Sunday, November 07, 2010

Event Report: Thank you, Kalamazoo!

What a pleasure it was to travel last week to Kalamazoo, Michigan, for a series of author events coordinated by the lovely and gracious Sue Warner, head of youth services, at the Kalamazoo Public Library.

Sue is a top-notch professional and a first-rate host. I greatly enjoyed her company, her efforts to introduce me to the local flavors, and her attention to detail. What's more, the whole library staff was friendly, upbeat, and able to finesse every to-do with seamless flare. In addition, the publicity materials associated with this event were among the best I've ever seen.

Fellow authors, if you're ever invited to visit these fine folks, go!

What fun it was to be back in Michigan! My husband, children's author Greg Leitich Smith, and I met there in 1991 as first-year students at The University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, and it was a treat to see the leaves changing color.

On Thursday, I visited with enthusiastic students, staff, and faculty at Woods Lake Elementary School and Northglade Montessori School. Over the years, I've visited many schools, and these two were both standouts in terms of student and faculty-staff participation, leadership and courtesy.

From there, we continued on to Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home, which is one of the top facilities of its kind in the United States. I joined a group of teen girls who'd been reading my Gothic fantasy novels--Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008), Eternal (Candlewick, 2009, 2010), and Blessed (Candlewick, Jan. 25, 2011 in ARC).

The girls asked questions and shared their thoughts on the novels--Mitch and Meghan were among their favorite secondary characters. It was an in-depth conversation, diving into the themes of the books, especially Eternal.

The event also included a Sanguini's-inspired lunch, offering a "prey" menu which consisted of: antipasto: bruschettta; primo: linguini with marinara sauce; secondo: roasted tomato and wild rice stew in vegetable stock; contorno: roasted asparagus; and...

dolce: red velvet trifle! Note: Sanguini's is the vampire-themed fictional restaurant featured in Tantalize and Blessed.

That evening, I spoke at the main public library, which is gorgeous. Here's the story-time area!

On Friday, I had the honor of keynoting at the 33rd annual Mary Calletto Rife Youth Literature Seminar at Western Michigan University. The theme was "Crossing Borders."

From the Kalamazoo Public Library:

In 1978, Mary Calletto Rife, then head of the Children’s Department of Kalamazoo Public Library, decided to expand the celebration into a seminar for librarians, teachers, students, and others with a desire to promote children’s literature. The seminar was renamed in honor of Ms. Rife after she retired from the library at the end of 2001.

Kalamazoo Public Library now leads a collaboration including Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo Valley Community College, the Kalamazoo Public Schools, and others in the community in producing this seminar each year.

The program opened with Maria Perez-Stable and Beth Amidon's presentation, "International Children's Literature: Crossing Borders without Passports." Both are on the Western Michigan faculty. Maria is a professor and head of Central Reference Services, University Libraries, and Amidon is master faculty specialist and chair of the Faculty Development and Student Success Committee in the English Department.

I was pleased to see one of my favorite picture books of the year, Time to Pray by Maha Addasi, illustrated by Ned Gannon (Boyds Mills, 2010) as the first book cover to shine on the screen.

My own talk was titled "Beyond Feathers and Fangs: Crossing Borders in Realistic and Fantasy Fiction."

Here, we see Gillian Engberg, the young adult books editor and managing editor of books for youth at Booklist. In "Me, You, Us: Breaking Down Borders with Books for Kids," Gillian highlighted recent acclaimed multicultural books and referenced the work of her colleague, Hazel Rockman.

Speakers also included Debbie Reese (in red and gray) from the American Indian Studies Department at the University of Illinois--pictured her with friend Jean Mendoza. Debbie spoke on "Pitfalls and Possibilities: American Indians in Children's and Young Adult Literature" and referenced her blog, American Indians in Children's Literature.

See more on the speakers.

Seminar attendees included two Michigan children's book creators.

Ruth McNally Barshaw, is the author-illustrator of the Ellie McDoodle series, published by Bloomsbury USA. The latest book in the series is Ellie McDoodle: Best Friends Fur-Ever (Aug. 2010).

Buffy Silverman is the author of Can an Old Dog Learn New Tricks? and Other Questions about Animals (Lerner) and many more nonfiction children's books.

I was thrilled to see them both, and Ruth even McDoodle'd me!

In other news, I met the owners of a relatively new children's bookstore, Bookbug: a Bookstore for Kids, which handled the book sales associated with the events. Webmasters, please add their link to your lists of indie booksellers! And Cynsational readers, be sure to stop by the shop the next time you're in Kalamazoo! If it's too far out of your neighborhood, no worries! You can shop Bookbug online, too!

Thanks again to Sue and everyone at Kalamazoo Public the students, staff, and faculty at Woods Lake and the teen readers and staff at the Kalamazoo Juvenile the speakers, attendees, volunteers at the seminar, and to Bookbug!

Cynsational Notes

Here's a bibliography of the books, authors, and illustrators I highlighted as related to the primary focus areas of my talk--Native American children's literature, multicultural humor, and diversity in speculative fiction:

Native Youth Literature

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown, 2007)
Bearwalker by Joseph Bruchac (HarperCollins, 2007)
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (Hyperion, 2002)
Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges (Cinco Puntos, 2006)
Eagle Song by Joseph Bruchac (Puffin, 1999)
The Great Ball Game: A Muskogee Story retold by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Susan L. Roth (Dial, 1994)
The Heart of a Chief by Joseph Bruchac (Puffin, 2001)
Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Jim Madsen (HarperCollins, 2002)(reading group guide; readers theater playscript)(also humorous)
Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000)(teacher guide)
Moccasin Thunder: Native American Stories for Today edited by Lori Marie Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005)
Muskrat Will Be Swimming by Cheryl Savageau, illustrated by Robert Hynes (Tilbury, 2006)
Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2001)(reading group guide)
Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness into Light by Tim Tingle, illustrated by Karen Clarkson (Cinco Puntos, 2010)

Native Youth Literature Resources

Diversity in Children's & Young Adult Books: Background Reading from See also Communities and Bibliography.
How Much is an Author Obligated to Say? by Betsy Bird from a Fuse #8 Production at School Library Journal.
Lacapa Spirit Prize: a literary prize for children's books about the people, cultures and landscapes of the Southwest.
Native American Themes in Children's & YA Books
Native American Youth Services Literature Award sponsored by the American Indian Library Association.

Multicultural Comedies & Books with Humorous Elements

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown, 2007)
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking and Other Natural Disasters by Lenore Look, illustrated by Leuyen Pham (Schwartz & Wade, 2009)
American Born Chinese by Gene Yang (First Second, 2007)
Cuba 15 by Nancy Osa (Delacorte, 2003)
Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah (Orchard, 2007)
Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Jim Madsen (HarperCollins, 2002)
Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee (Arthur A. Levine, 2003)
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (HarperCollins, 2010)
Watsons Go To Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (Delacorte, 1995)

Diversity in Speculative Fiction

The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee (Candlewick, 2010)(mystery)
Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences by Brian Yansky (Candlewick, 2010)(science fiction)
Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, Jan. 25, 2011)
Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2009, 2010)(readers guide)
Extras by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse, 2007)(science fiction)
How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier (Bloomsbury, 2008)(fantasy)
Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia by Cindy Pon (HarperCollins, 2009)(fantasy)
Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2007, 2008)(readers guide)(Gothic fantasy)
Tantalize: Kieren's Story by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, Aug. 2011)(Gothic fantasy, graphic format)
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little, Brown, 2009)(fantasy)

Additional Youth Literature Referenced

Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (Yearling, 1986)(realistic contemporary)
Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause (Delacorte, 2007)(Gothic fantasy)
Brains for Lunch: A Zombie Novel in Haiku?! by K.A. Holt, illustrated by Gahan Wilson (Roaring Brook, 2010)(Gothic fantasy)
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (HarperCollins)(realistic contemporary)
Diego: Bigger than Life by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, illustrated by David Diaz (Marshall Cavendish, 2009)(biography)
Gothic: Ten Original Dark Tales edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick, 2004)(Gothic fantasy)
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (Arthur A. Levine 1997-2007)(fantasy)
Holler Loudly by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, Nov. 11, 2010)(K-2 teacher guides connected to national and state standards)
Immortal: Love Stories with Bite edited by P.C. Cast (BenBella, 2009)(paranormal romance)
Lament: A Faerie Queen's Deception by Maggie Stiefvater (Flux, 2008)(Gothic fantasy)
Shadowed Summer by Saundra Mitchell (Delacorte, 2009)(Gothic fantasy)
She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Don Tate (HarperCollins, 2010)(biography)
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic, 2009)(paranormal romance)
Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists and Other Matters Odd and Magical edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick, 2009)(Gothic fantasy)
Soulless by Christopher Golden (MTV, 2008)(Gothic fantasy)
Thirsty by M.T. Anderson (Candlewick, 2003)(Gothic fantasy)
Tithe by Holly Black (McElderry, 2002)(Gothic fantasy)
Out of the Way! Out of the Way! by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy (Tulika, 2010)(realistic fiction)
Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson (Harcourt, 2005)(fantasy)
Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata (Atheneum, 2006)(historical)
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins)(fantasy)
The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Houghton Mifflin, 1958)(historical)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

New Voice: Frank Dormer on Socksquatch

Frank Dormer is the first-time author-illustrator of Socksquatch (Henry Holt, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Poor Socksquatch.

All he wants is two warm feet, but things aren’t going his way. Even his friends can’t help.

What’s a monster to do?

Frank Dormer’s sweet, funny monster story will charm the socks off young readers.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

I was very silent as a young reader. I didn’t want anything to ruin my concentration. I find most people are like that when reading.

I, however, have no compunction about asking several high volume questions of someone reading. Like, “What’s that book you’re reading?” Or, “Did you know the gross national product of Sweden is in the, like, billions?”

Now if you are wondering what I read, that’s a different story.

I don’t remember reading much when I was very young. When I reached age 10 or so, The Hardy Boys [by Franklin W. Dixon (1927-)] were what I remember picking up on my own and saying “I think I’ll read this.” I blew through all of the titles in the series in, like, three seconds.

If you want a more truthful answer, it took a few years. I hadn’t learned about public libraries yet and the books cost about $2 at the time and I think my allowance was about 75 cents a year.

I relied on that age-old custom called "hinting." About three years before my 12th birthday, I began dropping subliminal hints about what I wanted. My father would sit down to eat his breakfast and find a wadded up note in his eggs benedict with a list of unread Hardy Boys books.

I also read magazines of the day like Fangoria and MAD.

As an artist, I gravitated toward the work of Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham during high school. As I write this, I begin to notice that there is a connection in my work between the humor of MAD magazine and the creatures of Rackham’s art.

I hope that Socksquatch works on two levels. Parents like the fun repetitive wordplay, and kids get to say things like “Got Sock?” over and over. Children like repeating rhythms in their reading landscape. It helps build confidence in their vocabulary.

As an author-illustrator, you come to children’s books with a double barrel of talent. Could you describe your apprenticeship in each area, and how well (or not) your inner writer and artist play together? What advice do you have for others interested in succeeding on this front?

I’m not sure I come with a double barrel of talent. Whoopee cushions, maybe.

I attended Savannah College of Art and Design in the '80s, and was shuttled out the door with a piece of paper that sits on my wall to this day. Of course nobody asks to look at the piece of paper before hiring me. Although I enjoy having had the experience of college, I rejoice in the fact that many artists in the field are self-taught.

I spent time as an editorial illustrator (Family Circle sends me an article, and I create an image to visualize the writing, etc.) and began teaching as well.

During that time, I took some courses in creative writing with an exceptional writer whose name I have completely forgotten. She asked us to write a summary of our experience in the class, and I did it in comic book form. After reading a gazillion summaries, she was so happy to get pictures with words instead of just words.

I remember having a discussion of another student's writing, and somehow we got onto the topic of setting. I had pictured the setting so well in my head from the written piece that I disagreed with how it was described.

The professor asked me to describe it and I did. Down to the last detail.

She was stunned.

It was the first time I realized that my brain is wired a bit differently. To this day, reading is my one joy. I do confess that I don’t read children’s literature much, only at my children’s request.

I started in children’s books in 2002. While waiting to get work, I decided to write my own stories to illustrate as a way of practice.

I found that my artist self and my writer self started off a bit shaky. The writer wanted to describe everything. The artist wanted to draw everything. They began to argue and then throw things like pencils and rubber erasers. I would wake up with a headache at 2 a.m. and start yelling at both of them. My wife didn’t appreciate it.

Once a person chooses this vocation and learns the basics, it’s a matter of practice.

My word-putting-down self and my artist self cohabitate better lately. I hesitate to say "writer" as my word count for this book is in the double digits and on the low side of 50.

As to advice, I never liked to state advice that others have already given much better than me.

Instead I would ask anyone who is interested in the field of children’s books a question: Can you put your writing/art next to the very best of the field and say that it is equal to theirs?

I don’t mean in terms of style or voice. Do you look at it next to theirs and visualize them on the bookshelf together? If the answer is anything less than "yes," go back to work.

I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that.

Cynsational Notes

Illustration above is from Frank's next book, The Obstinate Pen (Henry Holt, 2011), which is about a pen that won't write what people want it to.

"Frank Dormer lost his first sock on the way to the Savannah College of Art and Design. His students in his art class use socks for many things from painting to puppets. He lives with his wife and three boys in Branford, Connecticut."

Take a peek into Frank's studio:

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win a signed copy of Love Drugged by James Klise (Flux, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Fifteen-year old Jamie Bates has a fail-safe strategy for surviving high school: fit in. Keep a low profile. And, above all, protect his biggest secret—he’s gay.

So when a classmate discovers the truth, a terrified Jamie decides it’s time to change. After accepting flirtatious advances from Celia, the richest and most beautiful girl in school, Jamie steals an experimental new drug that’s supposed to “cure” his attraction to guys.

At first, Jamie thinks he’s finally on track to living a “normal” life. But at what cost?

As the drug’s side effects worsen and his relationship with Celia heats up, Jamie begins to realize that lying and using could shatter the fragile world of deception that he’s created—and hurt the people closest to him.

A star-crossed romance with humor and heart, Love Drugged explores the consequences of a life constructed almost entirely of lies . . . especially the lies we tell ourselves.

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll and click envelope) and type "Love Drugged" in the subject line. Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just message me with the title in the header or comment on this round-up. I'll write you for contact information, if you win. Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 30. U.S. entries only; sponsored by the author.

The winner of The Wish Stealers by Tracy Trivas (Aladdin, 2010) is Stacey in California, and the winner of Another Pan by Daniel and Dina Nayeri (Candlewick, 2010) is Natalee in Massachusetts.

Congratulations, Laura Logan

Congratulations to Lidia Bastianich and fellow Austinite Laura Logan on the release of Nonna Tell Me a Story: Lidia's Christmas Kitchen (Running Press, 2010)! From the promotional copy:

America’s favorite Italian-American cook, Lidia Bastianich, shares the story of the Christmases she used to celebrate in Italy with her five grandchildren.

When Lidia was a child, she spent Christmas with her grandparents, where she learned to cook with her Nonna Rosa by preparing food in their smokehouse and kitchen. Lidia and her brother would also find a big beautiful juniper bush to cut down for their holiday tree. And they made their own holiday decorations with nuts, berries, and herbs they collected for their meals.

This delightful picture book is filled with the story of Lidia’s Christmas traditions, delicious recipes, and decorating ideas all perfected over the years by Lidia and her family.

More News

Anita Silvey's Children's Book-A-Day Almanac: "Daily children's book recommendations from Anita Silvey. Discover the stories behind children’s book classics and the new books good enough to become classics." Read a Cynsations interview with Anita.

Walking Through the Valley of Patience by Catherine Schaff-Stump from Writer Tango. Peek: "If your work is accepted, you'll need patience continually. Waiting for the edits, waiting for the publication, waiting for the proofs, waiting for the check, waiting, waiting, waiting. This is the nature of publishing."

National Adoption Month and Ethiopia by Jane Kurtz from The Power of One Writer. Peek: "I remember the first time I heard from a mom who had kids adopted from Ethiopia. Sandra Snook lived in Chicago in those days, and she was headed for Montana on vacation with a van full of her children–and she asked if she could stop in North Dakota so they could meet the author of Fire on the Mountain, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 1994)." Read a Cynsations interview with Jane.

Online Persona Week Five: Taking Risks by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violets. Peek: "We avoid risk because we are afraid; we’re afraid that in exposing our true selves we will drive people away. But, if being plain vanilla and boring is going to keep people away anyway, why not throw caution to the wind and drive them away with the force of your views or personality?"

Happy [Belated] National Cat Day by Jama Rattigan from Jama Rattigan's Alphabet Soup. Note: highlights many of children's literature's finest cats, including four at the Leitich Smith house.

ReaderKidZ Featured Author Linda Sue Park: this month's features center on A Long Walk to Water (Clarion, 2010). Peek: "War, loss. Hope, gain. The scars of war are many. The thread of hope thin. But through it all, Salva Dut, one of Sudan’s Lost Boys, held on to his thoughts of family, and the things they’d shared in his short 11 years of life. Things like courage and the need to live one day – each day - at a time." Check back later this month for Bethany Hegedus, talking about Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010) and Joseph Bruchac.

What's Love Got to Do With It? by Lisa Schroeder from Crowe's Nest. Peek: "Personally, I'd take a rejection that says, 'I just didn't love it' over one that says, 'The writing is really weak and the characters fall flat' any day of the week!" Read a Cynsations interview with Lisa.

It's Okay to Stay Private by Greg Pincus from The Happy Accident. Peek: "Lately, a lot of people have told me that they’re using Facebook just for family and friends or that they use Twitter to keep up with only a few people… and they say it in an apologetic way."

Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast: J. Patrick Lewis by Jules from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: "A 'prolific' writer is one who might toss off books over the weekend as if writing were a holiday game. Only people who do not write children’s books can harbor such nonsense. Golf ball manufacturers, the makers of M&M’s, and paper shredders are prolific. I’d much prefer to be thought of as indefatigable, though Jane [Yolen]’s 'versatile' would be okay, too." Read a Cynsations interview with Pat.

Out of the Box from the Horn Book. "its goal is to provide coverage of some of the many books, near-books and neo-books that don't need review so much as they need attention" (quoting Read Roger). Read a Cynsations interview with Roger Sutton.

Cynsational Screening Room

King of Ithaka Giveaway: Enter to win a copy of King of Ithaka by Tracy Barrett (Henry Holt, 2010) from P.J. Hoover at Roots in Myth.

More Personally

Tomorrow I'm off to Kalamazoo, Michigan! Hope to see some of y'all there!

Cynsations will be on hiatus until Monday. Have a wonderful week!

Native Now: A Sense of Time and Place by Guest Blogger Cynthia Leitich Smith at Rasco from RIF. Peek: "These stories emphasize that Native people have a past, present, and a future. They bust inaccurate stereotypes and connect young readers—both Native and non-Indian—to tribally specific characters who hail from a variety of landscapes." See also a free readers' theater for Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002)--available for classroom use!

Holler Loudly Gets Everybody's Attention: a review by Jennifer Robinson from BookPage. Peek: " apt reminder that we are all unique, and in celebrating our gifts, sometimes it may be just as necessary to bellow boldly as to listen quietly."

Get Ready for Holler Loudly: an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith from Shutta Crum. Peek: "Writing a novel feels like running a marathon on uncertain terrain, stumbling occasionally along the way. A picture book is more like a sprint, exhilarating. It uses many of the same muscles in different ways. It’s more about the burst or series of bursts than endurance."

Cynsational Events

"Beyond Feathers and Fangs: Crossing Borders in Realistic and Fantasy Fiction, with Cynthia Leitich Smith" at The 33rd Annual Mary Calletto Rife Youth Literature Seminar - Kalamazoo Public Library. The seminar costs $40 (lower student rates are available) and is scheduled for 8 a.m. to 4 p.m Nov. 5. Note: Maria Perez-Stable and Beth Amidon will also present a book talk, and additional speakers are Gillian Engberg, Booklist editor, and Debbie Reese, UIUC professor. See more on the speakers. Note: I'll also be speaking at 7 p.m. Nov. 4 in a public event at the Kalamazoo Public Library!

Authors Bethany Hegedus, Brian Yansky and Cynthia Leitich Smith will celebrate their latest books at 2 p.m. Nov. 14 at BookPeople in Austin, Texas. This joint author party will feature refreshments, alien tattoos, readings, a Q&A, and signing. Bethany's new release is Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010)(ages 9-up), Cynthia's latest release is Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010)(ages 4-up), and Brian's latest release is Alien Invasions and Other Inconveniences (Candlewick, 2010)(ages 12-up).

“Give Yourself a Longer Shelf Life: Marketing for the Long-Term" panel discussion at 7 p.m. Nov. 18 at BookPeople. Panelists: Cynthia Leitich Smith, Jay Ehret and Dana Lynn Smith. Jay is a book marketing expert, and Dana is a book marketing coach and author of The Savvy Book Marketer Guides. Sponsored by the Writers’ League of Texas.

"Fangs vs. Fur" event will include Cynthia Leitich Smith Nov. 19 at the University Hills Branch of the Austin Public Library.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Writing Across Formats: Sherry Garland

Learn about Sherry Garland.

What first inspired you to write across formats in children’s/YA literature?

It was my red-headed Scotsman frugal nature. I’m a waste-not/want not kind of person, so after doing three years of research for a non-fiction fifth grade book about Vietnam, I had accumulated lots of information that I didn’t want to “throw away.”

Since I am a fiction writer first and foremost, I began to think of several fiction projects about Vietnam. First, I wrote a picture book, The Lotus Seed, illustrated by Tatsuro Kiuchi (Harcourt, 1993) about the life of a Vietnamese woman, from childhood in Vietnam until she was an old woman in America.

It came about because of the dozens of interviews I had with Vietnamese refugees in the Houston area.

Then I wrote a YA novel, Song of the Buffalo Boy (Harcourt, 1992), about an Amerasian teenager in Vietnam trying to find the truth about her American father. That one was inspired after reading an article in "Parade Magazine" during my research.

Next was a YA novel, Shadow of the Dragon (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993), whose subject matter concerned Vietnamese gangs in Houston. Again, that came about from my research for the nonfiction book.

Also, there was a picture book about Vietnamese shrimpers along the Gulf Coast, My Father's Boat, illustrated by Ted Rand (Scholastic, 1998) that evolved when doing research about Vietnamese adjusting to American life.

Additionally, there were two picture books about Vietnamese folk tales (Why Ducks Sleep on One Leg, illustrated by Jean Tseng (Scholastic, 1993) and a collection, Children of the Dragon: Selected Tales from Vietnam, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Harcourt, 2001)).

Lastly, I wrote a short story about the Vietnam War for "Scholastic Scope" magazine, which was later used in a Scholastic seventh grade text book. So, from one big hairy batch of research, I produced seven books and one long-lived short story.

I did the same thing with the topic of Texas history. I was asked to write a picture book about the Alamo (Voices of the Alamo, illustrated by Ronald Himler (Scholastic, 2000)).

That research took about two years, which is a lot for a picture book, but then I wrote one of the Dear America Books about the same topic (A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, Gonzales, Texas, 1836 (Scholastic, 1998)), so most of the research had already been done.

Then I wrote a YA novel about the same topic but from the Mexican perspective (In the Shadow of the Alamo (Harcourt, 2001)).

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

One thing I learned was to respect the picture book format. At first, I was like a lot of inexperienced people who thought that a picture book would be an easy project. I soon learned that in may ways writing a picture book is more difficult than writing a middle grade or YA novel.

With picture books, you do not have the luxury of 60,000 words to evoke emotions, describe scenes or use pithy dialogue.

For example, my forty-page historical picture book about Texas history took just as much research as my middle grade novel or YA novel about Texas history.

It was the same topic and same research, but with the picture book format, I had to get across an historical event in just a few stanzas, and cover a time period from 1500 to present day in about a thousand words. The words had to be poetic and emotional, yet at the same time convey history accurately.

The picture book process of culling down, cutting back, and selecting the most powerful words helped me learn to keep the novels more tight.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

If the author enjoys writing a certain kind of book, it can be a good thing to find a niche in the publishing industry. I am thinking of writers of mysteries, horror, romance, fantasy, series books or perhaps picture books for the very young.

Having a ready-made audience improves book sales, and your fame builds over time. The down side would be that once you are pegged, it may be difficult to break out of that niche, should you decide one day to try something different.

On the other hand, hopping around from format to format can be detrimental to your career. Publishers and librarians don’t know what to think of you; they may not be aware of all the genres you write. For example, I’ve spoken at elementary schools in which the librarians were totally unaware of my YA novels. And I’ve spoken at junior highs, where the librarians weren’t aware of my picture books. It’s more difficult to develop a following because those who read picture books are different than those who read YA novels.

Because I had so many books about Vietnam, for a while I was branded as a “multicultural” author. It was a good thing for me at the time because there was a market for the kinds of books I wrote. When that market went soft and I switched to writing books that were not about Vietnam, it was difficult to adjust. It was almost like starting over. Readers (even librarians) will forget you if you don’t keep producing.

On the positive side, writing for many different age levels increases the potential for schools visits. A YA author may only be invited to speak at middle, junior high or high schools. Picture book authors may only be invited to speak at elementary schools. But the author who writes for many age levels will get invited to all of these.

Cynsational Notes

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.
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