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Howdy friends, I love my students and love continuing to help them after they are published.  So I have two treats for you today. First up is a video review of Miri Leshem Pelly's Scribble and Author (it's only 5 mins) followed by a Guest Post from the equally wonderful Jackie Azua Kramer.
Miri Leshem Pelly Scribble And Author - YouTube
I hope you love this book as much as I do. If you can, please buy it from your local independent bookstore and ask your library to get it in too. If not, click here for an Amazon link The same goes for Jackie's books. Read on for the link and more as Jackie shares some sage advice for writers.
Before You Write FREE Your Mind by Jackie Azua
Many writers believe in B.I.C., otherwise, known as ‘butt in chair’. A writer MUST physically write every day. For me, just imagining that stark, white, unyielding page daring me to write something new, interesting and compelling, makes my blood run cold. Oh, I’m feeling faint.
Allow me to get a bit hippy-dippy...I write metaphysically. When I start to write I never consider the page blank. I’ve been writing in my head long before I sit down at the keyboard. I call it writing in my ‘writerly mind’. Here’s a rough idea of what happens before the pen hits the paper, if you will.

1. I invite the muse in. How? I go and LIVE my life. Hang out with friends. Go to museums and movies. Cook and clean. Travel. Play in the natural world. Read. My senses are primed and open to that spark of an idea.
2. Now the bones of a story are rattling around in my mind. The story is ever present, as I shower, do laundry, go walking. I dare say, I even lose track of time entertained in my writerly mind. When I wake up in the morning, and before I fall asleep, the story is taking shape.
3. Like a movie playing on a loop, I envision the beginning and the end of the story. I’m not worried about the middle. What’s most important is I know how I want the reader to FEEL.
4. I begin to describe to someone (anyone who’ll listen, and often my hubby) what I’m doing. Conversation often crystallizes my own thinking far more effectively than solitary reflection. 
​Here’s what--when I put the first words down, there’s no need for perfection. I know they may change, however, I’m now able to say “hello” and welcome that same blank page. So, before you write, FREE YOUR MIND.
Jackie Azúa Kramer studied acting and voice at NYU and earned her MA, Queens College, Counseling in Education. Jackie has worked as an actor, singer, and school counselor. Her work with children presented her an opportunity to address their concerns, secrets and hopes through storytelling. Now she spends her time writing children’s picture books. Her picture books include, the award-winning The Green Umbrella (2017 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year), If You Want to Fall Asleep and That’s for Babies. Upcoming books- The Boy and the Eight Hundred Pound Gorilla (Candlewick, 2020); I Wish You Knew (Roaring Brook, 2021); We Are One (Two Lions, TBD); Miles Won’t Smile (Clavis, TBD).
Jackie lives with her family in Long Island, NY. When not writing, you’ll find Jackie reading, watching old movies and globe trekking.
Visit: Jackieazuakramer.com • Twitter @jackiekramer422
Facebook Jackie Azúa Kramer • Instagram
Once again, do try and buy Jackie's books at your local independent bookstore but if this is too difficult, you can find them here at this link.  And here's a quick peek at Jackie's latest book​
​In That’s for Babies, on the morning of little Prunella’s birthday, she announces she’s a big girl, and ready for adventure. But one dark and stormy night, she discovers that growing up is a series of small milestones...two steps forward and one step back.

Jackie says she loved writing this story because it shares that it’s okay for big girls to play and imagine, explore and be vulnerable.

So that's it for this very belated Blogfish post.  Because of my crazy schedule and a general lack of comments, I've kind of lost interest in posting. If you are a former student, now traditionally published, and would like to guest post, please let me know. at mira @ childrensbookacademy . com (no spaces). Sending creative love to you all, and thanks to Miri and Jackie - Mira
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by Bryan Patrick Avery

Last week, we started exploring ways to help readers bond with your characters, which in turn helps readers stick with books all the way through to the end. If a reader cares about a character, then she will care about what happens to them (the plot). This week, we’ll look at two more books with interesting characters readers care about. First up, a robot marooned on an island.

In “Wild Robot”, written by Peter Brown, Roz is a robot who opens her eyes for the first time and discovers she is all alone on an island. She’s been programmed to serve humans, but with no one to serve, what will she do? She learns very quickly, through encounters with the local wildlife (bears) and with Mother Nature (a horrendous storm), that she must first learn how to survive. To do this, she realizes, she must learn from the creatures who’ve already learned to survive on the island. There’s only one problem: the local creatures think she’s dangerous.
What makes Roz appealing is simple. Her journey of discovery, not just of where she is but who is, is one every reader can relate to. Whether it’s finding your place on a deserted island or in a crowded middle school, the challenges, emotions, and concerns are the same. Over time, as Roz begins to build relationships with her island-mates, readers can even identify with the joys of making new friends and accomplishing tasks that once seemed impossible. In Roz, Peter Brown created a character who, though truly unique, is just like each of us. If you want to create a character that resonates with readers, Roz’s example is a great one to follow: connect your readers to your characters through shared emotions. Your readers will thank you.

Is it possible for your readers to connect to a character who lived more than a century ago? For T.R. Simon, author of the Edgar Award nominated “Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground”, the answer is a resounding yes. A fictionalized account of the childhood of Zora Neale Hurston, the book follows Zora and her friend Carrie as they attempt to unravel a mystery in America’s first incorporated black township. 
The story begins late one night when Zora and Carrie sneak out of the house after hearing horses in distress. Soon, the girls stumble upon Mr. Polk, who has been attacked and is badly injured. What follows next leaves Zora determined to investigate and nobody, not Carrie, not the town’s hoodoo lady, not even Zora parents, will be able to stop her.

That, in fact, is a large part of Zora’s appeal. Her determination to do what she thinks is best, even with all of the adults in her life telling her no, is every reader’s fantasy. Her bravery, wit, and intelligence make her the type of person many of us would love to be. It’s no surprise, then, that readers will stick with her through thick and thin. We’re rooting for her because, if she can do it, we feel that maybe we can too. Just as a reader can connect with a character because the character is like them,  a reader will connect with a character with qualities the reader would like to have. Perhaps that’s why adventure stories, and the characters they feature, have always been so popular.

Well, that’s all for now. Happy writing and have a magical month.
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by Bryan Patrick Avery

Most well-known magic artists aren’t famous because of the tricks they perform, but because of the personality of the magicians themselves. Magicians like Daryl, Don Alan, and Johnny Thompson found their fame by portraying themselves as someone audiences could relate to, enjoy spending time with, and root for. The same is true of the stories we tell. While the story may entertain, if our readers don’t care about the characters, they won’t stick with a book for very long. This week, and next, we’ll take a look at four characters readers care about and see if we can learn a little about how to make our own characters a little more memorable. First up, a patriotic second grader with a big dream.

In “Ellie May on President’s Day”, a chapter book written by Hillary Homzie and illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler, Ellie May’s big dream is to be picked to be flag leader in her second-grade class. Her quest lasts the entire week before President’s Day and begins with her realization that she hasn’t been picked to be flag leader for some time, while some of her classmates have been picked more than once. So, why do we root for Ellie May?
We meet Ellie May the Monday before President’s Day. When her teacher asks for a volunteer to be flag leader, Ellie May is out of her seat, her arms swishing “like windshield wipers”. We can instantly relate to her desire to be picked. When she’s admonished to return to her seat, we feel for her. She pouts as another student is picked and, while the rest of her class gives the student a “ten-finger woo”, Ellie May stayed in her chair and kept her “hands super still”.

Pouting isn’t always an attractive trait but, in this case, we can relate to Ellie May’s disappointment. Plus, she quickly turns her feelings into action. By the end of the first chapter, Ellie May makes a pledge: “This week I will be flag leader.”

Will she succeed? The reader will have to stick around to find out. Our introduction to Ellie May in chapter one builds a connection to the reader that will have them rooting for her even as her spirited personality and misguided decision making gets her into trouble over and over again. By the end of the book, we’re really pulling for her to her succeed. Her flaws are endearing to us and every reader can find a little bit of themselves in Ellie May. If you’re looking to create a relatable, realistic character, check out “Ellie May on President’s Day”.

Can you make a lazy, self-centered character likeable? A.B. Greenfield did. In “Ra the Mighty: Cat Detective”, illustrated by Sarah Horne, we meet Ra, a cat who wants nothing more then to lay in the sun by the pool while servants deliver snacks to him. He is Pharaoh’s cat, which means he is adored and revered, but why do readers relate to him? Perhaps the answers lie in Khepri, Ra’s scarab-beetle friend and sidekick. Like many sidekicks, Khepri helps to steer Ra towards doing what’s right, keeping his idiosyncrasies from alienating readers. For example, when a cat named Miu approaches Ra and asks for his help solving a mystery that could protect a young servant girl, Ra refuses. It is Khepri who pushes Ra to do what’s right. 
Even after Ra agrees to help, it is Khepri who pushes him to continue the investigation and to continue to think of the girl. The key is, however, that Khepri knows Ra better than anyone, and he knows that Ra is actually kind on the inside. So, when he nudges Ra to take action, he knows that Ra has it within himself to care for others and help. Early on in the story, while Ra is still refusing to help, Miu goes off on her own. Her route will take her directly into the path of the royal hunting dogs. This would spell doom for Miu. Khepri blackmails Ra into stopping Miu from going that way, but it becomes clear that Ra is willing to do it, just with a little prodding.

​Ultimately, this lazy, privileged cat proves time and again throughout the story that he does care about more than lounging and eating snacks (though those two things might be his favorite pastimes) which helps readers bond with him and care about what happens to him and Khepri. If you have a protagonist whose most visible personality traits might be a little less that endearing, consider using a sidekick to help bring out the best in them.

That’s all for Part 1. Next week, we’ll take a look at a robot marooned on an island and fictionalized version of a famous writer as we wrap up our look at building characters. Until then, have a magical week!
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by Melissa Stoller


In the blog post, Writing Resources Part 1, I highlighted books about the writing process and about living a creative life. I refer to those books often as I brainstorm ideas, write, and revise. In part two, I’m showcasing books that will help with technical points as you craft your stories. 
 
CHILDREN’S WRITER’S WORD BOOK, 2nd edition, by Alijandra Mogilner & Tayopa Mogilner – I keep this book on my desk and use it whenever I need to find a word relating to children of a certain grade, or find a synonym. 
 
THE EMOTION THESAURUS: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO CHARACTER EXPRESSION, Second Edition, by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi – this book offers suggestions for finding words that express emotion beyond the standard words that writers might first land upon. There are also other books in this series, such as words describing positive and negative traits. This also sits on my desk when I’m drafting.
 
THESAURUS OF THE SENSES: A TOOL FOR WRITERS, TEACHERS, STUDENTS, AND WORD LOVERS, by Linda Hart – another great resource, broken into categories “See,” “Hear,” “Touch,” “Taste,” and “Smell.”
 
THE DESCRIBER’S DICTIONARY: A TREASURY OF TERMS & LITERARY QUOTATIONS, by David Grambs & Ellen S. Levine – I often turn to the quotations to read great writing, and I refer to the list of terms to find the precise words to use when I’m composing. 
 
THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE, by Strunk and White – No writer’s reference library is complete without this timeless book (I still use my old edition, it’s probably time to update!). Here’s a sample of a few well-stated rules: “Revise and rewrite,” Do not overwrite,” and “Do not overstate.” Priceless. 
 
 
I hope these books are helpful as you create your stories!




BIO:
 
Melissa Stoller is the author of the chapter book series The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection - Book One: Return to Coney Island and Book Two:The Liberty Bell Train Ride (Clear Fork Publishing, 2017 and 2019); and the picture books Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush and Ready, Set, GOrilla! (Clear Fork, 2018). Upcoming picture books include Return of the Magic Paintbrush and Sadie’s Shabbat Stories (Clear Fork, 2019). She is also the co-author of The Parent-Child Book Club: Connecting With Your Kids Through Reading (HorizonLine Publishing, 2009). Melissa is an Assistant and Blogger for the Children’s Book Academy, a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, a Moderator for The Debut Picture Book Study Group, and a volunteer with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators/MetroNY. Melissa has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, freelance writer and editor, and early childhood educator. Additionally, she is a member of the Board of Trustees at The Hewitt School and at Temple Shaaray Tefila. Melissa lives in New York City with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy. 

 
CONNECT:  
 
www.MelissaStoller.com
http://www.facebook.com/MelissaStoller
http://www.twitter.com/melissastoller
http://www.instagram.com/Melissa_Stoller
http://www.pinterest.com/melissa_stoller
 


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​by Melissa Stoller


There are many inspiring and helpful books about writing and creativity that may be useful as you continue along your children’s book writing path. Here are five that I recommend:

 
 
BIG MAGIC: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Read this book to be inspired to live your best creative life.
 
BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE, by Anne Lamott
This book will put you in the best possible frame of mind to sit down and write. 
 
WRITING PICTURE BOOKS (Revised and Expanded edition), by Ann Whitford Paul
This is an absolutely essential book about the craft of picture book writing. 
 
THE MAGIC WORDS: WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS, by Sheryl B. Klein
Loaded with practical exercises, this book offers tips about plot, voice, characters, and much more.
 
WRITING MAGIC: CREATING STORIES THAT FLY, by Gail Carson Levine
The Newbery Honor author discusses heart, voice, dialogue, digging deeper into character, and more. 
 
STORYWORTHY: ENGAGE, TEACH, PERSUADE, AND CHANGE YOUR LIFE THROUGH THE POWER OF STORYTELLING, by Matthew Dicks
There are so many practical and entertaining tips included in this resource about the structures of stories, story arcs, and becoming a fantastic storyteller. 
 
 
In my next post, I’ll recommend some technical resources that I find invaluable as I craft my manuscripts. 
 
Happy reading, writing, and creating!



BIO:
 
Melissa Stoller is the author of the chapter book series The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection - Book One: Return to Coney Island and Book Two: The Liberty Bell Train Ride (Clear Fork Publishing, 2017 and 2019); and the picture books Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush and Ready, Set, GOrilla! (Clear Fork, 2018). Upcoming releases include Return of the Magic Paintbrush and Sadie’s Shabbat Stories (Clear Fork, 2019). She is also the co-author of The Parent-Child Book Club: Connecting With Your Kids Through Reading (HorizonLine Publishing, 2009). Melissa is an Assistant and Blogger for the Children’s Book Academy, a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, a Moderator for The Debut Picture Book Study Group, and a volunteer with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators/MetroNY. Melissa has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, freelance writer and editor, and early childhood educator. Additionally, she is a member of the Board of Trustees at The Hewitt School and at Temple Shaaray Tefila. Melissa lives in New York City with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy. 
 
CONNECT:  
 
www.MelissaStoller.com
http://www.facebook.com/MelissaStoller
http://www.twitter.com/melissastoller
http://www.instagram.com/Melissa_Stoller
http://www.pinterest.com/melissa_Stoller
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by Bryan Patrick Avery

Magic tricks, when done well, tend to be structured in a way that will be familiar to writers. They usually have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Take a simple coin vanish. The magician borrows a coin from a spectator (beginning), makes it disappear (middle), and then, when it seems the coin is lost forever, makes it reappear (the end). The routine, albeit short, reaches a satisfying conclusion.

Now imagine a routine where the magician borrows a coin, makes it disappear, then just stands there. The routine doesn’t end, and there’s no satisfying conclusion. Even if you don’t know what’s supposed to happen next, you still get the sense something is missing. The same is true when we tell stories. All types of stories have certain elements that must be present or else the reader is left with a sense that something is missing.

This month, let’s look at three essential ingredients of mysteries. To illustrate these essentials, we’ll look at two great middle grade mysteries: “The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity” written by Mac Barnett and “Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief” written by Wendelin Van Draanen. But first, what are these three essentials for mysteries?

#1: An Interesting Mystery. This can be a crime or question that needs solving or answering. Most importantly, it must be something the reader will care about. It also must be something you character cares about. Which brings us to essential #2.

#2: A Compelling Sleuth. Your sleuth most care about solving the mystery. Your reader must care about the sleuth. This will keep the reader engaged with the story, cheering on the sleuth even if they make mistakes or fail. Which they must, as we learn from essential #3.

#3: Ever-Growing Complications. No matter how brilliant your sleuth, they won’t keep your readers’ interest unless they’re forced to deal with complications on the way to solving the mystery.
Now, let’s look at how our two examples address the essentials. 
#1: An Interesting Mystery

In “Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief”, Sammy is staring at the hotel across the street through her binoculars when she spots a thief stealing money from one of the rooms. The thief stops and stares back at Sammy. Did he see her? Yes. How do we know? Because Sammy waved. She instantly regrets it, of course, but the damage is done. Who is this thief? Will he come after Sammy? This is the mystery that hooks the reader and drives the story.

In “The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity”, the mystery begins when Steve Brixton is assigned a social studies report and attempts to check a book out from the library. Within minutes, the library is under siege, and Steve is on the run. Before long, Steve is a fugitive from justice and must figure out who Mr. E is, and what Mr. E is truly after.

With the Interesting Mystery set up, let’s look at Essential #2.

#2: A Compelling Sleuth

On the surface, but Sammy Keyes and Steve Brixton seem like average middle school kids. Below the surface, not so much.

Sammy has a secret. Her mother is gone, off chasing her dreams, so Sammy lives with her grandmother. That’s not much to worry about, except that Sammy’s grandmother lives in a retirement home, and kids aren’t allowed to live there. Basically, Sammy is living there illegally. That might be okay, except that nosy neighbor Mrs. Graybill is doing all she can to catch Sammy. Still, Sammy’s brilliance and independence shine through, and she makes the perfect sleuth.

Steve Brixton loves mysteries. That’s a gross understatement. He has read every Bailey Brothers Detective book, most of them more then once. His detective skills are evident when he solves the case of the Blackbird Robber for his mother’s police officer boyfriend, Rick. His use of outdated jargon, picked up from reading the Bailey Brothers books, gives him a unique voice. As a sleuth, he’s fun to watch in action, and his skills, bolstered by excerpts from the Bailey Brothers’ Detective Handbook are authentic, even if they are a bit unusual (his undercover sailor’s costume is a good example of this).

So, we’ve got an Interesting Mystery and a Compelling Sleuth. Now it’s time for the Ever-Growing Complications.

#3: Ever-Growing Complications

Sammy Keyes first complication, of course, is her living situation. But that’s not the only issue she has to face. She quickly discovers that the police think she might the thief. Then she discovers that the thief has sent a threatening note meant for her. And things aren’t much better at school. She manages to get suspended on the first day of school. As the stresses in her life grow, her relationship with her grandmother suffers. She soon realizes that the only way to get some sort of balance in her life is to find the thief.

Steve Brixton runs into his own complications. After escaping from the Librarians, Steve finds himself in trouble with the police, and on the run from a gang of thugs. Every interaction he has seems to push him farther away from his goal of figuring out what is going on. Good thing he has the Bailey Brothers’ Detective Handbook to help him along the way.

“Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief” and “The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity” both have all three of our essential ingredients. It’s no wonder both books, and the series they spawned have collected such a loyal following. If you’re interested in writing a great mystery, check these series out. You won’t regret it.
Well, that’s all for now. Happy writing. Have a magical month!
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by Melissa Stoller

​Last month, I wrote about organizing and conducting a writing critique group, providing critiques, and accepting critiques.  You can find that post here http://www.childrensbookacademy.com/blogfish/its-all-about-critique-groups-part-1. Today’s post includes tips for sustaining a critique group, and what to do when it’s time to move on.  Again, I’m shouting out to all my amazing critique partners. I couldn’t do this without all of your support, guidance, and friendship!
 



SUSTAINING A CRITIQUE GROUP:
 
As with any other group, it’s important to assess the vitality of the membership. You can take the temperature of the group periodically with questions like: is this group still meeting everyone’s needs? What can we do to make the group more effective? Do we need to address our group rules surrounding membership size, participation, or other structural issues?  Checking in with your critique pals allows everyone to share their thoughts about how the group is working and to tweak any changes that will make the group stronger.
 

MOVING ON FROM A CRITIQUE GROUP:
 
Occasionally, a group might no longer work for any number of reasons. How do you handle that? Sometimes a group just slowly dies out due to lack of interest or participation. Other times, group members might start working in different genres and might agree to look for new groups that better serve their future writing plans. Sometimes the fit just doesn’t work. A cordial discussion will go a long way. You can decide that the group will take a hiatus and come back to re-evaluate in a few months. Or you can decide to part ways. You may even create a new group from the old if some members want to move off in a different direction together. 
 
Even if your group breaks up, stay connected to the members if possible so that when all your books are published, you can still support one another in friendship, and in marketing and promotion efforts.
 
 
Good luck with your critique group.  Happy writing and critiquing! 
 

BIO:
 
Melissa Stoller is the author of the chapter book series The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection - Book One: Return to Coney Island and Book Two: The Liberty Bell Train Ride (Clear Fork Publishing, 2017 and 2019); and the picture books Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush and Ready, Set, GOrilla! (Clear Fork, 2018). Upcoming releases include Return of the Magic Paintbrush and Sadie’s Shabbat Stories (Clear Fork, 2019). She is also the co-author of The Parent-Child Book Club: Connecting With Your Kids Through Reading (HorizonLine Publishing, 2009). Melissa is an Assistant and Blogger for the Children’s Book Academy, a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, a Moderator for The Debut Picture Book Study Group, and a volunteer with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators/MetroNY. Melissa has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, freelance writer and editor, and early childhood educator. Additionally, she is a member of the Board of Trustees at The Hewitt School and at Temple Shaaray Tefila. Melissa lives in New York City with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy. 
 
CONNECT:  
 
www.MelissaStoller.com
http://www.facebook.com/MelissaStoller
http://www.twitter.com/melissastoller
http://www.instagram.com/Melissa_Stoller
http://www.pinterest.com/melissa_Stoller
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by: Sarah Momo Romero

We live in a world where we have easy access to excitement, laughter and bright colors, always vying for our attention. But there is something very beautiful to be said for the quiet moments that might often get overlooked. This month, I was drawn to a couple of picture books with a little more reflection and quiet moments, but with equally captivating stories and stunning illustration as the more exciting picture books that easily cry out for our attention. 
Teacup, written by Rebecca Young and illustrated by Matt Ottley is a wondrous story of a boy and his teacup looking for a new place to live. He journeys through the magnificently created paintings of the tumultuous ocean in search of his new home.

Ottley's paintings full of texture, interesting layout design and perspective really capture the sense of quiet adventure the boy takes in search of his new home. His paintings pair perfectly with Young's beautifully written lyrical text, creating a unique experience of nature on each page. 
It was so quiet I could hear a pindrop by author and illustrator, Andy Goodman is a very simple yet imaginative picture book with opportunities for observing and reflecting on each spread. Unlike Teacup, the painterly illustrations in It was so quiet rely on simple graphic elements, bold colors and stark silhouettes to create moments to get lost in throughout the book.
As we drift from the colder weather to the blooms and rain showers of spring, I hope you have a chance to get lost in the stories and illustrations of these more quiet picture books before the excitement and bustling activities of summer come rolling in. Time always flies before we know it, especially if we don't take a moment to sit back and take it all in. 
Sarah Momo Romero is a Japanese Peruvian American artist, a graphic designer by day and children's book author and illustrator by night.  Sarah is an active SCBWI member who draws inspiration from her life in sunny Los Angeles with her husband/creative partner and dog/infamous escape artist, Peanut.  Her debut picture book, "Wake Up, Little Bat!" is out now through Clear Fork Publishing!



​You can find more of Sarah's musings and drawings here:
www.sarahmomoromero.com
Facebook: Sarah Momo Romero + Instagram: @sarahmomoromero + Twitter: @sarahmomoromero
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by Bryan Patrick Avery

This month, we lost a living legend in the magic world: Johnny Thompson. A mentor and consultant to many top magicians, Johnny came to prominence as the Great Tomsini in an act he performed with his wife Pam. The two created a slapstick act, integrating illusions with a series of hilarious mishaps, all of which made the magic more incredible. In the realm of magic, this is called routining. In the world of the writer, it’s called world-building.

This month, let’s take a look at two middle grade mysteries that prove world-building isn’t just for science fiction and fantasy. First up, “Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head”.

Written by Lauren Oliver and H.C. Chester, “Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head” features four orphans with amazing abilities who live and perform at Dumfrey’s Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders in early 20th century New York City. A mentalist, a contortionist, a strong man (err, boy), and a knife-thrower, the four kids attempt to solve the mystery of who stole the museum’s shrunken head, it’s most prized feature. Along the way, they encounter danger and deception, and even a few murders. 
What makes this book work so well is the complete immersion into the setting. The museum’s many halls and artifacts are brought to life by the authors, as are the behind the scenes areas. The homey kitchen, the dismal basement, and the attic living quarters, itself a labyrinth of furniture, mattresses, and other odds and ends all help the reader experience the sights, smells, and sounds of the museum. By the time the book is over, the reader will have truly experienced the Dime Museum, with all it’s faults and flaws.

In addition to the setting, Oliver and Chester paid close attention to the abilities of the characters, including how those abilities would affect them and the world around them. For example, what happens to the world’s strongest kid when a concrete block falls on him from several stories up? “Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head” is a satisfying mystery made even more enjoyable by the sense of place and time created by the authors. It’s no wonder it’s an Edgar award nominated book.
If you’ve ever wondered what the afterlife might be like, “Denis Ever After”, written by Tony Abbott, is the story of Denis Egan. When we meet him, Denis is living a carefree afterlife in Port Haven, the place where souls go. When Matt, the twin brother he left behind, starts having problems, Denis knows he has to help. Helping, in this case, means solving the mystery of his own death. Because you start to forget who you are as soon as you reach Port Haven, Denis doesn’t remember his own death. So, Denis and Matt go on a search for answers.
Abbott’s world building really pays off for the reader. The view of Port Haven as the afterlife creates a story world that is both accessible and compelling. It also adds to the tension of the story. Because souls go to Port Haven to forget, and be forgotten, the details about his life that would help Denis and Matt are inaccessible. Also, the method of moving between Port Haven and the living world is ingenious. It exacts a toll every time, leaving the reader to wonder if Denis will be able to keep doing it. Even the day to day experiences in Port Haven (the daily ships full of souls arriving, the foursome gathering to play bridge but only ever shuffling the cards) make an otherworldly experience relatable to the reader. Like “Curiosity House” above, “Denis Ever After” is an Edgar Award nominee and the nomination is well deserved.

Well, that’s all for this month. I’m off to do some world building of my own. Have a magical month!
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by Melissa Stoller 


​There are many benefits to joining a critique group. I gain so much from my partners’ insightful comments on my work. And I benefit by reading critiques of work written by other group members. Additionally, I learn by analyzing and providing critiques of my critique partners’ manuscripts. I belong to several different critique groups and my writing life would not be the same without them all (I’m sending a huge love-filled shout out to my amazing writing pals!). 
 
Here are tips for organizing and conducting your critique groups, providing critiques, and accepting critiques. Next time, in Part 2, I will discuss sustaining a critique group and what to do when it's time to move on. 


1) ORGANIZING A CRITIQUE GROUP:
 
There are many methods for critique group organization. You can participate in groups that meet online or groups that meet in-person. Setting up a group that meets via Skype or Zoom chat room allows for some face-to-face time as well as time to critique offline. 

Where can you find critique group members? Try asking about starting a critique group or joining an already existing group in Facebook or Twitter writing groups or chats, ask members of a writing class you may be taking if they want to form a smaller critique group, and inquire at your local SCBWI chapter if they have a method for organizing a group.
 
It’s important to establish ground rules for your group. Here are some examples of questions to ask: What’s the perfect size for your group? How often can members submit for critique? How does the critique timing work? How often must members critique other people’s work? How many words can make up a submission? Can you submit unlimited revision drafts? What genre will your group critique? What if you write in more than one genre? And what about logistics such as will your group use track changes or email to deliver critiques? If you are meeting in person, other logistical issues will become important to discuss as well.  



​2) PROVIDING CRITIQUES:
 
There are many ways to critique another writer's manuscript and sometimes you need to experiment with critique formats. I prefer to always provide comments about what’s working in the manuscript and also about what the challenges are or the places that need extra attention. I do like the “sandwich” method where you offer compliments about what’s working well first, then in the middle you offer three places where the manuscript can be strengthened, and then the final layer of the sandwich is another positive point. Also, as you grow in your critique group, you can better assess which members enjoy “picky” comments and which members benefit from a more gentle approach. It’s also great to discuss commenting style with your group as you are forming the group so everyone has similar expectations for the style of critiquing. 
 
And here are some points to consider when critiquing: 

Big picture comments like plot, character development, themes, structure, pacing, logical inconsistencies.

Line edit comments dealing with word choice, grammar, lyrical language, rhyme, typos.

​3) ACCEPTING CRITIQUES:
 
It’s equally important to be able to listen to critiques, take in the comments, and decide if the comments resonate with you and your writing style. Often, where there’s a pattern of the same or similar comments, it’s important to pay attention and think about those comments. As long as everyone is approaching the manuscripts from a place of respect, growth, and kindness, the members of the group can feel safe and confident in the space. Sometimes, when faced with comments that offer viewpoints that contrast with your vision, it's helpful to put the work and the comments away for a few days and come back to the project with fresh eyes. And of course, a writer should always be confident in reading the comments but ultimately incorporating what they like and discarding what doesn't work for them.

STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 of this post, focusing on sustaining a critique group and what happens when it's time to move on. In the meantime, happy writing and creating! 




BIO:
 
Melissa Stoller is the author of the chapter book series The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection - Book One: Return to Coney Island and Book Two: The Liberty Bell Train Ride (Clear Fork Publishing, 2017 and 2019); and the picture books Scarlet’s Magic Paintbrush and Ready, Set, GOrilla! (Clear Fork, 2018). Upcoming releases include Return of the Magic Paintbrush and Sadie’s Shabbat Stories (Clear Fork, 2019). She is also the co-author of The Parent-Child Book Club: Connecting With Your Kids Through Reading (HorizonLine Publishing, 2009). Melissa is an Assistant and Blogger for the Children’s Book Academy, a Regional Ambassador for The Chapter Book Challenge, a Moderator for The Debut Picture Book Study Group, and a volunteer with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators/MetroNY. Melissa has worked as a lawyer, legal writing instructor, freelance writer and editor, and early childhood educator. Additionally, she is a member of the Board of Trustees at The Hewitt School and at Temple Shaaray Tefila. Melissa lives in New York City with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy. 
 
CONNECT:  
 
www.MelissaStoller.com
http://www.facebook.com/MelissaStoller
http://www.twitter.com/melissastoller
http://www.instagram.com/Melissa_Stoller
http://www.pinterest.com/melissa_Stoller
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