Wednesday, March 31, 2021

We Love Bugs! a nonfiction author round-table

 My fellow GROGGER, Chris Mihaly and I both had recent bug-related releases. She has two poems in the anthology, The Bee is not Afraid of Me which buzzed off the press earlier this month, and my picture book, 13 Ways to Eat a Fly  buzzed out last month. Turns out that a few of our nonfiction writing friends also have buggy books hitting the shelves this year. 

So we invited them over for the First Ever GROG Roundtable on Arthropods. Imagine the five of us sitting around a table, our hands around mugs of hot beverages. Going around the table we have: Leslie Bulion, whose book Spi-ku: A Clutter of Short Verse on Eight Legs came out at the beginning of this month; Roberta Gibson, whose picture book  How To Build An Insect comes out next week; and Annette Whipple whose book  Scurry, The Truth About Spiders will hit the shelves in a few months.

While Roberta and I have studied entomology (she at Cornell, me at U of Colorado, Boulder) - all you need to write about arthropods is a passion for things with six or more legs. Chris, a former environmental lawyer, has written more than 25 books for kids on a range of topics, including entomophagy (eating insects). Fortunately, her love for insects extends beyond roasted crickets. 

Chris and her little "bug"
: I was wonderstruck one night when a Luna moth landed outside my window. It was stunning: large and luminous, so otherworldly looking. Even though  there are no Luna moths in the UK, I went ahead and submitted my poem “Luna Moth” to Emma Press. When the editors called for more poems about beetles, I thought about beetle soup –  which I’d learned about from the research we did, Sue, for our book, Diet for a Changing Climate. Next to my soup poem, the editor added a note that more information about eating insects was available at The Bug Farm (in the UK). I also included a “poet’s note” with each poem, adding the factual background for kids. Did you know the adult Luna moth has no mouth?

Leslie: I’ve been an avid naturalist since I could peer under a rock, and fell in love with poetry in 4th grade. I studied oceanography, then social work, then inspired by a summer “bugs” course (and already writing for young readers), I combined my passions for poetry and science. Spi-Ku is my 7th science poetry collection. My research always includes “boots-on” exploration, and arachnologist Dr. Linda Rayor invited me to visit her lab at Cornell.  There I met critters I’d never even heard of (amblypygids…what?!?) and social spiders. I was hooked!

Roberta, by Cindy
 After getting my master’s degree in entomology, I worked as a research specialist at the University of Arizona. Nowadays, I’m either writing or gazing at an insect through the macro lens of my camera. With my passion for books and bugs, writing about insects seemed inevitable. To study insects, first a person needs to recognize what an insect is and how to identify the different kinds. The foundation of identification is an understanding of anatomy, so it seemed like the right place to start.

Annette: I love facts and enjoy learning about the people, places, and things in our world and celebrating my curiosity with young readers. My first “truth about” book was Whooo Knew? The Truth about Owls. When Reycraft Books chose to turn it into a series, I knew I wanted to include spiders because they are so often misunderstood. And they’re fascinating creatures. 

Sue: I am an accidental entomologist, though I will admit to a master’s degree on cockroach behavior. I’ve followed bumble bees, watched ants, tagged Monarchs. One summer day I was at an event and noticed people were avoiding the folding chairs. Small flower flies with iridescent wings perched on the warm metal, and people thought they were bees. That’s when I knew I wanted to write something about flies.
Sue ready to net more book ideas

I’ll kick off the last go-round with thoughts about writing. I have always been a list-keeper. When I was a kid I’d write down all the kinds of squirrels, lizards, trees … license plates, whatever. Now I count pollinators for the Great Sunflower Project. That makes me look closer: bee or fly? It also reminds me to be patient. Just as it takes many observations to learn to identify pollinators in my garden, it takes many drafts to understand the book I’m writing.

Chris: I particularly enjoy how poetry forces me to focus on word choice. And rhythm and rhyme! And I like how poems can engage young readers with playful language and bouncing beats. One of the best things a writer can do to improve their craft is to practice observing. Look closely, and then describe what you see. And insects are fun to watch!

Annette with Edna (exoskeleton)

Annette: Scurry, The Truth about Spiders is part of a series, so I knew it'd be in question-and-answer format like the other books. Even so, it took more than 20 drafts for me to find the right structure for Whooo Knew? The Truth About Owls! (check out her writing process here).  As for writing… we can certainly learn from the various ways spiders hunt. Some spiders build webs to catch prey. As writers, we need to trap any ideas we have by writing them down before they get away from us. Other spiders, such as jumping spiders hunt down their prey. We need to actively chase after our stories and pursue them until finished if we're going to be published. The trap-door spider creates a hole in the ground and disguises it with a trap door. It sits and waits patiently for its next meal. As writers, we must be patient with ourselves, the writing process, and certainly the publishing process. 

Roberta: Different writing ideas come to me in different formats.  How to Build an Insect arrived with an informal, conversational tone that I use during hands-on workshops for kids. (One idea for a book arrived as a graphic novel. That was scary!) I also love learning new things. With insects, so many aspects are unknown that I can discover something every single day. Writing is how I process that knowledge and find deeper understanding.
Leslie, looking for the next spider

Leslie: My books combine science poetry with short informational notes and extensive back matter. A poem can distill information into an elegant and memorable story. I organize each collection to inform at the “big idea,” topic level and explore on a more specific, “cool science story,” level. My spider observations are like patient contemplations of contextual clues. I paint a bigger picture, and also zoom in for tiny details – that may not help name the spider, but it helps me understand even more about spiders in general. 

We could talk bugs all day long… but I’m out of coffee. Check out our author websites, drop by our blogs, and remember to head outside and watch some bugs!

Find out more about Chris Mihaly at
Check out Leslie Bulion at
Roberta Gibson's website is over at
You can find Annette Whipple at
Sue Heavenrich hangs her bug net at

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

How a Journey of 9000 Miles Led to a Picture Book Biography ~ by Lindsey McDivitt and Patricia Toht

I first chatted with Lindsey McDivitt in July, 2018. 
I was intrigued by her blog, "A Is for Aging" and her goal to tackle ageism in children's books. One way that Lindsey has challenged ageism is through picture book reviews and her own PB biographies.
Lindsey's picture book biographies 
about Gwen Frostic and Gerald Ford
Her latest biography, however, takes on an even larger issue: racism. 
PT: Lindsey, how did you come to write about Nelson Mandela?

Lindsey and her father
LM: Writing PB bios feels somewhat accidental to me - I'm not in love with research! A PLAN FOR THE PEOPLE: NELSON MANDELA'S HOPE FOR HIS NATION was actually my first biographical manuscript and it was borne of an intense curiosity after a trip to South Africa. My family immigrated to America after living there for many generations. I was born in South Africa and, when I was young, we returned often to stay with grandparents. But then 25 years went by. In 2013, I revisited Cape Town, just weeks after Nelson Mandela's death. Apartheid, the hateful policy of racial separation and inequality, was gone. South Africans of all colors mourned him. For the first time, I was immersed in the new democracy - Mandela's "Rainbow Nation."

Integrated beach in South Africa
Touring Robben Island where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison, I learned that he purposely changed himself in those years - from an angry activist to a leader, capable of leading a diverse and divided nation. How did he know that white people behaving in racist ways could change? Questions led me to read incessantly about Mandela, South Africa, and apartheid.

PT: This book began as a fictional story, but you later decided to write it as nonfiction. What led to this decision? How did the text change?

LM: Actually, writing about Nelson Mandela was never my intention. That 2013 trip created the desire to understand how he managed to transform a racist country. I didn't know how to explain the old, sad South Africa and apartheid to my own children. I'd been writing, but was still unpublished, when I began taking notes on the hundreds of pages I'd tagged. I was a white woman of South African heritage writing about Nelson Mandela. It was scary, but what I had learned seemed important to share in our current world. Especially as a white woman.

At first it was a fictional middle-grade book about a grandmother trying to help her fictional granddaughter understand racism in South Africa. That morphed briefly into a possible chapter book, then into a picture book. The picture book was nonfiction, based on Mandela's friendship with a young, white prison guard, Christo Brand. I was still writing about Mandela, but obliquely.

PT: You learned about the technique of journaling from author Candace Fleming. How did it help you with this book?

LM: I was intimidated writing about Mandela and was unsure of my focus. At a conference, I heard Candace Fleming share her "morning pages" routine of journaling. It helps her get to the heart of her writing.

I was initially resistant. I didn't like journaling. But Candace's books are amazing! Per her instructions - first thing in the morning, no laptop, no reading anything beforehand - I put pen to paper.  An hour each day, for one month, writing about writing. So messy. But eventually I gained clarity through it.
A sample of Lindsey's journaling
I focused on how Mandela and fellow freedom fighters of the African National Congress continued their fight while in prison. They planned for a new South Africa that included white South Africans, their oppressors. That spirit of forgiveness and generosity astounded me. It felt personal and I had to incorporate that in my story.

PT: What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?

LM: Definitely my author's note. Writing the entire book, I wrestled with strong emotions and memories of the old apartheid-era South Africa - knowing that generations of my family had been part of the white minority suppressing the Black majority. But in my note, I tried to share honestly. I want to make a difference with this book and to share a hopeful message about change and fighting racism. I fervently hope I was able to do that.
Illustrator Charly L. Palmer at work

The book also contains a terrific illustrator's note from Charly Palmer, the book's illustrator, a super-talented African-American artist from Atlanta. Charly knows South Africa well and he was the perfect partner for this project. Charly shares: "I wanted to convey the spirit I've experienced South Africa, a Mandela-like spirit of love and forgiveness." The art is warm, bright, and beautiful.

PT: This book includes several pages of back matter. How did you decide what to include?

LM: Yes, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers supported ten pages of back matter! Deciding what to include was difficult. A PLAN FOR THE PEOPLE is for ages 7 & up, but the back matter is designed to intrigue older readers and assist educators. We added lists of books and videos and websites to bolster understanding, and a selected bibliography.
Back matter sample from 

The back matter includes both timelines and text on apartheid laws, South Africa's journey to democracy, and Mandela's life. I'm hoping they help others understand how fear and racist ideas can be exploited by government. And how discrimination against people by the color of their skin can become hateful laws. I still have lots to learn as I strive to be actively anti-racist, but we all need to pay attention. A government that's not a democracy for all is not truly a democracy. 

Kirkus recently awarded A PLAN FOR THE PEOPLE: NELSON MANDELA'S HOPE FOR HIS NATION a starred review, declaring the book "Beautiful. Informative. Essential." It will be released on March 30.

Find Lindsey McDivitt at, where she reviews picture books with accurate images of aging and older adults on her blog, "A Is for Aging." Her next book is CHRISTMAS FAIRIES FOR OUMA, coming in 2022 from Familius Books.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Definitely Dominguita—An Interview with Author Terry Catasús Jennings by Julie Phend


Meet Dominguita Melendez, intrepid knight of the neighborhood, who, along with her squire, Pancho Sanchez, have brave adventures and do good deeds just like Don Quixote in Dom’s favorite book.


Definitely Dominguita is a delightful chapter book series for ages 6-9 released this month by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster. In a starred review, Kirkus called it “a charming adventure that will encourage kids to become knights in their own communities as well.”


In Dominguita, better known as Dom Capote, Cuban-American author Terry Catasús Jennings has created a character who is determined, independent and resourceful, and who just happens to be a child of immigrant parents.

Terry Catasús Jennings


Terry Catasús Jennings knows what it’s like to feel different. Her family, including her father who had been jailed during the Bay of Pigs invasion, emigrated from Cuba in 1961 when she was twelve years old. Terry was immediately enrolled in an American school. The problem was that she only knew enough English to recite the days of the week and months of the year. Like Dominguita, Terry found refuge in books, especially the classics she read with her abuela.

Each book in the Dominguita series is based on a beloved classic: Knight of the Cape on Don Quixote, Captain Dom’s Treasure on Treasure Island, All for One on The Three Musketeers, and Sherlock Dom on—you guessed it—Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles


I had the pleasure of chatting with Terry about the series and her writing career. 


Tell us a little about your journey as a writer and how it led to this series.

I always dreamed of being an author, but family pressure led me to a more “practical” career. I majored in math and physics and worked in finance for many years before I decided to give writing a chance. At first, I wrote articles and essays. The first essay I ever submitted—about teaching my daughter to drive—was published by The Washington Post. Then I moved on to writing educational content for the Smithsonian Science Education Center and non-fiction books for children. Finally, I decided to try my hand at writing a novel, an upper MG book about a Cuban girl. 


Submitting that novel (still unpublished) led me to my agent, Natolie Lakosil. I pitched the idea for the Dominguita books to her in 2018. She was enthusiastic, so I got right to work. The series sold rather quickly. I signed the contract in May of 2019, and the first two books are being released this month, March 2021.


Tell us about the illustrator.

The books are illustrated by Fátima Anaya, who lives in El Salvador. I LOVE the illustrations. Fátima got the characters just right—Dom’s spunky face and the wonderful Roco, the dog whose belly is so low it almost touches the ground and whose ears are so long that they do. The costumes are so creative—and the colors she uses are wonderfully vivid. Her work is just terrific.


In the first book, Knight of the Cape, Dominguita is reading Don Quixote to stay close to her Abuela who’s had to move to Florida because she’s getting forgetful. When the class bully says Dominguita reads because she doesn’t have any friends, she has to come up with a better idea: she’s studying to be knight. He laughs. “Girls can’t be knights.” Dominguita decides to prove him wrong. She adopts the name Dom Capote, Knight of the Cape.


How is Dom like Don Quixote?


Both Don Quixote and Dom Capote failed spectacularly! But both eventually transition from fantasy to reality. They come to understand and accept themselves as they are, including their shortcomings and failures. They both recognize the value of love and friendship.


Having based the characters on those in Don Quixote, how does that work in the rest of the series, where the books are based on other classics?


In each book, the character relationships stay the same. Dom is the visionary, Pancho brings her down to reality, and their friend Steph is the even keel rule-follower. The events and key scenes echo the classics but the novels are each a contemporary story. For example, in Captain Dom’s Treasure, Dom finds an old map in a library book with a telltale X marking an unknown place. She and her crew set off to find treasure like Jim Hawkins did in Treasure Island.


These books are filled with the kind of humor that kids love. Give us an example.

In All for One, inspired by The Three Musketeers, Dom and her friends set out to foil a villain’s dastardly intention to spoil their friend Leni’s quincerañera party. They use the ultimate musketeer weapons—chocolate covered toilet plungers.  


I know you’re a big fan of writers’ critique groups. Did you work with a critique group on these books?

I sure did. I belong to two critique groups, and at one point, I was writing too fast to be able to wait for the meetings. So one group critiqued the second book, and the other did the third. They were a big help! 

(For more information on Terry's work with critique groups, see


What do you find most rewarding about writing children’s books?

The reward is connecting with a reader and making a difference. My hope is to reach children and cement the belief that there are no “others.” Dominguita is every child. Whether she is American, Cuban or the descendant of a purple popsicle, she loves and misses her grandmother, tries to manipulate her brother, sometimes disobeys her parents, loves sweets. She has moments of brilliance and moments of sheer folly. She is just a kid who happens to live in a household where black beans and rice with a side of plantains are a staple.


Thanks, Terry, for sharing your journey with us. We wish you every success with Definitely Dominguita.






Wednesday, March 10, 2021



Grog Blogger Eileen Meyer here -- I’m delighted to invite author and poet Michelle Schaub to join us with a guest post today! Michelle is sharing the story of a manuscript that was near and dear to her heart, but had been rejected numerous times. After she took a break to re-envision her project, and then revise accordingly – IT SOLD!

Here’s the story of KINDNESS IS A KITE STRING, releasing April 1st (and I'm not FOOLing you!) with Cardinal Rule Press.


When I first decided to write a concept book about kindness, this was my recipe:


Mix together a list of kind acts.

Fold in some lyrical language.

Season with rhyme.


Plain and simple. Unfortunately, a little too simple. Here’s some of editorial feedback I received after my first round of submissions:  



I don't think this feels like a real picture book, but more like something you'd see in a kid magazine.”


“I wish there were a clearer protagonist or some tension.”


“I love the message here, but I'm afraid that I don't think that there is enough story for this to work on our list.” 


Editors wanted a triple-decker club sandwich, and I all I had handed them was bread. I needed more layers to create a mouthwatering manuscript.




I knew most editors had a taste for character-driven manuscripts with strong story arcs. While I didn’t want to write my text as a narrative, I wondered if I could suggest an arc through the illustrations.


About this time, I saw a commercial that sparked an idea. Set in a city, the commercial starts with one man’s kind deed: he stops a lady from crossing the street in front of a speeding car. In turn, that lady helps a mom carry her stroller off the bus. The mom then helps another person, and the kind acts ripple forward.


I decided to use art notes to suggest a similar chain of kind deeds in my manuscript. As a rule, I try to limit art notes. I like giving illustrators room to breathe their own life into a picture book. But in this case, I felt the needed to provide a visual nudge to editors so they could picture how my simple words might ignite a rich visual narrative.


I added this open-ended art note to the beginning of my manuscript:


[For each spread, I have provided art suggestions for one possible way the chain of kindness might grow through a diverse community; however, I am open to other visual interpretations.] 


Then on each page, I included a short note that suggested a kind act and “actor” for that spread. Ultimately, Claire LaForte put her own delightful spin on my art notes.  She created a beautiful visual story of a diverse individuals coming together to spread kindness. 





My own kids always enjoyed picture books where they had to search for something in the pictures. (Think Richard Scary’s Lowly Worm.)  This gave me the idea to suggest a “hunt” for a missing pet. So, I added this art note to the first spread:  


[No one notices a pet has slipped out. In subsequent illustrations, family members put up lost pet posters/search for pet]


In the final book, readers can follow the hunt for an adorable missing dog. (Don’t worry, the dog is ultimately reunited with its family.) 




I wanted to make sure educators found my book tasty. As a language arts teacher, I knew curriculum standards across grade levels focused on teaching similes and metaphors. So, I started brainstorming tangible, kid-friendly objects to which I could compare kindness. 


Kindness is like sunshine because it warms you.  

Kindness welcomes others like an open door.  

When you let it out, kindness can lift spirits like a kite string.


To infuse educational flavor, I reshaped my text as a series of comparisons and added an author’s note to further explain the concept of similes and metaphors. 


My newly layered concept book “sandwich” was ready to deliver to

editors. After a few nibbles from different houses, Maria Dismondy at Cardinal Rule Press sunk her teeth in and offered me a contract. 


Now that I can hold KINDNESS IS A KITE STRING in my hands, I really appreciate the value of the added layers. They provide readers with a reason to return to the book again and again and discover different ways to satisfy their appetite… and spread a little kindness!  




Michelle Schaub is a language arts teacher and award-winning children's poet. In addition to her upcoming book, Kindness is a Kite String, The Uplifting Power of Empathy, she is the author of the picture book poetry collections Fresh-Picked Poetry: A Day at the Farmers’ Market, (which won the 2018 Growing Good Kids Award and 2019 Northern Lights Book Award,) and Finding Treasure: A Collection of Collections. She also wrote the bedtime STEM book in verse, Dream Big, Little Scientists. Her poems appear in several anthologies, including A World Full of Poems (DK, 2020) and Hop to It, Poems to Get You Moving (Pomelo Books, 2020) Aloud.  Michelle shares lessons and mentor texts for using poetry to boost literacy at   Find out more about Michelle at



Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Can we Write Our Way out of This Pandemic?

by Sue Heavenrich & the GROG bloggers

A year ago I started a Pandemic Diary - an occupational hazard of being a journalist. I repurposed an old notebook, figuring the 70 remaining sheets of paper should see me through. By October I was out of pages ... scrounging a new notebook and realizing I wasn't going to write my way out of the pandemic. Beyond the Diary, I'd done little work on other writing projects. At some point I finally gave myself permission to “not write”. 

Instead of writing, I read MG and YA novels, vacuumed dust from bookshelves, made fudge and brownies. I took my camera on long walks. I scribbled notes on paper and stuffed them into a tin, and plugged the holiday lights in every night and on cloudy days. I watched re-runs of M*A*S*H, attended SCBWI webinars, zoomed with some writing buddies. The writing started to emerge in unexpected ways. Now, with the return of the sun, the urge to get back to those "projects" is pushing me back to my keyboard. 

Turns out I wasn't the only writer negotiating the bumps in the road. Here’s how my fellow GROGGERS met pandemic challenges:

I'm not the only one who turned to old TV series. Carol Coven Grannick did too. Back in September she had planned a book launch... and instead found herself doing different sorts of promotion. Like many of us, she is grateful for a safe living space and food, and deeply misses meeting friends and family in person. Connecting via zoom and the phone helps, she says, but it’s not the same. 

“The pandemic seems to have fine-tuned the need to live in the present,” says Carol. “Take one day at a time, watch them unfold differently and the same, trusting and hoping that we will be together with family and friends sometime soon, soon, soon.”

upstate NY ~ Sue H
Eileen Meyer discovered that doing mundane things, like shopping for groceries, became more difficult. What helped her get through the pandemic was getting outside.

“Taking breaks to breathe in fresh air and walk in nature is something that really makes me feel refreshed,” she says. To keep the rhythm of her writing routine she stayed involved with her critique group. Having deadlines motivated her to work on projects, she says, “But most importantly, it provides a bit of community in this desert of far-too-much alone time.” 

After losing a family member and then a longtime friend to COVID-19, Sherri Rivers found herself dwelling on dark thoughts. “I needed to remember that life was still good and better days were ahead.,” she says. “Watching cat and animal videos brightened my thinking and warmed my heart.”

On the writing front, Sherri researched funny picture books, and made a commitment for 2021 to write a new draft every month as part of  12 x 12. Online groups and posts help keep her connected and keep the writing fires glowing.

Wilmington, VT ~ Sue H
Chris Mihaly went through a series of Pandemic Phases. With a picture book released in March, she found all her bookstore events, school visits, and book festivals canceled. Thus began the “Disappointed but Zooming” phase filled with free webinars, the SCBWI Summer conference, and other virtual events. 

Next came the “Unable to Concentrate” phase. “It was impossible to summon any creativity at all,” Chris says. “Even in a normal year, it's rough when the days start getting shorter – and this is not a normal year.” But the vaccine roll-out has brought a new, positive phase. “I made a New Year Resolution to write a poem a day,” Chris says. “Each morning I pick a poetic form, then sit down to write a fresh poem in that form. This has sparked my writing energy ... it's definitely a great creativity boost.” Oh yes, and daily walks helped.

Suzy Leopold hoped that more time at home would offer more time to create, but her heart wasn’t in it. At least not at first. “After a few weeks, I finally took a few steps toward a new routine that included being safe, healthy, and creative,” she says. Step number one: revisit her SMART goals, though she made some adjustments.

Pandemic painting ~ Suzy L
She connected with the Springfield, Ill SCBWI Scribes group once a month for manuscript exchanges and critiques, and checked armloads of picture books out of the library to study as mentor texts. “ I also committed to painting every day for 100 days (the100DayProject). I painted my various creations on 4 X 4 cards using watercolors, acrylic paints, and mixed media, and posted them on Instagram.” Suzy also volunteered her time to the Macoupin Art Collective, teaching a class she called  ‘Drawing with Henri’s Scissors’. She also spent as much time as she could outdoors – in the garden or riding a bike. 

Wyoming ~ Leslie

Leslie Colin Tribble is another nature girl, though this past year she limited herself to exploring new areas closer to home and revisiting favorite spots. “I started being more intentional about incorporating things to bring me joy and to feel special. Some were bigger practices, like cooking something new, or dragging out old craft projects. Others were simple like using the good china for meals. The most spontaneous and joyful thing I did in the past year was get a puppy.” 

Leslie also started taking night walks – which open up a whole new word to explore. “Being out in nature at night is something that's so simple, yet so unique and rewarding,” she says. 

We might not be able to write or paint our way out of the pandemic, but as we move into the second year, Suzy shares this bit of wisdom: let's take the time to acknowledge our thoughts and feelings and try not to criticize our lack of energy.