Friday, March 27, 2020

Hugs and Hurrahs

I think for most of us the world seems a little strange under the “Stay home, stay safe” policy. Although almost all in-person meetings and events have been canceled, I feel so fortunate to still be able to virtually celebrate so much good news from our wonderful Michigan authors and illustrators today. I hope that you all stay well and are able to cuddle up at home to do some reading (and writing and illustrating).

Kat Harrison's debut picture book SURGERY ON SUNDAY illustrated by Shane Crampton (Warren Publishing) launches today, March 27. Sunday is nervous about her upcoming ear surgery. When surgery day rolls around, Sunday’s stomach is in knots like a triple-tied shoelace. But thankfully, she has her BFF, Octavia the Octopus by her side. With the additional help of a few “rules,” her parents, kind doctors and nurses, she soon learns surgery isn’t so scary after all. SURGERY ON SUNDAY teaches kids they can be brave, even when it’s hard.

Happy book birthday, Kat!

Patti Richards has recently signed a two-book deal with Little Lamb Books for her picture books, MRS. NOAH and MILLIE'S CHRISTMAS MIRACLE. The release dates are fall 2021 and 2022. You can read more about each book here:

Big congratulations to Patti (who was my predecessor as the Hugs and Hurrahs editor)!

Lori Taylor is planning to release her new picture book THE WHOPPER OF WHOOPEE LAKE this May with Bear Track Press. It will be available on She has a new YouTube channel, BOOK ARTS with Lori Taylor, that covers literacy through handmade book arts, writing, and illustrating, as well as the business of Indie publishing. She is holding a Summertime Book Art Contest with a Memorial Day deadline. If she gets 100 subscribers, someone will win a unique camping book art piece made by Lori. The videos are for homeschoolers, educators, and parents so that they can share the info with kids.

That’s so cool, Lori!

Neal Levin’s short story “The Bigwigs’ Bad Hair Day” is in the January 2020 issue of Highlights. His poem “Pets Rock!” was posted on Reading Unlocked, a British educational website that helps young readers and people with dyslexia learn to read. His poem “Middle March” was published in the March 2020 issue of Highlights For Children.

Good for you, Neal!

Kristiana Y. Sfirlea signed her first book contract! Her spooky MG fantasy LEGEND OF THE STORM SNEEZER will be releasing in Spring 2020 from Monster Ivy Publishing.

So excited for you, Kristiana!

Shutta Crum's first book of poetry (for adult readers) is just out from Kelsay Books, titled WHEN YOU GET HERE. It brings together a number of previously published poems as well as several new ones.

Well done, Shutta!

Joe Kimble’spicture book MR. MOUTHFUL LEARNS HIS LESSON (illustrated by Kerry Bell; Iguana Books) received the seal of approval from the National Parenting Center. They described it as "superb" and  "a book that you will fall in love with." Michigan Public Radio has listed it among books by Michigan authors to help kids get through these days of "social distancing." 

Congratulations, Joe!

Lori McElrath Eslick’s work is in the Mazza Museum’s traveling exhibit titled MILES OF BRAVERY: The Underground Railroad through Picture Book Art at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH, March 6 – May 16, 2020.

That sounds like an interesting exhibit! I hope the museum re-opens soon!

The Muskegon Museum of Art’s exhibit 20 for 20: Celebrating Michigan Illustrators exhibit features many of 20 our local illustrators. Even though the galleries are closed right now, there is a video tour available on their website. The artists include:

A big (socially distant) hug and hurrah again to each of you! Please send all your good news to Sarah Prusoff LoCascio at for the next Hugs and Hurrahs post! 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Book Birthday Blog with Ann Dallman

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

Congratulations to Ann Dallman on the release of her book, Cady and the Bear Necklace!

Congratulations on the release of Cady and the Bear Necklace! What inspired this story about a young Native American girl and a mysterious necklace?

I was the high school English teacher for 15 years on a reservation in the Upper Peninsula. I taught a variety of classes ranging from seventh-grade English to Journalism to English Literature. My assignment to teach a class in Indian Literature drove me to delve deeply into the wonderful stories and works of Native American authors. My students asked me to find more books written about characters with whom they could identify. “Why can’t kids like us be in more books?” they asked me. The challenge was raised and I responded to it. I have the actual necklace shown on the book’s cover as it was a gift from a dear friend. Looking at it one day, I thought “what if?” 

The bear necklace given to Ann

Did you have any challenges as you were writing this book? How did you work through them?

I had many challenges. A major challenge was learning to write in a new genre. Another challenge was to write respectfully about Cady’s culture. I wrote Cady and the Bear Necklace based on my experiences as a classroom teacher. I wrote about the fictional life of a fictional character as seen through my eyes. Also challenging was the need to rewrite. I would send out new queries after each revision and I lost count after my seventh revision. I quit counting queries after I approached 70 which was when I found a publisher. 

You taught high school English on the Hannahville Indian Reservation in Wilson, Michigan, for 15 years. Would you say that experience impacted or inspired how you wrote Cady and the Bear Necklace?

What a great question! Teaching on the Hannahville reservation both impacted and inspired me. One of my favorite parts of my job was being able to follow my students throughout their high school years as their classroom skills increased. Many of them were and continue to be gifted writers, especially with poetry. They pushed me to be the best teacher I could be and, later, the best writer. They opened their world to me. And how could one help but be humble when that happens?

Before this book, you had experience writing for a variety of newspapers and magazines, like Tri-City Neighbors Magazine, Marquette Monthly and the Green Bay Press-Gazette! What was the transition from journalistic writing to novel writing like?

I was trained as a journalist and worked in the newsroom of a daily newspaper for almost 10 years. After that I worked in marketing for a local campus of the University of Wisconsin and then as a high school journalism teacher followed by writing for national trade magazines in the salon industry. All of this was prior to teaching on the reservation which required me to sharpen my skills in yet another genre—curriculum writing. I’m a journalist at heart so switching to writing fiction was a reversal of how I wrote instinctively. I had to permit myself to switch from writing objectively to subjectively, to allow myself the freedom to not only create descriptions but to embellish them and then, of course, learn how to construct a narrative arc when I’ve relied on the inverted pyramid for so many years. That was a major learning curve for me to overcome. 

Could you offer any advice to a writer aspiring to publish their own book?

The best advice I received was from a literary agent. “Don’t overthink,” she told me. I’ve made a poster of those words and hung it near my desk. Also, I think if one is a writer then you just keep writing despite setbacks. When discouraged when writing Cady I’d switch back to writing poetry or a freelance piece for a newspaper. Also, attend workshops—whether online or in person, network and read. And, of course, take advantage of everything SCBWI has to offer. I’ve made some wonderful new friends during this process through networking. Librarians are wonderful resources and truly love and respect writers and books. And, finally, don’t give up. 

What do you hope your readers take away from Cady and the Bear Necklace?

I hope that my readers not only enjoy reading Cady and the Bear Necklace but learn something about native cultures, especially in our part of the country. 

What’s next for you? Do you have any new ideas or books in the works? Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

I’ve started writing my second Cady book. I’ve also written a memoir based on my teaching experiences. Several years ago a literary agent in New York paired me with an editor from the New Yorker which was enormously helpful as she taught me how to structure in yet another genre. I have now rewritten that book at least four times but it still needs more work. I’m still writing freelance for a few publications. My website is: and on my Facebook page, Ann Dallman author.

A little bit about the book:

Cady, a 13-year-old girl of Native American heritage, has experienced change in the past year—her father’s marriage to a much younger woman, a new baby brother, and a move from Minnesota to Michigan. She is attending a reservation school for the first time in her life. It’s a difficult juggling act.  One day at school Cady finds an eagle feather on the hallway floor and reports it to the principal. He thanks her for this act of honor and cautions her that a mystery might soon appear in her life. Not long after, while attempting to organize her bedroom closet, Cady discovers an antique Indian beaded necklace hidden under the closet floor. She knows she’s found it for a reason but what is the reason? Is this the mystery her school principal predicted might appear? She consults with the elders who tell her it is her task to find out why. In the process of solving this mystery Cady’s home life calms down and she draws closer to the teachings and traditions of her culture. Helping her along the way are new friends: Irish, John Ray, and a talking blue jay who help to guide her as she balances between two worlds. 

A little bit about the author:

I taught high school English for 15 years at the Hannahville Indian School/Nah Tah Wahsh (Soaring Eagle) School located on a Potawatomi reservation in Wilson, MI. I edited, wrote and did the graphic design for Sam English: The Life, Work and Times of An Artist which received numerous awards including Coffee Table Book of the Year (2009) from the printing industry (PEAK Award). I have been awarded scholarships to study writing with author Susan Power (Split Rock Arts Institute) and to Highlights Foundations sessions in Honesdale, PA. I have also been awarded three writers residences at Wild Acres Retreat Center in North Carolina. I am a former newspaper editor and have had my articles published in national trade magazines, etc. and worked for several years as a Title I reading interventionist. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism Education (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and a Master’s degree in Secondary Education/Reading (Viterbo University). I have taught English/Language Arts and Journalism at the high school and junior college level. I was Content Coordinator/Editor of Tri-City Neighbors magazine for two years and now freelance for Marquette Monthly and other magazines. I am very proud of being the Michigan Chapter of SCBWI’s 2016 Multicultural Mentorship Competition 1st Runner-Up and am a proud member of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Interview with Nonfiction Mentor Stephanie Bearce, and Free Educational Resources for Teachers, Parents, and Students

SCBWI-MI is holding two nonfiction mentorships this year. One is for nonfiction picture books
with mentor Patricia Newman and the other is for nonfiction middle grade and young adult
books with Stephanie Bearce.

Complete submission instructions are on the mentorship page of the website.

The submission window for both mentorships is May 5-26.

For questions, contact SCBWI-MI mentorship coordinator Ann Finkelstein.

Today we have an interview with nonfiction MG/YA mentor, Stephanie Bearce. Stephanie is a
history detective and a science nerd who loves turning her discoveries into books for kids. She is
the award-winning author of over 25 children’s books, including the Twisted True Tales from
Science series and the Top Secret Files from History series. Stephanie is a frequent presenter at education conferences, children’s literature festivals, nerd camps, schools, and libraries. She is
the winner of the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award, the SCBWI Work in Progress Grant, the Clare
Vanderpool Work of Promise Award. Her books have been selected for the NSTA (National
Science Teachers Association) Recommended Reading List.

What do you like best about writing nonfiction?
I love the detective work. Writing nonfiction stories means you have to search for the facts. It’s a lot like a detective solving a mystery. I get a clue about what might be an interesting story, but I must research to find all the facts. I dig through newspapers, laboratory notes, books, diaries – whatever it takes to find the real facts. I spend lots and lots of time reading.

What do you like least?
I hate it when I find out a lead is false, and a great story is just a fake.

Describe a typical writing day.
Mornings are usually spent answering emails and keeping up with correspondence. Then it depends on where I am with a project. If I am in the research stages, I spend time reading, contacting libraries, doing interviews, or locating other primary sources. If the research is done, then I am in writing mode and I am glued to my computer. In between I spend time meeting with my critique partners to get feedback and make revisions. No two days are the same. Sometimes I am sitting in my office, and other days I am watching wolves, or delving into museum archives.

Which of your books was the most fun to write? Why?
I love research, so my current project is always my favorite. Right now, I am researching wolves and Victorian spiritualism. I work on multiple projects at the same time, so I am never bored.

When you’re reading for pleasure, what features of a book typically impress you the most?
I love a great adventure, so I am a sucker for great plots. I love mysteries with a twist and unexpected endings. So, I guess I like my fiction the same way I like my nonfiction – strange and a little twisted.

What brings you joy?
My family, my faith, and my friends. Writing is what I do, and I enjoy it, but it is not who I am.

What inspires you?
Untold stories of history, lost heroes, amazing scientific discoveries, and black holes.

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
I have been blessed to travel a great deal, but I would really love to travel to Egypt and see the pyramids.

What aspects of being a nonfiction mentor are you most looking forward to?
I love working with people and helping them develop their potential. It will be fun to exchange ideas, and I know I will learn as much from any mentor as they will from me. Forging new relationships and networking is an essential part of a healthy writing career.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
I’m working on several projects. I always work on more than one idea at a time and they are all in various stages of development. I am researching polio, wolves, spiritualism, toilets, funeral homes, and black soldier flies. Who knows what I will discover tomorrow?

Ann Finkelstein writes YA novels and coordinates the SCBWI-MI mentorship program. Please contact her via email for questions about the mentorship.

Our hearts go out to everyone as we all cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and the evolving ripples of disruptions and challenges across the world. Our SCBWI-MI community has been busy gathering educational resources for teachers, parents, and students as they make the switch to homeschooling or distance learning. We are pleased to offer you a variety of fun learning activities that you can download, watch, or print for free. Visit often as the list will grow. Follow this link to find activities for all ages, Pre-K-12th grade:

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Book Birthday Blog with Roger D. Hess

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

Congratulations to Roger D. Hess on the release of his new book, 3000 Feet Over Lambeau!

Congratulations on the release of 3000 Feet Over Lambeau! This is the second book in your Stadium Adventure Series. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired this series and its newest addition?

There is something magical about a trip to a stadium to see your favorite team play.
Walking through the gates makes your heart beat a little faster. Handing your ticket to an usher and having him show you to your seat gives you a feeling that you belong, a feeling of ownership. 

Stadiums and ball parks are made of brick and mortar that breathe excitement. Hot dog vendors shouting to the crowd, the smell of popcorn and peanuts. The anticipation of seeing a performance that has not been scripted…you don’t know what will happen.

And maybe the best part is knowing that whatever happens, win or lose…life goes on.

The Stadium Adventure Series celebrates the quest to be a part of that experience. In Freaked Out at Wrigley Field and now, in 3000 Feet Over Lambeau, it’s more about the journey than the destination. 

Sort of like traveling to Oz, it’s a merry, sometimes scary, sometimes magical run through a forest filled with lions and tigers and bears.

Before becoming an author, you spent time working in a variety of other fields, like journalism, screenwriting, and advertising, to name a few. What inspired you to start writing middle grade books?

When our kids were growing up, we could always find great books for our girls to read, but we had a tougher time finding books appealing to our boys. I guess I whined about it so much, my wife, who is really the brains of our whole operation, convinced me to stop complaining and do something about it. So, I came up with an adventure series featuring three adopted brothers, all different races, and their exploits with, as it turns out, not-so simple visits to stadiums and ball parks. 

Trouble is, I waited so long to start writing, it’s our grandkids, instead of our kids, who are reading the books! Also, I am beyond happy to say, it’s not just the boys who are finding the books entertaining. We had one nine-year-old girl send us a note saying she has read Freaked Out at Wrigley Field five times and would I please hurry and get the next book out! 

Now that the next book, 3000 Feet Over Lambeau, is out, I’m excited for my readers to discover that the quarterback of the team is a girl. And, not only is she the “second best” player on the team (according to one of her fellow teammates), she is without a doubt the leader of the group both on and off the field.

On your website, you note that with every purchase of your books, a donation will be made to a national hunger non-profit organization. Can you tell us a little about this organization and why you donate?

One of the main characters in the books, Michael, likes to eat. He lives to eat. Which is exactly like I am. In fact, while writing this, I wish I had a slice of pizza next to my keyboard right now. 

With that in mind, the fact that more than 12 million children in our country struggle with hunger we feel is a national crisis. In this, the greatest country in the world, that is a problem we should not have. It’s something we can fix! 

So, with every book sold, the Stadium Adventure Series makes a donation to Feeding America. At this point, kids and parents who have bought our books have helped us provide more than 3,000 meals to hungry kids. We understand that it is a drop in the bucket, but we’re just getting started. And if it helps raise awareness of the problem and gets other people involved in their own communities, who knows what can be accomplished!

What’s something you hope your readers will take away from reading 3000 Feet Over Lambeau and the Stadium Adventure Series?

I hope my readers get swept up in the excitement of visiting a stadium. I hope they love the kooky cast of characters as much as I do. I hope they laugh. I hope they feel a little scared. I hope they find they have to fight back a tear or two. I hope they see life has a little magic if we keep our eyes open to it. Most importantly, I’d like my readers to realize that when everyone works together toward a common goal, there’s no limit to what can be achieved.

And, as far as 3000 Feet Over Lambeau, I hope they discover there’s a big, wide world of smelly cheese out there they never knew existed.

What’s some advice you would give to other writers hoping to publish their own middle grade books?

I hardly feel qualified to give advice, but I really believe it’s important to write about what interests you. And…to write every day. There will be days when you can barely eke out a few words and then there will be times when your fingers can’t keep up with your brain.

Persistence pays off. I plod along. Plod. Plod. Plod. Then comes that glorious day when you write THE END…and then it’s just 3-4 more months of rewrite! 

As the great Jimmy Dugan, played by Tom Hanks, once said in the movie, A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

One other tip: Have your dog sleep under your desk when you’re writing.

What’s next for you? Any upcoming books? How can people learn more about your work and connect with you?

Retirement. After 30 plus years of writing TV, radio, newspaper ads, and magazine ads, I’m leaving it all behind to devote all my time to writing more books, promoting the series, visiting stadiums and rooting for my Detroit Tigers, Lions, Wings, and Pistons.

Now that 3000 Feet Over Lambeau is out, I’m plodding along with the next adventure, Tiger Stadium Time Machine, and I’ll be honest, I can’t wait to find out what happens.

To contact me the best way is to email me at You can also visit my website

A little bit about the book:

Hang on to your cheese wedge! 3000 Feet Over Lambeau picks up where Freaked Out at Wrigley Field left off.

In this unbelievable, unpredictable, fun-filled, stadium-jumping adventure, Hawk, Nestor and Michael travel to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio with their youth football team led by a pint-sized quarterback who’s as tough as nails and…a girl.

At the Hall of Fame, they collide with a kooky out-of-control collection of radical Cheeseheads on a secret mission of mayhem.

Suddenly, the team finds themselves in the middle of one big mixed-up mess with only one impossible, eye-popping, stomach-churning, death-defying way out!

A little bit about the author:

Roger D. Hess has always been a writer. He’s worked as a journalist, a greeting card writer,  a screenwriter, a speech writer and a ghostwriter. He’s been an award-winning copywriter in advertising and marketing and a crackerjack public relations expert, pounding out hundreds of press releases for major news outlets. Now, he’s a novelist. 
He is also a husband, a dad, a grandpa and…a stadium lover. Every year, he squeezes in as many visits as possible to ball parks, football stadiums, hockey arenas large and small. For him, happiness is a ticket in one hand and a hot dog in the other. And it’s at that point, the adventure begins!

Friday, March 13, 2020

Interview with Nonfiction Mentor Patricia Newman
SCBWI-MI is holding two nonfiction mentorships this year. One is for nonfiction picture books
with mentor Patricia Newman and the other is for nonfiction middle grade and young adult
books with Stephanie Bearce.

Complete submission instructions are on the mentorship page of the website.

The submission window for both mentorships is May 5-26.
For questions, contact SCBWI-MI mentorship coordinator Ann Finkelstein.

Today we have an interview with nonfiction PB mentor, Patricia Newman. Patricia’s award-
winning books show kids how their actions can ripple around the world. She is the author of
Robert F. Sibert Honor Book Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators That Saved an Ecosystem; as well
as NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book Eavesdropping on Elephants: How Listening Helps
ConservationZoo Scientists to the Rescue, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s
Book; Green Earth Book Award winner, Plastic, Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage
Patch; Booklist Editor’s Choice title Ebola: Fears and Facts; and Neema’s Reason to Smile,
winner of a Parents’ Choice Award. Newman hopes to empower kids to think about the adults
they’d like to become. Her author visits are described as “phenomenal,” “passionate,” and

What do you like best about writing nonfiction?
I like to find connections to my world that not only impact me but hopefully will impact my readers. Real-world connections made learning memorable and exciting when I was young (actually they still do). I hope to give my readers that same tingle of awe I felt when I made an important leap that led to understanding.

What do you like least?
Oh, that’s easy—proposal writing. Most short-form nonfiction is written on spec, i.e. the entire manuscript is written and submitted to an editor in the hopes of a sale. However, my middle-grade nonfiction sells via proposal, which is a sales document that outlines the book, the market, the competition, and the experts I plan to interview. Proposals are difficult to write because after only a relatively small amount of research I need to pull together the book’s hook, it’s voice, its narrative thread, and experts willing to work with me—all before the book is actually written. I wrote a guest post for Melissa Stewart’s Celebrate Science blog called Between the Lines: The Nonfiction Proposal that details the proposal writing process, and includes quotes and advice from other celebrated nonfiction authors. If you’re interested in long-form nonfiction, this is a must-read.

Describe a typical writing day.
There’s no such thing. Most people think authors sit alone in their offices all day thinking deep thoughts, and of course, that’s true to some extent, but there’s so much more to being an author. Essentially, we’re each running a one-person business and have to develop a variety of interpersonal, organizational, tech, marketing, and speaking skills, in addition to craft skills.

Some days I write with a laser focus, ignoring email, social media, the phone, and sometimes even my husband! Other days, I dig through scientific studies, locate experts, pour over bibliographies, search the web for articles, and make travel plans for research trips. I’m often on the road visiting schools or presenting at a library, reading, or science conference. Today, I’m responding to interview questions as I wait for my editor to email the latest revisions for my upcoming title. Some days I blog. I curate a LitLinks blog on my website that highlights the natural connections between STEM and language arts, and I assemble middle-grade STEM-themed book lists with nonfiction pal Nancy Castaldo for the STEM Tuesday blog. In between all of that activity, I update my website, write conference proposals, prepare new school visit presentations, design marketing materials, attend critique group meetings, give interviews, and read.

Every evening I write a to-do list for the next day. Sometimes I follow the list, but more often than not some crisis derails me and I’m forced to follow another tangent.

Which of your books was the most fun to write? Why?
All of the books have been fun for various reasons. Sea Otter Heroes involved a research trip to the Elkhorn Slough off Monterey Bay. Any time I’m on the water, I’m happy. My daughter went with me as research assistant/photographer. Several of her photos made it into the book.

Researching Sea Otter Heroes (Dr. Brent Hughes, L; Dr. Lilian Carswell, center; Patricia, R). Photo credit: Elise Newman

While writing Plastic, Ahoy!, I met photographer/filmmaker/diver Annie Crawley. When we worked on Zoo Scientists to the Rescue, we traveled to three different zoos and interviewed/photographed three different scientists. We navigated a Colorado blizzard, laughed over an angry black-footed ferret that scolded us, and gasped when a rhino charged Annie’s camera lens.

Annie and I presented Zoo Scientists to the Rescue at the Discovery Museum in Fort Collins, CO where we did some of our research

During the research phase of Eavesdropping on Elephants, I interviewed Katy Payne who started the Elephant Listening Project with colleague Andrea Turkalo at Cornell University. Katy and her husband also discovered that humpback whales sing to each other, so she was already a legend when I spoke with her. The scientists at ELP were so generous with photos, video, and audio. I returned home with several files and had a wonderful time choosing which sounds would be featured in the book’s QR codes.

When I traveled to the Pacific Northwest to research Planet Ocean, I took a scuba diving class with Annie and her Dive Team.

Scuba dive lesson with Annie (R). Photo credit: Anne Crawley

When you’re reading for pleasure, what features of a book typically impress you the most?
Whether I read nonfiction or fiction, I love books that have a clever hook. I like to be drawn in right away. I also gravitate toward books with different formats. I especially study the formats of nonfiction books.

What brings you joy?
·      Family get-togethers with good food and board games
·      Holding hands with my husband
·      Watching a mother elephant caress her newborn
·      Being outdoors
·      The third-graders who compared my Neema’s Reason to Smile with Plastic, Ahoy! They told me the many differences between these two titles – one’s fiction, the other is nonfiction; one is illustrated, the other has photos, etc. When I asked them what was the same about these two books, one third-grader said, “They both want us to DO something.”
·      The high school student whose college application essay described how Plastic, Ahoy! encouraged her to study marine debris in college.

What inspires you?
Nature – its beauty, diversity, complexity, and resilience. All good lessons for people, don’t you think?

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
Egypt, because of its long history.

If you could have dinner with any person throughout history who would it be? What would you discuss?
I’d love to chat about climate change with Rachel Carson and Al Gore.

What aspects of being a nonfiction mentor are you most looking forward to?
I’ve had several critiques of my work throughout the years. Some of them were wonderful, but many of them have fallen short in terms of advice that helped me shape a WIP into a saleable manuscript. I look forward to being the person that helps a new writer become an author.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
As I mentioned above, Annie Crawley and I are teaming up again for a middle-grade title called Planet Ocean. This is our heart book. Every breath connects us to our ocean. Yet we often misunderstand and misrepresent this ecosystem that makes life on Earth possible. In this title, we demonstrate our inextricable link to the sea, and how climate change and pollution affect the sustainability of the beating blue heart of our planet. Our decisions in the US affect the Arctic; changes in the Arctic affect Indonesia. We share cultural and economic perspectives from Indonesians, the Inupiat in Alaska north of the Arctic Circle; and the Lummi Nation in the Salish Sea area of Washington. We also feature many child and teen activists making a difference to inspire our readers.

Patricia’s books inspire young readers to seek connections to the real world. Titles such as Planet Ocean; Sea Otter Heroes; Eavesdropping on Elephants; Plastic, Ahoy!; Zoo Scientists to the Rescue; and Neema’s Reason to Smile encourage readers to use their imaginations to solve real-world problems and act on behalf of their communities. A Robert F. Sibert Honor recipient, Patricia’s books have received starred reviews, Green Earth Book Awards, a Parents’ Choice Award; been honored as Junior Library Guild selections; and been included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. Patricia frequently speaks at schools and conferences to share how children of any age can affect change. Visit her at

Stay tuned! We'll have an interview with SCBWI-MI's other nonfiction mentor, Stephanie Bearce, next Friday.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Writer Spotlight: Leslie Helakoski

Charlie Barshaw coordinates our quarterly Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. In this piece, meet author and illustrator and former SCBWI-MI Regional Adviser Leslie Helakoski.

From Louisiana to the Upper Peninsula: Leslie Helakoski's extraordinary journey in words and pictures

You worked during your developing years at your parent’s Montessori-style “Thinking School.” What of that early school experience do you treasure most?

My parents were all about finding the teachable moments in every day activities which influenced raising my own children and my writing. My biggest take-away was learning to understand and value how kids approach learning and problem solving in different ways. It’s a big part of why I wrote the book WOOLBUR.

You earned a degree in Advertising and worked as a designer and illustrator. Eventually you earned a degree in Illustration from Northern Michigan University in the U.P. You worked for ad firms in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana, but were you really prepared for Yooper winters? 

No, after growing up in south Louisiana, I was certainly not prepared for Yooper winters. But I’d met my husband while he was visiting in Louisiana and that was that. The first things I bought were snow boots and a totally inadequate coat.

But living in the UP helped me nurture the writing seed inside myself. And living in a new environment opened my eyes up to so many new things, ways and ideas. I think living in a different place from where you grow up helps you write for a broader audience.

In an interview you say you joined SCBWI in 1998 “mainly because I wanted to be an illustrator.” But your first five books were written but not illustrated by you. What is the difference between advertising design and picture book illustrating?

It took me a long time to figure out the difference between design and illustration. For me it was realizing illustrating includes character development and showing part of the story, while design can be strictly about how something looks. It was hard letting go of my plans to illustrate my early books but I can see now that I wasn’t ready to do them justice.

This is where immersing myself in picture books played a role. I needed to read read read, and look look look at as many books as I could that were being published then.

Many of your book series are well-known (Woolbur, Big Chickens). But take us back to 2002 with the publication of The Smushy Bus. How did your first picture book publication come about? 

My first book sale---I saw an ad in the back of a writing newsletter asking for humorous books that had a learning aspect to them. I was working on The Smushy Bus at the time, which is one big math problem. I sent it in.

Happily, Lerner Publishing was interested in the manuscript and picked it up. I didn’t know anything about the industry. No experience, no agent, no knowledge. SCBWI was a lifeline and I’ve been a member ever since.

Your next four titles were written by you but illustrated by another artist. Yet, you really wanted to illustrate your own text. What changed that allowed you to illustrate Fair Cow? 

I think my work matured over the years. By the time I wrote my fifth book, Fair Cow, I had been studying picture books for several years, taking classes with illustrators, studying some of my favorite painters. I thought I was up to the task.

When Harper Collins made an offer on the manuscript, but did not want me to illustrate, I was torn. I really wanted to illustrate one of my books. I eventually passed on the offer with the hope that someone else would be interested.

Shortly after that, we sold the manuscript to Marshall Cavendish, a smaller publisher who was willing to have me illustrate. It took me longer than I thought it would but I finally achieved one of my dreams.

Your primary goal was to illustrate your own books, yet you admitted that when it came to Doggone Feet you’d rather let another artist tackle the project. You eventually did illustrate it. How did you come to terms with the difficult dog-eye perspective?  

I often think at the beginning of a project, that I am not the best choice to illustrate a book. It seems that denial and whining are a big part of my process. After some self-doubt and tons of sketches, I might change my mind.

Handling perspective from under a table for Doggone Feet, did have me extra worried. I’m not a highly realistic artist. Eventually, I realized I didn’t have to be. I could make the perspective wonky, which fit with my style of art, and freed me up to play with the art.

You told Cynthia Leitich Smith in a “Cynsations” interview that “after ten years of selling books rather steadily, you hit a wall--nothing was selling.” Finally, in 2017, Hoot and Honk was published. What changes did it take to break through the barriers? 

Hoot and Honk cover 
Picture books themselves changed 20 years ago. Much shorter stories and concise language were what was selling. Teaching standards became important in marketing. Non-fiction and STEM projects were surging.  Paying attention to what is selling is always important.

I knew I had to shorten my texts. And I literally went through an early draft of Hoot & Honk with a marker blacking out every other word (or so.) I came up with a more clipped version which somehow worked.

The book was about a nocturnal bird and a diurnal bird, so I had some science/biology at hand and I knew Compare and Contrast was something educators focused on, so I kept that in mind as I was writing the final text.

Recently, Are Your Stars Like My Stars? was published, written by you and Illustrated by Michigan artist Heidi Sheffield. Did you play a role in choosing her as your artist  

I’ve known Heidi for many years through SCBWI and we have been in an author/illustrator crit group together for several years. I’ve always admired her work.

When I sold STARS to Sterling Publishing, I knew my art was not a good fit. My editor and I both wanted something ethereal and beautiful. My style of art is more playful and whimsical, so I was OK about not illustrating.

We were considering several artists when it hit me that Heidi’s work might be a good fit. I talked to Heidi to see if she would be interested. When she said yes, I sent the editor a link to Heidi’s work suggesting her as a possibility. They were pretty quick to say yes, and contacted her agent to set up a deal.

Heidi grasped the concept about seeing each other in different ways and her art highlighted the text beautifully. We’re happy that it’s been one of the best-selling books at independent bookstores in Michigan this winter.

You spent more than ten years as the Co-Regional Adviser for SCBWI-MI. What are your proudest accomplishments during your reign?  

Being Co-Regional Advisor for 11 years was a great privilege and adventure. Encouraging a strong sense of community was an early and continuing goal.

To that end, we started regional shoptalk meetings around the state. Our fabulous members expanded on these by offering to share their journeys and information with their own and other regions. These meetings have become a great perk of membership. We all have so much we can learn from each other.

Our members’ willingness to share has been phenomenal. Along the way, we also strengthened our illustrator community with great programming, stellar volunteers, and strong illustrator coordinators. Over 9 years, we held 3 large multi-region events. The Marvelous Midwest conferences were able to bring big national style events at an affordable rate to the Midwest.
By far, my biggest accomplishment was pulling Carrie Pearson in to be Co-RA with me. She and I were in sync from the beginning and putting our heads together for our region was a great joy. My heart-felt thanks goes out to all of our volunteers for making Michigan a strong and vital chapter.

Author Darcy Pattison appeared as a presenter at an SCBWI-MI conference years ago. Today, you and Darcy teach “PB&J, Picture Books and All That Jazz” for Highlights Foundation. Did you first meet her at our conference?

Yes. I first met Darcy at our Michigan event many years ago. We became friends who looked at each other’s work occasionally. Then, years later, we met up again when we were both speaking at an event in Pennsylvania held at Highlight’s Barn.

We knew we had a lot to offer PB writers and came up with the idea to collaborate on a workshop partly because we approached writing so differently. We felt we could offer a lot of information in different ways.

Our PB&J (Picture Books and All That Jazz) has been running each June for 6 years now. It’s an intense 4 days but we feel it is the equivalent of attending 4 or 5 conferences. Many of our attendees go on to sign with agents or sell manuscripts after attending.

Anything you wished I’d asked?

Since retiring as RA, my husband and I sold our home in Kalamazoo and are dividing our time between Louisiana and Grand Rapids or the Upper Peninsula.

I’m always working on a few manuscripts in differing stages. STARS came out in January and a book I illustrated for the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency 
(KRESA) will be out this spring and circulated to schools around the state.  I have two manuscripts that are ready to go out.

And I’m working on a mid-grade novel---which is soooo different from picture books. We’ll see where that goes.

But wherever I am, I am sure I’ll be writing, or talking about writing. I mean really, what’s better than doing what you love?

Leslie Helakoski grew up in the Louisiana bayous, found employment and her husband Up North. She has written 11 picture books and illustrated three of them. She spent more than a decade as the Co-Regional Adviser of SCBWI-MI.

Charlie Barshaw submitted his full YA manuscript to a big-name literary agent. While finishing up revisions on his MG novel about a squirrel invasion, he's tinkering around with a new YA ghost story.