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!


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!

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.




2017 SCBWI LA Summer Conference Highlights – Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of the conference highlights. View Part 1 here.



There were so many wonderful speakers and panels on Saturday that heads would explode if I covered everything. I’m skipping ahead to my favorite breakout session of the day.




Stephanie Garber, author of CARAVAL, the phenomenon of a debut novel that has everyone talking, ran a fabulous breakout session entitled “Five Steps on How to Write Five Star Endings”.


She began by sharing a list of six classic story endings:

  • Happy Ending – Disney ending. Hero versus Villain with hero triumphant. The Happy Ever After
  • Tragic Ending – Hero gets what he wants, but loses something in the process
  • Unhappy Ending – Romeo and Juliet (works because reader is told from the very beginning this is a tale of woe)
  • Bittersweet Ending – Main Character makes sacrifice for the better good, i.e., Batman in The Dark Knight lets people believe he’s a villain because it’s what the city needs.
  • Vague Ending – open to interpretation, makes people question.
  • Series Ending – Cliffhanger or Hero gets what he wants, but Villain gets away.

While twists and surprises are awesome, you don’t want to spring an ending on readers that is unexpected; not in line with their expectations.

The tone of the ending should align with the tone of the book.

Think of the Harry Potter books, which were progressively darker with progressively darker endings. All deaths were earned and endings expected.

Think about whether or not the price for your story ending has been paid. Has the success been earned by the hero or villain? Think about endings not just for your main character, but for all of your characters. Make them all earn their endings. Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter earned her ending.

One of my favorite tips she gave was about villains. She said you should makes sure to give them screen time. Put them in the path of your main character. A face-off with the villain is a great opportunity to show character development.

Have a kick the cat moment versus a save the cat moment.

Don’t just say they are the villain; show it. Show the villain arc.

She ended with stating you should leave readers with a sense of hope, even if your story is a tragedy.

Think about this: What is the final message you want to leave readers with?



There were so many fantastic places to eat near the hotel. Some of us had lunch at Katsuya. Great sushi and a lovely atmosphere, including a most fascinating bathroom. Everyone took turns checking out the unconventional sinks. (Yes, just like tourists.)




“The ‘there is no sink’ aesthetic .”


At some point one afternoon, we had a gathering of all SCBWI Oklahoma members and tried to pose for a group photo. After three attempts, we succeeded in capturing 13 out of 14 of us. So close! Here’s the collective result.

This photo was blatantly stolen from Jerry Bennet’s Instagram feed. Don’t worry, he won’t even notice. 🙂



Two phenomenal poets having a conversation about poetry. Wow! Was this amazing! I can’t share the live poetry that flew back and forth – beginning with Sonya’s awesome intro – or the chemistry they had, or the humor that filled the room. Just imagine that this experience was unforgettable.

Sonya Sones asked the questions and this was her first one:

SS: Tell me about the moment of your conception.

KA: 1967. Harlem, New York. A dormitory at Columbia University.

(I mean, honestly! They had us rolling.)

SS: When did you first know you were wonderful?

KA: At 12 years old. When I wrote a Mother’s Day poem.

Dear Mommy.

I hate Mother’s Day

In my heart

Every day is

Mother’s Day.

That’s when I first knew words were powerful.

SS: How does the study of poetry help children?

KA: Poetry is a rhythmic, concise, emotional way of sharing view of the world. If a child gets through it and understands, they can crossover and it’s profound.

SS: What’s the first book you ever wrote?

KA: A book of love poems inspired by a woman. I wrote her a poem a day for a year – and it worked. (He married her.)

There was so much more. I wish I could share it all. It was a fantastic conversation.


One of my favorite events is the Portfolio Showcase. I love looking over all the artwork of so many talented illustrators. This year, I had the pleasure of running into our very own Illustrator Coordinator, Jerry Bennett, while I was perusing the portfolios. Always a treat to get an artist’s take. And he’s somewhat amusing company as well. 🙂

Hanging out with some tough Illustrator Coordinators, Jerry Bennett and Karen Windness.


Wall to wall people for this popular event.



Saturday night means party time!

This group knows how to let loose! (All videos I recorded have been deleted to protect your, um, signature dance moves, let’s say – and you’re welcome.)


Hope you enjoyed the Day Two highlights. Stay tuned for Part 3 coming soon!


2017 SCBWI LA Summer Conference Highlights – Part 1

I was very honored this year to be a winner of the SCBWI Tribute Fund. (Even if it meant I had to stand up in front of over 1500 people!) A brief moment of awkward public embarrassment was well worth what I received in return. I honestly can’t thank the entire staff of SCBWI enough. From Stephen and Lin for providing this grant and selecting me, to everyone in the main office I interacted with regarding all the details – they were all just so lovely.

And of course, a huge thank you to Helen, my Regional Advisor, who nominated me. (Who also took this awkward picture of me waving awkwardly to a crowd of 1500 people. AWKWARD!)

Now I would like to share with you my favorite parts of the SCBWI LA summer conference that I was able to attend this past July as a winner of this wonderful grant.


One of my favorite things about attending these conferences is how energizing they are, how they recharge my creative battery, and remind me that what I do is important. Especially in these uncertain times, it was such a reassuring thing to hear Lin welcome us into our own “Bubble of Love” (complete with actual bubbles).

Lin Oliver welcoming us to the beginning of another wonderful SCBWI Summer conference.


Bubble Love photo credit: The Official SCBWI Conference Blog

It was also nice that our region got a shout-out for having such a large group in attendance, along with a handful of other states, but you know ours was the LOUDEST!!! We got a few more shout-outs, just so everyone could hear us make some more noise – something we were not shy about doing! (This happened several times during the conference, which was fun.)

Most of our SCBWI OK group on Day One. Such a large group was hard to corral into one place at any given time.


Vanessa Brantley Newton, illustrator of THE YOUNGEST MARCHER and MARY HAD A LITTLE GLAM (written by our own Tammi Sauer! OKLAHOMA SCBWI in the house!), opened the conference by making us get up out of our seats and dance.

In her keynote entitled, “Diversity Designed by Adversity”, Vanessa said we could let adversity ruin us, make us sad, or lean into it, wrap our arms around it, shake it off, and pack it under.

To illustrate her point, she told a story of a farmer who had a goat that fell down a well. Bemoaning the loss of the goat, he threw dirt down the well to bury it, but the goat just shook it off, and packed it under. Soon, it had a pile tall enough to climb out of the well.

“That’s been my life.”

She was born with dyslexia, synesthesia, and she also struggled with stuttering. Her dyslexia caused her to to go inward, to draw pictures. The synesthesia influenced the use of bright colors in her art. Her parents were both singers and helped her deal with her stuttering. “I sing in my head” the words she wants to say out loud. All these things didn’t stop her, they influenced her work.

Vanessa talked at length about the need for diverse books. She told the story of wanting to be a Breck shampoo girl when she was younger. She thought to have blonde hair, she just needed the shampoo.

She didn’t see herself reflected.

Then came Ezra Jack Keats and THE SNOWY DAY. She didn’t remember the words, but the pictures were powerful.

Little Vanessa and her teacher who read her the story.

She told us how Ezra Jack Keats said, “I drew Peter because he should have been there all along”.

Vanessa called on us as artists, as writers to embrace our own challenges.

“You’re built for adversity.”

Some of the best stuff is raised out of adversity. You gotta be willing to put in the hard work.


You need to dream so big that it scares the hell out of you.


She ended by singing to us, and I don’t know if there was a dry eye in the room when she was done.

Honestly I couldn’t see…




photo credit: The Official SCBWI Conference Blog


Emma Dryden led a thoughtful discussion with this fantastic panel of authors.

Question #1: What led you to express the experience in your own life in novel form?

Alex Gino – Middle Grade is a big part of my heart. The only time I experienced any instance of transgender as an adult was as a joke. “I knew GEORGE was the book I wanted and needed to write.” It took 10 years.

Aisha Saeed – She never saw herself in books with the exception of the role of the bad guy until she went to college. She knew she had to tell her story. She wrote her debut novel about forced marriage because she had many friends who were going through this experience. If they said no, their parents would disown them. She writes to make sense of the world. She wanted to understand why parents who loved their kids would do this.

Ruta Sepetys – “Much of my identity is wrapped up in being an immigrant’s kid.” Not a lot has been told about Stalin and what happened in Siberia. She wanted to bring this story to young readers because YA readers are deep feelers and deep thinkers. Books we read as kids have the potential to make a profound effect.

Kim Turrisi – When she was 15, her sister committed suicide. Her story is about the aftermath of suicide. She didn’t see herself in any books like this back then. She wrote about the experience to help.

Question #2 – Glimpse into choices you had to make to stray away from the truth to serve the story.

Ruta Sepetys – She was interviewing human beings condemned to death who then survived. “There’s a tension between history and memory.” She will interview 100 people and interweave the stories to create a single one – very different from nonfiction. This will hopefully be more representative.

Kim Turrisi – She used notes from 25 different people to cobble together the backgrounds of the secondary characters.

Alex Gino – Many people assume that my book is autobiographical. The way my character is transgender is not the same way that I am. My main character isn’t much like me, but the way people respond is.

Question #3 – Talk about the process of going deep into the story.

Kim Turrisi – I had the suicide letter. I put it on the wall to challenge me. My editor challenged me by saying some things that actually happened may not feel authentic. Give more. It was tough.

Ruta Sepetys – As writers, we should go there. Emotionally we need to get in the trenches. If I feel loss, I have loved. If I feel it, hopefully my readers will too. Amplify the hope in the hardship. Someone has to make it out.

Aisha Saeed – She did the emotional digging. What would it be like to go through this? Why would she run away? Her editor helped her bring out the nuances.

Alex Gino – You have to have a balance between optimism and realism. My responsibility was to provide a mirror for kids who are Trans. We get to have nice stories, too. Then my editor had to remind me that bad things have to happen, so we feel better when there’s redemption.



Break Out Session, “The Power and Possibility of the Unreliable Narrator”

POV is one of the most exciting tools you have as a writer. Make good use of it.

What is an “unreliable” narrator?

  1. Withholds information from the reader
  2. Breaks your trust (We expect to trust the narrator)
  3. Drives the plot

Should be unreliable for a reason – an important mechanism for the plot.

Unreliable Narrator often has a surprising, unexpected secret.

WHY is your narrator not telling the whole truth?

WHY is the big mystery.

You as the author need to know the answer.

Favorite example: Mary Katherine Blackwood from WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson

More Unreliable Narrator examples:

Mica from LIAR by Justine Larbalestier

Julie from CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein

Mary from Allegedly by Tiffany D Jackson

Whim from CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn

Caden from CHALLENGER DEEP by Neal Shusterman

Nova went on to explain how using craft choices can help you show your unreliable narrator to your readers and ways to create an unreliable character.

This was such a helpful session! Nova really is a fantastic teacher.



After a full day of amazing keynotes and breakout sessions, our SCBWI OK gang met up for dinner with a former member who recently relocated to LA. She may have moved to California, but she’ll always be a part of us, too!

(Almost) our entire SCBWI OK gang after the first day of the conference.


Jerry and Britt (our wayward member) doing their best Oh My Disney! pose – Aren’t they just too adorable for words?


Hope you enjoyed the first part of my conference experience highlights. Stay tuned for Part II coming soon!


Kim Ventrella – Author Interview

I’m so happy to be interviewing the delightful Kim Ventrella, today. Kim is an SCBWI Oklahoma region member I’m just getting to know, and I’ve been dying to ask her some in-depth questions. Like what’s behind her extensive skeleton collection? How much does her dog, Hera, actually help her writing process? And more importantly, what inspired her highly anticipated debut novel, SKELETON TREE, which comes out this month?

Let’s find out.


About Kim

Kim lives in Oklahoma City with her faithful furry companion, Hera. She moonlights as a children’s librarian when she’s not writing books, fighting crime, or killing houseplants. (I’m beginning to think her bio has been padded. That houseplants thing is a little far-fetched, if you ask me.)

She has been know to actually seek out places where skeletons dwell. To even pose for pictures with them, and dress them up in fancy hats and wigs. Some might call that weird, I call that amazing! How else would we get such an awesome-looking book?


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

SKELETON TREE by Kim Ventrella

Release Date: September 26, 2017

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy

Plot Summary:

Twelve-year-old Stanly knows the bone growing in his yard is a little weird, but that’s okay, because now he’ll have the perfect photo to submit to the Young Discoverer’s Competition. With such a unique find, he’s sure to win the grand prize.

But, oddly, the bone doesn’t appear in any photos. Even stranger, it seems to be growing into a full skeleton…one that only children can see.

There’s just one person who doesn’t find any of this weird–Stanly’s little sister. Mischievous Miren adopts the skeleton as a friend, and soon, the two become inseparable playmates.

When Miren starts to grow sick, Stanly suspects that the skeleton is responsible and does everything in his power to drive the creature away. However, Miren is desperate not to lose her friend, forcing Stanly to question everything he’s ever believed about life, love, and the mysterious forces that connect us. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)


The Interview

Valerie Lawson: Your debut novel, SKELETON TREE, has such an intriguing premise, what sparked the idea for this story?

Kim Ventrella: I wondered what would happen if a boy discovered a finger bone growing in his backyard. The story evolved from there, becoming much more than I had anticipated.

VL: What a great beginning. I can’t wait to read where the story goes from there!

I absolutely love the book trailer for THE SKELETON TREE, what can you tell us about it? (You can view the book trailer below.)

KV: Artist Jerry Bennett and Filmmaker Zac Davis did an amazing job putting together the trailer. I had gone to see their award-winning short film, Even in Death, and after that I knew they would be perfect for the job. It captures just the right mix of wonder, spookiness and whimsy.

VL: You seem more than fascinated (dare we say obsessed?) with skeletons – I love following your hashtag #skeletonspotting, by the way – where did this deep interest in skeletons come from?

KV: I don’t know if it’s a deep interest (ha!), but I have always been fascinated with the macabre. Scary stories are a great way to confront monsters in a safe environment. Readers can learn from the character’s journey that it’s possible to overcome those spooky skeletons we all have in our closets.

VL: So true! Better to tackle them in the pages of fiction than in real life. (Checks closet for skeletons.)

Your story tackles the difficult subject of death, one not many adults are comfortable dealing with. Talk about why you thought it important to address this issue in a children’s book.

KV: My grandfather passed away suddenly not long before I started Skeleton Tree. I didn’t initially intend for it to be a book about death, but that was just how the story unfolded. It became a sort of canvas on which I could put forward my own vision of how Death could look, if we chose to experience it through a different lens.

I wanted to create a Death full of meaning, beauty, friendship and understanding. I strongly believe that books are one of the best ways for children to make sense of the world around them, to experience tough topics in a safe space, and that includes dealing with death.

VL: How beautiful. That’s quite an homage to your grandfather, too. I just love that.

What were some of your biggest fears as a kid? Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?

KV: I was very scared of ghosts in particular when I was a child, which is perhaps why I embraced the macabre. I used to have night terrors, night paralysis and visual disturbances (i.e. I very vividly ‘saw’ ghosts on several occasions as a child).

For me, reading scary stories has always been the equivalent of performing a big Riddikulus spell on those creepy real-life monsters. Seeing others triumph over evil, whether it’s watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer or reading Roald Dahl, gives me confidence that I can also defeat the big baddies out there.

VL: Wow! Very in touch with your spooky side, even as a kid. Destined to write this genre! I love that seeing others conquer their fears in books gave you courage, too. Books are so powerful!

You discussed in a post recently that you like to begin writing a story by thinking about its emotional catharsis and working back from there. That’s almost like starting at the ending and working your way back to the beginning. I love this idea. Can you expand on this?

KV: My writing style has changed and continues to change a ton. I always used to write completely organically, with no plotting ahead of time, like with Skeleton Tree. Now that I have to send off proposals for stories before I start writing (for the most part), I’ve started thinking more strategically.

In the end, the important aspect of a story for me is what emotional impact readers will feel after they turn the last page. Has the book changed the way they see the world? Has the character’s journey taught them something about themselves?

Starting with that in mind can speed up the process, but it’s not always possible, because sometimes you can reach a more powerful conclusion if your destination is unplanned.

VL: Excellent advice, to focus on the emotional impact.

Your dog Hera features prominently in your Instagram posts, how does she factor into your writing process? (I have heard tale that you like to write in her dog bed.)

KV: Yes, I wrote Skeleton Tree sitting in a dog bed, while Hera sat on the couch behind me looking over my shoulder. I now have an office chair, ha!, but my dog is still a big help. I even mention her in the acknowledgements of my book. She’s sweet, silly and scared of everything, but most of all she’s the perfect co-writer.

VL: Who were your childhood heroes/role models?

KV: I don’t know about role models, but I was obsessed with Billy the Kid, Al Capone and Charlie Chaplin. I also loved Agatha Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot, and his sidekick, Hastings. The Addams Family was another huge favorite, as were Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl.

VL: What a wonderfully eclectic collection! I’m also a huge Agatha Christie fan! I read so many of her books when I was a kid.

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

KV: I love The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan. It’s a sad, happy, heartfelt story about a poet who lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog. It’s practically my life story.

VL: Beautiful cover. Thanks for recommending it. 🙂

And thank you so much for joining us, today, Kim! It’s been such a pleasure talking with you and getting to know you better!


The Trailer

And now for your viewing pleasure…

The official book trailer for Skeleton Tree!

Local talents Jerry Bennett and Zac Davis created this trailer for Kim. They both worked on the award-winning short film, Even in Death. Jerry is an amazing comic book artist and illustrator who’s done work for companies like Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Topps. Zac Davis is a filmmaker and program director for Invisible Layers productions, a pre-employment program for young adults on the autism spectrum with an interest in film, video production, or animation.

Enjoy the trailer!


Don’t forget to pre-order Kim’s book SKELETON TREE! It releases on September 26th!






Learn more about Kim Ventrella here.

Follow Kim on Twitter here.

Follow Kim on Facebook here.

Follow Kim on Instagram here.