Friday, May 25, 2018

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich SmithRobin GalbraithGayleen Rabukukk & Kate Pentecost for Cynsations

Author/Illustrator Insights

Mark Does YA: The Prolific Critic and Creator Talks About “Anger Is a Gift” by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek:
“A lot of this book is wish fulfillment on my part. What if my parents had been accepting of my sexuality? So, despite that this is a contemporary novel, a lot of imagination went into the construction of these character arcs.”
Interview with Deborah Heiligman from the Cybils. Peek:
“When I begin my research for a book, I start with primary sources. I read letters, diary entries, autobiographies, etc. and hold off reading any secondary sources as long as possible.”
Real-Life Drama: Kate Messner on Her New Novel, Breakout by Kiera Parrott and Lisa Goldstein from School Library Journal. Peek:
“In the case of Breakout...I’m fascinated by the idea that two people can be in the same room, see the same event transpire, hear the same conversation, and come away from it with completely different interpretations of what’s just happened."
Rob Sanders Talks with Roger by Roger Sutton from The Horn Book. Peek:
“I wanted to tell this story not so much from a biography standpoint — there are several children’s biographies about Harvey Milk — but none about the flag itself. It was a unique opportunity for me to talk about symbols.” 
Meet Kate Pentecost, The Genderqueer Writer Changing the Young Adult Fiction Game by Kirk Loftin from Spectrum South. Note: Kate is a Cynsations Intern. Peek:
 “‘If there were more books with LGBTQ characters when I was young, it would have been so empowering,’ Pentecost adds on the need for more queer representation in young adult fiction. ‘I was really, really starved for characters who were like me.’”
Member Interview: Jason Gallaher from SCBWI. Peek:
“In both my picture book and middle grade work I write about whimsical or fantasy worlds. So I guess my everyday life feeds my work by me fantasizing about how much better life would be with magic, or with fashion-forward pandas, or with Easter bunnies turned dinosaurs.”
Hannah Moderow on Writing Lily’s Mountain from Uma Krishnaswami. Peek:
"Lily’s Mountain was rejected by 47 editors. 47! There’s no magic in that. But I pressed on, buoyed by the wisdom of VCFA, and the friendships and mentorships that I received there."
On Wildness, Cracked Worlds, Monsters, and the Odd Nature of the Short Story from Kelly Barnhill. Peek:
“A short story... is an encounter. We cannot look it in the eye. We have to see with our skin and hear with our bones. A short story is a crack in the world; it is tooth and claw; it is the choice between attack and retreat. Nothing is wasted.”
Writing Craft

Writing Tension Instead of Teasing by Mary Kole from Kid Lit. Peek:
“There is a big distinction between writing tension and merely teasing the reader along. Unfortunately, a tease is not enough and doesn’t respect your audience.”
Three Dialogue Don’ts (and Their Fixes) by Dean Gloster from Through the Tollbooth. Peek:
“In real life, we don’t answer, we evade—we joke, distract, change the subject, interrupt, counterattack, or answer the real question underneath what was asked. (Or a different question that we’d prefer to answer.)”
A Five-Page MFA by Abigail Hing Wen from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “Another favorite variation on Show-Not-Tell. Instead of telling your reader the answer is '2,' give them the two separate components, and trust them to add them up on their own.”

How to Write an Epistolary Novel in Ten Not-So-Simple Steps by Sheila O’Connor from Smack Dab in the Middle. Peek:
“Remember in a letter, every writer will both reveal and withhold.”
How to Survive Your Editorial Letter: 10 Simple Tips by Catherine Linka from Through the Tollbooth. Peek:
"...how do you get from denial to the acceptance you need to be able to revisit, reimagine and revise your work?"
Marketing

The Key to Book Marketing: Do What You’re Best At from Nathan Bransford. Peek:
“Don’t make yourself miserable doing what you think you should be doing, do what you enjoy doing.”
10 Best Packing Tips for Authors by Gail Carriger from Fiction University. Peek:
“Whether you're published (yet) or not, odds are you'll attend a writing event at some point in your writing journey. For those requiring overnight stays, some special packing just might be in order.”
Publishing

The Resonant Roar of Quiet Books by Emma Dryden from The Mitten. Peek:
“When a manuscript’s rejected for being too quiet, it’s often because a story hasn’t explored these themes at all or has only touched on these themes too quietly, too cursorily.”
Cate Berry on a Full Heart and a Cozy Snuggle by Amanda West Lewis from The Launch Pad.
“That’s the thing about publishing. You can’t control when it’ll be your turn. The stars have to be aligned ten thousand different ways for it to happen and that’s the truth. But it’ll never happen if you don’t cast your stories into the grind of the business.”
SLJ’s Average Book Prices for 2018 from School Library Journal. Peek:
“The numbers you put to work every year are here—the list of average book prices for 2017 and 2018 to date, produced in partnership with Follett. We know this data helps you make sound decisions.” 
Gina Gagliano Has Big Plans for Random House Graphic by Brigid Alverson from School Library Journal. Peek:
“I feel that it’s important to get kids reading comics as soon as they are reading independently, so I want to go from ages 5 to 18–19—do younger books and middle grade, do YA, really, all the way across that span.”
Diversity

Living Beyond Tragedy by Lee Francis from Medium. Peek:
"...understand our histories as Sovereign people and subsequently work to dismantle all the structures that enable the continued marginalization and extermination of Indigenous peoples. This includes representations in popular culture."
39 Great Indigenous Stories to Read and Share with Your Kids by Selena Mills from Today’s Parent. Peek:
“ From beautiful board books to compelling tales to trenchant reads, here are great stories about Indigenous culture and issues to add to your bookshelf.”
2018 Summer Reading List from We’re the People. Peek:
“Are you looking for a curated summer reading list that celebrates diversity and all its intersections? The team at We’re the People select books that are by and about IPOC (Indigenous and People of Color), people with disabilities and people from the LGBTQ+ community.” 
 Schools See Steep Drop in Librarians, New Analysis Finds by Sarah D. Sparks and Alex Harwin from Education Week. Peek:
"American schools—particularly those serving black and Latino students—have seen a precipitous drop in their school librarians since the Great Recession.
A Closer Look at 2017 African/ African American #OwnVoices Books by Madeline Tyner from Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Peek:
“With the ever-growing call for #OwnVoices books in youth publishing, we delved deeper into the CCBC's 2017 diversity stats, with a particular focus on #OwnVoices books. In this post, we examine the African/African American #OwnVoices books and consider creator roles, book type, and countries and cultures that are represented.”
Awards



Congratulations to the 2018 Forest Reading winners! 164,000 Ontario kids voted for books by these authors or illustrators: Vikki VanSickle , Danielle Younge-UllmanJess KeatingMarta Álvarez MiguénsAlex LyttleElizabeth MacLeod and Joanne George.

This Week at Cynsations
Don't miss the ongoing SCBWI Bologna Interview series.

 More Personally - Cynthia

Watch the video (caution: spoilers!).
Buzz is starting to build for the Oct. 9, 2018 release of my upcoming novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 9, 2018). See a video book talk by teacher Colby Sharp from SharpRead. Caution: spoilers. Peek:
"I devoured this book. End of the school year, and I still devoured it. It's that awesome.... This book needs to be in all of the high school classrooms around the world."
Cynsations Intern Kate Pentecost will be on two panels and one roundtable at Comicpalooza Con in Houston this weekend. Peek: "Living legends, industry icons, creative geniuses, space cowboys, and scientific marvels, that’s who’s coming to Comicpalooza. May 25-27 the pop culture festival will open its doors once again at the George R. Brown Convention Center...."

More Personally - Gayleen

The highlight of my week (okay, probably the year) was spending the weekend at The Writing Barn with this fantastic group talking about middle grade novels. I did a Cynsations interview with Lamar Giles last year about writing mysteries and his most recent YA novel, Overturned (Scholastic, 2017) so it was great to meet him in person and hear more about his upcoming MG fantasy, The Last Last-Day of Summer (Versify, Spring 2019).

Sarah Yasutake, Gayleen, Erin Sewell, Editor Phoebe Yeh (Viking Books for Young Readers), Lamar Giles, Meredith Counts, Jacquetta Feldman, Megan Hoyt, Brenda Panella, Erin Golden and April Jo Murphy. Photo by Bethany Hegedus.


Thursday, May 24, 2018

Author Interview: Eric Gansworth on Give Me Some Truth

Eric Gansworth signing Give Me Some Truth
at 2018 Texas Library Association conference.
By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Eric Gansworth is the YA author of Give Me Some Truth (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, May 29, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Carson Mastick is entering his senior year of high school and desperate to make his mark, on the reservation and off. 

A rock band — and winning the local Battle of the Bands, with its first prize of a trip to New York City — is his best shot. 

But things keep getting in the way. Small matters like the lack of an actual band, or the fact that his brother just got shot confronting the racist owner of a local restaurant. 

Maggi Bokoni has just moved back to the reservation from the city with her family. She's dying to stop making the same traditional artwork her family sells to tourists (conceptual stuff is cooler), stop feeling out of place in her new (old) home, and stop being treated like a child. 

She might like to fall in love for the first time too. 

Carson and Maggi — along with their friend Lewis — will navigate loud protests, even louder music, and first love in this stirring novel about coming together in a world defined by difference. 

This novel drew me immediately into the world and characters Eric crafted. So I had to know more about how his writing process.

Eric, I want to start with the title, taken from a Beatles song. It seems to dovetail perfectly with your characters’ experiences in the book. Explain how you landed on that. 

Thanks! I am obsessed with overarching structure and continuity within my fiction.

That said, writing novels is for me a strange and mysterious activity. The move from blank page to completed page is always unexpected, like entering someone else’s house invisibly and seeing their lives behind closed curtains.

I’m a strong believer in allowing new things to influence work in progress--serendipity, if you want to be fancy about it.

I have a superstition, though, and whatever file folder I create for a new book, I leave the original title on that.

If I Ever Get Out of Here (Arthur A. Levine, 2013) had a different, neutral title for most of its development before Paul McCartney became a central thematic force.

After that shift, it went through several possibilities. When the right title hit, I could never see another possibility.

I knew the second book would be Lennon themed, and initially it was called "We All Shine On."

It had very different themes, as you might guess with that title. Lewis and Marie were the protagonists, it had different plot developments, etc.

After three years of writing the wrong book, enough of the correct book had seeped into the narrative that I knew I had to start from scratch. Considering the more confrontational personalities of Carson and Maggi, "Give Me Some Truth" was a better fit.

In some ways, that command became the novel’s driving force.

I’d love to delve deeper into your process for creating such rich characters. There isn’t one in the book whose back story or motivations felt unknown to me. 

Did you begin the first novel envisioning these characters and their adolescence on the rez would carry beyond one book? Might we see Maggi or any of the other characters in a future work? 

Thank you. I may have answered part of this above. I decided early in my writing career that all of my characters would exist in the same fictional universe. I have an imaginary version of the reservation where I was raised, and I’ve given homes to characters that remain consistent.

I’m often surprised in the early stages of development, to see where the characters live. Their grounding on that imaginary map anchors part of their lives early on.

Eliot Schrefer and Eric Gansworth at YALLWEST,
photo by YALLWEST, used with permission.
Growing up, I did not have much access to a car, so I walked the Rez a lot, and you get to know a place really well when you experience it on such an intimate level.

When this novel was going to be about Lewis and Marie, I had a good sense of them, because I’d lived with them for several years.

I have a novel for adults done (but that needs revision) that has Carson as a major character, and its plot involves a long span, maybe twenty years, so I knew a lot about him. I was surprised when he wound up intruding into Lewis’s story, and then even more so here, where he eventually hijacked this novel, becoming a protagonist.

Maggi was a little harder to get to know. When I recognized the other protagonist couldn’t be Marie, I had to figure out what Maggi’s story was going to be. At the beginning, I knew she had to be 15 and feel very displaced everywhere she turned. She needed to be both jaded and naïve.

At 15, I felt strongly that I was already an adult and was eager to make adult decisions. The truth is, of course, that I wasn’t an adult at all, and made my own series of poor, or uninformed choices. I can not remember why I felt she needed a twin brother, and even asked myself in the first revision if Marvin needed to exist.

As I read it with an eye toward making the book shorter, I was surprised at the complex role he played as a harmony voice in their household. Even giving myself the permission to yank him and give the character his own novel at some point, I couldn’t see a way for him not to be there. To lose him would cause irreparable damage.

You are a visual artist. Your paintings are included in both of these novels. When you submitted the novel for consideration, did you include your artwork with the text or was that discussed later as a design element? Do you create the paintings while you’re writing or do those come to you at a different time in the creative process?

My book images come organically during development. I trust there is some other process operating that I’m not aware of.

While working on If I Ever Get Out of Here, I had a clear idea of what the paintings would look like. They’re satires of iconic Beatles/McCartney album covers, using the novel’s characters and situations for anchors.

I only realized after the novel was deep in production that a minor subplot involved Wacky Packages, (satirical trading card stickers popular when I was a kid). It turned out those paintings were more or less Wacky Package versions of those albums.

In this case, I knew the paintings would similarly be drawn from Beatles/Lennon album covers, but Wacky Packages were not a part of this story. I needed a different anchor.

Maggi is an inventive beadworker, in a traditional arts family. I’ve always loved this tension and know many beadwork artists who play with reinventing ideas and themes from popular culture. I thought it would be neat to re-cast those iconic images as if rendered in traditional materials: beadwork, soapstone, cornhusk dolls, and the like.

In a few cases, I retitled a section, because I wanted to use the image, so it’s very much an organic process.

What craft and career advice would you offer for beginning Native writers of young adult fiction?

Three things, really, feel important to me.
  • First: remember what your experiences feel like and give yourself permission to write about events that are complex.
I keep an open informal document for every book I work on, where I just talk to myself, asking questions, noting memories, speculating about ramifications of ideas. I do not edit this document, but I do date entries so I can keep track of how ideas evolve.

It’s not an exact process and there are gaps, for sure, but it’s been very helpful during development for the last four novels. Not every idea makes it to the book, and this document allows me to keep those decisions straight, as I finish revising and get ready for a new project.
  • Second: Don’t worry about what people will like.
I grew up in a very specific Indigenous culture, and the details of our lives are not necessarily resonant with others, even other Indigenous readers. I write about those meaningful cultural details, even if they don’t meet the expectations of others about Indigenous fiction.

Have faith that readers are coming to your work to see what you have to share, so don’t agonize about what you think someone might or might not want to publish. You can’t possibly know so worrying seems pointless, and I suspect some wonderful ideas get set aside because of this concern.
  • Third: writing involves talent but it also involves craft, and a lot of hard work.
Editorial feedback is real and is about making your story more accessible to an audience unfamiliar with your kinds of experiences. Often, beginning writers find this part of the process alienating and threatening, and express concerns about editorial feedback “contaminating the work.”

Editors are not supervillains rubbing their hands together, trying to make your life miserable. I’ve had occasion over the last couple of years to revisit some of my work that had been published with a very light editorial hand. I wish I could pull that work back and start over. It definitely would have benefited from a more rigorous editorial philosophy, and now I’m stuck with it out there in perpetuity.

What do you have coming out next that we can look forward to reading?

I’m working on the third book with these characters. You can read an early chapter published as a short story this summer in the lovely We Need Diverse Books anthology, Fresh Ink, edited by Lamar Giles (Crown, Aug. 14, 2018).

I have some poems and paintings coming out in POETRY this summer, some other poems in Heid Erdrich’s anthology New Poets of Native Nations (Graywolf, July 10, 2018), and a story in Kenyon Review this coming winter.

If you’re an audiobook sort, I recorded Carson’s half of the Give Me Some Truth audio, with Mohawk actress Brittany LeBorgne reading Maggi’s chapters, and I’ll be recording my story for the Fresh Ink audiobook too.

Well, Eric, I can say definitively that I’m eager to read the third book. And I’m happy to know that we’ll all get a preview this summer in the Fresh Ink anthology.

Cynsational Notes

Eric Gansworth Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ (enrolled Onondaga, Eel Clan), a writer and visual artist from Tuscarora Nation, works at Canisius College.

His books also include:
Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children's-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Author Interview: Minh Lê on Drawn Together

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Minh Lê is the author of the upcoming Drawn Together, illustrated by Dan Santat (Hyperion, June 5, 2018). From the promotional copy:

When a young boy visits his grandfather, their lack of a common language leads to confusion, frustration, and silence. 

But as they sit down to draw together, something magical happens - with a shared love of art and storytelling, the two form a bond that goes beyond words.

Minh, I have to admit that I was immediately taken with this story.

In my prior career, I worked with American Indian and Alaska elders, and intergenerational relationships are the foundation of Native Nations and families.

The experience of this boy visiting his grandfather reminded me of many elders who feel they don’t always understand the world their grandchildren or great-grandchildren are experiencing through traditional language loss, increased technology use, etc.

You dedicate the book to your grandparents. Did you all struggle to communicate and connect when you were younger?

Thank you for your kind words and thank you so much for having me on Cynsations, Traci!

Yes, Drawn Together is very much based on my experience with my grandparents, in particular my paternal grandfather.

Vietnamese was actually my first language (there is even home video somewhere to prove it), but I unfortunately let it slip away over the years. This meant that my relationship with my grandparents was very much defined by what we could not say to each other.

Unlike the boy and his grandfather in the book, we unfortunately never managed to fully bridge that language gap before he passed away earlier this year… but in small but profound ways, we came to understand that despite everything we left unsaid, the bond between us was stronger than words. 

Minh at a school visit.
What do you hope a child reader will take away from Drawn Together? 

It takes work to truly see the person right in front of you, even those who we love the most. If our book can help inspire even one reader to discover an unexpected connection with a loved one, then my heart will be completely full.

Another quick but important point: while this book reveals the “world beyond words,” that is not meant to diminish the importance of language. If a reader is able to establish that non-verbal connection like the grandson and grandfather, my hope is that it leads to a rich relationship that also involves language. While I’ll never question the love between us, I’ll always wish that I could have had a deeper conversation with my grandfather in Vietnamese.

Dan Santat’s artwork captivated me from the front cover through the entire book. He brings another fabulous level of storytelling to this picture book with rich color and intricate drawings. Those illustrations in the middle of the book add so much impact to your words. What did you think when you first saw them? 

I’m so glad you were captivated by the artwork too, because oh my goodness: Dan’s artwork left me totally speechless. My approach to writing is to try telling the story in as few words as possible, to basically create space for the illustrator to work their magic.

And with a story about building a “world beyond words” the success of the story absolutely hinged on the artwork. So much of the story happens through the illustrations and Dan took it to a level that absolutely blew my mind.

I am Vietnamese American, but am thrilled that Dan made this story his own by infusing it with his own experience and Thai heritage. You can tell how much of himself he poured into these pages and I will be forever grateful to him for bringing this story to life in such jaw-dropping fashion. (Note: If you haven’t seen this video about his process, you should definitely check it out.)


To what extent were you able or inclined to offer feedback while the art was in production? 

I try my best to keep a light touch on art notes, preferring to let the artist take the story and run with it.

I did have the opportunity to provide some feedback at different points along the way (always filtered through our brilliant editor, Rotem Moscovich), but it was mostly just minor observations sprinkled in with unfiltered gushing over the breathtaking artwork.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? What were the high points and stumbles along the way? What were your best decisions and those you might reconsider if you had to do it all again? 

For me, I’d say the biggest stumbling point was just getting out of my own way.

I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book, but then at the same time would laugh off that dream as “silly” and with a “but why me?” attitude.


Then one day my wife looked at me and said, “I love you… but if you’re not going to take yourself seriously, who will?” That was the wake up call I needed to stop being my own worst enemy. I was never going to get any traction if I couldn’t get past myself.

So if I were to reconsider anything or do something different… I probably wouldn’t have spent 10 years dedicated to self-sabotage before sending out my first book pitch.

That being said, I spent a lot of those 10 years blogging about/reviewing children’s books, so it wasn’t a waste of time. Immersing myself books was an invaluable education and really gave me a chance to see what was already out there and to develop and refine my own taste.

So when I finally did send out the idea for Let Me Finish! illustrated by Isabel Roxas (Hyperion, 2016)), I did so on solid ground that really helped speed things up.

From there, everything fell into place nicely, from landing my fantastic agent Stephen Barbara, getting the super-talented Isabel Roxas to collaborate with, and then of course, having the brilliant Rotem Moscovich at Hyperion acquire it. I couldn’t have asked for my path to unfold any better.

Now to follow it up with a collaboration with Dan Santat is, to put it mildly, a dream come true. So I’m just enjoying every step along the way and can hopefully keep it going!


What craft and career advice do you have for beginning writers? 

When asked for writing advice (particularly picture book writing), I always point to a quote from Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de St. Exupéry (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1939), the author of The Little Prince (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1943).

In the book he talks about building airplanes during the early days of flight and has this beautiful line:
"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
I try to keep that quote in mind whenever I’m writing. Not that you have to go full Hemingway and write only in terse prose... but you should make sure that every word on the page serves a purpose.

Weigh yourself down with too many unnecessary words and there's a good chance your story will never take flight.

What did your first book teach you that informed your second?

I think the most valuable thing I learned from making the first book was the importance of trusting the people you work with.

From the illustrator, to the editor, to the art director, and others, there are so many people who go into creating a book. While as an author it’s important to stay true to your vision, it’s just as (if not more) important to loosen your grip on the “ownership” over the idea and allow the book the space to breath and evolve.

The final version of Let Me Finish! was much stronger than what I originally had in mind because of all the different people helping to shape it along the way.

Which is also why I make it a point to always refer to it as “our book” and never “my book.” 

What do you have coming up next? 

I have some other projects with Hyperion, but nothing I can talk about yet (I always say the hardest part of publishing is all the secrets you have to keep).

Something exciting that I can talk about is that I’ll be writing a Green Lantern graphic novel for DC Comics’s new middle grade imprint, DC Zoom.

I’m particularly excited because while Drawn Together is about my grandfather, this graphic novel is inspired in part by my grandmothers. It means the world to me that I get to pay tribute to them through these books and that soon they’ll have a spot on the bookshelf.

Wonderful! I look forward to the Green Lantern novel and hearing about these other new projects when you can share them. 

Cynsational Notes

Minh Lê is the author of Let Me Finish! (an NPR Best Book of 2016), illustrated by Isabel Roxas and the upcoming Drawn Together illustrated by Caldecott medalist Dan Santat, both published by Hyperion.

He is also writing Green Lantern: Legacy, a graphic novel for the new DC Comics middle grade imprint, DC Zoom.

A member of the kidlit consortium The Niblings, Minh has written for a number of national publications, including the New York Times, HuffPost, and the Horn Book.

He is currently serving as a judge for the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards.

Outside of spending time with his beautiful wife and sons, his favorite place to be is in the middle of a good book.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children's-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

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

Learn more about E. Lockhart AKA Emily Jenkins
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In 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?

I want to be honest about the biggest reason I have weathered tough times: I have some financial security.

I have published approximately 45 books in 21 years, and a huge factor in my remaining a working writer was a gift of money from my in-laws.

My spouse and I used it to purchase real estate. That purchase meant our overhead was (and remains) low. We could thus have a family in New York City without the vagaries of my income jeopardizing our housing. I don’t want to ever pretend my career has been all hard work and creativity. It has been hard work and creativity – but with the cushion of an apartment purchased with money I did not earn myself.

It has helped me to publish in multiple age categories. I write under two names and can have a couple of books a year. I co-author a series, and that helps too – we can write the series books while having other projects on the go.

I publish with multiple houses. Penguin Random has much of my backlist and my bigger books, but in 2017 I did books with Candlewick, Scholastic and Farrar, Straus & Giroux – and it’s pretty much always been like that. The publishers haven’t always been happy about the competition, but I’m employed.


If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently?

I would write A Fine Dessert (Schwartz & Wade, 2015) differently.

On a practical note, I should not have been so wide-ranging at the start of my writing career. I published two picture books, a book of essays for adults, a novel for adults, and a middle grade. Then I couldn’t figure out why my career had no momentum.

Ha! Of course it didn’t. I hadn’t built a reputation in any one area, and I hadn’t sustained relationships with editors.

The smart thing would have been to focus tight at first and to build longer-term connections -- and to find a community of writers. I didn’t have any writer friends, really, until nine years after my first book came out.

Now, those relationships are essential to the longevity of my creative life. I don’t know how I managed before.

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?

I adore the emergence of LGBTQ+ YA stories into mainstream popular consciousness. On bestseller lists. Made into films! (As I’m answering these questions, "Everyday" and "Love, Simon" are in theaters.) There’s LGBTQ+ fantasy, adventure, dystopian, historical and science fiction as well as realistic contemporary. Makes me happy.

Queer YA has been around since 1969, of course. And there are still more people to include, more intersections to examine, more ways of feeling and living to be represented and more voices to be heard.

But things have changed and expanded hugely in the thirteen years I’ve been writing YA and so many of the books are spectacular.

I also adore the emergence of the graphic novel as a major and respected art form. There are MacArthur winners, National Book Award winners, and hilarious young middle grade books that grab the most reluctant readers.

I grew up reading comic books and the interplay of image and text was the subject of my dissertation. I feel lucky to be making books at such a fertile time for graphic stories.

Have you finished a draft of your next book?

The actual publication of a book doesn’t feel so great to me. Satisfaction must come from making things you are interested in and are proud to have made, from the exciting process of collaboration, from storytelling. You’ll keep your head straight if you’re thoroughly involved in that experience of creation when your book arrives in bookshops.

You're also a writing teacher. What led you to join the Hamline MFA faculty, and how does teaching inform, influence and intersect with your writing life?

After getting my doctorate, I taught creative and scholarly writing for some years, adjuncting at NYU, Barnard and Columbia. I enjoyed the work, but those jobs didn't provide me with colleagues or a department — I just showed up and did my courses, held my office hours, and went home.

At some point I began to want more: to be able to create new classes, to bring in visiting lecturers, to work with other teachers who stretched my understanding of my field, to contribute to the shape of a program and to be part of conversations about how best to teach fiction writing and literature.

I couldn't do that as an adjunct, and I began to feel bored. I left those jobs and wrote full time.

Some years later, I saw an ad in The Horn Book looking for an experienced college teacher who wrote both picture books and YA. I thought, Oh, that's me!

I applied, but during the resulting interview, I realized (to my embarrassment) that I had done so cavalierly. I had a small baby. I couldn't leave her for 11-day residencies! What had I been thinking?

Up-front I told Mary Rockcastle, the program director, that I would be interested in working at Hamline if she wanted to come back to me in a couple of years — and she did. Then I was able to take the job.

Being there has been the formal fiction-writing education I never had. When I first arrived, I didn't have any of the creative writing vocabulary used by my colleagues. Over the years I have had the chance to learn from some of the best people making books for children.

In particular I have returned to insights from lectures by Meg Medina, Matt de la Peña, Ron Koertge, Laurel Snyder and Nina LaCour.

In the lecture hall, am often struck by ideas for projects, or strategies for revision.

Another thing I love is getting to work intimately with students on long-form projects and in multiple drafts on picture books. I get to see my students grow and develop in hugely significant ways. And I feel useful. I love team-teaching workshop, too.

 I have run class with Laura Ruby, Anne Ursu, Marsha Qualey, Kelly Easton and Claire Rudolph-Murphy, and in each case I got so much out of seeing the way my co-teacher worked with a student text — total paradigm shifts from the way I might have approached it, sometimes. And wonderful.

Last, I have spent a huge amount of time working on the Required Reading List we assign at Hamline. Our List Committee tossed out our old list in late 2015 and re-imagined what we wanted our students to read and why, putting together a pedagogical mission, learning outcomes, all that — and a list of amazing books.

Then each year we have done small updates to that list, often with new Committee members circling in to keep the list fresh and evolving as our departmental needs evolve.

Sherri Smith is co-leading us this year and she is amazing. Serving on this crew means I read books that I might not have picked up, otherwise — and I get to discuss them with my colleagues, too. That reading has broadened my mind and my writing.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Emily with Paul O. Zelinksy
I hope our community can practice radically better inclusivity in publishing.

I’d like the editors, art directors and publicity teams to reflect the gorgeous range of people we publish books for.

I hope we will continue to support freedom of speech and of the press.

If we can make that big change and hold onto that central value, I think we’ll make beautiful, funny, touching, wonder-filled books.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I want to try new forms. I might take courses cartooning and see what that does to my thinking about image and text, both for picture books and graphic novels.

I like it when I don’t know how to do my job.

The best work bubbles up when I have no idea how to tackle this new thing that I want to write.

Cynsational Notes 

In the photo above, Emily and Paul are on a walking tour for All-of-a-Kind Family Hannukah (Schwartz & Wade, Sept. 2018).

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children's-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

The Texas Library Association issued A Statement on Questions Over A Fine Dessert and tie-in resources, including those for teaching the related criticism and controversy.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Interview: Author Christine Marciniak & Editor Madeline Smoot on Once Upon a Princess

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The popularity of the recent royal wedding illustrates society's continued fascination with monarchies. 

A new middle grade novel, Once Upon A Princess by Christine Marciniak (CBAY, 2018) offers a twist on familiar tropes. From the promotional copy:

After a coup in her country, Her Royal Highness, Fredericka Elisabetta Teresa von Boden don Morh (or Fritzi to her friends), wakes up one day no longer a princess. 

Stuck hiding in a suburban American middle school dealing with mean girls, cafeteria lunches, and teachers who don’t understand (or know about) her unique situation, Fritzi just wants to go home to her kingdom and be a princess again. 

She turns to social media for help, but will her efforts work or make everything worse? With opposition forces trying to force her father’s abdication from the throne, Fritzi discovers that being a true princess doesn’t come from a title.

I recently talked with Christine about the book's path to publication and her CBAY Books editor, Madeline Smoot about her current manuscript wish list.

There are lots of Cinderella stories about average girls becoming princesses, but you decided to flip that trope. Can you tell me what inspired that idea?

Every little girl wants to grow up to be a princess (or a warrior, I suppose). The Cinderella tropes you mention are proof of that. It’s the classic fantasy. One day I will wake up and be something completely different, something much more fascinating.

Like you said, I took that and turned it on it’s head. What if a Princess wakes up and finds out that she’s just an ordinary middle schooler? What would that look like? How would that even happen?

The inspiration for the idea came from Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries (HarperCollins, 2000), and wondering, “what if.”

What if this story were flipped? Almost immediately I came up with the title and the name for my Princess, the rest took a while to get right. 

How did you approach developing the character of Her Royal Highness Fredericka Elisabetta Teresa von Boden don Mohr? (Since I'm assuming you're not a princess….) 

I’m not a princess. I’ve complained to my father about that, but he says there’s not much he can do, since no one is likely to make him a king.

For Her Royal Highness Fredericka Elisabetta Teresa von Boden don Mohr (Fritzi for short), I tried to think what would make her different from the average middle school student and the thing that came to me was that as a princess she would have no shortage of confidence.

Middle school kids are at that awkward stage of growing up where they aren’t little children anymore, but they are not old enough to have real responsibility or freedom, and everything is changing and more often than not they are not sure of themselves or their place in the world.

Fritzi, on the other hand, is very sure of that. She’s a princess. She is special. This has been ingrained in her since she was small.

This confidence doesn’t go away when she goes into hiding and it colors her interactions with everyone from the school secretary to the “mean girl.”

What was your path to publication like for this book? 

Rollercoaster would probably be a good way to describe it.

I’d actually started the book about ten years ago, but only wrote a dozen or so pages before putting it aside for other projects. Several years later, I picked it up and finished it, sent it to beta readers, revised and polished and queried agents.

And then something happened that had never happened with any of my previous books: an agent signed me. This was heady stuff, and I had visions of bestseller lists and movie deals.

Alas, this was not to be the immediate path. Although there was interest from various publishers, no one that my agent sent it to ended up buying it. As a result, after a year my agent and I parted ways (okay, he dumped me; there I said it).

Christine's summer office
But I was not ready to give up on this book. I took all the rejection letters from the various editors and compiled them, and searched for common ground.

At that time, part of the story had Fritzi traveling back to Europe on her own to try to save the kingdom. It turned out that this part of the story was a stumbling block for quite a few people. So I took it out and revised and decided to try my own luck at submitting the book to publishers.

I chose Madeline Smoot of CBAY Books because I’d had other interactions with her and I had read and enjoyed some of the books she’d published.

Much to my delight, Madeline accepted the book and with a few more minor revisions it was ready to go. It’s been a long road, but the destination has definitely been worth the journey.

Madeline, what drew you to this story?

I was drawn to the strong voice Christine gave Fritzi in this book. She stood out not just because of her confidence, but also from her resilience. Her world is falling apart, and she does complain about it, but she also tries to proactively take concrete steps to fix things.

I also loved the idea of turning the rags-to-riches trope on its head. There are various stories where the regular person discovers they are an aristocrat or royalty, but very few tales that go the other way. I love books that upend our expectations like this one does.

What Christine does when she's not writing
Christine, what advice do you have for beginning writers?

Don’t be afraid to revise.

So often I see revisions that amount to not much more than changing the wording here and there or adding a few more descriptive passages. I’ve taken huge chunks out of stories and replaced them with something different. In another of my books, I re-wrote the first chapter so many times I could probably publish the outtakes as a full-length novel.

Figure out early what the core of your story is.

In the case of Once Upon A Princess, it was that a princess discovers she’s not a princess any more, and she wants to save her kingdom and become a princess again. No matter what revisions the story went through, that basic concept remained the same.

I had really liked the section of the story where Fritzi ran away to Europe and encountered adventures on her own. I did research into the airports and the youth hostels and all sorts of things. I figured out the train schedules and how you get from Charles de Gaulle airport to the train station.

Basically, it was a lot of research and a lot of words – nearly a third of the story – and I could have stuck to my guns and kept that part in, despite the overwhelming response that it was pulling the rest of the story down.

Instead, I deleted it and ultimately made the story much better. I had to realize that the important aspect of the story wasn’t Fritzi running around Europe, but Fritzi trying to save her kingdom… and in this day and age, she could do that with social media.

The key is to not give up, to keep writing, and revise, revise, revise.

Editor Madeline Smoot
Madeline, I noticed CBAY Books has a query window opening up. What would you most love to see in your inbox?

My manuscript wish list includes:
  • Tween-voiced fantasy or science fiction with a strong first person voice. 
  • Adventures or mysteries in a fantasy or science fiction setting or with fantastic elements.
  • Genre mashups (as long as fantasy or science fiction is at least one of the genres).
Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews said of Once Upon a Princess, "children who have faced changes in their circumstances will welcome the message."

Christine Marciniak was born in Philadelphia, but has spent most of her life in New Jersey.

She started her writing career as the editor of The Official Cruise Guide. When her second child was born, she stayed home full time to raise her children and write fiction.

She has written several books for middle grade, young adults, and adults and hopes to write many more.

Find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Madeline Smoot is the publisher of CBAY Books and former Editorial Director for Children’s Books of Blooming Tree Press.

She blogs about writing at Buried in the Slush Pile and is the author of several writing guides, including Story Slices: How to Make Story Plotting a Piece of Cake.

Madeline lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband, son, a cat, a dog, and more books than should fit in any normal person’s house.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Guest Interview: Editor Emma Ledbetter & Writer Zoë Armstrong on Picture Books & SCBWI's Bologna Manuscript Contest

By Elisabeth Norton
for SCBWI Bologna 2018 and Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Note: This interview is part of a series focusing on the Bologna Children's Book Fair. 


SCBWI Switzerland Regional Adviser Elisabeth Norton talks with the judge and winner of SCBWI's new Dueling Illustrators Manuscript Contest.

One event that always draws a crowd to the SCBWI booth at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair is the Dueling Illustrators.

In the duel, two illustrators each stand before a blank flip-chart, marker, charcoal or other drawing medium at the ready. A story is read aloud in ten segments, and after each one, the illustrators have just a couple of minutes to illustrate that portion of the story.

The tricky part?

They have never heard the story before so they have no idea what is going to happen next!

Paul O. Zelinsky and John Shelley, dueling illustrators
This year, SCBWI launched a new picture book manuscript contest in conjunction with this event, which is held daily at the SCBWI booth during the fair.

The 100 entry slots for the contest filled quickly, and then it was the job of Emma Ledbetter, senior editor at Atheneum, to winnow those entries down to the six finalists and to select the winner.

Paul O. Zelinsky and John Shelley, photo by Christopher Cheng
Today I’m talking with Emma and with Zoë Armstrong, author of the winning manuscript.

Welcome, Emma and Zoë!

Zoë, how long have you been writing for children?

I’ve been playing with verse since my seven-year-old daughter, Elodie, was very young. But a year ago, I enrolled on to the Picture Book Programme of the Golden Egg Academy here in the United Kingdom, and it has given me tremendous focus and a determination to make space for my writing.

I trained as a journalist so I’ve always written, but creative writing is something I was doing privately at home. I think it can take a while to find the confidence as a writer to actively pursue your creative ambitions. But if you hold your nerve, anything is possible!

Zoë with her daughter.
Can you tell us more about the writing that you do? Do you write exclusively picture books? 

I am a freelance copywriter, but my real love is children’s literature. I love that picture books are so rich in possibility, and how playful you can be with language and rhythm and ideas.

So, yes, picture books are very much where my heart is.

I tend to write quirky, lyrical stories, and I’d like to work with incredible illustrators and editors who have similar leanings. I try to write every day –– there is still so much to learn! –– and this practice has really elevated my writing.

What prompted you to enter the Dueling Illustrator’s Manuscript Contest?

I’m at that stage in my picture book writing journey where I’m determined to create opportunities, and jump in whenever they show up.

One of the things I love about picture books is the interplay between text and illustrations, so the SCBWI Dueling Illustrator's Manuscript Contest was a dream contest to enter!

Emma's office
Emma, there were 100 entries to this inaugural Dueling Illustrators Manuscript contest. Can you tell us about your process for narrowing 100 entries down to the top six? 

For me, this process—just like my job as an editor—had a lot to do with the gut feeling I had as a reader in response to each manuscript.

As I read the 100 entries, I sifted and organized them; those that stood out to me for any reason I put into a special pile, which started at around 20-30 manuscripts. Then I reread that pile, and continued winnowing them down from there until I landed on my six favorites!

What stood out to you about the six finalists and the winning entry, “When the Huggalumph Hullabalooed”? 

As a judge and as a picture book editor, one of the most important things to me is the vision I have, when I first read a story, of what a finished book might look like: for example, what art style might work; what interesting or surprising visual possibilities are available; what freedom an artist might have to bring their own touch and perspective to the story.

Though the manuscripts I selected through this contest are quite different from each other, what they all had in common is that they were stories I’d be interested in seeing come to life on the page—and which I thought could come to life successfully.

Other important factors for a strong picture book manuscript include a premise that feels unique and distinct, and thoughtful writing that draws me in—for its humor, its lyricism, or its cleverness, for example. For me, the winners I chose had these elements, too.

Zoë's office
Zoë, what was the inspiration for your winning story “When the Huggalumph Hullabalooed”? 

I often start by free writing before I begin to plot, and it was the rhythm and the mouth feel of the words that provided the initial inspiration.

I’m fascinated by the way that the musicality of a text can engage a young child, even if they don’t fully understand the precise meaning of each word. It doesn’t matter!

I read a lot with my daughter and I’m sure that must feed into what I write. But I also think that the poetry of our first picture books stays with us forever.

My own childhood was filled with Maurice Sendak, Edward Lear, Judith Kerr, Roald Dahl and so on… so it’s all in there, I think.

Also my daughter, Elodie, has one or two Huggalumph characteristics herself!

View from Zoë's office
Can you tell us about finding out that your manuscript was the winning entry? 

It was incredible to discover that “When the Huggalumph Hullabalooed” had won.

I’d been following the SCBWI Bologna updates on Facebook, and I saw that my text was being illustrated by two superstar illustrators –– Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky and John Shelley, who was shortlisted for this year's Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

That in itself was really exciting, and then to actually win!

It’s been an invaluable opportunity to receive feedback from an editor of the caliber of Emma. The report she has written is thoughtful and encouraging, and I can’t thank her and the SCBWI enough.

I’ve already reworked “The Huggalumph” with Emma’s comments in mind. I guess it’s time to look for a great literary agent!

Emma, the guidelines for the contest specified that manuscripts not be longer than 350 words. For several years now authors have been advised to keep their picture book manuscripts short - 500 words or less. Do you see this trend continuing? 

Three hundred and fifty words is definitely on the short end of the picture books we publish! Word counts can vary greatly depending on things like the age group they’re targeting, and whether they’re fiction or nonfiction.

But yes, in general, there has been a trend towards brevity in recent years. I see this not as brevity for brevity’s sake, but because often, a manuscript reads as “too long” because it would simply be a stronger story if it were shorter.

When I edit a picture book text, sometimes I’ll encourage an author to condense when I find that there’s excessive description; too many different plotlines going on at once; or too much information incorporated (this can be a particular issue with nonfiction).

Every word is important in a picture book, where space is precious and limited—so every story needs focus and intent.

Based on your experience as an editor, what is the one thing that you think picture book authors should keep in mind when crafting their stories? 

Especially for authors who are just beginning or are early in their careers, it’s important to remember that once your text leaves your hands and is paired with an illustrator, it’s just as much their book as it is yours.

This idea understandably can be difficult to come to terms with, but it’s a crucial mindset for producing the best book possible.

Though the author’s input is important to me (of course!), I want the artists I work with to have the freedom to bring their own vision to the story, too.

In those early stages, when an author is first crafting their story, they can keep this in mind by asking themselves questions about how certain text might come alive visually.

For example, “is it important to the story that I write that my character is wearing a green shirt; or can I let the artist make that choice?”

Not only will this make your manuscript more appealing for an illustrator, but it will help you improve your story, too, by bringing in the focus and intent that I mention above.

Thanks so much for talking with me today! Zoë, we wish you and the Huggalumph great success! Emma, any last thoughts for our readers? 

Thanks for having me, Elisabeth! And thanks to all of you authors who submitted your work to this contest. Keep writing (and reading)!

Cynsational Notes

Emma Ledbetter, senior editor at Atheneum, joined Simon & Schuster in 2011 following internships with Little, Brown; Nickelodeon; and Nick Jr.

A graduate of Yale University with a B.A. in Art History, Emma has edited all kinds of books for kids. These include the picture book Ida, Always by Caron Levis, illustrated by Charles Santoso (Atheneum, 2016), which The New York Times called "an example of children's books at their best" as well as the ALA Notable middle grade novel Quicksand Pond by Newbery Honoree Janet Taylor Lisle (Atheneum, 2017).

She is especially fond of Edward Gorey, the Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker, and the Frances the Badger series by Russell Hoban.

Check out the books she’s edited, as well as some of her favorite children’s literature, on Pintrest; bonus points if you can decipher her Frances-related Twitter handle, @brdnjamforemma.


Zoë Armstrong is a British writer. After graduating from City, University of London, she trained as a journalist, and has worked in public relations within the charitable sector and in education.

She spent her childhood reading Maurice Sendak and Judy Blume in Oxford and Paris.

Her love of children’s literature persisted, and Zoë is now a member of the respected Golden Egg Academy for children’s writers.

Zoë lives with her young daughter in Brighton, on the South Coast of England, and works as a freelance writer. You can find Zoë on Twitter.

Elisabeth Norton grew up in Alaska, went to University in Tennessee, and lived for many years in Texas.

After a brief sojourn in England, she now lives with her family between the Alps and the Jura in Switzerland.

Elisabeth writes for a variety of ages and reading levels, including picture books, chapter books and middle grade books.

She serves as the regional advisor for the Swiss chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

When not writing, she can be found walking the dogs, playing board games, and spending time with family and friends.