Friday, October 15, 2021

Equity & Inclusion Corner: It's All a Bunch of Queer Hocus Pocus! by Shanna Heath

The Equity and Inclusion Corner features quarterly posts written by members of the SCBWI-MI E&I Team and guests. Learn more about the E&I Team, upcoming initiatives, virtual Town Hall meetings, and how to become involved here:

Our fall 2021 post is by author Shanna Heath who also contributed to the Mitten Blog last month and led a community-wide Shop Talk: The Terrifying Terrific Toolkit: Scary Secrets for Writing and Illustrating Thrilling Kidlit. The recording is viewable for a brief time here:

Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience, Shanna! Read her E&I Corner post below.


by Shanna Heath

It’s the spookiest month of the year, and if you’re into all things creepy like me, you finally feel at home in the world every October. That cozy sensation of belonging is fleeting, however, because I’m queer. But one Halloween in 2018 held a magical and queer children’s literature moment for me.

I was in Salem, MA on a sunny October day, browsing the stacks of Wicked Good Books on Essex Street. Three familiar faces caught my eye: Mary, Sarah, and Winnifred Sanderson. Hocus Pocus! Of course, I’m a fan. I scanned the cover and read, “and the All-New Sequel.” 

A sequel to Hocus Pocus? Okay. I’m here for it. The more witches in my life the better. I bought the book and settled in at an outdoor table at the Village Tavern. I cracked the book open (isn’t that the best feeling in the world?) and sipped from a pint of hard cider.

I expected the sequel to be straight. Most books are.

The very heterosexual Max and Allison in the 1993 film Hocus Pocus.

But the sequel to Hocus Pocus is gay. Not subtle gay. Gaaaaaaaay. The protagonist, Poppy Denison, is a lesbian and she’s in love. The daughter of Hocus Pocus couple Allison and Max, Poppy crushes hard on Isabella Richards. And Isabella is a black teen who returns Poppy’s affections! The story of their love is a major through line of the book. 

Illustrations of the three protagonists of the Hocus Pocus sequel. Poppy and Isabella are left and center.

I choked on my cider. “Excuse me, waitress? Have we been sucked into an alternate dimension?”

I was thirty-seven-years-old at that moment in time. A long way from childhood. Yet, when I read about Poppy and Isabella, my inner-child rejoiced. I was goosebumps-and-misty-eyes-level moved. Seeing myself reflected in the beloved Hocus Pocus universe shifted my heart one notch closer to self-acceptance. Toward self-love. Queer self-love.

Did you know that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth? The rate for trans kids is even more dire. Was I one of these kids? You betcha. If someone would have handed me the gay Hocus Pocus sequel, what may have been different for teenage me?

I would have seen myself mirrored in literature. “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us,” wrote Rudine Sims Bishop. “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”

The windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors that Bishop writes about are essential not just for LGBTQI+ kids. Poppy and Isabella’s love story is for straight kids, too. 

All kids need diverse stories. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” discussed her childhood in Nigeria, where she read books mainly about white children. She explains “[…] how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.” When we don’t have access to mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors, adults and children cannot get an accurate view of the world. “The consequence of the single story,” she continues, “is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

Visibility matters. To everyone.

This Halloween season, gift the gay Hocus Pocus sequel to the young adults in your lives. Read it together. Then, seek out more. Poppy and Isabella’s relationship is just one single story. The LGBTQI+ community is as diverse as any. More representation equals more stories, and more stories create compassionate kids.

“When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children,” Sims continues, “they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what make us all human.”

I’ll be doing a Poppy and Isabella re-read this October. Grab a cozy blanket and join me. 

Shanna Heath is an author and monster slayer who writes horror for all ages. Childhood can be terrifying. Shanna makes monsters, then shows kids and teens how to defeat them. Her favorite young horror read is Coraline by Neil Gaiman. She lives in Michigan with her patient wife and two spooky kids and is a proud member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and the Horror Writer’s Association (HWA). Shanna is represented by Paige Terlip at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. 

Connect with Shanna:

Author’s Note: This blog focuses on visibility in regard to LGBTQI+ representation. Diversity is an enormous universe. To find books that mirror the many varied ways in which humans live and love, check out We Need Diverse Books

Find more windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors into the LGBTQI+ universe here:

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Your Author Website: Make a Dynamic, Yet Personable, Connection by Debbie Gonzales

Debbie Gonzales has been keeping us updated on all things Pinterest, and we invited her back to share additional tips for marketing and promoting our books. How do you draw readers to your website and keep them there? Here's Debbie:

Pinterest Marketing Basics: Keep It Simple, Authentic & Fun

By Debbie Gonzales

I firmly believe that all book creators would benefit by establishing a visibility platform on Pinterest, this goes for pre-published authors and illustrators, as well. Not only is the process in establishing a viable platform highly effective as a marketing tool, Pinterest shines an authentic light on who we are and what we embrace as creatives. This reflection is digitally achieved by intentional connections between one’s Pinterest platform and their website. 

Here’s how the magic happens.

Pinterest is a tool to amplify a message of service, inspiration, and encouragement for our audience. It’s a visual search engine on which parents, teachers, librarians, millennials, and teens use to find answers, products, and inspiration. Gone are the days when we had the luxury of chatting up a potential buyer at a bookstore or festival. The reality is that purchasing relationships are developed digitally. Our challenge is to first understand how our services and books meet their needs, then establish a pathway for them to land in an intriguing place where they are compelled by a desire to want more than a one-off purchase. We want to make a dynamic, yet personable, connection through our websites. Tall order, yet relatively easy to do.

Too often we focus on embellishing our websites rather than focusing on their functionality and purpose. Slow-loading websites adorned with gizmos dancing across the screen have lost their appeal. Pinterest users want what they want when they want it: 
  • If the website seems buggy or confusing, they’ll bounce. 
  • Conversely, if they land on captivating content they can connect with, chances are they’ll poke around the website with curiosity. 
  • Better yet, they find the content living on the site to be so intriguing, they bookmark it! Bingo! The first steps toward a happy digital relationship have been established!

Here's an example:
Award-winning author Barb Rosenstock not only knows how to write award-winning picture book biographies, she’s savvy regarding how to maximize her web presence to assist in marketing her books and programming. Her website layout is one to consider, for sure. 
  • The website is packed with practical content to benefit teachers and librarians, while being organized in a clear and succinct manner. 
  • It’s attractive, loads easily, and is extremely user-friendly. 
  • Though not glitzy, Barb’s website is a shining example of inspiration, education, and of service to those who have the good fortune to land on it. 

Much like the revision process, refining our marketing message takes time, especially if we seek to establish something that is genuinely authentic. Our audience is looking for books that resonate with young readers. Take your time to become acquainted with those you desire to market to. Discover the type of content that appeals to them, then experiment with formatting that messaging on your website. The best news is that Pinterest is a long game. It’s a slow burn, which allows plenty of time to thoughtfully establish marketing strategies that edify one’s audience. Most importantly, have fun while doing so! 

Debbie Gonzales is an author, educator, and a Pinterest Marketing specialist. She’s the host of Guides by Deb, a website consisting of over 300 standards-aligned educator guides for all genres. If you’re interested in learning more about Pinterest marketing, reach out to Deb. She loves talking about all things Pinterest! 

Did you miss Deb's other posts? Catch up or revisit them below:

What's the Buzz about Pinterest?

Painless Self-Promotion: Confidence

Painless Self Promotion: Creating Content

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

Coming up on The Mitten Blog:

Equity & Inclusion Corner, Book Birthdays, Writer Spotlights, Ask the Editor, and more!

The Mitten Blog is looking for a new editor! Learn more here, and email current editor Kristin Lenz with any questions.

Friday, October 1, 2021

A Quick-and-Easy Introduction to Christian Publishing by Rebecca Grabill

Early in my writing career, I decided I wanted nothing to do with Christian publishing. 

I spent years laboring over a fantasy series, placed with the first two books in the series in a notable writing contest for Christian authors, and made a handful of connections in the publishing industry, but fantasy was a tough sell to Christian publishers, and the one published fantasy author I knew said it had taken her 27 (twenty seven!) years to place her first book. I was young, impatient, and most of the Christian books I had read were gifts from my mother-in-law, who really, really liked pioneer romance. So let’s just say I had a very limited and largely incorrect view of the Christian publishing world. If they didn’t want fantasy, I didn’t want them.

Fast forward more than a decade—it seemed I was on track. I had two books coming out with New York publishers, and more circulating with regular bites of interest. But in my spare moments, I had been putting together a book of readings for Advent because I couldn’t find what I wanted on the shelves. I have an undergrad in Religion and Philosophy and am married to a theologian, so this was natural and easy. It wasn’t a project I ever thought I’d try to publish, until I mentioned it to my agent.
She looked at a summary and said, “I didn’t know any of this!” And she set about trying to find a publisher in the Christian Book Universe.

We quickly realized that the Christian book world is very, very different from the ABA (American Booksellers Association). It’s so different, in fact, that my agent released my Christian works to another agent, who works almost exclusively with religious presses. I then began my crash course on writing for the Christian market. What are the key things to know for those hoping to break in? And why would you want to?

Published by Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers

Where are Christian books, anyway?

Those who don’t frequent Christian bookstores might think religious books are a tiny fraction of all books sold. The “inspirational” section of the local bookstore is minuscule and usually populated with self-help or gift book titles (and Eat Pray Love wall signs, amiright?), and when it comes to children’s books, you’ll struggle to find any contemporary Christian titles in stores or at the public library. But roughly 20 percent of all books sold are religious, and that number does not include the bestselling book of all time, the Bible.

How do I get started writing for the Christian market?

I have three words for you, three words that are already familiar to most writers: Network, Platform, Proposals.


Network is every bit as essential in Christian publishing as it is in the ABA. I’ve found both my agents via my author-learner-friend network and not through blind submissions. Likewise all of my books have been hand-sold to publishers by my agent. What are the key ways to build network in the Christian market?
  • Search out Christian bookstores, visit, and ask if they have author groups or events.
  • Attend online and in-person writing conferences.
  • If you do social media (I don’t, but that’s a topic for another day), follow houses and professionals online and interact with them in meaningful ways.
  • Write fan letters to authors you admire, though without the expectation that they will become a new BFF or refer you to their agent (because that’s creepy).
  • Find or create a writer’s group that focuses on Christian literature.
  • Make and maintain friendships.

There’s a little-known expectation in the Christian market that other authors are now doing some of the preliminary vetting. Agent guidelines often ask that submitting authors have a referral. A referral is a published author, one of that agent’s clients, who is willing to say, “Yes, I know this writer and they’re worth looking at.” 

Your network matters. A lot.


In the Christian world, platform rules. Sure, it’s helpful in ABA publishing (otherwise would we have picture books by Madonna? Hmm), but in religious publishing, you truly need a stellar website, active subscriber base, teaching or speaking platform, or some other method of being known by your niche market. You don’t have that? Not all is lost. Use what you do have, and use it well. Here are some platform enhancers for all of us:
  • Is your career or day job specific to your writing? Highlight it.
  • Are you a teacher, librarian or other book professional? Use it!
  • Do you have a quality website? No? ALL you need is a landing page—no need for an elaborate site, and they’re easy to make through site builders like Squarespace and Wix.
  • Do you have any numbers at all? Your Christmas card list goes back 50 years and has 2,000 names on it, all of whom are blood relatives? That, my friend, is platform.


If you write nonfiction, you know this beast and you know it well. If you write fiction for the ABA you’ve probably never so much as considered writing a proposal. 

Start considering. 

Proposals are the golden nugget of the Christian publishing universe, and I’m talking proposals for everything. Book of Lenten devotional readings? Proposal. Historical novel? Proposal. 3-word board book? Yup, proposal. 

You may be thinking it’s absolute insanity to create a proposal for a board book, but I can guarantee a good, well written proposal is the industry expectation. So if you’re interested in writing for the Christian book market, learn to write, and learn to love writing proposals. I could write at length about the benefits of proposals that go far beyond book submissions, but here ends your introduction.

That fantasy series I mentioned at the start is still languishing on my hard drive, but rewriting it (and creating a proposal) are high on my writerly to-do list.

Rebecca Grabill is an award-winning author of a collection of poetry (Sweetened Condensed, Flying Ketchup Press) and two picture books published by ABA houses (Halloween Good Night, Atheneum; Violet and the Woof, HarperCollins) and one picture book, A Year with Mama Earth, with Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers. She balances writing with homeschooling some of her six children and lives in rural Michigan with kids, husband, sixteen chickens, and high-maintenance cat. Discover more about her at her website

Here's a peek at more of Rebecca's books:


To celebrate her most recent release, Rebecca created a printable poetry journal and printable bookplates as a gift to readers. You can download them for free here:

Coming up on The Mitten Blog:

Website tips, writing craft tips, Equity & Inclusion Corner, Book Birthdays, and more!

The Mitten Blog is looking for a new editor! Learn more here, and email current editor Kristin Lenz with any questions.

Coming up in SCBWI-MI:

This is an hour dedicated to sharing your ideas and hanging out with our new E&I Team Coordinator. We welcome your thoughts for continued growth as we work together to celebrate and create quality content for young readers.  

Bring your questions, comments, and your favorite candy. We may have a few tricks up our sleeves and some treats too!

SCBWI-MI members: Check your email for more info and the Zoom link.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

A Deep Dive Into Family History: How Historical Michigan Inspired a Middle Grade Novel By Betsy Bird

My family has long, strong Michigan roots. Going back well more than a century, hale from South and Southwest Michigan. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that Caldecott Award winner David Small lived in a house connected to my Grandmother’s no-good uncle. It’s not often that family stories and contemporary interests (like, say, children’s books) intersect, but when they do, it behooves you to pay attention.

For years my mother told the story of how this ne’er do well uncle would skip out on his farm chores so he could high tail it to nearby Mendon, Michigan where an elderly ex-circus performer lived. Going by the name Madame Marantette, she was apparently a great big deal in the early 20th century. You can imagine my astonishment when I discovered that not only was she real and not some figment of family legend, but also that David Small, an illustrator I’d known since my youth, lived in her very house!

Some books come to you in pieces. You have the elements in your head but they don’t coalesce all at once. It took years before I had the wherewithal to start to realize I had a book on my hands. After all, family history + local illustrator + notorious historical figure = literary gold. Long story short, I told David about my idea and he ended up being the illustrator of LONG ROAD TO THE CIRCUS! It’s the story of Suzy Bowles, a small town country kid who longs for more. When she discovers her uncle has been skipping out on his farm chores to help the mysterious Madame Marantette, Suzy wants in. She doesn’t know how, but she’s determined to find out whether or not the Madame is her ticket out of his one horse town. 
I had my story and I had my illustrator. Now came the difficult part: Actually writing the book. Amusingly, I’d gone into the project thinking that I had a picture book on my hands. David quickly disabused me of this notion. As he told me, this was clearly a middle grade novel. And never mind that I’d never written one before, he had faith in me that I could write one now. With more than a little trepidation, I set out to live up to his expectations. And, in doing so, I discovered I had a secret weapon in my pocket. That weapon? Family history. To be more specific, a family history with deep ties to Michigan, which I’d alluded to before. It turns out that if you dig deep into your family’s history and stories there’s a plethora of material to be found!
Of course, the downside of family history is that if you still have family hanging around, they may not agree with your interpretation of said history. My book caused a couple debates over whether the no-good uncle deserved the redemption he receives in the book and whether using one name or another for characters was a good idea. Still and all, the old adage “write what you know” turns out to have a lot of truth behind it. Don’t know how to write a novel that’s unexpectedly landed in your lap? Don’t just write what you know. Write what your family knows. Because, believe me, they’ll be more than happy to provide you with material if you just open up and give them a chance.

Betsy Bird is the Collection Development Manager of Evanston Public Library, and the former Youth Materials Specialist of New York Public Library. She blogs frequently at the School Library Journal site A Fuse #8 Production, and reviews for Kirkus and the New York Times on occasion. Betsy is the author of the picture books GIANT DANCE PARTY and THE GREAT SANTA STAKEOUT, she a co-author on the very adult WILD THINGS: ACTS OF MISCHIEF IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE, editor of the middle grade anthology of funny female writers FUNNY GIRL, and author of her upcoming debut middle grade novel LONG ROAD TO THE CIRCUS, illustrated by Caldecott Award winning illustrator David Small. Betsy hosts two podcasts, Story Seeds, which pairs kids and authors together to write stories, and the very funny Fuse 8 n' Kate where she and her sister debate the relative merits of classic picture books. 

Coming up on The Mitten Blog:

Faith-based writing and publishing, website tips, Book Birthdays, a Writer Spotlight, Equity & Inclusion Corner, and more! Do you have an idea for a blog post? Do you have writing, illustrating, or publishing tips to share? Have you read a book on craft recently? Would you like to interview an agent, editor, or bookstore owner? We'd love to hear from you! Find our submission guidelines here:

Calling all illustrators! 

Learn more and find a location near you:

Scholarship Opportunity! 

Please spread the word! Learn more and apply here: 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Hugs and Hurrahs

Kids (and teachers) in Michigan are back at school and we’re back with another Hugs and Hurrahs post to celebrate the good news of some of our members.


Jay Whistler’s debut MG, THE GHOSTLY TALES OF SAN ANTONIO (Arcadia), released on August 2, 2021. For autographed copies, people can contact Jay by e-mail.

Congratulations, Jay!


Kinyel Friday’s SWIM LIKE THE FISHES ACTIVITY BOOK was published in August 2021. This book accompanies SWIM LIKE THE FISHES, which was published in June 2021.

How fun, Kinyel!


Ian Tadashi Moore finished up almost a year of production recording, editing, composing, and mastering an immersive audiobook experience as a companion to his latest book, WHERE ALL THE LITTLE THINGS LIVE.

Awesome, Ian!

Paulette Sharkey’s debut picture book, A DOLL FOR GRANDMA (Beaming Books, 2020) won an Honorable Mention Award in the Family Matters category of the 2021 Story Monsters Purple Dragonfly Book Contest. It was also named a 2021 Best Children’s Book for ages 5-9 by Bank Street College of Education.

That’s great news Paulette!

Sonya Bernard-Hollins’ work as the founder of the Merze Tate Explorers
has been featured in THE MITTEN in the past. She wanted to share how the networking opportunities she has found via SCBWI have helped her and the youth that she serves: She attended an online session with illustrators of SCBWI (Michigan) during our state conference and was so impressed with Brittany "Bea" Jackson that she immediately reached out to her. Brittany’s work as the illustrator of PARKER LOOKS UP by Parker and Jessica Curry (Aladdin) and the story of her journey was something Sonya wanted to share with the Explorers. Brittany accepted the call and met with the girls during their summer day camp on August 18th.  Not only did the Explorers meet a bestselling illustrator, but they met an amazing new role model who shared her career.

What a great connection to make and a wonderful opportunity for the Explorers!


A big hug and hurrah for all of you! Please send your good news for the next Hugs and Hurrahs post to


Monday, September 6, 2021

Book Birthday Blog with Jean Alicia Elster


 Welcome to SCBWI-MI's Book Birthday Blog!

Where we celebrate new books from Michigan's authors and illustrators.

Congratulations to Jean Alicia Elster on the release of How It Happens


How It Happens continues the plot of your two novels Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car. What is something you hope your readers will take away from How It Happens?

I want readers to understand the interconnectivity between generations. Our lives do not happen in a vacuum. The actions of our ancestors and the times in which they lived affect subsequent generations in ways that many of us never consider. Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car provide the framework upon which How It Happens is built. In those first two books, I mention the fact that May Ford is light-skinned and could have easily passed for white. So I take readers back a generation to Clarksville, Tennessee in the post-Reconstruction era in order to examine the roots of that lineage. I explore the effect of those roots in the lives of three successive generations of African American women beginning in the South in 1890 and ending in the North, in post-World War II industrialized Detroit.

What was the most difficult part of writing this book?

The most difficult part of writing this book was extracting the core of the narrative without getting bogged down in extraneous facts and details. My editor at Wayne State University Press has a mantra: simplify the narrative. As a writer, I have worked to internalize that phrase, but it has not been easy. Before writing How It Happens I did genealogical research in Clarksville, Tennessee. I even visited that town’s white and black cemeteries. I compiled oral histories via numerous interviews with relatives through the years, particularly at family reunions. I scoured the Burton Historical Archives in the Detroit Public Library. I recalled the snippets of her history that my maternal grandmother passed on to me over the years. All of this information was whirring around in my head as I constructed the outline and framework of this novel. The book went through three re-writes. It was difficult work, but it was a labor of love and well worth the effort.

You mention in your Kresge Artist Fellow video writing is a lonely craft. Can you tell us what motivates you to keep writing?

I feel strongly that my books should have a positive, life affirming impact on my readers. Therefore, I am more than willing to isolate myself in the writing process in order to create narratives and plots that are going to have that affect.

What are your marketing plans for the book?

As our society is still in pandemic mode, I anticipate that most marketing opportunities will be virtual, for the near future at least. But my marketing plans include events with the usual suspects: schools, libraries, bookstores, book fairs.  Earlier this year, I ventured into the realm of Pinterest as a book marketing tool (@jelsterwrites). I have also started an Instagram account and entered the world of #bookstagram. My Instagram handle is @jeanaliciaelster.

The Wayne State University Press marketing team is fabulous and they have assembled a robust marketing plan for How It Happens on their end.

What’s next for you? Any events coming up, or new books in the works?

I’m always plotting my next book even while I’m editing and revising the current one. So I have a couple of future projects churning in my mind. In fact, one is already nailed down in a book proposal.

But I’m excited about my virtual book launch event for How It Happens on September 16 at 7p EST.  My reading will be accompanied by acclaimed jazz bassist Marion Hayden, followed by a conversation moderated by author/activist Desiree Cooper. I invite folks to enjoy the celebration and register at this link

On September 28 at 6p EST, I also have a virtual event scheduled with Source Booksellers, a dynamic indie bookstore located in the heart of Detroit’s Midtown area. In addition to a reading from How It Happens, there will be a conversation on how this latest book connects with Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car,  followed by a time of Q and A with the audience. Register for this event here

Of course, please check the calendar page on my website for future events!

Copies of How It Happens can be purchased at your local indie bookstore or ordered  through Wayne State University Press at

A little bit about the book . . .

How It Happens is a story of race relations, miscegenation, sexual assault and class
divisions. A continuation of the plots begun in Jean Alicia Elster’s previous
novels Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car, How It Happens is written for young
adult readers, beginning in the turbulent post-Reconstruction period and ending in
the post-World II industrialized North. An intergenerational story of the lives of
three African-American women, Elster intertwines the fictionalized adaptations of
the defining periods and challenges in her family’s history as these three women
struggle to stake their claim to the American dream.

A little bit about the author . . .

A 2017 Kresge Artist Fellow and a former attorney, Jean Alicia Elster is a
professional writer of fiction for children and young adults. She is the great-
granddaughter of Addie Jackson, whose family story is the basis of her young adult
novel How It Happens, published by Wayne State University Press and released in
September 2021. Elster is the author of Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car, which
were also based on her family history and published by Wayne State University
Press in 2008 and 2013, respectively; both were selected as Michigan Notable
Books. Other awards include the Midwest Book Award in Children’s Fiction,
Paterson Prize Honor Book - Books for Young People, and the Governors’ Emerging
Artist Award – Art Serve Michigan. She is also the author of the “Joe Joe in the City”
series, published by Judson Press: Just Call Me Joe Joe, I Have a Dream, Too!, I’ll Fly
My Own Plane and I’ll Do the Right Thing.

In recognition of outstanding work, Elster was honored with a 2017 Kresge
Artist Fellowship in Literary Arts, awarded by Kresge Arts in Detroit, a program of
The Kresge Foundation. She has been awarded three residencies at the
internationally acclaimed Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois. In addition,
Elster’s essays have appeared in national publications including Ms., World Vision,
Black Child, and Christian Science Sentinel magazines.


Friday, September 3, 2021

A Sneak Peek into the Terrifyingly Terrific Toolkit: Scary Secrets for Writing Thrilling Kidlit in any Genre by Shanna Heath

Terror struck me the first time I read Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney.

I was terrified in a good way because I love horror—especially when I find it in unexpected places.

I was cozy in bed with my three-year-old reading Llama aloud and I turned to the middle spread, the climax of llama drama, and existential dread said “boo” to my soul. Llama’s expressive face is hidden, leaving only his teacup saucer eyes, unblinking, pupils small against the big emptiness of the recto.  The quilt is limp and offers no comfort. Inky blue darkness swallowed the bed’s headboard. Llama quivers in an abyss of shadow slashed with black and yellow. 

“What if Mama Llama’s GONE?”

Llama’s dark night of the soul in Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney

Like this petrified llama, children are haunted by primal fears. They are as early humanoids were: gazing up at the stars and seeing monsters or hearing the anger of gods in summer thunderstorms. The world is huge, and children are small. Adults have power, and children do not. This can be terrifying.

"Children surviving childhood is my obsessive theme and my life's concern," said Maurice Sendak, author of the wonderfully frightening Where the Wild Things Are. “To master these forces,” said Sendak, “children turn to fantasy: that imagined world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction." Mama Llama does come back. Sendak’s Max returns home from the kingdom of Wild Things. And in the process, children have experienced a terrifyingly terrific climax that speaks to the vulnerabilities of being a child.

This is the essence of why I write horror for children. I create monsters and show kids how to defeat them. 

Whether or not you’re interested in writing traditional horror, you can still utilize the tricks of the genre to create terrifyingly terrific conflicts and climaxes, just as Dewdney and Sendak have done. 

In my free community-wide webinar, The Terrifyingly Terrific Toolkit: Scary Secrets for Writing and Illustrating Thrilling Kidlit in any Genre, I’ll show you how. Mark your calendar for September 26, 2021 from 3:00-4:30PM EST. Access more information and the SCBWI-MI webinar link here.

While you wait, here’s a sneak peek.

Terrifyingly Terrific Toolkit Item #1: Horror Isn’t About Monsters

The experience of horror isn’t made by the monsters. This fact may surprise you. Exploitative slasher films are what many people associate with the genre, but masterful horror doesn’t focus on the monster.
It’s the internal experience of a character that marks expert writing craft in the genre.

Horror isn’t about the monster. In 1963’s classic film “The Haunting,” based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the malevolent spirits are never shown on screen, yet the film is terrifying.

No matter your genre, you can use this technique to strengthen your writing.

My favorite non-horror example is from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. In this scene, cholera is killing young Mary Lennox’s family in horrific ways, and she is soon to be orphaned. There was an option to elevate the monster in this scene (cholera) to create the terrifying impact. A human body succumbing to cholera is grotesque.

But, this isn’t about the monster. It’s about Mary and her internal experience of the horror. Here’s how Burnett masterfully portrayed the horror of this scene through Mary’s internal experience:

“During the confusion and bewilderment of the second day Mary hid herself in the nursery and was forgotten by everyone. Nobody thought of her, nobody wanted her, and strange things happened of which she knew nothing. Mary alternately cried and slept through the hours. She only knew that people were ill and that she heard mysterious and frightening sounds. Once she crept into the dining-room and found it empty, though a partly finished meal was on the table and chairs and plates looked as if they had been hastily pushed back when the diners rose suddenly for some reason. The child ate some fruit and biscuits, and being thirsty she drank a glass of wine which stood nearly filled. It was sweet, and she did not know how strong it was. Very soon it made her intensely drowsy, and she went back to her nursery and shut herself in again, frightened by cries she heard in the huts and by the hurrying sound of feet. The wine made her so sleepy that she could scarcely keep her eyes open and she lay down on her bed and knew nothing more for a long time.” (Source:

Dixie Egerickx plays Mary Lennox in the 2020 film adaptation “The Secret Garden.” In the novel, Burnett focused on her character’s internal reactions to a horrific situation, not graphic depictions of the “monster” cholera.

Find the Monsters in Your Own Writing

Look at a moment of tension in your own writing. What is the “monster” your child protagonist is facing? Are you centralizing the monster, instead of the internal experience of your character within the scene? 

Rewrite the scene, keeping close to the protagonist but allowing yourself the freedom of description that comes with a third person limited point-of-view. Choose moments of tension and description relevant to the protagonist’s experience of fear/terror/horror/anxiety and focus not on what’s happening outside, but the character’s interior experience. 

Want more? Add Doll Bones by Holly Black and Hide and Seeker by Daka Hermon to your reading list. These books include glimpses of the monsters, but the true tension is built within the minds and hearts of the characters.

More items from the Terrifyingly Terrific Toolkit will be revealed in my free webinar on September 26th from 3:00 to 4:30 PM EST. Don’t forget to add the date to your calendar and bring a writer friend! 

I hope to meet you at the free live webinar and see you on my Instagram @mother_marrow

Remember, childhood can be terrifying. Share horror with the children in your life. A reading list of my favorite spooky reads for all ages (including board books!) is available on my website:

Shanna Heath is an author and monster slayer who writes horror for all ages. Childhood can be terrifying. Shanna makes monsters, then shows kids and teens how to defeat them. Her favorite young horror read is Coraline by Neil Gaiman. She lives in Michigan with her patient wife and two spooky kids and is a proud member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and the Horror Writer’s Association (HWA). Shanna is represented by Paige Terlip at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. 

Connect with Shanna:

Coming up on The Mitten Blog:

Faith-based writing and publishing, plunging into Michigan history, website tips, a Writer Spotlight, Book Birthdays, and a post from our Equity and Inclusion Corner. But first, it's time for another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. We want to trumpet your good news! Please send your writing/illustrating/publishing news to Sarah LoCascio by Sept. 7th to be included.