Friday, June 28, 2024

New changes hope to supercharge our SCBWI-MI shop talk format:

We are making a few changes to our shoptalk format in hopes of adding a pool of resources that the coordinators can pull from each month.

My previous years of volunteering has made me well aware of how much thought goes into creating valuable shoptalk content month after month. I recently sent out a survey to the coordinators. I wanted to get a feel for where we are now, where we are headed and what could be helpful. These two changes were born out of the responses that I received.

The first idea was for each of our six shop talks to provide us with one regional zoom each year. We will do this on even months. (now presentations for half the year are covered).

The second idea was to provide a pool of willing presenters. We all know the value of testing out our conference presentation ideas at a shoptalk. Jodi created a sign-up form for interested presenters. We hope to learn who would be interested, their topic of choice and which shoptalk they would like to present to. We’re loosely shooting for every other month kind of vibe (when possible) alternating from regional zoom to in person (as there are advantages to both).

Please see the below sign-up form to volunteer as a presenter to your local shoptalk.

FYI: The new regional zoom will start with a KAST shoptalk in the first week of October 2024.

The SCBWI-MI gets its strength from its members. We volunteer our time and expertise for the good of all. Yes, your local shoptalk needs you.


David Stricklen
SCBWI-MI Shoptalk Liaison (overlord haha)

Friday, June 21, 2024

Writer Spotlight: Sarah Miller

Unicorns, Meadowbrook Theater, OTMA, fiction or history, and perception is everything: novelist Sarah Miller

Charlie Barshaw coordinates our regular Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. In this piece, meet Sarah Miller, a ravenous researcher and a much-published historical fiction and non-fiction novelist.

Many pieces about you borrow from the first line of your bio to trumpet that you started writing a novel at age ten. So, what was 10-year-old Sarah like, as a person and a writer? What do you remember about that early work?

Well…there were unicorns in that first novel. Enough said?

I was the kind of kid who took two dozen library books on vacation. Lined them up by height in my little cupboard in the camper and then marched methodically through the whole shelf, a book a day. Aside from that unicorn novel and one story I attempted in 10th grade, I wasn’t a kid who wrote for fun. 

I was really really good at English assignments, though. Although I did have a Harriet the Spy-inspired notebook full of snotty observations in 5th grade.

You mentioned seeing The Miracle Worker performed at the Meadowbrook Theater. You’d seen the film with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, but seeing it live unlocked a piece of the puzzle that allowed you inside the relationship between Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller.

[As I said in a previous interview,] “And I can't tell you why because I don't know, but seeing it live, for some reason I finally understood what the big deal was for Helen Keller, was that there was no voice in her head.

“And I think it's just that one realization that struck me so hard. Because you can't even imagine that, really. Because you need words, mostly, to imagine that.” 

So even though there were already lots of bios and dramatizations of the story, you thought you had a new way to look at it. That took guts, and a little foolishness. How did Miss Spitfire come to be?

Immediately upon seeing The Miracle Worker on stage – that same night – I broke into the library (ok, fine, I had a key – I worked there) and grabbed every Helen Keller book off the shelves. I learned Braille and the manual alphabet and at some point in the process of immersing myself in all things Helen Keller, I figured out that I could maybe do something with all this information aside from simply amassing it. Like, maybe a book.

I was also fortunate that my library’s edition of Helen Keller’s autobiography was an old one that still contained an appendix of Annie Sullivan’s letters. That’s when I realized there was a whole story behind the story. 

Annie’s life doesn’t begin the moment she meets Helen. She has a whole lot of past behind her, even at the age of twenty-one, and I came to believe that a lot of her past uniquely suited her to be Helen’s teacher. And as one documentary put it, to the world, the miracle was Helen Keller; to Helen, the miracle was Annie. That’s the miracle I wanted to explore.

And as you said, some guts and foolishness. I was twenty-one at the time, just like Annie Sullivan. Just the right age to think I could bring out something The Miracle Worker hadn’t already been showing audiences for over forty years.

You pursued a Linguistics major (and a Russian language minor), worked at libraries and bookstores, all seemingly leading up to a curious, research-savvy sleuth of an author. Your career: Fate, or built intentionally with your own two hands?

Both? I mean, yeah, I was intentionally pursuing wordy, bookish jobs and hobbies and classes. But there wasn’t an end goal in mind yet. I was just immersing myself in the stuff I liked.

All of your non-fiction necessarily has elements of historical fiction as connecting sinew, where there is no physical evidence that something was said or happened. How do you, as the meticulous researcher, proceed with these speculative passages?

In non-fiction I never ever speculate without saying so. Words like perhaps, maybe, and possibly are the signals that I’m about to wade into undocumented territory. 

Sarah on the Borden couch

Even in a passage that feels like drama, such as the moment Lizzie Borden discovers her father’s body in The Borden Murders, is crafted out of facts. Everything in that scene comes directly from court testimony or witness statements. The appearance of the room, the condition of the body, the words spoken by Lizzie and Bridget, is all documented information. The trick is putting all those facts together in a way that feels fresh and immediate.

Later in the book, I struggled a bit with how to present Lizzie’s account of what had happened that morning, before the murders were discovered. There wasn’t a single coherent narrative to turn to – the information came from hundreds of questions asked by several different officers and lawyers in the days following the murder. How could I relay that info without all the tedious Q&A?

Finally, it dawned on me that I could just say that I was cobbling it together. A certain amount of imprecision is ok if you acknowledge it clearly and openly. Here’s how I worded it: “Her story, assembled from the hundreds of questions she answered over that first week, went like this…” I also chose to italicize that passage, to further emphasize that it’s not verbatim fact – it’s Lizzie’s story, which for an array of reasons (Shock and confusion? Malice and deception?) may or may not be accurate.

There are times when it’s vital to acknowledge that nobody knows exactly what happened. I forget that occasionally, and am always gleeful when I remember that it’s a valid option. Sometimes it’s the best option. 

Take the case of Violet and Daisy Hilton, a pair of conjoined twins who performed in sideshows and on the vaudeville stage of the 1920s. Their early life is obscured by decades of showbusiness ballyhoo – some of the misinformation willfully spread by the sisters themselves. They bent the facts so often that in their biography, the nature of the truth itself became a recurring theme.

I thought I knew which of your books were historical fiction, and which were non-fiction histories. But Miss Spitfire and OTMA: The Romanov Sisters (formerly The Lost Crown) are considered historical novels as well. So, in your mind, what’s the difference?

Speculation – and how I handle it – is the difference. In historical fiction, I’m free to imagine someone’s thoughts, words, and emotions and present them as that character’s reality. Non-fiction should never present speculation as fact. Biographies that invent dialog, for instance, drive me absolutely bonkers. If I want dramatic dialog, I’ll watch a miniseries.

Which do you prefer writing, fiction or history?

It depends on what I’m working on, though perhaps not in the way you think. When I’m writing a novel, there are always moments when my imagination wears thin and I wish I could just look up some information to fill in the blanks instead having to invent a whole scenario. And then there are times when I’m writing non-fiction when I get tired of hunting down obscure details and I wish I could make stuff up instead. I’m fickle!

The Borden Murders was actually your first non-fiction work. You were so devoted to objectivity that you decline to try to solve the mystery of whodunnit. When you first read about the murders, you slept with the lights on for a time. How did you go from terror to insatiable curiosity?

Boy, that’s a good question. I’m not sure I know the answer! I think maybe I was simultaneously scared and curious. Besides, knowing more facts is almost always less frightening than imagining them. That’s why Psycho is so scary!

[As I said in a previous interview,] “So the rumors at the library…are that I am writing Anne Frank from the point of view of the cat. Or Little House on the Prairie from the point of view of the dog. Or Lizzie Borden from the point of view of the hatchet. And I tell everybody, feel free to spread any of those rumors that you like. I don't mind.”

You do embrace looking at history from skewed viewpoints. How important is perception?

Perception is…everything.

Little Women is beloved as a cozy family story, but if you’re the mother who has to single-handedly keep that family afloat in the middle of a war with barely enough money for necessities, things aren’t quite so warm and fuzzy. Ditto Little House on the Prairie. A wagon trip across the plains may be a thrilling adventure for a five-year-old, but not so much when you’re a pregnant woman who’s literally trying to keep the wolves from the door.

What about people history has classified as villains? Lizzie Borden and Mary Surratt, for example. How do they see themselves? How do their friends and family see them? In fiction, perspective is a fun twist, but with non-fiction, it’s a responsibility. As a biographer, you choose whose voices are heard.

If you write about the Dionne Quintuplets and only quote the doctors and nurses who cared for the babies, you’re not telling the full story. If you write about the trial of Mary Surratt (an alleged Lincoln assassination conspirator) and only quote the prosecution’s witnesses, you’re not telling the full story. Even when people may not be fully truthful, it behooves you to pay attention. What they’re saying could be what they believe. It could be what they want you to hear. Those things, and the feelings behind them, can be as important to the story as the truth itself.

You are famous for your meticulously researched work. You’ve learned to talk to librarians to get to the most arcane information, diaries and records not available to the general public. You could present a master class on doing research. Did you learn how to research the hard way, trial and error? On-the-job training?
At the microfilm machine at the North Bay Public Library,
looking at Dionne articles from the North Bay Nugget

Mostly trial and error, yeah. Miss Spitfire and OTMA were a little easier because they both grew out of longtime fascinations. Organizing my research really became an issue with The Borden Murders. I read hundreds of newspaper articles and found myself continually frustrated by trying to remember where specific details came from. That’s when I realized I needed some kind of database to keep all my facts straight.

My first spreadsheet of newspaper articles had 649 entries, cross-referencing headlines, authors, newspapers, etc. I thought that was huge. And then I wrote The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets and ended up with 2,481 entries. My current project’s spreadsheet has 4,948. Building them is enormously tedious, but tedium is infinitely more tolerable than the constant frustration of being unable to lay your hands on a detail you read…somewhere.

[As I said in a previous interview,] “And then, because I’m what friends like to call a ‘method writer,’ I drove to Missouri, Kansas, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, to see the sites of the Ingalls family’s lives, where they were born and where they were buried. I learned to crochet so I could replicate a piece of Mrs. Ingalls’s own lacework that I’d seen on display in Missouri, as well as a shawl I saw in South Dakota — both of which appear in Caroline. I made myself a calico dress. (I thought I could sew the whole thing by hand. I was wrong.) I bought — and wore! — a corset. I lent a hand in butchering livestock and wild game, rendered lard, fried salt pork, roasted a rabbit, and tasted head cheese. I haven’t yet made maple sugar, but I intend to.”


Why guess what something is like if you can actually experience it? It’s one thing to imagine what the prairie wind feels like, or what the rustling grass sounds like. It’s another thing to feel it for yourself. There’s always something that you can’t learn from book research. 

It might be something tiny, like a scent. Or the titles of the books on the shelves at the Alcott home in Concord, Massachusetts. Those are the kind of insights that lend greater reality to characters and settings. 

All those things I did in the name of Caroline Ingalls helped me build an understanding of the extreme physicality of her life, and the amount of time and energy she had to expend on tasks that today take relatively no effort. To this day, I rarely do a load of laundry without thinking of her.

Visiting people’s graves also drives home the reality of their existence like nothing else. The murder of Andrew and Abby Borden isn’t just an intriguing locked-room mystery to unravel – it’s first and foremost the annihilation of an entire family. You can’t ignore that when you’re standing at the Borden family plot. 

The same goes for Oliva and Elzire Dionne. The birth of their five identical daughters in 1934 was a legitimate miracle, but the ramifications of that miracle split the family in half. That’s something I knew intellectually but didn’t fully feel until I stood in the house where the babies were born.

What are some of the most unusual things you’ve learned to do for your books?

The one that tends to make people’s eyes bug out is staying overnight at Lizzie Borden’s house…in her bedroom. I also learned firsthand that an absolute rookie wielding a hatchet can indeed land eleven blows in a four-inch space in under ten seconds. Corsets aren’t nearly as uncomfortable as Hollywood has led us to believe, either – I once worked a four-hour shift shelving library books while wearing mine.

Research is hard enough, but Covid restrictions presented a whole nother set of obstacles. How did you work around them?

Helpful people saved my bacon. And some luck, but mostly just good people.

Here’s some of the luck: My friend Chris happened to be at a conference in Washington, D.C. in January 2020. At that time I was working on a biography of Mary Surratt, an alleged conspirator in the Lincoln assassination, who had lived in Maryland. Chris is always up for a historical field trip, so he spent some of his free time on a visit to the Surratt House Museum and texted me pictures galore. I think he mostly meant to torment me by getting there first, but it’s a good thing he did because that turned out to be the closest thing to a research trip I got.

Almost at the same time, I happened to be visiting family in the Grand Rapids area. One of my cousins was a GVSU student at the time. When I found out the university has a collection of Surratt Society newsletters, I hitched a ride with her and burrowed into Surratt minutiae while she dissected people in the anatomy lab. Within two days, I’d photographed just about every Surratt newsletter in the collection. If I hadn’t done that at that precise moment, I’d have been delayed months and months while waiting for Covid restrictions to lift.

In addition to all that, the curator at the Surratt House Museum, who I contacted by email and phone, did everything she could to make the museum’s materials accessible to me from afar.

At the same time I was also working on Marmee, and realized I needed access to Abba May Alcott’s (Louisa May Alcott’s mother) handwritten memoir at Harvard. Harvard’s libraries were closed by then. Completely. Not even email requests were being filled. When they reopened months later, there was a six-month backup. 

I called Chris (yeah, same guy) and asked him if he knew anyone associated with Harvard, because unlike me, he’s an extrovert and knows all sorts of people all over the place. He immediately said, “I’ll call Katie.” Katie lives in Boston. I’ve never met her, but she took a few hours out of her day and went to get as many scans of the materials for me as she could. 

And then she recruited her friend Belinda, who works at Harvard and who I’ve also never met. Belinda sacrificed some of her lunch hours to photograph the rest of the memoir for me. A human research chain!

When writing OTMA about Czar Nicolas and the Romanov family, you had the additional research obstacle of having to translate much of the source material from the Russian language. You had a smattering of familiarity of the language from your college days, and you had published your debut novel to some acclaim. But why, for your sophomore book, take on the four separate POV daughters, with much of the source material in a foreign language in the hands of not fully cooperative government?

Because I’m bananas? Or maybe because I was about 23 years old and didn’t fully realize how much I’d bitten off until I was too far in to back out.

Why did you change the title of The Lost Crown?

The original cover
I wanted a title (and a cover) that would convey exactly what the book is about at a glance. When 
The Lost Crown was published, sparkly vampires and boy wizards were all the rage, and the marketing department was reluctant to loudly proclaim The Lost Crown as a novel about Russian history. I disagreed but was too much a rookie to make a fuss. 

I’ve always regretted acquiescing so easily, so when the rights reverted I gave myself the title and cover I’d always secretly wished for. “OTMA" is a well-known acronym among fans of Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia Romanov, and the subtitle clues everyone else in (The Romanov Sisters)! Adding the grand duchesses’ faces to the letters was a brilliant move on the designer’s part.

You were asked in a Q&A why you haven’t written any biographies of men, and you answered that you haven’t found one whose story interested you enough. But of course, the real answer is that it’s women in history who’ve been glossed over and ignored. Who’s next? I’ve heard you mention Lorena Hickok before. Is she still on the short list?

Oh heck yes. Lorena Hickok is in fact the next book you’ll see from me, probably in 2025. It’s a biography of a top-notch Associate Press reporter who fell in love with Eleanor Roosevelt.

When she had a choice

Your historical time period comfort zone seems to be within the last two hundred years. One obvious reason would be that physical records are more readily available. And certainly, you’ve only mined the very surface of those unheralded women in history who helped to get us to where we are today. Do you feel like you were reincarnated from an earlier time?

Not exactly. But I did grow up in a VERY Victorian town that’s chock full of antiques and history. So it really wasn’t a big leap for me to jump backwards 150 years or so.

Immersing yourself in the diary and newspaper language of 100 years ago, do you find yourself thinking, talking or dreaming in that old-timely vernacular?

Yeah, a little bit! Some old-timey words just don’t get the use they deserve anymore. “Vexed” for example. Among the right kind of nerds, you can have a lot of fun with archaic vocabulary.

Please share any social media contacts:

Facebook: @sarahmillerwritesbooks

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Book Birthday Blog With Kathleen Vincenz



Welcome to SCBWI-MI's Book Birthday Blog!

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


Congratulations to Kathleen Vincenz on the release of My Chicest Paris Mystery


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

The idea for My Chicest Paris Mystery came to me while I stood in line to visit the gargoyles atop Notre Dame in Paris (this was many years before the fire). I was so inspired to write her story that I plopped down on the sidewalk and scribbled a scene about her in my notebook.

It was easy to write about the Misty, an overexcited teen and her love of Paris, because I was an overexcited woman in Paris. I had planned so poorly for my trip that my credit cards didn’t work, I ran out of money, I got lost every day, and I was almost run over crossing a roundabout. But I loved every minute of it.  

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

That they must visit Paris. Sip a café and munch a pain au chocolat. Oh, and ride on a moped through the cobblestoned roads beside a cute guy with a scruffy beard or all alone. But more importantly, I hope they discover that everyone should live and dress the way that fits them and not to fit preconceived ideas. And that your relatives will love you for being you

Your website mentions you are a technical writer. What inspired you to begin writing books for children? 

When my three sons were young, we always had difficulty finding books they liked, especially nonfiction. I originally planned to write nonfiction for young people to use my technical writing background, but I was never able to express myself unless I spoke through a character. 

Once, my uncle asked me to write the history of our Irish family. I attempted to write, “In 18something, Catherine Campbell crossed the Atlantic.” I couldn’t do it until I made my mother a character in her own stories. From that came Margie & Edna Mae The Christmas Surprise, the first in a series about my mother and her best friend living through the Great Depression.

But what fits with my technical writing background is the newsletter my son, Danny Vincenz, and I publish with a bit of history, science, and fun with our squirrel mascot, Larry. You can find it at: 

Our latest issue is about the jobs people performed with little or no safety equipment. It’s called, You Wore That to Do That?! It also includes a historic dress-up game with Larry the Squirrel that my son created. You can find it here: 

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

The book will be available on Amazon and other major booksellers on June 15. I’m planning a book signing at a local restaurant and promoting it through social media.  

What's next for you? 

More of the same. A new Margie & Edna Mae about their attempts to see a Shirley Temple movie. A sequel to Over the Falls in a Suitcase where the sisters have a new brother. Another short novel about a saint. And, of course, more issues of our newsletter. 

More about the book . . . 

Misty flies to Paris (sans her too-busy parents) to be a bridesmaid in what she’s sure will be the chicest of Parisian weddings. She brings a family necklace for her French cousin to wear on her wedding day. She also brings her dreams of transforming into a Parisian and gaining her relatives’ love. It won’t matter that she’s learned so little French. She’s “jan an apple” Misty.

When she arrives, her relatives attempt to steal the necklace. Misty must keep it safe until she can solve its mystery—is it cheap costume jewelry or Marie Antoinette's like her relatives claim? More importantly, will she transform herself into a Parisian and be a bridesmaid? And what about that cute boy with the scruffy beard who keeps popping up? 

Publisher: Squirrels at the Door Publishing

More about the author . . . 

Kathleen Vincenz is the author of Over the Falls in a Suitcase, Margie & Edna Mae’s The Christmas Surprise, Papa and the Little Queen, and God’s Sparrows. She enjoys writing about family and faith with warmth and humor. She lives on a hill with her husband and many woodland friends.




Friday, June 14, 2024

Introducing the Critique Carousel Agents and Editors: Jennifer Thompson & Laura Gruszka by Wendy BooydeGraaff

The Critique Carousel will be back this fall for another spin! To prepare our SCBWI-MI members for this fun, asynchronous, virtual event, we are giving a sneak-peek into the faculty for the event. These ten professionals will be profiled, one at a time, for you to research, learn, and find out as much as possible before registration.


What is the Critique Carousel, you ask?

And here’s the answer:


The Critique Carousel is a virtual SCBWI-MI event for members to receive a written* critique from an acquiring agent or editor. Participants will select a kidlit agent or editor that represents their genre (science fiction, fantasy, etc.) or age category (picture books, middle grade, young adult). Agents will have a month to read submissions and provide the critique on our standard SCBWI Gold Form. 


After the event and after revising their work, participants will have the opportunity to submit to their critiquing agent/editor for a period of six months. This does not guarantee representation or acquisition, but presents another opportunity.


*written critique—stay tuned! Most faculty will be providing written critiques. But this year, there will be ONE agent who does things a little differently. You’ll have to wait to find out who!


Dates: Registration will open September 17, 2024, and will close October 1, 2024. Manuscripts and portfolios will be due at midnight on October 1, 2024.


Information on past Critique Carousels can be found here and here. Updated information and the registration website will be posted when we have it. And, this year, we will have a stellar lineup of faculty.

Last time we introduced Sarah Proudman, agent at Galt & Zacker.

Today, we introduce our SECOND critique faculty. . . Drumroll. . .


Jennifer Thompson, Associate Editor at Scholastic!

She says:

“Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, I left home for college to attend Penn State where I was an English major and Psychology minor. After meeting a literary agent in London during my summer abroad internship junior year I decided a career in publishing was for me. After graduating from Penn State, I went to Pace University and received my masters in Publishing. After working and interning in many areas of publishing I finally found my way to Scholastic. Some of my favorite activities include reading, traveling, going to music festivals and museums, and watching many, many shows/movies. Some of my day to day duties, not including the constant administrative work, are reading submissions, working on copy edits, and shaping & researching future projects.”

Jennifer’s SCBWI member page can be found here.

For the 2024 Critique Carousel, Jennifer will be critiquing the following: 

  • Picture book fiction
  • Picture book dummy
  • Middle grade fiction
  • YA fiction
  • Novel-in-verse


But wait! This is a DOUBLE HEADER! As in. . . drumroll for the second time. . .


We are also introducing our THIRD Critique Carousel faculty member, Laura Gruszka!


Laura Gruszka (she/they) is a junior agent at Writers House, representing children's books and select adult fiction.

Laura’s manuscript wishlist can be found here.

For the 2024 Critique Carousel, Laura will be critiquing:

  • Picture book dummy
  • Chapter book 
  • Middle grade fiction 
  • YA fiction 
  • Graphic novels fiction or nonfiction
  • Portfolio review

We are excited to pass along Jennifer and Laura’s wonderful critiques to you, our hard-working SCBWI members, this fall.

Now is the time to do your research on these agents and editor, find their social media, their LinkedIn profiles, their sales on Publishers Weekly, so you’ll be ready when registration rolls around (September 17)!

Keep writing, creating, polishing those manuscripts and illustrations (SCBWI-MI's summer camp can help), so when the Critique Carousel spins around, you’ll be ready to hop on!


Wendy BooydeGraaff is the Critique Carousel Coordinator for 2024. She is the author of a  picture book, Salad Pie (Ripple Grove Press/Chicago Review Press), and the Michigan story contributor in the forthcoming Haunted States of America anthology, out July 9, 2024 (Godwin Books). She also writes poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction for adults. Find out more at 



Friday, June 7, 2024

Meet Penelope Dullaghan, the Illustration Mentor for 2025

By Jay Whistler

I’m sure many of you have been wondering about the mentorship, which we usually begin promoting in the spring, with registration in June. Have no fear, the mentorship is still on! But we’ve been working on revamping it, making it even better. While there will be more information on the website soon, here’s the gist: 

  • The same one-on-one mentorship we’ve always had

  • The same detailed feedback from judges we’ve always had

  • A new timeline–the whole thing in the same calendar year

  • New perks for the winner and the first- and second-runners up

  • Registration begins January 2, 2025

  • Winner announced at the end of March, 2025

  • Mentorship begins April 1, 2025 and ends November 22, 2025

Penelope Dullaghan
Our 2025 Mentorship will be for illustrators, and our mentor will be Penelope Dullaghan, illustrator of over a dozen picture books, plus middle grade, YA, and adult book covers. If you’re interested in applying for the Mentorship, consider registering for our upcoming Summer Camp intensive with Kaz Windness to help you whip your picture book storyboard into shape! And be sure to check our mentorship website pages often. We’ll be posting new information throughout the summer, including submission instructions, FAQs, registration information, relevant webinars, and the full mentorship schedule. 

Now, meet your mentor!

How did you get started as an illustrator?

I started my career working as an advertising art director. I often hired illustrators to work on campaigns with me, and I loved the creativity and vision they brought to the work! It was then that I realized I’d rather be doing the art than directing the art. So I started doing loads of illustration, built up a portfolio, quit my job, and became a full time illustrator. At the time it felt like a brave (scary!) thing to do. Looking back now, I’m so glad I found the courage to make that leap - I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator now for 20 years and love it.

What do you like best about illustration? What do you like least?

I enjoy the freedom most. I can be selective about the work I take on (ensuring it aligns with my values and schedule), and when I work on it (if I get on a roll, I can work all day long until the energy wanes). I also love the freedom to work from anywhere. The flexibility of being an illustrator really suits me.

The thing I like least is dealing with the contracts and compensation. But luckily I have a rep who handles the bulk of this for me.

Describe a typical day illustrating, or what does a typical day look like versus how you wish it looked?

My day begins early. I like to get up before the sun and practice yoga, meditate, read, journal, and go for a walk to get myself clear. When my mind and body feel spacious, work comes easily, so these practices are a non-negotiable for me. Then I put my devices on focus-mode and get to work on the project at hand. I work until I feel like I’m no longer tapped in and doing my best work, and then I stop. Lastly, I tidy my studio so the next day, everything is in its place and ready to roll when I am. 

How would you describe your illustration style? Your mentoring style?

My style is guided by simplicity, color, and joy. I enjoy getting curious about the magic of the idea and trying to convey that magic visually.

My mentoring style is shaped by the person I’m working with. Everyone is different, so I like to meet people where they are, celebrating what feels good to them, and working with them to improve the parts that feel more difficult. I enjoy looking at all aspects of life and optimizing each one so that clear, strong work is inevitable. I believe everything we do, see, read, and talk about - all of it - shapes what we create.

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

Hmm. This one is tough because I’ve enjoyed all my books! If I had to choose, I think “Thank You, Day” was my very favorite though, because I gave myself strict color parameters and it was fun working within that limitation.

When you’re reading for pleasure, what illustration features typically impress you the most?

I really like illustration that makes me look at the world differently or that opens me up to the magic of everyday life.

What brings you joy?
Everything! The way the sunlight filters through the windows differently in each season. Feeling the warm, sudsy water as I wash the dishes. Breaking a sweat while hiking with my dog. Browsing at the library or a used bookstore with nothing particular in mind, waiting for a new book to introduce itself. Laughing with my teenager. Basically, I feel joy when I’m open to what is actually happening - it feels like a sweet buoyancy in my heart. 

What inspires you?
Walking. Long, solo walks when you can allow your mind to wander - this usually leads to new thoughts and ideas. Also right now, I’m particularly inspired by my family. My teen, Veda, creates constantly - trying stuff, testing new ideas, experimenting with formats and mediums, and working as bravely as I’ve ever seen anyone work. And my writer husband, Colin. He is on top of his game at work, connecting ideas and writing with calm, kindness, and clarity. It really inspires me to be brave, be kind, and be open.

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

This question is way too hard. I’d like to go everywhere and see all the things!

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

Another question asking me to narrow down to one… These are tough! I’d love to spend time and talk with so many people - Marcus Aurelius, Thich Nhat Hahn, Rick Rubin, Georgia O’Keefe, Paul Klee, Modigliani, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Buddha, Henry David Thoreau. If I had to choose one person, though, I think I’d most like to have dinner with author, psychotherapist, and Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein. Her words and ways of being have influenced my life so much, and I’d just like to sit with her and listen to her stories and hear her infamous giggle.

How do you feel your mentorship is likely to help an emerging illustrator?
My hope is that I can help an emerging illustrator feel confident in their choices, clear in their vision, and centered in their own work.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects? (Or, if you want to keep things close to the vest for any reason, perhaps you can share about a project you've always wanted to do or a project you wish you had worked on.)

Right now I’m working with the Indiana State Museum on a project called “Good Night Forest.” It’s all about nocturnal life in the woods. So I get to create a world of stars and moons, creatures with bright, glowing eyes, and delights that will spark a kid’s imagination about what happens after dark! It’s super fun!


Jay Whistler (she/her) is the SCBWI-MI Mentorship coordinator. She writes picture books, middle grade, YA, and short stories. She is a rabid fan of the Oxford comma, an avowed grammar nerd, and suffers from tsundoku (but is it really suffering? She thinks not.) You can learn more about Jay here.

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Book Birthday Blog With Katie Spina


Welcome to SCBWI-MI's Book Birthday Blog!

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


Congratulations to Katie Spina on the release of The Wolf and The Wind


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

During the pandemic shutdown of 2020, I started going for walks on the nature trail behind my house. The more I walked, the more I saw the magic in the forest. I crafted a whole magic world called Gaeldor where kids can have soft adventures. 

I have double vision as the result of a lazy eye. Two of my nephews have the same condition of one eye stronger than the other. They are training their eyes to work together by wearing an eye patch on a schedule. I went through physical therapy in first grade and again in fifth grade. It helped, but I still have partial double vision as an adult.

My memories of dealing with my double vision introduced me to the idea of a girl that can see the portal to Gaeldor because she sees the world differently. Her adventures are like slipping into Narnia without the life or death stakes.

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

Bullies don’t always win. Bullying is a major theme in the story both in the real world and in Gaeldor. Even though we don’t see the bullies getting punished for their actions, we see that the victims take the power away from them.

Bullying is about power and attention, and this story shows how to rob bullies of power by rallying your friends and family. Gather together instead of isolating.

You've written many stories over the years. What inspires you to write? 

Stories have power to change the world. Every time I watch a movie or read a book about a writer or a mom it makes me see my own world and changes my perspective. I started writing for kids because I don’t want them to feel alone. So much of my childhood was lonely for so many reasons. Stories give me a chance to write a better story and show kids they can have better.

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

Marketing is my weakest point, and I’m working on building on past experience. I’ve started a YouTube channel where I read stories in the public domain to kids. This is designed to allow parents to see me, my personality, and get a feel for my vibe.

I used the services of Hidden Gems Books to help me access ARC readers a month and a half before the official launch date. 

I’ve also scheduled my first school visit to grow connections directly with readers. It’s not big and flashy, but I have a five-year plan to grow slow and steady to build something real.

My books are available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent bookstores. I also sell them directly through my website where they can be signed and personalized. Because I have to charge for shipping through my website, I offer the books at a discount when ordered through me.

What's next for you? 

I’m deep in edits to the sequel of my lower YA Space Opera Swim the Stars. It’s called Swim the Soul and it will be out late 2024.

I’m also working on the sequel to The Wolf and The Wind, so it can come out early 2025. It will be called The Mighty Floof and The Unicorn

I’m very excited to expand these universes and share where the characters go next. 

More about the book . . .

Paige is having the worst day of third grade ever. Her school bully ruined her new shoes. There’s hours before she can play video games after school, and then she fell off the swings at the park scraping up her knees. 

A pair of fifth graders she knows help clean her up. Noticing how upset she is, they invite her on an adventure. The trio journeys to the magic land of Gaeldor where the Wind has gone missing, and someone must take up the quest.

Someone like Paige.

Publisher: Awesome Authors Kids 

More about the author . . .

I have been a storyteller for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first book at the age of 9. I still have a copy of it in a folder in my office. To be honest, it's quite terrible. I was trying to write an Agatha Christie mystery tied into a soap opera drama without understanding why those two things wouldn't mesh.

In high school, my friends and I created a fanfiction universe where we could live out lives of grand adventure as our ideal selves. Those stories helped me understand who I was, what I believed in, and what I wanted to be happy. 

I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew I wanted stories to be in my life. I ended up going to college and getting a degree in writing. All I wanted to do was tell stories.

Over the years, I've written many books. Those were all stories for adults. They were good, but they weren't the stories of my heart. 

In 2017, I started Awesome Authors Kids. Writing classes to encourage kids to write anything and everything, so long as they had fun. Writing is a skill that improves with practice. The more kids are willing to write, the better their writing skills get.

Sharing my passion for writing with my students got me writing the kinds of stories I wanted to read as a kid. I took the fanfiction universe my friend created when we were teens and wrote a new story with our own kids as the heroes. 

I am many things: a daughter, a mom, a spouse, a teacher. But most of all, I am a storyteller.