Friday, April 29, 2016

Flashback Friday: Neal Levin's Kiddie Litter Cartoons

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: It's almost time for another Writer Spotlight. It could be you! 

The Mitten blog editors are off to the SCBWI Wild, Wild Midwest Multi-Chapter Spring Conference! It's going to be a great weekend. Hope to see you there!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Troy Cummings - a pre-WWMW conference interview

Anita Pazner and Troy Cummings
at the WWMW conference 2013

 At the last WWMW conference a bunch of us MI illustrator ladies became friends with Troy Cummings. We all swooned over him not only for his abilities as an illustrator and writer, but for his genuinely nice and unassuming demeanor. This year Troy will be back at the conference as a presenter and I am honored to interview him for The Mitten blog.

With 15 published books since the last WWMW conference your career as an author/illustrator really took off. Tell us about it.

At the time of our last midwest conference, I had just started on THE NOTEBOOK OF DOOM, my early-reader chapter book series about a town full of monsters. In the years since, I've been lucky enough to be able to work on the more books in that series, plus a few picture books, including LITTLE RED GLIDING HOOD, 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN INDIANA, and MIGHTY TRUCK.

What do you think were the most important milestones to get to this point?

3RD GRADE: I won a prize in the grade school art show w/ my drawing of a giant moon-rabbit eating a bunch of astronauts. (Awesome, I know.) I think this was the first time I felt like a real, live illustrator.

5TH GRADE: I wrote a story about people turning into robots, which won an essay contest. I was invited to Indianapolis (the state capital!) to read this story to a group of my peers. This was the first time I felt like a real writer.

(Nothing much happened for the next 21 years. I blame video games.)

2004: I made my first attempt at selling a manuscript (a waaaay-too-long picture book about monsters. Like, a million words.) I submitted it blindly to a bunch of publishers, sort of at random. They all said "NOPE," but a few of the nopes were constructive.

2008: I signed on with an agent, and sold my first book, THE EENSY WEENSY SPIDER FREAKS OUT. I know some people do great without an agent, but this was a huge career-changing moment for me.

SUBSEQUENTLY: I don't know if there were specific "milestones" for me after signing on with an agent. It was all just gradual stuff. I'd try to write and draw every day, and would slowly get better, and have more manuscripts to submit, and more work would start trickling in.

What were your biggest setbacks and how did you get over them?

My biggest setback was getting a stack of rejection letters from my first manuscript. I was sure that _somebody_ would publish that book, and was crushed when that didn't happen. I got over it by sticking that manuscript in a drawer and trying again. The second (and 3rd and 4th and 99th ) set of rejections were easier to handle.

Who supported you, pushed you, helped you?

My kids! They read my stories and give me notes. They're pretty good at pointing out which jokes are going to bomb, or which illustrations need more work. "Dad? On page 23, that supposed to be a dog or a dinosaur?" (ANSWER: It's a hamster. Go to bed.)

Do you have a work routine? If not, how do you manage to have such a big output?

I work all day while the kids are in school, and then usually sneak in a few hours after everyone's in bed. I also sometimes take little retreats where I'll lock myself in a cabin over a long weekend and try to come home with a finished book dummy.

How do you get your ideas?

From reading, from keeping tabs on other illustrators, and from playing games with my kids. And keeping a notebook -- doodling around always leads to something.

What do you deem most important to succeed in todays tough market?

I think the most important thing is to just keep writing and drawing every day...the more you write, the better you get, and the more proposals you have out there bouncing around. (Which increases your chance of having the right story hit the right desk.)

Your best piece of advice for the aspiring author/illustrator?

Create something every day. EVERY DAY! Try to build your schedule around your writing/illustrating: Sleep, meals, day job, exercise, friends, family, classes — you gotta do those things, but try to protect your bubbles of work time so that you’re making art every day. Even if you’re only able to write 100 words or draw one squirrel.


What do you do to relax and recharge your batteries?

I don’t understand the question.

What's next?

I'm working on books 11-13 of the NOTEBOOK OF DOOM, which should bring us to the end of the series. I'm also illustrating more MIGHTY TRUCK books (by Chris Barton), and I'm hoping to do more picture books after that.

Thank you, Troy, see you at the WWMW conference!

Thank you, Michiganders! See you there.

You can learn more about Troy Cummings at,
or follow him on twitter @troycummings.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Meet Your Neighbors: SCBWI-MI Member Blogs by Charlie Barshaw

Recently at the Lansing Area Shop Talk, Ann Finkelstein and I hosted a meeting about blogs, our favorites, and something we took away from a post.

Many of the blogs we brought up were aimed at writing in general, like Writer Unboxed.

Some offered Kid’s literature, but focused mainly on book reviews: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and The Jean Little Library are two of the finest examples.

So, I googled “Kid’s Book Blogs,” thinking I’d be lucky to find a few. Second entry (the first was an advertisement) yielded this website, KidLitoSphere Central with hundreds of choices. Who, really, knew?

Easily you could spend your whole day investigating other people’s words instead of writing your own. However, in that massive list, I failed to find some local favorites from some of our own SCBWI-MI members.

So, check out a few of our homegrown talents:

Frog on a Dime by Vicky Lorencen. This blog covers the pitfalls and potential of kid’s book writing.

Jumping the Candlestick by Debbie Diesen. Best-selling author of “The Pout-Pout Fish” series, Debbie interviews Michigan authors.

Janice Broyles recently interviewed Regional Advisors Leslie Helakoski and Carrie Pearson. Be sure to check out her Monday Meet-ups.

ReaderKidz by Debbie Gonzalez. Debbie reviews children’s picture books and sometimes interviews their authors.

Words and Pixels by Ann Finkelstein. Ann’s a brilliant photographer and a master of craft, and her blog reflects her passions.

Literary Rambles by Natalie Aguirre and Casey McCormick. This is the blog to read to investigate agents in the Kid Lit world.

Shutta Crum. This venerable author’s blog has “Best of” lists and interviews with authors.

Nancy Shaw. Her blog tends to have Baaab the Sheep in the photos.

Sensibility and Sense by Patti Richards uncovers the nuances of writing children’s literature.

Sandy Carlson’s blog explores her Michigan historical roots.

The Blob Blog by Amy Nielander uses shapes to inspire characters in your head.

Erin Brown Conroy's blog is for entrepreneurs and creatives.

Buffy’s Blog by Buffy Silverman offers nature photos and poetry.

And finally Kristen Remenar’s blog evaluates early childhood literacy and the early stages of authorhood.

These are only a few that came to mind between Ann Finkelstein and myself. If I’ve failed to mention your favorite blog, please add it in the comments section. Check out some of your Michigan neighbors in the blogosphere.

Charlie Barshaw has entered pieces in the upcoming Wild Wild Mid-West manuscript contest, the annual SCBWI WIP grant, and the Karen Cushman Late Bloomer Award. He's also co-chairing the novel track for the SCBWI-MI Fall Retreat with David Stricklen. So I guess it's okay that he hasn't completed revising his MG or finished the first draft of his YA.

Thanks for the round-up, Charlie! Coming up on the Mitten blog: an Illustrator Interview, a Writer Spotlight, and Charlie will be back to share his take-aways from the SCBWI Wild, Wild Midwest Conference!

Have a great weekend!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, April 8, 2016

Making the Rounds at MRA by Barbara Rebbeck

I park my car in the Washington lot at Cobo Hall and begin the trek, and I mean trek, across the first floor to register as a featured speaker for the MRA Conference in Detroit. I am a Reading All-Star, here to present the story of my journey from classroom teacher to author of my YA novel, NOLA Gals. My trek is interrupted constantly by teens also here for a cheerleading competition. They cavort and leap and shout in their skimpy costumes, waiting to be called to perform. I pray for that kind of energy as I trudge, loaded down with equipment and books.

I reach Room 140A, almost to the Detroit River and am warmly greeted and given instructions how to get back to the room I will present in. You guessed it. It is all the way back, almost to the parking lot. But determined, I cross through the cheering girls again, up two escalators and see my room at last. I set up my equipment and finish just as a techie arrives to help. All is well. The audience arrives and I begin. A very small audience as I have drawn the 4 p.m. crowd, the Happy-Hour yawners. But they are attentive, and one man is interested in having his community theater support a play adaptation of my novel. That could work.

The next morning I am back very early for a book-signing in the Grand Ballroom Book Exhibit. Four of us have drawn this too-early 8 a.m. slot so we amuse ourselves by swapping stories and travel tales as few signatures are needed.

Next up is the Author Breakfast. Early enthusiastic literary fans await. Besides myself, author Jan Cheripko sits at my table. We talk books over breakfast with our teachers and then stand as each author is introduced one by one. The most authors ever they say are here.  Each teacher receives a signed copy of our table books, and we pose for photos. It is fun to feel the excitement teachers have to be around so many authors. And they are even happier to learn I will visit their schools for free!

The General Session speaker is Matt De La Pena who recently won the Newbery Award for his picture book, Last Stop on Market Street. He speaks very movingly about the power of literacy and creativity in the lives of children and young adults, especially those “on the wrong side of the tracks.”

At 3 p.m. I’m up to speak again and once again I find my room, a different one, way across the center. This is a huge place. More cheerleaders, three teens who boom rap music, clearing the way around them, and two escalator rides later, I find the room and set up. I have revised for this presentation, mostly so I could cut the equipment for the long walk. I have twice as many people today and will be formally introduced by a board member. The book exhibit is now closed, and I have also toted copies of my book that failed to sell there. I have been told to sell them myself at this session. Again, I make my offer to work in schools and teachers take my card.

All in all, it was an honor to be a part of the celebration of the MRA’s 60th anniversary.

Barbara J. Rebbeck is the author of the YA novel, NOLA Gals which has been recognized as a finalist for the IAN Award, a semi-finalist for the Kindle Book Award, and is now shortlisted for the Drunken Druid Award. (Honest! It’s an Irish award.) She is writer-in-residence for both Waterford Schools and the Beverly Hills Academy. Learn more at

Mark your calendars! Barb will be at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor on June 11th, 3:00pm.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Featured Illustrator Lori Taylor


This questionnaire goes back to a popular parlor game in the early 1900s. Marcel Proust filled it out twice. Some of our questions were altered from the original to gain more insight into the hearts and minds of our illustrators. We hope you enjoy this way of getting to know everybody.

1. Your present state of mind?
Alert, busy yet pleased. Too much coffee?

2. What do you do best? 

Laugh. Be a clown, sometimes unintentionally.

3. Where would you like to live?
In the north woods, in Baba Yaga’s house—the one on chicken legs with skulls in the yard. Hey wait, that’s a lot like where I live now. Our hen coop is on stilts and we are surrounded by pines, owls, and skulls.

4. Your favorite color?
Chartreuse and sometimes Indigo. Favorite colors vary year to year. Still in Indigo mode. Or no, chartreuse. Don’t ask me to paint your house.

5. Three of your own illustrations

6. Your music?
Ecclectic mix of Carlos Nakai flute music, Tori Amos, Lady Gaga, 90s alternative rock.

7. Your biggest achievement?
Being selected artist-in-residence for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Three weeks exploring and doing art in the national park being treated like a queen. OK, thinking I was a queen.

8. Your biggest mistake?
Not backing up my files. I accidentally had a desktop folder get deleted that contained 20+ years of art and photo files, research, and the book dummy. Back up, people. Do it NOW!

9. Your favorite children's book when you were a child?
The Whispering Rabbit and Other Stories, by Margaret Wise Brown. I still have it.

10. Your main character trait?
I’m a playful, but fierce. I like to think I am mighty and can do anything.

11. What do you appreciate most in a friend?
Honesty! Being real and funny. Real funny.

12. What mistakes are you most willing to forgive?
Most things. Just don’t mess with my kids and grandkids.

13. Your favorite children's book hero?
Pippi Longstocking. And Paddington.

14. What moves you forward?
The excitement of creating a story or illustration.

15. What holds you back?
People grabbing my arms and saying, “Wait! Hold on there, Missy.” Which is good when I’m near cliff edges. But maybe fear of not getting something just right.

16. Your dream of happiness?
Drawing and writing, living in the woods, play with grandkids, have lots of books, travel around in a camper, and have someone call and say, “Hey, we need you to create this (fill in the blank).” I guess I have all that now.

17. The painter/illustrator you admire most?
Emily Carr, for her powerful, colorful, stylized, emotional nature pieces. She lived in the north woods, traveled in a camper, painting and writing with her animals—Hey, I think I have become Emily Carr, except I don’t have a monkey—but we do have two rescued beagles who act like monkeys.

18. What super power would you like to have?
The ability to run fast and jump high. I can do neither.

19. Your motto?
Dance with Life. I CAN dance.

20. Your social media?