Guest Blogger: Carmen Oliver on her First Book Contract

I am thrilled to welcome my friend Carmen Oliver as my guest blogger today. I feel a like a proud matchmaking sister as the official news of Carmen’s first book sale has just been announced. Before I step off the stage, here’s a little back story about why I have a double sense of pride about this news.
Some time ago, I stumbled upon an article about Favio Chavez, a remarkable man in Paraguay who creates musical instruments out of landfill garbage. With them, he provides a musical education and a lesson in hope to the disadvantaged children in his poor community. I was intrigued enough to dig into it a little. I just knew that his story needed to be a children’s book! Yet, as much as I was smitten, the story had Carmen written all over it. She’s particularly drawn to stories about people who make a difference in the world and this one just felt like it belonged with her. Carmen and I have been friends for a very long time, journeying the path to publication together. I had a fairly good sense of her style. Like any good matchmaker, arranging a blind date on a hunch, I sent her an email that read something like, “I think this story is meant for you.” Thankfully, she agreed. In the end, I’m pleased to have shared the idea, but Carmen’s research, her unique angle, and her word-magic spun the story in just the right way. It was the perfect match, after all.  I couldn’t be more proud of her. And I know this is only the first in a long line of books to come from her.
Congatulations, Carmen!

“Stepping Over the Threshold – The First Children’s Book Contract”

Over the last six months, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect
as I waited on my first nonfiction picture book contract to come together.
During this time, I had moments of doubt wondering if it would materialize. And
in these times, I would tell myself – keep the faith and keep climbing. In
other words, I worked on other writing projects. I took care of my Booking Biz clients’ needs.  I pushed myself to be the best I could be because
there’s so much more climb left in me.
I’ve been working at writing for children for over twelve years. If I’m
honest with myself, longer, as I’ve been reading and digesting books since
“the beginning of time.” Even so, I know I’m just starting to crest
that mountain and that there’s a lot more mountain to climb. And though it can
sound sappy to say “It’s the journey,” I can tell you it is the
journey that I’m still on that means the most to me. The people I’ve met along
the way — the mentors, teachers, confidants, and heroes — who have become my
friends. The exceptional SCBWI conference
experiences, the opportunities to apprentice, volunteer, learn. This long (and
on-going) journey makes me the writer I am and it makes me a better writer,
with each revision and critique. And whether every manuscript finds a home, I
celebrate in each story’s journey. And contracts are icing that can put bread
on the table, so who doesn’t love a good publishing contract.
I’ll admit. I used to think about how incredible it would
feel to say I’m published. And I won’t lie; it feels great to get to this point
where I’m stepping over the threshold! But not because of the reasons you might
think. It’s because I’ve learned so much more about myself:
I can go the distance.
I’m tougher than I thought I was.
I can conquer my fears.
It’s okay to fail.
I know how to pick myself back up again and ride/write.
I know what I want to be when I grow up.
And my hope is that we all savor our individual journeys. Every
frustrating, joyful, and tearful moment. The people you meet are the real
prizes. And I wouldn’t be publishing my first nonfiction picture book The Favio Chavez Story with Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
without my people. You know who you are. You have left your marks on me.  Changed me.
I am blessed.
Thank you.

Carmen Oliver is a children’s author, and booking agent/founder of the Booking Biz, a boutique style agency that brings award-winning children’s authors and
illustrators to schools, libraries, and special events. She’s also the former
assistant regional advisor for the Austin SCBWI chapter and a regular
contributor for ReaderKidZ. She lives
just outside of Austin, Texas.

Writing Process Blog Tour

Every once in a while, a nugget of smiley goodness appears in my inbox. That’s how I’d describe being asked by author F.A. Michaels to participate in an ongoing blog tour about the writing process by answering four related questions. F.A. Michaels, or Mic, is the author of some amazing novels for middle grade and young adult readers. Some of those stories will come to life as e-books right off the bat. Others will land on print pages soon. Mic knows that I am passionate about books for young readers and that I enjoy a good ole fashion discussion about the writing process- which is as unique to an author as a fingerprint. I encourage you to take a look at what other authors have revealed, beginning with talented F.A. Michaels here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I know, Mic is brilliant, right? Well, now that you’re back, I’ll do my best to enlighten you about how I work.

What am I currently working on?
Lately, my multi-tasking muscles have gotten a workout. In the last two weeks, I did final edits on two books I wrote for the educational market, due out this summer. I’m also kicking around new title options for my debut trade book, a nonfiction picture book coming out next spring from Lee and Low, tentatively titled STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL JIM KEY. And speaking of that debut, it will be out in less than a year. Ahhhhhhh! There’s so much to think about and plan for: book launch parties, marketing, the best pen to sign with, how to thank the multitudes of people who have helped me emotionally and craft-wise to bring the book to fruition. I suddenly feel pregnant all over again, stressing over a very long pre-baby to-do list that will lead to one beautiful event.

I’m in the research stage of a new project, but I’ll remain coy for now. Partly to avoid leaks in focus that would allow some of the magic to spill from the mental process by talking about it too soon. Once the story is well rounded, fully spiced, and tightly sealed, I’ll be thrilled to talk about it. For now, I’ll reveal only that it will probably be a nonfiction picture book (unless it becomes something else,) about an almost-forgotten historical event involving war, trains, destruction, kids, adults, hunger, and gifts. I am enthralled by all I am learning and antsy to begin writing. But, it isn’t time yet.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
It’s funny, isn’t it, that we begin our writing careers studying the works and styles of other writers, trying to emulate them. Then, our goal is to be different, original, unique. To that end, I’m not sure how to answer this question except to say that every project I tackle has a bit of me in it. I think that’s true of all writers. There isn’t one characteristic that makes my work different. It is the collective gathering of ideas and the particular voice and spin I give it. So maybe the question should be “What topics and themes am I drawn to?” As I consider the many nonfiction topics I’ve tackled, it’s interesting to observe themes that have emerged organically from each. A reader might correctly assume that I root for underdogs and cheer at success-against-all-odds tales (STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL JIM KEY. Lee and Low, spring 2015.) I like real, fallible people who acknowledge and evolve from their mistakes. (EN GARDE! THE DUELING WORDS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Peachtree, 2016.) I like characters who have the gumption to do what others think is impossible. (Stay tuned.) I cheer for strong women who break through gender barriers. (One newly on submission. Another awaiting first draft.) I like learning about the personal side to historical figures. (old project waiting to be re-visited.) I like people with such conviction, they’re willing to risk their lives to do what’s right. (my old magazine article begging to be a book.)

How does my work differ? I don’t know. I’m not sure that can be answered until I’m at the end of my writing career. Let’s hope that’s a long time from now.

Why do I write what I write?
Much of the answer to this can be found in the previous question, I think. Every year, I promise myself that I will begin my novel and tackle the fiction picture books that I have dabbled with. But, I can’t seem to drag myself away from nonfiction. I love true stories. I like the sense of wonderment and awe when I learn something remarkable. People are fascinating, complicated creatures built by life experiences and dreams. Historical subjects are doubly interesting because there’s an element of detective work and puzzle-solving to realize their stories. What fun! Sometimes, I think I’m drawn to biographies because it’s a way to put logic and order to the human experience which, while we’re living life, is chaotic and disorderly. We learn from the past.

How does my individual writing process work?
People often ask where I get my ideas, which is the first step in any writing process. Ideas come from everywhere. I once wrote a magazine article about fainting goats, after catching a news segment on a local television station. Sometimes, ideas come from snippets or blips or the merest mention in newspapers or magazines or documentaries. Sometimes, it’s a curiosity that sends me to Google. Not all ideas stick. But, when a topic nags me, when I can’t stop the “gee, I wonder…” inner dialog, I know it’s one I must pursue. Something about the topic must hit a nerve with me.

My research begins online, then on to books. I begin to horde copies of newspaper clippings from the day and I’ll even buy a copy of full newspapers if any still exist. It’s an ideal way to gauge what was happening in the community and the world around my subject. If the idea still has me fascinated, I’ll contact any known experts. By now, I have research files on my computer desktop and desk drawer where I deposit photos, newspaper and other articles, historical details, world events, copies of pages from books, etc. Without fail, the folder morphs into a bulging 4″ binder where print documents are cataloged chronologically. Timelines, details and sequences are categorized. Early on, I begin what I call my source notes document that is also broken into categories. From the massive amount of research I do, I extract important (to me) information and implant them into my source notes. Each source is cited on the document, for easy recall. My single-spaced source notes for a picture book biography can easily grow to 50 pages long. The categories grow and, eventually, a theme emerges.  When I begin coming across the same information over and over, I know it’s time to stop researching and start writing.

Information at hand, I outline over and over and over again, keeping an eye on a narrative arc. One of the most difficult decisions about writing picture book biographies is where to begin and end the story. I write, rewrite, scrap the outline, begin again. The last thing I do is pick at my word choices and finesse the voice. Ideally, each story will have it’s own voice, appropriate to the topic.  I send this umpteenth draft on to my agent and cross my fingers. But there’s no time for a break. By then, another topic is nagging at me, begging to be a book.

Mark your calendars for next week, May 5th when author Carmen Oliver and author/illustrator Shelley Ann Jackson will share their own writing processes on their individual blogs.

Carmen Oliver, originally from Canada, is a former Assistant Regional Advisor of Austin SCBWI. She writes fiction and nonfiction picture books and middle grade novels and is represented by Erzsi Deak of Hen and Ink: A Literary Studio. Carmen has a special affinity for adorable picture books. I don’t doubt we’ll hear about sales of her books very soon. Carmen’s blog can be found here.

Shelley Ann Jackson is the current Assistant Regional Advisor for Austin SCBWI while also teaching illustration at Texas State University. Shelley and her husband, Jeff Crosby,  co-illustrated the newly released TEN TEXAS BABIES by David Davis (Pelican, 2014) as well as UPON SECRECY by Selene Castrovilla (Calkins Creek, 2009.) She co-authored and co-illustrated HARNESS HORSES, BUCKING BRONCOS & PIT PONIES (Tundra Books, 2011,) and LITTLE LIONS, BULL BAITERS & HUNTING HOUNDS (Tundra Books, 2008.)  Shelley’s blog can be found here.

LAUGH WITH THE MOON- Shana Burg interview


It’s always exciting to welcome a new book baby to the world, especially one birthed by a friend and critique partner. Such is the case with Shana Burg’s latest familial addition, LAUGH WITH THE MOON (Delacorte 2012.) Though I was only privvy to Shana’s earliest drafts of the book, before work schedules ate up her critique time, I somehow feel a sense of relation to this story. In those early days, Shana shared her emotional journey that began two decades ago. When she committed to writing this book, she was passionate about paying homage to the Malawi people with grace. And, by golly, she did it!

Thirteen year-old Clare is grieving over the loss of her mother and coming to grips with her own definition of family. Within a year, her well-intentioned father uproots her and they jet across the globe for a months-long medical assignment in Malawi, Africa. Away from her friends and everything familiar, Clare must somehow give herself permission to open her heart to her father, to new friends, to a culture foreign to her. And to learn that, in Clare’s words, “…people aren’t like stitches on a hem. They don’t always follow a pattern. They don’t always weave in and out, holding the pieces of their lives together in the way you might expect.”
This is a fish out of water story with a vulnerable character on a path toward transformation. The sense of place, rich with sensory and descriptive detail, added with the distinctive voices of Malawian characters, makes this a transcendent read sprinkled with profound heart.Shana has had a busy couple of months. Her book launch for LAUGH WITH THE MOON was followed by a whirlwind promotional blog tour. How lucky I am that Shana agreed to answer a few questions for me. Pop over to Shana Burg’s website for a full list of her previous interviews related to MOON. We agreed on a different angle for my interview. I hope you’ll enjoy!



Please share your inspiration for LAUGH WITH THE MOON. 
I went to Malawi, Africa in graduate school as part of a
project to explore whether girls and boys in this Central African country were
getting equal access to learning materials, such as teachers, pens, and paper.
In one of the biggest adventures of my life, I spent a few weeks tooling
through the bush in a Land Rover. I visited schools and met students, parents,
headmasters, and other administrators. Laugh
with the Moon
is my way of sharing this experience with kids around the
Writing historical and/or multicultural fiction, especially with foreign settings, presents unique
research challenges. In addition to your personal hands-on experience, how did
you tackle the necessary research to ensure cultural accuracy,
sensory details, traditions, etc? What kinds of sources did you
I worked with two Malawian research assistants, Felicity
Charity Mponda and Lovemore Nkhata. They had both grown up in rural Malawi but
were living in Malawian cities with internet access as adults. Felicity and
Lovemore told me about their childhoods and answered hundreds of my questions.
I couldn’t have written the book without their help. I also spoke many times
with Dr. Kevin Bergman, a family physician and co-founder of World Altering
Medicine, who travels between the U.S. and Malawi. And I read books, blogs,
news articles, and academic reports.
From your experience as an educator, and parent, how important do you think it
is to introduce young readers to diverse cultures? 
I think it’s critical. Kids may grow up isolated, in one
part of the world or another, exposed only to one racial/ethnic/economic group,
but eventually they will come into contact with people from backgrounds
different from their own. At least I hope they will. By reading about diverse
cultures, young people learn that there are multiple worldviews out there. They
also learn that people with and without material resources have tremendous
value to contribute to society.
Forming letters from clay

In LAUGH WITH THE MOON, thirteen-year old Clare is grieving after the death of
her mother while adjusting to life in Malawi. In your first book, A THOUSAND
NEVER EVERS, there’s an equally strong emotional tug as the main characters
face racial injustices. At the heart of both of your books are very strong
emotional and historically significant themes. How do you think young readers benefit from
reading about difficult challenges?

As Donna Jo Napoli told an audience at last year’s Austin
SCBWI conference, literature that portrays protagonists confronting difficult
challenges can benefit young readers in several different ways. The treacherous
journeys of our characters can offer companionship as well as hope to young
readers who are struggling in their own lives. And for those protected children
who haven’t faced too much difficulty yet, our books can lay the groundwork and
prepare them for future hardships they may face
Athena Burg


5.) Is
there anything else you’d like to add or any question you wish someone would
ask you?
Yes. I wish someone (you!) would ask about my new puppy,
Athena. She’s eight weeks old today and the cutest thing I ever saw in my life.
Yesterday she had her first bath. Phew! Today I gave her a doggie bed, and
she’s trying to chew it to pieces. Thanks for (sort of) asking!
Book trailer for Shana Burg’s LAUGH WITH THE MOON (Delacorte, 2012)



Holy Revelation, Batman!
It’s a scene that conjures familiarity in our collective
memories. A gray scale city nightscape that hints at danger. Suddenly, a beam of
light is thrust skyward, cut with the unmistakable symbol of a bat. Fear not.
Nearby, a winged figure will appear, a hero to fight injustice.  Whether your recall of Batman originated from
a comic book or a screen, every American can identify this iconic symbol.
 It turns out, however,
that everything most of us thought we knew about the creation of Batman is
false. Or, at least, a half truth. There was a secret co-creator of Batman.
In BILL: THE BOY WONDER (Charlesbridge 2012) author Marc
Tyler Nobleman shares the story most of us never knew about the true provenance
of Batman. The greatest creative influence behind our winged hero
appears to have been humble shoe salesman Milton (Bill) Finger, who longed to
be an artist and writer.
A chance meeting with cartoonist Bob Kane tipped Bill’s future.
Bob had an idea for a character, but it wasn’t working. Bill had the creativity
to fully conceptualize the character- from concept to story lines to physical
characteristics, emotional back story, and added characters. Yet, Bob Kane
refused to share credit for Batman, though in later years, humility got the
best of him. While Kane became rich and famous, Bill Finger remained
essentially an anonymous underpaid ghost writer, until revelations about his
involvement began to trickle onto the public scene during the 1960’s and 70’s.
The book follows Finger from a young man, deeply
invested in his Batman character, to beyond his death in 1974. Rich in detail
and enlightening in fact, the text is sprinkled with clever wordplay with the use of bill,
, and bat– the author’s homage to Bill Finger’s own punnish style.Illustrator Ty Templeton’s illustrations provide the ideal emotive backdrop and visual representations through a delightful blend of comic book/ graphic novel style art.

Nobleman’s signature seems to be in the depth of his
research as showcased in his author’s notes. His six-page addendum in BILL: THE BOY WONDER does not
disappoint. Here, you’ll find the story behind the story.  A must read.
One of the author’s most profound discoveries actually righted another long-time injustice. Before Nobleman’s intense research, no known living heir survived Bill Finger, and royalty payments were being sent to the wrong person. Marc Tyler Nobleman will
forevermore be credited with the remedy. He uncovered Bill Finger’s only living
heir, a granddaughter. Thorough research is the foundation of this ground breaking book, the
first to pull Bill Finger out of obscurity and return him to his rightful parental
place in Batman’s family tree.
Justice has been served.

Interview with Julia Moberg – PRESIDENTIAL PETS

Forty-four presidents have occupied The White House and all but a few have brought animals with them. PRESIDENTIAL PETS: THE WEIRD, WACKY, LITTLE, BIG, SCARY, STRANGE ANIMALS THAT HAVE LIVED IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Julia Moberg (Imagine! Publishing, 2012 – an imprint of Charlesbridge) introduces young readers to the furry and feathered friends of our nation’s leaders.

Who knew Thomas Jefferson had bear cubs or that Andrew Jackson had a cursing parrot or that martin Van Buren had two baby tigers? Young readers will want to learn which president kept sheep, bald eagles, pigs, a hyena, a lion, a zebra, a badger, snakes, etc, and which man kept an alligator in the bathroom. Some critters came with the presidents while others were gifts from dignitaries.

Double page spreads are dedicated to each president, in order of term, and include bite-sized highlights of each commander in chief and the animals they shared The White House with. Kids will appreciate the generous white space, the fun cartoony illustrations by Jeff Albrecht, the fun verse introduction to each prez, and the short information snippets categorized as Presidential Stats, Tell Me More!, and Accomplishments and Events. Ultimately, the content goes just beyond the presidential pets to provide a clever
introduction to the historic legacies of our presidential leaders.

A table of contents and bibliography may have better cemented the book as a classroom source, but it is still a worthy recommendation with great kid appeal.


Author Julia Moberg was kind enough to answer a few questions about the creation of her book.

Welcome Julia. Please introduce yourself, your editing background, and what drew you to children’s books.

I’m Julia Moberg, and PRESIDENTIAL PETS is my second book. I have had the pleasure of working in the publishing world for the past 10 years. I started at a small company called Newmarket Press, where I worked as an publicity and marketing assistant on film and television books. From there, I landed a job at the Penguin Group, working in their managing editorial department for one of their adult imprints. I learned a lot about how the publishing industry works through both of these positions, but I always knew that children’s books were what I ultimately wanted to work on. I left Penguin and went to work as the editor for the Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club for six years.

The books I read growing up left the biggest impressions on me. I guess you could say that authors like Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Mary Downing Hahn, Maud Hart Lovelace, and Robert Newton Peck drew me to children’s books.

What was your general journey to publication with PRESIDENTIAL PETS?

Because I worked in the publishing industry, I decided to agent the book myself. I sent the manuscript around to all of my contacts at the various houses. Although many of the publishers liked the subject matter, they thought that poetry was too hard to sell these days. But then Charles and Jeremy Nurnberg at Imagine Books wrote back expressing interest in the subject matter. They wanted me to shorten the poems and asked me to add some fun facts about each president. I re-wrote each poem, and added fun facts. Soon after, they offered me a publishing contract. They assigned me a wonderful editor, and we started the huge task of verifying all of the factual information. Soon after, Imagine found Jeff Albrecht, who illustrated the book.

What interested you in the topic of presidential pets?

I’ve always been fascinated by little-known pieces of history. I first learned that Abraham Lincoln had a dog through a work colleague of mine,  and that intrigued me. I started reading more on the subject of presidential pets, and was amazed that there were all these wacky and weird animals that had called the White House their home. I immediately thought: This is a book for kids!

Researching forty-four presidents seems a monumental task. How did you tackle the research process? What kinds of sources did you reference?

It was a monumental task. Originally, I just started listing all the basic information, such as date of birth, who the first lady was, and how long each president’s term was. But then as I continued to learn more about each president, I realized that the book could be so much more than a compilation of each president’s pets. It could ultimately tell the story of our country. So I began to research, select, and write more in-depth accomplishments and events that happened during each presidency. I used encyclopedias, White House records, newspapers, presidential museums and estates, and various other books and sources for reference. We had to be very careful and absolutely sure that each fact was true. A few times I did have a piece of information from a lesser source that we could not verify, and would have to cut.

I noticed there is no bibliography included in the book. Was this a publisher decision?

The publisher decided to include an index in the back of the book rather than to include a whole bibliography.

Your coverage for each president goes beyond their respective pets and introduces bite-sized facts about each man’s presidency and family life.  How difficult was it to narrow down which facts to include?

It depended on the president. Some presidents it was difficult to decide which facts to include, and others it was a struggle to find enough facts! William Henry Harrison, for instance, was only in office for 31 days. He accomplished very little, and as a result I had very little to write about him. Other presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was in office for 12 years, had more than enough information to include. Ultimately, I wanted to include the facts that would interest kids the most. I wanted the reader to learn something without realize they were learning.

Who had the weirdest, wackiest, strangest animals you came across in your research?

One of the weirdest & wackiest animals was John Quincy Adams’ alligator. It was a gift from a Frenchman named Marquis de Lafayette and lived in a East Room bathroom for at least two months. This was definitely one of the strangest animals that has lived at the White House, and was also one of the first animals I researched for the project.

Learn more about Julia Moberg at her website (currently being updated) and at