away from Fuzzball. Fortunately, I found that the two characters complemented each other and their personalities only shone brighter together. All in all, while the concept has been living in my head for a couple of years, it only took 6-7 months to solidify the story (from the first draft to the sketches being approved ), then another 4-5 months to complete the final  illustrations. SO MUCH faster than NO FUZZBALL!


KH: In this duology, you use first person point of view. Did you draft any versions in third person? How did you ultimately decide on first person or third? 


Isabella: As far as I remember, NO FUZZBALL has been written in first person, but I had to double-check, and I found it was actually written in third person for my very first draft! I realized very quickly that to fully express Fuzzball’s sass and attitude, as well as convey just how much she is misunderstanding her name and almost all her family’s intentions, I must tell it from her point of view, thus switching to fist person on my second draft. This way, I can really play up the humor and play with the unreliable narrator's angle against what is depicted in the illustrations. This engages the readers; it makes them feel like they are in on the joke and lets them figure out what is really happening on their own. It also engages me as the author-illustrator to figure out the perfect balance between the text and illustration for this book! It’s my favorite kind of puzzle to solve!

Fuzzball and Ori as kittens. They were a big source of inspiration for Snowball! 

KH: I first connected with you via your illustration and watercolor classes at Storyteller Academy. Please share advice for beginning illustrators, seasoned illustrators, and writers who want to understand the illustration process better.


Isabella: For beginning illustrators - it's all about practice, practice, practice. These days, there are so many great online illustration workshops and classes to take and learn from, but knowledge taught in those courses will only truly be yours when you practice using it. I know it's intimidating and sometimes even discouraging to see your artwork not align with the way you’ve envisioned it. That's okay, it's even expected to produce work (a lot of work) that you are not proud of at first! You’ll learn from every piece. You’ll be training your brain and gaining muscle memory from doing the work, and before you know it, you are improving.


For seasoned illustrators - Take care of your body and your mind! Take breaks! Go for walks, exercise, meditate and stretch. Our job puts a lot of repetitive stress on our bodies and it can take a toll on our mental health as well. I notice more aches and pains lately, and I have also experienced my fair share of burnout. Trying to recover from injuries or a mental rut is so much more difficult than taking better care of yourself regularly. I know it's easier said than done, it's advice I need to remind myself from time to time too.


For writers who want to understand the illustration process more - Thank you for taking the time to learn more about it! We, illustrators, appreciate authors who know when to make suggestions and when to give us the creative space to do our jobs. But most importantly, it will help you become a better picture book author too! Learning how to make a dummy, (even if all you draw are basic shapes and stick figures) will help you properly envision your story as a book. You will get to test out the page turns, get a good feel about the pacing and rhythm and see if the emotional arc is progressing the way you want it.


KH: Writers are curious about how to leave room for an illustrator’s magic. What’s your advice?


Isabella: I love art notes when used appropriately! For example, if I’m reading a manuscript where the author intends the text to tell one part of the story and the illustration to show another, I would want to know what the author has in mind. Especially if the text is deliberately spare, poetic, or lyrical, or if the text is from the point of view of an unreliable narrator… etc. In other words, only use art notes if the text doesn’t convey the whole story. Small details like wanting the character to have pink hair because it is their daughter’s favorite color is more a personal preference rather than helping with the storytelling. It might interfere with what the illustrator is planning.


KH: What are you working on now?

Isabella: I have one story on submission about two twin Koalas that I hope can find the right publishing home soon! I am also working on my very first near-wordless picture book. This story is very different from what I’ve created before. It is a very emotional and personal story for me too. I was trepidatious at first, doubting why I even want to work on something so out of my comfort zone. But this idea and vision have been revisiting me again and again for the last 4 years, so how can I not feel compelled to create it? I hope to share it with the world one day.

Bella (top) and Bubo (bottom), Isabella’s late cats who inspired Fuzzball.

About Isabella Kung

Isabella Kung is the author and illustrator of NO FUZZBALL! (Scholastic, 2020) & NO SNOWBALL! (Scholastic, 2022), about a fuzzy feline Queen that was described as an “expressive, endearing little chunk of well-meaning evil” by Kirkus Reviews. Continuing her feline obsession, she also illustrated over 120 cats for the board books 123 CATS and ABC CATS (Candlewick, 2021). Her illustrations have received accolades from institutions such as the Society of Illustrators, Spectrum Fantasy Art, 3x3, Creative Quarterly, and SCBWI. Outside the world of publishing, Isabella teaches illustration and watercolor classes at Storyteller Academy and Etchr Lab. Isabella resides in San Francisco with her husband and two adorable – you guessed it – cats! She is represented by Jennifer Laughran at Andrea Brown Literary.