Sunday, December 04, 2016

Guest Post: Danica Davidson on Writing Merchandise Tie-In Children's Books

New Voice Danica Davidson on Attack on the Overworld
By Danica Davidson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Writing books that tie in with an already-known franchise offers both its rewards and its own sets of challenges, but ultimately it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing.

I’m the author of the Overworld Adventure series (Skyhorse, 2015-)(also known as books for Minecrafters) and the Barbie comic book Barbie: Puppy Party (Papercutz, 2016). I’m getting started on an Overworld Adventure spinoff series (same main characters but different villains) and I have a short story that will be included in a new graphic novel volume of Tales from the Crypt.

I knew I wanted to be an author from a young age, and began submitting novels regularly to agents in middle school. What I wasn’t prepared for was how hard it is to break into publishing, and sometimes you have to find creative ways to get in.

In high school I began working as a journalist, and after a few years, I was writing for MTV, CNN, The Onion and other publications. During my twenties I got an agent, and while he was shopping a YA series of mine, I sold a book on how to draw manga (Japanese comics). Skyhorse, the publisher, then asked me if I had any ideas that might involve the video game Minecraft.

I took a brief look at other books Skyhorse was publishing to get a feel for what they wanted but to also make sure I pitched them something different.

After brainstorming for a while and asking friends (who were also Minecraft fans) what they thought of my ideas, I wrote a proposal that was several paragraphs long and built down the framework for the first book. Skyhorse wanted it and the result was Escape from the Overworld.

The first book sold well, and now I’ve written six books in this series: Escape from the Overworld, Attack on the Overworld, The Rise of Herobrine, Down into the Nether, The Armies of Herobrine and Battle with the Wither. I wrote them as adventure novels that happen to take place as if Minecraft were real, because I want them to be enjoyable to both Minecraft players and nongamers who just like a good action story.

With Barbie, I was submitting my resume to different comic book publishers. Papercutz, a publisher that does kids’ comics, wrote back with some interest. I sent them a spec script for Tales from the Crypt that I’d written, since they publish that franchise.

I didn’t sell Tales from the Crypt right away, but they liked it enough they told me to hold tight and they’d contact me when they had a property I could work on. A few months later, they asked if I could do Barbie! (Yes, you heard right — from Tales to the Crypt to Barbie.)

Mattel was watching over the project, because this is an official book, so when Papercutz asked me to write a proposal involving Barbie and puppies, that meant both Papercutz and Mattel would have to approve. I watched the new movie "Barbie and Her Sisters in the Great Puppy Adventure" (2015) and read some Barbie books to get a feel of what Mattel might like.

Puppies made me think of my love for animal welfare, so I pitched a proposal that Barbie and her sisters would put on a puppy party to get all the local shelter pets adopted. Mattel liked the proposal, so then I wrote the script, which then went to both Papercutz and Mattel to look over. (And, yes, I did end up selling the Tales from the Crypt script, and that will be out in 2017 from Papercutz!)

I never anticipated writing tie-ins, but I’ve had a lot of fun doing them.

You have to find the right companies to do them with, and the fact I already had a professional resume helped get attention on me. It’s kind of like a challenge to plug yourself into these different worlds and see what you come up with. You also never know what sort of adventures you’ll find yourself in!

Friday, December 02, 2016

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Amber Fang: Self-Publishing a Book from Arthur Slade. Peek: "...there it is. The breakdown of income and expenses. As you can see Amazon (and Createspace and affiliate money) amounted to most of my income. I put the expenses chart there, too." Notes: (a) post includes charts breaking down sales figures; (b) Arthur is a popular and acclaimed author of numerous successful traditionally published trade books as well.

Making a Difference Booklist from The Horn Book. Peek: "The books below — both fiction and nonfiction titles for a wide range of ages — portray many kinds of social justice work. Many specifically highlight what children can do to contribute this work, helping empower them to fight the good fight."

How Character Attributes and Flaws Work Within Character Arc by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Flaws exist because of a deep fear: that an emotionally traumatic event will happen again, and all that awful vulnerability one felt before will come crashing down." See also Angela on Writing Emotion: Does Your Hero Shrug, Smile & Frown Too Much?

Transgender Awareness Month 2016 Resources from Out of the Box at The Horn Book." Peek: "November is Transgender Awareness Month, a time to celebrate the lives of trans people, remember those lost to anti-trans hate crimes, and renew our commitment to fight for trans rights.

Heavy-Handed Imagery & Theme by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: "That belongs on a classroom poster. Not at the heart of a story. Now, if you show a character’s life being enriched by sharing, that’s another thing. That lets the reader see the benefits of sharing for himself, and to make the connection that sharing is probably great on his own."

Good Men & Bad Men: On Latino Masculinities in Joe Jiménez’s Bloodline by Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez, PhD; from Latinx in Kidlit. Peek: "...polarizing possibilities of what it means to be a Latino man are harmful and we need more complex images of Latino men and Latino masculinities that give us a broad spectrum." See also Creating a Diverse Books Legacy: Interview with Culture Chest Founder Rose Espiritu.

Interview: Author Latisha Redding on Immigration, Grief & The Healing Power of Art from Lee & Low. Peek: "Certainly a six-year old doesn’t have the vocabulary to say, “I’m depressed because this happened to me.” So I wanted to know how could this child, Henri, express the trauma that he has experienced. I explored that question with the story."

What It Takes to Open a Bookstore by Jonah Engel Bromwich from The New York Times. Peek: "In the last several years, though, there are signs that independent bookstores are making a comeback in New York and other cities, in part through innovative financing that gives neighborhoods a stake in the businesses."

How to Write When Life Sucks by Cathy Yardly from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...study yourself: your process, your boosts, your triggers. You’re not going to cure all your stressors at once. What you want is to halt the downward spiral, and slowly build your reserves."

This Week at Cynsations


More Personally

Donna Janell Bowman's Step Right Up is an Orbis Pictus Recommended Book.
Thank you to The Girls' School of Austin for the welcoming hospitality at my school visit on Thursday. Thank you for the welcome signs. Thank you for your enthusiasm and terrific questions. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you! I had such an amazing time.

Personal Links


Honored to join the SCBWI winter conference faculty!
Honored to join the SCBWI winter conference faculty!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Book Trailer: Wing & Claw: Forest of Wonders (Book 1) by Linda Sue Park

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Wing & Claw: Forest of Wonders by Linda Sue Park (HarperChildren's, 2016). From the promotional copy:

From Newbery Medal–winning author Linda Sue Park comes a captivating fantasy-adventure about a boy, a bat, and an amazing transformation.

Raffa Santana has always loved the mysterious Forest of Wonders. For a gifted young apothecary like him, every leaf could unleash a kind of magic. 

When an injured bat crashes into his life, Raffa invents a cure from a rare crimson vine that he finds deep in the Forest. His remedy saves the animal but also transforms it into something much more than an ordinary bat, with far-reaching consequences. 

Raffa’s experiments lead him away from home to the forbidding city of Gilden, where troubling discoveries make him question whether exciting botanical inventions—including his own—might actually threaten the very creatures of the Forest he wants to protect.

The first book in an enchanting trilogy, Forest of Wonders richly explores the links between magic and botany, family and duty, environment and home.

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Life, Writing & A Word In Praise of Emotional Safety

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

This morning I see a child on the early side of toddler, snuggled like a well-placed puzzle piece in his daddy’s arms.

He smiles at me, reaches out with one arm, as if I will be a wonderful new discovery. I reach back…

But, no. The minute I do, he pulls his hand away, squishing himself into the soft corners of a neck, shoulder, chest.

He’ll reach back when he’s ready. Right now I’m too new, too scary.

He’ll begin devoting a great proportion of his time to toddling out into the world, crawling or leaping into courageous experiences, taking risks, feeling exhilarated, yet vulnerable, and then scooting back into the safe spaces of his life for a rest, reassurance, and renewal.

Are we adults really much different?

For me, I’d say the answer is "no" – certainly not when it comes to needing a calm, comfortable, even neutral emotional space between encouraging myself to be courageous, vulnerable, emotionally and intellectually risk-taking in relationships and art.

A Culture of Courage

The concepts of finding the courage to make yourself vulnerable, break out of comfortable patterns and take risks, and create resilience and strength after failure, are not new – but have become increasingly familiar.

When I first heard this kind of language many decades ago in New York psychoanalytic circles, the concept of safety – AKA “comfortable” – was a pejorative term. Safety was a place to challenge, leave behind with other neurotic behaviors, cast aside as one leaped into learning to be vulnerable, take emotional, intellectual, job- and relationship-related risks.

I’d hear things like, You’re in a ‘safe’ job (not challenging yourself) and You’re in a ‘safe’ relationship (too comfortable) – as if there was something cowardly (or neurotic) about being in a certain kind of situation.

At the time, I didn’t have the courage to question this. But inside, I didn’t understand how the need for safety was “bad”. It puzzled me. I certainly understood it intellectually. But emotionally?

Not so much. I’d longed for a sense of safety as a child, and was even more aware of the need for it as an adult…That is, the feeling that I was protected, safe, comfortable – who could ask for more?

Upside/Downside

As I matured (and learned to trust my own beliefs, capacities, and strengths), I found and tried to sustain the courage to be vulnerable, take emotional and intellectual risks, and use disappointments and failures, in relationships and in my writing life, to grow stronger and clearer about myself and my work.

There’s no question that having the courage to experience vulnerability, take emotional and intellectual risks, work hard to find and maintain resilience after disappointments and failures, can be exhilarating, nourishing, deeply meaningful, and exquisitely rewarding.

It can also be terrifying, discouraging, and occasionally even depleting.

So in between the leaps into experiences that may frighten – but ultimately reward – us, I like to think that seeking safety or comfort is important, too.

I believe equally in the benefits of courageous vulnerability and risk-taking in our work and our lives, and the need for emotional safety. I try not to judge one as better than the other, but instead view them as a unit, better together than they are apart.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked hard to be courageous and to be a risk-taker in my life and my work. I just don’t want to disregard, dismiss, or disparage, the need for safety, for comfort – between the minutes or days or months of being courageous.

Between "Over" and "Next"

I love those times of safety, during which I often focus on nourishing my spirit and intellect. I heard a replay of an NPR interview with the magnificent Norman Lear. Many of you may have heard or read the original interview.

“I think what I’m saying – and it’s something I’ve come to over a number of years – is I do enjoy the moment,” he continues. “There are two little words that couldn’t be more true – ‘over’ and ‘next.’

"When something is over, you gotta get used to knowing that it is over. Nothing is going to bring it back. It is just a memory. What about ‘next’?

If there’s a hammock in the middle, then that’s what they mean about living in the moment.

I think of that hammock as a safe, comforting place. A place to rock in between periods of intense, deep, vulnerable, and risk-taking work.

Not a place of denial of or defense against being courageous, but a place between.

And, like the little one I saw this morning, cuddling into his parent’s body, I embrace it.

I hold on as long as I need to, gazing out at what might be “next” – then, leap.

Cynsational Notes

More on Carol Coven Grannick
Carol Coven Grannick has been a writer since before her fourth grade teacher told her she was one. Her poetry, essays, and articles have appeared in numerous print and online venues.

She began writing for children in 1999, and her poetry and fiction have appeared in Highlights for Children, Ladybug, Cricket and Hunger Mountain. Her picture book manuscripts have won several awards, and her middle grade novel in verse manuscript, "Reeni’s Turn," was named a finalist in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children's Writing at Hunger Mountain.

Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and consultant/educator, Carol also writes extensively about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience. Her column, "The Inside Story," appears regularly in the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

Carol lives with her husband in Chicagoland and treasures her family, friends, and work at an extraordinary early childhood center.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Guest Post: Melanie J. Fishbane, author of Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery, on Earning & Celebrating Success

By Melanie Fishbane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Confession. I have a difficult time celebrating my success. When it comes to my accomplishments there is a little voice in my head that suggests, as the Kirsty MacColl song goes, “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby.”

Perhaps it is also because my path to publication is a bit unconventional. I couldn’t believe it when I was approached by Lynne Missen of Penguin Canada (now Penguin Random House of Canada) with the possibility of writing a YA novel about my favourite author, L.M. Montgomery.

I hadn’t finished my MFA yet at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I didn’t have an agent (and still don’t), and was still deep in another book that had a mind of its own.

Melanie delivers her graduate lecture at VCFA

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.

After about a month or so (see, didn’t wait all that long!) I was asked to revise those chapters; I suspect to see how well I took editorial feedback. I went home and worked on the revisions, seeking to prove to Lynne that she hadn’t put her faith in the wrong person, and to myself that this was possible. About a month after that I sent her the revisions. And waited.

After about a month or so (see patience is a practice!) I was given an offer. As I didn’t have an agent, and I think too new to understand that I could have found one to help me negotiate the deal, I hired an entertainment lawyer, who helped me navigate all of those non-writerly things that can make us uncomfortable.

Over the next four and a half years I devoted myself to the book.

I also learned how to trust the process and see the editor as a partner who wanted what was best for me and the book. Lynne allowed me to explore characters and scenes that ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor, but also asked the right (sometimes annoying) questions, encouraging me to go deeper, find Maud’s character, as well as craft the world in which she would live.

I kept wondering if I was taking too long writing the book, but Lynne assured me that we wanted it to be the best book it could be. So, I trusted her and kept writing.

When the ARC of Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery, arrived on my doorstep a few months ago, there was a little postcard from Lynne congratulating me. And while I couldn’t quite believe that this was my success, I trusted (again) she knew something I didn’t.

Wrapping it in a plastic bag and then a padded computer case (because it was my only copy) I carried it around with me, showing it to people, and stepping into the idea that this was something to be celebrated. That whatever our path to publication is, honor it, hold it close, and then set it free.


Monday, November 28, 2016

Three Authors Receive Top Honors from NCTE

By NCTE
for Cynsations

ATLANTA-- Authors Jason Reynolds, Melissa Sweet, and Marilyn Nelson were just announced winners of prestigious literacy awards from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Jason Reynolds won the 2017 Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children for his book Ghost (Atheneum). The Charlotte Huck award is given to books that promote and recognize fiction that has the potential to transform children's lives.

Melissa Sweet won the 2017 Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children for her book Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

The NCTE Orbis Pictus Award, established in 1989, is the oldest children's book award for nonfiction.

Marilyn Nelson won the 2017 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. The biannual award is given to a living American poet for his or her aggregate work for children ages 3–13.

Honor and Recommended book lists were also announced. All three authors will be invited to speak at next year's NCTE Annual Convention in St. Louis, MO.

NCTE is the nation's most comprehensive literacy organization, supporting teachers across the preK–college spectrum.

Through the expertise of its members, NCTE has served at the forefront of every major improvement in the teaching and learning of English and the language arts since 1911.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Gratitude

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Cynsations will resume posting Nov. 28, 2016.

Thank you, blog readers, contributors & intern Gayleen Rabakukk.

Thank you to all who support my creative writing, to my author and illustrator friends, Austin SCBWI family, VCFA WCYA family, diversity advocates, gatekeepers & publishing pros.

Thank you to all who radiate goodness & light!


Friday, November 18, 2016

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Courage, Connection & Hope: Interview with Gae Polisner from Book Club Advisor. Peek: "...a video interview on the power of literature, how The Memory of Things was created, and the impact of a national tragedy on a generation."

Finding the Lost Voices in YA Historical Fiction by Pia Ceres from Lee & Low. Peek: "Using the framework of the past, the genre challenges consumerism, individual sovereignty, justice – salient subjects that adolescents actively question and explore."

When It's Okay to Listen to Your Inner Editor by Sara Letourneau from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "...ask yourself, 'Will this improve my WIP? Or am I beating myself up?' You might already know the answer subconsciously."

Ambelin Kwaymullina: Thoughts on Being an Ally of Indigenous Writers from Justine Labalestier. Peek: "I believe supporting others requires a rights-based, strength-based approach. Rights-based, in that I recognise that the denial of anyone’s rights, and the diminishment of anyone’s humanity, diminishes and denies my own."

Author Interview: Dr. René Saldaña Jr. from Houston Public Media. Peek: "The saga of children Mickey’s age attempting to come to the United States without their parents is sad yet intriguing. Could there be a connection between the unaccompanied minor children and the mysterious Natalia?"

Your Two Plots by Dave King from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "Depending on how self-aware your characters are and how distracting your action is, you can hide how your internal story develops until the end."

See also Islam in the Classroom
Books in the Home: Mommy, Do I Have White Skin?: Skin Color, Family, and Picture Books by Julie Hakim Azzam from The Horn Book. Peek: "We’re surrounded by images that tell us mothers and children should look alike. Adoptive, interracial, and intercultural families do not have what Christopher Myers called in his essay 'Young Dreamers' an 'image library,' a robust visual archive that reflects and validates their existence."

SCBWI 2016 Winter Reading List: "Authors and illustrators from close to your hometown to those around the world are featured on the List. The Lists will be published bi-annually, in the Summer and Winter." Note: I was excited to learn about some new (to me) Texas authors from the list, and that's saying something because one of my personal commitments is to keep up with new voices, especially in my home state.

The Slush Pile Myth by Elizabeth Bird from A Fuse #8 Production. Peek: "...there is a myth that circulates about the children’s book that is plucked from the pile and subsequently reaches hitherto untold levels of success. I know of only three instances where this happened, and I wanted to just give them a quick glance today."

Crossing Borders by Reyna Grande from Latinxs in Kidlit. Peek: "It saddens me to see that the world—instead of tearing down border walls—is actually building more of them. There are more border barriers today than ever before. In 1989, there were only 15 border walls in the world. Today there are more than 63, and counting."

This Week at Cynsations


Cynsational Screening Room




More Personally

Thank you to everyone at McAllen Book Festival and McAllen (Texas) Public Library for a wonderful event. Here are a few pics from the author party last Friday night.

A.G.  Howard & Beth Fehlbaum
With Lupe Ruiz-Flores, Carolyn Dee Flores & Kelly Starling Lyons
Thanks also to Michael Hays, Lee Francis IV, Debbie Reese, Traci Sorell, Tim Tingle, and everyone who turned out last night for the "Indigenous Voices in MG" #MGLitChat on Twitter.

I have signed on to A Declaration in Support of Children from the Brown Bookshelf. Peek: "...we, the undersigned children’s book authors and illustrators, do publicly affirm our commitment to using our talents and varied forms of artistic expression to help eliminate the fear that takes root in the human heart amid lack of familiarity and understanding of others; the type of fear that feeds stereotypes, bitterness, racism and hatred; the type of fear that so often leads to tragic violence and senseless death." See also Hundreds of U.S. Children's Authors Sign Petition to Tackle Racism & Xenophobia, Hundreds of Children's Authors Pledge to Combat Bigotry and What Do We Tell the Children?

Cynsations will be on hiatus next week while those of us in the U.S. contemplate gratitude. 

Personal Links

Honored to join the SCBWI winter conference faculty!
Honored to join the SCBWI winter conference faculty!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

In Memory: Yumi Heo

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Obituary: Yumi Heo by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "[Henry] Holt’s Laura Godwin shared this remembrance:

'Yumi was extremely gracious, enthusiastic, and inquisitive,' she said. 'I loved the way she incorporated ‘mistakes’ into her art rather than erasing or deleting them.
"If she drew a squiggle where she hadn’t intended, it would show up in the final art as a tree or a rabbit or whatever struck her fancy. She was part artist, part magician—and always an inspiration.'"
Yumi Heo Memorial Fund from Go Fund Me. Peek:

"Please show your support in honor of internationally loved children’s book author and Illustrator and creator of Polka Dot Penguin Pottery, Yumi Heo.
"Your support will help continue two of Yumi’s dreams, the steady training of her daughter as a professional figure skater and the founding of a scholarship program to help students in Korea who have big dreams and little resources."

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Guest Post: David Jacobson on Trusting the Illustrator & the Publishing Process

By David Jacobson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

For the last eight years, I have worked for a small Seattle book publisher called Chin Music Press.

I've done everything from fact checking and copy editing to developmental- and line-editing, from setting up book tours to reading through the slush pile (a task I actually enjoyed).

But during all that time, my name never appeared on the cover of a book.

That changed this September with the release of my first title, Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. A picture book, it's both biography and anthology of a much-loved Japanese children's poet, whose work has yet to be introduced to English-language readers.

Becoming an author, I learned, is a humbling experience. I had to endure the red-penciling of my not-so-flawless prose (something I used to dish out myself), and the frustration of waiting for each cog in the publishing machine to take its spin—editing, illustrating, book designing, leveling, printing, marketing, reviewing, even mailing—as deadlines came and went.

The experience opened my eyes to the anxiety authors feel as they lose more and more control over their creation, something that had not really dawned on me despite my years working in publishing.


As a staff member at a publisher, I had dealt with authors who continued to rework small details of their text until the bitter end, who agonized over each cover illustration, or who fretted over how their book page appeared on Amazon. Indeed, the degree to which authors continued "meddling" in their books sometimes affected how well we worked with them.

But being on the author side of the equation taught me just how important it is to give up control, regardless of the anxiety it might cause. That was particularly true of my interactions with Are You an Echo? illustrator Toshikado Hajiri.

David
When it came time to decide which cover to use, I requested multiple cover sketches, asking for one thing after another to be changed. But I couldn't get satisfied.

 Finally, since I was unsure of how to proceed, I asked our book designer Dan Shafer for advice. He recommended limiting how much I was trying to steer the illustrator. Illustrators, he said, do their best work when they have freedom to react to the text in their own way.

Ultimately, I left Toshi to his own devices and he ended up producing a glorious painting of Misuzu and her daughter at sunset.

We went with that.

During my time at Chin Music, there have been many occasions when interactions between writer and editor, or writer and designer have produced unexpected results.

Current author A. V. Crofts tells of her own positive experience of letting go how she thought the cover of her book should look. In another of our titles, Todd Shimoda's Oh! a Mystery of Mono no Aware, book designer Josh Powell brilliantly conceived of the idea of printing the entire book (both text and illustrations) in shades of black-and-white except for the very end.

Photo credit below.
Though initially intended to reduce the cost of the book, his solution resulted in a final explosion of color that dramatically enhanced the conclusion.

Writing is often thought to be a solo activity where one can wield total control over ones craft.

Oddly enough, its twin, publishing—the business of connecting writers to readers—is more of a team sport, requiring the combined input of different players with different skills and sensibilities.

So, as an author, don't try to control everything in your book. Find really good people to join your team. Then let your editor, illustrator, designer, or translator bring something of him or herself to the process.

The result may surprise you.

interior illustration from the book
Cynsational Notes

Photo of Misuzu, Courtesy of Preservation Association of Misuzu Kaneko's Work.

Review of the Day: Are You An Echo? by David Jacobson from Elizabeth Bird at A Fuse #8 Production. Peek: "I hope that the fame that came to Kaneko after the 2011 tsunami will take place in America, without the aid of a national disaster. And I hope that every child that reads, or is read, one of her poems feels that little sense of empathy she conveyed so effortlessly in her life."

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Author Interviews: Kate Hannigan & Janet Fox on Facts in Historical Fiction

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

My current work in progress is a middle grade historical fantasy set in 1903. 

Delving into the past has made me think about how history is presented in novels and the balance between real and imaginary. 

For more insight on that topic, I turned to the authors of two of my favorite recently published books, focusing on process.

Kate Hannigan’s The Detective's Assistant (Little, Brown, 2015) is based on the extraordinary true story of Kate Warne, America’s first female detective. It won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award in 2016.

Was there a particular item, fact or event that sparked the idea for The Detective's Assistant?

KH: I was researching a story about camels in the American West in the 1850s when I came across a single nugget about Kate Warne. I read how she walked into Allan Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency in downtown Chicago, and he had assumed she was there for a secretary position. But she talked her way into a detective’s job, convincing Pinkerton she could “worm out” secrets from the wives and girlfriends of the city’s crooks and criminals.

Stumbling on this little gem, I was hooked! I dropped that camel story and ran with Kate Warne!

At what point did you start researching that? Did you start drafting a story first, or did you do research up front?

Kate's model for her main character
KH: I’m kind of a nutter about gathering facts. My background is newspaper journalism, so maybe that’s to blame. But I wanted to know all I could about Kate Warne, Allan Pinkerton, and Abraham Lincoln during this part of American history.

The biggest research was around understanding the Baltimore Plot, which is the pivotal part of the story — the plot to assassinate Lincoln before he could be sworn in for his first term.

So the whole process was immersive. I dove in deep before writing a single word. Once I felt like I had the facts, then I began my story.

Did you continue doing research as you were writing?

KH: I’m still doing research! And the book published over a year ago! But I love this story so much, I can’t not learn more about it. I do school visits all the time, and I talk to students about it. So it’s very much in the front of my mind.

As I was writing, I would come across a question — my characters are walking down the street in 1860 Chicago, so what were they walking on? How comfortable would a train ride be in 1860? Would we ride on upholstered seats or hard wood? — and drop down another rabbit hole.

Research is never ending with historical writing!

Were you surprised by what you learned doing research? Did any unexpected finds end up becoming significant parts of the story?

KH: If you’re writing historical fiction, you’re probably a pretty huge history nerd. So digging up a juicy nugget can be a thrill! And I dug up so many!

I enjoyed researching and writing this story to a ridiculous degree!

My characters live in a boardinghouse, so getting that setting right was foremost in my mind. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) and Sister Carrie by Theodore Drieser (1900) (which was set a bit later but still illuminating nonetheless), just to get a sense of language of the times.

But I also plunged into nonfiction about the era, and I found a particular book about boardinghouses that was helpful. It described how incredibly cheap the managers — usually women — had to be to keep these places afloat. They were notorious for serving terrible food, which I thought could be played for a lot of humor in my book.

And this is what led to the chapter about Nell and the other residents eating a questionable meat for dinner, and Mrs. Wigginbottom getting shifty when there is talk about the orange tabby cat going missing.

Your book mixes well-known historical figures (Abraham Lincoln) with lesser-known, yet real individuals (Kate Warne) as well as completely fictional characters.

Tell us more about balancing the fact and the fiction – did you lean heavily on things the historical figures actually said? Were there some details you changed for the sake of the story? Were there some fixed points you felt couldn’t be altered?

KH: Fact and fiction! This balance kept me up at night! I agonized over being true to the players and what was on record as having happened. I visited Kate Warne’s grave site here in Chicago more than a few times, and I deeply desired to do right by this woman.

But I also worried about the reader, and I wanted to make sure that the story I was telling would hold the interest of a 21st-century American kid. So it was agony!

Pinkerton had written about the cases that involved Kate Warne, so of course I wanted to nod to those. But I took artistic license and shuffled their order, so that the culminating case is the saving of Lincoln’s life. I needed to put them in a different order to serve my story, and I had to come to terms with that decision. It took me a bit though.

Do you feel authors writing for middle grade readers have a greater obligation to present an accurate picture of a historical time period, than those writing YA or adult fiction?

KH: I very much believe authors for young readers have a greater responsibility to get historical fiction right. Because history is all new to this audience — this might be their first introduction to the Civil War, to Abraham Lincoln, to the Underground Railroad.

And if we make history engaging for them, we’re opening the doors to more exploration of our past, to creating more history lovers.

It’s a responsibility I take pretty seriously. Which is why I tend to research my books to death!

Have you gotten any feedback from history or social studies teachers? Or any school visits or other presentations aimed specifically at the history aspect?

KH: Yes! And it’s been so great! I’ve gotten tremendous feedback from teachers and librarians.

The Civil War hits with fifth-grade curriculum in many schools, so The Detective's Assistant has been on reading lists around the country. I’ve done Skype visits as well as in-person school visits, and the response from young readers has been mind-blowing!

The New York Historical Society included it in their family book club, the Global Reading Challenge in Chicago listed it among their 2016 books, an entire fifth-grade in Dallas read the book as part of their Civil War history unit. It’s been wonderful to share the story with so many kids!

Was there anything you found while doing research for The Detective's Assistant that will find it’s way into your next book?

KH: Answer: I’ve been bitten by the research bug, and specifically, research into amazing women and people of color forgotten by history. So my next book is focused on World War II women beyond Rosie the Riveter. I can’t say there’s any overlap with the Civil War era, but the passion I feel for dusting off these remarkable players from the past and sharing them with a whole new audience, that definitely has carried over. It’s kind of become my mission!

The Detective's Assistant is realistic historical fiction, do things change when the story includes more fantasy elements? For that aspect, I asked Janet Fox, author of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle similar questions.

Was there a particular item, fact or event that sparked the idea for The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle? (what was it?)

JF: Yes! I was mucking around on the internet when a friend posted a picture of an object the like of which I'd never noticed before. It was an 18th century German chatelaine. I thought it was peculiar, and I had to find out more about it, so I googled and discovered that this chatelaine was an offshoot of the more practical set of keys - to the chateau - worn at the waist.

I learned that chatelaines had evolved from keys to practical items, like scissors and coin purses, to charms. This chatelaine was all charms, and they were so odd that a story began forming in my mind almost right away.

At what point did you start researching that? (i.e. – did you start drafting a story first, or did you do research up front?) 

JF: Once I'd learned what a chatelaine was I began writing almost at once. Within a week of seeing the image, which is the same as the image that's in the novel, I'd completed the first 40 pages of what would become the novel. That's generally the way I work. I have to discover who my main character is and what her problem is before I can begin to flesh out the story, and research is part of that fleshing out.

Did you continue doing research as you were writing?

JF: Yes - once I have a handle on my protagonist and what the story is generally about I tend to blend research with writing. For example, as soon as I decided to set the novel in Scotland, I took a pause and did a bunch of research on Scotland. That's almost always how I work - I write first to discover what I need to know more about. But it all starts with the character and her problem.

Were you surprised by what you learned doing research? Did any unexpected finds end up becoming significant parts of the story?

JF: Not really - at least, not in this story. But read on - there's a relevant answer to this in your last question.

Your book mixes actual events and places completely fictional – and fantastical - events and characters. Tell us more about balancing the fact and the fiction? Were there any fixed points you felt couldn’t be altered? (why?)

JF: I felt it was very important to be true to any factual details. For example, I had to learn what I could about enigma machines, about the inner workings of clocks, about movements and activities in the North Sea during that part of World War II, and so on.

That's where I really pay attention to accuracy - when I'm weaving facts into fantasy I want those facts to be right. In that way the reader more readily suspends disbelief for the fantasy elements.

Do the fantastical elements have a historical influence?

JF: In a way. My grandparents were Irish and English, and I heard many stories growing up about the fantastical beliefs they carried with them from home, things like the stories my grandfather told me about "the little people." And Celtic and pagan practices have a basis in history and yet are mystical or fantastic in nature. To me, there's always a kernel of truth in a fairy tale.

Do you feel authors writing for middle grade readers have a greater obligation to present an accurate picture of a historical time period, than those writing YA or adult fiction?

JF: I think any writer writing for any audience has an obligation to be accurate when it comes to historical detail. But I do think that the vulnerability of the younger reader requires a special adherence to accuracy. These are readers who will feel cheated if I give them information they later find to be false. They are also readers more likely to believe whatever you tell them, and I would hate to plant falsehoods in their minds.

Have you gotten any feedback from history or social studies teachers? (or any school visits or other presentations aimed specifically at the history aspect?) 

Dunrobin Castle, Janet's inspiration, located in Scotland
JF: Not yet, although I would love to present something about the specific history aspects of the story.

I'm fascinated by World War II (and as we can see by the large number of middle grade novels out the past couple of years set during the war, so are others.)

The Blitz alone was a big deal, and I've given talks at bookstores at which adults have come forward after to tell me that they or their aunt or their father was sent out of London - and that's why they're in America today.

Was there anything you found while doing research for The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle that will find it’s way into your next book?

JF: Since Kat is clever with clocks, I did a bit of clock research and uncovered a rare old timepiece called a "Death's Head" watch. After further research I discovered that one of owners of one of the most bizarre of these was the doomed Mary, Queen of Scots. Well, that didn't feel accidental. As you can imagine, that watch is the centerpiece of my sequel.

chatelaine
Cynsational Notes

Janet Fox on Blending History with Fantasy from Cynsations. Peek: "Whether writing historical fiction or fantasy, the objective of suspension of disbelief can only be accomplished if the world-building is sound. In historical fiction, that means lots of research to get interesting tidbits right. In fantasy, it means crafting an environment in which those interesting tidbits feel right."

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

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2016

New Voice: JoAnne Stewart Wetzel on Playing Juliet

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-contract Revision Process

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

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

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

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

Post-contract Bonus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynsational Notes

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

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

Cynsational Gallery

View more research photos from JoAnne.

Shakespeare's Childhood Home
Shakespeare's Childhood Bedroom

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