Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Whispering Pines Writing Retreat 2022 Recap with Chris Mihaly and Kathy Halsey

Whee! After two-plus years away from conferences, we (Kathy, from Ohio and Chris, from Vermont) met up at the wonderful Whispering Pines Writing Retreat in Dedham, Massachusetts this weekend, with forty-some other writers and illustrators and a crew of five magnificent mentors. Organized and run with panache by Pam Vaughan and Julia Boyce, this SCBWI-New England workshop is a gem. Here's a quick recap:

Words of Wisdom (from the mentors)

Each mentor shared an amazing presentation. From our copious notes we've distilled a single shining sentence from each ...

Jessica Anderson
(editor, Christy Ottaviano Books) offered practical pointers on optimizing symbolism and plot devices, and weaving them organically into your writing.
❤ "Your opening pages will be more powerful and resonant if they include a nod to your most significant symbol or plot device."

Alex Aceves (author, associate editor, Holiday House) explained how to create compelling characters that readers will feel a connection to. 
"Deploy character flaws strategically: readers don't connect with a perfect character, so write a protagonist whose flaws make us care about them and their success."

Sera Rivers
(agent, Martin Literary Management) revealed the secret of "why THIS book!" -- what makes a work stand out from the slush pile.
❤ "Bring a fresh perspective to a universal theme, and make your work accurate and authentic."

Abby Mumford & Brent Taylor (Photo, Mary Cronin)

Brent Taylor (agent, Triada US) broke down the business of children's books. Even the seasoned authors learned a thing or three. (Territories: World, World English, North American) 
❤ Books like Prince & Knight  "would have meant the world" to Brent as a kid. Brent believes territory is just as important to negotiate as royalties."

Chris Krones (editor, Clarion Books) energized us to knock the socks off writer's block.  They suggested going to the bookstore for inspiration and what gaps your book could fill.
❤ For Chris, "interest in the Merriam-Webster Word of the Year. 'they,' and creating a simple list, led to The Pronoun Book. Create lists, look for simple yet compelling concepts. 

Applying the Lessons

L to R: Brent, Alex, Sera, Jessica, Chris (photo, Mary Cronin)
We applied mentors' suggested writing exercises and pointers to make fresh improvements to our WIPs. A couple of examples:

Chris: I used Jessica's insights into symbols and structure to review a picture book manuscript word by word, working to instill visual and other sensory expressions of my major theme. I think it's better!

Kathy: Thanks to Sera's writing exercise, I changed a problematic setting in my picture book manuscript which enabled me ramp up the conflict.

Parting Thoughts: Top Tips for Writing Workshops

We're each sharing a single top tip for workshop and conference-going. (What? Are they contradictory??) We also include a couple of pointers from other attendees -- because WPWR is all about learning from one another! 

Chris: My top tip is: Say yes! Even if your first reaction is that you don't want to play the silly picking-up-dice-with-cups-on-your-hands game with these people you just met ... just say yes. You'll (probably) be glad you did.
Sally is game! photo by Charlotte Sheer
Kathy: My top tip is: Say no! Know when you've reached your limit socially or mentally. Take a break. Nap, walk in nature, write in private and come back refreshed. 

Laura Renauld: Step outside your comfort zone and be receptive to new ideas. That's what it's all about!

Connie Smith: Ask questions. If you don't understand what a presenter is saying, ask for an explanation ... and if you forget other people's names, just keep asking!

Books by WPWR attendees (photo, Nancy Tupper Ling)

Is it time to break your pandemic-era isolation and congregate again? Thinking of brushing off your Lucky Scarf and signing up for a workshop or conference soon? 
If you're looking for a little help getting back into the swing of things, check out these GROG posts from the archives: 

Leave a comment below about your favorite book gatherings. 
And good luck out there!

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Mentor Texts for a Changing Season

 by Sue Heavenrich

Fall officially begins on Thursday, September 22. In reality, fall begins much earlier. The tomatoes and peppers in my garden know fall is coming. The birds and woolly bear caterpillars can tell, weeks before the official beginning of autumn. So when I began searching for mentor texts about fall, I looked for books that captured not just the season, but also that in-between-ness. 

I lucked out when Buffy Silverman’s newest book landed on my desk for a book review. Having seen the jacket image months ago, I was eager to read it.

On a Gold-Blooming Day: Finding Fall Treasures, by Buffy Silverman (Millbrook Press, 2022)

On a gold-blooming, bee-zooming, sun-dazzling day…
Snakes glide. 
Spiders hide. 
Crickets chirp. 
Butterflies slurp.

Buffy’s lyrical language that just reels you into the changing season! She fills the page with verbs and color and sensory detail, all rolled into one luscious leaf pile just waiting for you to jump on. Then there are the large, bold photos and, of course, excellent back matter. 

“So Buffy,” I asked, “do you use mentor texts?”

“Of course I do,” Buffy responded. “I am a believer in regular trips to the library to check out stacks of picture books.  Reading helps put me in the mindset to write, even if the books are not related to the topic that I'm focused on.”

Me: What were some of the mentor texts you looked at?

Buffy: Some of the books that I remember reading when drafting On a Gold-Blooming Day include Douglas Florian's Autumnblings, Kenard Pak's Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn; April Pulley Sayre's Full of Fall; Lola Schaefer's Because of an Acorn; and Loretta Holland's Fall Leaves

I wrote the first draft of On a Gold-Blooming Day during my critique group's annual retreat. We couldn't spend time together during the summer of 2020, so we met on zoom for a few days. Each night we shared what we wrote during the day. Like many people, I had trouble finding motivation to write during the height of covid shutdowns. But peer-pressure is good motivation and inspiration.

Since I was writing a follow-up to On a Snow-Melting Day, I followed the pattern of that book. Writing the second book felt a bit like plagiarism--but I guess you can't plagiarize yourself! Many of the plants and animals featured in both books are ones that live near my house and that I observe and attempt to photograph. I live near a lake, woods, and field, so I included all three habitats. 

Me: How did you collect such a wonderful assortment of words? I imagine you collecting words like I collect leaves, but where I press leaves between the pages of old encyclopedias, you probably stick post-its of verbs to the wall.

Buffy: I tend to do a lot of playing with word options as I write. For example, on my first draft I wrote: 

On a leaf-chomping,
Romping, stomping, clomping, swamping, whomping
On a breeze-blowing/slowing/showing/crowing  
wind-whistling, leaf-shaking/trembling  

And then landed on:
On a nut-crunching, leaf-lunching, hole-digging day...

It's possible that some of the words from mentor texts ended up in On a Gold-Blooming Day. They were certainly floating around in my head!  

What’s really cool is that some of Buffy’s mentor texts were the same ones I’d dug up from the library stacks. 

Summer Green to Autumn Gold: Uncovering Leaves’ Hidden Colors, by Mia Posada (Millbrook Press, 2019).

This book celebrates the colors of fall, and introduces the science behind leaf color. I love Mia’s artwork – here she combines watercolor and collage – and I love her use of language. Take this sentence: From emerald to jade and every shade in between, summer leaves fill the world with green. 

Read it out loud, slowly enough to enjoy the internal rhymes (assonance) of jade and shade and between and green. 

She does a good job explaining leaf pigments, how leaves separate from their twigs, and what happens to them once they fall. Then there is the back matter to consider: why deciduous trees lose their leaves, the various pigments in nature, and some hands-on activities.

Full of Fall, by April Pulley Sayre (Beach Lane Books, 2017)

Big photos, lyrical language. What’s not to love about an April Pulley Sayre book? Especially when the back matter explains each of the spreads in greater detail. Notes about chlorophyll and other pigments. A focus on midribs and leaf margins.

Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn, by Kenard Pak (Henry Holt, 2016)
What’s fun about this book is that it’s a conversation between a girl and the trees (and flowers and creatures) she meets as summer turns to fall. 
Hello, trees, she says as she heads off on a walk. And the trees answer: Hello! Now that the cool winds have come, we love how our branches sway in the sun. 
Note to self: Be Playful!

Autumnblings, Poems and Paintings, by Douglas Florian (Greenwillow Books, 2003)
Normally, I seek mentor texts published within the last 5 years, but I have a soft spot for Florian’s books. They are just plain fun to read. Plus, poetry does not go out of date no matter how long a book’s been sitting on the shelf. Because I love to write lists, I was happy to see some list poems ~ couplets about “What I love about autumn”: apple picking, frisbee flicking…

If you’re seeking fall mentor texts, these are good ones to start with. Depending on what you write, your list of autumnal mentor texts may look different. Fortunately, there are bushel baskets full of books about fall and leaves and pumpkins…

And if you want to know more about mentor texts, here’s a link to earlier posts on GROG.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Addressing OCD with Young Readers - Kidlit Author Natalie Rompella Talks About her New Picture Book by Eileen Meyer


I'm delighted to welcome author Natalie Rompella here today to share her thoughts about researching and writing her new picture book about OCD, which comes out later this month.

1. Tell us a little bit about your newest picture book coming out with Albert Whitman & Co., MALIK’S  NUMBER THOUGHTS: A Story about OCD

Malik’s obsessive-compulsive disorder means his brain wants him to do everything on the count of four. When he’s invited to a mini-golf birthday party, Malik is excited. But he worries about his Number Thoughts. If he has to take four tries to get the ball in the hole, he’ll never win—and everyone might make fun of him. Can Malik say “no” to his Number Thoughts?

2. This seems like such an important picture book for young readers  because it includes good strategies for dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Can you share more:

Yes, it was important to me that young readers who have OCD could see themselves in this book. When I set out to write it, I realized that I could not convey (especially in a low-word-count picture book) someone with OCD receiving a diagnosis, working through treatment, and reaching a point at which he or she implemented strategies successfully. I chose to start the book when Malik has already been in treatment and is applying what he learned to a new situation.

 I wanted to feature an activity many children enjoy that could be difficult for someone with counting OCD. I chose mini-golf—a favorite in my family. I also wanted to have a spread where Malik creates his own practice course—something I have done in my classroom that can be a blast!

I hope that someone who has just been diagnosed with OCD as well as someone working on strategies can see that he or she is not alone.


3. This is your THIRD book about the topic of OCD. Can you share a bit more about why this topic is important to you, as well as information about your earlier work?

 The first book I wrote on OCD was a nonfiction book for teens titled It Happened to Me: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder [Scarecrow Press]. This book contains narratives from teens with OCD and offers information, such as types of OCD, types of treatment, and tips for handling OCD in college. Book link here:

Because of all my research for that book, as well as because I have OCD, I decided to write a middle grade novel, Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners [Sky Pony Press], where the character is coping with her OCD. I wanted this book to be both a mirror and a window—a chance for kids with OCD to see themselves in the book and a chance for kids who don’t have OCD to understand what it’s like. Find Natalie's novel here:

4. With your detailed research and experience, do you have any special advice for teachers who work with students or parents who have children with OCD?

 I am not a therapist/psychologist. However, as a teacher and a parent, I would suggest reaching out to the parents for how you can help. There are so many great books out there. I recently did a talk about Cookie Cutters for kids with OCD, and they appreciated reading about a character who was going through things they had gone through.

Mention that writing can be therapeutic and suggest that the parent help the child pick out a journal in which to write down whatever he or she wants—unwanted thoughts, goals, poetry, stories, etc.

5. Tell us something we don’t know about you, Natalie! Do you have a favorite guilty pleasure TV show, hobby, or a favorite food?


Through my research and writing, I fell in love with watching/following sled dog racing (featured in Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners)…I even attended the start of the Iditarod.

Any spare time I have is spent playing pickleball—it is how I clear my mind. As for favorite food: yellow cake with buttercream frosting. And I am sometimes called The Bug Lady because I collect and study bugs for fun.

THANK YOU, Natalie, for joining us today on the blog.

Natalie Rompella is the author of more than sixty books and other resources for children, including Malik’s Number Thoughts: A Story about OCD, a picture book addressing obsessive number thoughts; Cookie Cutters & Sled Runners, a middle grade novel about OCD; and It Happened to Me: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, a nonfiction book about OCD for teens. She is a former elementary school and middle school teacher. Natalie lives with her two kids, husband, and dog in the Chicago suburbs, where she enjoys playing pickleball, baking, and hanging out with her family. 

Find out more at

If you’re interested in a school or library visit, contact me at


Twitter: @NatalieRompella