Friday, October 21, 2016

UP IN THE HEIGHTS: THE SCBWI-MI 2016 FALL RETREAT by Charlie Barshaw, Lisa Healy, and Ruth McNally Barshaw

On the northern tip of the finger of Michigan’s mitten, children’s book creators met in October to follow three sets of tracks. Here are their stories:

by Charlie Barshaw

Logo created by Lindsay Moore
Boyne Highlands is one of the lower peninsula’s premier ski resorts, but in the early fall it proved to be the labyrinthine home for “The Days and Nights of the Round Table” retreat.

For mid-grade and young adult writers, three tables (aptly named Excalibur, Guinevere and Lancelot) anchored the 25 lucky and talented scribes. Almost double that number applied to attend; the competition was fierce.

The Round Table format, perfected at national SCBWI intensives, hosts a table leader and eight writers. Each writer had 15 minutes to read their piece and collect comments from the faculty and other table mates.

Officiating at each table were Senior Editor Kendra Levin from Viking, prolific picture book and mid-grade author Shutta Crum, and twice published YA author Kelly Barson.

A giveaway of Shutta's new novel on Vicky Lorencen's blo

Kendra, also a certified Life Coach, led off each day with a short inspirational nugget. Her new book “The Hero Is You: Sharpen your Focus, Conquer your Demons, and Become the Writer You Were Born to Be” was available before official release at the Bookbug bookstore. The Saturday and Sunday morning sessions opened with Kendra’s “Write Bravely” exercises, including meeting your character face-to-face, and acknowledging your “Rut” and overcoming it.

Kendra Levin
Special thanks to David Stricklen who was co-chair (and did most of the work) for the novel track. Participants raved about the conference, and RAs are already considering hosting another retreat, perhaps this time with two novel tracks.

Charlie Barshaw is pounding out the final chapters of his YA novel “Aunt Agnes’ Boarding House.” That’s a placeholder title, and his real Aunt Agnes has little in common with his fictional creation, but they are both strong, inspiring women who’ve influenced his life.

 by Lisa Healy

It was quite a weekend journey October 7-9, 2016 when picture book writers took their seats amongst the round tables for some intense scrutiny from publishing house editor and author royalty!

Editors Kendra Levin and Brett Duquette

Brett Duquette, senior editor of Sterling Children's Books, held court and captivated attendees with his Voice presentations. "Voice starts on the cover," he noted, adding that a picture book title, such as Caveman: A BC Story, sets the boundaries up for something inside that "sings" but doesn't necessarily have to explode on the first page. "It can be cumulative," he added. "Writing is about choices. The mood of a character determines the details noticed." Some of his favorite books include the Zack Delacruz series by Jeff Anderson, Cici Reno #middleshoolmatchmaker by Kristina Springer, Monster Trouble by Lane Fredrickson, and the Good Question series of nonfiction picture books.

Our local faculty included the amazing talents of picture book author/illustrators Leslie Helakoski (Woolbur; Big Chickens; Big Pigs; Doggone Feet; Hoot and Honk; Ready or Not, Woolbur Goes to School) and Deb Pilutti (Ruby Goes to Ninja School; Ten Rules of Being a Superhero; Bear and Squirrel Are Friends; The City Kid and the Suburb Kid; Idea Jar; Twelve Days of Christmas in Michigan) who wowed the writers with amazing critiques of works in progress. Encouragement reigned supreme!

All were knighted with wisdom and strength to go forth and share their mighty stories in story land.

Lisa Healy with editor Brett Duquette
Lisa Healy "writes" pictures. As a journalist, she's worn many hats, including published author, newspaper columnist, editor, publicist, photographer and on-camera reporter/talent. She feels very fortunate to be part of SCBWI and learn from such talented writers, illustrators and other industry professionals.

by Ruth McNally Barshaw

The illustrators followed a different path. Where the writers shared their work at round tables and then wrote and then came back to share again, the illustrators remained at their tables the entire time. I’m afraid I designed a grueling schedule. We reported for work early in the morning (breakfast started at 7, rewarded with a Tip From Kendra Levin) and we remained working long past dinner. And it paid off! I am seeing improvement in my own art just one week later.

Vanessa Brantley-Newton with Heidi Sheffield
Author-illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton (latest book: illustrations for Mary had a Little Glam, written by Tammi Sauer) led us through formal and informal discussions and some powerful motivational-inspirational calls to illustrate that resonated deeply, as did her talk on diversity and how books influence. Vanessa talked about resilience and the leap of faith it takes to soar, and told us what the industry wants to see in book characters today.
Cathy Gendron with Bradley Cooper pondering

llustrator-educator Cathy Gendron performed a demonstration the first night on one of her oil glazing techniques. It was thrilling to see Frankenstein’s monster take shape in color. In follow-up discussions Cathy gave us much to think about in style vs. voice and in the mechanics of putting together a book from start to finish. She also talked about resilience and the importance of painting for FUN. And she spoke on how to present ourselves on social media and to editors.

lllustrator-educator Kirbi Fagan instructed us on values structure – theoretical balanced with surprises like using the letters of the alphabet to lead composition choices. She spoke on color, how to add dimension, how to unify the painting, and why this makes sense: “Color gets all the credit but value does all the work.” Probably the biggest surprise of the weekend is how Kirbi looked at images from each of us and showed in real time how to tweak them for improvement.

Kirbi working with Heidi Woodward Sheffield's art sample

It was a fascinating combination of craft and inspiration. I hope everyone got a lot out of it.

Ruth McNally Barshaw writes and illustrates children’s books, travels teaching story workshops, and plays harmonica. See her work at

Did you miss the illustrator's video? What a fun bunch:

Ann Finkelstein with Jennifer Burd

And finally, here's the announcement you've been waiting for. From Ann Finkelstein, SCBWI-MI Mentorship Coordinator:

Please join me in congratulating Jennifer Burd for winning a year-long mentorship with Deborah Diesen. Jennifer's manuscript is called WHEN YOU SIT IN ONE PLACE.

The runners- up are: Sue Agauas with HOW TO WASH YOUR ELEPHANT and Jayne Economos with NAN'S MAGIC CARPET.


Ruth McNally Barshaw, Lisa Healy, and Anita Pazner

Coming up on the Mitten blog: The Craft of Writing: How to Know When Your Work is Ready to Go Out, and another Writer's Spotlight - it could be you!

Have a great weekend!
Kristin Lenz


  1. Fantastic recap, all! We look forward to more retreats in the future!

  2. Loved seeing the recap. Sounds like a great retreat. Congrats to Jennifer!