Virtual NYC Metro Series Professional Talk with Janae Marks: Mature Themes in Children’s Literature!

By Paulette Bogan

From the Desk of Zoe Washington is Marks’s debut middle grade novel about a 12-year-old girl who searches for the truth about her father’s incarceration. Zoe is a young aspiring baker who discovers that her father, whom she never met, is innocent and sets out to find the truth.

Janae Marks (c) Jerri Graham Photography

From the Desk of Zoe Washington started out as a YA, and Marks led us through her process of discovering her voice as a MG novelist. “Middle grade chose me!” she said. Marks led us through the ins and outs of mature themes in middle grade vs. young adult novels.

“In middle grade, characters don’t typically over-analyze their feelings. In YA, characters spend more time reflecting on what happens to them and thinking about the meaning of things.”

Some examples of mature themes include:

• Abuse/assault

• Addiction

• Incarceration

• Racism

• Suicide

“Kids are having these experiences or are exposed to them, and books are a great way for them to process their feelings and feel less alone,” said Marks. That’s why these issues are important in Children’s Literature. How one tackles these themes in MG can be very different from YA.

What’s taboo in MG can be just fine in YA. MG protagonists can experience the same issues but usually second hand.”  She talked about how to handle these difficult themes respectfully. Marks says, “If a topic you want to explore is typically experienced by a marginalized community (e.g., racism, discrimination), consider whether you are the right person to tell this story.”

Marks read from two novels tackling mental illness, a MG novel, Where the Watermelons Grow, by Cindy Baldwin, and a YA, When We Collided, by Emery Lord. She discussed the difference in how the theme was handled. The group then did a writing exercise exploring a mature topic, first featuring a 10-12- year-old protagonist and then featuring a 15-18-year-old protagonist.

Some Reflections on the exercise:

• What did you notice about changing the age of the protagonist?

• How did it change your story?

• Did one of your scenes feel more “right” to you?

• How was your pacing?

Just a few titles from her Reading List:

· Just South of Home by Karen Strong

· Blended by Sharon Draper – can be read alongside 

  The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (both cover racism/police brutality)

· Chirp by Kate Messner – can be read alongside 

  Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (both cover sexual assault)

· The Stitchers by Lorien Lawrence

 Some thoughts from Janae Marks:

About the future of children’s publishing, Marks said, “I hope it gets more diverse on all sides. I want more authors and illustrators of color to be published, but I’d also love to see more people of color become agents, editors, marketers, publicists, publishers, etc.”

About working in these difficult times, she said, “If you’re happy writing, great. If you’re having trouble writing, just read!”

You can find out more about Janae Marks and find out Zoe’s recipe for Froot Loop Cupcakes at  and on Instagram and Twitter @JANAEMARKSBOOKS

Paulette Bogan is the author and or illustrator of over a dozen books for young readers, including Bossy Flossy, Virgil & Owen, and Virgil & Owen Stick Together. Her book, Lulu the Big Little Chick, was awarded the CBC Children’s Choice Book Award 2010. See her work at and Instagram: paulettebogan123

“LAUGH IT UP! Why Humor in Children’s Books is Essential, and How to Make Your Books Funnier” with Marvin Terban


By Jen Seggio

“My newest book from Scholastic Book Clubs has four of my favorite words in the title: laugh, funny, kids, and jokes!” says Marvin Terban.          


Dubbed Scholastic’s “Professor Grammar” and the ALA Booklist’s “Master of Wordplay,” Terban says humor is prevalent in five major aspects in our lives – education, advertising, the workplace, medicine, and entertainment and most importantly, it improves them all.

A long-time teacher, Terban incorporates humor into his classes to provide memorable lessons. Student polls reveal that the most preferred quality in a teacher is humor because it can offset boredom.


Terban cited how the most popular Super Bowl ads are always the funniest ones. Studies and surveys show that humor in the workplace is a great stimulus and has long-term health benefits. In entertainment, comedy shows have been consistently among the highest-rated television programs for the past seventy years. For an author, a great sense of humor can give a manuscript a better chance of being noticed by an agent or an editor.

Why is humor so important to a story? Terban referenced writers William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens to answer that question. He highlighted the drunken porter monologue in Macbeth, set between the offstage murder of King Duncan and the discovery of that murder. The porter scene draws out the tension while also injecting some much-needed levity. 

Comedy and tragedy have always coexisted. Mature themes about life and death make for phenomenal stories both for children and adults when handled with a light touch. Humor can be used to teach children how to cope with fear and sadness. Terban also talked about adding humorous characters with funny names to provide comical antics and light dialogue to an otherwise serious plot. 


Terban spoke from experience when he said you don’t have to be a naturally funny person to write comedy. His uncle-in-law, Henny Youngman, coined the famous one-liner “Take my wife, please!” Youngman did standup comedy into his nineties. His onstage persona was that of an affable jokester, but offstage he was quite the opposite. 

Terban went into great detail about what kids from each age group find humorous. 

  • Preschoolers crack up at funny-sounding words. 
  • Slightly older children can find the humorous side in an exaggerated catastrophe. 
  • Six and seven-year-olds discover that words with the same sound but different meanings can be used to trick people, and that’s funny! 
  • Mean-spirited humor, however, does not have a place in children’s literature. If a character is a bully, make sure there’s a lesson to be taught or have a good comeuppance planned! 

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Most importantly, kids want books that make them laugh and books they can pick out for themselves. If it has a funny word in the title, younger readers are more likely to give it a look. Based on his own unscientific observations, Terban revealed the three words that kids find the funniest and gave some examples. 

  • Fart (Do Fish Fart? by Keltie Thomas)
  • Poop (Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi)
  • Underpants (Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey)

Terban closed out the night with the perfect observation from Dr. Seuss, “From there to here and here to there, funny things are everywhere!”

Check out his website:

You can see ten of Marvin’s videos on Kidlit.TV

Jen Seggio is a pre-published author and illustrator from Staten Island, New York.

You can visit her at

Writing Original Middle Grade for Audio Exclusives with Heather Alexander


by Jen Seggio

The audiobook business is booming worldwide thanks to numerous emerging platforms such as Audible, the first audio-exclusive, digital-only publisher, and the Pinna app. Audibles subscription-based policy and ever-expanding library ensure that there will always be a listening audience.

Heather Alexander, Executive Editor of Audible Originals, has been in the children’s book business for over a decade. She currently puts out at least one Audible Original every month. Alexander explained the process of assembling an audiobook for publication and played samples of Originals she’d helped create, along with their corresponding scripts on display. 

Screen Shot 2020-05-25 at 11.33.17 PM


She explained the requirements for a story to become an Audible Original:

  • It cannot be a pre-existing audiobook, or simply music (although a musical element is excellent.).
  • It must never have been published before.
  • It must be at least two hours long (it can be longer), although Audible is open to shorter content on a case-by-case basis
  • That translates to 9300 words per hour or 60 script pages per hour.
  • It may be shorter episodes that add up to 2 or more hours
  • It may be an ongoing series, like a podcast
  • Audible is open to both fiction and non-fiction
  • It may be scripted, or straight narration, or a combination of both

Alexander explained that if you sell your manuscript to Audible, you usually hold on to the print rights, so it could still become a printed book. But in order to be an Audible Original, the story must first be featured on Audible. Writers usually don’t have a say in casting but can offer suggestions.

Screen Shot 2020-05-25 at 11.32.13 PM           

There are great benefits to audiobooks. They can be educational as well as entertaining. Alexander stated, “Ten 12-minute stories or twelve 10-minute stories are perfect car-trip-length entertainment for young readers and create a shared experience with the whole family.” Alexander described in detail the different types of audiobooks noting which writing style best corresponds to each one.

Most Audible listeners are ages 8 through 12, though Alexander is currently looking for stories for younger readers. 

Some of the story qualities that stand out to Alexander:

  • A strong voice 
  • A fast-paced plot 
  • Horses or sports
  • Biographies with a factual but fun voice 
  • Diverting narration styles 
  • Unique-to-audio elements, for example, sound effects or music or spoken word

(such as the same story told from different points of view or through diary entries or social media posts).

Jen Seggio is a pre-published author and illustrator from Staten Island, New York. You can visit her at

So, You’re Stuck. Now What? The Highs and Lows of Making a Book with Illustrator Ruth Chan

Ruth Chan author photo

Review by Sabina Hahn

Ruth Chan’s publishing debut came in 2016 with her book Where’s the Party, but she wrote her first full-length picture book at the age of 10. It was titled On Your Marks, Get Set, Bo Bo Bogo! 

Chan spent her childhood tobogganing in Canada, her teenage years in China, a number of years studying art and education, and a decade working with families in underserved communities. From all of these experiences came to her illustration collection called Portraits of the Unsure.

Ruth Chan hedgehog

The Process (when it works)

Chan makes all her art by hand. First, she sketches with a pencil. Then, using a lightbox, she inks her drawing (her favorite ink to use is Higgins Black Magic Ink). Then Chan uses watercolor to finish her piece.

But what happens when she is stuck? Here are some of the tools that Chan uses:

  • Keep your eyes peeled for something wonderful, or interesting, or beautiful. Observe both visually AND emotionally.
  • Go to bookstores and check out books. (Some of Chan’s favorites: Stop Snoring, Bernard by Zachariah Ohora and Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers)
  • Make it personal. Open up to others and to yourself.
  • Doodle daily: write for 15 minutes or make a drawing every day. Explore your creativity without pressure.

Ruth Chan Pet Beds for Cricket magazine

The (dreaded) Revision Process

  • Find collaborators and critics. Making books can be a lonely activity and it is extremely helpful to have people who can critique your ideas and collaborate with you. 
  • Sometimes you have to put it away and be patient. Some ideas need space and time to percolate and grow.
  • Be willing to throw things away (even after twenty revisions!).
  • But remember, if it doesn’t work–it may not be forever, but only for now.
  • Put it on the wall! Hang up your sketches and page sequences. This creates distance so you can look at your work objectively.
  • Create a book dummy. 
  • Read other books. Find and cherish good books that speak to you. To get out of your own head, it is helpful to see how other artists grew and changed. Or didn’t change. 


Put Yourself Out There

  • Go to book launches.
  • Go to SCBWI events.
  • Go to museums, libraries, parks.
  • Put your work on social media.

Be emotionally true and honest!                     

Visit to learn more about Ruth Chan.


-Sabina Hahn is a Brooklyn based illustrator, animator, and sculptor who loves stories and tall tales. You can see more of her work at and

Using Fictional Techniques to Tell Facts with Author Deborah Heiligman

_SCBWI Deborah Heiligman Fooner

Review by Andrea Fooner

Deborah Heiligman, award-winning author of Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, explained to us how to use the craft and elements of fiction to create engaging nonfiction.  


Heiligman and her first dog, Missy

Heiligman contrasted two categories of nonfiction, summary narrative, and dramatic narrative.  Summary narrative is explanation from an omniscient author-expert, organized by topics. Dramatic narrative, the kind Heiligman writes, has a story arc and presents information through scenes, using concrete details, dialogue, and characters that are real, but presented as if in a novel. The author writes from inside the scene, making the reader feel present as the action is happening.

Heiligman stressed that, even when techniques from fiction are used, everything in a nonfiction book must be true. Writers can’t invent dialogue, change the order of events, or make up a back story to cover gaps in knowledge. Nonfiction demands that writers immerse themselves in research, preferably from primary sources, and then write until they can identify the big moments (scenes) and themes that anchor the story.

For her YA book Charles and Emma, a National Book Award finalist, Heiligman combed the Darwins’ letters to each other and their private journals. By immersing herself in their words, she discovered her book’s theme: the love story of a man of reason, actively developing groundbreaking scientific theories, who at the same time cherished a wife who held strong religious beliefs. 


Before committing to a topic, Heiligman advised, writers must do research. Research possibly over several years, to be sure there’s enough good, personal material to support a dramatic nonfiction narrative. If there’s not enough, Heiligman suggests perhaps recasting the project as historical fiction.


Heiligman cautioned, you shouldn’t show off your research, or go along chronologically from date to date. Your job is to tell a story. For her YA Vincent and Theo, The Van Gogh Brothers, Heiligman had plenty of personal information from the letters between the two brothers but was blocked on how to tell the story. Her writer husband’s advice to “write the arias” (the high points of the story) got her started. Heiligman then discovered she wanted to begin with the scene where Theo gets news from Arles that Vincent has hurt himself. Her theme became the love between two often conflicted brothers and the scenes describing their relationship were set in the story arc of Vincent’s career.   


Deborah Heiligman is the author of 32 books, most of them nonfiction. Her latest, Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship” (October 2019), garnered four starred reviews and won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award and was a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction finalist.

Andrea Fooner was an Editor at Redbook Magazine and Scholastic, where she wrote monthly articles for young teens reading CO-ED Magazine. She’s free-lanced for Self, Inc. and Travel & Leisure, and now writes picture books and middle grade. Her novel Amy’s Grandma Problem was named a Manuscript of Merit in the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition.  

Professional Series: Writing the Complex and Shifting Emotions of Characters in YA and Middle-Grade Fiction with Jessica Dandino Garrison

Jessica Garrison cropped

By Paulette Bogan

Jessica Dandino Garrison had a sold-out crowd for her talk about Writing the Complex and Shifting Emotions of Characters in YA and Middle-Grade Fiction. But we were just hearing about Coronavirus and not sure what we were supposed to do or who would show up! At dinner, we discussed the virus, the publishing industry, whether any of us will ever go on a cruise again and saluting and booty bumping instead of shaking hands. Garrison’s advice: “Don’t buy the small rolls of toilet paper.”

Well, it turns out we had a very good crowd.

Jessica Dandino Garrison, Executive Editor at Dial Books for Young Readers started us off with a quote by Stuart Dybek, “The thing about writing is that instead of going to a scrapyard like a sculptor might for raw material, or digging clay like a potter, a writer has to make the junk, make the clay, before any shaping, any imagining of form, can begin.”

Garrison added, “Shall we make some clay?”

                                                                                        Sketches of Garrison by Paulette Bogan

After reading aloud from authors, Sandra Cisneros, Helena Fox, and Zan Romanoff to name a few, and a short writing exercise we discussed how emotions are best displayed in writing. 

Helena Fox once said, “Emotion is best conveyed through behavior, dialogue, and description. Better to provide clues about a character’s emotions than to tell them to the reader.” Garrison couldn’t agree more, show don’t tell. She talked about the importance of verbs and how a little description can go a long way. We discussed how emotions can be conveyed through dialogue.

When trying to show a character feeling embarrassed, one of her writers used the word flushed. 

 Garrison said, “That’s what a toilet does!” She refers to herself as “charmingly, relentlessly meticulous” when working with her authors, both challenging them and coaxing them into their best writing. “Don’t be hard on yourself. You can’t write in a vacuum.” she says.

After reading a first and last draft by Shana Youngdahl, and analyzing the difference, Garrison said, “Don’t listen to anyone who says YA can’t be literary,” and, “If you want a reader to feel something, give them something to feel about!”

Throughout the night Garrison was informative, encouraging, and charmingly, relentlessly meticulous! We as writers felt inspired.

In the end, Garrison said, “Now you have made some clay.”

Paulette Bogan is the author and or illustrator of over a dozen books for young readers, including Bossy Flossy, Virgil & Owen, and Virgil & Owen Stick Together. Her book, Lulu the Big Little Chick was awarded the CBC Children’s Choice Book Award 2010. See her work at and Instagram: paulettebogan123

Genre Jumping: Let Your Story Lead the Way with Pat Cummings

PAt Cummings

by Jen Seggio

Acclaimed children’s book author and illustrator, Pat Cummings shared her experiences – and more than a few entertaining stories – about working in different genres. 

With a career spanning over forty years, she has written and illustrated board books, chapter books, textbooks, nonfiction, and middle-grade novels. Cummings was born in Chicago but grew up traveling with her military family all over the world. After graduating from Pratt, she went on to do costume design and posters for children’s theater as well as a freelance editorial and advertising illustration. 

Her family was a great source of inspiration for her books. Her brother’s antics, in particular, inspired many of her stories. Her younger brother inspired several of her picture books and taught her an important lesson that she shared, “Don’t use your sibling’s real name in a book if you want to avoid legal action.” 

Pat branched out into television work as an assistant producer and writer for the first season of Nick Jr.’s preschool show Gullah Gullah Island. Inspired by one of the songs used on the show, she adapted it to illustrate her first board book, My Aunt Came Back

When her editor, Nina Ignatowitz, encouraged her to illustrate a folktale, Pat looked for one about Ananse, the infamous spider.  But story formats vary from culture to culture, and to find one that suited the sensibility of an American picture book, in which tricksters must pay for their mischief by the story’s end, Pat traveled to Ghana to find a wider selection. There, she found the one she retold as Ananse and the Lizard.

Having always wanted to retell a classic fairy tale, Pat teamed up with her husband, Chuku Lee, to reimagine Beauty and the Beast, which he retold from Beauty’s perspective. Then, inspired by imagery from sources as diverse as Jean Cocteau’s black and white film La Belle et la Bête to Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America, Pat created an enchanting fairy-tale world set in a mythical version of a West African kingdom. After showing nearly 30 variations of possible covers for the book, her art director decided the beast was too scary to show. Later, when a librarian noted that a Beast-less cover was more provocative, tempting readers to dive into the story, Pat understood the art director’s marketing instincts. 

beauty and the beast cover

Talking with Artists, a three-volume non-fiction series came about after a conversation between Pat, her editor, Barbara Lalicki, and author-illustrator, Lois Ehlert about how early children decide they want to be an artist. The series features interviews with over thirty-five celebrated children’s book illustrators discussing their books, their careers, and when they knew they wanted to become artists. 

When her editor, Barbara Lalicki moved to National Geographic, Pat and her sister, Linda Cummings Minor, PhD. co-authored Talking with Adventurers, featuring prominent scientists and explorers like Richard Ballard, who found the Titanic, and renowned primatologist Jane Goodall.

Her takeaway from the Talking with… books: “Do what you love,” she told the audience, “and you’ll find yourself in the company of other fascinating people following their passion.”

Pat keeps folders of articles and pictures that catch her fancy and suggest story ideas. Her latest book, Trace, was based on two true tragic events that occurred over 150 years apart. Somehow, the story of a car plunging into a river in 2012 and the Draft Riots of 1863 became connected in her imagination and her to write her first middle-grade novel.  To her surprise, she told the audience, the internet provided misinformation.  Reading that the New York Public Library had been built on the ashes of the Colored Orphan Asylum, burnt to the ground during the riots, Pat began her ghost story. When then children’s librarian Betsy Byrd set her straight, pointing out that the Asylum was located two blocks north of the site, Pat decided that a ghost would hardly want to haunt the Chase Bank on that corner. She kept her ghost haunting the shadowy stacks of the library, leaving the historical ‘facts’ to be detailed in the acknowledgments.   

Cummings left the audience with some key points to think about:

  • Follow your curiosity and trust your gut instincts.
  • This is a communications medium: share your story with others. Writer/illustrator groups provide great feedback and motivation.
  • No matter what the genre, become your character and try to listen to their voice, see through their eyes.
  • There are so many people who will tell you what you CAN’T do. Don’t be one of them.

PyeongChang 2018  Pat in PyeongChang with the Jamaican Bobsled Team 2018

Jen Seggio is a pre-published author and illustrator from Staten Island, New York. You can visit her at

How to Catch (and Keep) an Art Director’s Attention! With Marikka Tamura

        Portrait of Tamura  ©Daniel Rieley     Photo   by ©Jacob Pritchard

Review by Sharee Miller

Marikka Tamura, Art Director at Penguin Random House, began her presentation by answering a question her mother often asks, “What does an Art Director do anyway?” 

“An Art Director is like an editor for pictures.” answered Tamura. She thinks of illustrators as problem solvers. The problem is how to tell a story in a fresh and engaging way with art that fits or adds to the text. Tamura shared what Art Directors consider when selecting an illustrator for a text. Some things considered are mood of the story, subject matter, and age range. An illustrator portfolio is like a resume that lets the Art Director know you are qualified for the job.

A strong portfolio should show range in technique, subject matter, mood, consistency, body language, engaging characters, and your personal point of view. Illustrators should create work that is meaningful to them, work they are willing to spend time with for at least 32 pages (plus revisions). Tamura urges us to fall in love with our work but not be married to it. Being able to look at your work critically is what separates a novice illustrator from a professional one. 

Tamura referenced illustrators such as Mike Lowery, Tomie DePaola, Ana Aranda, and Brianne Farley as illustrators with a distinct style, point of view, and color sense.  

Key Takeaways:

  • Build a portfolio filled with the type of art you wouldn’t mind working on for years.
  • Make sure your online presence also reflects the work you want to attract.
  • If it doesn’t make sense in your portfolio – get rid of it!
  • Use social media to show your process. Art Directors do look!
  • Show engaging characters that are consistent and have personality.
  • Promotional and/or art sample postcards are always welcome.

-My name is Sharee Miller, author and illustrator of Don’t Touch My Hair and Princess Hair. I am currently working on my third book Michelle’s Garden: How the First Lady Planted Seeds of Change. You can find my work at

Using Psychological Principles to Plot Your Characters

by Brooke McIntyre

Author Jessica Bayliss worked as a psychologist for years before beginning to write in her spare time. As her writing projects grew into novels, she discovered that the same principles she used as a therapist helped her more deeply understand her characters. At the May Professional Series, Bayliss explained the core model she uses as a psychologist, and how writers can use that model to write more believable characters.

Our stories include both an action plot–what is happening in the character’s external world– and an emotional plot–what is happening to the character internally. The Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) model relates the two. In the CBT model, a character has thoughts about their particular situation. Their thoughts generate emotions. Their emotions, in turn, drive behavior.