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Keynotes, Panels, & Breakouts

(Subject to Change) All of the following sessions are open to all attendees. You do not need to sign up ahead of time for these sessions.


Conference Orientation -- Anita Fitch Pazner, MFA, SCBWI-MI co-regional advisor, author

New to SCBWI? Attending a multi-region conference for the first time? Or do you just want to head into the festivities fully prepared? This session is meant to give you all that, and some awkward personal stories of what not to do at a creator’s conference. You'll meet people who share your goals and concerns and meet new friends in the industry. Plus, you’ll have a chance to ask questions and receive answers from a seasoned conference goer.

All ages/genres.


Opening Keynote – Ellice Lee


From outer space, we’ve seen photos of Earth described this way. But at a human level, our interpretation of Earth may be anything but silent. We’ll use this as a guide to observe the landscape of publishing, where things are moving with Diversity/Equity/Inclusion, how it affects us in macro and micro ways, and what authors & illustrators (and publishing people) can do to make books that are reflective of our world.

All ages/genres.

Saturday Morning Keynote – Gary Schmidt


It is hardly a secret that writers of fiction often face hard questions in terms of their purpose.  What do they bring to our culture?  How do they contribute to society?  In a world in which the humanities are being left behind, it would seem, what does the novel give us, and our children?  Why would anyone become an English major?  And in today's uber-competitive publishing environment, is it worth even trying to break into the world of writing for young readers with a new novel?  In some ways, questions like these are all asking the same question:  In an incredibly broken world, what can fiction give us?  Is it anything beyond, say, an engaging story that entertains us for a short while?  If so, what is that "anything"? All ages/genres.


Sunday Morning Keynote – Sherri L. Smith


A woman writes a poem for a timber baron.  Her work inspires him to preserve the trees.  A man dreams of an old church in his hometown.  He shares his dream, and the community rallies to save the church from demolition.  These are just two examples of how storytelling can affect the outer world.  “Enchantivism” is a term coined by Dr. Craig Chalquist.  It means "activism through re-enchanting the world."  We have fallen into a time of discord and disharmony.  Enchantivism is a way of retuning the strings.  In this keynote, Sherri L. Smith will describe how writers can use archetypal activism, eco-activism, and terrapsychology to listen to the needs of the world as they are voiced in our dreams; to translate real-world problems into the realm of myth and story, seek out solutions in that story realm, and return them to the world in actionable solutions within our work. All ages/genres.

Closing Keynote — Carter Hasegawa


We’re often taught to believe that winning is everything. So much so that we’ve become petrified of failure. But there is greatness in failure. We will explore how the gift of failure can help us become better writers, artists, and citizens. All ages/genres.



Join moderator Zeke Peña (illustrator), Saritza Hernandez (agent), Rahele Jomepour Bell (Illustrator), and Teresa Ho Robeson (author). Conference attendees can submit questions to the panel when they register or at the conference.



Join acquiring agents Saba Sulaiman, Charlotte Wenger, Adria Goetz, and Saritza Hernandez as they answer questions about their work style, agent superpowers, wish lists, and the ones that got away—moderated by Carrie Pearson.

READY OR REVISE PITCH PANEL: An Opportunity to Pitch Your WIP!  It’s Free!

Submit your anonymous pitch to our stellar faculty to get first impressions and honest feedback.  The faculty will read and comment on as many submissions as possible in the allotted time during a session at the conference. They will vote either “Ready” (you’re on the right track) or “Revise” (still needs work). One panel for picture books, one panel for MG and YA. Submissions are closed when 50 are reached.


Four traditionally and independently published authors and illustrators talk about the pivotal moments in their careers as children's book creators and what lessons they learned along the way towards publishing their work. 

(Leslie Helakoski (author/illustrator), Candace Camling (illustrator), Lisa Bolt Simons (author), Anita Fitch Pazner(author), moderated by Eileen Boggess)

Breakout Sessions

Business track breakouts

Time Management for Authors and Illustrators: Chloe Burgett

Learn from illustrator Chloe Burgett how to manage multiple projects, progress on long-term goals, and meet your deadlines! She's used her time-management system to achieve her goals while illustrating the last four years (including two years pre-published, then seven published books in 2 years!). She will talk about how to have meaningful check-in meetings for your creative business and demonstrate how she schedules her work week.

How to Market your Nonfiction Book While the Topic is HOT!: Jennifer Swanson

If you are trying to get publicity for your book, you need A HOOK and PLATFORM. We'll discuss what these two words mean and how much social media you need to do when your book comes out. 

Book Promotion for Introverts: Linda Stephen

Do you prefer focusing in the studio to speaking on stage? Writing and illustrating are solitary creative activities. Public speaking at schools or community events and giving live interviews on TV, radio, or podcasts can be challenging. Those authors and illustrators who do “get out there” will have more success and make more connections over time. Book publicist and author/illustrator Linda Stephen shares proven ideas for building awareness without sounding like a used car salesperson.

We’ll cover how to:

Believe in yourself and your craft/art, use your bio to brag about you, mine your contacts, let your publisher or the publicity department do the talking (hint: answer their author questionnaire), use a cheat sheet that you create during quiet time alone (i.e., a “media kit” that speaks for itself), share news with old friends (including media reporters and producers who covered your last book or exhibit), share news locally – with media, with arts organizations, speak with confidence – hire a media trainer, practice outsource the pitching – hire a publicist – let someone else sing your praises to the media or speaking events.

How to Get Buzz for a New Book or Event: Linda Stephen

A publicist for book publishers and nonprofits for over 15 years, Linda Stephen has launched national book publicity and events for over 100 authors. During this program, Stephen shares tips on pre-launch book marketing outreach. Plan- and act- early for the most successful launch of your book, event, or product.

Topics covered:

Determining goals, awareness building vs. sales, book promotion planning, event promotion planning, choosing a launch date to maximize publicity, why start early? identifying your target audience(s), reaching past supporters, reaching new audiences, “free publicity” – the value of editorial (unpaid) media, advertising – traditional, social media, beware of “pay to play” schemes, finding a partner for events, take care of the basics under your control: website, e-newsletter, social media, email signature, handouts include a sample timeline for a book launch.

Illustration track breakouts


Two Art Directors will review multiple pre-selected attendee websites or online portfolios and then discuss what they're looking for in your work and how they move around your website. Moderated by illustrator and MMW logo artist, Sheli Petersen.

How to Submit: Look for the link to submit your website address as part of registration.

Please note we cannot guarantee every submitted website will be seen by our panel. We can, however, promise that everyone who experiences this session will leave with a better understanding of what works and why.


The Art & Architecture of Picture Books: Mallory Grigg

This session will break down how an art director thinks about picture books and what illustrators need to keep in mind when working through all the different stages of developing a picture book. Useful for any level of illustrator at any part of the process. We cover helpful technical information, pagination guides, character development, steps for creating a dummy, page turns, frequent pitfalls (and how to avoid them), and much more.

Eyebrows, Noses, and the Beauty of Mr. Potato Head: Mallory Grigg

This is an INTERACTIVE workshop that's all about getting the most out of character development. People will be drawing, moving, looking at each other's work, and diving deep into the nitty gritty of HOW to draw a character. We get into the process of building a character and use a variety of interactive exercises that illustrators will be able to use long after the conference is over. 

An important piece of this conversation is diversity and how to show breadth as well as depth in creating a cast. Attendees will need to bring their own art supplies and be prepared to draw.

Nice to Meet You, Fredricka McFizzle!: Laurie Keller

This breakout will focus on creating appealing and unique main characters and sidekicks for picture books, graphic novels, early readers, and illustrated chapter books. We'll also do exercises using our new characters to think up story ideas. It will be very interactive, and we'll be doing lots of drawing and character development, but non-artists are welcome! 

Toolkit for Building Your World: Ellice Lee

Let’s talk about the building blocks in our minds before we put anything down on paper and the refining process after beginning construction. We’ll discuss the introspective work, character/color studies, rhythm, visual phrasing, and more. For new and experienced attendees.


Building An Eye-Catching Portfolio: Presenting Your Work To Agents, Art Directors, And Editors: Rahele Jomepour Bell 

In this session, Rahele will share the very initial points of putting a portfolio together for specifically the picture book artists. An illustrator’s portfolio is a setting where the artist needs to know how to display the images within the story rather than the best art itself. 


Improve Your Character Concepts and Page Designs:  Zeke Peña

Are you an illustrator who is looking for a good time? Well, call 1-800-BOOK……Illustrator Zeke Peña will quickly review some basic principles we all like to conveniently forget when working on projects. He will also discuss and demonstrate some advanced compositional techniques for improving your page designs and layouts. Want to captivate your reader and get some sweet page turns? Well, join Zeke and a group of other people whose backs also hurt from drawing all day to do more drawing and talk about the thing we love most: thinking about drawing. You are welcome to bring an idea for an existing character and/or spread you are workshopping (optional). Traditional drawing supplies are provided; digital drawing is welcome. High-level session.

Radically Unqualified: Makeshift Skills and Self-Teaching as an Illustrator: Zeke Peña

Can’t afford another art degree? Great! Didn’t go to art school? Even better! As a self-taught illustrator from the global book publishing industry hub in El Paso, TX, Zeke will share insight about his process and career. He has worked as an illustrator, cover designer, art director, and professor of illustration. He wants to share some ways to reimagine your role as the illustrator and techniques to help your growth. Overthinkers, self-doubters, and irrational dreamers are welcome. 


Telling Stories with Pictures: Part 1: James Ransome

With his 30-year career as a children’s book illustrator, James Ransome will examine how pictures are worth a thousand words. The picture book format is a perfect union of words and pictures.  Illustrations are not just pretty pictures; they are an essential part of storytelling. His presentation will take you on a journey that shares how illustrations communicate with words to make a wonderful marriage.


Telling Stories with Pictures: Part 2: James Ransome

Award-winning children’s book illustrator guides a behind-the-scenes look into his studio and the step-by-step process of creating his illustrations. James shares the tools, including vintage photographs, paints, palettes, friends, and family, that are essential to his craft while revealing the ins and outs, ups and downs of creating artwork for children's books.  

Setting the Pace: Telling Visual Stories Through Illustration: James Ransome

An Illustrator of over 70 picture books, James Ransome will explore a number of design fundamentals needed to strengthen your book’s design and expand your visual storytelling. This workshop will shine a spotlight on formatting, page turns, incorporating type and the importance of shape and design in picture making.  His presentation will share examples from picture book innovators.  James brings his teaching experience from both undergrad and grad programs at Pratt Institute, University of Hartford, Syracuse University and The Illustration as Visual Essay program at School of Visual Arts. This workshop is for all levels.

A Marriage of Pictures & Words: James Ransome and Lesa Cline Ransome

The creative talents of author and illustrator, husband and wife picture book team discuss how each stage of collaboration,  from pitching and brainstorming, to first drafts and dummy books, editing and critique, help to build their books that bridge history, heritage, culture, and curiosity.  


Nonfiction track breakouts

Nothing but the Truth: Crafting Nonfiction Stories from the Heart: Lesa Cline-Ransome

Telling a great story about real people, places, and events is only part of what writers do.  The other parts--the research, narrowing the focus, creating age-appropriate text, and simplifying difficult concepts for young readers---are just some of the many challenges writers of nonfiction face. Join author Lesa Cline-Ransome as she discusses the many ways non-fiction stories help readers make the vital connections between who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be.  

VOICE:  The Most Powerful Device In Your Nonfiction Toolbox: Jill Esbaum

Nonfiction manuscripts with encyclopedic voices are about as welcome as horseradish ice cream. But how do you develop a project-appropriate, unique voice? I'll share tips and then share inspiring examples from a variety of published works. Best suited for new or intermediate writers.

Let's Just Call It Nonfiction-y Fiction and Let 'Er Rip: Jill Esbaum

The marketplace is embracing tough-to-label picture books that combine fiction and nonfiction in unexpected (and irresistible!) ways. In this chat, we’ll look at a variety of best-selling hybrid titles. We’ll determine exactly what makes them so appealing, and I’ll offer tips for taking your own hybrid projects from meh to magnificent. Best suited for new or intermediate writers.

Lyrical Nonfiction: Making Facts Sing: Teresa Ho Robeson

Today’s nonfiction picture books are neither textbook-like nor encyclopedic. They are often funny, rhyming, or lyrical…or some combination thereof! If you’re a poet at heart and want to try writing nonfiction, or if you already write nonfiction and want to infuse lyricism into your work, this is the breakout for you. We will discuss different poetic techniques, study examples from recent books, and, if time permits, do a hands-on exercise.

Using Innovation to Capture an Editor's Attention for your Nonfiction Book!: Jennifer Swanson

Does your book need some sprucing up to get picked out of the slush pile? Try mixing things up.  With this interactive talk,  you will learn how adding innovative voice, structure, and point of view can grab the attention of an agent or editor and get you noticed! 


Novel track breakouts

Creating a World and the People Who Inhabit It: Foyinsi Adegbonmire 

Whether high fantasy or realistic fiction, strong world-building, and character-building are incredibly important to storytelling. In this session for new and experienced writers, we will discuss why creating a concrete world for your novel matters, how to populate it, how to convey details without overwhelming the reader, tips for visualizing, and more.

The Voices in Our Heads: Foyinsi Adegbonmire 

Narrative voice is the vehicle that drives your reader through your story from beginning to end and is a large part of what makes them want to stay along for the ride. Yet, how do you decide what vehicle is right for your story? And then how do you build said vehicle? Useful for newer writers, this session will provide tips and suggestions for honing your narrator's voice!

Writing a Graphic Novel For the First Time: Teresa Ho Robeson

Graphic novels have been a hot trend in recent years. Not only do many kids (and adults) gravitate to them because they’re a mesmerizing art form, but they have helped numerous reluctant readers enjoy reading, or kids with reading difficulties learn how to read. Many publishers have started their own graphic novel divisions. You don’t have to be an author-illustrator to create them; editors will look at scripts from writers-only. This session will get you started with a concise intro.

That Troublesome Middle:  Laments, And Then Strategies: Gary Schmidt

Most writers find that the middle is the most difficult section of a novel.  We know where we've been and perhaps even where we're headed, but we're not exactly sure how to get there.  This session offers ideas for several plot structures to create strategies for setting up the plot development to handle that troublesome middle. Best suited for attendees who are new and/or somewhat experienced.

Novels in Poems: Why, What, and How?: Helen Frost

Maybe you have thought, “Whoa, a whole novel—that is a LOT of words! I wonder if it would be easier to write a novel-in-verse.” If that is as far as you’ve taken that thought, this workshop might not be for you. But if you have given some time to explore the craft of poetry and writing fiction and are interested in learning more about how to put the two together, join us for this two-hour workshop. We will consider why poetry might (or might not) be the best form for a novel and then learn how the decision to write in verse helps shape your story. Bring your ideas and questions, and we’ll learn together by writing and sharing. 

Historical Fiction: Combining Research And Imagination To Create Stories Rooted In Historical Events: Helen Frost

Setting your novel in a historical time frame is constraining in some ways, but it provides a structure that can be helpful in discovering who your characters are and plotting their stories. In this session, we will discuss: how history and character development can work together, how to keep writing when you come to a gap in your historical knowledge, and how to pursue and enjoy your research without getting lost or sidetracked. Bring your ideas and questions; I’ll bring examples of what has worked for me. This session will be helpful to writers of all experience levels.

Funneling History Through Character: A Day In the Life In Historical Fiction: Sherri Smith

Are you writing a World War II adventure novel?  A Victorian romance?  A 1950s noir?  Answer one question:  What did your protagonist have for breakfast, and where?  The world stage of your time period is important, but it’s the small details of everyday living that really bring historical fiction to life.  In this session we'll discuss how to funnel Big History through the filter of your character's individual traits to create veracity and help turn stereotypical settings into three dimensional realities.  We will do "round the clock" writing exercises to discover what we know, and where we need to know more.  Whether you’re new to historical fiction, or a seasoned time-traveler, bring your time period and your notebook.  We’ll have fun digging around in the past together!

Picture Book track breakouts

Whose Line is it Anyway? -- Setting Up An Illustrator to Bring Down the House: Brett Duquette

Timing is everything in comedy. As a writer, how do you know if a joke should be in the text or if you should be setting up the illustrator to deliver the punchline? As an illustrator, how do you know when to show restraint and when to truly go wild? In this breakout session, we’ll review some amazing mentor texts, discuss the role of comedy in picture books, and think about how to make sure our work is collaborative from the start. There will be plenty of exercises to develop our own projects in progress and, of course, lots of laughs! This session is suited for all levels of creators.

What’s So Funny? How To Take The Mundane And Turn It On Its Head!: Brett Duquette

So much of humor is subverting expectations. But when writing for children, who are still learning…everything, how can we avoid cliché in order to truly delight? This breakout session will help authors and illustrators examine different ways to think about everyday situations in order to find humor and energy in ordinary life. Whether you are looking to spice up your dialogue, upend a scene that feels too “quiet,” or create characters that are more memorable, let’s work together to find joy in your work. With examples from beloved texts and thoughtful exercises, this will be a fun and energetic hour filled with jokes! This session is suited for all levels of creators.

Look At The Little Things: Writing About Nature For Young Children: Helen Frost

In her seven picture books about the natural world, Helen Frost has paid close attention to butterflies and other insects, birds, from egg to flight, and new life in its many forms. Join her as she shares how she observes the life in her backyard and how she and photographer Rick Lieder collaborate to share these observations with young readers.


Tackling Tough Topics in Picture Books: Elizabeth Gilbert Bedia 

During this session, we will talk about how to tackle tough topics in picture books while always keeping the child close at heart. I will share examples of stellar picture books that address anxiety, depression, grief, dementia, and more in an age-appropriate, empathic, and hopeful way. In addition, we will discuss a few common pitfalls to avoid when writing about tough topics for children.


What's That You Say?: Laurie Keller

We’ll discuss how I incorporate speech bubbles and asides within a story, how and when I use them, and why I think they can add dimension, depth, and humor to any story. 


Create Popular Picture Books While Staying True to Your Art, Your Writing, and Your (S)elf:  James Solheim

Kids who read picture books respond to real art and real literature.  They are inspired by creativities like their own.  Instead of suppressing elfish creativity to look more commercial, we can be unique, understandable, and universal for kids (and adults who buy books for them).  We’ll explore specific ways of finding the confidence to nurture our creative (s)elves while remembering the accessibility that kids need.


Giving Characters Life and Voice: Charlotte Wenger 

What makes a story character-driven? How can you get your characters to jump off the page? What elements create a successful character with a distinct voice? Utilizing techniques and examples from theatre acting and children’s literature, we’ll explore these questions and unpack tools to build rich characters with standout voices and unique personalities. Geared a bit toward picture books, but content and exercises are applicable for all writers.

All Ages/Genres track breakouts

How to Write a Great Query Letter: Adria Goetz

Writing a great query letter is an art and a science, and this workshop examines the core elements every strong query letter has and how to add that extra pizzazz that will capture an agent's or editor's attention. Real examples from the instructor’s inbox, both good and bad, will be shared, as well as a specific formula workshop attendees can plug their information into in order to generate a great query letter.

An Inside Look At Candlewick From Acquisition To Design To Publication: Carter Hasegawa 


Let's Get Real: Real Talk About the Agent/Author Relationship: Saritza Hernandez

In this 45-minute presentation, we'll go over goal-setting, communication, and expectations when signing with a literary agent and how to maintain a good relationship with your agent once you've signed with them.

Demystifying Contracts: How to Get in Bed with a Publisher without Losing Your Shirt: Saritza Hernandez 

In this 50-minute workshop, we discuss the ins and outs of publishing contracts with some higher-level discussions around contracts for illustrators doing work-for-hire work and collaboration agreements between co-authors.

An Exquisite Hope: A Game Of Exquisite Corpse For A Better Future: Sherri L. Smith

“Exquisite Corpse” is a surrealist game first played at the start of the last century, in which the writer or artist each adds a line—drawn or in prose—to a story without knowing what precedes or follows it.  In this fun interactive session, we will face the last year's negativity with our hopes for the future.  Each writer will contribute a line to our story.  Illustrators will contribute to a piece of art.  At the end of the session, we will share our exquisite hope and discuss how to translate our vision into inspiration for our readers.

Never Have Writer’s Block or Artist’s Block. Seriously!  Really!: James Solheim  

Writer’s block or artist’s block might come from fear of the blank page, too little planning, too much planning, inexperience, or some other source.  But all those sources stem from the pressure we put on ourselves—forgetting that even our creative heroes start with messy rough drafts and sketches.  We’ll explore specific methods, games, and approaches to push past unrealistic preconceptions to the possibilities in ourselves.  The right tools make writing more fun and help us avoid dread and drudgery!

Don't Get Knocked Down: How to Embrace Rejection and Make It Your Superpower: Saba Sulaiman 

This presentation and Q&A will give you the 4-1-1 on processing, navigating, and wielding the rejection you can expect as a writer (hint: it's A LOT). But the good news is there is no correlation between being rejected and being successful. Ask any bestselling author how many times their books have been rejected at any stage, and they'll chuckle knowingly because, well, it's inevitable. Being rejected is part and parcel of being a professional author -- with the right mindset and some helpful tips, you can learn to harness rejection to help you make the right decisions for yourself and your career.

Every Word Counts: Crafting Successful Twitter Pitches: Charlotte Wenger

Twitter pitch events are day-long, hashtag-based events that give writers (and illustrators) the opportunity to pitch their work to agents and editors. They make pitching accessible to people who might not otherwise be able to attend other book events like conferences and be seen by publishing professionals who might not otherwise know about their work. During this workshop, I will provide information about specific events, guidelines, and hashtag tips; go over important story elements that can be helpful to include in a Twitter pitch; and give you the opportunity to practice writing and sharing your own pitch tweets.