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1. Guest Post: Chris Barton on A New & Diversity Bookselling Strategy: BookPeople's Modern First Library

Newlyweds Chris & Jenny
By Chris Barton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Many of my ideas -- good, bad, and otherwise -- originate while I’m exercising, and Modern First Library was among these.

One evening this past winter, while my wife, fellow author Jennifer Ziegler, and I were walking our dog, I bemoaned an article I’d read about an independent bookseller’s baby gift registry.

Of the classic picture books mentioned in the article -- through no fault of the store, I’m assuming -- the newest one was published during the first Nixon administration.

We’re in a pretty terrific era for picture books. You might even call it a golden age, and I’ve been working for years to try to contribute to it myself. But how, I griped, was the general book-buying public going to know about contemporary standouts such as I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (Candlewick, 2011) if major media outlets so readily reinforce shoppers’ tendencies to look to their own youth -- or even to earlier decades -- for the books they give as gifts to modern kids?

If only, I thought, there was some way to leverage the public’s interest in buying the tried and true into the purchase of classics and contemporary titles. I wasn’t interested in just shifting sales from old to new -- booksellers and kids alike would benefit a lot more if those parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and godparents and family friends bought two picture books instead of just one.

Our walk ended, and that was as far as it went. But not for long.

A couple of weekends later, the groundshifting essays by Walter Dean Myers (“Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”) and Christopher Myers (“The Apartheid of Children’s Literature”) ran in The New York Times.

A widespread urge to Do Something About This led to lots of conversations among authors, editors, librarians, and other champions of children’s literature. It led to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.

And it led me to email Meghan Goel, the children’s-book buyer at my beloved local indie BookPeople, to discuss a new spin on the notion I’d had on that recent walk.

Wait -- email Meghan in what capacity?

As an author? Yes, but also as a BookPeople customer, and as a dad, and as a member of the community. Of various communities, in fact, large and small.

What’s important is not whether I felt especially qualified to lend my voice but rather that I had an idea that I thought might be worth trying and I decided not to keep it to myself.

Sharing an idea was the least I could do.

Here’s what I emailed, under the subject line “Getting past Goodnight Moon”:

Hey there, Meghan,

Like apparently half of everyone I know, I've read the Myers' New York Times essays with tremendous interest. And those essays sparked a diversity-encouraging idea that I wanted to run past a bookseller or two before I get too enamored of a notion that may be either entirely unoriginal or totally unworkable or both.

My sense is that there a lot of gift-giving adults whose familiarity with picture books doesn't go far beyond the likes of:

Would there be an effective way to encourage these adults to buy the classic titles they have in mind and a new picture book that reflects the modern, diverse world that the recipients inhabit? And could such an effort be widespread and long-lasting enough that it could reward publishers for doing a better job of making good on their good intentions?

Am I nuts? A simpleton? Both -- and way off base, to boot?
I'd love to know what you think.

Chris

Meghan’s reply?

“I love this idea.”

Right away, she came up with the name “Modern First Library.”

Meghan suggested partnering with a small but diverse group of other authors whose voices on behalf of such a program might make it more successful. And she thanked me for reaching out to her.

We worked together to come up with a list of other authors we wanted to have involved. We tossed around ideas for great, vibrant, fun contemporary titles that we ourselves would want to have as the foundation for a child’s first collection of picture books alongside the established classics.

All the while we kept in mind the need for a program that would work specifically for BookPeople -- for its staff, its available space for in-store and online promotion, and local tastes and demographics -- while being potentially repeatable by indie booksellers in other communities.

Author-illustrator contributor Don Tate
We didn’t rush into anything, even as the conversation about diversity in children’s literature remained a passionate one within the publishing and bookselling industries.

By the time our planning was done and the program launched the first week in July, Modern First Library consisted of a simple in-store display of both standalone titles and starter sets of similarly themed books, plus an online campaign that soon began featuring insightful, inspiring blog posts by locally based and nationally established creators of books for children and young adults.

More starter sets are available online, and the program is still picking up momentum. Those pre-wrapped gift sets will be heavily featured at the store during the upcoming holiday season.

Let me tell you, it feels great to know that young readers will be receiving selections from Modern First Library as gifts this year.

I stop by the Modern First Library display, just to admire it, every time I’m in BookPeople. Seeing it makes me glad all over again that I reached out to Meghan rather than assume I had no part to play in addressing the dearth of diversity in children’s literature.

And considering that all this began with my wife and me walking the dog, it’s certainly provided positive reinforcement for us to keep on getting plenty of exercise.

In all sorts of ways, this entire experience has been a gift in itself.

Cynsational Notes

Chris Barton is the author of the picture books Shark Vs. Train (Little, Brown, 2010)(a New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller) and The Day-Glo Brothers (Charlesbridge, 2009)(winner, American Library Association Sibert Honor), as well as the young adult nonfiction thriller Can I See Your I.D.? True Stories of False Identities (Dial, 2011).

His 2014 publications include picture book Attack! Boss! Cheat Code! A Gamer’s Alphabet (powerHouse) and his YA fiction debut as a contributor to the collection One Death, Nine Stories (Candlewick), and 2015 will bring picture book biographies The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdman's) and Pioneers & Pirouettes: The Story of the First American Nutcracker (Millbrook).

Chris and his wife, children's-YA novelist Jennifer Ziegler (Revenge of the Flower Girls (Scholastic, 2014)), live in Austin, Texas, with their family.

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2. Author Interview: Paula Yoo on Twenty-two Cents: The Story of Muhammad Yunus

Learn more about Paula Yoo.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations on the release of Twenty-two Cents: The Story of Muhammad Yunus, illustrated by Jamel Akib (Lee & Low, 2014)! 

What was the initial inspiration for the book?

Thank you! The initial inspiration was from one of my editors at Lee & Low Books.

I worked with Jason Low on my last book, Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story (Lee & Low, 2009).

After that book came out, he and I discussed what my next book should be. At the time, Jason had read Muhammad Yunus’ autobiography Banker to the Poor: Micro-lending and the Battle Against World Poverty with Alan Jolis (Public Affairs 1999). He thought Professor Yunus would be a great biographical subject for Lee & Low Books. He suggested I read Baker to the Poor, too.

I read and loved the book - like Jason, I was very inspired by Muhammad Yunus’ work. I agreed with Jason that Muhammad Yunus’ life would make for a fantastic children’s picture book biography.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

The timeline took about a year, from idea conception to research and writing and submission for publication and acceptance. I worked with editors Jason Low and Emily Hazel for a few months as I crafted a first draft and received their editorial input.

After several rounds of revision, they felt the book was ready to submit for official consideration. And then I received the good news - the book was accepted for publication!

I then worked with editor Jessica Echeverria for the final version.

As for any major events, I would say the biggest event was meeting and interviewing Muhammad Yunus himself when he visited Los Angeles for a conference. It was truly an honor to meet and interview the man who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

What were the biggest challenges and triumphs in bringing the book to life?

There are so many challenges into bringing a historical picture book biography to life for young readers. I’d say one of the biggest challenges is knowing how to balance historical facts and figures with an engaging and compelling narrative storyline that keeps the young reader’s attention.

Another challenge is making sure young readers can identify with the main character - what was Muhammad Yunus like as a child?

How can a modern-day child from America relate to a young boy growing up in Bangladesh from the 1940s to '60s?

What are the universal elements of Muhammad Yunus’ life that any child can relate to and understand?

I discovered that Muhammad Yunus was a very sensitive and caring young boy who questioned why so many people in his country grew up in poverty. He wanted to help them. His spirit of generosity influenced all his decisions from childhood to adulthood. I wanted to share that beautiful and very universal compassion with today’s young readers.

In addition, the book also touches upon some very complex issues, from the history of Bangladesh the nation to the concept of “micro-credit” and banking and interest rates. These are topics that even adults can find complicated and confusing. So another challenge was figuring out how to write about these issues not only accurately but also in a way that did not bore or confuse a child reader.

Let’s just say there were many drafts and revisions before I finally figured it out!

What advice do you have for children's nonfiction writers?

Paula Yoo & Muhammad Yunus
I have two pieces of advice for children’s nonfiction writers.

First, I cannot stress enough how important it is do “primary source” research. There’s so much information out there on the Internet, and a lot of it is second-hand information that is not credited properly.

Fact check your information. See if you can do live in-person interviews with sources for your book. There’s nothing wrong with “cold calling” a subject - I did that with Muhammad Yunus.

I found his website and left emails and voicemails with his office in Bangladesh. They responded immediately and graciously arranged a full sit-down interview with him.

You never know unless you try. Do follow-up interviews. Triple check facts with other sources. Make sure you footnote and credit your information.

All of this research advice is based upon my own background as a former journalist - I wrote for The Seattle Times, The Detroit News and People Magazine and received an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University. So I am very meticulous with my reporting.

Photo of Paula by Sonya Sones
I know it may seem like overkill, but trust me, you will feel so much better when you sit down to write because you really did your “homework.”

Now having said that, my second piece of advice is the exact opposite.

Once you have completed your research…walk away from it. Focus on finding out what the story is… and figure out who your main character is… a nonfiction book is not a magazine article or academic essay crammed with facts and figures.

You’re still telling a story.

So I also recommend using the same fiction-writing techniques you use for fiction picture books and novels for nonfiction books. Find out what the beginning, middle and end is for your story - what’s the conflict? What are the obstacles? How does your character change and grow on his/her journey?

Then for revisions, you can go back and figure out how to blend the nonfiction facts seamlessly into the “fictional” narrative story you’ve written.

How about those concentrating specifically on picture book biographies?

I’d say the exact same thing as above but with an emphasis on character. Your main character - the biography subject - is no different than a character in a fictional picture book or novel.

Your character is going on a journey - he/she is going to have a goal or desire. That goal or desire will be met with obstacles that your character has to overcome.

How does your character change at the end of the story? For Muhammad Yunus, he wanted to help poor people. But he soon found out that helping poor people was a lot more difficult than he had anticipated.

Instead of just using his economics degree to teach classes at the university, he went into the rural villages and met with poverty-stricken villagers so he could truly understand the vicious cycle of poverty. This led to his “out of the box” thinking and using his creativity to set up Grameen bank and the concept of “micro credit” and small loans for groups of women in order to teach them how to become financially independent.

This led to Muhammad Yunus winning the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize… his journey took him from being a compassionate child to a professor who used his intellect to make a huge difference in the world and change people’s lives forever.

For anyone working on a picture book biography - think big. Your main subject should have a compelling and interesting childhood and many obstacles that he/she must overcome in order to triumph as an adult historical figure who helped change the world for the better.

My other picture book biographies - Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story (Lee & Low, 2005) and Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story (Lee & Low, 2009) are both equally as “big” as my book on Muhammad Yunus.

Sammy Lee was not allowed to swim in his town’s public swimming pool in the 1920s-30s because he was not white. He overcame racial discrimination to win two Gold Medals as a diver in the 1948 and 1952 Summer Olympics.

Anna May Wong grew up as a poor laundryman’s daughter in downtown Los Angeles and overcame racial discrimination to become one of the first Asian American movie stars.

For those who are new to your work, could you tell us a bit about your back-list titles?

In addition to my picture book biographies, I also have a YA novel called Good Enough (HarperCollins, 2008) that was re-issued in paperback in 2012.

It’s a funny and heartwarming story about a Korean American teen violin geek. I poke fun at the “Model Minority Myth” and tackle other Asian American stereotypes/racial discrimination, but the bigger story is about a young girl who learns the difference between success and happiness and following her own path.

This novel was inspired by my real life background as a violinist.

(When I’m not writing, I play the violin professionally in various local orchestras and with rock bands in Los Angeles.)

I am also a TV writer/producer. I’ve written for everything from NBC’s "The West Wing" to SyFy’s "Eureka." I’m currently a Supervising Producer on the writing staff for Amazon’s "Mozart in the Jungle," which is based on professional oboist Blair Tindall’s memoir of the same name. The series was created by Paul Weitz, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola and Alex Timbers. It’s a fun look behind the curtain of professional classical musicians.

I love how your blog pays proper attention to your cats! Please share with us how they contribute to your writing life!

Thank you for the cat shout-out!

My three cats Oreo, Beethoven and Charlotte help me write quite a bit. They will sit by my side while I write (especially Oreo!).

Sometimes I have to “pitch” story ideas out loud for my TV job as well as for my books.

So I find myself pitching out loud to my cats… that way I don’t feel as strange talking out loud to no one else in the room. The cats are easily distracted, so it’s good practice for me!

They also keep me calm with their purring. And because they get restless and want to eat or play, it helps me from procrastinating because I know I only have a limited period of time to write before the cats start nudging me with their paws and heads, demanding attention.

Cynsational Notes

Paula Yoo is a children's book author/novelist and a TV writer-producer.

Her latest book is Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank (Lee & Low, 2014), illustrated by Jamel Akib. Her YA novel Good Enough (HarperCollins, 2008) was a 2009 Honor Book of the Youth Literature of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature.

Her other books include the IRA Notable nonfiction picture book biographies Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story (Lee & Low, 2005) and Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story (Lee & Low, 2009), which also won the 2010 Carter G. Woodson Award from the National Council for the Social Studies.

She is currently a supervising producer for the show "Mozart in the Jungle" on Amazon. Her other TV credits include NBC’s "The West Wing" and SyFy’s "Eureka."

When she’s not writing, Paula teaches, plays her violin and hangs out with her three cats. Her website is http://paulayoo.com and you can follow Paula and her cats on Twitter @paulayoo and @oreothecatyoo

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3. Book Trailer: The Vast and Brutal Sea by Zoraida Córdova

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for The Vast and Brutal Sea by Zoraida Córdova (Sourcebooks Fire, 2014). From the promotional copy:

This epic clash of sand and sea will pit brother against brother–and there can only be one winner. 

In two days, the race for the Sea Court throne will be over-but all the rules have changed. 

The sea witch, Nieve, has kidnapped Layla and is raising an army of mutant sea creatures to overthrow the crown. Kurt, the one person Tristan could depend on in the battle for the Sea King’s throne, has betrayed him. Now Kurt wants the throne for himself. 

Tristan has the Scepter of the Earth, but it’s not enough. He’ll have to travel to the mysterious, lost Isle of Tears and unleash the magic that first created the king’s powerful scepter. 

It’s a brutal race to the finish, and there can only be one winner.


Cynsational Notes

Diversity Needed Under the Sea: Not All Mermaids Have Blond Hair and Blue Eyes by Cindy Rodriguez from Latin@s in Kid Lit. 

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4. Guest Author Interview: Chris Cander on The Word Burglar

By Emma Kate Tsai 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Chris Cander happened upon a children’s story by way of her real life as a mom of two kids.

Below, Emma Kate Tsai interviews Chris about how she conceptualized The Word Burglar, illustrated by Katherine Tramonte (Bright Sky, 2013) and her perspective on children’s literature as a writer who’s also a mother of two.

Can you tell the story of how The Word Burglar came to be?

My daughter, who is now eleven, was going to camp for the first time when I wrote it.

At the time, I would tell her a story that I made up on the fly every night. When she went away to camp, it was the first time she wasn’t going to have a story at night. But the camp allowed me to email a letter by 10 a.m. that they would then print and, by bedtime, give to her.

So I would get up and give myself forty-five minutes to write a story. I’d drink coffee while I was doing it and try to keep the baby occupied, then I’d email it.

I really didn’t know if she was liking them, but I started posting them on Facebook every morning. They amassed a bit of a following. People were downloading them and reading them to their kids.

There was some urgency behind it because I only gave myself forty-five minutes. That was how the story made its way to Bright Sky, because a good friend of mine had just published The Storm Wrangler (2011), and he introduced me to the publisher after seeing my stories on Facebook.

Did it come out of your head like that--that forty-five minute exercise—or did you go back and fine-tune after it became popular? 

It was the forty-five minute draft. I’d wake up, and I would grab anything I could think of.

My son was trying to learn how to read.

Now, of course, he didn’t have fourteen brothers and sisters like The Word Burglar, or parents who didn’t know how to teach him. But I immediately thought: Sasha’s gone, he doesn’t have his role model here—she and he would read together in bed—and then it happened.

That was the kernel of the idea and, believe it or not, it’s freeing to have a constraint of time. I wasn’t trying to write for publication. I was trying to write for my eight year old, so she’d have a bedtime story. That internal voice that gets really critical and tells you to over-analyze? It wasn’t there because I had forty-five minutes.

It’s such a great technique if you haven’t tried it. Give yourself either a time constraint or give yourself permission to write the very worst thing that you’ve ever written.

There’s something very liberating about having permission to fail, having permission to do garbage work, because you might actually find something wonderful comes out.

That gatekeeper, that critic, has been turned away.

You used your own illustrator, is that right? 

Was it difficult to convince the publisher to use own illustrator?

My illustrator, who is a very good friend of mine, will say that I strong-armed them, and I kind of did. I had two illustrators in mind, one who did the cover of a novel I author-published this year, 11 Stories. He was one of my top two choices, and he was a friend, too. We went to middle school together.

But his agent said he didn’t have time to do it. Kat is a good friend, and our kids are friends, so when I got the contract from Bright Sky, my contact there asked, “Do you have any kind of illustration style in mind?”

I said, “I’d just really like you to meet my friend.”

Kat had never done any children’s books before. So it was a risk on everybody’s part, but she had great samples and great enthusiasm.

Plus, it was a great story because of the fact that we’d been friends and our kids were the same ages, and so we were able to build the kids into the book. Mine were characters and hers became represented in it: Her son was the model for The Word Burglar, and her daughter’s bunny, Hop, is represented in the bunny on every page.

The publisher got excited about that story aspect. It’s a selling point when we’ve gone to festivals. We go as a pair, and people enjoy hearing the back-story of how we work together.

Most of the time, at the point of the contract being signed, the author has almost no input into the rest of the process, and yet I was able to chat with Kat at five in the morning about sample illustrations. “Do you like this direction?” she’d ask. That part of it was great. I’m glad they gave her a chance.

Could you share with us the story behind your blurb?

50th Anniversary Edition
Leonard Kessler, author of Mr. Pine’s Purple House, which was my favorite book when I was about three, blurbed my first children’s book.

I loved that book when I was little, and I kept it for forever.

At some point, I was inspired to go to my library and curate my own favorite books on my own shelves.

Mr. Pine’s Purple House was there. I thought to myself, I wonder what else he’s done.

He’s published over 250 books for children and young readers, he’s 93 years old, and he lives in Sarasota, Florida.

One day, I pick up the phone—because that’s how intrepid I am—and I looked him up.

I called and said, “I would love to talk to Mr. Kessler. Would you give him my email and pass on a message?”

And the woman that answered the phone said, “Oh no, I’ll just give you his phone number.”

And she did.

So I called him on the phone and we had a lovely, amazing talk that ended in tears, because it was the most satisfying, full-circle of my life.

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5. Guest Post: Barbara Shoup on The Real Jack Kerouac

By Barbara Shoup
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Few writers attained the fame Jack Kerouac experienced after the publication of his novel, On the Road (Viking, 1957). The book captured the spirit of rebellion bubbling beneath the staid and satisfied 1950’s, and inspired countless young people to throw off their parents’ expectations and set out on adventures of their own.

Kerouac himself became an icon, a role he both gloried in and despised—and which, ultimately, undid him.

Looking for Jack Kerouac isn’t about Kerouac himself, but about a boy, Paul, who takes off in search of him because he believes Kerouac can help him figure out what to do with his life.

“Lost in the pages of On the Road, I felt like…myself,” he says. “Like the book knew who I was, what I wanted, and was speaking back to me somehow.”

But the Jack Kerouac Paul finds is nothing like Sal Paradise, the character Kerouac fashioned after himself in the book. He’s living in a tacky little house with his elderly mother in St. Petersburg, Florida—an alcoholic, a bigot, a right wing fundamentalist and full of rage about where his life has taken him.

What could a guy like that offer a grief-stricken, idealistic young man in love with the idea of freedom? That was the biggest challenge I faced, writing the book.

Like most people in my generation, I’d read On the Road. I thought of Kerouac as the ultimate in cool, shaking his fist at the world, going where he wanted to go, doing what he wanted to do. I knew Kerouac was wild and reckless, that he squandered his career and died young of cirrhosis of the liver.

But reading his books and books about him, especially those by people had known him, made me begin to understand what a complex person he had been, what a bundle of contradictions.

The more I read about Kerouac, the more real and sympathetic he became to me. The icon faded, leaving a just a wrecked man, who had just enough left in him to give a grieving kid what he needed to accept his mother’s death and begin the next phase of his life.

I don’t want to do a spoiler here, so I’ll just say that answer lay not in On the Road, but in Visions of Gerard (FSG, 1963), an autobiographical novel about the death of Kerouac’s saintly older brother.

I worried a lot about getting Jack right. I didn’t want to glamorize him, nor did I want to make him seem only pathetic. So I was thrilled when David Amram, a close friend of Kerouac, said this about my novel:

“Like Kerouac's own writing, Barbara Shoup's new book Looking for Jack Kerouac brings you right into his world and gives the reader a chance to spend time with him. Shoup's portrayal of Kerouac is astonishingly real and provides a whole fresh look of what it was like for those few of us left who spent time with him.” 

No matter what happens to the book from here on out, the knowledge that I succeeded in capturing Kerouac’s spirit will always mean more to me than anything else.

Cynsational Notes

From the promotional copy:

#LookingForKerouac @barbshoup @SamiJoLienSet in 1964, Looking for Jack Kerouac tells the story of Paul Carpetti, a boy from a working class family in the Calumet Region of northwest Indiana, whose dreams of a different kind of life and grief at the loss of his mother set him on a road trip that includes a wild night in Nashville, Tennessee, an all-too-real glimpse of glimpse of racism; and an encounter with a voluptuous mermaid named Lorelei—landing him in St. Petersburg, where he finds real friendship and, in time, Jack Kerouac. 

By then a ruined man, living with his mother, Kerouac is nothing like the person Paul has traveled so far to meet. 

Yet, in the end, it is Kerouac who gives him the key that opens up the next phase of his life.

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6. Cynsational News

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Where Books Meet Disaster: A Brief Reading List About Kids and Migration from Meg Medina. Peek: "The difficult story of migration is the Latino story, and it is the human story since time began." See also Eleven Books on Latin American Immigration and Migration from Lee & Low.

Hidden Emotions: How to Tell Readers What Characters Don't Want to Show by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Fear of emotional pain, a lack of trust in others, instinct, or protecting one’s reputation are all reasons he or she might repress what’s going on inside them." See also Angela on Taking Your Character Further and Deeper with...Anger? and Character Skills & Talents: Promotion.

Drawing From Real Life to Enrich Fiction by Keith Cronin from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...in my own fiction, I’d spent a lot of time and energy focusing on being funny or clever, but it wasn’t until I really dug deeper emotionally and explored some areas that hit very close to home that I actually succeeded in selling a book." See also Sarah Callender on Doubt, Fear and Constipation and Robin LaFevers on The Crushing Weight of Expectations from Writer Unboxed.

Submit Your Novel to New Visions Award for New Authors of Color from Tu Books. Peek: "...will be given to a middle grade or young adult fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color." Deadline: Oct. 31.

What Writers Can Learn from Goodnight Moon by Aimee Bender from The New York Times. Peek: "It sets up a world and then it subverts its own rules even as it follows them. It works like a sonata of sorts, but, like a good version of the form, it does not follow a wholly predictable structure."

a Scheider Book Award winner
Interview with Alyson Beecher, Schneider Family Book Award Chair by Corrine Duyvis from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: "...there is an increase in the quality, as well as, the number of books being published each year that portray individuals with disabilities. This is a fabulous thing; however, there still needs to be more, especially for young children under the age of eight years old."

In Defense of "Real" Realism in Children's Books by Emma Barnes from An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. Peek: "...creating something entertaining and captivating out of the mundane is challenging – maybe more challenging than 'the big stuff'."

Formatting to Indicate a Mid-Scene Break by Deborah Halverson from Dear Editor. Peek: "This is more an issue of clarity than of rules."

When Happily-Ever-After Ends Between Writing Client and Literary Agent by Stina Lindenblatt from QueryTracker. Peek: "We’re quick to announce on our blogs, on Facebook, and on Twitter about signing with an agent. We’re not so quick when it comes to announcing we’ve split ways." See also Stina on Balancing Your Writing Career Against Social Media.

Diversity in Children's Books: It's a Question of Power by Mitali Perkins from Mitali's Fire Escape. Peek: "...if the adult is saying, 'This is about this,' sometimes that gets in the way of the child’s imagination."

Character Buy-In by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "Before we’re ready to believe that dinosaurs roam the earth again (or whatever), the character has to believe it. Only then will the reader go along with the story and feel safe suspending disbelief." See also Mary on Interiority in the Third Person.

2013 Woodson Award Winner
Carter G. Woodson Book Award Call for Submissions from the National Council for the Social Studies. Peek: "...presented to the most distinguished young reader non-fiction books depicting ethnicity in the United States." Note: Nominations due postmarked Oct. 10.

100+ Picture Book Agents from Mondays with Mandy and Mira.

Did Harry Potter Help Shape the Politics of Millenials? by Anthony Gierzynski from Slate. Peek: "Reading the books correlated with greater levels of acceptance for out-groups, higher political tolerance, less predisposition to authoritarianism, greater support for equality, and greater opposition to the use of violence and torture."

Interview with Little, Brown Editor Alvina Ling from Goodreads. Peek: "I do think that the quality of books featuring characters of color has improved (fewer stereotypical depictions, more variety), and also, if you look at the total number of diverse characters in books, I believe the numbers would be vastly improved." Note: Alvina makes an important point here; most statistics of representation reflect only protagonists.

Picture Book Builders: Published authors/illustrators Linda Ashman, Kevan Atteberry, Jill Esbaum, Pat Zietlow Miller, Jennifer Black-Reinhardt, Barb Rosenstock, Tammi Sauer, and Eliza Wheeler post twice/week about one element of a specific picture book that impresses them and, more importantly, why that element works so well. They hope aspiring picture book writers will return for inspiration again and again."

Innate Identity versus Imagine "The Other" from Karen Sandler. Peek: "Based on who I am, how well can I get into this character’s head? How authentically can I write her identity, her culture?" See also Are We Ready for Unstoppable Characters of Color? by Sharon G. Flake from CBC Diversity.

Cynsational Screening Room

 

Cynsational Giveaway

Jean Reidy is holding a contest with the grand prize being a first pages critique from a New York editor! Until high noon on Sept. 26, children's author Jean Reidy will be holding a contest on her blog. The grand prize is a critique, from a New York editor, of the first five pages of your picture book, middle grade or young adult novel. The contest benefits Reach Out and Read Colorado. See more information.

This Week at Cynsations


More Personally

With fellow Austin authors Sam Bond and Bethany Hegedus
Chatting books with Belle at Epcot!
Congratulations to SCBWI's Tomie dePaola Award Semi-Finalists!

This Book Is for You by Cynthia Leitich Smith from BookPeople's Modern First Library. Peek: "When we imagine the books our children will hug, what do the covers look like? The heroes? What do heroes look like?"

Dedication Delights from Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature. Note: Includes the story behind Kathi Appelt's dedication of The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008) to me and Greg Leitich Smith.

Links of the Week: Lower 9th Ward Librarian Wins First Lemony Snicket Prize, J.K. Rowling Sends "Dumbledore"-Penned Letter to Texas Shooting Survivor, Matt de la Pena on Secrets Spawned of Machismo, Matchmaking & MySpace and The Writers' Retreat.

Personal Links

Happy 100th birthday to my literary agency, Curtis Brown, Ltd.!

Cynsational Events

Austin SCBWI Fall Workshop: Research for Fiction, Nonfiction & Historical Fiction Writers will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Laura's Library in Austin. Speakers include: Carolyn Yoder, senior editor at Calkins Creek Books, the U.S. history imprint of Boyds Mills Press, and senior editor at Highlights magazine, along with authors Cynthia Levinson, Greg Leitich Smith, and author-librarian Jeanette Larson.

Divya Srinivasan will speak and sign Little Owl's Day at 3 p.m. Sept. 20 at BookPeople in Austin.

Lindsey Lane will speak and sign Evidence of Things Not Seen at 2 p.m. Sept. 21 at BookPeople in Austin.

Greg Leitich Smith will speak and sign at Tweens Read Sept. 27 at South Houston High School in Pasadena, Texas.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will speak on a panel "Where Are the Heroes of Color in Fantasy & Sci Fi Lit?" from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 15 at YALSA's YA Literature Symposium in Austin.


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7. Events Report: Kathi Appelt & Rita Williams-Garcia at The Writing Barn & BookPeople

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Highlights of summer included a visit to Austin by two dear friends and coleagues New York City author Rita Williams-Garcia and College Station author Kathi Appelt. While in town, they taught a full-novel workshop at The Writing Barn and teamed up for an event at BookPeople.

Greg Leitich Smith and I also had the opportunity to visit with workshop students at The Barn

With Rita at County Line on the Lake
With Rita at The Driskill
With Rita and Kathi at Maudie's Hacienda
With Jean Reidy at The Writing Barn
Greg entertains students by singing opera at The Barn.
Workshop students & faculty with director Bethany Hegedus; photo courtesy of The Writing Barn.
With Anne Bustard, Kathi, Rita & April Lurie at Trace.
With Greg, bookseller Mandy Brooks, & Kathi at BookPeople.

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8. New Voice: Rachel M. Wilson on Don't Touch

Book Club Guide

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Rachel M. Wilson is the first-time author of Don't Touch (HarperTeen, 2014). From the promotional copy:

A powerful story of a girl who is afraid to touch another person’s skin, until the boy auditioning for Hamlet opposite her Ophelia gives her a reason to overcome her fears.

Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Touch another person’s skin, and Dad’s gone for good.

Caddie can’t stop thinking that if she keeps from touching another person’s skin, her parents might get back together... which is why she wears full-length gloves to school and covers every inch of her skin.

It seems harmless at first, but Caddie’s obsession soon threatens her ambitions as an actress. She desperately wants to play Ophelia in her school’s production of Hamlet. But that would mean touching Peter, who’s auditioning for the title role—and kissing him. Part of Caddie would love nothing more than to kiss Peter—but the other part isn't sure she's brave enough to let herself fall.

Perfect for fans of Laurie Halse Anderson, this debut novel from Rachel M. Wilson is a moving story of a talented girl who's fighting an increasingly severe anxiety disorder, and the friends and family who stand by her.

Could you tell us the story of "the call" or "the email" when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

Because of how things work at Harper Collins, there were many “calls” with several stages of increasing excitement: They’re interested! It’s going to an editorial meeting! It made it through editorial! It’s going to acquisitions!

All these different people have to sign off on the book, and on the days of those various meetings, it was surreal going to work knowing that in New York, people I’d never met were making decisions about my book.

We had other interest as well, so I had the opportunity to speak with the prospective editors.

“The call” I remember is the one in which I heard the final offers and needed to make a decision by end of day.

At the time, I was coordinating an after-school program. The kids would be arriving any minute, but I ducked into a classroom to hash out the pros and cons with my agent, Sara Crowe. I also called my friend Varian Johnson for moral support.

I’m terrible with big decisions—I always mourn the loss of the path not taken even when I’m confident I’ve made a good choice—and I needed to hear voices I trusted supporting my decision. I couldn’t really go wrong, but at the same time it felt like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where any path might lead to a swamp monster devouring my book deal.

After I made my choice official, I had to continue on with work and have a normal afternoon, and none of it felt real.

It finally hit me when a friend said she’d seen the announcement in Publishers Marketplace. I saw her message in a parking lot, started to drive away, and then had to pull over and sob.

It was the weekend of AWP in Chicago, so I walked around the conference all weekend with this secret knowledge, wanting to tell everyone.

Luckily, I had plenty of writerly friends in town to share the good news. A few of us went to The Magic Parlour at the Palmer House Hilton, and I went to the VCFA meetup at AWP and won a VCFA teddy bear in the raffle, which was the nicest coincidence since he always reminds me of how unstoppable I felt that whole weekend.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

How have I approached it? Like a mascot on ice skates, which is to say with much enthusiasm, limited foresight, and little regard for my personal well-being. It seriously feels like a full-time job, and it can become one if you let it.

Organization is key. A production manager friend of mine recently helped me overhaul my task management and email systems. For the first time in my life, I have an empty inbox, and I’ve been using Trello to track to-dos. I try to say "yes" to every opportunity, so anytime I’m offered an interview or guest blog, I add it to Trello and set a deadline so I won’t fail to follow through.

Remy Frankenstein
My main support system and fount of ideas has been the OneFour Kidlit debut author group. On our forum, we ask each other questions like, “What’s the deal with book plates?” “Where does one get book plates?” “What does one do with book plates?” “Do I seriously need book plates?” etc., etc.

For the record, I have not ordered bookplates.

I may regret that.

That’s the thing about promotion—there’s no end to what you could do, little agreement on what you should do, and definite limits on what you can do. This way lies madness.

Knowing myself, I’m more likely to follow through with something I’ll enjoy on multiple levels. And since there is limited time and money for all of this, I might as well spend it on the fun parts.

For example, I proposed a giveaway contest to Fashion by the Book. I enjoy that blog, I want to get more involved with Tumblr, and the contest is something I’d want to do—I like making outfits with Polyvore. After seeing several of my fellow debut authors running giveaways of annotated ARCs and thinking that would be fun, I decided to make my own.

I’m also making a book trailer. That might not be fun for every author, but as a theater person in a major city, I’m able to wrangle many helpful friends, including an amazing director and casting director, Matt Miller, whose webseries, "Teachers," was recently picked up for a pilot with TV Land.

Beyond getting organized and having fun, my advice is to brainstorm all the possibilities—even the ones that seem out of reach, make wish lists, prioritize, be generous in helping out other authors, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to bloggers and suggest promotional posts or giveaways; ask your friends and your publisher for support. As long as you’re being kind and respectful of people’s time, the worst they can say is "no," and I’ve found that "yeses" are far more common.

train tracks in Irondale, AL, where the book is set
Cynsational Screening Room

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9. In Memory: Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers at the 2001 Bookfest at the Library of Congress
Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith for Cynsations

Over the summer, children's-YA literature lost a legendary author. My sympathies to his family, friends, and readers.

Walter Dean Myers, Prolific and Beloved Author of Award-Winning Children's Books, Dies at Age 76: Myers Touched So Many with His Eloquent and Unflinching Portrayal of Young African American Lives by HarperCollins from A Fuse 8 Production at School Library Journal. Peek:

In a career spanning over 45 years, Walter Dean Myers wrote more than 100 books for children of all ages.
His impressive body of work includes two Newbery Honor Books, three National Book Award Finalists, and six Coretta Scott King Award/Honor-winning books.

Sept. 2014
He was the winner of the first-ever Michael L. Printz Award, the first recipient of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, and a recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults.

In 2010, Walter was the United States nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and in 2012 he was appointed the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, serving a two-year tenure in the position.

Also in 2012, Walter was recognized as an inaugural NYC Literary Honoree, an honor given by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for his substantial lifetime accomplishments and contribution to children’s literature.

Walter Dean Myers: Yesterdays by Lee Bennett Hopkins from Onto Tomorrows. Peek: "This post is not about Walter's incredible literary accomplishments; it is about my relationship with one of the greatest human beings one could encounter in life."

Celebrating the Poetry of the Late Walter Dean Myers by Sylvia Vardell from Poetry for Children. Peek: "His deep, resonant voice sticks with you. Perhaps because of his own struggle with spoken speech, his pacing in his poetry is so thoughtful and meaningful."


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10. Cynsational News & Return

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith for Cynsations

Welcome back to Cynsations!

I hope y'all had a joyful summer.

By Austin standards, it was blessedly cool in the 80s and 90s.

I finished up edits on the pass pages for Feral Pride (Candlewick, 2015) and focused on the business of being an author, deep-cleaning and reorganizing my home, and reconnecting with my close friends and family. Having finished the ninth (and final) book in the Tantalize-Feral 'verse, it felt like a good (and long overdue) time to exhale.

Now, we're back to school, so to speak. Perhaps because I'm a graduate of the 20th grade, I still see September is a time of renewal. New backpacks, new pencils, new friends and opportunities for fun and adventure.

For those of you who stepped away from the Internet this summer, I'll modestly attempt to begin updating you on the important events in the kidlitosphere while moving forward into the fall.

Cynsational News

On Overnight Success (Surprise! It's a Lot Like Failure) by Laurie Ann Thompson from Emu's Debuts. Peek: "Having just the right wait time will eventually put me on the right track with the right skills and life experience for the right idea for the right editor at the right time (hopefully!)."

Public Twitter lists of K-12/Teen Librarians and Children's-YA editors by Debbie Ridpath Ohi @inkyelbows.

Just Walk Away: Authors and Illustrators Who Do by Betsy Bird from A Fuse 8 Production at School Library Journal. Peek: "Take J.K. Rowling, for example. Will she ever write another children’s book again?"

Rita Williams-Garcia's CSK Author Award Acceptance Speech from The Horn Book. Peek: "On the one hand, children need to feel secure. They need a stable environment to thrive and to be able to look forward to the future. On the other hand, the change needed to secure that stability, that future, that chance to thrive — it can’t happen without volatile struggle. We enjoy a good deal of what we have today because someone struggled." See also CSK Illustrator Award Winner Bryan Collier's Acceptance Speech.

Ten Reasons to Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Paper (Or, Go Team Writers!) by Gwenda Bond from A Writer on the High Wire of Life. Peek: "...writers are not competing against each other in some sort of book sales Hunger Games, especially not in districts of self-published/indie authors versus traditionally published authors, with hybrids as jabberjays or something. We're just not. If there are sides, writers are on the same one. But I don't think that there are sides."

Life Doesn't Permit...and Other Wise Words on Making Time to Write by Cynthia Lord from Kate Messner. Peek: "Writing is that still small voice that is easily drowned out by the hundreds of other voices of things you care about or should do."

Character Talents and Skills: Photographic Memory by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "The perception about photographic memories is that people with this gift can perfectly recall everything they’ve ever seen, even in moments when they weren’t particularly paying attention. They often describe their brains as being 'cluttered.'"

Should You Hire an Editor Before Querying? Agents Weigh In. By Lisa Gail Green from Adventures in YA Publishing.

Using Picture Books to Teach Satire by Teddy Kokoros from The Horn Book. Peek: "We have failed our students if they graduate from high school and post Onion articles on Twitter and Facebook thinking they are real..."

Why Design Matters for Your Author Website by Maria Ribas from Jane Friedman. Peek: "Design is your brand. And agents and editors want to know that you’re treating your brand like a business, not like a hobby. This means that you’re willing to invest significant time and money into creating a website that clearly communicates your brand."

Five Stereotypes Positive-Aging Picture Books Avoid by Lindsey McDivitt from A Is for Aging. Peek: "...people who internalize positive stereotypes of aging, from childhood, live up to 7.5 years longer than those who internalize negative age stereotypes."

Be Brave by Donna Bowman Bratton from Emu's Debuts. Peek: "This symbolic shot of courage has been with me through tough times and triumphant times, in my writing life, and my personal life."

South Asian Children's-YA Book Award

Winners: A Moment Comes by Jennifer Bradbury (Atheneum, 2013); Razia’s Ray of Hope: One Girl’s Dream of an Education by Elizabeth Suneby (Kids Can Press, 2013).

Honor Books: Bye, Bye, Motabhai! by Kala Sambasivan, illustrations by Ambika Sambasivan (Yali Books, 2013); Gandhi: The March to the Sea by Alice B. McGinty, illustrations by Thomas Gonzalez (Amazon Publishing, 2013); The Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia (Peachtree, 2013); Mother Teresa: Angel of the Slums by Lewis Helfand, art by Sachin Nagar (Campfire, an imprint of Kalyani Navyug Media, 2013).

See also Highly Commended Books from Mitali Perkins at Mitali's Fire Escape.  

Note: "The South Asia Book Award (SABA) is given annually for up to two outstanding works of literature, from early childhood to secondary reading levels, which accurately and skillfully portrays South Asia or South Asians in the diaspora, that is the experience of individuals living in South Asia, or of South Asians living in other parts of the world. Up to five Honor Books and Highly Commended Books are also recognized by the award committee." 

More Personally

Celebrating the release of Heap House with fellow Austin YA author Edward Carey at 24 Diner.

Congratulations to Stacey Lee and Don Tate, winners of SCBWI's Book Launch Award, and congratulations to Jennifer Sommer of Ohio, winner of SCBWI's Philip and Karen Cushman Late Bloomer Award! See How Don Is Planning to Spend His Grant and How Stacey is Planning to Spend Her Grant.

Cheers to Janet S. Fox on the sale of Chatelaine: The Thirteenth Charm in a pre-empt to Kendra Levin of Viking! (Click the link to view a video sneak peek!)

Seeking Diversity in a Galaxy Far, Far Away by Cynthia Leitich Smith from BookPeople's Modern First Library. Peek: "I decided that Leia must’ve been like me, a mixed blood Native girl. I didn’t know what she was doing a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away or how she’d become a princess and senator. But she was strong and smart and a leader, all of which were compatible with my vision of Native women."

Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith on Her Tantalize and Feral Series from Printasia. Peek: "Feral Pride will bring to a head the tensions between shifters and humans, even as the greedy, media-savvy yet secretive yeti-like species manipulating them both comes closer than ever to public exposure. Also, there’s a giant, egomaniacal snake, cool classic cars, and prom."

Crazy QuiltEdi says of Feral Nights (Candlewick, 2014): "The witty dialog and use of present tense writing keep the story moving at a brisk pace. Leitich Smith smoothly packs in a unique, descriptive backstory as she builds an incredible world..."

I love this story: How a VA Middle School Librarian and Her Book Club Raised Funds to Provide 15,000 Meals for Students in South Sudan by Lauren McBride from School Library Journal.

See also The Johnson County First Amendment Foundation Remembers Nancy Garden.

Personal Links

With fellow Austin YA writer H. Scott Beazley at Hyde Park Bar & Grill!

Cynsational Events

Austin SCBWI Fall Workshop: Research for Fiction, Nonfiction & Historical Fiction Writers will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Laura's Library in Austin. Speakers include: Carolyn Yoder, senior editor at Calkins Creek Books, the U.S. history imprint of Boyds Mills Press, and senior editor at Highlights magazine, along with authors Cynthia Levinson, Greg Leitich Smith, and author-librarian Jeanette Larson.

Lindsey Lane will speak and sign Evidence of Things Not Seen at 2 p.m. Sept. 21 at BookPeople in Austin.

Greg Leitich Smith will speak and sign at Tweens Read Sept. 27 at South Houston High School in Pasadena, Texas.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will speak on a panel "Where Are the Heroes of Color in Fantasy & Sci Fi Lit?" from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 15 at YALSA's YA Literature Symposium in Austin.

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11. Cynsational News & Summer Hiatus

Austin's new boardwalk along Lady Bird Lake!
Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith for Cynsations  

Thanks so much for being a Cynsational reader! 

I appreciate your enthusiasm for and interest in the world of books for kids and teens.

Breaking news: Effective immediately, Cynsations is going on summer hiatus until September. 

In the meantime, you can keep up with children's-YA books news on my author facebook page and @CynLeitichSmith on Twitter.

See y'all in the fall!

More News

A Profile of Rita Williams-Garcia (Being Eleven) by K.T. Horning from The Horn Book. Peek: "Rita and I bonded over our mutual love of the Jackson 5. Nothing defined the era during which we were eleven better than the Jackson 5. We both remember the thrill of seeing them on TV for the first time in the fall of 1969." See also Five Questions for K.T. Horning on The Jackson 5.

On Leaving Space for the Reader by Celeste Ng from Glimmer Train. Peek: "There's a difference between leaving space for the reader to interpret and leaving the reader adrift."

Character Talents & Skills: Telling Lies by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "To become an adept liar, a person must learn how to exude confidence, keep a calm demeanor, and speak in a way that appeals to the target’s emotional sensitivities."

Learn more!
Book & Activity Suggestions to Match Your Summer Adventure: Ballparks by Jill Eisenberg from Lee & Low. See also Book & Activity Suggestions to Match Your Summer Adventure: Zoos.

Writing Real Characters Amid Terrible Violence: Tips from a True-Crime Writer by Dan Morse from Elizabeth Craig Spann. Peek: "To pull readers along for 300-plus pages, though, I needed detailed scenes that not only advanced the plot, but also built out very real characters."

Using Rejection as a Rung in Your Ladder to Success by Janet Fox from The Writing Barn. Peek: "Each rejection letter I received – and yes, they came back on paper in SASE’s – went into one of those narrow drawers, the middle drawer on the left. I decided that I would only quit trying to become a “real” author when I amassed enough rejection slips that the drawer would no longer close."

On Writing the Next Thing by Joy McCullough-Carranza from Project Mahem. Peek: "I’ve heard some people say they cannot focus on something new when they are anxiously awaiting responses from agents or editors. But I think that’s one of the two main reasons to work on the next one."

Infused by Donald Maas from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "How do we infuse every moment with unspoken awareness of the need that is pulling a character inexorably through the length of the story?"

Writing a Series: What I Didn't Know by Dianne Salerni from Crowe's Nest. Peek: "It wasn’t until I completed the editorial revisions for Book 1 and looked ahead to the submission deadline for Book 2 that it dawned on me how fast things were happening."

This Week at Cynsations


Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of Lupita’s First Dance/El primer baile de Lupita by Lupe Ruiz-Flores, illustrated by Gabhor Utomo (Arte Publico) was Johanna in Texas.

The winner of Daughters of Two Nations, by Peggy Caravantes, illustrated by Carolyn Dee Flores (Mountain Press) and Canta, Rana, Canta/Sing, Froggie, Sing by Carolyn Dee Flores(Piñata) was Katy in Texas.

The winners of Hung Up by Kristen Tracy (Simon Pulse) were Christina in New York and Robin in North Carolina. The winner of Kristen's Lost It was Alicia in Alabama.

The winner of Paint Me! by Sarah Frances Hardy (Sky Pony, 2014) was Donna in New Jersey.

More Personally

Last week's highlights included the Writers' League of Texas 2014 Agents and Editors Conference on June 28 at the Hyatt Regency Austin in Texas.

Penguin sales rep Jill Bailey, Macmillan sales rep Gillian Redfern & author Greg Leitich Smith

Austin SCBWI RA Samantha Clark, author Shana Burg & newly agented Vanessa Lee

With Brian Yansky & Cyndi Hughes

Author & WLT Programming Director Jennifer Ziegler with Greg

Thanks also to the YA Book Club at Cedar Park (Texas) Public Library! I greatly enjoyed our conversation about Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2014)!

The links lingering on my mind is Tim Tingle's keynote at the 2014 American Indian Youth Literature Awards by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children's Literature and Capaciousness (re: Kate DiCamillo's ALA speech) by Teri Lesesne from The Goddess of YA Literature.

Personal Links

Find signed copies of my YA novels at Barnes & Noble in Round Rock, Texas!

Cynsational Events

Research for Fiction, Non-fiction and Historical Fiction Writers from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 13 at The Austin Centre (3809 South 2nd St.) from Austin SCBWI. Speakers authors Cynthia Levinson and Greg Leitich Smith, author-librarian Jeanette Larson and Carolyn Yoder, senior editor at Calkins Creek Books, the U.S. history imprint of Boyds Mills Press, and senior editor at "Highlights."

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12. New Voice: Jennifer Mathieu on The Truth About Alice

By Emma Kate Tsai 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Jennifer Mathieu is the first-time author of The Truth About Alice (Roaring Brook, 2014). From the promotional copy: 

Everyone knows Alice slept with two guys at one party. When Healy High star quarterback, Brandon Fitzsimmons, dies in a car crash, it was because he was sexting with Alice. Ask anybody.

Rumor has it Alice Franklin is a slut. It’s written all over the “slut stall” in the girls’ bathroom: “Alice had sex in exchange for math test answers” and “Alice got an abortion last semester.” 

After Brandon dies, the rumors start to spiral out of control. 

In this remarkable debut novel, four Healy High students tell all they “know” about Alice–and in doing so reveal their own secrets and motivations, painting a raw look at the realities of teen life. 

But exactly what is the truth about Alice? In the end there’s only one person to ask: Alice herself.

How did you get into writing?

I was a journalism major initially. Actually, I have no formal writing training in terms of an MFA or even an English degree, but I’ve been a writer my entire life, ever since I can remember—working on my school paper and entering little writing competitions in school.

By RDSmith4
Sometimes I think I probably should have been an English major. But I always thought in my mind: “What does an English major do?” “What kind of job would an English major have?”

It seems silly now, but in the early nineties when newspapers weren’t dying yet, I could write and still make a living, so that’s why I majored in journalism.

I went to Northwestern University and got my B.S., and I did work as a newspaper reporter for several years for the Houston Press. And I actually dabbled in personal essay. I had a few pieces published here and there and I even tried to pitch a book of essays but didn’t really get very far. Then, in 2005, I decided to become a teacher. I got certified by HISD and ended up getting a master’s in education.

How did you decide to write young adult literature?

After I started teaching middle school English, I realized that there was this new world of young adult literature. As a kid I’d read everything I could get my hands on, constantly: Lois Lowry, Judy Blume, and all the eighties teen classics, but I didn’t realize there was this sort of renaissance in young adult literature that was happening.

And of course I taught middle school, so my students wanted to know what was good. I went to the International Reading Association, a big conference for English teachers who focus on reading, and they had this huge room where publishers gave away ARCs and I was like a kid in a candy store.

I shipped home a box of these young adult novels and I started reading them, and I just thought to myself, that young adult literature had become so authentic. It was telling real stories about real kids, and different kinds of kids. Something told me I might be able to do this.

How did you get your first agent?

I ended up writing a manuscript that I took to completion, and after that I went to a teen book conference in Humble where I met a woman named Sonia Sones, who writes YA books in verse: What My Mother Doesn’t Know, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, which is just one of my all-time favorite titles.

I hired her to critique my first young adult manuscript. I asked her, “Please just tell me if you think that if I have like any chance. I trust you. What do you think?”

She said, “You have a voice, you should do this. It’s a tough market, it’s a difficult market, but I think you have a chance.”

I didn’t know what a query letter was, I didn’t how people got agents, that was all foreign to me, but thank God for the internet, and I did a Google search.

I remember going to Barnes and Noble and getting a book of literary agents and trying to figure out how this all worked, and that’s how I found Nathan Bransford, who eventually became my first agent. On my bedroom wall, I have my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree and my letter from Nathan Bransford offering me representation. He never sold the first two books I wrote, but they got me an agent.

How did you get the idea for The Truth About Alice?

I ended up changing agents, and even though my new agent loved the two books I’d written, it was Alice that she sold. When I signed on with her, it was just an idea. But I wrote it, she sent me notes, I revised it.

When I was in high school, I read "Seventeen" magazine. It was 1992, and there was this article about this girl who went to school in Minnesota and she’d been the subject of these horrible, disgusting, sexual things written about her on a bathroom stall. She ended up suing the school under Title IX because the school didn’t clean the stall. Her parents came and tried to help her clean on a weekend and I remember thinking about how humiliated she must have felt. To have her parents have to see that.

That stayed with me and ended up being the seed that started the book. God, what a nightmare for that girl. And I’ve always loved stories that are told from multiple points of view like The Spoon River Anthology.

I remember thinking this might be the one that sells. I was right. It eventually went to auction and four houses bid on it at the same time. I ended up choosing Roaring Brook Press because they showed interest first, they had changes to make that made sense me, and they made a little YouTube video that showed how enthusiastic they were.

What was different about The Truth About Alice?

It was so much fun to write. The characters felt so alive to me in my head. I would see students at my high school where I teach and think that’s Kurt, or that’s Kelsey. They just seemed like real people to me.

Also, the story had some scandal in it, some bite to it, which I think always helps sell a book.

It’s about a girl who allegedly sleeps with two boys at a party, and all these rumors develop, and it’s set in a small Texas town. It was pitched as "Friday Night Lights" meets "Easy A."

Why do you think you can write young adult literature?

I remember high school really, really well. I personally did not like high school very much. I don’t know if that’s why I ended up teaching it and writing about it. But I just remember what it was like to be a teenager, and how painful it was in a lot of ways for me.

One of my eleventh graders read an ARC of it and she came up to me and said that it was the most realistic teenager voice she’d ever read. I think I get teenagers. I think that’s why people seem to like the voice, especially of Alice. It’s like the gloves are off.

Do you have any tips for writing for teenagers?

One thing I do and I think I do well is I try not to use slang or dated language. I don’t reference Facebook or any of that. Because, really, in this book they write graffiti about a girl ion a stall. That’s in a sense somewhat 1950s, but it hasn’t turned off the teenagers I know that have read it because there’s something timeless about being a teenager and feeling ostracized. I think focusing on those timeless elements of being young are how you stay authentic, as opposed to trying to sound young in the voice or the dialogue. You don’t want to be that older person that’s trying to sound young.

What teenagers are is brutally honest, not always out loud, just in that intensity in everything that they think and feel. I try to tap into that.

Everything is such a big deal, everything is capitalized when you’re a teenager. This one character in this book, her name is Kelsey, is very concerned about what other people think of her and she eventually drops Alice as a friend out of fear of being ostracized along with her.

There’s this moment where she says,

“You know how like when you’re learning about Nazi Germany and how everyone is always I wouldn’t have been a Nazi. Well, I would have been a Nazi. I would have been a passive sort of a Nazi, but I still would have been a Nazi. Because everyone says they would have saved Anne Frank, but clearly not that many people did.” 

She has that awareness. Teenagers are not dumb and they see hypocrisy very clearly. Even when they themselves are doing it, when they’re the ones being hypocrites.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2014, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

As I reflect back, I don’t know if I’m surprised to debut in 2014 or just flat out grateful.

More on Jennifer Mathieu
I received the call from my agent that my book had sold – actually, that it was going to auction! – while on a beach vacation with my family. This may sound a bit fantastical, but shortly before the vacation, I’d started “imagining” what it would be like to receive such news while at the beach.

I actually created a vision in my mind of answering the phone from my agent and hearing her say, “Alice sold.”

I’m actually a really rational, logical person (for a writer, anyway!), and I had no logic to base this thinking on – the book went out at the end of the spring and we hadn’t heard anything yet.

Plus, "The Truth About Alice" was my third manuscript to go on submission – my first two had come very, very close but had never sold. But something in me knew on some weird gut level that this one was going to be different.

I even remember thinking, “Third time is a charm.” But nothing my agent or anyone else said or did gave me any actual facts to think it was going to sell at this time. It was just a feeling. And it came true just as I’d pictured it!

Jennifer & Kate Sowa, Blue Willow Bookshop
I’ve been a writer since childhood, but I started writing young adult fiction in 2007 or so, shortly after I became a teacher. It was a two-year process to write my first novel and find an agent.

Then, as I mentioned, my novel didn’t sell – although I got a lot of wonderful positive feedback. I wrote another book. That one didn’t sell either.

Again, more positive feedback that always ended in, “but...”

Then my original agent left agenting, and I was moved to someone else in the same agency who is still my agent today (the wonderful Sarah LaPolla). I started thinking about trying to write a third book – I had this idea for The Truth About Alice swimming around in my mind.

I remember having long talks with my husband about whether or not I should continue, and it always came down to this: I still loved writing.

I remember saying to him, “The day I no longer love writing, I’ll give up trying to sell a book.”

And I still loved it! Of course I did. I’d been doing it since I was young. So I kept doing it.

 I wrote The Truth About Alice over the period of about two years and then it sold.

Lucha tries to stop Jennifer from packing.
I’ve said more than once that I’m very glad this book came out when it did. I’m 37, and I have an established career as a teacher, a profession I really love.

I have a wonderful husband and son and a rich family life and lots of good friends. I feel like I’m in a place to truly appreciate this success and remain humbled by it.

It’s not that I don’t consider myself ambitious or that I don’t want to continue to do my best as a writer. I do.

 But it took seven years to get from the time I started writing young adult fiction to the time I held the copy of my first published book in my hand.

The wait was worth it and I think the wait helps me keep it all in perspective. This is all a dream come true, and I’m grateful for it. This is all icing on a really delicious cake.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Well, I can’t get too precious or navel-gazing about my writing. I can’t wait for the moment to strike.

In addition to teaching full-time, I also have a husband and young preschooler. When I’m on deadline, I write every day. I work, pick up my son, spend time with him and then with my husband when he gets home, and after my son is asleep my husband and I take a few minutes to just talk about our days. This is very helpful and rejuvenating.

Then it’s off to the dining room table to write! Again, because I have one to two hours a day at most to really work on my writing, I just have to do it. Some nights I write junk, but that’s okay. I still wrote something.

senior year
I actually write more now than I did before I was a mother. Limited time helps me prioritize what I really want to do, and I really want to write!

When I’m not on deadline, I might not write each day, but I’m always doing something related to my writing career each day – even if it’s just reading a book on my To Read List or connecting with other authors on social media and keeping up with the news. (Although I try not to get too obsessed with all that. I’m a big believer in not getting wrapped up in industry trends or gossip.)

My advice to others who want to write but who also have full-time jobs is to try and create a routine. Something else that helps me is establishing little writing “goals” like writing 500 words on a particular day (or 1,000 words if I have more time).

However, I’m a big believer in finding what works for you. Some people don’t do well with the pressure of a number of words. Some would rather say, “I’ll write for 30 minutes,” or “I’ll write on Tuesdays and Fridays.” It’s almost like exercise – even if you don’t have a ton of free time due to other work commitments, creating little mini goals like that can really keep you motivated.

Another piece of advice is to find a friend or friends with whom you can share your work – maybe a critique partner or group. I’m very fortunate because I have a dear friend who is also a teacher and a young adult lit fan. She doesn’t write herself, but she loves to talk with me about my writing and projects, and she is a terrific sounding board. She has been reading my work since I started all those years ago.

Finding someone you can talk to about your projects can really motivate you and inspire you to keep going! I often feel very energized when talking to my friend about my projects, and after we talk I’m ready to jump back on the keyboard!

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13. New Voice: M.K. Hutchins on Drift

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

M.K. Hutchins is the first-time author of Drift (Tu Books, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Tenjat lives on the shores of Hell, an ocean filled with ravenous naga monsters. His island, a massive Turtle, is slowed by the people living on its back. Only those poor enough to need children to support themselves in old age condescend to the shame of marriage. 

Tenjat is poor as poor gets, but he has a plan. Can Tenjat discover his sister’s secrets in time? Will the possibility of love derail all his plans for a richer, marriage-free life? 

Long-held secrets will at last be revealed in this breathtaking debut from M. K. Hutchins.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

Drift had a long revision process. I started writing it back around 2005, while attending my first semesters of college.

Originally it was a novella, but it stank at that length. Everything felt rushed and undeveloped. I tossed it in a drawer.

In 2008, I extended a different novella into a novel. I thought back to Drift, which, in truth, was more like notes about a story than a story itself. I expanded it, too. But it still smelled funny.

So I kept writing other books, occasionally looking back. Some things that had given me a headache were easy to fix after all that extra experience. Other problems stubbornly remained. I fixed what I could, got more critiques, and revised again.

Come 2011, I knew the book was the best my skills could currently make it. I’d heard Stacy Whitman speak at a conference, thought she might be a good match for the book, and sent it straight to her. She sent me back a revision letter.

Follow @MKHutchins on Twitter
I’ve heard all the horror stories about revision letters, but for me, it was like Christmas. I could finally see those elusive weak spots in the manuscript.

Armed with that knowledge, I enthusiastically brainstormed solutions to the point that I was getting up every hour in the middle of the night to jot down notes (my husband did not sleep well).

During the rounds of revision, Stacy said something that surprised me: she called my book ambitious.

When I blinked at her, she continued, talking about the worldbuilding.

It never occurred to me that it took so long to get this book right, not because I was just slow and determined to succeed via mule-like stubbornness alone, but because I was trying to throw the reader into a different secondary world fantasy while telling a story and making it all feel effortless on the reader’s part.

I had two big take-aways from all of this.

First, that I need lots readers and critiquers. I need people to tell me when my worldbuilding is opaque, when it is clumsy, and when I’d managed the details just right so it flowed off the page.

I am not the kind of writer that can write well in a vacuum, isolated from feedback.

I wish I’d figured that out a lot sooner. For me, a good critique helps me see the flaws in a manuscript better than rereading it a half-dozen times.

Secondly, the people that you work with in this industry matters. There are lots of talented editors, but Stacy also understood what I wanted to do with this book. I didn’t dread my revision letters. All the things she pointed out or suggested made my book cleaner and stronger -- more the story that I’d been trying to tell all along.

As a fantasy writer, how did you go about building your world?

In high school, I noticed that a lot of my childhood favorites didn’t study writing -- they were experts in some other area. Thanks to Tolkien, I was already fascinated by anthropology and linguistics.

Yes, I was the nerdy kind of teen that checked out Anthro 101 textbooks from the local library and devoured Reading the Maya Glyphs by Michael D. Coe and Mark Van Stone (Thames & Hudson, 2001) for fun. After I graduated high school, I went to college and studied archaeology.

Drift came from day-dreaming-thinking during my classes. Maya cosmology, especially the idea of the world being on the back of a turtle surrounded by a watery hell, struck me. That image mingled with ideas of burial practices and economic pressures. Soon, I had a world that both physically and culturally felt round and real to me.

I often hear people say that fantasy doesn’t require research. I feel the exact opposite. To create a new world, I need to know as much as I can about the world around me.

Recently, I had a friend talk about trying out new, hard things -- not just coasting by on the talents and skills she already had -- to teach her children that new, hard things are worth doing. I chewed on that for days. Since college, I hadn’t really delved into a new discipline. I’d kept reading in my comfort zone. Both as a mom and a writer, I realized I could benefit from branching out.

So I jumped off the deep end and enrolled in a Coursera programming class (Coursera is free, online, and amazing). It’s been rewarding to explore a strange, new world. I don’t know if what I’ve learned will ever turn up in a story (okay, who am I kidding; it almost certainly will), but I figure everything I learn goes towards my education as a wourldbuilder and a writer of fantasy.

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14. Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Get It Write This Summer from Nerdy Chicks Rule Summer School 2014. Peek: "Kidlit Summer School is a four week writer’s workshop that will run from July 21 through August 15. Because we (Kami (Kinard) and Sudipta (Bardhan-Quallen)) both enjoy teaching writing classes, we wanted to find a way to offer craft-based writing advice on a particular topic each summer. Our 2014 course is going to focus on writing great characters."

Saying Something Simple by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "Why do we have to twist ourselves into sentence pretzels and dive into the thesaurus to turn out a description that’s unlike any anyone has ever written?"

Speech! Speech! by Varian Johnson from Quirk & Quill. Peek: "Whether it’s for the Newbery, Printz, Boston Globe-Horn, or whatever, I love hearing authors talk about their process, or why they were drawn to write a book, or how, even with past success, each new book has its own traps and pitfalls."

Swim Stroke Clinic by Marybeth Whalen from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "Guess whose names I found on the stroke clinic list? The finalists from the big meet! Column after column, the names matched up." See also Writers, What Are You Afraid Of? by Dan Blank from Writer Unboxed,

Four Characteristics of Author Attitude and Why You Need Them by Nina Amir from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "I have created an acronym to help you remember the four characteristics of Author Attitude. The acronym spells a word that recently has come into common culture: WOOT!"

This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen Wins Kate Greenway Medal for Illustration from Candlewick Press. Note: "Published by the Walker Books Group – including Candlewick Press in the U.S. and Walker Books in the U.K. – Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat will go into the history books as the first ever title to win both the U.K.’s highest illustration honor with the Kate Greenaway Medal, and also win the most prestigious award for children’s book illustration in the US, the Randolph Caldecott Medal, which was awarded in 2013."

Bid to Win a Phone Consultation with Literary Agent Anna Olswanger in conjunction with the Born Free Foundation's online auction. Note: "...an international wildlife charity that works throughout the world to stop individual wild animal suffering." According to Publishers Weekly, "After nine years at Liza Dawson Associates, Anna Olswanger has formed her own agency, Olswanger Literary, LLC. She and Liza Dawson Associates will continue to partner on selected projects." Her focus will be picture books (author-illustrators only), middle grade fiction, and adult nonfiction.

The Real Meaning of "Show, Don't Tell" by Martina Boone from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: "Show over tell begins at the scene level--not at the sentence or paragraph level."

Q&A with Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children's Literature by Marieke from DiversifYA. Peek: "Biggest challenges I deal with are related to an overall lack of knowledge about who we were, and who we are."

BookPeople's Modern First Library Program by Chris Barton from The Bartography Express. Peek: "So we have put together some modern library starter kits to pair classic picture books that will never go out of style with a selection of other favorites that reflect the vibrant, global society of the 21st century. Perfect for baby showers or special occasions, we think these bundles make wonderful gifts for young readers ready to expand their collections or little ones just getting started. Come check out our display in the children's section." Note: BookPeople is an independent bookstore in Austin, Texas.

How Do You Reveal Character? by Brian Yansky from Brian's Blog. Peek: "So revelation of characters, in my humble opinion, should be shown through the action they take in the various situations that the story requires them to move through."

Speech! Speech! by Varian Johnson from Quirk & Quill. Peek: "I’m a junkie for speeches as well, especially author acceptance speeches (especially when I’m struggling with my own writing). Whether it’s for the Newbery, Printz, Boston Globe-Horn, or whatever, I love hearing authors talk about their process, or why they were drawn to write a book, or how, even with past success, each new book has its own traps and pitfalls."

Q&A With Estela Bernal About Can You See Me Now? by Edith Campbell from Latinos in Kidlit. Peek: "Estela Bernal made her debut as an author this past May with Can You See Me Now? (Pinata/Arte Publico)."

Can I Bend Submission Rules for My Novel in Verse? by Deborah Halverson from DearEditor.com. Peek: "No one will think you’re trying to cheat if you single-space poems in a novel-in-verse submission."

Happy Birthday, Helen Keller! by Carli Spina from The Horn Book. Peek: "To this day, Helen remains a popular subject for children’s literature with several new books about her life being released in the last few years."

Five Surprising Ways Regret Can Deepen Your Hero's Arc by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "It’s grieving for what could have been. Even if there was nothing you could have done. But it also encompasses guilt, remorse, and contrition."

Cynsational Giveaways


The winners of Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj (Albert Whitman, 2014) were Nikki in Texas and Deena in New York.

The winners of Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn by Greg Leitich Smith (Roaring Brook, 2014) were Robin in North Carolina and Jennifer in California.

Enter to win Call of the Klondike by David Meissner (this year's Golden Kite Award winner in nonfiction) from Lee Wind at The Official SCBWI blog. Note: post also includes author interview.

This Week at Cynsations


More Personally

Check out my contribution to School Library Journal's expanded discussion on diversity. My focus is on the sort of self-censorship we as an industry--we, including Native writers and authors of color--sometimes engage in, based on assumptions and predispositions about which books will be supported in the marketplace. Peek:

"Because of the reality—or at least the perception of it—that only certain kinds of books will be championed, writers set aside stories, editors reject submissions, marketing dollars are elsewhere allocated, and, ultimately, young readers are presented a largely monochromatic sliver of the literature—that should rightfully be varied and diverse—and are missing out on diverse heroes and stories that could propel them to a lifetime of avid reading."

Last week's highlight was teaching one of the advanced novel writing workshops at Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers in Sandy, Utah. (I also gave two speeches and participated in a panel discussion.) This was my second time at WIFYR, and I absolutely loved the experience.

The Salt Lake City area is gorgeous--and, yes, it did snow (and rain)!
My wonderful assistant Michelle Hubbard! (Can you spot the zebra in the photo?)
Soon-to-debut Courtney Alameda, with her agent John Cusick of Greenhouse Literary!
WIFYR Queen & author Carol Lynch Williams at conference sponsor Barbwire and Lace.
Advanced Novel Workshop classroom; photo by Corrinne Lewis.
Miss y'all already, WIFYR advanced novel writing class!
Who's a chicken?
Love you, Carol!

Don't miss  Greg Leitich Smith's photo report on WIFYR!

Speaking of Greg, the buzz continues to build for his new release, Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook, 2014).

Greg and I celebrate with little green men!
  • Ms. Yingling Reads: "This has some very good twists and turns, so I don't want to give any of those away. Keep a close eye on Mrs. Fleance, though-- never underestimate a woman in a flowered bathing cap!"
  • The ABC Writers Guild: "The characters are well- rounded, full of paranoia and angst, and funny. That’s what really makes the book a great read: it’s funny and fun."
  • And Sukasa Reads gives the novel 4/5 stars!

Personal Links:


Cynsational Events

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will speak at the Writers' League of Texas 2014 Agents and Editors Conference on June 28 at the Hyatt Regency Austin in Texas.

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith in discussing Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2014) with the YA Reading Club at 11 a.m. June 28 at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

Research for Fiction, Non-fiction and Historical Fiction Writers from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 13 at The Austin Centre (3809 South 2nd St.) from Austin SCBWI. Speakers authors Cynthia Levinson and Greg Leitich Smith, author-librarian Jeanette Larson and Carolyn Yoder, senior editor at Calkins Creek Books, the U.S. history imprint of Boyds Mills Press, and senior editor at "Highlights."

Get to know Austin SCBWI; header by Marsha Riti

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15. Guest Post: Janci Patterson on Writing Contests

Follow @jancipatterson
By Janci Patterson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I heard about the Utah Arts Council Original Writing Competition from one of my grad school professors. This was in 2007--I’d been writing novels for seven years. I had five novels drafted and had been sending books out for years and receiving form rejections.

So when I heard about the Young Adult Novel category, I didn’t have high hopes. But my policy was to send things out because books that sit in drawers don’t get published (or win awards), so I shipped off the manuscript, made a note in my submission-tracking spread sheet, and forgot about it.

Several months later my phone rang. I still remember where I was standing--I was outside the door to my apartment, and my fiancé had just arrived to pick me up. I answered my phone while he opened the door to the car, and the nice man on the other end of the line told me that I’d won first place.

I must have sounded dazed. My policy was to send things off and not think about them again until the rejections came in, so I had quite literally forgotten about the submission. And here was the kind person from the Utah Arts Council, telling me that my forgotten unpublished novel had been chosen as the best submission they received that year.

The category is now a first-novel contest, but at the time it wasn’t. That meant that the judges had a pool of novels, some of which had been written by published novelists.

And they picked mine.


This was my first success as a writer.

Think about that.

I wrote books for seven years, without one single success. Nothing got published. No one paid me. I believed in my work; I believed in what I was writing. But standing outside my front door that day, watching my fiancé open up the car, I received my first external validation that what I was doing wasn’t just a waste. That my writing, which meant something to me, could be plucked out of the slush by someone with power and chosen as best.

There was a cash prize, which represented the very first money I was ever paid for my work. More important than that was the editorial letter I received from one of the judges, offering suggestions for how I might improve the book for publication.

But most of all, what this represented to me was hope--hope that if it happened once, it could happen again.

And it did.

Winning that writing contest was like a step through the doorway into the publishing world. A few months later, I received an email from an agent who had offered representation to the previous winner of that same contest and promptly combed the list of winners, looking for potential clients.

I signed with that agent a month later.

The journey for that book has been long. It’s only now, another seven years later, that Everything's Fine (with a shiny new title) is at last available to readers.

Publishing is a process--a slow one. So the best thing you can do for yourself and your work is to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along.

You never know which one will mark your first success.

Cynsational Notes

See also Janci's October 2012 New Voices interview in celebration of her debut novel, Chasing the Skip (Henry Holt). Peek: "I had a deadline last Thanksgiving, so I wrote in my in-laws' basement. I've written in the car on road trips, and at parks, and at the library. I've found that where there's a will to fit in some writing, a space can be discovered in which to do it."


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16. In Memory: Nancy Garden

Nancy Garden
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The youth literature community is deeply saddened by the sudden death of Nancy Garden, age 76, on June 23.

Nancy was a groundbreaking author, perhaps best known for her YA love story, Annie On My Mind (FSG, 1982).

I'm honored to say that she graced this online platform with her wisdom and, more personally, this author with her enthusiasm, warmth and support. My sympathies to her friends, family, colleagues and readers. 

Let's celebrate her memory and revisit her thoughts:

Tell us a bit about your writing background. How did you get started writing for children? What were your earliest influences?

I come from a family of book lovers, especially on my mother's side. I was read to as a child, and my favorite Christmas and birthday presents were always books — well, maybe except for the Christmas I got my first puppy!

When I was around eight years old, I started writing for my own pleasure outside of school, and I never stopped, no matter what else I did or what else I was interested in.

When I was little, I wanted to be a veterinarian, and when I was older I wanted to be in theater (and was for awhile), but I continued to write.

I think I'm one of those people who has to write.

Why did you elect to write for children and teens?

Because I like children and teens so much and feel they're important, special people. There's something very exciting about a person who's in the process of becoming, of forming his or her identity.

I think another reason is simply my love of children's books — and YA books, although there were no YAs as such when I was growing up. Some of the best, most exciting, and most innovative writing, I think, has always been in the children's/YA field.

What encouragement helped you along the way?

My parents were always very supportive of whatever I did, and of course that helped enormously.

English teachers kept telling me I was a good writer; I had an English teacher in junior high who said she thought I might become a writer, and a high school English teacher who tried to convince me to become a writer instead of an actress and all around theater person, which I was then in the process of becoming.

When she saw me in a community theater play, she begrudgingly said she guessed it would be okay if I went into theater — but she turned out to be right after all about my becoming a writer!

Did you face any early challenges to finding success on this path?

The usual ones: rejection slips, periods of wondering if anyone would ever buy my work — or, later, in a couple of bleak periods, if anyone would buy my work again.

What draws you to write stories connected to gay and lesbian themes? Why do you feel such stories are important to young readers?

When I was growing up as a young lesbian in the '50s, I looked in vain for books about my people.

There were none for kids, and the few I knew about for adults were always out of the library, which I later realized was probably a subtle (maybe "backhanded" would be a better word!) form of censorship.

I did find some paperbacks with lurid covers in the local bus station, but they ended with the gay character's committing suicide, dying in a car crash, being sent to a mental hospital, or "turning" heterosexual.

Eventually I did find Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, written in England in the 1920s, and tried for obscenity there and in the U.S.; as a result it was banned in England for years, but not here.

It's melodramatic and somewhat overwritten and it ends sadly — but it does have a healthy, honorable lesbian (or perhaps transgendered) main character, and it shows that gay people are more sinned against than sinning. It does end sadly, but with an impassioned cry for justice and understanding.

I read that book many times as a teenager, and I vowed that someday I'd write a book for my people that would end happily.

Why do I feel such stories are important to young readers?

I think kids in every minority need to see people like themselves in books; that's an acknowledgment of their existence on this planet and in this society.

Minority kids often feel invisible in the world, GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered) kids perhaps most of all, even though that, thank goodness, is changing.

And straight kids need to see that GLBT people aren't monsters and that we share many feelings and experiences with them despite our difference.

Annie On My Mind has been challenged in schools and libraries. You've talked about the importance of engaging people who would ban books in proactive conversation. Would you care to expand on this thought?

Sure. Although attempts at censorship may be power plays when initiated by political leaders, many of the ordinary people who try to ban books do so out of sincere religious or moral conviction — for example, most of the attempts to ban the Harry Potter books are the result of a sincere belief that sorcery is truly evil and that reading about wizards is genuinely harmful to children.

In the same way, many attempts at banning books that are about homosexual characters and issues are also motivated by sincere beliefs that such books are harmful — that they will encourage young people to "become" homosexual, and that homosexuality itself is evil, dangerous, sick, etc.

Nothing is served, I think, by demeaning those who truly believe that books should be banned, or by arguing against them in a hotheaded way.

Conversely, everything is served by reasonable dialogue when that's possible, and by making the point that although parents have every right to control what their own children read, they have no right to control what other people's children read.

Everything is also served, I think, by pointing out the importance of the First Amendment and the danger of eroding it. In a society without the protection the First Amendment gives us, sure, you'd be able to ban books that I like but you don't — but there'd be nothing to stop me from turning around and banning the ones you like. It's important to remember that, and also that one of the first steps toward Nazi control of Germany was book burning.

In the case of people who would ban books with homosexual content, I think it's also important whenever possible to try to inform those people of what homosexuality really is and isn't, and of the fact that one doesn't "become" homosexual because of reading a book.

After all, gay kids read books about straight people all the time and they don't "become" straight as a result!

Benefits The Trevor Project
Cynsational Notes

See also Interview with Children's-YA Book Author Nancy Garden, The Story Behind The Story: Nancy Garden on Molly's Family, and Author Update: Nancy Garden.

In Remembrance: Nancy Garden by Victoria Brownworth from Lambda Literary. Peek: "Nancy Garden, author, editor, LGBT activist, former theater maven and teacher, died suddenly on the morning of June 23 of a massive heart attack. She was 76.... She did picture books, middle-grade books and books for teens and the work ranged from humorous picture books, serious literary fiction, horror, mystery, historical fiction to non-fiction."

Nancy Garden's Annie On My Mind: A Second Look by Roger Sutton from The Horn Book. Peek: "...all of this — a happy ending, a non-problem novel, a book that was about 'us,' not 'them' — was new and a cause for celebration, but it never would have gotten off the ground had Annie on My Mind not been such a blissful soak of a read."

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17. Guest Post: Shannon Wiersbitzky on Fiction as a Form of Truth

Follow @SWiersbitzky on Twitter
By Shannon Wiersbitzky
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

When I visit classrooms and talk about storytelling, I often discuss the “seeds” of stories. And how the best seeds come from real moments in our life; moments of great joy, or sadness, fear or confusion.

They’re the nuggets of truth that often inspire a story, or get woven into one, adding depth, color and perhaps most importantly, emotion.

The truth can be dangerous for fiction writers. Too much of it, and our fiction becomes nonfiction. Too little, and we may find ourselves with a story that lacks emotional punch.

As authors, our goal is to create the best stories possible. And let’s face it, the truth isn’t always more interesting than fiction.

That can mean letting go of what actually happened and focusing on what these fictional characters in a fictional setting, would do. All with the intent to move the story along and be true to its core.

I struggled with this dilemma when writing my new novel, What Flowers Remember (namelos, 2014). In it, a young girl is faced with the reality that an elderly neighbor she loves has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. My own grandfather had the disease, and he forgot me, along with everyone else he loved and who loved him in return.

Shannon and her grandfather

There was a lot of truth I could have drawn from. Moments when we battled the disease and sometimes my grandfather, too, as his personality, as well as his physical and mental abilities changed.

In the end, I included only one truth. The emotion of being forgotten. And the single sentence my grandfather said to me the day I realized he didn’t know me anymore.

Learn more
He said this, “You sound like a little girl I used to know.”

I gave that line to the character Old Red. He says it to Delia.

The rest of my truth is for me. Not for my readers.

My character Delia has her own situations to contend with. Her first love, a budding new business, and of course, Alzheimer’s.

How can she save his memories? That is what she wonders. And that is what she sets out to do.

As you work on your own stories, focus on the truth (or truths) that are most critical, then give the rest away. Your characters will talk to you over time. They will help you fill in the rest. And your story will be better for it.

Cynsational Notes

Shannon Wiersbitzky is a middle-grade author, a hopeless optimist, and a lover of the outdoors.

Her first novel, The Summer of Hammers and Angels (namelos, 2011), was nominated for the William Allen White award.

Born in North Dakota, Shannon has called West Virginia, Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Michigan “home” at some point in her life. She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two sons, one rather dull fish and her always entertaining dog Benson. Find her at facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

From the promotional copy of What Flowers Remember (namelos, 2014):

Most folks probably think gardens only get tended when they’re blooming. But most folks would be wrong. According to the almanac, a proper gardener does something every single month. 

Old Red Clancy was definitely a proper gardener. That’s why I enrolled myself in the Clancy School of Gardening. If I was going to learn about flowers, I wanted to learn from the best.

Delia and Old Red Clancy make quite a pair. He has the know-how and she has the get-up-and-go. When they dream up a seed- and flower-selling business, well, look out, Tucker’s Ferry, because here they come.

But something is happening to Old Red. And the doctors say he
can’t be cured. He’s forgetting places and names and getting cranky for
no reason. 

As his condition worsens, Delia takes it upon herself to save
as many memories as she can. Her mission is to gather Old Red’s stories so that no one will forget, and she corrals everybody in town to help her.

What Flowers Remember is a story of love and loss, of a young girl coming to understand that even when people die, they live on in our minds, our hearts, and our stories.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book are donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.

"[Delia’s] frustration, fear and sense of loss will be readily recognizable to others who have experienced dementia in a loved one, and her story may provide some guidance on how to move down that rocky path toward acceptance and letting go. ...What do flowers remember? The stories of the people who cared for them, of course, as Wiersbitzky’s sensitive novel compassionately conveys." – Kirkus Reviews

“Fans of wholesome, uplifting stories similar to Canfield’s Chicken Soup for the Soul collections, will best enjoy this gentle reminder of the goodness of life and people.” 
Voice of Youth Advocates

Shannon's Writing Studio



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18. Guest Post: Ann E. Burg on Serafina's Promise

By Ann E. Burg
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Sometimes when I visit schools I bring a beat up old pot filled with trinkets and toys, gadgets and gizmos, photographs and mementoes.

My mother's sister gave me the pot when I first went out on my own.

She and my mother subscribed to the culinary philosophy if you can read, you can cook.

I could read (I read a lot!) so my aunt was convinced that my watery sauce was the result of an unsuitable pot.

My sauce did improve, but I used my new pot so often that it became worn-out and worthless.

The handles were still intact but the sides were warped and the bottom, rounded. The pot literally rocked.

I couldn't use it for cooking, but since it had sentimental value, I didn't want to throw it away.

Eventually the pot became a catch-all for random objects that represented my recipe for writing.

I began to bring the pot with me on school visits.

There's a small wind-up robot to discourage robot-writing (simply rearranging notes) and colorful streamers which remind me of an after-the spring-rain rainbow (like watercolor streamers hung from the clouds to dry).

There are marbles in a tin (what does the rain sound like to you?), a mini skateboard, some pressed flowers, a wooden doll family.

Everything in the pot symbolizes something--characters, conversations. Research. Memories. Just about everything that goes into writing a story jangles in my pot.

During my presentation, students and I explore each symbol. We even talk about the pot itself.

Together we've discovered that things cooked in a pot, unlike those quickly sautéed in a frying pan take a long time to simmer. Flavors blend slowly but in time, the toughest meat becomes tender.

Stories happen that way too.

On January 12, 2010, Haiti suffered a catastrophic earthquake. My pot overflowed with photographs of dazed and frightened people, with non-stop news reports and devastating headlines. Haiti, the Poorest Country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti, a Country in Ruins.

I realized how little I knew about Haiti, and began to research the tiny island nation.

What I discovered surprised me. Haiti has had a tumultuous but amazing history. It is a country rich in tradition and graced by a resilient and hopeful people.

Soon my pot held Haitian history, Haitian proverbs, and dozens of photographs of pig-tailed girls and wide-eyed boys. I began to understand that the faces lined with worry and scarred by poverty were also marked with pride and resiliency.

For me, writing is about letting my research and reflections simmer together. If I'm lucky, characters begin to emerge. A story unfolds.

You beat the drums and you dance again is my favorite Haitian proverb, one that best captures the spirit of the Haitian people. It's a proverb which continually rose to the top of my simmering pot and became the defining ingredient my verse novel, Serafina's Promise (Scholastic, 2013). !

Every writer has his or her own pot ~ what's cooking in yours?



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19. In Memory: Frances Foster

Children's book editor Frances Foster with author Barbara O'Connor
Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith for Cynsations

Obituary: Frances Foster by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Editor Frances Foster, whose celebrated tutelage of numerous award-winning authors and illustrators earned her placement in the top echelon of children’s book industry luminaries, died on Sunday, June 8. She was 83. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where Foster led her eponymous imprint beginning in 1995...."

Beloved Children's Book Editor Frances Foster Dies at 83 by Mahnaz Dar from School Library Journal. Peek: "Foster went on to work with authors such as Kate Banks, Roald Dahl, Helen Frost, David Klass, Louis Sachar, Phillip Pullman, Barbara McClintock, and Peter Sís, among others."

SLJ Talks to Legendary Book Editor Frances Foster by Rocco Staino from School Library Journal. Peek: "When I got my first publishing job, we used manual typewriters. The electric typewriter represented a big advancement and introduced more speed and efficiency."

An Interview with Frances Foster by Leonard S. Marcus from The Horn Book. Peek: "She looked somewhat surprised when I told her why I was there, and I was waiting for her to say, 'You can’t just walk in off the street and get a job.' Instead, she said, 'An angel must have sent you,' and went on to explain that only that morning her assistant had announced that she was pregnant and would soon be leaving. She hired me on the spot."

For Frances by Barbara O'Connor from Greetings From Nowhere. Peek: "It was my honor and privilege to have worked with her on ten books during those years. She was smart, funny, gracious and wise."

Cynsational Note

From Publishers Weekly: "The family requests that any donations in her memory go to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, 125 West Bay Road, Amherst, Mass. 01002..."

By John Phelan

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20. Event Report: Middle Grade Mayhem

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Wow! This weekend's highlight was Middle Grade Mayhem, a joint launch event featuring authors Varian Johnson (The Great Greene Heist (Arthur A. Levine Books)), Greg Leitich Smith (Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook)), and Jennifer ("Jenny") Ziegler (Revenge of the Flower Girls (Scholastic)) at BookPeople in Austin!

What worked about this event?
  • Three authors are better -- and more dynamic -- than one!
  • With the unifying "middle grade" age category, hello crossover fans!
  • Delicious (healthy and special treat) refreshments!
  • Lots of photo ops (photo booth & readers' theater with props)!
  • A charming M.C. (Tim Crow) and helpers too numerous to list here (it takes a village, people)!
  • Three fun and funny readers' theaters to offer the audience sneak peeks!
  • Keeping it short--the whole program ran only 40 minutes, including Q&A!
  • Signing with giveaway bling (GGH bookmarks, glow-in-the-dark LGM wrist bands and mini figurines, bubble formula & wands, plus patriotic temporary tattoos)!
  • A children's book loving community and world class independent bookstore!

The new releases are loaded on the cart and ready for the signing.
Catering by Whole Foods, wedding cake provided by Jenny & chocolate chip cookies by Nikki Loftin
Varian, Greg & Jenny pose in the LGM/dance photo booth, ready for mayhem.
Austin librarian Michelle Beebower serves herself a cup of--what else?--Tang!
Pro photographer Dave Wilson; see his (much better) pics on GregLSBlog.
San Antonio author Peni R. Griffin hands out LGM glow-in-the-dark wrist bands
Austin SCBWI RA Samantha Clark (with Bethany Hegedus) scheduled a local chapter meet-and-greet on the third floor BookPeople to end right before the second-floor event.
The refreshments table (complete with flower girls' wedding cake!) is popular.
Author-librarian Julie Lake, author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell pose with writer Meredith Davis in the photo booth.
Dallas writer Stephanie Parsley Ledyard poses with LGM and Greg.
Author-illustrator Yangsook Choi meets Cynthia Levinson
Introducing M.C. & Educator Tim Crow
The crowd gathers in anticipation.
Varian, Greg and Jenny take the stage.
Readers' theater of The Great Greene Heist (Arthur A. Levine)
Readers' theater of Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook)
Readers' theater of Revenge of the Flower Girls (Scholastic)
Jenny steps to the mic during the Q&A session.
Authors Sara Kocek & Nikki get to know soon-to-debut Chandler Baker in the signing line.
Book signing & bling giveaway (GGH bookmarks, ROTFG temporary tattoos & glow-in-the-dark LGMs)
Me with three little green men (well, sort of)

 Cynsational Notes

Author Interview & Giveaway: Greg Leitich Smith on Writing Realistic vs. Speculative Fiction from Cynsations. See also Middle Grade Mayhem Event Report from GregLSBlog.

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21. Guest Post & Giveaway: Sarah Frances Hardy on Paint Me!

By Sarah Frances Hardy
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Paint Me! (Sky Pony Press, 2014) is about a little girl who begins the day painting a portrait of her dog, but she quickly discovers the joy of colors and lots of messy paint.

At the end of the day, all is well after a bath and goodnight kiss.

It's for preschoolers and toddlers who are beginning to learn their colors. And since it finishes as a bedtime story, it's a good one to read to wound-up kids at night to get them to settle in and go to sleep.

Here's the blurb from my publisher:

Red, blue, and yellow are just the tip of the iceberg when you have a good imagination. 

In this colorfully illustrated story, a young girl makes her way through the day--first painting a portrait of her dog, and then painting anything and everything she can find. 

With a simple, affectionate plot that teaches colors and embraces the "creative process" for many kids, Paint Me! offers a message of love and discovery.

Don't miss Sarah's previous book!
This book is special to me for so many reasons. First of all, when I was a toddler, I was the little girl in the book. I tended to get carried away whenever I started any art project, and I never let neatness get in the way of creativity.

Also, just like the mom in the book, my mom kept me supplied with lots of paint, and she didn't get too upset when I was overly expressive!

In fact, I dedicated the book to her because she spent a lot of time cleaning up my spilled paint (or sending me outside to work on projects!).

And since I identified so strongly with the little girl in the book, I decided to add my childhood dog Tam the schnauzer as a main character.

He lived to be seventeen years old, so he was around throughout most of my childhood. I loved being able to bring him back in my book.

Here he is on the title page!


Another reason that I love this book so much is that I had such a wonderful time doing the artwork. It's not every day that I get to channel my inner Jackson Pollock and sling paint! It's very therapeutic.

This is my favorite spread! When my daughter saw it, she said that it reminded her of when you play in the sprinkler and see rainbows in the water. What a wonderful image! "Like playing in the sprinkler with paint!"



And speaking of slinging paint .... I am fortunate enough to have a "room of my own" just off our garage. When we were working on our house, I decided to make a studio across the back of the garage where most people have a storage room. My space is small, but it works just fine. Having a dedicated work space where I can leave out my work (and yes, get a little messy) is heaven.


My art desk was my fifteenth birthday gift. I've got an easel set up behind it as well as my computer and scanner. I still do artwork the old-fashioned way--with paint on paper--but with this book, I scanned in the images and edited them using photoshop.

Working this way, I felt like I could be even more creative because I knew I could easily fix a mistake digitally without having to redo an entire painting. It allows me to do a little more playful experimentation.

These days, as well as traveling to schools and bookstores to promote Paint Me!, I'm busy working on the final artwork for my next release from Sky Pony called Dress Me! It's about a little girl who tries on lots of different outfits (and personalities) until she finds just the right one. Look for it in the spring of 2015.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Paint Me! by Sarah Frances Hardy (Sky Pony, 2014). Author-illustrator sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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22. Guest Post: Shirley Vernick on Drawing the Line

By Shirley Vernick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Novelists always know when to start writing. It’s when we get an idea—in the form of a voice, a setting, a conflict, or some other plot point. Inspiration strikes, and we create a new file titled something like “My Latest Greatest - Draft 1.”

But how do authors know when to stop writing? That is, how do we know where to end the story?

This is one of the most challenging questions for me as a writer.

Novels don’t usually stop at the climax. Readers want more than that big punch line—they want to know how the various plot threads will be drawn together in a satisfying, or perhaps a disturbing, resolution.

Enter the denouement, that term from high school English class, that amorphous thing of indeterminate length which lets readers walk away with a sense of closure. The question of when to end the story thus becomes how far out to play the denouement.

In my new YA novel The Black Butterfly (Cinco Puntos, 2014), Penny, the daughter of a failed ghost hunter, discovers over Christmas vacation that she’s the one with the supernatural gift, and she’s not sure she likes it. Part of me wanted to extend the story 20 or 30 years into the future, when Penny has a contrary daughter of her own. But that wasn’t going to happen; this wasn’t a multi-generational epic in the making. Next, I decided the story would encompass six to twelve months of Penny’s life, so readers could see how her supernatural gift affects her values and relationships over the medium term. In the end, the novel spans only the two weeks of Penny’s Christmas break.

Why did that feel like the right place to end the story? While it’s difficult to psych out a gut feeling, in this case, I’m pretty sure it had to do with a sense of balance.

I felt this timeframe allowed me to share enough of Penny’s personal transformation to gratify readers, while also leaving the window open for readers to wonder, to speculate, to imagine for themselves how the rest of Penny’s young-adulthood would turn out.

In my first YA novel, The Blood Lie, my earlier drafts had an additional 50 pages or so of denouement.

The Blood Lie is based on a real blood libel that happened in Upstate New York in the 1920s. I had more play with the denouement than I did with the sections leading up to and including the historical hate crime, so I went for it, following the main character to the end of his teen years and even recapping his adulthood.

It was my wonderful publisher, Lee Byrd, who helped me see that the main character’s experiences and decisions during those extra 50-ish pages could be predicted by the growth he underwent earlier. Better to end the denouement—and the novel—at the point where that growth solidified, rather than to drag the reader through the details.

I can’t deny that the cuts were painful, but I understood that I wasn’t taking part of the story away from readers; I was giving them part of the story to ponder for themselves.

I have to admit, it’s still emotionally difficult for me to leave characters hanging. I become very attached to the people in my fictional worlds, and my impulse is to see their stories all the way through.

Take, for instance, my novel Remember Dippy about an autistic teen and his cousin.

The book was released a year ago, and I’m still picturing the ongoing adventures of the two boys. But those adventures will stay in my head, where they belong (unless, of course, there’s a sequel!).

Office Mate Jiffy
Cynsational Notes

Shirley has been writing since she learned how to hold a pencil. Her first professional publication, when she was a high school senior, was a pun in Reader’s Digest. The Black Butterfly is her third young adult novel, following the award-winning The Blood Lie (Cinco Puntos, 2011) and Remember Dippy (Cinco Puntos, 2013). Her work has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Salon, Good Housekeeping, and newspapers nationwide.

Shirley is a graduate of Cornell University and an alumna of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars. The first paranormal novel she ever read was Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and it remains one of her favorites. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband, two daughters, and two frisky dogs.

From the promotional copy of The Black Butterfly:

Penny is furious, and who can blame her? She has to spend Christmas break alone at the Black Butterfly, an old inn at the coldest, bleakest edge of the country—the coast of Maine. 

This “vacation” is the brainchild of Penny's flaky mother, who's on the other side of the country hunting ghosts. Penny most definitely does not believe in spirits. Or love. Or family.

Until, that is, she discovers two very real apparitions which only she can see…and meets George, the strangely alluring son of the inn's owner…and crashes into some staggering family secrets. 

If only Ghost Girl didn't want Penny dead. If only George were the tiniest bit open to believing. If only she could tell her mother. Then maybe this could still be a vacation. But it's not. 

It's a race for her life, her first love, and her sanity.

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23. Guest Post & Giveaway: Kristen Tracy on Can You Hear Me Now? & Writing Dialogue

By Kristen Tracy
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

When I wrote Hung Up (Simon Pulse, 2014), I knew before I typed the first word that the entire book would be written in phone conversations.

No traditional scenes. No chapters.

No physical descriptions, besides what I could work naturally into dialogue.

It was my tenth novel--the first I’d written in that format--and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was also struggling through a difficult pregnancy at the time. I guess that made the process of book-making and revising feel extra arduous. I ate so many saltines . . .

Since the book has come out, because of its format, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about writing dialogue.

Here are the four most useful things anyone ever told me about writing dialogue.

1. It’s not like real speech.

When I first started writing fiction for teens, I was encouraged by fellow writers to eavesdrop as much as I could on young people’s conversations. I realize now this was a terrible idea.

Yes, real speech is interesting, but overheard conversations are rarely going to arrive in any condition to insert into your novel. Plus, the cadence is all wrong. If you really listen, most conversations are scattered and loose and filled with pauses and “ums” and have no structure.

Dialogue is carefully composed. Every time I type a quotation mark I think, “Every word must be worth it.”

Here’s a quick anecdote. A few years ago, I was a volunteer gardener on Alcatraz. Because I spent most of my time low to the ground and beside the walking paths, I overhead all sorts of conversations. Did people talk about crazy personal things involving their medication, sex lives, and in-laws? Yeah, they did. But for the hours and hours of conversations I overheard on that island, I maybe got two small quotes worth using. Which isn’t the best return on time.

So sponging off teen conversations might help you stay current with teen slang, but I don’t think it’s helpful in crafting meaningful dialogue.

The Rose Garden on Alcatraz

2. Compression is often a great solution.

There are only three ways to revise: you add words, rearrange words, or subtract words.

When it comes to revising dialogue, I think you should aim for economy. I’m constantly looking for words to purge. (I started out as a poet; so I spent most of the 90s developing word-purging skills.)

If you want better dialogue, try having less of it.

3. Long interrupted sections of one person talking can feel inauthentic.

Dialogue is meant to go back and forth. If one person refuses to pass the ball, you risk creating a section that can feel strained, or boring, or insincere.

In Hung Up my characters do talk for extended moments, but I tried to set these up so they would read as confessions, which I think readers tend to like or at least extend more patience to.

This baby goat is Laverne.

4. Empathetic people write the best dialogue.

This is perhaps the best insight I’ve come across and I completely believe it. Because if you can accurately imagine how another person feels, you stand the best chance of accurately capturing what that person wants to say.

When generating or revising dialogue, I try to deeply imagine the characters as much as I can—where they are physically, geographically, emotionally.

If I understand how my characters feel, it’s easier to speak for them.

This baby human is Max.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two copies of Hung Up by Kristen Tracy (Simon Pulse, 2014) or a copy of Lost It or a copy of Crimes of the Sarahs (all Simon Pulse). Eligibility: U.S. From the promotional copy of Hung Up:

Learn more!

Learn more!
Can you fall in love with a voice? This witty romance, told entirely through phone calls, chronicles the tale of a wrong number gone right.

It all started with a wrong number.

The voicemails Lucy left on James's phone were meant for someone else--someone who used to have James's digits. But then when James finally answers and the two start to talk, a unique bond forms between the two teens.

Gradually, Lucy and James begin to understand each other on a deeper level than anyone else in their lives. But when James wants to meet in person, Lucy is strangely resistant. And when her secret is revealed, he'll understand why...

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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24. Guest Interview & Giveaway: Carolyn Dee Flores & Lupe Ruiz-Flores on Writing, Illustrating & Team Flores

Carolyn & Lupe AKA "Team Flores"
By Carolyn Dee Flores & Lupe Ruiz-Flores
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

LR: We call ourselves “Team Flores.”

Although my daughter, illustrator Carolyn Dee Flores, and I have never worked together on a book, we hope to someday.

We team together when we make joint presentations and provide the moral support for each other.

Carolyn Interviews Lupe

CDF: What is the most surprising aspect about being from a kidlit family?

LR: I don’t think it’s surprising at all. We love books!

Before my firstborn (you) even arrived, I spent money we could not really afford on a volume of encyclopedias that came with an entire set of children’s books.

That was one of the best investments I made.

CDF: What is the most interesting thing you have learned about illustrating a picture book because your daughter is an illustrator?

LR: I found out how hard and dedicated the illustrators work to bring a writer’s text to life. I’ve watched the enormous hours of research that go into creating just the right art, images, and scenes that will make the book come full circle.

I’ve learned that an illustrator reads and rereads the writer’s manuscript until they come up with a concept that makes the book sparkle. Then they spend months creating and recreating until they are satisfied with the final art.

CDF: How does your family (past and present) affect what you write about and how you approach your craft?

LR: I come from a large family of eleven brothers and sisters.

There was no money for books when I was growing up. But we had storytellers—my father and my grandmother.

There’s an art to storytelling, I think. My siblings and I were mesmerized on those evenings on the porch listening to the cuentos about legendary myths. The stories sparked my imagination.

I hope to create an emotional experience for the readers of my books and a chance for their imagination to soar like mine did on those magical nights. I like to think of myself as a storyteller.

CDF: What is your latest work?

LR: A YA historical fiction set in the late 1930s in San Antonio, Texas. I feel passionate about this story because it comes from my background and culture. I believe this gives authenticity to my piece.

It takes place during the aftermath of the Great Depression and is reminiscent of the Lower East Side New York sweatshops that were in operation at the turn of the 20th century. I’ve done extensive research, both primary and secondary sources.

I feel blessed that I live in the city where the story takes place because I’ve been able to physically visit some of the places that I write about in my story and conduct interviews.

CDF: What is the hardest thing about working on a novel as opposed to a picture book?

LR: With a picture book, you’re limited on word count so every word must carry its weight.

With a novel, you have more freedom to develop your characters, the setting, dialogue, etc. The hardest thing for me in writing a novel is the middle part. I have to make sure it doesn’t sag.

CDF: How are the two processes similar? How do the two processes differ?

LR: The storyline is what is similar. With only 32 pages in a picture book, you still need a story.

With a novel, you can thread your storyline with expanded scenes, action, dialogue, and character development. What matters most is a good story.

Tejas Star Book Award Reading List

Lupe Interviews Carolyn

LR: You have illustrated picture books as well as a middle-grade book about historical figures (Daughters of Two Nations, written by Peggy Caravantes (Mountain Press, 2013)). What is the difference?

CDF: Canta, Rana, Canta/Sing, Froggie, Sing (Piñata, 2013) and Dale, Dale, Dale/Hit It/Hit It/Hit It, written by René Saldaña Jr. (Piñata, 2014) are my two bilingual picture books.

Daughters is a collection of biographies about nine Native-American women and is for readers ages fourth grade and up.

I think the short answer to the question is that the pictures for each book differ in the same way that the text differs for each book. Every book is unique. In general, though, with picture books, the illustrations must be narrative, character-driven, and sequential. It’s all about the page-turn.

A nonfiction history book for older readers requires illustrations that are authentic, factual, and absolutely accurate. With teens, however, you really want to create pictures that are also really intriguing and dynamic. Something, for instance, they would wear on a T-shirt. But, still, the emphasis must always be on the facts.

With Daughters, I studied two different maps from the time period to get details for the exact placement of the houses in the background behind my portrait of Mary Musgrove - including where each gate was, and even the exact location of the flag. With Nancy Ward, I had to make sure there were no seams or stitches in her clothing, as she would've worn deerskin that was tied together.

However, you cannot copy a copyrighted art piece. If a piece of clothing has a unique pattern, or a medal worn by one of the women is copyrighted, then I have to alter the image in order to include it in the book. I did my best to retain the authenticity. But it can sometimes be a complicated process.

I focused on representing the dignity of the character of each one of these wonderful women, because I felt it was a privilege and an honor to draw them. And that led me.

LR: What is your art style? What medium do you use?

CDF: I am very conscious of my medium as an illustrator. In a way, your medium is your trademark.

I started out as an oil painter, but I use Prismacolor colored pencil for all of my illustrative work … usually. Right now, I am painting in watercolor, because it best represents the tone and the period of the book I am working on. It is more organic. But, I am very true to drawing in Prismacolor.

LR: Briefly walk us through from when you first get a manuscript to when you actually start drawing.

CDF: If it is a picture book, the answer is easy: I read the text aloud at least 30 times, before I ever start to zero in on an image, even in my mind. It can be such a mistake, jumping in and sketching, before you truly understand the text and allow it to breathe.

But the very second thing I do, for any book, is research. The day I get the contract, is the day I am off to the library. Even for a picture book, you still have to do research.

For Froggie, which was a story about an underwater singing frog, I learned as much as I could about frogs, and also, as much as I could about singers. I surrounded myself with pictures of frogs and Pavarotti in my studio for nine months. You have to immerse yourself in that world.

LR: When did you become an illustrator and why? What have you learned about the business of illustrating?

CDF: I was an illustrator and a writer when I was born, before I knew I was anything, I think. I used to draw on my mother's curtains, and I carried books around with me before I could ever read. I would pretend I was reading them - not knowing they were upside down.

Copyright © Carolyn Dee Flores 2014
The one thing I've learned about the business of illustrating is that there are many, many layers to this craft and, also many, many layers to this industry.

It is such an adrenaline rush to be creative and see where it leads. Drawing, research, narrative, storytelling, style, design, composition, listening, craftsmanship, vision, rendering. It’s all fantastic!

Ultimately, the greatest rush about working in the children's book industry is that as you work, you are always learning something new about people. There is not a day that goes by, that I don't just swoon on the new ideas I’ve discovered.

LR: Do you think it would be hard working with your mother on a book?

CDF: Since you are the one asking me this question, Mother, I'm going to have to be honest with you. It has always been my dream to work with you, Mother, on a book. We work very well together. Especially, this book that we are collaborating upon currently. I'm putting everything I have into it, because I believe in it so much!

It is about Las Carpas, the Mexican-American tent circuses of the 1930s. I am just bowled over by how interesting these people were and how visually exciting this period in time was.

We have both done a tremendous amount of research on the subject, and it has just come alive!

LR: What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

CDF: If you are older, join SCBWI. If you are a child, write your own book now.

Every writer and illustrator I know, carries around with them the book they wrote when they were in second or third grade. You will treasure it always!

Books by Carolyn & Lupe

Cynsational Note

Carolyn Dee Flores and Lupe Ruiz-Flores are both represented by Mira Reisberg of Hummingbird Literary.

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win an autographed copy of Lupita’s First Dance/El primer baile de Lupita by Lupe Ruiz-Flores, illustrated by Gabhor Utomo (Arte Publico, 2013). Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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Enter to win autographed copies of Daughters of Two Nations, by Peggy Caravantes, illustrated by Carolyn Dee Flores (Mountain Press, 2013) and Canta, Rana, Canta/Sing, Froggie, Sing (Piñata, 2013). Author-illustrator sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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25. Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Plotting Can Be for You by Susanne Winnacker from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: "So despite the fact that I hated going into things without a plan, I tried to write my book without an outline. It would be fun, right?"

Everything Is Going to Be Okay: On Writing & Anxiousness by Leila Austin from YA Highway. Peek: "A message from the kind, sensible part of my brain to the irrational, ugly part. A reminder to let go of all the things I carry around when I sit down to write, because my brain can’t work on my novel if it's working on a hundred things which are not my novel."

To Pseudonym or Not to Pseudonym by Catherine McKenzie from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...there are lots of people who do just that—publish under a pseudonym—for a myriad of reasons. It’s a question that’s been on my mind lately because my next WIP is somewhat of a departure for me."

Foreign Rights for Dummies by Hilary Wagner from Project Mayhem. Peek: "Now this isn't a step-by-step of the process, it's just my own personal experience, but I hope it can give a little enlightenment for anyone who's been wondering how it goes down or may be in the process themselves."

Tearing Down Walls: The Integrated World of Swedish Picture Books by Laura Reiko Simeon from Lee & Low. Peek: "...recent Swedish picture books that show ethnic diversity involve conflicts about ordinary, universal topics such as sharing." See also Making Our Own Market: Reading is Fundamental from The Brown Bookshelf.

Cover Reveal & Interview with Courtney Alameda from Hypable. Peek: "Micheline Helsing is a tetrachromat—a girl who sees auras of the undead in a prismatic spectrum. As one of the last descendants of the Van Helsing lineage, she’s trained to destroy monsters both corporeal and spiritual."

Write What You Love & Stay True to Your Passion by Katherine Longshore from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: "Never say never. And it can pay off to write what you love."

Worldbuilding by Stacy Whitman from The Open Book at Lee & Low Books. Peek: "...revealing enough about the world that you create interest and intrigue, but not too much."

Cynsational Giveaways

See also ARC Giveaway of Shutter by Courtney Alameda from Hypable.

This Week at Cynsations


More Personally

See the full Middle Grade Mayhem Event Report!
This weekend's highlight was Middle Grade Mayhem, a joint launch event featuring authors Varian Johnson (The Great Greene Heist (Arthur A. Levine Books)), Greg Leitich Smith (Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook)), and Jennifer ("Jenny") Ziegler (Revenge of the Flower Girls (Scholastic)) at BookPeople in Austin!

Outside The King's English; photo by Shawn K. Stout

Busy teaching, hence this more-abbreviated-than-usual Friday roundup!

It's been rainy this week at Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers in Sandy, Utah, but I'm having a great time (more on that to come)! Also, the sun came out yesterday!

Congratulations to fellow Austinite Anne Bustard on the sale of her debut novel, Anywhere But Paradise (for middle graders), to Andrea Cascardi at Egmont!

Personal Links

Cover Reveal (Harper, 2015)

Cynsational Events

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will speak at the Writers' League of Texas 2014 Agents and Editors Conference on June 28 at the Hyatt Regency Austin in Texas.

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith in discussing Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2014) with the YA Reading Club at 11 a.m. June 28 at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

Research for Fiction, Non-fiction and Historical Fiction Writers from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 13 at The Austin Centre (3809 South 2nd St.) from Austin SCBWI. Speakers authors Cynthia Levinson and Greg Leitich Smith, author-librarian Jeanette Larson and Carolyn Yoder, senior editor at Calkins Creek Books, the U.S. history imprint of Boyds Mills Press, and senior editor at "Highlights."

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