Wednesday, April 24, 2024

A Parking Ticket, New Friends, & a Book Idea: My 1st Ever SCBWI Conference with 10 Tips by Tina Cho

 April 12-14, 2024, I attended my first SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators) Conference, The Marvelous Midwest Conference, sponsored by six states: Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska, & Wisconsin. This was not my first writing conference, but it was my first SCBWI conference. You might be thinking why I haven't attended before. Well, I've been out of country for 10 years, and then when I moved back during the pandemic, they didn't meet.

It was held in Davenport, IA, along the Mississippi River at an event center. Below is a list of tips and reminders to myself for next time I attend a writing conference. Maybe something here will be helpful to you, too!

1. Find out which conferences your agent or wish-agent is attending and go! 
When I saw that my agent was a speaker in my state, I submitted for a day off school (I'm a teacher) so I could see her again (Met her at the So. CA Christian Writers Conference in 2017) It's been 7 years since I've seen Adria Goetz. Attending a conference with your agent allows you to get to know them better, support them when they speak, and just have fun. Plus, I met agency sisters, two other clients that she reps.

Me & Adria Goetz of KT Lit

Adria, Caryn, Me, Leah

2. When your SCBWI RA sends out the email about the conference and booking a hotel, do so immediately. 
Delaying and procrastinating means you won't get the better hotel or maybe even the group rate. I delayed, of course, but did get the group rate for a room at the 2nd hotel (Hilton). Also, take your own pillow if you have neck problems. Ask if they offer breakfast. I ended up driving to Panera because I didn't want to pay $15 for breakfast at the hotel. You could interview a fellow creator and see if they want to split the cost of a hotel room and/or carpooling. The lovely author, Becky Janni, was my roomie for the first night.

Me & author Rebecca Janni

3. Study the map for parking places! Know the prices. Study the event center map. Have an idea of the layout of the place.
If you're forgetful like me, you might even take a picture of your car in the ramp, so you know which floor you're on. Pay the parking. I suggest to the manual machine, not the app. More on that later.

4. Set a conference goal. 
What are you trying to get out of this conference? Working on a specific craft in writing? Meeting your agent? editor? Just attending for social reasons? To help you tailor and revise a certain manuscript? Setting a goal will help you make the most of your time for which you paid big bucks for!

5. Study the sessions and like I tell my kindergartners, make good choices!
If you're a teacher, you know how much work it is to take a day off and plan for a sub. So you bet, I took advantage of every minute! I booked a picture book intensive with editor Carter Hasegawa of Candlewick and paid for a critique by him. I wrote down a list of possible sessions I was interested in, then highlighted the ones I really wanted to attend. Study the session description to make sure it's one you can benefit from. I wanted to meet fellow authors that I've known for years online and never met in person. I attended their workshops. 

Jen Swanson: Using Innovation to Grab an Editor's Attention

Me & author friend Jen Swanson

Teresa Robeson & I are on a team of writers at the Kidlit for Growing Minds Blog.

Teresa Robeson: Writing a Graphic Novel for the First Time

6. Make connections.
Take your business card to give to new friends. Ask on social media who else is attending so you can meet up or look for them. It's also nice to be surprised, running into someone you've known since 2012. I met the fabulous Julie Hedlund who runs the 12x12 Challenge. I was an inaugural member the first two years. I also sat in a session with Mark Ceilley, from one of my critique groups, Pens & Brushes since 2008! You & your critique partners could meet up at a conference.

Me & Julie Hedlund

Mark Ceilley & Me

7. Find alternative places to eat.

Conference food was great. But not all meals are provided. Thankfully, there were nice little restaurants along the event center street. The wonderful ladies Kathy Halsey, Caryn Rivadeneira, and another woman, & I ate out during one of these times. Sorry, I forgot to take a photo, but here's Kathy & I, writers of this Grog Blog.

Grog Blog Writers: Kathy Halsey & Tina Cho

8. Carry Sharpies. 
If your books are in the SCBWI bookstore room, you'll want to be able to sign them. Also, buy books of fellow authors, illustrators, and creators! 

Author/Illustrator James Ransome

9. Be brave & introduce yourself to people. Talk to the speakers.
It was awesome to meet illustrator Zeke Peña, a fellow Kokila creator. He illustrated My Papi Has a Motorcycle. He told me he has a personal copy of my book, The Ocean Calls! 

I ran into speaker Ellice Lee, VP, Senior Art Director of Philomel/Viking/Flamingo books of PRH. She gave a keynote & shared current data on diversity in picture books, which I appreciated. But I was flabbergasted when I said my name to her, she responded, "Tina Cho of The Ocean Calls? I gotta tell Nami I met you." (referring to Namrata Tripathi, my Kokila publisher.) She wanted our photo together.

Ellice Lee, VP Art Director & Me

Diversity Data Ellice shared from CCBC
10. Be flexible. Good things happen when you do.
Sessions you wanted might've gotten canceled. Or maybe you notice your very first parking ticket on your car, ahem, & it ruins your morning. I had downloaded the parking app & faithfully paid onto it throughout the weekend. I have no idea why I was ticketed. So because I was dealing with that, I missed a keynote. I prayed, "God, please let something good happen today." I rushed to my next session, on writing HUMOR, which is what I needed, from Little Bee Books editor, Brett Duquette. Great session. Afterwards, I stayed to introduce myself, because, my very first picture book, Rice from Heaven is a Little Bee Book, although with an editor who is no longer there. Brett was happy to meet me, and we chatted 1 on 1 for a long time about Korean stuff. We came up with a possible book idea, and he even took the time to meet my agent. Because of that, I missed the next keynote, but was able to continue chatting with him and another author friend. Being in person with editors allows you to get a sense of their personality and tastes. 

Me & editor Brett Duquette, Little Bee Books

So there you have my weekend. I have a notepad full of notes. New friendships. Something to research. Oh, back to that parking ticket...I reached out to the city, submitted my parking receipts, and they rescinded my ticket. Thank you, city of Davenport! 

Now, I'm off to research & write. 

Tina Cho is the author of Rice from Heaven: The Secret Mission to Feed North Koreans (Little Bee Books 2018), Korean Celebrations (Tuttle 2019), My Breakfast with Jesus: Worshipping God around the World (Harvest House 2020), The Ocean Calls: A Haenyeo Mermaid Story (Kokila/Penguin Random House 2020), God’s Little Astronomer (Waterbrook 2024), God’s Little Oceanographer 2025, & The Princess & the Grain of Rice (FSG 2025). Her lyrical middle grade graphic novel, The Other Side of Tomorrow, debuts from Harper Alley 11/12/2024. After living in South Korea for ten years, Tina, her husband, and two kids reside in Iowa where Tina also teaches kindergarten. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Fourth Annual GROG Arthropod Roundtable

 by Sue Heavenrich

Welcome to the Fourth Annual Arthropod Roundtable! Today's guests are: Susannah Burman-Deever, whose book Before the Seed came out last month; Helen Frost, whose book The Mighty Pollinators also released last month; Loree Griffin Burns, whose book One Long Line hits the shelves next month; Amy Hevron, whose City of Leafcutter Ants will be out near the end of June; and Megan Litwin, whose first two chapter books in the Dirt and Bugsy series were published last summer.

I’ve spent many hours following ants and counting bees. Even so, my relationship with the local insect community is … complex. Sure, I love watching the pollinators in my garden but there are some arthropods who truly bug me. Especially when they stab their blood-sucking proboscis in my earlobe!

Me: How you relate to the arthropods living in your neighborhood. 

Amy Hevron
Amy: I love nature and am fascinated by all the little critters that live outside. Sometimes they come inside too, mostly cute little doodle bugs and lady bugs. And sometimes we get giant spiders in the house as well. I’m a little scared of spiders but know they’re helpful to have around. So I usually talk to them to try to convince them to go hide somewhere. 

Megan: I grew up a book and animal lover…but not exactly a bug lover. I had such an intense fear of spiders that I would refer to them as “you-know-whats” rather than saying the name aloud! Over time I changed my mind because I learned more about bugs and spiders – first as a second-grade teacher who taught an insect unit every year, and then as a mother of two boys who loved dirt and bugs from the start. That fear was slowly replaced with awe and wonder as I realized arthropods are fascinating! It is amazing how getting to know something (or someone…) can change your perspective.

Helen: I have always loved insects. As I have moved from one neighborhood to another, I have kept my little patches of earth free of pesticides and herbicides, and have delighted in watching the little friends who share my space. I plant milkweed and nectar flowers for the migrating monarchs. I love the flashes of color all the butterflies bring, and the bright green beetles that sometimes cross the table as I am eating my lunch outdoors. In the summer evenings, fireflies light up my backyard as cicadas emphatically let us know when they are with us! I know that most of the insects are staying hidden from me most of the time, but I do what I can to increase the possibility of our close encounters.

Loree: I’m a former scientist who now works as a writer and a writing teacher. I write about science! The natural world! And curious people—young and old—who are passionate about both. I’m an enthusiastic amateur naturalist and entomologist, and I’m fascinated by the incredible variety of insects living their strange and beautiful lives all around me. I’m grateful for access to green spaces in which I can watch these lives unfold and libraries in which I can research what others have learned about those lives, too. And, of course, I’m also grateful to have a job that sometimes involves sharing what I learn about my neighbor arthropods through books and essays for readers of all ages.

Susannah Burman-Deever
Susannah: In college, I was lucky enough to work with a scientist who was studying how swarms of honey bees search for and decide upon a new home. I spent a couple of summers sitting beside swarms and tracking the dancing as the bees told the others about their finds. I no longer study insects professionally, but I’m lucky enough to have a pretty big yard to play and garden in. Over time, I’ve been adding habitat for insects, with areas for nesting and more and more flowering plants and native shrubs. The insect diversity in my yard has definitely boomed. I love watching all the different insects in my gardens, from orchard bees to gorgeous green sweat bees to hummingbird moths. It’s a wonderful reminder that there is a whole world of amazing creatures just outside our doors.

Me: I always want to know how authors come to write their book. Was there a specific question or thought that grabbed you and wouldn’t let you go until you wrote about it?

Helen: The Mighty Pollinators is my eighth book about the natural world, and my seventh collaboration with photographer Rick Lieder. We settled on this topic during the early days of the pandemic when small children were baffled by the fact that something as small as a virus could upend their world so dramatically. We tried to think of things that are very tiny, but not quite invisible, and also important, and we settled on pollen and began thinking of how to make it seen and real to children.

Megan: Bugs are cool! Kids love bugs! I saw this natural curiosity and connection with bugs as a teacher when we raised and released butterflies in my second-grade classroom. Kids loved getting up close and personal with the caterpillars and then witnessing the magic of metamorphosis right before their eyes. I saw it again as a mom when my boys would spend hours playing in our backyard. They would catch bugs. Name them. Build whole cities for them with friends. I have them all to thank for the Dirt and Bugsy books!

Loree Burns (photo by Carter Hasegawa)
Loree: One day when they were very young, my twin sons found a new-to-us caterpillar (we did not know what kind it was) crawling across the grass of our back yard. They wanted to keep it as a pet, which I’m generally okay with. “But,” I told them, “we have to figure out what it eats.” All caterpillar species have a host species—a plant or related group of plants on which the adult butterflies/moths of that species lay their eggs and which those caterpillars eat. So they followed it around the yard until they caught it eating something. The view from my kitchen window: a tiny caterpillar crawling through a grassy lawn and two small boys on their hands and knees, crawling behind it. Later, I learned about Jean-Henri Fabre who studied the pine processionary caterpillars that travel form one place to another in long, single-file lines … I wanted to share that story.

Amy: I first became fascinated with leaf cutters ants while on a hike in Costa Rica. We saw this long parade of little ants carrying leaves down the trail. The ants were all different sizes. I just had all these questions. Where were they taking the leaves? Why were they different sizes? Did they eat the leaves? I started researching them and felt like this could be a really fun book.

Susannah: The inspiration for this book comes from my garden. Caring for my garden feeds my soul, and I find a lot of joy in learning about the relationships between the plants and animals around me. I wanted to write a book that celebrates the beauty and diversity of those relationships, and explore how the needs of both plants and animals have shaped the pollination process.

Me: How do you bring your passion for this topic to writing for children?

Susannah: I’m endlessly curious about the living world. It makes me feel small in the best possible way: that there is always more to discover about the world around us. And being curious means looking and asking questions. So with this book, I started with something that children might have noticed (that there are lots of different types of flowers in the world) and asked why. Why are there so many different types of flowers? Why do they have different shapes and colors and scents? The book is structured as a series of questions, with answers that lead to more questions. Which is really what science is all about. 

Loree: For One Long Line, I wanted to share my passion for the scientific method and how we humans use it as a tool to learn about the world we live in. And the story I used to demonstrate all that? The story of those pine processionary caterpillars and the man, Jean-Henri Fabre, who studied the ones living in his own backyard. The experiments he did helped us understand how and why these unusual caterpillars march in lines the way they do. One Long Line is beautifully illustrated by Jamie Green. (

Helen Frost (photo by Tim Andersen)
Helen: Three things I love – insects, children, and poetry – come together in the creation of this book. I bring the topic to life through details and the delight of language! And I continue to learn as I think about how to bring the importance of pollination to the attention of children as I share this book with them.

Megan: Two things I happen to be passionate about are nature and unstructured play. I got to blend what I know about kids and bugs from my own life with themes of nature, imagination, and problem-solving. I also brought my teacher heart to the table because these books are written for kids learning to read on their own. That is another passion of mine…literacy education! I used simple sentences and vocabulary along with purposeful repetition so that a newly independent reader could find success. I hope these books encourage kids to be both book lovers and bug lovers. Bookworms, in the best sense!

Amy: I’ve always been interested in ants and how they live in colonies. I love those little ant farm kits – and had one once, until all the ants got out! Leaf cutter ants are especially interesting to me with the complexity of their society. And from a visual perspective, as an illustrator, I knew it would be fun to illustrate the underground nest with all the chambers and pathways. And show all the ants with their different jobs in their society.

Me: What can we – and the kids we write for – do this Earth Day and every day to help make our backyard and neighborhood a better place for bugs?

Loree: We can pay attention to bug lives and recognize that the places we live are the very same places they live. The decisions we make about how to manage those places matters: Mow the lawn, or let the grass grow? Rake up the leaves or let them rot in place? Share our garden with the neighborhood animals and insects? Or fight with those animals and insects over rights to the tomatoes? These are decisions that have real consequences for us and for the insects around us, though it’s only a matter of life and death for them. So my wish is that all of us will start to pay more attention to the arthropods in our lives, learn their stories by first-hand observation, share what we see and learn, and then keep those stories in mind as we make decisions about the land we share.

Megan Litwin
Megan: I think if we encouraged kids to get outside and to pay attention, all sorts of good things would happen…for both the arthropods and our Earth. Once you notice the incredible life teeming around you, you are more likely to take care of it. I’ll say what I say at the end of Dirt and Bugsy readings. Go outside. Look for bugs. Build bug houses. Plan a nature scavenger hunt. Find tiny things. Find shiny things. Plant things. Just get out and explore your world!!

Amy: Most people don’t really want more ants near their homes but something fun to do for other insects on Earth Day could be to plant some native flowering plants in your yard for your local bees and butterflies.

Susannah: So often we think of people and nature as being separate from each other. But we are a part of the ecosystem. We are connected to all the living things around us. What can we do to help? Maybe plant native plants. Maybe leave some leaves unraked in the fall to provide wintering habitat for insects. Even if you don’t have your own yard, you can work with neighbors in community gardens to promote insect habitat. Only by seeing what’s out there can we answer the question of how we can help protect the life that surrounds us every day.

Helen: I treat little ones (both insects and children who observe them) with respect and affection. I plant a garden to be welcoming to insects and other pollinators, and I share information with neighbors who may question why we don’t mow our lawn in early spring, why we let dandelions and clover and violets grow, why we let the milkweed remain even when it may no longer be seen as beautiful. When, as happens each spring, a salesman goes door-to-door offering to rid our neighborhood of “creepy crawlies,” I alert the neighbors to all the good we receive from insects, and try to educate the salesman that it is not possible to kill some insects without harming all of them, and in turn harming ourselves.  

Me: I know I could talk about arthropods all day long! But my coffee cup is empty and it’s a perfect day for bug-watching and flower-planting. Please drop by our websites and blogs, and remember to go outside and make friends with members of another phylum.

Loree Griffin Burns

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Celebrating Poetry Month ... and Civic Engagement ~by Christy Mihaly

2024 Poetry Month poster:
Art by Jack Wong, words from Lucille Clifton poem

Happy National Poetry Month! It's time to celebrate poetry again!

Many poetry-loving writers, educators, and organizations post suggestions for elevating poetry this month. Reading Rockets has a great collection of resources here. Of course, we can celebrate poems all year long -- but it's nice to have a whole month to focus on bringing more poetry into our lives. 
Music-themed poetry in music store window

One of my favorite celebrations is "Poem City," a month-long event in Vermont's capital, Montpelier, during which the shop windows are filled with poems and libraries, coffee shops, and general stores resound with poetry readings. I'm so pleased to have one of my poems included in the collection, along with many others by poets from near and far. More about Poem City here.

Poetry can engage learners, not only in learning reading and writing, but in lessons about history, science, math, and my personal passion: civics. In Free for You and Me: What Our First Amendment Means, I turned to writing poems as a way to simplify constitutional concepts and make reading about them fun. 

It has turned out to be an effective way to communicate the concepts. Recently, on one hand, an editorial in a local paper reiterated the importance of teaching civics in our schools, and cited my books; and I did a read-aloud of this book with an engaged 5th-grade class as part of a workshop on civics and poetry -- more on that below. 

Spread from FREE FOR YOU AND ME on Freedom of Assembly

Of course you can find and write poems for all kinds of kids and all kinds of interests. 

In their anthology Hop to It: Poems to Get You Moving, poets Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong collected 100 poems by 90 poets (including me!) that incorporate movement. Many of the poems relate to STEM themes. But this book, published in 2020, also includes several poems about civic engagement. Here's mine: 


by Christy Mihaly

Be a friend when someone's hurting
Give a smile or helping hand
Don't be shy about asserting
what is right: just take a stand.
Stand up!

If you want to make things better,
think of things that you can do.
Make a call or send a letter.
Illustrate your point of view.
        Stand up!

In a tizzy, feeling nervous?
Know your rights and learn your laws.
Join a march or day of service.
Find some friends to join your cause.
                STAND UP!

Don't just sit there on the sidelines 
when you know there's work to do.
If you think we need new guidelines,
write them up--it's up to you!

                                    STAND UP!

Lisa Powell created a fun video to go with this poem, posted here.

And yes, this month I've been working with an amazing fifth grade class to explore poetic forms and write poems in a series of workshops exploring freedom of expression and engagement in our democracy. Big concepts -- but we make it concrete through writing haiku, Fibonacci poems, and other poems about topics of concern to the students. 

Poetry can be magic! 

For more ideas and resources, check out GROG's Poetry Month posts from years past: here, or here, or here. (You can search for past poetry posts for lots more good stuff from 10 years of GROG archives!)

And happy month to all!