Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A CHAT WITH JUSTIN COLON OF #PBChat by Sherri Jones Rivers

     I'm not exactly sure how I came upon the twitter handle of #PBChat, but I am so glad I did. I was able to enter Justin Colon's inaugural PBChat Mentorship contest, which turned out to be an awesome opportunity for so many to gain a mentorship or to have a professional critique. I was blessed to have been a runner up for the delightful Rebecca Gomez and her spot-on critique of my rhyming manuscript has given it new life.  I was curious about how Justin got started on his journey to help picture book writers, and how in the world he juggles all he does.                                            

SJR:  Tell us a little bit about your background and was that a springboard for starting PBChat? 

     I'm a Latinx author and SCBWI member. In 2017, I wrote my first picture book and joined SCBWI. I used the Blueboard (the SCBWI discussion forum) and befriended author Sarah Floyd. She encouraged me to apply for a mentorship program and I did. Out of 77 applicants, (and within one month of writing my first picture book story), Pam Calvert chose me to be her mentee. We worked together very closely and my craft and knowledge of the business skyrocketed during our time together. I experienced just how much a mentorship can forever change the trajectory of one's journey, especially as an artist. That experience definitely served as a springboard for #PBChat (the mentorship in particular) In my other life, I'm a professionally trained, agented, voiceover artist and actor who's appeared in shows for Netflix, Amazon, CBS, FOX and BET+.

SJR: When did you start this group, and what was your primary purpose in doing so? Do you have any idea how many members you have?

     I wanted to carve out a section of Twitter for us picture book creators to call our own---a place where we could "meet up" weekly and talk shop. I put out a tweet to see if there was any interest...

...and the response was immense! So, I claimed a hashtag, set a date, and from there PBChat quickly evolved into the active and supportive community it is today. Through PBChat we develop our craft and knowledge of the business together, share resources, and develop connections. It's a collaborative effort between me, the industry, the guest participants, the illustrators who allow PBChat to use their work, and the participants who show up and share word of PBChat.

SJR:  How did you come up with the idea of the PBChat mentorship? I was so impressed with the mentors you had come aboard. Did you know a lot of them already?
     Thank you! Launching a mentorship seemed like a natural step in the evolution of PBChat. With the exception of my former mentor, Pam Calvert, I only had a few pre-existing relationships with some of the mentors, and those relationships were still very new. I researched and reached out to many authors (through cold emails). The kidlit community is extremely generous, so I found there was not much convincing to be done.

SJR:  Tell us about your Wednesday night twitter chat sessions. Has there been one that particularly resonated with folks?
     PBChat takes place every Wednesday night from 9-10 PM EST (officially), but our chats often extend in the early hours of the morning, and sometimes the following day. (Just go to twitter and type in #PBChat. Tweetdeck is helpful for following and keeping afloat during the night). Each week we have a pre-chosen discussion topic. I create prompt cards with questions on them (and beautiful illustrations designed by that month's featured illustrator).

     The night of the chat, I tweet those prompt cards/questions one by one, with a little gap in between each to allow for discussion. We have icebreaker questions, craft and business-related questions, and sometimes giveaways. We even bring industry guests to chat with us every month. In many ways, these chats are like master classes and TED Talks rolled into one.

     All of our chats have been exceptional and I'm extremely honored to be collaborating with so many creators who are movers and shakers I admire. One chat I think especially resonated with folks was our discussion with author-illustrator Jess Keating about "Navigating all aspects of the creative process with a mindful, productive mindset." 

    SJR:  How would you describe the participation for your first mentorship program? How many entries?

      TREMENDOUS! We expected lots of participants from outside the PBChat community, which has been amazing. Frances Gilbert, Editor-In-Chief of Doubleday Books for Young Readers , will be accepting one manuscript from each mentee to consider possible acquisition. There's even a mentee showcase in the works, and I'm assembling a killer line-up of 2020 mentees (whom I'll reveal in May)

     481 manuscripts
     1528 submissions (each applicant was allowed to       
     submit up to four mentors)
     25 Mentors
     40 Mentees
     130+ donated critiques

SJR:  How would you describe the talent you saw come through the contest? Do you expect to see some of those manuscripts being on book shelves one day?

     Lots of diverse talent and strong work submitted garnered mentors. We have talented authors who are black, latinx, Asian, LGBTQ and disabled. Overall, the applications we received were well-thought-out and extremely heartfelt. Many of the mentors emailed me to share how difficult the process of choosing a mentee was proving to be. Many mentors took on multiple mentees!

     There were lots of runners-up who were so close to  scoring a mentorship, but in the end, it came down to personal preference and how the mentor felt they could help the applicant and their work, and to what degree. Everybody walked away with something, though, even if they weren't selected.

     Some mentors offered mini critiques to every applicant who submitted to them! Many published authors, illustrators, agents and editors donated critiques to applicants who mentors chose as runners-up or who were nominated on the strength of their application and/or work. Overall, 160+ people walked away with something, aside from the clarity I hope the application process itself provided.
     Joyce Sweeney donated a live, ten-week picture book course that's exclusive to PBChat and begins in October.

     I also set up a group (via the cloud-based program Slack) for all the runner-ups and mentees. My intention for launching the group was to provide a positive, safe space for the mentees and runners-up to connect and establish long lasting relationships while navigating the mentorship and post-mentorship experience. They can share resources, critique each other's work, brainstorm together, suggest mentor texts and comp titles for one another, help polish pitches and more.

     I am really proud of the mentors, the mentees, and everyone who is a part of PBChat and has helped make all of this possible. In many ways, this has transcended a mentorship and I'm moved by the thought that we are changing the future of kidlit together and influencing future readers.

    Oh, and I'm already building my PBChat bookshelf. I look forward to the day when it's a PBChat library.

SJR: How do you find the time to do all you do for picture book writers?

     I keep a never-ending 'To-Do" list, several clones, and a time machine on standby at all times!


SJR:  I have a feeling, with all your energy and drive, that you have some future plans for PBChat.

     I'm going to reveal one announcement that nobody except you, dear reader, knows. Gather 'round. (Whispers) There might be an online PBChat conference in our future. There's a lot in the works, but it's all top secret for now.




  1. Great interview! Justin also has a great blog where he interviews agents and editors.

    1. Thanks, Sue. Yes, he sent me that last attachment to add in connection with his blog. He is on fire!

  2. Justin has burst upon the scene and helped s many writers. Glad to see him featured on the GROG.

  3. He is really making a difference in the kidlit community.

  4. Great post! I try nearly every Wednesday to join the chat...Wednesdays are crazy in our household. But I'm going to still keep trying! Thanks for all you do, Justin!

    1. He is amazing and works so hard for kidlit writers.

  5. PBChat has become part of my Wednesday evenings, although I sometimes have to participate late because of school or other required events. I took part in the mentor contest and, while not selected for a mentorship, received a pro bono critique and follow-up. Yay! It's been awesome! Thank you, Justin, for adding so much to the kidlit community!

  6. Thanks for posting, Jilanne. I hope your critique was helpful!

  7. Thanks for featuring Justin. He has done so much for the Kidlit community and he keeps on giving! I look forward to the #PBChat each Wednesday night. I try to participate as often as I can.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Judy. I need to be more involved, but 9 is kind of my cut off time for the day as I wake up so early. Glad you are taking advantage of it.

  8. Thanks for this great interview, Sherri (and Justin).

  9. Thanks, my friend. He is the kidlit Energizer Bunny.