By Thushanthi Ponweera
In this blog post, WNDB mentee Thushanthi Ponweera shares an update about her experience with the WNDB Mentorship Program. Thushanthi is a mentee in the 2021 Mentorship Program and had a Picture Book Mentorship with David LaRochelle. To learn more about the mentorship program, visit our website here.
I have to admit that when I was awarded a mentorship with David LaRochelle, I didn’t know who he was. Not having experienced picture books as a child myself apart from Hans Christian Anderson fairytales, my knowledge of picture book authors was confined to those on my own children’s bookshelves and the authors I followed on social media. A quick Google search showed that David was an award-winning author of multiple picture books, most of them hilarious even to an adult like me. I was apprehensive. With my descriptive language and poignant stories, would we be a good fit? But still, I was grateful. A year-long mentorship with such an experienced author was a dream come true.
To say that my mentorship with David has gone beyond anything I was expecting is no exaggeration. David is patient, kind, generous, and thoughtful in his advice to me, showing me respect as a writer, even though I am unpublished and so early in my career compared to his decades-long one. And above all, he is one of the most encouraging people I’ve met. In short, I had found my perfect mentor and most importantly, a good friend I can trust. So I wanted to celebrate our midway point by interviewing him, and sharing the views of a humble but wonderful author who deserves every bit of the limelight!
How has the mentorship experience been for you so far?
It has been a very positive experience for me (and I’m not just saying that because you are my mentee, Thushanthi!). I’ve loved watching you grow as a writer and seeing the good things coming your way because of your dedication and hard work. To borrow a line from Oscar Hammerstein, “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.” Discussing writing with you has reminded me of the qualities that I need to keep in mind with my own work, consequently, my writing has improved along with yours. And perhaps best of all, because of this mentorship, I’ve found a new friend.
Can you tell me a bit about the mentor(s) you’ve had in your writing career?
The children’s author Judy Delton was my writing mentor for many years. The first time I shared a story with Judy she exclaimed, “David, this is so BORING!” Judy was never one to mince words! But she was also right. At the time, I thought the only way to write something noteworthy for children was to tackle serious issues with serious writing. For the next class I brought in a humorous piece and Judy declared, “David, THIS is what you are good at!” Judy taught me that there was nothing inferior about writing a funny story. I dedicated my first YA novel to Judy, a humorous story about a 16-year-old boy coming to terms with being gay. I could have never written it without her encouragement.
What qualities do you think a good mentor/mentee needs to have?
For both the mentor and mentee, good communication is critical.
A good mentor needs to be a good listener and pay attention to what the mentee is looking for. Is it writing advice? Guidance in finding an agent/editor? Encouragement? Those things can change with each session. The mentor’s focus should be on helping the other person grow and be successful.
A good writing mentee needs to be a good listener too, and willing to accept suggestions with an open mind.
What would you like to see represented more in children’s literature?
As a gay man, I’m grateful that there are more books for young people portraying LGBTQ+ characters now than ever before. I never read any book with a gay character until I graduated from college (and I was an English major!). I’m also glad that stories about LGBTQ+ characters are moving beyond “coming out” and “problem” novels, to where the characters are in situations where their sexual identity isn’t the focus. If I had read even one story like that when I was growing up, it would have had an enormous positive impact on my life. I hope there will continue to be more books like this.
What new things have you learned recently in relation to writing?
I feel like I keep learning the same things over and over: the importance of making my writing a priority, the need to keep showing up even on the days when I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write again, and the benefits of reading works by others.
What moments have been the most challenging?
Working on a book for years, only to have it trashed in the single review it received was devastating. Having an editor leave the publishing house midway through a book she requested that I write, then having her replacement quit, and then having her replacement quit was also pretty discouraging. And I’ve gone through long stretches where I haven’t sold any books, and that made me question my ability to write anything worthwhile.
What moments in your career have made you happiest?
Winning the 2021 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog has been a career highlight, especially since I share the award with my good friend, illustrator Mike Wohnoutka. Hearing from so many parents and teachers that my picture book Moo! was the first book their child could read makes me very happy, especially when they relate how proud their children are to read an entire book on their own. And I was very gratified to hear from so many readers that my YA novel, Absolutely Positively Not made them feel that they were not alone in this world.
What are you currently working on?
I’m looking forward to the publication of See the Cat: Three Stories About a Dog in September, but my writing for that book has been done for quite some time. I’m currently working on new picture book ideas including an early graphic novel about a boy and his talking dog. Whether these stories will ever be published, I don’t know. That’s the thing about writing; there’s no guarantee your story will be published…the only guarantee is that your story won’t be published if you don’t try.
What motivates/inspires your work?
I’m a former elementary school teacher and still spend a lot of time visiting schools. As I write, I often think about how a teacher or librarian might use my book. I think about how a young person would react to reading it. Thinking of my possible audience helps motivate me to write stories that are entertaining/useful/unique.
What advice do you have to new writers?
Focus on the things you have control over. As much as we want to get our books published, we can’t force an editor to buy our book or an agent to sign us up as a client. What we can do, however, is to keep writing and reading, and learning ways to improve our craft. If we do those things, we have every right to feel proud and successful.
And lastly, what is the secret to your contagious contentedness?
I’m glad you think I am so content, Thushanthi! There are plenty of times I feel discouraged, but I also realize all the good things I have in my life. I’m grateful to have had over thirty books published, I’m grateful I can make a living doing something I love, and I’m grateful for having such good friends. Gratitude is a key component to contentment.
David LaRochelle has been creating books for young people for over thirty years. His picture book titles include How Martha Saved Her Parents from Green Beans, Isle of You, and How to Apologize. A former elementary school teacher, David still loves visiting classrooms, talking with students about books, writing, and illustrating. When he is not creating new stories, he enjoys making and solving puzzles, geocaching, and carving jack-o’-lanterns, which you can view at his website davidlarochelle.com. David lives in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.
Thushanthi Ponweera is a blog volunteer for We Need Diverse Books and a WNDB 2021 picture book mentee with author David LaRochelle. She was born and raised in Colombo, Sri Lanka where she lives with her husband and two children. She grew up reading and falling in love with stories about children and places that were foreign to her. She believes that someday children from around the world will read and fall in love with stories about children in Sri Lanka. She hopes to write those stories. You can find her on Twitter @thushponweera and on Instagram @bythush.