Wednesday, May 16, 2018

FLYING DEEP & Making the Most out of Her Debut: A Chat with Michelle Cusolito by Kathy Halsey

I have been a writer long enough now to enjoy seeing friends' books  and dreams become real. Today I talk with writer friend Michelle Cusolito about her first book, FLYING DEEP: CLIMB INSIDE DEEP-SEA SUBMERSIBLE ALVIN, an engaging science picture book. We also chatted about lessons learned as an author prepares for her first book launch! Michelle has some great ideas to share on this topic, too.
Book Review 
As a former K-12 librarian, I delight in finding nonfiction picture books than bring science alive to a myriad of age groups. Even though the book is aimed at ages 5-9, older elementary students will also be fascinated by the exploration of the deep, dark sea, its environment, and amazing creatures. School Library Journal's review (April, 2018) states, "A captivating story that introduces and encourages scientific study, specifically the field of oceanography. A great addition to STEM collections." Kirkus Reviews concurs, and gives FLYING DEEP a starred review. (See all editorial reviews here). 

Children's writers can use Michelle's book to inform their own craft. In analyzing this book as a mentor text, I found many techniques that make FLYING DEEP unique.

  •  Titles and point of view matter. Michelle uses second person POV to invite the reader into the submersible. She even uses a command to the reader in her title - (You) "climb inside deep-sea submersible Alvin." Who could say no to that?
  • Michelle makes setting and the Alvin crucial to the plot. It's barely big enough for three, you can only stay down in the water so long, and you have a mission. The deep is spooky and strange sea creatures lurk.
  • The author uses questions to entice the reader: "What will you discover?" What type of music will you choose - classical, hip-hop? The reader has choices to make as he/she reads.
  • The use of time adds tension to the story. At 8:00 AM we're sinking, at 9:00 AM we descend and the temperature drops, and finally by 5:00 PM we stretch our stiff legs as our eyes adjust to sunlight. 
  • Lyrical language and carefully chosen onomatopoeia help the  reader explore the unusual world below with his/her senses heightened. 
  • Respect your readers and use appropriate vocabulary. Michelle doesn't shy away from terms such as "bioluminescence." Instead she employs a succinct glossary in back matter. 
  • Make back matter really matter. Michelle's author note really highlights her research, curiosity, and excitement. Illustrator Nicole Wong also emphasizes the research necessary for her to capture how light functions underwater. Savvy educators will dive into the back matter to share with students how meticulous, yet intriguing research can be. 
Q & A - Book Launches & More

K: When did you begin to plan for your debut book's launch? What elements did you feel were most important?
M:I struggled with this. On the one hand, of course, I wanted an event with kids, since this is a book for kids. But I also wanted a party to celebrate my personal accomplishment of getting a book published (I got my first “good rejections” a decade ago. It’s been a long road). I was talking to Sara Hines from Eight Cousins Bookshop about this back in February and she said, “You want a book lunch party AND an author launch party.” She was totally right. 

So, I’m having my book launch party at Eight Cousins and a private author launch party at a local bar and eatery. Having the book launch at Eight Cousins makes sense for several reasons: Its located in Falmouth, MA, just a few miles from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, which is Alvin’s home base. I also frequent the shop and I’ve developed a personal relationship with them over my years of being a customer. The bar and eatery I chose makes sense because it’s near my home and it’s also the place where my critique group meets every month. One waitress there watched Flying Deep progress from manuscript to sale. 
K: Do you belong to a debut group that promotes everyone's books, similar to Emu's Debuts? 
M: I’m part of a group called Epic Eighteens which is made up of debut picture book creators. We have a private Facebook group where we share ideas, cheer each other on and celebrate our successes. We also share our frustrations and challenges and offer each other advice. We celebrate each other’s book birthdays and other good news by sharing them on various social media platforms. We also share F and G’s so we can review each other books. (Hard copies are mailed from person to person and we have a secure place where digital ones can be viewed). One important point: we do not automatically give each other good reviews. Before we started, we agreed we would only post honest positive reviews. So, if we say we love a book, we really do love it. I am so thankful for this group.
K: How did you develop buzz for the book? Do agents or publisher help with this?  
M: I’m not sure how much buzz there even really is. It’s hard to know what’s happening outside of my social networks. I’ve taken some specific steps to help get the word out about my book, but I believe the genuine relationships I’ve built with people over time, both on-line and in-person, are responsible for much of the feedback I’ve gotten. 
I want to have genuine interactions with people both in “real life” and on-line. I post about things that I care about or that interest me and I think might also interest others.  When I was living in Ireland, I posted regularly using the hashtags #DublinLife, #DublinDoors and #DublinStreetArt.  I connected with lots of new people during that time.  Once I returned to the U.S., I started posting #RochesterLife so my friends overseas and in other parts of the country could learn about life here. I also facilitate a book discussion group for Picture Book 12x12 and moderate a Facebook Group called Create Engaging School Visits.

More recently, I worked with Jeanette Bradley to conduct a survey about school visits compensation. We’ve been sharing our results on my blog over the last couple of weeks. These are ways I try to give back to the community and learn new things myself.
Now that launch day is so close, I’m posting about the book more often, but I’m also careful to share only when I’m particularly excited about a development or have news to share such as the starred review from Kirkus
When it comes to specifics about my book launch, collaboration is key. I have been working closely with Eight Cousins BooksWoods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Charlesbridgeto plan my launch and other related events. I literally could not do this without all of them. 
Michelle and  Bruce Strickrott, Alvin Pilot and Manager of the Alvin Group. Cups are part of a great pre-order campaign. (See how to win these later in the post!) Photo credit Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. 

I have personal relationships with everyone involved. I didn’t develop a relationship with Eight Cousins Books in order to sell my book. I was their customer long before I sold Flying Deep to Charlesbridge. I love books and book stores, so I make sure to give local stores my business. By doing that, I develop relationships.  
My relationship with WHOI started in a more formal way-  I was seeking information and they helped me with my research. But I am genuinely excited about the work they do and want to tell people about their work. I’d like to think they sense that about me, which makes them excited to work with me. 

My agent, Jill Corcoran has been great about signal boosting all of my posts that relate to the book, such as positive reviews, launch party news, and book store appearances. 

Finally, Charlesbridge has been terrific. I email with Mel Schuit regularly to plan book store events, newspaper interviews, podcast appearances, etc. Some days we’ve had 5 different email threads flying back and forth. I think we work well as a team. I try to clearly communicate with Charlesbridge about my plans- both book related plans and personal ones that might help with book plans. For example, my family will be in the Washington DC area in July, so I told Mel and we were able to plan a book store event for July 7thin DC.
Cups and book that went down with Alvin last Saturday Photo credit Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Prize Alert!
Talk about building buzz for a book launch - these finished cups painted by illustrator Nicole Wong and signed by both author and illustrator dove deep on the Alvin. Five lucky folks who pre-order FLYING DEEP from Eight Cousins Books will be randomly selected to get a shrunken cup with their book. 


Wednesday, May 9, 2018


Amy talks about her late mother, haiku and the gift of sharing her mom's poetry with young readers . . .

By Eileen Meyer

Mother’s Day is just around the corner -- that special day where we celebrate and honor mothers, grandmothers, aunts, mentors and other special women who have meant so much to us.

I have a special story to share with you:

One about a daughter honoring her mother’s life and her beautiful poetry.

It’s a LOVE story.
A mother-daughter story.
A children’s publishing story.

(Photo: Sydell Rosenberg
 with daughter, Amy)

Welcome to one of my TAKE FIVE interviews. I hope that you’ll take five minutes to get to know Amy Losak and learn about the new children’s picture book, H IS FOR HAIKU, by her late mother, Sydell (“Syd”) Rosenberg.

Syd was a public school teacher in New York City and also a charter member of the Haiku Society of America when it was formed fifty years ago. The story of this book and Amy’s efforts to share it with readers is a powerful story of love and family -- and so appropriate as we prepare to honor the women in our lives on this special holiday.

Eileen:  Since Mother’s Day is this weekend, May 13th, I wanted to interview you for our blog readers. You have a beautiful story about your role in bringing your mother’s work to publishers for the newly released picture book, H IS FOR HAIKU. Will you share that with our readers?

Amy: Thanks, Eileen. It’s such a pleasure to be here! As you kindly noted, my mother Sydell Rosenberg was a teacher in New York City schools. She also taught adult ESL. Mom also was a writer her entire life: poetry, short stories, literary and word puzzles, and more. The “more” includes, among other things, a racy novel she published as a young woman – I think almost straight out of Brooklyn College in the early 1950s. She worked as a copy editor for a small publishing company. This potboiler was published under a male pseudonym, Gale Sydney (a reversal of her maiden name initials, Sydell Gasnick.) It was titled “Strange Circle.” Interestingly, copies are still available online!

Syd was a product of New York but she had a love for nature and an intense curiosity about big and small things around her. At some point in the 1960s, Syd became captivated by the poetic form, haiku. She spent years learning about haiku and related forms. She even studied Japanese, I vaguely remember, perhaps to try and read the original masters. She was a charter member of the Haiku Society of America (HSA) in 1968 and attended the founding meeting. She also served as HSA secretary in 1975 and on their Merit Book Awards committees. Some of her poetry won awards and honorable mentions.

Decades ago, Syd wanted to publish a children’s poetry book –a haiku alphabet book. She submitted her manuscript to publishers back in the 1970s and 1980s. (Going through her papers, I unearthed some of the rejection letters she had saved.)

Mom was successful in publishing an assortment of poetry and other works over the course of her decades-long writing career. But when she died suddenly in1996 from an undiagnosed heart condition, she had not fulfilled her dream of publishing a book for children. Her family members resolved to fulfill that dream of hers!

However, it took many years before I was ready to take on this task. The project itself was daunting -- and the more I procrastinated, the more insurmountable this project became for me. But the need to share her poems with young readers was a great incentive. Around 2011, I began slowly to sort through, collect and curate a good selection of her work, especially her haiku and senryu. Among her papers, I found at least one of her old manuscripts.

I endeavored to share some of her short poems with arts, nature and literacy groups that serve children. I contacted a lot of organizations! I’m proud of a rewarding partnership that has been underway for several years with NY’s Arts For All ( AFA is an excellent nonprofit arts education organization that provides programming to city schools. I fund the teaching artists’ residencies. In several grades and classes, AFA’s teaching artists have used mom’s visually appealing poems to convey the basics of painting, drawing and collage; music; and theater.

Finally, in April, 2011, I began to submit H IS FOR HAIKU directly to publishers that welcomed non-agented submissions. I received either rejections or silence – not surprising. 

Time passed and I thought about self-publishing this book. Then in 2016, thanks to a poet and teacher, Aubrie Cox Warner, I connected with Penny Candy Books. To my great joy, they LOVED mom’s poetry and acquired the manuscript! It has been a wonderful experience to collaborate with Penny Candy. Finally – many years later, mom’s dream has come true. I have many people to thank in the KidLit and poetry communities (not to mention family, friends, coworkers …) – they kept me going when I felt like giving up.

Eileen:  Your mother’s poetry was inspired by her life in New York City. The haiku selections encourage readers “to slow down, linger, and pay attention to the moments we often overlook.” Can you share a favorite experience about city life and your mom/family?

Amy:  Mom and dad (Sam Rosenberg) did so much. We went to the theater, concerts, museums, botanical gardens, beaches, zoos, city parks – and more. Mom had this hunger to immerse herself in various enriching events and experiences both in New York and beyond, and she tried to impart her sense of adventure to my brother Nathan and me.

During our family jaunts, or as a result of them, she crafted a good number of poetry and stories. Some no doubt stayed in her head; others made it to the page. All these years later, I now appreciate her keen “eye.” Syd had a penchant for engaging with so-called “small moments” and making them matter. I think – hope -- mom would be pleased, but it’s even more important that readers be happy with this selection of her wonderful poems.

Eileen: Which poem in the collection is your favorite and why?

Amy: One of my favorites is “So pale”

This one was published a few times in journals, including a 1968 issue of Haiku West (where it won a “best-of-issue” award.) I love its simplicity and sense of stillness and peace. “It” can be anything readers wish to imagine. In H IS FOR HAIKU, Sawsan Chalabi’s illustration of an affable moon perfectly captures the understated enchantment of this poem.

Eileen:  Speaking of the great illustrations -- Sawsan Chalabi’s work is lovely and playful. What can you share with us?

Amy:  Sawsan’s wonderful artistic style is such a vivid complement to the poems! I asked Sawsan to tell us more about her process. . .

Sawsan Chalabi is a designer and illustrator with an MFA in Illustration from Savannah College of Art and Design. Her work is mostly digital and conceptual in nature. With H IS FOR HAIKU, she let each poem speak to her as she interpreted each random thought into a visual. Because the individual poems were not connected to one another (other than via the overall alphabet “framework”), this allowed her ample room and freedom for playfulness with the imagery and hand-lettering. To maintain a smooth transition from one page to the next, Sawsan used the same color palette throughout the book. She made sure each spread worked as one harmonious piece, with the visuals of one poem flowing freely into the next, thus allowing the reader to glide through the poet's thoughts with ease.

Eileen: Where can readers and fans find more information about you and your mother’s book on social media?

Amy: H IS FOR HAIKU and Penny Candy’s other titles can be found here:

The book is available on Amazon and via other retailers, including independent bookstores.

Sawsan’s vibrant artistry is showcased here:

Thank you, Eileen, for this lovely opportunity to chat and to share the story of H IS FOR HAIKU

Happy Mother’s Day to you and all of the GROG BLOG readers!

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Paying for a Professional Critique - Some Thoughts

By Leslie Colin Tribble

It’s been a slow year of writing for me. I wasn’t able to attend any conferences in 2017 and didn’t get a chance to have an agent or editor critique any manuscripts. I have several manuscripts that need some final work, but I’m just not sure how to get them to that polished state and my critique group has helped about as much as they can. What to do? 

I’ve decided to pay for a few professional critiques.

Before jumping in, I asked writer friends and folks within Facebook groups what they thought. I've taken their responses and come up with some tips for deciding why to pay for a critique and how to find the best person to do one. 

Hunting for a critique service doesn't have to be hard.

 Why Pay for a Critique
1.       You’ve written a story. And rewritten. Your critique group has been through several rounds of revisions with you. The story is Just. About. There. But you know in your heart something’s Just. Not. Right. This is the perfect time to pay for a professional critique. This person will read your story with a completely fresh set of eyes and will see it in a way neither you, nor your critique group did. That clarity can be the focus needed to make your story sing.

Who needs a professional critique? Maybe you do.

2.       Maybe you’ve already had too many people look at a manuscript too many times and are receiving too much conflicting advice. Again, that fresh set of eyes might show you the right path forward.

Critiques help you get back on track.

3.       Author (and critiquer) Jill Esbaum feels that a professional critique can shorten a writer’s learning curve. She feels one of the differences between published and unpublished writers is published writers are willing to listen to criticism and do the revision work necessary to perfect a manuscript.

Can you bearly stand to hear criticism?

How to Chose A Critique Service
4.       When paying someone to critique your story, choose wisely. Jill Esbaum says book editors, as gate keepers of the kid-lit world, might be a good place to start. But published authors can talk to you on a writer-to-writer basis and possibly explain problems in a way that’s easier to understand. Everyone I asked said to definitely find someone who writes, or edits the type of book you’re writing. Is your book a non-fiction picture book biography? Then don’t pay for a critique from someone who writes YA fiction.

Critiques keep you afloat.

5.       Price isn’t everything when it comes to paying for a critique. You need to make sure you understand what you will receive from the professional. Will they do line edits? Are they simply critiquing the scope and tone of the story? Will they provide a detailed write up of the critique or simply a summary? Do they offer a phone consultation or possibly a second consultation? Do your research and compare services, not just cost.
I can’t wait have my manuscripts critiqued. I think it will be just the boost I need to get my stories off my computer and out into the land of submissions!

Have you paid for a critique outside of a conference? What are your thoughts?

Critiques help you see the big picture.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Talking Shop at SCBWI Shop Talks

by Sue Heavenrich
Writing can be a pretty solitary business and sometimes we need to connect with other children's writers. I find my tribe at the local SCBWI Shop Talks. Our regional chapter of the  Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (which we refer to as Skib-wee here in the rural outback of upstate NY) hosts an annual conference and a couple of workshops and retreats. But many of us hunger for a way to connect more locally. And more frequently.

That's where Shop Talks come in. Our group meets once a month in a book store. It provides an opportunity to meet up, network, share information, and develop ourselves as writers and illustrators. Sometimes we bring works-in-progress (pages or artwork) for critiquing. Other times we share wisdom gleaned from conferences, workshops, and retreats. It might be an idea on how to approach revision, a technique for helping find voice, or advice on making book dummies.

Some evenings our gatherings feel like "mini-conferences" or writing workshops. For example, our shop talks have featured:
  • a workshop on plotting with a local author
  • using screenwriting techniques to map the emotional arc in a story
  • when to use rhyme in a picture book
  • digital illustration with our regional illustrator advisor
  • a storytelling duo sharing what they learned when they put their stories on the page
One night the youth services librarian at the county library spoke about how they select books for their collection. Another time we did a "picture book field trip", collecting new books from the shelves of the bookstore and bringing them back to our table to study, dissect, and discuss (no books were harmed).

Shop talk inspires me to keep on scribbling. Now, as co-leader for the group, it provides me an opportunity to encourage and support emerging writers and illustrators.

How to find a Shop Talk Group
Check out the SCBWI website. Scroll down the home page to "Regional Chapters" and look for your state - or, in the case of California, New York and a couple others, your part of the state. Click on that and you'll find that many of the regional chapter pages have a list of conferences, events, and local meetings. They may even have a link to shop talks. At the very least, the regional adviser can help you find a local group.

No Shop Talk group? Start your own.
I asked one of the founding mothers of our shop talk group, how they got started. She had been a member of an active shop talk group in a larger city - four hours to the east - before moving to Ithaca. She attended a regional conference with a couple friends, and they thought it would be great to get a shop talk going in the Ithaca area. They were able to send out an email invitation to SCBWI members who lived in the area and then set up a list serve to connect writers and illustrators. They worked with an independent book store to secure a space to meet once a month. Over time the group has changed but the mission has remained the same: to provide fellowship, share information, and develop the craft both as writers and as illustrators.

What happens when you send out the invites and only a few people show up? Consider meeting in a public location where there is more visibility. I know of a group that meets in a library and their meetings are advertised on the library calendar. Not everyone who shows up is a SCBWI member, says the shop talk leader, but they are all serious about writing for kids and young adults.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Astronaut Aquanaut - A Stellar Science Book and Mentor Text for Nonfiction Writers, Too by Kathy Halsey

I can honesty say that most of what I know about science comes from children's authors like today's featured guest, Jen Swanson. Had science books been as much fun as those she's written for National Geographic Kids, I may have been something more "science-y" than an English teacher. 

Recommended for Teachers, Librarians and Homeschoolers
I highly recommend ASTRONAUT AQUANAUT: HOW SPACE SCIENCE AND SEA SCIENCE INTERACT for school libraries, science classrooms grades 3-8. This book services a multitude of multimodal lessons.

  • Teachers and parents have ready-made experiments/activities that are easy to replicate in almost every chapter. 
  • The comparison/contrast structure of astronauts and aquanauts' training and experiences will get kids wondering and English/Language Arts teachers cheering. (Students at multiple grade levels need to write comparison/contrast compositions, and Jen's book lays out a fine example of the format.) 
  • Science and E/LA teachers could easily expand on the chapter "Space and Deep Sea: More Alike Than You Imagine" for an interdisciplinary project including research.
  • Additionally, web sites, a glossary, and astronaut/aquanaut biographies are added features that librarians and student researches will appreciate.

Recommended Mentor Text for Nonfiction Writers
Nonfiction folks, delve into an author study of Jen Swanson's books to see in-depth how she breaks down complex topics and makes them factual and kid-friendly. (Click here.) I've reviewed several of her books for the GROG.  Here are a few techniques that nonfiction writers will want to emulate. 
  • When tackling dense topics such as space vs. oceans or nanotechnology, write simply and use a cohesive style/structure throughout the text. Predictive text structure help readers relax and concentrate on new material. Every chapter in this book is set up in a similar format with questions, interesting ancillary material in sidebars, an "explorer's notebook," and activities with questions to expand the reader's thoughts after the experiments.
  • Drop definitions into the text deftly and think about alliterative titles, too. Here are some title examples that kids will appreciate: "Darkness Descents," "What Goes Up Must Come Down," and "Expanding Our Horizons." 
  • Look at this example of a quick definition that doesn't stop the reader with an information dump. " 'Micro' is another way of saying 'very small,' so microgravity refers to extremely small gravitational forces."
  • Think about you point of view. Ask questions to entice readers. Jen uses second person POV and as you'll see from our interview (Q & A below), National Geographic prefers this option also.  
  • How you use comparisons matters. Jen creates her own concrete comparisons using ideas kids already know. In describing how pressure feels in the deepest ocean she says, "...the pressure is great than 15,7000 psi. That is a thousand times the amount of pressure you feel when standing on the ground." In a further comparison she states that amount of pressure is like "... one person holding up 50 jumbo airplanes."
Q & A with Jen Swanson

There have been several good blog interviews with Jen on ASTRONAUT AQUANAUT, so I chose to focus on questions nonfiction writers might find instructive. 

K: Do you outline/propose your books now to NatGeo or do you have specific editor w/whom you work?
Jen:  I have been lucky enough to work with one editor at  NGKids on several projects. We have a great, collaborative relationship which makes it really fun to work on books together. Because of this, my submission process is more relaxed. I may not create a full-blown proposal with completely outlined chapters, but more of a “this is what I want to do” sort of thing. It takes awhile to get to that point, and works well for the two of us, since we are also friends. But my agent is involved in the process and still handles all of the contract negotiations.
K: What informed your choice of 2nd person POV? 
J:  That is NGKids style. They love the 2nd person, informal type of language. This allows the reader to feel as if they are going on the journey with the book as they read it. The goal is for them to experience life up in space and down in the ocean, just like the experts did!

K: Do you decide what information is in sidebars?  If not, who does that?

 J:  Everything you see in the book pretty much started with me. Of course, my editor may make suggestions for areas that might need more expansion or ways to improve the book, which I definitely pay attention to, but I wrote all the sidebars. Specifically, it was my idea to approach experts (astronauts and aquanauts) and ask them questions that I thought my readers might want to know. It took a lot of effort and a great deal of persistence to catch up with some of them. But I think it is well worth it.  

K: Where do you find those cool comparisons? On a web site? 

J:  Nope. I just come up with this all on my own. I’m trying to get the reader to understand how big or little something is and the best way is to compare it to something they already know. This is a great tool for writing science books for kids; one I use in all of my books. 

K: What “in-person” research did you do for the book?

J:  Unfortunately, traveling to these amazing environments was not a part of my research. Maybe someday. I did, however, travel to NYC to meet Aquanaut Fabien Cousteau in person. A thrill of a lifetime and the picture of us together with Liz Bentley-Magee, a female aquanaut featured in the book made it into the back page.

K: Your writing tips for tackling science for kids…

J: Think like a kid! Make your writing FUN and EXCITING! Science is best when it’s hands-on because kids can see it happening right in front of them. While you can’t always do that with a book, you can make them feel the excitement of trying it if your words are active and engaging.

K: What are you working on now? 

J: I’m so very excited about this book with Peachtree Publishers coming out next April. It’s called Save The Crash-Test Dummies and it’s a book about ENGINEERING and car safety. I write engineering in all caps, because it is really a big thing for an engineering book to be published by a trade publisher. This book is an out-of-the box and fun look at the history of car safety engineering.  It even has a snarky, talking crash-test dummy as your guide through the ages. I have see the initial layouts and they are stunning. I am REALLY looking forward to this book! Go Engineering!

Finally Jen and Miranda Paul will be teaching their "Nuts and Bolts of science Writing" at Highlights again this summer Attendees will learn the ins and outs of writing fiction and nonfiction science books and will be able to submit to 5 different trade editors. Check out more information here