Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators



By Kim Turrisi


This year we had a record number of entries for the SCBWI SPARK AWARD, which honors independently published books. Each winner received free tuition to an upcoming SCBWI conference, the opportunity to feature their book in our conference bookstore, and the chance to teach a digital workshop about their road to publication. This year, the Spark winners also received a $1,000 cash prize.

We spoke to the winners about their books and thoughts about self-publishing.



Spark Award for Illustrated Book

MAMA’S WAVES by Chandra Ghosh Ippen, illustrated by Erich Ippen Jr.














Chandra, tell us about your book.

I wrote Mama’s Waves to support families with young children where a parent is struggling with an addiction or mental illness. In the story, Ellie, a young child in foster care, is devastated after her mom doesn’t come for her visit. She worries about her mom and, at the same time, she wonders whether her mom loves her. Fortunately, Mrs. K. and Ellie’s Uncle Finny create space for Ellie to express her feelings of anger and sadness and share both hard and beautiful memories of her mother. Using the metaphor of a wave, Finny helps Ellie understand her mother’s challenges. He explains, “We all have our wavy days, our highs and our lows, but your mama’s waves go higher and lower than most, and sometimes they carry her away from the people she loves.”

As a psychologist specializing in the treatment of early childhood trauma for over 30 years, I and my colleagues have worked with many children like Ellie. With the continued opioid epidemic and stress and isolation caused by COVID, we know that millions of children face similar challenges. They deserve to see themselves in a story, to know that they are not alone, to have support in making meaning of their loved one’s challenges, and to recognize that like Ellie, they are lovable. Given that most may not have access to mental health treatment, I hope that stories like this one, help families begin conversations that lead to healing.

I am very grateful to the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for honoring this book with the SPARK award, and I hope that this brings attention to the needs of children like Ellie.



What made you choose the path of Indie-publishing?

I chose independent publishing in part out of a fear of rejection but also because I have a deep conviction that core mental health principles can be embedded in stories as a way of helping families and communities heal after stressful and traumatic events. I was not sure how traditional publishing, other than a few select presses, understand and support publishing for this purpose.

By 2016, I had already written a free, disaster-related coloring book series with over 200,000 copies distributed worldwide (now 400,000), and I had seen the value of bibliotherapy as a way of reaching many within a community. I had just written what would become our first published book, Once I Was Very Very Scared and wanted it to be available in hardcover and paperback, so that therapists could use it in treatment and libraries would carry it. However, I recognized that this story did not adhere to industry standards. It was 64 pages long, 1082 words, written entirely in dialogue, not character driven with an arc, and involved 11 characters as a way of depicting different reactions to stress. I viewed the story as a potential intervention for posttraumatic stress and worried that a publisher might edit out some of the therapeutic components to make it briefer. I also wanted to be able to give away free copies to communities in need and doubted a publisher would allow this, so I decided not to risk rejection, alteration, or limits, and I never submitted it to an editor or agent.

While I began independent publishing because I had specific goals that I did not think fit traditional publishing, I continued because I felt that we were successful. To date, for that first book alone, we have sold over 50,000 printed copies, given away 3,500 print copies, and had 100,000 free downloads from our website. While traditional publishing may enable broader distribution, we value having creative control to ensure that key mental health principles and important thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion are incorporated in both the story and the illustrations.


What three tips do you have for authors who want to self-publish?

These tips are for picture book writers


1. Honor the craft of the picture book and understand the industry standards

Our first book did not adhere to many industry standards, and while I wouldn’t change that book, as I continued to write more stories, I have come to appreciate the benefits of the rules that I broke. For example, word limits helped me recognize each word as precious and made think more clearly about the heart of the story and learning about page spreads helped me to think about the arc of the story and hopefully create a better journey for the reader.


2. Surround yourself with people who will give you honest feedback, make sure to give yourself time to metabolize their input, and then make your own decision about what to incorporate.

Honest feedback can be difficult to embrace in the moment, but if your goal is to create a story that will speak to many, it is important to get different perspectives, to pilot test your story, to identify points of confusion and blind spots, particularly from a diversity-related perspective, and to think critically about which parts work and which parts need rework. However, I would not want to be so open to feedback that I altered the story to a point where I did not recognize it as my own. I try to really make sure that when I incorporate feedback, I do it in a way that feels authentic to the story and to me.


3. Talk to your characters. Get to know them. I really hope that I’m not the only author who is talking to their characters. Ellie, Mrs. K, and Finny are both representations of people that I have been fortunate to know, and they have grown into their own personalities through my imagined “discussions” with them. I believe that when you understand and care for the characters, you transmit this in your story, even when you don’t share everything you know about them, and I wonder if perhaps this helps the reader to connect emotionally to the characters and their story.




Spark Award for Book for Older Readers

SOMETIMES BRAVE by Trista Wilson



















Trista, tell us about your book.

SOMETIMES BRAVE is about ten-year-old Hazel who has always had an amazing imagination—a little too amazing her dad sometimes says—but even she can’t pretend away the fact that her family has just become homeless, her best friend Jilly isn’t speaking to her, and a tornado is on the way. Through friendship, family, and the love of a special old dog, Hazel discovers there are many different kinds of brave.


 What made you choose the path of Indie-publishing?

I decided to self-publish because it felt like the right time and the right path for this book. As we settled into the pandemic, the idea of self-publishing SOMETIMES BRAVE felt like a fun, positive adventure to embark on and it has been great! I love that we don’t have to choose just one path to publishing and can pursue different paths for different projects.


 What three tips do you have for authors who want to self-publish?

Three tips I would have for those considering self-publication are first, have other people read your manuscript to get feedback and make sure what you are putting out there is your very best work. Second, have a plan to market it and get it out there in the world. Third, find experts to help you in the areas you might not have experience in such as formatting, editing, and marketing.