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In 2008, I had the most nerve-wracking 20-minute drive of my life. My knuckles paled, my stomach gurgled, and my thoughts raced faster than the 35 MPH I could manage to clock on the highway. I was on my way to my first kidlit conference ever: the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Conference. AHHHH! Somebody help me!

Thanks, Ryan. I know you would have, honey. But I digress…

I knew practically nada about writing for kids, but I had the start to a middle grade novel that had gotten good feedback from my critique group. So I slipped the first three pages into an envelope earlier that summer and waited patiently for the response. Thankfully, I was on vacation for the final two weeks of the countdown. It made my vacation go by much more slowly. I recommend this tactic to anyone who must wait—go to a beach and plop a lounge chair in the sand, facing the ocean. Or facing Ryan Gosling in surfing trunks. You’ll come to love the waiting.

But when the vacation was over and the car hit our driveway, I jumped out and dashed to the post office. Awaiting me was a thick envelope, and remembering the drill from college admissions, I knew this meant a “yes”!

So off I went. I was so green. (Although I wore a cute purple blouse.) But when the event was done, I blogged all about it. It helped me absorb the information like a SCBWI sponge. Hopefully my notes help prepare you for this year’s conference. You can review them all here: RUCCL 2008.

But Tara, what does this all mean?

It means that the RUCCL 2012 Application is now available!

And guess who’s your morning “Success Story” speaker?

As Miss Piggy would say, “MOI!”

Yeah, I was pretty floored they asked me. Trinka Hakes Noble sent me an email saying, “I hope you don’t mind, but I put your name forward as our Inspiration Speaker for the mentee breakfast.  Would you be interested?”

Would I be interested? Are you kidding? Of course I am! Wow! Whoopee! Holy macaroni! Keeno Yaccarino!

Wait a second, what did I just agree to…? Pale knuckles and gurgling stomach again?

Well, I am hoping many of my blog readers will be accepted to the conference this year. Because not only do I want to see you succeed, I’ll need your help during my presentation. (Details to come. No, you won’t need to hold a barf bucket. Well, maybe. OK, don’t hold me to that promise.)

So polish up those manuscripts! You’ve got until July 2 to postmark them.

And if you have any questions about the conference, please ask away in the comments!

I bumped into Peter Harren on Etsy where I discovered his adorable illustrations. We had a few convos and I encouraged him to join SCBWI. Peter and I got in touch again a couple weeks ago as he was gearing up for the SCBWI mid-winter conference. So I asked him to blog about it as a first-timer. Take it away, Peter!

The co-founder of SCBWI Lin Oliver is hilarious. Part of her first day welcome address (at 7:30 am or some ridiculous turd hour like that) was this quote from the famous body builder Ronnie Coleman:

“Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift no heavy-ass weights.”

Of course the conference was going to be awesome, but Lin knew that it had a shadow for some people. The days were packed with activity starting at the wee hours and there was going to be a serious amount of information whipping past our heads. As Lin said, it was going to be work. And for people like me and my fiance Kayla Skogh (kick-ass children’s book writer and illustrator), one other shadow, one big shadow, was the socializing.

We’re introverts, and peppered throughout the info package for the conference and people’s advice for us was some scary stuff— “you gotta network”, “introduce yourself”, “mingle”  and “talk to people”. We spent 5 years of our lives in New York City squashed up against people and still, the mention of a Saturday night Gala for networking and “fun” made our mouths dry.

The good news for us was children’s book people are really sweet. There were so many warm smiles and rosy cheeks. I think there were over 1000 people, and something like 70% of them were ladies. With 700 children’s book ladies in there you could really feel the nurturing energy. There were lots of hugs. When I remember the Ballroom I see a peach colored glow coming from the room.  And as for the structure of the weekend, it went beautifully. It was really well organized and there were some nice breaks and awesome lemon poppy seed bread.

Now, on to the juice. I’ll share the words of wisdom from all the children’s book world royalty that I deemed worthy of note taking. I guess that’s called ‘noteworthy’. And before I start I should mention that everyone felt the children’s book industry is strong and steady. One guy even said it was robust!

Unfortunately, I didn’t write down who said what, but it’s safe to assume they’re a serious-ass children’s book professional of some sort.  Also, all these quotes are in reference to picture books. So, here’s some quotes:

  • “The keys to a good picture book are: character driven, brief, witty, light on text, and very young.”
  • “Great children’s books have clear ideas, an emotional arc, simplicity, and compositional variety.”
  • “Keep the story moving, don’t waste pages.”
  • “Illustrations need to be narrative on their own.”
  • “Make sure the left to right action is strong and promotes page turns.”
  • “Character Driven!”

After writing those quotes I’m realizing that they don’t feel as huge as they did when I first wrote them down. I guess that’s evidence of a real benefit to the conference; being there. The conference was hugely inspiring and motivating. And the main reason I went was the portfolio review. My portfolio and book dummy were viewed by over a hundred editors, agents, art directors and book professionals.

If you want an in depth view of the conference you can go to and find tons of information and videos of the conference. They had a whole team of people blogging the crap out of it.

And just for the fun of it, I added one of my pages of notes.

The bird’s lyrics are from Devendra Banhart’s song “Be Kind” which was in my head all weekend. In stressful situations I try to remember to be nice to myself and avoid judging myself for being anxious. This song shows up a lot when I need it.

Peter Harren is an aspiring author/illustrator. Track his progress at

Kids love when they think they’re smarter than adults, don’t they? Try putting your shirt on as pants or wearing your shoe as a hat and they’ll double-over with laughter at your stupidity.

Similarly, in writing, having a clueless narrator produces sure-fire giggles. Knowing more than the protagonist is like being in on a secret joke with the author. It’s one of the keys to writing humor for children.

But one of the biggest mistakes in writing humor, according to Executive Editor Steve Meltzer, is random humor—humor that doesn’t serve to drive the story forward but exists merely as a gag. “Even the absurd needs to make sense and be believable,” said Meltzer. He then read BETTY BUNNY LOVES CHOCOLATE CAKE as an example of humor that feels effortless and works within the context of the story. When Betty Bunny’s parents tell her she’s a “handful” so often, she thinks it’s a term of endearment and tells her mommy she’s a “handful” right back. (Of course, I’m rushing out to buy the book right now! I know, I’m a handful!)

Remember when writing picture books for kids, your audience includes parents, too. Some humor should be for their benefit. Think of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons—watch them now and there are jokes that certainly went over your head as a child. Pixar films also have a unique way of delivering entertainment that parents enjoy. (Like in “Finding Nemo” when Nemo is waiting to sabotage the filter. The dentist goes to the bathroom and Peach says, “Potty break! He grabbed the Reader’s Digest! You’ve got 4.2 minutes!”)

Mr. Meltzer also reminded us to take advantage of page turns because “they’re the writer’s rimshot.” Page turns should be surprising and fun. They create suspense: “And then…” [page turn] “BAM!” Hit them with your best [rim]shot.

Audrey Vernick and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich also examined humor in picture books and suggested “take something we all know and insert something absurd that doesn’t belong…the unfamiliar in the familiar.” Audrey did just this in her debut IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?. The humor in the book happens when the buffalo goes to school, helping to ease readers’ fears about the first day of Kindergarten.

Other ways to add humor to your stories include having a funny sidekick, inserting a running gag, and taking the joke beyond the typical expectation of three. When the joke happens a fourth time, it’s hilarious because we already thought it was over after the third instance.

Misunderstandings, like those literal translations in Amelia Bedelia are also humor winners. Comic wordplay is another technique to try. Combine words, create new words, use funny sounds (onomatopoeia). My debut picture book is THE MONSTORE—a store where you buy monsters. The mashed-up title signals that this will be a funny book. (At least I hope you’ll think it’s hilarious!)

So, are there other humorous devices you like to use in your writing?

Photo Credit: Alexandre Ferron

Did you know that author/illustrator Grace Lin was Chinese? Well, she didn’t.

As a child, she was the only Asian in her elementary school, so she saw herself as an ordinary white, middle-class kid living in upstate New York. She pretended she wasn’t Asian. None of the books she read had characters that looked like her. It wasn’t until her school librarian pulled out “The Five Chinese Brothers”, the sole ethnic title, that Grace was reminded she was different.

At the NJ-SCBWI conference in Princeton this past weekend, Grace Lin gave the keynote presentation and told us about her identity crisis as an illustrator. In art school she imitated styles and she made art to impress other people. She wanted to hear, “You’re such a great artist, Grace! How do you draw so well?”

But she soon realized she was copying others, wanting to be like Michaelangelo, and making art for the wrong reasons. “Be an artist because you have something to share with the world,” she told us. So Grace began to draw things that made her happy.

She found that Chinese folk art, with its bright colors, patterns and lack of perspective appealed to her. Every inch of the illustration was utilized–there were no blank spaces. This folk art resembled Matisse, and she began to see an East-West commonality in the art she preferred, which became an East-West identity that she embraced.

If Grace was to make art that was important to her, she had to think of what was most important in her life: her family. So she created a family portrait that was uniquely her own–colorful, vibrant and in a style that was not seeking to impress, but merely being who she was.

Grace explained to us that our art should have a personal connection. “If it’s not important to me, why do it?” Her first book was very personal, reflecting on the time she spent with her mother in the garden, tending to Chinese vegetables. She used to be embarrassed by the strange plants that grew outside her home, but she now realized the importance of her heritage. She remembered how she never saw herself in books, and she wanted to give other Asian children the chance to see themselves represented.

Instead of being pigeon-holed as an ethnic author, Grace Lin has seen her books melt away race and culture and appeal to every child. “Pre-conceived notions of the market don’t really matter,” she said. She reminded us that if we create what we love, what’s important, our passion will always shine through and find an audience.

Up Next from the Conference: Humor in Picture Books

‘Twas the night before Conference and all through the hotel,
Authors were dreaming of merchandise deals with Mattel.

The manuscripts were printed with name and website,
In the hopes that an agent would find love at first sight.

The editors were snoring tucked into their rooms,
Knowing before them a day of pitching looms.

And while I am too warm, and Corey Rosen Schwartz too cold,
We share a king bed because the queen rooms are all sold.

Out in the hallway, there arose such a noise,
Wouldn’t you know it, it’s the conference’s only two boys.

The place is packed with slinky stiletto-heel wearers,
‘Cause style in books means style in fashion is fairer.

A kidlit conference is full of women who are hot,
Who sell tons of stories while you just want one shot.

But we authors are friendly, we certainly don’t bite,
We’re not filled with envy, we’re not filled with spite.

We will welcome you to our world that’s so crazy,
So will editors and film agents who’ve worked with Scorcese.

Get out there and network! Polish your pitch to a shine!
Relax in the lounge with a smooth glass of wine.

A kidlit conference is the place to make a friend,
It’s where deals happen ’cause deal-makers attend!

But don’t drone for hours about your book’s premise,
Talk about your life, your hobbies. Do you play tennis?

And don’t just stand there, go mix and go mingle.
Don’t stare at the editors like they’re all Kris Kringle.

Be yourself and you’ll find that you’ll be an attraction,
Don’t croon like Jagger about not gettin’ no satisfaction.

Be happy, be cheerful, take crits with salt if need be,
Remember we’re here to help you succeed, see?

(Excuse the bad meter, I’m not really a poet.
Ask Corey the rhyme genius, she really does know it.)

And with that I bid you a hearty good luck.
Break a leg, do your best, get that writer’s block unstuck.

Enjoy yourself for three days and two nights.
Happy Conference to all, and to all a good write!

by Dana Carey

Everyone knows what a great organization The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators is—bringing together people who love children’s books for 40 years. Did you know they do it all over the world? SCBWI France was founded in 1995 with a handful of members but it’s grown to a plucky little chapter of about 50. We have our regional conference in the fall that coincides with the French Children’s Book Fair in Paris and another big event in the spring. This May we’re organizing a Seaside Retreat way out here (I’m waving at you from the Breton coast in western France) with Diane Stanley as author/illustrator-in-residence.

I joined SCBWI in 2004 and started volunteering by cleaning up after a conference. Our tireless Regional Advisor, Tioka Tokedira asked me to explore the idea of a retreat in my area. Next thing you knew, I was an Event Coordinator. Then on the board working on publicity. And now I’m Assistant Regional Advisor. Tioka is great at rounding up the troops and I’m so glad she spotted me. I never really thought of myself as an Event Coordinator never mind ARA but here I am. That’s SCBWI: possibilities abound.

Living far from La Capitale can be isolating but being an active member of SCBWI France has helped. I’ve connected with people who share my interest but more importantly take it as seriously as I do. I’ve learned about children’s literature and the publishing industry but I’ve also done things I didn’t think I was inclined to do. One recent example was the Literary Discussion/Pitch Event in Paris with agent/author John Cusick of Scott Treimel NY on April 1st called “The Hook and Heart of the Story.” The idea of pitching in person made me nervous.

Our homework for this event made me think about my stories differently. While preparing my “hearts” and “hooks” as well as a pitch, I had to take a cold hard look at my work and reduce it to a few sentences. It was a test that revealed the difference between a story for submission and a story that stays in the desk drawer.

We met in a cozy restaurant called Le Patio but weren’t on the patio; instead we were in the basement, like those 1950’s beatniks on poetry night. There was even a jazz duo performing at one point. We sat on sofas and ottomans nestled around John discussing the heart of the story: “it’s the bones of the book.” The heart provokes the emotional response while the hook draws in the reader.

During the second part of the evening we pitched to John one-on-one, as if we bumped into each other in an elevator and he could not escape. It was supposed to be natural but I memorized it and rehearsed with my daughter (she couldn’t escape either) and we both realized why I’m not an actress. Luckily, this did not matter. It was evident during the pitch that John was much more interested in listening and processing my content than in dissecting my delivery. It was great to have the chance to try something new in a nonjudgmental atmosphere. John gave me some solid feedback on the pitch and then we discussed the story. All in 5 minutes.

I left knowing my next steps. And I learned first hand that during a pitch, the “pitcher” isn’t the only one working: the agent is listening hard, processing the information and then delivering a coherent critique full of insight. Not an easy thing to do in 5 minutes. But it’s worth stepping out of your comfort zone for it.

Join me (somewhere outside my comfort zone) at an SCBWI France event (in English): Find us on twitter: @scbwifrance and Facebook: SCBWI France.

Bon courage et à bientôt!

Before she moved out to the provinces, Dana Carey worked as a graphic designer in Paris then taught English to architecture and art school students. Now she writes and illustrates picture books. She also reads MG/YA books in English and writes reports in French for French publishers as well as doing some translation, painting and child-rearing on the side. Find her on twitter: @danaFR.

Joyce Wan, talented author/illustrator of “Greetings from Kiwi and Pear,” stops by the blog today to recap the recent NJ-SCBWI annual conference. I couldn’t attend this year so Joyce offered to share the juicy details. (Get it? Kiwi and pear…juicy? Ugh, stick to humor in picture books, Tara.)

Take it away, Joyce!

It was my first time attending the New Jersey SCBWI Annual Conference and it was such a blast! There were intensives, workshops, lunches with editors/agents/art directors, a book fair, a juried art show, a raffle, auctions, one-on-one critiques, agent pitch sessions and portfolio reviews galore. A whopping 22 publishing houses/agents were represented. A round of applause to Kathy Temean (NJ-SCBWI RA), Laurie Wallmark (Assistant RA) and all the volunteers for coordinating such an amazing and well-organized event. The conference was informational yet inspiring and I left Princeton feeling excited and energized!

Highlights from two of the workshops I attended which stood out in my mind:

Sure it’s Cute, But Will it Sell?
Steve Meltzer
Associate Publisher/Executive Managing Editor
Dial, Dutton, & Celebra

He provided us with information on the business side of the industry and a snapshot of the current picture book market. The market is made up of four types of buyers:

  1. Independent Retailers
  2. Mass Market Retailers
  3. Institutional (Libraries and Schools)
  4. Book Clubs/Fairs

You want to write a book that hits ALL markets. Examples of current books that are hitting all markets:

  • Skippyjon Jones
  • Fancy Nancy
  • Ladybug Girl
  • Llama Llama Red Pajama

As mentioned in the recent #pblitchat on Twitter, Meltzer is looking for character-driven stories: stories with quirky characters that are unusual and original but realistic. Character stories invite sequels, branding, and licensing opportunities.

Finally, he suggested that writers should be able to pitch their story in one sentence. Compare it to something successful but then tell him how it’s different (ex. Like Skippyjon Jones but with whales).

Picture Books – What Works
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen
Author of 13 picture books and seven non-fiction books

Picture books should be 650 words or less. Story should consist of a character that has a conflict and makes three failed attempts to solve the problem and then has a successful attempt on the fourth try. The end of the book must surprise the reader (a twist), extending the story beyond the story, which makes the book re-readable. Although she did mention that there are no hard and fast rules to picture book writing–and that these are just what, in her experience, has worked for her–I do think it’s a handy little formula to follow for those of us beginning our journey in the world of picture books! Another little trick that can help add tension to any story is to add a ticking clock of some sort: the character has to reach the goal by a certain time (ex. by bedtime, by sundown, etc.).

In addition to the workshops, there were two really inspiring keynote presentations at the lunches given on the first day by David L. Harrison, author of 80 children’s books, and on the second day by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of Dairy Queen and other books. David Harrison reminded us all why we do what we do, which is to create literature for young people. Catherine Gilbert Murdock charmed us all with her self-deprecating humor and shared with us how her journey to becoming a successful author started in a not-so-successful career in screenwriting.

There was also a juried art show organized by Leeza Hernandez, which was a first for the NJ SCBWI conference. You can read about the winners of the art show and view some of their beautiful artwork on Kathy Temean’s blog.

I submitted this piece for the art show which is a scene from my picture book that came out last year called Greetings from Kiwi and Pear.

I had fun being part of such a visual part of the conference and even had a fellow attendee email me after the show saying how much she loved my work and what a bummer it was that we didn’t get to chat during the conference.

One of the best parts of the conference was the one-on-one critique with the editor/agent. I thought the one-on-ones alone were worth the price of the conference. The editor I had my critique with gave me very insightful feedback and ideas. I showed her the picture book dummy that went with the manuscript I submitted for the critique along with my picture book that came out last year and even my Wanart catalog so that she could get a better sense of my illustration style. She liked my picture book dummy so much she actually asked to keep it along with my catalog–how exciting!

One fun side note is that there was a High School prom at the hotel the first night of the conference. I got quite nostalgic at dinner watching all the kids in their tuxedos and glittering gowns make their grand appearances in the hotel lobby–it was quite a spectacle and felt like dinner theater!

Overall, the conference was fantastic in every way from the top notch venue (there were koi ponds in the atrium!) to the high calibur faculty. I’m already looking forward to next year!

michaelsussmanEveryone knows it can be tough coming up with story ideas. So, where do I get mine? Sal’s Literary Ideas & Auto Parts in South Boston. Sure, Sal’s prices are steep. But you can’t beat his 30-day warranty.

Seriously, folks. Where do ideas come from?

I concur with Robert Olen Butler, who writes that “art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.”

How can we gain access to this mysterious unconscious? The key is a relaxed and receptive inward focus. Allow your mind to wander, unhindered by critical analysis or judgment.

I find that I’m most receptive while walking, preferably in a natural setting. Any repetitive movement can help: jogging, bicycling, swimming, davening. A hot bath can also do the trick. Alternatively, just sit or recline in a comfortable position, allow your breathing to deepen, and enter into trance.

Sometimes what surfaces is a story title or the name of a character. I was walking along the Charles River when the name Wiggle-Me-Won’t appeared out of nowhere. This grew into a story in verse concerning twin brothers: Wiggle-Me-Won’t and Wiggle-Me-Will.

More often, an image will surface. I recently awoke with the image of a boy enveloped in a mattress, with only his head and feet sticking out. This image turned into The Sinkopedic 3000, a story about a boy who discovers a world within his mattress.

IdeaCatcherIf none of this helps, consider purchasing my newly developed IdeaCatcher.

We’ve all heard that ideas are “in the air.” Employing the latest in windsock technology, my IdeaCatcher literally snags those suckers as they float by. For a mere $29.95, be the first in your critique group to own this revolutionary device!

Michael Sussman is a clinical psychologist and writer who resides in the Boston area. His debut picture book—Otto Grows Down—was published by Sterling, with illustrations by Scott Magoon. Dr. Sussman is also the author of A Curious Calling: Unconscious Motivations for Practicing Psychotherapy, and the editor of A Perilous Calling: The Hazards of Psychotherapy Practice.

Thanks to Debbie Ridpath Ohi for the IdeaCatcher illustration.

coracookspancitWhat makes you pluck a picture book off the shelf? A clever title? The author’s name? What about a charming little girl on the cover, stirring a delicious pot of noodles? That’s what got to me with Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore.

Maybe it’s because I love to cook. Maybe the bright little dot that said “Recipe Included!” spoke to me. (And, by the way, the recipe is delicious!)

But more than anything, vibrant primary colors and Cora’s smiling eyes drew me in. Illustrator Kristi Valiant’s paintings evoke a warm feeling as Cora cooks a traditional Filipino dish with her mama for the first time.

Cora is the youngest of many children and always gets the kiddie kitchen tasks, like licking the spoon clean. Valiant’s opening scene shows the family from Cora’s point of view, as she sits on the floor with the family dog. We see her family from the waist down, spread along the kitchen counter, performing their duties. It’s amazing how Valiant can make the poses so varied and expressive, only working with half a body. Some of the pencil lines remain, creating an illusion of movement—the bustle of the family kitchen.

Valiant’s image presents the conflict immediately: little Cora is not involved with family meal preparation. We feel Cora’s longing to be a “real cook.”

One day when her siblings leave the house, Cora asks to cook with Mama. Mama lets Cora choose the dish. Cora wants pancit.

Mama tells the story of how her own father taught her to make pancit, and Cora feels proud when she gets to wear her Lolo’s red apron.

What follows is a delightful, heart-warming exchange between mother/teacher and daughter/student. Valiant’s illustrations are spot-on, from facial expressions to body language. She gets every detail just right. Even Cora’s feet, slightly off-balance, reveal her trepidation as she prepares the noodles. Sunlight streams in through the kitchen window, framing Cora and Mama in a scene that highlights the special bond created with family tradition.


As usual, I won’t reveal the story’s ending. There’s an oopsie along the way, but there’s also a beaming Cora.

I was so impressed with this book’s illustrations, I asked Kristi Valiant for an interview. Luckily, she agreed to talk to me about the making of Cora and other fun illustration stuff. Watch for it soon!

coracookspancitCora Cooks Pancit
Text by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore
Illustrations by Kristi Valiant
Shen’s Books, Spring 2009
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