Author Archives: Priscilla Mizell

About Priscilla Mizell

Writer. Illustrator. Wild Thing.

Some Notes from the Kansas SCBWI Fall 2012 Conference


It was a marvelous experience to attend and participate in the Kansas SCBWI conference. Between the Friday night portfolio review and the Saturday sessions, I took twelve double-sided pages of notes. (Seriously.) My writing hand was furious for the rest of the weekend, but it was worth it.

Here are some recommendations and reflections from Saturday’s sessions that I found particularly insightful or inspiring.

Opening Keynote: “Togetherness” by Mike Jung

  • Ask yourself, “How can I contribute to the kid lit community?” Ensure that your contributions are:
    • Honest
    • Relevant
    • Meaningful
    • Enjoyable
  • Have no expectations that others will return the favor if you praise them—even though you want this! These expectations can mutate to a sense of entitlement.
  • The goal is to work with people in the industry, so be open to exploring suggested changes.

“From Query to Bookshelf: An Intimate Look at the Author/Editor Relationship” by Arthur A. Levine and Mike Jung

Mike’s take-aways from working with Arthur on Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities:

  • Trust the people you work with.
  • Be open to feedback.
  • View the process as collaborative.
  • The editor and author roles are different, but the goal is the same.

Arthur’s take-aways from working with Mike:

  • Be aware that when you’re writing in a public place (e.g., Facebook, Twitter), people can see your writing, for better or for worse. As an author, you have an extra responsibility in deciding what and how you share. Before you post, ask yourself, “Am I okay with anybody reading this forever?”
  • When you meet an editor, don’t feel a pressure to pitch them. You can just have normal interactions and build on them. That way you also get a better sense of what the person is like (and whether you would want to work with them).

“Great Openings: Capturing Attention for Your Book in the First Line” by Susan Hawk

Write your book and then throw away the first chapter. The author needs the first chapter (to acquaint himself or herself with the character, pinpoint the true start of the book, set the scene, etc.), but often the reader does not need to be involved in that process.

Susan’s opening “pet peeves”:

  • The alarm bell is ringing and the character is getting out of bed. Start the story later!
  • A discussion of the weather. She sees a lot of these descriptions.
  • The character in the middle of a mundane process. Spark her interest and make her curious.

“Tapestry: The Multi-Layered Picture Book Process Made Visible” and “Inside and Outside the Box: How to Self-Edit Your Manuscript and Illustrations” by Melanie Hope Greenberg

  • Kids really examine a picture book and expect to find many things. You can transcend the text through your art with what Melanie calls “silent stories.” These include themes, recurring symbols throughout other books, and multiple interpretations of the text. Multi-layered picture books provide opportunities for meaningful discussion.
  • When you’re having trouble painting something small or big, resize digitally or with a copy machine. It’s okay to “cheat!” Also prepare several same-sized sketches that you can use for models.
  • Assembly line work can help you meet a deadline when working on a picture book. (For instance, in Mermaids on Parade, Melanie didn’t complete one painting at a time. She did all her pencil work first, then moved to the light box portion of the process, then painted all of the images of the mom, then painted all of the sky, etc.

First Pages with Susan Hawk, Mary Kole, Michelle Poploff, and Arthur A. Levine

In this session, Jenn Bailey collected and read aloud anonymous submissions of conference attendees’ first pages so that the faculty could react to them. Here are some of Susan, Mary, Michelle, and Arthur’s recommendations in regard to the picture book texts that were shared:

  • Avoid a long beginning as the agent or editor will start to worry about how long the text will be.
  • Too many characterization details can be distracting. The reader will wonder, “When is the action going to start?”
  • Make sure the voice matches the age group. Word choices should be appropriate for the book.
  • Leave room for the illustrator.
  • A lot of images crammed into one sentence can scatter the focus.
  • “Day in the life” stories do not sell.
  • Avoid similar-sounding names as it can confuse the reader.
  • Ask yourself, “What would a kid think about when they’re reading this?” Adults interpret things differently than kids.
  • Avoid overwriting. Sometimes there is a style and finesse in simplicity.

Closing Keynote: “How to Sell a Book in 12 Years!” by Jay Asher

  • Life is more enjoyable when you notice the subtleties and aspects of it that make for a story.
  • It’s not just about the story you want to tell; it’s about how it’s being read. In other words, it doesn’t matter how you intend a passage to be interpreted if the reader does not interpret it that way. This disconnect is why it is important to have critique groups.
  • It took 12 years of pursuing publication of a variety of texts (i.e., humorous picture books, a humorous middle grade, and even an adult parody of Pat the Bunny!) before Thirteen Reasons Why, a serious YA novel, was written and published. There were times when Jay grew discouraged. At one point, he seriously considered giving up and focusing his creative energies in an area with less rejection. But now he recognizes that his path to publication happened the way it needed to happen.

Thank you to the conference faculty and organizers for a delightful time!




Are you all familiar with WriteOnCon?

If not, it’s a free online conference for writers of children’s literature. It will take place on Tuesday, August 14th and Wednesday, August 15th at And it is marvelous.

The crew has planned a number of events that would be of interest to picture book writers, including two live forum events. And of course there’s the very exciting Ninja Agent program.

Last year I posted my query in the picture book forum and it received lots of feedback—including a positive comment from a Ninja Agent. These responses confirmed that my query was ready and gave me the courage to submit again.

The forums are already open. To participate, you simply have to register and then log in. The Ninja Agents will begin perusing the entries tomorrow (Monday, August 13th).

I do hope you’ll attend and participate if you are able!

Excerpts from Paul O. Zelinsky’s Illustration Critique


For the Zelinsky critique, I chose to submit a sample illustration from a picture book work in progress. As the piece is part of a narrative, I was also able to include some rough images from the dummy.

Like Dayne, I was impressed by the detail of Mr. Zelinsky’s notes. His feedback was thoughtful, thorough, and kind. He commented on what I did well but focused more on the areas where I should improve. Most important, he provided very specific recommendations on how to create a better book. Below you can find some excerpts from his notes. (Note: The headings are my additions.)

1. Make sure your characters have expressive faces and personality.

“What I think it is missing is a sense of who the individuals are who perform the action; the absence of faces is a problem for me. In a whole book, it’s really a problem only if it is a recurrent absence. A page here and there without seeing the eyes in a face can even make for a good change of pace, but some artists do nothing but that. The effect for adults can be very positive—a greater sense of mystery, something not spelled out, it can feel richer at times when we’re given less to work with. But not for kids. Some children may respond to abstract art, but I don’t think there’s a good reason to leave off an entire level of communication, that identification with a character in a picture, when you recognize and put yourself into a face, a body, etc.

“From your dummy it looks to me like you’re not really avoiding faces in the way I’m describing, but you may be trending in that direction, and my advice would be to steer away from it. To the maximum degree possible, you want your characters to have personalities, and not to show blankness in eyes and face. This is harder in collage than in painting, but it certainly can be done.”

2. Balance your micro and macro scenes.

“I would point out that after the first page, all of the scenes you’ve sketched are kind of zoomed in on the subjects and show the scene only partially. Viewers will want to see more at least some of the time.”

3. Incorporate your text into the composition.

“It’s good design to keep the text in some fairly unchanging location in relation to the edges of the page; I see you’re putting it the same distance from the top or bottom each time. But it’s also good design to incorporate the line of text, as a shape, into the composition of the page, and I don’t think you’re doing that so much. Text looks sort of marginalized, considering that you’re working with such large shapes that have plenty of room to hold it. [ . . . ] No matter where you put the text, you should make sure that it doesn’t sit on top of any imagery that has value contrast in it.”

As you can see, his critique gave me a lot to consider.

Thanks for reading. And thanks to Mr. Zelinsky, Katie Wools, and Missouri SCBWI for the opportunity!



Some time ago, I promised Karen that I would post more on this blog. So here is a picture that I recently completed for Illustration Friday. The word of that week was “Heights.”

I’ve been wondering whether expressions on the animals would help or hinder this illustration. Also, for those of you who collage: How do you scan or capture your thicker images without losing clarity in the lower layers?

I hope that you all are well and enjoying this lovely weather.



“The other hatchlings gobbled their meals. Pip preferred to taste his fish.”

 Hi everybody! This is my first time posting for critique on the blog. I am in the early stages of a picture book starring Pip, the penguin at the right in the illustration. I sketched this image for my first set of thumbnails. Since then, the story has shifted—as stories often do—so the scene will no longer be part of the book. But I grew fond of this picture, so I thought I’d make it for my Facebook Timeline cover photo. (The cover photo dimensions are wider than they are tall, which is why I included extra snow in the middle.)

My favorite medium is cut paper collage. For this illustration, I mostly used your run-of-the-mill scrapbook paper and cardstock with a bit of the “good stuff” (a.k.a., Japanese Yuzen Paper from Paper Source) on the fishtails and fin. The snow is a plain white rice paper set on a blank sheet of watercolor paper.

 I’d love to know what you think. Thanks for looking!