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1. 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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2. 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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3. 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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4. 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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5. 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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6. 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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7. 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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8. 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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9. 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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10. 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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11. 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...

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12. 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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13. 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.

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14. 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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15. 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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16. Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Kathi Appelt on the release of Mogie: The Heart of the House, illustrated by Marc Rosenthal (Atheneum, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Mogie is a real-life Labradoodle with a special talent: he always knows just what a sick kid needs! Get to know this passionate pup with this story by a Newbery Honoree.

Give that dog a puddle and he’d splash. Give him a whistle and he’d roll over. Give him a rule and he’d break it.

One day a passel of puppies was born. Each puppy was designated for a Very Important Job, like Service Dog, or Search and Rescue Dog, or Groomed for the Show Ring Dog.

Each puppy, that is, except Mogie. Mogie was a ball-chasing, tail-wagging, moon-howling pup. Not the kind of pup for any of those jobs!

But there is a place that is just right for Mogie: a very special house where sick children and their families can stay while they undergo long-term treatment. A place with children who NEED a ball-chasing, tail-wagging, moon-howling pup.

And there’s one little boy in particular who needs Mogie. And Mogie is about to prove he’s the best darn pooch in the passel. 

Based on a true story, this heartwarming picture book is published in conjunction with the Ronald McDonald House.

Cyn Note: Houston children's book fans! Join Kathi for the official book launch at 1 p.m. June 14 at Blue Willow Bookshop! See also Kathi Appelt and Mogie! by Tami Lewis Brown from WCYA The Launch Pad from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

More News & Giveaways

Graphic Novels for Middle Schoolers by Katie Bircher from The Horn Book. Peek: "From poignant historical fiction to introspective coming-of-age tale, hilarious space caper to action-packed superhero story, four new graphic novels for middle-schoolers showcase the range of the graphic novel format."

Being Brave: A Challenge for Writers in Particular and Humans in General by Christine Hayes from Emu's Debuts. Peek: "...I let it fuel all the other things I don’t like about myself until I’m one big ball of self-pity and guilt: about my weight, about not being a Pinterest-perfect mother, about not writing often enough, about the stupid crumbs on the floor and dishes in the sink. And let’s not even touch the whole issue of 'my writing isn’t good enough.' Yeeesh."

Character Talent & Skills: High Pain Tolerance by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Pain from injuries can fog the mind and break the body, so developing a high tolerance level for it can greatly enhance one’s performance and endurance in most situations."

Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2014 Edition from the Bank Street College Center for Children's Literature. Peek: "includes more than 600 titles chosen by the Children’s Book Committee as the best of the best published in 2013. In choosing books for the annual list, committee members consider literary quality and excellence of presentation as well as the potential emotional impact of the books on young readers. Other criteria include credibility of characterization and plot, authenticity of time and place, age suitability, positive treatment of ethnic and religious differences, and the absence of stereotypes. Nonfiction titles are further evaluated for accuracy and clarity." Source: Educating Alice.

Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes' Emotions to Transform Them by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "So what type of emotions are the best fit to encourage this necessary shift toward change? And are they positive emotions, or negative ones? Let’s experiment!"

ATTN Writers of Color and Native Writers! Submit Your Novel to Tu Books' New Visions Award Program from Lee and Low. Peek: "it’s obvious that readers want to see more writers of color represented. It is our hope that the New Visions Award will help new authors begin long and successful careers and bring new perspectives and voices to the science fiction, fantasy, and mystery genres."

Marketing African-American Titles by Kirsten Cappy from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: "Using a combination of small grant funds, school partnerships, and community sponsors like the NAACP, we launched the exhibit by flying Claudette Colvin in for a preview. After a lifetime of silence and before publication would make Claudette’s story national, this was the first time she had seen her words in print."

The False Divide Between Book Promo and Author Promo by Sharon Bially from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "promoting yourself as an author does help spread the word about your work. In fact, an author-focused platform will most likely sustain over time far beyond any book’s moment in the spotlight, keeping your name out there and increasing the chances that whatever you write next will have an audience and find a home in readers’ hearts."

Industry Q&A with Author Crystal Chan from CBC Diversity. Peek: "Diversity is a tricky word. Personally, I don’t really like that word – it conjures up images of everyone of different colors holding hands and singing. Diversity is hard work, plain and simple, and it means giving up a bit of your defined world to be able to let others in, to see the 'other' as just as human as you are."

10  Books for Kids Who Hate to Read by Lisa Graff from The Huffington Post. Peek: "Do you have a kid like Albie who would rather eat Brussels sprouts than read a single page of "fine literature?" Here are ten amazing books -- some well-known, others less so -- sure to grab even the most reluctant of readers." Note: Congratulations to Lisa on the release of Absolutely Almost (Philomel, 2014), which has received four starred reviews!

Don't Write the World's Best Fantasy Novel by Beth Fantasky from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: "I didn’t have to write The World’s Best Novel. I had to be the mentally tough person who had the guts to get knocked down by rejection, pick myself up, and try again."

Donald F. Montileaux's Tasunka: A Lakota Horse Legend (South Dakota State Historical Society): a recommendation by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children's Literature. Peek: "One of the things I look for when reading a traditional story rooted in a Native Nation is an attribution of where the story was heard, and from whom. In Tasunka: A Lakota Horse Legend, Montileaux gives us that information right away in a two-page introduction."

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Hope's Gift by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Don Tate (Putnam, 2012). From the promotional copy:

It’s 1862 and the Civil War has turned out to be a long, deadly conflict. 

Hope’s father can’t stand the waiting a minute longer and decides to join the Union army to fight for freedom. He slips away one tearful night, leaving Hope, who knows she may never see her father again, with only a conch shell for comfort. 

Its sound, Papa says, echoes the promised song of freedom. 

It’s a long wait for freedom and on the nights when the cannons roar, Papa seems farther away than ever. But then Lincoln finally does it: on January 1, 1863, he issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves, and a joyful Hope finally spies the outline of a familiar man standing on the horizon.


Cynsational Giveaways
Enter to win!
The winner of a signed copy of The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister by Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand & Emma Trevayne (Greenwillow, 2014) is Yvonne in Virginia.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Cynsations Interview with Greg!
Another busy week! I'm focusing on critiquing my student workshop manuscripts for the upcoming Writiing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference in Sandy, Utah, and helping Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler prepare for their "Middle Grade Mayhem" joint launch party on Saturday afternoon at BookPeople!

Behind the scenes, we've been twice to Party City to pick up cups, plates, napkins and bling. After dinner at 24 Diner on Monday night, two of the three featured authors, plus author-spouse Chris Barton and M.C. Tim Crow met at Chez Leitich Smith to plan and rehearse their Mayhem.

I retired upstairs so that the show would come as a surprise; however, I did hear mention of wedding cake, bubble wands and a prop on loan from fellow Austin author Lindsey Scheibe that's so big it will require a gigantic flatbed truck to transport.

Speaking of which, my most enthusiastic congratulations to Greg Leitich Smith on Tuesday's release of Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook, 2014)! Don't miss his thoughts on writing realistic vs. speculative fiction for middle graders!

The Austin American-Statesman raves, "'Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn' swerves and accelerates into madcap places -- rumors, conspiracy theories and government coverups...Smith has a sure hand with atmosphere, drawing us into Aidan's world from the opening...And though plot twists will likely be the main appeal of 'Green Men,' there's a gentler bonus to Smith's story of the truths that bind us together -- human and alien. Simple yet evocative illustrations from Andrew Arnold accent the text." See the article by Sharyn Vane in Sunday's Book Section for more.

See also: To Infinity and Beyond by Cynthia K. Ritter from The Horn Book. Peek: "The twisty plot and engaging setting of Greg Leitich Smith’s Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, along with Andrew Arnold’s retro cartoon spot art, work well with the wacky characters and situations."

Congrats to Bethany Hegedus on the launch of Grandfather Gandhi (Atheneum) at BookPeople!

Last weekend's bookish highlight was the release party for Bethany Hegedus's launch of Grandfather Gandhi, co-authored by Arun Gandhi, illustrated by Evan Turk (Atheneum, 2014) at BookPeople in Austin! See my full report on the event! See also Grandfather Gandhi with Bethany Hegedus by Jessica Hincapie from The Writing Barn.

Catching up with former Austin SCBWI RA & VCFA grad Debbie Gonzales at El Mesón in Austin.

Speaking of Debbie, congratulations to her on "Whistle Punk" being selected as a middle grade finalist in the Writers' League of Texas manuscript contest and to both Hamilton Beazley ("Nowhere to Be" and Krissi Dallas ("Icarus Flight School) for being selected as finalists in the YA division!

My link of the week is Something New by Meredith Davis from Stories in the Streets. Lovely.

Personal Links
New from Philomel!

Cynsational Events

Middle Grade Mayhem! Join Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler in celebrating their new novels at 2 p.m. June 14 at BookPeople in Austin. See more information. Don't miss this article about Varian and The Great Greene Heist (Scholastic) and this interview with Jennifer Ziegler from Kirkus Reviews.

Breaking news! Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will speak at the Writers' League of Texas 2014 Agents and Editors Conference to be held at the Hyatt Regency Austin from June 27 to June 29 in Austin, 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.

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17. Guest Post: Helen Ketteman on Making Picture Books Sing

By Helen Ketteman
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Are you aware that books can sing?

I learned this in the second grade when an aunt gave me a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. That book sang to me–it was magic! Those musical words drew me back to read those stories over and over.

Growing up in the south, I did a lot of listening.

I listened to the way people talked and told stories. Their words were full of rhythm and music. In my picture books, I work to make my language sing, paying attention to every word, every phrase, every sentence.

Language can make a story memorable, and with a few simple poetic tools, a writer can create language that is so magic, it will draw that young reader back to your story again and again.

 Here are a few of my favorite tools.

Simile – an exact comparison using like, as, or than. A simile paints a strong image in a few words. Avoid similes that have become clichés and come up with something fresh, making sure the simile fits the story.

In my book Bubba, The Cowboy Prince, illustrated by James Warhola (Scholastic, 1997), a retelling of Cinderella, Miz Lurleen wants to find a feller.

“…One who loves ranching as much as I do. And it wouldn’t hurt if he’s as cute as a cow’s ear.” 

When Bubba’s wicked stepbrothers leave him home to go to the ball, they laugh.

“Why, Bubba, you’re sorrier than a steer in a stockyard.” Bubba “…felt lower than a rattlesnake in a gully.”

Alliteration – using similar letters or sounds to give a sense of unity to a set of words, or to give a feeling of rhythm to the words.

From The Three Little Gators, illustrated by Will Terry, (Albert Whitman, 2009):

“One day, Mama said, ‘It’s time you young’uns set out on your own. Make sure you build houses strong enough to keep you safe from Big-Bottomed Boar. Tasty tender gators are his favorite treat.” 

In Armadilly Chili, illustrated by Will Terry (Albert Whitman, 2004), Miss Billie goes out to gather the ingredients for her chili, and her tarantula friend, Tex, comes by. She calls:

“Hey, Tex! I’m making a pot of armadilly chili! How’s about tapping your toes this way and helping me gather a boxful of beetles?”

Rhyme – Children love rhyme, and make up rhymes all the time. Rhyme should flow, like good prose, and never be forced. Rhyme can come at the end of a sentence, or it can be internal rhyme within the sentence, to add rhythm.

In Three Little Gators, First Gator "scrambles through the brambles" to Second Gator’s house. Then, after Big Bottomed Boar bumps the next house to pieces, both gators "rush through the brush" to First Gator’s house.

In Goodnight, Little Monster, illustrated by Bonnie Leick (Amazon, 2010), a mother monster readies her little one to bed, going through the many of the same rituals most children do, including checking under the bed for “scary” things:

"Hop into bed, Little Monster. There's nothing to fear.
"See? No scary children lurk under here."

Repetition – the heart and soul of music and poetry. Children lie in wait for the moment that familiar phrase comes back into the story. It’s like the chorus of a song – everybody knows the words, and they love to sing along. Many of my books have these phrases.

In Senorita Gordita, illustrated by Will Terry (Albert Whitman, 2012), a retelling of The Gingerbread Boy, Senorita Gordita runs away from all of the critters who want to eat her...

“with a flip, and a skip, and a zip-zoom-zip.” 

 In The Three Little Gators, each little Gator calls out:

“Go away, Big-Bottomed Boar! I’ll never open up my door!” And Big-Bottomed Boar in turn says, “Then I’ll wiggle my rum with a bump, bump, bump and smash your house!” 

My latest book, There Once Was A Cowpoke Who Swallowed An Ant, illustrated by Will Terry (Albert Whitman, 2014), a retelling of The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (with a fun twist at the end!) is practically all repetition, each page adding to the repeated list.

These are only a few language tools I use when constructing picture books. There are many more. If you take time to learn how to use these poetic tools, you can make your book sing. It’s magic!

Cynsational Notes

Look for Helen's upcoming picture books: Go To School, Little Monster, illustrated by Bonnie Leick, (Two Lions, fall 2015); The Ghosts Go Haunting, illustrated by Adam Record (Albert Whitman, fall, 2014); and At the Old Haunted House, illustrated by Nate Wragg (Two Lions, fall 2014).

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18. New Voice: Adriana Brad Schanen on Quinny & Hopper

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Adriana Brad Schanen is the first-time author of Quinny & Hopper (Hyperion, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Quinny and Hopper couldn’t be more different. They’re an unstoppable team. But when summer ends, things suddenly aren’t the same. 

Can Quinny and Hopper stick together in the face of stylish bullies, a killer chicken, and those brand new Third Grade Rules – especially the one that says they aren’t allowed to be friends anymore?

What inspired you to choose the particular point of view featured in your novel? What considerations came into play? Did you try the story from a different point of view? If so, what made you change your mind?

Quinny & Hopper alternates between the first-person voices of two polar-opposite eight-year-olds, whose intense summer friendship runs smack-dab into the uncertainties of a new school year.

I haven’t seen a ton of early middle grade fiction written in first-person (let alone in dual first-person). I suppose the thinking goes that it can be too immediate, maybe too emotionally claustrophobic for newly-independent readers. And it doesn’t offer the same opportunity for the writer to pull back and show context or convey a lesson (thank goodness for that).

But something told me to forge ahead with this structure. The idea of putting the reader in someone else’s shoes—or brain, rather – felt compelling to me. Why not go there?

Who says rising third graders are too young?

And I couldn’t think of a better way to encourage kids to put themselves in someone else’s shoes than by actually doing it myself.

Oliver stares at Adriana as she types.
It also seemed that toggling back and forth between these two characters’ voices would create a bit more breathing room, and make for less of a hothouse feel than a solo first-person point of view.

I liked how two voices playing off each other can spark comedy, conflict, momentum, and foster empathy and perspective-taking.

Of course I did experiment and try third person – which felt more appropriate and authorly, and would probably have been easier to structure.

But it also felt like I was setting the narrative at an emotional remove. It just felt colder. I was creating distance, when I wanted the reader to be this close to the story.

So I went back to my intuition and wrote this young middle grade story in dual first-person voices. For me, it was the most visceral way of exploring the main characters’ psyches, and their blooming but fragile, ripped-to-shreds-and-stitched-back-together friendship.

In a way, their friendship is the book’s true main character. I watched it grow and falter due to misunderstandings, fear, outside pressures. I watched it survive and strengthen. I watched it all through the eyes of the two main characters themselves.

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 other writers?

I love connecting in a personal way with educators, parents and kids. Just chatting about books and life with actual people in the real world. Maybe that’s not really “marketing,” but I’m putting it in that category because, honestly, the over-the-top pushy stuff makes my skin crawl.

Meet Adriana Brad Schanen.
I’m guest-blogging a bit near my release date, but not going crazy. For early middle grade fiction, it doesn’t seem to be as impactful as things like school visits.

I think a great discussion/teacher’s guide is important – and thinking critically and creatively about all outreach to schools/libraries.

I’ve been reaching out with swag to independent booksellers.

In an age of mass emails, I love getting and sending personal notes.

As for social media in general, I don’t relish the idea of putting on a virtual sandwich board and hawking my literary wares online.

So I try to look at it as just another way to connect with and learn from others. Keep it low-key, not a stressor. I enjoy following educators, booksellers and writers on twitter – it’s a great way to expand my to-read list. I devote a couple of hours weekly (max!) to keeping up on industry news and a handful of blogs.

And instead of maintaining my own blog, I’m working on my next book. Which I keep hearing is the best thing a writer can do to market her/himself, anyway.

So basically I’m trying to keep promoting in its place: essential, but secondary to the writing itself. The fact is, so much of it is out of our control anyway. Someone will rip your book to shreds on Goodreads, someone will rave about it on Twitter. It’s all in a day.

You can’t let it distract or derail you -- you have to move past all the noise, good and bad, and hold onto your own true internal motivation for doing the work.

Now doesn’t that sound easy?

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19. Guest Post & Giveaway: Varsha Bajaj on Reading Across Borders & Cultures

Varsha (taller girl) with her mother and sister.
By Varsha Bajaj
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I grew up reading cross culturally because I didn’t have a choice. In the late '60s and '70s, British and American authors wrote the children’s literature available in India.

While I had not seen anyone with red hair like Anne Shirley in Anne of the Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908), I understood her desire to please Marilla Cuthbert; it was the same as my desire to please my mother.

I felt Jo’s grief when Beth died of scarlet fever in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868, 1869).

I also fell in love with the idea of winter and a Christmas tree.

I devoured the Secret Seven series by British writer, Enid Blyton (1949-1963). We mimicked their “secret society” and had a meeting place and passwords. It was a girls versus boys club on my street back in Mumbai.

These books did not set out to “educate” me, but they did. They also entertained me and made an indelible impression.

When I traveled to England and then America in 1986, I felt like I was finally visiting a place that I had known for a long time. I understood that our differences were skin deep and that we all wanted to belong and feel loved, and have friends.

Reading cross culturally had prepared me.

In 2014, the world is at our front door. We live in a multicultural society, we eat foods from all over the world, we communicate with people from across the oceans far easily than we did before.

So how can we not read and know each other through our stories?

I have read your stories and will continue to do so.

Do you want to read mine?

Cynsational Notes

Varsha Bajaj came to the U.S., as a graduate student in 1986. She earned her master’s degree in Counseling from Southern Illinois University and worked as a Licensed Professional Counselor in St. Louis. Her debut novel is Abby Spencer goes to Bollywood (Albert Whitman, 2014), and she looks forward to the release of Our Baby, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler (Nancy Paulsen Books).

Varsha & Cyn
Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win a signed copy of Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj (Albert Whitman, 2014). Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

Or enter to win an unsigned copy of Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj (Albert Whitman, 2014). Author sponsored. Eligibility: international.

a Rafflecopter giveawaya Rafflecopter giveaway

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20. Guest Post: Karen Rock on Happily-Ever-(NOT): Writing Unforgettable Endings

Get to Know Karen Rock!
By Karen Rock
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations
Warning: some spoilers for model books.

Many jobs entail courage and risk. Writing is one of them. Creating unforgettable endings that are not ‘Happily-Ever-After’ may be one of the bravest and most honest things an author can do.

Sure, it might mean opening your P.O. Box with one-eye shut, bracing yourself for penned diatribes. Some fans may chastise you for leaving out the rainbow-unicorn finish.

Brace yourself. The conviction to end your novel in a true and realistic way isn’t easy, but it’s invaluable.

In a recent workshop I gave at the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference with fellow YA author, Trisha Leaver, we dubbed these haunting, unforgettable finishes, Happily-Ever-(Not)s, or HE(N).

Sherman Alexie, National Book Award-winning author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007), had this to say about books with HE(N) endings in his blog “Why the Best Kid Books are Penned in Blood” (Wall Street Journal, June 2011), “There are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books- especially the dark and dangerous ones- will save them.”

As authors, it’s our calling, as well as our profession, to reflect the human condition and existence. We are charged with accurately depicting children’s lives.

If everything always turns out well in fiction, how will children learn, in safe ways, to cope with adversity? Loss?

The Snowman, a picture book by Raymond Briggs (Puffin, 2011), gently shows the very youngest readers that sometimes people we love must leave. This lesson is crucial.

If the Snowman magically gained the power to withstand the sun, would kids understand that their grandparents won’t come back? Their pets?

Human experience is full of sacrifice, suffering and pain. By not showing that, we’re not being honest. If the words in our story aren’t honest, than they are just words.

“Not everyone in life gets an HEA and therefore, characters shouldn’t either,” says Trisha Leaver, author of the upcoming YA suspense thriller/horror novel, Creed (Flux, November 2014).

Kids whose lives aren’t HEA need characters that speak to them and their experiences. They’ll realize that there is nothing wrong with them. Take Wilbur from Charlotte's Web (Harper & Brothers, 1952). He has a classic conflict: identity. Until a spider friend weaves descriptive words, he doesn’t understand his own worth. He gains confidence, but it isn’t until he loses Charlotte--a must-- that he learns a critical skill. Resilience. Like many children, he’s lost a parental figure, but he will go on. He doesn’t need others to validate his self-worth. He can and will survive.

The same rule applies in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton, 2012). Many children contend with series illness, injury or disability. John’s novel gives us two, strong protagonists battling cancer, one winning and one losing. This is a balanced, realistic peek into the world of doctors, treatments, desperation and hope. An HEA ending would have been a disservice. Readers leave John’s novel with a better understanding that life is meant to be lived and celebrated, regardless of our circumstances.

An HE(N) ending isn’t meant to leave the reader feeling bereft. In fact, within tragedy there is hope! Wilbur can pass on what he’s learned to Charlotte’s offspring. Winter will return and another snowman will be built. Hazel Grace has Augustus’ memories and the new desire to live her life, even if it no longer includes him. The reader will understand that they can survive hardship and come out even stronger. Life goes on and young readers need to know that they will too, no matter how much life has let them down.

Writing a HE(N) ending requires us to dig deeper. To go to painful, emotional spaces that are realistic to our story. Not all writers want to go through dark places with characters we’ve grown attached to- to even kill them off or hurt them. It takes an emotional toll. Yet it’s one we must pay to write the story that demands to be told.

Derek Landry, best-selling children’s author, wrote in his post It’s the Beginning of the End for Skullduggery Pleasant (TESCO Books Blog, August, 2012), “I really hope they have a happy ending. But sometimes the story goes where the story goes, and the characters will do what the characters do, and the writer just has to sit back and document it all.”

When a story entails a HE(N) ending, here are a few tips to guide you:

  1. Identify the central conflict of the book. There are competing threads that can be very powerful and vivid. However, it’s important to separate them out and focus on the best resolution to the main obstacle.
  2. Characters are a product of their fictional environment and their decisions reflect that. Find the most high-impact environment and toss them in.
  3. Find a strong voice and let it dictate the tone of the manuscript. Is the narrator sullen? Hopeful but desperate? Using humor to shield himself or herself from pain?
  4. Weave the theme through the story using the literary elements to hone the message that is ultimately and absolutely underscored by the ending.
  5. Don’t slap on a sad ending; it’s not that simplistic. This is about tone, characterization, theme and voice. Not merely plot points.
  6. Take care with unsettling endings. Readers don’t want to be left feeling confused. An unhappy ending is not an untidy ending.
  7. Closure doesn’t equate to happy feelings. However, there should be an illusion of hope, no matter how small that sliver may be.
  8. Maintain full character arc. Make sure the main character has finished making the growth needed, even if that entails tragedy. Often it does.
  9. Competing threads need to be addressed and a death is not a fait accompli. The saying "life sucks and then you die" doesn’t work here. In Rodman Philbrick’s Freak the Mighty (Blue Sky/Scholastic, 1993), Max (Mighty) pens a memoir after his best friend dies. Had the book ended with Kevin (Freak’s) death, Max’s illiteracy thread and the central conflict (Max’s sense of worthlessness/lack of identity) would not have been resolved. Additionally, the protagonist’s character arc would have been incomplete.

When challenged by editors, agents, beta-readers, and even fans about writing an unforgettable, HE(N) ending, just remember this from novelist Aryn Kyle in her article “In Defense of Sad Stories” (The Writer, June 2011), “‘You should write something happy’, people tell me, and I don’t understand. Happy like Anna Karenina? Happy like The Grapes of Wrath? Happy like…Catch 22 or… 'Hamlet'?”

The stories that stay with us speak the truth. If we write that we will never disappoint the most important person in the writing process-ourselves.

Karen & Trisha at their 2014 New England SCBWI workshop.
Cynsational Notes

From Karen: "I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments section below. Please feel free to contact me directly through my webpage. Thank you!"

Learn more!
Karen Rock is an award-winning YA and adult contemporary author. She holds a master’s degree in English and worked as an ELA instructor before becoming a full-time author. With her co-author, Joanne Rock, she’s penned the Camp Boyfriend series with Spencer Hill Press under the pseudonym J.K. Rock. She also writes contemporary romance for Harlequin Enterprises.

When she's not writing, Karen loves scouring estate sales for vintage books, cooking her grandmother's family recipes and hiking. She lives in the Adirondack Mountain region with her husband, daughter, and two Cavalier King cocker spaniels who have yet to understand the concept of "fetch" though they know a lot about love.

Check out her website, her co-author website, her Facebook page, and follow her on Twitter @karenrock5. Then check out Camp Boyfriend.

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21. Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith for Cynsations

Illustrator April Chu Takes Us Behind the Art of Summoning the Phoenix from Lee & Low. Peek: "...gives readers an inside look into centuries-old Chinese musical instruments and the more recently formed modern Chinese Orchestra."

Anti-heroes: Why Devious is So Delectable, and Where Are All the Women? by Heather Webb from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "I skimmed my books, looking for these dark characters and after I had gathered a few, I analyzed what made them so dadgum fun to read. This is what I discovered..."

Serving Military Families in the Public Library by Jan Marry from ALSC Blog. Peek: "...over two million American children have had a parent deployed since 9/11, and current military families total over five million people. If you include veterans, military retirees, Department of Defense civilians, grown military children, and parents of military members, interested people can live anywhere and be served by any library, including yours."

Talent and Skills Entry: A Knack for Languages by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "They naturally pick up on patterns and nuances, quickly learn to understand other languages, and are able to speak them fluently in record time. A knack for languages can also enable people to cue in on the cultural cues, idioms, and humor of a culture, which can be difficult for outsiders to grasp."

Secrets to a Good Logline by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "Nailing it in one sentence is more of an exercise for you than a requirement of getting published."

Learn more about this wordless picture book.
How Wordless Picture Books Empower Children by Sarah Bayliss from School Library Journal. Peek: "Because these stories are conveyed visually, children are free to interpret as they wish and project their own emotions, the panelists said."

Celebrating the Critique Comments I Don't Agree With from Shelli Cornelison. Peek: "All critique comments are valid, even the ones (maybe especially these) that I don't agree with. If I ask someone to take their time to give me feedback, I want their honest feedback."

Publishing Under a Pseudonym by Jael McHenry from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "As I said, I think it’s the right choice, and I’m thrilled. It’s another debut, where I can use what I learned from the first debut, but starting with an external clean slate. It just feels...kind of weird."

On Definitions: Independent vs. Self Publishing from Joshua Isard's Blog. Peek: "Independent publishers are presses not connected to a larger media conglomeration. ... A lot of times the term 'small press' is used to describe these publishing houses, and I'm not even sure that's accurate now. Graywolf, for example, isn't really small, though it is independent."

14 Tips to Surviving Your Book Signing by Stina Lindenblatt from QueryTracker. Peek: "Bring candy to entice readers to stay long enough for you to chat with them. The other benefit of the candy is it will provide you the necessary energy to survive the long book signing session, and you will be popular with the authors near you when you share it." Note to children's authors: some kids (and adults) will gravitate to candy, but health-conscious parents/caregivers may become vexed at you for putting it in play (and perhaps triggering a meltdown if they say "no").

How to Create a Villain by Michael Noll from Read to Write Stories. Peek: "The problem with creating villains is that the word usually makes us think of characters like Sauron from The Lord of the Rings or Darth Vader—i.e. characters whose evil exists on a grand scale. Most stories simply don’t have room for that kind of character."

Creating a Believable Tween Voice by Anna Staniszewsky from Janet S. Fox at Through the Wardrobe. Peek: "Not all young people sound the same, so if you’re writing what you think a thirteen-year-old sounds like instead of what your specific character sounds like, you probably won’t get very far."

Catalyst and Catharsis by Donald Maass from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...what is the catalyst event that causes the seething pot of your protagonist’s inner conflicts to boil over? How does your protagonist act out? What is released? What change results?"

The Muscle-Flexing, Mind-Blowing Book Girls Will Inherit the Earth by Linda Holmes from NPR. Peek: "There are boys and men and older women who love many of the books that the Book Girls do, but it is the Book Girls who scream at authors the way people screamed at The Beatles on 'Ed Sullivan.'"

BookReals, an MVT for Books? by Wendy Werris from Publishers Weekly.  Peek: "BookReels, a dedicated interactive website that allows publishers and authors to post multimedia visuals ranging from animated book covers to trailers, is now available for readers as a unique way to preview and browse books."

2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for Excellence in Children's Literature

Picture Book Award Winner: Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown (Little, Brown)

Fiction Award Winner: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (Dutton)

Nonfiction Award Winner: The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin (Roaring Book)

See also honor books and more information.

 Cynsational Giveaways

The winners of The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science: Poems for the School Year Integrating Science, Reading and Language Arts (plus a student edition) were Crystal in Wisconsin, Frances in Illinois, and Lauren in Washington.

See also a chance to win Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg (Arthur A. Levine), winner of SCBWI's 2014 Sid Fleischman Humor Award, from SCBWI: The Blog. Note: post includes interview with Bill by Lee Wind.  

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally 

Farewell author-librarian-goddess Jeanette Larson! Austin misses you already!
With author-illustrator Don Tate -- look for him at the upcoming ALA Conference!

Busy week! I'm combing through the copy edits for Feral Pride (Book 3 in the Feral trilogy), working on an interview for The ALAN Review and musing on my lesson plans for WIFYR.

Bashi and Leo "help" with my Feral Pride copy edits.

It's also come to my attention that I've surpassed 15,000 followers @CynLeitichSmith on Twitter. Thanks for the support! I'm hugely flattered and vaguely baffled by this development.

I'm honored that my picture book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins) was included in Grace Lin's Cheat Sheet for Selling Diversity in conjunction with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks panel at BEA.

See also Lynn Miller-Lachmann's report on the panel itself and #We NeedDiverseBooks Announces Initiatives from Publishers Weekly.

On a related note, I appreciate SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver's open letter on diversity and my online pick of the week is "Exotic" in Wisconsin by author Crystal Chan. Take the three minutes to listen to her thoughts on growing up biracial in the midwestern U.S. Peek: "...the word 'exotic' reflects only the speaker's perspective."

As a YA author reading Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy (Knopf, 2013), this mother-character-voiced paragraph (not Bridget-voiced) jumped out at me:

"'So you can just sit on this doorstep and instead of putting your ENTIRE BRAINS into getting to the next level on MINECRAFT, you can apply them to CHANGING MY MIND about letting you back in. And don't you dare touch that dustbin or I shall enter you in the HUNGER GAMES.'"

YA lit is definitely permeating the international lexicon.

In other media, having seen the female love interest fridged this month in "Godzilla," "Looper," "The Amazing Spider-Man" (yes, of course I saw that one coming) and "Supernatural" (for the third time in the series), "Malificent" came as a relief.

Caveat: I would never take a trope off the table, if only because, in the right hands, it could be played for, say, juxtaposition or irony.

Congratulations to Greg Leitich Smith on his rave review of Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook, 2014) from The Horn Book! Peek: "...Aidan, Louis, and Dru must depend on one another in a plot that twists and turns like a roller coaster through the engaging setting. The book design and spot cartoon art with a retro space-age feel work well with the wacky characters and situations of this enjoyably beach-y sci-fi escape."

Personal Links
Currently reading!

Cynsational Events

Middle Grade Mayhem! Join Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler in celebrating their new novels at 2 p.m. June 14 at BookPeople in Austin. See more information. Don't miss this article about Varian and The Great Greene Heist (Scholastic) from Kirkus Reviews.

Breaking news! Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will speak at the Writers' League of Texas 2014 Agents and Editors Conference to be held at the Hyatt Regency Austin from June 27 to June 29 in Austin, 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.

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22. Guest Author Snapshot: D.J. MacHale

D.J. with Casey; follow @DJMacHale
By Laini Bostian (and Omar Elbulok)
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Librarian Laini Bostian blogs at The Made Up Librarian. 

This winter, Omar Elbulok, one of my library’s teen advisors, and I had the pleasure of talking with author D.J. MacHale. He challenged us to ask him something he had never been asked. 

We enjoyed our Skype/telephone visit, and we definitely learned more about him.

On Teen Voice

D.J. said he didn't try too hard to make his characters sound young by using current slang or pop culture references. It is “all about attitude,” he explained.

D.J. noted that he had an “uncanny ability to remember what things were like back at that age [in his teens]” and that he had in fact recently penned a 12-page letter to a friend about events that had happened 40 years prior.

D.J. emphasized that teens are confident and arrogant about what they know, that they maintain an attitude of “the older I get, the less I know.” Then he admitted that not all teens are arrogant, but they try to hide their uncertainty, and he writes his characters from that perspective.

D.J. considered himself “painfully mediocre” in his teens, but was also “comfortable" in his own skin. This is how the main protagonist, Tucker Pierce, from D.J.’s book, SYLO, comes across.

On Romance

D.J. said that he tries to write about all of the types of relationships characters “old enough to get around on their own” have and that he would be remiss not to mention the boy-girl stuff happening at that age.

He did note that he “almost shot himself in the foot” when he started out the book Merchant of Death, first in the Pendragon series, with Bobby, the main protagonist, kissing a girl.

He risked boys “putting the book down, thinking it was going to be a mushy girl book.”

D.J. wants girls to read and relate to his stories as well..and he has gotten lots of fan mail from girls who loved the sixth Pendragon book, Rivers of Zadaa, most. D.J. also noted that once a boy gets to eighth or ninth grade, he is generally not put off by romance in a book.

On Fan Mail

D.J. said that he was consistently surprised at how many teens wrote to him with heart-wrenching stories about what was going on in their lives and let him know that his books got them through those rough times.

He also recalled a piece of hate mail, an e-mail he got from a woman questioning his use of “foul” language in his stories. This particular woman was upset that he'd written “fell on my ass.”

D.J. wrote back, letting the woman know that he respected her views, and that what was right for one person to say was not right for everyone. However, he did want the voice of the character to sound real, and this language was part of an internal thought train the protagonist had. It was not something he said out loud.

The woman did not accept this answer however, writing back and stating that C.S. Lewis did not need to use this type of language in his Chronicles of Narnia books.

D.J. tells his 10-year-old daughter that using curse words makes one look stupid. However, he doesn’t believe you can have “bad words” in books, and there are times where situations are extremely unpleasant in a story and it feels appropriate for characters to respond with more extreme language.

What was most interesting to D.J. was that the woman was not bothered by the fact that, in the same book the woman was writing to him about, a homeless man flung himself in front of a speeding subway. She just seemed so intensely focused on a few words.

On Influences

D.J. has difficulty watching or reading things that are similar to what he likes to write. He finds it particularly challenging to watch without thinking about things like why a writer was making certain decisions from a plotting point of view.

He called this “writer brain,” and went on to say that he did not read Harry Potter, for instance, because then, if he came up with an idea similar to one he had read about in that book, he would not use it. By steering clear, he could use all of his ideas.

On Being an Author

D.J. loves coming up with a new idea and typing up the end of a first draft after “pulling teeth” at times to get it all down on paper. He loves when someone comes up to him and simply says “I loved your book."

He loves it even more when someone gives him a specific about what they enjoyed in a story, such as a line of dialogue. He works hard on every word of it, and said, “it is nice to know you are not the only one amused by it.”

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23. Event Report: Bethany Hegedus & Grandfather Gandhi

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What a thrill it was yesterday to attend author Bethany Hegedus's launch of Grandfather Gandhi, co-authored by Arun Gandhi, illustrated by Evan Turk (Atheneum, 2014) at BookPeople in Austin!

Take a look at how reading, art, music, and yes, cake came together to make it such a success!

Live music both before and after the presentation.

Henna tattoo table.

Henna tattoo.

An array of both healthy and sweet refreshments.

Modeling Grandfather Gandhi with Bethany.

Cakelustrator Akiko White begins assembling the masterpiece.

Akiko and Bethany

Authors Shana Burg, Nikki Loftin, Cynthia Levinson and Liz Garton Scanlon.

Author-illustrator team Tom and Janice Sheffleman with author Cynthia Levinson.

Author-illustrator Frances Hill Yansky with YA authors Brian Yansky and April Lurie.

Authors Anne Bustard, Greg Leitich Smith, April and newly agented mega talent Vanessa Lee.

Author-librarian Julie Lake and author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell.

Author Jessica Lee Anderson (and family) with author-illustrator Jeff Crosby.

Bethany shared the personal back-story behind Grandfather Gandhi.

Bethany led children in a readers theater presentation; event also included children's art display.

A closer look at the cake by Akiko.

Author Greg Leitich Smith, author-illustrator Don Tate and author Varian Johnson.

Bethany signs for author Lindsey Scheibe.

Bethany and Nikki
Cynsational Notes & Screening Room

Participating children were gifted with books by authors like Varsha Bajaj and Uma Krishnaswami. Bethany's the event team, critiquers and other significant supporters were gifted with journals and glass bangle bracelets from Bethany's recent trip with her husband to a family wedding in India.

This year BookPeople will continue working with Bethany in conjunction with the Austin Independent School District to integrate the book into its curriculum.

Check out the gorgeous book trailer for Grandfather Gandhi from Curious City.

Grandfather Gandhi creators Arun Gandhi, Bethany Hegedus and Evan Turk share their insights into the story behind the book and its illustrations from Simon & Schuster.

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24. New Voice: Maria E. Andreu on The Secret Side of Empty

Resources (Discussion Guide)
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Maria E. Andreu is the first-time author of The Secret Side of Empty (Running Press, 2014). From the promotional copy:

As a straight-A student with a budding romance and loyal best friend, M.T.'s life seems as apple-pie American as her blondish hair and pale skin. But M.T. hides two facts to the contrary: her full name of Monserrat Thalia and her status as an undocumented immigrant.

With senior year of high school kicking into full swing, M.T. sees her hopes for a "normal" future unraveling. And it will take discovering a sense of trust in herself and others for M.T. to stake a claim in the life that she wants.

Author Maria E. Andreu draws from her personal experience to tell a story that is timely, relevant, and universally poignant.

Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an "ah-ha!" moment in your craft? What happened, and how did it help you?

The first few drafts of what would later become my debut novel was written as a memoir. Like the protagonist in The Secret Side of Empty, I too was undocumented as a child and teenager. For years I worked on it, refined it and sent it off to agents. For years, I collected lovely and gracious rejections.

Young Maria
I worried that maybe I was just unpublishable. I often wondered if I was kidding myself thinking my book could be on bookshelves. I wanted it but I felt totally unworthy of it. The mounting rejection slips seemed to corroborate my fears.

Then, determined to get to the bottom of why I got so many rejections that said, “Love the voice but I’m going to pass,” I signed up for a pitch conference in New York City.

 A pitch conference (or “pitch slam” as it is sometimes called) is an opportunity to sit face-to-face with agents and pitch them your idea. Terrifying, but necessary, dangling as I was just with a few inches of writing hope left to grasp.

The day of the conference I could barely eat. The agents, legendary creatures, each sat at round banquet style tables.

 In front of them, a gaggle of about eight hopefuls clustered grasping query letters in sweaty hands, reading them aloud one by one.

After each, the agent gave his professional opinion.

Most of that day is hazy in my memory. I was miserable most of it, dreading my turn to speak. Also, when I looked out over the ballroom full of aspiring writers I was suffused with a vast hopelessness. “There is no way I’m going to make it when so many people are trying and are better than I am.”

There they were, solid and real, a crowded ballroom full of reasons why it would always be impossible to break through.

My last assigned agent was one whose name I’ve forgotten and whom I almost didn’t meet at all. Her bio said that she was looking for young adult titles. Since I wanted to write for grown-ups, I had no interest in her feedback. But I’d promised myself that I’d be open to the whole experience, no matter how painful or seemingly pointless. So I sat at her table. I wasn’t even nervous for this one, like I wouldn’t have been with a cookbook agent or a bicycle repairperson.

I read her my pitch. She asked me a few questions about particulars.

Finally she said, “It’s a great idea. I think the issue is that you’re trying to sell this as a book for grown-ups, but all the action happens when the protagonist is a teenager. This would make a great YA novel.”

I thought (but didn’t say), “When you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Then I thanked her politely and proceeded to completely ignore her advice.

Months later my daughter, who was 12 at the time, wanted to read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Square Fish, reprint 2011), a YA book that I thought might be too mature for her.

I decided to give the book a quick read, thinking I’d either ask her to save it for later or that I’d be ready for her questions when they did come.

Within a couple of pages I was absorbed by the beauty of the writing and the expert pacing of the story. My a-ha moment, months overdue, happened right then. Of course.

Who was I to think I shouldn’t write in this genre? I would be honored… no, humbled… to be included in a genre that contained words this beautiful and a book this well-done.

I reworked my idea into YA fiction. Looking for an agent, I opened up Speak and the other big YA book I could think of: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (Little Brown, 2005). I was surprised to learn they were both with the same agency. I pitched them (and only them), then braced for the rejection.

Instead, what came was an offer of representation so beautiful that a copy of it still sits framed in my living room. Extra bonus? Anderson and Andreu are very close together alphabetically. When my book finally hit bookshelves, there it was, face-out and pretty next to Anderson’s latest on the New Teen Reads shelf. What had seemed impossible had finally come to pass in the most magical way.

Follow Maria on Twitter @WriterSideofM
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?

I’m kind of an obsessive planner, and I had plenty of time to study book promotion while I was getting rejections from agents. I read 1,001 Ways to Market Your Books by John Kremer (Open Horizons; 6th Edition, 2006) cover to cover. I scoured the internet, bookmarking sites. I created timelines and lists of ideas.

The conventional wisdom seemed to be that, even if you do get traditionally published, you should be prepared to promote your book as if you’re self-published. Because at the time I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to get traditionally published, I took that advice to heart. Either way, I’d have to learn to promote a book, so I might as well get started.

It was helpful because it taught me about the business. Later, when I was lucky enough to land with a very supportive publisher, I was delighted to learn that they would do a lot of the heavy lifting, like sending out review copies and setting up a blog tour. But my extensive research helped me know what questions to ask.

I decided early on that the motto for my debut year would be, “The answer is always 'yes.'”

Library visit? Yes.

Blog post? Yes.

Every opportunity big and small got a "yes" without exception.

Was it exhausting? Absolutely. But if I had it to do over again I’d do exactly the same thing.

I have two reasons for that: one, I’ve learned a ton about book promotion, much of which will help me be choosier in what I do the next time around. But how would I know that a blog interview is much easier to do than a guest post unless I’d slogged through guest post after guest post, racking my brain trying to figure out how to clever and inventive?

How would I know that a school visit in which the kids have read the book tends to be a whole lot more fun for all involved than one in which the kids haven’t unless I’d tap-danced my way through both?

The experience has been invaluable.

The second reason is that when you’re just starting out you’re just an unknown entity in a crowded world. Book buzz is built by people. Readers, yes, but also librarians and booksellers, reviewers and bloggers. Every opportunity to interact with one, busy as they all are, is a gift.

I did one event where only three people showed up in the rain. But I put on a show like we had a standing room only crowd. One of those people turned out to be a high school librarian that spread news of my book to her school and brought kids from her reading club to a subsequent (much better-attended) event that I did. Because you never know where things can lead, give it your all every time.

Probably one of the best things I did before my book came out was join an online group of authors whose debut books were scheduled to come out the same year as mine (OneFourKidLit). There are lists like this one for every debut year. Even if you haven’t yet sold your book, you can find similar communities at places like SCBWI and online writing communities.

OneFourKidLit has been great for me because, although I have an amazing support system, sometimes the people who care about you don’t understand everything about publishing. So when I’m stressing trying to juggle writing my new book and promoting my first one or trying to figure out how to get booked on book festivals, it’s great to have a group of people who are in the same boat. Otherwise it can be a pretty lonely and stressful boat!

Celebrating with the family!
I do love book promotion.

Having a chance to talk about a labor of love that it took me years to bring into the world?

What’s not to love?

If I had one bit of advice for people both aspiring to be published and those newly so, it is this: Never lose your sense of wonder. Writing, figuring out meanings and how to convey them, learning to connect with your readers, this is the important work of life. The rest of it: Deadlines, bad reviews, rejections, grumpy book people, they’re just details.

Hold on to the feeling that you’re doing what you’re here to do.

What can be more important than that?

Maria's Writing Assistants

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25. Author Interview & Giveaway: Greg Leitich Smith on Writing Realistic vs. Speculative Fiction

Greg at Hogwarts
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations on the release of my favorite of your books, Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook, 2014)! What was your initial inspiration for the novel?

Broadly speaking, I drew on my childhood experiences of summer vacations in Florida.

When I was a kid, my parents packed themselves and my brother and me up into the station wagon and we'd drive to Cocoa Beach, where my parents' best friends (and their adult children) owned a motel. We fished, we swam, we went to the theme parks and Kennedy Space Center and saw space shuttle and rocket launches. It was always a great time.

But the spark for the actual novel came when I was working on another project that I'd been cycling on for a while and that I hadn't gotten right yet.

So as a sort of thought experiment, I tried to write a character who was completely different, came from a different world, than the protagonist in that book. The character was Aidan, and all I really knew about him at the time was that he lived at a motel in Cocoa Beach.

But then he and the motel sort of came to life in a way that none of the characters in the manuscript that he was supposed to be for actually did.

The tone was more dry and funny and had voice and a terrific setting, and I knew at that point that it was too good to waste on that other project.

And then, for some reason, I wrote "And then he sees a UFO," and everything cascaded from there.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way? What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Early on, I made three important decisions, only two of which made it all the way through to publication.

The first that made it through was to make the story humorous, but with some serious underlying themes.

It's sort of a mashup of 1930s-1940s screwball comedies with UFO conspiracies and coverups.

Kind of, "Arsenic and Old Lace" (or maybe "Bringing up Baby") meets "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." In middle school.

The second to make it through was that I wanted the motel itself to really come to life. The novel is light sci-fi, but any time you have a fantastical element, I think it's important to have a grounding.

I wanted the motel to really feel almost like a character in its own right, in the same way that, say, Hogwarts Castle feels like a character in the Harry Potter books. So the Mercury Inn is loosely based on my parents' friends' motel, but with a sort of retro-50s contemporary upgrade. And a koi pond.

The one that didn't make it through was that the story was initially told from the first-person points of view of Aidan, the kid who lives at the motel, and Louis, his friend who helps out and is a UFO conspiracy enthusiast: Together they befriend a girl named Dru Tanaka (whose family is staying at the Mercury Inn) and, along with all of Florida, they see a UFO over the motel on the day of a space shuttle launch. From there, Aidan deals with troubles and mysterious goings-on at the motel, while Louis has issues at home and begins to uncover a bigger and bigger government conspiracy.

This was the version I sent out and it made it to acquisitions committee a couple times. Both times it was rejected because of concerns that middle graders don't like alternating point of view and, besides, the voices were blurring. (I disagreed, because I'd already written two alternating point of view novels and figured I knew how to give characters distinctive voices).

Then my agent sent it to Deirdre Langeland at Roaring Brook, and Deirdre suggested that the Louis-coverup storyline really took away from the novelty of the motel storyline. Also, she wondered if there was a need for alternating point of view at all, and that the Louis scenes did not appear to be working independently.

I mulled this over for a while, but was somewhat resistant because I figured the plotlines were so intertwined that it would be extremely difficult and time-consuming to disentangle them.

In the end, I decided to give it a go and it took me all of two weeks, which was simultaneously disagreeable and gratifying.

Now, the story is much better and is told from Aidan's point of view only, with the focus on the events at the motel and the zaniness that ensues when word spreads that theirs was the place with the UFO encounter. The government conspiracy is toned down, and the information that Louis acquires is now folded into the experiences at the motel. Overall, the flow is better and the themes are more focused and it's a whole bunch funnier and thematically coherent.

The other really big event to happen along the way was the decision by my editor to include illustrations by Andrew Arnold and I could talk about them a whole lot, but a picture is worth a thousand words.

Copyright Andrew Arnold.
Suffice it to say that they're absolutely terrific and add a lot to the look and feel of the book.

Your Peshtigo School companion novels--Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo and Tofu and T.rex--originally published by Little, Brown, have been re-released by IntoPrint. For those new to your comedic writing, could you fill them in on these books? How are they different from your more recent work?

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Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo is a romantic science comedy courtroom drama -- the story of three friends who take part in their school science fair and end up in their student court because of it. It's sort of based on the story of Galileo.

Tofu and T.rex is the story of a girl who's a vegan who goes to live with her cousin's family who own a German delicatessen and butcher shop.

Both are comedies set at the fictional Peshtigo School of Chicago.

They're both set in the "real" world, but a world in which everything is taken up a notch of extremes...

Overall, the tone is less dry, slightly less frenetic, and perhaps more zany than in Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn.

You write both realistic and fantastical fiction. How is it different to tackle each? What did one teach you about the other?

The key to any kind of fiction is to be honest with the reader and true to the characters.

Basically, it requires obeying the laws of the universe.

In contemporary realism, of course, that involves making sure that what goes on the page is "real," whether it's, say, school procedures or traffic laws or the laws of thermodynamics. If you break them, you'll lose the reader.

In fantastical fiction, you can make up at least some of the laws of your universe, but you can't break them without alienating the reader.

Now in paperback! See Activity Kit!
In Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2012), for example, I wanted to create a realistic world of dinosaurs, portraying humans encountering a world that represents our understanding of the Late Cretaceous. This meant only using plants and animals from that era and geographical location.

If I'd thrown in, say, a saber toothed tiger just because it was cool, the reader would've been thrown out of the reality of the Cretaceous. (Of course, in that book, I also had to pick my laws of time travel and stick to them...).

In Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, I created a world with a quirky motel in which UFOs exist and aliens walk among us, so I tried to make the science and engineering aspects of that reasonably plausible; if suddenly a flying unicorn appeared for no apparent reason, the reader's inclination might be to throw the book at the wall.

That said, with the contemporary realistic humorous work, I tend to think that comedies inhabit the same universe as musical theater. We all know that a group of nuns is not going to burst into song when trying to figure out "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" but it's okay when they do. In the same way, with comedy, there are going to be situations that may be real but not realistic, but it's okay because it may be true to that reality.

Matching humor with the fantastical was really the most difficult. As a reader, I've found that mixing genres in that way can be problematical, in that sometimes the humor can draw the reader out of the fantastical world.

With Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, the humor is intertwined and really as much of the world and characters as the fantastical, perhaps because it's based on the real world, but with the addition of the aliens....

Your books all feature diverse casts, including characters who share your Japanese- or German-American heritage. You've also, in Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, written a disabled hero. What are your thoughts on the current discussion around diversity in youth literature?

Follow @GLeitichSmith
I find it gratifying that the conversation has finally reached the point that what we're discussing is essentially the notion that multicultural is mainstream.

This is an approach I've been arguing for some time and which is reflected in my novels.

With the possible exception of Shohei in Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo, all of my characters have elements in their backgrounds/back-stories that could be characterized as diverse or multicultural, but the stories of their ancestries or their diversities per se are not thematic or the focus of the books.

And I think that reflects my young readers. There's more to kids today than being descended from the oppressed or the oppressor. They have a right to stories reflecting their realities.

What are you working on now?

At the moment, I am finalizing the sequel to Chronal Engine.

Titled "Chronal Engine: Borrowed Time," it takes up where Chronal Engine left off and continues the story of Max and his friends as they travel back to the Cretaceous and encounter previous generations of their family.

Thanks for being the official chef of Chez Leitich Smith. What's for dinner tonight?

Pan roasted chicken thighs and roasted broccoli. Also, chilled baby squirrels, simmered in orange brandy, bathed in honey cream sauce.

Sounds delicious!


Cynsational Notes & Giveaway

“In this gleefully absurd tale, Smith (Chronal Engine) unfurls a series of alien-inspired hijinks at a space-themed motel on Florida’s Space Coast…Arnold’s skillfully drafted spot cartoons give this offbeat story a lively layout and match Smith’s light and breezy tone, grounded by the occasional serious moment. The result is an engaging, humorous look at humans learning that they’re not alone in the universe.” –Publishers Weekly  (For the complete review, click here)

“The Mercury Inn…shelters a colorful cast of characters…in a plot that twists and turns like a roller coaster through the engaging setting. The book design and spot cartoon art with a retro space-age feel work well with the wacky characters and situations of this enjoyably beach-y sci-fi escape.” The Horn Book

“The quirky setting and diverse characters add originality.  An accessible and whimsical read, this should have wide appeal.” –School Library Journal

Copyright Andrew Arnold.
To Infinity and Beyond by Cynthia K. Ritter from The Horn Book. Peek: "The twisty plot and engaging setting of Greg Leitich Smith’s Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, along with Andrew Arnold’s retro cartoon spot art, work well with the wacky characters and situations."

A native of Chicago, award-winning author Greg Leitich Smith now lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, author Cynthia Leitich Smith, and their cats. His middle grade/tween novels include: the Parents’ Choice Gold Award-winning and Junior Library Guild Selection, Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo (Little Brown/IntoPrint); its companion Tofu and T.rex (Little Brown/IntoPrint); the Junior Library Guild Selection Chronal Engine (Clarion); and Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook). He is also published in the picture book and YA short story.

Although he's never seen a UFO or built a time machine, he holds degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois and the University of Texas, and a degree in law from the University of Michigan. Find him @GLeitichSmith and  GregLSBlog.

Enter to win one of two signed copies of Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn by Greg Leitich Smith (Roaring Brook) and glow-in-the-dark LGM wrist bands. Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

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