Saturday, July 31, 2004

Jingle Dancer

"Sing like no one can hear you. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like no one is watching." --from a plaque designed by artist Christina Holt; available from Signals

"As Moon kissed Sun good night, Jenna shifted her head on Grandma Wolfe's shoulder. "I want to jingle dance, too." --JINGLE DANCER by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow, 2000)

I read an article on MSN this week reporting that singer/actress Jennifer Lopez, age 34, had announced that she was moving into Phase II of her life and, therefore, nothing she'd done in Phase I counted. Clean slate.

How liberating!

While I believe history is ignored at one's peril, I do like the idea of renewal, starting fresh, looking forward. So, I'm going to try the same thing. I'm not sure I'd call it Phase II (childhood and adolescence each merit their own phase, I think, if only to set farther back some questionable boyfriend choices--but then again, if J. Lo is okay with hers....). In any case, I'd like to move ahead with more vigor.

First, though, it seems important to look back. Writing-wise, I'd like recall the writing journeys that brought me here today. I won't bore you with the stories behind the manuscripts that didn't sell--no blog is big enough to hold all those. But rather I'll focus on those that did eventually find an audience.

The first of my books was an illustrated children's picture book for ages four to seven, titled JINGLE DANCER.

I scribbled the first draft of the manuscript in blue ink on a torn envelope while waiting to tutor my next student in English composition at St. Edward's University. I worked there for a semester, shortly after Greg and I moved to Austin for the first time (ours, not his), tutoring freshmen in the migrant farm family students' program. All the kids were ESL speakers/writers; all were tremendously inspirational. It was a fantastic experience.

In any case, I started with the story of two sisters, one of whom was named "Kenna." I can't make out the other name on the envelope anymore. It didn't have any arc whatsoever, but rather was a slice-of-life piece about two young girls getting ready to go to powwow.

Suffice it to say, I quickly realized that, say, conflict and rising action might be a good idea. And so I revised, narrowing the focus on one girl, and changing her name to "Jenna" because it sounded good with "jingle dancing," which is a lovely ladies' dance. Though Rain from RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME has a big brother, Fynn, I usually write characters who're only children like I was. Sad to say, but for focus reasons, Jenna's sister had to go.

I revised the manuscript, then tentatively titled "Jenna, Jingle Dancer, a total of 83 times--I still used to bother to count back then. I always mention that to kids, who so often groan when a teacher marks a mistake on their paper or--gasp--makes them rewrite once. Writing is rewriting, or so goes the saying. And thank heavens, or boy, would I ever be in trouble.

The truth is I hate writing first drafts but adore revising. I'm open to at least trying any suggestion that might make the story better. In fact, one rule I have for rejecting an idea outright is that I must be able to articulate a reasoned, literary reason for not giving it a fair shot. It protects my work from my ego.

Up until "Jenna, Jingle Dancer," I'd had a great system for handling submissions. I sent the manuscript to an editor. The editor's assistant sent me a form rejection. I filed the form rejection in a big, white three-ring binder. I sent the manuscript to someone else. Sometimes I revised first.

Occasionally, I got a scribbled note saying something like--"very promising" or "send more work." I gloried in and celebrated those. A Houghton Mifflin editor named Margaret Raymo was the first editor to write something encouraging on one of my decline letters. I continued writing by the glow of her words for months.

Following this course, I'd submitted "Jenna, Jingle Dancer" to Rosemary Brosnan, who was then the head editor at Lodestar. She'd been interested in another picture book manuscript of mine, "Something Bigger" (a fishing story about a boy and his grandfather that years later was rewritten to become the last short story in INDIAN SHOES).

I also submitted it for critique at a couple of SCBWI regional conferences--one in Houston and one in Brazos Valley. Imagine my surprise when I walked into the Houston conference and found out that Simon & Schuster editor Kevin Lewis thought my manuscript was wonderful--"just the kind of thing we should be doing with multicultural books," he said and hugged me. (Keep in mind, at this point in my life, editors were not people who hugged me. They were mysterious, all-powerful, and a bit scary. This, actually has changed for the better). Then, at the Brazos Valley conference, editor Liz Bicknell (now of Candlewick Press) had quite flattering things to say as well. Right about the same time, I signed with my agent, and in the end, the manuscript sold to Rosemary at Lodestar, where it had particularly caught the attention of her then editorial assistant, named "Jenna."

For a short while, all was well. My friends fussed over me and sent flowers. I skipped through the streets of Chicago. But then Lodestar was downsized in one of those many publishing buyouts that were so frequent at the time (and still, let's face it, are always a danger). Rosemary took another job at Morrow Junior shortly after, but then--eek!--Morrow was bought by Harper and downsized, though they kept some of the contracts, including mine, and some of the editors, including Rosemary. Woo woo! We were in business.

But in sum, JINGLE DANCER is a book that was originally sold to one company, produced at a second, and distributed by a third. That's a volitile industry!

The title was changed from "Jenna, Jingle Dancer" to JINGLE DANCER, I think because it looked better on the cover art. As for the rest of the book itself...

Post-acquisition edits were unusually mild, the addition of one clause ("As light blurred silver..."). I'm sure never again will edits on one of my books be so minor. I also added the author's note and brief glossary, mostly for the convenience of teachers, librarians, and parents. (I doubt kids of the book's target age read author's notes.)

JINGLE DANCER has been noted for the following qualities:

(1) inclusion of biracial Native characters in the illustrations without it being an issue in the text, particularly Black Indians;

(2) its strong girl/woman relationship emphasis, which cuts against the false stereotype of Native women being secondary to Native men or otherwise undervalued;

(3) the juxtaposition of traditional (like storytelling) and contemporary (like a TV in the family room) images in a Native American setting, which sends a clear signal that we are still here (to paraphrase the Lerner series by the same name).

(4) showing of Native characters of all generations, not just children and elders;

(5) showing of a woman in a professional role (Cousin Elizabeth is a lawyer);

(6) building a story on the number for instead of three (as in three wishes, three billy goats gruff, three pigs as is so popular in the European tradition);

(7) Grandma Wolfe--the subtle suggestion of Wolf as Grandma instead of, well, the bad guy who eats grandma. Yikes! (Another Native versus Euro perspective quirk).

Arguably these qualities repeat in some of my work that followed, though honestly I didn't put much thought into any of this at the time. I just wrote the world I saw.

Probably no aspect of the final book was as pleasing to me as Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu's original watercolor illustrations. JINGLE DANCER was the first book they had done that didn't reflect either of their own backgrounds (Neil is African American; and Ying is Chinese American). They were tremendously concerned about accuracy and solicited several suggestions for what to include in a contemporary Okie Indian household. Rosemary was considerate enough to let me double check the illustrations, and I was able to make a few comments that led to revisions which reflected Jenna's world with more storytelling precision.

Generally speaking, authors and illustrators are kept separate, but in this case, it made sense for me to offer feedback because I was the subject-matter expert.

That said, only Neil and Ying could've brought the characters to life with such warmth and love. I'll be forever grateful for their talent, consideration, and grace.

Of course, long after a writer's efforts on a particular tale are finished, the story lives on. On bookshelves, in the hearts and memories of readers. It makes me smile to think of Jenna, forever dancing.

See also:

Articles

Jingle Dancing With Cynthia Leitich Smith by Julia Durango of By the Book. Short interview with includes information about Cynthia's first two books and some of her favorite books as a reader. Fall 2000.

“Native Now: Contemporary Indian Stories” by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Book Links, December 2000).

Meet the Author: Cynthia Leitich Smith "Jingle Dancer" by Joanne Spataro from Families-First.com Fresh Air TeenZine. Spring 2000.

An Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Taylor Fogarty from American Western Magazine. Spring 2000.

Awards

Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies and a Selector's Choice for 2001; Named to the 2001 2 x 2 Reading List of twenty books recommended for children ages two through second grade by the Texas Library Association; One of five finalists for the children's/YA division of the Oklahoma Book Award; Runner-up for the Storyteller Award from the Western Writers Association; Named a CCBC Choice for 2001; Debuts That Deliver (Book Magazine); Editor's Choice, Library Talk); featured in GREAT BOOKS ABOUT THINGS KIDS LOVE by Kathleen Odean; 2002 Read Across Texas Bibliography (Texas State Library and Archives Commission).

note: back then I didn't read reviews at all, so I can't easily pull any. But I think they were pretty positive.

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