Pittsburgh & Picture Books

Last weekend I was invited to be part of a Pittsburgh SCBWI conference focusing on picture books. The event was rather unique because all the presenters were part of the “team” that created one picture book — The Music in George’s Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue. This team included the illustrator-Stacy Innerst, author-Suzanne Slade, Senior Editor-Carolyn Yoder (Boyds Mills Press), Art Director-Barbara Grzeslo (Boyds Mills Press), and Senior Agent-Susan Cohen (Writers House.) The conference was put on by the wonderful western Pennsylvania SCBWI crew: Marcy Canterna, Nora Thompson, and Kate Dopirak. They did an incredible job!


Although the conference was limited to 50 participants, there was an abundance of wisdom and exciting discoveries. I asked the conference organizers and team if I could share a few picture book pointers in my post and they kindly said “yes.” So here are some random snippets from the event:

Senior Editor, Carolyn Yoder shared that when she started the Calkins Creek imprint (which specializes in books about American history) she did two books a year. Today, that number has jumped to 12 titles per year. Carolyn explained she is looking for stories about a familiar topic/person with an unusual take or slant, as well as manuscripts about unknown historical figures kids need to know about. She also noted the importance of including rich details based on solid research from primary sources. When submitting a manuscript, it’s helpful to note in the cover letter why the author decided to write the story (why is this topic important?), and why he or she is qualified to write it.

Art Director at Boyds Mills Press, Barbara Grzeslo, informed attendees she is looking for illustrators who understand what the “rules” are for illustrating a book, and if they decide to bend or break them, know exactly why they are doing it. She also shared interesting details about the illustration process from the AD perspective by highlighting her recent projects, including a brand new title about punctuation titled A Bunch of Punctuation.


Susan Cohen from Writers House discussed some “Rules of Thumb” for writers such as the value of creating a story that is sophisticated enough to appeal to both children and adults, and how stories with compelling plots often contain a problem solved by a child main character (not those pesky adults!) She also shared a powerful quote about creating children’s books which probably rings true for many picture book authors and illustrators – “It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.”

Unfortunately, my sessions ran concurrent with Stacy Innerst’s, so I don’t have any of his wisdom to share. But I do have great tips from attendees in my sessions who analyzed pairs of picture books on similar topics, such the examples below.


First groups of 3-4 attendees read and discussed the book pairs, then they shared their observations about the qualities they found in successful picture books such as . . .


  • clever humor
  • author talking directly to reader (metafiction)
  • carefully chosen words that reveal emotion/action succinctly and powerfully
  • sharp endings and beginnings which dovetail each other
  • stories with the proper length and word choices to match the intended audience


And they all loved Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson (illustrated by E.B. Lewis), and the surprising way it conveys the impact of kindness through characters who do not show kindness. If you haven’t read it, you must check out this powerful, moving book! (And also the sweet, gorgeously illustrated new picture book about kindness, Be Kind, by Pat Zietlow Miller.)

Well, that’s a quick look at the fun we had in Pittsburgh! Hope to see some of you at a conference sometime.


If you know of great upcoming conferences, please share in the comments. Thanks!



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Suzanne Slade

Suzanne Slade is the author of more than 100 books. A mechanical engineer by degree, she enjoys writing about science topics and fascinating historical figures. Recent books include: SWISH! The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters, A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon, The Daring Dozen, Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon, Astronaut Annie, Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story, Dangerous Jane, The Music in George's Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue, The Inventor’s Secret, and Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Coming soon -- MARS IS, JUNE ALMEIDA VIRUS DETECTIVE! THE WOMAN WHO DISCOVERED THE FIRST HUMAN CORONAVIRUS, THE UNIVERSE AND YOU, and TBA titles from Calkins Creek, Peachtree, and Random House. Learn more about Suzanne and her books at: www.suzanneslade.com


  1. Sounds like one of those conferences I wish I could have attended! Thank you so much for sharing your notes.

  2. Thanks for the post! I try to attend the SCBWI conferences in Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Here’s an upcoming one in Evansville, Indiana: https://indiana.scbwi.org/events/festival-of-writing-and-illustrating/

  3. jillsbooks@netins.net

    I LOVE SCBWI conferences! There’s always something new to learn. Here in Iowa, we’re also having a conference with a picture book focus. It’s in Des Moines on August 11th, and on faculty are Tammi Sauer, Jill Esbaum, and Sterling editor Eliza Berkowitz. Watch this link for details, when available:

  4. The discussion of book pairs is an excellent exercise for writers. I note excellent titles shared.

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Suzanne

  5. Wow, what a cool conference. I’m going to get the book pair titles and study them. Thanks.

  6. Sounds like a wonderful conference! Thanks for sharing!

  7. I have worked with Carolyn Yoder and Barb Grzeslo on 3 books (novels, not picture books) and they are amazing! It sounds like a wonderful conference. Great post!

  8. Thank you for sharing some insights from this conference, as well as your great activity.

  9. What a great way to learn about how a PB comes together! Thank you for sharing the highlights. I’m working with Carolyn and Barbara now on a PB so really enjoyed hearing what you and they had to say.

  10. Thanks for sharing. I’ll look into other SCBWI conferences, not just the two big ones and the local one. Each area has their gifts and perks.

  11. Thanks for this great post!

  12. What a wonderful way to organize an event! As a huge fan of THE MUSIC IN GEORGES HEAD I would have loved the day. Thank you for sharing it with us, Suzanne!

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