Student Success Stories: Teresa Robeson

I'm happy to share an interview with Teresa Robeson on the blog today. Teresa has been a Storyteller Academy student even longer than I have. 

I'm giving away a copy of her debut picture book, Queen of Physics, at the end of this post. 

Myrna: What is your profession/background?

Teresa: While I write full-time now (though only because my husband has a job with benefits), some of my past jobs included library assistant, research assistant/associate in biopsychology and social psychology labs, and homeschooling mom. My passion is for astrophysics, but my training is in speech science/linguistics and climatology. I think having a varied background helps keep me interested in many things. Or it could be that I have some attention deficit issues.

Myrna: My favorite subject in high school was physics. I think it's wonderful that you're making it more accessible to children. What made you want to start writing picture books?

Teresa: I never stopped reading picture books all through my tween, teen, and adult years so it was only natural that I would want to start writing them at some point. It took me a while before I believed I could do it. When I first started writing kid lit back in the early 90s, I thought I was only capable of short stories and poetry.

Myrna: I'm so glad you believed in yourself! Both of your picture books have been “own voices” projects. Could you tell our readers what that means? How did it affect the way your publishers chose illustrators? 

Teresa: Own voices, to me, means writing from a particular perspective that is not considered the “norm,” that is, cis-white/Anglo-Saxon-neurotypical-able bodied. For me specifically, it means writing from the vantage point of my cultural heritage (Chinese). Because I took my husband’s last name, which is decidedly not Chinese, my publishers chose to hire illustrators who share my ethnic background and have professional names that are clearly Chinese, just to complete that own voices package.

Myrna: Can you tell us how you ended up writing about Wu Chien Shiung?

Teresa: I can’t remember exactly where I first heard of her, but it could have been in Physics Today (because I read hubby’s subscription) sometime around 2011 or 2012 (I wrote my first draft in 2012). I knew I had to write about her because she shares both my cultural background, as well as a passion for physics. I could also relate to her fight against gender and racial discrimination.

Myrna: Do you have any advice for writers who want to STEM picture books?

Teresa: I think in order to write STEM picture books, one needs to either have a love of STEM topics or journalistic tendencies. Having both would be the best. For me, I have always been drawn towards the sciences, and I really enjoy doing research. You need to have, or acquire, the skill to take in all the research and distill it into palatable and comprehensible form for young kids. And, just as important, I think, is to be enthusiastic about the subject and let that enthusiasm shine through. 

Myrna: Oh, I absolutely agree with you! When and why did you take Arree Chung’s Making Picture Book Stories and Dummies?

Teresa: I took Arree’s class back in the fall of 2016. My agent had quit the business the year before, and I was trying to find another. In order to make myself more “marketable,” I figured it would be good to keep learning about picture books with more of an illustrator’s perspective. To that end, Joy Chu’s UCSD Extension class and Arree’s course perfectly met my needs. I took them one after the other and have highly recommended both since.

Myrna: How did taking Arree’s class change the way you write picture books?

Teresa: Arree’s class helped me to think much deeper about my stories. By showing us the behind-the-scenes of his conception, writing and revision processes, I learned from his examples how to analyze the motives and emotions behind my characters to make the stories more meaningful and poignant, getting at the heart of the tale. 

Myrna: I know that a SCBWI conference played a role in getting your first book deal and signing with your agent. Would you share that story with us?

Teresa: Yes! It’s actually a good example of how different segments of this helpful kid lit community came together to make a success story.

My Penguin Posse critique group, which I became a part of through joining the 12×12 Picture Book Challenge, urged me to apply for a mentorship offered by We Need Diverse Books. Imagine my complete shock and delight when Jane Yolen picked my manuscript to mentor—turns out she, too, has a love of physics. We started working together on my story, and I believe she may have suggested we meet up at the NESCBWI (the chapter she helped found) conference that spring. Of course I wanted nothing more than to meet with her in person! So, I went.

Teresa with Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple

Teresa: The NESCBWI Conference is known as one of the best regional chapter conferences and that year was no exception. The faculty was stellar. I had a lovely meeting with Jane about my manuscript and met many online friends for the first time. But wait, there’s more, as they say on infomercials. I also won that year’s Pitchapalooza at NESCBWI for a YA story I’d been mulling over since 2014. That came as a complete surprise, since I had not planned to enter the event (a fellow volunteer put my name in the hat, but I never dreamed my name would be picked).

Then after the conference was over, I submitted the manuscript that Jane had worked with me on to the editors who were taking submissions from the conference. Christina Pulles, who was then with Sterling, loved my story and asked if it was available. With this interest in hand, I queried agents and eventually signed with Natascha Morris of BookEnds Literary Agency. This is one of the reasons why I encourage people to attend SCBWI conferences: they have the opportunity to submit to participating editors afterwards. While Sterling is open to the transom, many publishers are closed to unagented writers and getting to submit to them through conferences is a huge bonus.

And, I think, too, that agents are often more interested in writers who approach them with an offer from a publisher. Try not to sign contracts with a publisher until you have an agent though. An agent will go through the legalese and negotiate the deal in your favor rather than the publisher’s.

Myrna: What an amazing story! At Storyteller Academy, we’re all about community. Are there any people or groups who’ve helped you reach your goals?

Teresa: Absolutely! I have mostly answered this in the previous question. For me, besides my critique groups, SCBWI, 12×12, Susanna Hill’s Making Picture Book Magic, KidLit411, and Storyteller Academy have provided the most support and encouragement in helping me get to where I am today.

Myrna: Do you have any advice for our readers?

Teresa: Based on what has helped me, I would advise people to:

  • Keep taking classes to hone their skills, whether it be to learn something new or a refresher course—Storyteller Academy, for example, has something for everyone.
  • Join or form a critique group. Inked Voices is a good place to try out some different critique workshops and possibly find new critique partners.
  • Go to conferences; SCBWI has some excellent ones to choose from to suit your budget (and be sure to volunteer! That was, circuitously, how I ended up winning Pitchapalooza).

Myrna: I second your advice, especially on volunteering with SCBWI. What's next for you?

Teresa: I’m finished with my edits for my second picture book and am preparing for its release in Spring of 2020! Currently, I have another #OwnVoices fiction picture book out on submission, and I’m working on a couple of nonfiction picture books, plus a proposal for a middle grade biography. 

Myrna: I'm excited to see what you come up with next, Teresa. Where can readers find you on the Internet?

Teresa: I can be found at the following sites (I am debating closing up my Facebook account, so Twitter and Instagram might be better places to look for me):

Myrna: Where can we buy your books? 

Teresa: My website has links to Indiebound, B&N, and Amazon for ordering and preordering my books.

My local indie—The Book Corner, (812) 339-1522—has signed copies!

Myrna: Thank you so much, Teresa! 

Book Giveaway Details

I'm giving away a copy of Teresa's Queen of Physics. To enter, let me know something that you've learned from Teresa in the comments by midnight on November 15. You don’t have to buy anything or be a student. 

Please share this post on social media for extra entries, and paste the link to wherever you shared as a reply to your original comment.

Thank you for reading!

Blog Contributors

Instructor Photo: Myrna Foster

Myrna Foster writes and edits content for Storyteller Academy and the WriteRiders Newsletter for SCBWI Nevada. She has spent a lot of time teaching and coaching children, including five years as a preschool teacher. She's also worked as a journalist, and Highlights High Five has published six of her poems. 

Arree Chung is an author/illustrator and the founder of Storyteller Academy. Arree’s Ninja! series has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. Kirkus also gave a starred review to Mixed, which recently won the FCGB award. 

Today Arree lives a creative life, making stories for children. Arree spends most of his time making picture books, writing middle grade novels, and sharing his love for art, design, and storytelling with kids and dreamers everywhere.

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