Friday, April 01, 2016

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

On Agents Selling a First Novel Manuscript by Jennifer Laughran from Ask the Agent. Peek: "The people who tend to get lots of sales are the people who are flexible, who stay positive, who are always coming up with more material, and who are happy to revise/reimagine/put something away for a while."

Author Samantha Mabry on her Debut Novel, a Student’s Shrug, and Straddling Two Cultures from Latin@s in Kidlit. Peek: "I want there to be something deep in that shrug because I am critical by nature and like for things like shrugs to mean something, to be symbolic, to say something about what it means to be a Mexican-American young woman living in Texas right this minute."

Inside Look at the Illustrator-Publisher Collaboration from The World of Peachtree Publishers. Peek: "...although the editor typically gets the search for an illustrator underway, the author and production team often propose other illustrators for consideration; after much discussion, the team chooses two or three top candidates, who might be someone whose specialty lines up with the story, someone with experience of the book's subject matter, or someone who has just the right sense of humor."

To TK or Not to TK? by Tracy Hahn-Burkett from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "Almost every word from this point on will be new material. There will probably be TKs on every page, because I’ll be doing the research concurrent with the writing." See also The Importance of Research by K. Imani Tennyson from Rich In Color.

"I Just Don't Identify with the Character" by Delacorte Editor Kate Sullivan from CBC Diversity. Peek: "I believe that 'I didn’t connect to the character/voice' is unacceptable when it comes to diverse perspectives. If most editors are white and straight and middle or upper class, of course they won’t 'identify' or 'connect' with a diverse perspective."

Christopher Award Book
Walter Grant Submission Guidelines from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: "There will be five winners of the Walter Grant, and the grant amount will be $2000 each."

Invisible Minority: Serving LGBTQIA Kids and Families from ALSC Blog. Peek: "The most important step a library can take to create a safe space for LGBTQIA patrons is to train staff to be LGBTQIA allies and hold staff accountable."

The Christopher Awards: "created in 1949 to celebrate writers, producers, directors, authors and illustrators whose work 'affirms the highest values of the human spirit.'" Note: Congrats to Allison McGhee and Don Tate! See also Meg Wiviott on Telling the Toughest Stories from Cynsations.

Diversity 102: Five Things to Consider When Putting Together a Diversity Panel by Hannah Ehrlich from Lee & Low. Peek: "In order for real change to occur, people must leave panels inspired to take action."

Pro Tips for Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers Interested in "Native" Themes from Daniel Heath Justice. Peek: "A few suggestions for more responsible representations of Indigenous peoples in speculative fiction...."

This Week at Cynsations
Annie Won

More Personally

Howdy, readers! It's been a while since I answered your questions. Feel free to ask them in the comments or by emailing me directly.

Congratulations to Lee Bennett Hopkins on receiving the Regina Medal Award! Peek: "...established in 1959 and sponsored by the Catholic Library Association, is administered by the Children’s Library Services Section through the Regina Medal Committee at the will of the Catholic Library Association Executive Board. The only criterion for the award is that of excellence."

Sale! Things I'll Never Say: Stories of Our Secret Selves, edited by Ann Angel (Candlewick) is available on E-Volt for readers in the U.S. and Canada for $2.99 for the month of April. Note: the anthology includes my short story, "Cupid's Beaux," set in the Tantalize-Feral 'verse.

Link of the Week: Happy 100th Birthday, Beverly Cleary!

Personal Links

Do You Live In A Bubble?
Why Poor Families Pay More for Everyday Items 
Science Says: Complaining Is Terrible for You
PTSD in YA Lit
Write Toward Your Unspecified Anxieties 
Ethics in Nonfiction for Kids
Picture Books Featuring Modern Native American Families
NAJA Calls for Ethical, Informed AICWA Reporting
Why Photojournalism Still Matters to Newspapers (and Vise Versa)
Girls, Sex & the Importance of Talking to Young Women 
Video: Michelle and Barack Obama Read Where The Wild Things Are 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Author-Illustrator Interview: Il Sung Na on The Opposite Zoo

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations on the release of The Opposite Zoo (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016). What was the initial spark for this picture book?

Thank you! I am so excited about this book.

Even though the concept of opposites has been on my wish list for a long time, I did not know where to begin. I started writing down my favorite things to draw, which are animals. Then I thought about a place where we can see many animals at once. So I ended up with a zoo.

Why monkey as a framing character?

He is a tricky character indeed. I thought, a monkey is like a child. They act and behave like children sometimes. Well, I could say both monkeys and children are unpredictable and have curious eyes in a way.

In this book, we needed a character who is not trouble-maker, but someone who can have an explorer-mind.

Idea Sketches
What was the timeline between spark and publication and what were the major events along the way?

I normally spend months picking an idea, developing it into a story and drawing. But this one did not take that long! From the idea until I pitched it to my editor, it took three weeks.

I struggled the first week to get it right, but once I figured it out, everything came at once. This was really a unique experience that I never had before since I started my career. Of course there were many things to be discussed and revised, like adding the monkey character to lead the whole story.

Although it took more than a year until the book actually published, I really enjoyed the whole process and I felt everything went so quickly.

In a process, polishing the "opposite" idea
First thumbnail sketches for the dummy
First thumbnail sketches for the dummy
First revised sketch
Second revised sketch
What were the challenges (personal, research, logistical, emotional) in bringing the book to life?

During my research, I realized that there were so many “opposite” books already out there, and it was my challenge to make a new “opposite” story. I also always have a hard time making good endings for most of my ideas. That’s why I still have many ideas in my folder, which I think are interesting concepts, but I have not been able to solve how to end those stories.

But this one was different. When I figured how to start and end the story, that was the moment that my brain clicked. The middle parts followed naturally. I carefully selected opposite words.

The book is for younger readers, thus the vocabulary needed to be simple. And I skipped my regular process of revising the story, revising thumbnail sketches several times, shifting the whole layout back and forth. I jumped straight into color illustrations once the idea was polished.

What artistic approach and risks did you embrace?

I wanted to illustrate this book in a different way, not in the same way I have done so far. The risk I had was how to approach this story in a fresh manner. I tried mono-print, watercolor, ink and color pencils. I spent the first week developing the idea and story, and I spent second week making color samples. I wanted more free-form lines and shapes in contrast to my previous illustrations.

So using ink-my long time favorite materials-was a risk: the effects had the potential to go astray with this new method.
Color Sample - Mono Print
Color Sample - Ink and Color Pencils
Final Illustration
What advice to do you have for children's book creators working on concept books specifically?

Don’t worry about writing skills, if you think you don’t have them. It’s ideas that count. It’s not how you well write a perfect story, but it’s what strong idea you have and how you tell it in your own way.

So be brave, be bold, be creative and most importantly enjoy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Guest Post: Lori Mortensen on Hooking Readers

By Lori Mortensen
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

After judging nearly a thousand entries for recent writing contests, I’m reminded once again of the importance and power of effective opening hooks.

Start out swinging, and readers can’t wait to read more. Meander around and readers will quickly lose interest.

The truth is, authors have mere seconds to capture an editor’s heart.

So what makes an effective opening hook?

Start with originality. As I read hundreds of manuscripts, I was amazed at the number of people who wrote about nature’s beauty, but barely skimmed the surface by settling on general ideas about flowers, trees, mountains, rivers, etc.

Nature can be a grand subject, but to rise above the piles of other manuscripts out there, your voice and unique point of view needs to shine from the beginning. So dig deeper and look inside. What unique conclusions have you drawn about something that could be shaped into an original theme?

If you want to capture an editor’s heart, don’t send them macaroni and cheese. Send them Banana Foster Flambé.

My upcoming picture book Chicken Lily, illustrated by Nina Victor Crittenden (Henry Holt 2016) is a good example of a story with an effective opening hook.

Instead of opening the story with any old chicken that lived on a farm, I created a unique character with distinctive characteristics.

Chicken Lily was a lot of things . . .
a careful colorer,
a patient puzzler,
and the quietest hide-and-seeker.
She never made a peep.
But Lily was also something else . . .

Because the opening is fresh, focused, and unique, readers want to keep reading to find out more.

 In this instance, Chicken Lily is . . . chicken! Raise her hand in class? Forget it! Eat something new for lunch? No way! Chicken Lily is a fun, unique character in the barnyard of children’s literature.

Next, tighten your story so it fits together like a puzzle. This is especially important for the opening hook. Authors that settle for easy, obvious rhymes, or use multiple paragraphs to say what they could have said in one paragraph, will quickly lose readers’ interest. Let your drafts run wild, but when you’re ready to submit, your opening hook should reflect a fresh and focused manuscript.

My upcoming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion, 2016) is a good example of a strong, rhyming opening hook.

Cowpoke Clyde poked at an ad.
“Looky, Dawg, at this here fad.
It says that when my chores are done,
I’m s’posed to ride a bike fer fun.”

In four short lines, the reader meets a unique character, Clyde, a cowpoke who is going to learn to ride a newfangled bicycle. Each line makes sense, each word has a reason to be there, and the rhyme reads effortlessly.

(How to create fresh, effortless rhymes is another story, but if you want a successful manuscript, don’t settle for less.)

So if you’re scratching your head over a manuscript, take a look at your opening hook. Does it make you want to keep reading or, wonder what’s in the fridge?

Hmm . . . macaroni and cheese? Or Banana Foster Flambé?

Cynsational Notes

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles.

Upcoming titles include Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Bloomsbury) and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013.

Other titles include Cindy Moo, illustrated by Jeff Mack (HarperCollins), Come See the Earth Turn – The Story of Léon Foucault, illustrated by Raúl Allén (Random House), a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children, 2010, and In the Trees Honey Bees! illustrated by Cris Arbo (Dawn), a 2010 NSTA/CBC Outstanding Science Book K-12 Winner.

When she’s not removing her cat from her keyboard, she follows her literary nose wherever it leads and works on all sorts of projects that delight her writing soul. Lori lives with her family in Northern California. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Guest Post: Alan Cumyn on Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend

Find Alan on Facebook and @acumyn
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Welcome, Alan Cumyn! What was your initial inspiration for Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend (Atheneum, 2016)?

There’s a short answer and a long one. The short: in January 2012, popular YA author Libba Bray gave a speech to over a hundred writers at Vermont College of Fine Arts in which she brought us through the ups and downs of her writing career.

Three times in the course of an hour she said, “Don’t go writing your hot pterodactyl boyfriend novel.” She meant that we shouldn’t slavishly follow the trends. But I was struck by the phrase.

When I approached her afterwards and said that I was getting an idea, she encouraged me to follow up, and a little later the whole first chapter, in which the pterodactyl, Pyke, arrives at Vista View High in a calamitous fashion – by landing unceremoniously on the cross-country running champion, Jocelyne Legault – more or less fell out on the page for me.

The longer answer takes me back more than ten years when I was riding a train from Toronto to Ottawa. I had been at some publishing event or other, and was full of the possibility of new stories.

The train rounded a bend and Lake Ontario came into sight. On a rock by the shore a great blue heron, which looked like an ancient creature, pierced me with his gaze. It was the oddest feeling – I felt locked in direct communication with an intelligence not only from another species, but from a vastly different time.

Seconds later the landscape changed, the heron was gone, but I pulled out my pad and scribbled furiously for several pages about a heron who is able to change into a man at will, and who wanders into the big city from time to time almost as a vacation from his usual existence.

After a time I stopped writing because I realized I didn’t know enough about herons to proceed. Over the years, I worked on several versions of this story, and got sidetracked with an interest in Kafka, whose "The Metamorphosis" (1915) famously envisioned a man who wakes up one morning transformed into a bug. I was drawn to the idea of introducing something startlingly unreal and fantastical, but continuing the rest of the story in as realistic a fashion as possible. I was also, like so many others, attracted by the dreamlike nature of Kafka’s writing.

The story morphed and became at least two entirely different novel-length manuscripts that sputtered for various reasons and never quite worked. And then: “Don’t go writing your hot pterodactyl boyfriend novel.” I was seized with yet another possibility to work with some of the same ideas and influences, and perhaps not take it so seriously this time.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

U.S. cover art
That first chapter poured out of me within a day or two of hearing Libba Bray speak in January 2012. I sent a full draft to my agent, Ellen Levine, in late December 2013, so it took me about two years to write much of the manuscript.

During most of that time I told nobody what I was working on. I like the freedom to go wherever I want on the page and to fail privately in ridiculous ways if need be.

After that strong opening chapter fell out, I slowly went over that material again and again for clues about how the story must proceed with these characters in the situation they find themselves in.

Before showing the draft to Ellen, of course, I got feedback from my wife Suzanne, and from friends and family, and made it as strong as I could.

Ellen contacted me enthusiastically in February 2014 and I worked on some more revisions for her. She sent it out to publishers in March and, although a lot of editors passed on it, we did get offers in April, with Caitlyn Dlouhy at Atheneum winning out.

I was way up north in Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada at the time as writer-in-residence at Berton House when the phone line to New York started to burn up. It was exciting and strange, to be so far away and yet to have such interest suddenly welling up about my unusual pterodactyl novel. (Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend, it turns out, is the first novel of mine to be published simultaneously in Canada, the United States, the U.K. and elsewhere.)

U.K. cover art
I got a chance to meet Caitlyn in New York in July 2014, and U.K. editors in September. When I was in New York I also spent time at the Museum of Natural History which just happened to be showing a major exhibit on pterodactyls!

Some of the latest research changed the way I thought about the physicality of Pyke, and made it into the book. A lot of the revisions for Caitlyn involved strengthening middle parts of the story and ending it in a way that stayed true to the characters, and to the strangeness of the whole telling.

Again – I kept going back to the beginning for inspiration. The manuscript was pretty well finalized by April 2015, and I was reviewing galleys in October.

There wasn’t a major crisis or anything, no pitched battles, but Caitlyn and I did have strong discussions about all the characters and themes.

I take it for granted that my creations will feel real to me, but it’s lovely when an editor so fully immerses herself as well.

What were the challenges (literary, research, emotional, logistical) in bringing the story to life?

Nothing about this story was straightforward. On the opening page, Pyke appears as a speck in the sky, and by the end of that chapter he is the first inter-species transfer student in the history of Vista View High.

The initial challenge – how do the students accept him as anything but a monster come to eat the school? – I skirted in my first draft by summarizing the changes in a paragraph or two. It was only fairly late in revision that I realized I needed to show in scene those crucial minutes after Pyke has landed on Jocelyne and then carried her to the school nurse for attention.

Pyke is not the main character, of course – the story actually belongs to the student body chair, Shiels Krane, an A-type leader whose well-ordered plans for her graduation year have nothing to do with dealing with a pterodactyl who steals everyone’s heart, including her own.

In that way I was able to shift the question about believability – if Shiels buys into it, then it’s easier for the reader to believe, too. I did do a lot of background reading on pterodactyls, but in my mind I was treating Pyke as the ultimate bad-boy boyfriend, and that’s part of the fun of the story, watching characters adapt to a ridiculous situation that turns normal and then actually seems familiar.

We do it all the time in real life, just not with pterodactyls! So often writing fiction convincingly is a matter of taking care of the tiny details, making those seem lifelike, so that the huge lies one tells hardly stand out at all.

What made you commit to the writing life? What did you sacrifice for it?

I was very lucky to attend a graduate writing program when I was young, only 24, at the University of Windsor, where my mentor, Alistair MacLeod, happened to be a brilliant writer and terrific teacher. Without that early formation, I’m not sure I would’ve stuck with it, given all the difficulties I had initially in publishing anything at all.

It took me seven years of strong effort after graduation to get a single short story accepted in a literary journal (for which I was paid $50). My first three novel manuscripts were rejected before the fourth was accepted, and even that one sat in the publisher’s office for over a year before I got a yes.

Along the way I decided I was not going to be the sort of writer who lives in a tiny room in the YMCA, turning his back on life so that he might have time to write. I have worked at a number of full-time jobs that, fortunately, also fed my sense of life and society, and so nurtured my writing as well.

But if I hadn’t married and had children, I doubt I would have written for younger audiences. I faced a really tough decision at around age 40 when the excellent government job I had (as a writer and researcher on international human rights for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada) seemed to be too much to handle on top of novel writing as well.

Some of my adult novels were suddenly doing well, and I had to make a choice. It was a big gulp – our children were young, Suzanne had just started a doctorate program, and there was no extra money in case things went badly. So with family support I sacrificed the security of a regular paycheck, but was fortunate enough to have waited until my art was strong enough to withstand the pressures of such a decision.

It was the right thing to do, and I haven’t really looked back, especially since part-time teaching at the Vermont College of Fine Arts allows me to use my skills, and helps keep the wolf from the door during the inevitable down times in a writing and publishing life.

What about the business of publishing do you wish you could change?

I would love it if editors were not so extraordinarily busy, if they could somehow always keep a sense of the leisure of reading while opening up a new manuscript.

Editors often have crushing workloads and it means “quiet” stories often don’t have a chance to get their attention, they’ve got too many submissions to wade through before going back to their email backlog etc.

I know, it’ll never happen, and the really good editors do find ways to let themselves fall into a story when they read, no matter what their to-do list looks like. But I do think a lot of fine writing is overlooked because of the craziness of today’s schedules.

Cynsational Notes

Alan is the faculty chair of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. See also Video Interview with Alan Cumyn from Indigo Teeen.


Monday, March 28, 2016

2016 SCBWI Bologna Illustrator Interview: Dorothia Rohner

By Angela Cerrito
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

From an early age, Dorothia Rohner knew she was an artist. Inheriting her artistic parent's fascination with art and nature, she was encouraged to pursue and refine her skills. She studied technical illustration, fine art, art history and graphic design. 

Eventually, she earned her degree in Biological Pre-medical Illustration from Iowa State University—a curriculum that allowed her to combine her love of illustration and science. 

As an artist, she has worked in various fields: scientific illustration, animation, graphic design, nature painting, licensing and gift design. She now works from her studio, surrounded by woods, overlooking a small pond where she writes and illustrates stories for children; inspired by nature, imagination and a tad bit of humor. She also enjoys creating pop-up and moveable books.

Her illustrated children’s books include: Numbers in a Row, An Iowa Number Book (Sleeping Bear Press) and Effie's Image (Prairieland Press). 

Her work for children has also been published in Cricket Magazine

Her illustration, Firefly Forest, was the Grand Prize Winner at 2014 SCBWI Bologna Illustrator Gallery, Bologna Children’s Book Fair

That same year, she was selected for the 2014 SCBWI Portfolio Mentorship Award at the SCBWI Summer Conference. 

Her portfolio was one of six chosen out of two-hundred. Follow Dorthia: Instagram & Twitter: @dorothiar and Facebook.

What inspired you to begin creating illustrations for children?

When I was small, my mother wrote stories for my six siblings and me. She created believable worlds and illustrations to go with them. They were never published, but I remember how magical an ordinary day became when she shared her stories with us—inviting us into her imaginative worlds.

My mother’s influence first inspired me to want to create books for children. Years later, while studying scientific illustration, the class assignment was to make a spread for a children’s book. That studio project sparked my childhood memories and rekindled that desire to make books for kids. It took a little while, but eventually I illustrated my first children’s book.

How has your experience with scientific illustration influenced your work for children?

Good question! The transition from creating scientific to children’s illustration has been interesting journey for me. Because of my scientific training, I wanted to add every detail into an illustration. For children’s illustrations, I’ve had to un-learn some of that training in order to leave emotional room for the viewer, exaggerated expressions, emotion and motion. I’m still working on that.

My training has influenced me to enjoy drawing animals, plants, birds and insects living in the natural world. However, with my illustrations for kids, I find it much more fun to add in a few fairies, and other whimsical critters.

What was the inspiration for the illustration Firefly Forest, winner of the 2014 SCBWI Bologna Illustrators’ Gallery?

I’ve always been fascinated with fireflies because of the magic they bring to summer nights. Years ago, like most children, we used to chase and capture them to fill our jars with light.

Inspired by these memories and the forest we now live near, I sketched out the trees that speak only truth, an angry council of fireflies that rule the forest and a little girl carrying a jar full of fireflies, searching for her brother. I intentionally left the narrative open for the viewer to interpret.

I created this illustration in two days and I really enjoyed working on it. However, I almost didn’t enter the BIG contest because I thought it was too odd of an illustration. However, I ended up sending it anyway. I’m glad I did.


What are you working on right now?

With the input of my agent, Laura Biagi, I am revising a manuscript that is almost ready for submission. Yay! I’m finishing up the character sketches and illustrations that will accompany this story.

While I was in New York at the winter SCBWI conference, I was able to meet with Laura to discuss my other projects. She asked about the story behind Firefly Forest, so I am brainstorming and diving into that next. I also received helpful input from an art director in New York on a novelty fairy book, so I will be revising that too. I also have a sketchbook filled with ideas that could be potential stories.

Dorothia & Laura

What advice would you offer illustrators who are just starting out in the field of children’s literature?

The advice I try to remember is patience, practice and perseverance. It’s hasn’t been that long since I began focusing on making books for children, so I still feel new to this, too.

In any field of creating art, I believe it is essential to honor your individuality and create from the inner voice. This helps to quiet the inner critic that so often leads to comparison and competition with other artists. It is important to study other artists work, get involved with online picture book communities, and celebrate other’s successes.

I would suggest joining SCBWI, going to conferences, getting portfolio and manuscript critiques, joining local critique groups and finding like minded people who you can learn from, share with and enjoy the journey. Lastly, read lots and lots of kids books!

Cynsational Notes

Angela Cerrito is a pediatric physical therapist by day and a writer by night. She thinks she has the two best jobs in the world.

Her latest novel, The Safest Lie (Holiday House), was named a finalist for the 2015 Jewish Book Award, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Older Readers and a Notable Social Studies Book for Young People.

Angela Coordinates the SCBWI Bologna Interview series, volunteers as SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and is a Cynsational reporter in Europe and beyond.

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