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26. New Voice: Katie Kennedy on Learning to Swear in America

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Katie Kennedy is the first-time author of Learning to Swear in America (Bloomsbury, 2016). From the promotional copy:

An asteroid is hurtling toward Earth. A big, bad one. 

Maybe not kill-all-the-dinosaurs bad, but at least kill-everyone-in-California-and-wipe-out-Japan-with-a-tsunami bad. Yuri, a physicist prodigy from Russia, has been recruited to aid NASA as they calculate a plan to avoid disaster.

The good news is Yuri knows how to stop the asteroid--his research in antimatter will probably win him a Nobel prize if there's ever another Nobel prize awarded. 

But the trouble is, even though NASA asked for his help, no one there will listen to him. He's seventeen, and they've been studying physics longer than he's been alive.

Then he meets (pretty, wild, unpredictable) Dovie, who lives like a normal teenager, oblivious to the impending doom. Being with her, on the adventures she plans when he's not at NASA, Yuri catches a glimpse of what it means to save the world and live a life worth saving.

Prepare to laugh, cry, cringe, and have your mind burst open with the questions of the universe.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Research was a huge part of writing Learning to Swear in America. The book is about an incoming asteroid, and the main character, Yuri, is a physics genius. I’m not.

I knew I didn’t want the book to be science-free. I mean, how could it be? It would be like a biography of a poet that doesn’t talk about the poetry—it would be missing a crucial element.

A physician friend told me about a Morbidity & Mortality meeting he attended as a young doctor. The physician in charge strode out onto the stage and wrote on the marker board:

  1. I didn’t know enough.
  2. Bad stuff happens.
  3. I was lazy. 

The man turned to the assembled doctors and said, “The first two will happen. You will have patients die for both those reasons.”

Then he slammed the side of his fist against the board and roared, “But by God it better never be because you were too lazy to Do. Your. Job.”

That’s how I felt about approaching research for Learning to Swear. I didn’t know enough. I would make mistakes. But it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.

I read Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, and articles written by astrophysicists—for astrophysicists. You can find science simplified for the average educated reader—the basics on asteroids, for example. But if you want simplified information on spectral analysis? Forget it.

NASA’s website has all sorts of tables about asteroids, and it was a go-to source—until I discovered that the government shutdown also shuttered NASA. It was inconvenient not to be able to access information on which I was used to relying. It was chilling to realize that the people who usually stand sentry for Earth had been pulled in.

I should mention that a physicist who’s involved in security issues read for me—this is Dr. Robert August—and did me a world of good. Not only did he help me get the equipment right, but he corrected me on little cultural things. For example, he said that the computer programmers would have the name of their favorite pizza place written on their marker board. I included that.

Almost everything in the scenes with the programmers came from information Bob shared. He’s been in these kind of meetings, so that was incredibly helpful.

My biggest problem—outside of lack of background knowledge—was that I had envisioned exacerbating the problem mid-book by having the asteroid’s speed increase, so that it would arrive sooner than they expected.

Then I discovered this would violate the laws of nature.  

Stupid laws of nature. By this point I had half the book written, and knew I had to find another way to make it harder for Yuri to stop the asteroid.

So I ate a lot of mint chocolate chip ice cream and did more reading—and somewhere in the tiny print I found my answer.

I did a little happy dance, and my husband asked why. “I found a way for an asteroid to smash the Earth, and we couldn’t do anything to stop it!”

He gave me a very strange look.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

Learning to Swear in America is based on an Immanuel Kant quote:

"Do what is right, though the world should perish."

I teach college history, and we talk about Kant as part of the Enlightenment. That quote is one that hooked my imagination—I remember walking across the college parking lot thinking, Yeah, but what if the world really would perish? What then?

This book is the outgrowth of my conversation with Kant about that.

So I think being an instructor is helpful in several ways. First, history is narrative--essentially I tell stories to my students. Some of them are pretty good!

Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I.
I look at the names in my lectures—the Gracchi, Charlemagne, George Washington—and I’m so grateful that I get to share their stories with my students. What a privilege!

Also—what good practice in storytelling. I get to see immediately when the students’ attention flags.

Second, I come in contact with interesting material all the time, through reading in support of my day job, and even through my own lectures—like the Kant quote.

In fact, the main character of my next book was inspired by an historical figure—but I’m not saying who it is.

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27. Author Interview: Debbie Levy on I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Happy Election Day! Go vote!

We welcome author Debbie Levy to talk about her new picture book biography. 

From the promotional copy of I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster, 2016):

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has spent her lifetime disagreeing . . . with creaky old ideas. With unfairness. With inequality. She has disagreed. She has disapproved. She has objected and resisted. 

She has dissented!

Disagreeable? No. Determined? Yes! 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has changed her life, and ours, by voicing her disagreements and standing up for what’s right. This picture book about the first female Jewish justice of the U.S. Supreme Court shows that disagreeing does not make you disagreeable and that important change can happen one disagreement at a time.

See also the Glorious RBG Blog (click to view 11 entries).

Welcome to Cynsations, Debbie! We're both graduates of The University of Michigan Law School. Did you practice law or go straight to writing for young readers like I did (or rather like I did after clerking)?

I did practice law for several years after law school. But writing books for children is the only job I’ve held for more than six years. Lawyer at a big Washington, D.C. law firm: six years. Newspaper editor: six years. Then I took a class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, with the excellent Mary Quattlebaum. (Check out her books, and her reviewing work!)

Writing for children: This was a vocation with long-term potential.

Michigan Law School Reading Room
Hey, I have a newspaper background, too--so much in common! You write fiction and nonfiction across formats and age levels. Often I hear from new writers that they feel pressured to pick one focus. What has your range of pursuits done for you in terms of craft and career?

I think the writers you’re hearing from are telling a truth: There can be pressure to pick one focus or, to put it otherwise, to establish a “brand.”

I think I must have subconsciously scoffed at the notion that I could ever be a brand—ha, a Debbie Levy brand!—so, for better or worse, I’ve mostly followed my interests and allowed serendipity a role in choosing projects.

Also, one solution for writers who do want to be multi-focal is to have more than publisher. I realize that doesn’t solve a beginning writer’s problem, who may be looking for Publisher #1. But it is an option once you start getting published.

Congratulations on the release of I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster, 2016)! What about Ruth Bader Ginsburg called to you as a writer?

Thank you! Like many people, I knew that the Glorious RBG was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States and the first Jewish woman on the Court.

I knew that, before that, she was a federal appeals court judge in Washington, D.C., and, before that, one of leading lawyers in the field of equal rights for women and girls.

What I didn’t know, until I started researching more deeply about her, is that she has been disagreeing with unfairness and with things that are just plain wrong from the time she was a little girl.

I mean, she objected to being excluded from shop class in grade school, and being required to take cooking and sewing instead! When on a car trip with her parents, she disagreed with she saw a sign outside a hotel that read “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.” Later, of course, she went on to disagree, resist, object, and dissent her way into big things.

And she’s been doing this for years with a voice that is not loud (people lean in to hear her words), in a manner that is not obnoxious (more benefit of the doubt than bashing, more insight than invective), and in service of justice.

So, I realized, the story of her life offers this inspiring lesson: Disagreeing does not make you disagreeable, and important change happens one disagreement at a time. Is it any wonder, then, that I thought she was a great person to introduce to young people in a picture book?

Agreed! Many of my favorite people disagree strongly with injustice. What were the challenges (research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the story to life?

I feel lucky to live in the Washington, D.C. area, because although Justice Ginsburg didnot find time for an interview with me last summer when I was working on this book, she did grant me access to her papers on deposit in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress (practically next door to the Supreme Court!).

I’ve gone through at least one Manuscript Division collection before, but none like this. So tidy! Meticulous! Her speeches typed on 4 x 6 cards: impeccable! Her handwritten notes on yellow legal sheets discussing and advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment that never got adopted!

Although I didn’t absolutely need to read piles of drafts of legal briefs and memoranda, I dived into this stuff with gusto; you do get a sense of a person from their papers.

Oh, wait. You asked for challenges. It is a challenge to write about someone, a living, active person, without having an interview. But there were many, many print and video interviews of RBG for me to consult. Many scholarly articles, by and about her.

And she did review the manuscript last October. She sent a nice little note, and wrote in some handwritten notes in the margins of my typescript. I took all her edits!

Since you’ve specifically mentioned “psychological challenges”—I lost my mother three years ago.

Debbie's mother kayaking on the Wye River
She was a vibrant, ever-curious, outgoing woman, someone always interested in another person’s story, someone who as a girl dreamed of being a journalist (she ended up in the wholesale costume jewelry business instead), and she would have been over the moon to know that I was writing a book about RBG, to know that I was elbow-deep in RBG materials at the Library of Congress, to know that RBG looked over my manuscript pre-publication.

I’m answering your questions, Cyn, the morning after the book launch for I Disssent, which we held at D.C.’s great Politics & Prose Bookstore. Many friends who had known my mother attended.

I said there, “I cannot help but think that had my mother still been alive, she would have figured out a way to get me into RBG’s chambers for an interview—and she along with me!”

The room was filled with knowing smiles and laughter. Someone even called out my mother’s signature phrase: “Let me ask you a question”—her way of getting people to open up to her.

That helped with the pain of not having Mom there. (And, really, she would have snagged me an interview.)

Talk to us about disagreeing. It sounds like a negative focus for a children's book. Is it? In either case, why do you think it's important in the conversation of youth literature?

Yes, let’s talk about disagreeing! The theme of disagreeing is really what sold my editor at Simon & Schuster on this book.

From the very beginning, we were really excited about creating a book that said to all kids, and to girls in particular, that disagreeing does not make a person disagreeable, and that you can accomplish big things for yourself and for the world through dissent and by finding another way when the world says “no” to you.

It’s a positive message, but it’s also a message that says you don’t have to be positive—that is, you don’t have to sound or look positive, you don’t have to just say yes and smile and go along with things that you believe are wrong—to be a good person.

At the same time, simply disagreeing without more isn’t really enough if you want to change your life or anyone else’s. On the back of the book, we’ve put this RBG quote: “Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Seems simple, right? But it’s that second sentence that is so hard to pull off.

Many authors discover reoccurring themes in their work? Is this true of you? If so, could you tell us about it and how I Dissent fits in?

I seem to return to the theme of Outsiderness. My mother, protagonist of the nonfiction-in-verse The Year of Goodbyes (Hyperion, 2010), being an outsider as a girl in Nazi Germany in 1938. Danielle, protagonist of my young adult novel Imperfect Spiral (Bloomsbury, 2013), who finds an unexpected antidote to her feelings of being the outsider in an unlikely friendship with the six-year-old boy she babysits one summer.

The African American individuals and communities, outsiders in their own country, in my nonfiction picture book We Shall Overcome: The Story of A Song (Disney-Jump at the Sun, 2013).

Today we may look at RBG and see the ultimate insider—she’s a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, for heaven’s sake! But she overcame the outsiderness of being a Jew in a sometimes hostile Gentile world, of being a young woman in the (then) overwhelmingly male-dominated world of law school, of being a female lawyer in a (then) man’s profession, and of being an advocate for legal and social changes that went against the grain of society’s traditional norms. There’s my theme.

What do you love about your writing life?

Other writers. What good communities and friendships I’ve found!

What do you do when you're not writing or out-and-about in your author hat?

Walk in the woods or along the nearby Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Kayak in the Chesapeake Bay area. Fish in the Chesapeake Bay area. Read.

Think about whoever my next dog will be.

Apologize to my cat for thinking about my next dog.

You know, the usual.

What can your readers look forward to next?

In February 2017, Soldier Song, A True Story of the Civil War (Disney-Hyperon). An 80-page picture book for older children about a remarkable event that occurred after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Illustrated by the excellent, creative Gilbert Ford, with lots of room for excerpts from soldier’s letters and diaries. I’m excited about this!

Don't miss The Glorious RBG Blog!


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28. Guest Post: Mary Atkinson Asks Am I A Radical?

Author Visit with Mary Atkinson
By Mary Atkinson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Recently, I received an email from Abby, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was working on a research project about Lollipop Power, a small press established in Chapel Hill in 1970.

She wanted to know if I was the author of one of their books, María Teresa. She’d found correspondence between the author and the press archived in the university library.

“Looking at your website,” she wrote, “I see you are a great educator! I am teaching in Texas after I graduate so I always love stumbling upon other teachers and seeing their wisdom.”

Of course I got right back to her! Now in my 60s, I am full of wisdom and I’m always happy to share!

I had written María Teresa when I was living in Cincinnati, Ohio in the late 1970s. I taught Spanish then to first and second graders at Silverton Elementary School in a magnet program to attract white students to the predominantly black school. Because I only had high school certification, I needed to get my elementary certificate to keep my job. I enrolled in the necessary courses at Xavier University.

I signed up for History of Children’s Literature, a course that ultimately guided me to my life’s passion—writing for children. One day, we had a guest speaker: Lucille Clifton.

What she said had a profound impact on me. She said that all children deserve to see themselves in children’s books. In 1977!

As a teacher in a school where most of my students were black, Clifton’s comment resonated with me. I’d already looked in my local library for picture books where both the students I taught and the children who spoke the language I taught were represented. I’d found very few.

One assignment in the children’s literature course was to write and illustrate a children’s book. Another life defining moment!

Thus, María Teresa was born. María Teresa tells the story of a young Mexican American girl who finds her voice in her Anglo classroom through her puppet, Monteja la Oveja.

I decided to try to get María Teresa published. I combed through the thick volume of the Writer’s Market at the Cincinnati Public Library. Why did I pick Lollipop Power Press among all the others listed?

Because I loved the Lollipop mission.

The Lollipop Power Press was a non-sexist and non-racist children’s book publishing collective, a feminist press concerned with issues of class, race, and gender equality.

It published books such as Martin’s Father by Margrit Eichler about a boy and his black single-parent father; Jesse’s Dream Skirt by Bruce Mack about a boy who sews his own skirt and wears it to school; and In Christina’s Toolbox by Dianne Homan about a girl who loves to build things just like her mom.

I was thrilled when Lollipop accepted my manuscript for publication. That was easy, I thought! I’m going to be a children’s author! I’ll write stories, send them to publishers and they’ll become books. (Little did I know…)

Abby, the college student, and I spoke on the phone. Her curiosity about and enthusiasm for María Teresa touched me deeply. It took me back to a time when a book about a girl and her toolbox, a boy who wears a skirt, and a boy with a single black dad were unusual, and in many places, controversial.

“Were you a radical?” she asked me when I told her about how Lollipop Power’s vision back then was so new.

Well, I joked, if believing in equality and access to children’s literature for all children was radical, I guess I was.

And still am. It all goes back to my ah-ha moment when listening to Lucille Clifton. Every child deserves to see themselves in the books they read.

As I think back on it, two things are notable. One, that as a WASP New Englander, it had never occurred to me back then to even think about how there were children who couldn’t find themselves in books. And two, that as soon as she said it, it touched a deep well inside me.

I understood what she was saying. I understood how important it was. And I wanted to be a children’s author who wrote stories for and about all kinds of children.

Forty years later, the vision of We Need Diverse Books is “A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.”

Am I a radical to ask, “Why is this taking so long?”

Cynsational Notes

Mary Atkinson has taught Spanish to students of all ages, been a third grade teacher, and hosted a Spanish radio show. Her poetry for children has appeared in magazines and anthologies, and her fiction and non-fiction have been published widely in educational markets. She is the author of Owl Girl (Maine Authors Publishing, 2015).

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29. Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

John Herrington's Mission to Space (Chickasaw Press): a recommendation by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children's Literature. Peek: "Herrington is an astronaut. He was on space shuttle Endeavor, in 2002. Mission to Space begins with his childhood, playing with rockets, and ends with Endeavor's safe return to Earth."

Power Your Fiction: Using Weather to Create Mood, Not Cliches by Angela Ackerman from Writers in the Storm. Peek: "...weather is important to us as people. We interact with it each day. It affects us in many subtle ways."

Getting Around First-Person Point of View Limitations by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "The biggest plot-related problem with first person POV is that your protagonist has to be around for everything. Dagnabit!" Note: Use eavesdropping with caution as it's an easy way to earn information and, thus, diminishes its value.

Understanding Inner Conflict by Michael Hauge from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "... you give them compelling desires that will force them to let go of their protective identities. Then, as they pursue those goals, they will come to realize the truth of who they are underneath their masks."

A New Direction for BookExpo America by Jim Milliot from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "...the focus will be on drawing more book buyers, including booksellers, librarians, and buyers from a range of specialty retailers. Through a more rigorous application process, Reed will limit the numbers of bloggers, independent authors, and consultants."

Once Upon a Time With Liz Garton Scanlon from American Lifestyle. Peek: "...her inspiration for writing children’s books, the process for creating her award-winning book All the World, and why gratitude and hope are central themes for her."

We Need Diverse Books Announces Partnership with Madcap Retreats to Run Diversity-Themed Author Retreats from WNDB. Peek: "The partnership will present two affordable, workshop-based retreats for 2017. Writing Cross-Culturally will focus on how one can diversify their writing and learn to write cross-culturally responsibly, while the Diverse Aspiring Authors retreat will give authors from marginalized backgrounds craft workshops, industry 101 information, and ways to navigate the roadblocks of the current publishing climate." See also On "Who Can Tell My Story" by Martha Parravano from The Horn Book.

When Your Agent Says "No" by Hilary Wagnor from Project Mayhem. Peek: "...a great agent is going to tell you when your work isn't up to par and should not be sent off to editors. If your agent truly respects you, they're going to tell you the truth no matter what."

For Whom The Book Is Written: Addressing Intended Audience in YA Novels about Mental Illness by Katherine Locke from School Library Journal. Peek: "Weight and numbers are a way for outsiders/non-sufferers to understand the severity of the disease and they’re more tangible than the incongruous and seemingly irrational thoughts of an anorexic person."

This Week at Cynsations


More Personally

Great news! Author Marth Brockenbrough joins the VCFA WCYA faculty at this upcoming winter residency in Montpelier. Huzzah! In more terrific news, faculty chair Alan Cumyn has won the the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People. Peek: "In awarding the prize, the jury said Cumyn’s work “brilliantly exceeding the standards of fiction for the young, Cumyn’s novels for teenagers and children alike show a sure-handed mix of humour, poetry and melancholy, and an abiding commitment to a young person’s viewpoint."

Austin SCBWI & Writers' League of Texas Diversity Book Event at Texas Book Festival

Moderating & Signing Nov. 5
 
It's Texas Book Festival week! Please join me (the moderator) and "Supernatural Storytellers" Robert Beatty, Janet Fox & D.J. MacHale 12:30 11/5 E1.026 Capitol Extension in Austin.

See that nifty "Hey Texans" banner? I'll be part of the Texas author diversity signing event with Chris Barton and Natalie Sylvester, sponsored by The Writers' League of Texas and Austin SCBWI, at the Writers' League Booth. Note: Book giveaway while supplies last! See an interview with all three of us. Peek from me:

"I love that when it came to connecting books to readers through community, the Texas Book Festival was the ground breaker. The leader. I feel about it the way a lot of Texans felt when—in a journey spanning from the dawn of time to humanity’s trek in the stars—the first word spoken from outer space was 'Houston'."

Tweeps! Join me Thurs., from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. central Nov. 17 for "Indigenous Voices in Middle Grade Novels," a #mglitchat on Twitter, featuring Lee Francis, Debbie Reese, Traci Sorell, and Tim Tingle.

Check out the We Need Diverse Books Auction!



Personal Links


Join me Saturday, Nov. 12
Honored to join the SCBWI winter conference faculty!
Honored to join the SCBWI winter conference faculty!

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30. New Voice: Tracy Edward Wymer on Soar

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Tracy Edward Wymer on Soar (Aladdin, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Seventh grader Eddie is determined to honor his father’s legacy and win the school science fair in this fun and quirky debut novel.

Eddie learned everything there is to know about birding from his dad, including the legend of the Golden Eagle, which Dad claimed he saw once down near Miss Dorothy’s pond. 

According to his dad, the Golden Eagle had wings wider than a creek and talons the size of bulldozer claws. But when Eddie was in sixth grade, Dad “flew away” for good, leaving Eddie on his own to await the return of the elusive raptor.

Now Eddie is starting seventh grade and trying to impress Gabriella, the new girl in town. The annual seventh grade Science Symposium (which Dad famously won) is looming, and Eddie is determined to claim the blue ribbon for himself. 

With Mr. Dover, the science teacher who was Dad’s birding rival, seemingly against him, and with Mouton, the class bully, making his life miserable on all fronts, Eddie is determined to overcome everything and live up to Dad’s memory. Can Eddie soar and make his dream take flight?

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?

Linda Sue Park
Three words. Linda. Sue. Park. I took her writing workshop at the SCBWI-Los Angeles Summer Conference two years in a row. Back then, the workshop was embedded in the other four conference days. The workshop was one hour a day for four days.

Linda taught us how to focus on scenes instead of chapters or plot points. She told us about the “magic camera” that follows the main character everywhere in the story. If that camera stops, then your reader “stops” too. She talked about narration versus dialogue, and how to measure those in your manuscript, while finding the proper balance.

I think you get the picture here. Linda Sue Park is a master storyteller. I learned a lot of deeper level writing techniques from her.

I’d say to anyone looking for a community of writers, SCBWI provides a wealth of opportunity. Not only do the conferences offer sound advice and suggestions to writers and illustrators about the craft and business of publishing, but there is also great potential to meet writers who will become your friends, mentors, and critique partners.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

Tracy Edward Wymer
I have been an educator for 15 years, at the same school. I have experience teaching elementary and middle school students. Now I’m an assistant principal.

I love my job. I love being around young people who are learning at breakneck speeds. I especially love being surrounded with their enthusiasm for reading.

Ages 8-12 are the golden years of reading, and it’s no coincidence that I ended up writing stories for that age group.

I began reading a lot around the same age, and authors like Roald Dahl have a special place in my heart, and I’m sure many other adult readers feel the same way. The best part of being an educator is being at the center of book-loving teachers, librarians, and students all the time.

My years of teaching led me to read all kinds of authors. I quickly fell in love with authors like Jerry Spinelli, Lois Lowry, and Gary Schmidt. My literary tastes have always sided with realistic fiction, and I’m lucky to have found these authors early on in my writing journey. I still prefer realistic fiction, and there are always new voices hitting the scene.

This year, I’m lucky to be one of those voices.

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31. Guest Post: Becca Puglisi on Setting as a Characterization Tool

By Becca Puglisi
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

In storytelling, our number one job is to make readers care. We want to ensure that our fiction captivates them on many levels and that our characters seem like living, breathing people who continue to exist in readers’ minds long after the book closes.

So how do we do this?

Well, it may not seem like the obvious choice, but the setting can be one of the best tools through which to organically reveal truths about your characters.

Here are two quick tips on how to use the setting to characterize your cast for readers:

Choose Emotionally Relevant Locations

As the gods of our own little universes, we have the power to choose literally everything. But when it comes to the setting, the decision is often a halfhearted one—since the setting is just a backdrop, right? Wrong.

Ordering Information
Every character has a history of blissful interludes, toxic run-ins, embarrassing moments, and traumatic episodes. And long after these formative events have been forgotten or buried, their settings will continue to hold significance for the characters involved.

For instance, let’s say that after being out of the romance game for a while, your heroine has agreed to go on a first date, and you need to decide on a setting.

Instead of falling back on a generic location for this scene, brainstorm some possibilities that hold significance for the character. Maybe her date has asked to meet at the same café where her fiancé once dumped her. Or in the park where she was mugged. Or at the bar where the guy she’s been in love with since tenth grade works as a bouncer.

Any of these settings can work because they’re already emotionally charged for the protagonist.

A first date can be difficult in and of itself; experiencing it in one of these places is going to heighten the character’s emotions and bring back old memories when she’d rather avoid them, ensuring that she won’t be at her best. When it comes to the important scenes in your story, complicate matters for your protagonist and tap into his or her emotions by choosing settings with personal significance.

Get Personal with the Details

Showing rather than telling is the most powerful means of providing insight into the personality of your protagonist and other cast members. Rather than explaining your characters through boring chunks of narrative, hone in on the personal details within a given setting that will tell readers about the people inhabiting it:

I surveyed Rossa’s spotless kitchen. Dishes in their racks—sparkling. Wooden counters—scrubbed to a stone-like smoothness. Rossa herself—hair perfectly arranged, clothes crisp even at this hour, the frivolous fall of lace at her throat. I crossed my arms and couldn’t help wondering, again, how she and Dad could be meant for each other.

Ordering Information
Here we have a scene that says loads about its owner. Rossa is meticulous when it comes to tidiness—both for her home and herself. You get the feeling that she values propriety and appearances. And we learn something about the narrator, too: she isn’t so concerned with all of that. She disdains it, in fact, and doesn’t seem to like her Dad’s love interest very much. All of this we’re able to infer from the simple description of a kitchen.

Personal spaces can be quite telling. Make them do more than simply set the scene by zooming in on those details that reveal something about your characters. And for those vital scenes in your story, put your cast members on edge by thoughtfully choosing the settings—ones that add an emotional component or will up the stakes. Resist the temptation to settle for a generic setting and start putting your locations to work for you and your characters.

Cynsational Notes

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her latest publications are all about settings: The Rural and Urban Setting Thesauruses showcase over 200 different possible story locations, highlighting their associated sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells so authors can effectively describe them for readers.

Becca is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find her online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

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32. In Memory: Natalie Babbitt

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

“Don't be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don't have to live forever, you just have to live.”
--Tuck Everlasting


'Tuck Everlasting' Author Natalie Babbitt, Of Hamden, Dies At Age 84 by the Associated Press from The Hartford Courant. Peek: "Babbitt's literary career started in 1966, when she illustrated a children's book written by her husband and was encouraged by its editor to continue writing and illustrating children's books herself."

Obituary: Natalie Babbitt by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "The subject matter—is living forever a good thing? —was somewhat controversial when the book [Tuck Everlasting] was published in 1975, especially in schools, but strong word-of-mouth and support from educators and librarians helped it grow into an enduring favorite."

Tuck Everlasting author Natalie Babbitt dies at 84 from The Guardian. Peek: "The 1975 novel, which has sold over 3.5m copies...has been adapted into two movies and a Broadway play..she was a National Book Award finalist for The Devil’s Storybook in 1975."

Cynsational Notes

She received many honored including a Newbery Honor for Knee-Knock Rise (FSG, 1971) and the inaugural E.B. White Award in 2013.

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33. New Voice: Jenn Bishop on The Distance to Home

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jenn Bishop is the first-time author of The Distance To Home (Knopf, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Last summer, Quinnen was the star pitcher of her baseball team, the Panthers. They were headed for the championship, and her loudest supporter at every game was her best friend and older sister, Haley.

This summer, everything is different. Haley’s death, at the end of last summer, has left Quinnen and her parents reeling. Without Haley in the stands, Quinnen doesn’t want to play baseball. It seems like nothing can fill the Haley-sized hole in her world. 

The one glimmer of happiness comes from the Bandits, the local minor-league baseball team. For the first time, Quinnen and her family are hosting one of the players for the season. Without Haley, Quinnen’s not sure it will be any fun, but soon she befriends a few players. 

With their help, can she make peace with the past and return to the pitcher’s mound?

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?

After querying two projects and having plenty of full requests but no offers, I felt stuck in that place I'm sure many other writers have found themselves in. You're so close, but still not there yet.

There's something holding you back, but no one has been able to articulate it. And since you're the writer, you don't have the capacity to objectively evaluate your own finished product. Of course the story works for you; you wrote it!


It was at this point in my writer's journey—after feeling frustrated with being so close and still not there yet, that I applied to Vermont College of Fine Art's MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

The ah-ha moment for me came during the first residency, and was followed by many ah-ha moments in the subsequent ones.

Coming in 2017
In workshop, each time we met, two writers had their work critiqued by the group. You might think my ah-ha moment came during my own critique, but as I remember, it came from looking closely at the work of my peers.

Suddenly, it started to click—what all those agents had been trying to tell me, but which I had failed to see. I wasn't letting the reader along on the journey with the character, not entirely.

You see, on the surface there was nothing wrong with my writing. Like so many English lit majors, I knew how to write at the sentence level. But what I didn't know—what I was only just beginning to learn—was how to tell a story. Maybe still that language is not perfectly precise.

What I was failing to do was let the reader in on the journey of the story. I was trapping the reader outside of it; it wasn't a lived, breathed experience for them.

I could see this difference as I read my peers' work. Some of us were still in the same stage as me; perfectly suitable writing, but not a lived experience. And others, with interiority and voice, had allowed the reader to become an active participant in the story.

Later in the program, Rebecca Stead came as a visiting writer and lectured on this participant quality. She spoke of how writing is providing the 2+2 of the equation, and letting the reader put that together to make four.

Like so many beginning writers, I was always writing out the full equation. Not letting the reader to inhabit the story and do the work.

This revelation was one that shook the big picture. It didn't allow for an easy or quick fix. What it meant was that I had to start all over in my thinking of how to tell a story, what to share with the reader and how.

Like so many things in writing, it was just the beginning.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn't address these factors? Why or why not?

Coming from a librarian background, I tend to have the long haul in mind. The truth is most books will have longer shelf lives in libraries than they ever will in a bookstore. Who wouldn't want their book to be serendipitously discovered by a teen three, five, ten years after it was published?

As a teen librarian, I assessed the teen fiction collection annually, having to—gulp—discard the books that were no longer circulating to make room for new books.

In truth, some books don't have a long shelf life because they are so technology-obsessed that they date themselves within a few years.

As a middle grade writer, I have it a little easier than YA authors, with technology being not quite as big a part of a ten-year-old's life. That said, there are certain technologies that don't seem to be going away, and it's not in my interest to avoid anything my characters would be using in real life.

In The Distance To Home, text messaging plays a key role in the plot. While I'm a little wary of using branded applications, like Facebook and Twitter, whose purposes and uses have evolved quite a bit in the past five years, it's important at the end of the day to be true to your reader's world.

Anytime you avoid their reality, you risk the chance of a reader feeling jolted out of the story by something that feels inaccurate or false.

This revision kitty always rests on freshly printed manuscripts.


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34. Cynsations Intern: Gayleen Rabakukk on Unique & Creative State Book Awards Programs

KS William Allen White Award winner Chris Grabenstein with 6-8 graders
By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

In updating the Awards for Children’s and YA Literature By State for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s author website, I discovered several programs and librarians taking unique or creative approaches to build interest in the books.

Here’s a closer look at a few of those programs:

Emporia State University hosts a Read-In and Sleepover for students to meet the winners of the William Allen White Award (named in honor of the Kansas newspaper editor whose autobiography won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947.)

About 80 students meet the winning authors, play board games and go swimming in the campus pool. Sleeping bags are spread out on the floor of the rec center where there’s a lights-out-at-10-p.m. policy, but with so many avid readers in attendance, there’s sure to be lots of flashlights under the covers.

On Saturday morning, about 500 students attend the Celebration that includes art activities provided by the Emporia Arts Council, skits from ESU theater students, and a school spirit competition. A ceremonial presentation of the William Allen White Book Award by student representatives follows.

KS William Allen White Award winner Sharon Creech with 3-5 graders
State budget cuts in recent years have made it impossible for some schools to attend the ceremony. Kappa Delta Pi (ESU’s student honor society) is putting together a travel grant program to make it possible for more schools to attend.

Georgia Children’s Book Awards hosts a two-day conference aimed at showing teachers and librarians ways the books can be used in the curriculum, along with presentations by authors and illustrators. For those who can’t make the conference, an outline of curriculum ideas.

The conference also includes the final round of the Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl. In 1986, library media specialist Helen Ruffin developed a competitive game format to question students about content of the nominees. She envisioned teams of students from different schools competing to test their knowledge. The competition grew and renamed in her honor following her retirement.

In 2004, a committee composed of Georgia Association of Educators and Georgia Library Media Association members set out to take the program statewide. Today, more than 600 schools across the state compete in regional, then division competitions before the finals are held at the conference.

Competition is also a reading incentive in Hawaii’s Children’s Choice Book Award, the Nene (in honor of Hawaii’s state bird.) Students compete in Kahoot! games or Nene Jeopardy. (Kahoot is a free game-based learning platform for creating a collection of questions on a specific topic. Learn more about it here.)

Pearl Harbor Elementary Librarian Denise Sumida started using "Jeopardy" games with her library classes in 2005 to build excitement about the nominees. She is also a Nene committee member.

She said, “Starting in 2008, I began video conferences with other schools as a way to promote the books, connect with other libraries/students, and to advocate for the Nene Award program.”

Games played in October, November and December are based on the winning book, while January, February and March games focus on the nominees.

Nene Awards, honoring students for Kahoots, digital & poster contests
Video conferencing allows schools to compete against one another without leaving the classroom, easing scheduling issues and eliminating travel costs.

“In general, students love to see themselves on camera and Google Hangouts allows us to view the broadcasts on YouTube,” Sumida added. “The Nene nominees are usually really popular at my school and the extra incentive of participating in a video conference encourages the students to read from the list.”

She’s seen an increase in reading participation since introducing the video conferencing with other schools. Last year, they began using Kahoot to focus on individual student knowledge of the Nene winner and the top three scorers were recognized at the Nene Ceremony.

Sumida advises other librarians thinking about introducing games to start small. She said:

  • "I did video conferences with other Nene Committee librarians’ schools first. Only two schools connecting at a time.
  • "If time permits, test out 'Jeopardy'/Kahoot questions on your students to make sure they are clear and developmentally appropriate.
  • "Test video conference connections ahead of time. This seems simple, but if the video conference time is 30 minutes and it takes 15 minutes to connect, that’s only 15 minutes of playing time. With updates to computers, software, and cameras, it’s best to test it out without the students there waiting and getting frustrated."

In addition to the games, the Nene award also features an art contests for an animated film or a comic strip related to the winning book.

Rolla, Kansas students celebrating the White Awards at Emporia State University
What does your school or library do to get students excited about the book awards in your state?

We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Cynsational Notes

Gayleen Rabakukk holds a master of fine arts in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She co-moderates the middle grade book club for Austin SCBWI and loves making discoveries – both on and off the page.

Always eager to track down a story, she has worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and freelance writer. Gayleen is married and has two caring and outspoken daughters. Their Austin, Texas home is filled with books and rescue dogs. You can find her online at  or on Twitter @gayleenrabakukk

Congratulations to Gayleen on recently signing with Andrea Cascardi at Transatlantic Agency!

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35. Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty member Martine Leavitt, who also an alumna, for winning the Canadian Governor General's Award. Peek: "Told in spare, beautiful prose, this transcendent exploration of reality and truth is funny, frightening and affirming. Calvin (Groundwood Books) is an astonishing achievement.” — #GGBooks Jury Statement.

(Re)Igniting the Writer's Life by John Vorhaus from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "We want to write but we fear to write. If you’re in this bind, my heart goes out to you, and I really want to help you over the hump and into, or back into, your active practice of writing."

Why People Forget Your Character & How to Prevent It by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "...too many times I find myself struggling to remember details of a character in a novel I read last year. Give your characters longevity and notoriety with these techniques."

The Rejection Tug-of-War from Uma Krishnaswami. Peek: "...we brood. Was that editor or agent right? Is the work dead? Is is any good? Is there something there worth salvaging?"

What to Expect from an Agent by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "What will an agent do for you? What might an agent do for you if they have certain specialties? What is unreasonable to expect of an agent? First, I’d like to discuss what an agent won’t do." Note: Agents also get paid a percentage of royalties.

Using Family Stories to Write Historical Fiction by Helen Maryles Shankman from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...I couldn’t run away from my parents’ stories. As I grew up, I began to understand that they weren’t just memories that could be dismissed and forgotten; they were the origin stories for our own scarred and imperfect lives."

Planning Great Book Events by Sophie Masson from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "Launches are especially good for debut books; for bespoke, collectible books; and for group books, such as anthologies and collections."

Decolonizing Nostalgia: When Historical Fiction Betrays Readers of Color by Sarah Hannah Gomez from The Horn Book. Peek: "I may have done the work to tease out the parts of the girls I read about that matched my own identity, but I became increasingly aware that the books themselves did not recognize me, a biracial (black and white) adoptee in a bicultural (Mexican American and Ashkenazi Jewish) family." See also Hannah on 5 YA Books Inspired by Real-Life Murderers from BNTeenBlog.

The Need for More Diversity Within LGBTQIAP Children's-YA Literature by Ashley Herring Blake from CBC Diversity. Peek: "in the end, I only had one book to put in that mother’s hands. After talking with this mother, the children’s book manager at my store found some more books about trans kids for younger readers and ordered them, and that is excellent, but we need more options."

Writing and Parenting from Elizabeth Spann Craig. Peek: "99% of the posts that dads write on parenting and writing are different–they don’t seem to have the guilty undertones. In fact, these dads usually feel they’re spending better quality or more time with their kids."

The Complex Principles of a Picture Book from Chronicle Books. Peek: "How much abstraction for artistic intent is acceptable? What needs to come across in information? What needs to come across in feeling?"

Cynsational Giveaways

This Week at Cynsations

A four-part series:
Cynsational Event

With Shelli Cornelison & Christina Soontornvat at Donna Janell Bowman's Book Launch
See Donna Janell Bowman on Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness from Cynsations.

More Personally

Happy Halloween weekend, Cynsational readers!

First, my thanks to author-illustrator Ambelin Kwaymullina for joining me here this week for an in-depth, four-part dialogue on the creative life and process, speculative fiction, diversity, privilege, indigenous literature, and books for young readers.

On Monday, I attended Laurie Halse Anderson's author event and signing at BookPeople in Austin. She spoke with great passion and compassion about the American Revolution, historical research, the creative life and the importance of diversifying children's-YA literature--all the while book-talking and centering diverse voices. Inspiring!

This week I am praying for the Water Protectors and for all children being inundated with the Cleveland Indians mascot. See The Great Failure of the Indian Mascots Debate by Sterling HolyWhiteMountain from ESPN, which reflects on both. Also, go Cubs!

Personal Links
Moderating & Signing Nov. 5

Join me Saturday, Nov. 12
Honored to join the SCBWI winter conference faculty!
Honored to join the SCBWI winter conference faculty!


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36. Author Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Writing, Speculative Fiction, Community & Growing Into Herself

Wherein Belle and I discuss books and gender empowerment.
By Ambelin Kwaymullina
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The fourth of a four-installment dialogue with Ambelin and Cynthia.  

Our focus is on the creative life and process, speculative fiction, diversity, privilege, indigenous literature, and books for young readers.

Don't miss Ambelin on Ethics, the Writing Process & Own Voices or an Interview with Ambelin on Justice, Hope & Her Creative Family. See also Cynthia on Why Kayla, Not Eartha & Other Stuff I Think About.

Spoiler alert for Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007).

As a spec fic writer, I’ve so often been told that it's "unusual" or even "strange" for an Indigenous person to be writing in this genre. Why do you write speculative fiction? Do you think there’s advantages to the genre that aren’t found in other genres?

Yes, the industry must move past the tendency to put creatives in genre boxes as well as to underestimate Native authors and authors of color.

We are not here to exclusively write books about landmark historical events with obvious social studies tie-ins. We can rock those stories, but we can also do so much more and do it spectacularly.

For example, Ambelin, can you get Joseph Bruchac's dystopian YA novels Killer of Enemies and Trail of the Dead (Tu Books) in Australia?

If not, you may want to look into ordering online for international delivery. (Or check out the e-novella, Rose Eagle--should be an easy download.)

As for me, I take the advice we so often give to beginning writers. I write what I know. I write what I love to read. I saw “Star Wars: A New Hope” (before it was called "A New Hope") 384 times in the theater. Of course I write speculative fiction.

My Tantalize-Feral universe is genre bending, incorporating elements of Gothic fantasy, urban fantasy, mystery, suspense, humor, and science fiction.

The fantastical offers writers the ability to speak to our real world at a slant. At that slant, you can—ironically enough—hit the real-world themes harder.

Let’s say I wrote a realistic novel about a teenage girl who gets involved with an older guy who plies her with red wine, takes over her family’s business, socially segregates her, kidnaps her, imprisons her, assaults her, frames her best friend for murder and kills her best friend's dog. Yes, his dog. Overkill? (Possibly. I'm still getting distraught reader mail about the dog.)

On the other hand, if he’s a vampire, the reader is far more likely to buy into the story. (And, thankfully, I had the discretion to subvert genre expectations and make it a girl-empowerment story.) With spec fic, we can dig deeper into the theme without seeming heavy handed.

Earlier, Ambelin, you mention using a dystopian context to convey the societal consequence of historical social injustice. I did much the same, albeit within a different construct and a contemporary focus.

That said, I also write realistic fiction. My current YA novel in progress is contemporary realism. I’ve also published three realistic books--Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (all HarperCollins)—and several realistic short stories.

My latest realistic short fiction, "All's Well," appeared as a chapter in Shaun David Hutchinson's Violent Ends (Simon Pulse, 2015), which is centered on a school shooting.

Coming up, I'll have a poem written as a child featured in "Dreams to Write" in Our Story Begins: Children’s Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids, edited by Elissa Brent Weissman (Atheneum, 2017). I do a little creative nonfiction, too. Basically, I have either great range or a complete lack of focus.

You put time and effort into promoting the work of other writers. Why is this important to you?

When I decided to write full-time rather than practice law (or work as a journalist), it was more of a heart decision than a head decision.

You mentioned that you came to both the law and writing to seek justice. I came to writing for young readers out of a personal appreciation for the good that books can do for kids. Out of a love of Story.

I arrived as a one-time child whose mother took her on every-Saturday-morning trips to the public library.

As a one-time tween who took refuge from bullies in the school library, who found comfort in the books when the Queen Bee chased away her friends.

That said, I remember shying away from any book with a hint of Native content in the title, on the cover. A self-protective instinct.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare (Houghton Mifflin, 1958) was my favorite book as a child, but it never occurred to me to crack open her novel Sign of the Beaver (1983). Think about that.

By the time I was eight or nine years old, as an avid reader, I'd learned that I never wanted to open a book with an American Indian on the cover (or any hint of Native content), even if it was by the author of my favorite novel.

Still, the landscape has improved since my childhood. Yesterday, I talked about writing as an outsider and highlighted examples of that done well. But I want to emphasize how deeply heartened I am by the growing presence and success of Native writers like Eric Gansworth, Tim Tingle, Richard Van Camp, Arigon Starr, and Jenny Kay Dupuis (to name a few). And we have new voices on the horizon like Traci Sorell and Kevin Noble Maillard. This is such an exciting time!

While we have far to go, I’ve seen progress and felt the pride in community that comes with it. 

Books are where I belong. Story is what has always helped me make sense of the world and find my place in it. And my place in it is informed by media and the law--a longing for justice bolstered by the education and tools to help achieve it.

I want to do what I can to ensure that children’s-YA literature welcomes all kids in a positive, nurturing way. That's not just about me. It's about what we do as a community of book creators, publishers, gatekeepers, booksellers, child care givers... The team effort.

Light a candle. If that doesn't work, light a bonfire.

How did I get here? By the standards of the time, I entered children's-YA publishing as a very young author.

This was the late 1990s, and I was in my late twenties/early thirties. It's different now. Debut authors younger than I was then are no longer unusual. But back then, editors weren't taking many chances on new voices. There weren't as many younger voices writing either. (Hello, Potter effect.)

Almost everybody I knew was at least 15 years older and had much more experience. People frequently commented to me that I was their children's age.

And I was perpetually starstruck.

I got to meet the writers I'd read growing up--
Paula Danziger, E.L. Konigsburg, and Jane Yolen (who was so nice to me). Judy Blume encouraged me at my first SCBWI national conference in LA.

(Of late, I see Katherine Paterson all the time at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Actually working up the courage to speak to her is still a work in progress.)

My inner fourteen-year-old was--still is--spinning over the moon.

What I did have to offer the community was enthusiasm, a commitment to what then was called "multiculturalism," and a background in journalism. I embraced the possibilities of the Web and began signal boosting in a big way.

Now, I've been in the business nearly 20 years and am finishing my fifteenth book. Though I still have much to learn, I'm honored to share what I do know, especially with Austin and Texas authors, my VCFA family, new voices, diverse voices and of course Native writers and illustrators.

Along the way, I keep believing, signal boosting, mentoring, teaching, writing and cheerleading.

Spreading the word that good books matter.

Does law influence your storytelling in any way?

Definitely. Law gives me an analytical skill-set that is priceless for plotting and world building. If you look, for example, at the Feral trilogy, the legal status of shape-shifters plays a significant role in the story construct.

By that, I don’t mean that my characters are citing case law or pontificating on legal history but rather that the socio-political-legal structure in which they struggle has been thought out and fully integrated.

On a more obvious level, I’ve written lawyer characters—Cousin Elizabeth from Jingle Dancer (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) and, in my current work in progress, the protagonist’s mother is a law student.

When I write Native stories in particular, that heightened awareness comes into play because of the role of law in our nations’ histories and its ongoing importance to our survival today and beyond.

You’ve written that you felt compelled to write for young readers in the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Why for young readers rather than adults?

Yes, I shifted my career focus to writing for kids after the attack on the Murrah Building. Remember what you said about young readers and hope?

Ambelin's guest post & interview
I feel that hope, too. That faith. I believe in it enough to invest my life’s work.

It’s not that I don’t think adults can grow and change. Of course we can.

But when I close my eyes and imagine a world of heroes, most of the faces I see are those of elders and the young.

Maybe that's because I was raised close to my grandparents, my great aunties and uncles. They faced Indian boarding school, the Great Depression, the second World War.

My first heroes were my elders, starting from the time the were young. Their influence is defining.

What’s the story you’re proudest of, and why? 

I want to say that I don’t process my books and shorts in terms of pride, but only moments ago I was telling you about the pride I feel in the progress we’ve made in children’s-YA literature.

So, okay, I’ll close my eyes and keep typing and resist the urge to edit afterward.

Here goes:

I’m most proud of my novel in progress, tentatively titled "How to End a Date" (Candlewick, fall 2017), by which I mean I’m proud of the protagonist.

How she navigates, less and more successfully, all the crap that’s routinely tossed at Native teens and, for that matter, at girls on a day-to-day basis and how she takes refuge in her sense of humor and her loving family and her community and, most of all, how she fights, true to her heart, even when her biggest obstacle is herself.

And since it's loosely based on my own adolescence, I guess I have to say that I'm finally proud of my own inner teen.

So there, Cindy Lou. I believe in you.

Cynsational Notes

Author Interview: Joseph Bruchac on Killer of Enemies from Lee & Low. Peek: "...what really helped me begin to develop this story was the combination of seeing the ways in which building technology into people has become more and more of a reality and the idea that then came to me about how those modified people would be affected if electricity (including circuits implanted into human bodies) suddenly stopped working."

Native American Children's Literature Recommended Reading List from First Nations Development Institute. See also American Indians in Children's Literature.


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37. Writing Across Identity Elements: Why Kayla, Not Eartha & Other Stuff I Think About

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The third of a four-installment dialogue with Ambelin and Cynthia.

Our focus is on the creative life and process, speculative fiction, diversity, privilege, indigenous literature, and books for young readers.

Don't miss Ambelin on Ethics, the Writing Process & Own Voices or an Interview with Ambelin on Justice, Hope & Her Creative Family.

Spoiler alert for Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2013).

Lately, I’ve been talking to Ambelin Kwaymullina, “an Aboriginal writer and illustrator from the Palyku people” of Australia, about own voices, representation, appropriation and writing across identity elements.

At first glance, when it comes to protagonists and point of view, we may seem to be on opposite ends of a spectrum--her advocating against writing as an outsider and me in favor.

It’s more complicated than that. As we compared notes, we found ourselves agreeing or at least empathizing more than you might assume.

I’m a Muscogee Nation citizen, and I’ve written protagonists who share that identity as well as those who, unlike me, are respectively Chinese American, Mexican American, Italian American, English American, Seminole, and Cherokee. The non-Indians appear in alternating point-of-view novels.

(I’m a Cherokee descendant, not a Cherokee Nation citizen. That translates to shared ancestry and cultural touchstones, but there's a difference. To clarify: I'm likewise Irish American. However, I am not a citizen of Ireland. I am Muscogee and American, a citizen of both Muscogee Nation and the United States of America. Native identity is about culture and heritage, but it's also about law and political status.)

More broadly, when it comes to race, religion, culture, gender, age, orientation, body type, and socio-economics, I write inside my personal experience.

Likewise, I write outside my personal experience. I speak on and teach the subject of writing, including writing across identity elements, on a regular basis.

As I’ve mentioned before, the question of writing outside one’s lived knowledge and most immediate stakes with regard to protagonists (or, in the case of nonfiction, focal subjects) is a very personal one.

Today I’m going to share a glimpse into my own, nuanced process for deciding who and what to write and why. Yes, of course your mileage may vary. It may evolve. Mine has evolved.

Michigan Law School Reading Room
Two points to address first:

(1) I’m well aware of my First Amendment rights. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from The William Allen White School of Journalism at The University of Kansas, which included coursework in Media Law. I also hold a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School, where my studies largely focused on Constitutional Law and the First Amendment in particular (it was the topic of my third-year independent study with Lee Bollinger).

I’ve committed quality time, scholarship and tuition dollars to Freedom of Speech.

I’m well aware that rights come with opportunities, costs and responsibilities. And I'm well aware that restrictions on speech tend to hit disempowered people first and the hardest.

I'll restate that:

Restricts on speech tend to hit disempowered people first and the hardest.

Sometimes I exercise my right to speak. Sometimes I exercise my right not to speak.

As a one-time Native child who couldn’t watch “Super Friends” every Saturday morning without also seeing “Elbow Room” every Saturday morning, I fret the impact of erasure (to a cheery tune) and of the single story (in that case, the “helpful Indian”).

Watch this and, if it's not your inherent perspective, try to do so--with your writing cap on--from a Native or POC point of view.



(2) The vast majority of children’s-YA authors must, to varying degrees, write outside our own experience—at least with regard to secondary characters and major historical events or societal topics. This is necessary to reflect the full range of our humanity in the past, present and future.

In a sweeping book about the U.S. Civil War or The Great Depression or the Industrial Revolution, I’m looking for inclusion when it comes to the participation of and impact on Native people, people of color, women, etc. Ditto that contemporary realistic chapter book set in a minority-majority nation or that YA dystopian novel.

Ducking that content isn't a neutral decision. Again, effectively writing Native people off the continent--out of the past, present, and future--isn’t a neutral decision. Over the body of literature, it’s a minimizing one. An erasing one. Silence speaks. It contributes to adverse real-world impact.

After every U.S. election, we actually have to educate the new Congress about our continued existence. Please don't make it harder for us to protect our nations, our land, our children. Remember, we are still here. And we should be reflected in the pages of children's-YA literature.

So, to recap: (1) I'm well versed in freedom of speech. (2) Every children's-YA writer must, to some degree, write outside our immediate frame of reference. Still with me?


Back to protagonists and nonfiction topics. Bookstores vary the titles they stock. Libraries vary their collections. Publishers vary their manuscript acquisitions, and agents vary their clients.

Otherwise their books would compete with each other, and they wouldn’t be able to offer the selection necessary to stay in business.

Choices that heavily favor slender, straight, able-bodied white kids are the norm. Those books are viewed as standard. Viewed as universal. There’s no industry predisposition to limit them.


But every day, other well-written stories are rejected for being “too similar” to an already stocked, purchased, acquired or signed project that’s perceived as similar enough to compete.

Let’s say there’s already one middle grade with an Asian boy protagonist. Will another one be turned down for potentially competing?

Quite possibly.

“I just acquired an Asian boy middle-grade novel, and, unfortunately….”

Writers get rejection letters to that effect all the time. I’ve read them. Quite a few of them because I teach and mentor and so other writers come to me to discuss such things.

And, granted, stories won’t be rejected just because of common identity elements. It could happen because they’re deemed “too similar” in other ways.

My kitty, Gali-Leo
“I just acquired a novel about soccer, and, unfortunately....”

Now, consider:

What is the societal impact of limiting to one book about soccer?

What is the societal impact to limiting to one book about Asian-American boys?

Or one book about Asian Americans--period? Especially since "Asian American" is an umbrella term.

Heaven forbid two Asian-American boy characters in two different stories both happen to play soccer.

Sure, even with mainstream heroes, there are limits:

"Unfortunately, we're already publishing a half dozen dystopians..."

Here's the thing: Writers often panic over new releases that might be "too similar" to our own works in progress, particularly if our own manuscript is well along. We anguish over whether to read the competing title to gauge whether our project is in the clear or not. With nonfiction writers, you'll often hear talk of "getting there first" in the marketplace.

Remember when I mentioned the right to speak and the right not to?

This is what I personally do with that reality:

Halloween decoration that inspired my novel, Feral Curse
I love cats. I love carousels. I’m intrigued by cryptids.

In the Feral series (Candlewick/Walker), I write about werecats, demons, magic and furry cryptid hominids.

The stories take place in Austin, in a nearby small town, in the suburbs, at a resort, and on a tropical island.

These YA books are heartfelt, funny, action packed and teeny bit sexy (if I do say so myself).

The trilogy metaphorically tackles diversity, social justice, and what it means to be human.

No way would the entire cast look like it had been raised by Carol and Mike Brady. Or be depicted simply as white kids from different social groups a' la "The Breakfast Club" (remember when that was a diversity ground-breaker?).

The Feral series' question is: "What does it mean to be human?" My answer isn't: "Let's check in with the all-white heroes to find out." (Although white co-protagonists are certainly included in the mix.)

The series is told in alternating points of view by four co-protagonists, including Kayla, a werecheetah, who presents as Black American, and Yoshi, a werecougar, who presents as a biracial (Japanese-white) American. They’re homo shifters rather than homo sapiens, and they live among us. Within the genre bending, it's a sci-fi-ish fantastical construct.

Now imagine this. An editor reads my manuscript and says: “Too bad! I just signed a story about a smart, small-town, Black Texas teen--the daughter of the mayor--who’s able to turn into a werecheetah, and is being haunted by her ex-boyfriend’s ghost, which is trapped in a carousel. And, wouldn’t you just know it? Both stories feature a Eurasian co-protagonist/love interest, raised in an antique mall by his homicidal grandmother.…”

Really? If another author also independently came up with that specific idea, we are soulmates.

But only one of us is probably going to sell that oh-so-similar book to that one YA fantasy editor at that house. Or sign with that manuscript to that one genre-bendy and cryptid-loving agent.

Libraries and bookstores will stock one or the other. (Unless there’s a major motion picture involved.)

We’re safe to say the Feral series (Candlewick) is an idiosyncratic, diverse spec-fic YA adventure. This is a benefit of a quirky writing nature (Werearmadillos, for example. I may have invented them. That level of quirky.)

Kayla, as one of four co-protagonists, isn’t going to knock a book with another Black girl hero out of contention for anything. And the lived experience that’s most on point is what it’s like to “pass” or not. On that point, I do have lived experience to bring.

Nifty. Green light.

Now consider this: I love the music of Eartha Kitt. I am fascinated by Eartha Kitt.

I believe that Eartha Kitt was the best Catwoman.

The. Best. Catwoman.

Nobody could purr like Eartha Kitt.

She was inspiring, talented, formidable. For years, I’ve longed to write a biography about Eartha.

But Eartha wasn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ella Fitzgerald.

She’s not a household name or an automatic tie-in to the Black History Month curriculum.

There might be room for one Earth Kitt biography for kids (or teens). I could see that getting published. I can imagine some bookstores and libraries stocking it.

As much as I love Eartha, I can’t imagine them embracing two or more.

So I’m not writing it. But if I weighed all that and moved forward, I would talk to Eartha’s family first for permission and consult with Black author friends, too.

Magazine cover of Eartha in my dining nook
All the while owning that my book could be blocking one by a member of Eartha’s own community.

Would I love that reality? No, but I couldn’t ignore it or dismiss it or explain it away either. And I couldn't wrap myself in the First Amendment and leave it at that because I have the right not to speak, too.

I would have to hold myself to the highest possible writing standard and expect others, especially those with a closer kinship, to do the same.

What's more, I'd have to acknowledge that I was starting at a serious deficit. There are writers with so much more to bring to that manuscript--Black writers, especially those with a strong background in singing and acting, who'd have knowledge and insights to illuminate the awesomeness that was Eartha in important ways that I'd never imagine.

I'm not planning to write that biography of Eartha. But up until a year or so ago, I was seriously considering it.

Now, what about a subject closer to home?

I’ve also considered writing a biography of Chickasaw astronaut John B. Herrington.

He and I have more in common. We're both mixed-blood citizens of southeastern Native Nations now based in Oklahoma. I want Native kids to learn about him, to be inspired by his story. I want non-Indian kids to learn about him and rethink the “primitive savage” stereotypes they’re fed.

Still, writing about John would’ve required me to write as an outsider.
I've met him in person in Oklahoma!

I’m not Chickasaw. “Native American” and “American Indian” are umbrella terms. Again, being Muscogee doesn't make me Chickasaw.

Are there shared ties and history between some Native/First Nations people and nations? Yes, more so within regions. But we're not not one in the same.

I hate to say it, but, as with Eartha, there’s probably not room in the market for more than one nonfiction picture book about John Herrington.

Native people are not meaningfully included in the U.S. curriculum. To the extent we're mentioned, the focus isn't on our achievements in space exploration. (Cough.)

There’s no way I would've put down a word of John’s story without his permission. As a First Amendment student, I know that I have the right to do so. As a Native woman, I believe in cultural property but, more to the point, as a human being, I believe in respect and courtesy.

John’s story is not my mine to take. It’s certainly not mine to take for profit.

Besides, to do a good job with it, I would’ve needed not only John’s blessing but also his assistance because the greatest living authority on John is of course John himself.

And if John thought it was a wonderful idea for me to write the story, I would’ve been honored and proceeded from there. (Yes, I would touch base with Chickasaw children’s writers, too.)

Many of the best books written by outsiders come from a place of deep connection and respect, prioritizing impact on young readers--both those directly reflected by the book and those who're not.

Consider, for example, Bethany Hegedus's excellent Grandfather Gandhi picture books, written with Arun Gandhi, illustrated by Even Turk (Atheneum).

These titles were born in the wake of the September 11 attacks after Bethany, a 911 survivor, heard Arun give a speech and found personal solace and healing in it. Later, they worked together to share Arun's stories with kids.

As writers, we succeed when we set aside the self-absorption of intent and entitlement in favor of respect and commitment.

We succeed when we come from a deeply felt place, like Bethany did after 911 and like she does every day when she cradles her own Indian-American baby son.

Bottom line: I never actively began writing the manuscript about John Herrington. It was merely an idea. I had other projects to finish first. I hadn’t yet contacted John to discuss it.

I was thinking I’d do that early next year.

Click this link to watch the book trailer!
But now I’m absolutely delighted that John’s children’s book, Mission to Space, was recently published by Chickasaw Press.

Imagine if bookstores and libraries didn’t pick it up because another children’s writer (like me) had already gotten there first and with a publisher that has a larger, more powerful industry presence.

Ambelin mentioned that she doesn’t want to see outsiders writing first- or deep third-person point of view. She’s told me that she feels that way in part because she hasn’t seen it done well and in part because of the systematic exclusion of Indigenous voices, own voices.

She doesn’t “want anyone occupying that space until there's something resembling parity of representation of Indigenous writers (and other own voices).”

I’m deeply sympathetic to her perspective and a strong  own voices advocate myself.

At the same time, when it comes to Native content, I’m more open to outside voices than Ambelin.

I suspect that’s because—despite far too many problematic books by outsiders—I have seen it done well. I appreciate high-quality titles like Debby Dahl Edwardson’s My Name Is Not Easy (Marshall Cavendish, 2011) and Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gone Crazy in Alabama (Amistad/HarperChildren’s, 2015).

It’s a blessing for Native kids, all kids, that books like those are published, and I’m thrilled to champion them whenever I can.

Moreover, as a southeastern American Indian, considering our history and current ties with Black Americans, I particularly long for more of their voices in the related conversation of books, especially with regard to the intersection of Black Indian tribal citizens. 

Big picture, being open to outside writers is no small or unqualified leap of faith.

There is a long and damaging history of outsiders telling "Native" stories, having approached us in the guise of ethnographer, of anthropologist, of writer, of friend. A long and damaging and ongoing effort to mislead, gain trust, and then misrepresent Native lives and narratives. Usually for profit, power or both.

When I  say "damaging," that’s not hyperbole. I’m talking about real-world legislation, persecution, and impact on the daily life of every Native person. We are peoples of Nations defined by sometimes hostile law and profoundly affected by that law. Public opinion, education and miseducation affects the making and enforcement of those laws. And then there's the psychological impact on citizens of our Nations, especially on our children and teens.

If you don’t know enough to understand why we’re skittish, suspicious and/or non-responsive, please step back and do more homework before starting that manuscript. Our feelings, actions and sometimes silence are based on real-world experience and concerns.

Begin by reading 100 books by Native American children's-YA authors. Do your homework with regard to each community your writing might reflect like you did your homework to enter the field more globally.

Of late, I’ve heard a lot of folks speaking in broad terms about the question of who writes what. We talk too often in broad strokes when brushstrokes apply.

It's a much bigger, broader conversation than race, though of course that's a critical component. It's also persistently framed as primarily about white writers' fear and failures.

As if no white writers weigh the responsibilities and costs of appropriation and respectfully seek the appropriate permissions and insights like Debby, working with her husband to share his story.

As if diverse writers can't stretch to successfully write across identity markers like Rita, who can certainly be trusted to respectfully conceptualize, research, frame and integrate story elements and, for that matter, feedback as needed to revise. 

As if diversity conversations should default to focus on white, able-bodied, cis-gender, straight folks. That's taking the idea that this isn't all about them and responding with, "But wait, what about them?"

Of course all writers belong in this conversation, but own voices must be prioritized and centered. Meanwhile, the question of "which ideas are right for me?" is something every writer must consider.

(HarperChildren's)
By the way, even when you're writing within identity elements, you still need to do research and engage in thoughtful related conversation. My work in progress is quasi-autobiographical, and I have a three-inch thick (and building) research binder. I've consulted with several friends and colleagues about the content and how it rolls out within the context of the story.

When I’ve cited, say, Rita and Debby among my go-to examples with regard to Native content, often the reply is something to the effect that I’m setting the bar sky high. And, yes, that’s true.

The bar is and should be sky high. Maybe we’re not all at Rita and Debby’s level of craft (yet), but we must emulate their gracious humility, their conscientiousness.

We must strive to create the best books for all kids.

Cynsational Notes

Writing, Tonto & The Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who is the First to Die by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Cynsations. Peek: "For those who write within and/or outside personal experience, how do we honor and craft stories for the young readers of today and beyond?"

Native American Children's Literature Recommended Reading List from First Nations Development Institute. #NativeReads See also Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children's Literature and American Indian Graduation Rates: Stereotypical Images On and Off the Field from The Good Men Project.



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38. Author-Illustrator Interview: Ambelin Kwaymullina on Justice, Hope & Her Creative Family

Sample chapter from Candlewick Press
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The second of a four-installment dialogue with Ambelin and Cynthia.  

Our focus is on the creative life and process, speculative fiction, diversity, privilege, indigenous literature, and books for young readers.

Yesterday, Ambelin spoke on ethics, the writing process and own voices.

We have children’s-YA literature and the law in common. That’s actually a pretty common combination here in the states. Why do you think there are so many people involved in both?

Well, I’ve had some of my law students suggest the law is so horribly dry that it drives people to being creative in order to escape its clutches (these are generally the students who are studying law because their parents thought it was a good idea).

But for me at least, I think the reason I studied law and the reason I write are the same. In both realms, I am seeking justice – and justice, in Aboriginal societies, generally equates to balance, not just between human beings but between all forms of life (and everything lives).

I write speculative fiction because I want to write about the possibility of defeating injustice; to write about the terrible things that were (and are) while imagining what could be.

The oppressive law I wrote about in the Tribe series divides people into three categories: those without an ability (Citizens); those with an ability (Illegals); and those whose ability is considered benign (Exempts).

This is not an invented law. It is based on the Western Australian Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act 1944, a piece of legislation that purported to offer Aboriginal people ‘citizenship’ by exempting us from racially-based restrictions that only applied to my ancestors in the first place because they were Aboriginal.

In the Tribe series, this law is ultimately defeated by an alliance of the marginalised and the privileged, and by a heroine whose power is to identify and sustain the connections between all life.

And in writing of connections, I am writing of something that is central to the law in Aboriginal legal systems where (at its broadest) law is the processes of living in the world that sustain the world.

You clearly articulate the impact of white privilege on writing and writers, noting the negative impact on the work of Native voices and POC voices. What would you say to those Native and POC writers who may find themselves angry, frustrated, hurt or discouraged by these dynamics?

First: it’s not you. Exclusion is not something you are inventing in your head and you are neither unlucky nor unworthy.

It helps in this context to form connections with other Indigenous writers as well as with writers of colour, LGBTI writers, and writers with a disability.

You are likely to hear stories of authors getting similar comments across different contexts (e.g: you’re not writing to the Indigenous experience … this story is too Asian … gay books don’t sell … we’ve already published a ‘disability book’ this year).

It matters to have a network of people with whom to share both the good and bad experiences; and perhaps most importantly, to understand that you are not alone.

Second, never forget how to laugh. Some of the comments I’ve listed above have been part of the experience of other writers that they’ve laughed about with me – not because these comments are not discriminatory and hurtful, but because laughter has always been one of the ways in which marginalised peoples have dealt with pain.

Third, define success in your own terms. We all know what ‘success’ is supposed to be in literary industry terms: book sales and/or critical acclaim (preferably both). I’m not saying we shouldn’t aspire to that. But I also think that if marginalised writers define our success solely in the terms set by an industry that consistently privileges white, straight, cis-gendered people who don’t have a disability, we are also buying into an underlying lie.

The lie is that if we can just prove we are good enough we will be treated equally. But once equality has to be earned, it is no longer equality.

So I think it’s important that each of us define success according to what matters to us – and for me, it’s being a person that my ancestors would be proud of.

Book sales wouldn’t overly interest them. But honouring who they were, and who I am; treating cultural knowledge with respect; helping other Indigenous writers whenever and wherever I can – these are the kinds of things they’d be concerned about.

Fourth: be hopeful. I am. I locate my hope in people, and there are many, many people working towards a world in which all voices have an equal opportunity to speak and all stories are equally heard.

I think change will come, and in the meantime, I’m proud to be a part of a global community of voices, marginalised and privilege alike, that are speaking out for justice.

While you don’t feel it’s appropriate for non-Indigenous writers to reflect your community in first person or deep third, you are open to them writing secondary characters. Why does your opinion differ depending on how centered the character’s perspective is in the story?

Ambelin's desk
I don’t think it’s appropriate for non-Indigenous people to speak as if they are Indigenous, especially given the operation of privilege which means that non-Indigenous voices will be heard in a way that Indigenous voices are not.

For me, writing from an ‘outsider’ perspective (so not in first or deep third) is to respect boundaries; to accept there are limits on what we can know of others and how we should represent others in our own work.

When I write of experiences of marginalisation not my own, I do it from an outsider perspective – reflecting that this is much as I can understand and that understanding may of course be wrong; I am not suggesting that I know what it is to see the world from an ‘insider’ view of a group to which I don’t belong. I think the spaces must be created for everyone to speak to their own worlds, and I want to be part of making those spaces a reality.

What advice do you have for non-Indigenous writers in crafting those secondary characters?

I think something you’ve said is the best place to start – you’ve spoken of the need for writers to read 100 books by Indigenous people before writing about us.

I agree. No one should be writing an Indigenous character without being familiar with Indigenous stories (not the ones told about us but the ones told by us).

It’s also important to ensure that any stories people are reading are ethically published because there is a vast body of Indigenous stories that were taken by anthropologists and others and are now in the public domain without the informed consent (or sometimes even the knowledge) of the Indigenous peoples concerned.

The easiest way to check that a story is appropriately published is to see who holds the copyright; where Indigenous peoples hold copyright in their own stories it is at least some indication that they control the text.

In addition to reading stories, I’d say, become familiar with representation issues. Engage with the online dialogue happening around representation and children’s literature as it relates to Indigenous peoples. There are no shortage of voices speaking in this space.

And finally: words spoken about marginalised peoples have a weight and a cost. But if you are not a member of that group, then it’s a weight that you don’t carry and a cost that you don’t pay.

So don’t measure the impact of your words by how they will be read by people like you. Measure them by how they’ll be read by the people you’re writing about.

How did you learn your craft as a writer and illustrator?

By doing! I have no formal training in writing or illustration. But nor do a lot of Australian Indigenous writers and illustrators, and we have been storytellers for thousands of years.

So to learn craft I look to the work of Indigenous writers and artists, both within Australia and elsewhere, as well as to the ancient teachings of my people.

What inspired you to direct your talents toward creating stories for young readers?

In my YA series, I was writing about a superhero, so it had to be about a teenager. I don’t believe grown ups have it in us to save the world, because we are spectacularly failing to do so.

But in the young I see all the hope for the future – they are more interconnected, quick to embrace new ideas, and passionate about fighting anything they perceive as an injustice.

They’re also more honest, especially the children for whom I write picture books. When they like a book, they write me lovely letters telling me how they sleep with the book under their pillow and begging me to write more. When they don’t like it they’re equally forthright.

People ask sometimes whether its difficult as an author to deal with bad reviews, to which I say: try writing for six-year-olds. Every once in a while, children send me letters about one or the other of my picture books that begin something like this: “My teacher made me read your book. I didn’t like it.”

I’ve had a few of these letters that went on for ten pages or more, and since that length is like War and Peace from a six-year-old, it means I’ve had kids hate my work enough to send me the child equivalent of Tolstoy.

Adverse reviews from grown-ups are nothing in comparison.

What was your initial inspiration for The Tribe series?

Sample chapter from Candlewick Press
My brother Blaze. He came up to me one day and said, “I’ve got an awesome title for a book. It’s called The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf.”

I said, “That’s a pretty good title – what’s the story?’

To which Blaze replied, “Oh, there’s no story. Just the name, and I can’t be bothered writing it so I’m giving to you.”

Having bestowed the title of the novel upon me, he wandered off, leaving me to start thinking about the story. (And for anyone who’s read any of the Tribe series, the character of Jaz is very like my brother Blaze).

What were the challenges—literary, research, psychological and logistical—of bringing the stories to life?

I think the primary challenge is this: in so many ways, I wasn’t writing fiction. A post-apocalyptic world is not a fantasy for Indigenous peoples; the colonial apocalypse has already happened and much of The Tribe series is drawn from Australian colonial history.

Much of it too is drawn from the experiences of my ancestors and that is why hope runs so strongly through the narrative. They held on to hope through hard, cruel times when all their choices were taken away from them.

Indigenous peoples are so often spoken of as victims and I certainly don’t wish to minimise the suffering and the multi-generational trauma inflicted upon us by the colonial project. But the very fact that the Indigenous peoples of the world survived determined efforts to destroy us demonstrates our great strength.

I think the ability to hold onto hope is part of that strength and its something I try to honour.

You’ve created several picture books with Sally Morgan. Could you tell us about your work together?

Ambelin with her creative family
So, Sally is my mum. I’ve also done books with my two brothers, Blaze and Zeke, and the four of us have written together as a family. We’re all authors and artists, and we always give each other an honest opinion – sometimes this results in one of us storming off (usually me or Zeke, we’re both excellent stormers).

Generally, once we’ve had a chance to think about the criticism we come creeping sheepishly back and agree that yes, actually, that particular portion of the narrative (which we were previously so proud of) does indeed need more work.

I think from the outside our working process probably looks chaotic; we all talk at the same time and over each other; generally, the person with the best story gets to hold the floor until they get boring and someone else interrupts. If you want a place in the conversation in my family, you have to be prepared to earn it.

What can your readers look forward to next?

I’m working on three YA novels right now, but the one I’ll finish first is a book I’m writing with my brother Zeke.

It’s a mystery with fantasy elements that’s told from the perspective of three Indigenous female protagonists. It’s been a difficult book to write in places because terrible things happen in it, but its ultimately a story about the power of young Indigenous women and how they find their way home.

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39. Guest Post: Author-Illustrator Ambelin Kwaymullina on Ethics, Process & Own Voices

By Ambelin Kwaymullina
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The first of a four-installment dialogue with Ambelin and Cynthia. 

Our focus is on the creative life and process, speculative fiction, diversity, privilege, indigenous literature, and books for young readers.

I am an Aboriginal author, illustrator and law academic who comes from the Palyku people of Australia.

And I am an Own Voices advocate, by which I mean, I promote the stories told by marginalised peoples about our own experiences rather than stories told by outsiders.

I’ve written before that I don’t believe the absence of diversity from kids lit to be a ‘diversity problem.' I believe it to be a privilege problem that is caused by structures, behaviours and attitudes that consistently privilege one set of voices over another.

Moreover, the same embedded patterns that (for example) consistently privilege White voices over those of Indigenous peoples and Peoples of Colour will also work to privilege outsider voices over insider ones, at least to some degree.

The insider voices, of those fully aware of the great complexities and contradictions of insider existence, will always be more difficult to read and less likely to conform to outsider expectations as to the lives and stories of ‘Others’.

Insider stories can therefore be read as less ‘true’ or trap an insider author in a familiar double-bind – if we write of some of the bleaker aspect of our existence we’re told we’re writing ‘issues’ books; if we don’t we’re accused of inauthenticity.

I would like to think that as an Indigenous woman, I have some insight into marginalisation not my own. I have always thought that any experience of injustice should always increase our empathy and push us towards a greater understanding of injustice in other contexts.

But that does not mean my experiences equate to that of other peoples.

In an Australian context, I have said that I do not believe non-Indigenous authors should be writing Indigenous characters from first person perspective or deep third, because I don’t think a privilege problem can be solved by writers of privilege speaking in the voices of the marginalised.

And I apply the same limitation to myself in relation to experiences and identities not my own.

Ibi Zoboi recently wrote powerfully to the perils of the desire to ‘help’, noting that White-Man’s-Burdenism is not limited to White people. I run writing workshops for peoples who come from many different backgrounds of marginalisation, and as a storyteller, it is tempting to enact that instinct to ‘help’ into a narrative, to highlight the struggles of workshop participants in one of my own stories.

But between the thought and the action must come the process by which I determine if I am really helping at all.

So I ask myself, is the story mine to tell? The answer is no, of course; their stories are their own and their pain is not my source material.

The only way in which I would write from someone else’s perspective is in equitable partnership with someone from that group (where copyright, royalties and credit are shared).

This would not necessarily mean we each wrote half a novel. The other person may not write a word; their contribution could be in opening a window onto insider existence and correcting the mistakes an outsider inevitably makes.

I’ve had people tell me that this is the job of a sensitivity reader. But I am cautious about the boundaries of that relationship because I think there are cases where the input of an insider advisor infuses the narrative to such a degree that they are really a co-author and should be treated as such.

I don’t think the question is who wrote what words, but whether the story could have been told at all but for the contribution of the insider.

Someone once told me that I was restricting myself as a storyteller. I don’t believe I am.

I am acknowledging boundaries, but boundaries do not necessarily limit or restrict. Boundaries can define a safe operating space, for myself and for others, and respect for individual and collective boundaries is part and parcel of acknowledging the inherent dignity of all human beings.

I have begun co-writing a speculative fiction YA novel that is told from the perspectives of two girls: one Chinese, and one Indigenous. I am writing the Indigenous girl, and Chinese-Australian author Rebecca Lim is writing the Chinese girl.

The original idea for the story was Rebecca’s, but already it is changing as we each negotiate our own identities and experiences.

This is not a story that is restricted by boundaries; it is one that would not exist without them. In the writing of it, Rebecca and I are creating something that is greater than the sum of both of us – and in such stories, I see the future.

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40. Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Suspense or Manipulation? by Claudia Mills from Smack Dab in the Middle. Peek: "Vary chapter endings so that some can offer, e.g., satisfying closure on a scene, or a humorous or serious reflection."

Synopsizing Your Way to Success by Vaughn Roycroft from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "What I mean is, the words came pouring out, in a way they hadn’t in weeks. Much more so than they would be if I’d plunged in cold, or if I’d started a scene chart."

Smarter Not to Rhyme My Picture Book? by Deborah Halverson from Dear Editor. Peek: "That’ll give you the read-aloud quality you’re probably aiming for, but without the challenges inherent in trying to tell a story while maneuvering the rules of rhyme."

Finding Your Way Into a Story by April Bradley from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Character is a writer’s lodestone, and we enter our stories in various ways through them: what they want, what they’re doing, how they look, what they think, how they feel."

What's Your Character's Hook? Does Your Hero or Heroine Have A Special Skill or Talent? by Angela Ackerman from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: "What you choose for your character doesn’t have to be mainstream–in fact, sometimes unusual talents add originality (like knowing how to hot wire a car…especially if the character happens to be a high school principal!)"

Interview: Mark Gottlieb, Literary Agent at Trident Media, by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: "So it really depends but I try my best to leave creative decision matters ultimately up to the author and/or editor in order to avoid stepping on any toes." See also Top Children's Literary Agents, 2016-2017 (YA, MG, PB). Note: based on reported, not total, sales.

On Writing the American Familia by Meg Medina from The Horn Book. Peek: "That’s an experience familiar to fifty-four million people — seventeen percent of our population — who identify as Latino in the U.S. today. So it’s fair to say that I’m writing about the American family."

Got a ‘reluctant reader’? Try poetry, says author Kwame Alexander by Julie Hakim Azzam from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Peek: "Sports, he said, 'is a great metaphor for life,' and a lure to talk about other things such as family and friendships." See also Teen Read Week by Sylvia Vardell from Poetry for Children.

Revise or Give Up? by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "If there are weaknesses to your manuscript that you or someone else has identified, or if it’s in a very crowded category (zombies, for example) and you just don’t know if you can make a dent, I would really dig in to the area that needs work."

How Your Hero's Past Pain Will Determine His Character Flaws by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "In real life, who we are now is a direct result of our own past, and so in fiction, we need to look at who our story’s cast were before they stepped onto the doorstep of our novel."

Thoughts on Stereotypes by Allie Jane Bruce from Reading While White. Peek: "The fact that (most) people don’t believe that any one of these stereotypes applies to the entire population of Black women doesn’t mean that they’re not stereotypes."

Things Boys Have Asked Me by Joe Jiménez from Latinix in Kidlit. Peek: "Sometimes we might even forget they are there. Other times, we let these questions stick to us, like splinters, buried in our hands and feet."

Managing Crowds of Characters from Elizabeth Spann Craig. Peek: "...my tricks this time didn’t seem to work that well, at least for this particular regular reader. As well, I didn’t use as many of my reminder tags/dialogue clues."

Character Motivation Thesaurus Entry: Stopping an Event from Happening by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "(Inner Motivation): safety and security."

Writing a Series: How Much Do We Need to Plan Ahead? from Jami Gold. Peek: "...for those who write by the seat of their pants or for those who like experimenting with ideas even as plotters, the story of their current book might be a mystery, much less the stories of future releases."

Do Your Settings Contain Emotional Value? by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "...even though time has passed, an echo of that old hurt and rejection will affect him while in this restaurant."

Windows & Mirrors: Promoting Diverse Books for the Holidays & Beyond by Judith Rosen from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Last fall children’s booksellers in the Northern California Children’s Booksellers Alliance and the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council challenged each other to see which region could sell the most diverse books in the weeks leading up to Christmas. This year that challenge is back."

Character Rules by Yamile S. Méndez from Project Middle Grade Mayhem. Peek: "I've compiled a list of ways in which I can explore my characters' traits to understand their desires, goals, and motivations from which all my stories enfold."

Cynsational Giveaways
 
This Week at Cynsations

 
More Personally

Wow! I'm honored that my picture book Jingle Dancer (Morrow/HarperCollins)(discussion guide) is highlighted on the Native American Children's Literature Recommended Reading List and Discussion Guide from the First Nations Development Institute in Celebration of Native American Heritage Month.

Peek: "First Nations partnered with Debbie Reese, Ph.D. (Nambé Pueblo)... The idea is to encourage a 'national read' and discussion about these important Native narratives." See also Ten Ways You Can Make a Difference. #NativeReads

What else? In the wake of the recent presidential debates, I've been thinking about gender-power dynamics with regard to joint public speaking events.

Male authors frequently interrupt or punctuate female authors' answers with their own opinions. The one male author on a panel will likely say more than his three female co-panelists put together, never mind their efforts to graciously participate or the fact that they don't interrupt him. Moderators too often serve only to reinforce these predispositions.

This is so common that women children's-YA writers frequently joke about the symbolism of the microphone. It's humor that comes from pain, plus truth, plus a determination to prosper anyway. It's a coping device that shouldn't be necessary.

At this moment in the national dialogue, let's clean our own house and do better in the future.

Are you on Instagram? Find me @cynthialeitichsmith. See also Instagram for Authors by Stephanie Scott from Adventures in YA Publishing.

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41. Guest Post: Traci Sorell on Signing with a Literary Agent

Kansas State U. Powwow with son Carlos & cousin Matthew Lester (senior)
By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I had no idea how beneficial an agent could be when I attended my first SCBWI conference in October 2013.

I quickly realized how much about the industry I did not know.

I began to network with other children's writers, especially fellow Native Americans, and when it came time to look for an agent, I utilized that network extensively.

I questioned fellow writers with representation, especially those from Native/people of color backgrounds, about their experience. I asked how agents had presented themselves at conferences or other events. I read agent online interviews and social media posts.

I wanted my agent to be a steadfast partner with a strong work ethic. It is a long-term relationship, so both people have to be dedicated to maintaining it. I required someone who was excited about my work and associated with a well-respected agency.

Traci's Reading Chair
Ideally, I wanted someone who had editorial experience that reflects what I write—fiction, nonfiction, and Native/POC subjects. To be honest, this makes for a small submission list, so I did expand beyond that.

When I communicated with agents via email and telephone, I tracked whether what they shared reflected my list.

My gut got an extreme workout when I received two offers of representation on the same day. I cannot stress enough the importance of developing and checking in with trusted mentors.

Ultimately, I accepted Emily Mitchell's offer of representation with Wernick & Pratt Agency. She met every single item on my list. Her clients contacted me quickly and gave their honest feedback about her representation.

Emily had vetted me with my editor at Charlesbridge, her former employer. We had both done our homework.

To me, it is kismet that Emily presented at that first conference I attended—and in my home state of Oklahoma too! That day, she shared her desired client attributes—voice, authority, pragmatism and flexibility. I'd like to think I resemble her list, too.

Cynsational Notes

Follow @TraciSorell 
Traci Sorell writes fiction and nonfiction for children featuring contemporary characters and compelling biographies. She has been an active member of SCBWI since August 2013.

In April 2016, Charlesbridge acquired her first nonfiction picture book, We are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, from the slush pile.

The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She grew up in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located.

She is a first-generation college graduate with a bachelor's degree in Native American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

She also has a Master's degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. Previously, she taught at the University of North Dakota School of Law and the University of New Mexico.

She also worked as an attorney assisting tribal courts nationwide, advocated for national Native American health care, and directed a national nonprofit serving American Indian and Alaska Native elders. She now lives in the Kansas City area.

See also Story to Contract: Traci Sorell’s Incredible Journey by Suzanne Slade from Picture Book Builders. Peek: "Be grateful. Every day. If you approach your creativity and the process of writing from a place of gratitude, it opens you up. You will be more aware of story ideas, available to hear critiques that improve your craft, and connected to others around you in the kidlit world. Gratitude opens up receptivity."

Emily Mitchell began her career at Sheldon Fogelman Agency, handling submissions, subsidiary rights, and coffee. She spent eleven years at Charlesbridge Publishing as senior editor, contracts manager, and director of corporate strategy. After a brief post-MBA stint in the non-publishing world, Emily returned to children's books at Wernick & Pratt.

Her clients include Geisel Honor winner April Pulley Sayre, author/photographer of Best In Snow (Beach Lane, 2016); Caron Levis, author of Ida, Always (Atheneum, 2016); and Frank W. Dormer, author/illustrator of The Sword in the Stove (Atheneum, 2016) and Click! (Viking, 2016).

Emily holds a bachelor's degree in English from Harvard University, a master's in secondary English education from Syracuse University, and an MBA from Babson College. She lives outside Boston.

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42. Guest Post: Jaclyn Dolamore on Writing Beloved Books

By Jaclyn Dolamore
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I've moved into indie publishing lately, where it is entirely my choice which books I release into the world. So, I've been thinking about branding.

One thing it has taken me a while to realize is that just because you don't write the most popular thing and you get some bad reviews because of it, doesn't mean you need to change anything.

My second novel, Between the Sea and Sky (Bloomsbury, 2001), is my favorite of my published books. Its review average on Amazon and Goodreads was never great, which initially made me feel like there was no place in the world for what I most love to write.

However, as the years have gone by, I've gotten many fan letters for that book from both kids and adult women who tell me it's one of their favorite books and they've read it many times. It took me all those years for the fan mail to trickle in before it finally dawned on me that it is the most beloved of all my books, as far as I can tell.

My brand is: cozy romantic fantasy about a couple in healthy relationship with lots of details about food, clothes, and domestic life, and bits of humor. The fantasy backdrop is more in the "courtly politics" vein rather than physical action, although there is a little of that.

The characters are always somewhat on the fringe of society, your lovable outcasts and weirdos, and if I've done my job, you keep reading because you find the characters delightful and you want to know what happens to them and see them find a place in the world.

Betsy the Cat
They are the kind of books you might read when you're sick or having a bad day; where the characters are friends, the world is home, and you can trust that your heart won't get ripped out of your chest.

A lot of readers like having their heart ripped out of their chest. They give me reviews that say they wanted more action, more magic, more highs and lows. It's always tempting to listen to the bad reviews instead of the good.

And sometimes I love reading stuff that is epic, sweeping, dark. But when I try to write it feels like when I wear my disco dress with the fluttery sleeves. I love that dress but it just isn't me the way my plain 1960s navy blue librarian dress is.

Other people might even like the disco dress better, but it doesn't matter, I still would be happier living in the librarian dress.

As a reader, too, the cozy reads are the ones that fall apart on my shelf, because I pick them up again and again. So I realize now that it is more important to keep writing books that are the most me, and retain those readers who appreciate them too, than it is to try and chase the next big fantasy bestseller.

Cynsational Notes

Jaclyn's books include:
  • Magic Under Glass (Bloomsbury, 2009); 
  • Between the Sea and Sky (Bloomsbury, 2011); 
  • Magic Under Stone (Bloomsbury, 2012); 
  • Dark Metropolis (Hyperion, 2014); 
  • Glittering Shadows (Hyperion, 2015); 
  • The Vengeful Half (Self-published, 2016); and 
  • The Stolen Heart (Self-published, 2016).

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43. Giveaway & New Voices: Erin Petti & Christina Soontornvat on How to Be a Debut Author

Christina & kiddos
By Erin Petti & Christina Soontornvat
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Today Erin and Christina talk about their new releases and lives as newly published authors.

Then offer tips as to how to survive and thrive your literary debut experience.

Erin Petti is the first-time author of The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee (Mighty Media, 2016). From the promotional copy:  
Eleven-year-old budding scientist Thelma Bee has adventure in her blood. But she gets more than she bargained for when a ghost kidnaps her father. 

Now her only clues are a strange jewelry box and the word "return," whispered to her by the ghost. 

It's up to Thelma to get her dad back, and it might be more dangerous than she thought--there's someone wielding dark magic, and they're coming after her next.
 
Christina Soontornvat is the first-time author of The Changelings (Sourcebooks, 2016). From the promotional copy: 
All Izzy wants is for something interesting to happen in her sleepy little town. But her wish becomes all too real when a mysterious song floats through the woods and lures her little sister Hen into the forest...where she vanishes. 

A frantic search leads to a strange hole in the ground that Izzy enters. But on the other side, she discovers that the hole was not a hole, this place is not Earth, and Hen is not lost. 

She's been stolen away to the land of Faerie, and it's up to Izzy to bring her home.

CHRISTINA: The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee (Mighty Media, 2016) hit the shelves this fall. Has life changed for you now that you are a published author?

ERIN: Life is busier now with events and all that good stuff, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Also, it's totally and completely amazing to walk into a bookstore and see something I wrote on the shelves.

Pretty much a lifelong dream come true!

CHRISTINA: Yeah, seeing my book on the shelf is still kind of a shock. When friends snap a photo of The Changelings (Sourcebooks, 2016) in a store halfway across the country, that’s when it hits me that all of this really happened.

Because otherwise life isn’t too different, you know?

It’s not like publishing a book gets you out of doing the laundry or the dishes! And meanwhile I can’t help putting even more pressure on myself to write the next thing.

ERIN: Oh absolutely, but writing that next thing is exactly what you have to do. That’s the biggest piece of advice I share with writers who are querying or about to debut - "keep writing!"

It took me a long time to write, revise, and query and there were moments where it was hard to get back to the actual writing part.

But the writing is really all you have control over so as long as you're creating and getting words on the page, you're doing your job.

Erin
CHRISTINA: That’s a good reminder – the author’s job is to write the books!

And you’re so right – there is a lot you don’t have control over, which can be stressful but also liberating in a way.

Speaking of “jobs,”you have a young daughter and another baby on the way as well as other work that you are passionate about.

How do you juggle life and writing?

ERIN: It's not super easy to schedule, and I've definitely had a measure of trouble keeping the house clean and my kid’s shoes on the right foot - but we're getting by.

My husband is more or less super-dad, and I rely on him an awful lot. But you are one to talk with your own work and two young kids!

CHRISTINA: Well, meeting other writers – like you – who have similarly jam-packed lives has been good for me. It’s a reminder that the vast majority of us have to purposefully and doggedly carve time out from our crazy lives to write, even after we get published.

Some days I get a couple hours, other days just enough time to jot down notes. But I’ve found that if I don’t write every day I get into trouble, and it’s harder to pick it back up. Oh, and I definitely gave up on having a clean house years ago!

Readers are going to fall in love with The Peculiar Haunting of Thelma Bee. Your book isn't just for the Halloween season, but it definitely explores the paranormal.

Do you have a favorite spooky scene from the book?

ERIN: One of my favorite scenes is when the three young heroes are walking alone through the cold, dark New England woods searching for a certain (possibly haunted) cottage.

I got to play with the environment a lot--exploring just what is lurking in those tall shadows--and it really shows the kids at their bravest.

CHRISTINA: And those illustrations really build the suspense! They remind me of Edward Gorey’s drawings, which I totally love.

ERIN: I love the illustrations, too! We’ve both talked about how we lucked out with our books’ art. Your beautiful cover jumps off the shelf! It definitely gives you the feeling that these fairies are no Tinkerbelles, that there is something darker going on.

CHRISTINA: Yes, the story was inspired by old folktales of fairies who steal babies and swap them with Changelings, so definitely a little dark. Their motivation for doing that was one of the most fun things to explore in the book. Why would they want human babies? And why would a Changeling sign up for that exchange?

Tips for Debut Authors

1. Enjoy the moment: As much as we hate to start things off with a sentiment that should be cross-stitched onto a pillowcase, this one happens to be very true.

Celebrate the big and small milestones – your first signing, seeing your book on the shelf for the first time. And then there will be a moment when a reader loves your book so much that they tell you.

Soak that in. Don't skim over the beautiful moments. You only do this debut thing once.

Christina with authors Lindsey Schiebe, Madeline Smoot & P,J, Hoover
2. Connect with a community: Other authors are the best and most supportive people to have in your corner, and sometimes the only way to maintain your sanity.

Twitter, conferences, and debut groups are wonderful ways to connect with other debut authors who are going through the same ups and downs as you are.

It also feels so satisfying to cheer on their successes and root for people whose books you love.

3. Turn that dang thing off: Social media can help keep you connected when you need it. But it can also suck the hours right out of your day – and time is going to be your most precious resource when your book comes out.

So as much fun as it is to chat and retweet clever "Stranger Things" gifs, know when to put down the phone and work/read/rest.

Social media can sometimes also make you feel like everyone in the world is getting a book deal/winning awards/getting a movie contract/selling millions of copies – everyone but you. If you ever feel that way, turn off that app for a little while, and see Tip #2.

4. Make it easy on your publicist: Your publicist will be your ally in helping to set up events, pitch you for conferences, and make connections for a blog tour.

But as much as they love you and your book, they will have other authors they are also working with and new books continuously coming down the pipe. Do what you can to help them help you.

During your first meeting or conference call, ask them for concrete ways you can help. Maybe you know of a local area children's book festival that your author friends rave about. Or perhaps your critique partner has a great blog and she wants to do a giveaway for you. Doing your research ahead of time will make everyone's jobs easier.

5. Get ready for things to change: Have you ever gone to a SCBWI Conference and sat next to a debut author who told you, "Just enjoy the freedom of not being published yet. You can write so unselfconsciously," and you wanted to stab them with the pen that came in your registration tote bag? Turns out there's a little bit of truth to that.

For a lot of authors, getting published creates this paradox of delusional thinking that now they will never be published again. I blame some of this on the overemphasis of "being a debut." and the accompanying feeling that once your debut is over, you are used goods.

But whatever the reason, there are expectations now, real and imagined, from you, your agent, your publisher about you as a professional author. And you may find yourself longing just a little for the days when you wrote just to write, and there was less expectation, less self criticism, more freedom. (But don't say that to unpublished writers at conferences. Those pens are sharp).

6. Get ready for things to be exactly the same: After the initial sparkly, Instagram-worthy swirl of launch date subsides, life is likely going to feel pretty same-ish.

Yes, there may be events and school visits, book signings and festivals. But for most of us, the bulk of our days will carry on as before.

Your non-writer friends will assume you are out shopping for a Tesla Roadster or having brunch with Ann Patchett when really you are cleaning a lint trap or scraping an exploded baked ziti off the oven door.

If in that moment you think to yourself, "I shouldn't be doing this – I'm a published author," you are in big trouble.

7. Keep writing: The best way to simultaneously get over your anxiety and celebrate your newfound authordom is to write more things.

If you have gotten to this point of having a book published, you must love the work of writing. There is no other reason that a sane person would endure the long, unpaid hours, the sting of rejection letters, the glacial delay of gratification, if that person didn't love to write.

You may have to write more things because you signed a contract for another book. If so, lucky you! But even if that's not the case, start on a new project before your debut comes out. You may have to set it aside during the busy days of your launch, but it will feel so good to open up your laptop and have something ready and waiting for you.

8. Find joy in other things: These things may be hobbies or your day job or your daily walk, or art museums or jiu jitsu. Or they may be people, like your spouse or your friends or your children.

These things matter very much, just as much as writing. And unlike writing, these things will hug you and they will eat your cruddy, over-baked ziti. And when you are having a hard day, they will hold up your new book and smile and say, "Look what you did! You did this!"

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44. Book Trailer: Three Truths and a Lie by Brent Hartinger

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Three Truths and a Lie by Brent Hartinger (Simon Pulse, 2016). From the promotional copy:

A weekend retreat in the woods and an innocent game of three truths and a lie go horribly wrong in this high-octane psychological thriller filled with romantic suspense by a Lambda Award–winning author.

Deep in the forest, four friends gather for a weekend of fun.

Truth #1: Rob is thrilled about the weekend trip. It’s the perfect time for him to break out of his shell…to be the person he really, really wants to be.

Truth #2: Liam, Rob’s boyfriend, is nothing short of perfect. He’s everything Rob could have wanted. They’re perfect together. Perfect.

Truth #3: Mia has been Liam’s best friend for years…long before Rob came along. They get each other in a way Rob could never, will never, understand.

Truth #4: Galen, Mia’s boyfriend, is sweet, handsome, and incredibly charming. He’s the definition of a Golden Boy…even with the secrets up his sleeve.

One of these truths is a lie…and not everyone will live to find out which one it is.


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45. Election Reflections & Caring for Your Creative Heart

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

This week I've caught myself for two minutes here, five minutes there, reading a scene from my manuscript in progress.

Not to edit it. Not because I'm nervous about what my new editor will say (that won't kick in for another couple of weeks).

Not because I don't have other things to do. I'm busy teaching and writing speeches.

This week I'm reaching for my work in progress because it comforts me. It's tangible proof that I'm working steadily to the best of my ability to offer something positive to this world, to its future.

I feel a need for tangible proof right now. I'm holding myself accountable and weighing my efforts.

Of late, several writers and illustrators have thoughtfully spoken with me about navigating the dialogue around the current U.S. presidential election.

Here are my thoughts:

First, engage in nurturing self-care. As creative people, we must be courageous and empathetic. That makes us vulnerable. As a creative community, we must take emotional and mental health seriously.

Especially for diverse writers--more so for those who're also women, the landscape is precarious and allies too often undependable.

So, again, please take care of yourself and each other.

That said, no, you don't have to surrender your freedom of political speech for your career. If you believe that your democracy is at stake, your community is at stake, know that publishing as an industry is not going to punish you for saying so.

As for the gatekeepers and the general public, yes, it's possible that you may not sell a copy or, for that matter, two hundred copies of your book, if you speak out. It's possible you may not be invited to a particular event or win a particular award because a given individual disagrees with you.

In a traditional partisan contest, with its typical rhetoric, it may be worth weighing whether to raise your voice or let your books do the talking, especially in cases where those particular books could save kids' lives.

But, my friends, I seriously doubt any of that's in play this time.

We're talking about a national dialogue in which Tic Tac felt the need to issue a statement: "Tic Tac respects all women."

You know, in case you were worried about the position of a mint company on gender.

We are neck deep in the surreal.

So, don't be too hard on yourself if you're triggered or baffled or or disheartened or outraged. Everyone I talk to keeps apologizing for having feelings. Of course you have feelings!

My suggestion: Participate in a way that preserves, reflects and/or affirms your creative life. If what's best for you is to be quiet and go vote, okay. That's fine. If you want to engage on Twitter and then go vote, that's an option, too. But regardless, focus on your own work.

Continue to craft great books for children and teenagers. Maybe not this minute or this week, if you're not up to it. But when you're ready.

This is the world we're giving to future generations, and those of you who create (produce, champion and connect) literature for young readers are among my heroes. Hang in there.

I believe in you.

Cynsational Notes 

Switch to Indigenous People's Day Yvonne Wakim Dennis from The Buffalo News. Peek: "While not a perfect panacea, a nationwide Indigenous People’s Day could be a powerful 'first step' to righting some of the wrongs indigenous peoples have suffered."

See also Italian Americans Who Fought for Justice from Teaching a People's History.

Indigenous People's Day YA Collection from Lee & Low. Peek: "This Young Adult collection highlights indigenous cultures and the issues they face. These paperback and hardcover books for both on-grade level and struggling readers are sure to engage and offer a range of complexity to meet all students' needs."

Best Books About Native Americans/First Nations by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children's Literature.

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46. Guest Post: M.T. Anderson on the Premier of "The Great Gilly Hopkins" Film

By M.T. Anderson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The Vermont children’s book community had an incredible treat on Oct. 7 at the Stowe Cinema 3Plex in Stowe, Vermont:

We all descended on a movie theater in Stowe where Katherine Paterson had opted to hold the premiere of the film adaptation of her National Book Award-winning middle-grade masterpiece, "The Great Gilly Hopkins" from Lionsgate. It was a formal champagne and popcorn kind of event.

(Begging a question: What Would Gilly Do? Somehow I see Mountain Dew hitting the screen during the touching scenes.)

Several generations of Patersons were there, including Katherine’s sons David (who wrote the screenplay) and John (who produced).

It’s a wonderful movie, with a cast that includes Glenn Close, Octavia Spencer, Kathy Bates, and, in a delicious little cameo, Katherine herself. Fans of the book will be delighted to see how much of the original dialogue has been lovingly retained – one of the benefits of having the author’s son as screenwriter.

Pic of MT by Leda Schubert
Afterwards, Katherine admitted that Kathy Bates will now play Maime Trotter permanently in her head, and I think many of us would agree. The way she inhabited that iconic character was flawless and deeply moving.

The screening was followed by a panel with Katherine, David, and John talking about the genesis of both the book and the movie. They reminisced about the two children whose stay with the Paterson family in the late seventies led more or less to Katherine’s conception of the novel – and to her vision of Gilly’s rage at her situation. And they talked about how they’d maneuvered the project through Hollywood, trying to keep the story intact.

At the same time, they spoke frankly about why certain details differed from the book to the movie … the swapping of the case-worker’s gender, for example. (It would be a fun class discussion to have!)

It was a real delight to see the movie and then, immediately, hear these three talk about it. The evening was organized by Vermont College of the Fine Arts as a benefit for Tatum’s Totes, a charity which provides emergency bags filled with clothes, blankets, and toys for foster kids in transit.

By the way,, the movie is apparently available for streaming online at all the usual venues (iTunes, Amazon), if it’s not showing at your local theater. Though that service doesn’t come with as many Patersons.

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47. New Voice & Giveaway: Donna Janell Bowman on Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Donna Janell Bowman is the first-time author of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016). From the promotional copy:

A Horse that can read, write, and do math?

Ridiculous! 

That’s what people thought until former slave and self-taught veterinarian Dr. William Key, with his “educated” horse Beautiful Jim Key, proved that, with kindness, anything is possible. 

Over nine years of exhibiting across the country, Doc and “Jim” broke racial barriers, fueled the humane movement, and inspired millions of people to step right up and choose kindness.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This question ties so perfectly into my belief that there’s a piece of us in everything we write.

In 2006, I read a book about Beautiful Jim Key, authored by Mim Eichler Rivas (William Morrow 2005/Harper Paperbacks 2006). It was a given that I would be drawn to a horse book. I grew up on a Quarter Horse ranch, where life revolved around raising, training, and showing horses, and caring for the myriad livestock and other animals. I have always been an animal lover, and I know firsthand how powerful the human-animal bond can be—how the combination of time, trust, and affection can create such synergy that you can practically read each other’s minds.

Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives.
That kind of relationship bonded William “Doc” Key and his horse, Beautiful Jim Key. While the horse was what drew me to the story, I was immediately awed by Doc. His greatest historical contribution was an unmistakable message about kindness, in a time of extreme racial prejudice, and brutal treatment of animals.

How could I not love the story of a man who overcame so much to make a real difference in the world?

Thanks to Doc, “Jim,” the horse, became a sort of poster child for the emerging humane movement, while Doc overcame injustices, broke racial barriers, and helped change the way people thought about and treated animals. Doc was awarded a Service to Humanity Award, and Jim was awarded a “Living Example” award.

So, back to your question, Cyn, about what inspired me to write this story—it spoke to my heart. I dived into research with zeal.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

There were a number of challenges to writing this story, but three that most stand out:

First, the research. It was claimed that Beautiful Jim Key could read, write, calculate math problems, compete in spelling bees, identify playing cards, operate a cash register, and more. I had to get to the bottom of how this could be possible.

I used the adult book as my jumping off point, but I wasn’t satisfied to rely solely on somebody else’s research.

This is a story that straddles the 19th and 20th centuries, so I read a great deal about the period, including slavery, the Reconstruction Era in the distinct regions of Tennessee, the history of the humane organizations; the related World’s Fairs, Doc’s business interests, etc.

Emotionally, the most difficult part was reading about how animals were treated in the 19th century, and, more importantly, how enslaved people were often treated with similar brutality. Only a tiny fraction of my research appears in the book’s back matter, but it all deeply affected my approach to the story.

I visited the Shelbyville (TN) Public Library and skimmed through their microfilm. Then I spent some time at the Tennessee State Archives, donning white gloves as I perused the crumbling scrapbooks from the BJK collection.

During that 2009 trip, I also visited the humble Beautiful Jim Key memorial in Shelbyville, TN, and Doc’s grave site at the Willow Mount Cemetery. (I might have shed a few sentimental tears.) We then tracked down what I think was Doc’s former property, though the house is long gone.

This kind of onsite research, along with old photos and local news accounts, allowed me to imagine the setting of Doc’s hometown. Back home, I collected binders-full of newspaper articles, playbills, and promotional booklets. Through these, I got a feel for how people thought about Doc and Jim.

And, most importantly, I found some of Doc’s explanations for how he taught the horse. What became clear was, though we may never know exactly how the horse was able to do so many remarkable things, the countless news reporters and professors who tried to prove trickery or a hoax, never found anything beyond “education.” Jim only rarely made mistakes.

Ultimately, what Doc and Jim did for the humane movement is even more significant than what the horse performed on stage.

Originally, I had planned the story for middle grade audiences until my agent (who wasn’t my agent yet) suggested that I try a picture book version. I already had half of the chapters written by this time, so I was aghast at the thought of starting over. And I didn’t know how to write a picture book biography. I spent the next two years analyzing and dissecting a couple hundred picture book biographies to figure out how they work.

I decided to blog about some of my craft observations, using the platform as a quasi-classroom for myself and anyone else who might happen upon my site.

Many, many, many drafts later, I had a manuscript that attracted the attention of a few editors. Lee and Low was the perfect home for Doc and Jim.

There was a built-in challenge in writing this story about a formerly-enslaved African American man. Because I don’t fit any of Doc’s descriptors, it was doubly important that I approach the subject with respect and sensitivity.

I couldn’t merely charge through with the mindset that I’m just the historian sharing documented facts.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

It is so exciting to finally be crossing the threshold into this new role. The past nine years, which is how long I’ve had the story in my head and in my heart, have felt like the longest-ever pregnancy.

There’s a mixture of joy, relief, and fear during this delivery stage. Fortunately, so far, very nice starred reviews have praised the book, and each reviewer wisely sings the praises of Daniel Minter’s spectacular lino-cut acrylic art.

As I think ahead to marketing and promotion, I’m planning for the Oct. 15 release, the Oct. 23 launch party, and how the book might raise awareness of the need for more kindness in the world—not only toward animals but toward each other.

From my very first draft, nine years ago, I knew I’d revive the original Beautiful Jim Key Pledge—originally signed by two million people during Doc and Jim’s time.

I plan to incorporate the pledge into my author presentations, and it will be downloadable from my website soon. I also hope to align with some humane organizations to help them raise awareness.

I have two more books under contract, several others on submission or in revision, and a novel-in-progress.

In 2018, Peachtree Publishers will release En Garde! Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler, followed in 2019 by King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson.

Such is the author’s life, right? We write, we rewrite, we revise, we sell, we wait, we celebrate, then we do it all over again. Because we can’t imagine not writing something that moves us. And we can’t imagine not writing for young people.

Cynsational Giveaway

Book Launch! Join Donna Janell Bowman at 3 p.m. Oct. 23 at BookPeople in Austin. Donna will be speaking and signing.

Fundraiser: Step Right Up and Help The Rescued Horses of Bluebonnet Equine Human Society: "They are horses, donkeys, and ponies that are helpless and hopeless. And they are hurting. The lucky ones land at Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society. Under the loving care of professional staff and volunteers, the animals are medically and nutritionally rehabilitated, then placed with trainers to prepare them for re-homing/adoption." See also Interview: Step Right Up Author Donna Janell Bowman by Terry Pierce from Emu's Debuts.

Enter to win two author-signed copies of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016).

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48. Guest Post: Carol Lynch Williams in Memory of Rick Walton

By Carol Lynch Williams
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

In the early part of last year, Rick Walton, one of my best friends and a prolific picture book writer, was diagnosed with a terminal and aggressive brain tumor.

For many years before this diagnosis, Rick battled early-onset Parkinson’s disease.

Recently, the tumors returned (after a surgery that left Rick partially paralyzed) and as I write this, my friend, my hilarious, clever, word-twisting friend, lives out his last days.

I’ve wandered around the house crying far too much, visiting Rick when I can.

This world of grief is something we all experience in one way or another. No one is exempt from sorrow. It makes up a part of who we are and so grief finds its way into many of my novels. My characters grapple with love lost, death, abuse. I write about life. The sad part.

Writing about grief, telling the true story of a sorrowing character, is tremendously important.

 Readers need examples of survivors. But what happens when that grief becomes too much for the writer?

These last few weeks, as Rick has become more and more sick, has found me not wanting to write unless I must. I don’t believe in the muse nor do I believe in writer’s block. Writing is hard work and we must work to get words on the page.

I do think, however, there are drags on our creativity—events that can eat up our words almost before they are formed. That’s where I am now.

Many years ago, it seemed my worlds crashed around me. I went through a divorce, lost the home I’d raised my girls in, ended up moving every few months trying to find a place for my children and me to settle. I was desperate for a place to call home.

At the same time, four people in my life died, money became more and more scarce, a close relative experienced two psychotic breaks, a drugged neighbor kept trying to break into our rented house . . . and when I thought I could bear no more, I went to two unrelated funerals in two days.

I felt overwhelmed with grief. At one point I finally cried out to my God, “I believe in you but do you believe in me?” That accumulated sorrow led to my young adult novel Waiting (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 2012).

But

but

there were other times

other events

HarperCollins, 2016
other devestations

when my heart and my body, and my spirit even, felt unable to do anything, including write.

There were times when I wept alone and in the open.

Times when I wondered if I could draw in a breath.

Then, I despaired.

I found myself hoping for courage and the ability to do what I had to do: write.

Here are a few things, past the hoping, that helped me get the courage to do the hard thing of finishing a novel. I:

  1. Prayed. Talking to God is an important part of who I am. I spent hours talking, weeping and talking some more.
  2. Exercised. I took off walking, and talking, alone. This exercise permitted my body to breathe and to relax, to rid myself of layers of grief.
  3. Shared the pain. There seemed a time when even a grocery store checker asking me how I was brought on my sharing. That speaking up lightened the load, made it feel possible for me to keep going.
  4. Gave myself room and time. It’s okay if the words don’t come right away. They will come.
  5. Trust yourself. You will write again. It will happen. The next thing you know you’ll find yourself allowing new characters in your life, then wrestling in that awkward middle part of the novel, then typing those triumphant words, THE END. 

Every day since the news that Rick will soon die, I’ve gone to see him. I hold his hand, talk to him about my own life, read him messages from those who love him and can’t travel to Utah to tell him goodbye themselves.

But I haven’t written.

S&S/Paula Wiseman, 2016 (a funny ghost story)
Nothing creative.

Not my blog, not either of the two novels I should be rewriting, not on the mid-grade or YA novel I started this summer.

I’m waiting.

For words.

For peace.

For the sorrow to not be as heavy.

I wish you all could have known Rick Walton as he was years ago. You’d love him like I do. He’s pretty darned fantastic. I’m going to miss him.

My best friend. My Rick.

More from Carol

Rick Walton passed away peacefully, with his mom and sister by his side, three days after I completed this writing.

Cynsational Notes

Rick Walton's books included Frankenstein: A Monstrous Parody, illustrated by Nathan Hale (Feiwel & Friends, 2012); Girl and Gorilla: Out and About, illustrated by Joe Berger (HarperCollins, 2016), and Bullfrog Pops! An Adventure in Verbs and Objects, illustrated by Chris McAllister (Gibbs Smith, 2011).

A legacy of inspiration, remembering Utah children’s book author extraordinaire Rick Walton by Ann Cannon from The Salt Lake Tribune. Peek: "In the end, the people Rick inspired will go on to inspire others who will inspire others who will inspire others. And because he adored people as much as he adored words, his circle was large. His influence will be felt by individuals who may never know his name." See also How Writer Rick Walton Inspired Utah's Literary Wellspring by Rachel Piper from The Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Children's Authors Build a Community from Publishers Weekly.

About Carol
 
Carol Lynch Williams, who grew up in Florida and now lives in Utah, is an award-winning novelist with seven children of her own, including six daughters.

She has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College, and won the prestigious PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship.

The Chosen One (Griffin, 2010) was named one of the ALA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers and Best Books for Young Adult Readers; it won the Whitney and the Association of Mormon Letters awards for the best young adult novel of the year; and was featured on numerous lists of recommended YA fiction.

Carol’s other novels include Never Said (Blink, 2015), Glimpse (Simon & Schuster, 2010), Miles From Ordinary (Griffin, 2012), The Haven (St. Martin's 2012), and Signed, Skye Harper (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 2015). See also Sisterhood, Body Image, and Sexual Abuse | Carol Lynch Williams on “Never Said” by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal.

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49. Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The Latest Trend: Beautifully Illustrated Nonfiction Picture Books by Vicki Cobb from The Huffington Post. Peek: "Great illustration should have a balance – a reduction to the essence, as well as visual interest and a seductive charm - dare I even say, beauty?"

The Book Monster: When Writing Gets Hard by Kate Moretti from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "I was pushed to finish this book because of a contract and a deadline. If I’d been on my own, I might have put it away." See also Finding Confidence as a Writer by Allie Larkin.

Giving Characters (& Readers) Too Little Information by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "They don’t want to simply unload all of the necessary information all at once when the protagonist lands in the new world. The downside of this approach, however, is that it leaves the protagonist in limbo."

Trimmer Named Head of Holt Books for Young Readers; Godwin to Get Imprint by Diane Roback from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Christian Trimmer has been named editorial director of the imprint; he is currently executive editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.... Laura Godwin, v-p and publisher, will launch her own imprint, called Godwin Books."

SMP Launching Crossover Imprint, Wednesday Books by Rachel Deahl from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "...will publish YA and adult titles focused on coming-of-age themes. SMP said the line will focus on 'bold, diverse, and commercial voices in fiction and nonfiction who speak to readers looking for stories in and beyond the YA category.'"

The History That's Not In Textbooks by Guadalupe Garcia McCall from Lee & Low. Peek: "No one can ever do justice to the retelling of the extent of the horrific atrocities committed during that time with complete accuracy and authenticity because so much of it was concealed, poorly recorded, or swept under the proverbial rug."

Out and Proud vs. Hiding In Plain Sight by Tirzah Price from Book Riot. Peek: "This new consideration inspired me to take a closer look at the lesbian hand cover trend, and some of the considerations that authors and publishers (but mostly publishers) have when creating these covers. How are they approaching these covers, and what, if anything, has changed in the last two years?"

Steve Matin: A "Wild and Crazy" Role Model by Sarah Callender from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "A writer’s professional road is long and unpredictable, quite simply because we writers don’t have full control over how our work is received in the world."

Interview With MG Authors Audrey Vernick and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich by Darlene Beck Jacobson from Smack Dab in the Middle. Peek: "I think I base just about all of my characters on people I know or have met, a lot of the time I don't do it consciously."

YA Authors Turn Advocates by Sarah J. Robbins from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "...we speak with authors of recent books about what motivated each of them to take on an especially tough topic. We asked them to talk about the challenges and responsibilities of walking the line between artistry and advocacy, both during the writing process and after publication, once their work reaches its audience."

Congratulations to VCFA WCYA alum Stephen Baker, the Karen Cushman Late Bloomer Award winner, from SCBWI! Stephen graduated in summer 2016.

Creating Unforgettable Settings: Choosing the Right Setting by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "...there should be places within that setting that are important to the character. Melinda’s janitorial closet in Speak. Or the forest outside District 12 for Katniss in The Hunger Games."

This Week at Cynsations
Book Giveaway!

More Personally

A quiet week of teaching here, as I've reviewed the third-round packets from my students at the VCFA MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults.

However, I did take a break to reward myself for turning in my manuscript with a detoxifying mud wrap at Ann Web Skin Clinic.

(Austinites! Ann Webb is a school, so treatments are substantially less expensive than you'd pay at a traditional spa. But the services are excellent, and it feels like spa experience.)

Ready for a mud wrap!
I've been thinking a lot lately about the importance of self-care, hence my post this week (Election Reflections & Caring for Your Creative Heart).

It's not selfish to look after your own physical and especially your own mental health. If our glass is empty, we have nothing to give. Nothing to give our friends and families, nothing to give our communities and our literary art. Nothing to give ourselves. Fill the well, book lovers! Fill the well!

On another note, my official facebook author page has been liked more than 6,000 people. Please feel free to join me there if you haven't already. Much like Cynsations, the focus includes but goes well beyond my own work to children's-YA writing, illustration, literature, education and publishing more globally. Along the same lines, please consider yourself invited to join my nearly 18,000 followers @CynLeitichSmith on Twitter.


Personal Links

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50. Guest Post: Linda Boyden on How Do I Write?

Linda reflecting on her writing life.
By Linda Boyden
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

How do I write?

With deepest apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Dr. Seuss, let me count the ways:

with pencil, pen or quill,
from a picture, if you will,
on a napkin, in the dark,
 at the ocean, on a walk,

at a desk, from my dreams,
at a keyboard, near a stream:
the Muse attacks and I succumb, writing words one by one.

It may start anywhere, anytime without invitation. A spark leaps across one brain cell to another and I must write. I must capture the word/phrase/sentence on paper or in a text file so I can hold it hostage before this elusive gift evaporates.

During school visits, I tell my student audiences; this idea-generating stage of writing comes from something I refer to as the Cosmic Goo, a Nether-World place where ideas wait to be used.

Cosmic Goo (it's a technical term)

Once an idea has introduced itself, I enter the pre-writing phase, where I begin to translate images into slightly more tangible things, words. I want to see, touch, taste them; more importantly, I want to hear them.

I read all my work aloud, from rough draft to finished products, particularly important for picture book or poems. By doing this, I can test their word rhythms. I want to pair every idea with its perfect word mate; doubly important if the draft insists upon being rhymed.

Rhymed or in prose, rhythm is key. If I can't hear the intrinsic word melodies that rhythm produces then neither will my readers.

A stop in word rhythm will slow or stop the reader's flow, and potentially keep them from reading more.

For revising and editing most of my manuscripts, I proceed in two ways: I work a piece to the ground or I abandon it...for a night, a week, a year, or even completely. Separation has definite advantages.

Often, I will go to sleep ruminating on an irksome line, paragraph or scene and awake with its solution, or at least with the way to proceed. In contrast, a longer incubation period allows me to discover that not all pieces deserve to survive. I have learned to use the delete key.

Grandchildren (at a younger age) featured with blessings.
However, if a piece does deserve serious revision, then it deserves the best I can provide.

Good revision is much like good parenting: it starts from your heart.

You invest time in the improvement of your words or art; you encourage and nudge them to shine to become their best; last, you send them on their way and step back.

Will the words and illustrations you love ring true in the Big World?

Will your hard work pay off?

Like adult kids on their own, books mutate from your plans. A few make the New York Times Best Sellers List. Many speak to the hearts of librarians and teachers.

If you are lucky, truly lucky, your book will touch the one child it needed to help, the one who will fall asleep with your work tucked in her or his arms.

That's the beauty and importance of writing and illustrating books for children.

Cynsational Notes

“I write. I teach. I color in or outside the lines. I spoil kids and grandkids....
"Poetry gives voice to our silent songs."

Author/illustrator/storyteller/recovering-teacher/poet, Linda Boyden has written six and illustrated five picture books:

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