Friday, August 20, 2021

Lisa Sukenic’s Student/Writer Success Story + Book Giveaway!

 Oh, how my teacher’s and Writing Coach’s heart kvells* today, August 20, as I share my former student and writer Lisa Sukenic’s Success Story with TeachingAuthors readers.

Tomorrow Saturday, Lisa’s middle grade novel in verse Miles from Motown (Fitzroy Books) officially enters the World!

Participate in our Book Giveaway at the end of this post and you can win a copy.

Register HERE and you can attend via Crowdcast this Sunday’s 6 pm (CDT) Book Launch sponsored by Women and Children First of Chicago’s Andersonville.


Lisa has traveled an indeterminate number of miles on her Children’s Book Writer’s Journey.  What I do know is that when she and I – and her character Georgia Johnson - first connected in my Novel Workshop at the University of Chicago’s Graham School’s Writer’s Studio in 2015, she’d already traveled far. I knew in my teacher’s heart: even though Lisa had quite the distance to go in readying Georgia’s story for Readers, she’d keep keepin’ on. 

Georgia's story is quite the story.


About to move in June, 1967, from her beloved Detroit neighborhood to an unfamiliar suburb on the outskirts of the city, she decides to lie. She uses her Aunt Birdie’s Detroit address as her own to qualify for the Essay Contest for Detroit sixth graders only. With her older brother deployed to Vietnam, and her family worried about when - or if - he’ll make it home, Georgia tries to settle into her new life. But she misses the old: her friend Ceci, the cracks in the sidewalk that used to catch her skates, the hide-and-seek tree, and the deli on the corner. She wonders if she’ll ever make new friends or feel like she belongs. To make matters worse, she must also find a way to intercept the Contest finalist announcement that will be mailed to Aunt Birdie’s mailbox before her family uncovers her deception. By the end of summer, Georgia discovers her own resiliency in the face of upheaval and the power of truth when lies ring hollow.

Gwendolyn Brooks, the judge for the story’s Essay Contest whom Georgia adoringly admires, would surely approve.  So will middle grade readers familiar with moving, overwhelmed by New Everything while seeking agency in their own lives. So will readers who know the guilt that comes with lying.

 As you read Lisa’s answers to my questions, you’ll learn: Lisa designed her very own DoItYourself MFA in Writing for Children Program! Lucky me to have been included. We began working one-on-one once my workshop ended in 2015 – re-visioning, reshaping, refining, ’til Miles to Motown was ready to win Regal Publishing’s and Fitzroy Books’ The Kraken Book Prize in 2019 and its offer of publication. 

Booklist’s review in the current August issue has only increased my heart’s rejoicing.

"Sukenic’s verse is compact and lively, telling Georgia’s first-person story with sparkle and verve.  She evokes detailed images with her carefully chosen words and captures Georgia’s story perfectly.

Thank you, Lisa, for sharing both your inspirational Success Story, the story behind Miles from Motown and your DIY MFA Program with our Readers!

And thank you, Carol, for hosting today’s Poetry Friday at The Apples in my Orchard.

Happy Keep’ Keepin’ On, no matter the miles!

Esther Hershenhorn

 . . . . .

Miles from Motown was always your title…and although the point of view character, camera focus, subplots and telling (poetry vs. prose) changed through the years and numerous revisions, the heart of this story remained the same. I think of Katherine Paterson’s definition of character: “One heart in hiding reaching out to another.” How did you remain true to the story’s heart and wherein lies your heart?

The seeds of the story came from my memories and experiences growing up in the suburbs of Detroit. My grandparents lived and worked in Detroit. Going back and forth between Detroit and Southfield set a map in my mind for the setting and situations of the story. Even though the physical distance was small, the divisions between the communities and cultures were large. I used the reference of miles to dive into distance being vast in her heart when leaving her Detroit to an unfamiliar neighborhood. I grew up during this time period and wanted to paint a picture of this era with the internal and external conflicts that weighed on Georgia and her family when they relocated to the suburbs. Although this is a work of fiction, my childhood friendships and relationships played a role in the creation of the foundation for Miles from Motown.

Your very own Do It Yourself (DIY) MFA in Writing for Children Program serves as an excellent model for children’s book creators, or any writer, for that matter. You grabbed opportunities and saw possibilities everywhere to learn your craft, revise and ready your novel and connect with the children’s book community and fellow writers.  How did this approach best serve you and Miles from Motown and which elements were absolutely necessary?

These experiences were vital to my development as a published author:

·       The University of Chicago Graham School Certificate in Poetry program is where I began formalizing my poetry skills, studying with Alice George and Dina Elenbogen. They taught me form and to be a more objective poet, to read and model from famous poets. This also prepared me for prepublication and critique.

 ·       The A Room of Her Own Foundation Retreat held at the Georgia O’Keefe Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico gave me too many gifts to list by being around so many talented women writers who helped me create my writing community.  I was fortunate to be selected to attend in 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015. In 2015, I had the privilege of working with Cynthia Leitich-Smith. 

·       Being part of the virtual Haiku Room helped me work on my daily writing practice and led to my first publishing contract for 13 Haikus in Everyday Haiku published in 2014. 

·       Juliet Bond’s 2014 Story Studio program “Writing Children’s Literature in a Year” is where the roots of Miles from Motown began in prose and later that year turned into poetry.

·       Esther Hershenhorn’s 2015 “Writing the Middle Grade and Young Adult Novel: through the University of Chicago Graham School helped me learn the elements of writing a novel as did her subsequent classes at Chicago’s Newberry Library. 

·       I worked with Esther as my Writing Coach for 4 years, from 2015-2019, to complete Miles from Motown. Her mentorship and belief in Georgia, me and the story led to the eventual offer to publish my novel in verse.            

·       SCBWI-Illinois’ free Networks offered support, programming and continued learning - especially Jane Hertenstein’s Chicago Network, Kate Hannigan’s Hyde Park Network and Anny Rusk’s North Suburban Network.

·       SCBWI-Illinois’ Prairie Writer’s and Illustrator’s Day, Many Voices Competition, Spring Thaw event and the SCBWI Midwest Conference offered submission opportunities along with the learning. I eventually was named a finalist in the Many Voices Competition and also the winner of the 2016 Prairie Writer’s and Illustrator’s Day Manuscript Event.

 ·       I attended orientation events through Hamline’s admission for their MFA for Children and Young Adults. I was able to participate in Sarah Aronson’s March retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts for Children and Highlights workshops. At every turn, I was soaking in as much as possible regarding craft, and really listening to authors as well.

·       I read, read, read, and still do! I am the Co-Chairperson of the Global Reading Challenge for 4th grade at the University of Chicago Laboratory School which requires me to review diverse middle grade fiction every summer for our book selection.  I typically read 20-30 books each summer to share with the selection committee.

When we worked together, I often began by reciting E.B. White’s wise, wise words: “Writers are revisers.” How did the revision process help you find your way into Georgia’s heart and winnow out her story for a middle grade novel-in-verse?

Being a poet was a blessing and a curse. The danger of being a poet who has never written a novel is the high probability that you will spend a lot of time micromanaging at the word and stanza level.  As a poet, the novel in verse format immediately goes close to the emotional arc and a lot can be conveyed with very few words. The very first draft was in prose and the subsequent revisions in verse, prose, and then finally verse. Having written it over again in prose allowed me to identify the plot points. I had created a gigantic timeline on mural paper in my bedroom. This continual visual reminder allowed me to see if a character was not showing up a lot.  It helped with the pacing, too, but honestly, some of the best changes were made through discussion with Esther and having that AHA! moment during brainstorming. On several occasions after our meetings, I found myself pulling off of Lakeshore Drive at a park to jot something down when a connection had finally clicked or an amazing line had to be written immediately before I would forget.

Many of the poems seemed to pour out of me and I often felt that I was channeling Georgia when writing. I also played a bit with form, creating list poems about how to lose a friend, which allowed me to discover a different voice than Georgia’s typically more lyrical poetry. The deeper the problems became, the more that Georgia grew as a person. I began to really know how she would respond and how deeply she felt her sadness about her brother Ty being in Vietnam, her confusion about why they moved, and her loss of her best friend and changing friendships and the guilt that she places on herself with the poetry entry deception.

Past and present University of Chicago Laboratory School students and parents treasure you as a dedicated and creative teacher, so now you truly can declare yourself a dyed-in-the-wool true-blue TEACHINGAuthor. 😊 How would you like middle grade teachers to share Georgia and Miles from Motown with their students?

Thank you very much for this immense compliment and for having faith in me. I am currently working on my Teachers Guide and it will soon be available for download HEREMiles from Motown lends itself to a broad curriculum, such as:

Poetry study and Novels in Verse study

History/Timelines (Gwendolyn Brooks, Dudley Randall, Muhammad Ali, the Vietnam War)

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Curriculum

Social Emotional Issues (identity, bullying, loss, transitions, and self-advocacy)

Pop culture and Music of the 1960’s

Like all creatives, we work hard at visualizing our Success.  As you and Georgia ready for the world and your Readers, what are you most looking forward to? Which visualizations do you hope come true?

I am most looking forward to reading this book with my fourth-grade students in book groups, during our novel in verse study in spring and having in-depth discussions about the time period and all of the themes that the book lends itself to. We use a lot of historical novels in verse in this category and I think mine will be a perfect addition to Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai and Becoming Muhammad Ali by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander. I am excited and shocked to have mine be on the list next to these legendary authors. The best thing and what I am looking forward to the most is seeing my students read my book as a “real” book and seeing it in our library at school.

Miles from Motown is but your first published children’s book, the first of many.  What work-in-progress now claims your heart?

My work in progress Mississippi Flyway tells the story of 14-year old Zoey from Chicago who wants to forget about her parents’ divorce and have things go back to normal. Zoey had planned to spend her winter break with her best friend, Sage in Florida, sketching birds and preparing her portfolio to get accepted to the high school art school with Sage. With the divorce agreement finalized, Zoey and her eleven-year old brother Eli have to spend all of their vacation time up in Honor, Michigan, population 300, at the Loon Lake Inn Bed and Breakfast with their dad and his new husband. Zoey’s feelings about Honor begin to change when she meets Dakota who lives at the Deadstream General Store. Will Zoey be forced to choose between her best friend and her new friend? When Zoey finds the mysterious sketches with the initials GF, she becomes obsessed with finding the artist. Maybe living in Northern Michigan might not be as bad as she thought. As the summer ends, she may have to choose between her best friend and the opportunity of a lifetime?

                                                                           # # # 

And now for the giveaway! 

To enter our drawing, use the Rafflecopter widget below.  You may enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options. (Note: if the widget doesn’t appear, click on the link at the end of this post that says “a Rafflecopter giveaway” to enter.)

If you choose option 2, you MUST leave a comment on TODAY’S blog post or on our TeachingAuthors Facebook page.  If you haven’t already “liked” our Facebook page, please do so today!

If you prefer, you may submit your comment via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com.

Note: if you submit your comments via email or Facebook, YOU MUST STILL ENTER THE DRAWING VIA RAFFLECOPTER BELOW.  The giveaway ends August 27, 2021 and is open to US. Residents only.

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Carl Scott said...

This sounds like a very special new book. The story-line and the prose-poetry style are really interesting. I'd love to have a copy. Thanks

Danielle H. said...

I'm going to add this book to my Goodreads and wish list--you had me at Detroit essay contest.

Rosi said...

This sounds like a terrific book. Yes, I think a lot of kids (and adults) will relate to this story. Thanks for the post.

Sarah H. said...

Great post! As someone who grew up in Detroit—during this era—I would love to read this book.

Linda said...

Congratulations, Lisa! Your book sounds amazing!

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thanks, all, for commenting - and - entering our Book Giveaway.
Lisa's MILES FROM MOTOWN was well worth her Writer's Journey!

Nancy P said...

Sounds like a fantastic read. Great cover.

Linda Mitchell said...

What a delicious interview and anticipation builder for this book. Thank you! I look forward to getting a look at this book. I love stories from the 60s.