Alumni First Novels Club Makes Buzz in Literary World

By Purnell T. Cropper | January 15, 2010

By Erin DuBois ’11

When Frankie Mallis ’09M, Donna Gambale ’08, Janine Leaver-Burgan ’08, and Sara Kankowski ’09 enrolled in Adjunct Professor of English Gretchen Haertsch’s Writing for Children Class in Fall 2007, they never imagined that one day they would be interviewing children’s authors on their First Novels Club blog. They only knew that they had a compulsion to write and needed some practical guidance to push them in the right direction.

Writing for Children jumpstarted it all,” Gambale says. “We all had the same drive, but the class brought it out in different ways.” 

The workshop-style class, with its critique sessions and advice on the publishing industry, proved the perfect place for them to try their wings as writers. For Gambale, the opportunity to be with like-minded writers was invaluable, while for Leaver-Burgan, the class was a safe place to have people read and respond to her writing.

“For years it was stewing and I wanted to do it, but I didn’t have the courage to make it public,” Leaver-Burgan says of her desire to write.

When the semester ended, the four decided that they wanted more. Now, two years later, every three weeks finds them ensconced in a sunny corner of Barnes & Noble, coffee and laughter flowing freely, as they share manuscripts and a part of each other’s lives.

The critique-group-turned-good-friends enjoy their meetings, but they are completely earnest when it comes to their writing endeavors. From fantasy to realistic fiction to picture books, each member’s projects are being prepared to soon meet the world of literary agents. Wryly mentioning the three re-writes of her 500-page novel, Mallis says, “We work each other hard.”

The First Novels Club is already cultivating contacts in the publishing world through its blog. After attending a retreat hosted by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators last year, they realized that they were among the youngest writers in attendance. “We wanted to blog about our experience as writers just out of college trying to break in,” Gambale says.

With its conversational tone and pop-culture references, the blog already has attracted more than 200 followers, many of whom are teens. The blog’s following doubled after a Publisher’s Weekly report linked to Mallis’ post recapping a book signing event at Books of Wonder in New York City.

Besides featuring book reviews, character studies, and monthly contests, the bloggers regularly interview debuting authors such as Bree Despain and Becca Fitzpatrick.

“Every author we’ve co-interviewed says it’s their favorite review,” Mallis says. Publishers have even started sending the First Novels Club advance copies of books to review.

Buzz about the blog is not confined to the publishing world. Mallis’ parodies of the CW’s Vampire Diaries received a “tweet” from the show’s writer Kevin Williamson, after his fans sent him the link on Twitter.

The First Novels Club appreciates Arcadia’s influence on their growth as writers. “Arcadia nurtures you as a writer, whatever class you take,” Gambale says. She learned something different about herself as a writer in each of the writing classes she took, but in Writing for Children, she discovered that she wanted to write for young adults.

“I focused on literature, not writing, but the classes taught me how to wield words and think clearly, and that can translate into anything you do,” Leaver-Burgan says.

The group agreed that Arcadia’s small class sizes made a huge difference. “You felt like you really knew your professors. They supported you and cared about what you were passionate about, and they were passionate, too,” Gambale says.

Visit the First Novels Club blog at