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1. New Voice: JoAnne Stewart Wetzel on Playing Juliet

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

JoAnne Stewart Wetzel is the first-time novelist of Playing Juliet (Sky Pony, 2015). From the promotional copy:

Beth Sondquist, 12 1/2, secretly dreams of playing William Shakespeare’s Juliet. 

When she learns the children’s theatre in her town is threatened with closure, she and her best friend, Zandy Russell, do everything they can to save it. 

But since Beth keeps breaking one theatre superstition after another in the process, she may never get onstage again.

Quotes from Shakespeare bookmark each chapter and foreshadow the next plot twist as a multicultural cast of kids fights to keep their theatre open.

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?

I love to revise. When I started my first novel, Playing Juliet, I worked on the first chapter for months. It was polished and perfect before I went on to the second chapter.

But by the time I had finished the first draft, the characters had changed, the plot had changed and I had to throw the whole first chapter out.

When the draft was finished, a New York editor read the first ten pages at a SCBWI conference. Of course I was expecting her to offer to buy it on the spot (don't we all) or at least to ask to see the full. Instead, she said she didn't find my main character, Beth, charming.

Charming? A 12-and-a-half-year-old narrator focused on getting onstage while her costume was falling apart had other things to worry about besides being charming. But I read over the chapter carefully. While Beth's focus was appropriate, was she a little self-centered? What if I had her do something for someone else?

Inspiration! Just So Stories, Palo Alto (CA) Children's Theater
I added exactly six sentences to an early scene that showed the cast waiting in the wings to go on. Beth notices that a younger actor playing a mouse is nervous, remembers that it's the Mouse's first play and that she'd seen her reapply her make-up in the dressing room at least four times.

Though they have to be very quiet backstage, Beth whispers, "Great nose." and outlines a circle on her own.

Sometimes it only takes six sentences. When the book was published, the review in the School Library Journal began "In this charming story featuring a relatable narrator and action-driven plot..." A blurb by the author Miriam Spitzer Franklin ended by saying the book "introduces a protagonist who will steal your heart as she chases after her dreams."

Another reader pointed out that while Playing Juliet started with lots of references to the superstitions around MacBeth and ended with a production of Romeo and Juliet, a few of the earlier chapters had almost no reference to Shakespeare. Was there a way to weave him into the rest of the book?

There was no room to introduce another play into this middle-grade story but I'd always loved reading books with epigraphs. Could I find enough quotes from Shakespeare's writings to serve as appropriate epigraphs before each chapter?

 I used the Open Source Shakespeare search engine, typed in a word like "jewel" or "duchess" and got a list of all the appearances of these words in his works. The perfect epigraph kept jumping out at me.

For the chapter in which the kids are looking for a lost diamond bracelet, I quoted "Search for a jewel that too casually Hath left mine arm" from "Cymbeline."

"What think you of a duchess? have you limbs to bear that load of title?" from "Henry VIII" made the perfect epigraph for the chapter in which Beth is asked if she can cover the part of a Duchess for an actor down with the flu during the run of "Cinderella!"

Joanne & daughter seeing Royal Shakespeare Co.
I was excited when an editor told me she'd brought the manuscript to committee, even when she added that they'd like to see a rewrite. They were uncomfortable with a scene in which Beth and two of her friends sneak out at night to break into the Children's Theatre.

I loved that scene. It was scary and exciting and the kids had the best of intentions. But I could make the plot work without it, so I took it out.

That editor didn't take the book. The next two editors it was sent to both commented that they felt the story was too quiet.

I put the scene back in. It wasn't necessary to the plot but it was vital to the development of the characters, for it showed what they would sacrifice to save their theater. The book sold right after that scene was restored.

I've brought all of the lessons I learned writing my first novel to the next one I'm currently working on. I'm going to finish the whole manuscript before I start to revise.

I will honor each critique I get, and find a way to solve any problem that's been identified. It could lead to a much richer book and may only take six sentences. But I will also evaluate how the changes have affected the story and if they don't help, I'll change it back.

Post-contract Revision Process

Sis-in-law, Elephant Cafe, Edinburgh
When Julie Matysic at Sky Pony Press acquired the manuscript, she sent her editorial comments to me in a Word document. I had the chance to approve, change or comment on the suggested changes. Most of the revision was copy edits and most of the time I couldn't believe I'd let such a glaring grammatical error slip through.

But one set of edits I disagreed with. I had capitalized the names of all the characters in the two plays that are performed in the book. The copy editor kept all the proper names—Juliet, Romeo, Cinderella— as I wrote them, but changed all the animal characters—the cat, horse, mice—to lower case.

I decided to email Julie to ask if I could change them back. She said yes, and suggested that since many of the parts were names that would not normally be capitalized, I make up a list of all the characters for the copy editor to work with. I'm so glad I asked for clarification.

Remember that you and your editor are working toward the same goal: to make your manuscript great. And you know she has impeccable taste: she picked your manuscript to publish.

Post-contract Bonus

Julie suggested I do a mood board for the cover. I'd never heard of this but she explained that all I had to do was open a PowerPoint file and create a collage using the covers of books that I like then include a second page with a written explanation of why I had chosen the images. It might be the font, the color, the mood or a combination of all three. When it was done, she would send the collage to the artist creating the design to use for inspiration.

It was so much fun to search through online bookstores to find covers I liked. Beth, my 12-year-old heroine, is threatened with losing the children's theater she has been performing in for years, but I didn't want the cover to be sad.

I wanted it to be a reminder of what Beth loves about theater, about being on stage and what she will lose if her theater closes.

The mood I wanted was joy, the joy of acting, of being onstage. The covers that showed images of flying, fairies, a figure with fantastically long fingers, captured the unlimited world the stage offers.

Because so much of the story takes place in a theater, I was drawn to covers that featured theater curtains opening. Three of the twelve covers I chose had a frame of red theater curtains and two others repeated that shape and color in the clothing of the women depicted: a partially open red coat, billowing red bell bottoms. That rich red set the color pallet that dominated my collage.

When Julie sent me the final cover, I opened the attachment with some trepidation. Up popped a design with a frame of rich red curtains opening onto a dark background that showcased the title of the book. And my name was in lights, just like on a Broadway marquee.

I loved my cover. And the Children's Books manager at Keplers, my local independent bookstore, told me the cover was so effective, the book was jumping off the shelves. My mood board had worked.

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

Shakespeare puppets & stamp for JoAnne's signing
When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced it was devoting 2016, the year of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, to celebrating him and his work, I knew I had a great tie-in with Playing Juliet.

When I was in Stratford-upon-Avon last summer, I took a lot of pictures of the buildings that were standing when Shakespeare lived there to use on my web site and in my talks.

I also bought three Shakespeare puppets: a regular hand-puppet for most of my presentations, an elegant figure in a cloth-of-gold costume to use with a sophisticated audience and a finger puppet, because sometimes a smaller figure will just work better.

When I got home, I ordered a Shakespeare stamp to use at my book signings. After all, the Bard wrote all of my epigraphs.

I've struggled to get my web pages up. I have now checked off a web page for myself, with all of my books on it, and a web page for Playing Juliet with links to 13 Superstitions Every Theater Kid Should Know as well as links to photos of Shakespearian sites at Stratford-upon-Avon.

I've got an author's page on Amazon and Goodreads and SCBWI. I did a Launch Page on the new SCBWI web program. This all took a very long time.

Author/illustrator guest book, New York Public Library
Kepler's Bookstore, has been a great help. They invited me to have my book launch party there, which, on their advice, was held a week after the pub date because every now and then, books are delayed. The copies of Playing Juliet arrived on time but I was happy to have the extra week to prepare for the talk.

Kepler's is still supporting me. Want a signed or inscribed copy of my book? Just order it online from them.

I worked with my publicist at Sky Pony Press to have her send copies of the books to the winner of the giveaways I ran on Goodreads and to my alumni connections.

This resulted in a featured review, with a color picture of the cover of the book, in the ASU magazine, which is sent to 340,000 people.

So far I've spoken at an event at our local library, at my grandsons' school in Ghana, and sold copies at our regional SCBWI conference. I'll be talking at other schools in the fall. When I was in New York City recently, I introduced myself to the librarians at the Children's Room at the New York Public Library, and was invited to sign the guest book they keep for visiting authors and illustrators.

And online I've been invited to do an interview on Library Lions and Cynsations.

I've been enjoying the process, but it takes a lot of time and I'm impatient to dive into my next middle grade.

the Lincoln Community School in Accra, Ghana
What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Start early. Well before your pub date, get your author's pages up on SCBWI, Amazon and Goodreads. Figure out how the book giveaways on Goodreads work, and think about posting one before your book is out. Don't wait until your book comes out to publicize any good news about it.

Jane Yolen wrote the most incredible blurb for Playing Juliet, saying "I couldn't stop reading," but I waited until the book came out to share it with everyone. I'm not making that mistake again.

My next book, My First Day at Mermaid School, is a picture book that will be coming out from Knopf in the summer of 2018 and Julianna Swaney is bringing her amazing talent to the illustrations.

Cynsational Notes

Waylon, writer cat
JoAnne's other publications include:
  • Onstage/Backstage, with Caryn Huberman (Carolrhoda, 1987); 
  • The Christmas Box (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992); 
  • and My First Day at Mermaid School, illustrated by Julianna Swaney, (Alfred A. Knopf, Summer, 2018).

In Playing Juliet, Beth continually quotes the web page, "13 Superstitions Every Theater Kid Should Know," which can be found on www.playingjuliet.com. This site also includes photos of Shakespearian sites in Stratford-upon-Avon (see below). 

Cynsational Gallery

View more research photos from JoAnne.

Shakespeare's Childhood Home
Shakespeare's Childhood Bedroom

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2. 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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3. 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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4. 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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5. 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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6. 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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7. 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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8. New Voice: Sonya Mukherjee on Gemini

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sonya Mukherjeeis the first-time author of Gemini (Simon & Schuster, 2016). From the promotional copy:

In a powerful and daring debut novel, Sonya Mukherjee shares the story of sisters Clara and Hailey, conjoined twins who are learning what it means to be truly extraordinary.

Seventeen-year-old conjoined twins, Clara and Hailey, have lived in the same small town their entire lives—no one stares at them anymore. But there are cracks in their quiet existence and they’re slowing becoming more apparent. 


Clara and Hailey are at a crossroads. Clara wants to stay close to home, avoid all attention, and study the night sky. Hailey wants to travel the world, learn from great artists, and dance with mysterious boys. 

As high school graduation approaches, each twin must untangle her dreams from her sister’s, and figure out what it means to be her own person.

Told in alternating perspectives, this unconventional coming-of-age tale shows how dreams can break your heart—but the love between sisters can mend it.


What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

This is cheating a bit, but my answer has to be Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (Random House, 2006). This is a book that I studied and contemplated until its ideas sank in, and it helped my writing more than anything else that I’ve read.

The basic idea is one that’s seeped into the culture in the last few years, but as far as I know, it all stems from Dweck’s work: Some people have a fixed mindset, in which they assume that their intelligence, talent, and personal qualities are mostly immutable, while others have a growth mindset—an assumption that all these qualities can be changed and meaningfully improved with effort. With the fixed mindset, you hear feedback as a reflection on your immutable qualities. With the growth mindset, you hear feedback simply as useful information. And the growth mindset is the one you want.

When I read this book, I realized that I’d always had a fixed mindset about writing. Whenever I received criticism or rejections, I worried that I wasn’t a good writer and never would be—which made it harder to get back to my writing, and harder to learn from the criticism. Whenever I received praise or other kudos, I became hopeful that maybe I had talent after all.

It was a roller coaster, and just like a real-life roller coaster, it made my stomach hurt and got me nowhere.

But Dweck makes it clear that just as you can grow your intelligence, grow your talent, and grow your compassion, you can also grow yourself a growth mindset. That’s the whole point: Believe you can change, and you really can.

Still, change wasn’t easy. For me, the hardest part, but also the most important, was when I realized that in order to be less hurt by criticism, I would also need to be less delighted by praise.

They were two sides of the same coin, and there was just no way to have one without the other. I needed to hear both positive and negative feedback as potentially helpful input that I could use to improve my work, and nothing more.

In short, I had to give up caring about whether I had talent.

This change in mindset allowed me to take in tougher feedback with much less discouragement, and it allowed me to become much more merciless in cutting and overhauling my manuscripts. It also meant less time wasted on feeling bad about criticism and rejections, so I could get back to work sooner.

I’m not claiming to be fully reformed, but I think I’ve come a long way, and I think it’s made a huge difference to the quality of my writing.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

The truth is, although I haven’t been a teenager for quite a while, I never really changed the way I talk.

When I’m at my most relaxed, I still use pretty much the same speech patterns, the same sarcasm, and the same words I used then. I was never one for the most faddish slang, so I didn’t say “rad” as a teen, and I don’t say “bae” now, but I’ve been overusing “awesome” and “cool” the entire time.

Gemini was originally all in Clara’s point of view, and her voice was the first thing that came to me and drove the book forward, so it wasn’t something I struggled to find. But it was basically just a relaxed, uncensored version of my own voice, mingling with some of the thoughts and perspectives and worries that I had as a teen.

Hailey’s voice was added much later in the process, and hers was a bit more challenging, because I wanted her to feel distinct from Clara. They have two different personalities, but because they’re twin sisters who have never been apart, they also have a lot of similarities.

Since Hailey has a harder, tougher edge than Clara, I decided that she would tend to speak in somewhat shorter sentences, with shorter words, and with some mild swearing that we don’t get from Clara. I made her less inclined toward metaphors and other writerly ways of saying things; she’s more direct and literal.

With both of them, though, there was an element that I think must resemble what Method actors do, in imagining themselves into a character. I just tried to be this person and see things through her eyes, and let the voice flow from there.

For writers whose natural voices are more formal or mature than mine, I would suggest that you still just lean into whatever voice comes naturally to you, and allow it to be what it is.

I doubt that trying to consciously imitate younger people’s speech patterns would ever work very well, and I don’t think it’s necessary. There are plenty of great books for young readers that don’t have an obviously teen or kid-sounding voice.

Read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (Hyperion, 2009) or The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (Little, Brown, 2008). These books have pretty formal-sounding narrative voices, and they’re fantastic, and young readers love them.

Granted, they’re in third person, but who says you have to write in first person?

And then again, if you want to write in first person and still give your narrator a more formal style, who says you can’t do that?

Kids and teens have all kinds of voices, and their slang doesn’t necessarily need to be on fleek. (Which MTV tells me is out anyway. “On fleek” was so 2015, apparently.)

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9. 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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10. New Voice & Giveaway: Maria Gianferrari on Penny & Jelly

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Maria Gianferrari writes both fiction and nonfiction picture books from her sunny, book-lined study in northern Virginia, with her dog Becca as her muse.

Maria’s debut picture book, Penny & Jelly: The School Show, illustrated by Thyra Heder (2015) led to Penny & Jelly: Slumber Under the Stars (2016)(both HMH Books). 

Maria has seven picture books forthcoming from Roaring Brook Press, Aladdin Books for Young Readers, GP Putnam’s Sons and Boyds Mills Press in the coming years.

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

In the spirit of my main character, Penny, an avid list maker, here are my top five answers:

1. Ammi-Joan Paquette:

I am so grateful for my amazing agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette!

Where do I begin? I owe my writing career to Joan, for taking a chance on and believing in me. She has been sage guide, a cheerleader and champion of my writing from the get go.

She’s made my writing dream come true!!

2. Crumpled Paper Critique (CP):

I would not be where I am today without my trusted writing friends and critique partners: Lisa Robinson, Lois Sepahban, Andrea Wang, Abigail Calkins Aguirre and Sheri Dillard. They have been such a wonderful source of support over the years, in good times, and in bad.

Yes—it’s kind of like a marriage—that’s how dedicated we are to each other’s work! They’re smart, thoughtful, insightful, well read, hard-working and the best critique partners one could hope for!

We have a private website where we share not only our manuscripts, but our opinions on books, ideas, writing inspiration and doubts. I treasure them and wish we lived closer to one another to be able to meet regularly in person. Hugs, CPers!



3. Emu’s Debuts:

Like many other writers, I’m quite a shy and introverted person. If you’ve seen that classic hamster ball cartoon about introverts, that’s me! Having a book debut is extremely intimidating.

I was so lucky to have joined the ranks of Emu’s Debuts, so named for clients and debut authors affiliated with Erin Murphy Literary Agency (EMLA).

The Emu’s Debuts blog is a place for sharing thoughts on the craft of writing and illustrating, being debuts, and most importantly, helping launch our books into the world. I have since fledged, but it was so helpful, reassuring and fun to be a part of this community of very talented, kind and generous people. Check out the current flock of Emus.



4. Tara Lazar:

Picture book author extraordinaire, and founder of PiBoIdMo (picture book idea month), Tara has also been a generous supporter, not just of me, but for all the pre and published picture book authors and illustrators out there. Thousands of writers participate and are inspired by guest posts during PiBoIdMo, November’s picture book idea challenge. She shares insights on craft, the field of publishing, new books, interviews, giveaways, etc. on her popular blog, Writing for Kids (While Raising Them), throughout the year.

When the news of the Penny & Jelly sale broke, Tara kindly offered to host me of her blog. Later, she invited to be a contributor for PiBoIdMo, and last year she also participated in my blog tour for Penny & Jelly.

5. Kirsten Cappy of Curious City:

Kirsten’s a kidlit marketing guru and owner of Curious City. She was invaluable in sorting through the mire that is promotion.

Kirsten’s clever and creative and had so many wonderful ideas for promoting Penny & Jelly in ways that would be most comfortable for an introvert like me. She designed a Jelly banner with original art from illustrator Thyra Heder for use as a photo booth so kids could “be” Penny and pose with Jelly, as well as gorgeous postcards and business cards.

I especially love the talent show kit for library and classroom use that Kirsten designed. Please feel free to share and use it.

As a picture book writer, you have succeeded in a particularly tough market. What advice do you have for others, hoping to do the same?

1. Write What You Love:

Write what you’re obsessed with. This will help you not only endure the inevitable rejections along the way, but also the winding road of revision.

My debut nonfiction book, Coyote Moon, was released this July. It initially began as an article on suburban coyotes for "Highlights."

Well, "Highlights" rejected it, but I wasn’t ready to let go of my manuscript.

The coyotes kept howling in my head, so it morphed into a poetic picture book.

Several revisions later, it won a Letter of Commendation for a Barbara Karlin grant from SCBWI; many more revisions later, it was acquired by Emily Feinberg at Roaring Brook Press. And I am so in love Bagram Ibatoulline’s illustrations. They are absolutely stunning!

2. Read. Read. Read:

Then read some more. I once read that before attempting to write one picture book, we should first read 1,000. But don’t just read them, see them as teachers, as mentor texts for your own work.

One of the most helpful exercises is to hand-write or type the words of my favorite picture book texts, to feel the rhythm of the and pulse of the story in my fingers, to get under the story’s skin—see its bones or structure and the way the muscles and sinews, rhythm, refrain and repetition, are bound together. Doing this helps us find a story’s heart, its elusive soul and helps us understand our own work.

Consider joining founder Carrie Charley Brown’s ReFoReMo, where picture books are studied as mentor texts. Get ready to dig deep!


3. Don’t Give Up!

Persevere! Keep swimming! Rejection is at the heart of this journey and it’s not usually a linear journey, it’s more circuitous, with ups and downs along the way.

Take it one day, one moment at a time, and celebrate all of your successes, both big and small.

And remember, keep improving your craft, and building your connections, you will get there!

(See #1 again)

4. Play and Experiment:

To find your writing voice, play with different points of view. Change genres. Try out different structural techniques like letters, or a diary format or lists, like I did with Penny & Jelly.

Think about the shape of your story. Is it circular? Could it be a journey? Would a question and answer format enhance it? Does it have a refrain?

I’m not an illustrator, but you can do the same kinds of things to find your visual voice—switch sketching for sewing, or painting for clay. And most of all, embrace your inner kid and have fun!

5. Reach Out:

Connect with your local and online writing community—there are so many valuable resources out there. You’re reading Cynsations, so that’s a great start! If you haven’t already joined SCBWI and found a critique group, that’s a must. As I mentioned above, join Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo challenge in November, or Paula Yoo’s NaPiBoWriWee to write a picture book a day, which takes place in May.

There’s a plethora of writing groups on Facebook. One I highly recommend is Kidlit411, co-run by Elaine Kieley Kearns and Sylvia Liu. It’s such a wealth of information for authors and illustrators on writing/illustrating craft, on promotion, on submissions for agents and editors, revision—all kinds of things. And to borrow Jane Yolen’s title, above all, Take Joy!

Cynsational Giveaway


Enter to win an author-signed copy of Penny & Jelly: The School Show and Penny & Jelly: Slumber Under the Stars. Eligibility: U.S. only. From the promotional copy:

This young and funny picture book introduces the soon-to-be star of her school talent show: Penny. Despite her desire to knock everyone's socks off, Penny's having a tough time deciding on what talent she might have. With a little help from her dog, Jelly, Penny tries out various talents—from dancing to unicycling, fashion designing to snake charming—with disastrous results. That is, until she realizes that she and Jelly have a talent to share that's unlike any other.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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11. New Voice: Christian McKay Heidicker on Cure for the Common Universe

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Christian McKay Heidicker is the first-time author of Cure for the Common Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Sixteen-year-old Jaxon is being committed to video game rehab...ten minutes after he met a girl. A living, breathing girl named Serena, who not only laughed at his jokes but actually kinda sorta seemed excited when she agreed to go out with him.

Jaxon's first date. Ever.

In rehab, he can't blast his way through galaxies to reach her. He can't slash through armies to kiss her sweet lips. Instead, he has just four days to earn one million points by learning real-life skills. And he'll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal, even learn how to cross-stitch—in order to make it to his date.

If all else fails, Jaxon will have to bare his soul to the other teens in treatment, confront his mother's absence, and maybe admit that it's more than video games that stand in the way of a real connection.

Prepare to be cured.

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?

John Cusick
This all began when I told my agent, John Cusick, that I’d write a YA book about a kid committed to video game rehab. His excitement was infectious, and I got that fluttery feeling of embarking on a new adventure. Of darkness unlit. Of stones unturned. Of all the little surprises that come with blindly slashing out with my pen and hoping for the bloody best.

That fluttery feeling vanished when I realized I hadn’t played video games for years, let alone had any clue what it was like to be addicted to them.

In order to survive as a freelance writer, my entire life had become carefully structured to eliminate time-wasters. I worked all possible hours, filled my downtime with reading, exercising, eating healthily, and not buying expensive things like the next generation of PlayStation or Xbox. I had become completely unversed in the world of video games and unhealthy amounts of playing.

I realized if I tried to write a book about video games, I’d out myself as a fraud. I’d make out-of-date gaming references, the community would eat me for breakfast, and I’d become next on Gamergate’s death list. (Now that I know a thing or two, I can confidently say that many gaming references do not go out of fashion, and that being on Gamergate’s threat list is actually a good thing.)

Let’s face it. As novelists we’re all impostors. We don’t really remember what it’s like to have that first kiss. We’ve never reached to the back of the wardrobe and in place of fur felt pine needles. Our goal is to seem the least impostery as possible. To convince the reader that this stuff is legit.

Christian's office & Lucifer Morningstar Birchaus (aka writer cat)
Still, the idea was good. Video game rehab? I’d never seen that before, and that’s a rare thing in any medium. So I needed a plan. My plan was this: get addicted to video games.*

So out with work!

Sod off, schedules!

Be gone, exercise routines!

Forget healthy eating and gluten intolerance. Forget that coffee turns me into an absolute monster and dairy turns my insides into the Bog of Eternal Stench!

I bought myself a month and turned my life into that of a sixteen-year-old video game addict on summer vacation. I drank coffee from noon (when I woke up) until three in the morning when I went to sleep. (My character drinks energy drinks, but one can only go so far, dear reader.) I slept too much. I didn’t exercise. Sometimes I put whiskey in my morning coffee. I only read gaming news, but only if I really felt like it and only if I had to wait for a game to download.

Mostly, I played video games. I played a lot of video games. I continued to play throughout the duration of writing the book, but in October 2012, I played so much it would have made the characters in my book quirk their eyebrows.

I was trying to get addicted. All of my dopamine release came from beating levels, leveling up characters, downloading DLCs. When I went to the bathroom, I brought my iPad with me and played Candy Crush. (Considering what my new and worsened diet was doing to my digestion, I played a lot of Candy Crush.)

I beat Dark Souls. I beat Sword & Sworcery. I played Starcraft and Hearthstone and Diablo III. I bought a Nintendo 3DS and played through all the Mario and Zelda games I’d missed out over all the years. (Definitely the highlight.) I got lost in world after world, and adulthood as I knew it became a faint haze around an ever-glowing screen.

And guess what? It was hard.

You’d think it would be easy doing as little as humanly possible, only filling one’s time with video games.

Video games are fun. Many are designed to keep you falling into them again and again, to captivate you enough to stick around for hours on end. But I had so carefully trained myself to not be that way so I could write.

During this indulgent month of October, I felt lazy. I felt sick. I felt jittery and uncomfortable in my skin and a little voice inside my head kept saying, “No, no, no. Stop doing nothing. You’re dying.”

I was disgusted with myself. I liked the games I was playing, but they didn’t bring the same satisfaction of selling a short story.

Like I said, it was really hard. But it was nothing compared to what I was going to embark on next.

I ended my month of terror with a bang. On Halloween night, at 11:56 p.m., I drank four shots of whiskey and became a vomiting sprinkler on my friends’ front lawn. (Apologies, Alan and Alan).

My girlfriend at the time drove me home and poured me into bed. I slept for thirteen hours. . . and when I awoke late afternoon on Nov. 1, I began something new. I didn’t put on the coffee pot. I didn’t boot up the PlayStation to see if any system updates needed downloading. I didn’t bring the iPad to the bathroom.

Instead, I entered Phase 2 of my research.

The character in my book was going to rehab, where all creature comforts would be taken away from him. And so I spent the entirety of November without sugar, caffeine, music, phone, books*, internet*, or of course, video games.

I called it my no-nothing November.

(Er, no stimulants, at least. But that isn’t quite as catchy.)

After surviving a two-day hangover unaided by stimulants of any sort, I crawled out of bed . . . and I went out into the world. I ran in the morning. I talked to people at coffee shops while sipping herbal tea. I took ukulele lessons. I learned how to cross-stitch. I cleaned Alan’s and Alan’s puke-covered lawn (just kidding I didn’t; I just realized this would have been a nice thing to have done (sorry again, Alans)). I studied life without my nose buried in a book.*

And mostly, I wrote. I wrote about a kid who had all of his comforts taken away and was forced to earn points through a sort of gamified therapy. I don’t know if any of this actually worked or not . . . I’m not sure if it really added anything to the book.

So, um, take that into consideration before flying off the rails for your own book.

*I use the term "addicted" lightly. Read Cure for the Common Universe for a full explanation.

**The most difficult, by far.

***I also didn’t surf the internet, save my email—for emergencies and so I wasn’t fired from my job.

****Ug, this is starting to sound like some sort of new age instruction manual, which I swear it is not; I just wanted to see what it would be like to be the character in my book.

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?

@cmheidicker on Twitter
Video games are the fastest growing medium in the world, so it’s pretty difficult to remain relevant when writing about current games. Fortunately, there’s a persistent spine in gaming (your Blizzards, your Nintendos, your Easter eggs). I tried to focus on those mainstays and accept the fact that no matter what I did I would probably piss off and please an equal number of gamers.

If I had attempted to copy the language of gamers verbatim, I would have set myself up for failure. (Although having a game-addicted roommate during the edits of this book definitely helped me sprinkle in some legit jargon.) That’s why I like to follow the Joss Whedon rule of leading the charge on language instead of attempting to copy it.

For the dialogue, I ended up stealing a lot of hilarious lines from my friends—truly iconic things that I lifted straight out of real-life conversations and put into the text. During a rousing game of racquetball, a friend aced me, stuck his racquet in my face, and screamed, “Nobody puts princess in a castle!” A barista once mentioned how stepping on a LEGO was a lot more rage inducing than playing Grand Theft Auto. And a previous student told me about a—ahem—particular sensory combination involving Nutella. I blushed . . . and then I stole it.

I stole all of these with everyone’s permission, of course.

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12. New Voice: Bridget Hodder on The Rat Prince

Excerpt & Curriculum Guide
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Bridget Hodderis the first-time author of The Rat Prince (FSG/Margaret Ferguson, 2016). From the promotional copy: 

The dashing Prince of the Rats–who’s in love with Cinderella–is changed into her coachman by the Fairy Godmother on the night of the big ball. 

And he’s about to turn the legend (and the evening) upside down on his way to a most unexpected happy ending!

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist?

Is it okay for me to say that getting to know Prince Char of the Northern Realm was a bit more like spirit possession than a process of discovery?

One day I was thinking about my dissatisfaction with the story of Cinderella and so many of its modern versions--the weak, passive main character, the inexplicable behavior of her negligent father, the mysteriousness of her stepmother and the insta-love between her and the prince.

Then I kid you not, I suddenly heard a voice in my head.

It was Prince Char, telling me to write his story--the real story. He has a commanding way about him (as befits royalty), and I basically just gave in. I couldn't believe the words that were coming from my fingertips; details that were unique to his way of life, and the person he was, and the upbringing he'd been given at Lancastyr Manor in the Kingdom of Angland.

After that first otherworldly contact with Prince Char, I saw the events in the book as if they were a movie happening in front of me in real time, and I simply described what I saw and heard. It was incredible, exhilarating...and exhausting.

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

Though I'm devoting myself to writing full time now, I worked for many years with children who have various learning differences, primarily on the autism spectrum.

Interacting daily with people who sometimes literally can't speak for themselves has taught me to listen, to pay attention, and be present with others in a much deeper way than I ever did before.

Human beings are wired for quick judgment based on obvious traits, like the way someone speaks or looks. But these things are not the totality of a person; they are the beginning of a story.

If you let others tell you their own stories, in their own ways, rather than making up stories about them in your head, you open up a whole new level of meaning in life.

I think that new awareness helped me go deeper into the point of view of every single character in The Rat Prince. People have asked me how I "figured out" the motivations for personalities on the fringe of the original Cinderella story, like Cinderella's father, and the fairy godmother.

The answer is: I paid attention, and I realized their situations spoke for themselves. Just like with Prince Char, all I needed to do then was write what I heard them telling me.

Bridgit's living room

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13. New Voice: Jenny Kay Dupuis on I Am Not a Number

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jenny Kay Dupuis is the first-time author of I Am Not a Number, co-authored by Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland (Second Story, 2016). From the promotional copy:

When eight-year-old Irene is removed from her First Nations family to live in a residential school she is confused, frightened, and terribly homesick. 

She tries to remember who she is and where she came from, despite the efforts of the nuns who are in charge at the school and who tell her that she is not to use her own name but instead use the number they have assigned to her. 

When she goes home for summer holidays, Irene's parents decide never to send her and her brothers away again. 

But where will they hide? And what will happen when her parents disobey the law? 

Based on the life of co-author Jenny Kay Dupuis’ grandmother, I Am Not a Number is a hugely necessary book that brings a terrible part of Canada’s history to light in a way that children can learn from and relate to.

As an author-educator, how do your various roles inform one another?

My roles as an educator and author are intrinsically interconnected. I'm always searching for meaningful, engaging ways to reach out to young people so they can learn more about topics pertaining to Indigenous realities, diversity, social and cultural justice, and respectful relationships.

While working in the field of education, I realized that there were not many children's picture books available that focused on Indigenous realities through the lens of a First Nations family.

Co-writing I Am Not a Number with Kathy Kacer gave me the opportunity to reflect on the value of literature for young people and how educators and families can make use of picture books to start conversations about critical, real-world issues.

When writing my granny's story, I realized that I was drawing on my expertise as an Indigenous community member, educator and learning strategist. I was cognizant of how children's literature can be used as a gateway to encourage young readers to unpack a story ("community memories"), think critically, and guide them to form their own opinions about issues of assimilation, identity loss, oppression, and injustice; all of which are major themes deeply rooted in policies that have either impacted or still impact Indigenous peoples.

Jenny Kay Dupuis
A children's picture book like, I Am Not a Number can support educators, students, and families to engage in deep and meaningful conversations.

The story is about my granny, who was taken from Nipissing First Nation reserve at a young age to live at a residential school in 1928.

The book can be used to direct conversations about not only Indigenous histories, but also the importance of exploring the underlying concepts of social change, including aspects of power relations, identity, and representation. For instance, young readers can engage in a character analysis by exploring the characters' ethics, motivations and effects of behaviours, and the impact of social, cultural, and political forces.

Through strong characters, written words, and vivid illustrations, the readers can also explore aspects of imagery, the settings, and the power of voice (terminology) used to express feelings of strength, fear, loss, and hope.

My hope as an educator-author is that the book, I Am Not a Number, will inspire others to use children's literature to encourage young people to begin to talk about past and present injustices that Indigenous communities face.

How did the outside (non-children's-YA-lit) world react to the news of your sale?

I Am Not a Number was released on Sept. 6. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive in Canada and the United States so far. One of the review sources, Kirkus Reviews, described it as "a moving glimpse into a not-very-long-past injustice." Booklist also gave it a starred review and highly recommended it. Other book reviewers have recommended it for teachers, librarians, and families. 

As a lead up to the launch of the book, I was asked by various groups (mostly educators) to present either in person or through Skype about topics linked to Indigenous education and the value of children's young adult literature. The sessions have been helpful for the participants to see how a book like I Am Not a Number and others can be used.

The book will also be available in French in early January by Scholastic.

What would you have done differently?

By Jenny's co-author, Kathy Kacer
A children's book is typically limited to a set number of pages. If more space was permitted, I would have liked to include a short description in the afterword of what happened after my granny and her siblings returned home from the residential school.

In my granny's case, she enrolled in an international private school. The school was located nearby on the shores of Lake Nipissing.

It offered her an opportunity to stay in her community with her family while still receiving an education. Her siblings also each chose their own life path.

What advice do you have for beginning children's YA-writers? How about diverse writers for young people? Native/First Nations writers for young people?

Although my first book is a story about my granny who was taken from her First Nations community at a young age to live in a residential school, we need to recognize that there are countless other community stories that need to be told by Indigenous peoples.

My advice for anyone who wants to get started writing children's-YA literature is relatively straightforward.

photo credits to Les Couchi for restoration of the photo
  • Have confidence in your abilities. Start by exploring a topic that you know about.
  • Be honest and authentic. Prepare to gather information to ensure the authenticity of the story through an accurate portrayal of the people, place, time period, experiences, language, and setting.
  • Be purposeful, thoughtful, and intentional. Take the time to identify what is the intended impact of the story. Writers need to continually ask themselves, "How will the readers be influenced by the characters, language, and overall messaging? How will the reader's view of their own world be expanded?
  • Be authentic. Since I Am Not a Number is a children's picture book, it was important that it include authentic imagery. A relative of mine, Les Couchi, had restored a series of old family photos. The old photos helped to inform decisions when communicating with the illustrator, Gillian Newland about the hairstyles, what items to include in my great-grandfather's shop, etc. One of the old photos is included in the book and shows my granny and her siblings outside their house.
  • Identify your responsibilities. Sometimes writers from diverse backgrounds have a greater responsibility that includes not just writing the story, but also educating others and transmitting knowledge about cultural, social, political, or economic issues buried within the story. In this instance, I Am Not a Number is not just about a First Nation's girl who was taken to live in a residential school, but it is a story that raises consciousness that Irene (my granny) is one of over hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children impacted by assimilation policies and racialized injustice.
  • Be patient and anticipate a lengthy process that may involve information gathering, several rounds of edits, fact checking, searching for the right illustrator, etc. As such, I regularly turned to my family between edits to get their feedback and continued to listen to their memories. Some of the stories included memories of how my great-grandmother often made the best homemade meat pies, baked breads, jams, and preserves.
  • Realize that your work is reflection of you. Just because something was done a certain way in the past, does not always make it right today. Be prepared to speak up and ask questions when you feel something does not feel right as you progress throughout the process, especially if you feel it feel it impacts your own ethics and values, or misrepresents a person's/group's racial or cultural identity or nation.
  • Discuss participation, consent and consultation. It is essential that publishers who engage with Indigenous authors fully recognize Indigenous expertise and honour the importance of how to respectfully work in collaboration with Indigenous peoples by ensuring their full participation, consultation, and informed consent at all stages.

Cynsational Notes

Visit Second Story Press
Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis is of Anishinaabe/Ojibway ancestry and a proud member of Nipissing First Nation. She is an educator, community researcher, artist, and speaker who works full-time supporting the advancement of Indigenous education.

Jenny's interest in her family's past and her commitment to teaching about Indigenous issues through literature drew her to co-write I Am Not a Number, her first children's book. The book can be ordered from a favourite bookstore (Indiebound) and online from Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, and Indigo.

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14. 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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15. 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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16. New Voice: Melissa Gorzelanczyk on Arrows

On Twitter? Follow @MelissaGorzela.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melissa Gorzelanczyk is the first-time author of Arrows (Delacorte, 2016). From the promotional copy:

People don’t understand love.

If they did, they’d get why dance prodigy Karma Clark just can’t say goodbye to her boyfriend, Danny. 

No matter what he says or does or how he hurts her, she can’t stay angry with him . . . and can’t stop loving him. But there’s a reason why Karma is helpless to break things off: she’s been shot with a love arrow.

Aaryn, son of Cupid, was supposed to shoot both Karma and Danny but found out too late that the other arrow in his pack was useless. 

And with that, Karma’s life changed forever. One pregnancy confirmed. One ballet scholarship lost. And dream after dream tossed to the wind.

A clueless Karma doesn’t know that her toxic relationship is Aaryn’s fault . . . but he’s going to get a chance to make things right. He’s here to convince Danny to man up and be there for Karma.

But what if this god from Mount Olympus finds himself falling in love with a beautiful dancer from Wisconsin who can never love him in return?

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?

Like Melissa on Facebook.
Revising post-contract is a lot different than pre-contract.

The best part about post-contract revision is you have a clear path set by someone you (hopefully) trust. Your editor!

When my edit letters come in, I like to allow the feedback sit for a day or two before diving into the changes. That feels long enough to let any emotions attached to what she is telling me disappear.

 I wouldn’t recommend writing from a place of feeling wounded or defensive. You need to be open.

Once I’m open to the critique, I go through her letter and write a list of all the problems in my manuscript.

After that, I brainstorm possible solutions, making sure my favorites work on a big picture level. The process breaks down to finding solutions within all of my story elements—plot, setting, character, theme—and then onto chapter/scene/sentence level from there.

One thing to remember when revising post-contract is that your book will actually be out in the world someday. While this seems obvious, it’s easy to forget when you’re focused on the work at hand. Mainly, you want your editor to continue liking your book, right? Do not forget that now, in revision, you should also fix the things that don’t ring true to who you are.

Because people are (for reals) going to be reading your book in the near future! Make sure you feel proud and certain about the changes you are making.

Pre-contract is much harder, especially if you don’t have a critique partner you trust. The key is to find at least one.

Trade samples of each other’s work, and see if you like what the other person is saying to help make your story better. See if they work on the same turnaround as you. See if you feel comfortable being yourself when you email back and forth.

Melissa's office
My second piece of advice is to trust your story and your gut. Long ago, a valued beta reader of mine suggested that I consider taking the teen pregnancy aspect out of my YA novel Arrows. I decided not to, and that ended up helping my book sell to Delacorte. In fact, my book was pitched as “MTVs 'Teen Mom' meets Greek mythology.”

I’m not saying the beta reader was wrong. Maybe my book would sell a million more copies without the teen pregnancy plotline. Who knows. I’m just saying you don’t have to revise according to every comment, especially pre-contract.

Before sending your manuscript to beta readers, I suggest doing at least a couple revisions on your own. One of my favorite revising methods is a modified version of Susan Dennard’s revision method (just scroll down). Take her ideas and adapt them to fit your style.

For me, a simplified approach works best. My plan always starts with printing my manuscript and reading it in one sitting. I might make notes in the margins, or I might not. Then, like Dennard, I paperclip my chapters together and figure out what is or isn’t working with the plot, characters and setting.

This takes time! And this isn’t the place for line edits! Because believe me, for those first revision passes, your deleted scenes file may end up as long as your manuscript. That is okay.

Shed no tears.

This is how all books are made.

“The only kind of writing is rewriting.”
Ernest Hemingway

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

Promoting my debut has been both exhausting and interesting. I’m still a few weeks from publication date (I’m writing this on 1/4/16), but I truly feel I’ve done all I can leading up to this point.

I try to remember that promoting a book is a slow burn, kind of like the publishing process as a whole. It doesn’t happen all at once.

The things I’m doing pre-publication are the things I’ll be doing all of next year.

Promotion starts by figuring out two things:

1. How much time you can devote to promotion.

2. How much money you can/want to spend.

I think every author should plan to spend some time and some money on their promotion, but no one really knows the magic combo. Personally, I devote half of my work day to promotion, as well as some nights and weekends, which I started doing when my book was about four months from publication.

Up to that point, I was working on promotion as things came up. There wasn’t a set schedule or plan. So I guess you could say that about four months to publication, I panicked, created a master spreadsheet and worked really hard to meet my goals.

As far as money, my guess is that I’ll have spent about $1,500 to $3,000 on promotion by the end of 2016. This estimate includes postage (budget more than you think you need), thank you cards, thank you gifts, bookmarks, buttons, postcards, my book trailer, conferences and my launch party. All of this is tax deductible.

I have no idea if this is high or low as far as a marketing investment, but as a debut, when deciding where to spend money, it made sense to go “all in.”

I’m curious how I’ll feel at the end of 2016. My advice is do what feels right for you.

Melissa's office
If you’re wondering where to start with promotion, I’d highly recommend joining a debut author group. I’m a member of the Sweet Sixteens and the Class of 2k16.

Being able to ask fellow debuts questions has saved so much time in random Google searches/panicking. Plus it’s a safe place to share failures and successes, and well, meet people who “get it.” My author family is a whole new awesome kind of family.

Another thing you can do is study what successful authors are doing. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Add your personality and style to their ideas. For instance, if they are on Goodreads, you probably want to be there, too. If they are doing giveaways on Twitter, why not try one?

For your own sanity, stay organized. Write all of your ideas on a spreadsheet and add deadline dates so that you don’t feel completely overwhelmed.

Work on your promotion in bite-sized pieces. One blog post at a time. One bookmark order at a time. One Tweet at a time.

In my opinion, being a debut is a good time to say “yes”. Try all the blog articles you can. Answer every interview you can.

Yes, you want to make a book trailer? Figure out how to do that. Yes, create a professional website and blog, Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. Yes, send a monthly newsletter (I use MailChimp). 

Yes, you can do this!

Cynsational Notes

Melissa recommends: Ten Things Nobody Tells You about Being a Debut Novelist by Tim Federle.

https://thesweetsixteens.wordpress.com/

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17. 2016 SCBWI Bologna Art Director-Author Interview: Laurent Linn

By Elisabeth Norton
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Laurent Linn, art director for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, began his career as a puppet designer/builder in Jim Henson's Muppet Workshop, creating characters for various productions, including the "Muppet Christmas Carol" and "Muppet Treasure Island" films. 

With Henson for over a decade, he worked primarily on Sesame Street, becoming the creative director for the Sesame Street Muppets, winning an Emmy Award. 

Currently, at Simon & Schuster, Laurent art directs picture books, middle-grade, and teen novels, working with illustrators and authors such as Tomie dePaola, Patricia Polacco, Bryan Collier, E. B. Lewis, Raúl Colón, Debbie Ohi, and Taeeun Yoo

Laurent is on the board of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and is the artistic advisor for the annual original art exhibit at the Society of Illustrators in New York. 
 
He is also an author: His debut illustrated teen novel, Draw the Line (Simon & Schuster), comes out in May. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and facebook.

Laurent, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions about the world of illustration in children's publishing, and about the SCBWI Bologna Illustration Gallery (BIG). 

As art director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, what is the importance of the Bologna Children's Book Fair to you and other publishing professionals?

The Bologna Fair has so much to offer everyone, and for a publisher like us, it serves more than one role. It’s a fantastic event to see what books are being published in other countries that we may want to acquire rights for to publish here in the U.S.

Also, we share certain books that we are publishing in the hopes international publishers will want to acquire, too.

In addition, we’re always on the look-out to discover illustrators from other countries that we’re not yet aware of — there is so much talent on display there!

What makes an Illustration Gallery such as the BIG at the SCBWI booth in Bologna interesting to publishing professionals?

In the U.S. and around the world, children’s book publishers know that SCBWI members are serious about their careers. So it’s understood that the illustrators on display at the SCBWI booth are both knowledgeable and professional — something very important to us when we consider hiring an illustrator who is new to us.

When an art director or publisher views an illustration showcase such SCBWI's BIG, is s/he looking primarily for illustrators for picture books, or are they also scouting talent for other illustration opportunities within the industry?

Speaking for myself, I always consider the strengths of each illustrator individually based on their work. For example, when I see someone whose strength is art that would be best suited for picture books, I may potentially keep them in mind for a future picture book. The same would be true of someone whose style is best for middle grade, etc.

Of course, many illustrators have different styles, which may be right for all types and genres of books, and I’d think about that as well.

Overall, I imagine that each art director and editor look for what he or she is publishing. Having said this, I do think the majority of art directors and editors at Bologna are looking at picture book illustration.

What makes an illustration stand out to you when you are serving as a judge for a showcase like BIG?

A few factors. Talent and skill as an artist is extremely important, of course. But I’m also looking for strong visual storytelling — children’s book illustration is all about a narrative. If a piece is more of a portrait or composed scene lacking story, that doesn’t show how an illustrator could visualize a key moment of a narrative.

Also, I’m always looking to see if an illustration has an emotional connection — readers need to be emotionally invested in a book’s characters.

I think many illustrators, when thinking of a career in children's publishing, think primarily of illustrating picture books. Yet there seem to be more and more illustrated middle grade series, graphic novels are very popular, and your own illustrated young adult novel, Draw the Line, is scheduled for release in the summer of 2016. Do you see a trend in the industry towards more illustration in books for older readers?

It’s such an exciting time for illustration in children’s literature! Picture books are being published with art using all kinds of media and in varied styles. More and more middle grade uses interior black-and-white illustrations within the pages, for all ages from young to pre-teen. And more and more art is even being used YA (young adult) fiction.

As you mention, my own debut YA novel, Draw the Line, has illustrations — 90 pages of art, in fact! It’s not a graphic novel at all, but is a traditional text novel that also has illustrations in it.

In my book’s case, the art is “drawn by” the main character, Adrian, but is of course really drawn by me. It’s a way to tell the story on a visual level to enhance the storytelling in the text. My YA is unusual in the amount of art in it, but we’re seeing more boundaries being broken down.

We have talented author-illustrators like Brian Selznick to thank in many ways. His illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, 2007) really broke ground.

And then, of course, there are true graphic novels for all ages. A graphic novel differs from an illustrated YA or middle grade in that the format is like a comic book: The entire story is told through art panels with speech balloons and narrative text boxes.

However, now we’re seeing hybrid books that are mixing up all preconceptions, so who knows what comes next?

I love the idea of the illustrations in Draw the Line being “drawn by” the character! I look forward to seeing it when it releases. How important do you think it is for an illustrator to be an author as well? 

Every creative person is unique — many illustrators have no interest in writing or are not good writers, and many are extremely talented writers with a passion for it.

If you look at the most successful top illustrators in children’s literature, you’ll find those that also write their books as well as those who only illustrate books written by others.

For me and my colleagues, whether an artist is also a writer or not has no bearing on if we will work with them or not.

What qualities do you think are important for an artist to have in order to be successful as an illustrator in the children's publishing industry?

Certainly those creative elements I mention above: alent, a unique style and vision, good visual storytelling skills, and ability to bring an emotional connection to the art. But you must also be professional — children’s literature is a collaborative process.

In addition to being realistic and professional about deadlines, you have to keep in mind that art direction and editing are not personal judgments, but useful and necessary ways of communication.

Everyone in the process has her or his expertise, and we all want your book to be the best book possible. It’s a balance of creating a work of art yet being sure it sells and gets into the hands of readers who want and need it.

Another part of being a professional is making connections, getting your work out into the world to be seen, and being engaged in the children’s book world. For example, showing your art in the SCBWI Bologna Illustration Gallery!

Is there something that you think every illustrator should know, that I haven't asked?

This may seem obvious, but it can be easy to lose sight of: always be yourself! Don’t imitate others or create art that you may think art directors “want to see.” There certainly are artistic rules to follow, but within those parameters, find your own vision and dazzle us with it. Yes, use influences and inspirations in your work, but only as tools to enhance your singular style and vision.

Cynsational Notes

Elisabeth Norton grew up in Alaska, lived for many years and Texas, and after a brief sojourn in England, now lives with her family between the Alps and the Jura in Switzerland.

She writes for middle grade readers and serves as the regional advisor for the Swiss chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

When not writing, she can be found walking the dogs, playing board games, and spending time with family and friends. Find her on Twitter @fictionforge.

The Bologna 2016 Interview series is coordinated by Angela Cerrito, SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and a Cynsational Reporter in Europe and beyond.

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18. Guest Post: Parker Peevyhouse on Where Futures End

Excerpt
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Parker Peevyhouseis the first-time author of Where Futures End(Penguin/Kathy Dawson Books, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Five teens.

Five futures.

Two worlds.

One ending.

One year from now, Dylan develops a sixth sense that allows him to glimpse another world.

Ten years from now, Brixney must get more hits on her social media feed or risk being stuck in a debtors' colony.

Thirty years from now, Epony scrubs her entire online profile from the web and goes “High Concept.”

Sixty years from now, Reef struggles to survive in a city turned virtual gameboard.

And more than a hundred years from now, Quinn uncovers the alarming secret that links them all.

Five people, divided by time, will determine the fate of us all. These are stories of a world bent on destroying itself, and of the alternate world that might be its savior--unless it's too late.

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?

Parker Peevyhouse
I set myself up for a tricky revision process when I wrote Where Futures End as a series of interconnected stories. I had to make sure that the stories connected well to each other, even though each is mostly self-contained.

My agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, also pointed out that the first story in the book had to be really gripping. Of course, every novel has to have an opening that grabs the reader, but that had to be especially true of Where Futures End, since the reader would only continue to the second story if s/he loved the first.

I worked really hard to revise the opening story before we sent out the manuscript on submission. But the feedback we got was that the first story still wasn’t working. The tone was too sad and dark, since the story dealt with a boy (Dylan) wrestling with the death of his brother; and Dylan was confusing, since he kept going back and forth on whether he had the ability to visit another world. I was pretty bummed about this feedback because I loved Dylan and his story, but I could see that the manuscript wouldn’t sell as-is.

I scrapped that first story and started over. I brought the dead brother back to life and made the plot focus on sibling rivalry. I created a more linear progression for Dylan’s investigation into whether he had the ability to visit another world, and I had the brother play a larger part in this mystery. To my surprise, this new version of the story felt even closer to what I had originally want to achieve. And it got a lot more interest from editors.

The editor who bought the novel, Kathy Dawson (who has her own imprint at Penguin), wanted me to make even deeper cuts. In the original version of the manuscript, Dylan is obsessed with a series of fantasy novels about the Lookingland, a magical realm Dylan thinks he can visit. Throughout the novel, other characters also try to access the Lookingland, so it became an element that tied together the separate stories that make up Where Futures End. Kathy suggested I cut out the Lookingland entirely; she thought it was too confusing, one more thing for the reader to keep track of in an already intricate novel. But how in the world would I then tie all of Where Futures End together?

Parker's assistant, Arya
We figured out that Dylan, instead of reading novels about the magical land he longed to escape to, should write stories about that land himself. This set up a new way to connect the stories that comprise Where Futures End.

In the second part of Where Futures End, Dylan’s stories come to the public’s attention. In the third part, we see that books and movies have been made from Dylan’s stories. In the fourth part, a main character makes his living playing a video game based on Dylan’s stories. And in the fifth part, the stories take on a life of their own…

It was painful to make all of those deep cuts. I wasn’t always sure I should make such huge changes to my original vision! But I took the advice of my agent and did my revisions in a separate document so that I always had the option of reverting to the original manuscript.

That helped me make bold changes, and in the end, I felt the new versions of the manuscript were better than the old versions.

It helps to have an agent and an editor who are so insightful with their revision suggestions, but I also recommend taking chances with revisions, knowing you can always go back to what you originally wrote if those revisions don’t work for you.

As a science fiction writer, what first attracted you to that literary tradition? Have you been a long-time sci-fi reader?

Does anyone else remember “poot” from My Teacher Fried My Brains by Bruce Coville (Aladdin, 1991)? I loved that crazy-weird stretchable pet when I was in grade school. And I was fascinated by the tesseracts in A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1963).

When I was a kid, if there was a book in my library about something strange, I took it home.

Those books inspired me to write my own weird stories about kids visiting alternate realities and wielding supernatural powers.

Reading and writing science fiction was the only thing that could feed my ever-hungry imagination.

What drew me to science fiction as a kid were the strange ideas, the mind-benders, like Meg Murray talking about how time is the fourth dimension.

Where Futures End makes use of the tropes I’ve loved reading about from a young age: alternate universes, time distortion, psychic abilities. But I’ve also grown to love how science fiction explores personal interactions and cultural changes. I wanted Where Futures End to explore culture in the same way Feed by M. T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2002) does, and to explore relationships in the same way that How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (Penguin, 2004) does.

Science fiction, more than any other genre, lends enough distance to gain new perspectives, and that’s the main reason I still love the genre.

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19. Guest Post & Giveaway: Emma Dryden on Putting the Internal Editor in a Time-Out

By Emma Dryden
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

An Editor Tries on Her Writer Hat

I’ve been a children’s book editor for over thirty years. Editing’s in my blood. Little else brings me as much joy or satisfaction as coaxing, guiding, and encouraging authors and illustrators to dig deeply and express their truest passions and richest stories.

Over the course of my career, I’ve edited well over 1,000 books, which means I’ve played some small or large part in the creative process for well over 1,000 people.

Throughout the journey, I’ve been asked many times if I ever wanted to write. The long and short answer to that question is “Yes.” But that’s easier said than done.

Being a life-long editor for others comes with a significant downside: I have an aggressive, impatient editor living inside me. She’s tough.

So much so that when serendipitous events occurred and stars aligned for me to co-write a picture book last year, I had to have it out with my internal editor and it wasn’t pretty. I started out nicely, pleadingly, but soon began to rant and swear, begging her to shut up and leave me alone so I could just put down on the page whatever I wanted, without limitation, without question, without suggestion. It’s an understatement to say my internal editor had a hard time turning off. But finally, finally she did shut up and I could start to write.

Maybe it was the looming deadline and my co-author expecting to hear from me that boosted the confidence in the writer part of me to strap my internal editor into the time-out chair. Or maybe it was exhaustion and the writer part of me just didn’t care anymore what those first sentences looked or felt like, as long as there was something on the page. Or maybe it was my trust in the writing process (goodness knows I’ve told hundreds of writers over the years to trust the process!) that eventually forced my internal editor to just darn well wait her turn.

I suspect it was all of these combined that finally allowed me to write with creative adrenaline the words and phrases that would eventually become the score for What Does It Mean to Be An Entrepreneur? (Little Pickle, 2016).

Most artists are not professional editors, but artists are always contending with some sort of internal editor—that nagging, probing questioner; that voice saying something isn’t good enough; that self-doubter.

Writing is a courageous, delicate, and precious act. Creating art of any kind is a courageous, delicate, and precious act.

Editing, eventually, is critical to the process, but not during those early moments of creativity, when the words and the sketches are barely formed and just emerging from the craftsperson’s imagination.

Through the experience of quieting down my internal editor to write What Does It Mean to Be An Entrepreneur?, I received two great gifts. One was that I was reminded of the obligation I have as an editor: To be patient, supportive, and empathetic to the myriad of feelings (euphoria and despair and everything in between!) an author or illustrator is going to be feeling during their creative process.

And the second gift I received is seeing my name in the byline of a book that springs from my own experiences starting a company and of which I couldn’t be more proud. I was in a position not only to co-write the book, but to edit it and assist in design and art direction—it was the best of all possible worlds for me creatively and professionally.

And now I know, when it comes time for me to write some more, exactly where my internal editor’s time-out chair is waiting!

Cynsational Notes

Emma D. Dryden is the founder of drydenbks, a premier children’s editorial and publishing consultancy firm which she established after twenty-five years as a highly regarded children’s book editor and publisher. She works with authors, illustrators, start-ups, publishers, and app developers.

Emma has edited over a thousand books for children and young readers and during her tenure with Atheneum and McElderry Books, many of her titles hit bestseller lists in USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, and other national publications, and have received numerous awards and medals, including the Newbery Medal, Newbery Honor, and Caldecott Honor. Emma’s on the Advisory Board of SCBWI and speaks around the world on craft, the digital landscape, and reinvention.

Her blog “Our Stories, Ourselves” explores the intertwined themes of life and writing. She can be followed online at Twitter @drydenbks, Facebook, and Pinterest.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three signed copies of What Does It Mean to Be An Entrepreneur? by Rana DiOrio and Emma D. Dryden, and illustrated by Ken Min (Little Pickle, 2016). Author sponsored. U.S. only.

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20. New Voice: Melanie Conklin on Counting Thyme

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melanie Conklin is the first-time author of Counting Thyme (Putnam, 2016). From the promotional copy:

When eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. 

The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary.

After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. 

All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours and the days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.

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? 

I’m a serious student of revision techniques. Because of my background as a product designer, I’m a very visual thinker, and I’m constantly looking for new ways to approach revision because there are always new challenges to encounter!

Prior to going through the editorial process with Counting Thyme, I had figured out a few things about revision: first, that I thought better on paper. I printed out my manuscript and used different colored post-it flags to track different elements through the document, so that I could find them and also so I could see their distribution and revise to where needed. I had also learned to make an outline of my manuscript before revising, so that I could “see” the whole thing at once.

After I survived the gauntlet of revision-under-deadline, my process had changed in small but significant ways. My editor also works on paper, so I learned to take her pages, punch holes in them, and put them in a binder. This may seem like common sense, but it seriously hadn’t occurred to me to make it easier to flip through the book!

I also learned to note the changes I was confident about directly on the manuscript, and to use full-sized Post-its to write every single guess, question, and thought to myself about anything I hadn’t figured out yet.

Basically, I would distill my editor’s letter, then read through my manuscript while noting any possible solutions on hundreds of Post-its.

Why Post-its? Well, I stick them on the bottom edge of the paper so that they hang off the edge of the manuscript pages, which makes it easy to find the notes again, whereas notes on the paper can get lost.

My outlines evolved, too. Now I outline on note cards, one for each scene, and pin them to a tri-fold board (the greatest invention ever). I generally organize the cards into three acts that form a road map for the manuscript. Again, this makes it easier to visualize the book and its major elements as I work through the planning pass for a revision.

Usually, by the time I’ve read all the way through my manuscript, the best solutions have risen to the surface, and I’ve answered all of my Post-it questions, leaving a bunch of notes ready and waiting. Then it’s just a matter of opening the Word doc and making the actual changes!

Doing a planning pass on the manuscript does add time to your revision, but I’ve found that it saves time overall because you have the freedom to think, explore, and choose, so when you open your Word doc you are full of confidence and can work more quickly.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

Obviously, I’m super into the creative process, which applies not just to the act of revision, but to writing in general. I studied English Literature back in college, but it did not occur to me to write books myself until I had quit my job to stay home with my young children for the time being.

I found writing offered the same creative outlet that I’d savored in design, and in many ways my writing process have evolved to mirror my design process.

In product design, the end goal is to get one product on the shelf. To get there, you may throw away hundreds of ideas. But remember, the end goal is one success. I think that mindset has made my approach to writing more flexible, especially when I’m developing a new character or voice.

When I first think of a character, I really explore them. I keep a notebook for each book idea, and in that notebook I let my thoughts run wild. I blab for pages about backstory, then change my mind and cross it out. I turn to a new page and draw the character’s house. I write about their family. About where they live and the hurts they carry. What has changed in their life? What wound keeps them from moving forward? What lesson do they need to learn? How must they grow?

Often, I write the opening chapter of a book quite early in the process, but then I always pause and take this time to expand my ideas before I decide anything. Doing this can help you avoid making boring choices. Generally, the very first idea you have may not be the most original idea possible, depending on how much time you spend brainstorming.

To generate more interesting and original ideas, I like to use lateral thinking techniques—in a nutshell, it’s the idea of picking seemingly disparate ideas and pairing them to gain a new perspective.

For example, you might flip through the dictionary (or any book) and randomly pick a word like “apple.” Then you ask yourself, how is my character like an apple? Are they shiny on the outside, but rotten at the core? Have they weathered storms and survived? Maybe they see the world in slices and are trying desperately to catch a glimpse of the full picture. In this way, introducing a new connection point can lead to some very creative character development.

But the bottom line for me is to trust your writing process. Develop your routines. Nurture your mind by reading widely. Try new techniques, and gather them as your arsenal against deadlines.

Too often, we are rushed and panicking, but cutting corners usually just leads to a big old meltdown.

In my experience, your process will get you there every time—even if that involves writing with a cabbage leaf on your head, which I have done.

Writing is that hard, I know. But if you trust your process, the answers will come.

Cynsational Notes

 See more insights from Melanie on:


"Read nonfiction. Seriously, the weirdest stuff happens in the real world. Sometimes it’s super helpful to step away from your fictional world and flip through a non-fiction book (or watch an hour of NatGeo. Did you know that a blue whale’s heart weighs a thousand pounds?)."

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21. New Voice: Shari Schwarz on Treasure at Lure Lake

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Shari Schwarz is the first-time author of Treasure at Lure Lake(Cedar Fort, 2016). From the promotional copy:

An epic adventure—that’s all Bryce wants this summer. 

So when he stumbles upon a treasure map connected to an old family secret, Bryce is determined to follow the map, even if it means risking his life and lying to his grandpa while they're on their wilderness backpacking trip. 

Bryce must work together with his difficult big brother, Jack, or they...and the treasure...may never see the light of day again.

What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? 

How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

One of my very favorite craft resource books is Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole (Writer’s Digest Books, 2012).

I took it everywhere with me for a few months and read through it twice as I was writing Treasure at Lure Lake. One thing I struggled with in my book was giving the brothers, fourteen-year-old Jack and twelve-year-old Bryce, the right level of interiority, as Mary Kole calls it, which is access to the character’s thoughts and feelings about what is going on.

I wrote Lure Lake from the perspective of two boys, and if you’ve ever spent a lot of time around teenage boys, they aren’t always the first to share their emotions and deep thoughts. Of course, there are some that do—I do have four boys myself—but it was definitely a challenge for me to get into each of the boys’ heads and get their internal voices just right in my story.

Mary Kole’s book teaches about the importance of interiority.

She writes, “First we should see characters in action, and then we get some Interiority to really drive home the author’s intentions…With this one-two punch we can move on with a solid understanding of what we’ve just witnessed and learned.” (p. 59)

Another lesson I learned the hard way (through many revisions and trial and error) was how to make the reader care about Jack and Bryce at the beginning of the book. If the reader doesn’t care about their journeys very early in the story, then what would be the point of reading it? On p. 90 Kole writes, “…introduce not only a great character but a character with Objectives and Motivations. Then imbue the character’s life with enough conflict, both internal and external, to really get the story engine humming.” And, of course, there has to be interiority if we are to know the character’s goal, objectives and motivations.

Shari's boys
I also listened carefully to my own boys and their friends. I listened to anything that would point to their hopes, dreams, goals and motivations. It is still a constant learning process to perfect these story elements that make or break a good book.

Another element is creating a complex, layered character. One who seems real. There are books I’ve read where I was certain that the story was biographical, in large part because the main character was so invested in the plot.

Mary Kole not only stresses interiority, objectives/motivations to create a real character, but she also helps writers by taking them through creating a character with a complex core identity full of strengths, weaknesses, virtues, roles, emotions, responses, boundaries etc… She writes on p 109, “If you can create a strong character with a strong sense of core self, then thrust him through a plot that attacks those pillars of identity, and surprise the reader with some of his choices, you will have an amazingly layered protagonist on your hands.” And she doesn’t leave it just at protagonists. She advises the same for the antagonist.

I highly recommend this book for all writers, those new to the craft and also those who are well-experienced. I can’t imagine that anyone has “arrived” when it comes to writing. I know I will be writing and revising and learning over and over again with each new book I write.

It’s a challenging but inspiring process, and I’m thankful for the inspiration found in books like Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole.

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

Cody (Corgi) and Jasper (puppy)
Before I started writing seriously, I received my elementary teaching degree with an emphasis in literacy, and then I worked as an elementary school librarian. I had the privilege to study children’s literature in-depth for my teaching degree which carried over into being a librarian where I was able to share with children my love of reading.

I didn’t begin writing Treasure at Lure Lake until a couple of years later. I think being a librarian allowed me to see and understand in general what kids love to read. There are those books and series that a lot of children gravitate towards, but they’re not for everyone. There are always at least a few outliers who don’t follow the trends and find their own niche in books they love.

There is also a difference between books that adults want children to read and books that children themselves want to read. Yes, there is a bit of a crossover, but there are many books that children love that adults roll their eyes at or worse.

As a librarian, my job was to connect readers with books. And the only way to do that is to find books they love based on their interests, reading level, prior books read and sometimes just a bit of luck. Part of connecting children to books meant that I needed to be up to date on new books coming out. How could I gush over a book to a student if I’d never read it?

American Lakes, Northern Colorado
Reading so many children’s books also helped me in writing Lure Lake. There is such a wide variety of readers which is one of the reasons why there are so many different types of books out there.

As a new author, it can strike fear in my heart to think that some people will not like my book. Some people may judge it harshly. Of course! No book is the perfect book for every reader out there. This has helped me realize that my book will not be for everyone which is a good reality check. But there are children who identify with parts of my story, whether it is the plot or the characters or the themes…and that is who I wrote my book for.

Being a librarian allowed me to have numerous conversations with students who loved reading. They would tell me about why they loved the books they did, what they wanted to read next and how the book impacted them.

I also was able to listen as students told me about what made a book hard for them to get through or why it was boring. And, best of all, I was able to work with those students who just hadn’t found a love for reading yet. They were the children who came back, week after week, still searching for a book that they might finally like.

There isn’t anything more gratifying as a librarian than to finally find that one book that makes a reader’s eyes light up for the first time. Seeing a reluctant reader finally devour a book, especially if it’s part of a series, is an amazing process to watch and the greatest blessing of all in being a librarian.

One of my own sons struggled with reading throughout elementary school. But when I placed The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (Hyperion, 2005) in his hands when he was in fifth grade, he was hooked for the first time and read straight through that series and into the next.

Helping a child find the joy of reading is why I started writing Treasure at Lure Lake in the first place. I wanted to write a fun, exciting adventure that would be easy to read and would hopefully catch the imagination and hearts of reluctant readers that resonate with its story.

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22. New Voice: Kathryn Tanquary on The Night Parade

Discussion Guide & Common Core Teacher Guide
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kathryn Tanquary is the first-time author of The Night Parade (Sourcebooks Fire, 2016). From the promotional copy:

"I thought you might sleep through it." The creature smiled.

Saki's voice was little more than a whisper. "Sleep through what?"

It leaned over. She stared into its will-o'-the-wisp eyes.

"The Night Parade, of course."

The last thing Saki Yamamoto wants to do for her summer vacation is trade in exciting Tokyo for the antiquated rituals and bad cell reception of her grandmother's village. Preparing for the Obon ceremony is boring. Then the local kids take interest in Saki and she sees an opportunity for some fun, even if it means disrespecting her family's ancestral shrine on a malicious dare.

But as Saki rings the sacred bell, the darkness shifts. A death curse has been invoked...and Saki has three nights to undo it. With the help of three spirit guides and some unexpected friends, Saki must prove her worth-or say goodbye to the world of the living forever...

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach "edgy" behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

Though my protagonist certainly isn’t the most “edgy” in terms of behavior, she does start the story with a pretty big chip on her shoulder.

Saki’s act of rebellion is the catalyst that sets off the main events of the plot, so it had to be significant enough to provoke consequences without losing too much sympathy for her character.

To find this balance, her motivation was the key. From the beginning, Saki is a flawed hero with a lot of internal conflict; she’s trying to manage a toxic adolescent social life and her own need for acceptance from her peers, so it’s understandable when she caves to some of that pressure and makes a few bad decisions.

Making a big mistake may seem like the end of the world to a lot of people—and Saki certainly thinks so in the story—but I decided right from the concept stage that I wanted to deconstruct that idea. A lot of the books I read growing up had a protagonist with a very strong sense of self, but Saki doesn’t have that yet. Her weaknesses are very human, and sometimes even a little petty. She’s still getting to know the person she’s becoming and that’s okay. Another key theme of the story is forgiveness, and Saki’s journey is all about second chances.

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?

Writing longhand in Osaka
The theme certainly evolved as the characters found their voices, but a sense of duality was there from the very beginning: city and country, young and old, modern and traditional, humans and spirits.

Anytime these things are put side-by-side there’s a tendency to pit them against one another. Go one step further and people start to separate themselves based on these perceived qualities.

One of the major themes of Saki’s story is finding the balance. Part of her journey towards self-discovery is recognizing that she can be dynamic and adaptable, and that she can inhabit more than one world at a time. In a world that seems increasingly divided in its thinking, I believe that’s a quality we should all aspire toward.

On a more concrete level, the story speaks to the issues of age, multi-generational families and tradition. Saki understands on some level why some of the rituals her family performs during the Obon holidays are important, but until she has an experience of her own she doesn’t feel as connected to the tradition.

Younger generations worldwide are facing similar experience gaps. The world we live in now is simply not the same as the world our parents and grandparents grew up in, so unless we invest some of our time in communication there is a lot we risk losing. Fittingly, this was one of the themes that took the longest to mature.

In both fantasy and reality, understanding the past is usually the surest way to help prepare for a brighter future.


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23. Interview: Author Carole Boston Weatherford & Illustrator Jeffery Boston Weatherford

By Carole Boston Weatherford
& Jeffrey Boston Weatherford

From Carole

Set during World War II, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen (Atheneum, 2016) follows the training, trials and triumphs of the U.S. military's first African American pilots.

The book pairs my poems with scratchboard illustrations by my son, Jeffrey Boston Weatherford.

The title is our first collaboration and Jeffery's publication debut. The book, which includes a detailed timeline and links to primary sources, connects to both the language arts and social studies curricula.

You Can Fly had a long incubation period. The egg may have been laid during a family trip to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. The earliest version of the text was for a picture book written in second person.

After I was unable to sell that manuscript, I sat on the egg for a few more years. Then I began re-envisioning and reshaping the manuscript as a poetry collection for middle grades-up. I switched the point of view to first person under the title "The Last Tuskegee Airmen Tells All." Still not satisfied, I changed to third person. Finally, I settled on second person.

Around that time, Jeffery came on board. During a summer internship in children's book illustration, he created digital art to accompany my poems. We sold the package, but just before the book was about to hatch, the flight got cancelled.

Carole & Jeffery in 2000
I began to wonder if the book would ever leave the nest. I continued to revise the manuscript and to add poems. Jeffery and I decided to scrap the digital art in favor of scratchboard illustrations.

Armed with a revised manuscript and sample drawings, we sold the package to Atheneum.

In the subsequent year, Jeffery completed the illustrations and I added a few new poems.

In mid-April, Jeffery and I received our comp copies.

Our first book together finally has wings.

Fly, little book, fly!

Author & Illustrator Interview

Jeffery and I recently interviewed each other about You Can Fly.

Jeffery: Why did you want to write this book?

Carole: The Tuskegee Airmen's saga moved me personally. It is powerful—historically, politically and emotionally. I thought the story begged for a poetic treatment.

Carole: You were a serious gamer growing up. Did gaming influence how you illustrated the battle scenes?

Jeffery: Yes, absolutely. I had lots of residual visual references from battles across galaxies. I played everything from Halo to Call of Duty.

Jeffery: When did you first notice my artistic talent?

Carole: Your kindergarten teacher prodded you to finish coloring and work up to potential. By third grade, I was concerned that you were doodling planes, cars, weapons and anime characters in your notebook rather than paying attention.

Around middle school, I realized that your drawings were good. I put you in studio art classes, starting with cartooning. By high school, you were taking private art lessons with the assistant principal who became a mentor.

Carole: What is your favorite illustration from the book?

Jeffery: My favorite is of the boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. It's a closeup scene from their historic rematch.

Jeffery: What's yours?

Carole: The one where two planes on a mission have bombed an enemy aircraft. The explosion is so animated; like a comic book.

Jeffery: What is your favorite poem from the book?

Carole: It's "Head to the Sky," the first poem in the book and also the first that I wrote—early on when the project was envisioned as a picture book. "Head to the Sky" reflects the power of a dream fueled by self-determination.

Carole: Tell me about your first flight.

Jeffery: I had a window seat and was looking outside. As the plane sped down the runway, I said, "We're blasting off!"

Carole: That was hilarious. Well, your career as a children's book illustrator is off to a flying start. How did it feel when you first saw the printed book?

Jeffery: Like a child at Christmas.

From the promotional copy:

I WANT YOU! says the poster of Uncle Sam. But if you’re a young black man in 1940, he doesn’t want you in the cockpit of a war plane. Yet you are determined not to let that stop your dream of flying.

So when you hear of a civilian pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute, you leap at the chance. Soon you are learning engineering and mechanics, how to communicate in code, how to read a map. At last the day you’ve longed for is here: you are flying!

From training days in Alabama to combat on the front lines in Europe, this is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the groundbreaking African-American pilots of World War II.

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24. New Voice: Kurt Dinan on Don't Get Caught

Educator's Guide
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kurt Dinan is the first-time author of Don't Get Caught (Sourcebooks Fire, 2016). From the promotional copy:

10:00 tonight at the water tower. Tell no one. -Chaos Club

When Max receives a mysterious invite from the untraceable, epic prank-pulling Chaos Club, he has to ask: why him?

After all, he's Mr. 2.5 GPA, Mr. No Social Life. He's Just Max. And his favorite heist movies have taught him this situation calls for Rule #4: Be suspicious. But it's also his one shot to leave Just Max in the dust...

Yeah, not so much. Max and four fellow students-who also received invites-are standing on the newly defaced water tower when campus security "catches" them. Definitely a setup. And this time, Max has had enough. 

It's time for Rule #7: Always get payback.

Let the prank war begin.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

Having a full-time teaching job, papers to grade, and four children under the age of ten, let's just say that writing time (or any free time for that matter) is pretty sparse. So basically, I'm a anytime/anywhere possible type of writer.

I write in the mornings before my students arrive, on my lunch break, in the fifteen minutes before I head home to get the kids, during my kids' practices, or in the time after the kids go to bed if I'm not too tired and my brain is still functioning.

It can be a very piecemeal process, but I'm not too hard on myself and have a very realistic goal--500 words a day. When I get that finished, I don't stress out about my writing the rest of the day.

That's nice in that it allows me to focus my efforts and energy in other places they are needed.

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

Follow @kurtdinan on Twitter
Other writers have good-naturedly ribbed me for having a secret "in" to the world of teenagers, and I suppose I do. I'm surrounded by them all day, and I hear their conversations, their worries, their humor, etc. I get to use all of that when I'm writing.

Being a writer has helped me immensely in the classroom though because kids love my honesty about how hard writing can be, about revision and brainstorming techniques I've learned, and about how you want to write something you're proud of, not just something you've finished.

 Basically, I'm not just someone forcing them to write, I'm someone going through a lot of the same struggles they are, and a lot of them appreciate that.

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