Friday, November 30, 2018

Success Story: An Interview with Amy Nielander

Let's dive right in to your great news. Congrats on your book deal with Page Street Kids! Tell us about your forthcoming picture book, I AM NOT LEAVING WITHOUT A HUG.

Thank you! The way this story came about was pretty magical for me. I was walking my daughter to school one day and when we reached the doors, the bell rang. We said our goodbyes, but a nearby parent did not get her goodbye. Her daughter sprinted off toward the school entrance. All of a sudden I heard “I am not leaving without a hug!”. I watched as the girl turned back to hug her mom, but those words floated around in my mind for several days. I kept wondering - what if she didn’t get her hug? I drafted up a picture book manuscript to find out!

When the next SCBWI conference came around, I shared that draft at a Round Table Critique, but it just wasn’t working. I came home feeling a little frustrated until my sticking point triggered a childhood memory. It led me to a new concept which went through more drafts, critiques and rejected submissions. I even put it off for a while and started other projects. It wasn’t until I shared my portfolio with my Rutgers mentor when I returned to it. She encouraged me to prioritize the story and develop it further. I spent months tightening it up. When it was submission ready, I reached out to a previous connection I made at a SCBWI conference, Kristen Nobles from Page Street Kids. After about a month of waiting, I heard back from Kristen and editor, Courtney Burke. They suggested a few edits and when I sent a revision back, they were pleased with the direction. It’s been over five years now since I heard that first sentence!

Find the finished illustration on Instagram

Just a few of the dummies Amy made during the revision process.

How will the process for this book be different from your first book, THE LADYBUG RACE?

The biggest difference for me is the artwork. When I submitted THE LADYBUG RACE, it was finished since I had entered the story in the Silent Book Contest. This time, I’m working on the final artwork post-offer, which is the normal protocol. One other giant difference is the main characters are people…although the reader may find a discreetly placed ladybug on one or two pages.

How did you get your agent?

I was fortunate enough to be referred to an agent by a big hearted Author Illustrator named Valeria Wicker. We have been in an online critique group together for the past 2 years. After she signed with her agent, Adria Goetz of Martin Literary Management, she suggested I submit to her as well (with her recommendation). I did and Adria enjoyed my work. When she offered me representation I wanted to jump on a plane to see Valeria (we have never met in person!) and deliver the biggest thank-you hug in the world. Hopefully we’ll meet up soon, but in the meantime I couldn’t be happier with not only a fantastic, caring agent but having a dear critique partner on this journey with me!

You graduated from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and worked in the automotive industry. Did you always want to write and illustrate children's books or what inspired you to move in this direction?

Oh - that is a long story. I’m tempted to create a nice visual that tries to connect those dots for everyone reading this. I’ll do my best at distilling. My mom was a dynamic storyteller when I was growing up and loved to write. I loved to listen. I dabbled with my own stories when I was a kid. My decision to be a product designer stemmed from a love for creative problem solving (and making stuff!). When I got married and moved back to Detroit, my job options were all automotive related positions. I took one, however when we started a family, I left it to raise our children. When I was ready to find the best outlet for my creativity I circled back to stories (and my mom), and we decided to try submitting a picture book together. I added illustrations to a story she already wrote (unfortunate rookie move). It was ultimately rejected but during that process, I fell in love with making dummies and marrying text + art together. I decided to give it a go and after learning more about the industry and craft through SCBWI, my first picture book was published 8 years later.

I loved following your Blob Blog and you wrote a post about it here on the Mitten blog back in 2014. How did that project help you grow creatively? Do you think you might revive it at some point?

Thank you Kristin! My blog made me accountable for writing and producing new artwork every week (when I didn’t want to some days). The weekly CREATE A CHARACTER CHALLENGES forced me to do more looking around so I could discover fun shapes around me. The process evolved as I went because I kept learning so much! Posts became more and more about having experiences to pull inspiration from versus randomly creating shapes. Not only did I feel like my creativity was challenged but so was my courage! My last guest was the fabulous Author Illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi. And yes, I do hope to return to it someday. I definitely benefited from the weekly challenges, but the number one goal was to make problem solving fun for kids!

Do you have any memorable stories to share from school visits or events? Something funny, sweet, inspiring, or when you learned a lesson the hard way? 

I do have a funny story about a book signing event. I usually bring my soft toy ladybugs with me to school visits or signings. They are the main characters from THE LADYBUG RACE (two ash gray ladybugs). I had a person come up to me once and ask why I had toy mites with me. It never crossed my mind that my little gray ladybugs could look like another insect!

What's next for you, or what else would you like us to know about your work?

After I finish final artwork, I’ll be jumping on revisions for another picture book my agent is eager to submit.

Amy Nielander is a picture book author and illustrator residing in Royal Oak, Michigan. Her first picture book, THE LADYBUG RACE (PomegranateKids 2015) received an Independent Publisher Bronze Medal Book Award in 2017. Her new picture book, I AM NOT LEAVING WITHOUT A HUG will be available Winter 2020 (Page Street Kids). Learn more at

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Painless Self-Promotion, Book Birthdays, the upcoming SCBWI-MI 2019-2020 Picture Book Mentorship, a Writer Spotlight, and a holiday vacation!

It's Merry Mitten Season! Thanks to our PAL Coordinator, Jodi McKay, for coordinating the Merry Mitten author events with bookstores around the state.

Visit with SCBWI-MI author friends and help spread the word about the Merry Mitten events this weekend and later in December:

Saturday, Dec. 8th at Pages Bookshop in Detroit:

Kristin Lenz

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Michigan KidLit Advocate Interview: Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker

CB: Let’s start way back. In a previous interview (with James Preller), you mentioned you grew up near the Mackinac Bridge. Are you a Yooper? Did those long, cold winters prove instrumental in developing your love for books?

TJ: I grew up in Cheboygan and Petoskey (so not quite a Yooper). I don’t credit long winters for my love of books – I credit Roald Dahl. He was the first author I loved and I spent a good chunk of my childhood trying to track down and read all of his books. I wrote about it here.

In that same interview, you mentioned being a big fan of comic books when you were in high school. Which were your favorites?

Batman. The Batman universe made sense to me. I could never figure out what was happening in the Marvel stuff. Do you have a favorite?

Wasn’t much of a superhero fan. My favorite was Donald Duck. Thanks for asking.
You also mentioned that you played saxophone (high school band?) and were a DJ in college. How has your appreciation of music shaped your life?

Yeah, I love music. Right now I’m listening to the new Jens Lekman album. Music was a creative outlet in college when I made music as a hobby (although I never let anyone listen to it). Music has the ability to change your mood almost instantly. It’s the best.

On a YouTube video, you mentioned as a young teacher being in the Americorps Program. What was that like?

That was where I learned I wanted to be a school librarian. I was assigned to a school with a great librarian (Beth Miller). Watching her I realized that it was the job for me. I went back to school to get my library endorsement after that.

So, you started as a school librarian in 2005. In your experience, how have elementary school children, and their taste for books, changed over those 12 years?

Kids’ tastes haven’t changed so much as the publishing world has changed to meet them. Kids have been into graphic novels and illustration in all sorts of books ever since I became a librarian, and now you’re seeing a lot more of those kinds of books, which has been great to see.

You started your blog in 2007. Happy 10 year anniversary! What was the blogosphere like at that time?

Thank you! It’s pretty nuts to think it’s been almost 10 years. When I started my blog I think a lot of people had the same idea. So there weren’t many other blogs when I started, but a bunch popped up soon thereafter.

Have to admit here that I thought Scope Notes were Cliffs Notes. Good thing I didn’t make that mistake in print. They’re like polar opposites. I mean, you want to encourage students to get absorbed in books, not skip reading and copy someone’s superficial synopsis. There’s a question here somewhere.

Here. Scope Notes is a library term. This is a note under the subject heading that explains and clarifies what is meant and what is not meant in the definition of the term and in its use as a subject heading. And you chose the number 100 so the blog would be easier to look up, maybe even appear first. Pretty savvy for a new blogger in 2007. What has changed in the 10 years you’ve blogged 100 Scope Notes?

Hmm. I think book reviews on blogs have changed a bit. You don’t see quite as many of them. I know I don’t review as many books as I used to. The review journals do a good job. I’ll jump in with a book review only if I feel like I have something to say or can present a review in an interesting way.

You’ve worked with lots of kid’s book bloggers: Colby Sharp, Mr. Schu, Betsy Bird, Ed Spicer. Did I miss anyone? Quite a tight community. Is blogging the best way to disseminate information to teachers and librarians?

Blogging can be a good way to communicate. Blogs can come and go, so finding the ones that are consistent can be tricky. But the people you mentioned are all people I rely on for staying current.

Ruth says she really likes your artwork, and if you look on your FB page, there’s a lot of your colored pencil versions of book covers. Are you an artist wanna-be?

Thanks, Ruth! I like your artwork. I like to draw. I realized a while back I could add drawings to my blog posts and I’ve had a good time with that. Drawing with a purpose is fun for me. I’m not so good at doodling.

Tell us about your experience on the Caldecott Committee. Tell us about the Cybils.

The Cybils is a great award. It’s where I first got experience working on a book committee. The Caldecott committee was a classic dream come true. Working with 14 other people who were into picture books as I am was incredibly fun.

Lots of Michigan kidlit creators will read your interview here on The Mitten. From your vantage point on the front lines of young readers, what kinds of books do kids crave?

Illustration is big. Humor is always a good thing.

Last question. Is there a question you had wished I had asked?

“What is your favorite middle grade book, Travis?” That would be HOLES by Louis Sachar.

Thanks Travis.

Check out Travis Jonker’s 100 Scope Notes blog, his reviews and articles for the School Library Journal (SLJ). He’s on YouTube, and he and Colby Sharp have done dozens of episodes of The Yarn, a podcast featuring children’s books and the people who create them.

And we've saved the best news for last. Congrats to Travis on his forthcoming picture book. The Very Last Castle will be illustrated by Mark Pett and published by Abrams next year.

Actually, months have passed since this interview concluded, and in that time, the picture book has been published to popular and critical acclaim. Travis had this to add:

The Very Last Castle, a picture book I wrote and Mark Pett illustrated, published on October 9th. It's been a whole new experience for me. I've had a chance to share the book with my students, at bookstores, and at conferences and I have been feeling a lot of gratitude lately.

Charlie Barshaw has four MG and YA novels-in-progress, three stories printed by Amazon Rapids, two dogs and a gifted, supportive and encouraging wife. 

Friday, November 16, 2018

Painless Self-Promotion: Creating Content by Debbie Gonzales

Introducing the Mitten Blog's newest, ongoing feature: Painless Self-Promotion. Debbie Gonzales will share quick tips for reluctant marketeers every month. Here's Debbie to explain her journey, her first tip, and what you can expect in the months ahead.

Over the past year or so I’ve made it a priority to learn all I can about book promotion. I’ve studied the techniques of some of the most prominent marketers in the business. Micheal Hyatt. Jeff Walker. Derek Sivers. Tim Grahl. Paul Jarvis. Carol Cox. Maria Dismondy. You see, my debut picture book is coming out in May and I want to give it every bit of boost I can. Yet, I do not want to over-play my hand by appearing to be self-absorbed, irritating, or one-dimensional. Actually, calling attention to myself feels unnatural to me. I’d much rather stand in the wings and cheer others on than to step into the white hot spotlight. That being said, in order to serve my story well, I’m determined to find out how to promote myself and raise my book’s visibility. I’ve learned some valuable tips that I’m eager to share with you.

It should go without saying that, first of all, it is imperative to have a website. If you possess a glimmer of a hope to be published, you must have one. Think of it as your mailbox on the World Wide Web. I hate to say this, but without a website, publishing professionals won’t take you seriously. It’s not necessary to sink a whole lot of money into the project and websites don’t have to be super-fancy, either. There are a number of intuitive and affordable template-based products such as Weebly, Wix, and GoDaddy that will take care of the job just fine. I built mine on Squarespace in a weekend back in 2008. It’s been serving me well ever since. 

Your website is the foundation for what will become known as your platform. The word platform means a stage, a stand, or a podium.  It’s a place designated for people to be heard and noticed, even those who prefer to keep out of the limelight. Your platform reflects who you are as an artist and an individual. I’ve learned that it is never too early to begin developing your platform. (I’m talking to the pre-published folks out there.) Start constructing your platform today by adding content to your website. “Content is king!” That’s what they say in the publicity world. And, believe it or not, creating content is relatively painless to do.

Back in the Ice Age, when I first became serious about my writing, I attended a Writers ’League of Texas conference where I heard a speaker talk about content. He said to find a topic that feels genuine and authentic, and then create blog posts on a regular basis. He said that it didn’t matter if anyone stops by and reads it. Just create good content. Get it out there. The key to success is the phrase on a regular basis. You get to decide what schedule you’d like to follow. Daily. Weekly. Monthly. Whatever. Back then, I decided to post once weekly about simple, inexpensive kid crafts and lesson ideas that I’ve used throughout my teaching career, many of which have found their way into some of my teacher guides. Lucky for me, after a year of dedicated posting, opportunity came knocking on my door. A prominent Texas librarian found my content. Bingo!

I’m also learning that there are other really fascinating ways to create content on platforms such as Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Once I wrap my head around the ins and outs of such wonders, I’ll return with a full report. For now, get busy and create some fabulous content that celebrates the wonder that is YOU!

Debbie Gonzales is a career educator, curriculum consultant, former school administrator and adjunct professor, and once served as the SCBWI RA for the Austin Chapter.  She's the author of six “transitional” readers for New Zealand publisher, Giltedge, and the forthcoming non-fiction picture book Girls with Guts: The Road to Breaking Barriers and Bashing Records (Charlesbridge, 2019). Deb creates teacher guides for new releases and is the host of The Debcast, a podcast dedicated to the tenacious spirit of the female athlete. Deb earned her MFA in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Subscribe to her podcast on iTunes and/or stop by or to check out her painlessly promotable content. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book Birthday Blog with Ian Tadashi Moore

Welcome to SCBWI-MI's Book Birthday Blog! 
Where we celebrate new books by Michigan's children's book authors and illustrators

Big Congratulations to Ian Tadashi Moore on the release of his new book, Tamaishi!

1: How did you come up with the idea for your book?
All I remember at this point is that it began from a story about a pebble wanting to be like a boulder. At first, they were best pals and it was more of a picture book but it has since morphed into the book it is now, with a different relationship between the two characters.

2: What was the most difficult part of writing this book? 
Switching between drawing and writing. When I'm doing one I feel like I've forgotten how to do the other. But one informed the other, the writing providing insight into where illustrations might be helpful, and the drawings providing some ways to make the book not feel like walls of words.

3: In the voice of your main character, tell us what you hope readers will experience or learn while reading your book.
"Nothing is quite what what it first seems… I can't wait to see what tomorrow brings, we'll try something new!"

4: Who is your author idol and how have they influenced your work?
The characters and writing style of Norton Juster and Peter Mayle inspired my own. The emotion and simplicity of Quentin Blake and Shel Silverstein's illustrations helped me see that black and white can absolutely be beautiful.

5: What are your marketing plans for your book? Where can we find it?
I'll be contacting Nicolas' books in Ann Arbor and Just Imagine Books in Chelsea. I'll have a site setup for direct selling via Amazon Payments and Paypal at

A little bit about the book: Tama is a tiny pebble in the valley where all the little things live. He’s fun-loving, friendly and curious, but one day he’s told by the other rocks that he’s “not big enough” to help them. He sets off on a series of adventures to try and being things that he’s not, meeting friends old and new along the way. He almost gets trapped in the Great Sea and learns that while no one is perfect,  you are wonderful just as you are.
**Tamaishi is available in paperback and as an audiobook CD.**

A little bit about the author: Ian Tadashi Moore is a designer and illustrator in southeast Michigan. He has authored and illustrated two books, Zōsan (2015) and Tamaishi (2018). He’s the husband of a talented singer/actress and the father of two lego-building, play-pretending, musical boys, and wears many other hats: pianist, composer, photographer, web developer, typographer, and programmer, during the day designing and programming for public health research. Before that he taught graphic design and helped bring the work of Detroit students’ poetry to life through publication.  
You can find him at  Ian's author page or @ittekudasai. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Kresge Artist Fellowship – A Writer’s Perseverance is Rewarded by Jean Alicia Elster

For the past ten years, Kresge Arts in Detroit, a program of The Kresge Foundation, has provided more than 200 metropolitan Detroit artists with over $5 million of unrestricted funding to be used to support their creative life in any way they see fit. On November 1, Kresge Arts in Detroit once again invited artists in the fields of literary and visual arts who reside in Wayne, Oakland or Macomb County to apply for the latest round of $25,000—no strings attached—fellowships to be awarded in 2019.

The application process can appear daunting and submission does not guarantee selection—the fourth application was the charm in my case—but in 2017, I was honored and thrilled to be selected as a Kresge Artist Fellow in Literary Arts. The rewards of perseverance are tremendous for this prestigious and coveted award, not only for its generous monetary prize but because it also comes with a year of professional development and artistic support opportunities that are unrivaled with any other similar award in the United States.

The literary genres for the 2017 fellows included graphic novels, arts criticism, poetry, creative nonfiction, storytelling and my field of young adult fiction. The visual arts disciplines included painting, architectural/light installation, sculpture, wood-carving, metalwork and fiber art. I gained inspiration and encouragement from this truly diverse and immensely talented group of literary and visual artists who, quite honestly, I probably would not have had the chance to bond with except for the fellowship setting.

An initial weekend retreat where the 18 fellows absorbed an intensive three days of presentations from professional development experts who hailed from across the country was worth more than the monetary prize. Nuts and bolts information on monetizing our respective crafts as well as planning our individual artistic futures in a constructive and fulfilling way was priceless. Later, fellows were encouraged to attend monthly brunches at venues across Detroit. I found these gatherings to be invigorating both personally and professionally as we shared with one another details of our current and anticipated artistic pursuits.

Another benefit is that fellows are given the opportunity, during various events throughout the year, to meet and speak with the panelists who made the award selections. I was the first author of young adult fiction to be awarded a Kresge Fellowship. I learned through a presentation of one of the panelists that she felt my work for young adult readers should be represented with an award to affirm that “young people deserve excellent literature” just as much as other age groups. 

I look forward to using the knowledge and inspiration that I gained as a 2017 Kresge Artist Fellow to continue researching and writing future books as well as maintain my expanded connections with the rich artistic community of metro Detroit. This link will take you to my artist portfolio on the Kresge Arts in Detroit website. There you will find sub-links to the writing samples I submitted with my application as well as my video profile that is part of a larger film on the entire 2017 cohort.

If you have not already done so, I encourage you to study the application guidelines and consider submitting an application for the 2019 literary fellowships. Here is the link:

Jean Alicia Elster is the author of several books of children’s, middle grade and young adult fiction. Her two most recent books, WHO'S JIM HINES? and THE COLORED CAR (both published by Wayne State University Press) were selected as Michigan Notable Books by the Library of Michigan. THE COLORED CAR was awarded the Midwest Book Award in Children’s Fiction. She is currently working with her WSU Press editor to complete final rewrites of BLOOD JOURNEY, the third volume in her Ford family trilogy. Keep up with her at her website, on Facebook and on Twitter @j_a_elster.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Painless Self-Promotion, a KidLit Advocate, a Picture Book Success Story, Book Birthdays, and another Writer Spotlight. Plus, stayed tuned for info about the SCBWI-MI 2019-2020 Mentorships for Picture Book Text with Lisa Wheeler and Kelly DiPucchio

Friday, November 2, 2018

Producing a Podcast: the Debcast by Debbie Gonzales

When Deb Gonzales told me about her plans to create a podcast, I was super excited for her. When she asked to interview me for one of her episodes, I was super nervous. I'm a classic introvert: a slow thinker who expresses herself best in writing. Answering questions on the spot while being recorded? No, thank you! But having a conversation with my kind, thoughtful friend Debbie who is always warm and welcoming? Okay, let's do this! I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to the world of podcasting. Here's an interview with Deb to help you learn all about her new project.

Tell me about The Debcast. What’s it all about?
Thanks for asking. The Debcast is a podcast inspired by the premise of my debut picture book, GIRLS WITH GUTS: THE ROAD TO BREAKING BARRIERS AND BASHING RECORDS – the story of the tenacious spirit of the female athlete as demonstrated throughout history. I wanted to find some way to gather a collection of voices of female athletes of all ages, all sports, all walks of life. Voices that mirror those featured in my book. Podcasting seemed like the best way to do it.

Why did you decide to produce a podcast, rather than a blog?
I love podcasts. I love the medium. I can multi-task while listening to them. Cook. Clean. Walk.  Poke around on the web. I enjoy lots of different types of podcasts – educational ones, business and tech related, inspirational, and even those that hold beliefs that differ from mine. I find that, with podcasts that I really connect with, I’m eager to listen to each new episode. Hopefully, folks will respond to The Debcast in the same way.

Is it difficult to produce a podcast?
Not really, once you wrap your head around the tech involved and the content structure you want to employ. Podcasting is actually an affordable medium. Mics and pop filters are inexpensive. Software is fairly cheap. Truthfully though, I’m still knee-deep in my learning curve. There are a number of moving parts to wrangle. But I’m getting it. Each episode gets easier and easier to produce.

What do you hope to gain?
Oh, so many things. In fact, I already have gained so much from the episodes I’ve produced so far. I’ve met some amazing women who are doing remarkable things in the athletic arena. A rock climber. A barrel racer. A woman who has cycled all across our nation. Fascinating, I also desire to explore the effect sport has had on girls and women in their personal and professional lives. Are they more confident because they competed? Are they empowered by their struggles and successes? I’m finding that they are. Lastly, I want to make a connection between the experiences the individuals I interview have had and the premise of my book. I want to know what they think the phrase “play like a girl” means. Podcasting seems like a natural fit to do so.

Tell us about some of your upcoming interviews. What do have to look forward to?
Oh, I’d love to tell you about the upcoming episodes! Get ready for this. A “badass” ten-year-old karate star who has found meaning to her life through sport. A runner, whose legs were broken and was told she’d walk with a limp that, after one just year, has completed a marathon. A twelve-year-old softball player who is suffering a slump at the plate. Two Girl Scout troops. I’ve also interviewed a few authors who have written about female athletic protagonists, too. After I get about ten episodes produced, I going to reach out to the women celebrated in GIRLS WITH GUTS. That should be awesome!

How can we support your podcast endeavor? Tell us how to help get the word out.
Oh, thanks so much for asking. Please consider subscribing to The Debcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Also, if you’d share The Debcast posts on social media, that would be amazing. Also, please consider pre-ordering GIRLS WITH GUTS: THE ROAD TO BREAKING BARRIERS AND BASHING RECORDS on Amazon. Help me create a little buzz about the book. I really appreciate it.

Debbie Gonzales is a career educator, podcaster, curriculum consultant, former school administrator and adjunct professor, and once served as a SCBWI RA for the Austin Chapter. Deb currently devotes her time to writing middle grade novels, crafting teacher guides and various other freelance projects, and is currently serving the SCBWI-MI as the Author Liaison and SCBWI Representative as a board member for the Michigan Reading Association. She's the author of six “transitional” readers for New Zealand publisher, Giltedge, and the forthcoming non-fiction picture book GIRLS WITH GUTS: THE ROAD TO BREAKING BARRIERS AND BASHING RECORDS (Charlesbridge, 2019). Deb earned her MFA in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. To find out more about Deb and her projects access,, or subscribe to The Debcast: Books, Buzz, and Girls with Guts.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: A Picture Book Success Story, Painless Self-Promotion, Book Birthdays, a KidLit Advocate, and another Writer Spotlight. See you next Friday! Until then, check out the SCBWI Book Stop where you'll find hundreds of books published by SCBWI members in 2018.