Friday, February 23, 2024

Attending a Multi-State Conference by Dave Stricklen

Hi, Dave Stricklen here, former SCBWI-MI Indie Coordinator, Grand Rapids Shop Talk Coordinator, and overall Michigan Shop Talk Coordinator. I’m here to talk about the upcoming multi-state Marvelous Midwest conference in Davenport, Iowa on April 12 through April 14. Many of you have already registered, have your hotel and are looking forward to it. I suspect there is also a large number who are on the fence as to whether the time and expense justify what you will get out of it.


I have attended several of these conferences and the popular saying is that this is a way for us to enjoy a large conference similar to the national conferences in New York and LA, without the long travel distance. Allow me to share my own experience and perhaps you can fall on one side of the fence or the other. My first multi-state conference was in Ft .Wayne. I was honestly overwhelmed by the number of attendees and the maze of classes on topics that I knew nothing about. So much to learn… 


Dave at the "carnival" at the multi-state
conference in Naperville, Illinois
Above and beyond the learning experience was interacting with fellow creative people. I came from a law enforcement management background. I was the lone outside the box creative thinker. Suddenly with this group, I was thrown in with people with like minds. Coming from a sports background, I am also very competitive. However, in this instance, I learned very quickly that we are all on the same team. Each of us make the other better…. we are truly much stronger together.  


I found the entire experience to be empowering. You cannot underestimate the power of like minds coming together. The conference is a gold mine of inspiration, thoughts and ideas. When we are inspired, we can run with our passion for new concepts or ideas and build on them.


In our new world of zoom, a face-to-face meeting has greatly increased in value. Yes, there are advantages to zoom in connecting people from vast distances. However, nothing can take the place of sitting down and having a conversation with other writers. 


Friendships are built from face-to-face interaction. I am the same guy who walked into my first conference somewhat overwhelmed. Conferences have made me part of the SCBWI writer community. I have made many lifelong friends, all of whom I met face to face sharing a cup of coffee and a funny story (writers are the best storytellers). Zoom may have kept us together, but it’s time to see each other person to person and shore up our creative relationships. The value of getting writers together in the same room cannot be understated. I always leave with my creative batteries fully recharged.


For more about the Marvelous Midwest Conference April 12-14, click here:


Friday, February 16, 2024

Writer Spotlight: Lisa Wheeler


Rejections, Dino-Sport research, the worst one, and puppet arm: prolific picture book writer Lisa Wheeler

Charlie Barshaw coordinates our regular Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. In this piece, meet  writer, presenter, puppeteer Lisa Wheeler.

The “About” section of your website is what turns out to be a harrowing story of No Thank Yous. 225, at least. Surely, or don’t call you Shirley, you’ve turned some of those oft-rejected stories into real published books?

The Young Lisa in the "About" story was nothing if not tenacious. Did Young Lisa have 225 book ideas? Or did she send her one idea to 225 people?

I’ll answer both questions here, Charlie.

The 225 rejections were for many stories going out to many publishers. Back then, my ideas came hard and heavy. I followed all of them! I didn’t know what I was doing. I threw things at the wall to see what would stick. In other words, I did everything wrong.

For instance, desperate to be published, I read an interview where an editor was looking for foreign adoption stories. I decided to write one, even though I knew nothing about adoption, let alone foreign adoption. (Easy to see why my rejections piled up!)

I kept writing what I thought publishers wanted instead of listening to the voices in my head.

One morning, as I got myself and the kids ready to go out the door, I heard/saw this pirate sitting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear. He told me his tale.

I had fifteen minutes before I had to leave for work. I jotted down as much as I could. I thought about it all day and took notes. Returning home, I went right back to it. I wrote a 350 word story about a pirate who got lost. I submitted it to Jack and Jill Magazine and it was my first sale!

What did I learn? Stop listening to what you think editors want and start listening to yourself.

Unfortunately, I had a hard time taking my own advice and it was another 3 1/2 years before I sold my first picture book.

BTW, I still get more rejections than acceptances. I don’t keep count anymore.


How much do you have to get into the wrestling weeds when wrestling (boarding, basketball, football) is the topic of your next sport-in-series volume?

Good question! Each of the Dino-Sport books took research. I am not the most athletic person. I know! Shocking isn’t it?

I spend about six month researching these books.

I start by reading. I buy or check out NF  kids’ books on the sport or holiday. (We’ve been doing Dino-Holidays for a few years now.) Non-fiction books are helpful in choosing words that are commonly used in the sport. They also point out rules and all the pertinent information I need to write a play-by-play.

I watch lots of YouTube videos of games. When I can, I attend actual sporting events. (I prefer watching kids play, of course.)

I speak to experts on the topic. For instance, when researching Dino-Hockey, my cousin’s hubby read through the manuscript to make sure I got the hockey terms and play-by-play right. He’s played hockey for well over 20 years and loves the book.  For Dino-Dancing, I sat in at a dance studio for three practices. I asked the kids and instructors questions about different steps and styles of dance.

I also research the sports online. My kids were swimmers, but I couldn’t recall the exact order of events. When I researched it, I found they were pretty similar across the board, but could change depending on the school, ages of swimmers, and other factors.

Most recently, I got help from two SCBWI-MI members. Lerner was adamant that I write Dino-Hanukkah as the sixth book in the Dino-Holiday series.  Buffy Silverman and Lisa Rose were kind enough to answer a questionnaire about their own personal traditions. I also sent one to my niece’s family, who are Jewish. Then, the Lerner crew looked over my first draft, asked for revisions, and we all worked together to make sure the book was sensitive and that I didn’t mess anything up. It was totally a team effort!

Are all your book titles traditionally published?

Yes. When I started out, self-publishing was expensive.  (I knew a gentleman who paid $40,000 to have his book published!) We didn’t have that kind of money and I also knew that I really wanted to get that YES from a publisher. So I persisted and guess what happened? As I continued writing and wracking up rejections, my writing improved.

I’ve thought of trying out independent publishing for some of the unsold titles sitting in my computer. But I am not a marketing person and I get tired just thinking of all the work it would take to make the book successful.

You've had lots of experience with school visits. Decades? Ruth and I have shaved off some of the rough corners lately, but our Reading Month is still grueling. Do you still travel nationwide?

I love the kids, and the performance aspect of school visits, It’s also a great way to keep books in print.

But, I’ve cut back quite a bit. Due to health issues that came on in the last two years, I don’t feel confident that I could handle more than three days in a row. So I decided to limit how many schools I’ll do in a month. That said, I have my first 3-days-in-a-row visit schedule for late Feb. in Virginia.  If I don’t feel that I can give the same energy on day three as I do on day one, I may cut back again.


I imagine you have too many stories about travel and weather and vehicle mishaps, but mostly getting there on time, and not leaving the place worse than you found it? Care to share any?

Oh, the stories! Any author or illustrator who visits schools or does conferences has stories. I’ve had too many wonderful experiences to narrow it down to just one. Can I tell you about the worst one? The school visit where I left crying?

Over fifteen years ago, I was hired by a principal to do a half-day visit after lunch. When I booked it, I didn’t realize this was right before Easter break.  At arrival, I was informed the principal had already left for vacation. No one seemed to know why I was there. (The secretary was filling in for the school secretary who already left for vacation, as well.) The vice-principal was called in. She ordered me to go to the cafeteria. Yes, ordered! She must’ve been a drill sergeant in her previous life. (More on this later in story.)

Infant Lisa and Mom

In the very tiny cafeteria, the custodian mopped the floor. She kindly asked me where I would like to set up so she could clean that spot first. I thanked her and she replied, “The last author gave me a free book for helping.” I had no books with me! I mumbled, “That was very kind of them.” Awkward!

The first group went okay. It was lower el and although they were a bit wiggly, nothing memorable happened. Then came upper el. I knew something was off right away because no one was telling the kids where to sit. 

A group of rowdy 3rd grade boys were all together in the front row, pushing and shoving each other. I asked them who their teacher was. They said, “We have a sub.” I asked sub to split up the group. She only knew a few words in English. Sooooo, I went to the drill sergeant.

“Can we split up the group of boys in front row? They have a sub and. . .” Before I could finish, she screamed at the boys, “This lady says you’ve been acting up!”

She’s pointing at me! “If I hear one sound coming from this group, you’ll all get detention!”

Those kids hated me. I pushed through the program on automatic pilot. I’m used to kids enjoying my schtick and giving out hugs, not glaring at me from the front row. Plus, I felt bad for the students whose  vice-principal was in the wrong profession.

Afterward, I stopped by the office and asked for my check. You guessed it. No one could find it. It was six weeks and three reminders before I got paid.

I called my husband from the car in tears. “You’re taking me out to dinner!”

Years ago we met in person, maybe an MRA thing? You had a white plastic getup like a karaoke belt and mic. Have you changed sound equipment? Just curious about the tools you use for school visits.

It’s a black belt, Charlie. (I don’t mess around!) I’ve been using this sound system since 2014 and have only had to replace it once. It’s a Pyle-Pro 50 watt portable sound system with waist band and headset. It’s a game changer! If you need to keep your hands free, the headset is terrific and you won’t need to clip on the ineffective collar mics. I also purchased my own clicker, to advance the Power Point.

Tell us about some of your puppet’s stories, where they came from, their personalities and voices.

In the Bubblegum photo I am holding Little Lisa.
She is me at the age of 6.
I’ve always given ‘voices’ to babies and pets. When my kids were small, they’d have full conversations and even arguments with our beagle. I noticed that my youngest would forget that the dog wasn’t actually speaking and her mom was.

When I decided that I would do school visits, I needed to find my comfort zone. Puppets didn’t come to me immediately. But when Porcupining came out, I knew I wanted to build a program around the book. I found an adorable porcupine puppet and my husband made a small banjo for him. Cushion the porcupine was my first attempt at using puppets. 

I worried because I am not a ventriloquist. But I realized that once the puppets start speaking, kids go along with it. I’ve only had a few students yell out, “That’s you talking!” I also realized I needed larger puppets because Cushion was small and hard to see unless you were in the first few rows.

The bear is Ol' Bear, star of Ugly Pie. 

He is Huge and yes, part of 

the puppet arm problem. 

Little Lisa is also heavy.


An unfortunate side-effect of doing this for over twenty years is that I have developed what I call “puppet arm’. I still use puppets, but have to set them down more frequently, as my arm and shoulder start to throb. It sucks getting older!

Ever considered writing a memoire:  Why I Like to Write Books So Much?

Not really. I’m kind of private and don’t let many people in. My daughter said I’m an extroverted- introvert because I can be social when I have to be. But the real me likes being at home with the people I love and trust most—including my dog!


When do you get to rest on your book legacy? Just say, that’s enough writing, I’m going to retire? But does one retire from children’s book writing?

Never and nope. I look to friends who have passed like Ann Tompert, Shirley Neitzel and Barbara Brooks Wallace. All were still writing in their 80s and 90s. As long as I can write, I will.

You’ve got Dino Books, a series about sports and another about holidays. And your Ready to Read series for beginning readers. But then there’s your picture book collection. Nine standalone titles, including Seadogsa kind of musical theater opera sea shanty in a book. What inspired you break the mold of picture books?

I actually have at least twenty-five standalone titles, Charlie. Before the Dino books, most of my books were one offs. 

Seadogs is near and dear to my heart. I’ve always loved musicals. My mom had the record albums of a few of them and I grew up listening and dancing around the living room. 

When I began writing Seadogs, I didn’t know that it was a musical. I was halfway through when I realized I wasn’t writing poems, I was writing songs. 

When Mark Seigel added his amazing artwork, I swooned. It’s still one of my favorites and I dream of seeing it performed onstage one day. Since I don’t have a musical background, I don’t know how to make this happen.

Boogie Knights is another favorite. A rollicking tale full of puns and wordplay, it's a fun and funny picture book. But what's with People Share with People and People Don't Bite People? These seem to be message books. Your idea, or someone else's?

Boogie Knights came to me around Halloween when I’d been reading Poe’s The Raven. That meter was a catalyst for the book’s tempo. I also love puns and cracked myself up coming up with the knight’s names.

I got the idea for People Don’t Bite People after binge-watching season one of The Walking Dead, followed by a trip to the dentist. 

As I sat in the chair staring at a poster of a wide open mouth, the first lines came into my brain. “It’s good to bite a carrot. /It’s good to bite a steak.? It’s bad to bite your sister.? She’s not a piece of cake.” I wanted it to be a fun book for parents to enjoy as much as the kids. I cracked myself up writing some of the mildly subversive lines.

When my agent sent it out, we had lots of interest and an auction ensued. Simon & Schuster gave me a two-book deal and I wrote People Share With People. But, my wonderful editor left S&S just as the books came out. So sadly, no more in the series. But I still chuckle when I read them aloud. (Also, in the last ten years, I’ve had more luck selling concept books than stories. So there’s that.)


How many of your books are out-of-print? How do you handle rights reverting back to you? Do you ever buy any titles when remaindered?

You’re testing my braincells, Charlie. I think I had about 9 or 10 books go OP. (Most recently the first manuscript I ever sold—One Dark Night—along with Ugly Pie.) In two cases I was able to get my rights back—Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum and The Christmas Boot. My agent handled BGBG, and then the illustrator and I sold it to Purple House Press. They’re a small press who re-print classics and books that have had a strong run. The book has always been a favorite at school visits and does well with the Preschool/Kdg kids.

The Christmas Boot was originally published by Mitten Press, who were out of Ann Arbor, and illustrated by Michael Glenn Monroe. They went out-of-business a few years after the book released. I asked for my rights to the text back and they were very good about it. My agent re-sold the text to Dial and it was re-illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.

I’d love to get
Porcupining back, but it is still in print with Tumblebooks (digital) and as long as they keep renewing their contract, that can’t happen.

I have bought remaindered titles when I could. Lately, publishers print less and by the time they decide to tell me the book is OP, there are no books to buy.

I hate when my books go out-of-print. It’s the exact opposite feeling of release day.


What’s next for Lisa Wheeler? Events? Different income streams? Is it possible, more books?

Thanks for asking, Charlie. Other than schools, I have no events coming up. As for different streams of income, I see nothing happening in that department either. I, of course, have more Dino books coming out over the next few years. I’m in talks with Carolrhoda/Lerner now about extending the Dino-Sport and Holiday to a third Dino series. Keep an eye out for those.

But I also have a stand-alone title coming out Fall 2025 with HarperCollins. David Soman will illustrate it. It is tentatively titled, It Takes A Family To Serve. That’s quite a lot of title, so my publisher may change it. I’m very excited to share it with the world. I got the idea on Veteran’s Day 2020. I worked on the book and sent it to my agent in 2021. So between the sell and the release, you’ll notice lots of time. That is because there are lots of steps, including finding the right illustrator. Of course, the wonderful David Soman has a schedule to keep. Thus, the 2025 release.

I’m always working on something. Whether that something sells or not is out of my hands. I had to learn this lesson a long time ago and it is still true today. As creators, we have to follow our stories, follow the art. That is what we can control. Once we send that baby out the door, we have to let it go.







Friday, February 9, 2024

Celebrating Black History Beyond the Usual Heroes: Embracing Diversity in Stories by Naomi V. Dunsen-White

As February unfolds, so does Black History Month—an annual celebration that invites us to reflect on the profound contributions of Black Americans to the fabric of our nation. While iconic figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X are commonly celebrated (as they should be), it's imperative that we expand our knowledge and delve into the lesser-known stories of Black American trailblazers. In discussing Black History Month, I am honored to highlight the importance of diverse stories, particularly in children's literature, proud to stress the need for year-round recognition, and delighted to help you discover a new hero or two.


Discovering Hidden Gems

Black history is a treasure trove of resilience, innovation, and triumphs, which are often overshadowed by more mainstream narratives and common figures. This Black History Month, let's challenge ourselves to explore the lesser-known stories—those of individuals who have left an indelible mark on American history but may not have ever received the spotlight they deserve. At the end of this writing, I will share the stories of two great Black Americans whose names you may have never heard.


Importance of Diversity in Children's Literature

One of the most powerful ways to instill a sense of pride and understanding in young minds is through literature. Children's books play a pivotal role in shaping their opinions about the world and those in it, and it is crucial that young readers encounter characters in their books who look like them and share similar experiences. Representation truly matters, and diverse literature fosters empathy, understanding, and a more inclusive worldview.

Black children, like all children, deserve to see themselves reflected in the stories they read. This goes beyond historical figures to include a wide array of characters in both fiction and nonfiction. From adventure tales to everyday stories, children's literature should be a mirror that reflects the rich diversity of our society.


Supporting Black History All Year Round

While February is designated as Black History Month, the celebration and acknowledgment of Black contributions should extend far beyond those 28 days (29 this year). Incorporating diverse perspectives into our daily lives is an ongoing commitment that fosters unity and appreciation for the truth and richness of our shared history.

So, this Black History Month, let's make a conscious effort to broaden our understanding of Black history by exploring stories beyond the familiar names heard this time each year. By doing so, we not only honor the unsung heroes, but we also broaden our own perspective. Remember, the celebration of Black history is not confined to a single month; it's a year-round commitment to recognizing, appreciating, and uplifting the diverse voices that contribute to the American story.

Allow me to introduce two outstanding Black Americans who made great contributions that have benefitted us all.


Virginia Hamilton (1934-2002): A Trailblazer in Children's Literature

Virginia Hamilton was a pioneering Black American author who made significant contributions to children's literature, enriching the literary landscape with her impactful storytelling. Born in Yellow Springs, Ohio, she dedicated her career to creating diverse and authentic stories that engaged and resonated with young readers.

One of her most acclaimed works is M.C. Higgins, the Great, which earned her the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1975. This novel explores themes of family, heritage, and environmentalism, showcasing Ms. Hamilton's ability to tackle complex subjects in a way that captivates and educates young minds.

Throughout her career, Hamilton received numerous awards for her outstanding contributions to literature, including the coveted Coretta Scott King Award. She was not only a prolific writer but also a trailblazer who paved the way for future generations of Black authors in children's literature. Through her dedication to portraying diverse characters and exploring important social issues, she has left an indelible mark on children's literature, emphasizing the importance of representation and inclusivity in storytelling for young readers.


Bayard Rustin (1912-1987): The Architect of the “March on Washington”

Bayard Rustin
(photograph by Warren K. Leffler)

While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is credited as the face of the Civil Rights Movement (and rightly so), Bayard Rustin played a pivotal, yet lesser-known, role in organizing the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. An openly gay African American man, Rustin was a skilled strategist, organizer, and advocate for nonviolent resistance, in full support of Dr. King. Despite his significant contributions, Rustin faced discrimination because of his sexual orientation, leading to his often-overlooked role in shaping the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement.

It is true that Black History is American history. History is always worth learning. History should always be told.



Naomi V. Dunsen-White,

Chairperson, Equity & Inclusion Team,

Michigan Chapter


Friday, February 2, 2024

Why Illustrators Should Attend the Marvelous Midwest Conference in 2024

After years of postponement due to Covid, we are SO EXCITED the highly anticipated Marvelous Midwest Conference is finally just around the corner!  The best part?  It’s chock full of amazing opportunities for illustrators to perfect their craft, meet industry professionals, get their work seen, and connect with one another.  It’s no secret conferences are an excellent way to advance your career and make the necessary connections to move closer to that coveted book deal.  If you haven’t already signed up, here are the reasons you should! 


1.  PORTFOLIO REVIEWS:  Choose from EIGHT marvelous industry professionals for an in-person, 15-minute portfolio review.  This kind of feedback is invaluable to your career! 


2.  MIX & MINGLE:  In addition to an Illustrator Social Saturday night, the weekend is filled with opportunities to meet and learn from fellow illustrators with similar goals and interests.

3.  PERFECT YOUR CRAFT:  Multiple classes geared toward illustrators explore topics such as character design, marrying pictures & words, overcoming artist's block, building an eye-catching portfolio, and MUCH MORE!

4. ENTER AN ART SHOW:  Let your creativity loose and show off your work with a fun illustration prompt - with two chances to win a gift card to the bookstore!  The best part?  It's FREE to enter!


 5. PORTFOLIO SHOWCASE:  Display your work to industry professionals (the people who hire you!) and your peers all weekend!  Bonus: One winner will receive THREE 15-minute meetings (2 ADs and 1 agent).

6.  WEBSITE REVIEW:  Submit your URL at registration for a chance to have your site reviewed by 2 ADs!

7.  DIVE DEEP:  Not one, but FOUR intensives for illustrators dive deep into varying aspects of the KidLit industry!


8.  SCHOLARSHIP OPPORTUNITIES:  The amazing Zeke Peña is generously offering the opportunity to a traditionally underrepresented illustrator to attend the conference for free, PLUS a portfolio review, AND a special meet-and-greet with him!  Do not pass up this amazing opportunity!


We look forward to seeing you there!


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.