Friday, February 23, 2018

4 Out the Door Illustrator Challenge by Deb Pilutti

I did not always “know” I wanted to work in children’s publishing, but when I finally had my AHA moment, I was eager to start right away (cue knowing smile). The Children’s Writer's and Illustrator’s Market stated that sending promotional postcards was a good way for illustrators to contact art directors and editors. So I started with a small mailing, printed on my own color printer. The postcard had an illustration of two silly dogs on the front.

Several weeks after sending that card, editor Meredith Mundy contacted me to ask if I would send more samples. She had a story about a silly dog and was considering me to illustrate it. I did a little dance, crossed my fingers and sent off samples that day. Weeks passed, then months without a word. Gradually, I resigned myself to the notion that another illustrator had been selected. Sometime later, I learned that Meredith had moved to Sterling Publishing before ever editing the silly dog book. I updated my mailing list with her new address and kept sending postcards and samples. “Right away” turned into a few years, but my promotions made a connection, and the connection led to two books with Meredith and Sterling. They were books that I would never had worked on if I had not sent out the first postcard.
I thought that once I was published, subsequent requests for projects would flood my inbox. This did not happen. Self-promotion, it turns out, is an ongoing process. And postcard mailings are one of the easiest and cost effective forms of self promotion. Yet, too often, I don’t send them. I have good intentions to send out more than one card every three years. I really do. I have gotten contracts from them. Postcards work. So what’s my problem?

The usual excuses come into play. “I’m too busy right now,”  “I don’t have a good idea,” “What if no one likes my work?” or “I’ll do it next month”... Do any of these sound familiar? Well, 2018 is going to be different. SCBWI-MI is hosting the 4 Out the Door postcard challenge for illustratorsand I am committing to sending out four (4!) postcards over the course of a year.

This challenge will help me see my good intentions through. Like many people, I work better with a deadline. This challenge has four. I’m more likely to follow through with something if I make plans with a friend beforehand. Other SCBWI buddies will be doing this with me, so we can cheer each other on. So that’s my 2018 resolution: making plans, with friends, to do this postcard thing. I think I’m going to nail it.

Deb Pilutti writes and illustrates for children. She feels lucky to have a job where reading, playing with toys and watching cartoons is considered “research.” Deb is the author and/or illustrator of several picture books, including IDEA JAR, written by Adam Lehrhaupt (Simon & Schuster) and THE SECRETS OF NINJA SCHOOL (A Christy Ottaviano Book/Henry Holt). She lives in Ann Arbor, MI.

More about 4 Out the Door:
 4 Out the Door is a challenge hosted by SCBWI Michigan for illustrator members (from any region) to send promotional postcards to publishing houses quarterly.

To participate, simply send an email to Once you sign up, you will receive a welcome e-packet about the basics of promotional mailings and next steps, informative newsletters and a digital badge you can use to share the news of our challenge. In addition, check the SCBWI-MI Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds for tips and success stories throughout the year.

Mail cards Feb 1, April 1, July 1, and November 1.

Even though the first deadline has passed, illustrators may join the challenge at any time. We’ve picked these dates based on the publishing industry’s habits. For instance, in September, many people in publishing take vacations and December is often very quiet. If you miss the deadline we encourage you to stay with the challenge whatever the time of year.

Artwork for 4 Out the Door created by Kirbi Fagan

Coming up on the Mitten blog: an interview with one of our SCBWI-MI novel mentors, The Path to Promotion publicity program, the resonant roar of quiet stories, a recap of the NY conference, and a round-up of SCBWI-MI member blogs. Do you have an active kidlit blog? Send an email to Charlie Barshaw to let him know.

Registration for the SCBWI-MI spring conference in Detroit opens on March 15th!

This just in! SCBWI Michigan and Indiana are teaming up for a creative retreat at Pokagon State Park, Indiana, October 5-7, 2018. Learn more here. And stay tuned for an interview with illustrator Sara Kendall who shares her process in creating the Pokagon painting below.
Art by Sara Kendall.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Writing Historical Fiction by Barbara Carney-Coston

Writing historical fiction requires both a strong interest in big picture information and an eye for details that convey a sense of time and place. My experience in writing TO THE COPPER COUNTRY—MIHAELA's JOURNEY was deeply satisfying on many levels. It’s based on my family history, so learning about my ancestors was fascinating. But I also enjoyed the process. I tell young readers that research can be like a treasure hunt. You’re looking for unknown jewels that can make your story shine.

Research tips:
Historical fiction needs to be based on accurate information. And publishers like bibliographies. Here are a few ways to get started on the big picture idea.
  • Look for primary sources first. These are first-hand accounts of events, practices or artifacts that were in use at the time of your character’s story.  Diaries, letters, reports, photographs, creative works, financial records, memos, and factual newspaper articles are possibilities. Even post cards and original recipes reveal a lot. My first research for To the Copper Country involved scrapbooks that my grandfather had kept about his adult life. He was proud of his accomplishments, and he saved newspaper clippings, letters, and photos of his professional milestones, much as Linked In does today. While I chose another character to develop, getting started with these materials helped me focus on what I was trying to say.
  • Secondary sources are also important. These include reports of historical events or interpretations, newspaper editorials, biographies or even advertisements. If your story is set in the not-too-distant past, look for contemporaries of your characters and interview them about their memories and experiences of the time.
  • Internet sources are convenient, but make sure they are reliable. If you are not sure of sources, crosscheck to find at least two other trustworthy sites that can verify (not Wikipedia!). The Library of Congress, and the National Archives are excellent resources and free. Online encyclopedias such as World Book or Britannica are well regarded for basic fact checking. But don’t limit yourself to the biggest and broadest. Some of the best information can come from small regional libraries with collections that focus on a particular area
  • Once you’ve established background research, try to include a site visit. It can be well worth the time and money, and you may find something that leads you in an unexpected direction. Understanding that your character had to work in a certain way, for example, or that geography had a particular impact on life can create depth for your story. Add the details you’ve discovered and revise as your data directs.
  • Before submitting anywhere, check the manuscript against your research and create an annotated bibliography. You’ll be confident that you can state such an event might have occurred as described—you have solid evidence to support your point of view.

Finding the right publisher:
If a story has a regional focus, consider local publishers. I read about Jean Alicia Elster’s book, The Colored Car, in the SCBWI Bulletin, and realized the story was based on her family’s experiences in Detroit. Published by Wayne State University Press, I thought mine might be a fit there, too. I queried, and they asked for the complete manuscript. Working with WSU Press has been a wonderful experience. I was especially pleased when they asked for my input regarding the cover design. According to writing friends with bigger publishing houses, this is quite a nice benefit. (I agree!)

When it comes to historical fiction, enjoy the process. May your research uncover great treasures!

Barbara Carney-Coston grew up in Michigan and loved seeing the Mitten dancers at the SCBWI Summer Conference last July. She has written for Highlights, Hopscotch and Washington Parent magazines. TO THE COPPER COUNTRY—MIHAELA's JOURNEY is her first book and she hopes young readers will enjoy the story and feel empathy for immigrants today. Learn more at and find her on Twitter @barcrn.

Coming up on the Mitten blog: More about the 4 Out the Door Illustrator Postcard Challenge, the resonant roar of quiet stories, an interview with one of our SCBWI-MI novel mentors, a recap of the NY conference, and a round-up of SCBWI-MI member blogs. Do you have an active kidlit blog? Send an email to Charlie Barshaw to let him know.

Read the newly updated SCBWI Anti-Harassment Policy.

Save the date for our spring conference, Unearthing Your Funny Bone, May 5, 2018:
Thanks to Nina Goebel for creating the conference artwork!
Congrats to Gin Price for winning the inaugural SCBWI-MI 2018 Writing Competition!
Stay tuned for her winning entry and an interview.

Friday, February 9, 2018

BREATHE LIFE INTO YOUR BACKLIST TITLE: Marketing Tips to Move Your Backlist Title to the Forefront by Maria Dismondy

The “backlist.” It sounds like a scary place, doesn’t it? It’s really not! A backlist title just means a published book has been on the shelves for more than six months (while a frontlist title is actively in the promotion).

While you may wish your book could remain on the frontlist indefinitely, there are many reasons why the backlist isn’t a bad place to be. In fact, backlist titles have been called the backbone of a good publisher. Because if enough copies are sold, for a long enough period of time, that backlist book will become a classic.

That’s right, your book isn’t just on the backlist, it’s a classic in the making!

To make the most of your backlist title, put these marketing tips to work for you.

Share: Word of Mouth
One great way to create buzz around your backlist title is to leverage your reviews.

Search online for your positive book reviews, make them into a graphic or a video montage and share your creations on your social media platforms, like Instagram, Facebook or YouTube. Create even more excitement with intriguing introductions to the reviews, like, “Did you hear what “so and so” said about this book? Find out!”

A Reason to Read: The Power of a Reader’s Guide
Did you know educators and book clubs are more likely to use your book if you provide supporting documentation?

Create a reader’s guide with discussion questions or lesson plans for the appropriate grade level to use in the classroom. Offer these guides and additional material as free downloads on your website.  Learn more about reader guides from SCBWI-MI member Deb Gonzales in this Mitten blog post.
Reader guides created by Deb Gonzales:

Cover Couture: Refresh Your Look

One of the easiest ways to market your backlist title is to refresh your cover. This can be done when working with your publisher as you move from a hardcover copy to softcover.

Or, think outside the box and hire a designer to take interior images and create marketing materials to use on social media. So simple, yet so impactful!

Hot Topics: Make the Connection 
When it comes to your backlist title, front page news is your best friend. Search for hot topics in the news that relate to your book and play them up to your advantage.

One of our books us a nice example of this, The Little Linebacker by Stephen Tulloch and Maria Dismondy, has a strong theme of determination woven throughout the story. A hot topic in schools today is the Growth Mindset concept. We connected our story to this trendy topic and educated parents and teachers on how they can use our book to teach mindset skills to kids.

Community: Reach Out & Make a Difference 
Libraries and community centers are always looking for outreach programs.  Think outside of the box and come up with something to offer your community.

For example, let’s say you’ve written a middle grade novel about teen depression. Reach out to a local expert in the field, such as a child psychologist or therapist, and design a talk for parents and educators on the topic. Use examples from your book throughout the talk and consider selling the book after the presentation.

Award-winning author and founder of the publishing company, Cardinal Rule Press, Maria Dismondy inspires and educates others in the book industry. Her background in early education and research enables her to touch lives the world over while touring as a public speaker in schools, community forums, and at national conferences. When Maria isn’t working, she can be found embarking on adventures throughout southeast Michigan and beyond, where she lives with her husband and three book-loving children. Find out more about Maria’s coaching services:

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Researching and writing historical fiction, an interview with one of our SCBWI-MI novel mentors, the resonant roar of quiet stories, and more about the 4 Out The Door Illustrator Postcard Program.

Do you have an idea for a guest post? We'd love to hear it! Read our submission guidelines here.

Thanks to everyone who entered our recent SCBWI-MI Writing Contest. The winner will be announced soon!

Save the date for the SCBWI-MI Spring Conference, May 5th! Registration opens March 15th.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Writer Spotlight: Debbie Taylor

You grew up in a large family. What was it about your early years that helped form you into the person you are today?  
As a member of a large family, I was allowed to take on different roles in the family. I was the younger sister to my wonderful big brother and I was also the big sister to my younger brother and my four sisters. We all played board games and card games. My mother was quite artistic and encouraged us to paint and draw.  She also led us in outdoor activities and sports. I benefited from the responsibilities of chores and structure in our home, but we were free to explore our talents, pursue hobbies and always encouraged to try new things. I have a deep well of experiences and characters from which to draw. Most of my stories spring from my childhood adventures in Columbus, Ohio.

Your mother played a central role in your development. Tell us about her.
She was a brilliant mother and a natural teacher.  Our home was filled with reading material: books, magazines, newspapers. She felt is was her responsibility (and joy) to teach her children to read before they started school. She allowed me to read as often and usually for as I long as I wanted. (I learned to read when I was four. On the first day of kindergarten I was sent home because I could read. Apparently, the school wasn’t certain what to do with a tiny reader. I skipped kindergarten and started school in the first grade.) My mother was also an athlete. She played tennis and high school basketball and was on several roller-skating teams. This loving, encouraging and generous lady was also very creative and artistic. She encouraged us to draw, sew, write, dance, sing and hike! She helped everyone shine. She was a legend in our family. There are grandchildren and great-grand children named after her. She set a very high bar in everything she did! I attribute my love of language and reading to her example and encouragement.

You’ve had your work published in Cricket, Spider, New Moon and Pockets magazines. What’s tended to be the unifying vision for these pieces?
Immediate families, extended families and the community are a source of support, comfort and knowledge.

When and how did you find SCBWI? 
I learned about the organization from members of my critique group over twenty years ago. Many of us have benefitted from a variety of SCBWI resources, including the Michigan conferences and workshops. Last year, the Marketing Boot Camp in Lansing provided a wonderful day of information and fellowship. Of course our SCBWI members have been helpful and supportive in practical ways. 

Your most famous work, the picture book Sweet Music in Harlem, was inspired by an intriguing photo on your husband’s t-shirt. What called to you in that photo? 
The faces and postures of the people in the photograph were compelling. The musicians seemed to be connected by a common, almost visible energy.

The famous photo was taken in 1958 Harlem, and included dozens of world-famous jazz musicians of the time. Were you a fan of jazz when you started writing this story? 
 I was not a jazz fan, but I became a fan.  Fortunately, my husband is not only a fan, but quite the expert.  He introduced me to the icons of jazz, the history of the art form and the various styles. I have an appreciation for jazz that continues to develop.
                                                                Art Kane's famous 1958 photo which inspired Debbie's "Sweet Music in Harlem."

Your story tells a fictionalized account of young clarinetist CJ, who’s looking for forgetful Uncle Click’s beret, so that the jazz trumpeter can be dressed to the nines for a magazine photo shoot. In the quest for the cap, CJ alerts the neighborhood, many of whom are tied to the jazz scene, and inadvertently draws a huge crowd to his uncle’s brownstone stoop.  You wrote this story in an unusual manner. Tell us about your process.
The story idea sprang from examining the photograph. The shape and plot emerged before the research in this case. During the course of revising the story, I read several books about the jazz musicians and began listening to jazz. I looked at many other jazz photographs. I also watched a fine, upbeat documentary entitled  “A Great Day in Harlem” several times. My car radio is now set for the local jazz station so I can enjoy jazz every day.

Some of the memorable characters (barber Charlie Garlic, Mattie Dee of the Eat and Run Diner, and crooner Canary Alma) as well as CJ and Uncle Click, are invented for the story. Were they amalgams of real historical figures? 
No, they were inspired by people I knew or heard about. My mother once described a man standing on the corner pontificating and said, “He thinks he’s Big Charlie Garlic.” The name was right for the character.  Uncle Click’s character surfaced because I grew up with two very nice uncles. Canary Alma, as the artist Frank Morrison illustrated her, reminds me Billie Holiday. Mattie Dee is a combination of the energetic cooks and waitresses I’ve encountered over the years.

One of the iconic parts of the photo are the line of young boys sitting in the gutter, along with the bemused Count Basie. Did you imagine one of those faces as your CJ?
I imagined CJ was among the boys sitting on the curb, but not that one of the boys in the photo was actually CJ. I used an illustration of a young boy gazing at a trumpet in a pawn shop window on the cover of a New Yorker magazine as the model for CJ. I stuck it on the bulletin board in my computer room for inspiration.

Among the charming parts of the story, everyone CJ encounters encourages his musical enthusiasm and talent, predicting that he’ll be as big a success as his Uncle Click someday. Did you imagine that CJ succeeded in his dream?
Absolutely! CJ certainly achieves his dreams because music is in his spirit. The support of his uncle and his community guarantees it.

Sweet Music in Harlem was published in 2004. In 2017, the picture book Jazz Day was published, commemorating the same event. Your thoughts?  
Roxane Orgill’s Jazz Day is a wonderful book. Her fine book really expands, fleshes out the wonderful story of Art Kane’s photograph and its subjects through poetry. Her book is somewhere in my house right now. I highly recommend her book for the delightful, evocative writing and cool artwork. It’s a treasure. That photo has inspired paintings, other photographs, a documentary, stained glass pieces, a symphony piece, etc.  

As works in progress you mention Vine Street Basketball, Slip Through the Dark Woods, Elzada Clover/Lois Jotter, and Idlewild, Michigan. Would you care to share anything about those pieces?  
One of my current books, a mid-grade novel set in Idlewild, Michigan is still in progress.  Slip Through The Dark Woods was accepted for publication by Schoolwide, Inc. My next book, Over in Motown, will be published this summer by the Ann Arbor District Library’s Fifth Avenue Press.

"Busy Mr. Higby" was published by Meegenius/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2014.  MrHigby is an industrious rabbit who delivers bunches, bouquets, centerpieces to the townsfolk. He eventually learns how to meet the ever-growing demand for flowers and helps the community become more self-sufficient.

Debbie added  some additional answers:
What are some other venues for writers and illustrators? 
In addition to presenting at schools and libraries, I would encourage people to consider opportunities to present at institutions such as the Children’s Hospital of Michigan or events like a Little Library kick-offs or music festivals.

Where do you turn for encouragement?
Authors Anne Lamott and Frederick Buechner have been quite inspiring when I need a little kick.

What message would you like to leave for Mitten readers?
In a documentary about the great American playwright, August Wilson, his widow states that Wilson washed his hands each time before settling down to write because his writing was “sacred work.” All creators of work for children might want to embrace that notion as they tackle creative challenges.

Debbie Taylor is the Assistant Director of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) at the University of Michigan. She is also the Program Manager, Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach.

Charlie Barshaw is (honestly) making progress on a revision of his YA novel "Aunt Agnes." He's also co-chair of the Humor Conference to be held in Detroit on Saturday, May 5. Save the date!

There's a Mitten post scheduled in March about SCBWI-MI blogs. Want to advertise yours? Email me at with your blog's address and a short description of its theme, and I'll try to include it.