Author Spotlight: Joan F. Smith


© Sharona Jacobs

April 2, 2021

We are excited to feature author Joan F. Smith and her debut young adult novel, THE HALF-ORPHAN'S HANDBOOK (Imprint/Macmillan), out April 20. Enter to win a copy!

Illustration by Dion MBD, Art design by Carolyn Bull

Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for teens.  


Hi! I’m a Boston-area writer who works in higher-ed and as a dance teacher. I’ve been a writer as long as I can remember. I tend to write as I read, which is across the audience age categories–whatever the story begs! More specifically, I played around with voice a little bit in my MFA program, and one of my professors kept trying to course-correct me from writing from the teenage perspective, which is what clued me into how much I enjoyed doing so. 


Congrats on your debut YA novel, The Half-Orphan Handbook! Tell us about it and what inspired you.


Thank you so much! In the story, sixteen-year-old Lila Cunningham creates a series of rules to help prevent her from feeling the kind of pain she felt after she loses her father to suicide. When her mother sends her to a Maine grief camp, Lila must confront the unanswered questions behind her father's death head-on while forging new friendships and falling in love with someone who might not be who he says he is. 


Unfortunately, what inspired me was real life. I learned my father was suicidal and addicted to gambling when I was a teenager, and lost him to it soon after that. I carried Lila as a character around with me for a long time until I figured out where to set her. That answer came when I read about a camp that was created for kids who lost parents in 9/11, which closed down once all those kids grew up. I imagined this empty space, and thought, there.



Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?


My road to publication was a mix of all things: short, long, and in between. As a former competitive dancer, I am used to rejection. I started teaching at the college level when I was in my early twenties, and to get that job, I had to build publication credits. That experience of writing and submitting articles, short stories, academic papers, and poems led to several acceptances and even more rejection. 


The Half-Orphan’s Handbook is the first book I ever wrote. I revised it countless times until I felt really ready to query it, which took a couple years from idea to polished manuscript. My query journey took a few months, and the submission process took a few more, and once I had a book deal, the real wait began for publication!


Did you have a playlist when you wrote the book? If so, what is a representative song?


I wish. My creative process generally demands silence. Because of my dance background, if I hear a song, I immediately begin choreographing to it. (I also teach dance now, which probably doesn’t help!)



What projects are you working on now?


I've got lots of projects in the works. I’ve written one YA and I’m developing another. I'm 60K into the first draft of an adult project that I've been slowly tackling for the last year and a half, and I just completed the draft of my first picture book. 


What advice would you give to your younger self? Is this the same advice you'd give to aspiring authors?


Haha, those two things are definitely not one and the same! I would tell my younger self that it’s okay to be wrong, therapy is your friend, and time is a healer. I tell aspiring authors to read as much as they can. Read authors whose identities you share; read authors whose identities you do not share. I think of successful fiction as half storytelling and half writing style/technique. Put energy toward working on both.



What is one thing most people don't know about you?


I haven’t met many of my cousins. My dad was one of 15 kids and my mom is one of 10, and the amount of cousins I have is . . . a lot. The last count was someplace in the high seventies! I am super close with two of my aunts and one of my cousins, though.


Where can people find you online?


I'm @jf_smit everywhere social, and my website is . Feel free to connect, Kidlit411 readers!




Joan F. Smith lives with her family in Massachusetts. She received her MFA in creative writing from Emerson College, and has written articles for The Washington Post and Thought Catalog on destigmatizing discussions around mental health and suicide prevention. Joan works in higher education and is a dance instructor. The Half-Orphan’s Handbook is her debut novel.


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  1. Your book could help some teen facing the same problem, and it adds to the collection of young adult books that deal with a similar problem. Good luck with your publication. I'll look for your book at publication time.

  2. Wow, your book touches on all the big emotions! Your title intrigued me and as I read on about your book & story, I was hooked! Pity that camp was closed because a camp like the one you described sounds very very needed. Best with your launch!

  3. I enjoyed reading your interview. You come from such a big family! Wow! I only have 3 cousins! 😂 I would love to share your book with my students!

  4. Congratulations on your book. The premise sounds amazing and so different than other novels I've read. I can't wait to read your book.


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