Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Polar Bear Island Review & Q&A Debut PB Author Lindsay Bonilla -by Kathy Halsey

Polar bears, penguins, and "flipper slippers," what could be more enticing for young readers and picture book writers alike? Today I  review my critique partner's debut. We chat about process, what happens between signing a contract and publishing and more!

Review of Polar Bear Island
Since I've been intimately connected to this book when it was still a  work in progress, I'll admit, it's hard to review it without squealing. (It's a special joy when critique partners become authors.) Therefore, I'll don my school librarian hat and review it via that lens. 

Polar Bear Island was peaceful, quiet and for polar bears only. But one day Kirby the penguin floated up, and Parker the Mayor is having none of it. Parker agrees that Kirby may stay for one day, but when the other bears see Kirby's invention of flipper slippers, they want a pair, too. Kirby writes to her family, shares her adventures and soon, they're on the island, too, bringing sled beds, snow cones, snow chutes, and lots of excitement. Parker takes a fall and the penguins soothe him and bring him back to health with their good will and inventions. Now the sign that read "Welcome to Polar Bear Island. No Others Allowed," reads "Welcome to Polar Bear Island. Others Allowed." 

Playful language, characters that children will enjoy, and a subtle message of inclusion make this a perfect book for our times. Illustrator Cinta Villalobos's palate of cool colors juxtaposed with the warm cheerful hues of the penguins add energy and fun to the story. Although Amazon and Kirkus reviews peg the book for ages 3-5 / 3-and up, elementary age students, grades 1-5, will enjoy the story, too. ( Our school librarian took the book home to her 6th grader who loved it.) Lindsay has created some great classroom extensions for welcoming others that educators will appreciate.
Our first look at the book while at Northern Ohio SCBWI conference 2018. Janie Reinart and I made Lindsay read Polar Bear Island aloud. After all, Lindsay's a professional storyteller.

Q & A with Lindsay Bonilla

K: Share with us how this book was picked up by Sterling Children's Books and how you almost didn't meet your editor. (Chance and talent made the difference.)
L: I met my editor at the SCBWI Roundtable Retreat in Michigan. I heard about the retreat from a random Facebook post. I loved the unique format and decided to apply. When I was accepted, I was super-excited, but that’s also when reality set in. The retreat location was a nine hour drive from my house. I’m not much for long drives; I was 4 months pregnant at the time. I debated whether or not to go. Ultimately, the possibility of what *could* happen is what got me there, and I’m so glad it did! 

It’s probably not healthy to go into every retreat or conference thinking that you are going to get a book deal out of it, but I think you should go full of expectations. Maybe it won’t be a book deal, but but a wonderful new friendship, a renewed sense of passion for your work, or a critique that unlocks something in a manuscript that’s stumped you for too long. Go expecting to receive something great!

K: What steps did you take to publicize Polar Bear Island from pre-order to launch?
L: I think the most effective thing I did was to start reaching out to friends and family early on to tell them about the book. As soon as it became available for pre-order, I set a goal of telling one new person about it daily, usually via an email or facebook message. I enlisted my family and friends to help spread the word too! 

I reached out to bloggers to see if they would be interested in sharing my book on their blog. This summer, while I was doing my storytelling tour visiting libraries across the state, I also passed out lots of bookmarks to build excitement! 

Then I looked into  book festivals and conferences in my area that would be a good fit for my book. This month alone I have attended/presented at the Virginia Hamilton Multicultural Literature Conference, the Books by the Banks Book Festival and the Ohio Educational Library Media Association Conference. I have made great contacts at each one! 

I think most creatives don’t like thinking about publicity/marketing, but it is an absolute must in this industry. Re-frame the idea of publicity as sharing what I'm most passionate about and making connections with others has helped me to enjoy it more. 

K: As a professional storyteller and mother of two active toddlers, how do you manage your time to write and do events? (Tips for other busy moms appreciated.)
L: Ha! I’m still trying to figure out the best way to manage my time! Let’s just say there is never a dull moment. I have to make use of nap time every single day, and I spend more than my fair share of evenings catching up. My oldest is in preschool in the mornings now. During that time I go to the YMCA with my youngest. They have a Child Watch program that your child can be in for up to 2 hours. I work out for the first hour and then I take out my laptop and write or send emails. To any author moms out there, I can’t recommend the YMCA enough!

Since I don’t have a lot of time to myself, I try to involve my children in the stories I’m writing or telling. I try out new story openings on them or play act the stories with them. The other day my oldest amazed me by being able to quote from memory the first four stanzas of one of my manuscripts. He is as invested in the story as I am! Sharing my work with my kids makes it more rewarding. 

Overall, my best advice is this: don’t think so much about the time you don’t have to write.  Focus on making the most of the time you DO have. If you can’t actually sit at your computer/notebook to write, work out as much as you can in your head! 
K: Tell us about the picture book's main theme and the "AmBEARsador Program." How did you come up with ideas that educators can use to extend the book's impact?
L: Polar Bear Island is about welcoming others and learning from those who are different. Every day that I read the news it becomes more clear how critical this message is right now. I created the AmBEARssador program with the hope of getting children to connect to the theme and make it real in their own lives and communities. First, I started brainstorming activities and questions that I thought would engage readers on a deeper level with the book’s theme. 

After that, I shared the ideas with good friend, fellow writer and immigrant researcher, Nalini Krishnankutty. Her perspective was very insightful and helped me to deepen my own understanding of the themes. I was very lucky that Sterling was 100% behind me as I developed these ideas. They did the design work for all of the extension activities which can be found here. 
K: What has been the most fun so far that you're a published author? What should other debut authors know that you learned?
L: At my launch party, a little girl I’d never met before showed up practically hugging my book. She looked at me and said, “I’m such a big fan!” I didn’t know that anybody outside of friends and family would even have the book yet. It was pretty magical. Seeing children connecting with the book has definitely been my favorite part because that’s why I write in the first place. 
Then at the Books by the Banks Festival a man came to my table and said that he’d come on behalf of his wife. She was a teacher in New Jersey and had planned to come to the festival but fell ill. My book was one of the titles she’d requested. To know that a teacher was excited to share the book with her students was also extremely meaningful to me. 

I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned on this journey is just to “do you.” By that I mean it’s easy to compare yourself to other authors and second-guess yourself, wondering if you should be doing more of what they are doing. It’s good to take inspiration from others, but ultimately, we each have to carve out our own path in the industry and determine what success is for ourselves. For me, that may mean being very choosy about which promotional events I do and how often/far I’m willing to travel because snuggling with my kiddos is pretty high on my priority list right now. 
K: Tell us about upcoming appearances. What are you working on now?
L: I have some appearances coming up at local schools and libraries — everything from telling pumpkin folktales for Halloween to doing interactive performances of my book to doing Christmas-themed folktales. Check my calendar here! 

The list of what I’m working on is pretty long — a fairy-tale mash up, a pirate tale, and a book about the power of storytelling are just a few.

Also, I can’t say much yet, but I got some good news last week and look forward to being able to share some exciting book news soon! 

Lindsay signing my book at the Ohio Educational Library Media Association conference

Lindsay Bonilla is a professional storyteller and author of children's books. You can connect with her via her web site, and on twitter at @lindsaybonilla. She still has openings for author visits or storytelling visits for the 2018-2019 school year. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Great American Read ~By Suzy Leopold

Writers are readers and readers are writers. These two activities are reciprocal. They both go hand-in-hand. What are you currently reading? Perhaps you are reading a stack of picture books as mentor texts to support your writing. 

Picture book writers seek out currently published books from libraries and book stores to study the craft of writing for children. 

The best advice for writers is simple. READ. 

Do you know how important it is to read across genres to support your writing? It is one of the best strategies for improving as a writer.
The Great American Read

Beginning in May of 2018, Public Broadcasting Services [PBS], began a series of television programs depicting 100 best loved novels. The TV series, hosted by Meredith Vieira, featured documentaries and recommendations of best loved books by authors and celebrities from throughout the country. This popular campaign was a great success.

The eight-part series featured fiction books published from the past during the 1600s and recently published books from 2016. Various genres were included: Young adult novels, historical fiction, adventure, classics, and more.

We Want You

Click on this link to read the 100 list of books to learn more. You'll note many titles familiar to you. If you're like me, you will see the list includes many familiar and favorite books. I'm quite certain many of them are on your bookshelves at home.
Whether you consider reading a new title from the list of 100 books or revisiting a beloved classic, you are sure to grow and learn by spending time reading a book from the PBS Great American Read.

You may even want to take The Great American Read Quiz.
Everyone was encouraged to vote for their favorite book. There were more than four million votes. A final vote for the best loved book took place on Tuesday, October 23rd. The Grand Finale Great American Read premiered yesterday. There were more than 300 guests, authors, and literary experts, and book fans.

And now for the Top Five Finalists including the #1 best loved book. Let's begin the countdown . . . 

#5 THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien


#3 HARRY POTTER (series) by J. K. Rowling

#2 OUTLANDER (series) by Diana Gabaldon

It's time to unveil American's best-loved novel. America voted for . . . 

by Harper Lee
by Harper Lee
Time to celebrate The 2018 Great American Read!

If you weren't able to tune-in to the unveiling of the top five picks, click here to watch The Grand Finale.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

At a Loss for Words? Try Making a Word Bank by: Barb Rosenstock for Sherri Jones Rivers

I first met Barb Rosenstock several years ago at a summer writing conference. I was fortunate to get a critique session with her on a picture book bio. She was tough, but encouraging, saying she thought it was 100% marketable, but not in the rambling shape it was in at that time. I am still working on that manuscript, and her suggestions made it much better and helped tighten it up. She introduced the conference attendees to the idea of a word bank, showing how she used one for her book Fearless. She graciously agreed to sharing her expertise with readers of the GROG.


Writers know words...lots of words, way more than the average non-writer, enough to win trivia contests, enough to plead guilty to reading the thesaurus for fun, enough to remember esoteric roots, prefixes and suffixes...words, words, infinitum, ad nauseum, ad mortem. So, why, while writing this week, will so many of us stare at the space where the next sentence should begin and think, "Yep, I'm totally out of words"?

What the world casually calls "writer's block" is, to a working writer, an hour or a day or a week of losing time and money. Not to mention the general fussing, freaking out and feelings of failure that can send creativity packing and self-esteem plummeting for way longer than necessary. We know we're good at words and writing is "just words" after all, so...what's the big deal, why are we making things so hard on ourselves?

Writing for children, and writing picture books in particular, depends intimately on which word is used, when, and why. Whenever you're trying to communicate deeply and authentically, that next sentence is not "just words." It's "just" the right word and the right word after that, and after that until those magic words THE END. And by "right" I mean perfect, or at least as perfect as we know how to be until our editors encourage us to be more perfect. Striving for perfection is necessarily daunting.
     As an un-trained writer, when I was starting out, that "what's the next word" panic used to stop me from a good writing day way more often than necessary. One morning, while working on the manuscript that became The Camping Trip that Changed America,    

I was stuck (again). But that day, for some reason, I stopped beating myself up and realized that of course, I knew the words. I just needed a better way for my brain to access them more easily as I was creating.

So, still in somewhat of a panic, I wound up creating a super simple tool that has worked for me. This is a writer's tool that I've taught to pre-published writers and also to kids as young as kindergarten. It's called a "word bank." And this is how it developed.

Remember now, I was stuck, not actively writing the story. So, just to feel somewhat productive, I started a new document and listed what I thought might be all the major themes of my story. In the case of The Camping Trip (at the time titled "Teedie & Johnnie"), this is the list I wrote that day:


I got out the thesaurus (today I would use the synonym finder in and if you have a better site than that, please tell me about it!) I don't have the space (and you don't have the patience!) for me to show each theme, but using Environment as the example, it looked something like this:

     Environment: surroundings, area, background, ecology, elements, habitat, pollution, geography, home, environmentalist, ecosystem, climate, atmosphere, conservationist, get away, wilderness, wild, untamed, etc.

It was not a rote copying exercise. I did not list every word I found. I left out what had nothing to do with my story (like the word/name "Marco" which is still listed under environment, and I still don't know why). I also left out words that would obviously never be in a children's book (like the word "gnotobiotics," but on the other hand, you never know!).

Making these lists, I was not instantly hit with a bolt of lightning.

I was not even convinced that the exercise was worthwhile. I ignored the part of me that said (repeatedly) that it was probably a waste of time. It wasn't until I had looked up all the themes and listed all their related words, that patterns started to emerge. Over the next hour or so, it was as if the word bank itself helped my brain work in a different way. I noticed that the word "mood" came up in two or three of my themes, as did ideas of friendship and compatibility. I began to connect my themes in relationship to each other. I realized that relationships can grow in nature, and that those relationships can be transformative. Muir and Roosevelt built a friendship--what did that mean for my story? What did that mean for the country? And the next thing I knew, I was no longer stuck; in fact, I had so many words and inter-related ideas than I could hardly get them all on the page.

Later, for other themes, like Trees, the benefits were different but just as important. In listing related words like "leaf, branch, root, trunk, cones" I realized that so far in my drafting, I hadn't really brought my characters (or my audience) into the trees. I needed to show what it was like sleeping next to trunks, gazing up at pine cones, brushing against branches. The "word bank" helped me specify details and actions. In general, my word listings helped with verb and adjective choice. "Support, steady, bond, respect, trust, spirit, play" were words or ideas that made themselves into the final manuscript from my initial listing in the word bank.

After this first word bank, I made others for the drafts of my next four books. Studying the words that were related to my themes taught me that a picture book is much more complex and interesting when its themes and language interplay. For example, there's a scene in The Noisy Paint Box where the young Kandinsky 

paints a painting and says, "It's music!" But because of a word bank on the theme "music," I later added the very specific action "waltzing his painting around the house." The idea of this child's body movement taking cues from the music he experienced while painting then proceeds throughout the book. The verb choices in that book were entirely driven by the word banks that were created the week I was stuck on a very early draft.

Someone recently asked if I make a word bank for every book now. The honest answer is not always. Certainly, almost never as thoroughly as I needed them initially. Recently though, I did make an extensive list of "claustrophobia" related words for 
Otis and Will Discover the Deep. 

I knew I just wasn't getting the right feeling of adventure/terror/danger, and the list would help. It did. I believe the initial word banks did their real job of changing the way I think about writing a picture book story. The word banks taught me to focus on the ideas in my writing but also on all the alternative meanings and manifestations. I've learned more confidence in my words and the value of spending thoughtful time seeking connections between them.

 But if tomorrow or next month or next year, I find that familiar "blocked" panic setting in, I know I will remember to stop, invest a little time, deposit some words into a simple word bank and watch the benefits accrue. If you think this simple tool might work for you, please give it a try. It might help you turn a work in progress into a work in publication.

Barb Rosenstock loves stories best. She's the author of award-winning nonfiction and historical fiction picture books, including the 2015 Caldecott Honor Title The Noisy Paint Box, illustrated by Mary Grandpre. 2018 titles include Blue Grass Boy with Edward Fotheringham, The Secret Kingdom with Claire Nivola, Otis and Will Discover the Deep with Katherine Roy and Through the Window with Mary Grandpre. She lives near Chicago with her family and two big poodles.


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Writing as a Team

by Sue Heavenrich and Christy Mihaly

You might not normally think of writing as a team sport. Usually it’s done one-on-one, author wrestling to pin ideas to the page. But a few years back, the two of us decided to team up. The result of our collaboration is Diet for a Changing Climate: Food for Thought (Twenty-First Century Books/Lerner, Oct. 1, 2018). The book, YA nonfiction, tells young readers how our dining choices can make a difference to the earth. Trying unexpected foods – weeds, invasive species, and insects – may help solve the global hunger crisis and, at the same time, reduce agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases.

We had been critique partners for a few years when, talking at a conference, we realized that we had each been developing a book (separately) about entomophagy—the practice of eating insects.  It occurred to us that we might have the perfect project for a collaborative effort. We both wanted something that was fun to read, and also gross enough to capture the interest of middle-schoolers. Being critique partners, we had a good feel for the quality of each other’s writing. More importantly, we trusted one another. So we felt confident that we could work as a team to pull off a book project.

From the beginning, we viewed this book as a joint project. As a biologist (Sue) and environmental lawyer (Christy), both of us were already familiar with collaboration. And we felt that our different backgrounds would enrich the project. It’s also important to note that we stuffed our egos in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet so we could focus on creating the best work we could.

When you think about writing with a colleague, there’s a good chance you’re visualizing meetings at the local cafĂ©. Living 345 miles apart made that impossible, but we made good use of modern technology. We scheduled regular phone conversations to go over plans, set goals and deadlines, and keep the lines of communication clear. We divvied up tasks and then shared first drafts of chapter sections via email (rural internet still leaves a lot to be desired). Initially, one person would write a section, and we’d swap files and revise what the other wrote. This helped us develop a uniform voice for the entire book. Rubes that we were, somehow we thought that with two of us working on the project we would each do half the work. Ha! Christy calculates we did twice the amount. But the book is all the better for it.

Phone calls played another role, too. They gave us a chance to get to know each other on a more personal level. Drinking coffee and talking about the dog, the dishes, the kids… and then the BOOK. We did some of our best brainstorming over phone lines.

For more on collaborative writing, check out Tina Cho’s interview with STEM writers, Margaret Albertson and Paula Emick.

Here’s a list of tips for collaborative writing success.

Friday, October 5, 2018

And the Winner Is...

The winner of Laura Sassi's LOVE IS KIND is...


Congratulations! I will connect the two of you so that you can receive Laura's picture book! And the rest of you, keep your eye out for this adorable book, perfect for Fall and any time of the year!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Writing about a Relative: An Interview with Hannah Holt and her Picture Book Debut The Diamond and the Boy, posted by Tina Cho

I'm excited about a new picture book biography, The Diamond and the Boy: The Creation of Diamonds and the Life of H. Tracy Hall, written by my critique partner, Hannah Holt, published by Balzer & Bray.

This picture book biography is unique in that Mr. Tracy Hall was Hannah's grandfather. Below is my interview of Hannah. Welcome to the Grog Blog!

1. You were blessed to have an important figure in your family. When did it occur to you to write about your grandfather’s life? I’m sure your family was ecstatic when they heard the news. What were their reactions?

First, thanks so much for having me. I’m a fan of your book Rice From Heaven and am thrilled to answer your questions!

My grandfather, Tracy Hall, made important contributions to high pressure research, but he isn’t a household name. In fact, one of the rejections I received was, “We don’t think there’s enough interest for a book about Tracy Hall.”

Obviously this book still sold, but its unique format was probably as much of a hook as the subject. “How” a story is told is much more important than “what” it is about.

People reading this post probably have family members that are more historically significant than my grandfather. I hope they write these stories. Famous or not, it’s a delight sharing family stories. And who knows but it could be picked up for publication as well!

2. What kind of research did you do for this book? Were you able to get some first-hand interviews from people who knew your grandfather?

I had heard stories about Grandpa while growing up, but I developed more detailed questions while working on this project. I interviewed my mom as well as other family members. That was fun!

I also read my grandfather’s boyhood journal. Through his own words, I “met” Tracy Hall before he had his life all figured out. He had crushes on girls that weren’t my grandmother, notes about the odd jobs, and interestingly signed the inside cover in his own blood.

3. The Diamond and the Boy is told in a parallel structure. How did you come upon this idea? Did you use a certain mentor text?

The free verse style format was inspired after reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.

The parallel structure came to me on its own. However, after writing it, I researched similar picture books. I wanted to get a feel for how it might fit into the market. Different is good, but there’s a point when your book can be too different. I wanted to it to be unique but still accessible.

4. How many drafts before this manuscript sold? Tell us about your sale to Balzer & Bray.

Over 80 drafts. I worked on this story for many years before landing on the dual telling and querying agents.

Even after I signed with an agent, I kept revising. My agent, Laura Biagi and I, spent three months fine tuning the story before submitting to editors. After that, it was picked up fairly quickly by a publisher. In fact, I received interest from multiple houses for The Diamond & the Boy. My agent arranged phone calls with the interested editors, so I could hear their editorial ideas. Kristin Rens had a fantastic vision for the story, so I accepted the offer from Balzer+Bray.
In the end, all that revising was worth it!

5. What kinds of marketing are you leaning toward for this book?

Most of my marketing has been online. I have a young family and marketing while my children are sleeping or at school works best with my schedule.

I’ll be participating in several local events and story times; however, most of my marketing efforts have been on social media.

6. You have led the Epic 18 Debut Picture Book group this year. What have you learned about leading a group? What have you learned from this group?

First, I have learned about so many fabulous books coming out this year! This week I read We Are Grateful: Ostaliheliga by Traci Sorell. Wow, what a wonderful celebration of gratitude and a beautiful portrait of Cherokee life!

Second, having a group of people at a similar place in their careers is a fantastic way to learn more about publishing as a career. Other members have pointed me to helpful websites, shared marketing opportunities, compared contract language, offered practical career advice, and more.

Finally, a lot of anxiety goes into publishing a book for the first time, and a debut group is like group therapy. Many of us have similar worries. As authors, we can’t always change what’s happening (or not happening!) with our books, but it’s nice to know other people going through similar experiences.

7. You have another book, A Father’s Love, coming out in April. Can you describe this book in a sentence or two?

Sure! Throughout the animal kingdom, in every part of the world, fathers love and care for their babies. This book takes readers around the globe and across the animal kingdom, showcasing the many ways fathers have of demonstrating their love. 

8. You are very busy lady with two books coming out and raising your four children. What else are you working on?

I have many other projects in the works. My fingers are crossed that something new sells this year. However, in between writing books and driving my kids to soccer, I train for marathons.

Thanks so much for having me!

Hannah Holt is a children’s author with an engineering degree. Her books, The Diamond & The Boy (2018, Balzer+Bray) and A Father’s Love (2019, Philomel) weave together her love of language and science. She lives in Oregon with her husband, four children, and a very patient cat named Zephyr. She enjoy reading, writing, running, and eating chocolate chip cookies.