Wednesday, November 23, 2022

BRAVE LIKE MOM Written by Monica Acker

By Suzy Leopold

Welcome to the GROG Blog, Monica Acker! It’s always a pleasure to showcase the work of picture book authors and to learn more about the craft of writing for children. 

Let's meet debut author, Monica Acker and learn about her book:

Brave Like Mom

Written by Monica Acker

Illustrated by Paran Kim

Beaming Books, November 1st

Welcome, Monica. I'm so excited to chat with you.

Welcome, Monica to the GROG Blog.

Let’s begin . . . Please tell us about yourself and your writing journey.

Hi! I’m so grateful for the opportunity to chat with you!

I am a writer, educator, and mom of three who started writing for children with the goal of publication in 2018. I usually approach new experiences with a stick a toe in and test the water approach, but after attending a panel at my local indie titled, “So You Want to Write a Children’s Book?” I dove in. There was no temperature check and I did not pause to apply sunscreen, I just had to start swimming. I’ve been learning and growing as a writer ever since and when things get hard I remind myself to be like Dory and “just keep swimming.”

What inspires you to create picture books?

The beautiful interplay between words and pictures to create a story is magical to me. The picture books I read as a child, as a teacher, and as a mother inspired me to want to create picture books. I was a creative arts major in college with a dual focus in theater and visual arts and then I went on to receive a masters in childhood education. Writing picture books feels like the intersection of all of the things I am passionate about.

The inspiration for what to write about can come from anywhere, but especially from my three kiddos.

Your debut book, Brave Like Mom is a beautiful story filled with emotion. Writers are encouraged to write about one's lived experiences. Share the joys and challenges of writing this story along with the inspiration.

It felt like Brave Like Mom wrote itself when my sister-in-law was not well enough to go for a chemo treatment. I didn’t think or plan, I just wrote what I was feeling. The first line was exactly as it is today - “My mom is strong.” Then I tucked it away and didn’t think about it again. For over a year, the treatments seemed to be working, until they weren’t. At that time, I started tinkering with the story again and it became an outlet for me.

Eventually, my focus shifted from writing what I needed to write to writing something that perhaps others needed to read; that they are strong and brave and fierce. I tried to capture the strength and bravery I saw from my sister-in-law and nieces. I also pulled from my memories as a kid from a time my mom was sick enough to require overnight stays in the hospital. My brothers and I still joke about one of the “mysterious mushy meals” someone was kind enough to make for us. 

The hardest part of writing this story was the responsibility I felt to honor my sister-in-law’s spirit. It is a work of fiction and not a biography, but I hope it is something that she would have been proud of.

The greatest joy of Brave Like Mom being published are the notes I have received about what this book means to families that have read it. The idea that something I wrote can help or comfort or be the starting point of deep conversation - it’s hard to wrap my brain around sometimes, but it makes me smile nonetheless.

What inspires you to create picture books?

The beautiful interplay between words and pictures to create a story is magical to me. The picture books I read as a child, as a teacher, and as a mother inspired me to want to create picture books. I was a creative arts major in college with a dual focus in theater and visual arts and then I went on to receive a masters in childhood education. Writing picture books feels like the intersection of all of the things I am passionate about.

The inspiration for what to write about can come from anywhere, but especially from my three kiddos.

What is your favorite thing about being an author?

I love that I get to create. I can take a blank page and turn it into

a new world.

What do you find challenging working as an author?

The challenge is getting the ideas out of my head and onto the blank

page in a way that makes sense to not only me, but anyone who reads

the manuscript.

I certainly understand those thoughts. So often I have a vision for an idea. However, it is my thoughts I tend to struggle with to get it all down on paper.

What is something you wish someone had told you when you

first started writing?

I am lucky that I received a lot of great advice early on, but maybe

not early enough, because I queried the first story I ever wrote about

a month after I wrote it. DO NOT do this. One of the agents was

even closed to submissions, but this same agent wrote me the most

encouraging note to keep writing. And I did.

How wonderful for the literary agent to take the time to write a note of encouragement for you to continue your writing journey.

Share a piece of advice or craft of writing tip (ex. such as a pointer on the important step of revision).

My tip is to be genuine in your writing. It is important to know things like story structure and to learn from mentor texts. But, when you give a piece of yourself to your writing, I believe that is where the connections are made between writer and reader. 

I absolutely love your thoughts about making connections with the reader. You did this well in Brave Like Mom.

Are you prepared for some fun rapid-fire questions?

1. Describe yourself in five words.


Talkative, passionate, optimistic, goofy and cold (temperature wise, not emotionally)

2. What item displayed on your desk gives you inspiration?

No desk. I do love staring out windows when I’m stuck.

3. What is your favorite childhood memory?

Disney World. My older brother wore the Goofy hat with the floppy ears and I felt magic everywhere I turned.

4. Sunrise or sunset?

Sunset because I like to sleep in.

5. When are you most productive?

When nobody else is home.

6. What was your favorite childhood book or two?

Miss Nelson Is Missing and Chocolate Moose for Dinner

7. What surprises you?

Every time a balloon pops.

8. Favorite place to be.

Wherever my family is. (But also, Disney World)

The theme of Brave Like Mom is a sensitive topic to discuss

with children. Your well-crafted story and gorgeous illustrations

by Paran Kim depict the main character as courageous and

compassionate which makes difficult subjects easier to talk

about and understand. It’s important to listen to our children

and support their emotional well-being.

Did you refer to some mentor texts to assist you with writing

this story?

Two texts that had the biggest impact on me were not about this topic

at all, but I always knew that I wanted the reader to feel empowered at

the end. When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Eliza

Wheeler, and I Will Be Fierce by Bea Birdsong, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani, gave me that feeling of empowerment. I also admired how Jessie Oliveros tackled a difficult health topic in The Remember Balloons, illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte.

And the final question . . . Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day.

Do you have a favorite picture book title about Fall, Thanksgiving, or a theme of gratitude?

If You Find a Leaf by Aimée Sicuro is stunning. It is an invitation

to imagine the next time you come across a fall leaf and here in Massachusetts there are many.

Aw, yes. If You Find a Leaf written and illustrated by Aimée Sicuro is exquisite. I like the way she connects with the reader encouraging the reader to really look at Autumn leaves.

Thank you, Monica, for sharing your debut book with the followers of the GROG Blog.

Where can readers of the GROG Blog find out more about you?


Twitter @MonicaAcker1

Instagram @MonicaAcker1

Happy Thanksgiving, to you, Monica. 

Happy Thanksgiving to all. 

May Thanksgiving remind us all to be grateful.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Picture Book Lessons from the Zoo ~ guest post by Kate Woodle

Kate Woodle is a member of the West/Central New York SCBWI region and also helps facilitate the Syracuse area Shop Talk. She worked as an illustrator at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, NY for more than 25 years. One day we got chatting about picture books, and I asked her whether her zoo work gave her insights into picture book illustration. Here's what Kate has to say about that:

Working at the zoo was my dream job. It was creative (I was the exhibit designer) and it involved animals. I got to study the animals in our care, learn about their habitats and the food they ate, the environment and conservation issues affecting them, and then present their "story" to the public. 

I created illustrations and designed signs for exhibits. The zoo's educator wrote the signs. As an illustrator, my job was to get people to stop and read the sign. Then I could convey some additional information through the art, such as what food an animal eats, where it lives and what its habitat is like. This frees the zoo educator to address another topic. 

Exhibit illustration is a collaboration much like that between picture book author and illustrator. The biggest difference: in a zoo you have only seconds to catch a visitor's attention. It's harder than it looks. Not only that, you’ve got a limited number of words – hopefully no more than 40 on a sign (pretty close to the recommended number of words per page in a picture book). Sure, this "rule" can be broken, but it does help if you are trying to hold attention. If the sign is meant to be read by an adult who will then interact with the child, you have a little more leeway with your word count.

The illustration for this display helps a child visualize what the words mean. This sign is placed next to a life size baby elephant statue (I made that, too) so that kids can compare their weight, height and how much they eat to that of a baby elephant.

A great example of this in a picture book is "Actual Size," by Steve Jenkins. A gorilla's hand and a pigmy mouse lemur are shown full size on a spread. Not only does the book show the actual size of each animal or part of an animal, it has an interactive element: a child can place their hand on top of the gorilla's to see the difference. A pigmy mouse lemur's whole body can be covered by a child's hand. 

The book also has a fold out page to accommodate a Goliath frog that's 36" long. Jenkins’s amazing illustrations are all done with paper collage.

I also painted murals, both in exhibits and in public spaces. A mural is like a scene in a picture book. It gives all kinds of information that is not conveyed in the text: Does this animal live in a rainforest? What other plants and animals live there? Is it misty and damp with really tall trees, a hot dry African savannah, or the Grand Canyon?  

In Jason Chin's book, he does a great job showing both detail and scale as he takes you from the bottom of the canyon to the top.

Murals and signs can also be interactive. Here's an example of an interactive mural that represents the Amazon Rainforest. 
The text on the mural reads: 
Measuring Biodiversity.
One square mile in the Amazon rainforest has 30 times as many butterfly species as in all of New York State. There are 30 species of butterfly in this part of the rainforest. Can you find them all? 

As in the butterfly mural, an illustration can convey a sense of place and add depth to a text. It can evoke a mood. All the World, by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Marla Frazee is a perfect example of this. Scanlon's marvelous poem includes all kinds of events: playing at the beach, picking vegetables, etc. while Frazee's illustrations add to the action. While a rainstorm is never mentioned in the poem Frazee's storm meshes perfectly with the text. The illustrations are realistic but also evoke, along with the words, a sense of beauty, joy and community. 

I've been interested in illustrating children's books since I was old enough to know that that was a profession, and I'm particularly interested in STEAM books – especially those that feature biology. My job at the zoo encompassed these interests. What I hadn't expected while I was working at the zoo was what a good education it was for illustrating picture books.  

Here's another example of an interactive display: It's a photo opportunity showing all the kinds of primates at our zoo. Children are given the opportunity to include themselves in the group while their parents take a photo. 

This brings to mind the cover for the middle grade book Primates, the Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas.

There are so many similarities to the process. Whether it’s art for a zoo exhibit or for a picture book, research is important. You don't want to be accidentally teaching children something that isn't true. For example, polar bears don't really live with penguins! While fantasy and whimsy are wonderful, I believe it's important to be intentional about the message our artwork communicates to our readers. 

Kate Woodle has been drawing since she was three years old. She received a BFA at Syracuse University’s School of Visual and Performing arts, then taught art and later worked as exhibit designer and graphics artist at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, NY. As part of her job she wrote and illustrated the children’s newsletter, MyZoo Jr. Her illustrations and photos have also been featured in Scholastic’s Weekly Reader, National Geographic Kids and in the books,  A Friend for Mia, A New Dog, and Newborn Kits (all published by Pioneer Valley Press). She also did several projects for McGraw Hill Education. You can find out more about Kate and see her wonderful artwork at her website,

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Publishing with a Small Press: Interview with Author Carmela Martino ~by Julie Phend



Interview with Carmela Martino


Carmela Martino

For writers today, there are many paths to publication. I’ve asked children’s book author and speaker Carmela Martino to share her insights on publishing with a small press. Carmela is the author of two award-winning historical novels and recently presented a webinar for SCBWI Illinois called Small Press, BIG Decision.



Julie: Welcome, Carmela. Tell us a little about your books and their different paths to publication.


Carmela: My middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola, began as a short story based on events from my own childhood, written for an assignment in my MFA program at Vermont College. My classmates and teachers convinced me to expand the story into a novel. After graduation, I finished the novel and began submitting. Rosa, Sola was eventually published by Candlewick Press, a large independent press.

My second novel, Playing by Heart, was inspired by two sisters who lived in 18th-century Milan: mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi and composer Maria Teresa Agnesi. These amazing women were far ahead of their time, and I wanted others to know their story. Though my Candlewick editor suggested writing it for middle-graders, the story didn’t work for me until I wrote it as young adult.


What I didn’t realize was that YA historicals don’t usually sell well unless they have an unusual hook, such as a murder mystery or fantasy elements. But Playing by Heart was grounded in reality—the extensive research nearly did me in. When I sent the finished manuscript to Candlewick, they rejected it. So did every other publisher and agent I sent it to. Frustrated, I put the manuscript in the proverbial drawer and moved on to other things.



Julie: How did Playing by Heart reach publication?


More than a year went by, and the manuscript still called to me. I considered self-publishing because I knew authors who were having great success with self-published YA fantasy. Unfortunately, self-published realistic YA historicals were not selling well. I feared I wouldn’t have the marketing reach to attract teen readers on my own.


Then I attended an online writing conference where several small publishers were hearing pitches, so I gave it a shot. An editor from Vinspire Publishing invited me to submit. When she offered a contract a few months later, I accepted, reasoning that if the book was published by a small press and garnered favorable reviews, libraries would buy it. And the publisher, though small, would have marketing resources to supplement my efforts.




Julie: Are there advantages to publishing with a small press?


Carmela: Based on my experience and interviews with other authors, there are three main advantages:


  • Small presses are often better than large publishers at reaching niche markets—books where the subject appeals to a narrow or unique audience; for example, something of interest in a specific geographic region.
  • Many small presses accept submissions without an agent. This might be crucial for some books, since it is often harder to find an agent than a publisher.
  • Small presses tend to keep books in print longer and support their backlist, unlike many big publishers.




Julie: And the disadvantages?


Carmela: The disadvantages vary depending on the type of book, but the issues authors mention most fall into three categories:


  • Small presses typically have small budgets and small staffs. This can affect every aspect of a book’s production, from editorial quality to cover design and marketing. In other words, books from small presses may not look as professional as those from larger houses. Budget restrictions also mean many small presses don’t pay advances, only royalties.
  • Small presses have a hard time getting reviews in major trade journals—with limited space, journals are more likely to review books from major publishing houses. And some small presses don’t know how/when to get their books to reviewers. Journal reviews can make or break library sales, especially for nonfiction children’s books. I felt reviews were important for Playing by Heart, since it was inspired by real people and based on extensive research. So, I investigated the review process and nagged my publisher into getting review copies out on time. My work paid off with a lovely review in Booklist (the journal of the American Library Association.)
  • Small presses may not have access to the same distribution channels as larger houses, which can affect whether libraries or bookstores will order copies. Distribution issues may keep a bookstore from hosting a signing or even stocking a local author’s book.




Julie: We’ve heard about the marketing challenges when you publish with a small press. What are the most successful things you’ve done to market your book?


Carmela: My push to get Playing by Heart reviewed in trade journals certainly helped, but not as much as I’d hoped. Few libraries bought the book on their own. However, thanks to the favorable review in Booklist, if a cardholder asked their library to purchase Playing by Heart, most libraries did. To make that happen, I shared memes on social media encouraging readers to request the book at their libraries.


When I signed the contract for Playing by Heart, my publisher recommended I follow Tim Grahl’s marketing suggestions at Another list of marketing tips I used can be found at . That list is aimed at self-published authors, but much of it also applies to books published with small presses.


My editor pushed me to garner at least 50 Amazon reviews because that was a requirement to run ads in certain influential newsletters. Getting that many online reviews was no small feat! But it paid off in other ways, too, due to Amazon’s algorithms for recommending titles. Personally, I do my best to support independent booksellers, but as an author, it’s hard to ignore Amazon’s influence. Having over 50 reviews and an overall rating of 4.9 out of 5 stars has certainly helped the book reach more readers.




Julie: Can you give us some resources to locate and research smaller publishers?


Carmela: When I presented the webinar Small Press, BIG Decision, I created a list of related resources on my website. The list includes links for finding small presses along with resources for vetting them and questions to ask before signing a contract.


Some of the authors I interviewed who had published with small presses were very happy, but others regretted the decision. That’s why I encourage authors to do their due diligence before signing with a small press.


Julie: Thank you, Carmela. You’ve given us a lot to think about. What’s next for you?


Carmela: I’ve returned to my first love: writing poetry. I have three poems out this year in anthologies for children and teens and a poem in an anthology for adults scheduled for 2023. I’m also working on several picture book projects. I continue to teach and blog, and I’d be happy to present my webinar again for other groups.


Be sure to check out Carmela’s informative website:


Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Interview with Author Lindsey McDivitt of Christmas Fairies for Ouma

Today I welcome author Lindsey McDivitt to the Grog Blog. Her newest picture book, Christmas Fairies for Ouma debuted yesterday, November 1st! Congratulations, Lindsey!

This is the first Christmas picture book I know of that showcases South Africa. In Christmas Fairies for Ouma, little Tessa draws a picture of fairies on a postcard to send to Ouma. It’s addressed to Ouma, Cape Town, South Africa. No address or name. From the kindness of postal workers and strangers, the postcard travels from America to South Africa. And through the journey, we get glimpses of the culture, especially in Cape Town. A heartwarming story based on the author’s childhood. Teachers could use this to find the places mentioned throughout the world and plot the postcard’s journey. Students, in turn, could send a postcard to a faraway family member or friend.

   1. Please tell our readers about your background, including how you are connected to South Africa.

I’ve been writing picture books for about ten years and this is my first published fiction. My other three books are picture book bios including one of Nelson Mandela, the first black President of South Africa. I was born in South Africa—my family has been there for many generations, but were originally from Europe. When I was almost five I emigrated to the United States with my parents and little sister Tessa (the star of Christmas Fairies for Ouma). 

   2.  In your author’s note you tell readers that this story is based on your childhood. What brought this memory to your mind to develop as a picture book?

The family story of how my sister and I mailed a picture to our Ouma without postage, name or real address has long fascinated me. Almost unbelievably it reached her! I’ve thought for a long time that it would make a fun picture book, but I didn’t know how to proceed until I read a newspaper article about kindness. Kindness is contagious. I imagined how many people had to pass on the folded-up picture—knowing it really belonged in the trash! That’s how the picture book finally came together. With many, many revisions of course.

                                           Toddler Lindsey barely visible bottom right--high five with Ouma!

3. Does your postcard still exist?

The original card my sister and I made was green construction paper—just folded up. With Gold Bond stamps! Anyone remember those sticky coupons? Unfortunately the card was not retrieved from my Ouma’s belongings when she passed away. Sadly that’s what happens when you live across the world from loved ones. But I do have a tiny china dog that hung on her Christmas tree! I think of her with love when I hang it on my own tree. 

    4. How did you land this publishing deal with Familius?

I’m very fortunate to have Kelly Dyksterhouse at Tobias Agency as my agent. Christmas Fairies for Ouma was the first contract Kelly landed for me.

    5. Do you like working with a smaller publisher? Advantages?

I really couldn’t compare as all four of my books have been published by small publishers—Sleeping Bear Press, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers and now Familius Books. I’ve been very satisfied—they all create beautiful picture books!

.    6. Did you have any say in the illustrations? Has the illustrator been to Cape Town? Did you have to check that illustrations were culturally correct?

Katarzyna hasn’t visited South Africa. She and the publisher really wanted to ensure the accuracy of the illustrations so I was able to give feedback on first sketches, and then illustrations. I created a Pinterest Board for her too—pictures are really helpful. Cape Town is truly one of the world’s most beautiful cities and it’s wonderful to see it in Katarzyna’s lovely, whimsical art!

     7. Since this is a Christmas book, what is your favorite Christmas memory from South Africa?

Sitting at the dinner table on Christmas Day with family! We were only able to visit every three years so it was very, very special. Paper Christmas “crackers” were tradition—two people grasp each end and with a crack they’d spill their contents. A riddle, a tiny prize and a paper crown. Everyone would wear the silly paper crowns for the entire meal! And the riddles were great fun.

    8. And since this is about your Ouma, can you share a special memory about her? I love how each mail worker reflects about their own grandmother and how you used the word for grandmother in each language.

When I was three and four years old and still living in South Africa, I loved helping my Ouma collect the eggs laid by her chickens in the backyard coop. I was about seven (the age the card in the book was mailed) and the chickens were gone, Ouma and I cleaned out the chicken coop and made it a playhouse for me! It had a brick floor and made a perfect little playhouse. Really.

     9. What are you hoping readers of all ages take away from this story?

I believe we should all be motivated by kindness year round, but I’m hoping readers will be inspired by the magical aspect of a chain of kindness stretching around the world, especially at Christmastime.

Nelson Mandela once said, there “can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return.” Perhaps readers will take action in their own communities. I’d love that.

Grandchild/grandparent love has its own magic also. Even across great distance. These days we have cellphones and video chats. But a letter in the mail is still special and they’re lasting. I treasure letters from my Ouma. Write a real letter once in a while. You’ll make someone’s day.

    10. Are you able to share what you might have coming up?

I’m so thrilled to say that in the not too distant future there will be a non-fiction picture book coming. Another one based in South Africa on a very timely topic.

Lindsey McDivitt is the author of three biographies for children including A Plan for the People: Nelson Mandela’s Hope for His Nation (2021). Her first fictional picture book, Christmas Fairies for Ouma, releases in 2022 from Familius Books. Find her at where she reviews picture books with accurate images of aging and older adults on her blog “A is for Aging.”