SCBWI Conference Recap – Rocky Mountain Region

Contributor: Shari Schwarz

After arriving in beautiful Golden, Colorado for the Rocky Mountain SCBWI Letters and Lines Conference, I first attended The Changing Landscape of Illustrations presented by the warm and inspiring Roberta Collier-Morales. She shared how illustrations create vision for the future and sow seeds of hope. We are in a meaningful industry we are in!

Newberry Award winner Avi delivered the opening keynote address and left me in awe of his humble, witty and inspiring nature. Although he’s written over seventy books, he still revises each book seventy to eighty times and works at his writing for ten hours a day. He doesn’t mince words when he talks about writing being a difficult profession. But the fact that he overcame dysgraphia to become one of Children’s Literature’s heroes spoke to us about how passion, hard work, and drive are no respecter of disability—a powerful message to children and adults the world over who have read his books and heard him speak.


Donna Cooner shared from her heart about the Buzz-Worthy Novel and the surprises, good and bad, that have come along with her success. In her book, Skinny, a demeaning voice speaks to the main character about her weight issues. For other people, it could be a different insecurity. Donna’s theme is universal and touches a sensitive place in people which easily creates an avenue for discussion and, often, controversy.

This was my first writing conference. I was nervous going in, but I met so many kind, and approachable writers, illustrators, agents, and editors. They kept us busy attending one session after another, and I came away with eight typed pages of notes, plus many handouts. A couple of sessions I attended included quick workshops or brainstorming activities that were eye-opening for me in regards to my manuscripts. For anyone considering going to an SCBWI conference, it is well worth the investment of time, money, and networking. I’ve come away with a renewed sense of motivation and inspiration.


  Industry Panel with Tricia Lawrence of EMLA, Sarah Miller of Sleeping Bear Press, Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary, Carter Hasegawa of Candlewick Press, & Lanie Davis of Alloy Entertainment

I can’t wait for the next one!

If you’re interested to see a list of all the classes and faculty, please visit the Rocky Mountain SCBWI website.

Thanks, Middle Grade Mafia, for asking me to guest post!

The Middle Grade Mafia would like to thank Shari for sharing her experience at the Rocky Mountain Conference. To keep up with her, you can visit her website and follow her on Twitter.

If you are heading to a conference, let us know. Keep writing and keep learning.


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MG Review – Loot by Jude Watson


Twelve-year-old March lives a different life. He’s the son of Alfie McQuin, a notorious jewel thief. One night in Amsterdam, a heist goes horribly wrong and March watches his father fall from a rooftop. Before he dies, Alfie manages to say a few words to March: “Find jewels.” Or did he say, “Find Jules”?

March discovers that he has a twin sister named Jules. The two of them are offered a job to steal back seven precious moonstones for seven million dollars. With the help of two more misfit kids, they plan a series of robberies staying just ahead of the law and the other thieves that want the stones too. The moonstones are believed to be jinxed. Their mother died trying to steal them ten years ago and now their father is dead too. Will the moonstones claim March and Jules as their next victims?

When I started reading this book, I wasn’t sure if I thought it was appropriate for kids to be cast as thieves and that lifestyle glamorized, but Jude Watson handles it well by giving it a Robin Hood feel. She also shows how that lifestyle is not glamorous at all and how March and Jules wishes they had a normal life with a normal family. The kids vs. bad adults is done well too.

Young readers will love the fast-paced action and the edge-of-your-seat excitement as the kids barely avoid capture over and over again. They will also love how the March, Jules and their friends decipher the clues.

As for MG writers, I think you should read LOOT for a plotting and pacing lesson. Watson’s chapters are very, very short. Each chapter is basically one scene and the scenes fit together like waves in a tidal pool. First is a calm scene as the kids plan their next heist. The tension builds in the next scene as they prepare to strike and then one or two scenes of high-action during the robbery. This pattern takes place within the bigger story arc as March learns to trust his sister and the mystery unfolds. The short chapters also create a sense of urgency because time seems to pass too fast for the kids to make their do-or-die deadline.

LOOT is a wonderful page-turner with the added bonus of character depth and development as well. And it has a great ending.

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The Writer’s Block – An Interview with Cornelia Funke


I recently had the pleasure of connecting with the wonderfully talented Cornelia Funke, author of bestselling Inkworld Trilogy. The stories she has created have captured our imaginations and inspired writers worldwide. For this interview, she pulls back the curtain a little and shares her insights on writing and more. Now, without further ado, Cornelia Funke…


Middle Grade Mafia: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?

Cornelia Funke: I was so bored by the stories I was sent as an illustrator that one night I decided to write one myself – filled with all the creatures I longed to draw.

MGM: We hear of bestselling authors having their first manuscript being rejected many times before landing that first deal, please share your journey to becoming a published author.

CF: Mine is not typical. I sent my first manuscript to four publishers at the same time – which they don’t like. 🙂 The first one said no, the second one said yes, then three and four said yes too and when the first one heard about all the interest they changed their No into a Yes.

MGM: What is your process in developing the initial idea for a book into a full story?

CF: I prepare a book for about half a year, doing research on place, central motives, characters…. I plaster my walls with photos, illustrations, paintings, that I find visually inspiring. I also get rid of my clichés that way, feed my mind and eye with a sense of place and time. In short I prepare the canvas. Then I write the first draft, but only prepare the first chapters without knowing (or wanting to know) where the story wants to take me. I like to be surprised and I like a story to grow organically and without a corset. In my opinion that makes me much less predictable for the readers as well. I don’t tailor a story for an audience. I think that cripples it – and underestimates the readers. I think especially younger readers want to be challenged and take story very serious. And they love to ask serious questions about life, the world, human nature… I don’t think that publishers know what readers want, especially when it comes to children, and I strongly believe that writers are artists and shouldn’t behave like mere craftsmen who build exactly the table the publishers ask for. Surprise them! And yourself and your readers. So much more fun.

Also…don’t pretend to be middle grader yourself, IF you need to think of a certain age for your writing (is there really a typical middle grader???) Young readers love an older voice – a storyteller who went into the world for them to bring back truth and secrets from the adult world.

MGM: You are best known in the US for your Inkworld Trilogy. What inspired that story?

CF: The feeling that every book eater knows. That literary characters sometimes feel more real than real people, because we are allowed to look into their hearts. Not many real people give us that insight. We will on our deathbed probably remember some fictional characters better than some friends, that’s how real they become. I wanted to write about that feeling. But then it became also a story about writing itself- and it is my confession that I am a book addict.

MGM: Is there one character from your books that you can relate to the most?

CF: Yes, Fox from my Mirrorworld books. And then there is Jacob Reckless, my male alter ego, irresponsible, fearless…everything I secretly would like to be sometimes.

MGM: Is there a project you are currently working on?

CF: Several. I am currently finishing my illustrations for Heartless, the third MirrorWorld book. I am playing with the first ideas for 4 (and 5 and 6, as they are supposed to take me once around the world) I will start writing a second Dragonrider book in November. And then I am planning several short stories, one set in LA, one science fiction, one for the Getty and its visitors (which will be the second of seven short stories).

MGM: Any advice you could give to beginning writers?

CF: Yes. Write the first draft by hand, never on a computer. Always have a notebook and a pen with you. And…a good story feeds on two things: passion, but most of all time. Lots and lots of it. Which means many, many many rewrites. Cruel ones!

I want to thank the Cornelia for taking the time to share with us. It is great to learn from such an amazing writer and we are all looking forward to her new projects. Now go out and create your own table, the way you want it to be. To learn more about Cornelia Funke, you can follow her on Twitter or on Facebook.

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MG Review – The Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin


The Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin has been called a powerful retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Nightingale, but calling it that doesn’t do it justice. First off, it isn’t exactly a fairy tale and second, it isn’t a retelling of the Andersen classic. The two stories have very little in common other than a nightingale and what happens when the nightingale sings—people are cured and forgiven. So the Nightingale’s Nest would be better described as a powerful story inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen classic. That being said, it is wonderful. Let it inspire you.

The Nightingale’s Nest is powerful, compelling and haunting. With many references to grief and child abuse it will stay with you long after you have finished it. But these subjects are handled in such a clever way, neither adults or younger readers will not find them overwhelming.

The story is told from the point of view of Little John a twelve- year old boy whose little sister has died. We get an inside view of how different people process grief. Little John thinks everything is his fault. His Mother has lost touch with reality. She thinks her daughter is still alive. His Father is a drunk, depressed and hard on his son. Then Little John meets Gayle, a foster child processing grief of her own. Her parents she says have flown away. She shows signs of physical abuse and is mentally fragile. She has built a nest to await her parents’ return. But when she sings, she cures things. Is it magic? Maybe. Little John promises to protect her but lets her down. Lured by the promise of money he takes her to an old man who says he wants to record her singing but we soon believe other horrible things happen. She loses her voice, When Little John realizes what he has done, he tries to make it up to Gayle but everything goes wrong. Eventually, he gets it right and Gayle forgives him and the old man. She then disappears. We never know if she really was a bird and flew away or was a girl. We don’t know if the magic was real either but either way, Little John is transformed. I suspect you will be too.

This is such a fine example of magical realism, it is a must read.

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MG Review – The Graham Cracker Plot by @shelleytougas

GrahamCracker plot


I’m going to be honest. I was afraid to read this book. Shelley Tougas and I share an agent, the wonderful Susan Hawk, and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel if I hated it. The good news is that not only did I not hate it, I LOVED it. Seriously, she had me on the opening page:


I will tell you three things right now.

Number one: I’m almost twelve years old. I do not want to go to prison, even if it’s a prison for kids.

Number two: Nobody calls me Aurora Dawn Bauer, not even my grandma, and she’s the most legal person I know. Everyone calls me Daisy.

Number three: Your face looks like squirrels flopped their tails where your eyebrows should be. I can’t tell if your eyes ever laugh, but you were all business when you told me to write this, and—

UGH. Mom just peeked over my shoulder and said, “Erase that stuff about his weird eyebrows or we’ll have more trouble. I mean it!” I went to my room and slammed the door. She’s a snoop.

Talk about a great opener! The rest of the book is just as charming. The Graham Cracker Plot does a terrific job of mixing the farcical with reality, humor with poignancy, as you follow the adventures of Daisy and her frenemy Graham in their attempt to break Daisy’s father out of prison. It’s not as outlandish as you might think, it’s a minimum security prison after all. Along the way you’ll meet interesting characters, see Daisy and Graham get themselves into all sorts of trouble, and watch as Daisy learns the truth about her dad and what taking responsibility for your actions really means.

This book has a lot of heart and plenty of fun. Do yourself a favor and read it.



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Illustrator Illuminations: Beegee Topla


I was excited to have the chance to interview Beegee Topla. She is the very talented illustrator behind THE WINNIE YEARS series’ covers and has illustrated picture books, such as EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU and THE SMALLEST TREE.


Middle Grade Mafia: When you get hired to illustrate cover and/or interior art, do you read the book or skim to get an idea?

Beegee Topla: If they give me the manuscript, and the deadline for the art permits, yes, I will absolutely read the book. In the case of the Winnie books (Lauren Myracle), I was hooked right from the first chapter. I’m always excited to see where her story goes.

MGM: How much direction do you get from the art director or editor?

BT: I love when I’m given a clear direction for the art. Especially with a book (as opposed to a magazine article), there are so many ways you can take the cover art. Usually the editor has an idea for the best way to market a book before they even contact the illustrator.

MGM: Have you also illustrated picture books and if so, how is that different from mid-grade novels?

BT: A few years back I illustrated a pop-up book called Everyone Says I Love You (not to be confused with the Woody Allen musical of the same name!). That was really fun because it was a true collaboration with the paper engineer. I am still trying to find a way to do another one with him soon (Michael Caputo–paper engineer extraordinaire!). Illustrating for mid-grade novels can be tricky because you are often dealing with somewhat grown-up subjects but the style needs to appeal to younger children as well. If a book is for a reading level for ages 11-13, that is a big range of maturity.

MGM: Do you have an agent or art rep? If so, where and how did you meet or did you connect online?

BT: When I decided to strike out on my own as an illustrator over 12 years ago (!), I contacted a few reps who had artists I particularly liked. I made a connection with Sally Heflin online and she graciously took me in! I’ve been with her ever since.

MGM: How would you describe your style?

BT: Playful. Colorful. Whimsical. Clean.

MGM: Where did you get your artistic training?

BT: I studied illustration at Parsons School of Design. But this was before computers were part of the curriculum. Yes, that long ago! So as for my “digital education”, I am mostly self-taught. But it just takes a lot of “doing” to finally get your style to be where it wants to be.

MGM: How do you keep your illustrations fresh?

BT: Look at everything. Find other artists whose work you admire and just soak it in. There may be one tiny thing they do that you can use and it might transform your work.

MGM: What is your favorite media to use?

BT: I use Illustrator for all my professional work. It just can’t be beat for making changes easily and that is so important when you’re pleasing a client. But I do a lot of drawing with my daughters and we usually use crayons. There’s something wonderful about the permanence of crayons. Wax cannot be undone.

MGM: Please share a little about your process with us?

BT: You know, when an assignment comes in, you just have to do it. I can’t wait for inspiration to strike or to feel “ready” to work. I have small children and my work time is limited. If a client has hired you, they already love your work, so do the job, hit the deadline and be amenable to changes. It sounds boring, but that is honestly the best way to get hired again.

MGM: Where do you like to work or what is your studio space like?

BT: We just moved to a new home, so right now my studio is in the dining room! I’m looking at a lot of unpacked boxes right now. I really don’t need a special space to work. Any pretense I had about “my own space” went out the window when I became a mother.

MGM: Do you have a favorite snack to nosh on while you illustrate?

BT: Not particularly. I try to stay away from soup or cereal when I work. No spoons near the keyboard!

I want to thank Beegee for taking the time to answer our questions. If you want to see more of her work, visit her website or visit the Heflinreps site.

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Writing Contests (and tips!)


Writing contests are a great way to get some attention for your novel and there’s a fun one going on now. The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition is looking for:

Original ideas, a fresh voice and a story that children will love! To enter, you must have written a completed full-length novel suitable for children aged somewhere between 7 and 18 years.

This competition has a great first prize –  a worldwide publishing contract with Chicken House with a royalty advance of £10,000, plus representation from a top children’s literary agent. Sweet!

(Our friends over at KidLit411 have a monthly roundup of contests, so be sure and check them out for more.)

Contests are particularly interesting to me this week as I just finished participating in round one of Pitch Wars, where I looked at approximately 40 queries/first chapters and chose one to mentor. It was very educational and I wanted to share a few tips I learned through the process.

1. Follow the rules! If the contest asks for a query and first chapter, send the query and first chapter, ONLY. This is your first impression and you don’t want to frustrate the judges immediately.

2. Make your query standout. The judges are going to be reading query after query after query. Take it from me, their eyes will start to cross and your story about a talking newt that finds a magical unicorn that turns him into a vampire unless he can SAVE THE WORLD is going to look like every other story about talking newts, so refine it until it’s awesome.

3. There’s nothing new under the sun, or is there? I saw a whole lot of stories with the same basic premise, so just go ahead and assume you’re not the first person to think of a book about talking clocks told in alternating POV’s and show how your story is different than all of those others.

4.  Do your best and forget the rest. Contests are subjective and what one person likes, another person won’t. Take the feeback that you get, learn from it, and move on. The bookstores are FULL of books written by authors that didn’t win a contest. No matter what happens, just keep writing.

I’d wish you luck, but you don’t need it. Luck is great, but good writing will always win in the end.


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