Andrea Hall – Editor Interview

I’m so thrilled that Andrea Hall, Associate Editor with Albert Whitman & Company, will be speaking at our 2018 SCBWI OK Spring Conference this April.

Andrea will give a talk entitled, “The Antagonist, a Striking Alternate Reality of Your MC”, about two characters vying for the same external goal and their flaw-revealing, stake-raising journeys. She will also have a break out session entitled, “The First Steps in Creating Award-Worthy Books”, which is aimed at people new to the children/teen publishing world.

About Andrea

Andrea Hall is an Associate Editor at Albert Whitman & Company where she works on picture books through young adult. She is particularly drawn to stories that have layers of meaning and diversity. Andrea started her publishing career at Pearson Education and is a former ARA of the Central and Southern Ohio Chapter of SCBWI.

To help us get to know her even better before the conference, Andrea agreed to answer some questions we received from some of our SCBWI OK members.


The Interview

Valerie Lawson: Welcome to the blog, Andrea! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our members’ questions, today.

Question #1 – If you could tell a writer one thing to help them get published, what would it be?

Andrea Hall: Don’t give up! Keep writing and trying. One never knows which project will be the one that will get published.

VL: Ah! Persistence is so important.

VL: Question #2 – Have you ever found a manuscript at a conference that you went on to publish?

AH: Not yet. But I’ve heard stories from other editors.

I did have a published author pitch me the novel of another member of her writing group at a trade show, and I did go on to publish that.

VL: What a nice friend! (Another reason to join a critique group!)

Question #3 – What makes you cringe in a query letter?

AH: Not following directions.

Telling your life story when it doesn’t pertain to the book. Mentioning that family/friends/your kids love your book. Calling the submission the next “best-seller.”

If only we could predict that!

VL: Yes, it’s always important to follow the submission guidelines!

Question #4 – What words would you recommend authors replace in their writing?

AH: This is going to be different for each writer.

For picture books, every word needs to count. Eliminate the words that are unnecessary.

For novels, look at words or phrases that are overused and try to avoid repetition.

VL: Question #5 – Do you prefer picture books written in past or present tense?

AH: I don’t have a preference.

VL: Question #6 – Could you explain what goes on inside an acquisition meeting?

AH: This is where the editor pitches the book to the rest of the group and works to get everyone (hopefully) excited about it. We discuss how the book fits into our list and get feedback from sales and marketing. This determines whether or not the editor gets the green light to acquire the project.

VL: Question #7 – How do you feel about sensitivity readers? Who is expected to obtain the services of sensitivity readers, the author or the publisher?

AH: Sensitivity readers serve the necessary purpose of ensuring authenticity when writing outside one’s own cultural group. I feel it falls to both the author and publisher—the author needs to do their due diligence to make the work as authentic as possible, and the publisher needs to also double-check and verify accuracy.

VL: That makes sense. Double-checking is always a good idea.

Question #8 – In Middle Grade historical fiction, is it a problem if the action of a story begins when the main character is very young? (Knowing kids who read Middle Grade like characters that are a little older than they are, and also wanting to stick to the facts as much as possible without turning off readers.) Any suggestions?

AH: This is tricky without knowing the context of the story. If something significant happened to the MC as a young child, which impacts the overall plot or helped shaped the character, than it makes sense to include. I suggest looking at other historical fiction titles that have done this and then find the best approach for your story.

VL: Question #9 – How many titles that you’ve published have come from un-agented submissions?

AH: Personally, three books I’ve acquired have been un-agented submissions.

VL: Question #10 – What are you NOT seeing from submissions right now that you would like to see?

AH: I’m not seeing enough cultural/diverse/#ownvoices stories. I’m always looking for more of these!

VL: Thank you, Andrea! It’s been a pleasure! We all look forward to hearing you speak at our conference.

And thank you to everyone who submitted a question! 

Learn more about Andrea and her publishing house here.

Follow Andrea on Twitter here.

**While Albert Whitman & Company DOES accept unsolicited manuscripts from unrepresented authors, you MUST follow their submission guidelines.

CLICK HERE for their guidelines on Picture Book, Middle Grade, and Young Adult submissions. 

Want more? You can hear Andrea speak in person at our conference in Oklahoma City this April!

For more details on our 2018 SCBWI OK Spring Conference or to register online, CLICK HERE.

See you there!


The Relaxed & Groovy Book Club – CARAVAL


Relaxed & Groovy Book Club

Welcome to a new year of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club.  This year is all about the debut author! Yes, with each book, we’ll be discovering someone brand new. What fun!

This first book the season, CARAVAL, by Stephanie Garber was a smashing debut from last year. It wasn’t however, this author’s first book out of the gate. It wasn’t even her second attempt or her fourth. As I mention in this post, the story of her overnight success took seven years and six attempts. Talk about persistence! And let me just say, totally worth the wait!

Her second highly anticipated book, LEGENDARY,  comes out later this year. I will be pre-ordering that one, no doubt!

Current Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber

Published by: Flatiron Books

Release Date: January 31, 2017

Genres: YA, Fantasy



Plot Summary:

Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.

But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.

Welcome, welcome to Caraval . . . beware of getting swept too far away. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Stephanie Garber here.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter here.

Follow Stephanie on Facebook here.

Follow Stephanie on Instagram here.


The Discussion:

Besides being a fabulous story set in a dazzling playground of magic where anything can happen, with a dark and twisty mystery, this is at its core, a story about two sisters with an unbreakable bond trying to save each other. And I’m a sucker for those. And trust me, you will get swept away by the story. I read this book so fast.

Here’s a peek from the opening of the book:


     Scarlett’s feelings came in colors even brighter than usual. The urgent red of burning coals. The eager green of new grass buds. The frenzied yellow of a flapping bird’s feathers.

     He’d finally written back.

     She read the letter again. Then again. And again. Her eyes took in each sharp stroke of ink, every waxy curve of the Caraval master’s silver crest — a sun with a star inside and a teardrop inside of the star. The same seal was watermarked onto the enclosed slips of paper.

     This was no prank.

     “Donatella!” Scarlett plunged down the steps into the barrel room in search of her younger sister. The familiar scents of molasses and oak snaked up her nose, but her scoundrel of a sibling was nowhere to be found.

     “Tella — Where are you?” Oil lamps cast an amber glow over bottles of rum and several freshly filled wooden barrels. Scarlett heard a moan as she moved past, and she caught bits of heavy breathing as well. After her latest battle with their father, Tella had probably drunk too much, and now dozed somewhere on the floor. “Dona–“

     She choked on the last half of her sister’s name.

     “Hullo, Scar.”

     Tella flashed Scarlett a sloppy grin, all white teeth and swollen lips. her honey-blonde curls were a mess as well, and her shawl had fallen to the floor. But it was the sight of a young sailor, with his hands wrapped around Tella’s waist, that made Scarlett stutter. “Did I interrupt something?”

     “Nothing we can’t start up again.” The sailor spoke with a lilting Southern Empire accent, far smoother-sounding than the sharp Meridian Empire tongues Scarlett was accustomed to.

     Tella giggled, but at least had the grace to blush a little. “Scar, you know Julian, right?”

     “Lovely seeing you, Scarlett.” Julian smiled, as cool and seductive as a slice of shade in the Hot Season.

     Scarlett knew the polite response would be something along the lines of “Good to see you, too.” But all she could think about were his hands, still coiled around Tella’s periwinkle skirts, playing with the tassels on her bustle, as if she were a parcel he couldn’t wait to unwrap.

     Julian had only been on the isle of Trisda about a month. When he’d swaggered off his ship, tall and handsome, with golden-brown skin, he’d drawn almost every woman’s eye. Even Scarlett’s head had turned briefly, but she’d known better than to look any longer.

     “Tella, mind if I pull you away for a moment?” Scarlett managed to nod politely at Julian, but the instant they’d woven through enough barrels to be out of his hearing she said, “What are you doing?”

     “Scar, you’re getting married; I would think you’d be aware of what occurs between a man and a woman.” Tella nudged her sister’s shoulder playfully.

     “That’s not what I’m talking about. You know what will happen if Father catches you.”

     “Which is why I don’t plan on getting caught.”

     “Please be serious,” Scarlett said.

     “I am being serious. If Father catches us, I’ll just find a way to blame it on you.” Tella gave a tart smile. “But I don’t think you came down here to talk about that.” Her eyes dropped to the letter in Scarlett’s hands.

     The hazy glow of a lantern caught the metallic edges of the paper, making them blaze a shimmery gold, the color of magic and wishes and promises of things to come. The address on the envelope lit up with equal luster.

     Miss Scarlett Dragna

     Care of the priests’ confessional


     Conquered Isles of the Meridian Empire

     Tella’s eyes sharpened as she took in the radiant script. Scarlett’s sister had always liked beautiful things, like the young man still waiting for her behind the barrels. Often, if Scarlett lost one of her prettier possessions, she could find it tucked away in her younger sister’s room.


Garber paints a scene like an artist – just enough brilliant detail to make you live in it, to breathe in the surroundings. And her use of colors – just as fantastic. I love how she connects it to Scarlett’s emotions.

We soon learn why Scarlett wants to leave home, but won’t risk running away again. Instead, to escape her father’s brutal clutches, she plans to marry a man she’s never met — she doesn’t even know his name. The only hint she has of him comes from carefully censored letters her father gives her.

Here’s a scene where we discover the two sisters very different future plans:


     Scarlett could still smell her father’s perfume. It smelled like the color of his gloves: anise and lavender and something akin to rotted plums. It stayed with her long after he left, hovering in the air around Tella while Scarlett sat by her side, waiting for a maid to bring clean bandages and medicinal supplies.

     “You should have let me tell the truth,” Scarlett said. “He’d not have hit me this badly to punish you. Not with my wedding in ten days.”

     “Maybe he wouldn’t have struck your face, but he’d have done something else just as vicious–broken a finger so you couldn’t finish your wedding quilt.” Tella closed her eyes and leaned back against a barrel of rum. Her cheek was now almost the color of her father’s wretched gloves. “And I’m the one who deserved to be hit, not you.”

     “No one deserves this,” Julian said. It was the first time he’d spoken since their father left. “I’m–“

     “Don’t,” Scarlett cut in. “Your apology will not heal her wounds.”

     “I wasn’t going to apologize.” Julian paused, as if weighing his next words. “I’m changing my offer about taking you both from the isle. I’ll do it for free, if you decide you want to leave. My ship sets off from port tomorrow at dawn. Come find me if you change your mind.” He divided a look between Scarlett and Tella before he disappeared up the stairs.

     “No,” Scarlett said, sensing what Tella wanted before she said any words aloud. “If we leave, things will be worse when we return.”

     “I don’t plan on returning.” Tella opened her eyes. They were watery but fierce.

     Scarlet was often annoyed by how impulsive her younger sister was, but she also knew that when Tella finally set her mind to a plan, there was no changing it. Scarlett realized Tella had made her decision even before the letter from Caraval Master Legend arrived. That’s why she’d been with Julian. From the way she’d ignored him as he’d left, it was obvious she didn’t care about him. She just wanted a sailor who could take her away from Trisda. And now Scarlett had given her the reason she needed to leave.

     “Scar, you should come too,” Tella said. “I know you think your marriage is going to save and protect you, but what if the count is as bad as Father, or worse?”

     “He’s not,” Scarlett insisted. “You’d know this if you read his letters. He’s a perfect gentleman, and he’s promised to take care of us both.”

     “Oh, sister.” Tella smiled, but it wasn’t the happy sort. It was the way someone smiles just before they say something they wish they didn’t have to. “If he’s such a gentleman, then why is he so secretive? Why have you only been told his title but not his name?”

Great set up for the adventure to come. And Garber wastes no time getting right to the good stuff. Before dawn, Scarlett ends up on Julian’s ship knocked out, against her will — all a part of her sister’s fake kidnapping plot. The next thing she knows, she’s arriving on Legend’s private island just in time for Caraval, only her sister is nowhere in sight.

Here, Scarlett gets a taste of the magic on the island as she tries to find her sister:

     Julian’s dark brows slanted up. “You’re actually considering his offer?”

     “If it will get us to my sister faster.” Scarlett would have expected the sailor to be all for shortcuts, but instead his eyes darted around almost nervously. “You think it’s a bad idea?” she asked.

     “I think the smoke we saw is the entrance to Caraval, and I’d rather keep my currency.” He reached for the front door.

     “But you don’t even know the price,” said Algie.

     Julian threw a look at Scarlett, pausing for the click of a second hand. Something unreadable flickered in his eyes, and when he spoke again she would have sworn his voice sounded strained. “Do whatever you want, Crimson, but just a friendly warning for when you do get inside: be careful who you trust; most of the people here aren’t who they appear.” A bell chimed as he stepped outside.

     Scarlett hadn’t expected him to stay with her forever, yet she found herself more than a little bit unnerved by his abrupt departure.

     “Wait–” Algie called as she started to follow. “I know you believe me. Are you just going to chase that boy and let him decide for you, or make a choice for yourself?”

     Scarlett knew she needed to leave. If she didn’t hurry, she’d never find the sailor, and then she’d be utterly alone. But Algie’s use of the word choice made her pause. With her father always telling her what to do, Scarlett rarely felt as if she had any genuine choices. Or maybe she paused because the part of her that had not quite let go of all her childhood fantasies wanted to believe Algie.

     She thought of how effortlessly the door had formed and how every clock had gone silent when Algie had touched the door’s peculiar handle. “Even if I was interested,” she said, “I don’t have any money.”

     “But what if I’m not asking for money?” Algie straightened the tips of his mustache. “I said I’m offering a bargain: I’d just like to borrow your voice.”

     Scarlett choked on nervous laughter. “That doesn’t sound like a fair trade.” Was a voice even a thing someone could borrow?

     “I only want it for an hour,” Algie said. “It will take you at least that long to follow the smoke and make it into the house and start the game, but I can let you inside right now.” He pulled a watch from his pocket, and wound both the hour and minute hands to the top. “Say yes, and this device will take your voice for sixty minutes, and my door will lead you right inside the heart of Caraval.”

     She could find her sister right now.

     But what if he was lying? What if he took more than an hour? Scarlett was uncomfortable trusting a man she’d just met, even more so after Julian’s warning. The idea of losing her voice terrified her as well. Her cries never stopped her father from hurting Tella, but at least Scarlett had always been able to call out. If she did this and something happened, she’d be powerless. If she saw Tella from a distance, she’d be unable to yell her name. And what if Tella was waiting for Scarlett at the gate?

     Scarlett only knew how to survive through caution. When her father made deals there was almost always something awful he failed to mention. She couldn’t risk that happening now.

     “I’ll take my chances with the regular entrance,” she said.

     Algie’s mustache drooped. “Your loss. It really would have been a bargain.” He pulled open the patchwork door. For a brilliant moment Scarlett glimpsed the other side: a passionate sky made of melting lemons and burning peaches. Thin rivers that shined like polished gemstones. A laughing girl with curly spires of honey —

     “Donatella!” Scarlett rushed for the door, but Algie slammed it shut before her fingers grazed the metal.

     “No!” Scarlett grabbed the notched wheel and tried to turn it, but it dissolved into ash, falling into a gloomy pile at her feet. She watched hopelessly as the puzzle pieces shifted again, clicking apart until the door was no more.

     She should have made the trade. Tella would have done it. In fact, Scarlett figured that was how her sister had gotten inside in the first place. Tella never worried about the future or consequences; it was Scarlett’s job to do that for her. So while she should have felt better knowing Tella was definitely in Caraval, Scarlett could only worry about what kinds of trouble her sister would find. Scarlett should have been in there with her. And now she had lost Julian as well.

     Hurrying out of Casabian’s shop, Scarlett rushed onto the street. Whatever warmth she’d felt inside immediately vanished. She hadn’t thought she’d been there very long, yet the morning had already disappeared along with early afternoon. The hatbox shops were now obscured in a din of leaden shadows.

     Time must move faster on this isle. Scarlett worried she would blink and the stars would be out. Not only had she been separated from Tella and Julian, but she’d wasted valuable minutes. The day was almost over, and Legend’s invitation said she only had until midnight to make it inside Caraval’s main gates.

     Wind danced along Scarlett’s arms, wrapping cold white fingers around the parts of her wrists her dress didn’t cover. “Julian!” she cried out hopefully.

     But there was no sign of her former companion. She was totally alone. She wasn’t sure if the game had started yet, but she already felt as if she were losing.

Aren’t the characters fascinating? I love how it’s more important to Scarlett for her to make her own choices than to be right. She does make many mistakes, but she’s not a weak character by any means. Watching her grow into a strong, formidable competitor in the game is very satisfying. And Julian is no typical two-dimensional pretty boy, he’s got depth and there are many interesting twists to his storyline as well.

This book will kept me turning the pages into the wee hours of the morning. I could not stop reading it! I may just have to read it again before LEGENDARY comes out.

What did you think of the story?


Up next…
I cannot wait to get my hands on this next debut novel. Historical fiction written in verse? Based on the true story of a young female artist in Rome? I’m all over it. And look at that stunning cover!
It comes out next month, but you can pre-order it right now!



Published by: Dutton Books for Young Readers

Release Date: March 6, 2018

Genres: YA, Historical Fiction, Poetry



Plot Summary:

A stunning debut novel based on the true story of the iconic painter, Artemisia Gentileschi.

Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.

She chose paint.

By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.

He will not consume
my every thought.
I am a painter.
I will paint.

Joy McCullough’s bold novel in verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia’s heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia’s most famous paintings but sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman’s timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence.

I will show you
what a woman can do.

We’ll reconvene this most relaxed and groovy of book clubs in the spring. (Tie-dyed tees and funky shoes optional, as always!)

Happy reading!

2018 SCBWI Oklahoma Twitter Chat Schedule


For those who don’t already know, I’m the Social Media Coordinator for the SCBWI Oklahoma Region, and I host a Twitter Chat once a month for our members, although anyone is welcome to join in the conversation. We meet on the fourth Tuesday of the month (and sometimes on additional special dates, too) from 7-8pm CST and we use the hashtag #okscbwichat. If you’ve ever been curious about a Twitter Chat, come check ours out! They are always interesting. And we love meeting new people.

I’m so excited to announce the schedule for our FOURTH season of #okscbwichat! I can hardly believe we already have three years under our belt. Wow!

(If you’re feeling nostalgic, you can go back and view any of our previous chats here.)

We had a lovely topic chat in January all about mentor texts and how they can help you be a better writer. You can view that conversation here.

In February, we start our guest chats. We have a nice line up of guests this year. Let me introduce them to you:


February 6th – Allison RemcheckSPECIAL CHAT DATE

Literary Agent Allison Remcheck is an Associate Agent with the Stimola Literary Studio. She is drawn to voices that speak for themselves, stories that only the author can tell, and books that reflect the lives of every child – especially the ones told least often. Allison will also be speaking at our spring conference in April.

Her Twitter handle is @allisonremcheck


February 27th – Daniel Nayeri

Daniel Nayeri is a Publisher at Macmillian. He is also an author of a few children’s books himself, including his latest book, STRAW HOUSE, WOOD HOUSE, BRICK HOUSE, BLOW. Daniel and his family immigrated to the United States when he was eight years old and arrived in Oklahoma. Daniel will also be speaking at our spring conference in April.

His Twitter handle is @DanielNayeri


March 6th – Hannah Mann – SPECIAL CHAT DATE

Hannah Mann is a Junior Agent with Writers House Literary Agency. Hannah started as an intern in the New York office before becoming Steven Malk’s assistant. She’s had the privilege of working closely with a variety of talented bestselling and award-winning authors and illustrators of works ranging from very young picture books to middle grade to young adult. Now as a Junior Agent, she’s seeking clients from those genres. Hannah will also be speaking at our spring conference in April.

Her Twitter handle is @hannahmann


March 27th – Chad Beckerman

Chad Beckerman is Creative Director for Amulet Books, Abrams Books for Young Readers and ComicArts. Chad oversees the design of picture books, novels, and graphic novels.

He is the designer behind such successful children series as DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, ORIGAMI YODA, Nathan Hale’s HAZARDOUS TALES, FRANK EINSTEIN, THE TERRIBLE TWO, and Bill Nye’s JACK AND THE GENIUSES. He has also designed several bestselling picture books including ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER, TROMBONE SHORTY, VEGETABLES IN UNDERWEAR, and Jillian Tamaki’s upcoming THEY SAY BLUE.

He has had the honor of working with many amazing illustrators including Jeff Kinney, Jillian Tamaki, Dan Santat, Victo Ngai, Sophie Blackall, David Roberts, Art Spiegelman, Jules Feiffer, and John Hendrix most recently on his DRAWING IS MAGIC. Chad will also be a speaker at our spring conference in April.

His Twitter handle is @chadwbecks


April 29th 1:00PM – Zoe WaringSPECIAL CHAT DAY AND TIME!!!

UK Illustrator Zoe Waring joins us on a special day and time – Sunday April 29th 1:00-2:00pm CST. Author and illustrator of NO HUGS FOR PORCUPINE, illustrator of TRUCK, TRUCK, GOOSE (with Oklahoma author Tammi Sauer), CAT AND DOG, and the upcoming PEEPING BEAUTY (with Oklahoma author Brenda Maier).

Zoe Waring has always loved the warmth and humour found in children’s picture books, and is a little obsessed with cute animals… just a little bit. She also loves drawing, has a rather silly sense of humour and a vivid imagination. You can begin to understand why she believes she has THE best job in the world!

Her Twitter handle is @zoemop


May 22nd – Heather Cashman

Heather is the Managing Director of Pitch Madness, Pitch Wars, and #PitMad – contests that help match writers with agents. Previously an Editor/Ambassador for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy US, Heather now freelance edits full time. She’s been an agent intern for over a year. She’ll be answering all of our questions about pitch contests. You can learn more about these contests at

Her Twitter handle is @HeatherCashman


June 26th –Pablo Cartaya

Pablo Cartaya is the author of the acclaimed middle-grade novel, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora (Viking, 2017); Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (Viking, 2018); and two forthcoming titles in 2019 and 2020 also to be published by VikingHe is a Publisher’s Weekly “Flying Start” and has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly.

He is the co-author of the picture book, Tina Cocolina: Queen of the Cupcakes (Random House, 2010), a contributor to the literary magazine, Miami Rail; the Spanish language editorial, Suburbano Ediciones; and a translator for the poetry chapbook, Cinco Poemas/Five Poems based on the work of poet Hyam Plutzik. Pablo visits schools and universities throughout the US and currently serves as faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA in Creative Writing.

His Twitter handle is @phcartaya


(We have some surprises planned for the summer chats that we’ll be announcing later in the year. Stay tuned!)


September 25th – Ashley Nixon

Ashley Nixon-Amador is the author of the YA fantasy CUTLASS series. She graduated from the university of Oklahoma and has a Masters in Library Sciences and Information Studies. She is a Gates Millennium Scholar Alumni. She loves pugs, libraries, and eyeliner. Ashley lives in Oklahoma with her husband.

Her Twitter handle is @AshleymNixon.


October 23rd – Sue Lowell Gallion

Sue Lowell Gallion, former Kansas SCBWI RA and PB author of the PUG MEETS PIG and PUG & PIG TRICK-OR-TREAT books, which both received starred reviews, writes for children because she is passionate about children, reading, and any combination of the two. Sue’s debut picture book,

PUG MEETS PIG, illustrated by Joyce Wan (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster) is now in its second printing.

We are definitely saving the best for last, here. Sue spoke at our Tulsa SCBWI Anniversary Dinner last year and she was just a delight. Her picture books are so adorable and she’s incredibly knowledgeable about so many things and she is generous with that knowledge with her fellow SCBWI people. You will love chatting with her!

Sue’s Twitter handle is @SueLGallion 


As always, we take November and December off for the holidays. Looks like it’s going to be a great year for chats! (And I’m already starting on next year’s schedule – can you believe it?) Don’t forget, if you have anyone YOU want to see as a guest, let me know and we’ll be sure to invite them if we can.

Our next chat is coming up soon. Hope to see you  there!

Favorite Reads of 2017

Ah! New year, new books!

New reading challenges, new debuts releasing, exciting sequels we’ve been waiting FOREVER for, all to add to our ever-growing beloved TBR piles.

What’s a reader to dive into first?

Before we get too caught up in all the shiny new books coming out this year, or just in case you’re looking for some great reads to help you survive until that to-die-for sequel FINALLY arrives, here are some of my favorites from last year, in no particular order.

THE YOUNG ELITES Series by Marie Lu





I’ve been dying to read this series ever since I met Marie Lu last summer and received my signed copy of the first book. I absolutely loved her LEGENDS series and couldn’t wait for more. She didn’t disappoint! Adelina is such a fascinating, complex character, and a baddie you’ll love to route for. I thoroughly enjoyed living vicariously through her for awhile. The complex relationships that don’t all turn out the way you think they will (or dare I say, hope they will?) add so many delicious layers to this wonderful series. I couldn’t read fast enough! And those gorgeous covers, ah! Love them.

Plot summary for THE YOUNG ELITES:

Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars—they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

Learn more about Marie Lu here.

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BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson

browngirldreaming-4medals-3001I don’t think any more awards could fit on the cover of this book. Still, I was struck by the title. I was transported by the imagery and moved by the emotions they evoked. Beautiful book.

Raised in South Carolina and New York, I always felt halfway home in each place. In these poems, I share what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and my growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement.

It also reflects the joy of finding my voice through writing stories, despite the fact that I struggled with reading as a child. My love of stories inspired and stayed with me, creating the first sparks of the writer I was to become.


Columbus, Ohio, Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York


In all of those places but mostly in Brooklyn.


I wanted to understand who my mom was before she was my mother and I wanted to understand exactly how I became a writer. So I started researching my life, asking relatives and talking to friends – and mostly, just letting myself remember. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Jacqueline Woodson here.

Follow Jacqueline on Twitter here.

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DUMPLIN’ by Julie Murphy

Loved everything about this book! Willowdean is amazing and I wish I’d had her confidence when I was younger. Face what scares you head on and throw in a dance number! Honestly, what’s not to love? Cue “Jolene” on repeat.

Self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean Dickson (dubbed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty queen mom) has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. With her all-American-beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked…until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast food joint. There she meets Private School Bo, a hot former jock. Will isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to Bo. But she is surprised when he seems to like her back.

Instead of finding new heights of self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets out to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Clover City beauty pageant—along with several other unlikely candidates—to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does. Along the way, she’ll shock the hell out of Clover City—and maybe herself most of all. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Julie Murphy here.

Follow Julie on Twitter here.

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Follow Julie on YouTube here.


SIX OF CROWS Duology by Leigh Bardugo





I enjoyed Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy and I was thrilled to return to her Grishaverse in this new storyline. The characters were exciting and so dynamic. I loved the Kaz/Inej relationship – so different, so touching and painfully strained. Great adventure tale that I ripped through in record time. And did I mention the gorgeous design? Red and black pages. And those covers! I’m a sucker for great design.

It inspired me to reread the original Grisha series. I’m sure I’ll reread these stories again soon.

Plot summary for SIX OF CROWS:

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

Learn more about Leigh Bardugo here.

Follow Leigh on Twitter here.

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THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH by Martha Brockenbrough

I  met the beguiling Ms. Brockenbrough at last year’s SCBWI LA summer conference where I got her book signed and I’ve been dying to read this ever since. It did not disappoint. I absolutely loved the premise and her characters were just divine. Loved it so much, I did a full post on it. Read full discussion here.


For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured — a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.

The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Martha Brockenbrough here.

Follow Martha on Twitter here.

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BONE GAP by Laura Ruby

My SCBWI OK group read this for their monthly book club. Although I couldn’t attend, I still wanted to read along. Wow. What a fascinating story! I loved the way she used magical realism – so well done. I loved the idea of a town full of gaps where people could just disappear, slip through.

The twist of the main character was so interesting, I didn’t see it coming. Loved it.

Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised. After all, it wasn’t the first time that someone had slipped away and left Finn and Sean O’Sullivan on their own. Just a few years before, their mother had high-tailed it to Oregon for a brand new guy, a brand new life. That’s just how things go, the people said. Who are you going to blame?

Finn knows that’s not what happened with Roza. He knows she was kidnapped, ripped from the cornfields by a dangerous man whose face he cannot remember. But the searches turned up nothing, and no one believes him anymore. Not even Sean, who has more reason to find Roza than anyone, and every reason to blame Finn for letting her go.

As we follow the stories of Finn, Roza, and the people of Bone Gap—their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures—acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Laura Ruby here.

Follow Laura on Twitter here.

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I read this ahead of the SCBWI LA summer conference because Nova Ren Suma was one of the speakers. WOW! This book! So amazing! It was surreal and dark and twisty in the best ways.

And Her breakout session on Unreliable Narrators? Outstanding! I can’t wait to get to my manuscript with a certain unreliable character, now. Huge fan for life!

On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement.

On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom.

Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries…

What really happened on the night Orianna stepped between Violet and her tormentors? What really happened on two strange nights at Aurora Hills? Will Amber and Violet and Orianna ever get the justice they deserve—in this life or in another one?

In prose that sings from line to line, Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and of innocence, and of what happens when one is mistaken for the other. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

Learn more about Nova Ren Suma here.

Follow Nova on Twitter here.

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Follow Nova on Instagram here.



So fantastic. A unique experience – like walking into a Dali painting and being able to speak the language of the inhabitants.

Fabulous King at her best.

Four accomplished teenagers are on the verge of explosion. The anxieties they face at every turn have nearly pushed them to the point of surrender: senseless high-stakes testing, the lingering damage of trauma, the buried grief and guilt of tragic loss. They are desperate to cope—but no one is listening.

So they will lie. They will split in two. They will turn inside out. They will build an invisible helicopter to fly themselves far away from the pressure…but nothing releases the pressure. Because, as they discover, the only way to truly escape their world is to fly right into it.

The genius of acclaimed author A.S. King reaches new heights in this groundbreaking work of surrealist fiction; it will mesmerize readers with its deeply affecting exploration of how we crawl through traumatic experience—and find the way out. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about A.S. King here.

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THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander

Nothing but net. So good! Couldn’t put it down until I reached the end. I picked up this book while in LA at the SCBWI Summer conference and had the pleasure of hearing Kwame Alexander recite some of his poetry. He makes it come alive and breathe like a living thing. It’s amazing. This book read just like that.

“With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood from Kwame Alexander (He Said, She Said 2013).

Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story’s heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

Learn more about Kwame Alexander here.

Follow Kwame on Facebook here.

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THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE (#1), THE WAR I FINALLY WON (#2) by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley




Beautiful, heart-wrenching, and just so touching. I’ve always wanted to know more about the kids who were evacuated during the war. Ada, what a kid after my own heart – fantastic character! This is the perfect story for that. Loved this book! And the sequel!


Nine-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So begins a new adventure of Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?

Learn more about Kimberly Brubaker Bradley here.

Follow Kimberly on Twitter here.


DREAMLAND BURNING by Jennifer Latham

Fantastic storytelling. Absolutely loved it! As a Tulsan, also appreciated this part of our history being told so thoughtfully.

Some bodies won’t stay buried. Some stories need to be told.

When seventeen-year-old Rowan Chase finds a skeleton on her family’s property, she has no idea that investigating the brutal century-old murder will lead to a summer of painful discoveries about the past, the present, and herself.

One hundred years earlier, a single violent encounter propels seventeen-year-old Will Tillman into a racial firestorm. In a country rife with violence against blacks and a hometown segregated by Jim Crow, Will must make hard choices on a painful journey towards self discovery and face his inner demons in order to do what’s right the night Tulsa burns. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)

Learn more about Jennifer Latham here.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter here.

Follow Jennifer on Facebook here.


THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas

Brilliant. Powerful storytelling.

One of my favorite reads this year by far. Absolutely loved Starr and her whole family. Such wonderful characters.

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)


Learn more about Angie Thomas here.

Follow Angie on Facebook here.

Follow Angie on Twitter here.

Follow Angie on Instagram here.


What were YOUR favorite reads of 2017?

What are you looking forward to reading this year?

The Relaxed & Groovy Book Club – RAMONA BLUE


Relaxed & Groovy Book Club

Welcome to the winter session of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club.  We’re wrapping up the year with a fantastic book. Each session this year, instead of revisiting a favorite read from the past, I’ve been reading a book for the first time right along with you.

This is the third book I’ve read from Julie Murphy, and it may be my new favorite. Even though I’ve interviewed her before on this blog, I’ve never actually met her in person until this summer when she was doing an Epic Reads tour. And what a treat! As much as I loved her second book DUMPLIN’, which she said was all about her outer self, I couldn’t wait to read RAMONA BLUE once she described it as being all about her inner self. She also said this is what made RAMONA BLUE her most difficult book to write thus far. I can tell you, the effort she put into it was totally worth it!

Current Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:

RAMONA BLUE by Julie Murphy

Published by: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins

Release Date: May 9, 2017

Genres: YA, Contemporary



Plot Summary:

Ramona was only five years old when Hurricane Katrina changed her life forever.

 Since then, it’s been Ramona and her family against the world. Standing over six feet tall with unmistakable blue hair, Ramona is sure of three things: she likes girls, she’s fiercely devoted to her family, and she knows she’s destined for something bigger than the trailer she calls home in Eulogy, Mississippi. But juggling multiple jobs, her flaky mom, and her well-meaning but ineffectual dad forces her to be the adult of the family.

Now, with her sister, Hattie, pregnant, responsibility weighs more heavily than ever.

 The return of her childhood friend Freddie brings a welcome distraction. Ramona’s friendship with the former competitive swimmer picks up exactly where it left off, and soon he’s talked her into joining him for laps at the pool. But as Ramona falls in love with swimming, her feelings for Freddie begin to shift too, which is the last thing she expected.

With her growing affection for Freddie making her question her sexual identity, Ramona begins to wonder if perhaps she likes girls and guys or if this new attraction is just a fluke. Either way, Ramona will discover that, for her, life and love are more fluid than they seem. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Julie Murphy here.

Follow Julie on Twitter here.

Follow Julie on Tumblr here.

Follow Julie on Instagram here.

Follow Julie on YouTube here.

I absolutely loved the way this story depicted how Ramona struggled and came to terms with her discovery of feelings for both guys and girls, even when it went against what others in her life wanted.

Here’s a look at the first chapter:


This is a memory I want to keep forever: Grace standing at the stove of her parents’ rental cottage in one of her dad’s oversize T-shirts as she makes us a can of SpaghettiOs. Her mom already cleaned out the fridge and cabinets, throwing away anything with an expiration date.

     “Almost ready,” says Grace as she stirs the pasta around with a wooden spoon.

     “I should probably leave soon,” I tell her. I hate prolonged goodbyes. They’re as bad as tearing a Band-Aid off one arm hair at a time.

     “Don’t pretend like you have somewhere to be right now. Besides, you should eat before you go.” Grace is like her mom in  that way. Every time we’ve left the house over the last month, her mom has tried to unload some kind of food on us, like we were taking a long journey and would need rations. “Don’t make me eat these SpaghettiOs by myself.”

     “Okay,” I say. “The thought of that is actually pretty pitiful.”

     She takes the pot from the stove and drops an oven mitt on the kitchen table before setting it down in front of me. Scooting in close, she winds her legs between mine and hands me a wooden spoon. We’re both white, but my legs are permanently tanned from life on the coast (though a little hairy, because shaving is the actual worst), while Grace’s normally ivory skin is splotchy and irritated from all the overexposure to the sun. And then there are her feet.

     I grin.

     “What?” she asks, tilting her head. Her raven waves brush against her shoulders. She’s obsessed with straightening her hair, but even the mention of humidity makes her ends curl. “Don’t look at my feet.” She kicks me in the shin. “You’re looking at my feet.”

      I swallow a spoonful of pasta. “I like your feet.” They’re flat and wide and much too big for her body. And for some reason I find this totally adorable. “They’re like hobbit feet.”

     “My feet are not hairy,” she insists.

     I almost come back at her with some dumb quip, but the clock behind her melts into focus, and I remember.

     Grace is leaving me. I knew she would leave me from the first moment we met on the beach as I handed out happy-hour flyers for Boucher’s. She lay spread out on a beach chair in a black swimsuit with the sides cut out and a towel over her feet. I remember wishing I knew her well enough to know why she was hiding her feet.

     This is our last meal together. In less than an hour, her mom, dad, and brother will all wake up and pack whatever else remains from their summer in Eulogy into the back of their station wagon, and they’ll head home to their normal lives, leaving a hole in mine.


Who knew eating SpaghettiOs steamy? What a great opening. My heart broke a little for Ramona Blue as she said goodbye to her summer love. But the wait was short before a new love interest arrived and things got complicated in a very interesting way.

The Discussion:

Murphy paints a very vivid picture of the setting, Eulogy, Mississippi, as well as Ramona’s domestic life and her connection to her sister, Hattie. Ramona’s sense of domestic responsibility drive a lot of her life decisions.

Here’s an excellent scene that gives you a great feel for this:


     I began to outgrow this place somewhere around the summer before ninth grade. I’d always been tall, but that last growth spurt tipped me over from tall to too tall. The ceilings of our trailer stretch as high as seven feet, which means my six-foot-three frame requires that I duck through doorways and contort my body to fit beneath the showered in the bathroom.

     Inside my room, I rest my bike against my dresser, and just as I’m about to flip on the lights, I notice a lump lying in my bed.

     “Scoot over,” I whisper, tiptoeing across the floor.

     Hattie, my older sister by two years, obliges, but barely. “Tyler is a furnace,” she mumbles.

     I slide into bed behind her. Always the little sister, but forever the big spoon.

     We used to fit so perfectly into this twin bed, because like Dad always said: the Leroux sisters were in the business of growing north to south, and never east to west. But that’s no longer the case. Hattie’s belly is growing every day. I knew she was pregnant almost as soon as she did. So did Dad. We don’t waste time with secrets in our house.

     “Make him go home,” I tell her.

     “Your feet are so cold,” she says as she presses her calves against my toes. “Tommy wants to know if you can come into work early.”

     “Grace left.”

     She turns to face me, her belly pressed against mine. It’s not big. Not yet. In fact, to anyone else it’s not even noticeable. But I know every bit of her so well that I can feel the difference there in her abdomen. Or maybe I just think I can. Whipping an arm around me, she pulls me close to her and whispers, “I’m so sorry, Ramona.”

     My lips tremble.

     “Hey, now,” she says. “I know you can’t see this far ahead right now, but there will be other girls.”

     I shake my head, tears staining the pillow we share.  “It’s not like she died or something,” I say. “And we’re going to keep talking. Or at least she said she wanted to.”

     “Grace was great, okay? I’m not saying she wasn’t.” Hattie isn’t Grace’s biggest fan — she never has trusted outsiders — but I appreciate her pretending. “But you’re gonna get out of here after graduation and meet tons of people and maybe figure out there are lots of great girls.”

     Maybe a few months ago, Hattie would have been right. Up until recently, the two of us had plans to get out of Eulogy together after graduation. Not big college plans. But small plans to wait tables or maybe even work retail and create a new life all our own in a place like New Orleans or maybe even Texas. A place without the tiny little trailer we’ve called home for too long now.

     But then Hattie went and got pregnant, and even though neither of us have said so out loud, I know those plans have changed.

     Tyler is here for now, but I can’t imagine he’s anything more than temporary. My plans were never extraordinary to begin with, and now that Hattie has my niece or my nephew incubating inside of her, they’re even less important. Hattie’s my sister. She’s my sister forever.

     “And I can’t kick Tyler out, by the way,” she adds.

     I shake my head. “Yeah, you can. Just tell him to go home.”

     “This is sort of his home now.”

     I prop myself up on my elbow and open my mouth, waiting for the words to pour out. But I’m too shocked. And horrified.

     She loops a loose piece of hair behind my ear, trying to act like this is no big deal. “Dad said he could move in,” she whispers.

     There are so many things I want to tell her in this moment. Our house is too small. Tyler is temporary. There will be even less room when the baby comes. I don’t need another body in this house to tell me that it’s too small and we’ve all outgrown this place. And yet I feel like I’m the only one of us who sees it. I’m the only one wondering where to go from  here.

And then things get really interesting when an old friend comes back to town. Ramona hasn’t seen Freddie since they were little kids playing on the beach together. Now, he’s back for good.

     In front of his house, he hops off the back of my bike and pulls me to him for a hug. My chin fits snugly in the crook of his shoulder. Hugging at this height can be so awkward, but nothing about our embrace makes me feel like I’m bumbling.

     In sophomore chemistry, Mr. Culver told us the most important thing to take away from his class was that the world isn’t made up of isolated incidents. Knowing the elements was important, but even more relevant was knowing how they changed when combined with others. And that’s what I’m most terrified of right now — how Freddie and I will change when combined with others.

     I watch as he sneaks around the side of his house into the backyard.

     I have some time to kill before my paper route, so I go home to change my clothes. Hattie is spread out in my bed with a limb touching each corner, and the bathroom smells like puke –from Tyler, I assume. Even though it might be nice to crash on the couch for a little bit, I can’t get out of here fast enough. The whole process of being in my house feels like I’m creeping against the wall of a narrow, smelly hallway. Nothing about it says home right now.

     As I’m walking my bike out of the trailer park, my phone buzzes.

     GRACE: How can I be this lonely when I’m surrounded by people? I miss you.

     Normally this sentiment would feel all too familiar, but tonight I didn’t feel lonely. Not at all.

     Some days are worse than others, I finally type. I miss you, too.

Ramona’s feelings slowly change toward Freddie from familiar comfort friendship to deeper feelings that leave her confused and conflicted. Watching her navigate them and find her own path is well worth the read. Fantastic characters all the way through. Absolutely loved this book!

What did you think of the story?


Up next…
New books for the new year! We’ll discuss debut novels all year long!
Sound fun? If so, join me.
Here’s the first title, and man, what a debut it was!


CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber

Published by: Flatiron Books

Release Date: January 31, 2017

Genres: YA, Fantasy



Plot Summary:

Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.

But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.

Welcome, welcome to Caraval . . . beware of getting swept too far away.


We’ll reconvene this most relaxed and groovy of book clubs beginning early next year. (Tie-dyed tees and funky shoes optional, as always!)

Happy reading!

2017 SCBWI LA Summer Conference Highlights – Part 3

Welcome to Part 3 of the conference highlights. To catch up on previous posts, you can view Part 1 and Part 2 before continuing.


The final day always comes too quickly, and yet is still somehow packed with a ton of literary goodness. We started off the day with the Picture Book Panel (which included our very own SCBWI Oklahoma star PB author Tammi Sauer!) and ended with an inspirational send off by the amazing Laurie Halse Anderson followed by the always fun autograph party.

Did I mention that there was dessert with Judy Blume in the middle? Crazy, I know! What a fabulous day!



Laurent Linn led this awesome discussion about picture books. He had each panelist introduce themselves first before the questions began.

Leuyen Pham — She’s worked on about 90 picture books and she said picture books are the closest you can come to whispering in a child’s ear. The search for characters is always a lot of fun for her. She does background and research on the characters before starting. There’s an emotional move from line drawing to art – analytical turns off to the imaginative.

Javaka Steptoe — He said he’s not just trying to create art, but an experience. He’s trying to feel what the character is feeling when he’s creating. He thinks back to when he was a child, when he was drawing, making noises, to create that moment on the paper, the experience.

“I don’t want to just draw a picture.”

When he uses found objects, he’s using things that have had a life. That brings a richness. It’s there, it’s alive. For kids, when they see something they identify – like, wow, I have that in my house – it’s a bridge.

He’s always thinking, “How can I bring you into my world?”

Learn the details of a moment; it’s about the subtleties and how it creates the big picture.

Tammi Sauer — (Tammi may have received a giant shout-out of ‘OOGA!’ from her Oklahoma SCBWI fan club when she was introduced. Maybe.)


She then flawlessly went on with her stellar presentation and gave her three favorite writing tips for creating relatable characters readers will care about. Make sure to follow her ARF formula:

A – Active

R- Relatable

F- Flawed

Raúl Colón — For his latest picture book,  his editor told him that the pictures were telling the story. She told him to get rid of the words. That’s how DRAW! become a wordless picture book.

When beginning a new manuscript, he starts with sketches. Vision of pictures have to come to him as he’s reading or he won’t be interested in working on it. He plays music while working, He gets lost in the work, especially while doing the final art.

Question #1: What’s the first step in a new creation?

Tammi Sauer — Come up with a fresh idea. Celebrate the weird. Ideas are everywhere. Your job is to capture them.

Raúl Colón — I agree. I was inspired by an exhibit I came across.

Leuyen Pham — My first step is hard. Every book is a reinvention of myself. I freak out. I have to leave my studio. Take a sketchbook and just start sketching. While actually working, I can’t look at others’ work.

Javaka Steptoe — I agree with what everyone just said. You have to find some idea that sustains you. Ideas can come from anywhere. From life. You shouldn’t force a story. It should be fluid. I think about the background materials – asphalt for Swan Lake, wood for Jimi Hendrix.

It looks effortless, but it takes lots and lots of work to get there.

Question #2: Picture books can seem simple. When you have something to say, how do you balance this?

Raúl Colón — In the book ALWAYS MY DAD (by Sharon Dennis Wyeth) a story about divorce, it could’ve been tricky, but we made it as joyful as possible by showing all the things they could do together – focused on hope.

Leuyen Pham — I tend to stay away from stories like that. My approach tends to be more subtle. I’ll find a way to work them into the pictures. For example, two lesbian mothers pictured that are not mentioned in the story.

Her favorite writers are those generous enough to let some words go.

Tammi Sauer — I try to keep the 4 year-old version of my son in mind. Something kids connect with, something with humor. He would either give two thumbs up or say, ‘Wow, that’s a dud’.

Keep it subtle – don’t beat people over the head with a message.

Javaka Steptoe — The story is the most important thing. If it’s not a page-turner, take it out. The writer can show you the road, the illustrator can show you the beauty of the road.

Question #3: What is your purpose?

Tammi Sauer — Something kids can connect with – humor and heart.

Raúl Colón — Something they don’t see every day.

Leuyen Pham — Making another one of me. Feeling an intimacy with a book that will touch that kid.

Javaka Steptoe — I just want to talk with people. Write children’s books like a letter we send back out into the world and we keep going.








Stephanie Garber, who already gave an outstanding breakout session, now dazzled the entire conference with her keynote address. She shared some sage advice she’s learned along her journey as a writer thus far.


The story of her overnight success took seven year. Seven years and five novels. Yes, it wasn’t until the fifth complete novel she wrote that she started to see positive responses to her writing from queries. That fifth book is the one that landed her the agent. And the sixth book was the one that finally sold – CARAVAL.

There was a lot of doubt and questioning of life choices before that book sold, so what helped her keep going and get through that sixth book?

Stephanie said these things were key to her success:

  • Write the book you’re brutally obsessed with — After all, your readers won’t feel something you don’t. (Please don’t write a book that’s safe.)
  • Deal with the things you’re afraid of — (She wanted to get an agent, but she didn’t want to go to a conference to get one – she was terrified of conferences.) There’s something very powerful about confronting fears and it’s better to do it before you’re published. Make your mistakes now. Besides, once you publish, things don’t get easier.
  • Let Go — Great things come from letting go. A manuscript can be salvaged, and it can be good to persevere. But it can also be a good thing to let go of ideas. It’s dangerous to latch on to the idea that you know everything. There’s always something to learn, especially about craft or the industry.
  • Read Widely –Don’t just read, read deeply. Make a personal list of what inspires you. What books do you want to emulate? (Your Cannon) Write the kind of books you want to read.



The Golden Kite Luncheon and Awards Presentation was beset by a wee bit of a crisis this year when by some twist of fate, the kitchen only prepared place settings (and meals) for half the number needed. Our group was lucky enough to acquire a table, and reparations were made to those who didn’t, but they sadly missed out on a fabulous conversation between Lin Oliver and Judy Blume that took place during dessert.

Stephanie, part of our Oklahoma group, at our table at the luncheon.
Yes, that is a salad on my plate, but my eyes are already on that dessert…
Lin and Judy in conversation.

For most of the conversation, I sat there mesmerized. Judy cast us all under her spell, as she is prone to do. I do remember that Judy talked about how writing saved her life, literally. And how it changed her life. Lin asked her if she’s retired from writing. Judy said that she’s written everything she’s wanted to say, “But there’s this one little thing…”

That got the whole room very excited!

Now that she’s (semi) retired from writing, she’s still surrounded by books at Books and Books, the independent bookstore in Key West she and her husband George have opened. She also invited everyone to come visit – but maybe not all at once.

She also talked about how much an organization like SCBWI would have meant to her when she was a young writer, which is why she is such a big supporter of it now, and why she’s on the board.

One quote I came away with was when she was talking about determination – “You can have all the talent in the world, and if you’re not determined, you’re going to let something stop you from doing it.”


How much do we love Judy Blume?



Kwame Alexander and his agent, Arielle Eckstut, gave a fascinating talk discussing business tips.

Kwame and Arielle were wonderful and shared so many fantastic ideas. My absolute favorite thing that Kwame said was that a big part of his success was starting local. Embracing local bookstores and developing relationships with local owners long before you’re published should be a priority.

He was also very creative when it came to marketing. He once had 50 friends call a bookstore and ask for his book before he called them himself to ask if they’d like for him do a signing there. SMART!

He also called anybody he knew connected with morning radio shows and read poems on the air. (And I can only guess how effective that must have been, because when you hear him read his poetry, it is really something.)

Always have a plan that has reach – stretch goals. Constantly create opportunities.

Remember, you are the main driver of your book’s publicity.

So many great things, I could have listened to them spout off ideas for another hour or two.









Laurie Halse Anderson greeted us and gave a special shout out to any introverts who were present (no small task!). She acknowledged how difficult it was to carry the bubble of love, the place of acceptance and understanding, we’d created in our conference back home with us after the conference ends.

She gave us a few secrets to help carry this feeling home:

  • “You are the boss of your brain, and your brain is the boss of your emotional state.” She’s done the research. She then suggested we take a cue from the country of Denmark and embrace the idea of “hygge”. A warm, pleasant, and comfortable atmosphere. Void of annoyance or distraction, at total ease.  
  • Get Started! You have to give yourself permission to suck. Revision is about clarifying. If you can just get started with your suckage, doing your art makes you feel better! 
  • Creating books for children is a tremendous privilege and responsibility. We create for the luckiest audience who will ever live.

Choose to make messy art whenever you can.

It was a wonderful way to send us off. What a fantastic conference!



I may have gone a little overboard with buying books, but I actually showed some restraint and stopped myself way before I had to buy a second suitcase. I may not enjoy the mad dash and waiting in long lines takes to get all of these treasures signed – honestly, it’s the closet thing I come to experiencing Black Friday, and I barely survived it – but dinner with friends is at the end. And along the way, I do get to meet and thank these authors who have written books I enjoy. Worth the suffering of crowds and long lines? I think so.

The books I bought at the conference, and then lugged around the ballroom to get signed.


The dynamic Vanessa Brantley Newton, who also illustrated our own Tammi Sauer’s book, MARY HAD A LITTLE GLAM – I forgot to bring my copy with me (and it was sold out at the book store).
Our darling Tammi Sauer was so busy with her faculty duties that we barely saw her! I did meet up with her a time or two. Once in passing here…
…and once when I had her FINALLY sign my copy of her book CARING FOR YOUR LION. I had to bring it all the way from Oklahoma with me because we kept missing each other (or I’d forget to bring it with me when I’d see her). Mission Accomplished!








Kwame Alexander was just as charming as could be. I absolutely loved THE CROSSOVER as I knew I would.


The wonderful and ever-so-sparkly Alex Gino signed books earlier in the conference. I was so happy I was able to meet Alex and get my copy of GEORGE signed. What a fabulous book!


For the first time ever, I was able to attend the Intensive workshops following the conference on Monday – so worth it!

Morning Intensive was SCENE: THE BUILDING-BLOCK OF FICTION with Linda Sue Park where we explored working in scenes rather than chapters. It was fascinating and very helpful.
The Scene Intensives Class! Don’t we look inspired?


Afternoon Intensive was TIP SHEETS with Arianne Lewin. I learned how much I didn’t know about this invaluable marketing tool and then I  learned how to use it.



After all the workshops were over, our group had our final meal together and the staggering flights back home began. Before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye to LA…until next year!

Eating the best Greek food. What a great way to end the weekend.


Catren and Brenda taking in the sights.


Heading home! Bye LA!

Hope you’ve enjoyed the highlights of the summer conference! I thoroughly enjoyed attending!

Gaye Sanders and the Survivor Tree – Author Interview

Gaye Sanders is one of the local talents from our SCBWI OK group whose debut picture book, THE SURVIVOR TREE, is coming out this week. I’m delighted she’s stopped by to talk with us about it.


About Gaye

Gaye has been teaching elementary children for over 30 years and is currently a fourth-grade teacher in Mustang, Oklahoma, a suburb of Oklahoma City.

She is an active member of the Oklahoma Region of SCBWI and will assume the monumental role of Assistant Regional Advisor this coming December. We’re excited to have you on board!

Gaye was in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed, killing 168 people, 19 of whom were children under the age of six. Every year she makes sure to share the historic story of the Oklahoma City bombing with her students.


Before the interview, let’s take a closer look at Gaye’s book:

THE SURVIVOR TREE by Gaye Sanders illustrated by Pamela Behrend

Release Date: November 1, 2017

Publisher: Roadrunner Press

Genres: Picture Book, Historical Fiction




*A portion of all books sales will go to the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum in downtown Oklahoma City.

Plot Summary:

A family plants an American elm on the Oklahoma prairie just as the city is taking root—and the little tree grows as Oklahoma City grows until 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, the day America fell silent at the hands of one of its own.

As rubble from the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is cleared, the charred tree—its branches tattered and filled with evidence—faces calls that it be cut down. The only obstacle: a few people who marvel that, like them, it is still there at all.

The next spring when the first new leaf appears proving the tree is alive, word spreads like a prairie wildfire through the city and the world. And the tree, now a beacon of hope and strength, is given a new name: The Survivor Tree. (Plot summary from author’s website.)


The Interview

Valerie Lawson: What was the inspiration for this book?

Gaye Sanders: When you are a writer, you rotate between writing, editing, and revising. But you are also, at all times, thinking about what your next story will be.

Many times, we choose the story we are writing. We may get a spark of an idea, and work to develop it into a full story. But sometimes, in those rare moments, a story finds us.

Almost four years ago, on a visit to New York City, my sister and I got to experience the 9-11 Memorial. During our visit to the gift shop, I discovered a book about the 9-11 Survivor Tree. Until that moment, I had not realized they had a survivor tree.

Their tree has a much different story than ours. It was recovered from some of the rubble and replanted, nursed back to health and transplanted to the grounds when the memorial was finished.

I decided to buy that book, and then find the book about our Survivor Tree. I came home and began to look for one, and that was when I discovered there wasn’t one.

There needed to be. That idea sat on my heart for a couple of years. The seed of the idea planted itself there, and wouldn’t go away. And, I knew that a story had found me. A story that needed to be told.

VL: How fascinating! From one survivor tree to another. Love it!

This is a very emotional story still for many Oklahomans, did you find this a difficult thing to translate into a picture book format?

Illustration by Pamela Behrend from the book THE SURVIVOR TREE

GS: I think that turning it into a picture book softened the subject matter. There were a lot of hard details that have been omitted, because they simply aren’t appropriate for the age group. But through the entire story of the tree, the bombing, and the healing afterwards, the theme is love conquers hate and hope can bring you through even the darkest times. Along with the promise that we will never forget.

VL: You tell this story from the perspective of the Survivor Tree at the Oklahoma City National Memorial, located on the site of the Murrah Federal Building bombing, what were the benefits/challenges to using a tree as your main character?

GS: Writing a book about this subject for children presented its own set of challenges. The story needs to be told, but in a more delicate manner, so as not to scare them about our world. I wrote my first version in third person, but it didn’t have the heart I wanted it to.

As writers, we often gain inspiration for our works from other books or pieces of literature. I reread The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. And even though that book is set in third person, that’s when it hit me. The tree needed to tell this story.

When I changed the point of view, I knew it was the right thing to do.

VL: Ah! THE GIVING TREE! Another tree giving your story inspiration. Let’s hear it for the trees!

You were able to visit the Memorial archives for your research, what was that experience like?

GS: The Oklahoma City National Memorial was more than helpful in allowing my research. I was honored to spend an entire day in the archives, going through photos, evidence lists, FBI notes, and more. It was a crucial part of the research. But, you can’t research something like this without feeling it from the very depths of your soul.

I lived here when this awful travesty occurred, I knew people who lost family members, and I knew others who survived.  So, needless to say, I have shed more than my share of tears through this journey.

VL: Tell us about your writing journey. How did you begin to write books for children?

GS: I began thinking about writing for children over ten years ago. Having been around children’s literature basically my entire life, I thought I knew all I needed to know to write my own books.

I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing, or how the publishing industry works.

It wasn’t until I joined SCBWI that I learned enough to really begin writing. It has been such a great journey, and I would not be where I am today without this amazing organization. And tribe. I have made lifelong friends, and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

VL: Woohoo! Yay, SCBWI! Best thing I ever did for my writing, too. 

Tell us something about your childhood. As a young kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into?

GS: I was one of those kids who really didn’t get in trouble much. Probably the biggest trouble was staying out too long on my bicycle.

Until I was a Senior in High School. I got my first “licks” with two months of high school left to go, because two of my friends and I told our bookkeeping teacher we were going to the library, when all along we were planning to go get cinnamon rolls in the cafeteria.

Yep. Got caught and got paddled.

VL: Oh, no! First time out and caught!

What was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid?

GS: I grew up in a small, sheltered town. Probably the scariest thing was when my older sister, a friend of mine, and I were all at home alone one night, and heard a tap on the window. It was a peeping Tom! In Fritch, America!

The scariest moment in my childhood was probably the assassination of President Kennedy. I’ll never forget the moment they broke in on “As the World Turns” (I wasn’t in school yet) and Walter Cronkite announced that the President had been shot. The world stopped. And even though I was only five, I knew that our world had changed overnight.

VL: Wow. That was life-changing. Even at five.

What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

GS: That’s such a hard question, and there’s no way I can narrow it down to one. So, here are my top three of the year:

Dreamland Burning, by Jennifer Latham

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

And, believe it or not, I had never read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton before this year.

Every one of these touched me deeply, and were un-put-downable.

VL: Absolutely loved THE CROSSOVER. So, so good!  Of course, I blazed through THE OUTSIDERS when I read it a long time ago. Wouldn’t mind reading it again. The 50th anniversary edition just came out! I’m just now starting to read Jen Latham’s book. I’ve been so looking forward to it!

What’s next for you? What are you currently working on?

GS: I am currently in the trenches of Pitch Wars. For those of you who don’t know what that is, go to It’s a fabulous process, where you submit to be matched with a mentor. You work with them for two months to get your manuscript ready for the agent round. My current WIP is called HURRICANE HARPER. It’s a contemporary fiction, middle grade set in coastal Mississippi.

In the editing lulls for Pitch Wars, I’ve started outlining my next one. It has a title right now of “1972”. It’s historical fiction with an alternate set of events, set in Washington D.C. Let’s just say it has something to do with a certain wiretapping activity that occurred that year.

And, I have a couple of ideas for picture books to follow up The Survivor Tree. They both have a connection to things that are tied to the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

VL: That all sounds fascinating! And good luck with Pitch Wars, Gaye! We’ll be routing for you!

Thanks so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.


Book Launch

For those who are interested and who live within traveling distance, Gaye is having a book launch for THE SURVIVOR TREE on Saturday, November 4th, from 1-3pm at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. The event will be held under the Survivor Tree, weather permitting. The book launch will move inside the foyer of the museum store in the event of inclement weather.

Illustration by Pamela Behrend from the book THE SURVIVOR TREE


Learn more about Gaye Sanders here.

Follow Gaye on Twitter here.

Follow Gaye on Facebook here.

Follow Gaye on Instagram here.