Friday, February 22, 2019

Ask the Editor with Katherine Gibson

Introducing our new Ask the Editor feature! Katherine Gibson is an editor at Zonderkidz and was previously at Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. She collected a diverse batch of questions from SCBWI-MI members and compiled her answers to share with our community. What a wonderful gift!

Here's Katherine:

Hello everyone! First of all, a huge THANK YOU to everyone who took the time to send me their questions about publishing. It was very exciting to get such a great variety of questions. I hope all of you, whether you sent in a question or not, find this post helpful and informative.

Just a few notes before we dive into your questions. First, I humbly request that you take my comments in the spirit in which they’re intended; the advice here is meant to be friendly and helpful, and I sincerely hope that no one finishes this post feeling vulnerable or discouraged. We’re all in the process of growing and changing as writers, and while we all have areas we could improve upon, we all have wonderful strengths too.

Second, please keep in mind that my thoughts are my own; I do not speak on behalf of all publishing. If I say something that you really don’t agree with, or you’ve received comments from an editor or agent that directly conflict with my own perspective, that’s okay! You can disregard my comments; I won’t be offended (mostly because I won’t know). I do think that after being in the business for a while, my fellow children’s editors and I agree more often than we disagree when it comes to writing, so I do believe my advice is valuable. But it remains solely one woman’s perspective.

Lastly, I’ve adjusted the wording in many of the questions that were sent in, eliminating specific details to protect the person’s privacy, or combining several similar questions into one. So while you may not see your exact question below, I have done my best to respond to every question that was sent in. If you feel like I haven’t adequately answered your question, or you find the answer just prompts a new question, please feel free to email me. I could always use material for my next post!

Thanks so much, and happy reading (and writing)!

What makes a manuscript stand out? What do you most love to see? What’s the biggest turnoff? What signals to you that a manuscript is ready (or not ready) for publication?

You could probably ask a dozen editors this question and get twelve different responses, but for me, voice is probably the biggest determining factor in deciding whether or not to keep reading. A strong voice is essential to establishing a connection between the book and the reader; it’s the thing I most love to see in a manuscript, because without it, the text just falls flat (which is one of the biggest turnoffs I can think of). A manuscript’s voice should have a spark — it should draw you in, compel you to keep reading — it should make you feel something. If a manuscript doesn’t do those things, it’s not ready to be published.

How can I recognize when my manuscript is really, truly ready for submission?
Every writer knows that manuscripts are never finished, only abandoned. So how do you know it’s time to abandon your manuscript/masterpiece? Short answer: after you’ve drafted it, put it away for a while, come back fresh and revised it, then revised it again, then showed it to a critique group, revised it again, brought it back to critique, and revised it one more time (or fifty more times. Who’s counting at this point?).

I think the most important thing to do before submitting your manuscript is to have someone else read it and provide honest feedback. Meaning the person reading it should not be related to you. What you’re looking for is a friendly acquaintance who happens to be a top-notch reader. Ask them to be brutally honest with you. Be okay with it when they are brutally honest with you. Take their brutally honest feedback and use it to make your piece better. Do this with as many bookish friendly acquaintances as you possibly can. Eventually, the issues they find will be small and inconsequential, more a matter of taste than actual problems. When you reach that point, submit your manuscript. You’re ready.

Should a writer have a predetermined reader age and genre in mind before attempting a first draft, or should a writer dive into the story and figure out what it is and who's it's for after the story is on the page? Or should a writer simply submit a manuscript and let the editor figure out what he or she wants it to be? How important is it for a writer to be mindful of probable reader age when crafting a story (especially in regards to vocabulary choices, sentence length and structure, etc.)? Should the writer try to adapt to the reader or vice versa?

This is a very good, very complicated question that I will do my best to unpack. The first part of the question — whether you should write with an audience in mind or just write the story and let the audience work itself out — is a question that minds far greater than mine still can’t seem to agree on. I’d say while you’re crafting the story, do what works for you. But by the time you’re done revising and ready to submit it to an editor, you should have a good idea of the genre and target reader; I would mention one if not both of those things in a query letter. Editors like to know how a book will fit into their list, and it’s also nice to know that the writer has given some thought as to the book’s marketability.

As for the vocab, sentence structure, etc., my biggest rule is NEVER talk down to your readers. Don’t make the text cutesy, sing-songy, or overly simple in an attempt to appeal to kids. Just be real with them. If you’re writing a picture book and the best word to convey your meaning has fourteen letters in it, use the fourteen-letter word. Books are practically made for building vocab. But don’t fill a picture book with sentences that would be better suited to a novel either. If you’re feeling stuck, find some books in the library that have the same target audience as your manuscript and see how they approach the language.

Are there any children's publishers who are willing to take a look at our self-published books, either as a pdf or hard copy?

The short answer is yes! There are certainly plenty of examples of a traditional publisher acquiring the rights to something that was previously self-published. In my personal experience, it’s a mixed bag. I’ve seen writers get offered contracts because their self-published work sold like hotcakes, and I’ve seen publishers decline self-published books because they were already sold into the target market, thus diminishing the potential future sales. It really depends on the individual publisher you’re interested in; some will specify whether or not they’ll accept self-published books in their submission guidelines. If they don’t, it’s a fair question to write to them about.

Do you think it's worth it to hire a "book tour" company (such as Artisan Books) to connect with bloggers who will review our books and mention them in their blogs?  Do you know of any marketing companies that you feel are worth doing a book tour with?

I’m sorry to say that I don’t know much about book tour companies; the publishers I’ve worked with have had an in-house marketing team to handle review copies, author events, etc. In general, it’s worth it to promote your book however you can, and hiring a book marketing company can get you a boost in sales while taking some of the publicity pressure off of you. But I’m afraid I don’t know enough about them to say definitively whether or not they’re worth the expense or which ones you should approach. I’d suggest doing a lot of research and getting some testimonials from people who have used them before approaching a book tour company.

I write stories featuring Latino characters and southwestern culture, and often add Spanish for more authenticity. What tips do you have for finding an agent or publisher that is looking for this type of manuscript? Do I need to look for persons/companies based in West Coast/East Coast states where one might find a stronger connection to Latino cultures in the U.S.?

You’re in luck! Pretty much every children’s publisher and agent is on the lookout for a great book featuring diverse characters. But if you want to try and find an agent/publisher who specializes in books that feature Latino culture, look at the agents and publishers who have been behind any of the recent Pura Belpré award winners. That’s a great place to start.

I write old-fashioned (warm, fuzzy, not high tech) children's books. Is my style out of date, or is there a place for my style of writing?

I think the best way to figure out whether or not your writing style is appropriate for the current market is to study the current market. Make a list of every children’s book in your genre (picture books, middle grade, YA) that has been published in the last three years that has received an ALA award or a starred review. Go to the library, check out those books, and read them in their entirety. Pay attention to the writing style; ask yourself why it works, and then compare it to your own. If it’s pretty similar to your own writing, then great! If it’s not, you may want to spend some more time studying current trends and figuring out how to keep your voice authentic while also matching what’s getting published these days.

Are postcards the best way to advertise illustrations to publishers? If so, should they be addressed to editors or art directors?

I don’t know that there’s a “best” way, but postcards are certainly a way to get your art samples in front of publishers! Typically those are sent to the art directors, but if you can’t find one listed for the company and you’ve been searching the internet for hours, just send it to the editor. It’s also a good idea to show off your art on social media; I know art directors who have signed illustrators after finding their work on Instagram or Twitter.

Is 800 words too long for a picture book aimed at second–fourth graders?

It totally depends! Is it a picture book? Early reader? Fiction? Nonfiction? For a standard picture book aimed at ages 4-8, I’d say 800 words is pretty typical for nonfiction, a bit higher than average for fiction. But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s too long. When in doubt, head to the library. Find books that are similar to the one you’re writing and look at the word count, how they crafted the story, what they included and — more importantly — what they left out. Your manuscript certainly doesn’t have to match theirs on those points, but it’s helpful to see what’s been done and what’s been successful if your worried your manuscript won’t hit the target audience.

How much does a publishing company worry about an author’s age in terms of signing them?

When it comes to signing with an author, it’s the author’s platform that matters (plus the manuscript itself, of course) rather than his/her age. Publishers want authors who are tech-savvy, who have a presence on social media, who are willing to go out and hustle and do book signings, readings, conferences, etc. As long as you check those boxes, I wouldn’t think there’d be an issue — there are plenty of older writers out there who are slaying it!

I am submitting a manuscript to a publisher; their submission guidelines state that they want to know if it is a simultaneous submission.  They also state that their turnaround time is three months, fairly lengthy if I am hoping to get a story moving. I would at least like to submit to two houses at a time or stagger it with a month in between. Is this acceptable submission etiquette?

I hate to say it, but from my experience, three months is a pretty standard — even quick — turnaround time for an unagented manuscript. As you say, it’s a good chunk of time, which is why most publishers are perfectly fine with authors sending out simultaneous submissions; the ones that aren’t will explicitly say so in their submission guidelines. So cast your net as wide as you’d like (though keep in mind that your odds of getting published are much higher if you research each publisher ahead of time and know how your book would fit into their list). Just be sure to note in your query letter that it’s a simultaneous submission, and if one of the publishers does make you an offer, it’s polite to reach out to the others you submitted to, let them know you’ve received an offer, and give them a week or two to make a counteroffer if they wish to.

When evaluating a picture book manuscript that is driven by the illustrations/page turns, how would you prefer to see that manuscript presented? I am a writer and am NOT gifted in the art of illustration. Is a manuscript with illustration notes and page turns a turnoff? Is a dummy book with stick figures preferred?

This is one of those areas where different editors will have different preferences. Personally, I like it when writers separate the manuscript into page breaks; it shows me that they’ve thought about the length of their book, whether it fits into a signature, whether there’s enough illustration content on each spread, etc. That being said, I tend to view those page breaks as suggestions; it’s important that the illustrator has creative license to interpret and illustrate the text the way they choose. Very often, the page breaks that were in the original manuscript will change before the book goes to print.

On that same vein, a bunch of art notes from the author can inhibit the artist’s creativity. I’d say if there’s an illustration you have in your head that’s critical to the story, put an art note in the manuscript. Otherwise, it’s best not to dictate the illustration too much; after all, you want the artist to engage with the book as much as you do.

What’s the best way for an illustrator/author to present their picture books to an agent or editor that they are querying for representation or publication? I have heard from one source that one only has to to present the manuscript with a couple of completed illustrations, while another told me that one must submit a fully completed dummy. Is there one way that is preferred over another?

As the question notes, preferences are going to vary depending on the particular editor/art director/publishing house. I’d say the first step is to check the publisher’s submission guidelines; if they stipulate how they want a dummy presented, follow those instructions exactly. If they don’t provide guidelines, I’d actually suggest a combination of what your two sources recommended: I’d suggest putting together a full dummy and having at least two pages of it be completed illustrations. From a publisher’s perspective, unpublished illustrators are a lot riskier to sign than published illustrators, because when an illustrator has previous titles, you can look at those books and get a very clear idea of their art style and their level of expertise. If an illustrator’s unpublished, the only thing the editor has to go on is what’s being presented. So personally, I think it’s a good idea to show the idea sketched out in its entirety (the dummy), while also providing some samples of what the final art would look like.

Katherine Gibson is an editor for Zonderkidz, having previously worked for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. She graduated from the University of Denver Publishing Institute in 2013 and has spent the last five years editing and publishing award-winning children’s books, including Sibert Medal and Caldecott Honor book The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus and Plume, which was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book.

Ask the Editor is a new quarterly feature on the Mitten blog. Do you have a question about publishing? Email Mitten blog editor Kristin Lenz with "Ask the Editor" in the subject line, and she'll forward your question to Katherine.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Interviews with the mentors for the 2019-2020 SCBWI-MI Picture Book Text Mentorship Competition and a recap of the SCBWI Winter Conference in NY from Shutta's Scholarship winner.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Painless Self-Promotion: Book Trailer Basics

As my launch date approaches, I’m in a constant quandary as to where I should invest money on promotional materials and where I can get by with a little DIY-ing. The need for a book trailer falls into the quandary category. Is it crucial to have one? If so, who do book trailers appeal to and why? What are some of the key elements required to construct a compelling book trailer? Being the fact-finder that I am, I did a bit of poking around to see what goes into creating one. In doing so, I discovered a step-by-step approach to analyzing previously-crafted book trailers, or to dare to make one for yourself. I took this a step further and made a guide packet to help all of us figure this out together. (Click on the link! It’s yours for the taking.)

Book trailers are short and interesting because they focus on the highlights of a book without giving the entire story away. The purpose of these mini-films is to capture the attention of the viewer and get them interested in reading the book. To make a book trailer, its creator must have a solid understanding of the story’s beginning, middle, and end, as well as four basic elements that make the project great.

Effective book trailers concentrate on only a few main characters and leave the minor characters out. This technique enables the book trailer creator to focus on the most important aspects of the story. Also, it is not necessary to present characters as they physically appear in the story.  Images serve as effective symbols for characterization.  For example, a daisy can represent a tender personality, or a snake might show the evil side of a character.

Overloading the book trailer with too many details causes it to be slow and uninteresting. It is best to choose a few plot points and then develop those through revealing specific detail. It’s best to pick a few key moments in the story and elaborate on them. Highlight what makes a key moment memorable or interesting. Perhaps, state how it creates a plot twist, or how it sets up a conflict between characters. Tell what is at stake or ask a compelling question of some sort. Pare down the plot by deciding which key scenes best represent the overall premise of the story.

If you are considering making your own book trailer, storyboarding your project is a must! Storyboards create visual maps for book trailers by planning for the final book trailer visuals and script in a concrete manner. Movie makers use story boards to combine the script and the visuals together before filming the shots. Plans for sequencing and transitions are made through story boarding – be it text, sound or visuals. Once the story board script and visuals are satisfactorily completed, it is time to create a digital representation of your book trailer project.

After doing the research to make the Book Trailer Basics guide, I’m seriously thinking about attempting this process on my own. Though I might make a mess of the project, I’m going to give it a whirl. How about you? Are you daring enough to take the plunge with me? Let’s do this!

Debbie Gonzales is a career educator, curriculum consultant, former school administrator, adjunct professor, and once served as a SCBWI RA for the Austin Chapter. Deb currently devotes her time to writing middle grade novels, crafting educator guides with Guides by Deb, producing The Debcast (a podcast dedicated to the empowering spirit of the female athlete) and various freelance projects. 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 currently serves as board member for the Michigan Reading Association. She earned her MFA in writing for children and young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Learn more about Deb by accessing

Did you miss Debbie's previous Painless Self-Promotion posts? Click on the links below:

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Our new Ask the Editor feature! Katherine Gibson, editor at Zonderkidz will be answering your questions. See you next Friday!

Friday, February 8, 2019

Meet SCBWI-MI's New Indie Coordinator: David Stricklen

SCBWI provides support for writers and illustrators on various publishing paths – traditional and  independent/self-published. Some authors combine these approaches for different books at different points in their career. SCBWI-MI has a PAL Coordinator for "Published And Listed" members, ie. traditionally published authors ((shout-out for Jodi McKay and the wonderful work she's been doing in this role!) And now our chapter has an Indie Coordinator for non-PAL members - David Stricklen! We asked David to explain more about this newly created role and what he hopes to accomplish. More information will be coming, but here's a start.

Introducing David Stricklen, SCBWI-MI Indie Coordinator:

As the newly appointed SCBWI-MI indie coordinator, I will be working closely with the co-regional advisors to develop initiatives to engage and support independently published authors. There are many different roads to publishing these days. I consider independent publishing as anything other than traditional publishing. This would then include hybrid, self publishing and digital.

Because there are so many roads with independent publishing, no one is an expert. If I cannot answer your questions, I will point you toward a member who has taken the path you are looking into. I also ask successful indie authors to be open to helping those who would like to follow the paths that they have already blazed. I encourage the self published author to put together their own dream team. Hire a professional editor, proofer, typesetter and printer. There are indie authors that carry all the skills needed without enlisting professionals but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Indie Advantages:

If you enlist a local printer you can eliminate shipping costs. You can get off the query merry-go-round and focus on your target audience’s preferences and not the targeted agent’s. You have full creative control. You keep all the royalties.

Indie Disadvantages:

Although you keep the royalties, you will also have to fully fund the process from editor to artist to printer. You are responsible for your own promotion. Your success or failure is directly related to the quality of your product and the time and effort you put forth.

To help the cause:

Because independently published authors can have their best sales success during school visits, I am putting together a school visit presentation for the SCBWI Marvelous Midwest Multi-Regional Conference. It is possible to outsell traditionally published titles at individual schools. In a local school visit, I once outsold the entire book fair 112 to 37 for 7th grade sales; I know it can be done.

The number one challenge for an indie author is the promotional reach. Few of us have the funds, connections and advertising dollars to promote the way the traditional publishers do. To level the playing field, I am working on a website where middle school students will conduct manuscript reviews. This would be similar to market analysis. Everyone will know in advance which titles are a sure thing. You can rewrite and resubmit after shortcomings are identified. You may also sell the completed book on this website with the student review rating. Traditional titles will also be rated next to yours. Although this is not an SCBWI program, it is being done with the intent of providing a process where a writer’s work is reviewed and rated by the target audience and sold to individuals such as librarians who are interested in purchasing books that will be a no miss. I put together my dream team for this website project: Kristin Lenz, Sue Spahr (a recently retired middle school principal) and the Meijer Inc IT web designer.

In a former life, David was an airport police chief with 30 years experience in law enforcement. Now retired, he has written a series of sought after indie MG fantasy adventure books: Beneath and Beyond, Through the Eyes of the Beast and The Heart of the Swarm. The start of a new series entitled Ripley Robinson and the Worm Charmer will be out in 2019. His books and school visits are filled with magic and creativity. David’s reverse perspective painting was a 2018 3D finalist in ArtPrize as well as a first place finish in the post prize Colors of Community art competition.

In addition to being the Michigan indie coordinator, David is also an active SCBWI advisory committee member and Grand Rapids Shop Talk Coordinator. For more information go to

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Our new Ask the Editor feature, more tips for Painless Self-Promotion, and interviews with our two mentors for the upcoming 2019-2020 Picture Book Text Mentorship Competition. The SCBWI Annual Winter Conference is happening right now in New York! Follow along on SCBWI's official blog with Lee Wind. We'll have our own recap in a few weeks from Shutta's Scholarship winner, Laura Stewart.

Just for fun, here's David Stricklen's reverse perspective painting which was a 2018 3D ArtPrize finalist! We have so many multi-talented, hard-working SCBWI-MI members who share their experience and offer help and guidance along the way. Cheers!

Friday, February 1, 2019

Writer Spotlight: Ruth Behar Finds Herself

Charlie Barshaw coordinates our quarterly Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. This month's writer is Ruth Behar.

Writer Spotlight: Ruth Behar Finds Herself

You were born in Havana, and your family emigrated to New York City when you were young. Learning the English language was difficult, especially since Spanish was primarily spoken in your home. Second-language students were shuttled to the “dumb class,” but you and your character Ruthie found a way to become “the smartest kid in the class.” Was it like throwing a person in deep water to teach them to swim?

The experience of being placed in the “dumb class” when we arrived in New York City was something I could never forget. That you could actually be penalized for speaking a different language seemed unjust to me even as a child. Learning to navigate a new language and a new culture is, indeed, like being thrown in deep water and figuring out how to swim. You’re drowning until you learn to keep your head above water. That’s what it’s like for most immigrants, who don’t have time to go to school. They learn English, as my parents did, by repeating words and phrases they hear at work, on TV, and on the street. But when you’re a kid, you want to learn English quickly so you can stand up for yourself in school. I remember how hard I studied until I was moved into a regular class. As happened to me, and as happens in Lucky Broken Girl, Ruthie becomes “the smartest kid in the class” because she’s had a year to think and read and study with a tutor. Though she suffers being stuck in bed, she improves her knowledge of English, math, and reading. Something good comes from something bad. Most important, she gains wisdom about life and death, learns to be compassionate toward others, and realizes she wants to be a writer and artist when she grows up.

Your life was changed irrevocably when your family was involved in a horrific car crash. Was anyone else injured in the accident?

Everyone suffered injuries in the accident. My father and brother needed stitches for wounds to their heads. My mother was scratched up from head to toe. My grandmother was so traumatized she had to take tranquilizers. I was asleep when the accident happened. I wasn’t able to brace myself and that may be why my leg fractured.

Your leg was fractured so severely that the doctors put you in a body cast in the hope that both of your legs would continue to grow at the same rate. The year you spent immobile changed your life. Can you explain?

After fleeing Cuba and starting a new life with my family, it was terrifying to suddenly not be able to move at all. What if another catastrophe struck? How would I get away? What would become of me? I had a great fear of abandonment, a huge sense of my vulnerability. I felt I had become a burden to my nomadic family and especially to my beautiful mother who had to take care of my needs while I was bedridden. That we all survived the experience was amazing. In the process, my life changed completely. I had been an active girl, always playing hopscotch. Afterwards I became a shy bookworm. I spent long periods alone, reading or daydreaming, as I had done when I was in bed for a year. My family worried about me; they thought I was too serious, too quiet. I was afraid to run, play sports, scared of breaking my leg again. I lived in my head and fantasized about one day being able to travel and have adventures—something I had longed for when I was immobile. That may be why I eventually became a cultural anthropologist.

Although Lucky Broken Girl is based on your life, the fiction allowed you to sculpt the details. Most importantly for the plot, you were able to introduce kind neighbor Chicho, who helps Ruthie to walk again through the magic of dance. After decades of writing anthropological facts, how did it feel to have your writing be constrained only by your imagination?

It was liberating and wildly exciting and healing to be constrained only by my imagination in writing Lucky Broken Girl. I had always heard about the power of fiction writers. It was only when I experienced it for myself that I finally understood the great magic that can be wielded by the pen. I had the power to embellish reality and make it sweeter than it had really been. I had the power to invent things that had never happened and make them seem utterly true. Words I wished had been said to me could be said at last and make my heart so happy.

You chose to go to Wesleyan University, even though your parents had a more traditional view of a young woman’s future in mind. Were you headstrong, or did you know in your soul that your future held more than raising a family?

I was headstrong and I also had a bit of faith I was going to do the things I dreamed of – write, travel, read a lot of books, and have a house of my own filled with books, art, and sunflowers.

I love the visual of a young freshman Ruth striding across campus grasping a guitar case, and adorned “in silky white blouses, wavy skirts, tall boots and wide-brimmed felt hats.” Had you found your identity in this new environment?

Thank you for reminding me of this! I love that visual too. Back then I was intensely into flamenco guitar and had spent a semester in Spain and had a very dramatic image of myself, nurtured by reading Lorca’s tragedies. I had found an identity I much preferred to the dutiful daughter I had been until then. I had left home and was on my way to becoming the educated and free-spirited woman I wanted to be.

You’ve had many mentors in your life, from the home-school tutor while you were bed-bound, to the Spanish couple in college, to the poet in Cuba, to the storied Dulce Maria Loynaz. Do you see yourself as especially blessed, or are you simply more aware and responsive to the influential people who touch your life?

Maybe I am always looking for teachers. I am restless and always trying to reinvent myself. Teachers have played a central role in my life since the days I was bed-bound to the present moment, when I’m trying to write fiction in my old age.

You despaired at writing poetry, met artist and poet Rolando Estevez, then edited a book of poetry and wrote the lyrical Everything I Kept. You’ve loved to read fiction while writing non-fiction, but broke through with the middle grade Lucky Broken Girl. Your character Ruthie would initially respond “I can’t” to challenges, but then do it. Is that your arc, too?

Now that you put it this way, I think the answer is yes. Everything is impossible until it’s possible.

As a young girl in a crowded New York walk-up apartment, you found your private space at the bottom of the long staircase. Now, after traveling the world, you make your home in Ann Arbor. How did Michigan become your home?

Michigan was a big surprise in my life. I came on a fellowship, married and pregnant with our son. I thought we’d be in Michigan for just three years. Then I was offered a job at the university in Ann Arbor and stayed and now it’s my home. But I’m always careful to say I’m not “from Michigan” but rather I live “in Michigan.” Even after more than thirty years in Michigan, I feel that people need to know I’m an immigrant in Michigan—an immigrant from Cuba and from New York.

In one of your blog posts, you describe the range of emotions that “Home” affords.
Home is that place to which you want to keep returning.
Home is that place to which you never again want to return.
Is home that complicated for you?

Yes, home is that complicated for me. Here I’m thinking of home as birth place and for me that is Cuba and it is complicated in that way – it’s a place I keep going back to, wanting to reclaim a home my family gave up, and it’s a place I sometimes think I should leave behind because it has caused so much sorrow to all of those who have left.

How fortuitous that you stumbled on a cultural anthropology class during your senior year. Luck or fate?

Maybe both? I was looking for an intellectual framework that could help me understand all the deep issues that were important to me – identity, belonging, and the search for home. I tried studying philosophy but was told I would never do well in that field because I lacked an analytical mind. I was devastated. Then I stumbled into a cultural anthropology class that questioned the universal truth of philosophy. The simple idea that there were a diversity of peoples and cultures in the world, with competing claims on the meaning of the truth, set me on my path as a traveler and writer.

You produced the documentary film Adio Kerida, and now your son has settled in New York as a filmmaker in his own right. How do you feel about the full circle of your life and his?

I think it’s a blessing that our lives are interconnected as mother and son and as thinkers and artists. He lives in New York where I grew up and I live in Ann Arbor where he was born. I look forward to the books he’s going to write and the films he’s going to make.

The accident changed your life. You still fear driving a car, and you found it difficult to trust your repaired leg for physical activity. Yet you’ve embraced dancing, especially salsa and cha-cha. What is it with dance that gives you such joy?
When I was growing up, there was dancing at parties, bar mitzvahs, and weddings. We were Cuban, after all! I was surrounded by lots of people who loved to dance. But after the accident I felt clumsy and was embarrassed to dance. When I was in my thirties, I finally began to do some dancing as part of an aerobics fitness class. That led me to take dance classes. I learned a Cuban style of line dancing called rueda de casino, which is so much fun, and learned the cha-cha, which had been a favorite dance of my parents. I also took up Argentine tango, which is filled with the saddest and most beautiful nostalgia. I adore the music of these dances and enjoy singing along to the lyrics as I dance. When you dance with a partner you have to communicate with each other without saying a word and that is magical. Being able to move around in space following the rhythm of the music is the closest I get to feeling like a pelican gliding over the sea waves.

You’ve mentioned in various interviews that you plan to keep mining your personal history for future children’s books. One was to be an account of your grandmother’s solo trip from Europe to Cuba, another a cousin’s emigration to the U.S. during the Castro revolution. What are you working on now?

I have just completed the book based on my grandmother’s solo trip from Europe to Cuba. It is an epistolary novel and tells the story of Esther, a Polish Jewish girl working with her father to make enough money to bring her four siblings, her mother, and her grandmother to Cuba in the late 1930s as conditions are worsening in Europe on the eve of the war. The story is an immigrant journey that takes place in an unusual setting, showing how penniless Jews searched for their America in Cuba at a time when the door to the United States was closed. I loved writing this novel in the form of letters and can’t wait to share it with kids. The book will be out in spring 2020 with Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. I am currently working on my first picture book, which is about a young girl’s love for a great-aunt who must leave her home by the sea.

Ruth Behar is an award-winning cultural anthropologist at the University of Michigan. Her published works include Translated Woman, Traveling Heavy and An Island Called Home
She won the 2018 Pura Belpre Award for Lucky Broken Girl. (For her You Tube video about receiving the winning phone call, click HERE. For her website, click HERE and for her blog, HERE).

Charlie Barshaw, pictured here with his wife, also Ruth, is a member of the SCBWI-MI Advisory Committee, is a proud contributor to The Mitten, and occasionally revises his YA novel.

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Our new Ask the Editor feature, more tips for Painless Self-Promotion, and interviews with our two mentors for the upcoming 2019-2020 Picture Book Text Mentorship Competition.

Safe traveling for everyone headed to New York next week for the SCBWI Winter Conference, but first, it's almost time to register for our Marvelous Midwest Regional Conference! Registration opens tomorrow (Saturday, Feb. 2nd) at 9am. Don't delay, intensives and critiques will fill up fast! Go here everything you need to know, including registration tips.

Art by Dorothia Rohner