Want to get blown away? Do a book study.

Picturecourtesy of Amazon.com

Consider my mind blown. A 54 page picture book?
Of course it’s a biography of Albert Einstein (On a Beam of Light A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne and Vladimir Radunsky) and there’s relativity and quantum physics and atomic particle stuff. But still.
We are “taught” to work within 32 (or maybe 44) pages for picture books and then, wham! Chronicle Books goes and does this.  The interesting thing is, every page needs to be there. Whether it’s a full page of art or art plus words, each page feels right.
Consequently, the book feels right. It’s a big topic…not just the science, but the book also captures the love Albert’s parents had for him, Albert’s frustration with school/teachers who limited him, societal constraints (#nosocks), how wondering can lead to understanding, and the power of following your unique passion. So many wonderful layers.
To add one more interesting layer to this post, you have to go back in time with me. Recently, I expounded to my critique group about word count in picture book biographies trending up (partially to justify my 1000 word + backmatter WIP biography) and that of course there are low word count bios like The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse (Patricia MacLachlan and Hadley Hooper) and On a Beam of Light, but most I’d read were in the 800 – 1800 range.
So hold up there, cowgirl. Did you catch that? I’d read On a Beam of Light at least five times and heard it discussed by Chronicle editor savant Melissa Manlove (if you don’t know who she is, you should — just sayin’) before I decided to study it. In my head, it was a traditional 32 page, low word count book. HOWEVAH — the word count? About 1160! And, pages? 54! It took typing out the text in two columns (to represent the left and right side of a book which is the starting point of my study) to notice the number of words and pages. In fact, I hand-counted the pages again because I didn’t believe my Word doc!

A book like this is like a newly discovered treasure chest. It isn’t until we break it open and take time to run our fingers through the gems that we fully comprehend the riches within. I love that I didn’t catagorize it in my head as a longer format picture book. And after 10 years in this business, I love that my mind was blown. Well played, Chronicle!  

3 Crucial Reasons to Ditch Didactic Stories


The term didactic refers to intending or inclined to teach, preach, or advise.

In today’s market, writing an overtly didactic children’s story for the trade market is usually a kiss of death for the manuscript.

Avoiding didactic writing or themes might be one of the hardest concepts when beginning to write for children. I get it; our adult mind — either consciously or unconsciously — wants to share what we’ve learned and what we know. We may feel that children of today need a nudge in the right moral direction. Or if we are of a certain age and grew up when more teaching-heavy stories were the norm, it could feel familiar and natural to write a story with a strong message.    

However, I want you to succeed as a writer of children’s books and these type of stories will likely not be acquired in today’s market because:
​​1.  a didactic story reflects the writer’s ideology and unique perspective instead of allowing the reader to bring their own perspective to the story
2.  a didactic story narrows the scope of the story to only the writer’s experience ​instead of opening the reader to new worlds
3. a didactic story often has only one layer — the moral or teaching — instead of offering many layers for self-understanding and growth.

Great literature doesn’t tell you what to think or how to feel.  It simply creates the space for those thoughts to happen on their own.”
​                                                                        — Oprah Winfrey​

Write big, leave space, invite your reader in.

Are You A Children’s Book Illustrator-Wannabe?

Picturecreated by Michigan SCBWI member, Lindsay K. Moore

I’m drawing-challenged, but if I weren’t I’d be registering for this Retreat before the chartreuse could dry on my cotton duck canvas. The (Days and) Nights of the Roundtable Fall Retreat 2016 is hosted by SCBWI Michigan. It features three tracks: picture books, novels, and illustration. The illustrator track has been designed by Ruth McNally Barshaw, author/illustrator of the famous Ellie McDoodle series and Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI MI (lucky us.) Even a novice like me can appreciate the leaps these attendees will make with an agenda like this! (see below) and with faculty like these! (see below)
4:00 – 5:00 PM Check in/Register/Illustrators will be handed an assignment at check-in (Draw a character) Illustrators should have the Quick Illustrator Homework (Mood thumbnails) already done, or do it now.
5:30 – 6:30 PM Welcome and Dinner all 3 tracks
6:45 – 7:35 PM Vanessa NewtonIntroduction to Picture Books: What makes good illustration in a picture book? It’s all about the page turn. Surprises from working with art directors and editors.
7:45 – 8:30 PM Demo –Cathy GendronTraditional Glazing Technique Demo Cathy will take students from quick sketch and under-painting, through multiple layers of thinly applied oil paint to a completed illustration. In the process she will discuss color temperature and contrast, form and volumetric shape control, painting tools and surfaces, and an overview of different painting mediums and their individual characteristics.
8:45 – 10:00 PM Portfolio Mingle/Social Activity/Optional S’mores Party

7:15 – 8:00 AM Breakfast all 3 tracks
8:30 – 9:25 Vanessa – Character Workshop. What Makes a Good One? Shapes. Decisions. Likability. Using reference images. Includes drawing time: refine last night’s character.
9:30 – 10:25 Kirbi Fagan – (composition homework is reviewed in this session) Composition Lecture: Create clear, more polished images that read fast for a commercial market using color, value, perspective and more. Learn about my THREE elements that I believe are the formula for an eye catching, art director loving image. Use every element in your image to create movement and flow no matter what style you work in. Gutter talk, where you can crop where you just can’t & type, what AD’s want you to consider when creating portfolio pieces.
10:30 – 11:25 AM Cathy – Style vs. Voice: How do you think about finding your place in a crowded illustration field? 11:30 – 12:00 PM Assignment given: Find a character at lunch. Use this ½ hour to revise your character you developed yesterday, using what you have learned so far. Next, take your sketchbook to lunch and find and sketch another character there.
12:00 – 1:00 PM Lunch all three tracks
1:00 – 1:50 PM Vanessa – Character Workshop Part 2: Action How does your character move? how is that related to how the character looks? How to add movement in a static character. Includes drawing time: refine the two characters you developed this weekend: Add action poses.
2:00 – 2:50PM Kirbi — Composition Workshop: Draw thumbnails again after we talk about them using what was learned in the lecture. Tools needed: grey, black and white + paper any media (ex. markers, pencils, colored pencils). These “templates” can be used toward future illustrations, for example a triangle might be a person and circle might be a fish etc.
2:50 – 3:20 PM 30 minute break – bookstore and/or regroup, breathe, grab a snack.
3:20 – 4:10 PM Cathy – You’re not a dabbler or a hobbyist: How to treat your talent with respect and professionalism. How do you represent yourself to the world? What is the best way to work with an art director? How do you attract attention from the publishing world? How do you resolve disagreements and conflicts without burning bridges? How do you protect yourself from copyright infringement and what do you need to know to protect the rights of your fellow artists and photographers.
4:20 – 5:10 PM Vanessa — Character Workshop Part 3: Design Design the world your character lives in – clothes, furnishings, atmosphere. How do these decisions affect the character’s design? Includes drawing time: refine the characters you’ve been working with. Add design to their worlds. Can they both inhabit the same story?
5:20 – 6:10 PM Kirbi – Color Lecture: Creating cohesive harmonious color schemes, limited color schemes and how to steal other people’s color schemes. Learn how using reflective color can add life to your work. Make smart choices when choosing colors in your main character. Learn why green is the devil.  Dividing your composition up by color temperature to increase readability. Problem solving with color with these questions, in this order: is it the right value? Temperature? Saturation? Hue?
6:15 – 7:00 PM Dinner all three tracks
7:20 – 8:20 PM Demo – Kirbi reviews the art piece you sent in with retreat registration. Kirbi paints over the images digitally to show how the techniques in her lectures can be applied.      
7:15 – 8:00 AM Breakfast for all

8:30 – 9:25 AM Vanessa – Putting It All Together: Design, characters, the world in your book. Illustrating someone else’s words.
9:30 – 10:25 AM Cathy – Mechanics: What does a thumbnail, rough sketch, presentation sketch and color sketch look like and which one do you create at each stage of a project? How do you streamline the parts of your art making process to save time (and money)? 
10:30 – 11:25 AM Vanessa, Kirbi, Cathy: Group critiques
11:30 – 12: 00 PM Vanessa: Motivational send-off
12:00 – 1:00 PM Lunch all three tracks, goodbyes, announce winner of mentorship
Checkout at 1:00 PM

Don’t tarry. Register today — before I change my mind, pick up a paint brush, and join you.

When Writers Are Generous


I’ve been a soccer mom for 17 years which means I’ve watched (and coached) a LOT of soccer games.  I love the moment shown here when competition is transcended by compassion and respect. 
I also love these moments within the children’s book industry, another highly competitive endeavor. Even when Writer A knows that Writer B sitting next to her at the critique table might be published before she is, Writer A is suprisingly willing to share what she knows about craft, editors, agents, art directors, publishing houses, how to move to the next level, etc.  This sharing happens at Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) events and it happened this past week at the fantastic WOW Retreat hosted by writer Kristen Fulton.  She opened the Retreat by sharing her remarkable story from veterinarian to cancer survivor to children’s book writer with multi-book deals — all within a few years — and mindfully set the tone for generosity at the Retreat. This tone continued throughout the week and was passed between writer, agent, and editor. 
When competition could call the shots, writers can choose to lend a hand. When writers are generous, great things happen. 

A Book Walk in the Woods: Nature Conservancy

The Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, a nonprofit land conservation organization, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Their 2016 Storybook Hike Series is  such a fun way to celebrate this milestone. They hosted me and A Warm Winter Tale at their Kalamazoo preserve on February 27, 2016 and I had a blast!

The intent of our storybook hikes is to introduce nature to children in a fun and engaging way, that also supports their language arts development and their love of books.
​                                                                                           — C.M. Dargitz, Development Associate
                                                                                           Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy

The book had been laminated and stationed throughout the trail. We stopped to read each page, digest the wonderful illustrations by Christina Wald, and learn about how animals adapt to keep warm in the cold weather. Sunny skies, happy children, nature = a perfect day!
Check out Kathy Halsey’s post about nature book walks today on GROG blog and learn how your community might sponsor their own.

The HOW of reducing PB text!


Laura Backes, former children’s book editor and now co-founder of Children’s Book Insider, wrote a helpful article in their newsletter about the perennial topic of leaving room for illustrations. I’ve blogged about the “why” of this concept before and now Laura’s perfect algorhythm for “how” to keep word count down follows. To read the full newsletter and access all of their publications and resources, consider becoming a member of Children’s Book Insider.

“Leave lots of room for illustrations. I mean LOTS of room. This is the best way to cut down your number of words, and the hardest thing for most writers to do (unless you’re also an illustrator, in which case you’ve got an advantage here). First, study books with short texts and see how much of the story is contained within the pictures. Then write your first draft, forgetting about word count. As you revise, think about what each illustration might look like. It helps to create a 32-page “dummy” book and put your text on 26-28 pages (leave the other pages blank for title page, copyright, end pages, etc.). * HERE IS THE EXCITING PART! Then write a description of each illustration, or sketch one out (don’t worry, no one will see this but you). Now, what do you say in the text that’s also depicted in the pictures? Take it out of the text. It doesn’t need to be stated twice. Kids are looking at the illustrations while an adult is reading the words, so they’ll get that information.”

​And let me tell you, IT WORKS! Kaboom! Useless words are out! Try it and let me know how it works for you!

How can I combat my child’s summer reading slump? SCBWI to the RESCUE!

All young people experience learning losses when they do not engage in educational activities during the summer. Research spanning 100 years shows that students typically score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do on the same tests at the beginning of the summer (White, 1906; Heyns, 1978; Entwisle & Alexander 1992; Cooper, 1996; Downey et al, 2004). National Summer Learning Association


The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) has created an innovative program that will combat the summer slump and share exceptional books by its members. They have compiled, published, and released their first ever Summer Reading List 2016!

The list includes over 1,400 titles from 350 publishers by SCBWI members world wide. The list is divided by fifteen geographical regions and organized by genre and the following grade levels:

  • Kindergarten – Grade Two
  • Third – fifth grade
  • Sixth – eight grade
  • Ninth – twelfth grade

SCBWI says, “The ultimate goal of this program is to give our PAL* members more exposure, and to instill the love of books and reading in children, so they become life-long readers.” 

* A PAL member of SCBWI has published a book with a recognized professional publisher. 

The plan is to share one list in the summer and one list during the winter.

Feel free to share the Summer Reading List 2016 with readers, writers, librarians, bookstores, indie book store owners, and all consumers of literature:

Come up with ways to make it even more fun for children to read books on the list. How about books from your state, region where you reside, where Grandma lives, or in a state/region you are visiting this summer. Check out other regions and compare titles listed for your state. 

What books will you share with a child this summer? 

SCBWI Writers: Don’t Miss This Opportunity! 

Are you taking advantage of your SCBWI Membership?
SCBWI offers several awards and grants for members. I know this because in 2013, I won a Work of Outstanding Promise (WOOP) grant that allowed me to research a new manuscript. [stay tuned for more news on this project]

Work-In-Progress (WIP) Awards assist children’s book writers and illustrators in the publication of a specific project currently not under contract. 

​The Work-in-Progress Awards for writers showcase outstanding manuscripts from SCBWI members. Selected works will receive a special platform to be showcased to the most prestigious publishing houses in the field. They choose one winner in each of the following 6 categories.
-Picture Book Text
-Chapter Books/Early Readers
-Middle Grade
-Young Adult Fiction
-Multicultural Fiction or Nonfiction
The works submitted by winners and honorable mention recipients will be made available on a secure webpage and presented to a hand-selected group of editors for their consideration. Although this is not a guarantee of publication, the opportunity to have your work presented to acquiring editors, along with an SCBWI endorsement, is a unique opportunity.
Deadline: March 1- March 31, 2016
You must be a current SCBWI member when your work is submitted and when the award is announced in September.
You may not submit a work that is under contract.  If the work becomes under contract before the award is announced, you will become ineligible.
Each member may submit only one manuscript to the WIP awards each year. (The Cushman grant is an exception, you can apply for this grant in addition to the primary WIP)
The grant is open to authors with a current work-in-progress.
Illustrators can apply for one of the Don Freeman Grants
1. You must submit your application electronically in the form of ONE PDF.
1. A first page that contains:
Your name
Manuscript Title
Grant Category
A double-spaced synopsis, max 250 words
2. The first 10 pages of your completed manuscript.
Your manuscript must be double-spaced and cannot exceed 10 pages. Please use an 11 or 12 point standard font.
3. Title the PDF with your name (first_last.pdf)
Your application can be no longer than 11 pages total.
Put the category you are applying to in the subject line of the e-mail.
Put your full name and the name of your manuscript in the body of the e-mail.
Send the PDF as an attachment to your e-mail
E-mail your completed application to: [email protected]
View 2015 Work-in-Progress Award Winners
Questions?  [email protected]

Looking for A Writerly Connection, STAT?


I’ve been invited to speak at the Rochester Writers’ Conference on October 17, 2015 in Rochester Hills, MI and I’m excited to share the podium with an impressive line-up of authors and professionals. With lectures and workshops (including how to avoid bad sex scenes which is a topic I don’t often see in my children’s lit world!), there will be something helpful for everyone in attendance. Check it out here. But be quick; the open spots are disappearing faster than sugar donuts at a coffee break.

“How do I publish my children’s book?”

Here are the two questions I find most often in my email inbox or am asked when I see people out in the world:

  1. “I want to write and/or illustrate children’s books. Where do I start?” or
  2. “I’ve written (or illustrated) a children’s book. How do I get it published? 

  I often respond by saying “That’s a big [long, involved, twisty-turny] question” and then begin. But in the future, I am going to direct curious minds to two great resources. The first is a link to a webinar SCBWI-Michigan produced called “Children’s Book Industry 101.” Its a great overview to how the industry works and how to jump into it — all for an hour of your time and $10. Here is the link: https://www.regonline.com/webinars_1578845copy
The second resource is the video below that illustrates the benefits — tangible and intangible — of joining the SCBWI tribe. Check them both out and you’ll be one giant leap ahead. And let me know what you think!