Friday, February 27, 2015

One-Liners Abound at New York Conference

What do you get when you plop a four-star Grand Hyatt Hotel on top of the world’s busiest train station?

You get a grandiloquent setting for the 16th Annual SCBWI Winter Conference, February 6-8, 2015 in New York City. I was lucky enough to be one of several hundred attendees, my way paid by the Tribute Fund, a grant that recognizes the service of the local volunteer members. 

On Friday, I attended a Writer’s Roundtable intensive, where 25 of the biggest names in publishing’s editors and agents sat at a round table with eight other writers and critiqued their first 500 words. It would take a whole blog post just to mention every name; suffice to say that I was honored to sit with Kate Sullivan, senior editor of Delacorte Press in the morning, and Molly Ker Hawn, an agent for the Bent Agency based in London in the afternoon.

That was just one of three intensive tracks on what was essentially a bonus day. The real conference kicked off on Saturday morning, and the list of keynote presenters is so long, and my word count so restricted, that each person only gets one sentence.

Anthony Horowitz said “Remember the first line is the line the reader will read in the store.” He followed that up with his first line of the first book in the Alex Rider series, "When the doorbell rings at 3 o’clock in the morning, it’s never good news.”

Next up was the Keynote Editor’s Panel. 
Justin Chanda said, “The business is cyclical; we need picture book readers to graduate to middle grade to young adult.”

Laura Godwin added that “It takes about $50,000 to start up a picture book: we’re not going to put up that investment lightly in our partnership with you.”

Beverly Horowitz said, “People love books for children who will grow up to be adult readers.”

And Stephanie Owens Lurie indicated that research suggested, “Kids prefer physical books.”

Our first breakout offered choices A-K, where agents, art directors and editors discussed “Seven Essentials You Need to Know About...” I chose Executive Editor Jordan Brown, who said “The Number One Rule with Writing: you can do whatever you want, as long as it works.”

After a lunch in the catacomb food court of Grand Central Station, we returned for another one of eleven breakout sessions. This time I chose Senior Editor Ben Rosenthal who discussed thrillers, “You need to hook immediately; you turn on the faucet, the reader can’t (and doesn’t want to) turn it off.”

More afternoon keynotes followed. Herve Tullet, a gangly French artist, talked about a transformative presentation where he “invited a child to draw wiz me, drawing scribbles zat became an idea; from zat scribble it became a story.”

Next, author Kami Garcia admitted she “broke a lot of rules writing for a group of teens, not writing to be published.”

Afterwards, illustrators displayed their portfolios during the Art Browse, followed by a Gala Dinner and Optional Socials (for those of us still standing).

SCBWI-MI Co-RAs, Carrie Pearson and Leslie Helakoski, with Taraneh Matloob, the winner of Shutta's NY Conference Scholarship. Congrats, Taraneh!

Sunday went by like a New York minute.

Legendary children’s writer (and SCBWI’s first Regional Advisor) Jane Yolen spoke briefly, urging the crowd “No more ‘starting,’ just do it.”

Author/illustrator Laura Vaccaro Seeger effectively demonstrated the magic of her concept picture books by showing them to the audience. She suggested journals for writers and artists “so you have a place to collect your thoughts, ideas and doodles.” But she went a step beyond and numbered the pages and made a table of contents, for easy brilliance retrieval.

Best-selling author James Dashner confessed, “My method has nothing to do with trends; I write stuff that’s cool to me...there’s no magical formulas, you just have to be passionate about it.”

The Keynote Agent’s Panel featured Barry Goldblatt (who appeared at an SCBWI-MI conference a few years ago with author and wife Libba Bray). He said that an agent’s job "is 24/7; it doesn’t ever turn off.”

Jennifer Laughran said a good query letter is “long enough to cover everything but short enough to get you interested, like a gray skirt.”

Tina Wexler advises writers she needs “writing with heart, not writing to pay the bills; I want passion and you on the page.”

Finally, Newbery Award winner Kwame Alexander sent the crowd out on a delirious note. He described his unlikely rise to fame as an author and poet. His secret? “You have to say ‘Yes!’”

New York City. Editors. Agents. Authors. Illustrators. It is an experience never to be forgotten. Make it a goal to go to at least one national SCBWI conference in your lifetime; it will transform you.

Charlie Barshaw is currently stitching together the tattered remains of his middle grade story about a squirrel invasion while fiendishly contemplating major surgery on a YA WIP. He’s also co-planning a spring conference with his wife, author/illustrator Ruth McNally Barshaw.

For more highlights of the NY conference and plenty of photos, visit the official SCBWI conference blog. But first, click on the links above because Charlie carefully collected all of them for you!

Coming up on The Mitten blog: small press success, writing character emotions, and another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. Send your good news to Patti Richards ( by March 25th to be included.

Subscribe to our chapter blog and you'll never miss a post. Simply enter your email under the "Follow by email" heading at the top of the blog's sidebar.

Have a great weekend!

Kristin Lenz

Friday, February 20, 2015

Flashback Friday: Neal Levin's Kiddie Litter

We have 10 years of Neal Levin's Kiddie Litter cartoons in our SCBWI-MI newsletter archives. It's a shame to keep them tucked away. Enjoy these Friday funnies, and find more here.

Neal Levin writes short stories and poetry for children as well as drawing cartoons. His work has appeared in several national magazines and collections. You can find out more at

Coming up on The Mitten blog: coverage of the SCBWI New York conference, small press success, writing character emotions, and another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. Send your good news to Patti Richards ( by March 25th to be included.

Subscribe to our chapter blog and you'll never miss a post. Simply enter your email under the "Follow by email" heading at the top of the blog's sidebar.

Have a great weekend!

Kristin Lenz

Friday, February 13, 2015

Working with a Foreign Market by Monica Harris


I’ve had the good fortune of writing books for two Korean children’s publishing companies - TunTun Publishing and Caramel Tree. When fellow writers discover this, they are immediately curious about the experience. So I thought I’d share some of the questions I’ve been asked and some insight on the opportunities.

The first question is always – “Do you speak Korean?”
No, I do not speak Korean. Both companies are educational publishers who create educational English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. Their programs involve leveled reading books and teacher materials to help Korean kids from ages 3+ learn English.

How did you get your foot into the door?
It’s all about connections! For TunTun Publishing, I had met the SCBWI International Regional Advisor from Korea while attending the New York conference. She was an American living abroad due to her husband’s job. The editors at TunTun learned about her and reached out with a request for native English speaking writers who specifically wrote for kids. They wondered if she knew any. She certainly did! The Regional Advisor sent an email to several writers with the details on how to submit ideas. I jumped at the opportunity and BOOM! Six books later, my foot is no longer pinched by the door.

For Caramel Tree Publishing, it was again by making connections. While at the 2009 Los Angeles SCBWI conference, I attended a presentation on writing for foreign markets. One of the gentlemen sitting in the audience talked about his experience with the Korean market. After the presentation, we struck up a conversation. It turned out that he was the Vancouver-based English Editor with Caramel Tree Publishing. Over the next several years, I sent him stories, which I thought might fit into his program. He loved them all, but just couldn’t find a good fit within their current program. Luckily, he believed in me and was willing to take a risk. He presented my works to the Korean editorial group and stressed that I had the skills needed to be “part of the team.” The group agreed and took me on as one of their work-for-hire authors (2014). I am currently working on 16 books for their upcoming list!
Work-for-Hire? What does that mean?
Work for hire means the publisher gives me writing assignments. They are often subjects that the publisher needs in order to round out their ESL programs. I work under a contract, which requires revisions, illustration suggestions, and readability statistics. Deadlines are usually quite short and the pay is reasonable ($300-$500 per book project). My name appears on the book, but I do not earn royalties on sales. Each contract states how many complimentary copies I will receive but, because they’re sold in Korea, I don’t usually have an opportunity to buy additional copies for school visits. So I usually ask for 10 copies instead of the standard 2.

What have you learned from the experience?
  • When communicating with editors whose first language is not English, keep sentence structure simple. Email miscommunications usually occur because of basic misunderstandings in the language.
  • Research the culture you’re writing about. When writing a breakfast scene, for example, don’t assume that Korean kids eat cereal, oatmeal, or pancakes. Korean breakfasts are usually hot soup. Don’t be afraid to ask the editors for guidance. It isn’t seen as a weakness; it’s seen as respectful.
  • My teaching degree is valuable. (Which makes my father very happy!) Having an understanding of the learning process and making sure the books are in check with learning objectives has certainly given me a leg up.
  • That there’s an extra element of intrigue when you receive a package with foreign words and/or symbols on it. It makes me appear worldly, mysterious, and secretive to my mail carrier too. (wink wink)

NOTE: The title reads as “Good morning” in Italian and “Welcome” in Malay.  Because I know you were going to Google it anyways.  J

Monica writes picture books, puzzles/games, magazine stories and articles, nonfiction easy readers, and educational materials. She lives in Kalamazoo where she enjoys hiking and belly dancing. She is the author of 14 books (16 more to come) and more than 230 magazine pieces. She is also an instructor with the Institute of Children’s Literature. Learn more about Monica at her website:

Coming up in the weeks ahead: take-aways from the SCBWI Winter Conference in New York, Small Press Success, Kiddie Litter cartoons, and another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. Subscribe to The Mitten blog and you'll never miss a post. Simply enter your email in the Follow by Email box at the top of the sidebar.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Member Spotlight!

Introducing…Rhonda Gowler Greene

Rhonda Gowler Greene is a long-time SCBWI member and lives in West Bloomfield. She has 23 published picture books and four more titles on the way. Rhonda grew up in southern Illinois, but has lived in the Michigan for 32 years. Welcome to the Mitten Blog Rhonda and thanks for being our first guest on Member Spotlight. 

Now, without further delay, here’s Rhonda…

RGG: My family moved to Florence, Kentucky from southern Illinois the summer before my senior year in high school. I graduated from Northern KY University with a B.A. in education and a minor in music/piano. I then went on to earn a graduate degree in educational media from Xavier University in Cincinnati. After college, I was an elementary learning disabilities teacher. My husband took a job in Michigan in 1983, so we packed up and moved to West Bloomfield. We have four grown kids and two adorable grandkids.

M:When did you start writing for children? How did you know it was something you wanted to do?

RGG: I started writing for children when my kids were young. I left teaching and stayed home with them and we read and read! My plan had been to become a school librarian, so even in college, I loved children’s books. The more I read to my kids, the more I wanted to write books like that. I then started writing and submitting. Three and a half years and 220 rejections later, I made my first sale, BARNYARD SONG, to Simon & Schuster/Atheneum. 

M: How did you find out about SCBWI and how long have you been a member?

RGG: I’ve been a member since 1988! When I first joined, it was SCBW. I’m glad illustrators are included now. I can’t remember how I found out about SCBWI.  Maybe from a market book.  

M: What genres interest you most and why?

RGG: I like most children’s genres and keep up as best I can with what is being published—picture books to novels. My biggest love is the picture book. I especially love picture books that rhyme since most of what I write is in rhyme. A close second is children’s poetry. I think these two are my favorites because so much is packed into so few words. I love playing with words and coming up with fresh, lyrical lines.  For me, writing a picture book is like putting a very difficult puzzle together—finding those perfect words, then fitting them together in just the right way. 

M: With 23 picture books under your belt and more to come, you’re a seasoned veteran! Tell us more about your publishing journey.

RGG: I’ve been published with S&S/Atheneum, Bloomsbury, Dutton, Holt, Houghton Mifflin, Scholastic, Sleeping Bear Press, Childcraft/School Specialty, Augsburg, Eerdmans, and ZonderKidz.  I just had a book released this week with ZonderKidz called ONLY GOD CAN MAKE A KITTEN!  

I sold my first three manuscripts on my own. In 1996, I acquired an agent. Even though I’m published and have an agent, I still get lots of rejections. Being a children’s author has been like a roller coaster for me—BIG highs and BIG disappointments. Besides my first sale being a huge ‘high,’ I also had one in 2012 when my agent got an auction going on a new manuscript. Four major houses bid on it. I ended up getting a three-book contract. Then it took almost three years before the publisher got an illustrator. Just two weeks ago, they signed up Daniel Kirk to do two of the books. They’re hoping he’ll do the third one also. 

M: Many of us have jobs in addition to writing for children. Tell us something about what you do outside of writing.

RGG: Like many children’s authors, I speak at schools and conferences. March is busy, and in April, I’m headed to Florida for a week of visits and a conference presentation. I got invited there because my book, NO PIRATES ALLOWED, is a 2014-2015 Florida Reading Association Award nominee. The book is also up for a 2015-2016 state award in Nebraska. So besides writing and reading and being a grandma, preparing talks and PowerPoint presentations take up a lot of my time.

M: How does this occupation inform your writing?

RGG: Speaking at conferences and schools about writing makes me want to keep up even more with what new books are being published. I read and study new children’s books a LOT. And not just new ones, but great old ones I missed along the way. 

M: Where do you get most of your writing ideas? Do you write them down, keep them in a computer file or just store them in your memory?

RGG: I get most of my ideas when reading other children’s books. They spark ideas in my head, and I usually jot them down on a post-it.

M: We all have favorite writers that inspire us. Name two of yours and why you like them.

RGG: It’s hard to pick just two! In 1993, I drove 5 hours to hear Cynthia Rylant  speak. She was a real inspiration!  Joyce Sidman, Mary Ann Hoberman, Alice Schertle- I could go on and on. It’s the way they have with words- such fresh writing. Two of my very favorite picture books are, SLEEP LIKE A TIGER and A VISITOR FOR BEAR.

M: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer for children? Why?

RGG: Read read read!  On Linda Sue Park’s website, under “writing,” she says:“Read.  That’s the single best thing an aspiring writer can do for his or her work.  I once heard an editor say, ‘Read a thousand books of the genre you’re interested in.  THEN write yours.’ ”  And don’t give up!   

Both are great pieces of advice because they’ve helped me reach my dream of getting published! Thanks for having me!

M: Wow! That was great Rhonda! Thanks so much for visiting The Mitten. You can learn more about Rhonda at her website