Friday, May 26, 2023

Writer (and Regional Advisor) Spotlight: Carrie Pearson

On skiing, tree-ography, Leslie calling, and a slush pile: Writer and SCBWI-MI R.A., Carrie Pearson

Charlie Barshaw coordinates our regular Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. In this piece, meet current (but soon-to-be former) Regional Advisor and non-fiction picture book writer Carrie Pearson.

Carrie on a bridge, 2018


Marquette is beautiful, but what is it about the Upper Peninsula that makes you the enthusiastic Yooper you are?

Valid question! I didn’t grow up in the Upper Peninsula, but the first time I visited it with then boyfriend, now husband Wally (who did grow up in the UP), I told him I felt like I belonged there. The natural beauty and granite-outcropping ruggedness appeals to me. The vast and deep Lake Superior creates such change – from weather patterns to ecosystems – that nothing feels static, which I appreciate. My home town, Hillsdale, is flat farmland. There is beauty there, too, but the sightlines (and smells, hello fertilizer!) are very different. I wouldn’t trade my downstate childhood (warm inland lakes, owning/riding horses, summer fireflies, long country roads). But, for many reasons, I appreciate my life in Marquette.

You love skiing. Self-defense against the long winters, or something else that appeals to you about moving through snow on wooden planks?

I do love skiing. I used to Nordic ski race using the skate technique on groomed trails, but now I primarily backcountry ski using wider, floatier skis in the woods. Someday, I’ll have to figure out a manuscript centered in this setting. It’s magical; the only sounds are made by nature, and the shush shush shushing skis, which is wonderfully meditative. The light and shadow patterns across the snow are captivating. My favorite time to ski is when the day is fading into the evening, and the woods seem to glow. Want to come up and try it? 


Carrie and KAST 2023

On your website, one of your former jobs included babysitting your “too-much younger” sisters “whom [you] now adore” (emphasis mine).  Am I reading too much into this, or is there a story to be told about power struggles and sibling age differentials?

Good catch, Charlie. My parents divorced when I was seven. My mom remarried when I was 10. She and my stepfather had two daughters when I was 14 and 15 ½ years old. Of course, I loved my tiny sisters, but I was a built-in babysitter at a time when I wanted to be less family-centered (aka carouse with friends). My sisters and I are parents now, and that shared experience – and some maturity – has brought us very close.


A Warm Winter Tail was your first authored picture book. In the book, your POV characters are actually the animal children questioning their mama on how human children do the various things that animals do. What was your inspiration on writing this book, and on writing it this way?

The inspiration came from worry about how animals survive through the frigid U.P. winters. Seriously. I couldn’t sleep because of that worry when I first moved to Marquette. It took 16 years for me to decide to write children’s books, research how animals survive in the cold, get the idea to switch the POV, and write it well enough to sell the manuscript. I sleep better at night now.


A Cool Summer's Tail is a companion book. Had you always considered the possibility of a sequel?

No, but when A Warm Winter Tail did okay, the publisher thought it would work to create a companion. It was somewhat more manageable because I’d already sorted out the structure and rhythm but harder because they wanted me to use the same animals wherever possible for a direct comparison. Plus, the little bit of rhyming I included in both books broke my brain. I don’t know how rhymers do it.


Those first two books seemed a natural fit for you: animals in nature adapting to the changing seasons. But Stretch to the Sun: From a Tiny Sprout to the Tallest Tree on Earth was a stretch for you, detailing the growth of a huge, ancient tree on the far side of the country. What caused you to pick this topic and write this story?

My mom, who knows I love all things nature-y, asked if I knew what was happening in the tops of redwood trees. The ecosystem in the canopy is varied from that on the ground, and people were finally getting into the tallest trees on earth to research it. I was hooked quickly and then it was a matter of immersing, learning, and trying to find the story. I received a grant from SCBWI to travel to Redwood National Park and tour the forest with a park ranger. That experience changed everything about the manuscript because I could finally tap into the sensory world I’d explored.


Your recent picture book, Real Princesses Change the World, just had its book birthday. Another stretch for you, from nature to biography. What was the initial seed of this book?

Actually, I say that Stretch To The Sun: From A Tiny Seed To The Tallest Tree On Earth is a “tree-ography” – a biography of a special tree. So, in considering this project, I told myself I’d already explored the genre; I just needed to do the same thing for 11 humans who are public figures. What could go wrong? It required the same skillset of researching, synthesizing, determining themes, and focusing each word toward them. Side note: We submitted it as a MG proposal, but Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan wanted it as a picture book. I could see their vision, and we said yes.

Did you get to meet any of the Real Princesses?

I did not meet any of the princesses. However, I’ve had some fun email and social media interactions with a couple of them and/or with their staff. It’s been a bit surreal and nerve-wracking sometimes, but I try to remember one of my early bosses who said that everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time.

I remember talking with you years ago, when you mentioned your interest in writing about Dr. Virginia Apgar. I mean, many years ago. What winding, circuitous path did you follow to finally find this book on the shelf? (August 7, 2023)

Yes, this one was a journey story. It took me a while to get my arms around the complex STEM research and find the best way into Dr. Apgar’s story. Eventually, we submitted when biographies were being bought by many publishers. This was good because it meant there was interest on the sales side but bad because many already had a bio or two on their lists. After it sold, things moved along nicely. Then the pandemic hit, and everything related to the editorial process halted for almost 18 months. However, Nancy Carpenter, the fantastic illustrator, toiled on, and as the pandemic lifted, everything came together. The result is a book I am thrilled to share.


You’ve been co-Regional Advisor for as long as most SCBWI-MI members can remember. But there was a time when Carrie Clevidence Pearson was just a pre-published writer from Marquette. How did you find SCBWI?

Leaving for AZ, 2005

In early 2005, I had the magnificent idea to homeschool our three daughters for the month of March somewhere warm. (March can be a tough month in Marquette.) Thankfully, Wally could see the world through my full-time stay-at-home-mom-of-3-crazed eyes. He helped us drive a camper to Flagstaff, AZ. He returned to Marquette to work, and I drove the camper and daughters to a campground along Oak Creek in Sedona. 

I mapped out and took us on educational adventures during the day. After I washed our four plates and four forks at night and swept the dust from the tiny house on wheels, I wrote about our adventures in story form. The next morning, I’d read what I wrote to my captive audience. They loved the stories (honestly, they had no choice), and I loved writing and sharing them. 

By the time we returned, I had decided to learn how to write and publish children’s books and found SCBWI through the World Wide Web. I joined SCBWI on June 1, 2005, and attended my first conference on June 11. *

Backing up a bit, my college degree was in early elementary education, and I taught at the University of Michigan-affiliated preschool. Books were an integral part of my training and teaching. I’d been a decent writer throughout school and later, I wrote business plans and marketing materials when I transitioned to the business world. Books play a huge role in our family culture. All that considered, the decision to learn how to write children’s books felt like a natural evolution.


Far away from the hustle and noise of below-the-bridge Michigan, how did you get tempted into leadership roles?

Carrie and Leslie MMW

Even though I love living in Marquette, connecting to my people has always been challenging. Thankfully, early on, I met author Boni Ashburn who lives in Houghton, even farther north than I, and illustrator Diana Magnuson in Marquette. I knew I wasn’t alone, but I wanted even more connection. I knew that volunteering would bring that. I helped create flyers for several SCBWI-MI conferences, giving me an inside look at the planning and people behind these opportunities.

Evidently, Leslie Helakoski, the co-RA at the time, was watching. She interviewed me for a piece on book marketing (I had authored my first book by then), and we hit it off.  I remember lots of laughing during that interview.


When a co-R.A. stepped down suddenly, you took up the reins. Was it a big, abrupt decision for you? What were the last steps to “Yes”?

In 2013, when Leslie called – because that’s what Leslie does...she still calls when she has something to discuss – to see if I’d consider the large co-RA role, I remember thinking, “If I say yes, it will be a turning point in my life. If I pass, I’ll never know how amazing it could have been.” And it was amazing!


How, in all the years of piloting one of the most active and populous SCBWI regions in the country, were you able to live a life and pursue your own writing?

Carrie and Jodi 4/1/23

It’s ALL about the team. I believe effective leaders create a path for a talented team to shine. Sometimes that means more active mentoring, but often it is just lighting the path and stepping out of the way.  As co-RAs and now dear friends, Leslie and Jodi offered strengths I’ve learned from and leaned on. They were closer to the action and never made me feel like a lightweight for not being able to visit venues or meet up. They took a heavier load when I needed to be physically or emotionally elsewhere, as did members of Ad-Comm in earlier days and the Leadership Team now.  See, it’s all about the team!


What are some of your proudest achievements as SCBWI-MI R.A.?

I love that our community is growing into understanding how to be a creative safe space for all of us. I love that we offer several consistent scholarships and opportunities to lend a hand when people need it. I appreciate our positive and supportive culture and that we are actively trying to improve as creators and colleagues. When I see all the pieces of our giant book-creating puzzle fitting together, I’m proud to have been part of building it.


So, what are your plans, now that you’ll soon have more free time?

This question made me chuckle; I get busier as I grow older. Maybe now that I am 60+, I understand I’d better get crackin’. Regardless of the motivation, I will research and write more nonfiction books for children (stay tuned for an announcement) and share them with readers. I will try to write a fiction manuscript that my discerning agent feels is ready to submit. I will paint (a new passion), hang out with friends and family, volunteer on the Steering Committee of SCBWI’s Impact & Legacy Fund, co-chair with Jodi the SCBWI Marvelous Midwest Conference in 2024, and ski. 😊 

Please share any social media contacts:


Carrie A. Pearson

Twitter: carrieapearson

Pinterest: carrieapearson


*My first conference was “How High The Moon” in East Lansing on June 11, 2005. I attended presentations by our own Shutta Crum and Nancy Shaw, editor Michelle Frey, and agent Tracey Adams who was a year into opening Adams Literary Agency. I remember asking the question, “What is a slush pile?”  The co-RAs in 2005 were Ann Finkelstein and Paula Payton.


Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Book Birthday Blog with Heidi Woodward Sheffield



Welcome to SCBWI-MI's Book Birthday Blog!

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


Congratulations to Heidi Woodward Sheffield on the release of Good Night, Little Man


You're the illustrator for the upcoming book written by Daniel Bernstrom. What inspired your illustrations for the story?

My agent Laura Rennert set up some meet and greets with editors and art directors a few years ago in NYC. One of the people I met was Executive Editor Jill Davis, who took one of my postcards of a boy snuggled up in bed. She fell in love with the image, kept thinking of it and eventually asked Dan if he could come up with a story to go with it.
When he did, she approached me about illustrating it. Early in the process, Jill left HarperCollins to start her own imprint, Hippo Park, at Astra Publishing House. I worked with Executive Editor Luana Horry at Harper for the rest of the book.
Normally I sketch out ideas for the characters I have in mind, then take some reference pictures of people who match the characters in my head. But the development of the book took place during Covid, and I didn’t have folks in my bubble who matched the characters from the book. Dan had mentioned the story had been inspired by his young son.
Thankfully, Dan had shared some family pictures with Jill and me around the same time. I asked if I could use them in developing the characters. I also made an additional list of expressions I needed from Dan and his son and they generously took more pictures. I printed a whole bunch of these family photos and put them on my wall, above my art table, where I referenced them for about two years. When I was done with the final art, I felt a bit sad to be taking the photos down of this sweet family I had spent so much time with. 



You've written and illustrated your own books. What is your creative process for illustrating a book written by someone other than yourself, or is the process the same?

It’s both liberating and sometimes daunting, but I truly love the challenge of bringing new meaning to another author’s work. Overall, I spend more hours on developing pictures for another author than I do when illustrating my own book. It takes a little longer getting into the right headspace. I start by making notes on the manuscript itself and storyboarding thumbnails of images they conjure up. While I take great care to honor the author’s manuscript, I also look for ways to extend its meaning and bring additional life to the book, often in unexpected ways. 

What was the most difficult part of creating the illustrations for the book?

About halfway through the book, the publisher increased the book by 8 pages. Luckily the timeline was extended, too. And my agent also negotiated additional payment with Harper for the additional work.

What are your marketing plans for the book and where can we find it? 

I’ll be at ALA in Chicago this June at Harper’s booth. Locally, I’ll be at Schuler’s Books in Ann Arbor Saturday, June 10 at 11 AM for a brief presentation and to sign books and at 2 Dandelions Books in Brighton, Wednesday, June 28 at 1:00 PM.
Good Night, Little Man is available from HarperCollins for $15.99 (a $4.00 savings) for a limited time. You can also buy it at your favorite Indie bookstore and Amazon.

We just received our first review for Good Night, Little Man and it's a stunning one from School Library Journal!

Lyrical text tells the story of a little boy who cannot sleep without his sheep. His father is upset without knowing the reason for his son’s tantrum; once he finds out, he is remorseful and reflects on his own behavior. The breaks in the text accentuate the rhythm of the words, while the illustrations depict the emotions of the father and son as they sort through what is happening between them. This is a positive depiction not only of the bonds of father and son but also of a multigenerational Black family with roots that run deep. VERDICT There are few books in which a parent makes mistakes and learns from them on reflection. This is a great story of the father and son bond to add to the shelves.–Ruth Guerrier-Pierre

What's next for you?

I'm working on a picture book mockup about the moon for submission and developing another project with a fellow illustrator. Stay tuned!  

A little bit about the book . . .

Good Night, Little Man is a rhythmic, heartwarming bedtime romp—with a twist! When Little Man can’t sleep without his beloved Sheep-Sheep, he turns the house upside down looking for his stuffed animal. His journey is stopped by an impatient father and very big emotions. Will Little Man find his Sheep-Sheep? Find out in this fun lost-and-found adventure—with a surprise ending.

Publisher: HarperCollins   

A little bit about the author . . .

Heidi Woodward Sheffield’s debut book Brick by Brick received the Ezra Jack Keats Award for Illustration and was chosen by the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. Heidi’s other books include Are Your Stars Like My Stars? (Union Square & Co.), written by Leslie Helakoski and Ice Cream Face (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin). Her forthcoming book Good Night, Little Man (HarperCollins), written by Daniel Bernstrom, debuts May 23, 2023.
Heidi has received numerous awards from The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). She loves to create books that reflect the beauty of the world and its people. Her vibrant collages feature unusual textures like cork, Mexican embroidery and Irish lace.
On any given day, she can be seen taking photographs that inspire her stories and collages. She lives in Northville, Michigan


Twitter: @wwwheidibooks




Friday, May 19, 2023

Monthly Mingles for Michigan Illustrators by Katie Eberts and Jen Boehler

We had no idea what to expect going into our first Monthly Mingle for illustrators on May 8.  We thought they would be helpful - but would other illustrators?  Did we schedule it at an opportune time?  Was the topic interesting enough?  And worst of all - would it just be the TWO of us tuning in?  

Then at 5:30, a trickle started.  One, two, three…eighteen!  Eighteen illustrators from across the state showed up bringing a wealth of knowledge, suggestions, questions, and most importantly, camaraderie.  And that was the goal.

It is common for writers to form critique groups, connecting with and helping each other, but we don’t see it as much with illustrators.  These Mingles were created with the intention of sharing our experiences, learning from one another and creating a supportive community.  The second Monday of each month, we discuss a specific topic and ask that attendees bring their own experiences and questions.  If you don’t have an experience to share yet - that’s okay!  Join us to introduce yourself, listen and learn.  

Our first topic was “Alternative Income Streams”.  The journey into KidLit can sometimes be an arduous process, and even after book deals are (finally) made, income lulls can set in.  That is why it’s important to have other income streams to fall back on during these slower periods.  A few ideas our illustrators shared at the Mingle were:

- Editorial:  There are many magazines seeking to hire illustrators, some even tailored specifically to kids and teens.  Just be sure before querying you check to see each individual magazine’s submission guidelines.  To find a listing of magazines and these guidelines, consult resources such as SCBWI’s The Book, Artist’s Market book and Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market book.     


Commissions:  These are generally on a local level and include projects such as murals, posters, brochures and logos.  This will require you to make local connections and get your work seen by area businesses and individuals, so be sure to have a website portfolio set up and business cards to hand out to potential clients!  

- Selling Products Retail:  There are a plethora of avenues to create products featuring your work.  Examples of products include stationery, wrapping paper, notecards, stickers, prints, t-shirts, mugs (etc!).  To sell these products online you can set up a shop on Etsy or your own e-commerce website.  Selling in-person usually takes place at art or craft shows, which are FUN and a great way to connect with potential customers and other illustrators.  

- Selling Products Wholesale:  To sell additional volume (but at about half the revenue per piece), try wholesaling your products.  This is generally done by reaching out directly to shops.  Making a connection in person is almost always best (TIP:  For your best chance at catching the owner working, go on a weekday during off-season when they’re less likely to be paying support staff).  Another option would be to sell at shops on consignment (getting paid only when items sell).

- Passive Income:  Upload your art on websites such as Society 6, Creative Market, minted (and many more), to passively generate income.  These are not generally lucrative unless you focus a sizable amount of energy into them, however it is getting your work seen and you can make a little bit of money in the process.

There were many more items shared, making it a very productive maiden Mingle!  Since we are each traveling on our own unique path in the KidLit journey, there was a wide variety of experiences and perspectives shared.  Our next Mingle will be held on June 12th from 5:30-6:30 and will feature the topic “Presenting Your Work - Websites, Portfolios and Social Media.”  Thank you all for your support! 

So excited to see everyone in June - 

Katie + Jen

Katie Eberts, Michigan Co-Illustrator Coordinator, received her BFA in Art & Design from the University of Michigan with a concentration in watercolor. Her debut picture book, Hush-A-Bye Night written by Thelma Godin, was published by Sleeping Bear Press in March 2023.  She is based in Cedarville, Michigan.

Jen Boehler, Michigan Co-Illustrator Coordinator, is an illustrator, graphic designer and author working on a hobby farm in Saginaw, Michigan. Before pursuing children’s literature, Jen worked as a freelance editorial illustrator, graphic designer, interior/event designer and owned her own line of Michigan travel apparel. She has degrees in both art/graphic design and interior design.

Friday, May 12, 2023

If You’ve Been Waiting for a Sign, This Is It by Katherine Gibson Easter


I’ll be honest—I knew when I applied for a picture book mentorship in 2019 that I didn’t stand a chance.

After all, the manuscript I submitted was the first—and only—manuscript I’d ever managed to complete. I wrote it in one sitting, and sent it off with barely any revisions. I knew it was fruitless. Knew that there’d be countless people applying for the same mentorship. People who deserved it a lot more than yours truly. Why was I wasting my time? 

Because after years of picking up my writing dream and setting it back down again, I wanted someone, anyone, to know that I’d finally stuck with it long enough to actually produce something. Maybe that something was garbage (I was 99% sure it was), but someone was going to know that I had done it. That it was my garbage. 

And then, just when I’d forgotten about it, I got the call. Ann Finkelstein’s sweet, mellow voice telling me that I’d won the mentorship with Lisa Wheeler. Which meant that at least three people had read something I’d written and deemed it not-garbage.

Reader, I was elated. 

That is, until I realized what I’d actually gotten myself into. Lisa Wheeler, an author whose work I loved, was going to be spending the next year working with me to edit and polish six picture book manuscripts. There was just one problem: I didn’t have six manuscripts. I had one: the one I’d sent in. And no ideas for what to write next.

What followed was a year of writing boot camp for me. As Lisa worked with me to polish one manuscript, I would frantically work on drafting another one, always trying to stay one small step ahead so I didn’t waste her time. 

It was challenging, keeping that pace on top of a full-time job, wedding preparations, and then later, a global pandemic, but it was also the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I didn’t have an excuse to put off writing. I couldn’t sit around, waiting for my muse to visit. I had to go over there myself and bang her door down.  

Not only did the mentorship force me to take myself and my writing seriously, but it also gave me the encouragement I needed when I needed it most. It’s embarrassing, dusting off an old dream and wondering if you’re stupid for holding onto it. Why not just let it go and move on with your life? 

But Lisa believed in me. Her feedback made my stories stronger—and made me a better writer—without once discouraging me. There was no reason to feel embarrassed or stupid. Bad first draft? Fine. Bad second and third drafts? Also fine. It’s writing, not brain surgery. You’re allowed to make mistakes. 

The one thing you’re not allowed to do, if you want to be a writer, is give up.

And I had given up. Many, many times. I was the reigning champ at giving up. But then the mentorship fell in my lap, and I couldn’t quit. I had been given an amazing opportunity, and I had to see it through. 

So I didn’t give up. And I haven’t since. 

Since the mentorship, I now have over a dozen drafted picture book manuscripts and a 90,000 word novel. I don’t write every day (I still have a full-time job, and now a baby on the way), but I write most days. And all of it—the works and the habit—started with a submission and a phone call. 

So if you’re wondering whether you should apply for a mentorship: do it. This is your sign. This is your permission slip to take yourself seriously. Because you can absolutely do it. 

Or, if you’re like me, you’ll figure it out as you go. 


Katherine Gibson Easter is an acquisitions 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 ten years editing and publishing award-winning children’s books.


[Note: Your mentorship experience may differ from Katherine’s. You and your mentor will decide on the submission schedule and the number of manuscripts exchanged.]

Friday, May 5, 2023

Writer Spotlight: Gary D. Schmidt

Yoda, Sir Gawain, blurring into YA, the sound of a prison gate closing, and a Border Collie: Gary D. Schmidt
Charlie Barshaw coordinates our regular Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. In this piece, meet college professor and multi-award winning and prolific writer , Gary D. Schmidt.

Note: Gary said I could scrape off any images from his website. Problem is, he has no website. So I took it as a blanket invitation to pirate photos from the web. I've included minimal attribution.

You said, “At the heart of all stories—all good stories—are the essential human questions the arts and humanities pose so effectively, and at the end of those questions is story’s refusal to yield simple answers.” What are some of those essential human questions?

Trinity Christian College

I suppose that these questions will vary some depending on the age group for which we are writing.  But for middle grade readers, for whom I write, they are questions like these—though middle graders would not use this language:

What is the good?
How do I make discerning judgments?
Where do I fit in to the world around me, and the world far away?
How do I know that what I believe is not just what my parents believe, but what I truly believe?
How do I understand, accept, and come to love what might be different from what I think I understand, accept, and love?
How do I move into the future with hope and optimistic expectation?


You contributed to the Star Wars anthology by writing the only chapter from Yoda’s POV. How badly did you have to mangle your grammar muscles to, in Yoda’s voice, write it?

Doing this story was incredible fun.  I saw “Star Wars” when it first came out in 1977, and I’ve been a fan ever since.  (Well, let me clarify:  I’ve been a fan of the first trilogy.) 

I had to jettison all thoughts of grammar and just listen for the voice—and since all writers are constantly trying to listen to the voices of our characters, this was familiar ground—even though I’ve never done a voice this distant before.  

In so many ways, his voice is his character, so it kept me grounded not only in terms of what he says in the story, but also what he does.

You teach medieval literature at the college level. How do you make the Dark Ages relevant to today’s readers and writers?

Well, we start by disabusing them of the notion of them being dark ages.  Seamus Heaney talks about the writer of “Beowulf” as living in a time of violence and aggression—and doesn’t that sound like what we’re living in now?  

And Beowulf is the archetypal epic hero, it seems, but he is also called the most mild of men, most eager to be remembered, most beloved of his people.  Wouldn’t that be something if our culture was known around the world as mild, eager to be remembered for its goodness, beloved by others?  So we start there. 

Then, of course, we go to Chaucer, and Chaucer deals with types:  gentle souls, aggressive and wealthy women, hypocrites, mercenaries, fashion followers, quacks and frauds, and on and on.  In other words, he wants to deal with the whole world but looking at very specific types of people whose vices and virtues are deeply embedded in them.  

Or look at “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” whose central question is, “Is it possible to achieve moral perfection?”  Or “Sir Orfeo,” who asks, “In a world in which everything seems to be determined by powerful fate, how shall we determine our course?”—and the answer is, We act to determine our own fate. There is so much in the medieval period that any attentive reader will find familiar.

You seem fascinated by William Bradford. What is it exactly that draws you to his life?

William Bradford is one of the great figures of American history.  He was elected as governor thirty-one times—even when he begged not to be elected.  He didn’t want power; he wanted to start a new place with different rules about how we live out our religious convictions as individuals.  

His is (I think) still the longest held treaty between western settles and Native Americans.  For his settlement, he came up with the balance between working for the corporate good and working for one’s individual that saved the colony from extinction.  

People see him as this guy who wears a funny dark outfit, but almost everything we think we know about him as a pilgrim (a word he never used of himself) out in our culture is wrong.  That’s a place to start for story.

You’ve collaborated with Susan M. Felch for at least three books. Who is this writer, and what do you find especially gratifying in working with her?

Susan and I have actually edited six books together:  essays on each of the seasons, and then two books with essays aimed at book clubs reading modern international fiction.

Collaborating is a delight.  Often writing is such an individual experience; you’re sitting at your desk, working problems out by yourself.  But doing it with someone else is tremendous fun—plus you come up with many more options.  

And Susan is brilliant. She is a Renaissance scholar, working right now on William Tyndale.  She is the one scholar responsible for bringing the Renaissance writer Anne Lock into the canon—you can see her work in every Norton anthology about the Renaissance.

You’ve written MG and YA, yet you seem to blur the line. Even your light-hearted MG novels, such as Pay Attention, Carter Jones and The Wednesday Wars, have a dark center to them, with death, substance abuse and teen pregnancy sometimes playing a role. Why tackle difficult issues with middle school readers?

The Literary Maven

I do see myself as working in middle grade, but I can see why some would see the above problems as blurring into YA.  But I think we kid ourselves if we believe that issues that are harder should be kept out of middle grade.  I once had a teacher tell me that teen pregnancy “would never happen in my school,” and I prayed that it wouldn’t, since the two kids might not get the support they need in such a place.  

Do we believe our kids don’t know darkness, and abuse, and hatred, and hurt?  Do we believe they don’t make mistakes that have long consequences?  I want to show a world where there is hurt, and where we do make mistakes, and where we can be supported and learn that we’re not alone and find ways to move forward.  

Isn’t a good thing to tell a story of two kids who become parents and who want to take up that responsibility?  Isn’t it a good thing to show a kid who stand up to racial hatred in his community?  Isn’t it a good thing to show that violence is real and needs to be survived?

Calvin University Chimes

You’re a full-time professor for Calvin University, a busy publishing writer, and the single dad to a family of six on a one hundred- and fifty-year-old farm. How do you find time to do it all?

Well, I wasn’t a single dad until nine years ago; my wife was brilliant and loving and caring, and she could do anything.  She too was a writer—the last line of The Wednesday Wars is hers, and three of her picture books have come out since her death. Getting stuff done is really a matter of prioritizing and staying up.  

Fortunately I have two jobs—teaching and writing—that I have loved for many years, and I know how unusual that is.  I also have, as you say, six kids and their wonderful spouses who are incredible supports—and good friends who have been there for me, especially since Anne passed away.  I also have a Border collie, who knows that his primary job is to wake me at first light and help me get going.

You like to work on three writing projects at a time. Describe how that process works.

I do like to work on multiple projects at once.  Usually they are at different stages, and they are always very different.  So right now, I’m working of several books with Ron Koertge that are aimed at middle grade readers, using short fiction.  I’m finishing a sequel to Orbiting Jupiter.  I’m trying my hand at a non-fiction picture book with Jackie Briggs-Martin, and writing an academic book on the writers of New England histories in the last decade of the eighteenth century.  I mean, those are pretty distinct.  It does mean that nothing ever gets done quickly, but the process of working on each one slowly makes a difference for the book, I think.

Your early education mirrored that of your protagonist Holling Hoodhood. I recall a talk where you said the youngest students were designated as a type of vegetable, and that you had been placed in the lowest vegetative state. What was your early educational experience like?

In my elementary years, we were tracked—meaning that it was determined how we would do in later education, and what kinds of jobs we were likely to have.  I was in the lowest group, and knew that.  I didn’t think at the time it was demeaning, and I didn’t rise up in righteous anger—I just figured it was true, I guess.  

I look back at that now as something akin to abuse, but it wasn’t meant that way.  In any case, my early years were sort of humiliating—until I got the teacher I came to love who taught me to love learning and reading and even, dare I say it, the world.

Holling Hoodhood faced off against Mrs. Baker when the two were stuck together while all the Catholic and Jewish students went off to their mid-week religious studies. How did real life differ from the novel?

This really was how it was.  I was a little younger than Holling, but I was the kiddo left alone.  In real life, Mrs. Baker was—perhaps justifiably—angry that she had to stay while other teachers could leave, since their classes emptied out.  But today I think, what an opportunity.  Suppose you were a teacher who had one—or even a handful—of students for two hours every week where you could do anything you wanted?  Isn’t that paradise for a teacher?

Courtesy CBS News

From the same presentation, you described the period of time during the Vietnam War years when the networks would broadcast the draft lottery of birthdays to determine which 18-year-olds would register to go to war. You used that as a backdrop for one of your books. Did this period of history have a Hunger Games effect on you?

When I explain to students what it was like to watch the draft, they can hardly believe it happened.  I think that those of us who grew up in the sixties and early seventies are haunted by Vietnam, and by a childhood seared with the live images of soldiers under fire.  We all knew someone who had been wounded—or killed.  And given the absurd politics that would not look for answers, we all figured we’d be there one day.  In 1969, chances of being killed in Vietnam after your first thirty days were one in three.  Imagine growing up, knowing you were heading for that.  In my family, we thought of Henry Kissinger as a war criminal—and it’s hard to get past the idea of an American more concerned for how its leaders looked than for its citizenry.

Whale Rock Writing Workshop

In addition to your college courses, you teach writing in prison and detention centers. At a talk several years ago, you described a particularly harrowing visit to a boy’s prison in the Upper Peninsula. Can you recount that moment, and the unfortunate young man you met?

To that, I’ll just say this:  Who in America believes that locking up eighth grade boys for extended periods in single cells, leaving them in a place far from their families—far enough that they didn’t get any visitors from relatives—and then shifting some to adult prisons, is a good thing?  To that person who would claim that, I’d ask him or her to go to a prison and just listen to the sound of a gate closing across a cell.  I’ll never forget it—and I’m on the outside.

In an interview you talked about assigning male prisoners a chance to write two concluding paragraphs for Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down. I saw Jason at a Nerd Camp where he opened his talk refusing to discuss the ambiguous ending of his novel-in-verse. You’re a big fan of the ambiguity of life, and in writing about it. What did Reynold leave unsaid that you knew your writers would want to say?

The opportunity for those prisoners to come up with their own endings was huge—remember, these were adult prisoners, many of whom are lifers, who never get a chance to express their own ideas.  They each wrote a poem to end the book, and it was fascinating that their decision was about fifty-fifty—half has the book end with revenge, half with the kiddo heading back upstairs.  Jason Reynolds created a work of art that gave space to all of them to work this out for themselves, and that’s one of the brilliant elements of that brilliant work.

You discuss taking a bold chance by opening your novel Trouble with 15 pages of description. How do you square this with what you tell your college writing classes about proper approaches to getting published?

Oh my gosh, it was really meant as a joke.  I mean, it’s like reading a Thomas Hardy novel.  I never thought that Virginia Buckley, my editor then, would let me do it.  But she really liked the description, and thought it created not just the setting, but the thematic meaning of the story.  So we left it in, and I haven’t heard anyone complain about it to me—which sort of surprises me.  But that was Virginia—one of the great editors of children’s books.

As a student of writing, do you have any advice all the pre-published writers in SCBWI?

Publishing is hard, but remember that that isn’t where you started.  If you tell a story just to get published, it probably isn’t very good.  If you tell a story to speak something you care about to those who will read it, then you’ve begun well.  

Tell that story—not the one you’re sure will get published, not the one that is part of some sort of fad, not the one you think it going to make lots of bucks.  Tell the one that moves your heart, that you can’t stop thinking about late at night, that makes you laugh and makes you cry.  Tell the story that asks the question that haunts you.

What's coming next?

In terms of future projects, "The Labors of Hercules Beal" comes out this May, a novel set on contemporary Cape Cod in which the young Hercules Beal, who has recently lost his parents in a car accident, comes to terms with his grief when he is assigned the task of re-creating the twelve labors of Hercules, but in a contemporary setting.

This will be followed in the winter of 2024 by a collection of short stories edited with Leah Henderson called "A Little Bit Super," in which all of the characters are endowed with very minor superpowers.  And that will be followed with "A Day at the Beach," a collection of short short stories set on the New Jersey shore and written with Ron Koertge.  After that, "Jack's Run" will be finished, a sequel to "Orbiting Jupiter."

Are there any questions you’d wished I asked?

Well, I could have talked a lot more about my Border Collie.  And I am kinda verbose about collecting seventeenth-century books, and books by the American Concord writers.  I could go on and on about that. 

Please include any social media contacts you wish to share.

Oh my, I don’t have any of those.  There’s some Facebook thingy, but I’ve never been on it.  And besides, I’m not sure but that the day will come when the history of our times has a lot to say about the real damage done by social media.

Thanks so much for your time and wisdom. (At the risk of plagiarism, I’m claiming this gratitude for Gary’s time and wisdom. But I think he wrote it to me. Which shows just how gracious he is.)

Big Request:

I'm writing an historical recap of past conferences, back to when I started in 2009 and even before.

There seems to be a dearth of official photos. Like our family, seems like SCBWI-MI forgot to take pictures, they were having so much fun.

But I know individuals have taken amazing photos over the years. (Thanks to Dave Stricklen, who showered me with excellent photos from the past decade.)

Anyone want to volunteer their private collection for a time capsule? You'll be acknowledged  for your contribution, and held in high esteem.

Email me at or DM me on FB.