VCFA interviewed MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults alumnx Nora Shalaway Carpenter (WCYA ’12) and Rocky Callen (WCYA ’19) on their co-edited YA collection, Ab(solutely) Normal: Short Stories That Smash Mental Health Stereotypes (Candlewick, 2023), for the 2023 edition of the alumnx magazine, in residence. Read our interview with Shalaway Carpenter and Callen, as it appeared in the magazine, below.

A VCFA Reunion

Nora Shalaway Carpenter author headshotRocky Callen author headshotThis is a story about collaboration—a collaboration that couldn’t have happened without VCFA, a bus, and a text.

In the spring of 2023, authors, mental health advocates, and VCFA Writing for Children & Young Adults alumnx Nora Shalaway Carpenter (’12) and Rocky Callen (’19) released their co-edited YA collection, Ab(solutely) Normal: Short Stories That Smash Mental Health Stereotypes (Candlewick, 2023). Following 16 voices and experiences—including WCYA alumnx Jonathan Lenore Kastin (’12), Val Howlett (’12), Anna Drury (’11), and Patrick Downes (’13)—Ab(solutely) Normal works to subvert mental health stereotypes by exploring a variety of mental health stories, from anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder to obsessive-compulsive disorder to premenstrual dysphoric disorder and more. Among many accolades, the collection has been called “absolutely extraordinary and necessary” by former WCYA faculty member Rita Williams-Garcia and “a vital resource for young people and their caregivers” by WCYA faculty member A.S. King.

So how did this transformative collection come to be? You may know Nora Shalaway Carpenter and Rocky Callen from their previous work in the kidlit and mental health spaces: Shalaway Carpenter is the author of The Edge of Anything (Running Press Kids, 2020) and Fault Lines (Running Press Kids, 2023) and the editor of the YA collection Rural Voices (Candlewick, 2022). Callen is the author of A Breath Too Late (Henry Holt and Co., 2020) and the founder of the mental health awareness and suicide prevention project HoldOn2Hope. Prior to even meeting and subsequently working together, both Callen and Shalaway Carpenter had a similar path to the writing world. Both wrote fervently as kids only to put their writing down as young adults—only to pick it up again later in life. Both, in looking to return to writing, turned to graduate education to strengthen their work. Both turned to the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at VCFA.

And that’s where the bus comes in. While they didn’t study at VCFA at the same time, their paths, despite everything, still managed to cross.

“I was [at VCFA] for two semesters when Rocky was there because I was her Graduate Assistant,” explains Shalaway Carpenter. “That’s how we met. I actually met Rocky on my first shuttle. … Rocky and I connected on the themes in our work. We’re both really passionate about mental health and advocating for it.” After Shalaway Carpenter’s novel The Edge of Anything and Callen’s novel A Breath Too Late debuted together in the same year, they became even closer online. 

And then, the text happened. 

After editing and publishing her first YA collection, Rural Voices—which featured WCYA voices such as Rob Costello (’12), Yamile Saied Méndez (’17), Veeda Bybee (’18), Estelle Laure (’14), Tirzah Price (’15), Shae Carys (’14), and Monica Roe (’15), and WCYA faculty member David Macinnis Gill—Shalaway Carpenter debated whether or not she wanted to pursue another anthology project. “Anthologies are so much work, and I’m really, really proud of that book,” explains Shalaway Carpenter. “I was texting with my friend Anna Drury (’11) right when the book was done, and I was like, ‘Don’t ever let me do another anthology again.’ Literally in the same text chain I was then like, ‘Although, you know what would be a really good anthology is one about mental health.’ And then I was like, ‘You know who would be really good at that? Rocky Callen.’”

“When Nora reached out, I immediately responded ‘yes.’ There was no hesitation,” says Callen. “It was so aligned with my own mission in the world and to do it in a collaborative way was just magic.”

Absolutely Normal Book Cover

When approaching an anthology about mental health, Callen and Shalaway Carpenter knew a major priority had to be representing mental health in a destigmatizing way. Much of the lexicon of media available to young people today often perpetuates harmful myths and stereotypes about mental health, some of which you may have heard once or twice before: That people with OCD are just “really big neat freaks,” that people with ADHD are just “unorganized and unmotivated,” and so on. Ab(solutely) Normal not only aims to smash those misconceptions but bring to light the necessary conversations that need to happen in 2023 and beyond.

“From the very beginning, Nora and I had the intention that we want this book to feel like a safe haven and for it to feel like a source of inspiration for anyone who does feel alone,” explains Callen. “The reason why stigma exists around mental health is, one, the narratives that were constructed around it, and two, the neglect and avoidance of the topic entirely. This book is meant to be a conversation starter, because without that, nothing will change. The stigma will not be broken, the statistics will continue to be on the rise, and the tragedies that come from those statistics will as well—so we have to start here and we have to start now.”

With Ab(solutely) Normal, Callen and Shalaway Carpenter set out to collect stories from a breadth of authors, experiences, and genres. The collection features everything from a one-act play to a graphic story to poetry to prose and more. Most importantly, each story is written by an author with the lived experiences represented in their work, and each story is accompanied by a letter from the writer offering words of support to their readers. Young readers, parents, guardians, and educators can even find in the back of the book a plethora of educational resources and conversational guides. 

“I just can’t tell you how many teachers have reached out to us to say how desperately this book is needed,” says Shalaway Carpenter. “Rocky and I wanted not only to give reading material for students and teachers and adults but also to arm them with lots of resources to help them through conversations, because the idea that kids aren’t going to talk about this stuff is ridiculous. They’re all talking about it because they have all seen tremendous impacts in their day-to-day life. … And so we’ve had some incredible collaborations with educators and mental health professionals to produce guides for the back.”

Ab(solutely) Normal truly became a shared community project—from the content included in the book to its very own origins. After finishing the book, bringing it on tour, and having time to reflect upon the Ab(solutely) Normal experience, both Shalaway Carpenter and Callen say that they want to keep incorporating collaborative work into their careers. They are working on another book together with a third author, and Shalaway Carpenter is working on a new book with yet another co-writer. 

“I just really love the energy that comes with working with other creative people,” explains Shalaway Carpenter. “And I think that is the magic of VCFA: the connections that you have with other people.”

“Going to VCFA and having that experience, you become so intimately aware of other people and community,” adds Callen. “When you go through an experience together, especially an experience that is focused on your art and your expression and your identity as an artist, I feel like you merge with others with a level of closeness that is unrivaled.”

“[Ab(solutely) Normal] is glistening with VCFA magic,” Callen continues. “I see so many VCFA collaborations. Like Nora said, we met on a bus, but then our interests allied beyond VCFA. Then we started to be able to build that relationship. There are so many relationships that started at VCFA that will last a lifetime.”

And the future holds even more for these WCYA authors. Both Shalaway Carpenter and Callen have a multitude of new releases and projects coming soon—all of which the VCFA community can support with their own kind of VCFA magic. 

Keep up with Nora Shalaway Carpenter, Rocky Callen, and their books at and

Read more stories about our Alumnx through our Alumnx Stories series. Interested in an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults? Visit our program page for more information on our VCFA graduate degrees.