CRITIQUE GROUPS — an interview with Sue Twiggs

Today the blog welcomes Sue Twiggs, your Manuscript Critique Group Coordinator since 2018. Since that time, she’s matched over one hundred SCBWI-Wisconsin writers in online critique groups.

            I belong to two critique groups myself. Both meet virtually. Being in a critique group helped me learn how to self-edit. My group recognizes my writing strengths and flaws. They encourage me with their constructive criticism and suggestions. Even if I don’t initially agree, I usually incorporate the changes. Suggestions on early drafts are especially helpful when big revision is needed. My critique groups cheer me on when I share good news and offer sympathy when I experience rejection. 

Here’s what two members have to say about their groups.

My critique groups are my community. They keep me going. Not to mention, they give me wonderful ideas and advice and are receptive to mine. — Jerrianne Hayslett                                                                                              

I am in several critique groups, one of which has met for over 20 years. Critique groups are so much more than fellow writers helping spot strengths and weaknesses in manuscripts. Members support one another, provide tips, and offer advice. It was a critique member who told me about an agent who liked the type of books I wrote and advised me to query her. I did, and she became my agent. Members have helped me choose titles for my books. They’ve offered valuable advice about promotion. And they’ve become devoted, lifelong friends, which is the greatest benefit of all. — Amy Laundrie                                                                                                            

            Finding a critique group is a benefit of your membership in SCBWI. Interested members fill out a short bio. I match writers by genre: PB, MG and Y/A. Picture book writers make up the bulk of the requests. I also have groups of PBAuthor/Illustrators. If I’m able, I match by experience, however that depends on openings in ongoing groups.  

            Occasionally people switch groups. Sometimes the first match doesn’t work. Some writers drop out once they realize the ongoing work a critique group entails. Life intervenes: sick parents, home schooling children, moving. I’ll rematch the writer in an ongoing group or merge two groups together that have lost members. Matching a writer with an ongoing group benefits both parties as they don’t have to start again from scratch. 

            What makes a good critique member? A writer who knows how to make their manuscript critique-ready and can give and accept feedback. A good critique member keeps all manuscripts confidential and does not share them outside the group. A good critique member does not copy story ideas from a fellow writer. I’ll go into detail on making your manuscript critique-ready and giving and receiving feedback in a series of monthly tips on the Google list-serv. If you’d like to know more now, check out this link.

            If you’d like to contact me about joining a critique group or adding new members to your group, email me at

Thank you, Sue, for sharing your insights and for all the work you do. Getting and giving feedback is a crucial step in the creative process, no matter where you are on the path to publication.


Susan Twiggs is the Critique Group Coordinator for SCBWI-WI. She is a published poet and on the journey to publishing for children. She practices yoga and has taught for many years. She believes in the power of mentoring and sharing what we know with each other. Her critique group offers continued encouragement and constructive criticism. She co-founded a high school mentoring program, Pathway Partners that continues to support teens in finding their careers. As the CGC-WI she will facilitate members in finding and creating their own support system so they can be the best writers possible.


A few days ago, Bruce Coville gave me some great advice on my WIP. 


No, he didn’t read it. (At this point in my process, I haven’t dared share it with anyone.) He isn’t a friend in life or even on Facebook. Several years go, I had the privilege and pleasure of hearing him present a workshop at a SCBWI retreat. I’m sure some of you were there too. 

His words came riding in to the rescue. I’ll have to paraphrase because I can’t find my notes on what he said. But I remember.

If you want to raise the stakes in your novel, make your character responsible for the problem. In other words, just like those signs in antique stores warn us — if you break it, it’s yours. 

In my WIP, my character finds something in the woods. I was struggling to connect her to that object. Then I remembered Bruce Coville’s advice. So when my character picked up the object, she damaged it. And now she is bound to it and its reason for being in the woods. She can’t quit. She is responsible. 

Bruce Coville said many many other things that day. I’m sure they’ll pop into my consciousness when I need them. He’s just one of many writers, editors, agents, illustrators, and art directors who have shared their wisdom with us members of SCBWI through the years. 

It’s true that many in-person events have been postponed or made long distance. While we all miss being together,  the change in format makes some events more accessible. Every week, SCBWI shares a new digital workshop, which stays on their website for 30 days. The most recent one is: Sticks and Stones and the Stories We Tell: Children’s Book Creators on Channeling Random Acts of Racism Ten BIPOC authors and illustrators discuss how they’ve used the negative experience of racism to fuel their artistic expression.

The big SCBWI summer conference is still happening. I have never been able to afford to go to LA for it,  but guess what – this year it’s only $100! The opening event on July 31 features one of my favorite authors – Philip Pullman. I can’t wait to hear what advice he will give me about my work. 

There’s still time to sign up. Follow this link for more information.  I know it won’t be quite the same as being there in person. But think of the things we can learn.

Is there any gem of advice that you remember from a SCBWI workshop? Please share in the comment line. It may be the thing I need to save the next section of my WIP. 

In the meantime, remember that, even though we have to do are creating by ourselves, we are not alone. We are part of a smart, supportive, caring community of talented artists!

SCBWI-WI Book Talks “The New Kid” by Jerry Craft

On April 8th, several members of our SCBWI-WI chapter met via zoom. Since we’ve all been keeping our distance these days, I was especially happy to see my friends. What better reason to gather than to discuss Jerry Craft’s Newbery award winning graphic novel, The New Kid.

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Special thanks to our former web coordinator Joanna Hinsey for hosting the meeting.

Before the gathering, Charlene Avery and Sandy Brehl posted many useful prompts about how Jerry Craft’s visual story techniques reveal character and feelings. Charlene and Sandy also shared discussion questions to encourage us to think about the assumptions people make about characters and each other.

In our conversation, everyone was very enthusiastic about the book. Jerry Craft did such an amazing job of telling the story of how a boy starts at a school as the “new kid” but how his experiences transform him into a “new kid.”


We all related to that feeling of being an outsider. Craft’s main character Jordan is different from our backgrounds. Reading his book enabled us to experience the microagressions through his eyes. Many of the characters were unaware of how hurtful their assumptions about Jordan were.

In an excellent interview in School Library Journal, Jerry Craft discusses how he came to write the book. “Lots of times, kids of color get painted with a broad brush,” Craft said. He wanted to write something that reflected the experiences of kids like him and like his own sons who didn’t just want to read about historical African Americans or struggling, fatherless kids.

Craft made sure that all his characters were nuanced. He said, “I didn’t want it to be like all the black kids are great, all the white kids are bad, because that’s not life.”

The discussion was lively and fun. Everyone enjoyed talking about the book—and having the chance to get together however we could.

I hope you’ll all join our next book talk on May 12 at 6:30 PM CDT.  The Diversity Committee will host a conversation about books with secondary characters who are different from the author’s lived experience. The main mentor text will be Prairie Lotus. In this great book, Linda Sue Park created well-researched and rounded Native Nations characters.

More information about joining the meeting will be on our SCBWI-WI list service. And if you’d like to find out more about the Diversity Committee, you can email committee chair Charlene Avery at:  caverybooks at gmail dot com.

More Ways to Spread the News about Our Work

Sandy Brehl and Judy Dodge Cummings, our PAL promotions co-chairs, return to the SCBWI-WI blog to share ways we can support each others’ work. They also have excellent suggestions for finding speaking opportunities that will expand our presence in the world of children’s books. As we all spend more time at our home offices, this is a good opportunity to research options for the future. PLEASE add your own outreach suggestions in the comments! We all want to hear from you!

We’re back (see our previous post) to share some suggestions for members with recent or backlist titles. These opportunities can extend your footprint on the landscape of young audiences. Your messages (and books) can reach readers with exponential impact when you connect with an educator in any field. Winning over educational groups means your work will have advocates among annually rotating groups of young readers. Mark your calendars to return to this advice several times a year to keep extending your outreach.

Jane Kelley, Ken Keffer, Michael Kress-Rusnick, and Janet Halfmann speak on a panel at Green Schools Consortium in Milwaukee 


Our seasonal release files are linked on our web pages, announced on listserv, and displayed in social media. Those files are sent directly to the creators of the works in that season. Here are a few ways to use these professionally designed fliers and monthly book-birthday banners to celebrate your own success and that of fellow members.

  • Share on your own social media
  • Use in your website
  • Apply the banners on your headers or profile images
  • Blog about the fliers , sharing how SCBWI has helped you on your creative journey
  • Mail attachments (digital, texting, print, etc.) to family and friends, and invite them to share your good news
  • Deliver print versions to local schools, libraries, day care centers, etc. Bring your personal promo materials. Sharing the new books produced by Wisconsin folks is a fun icebreaker and can help you meet influencers in your community.
  • Share the files with the editor and marketer of your publishing house.

Even if you don’t have a current release, share the content far and wide. When your work does appear, you’ll be grateful to those who help celebrate your success.


Many organizations welcome proposals for speakers, posting a CALL FOR PROPOSALS six-to-twelve months in advance of an event. Begin now to investigate suggested organizations. Determine their mission and decide the best match for your skills, interests, and book topics or themes. Annual events often provide a “theme” and seek proposals related to that topic.


WSRA Wisconsin State Reading Association

WEMTA (Wisconsin Educational Media and Technology Association)

Wisconsin Title 1 Conference

Green Schools Consortium Milwaukee

Wisconsin Library Association

Wisconsin Early Childhood Association


National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)

National Council of Social Studies (NCSS)

NCSS State and regional events here:

National Science Teachers Association

American Library Association – Youth Services (Two conferences per year)

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

National Association for Education of the Young Child (early childhood)

Don’t expect this to yield income. In fact, an accepted proposal often means you will be responsible for your own transportation and housing expenses while earning little or no honoraria. However, speaking engagements give you face time with teachers, administrators, counselors, librarians, and coaches. These are the people who will buy your books and hire you for author/illustrators talks in schools.


Consider the following to improve your odds of being selected as a presenter:

  • “Give ’em what they want.” Attendees want to be inspired by ideas and strategies they can use in their busy schedules––not just a presentation about you and your books.
  • Clearly link your proposal to the conference theme and the organization’s mission.
  • Consider submitting a proposal for a panel discussion. This allows those who are less experienced to participate and learn from veteran speakers. Having a book in print is not always a requirement.
  • Incorporate current research related to your topic.
  • Provide “take-away” resources to add value: strategies, resource links, recommended book links, and incorporate active examples of in your presentation.
  • Layer content in your presentation without overwhelming the audicence. Breakout sessions are between 45-75 minutes; covering a few key ideas well is better than trying to address too much.


This post doesn’t even touch on the many ways your own website, blogging, and social media activity can help you. All of the organizations cited above have social media links and hashtags you can use when posting your related news. Find “your people” and stay connected, even if you limit your time on digital outlets. Make the minutes you spend there count!

Preparing a proposal involves research for your idea and the host organization, coordination with potential partners, generating an outline and “pitch”. Much of that preparation can happen after you’re accepted. You might already have an existing programs that can be customized to suit a particular group. Even if your idea isn’t accepted by one group, it may, with some tweaking, work well for another.

The very skills you use to get your work published can be transferred to outreach efforts. Even major publishing houses are no longer able to carry the marketing weight for authors or illustrators. Commit time to exploring and pursuing outreach opportunities so your work will be read far and wide.

Thanks, Sandy and Judy, for this excellent advice. On a personal note, I want to share that after SCBWI-WI rejected one of my proposals for a workshop, I turned it into an article which was published by the SCBWI Bulletin! No work is ever wasted.



SANDY BREHL has always been a reader, writer, and a now-retired-but-still-engaged educator. Passionate about picture books and children’s literature. Author of ODIN’S PROMISE trilogy (2014-2017), MG historical fiction set during the German occupation of Norway. (Originially Crispin/Crickhollow Books, reissued 2019)  Contact:



JUDY DODGE CUMMINGS has written more than 25 books for children and teens. One of her recent titles is Immigration Nation: The American Identity in the Twenty-first Century. Judy has two books scheduled for release in the fall of 2020: Reconstruction: The Rebuilding of the United States after the Civil War, and  When the Earth Dragon Trembled,  a novel of historical fiction set during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Learn about PAL Promotions — from Sandy Brehl and Judy Dodge Cummings

SCBWI offers many resources to our members no matter where they are in their publishing journey. Today SCBWI-WI blog guest post is by Sandy Brehl and Judy Dodge Cummings. In addition to their own teaching and writing, they are PAL Promotions co-chairs. Since much of their work takes place behind the scenes, you may not be aware of their efforts on your behalf–or what you can do to get more involved. 

What do PAL Promotions co-chairs actually do?

First, the PAL designation needs some explanation. PAL stands for “published and listed.” SCBWI gives this designation to books and magazines published by traditional publishing houses that don’t charge money to authors or illustrators. does a great job explaining PAL, and they provide directions for members wondering why their publication source is (or isn’t) PAL level. Members should explore any questions about that label HERE, and address questions about your publisher directly to


The primary responsibility for the PAL Publicity Committee is to produce two fliers, each celebrating the PAL releases of our members for the traditional Spring and Fall seasons. In the early days, that meant simple black-and-white lists with titles and ISBN information. Our members had fewer PAL releases and those who did were not always submitting their news to the PAL volunteers. Fliers were distributed at our own events (luncheon, conference, etc.). That was it.


One look at our spring 2020 new release flier and you can see we’ve come a long way in the past decade. Gone are the simple black and white releases. Today’s fliers include thumbnail images and catalogue blurbs featured in an artistically designed format that follows industry standards and is distributed far and wide.

As co-chairs, we gather detailed information about seasonal releases, then our talented volunteer Leah Danz DiPasquale  complies that content and designs the fliers.  She also creates monthly “book birthday” banners for social media from that content. Shout out and thanks to Kate Lindsay for FACEBOOK and to LIZA WIEMER for TWITTER and INSTAGRAM management: FB: SCBWI-WISCONSIN, @SCBWIWISCONSIN.

Our distribution efforts include website downloads, social media, and direct email to librarians, educators, and bookstores who have signed up to receive them. Currently our direct contacts number more than four hundred and grows every year.

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Stef Wade and Carol L. Paur at our booth at WSRA 2020


We receive those contacts during outreach events. At these events, our volunteers engage with literacy leaders around the state. We distribute our most recent fliers, along with directions for accessing the Speakers’ Bureau and information from the Diversity Committee about support for underrepresented creators. Attendees who visit our booth can provide their email address to enter raffles of members’ books and donated school visits. They have the chance to win great prizes and we get new contacts to whom we distribute seasonal fliers in the future.

Literacy experts from throughout the state also organize regional author visits for young readers and writers using our speakers’ bureau contacts.


For several years we’ve hosted a booth at events sponsored by organizations related to youth reading:

WSRA Wisconsin State Reading Association is held in Milwaukee in February.

WEMTA (Wisconsin Educational Media and Technology Association) is held in the Dells area in late March.

Wisconsin Title 1 Conference reading day is in early April, also in the Dells area.

Green Schools ConsortiumMilwaukee annual conference in Milwaukee, usually in June or August.

Wisconsin Library Associationholds its annual conference in various state locations from year to year, in the fall. We sometimes sponsor a booth at their convention, depending on the location. It will be held October 27-30 in 2020, in Green Bay. We’re currently considering that as a possibility, so add a comment if you are interested in more details with an eye to volunteering.

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Stephanie Lowden, Karla Manternach, Jane Kelley, Sandy Brehl

Speaking of volunteering…

Any and all members are welcome to support our outreach at these events. When members with recent PAL releases volunteer, they may sell their own books and sign them during limited periods of the day, but the main purpose of attending is to share information, not promote personal sales.

You might ask, why volunteer if I can’t focus on just selling my books? SCBWI invests time and money in attending these conferences (yes, money- more about that in a moment) to share our members’ good news. Volunteers will also be able to learn more about our members’ books, make contacts with Wisconsin kidlit users and leaders, and network with other members. Pre-published volunteers can learn a lot by working alongside a successful author or illustrator.

Sponsoring these events would be impossible without our volunteers. If you have helped out at past events, please chime in with comments about your reactions to taking part.


Now, about that money matter…

Each outreach event charges a fee for our exhibit space, and none are “cheap” even at the special rates for nonprofit organizations.  Expenses also include printing the release fliers and other handout materials. Since our budget is very limited, serious choices must be made. That’s why we evaluate each event not on possible sales, but on its potential to identify and connect with those who READ, SHARE, and BUY books for young readers.

Each event also requires many hours of coordination for registration, volunteers, materials, transport, and management on site. We have continued with events that provide our organization with enough benefits to balance the financial, energy, and time commitments. When we hear about possible events, we evaluate each individually. We welcome news and suggestions about events and other possible outlets.

There are many other opportunities for our members to build a platform in our state, so stay tuned for another post about those, coming soon.

And thank you, Jane, for inviting us to offer a window on what we do.

Thank you, Sandy and Judy, for ALL you do! 


SANDY BREHL has always been a reader, writer, and a now-retired-but-still-engaged educator. Passionate about picture books and children’s literature. Author of ODIN’S PROMISE trilogy (2014-2017), MG historical fiction set during the German occupation of Norway. (Originially Crispin/Crickhollow Books, reissued 2019)  Contact:



JUDY DODGE CUMMINGS has written more than 25 books for children and teens. One of her recent titles is Immigration Nation: The American Identity in the Twenty-first Century. Judy has two books scheduled for release in the fall of 2020: Reconstruction: The Rebuilding of the United States after the Civil War, and  When the Earth Dragon Trembled,  a novel of historical fiction set during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

An Interview with Author/Illustrator Jessixa Bagley

The SCBWI-WI Fall Retreat, Let’s Get Crafty, is just a few weeks away. Although it’s sold-out, we’re so grateful that each member of the amazing faculty has answered a few questions for our blog. 

Jessixa Bagley is a children’s book author/illustrator. Her love of books and storytelling are inspired by classic storybooks and her childhood experiences in the Pacific Northwest. Jessixa has traveled both domestically and internationally for school visits, keynotes, and workshops to speak about her books. Her first picture book, Boats for Papa, has won numerous awards including the 2016 Washington State Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award. Her picture book, Laundry Day, is the winner of a 2018 Ezra Jack Keats Honor Award for Writing. She lives in Seattle with her husband and son. Follow her on twitter: @jessixabagley


Your presentation is Both Sides of the Picture Book. Can you give us a sneak preview? I know you’ve recently collaborated with your husband, Aaron Bagley. What was that like? Were you always on the same page?

Talking about Both Sides of the Picture Book is really about how to navigate both the writing AND the illustration. Being both an author and an illustrator might seem very daunting if you feel your strengths are leaning to one side. As an illustrator, it’s really important to think about how to tell your own stories in both words and pictures. For writers, it’s important that they understand how an illustrator thinks about bringing their words to life so that they can understand where to leave room for the illustrators’ contributions. You have to look at everything––not just one side of the process.

Working with my husband is so much fun! We have always collaborated together on art and stories since we first started dating, so making a picture book together was very natural and organic. Since we were both involved deeply in the writing and the illustration, we definitely had to be on the same page! I know it seems unheard of for a married couple to get along for something like this––but we really did! We don’t argue in our artistic process. We are both very respectful and eager to hear what the other has to say. When one had really strong feelings about something, the other would trust their instincts. We traded the artwork back and forth constantly, so we were both working on each painting equally in all ways. We really try to embrace each other’s strengths when working on a project. Aaron is a great partner!

Your career started with the big success of BOATS FOR PAPA. In your Brown Book Shelf interview with Don Tate, you mention how many years it took you to find your “voice” as an illustrator and then as a writer. Was that a Eureka moment? Or did it develop with a particular project?

I’d say Boats for Papa was in itself my eureka moment. When I got the idea for the story, it was a like a lightning bolt. That feeling doesn’t happen often, but I learned to listen to inspiration and speak from the heart. That book was so much about my childhood. Creating it taught me that I have to open myself up and be willing to put my personal side and experiences into my work. That’s when my voice started to really come through both visually and writing-wise. My stories come from me, so I have to bring myself to the work. Because I let myself be vulnerable, I am able to be more authentic. I think that is what resonates with people and allows me to be more confident in my storytelling voice.

The theme of the retreat is Let’s Get Crafty. We know we need to work on our skills for construction and creating. Crafty has another meaning too. Do you think creators need to be cunning? Or even sometimes a little bit sly?

I think that creators need to be smart above all. Being cunning or sly to me says you want to find a way around the hard parts to get what you want. Being smart is figuring out how to get what you want the right way for everyone––including yourself. Creators need to learn how to treat this as a business and figure out what sides of themselves and their work to play up to make sure they are getting the most out of their opportunities. First and foremost, you have to love doing this––and I mean really love doing this. Making books is not easy, but if you love it, you can take the challenges in stride. You have to love it so much you’re willing to work at it, despite knowing you might never get published. Second, you can’t forget that this is a business, so you need to treat it that way. Be respectful and thoughtful about how you talk to people and how you work with them. Listen to the people you ask for help. You need to be confident, but also flexible. Because it’s a business, it can be hard, so if you don’t love it, you won’t have the energy to really pursue it. At the end of the day, we all want to make really good books––the artists AND the publishers. It’s not easy to make something the best it can be. But if you work smart, always try to get better, stay open to collaboration, and are professional in your persistence, then that is how you can turn your craft into your career.

Thank you, Jessixa, for your thoughtful answers. We look forward to hearing more from you in November.

jane-kelley-copy-26.jpgJane Kelley is the blog coordinator for SCBWI-WI. She is the author of many middle-grade novels, including The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya, which was honored by the CCBC in 2014. Her most recent work is the chapter book series, The Escapades of Clint McCool. For more information, see


An Interview with Editor Stephanie Pitts

The SCBWI-WI Fall Retreat, Let’s Get Crafty, is currently sold-out. Luckily, each member of the amazing faculty has agreed to answer a few questions for our blog. 

Stephanie Pitts is an editor at G. P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. She acquires a healthy mix of picture books, novels, and nonfiction for young readers. She has worked with YA authors Stacey Lee, Sherri L. Smith, and Jennifer Dugan; middle grade authors Eliot Sappingfield and Jeff Seymour; picture book authors Liz Garton Scanlon, Pat Zietlow Miller, and Mara Rockliff; and illustrators Brett Helquist and Brian Biggs. Follow her on twitter @stephpittsbooks


Your presentation is entitled Writing Irresistible Picture Book Characters. Can you give us a sneak preview about what makes a character irresistible? 

I always love a character with a strong personality. They do not have to be perfectly behaved. They do not have to be role models. Kids want to see characters that act like real kids, and that includes making mistakes, having disagreements, being moody, and, yes, sometimes behaving badly.

Has your work with MG and YA authors affected your approach to PB? Obviously PB doesn’t have the luxury of length that MG and YA do. But do they have other advantages? 

To me, editing picture books and editing novels really are two different skills. One thing I love about editing picture books is that you can really look at every sentence, every word. You could never edit a novel that way. As a former first-grade teacher, I think a lot about how the manuscript sounds when read aloud. And when I’m editing a manuscript, I’ll often think about how an illustrator might break up the text, even if the illustrator breaks the text differently when it comes time for the dummy stage. I’m always thinking about what the final illustrated product might look like, even if I have no idea who the illustrator will be yet.

The theme of the retreat is Let’s Get Crafty. We know we need to work on our skills for construction and creating. Crafty has another meaning too. Do you think creators need to be cunning? Or even sometimes a little bit sly? 

Well, those words have many meanings, so it sort of depends on the situation. If you mean “displaying cleverness” or “lightly mischievous,” then yes! It is important to have fun in our work, and I love humor in picture books. If you mean “displaying keen insight”—also yes! The best picture books for kids, whether humorous or earnest, are insightful and address a deep emotional need for today’s families. If you mean “wise in practical affairs,” sure! It is important to be savvy and learn as much as you can about writing, illustrating, and publishing. If you mean, “characterized by wiliness and trickery,” I’d have to say no. Making genuine human connections is the way to go—that’s why writers go to SCBWI!

Thank you, Stephanie, for your sharing your insights with us. We look forward to hearing more from you in November.


Jane Kelley is the blog coordinator for SCBWI-WI. She is the author of many middle-grade novels, including The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya, which was honored by the CCBC in 2014. Her most recent work is the chapter book series, The Escapades of Clint McCool. For more information, see

An Interview with Author Jeff Zentner

The SCBWI-WI Fall Retreat, Let’s Get Crafty, is currently sold-out. Luckily, each member of the amazing faculty has agreed to answer a few questions for our blog. 

Jeff Zentner is the author of New York Times Notable Book The Serpent King, Goodbye Days, and Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee. He has won the William C. Morris Award, the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, the International Literacy Association Award, the Westchester Fiction Award, been longlisted for the Carnegie Medal and UKLA, and was a finalist for the Southern Book Prize and Indies Choice Award. He was selected as a Publishers Weekly Flying Start and an Indies Introduce pick. Before becoming a writer, he was a musician who recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, and Debbie Harry. He lives in Nashville. Follow him on twitter @jeffzentner


Your presentation is titled: Giving Your Characters a Voice: How to Write Great Dialogue. Can you give us a sneak preview of what you will cover?

The art of dialogue is both difficult and easy to master. It’s difficult because it requires years of carefully observing the way people speak and interact and storing that away. But it’s easy because there are a few tricks I can teach, in a short amount of time, that will make you a better dialogue writer than the vast majority of writers out there. There are common pitfalls to avoid, and I’m going to teach those. I’m going to teach you broad philosophical bases with which to approach dialogue to keep it organic, energetic, and realistic.

How does your musical background influence your writing? Does your ear for rhythm and melody help you write such vivid characters?

I imagine it does, although it doesn’t work that way for me on a conscious level. On a conscious level, I think my music has influenced my writing by teaching me that there is a certain type of story that I tell. There is a certain mood that I evoke. And it’s ok to enjoy other types of music/stories that aren’t the sort of stories that Jeff Zentner tells and aren’t in the mood that Jeff Zentner evokes. But when I go to create my art, I need to tell my stories and evoke my moods. Also, on a practical level, making music taught me creative discipline. It taught me that breakthroughs come with a butt planted in a chair, working. It taught me that every time I think all my ideas have dried up, there’s another idea waiting in the wings.

The theme of the retreat is Let’s Get Crafty. We know we need to work on our skills for construction and creating. Crafty has another meaning too. Do you think creators need to be cunning? Or even sometimes a little bit sly?

I do think writers sometimes have to sneak up on ideas. They have to lull them into complacence before pouncing on them. Because if they approach them too quickly, they’ll scare them off. I’ve had to do this with stories before. If I had just made a run at the story, I would have scared it off (or, perhaps more accurately, I would have scared myself off). So I approached it sneakily. I allowed myself the space to write it slowly and allowed the story the space to perhaps never turn out to be anything that anyone would see. And that’s how I was able to lull it into complacency so I could pounce.

Thank you, Jeff, for your intriguing answers. We look forward to hearing more from you in November.

jane-kelley-copy-26.jpgJane Kelley is the blog coordinator for SCBWI-WI. She is the author of many middle-grade novels, including The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya, which was honored by the CCBC in 2014. Her most recent work is the chapter book series, The Escapades of Clint McCool. For more information, see

An Interview with Editor Karen Boss

The SCBWI-WI Fall Retreat, Let’s Get Crafty, is currently sold-out. Luckily, each member of the amazing faculty has agreed to answer a few questions for our blog. 

Karen Boss is an editor at Charlesbridge where she works on fiction and nonfiction picture books, middle-grade nonfiction, and novels. She holds an MA in Children’s Literature from Simmons College and regularly acts as a mentor for their Writing for Children MFA program. She often teaches workshops and short-term courses about picture books. Karen also has an MA in higher education administration and worked at colleges and in the nonprofit sector for 15 years. Her favorite children’s book is The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, and she thinks that Holes by Louis Sachar is quite possibly the best thing ever written. In her free time, Karen saves her pennies so she can travel to a new country each year (recent trips include Ecuador, Chile, and France/Portugal), and she often plans “Auntie Karen adventures” for her four nieces (Sonia, 11; Sage, 9; Olive, 4; and Morgan, 2). Follow her on twitter: @kbworld33


Your presentation will be about Skeletons, Muscles, and the Stuff of Life: Crafting Your Middle-Grade or YA Novel. Can you give us a sneak preview? Why did you choose skeletons and muscles to illustrate your points?

Besides my work as an editor at Charlesbridge, I act as a mentor for the Simmons University children’s literature MFA program. I also take on freelance projects, helping writers get their work ready for submission. All this is to say that I read a lot of WIPs each year. Almost always, I’m pulled right in by an engaging or compelling plot and a plucky or endearing protagonist. The central part of the story—the skeleton—is in place. But many stories feel like a lot is missing. The details—the muscles, or as I sometimes call it, the meat on the bones—need fleshing out. Sometimes it’s that secondary characters aren’t developed enough. Sometimes it’s that everything moves too quickly. Sometimes it’s that there’s no “stuff of life” in the story: nobody does anything organic (like eating breakfast while having a conversation). I’m a big fan of metaphors, and I’m a big fan of systems: how things work together as part of a whole, like the human body. That’s how I arrived at the title for my talk.

You mention that you take your nieces on Auntie Karen adventures. That sounds amazing! Can you tell us about one of your favorites? 

My favorite was the time I called up the one place you can buy lobsters on tiny Long Island, Maine, off the coast of Portland where my family spends time each summer, and asked the lobsterman if he would be willing to pull his boat up to the dock to show my nieces how lobster traps work. Instead he offered to take us out with him on the water to actually pull up traps and bring in lobsters. We met him at six in the morning, and he showed us how they bait the traps, pull them in with the winch, drop them back in (eight traps to a buoy!), and how they have to strictly measure each lobster to be sure it’s regulation size. One niece was enthralled, the other was seasick, but it was a really amazing adventure!

The theme of the retreat is Let’s Get Crafty.  We know we need to work on our skills for construction and creating. Crafty has another meaning too. Do you think creators need to be cunning? Or even sometimes a little bit sly?

I actually don’t. I think that being creative is a really individual thing, and being true to oneself is the most important. Write your story! Be aware of the market, of course, and pay attention to what today’s readers (and gatekeepers) are looking for. But the idea that writing for children requires cunning or slyness might scare some people off, in my mind. I much prefer a straightforward submission that’s clear and earnest to anything where I have to figure out what the “game” might be. Of course, this is an extremely subjective field, so my opinion might be the polar opposite of another editor’s!

Thank you, Karen, for your thoughtful answers. We look forward to hearing more from you in November.

jane-kelley-copy-26.jpgJane Kelley is the blog coordinator for SCBWI-WI. She is the author of many middle-grade novels, including The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya, which was honored by the CCBC in 2014. Her most recent work is the chapter book series, The Escapades of Clint McCool. For more information, see


An Interview with Author/Illustrator Cori Doerrfeld

Guest post by Rebecca Hirsch

The SCBWI-WI Illustration Workshop Making Your Mark: Getting Noticed in Today’s Busy Market will be held on September 14th at the Wauwatosa Public Library. You can find out more about this amazing event by clicking HERE now! Cori Doerrfeld is one of the faculty for the event. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions for the SCBWI-WI blog.


Cori Doerrfeld grew up wanting a career in animation, but couldn’t be happier with her current job as an author/illustrator. She has worked with both local and national publishers on everything from baby board books to graphic novels. Some of her picture book titles include Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend!, The True Adventures of Esther the Wonder Pig, Good Dog, Wild Baby, and the award-winning The Rabbit Listened. Some of Cori’s favorite things are animals, old tin lunch boxes, nachos, and long, long walks. She lives in Minneapolis, MN with her husband, two kids, and rescue dog, Rufus. Follow her online:

It’s obvious from your website that you are passionate about books for children.  Can you tell us what made you want to be an author and illustrator?

 As I child, I loved to draw. And while I did also love books, my heart truly belonged to animation. I absolutely loved animated cartoons and movies and could not believe it when I found out that people made them come to life with drawings! I always planned to have a career in animation, but when it came time for me to go to college, nobody was doing traditional hand drawn animation anymore. So for awhile, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. My first jobs after college were all with children. I worked as a toddler teacher and as a nanny. It was being around all these little kids and their quirks, and of course reading many, many books, that I first wondered if I could possibly turn what I loved about animation into creating books. I made little stories for fun in my spare time based on some of my experiences at the daycare. Seeing how much the kids loved the books, and realizing I could still find a way to use my drawing skills to bring stories to life, I began to seek out a career as an author/illustrator. And once I had my own kids, it was a career choice that allowed me to be home with them, so I just kept pursuing it!

There are many challenges along the road to publication. Would you care to share any experiences you had when you first started out that you think will be helpful to our members?

The biggest challenges for me still are:  1-letting go of expectations; and 2-getting out of my own way.  Since I didn’t really study to be a professional author or illustrator, I went into it very blind. I had expectations that once you sell your first book, it is easy sailing…wrong! I believed everyone gets royalty checks…wrong! I believed I could make final decisions on my books…wrong! So really for me, focusing on what I am doing, instead of what “could or should be” was very helpful. And now for that second challenge, that is still very real for me every day. I still sometimes feel like I am not doing enough, or that I am not making work as good as other people, or I wonder why I wasn’t invited to attend a certain event. And then, once again I remind myself that I am on my own path and my own journey. I need to always do what works best for me, and not let the big, overwhelming publishing world make me feel too small to succeed.

You’ll be talking about how luck can help a career. How much do you think luck plays a role in a kidlit career?

I don’t want to give away too much before the talk, but I feel that luck plays a very big role in having a kidlit career. The good news is, however, that I believe you can make your own luck. Luck truly just means learning to control the aspects of your life/career that you can, and only seeing the potential benefits of the parts you cannot.

You’ve had a successful career in illustration for some time now. What’s your medium and has it changed over the years? If so, why?

When I first started working as an illustrator, I used acrylic paints and hand painted all my illustrations on bristol board. I would then package them up and ship them to New York, and spend two days in an absolute panic until they arrived. Then I had my first baby, a very collicky, energetic, non-napping baby. It was so difficult juggling her and paintings. The paint would dry, the brushes would get ruined, I would forget how to mix a color! So, truly as a time saving/sanity saving move, I slowly taught myself to use Photoshop and work digitally. Now I can stop working or pick right back up where I was in seconds! Also, changes for editors are so much easier! No repainting an entire character, just delete a layer!

Your book THE RABBIT LISTENED has received so much praise, including the Kirkus and Publishers Weekly Best Books, and winning an SCBWI Golden Kite Honor. What do you think made it resonate so much with critics, readers, and your peers alike? Is this the sort of work you’d like to continue doing?

This book came from such a raw, deep place that it is hard to put into words. It just kind of came forth one day fully formed. I think that very real place it came from speaks to people. It is somehow general enough that anyone can see themselves in the book, yet specific enough that people know exactly what it’s about. The book becomes what you need it to be, and is both a comfort and a request. I would very much love to write more books that help people navigate difficult emotions. If nothing else, I hope to keep making books that become tools. Tools that help people start tricky conversations, and simply be more emotionally engaged overall with one another.

What advantages and disadvantages do you see in playing the roles of both author and illustrator?

I love being both the author and the illustrator because I feel it helps me make a cohesive vision. The pictures tell the story as much as the words do, so when I am both, I can control every aspect of what’s been told. When I am only the illustrator, it can be a little trickier to pull off such a perfect balance. I will say, however, that the first initial step of creating and writing a story is so much work! So if I am only the illustrator, I don’t have to deal with that pressure!

Thank you so much for sharing your insights, Cori. We look forward to hearing more from you at the Illustration Workshop!


Rebecca Hirsch is a picture book author and illustrator.  She strives to capture the magic and the playfulness of childhood in her work. She is an active member of the Wisconsin chapter of SCBWI.

Her work received an honorable mention in the 2016 Illustration competition at the SCBWI-WI Fall Conference.  She was Second Runner-up in the 2017 SCBWI Tomie dePaola Illustration contest. She won the Illustration contest at the 2017 SCBWI-WI Fall Conference. She illustrated her first book, Panda’s Pause by Dr. Amanda DeSua, which was released in November, 2018.

As of 2018, Rebecca is the SE Illustrator Area Rep for SCBWI-WI. She lives with her husband and children in Waukesha, WI.