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by Christine Van Zandt

The 2023 Sue Alexander Grant contest opens tomorrow, April 13, offering one SCBWI-L.A. writer a guaranteed spot and free tuition to the Working Writers Retreat (to be held at the Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Encino, September 29 to October 1, 2023). This will be the first time this popular event has been held in person since 2019!

We asked last year’s Sue Alexander Grant recipient, Christine Van Zandt, to talk about her winning manuscript:

Christine Van Zandt, 2022 Sue Alexander Grant recipient, with western monarch.

The idea for Butterfly Dreams began in May 2020, when my daughter and I bought our first milkweed plant unaware that a mother monarch had sent us home with a surprise—actually 26 surprises! Soon, our plant was covered in adorable caterpillars. We excitedly watched them grow … until something came along one night and ate every last one.

Upon investigating survival statistics, I was shocked to find our western monarch’s population had decreased by more than 99.9% in the past forty years. (Approximately 1,900 butterflies were counted in November 2020. There were more than 4.5 million in the 1980s.) These international travelers seemed like they’d always be around: fluttering in our gardens throughout the year, then gathering in California’s coastal trees alongside butterflies from as far north as Canada, to overwinter here during their annual migration. (The monarchs from east of the Rockies travel up to 3,000 miles to overwinter in Central Mexico.)

However, everywhere, much of their habitat has been destroyed. The caterpillars can only eat milkweed and wild expanses of this plant are scarce. Today’s milkweed plants—even those sold at garden centers—may be sprayed with pesticides; this kills the monarch caterpillars.

In addition to planting milkweed at home and at our LAUSD school, I wanted to reach readers through a story. I wrote this manuscript four different ways, switching viewpoints, changing between fiction and nonfiction, prose and verse. Narrative nonfiction worked the best.

Reading and studying books about butterflies, I kept searching for a unique angle. I found it in Butterfly Dreams, coupling short soothing rhyming text with simple facts. The two elements can be read together or separately; further information is provided in the back matter.

I’ve been an SCBWI member and volunteer for a number of years but never applied for the Sue Alexander Grant. Butterfly Dreams felt like the right manuscript to submit. I belong to four critique groups (two are international), and this story was a favorite whenever I workshopped it.

And the happy ending? This manuscript landed me an amazing agent, Liza Fleissig, and a book deal! It’s now called Milkweed for Monarchs and will be published in February 2024 by Beaming Books.

Winning this grant was an honor because I know there are many, many talented writers in SCBWI. The bottom line for everyone out there is that if I can do it, you can too!

So, what are you waiting for? Submissions for this year’s award will be accepted from April 13 through May 25, 2023. For eligibility requirements and specific entry instructions, please visit: https://losangeles.scbwi.org/regional-contests/sue-alexander-grant/.

Best of luck to all applicants!

Sue Alexander (1933-2008).

Author Sue Alexander was a founding member of SCBWI and was instrumental in the formation of the L.A. chapter. Her clear vision of the need for an organization to support children’s literature made her a vital force in establishing the early structure of SCBWI and growing it into the international society we enjoy today. For 35 years, she mentored writers, illustrators, librarians, and teachers—always nurturing, but setting the highest standards for the craft. Established in her memory, this grant brings her encouraging spirit to one promising writer each year.

For more fantastic content, community, events, and other professional development opportunities, become a member today! Not sure if there is a chapter in your area? Check here.

About Christine Van Zandt, author of A Brief History of Underpants. Literary editor, writer, and children’s book reviewer. SCBWI Kite Tales: writes the quarterly “Ask an Editor” column and handles select interviews; co-editor of blog (2015-16). Write-for-Success.com, ChristineVanZandt.com.

Images provided by author and SCBWI-L.A.