Friday, May 31, 2019

Ask the Editor with Katherine Gibson

Welcome to our quarterly Ask the Editor feature! Katherine Gibson is an editor at Zonderkidz and was previously at Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. She's collecting questions from SCBWI-MI members and sharing her answers with our community. Did you miss her first post? Go here. Then come right back and read on for a new batch of questions/answers below.

Here's Katherine:

Hi everyone! A big THANK YOU to everyone who took the time to send me their questions! I hope all of you, whether you submitted a question or not, find this post helpful and informative.

As with my previous Ask the Editor post, 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 don’t want anyone to finish this post feeling vulnerable or discouraged. We’re all in the process of growing and changing as writers, and that’s a good thing!

And, of course, a general disclaimer 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 perspective, you can disregard my comments if you so choose. What you find here is solely one editor’s perspective.

If you have questions about writing or publishing that aren’t addressed here, please feel free to email me. I’m always happy to gather questions for my next post!

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

I just attended a conference and had an editor critique, and was asked to revise and resubmit. What steps would you have an author follow before they resubmit?

First of all, congratulations! The fact that an editor invited you to revise and resubmit means that they see some serious potential in the project. The first step an author should follow in this situation is to take the notes they received from the editor and follow them exactly. From the editor’s perspective, the changes they’ve asked for are what the manuscript needs in order to work, so you’ll want to make sure you deliver on all of them.

Once you’ve made the changes the editor has requested, I would recommend sharing your revised manuscript with some reader/writer friends you trust to give you honest feedback. Ask if they feel that the changes you’ve made are working, and if there are any other trouble spots they notice. (Some big things to have them watch for: voice, plot, characterization, pacing, theme.) I wouldn’t go asking a dozen people for this kind of advice (too many chefs and all that), but having 2-5 other people look it over for any issues can help to catch some things you may have missed.

Finally, I’d suggest going through it once or twice by yourself before you resubmit. Read it out loud to yourself, slowly; this is especially great for catching small typos or places where the text gets a little clunky. Once you’ve done that and the text is as clean as possible, you’re ready to resubmit!

What are some things that can cause a good story to be rejected? What causes a story to be accepted?

It’s a sad truth that good stories — even great stories — can get rejected. Sometimes it’s because just one element is a bit off. For instance, it could be a nonfiction book about a really interesting topic, but the voice is a bit too dry. Or maybe a picture book has a fun and refreshing plot, but the ending falls flat compared to the rest of the story. Because agents and editors look at so many manuscripts, a story has to hit all the notes to really gain their attention.

But sometimes even that isn’t enough. Sometimes even a virtually flawless manuscript gets rejected, simply because it’s not the story the publisher is currently looking for. Maybe it’s not one of the genres they typically publish, or maybe they already have a couple books about that topic and are looking to acquire something different. To minimize the chances of this kind of scenario, I recommend doing research on agents and publishers before you submit your manuscript. Sending your manuscript to a small, curated list of agents/publishers that seem like a great fit will give you better results than casting a wide, indiscriminate net.

As for what causes a story to get accepted, I think it’s going to vary based on the agent/editor, but the five big things I tend to focus on (which I alluded to in my answer to the previous question, because I’m sneaky like that) are:
  • voice (Does the writing style grab and maintain my attention? Is it distinctive in some way?)
  • plot (What are the stakes? Does the story flow logically from the character’s motivations?)
  • characterization (Are the characters dynamic and compelling?) 
  • pacing (Does the story move too fast, too slow, or just right?)
  • theme (What’s the point of the story? What can I take away from it?)
If a story handles all of those elements with aplomb, I’d say it stands a good chance of getting accepted!

How long do writers typically try to get published before they finally do or decide call it quits? Have you seen writers pursuing their craft for many years despite not being published?

I don’t know that there’s a typical timeframe for this, like if you’ve been writing for X number of years, you’ll either get published or know it’s time to throw in the towel. Unfortunately, the publishing business just doesn't work that way. Some writers get their very first manuscript published (notice I didn’t say the first draft of their first manuscript). Some authors who already have books on the shelves will struggle for years to get a new manuscript accepted.

I will say that, unless you’re a famous celebrity, you’ll probably need to spend at least a few years studying and honing your craft before you’re ready to be published. A lot of writers give up at this stage, because it’s hard. It’s incredibly difficult to generate words, day after day, study writing manuals and great works of literature, with no guarantee that anything you write will be shared with the world. But you need good writing to get published, and unfortunately, there are no shortcuts when it comes to generating good writing. Studying the craft requires time and patience. (The occasional alcoholic beverage doesn’t hurt either.)

All that to say, my advice to people who want to write books is to try not to focus on getting published, because that lies outside of your control (and, as I mentioned earlier, doesn’t simply involve creating a great manuscript). Instead, focus on what you can control: pursuing your craft and enjoying your progress. If you’re just getting started and looking for ideas on how to hone your craft, I highly recommend reading Welcome to the Writer’s Life by Paulette Perhach. It’s both an encouraging and informative guide to building your writing life.

Some people may disagree with me on this (probably the same people who, upon meeting someone at a party and finding out they like to write, immediately ask if they’ve published anything), but I don’t think a writer needs to be traditionally published in order to be successful. Writers write because they enjoy writing. If you take pleasure in spinning stories in your head and putting words on a page, you’re a writer. If you care enough about writing to study the craft and learn from other writers, if your writing is better than it was a year ago, then you’re successfully making progress. Only you get to decide if/when you give up, but if you love to write, I’d urge you to keep writing.

What is the best way to join a critique group? Is it better to have everyone at different stages of their craft or about the same? 

As I’m sure you’re aware, SCBWI is an incredibly useful tool for connecting with other children’s book writers and illustrators. But if you don’t live in one of the areas that offers monthly shop talks, or you don’t know of anyone else who’s interested in writing or illustrating children’s books in your area, try searching on to find a nearby writing group. Or ask a local librarian if they know of any critique groups in the area. Librarians know everything!

As for the second question, I think the most important thing is making sure that each person in the critique group takes writing seriously. You want to be surrounded by people who are genuinely motivated to study and improve their craft and who offer you thoughtful feedback on your work. I don’t think it much matters whether everyone’s at a different stage in their writing career or at roughly the same level — there’s always something to learn from each other. But you definitely want to find people who match your enthusiasm!

There seems to be a subgenre of picture books emerging called the "infofic," which is a fictional story with nonfiction elements. Can you shed some light on what constitutes good Infofic?

I really haven’t heard the term “infofic” used outside of Twitter (meaning I probably wouldn’t use the term in a query letter, as not all editors/agents may recognize it), but I think you’re right in saying that this type of story is gaining in popularity. An infofic can take a lot of different forms, but here are a couple key things to keep in mind as you write one:

1.  When you’re combining both fiction and nonfiction elements, you should make sure the story takes precedence over the facts. Writers typically do a lot of research for their infofics, which is wonderful, but the facts shouldn’t bog down the book. For an infofic, I’d much rather read a captivating story that had a few nonfiction elements thrown in than a story packed full with info that’s held together by a weak plot.

2.  While they’re gaining in popularity, I think infofics can still be a hard sell sometimes, because they don’t fit neatly into either fiction or nonfiction, and thus booksellers/librarians can be unsure of where to place them. To mitigate this, I think writers should have a very clear reason as to why they’re writing an infofic as opposed to something that’s wholly fiction or nonfiction. For instance, maybe you really want to write a story about a specific historical event, but almost all of the primary sources have been lost to history, so you use fiction to fill in the gaps. If you can explain why your story is best told as an infofic, I think agents and editors will more readily share your vision for the book.

Self-publishing seems to be gaining some positive momentum. Have you read any self-published books, and what are your thoughts on self-publishing?

I’ve read many self-published children’s books through the course of my work (writers often submit self-published titles to traditional publishers, and indeed, sometimes they get picked up), but I don’t typically read them for leisure, mostly because my to-read list is staggering enough as it is.

Of course, working for a publisher, I’m tempted to extol the virtues of traditional publishing (editors are cool, please tell your friends). But the truth is, it can be really tough for writers to follow the path of traditional publishing these days; the odds of finding an agent, securing a publisher, and having a book that earns out its advance and starts delivering royalties are discouragingly slim. With self-publishing, you don’t need to worry about any of that. With the help of a self-publishing service (and there are many good ones to choose from), you can write a book and make it available for other people to read and enjoy. And I do think people are more open to reading self-published books than they were five or ten years ago.

But I think the best part of self-publishing — the fact that you’re in complete control of the book — is also its downside: it’s all on you. There’s a lot of pressure and a lot of things to juggle. The writers who go with a traditional publisher get to benefit from the publisher’s assistance; the people who make up a publishing team are literally paid to know the ins and outs of children’s book world and how to edit, design, and market a book effectively so that it reaches and resonates with as many people as possible. The writers who self-publish are tasked with doing all of that by themselves, which is a tall order. And yet, I know writers who have self-published multiple books who are absolutely thrilled with the results.

All in all, I think publishing a book is challenging regardless of whether you decide to pursue traditional or self-publishing. (Writers are warriors, make no mistake about it.) If you’re wondering which path to pursue, think about your goals (why do you want your story to be published?), then look at the processes and demands of both traditional and self-publishing. Pick the one that best aligns with your goals and values.

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.

Thank you, Katherine!
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. Or, stay tuned on the SCBWI-MI MichKids listserv – Katherine will ask for questions a few weeks before her next post.

Attention SCBWI-MI picture book writers! 

The submission window opens on Monday June 3rd for the Picture Book Text Mentorship Competition for non-PAL members. Did you miss our interview with mentor, Lisa Wheeler? Find everything you need to know on our SCBWI-MI website.

Congrats to Buffy Silverman who won the PAL mentorship with mentor Kelly DiPuccio!

Friday, May 24, 2019

SCBWI Marvelous Midwest Moments

Our SCBWI-MI listserv has been all abuzz about the recent Marvelous Midwest Multi-Region Conference held in Naperville, Illinois. Our members expressed gratitude and appreciation for the organizers' hard work as well as praise for the thoughtful and motivating key-notes and breakout sessions. Two SCBWI members offered to share their takeaways, and we have lots of photos thanks to Angela Verges and Dave Stricklen.

Lynn Baldwin, an SCBWI-MI member from Ann Arbor, writes:

What a Marvelous Weekend!

SCBWI’s Marvelous Midwest Conference certainly lived up to its name. It was a marvelous weekend of networking, learning and being inspired by a great line-up of authors, illustrators, editors, agents and other kidlit industry experts.

While it would be hard to summarize everything seen, heard and learned, here are some key take-aways:

Community: Our own RAs and conference co-chairs, Leslie Helakoski and Carrie Pearson, kicked off the event with an inspiring presentation that cleverly used the titles of children’s books to convey the idea that we’re on this journey together.

I certainly felt the community as I reconnected with old friends and met some new ones, including some wildly creative people at the Friday evening social who were dressed for the theme of let’s go to the fair (think cows, balloon vendors, baking contest participants and more!) Everyone I spoke with – from newbies to multi-published authors – was kind, engaging and eager to share experiences.

Creativity: Beyond the creativity of the costumes, there was a general sense of creativity in the air that came from being surrounded by so many like-minded people. We were also treated to the visual creativity of the illustrator community whose artwork was on display for all to enjoy.

Today’s children’s book market is open to creativity in terms of book topics and formats, according to librarian and Kirkus reviewer Betsy Bird. In her keynote, she spoke of today as a “new golden age” in children’s literature. She and fellow librarian Travis Jonker expanded on the topic of creativity in their fascinating breakout session on “picture books outside the boundaries.”

Opportunity: Our opportunity as authors and illustrators isn’t just to sell books. We also have the chance to right some ingrained wrongs.  Many speakers, including a diversity panel representing multiple facets of the industry, spoke of the importance of making sure that ALL kids have books in which they can see themselves. We learned that the industry is making strides to better represent diverse voices but that there’s still a long way to go.

Author Jack Cheng gave an inspiring presentation about the role of children’s books in reducing violence against women and girls. He spoke of the need to write books that move beyond stereotypical representations of boys and men and about how important it is for boys to read books starring girls. (Jack made his presentation available online for everyone to read and share. Don't miss this one:

Beauty: In one of the most hopeful breakout sessions I attended, agent Stephen Fraser spoke of our role as writers and illustrators in countering the toxic negativity found in today’s world and bringing beauty and kindness to children. He said that creating books for kids is a “joy and a privilege.” Several other speakers reinforced the idea that children’s books can have a lifelong impact on the reader, certainly a beautiful thought.

Lynn Baldwin is a picture book writer on the path to publication. When not writing, she enjoys traveling, studying/speaking foreign languages and being active outside. Lynn lives with her husband and son in Ann Arbor. Learn more at

MaryAtkinson, an SCBWI New England member from Maine writes:

A New Englander Goes to the Marvelous Midwest

Have you ever thought of attending an SCBWI conference outside of your region? This year, instead of attending my local New England conference, I decided to shake things up and go the Marvelous Midwest. 

I’d looked through the schedule and seen that there were many faculty presenting that I’d never heard before. I could catch up with friends from Vermont College whom I seldom see. And I was super impressed with the wide variety of sessions— from writing from the heart to revision techniques and developing secondary characters; from photoshop tips for illustrators to how to make a pop-up book; panels on diversity, self-publishing, and what agents want; keynotes both inspiring and informative.

I found a direct flight from Portland, Maine (where I live) to Chicago, took a quick ride to Naperville, and there I was. I knew immediately when I entered the hotel and registered that I’d made a good decision. We attendees were well taken care of from the start. The Marvelous Midwest volunteers made the conference run smoothly and efficiently. Thank you!

Everyone was so welcoming and friendly. Conversations popped up on elevators, at the dinner table, in the hallways between sessions. I soon wished I could’ve cloned myself to attend everything and meet more people.

There’s something about leaving home and traveling to a new place that recharges my batteries and makes me see my work as a writer in a new light.

I left with renewed energy and a notebook full of things to do (consider those secondary characters, experiment with a different POV, pump up my social media), and contact information from lots of new friends. I discovered many new-to-me authors and illustrators to follow.

So thank you, Marvelous Midwesterners. I’ll be keeping an eye out for your next conference!

Mary Atkinson is the author or Owl Girl, Tillie Heart and Soul, and Mario’s Notebook. You can learn more about her at

Coming up on the Mitten Blog 

Tips for Painless Self-Promotion, Ask the Editor, Book Birthday celebrations, a new Featured Illustrator, and more!

Do you have an idea for a blog post? We're in need of posts for this summer about any aspect of writing, illustrating, and publishing for children and teens.
  • Do you have a Success Story to share? Your own story or a friend's?
  • Would you like to interview the owner or staff at your favorite indie-bookstore?
  • Are you attending a workshop or retreat? What did you learn?
  • Have you read a book on craft? Want to write a review?
  • Are you researching publishing opportunities? Please share what you've learned!
We'd love to hear from you! Read our Submission Guidelines here.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Book Birthday Blog with Dawn Chevoya

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

Congratulations to Dawn Chevoya on the release of her new book, TRAPPER'S GROUNDING!

Q#1     What inspired you to write Trapper's Grounding?
In 2009 my grandsons were young and wanted G’ma to tell them a story on the long drive to Ontario for our annual camping trip. The story I told back then—involving a cabin in the woods—was much simpler than Trapper’s Grounding, about a 13 year old, and inspired by the Williamston middle schoolers where I worked. When the book finished, it struck me that Iwas the inspiration for my main character who struggled with feelings of insignificance.

Q#2     Did you come up against any challenges when writing this book? How did you deal with them?
            Basically I was pretty inept at putting together a clean sentence. I had to read literally dozens of books on the craft of writing by authorities such as James Scott Bell, Les Edgerton, Stephen King and others, even Stunk & White. Also I commissioned my brother, an awesome artist who lives in Colorado, to draw a few illustrations I thought the book needed. He ran into some personal problems and never came through, so a day before my manuscript submission deadline I whisked off six pencil drawings that appear in the book. His would have been much more professional. Artists! Gotta love ‘em, right?

Q#3     Who is your author idol? How has that author affected you?
            E.B. White is way at the top of my author idol list. When I get into a slump, reading anything that E.B. White has written in his wonderful clear, perfect style gets me back on track. He iskinda like an author godto me.

Q#4     Can you share what you are working on now?
            My sequel research file is overflowing with ideas. Brennon Trapper will get into some more hot water when he discovers an opening in the ground of the dried-up creek bed.

Q#5     What are your marketing/promotional plans for your new book? Where can people connect with you?
            Right now, I have someone working on an audiobook version. I am looking to book some school visits for anyone interested! Also, I offer a Classroom Guide created by a veteran 6thgrade teacher available on my website:
Email me at
You Tube channel: om/channel/UCR7EtlTeeiyPgS-Jt-1ywwQ
I try to post regularly on Instagram: dawnchevoya.

Trapper’s Grounding is available on B&N, Amazon, IndiBound, Books.A.Million(BAM), Goodreads and Google Books.

A little bit about the author:
While managing a middle school library (Williamston) for thirteen years, Dawn Chevoya enjoyed bonding during lunch hour with kids on the fringe and with students after school working on yearbook layouts. She has two children and frequently supplies gummy worms to her seven grandchildren. Chevoya was born in Fresno, CA, grew up in Miami, FL, and lives in Lansing where she has not yet retired from 22 years at the Thomas Cooley Law School Library.
A little bit about the book:
A boy sets in motion something big when he buries a tesserapod in the woods of Northern Michigan. Seventh-grader, Brennon Trapper discovers his parents have lied to him, and that his birth father is buried in the cemetery where he hangs out after school. On a family camping trip in the woods, Brennon and his younger brother encounter a beaver with an inexplicable gift who gives them the tesserapod that must be grounded. Already afraid of his father, Brennon  is even more afraid he won’t be able to keep it a secret when it develops into something too big to hide. An epic December blizzard triggers a chain of events that drives Brennon to finally confront his greatest fear and ultimately run away. Too bad he chooses the worse day of the entire year.    

Friday, May 17, 2019

Lit in the Mitten: an Interview with Adam Gac

A few months ago, I visited the Delta College Q-90.1 FM studio to be interviewed by Adam Gac for the Lit in the Mitten podcast. I enjoyed our conversation so much, we're continuing it here on our SCBWI-MI blog. Read on to learn more about Adam, his writing and VCFA/MFA experience, children's literature, and his hopes for the Lit in the Mitten episodes.

Tell us about your Lit in the Mitten radio series at Delta College Q-90.1 FM. How did it start, how long will it continue, and how can we tune in?

My wife and I moved to Bay City after she finished her Master’s degree at University of Michigan and was subsequently hired for her dream job as the Director of Education for BaySail – an organization that teaches history, science and sustainability on the Appledore Tallships. I was fortunate enough to follow my excitement for news to a position as a producer at Q90.1. Lit in the Mitten is my contribution to Q90.1’s selection of Michigan-focused art programs. My colleagues have a variety of shows following their passions, including highlighting local musicians and theater.

Episodes are released bi-weekly on Mondays with on-air clips and full interviews available at I hope to continue the program for the next few years. I’d love to offer Michigan authors the opportunity to talk craft and their latest projects until people get tired of me. One of our local hosts, Rod Bieber, has been producing shows with the station for 25 years and he’s still going strong, so the sky’s the limit.

I was honored that you read my entire novel to prepare for our interview. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation about children's and young adult literature and was impressed with your thoughtful questions. You're currently working toward your MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA. Tell us more about your studies and your own writing.

First and foremost I want to give a shout out to Amy Rose Capetta, Cori McCarthy and Tirzah Price. I met the three of them while I was a reporter in Big Rapids and I wouldn’t be at VCFA if it wasn’t for their guidance and support. Second and middlemost, reading your novel was an absolute pleasure!

The low-residency MFA program at VCFA is well-suited for cultivating the knowledge and discipline necessary for sustainable writing. Twice a year I get to surround myself with people who share my passion for writing for children and young adults. It’s basically like going to Hogwarts. The residencies are filled with great workshops, lectures and so many amazing conversations. In between residencies students work one-on-one with advisors with a TON of experience. I’ve worked on projects from picture book biographies and short stories to full-length novels.

My primary focus is on YA and Middle Grade science fiction and horror, but one of the great parts of the program is advisors who encourage you to work outside of your comfort zone. Challenging yourself with other genres and styles as well as with critical writing can be surprising. There’s a very specific kind of delight that bubbles up when you realize that you’ve increased the size of your comfort zone writing by venturing outside of it.

You've been reading a lot of books for all ages for your MFA program. Are any patterns jumping out at you? What aspects of a story grab your attention at the beginning and keep you engaged throughout?

One pattern that really excites me in the kidlitsphere is the growing demand for graphic novels and traditional novels with other forms of media mixed in. Comic books were a big part of growing up for me and it’s super exciting to see the industry embracing the opportunities that blending words and pictures has to offer.

Another exciting trend is the growing demand for books with diverse characters written by diverse authors. One of the most powerful aspects of kid lit is the opportunity for young people (and grownups for that matter) to grow through the reading process. The more readers can see themselves represented honestly in a story, the more impactful it will be.

Because I come from a journalism background I put a lot of value in truth in storytelling. I’ve read hundreds of books in my journey through VCFA and the unifying factor in the works I’ve really loved is their honesty. When an author is trying to capitalize on an industry trend or use their story to force a reader to a specific conclusion the work is so much less fulfilling than a story that comes from the reality of the writer’s own experience.

During our interview, you asked me about quality literature. I've been thinking more about this, and it's helpful when considering my own writing and what I'm hoping to accomplish. May I direct the question back to you? How do you define quality literature?

Quality literature, to me, is any writing that enriches the life of the reader. The aspect of quality literature that excites me most is its ability to enrich the life of the author through the writing process. Getting at the hard truths of your own existence is the only way to authentically express that process in your characters and their stories.

Anything else you'd like us to know?

Adam interviewing author Nick Adkins
Anyone interested in appearing on Lit in the Mitten can reach out to me at I’d also like to encourage people to support their local independent bookstores. I spent some time working for the Book Industry Charitable Foundation and they are doing tremendous work helping employees of brick-and-mortar bookstores through all sorts of emergencies. Booksellers don’t get into bookselling because they love working in retail, they get into it because they know how important it is to have a strong literary community.

Thanks so much for your time, Adam! To listen to Adam's interviews, go to the Lit in the Mitten podcast here. And stay tuned, he'll continue to add new interviews each month.

Coming up on the SCBWI-MI blog: 

Tips for Painless Self-Promotion (from Debbie Gonzales who is celebrating her Girls with Guts book birthday this week!), a recap and photos from the SCBWI Marvelous Midwest conference, Ask the Editor, and much more.

Have a great weekend!
Kristin Lenz

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Writer Spotlight: Camilla Roper

Charlie Barshaw coordinates our quarterly Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. This quarter's writer is Camilla Roper.

Writer Spotlight: Camilla Roper and the Tale of Two Languages

What was your early life like? How did it shape your desire to write and teach?

I wrote and illustrated stories from a young age. I recall in junior high, a friend and I were enamored with the original Avengers series on TV.  We’d watch the show, and then I would write as fast as I could additional episodes for her to read.  I recall both of us being frustrated that I couldn’t write faster…

What were some of your favorite books, and who were some of your favorite authors, growing up?

Rudyard Kipling’s and Helen Bannerman’s stories inflamed an early desire to travel and experience diverse cultures.  Beatrix Potter’s dry wit and hapless yet lovable characters were like family.  P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins stories fascinated me, and I loved the weird genius of Maurice Sendak.  Being a very serious child, I took to heart every moral in Aesop’s Fables.  The Bible related stories of family drama, bloody battles, natural and supernatural phenomena, gore, and violence. Helen Oxenbury’s The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig is brilliant, and one of the few books I actually own.  I didn’t read Beverly Cleary as a child, but love the way she paces her books.  Polly Horvath knows how to turn a phrase.  Jerry and Ellen Spinelli, and Ellen’s illustrations - these are all gifted writers I still read today.

How did you end up attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln? And how did you come to pursue the dual majors of Spanish and Education?

I grew up in Lincoln.  I think I chose UNL because I could ride my bike to classes.  In winter, I showered and hopped on my bike and arrived on campus 5½ miles later, with ice crystals in my long blonde braids.  I’d absolutely loved Spanish since finding my dad’s Spanish textbook when I was about four, deciding then and there to study the language.  The decision to become a teacher came suddenly when, as a second-semester junior, I realized I would be graduating soon and needed a job.  

You evidently found teaching compelling early on. Name some of your most influential teachers, and how they affected you.

Camilla working on a watercolor project.
We had half-day kindergarten and first grade.  One group studied in the morning, and a second group came in the afternoon. Mrs. Kane epitomized all my great teachers:  She consolidated the first-grade curriculum into half the time, and a disproportionate number of my classmates not only thrived, but became physicians, scientists, and other accomplished scholars. I studied ridiculously hard all through school and received an exceptional education. At UNL, tuition was cheap, so I took classes every summer, and as many courses as I could each term.  I studied law for one year, but found I was not suited to it.  I did encounter some amazing characters in my professors, in case I ever decided to write horror stories, though.

At Boston U. you pursued a Masters in Bilingual, Multilingual, Multicultural Education. That’s quite a mouthful to say, and a challenge to complete. What does that educational curriculum entail?

It’s a funny story. We only had one car, so I started riding in with my husband to BU, and got a job on campus. BU employees got 100% tuition remission for eight credit hours each term. So we pursued graduate degrees. My curriculum included current issues in bilingual ed, cultural awareness, curriculum development, teaching reading in Spanish, metrics, and narrative and literature. I taught and observed in an elementary and a middle school during my studies.

 At this point in your life you were obviously proficient enough in Spanish and English to pursue bilingual education. What are some of the benefits to be able to speak, write and read in multiple languages?

You gain flexibility in thinking, and become aware of more options in life in general.  It gives you confidence and keeps you on your toes. Traveling is more compelling and fun.  Learning one language facilitates learning others.  Before recent trips to South America, Finland, Iceland, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, and France, I studied the languages, and it definitely had a positive impact.

It’s been proven that younger students have more ability to learn additional languages. Would you like to see a greater emphasis on early language education?

Yes! Communicating in other languages changes your perspective, opens up your heart, your mind, and your world.  I think it makes you more cognitively flexible.  Your lexicon at least doubles, and you learn to think, write, and express yourself in different ways.  It teaches you to really listen, and to use language carefully, especially upon entering and exiting foreign countries.  It can also magnify opportunities for employment and earning power later on.  

What led you to Michigan?
My husband’s job brought us to Michigan.  We had a choice between somewhere in Tennessee and a third state, and we chose to live near the Great Lakes.

Are you still a substitute teacher in the Ann Arbor area?
Yes, a couple times weekly, and I sometimes do a long-term stint in Spanish.  I absolutely love being in the classroom.  

 What do you like to read now? Who are your favorite authors today?

Richard Peck passed in May 2018, and I’ve made it my mission to read everything he wrote!  Without a doubt, he was immensely gifted.  He didn’t start writing until he was 37, but continued until his 80’s.  All his books amaze me. In sci-fi, I reread Lois McMaster Bujold.  Alex Kourvo and Harry R. Campion’s four “Detroit Next” novels keep me on the edge. In children’s lit, Aree Chung’s Mixed: A Colorful Story takes on racial/ethnic diversity for the wee lot, and excels.  Eve Bunting’s Smoky Night deals with touchy subjects delicately. I scan the just-published children’s and YA section at the library and end up reading about three new books a week.

When did you start to write? How has your writing changed over the years?

I began to write as a child. Early on, I wrote fiction, adventure, mystery, none of which I submitted for publication. Lately I write nonfiction, and magazine articles about science and technology and historical subjects.  I especially feel an affinity for the mindset of average people during World War II and their sense of mission and being part of something bigger than themselves.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a WWII piece dealing with how real people dealt with the concept of rationing (conceptualized as a picture book).  I am also working on a fantasy piece about an underground society ( a mid-grade novel) sparked by a trip last fall to a subterranean salt mine near Krakow, Poland and unique sewer covers dotting the streets of Copenhagen.  From time to time, I write pieces on subjects like eclipses, self-driving vehicles, and augmented reality (for children's magazines like Highlights).  I also enjoy drawing and painting.

How has being proficient in two languages (and conversant in others) changed your life? 

It’s made me more open to different arguments and perspectives.  I minored in Czech at college, and spent six weeks on a scholarship trip to Prague.  My paternal grandparents emigrated from Bohemia, so I’m a third-generation American.  Now I travel a great deal, and worry about immigration issues often.  

Is there a question you’d wished I asked?

Two, actually:

1) How do you write authentic dialogue?  

       I think it comes with listening more and speaking less.  Great dialogue goes on around us all the time. I take notes - on the bus, in class, at the grocer’s, at religious services, at movies, in restaurants, on campus, and in coffee shops.  You cannot make up stuff this good.  

2) Why is it so hard for some of us to actually submit our writing for publication?  

        For me, at least, I guess it is so personal, I wonder who in the world would want to read it.   But I think it helps to read voraciously and see other writers’ thoughts, and try to make a contribution.

       Camilla Roper has a B.A. in Spanish and Education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and an EdM in Bilingual, Multilingual, Multicultural Education from Boston University, and education certifications from the College of Charleston, Eastern Michigan University and the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She currently lives in Ann Arbor and works as a substitute teacher.

       Charlie Barshaw (pictured with his good-looking and good-natured son Joe) is a member of the Advisory Committee of SCBWI-MI and part of the editorial staff of The Mitten. He's revising his WIP YA at a glacial pace.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

SCBWI-MI Picture Book Text Mentorship - An Interview with Mentor Lisa Wheeler

Full and Associate SCBWI-MI members who write picture books, you’ve waited patiently while we held the PAL mentorship. Now, your moment is almost upon us. SCBWI-MI’s mentorship competition this year is with Lisa Wheeler and is open to Associate and Full Members (non-PAL) members who live in Michigan.

The submission window for the non-PAL mentorship is June 3-24, 2019.

Complete submission instructions can be found on the SCBWI-MI website. On that page, click the link (after the red words “click here” to download a pdf that explains membership status, eligibility and submission instructions.

For questions about eligibility or submissions please contact SCBWI-MI Mentorship Coordinator, Ann Finkelstein.

Lisa Wheeler is the author of numerous children’s books with well-respected national publishers. You can see some of the titles on her website. Lisa's book, The Christmas Boot, was the SCBWI 2017 SCBWI Golden Kite Award winner for Picture Book Text. Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum is the 2017 Michigan Reads! One Book, One State Children’s Book Program recipient. Her awards include The Michigan Mitten, The Missouri Building Blocks, The Texas Bluebonnet, and the Theodore Geisel Honor given by the American Library Association. Lisa has critiqued SCBWI members’ manuscripts in over ten states and at the national conference. She’s taught picture book workshops to hundreds of people.

Ann interviewed Lisa so we can get to know her better.

What do you like best about writing picture books?

I think my very favorite part is getting the idea. When an idea hits me, I'm on fire. It's like when you first fall in love. At that point, I don't know where it will lead as my ideas never come fully formed.

Then, taking that journey is magic! Starting out, I don't think about "Is this idea viable?", "Will I finish it?", "Will it sell?", etc. All I know is that I am in love with this new thing and I want to spend every waking minute with it.

What do you like least?

Trying to sell the dang thing! First, I have to get it past my agent. Then, he has to find interest with a publisher. And if the manuscript becomes a book, I feel as if I have to sell readers on it. (I really hate this part!)

It's an uncomfortable feeling for me to push my work out into the world. But it's a necessary part of the process as I'm not writing for my desk drawer.

Describe a typical writing day.

My writing days are never typical. I may write, in my head, while walking or even exercising on a spin bike. I generally don't sit down in front of my computer until I have omething solidified in my head. I find that being in motion helps my creativity and thought process.

Rather than writing every day, I do something writing related every day. That might be answering these questions, visiting a school or putting together a new program.

Which of your books was the most fun to write? Why?

Rather than pick just one, I'd like to say that all four of my poetry books were the most fun to write (Wool Gathering, Seadogs, Spinster Goose and The Pet Project). Poems are fun little snippets that I can write (and re-write) while taking walks, cleaning house or exercising.

I have also written a few that haven't been published and it is like a fun little workout for my brain to take an idea, turn it on its head, and see if a poem spills out.

When you’re reading for pleasure, what features of a book typically impress you the most?

In novels, it is all about characters for me. I can read a book that has very little action if I'm in love with the character. They have me at "Hello".

In picture books, I am drawn toward humor, but also to books that I know I would never/could never write. I love the quiet and sentimental when they are written beautiful. (Like Ida, Always or All the Places to Love) And I also love well-written non-fiction picture books. (I'm currently loving Sea Bear: A Journey for Survival by Lindsey Moore)

What brings you joy?

My family. My husband and children are my world. And then dogs, puppies and puppy dogs! And then nature, walks-- and walks in nature.

What inspires you?
This great big wonderful world! I never know when inspiration will hit, so I try to be observant. I think if one is wired for picture books, they see everything through a six-year-old's eye. At least I do!

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

I find this one of the hardest questions to answer. I have been very few places and I want to go everywhere. So when you ask that, my mind races to all these wonderful parts of the world I have yet to explore! (Both in the US and other countries.) If I had unlimited funds, I'd do a world tour, starting in the redwoods, then off to New Zeeland, Australia, and then on to all the continents. There is just so much out there and I rarely get out of Michigan.

If you could have dinner with any person throughout history who would it be? What would you discuss?

Mr. Rogers. I would thank him for allowing me to be his neighbor and for being the calm in a stormy childhood. I also wonder how much he and the Muppets had to do with my love for puppet play.

What aspects of being a picture book mentor are you most looking forward to? 

I love the when an author has that "light bulb" moment. I've done mentoring before and I get giddy when a mentee sends back a revised manuscript that is so perfectly spot-on, that I know my teaching is making an impact.

I believe that we, as children's authors and SCBWI member, should have a pass-it-on mentality. I've had people who helped me and I, in turn, hope to help others.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

Thank you for asking!

In June, I have a sequel to Even Monsters Need to Sleep coming out. In this one, we explore first days in Even Monsters Go to School.

Then, sometime this summer Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum is going to be re-released by Purple House press. They are publisher that only does re-releases of classic titles for kids. This title won 4 State awards and is my most frequently asked for OP title.

In August, the next installment of the Dino-Holiday series comes out with Dino-Halloween. This one was fun to write and the kids get all giggly when I mention it.

Finally, In September, I am thrilled that the second book in the "people" series comes out with Simon & Schuster. This one is called People Share with People.

Ann Finkelstein is a former scientist who discovered that writing novels is more fun than wrangling test tubes. She coordinates the SCBWI-MI mentorship program and helps Charlie Barshaw host Lansing Area Shop Talks.

Thank you Ann for all of your time and energy coordinating the SCBWI-MI Mentorship programs!

The 2019 SCBWI-MI Mentorship Competition is only for picture book text, but we didn't forget about you illustrators! Next year's mentorship will be for illustration. In the meantime, stay up-to-date with events and opportunities for illustrators on our chapter website:

The 2019 SCBWI Marvelous Midwest Conference is happening this weekend in Naperville, Illinois, and it's sold out! We'll share conference recaps and photos here on the Mitten blog in the upcoming weeks. If you'd like to share your experience, please email Kristin Lenz. Safe traveling, and have a blast!