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Speaker Series: Kip Wilson ’86

By Sandra Santana
Emma Willard School Alumna Kip Wilson ’86 returned to Mount Ida this week as the finale to our 2021-2022 Speaker Series. Kip Wilson is the author of “White Rose” (2019, Versify), a critically-acclaimed YA novel-in-verse about anti-Nazi political activist Sophie Scholl, and “The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin”, (2022, Versify), a YA novel-in-verse about Hilde, an aspiring singer at a queer club in Berlin in 1932. Kip holds a PhD in German literature and was the poetry editor at Young Adult Review Network (YARN) for five years before joining Voyage as Associate Editor in 2020. Her next YA novel-in-verse, “One Last Shot”, about Gerda Taro, the first female photojournalist killed on the front, is forthcoming from Versify in 2023.
Kip Wilson ’86 remembered exactly what it was like to sit in Kiggins Hall as a student while an accomplished speaker captivated the room with tales from their professional adventures. She recalled a vivid memory from when renowned scientist and researcher, Dian Fossey, spoke on campus about Gorillas in the Mist, a novel she had recently published, and how that connection left a lasting impact on her. In fact, it was her own mother, a former science instructor at Emma Willard School, who held the privilege of introducing Dian to the student body that day. Coming back to Mount Ida, this time as a speaker herself, seemed more full circle than anything.

Becoming Kip Wilson, the soon-to-be three time author, was no short story. It was quite the opposite, in fact– a twisting tale of sorrows and triumphs, akin to the stories she finds herself writing now. While many of her books are set in Europe, Kip’s story started in a German class at Emma Willard School under a teacher who would, over those four years, forever change her life. German was more than an elective for her– the class was a comforting place where she sought out new and developing skills, like writing poetry. 

With a love for the language, Kip worked her way through every German class she could enroll in, fully immersing herself in this new and playful language. When the time came to move onto college, it was a no-brainer; German would be her focus moving ahead. The State University of New York at Albany (UAlbany), a long distance neighbor of Emma Willard School, became Kip’s next home. UAlbany’s competitive German program reeled the local day student right in for four years of undergraduate work while she was a member of the ROTC program.

Kip, with a plan to continue using her German through a hopeful deployment after graduation, was optimistic about what lied ahead for herself. Quickly, she learned that not everything goes according to plan. Upon graduation, there was no need to deploy Kip overseas, and the plan of heading to Europe with the military quickly began to fade. Instead of getting stuck at the thought of what wasn’t happening, she took matters into her own hands and decided to return to school for her graduate studies, accepting a fellowship position with a German department.

Like any good story, there is always an unforeseen bend in the road that tries its best to derail the momentum for our protagonist. In this story, Kip became a single mother at age 22, right in the middle of her fellowship program. She remembers the ways people around her began to write her off and float words of doubt around her, saying, “she’s not going to finish school… she’s not going to accomplish anything.” Undeterred, Kip kept her head down, and through the many sleepless nights, let her work speak for itself. This unique experience also allowed her to grow alongside her daughter, who traveled to Germany and Austria with her as she completed her program.

Kip, who never had a creative writing background, decided to put pen to paper and write her first novel. Understanding that she did not have the typical writing foundation needed, she joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), an international professional organization for authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults. “That's where I met all these other writers like me,” Kip shared. “I had two workshops and learned all these mistakes I was making and things I could be doing better. And in the meantime, I kept writing.”

When it came time for Kip to share her first piece of work with the world, there was no celebratory parade. Demonstrating this to the young audience in front of her, Kip bravely shared the (kindly) worded rejection emails she received from a number of publishing agents. She shared, “even though a lot of people liked the idea, it still wasn’t quite right.” And with more rejections rolling in, she continued to tweak her style in hopes of a single yes.

“Does anyone want to guess how many rejections I received?,” Kip giggled in front of the audience. As students hollered out numerical figures in the twenty and thirty range, Kip giggled more. Finally, she sucked the air out of the room with her response, “176.” While many of the audience members could feel the same warm ting of despair and hopelessness Kip once felt, she reminded us all that there only needs to be one yes. And lucky for us, her one yes was the best one yet.

Kwame Alexander, poet, educator, and New York Times bestselling author of 21 books, was the sole yes Kip had been waiting for. The 2015 Newbery Medal recipient for his verse novel The Crossover, took on White Rose, Kip’s first publishing project, and never looked back. Today, Kip has released both White Rose and The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin under Kwame’s publishing team, Versify, with her next novel due next year. While she can revel in the excitement of today, Kip shared her biggest learnings with the students in Kiggins, just like Dian once did when she was a student.

“There are four things I decided that you need to get published, or maybe, more generally to, to succeed. Number one thing is hard work. Unless you're a celebrity, you're not going to get published if you don't put in a ton of hard work.”

Next to hard work, Kip recommends a good support network. “In my case, I didn't have connections for publishing, but I did have a great support network. You know, family and friends. When you look around, your support system is the people in this room.” 

While holding true to your belief in yourself is important, Kip exclaims that there is always an element of luck and timing. Ultimately, though, it comes down to skill and talent. “You develop all of these things, your dream, your skill, your belief in yourself, and they all come together. And It did come together for me, finally, but again– it took me a while.”

Like the protagonists in her verse novels, Kip acknowledges that there is always a way to weather the impending storm. When one door closes, it does not mean that the dream has. Sometimes, you have to dig deep, believe in what you are doing, and run back out into the rain. The sun will eventually shine, just like it did for Kip. 
    • Katie G. '23 and Author Kip Wilson '86

    • Kip at an on campus book signing!

    • White Rose (2019) and The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin (2022)


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