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conversations, publishing information, writer resources & inspiration, bookseller-librarian-teacher appreciation, children's-YA book news & author outreach

Updated: 2017-11-22T18:48:56.085-06:00


Book Trailer: The People Shall Continue by Simon Ortiz, illustrated by Sharol Graves


By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Cynsations is going on hiatus for the rest of the week. We'll be back on Nov. 27.

Happy feasting to those who do so at this time of year!

Check out the book trailer  for The People Shall Continue by Simon Ortiz, illustrated by Sharol Graves (Lee & Low).

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Cynsational News


By Cynthia Leitich Smith,Gayleen Rabakukk & Robin Galbraithfor CynsationsPicture Book Month: "Every day in November, there is a new post from a picture book champion," explaining why they think picture books are important. This initiative was founded by author-storyteller Diane de Las Casas, who died earlier this year and is dearly missed.See 2017 posts by Picture Book Month champions (and more to come!):Laura Krauss Melmed, Donna Janell Bowman, Laura Rennert, Kimberly Willis Holt, Kelly Starling Lyons, Julie Segal-Walters, Muriel Feldshuh, Eric Ode, Betsy Bird, Dianne White, Brian Smith, Elizabeth O. Dulemba, Eliana de Las Casas.Author/Illustrator InterviewsJane Kurtz and Planet Jupiter by Adi Rule from the VCFA Launch Pad. Peek:“I’m constantly learning new craft skills. When I was revising Planet Jupiter (HarperCollins, 2017), it was the concept of microtension (including the book The Fire in Fiction [by Donald Maass, Writer’s Digest Books, 2009]) that handed out some great advice about how to make the reader uneasy and curious.”Five Questions for Malinda Lo by Katie Bircher from The Horn Book. Peek:“I find it interesting that authors of fantasy and science fiction novels are rarely asked if their books are based on their personal experiences, because all writing is based on personal experience.”Member Interview: Lynn Rowe Reed from Austin SCBWI. Peek:“I think my stubborn perseverance and work ethic are the things I’m most proud of. We all know how daunting the task of publishing is, and those of us who refuse to quit are definitely tough.”DiversityZetta on why Nice Is Not EnoughThere Is a Minefield and You Will Become a Demolitions Expert by Justina Ireland from CrazyQuiltEdi. Note: On women of color (and, by extention, Native women) raising their voices, however forcefully or gently, in the conversation of books for young readers. Peek:"It doesn’t really matter what you’re talking about, your words will be catalogued, critiqued, dismissed. People may smile and nod but what they’re really doing is considering their own opinion and response, their feelings over yours."See also When Women Speak: "Nice Is Not Enough" from Zetta Elliott and Laura Atkins at CrazyQuiltEdi. Note: Click links on preceding names to read. Peek from Laura:"As a White person who has made an effort to listen to POC friends about their experiences, and also taken part in an equity circle at my daughter’s school, I’ve experienced a shift as I’ve just started to recognize what White privilege is, how my life is defined by it, and how differently POC move through, and are treated by, our society. "Mostly, I'm aware of how much I don't know."Tips for Choosing Culturally Appropriate Books & Resources About Native Americans by Dr. Cathy Gutierrez-Gomez from Colorín Colorado. Peek:“Prepare units about specific tribes, rather than units about ‘Native Americans.’ ...Ideally, choose a tribe with a historical or contemporary role in the local community. Such a unit will provide children with culturally specific knowledge (pertaining to a single group) rather than over-generalized stereotypes.”Why Is Society Intent on Erasing Black People in Fantasy and Sci-fi’s Imaginary Worlds? by Ashley Nkadi from The Root. Peek:“In these fictional worlds, anything could happen: magic, dragons, travel through space and time. Anything, that is, except diversity. The more I read and watched the genres, the more I felt just the way I had at school. As if I did not belong.”Reading Recs for Classics by Amanda Rawson Hill from Thinking Through Our Fingers. Peek:“While there is something to be said with having students read books that they will be expected to know, we also need to continue to expand that list of books and bring it into the 21st century with relevant topics and diverse authors and characters.”Writing About Native Americans: A Diversity Conversation with Kara Stewart by Michelle Leonard from Th[...]

Survivors: Joy Preble on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children's-YA Author


Joy Preble, Heather Demetrios & Renee Watson at Texas Book Festival.By Cynthia Leitich Smithfor CynsationsIn children's-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field. Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success? Ha! Oh the bumps. So many bumps. Some have been the things that no author can control, such as an editor leaving in the middle of a project.With the Dreaming Anastasia series (Sourcebooks, 2009-2012), I had four different editors over a three-book series. As you can imagine, this kind of turnover is no one's friend, and not only because subsequent editors have to work with a series they didn't acquire and that probably isn't a good match for their tastes.It also meant that the only true continuity editor for the three-book saga was me. The first book had been an unplanned breakout--this extremely miraculous event that came from a combination of timing, luck, and an in-house publicist who happened to like me and decided to work very, very hard and savvy with me and on my behalf.Thus, book one sold very well and is still the book for which I'm best known.The initial plans for book two were focused and big. But when the publicist left just as book two was coming out, all those plans basically fell apart or didn't materialize, and so I had to figure out how to keep promoting the series in the ways I felt would be best. With Jenny Moss & Jennifer Ziegler at the Texas Library Association con.I realized that I could either moan about it all or try to do something. Make my own luck, my own connections. It wasn't perfect, but it kept me in the game.We all know the truth. It's tough to make any book a success without consistent and substantive publisher support.So much of what gets books noticed starts happening a year or more before publication and continues its game plan right up to publication.All those conference and book festival pitches, all that print promo, those personal notes to booksellers, the ads and the media whatevers, they add up.Without that support, it's a trickier thing.Trickier being a euphemism for "good luck to you."So I built my own support system with authors and librarians and booksellers. Because I might not be able to get that broader publicity, but I could still get my name and my books out there.This took many forms. I pitched panels and workshops to the numerous regional school librarian conferences around Texas, both individually and with fellow authors. I attended and networked at SCBWI conferences not only in Houston but also in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and more.I went to TLA each year, sometimes paid for by publishers, sometimes paid for by me.I supported other authors and independent bookstores because this business is about community, about supporting the art and the stories, about being part of the conversation.I contacted all the Houston YA authors I knew-- some debuts, some mid-listers like me, some NYTimes bestsellers and created a loosely structure author co-op we call the YAHOUs (YA Houston), designed to help us signal boost and support and pool our various opportunities.I said "yes" to as much as I could. I kept at it.I put my name out there.I pitched for school visits and did more librarian networking and developed programs to present.I kept up -- and still do--with many of the authors in my 2009 debut class.I also found my own niche--the things that work for me and my books and my skill set: Presenting workshops on craft and the writer life. School visits that are writing workshops or some hybrid that also includes talking about never giving up and tenacity. Keynote speeches when I get them. Author panels both as participant and moderator.I have come to grudging terms with the fact that some of the big-name festivals might never be offered to me for a variety of reasons. But many, many are.Lasting in this business means understanding when[...]

Guest Post: Beth Bacon & Marianne Murphy on Conveying Meaning With Meta Fiction & Concrete Poetry


By Beth Baconfor Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsThis is the third post in a series honoring reluctant readers.Writing conveys a full spectrum of experiences and emotions—but are there limits to what words alone can do? When digging deeper into the building blocks of literacy, you realize that letters and words are more than the ideas the represent. They’re physical entities too. Their shapes and designs can contain meaning. One way to reach emerging readers is with a visual approach to storytelling. Authors who explore the relationships between words and images have a rich set of tools at their disposal.Words can have shapes that enhance their meaning. Shapes and symbols can add new ideas to the words on the page. Young people today are in many ways highly visually literate.In my work, I use of imagery to help emerging readers make meaning. In this third article in my series for relucant readers I spoke with another author whose work employs visual elements to make meaning, Marianne Murphy. Marianne came up against some of the limitations of traditional writing conventions while working on a memoir about her childhood. Murphy turned to concrete poetry to squeeze more meaning out of our alphabet. The result is her new title, Bad Thoughts (Amazon Digital, 2017), which is now available as an ebook. Her unique use of of letters as visuals adds to the mood of the story. Her sentence design contributes to the voice. Perhaps more authors should take a visual approach to writing. The additional meaning conveyed by the imagery aids emerging readers in their quest for understanding. But more than that, it allows writers to express themselves in new ways. Marianne MurphyBeth Bacon: You’ve written a memoir about your struggles with OCD as a child. Why did you choose to use the concrete poetry form to convey the story?Marianne Murphy: I knew that I wanted to express my experience, because it was a very isolating time period for me and there isn’t a lot of narrative representation of childhood and adolescent OCD. But I was having a really hard time expressing my story in a traditional way, because that linear, logical, structured path is not how I was processing my thoughts at the time. I didn’t think people would be able to recognize their own experiences in my story if I forced the story into an uncomfortably linear narrative.It became clear to me that it had to be visual because some parts of the experience were indescribable through words alone, and I found that the chaos of concrete poetry helped me access and recall a lot of the rawness of the experience. The concrete poetry form sometimes utilizes the repetition of words to create a deconstruction of meaning, and I found that repetitiveness naturally reflected how my brain felt during the times when my OCD was really intense. Beth Bacon: Visual literacy is the ability to make meaning from images. Stories that present information visually can help emerging readers.Can you talk about how the visuals in your story make meaning?Marianne Murphy: One of the first visuals that came out while I was writing was the repeating Y to represent obsessive thoughts. It first occurs during the main character’s obsessive prayer, where the word “Sorry” deconstructs, and the Y’s break off and overwhelm the page. The sensation of abstract concepts being broken down into meaningless tasks and clouding my focus was one of the most exasperating and indescribable parts of OCD, and for me there wasn’t a clear way to express that sensation through words alone. I think some concepts need to be conveyed visually, and some people absolutely find it easier to relate and project their own experience onto a visual narrative. A page of concrete poetry from Bad Thoughts.Beth Bacon: You say you weren’t a reluctant reader as a child. What was your relationship with books when you were young? How often did you read, what types of books, and why? Did you perceive your readin[...]

Guest Post: Beth Bacon & Editor Tracey Keevan on Encouraging Reluctant Readers


by Beth Baconfor Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsEditor Tracey KeevanThis is the second post in a series honoring reluctant readers.Two out of three fourth graders in the United States failed to read with proficiency, according to a 2015 Kids Count survey.The fundamental skill of reading is not an easy one to master.Writers, editors and educators need new ways of addressing this humbling fact.In the second installment of my series about reluctant readers, I ask: What does it take to create a book that appeals to emerging and reluctant readers? And who better to ask than the editor of some of the most beloved books—among reluctant readers as well as kids who enjoy books. Tracey Keevan is an executive editor at Disney-Hyperion. She has worked with a number of best-selling, award-winning authors and illustrators beloved by many struggling readers, including Mo Willems, Dan Santat, Laurie Keller, Charise Mericle Harper, Tony DiTerlizzi, Bryan Collier, and Nate Powell among others. Tracey herself is an Emmy-nominated writer whose children’s fiction has been featured on Nickelodeon as well as in books and magazines. Tracy’s perspective offers powerful insights into the art of reaching out and appealing to reluctant readers. Tracey Keevan: Reading a book has always felt a lot like running a race to me. Nervous anxiety hits my gut at the starting line. So far to go. So alone.So many people who will finish faster, easier, stronger than me. The first chapter, the first mile, sets that pace. I’m either in the zone, confident and charged, or I’m way out of the zone—struggling through each page, each tenth of a mile, wondering if I can make it to the end. Worse: wondering why I’m trying to make it to the end at all. The dreaded Quit Demon starts bouncing up and down on my shoulder: Quit. Quit. Quit.As an editor of books for kids and teens, I hunt for those “quit moments.” They need to be stomped all over.Those are the places that make or break a book for reluctant and emerging readers. It’s where the writer—that invisible voice on the sideline—needs to step up and cheer her head off: Go! Go! Go!Beth Bacon: When creating books for kids who struggle with reading, one can’t assume your audience is going to be an eager one. Humor is one strategy. Every kid loves to laugh.What writing techniques do you look for?Tracey Keevan: There is no magic formula, of course. Humor helps. Word choice helps.So do an active voice, authentic dialogue, relatable characters, and relevant themes. But I think the answer is more complex than story mechanics or book format. I think it’s an artist’s respect for the reader (especially the struggling one) that keeps her going. It’s choosing clarity over cleverness. It’s about trusting and inviting the reader to share in the storytelling. It’s about letting the reader know you’re in it together. Beth Bacon: When kids read a book, without struggling too much, and they’ve enjoyed themselves, that’s thrilling to me. I feel I’ve succeeded as a writer when kids want to read another book—any book—after they’ve finished mine. What’s your definition of success?Tracey Keevan: Success with all readers, to me, is a feeling of inclusion. When a reader is connected to the experience, she’ll power up the hills, sprint to finish, and carry that finisher’s medal with her for the next time. Beth Bacon: What was your experience with reading as a child? Tracey Keevan: Reading can be terrifying. I know. I was not a “book kid” in grade school or middle school. It was no mystery to me why, either. I was paralyzed with fear of failure while reading aloud in class. I struggled with spelling and sight word recognition—I still do today. And while I could usually parse out meaning when I was reading to myself, the embarrassment of sounding out words and being corrected in front of my classmates left me feeling insecure, a[...]

Guest Post: Beth Bacon on Honoring Reluctant Readers with Author & Illustrator Charles Johnson


By Beth Baconfor Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsThis post is the first in a series honoring reluctant readers.Reading is the closest thing we have to magic in the real world. Is there any other explanation for the way those small, squiggly symbols on the page transform into meaning in our minds? Scientists can provide technical explanations of the way our eyes and brains make reading happen. But I’m talking about the way a book can move us to tears or spur us to action. Reading conjures actual emotions. It transports us to places that are as real as any we’ve been to in person.Reading is enchantment. Writers, editors and educators have the honor of introducing this power to young people. But reading can be difficult to learn. Many children struggle to read or are reluctant to spend time with books. In this series on emerging readers, I spoke with editors, authors and educators who are thinking deeply about the issues our young people face when learning to read.Charles Johnson with his grandson and daughterAuthor, illustrator, teacher and philosopher Charles Johnson who recently wrote and illustrated a series for children, The Adventures of Emery Jones Boy Science Wonder (Libertary Company, 2015).Johnson is a creative writing professor (emeritus) at University of Washington and received the National Book Award for Middle Passage (Scribner, 1998). He also is a preeminent voice on literature and race and a practicing Buddhist who’s written many books about the philosophy. Beth Bacon: You’ve written a couple of children's books. Can you talk about your motivations? Did you have someone in mind when you wrote them?Charles Johnson: According to a study by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of the 3,200 children's books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, and in 2012 only 3 percent of children's books published in America had "significant African or African-American content."And, of course, few of these books were produced by black American authors and illustrators.As both a storyteller and a cartoonist/illustrator, part of my motivation is obviously to correct this dearth of books for children of color to read.At the time my daughter Elisheba and I co-authored Bending Time and The Hard Problem, the first two books in The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder series, we had my grandson Emery in mind—that's where the protagonist's first name comes from. I care very much about this issue of reading material for our children. You know, of course, about the special issue of The American Book Review (September/October 2014) that I guest-edited titled, "The Color of Children's Literature," because you kindly reviewed Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America, by my friend, the prolific, award-winning children's book author Tonya Bolden (Abrams, 2014).Something else—perhaps the most important thing of all about the Emery Jones books—is that we want to get kids around middle school age interested in STEM learning and fields. To see the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math as exciting and fun.So Emery in the books is a scientific whiz kid who finds himself flung into different adventures—saving a bully who gets stuck in the prehistoric period, saving the world from aliens and AI robots gone amuck in the second book.In the next book we do, he'll save the future from a disaster. As a writing instructor, do believe there is a difference in writing for children who struggle to read and writing for those who like to read?Yes, I think there is a difference. And you know what? Many adults today struggle to read.The lack of literacy is a well-documented and very serious problem, especially for high school students who can't read a newspaper op-ed and tell you what the argument is, or adults who can't read and understand the instructions on their prescription medication.Humanities Washington has a[...]

Cynsations News


By Cynthia Leitich Smith,Gayleen Rabakukk & Robin Galbraithfor CynsationsAuthor/Illustrator InterviewsCherie Dimaline On Ersaure, the Power of Story, and The Marrow Thieves by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek:“I very strongly believe that with the current state of the world, one of the best options we have as the human race is to start globally valuing the traditional and ecological knowledges that are held by the original inhabitants of the land.”A Story of Images for a Story by Sara Kahn from YouTube. Peek:“I always wait and read the story at a good time because this is when I get the main images in my mind.”Meet National Book Award Finalist Ibi Zoboi by Emily Temple from LitHub. Peek:“N.K. Jemisin told me to get robots: a Roomba, a dishwasher, a crockpot. These would allow me the physical energy and time to get words down on the page.”Tackling the Personal Narrative, Part 2 by Melissa Stewart from Celebrate Science. Peek: Explores Sarah Albee’s Cynsations post as a tool for teaching personal narrative essays.“The idea of describing what’s on my desk seems boring to me. After all, I see those items every single day. But am I curious to know what’s on another writer’s desk? You bet! ...Young writers, many of whom have read Sarah’s wonderful books, will be curious too.”7 Questions For: Author Katherine Applegate by Robert Kent from Middle Grade Ninja. Peek:“I aim for two hours a day writing and read as much as I can, whenever I can. It’s so important to connect with work daily, if possible, even if it’s only for five minutes.”What Really Matters by Tillie Walden from Diversity in YA. Peek:“I tell them about moments in Spinning (First Second, 2017), about how I knew I was gay when I was five...about how art gave me a connection to myself and a career at the same time. And I talk about how publishing a memoir is so healing because it lets others hold your memories with you.” DiversityWe Need Diverse Books by Linda Sue Park. Peek:“Donations to WNDB have enabled us to fund grants for 25 publishing internships over the past three years. Fully half of those interns have gone on to obtain full-time jobs in publishing, and they’re already bringing greater diversity to children’s books, promoting affirmation and empathy for all kids.”We Need Diverse Series by Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan from Nerdy Book Club. Peek:“The characters in series books become part of our lives for many weeks or even months. Readers get to know the characters in series books deeply as they experience many situations and life circumstances together. Here are ten great series that have diverse characters.”The Lotterys Plus One is the Queer Happily-Ever-After We Deserve by Alyssa Eleanor Ross from BookRiot. Peek:“That means what we get from the Lotterys is a happily-ever-after—not one where everything is always perfect, but one where a queer family faces messy, mundane, heartbreaking, hilarious, entirely normal problems. It’s the kind of happily-ever-after that’s really just the beginning.”Writing CraftTies that Bind and Define – The Family of Your Protagonist by John J. Kelley from Writer Unboxed. Peek:“...depictions of family can offer a window into a protagonist’s core character. ... fictional families, not unlike real ones, can challenge a protagonist unlike any other external or internal force.”The Time It Costs to Write by Natalia Sylvester from Writer Unboxed. Peek:“Writers are always seeking it out, longing for more of it, waiting for a window of its uninterrupted bliss to present itself, or chasing it in tiny bits, catching whatever we can of it, in hopes of making what we can with it.”Confessions of a Recovering Plotter by Anna Elliott from Writer Unboxed. Peek:“After writing several books, though, I noticed something: no matter how much I o[...]

Guest Post: Author Deborah Lytton & Agent Stacey Glick on Middle Grade Series Proposals


By Deborah Lytton for Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsThanks to Gayleen and Cyn for having us on Cynsations. It’s always such a pleasure to be here!Today, I have asked my agent and friend, Stacey Glick to join me to discuss the Middle Grade series proposal.Stacey is Vice President at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret Literary Management and has been my agent for over 12 years. Stacey and I share a background as child actors, although we never worked together as kids because she was on the East Coast and I was on the West Coast. Hi Stacey, thanks for chatting with me today.Stacey: So happy to be here! I’m thrilled to talk about Debby, one of my favorite people, and her books!Deborah: Thanks, Stacey. You’re one of my favorite people, too. Before we discuss books though, we have to talk about being child actors. (I’m including our acting headshots here. I really love my 80’s red vest and tie!)How do you think your acting background helped you become a literary agent?Deborah's acting headshotStacey: I think my ability to network and schmooze with almost anyone stems from my experiences as a child actor.That skill has served me very well in my almost 20 years as a book agent!Deborah: That’s so true! Speaking about books, it’s so exciting to see the first book in the Ruby Starr (Sourcebooks, 2017) series released.Creating the series proposal was such a collaborative process between us and the proposal was an effective selling tool for the manuscript.Why do you think it helps so much?Stacey: I think when you are talking about a series with a protagonist who has a big personality, like Ruby or Junie B. Jones (by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus, Random House), it’s important to map out not only the plots for the proposed books in the series, but also the characters and the arcs they will follow throughout the series. Deborah: The first step was to come up with an idea for a book that could extend into multiple stand-alone books.My other published books have been stand-alone titles, and I have also written some manuscripts for trilogies, but a series is really different from a trilogy where you leave certain storylines unfinished to extend the threads through the second and third books. With a series, each book stands alone and is connected through the character and the setting.What do you think the important differences are?Stacey: I think it’s just what you said. A series like Ruby Starr is really about a group of characters working through a very different story and set of circumstances in each book. A duology or trilogy is really one story that continues over the course of two or three books. Stacey's acting headshotDeborah: Once I had the idea for the series, I wrote the complete manuscript for Book 1.Then after you read it, you suggested writing a proposal as well. I remember it was really helpful when you sent me an outline for the proposal because it gave me an idea of what I needed to include.There was a short synopsis of the series, a character list, a list of multiple other stories, and then a section about me.If we were pitching the series again, would you add anything to the proposal? Stacey: No, I think the proposal we put together was really perfect to show the scope of the series and your ability to write it. All of the components put together made for a very strong sales pitch for the series. Deborah: You told me that I could be creative within the format and change things around if I wanted to convey the personality of my series but still create something that editors would be able to read easily.The most flexible section was the information about the book. I used some of the wording from the manuscript and then shared my vision for the market age range for the book. I also added a section about similar books.Why do editors and agents like to hear comparisons in order to consider a book?Stac[...]

Guest Post: Don Tate on Proactive Promotion & Strong As Sandow


By Don Tatefor Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsMy newest book babe, Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth (Charlesbridge, 2017), published earlier this fall.To welcome “Sandow” into the world and to provide my new book babe with tools needed to flourish, I planned a full marketing blitz.Marketing a new book is a shared effort between a book’s creators and its publisher. My publisher supported our book in many ways. For instance, they sent me to various conferences to promote and sign “Sandow.” But I want to be sure I do my part, too.Here is a look at how I launched Strong As Sandow into the world:Stand-alone Website: StrongmanSandow.comSources for telling Sandow’s story were like a gold mine of visual gems.There were books, photographs, collectible items, old-time physical culture magazines. Unlike previous subjects I’d written about—Bill Traylor, George Moses Horton, people who were enslaved and therefore few records and/or photographs available— there was a good deal of visual information out there on Eugen Sandow.In the end, however, much of the research got chopped out, left on the cutting board. With a stand-alone website, I could include some of those resources that didn’t make the book. What a great tool for teachers and librarians.Strongman Sandow websiteFriend Erik Niells of Square Bear Studio, created the site using Wordpress. Basically, he created a shell of a site that I could easily personalize and update. Adding new information is as simple as creating a new blog post.On the site, I celebrate receiving author copies of Strong As Sandow. I talk about other picture books on the topic of strongmen . I discuss the process of creating the book’s cover. And I include many of the photos and videos that I used to bring the story to life.The site is linked from my main website, and I advertise it on my bookmark swag.In addition to the website, I created a Pinterest page with even more visual references.Curriculum GuideMy publisher had a very nice discussion guide created as a free download. It is aligned to the Common Core, nationwide academic standards used in classrooms. Having a Common Core-aligned guide adds value to your book.I loved the guide, but I also hired Debbie Gonzales of  Guides by Debbie to create a second educator’s guide. It is Common Core aligned, too, but also incorporates a lot of what I’ve offered on the stand-alone site—making the site and the guide an extra nice pairing with the book.My favorite part of Debbie’s guide is the fitness plan, where kids can log their weekly exercise goals and accomplishments. We made the guide available on Sandow’s launch day and promoted it heavily.Educator's guide from Guides by DebbieBook Teaser & TrailerBy far, the fitness video was the most fun aspect of my Sandow marketing efforts. I’d already created a short teaser for the book using iMovie. For that video, I used the original art, panning and zooming, in what is called the “Ken Burns effect.” For drama, I used royalty free music found on the web. And I recruited my friend, Maggie Gallant, to record a voiceover.We released the the teaser several months ahead of publication day to create anticipation. allowfullscreen="" class="YOUTUBE-iframe-video" data-thumbnail-src="" frameborder="0" height="266" src="" width="320">The trailer turned out nice, but I also wanted a longer video where I could go deeper into Sandow’s story, emphasize the importance of exercise, while highlighting my own fitness journey—especially since I participated in natural bodybuilding myself many years ago!For this, I commissioned Kirsten Cappy of Curious City. She and her husband, Mark Mattos, flew to Austin where I live.[...]

Survivors: G. Neri on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children's-YA Author


Learn more about G. Neri.By Cynthia Leitich Smithfor CynsationsIn children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field. Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?This November marks a month of many momentous events in my life: It was ten years ago in November 2007, that my first book, Chess Rumble, was published by Lee and Low. This November, my tenth book in ten years comes out: Tru & Nelle: A Christmas Tale (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). And also this November, I will be in the middle of the biggest and most exciting research trip of my writing career: to the bottom of the world, in Antarctica!That's a lot of big milestones for someone who never planned on being an author.Twenty years ago, not only did I not think it possible, it wasn't even a speck of a notion in my brain that this was something I would do or could do. So extreme of an idea was it that if I was able talk to myself from 20 years ago and show him (me) the books I'd written and the places I'd traveled because of it, I'm pretty sure he would think I was high!I am an accidental writer in every respect and I have an unexpected career because of it.How have I survived this long? My training was in filmmaking, which taught me storytelling and endurance. I was part of an innovative entrepreneurial program in college, which taught me the art of branding, pitching and raising money. I was head of production for two internet design agencies which taught me budgets and schedules, and planning for success. My time in animation taught me that story production was all about momentum and energy.And I'm stubborn as hell and won't give up.I have had many ups and downs in this unexpected journey into writing.While I have ten books in the can and several projects I am working on in different capacities, I also have a good four novels with drafts that I had to abandon for reasons I don't have time to go into.I have lost several editors I loved due to layoffs or babies. I've had a couple publishing experiences turn ugly to the point I almost quit.I've had many doubts as to my worth as a writer, knowing full well that my refusal to write only one kind of book keeps me away from the bestseller list.On the plus side, nobody has ever told me what to write, I have an agent who sells whatever I give him, and I get to explore different genres between novels, graphic novels and picture books for audiences of different ages, classes and races.I may not ever get rich from it, but I am a working writer with a fairly steady income and a continuing source of travel around the U.S. to speak at schools, libraries and conferences. But the thing that really keeps me going is the readers. Those kids, teachers and librarians that I meet along the way, that's where the magic happens. It keeps my heart pure, sparks my imagination and beats down the cynicism.From the beginning, because my books spoke to urban kids, reluctant readers, non-readers, and especially boys, I started getting invited to come speak at schools. It reached a tipping point early on where I didn't have to do anything but say yes-- which seemed crazy to me since I wasn't, like, famous or anything.But I was able to connect with my niche and I've traveled all over the country (and sometimes to other countries) to tell my story and the stories of others that inspire my books. It's is a direct and deep connection. The people and places I visit and the real life stories I stumble across feed my inspiration and motivation. They take me to the most unexpected places in writing. I follow my heart, not the money.Anytime I ever tried to follow the money didn't end well. I can only do what my gut tells me. It won't ma[...]

Cover Reveal: Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don't Do Bedtime


By Gayleen Rabakukkfor Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsDebut author Cate Berry interviews illustrator Charles Santoso about Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don't Do Bedtime! (Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins, May 2018)Cate: Hi, Charles! I'm here with Penguin and Tiny Shrimp to talk about—Penguin: Hey, Charles! Love the cover, but what's with the pajamas? Tiny Shrimp: We don't do bedtime, Charles. (Although I love my nightcap and I'm keeping it.)Cate: Guys! Let's slow down here! I want to talk about the cover for our new book Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don't Do Bedtime! (J'dore, Swoon, Applause!).Charles: Hi, Cate! Hello, Penguin! Hello, Tiny Shrimp! Thank you for the kind words about my work.Cate: You're such a versatile illustrator. I've fan-girled over your books I Don't Like Koala (by Sean Ferrell, Atheneum, 2015), Ida Always (by Caron Levis, Atheneum, 2016) and Peanut Butter and Brains (by Joe McGee, Abrams, 2015) just to name a few.You don't seem afraid to try new styles.Can you talk about this as it relates to our book and the cover? Charles: Yes, I’m weird like that. I always try different styles for different books I'm illustrating.I try to "listen" to the story carefully and let my gut feelings guide me towards finding the right style for the book. I want to make sure the words and illustrations blend in and compliment each other as much as possible. It’s all about the story!Cate: Yes! It's always about the story! Hey, speaking of story, can we get a glimpse into the illustrator's life and peek at your studio?Penguin: Yes!Tiny Shrimp: Ooooo, where the magic happens.Charles: Here you go. My other pictures are unfortunately super messy.Charles's studioCate: Hey, don't knock messy. I love how sly Penguin and Tiny Shrimp's expressions are on the cover. There is so much there. They seem indignant—Penguin: We are indignant. We're not sleeping.Tiny Shrimp: Dial back the big words, lady.Charles: There you go, Cate! I told you they would evolve on their own!.Cate: It sure seems so! The cover makes me laugh. When I teach, I like showing how humor is a mix of something serious with something silly. You have to find the balance. Does this come into play with illustrating for you? Charles: I have to care about the characters. When I said that I "listened" to the story, I really meant knowing how both characters sound for me personally.Both Penguin and Tiny Shrimp say things that might be funny to us but they are 100 percent sincere! So I have to make sure I'm portraying them genuinely— as close to their unique characters and personalities as I hear and see them in my mind.Cate: That's so neat. I love what you say about listening. I feel that's true with the whole picture book making process. It's like a duet at first, writer and illustrator. I'm writing and discovering these characters. And then you listen and have them come to life through your art. Then it's a quartet when the editor and art director collaborate with us. Making picture books is so amazing.Penguin: Hey, let's get back to basics!Tiny Shrimp: Did he ever answer about the pajamas?Cate: Oh! You're right, Tiny Shrimp! Let's talk about those adorable red striped pajamas.I love the entire color palette throughout the book. Can you talk a little about the choices you made?Charles: Penguin and Tiny Shrimp love things that are fun! Full of energy! But, I did want them to go to sleep too, so I added more night colours to balance things out.Cate: What else should we know about the cover? Charles: The illustrations are done digitally but with the same attention to detail as I normally do with traditional media. It was time consuming, but I’m happy with the result.Cate: I'd love to hear about something that's unique to our book. Something you discovered along the way that shows up on the co[...]

Cynsations News


By Cynthia Leitich Smith,Gayleen Rabakukk & Robin Galbraithfor CynsationsAuthor/ Illustrator InterviewsMeet National Book Award Finalist Rita Williams-Garcia by Emily Temple from Lit Hub. Peek:“How do you tackle writer’s block? I box, knit, write, and read. Physicality helps to jar me out of my mental state. It shakes things free.”An Interview with Alan Gratz, Author of Ban This Book by Dorian Cirrone from From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. Peek:“...the ALA thinks that 85-95 percent of books challenged or banned each year go unreported. 85-95 percent!... That means that thousands more books just disappear from shelves every year, and no one hears about them because no one makes a stink about them.”Pretty Peacock! Big Book! by Bethany Hegedus from Brave Tutu. Peek:“...why small moments matter: simple ah-ha's, breaths in, breaths released, moments spent engaged deeply in our work and with our loved ones. A life well lived is is spent moment to moment. It's the moment that matters.”April Pulley Sayre and Full of Fall by Adi Rule from WCYA The Launch Pad From Vermont College of Fine Arts. Peek:“I’m unusually good at coming up with titles and poetic and alliterative language. I think it’s like a muscle, though, and improves with use. Despite my early signs of talent in this area, it also helps that I just goof around and have done this work for over twenty years.”Meet National Book Award Finalist Erika L. Sánchez by Emily Temple from Lit Hub. Peek:"I think poets often make strong prose writers because we pay obsessive attention to image, rhythm, and sentence structure. I write prose very slowly because of this. In fact, I printed out the first draft of the novel and rewrote it entirely."Interview: Dianne White on Teaching, Learning & Books from The Booking Biz. Peek:“I definitely didn’t imagine a career as a children’s book author. It was really my experience as a classroom teacher that introduced me to a world of children’s books I hadn’t realized existed.”Writing About Addiction for Kids by Kate Messner from School Library Journal. Peek:"Heroin addiction wasn’t something that happened in my upper middle-class neighborhood...Looking back, I’m ashamed of that reaction. It embodies nearly every stereotype about who’s affected by the opioid epidemic, when in reality, the crisis is affecting all kinds of families, including the one next door."Diversity10 Ways to Be An Anti-Racist Reader by Laura Sackton from BookRiot. Peek: “...but there are lots of other ways you can weave racial justice into your reading life. From using books to help you navigate hard conversations about race to providing the kids in your life with diverse books, here are ten suggestions on how to be an anti-racist reader.”The Importance of “Mirror Books” in the Classroom by Anna Nardelli from Lee & Low Blog. Peek: “Mirror books give children the chance to see a representation of themselves in a book. For some children, this is not a common occurrence, but when it happens it lets them know that this world is full of people who are just like them. Window books give children another outlook on the world.”Writing Cross-Culturally Workshop March 15-19, 2018 from Madcap Retreats & We Need Diverse Books. Faculty includes Laurie Halse Anderson, Marie Lu and other authors. Scholarships are available for writers from "marginalized" communities. Application deadline is Nov. 15.#IndigenousReads by Indigenous Writers: A Children’s Reading List from Medium. Peek: "Indigenous people are very much a part of today’s society. With their stories, Indigenous writers share the range of their lives, past and present....curated by The Conscious Kid Library and American Indians in [...]

Survivors: Uma Krishnaswami on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children's Author


Learn more about Uma Krishnaswami.By Cynthia Leitich Smithfor CynsationsIn children's-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field. Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success? I was a writer before I knew it.When I was a child growing up in India, I read just about all the time and in between books, I'd dash off stories and poems and little fragments of stuff that came right out of my solemn little heart.Fast-forward twenty years from those early masterpieces to a graduate degree, a husband, a home in suburban Washington D.C., a new baby, and a renewed yearning to write. My first effort at a children's book was swiftly accepted, and then quickly orphaned when the acquiring editor left the publishing house. So that was a bump right away.Then the publication of that first book was followed by a year or so of rejections, which felt bumpy but, in retrospect, constituted a kind of schooling. I started getting better and better at reading those letters, at decoding what they seemed to be saying to me. I learned to be grateful for the personal rejections in my burgeoning collection.In fact, I became something of a curatorial expert at rejection letters. I even wrote one of my own. (See For Writers and scroll to the bottom of the page.)And I kept on writing. I took a class here and there.I wrote magazine stories and pretty soon some of them began to get published.Then the wonderful Diantha Thorpe at Linnet Books/The Shoe String Press in Connecticut accepted my traditional story collection, The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha (1996, re-released by August House, 2006).Diantha was a woman of tact and skill and an amazing editor. She was wise and knowledgeable and so very kind. I learned so much from her!At the same time, I came to treat the traditional retold tale as an apprenticeship in plot. And most of all, I kept on writing. If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why? One thing for sure. I'd let go my precious intentions for my work faster than I did.I'd be bolder. I'd speak up more.I used to attend children's book events and feel quite intimidated by the giants in the field, I think especially because, for many years, I wasn't seeing any writers of color among them.In all, I'd probably do more or less what I did, but I'd be more courageous about it. I'd trust my own instincts more than I did. I had to learn to do that, and sometimes it was a steep learning curve.For one thing, everyone kept telling me about the so-called "universal story," the structure that our brains are supposedly wired to recognize. Study the Joseph Campbell model, they said.I did, quite earnestly, but something always felt wrong to me. I didn't have the vocabulary at the time to express that discomfort in a way that anyone else might have understood.Only later, when I read folklorists' critiques of Campbell, did I understand my own gut reactions. If I could do it over, I'd want to speed up the understanding and deepen the confidence.The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children's-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why? One huge change that I see is a long process that has culminated in the present furious public conversation about diversity, especially in YA. It's fierce and impassioned and, like so much else in the online world, it can wear you down.Sometimes I get impatient with it, but in all I think it's good, because it has forced publishers and reviewers to take notice.It's a groundswell[...]

New Cynsations Reporter: Melanie J. Fishbane


By Cynthia Leitich Smithfor CynsationsMelanie J. Fishbane joins the Cynsations team as a reporter covering children's-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news originating in Canada.Melanie J. Fishbane holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an M.A. in History from Concordia University.With over seventeen years' experience in children's publishing, she lectures internationally on children's literature. A freelance writer and social media consultant, her work can be found in magazines, such as The Quill & Quire. Melanie also loves writing essays and her first one, "My Pen Shall Heal, Not Hurt": Writing as Therapy in L.M. Montgomery's Rilla of Ingleside and The Blythes Are Quoted," is included in L.M. Montgomery's Rainbow Valleys: The Ontario Years 1911-1942 (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015). And, her short story, "The New Girl," was published in the Zoetic NonBinary Review. Her first YA novel, Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery, was published by Penguin Teen in 2017.The novel was featured on the Huffington Post's Summer Reading List, a top pick for the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Kids Summer Reading pick and winner of Hamilton Public Library's Next Top Novel.Melanie lives in Toronto with her partner and their very entertaining cat, Merlin. Read an article by Melanie about Earning & Celebrating Success. Peek:"What had Lynne seen in my writing that made her think I could do this? Sure, I had been lecturing on L.M. Montgomery at conferences, and had wanted to write historical fiction for kids ever since I learned it was a thing you could do…but there had to be other, way more established authors, who could do this better than I."Lynne asked me to put together a proposal with an outline and a few sample chapters that would demonstrate my vision for the novel. Three months later, I sent a ten-page proposal and the first forty pages and waited. And waited."Follow Melanie on Twitter @MelanieFishbane and like her on Facebook. Photo by Ayelet Tsabari.[...]

Guest Post: Helena Echlin on How to Write (& Rewrite) a Tale of Suspense


By Helena Echlinfor Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsCynsations Note: Happy Halloween! Yesterday we heard from Gillian French about techniques for building suspense. Today Helena Echlin shares her take on giving your readers goosebumps. And if you looking for even more ways to scare your readers, check out this post from April Henry, one of the post popular Cynsations posts ever.And now, Helena.One rainy Friday the 13th a few years ago, I met up for a drink with fellow novelist Malena Watrous, and complained about how hard it was to get any writing done, since we both had jobs and young children.We recalled how we’d devoured books as kids and teens, and we wanted to write as a suspenseful story that would captivate readers in the same way. If I worked on a story like that, I was sure I’d find the time and energy to write it, whatever it took.Malena confided her idea: a girl wakes up and finds her older sister missing from their shared bedroom. The only people who can help the girl save her sister are the mean girls at school. I was hooked. Fueled by more cocktails, we plotted out the entire story that night.We’d both published novels already and we both taught fiction-writing.So, we naively figured, how hard could it be to dash off a suspenseful YA thriller in a few months? After the angst-filled life of the solo writer, it was enormously fun to get together in a café every week and rough out the next few scenes. We’d each draft a scene on our own, squeezing in a writing session while watching the kids in swim class or at the end of a long day, and then we’d bat the scenes back and forth until we were happy.We dashed off that first draft in a mere five months, convinced we had a bestseller on our hands. Then trusted readers looked over that draft and told us that our careers writing sensitive, nuanced, literary novels hadn’t prepared us to be thriller writers well as we thought.Yes, the novel was gripping in places, but in parts it fell flat. So we hunkered down and rewrote our book more times than I will ever admit.When it comes to writing a thriller, it’s essential to start with a gripping concept, but you can do much to amp up the suspense in successive drafts.Here’s what we learned about how to captivate your reader: Keep raising the stakes. The protagonist’s desire is what drives the plot in any novel, but in a suspense novel, it’s not enough if all the protagonist wants is to renovate his house in Nova Scotia or breathe new life into a middle-aged marriage.If you are writing a thriller, raise the stakes higher, and keep raising them. At first, our heroine Laurel wants to find her sister Ivy. Then she realizes she has to rescue Ivy from a kidnapper and she only has a week to do so.Then she realizes that Ivy’s kidnapper is an ancient demon. Side benefit: if you’re a busy mom who worries about things like what will your kids take for lunch other than cream cheese sandwiches, it is incredibly relaxing to write about a girl who has much bigger problems. Hide the truth in plain sight. Readers don’t like guessing the truth too soon. They want you to mislead them along with the protagonist. But they also like to feel that in retrospect there was a trail of clues.Your job is to plant these clues without drawing attention to them. In one of our early drafts, our villain kept offering the girls fleur-de-sel-topped caramels. Their taste was “a dreamy combination of butterscotch pudding and salted popcorn and as soon as you had finished one, you wanted just one more.”In successive drafts, it became clear that these caramels just screamed “demonic magic,” so we had to kill that darling. Avoid[...]

Guest Post: Gillian French on Hooking Readers: How to Build Suspense


By Gillian Frenchfor Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsCynsations Note: What scares you? Snakes? Spiders? Bigfoot? It's different for everyone. Likewise, authors use different approaches for building suspense. Our Halloween treat for you is a glimpse at techniques from two YA authors for upping the stakes. We suspect this is a topic you want to know more about, because the most popular Cynsations posts of all time is April Henry's guest post on adding tension.So,without further ado, Gillian French offers a plan to give your readers chills.And tomorrow Helena Eichlin will present a different route.Readers want to be hooked.We’re addicted to the rush of finding a story we want to live in, characters we want to bring along everywhere—the laundromat, the commute, lunchbreaks. Broken down to its basic components, any un-put-downable story has suspense at its core. Not just footsteps-coming-up-the-stairs goosebumps, but a genuine investment in how things are going to turn out for our protagonist, and, ideally, the more peripheral characters in the book as well.You recognize compelling suspense when you read it—but as a writer, how do you craft this vital element and keep your audience turning pages until the wee hours?Read on for three methods I swear by:Strong Character Motivation: This is your most important job as a storyteller: making readers care about your characters. The swiftest way to do that is to figure out what each character wants, an easily relatable standpoint. We all have something we’re working toward, something that matters to us, whether it’s being a loving mom or a world-class bungee jumper.See also April Henry on Just Add Tension.In my YA paranormal thriller, The Door to January (Islandport Press, 2017), protagonist Natalie wants to find out why she’s experiencing a reoccurring nightmare about an abandoned farmhouse in her former hometown. The stakes are high right out of the gate—her peace of mind and sanity are in jeopardy—making it easy for readers to invest in her pursuit of the truth. As the action unfolds and more danger is revealed, Natalie’s journey grows more perilous, and, with some luck, a page-turner is born.Even antagonistic characters need motivation. No matter how loathsome you want readers to find your villain, he or she needs to exist in your book as more than an awfulness-producing machine.As uncomfortable as it may be, cast yourself in that role; we’ve all had our unlovely moments, times when we’ve done things we regret. The difference is, when this character does something awful, they rarely regret it. You may be surprised by how freeing that is, and how much fun you can have playing devil’s advocate. Timing Is Everything: Knowing when to ratchet up the suspense in your book can be tricky. Randomly dropping in action-packed or frightening scenes just because you’re worried that you’ll lose your reader can be indicative of larger structural problems or issues with character development, and probably won’t be effective.Have faith that your audience will hang in there during the quieter sections of the book; that said, every scene must have a purpose, even if it’s a conversation between two characters over coffee. A plot needs to work as a machine with multiple moving parts, churning towards one conclusion. Easy to say, not so easy to do.Simply put, the “big” scenes should feel natural because the pages that came before built the foundation to support them.If you find that your plot sags in places, try charting out a simple chapter outline, highlighting gripping, standout scenes. If you see uneven gaps between them, you may want to[...]

Cynsations News


By Cynthia Leitich Smith,Gayleen Rabakukk & Robin Galbraithfor CynsationsAuthor InterviewsThe Boy, the Boat, and the Beast by Samantha M. Clark from Watch. Connect. Read by Mr. Schu. Peek:"Reading is how we learn, explore, experience, escape. When I was little, I moved around a lot....And with each move, I became a little more quiet and shy. But with stories in books, I could be anyone in any place. My world got so much bigger..."A Conversation with YA Author Francisco X. Stork from Latinxs in Kid Lit. Peek:"... if the story is to pull the reader into its world, then there must be something in the characters and something in the adversity which speaks to or touches the reader in a personal way. Often this is a recognition that what the characters are experiencing is something that the reader has experienced also."Author Interview: Louise Hawes by Jacqui Lipton from Authography. Peek:"Creativity is everywhere. It’s a giant river with tributaries leading off in countless, fascinating directions: for instance, I’ve always written poetry, just not necessarily for publication. I usually write a poem as an emotional touchstone for every chapter in my novels—it’s another form of free writing."Malinda Lo and Stephanie Perkins On Genre Hopping, Slasher Films, and More by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek from Stephanie Perkins:“But in a slasher, plot always comes first. There was no getting around that. So this was the first time that I had to outline the entire story, chapter by chapter, before writing a single word.”DiversityLooking Back: Musings On Diversity and Identity In Hispanic and Latin American Children's Literature by Alma Flor Ada from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: "When My Name is María Isabel (Atheneum) was published in 1993 I was delighted to see that many school...recognized that the significance that students’ names, whichever their origin, be respected...I had hoped (it) would be read as something that happened in the past, not currently. Unfortunately, this is not the case."Top 10 Signs of Hope for Own Voice Poetry by Margarita Engle from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: "Statistics from the Cooperative Center for Children’s Books are still dismal, but even though the quantity of diverse books has not increased much, the quality is exquisite. Pending debuts, such as The Poet X by Elizabeth Azevedo, are breathtaking."5 of the Best Children’s Books About Disabilities by Jaime Herndon from BookRiot. Peek: “Did you know that more than 12% of the U.S. population has a disability? While its not always easy to explain disability to children, books have a way of illustrating what really matters, and bringing it to their level.”Writing CraftWhat Interiority Is and Why It Matters by Mary Kole from Kid Lit. Peek: "I define the term 'interiority' as a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions and how we access them, whether it’s in first person or third, a picture book or a YA novel. It is any moment when you dive into your character’s head to add context, meaning, humor, or emotion to a situation."Three Tips for NaNoWriMo by Kim Ventrella from Middle Grade Minded.  Peek: “Don’t be discouraged by the crappiness of your writing. It happens to everyone all the time, even writers who have already sold books. NaNo is about getting that first (or fifth) novel under your belt.”Describing Your Character: How To Make Each Detail Count by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Readers need a way to connect with characters and the story. But like everything else with writing craft, it’s all in the how. If we don’t cho[...]

Guest Post: Sarah Albee on Brain Training: How Writers Must Learn to Shift Gears


By Sarah Albeefor Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsIf you write for kids, chances are you are working on several things at the same time. Most writers of books for kids don’t have the luxury of working on one project for years and years. We are short-order cooks, juggling multiple tasks at multiple stages.So how do we shift gears between projects?To answer this question, I thought I’d start by giving you a tour of what’s on my own highly-organized and tidy desk today:My laptop, which includes: a first draft of a book for first graders about gorillas (just completed and sent to my editor—Boo-yah! That’s now off my desk.) A proposal for a new book that I’m readying for my agent On my actual desk:Several books about female pirates (research for a new project). Copies of sketches for the Level Two I Can Read (History) book I wrote about Alexander Hamilton (Harper Collins, 2018). Fun fact: Unlike fiction picture book authors, who are usually not involved in the art phase of their books, we nonfiction authors get to review sketches for “historical accuracy.” My latest book, Poison (Crown Books for Young Readers), which came out Sept. 5. A hard copy of a manuscript I wrote about the California Gold Rush, just back from my editor. It’s covered with supportive and admiring editorial notes. I mean, I haven’t yet read her notes, but I’m sure she’ll tell me it’s practically perfect—and that I just need to sprinkle a little fairy dust on it. #sendfairydust “Third pages” for my book, Dog Days of History, coming out next March with National Geographic. I’ve looked at these images about 27 times by this point, as have platoons of people over at Nat Geo. And yet I just noticed “an issue” with the prehistoric cave painting on page 8. It shows hunters with their dogs, but it turns out those large stick-like things protruding from the hunters’ midsections are not swords. #heartfailure #pictureswap A folder entitled “Fall School Visits,” containing letters, contracts, and book order forms that I’m arranging with all the schools I’ll be visiting soon. A box that was just delivered, containing sixty pairs of spectacles and a large stuffed green beetle. Props for my fall school visits. So how do we shift gears from reviewing sketches, to writing proposals, to promoting our books, to visiting schools, to hopping on Twitter, to coming up with ideas, to entering that Deep Thinking Zone where we actually get our writing done? Let alone juggling family responsibilities and basic life-maintenance?It happened for me only after years of training my brain. I’ve learned not to wait for environmental conditions to be perfect. If I did, I’d never get a thing written.I’ve trained myself to enter the Deep Thinking Zone no matter where I am. I’ve written in bleacher seats. I’ve written in parking lots. I’ve written in airports.Which is not to say I don’t get sidetracked. Heaven knows I do. But that’s the beauty of our job. Distractions can turn into books.I usually get my best ideas for new books while I’m immersed in research for a different book. I’ll stumble over some cool fact or event that pulls me away from whatever I was researching. I’ve taught myself to harness those ideas, to write them down for later.For instance, as I was researching my book, Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up (Bloomsbury, 2010), I was struck by the fact that so many so-called “filth diseases” were vectored by insects: malaria, typhus, yellow fever, bubonic plague, etc.And I[...]

Guest Post: Karen Leggett Salutes the Children’s Africana Book Awards


By Karen Leggettfor Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsBrenda Randolph, founder and director of Africa Access, was raised in the segregated schools and libraries of Richmond, Virginia.“I was an avid reader, but I never encountered crude racism in children’s books," she said. "I remember being irritated by some comments, but I never came upon viciously racist sentiments or characters. I think my African American librarians protected me by careful book selection.”Randolph’s awareness jumped dramatically a few years after college. An African American mother strongly objected to The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle (by Hugh Lofting, J.B. Lippincott, 1922) at an elementary school in Brookline, Massachusetts where Randolph had recently been hired.“Lofting’s book was full of the crudest racism I had ever encountered," she said. "As a result of this incident, I read every book in the library that focused on Africa. I also read books about African Americans, Native Americans, Indigenous Australians and other people of color. I quickly discovered deep racism and ethnocentrism in many books, including award winners."  The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle was withdrawn for reevaluation from the Brookline school and Randolph was transformed into an activist librarian. She has devoted her career to making sure children, librarians and teachers have access to high quality books about African countries and people. After graduate school in African Studies at Howard University, Randolph founded Africa Access to help schools and libraries build quality collections on Africa. Brenda RandolphIn the early 1990s, Africa Access launched Africa Access Review, a free online database, of scholarly reviews of K-12 books on Africa.Today the Africa Access database has over 1500 annotations and reviews of children’s and young adult books. Africa Access also provides online bibliographies of recommended picture books, chapter books, award winners and new adult books – “accurate, balanced books that can change and expand what we know, think and feel about Africa.”Additionally, one can also find links to lessons and other resources for teaching and learning about Africa on the Africa Access website.In 1991, Africa Access in collaboration with the African Studies Association Outreach Council created the Children’s Africana Book Awards (CABA) to recognize authors and illustrators of outstanding books on Africa for young people. The first award was presented in 1992 to David Anderson and illustrator Kathleen Wilson for The Origins of Life on Earth, A Yoruba Creation Story (Sights Production, 1991). An image from that book became the seal for CABA.  African studies and children’s literature scholars make up the selection committee for CABA.The judges read 30 to 40 books a year, nominated by publishers and copyrighted in the year preceding the awards ceremony.Eligible books must be available in English in the United States. Books with content primarily about African Americans and other parts of the African diaspora are not eligible. The awards are presented in two categories: Young Children and Older Readers. The CABA competition is open to authors and illustrators of all ethnic backgrounds.The selection juries (which always include Africans and African Americans) evaluate books on the basis of accuracy, balance, and authenticity.“Research is key,” Randolph said. “CABA juries are looking for books that reflect in-depth knowledge of places and people in Africa.”The number of awards varies each year depending on the qual[...]

Survivors: Alex Flinn on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing YA Author


Learn more about Alex Flinn.By Cynthia Leitich Smithfor CynsationsIn children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?My first five books were realistic "problem" fiction. This was very much in vogue when my first two were published, but it became less "hot" as my career went on.I feel like, in the early years of YA, it was assumed that YA fiction would mostly be sold to schools. But, as time went on, there were these books that sold in bookstores, and it wasn't good enough just to sell to school and library.They were not genres I wrote. They were mostly two genres, chick lit and fantasy. I have no real ability in chick lit, and I'm not a high fantasy person either, though I like light fantasy, the type of books that take place in the real world, but something magical happens.At one point, I asked my publisher why my books weren't being promoted, and they said they only promoted chick lit and fantasy to bookstores because they were the types of books that sold in bookstores. I was frustrated, but when I had an impulsive idea for a fantasy book (a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, set in modern times, from the Beast's point of view), I embraced it.Thus, Beastly (HarperCollins, 2007) was born.I feel that this is what kept me going. Most of my fellow authors who strictly stuck to one genre aren't publishing anymore. It was sort of scary to make this switch, because I had a following in realistic, and my editor was really surprised, but I feel like I would not still be published, had I not switched at that point. I think it is important to have a "brand," like don't write one mystery and one romance and one little kid book, etc., but once you have a few, you can branch out. If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?I would not worry so much about individual reviews of my books. I used to obsess over them. I would know that, if you write something provocative, not everyone is going to like it. It's sort of like comedy -- you have to be willing to offend someone.My first review of my first book, Breathing Underwater (HarperCollins, 2001), was really awful. The standout line was, "Teens may overlook its major flaws."I was devastated. But, know what? They did overlook those flaws. That book did really, really well. It was embraced by teachers and librarians and even bookstores. It is still published and assigned in schools almost seventeen years later, and I still get mail about it. Hundreds of young women have left their abusive boyfriends because of Breathing Underwater, so yes, Anonymous Reviewer Whom I May Not Even Realize I've Met, they did overlook those "major flaws."I love getting reviewed, love that people care enough to review my books -- thank goodness! But I think sometimes, a reviewer just won't be the right reader for your book. They won't get you.Like, maybe that reviewer didn't know what to make of me because I was writing about dating violence from the abuser's viewpoint.As an author becomes more established, I think publications know, "Hey, this reviewer loves Alex Flinn's books, so we will give it to her," which is why more established authors are more likely to get a good review. But, even then, that reviewer may get upset if the author writes something different (such as sw[...]

Cynsations Intern: Robin Galbraith on Giving Yourself Permission to Write


Would-Be Kid Writer RobinBy Robin Galbraithfor Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsI tried to write my first story when I was in second grade. My family was gathered around the TV like every night. While “M*A*S*H” played in the background, I stared at my blank paper and dreamed up what I thought was a hilarious story of a girl who used every possible excuse to avoid going to bed—a subject I knew well.During the commercials I excitedly told my mom my plans.“Oh, hon,” my mom said. “It will never be published. We aren’t writers. That’s just something our family wasn’t born to do. Stop showing off!”I now understand my loving mom meant well. She was just 21 years old when she had me. As the daughter of an alcoholic father and overworked mother of six, my mom was taught to “know your place.” She worked hard to care for her family and thought she was protecting me from disappointment.However, as a child, what I heard was that writers are born, not made. I was like Beverly Cleary's Ramona Quimby, stubborn and curious, so I dreamed of secretly writing stories without my mom knowing. But how I could write them if I was a terrible speller? Ramona Quimby Is Saved By Her TeacherI was in the lowest reading, spelling, and math group until Miss Rowe, my fifth grade teacher, took an interest in me. She instructed my young mother to read me novels at bedtime, suggested I be given a journal to write in every night, recommended math workbooks for vacations, and advised my mom to use my love of acting and plays to improve my reading. My mom followed my teacher’s instructions with gusto. By eighth grade, I was addicted to journal writing and reading series fiction. I was even put in a few honors classes and began to see learning as something that took effort, not talent. I continued to tell myself stories in my head but never wrote one word of those stories on paper. I was too afraid I’d discover I wasn’t a writer.Reading: The Gateway to WritingIn high school, I was a TV addict who proudly wore a t-shirt declaring, “I’d rather be watching ‘General Hospital.’” I performed skits with my friends and created novels in my head, but still didn’t have the courage to write a single story on paper.A neighbor encouraged me to become an elementary special education teacher because I was good with kids. I loved my students but came home exhausted each day.My mom had discovered audiobooks, now that she was an empty nester, and peppered our phone conversations with details of her reading.Inspired, I recovered from teaching each afternoon by reading authors like Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, and Milan Kundera before I turned on the TV.Within a few months of regular reading I was itching to write. I still wrestled with the fear that I was “showing off,” but my urge to write was so strong I finally defied those nasty whispers inside my head and wrote my first story when I was 27 years old. Rules for Recovering TV AddictsWhen I was pregnant with my first child, I read The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin Books, 2013) and vowed my children would grow up in a home of books and writing. I slowly weaned myself off constant TV watching by making a series of rules:I can’t watch TV until 8 p.m. I can only watch pre-recorded shows. I can only watch one hour of TV a day.These rules not only gave me time to read and write, they made me a story critic. I began to analyze the stories that won my coveted one-hour slot. What captured my at[...]

Cynsational News


By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukkfor CynsationsAuthor InterviewsWe've Been Waiting in the Wings Forever: A Queer Theater Story by Amy Rose Capetta from CBC Diversity. Peek: "It’s no real secret that the theater world, from the professional stages in NYC to the drama clubs in most schools are havens for creative and hardworking LGBTQIAP folks. Before I even knew I was queer, I found my people, and they shared my fervor for story-making, a heady mix of love and ambition that still drives me."On the First South Asian YA Novel: Born Confused 15 Years Later by S. Mitra Kalita from LitHub. Peek from Tanuja Desai Hidier: "In Bombay Blues (Push, 2014), Dimple travels to India, to experience being 'brown among the brown' and feels 'beige' at best. Part of what I wanted to explore in this book is this phenomenon of the reverse diaspora: people of Indian origin gone West now turning around and heading back East."7 Questions For: Author Kate Dicamillo by Robert Kent from Middle Grade Ninja. Peek: “Like Raymie Clarke, the hero of this novel, Kate DiCamillo grew up in a small southern town in the seventies with a single mother, and she, too, entered a Little Miss contest and attempted to learn to twirl a baton.”Podcast Interview: National Book Award Finalists Rita Williams-Garcia and Ibi Zoboi from Vermont Public Radio. Peek: "When Rita Williams-Garcia read Ibi Zoboi's application to Vermont College of Fine Arts, she knew the writer was extremely talented. Williams-Garcia then served as Zoboi's faculty advisor at the school.... We speak with the two authors about their young adult novels, their writing relationship at VCFA and afterwards, and what it takes to write for a young audience."Philip Pullman Returns to His Fantasy World by Sophie Elmhirst from The New York Times Magazine. Peek: “Arranged on the desk are various objects of mystical significance. ‘I write more easily, more comfortably, with less anxiety if I’ve got my various magic bits on the table.'”DiversityMiddle-Grade Novels Featuring South Asian Characters by Suma Subramaniam from From the Mixed-Up Files. Peek: “I interact with many middle-grade readers of South Asian descent in grades 4-8, so these books are of high interest. This post is about celebrating and sharing such books that were released in 2017 and also seeking out ways to find them.”Culturally Responsive Teaching: Bridging Between the Familiar and Unfamiliar by Lindsay Barrett from the Lee & Low Blog. Peek: "Books with relatable characters who encounter multiple layers of events and challenges can provide familiar entry points while also stretching students’ thinking. Intentionally crafted discussions can help students make the leap from thinking about their own lives to thinking about the challenges others face."Teaching and Writing for “Inclusive Excellence” by Megan Dowd Lambert from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: "My work as an educator and an author toward 'inclusive excellence' (as it was termed in a faculty training I attended led by Romney and Associates at Simmons College) is undone if I fail to support and amplify the work of Native people and people of color. So, in my storytime and professional-development practice, I always include books by diverse creators."Spotlight on Independent Publishers with Great Spanish Content by Christa Jiménez from Latinxs in Kid Lit. Peek: "We know that reading to our kids in their home language is the key to their academic success in that language, and t[...]

Author Interview: Cynthia Levinson on Fault Lines in the Constitution


By Gayleen Rabakukkfor Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsCynthia Levinson is co-author of Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, And the Flaws That Affect Us Today, also by Sanford Levinson (Peachtree, 2017). From the promotional copy: Many of the political issues we struggle with today have their roots in the US Constitution.Husband-and-wife team Cynthia and Sanford Levinson take readers back to the creation of this historic document and discuss how contemporary problems were first introduced—then they offer possible solutions. Think Electoral College, gerrymandering, even the Senate. Many of us take these features in our system for granted. But they came about through haggling in an overheated room in 1787, and we’re still experiencing the ramifications.Each chapter in this timely and thoughtful exploration of the Constitution’s creation begins with a story—all but one of them true—that connects directly back to a section of the document that forms the basis of our society and government. Most middle grade nonfiction is either biography or focuses on a particular event. Here you're examining the structure of our government and highlights of United States history since 1787. What inspired you to take on this monumental task?The short answer to your question is that my editor, Kathy Landwehr, at Peachtree Publishers “inspired” us to write it by asking my husband, Sandy, a legal scholar, and me if we would. She had given her father a copy of one of Sandy’s previous books that critiques the Constitution—he writes for law students and faculty as well as adult readers in general—which he had found interesting. In talking about it, Kathy realized that there is no book like it for kids.In a bigger sense, this question is really interesting because, even though I’ve published five nonfiction books (and written many more!), I’ve never thought about this distinction between biography, on the one hand, and event, on the other, as a way to organize nonfiction. It generally works, though it leaves out some science books. Melissa on Building Nonfiction ManuscriptsMelissa Stewart, an amazing author, researcher, and presenter on science topics, proposes another way to categorize the genre: narrative and expository. Your question has made me realize that Fault Lines in the Constitution contains some of all of these—biographies, events, narrative stories, and exposition of facts.In that way, it does sound monumental! But, actually, because of the way the book is organized, it didn’t seem monumental while writing it (well, for the most part it didn’t). And we hope it doesn’t come across that way to readers.You’re right that the scope might appear huge because we drop in on events in American history from the Revolution through this past summer. There probably aren’t many books that mention both the Continental Congress convening in a tavern in New Jersey and the fate of undocumented aliens under President Trump. Yet, Fault Lines is not a textbook. We don’t march through either American history or the Constitution. Every story and every event is closely tied to and illustrates a problem—or, fault line—in the Constitution. You co-authored Fault Lines In The Constitution with your husband. Tell us about the collaboration process and how the book came together.Fault Lines was very much a collaborative process. It is definitely ours, not his or hers.&n[...]

New Voice: Jonathan Rosen on Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies


By Gayleen Rabakukkfor Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsJonathan Rosen is the debut author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies (Sky Pony Press, 2017). From the promotional copy:Twelve-year-old Devin Dexter has a problem. Well, actually, many of them. His cousin, Tommy, sees conspiracies behind every corner. And Tommy thinks Devin’s new neighbor, Herb, is a warlock . . . but nobody believes him. Even Devin’s skeptical. But soon strange things start happening. Things like the hot new Christmas toy, the Cuddle Bunny, coming to life.That would be great, because, after all, who doesn’t love a cute bunny? But these aren’t the kind of bunnies you can cuddle with. These bunnies are dangerous. Devin and Tommy set out to prove Herb is a warlock and to stop the mob of bunnies, but will they have enough time before the whole town of Gravesend is overrun by the cutest little monsters ever?What first inspired you to write for young readers?When I was a kid, the big thing for me was when my parents took me to the bookstore. Back then, there were bookstores in all the malls--sometimes two--Waldenbooks and B.Daltons. And every time we went, we’d stop in one, or more likely, both.My parents would let me buy a book or two every single time, because I read them so fast. I always loved that excitement of buying a new book. There was nothing like it to me. My favorites, were the Choose Your Own Adventure Series (Bantam Books, 1979-1988).Even back then, I remember thinking how great it would be to see my name on a book.When I started writing, I wanted to try and recapture some of the magic of those stories that I loved.I wanted kids to get excited about some of my stories because I still have vivid memories of going in and picking up favorite books. I dabbled in it, until my kids started to get to reading age, and then I made it a serious endeavor. I wanted my kids to love my stories.My youngest has read Cuddle Bunnies a few times, and I love watching her do it.I coach a girls softball team and they’re always telling me what books they like. And now, they’re all excited about mine.What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?This one, has kind of convoluted answer. I had wanted to do something fun, with a kind of dark humor. The movie "Gremlins" kept coming to mind. It was one of my favorites as a kid. I love the idea of these sweet-looking things containing a dark side, and that’s where Cuddle Bunnies came in.At around the same time, I had just come at two different houses with a previous manuscript. Both places eventually turned it down for one reason or another, but both said they loved the humor in it.So, while this evil stuffed animal book was fresh in my mind, I decided to go ahead and write the funniest book that I could. Evil stuffed animals were very funny to me.What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?There were so many ‘worst’ moments, that I could write a book just about those. This isn’t an easy field. You have to brace yourself for a lot of rejection. Not everyone is going to like you and your work, so you just have to accept that.Funny enough, some of the very worst moments were after I was at the point where I felt good enough to be published, and it didn’t happen. I got so close that when I went to the brink at those two houses and then got turned down, it kind of felt like it might not ever happen.The best, was when I signed[...]

Guest Post: Carmela A. Martino on Pulling a Novel From the Drawer & Playing By Heart


By Carmela A. Martinofor Cynthia Leitich Smith's CynsationsIf I’d known how long and difficult the path to publication would be for my new young adult novel, Playing by Heart (Vinspire Publishing, 2017), I might never have started down this road. The journey began when I set out to write a picture book biography of a little-known 18th-century female mathematician.Long before entering the Vermont College MFA program, I’d been a computer programmer, and my undergraduate degree is in Mathematics and Computer Science. Yet I’d never heard of mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi until I came across her name in an article about forgotten women of history.Born in Milan, Italy, Agnesi was fluent in seven languages, some say by age eleven. Later, she wrote the first math textbook that covered everything from basic arithmetic to the new-at-that-time science of calculus. The textbook brought her acclaim throughout Europe.Intrigued by Agnesi’s story, I began working on a picture book biography of her around 2002. After Candlewick published my middle-grade novel, Rosa, Sola in 2005, I submitted the biography to my editor there. We went through several revisions. Unfortunately, not much remains of Agnesi’s writing besides her textbook. My editor felt there wasn’t enough information about Agnesi’s life and personality to write a nonfiction book that would engage young readers. She suggested I write a novel instead, one inspired by Maria Gaetana and her younger sister, Maria Teresa, a composer who was one of the first Italian women to write a serious opera. The Agnesi sisters both struggled to please an overbearing father who put his ambitions ahead of their happiness.I took my editor’s advice and began writing a historical romance based on the Agnesi sisters. Researching not only their lives but the culture of Milan in the 1700s was rather daunting. I finally finished a rough draft in January 2009. The story was from the younger sister’s point of view. Having changed the family name to Salvini, my original title was "The Second Salvini Sister." After numerous revisions, I finally sent a polished manuscript to my Candlewick editor in September 2011. Unfortunately, she turned it down.I kept revising and submitting, sending the novel to editors and agents, and entering it writing contests. The manuscript took second place in the YA category of the 2012 SCBWI Midsouth Conference. I continued to revise, eventually changing the title to Playing by Heart.The novel did well in several more contests, including first place in the YA category of the 2013 Windy City Romance Writers Association Four Seasons Romance Writing Contest.The contest success meant several editors and agents read the full manuscript, yet none of them were interested in publishing or representing the novel.The feedback I kept hearing was that Playing by Heart was well-written but “historical YA is a tough sell.”I eventually gave up and put the manuscript in the proverbial drawer. I focused my efforts on freelance writing instead. Still, deep down, I hoped historical YA might eventually come back in vogue. I shared that hope on our TeachingAuthors blog back in 2014. Then, in March of 2016, I signed up for the Catholic Writers Guild Online Conference, which included pitch sessions with publishers. I’d planned to pitch my biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Given her religious devotion and servi[...]