Saturday, September 17, 2016

In Memory: Joyce Carol Thomas

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Joyce Carol Thomas, Berkeley children’s author, dies at 78 by Shradha Ganapathy from The Daily Californian. Peek: "Celebrated local children’s author Joyce Carol Thomas — a poet, playwright and winner of the National Book Award — died Aug. 13 at Stanford University (Medical Center)."

Obituary: Joyce Carol Thomas by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Thomas was born on May 25, 1938 in the small town of Ponca City, Okla., where she lived until the age of 10. Her family then resettled in rural California where Thomas learned various farming chores and would work long summers harvesting crops alongside Mexican migrant workers from whom she learned to speak Spanish and developed a love of the language."

Joyce Carol Thomas, Who Wrote of African-American Life, Dies at 78, by Daniel E. Slotnick from The New York Times. Peek: "Ms. Thomas wrote mostly adult plays and poetry before the publication of her first young-adult novel, Marked by Fire, in 1982. It won the National Book Award for children’s fiction in 1983."

Prize-winning author Joyce Carol Thomas dead at 78 by the Associated Press from The Times Free Press. Peek: "Other works included Bright Shadow, Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea and The Blacker the Berry. Thomas was also a three-time nominee for the Coretta Scott King award for outstanding children's books by an African-American."

Joyce Carol Thomas, children’s author who accented black rural life, dies at 78 by Matt Schudel from The Washington Post. Peek: "Although she had lived in California since she was 10, Ms. Thomas found a never-ending source of literary inspiration in the rural fields and small towns of her native Oklahoma. She sought to draw portraits of black life different from stories in modern urban settings or in the time of slavery."

In Memory: Joyce Carol Thomas by Edith (Edi) Campbell from Crazy QuiltEdi. Peek: "Ms Thomas taught for more than two decades at the University of California Santa Cruz, University of Tennessee and at Purdue University. She is survived by children and grandchildren. And, her books."

Friday, September 16, 2016

Cynsational News & Resources

New Infographic of CCBC Publishing Statistics by David Huyck
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the new infographic Diversity in Children's Books 2015 by David Huyck.

We have made very modest gains, but as Sarah Hannah Gomez has pointed out, it's important not to compare it to the 2012 graphic and gauge progress that way.

The math is different. In the original graphic, those books starring non-human characters were subtracted and then the percentages were calculated. This time, non-human characters are included. So, look at the new graphic as its own baseline.

Please also note that this infographic reflects inequities in books about various communities. There also is under-representation among children's-YA book creators and throughout the publishing industry.

See also A Close Look at CCBC's 2015 Data on Books By/About American Indians/First Nations by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children's Literature and It's Official: The U.S. Is Becoming a Minority-Majority Nation from U.S. News.

 More News

13 Picture Books That Celebrate Hispanic Heritage by Wesley Salazar from Brightly. Peek: "Hispanic Heritage Month begins Sept. 15 and what better way to celebrate Hispanic culture and history with kids than with picture books?" See also Why Write About Luchadores? by Xavier Garza from Latinx in Kidlit.

#OwnVoices Review Series from Reading While White. Continues through the month of September. Peek: "We want to shine the spotlight on some of the amazing books that have been written by authors and artists of color and Native authors and illustrators." See also YA Fantasy by Women of Color by Nicole Brinkley from YA Interrobang.

The Importance of Storytelling in Turbulent Times by Vaughn Roycroft from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...if you can cause even a few to confront their fears in a more honest way; provoke just one of your fellow humans to renew their belief in the power of kindness and love over resentment and hate—well, isn’t that worthy of our diligent effort?" See also Invented Expressions & Linguistic Holes by David Corbett from Writer Unboxed.

Gene Yang Issues "Reading Without Walls Challenge" by Sue Corbett from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Instead of leading readers to books in the same genre or format, Yang is spearheading the Reading Without Walls Challenge, a program designed to help readers find books they might otherwise never choose on their own."

Religion & Careers in Publishing by Matia Burnett from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "...religion is rarely discussed as a daily component of individuals’ lives, but becomes relevant during holidays or during moments of contention. Instead, he suggests, workplaces can and should remain open to and cognizant of how a person’s faith plays a role in their lives on a regular basis."

A Wave of 9/11 Novels for Young Readers by Alexandra Alter from The New York Times. Peek: "Many worried that the material was too traumatic for young readers, and feared that parents and teachers would be skittish about engaging with the subject. Others thought using the attacks as a plot device might seem insensitive and exploitative." See also 9/11 Survivor Bethany Hegedus Releases Children's New Book from KXAN.

Author Cori McCarthy Shares Her Book Marketing Strategies by Beth Bacon from Digital Book World. Peek: "My publicist put in motion programs that my publisher doesn’t have the time or the budget to do. We hadn’t quite reached Air Force or Navy families, so I opted to promote to this audience myself."

Hunting Down Holes in Your Story by David H. Safford from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "Does time pass with realistic pacing and flow?"

Roald Dahl at 100: Why His Legacy Lives On by Jennifer Sheehy Everett from Bayside Parent. Peek: "Magic comes, however, when the put-upon child characters demonstrate strength, courage, and smarts beyond their years to conquer the parents, aunts, teachers, principals, etc. who mistreated them."

Off the Cuff, But On the Record by Liz Spayd by The New York Times. Peek: "Kim and a few other authors retreated to a small room in the hotel for what was billed by the conference hosts as an 'artist-only' private conversation over cocktails. But four days later, Kim found herself quoted in The New York Times"

Among 100 Great Translations
100 Great Translated Children's Books from Around the World by M. Lynx Qualey from Book Riot. Peek: "September is #WorldKidLit Month. This is a month to celebrate, discover, and discuss the state of literature for children and teens in translation."

The Power of Myth in Fiction & Life by Sarah Callender from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "The creation and establishment of family myths are usually not intended to deceive or manipulate, but to protect and edify. But they are always untruths. And they are fascinating in their power."

Modern First Library: Divya Srinivasan on Mama (Amma) from BookPeople's Blog. Peek: "The text refers to Little Owl’s mother only twice in the book, and it would have been obvious who Amma was. No one had told me not to use the word." See also Asian American YA Authors Roundtable by Wendy Xu from Angry Asian Man.

This Week at Cynsations


More Personally

This week I've been Writing Teacher Cyn. My VCFA students turned in their second packets, and I've been reading and responding to their critical and creative writing. Fellow faculty Liz Garton Scanlon joined me one morning, which was a treat. Meanwhile, Cynsations intern Gayleen Rabakukk is continuing to update the listing of Texas Children's & YA Authors & Illustrators. Please comment with a website URL if you see anyone missing.


My new favorite TV show is "Supergirl." I love the reinvention of Cat Grant--Calista Flockhart is fantastic in the role--and James Olsen in particular. I like that it's a show centered on sisters and friendship, that it's funny and tender, with a fully rounded strong female lead and mentor.


Personal Links

Now available (Charlesbridge, 2016)!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Flaws: Fatal - Or Not

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Has the wisdom of time and life positively affected my ability to write flawed characters? Or is it the other way around?

I muse about this during an early summer morning’s coffee and writing time.

In much younger days, a painful flaw in a friend’s makeup would end the friendship. I could not tolerate – or truthfully, did not know how to negotiate the waters of – imperfection.

I don’t mean to imply that some relationships, whether romantic or friendship, never change beyond repair, or don’t have some Shakespearean-level fatal flaws. Some people come and go in our lives, as we come and go in theirs.

In retrospect, I believe flaws frightened me. You can guess at the multiple reasons, but there it was: a problem, a serious bump, a major difference in opinion or belief used to pose a threat to the relationship itself. I did not have the courage to stay for discussion, argument, confrontation. I did not believe in my own value in such a confrontation.

I did not know the inherent beauty of flaws.

I could spend time regretting the relationships that I left behind – the ones, that is, that could have benefited from conversation that pushed each of us to accommodate the other’s differences and flaws. But instead I devoted effort to accepting my own and others’ flaws, and developing the capacity to, more times than not, gently nudge myself past the historically embedded impulse to head the other direction. In life, I’ve learned that flaws, disappointments, failures are part of the tapestry.

Appreciating, although not always loving, has made for a better life story.

So as a writer, you’d think that I’d “get” the need to make my characters imperfect, create their flaws with a more complete understanding that this is part of what makes them human, engaging, and even universal.

But it’s always a struggle. I want to idealize them. In first drafts, or even in the daydreams that happen before the first drafts, deeper imperfections, the roiling internal conflicts that make us human, are absent.

I steer myself deliberately into the “deep” later on. And more often than not, it will take repeated efforts to comb away my idealizing vision of a girl, her family, her friends, until they all become flawed.

Not fatally, but naturally. Like most of us.

Decades ago, when I read and fell in love with so many magnificent middle grade novels, I participated in an online “chat” (no visuals in those days, just typed questions and responses) with Katherine Paterson. As a new-ish writer for children, I typed in a question:

How did you create a character with so many flaws that we still fall in love with by the end of the first page?

 Ms. Paterson’s answer was simply stated, but profound. The typed words appeared on my screen:

Because I love her.

I knew how important these words were, and also knew that it might take me years of practice to fully understand.

In fact, as I’ve worked on multiple revisions of my middle grade novel in verse, it has seemed that I created the love by creating flaws. As I made everything and everyone less perfect, I grew fonder and fonder of them, and of the story.

We know the flaws of being human make for better characters, and a deeper story. They also probably make for a better life.

Or the other way around.

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 Flourishing Writer,” is archived 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.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Cynsational Summer Awards Roundup

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Boston Globe-Hornbook Awards for Excellence in Children's Literature: "Winners are selected in three categories: Picture Book, Fiction and Poetry, and Nonfiction. Two Honor Books may be named in each category."



The National Book Awards Longlist: Young People's Literature from The New Yorker. Peek: "...a novel in verse about a twelve-year-old soccer nut, an illustrated adventure story that draws on Chinese folklore, a work of nonfiction about a woman who survived the atomic bomb dropped by the U.S. on Nagasaki, a surreal love story involving rumored witches, and a graphic novel about the civil-rights movement co-written by a sitting U.S. congressman."

Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award: "This year’s winner is Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir written by Margarita Engle, published by Atheneum...."

Intellectual Freedom Award from the National Council of Teachers of English. Peek: "NCTE honors Matt de la Peña for his courage in standing up for intellectual freedom with the NCTE National Intellectual Freedom Award, given for de la Peña’s efforts to fight censorship not only through his words but also through his actions."

Willa Award Finalist
Willa Award Winner and Finalists from Women Writing the West. Peek: "Chosen by professional librarians, historians and university affiliated educators, the winning authors and their books will be honored at the 22st Annual WWW Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico on Oct. to Oct. 16..."

Carter G. Woodson Book Award and Honor Winners: "NCSS established the Carter G. Woodson Book Awards for the most distinguished books appropriate for young readers that depict ethnicity in the United States."

Lammy Award from Lambda Literary. Peek: "Exciting news for Alex Gino and all of us who want this beautiful and important story of a transgender child in 4th grade to get into the hands of everyone who needs it."

NCTE Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction for Children: "...established in 2014 to promote and recognize excellence in the writing of fiction for children. This award recognizes fiction that has the potential to transform children’s lives by inviting compassion, imagination, and wonder."

Parents Choice Book Awards: "Parents' Choice Foundation, established in 1978 as a 501c3, is the nation’s oldest nonprofit guide to quality children’s media and toys."

Finalists Announced for the 2016 Canadian Children's Book Centre Awards"The winners of the English-language awards will be announced at an invitation-only gala event at The Carlu in Toronto on November 17, 2016. The winners of the Prix TD de littérature canadienne pour l’enfance et la jeunesse will be announced at an invitation-only gala event at Le Windsor in Montreal on November 1, 2016. Overall, $135,000 in prize monies will be awarded."

International Latino Award (Chap Book)
2016 International Latino Book Awards: "...now the largest Latino cultural Awards in the USA and with the 257 finalists this year, it has honored the greatness of 2,171 authors and publishers over the past two decades. These books are a great reflection that books by and about Latinos are in high demand. In 2016 Latinos will purchase over $675 million in books in English and Spanish."

Writers' League of Texas Book Award Winners, Finalists and Discovery Prize Winners: "With over 1,200 members statewide and growing, the Writers’ League of Texas is a vibrant community that serves to educate and uplift Texas writers, whatever stage they may be at in their writing careers. In addition, the WLT offers valuable service to communities across the state with free programming in libraries and local schools."

Cynsational Notes

Submissions Guidelines Walter Dean Myers Book Award for YA Lit from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: "A submission must be written by a diverse author and the submission must be a diverse work. If a work has co-authors, at least one of the authors must be diverse..." Deadline: Nov. 1.

Lee & Low New Visions Award: "Manuscripts should address the needs of children and teens of color by providing stories with which they can identify and relate, and which promote a greater understanding of one another. Themes relating to LGBTQ+ topics or disabilities may also be included." Deadline: Oct. 31.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Guest Post: Denis Markell on Once You've Found Your Story, How Do You Tell It?

By Denis Markell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

As an aspiring writer for children, one of the many dividends of marrying my beautiful and gifted wife Melissa Iwai...

(am I right or am I right?)

was finding someone to collaborate with on picture books.

Seeing as I knew she was an extraordinary illustrator, this was to be expected.

What came as a surprise, however, was how deeply her personal experience as an Asian-American woman in America and the history of her family would affect me and my other work as well.

As a Caucasian, It was quite an education for me to see firsthand the tiny slights and assumptions that she would deal with on a daily basis on the streets of New York.

Because of this, I felt that when I finally wrote my first middle grade novel it would involve the Asian experience in our country in some way.

One of the family stories I learned from Melissa, was of her uncle, Takateru Nakabayashi, who had taken the American name of his favorite Jesuit teacher, brother Nicholas.


Uncle Nick, as he was always called, had been a member of the famed 100th Infantry Battalion, the all Nisei army brigade who had fought in Europe in World War II.


I was dimly aware that such a unit existed, so I did some research and found that there are some quite wonderful books which chronicle the story of these amazing men, who fought for their country so bravely while their fellow citizens, whose only "crime" was to be of Japanese ancestry, languished in internment camps.

But it was a story woefully untold for middle grade readers.

Now I had my subject, but how to tell their tale in such a way that it would reach the largest audience? Nonfiction?

There are gifted writers such as Candace Fleming and Steve Sheinkin who can bring history to life with the drama and craft that enthrall young readers, but that’s not really my strength. I’ve spent years as a comedy writer in other fields, and humor and fiction are more where I’m comfortable.

Historical fiction? While I could have set the story in the 1940s, I wanted to make the story as relatable as possible to kid readers today, so involving a young Asian-American boy in today’s world felt right. By now we’d had our son, and as he grew older, I observed his fascination with computer and video games. It occurred to me that perhaps this was a way in!

Maybe I could hook kids with an adventure, one involving computer games, puzzles and suspense. I could weave the story of Melissa’s uncle throughout, using him as a character and the clues could relate to the 100th Battalion.

If I could pull this off, my readers might get a history lesson without even realizing it! Of course, there would be enough there for teachers to expand on and amplify, if they wished to use my book in the classroom. But my goal was to tell the story with lots of humor and keep the kids laughing as they learned.

Finally, to honor my half-Asian son (who still faces many of the same micro-agressions his mother does), I decided to make the protagonist hapa, as half-Asians are called within the community. Note: for positive examples of hapa characters in Disney films please read this excellent post.

So now I knew what the story I wanted to tell, and how I wanted to tell it. I rolled up my sleeves (okay, I pushed up my sleeves. I wear sweatshirts) and started to write. Click Here To Start was the result.

Monday, September 12, 2016

New Voice: Sonya Mukherjee on Gemini

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sonya Mukherjee is the first-time author of Gemini (Simon & Schuster, 2016). From the promotional copy:

In a powerful and daring debut novel, Sonya Mukherjee shares the story of sisters Clara and Hailey, conjoined twins who are learning what it means to be truly extraordinary.

Seventeen-year-old conjoined twins, Clara and Hailey, have lived in the same small town their entire lives—no one stares at them anymore. But there are cracks in their quiet existence and they’re slowing becoming more apparent. 


Clara and Hailey are at a crossroads. Clara wants to stay close to home, avoid all attention, and study the night sky. Hailey wants to travel the world, learn from great artists, and dance with mysterious boys. 

As high school graduation approaches, each twin must untangle her dreams from her sister’s, and figure out what it means to be her own person.

Told in alternating perspectives, this unconventional coming-of-age tale shows how dreams can break your heart—but the love between sisters can mend it.


What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

This is cheating a bit, but my answer has to be Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (Random House, 2006). This is a book that I studied and contemplated until its ideas sank in, and it helped my writing more than anything else that I’ve read.

The basic idea is one that’s seeped into the culture in the last few years, but as far as I know, it all stems from Dweck’s work: Some people have a fixed mindset, in which they assume that their intelligence, talent, and personal qualities are mostly immutable, while others have a growth mindset—an assumption that all these qualities can be changed and meaningfully improved with effort. With the fixed mindset, you hear feedback as a reflection on your immutable qualities. With the growth mindset, you hear feedback simply as useful information. And the growth mindset is the one you want.

When I read this book, I realized that I’d always had a fixed mindset about writing. Whenever I received criticism or rejections, I worried that I wasn’t a good writer and never would be—which made it harder to get back to my writing, and harder to learn from the criticism. Whenever I received praise or other kudos, I became hopeful that maybe I had talent after all.

It was a roller coaster, and just like a real-life roller coaster, it made my stomach hurt and got me nowhere.

But Dweck makes it clear that just as you can grow your intelligence, grow your talent, and grow your compassion, you can also grow yourself a growth mindset. That’s the whole point: Believe you can change, and you really can.

Still, change wasn’t easy. For me, the hardest part, but also the most important, was when I realized that in order to be less hurt by criticism, I would also need to be less delighted by praise.

They were two sides of the same coin, and there was just no way to have one without the other. I needed to hear both positive and negative feedback as potentially helpful input that I could use to improve my work, and nothing more.

In short, I had to give up caring about whether I had talent.

This change in mindset allowed me to take in tougher feedback with much less discouragement, and it allowed me to become much more merciless in cutting and overhauling my manuscripts. It also meant less time wasted on feeling bad about criticism and rejections, so I could get back to work sooner.

I’m not claiming to be fully reformed, but I think I’ve come a long way, and I think it’s made a huge difference to the quality of my writing.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

The truth is, although I haven’t been a teenager for quite a while, I never really changed the way I talk.

When I’m at my most relaxed, I still use pretty much the same speech patterns, the same sarcasm, and the same words I used then. I was never one for the most faddish slang, so I didn’t say “rad” as a teen, and I don’t say “bae” now, but I’ve been overusing “awesome” and “cool” the entire time.

Gemini was originally all in Clara’s point of view, and her voice was the first thing that came to me and drove the book forward, so it wasn’t something I struggled to find. But it was basically just a relaxed, uncensored version of my own voice, mingling with some of the thoughts and perspectives and worries that I had as a teen.

Hailey’s voice was added much later in the process, and hers was a bit more challenging, because I wanted her to feel distinct from Clara. They have two different personalities, but because they’re twin sisters who have never been apart, they also have a lot of similarities.

Since Hailey has a harder, tougher edge than Clara, I decided that she would tend to speak in somewhat shorter sentences, with shorter words, and with some mild swearing that we don’t get from Clara. I made her less inclined toward metaphors and other writerly ways of saying things; she’s more direct and literal.

With both of them, though, there was an element that I think must resemble what Method actors do, in imagining themselves into a character. I just tried to be this person and see things through her eyes, and let the voice flow from there.

For writers whose natural voices are more formal or mature than mine, I would suggest that you still just lean into whatever voice comes naturally to you, and allow it to be what it is.

I doubt that trying to consciously imitate younger people’s speech patterns would ever work very well, and I don’t think it’s necessary. There are plenty of great books for young readers that don’t have an obviously teen or kid-sounding voice.

Read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (Hyperion, 2009) or The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (Little, Brown, 2008). These books have pretty formal-sounding narrative voices, and they’re fantastic, and young readers love them.

Granted, they’re in third person, but who says you have to write in first person?

And then again, if you want to write in first person and still give your narrator a more formal style, who says you can’t do that?

Kids and teens have all kinds of voices, and their slang doesn’t necessarily need to be on fleek. (Which MTV tells me is out anyway. “On fleek” was so 2015, apparently.)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Summer Girls & Women in Children's-YA Lit Roundup

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

How "Girl Books" Could Save the World (Or at Least Help Out) by Jen Malone from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: "Guess who’s not being exposed to these main characters? Boys. That’s a problem, because their female counterparts are only too happy to read books featuring male central characters, meaning those girls’ empathy for and understanding of the opposite gender grows, while the reverse isn’t necessarily happening."

Teen Girls Have a Right to Roam, Too by C.J. Flood from The Guardian. Peek: "Was it responsible, I asked my publicist and editor, to show teenage girl friends creeping from their bedrooms after dark, to wander their home turf in the moonlight?"

On Gendered Book Covers and Being a Woman Designer by Jennifer Heuer from Lit Hub. Peek: "What topics are women interested in? All of them. How about that book about sports (and not just one about a female athlete)? History (not just one about suffragettes)? A crime thriller (not just one with “girl” in the title)?"

The Heroine's Journey: How Campbell's Model Doesn't Fit by B.J. Priester from Fangirl. Peek: "Putting too much weight on old myths with antiquated, if not downright misogynistic, attitudes toward women will only reinforce sexist limitations from a sexist time in human history."

Girls Growing Up in Middle Grade Fiction by Yamile Saied Mendez from Project Mayhem. Peek: "...here are some titles that have used this time in a girls life as an opportunity to create memorable characters and premises."

The Problem with Female Protagonists by Jo Eberhardt from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "I took my son by the hand and went to find out whether his assertion that we mostly (because “always” was clearly an exaggeration) read about female protagonists was true." See How I've Helped Teach Boys That Girls Are Boring an Unimportant by Kasey Edwards from Daily Life.
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