Donna Cooner, a professor in the School of Education’s Center for Educator Preparation at Colorado State University, is celebrating the release of her newest young adult novel, Worthy. The novel explores the impact of a popularity app on a high school student and her peers.
Building a foundation
Cooner received her formal education at Texas A&M University, earning her bachelor’s degree in elementary education, her master’s degree in reading literacy, and her doctorate in educational administration. Cooner’s early career in Texas schools—as a kindergarten and third grade teacher, and later as a building principal—was followed by time working with several universities and nonprofit organizations. During this time, Cooner was impressed with CSU’s education program and the way it complemented her background and her aspirations, so she joined the School of Education faculty.
Cooner’s career as a writer began during her time as a teacher. Reading aloud to her classes, Cooner quickly saw the impact of books on her kindergarten and third grade students. She was launched into the world of children’s books after writing for the PBS television show Barney and Friends and the series’ spin-off books. After publishing over 20 children’s books, Cooner stepped away from creative writing and moved into nonfiction, writing books and articles focused on research and education.
From journal to novel
Following several years of nonfiction writing, Cooner returned to the creative world in 2012 with her debut young adult novel, Skinny, a book about a high school girl who struggles with her weight and finds solace in singing. The positive response to Skinny surprised Cooner, who wrote the book as a way to capture some of her own experiences with self-doubt.
“When I came back from taking a break from writing creatively, after writing so much about schools and kids and what they were going through, but more from a research perspective, I felt like I wanted to write something that was deeper and dealt with more serious topics than the fiction I wrote before,” says Cooner. “I started by journaling, and the things I was journaling were not for picture books, so I started to think about where it would fit. At the time, the young adult world was really taking off, and it just seemed like this might be an avenue to really delve into.”
Cooner has found a delicate balance between her career as a professor and her writing career. As a full-time faculty member, Cooner works with students preparing for careers in education, spending her work hours supervising and evaluating principal interns, and teaching courses in leadership, ethics, and literacy. She devotes her early morning, evening, and weekend hours to writing her YA novels.
“One job complements the other: being in schools, working with teachers and thinking about what is important to them certainly complements the fictional side of what I’m writing,” says Cooner. “The fiction side supports me emotionally and creatively, so that I can be more academically focused when I’m at my other job. They fulfill different needs in my life, but they go together.”
The popularity of Skinny gave Cooner a taste of success in the young adult fiction genre. Her second novel, Can’t Look Away, was released in August 2014; Cooner is currently in the rough draft stages of a fourth book. Her reputation as an acclaimed YA author continues to grow, leading budding writers to ask for her advice on writing and becoming a published author.
“The biggest thing is to write,” offers Cooner, “and every time I give that advice, it’s not the advice they want to hear. They want to hear how to get an agent or sell their book, but there has to be something on the page before you can do any of those things. If you have a story to tell and you want to be a writer, you have to write as much as possible, and get it looked at, and rewrite, and rewrite. The only way to get there is to get it out on paper; otherwise, it will be stuck in your head and never get out.”
To meet Cooner and get a signed copy of Worthy, attend the book’s launch party on Friday, March 31, 5 – 8 p.m. at Coopersmith’s Pool Side in downtown Fort Collins. The event is open to the public.