Friday, March 31, 2023

Interview with Picture Book Mentor, Leslie Helakoski

Welcome to part two of our SCBWI-MI Mentorship Interviews! If you missed it, click here to read part one, in which we interviewed Kim Rogers, our PB prose mentor. For this installment, we talk with Leslie Helakoski, our PB verse mentor.

What is the mentorship, you ask? Great question. Every year, SCBWI-MI provides an opportunity for our members to work with a published author or illustrator who will help you not only improve your current work-in-progress, but the goal is to help you hone your craft overall. This year, we are focusing on prose and verse picture books. To learn more about our mentorships, click here.

Many of you may be familiar with Leslie, who is a former co-RA for our region. She’s also the author and illustrator of over a dozen picture books. Check out her bio on her website here.

Without further ado, enjoy this more personal glimpse of Leslie and her writing.

-Jay Whistler, Mentorship Coordinator


Mentorship Interview with Leslie Helakoski

What do you like best about writing picture books? 

I’ve been playing with words ever since I was very young and I’d find the word puzzle page in Reader’s Digest. I continued to play with words while working in advertising. I even like designing with words. I love that certain words can define, set a mood, show character, or make me laugh.

What do you like least? 

Marketing and self-promotion.

Describe a typical writing day.

In the morning, I tend to exercise (pickle ball, anyone?) and answer email, which includes answering questions at the national help-desk for SCBWI. That leaves me free to write creatively in the afternoon. I’ve tried many times to do creative work first, but I have to trick my head into believing I’ve got nothing else pending and am free to write for myself. I’ll often write until I notice I am uncomfortable sitting or my eyes are tired. If I am illustrating a book, I will paint all day. For weeks. I’m not fast.

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

That would be…BIG CHICKENS. The story came easily—maybe because it is based on a true story—I was a very big chicken when I was young! Plus, the editor was sharp and easy to work with. It was also my first book with a major publisher (Dutton—remember them?). I met the illustrator, Henry Cole, and we became fast friends, which made creating the second two chicken books a lot of fun. The editor, Henry, and I all met in New Orleans, since the last book was set there, and took photos of settings around the city. I love collaborating on a book, especially with an illustrator whose work I adore.

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

In novels, it’s when I notice that I LOVE the character already, and I have to stop and look back to figure out HOW the author made me feel that way. In picture books, it’s the story. I always look for the story first.

What brings you joy?

Family, being in the woods, talking about books with writing friends.

What inspires you?

Well, sorry to be so obvious but….children, of course. I’ve always been drawn to young children. I love to watch them play and see them learn and hear them speak. When I’m writing, I imagine specific children listening, and it keeps me focused on addressing the child.

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

Every time I read this question, I come up with a different place I’d love to see. Most recently I’ve been dreaming of Greece—the sun, the water, the sheer antiquity everywhere…

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

The impressionist painter Mary Cassatt has always interested me. Not only her gorgeous work but how she navigated her career as a painter in a field of men who didn’t always recognize women, much less their artwork. She defied her father’s wishes and pursued her painting in Paris, eventually joining the impressionists. She helped open doors for other women. I think we might have tea in a flowering garden and perhaps invite her good friend Edgar Degas to join us.

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

I’m always happy to hear new and original voices and stories. I have missed our Michigan writer’s community over the past few years, and I’m delighted to feel connected to it again in this way.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

My newest upcoming book, WHEN THE RAIN CAME DOWN, with FSG, is about a community’s response to flooding on the Gulf Coast, where I grew up. It was inspired by losing our family home to high water and storms. The illustrator, Keisha Morris, is working on the art now, and it will release next winter. AND I am happy to report that I pulled a project out of my drawer a couple of weeks ago, where it’s been wallowing a loooonnng time. I revised it and sold it to a small press! GATOR’S GOOD IDEA was originally written ten years ago. The text is filled with playful Southern language. I’m already working on the illustrations and having lots of fun including all the small details that make illustrating fiction so much fun.


  1. Great interview with Leslie. I really enjoyed reading about what her daily schedule is.

  2. Another great interview. Thank you Leslie and Jay. The two picture book mentorships will be fantastic.

  3. What a great interview, Leslie! You have been such a wonderful influence in the MichKids group over the years, and your mentorship will be a a real boost to the lucky recipient's career!

  4. Great to "see" you here, Leslie!

  5. So fun getting a peek into your process, your inspiration, and your dreams! Thanks for sharing, Leslie!