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Life and Work with Carmela LaVigna Coyle

Today we’d like to introduce you to Carmela LaVigna Coyle.

Carmela, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
Preschoolers say the darnedest things. Imagine being “handed” a book title by your four-year-old—a title that would later become a ten-book title franchise. It was magical. We were getting ready for a day hike in the Rockies, when my daughter, Annie, plopped down next to me, holding her pint-sized hiking boots. With a furrowed brow, she asked, “Do princesses HAVE to wear hiking shoes? Do princesses have to brush their teeth?” Then another, “Do princesses go potty?” (We’ve all been wondering that one.)

I was not thinking about princesses that day, but Annie was. Clearly, she was in-tune with what many other children were thinking at the time. Annie’s princess-centric questions featured a unique princess, far removed from the Disney Princess persona. It didn’t take too many of her “Do princesses…” questions to learn she was on a mission to discover if princesses were anything like her—bold, kind, inventive, outdoorsy, precocious, messy, brilliant, athletic . . .

To date, the Do Princesses franchise series and derivatives have sold a million copies.

Theresa Howell, an editor at Rising Moon Publishers at the time, discovered my Hiking Boots manuscript (submitted by my agent) in a pile on her desk. I’m still pinching myself after getting that phone call. Once the contract was signed, RM brought in the talents of illustrator Mike Gordon, to add his colorful content and a pitch-perfect sense of humor.

After the success of the first book, my publisher asked if I would write another Do Princesses title for them. I said “YES,” of course, and a series was born. Rising Moon sold to Muddy Boots Books several years later and they took the helm to my series. It has been loads of fun coming up with the titles and themes, Do Princesses Scrape Their Knees?… Have Best Friends Forever?… Really Kiss Frogs?… Make Happy Campers?… Become Astronauts?… and so on.

It thrills me to the bones to think of how many kiddos connect with an ordinary daisy-crowned princess. Boys too! I love reading these girl-centric books to all children. In the third book, I introduced her brother, who would later become an everyday superhero in Do Super Heroes Have Teddy Bears?, inspired by my son, Nick.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
It’s rarely a bump-free zone for most writers. There’s a lot of rejection in publishing. I have a stack of editor rejection letters over two-inches tall! And I suspect that stack of letters will grow. Some aspects of rejection spins us forward. It’s all part of creativity. If any woman entering the field can understand the rejection piece (maybe there’s a fortune in misfortune?) and try not to take rejection to heart, then bouncing back from each letter will get easier. And, yes, there may very well be that moment when an industry professional says, “I want this story!” Ahhh, triumph.

Growing up in Littleton, Colorado, I credit being a reading challenged child for widening my sensory scope. I became a stellar observer of the natural world around me, mainly because I had to. Metaphorically, I wrote before I could write.

I went on to get a degree in Elementary Education and Art from Colorado Women’s College, but I was nudged and encouraged to write by my college professor, Mary Anne Johnston. My first publishing venture was in partnership with my artist mother, Albertena and sister, Thea. We produced an art card company called Emily’s Art Garden with national distribution. I was the resident poet and president. At the time it was difficult for a fledgling indie card company to compete with the biggies. Think Hallmark. Eventually, we folded.

From there, we published Celebration and Fulfillment—a quarterly newsletter with a subscription base. It was a true collaboration between Mom, Thea, and I—each bringing our own artistic talents to the mix. But after just breaking-even for a couple of years, we decided to wrap it up with a final Winter edition. Yes, there were tears. I segued into writing for children and my talented mom and sis continued painting.

Going solo, I realized I needed an agent. My first children’s literary agent was Sandy Ferguson Fuller of Alp Arts, based out of Vail, Colorado. She helped me with all aspects of publishing. Having a literary agent served as a buffer to the ins and outs of the industry. In today’s market, it is mostly a prerequisite to have an agent.

Somewhere in between all that, I married a massively supportive fella. And yes, he listens intently to all of my newest manuscripts. I have to say though, joining a writing critique group has been worth its weight in dark chocolate.

What do you do, what do you specialize in, what are you known for, etc. What are you most proud of as a company? What sets you apart from others?
Writing children’s picture books perfectly matches how I look at the world. There is meaningfulness in the smallest things. I recommend finding something that grounds you before taking on a lifetime of writing. It helps to navigate the road ahead. For me, I meditate daily, do yoga, and walk-in nature—I call it my trifecta.

After my morning walk, I head straight to my writing room where I write every day. Even if it’s just a list! If I’m not feeling enormously creative that day, there is always something businessy to do.

I’m most proud of it all! Hee. One of my breakaway titles, The Tumbleweed Came Back, illustrated by Kevin Rechin, won a 2014 Colorado Book Award. And another, Wild Zoo Train, illustrated by Steve Gray, was a 2017 CBA Finalist. I adore my princess and superhero books, but I also thoroughly enjoy exploring a bucket full of new story ideas, themes, takeaways, and formats. In many ways, I’m just revving up.

Each of my books in the series has a takeaway at the end: a mirror, a “princesses rule” ribbon, a friendship bracelet, etc. These objects tie in with the story, but the more powerful takeaway has always been the overarching theme, which promotes humor, wonderment, a love for being in nature, and healthy self-esteem. I hope my adoration for nature comes across in my books, but more importantly, I hope it encourages young ones to become nature stewards themselves.

There’s a wealth of academic research that suggests that a lack of mentors and networking opportunities for women has materially affected the number of women in leadership roles. Smart organizations and industry leaders are working to change this, but in the meantime, do you have any advice for finding a mentor and building a network?
I recommend investigating a local writer’s guild that offers workshops, conferences, mentorships, critique groups, camaraderie, etc. I’m a member of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators with a local chapter serving the Rocky Mountain area www.rmc.scbwi. Colorado Author’s League https://coloradoauthors.org is another outlet for Colorado writers of all genres.

For me, learning the craft of writing for children was and is paramount to moving forward — expect to write, write, rewrite and then rewrite some more. Every word counts in a picture book. There are numerous online resources for pre-published and published authors: forums, classes, workshops. Check out Julie Hedlund’s 12X12, Picture Book Summit, Rate Your Story, among others. The children’s book industry is a big business.

I would also encourage writers to plan ongoing visits to their local libraries and book stores. Be prepared for your jaw to hit the floor. Many picture books go deep in the simplest ways. Some are hilarious. Some stretch the imagination. Most teach. They are oftentimes a child’s first glimpse of art/prose/poetry and exposure to cultural and ethnic diversities. Writing for kids is an important job.

More than anything: BE yourself! There is no other “you” package out there. It is, and always will be, your own personal superpower.

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Image Credit:
Nicholas Coyle

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