Welcome to Inkygirl: Reading, Writing and Illustrating Children's Books (archive list here) which includes my Creating Picture Books series, Advice For Young Writers and IllustratorsWriter's and Illustrator's Guide To Twitter, interviews, my poetry for young readers, #BookADay archives, writing/publishing industry surveys, and 250, 500, 1000 Words/Day Writing Challenge. Also see my Inkygirl archives,  and comics for writers (including Keiko and Will Write For Chocolate). Also check out my Print-Ready Archives for Teachers, Librarians, Booksellers and Young Readers.

I tweet about the craft and business of writing and illustrating at @inkyelbows. If you're interested in my art or other projects, please do visit DebbieOhi.com. Thanks for visiting! -- Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Entries in school presentations (2)


My First Author/Illustrator Skype Visit: What I Learned, What I'd Do Differently Next Time

Skyping with 115 first-graders at A. Blair McPherson School in Edmonton, Alberta

Although I've used Skype before, I resisted doing Skype classroom visits until recently because I wasn't confident about the technology working properly. Since I first tried Skype, however, broadband services have improved and more schools are starting to do Skype visits with authors and illustrators.

Other reasons I decided to explore visiting schools via Skype:

- I lack the time and finances to visit schools outside of the Toronto area. I also don't drive, which makes transportation more of a hassle and time-consuming.

- I had so much fun talking to young readers during my NAKED! book tour (thanks, Simon & Schuster!) that I want to do this more often than I have in the past, but am limited by the reasons mentioned above.

- Although I know they can't replace in-person visits, virtual school visits enable me to use more props in my presentations, a wider range of art supplies, show students around my home office, be able to pull out musical instruments (I have many) on whim.

- I know some schools can't afford a full school visit, so I decided to offer a 15-20 minute visit for free. Those who want a longer visit can pay my regular fee. I'm also relatively new to school visits, so this also gives schools an idea of what I'm like in person. When I do my next book tour, whether sponsored by one of my publishers or funded on my own, hopefully some of these schools will be interested in having me visit.

What I did before my first Skype visit:

- I researched a TON, searching online for blog posts by children's book authors and illustrators who have done Skype visits, as well as posts by teachers and librarians about Skype visits. I was especially interested in posts by children's book illustrators, since we have the advantage of being able to do drawing demos. :-)

- I talked to my friend Lee Wardlaw, who was also my first children's book writing mentor. Lee has a huge amount of experience presenting at schools and bookstores in person as well as via Skype. Do check out her Presentations page as well as her Secrets To A Successful Skype Visit for educators.

- I worked with teacher-librarian Arlene Lipkewich and A. Blair McPherson for my very first school Skype visit; their first-graders voted I'M BORED as their favourite book last year in their "YouDecide!" program. I started with a Skype test call with Arlene and another teacher, then a Skype call with Mrs. Brooke's second grade class. Arlene gave me useful feedback which I used to tweak my setup and presentation before I Skyped with five classes (115 students) of first-graders the following week. Thanks you, Arlene and A. Blair McPherson!

- I collected some of the useful resources I've found on my Skype School Visit Page for teachers and librarians as well as children's book authors and illustrators.

What I did during my 15-20 minute Skype visit:

- I read I'M BORED (for the second visit, I also read NAKED!). By the second visit, I was better able to monitor what I was showing the kids, so would zoom in on the Potato, for instance, when it was the kids' turn to yell "I'm BOOOOORED!" But I also tried to pull back sometimes, so they could see me as well.

- After the reading, I showed the students a sketch or two from the process.

- I pulled out my guitar and had students help me co-write a very short I'M BORED song. 

- I did a drawing demo. The first time, I used my Derwent Inktense blocks to draw something and then used water to show the kids how the line turned into watercolor. I had the camera zoomed in close and later Arlene said that while this was great to see, it would have been great to see me as well. For my second Skypevisit, I decided to go with a big marker and watercolor paints instead, interacting with the students for suggestions on what to draw. It was fun but very messy on my end :-D -- I'll have to rethink this for my next Skypevisit.

- At the end, I did a Q&A. I loved hearing the types of questions asked by the kids. Some just came up to the laptop and didn't say anything, just smiled shyly or said (after a long pause): "I like your drawing!" One asked why the Potato in I'M BORED liked flamingos so much. I promised I'd ask Michael Ian Black, and he responded by email very quickly; I passed this answer onto the teacher afterward.

What I learned and what I'd do differently next time:

- It's sooooooo much more fun than I expected!

- I strongly recommend doing a Skype test call in advance of each Skype visit as well as just before the visit itself. I found this a great way of identifying potential problems and fixing them.

- Make sure you leave time for a Q&A, and coordinate with the teacher ahead of time so that he/she is able to have students prepare questions in advance.

- Figure out how to make my own screen bigger so I can see what the kids are seeing. Try to place this screen behind the webcam so I'm looking at the camera, not away.

- If I do painting, I will NOT set the paint cups on my desk where it's way too easy for me to knock them over in the middle of the Skype session (fortunately I didn't have much liquid in each)!

- Figure out how to mute the audio on my computer so I just hear it on my headphones. I found the echo a bit confusing, and was also worried about the echo leaking through into my microphone.

- I'm also going to investigate ways of sharing my screen, so I can show kids how I draw digitally. I think it will depend on partly on whether the school's Skype is able to do this, which makes a tech test in advance even more necessary.

Some useful resources (if you know of others, feel free to share below):

Please do check out the resource list I've compiled for teachers/librarians and authors/illustrators to my Skype page; I'll be gradually updating it.

Interested in having me do a Skypevisit with your school or library? Please see the info on DebbieOhi.com/skype. Hope to visit with you soon!


Next week, I'm Skyping (simultaneously) with third-graders in St. Paul and Boston, MN schools about I'M BORED. Can't wait. :-)


Interview with Helaine Becker, author of How To Survive Absolutely Anything

Helaine Becker is one of the most enthusiastic and productive writers I know. I met Helaine through Torkidlit: the Toronto Area Middle Grade and YA Author Group. She has written over 50 books, including the best-selling picture book, A Porcupine in a Pine Tree, the Looney Bay All-Stars series; popular non-fiction, including Magic Up Your Sleeve, Secret Agent Y.O.U. and The Quiz Book for Girls; and young adult novels including Trouble in the Hills and How to Survive Absolutely Anything.

Q: Could you please tell me a little bit about your book? What inspired you to write it? What it's about?

Author and friend Marsha Skrypuch inspired me to write the book. We were having lunch one day and we were discussing how, when you write illustrated books for children, your royalties are divided with the illustrator. Fair enough. But Marsha said, “Gee, Helaine, if you wrote a YA novel, you might make more money since you won’t have an illustrator….”

As a hardworking writer, the idea of making more money appealed to me, so I thought I’d give it a try! I had a story idea niggling at the back of my brain, so I wrote it up. And Voila! How to Survive Absolutely Anything was born.

I somehow don’t think I’m going to wind up making that much more money on it than some of my picture books (A Porcupine in a Pine Tree hit #1 on the National bestseller list last year). Nevertheless, I enjoyed writing it, learned a lot about the craft of writing from doing it, and have enjoyed the whole process immensely.

Q: What was your research/writing process? How did the book get published? 

This book did not require any major research, but most of my other books – I do a lot of nonfic – have a lot of research involved in them. For Trouble in the Hills, a YA adventure that I wrote after How to Survive….. (but it was published first), I had to research what a dead body that had been lying in an alpine cave for a year would look like. That was delightfully gruesome.

I also had to research drug growing in BC, human trafficking in BC, and mountain biking – to get all the info I needed I had to dig into newspaper stories, but also interview forensics pathology experts and cyclists in Grand Forks BC.

I’m working on another YA novel right now that involves fireworks. To research that project, I signed up for “Fireworks School” – a training course for pyrotechnicians. I’m now certified – as well as certifiable. ;)

How did Survive get published? After I wrote it, I stuffed it my drawer and tried my hand at a second, more ambitious novel. Both of these novels then went through the “kidcrit” process – the online critique group through Compuserve. Funnily enough, people seemed to like the second book better, so I tried to sell that one first, with no luck.

Now, looking back at it, I can see the flaws in it, so maybe one day that will get a rewrite. Anyhow, after a trip to Grand Forks BC for an author tour, I conceived the plot for Trouble in the Hills.

I wrote up a synopsis and some sample chapters and pitched it Christie Harkin at Fitzhenry and Whiteside. She liked it and offered to buy it. In conversation I told her I also had a “girls” manuscript, and she asked to see it.

Surprise surprise, she liked that too, and bought both of the books in a two-book deal. Trouble came out in Autumn 2011; How To Survive came out in June 2012. We’re talking about a sequel to Trouble in the Hills now – we’ll have to see what happens!

I didn’t have an agent to sell these books. In fact, although I ‘ve had an agent at several points in my career, I’ve always sold my own work directly. I don’t think anyone can really represent you better than you can yourself if you have sales skills.

I’ve published more than 50 books, trade and educational, in Canada and the US, without an agent. I think it’s a lot harder to do this, though, in the US trade market than it is in Canada or in the educational field. So I am now talking with my dream agent to rep my work in the US. We’ll see how that goes but my fingers are crossed that we’ll work something out and I can continue to grow my career with her.

Q: You said you learned a lot about the craft of writing while working on How To Survive Absolutely Anything. Could you give an example?

I had often heard people talking about how too many varied dialogue attributions (remarked, demanded, cried, interrupted, etc. instead of a simple “said”) and attributions modified by adverbs weaken your text. I didn’t really see it, until I was revising this book. Then I finally understood! Rather than saying, “Close the door,’ she scolded angrily,” it would be stronger writing to put “Shut that damn door already!”

Once I saw how adapting my dialogue in that way would get rid of lots of unnecessary words and make the whole text tighter, I went through the whole manuscript again, making changes. This was, unfortunately for my poor editor, the day before the book was supposed to go to press! But we both agree – it was worth it. The book is better now than it would have been.

Q. I've heard such great things about your school presentations! What one piece of advice would you give a new author who is just starting to give presentations?

Ask another writer if you can go and observe their presentations before you do your own. That way you can learn the ins and outs – how to check in with the school office, how to present your invoice, how to organize your space, etc.

Observe how the author handles interruptions, how they handle questions and answers, etc. It’s much easier when you’ve seen someone else do it first rather than going in completely cold. Also remember that kids are very forgiving audiences so don’t fret too much. It will turn out ok, and if it doesn’t people will still enjoy a good laugh!

Helaine's dog Ella is always present while H. works, adding editorial commentary.Q: How much outlining do you do? What is your typical work process or work day?

Some of my books have been completely outlined. Others, like How to Survive, were more organic. I prefer to work with an outline. My typical work day starts late (after ten) and very slowly. I’m not a morning person, which is one reason why I’m a writer – I’ve been fired from every job I’ve ever had, mostly for being late! (If work started at noon….)

I like to warm up by checking and writing emails, then gradually work my way into the frame of mind to start writing REAL stuff. That being said, I’m extremely disciplined.

I write pretty much every day between 10-4, and if I’m on a deadline, between 10 and whatever. I work in my kitchen and can tune out everything around me as I work, much to the annoyance of my family. They want me stop typing and start making dinner. They, however, know where the fridge and stove are too, so I ignore them.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

I know most people tell you you should read a lot and get writing partners etc. But I think every single writer should take some basic business and sales courses. As a writer, you are really the sole proprietor of a business.

You need to know how to run your business and sell your product if you want to have a hope in hell of making a living and/or not getting stomped by unscrupulous parties.

I spend at least 50% of my work time preparing pitches and putting prospective projects “in the pipeline” – that’s a basic sales technique that guarantees you never wake up one morning with no contracts and no work and a mortgage you can’t pay.

I’m going to be teaching a session at Canscaip’s Fall writing conference, Packaging Your Imagination, on this topic. If you are in the Toronto area and have no idea what “qualifying the customer” or “profit centre” mean, this seminar is for you.

Q: What are you working on now? Anything else you'd like people to know?

What am I working on now? A zillion things, as usual. I have four – yes four! – books coming out this fall, 2 quiz books and two picture books, both of which have final edits on the go.

I’ve just finished my first draft of a new nonfic for Kids Can Press, coming out in 2013. I’m on the fourth draft of a YA horror, and working on the first draft of a funny middle grade novel.

Going back and forth between those two books as well as a verse picture book I’m polishing for Scholastic Canada really makes my head spin! I also put manuscripts away for a while to mature (this really means I didn’t have luck selling them the first time out!).

I pick those up when I have time and look at revising them. I’ve got three of those in the “on deck” circle right now.

I NEVER consider any project dead – they are all just resting. I’ve recently gotten an offer on a project that has been in my drawer since 1999. The Big Green Book of the Big Blue Sea (Kids Can Press, 2012) was based on a pitch I wrote up in 1998. And my quiz book series with Scholastic Canada grew out of another ancient proposal that I’m sure most people would have considered compost. I just looked it up – it had originally been dinged in 2002. But when the opportunity arose, I rewrote the pitch and gave it to Scholastic, and now, well, it’s four-books and more, I hope to come!

So my advice would be to everyone to hang on to all your old stuff and periodically go through it to see what still has potential. Often good projects are rejected because the timing or fit is bad.

When the times change, and personnel changes, you may find the perfect fit for that old raggedy project, restitched into a new suit.

Q: Where can people find you online?

Here are all my online deets:




follow me at www.twitter.com/helainebecker


Did you enjoy this interview? Check out other Inkygirl interviews.