By Valerie Bolling, 2022 mentor
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Recently I purchased a new car. It was time. I’d owned my previous vehicle for 14 years. When I arrived to pick up my new car, the expert who oriented me to the features of my electric car took his time demonstrating the car’s unique features. He answered all of my questions and was patient, kind, and knowledgeable. This person was John, a 30-year-old man who I’d had the pleasure of teaching when he was in eighth grade. The irony was obvious. The teacher was now the student. The student was now the teacher.
I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated this encounter where the teacher/student roles were reversed. It was welcome territory for me, and warmed my heart, because I have always learned from my students. When I taught in elementary and middle school classrooms, I encouraged children to listen closely and respectfully when their classmates spoke, telling them, “I’m not the only teacher in the classroom. We all learn from each other.” Even in my current role as an instructional coach, I constantly learn from the teachers with whom I collaborate. Lately, however, I’ve discovered that the intersectionality of my roles as educator and student has become more frequent.
This past spring, I taught a class on Tuesday evenings to a group of pre-published authors: Picture Book Writing 101 at Westport Writers Workshop. On Wednesday evenings I was part of a Black Creators HQ mentored critique group with Karen Boss, editor at Charlesbridge, and also Amplify Black Stories sponsored by The Brown Bookshelf and Highlights Foundation. In effect, I was a teacher one night, and a student the next, benefiting from the flexible relationship that exists between teachers and students. I was at home in both of these roles.
I experienced this intersectionality again when I was invited to share my path to publication story at SCBWI’s Big Five-Oh Summer Conference. I was among faculty members (such as Kwame Alexander, Laurie Halse Anderson, Marla Frazee, Nikki Giovanni, and Nikki Grimes) who have more experience in the children’s book market than I do—and certainly more acclaim—but I had something worthwhile to share as well. I successfully gave my presentation and then immersed myself in others’ presentations, moving from presenter to participant, akin to moving from teacher to student.
As I reflected on all that I learned in those presentations, I simultaneously thought about all that I’d learned prior to this conference. I realized how I’d been adding to my writing/publishing toolkit and often shared this information with others in the writing community: my writing partner, my critique groups, newer writers—especially those in my New England SCBWI and 12×12 Picture Book Challenge. Even colleagues and friends who ask how to go about getting a book of their own published have benefited from the knowledge I’ve gained. Thus, when Alaina Lavoie, Program Manager of We Need Diverse Books, asked me to be a mentor, the equivalent of a teacher, one might think I’d jump at the opportunity; however, that wasn’t the case.
Yes, I’ve learned a lot in the four years since I started writing children’s books, but I only have one book published. I doubted if I had enough to offer as a mentor. I thought I should wait until 2023 or 2024 when my upcoming titles will be published. This way I would have more “author/mentor cred.” After all, my amazing mentor, Kelly Starling Lyons, had 13 books published when I was chosen as her WNDB mentee.
Kelly was a treasure of a mentor! She provided helpful feedback on my manuscripts and never tired of answering my endless questions. She shared a multitude of valuable information about the publishing industry and encouraged me to apply for opportunities (like The Brown Bookshelf and Highlights Foundation’s “Amplify Black Stories” and Scholastic’s call for BIPOC authors). Even though our official mentorship has ended, Kelly continues to provide advice and support, and she’s a consistent cheerleader. More importantly, she has become my sister-friend.
Something else happened during my mentorship with Kelly. I felt compelled to have a more equal relationship with her. I didn’t want to be the one constantly on the receiving end of her advice and support. Therefore, I amplified Kelly’s books any opportunity I had—whether it was on social media or at events when asked to recommend other picture books. I also began to share information with Kelly that I had learned from conferences I attended or classes I took. It felt good to have something to offer Kelly, and, fortunately, she welcomed my comments. This mentor/mentee partnership, like my teacher-student relationships, was evidence of the reciprocity inherent in these interactions.
When I asked Kelly if she thought I was ready to be a mentor, she responded, “You’re more than capable now.” Knowing that Kelly believed I was ready-made me feel validated to serve as a mentor in 2022. If I follow in Kelly’s footsteps, I know I’ll be a successful mentor: A sounding board, information provider, and, most of all, a cheerleader for another PB writer. In particular, I will answer questions related to the path to publication and querying, provide feedback on a manuscript, and share any and all news about conferences, organizations, and writing opportunities that may be of interest to my mentee. I want to inspire, encourage, and be a confidante— as Kelly did, and continues to do, for me.
Perhaps years after the mentorship has ended, I’ll end up feeling as I did with John. Not only will I feel proud of and happy about my mentee’s achievements, but I also look forward to learning from that individual. I’m sure my mentee will likely become my mentor in ways that I can’t even imagine. That’s the true beauty of mentorship.
Valerie Bolling is the author of the 2021 SCBWI Crystal Kite award-winning LET’S DANCE! (March 2020) and has been an educator for 28 years. Since her book was released a week before the pandemic shutdown, she has been engaged in virtual storytimes and author panels. Immersed in the writing community, Valerie is on the faculty at Westport Writers’ Workshop, is a member of SCBWI (and former co-chair of the NESCBWI Equity and Inclusion Team), the Authors Guild, NCTE, and ILA. She is also a 2020 WNDB Mentee and a member of Kid Lit in Color, Black Creators HeadQuarters, Soaring 20s PBs, PB Crew 22, 12X12 Picture Book Challenge, and three picture book critique groups. Valerie has two books scheduled for release in 2022 (TOGETHER WE RIDE and CITY FUN), five more slated for 2023, and one for 2024.