A previous Tassy Walden Awards Winner and a successful Middle Grade writer, Janae Marks, has created a name for herself in the world of creative writing.
Starting at a young age, Marks has always had a way with words. “I’ve written since I was a young child, whether it was stories, journal entries, or letters to camp friends,” Marks said during our email Q&A, “I started thinking about it as a possible career sometime in college, when I took my first creative writing class.”
Her inspiration came from meaningful female centric books such as, Little Women, The Secret Garden, and The Golden Compass. These stories changed the way Marks looked at writing. “In class, we had thorough discussions about the impact of these books on girls. We talked about feminism, diversity, and cultural values. It was the first time I’d thought about children’s books as more than entertainment.”
For Marks, It was a moment of self-realization. While working on the final assignment for that course, she wrote in a fury. “I wrote a few chapters much faster than anything else I’d written. It wasn’t that writing for a younger audience was easier, I just identified with the protagonist I created in a way that I had never connected to my main characters in the past. The story had meaning to me, so it was easier to get on the page. I’d found my voice!”
Through that experience, Marks began her career as a middle-grade and young adult author. After several novels and a whole lot of rejection Marks was offered a book deal for her story FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON, the same story that won the New Voices in Children’s Literature: Tassy Walden Awards in 2017.
FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON is a contemporary middle-grade novel. Unaware that her incarcerated father has been writing her letters every year on her birthday, Zoe Washington intercepts the mail upon turning 12. After beginning a secret correspondence with the help of her grandmother, Zoe realizes that not only is the man she’s never met kind and caring, but he may be innocent of his crime.
This story deals with more serious themes, something that a lot of adult’s assume children can’t handle, but Marks knows differently. “Middle grade readers can read about things like incarceration, racism, mental illness, death, etc in an age-appropriate story. In FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON and my other writing, I want to entertain kids while also giving them a safe space to think about and process these realities.”
Marks is also hoping to diversify the creative writing world. “Lee & Low Books puts together an incredible report every year showing the diversity gap in children’s publishing, with statistics and a handy graph. In 2017, Black, Latino, and Native authors, combined, only wrote 7% of all new children’s books. That’s such a low number, especially considering more and more children’s books are being written with diverse protagonists. Not enough of them are being written by diverse authors. My first goal with my writing is to improve that statistic.” Through her writing, Marks hopes to connect with, not just children, but minority groups of all ages, hoping to inspire them to write their own stories with their own voices.
Marks’ advice to young and new authors is to be persistent. “It took four novels written over seven more years to finally land an agent and a book deal! There was a lot of rejection, persistence, and hard work along the way.” The key to becoming a successful writer is to never give up, and continuing to write and read as much as possible. “It can be helpful to take classes, if you can afford it,” Marks said, “But you can learn by doing, and by studying what makes books in your category/genre successful.”
Marks also recommends joining a critique group such as the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), a group to which Marks is a member of. “The feedback your critique group provides will help you grow as a writer, and they can also be your cheerleaders when the journey gets hard. It will be hard at times, but don’t give up!”
FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON will debut in Winter 2020 from HarperCollins Katherine Tegen Books (North America) and Chicken House Books (UK).
Shoreline Arts Alliance is honored to have Janae Marks as our Artist Feature for the month of May, she is an inspiration, kind-hearted, and hard working woman who is bound to change the world of literature as we know it.
For more information on Janae Marks and her work, visit her website www.janaemarks.com or follow her on Twitter and Instagram @janaemarksbooks.