Author Leah Henderson will be joining our SCBWI chapter at the Pocono Remix 2023 retreat this April at the Highlights Foundation. Leah will run a workshop titled Learn Character, Learn Voice, provide critiques for those who have signed up, give the Saturday keynote speech, and participate in the industry swap discussions. In preparation for this event, Rona Shirdan had a virtual chat with Leah for EasternPennPoints. Here’s what they had to say.
A Café Chat with Author Leah Henderson, by Rona Shirdan
Rona: Hi Leah! Let’s grab a booth by the window here in the EasternPennPoints Café. I’m going to have the avocado toast and a cup of green tea. Can I get you something?
Leah: I’d love a cup of roasted matcha tea with a drop of agave. Thanks!
Rona: It’s wonderful to catch up with you again. I know you’ve been busy!
You’ve been writing for quite a while now and have received great recognition for your work. Congratulations! When did you first realize that you wanted to write for children?
Leah: First off, it’s always great getting to catch up with you. And thank you, this journey has definitely been an interesting one so far!
I come from a family that absolutely loves to tell stories, and hear stories. So I have always been surrounded by story and storytellers, but I didn’t truly turn to writing for children until graduate school. There, one of the writing for children professors encouraged me to consider her class. At the time, I wasn’t sure what she saw in my work (I was writing for adults), or why she was encouraging me to take the leap to children’s, but I’m so glad she did. I quickly became enamored with kidlit and the kidlit community, starting with my classmates. They were truly wonderful people, excited about every aspect of children’s books. Their excitement and love for them was definitely contagious in the most wonderful ways.
Rona: You’ve written middle grade novels, a few young adult anthologies, as well as picture books. Which genre do you prefer writing? Which book was the most difficult to write?
Leah: I think my brain naturally gravitates towards middle grade. It is such an amazing time in a young person’s life when so many discoveries are being made about ourselves and the world around us. It’s a fruitful period to dive in and explore again.
As far as difficult to write goes…um, aren’t they all? Ha!
But, One Shadow on the Wall presented unique challenges for me, for so many reasons, mainly because I had no clue what I was doing. It was my first attempt at a middle grade. Plus, I was writing about an experience outside of my own, and I was very fearful that my words could do harm in some way. Stepping into someone else’s shoes is never easy, and should always be done with sensitivity, listening ears, and watchful eyes. I was always extremely mindful of trying to tell an authentic story. While I was constantly making missteps and mistakes, I was also trying to research, observe, and ask every question to try and correct them. It was a long and uncertain process. But I learned so much about myself and the craft of writing from it. Whereas, Together We March was difficult in a completely different way. While I love research and history, it was hard to read over and over again about the injustices that spurred so many to march. Some of that history, and those truths of humanity are just brutal. But they were moments I wanted to understand.
Rona: Do you have a regular writing routine and a special place to write?
Leah: I wish I could say I have a regular writing routine, but I won’t start fibbing. When I do tuck in to write, it is usually first thing in the morning, before I truly let the world in. I will have my cup of tea, candles lit, and even in the summer a cozy throw over my legs. As far as a special place goes, I love to travel, so I will try and make a special little corner wherever I am in the world.
Rona: When you’re not writing, do you find time to read? What’s on your list of books to read right now?
Leah: Reading for pleasure, what’s that? I read all the time, but reading for pleasure is something I don’t do often enough! There are so many wonderful books on my to-read pile.
I’m about to crack open Zetta Elliott’s latest in the Dragons in a Bag series, The Enchanted Bridge, Frank Morrison’s Kick Push, and Standing in the Need of Prayer written by the amazing Carole Boston Weatherford.
Rona: I know you enjoy traveling and that you’ve traveled extensively. What has been your favorite place to visit so far?
Leah: Oh my goodness, that is a question I will NEVER be able to answer. I’ve gone to over 65 countries and each experience imprinted on me in some way. But I will say strolling and imagining on the dirt and cobbled roads of Timbuktu – where Black intellectuals shared their knowledge with the world – was truly life-changing and magical. As a fish, nothing quite tops unexpectedly swimming with dolphins in Oman and scuba diving with sea turtles (anywhere). But meeting an angel along the winding roads of the Amalfi Coast has definitely stayed with me too. I’m telling you, each place has a story!
Rona: How has your love for adventure come through in your characters and their stories?
Leah: You’ll get a piece of me in every book I write. Growing up, seeing and exploring our possibilities was a HUGE thing in my family – and still is. So my characters and the nonfiction projects I gravitate towards are all about seeing and experiencing those possibilities and adventures, with the hope that young readers will come to understand through my characters and my words that there are possibilities out in the world for them too.
Rona: I’m very excited that you plan to join us at our Pocono Remix retreat in April. What can we look forward to learning about in your upcoming presentation on “Character and Voice”?
Leah: I look forward to being with you all as well. As a character-driven writer, I love talking about all things voice and character. For me, they truly go hand in hand, so we will look at how that relationship comes together to help strengthen stories, creating truly unique, and hopefully unforgettable characters readers will remember long after the book is closed. That’s one of the best parts of all this – bringing characters to life. Through questions, exercises and shifts in perspective, we will explore how to enliven our characters for each and every story we write.
Rona: Do you have any advice for writers who are just getting started?
Leah: The first thing I always say, and that I still need to hear, is be kind to yourself. This business is a true rollercoaster ride filled with so many twists and turns, and ups and downs. Make sure you are giving yourself what you need to maintain a healthy balance with the work and the business.
Find your community within the kidlit community. Especially people of like minds, with similar paths/interests on this journey. They are the ones who will understand exactly where you are coming from at different moments on the ride. They help lift you up when you need it, and cheer on your successes – both large and small – because they truly get it.
When reviewing your own work, remember the power and magic of revision. You will get there. You just need to keep putting in the effort (but stepping away to replenish your creative well when needed is also important), so don’t get too hard on yourself if you are not there yet! Keep swimming!
Rona: How would you like your work to impact the children who read your books?
Leah: Overall, I would love for kids to find a friend in my stories. But I also want them to recognize that there are possibilities out in the world for them. Most importantly, I want them to know from my work that their experiences and emotions are seen and that they matter.
Rona: Thank you so much for taking time to chat with me today. I’m looking forward to seeing you at the retreat!
Leah: Thank you so much for having me. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone at the retreat as well!
You can learn more about Leah Henderson and her upcoming workshops and events by visiting her website (http://www.leahhendersonbooks.com/)
Leah Henderson is the author of several critically acclaimed books for young readers including The Magic in Changing Your Stars (an SCBWI Golden Kite Award finalist), One Shadow on the Wall, Daddy Speaks Love, A Day for Rememberin’, and Together We March (an SCBWI Golden Kite Award finalist). Leah holds an MFA in Writing and is on faculty in Spalding University’s graduate writing program.
Pocono Remix 2023 Retreat Info
Our annual retreat is back and in-person! It will be a weekend of amazing faculty, craft talks, industry insights, and the chance to meet with fellow creators all set at the beautiful Highlights Foundation in Boyd’s Mills, PA.