Friday, July 29, 2016

From Song to Book: Writing Non-Fiction by April Pulley Sayre

If I had my own jazz band, my 2010 book, MEET THE HOWLERS, would not exist. That’s because I first imagined it as a song. Specifically, it was song sung in a jazzy swing by a finger-snapping Frank Sinatra wearing a silver suit. Yes, I actually imagined that. (Fiction has no monopoly on strange book backstory, folks!)

The book started simply. There we were on a tower in the Panamanian rain forest. My nephews and I were watching howler monkeys and one of my nephews said, “He’s a howler.” It’s an innocent enough phrase.

That’s all it took. One little alliteration can set me off. I started singing. “He’s a howler, dooby, dooby-dee-doh...” This became the refrain. (As you can now imagine, I am one of the world’s most embarrassing aunties.)

Once I had this melody, I needed verses. So, I sang those as well. My nephews contributed an idea or two, but mostly just looked on, skeptically. We often brainstorm book ideas together but the singing was a new thing. Later, at home, I did the major work of crafting the song. This included all the usual nonfiction steps of research and fact checking. Fortunately, though, I’d observed howler monkeys for years and also studied primatology at Duke University.

The song had rhythm and rhyme and facts. After some more struggling it had structure. Sorry, Sinatra, but the perspective of the song shifted to that of a child. My imagined narrator was a child bemoaning all the things wild howler monkeys can get away with a child wishes he/she could. Yet the book doesn’t really have a child as a character. That child is just in my head, the source of the nonfiction voice used in this expository piece about a howler family.

The problem with my song? Well, again, I lack a band. Where IS my band? Every girl needs a band... Anyway, the second problem was this song’s conversion to the picture book form. I’ve often lectured about the connections between song form, story form, and picture book form. (I discovered this song/picture book connection while on a long school visit drive when Loretta Lynn was on the radio. Her songs use a form called the Nashville turnaround which, I noticed, was a classic picture book structure.)

Alas, despite the similarities between songs and picture books, the differences can get you into a pickle during conversion. This, the book’s editor knows. The whole thing had a wild, syncopated jazz rhythm that she and I wrestled to iron out. It was in my head and I could have taught it to you in a minute. But it would have driven a reader mad. Next, we moved on to Woody Miller’s illustrations, which sparked new ideas for structural changes in the original text. And so the process goes!

Sorry, Sinatra, no new song. But we did get a beautiful picture book. And it's full of sounds—howler monkey sounds, not the sounds of swing or jazz. Now, if I could just get that original finger snapping rhythm out of my head!

Of my 34 published picture books, only a couple have this particular kind of origin, an actual song. But it’s not uncommon for the musicality of the language to be the starting point for the book. In fact, I have probably about sixty picture book concepts/ideas, all researched and written with voice, but still waiting for that special spark, that perfect voice to carry them through.

So, that’s a lot of what I teach to writers: how to experiment with voice and new structures to break out of what they thought they could do. After twenty-five years of doing this all day, every day, out of necessity I’ve made up my own processes, tips and tricks to get many of my brain’s roadblocks.

Most of all, if you’re working on something, don’t be afraid to rip it and rearrange it. Rethink and try something in fifteen different voices and rhythms. Also, be prepared to compost it in your files. It may take a decade, but those old manuscripts frequently pop up again, as volunteer seedlings. Suddenly you have the missing piece, the key concept or voice for the piece, the key wording or hook, at last.

For instance, a couple of years ago I was combing over a failed poetry collection I just could not abandon. I had to figure out why. It all hinged on this one poem that I thought was brilliant, that truly tugged at me. I pulled out that poem and researched how it applied to many creatures and processes all over Earth. Conceptually, it kind of blasted off, in this delicious way. As a picture book, it sold. 

Just last week I had to kill off a beloved manuscript that was working because the topic had some issues. But I used that manuscript’s juiciest language to jump start a manuscript about something else, a piece that editors loved but couldn’t quite embrace. Will that work? We shall see. It has happened before! The key to longevity in this career is getting your hands really muddy with your manuscripts and words. I don’t get how you can be tidy and survive.

*Part of this article first appeared on the Interesting Nonfiction For Kids blog.

April Pulley Sayre is the author of over 60 books for young people, including the Slowest Book Ever, the recent ALA Notable Woodpecker Wham! and ALA Notable/Orbis Pictus Honor Book Raindrops Roll. She has also photo-illustrated nine books, including Rah, Rah, Radishes: a Fruit Chant, Raindrops Roll, Touch a Butterfly: Wildlife Gardening with Kids; and Best In Snow (November 2016). Learn more at 

Safe traveling to everyone attending the SCBWI annual summer conference in Los Angeles this weekend! We'd love to share your experience on the Mitten blog. View our submission guidelines for guest posts here.

Have a great weekend!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Making of a Book Cover: 3 Stories

This Mitten blog post about book covers was our most popular post to-date, meaning that more people read that post than any other in our nearly two year history. Go Kirbi Fagan! Kirbi's post was so popular partly due to her awesome tribe of supporters and her stunning artwork, but it was also a post that spoke to both writers and illustrators. So, in that vein, let's take another look at book covers with some take-aways for both the writers and illustrators in SCBWI. Here are the cover stories for three of our Michigan Chapter members (starting with my own!):

It wasn’t until my own debut YA novel entered the publishing process that I truly saw the making of a cover. I was fortunate to be involved in many of the decisions, including choosing from four initial cover concepts, all very different.

Here’s what my cover designer, Amanda Schwarz, shared about her initial process with THE ART OF HOLDING ON AND LETTING GO:

"When designing a book cover I search for a way to visually represent the emotion of the novel while not outright telling the audience what it’s about. After reading the book I realized that the heart of the story is the lead character coming to terms with where her life has taken her and accepting change. In particular the Annie Dillard quote at the end of the novel struck me, “Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But mountains are home.”  

To me, this sums up the feelings of the book. Cara, by the end, comes to realize that no matter where she is in her life, the mountains, along with Uncle Max, will always be a part of her. They are inside of her and a life that she can return to one day. So while not referencing climbing directly, I felt having mountains represented in the covers somewhere is very important as Cara comes to hold on to the important aspects of her previous life, but also learns to let go of others as she grows in the story. It captures the tone but there is also the mystery of what exactly the mountains represent to the story.

While working on the preliminary designs I also decided to use handwritten or script text for the covers. Since we spend the entirety of the book seeing the events from Cara’s perspective, anything that isn’t handwritten felt too impersonal for a very personal story. I choose fonts that have similar characteristics but also contrast to emphasize the emotions of the title especially “Holding On and Letting Go.” 

Heather Smith Meloche's YA novel, RIPPLE, hits bookshelves in September. Heather says, "The cover design was a hard part of this debut publishing process because, when my editor asked me for suggestions to pass on to the designers, I didn’t really have a sense of what I thought should be on the cover. With the title being RIPPLE, I felt like water had to be there somewhere. And I knew there were scenes in a cemetery that were pivotal in the story, so I suggested to the art department that they think “in the graveyard.” But primarily, I knew what I didn’t want more than what I did."

Penguin’s designers came out, first, with a design that I personally loved, since it reminded me of my grandmother’s art, which hangs all over my house. But we weren’t sure if it would hook readers enough. When they came back with a second design that elaborated on the first, I seriously got chills the moment I saw it because I just knew -- THAT was the cover Ripple was supposed to have. It’s dark. It’s edgy. It captures the mood and tone of the book. And I truly couldn’t be happier with the work the design team did.

Cover designer Tony Sahara said this about RIPPLE's cover:

“Here in Penguin Young Readers Design Group, sometimes there are multiple designers working on the same project to create a variation of book cover ideas. Ripple is one of those books. During the initial design stages, my colleagues and I were pretty much working with Tessa in mind, and that was a fun part of our job. We started off with more abstract and type-driven designs in various styles. Some of us physically painted graphic elements, including the book title type, and incorporated them into the layout digitally. I then decided to also create a layout with more human elements. Something that would engage the reader on a very personal level. This became the base of the final cover."

"In terms of the cover concept, I was focusing on the fragile, emotional state of the characters, but visually I tried to maintain the creativity and the spontaneity of the whole cover development process. In the end, my goal is that the author's and reader’s initial reaction to the cover would validate the contents of the story. So, I hope this cover accomplishes that goal when people pick up the book at the book stores.”

Social media has opened up new avenues for publishers to tailor their cover designs, such as Swoon Reads/Macmillan. They ask readers to vote for their favorite of several cover options. Katie Van Ark's debut YA novel, THE BOY NEXT DOOR, was published by Swoon Reads, and you can see the Pick-the-Cover voting process here, including the original four, very different designs.

Katie says, "Having a cover contest was really exciting for me as an author. I was also glad that Macmillan responded to my suggestions on the final cover. (We fixed the characters' hair styles!)" 

To learn more about the crowd-sourced model at Swoon Reads, their cover creations, or vote on upcoming covers, go to their website/blog.

Thanks to Katie and Heather for sharing their book cover process with me!

Want to read more about cover creation? Follow these links:

By the Cover: an ongoing feature at Book Riot.

Cover Evolution: an in-depth look at the process from Chad W. Beckerman, designer and creative director at Abrams. And here's a fun post for picture book author/illustrators: VEGETABLES IN UNDERWEAR! 

Publishers Weekly has a new column devoted to book covers.

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Writing non-fiction, MFA Week, the Sophomore Experience: Your Second Book and More, another Indie Bookstore Interview, and a new Writer Spotlight - it could be you!

Who's going to the big SCBWI conference in Los Angeles next week? Not me. :( We'd love to share your experience on the Mitten blog. View our submission guidelines for guest posts here.

Have a great weekend!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, July 15, 2016


An evil rooster lives on my road. His owners take free-range to a whole new level as this cocky fellow roams in and out of yards, leading his speckled lady-friends astray. My daily walks are like running the gauntlet, as I keep a keen eye out for this neighborhood bully.

This summer, I found myself going from wary to downright fearful, as attempts to pass my nemesis unscathed became more and more of a challenge.

I nearly stopped walking altogether. I almost allowed my fears to control me and take away one of my joys.

How often does this happen in our writing life? We stop writing because we feel we aren't good enough. We stop submitting because we fear rejection. We stop trying because we fear failure. We let the "evil rooster" stop our journey.

Rather than end my daily walks, I've learned a few tricks to keep that foul fowl at bay:

1. Walk with others. The evil rooster is outnumbered and backs off. Your writing journey need not be a lonely one. Writer friends, critique groups, SCBWI, and Mich-Kids are available to you as you forge your path. It helps to have friends walking along the same road who support and believe in you.

2. Take your dogs. They are well-trained so the evil rooster heads in the other direction. As you travel, you are learning and growing. You are training yourself to be the best writer you can be. Feed your dogs well! Take classes. Read how-to books. Get professional critiques. Go to conferences. With the pooches of pedagogy on your leash, you will walk confidently past that dumb-cluck!

3. Carry a big stick! I can't control my free-range foe and I can't control rejection. But I can control my reaction. There was a time when rejection stopped me in my tracks. The little voice in my head  told me to stop! Don't pass go! Give up! But if I had obeyed that evil rooster, I would've never known the joy of having a career that I love. Your stick should be inked with words like Determination, Talent, Hard work, Education, and Practice, Practice, Practice.  When you're armed with a big stick that paltry poultry gets the message: Back Off! 

I still have days when that evil rooster appears. He jumps out unexpectedly and stops me in my tracks. But then I remember, he's not the boss of me! I hold my head up, stand tall, and crow, sending him scurrying into the shrubbery.

After all, he's nothing but a big chicken.

Lisa Wheeler writes in her head as she takes daily walks in rural Addison, MI. She's been fighting that rooster for a few decades. Her newest books, Dino-Racing (Lerner) and The Christmas Boot (Dial) are her 36th and 37th titles. Read more about Lisa and her books at

One of Lisa's beloved books just received a wonderful honor. BUBBLE GUM, BUBBLE GUM, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith, was chosen for the Michigan Reads! March 2017 One Book One State Children's Book program by the Michigan Library Association. 

Lisa will be teaching her popular Boot Camp for writers on July 23rd. Learn more here.

Kudos, Lisa!

Coming up on the Mitten blog: MFA Week (yes, I know I've been saying it's coming for months now, but it's a group effort with many contributors, so it's been a bit of a wrangle!), the Sophomore Experience: Your Second Book and More, The Making of a Book Cover, Writing Non-Fiction, another Indie Bookstore Interview, and a new Writer Spotlight - it could be you!

Don't miss out on the SCBWI-MI events happening around the state over the next few months, including Shop Talks, a free Scrivener Workshop, and the Fall Retreat in Harbor Springs, MI.

Congrats to Lindsay K. Moore, the winner of the Fall Retreat Logo Competition! See the logo below and learn more about Lindsay and her art career at her website.

Have a great weekend, and see you next Friday!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, July 8, 2016

Nicola's Books: An Indie Interview

Indie bookstores are known for cultivating community. Are you curious about what goes on behind the scenes? Read on to learn more about Lynn Riehl and her job organizing events for Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor, MI.

Tell us about your job and describe a typical day.
It is not all that exciting, checking and answering email, looking for items to use for social media. If an event is coming up, doing promotions for that. The excitement comes when you receive an email from a publisher who says they want you to host an event for them. 

Was there an author event at your store that remains particularly memorable? Something surprising that happened, a wonderful chain reaction, or a day that went terribly wrong? 
Fortunately I have been very lucky that we have not had anything go terribly wrong. We have had some great store events, but the few that stand out in mind was the Jeff Kinney Experience where we had the store packed with Wimpy Kid fans, a disco in the back of the store, a photo booth and other fun stuff. 

I think my favorite comment was from author Christopher Moore. When the signing portion of the event takes place we are always up by the author having the book open to the correct page and moving the crowd along so that the author does not get bogged down. Sometimes you have to be a bit strong with people, but not mean, and Christopher Moore told me that I was the nicest bad cop he had worked with.  

What advice can you give to authors who are preparing for bookstore appearances?  
Do as much promotion regarding your event as you can, the bookstores can only reach so many people and cannot guarantee a crowd for you. Also, you do not have to do a reading at your event. If you do, you want to keep it to just 2-3 minutes. You want to engage your audience, give them a taste of what the book is about and them leave them wanting more, which hopefully will translate into them buying your book. So you can talk for about 10-15 minutes about who you are, the process, how you got published anything like that, do another 10-15 minutes of Q&A (if the audience is really engaged with the Q&A it can run a little longer, but not too much) and then the signing.  

Tell us about some of your upcoming events. 
We are super excited because we had Chuck Palahniuk in for a ticketed, signing only event for Fight Club 2 on July 7th, and NYT bestselling mystery author Elizabeth George will be with us on July 19th. Elizabeth George is the author of the Inspector Lynley novels. Newbery winner Kate Dicamillo has a new novel, Raymie Nightingale, and she will be off-site at the Ann Arbor District Library Main Branch on July 10th. I highly recommend authors of all levels to come to author events to engage with them. You never know what you can learn from someone else, especially if you have not been published yet.  

Thanks to Lynn for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions! We'd love to learn more about all of our great indie bookstores in Michigan. Share your favorite store in the comments below, and if you'd like to interview the owner or a staff member for a future blog post, please send me an email.

Did you notice our new summer-themed blog banner created by Kara Marsee? Did you miss her interview? Learn more about Kara here.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: The Sophomore Experience: Your Second Book and More, The Making of a Book Cover, Writing Non-Fiction, MFA Week: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know, and a new Writer Spotlight - it could be you!

Have a great weekend!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, July 1, 2016

Featured Illustrator Kara Marsee


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?
Woo-hoo! It’s summer! Pondering balance of play/work.

2. What do you do best?
Make lists - it helps release the chatter in my head of all the tasks at hand.
In illustration: depicting interaction between characters.

3. Where would you like to live?
Ann Arbor is a great place to live with all it’s amenities, events and culture. That said, I could use a few more trees and less people at times. As long as I’m near trees and access to a great library, I’m happy!

4. Your favorite color?
I love so many colors, but at the moment blue-green is tops, followed by burnt siena.

5. Three of your own illustrations:

6. Your music?
For illustration, something dancey-alternative or Latin (awesome on a winter day).
I also enjoy playing clarinet, and listening to classical for more pensive moments or writing.

7. Your biggest achievement?
Having a piece of artwork accepted into the Toledo Area Artists Exhibition, which hung at the Toledo Museum of Art.

8. Your biggest mistake?
Er, recently forgetting all the sleeping bags for our family camping trip. Oops.

9. Your favorite children's book when you were a child?
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

10. Your main character trait?
Systematic in some ways, and spontaneous in others...does that make me a split personality?

11. What do you appreciate most in a friend?
A good listener, and honesty.

12. What mistakes are you most willing to forgive?
Ones that don’t involve cruelty.

13. Your favorite children's book hero?
Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III – faced with incredible perils, bullies, and a challenging sidekick, he prevails and saves the day under inconceivable circumstances!
(By the way, if you only know him from the How to Train Your Dragon movie, you might be surprised at the major differences from the book.)

14. What moves you forward?
Seeing the work of other creatives, and a deadline on the calendar.
Thanks to my friends in our "Artist's Way" gatherings, and anyone who has offered a constructive critique.

15. What holds you back?
Over-thinking things and fear. I like Elizabeth Gilbert’s advice in Big Magic on inviting fear along for the ride, but never let it drive.

16. Your dream of happiness?
All the hatred in the world being replaced with positive energy.

17. The painter/illustrator you admire most?
There are so many!!!!
Eric Rohmann for his compositions,  Mercer Mayer for his characters, Stephen Gammell for his wild lines, and Denise Fleming for her brilliant colors. Jon Klassen for the subdued colors and use of space.
And recently I’m digging Patrice Barton for her squishable toddlers and textures, and Peter Brown for his patterns, and more, more, more!

18. What super power would you like to have?
Flying, or maybe even better...teleporting.

19. Your motto?
“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t, you’re right.” - Henry Ford

20. Your social media?
My website has recently been updated. I’m taking the plunge with twitter, after an informative talk on social media for writers. It was held at the Ann Arbor District Library by Alex Kourvo ( and Bethany Neal (, as part of the Emerging Writer’s Workshop series. Thanks ladies!