Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Becky Gehrisch Creates a writing program for Camp

Last year Becky Gehrisch chatted with Kathy Halsey here at the GROG about her new book, Escape to Play. She mentioned that she did writing programs with kids for art camps and library programs, so I asked if she'd share some thoughts.  She did! Without further ado, here's Becky.

I've had the pleasure of teaching many classes on illustration, art, and writing but one specific example I’d like to share is the “Creating A Picture Book Dummy” class. The first thing I learned is to use any word except “dummy”! Kids just couldn’t get past that! I have renamed it “Get the Picture: How words in picture books are half the story!” A clever or engaging title is a fun way to engage an audience and pique their interest in a talk.

I adapted my writing camp talks to address kids of different age groups from ages 8-17. One set of classes were at the Thurber House, in Columbus Ohio. The Thurber House is a non-profit literary arts center and museum and is located in the home of humor writer - and cartoonist  - James Thurber. They offer camps, workshops, author presentations, and other literary events!

Many writing camps and programs have a submission form on their website or at their facility. For the camps I taught, I had seen an advertisement on social media for an upcoming writing camp for kids. I reached out through email and they directed me to the submission form. It was great timing and they liked my pitch!

I have found that presenting a slideshow helped the kids who are the auditory and visual learners. I broke down picture books that had great page turn and text placement. After the Fall by Dan Santat is an excellent example. We discussed the placement of text on a page, how words are chosen carefully, and how the illustrations tell half of the story. Good picture book writers don’t describe everything in a picture book. 

Becky's list of Great Examples
 I also showed some of my past book dummies to critique in the slide show. As a group, we looked at how I could have simplified the story, both by showing in the illustrations and precise word choices. We broke down the text by highlighting phrases in order to determine where on the page they should go and when a phrase or word could come after a page turn for emphasis or surprise. Later in the class they would break apart their own sentences and words this way.

I provided many picture book examples which demonstrate excellent storytelling and illustrations, especially those with fine attention to detail in both word choice and imagery. I took the time to read through a few and point out how the words were placed for a specific reason. Then the students could flip through these books during their working time to review how authors and illustrators choose their words and images carefully to further their story. This often included a secondary storyline in images. They saw how the images added to the story more than just mirror what the story was about. 

After these exercises, we moved on to tactile learning. To get the creative juices flowing, they could draw from a bowl of prompts for character, setting, problem, and emotion. Some kids had an idea already in mind but others who might be held up by idea paralysis, enjoyed pulling out random ideas to stitch together.

From their prompts and ideas, the students created their own picture book dummy or story. A great resource is Debbi Ohi’s picture book Dummy template. I have used this myself and it was great for kids to see how things are storyboarded. For the younger students, they worked on a larger format to accommodate their fine motor skill development. Students created a quick story and broke down their manuscript by how the words might work best with page turns. 

Coming prepared or having the organization provide the supplies and paper gave the kids plenty of choices in how they wanted to express themselves. To keep it simple, we used pencils with erasers if the ideas needed changed. Because time was limited, we avoided colorful writing tools and art supplies to focus on the words. Another class, geared toward illustration, would have an assortment of supplies to show off their creativity.

 The camp provided spiral bound writing journals and many kids chose these to brainstorm in. Folded and stapled “dummies” were put together ahead of time for the kids to see how the physical page turns affected their writing.

They could either focus on the writing side more or the illustrative side. There isn’t a right or wrong way. I encouraged them to find the best way that they could share their story. Some did better with images and others by outlining and mapping out their ideas. Folding blank paper helped to show physical page turns. 

The kids left the workshop with their own story idea, outline, illustration notes or sketches, and a picture book dummy which gives them a place to start to see how page turns work. Some left with a completed dummy while others just had a writing outline. Either way, they acquired a taste for the picture book writing process. Often, when our time was up, they had a hard time putting their pencils down. Now that was gold!

Teaching these writing camps for kids was such a rewarding experience. Not only was I able to share my knowledge and creativity with the next generation, but I also got to see their creative minds come alive. Teaching camps where kids willingly sign up is heaven. They already came with a passion for writing, so my job was simply to direct them. 

Whether you are planning a workshop or looking for ways to engage kids with picture book creation, I hope this can help you organize a successful class!

Thank you, Becky, for sharing your picture book dummy camp ideas. Learn more about Becky at her website,

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Sue Heavenrich's Newest Concoction: The Pie That Molly Grew! Craft Chat & Book Review by Kathy Halsey


Sue with her newest creation!

Book Review by Kathy Halsey

If you’re ready for some cooler weather and pumpkin-anything (latte, bread, or, dare I say ... pie?), my author friend Sue Heavenrich is here to serve up her newest book, THE PIE THAT MOLLY GREW, illustrated by Chamisa Kellogg, who added all the best artistic “ingredients” to this timeless picture book.  

Sue and Chamisa mix up a delightful read that will have you wanting to grow pumpkins, helping pollinators, and, of course, making a yummy pumpkin pie that will bring the people together. 

The cumulative story structure, based on The House That Jack Built, will have readers hooked already as they easily fall into the rhythm and rhyme Sue’s created. Readers follow Molly’s pumpkin from seed to sprout to table and learn that patience, nature, and nurture are needed to create family desserts that become traditions.   

I love how illustrator Kellogg adds her own special touches, weaving the pumpkin and growth themes throughout the picture book from the typography on the cover to the eye shapes of Molly and friends that echo the shape of seeds. I enjoyed the inclusivity in the images, too. We have diverse groups of people all enjoying the fruits of growing their own food.

This is the perfect book to celebrate fall, holidays, nature, as well as the community nature of gardening. Make sure to let readers know that author Heavenrich has grown and harvested pumpkins, too, and so can they. (Thanks, Sue, for providing pictures from her own garden.)

The Pie That Molly Grew GROG Q&A

Kathy: Sue, I love the read aloud-ability this picture book has. I applaud the genius move of using the well-known rhyme scheme from The House That Jack Built. Tell us a bit about the decision to use rhyme over prose. Did you write both and then figure out the stronger of the two versions?

Sue: A line came to me: “This is the pie that Molly made.” That set the beat and I figured I would just go along with it. I tried (really tried) to write it in prose, but it came out half-baked. When the editor suggested starting with planting the seed, everything came together.

Kathy: The rhyme scheme begins on the third spread of the picture book with “These are the roots that reach down and branch out, to anchor the plant that began to sprout”.  Is that the case for The House that Jack Built, too, or did you alter where the rhyme begins?

Sue: I wanted to keep the feel of the original nursery rhyme, but I also wanted to play around within it. The original House that Jack Built repeats everything as it accumulates lines from one verse to the next. I decided not to do that because strict repetition can get … repetitious. So I shortened some lines, changed words, all the while keeping the rhythm of the story going - especially on the last two spreads, because who wants to wait so long to get to the pie?

Kathy: Today it is hard to sell a picture book as an author only. While crafting this story, did you think about including multiple hooks for increased audience interest and salability? Why pumpkin pie? (I admit that’s my favorite, too.)

Sue: I’m always thinking about how many different ways a parent or teacher can use a book. Perhaps that comes from homeschooling my kids, or maybe from creating STEM programs for summer camps and library programs. So I knew I wanted connections to garden, native plants, and pollinators. And I also wanted a deeper connection to gratitude.As for why pumpkin pie - it’s my favorite kind of pie! 

Learn to make and pie and how pollinators help!

Kathy: I know we are both nonfiction nuts who love back matter. I enjoyed  seeing four pages of back matter discussing the process of seed to fruit to table, pollinators, and how to bake a delicious pumpkin pie!  Did you add back matter later in the revision process or did your editor suggest it? How do you suggest writers advocate for back matter? Is there a standard number of pages authors should create for additional information?

Sue: I love back matter! When I was homeschooling, I always wanted to know more, and wished authors had included resources and activities. I started my writing as a journalist, and my articles for adults and children would often include sidebars. So when I began writing picture books I thought: Gee, where would I add sidebars to this? When I write the manuscript, I keep a list of things I want to include as back matter. Then, at the end of the story, I’ll put in a section titled “suggested back matter” with subtitles. For this book I knew I wanted to write about pumpkins as crop native to the Americas, and include my recipe (which my grandmother used). I also wanted to highlight the ecological services of bees and show the diversity of bees that help pollinate pumpkins and other squash.

Can you see Sue's pumpkin peeking out at us? Like Molly, she grows pie!

Kathy:What is your favorite spread in this book? (I love the spread with all the different tables that are placed end-to-end to make room for the pies!) What was your reaction to the illustrations when you first saw them? 

Kathy: Sue: I love the illustrations, and am so grateful that Chamisa Kellogg took on this book! Here’s the thing: we both love pumpkin pie, and we both grow pumpkins in the garden. Not only does Chamisa know pumpkins, but she brings such expressive joy to the page.

I have a couple of favorite spreads. One is where Molly and her brother are waiting (and waiting) for the seed to germinate … it takes such a long time that a bird builds a nest! And I really love the spread where Molly is in the garden with the bees, and she is journaling. 

Kathy: With The Pie That Molly Grew, you will now have 4 books out for young readers. How has the process of book creation stayed the same and changed over the years? 

Sue: I’m pretty sure the general process is the same: I’m minding my own business, perhaps weeding the beets or shoveling snow, when SMACK! An idea whaps me upside the head. And then I have to write it down before it flies away. And later I get curious, and start investigating this idea: is it a picture book idea? Does it need more words, and maybe a few chapters? And then I do some research on the topic, and then I fall down a rabbit hole and do more research than I’ll ever need… and then I scribble things on a page, cross them out, try again, and again… 

Kathy: How are l you celebrating this book launch and how can readers get involved? 

Sue: We are in the middle of a Blog Tour! And I am so grateful that you have offered a blog stop where we can stop, rest awhile, chat, and maybe get a cold glass of lemonade. Last week we visited Vivian Kirkfield, Maria Marshall at the Picture Book Buzz, and Carol Baldwin. On Friday I’ll be dropping in on Beth Anderson and then on Monday, the 28th I’ll hang out with Lauri Fortino at Frog on a Blog

My book release event will be September 9 at Tioga Arts Council in Owego, NY and co-hosted with Riverow Books. There will be reading, science and art activities, pumpkin cupcakes, and a silly song or two. I hope to visit a couple more blogs in October and November, and I know KidLit411 will be doing a giveaway mid-September. I’m so glad I saved those freebie calendars that come in the mail - I need one to keep track of what I’m doing and when!

Find Sue here on SM!


Archimedes Notebook blog:

Sue's pumpkin flowers, just like spreads from illustrator Chamisa Kellogg!

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Speech Tags

  by Fran Hodgkins



Dialog is one of the most important parts of fiction. It makes your characters come to life, it provides information to the reader without resorting to the dreaded info-dump, and it keeps the story moving forward. If you write fiction, you’re going to need dialog.


In this post, I’m going to focus on an important aspect of dialog: speech tags. In a later post, we’ll delve into the words that the characters actually speak, and even touch on proper punctuation (I hear you groaning, but bear with me).


You may get advice to never use the word “said.” You may get advice to always use the word “said.” My suggestion is to use “said” and its synonyms to help the reader “hear” how the characters are speaking. 




I became interested in this recently when listening to an audiobook. The author is someone I recently discovered and whose work I enjoy. Yet one thing that became troubling, almost annoying, was the use of the word “said.” Perhaps it came down to the narrator, but every time that word was used, it sounded like someone had dropped a hammer. Clunk! Clunk! Clunk!


And when it was used for several lines in a row, it made me grind my teeth.

  •             “Hansel!” Gretel said. (clunk!)

  •             “What, Gretel?” Hansel said. (clunk!)

  •             “Look over there!” Gretel said. (clunk!)

  •             “A house made of candy! No way!” Hansel said. (clunk!)


This clunk problem has several solutions.


First, if there are only two characters talking, you don’t need speech tags, or at least as many.

  •             “Hansel!” Gretel said.

  •             “What, Gretel?”

  •             “Look over there!”

  •             “A house made of candy! No way!”

The words and punctuation carry the emotions, and Gretel uses direct address in her first line – so we know who she’s talking to. No need to tag Hansel.


Second, you can use synonyms. Here caution is called for, because while “said” is innocuous, its synonyms carry the weight of connotation. Because of this, and the wonderful rainbow shades of meaning that are possible in English, I doubt that any true one-to-one matching synonyms exist. But I digress!


One of these words that must be used cautiously is “cried,” which implies a character is shouting or screaming, but there’s an edge of pain or fear to their vocalization.

            “Get away from me!” he cried.

            “Help me, Rhonda!” she cried.


Some writers will use “cried” to stand for “shouted,” “yelled,” or even “said loudly.” Using it as a stand-in for a word that is meant to express volume alone – and not any kind of emotion – blunts the edge of “cried.” Save it for the right time.


Depending on the thesaurus or website you’re using, you can find dozens or even hundreds of words to use in place of said. When you want to have “said” but need it to do a bit more lifting, choose a volume word (“shouted,” whispered,”), a quality/emotion word (“cried,” “shrieked,” and even “exclaimed.”) But don’t overdo it:

  •             “Hansel!” Gretel exclaimed. (clunk!)

  •             “What, Gretel?” Hansel replied. (clunk!)

  •             “Look over there!” Gretel yelled.

  •             “A house made of candy! No way!” Hansel shrieked.


Third, make sure the “direction” of the word is appropriate. What do I mean? Look at the first line from Hansel in above: instead of “said,” it uses “replied.” A reply is made in response to another character. We can’t have Gretel reply in her first line because she’s not responding to anything. Same goes for the less-often-used “responded.” Make sure your character is responding or replying when you use these words.


Some speech tags are directly related to the statement your character is making. Asking a question? You can use “said,” or “asked” without hesitation. You can use “queried,” “questioned,” “posed,” or “inquired,” as well. More desperate for an answer? Try “begged,” or “pleaded.” Feeling a little more aggressive? Try “quizzed” or “demanded” and see what happens – how the tone of your scene changes.

            See the results below.

  • "How long have you been here?” asked Sue. (This gives the feel of a casual question, almost like small talk, but requesting information.)

  • “How long have you been here?” inquired Sue. (This gives a more focused feeling – Sue’s really interested in your answer, and not just chatting.)

  • “How long have you been here?” demanded Sue. (Whoa! Who upset Sue? This definitely gives off a vibe of an interrogation.)


Here’s one thing to note: You can deal with the subtleties of speech tags in revision. Don’t stop working on your first draft to wrestle with whether your character is begging, inquiring, explaining, shouting, or demanding. Write said and keep moving. The important thing to the finish your first draft. Then you can pick and choose the right speech tags. 


Questions? Comments? Let me know!



Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Summer Break ... almost over


Finger Lakes Wine Country, NY

Grab your pencils and paints, your sketchbooks and journals, and head out to find inspiration in a beautiful spot. Or just fill a bag with a few good books, set up a chair in the shade, and enjoy summer reads.

Summer break is almost over ~ see you next week!

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Summer Break ... time for reflecting


Tompkins County, NY

Grab your pencils and paints, your sketchbooks and journals, and head out to find inspiration in a beautiful spot. Or just fill a bag with a few good books, set up a chair in the shade, and enjoy summer reads.

We'll be back in a couple weeks.