Friday, June 23, 2017

Behind the Scenes with SCBWI-MI Co-Regional Advisors, Leslie Helakoski and Carrie Pearson

Leslie Helakoski and Carrie Pearson share the Regional Advisor (RA) job for the Michigan Chapter of SCBWI. They devote countless hours of work on our behalf, creating and coordinating opportunities for writers and illustrators around the state with the support of AdCom (Advisory Committee). Some of us have known them for years, but newer members may have yet to meet them in person. Here's an introduction and a glimpse behind the scenes. Take it away, Leslie and Carrie!

LESLIE: When Carrie and I teamed up four years ago, one of our goals was to focus on building a strong community in our region. Since writing and illustrating are solitary endeavors much of the time, having a support network is invaluable -- and fun! To that end, we set up free regional meet ups for members known as Shop Talks that have been running for the last few years. At this point, we have four regular Shop Talks around the state -- Lansing, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Farmington Hills. 

CARRIE: Yes, there's no doubt our Community (with a capital "C") keeps us all moving forward during the times when we wonder if we should have become racehorse jockeys instead of professional creators. Since I live in Marquette and can't physically attend Shop Talks, book launches, and other fun social events downstate, I understand how it feels to be on the periphery. So I've been excited to build our networks. We hope our social connections on Facebook, Twitter, and the Michkids listserv keep us informed and engaged and that the Mitten blog and the SCBWI-MI website act as home-base for our region. All of these pieces connect us between events and strengthen our bonds as friends, comrades, and members. And isn't it the just the best to have many ways to toot horns when there's happy news?  

LESLIE: It takes a lot of volunteer hours to keep our region vibrant and growing.  And of course, Carrie and I both need time to work on our own projects. Thankfully, we get lots of help. Our  Advisory Committee (AdCom) is a huge source of talent and support, and volunteers across the state help in many ways. There are always more offers of help than we can accommodate but we appreciate each one— from stacking chairs at events to writing a blog post. Carrie, do you have a strategy for balancing your SCBWI work and your own creative work, not to mention family and business?

CARRIE: Strategy and practice are sometimes different beasts, right? My strategy is not very technologically advanced...I’ve blogged about it here...it’s an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper divided into 6 blocks. I handwrite a title for each block (SCBWI, Freelance, Home, My Books—they get two blocks—Volunteering) and then make bullet points and a deadline for each to-do item. It is so satisfying to cross them off! When a block is done, or there’s no more room, I start a new sheet. Soon, I’ll have a new dedicated block called “Children’s Book Connections” which is my new consulting business to help writers position their work for an agent and/or editor and to help them find the right agent and editorial match. I hope to launch by the end of the summer.

So that’s the strategy. In practice, the deadlines get pushed back, unexpected to-dos are added...life intervenes. What about you, Leslie? How do you manage the various pieces of your to-do list?

LESLIE: Here’s what my schedule is like when I am at home. 1. Creative work for a couple of hours. 2. Go to the gym. 3. Answer emails and follow up on SCBWI business and personal business.

Do you believe me? Well, I do follow that expectation some days but I often find myself answering emails first. I tell myself I’ll just peek to see if there is exciting news there. (It’s possible!) But if I’m not careful, the mail sucks me in. I am always proud of myself when I resist that temptation and work on creative stuff first.

If I am illustrating a project, that means a hard deadline which makes me jump into creative work and stay there most of the day.

My own business of critiquing picture book manuscripts (info at my websiteis something I tend to do in the evening. I try to answer critique requests within a week of receiving them.

I keep an ever-present long messy list of things I don’t want to forget to do. And that includes calls to Carrie—we talk a few times a week especially if a conference is brewing.

Once a week I think about marketing. Notice I said THINK. I ask myself, do I need to work on my website, guest blog post, or plan an owl visit with the local nature center? Usually the answer is yes, so I make myself do at least one of those things. Sometimes it is just to make myself post on Twitter. My favorite way to market is to watch what my SCBWI friends do for their books. And copy. Speaking of which...Carrie, your newest book will be released in 2018 and knowing you, you are already making plans to market that book. Can you let us know any of your plans or strategies?

CARRIE: As we often see in our industry, production on my new book (about the world’s tallest tree) has been slower than anticipated so the release date will be pushed back. Hopefully it will be in 2018 because that year lines up with a big marketing advantage but there’s a good chance that won’t happen. The silver lining for this new schedule isn’t showing up yet but I believe it will! When I have a date, I’ll work backward with my own marketing plans (blog posts, guest blog posts, video of the making of the book, school visits, and hopefully a launch at Redwood National Park). I’ll tie my efforts in with those of my publisher and connect them to bigger happenings like Earth Day, Arbor Day, Love a Tree Day, etc. Since we just had a stellar Marketing Boot Camp (that sadly, I could not attend), can you share one new marketing tip you will apply, Leslie?

LESLIE: I have a few.
From Kirstin Cappy: Create an interactive activity for your book. I have a teacher guide for my book already but Kirstin inspired me to make a game for teachers and librarians that can be promoted easily. I’ve come up with a great game to play with my newest book, Hoot and Honk. It involves hiding eggs with facts about owls and geese inside them. Kids have to guess which facts are about geese and which ones are about owls. What fun!

From Sally Langley at Okemos Public Montessori: Post a video clip of yourself on your website. I want librarians and educators to see that I can connect to kids and put on a good strong program when visiting schools. I’m working on a clip that I’m creating with the program Animoto.

Being part of SCBWI is my most important marketing tip. I am always getting advice from other members and learning from their experiences. It is such an amazing supportive network. And I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have stuck around this long without it.

CARRIE: I second that! Cheers to our creative community!


Carrie Pearson lives on the shore of Lake Superior in Marquette. She has been an SCBWI member since 2005 when she decided she'd better learn more about writing for children if she was going to spend so much time doing it. Carrie is the PAL author of three science/nature picture books, has won the SCBWI-MI Picture Book Mentorship Award, and received an SCBWI Works of Outstanding Promise research grant. She loves helping people in the children's book community learn about the business and improve their craft. Visit Carrie's website and connect on Twitter at @carrieapearson. Plus, here's a sneak peak at her new consulting business website which will launch later this summer: Children's Book Connections.



With a degree in illustration and advertising, Leslie joined SCBWI in 1998 with a plan to illustrate books, not write them. Now, after writing ten picture books, including Big Chickens (the Michigan Reads Picture Book for 2007, Great Lakes Great Books Award) and Woolbur (a Book Sense pick, and nominee for state book awards in 11 states) she has illustrated her most recent four. Fair Cow, Doggone Feet!, Big Pigs, and Hoot and Honk Just Can’t Sleep. Her books are filled with word play, fun language, and humor. Learn more at www.helakoskibooks.com.




Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Hugs and Hurrahs! We want to trumpet your success. Do you have an upcoming book release? Did you sign with an agent? Did you publish a children's story or poem in a magazine? Did you win a contest? We want to know! Please send your good news to Kristin Lenz by June 26th to be included.


https://michigan.scbwi.org/2017/04/16/illustrator-mentorship-2017-2018/
* June 26th is also the submission deadline for the SCBWI-MI Illustrator Mentorship with Kirbi Fagan. Learn more here.

* June 26th is also my birthday! Make my day by submitting an idea for a blog post! The Mitten blog is always looking for contributors. See our Submissions page for suggestions and guidelines.



Happy creating!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, June 16, 2017

Michigan KidLit Advocates: Cynthia Furlong Reynolds and the Prime Time Family Literacy Program

A small boy waves his hand excitedly in the air—the first time he’s volunteered an answer in five weeks.

“I think this story is about friendship and how friends are people who pay attention to you and sit with you at lunch and give you chocolate chip cookies,” he announces, a big grin on his face. His listeners clap, his grin widens.

At the end of this Prime Time Family Literacy session in Garden City, the boy’s mother smiles proudly at her son, and confides, “Jacob’s teacher told me that he could read words, but he didn’t understand what he was reading. Now I understand that I have to do what you do—read with him, ask him about what he just read, and then ask him what he thinks about the story. Is that right?”

It is!

Louisiana’s Endowment for the Humanities (LEH) launched the Prime Time Family Literacy program for low-income families in 1991, when Louisiana ranked 50th in the U.S. for literacy. PT promotes long-term improvements in family engagement and students’ academics, but along the way, much more happens. Busy families come together for fun and a free meal, relaxing and intellectually stimulating conversation, and an introduction to library services.

Louisiana has tracked PT results through the years, and they’re impressive: most participating students improve their standardized test scores as much as 81% (high school) to 96% (elementary) and 100% (middle school), while 85 percent of the parents report improved family interactions at the end of the six-week sessions.

Forty other states have been impressed enough to adopt the PT program; the LEH offers training in New Orleans in January and July. This year, the Michigan Humanities Council will fund two dozen programs.

Cynthia with reader Phil Smith in Hartland
After dinner (donated by community organizations) and a short message about the library, the Reader models ways to read aloud effectively and the Scholar leads discussions about the book’s themes, vocabulary, character development, setting, story, and art. There are no wrong answers. The night ends with door prizes and three new books.

I’ve served as Scholar in rural and urban libraries, from Luna Pier to Hartland and Ypsilanti to Harper Woods—a treat for a children’s writer who loves talking about books—and I’ve seen miracles take place over six weeks:

*  A second grader volunteers to read to her illiterate 86-year-old great-grandmother, who is raising the child.

*  A busy mother at first answers all questions for her husband and four children, but by the end of the second session, she sits back and listens to their opinions.

*  Parents talk to their children about their dreams (Fanny’s Dream), siblings (My Rotten Red-headed Older Brother), peer pressure (The Orange Spot), role models (Tomas and the Library Lady), and bravery (Brave Irene).

*  A teary-eyed mother, whose abusive ex-husband had been sentenced to jail that day, whispers, “Thank you. This is the best night I’ve had in a very long time.”

*  Sixty eager parents and children crowd into Ypsilanti’s downtown meeting room each PT night; they represent six African nations, five religions, and speak a combined 11 languages.

*  Parents and children continue talking to teach other about a book long past PT’s official end.
And the list goes on and on…

Cynthia Furlong Reynolds has written 12 children’s books, a chapter book series, Middle Reader novel, 9 histories (2 of them Michigan Notable Books), a writing manual and workbook, several historical novels, and countless news stories. At an early age, she realized her calling: helping people tell their stories, as Grammie’s Secret Cupboard (2008 Mom’s Choice Award) reveals. She is finishing two Michigan-based books, a history and a YA novel. Cindy leads writing workshops, freelances as editor/ghost writer, and loves invitations to schools. A Maine native and Dexter resident, she earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Maine’s Stonecoast program. Her website: www.CynthiaFurlongReynolds.com.



Learn more about the Prime Time Family Reading Program at the Michigan Humanities Counsel website, or email James Nelson, the Program Manager.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Behind the scenes with our co-RA's, our Grammar Guru tackles common mistakes, and a new Featured Illustrator. But first, it's time for another round of Hugs and Hurrahs! We want to trumpet your success. Do you have an upcoming book release? Did you sign with an agent? Did you publish a children's story or poem in a magazine? Did you win a contest? We want to know! Please send your good news to Kristin Lenz by June 26th to be included.

* June 26th is also the submission deadline for the SCBWI-MI Illustrator Mentorship. Learn more here.

* June 26th is also my birthday! Make my day by submitting an idea for a blog post! The Mitten blog is always looking for contributors. See our Submissions page for suggestions and guidelines.

Happy creating!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, June 9, 2017

VOICE by Sondra Soderborg

VOICE! VOICE! Publishers, editors, and agents all want it. Ask them what they mean and they will all say something a little different. So what is it? And how do we get it?

Voice is hard to define. Most definitions treat it as equivalent to style or to mean the voice of a first person narrator. These are fine, and both style and first person POV are tools we might use in creating voice, but neither captures what we’re being asked for.  Publishing professionals are asking for something bigger. They want VOICE.

My own way of thinking about VOICE is that it is the current buzzword for what publishers always want--an authentic story told fresh and true and up close. Our style may be recognizable from one book to the next. But the VOICE of each book, the song and sound and feeling of it, will be unique every time. Think how distinct the VOICE in THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX is from FLORA AND ULYSSES, and yet both are strong and fresh and for me, hard to get out of my head. Kate DiCamillo has a great toolbox for creating VOICE. So does Gary D. Schmidt, who will be speaking at our SCBWI-MI fall conference. I can’t recommend him enough.

Every decision we make as a writer shapes the VOICE of our novel. I’ve been fortunate to study VOICE at Highlights Foundation Workshops taught by Patricia Lee Gauch, who has written many books for young people and who had an illustrious career as an editor at Philomel. She has helped me build my own toolbox for VOICE, and with her permission, I am sharing some of her insights.

Intimacy: As writers we have to know and convey who are characters are intimately and specifically. Whether we are writing in first person or third person personal, we must be right up close, revealing our character’s innermost thoughts and feelings in words only they would use. I love the frank intimacy of the opening pages of Sherman Alexie’s THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. In an instant, we know many things about him, including that he has a brain condition, thinks of himself as a weirdo, and moves between cultures and classes.

Surprise: If we are writing fresh stories or old stories in fresh ways, our readers should hear and see things they don’t expect and yet accept and believe them because they belong in the world of the story. Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is based on a surprising and unlikely idea, and he integrates the unexpected everywhere, including plot, characters, setting. Surprise helps define the world of this novel, in whimsical and scary ways.

Concrete Nouns: Ordinary objects ground a story. When we choose the details that make up a scene, nouns make the world of our novel more real, immediate and visible. We can wind ordinary objects through our story, so that they occur again and again. Kate DiCamillo does this well in DESPEREAUX, where ordinary things—soup, spoons, bowls, kettles—recur. This is unremarkable stuff, except that in the world of the book, soup is outlawed, so that these ordinary objects, things the reader sees and touches every day, become filled with meaning.

Repetition: Words, ideas, details, phrases that repeat throughout our story reinforce whatever they are connected to. In OK FOR NOW Gary Schmidt’s main character loves the Yankees. Details about the Yankees show up over and over. Better yet, in his eleven word, three sentence third paragraph, the words “to me,” show up three times. After that repetition, I know that Doug Swietek, the boy who repeats those words three times, struggles to know who he is. Kelly Barnhill in THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, uses repetition to drive plot and theme and to simply create her magical world.

Break the Rules: In order to create VOICE, we need, to quote Patti Gauch, “to write in the distinct way our characters or narrators speak and think and react. If they speak in aberrant ways, ways that break grammatical rules, so be it. Communication doesn’t always follow the rules.”

Sondra Soderborg writes middle grade novels and will be taking two to market later this year.  She lives in an Ann Arbor and loves the support and encouragement of her SCBWI chapter.  










Thanks for sharing what you learned at the Highlights Foundation workshops, Sondra! Author Gary D. Schmidt's novel, OKAY FOR NOW, was one of Sondra's VOICE examples, and she mentioned that he will be speaking at the SCBWI-MI Fall Conference. Here's your opportunity to learn directly from him. Go here to see the entire faculty line-up, and save the date: Sept. 15-16, 2017.



* The SCBWI-MI Illustrator Mentorship submission window is now open! Learn more here.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Behind the scenes with our co-RA's, our Grammar Guru tackles common mistakes, and more MI KidLit Advocates. Plus, another round of Hugs and Hurrahs! We want to trumpet your success. Do you have an upcoming book release? Did you sign with an agent? Did you publish a children's story or poem in a magazine? Did you win a contest? We want to know! Please send your good news to Patti Richards by June 27th to be included.

* The Mitten blog is always looking for contributors. See our Submissions page for content ideas and guidelines.

Happy creating!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, June 2, 2017

Michigan KidLit Advocate: Debbie Gonzales, Creating and Utilizing Book Guides

Our Michigan KidLit Advocate series continues with our third interview: introducing Debbie Gonzales! Debbie wears many hats, and in addition to writing her own books, she works with authors and publishers to create project-specific, multi-use book guides. Read on to learn more about how Debbie's guides facilitate a connection with literature for readers of all ages.

How did you get started in the Guide creating business?

About six years ago, while living in Austin, a member of my critique group was told by a librarian that her YA, which was being considered for an award, needed a Reader’s Guide. I told her that I could make that for her and align it with the state academic standards, too. And, guess what? She won! While the Reader’s Guide did not ultimately bring about the prize, its content served to demonstrate the depth the story offered while being educationally sound. Librarians and educators really, really like that. Since then I’ve been honored to work with lots of award-winners in all genres!

What should an author or illustrator look for in a Guide?

It depends on how they intend to use it. Do they want a marketing tool, much like a Press Release, that can be easily reproduced and distributed? Do they want to offer a content-rich, in-depth resource that can be easily assimilated into educational curriculum? Or, do they want to market themselves by developing school visit/public speaking follow-up activities founded on the thematic nature of their stories? Whatever the format, Guides must offer opportunities for the reader to think critically by developing a deeper understanding of the story and, oftentimes, of themselves.

You’ve got close to 200 Guides posted on your website and every single one is different!  How do you manage to come up with so many original ideas?

Using my years and years of classroom experience as reference, I consider the content of each book as if it were a project playground. I love to create age-appropriate, genre-specific activities that explore aspects of each unique story by allowing students opportunities to demonstrate understanding through project-based games, crafts, experiments, writing and research projects.

I make the type of Guides that I desired to use as an educator. No gimmicks or dry, didactic blather. Nope. Instead, as a teacher, I sought out substantial and creative content that would motivate non-readers and inspire the literary elite. If I couldn’t find what I was looking for, like any good teacher worth her salt, I’d just make it myself. I bring that same mindset to the Guide-crafting projects I create today.

Tell us about some of your favorite projects.

That’s hard to choose a favorite because I get to work on such a wide array of fascinating projects. I especially enjoy working on topics that I knew nothing about beforehand. I love science and biographies, picture books that resonate on an emotional level, YA’s and middle grade novels that make me cry. I like mapmaking, art projects, science experiments, and historical time-lines. Sorry, I can’t pick just one project. I love them all.

Discuss the value of a School Visit Guide. How are these types of Guides helpful to authors and illustrators?

School Visit Guides serve as a thematic overview of an author or illustrator’s presentation(s), include follow up activities that teachers can easily use in the classroom, and are aligned with academic standards. These guides are beneficial for both the newbie who is trying to break into the school visit market as well as those who are multi-published. School Visit Guides add credibility to a presenter’s program in that they prove to educators that time with you is time well spent.

Are you open to new projects? If so, how can people get in contact with you?

Yes!!! I love new projects!!! Just fill out the Guide Request Form found on my website to initiate the process. I will follow up with you just as soon as I am able!


Debbie Gonzales is a career educator, curriculum consultant, former school administrator and adjunct professor, and once served as a SCBWI RA for the Austin Chapter. Deb currently devotes her time to writing middle grade novels, crafting teacher guides and various other freelance projects. She's the author of six “transitional” readers for New Zealand publisher, Giltedge, and the forthcoming picture book Playing Like a Girl from Charlesbridge. A transplanted Texan, Debbie now calls beautiful Ann Arbor, Michigan home where she lives with her husband John and energetic pup, Missy. Deb earned her MFA in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. To learn more about Deb and her projects, access her website at www.debbiegonzales.com.

Debbie also serves as our SCBWI-MI webmistress and all-around devoted volunteer. Stop by our chapter website to stay on top of the latest offerings and happenings around the state.

Did you miss our previous MI KidLit Advocate posts? Read our interviews with Ed Spicer and Colby Sharp. Do you have a MI KidLit Advocate to recommend? We'd love to feature your interview. Please email Kristin Lenz.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Behind the scenes with our co-RA's, crafting voice, and more MI KidLit Advocates. Plus, another round of Hugs and Hurrahs! We want to trumpet your success. Do you have an upcoming book release? Did you sign with an agent? Did you publish a children's story or poem in a magazine? Did you win a contest? We want to know! Please send your good news to Patti Richards by June 27th to be included.

Happy creating!
Kristin Lenz