Joint Author Spotlight: Robyn McGrath and Donna Cangelosi
August 5, 2022
We are excited to feature two picture book authors who have written musical biographies, Robyn McGrath and her picture book, DOLLY! THE STORY OF DOLLY PARTON AND HER BIG DREAM, illustrated by Ellen Surrey (Christy Ottaviano Books June 2022) and Donna Cangelosi and her picture book, MISTER ROGERS' GIFT OF MUSIC, illustrated by Amanda Calatzis (Page Street Kids August 23, 2022).
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Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
Robyn: Thank you for having me, I’m thrilled to be here! As a young child, I immersed myself in books all the time. I loved to read! I work as a child therapist here in Austin, Texas and now utilize bibliotherapy in my work. But my love and desire to write picture books began when I was an undergraduate studying reading education. I went on to teach reading and writing to 5th graders and always used picture books in my lessons. From there I became an elementary school counselor and found that my love of pictures books grew exponentially as I searched for more and more books with an SEL connection. Teaching guidance to children Pk-5th helped me view picture books through the students’ eyes. I became more aware of what drew children into a story, how and when they connected, and what were the big takeaways. At that point, I decided to get serious about writing books and began taking classes and joined SCBWI. And of course, I utilized Kidlit411 as my go to writing resource!
Donna: Thanks so much for having me, Kidlit411! I’ve worked with children my entire adult life, as a teacher’s aide, school counselor, and now as a child psychologist. Years ago, I attended a conference for child therapists and the speaker read, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day! by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Ray Cruz. I was fascinated how the story connected to children’s emotional experiences and I’ve been writing picture books ever since.
Robyn, congrats on your picture book, Dolly: Dolly Parton and Her Big Dreams! Tell us about the story and what inspired you.
Robyn: The story of Dolly! is a look into Dolly’s childhood as she worked toward her dream of performing at the Grand Ole Opry. When I began the research for my story, I was searching for a specific childhood struggle that other children could relate to. Dolly was bullied as a young girl for her looks, as well as being what she calls “dirt poor.” But Dolly didn’t let that stop her. Through reading many biographies and Dolly’s autobiography, I discovered that when she was reaching for her dreams, many people tried to knock her down saying “you’re just a kid” or “too young.” When I read that I knew I had tell Dolly’s story of determination and grit! My hope is that Dolly’s story will inspire children to follow their dreams, no matter the obstacle.
Donna, congrats on your picture book, Mister Rogers' Gift of Music! Tell us about the story and what inspired you.
Donna: Thank you! It’s been a heartwarming experience researching Fred Rogers’ life and writing this story. As a young boy Fred suffered with asthma and spent countless hours stuck inside. One of his earliest memories was the joy he experienced hearing his grandfather play the violin. By five, Fred learned to play the piano and discovered that music was a great way to express his emotions. Fred went on to use his gift of music on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to help generations of children. I wrote this story to introduce kids to Fred Rogers and to inspire them to find creative ways to express their uncomfortable feelings.
Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
Robyn: When I look back, the inkling of an idea that I could be a writer started in 1999. And here we are over 20 years later and my first book is published! It sounds like a long road, but when I set my intention to write picture books and really got serious things started to move in the direction of my dreams. Lots of classes, critique groups and a 1:1 mentorship all set me up for success. I wrote my first NF picture book in 2018 and got two offers of representation in January of 2019. Then in 2019 I wrote Dolly! which sold in January 2020. So, I would say once I was on the ride it started moving fast.
Donna: My road to publication was long and had a lot of twists and turns. I’ve been writing poetry since I was a kid and dabbled in picture books over twenty-five years ago. When my daughters were born, I didn’t have time to write, but spent hours reading picture books to them. I gradually returned to writing and immersed myself into every aspect of kidlit. I joined SCBWI and a critique group, attended classes and conferences, and accumulated countless rejections. Finally, after the long journey, my debut picture book will be out in the world. What a dream come true!
What drew you to writing a picture book about a musician?
Robyn: I don’t know if it’s Dolly “the musician” that drew me to write her story, or who Dolly is as a person. Dolly is an inspiration for so many reasons, her kindness and generosity but also her ability to persevere when the odds were stacked against her. While my story is about Dolly the AMAZING musician, it’s also about her determination, standing up for what she believes in, and not letting others take her power. Writing about Dolly is a dream come true!
Donna: Music has been a major source of joy, comfort, and entertainment throughout my life. Back in 2016, I read an article about Fred Rogers describing how he used music to cope with childhood illness and bullying, and how those early experiences paved the way to his work helping children. I immediately related to Fred’s passion for music and helping kids. And when I read that he trained with the child psychologists I’ve studied and admired for years, I knew I had to write this picture book.
What projects are you working on now?
Robyn: I’m super excited about my upcoming books! My next book comes out fall 2023, There’s Always Room for One More, illustrated by Ishaa Lobo and published by Paula Wiseman books.
And in summer 2024 my second nonfiction book releases with Beach Lane Books, A Mind of Her Own, The Story of Agatha Christie, illustrated by Liz Wong.
Donna: I have another music-related manuscript on submission and I’m working on a picture book biography with an environmental theme.
What advice would you give to aspiring picture book authors who want to write biographies?
Robyn: Find what connects YOU to the subject’s story. What makes you the person that can tell their story better than anyone else? I related so much to Dolly and Agatha when they were children that I could draw from my own experiences to tell their story. My picture book biographies focus on a “slice of life” and don’t tell the entirety of my subjects’ lives. Find the nugget that connects you- that’s the story! Read lots of picture book biographies and decide what works and doesn’t. Most importantly be open to having your peers critique your work. So many people I talk to are afraid to share their picture book biography manuscripts with others for fear of people “stealing” their ideas. In a trusting and secure critique group the feedback and discussion will help your story get to the next level.
Donna: Read everything you can about the person you’d like to write about. Try to find videos, letters, and other ways to study the person’s mannerisms, speech patterns, view of the world, and the way they relate to others. Then, find an interesting aspect of the person’s life that you relate to, and which will resonate with kids. Ask yourself: What will make kids want to read this story? Most important, read mentor texts. It’s amazing how many fun ways there are to tell a story.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
Robyn: I was a competitive dancer when I was younger, competing in modern and ballet categories. When I taught 5th grade, many, many years ago, I also taught ballet and yoga after school at a local studio south of Austin. And then three years ago I became a certified yoga instructor.
Donna: I’ve always been fascinated by marine mammals, so one of the first picture books I wrote was about a family of dolphins. To understand how these beautiful animals relate to each other, I studied Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the wild. I also had an opportunity to meet dolphins up close at a sanctuary in the Florida Keys a few times.
Where can people find you online?
Donna: You can find out more about me at https://www.donnacangelosi.com/; Twitter: https://twitter.com/donnacangelosi2; Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/donnacangelosi2/; Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/donna.cangelosi.5
Robyn McGrath has spent her career working with children as a dance and yoga instructor, reading teacher, school counselor, and now . . . children’s author. Whether she’s writing fiction or nonfiction, Robyn believes that books help us navigate life experiences while fostering an understanding of self and others. When Robyn is not writing she works as a Play Therapist, helping children and parents regulate BIG emotions. Robyn lives in Austin, TX with her husband, two children, a Labrador retriever, and a friendly cat they found camping.
Donna Cangelosi enjoys writing stories that entertain, enlighten, and inspire kids of all ages. Her debut picture book, MISTER ROGERS’ GIFT OF MUSIC, illustrated by Amanda Calatzis will be published by Page Street Kids, August 23, 2022. Donna considers herself lucky to have the opportunity to work with kids in her psychology practice and to write books for them. Like Mister Rogers, she often helps kids deal with feelings that are hard to express by using play, art, music, and of course picture books!
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