Friday, May 20, 2022

It Starts with Hello with Betsy McKee Williams


Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert or somewhere in-between based on the situation, you’ll be able to relate to the bookends in Betsy McKee Williams post: from wondering if you belong—to knowing you belong in SCBWI-MI! The welcomes, invitations, and smiles we share with others, especially those who are “frozen like the proverbial deer in the headlights” as Betsy mentions, have a huge impact in making our members feel seen and valued. And as we know, one “hello” leads to another and another!

Share an important “Hello” experience with your SCBWI-MI friends by submitting your story (300-words or less) to Isabel Estrada O’Hagin:  Recently joined SCBWI? Don’t be shy--we’d love to hear from you!  

Once upon a time, I was an introverted newbie at my first SCBWI conference, unpublished, knowing nobody, and doubting that I belonged.

At my first session, I chose an empty seat, one strategically surrounded by other empty seats.

Nancy Shaw sat down beside me. She introduced herself and chatted with me. She provided helpful info and made me feel welcome, as if I had a right to be there.

Later, at mealtime I stood, tray in hand, frozen like the proverbial deer in the headlights. All the tables looked full, filled with people talking to friends. But before I could seek an empty corner, Ruth McNally Barshaw saved the day. She invited me to join her crowded table and welcomed me into their conversation.

Only later did I learn how many books Nancy and Ruth had each published. These eminent authors first welcomed me as a friend.

More invitations followed: to join a book club, to join a critique group, to help plan events, to help out at conferences. Somewhere along the way, I started extending invitations too.

I’m still an introvert, still pre-published, but approaching my goals. I’ve made good friends and learned a lot. I’m still learning. And I know I belong in SCBWI.

Betsy McKee Williams

Betsy McKee Williams supports grad student writing by day and writes for kids after hours. She writes mostly middle grade, fiction and non, and seeks precise historical accuracy when writing time travel fiction. She recently completed an MFA in Young People's Literature from the Solstice MFA Program. Betsy has been a member of SCBWI since 2012. For most of that time, she has been coordinating Shop Talks in Ann Arbor. And writing.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Combating Unauthorized YouTube Videos of Children’s Books

By Janet Ruth Heller

In late March 2022, I was googling my fiction picture book about bullying How the Moon Regained Her Shape to get the ISBN to fill out an important form. I expected the first Google listing to be my publisher Arbordale’s webpage. However, I was startled to discover that the first site listed was a YouTube video of a woman reading aloud my award-winning book for children and showing all of the book’s illustrations.

Continuing my search, I found three more different YouTube videos of unauthorized people reading my book aloud and showing all of the artwork. While I liked knowing that these people enjoyed my book, I strongly disapproved of their plagiarism.

Copyright law in the United States allows “fair use” of a published book. For example, when I taught college courses about literature for children, I would bring various kids’ books to class to show my students. But posting a video online requires permission from the author, artist, or publisher. The YouTube plagiarists violated my book’s copyright. I was shocked that people would post such a video without permission.

I immediately e-mailed Arbordale Publishing, and editor Donna German asked YouTube to take all four videos down. YouTube quickly complied.

I also posted about this plagiarism on the Michigan SCBWI’s listserv to let my brother and sister writers and artists know that this is happening so that they could check YouTube and other social media, protect their copyrights, and not allow this infringement to continue.

Terry Hojnacki, who also writes for children, is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Sterling Heights Public Library, and is a member of SCBWI-Michigan, saw my post and e-mailed me the following questions: “Do you know anything about librarians reading books and posting online? Would this also be considered a copyright violation?”

The next three paragraphs are my answers to Terry’s questions. 

I have no objection to librarians or teachers reading my seven books aloud to children and adults at a library or school and showing the audience the illustrations. However, I do not think that librarians or teachers or anyone else has the right to post a video or podcast or any other online message copying words or illustrations in my books. The only exception would be if the author, artist, and publisher all approve such a video or other posting of such material. Any legal posting should have a line reading “recorded with permission from Arbordale Publishing” or a similar acknowledgment.

Some of my books exist in many forms, including hardback, paperback, online, English, Spanish, and audio versions. When people post my books online on YouTube and other media, people can access free copies. That cuts into the royalties that I earn from sales of my books in all of their formats. Plagiarism also makes people less likely to ask me to come to a school or library to read my books and discuss them, which is another way that writers and artists earn money.

As you know, we writers and illustrators benefit from sales of our books. Illegal posts and videos of our works hurt our income and our right to decide who gets to show pages or read our books to the public.

Also, I e-mailed the national offices of the SCBWI and requested that the leaders of our organization contact YouTube and other social media to ask for a better policy when individuals want to post material from books or a video of a person reading aloud copyrighted material. People should have to prove that they have permission from holders of copyrights to post pages from books or read books aloud.

However, the national SCBWI Advisory Council has declined to pursue social media who violate copyright protection. The Advisory Council stated that many publishers and countries like Australia have allowed more sharing of book material due to COVID. Writers’ and artists’ contracts with publishers vary in restrictions about how much from each book may be posted for publicity purposes. In general, the Advisory Council felt that this issue is too complex to litigate.

I’m disappointed that the Advisory Council will not insist that social media exclude plagiarists. Most schools have returned to in-person classes in 2022, so I see less need for online posting of books. I would like to see all social media platforms clearly inform users that no one may post copyrighted books without written permission and that individuals who do so will get suspended from that platform.


Janet Ruth Heller is president of the Michigan College English Association. She has published four poetry books: Nature’s Olympics (Wipf and Stock, 2021), Exodus (WordTech, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora, 2012), and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line, 2011). The University of Missouri Press published her scholarly book, Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (1990). Fictive Press published Heller’s middle-grade chapter book about sibling rivalry, The Passover Surprise (2015, 2016). Her children’s book about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006; 6th ed. 2018), has won four national awards. Her website is


Monday, May 9, 2022

Book Birthday Blog with Pria Dee


Welcome to SCBWI-MI's Book Birthday Blog!

Where we celebrate new books from Michigan's authors and illustrators. 


Congratulations to Pria Dee on the release

 of Molly and the Lost Dance Shoes


How did you come up with the idea for your book?

My children were always misplacing their things just before an important event, leading to many stressful and amusing moments.  I wrote this story to capture one such moment.

What is something you hope your readers will take away from your book?

Parents I am sure can relate to this story, where all their pleas of putting things where they belong are often ignored. Children however will relish the fact that Molly realizes her mistake and tries to rectify it on her own and learns an important lesson in the process. 

What inspires you to write?

I have always loved telling stories to children and seeing their faces glow with delight.  There is nothing more wonderful than igniting a child’s imagination and to hear them laugh as they listen to a story.  I hope that other parents can enjoy these moments with their children when they read my books to their little ones.      

What was the most difficult part of writing your book?

Writing is a joy and working with an illustrator to bring a story to life is a wonderful experience.  However, publishing the book, marketing it, and getting it into the hands of your targeted readers are the hardest parts.  A book only has value when others read it. 

What are your marketing plans for the book?

I am part of several author groups on Facebook and recently have become a part of the TikTok and Instagram author communities. In addition, I am using KDP advertising.

A little bit about the book . . .

Little Molly Butter has practiced over and over for her recital. Sometimes with her dance shoes on. Sometimes with them off. She needs them for her show. Where could they be hiding? This book is the second in the Billy and Molly Series.

A little bit about the author . . .

Pria Dee is an Indian American author, who lives in Michigan.  She has written several children’s books based on her experiences and observations.  Pria loves animals and children and writes to combine both her passions.

Pria’s book Molly and the Lost Dance Shoes is about a little girl who loses her shoes just before a recital and tries to find them on her own.  It is the second book in the Billy and Molly Series.  This book speaks to the heart of what Pria loves most about childhood experiences; it is spirited, fun, and about a family. Doing things without adult supervision is something that all children want to do while growing up, and this story brings the humor of that everyday situation home to young readers.

Pria has written for years and has many works in progress but did not have the time and resources to see the projects through to publication until recently.



Friday, May 6, 2022

Writer Spotlight: Michelle Traven

Off the train in the Czech Republic, an Orphaned Grandfather in Mexico City, the best mud pie in Colorado, and getting "the words just right": Michelle Traven

Charlie Barshaw coordinates our regular Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. In this piece, meet world traveler, photographer and librarian, Michelle Traven.

I thought I found some travel photos you’d taken in various European countries, but now I can’t find them again. Was I delusional, or did you travel to France and Italy?


Many years ago, I lived, wrote, and guest taught K-12 in Switzerland for two years while my husband had a temporary position at a local university. I also lived in Berlin once upon a time. My itchy feet have taken me around Europe and North America, and one time even hopped a ride on a train through the Czech Republic.

My Eurail pass wasn’t valid in the recently established country, and the very generous yet stern Czech ticket officer repeatedly threatened to throw me off the train at the next station, but then very carefully avoided my train car at every stop during what was a very long overnight journey to Austria.

In your world travels, what places did you like best? Which places would you pass up this time?

I wouldn’t pass on any place. The world is full of wonderful sights and wonderful people.

You seem to be an excellent nature photographer, judging from some of the compositions you posted on social media. Is photography a passion, or are you just gifted at it?

Lake Superior at sunset

Thank you for your kind words! I attribute any seeming photographic talent to modern technology and these amazing computers that fit in our pockets.


One of your “handles” includes CADL. Are you employed or affiliated with the Capital Area District Library?

Literacy, education, and librarianship are some of my passions. There are many-worlds in these magical objects we call books. I worked for the fantastic organization that is the Capital Area District Library for many years before returning to school to earn my teaching certification in the hopes of eventually managing my own school school library.

Are you teaching now?  What subject?

I recently was hired as the librarian at Red Cedar Elementary School in East Lansing and feel as if I won the job lottery.

What’s your favorite age of student, and why?

All kids, both young and only young-at-heart, are great to work with.

Describe your life growing up. Who or what influenced you to become a writer?

My very large maternal family was full of storytellers. My grandfather told tales of surviving the streets of Mexico City as an orphan, my grandmother concocted romantic tales (later discovered to be just about complete fiction) about how they had met. As a child I loved to hide in closets where the darkness enabled me to fully enter the imaginary worlds my mind conjured. In other words, I was born this way.

Where did you grow up? What do you remember about your early years?

Shadow Mountain Reservoir, Colorado


I grew up in Colorado and Texas. I owned and operated Colorado’s best mud pie bakery. Most of my customers were imaginary and every single one of them loved my mud pies. I also liked to run in circles along the chain-link fence in my mama’s backyard in Texas and to search for cicadas and praying mantises and to try and catch lizards by their tails (fortunately mostly unsuccessfully).

What were some of your favorite books? What are you reading now?

Hop on Pop was a childhood favorite and remains a go-to book when trying to capture the attention of a younger audience. All folk tales are favorites. I always love seeing these stories reimagined by new writers and illustrators.

Another photo from a pre-pandemic trip to Ireland

Currently I am reading Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake, and looking forward to reading Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff.

What are you working on right now? 

Right now, I am working on a coming-of-age/thriller young adult novel loosely based on my own experiences as a high school scholarship student at a prestigious East Coast boarding school, with a little bit of fictional, murder-mystery thriller plot thrown in for some excitement.

What works have you put away in a drawer? What did you learn from writing them?

I have many short stories, poems, a middle grade and YA novel in a drawer. My life is very full, so my present attempts at publishing are on a burner not at the back, but also in a drawer.

Writing is a lifelong endeavor to get the words just right, but always falling just a little bit short of what is imagined. I am a firm believer in the transformative power of a good edit, so consider all my works-in-a-drawer little seeds that someday might prove to be mighty oaks.

How did you find SCBWI? How did you find LAST?


I found SCBWI when researching organizations that support writers of children’s literature, and it has been a fantastic resource of many things including a map to the Lansing Area Shop Talks, which are a great way to network, talk about the writing life, and enjoy the company of other creators.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Welcome Shanna Heath to the E&I Team!


Please help SCBWI-MI welcome Shanna to the Equity and Inclusion team. We appreciate her passion and are excited that she is joining the team!

Image of Shanna Heath with SCBWI-MI logo. Text says The Quity and Inclusion Team Welcomes Shanna Heath. Shanna Heath is a weirdo, in the best sense of the word. Nicknamed "Shanna Shock-a-Rama" as a teen, Shanna wasn't all that shocking. She was just a queer, neurodivergent, and creative kid growing up in rural Ohio (gasp!). Now, Shanna's goal is to foster creative abundance among authors with diverse perspectives. Shanna is thrilled to be joining the E and I team and looks forward to connecting SCBWI members with fresh, diverse, fun, and very weird books/authors/illustrators.

Cover of Other Terrors: An Inclusive Anthology.


Shanna Heath writes horror for all ages, because it is an ancient genre that has always embraced weirdness. Her short stories have been published in BURROW PRESS REVIEW, CEMETERY MOON, and the upcoming anthologies OTHER TERRORS: AN INCLUSIVE ANTHOLOGY (Clarion/Mariner) and HAUNTED STATES OF AMERICA (Henry Holt). Shanna lives with her wife and two kiddos in Kalamazoo, where they keep Halloween decorations out all year long. Shanna is a member of SCBWI and the Horror Writers Association (HWA). Connect with Shanna on Instagram @mother_marrow, Twitter @shannalheath, or through her website

Friday, April 29, 2022

A Day in the Life of an Illustrator by Kristen Uroda

Before I sit down at my desk to do any kind of work in the morning, I drink a hot cup of matcha and do some kind of physical activity like stretching, jump roping, or going for a quick walk. I find that when I skip this step, I feel more easily distracted, less focused, and stiffer at the end of the day. I’m not perfectly consistent, but I’m a big advocate of putting the pencil down regularly and tending to one's physical and mental health.

I’m a decently early riser, maybe more by habit and less by preference, but I enjoy working at times when it feels like the rest of the world is quiet. My most focused working hours span between 7:30AM-12:00PM, but I have periods of deep states of flow between 10PM-3AM. I try to shut off as many distractions as possible and avoid checking emails, text messages, and social media during these times because I can easily go down a rabbit hole.

If I’m working on an editorial project, I'll grab my tablet or a stack of sticky notes and write down some ideas I may have based on the title alone and then I read through the brief several times, looking for key words or paragraphs as “hooks” for the image. If the brief is on a complex topic or about a person, I’ll do supplemental research, looking up other articles and/or biographies to get a deeper sense of the subject. I do more writing than drawing in this initial stage, creating some mind maps or sentences of concepts I’d want to explore further, as ideas come rapidly and sometimes it’s faster to briefly describe in words what I’m thinking before doing a few squiggly thumbnails. The goal is to just get the ideas out as quickly as possible to sift through later.

For the first sketch, I was really intrigued by the idea that, "storytellers shape this world, and our understanding of it." So surrounding a planet within this starburst are various storytellers doing different activities like writing, thinking, speaking, editing, etc. I thought it would still get at the idea of how to craft a story but is more about how storytelling is this dynamic creative event.

This second sketch is a lot more focused on the craft of storytelling. When I think of those two words (craft + storytelling), I think of weaving as the phrase "weaving stories" is familiar and there are a number of cultures that use textiles, like weaving, as a storytelling tradition. So, in front of a large hanging loom sits a woman, weaving a picture and pulling on threads from various places surrounded by butterflies. 

The third one is more simple and straightforward. I was thinking about how the point of storytelling is about connection and how a good story can captivate us, so in the middle of an enthralled crowd is a person energetically sharing a story.

After the initial brain dump, I’ll go on Google and Pinterest for visual inspiration, color palettes, to see what has already been illustrated before, and gather reference photos as needed. Once I feel I have enough information, I’ll start making more detailed sketches and connecting everything I’ve digested up until that point. I try to take this stage as slow as possible while taking frequent breaks to give my brain time to synthesize and make unique connections.

I followed pretty much the same steps when illustrating the picture book I’m currently working on, but took a lot more time thinking about character design and going out to observe and people watch as small details—like the right haircut or polka dots instead of stripes on a shirt—can really impact the feel of the story and how readers connect with the characters.
From there, once I submit the sketches and one is approved by the art director, I’ll go to the final! The process at this point is simple—I just color things in and try to make it look nice.


Kristen Uroda is an artist best known for her vibrant, joyful illustrations. Often softly formed yet boldly colored, her work aims to express beauty in the ordinary moments, celebrate the poetry within diverse faces and figures, and tell stories that inspire reflection and social and civic change. While her career started in editorial illustration, she has most recently moved into narrative illustration with her first picture book coming in 2023. She also works as a design researcher at Civilla, a Detroit-based studio dedicated to changing the way public-serving institutions work using human-centered design thinking and design research.


Tuesday, April 26, 2022

It Starts with Hello with Robin Pizzo

This month’s It Starts with Hello story is authored by Robin Pizzo, a long-time member of SCBWI who attends the Lansing Area Shop Talks (LAST). Our regional Shop Talks are a fabulous way to connect with other kidlit creatives, as are SCBWI-MI workshops and conferences. Don’t walk, run to your nearest Shop Talk!

-- Isabel Estrada O’Hagin, Outreach Coordinator


Sixteen years ago, my third child and first son neared two and would not wean. I know, just stay with me. I was researching how to get my picture books published and found some article about SCBWI. My husband suggested I attend the LA SCBWI Summer Conference and that would wean my little guy, plus I’d learn about the publishing process.


Unfortunately, I missed my flight. My mom lived in Detroit, and I went home to cry on her shoulder. She would not accept my tears but gave me the money to fly out first thing the next morning. I made it just as the keynote was over and the audience had cleared. Again, tears. Then a man started with, “Hello,” and asked me what was going on. That man was Walter Dean Myers, one of my literary rock stars. Tears again. We talked for a while about my journey, and he encouraged me to keep writing.

For the next two days, I met Linda Sue Park, heard Jacqueline Woodson speak, and learned from great editors like Arthur A. Levine. I even roomed with Jennifer D. Chambliss who wrote the amazing Book Scavenger series. From there, I connected at a local bookstore with Lansing’s Regional Shop Talks. Although I’m a member of the SistaLoc Writing Group in Lansing, which is comprised of five professional Black women who write in a variety of genres, I’m the only one writing kidlit. The Regional Shop Talks are great for checking in with writers who focus primarily on children’s literature. This past September I enjoyed the outdoor gathering hosted by Charlie and Ruth Barshaw. It was a perfect mix of social distancing, fall foliage, fresh air, kid lit creators, snacks, writing journey, a Quinceanera, and book talk. 

More about Robin in her own words: I've been a writer since the age of five and my first published piece was a poem for my childhood best friend aka my grandmother printed in her obituary. I fell in love with books in 5th grade and historical fiction is my favorite genre. I still hate that I sold my Shakespeare anthology in college because I was broke and the buyback seemed better than selling plasma. I continue to write all the things but my ambition is to become a traditional children’s author publishing picture books to young adult and everything in between. I'm a Detroit girl, member of the Sistalocks Writing Group, a mom, wife and Education Director at WKAR Public Media where Elmo is my boss, according to my youngest!  

You can also read more about Robin in her interview with Charlie Bradshaw or follow her on Twitter or YouTube

Thank you, Robin, for sharing this uplifting story of perseverance!

 Enjoy reading about other member’s “Hello” stories? I do, and I bet you do, too! We each have a unique story to tell! Send your 300-word or less submission to



Friday, April 22, 2022

Writer Spotlight: Isabel Estrada O'Hagin

Summers with nana and tata, Whoppers, "Gone with the Wind" in one day, Equity and Inclusion, and the Tribute Fund

Charlie Barshaw coordinates our quarterly Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. In this piece, meet Isabel Estrada O'Hagin, the SCBWI-MI Outreach Coordinator.

You grew up one of seven children in the barrios of Tucson. Since then, you’ve traveled to 14 countries and relocated to Michigan. Have you been back to Tucson? Has it changed much over the years? Is your childhood neighborhood still intact?

I love Tucson and the surrounding area! Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic I visited my family in the Ole Pueblo yearly. In some ways it’s much the same, but the city continues to growunfortunately, that means more bulldozing of the rapidly disappearing Sonoran desert.

My barrio is still intact, as are most of them. Some families leave, new ones move in. The celebration of Mexican-American culture is visible everywhere: bilingual signs, restaurants, shops, tortillerías, and the architecture. Restaurants there when I was a kid are still open. One great addition is a Latino-based bookstore.

You talk about spending summers in Nogales with your nana and tata. What do you remember about those summers with your grandparents?

I remember the love we shared and the relaxed lifestyle. My tata, Don Alberto, greeted everyone wherever we walked. We would cross the border and do our shopping while my tata chatted and then chatted some more. Mis abuelos lived in a magnificent old house full of intriguing nooks and crannies that I constantly explored. I was a curious child!

I remember running up and down the hilly streets of Nogales. Nana had a chicken coop perched on the side of the hill—we all remember the adventures in the chicken coop. I also remember the picnics we had in Patagonia on our way back to Tucson. The creeks were filled with water back in those days. We often had to jump out of our station wagon and push it out of the mud.

You mention “mud pies, mud people and mud villages.” That suggests your family was dirt poor, but also that you kids had a boundless imagination. What worlds did you construct in your young mind?

Oh, we were poor, but so was everyone else in our barrio. We had a piano, plenty of toys, board games, bikes and so on, but we liked to play outside. In that part of Arizona, you can live outdoors most of the year.

In addition to all kinds of sports, we liked to dig. Once we dug a hole in the backyard for over a month convinced we would find treasure. My kid brother loved to carve dirt roads for his race cars and we played, too. Our soil was always dry so we turned on the hose to carve out race tracks, streets, rivers, mountains and villages encircled by walls. I guess you could think of it as an organic sandy mudbox.

Another favorite pastime was hosting talent shows in the backyard. Our stage was an old wooden table painted red.

You said the family tradition was of telling “sapos” or whoppers. Was oral storytelling an important part of parties or every-day life? Have you ever written any of these tall tales for all to enjoy?

Yes, oral storytelling is still an important part of our family life. We would gather around the piano on Saturday evenings and sing, with stories coming afterward. My dad loved to tell stories of his childhood when he would hike the monte with his buddies and stay out all day. We listened to exciting tales of his mischievous youth, but he liked spinning spooky stories, too. We had a live-in family ghost and told lots of stories about her. I’ve not written any of these stories, but they live in my heart.

You loved to read. Where did you find your books? Was there a person or persons who encouraged your voracious appetite--like reading “Gone With the Wind” in one day!?

We didn’t have any public libraries near our home, but we could check out books from our school library and there was a mobile library that would come to the barrio. I don’t remember any particular teacher, but they all encouraged us to read. I do remember this practice at elementary school: if you finished your class assignments, you could get a pass to the library and hang out there. I learned to complete my assignments in lickety-split time.

Gone with the Wind? I was in eighth grade and bored and thought why not? Hooked immediately, I stayed in my bunkbed until I finished reading the book. I remember my shoulders were stiff and my eyes stung after that experience. I read through the night, so maybe technically the reading rolled over into day two. I only read it that one time, but I’ve seen the movie a couple of times.

You didn’t find many books where you could see yourself, that reflected your experience and identity. Which books came closest? What are you reading now?

Sadly, I didn’t encounter any books or articles where I saw myself on the page in grades K-12. None. I sometimes wonder what my childhood would’ve been like if I could have read books like Esmeralda Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. I did like books with strong girl characters such as Ramona, Nancy Drew, and Laura in Little House on the Prairie. 

Fortunately, my barrio experiences and the city of Tucson offered many opportunities to affirm my cultural identity. Today, some of my favorite authors include Meg Medina, Donna Barba Higuera, Elizabeth Acevedo, J.C. Cervantes, and Erin Entrada Kelly. I could go on and on: Kate DiCamillo, Katherine Applegate, Grace Lin, Kelly Barnhill. . .

You discovered modern dance and choreography in high school. You also found expression in poetry and creative writing, so much so that you eventually became editor of the journal. Was high school an awakening for you?

Absolutely! My school had a diverse student population of about 2,500people from all walks of life—a real eye-opener for me. We were an open campus with the university and downtown only a few blocks away—a school without walls. My teachers were a super dedicated bunch who pushed us toward excellence. I took summer courses each year so I could fill my schedule with dance, choir/band, and creative writing during the regular semesters. I knew this is what I wanted to do the rest of my life imagine, improvise, create!

Describe your path to teaching music, dance, and drama.

Throughout my childhood, I was passionate about music and dance, loving to perform. I wanted to be a famous opera singer, but I decided being a teacher was a great way to contribute to making the world a better place.

After I graduated with a music degree and a minor in dance, I taught music to elementary school children, and then I took a break to attend grad school. I returned to teaching music, dance, and drama to middle schoolers.

I was invited to start a creative dance program at a newly designated gifted and talented/arts middle school magnet where dance was a required subject for everyone. It was a blast! The school district built us a professional dance studio with an indoor and outdoor stage. Those were the days! 

You grew up in the arid Southwest but moved to Michigan. What, besides the obvious differences in climate, were the adjustments you had to make up North?

Our first “It Starts with Hello” story by Lisa Wheeler related how she sought “her people” and it had a happy ending. I undertook a similar quest when I moved to Michigan, to find my people—other Latinos. It was easier when we lived outside the Lansing area, but it’s been more of a challenge in Kalamazoo.

We’ve only lived here for a little over three years and the pandemic has made it difficult to explore the area and get involved with the Latino community. Hopefully, we’ll be able to return to a new normal soon. I miss the music and community celebrations—the fiestas!

Some of the KAST cast

You found SCBWI, and for years would attend Shop Talks in Lansing. When you moved to the Kalamazoo area, you started your own Shop Talk, and with an ambitious agenda and talented neighbors, you’ve built it into one of the premier regional meetings in the state. How?

You may remember, Charlie, that I was one of the quieter attendees at LAST, but I paid attention to all that you and the various leaders did to make the Shop Talks successful. Thank you for being such great role models!

I moved to Kalamazoo in July 2018 and at one of our state conferences I spoke to Carrie Pearson and Leslie Helakoski about my plans to start a Shop Talk. They suggested I speak to Jay Whistler.

Jay put me in touch with other writers in the area and in January 2019, we held our first informal introductory meeting at this is a bookstore in Kalamazoo. We had about nine people attend and our Shop Talks took off. Throughout that first year, we kept asking our members what topics they wanted to discuss.

Like most of our Shop Talks around the state, we’ve gone mostly virtual the past two years, but Melanie Bryce and I continue to work hard to stay in touch with our local members. We send out an email newsletter to bring our local members up to date.

You were awarded the Tribute Fund Award in 2021. What did that mean for you?

The Tribute Fund is a tremendous honor to receive and I deeply believe it is a shared award. For me, it represents how SCBWI recognizes the importance of volunteers who provide service to the organization. I believe that getting people involved and inviting them to share their expertise with others is one way to keep the organization functioning at the highest level. We can be here to support each other as we strive to become better at what we do as illustrators and writers for children’s literature. In other words, the Tribute Fund is a team award. Toot your horns, everyone! Yay, team SCBWI-MI!

You were one of the founders of the Equality and Inclusion Team.  What were the goals of the group, what has it achieved, and where has it set its sights?

The E and I Team worked diligently to write the mission statement that’s posted on our website: SCBWI-MI includes, engages, and embraces disparate voices. Our E & I Team met the challenge of how to best implement the 2020 initiatives outlined by the SCBWI national office, and we led successful outreach efforts such as the Books With Barbers book drive and the E & I Corner Blog in The Mitten. Doing so in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic meant we had to transition toward online efforts such as hosting a Zoom social hour. I’m glad to see that equity and inclusion issues are at the forefront of our current SCBWI initiatives.

You’ve got a unique cure for “writer’s rut.” What helps get your muse unstuck?

I wonder if you’re referring to my dancing? I’ve always loved to blast music throughout the house and dance freely. Improvisation is my thing! My approach doesn’t include a playlist, but I do find that if I play music that resonates with the core of my story and dance or spin while I write I’m free to embody the setting as its own character—and the story comes to life. Moving through music and imagery frees up my imagination. Or were you referring to the mental calisthenics where I channel a particular master writer and dictate? ; - >

You’ve got two mid-grade novels you’re working on (as well as picture books and a YA).  “Chavela’s Quest” deals with Aztec, Mayan and Inic lore. How extensive is the research required to keep the story authentic?

I’ve done extensive research to ground the story in relation to authentic lore and historical artifacts such as various codices that exist (library sources and purchased copies) and collections of various oral traditions. I have a full-color restoration of The Codex Borgia—it’s fabulous! I’ve traveled through Mexico and Guatemala, toured some of the Aztec and Mayan ruins, and visited several museums known for their Pre-Columbian collections.

Seeing those items first-hand and in some cases purchasing contemporary reproductions brings the history to life. I have a list of research books I’d like to own and study—that’s next on my list. BTW—I created the Inic, magical pre-Columbian, organic beings who live underground. I even made up a language for them that’s a mixture of Uto-Aztecan, Olmec, and Mayan languages steeped in my imagination.

Fun, fun, fun!

What is the WIP closest to your heart and writing brain at present?

I’m taking a break from contemporary settings to write a middle grade manuscript that takes place during the high middle-ages. It’s a story about a girl who escapes from al-Andalus and makes her way north. As a musician, I performed in several early music ensembles and sometimes feel I’m a medievalist born in the wrong century. I also studied and choreographed Renaissance dances and so this manuscript is close to my heart in a myriad of ways.  

 Follow Isabel Estrada O’Hagin here:

Instagram: isabelohagin