September brings two important celebrations of reading and literacy: International Literacy Day on September 8 and the National Book Festival, which is being celebrated online from September 17-26. This year, I am proud to have a special connection to both of these events!

International Literacy Day

Sponsored each year since 1967 by UNESCO, International Literacy Day celebrates the power of literacy to improve people’s lives worldwide. In the United States, the Library of Congress marks the event by presenting a series of literacy awards to organizations doing exemplary, innovative, and replicable work. This year’s top prize, the $150,000 David M. Rubenstein Prize, went to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Since its inception in 1995, the program has given away more than 165 million free books across the United States, Canada, and several other countries!

My connection: I have served on the Book Selection Committee for the Imagination Library—one of the most rewarding volunteer activities of my life. I’ve even gotten to meet Dolly on several occasions, and she is every bit as charming and wonderful in person as she is on screen. Congratulations to the hard-working staff of the Imagination Library for this amazing and well-deserved honor!

National Book Festival

Since 2001, the National Book Festival has celebrated the magic of books and reading. I covered the first-ever festival for Reading Today, the publication I edited at the time, taking notes and photos, interviewing authors and festival-goers, and generally having one of those “Wow, I’m getting paid to do this!?!” kind of days. I have attended the festival many other years as well, and it’s been exciting to watch the event grow and evolve over the years. I have many pleasant memories, such as these:

  • standing in line with my son to get an autographed copy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Brothers in Arms,
  • enjoying the spectacle of dozens of exhibits and thousands of eager readers spread across the National Mall or the Washington Convention Center, and
  • listening to some of my favorite children’s book authors make presentations.

As I listened to those authors, I harbored a secret bucket list desire—I wished that I might someday speak at the National Book Festival. I knew it was unlikely. Most of my books are directed at the school library market, and my picture books are solid “mid-list” titles, not bestsellers or books that address earth-shaking topics.

This year my wish came true! My latest picture book, Raindrops to Rainbow (Penguin Workshop, 2021) was Delaware’s selection for the Great Reads from Great Places feature of this year’s National Book Festival. As a result, I was invited to participate on a panel of children’s picture book authors and illustrators, addressing the festival theme of Open a Book, Open the World. Access further information and the video of that panel discussion here.

September is indeed a month for reading, and I feel truly blessed to have special reasons to celebrate these two special events in 2021!

Writers focus on words, and sometimes we tend to forget the critical role illustrations play in a book’s success—especially a picture book. Having published eight picture books (two with Penguin, four poetry/picture books with Boyds Mills Press, and two self-published), here are some things I’ve learned about working with illustrators.

Equal Partners

In picture books, artwork gets equal (and sometimes dominant) billing in relation to the words. How can authors best work with illustrators? Here are some things to know.

  1. The publisher makes the pick. Unless you are an author/illustrator or a VERY famous author, the publisher will choose the illustrator for your book (unless you self-publish, which I’ll address later). I feel fortunate that my publishers have sought my input on potential illustrators. In every case, I have been extremely pleased with the outcome.
  2. You don’t work with the artist directly. Everything filters through the publisher—sketches, comments, and revisions. That’s partly for efficiency. It also prevents authors and illustrators from potentially arguing.
  3. Be open to new ideas. You may perceive your characters in a particular way, or they may be described physically in the text. Speak up if the artwork runs counter to that. But also be open to the artist’s conceptions. When I wrote One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin, 2017) https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/533525/one-leaf-two-leaves-count-with-me-by-john-micklos-jr-illustrated-by-clive-mcfarland/9780399544712, I was totally focused on the tree and the leaves. In fact, I was surprised when illustrator Clive McFarland’s first sketches included a young boy. Of course, it added greatly to the appeal of the book. When I wrote Raindrops to Rainbow (Penguin Workshop, 2021) https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/646848/raindrops-to-rainbow-by-john-micklos-jr-illustrated-by-charlene-chua/, I pictured a young boy (a young me), but I didn’t specify a gender in the text. Illustrator Charlene Chua created a delightful red-haired girl and added a cute Corgi sidekick. Again, great choices.
  4. Voice your opinions. Feel free to comment if you see things in the sketches that contradict the text or just don’t seem right to you. Publishers welcome such comments. Realize, however, that you may get overruled.
  5. Be flexible. Publishers and illustrators are professionals, and they know the elements that make picture books successful. Be open to embracing their vision!

Going the Self-Publishing Route

If you want full control over how your project will look, consider self-publishing. I had a particular vision for how I wanted The Sound in the Basement (https://firststatepress.com/) to look, so I hired New York artist (and friend) Eric Hamilton to do the illustrations and published the book through an imprint I started called First State Press. Eric and I discussed and collaborated on every image, and the final product truly reflected my vision.

For Beach Fun: Poems of Surf and Sand (https://firststatepress.com/), I approached award-winning photographer (and friend) Lisa Goodman of Wilmington about partnering on the project. We worked together closely to pair just the right photographs with my poems (and in some cases to revise the poems to fit the photos). We also split the cost of producing the book.

The plus: Self-publishing allows you to realize YOUR vision for your book. The minus: YOU are responsible for marketing and selling. It took several years to recoup the investment I had made in these two books. But they turned out just how I wanted, and that makes it all worthwhile.

Which model is right for you—traditional publishing or self-publishing? That’s for you to decide. Either way, prepare to collaborate with the illustrator to create your masterpiece.

For writers, some places are inspirational—or just plain lucky. Whatever you call it, my inspirational/lucky place is the Highlights retreat center at Boyds Mills, Pennsylvania. Over the years, I’ve participated in numerous workshops and “unworkshops” sponsored by the Highlights Foundation. The workshops are always both educational and motivational, and the unworkshops have been simply magical. Unworkshops offer unstructured writing time, and I have composed two successful picture books during different unworkshops. I always find inspiration in the rustic, yet comfortable, cabins and the beautiful wooded surroundings.

In October 2014, I sat outside the retreat center for at least 15 minutes watching the last two leaves sway on a tree in the breeze. As I wondered if they would fall while I watched (they didn’t), a line popped into my head: “One leaf, two leaves, on the tree.” I rushed back to my cabin. Then another line came: “Three leaves, four leaves, count with me.” By nightfall, I had prepared the draft manuscript for what became the counting/seasons picture book One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me. The book, with illustrations by Clive McFarland, was published in 2017 by the Nancy Paulsen imprint of Penguin. It drew strong reviews and was included in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program from 2018 through 2021. Order from Penguin or Amazon.

Lightning struck again in fall 2017. Like my counting book, Raindrops to Rainbow was conceived and drafted at a Highlights Foundation unworkshop. Raindrops beating against my cabin roof on a rainy day inspired the opening lines: “Plip-plop, plip-plop, plip-plip-plop/Will these raindrops ever stop?” And from that developed Raindrops to Rainbow, a “colors” book about a young girl who is distressed by GRAY skies on a rainy day. As thunder rumbles, she huddles under her GREEN blanket and hugs her BROWN bear tight. Her mother entertains her until BLUE skies and the YELLOW sun return, and together they head outside to experience a RAINBOW together. Other colors appear throughout the story as well. With lovely illustrations by Charlene Chua, this book was published by Penguin Workshop in spring 2021. The Delaware Center for the Book has chosen Raindrops to Rainbow as Delaware’s selection for the “Great Reads from Great Places” feature of the 2021 National Book Festival sponsored by the Library of Congress. Order from Penguin or Amazon.

I highly recommend Highlights unworkshops to all writers. Located in northeastern Pennsylvania, these unworkshops offer cozy cabins, three gourmet meals a day, hiking trails, and gloriously unstructured time to write. Mealtimes bring you together with the other writers to discuss ideas, progress, and writing in general. I look forward to doing another unworkshop soon. The Highlights Foundation also offers a variety of other, more instructional workshops on a wide variety of topics. I’ve taken several of those, and I highly recommend them as well. You can learn more at the Highlights Foundation webpage.

I’ve tried to replicate these unworkshops by doing other self-initiated writing retreats at the beach or in the mountains, with varying degrees of success. Wherever your inspirational/lucky place may be, visit it as often as you can!

I’ve belonged to a writer’s critique group for nearly a decade now, and I find the feedback invaluable. We are all members of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). We represent a wide range of ages and genres, from picture books to young adult novels and from historical fiction to fantasy to realistic stories.

For nearly a decade, we have met monthly in a local library (or more recently through Zoom). Members who want feedback on their work submit a picture book manuscript or chapter from a novel about a week ahead of time. Typically, between two and four of us submit material for review each month. We provide round robin verbal critiques during the meeting, along with written comments that we each share with the author.

Feedback from my critique group friends helped me improve two picture book manuscripts that later got accepted for publication—One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me! (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin, 2017) and my latest book, Raindrops to Rainbow (Penguin Workshop, 2021). I never submit anything until it has been vetted by the critique group. As writers, we get so immersed in our projects that sometimes we need objective, outside feedback.

Our critique group also serves another important role—we provide a support system to one another. We celebrate when a member gets something published, and we offer support when a pet project gets rejected. We have become friends, and we often travel together to writing conferences or writing retreats. Critique groups may not be right for every writer in every circumstance, but for many writers they fill a vital role. If you are interested in forming a critique group in your area, your regional SCBWI representative may be able to help you identify some prospective members. Happy critiquing!

On March 2, I was pleased to celebrate the “Book Birthday” of my latest picture book, Raindrops to Rainbow, published by Penguin Workshop. This gentle, rhyming picture book shows how color can be found all around us, whether there are raindrops falling or a rainbow high above. Bright, adorable illustrations by Charlene Chua provide the perfect complement to the text. (I love the Corgi!)

We celebrated this “Book Birthday” with an online Storytime reading hosted by the Hockessin Book Shelf. It was a real treat to share Raindrops to Rainbow, One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me, and poems from Beach Fun: Poems of Surf and Sand and Daddy Poems with kids of all ages. Through the power of Zoom, friends and relatives from afar joined in the fun. If you couldn’t participate on March 2, you can access the video through the Hockessin Book Shelf’s Facebook page.

The celebration continues with a Zoom visit with students at Cooke Elementary School on March 18, and I have future Zoom visits planned with students at Maclary Elementary School and Gallaher Elementary School. I truly enjoy sharing my work and my love of writing with young people, and I hope to schedule more Zoom visits with schools and/or day care centers.

March also marks my birthday month, but at this point in my life, I’m much more excited about “Book Birthdays” than my own! Copies of Raindrops to Rainbow are available locally at the Hockessin Bookshelf, The Palette & the Page, and online from Penguin.

I enjoyed launching Raindrops to Rainbow with a Storytime reading sponsored by the Hockessin Book Shelf.

I wrote my first book when I was 8 years old. It was called Tubby the Pig on the Moon. The 20-page story, created painstakingly on a manual typewriter, told the tale of a talking pig and his barnyard friends who built a rocket ship and flew to the moon. It wasn’t the type of story that got published, but it showed even then that I was dreaming of being a writer.

I love to tell that story when doing school visits, and then I read my poem “The Keeper of Dreams” from my Mommy Poems book. The poem talks about what we might dream of being when we grow up (and sharing those dreams with Mom). I tell students how I made my dreams come true through practice and persistence, and I encourage them to dream big and to follow those dreams—wherever they may lead.  

Back in the “good old days” before the pandemic, my school visits were live, and they were often done in the form of writing workshops. In these workshops, I would get elementary students writing poetry, persuasive pieces, or research-oriented nonfiction. It’s fun to watch students get excited about writing and see the pride they take in their creations. That worked well in person where I could circulate throughout the classroom as students wrote, offering suggestions and support as needed. Then students eagerly shared their work at the end.

This past fall and winter I started doing Zoom visits. In this format, I’ve discussed the different genres of writing I do. I share cool stories from my biography books, fun facts from 125 True Stories of Amazing Pets, and poems from my Beach Fun and Daddy Poems books. I describe how I got the ideas for my picture books One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me! and Raindrops to Rainbow, and I outline the publishing process.

Next I share tips for young writers, do a fun facts quiz about writing, and answer questions. Sharing a PowerPoint via Zoom isn’t as much fun as presenting in a classroom, and seeing thumbnails of students’ faces isn’t nearly as rewarding as seeing them in person, but it’s part of the adaptation process all of us have faced during the pandemic.

I look forward to the time when in-person school visits are once again possible, but in the meantime, Zooming my way into classrooms is a reasonable substitute! To learn about scheduling a Zoom visit, check out my website at www.JohnMicklosWriter.com and click on the “Services” button or contact me by email at jjmj197@comcast.net.

Coming Up Rainbows

As did many self-employed people, I found 2020 challenging. Some of the educational publishers I work with postponed new series because of the uncertain school market for books. My school visits were cancelled (although I did start doing Zoom visits in the fall). All in all, it was a difficult year, but I count myself blessed that I remained healthy—as did all of my immediate family.

And after the storm comes the rainbow—literally in my case. I have a new picture book titled Raindrops to Rainbow coming out from Penguin Workshop on March 2, 2021. In simple rhyming text, Raindrops to Rainbow tells a color-focused story about a young girl who experiences a thunderstorm and learns that only after a little rain can we see the rainbow. The girl is initially disappointed to be stuck inside on a rainy day. Her mother helps her make the best of it, and eventually they get to go outside, splash in puddles, and enjoy a rainbow’s beauty together.

Whereas One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin, 2017) was a counting and seasons book, Raindrops to Rainbow is a “color” book. Various colors are highlighted throughout the text, culminating in rainbow colors near the end. Charlene Chua’s lively, bright illustrations, featuring an adorable little girl and her Welsh Corgi, provide the perfect complement to the text. Here is the book’s page on the Penguin website: Raindrops to Rainbow by John Micklos, Jr.: 9780593224090 | PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books.

I am excited to be part of the Penguin Workshop line-up. Their books include Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, Eric Carle’s Love from The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Henry Winkler’s Here’s Hank series, to name just a few. I will post further updates as the publication date for Raindrops to Rainbow draws closer.

I’m also planning to launch a brief author newsletter soon. The newsletter will contain news about my writing, a list of upcoming events (school visits and appearances), writing tips, and more. Sign up to receive the newsletter by sending an email to me at jjmj197@comcast.net.  

Best wishes for a “rainbow year” for all of us in 2021!

Like many people, I have been mesmerized by the Netflix series Queen’s Gambit. In addition to being a fascinating character study of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, the series paints an interesting and fairly accurate picture of how chess tournaments operate. I played tournament chess throughout high school and college (obviously not at Beth Harmon’s level), and the series brings back many pleasant memories.

There’s a second reason I view Queen’s Gambit so fondly. I took a creative writing class from Walter Tevis, who wrote Queen’s Gambit in 1983, while I attended Ohio University in the late 1970s. Several of Tevis’s novels have been adapted into successful movies or series: The Hustler, The Color of Money, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Queen’s Gambit.

I was fortunate to have two top-notch authors as creative writing professors at Ohio U. Both made me a far better writer. Daniel Keyes (Flowers for Algernon) gave me a C+ in the first creative writing class I ever took, the lowest grade of my entire college career. He helped me by showing me I wasn’t nearly as good a writer as I thought I was, which bruised my ego but encouraged me to hone my craft. A year later, Walter Tevis helped restore my confidence while also emphasizing that I still had far to go in my development as a writer.

Tevis invited me into his home in Athens once or twice to critique my writing. He was actually a C-rated tournament chess player, the same as me, and I knew he played. I wonder if perhaps we talked about chess or maybe even played a game or two. It would make a better story if I could describe a game we had played, but I simply don’t remember.

I do remember how he looked—glasses, short hair (for the 1970s), a short beard flecked with white, and a warm smile. I also recall that he smoked a lot. He was friendly and approachable, even though he was a best-selling author.

I also remember some of the great writing advice he gave me. He talked about drawing from life experience when writing, as he did with The Hustler (and later Queen’s Gambit, which he hadn’t yet written). He talked about creating rich characters by getting at the heart of what makes them tick, as he did with pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson and chess shark Beth Harmon. Finally, he talked about the importance of constantly practicing and getting better at the things you love, whether that be playing pool, playing chess, or writing. That’s good advice that I continue to follow more than 40 years later. Thank you, Professor Tevis!

Helping a Great Cause

When I was invited to visit Oldmans Township School in New Jersey in December 2018, they asked me to talk to their 6th and 7th-grade students about persuasive writing and specifically about the research process for gathering information to support their points of view. I asked if they were studying about anything in particular and learned that they were interested in petitioning to do away with plastic straws in the school cafeteria.

With that in mind, I gathered some interesting facts and stories about plastic straws to share with the students. I talked with them about how to go about finding sources of information when researching a topic and some tips to help determine if a source is reliable. We talked about what to do in cases where there are conflicting facts. The students were highly engaged, and I could tell they were passionate about their topic.

I found out later that the students followed through and did indeed get the school to do away with plastic straws. But that’s not all! That was just one component of the students’ Go Green! campaign. Students also launched a campaign to recycle milk cartons from the cafeteria. They went before the school board with their proposal and gained their approval.

Earliest this year, Artistic Hands Productions produced a video describing the students’ efforts to help the Oldmans Township School “Go Green.” The 9-minute video interviews several students and does a great job of describing the process the students went through to present their findings and recommendations to their principal and the school board. I was also delighted that the students had credited me with helping them “find credible research to support our persuasive essays that then helped us create something we presented to the board.”

Thanks for the shout-out! I am pleased to have contributed in some small way to the campaign’s success. Furthermore, seeing these students get passionate about a project such as this and see it through to fruition gives me faith in the future of our nation—and the world. See the video here.

As I reflect on the past ten years, I realize what a wonderful decade it was for me as a writer. In April 2011, I left the security of a full-time job as editor of the International Literacy Association’s Reading Today newspaper to devote more time to book writing. It worked out better than I could have imagined. I had more than 30 books published during the decade, with another nine currently in various stages of production. For my career, I’m up to 56 books either published or pending. That far exceeds my wildest expectations when I embarked on this journey.

Over the past few years, I have had an opportunity to research and write about a variety of fascinating subjects. I contributed stories about some really fascinating animals for National Geographic Kids’ best-selling book 125 True Stories of Amazing Pets. I wrote educational books about a wide range of history and social studies subjects for Capstone, Cavendish Square, and Enslow. I learned about and wrote about everything from the Revolutionary War to the space shuttle Challenger tragedy, from Native Americans to the 1918 flu pandemic, and from understanding propaganda to understanding our legal rights.

In addition, I got to write biographies about Muhammad Ali, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elvis Presley, and others. I even experimented with self-publishing two books: The Sound in the Basement and Beach Fun: Poems of Surf and Sand. One of my most gratifying experiences was seeing my picture book One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me get published by Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin in 2017 to strong reviews and become a selection in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. I was also pleased to do author visits to schools in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Texas.

My writing dreams truly did come true over the past 10 years. So, what’s next? In the coming decade, I look forward to doing more picture books, and I hope to have news to share about one of those books very soon! I also look forward to visiting even more schools and conducting writing workshops with students. I love sharing what I have learned about writing with young authors!

The past ten years have been exciting and fruitful. My hope is that the decade ahead will bring even more new writing opportunities and the chance to work with even more young writers. I remain grateful each day for being able to do work that I love, and I look forward to continuing that work in the years ahead!