Friday, June 29, 2018

Meet Our New Illustrator Coordinators

Deb Pilutti and Kirbi Fagan 

Hi Deb and Kirbi, thank you very much for volunteering to be the next SCBWI Michigan illustrator coordinators and for the following interview.

Please tell us a bit about your background.

K: My journey really began when I entered art school. I was very academic (still am) and was focused on learning techniques including oil, airbrush, watercolor, acrylic, mixed media, colored pencils and then in my last year started painting digitally. I have a great love for tech and paint. I set my focus on the publishing world. I went to tons of conventions and workshops around the country soaking up education to improve my work. That’s actually how I met Deb. I was making ends meet doing portraiture, design and teaching. Now, I work in a variety of genres doing cover art for middle grade, young adult, adult, comics and even some work for video games. I’m trying to write but it will be awhile before you see my writing on the shelves.

D: Unlike Kirbi, I don’t have a formal illustration education. Illustrating children’s books was not something that occurred to me until much later. I wanted to be a serious graphic designer and was for awhile. As I progressed in the field, my work got less serious and more playful - truer to my real self, I suppose.  I designed theme park graphics and children’s toys. It was a perfect segway to illustrating and writing picture books. Being a designer informs my work and leads to a more dynamic layout that helps tell a story. 

What is your favorite single illustration, created by yourself and why?

K: I’d rather gush about Deb’s work than my own. Here is a spread from IDEA JAR. I witnessed it go from sketch to finish. It communicates the idea of the text so simply and graphically. Deb’s colors are so always cohesive but she isn’t afraid to be BOLD either. This is a great example of that. You don’t have to take my word for it, it recently won a merit award in the picture book category from the annual 3x3.

D: And I absolutely love this painting Kirbi created for a card deck which includes fantasy prompts to inspire characters, stories and artworks from It’s a seemingly simple image, yet so full of mystery. The elephant is what first draws you in, with her fabulous markings and headdress. Upon a closer look, you start to notice some things that don’t quite make sense in a normal world, which makes it a perfect image for the game. Kirbi is a master of values and color and really uses those aspects to direct the eye and heighten tension. This illustration was also used as a cover for a speculative fiction magazine.

Why did you volunteer for this position?

D: The SCBWI community welcomed me when I was starting out. Seasoned writers and illustrators encouraged me and gave actionable suggestions for improvement.  I found several critique groups through SCBWI and have participated in conferences and outings. I’d like to give other illustrators that same welcome and support. As a bonus, volunteering with Kirbi has been a blast. She has such an energy and passion that it rubs off! I learn a lot from working with her.

K: The feeling is mutual Deb. Being an illustrator certainly doesn’t come without it’s struggles, it can be a very lonely job. When I’m with a community of other creatives that’s when I’m learning the most. I’m excited about bringing people together to create this group that is social, supportive and educational.

What do you deem most important on the path to success as a children’s book Illustrator?

D: A willingness to constantly improve the work to tell a better story.

K: I couldn’t agree more. A really good compositional sense doesn’t hurt either.

D: YES! How would you suggest improving on that? I encourage people to look at good design and think about WHY it’s good.

K: …and HOW the design itself can help tell your story! This concept about composition changed my life when I got out of school and I’m pretty sure I’m going to spend the rest of my life figuring it out:

As our new illustrator coordinators, what is your vision for our group? How would your ideal SCBWI illustrator-world look?

D: To continue to provide a supportive community for our members. We’d like to increase our group’s diversity by reaching out to other communities, like art and community colleges.

K: Bringing introverted artists together is sometimes a challenge but whenever we get together, I know we all go back to our studios inspired and encouraged.

D: It would be wonderful to see a better connection between the writers and illustrators. Online and in conferences. The art making and writing process has more in common than we acknowledge.

K: When it comes to programming, there are many people in our region who have said they’d like to know more about photoshop, digital painting, animation, image scanning and color printing profiles so we are planning a webinar on these great digital tools.

D: Four out the Door postcard challenge has been our first program to provide encouragement and information toward the shared goal of sending out postcards and getting work.

K: It’s been really fun interacting on our instagram with #4outthedoor program. You all might be curious to know we even have a few art directors following us. We’ll definitely be doing more to offer more exposure to our Michigan illustrators.

What’s the next event or workshop you’re planning?

K: Sunday, July 1st is our Plein Air day. Two locations on opposite sides of the state.

Are you open to suggestions from your fellow illustrators? If so, how would you like to be contacted?

K: Absolutely. We have a private facebook page for Michigan members. It’s a safe place to talk shop, share successes, make suggestions and ask for help.

D: Yes! Please reach out to us to let us know what you want from this community. Email me at, or Kirbi

If a genie would grant you one wish for the illustrators in our group, what would it be?

D: I would love to have a group studio and resource space.

K: Friendships that can offer trusted critique, encouragement and artistic growth.

Thank you for the interview; we are looking forward to the good things to come!

Friday, June 22, 2018

From Writing Retreat to Contract: A Timely Immigration Picture Book Finds a Home, Polar Bear Island by Lindsay Bonilla

In 2016 I saw a post on Facebook promoting SCBWI Michigan's Fall Retreat – the Nights of the Roundtable. I was immediately intrigued by the retreat's unique format – the opportunity to work with an editor and get feedback on multiple manuscripts from other writers in a small group setting sounded amazing. I also loved the fact that you had to to submit a writing sample in order to attend.

But I was five months pregnant and the retreat center was over eight hours away from my home! Still, I decided to apply. When I received word that I'd been selected, I immediately sought out a ride and room share. I was grateful to find both with Heidi Sheffield.

From the moment I arrived, I felt so welcome. I loved participating in the open mic on the first evening and felt buoyed by the laughter and positive comments I received afterward. I immediately clicked with my small group. Their feedback on my manuscripts was both encouraging and empowering. As the mother of a young toddler, I also relished the time for uninterrupted writing that the retreat provided.

I debated about which manuscript I wanted to share during my session with editor Brett Duquette. Ultimately, I landed on Polar Bear Island, the story of Kirby, an adventurous penguin, and Parker, a grumpy polar bear who wants to keep his island exclusively for bears. I'd been working on this manuscript for some time but had shelved it. A few months prior to the conference, I'd decided it was time to get it back out.

Brett's feedback on my manuscript was spot-on. That evening I could barely sleep as I worked and re-worked certain lines and ideas in my head. After the conference, I made some more tweaks before sending it off to Brett. 

In less than a month, Brett called to say he was taking it to his editorial board. By Christmas, it had passed the sales board, and I had an offer. I was over the moon! By mid-January I had secured an agent to represent me as I moved forward with the offer.

Throughout this process I have been convinced that Brett is the perfect editor for this project. I couldn't be more pleased with his passion for the book, his careful consideration of how the text could be construed on many different levels (something so important given the topic!), and the choice of Cinta Villalobos, a Barcelona-based artist, to illustrate. After all, I met my Colombian husband while living in Spain, and without my experiences there and the very personal way that my life has been impacted by immigration, Polar Bear Island would never have been written.

Polar Bear Island is scheduled to release October 2, 2018, and is available now for preorder at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or from your local indie bookstore.

Thank you SCBWI Michigan for being the catalyst for my book's publication journey. I'm anxiously awaiting another Roundtable Retreat in the near future. If anyone asks, I will tell them it is well worth the eight hour drive!

Lindsay Bonilla is a professional storyteller known for her high-energy interactive programs based on folktales from around the world. When she's not teaching workshops or telling stories, she's busy writing her own or acting them out with her kids. Lindsay's love for travel has taken her to five continents, but most days she can be found at home in Ohio with her husband, sons and their rescue dog, Blitzen. Visit

SCBWI-MI's 2018 Fall Retreat is a joint effort with SCBWI-Indiana. Save the date: October 5-7, 2018. Learn more here, and get ready for registration to open on August 1st. More information will be emailed to SCBWI-MI members. Follow our Facebook page for updates and reminders.

Thanks to Sara Kendall for creating the retreat logo. Learn more about her process here.

Can't wait until the fall? Capital City Writers Association is sponsoring a free picture book workshop in July at Schuler Books in Okemos, MI.

From CCWA: Kristin Roskifte is a Norwegian illustrator and author. She has published eight picture books with topics like crowds, surreal dream homes, queueing, and animals with body issues. Kristin never leaves the house without a sketchbook and the result is an extensive library of captured moments, thoughts, ideas, patterns, plans, quotes, hopes and dreams. In her workshop, Kristin will share examples from her sketchbook library and discuss tips and tricks on how to bring your ideas to the page. Join us for this fun and informative workshop! Everyone is welcome!

Don't forget about our monthly SCBWI-MI Shop Talks. The Ann Arbor Shop Talk is tomorrow and will focus on Voice. Sondra Soderborg will share some excellent material that she learned at the Highlight's Foundation workshops.

Sondra writes:
Voice is the tool I find most helpful and most elusive. In this meet up, we will talk about voice, read some great examples and then do one or two exercises to practice writing with distinct and genuine voice.

When and Where:
Saturday, June 23, 10 AM - noon
Ann Arbor District Library Downtown Branch
323 South Fifth Ave
Ann Arbor MI 48104
3rd floor freespace meeting room

Happy creating!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, June 15, 2018

Writer (and Agent) Spotlight: Eric Smith

You are passionate about advancing LGBTQ+ writers, and those who are under-represented and marginalized. You have no tolerance for racism and misogyny. You edited “Welcome Home,” an anthology of adoption stories. Did your early life tie these threads together?

I like to think so. I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, outside Newark, in a super diverse community. Not just in my group of friends, but in my immediate family. I had a number of friends in high school and college that didn’t have books to see themselves in growing up. And when I look for diverse, LGBTQ+ titles, I’m thinking of them, and the teens today who could benefit from these books, in the ways they most likely could have.
As for my family, I’m an adoptee. My family is white, I’m Middle Eastern, my sister is Hispanic, we’re a delightful blend, the Smiths.
So yeah, the friends and family who surrounded me throughout my young life certainly influenced my taste in books. And my amazing wife pushes me to keep trying to find those voices.

You’ve been known to request a “guest pass” when you present, and to bring along a marginalized writer. Have any of your “guests” gone on to bigger things?

It’s true, I do that! It’s only been a year or so of doing that, so I haven’t heard any stories of them being scooped up by agents yet, but I’ve got my fingers crossed. So talented, every single one of them.

Your first book came about from a co-worker’s suggestion at Quirk Publishing. Obviously, he saw something in you: humor, geekiness, and what? a sustained ability to produce verbiage, to tackle the project. Was it a little bit more than semi-autobiographical? Do you think you would have written, if not The Geek’s Guide to Dating, then the novels that followed (Inked, Branded and the soon-to-be-released The Girl and the Grove) eventually?

So, I was busy working on Inked around the time The Geek’s Guide to Dating fell into my lap. Shout out to Jason Rekulak, the best publisher and coworker anyone could ask for. So I think I would have definitely kept writing my YA books if that book hadn’t happened. Though I really think it helped bolster my career. Having the sales and publicity from that book no doubt helped my agent in selling my future books.
And quite a bit of it was a little autobiographical. The opening of the book talks about an essay I’d published about Chrono Trigger, lists my best friend, little things like that. And there are pieces of me peppered throughout that book. From the mixtape (I specifically insist the reader listen to New Found Glory) to the specific references to Magic the Gathering, there’s a lot of me in there.

Does your writing self ever clash with your editing self? With your marketing self?

No, not really. I don’t believe in thinking about marketing when I’m writing something. Trends and all that… those are passing. If you’re thinking about marketing angles while writing your book, or when you’re considering writing a book, you’re doing it wrong.
The story comes first. That’s what matters. Write the book of your heart and ignore the marketing nonsense. It’s not important yet.
And I wish my editing self chimed in when it came to my own work. My stories are full of comma and ellipsis abuse. I’ll never change.
Published May 2018

With a BA and MA in English (I’ve got a BA in English too, and for me, total hubris) was writing (and reading) always part of the plan?

Kinda? I was studying theater and playwriting my first two years of college, until a professor told me I should probably be an English major, because I could write plays AND books if I went that route. And also I wasn’t a very good actor. Hahah.
Once I wrapped up graduate school, my plan was definitely to get into working at a publishing house. I got really lucky with the team at Quirk, and lucky again when P.S. Literary brought me on board as an agent.
Books were always in the future. I just didn’t know the route it would take to get there.

Has the addition of your son in September changed your working life?

Oh, well yes most definitely. I’m not working as much as I’d like to these days, but that’s a perfectly fine thing. I’ll take hanging out with my baby and having spontaneous dance parties in my living room with him over a new book deal any day.

Your blog work at Geekadelphia led to your job at Quirk Publishing. You helped to market such titles as Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” and William Shakespeare’s Star Wars. What did you do to draw attention to these titles? Where does your marketing mojo come from?

Lots of personal attention? That’s what one of the biggest perks of smaller presses is. Smaller lists, meant I had lots of time to reach out to people individually, to see if they wanted to check out the books. We had a really great team there.

Your agent-seeking advice for potential clients is common sense (DO YOUR RESEARCH!) but unfortunately not so common. Do you attribute taking your own advice to landing an agent on the first try? Was your agent at all intimidated by your being an agent?

So, I wasn’t an agent yet when I signed with my Rockstar agent, Dawn Frederick (Red Sofa Literary). I was still working at Quirk. And I did pitch around another book before signing with Dawn that I never got signed with. But with Inked, Dawn was the very first person, and yup, done and done.
Inked is about teens with tattoos, and Dawn is a kick ass rollerderby referee with lots of ink. Also, she worked with some Quirk clients, and I loved the personal attention she gave them. I talked about a lot of that, and it was just a great fit.

Your career path is a winding road from co-founding a local events blog to Quirk Publishing to PS Literary. You’ve lived in New Jersey, Philadelphia and now Ann Arbor? Was this career path happenstance? Were you following your passion? What made you choose Michigan? Has it proven to be a good move?

There’s nothing particularly magical about any of those moves, really. Philadelphia was for graduate school. Ann Arbor was so me and my wife could be closer to her family when we had the baby. Sorry! Boring answer, I think.
Ann Arbor has been a great place though. It’s a wonderfully bookish town, tons of bookstores, lots of lovely writers everywhere. I’m still getting the hang of the place, but I am a fan.

More on Eric Smith

Click HERE to see his website

Click HERE  to read 5 questions with Eric Smith  

Click HERE to read how Eric grades queries

Click  HERE to read Eric's views on diversity

Click HERE  for posts by Eric on Book Riot

Click  HERE to hear Eric interviewed on a podcast

Click HERE to hear the very first Hey YA podcast with Eric Smith and Kelly Jensen

Eric Smith is a literary agent, author, book reviewer, blogger, podcast host and guest, a new father and a recent arrival to the state of Michigan.

Charlie Barshaw (pictured with better half Ruth) is, at this moment, driving cross-country from an agent retreat in the Seattle area.This  meeting fascinating, creative people (and writing, sometimes) is a great gig.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Is Your Art Ready? by Kirbi Fagan

A few of you who are considering joining SCBWI’s 4 Out the Door program have asked me, “How do I know if my art is ready?” I’m here today to share what I have learned. Conferences bring all sort of professionals and amateurs together, it can be inspiring. Many times artists can walk away feeling motivated to get their work out in the world. If their work isn’t ready, they could be wasting valuable time and money on promotions that could be better spent at their easel. 

Have you invested in your work?

I’m embarrassed to say how many thousands of dollars I’ve invested traveling to workshops and taking online classes to learn more about drawing and painting - after I already had a degree in illustration.

It’s true, you don’t have to go to art school to be a working illustrator, in fact none of my clients have even asked if I had a degree. Keep in mind your competition likely has an art education. They aren’t hobbyists or fans, they’ve given their “1000 hours of practice” and are serious about their craft (even if it’s as fun as cartoons.)

Has your work been critically reviewed?

Getting feedback from industry professional, not your spouse, friend or family is crucial. It’s uncomfortable to put ourselves out there. You might hear the idiom about needing “thick skin,” and it’s true. It wasn’t until I was completely crushed by an industry professional’s review that I was able to see my early work for what it was. 

I’ve never met anyone who had a terrific portfolio that wasn’t getting commission requests. Assuming you are sending to a publisher that your work is appropriate for and you still aren’t receiving work it’s a sure sign the work isn’t ready.  

Did you take action? 

If you have received critiques, did you take notes? Did you change the way you created your next image? Did you make a revision? If a piece received a bad review - is it still in your portfolio?

I don’t always agree with a specific change a critic wants me to make. In that situation, I find myself asking what does my mentor/teaching/peer/art director mean by saying this? Sometimes, I have to ask. The answer always leaves me revising. If after a review, you are feeling more upset than motivated, likely you’re not ready. 

Trained eye versus skilled hand

A skilled hand is the ability to physically draw while a trained eye is the ability to visually evaluate artwork. I’m sure you’ve seen a situation where an artist proudly shares a “realistic portrait.” Though to you, the eyes are uneven, the nose is sagging and the mouth is totally wonky. In many cases, their brain actually adjusts the incorrect information and rearranges it to look better in their mind. 

Eventually, that same artist looks at that portrait years later and says, “whoa, I thought this was good?” Their eye has developed and they are better at evaluating the work. Understand that you may be looking at your work with a naive eye. When an artist is improving, they might feel a bit discouraged. This is because their eye is better than their hand. These two skills are constantly catching up and surpassing one another. 

Be a curator of your own work

I was always told, “they love you for your best, they hire you for your worst!” An art director knows that the worst image in your portfolio might be what they get from you on a bad day. I’ve cringed many times when I’ve come across work that I put out early on that’s forever etched in google. I’ve certainly made the mistake of showing work too soon or work that isn’t my best. We must be curators, it could be the difference of getting the job or not.

Are you set up?

artwork by Kirbi Fagan
Being an illustrator is a business, are you ready to run one? Do you have a solid critique partner to show the finished piece to before you send it to a client? Do you have another responsibility that would keep you from taking a commission if it came along? If you work traditionally, do you have a way to document, scan and professionally photograph your work? You must understand what DPI is and the difference between CMYK and RGB. Do you know how to communicate your concepts with a sketch in a way a non-visual person could understand? 

Art is a lifelong craft, it’s okay to build relationships with potential clients when your work isn’t 100% ready but I feel you should be 80% there. If you are in the early stages, the most important thing to show an art director is that you’re improving by always having new work to share. When meeting an art director, mention that you understand the work may not be ready but you would appreciate their feedback. 

By now, you might be thinking about deleting a few images on your Instagram or postponing your next mailer. The good new is, I can say that I have been hired by people who saw my work before it was ready. When I got better, they hired me.  Don't feel that a few bad portfolio reviews will ruin your career. I was so relieved to listen to an art director who reviewed my work early on who said simply, “Art directors know that artists get better.”

If you liked this post and want to learn more about becoming a working illustrator, you may be interested in another article of mine, Becoming an Illustrator in 2018:

Kirbi Fagan is a Detroit based book & comic cover illustrator who specializes in creating art for young readers. Her illustrations are known for their magic themes, nostalgic mood, bright colors, and powerful characters. Currently, she serves as a Co-Regional Illustrator Coordinator with SCBWI and teaches illustration at College for Creative Studies in Downtown Detroit. Recent clients include, Marvel Comics, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Books and Dark Horse Comics. Recent Recognition includes the Jack Gaughan Award for Best Emerging Artist and the Muddy Color Rising Star.

Learn more:

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Charlie Barshaw shines the spotlight on one of our SCBWI-MI members. Come back next Friday for our quarterly Writer Spotlight feature!

We're going to be starting some new traditions here at the Mitten. We'll fill you in soon, but in the meantime, hop on over to our Kiddie Litter page to enjoy Neal Levin's cartoons - a tradition that began over ten years ago when SCBWI-MI had a snail-mail delivered paper newsletter.