Sunday, June 4, 2017

Europolitan Mentor Interviews Part 4: Jill Esbaum

by Patti Buff

Welcome to our interview series with the Europolitan Mentors! The Europolitan Mentorship program pairs qualified, inspirational mentors with aspiring authors and illustrators, who write in English, to help bring them closer to publication, or to publication at a higher level. Each mentor will select one mentee from all applicants.

This six-month online one-on-one program provides mentees the opportunity to work personally with and learn from a successful professional with teaching experience and a proven track record in children’s literature.

In this series of articles, you will get a closer look at the 2017 mentors; who they are, their writing journey and what potential mentees should know about them. For more information about the program and how to apply, visit the website.

Our next interview is with Jill Esbaum. Jill is mentoring picture books, both fiction and nonfiction.

Jill Esbaum writes picture books filled with humor and heart on her family farm in eastern Iowa, USA. Recent titles include IF A T. REX CRASHES YOUR BIRTHDAY PARTY, TEENY TINY TOAD (starred review, Kirkus; also on their Best Books of 2016 list), and ELWOOD BIGFOOT – WANTED: BIRDIE FRIENDS (NAIBA 2015 Pick of the Lists). Her books have been nominated for state awards (TOM'S TWEET in Iowa and South Dakota; STANZA in Indiana; I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO!, in Nebraska), named to the International Reading Association’s Notable Children’s Book list (STE-E-E-E-EAMBOAT A-COMIN'!) and the International Youth Library’s White Ravens List (I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO!); and featured as a New York Times Editor’s Choice (I HATCHED!). Scholastic Book Fairs have offered both I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO! and ELWOOD BIGFOOT, as well as many of her nonfiction titles. Coming soon are FRANKENBUNNY (Sterling, Nov 2017) and HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR (Dial, Feb 2018).

Her nonfiction books, all published by National Geographic Kids, include five titles in the PICTURE THE SEASONS series, four ANGRY BIRDS PLAYGROUND books, three titles in the BIG BOOK OF – series, many books in the EXPLORE MY WORLD series, and a picture book with renowned photographer Frans Lanting, ANIMAL GROUPS.

Jill created a group blog of fellow picture book writers and illustrators called Picture Book Builders( She visits schools, teaches at conferences around the U.S., and co-hosts the Whispering Woods Picture Book Writing Workshop in eastern Iowa each summer. She has twice served as a mentor for SCBWI-Iowa. Find more information at her website,

Welcome Jill! And thank you so much for being a Europolitan mentor! I always like to know about how people became writers so could you share with us your path to writing. Was this something you’d always done or did you pick it up along the way?

I didn’t begin writing until the youngest of my three kids was in kindergarten. We’d always read lots of picture books and had moved into chapter books. The more kid lit I read, the more I itched to try it myself. Once I began, I was hooked! About that time, my mom found a story I’d written at age 7. Talk about serendipity. That story brought back a rush of memories. As a child, I’d loved storytelling. I felt like I was coming back to my real self somehow––after a 30-year absence. Oh, wait. This is what I was supposed to do with my life? How had I let myself get so sidetracked?!

Another late-bloomer! I love it! Since writing and publishing are two different beasts, could you share with us how you first became published and what you’ve learned over the years about publishing?

I took a basic how-to-write-for-children night class (one evening/week for 6 weeks) at a local community college, and when that was finished, a handful of us continued meeting monthly to critique one another’s work. The class instructor, author David Collins, was part of the group, too. When he saw me subbing picture book manuscript after picture book manuscript and getting nowhere, he gently suggested I back up the truck and try to crack the magazine market. That worked out beautifully for me. Those acceptances of my poems, stories, and nonfiction convinced me that I was on the right track––or nearing it, anyway.

I kept submitting picture book stories, of course, making every mistake possible.

  • I sent out stories too soon. Habitually. 
  • I once sent out an unfinished story, because it was so clever and funny an editor would surely help me come up with an ending, right? 
  • I carefully submitted to two editors who had asked for more of my work…and learned two weeks later that I’d mixed up the cover letters in which I’d detailed why I thought each of those particular editors was the perfect match for my story. (One returned the mismatched package to me. The other did not.) 
  • I made a fool of myself at my first in-person editorial critique. (Exhausted from two sleepless nights, I slammed a Coke right before my time slot, then couldn’t shut up.) 

But every mistake brought me closer to an acceptance. Four and a half years after I started submitting, I got the phone call that FSG wanted to buy my Stink Soup.

I hyperventilated. The editor laughed and told me he’d wait while I found a paper bag. Unbelievably, this was the patient editor with whom I’d botched my first one-on-one the year before.

Twenty years of writing and submitting to a bazillion markets has taught me too many things to list, but the most important would likely be this: We MUST develop the ability to see our own work with objective eyes. It’s tough, tough, tough. What helped me the most in that area was five years of teaching for the Institute of Children’s Literature. Every week brought 15-18 student submissions that I always critiqued before working on my own writing. By the time I finished those, I was tired and crabby, and if anything in my own work wasn’t “perfect,” I had no trouble trashing it.

The most important thing I’ve learned about publishing itself is that it’s impossible to guess what editors/publishers want to see. We simply have to put our best work out there and hope good things follow.

Those are horror stories, but with a twist happy ending! What role did mentors, critique groups or an MFA program play in your creative career?

Jill and her dog, Brodie
Two early teachers/mentors of mine (sadly, both gone now) were David Collins, who, in that original
night class, stressed the necessity of developing thick skin, and nonfiction author Mel Boring, who led three or four summer workshops I attended. Both saw promise in my writing, and Mel even went so far as to corner my husband at an end-of-the-week workshop dinner to tell him I had what it took. That was when I’d only sold a few poems, and it did more to boost my confidence (and my husband’s confidence in me) than anything prior.

I have neither a four-year degree nor an MFA. Everything I know about writing was learned through my own reading, through practice and failure, and through SCBWI. There has been nothing––nothing––that has helped me more in my career than attending conferences. I’ve met some of my best friends, met editors I’ve later worked with, and soaked up untold amounts of writing wisdom from agents, editors, and authors/illustrators. I know for a fact I would not be where I am today if not for SCBWI conferences. I even met my first editor at a retreat! Whether you’re published or not, there’s absolutely nothing like walking into a big room filled with people who share your passion of writing for kids. People who get you.

These days, my online critique group, made up of fellow SCBWI members I admire, respect, and trust, includes Andrea Donahue, Pat Zietlow Miller, Lisa Morlock, and Norene Paulson. They. Are. Awesome.

Yay for SCBWI! What excites you most about being a mentor for the SCBWI Europolitan Mentor Program?

Working with and encouraging a promising new talent! I used to do private picture book critiques, and there isn't much that beats the feeling of learning that a story I critiqued has gone on to find a publishing home. Too cool! Always makes me feel like a new auntie or something.

What else should potential mentees know about you?

I hope this interview convinces potential mentees that I was once in their shoes, wanting to be published, searching for that elusive “secret,” and not sure how I was falling short. My critiques are kind, but I will not lie to you and will do the very best I can to get your stories to the point that an editor won’t be able to resist.

Sample of Jill's Books

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014
Nadine can talk a blue streak, and one day she tells a real whopper: she isn't afraid of anything--no siree! Then her friends call her bluff, and Nadine must enter. . .The Deep. Dark. Woods. Only the woods aren't so scary after all, until the sun sets, that is, and Nadine can't find her friends. What is this boastful bovine to do? Run around in blind terror? Plummet off a cliff? Crash into a stream? Check, check, and check. But is all lost? Doubtful. After all, she is cow, hear her MOOOOOOOOO!

*2015 Crystal Kite Award winner, Midwest Region, SCBWI

*Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) Choices (Best of the Year List), 2014

*Louisiana Reading Assoc. Children’s Choice nominee, 2014-2015

*Picture Book Oscars - Best Female Character in a 2014 Picture Book: Nadine

*2016-2017 Nebraska Golden Sower award nominee

*2015 White Ravens List

*Selected for Scholastic Book Clubs

Sterling Publishing 2016

You never know what will happen when a T. Rex crashes your birthday party. Sure, you'll be super excited when he turns up at your door. But then he’ll stomp. He’ll ROAR. He’ll look at you as if he’s wondering how you taste with a little mustard. In the end, though, you just may find yourself asking him to come back next year! This delightfully whimsical picture book has a fun twist kids will love.

National Geographic Children's Books 2015

Introduce young readers to some of the world's most interesting and important people in this bold and lively first biography book. More than 100 colorful photos are paired with age-appropriate text featuring profiles of each person, along with fascinating facts about about their accomplishments and contributions. This book inspires kids about a world of possibilities and taps into their natural curiosity about fascinating role models from education advocate Malala Yousafzai to astronaut Neil Armstrong.

National Geographic Children's Books July 2017
In this charming picture book, little kids will learn all about sea otters, including their social behavior, communication, diet, and, of course, playtime! These engaging Explore My World picture books on subjects kids care about combine simple stories with compelling photography. They invite little kids to take their first big steps toward understanding the world around them and are just the thing for parents and kids to curl up with and read aloud.

Europolitan Mentor Interviews Part 3: Bridget Marzo

by Patti Buff

Welcome to our interview series with the Europolitan Mentors! The Europolitan Mentorship program pairs qualified, inspirational mentors with aspiring authors and illustrators, who write in English, to help bring them closer to publication, or to publication at a higher level. Each mentor will select one mentee from all applicants.

This six-month online one-on-one program provides mentees the opportunity to work personally with and learn from a successful professional with teaching experience and a proven track record in children’s literature.

In this series of articles, you will get a closer look at the 2017 mentors; who they are, their writing journey and what potential mentees should know about them. For more information about the program and how to apply, visit the website. 

Our next interview is with Bridget Marzo. Bridget is mentoring author/illustrators and illustrators.

Bridget Strevens Marzo is an award-winning children’s book illustrator and author of over 20 children’s books published in the UK, US and France and co-edited internationally. She has also had a long experience of inspiring adults in their own creative ventures, as the first ever SCBWI International Illustrator Co-ordinator, mentoring at the SCBWI Summer conference in LA, and running picture book workshops across Europe. For over a decade in addition to illustrating, she taught children’s book illustration and design at Parsons Paris. Since her move back to London from France, she has resumed writing alongside illustrating, under her author name Bridget Marzo.

Bridget began by studying art history then fine art. Copying old master paintings and translating art books helped her develop a range of techniques around her own love of lively character drawing and bold use of colour. Her versatile, child-centred illustrations range from the mark-making of her latest picture book story, TIZ AND OTT'S BIG DRAW (Kirkus starred review) to the graphic BIG BOOK FOR LITTLE HANDS (PW starred review) and character-driven perennials like Kirsty Dempsey’s MINI RACER (SLJ starred review) and Margaret Wild's KISS, KISS!(PW starred review and SNCF book award) She has also exhibited in personal and group exhibitions including at the Original Art Show at the Society of Illustrators, New York.

Bridget sees the content of each book or project as more important than sticking to a single brand or style. She has learnt from her critique group, her work as a features editor for the UK Association of Illustrator’s magazine Varoom!and in mentoring others, that what matters in the children’s book world is finding enough confidence in your own ‘voice’ to outlast stylistic trends – to say what you want you want to say, with what you love doing most.

Publishers include: Tate UK/ Abrams US, Bayard Jeunesse France, Bloomsbury, Harper Collins, Little Hare Books, Simon & Schuster.

New events and books:

Illustration and book archive:

Welcome to the blog, Bridget! And thank you so much for being Europolitan mentor! I always like to know about how people became creative so could you share with us your path to illustrating for others and then writing and illustrating your own books. Was this something you’d always done or did you pick it up along the way?

I’ve always drawn and painted – and had ideas for characters which I took into stories. I must have been around 5 when I made my very first ‘book’ with lots of scribble-writing and drawings of a mad professor.

At university I started getting commissions to illustrate posters for plays, the odd poetry magazine and cartoons for student newspapers but after several jobs in Paris, I begun to earn a living as a translator of art history books. Through that connection I heard that a well-known US publisher was about to start a UK imprint with a children’s book section.

Since illustrating and writing for yourself and publishing are two different beasts, could you share with us how you first became published and what you’ve learned over the years about publishing?

Developing your own stories is the easiest way in to a career in picture books. And that’s how I first got published. If you think in pictures and stories, and create your own visual worlds, that is a great help. And since I didn’t know about SCBWI, but did have a collection of picture books, I studied them. I sketched out every page of my favorite books in storyboard form to learn how and why the story worked across full spread, half page or vignette illustrations.

Then I heard through my translation network about a US publisher that had just started a UK branch. I sent off a very detailed storyboard (almost as developed as a dummy with lots of clear, highly detailed black and white pictures corresponding to each double page spread) for a picture book adventure set in Paris and inspired by my own 5 year old son. They liked the idea I had of including food and local color in the story along with a few foreign words and they asked me to develop the story some more, which I did.

What is your preferred medium to work in?
A glimpse of Bridget's work in progress

Ah ha – that’s a tough question! My story, Tiz and Ott’s Big Draw, is all about how Tiz draws and Ott paint their way through a story - they are both ‘me’. Every time I start a project I want to experiment. I love trying out new techniques. Though I particularly love a 3B Tombow pencils, I find drawing directly in ink with a Pentel brush pen or fine line pen, keeps me focused because any mistake shows. I also love the strong color of gouache and colored inks. Being able to scan work in and correct the odd line or color on screen adds a new level of freedom to experiment.

What role did mentors, critique groups or an MFA program play in your creative career?

Like many illustrators, I like working to a deadline and in a team and feedback is important to me. That’s why my SCBWI critique group is important to me. It keeps me on track each month, even when I don’t present anything to the group myself. It’s good to know I am not the only one obsessing on why a character behaves in a particular way or why a picture should be darker or spread out across several pages. Each of us has strengths – I really appreciate the global view of plot structure that some of the writers have.

And every time I start a new project it feels like I’m starting from scratch.

I hate to say it doesn’t get any easier once you are published.

A critique group is therapy too. We share our successes and more publishing frustrations and disappointments.

What excites you most about being a mentor for the SCBWI Europolitan Mentor Program?

I’m always excited by other people’s work – however different from mine. If my own experience of what works and what doesn’t can help them get to the next level then I’d be more than delighted.

What else should potential mentees know about you? 

I am a ‘details’ person – be warned!

Tate Publishing May 2015
Tiz and Ott are drawing themselves a house. With the scritch scratch of her crayon, Tiz busily plants some seeds for the garden. Meanwhile Ott lies back lazily and makes a huge splodge for the sun. Then Tiz has a big idea. With a zig, a zag and a crash, she jolts Ott awake with a huge bolt of lightning! Together Tiz and Ott whip up a storm but as they soon find out, a storm isn’t just lines on a page.

Get carried away with Tiz and Ott as they use their imaginations to brush and doodle and scribble and scrawl and splatter their way out of trouble and safely back home.

Kirkus starred review.

Bayard Jeunesse, France
Follow a funny furry family going through their ordinary day from breakfast, to school, a birthday party and finally to bed. Discover over 200 nouns English words and lots more surprises under 30 flaps including dad under the shower curtain singing Heads and Shoulders, Knees and Toes. There are plenty of observation games for children to play in the supermarket or on the way to school. They can count pencils, crayons and rulers hidden under the books in the classroom and name all the colours on the bottles of paint hidden in the cupboard… Fun even for English-speaking children who might learn a few words of French from the glossary at the back.

For samples of Bridget's illustrations, visit her website.

Europolitan Mentor Interviews Part 2: Janet Fox

by Patti Buff

Welcome to our interview series with the Europolitan Mentors! The Europolitan Mentorship program pairs qualified, inspirational mentors with aspiring authors and illustrators, who write in English, to help bring them closer to publication, or to publication at a higher level. Each mentor will select one mentee from all applicants.

This six-month online one-on-one program provides mentees the opportunity to work personally with and learn from a successful professional with teaching experience and a proven track record in children’s literature.

In this series of articles, you will get a closer look at the 2017 mentors; who they are, their writing journey and what potential mentees should know about them. For more information about the program and how to apply, visit the website. 

Our next interview is with Janet Fox. Janet Fox is mentoring fiction and non-fiction for middle grade and young adult.

Janet Fox writes award-winning fiction and non-fiction for children of all ages. Her published works include the non-fiction middle grade book GET ORGANIZED WITHOUT LOSING IT (Free Spirit, 2006), and three YA historical romances: FAITHFUL (Speak/Penguin Group, 2010), FORGIVEN (Penguin, 2011), and SIRENS (Penguin, 2012). Janet's debut middle grade novel THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE (Viking, 2016) received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Shelf Awareness, is a Junior Library Guild selection, a 2016 Indies Next pick, and an ALA Notable Books nominee. Her next novel, the middle grade THE LAST TRUE KNIGHT (Viking, 2018) is a tale of alternative facts and gender identity set in a magical Elizabethan England. Future projects include a non-fiction picture book, a contemporary YA novel set in Montana, and a middle grade fantasy set in a future Pacific Northwest.

Janet is a 2010 graduate of the MFA/Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a former high school teacher. She lives in Bozeman, Montana with her husband and their rambunctious yellow lab. She's been involved with SCBWI for almost 15 years and is currently assistant Regional Advisor in the Montana region. She's represented by Erin Murphy, Erin Murphy Literary Agency, and you can also find her at

Welcome Janet and thank you so much for being a Europolitan mentor! I always like to know about how people became writers so could you share with us your path to writing. Was this something you’d always done or did you pick it up along the way?

Janet's workspace

I've been "writing" since I was about five years old. When I was in third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Weber, sent one of my poems to the town paper, and it was published. I can still remember the excitement I felt when I saw my name in print for the first time.

I majored in English in college, wrote poetry and short stories, wrote a novel, even won a couple of contests with my poetry and short fiction...and then I went on to study geology and get my master's in marine geology. And then...I studied architecture and landscape architecture. I became a mom. We moved. I moved - away from writing fiction, fiddling with all these other interests and distractions.

But when my son was five, it became clear he was dyslexic, and I began making up stories to try and teach him to read. At about the same time, my mom passed away, and I found a stack of children's books among her things, and I hadn't known she was writing. These two things combined to make me wonder what stories for children were like today, as opposed to the ones I read when I was a child. Could I find a publisher for my mom's stories, or for the ones I was inventing for my son?

In a turn of great good fortune, we had moved to College Station, Texas. Kathi Appelt lives there, and while I searched for answers to my writing questions I met Kathi, one of the most generous people on the planet. She became a friend and a mentor, encouraged me to join SCBWI, encouraged my writing, and encouraged me to attend Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Everyone's path is unique, and there's no such thing as "too late."

How great that first your mom and then you wrote for children! Since writing and publishing are two different beasts, could you share with us how you first became published and what you’ve learned over the years about publishing?

SCBWI is absolutely critical to my success. I met my critique partners through SCBWI, attended conferences and writing workshops, and learned about both craft and industry through SCBWI.

It was at an SCBWI conference that I met my first agent during a 10-page critique, so I would whole-heartedly encourage everyone to sign up for those critiques. And no, it was not my first - I'd had several before, and they were nerve wracking and discouraging, until I learned the craft skills and wrote something that caught someone's eye.

I'll add that I also met my current agent through SCBWI, at a very early critique, before I was ready as a writer, so those circuitous paths often have meaning only in hindsight.

As a writer, your goal should be to write the best novel/picture book/story you can write. Hone your craft skills and understand the market. Publishing should not be a writer's goal, because publishing is an industry that sails in changeable winds. But if you pursue craft with determination, you will be published.

And for me, having the support of my agent and agency, and my editor and publishing house, has made a huge difference. I've been fortunate to find myself in a supportive community of writers - through SCBWI, Vermont College of Fine Arts, and my agency - who are there for me when times are tough and also when they are good.

What role did mentors, critique groups or an MFA program play in your creative career? 

Janet and her dog
I've already mentioned Kathi Appelt. There were others in the SCBWI writing community in Texas who also encouraged me at every step. In fact, I can say firmly that I've never met a children's writer who was not wonderful, and I mean that. The kidlit community is awesome.

I've had a couple of critique groups through the years, and I've been so lucky there, too. My first group met weekly. We were all published by the time I moved away from Texas. Here in Montana I have an equally supportive and talented group.

I will say that my Vermont College MFA is one of the crucial aspects of my development. The faculty are the best in the industry. The students are talented, every one. The college curriculum is designed to push writers to hone their craft skills to a fine point. And the connections through the college can help make a writer's career. Plus, it was a ton of fun. If I could do it again, I would in a heartbeat.

What excites you most about being a mentor for the SCBWI Europolitan Mentor Program?
I love helping other writers hone their craft. And I love sharing what I've learned through many years, now, of practice and study. I taught English to 8th and 9th graders for several years just before my first book came out, and I love to teach - to watch someone develop a skill, to see them light up with the "aha!" moment of understanding.

More importantly, so many people have had a hand in my success that I love the idea of giving back - of helping a writer find their voice and their place in the community. That's certainly what Kathi did for me, and I would love to do for someone who is just beginning their journey.

What else should potential mentees know about you?

Just that I will be thorough and fair and that if I weren't a writer, I'd be an editor. That's what I'll give to a mentee - a serious edit that will hopefully help him or her take their work to the next level.

Some of Janet's Books

Viking, 2016
“Keep calm and carry on.”

That’s what Katherine Bateson’s father told her, and that’s what she’s trying to do: when her father goes off to the war, when her mother sends Kat and her brother and sister away from London to escape the incessant bombing, even when the children arrive at Rookskill Castle, an ancient, crumbling manor on the misty Scottish highlands.

But it’s hard to keep calm in the strange castle that seems haunted by ghosts or worse. What’s making those terrifying screeches and groans at night? Why do the castle’s walls seem to have a mind of their own? And why do people seem to mysteriously appear and disappear?

Kat believes she knows the answer: Lady Eleanor, who rules Rookskill Castle, is harboring a Nazi spy. But when her classmates begin to vanish, one by one, Kat must uncover the truth about what the castle actually harbors—and who Lady Eleanor really is—before it’s too late.

Receiver of four starred reviews (Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, Booklist, Shelf Awareness) 

Other awards/honorable mentions include:

  • 2016 Junior Library Guild selection
  • Spring 2016 Indies Next pick
  • ALA Notable Books Nominee 2016
  • 2017 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Shortlist Honor Book
  • 2017 Texas SPOT (Spirit of Texas Award) selection
  • 2017 Wisconsin State Reading Association selection
  • 2017 Maine Student Book Awards list
  • Booklist Top 10 Books For Youth Fantasy/Horror 2016
  • Brightly Best Books 2016
  • Bank Street Best Children’s Books 2016

Speak/Penguin Group, 2012
Josephine Winter, seventeen, is sent to live with relatives in New York City after her bootlegging father receives a threat, but bookish Jo harbors her own secrets. She finds friendship with lively Louise O’Keefe and romance with sweet jazz musician Charlie. But haunted by the spirit of her missing brother, Jo uncovers a nest of family lies that threaten everyone she loves, and Lou, in the thrall of the dangerous, seductive gangster Daniel Connor, is both Jo’s best friend and potential enemy. As Jo unlocks dark mysteries and Lou’s eyes are opened, the girls’ treacherous paths intertwine. Jo and Lou together will have to stand up to Connor in order to find their hearts and hang onto their souls in the “decade of decadence.”

Kirkus review: “Yes, there’s a mystery here. It involves Jo’s supposedly dead brother, Lou’s gangster boyfriend, bootlegging, a bombing, missing pages from a journal, and more than a few Dark Secrets. All of which was quite fun, though it’s not why Sirens was a stand-out for me….Sirensis a celebration of girl power, sisterhood, and hope for the future.”

Speak/Penguin Group, 2010
In 1904 Margaret Bennet has it all – money, position, and an elegant family home in Newport, Rhode Island. But just as she is to enter society, her mother ruins everything, first with public displays, and then by disappearing. Maggie’s confusion and loss are compounded when her father drags her to Yellowstone National Park, where he informs her that they will remain. At first Maggie’s only desire is to return to Newport. But the mystical beauty of the Yellowstone landscape, and the presence of young Tom Rowland, a boy unlike the others she has known, conspire to change Maggie from a spoiled girl willing to be constrained by society to a free-thinking and brave young woman living in a romantic landscape at the threshold of a new century.

Amelia Bloomer List Selection for 2011

YALSA 2011 Nominee: Best Fiction for Young Adults

Booklist: “Fox combines mystery, romance, and a young girl’s coming-of-age in this satisfying historical tale.”

School Library Journal: “The wilderness of Yellowstone…is lovingly and beautifully depicted…the gradual revelation of the truth about Maggie’s mother, the developing relationship between Maggie and Tom, and the thrilling episodes sprinkled throughout will engage readers.”

Europolitan Mentor Interviews Part 1: Sarah Aronson

by Patti Buff

Welcome to our interview series with the Europolitan Mentors! The Europolitan Mentorship program pairs qualified, inspirational mentors with aspiring authors and illustrators, who write in English, to help bring them closer to publication, or to publication at a higher level. Each mentor will select one mentee from all applicants.

This six-month online one-on-one program provides mentees the opportunity to work personally with and learn from a successful professional with teaching experience and a proven track record in children’s literature.

In this series of articles, you will get a closer look at the 2017 mentors; who they are, their writing journey and what potential mentees should know about them. For more information about the program and how to apply, visit the website. 

Our first interview is with Sarah Aronson. Sarah is mentoring picture books as well as middle grade to young adult literature.

Sarah Aronson began writing for kids and teens when someone in an exercise class dared her to try. Since then, she has earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and published three novels: HEAD CASE, BEYOND LUCKY, and BELIEVE. Titles forthcoming include her first nonfiction picture book, JUST LIKE RUBE GOLDBERG (Beach Lane Books, TBD) and a new chapter book series about fairy godmother training (and the worst fairy godmother ever), THE WISH LIST (Scholastic, 2017-2018).

When Sarah is not writing or reading (or cooking or riding her bike), she loves working with new writers to help them discover their stories and get them ready for submission. She teaches classes at Writers on the Net ( as well as the amazing Highlights Foundation. She is also the cofounder and organizer of the Writing Novels for Young People Retreat at VCFA, now approaching its fifteenth year. She loved serving as an SCBWI mentor in both Illinois and Michigan and enjoys speaking at many conferences. Sarah believes that we do our best work when we feel safe and supported, when we embrace the process and the power of play! Sarah will push you to see your manuscript in a new way. She is open to all genres, but particularly enjoys realistic middle grade and young adult fiction. Learn more about her at Like tips? Don’t mind exclamation points? Sign up for her weekly newsletter on her creative process, Monday Motivation.

First off, thank you so much Sarah, for becoming a Europolitan Mentor! I always like to know about how people became writers so could you share with us your path to writing. Was this something you’d always done or did you pick it up along the way?

Sarah's workspace
When I was young, I definitely did not want to be a writer. I was more interested in becoming a famous actress or maybe the first NFL punter! I loved story—but I spent more time acting than reading. (My most memorable acting experience was as The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. We started the play with the ending, and then retraced it to the moment when they prepared to meet.)

When I was done with college, I worked for Jack La Lanne, the famous exercise enthusiast. I became 
a physical therapist. I became a mom and began to read books to my kids. They were the ones who LOVED books. One day in 2000, while I was teaching a spinning class (the kind on bikes), someone dared me to write. (He thought I was funny.) I thought: why not? That day, when I had time, I took out a paper and pencil. I loved my kids’ books. I gave it a try!

So nice to know you were a late-bloomer, too. And since writing and publishing are two different beasts, could you share with us how you first became published and what you’ve learned over the years about publishing?

When I began writing, editors had more time to do the kind of mentoring I do now. I owe so much to the late great Deborah Brodie, who was an executive editor at Roaring Brook Press. For some reason, she took an interest in me. She read and critiqued three bad manuscripts. We spent many hours talking on the phone and meeting in person to discuss the craft of writing. Since I was not the fastest learner, she wrote my recommendation to Vermont College of Fine Arts, and pushed me to study harder. The second I got to Montpelier, I knew I’d found the right place to create. I wrote and revised HEAD CASE in my first two semesters. I sent it to her and Deborah bought it!

What a great experience to have an editor have so much faith in you from the very beginning! What role did other mentors, critique groups, or your MFA program play in your creative career?

The summer office where she can
listen to a church organist
In every experience, from my first critique group, to working with Deborah, and then at VCFA, working with Kathi Appelt, Jane Resh Thomas, Margaret Bechard, and Tim Wynne-Jones, I learned to read like a writer, so that I could read my own drafts with a critical eye. I also learned it was easy to delete! And that writing didn’t have to feel hard all the time—it could also be a joy! Norma Fox Mazer reminded me that structure didn’t hold me back—it was freedom! And Carolyn Coman gave me tools that have gotten me unstuck. They all showed me to trust my intuition before my intellect—to get to the inside story—the inner struggle first—and to believe in myself. These lessons have helped me when I thought I had no answers—when I worried that my career had hit a dead end. They taught me that ego can get in the way of the magic of creativity—that story needs space and time and a listening ear. They taught me to trust the process. I have. And it hasn’t let me down.

It’s also given me a safe supportive community. I think this is a mandatory component of the writing life.

In my own classes and workshops at VCFA,, and The Highlights Foundation, I welcome the magic. I strive to help writers listen to their characters, to try new ideas, and re-imagine (not just revise). In every group, I start with trust—and showing fear the door. It is exciting to see new stories come to life! I am a big believer in validating your progress—every milestone needs to be acknowledged and celebrated.

Ernestine, the girlgoyle, joins
Sarah in her summer office

    What excites you most about being a mentor for the SCBWI Europolitan Mentor Program? 

    New writers!

    New stories!

    I love collaborating!

What else should potential mentees know about you?
There will be points in this process when you will agree with me and feel very excited. There will also be times when we disagree with me—sometimes adamantly. You may even feel defensive. Irritated. So let me say upfront: that is okay. Mentorship is more than a to-do list toward publication. Although my friends like to tease me about being bossy, I am not the boss.

This is your book.

My job is to put the ball in play!

I believe our stories get better when we are willing to try, to experiment, to fail. We must be flexible and look at story and character from every angle possible in order to create the best book possible. I believe that we write for a reason—we have something to say. I want to honor your themes at all times.

I will introduce you some craft techniques that will help you create more authentic characters and exciting, tension-filled plots. I will encourage you to dig and explore and re-imagine elements of your story. I will challenge you to think about the possibilities that are already there on the page. It’ll be fun. We will laugh a lot!

Sarah's Books:

Scholastic Press (May 30, 2017)

Q: What do you need to become a great fairy godmother?

a) kindness
b) determination
c) gusto
d) all of the above

Fairy-godmother-in-training Isabelle doesn’t know what gusto is, but she’s pretty sure she has what it takes to pass fairy godmother training with flying colors.

But then Isabelle is assigned a practice princess who is not a princess at all. Nora is just a normal girl—a normal girl who doesn’t believe in fairy godmothers or that wishes come true or happily-ever-afters.

Isabelle has to change Nora’s mind about magic and grant a wish for her. If she can’t, Isabelle will flunk training and never become a great fairy godmother!

Carolrhoda Books (September 1, 2013)
When Janine Collins was six years old, she was the only survivor of a suicide bombing that killed her parents and dozens of others. Media coverage instantly turned her into a symbol of hope, peace, faith–of whatever anyone wanted her to be. Now, on the ten-year anniversary of the bombing, reporters are camped outside her house, eager to revisit the story of the “Soul Survivor.”

Janine doesn’t want the fame–or the pressure–of being a walking miracle. But the news cycle isn’t the only thing standing between her and a normal life. Everyone wants something from her, expects something of her. Even her closest friends are urging her to use her name-recognition for a “worthy cause.” But that’s nothing compared to the hopes of Dave Armstrong–the man who, a decade ago, pulled Jannine from the rubble. Now he’s a religious leader whose followers believe Janine has healing powers.

The scariest part? They might be right.

If she’s the Soul Survivor, what does she owe the people who believe in her? If she’s not the Soul Survivor, who is she?

Dial Books (June 30, 2011)
Ari Fish believes in two things: his hero—Wayne Timcoe, the greatest soccer goalie to ever come out of Ari’s hometown—and luck. So when Ari finds a super-rare Wayne Timcoe trading card, he’s sure he must be the luckiest kid ever. Especially when he’s picked to be the starting goalie for his travel team. Everything is going perfectly until the card goes missing and Ari’s luck runs out. Suddenly he can’t save a goal, his team is fighting, and he can’t rely on his lucky card to fix it. Will his luck turn back around in time for the league championships, or will he need to find something else to believe in?

Beyond Lucky was named a VOYA 2012 Top Shelf Pick for Middle Readers. It received a starred review from Jewish Book World. It was nominated for the 2012-3 Maine State Book Award, the 2014 Sequoia Book Award, and the 2013-4 Mark Twain Award.

Roaring Brook Press (September 4, 2007)
One mistake.
One bad night.
One too many drinks.

Frank Marder is a head, paralyzed from the neck down, and it’s his fault. He was drinking. He was driving. Now Frank can’t walk, he can’t move, he can’t feel his skin. He needs someone to feed him, to wash him, to move his body.

When you’re a head, do you ever feel like a whole person? Will Frank eve get to forgive himself?

If you ask most of the people who post on the www.quadkingonthenet, he hasn’t been adequately punished. Two people are dead because of him. Frank should go to jail. Only “Anonymous” disagrees.

A powerful and heartbreaking debut novel and a guy who had it all . . .until he drank that one last beer and got into the car. Head Case will make you consider how we judge each other. And how we can move beyond our mistakes—with honesty, compassion, and even humor.

Named a 2008 Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Remembrances of SCBWI Europolitan Conference 2017

Top row from left: RA Patti Buff, Libby Prcha, Emily Schoenbeck, Chuck McDaniel, Linda Hofke, IC Sanne Dufft, Ana Martin-Larranaga. Bottom row from left: Catherine Friess, Marcy Pusey, Jehan Jones-Radgowski, Britta Jensen, Lily Grigorova, Laurel Decher, Ibiere Addey. Not pictured: Angela Cerrito and Catherine Masek.

Although the conference was two weeks ago and our memories of it have started to fade, hopefully the inspiration and creative fire that was lit has not.

This was my third Europolitan conference and my fifth SCBWI conference in all. And what amazes me every time is the community and the camaraderie both here and at the larger conferences. I met Jehan even before she moved to Germany at the New York conference 2016 just by sitting at her table during lunch and introducing myself. And attending a Europolitan is like coming home - so many old friends with the delicious possibility of meeting new ones. Or, like in my case this year, finally sharing the same air with my critique partner of six years, Libby Prcha.

SCBWI Germany and Austria had the largest turn-out of all the regions with sixteen members coming from as far away as Vienna. We ranged from illustrators/author illustrators to writers of every age group. Because of this wide range of creative outlets and interests, I thought it would be interesting to ask members to each write a bit on two subjects. The results are below:

1. What was the number one tip/piece of advice you received during the conference?

From Patti:

Kendra's meditation exercise helped me see a new dimension of my character I hadn't discovered before. Now if only the amount of tears I shed while discovering the secret my character holds could be translated into reader's tears when they read the book...

From Catherine F.:

For me the number one writing tip was when Gemma Cooper talked about dialogue tags and how characters can’t laugh, grin or smile at the same time as they talk. I’ve now edited all of my picture book texts to take out the 'he grinned", "she smiled" dialogue tags. It makes sense now I’ve heard Gemma say it but it was interesting how often I found the tags in my stories!

From Angela:

In our middle grade networking group, lead by Elisabeth Norton, Laurel Decher showed us her bullet journal for writing. I was blown away and intimidated --- it was colored coded and beautiful. As she went through it she held up a list and mentioned that she has selected one person to believe about several topics of writing. As soon as she shared it with us, I thought, "That's brilliant! That makes so much sense." I've certainly had that universal experience of trying to gather more information about a certain topic only to go in circles with conflicting advice. It makes sense and saves time to pick someone you trust as a go-to person on that topic. I also appreciate how Kendra Levine challenged us to choose something we want to learn more about the craft of writing and take some time each week learning about it. The worlds "some time each week" felt like an easy first step to get started.

  From Ana:

It was from Robin Stevens whose talk was one of my favourites: Don’t isolate yourself. Share!

From Sanne:

Seeing Chris Mould's work and hearing him talk about sketching all the time - and often being surprised by what happens in the process.

From Jehan:

I learned plenty. One thing that jumps out in my mind is the difference between the US and U.K. (And really all other English speaking) markets. Some of the off limits subjects or even words in the U.S. are acceptable in the rest of the English speaking world. This also affects covers, illustrations, and how the book is marketed.

From Britta:

Only writers really understand what other writers are going through. Your friends who are non-writers are well-meaning and may try to understand, but you need to build partnerships with other writers who can support you and understand the rejection, revision and querying process. Also, fellow writers can help jump-start ideas that may have fallen stale or flat. (I experienced this in the querying workshop I took where several writers and illustrators who were working in various genres were able to help me hone a better query for my YA novel).

  From Ibiera:

There is always someone to reach out to, don’t give up.

Marcy selling her books at the conference bookstore

From Marcy:

There was SO much that I took away from the conference that it's hard to nail it down to one! So I'll try to take a few and make them sound like one ;) I want to continue practicing the exercises that Kendra Levin led us through in her workshop because it engaged me in a really incredible way with my characters, giving me both a new vigor to keep revising and writing, and a new, strange sense of responsibility to my story. This was followed up her workshop on being the hero of our own life story which I want to continue reflecting on as well. Which led to the purchase of her book, "The Hero is You," which I hope to work through. If the book is anything like the workshops, then this is my tip: Get the book and work through the exercises.

From Catherine M.:

Create a mission statement for your creative career, ask yourself why. Why do you create? What are you trying to accomplish? And be a scientist to your own process. Study it, experiment. And find allies. Make friends, fellow creatives, to champion you and for you to champion. Because your voice matters. There is a place for you. Each and every you. -Kendra Levin from her Be The Hero of Your Own Writing Process talk Sunday afternoon

From Laurel:

The number one piece of advice was probably Dina’s remarks about working together in partnership to achieve our dreams together. Something she said and demonstrated the whole conference. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the author presentations so much. In almost all of the presentations, people spoke truth out of their personal and professional experiences. So when they shared tips and tools and insights for the road ahead, what they said had a completely different resonance.

From Linda:

I've taken courses, attended workshops and webinars, and read everything I can about writing picture books the past three years. I know the "rules", the language, the various approaches, and I feel I've finally found my voice. But I also have a lot of story ideas that are more suitable for middle grade readers but never seem to start those stories. I hoped to find some inspiration or advice at the Europolitan that would encourage me to do so. The breakout session with Kendra Levin's confirmed what I already knew but didn't want to admit: I am just making up excuses and avoiding the situation because it is out of my comfort zone. So how can I feel more comfortable about WRITING a middle grade novel? READ middle grade novels. Lots of them. So I have followed Kendra's advice. I bought middle grade books at the conference. I finished one on the 5-hour train ride home and have already read two others. And yesterday I took the plunge... I mapped out my first MG and even wrote a few lines. (I know, I know...the first draft won't be "it" but it's a start.) The best advice: Go outside your comfort zone. Experiment. Explore. Take chances. And read what you want to write.

RA Dina Von Lowenkraft welcoming everyone to the Eurpolitan 2017

2. What is your best memory from the conference?

From Patti:

Presenting the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award to my friend Angela for her amazing book is of course on the top of the list from all of my conference memories. Knowing how hard it was for Angela to write THE SAFEST LIE and to see it being celebrated is both rewarding and satisfying.

From Catherine F.:

My best memory of the conference is the friendly, supportive atmosphere and the way that everybody generously shared their creative experiences and supported each other. It was brilliant to reconnect with old friends as well as make new ones (especially those from our region) and also to have the opportunity to chat to faculty members in an informal way.

One of my workshop highlights was listening to Chris Mould read The Gruffalo!

From Angela:

Europolitan was amazing. It was great to see old friends and make new ones. The best memory i have of the weekend is of you, Patti! I will never forget how you surprised me with the Crystal Kite introduction. It was a wonderful -emotional- surprise. Thank you!

From Ana:

No visit to Brussels is complete without Smurfs

My best memory is going out for dinner and drinks with everyone. 

From Sanne:

Listening to Susanne Gerway and realizing - once more - what an impact stories can have on a child's life.

From Jehan:

My positive memory is getting to know the ladies from my region better! I am continuously reminded that writers (and illustrators)) are very cool people, MY PEOPLE.

From Britta:

Kendra Levin's workshop and the journey down the "memory elevator" was incredibly transformative. I've begun using her book and when I look back on the conference I feel really charged about my daily writing goals (and making them manageable with a 50 hour work week). Levin's book and workshop helped me to feel connected to my characters and my writing journey overall. It was great to be able to cry about the emotions my characters were feeling without feeling like a complete idiot or spaz.

From Ibiera:

End key note from Angela Cerrito. Also the atmosphere/event just felt like a family reunion with one set goal. It was so overwhelming, which made going home time difficult. Everyone was helpful, encouraging and the conference was wonderfully organised. A big thanks to the team and Dina’s family. Plus thanks for the British Fish and Chips effect!!!!!! (made us feel like Brexit does not mean real exit, and that we are still bonded)

From Marcy:
Marcy's surprise

Again, there are so, so many. SO many. Connecting with "old" friends, making new friends, the sense that this was a family reunion. But I think the sweetest moment is when someone handed me an SCBWI folder with a sweet gift inside, and a note that still floors me. I don't even know who to thank. I was touched and teary-eyed as we were about to begin a session that someone had seen me and cared enough to do this. Still leaves me in awe. And yet, isn't this the spirit of who we are as a community of writers and illustrators? It was and is beautiful.

From Catherine M.:

I found the critique cafe on Monday invaluable. The insights and feedback I got from my fellow writers helped my opening specifically and expanded my perspective on my manuscript in general. But really, the cafe was just a condensed and highlighted version of an overall quality of the conference, and that was the quality of conversations and the creative exchanges between the attendees. There was so much knowledge shared among the participants (everyone, speakers and organizers included), so many stories and tips and thoughts shared so freely and openly. I always felt encouraged and included. The whole conference was a pooling of talent and the exchange of experiences and best practices. People were so open and so inclusive, pulling everyone into shared conversation . It was such a welcoming and motivating event, with such lovely people, opportunities to connect, and feel like a part of a greater, creative endeavor.

From Laurel:  

The Scrawl Crawl was another
way of making connections

My best memory from the conference is the non-stop conversation that happened every time there was a pause in the formal presentations. As Angela said in her amazing talk, this is a tough industry. But everyone I talked to was working on ways to move forward, to overcome challenges, and get past writerly pain to bring some new beauty into the world of children’s books. Inspiring!

From Linda:

It was my first Europolitan and I didn't know many people. That changed quickly. While heading to the first event (the Scrawl Crawl) in the rain I made a new SCBWI friend by sharing my umbrella, and during the Scrawl Crawl I met more people from other SCBWI chapters. We discussed our writing lives, inspiration, works in progress, etc. The "get to know each other activity" also helped. I found others with common writing goals and we chatted as often as possible during breaks. At the Peer Critique session I gained a few new critique partners who offered advice on my most current manuscript. Oh, yes. Networking is wonderful. But the Europolitan goes way beyond that. Since it is such a small group of participants, you really get to know people on a personal level. Every evening a different group of people invited me to join them for dinner. People also hung out at the hotel together or we ventured out to buy Belgian chocolates. We talked about almost anything and had lots of laughs and fun together. I went to the conference knowing few but left with many new friends. So, I guess what I am trying to say is: there isn't one single moment that stands out as special. Instead, it is those collective moments that add up to my best memory: a sense of community. That isn't something you get at every conference.

Post-conference dinner in Brussels with old and new friends. Photo by Melanie Welfing

Thank you everyone for participating in the blog! Stay tuned for more information and a close-up look at the newest Europolitan program; The Europolitan Mentor Program.

The tenth child out of eleven in family that took in hundreds of foster kids, Patti Buff learned early on that if she wanted some peace and quiet she better put her nose in a book. A native Minnesotan, she lives in disgustingly beautiful Germany with her husband and two teenagers. She can be reached at her website, facebook  or twitter.SaveSave

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

SCBWI NY Conference Report Day 2

The morning of the last day of the conference opened with inspiration announcing awards and grants.
Sarah Baker announced the two Student Illustrator Scholarship winners ( were Aura Lewis and Mago Huang.

Aura Lewis
Mago Huang

Cecilia Young presented the awards for the portfolio showcase ( Honor award winners receive a phone call with an art director and a critique of their portfolios. The Grand Prize winner receives a trip to a New York and a meeting with three art directors. The three honor awards were presented to Victoria Tentler-Krylov, Luke Flowers and Heidi Woodward Sheffield and the Grand Prize winner was Melissa Crowton.

Victoria Tentler-Krylov 

Luke Flowers

Heidi Woodward Sheffield

Melissa Crowton

Jane Yolen spoke about the struggles of midlist authors and their important work. And how changes in publishing such as publishers merging, closing or editors moving present challenges to careers. This motivated her to create the Jane Yolen Midlist Author Grant. The honor award winners were Joan Donaldson and Deborah Trotter. Jane went on to say that the grant was so much more than simply a grant, it was encouragement, a recognition of the quality of the work and belief from all of SCBWI to the authors to keep writing. Then she announced the winner: Jan Peck who was present to receive her award.

Tomie dePaola announced that this would be a final award for his namesake award. (Though SCBWI will honor his legacy with the Narrative-art-award for illustrators each year. He spoke with such affection for all of the illustrators (and illustrations) that he announced this year. And the winners are: Special Mention Lisa Cinelli, Second Runner-Up Rebecca Hirsch, First Runner-Up Stephen Macquignon, First Place Winner Katya Tabakh.

Lisa Cinelli
Rebecca Hirsch

Stephen Macquignon
Katya Tabakh

The Current Landscape of Children’s Books was a topic of a panel moderated by Lin Oliver with Ken Geist (VP & Publisher Orchard Books), Andrew Harwell (Senior Editor HarperCollins), Carrie Howland (Senior Agent, Empire Literary), Eileen Kreit (VP & Publishers Puffin/Penguin Young Readers Group) and Edward Nescarsulmer IV (Agent, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency).

Ken Geist spoke about his focus on picture books for ages 0 – 7 at his publishing house while Eileen Kreit shared that their backlist is her front list. The Young Readers Group at Puffin/Penguin republishes hardcovers into paperback everything from picture books to new adult. Both agents, Edward Necarlsulmer IV and Carrie Howland discussed helping their authors’ careers grow and seeking out new clients. Carrie Howland told us she’s found clients through twitter, blogs and Instagram. Andrew Harwell mentioned the importance of books as a tool for empathy.

My final break out session at this SCBWI conference was with two of my favorite writers Cynthia Leitich Smith ( and Ellen Hopkins ( The topics were How to Handle Difficult Subjects with Ellen Hopkins and Writing Within and Across Identity Elements with Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Cynthia spoke first. She emphasized that “All people are made up of Identity elements (gender, race, orientation, religion, region, socio-economic, family composition, body type, physical and mental disabilities, etc.) Some elements people are born with and others are acquired (disability after an accident, socioeconomic changes, traumatic experiences, etc.)” She suggested writers read 100 books by authors writing in their own voices before trying to represent a character from another identity element, 200 if writing about a protagonist.

Ellen discussed her field research. She rode along with vice police officers when researching her book TRICKS. She read a passage of TRICKS and discussed how she manages difficult situations while maintaining honesty in the text. Two things she avoids is placing judgement on the actions of her characters in her books and self-censoring.

The conference closed with a keynote from Sara Pennypacker. She gave her top ten list of advice for creating art for children. My favorite was to leave room for the reader. She doesn’t write what happens exactly, but writes around it. “Take out a sentence or two. Make the kids put A + C together.” 

Angela Cerrito serves as SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor. Her novel, THE SAFEST LIE (Holiday House) has been named one of The Guardian’s Best Children’s Books of 2015, a Notable Social Studies Book for Young Readers, a Jewish Book Award Finalist, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Older Readers and SCBWI’s Crystal Kite Award. THE SAFEST LIE is based on her research in Warsaw, Poland, including interviewing Irena Sendler, a mastermind spy and member of the Polish resistance who helped over 2,500 children escape the Warsaw ghetto. This research was made possible with the help of SCBWI’s Kimberly Colen Memorial Grant. Angela’s debut novel, THE END OF THE LINE (Holiday House, 2011) about a boy coming to terms with his role in the death of a friend, received many awards including VOYA’s Top of the Top Shelf. Her one-act play IF THEY COME TONIGHT, based on the life of Irena Sendler, was produced in Texas. She speaks about writing, early literacy and the Warsaw ghetto children rescues at schools, workshops and international