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1. Guest Post: Brian Anderson Collaborating with His Daughter Amy on Space Dictionary for Kids

By Brian Anderson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Have you ever wondered why the spacecraft that carried the first U.S. astronaut into space in 1961 was named the Freedom 7? Was George Lucas already planning six prequels, or what?

When my daughter Amy turned 21 years old in July 2014, she was doing summer research in astrophysics at Baylor University. Her birthday coincided with a stargazing party at Meyer Observatory, so I offered to make a piñata and have the star party double as a birthday party.

I started making custom piñatas when Amy was five years old, and over the years her birthday party piñatas had grown increasingly elaborate.

"How about a black hole piñata," I joked. I imagined one round balloon, decorated all black. She would never agree to that.

"That'd be fantastic!"

I knew right away something was wrong. I told her nothing escapes the gravity of a black hole, not even light. It's just a black dot in space. That's when she told me about accretion disks and X-ray emissions and Hawking radiation. Apparently, I had a lot to learn about black holes, and now I also had a challenging piñata to make.


The following summer my friend and fellow Austin children's book author Christina Soontornvat told me that Prufrock Press was looking for an author to write an astronomy dictionary for kids.

Christina and I are both science educators as well as children's book authors, and she thought I'd be perfect for the job. But after the way that black hole piñata joke backfired on me the summer before, I knew I didn't know enough astronomy to write a book about it.

But I knew someone who did.

Brian & Amy--back in the day.
Amy had just graduated from college and was taking the summer off before starting graduate school in the fall.

When I suggested we write it together, her first question was the same as mine – isn't there something like this already available online for free?

Her search turned up the same thing mine had: some highly technical glossaries that were clearly not intended for kids, and a scattered collection of incomplete and sometimes incorrect astronomy glossaries for students.

My nine-year-old self was screaming at me that space-loving kids needed this book. Amy felt the same way, and agreed to help write it. We have liftoff!

We compiled a word list of about 450 terms, grouped them into five subject areas, then dived into researching and writing.

The fact that Amy understood the science content much better than I did is part of the reason our collaboration on Space Dictionary for Kids (Sourcebooks, 2016) worked so well. She brought content mastery and I brought a learner's perspective.

Together we were able to create an astronomy dictionary that's both scientifically accurate and understandable to young readers.

Collaborating with my daughter will always be one of the highlights of my writing career, and Amy taught me a lot of astronomy along the way. I finally understand retrograde motion!

I already knew quasars were the brightest objects in the universe, brighter than an entire galaxy of stars, but until I started working with Amy I never knew exactly what a quasar was. And I also learned (a little too late) that I should have offered to make Amy a black dwarf piñata instead of a black hole piñata.

Cynsational Notes

To answer the opening question, each of the Project Mercury astronauts, known collectively as the Mercury 7, was allowed to name the ship that would carry him into space, and each ship's name would end with the number 7. In addition to Freedom 7, the other Mercury spacecraft were Liberty Bell 7, Friendship 7, Aurora 7, Sigma 7, and Faith 7. If you're keeping score, you probably noticed that that was only six. To find out what happened to the seventh Mercury astronaut, flip to page 144.

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2. Guest Post: Carolyn Dee Flores on Achieving Deeper Color in Illustration Using Oil on Cardboard

By Carolyn Dee Flores
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Illustrators bear witness.


Nothing could be more important.

One hundred years from now, when someone wants to know what it was like to be a seven-year-old girl in New York City on her birthday – or what it was like to be a Mexican-American child growing up in Texas – they won’t go to a reference book and look it up. They will look at a picture.

Illustrators, we must:

See with our fingers.
See with our hands.
See with our pencils.
So much depends upon it.

The world “literally” depends upon it!

The process for the bilingual picture book – A Surprise for Teresita/Una Sorpresa Para Teresita, written by Virginia Sánchez-Korrol (Arte Publico, 2016) – I knew I needed to concentrate on community. I looked at 10, 000 photographs of New York City. I’ve been to New York City before – so I tried to remember it and “breathe” it in. A Surprise for Teresita is about a little girl in a Nuyorican (Puerto-Rican/New York) neighborhood.

I loved the idea of the tropical Puerto Rican culture splashed against the New York City buildings and brownstones.

I got to work immediately.

I made models from foamboard.



I ordered a snow cone machine.

I studied the difference between “snow cones”, “raspas”, and “piraguas.” Delicious!

It became obvious to me that my color palette was going to be “snow cones.”

But … there was a dilemma.

How to capture the intense color I needed, using only the mediums of pencil and watercolor?

The answer: I couldn’t.

I needed oil paint - the brilliant color of oil paint!

So … encouraged by my mentors - Caldecott winner Denise Fleming and Caldecott winner E.B. Lewis – I set out to create a new illustration process.

And, thankfully, it worked!

Here is what I did:

The Problem:

1. Oil paint takes five months to a year and a half to dry.

2. Oil paint on a “raw” surface, such as untreated cloth or cardboard, tends to bleed and is very difficult to control.


The Solution:

1. Liquin medium. “One stroke” at a time. I squeeze each tube of oil paint separately onto my palette. I dip my brush into each color. Then I dip it into the Liquin. I mix the colors as I paint, directly on the cardboard.


2. After each application, I clean the brush, and start again.

3. Similar to “watercolor technique,” I use the “cardboard” as my “white.” In the close-up of Teresita (below) – the highlights in Teresita’s hair are cardboard showing through.


4. As I paint, the oil seeps deep into the cardboard.

5. The cardboard remains wet for weeks “on the inside” - but the “skin” of the painting dries within four and a half hours! It is ready to scan immediately!

This process enabled me to paint A Surprise for Teresita without bleed, quickly, and using the saturated colors that I desperately wanted! All the difference in the world!


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3. New Voice: Hannah West on Kingdom of Ash and Briars

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Hannah West is the first-time author of Kingdom of Ash and Briars (Holiday House, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Building on homages to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jane Austen’s Emma and the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, Hannah West makes a spectacular and wholly original debut.

Bristal, a sixteen-year-old kitchen maid, lands in a fairy tale gone wrong when she discovers she has elicromancer magic in her blood. Elicromancers are an ancient breed of immortal people, but only two remain in Nissera after a bloody civil war. 

Bristal joins the ranks of Brack and Tamarice without knowing that one of them has a dark secret . . . Tamarice is plotting a quest to overthrow the realm’s nobility and take charge herself. 

Together, Bristal and Brack must guard the three kingdoms of Nissera against Tamarice’s black elicromancy. There are cursed princesses to protect, royal alliances to forge and fierce monsters to battle—all with the hope of preserving peace.

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

Boy, am I the right person to ask about revisions. When I started querying, I was fresh out of college with no industry knowledge (I studied French) and had a manuscript so thick it could have knocked someone out, no hard cover needed.

Hannah West
After my not-yet agent, Sarah Burnes, initially showed interest, she gave me some revision advice and passed on the manuscript. I made the cuts that she suggested, and continued querying and receiving requests from other agents.

It didn't occur to me until a few months later that Sarah might actually be open to seeing the revision even though she didn't explicitly request an R&R.

I'm so glad I thought of that! We ended up signing with a plan to continue revising it pretty heavily (read: cut left and right). We did three rounds, I believe, and then I did a few more with my lovely editor after signing with Holiday House.

I think a huge amount of cutting can be a dangerous thing, as it can really throw off the pace - such a delicate thing to begin with. But I am so so pleased with the result of talented professionals putting me through the ringer. It's so worth it. The story itself is essentially the same, which goes to show you how many unnecessary words were lurking in that initial submission.

For debut authors, I would say never be too protective of the draft that you submit. It's actually really freeing to put yourself in the hands of professionals, and if you're a gifted writer, you can work in their suggestions while still retaining your voice and the aspects you love about the story.

Never react to a hard critique on the spot. Take time to think about it, and you'll usually find that you agree, or can at least envision a compromise that will improve your work.

Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

This brings me to the other Sarah in my life - the one who lives in rural Arkansas with nary a strong internet connection, eating 'coons for supper (okay, maybe the last one only applies to her church potlucks).

Having a critique partner is a wonderful thing, but having a CP-best-friend is even better. Querying and revising and waiting was a hard phase for me.

I was fresh out of college with only a part-time job, living with my parents, so I had a lot riding on getting an agent and pressing onward (who doesn't?).

In the hardest moments, Sarah was there, reading my revisions and offering encouragement even though we live in different states. (I hadn't met her yet when I submitted my abominably large manuscript, so she's off the hook).

Cynsational Notes

Hannah "lives in the Dallas area with her husband, Vince, and their rambunctious blue heeler, Robb. She proudly writes articles about sustainable living and home renovation for Modernize.com."

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4. Guest Post: Joy Preble on Life as an Author-Bookseller...or Bookseller-Author?

Joy's first full day at Brazos Bookstore
By Joy Preble
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Last month, I became the new Children’s Specialist at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. I hadn’t planned on it, but when you stumble into your dream job, well, you take it!

It’s a balancing act: Selling books and buying books and merchandising and creating store events, while also writing and promoting my own novels. I’m not just an author anymore, but I’m not just a bookseller either, and this hybrid from means I’ve seen behind one curtain, and now I’m peeking behind another.

What have I learned in the past few weeks the job? Lots of things, and not so much that they are new but that I’m seeing them through a different prism.

And so the responsibility of hand-selling books I love by authors whose work I admire weighs heavy—and heavier because we are a small, highly curated independent store and space is a premium, especially so in the children’s area.

Our buyer’s philosophy is: "if two copies is good, then one is better." If I order three copies or four, then I better not only adore this book, but have made it clear to my co-workers why I love it, made sure they’re reading advanced copies and come up with a plan to sell it big. If I put a book face out or make it part of a special display or grace it with a shelf-talker that choice is mine. Already, I’ve seen how store love and hand-selling can quickly turn a small book from a small press into a bestseller.

It makes me all the more appreciative for the booksellers and librarians who’ve supported my career and talked up my books and kept copies on hand. Because I know now what happens when I see that a book hasn’t sold any copies in a month or two. I purge all or most of the copies from the shelves and replace it with something new.

Booksellers channeling Dorothy Parker
Of course I knew this before… in theory. But while the author part of me—the part that knows what it takes to write a book and bring it into the world—struggles with the idea, the bookseller part of me either has to come up with a plan or put it on the return shelf.

We return a lot of books each week. Stacks and stacks of them. The author part of me will probably always feel sad about this. But that is how it works.

On the other hand, one of the grand things about working at an independent bookstore is that while we respect the Kirkus Reviews recs and the Indie Next List and all the rest of it, we are under no obligation to promote only the books that the reps have pushed when we take meetings.

Oh, we want to predict the big titles as much as the next guy, but we also revel in finding that hidden gem of a book and giving it its due. But I know now that this takes more than just keeping it on the shelf. It means moving it around the store, making it visible, putting it in customers’ hands, crowing about why we love and why they should read it.

My new job has revived and broadened my reading tastes because of this and colleagues who put translated Latin American novels in my hands or find themselves shocked that I had not read Kelly Link’s latest short story collection.

I could go on and on and tell you how our particular store is owned by a co-op or how the reps often bring pizza. Or how I still have a weird series of reactions each time I see my own books in the store. Should I write a shelf-talker? Put them face out? Force my colleagues to read the latest?

Am I author/bookseller? Or bookseller/author?

Ringing up your own book for a random customer is, well, strange.

But this is enough for now.

Cynsational Notes

Joy Preble is the author of several young adult novels including the Dreaming Anastasia series (Sourcebooks), the first book of which was named an ABC Best Book in 2009; the quirky/humorous Sweet Dead Life series (Soho Press); a contemporary road trip/family drama, Finding Paris (Balzer and Bray/Harper Collins), which School Library Journal called, "An intricate guessing game of sisterly devotion, romance, and quiet desperatio.”

Her latest release is It Wasn't Always Like This (Soho Teen), which Kirkus Reviews called "a modern Tuck Everlasting with a thriller twist."

Joy lives in Texas with her family, including a sweet but slightly unhinged basset/boxer. In between writing and working at Brazos Bookstore as bookseller/Children’s Specialist, she teaches and lectures widely on writing and literacy and is currently on faculty at Writespace Houston.

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5. New Voices: Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer on The Season

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer are the first-time authors of The Season (Viking, 2016). From the promotional copy:


She can score a goal, do sixty box jumps in a row, bench press a hundred and fifty pounds…but can she learn to curtsy?

Megan McKnight is a soccer star with Olympic dreams, a history major, an expert at the three Rs of Texas (readin’, ridin’, and ropin’), but she’s not a girly girl. 

So when her Southern belle mother secretly enters her as a debutante for the 2016 deb season in their hometown of Dallas, she’s furious—and has no idea what she’s in for. 

When Megan’s attitude gets her on probation with the mother hen of the debs, she’s got a month to prove she can ballroom dance, display impeccable manners, and curtsey like a proper Texas lady or she’ll get the boot and disgrace her family. 

The perk of being a debutante, of course, is going to parties, and it’s at one of these lavish affairs where Megan gets swept off her feet by the debonair and down-to-earth Hank Waterhouse. 

If only she didn’t have to contend with a backstabbing blonde and her handsome but surly billionaire boyfriend, Megan thinks, being a deb might not be so bad after all. But that’s before she humiliates herself in front of a room full of ten-year-olds, becomes embroiled in a media-frenzy scandal, and gets punched in the face by another girl.

The season has officially begun…but the drama is just getting started.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

The Season is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen set in Texas in 2016 so our main character, Megan McKnight, is based on Elizabeth Bennet.

 We really examined that classic, well-loved character and asked ourselves: What traits make her who she is? What makes her the woman Mr. Darcy falls in love with? The woman we all fall in love with?

We literally made a list of important traits: Brash, forms strong opinions, speaks her mind, loves to read, more physically active than other women, witty, fiercely loyal, loves the outdoors, isn't as interested in men as other young women her age, her singularity. Things like that. Then we tried to imagine what a modern young woman, who embodied all those traits, would be like.

We decided she'd be a history major and an athlete and we chose soccer as her sport. She'd be the kind of girl dedicated to practicing and playing even if it meant she was a little intimidating to guys and didn't have much time for dating. She'd be more interested in fueling her body for athletics than in fitting into a size two. She'd throw her hair in a ponytail, put on some Chapstick and pull on track shorts rather than care about makeup and fashion. She'd be funny and snarky, but so much so that it would get her into trouble sometimes. She'd be more loyal to her sister and her teammates than to any guy.

And also, like Elizabeth Bennet, she'd have no idea how to be coy. While other girls (like her sister) might hide their feelings, she just wouldn't be capable of keeping her opinions to herself.

As you can see, we had a really strong blueprint to build our main character from, which is a wonderful. But the kinds of questions we were focused on are no different when you're creating a character from scratch.

I think the most helpful thing with any character is to know where you want them to end up. What lesson must they learn by the end? If the lesson, as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet and our Megan McKnight, is to not form knee-jerk opinions about things, then you better start that character as far away from that point as realistically possible. You have to allow every character, not just your protagonist, room to grow, and change.

A book is not a journey for the reader if it's not a journey for the characters.

And so, the same method applies to all our secondary characters as well. We found modern ways for them to embody the traditional Austen characters' traits. Our Mrs. Bennet is a social climber trying to set he daughters up for success, our Jane Bennet is the embodiment of the perfect young woman, albeit a contemporary one, and our Mr. Darcy is proud and aloof.

Real people always play a role in characterizations, too. Sometimes we think of certain real people that we know or even famous people to help us envision a certain character. I've always found it easier to describe a setting if I've seen it, and the same holds true for people.

 Of course, you always add and take away from reality when you're creating fiction, but you often end up with characters who are an amalgamation of people who really exist.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what's funny? What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

Writing comedy is so hard. Humor is in the eye of the beholder and because of this, and perhaps more all other types of writing, it cannot be done in a vacuum.

Like most things having to do with writing, it starts with observation. You know what you think is funny to you and your friends. Start there. Make notes. Have little booklets full of funny conversations you'd had and witty things you've said. Research isn't just dry reading about some place you've never been or some historical period. Research is about watching human behavior, listening to speech patterns, and being tuned in to what makes people laugh.

Stephen and I have the benefit of having each other. But we had already been together for seven years when we accidentally discovered that we were good writing partners.

I was an actress and was starting to do stand-up comedy in New York City. I was writing my stand-up material and would try things out on him at home in the evenings. He was my sounding board and was almost always able to build on what I had, and make it better.

We started working on all my material together, cracking each other up in the process. It's a really good example of how having a someone to be your sounding board is so important with comedy.

Maybe that's why sitcoms and "Saturday Night Live" fill hire six-to-fifteen writers who work together or why so many of the old screwball comedies were penned by a two-person writing team.

But even if you don't use a partner to write comedy, you got to find that person or people to give you a gut-check.

To answer the most important question: Is this funny to anyone besides me?

So whether it's your best friend, or an online writing group, or just one other writer who understands your genre, find those Beta Readers.

And if they are good, be good to them. If you can't offer a quid pro quo of also reading their work, then small gifts are a really nice way of saying thank you and keeping them in your corner.

The other important factor in writing comedy is just to do it, and do it often. Your funny bone isn't a bone at all, its a muscle!

Okay, it's really a nerve but that doesn't fit into my metaphor so just go with me. The point is, if you want it to be strong, you have to exercise it! The funnier you are, the funnier you will be. I have never been funnier than when I was doing stand-up because I was doing it every day. My mind was just set to that channel!

If you are writing a comedic piece, you need to immerse yourself in comedy. Hang out with your funny friends! Watch funny shows and movies. Go to a comedy club.

Basically, put yourself in a funny world so you have something to play/write off of.

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6. 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).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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7. In Memory: Andrea Cheng

Learn more from Lee & Low.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Obituary: Andrea Cheng by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly.

"Children’s book author and educator Andrea Cheng, whose books often focused on intercultural and intergenerational relationships, died on Dec. 26, 2015 following a long illness. She was 58.

"Cheng was born in El Paso, Tex. in 1957, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. The family soon moved to Cincinnati where Cheng and her two siblings grew up in an extended family, which she described on her website as 'three generations under one roof.'”

From The Cincinnati Enquirer:

"In lieu of flowers or food, donations may be made to either the Andrea Cheng English as a Second Language Scholarship at Cincinnati State (online or checks to Attn: Cincinnati State Foundation, Cincinnati State Technical & Community College, ATLC, Room 352, 3520 Central Parkway, Cincinnati OH, 45223), or to the Cincinnati Public Library (online or checks to 800 Vine St. Cincinnati, OH 45202). Please note that the gift is in memory of Andrea Cheng."

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8. Cover Reveal & Author Snapshot: The Changelings by Christina Soontornvat

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover of The Changelings by Christina Soontornvat (Jabberwocky/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 an enchanting 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.

But inside Faerie, trouble is brewing-and Izzy is in way over her head. A ragtag group of outlaw Changelings offers to help, and she must decide whether a boulder that comes to life, a girl that’s not quite solid, and a boy who is also a stag can help her save Hen before it’s too late.

Tell us more about your cover. How did it feel to see it for the first time?

It was a total thrill! When I opened the box of galleys that my publisher sent me, it seemed like the books were absolutely glowing. The cover art makes me want to dive in and see what is behind that door. I hope kids will feel the same way.

The girl on the cover is the main character, Izzy, who journeys into Faerie to find her little sister and bring her home. The three animals are the Changeling children who help her.

The Changelings are shape shifters who can make themselves look like almost anything for a short while. But they can only truly “Change” into a handful of forms – like the stoat, butterfly, and badger on the cover.

The little flying fairies are Pollenings. They play a very tiny, but important, part in the story. (And they make honey that goes great with pancakes!)

What was it like to see your characters depicted on the cover?

I actually didn’t think the cover would feature the characters at all, so it was such a wonderful surprise to see them in the first draft! When I got my first look at Izzy, I thought the artist captured her perfectly. She looks curious and thoughtful, and is having a very human reaction to all the magic around her – a mix of awe and nervousness! I’m sure most of us would feel the same way if we stumbled into Faerie.

I think it was a very wise decision on Sourcebooks’ part to have Izzy be the only human face we see on the cover. The artist could have drawn all the Changelings in their child forms, but I think that would have taken some of the fun away from readers being able to imagine them for themselves.

Tell us more about the cover design process. Where you involved?

The artwork and design were done completely without me – thank goodness! But my editor and art director did ask me for input on the characters, and we went back and forth several times to make sure the details were right and the cover was being true to them.

I am really lucky to have been involved as much as I was. I know that’s not always the case for authors!

I learned so much about covers during this process and the heavy lifting they have to do. The cover has to draw a reader in, give them a feeling for the writing and the story, but without giving too much away. Everything, from the font to the color palette, to the way the art wraps around to the back, contributes to that sense of wonder you want readers to have – before they even start reading.

The cover for The Changelings doesn’t depict an exact scene in the book, but I think it does everything you want a cover to do!

Oh, and there is a secret hidden in the cover as well. But you will have to read the book to figure it out!

Cynsational Notes

Christina Soontornvat spent her childhood in small Texas towns, eagerly waiting for the fairies to come and kidnap her. They never came, but she still believes magic things can happen to ordinary people. When not writing, Christina hangs out in science museums and takes care of her own little goblins-ahem- children. She lives in Austin, Texas. The Changelings is her first novel.

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9. Guest Post: Cory Putnam Oakes on The Seven Deadly Sins of Sequels

By Cory Putnam Oakes
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

When I sold my first middle grade novel, I was super excited when my publisher asked me if I would also write a sequel.

A sequel! Squee! 

Because two books were obviously twice as awesome as one book and now I’d get to spend more time writing in the world I had painstakingly constructed for Book #1.

I was ecstatic and I floated around on a cloud of overwhelming happiness—right up until the moment I sat down to write Book #2.

Then, panic set in.

The sequel, which had sounded so good in theory, was downright terrifying in actual fact. I had no idea where to start and I was sure I was going to totally screw it up.

I had never experienced a sequel as a writer before. My writer-self had nothing but a big giant blank to draw on in that area.

I realized, however, that I had experienced quite a few sequels as a reader. And my reader-self had some very definite opinions about sequels, so I decided to let my reader-self educate my writer-self on how to proceed.

Turns out, my reader-self had some useful things to say which really helped me during the (eventual) writing process.

So in the interest of helping other writers who currently find themselves (or may one day find themselves) staring down the barrel of a sequel, here are my Seven Deadly Sins of Sequels:

Deadly Sin #1: Skipping Stuff

Perhaps one of my biggest peeves when it comes to sequels is when major changes happen between Book #1 and Book #2 and we learn about those changes in a recap at the beginning of Book #2 instead of actually seeing them happen.

If you’re going to kill off a character, end a major relationship, have somebody move away, or basically put any character in a fundamentally different position than the one they were in at the end of Book #1, don’t do it in a recap! That’s cheating.

Your reader is picking up Book #2 because they loved the story and the characters from Book #1—don’t bamboozle us by letting major things happen behind our backs! We will feel like we missed a step. (Which, in fact, we did!)

Deadly Sin #2: Jumping the Tracks

No one likes a plot they can see coming a mile away, but it’s also no fun to feel like the story-train you climbed aboard in Book #1 has literally jumped off of its tracks in Book #2 and is headed in a new direction, one for which you didn’t buy a ticket.

That doesn’t mean that the plot of Book #2 should be yawningly predictable for the sake of comfort, but there should be some hint of what is coming next built into Book #1 so your reader doesn’t feel completely blind-sided.

(Note: don’t panic if you’ve already completed Book #1 and you don’t think you did this—go back and read Book #1 again. I promise you planted more seeds than you remember.)

Deadly Sin #3: Book 1? Was There a Book #1?

You don’t want Book #2 to only make sense to people who were really, really paying attention to Book #1. But on the flip side, your sequel should not be a complete stand alone: Don’t act like Book #1 never happened. If, for example, your main character overcame a major obstacle in Book #1, it’s weird if that obstacle, and his/her struggle, is never referred to in Book #2.

You don’t have to go overboard reminiscing and info-dumping about all the stuff that happened in Book #1 ("Hey guys! Remember that time that we . . . "), but Book #1 is now part of the mythos, the shared understanding, of both books. It’s a common language between you and your reader. Use it as such. Make sure that you are building up your characters in Book #2 on top of a foundation that you constructed in Book #1.

Deadly Sin #4: When Book #2 is Basically Just Book #1 On Steroids

EXAMPLE:

In Book #1, the main character learns how to deal with a bully.

In Book #2, the main character learns how to deal with an even bigger, nastier, scarier bully.

No. Your main character has already fought this battle. They need a new battle for Book #2 or we’re just watching them go on the exact same journey they’ve already taken. Even if we really, really enjoyed the journey the first time around, we don’t want to see it again.

The question your sequel audience is asking is: Where does this character go from here? Not: Can they do it again even though it’s slightly harder this time?

Deadly Sin #5: When Book #2 Is Nothing But a Bridge to Book #3

This is a well-documented problem, specific to trilogies, when an author sacrifices Book #2 in order to set up the amazing, wonderful, mind-blowing idea they have for Book #3.

Okay, fine, I’ll use a specific example here: "The Empire Strikes Back." I love "Star Wars," I do. But even I’m forced to admit that Empire was really just a big set-up for "Return of the Jedi." We can excuse this because of all the battles with Imperial Walkers and people cutting open tauntauns, being frozen in carbonite, and almost getting eaten by meteor-caves-that-are-really-giant-monsters. "Star Wars" can get away with this. But you and I can’t.

We need to move our plots along because people are not going to be as forgiving about our books as they are about "Star Wars" because, well, our books are not "Star Wars."

Trilogies are tough because in a three book series, Book #1 is going to be the beginning, Book #2 the middle, and Book #3 the end. The tricky part is that each individual book in the series (including Book #2) also needs a beginning, middle, and an end of their very own.

How can you tell if you’re sacrificing Book #2? If the only stuff that happens in Book #2 is bad and there is no resolution to any of it, this is big, red, flashing warning sign. If Book #2 is when everything breaks, and Book #3 is where everything is fixed, this means you’re stopping your characters in mid-arc in Book #2. This is very unsatisfying.

Don’t get me wrong: You can leave your characters in dire straits at the end of Book #2. But make sure they accomplished something while getting there. There needs to be some kind of resolution to Book #2 problems—in Book #2.

Deadly Sin #6: Major Reveals That Should Have Happened Earlier

You know when you’ve been friends with somebody for years and then you learn a very important thing about them that you can’t believe you didn’t know? It feels rotten, right? Like maybe you never really knew them like you thought you did, or that maybe you’re a bad friend for not realizing this very important thing sooner?

Don’t make your reader feel like that. I’m not saying you can’t reveal new, surprising, very important things about your characters in Book #2—you can, and you should. But there needs to be a very good reason why we didn’t hear about this very important thing in Book #1. Don’t make your reader feel like a bad friend.

Deadly Sin #7: When Characters Morph Into Strangers

As readers, we fall in love with characters. Sometimes to unreasonable degrees. We will tolerate (and even encourage) them when they change and grow in reaction to things that happen to them, but we will not accept them drifting away from their core, defining characteristics.

Nobody would be okay with it if Indiana Jones suddenly decided to just “get over” his fear of snakes and adopted one as a pet. Nobody would be on board with Harry Potter dropping out of Gryffindor, joining Slytherin, and giving Ron Weasley wedgies in the hallway. It’s just not them.

Your characters need to grow and change in Book #2. But they need to stay themselves. Don’t mess with the core of who they are, or you risk the wrath of your readers who love them.

So those are the sins that I tried to avoid while writing my sequel. What did I miss? What else can we add to this list, to help guide the future sequel-writers of the world on their perilous journey?

Note: As you add to this list, please speak generally, as opposed to using specific books and authors as negative examples. Everyone who has ever tackled a sequel deserves a hug, a high-five, and at least a gallon of chocolate ice cream—not criticism. Let’s keep it positive, encouraging, and helpful!

Cynsational Notes

Cory Putnam Oakes is a writer living in Austin, Texas. Dinosaur Boy Saves Mars, the sequel that inspired this post, came out in February, 2016 from Sourcebooks.

She is also the author of Dinosaur Boy (Sourcebooks, 2015); The Veil (Octane Press, 2011); and Witchtown (coming from Houghton Mifflin, 2017).

She wishes it to be known that she feels really, really badly about disparaging "The Empire Strikes Back" in the above post. But she is certain that her overwhelming love for "Star Wars" in general will excuse this teeny, tiny bit of loving criticism.

Cynthia Leitich Smith agrees with Cory about the perils of "bridge" books in trilogies, but nevertheless believes that "The Empire Strikes Back" is the best of the "Star Wars" movies. Cynthia also selected "The Karate Kid II" to illustrate Cory's fourth point, even though it's her favorite of that series, too. She apparently feels conflicted about the whole dynamic.

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10. New Voice & Giveaway: Paige Britt on The Lost Track of Time

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Paige Brittis the first-time author of The Lost Track of Time, illustrated by Lee White (Scholastic, 2015). From the promotional copy:

A magical fantasy, an allegorical cautionary tale, a feast of language, a celebration of creativity--this dazzling debut novel is poised to become a story for the ages.

Penelope is running out of time.

She dreams of being a writer, but how can she pursue her passion when her mother schedules every minute of her life? And how will she ever prove that writing is worthwhile if her mother keeps telling her to "get busy " and "be more productive"?

Then one day, Penelope discovers a hole in her schedule--an entire day completely unplanned --and she mysteriously falls into it. 

What follows is a mesmerizing journey through the Realm of Possibility where Penelope sets out to find and free the Great Moodler, the one person who may have the answers she seeks. Along the way, she must face an army of Clockworkers, battle the evil Chronos, take a daring Flight of Fancy, and save herself from the grip of time.

Brimming with clever language and masterful wordplay, The Lost Track of Time is a high-stakes adventure that will take you to a place where nothing is impossible and every minute doesn't count--people do.

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?

Jill Santopolo
I absolutely do have a most memorable workshop! It was actually one you gave in 2008 with Jill Santopolo, author and editor at Philomel Books. Even though it was over seven years ago, I’ve never forgotten it.

The workshop was organized by the Austin SCBWI and hosted by Debbie Gonzales, who was regional advisor at the time.

To register, you had to submit three pages of a work-in-progress. A few weeks before the event, everyone received a packet with copies of all the three-page submissions. Then during the workshop, you and Jill went through each submission and discussed it with the entire group.

You were both kind and encouraging, but also very honest. Jill told us that editors were looking for a reason to say “no” when they read a manuscript. Together you discussed each submission and pointed out the potential “no’s.” Meandering openings, overly long backstory, and hazy plot lines were the most common mistakes.

Even though what you had to say was tough, it was clear you were invested in everyone’s success. You wanted to turn those no’s into yes’s.

Here’s the funny thing. I didn’t even submit my three pages. I registered too late to be a part of the critique, but I went to the workshop anyway. And I’m so glad I did! After the workshop I went home, re-read my three pages, and guess what? They were meandering, “explain-y,” and vague. But because of your input, I could see it. And if I could see it, I could fix it.

Cynthia Leitich Smith & Debbie Gonzales
The Lost Track of Time opens with an alarm clock going off, “Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.” It’s 6 a.m. and even though it’s summer vacation, the main character, Penelope, has to get up and get busy. Right from the start, you know that the central conflict in the story is time.

I did that because of what I learned from you and Jill.

After I fixed my first chapter, I submitted it to two conferences and had sit-down conversations with agents at both. The first agent asked for thirty more pages and the second one, Marietta B. Zacker, signed me. There is absolutely no way that would have happened if I hadn’t gone to that workshop. I’ve always wanted to tell you and Jill how much you helped me!

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

From the beginning, I knew The Lost Track of Time was intimately connected to real-world issues. When I started writing it, I was working for an internet startup. I was constantly on the clock, from morning until night and over the weekends, trying to make the company a success. Everyone was fighting for more time—but no matter what we did, there was never enough. And what time we did have, had to be spent Constantly! Achieving! Results!

Not surprisingly, The Lost Track of Time is about a girl who likes to do nothing. Doing nothing seemed to me like a radical and counter-cultural act. I’m not talking about the nothing where you lie around flipping through TV channels because you’re too exhausted to engage in life.

I’m talking about moodling.

I learned about moodling from Brenda Ueland in her book, If You Want to Write. She writes:

“The imagination needs moodling–long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” 

I agree. When you moodle, you’re quiet, still, and (horrors!) unproductive. You let your mind wander until it becomes calm and curious and open. It’s a space of quiet contemplation and intense creativity.

During this busy time in my life, I had no time for quiet contemplation. But when I discovered Brenda Ueland’s words, I suddenly felt I had permission to sit, stare out the window, and moodle. Not only did I have permission, it was imperative that I do so if I wanted to let my own ideas and stories to “develop and gently shine.”

Ueland’s encouragement that everyone moodle touched me so deeply that she inspired a character in my book. She’s the Great Moodler and Penelope fights the tyranny of Chronos and his Clockworkers to save her from banishment in the Realm of Possibility.

As Penelope faces each trial with both imagination and courage, she moves from being an insecure, apologetic daydreamer to a great moodler in her own right.

Paige Britt
Research shows a marked decline in U.S. children’s creativity, due to a lack of unstructured free time to play and, I would say, to moodle.

This is terrible news! Not just because creativity is wonderful and life-giving, but because it’s the best predictor we have of a child’s future success, not just in the realms of art and literature, but in the world of business, science, and technology, too.

I’m not sure if you can teach creativity, but I do think you can encourage it. And that’s what I wanted to do in The Lost Track of Time.

I wanted to hold up moodlers as heroes.

Not because they can wield a sword, but because they dare, like Penelope, to enter the Realm of Possibility—to live in the present, to be creative and contemplative, and to believe anything is possible.

Paige's desk


Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two signed copies of The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt, illustrated by Lee White (Scholastic, 2015). Author sponsored. Eligible territory: U.S. 

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11. Book Trailer & Giveaway: Wish Girl by Nikki Loftin

Discussion Guide (PDF)
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Wish Girl by Nikki Loftin (Razorbill, 2015, 2016)--now available in paperback. From the promotional copy:

Peter Stone is a quiet boy in a family full of extroverts, musicians, and yellers. The louder they are, the more silent Peter is . . . until he practically embodies his last name.

When his family moves to the Texas Hill Country, though, Peter finds a peaceful, mysterious valley where he can, at last, hear himself think. There, he meets a girl his age, Annie Blythe, a spirited artist who tells Peter she's a "wish girl." 

But Annie isn't just any wish girl: she's a "Make-A-Wish Girl." And in two weeks she has to undergo a dangerous treatment to try to stop her cancer from spreading. Left alone, the disease will kill her. But the treatment could cause serious brain damage and take away her ability to make art.

Together, Annie and Peter escape into the valley, which they begin to think is magical. But the pair soon discovers that the valley—and life—may have other plans for them. Sometimes wishes come true in the most unexpected ways.


Trailer: "Wish Girl" by Nikki Loftin from Dave Wilson on Vimeo.

Cynsational Giveaway

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12. Guest Post: Janet S. Fox on Blending History With Fantasy

By Janet S. Fox
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Some of my favorite books ever are the books of C.S. Lewis's Narnia series. The fantasy of leaving home and entering a land where a child can experience talking animals, mythological creatures, desperate (and deadly) battles - where a child can be perceived as making real, respected choices - where good deeds are rewarded by kindness and love and bad deeds are punished, but only by "just desserts" - I read these books (and still read them) over and over.

They articulated lessons without didacticism. Included in those lessons were reflections of the real world of the characters, World War II era England, and an interesting Arthurian tilt to the Pevensie children's experiences of Narnia.

So for me, the young reader, reading these books in America during the post-war years, they had the taste of something "historical" and of course foreign.

And then there were the myths and fairy tales I devoured. The Red Fairy Book, the Anderson and Grimms's tales, Greek and Roman myths and legends - I read these over and over, too. In my mind history became inextricably linked with the fantastic.

And why shouldn't it? The truth is that we are all shaped by perception, and even history is subject to personal interpretation. (If you don't believe me, check out the new hit musical "Hamilton".)

My first three novels are historical YA romances. When I wrote Faithful (Speak/Penguin, 2010), set in 1904 Yellowstone, I sought to capture the natural magic inherent in that environment of spouting geysers and colorful hot springs.

In my second YA, Forgiven (Speak/Penguin, 2011), I tried to capture the dark magic of the terrible 1906 San Francisco earthquake. By the time I wrote my third YA, Sirens (Speak/Penguin, 2012), set in 1925, I added full-on fantastical elements, including a ghost, an approach I felt was consistent with the 1920s obsession with spiritualism and magic.

I realized that as a writer I was drawing closer and closer to crafting books like the ones that so captivated me as a kid. It has become my goal, now, to try and evoke the same wonder in my readers as I felt when I was young.

Yes, fantasy is my aim, but having written history, I became game to try a blend of the two genres. My newest book, The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle (Viking, 2016), is that blend.

It's set in World War II; the children are sent out of London during the Blitz; there are enigma machines and short-wave radios and even spies. But...there are also ghosts, and magicians, and a ghastly monster, and only magic can save the day (while itself being a double-edged sword.)

Whether writing historical fiction or fantasy, the objective of suspension of disbelief can only be accomplished if the world-building is sound. In historical fiction, that means lots of research to get interesting tidbits right. In fantasy, it means crafting an environment in which those interesting tidbits feel right.

I loved writing The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle. I loved being able to play with a world that is both real and fantastical, where terrible and beautiful things did happen, and could happen. I can't wait to try it again.

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13. Guest Post: P.J. Hoover on The Awesomeness of School Visits

By P.J. Hoover
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

OMG an author visit! It’s a huge, exciting time for students, teachers, and the author. We, the authors, are honored to be visiting your school.

Aside from the fact that it gives us an opportunity to get out of the house (and change out of our pajamas), there is nothing better than connecting with our target audience about a subject we love: books.

About the Visit

I like to start my school visits off with a story from Greek mythology. It’s a great way to not only engage the audience right from the beginning, but it provides a nice framework for the entire presentation.

And my story . . . it’s filled with adventure. It’s filled with suspense. It’s short. It’s sweet. And it concludes with a satisfying ending. But disguised underneath it, it talks about the Hero’s Journey.

The hero in the story sets out with one goal in mind. One thing he must accomplish. It’s the thing that drives him forward and keeps him from giving up, even when faced with unspeakable perils.

It’s a lot like life.

With author Cory Putnam Oakes
I’ve learned a ton in the last decade or so, in my transition from electrical engineer to author, much like the hero in my story learns as he travels from one end of his adventure to the other. But the big difference between my hero and me is that he reaches his destination. His perils are left in the past, and he reaches his goal.

My perils? They continue on, day after day after day.

Perils as an author? Sure, I face a ton of them, but lucky for me, everything I’ve learned so far on my hero’s journey has helped me deal with these perils.

It’s made me better, stronger, faster. And I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than being able to share my journey with today’s kids.

School visits are a tricky business. There’s this very fine line that we, as authors, must walk. We need to entertain the kids, to keep them hanging on our every word, while also making the educators in the audience happy. We want the teachers to shake our hand afterward and tell us how they can’t wait to use what we’ve shared in the classroom. And the kids . . . we want them asking for our Instagram usernames so they can follow us and continue the connection.

Because that’s what it all comes down to: the connection.

Take this. I adore playing video games. From the time I got my very first computer (hello, Commodore 64) to my brand new table-top Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga gaming machine (complete with 410 retro arcade games), video games are a great way to relax, spend time with my kids, and—hey, look at that—they’re also a great way to connect with kids during school visits.

I’ll talk about Fallout 4 and Minecraft after the presentation with the kids for hours. But underneath, talking about video games isn’t enough. It needs to relate to books, to writing, and to my hero’ journey. And you know what? It does.


When I was younger, I would have much rather played video games than spent time writing. I didn’t love writing, mostly because I thought it was very subjective and that you were either born a writer or you were not. While some of my author friends spent their youth writing stories, I learned to program in BASIC. I wrote video games on my computer. And I went on to become an electrical engineer.

Now, I love writing, too, and I’ve learned that there is a beautiful cross section between books and the world of technology (including Scratch, Minecraft, and other fun STEM related ideas). It’s this cross section that kids don’t expect. And it’s this cross section that I believe it is important for kids to see.

The same thing goes for "Star Wars." Kids laugh when I tell them that when I was little, I wanted to be a Jedi. You know why? Because they wanted to be Jedis, too. (They probably still do. I do; that’s for sure.) And the thing is that though my dreams of being a Jedi didn’t work out (yet), it’s totally played a part in my life and getting me to where I am today.

The thing about Jedis is that they don’t give up. They don’t walk away from fear. And we, as authors, can’t either.

When I have the kids guess how many rejections I’ve received, they at first say really high numbers because they think it will be funny and get a laugh out of their friends. And then, when I tell them that they’re right, they’re floored.

But, as I tell them, if I don’t face these rejections, day after day, I will never publish another book. It’s a way to show them—yes, show, not tell—that we all face failure. And we all fail. And that’s okay. But it’s what we do after that failure that makes the difference.

If I had to list five (covert) messages I try to get across in school visits, they’d be: 
  1. You don’t have to be born an author to be an author when you grow up. (You can, in fact, be an electrical engineer, just like me.) 
  2. Many things in life are a lot harder to do than you think they’ll be (like, hey, writing a book! I thought it would be easy).
  3. Never give up (even though lots and lots of times you may want to).
  4. Face your fears and do it anyway (this is also a fun time to mention that I’m a third degree black belt in kung fu) And perhaps the most important . . . .
  5. It’s going to be a long journey while you work toward whatever it is you want in life, so you better learn to enjoy it.

Prepare (but don’t stress) about the Visit:

My dream author visit is this. I drive up to the school. My name is on the marquee out front. There is a parking spot reserved for me (and bonus points if it has streamers and balloons). The office staff greets me by name when I walk through the front door, because guess what?

They’ve been expecting me! They know I am coming. They sign me in and have a student escort me to the library. Other students point as I walk to the library and whisper things like, “There’s the author!” or “It’s really her!” I feel kind of like a superstar at this point.

Outside the library is a huge banner with my name. A display of my books sits in a glass case along with fan art created by the students.

Inside the library waits a Starbucks for me (venti Americano, no room). The librarian warmly tells me how the students can’t wait for my visit. She lets me know that every student has read my book.

Things are going great. The technology works without a hitch. There is water. A microphone. Lots and lots of pre-orders.

Like I said, it’s a dream author visit, but we don’t live in this dream world, and I completely realize that this is not always the way author visits go.

As much as I would love every student to have read my book ahead of time, I get that this is not realistic. But there are some simple ways to get the kids excited about an upcoming author visit. Things that can go a long way.

  1. Booktalk the author’s books ahead of time. Display them in the library, print out covers, talk about them during library time. 
  2. Enlist the help of your Language Arts teachers. If budget permits, consider purchasing a copy for each classroom, and encourage them to read a chapter aloud. 
  3. Have students visit the author’s website. For schools hosting me, have the students complete my Author Scavenger Hunt ahead of time. If possible, reward the completion with extra credit. 
  4. Publicize the upcoming author visit during the morning announcements. Announcements are also a great place to remind students about pre-order book deadlines. And finally . . . 
  5. Think about back to the connection. Do you have a kid that can solve the Rubik’s Cube? I’m happy to do a challenge. Someone who can beat box? I’ll rap Alphabet Aerobics. Ask me to sing The Element Song. Challenge me in a kung fu sparring match! (okay, maybe not this, but I do love showing my kung fu video). Whatever it is, make the kids feel like they are a part of it. That this event is special for them.

Continuing the Connection

I admit I got tears in my eye when I read this email I received after an author visit.

“After that talk about your journey to being an author you have inspired me . . . I thought that I couldn't do military, become an engineer, and become a successful author, but now you've changed that. You have shown me that you can do whatever you want as long as you don't give up and keep striving towards your dream.
"My parents always say never give up because you might achieve your goal, but I always thought that was something that parents said because it was a requirement for being a good parent or something. Then I heard about your stories and how you achieved all you goals and dreams using perseverance, patience, and persistence.
"You are one of my heroes and inspirations to chase after my goals . . . You are an inspiration to me showing that nothing is impossible no matter how hard . . . Thank you so much for presenting to us and inspiring me.”

This. This is what it all comes down to.

Everyone should (and can) benefit from an author visit. I want each kid to walk out of there with something. Some little tidbit that they’ll think on, that they will use in their life. I want them to believe that anything is possible. That they can accomplish their dreams and goals, even when those dreams seem impossible.

And most of all, I want them to enjoy their journey in life.

Cynsational Notes

For information on author visits with P. J. Hoover, contact Carmen Oliver at The Booking Biz.

P. J. (Tricia) Hoover wanted to be a Jedi, but when that didn’t work out, she became an electrical engineer instead. After a fifteen year bout designing computer chips for a living, P. J. decided to start creating worlds of her own. She’s the author of Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life and the forthcoming Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World (Feb. 2017), featuring a fourteen-year-old King Tut who’s stuck in middle school, and Solstice, a super-hot twist on the Hades/Persephone myth.

When not writing, P. J. spends time with her husband and two kids and enjoys practicing kung fu, solving Rubik’s cubes, watching "Star Trek," and playing too many video games.

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14. Guest Post: Amy Bearce on The Woes (& Wows) of World-Building

By Amy Bearce
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Confession: I have a terrible time with world-building. So, naturally, I consistently write fantasy, where world-building is critical.

You gotta be kidding me! Credit: Pixabay, mintchipdesigns, CC0

In real life, I’m not very observant about the space around me. I notice people’s emotions, but not what they are eating or what they are wearing. But in writing, all those little details make a place come alive. And in a fantasy story, they are even more important because readers must trust you to be their guide through an unknown world.

Right this way, please. Credit: Pixabay, InspiredImages, CC0

My first book, Fairy Keeper (Curiosity Quills, 2016), and the sequels are set in the world of Aluvia, full of magical creatures and beasts. Through writing these books, I’ve learned a lot about how world-building works best for me. When writing about a fantastical world, the phrase, “Write what you know” now has yet another meaning for me. One way to create new magical creatures is to extrapolate what you know from the real world and tweak it.

My fairies were inspired by bees and have a lot in common with them. My merfolk are bioluminescent like deep sea squid and jellyfish, and in book 3, dragons are awakening from a long hibernation like giant wild bears with wings (and flames.)

As a girl of the plains, I had to watch a lot of documentaries to get a better idea of what was in the deep ocean. As it turns out...pretty amazing stuff! Credit: Pixabay, emdash, CC0

Originally, I had only considered fairies. But as I wrote about my fairy keeper character, soon I had merfolk and dragons and fauns…and had to decide details about each of them. It became apparent that while my world had magic, it was pretty broken. My magical creatures were less magical than many of their traditional representations. But I didn’t start off knowing that. Essentially, world building sneaked up on me.

This stealthy kitty is hunting dragons, mermaids, and fairies. Credit: Pixabay, rihaij, CC0

Others writers build an encyclopedia of knowledge first. Google “World-Building Tips” and you will receive an avalanche of questions to answer.

How do people live here? What foods do they eat? What is their religion? Have there been wars? What economic system is used?

Here’s my secret: I hate those questions worse than a pop quiz in math. They almost hurt to ponder.

My expression when trying to answer “world-building questions.” Credit: Gratisography, CC0

I don’t know most of the answers until they suddenly appear in my story. I’m not saying it’s the best way to do it. I do it because creating details about a new world does not come naturally to me. But when my character is walking from point A to B, as I’m writing, my mind fills things in, and it mostly works. Mostly.

There always comes the moment my husband reads it and says, “Hey, these parts don’t make sense.” And he’ll be right. So I change things.

The cost of this build-as-you-go approach means that I often end up with a draft full of contradictory information. There’s a lot of clean up involved. I’m sure it would be easier to build the world before writing anything. But for me, it’s exactly that little stuff that trips me up. Every. Single. Time.

World-building: My own personal banana peel. Credit: Pixabay, stevepb, CC0

The good news is that if I can create an imaginary world with consistent magic rules and an actual map inside the book, you can, too. Don’t let overwhelming questions stop you. Try writing some scenes and see where they take you.

 Be patient, keep writing, and don’t be afraid to change things if you need to. Turn your woes to wow! After all, you are the master of your universe! Own it! Write it! And have fun with it!

Sing it with me: “I’ve got the power!” Credit: Pixabay, Skitterphoto, CC0

Cynsational Notes

Amy Bearce writes stories for tweens and teens. She is a former reading teacher with a Masters in Library Science.

As an Army kid, she moved eight times before she was eighteen, so she feels especially fortunate to be married to her high school sweetheart. Together they’re raising two daughters and are currently living in Germany, though they still call Texas home.

A perfect day for Amy involves rain pattering on the windows, popcorn, and every member of her family curled up in one cozy room reading a good book. Her latest release is Mer-Charmer (Curiosity Quills, 2016).

From the promotional copy:

Fourteen-year-old Phoebe Quinn is surrounded by magic, but she can't muster any of her own. Her sister is a fairy keeper. Her best friends are merfolk. And all she does is dishes and housework.

When Phoebe finds out a terrible sea creature is awakening that preys upon the gentle merfolk, she resolves to help them, even though it means risking her life deep in the ocean.

Beneath the waves, Phoebe learns she’s more like her sister than she realized. The merfolk are drawn to her, and she can sense the magic of the sea all around her. Magic is finally at her fingertips, but that’s precisely why the stirring dark power under the waters decides it wants her most of all.

Now she must not only help the peaceful merfolk escape this ancient enemy, she must master her out-of-control powers. If she fails, she will die, and darkness will rise to enslave the merfolk once more. But embracing her full power could cost her the very people she loves the most.

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15. TAKING OFF

TAKING OFF, by Jenny Moss (Walker 2011). It's late 1985 and Clear Lake, Texas, high school senior Annie doesn't know what she wants to do with her life. Stay in town and marry Mark, who loves her? Go to college? Or write poetry, which she loves, but has never told anyone, including her best friend Lea?

When Annie meets teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe, she's fascinated. So much so that she just has to go see the launch in Cocoa Beach...

Annie's story is compelling and should resonate with anyone who has faced the dilemma of "where do I go from here?" In sum, TAKING OFF is a bittersweet coming-of-age story that brings home the 1980s and the events of January 28, 1986, when seven astronauts "prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

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16. Big giant news! And turtles!

Down by Padre Island, Galveston, and on the Gulf Coast, in general, we have just begun the nesting season of the Kemp's ridley sea turtle.

Below is a picture of Archelon, a Cretaceous turtle that hung around the Western Interior Seaway back in the day (It's substantially larger than Kemps ridley).

Archelon, from the Yale Peabody Museum
And congratulations to Austinites Nikki Loftin and Brian Yansky on sales of new books!


Per Publishers Lunch:


Nikki Loftin’s debut novel THE SINISTER SWEETNESS OF SPLENDID ACADEMY, pitched as Coraline meets Hansel and Gretel, about a young girl whose seemingly delightful new school hides frightening secrets, to Laura Arnold at Razorbill, in a two-book deal, for publication in Summer 2012, by Suzie Townsend at Fineprint Literary Management (World).

Brian Yansky's FIGHTING ALIEN NATION, the sequel to ALIEN INVASION AND OTHER INCONVENIENCES, which continues the story of the survivors of an alien invasion, again to Candlewick, with Kaylan Adair to edit, by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger (world English).

And, no, neither has anything to do with turtles.  That I know of...

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17. WIENER WOLF

WIENER WOLF, by Jeff Crosby (Hyperion 2011).  Wiener dog is bored with life with grandma.  What he craves is excitement!

But when he answers the call of the wild, he finds out the rebuttal is a little more than he bargained for...

With expressive illustrations and a timeless story, WIENER DOG brings to life one dachshund's quest for self-actualization in this thoroughly fun, hilarious, and engaging picture book.

Jeff read from WIENER WOLF at BookPeople

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18. Writers and Illustrators and Dinosaurs: Carmen Oliver

Carmen Oliver is the Assistant Regional Adviser for the Austin Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Born in Manitoba, Canada, she lived for a while in Calgary before moving to Austin.  She has published numerous nonfiction articles for both adults and children.

 The photos were taken at the home of Stephen Mooser, president and co-founder of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

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19. 2012 Books by Austinites

The Austin children's writing community will be having another good showing for 2012.  Here are some of the highlights (and go here for my updated Austinites' Books 2011 post):  

Picture Books


WE'VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN'S MARCH, by Cynthia Levinson (Peachtree, February 1, 2012).

I LIKE OLD CLOTHES, by Mary Ann Hoberman, ill. by Patrice Barton (Knopf, August 2012).

IT JES' HAPPENED: WHEN BILL TRAYLOR STARTED TO DRAW, by Don Tate, ill. by R. Gregory Christie (Lee & Low, Spring 2012).

THINK BIG, by Liz Garton Scanlon, ill. by Vanessa Newton (Bloomsbury, June 2012).

A PIRATE'S 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS, by Philip Yates, ill. by Sebastian Serra (October 2012).

Middle Grade/Tween


CHRONAL ENGINE, by Greg Leitich Smith, ill. by Blake Henry (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 20, 2012).

LAUGH WITH THE MOON, by Shana Burg (Delacorte 2012).

RETURN TO THE WILLOWS, by Jacqueline Kelly, ill. by Clint G. Young (Henry Holt, November 2012).

THE SINISTER SWEETNESS OF SPLENDID ACADEMY, by Nikki Loftin (Razorbill 2012).

D IN DRAMA, by Jo Whittemore (Aladdin 2012).

Young Adult


DIABOLICAL, by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, January 2012). 

ETERNAL: ZACHARY'S STORY, by Cynthia Leitich Smith, ill. by Ming Doyle (Candlewick 2012).  

DEAR TEEN ME, ed. by Miranda Kenneally and E. Kristin Anderson (Zest Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012).

SOUL BLOOD (BLOOD COVEN VAMPIRES #7), by

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20. Upcoming Book People Events!

Friday, February 10:  My Vicious Valentine: Spine-tingling YA Author Panel, featuring Jordan Dane, P.J. "Tricia" Hoover, Mari Mancusi, Rosemary Clement-Moore, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and L.A. Weatherly---moderated by Sean Petrie--will take place at 7 p.m. Feb. 10 at BookPeople in Austin. Join us when six top YA authors dish on the devilish, gab about ghosts, and soar with the angels in this panel celebrating spine-tingling stories, supernatural creatures, and perhaps scariest of all, true love.

March 4 (3 PM at the Carver Museum):  Launch Party for We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March, by Cynthia Levinson.  Join Cynthia Levinson as she discussed the background and research process for We've Got a Job!

March 24 (2 PM at BookPeople). Launch Party for Chronal Engine! Greg Leitich Smith will present on his middle grade/tween prehistoric time travel adventure! 

Be sure to download the activity guide here!

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21. Writers and Illustrators and Dinosaurs: Meredith Davis

Meredith Davis writes picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels.  A former bookseller at Toad Hall, she is the founder of the Austin Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and served for three years as its Regional Adviser.  She recently completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She blogs at Stories in the Street.

  The lad with the gimlet eye is her son, Benji. 

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22. Big News: LITTLE GREEN MEN AT THE MERCURY INN

I am thrilled to announce that Roaring Brook Press (Macmillan) will be publishing my novel, LITTLE GREEN MEN AT THE MERCURY INN.  Release is tentatively scheduled for Fall 2013.

It's a comedic middle grade story about what happens to three friends at a motel in Cocoa Beach, Florida, after a manned space launch at Kennedy Space Center is scrubbed due to the appearance of an unidentified flying object over Cape Canaveral.

Thanks to my agent Ginger Knowlton and my new editor Deirdre Langeland (FYI, Deirdre is also editor at the Flashpoint imprint, where she edits some awesome nonfiction)! 

Photos courtesy of NASA 

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23. CHAINED

CHAINED, by Lynne Kelly (FSG, May 8, 2012)(ages 8+).  In this debut novel by Houstonian Lynne Kelly, ten-year-old Hastin takes a job with a circus owner in order to pay off his sister's hospital bill.  His job -- to care for the baby elephant Nandita -- is made more difficult by the cruel elephant trainer and the circus owner.  He contemplates running away with her, but where can a ten-year-old boy go to hide out with an elephant?

CHAINED offers a thought-provoking look at elephants and how how captive elephants are sometimes treated, as well as a compelling protagonist and poignant coming-of-age story.   

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24. 2016 Books by Austinites

 Here's the preliminary list of trade picture books and novels scheduled for publication from Austin authors and illustrators next year!  And click the link for previous years' books by Austin authors and illustrators!


Middle Grade/Tween

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: DO ALL THE GOOD YOU CAN, by Cynthia Levinson (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins 2016)

UNTITLED NOVEL, by Jo Whittemore (HarperCollins 2016).

CROSS MY HEART, by Mari Mancusi (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster 2016).

TO CATCH A CHEAT, by Varian Johnson (Arthur Levine/Scholastic, Spring 2016).

RED MOON RISING, by K.A. Holt (McElderry/Simon & Schuster, 2016).

BEYOND THE RAILS, by K.A. Holt (Chronicle, 2016).

DINOSAUR BOY SAVES MARS, by Cory Putnam Oakes (Sourcebooks, February 2016).

Young Adult

HIGH SCHOOL HORROR STORY, by Chandler Baker (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, Winter 2016).

Picture Books

CARROT HAWK, by Chris Barton, ill. by tbd (Hyperion, Spring 2016).

WHOOSH!, by Chris Barton, ill. by Don Tate (Charlesbridge 2016).

EN GARDE! ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S DUELING WORDS, by Donna Janell Bowman  (Peachtree, TBD)

STRONGMAN, by Don Tate (Charlesbridge, Fall 2016).

SUPER TRUCK, by Chris Barton, ill. by Troy Cummings (HarperCollins 2016)

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25. Giveaway: Radiant Road by Katherine Catmull

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win a signed, (optionally) personalized copy of The Radiant Road by Katherine Catmull (Dutton, 2016). Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America only.

From the promotional copy:

And sometimes the Strange came to visit Clare, and dreams walked through her waking life.

Clare Macleod and her father are returning to Ireland to the house where she was born: a house under a green hill, with a tree inside it.

Inside the tree, she finds long-forgotten companions of her childhood: a world made of living lights, and a boy named Finn.

But unless Clare and Finn can defeat an ancient, furious foe, their two worlds will be ripped apart, severing the human world from art and dreams forever.

An adventure story about finding the courage to make—to write, draw, invent, dream--and the courage to throw yourself on what you fear and let it bear you up, the way the wind bears up the birds.

There is no safety, and so we must touch and be touched, and we must fall and fly.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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