Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Celebrating the Successful Critique Group: I Couldn’t Have Done it Without You! by Julie Phend


No matter where you are in your writing journey, the COVID-19 pandemic has put roadblocks in your path. Maybe it’s hard to find time to write with kids at home or you’re distracted by concern for loved ones. Perhaps you have a new book that has to be promoted entirely online. These are added challenges to an already difficult job. But writers are a resilient group. We may stumble on the stones thrown in our path, but we pick ourselves up and keep on traveling.

We need not travel alone. The support of others is crucial to our journey. And one of the best ways to find support is through a good critique group. I belong to two groups, one that used to meet in person and another that has always critiqued online. Now, due to the pandemic, both groups meet on Zoom. Through these tough months, we have encouraged and pushed each other. We’ve continued to be productive because we know others are counting on us. The pandemic has actually brought us closer, and I believe both groups are stronger than ever. 

So I want to give a shout-out to critique groups everywhere and explore what makes them work.

What is a Critique Group?

A critique group is a group of writers who share their work on a regular basis for the purpose of exchanging feedback and improving craft.


Why are critique groups important for a writer?

I posed this question to Terry Jennings, who facilitates critique groups for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) MidAtlantic chapter. 

She said, “A critique group serves as a sounding board for your writing. Critique groups can tell you what you’re doing well, as well as what is confusing about your piece. You can use the group to talk through a problem and get ideas about how to solve it. A critique group also provides validation of your work. It pushes you to write and teaches you to meet deadlines. And by critiquing others, you learn what works. You grow as a writer.”

What are the important elements of a successful critique group?

I asked this question of number of writers involved in critique groups. The answers were surprisingly consistent.
  • Respect: It is crucial to respect each member’s work, their personality, and their process. Remember, they are entrusting you with their creative baby—treat that gift with care.
  • Generosity: Members genuinely want to help each other find the best path for telling their stories. They applaud what works and make suggestions for improvement.
  • Honesty: Critique partners must be honest about what is confusing or doesn’t work. Oftentimes, discussion leads to insight, and insight leads to the best fix.
  • Commitment: When you join a critique group, you are making a commitment to yourself as well as fellow members. Giving thoughtful feedback takes time. Meet deadlines. Carve out the time needed.

How Do Critique Groups Work?

This varies from one group to another. Both of my groups exchange manuscripts for written feedback prior to meeting. However, one group sends comments before the meeting while the other sends them afterward. Some groups read a submission aloud during the meeting, organize their responses, and then discuss. Still other groups exchange feedback entirely through written comments without ever actually meeting.  

Groups vary in size, the most workable being 4-6 members. Meetings vary from weekly to monthly and last about two hours. What’s important is to meet regularly, set guidelines for number of pages and rules for discussion, and follow them. Every writer should get equal time. A timer is crucial for this purpose.

What are my responsibilities in critiquing others?

Meet deadlines. Take time to read your partners’ work carefully and give thoughtful comments both on what works and what doesn’t. When possible, suggest a fix. Be specific, but don’t rewrite it yourself. Always remember, it’s the author’s story. Confidentiality is important, too. Don’t talk about your critique partners’ work to others. It’s their decision when and how much they want to share about their projects.

What are my responsibilities when my work is critiqued?

Listen openly and attentively. Take notes and ask questions if you don’t understand something, without interrupting or becoming defensive. Don’t dismiss what others are saying—upon reflection, you will often see the wisdom of their comments. At the same time, remember it’s your story. Know your story so you aren’t unduly influenced.


Other Insights from the Writers I Interviewed:

  • Go into it with a spirit of collaboration, not competition. Celebrate each other’s successes, large and small. Be cheerleaders for each other! Since writing is such a solitary endeavor, camaraderie and support can be as important as the actual critique.
  • A good group needs to concentrate on both the big picture and the nitty-gritty. It’s more than proofreading.
  • A good fit is crucial. Look for a group that writes for the same audience or genre as you. Join on a trial basis and see if you feel comfortable. Do you like the members’ work? Does their feedback meet your needs? “It’s like a relationship,” says critique member Joyana McMahon. “You’re not only choosing each other; you’re choosing to commit and foster each other’s growth over time.”

Joyana McMahon, Julie Phend, JoAnn Sanchez Kenyon, Amy Thernstrom on Zoom


Like any good relationship, your group will have its ups and downs. The make-up of your group may change over time, but your commitment will stand. There is no better feeling than having one of your group members publish a new book and knowing you helped it on its journey.

This sounds wonderful! How can I find a group?

There are many resources online. SCBWI offers resources. A local chapter can put you in touch with people who live near you. (SCBWI MidAtlantic maintains a list of writers looking for critique groups in its member pages.) Other writers’ organizations offer similar services. Put out a request on their Facebook pages and on your own. Check out the writing community on Twitter. Talk to other writers at conferences. 

Let people know you’re looking for a group, and you will find one. Then give it your best, and you will reap the rewards!


Fab Five Critique Group: Eileen Meyer, Carmela Martino, Dana Easley, Natalie Rompella, Julie Phend


For more insight on critique groups, check out the following related Grog blog posts:




Wednesday, September 23, 2020

My Top 10 Ways to Research Kidlit Editors and Agents ~ by Patricia Toht

Come, gather at my knee, youngster...

I started writing for children way back in the 20th century. (GASP!) While many aspects of writing children have changed over the years, one goal that has remained constant is to find the editor (or agent) who will love my manuscript. 

Here are the Top 10 ways that I've used to research editors and agents:

In 1995, the year I committed to writing for children, my "bible" for researching editors and agents was the Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market. This book contains listings that are updated annually - names, addresses, and pertinent information about each entity - as well as helpful articles. It is currently in its 32nd printing, so it must be doing something right!

2. Agency Websites
Agency websites are a great way to find a list of their agents and a description of what types of books they represent. You may find a list of clients, too, where you might spot artists that you feel an affinity to. Sometimes individual agents post their wish lists. Above all, this is a definitive place to find specific submissions information for the agency.

You can get a feel for publishing houses and imprints by looking over their current and upcoming titles, but long gone are the days of requesting printed catalogs. These days, with publishing houses merging and morphing, I find the easiest way to peek at a catalog is through Edelweiss+. I search for an imprint and find their latest list.

4. Other websites/blogs
There are so many great kidlit websites! My top picks for submissions information are:

The Purple Crayon. Harold Underdown's website has so much to offer! In particular, the "Who's Moving Where?" section provides me with the latest information on editor changes at publishing houses.

Kathy Temean's Writing and Illustrating blog has terrific, in-depth interviews with agents each month, as well as editor and art director interviews. 

KidLit411, by Sylvia Liu and Elaine Kiely Kearns, describes itself as "a one stop info shop for children's writers and illustrators," and that's the truth. Scroll down their Topics list to check out Agent Spotlight, Editor Spotlight, and Submissions.

5. Social Media
On Twitter, I find handy hashtags to harvest information on editors and agents. Do a search for these hashtags: #askanagent, #askaneditor, and #MSWL (manuscript wish list), to name a few. Follow your favorite publishers and professionals to keep up-to-date with them. 

6. Conferences and workshops
Attending conferences and workshops may involve a cost, but they come with the possibility of great rewards. Often you can get an editorial critique of your work, which lets you to get tips from the top. And faculty members usually open their submissions window for a few months for attendees - so important for unagented manuscripts!

SCBWI is the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. If you are serious about writing for kids, membership in this organization is one of the most important steps you can take.
Among its resources, SCBWI has compiled The Book: Essential Guide to Publishing for Children. It details how to prepare and submit your work. The Market Survey section gives a current snapshot of the market (although change is continual). I like the section "Edited by..." with information that can help pair your book with a receptive editor. 

Querytracker is a database of agents and editors, and a channel used by many of them to recieve submissions. The standard membership is free; a premium membership has more to offer, but comes with a cost. (I've browsed the database for information, but I haven't used it for submissions.)

9. Author Acknowledgments
For novelists, you may discover agent and editor names for your favorite authors by checking out the acknowledgments in the back of their books. 

10. The PW Children's Bookshelf newsletter
This is my favorite way of tracking agent and editor preferences! Near the bottom of this twice-weekly newsletter is a list of current book deals. Each announcement includes the name of the author (and illustrator, if it's a picture book deal), the editor who bought the book, the book title, a brief description of the book, and the name of the agent(s) securing the deal. It takes some work, but I maintain a spreadsheet of this information that I can search when I have a new manuscript ready. Using Control + F brings up a search box where I can enter key words to find deals that have similarities to my work. (E.g. I search "rhyme" to discover editors that may be open to rhyming picture books.) Sign up for the Children's Bookshelf newsletter here.

These sources are my Top 10, but you'll undoubtedly find many more. If you have a favorite, please share it in the Comments below.

Happy writing, everyone! Good luck with those submissions!

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Heather Shares the Poop on Hands-On Science Writing

 by Sue Heavenrich

Heather Montgomery never intended to study human poop. Bat guano? Sure – that’s where she found shimmery green insect parts and part of a compound eye. Coyote poo? Yep, that too. And then she came across a tweet between medical professionals asking an important question: when a kid swallows a LEGO, how long does it take to … come out the other end?

They did what curious scientists everywhere do, Heather told me in a recent phone conversation. They swallowed the little yellow heads and searched for evidence over the following days. They collected data, crunched numbers, and came up with the answer: the average FART (Found and Retrieval Time) is 1.7 days.

Heather is a naturalist, and when leading nature hikes she occasionally came across animal feces on the trail. She encouraged kids to ask questions beyond “who left this?” Questions like “why does it look like this?” and “how come this spot?” She noticed that while there are picture books about poop, there weren’t books for older kids. So she decided to write one; Who Gives a Poop (Bloomsbury) is aimed at readers 10 - 14 years old, though adults will enjoy it too. It comes out next month.

“Once you get going on a topic, the questions drive you,” Heather said. Truth is, she likes digging into things many folks would stay away from. “What happens when, instead of looking away from disgusting stuff, we on-purpose turn towards it?” It helps that she’s willing to get her hands dirty when diving into a topic – though with scat, turds, and dung, patties she is always careful to wear gloves and a mask.

Originally, Heather focused on animal poop. She had stories about scientists studying elephant dung, cheetah poo, turning waste to energy – and maybe even plastic to fashion tools on Mars. Then a story about a “poop train” went viral and Heather knew she’d have to chase it down. She ended up in a small town with 10 million pounds of poop sitting in its rail yard. Neighbors complained about the big stinky problem, wondering why New York City had to send their waste so far away. But a year later she saw evidence that those tons of biosolids were doing their job, reclaiming a strip mine and producing juicy red tomatoes.

“What’s the trick of writing about science for kids?” I asked.

Follow your questions,” Heather said. “Keep asking questions and you’ll find the good ones. Then trust where your curiosity leads you.” That sometimes means people to interview, which may not sound like a big deal, but Heather is shy. Still, she trusts her questions to lead her to the story. 

Don’t be afraid to write about tough subjects,” she added. For Heather, that means writing about gross things like road kill and, in this book, poop. “The important thing is to use your curiosity to show kids how to discover that part of the natural world.”

And finally, “Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.” She encourages writers to dive into their topics all the way up to their elbows.

Heather is a member of #STEAMTeambooks. You can find out more about her at her website.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

THE 'TRUE' IN FICTION: Three Ways to Use Memory to Deepen Fiction by Carol Coven Grannick

About halfway through the decade of writing, writing over, revising, and re-visioning my soon-to-debut verse novel, REENI'S TURN, I realized I'd once again done something common to my fiction: I'd skimmed over the deepest level of emotion that would not just uncover, but show the pumping heart of the story.

I knew this because I wasn't feeling anything when I read over the verses that showed my character daydreaming, dancing, hurting, hoping, failing, and leaping into uncertainty.

Part of it was language. Staying a step away from Reeni's voice. There were lots of qualifiers when removed, slipped me in closer. Pretty much, no more "I see"s, "I think"s, or "I try to"s, etc.

But there was something else missing. While memory, experience, and the stories of women I'd worked with as a clinical social worker threaded the tapestry that became REENI'S TURN, some of the depth I wanted—some of the depth I often feel—was still missing. I could feel that I was distant from Reeni's heart, and I didn't exactly know why.

I decided to write a letter from Reeni to me. I felt like I didn't know her as well as I wanted to, and this would help. My hand shook as I wrote. She was furious with me. "What are you afraid of?" she asked me via the legal pad and Zebra G-301 Blue gel pen that flows like a fountain. "I'm not you! I'm not afraid! I'm okay with whatever you want to say!"

Okay, Reeni. Who am I not to pay attention to my heroine?

I think—as much as I can remember that time—that I'd used the memories and emotions from the past without really viscerally remembering them. Now I needed to sink deeply into the feelings that are the most significant part of memory.

I set to work. And there were three ways my memories and the emotions attached to them infiltrated my work to deepen the character and the heart of the story:

1. Direct Experience: an exact experience you had becomes your character's (this occurs once in REENI'S TURN because it was organic to the character and conveyed an important 'space' of both complete safety and complete risk, setting the emotional environment of the story.

Backbend Without Hands
No music, we settle into quiet stretches 
before standing for backbends without hands, 
one at a time.
Ms. Allie faces me, 
circling my back, 
not holding, 
but tapping 
with her finger 
She says, 
Right here, I’m right here.
I backward-bend 
slowly smoothly
half a circle
tracing my head

to the floor
all moving muscle, 
no thoughts, no words, 
Ms. Allie urging, gentle,
there if I need her, steady, strong,
safe in the circle
of her untouching arms.

2. Indirect Experienceyour memory of an experience with the same or similar set of emotions infiltrates your character's different external experience:

Frost (partial verse)

In a minute Ms. Allie’s voice peels away my cocoon.
Reeni, come to the front and do it alone,

and a flicker of something changes inside
like tingling frost
on these winter windows

and the noise begins—

Is my turnout good enough? 
Are my arms soft or stiff? 
How is my arabesque?

I breathe in, blow out 
to warm the frost and try to pretend 
no one’s watching...

3. Associated Experience: your memory sparks an association (perhaps something you wish you had experienced or felt) that is more organic to your character, and that creates a completely new experience and set of emotions:

Choreography (partial verse)

I’m onstage alone as the spotlight glows, 
fear of the audience scatters like stage dust. 

Breathing deeply, air circles around me
bending with me, cushioning each move 
and my heart stretches to fill me, hold me

close to the world right up against
the edges of the sky.

I'd never claim that memory is the key to the heart of every story, but it is definitely the key to the heart of REENI'S TURN, the story of a shy, fearful tween's struggle with courage, body-acceptance, and identity. In the context of the underrepresented issue of the high incidence of dieting among young children, Reeni's persistence and self-awareness guides her through her misdirected journey to the brink of becoming the girl she dreams of being.

Join us for REENI'S TURN launch party on Sunday, 9/13, 2 pm Central Time. Fun conversation, giveaways, and lots of Q & A. Appropriate for children 9 and up and all adults! 

Are you a #teacher or #librarian? Email me via my website to receive the poster above!

Carol Coven Grannick's novel in verse, REENI'S TURN, debuts from Fitzroy Books. Her children's fiction and poetry appear or are forthcoming in CRICKET, HIGHLIGHTS, LADYBUG, HELLO, and BABYBUG. She has published poetry for adults in numerous print and online venues. She is a columnist for the SCBWI-IL PRAIRIE WIND, a reporter for Cynsations, and a member of the GROG BLOG. Her guest essays, interviews, and reviews appear on numerous writers' blogs.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Fall Frenzy Writing Contest

Calling all kidlit writers!

This is an announcement for the second annual Fall Frenzy Writing Contest hosted by Kaitlyn Sanchez, author and literary agent and Lydia Lukidis, author.

What an excellent writing opportunity to grow as a writer and become eligible for some outstanding prizes.

All kidlit genres are welcome: 

1. Board books, BB

2. Picture books, PB

3. Chapter books, CB

4. Middle grade, MG

5. Young adult, YA

6. Graphic Novel, GN

Choose one of fourteen images as a writing prompt and write a 200 word count entry.

Writers can post one entry and submit between October 1st and October 3rd on this site.

The plan is to announce the winners on October 31st.

For additional information and contest rules click on Lydia Lukidis‘ Word Press or Kaitlyn Sanchez’ blog.

Announcement . . . 

The winner of the August 26th GROG Blog Giveaway is:

Charlotte Dixon

Thank you, Charlotte, for reading and following the GROG Blog. A handcrafted 4 X 4 flower cut paper creation is in the mail.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Illustrator Merrill Rainey Creates Beauty out of Junk: The Debut of the Color, Cut, Create and GIVEAWAY by Kathy Halsey

Craft Chat with Merrill Rainey

Dinosaur World and Horse Ranch! Just add a kid who colors, cuts, and creates!

Who doesn't love creating a new world? Merrill Rainey has created two great escapes for children ages 6 and up.  Merrill makes paper engineering simple with tools that most households have: markers/crayons, scissors, and glue. I gifted my granddaughter Rosie with her own horse farm this past weekend. Two lucky readers who comment on today's post will receive one of these 2 books. Read on and learn more about an illustrator's journey. Merrill shares tips for how author-only folks can find their inner artist, too.

1. I’m drawn to your unique art. You use cut paper, paper engineering, and “create beautiful things out of junk.” (I love that catchphrase!) How did you begin your illustration career? How did your style evolve?

Kathy, where to start! I will try to keep this as short as possible, so let me jump in my wayback time machine, and give you some Cliff notes!

  • -  During the early 2000’s I attended and graduated Kent State University with a degree in Visual Communication Design with a background in Illustration

  • -  In 2003 I was hired as a graphic designer for a company that created large training visuals for fortune 500 companies. As an in-house designer, I was learned many things -  client supply chains and their visions and values, but I wasn’t learning anything about illustration. I was losing track of my original goal becoming a children’s book author and illustrator.

  • -  Over the course of the next few years, I regained focus. I rebuilt my portfolio, got my first magazine assignment with Jack and Jill magazine, and signed with my first illustration rep Tugeau 2, all while working a full time job.

  • -  In 2007 I joined SCBWI, a must in this industry. I owe a lot of my success to the art directors, editors, authors, and illustrators that I have met through this organization.

  • -  In 2010 my son was born. Shortly after this milestone, I was worked a 40+ hour work week at my day job and helped take care of a new baby.  I worked on contract work in the eventing until about 4 or 5 in the morning, slept for a few hours, and did it all over again. Eventually those late nights finally paid off. I quit my full-time job and my business as a full-time freelancer.

  • -  I worked for the next 7 years, slowly building my client list. I worked on projects like creating online world assets for different toy brands, educational illustration work for companies like McGraw Hill, and of course illustration work for Highlights Press and Magazine.

  • -  2014 brought more changes including the arrival of our daughter. During this time, I went through a renaissance with my art. When I started out, I was working completely digitally. Then after a portfolio review at a SCBWI Northern Ohio event, I was told to “find my trade picture book style”. Those six words sent me on a journey to figure out what that statement actually meant and how to achieve this goal. Through a lot of trial and error with different mediums and talking with other illustrators and art directors, I found a renewed love of cut paper and collage work.

  • -  Although I had some bites earlier on, my trade picture book career didn’t really start until 2019 when I got some good advice, and the opportunity to sign with Bookmark Literary. My agent Teresa is a gem and works really hard for her clients! In just a short amount of time, we are already three books in with more on the way.

- The rest is still history in the making! I probably have left out a couple of important moments in time, but 10 years of hard work and persistence is a lot to write down in just one interview. ;-)

2. You’re known for magazine illustrations, especially your brand character work for “Jack and Jill” and “Humpty Dumpty” magazines. Is magazine illustration or your approach to it different than what you with book illustration?

This is definitely a yes and no answer. My starting point to approaching any illustration or project is the same. I start by reading the project brief or manuscript. While reading, I start to jot down thoughts and ideas that I could use to make visuals that work well for the project. From there, I scribble in my notebook and create thumbnail sketches. These sketches are small 2”x2” rough drawings that allow me to start figuring things out in my illustrations: spacing, character placement, camera angles, pacing, or where words will go. These sketches are where my work starts to come to life.

Working on a book is a little different because there are even more things you have to take into consideration when starting out, like the pacing of your artwork with the text, page turns, color consideration for things like moods and emotions, and character consistency. It is a more in- depth process from start to finish.

3. Many of our GROG readers are writers not illustrators. Yet, the picture book’s unique format gives art and words equal weight.  Share some advice to help writers channel their “inner artist” and understand the illustrator’s job. Should they doodle, make dummies, or take an art class?

I think all three suggestions you mention are a great start. I’m a firm believer that the only way to truly understand how something is done, is to experience it firsthand. I would also suggest talking to as many illustrators about their process as possible since all illustrators work a little bit differently. I would also suggest taking an illustration workshop where you get real life experiences on how illustrators create their work. Make sure that the workshop gives you an opportunity to experiment with the new art materials and mediums that you learn about. The Highlights Foundation is a great example of such experiences. If you can’t afford something like that, just take a trip to your favorite bookstore or library and find those picture books you already love. Pull them off the shelf,, and study the art you see. Ask yourself: What is it about this art that makes you love it so much? Is it the characters? Is it the textures made by simple brush strokes? Or is it the mood and emotion set by color? Start to pick apart and analyze what makes the artwork so successful. How do the illustrations flow from one image to the next? 

After you study the art, look at how the words and illustrations work. Do they work well together, or do you stumble and get confused? Do they blow your mind because you would never have thought the illustrations would look one way based on how the text reads? There is so much you can learn by just observing someone’s work. A large part of the art of illustration is just being able to observe the world around you. For example: What shape is a silver maple? What does its bark look like? Is the sky really blue? What do you smell when you walk past a bakery? Is it a cookie? What type of cookie? Maybe chocolate chip? Now, do these observations remind you of anything from your own past memories? What emotion comes to mind when you think of these experiences? Then, once you really understand what you see and feel, can you sketch that in your notebook? Can you now paint or draw it giving enough details so that your viewer will understand what you are trying to convey in your illustration? This is the type of thinking that can help you find your true inner artist.

4. Merrill and I are lucky to live in Ohio, home of the University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum. The Mazza features the most diverse collection of original artwork by children’s book illustrators in the world. Tell us about your art exhibit at Mazza. What does the museum offers to you as an illustrator. (It’s an unknown gem!)

I completely agree that The University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum is a hidden Gem! What a place for true inspiration! With more than 14,000 pieces of original children's book art, there is something to inspire everyone. Their staff is like no other and the programming they offer is just awesome. If you have never had a docent lead tour at the Mazza; you need to! The docents are so well-educated on the museum’s collection. They know every little back story to the art hanging on their walls. To me, those little back stories are just one of the small things that will add a bit of magic to your visit at the Mazza.

A few years back, I had an opportunity to exhibit my collage work for Humpty Dumpty magazine. The experience was just unreal. It was such a thrill to see my work hanging on a museum wall with so many well-known authors and illustrators, especially a museum that is respected by so many in our industry. A few of my pieces were even left with the museum to be preserved and shared with future generations.

5. We're excited to help you celebrate the September 15 launch of your Color, Cut, Create! Dinosaur World and Color, Cut, Create! Horse Ranch with Odd Dot. I know my granddaughter Rosie will fall in love with Horse Ranch. How do you bring a project like this to life? I’m wondering how many hours and tinkering you put into these projects.

A project like this is definitely a great undertaking, but such fun at the same time. I spent months just trying to figure out what was going to be in each book, and how I was going to make them. I had 176 pages to work with. Although that may sound like a lot, when you start to prototype a toy, you have to take into consideration things like page size, and how many pages it will take to build one toy. So for instance the volcano toy for Dinosaur World takes up five pages vs. a single dinosaur toy take up one page. 

For about a year, my kitchen table was full of paper toy prototypes. A prototype is a preliminary model that allows you to figure out and test the functionality of your toys before you add in all of the cool details. Prototypes give you the opportunity to experiment and explore how you are going to make a 3D object out of a single flat sheet of paper. Many, many prototypes were created for both of these books. By the time I finished each book, I had needed to increase my work space from one large table to two. As a toy designer I had to build everything over and over to make sure that it was made well and didn’t fall over or fall apart for the end-user.

Many times when I am creating my products, I will let my kids build and play with them to see how they react. It allows me to observe firsthand what is or isn’t working, and how I can make it better. I sometimes refer to my children as my S.M.E.’s, Subject Matter Experts.

Horse lovers check out this fun video by clicking here. Those who dig dinosaur, here's your video

6. The subjects you bring to life, dinosaurs, horses, asteroids, are so kid-centric. How do you mine your childhood memories to infuse your art with whimsy and humor?

Although not everything was perfect, I have only the best memories of growing up in the 80’s. I come from a large family, and even though we didn’t always have the things our friends and neighbors had, my parents made sure we had what we needed. They gave us opportunities to play, explore, and to just be kids. My siblings and I would spend summers riding bikes, camping, and going on imaginary adventures. Evenings and holidays were always spent playing board games with each other. The fall brought large leaf piles to jump in, and tackle football games at the schoolyard across the street. When winter came, there were hours of tunneling through the snow and snowball fights.

These moments in time instilled in me a sense of observation of the world around me, imagination, love, and family. I still remember things like running to the back door of my childhood home, opening it, and taking a deep breath of the crisp cool air on the first night of fall. Each year I relive the magic and wonder of one Christmas Eve as we returned home from my grandparent’s house to find that Santa Claus had already come and our presents were waiting for us under the tree. These types of memories shape who we are, what we do, and what we create in life.

Now with my own children growing up, I watch and observe them, and take inspiration from their emotions, amazements, and observations of the world.

7. What projects are you working on now?

Besides fixing up my new home, I have my bimonthly magazine work for Jack and Jill and Humpty Dumpty magazine in the works. I also have another new project brewing that I can’t say anything about yet, but keep an eye out. And of course, when I have time, I have a list of stories that I just can’t wait to tell!

8. Was research involved in deciding what horses and dinosaurs to use in the Color, Cut, Create series?

There was a large amount of research done on what horses and dinosaurs I should include in each book. The decision for the dinosaurs was based more on fan favorites like the Spinosaurus, dinosaurs I liked growing up, like the Ankylosaurus, and requests from my kids. The decision for horses to include came from trying to make sure I had a good variety of different breeds of horses in the book. I had spreadsheets listing names of what horses, dinosaurs, set pieces, and ground cover I was going to create. Some of these items were caves, a barn, ground foliage, different kinds of trees, volcano lava, and a ranch gate.

I wanted to make sure that I had a good variety that was also true to life. Once I had my lists created and a prototype of each toy made, I would then send them off to my awesome editor, Justin, at Odd Dot for review. Like most projects, there were always edits and additional toys to make.

Thank you for having me on the Grog! It’s been a pleasure talking with you and your readers. I look forward to seeing who receives the copies of the Color, Cut, Create! books. I hope they have just as much fun building all they toys as I did making them. CHEERS! 

Find more about Merrill here: and on twitter: @LittleRainey. 

Remember to leave a  comment or question to win a free Color, Cut, Create books.