Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Building, Creating, and Sustaining Ideal Critique Partner Relationships

 By Suzy Leopold

Successful critique groups support a writer's journey by helping writers shine and create polished stories.

Organizing a thriving critique group: 

  • Begins with the right group of people.
  • Includes writers who write in the same or similar genre
  • Is best with members who have a similar level of experience
  • Incorporates established expectations and guidelines
Writers can grow, learn, and develop the craft of writing by giving and receiving manuscript critiques.

Giving a critique is subjective. Some writers read for meaning while others focus on word choice and grammar. 

Ideas for giving a manuscript critique:

  • Always begin and end with positive comments.
  • Be aware of your own biases and preferences.
  • Read the manuscript aloud, then set it aside to think and ponder. Doing so creates a better evaluation.
  • Be helpful and supportive with concrete information and reasons for suggestions.
Receiving feedback for a manuscript critique can be overwhelming. It's natural to want to protect your writing. 

Ideas for receiving a manuscript critique:
  • Consider all comments by listening to or reading feedback with an open mind. 
  • Do not interrupt or respond in a defensive manner.
  • Ask clarifying questions to expand on the suggestions for a clearer understanding.
  • Set aside the manuscript to think and ponder then revisit it. This will give you a clearer vision for polishing to stay true to your voice and vision for the project.
Photo Credit: Good Story Company
Whether giving or receiving a manuscript critique, read the story aloud and spend time with the piece. 

The writer spent time creating a story. A thoughtful, trusted critique partner spends more than five or ten minutes giving helpful feedback and should offer suggestions for improvement without changing the voice or vision of the story. If you share similar thoughts about feedback from members of the group, share a new perspective without repeating, "I agree" or "ditto." Additionally, this is not the time to be harsh nor is it time to be a “cheerleader” for the project. 

If a critique group meets in person, send manuscripts in advance electronically to members. This allows for additional time with the project followed by a discussion when the writers gather together.

Always say thank you after receiving comments for a critique. Then after much thought carefully consider all feedback. Think about listing the comments and feedback into three columns—Yes, I need to revise and polish; Maybe, I need to consider a revision; No, the suggestion does not resonate with me.

I reached out to writers, authors, and creatives on Twitter. I received the following suggestions from the kidlit community.

Sharing Twelve Responses:
Please note: Each link will share a redirect notice. Click to be sent to the website.

Keep the group under 12 but over 5. That way nobody burns out & people can bow out when they’re too busy. A slack channel works best for us since we’re all over geographically. There are no set meetings & no due dates unless someone’s on deadline. Google docs are your friends.

--Jess Hernandez, Author First Day of Unicorn School

Jess Hernandez Writes

Be consistent in participation and curious about things to learn from each other.

--Shaunda Wenger, Author Chicken Frank, Dinosaur

S. K. Wenger

  1. Regardless of how you feel about the suggestions, always say THANK YOU.
  2. You want a critique partner who sees things differently than you do. Otherwise, you might as well just edit yourself.
  3. Remember, it's your book, you decide, keep your voice.

--C. Louise Donovan, Writer

When it’s your turn to receive critique, answer questions only. Wait until everyone is thru before asking *your* Qs. No interjections, no “what I was trying for was…(if you have to say that, it didn’t come across, and needs rework). They are there to help! Don’t get defensive.

Just bc someone suggested the change doesn’t mean you have to implement it. It’s YOUR work, you make the call.

But if you hear the same feedback three times, pls consider it, in some form.

--Bitsy Kemper, Author & Speaker

Bitsy Kemper Worth Reading

For some, flexibility is the key. Make sure everyone in the group agrees upon a general structure. Some groups have deadlines, that doesn’t work for me. In my groups, we have an understanding that we make requests when we are in need, and we always answer those who need help.

--Lydia Lukidis, Author and Freelance Journalist

Lydia Lukidis

Critique with kindness. The writer created something and was brave in sharing. Receive critiques with kindness. The feedback is meant to help (and you can disregard what doesn’t settle well with you).

--Monica Acker, Author Brave Like Mom

Monica Acker

Photo by S. Leopold 
It’s important to be honest and upfront about what you want to get out of the CG process. Big-picture guidance? Line editing? Discuss in advance how detailed you want your feedback to be so it’s an equitable experience.

--Louise M. Aamodt, Author A Forest Begins Anew, 2025

Building: start by swapping manuscripts. I was on 12 X 12 Challenge, but you can also go to writers Facebook page such as kidlit411 swap. If someone is a good fit for you (writing and critiquing) start a group of two. Set the rules and keep on swapping and finding good candidates.

Sustain: follow the rules set up by your group. Decide how frequently you will submit and how long you have to critique. Is it all by email or video call? Important: critique all manuscripts even if you didn’t submit anything. A lot of groups die because the critiquers can’t find time to critique. If you want to stay in this group, unless you have major emergency (let them know) keep up with the critique. We count on our partners.

--Ana Siqueira, Author

Ana The Teacher and the Writer

When giving a critique, be kind. Offer helpful suggestions, but always remember whose story this is. Don't try to rewrite it or make changes that don't adhere to the author's vision. Tell what you like, what you feel works for the story. If you are confused, say so. If the storyline confuses you, it would probably also confuse a child. When you find a problem with a line or paragraph, tell the author why.

Sandwich your critique by first offering a compliment, then tell what you feel needs changed or what doesn't seem to work with the story, and lastly, tell what you liked about the story. 

When reading a manuscript, listen to the voice. Does it ring true?  Envision the story through the character's POV. Does the author stick to the point of view of his/her character(s)?

--Debra Daugherty, Author  

Debra's Blog

Ten Reasons Why Writing Groups Flounder, Fizzle, or Fail:

  1. Members use the group for the wrong reason. 
  2. Critiques are too harsh. 
  3. Critiques are too positive.
  4. Members drop out before the group gels.
  5. There are varying levels of commitment to writing.
  6. Attendance is sporadic.
  7. Sessions focus on content, not writing.
  8. There is poor personal chemistry between members.
  9. Members don't appreciate the different styles and abilities of the group.
  10. There is jealousy and competitiveness.

--Kathy Briccetti, Writer, Blogger

Literary Mama

Be respectful, offer helpful suggestions without trying to rewrite or change someone's story.

--Kelly Swemba, Author

My World of Books, Band-Aids and Beauty

A tip that works for my group - we do a cold read and don't send out the ms ahead of time so the writer gets an idea how an agent/editor would approach it when they receive via their email.

And I suggest if the group is PB only, it's very helpful to have at least one illustrator in the group.

--Kathy Halsey, Children’s Writer, Educator, Speaker

I've found that there's no substitute for time! The trust that builds over time is really important in the crit partner relationship, so stick with it!

And communicate with your crit partners about what you're looking for on a particular piece: e.g. "This is rough but should I pursue the idea?" or " I think this is pretty polished, is it ready to send to an agent?" or "I know something isn't working, can you help me identify what it is?"

--Chris Mihaly, Children’s Author

Christy Mihaly

Photo by S. Leopold

For additional resources:

1. "The 4 Hidden Dangers of Writing Groups"

By Jennie Nash

Jane Friedman Blog, 2016 

2. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Written by Ed Catmull

Random House, 2014

3. The Writing Group Book: Creating and Sustaining a Successful Writing Group

Edited by Lisa Rosenthal

Chicago Review Press, 2003

Please share your tips and suggestions for successful and sustaining writing partners/groups in the comments. What have you found that works well for you and your critique partners/group?

Happy reading, writing, and creating.

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: