Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Author Interview: P.J. Hoover on Creating Promotional Tie-In Extras For Your Book

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

When I first read P.J. Hoover's Cynsations post that mentioned video games related to Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life (Starscape, 2014), I thought, "She's an electrical engineer. That's not something someone like me could actually do."

Still, it's  a very intriguing idea.

We hear all the time about kids playing video games instead of reading books. What if the video games could actually make them want to read?

When I heard there would be a sequel to Tut, I decided it was time to learn more about the intersection of books and gaming to share with Cynsations readers.

Tell us about the extras you created to go along with Tut. 

Thanks so much for having me here! I’m thrilled to talk about the extras to Tut! I’ll split them into traditional and non-traditional.

For traditional extras, it started when my editor asked for a “bonus chapter” to put at the end of the actual printed book.

I didn’t love the idea of a bonus chapter because I didn’t see it as a big selling point for middle grade. So instead, I sat down at my computer, put together some extras, and sent them off to her. These included:

A glossary
A note to readers about King Tut
King Tut’s Guide to immortality
A Tomb-Builders Guide

The short story is that she loved them! She loved them so much, that for the sequel, she asked for more. So I sat down at my computer again and came up with:

King Tut’s Most Excellent Guide to all Things Shabti
Caring for your Sumerian Monster
Henry’s Phrontistery

(Note that these make a bunch of sense once you’ve read the book.) Again, she loved the extras!

But these still all fell in the range of traditional extras, and being the tech-savvy person that I am, I decided to come up with some more not-quite-as-traditional extras.


The first of these was a game I developed in Scratch (a website developed by MIT that teaches kids to program by having them design games).

Scratch is widely used in schools which is where I first learned about it. Over the course of the next few months, I coded Escape From King Tut's Tomb, a 10-level video game to go along with the book. It’s actually really hard to get through all 10 levels, so on my website, I included “cheats” to go along with the game.

After the Scratch game, I latched onto the Minecraft craze.
One of P.J.'s Minecraft
Tomb Builders

Minecraft popularity has died down a bit in the last couple years, but at the time of the release of Tut: The Story of my Immortal Life, it was the hottest thing.

So I hired some Minecraft developers (in the form of my kids and their friends), rented server space, and we created the Minecraft Tut world.

I was so excited at this point, and so into creating extras to go along with Tut (since they were so much fun), that I sat down and wrote out a Choose Your Own Adventure inspired game to go along with my book.

It’s called Pick Your Own Quest, and in it, you play the role of King Tut. The choices you make determine if you save Egypt from an awful threat, or if you make the wrong choice, you die some horribly grizzly death instead.

I think there are about forty-two different ways to die.


When it was time for book 2, I knew I wanted to write another Scratch game.

Here’s the thing. King Tut himself was a gamer.

Yes, it’s true! In his tomb they found many copies of a very popular ancient Egyptian board game called Senet.

This game is featured in the sequel, Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World (Starscape, 2017). So I coded up Senet in Scratch to go along with book two. Kids can play against a friend or against King Tut himself.

Warning: King Tut is very hard to beat. He also taunts you the entire time you play. For those who don’t know how to play Senet, there is an easy mode and a hard mode. There are also downloadable instructions on my website and information in the back of the published book.



What has the response been from teachers and students?

Both teachers and students love these extras!

I have gotten such great response, from seeing librarians at conferences eyes light up when they hear me mention Scratch, to kids cheering when they find out about the video games.

They love that I’ve taken the world of reading and crossed it over in these unique ways to combine technology.

Kids adore playing video games, and when they hear about how they’re related to a book, it’s like they feel like they’ve been given permission to play. Also it gets them very excited to read the books. I’ll see hundreds and hundreds of hits on my website for the extras, and it just makes smile.

Have the extras led to more school visits?

One hundred percent yes!

In addition to my standard author presentation, I also offer a breakout “Coding Chat” where I’ll talk to kids in technology classes or coding clubs about ways I use technology in my job as an author. I’ll also focus on Scratch and help them get started. I have some “starter” projects that kids can take and easily modify. 

So many schools these days have coding clubs, and the program they almost all start out using is Scratch. So I offer them not only the ability to talk about books and writing, but the vision in seeing how they can take their love of a book and express it creatively.

In addition, and it’s so hard to believe this is still the case, we are still seeing a huge drop in females in technical classes and careers. Lots of schools love that I provide the role model of a strong technical female to their students. I’ve been invited to specifically visit girls-only schools for this reason.

I have information about in-person and Skype author visits on my website.

Have the extras help boost sales? Have you heard from readers who discovered the book because they found one of the games first?

Though it’s hard to determine this exactly, I believe the extras have helped the Tut books gain visibility and stand out in the market when otherwise they might not have.

Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life was chosen for both the Texas Lone Star List and the Spirit of Texas Middle School list.

In addition, I’ve also seem my game being used as an example in computer science classes around the country, both at the high school and college levels. 

Scratch also provides a way for me to connect with kids directly.

It’s like its own social networking site. Kids can comment on my games, like them, favorite them. I can chat back with them about the games. Overall, it’s a win.

Which of the games you created is the most popular?

P.J.'s original Artificial Intelligence project
Of the Scratch games, Escape From King Tut's Tomb is by far the most popular. It’s the main one connected to the book, and the first one kids will find on my Scratch page and my website. 

Of the non-Scratch extras, the Pick Your Own Quest adventure is hugely popular. Kids will go through the paths, trying to find a safe way to save Egypt over and over again. They probably go through seeing how many ways they can die also.

My personal favorite is a game I coded in Scratch.

Back when I was in college, I took a class called Artificial Intelligence, and in the class, we had a project assigned. I wrote a game called Castle Of Doom.

I loved the game! Of course that was back in 1991 and the game was on a (most likely defunct) floppy disk for DOS.

I recoded the game in Scratch, and now I can play whenever I want!

P.J.'s game, recoded in Scratch
Tell me about the timeline of creating the extras. Did you do it all at once? Or is it something you are continually growing?

I tend to do my extras in batches, before the release of the books. That way, when possible, I can get information on the extras into the printed books themselves.

For example, the Pick Your Own Quest game is featured in the print books with a QR that links directly to the website page for it. 

The Scratch games take a while to write. I’ll try to spread this out over the course of a couple months, taking my time, so I don’t rush through anything and make mistakes (through I’m sure there are still some bugs in there somewhere!). It’s nice when I do Scratch, because I can hang out with my kids at the kitchen table with my laptop, and it encourages them to create games of their own at the same time. 

If an author wants to make a game, what are the basic steps for getting started? (is one platform more user friendly? have better graphics or sound effects?)

There are two different ways to approach this. 

PJ Hoover with Cynthia Leitich Smith at Texas Book Festival
If an author just wants a kick-butt video game to go along with their book, there is no reason to use Scratch.

In fact, there may be many reasons to not use it. The graphics are not the best (they don’t scale up great). It can be slow loading. It does not have all the functionality a skilled programmer would want.

If the goal is to just have a game that kids can play, any platform can be used.

My reasons for having a game were a bit different.

In addition to giving kids a game to play, I really wanted to tie into the technology curriculum at schools and allow educators to combine the use of my games and my books.

I was really trying to hook those kids who loved math and science but didn’t love reading and writing quite as much. For this reason, I went with Scratch. Almost every single educator out there has heard of it. Many schools have required Technology classes or lessons. Scratch is the number one go-to when teaching kids to code. 

As for getting started, having a programming background helps. But anything is possible if there is a vision and the motivation to make that vision become a reality. 

Are there costs associated with creating the extra content?

My cost was only my time. But it was fun time, time well spent, and I loved every minute of it! Also, now I have some really fun games that even I love to play.

Tell us about Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World.

I’m so excited for this book! It feels like it’s been forever since book 1, Tut: The Story Of My Immortal Life, came out. And it has been two-and-a-half years! The story picks up a few months after the end of the first book. And because they did such a great job of summarizing it, I’ll go with my publishers blurb:

Meet Tut! He used to rule Egypt. Now he's stuck in middle school.

Having defeated his evil uncle and the Cult of Set, who tried to send him to the afterlife, the perpetually fourteen-year-old King Tut is looking forward to a relaxing summer vacation. But then Tut discovers that his brother Gilgamesh has been captured by the Egyptian god Apep, Lord of Chaos. Gil helped to vanquish Apep thousands of years ago, and now Apep is back for vengeance.

It’s up to Tut and his friends, Tia and Henry, to find Gil and stop Apep before he succeeds in his scheme to swallow the sun and plunge the world into darkness forever….

Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World will appeal to fans of fast and funny mythological fantasy. Don’t miss Tut’s first epic adventure, Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life.

Thank you so much for having me here! It is such an honor!

Cynsational Notes

P.J. with Nefertorti. Her other
tortoise is named King Tort.
P.J. Hoover wanted to be a Jedi, but when that didn't work out, she became an electrical engineer instead. After 15 years of designing computer chips, she decided to start creating worlds of her own.

Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World, her sixth book, releases today.

When not writing, P.J. spends time with her husband and two kids and enjoys practicing kung fu, solving Rubik's cubes, watching "Star Trek" and playing too many video games.

She is also the assistant regional adviser for Austin SCBWI

Monday, February 27, 2017

Guest Post: Varsha Bajaj on Finding Your Book at Target

By Varsha Bajaj 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

On November 9, 2016, I was at my local Target store.

I had bought milk, eggs, bananas and dog treats and I wandered into the books section because that’s where I am known to stray when I need comforting.

Right there beside Dr. Seuss and under Eric Carle was This is Our Baby, Born Today (by Varsha Bajaj, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2016).

I pulled out my phone and clicked a picture, as if I needed proof for my friends and family, in case it was a huge mistake and they pulled the copies off the shelves the next day.

Then, I lurked around the aisle trying to collect my errant thoughts.

This book was born in January 2012 during my son’s senior year when the school requested that I send pictures of him between the ages of 0-5. I sat surrounded by hundreds of pictures with the impossible task of selecting five. Babies were now on my brain and in my words.

After months of writing and many failed versions and drafts, I realized the heart of my story.

While the baby is the mother’s alone in the womb, the circle of love gradually expands after birth and includes at first the family and then the world. The arrival of a baby is cause for celebration.

Around the same time, I read about the plight of elephants and their dwindling numbers.

My connection to elephants goes way back. I remembered the wooden elephant from my childhood home in India who was the hero of some of my earliest stories.


It struck me that if we celebrated the birth of every elephant, they would not be endangered today. The baby in the story became an elephant and the rest of the words followed.

This manuscript found the right editor thanks to my agent, Jill Corcoran.

The words found the perfect illustrator, Eliza Wheeler, thanks to my extraordinary editor, Nancy Paulsen.

I’ve been lucky to see my books grace the shelves of bookstores before.

But this was different.

While I wish everyone visited a bookstore, I realize and mourn the fact that only a small section of people frequent and support their local indie or Barnes and Noble.

Target manages to reach a much wider base.

I hope that the readers of this book will be sympathetic toward elephants and realize that these gentle giants need our help.

I hope that these young readers will wander into a bookstore or their local indie as teens or adults.

I hope there are people who will wander to the book section after buying their milk, eggs, bananas and dog treats and pick up a copy of This is Our Baby, Born Today.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus called This is Our Baby, Born Today a gentle rhyming story and said it "works on two levels: the playfulness of the young elephant and its friends ensure that young children will be able to see themselves in the story, and given the depiction of the natural scenes, at least some young readers will become fascinated with the lives of elephants as well."

Varsha Bajaj came to the United States as a graduate student in 1986. She earned her master’s degree in counseling from Southern Illinois University and worked as a Licensed Professional Counselor in St. Louis. This is Our Baby, Born Today is her third picture book, and she is also the author of the novel Abby Spencer goes to Bollywood (Albert Whitman, 2014). Her next book, Our Earth, Our Home, illustrated by Simona Mulazzani will be published by Nancy Paulsen Books in 2018.

Varsha with Kathi Appelt at the This is Our Baby, Born Today launch party.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Poeta Rebelde by Guadalupe Garcia McCall from Latinxs in Kid Lit. Peek: "Poetry gives voice to my fears. It allows me to express my concerns with bold and powerful words." See also Kwame Alexander & Nikki Grimes on the Power of Poetry from Publishers Weekly.

How to Use IBM's WATSON Artificial Intelligence to Improve Your Writing -- For Free by Martina Boone from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: "You can paste in a chapter of your work, or someone else's work, and get immediate feedback on everything from the emotions displayed." Text is analyzed both at the document and sentence level for emotion, language style and social tendencies.

Cooperative Children's Book Center releases best-of-the-year list. Final CCBC Choices publication will be available March 4.

Can Poetry Keep You Young? Science Is Still Out, But The Heart Says Yes, by Ina Jaffe from NPR Morning Edition. Peek: "The early evidence suggests that the arts have positive cognitive, social, and emotional impacts on older adults."

The Significance of Small Gestures by Vaughn Roycroft from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "We storytellers wield a mighty power to move people. We became storytellers because of our empathy—our intense desire not just to explore how others see and feel things, but to convey those outlooks and emotions to even more folks."

Where to Find Opportunities to Teach (and Supplement Your Writing Income) by Eric Maisel from Jane Friedman's blog. Peek: "Once you embrace the idea that running classes, workshops and retreats might be something you actually love and not just a revenue stream and a way to help you cobble a life, you may feel your enthusiasm grow."

Rita Williams Garcia by Varian Johnson for 28 Days Later from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: "Rita writes about real people in the real word. When I see the Gaither girls, I see my sister. My cousins. My daughters. Rita creates characters–Black characters–that showcase who we are and who we can be."

Agent Spotlight Interview with Linda Camacho and Query Critique Giveaway by Natalie Aguirre from Literary Rambles. Peek: "My tastes are pretty broad, ranging from clean and lighthearted to edgy and dark. Diversity of all types (ethnicity, disability, sexuality, etc.) welcome, particularly #ownvoices projects!" Also, meet Linda in person at the Austin SCBWI Conference, May 20 and May 21.

A New Phase of 'Goodnight Moon' by Sarah Lyall from The New York Times. Peek: "...soon there will be 'Good Day, Good Night,' a previously unpublished book by (Margaret Wise) Brown that can be read as part variation on, part expansion of Goodnight Moon (Harper, 1947)."

The Importance of the Adversarial Ally by Jeanne Cavelos from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "A character who only helps works against the needs of story. He makes things easier for the protagonist, reducing conflict, suspense, emotion, and putting less at stake."

MG vs YA When YA Is So Much Older Now by Stacy Whitman from Stacy Whitman's Grimoire. Peek: "There’s a certain kind of voice you expect from a YA book that tells you 'this is about a teenage experience.' It’s different from the exploring/discovery of the world voice we generally hear in MG—it’s more mature, sometimes more cynical. It’s not an adult voice, but it is no longer the voice of a child."

Why YA Books with Muslim Protagonists Are More Important than Ever by Sheba Karim from Harper Stacks. Peek: "When I told classmates my parents were from Pakistan, a country born of carnage only a few decades earlier, hardly anyone knew where it was, let alone its history."

This Week at Cynsations
Cynsational Giveaway



More Personally - Cynthia

My latest geeky fashion acquisitions!
This week, I transitioned from writing teacher to writer. After grading my first-round VCFA packets, I read through my work in progress and began cutting. The manuscript was too heavy on character pontificating, too thin on plot. No more. Tomorrow, I begin deleting and then contemplate how I can take the action up a notch or ten.

Cynsational Events


Cynthia Leitich Smith will be speaking at the Austin SCBWI Marketing Boot Camp on Feb. 25 at the Round Rock, Texas Library. She is also a keynote speaker for the 33rd Annual Virginia Hamilton Conference on April 6 and April 7 at Kent State University in Ohio. In addition, she will deliver the keynote address at The Color of Children's Literature Conference from Kweli Literary Journal on April 8 at the New York Times Conference Center in Manhattan.

Personal Links

More Personally - Gayleen

I was honored to be a judge for Letters About Literature at the Texas State Library last Friday, along with several other members of the Austin kidlit community.  

Gayleen, Anne Bustard, Cory Putman Oakes, Nikki Loftin, Donna Janell Bowman and Rebekah Manley.
Personal Links

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Author Interview: Lamar Giles on Writing Mysteries, Diversity & His Writing Journey

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Lamar Giles' last Cynsations visit was in 2014 as a debut author.

Since then, he's had two novels named Edgar Award finalists by the Mystery Writers of America and helped found We Need Diverse Books.

He serves as senior vice president of fundraising for the non-profit organization dedicated to putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children.

I talked with him recently about the writing life and his latest mystery novel.

What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?

The thing I love most about being an author is the moment of breakthrough.

Every thing I've ever written is hard, so hard I want to quit almost every time. It's a point of endless anxiety...until it isn't. If I work long enough, and hard enough, the murkiest most non-sensical manuscript starts to clarify, then it flows, then when I'm at the end of the journey I have something enjoyable that feels like it came from somewhere else.

That feeling is remarkably satisfying. And, if I'm fortunate, I'll get to do it over and over again for the rest of my life.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I write best in the mornings in my home office (that's not very exciting, I know). That's been my routine for almost two decades. Though, I've been experimenting with alternate locations and times due to having to travel more.

I've never been great at writing on the road, but it's becoming more and more necessary as people ask me to visit their state/school/library. Recently, I wrote a book proposal on my iPad while sitting in a traffic jam (my wife was driving...I'm not that good). I'm evolving.

When you look back on your writing journey, what are the changes that stand out?

So, I've been writing stories since I was eight years old, and there are several milestones that stand out. Chief among them, my first pro short story sale at age 21 (then the subsequent three years I couldn't sell anything).

Being awarded a Fellowship from the Virginia Commission of the Arts when I was 26, newly married, and close to giving up on writing for "more realistic" pursuits like being a real estate agent (I'm a much better writer than real estate agent).

The rise of digital/self publishing, which allowed me to put out material with no one's permission. My first novel sale at age 31.

Then, understanding how few books were written for or about children of color, making me very fortunate to be working, and using my platform to open the door for more diverse material.

Could you tell us about your upcoming release?

Overturned (Scholastic Press, March 28, 2017) is the story of a teen poker player in Las Vegas trying to discover who framed her father for murder.

For those who know my work, it's got twists and turns and action like my previous novels Fake ID (HarperCollins, 2014) and Endangered (Harper Teen, 2015). For those who don't know my work, I think you'll find Overturned is a great entry point into my brand of noir mystery.

Nikki Tate, the hero of the story, plays in illegal poker games as a way to earn money for college way on the other side of the country.

She wants to get away from her family's failing casino and the stigma of having a dad on death row. But, when her father's sentence is overturned, and he returns home bitter and obsessed, it turns Nikki's world topsy-turvy. I'm not much of a gambler myself, but in this case I'm willing to bet you'll have a hard time putting Overturned down.


As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

At Matt de la Pena's Newbery
acceptance speech
Well, the most obvious thing is Nikki's Black (as am I).

Growing up, the lack of Black heroes in all the things I loved--books, TV, Film, Video Games--left me feeling deprived as a consumer of the arts.

In my teen years, I was outright angry and close to giving up on reading and writing (beyond what was required to pass classes). Discovering many black writers/characters in my late teens altered the course of my life, and made me believe storytelling was viable option for me.

That being said, Nikki's blackness isn't just surface level.

She and her family deal with things like false accusations and unjust incarceration. A local police force that's cold to her family because they had the audacity to speak up. Nikki being viewed as older and more dangerous than she actually is because of her complexion.

These things are subtle--the mystery is front and center--but the circumstances are background constants, as they are for people of color in real life.

Additionally, Nikki has a diverse group of friends, classmates, and business associates. I tried to write Las Vegas as I saw it--and the world in general--populated with various people of all colors, shapes, sizes, etc.

What appeals to you about the mystery genre?

I like puzzles and Legos, and writing a mystery feels like the literary version of putting something together. You have all these little pieces that don't really make sense scattered about, but through the progression of plot and character, you start to pull them together until you have this beautiful picture or structure that makes you appreciate the tough parts of the process even more.

Cynsational Notes:

Kirkus Reviews called Overturned "an utterly compelling whodunit" in a starred review. "Nikki is a totally appealing character: gutsy, practical, and strong, at the head of a cast of well-drawn supporting characters. The interracial romance between Nikki and Davis, who is white, is handled deftly, as is Giles' skillful evocation of the townies-vs.-tourists of Las Vegas."


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Authors, Editor & Illustrator Interview: Fred Korematsu Speaks Up (Fighting for Justice)

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi are the co-authors of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, illustrated by Yukata Houlette (Heyday, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Fred Korematsu liked listening to music on the radio, playing tennis, and hanging around with his friends—just like lots of other Americans. 

But everything changed when the United States went to war with Japan in 1941 and the government forced all people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes on the West Coast and move to distant prison camps. 

This included Fred, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Japan many years before. But Fred refused to go. He knew that what the government was doing was unfair. And when he got put in jail for resisting, he knew he couldn’t give up.

Inspired by the award-winning book for adults
Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California by Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi (Heyday, 2009), the Fighting for Justice series introduces young readers to real-life heroes and heroines of social progress. 

The story of Fred Korematsu’s fight against discrimination explores the life of one courageous person who made the United States a fairer place for all Americans, and it encourages all of us to speak up for justice.

Today we welcome the co-authors, editor and illustrator to share with Cynsations readers a glimpse into the creative process behind the book.

Stan, can you talk about the inspiration behind the book and series?

Fred Korematsu
I wish I could claim credit for initiating the book and series, but they are the brainchildren of Heyday’s founder and retired publisher, Malcolm Margolin.

He thought a children’s version of Wherever There’s a Fight, the book I co-wrote with Elaine Elinson about the history of civil rights in California, would inspire kids.

That initial idea morphed into a plan for a series of books about civil liberties heroes and heroines.

Fred Korematsu is one of my heroes. So I’m delighted that the series is launching with his story.

He stood virtually alone against a powerful government he knew was violating the rights of Japanese Americans. His fight for justice was difficult. But he ultimately prevailed.

He dedicated the final decades of his life to ensuring that others would not suffer the same unfair discrimination Japanese Americans endured during World War II.

His story is all the more important now with threats to Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and LGBT people. Kids need to know that we can organize and fight against injustice.

Laura, white headband, seated far end of line, blockading
Lawrence Livermore Lab. She was arrested soon after. 
Laura, what inspired you to work on this project?

I was delighted to be asked to come on board!

Molly, our editor at Heyday, approached me and asked if I could get involved as a person with children’s book experience, to help Stan create a story pitched at our middle grade readership. It was a dream project for me.

I love that the book, and the series, focus on people who have fought for social justice and civil liberties in California history.

I grew up as the child of activist parents, and got involved in activism myself in middle school and high school, including getting arrested as part of anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid protests.

I learned from my family and from my peers, that my own happiness and well-being is connected to other people’s, and that when we fight for everyone’s rights, we make the whole world better.


I am so excited that we were able to create a book that will hopefully inspire young people today to feel like they can have a voice, and the power to speak up when they see something unfair.

We are in a time when basic civil liberties are being threatened and undermined.

I hope that our story will help kids to understand more about what happened to Fred Korematsu, and how 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were put in jail during WWII just for looking like the enemy.

This can help them to reflect on issues today — a potential registry of Muslim Americans along with the travel ban for people from predominently Muslim countries, anti-immigrant attitudes, and other forms of discrimination — and consider how they can have the power, and the ability, to speak up themselves.

Molly, how did the editorial process for this book work? Was it similar to other books you’d worked on or different?

I feel very fortunate to have been part of this project, working with a group of such thoughtful and caring creative people to share Fred Korematsu's story.

As we built the book from the ground up, the editorial process was more collaborative than that of any other project I've worked on.

We spent many afternoons together talking about Fred's experiences and how to best convey them to young readers, and it was nice that we all lived in the Bay Area and could brainstorm in person.

Stan and Laura did amazing work collaborating on the writing front, melding their different strengths, and Yutaka thought about illustrations that would complement the themes of each chapter, then beautifully realized them.

Meanwhile, we gathered photos, art works, news headlines, and other documents to help extend Fred's story.


On a basic level, the challenge was helping readers understand and relate to Fred's story, which
involves a complicated legal fight.

There was a constant balancing act of keeping things simple enough for our audience while presenting the complexity of topics accurately. Our conversations ranged from discussing how to talk about racism with this age group to how to present the fact that the U.S. government lied during Fred's trial.

Through the lens of his story, we talked about many important and difficult subjects that are increasingly relevant today.

From the text to the visuals, our process involved discussing possibilities, trying out ideas and approaches, and gathering input.

We were grateful to have had the help and guidance of Fred's children Karen and Ken Korematsu, local teachers and librarians, a focus group of fourth-grade students, and staff at several nonprofits and historical societies.

Slowly, the book began to take shape, coalescing more and more until it "came into its own" as the book it is today, a book that feels, to me, like a real community project, and one that will continue to expand beyond its covers as kids start to read and interact with it.

I hope readers are moved to have the same kinds of important conversations that we had while making the book, and that Fred's example moves all of us to act when we see others treated unfairly.

Yutaka, what was your process for thinking about and creating the artwork?

I had never worked on a narrative project that involved so many drawings before, and honestly, I was a bit overwhelmed at first.

To try to make the project less daunting, I tried to plan as much as I could before diving too deep into any one drawing. Planning involved things like creating a color-palette, gathering reference images and trying to work out the compositions for as many of the rough sketches as I could.

The color-palette was inspired by kamishibai illustrations from the 40s and 50s.

Kamishibai, or 'paper-theater' was a popular Japanese form of storytelling for kids that took place outdoors. The illustrations for 'kamishibai' were intended to be eye-catching even from afar, so the colors often have a bright, pop-art feel to them. But many of the remaining 'kamishibai' from the 40s and 50s are a faded and worn out from heavy use in the outdoors. I was hoping this mix of bright and faded colors would subtly evoke an older time without feeling musty.

Because the story takes place in specific times and places, there were many reference images to find, like Fred's old high school, barbershops from the 40s, and Tanforan. 


Molly and Diane from Heyday helped out a lot by giving me some reference books about life in the
internment camps. I was also inspired by the artworks of Miné Okubo and Chiura Obata, who were both imprisoned at Topaz.

I think that in any art-form, once you introduce more than one element, the relationship between the elements becomes impossible not to think about.

So it was important for me that the drawings worked well individually but also in relation to each other. When creating rough sketches, I tried to vary the compositions from one drawing to the next to try to make them flow together but also to not be too redundant.

Once most of the planning was done, I started work on the final drawings, which is the most fun. I used a drawing tablet for the line work and a combination of watercolors, color-pencil and Photoshop for coloring.

Cynsational Notes
Yutaka, Laura, Molly and Stan


Fred Korematsu Speaks Up received a starred review from Kirkus. "Written in free verse, Fred's story engages in powerful bursts and shows how speaking out brings complex consequences. Enhanced with pictures and archival materials, well-researched and approachable historical essays interspersed throughout Fred's account offer context, while Houlette's reverent illustrations give humanity to Fred's plight."

Laura Atkins is an author, teacher and independent children's book editor with more than 20 years editorial experience. She recently completed an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts and also holds an MA in children's literature from Roehampton University.

Stan Yogi managed development programs for the ACLU of Northern California for 14 years. In addition to Wherever There's a Fight, he also coedited two literary anthologies. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, MELUS, Los Angeles Daily Journal and several anthologies.

Yutaka Houlette is a Japanese-American illustrator and front-end engineer based in Oakland, California. He designs and builds user interfaces for CommitChange, a fundraising platform for nonprofits and social good companies. His illustrations have also appeared in Smithsonian Magazine and Orion Magazine.

Molly Woodward is a freelance editor and the former children's acquisitions editor at Heyday, an independent, nonprofit publisher. Heyday promotes widespread awareness and celebration of California’s many cultures, landscapes, and boundary-breaking ideas.
Insets in the book provide broader historical context, timelines, definitions
and questions for readers to reflect on their own contexts.





Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Author Interview: Cynthia Levinson on The Youngest Marcher

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Cynthia Levinson's most recent book has a direct correlation to one of her previous titles. I talked with her recently about writing her first picture book, social justice and biscuits.

Tell us about the process of transforming We've Got A Job into a picture book.

You’re right—The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton (Atheneum, 2017) evolved out of We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree Publishers, 2012).

When my agent, Erin Murphy, called to tell me about interest in the book proposal I’d written on this remarkable event, she said there were two offers—one for a picture book and the other for a middle grade. What did I want to do?

My instincts told me the story needed multiple perspectives, and I opted for a book for 10 to 14 year olds.

The idea for a picture book, though, never went away. But, how could I reduce a 176-page volume about four children who protested segregation, a vicious police chief who aimed fire hoses and snarling dogs at them and 3000 others and then sent them to jail down to a 40-page illustrated book for six- to ten-year-olds? What could I leave out? What could I leave in?

One of those four children was only nine years old. With a protagonist the same age as my readership, Audrey Faye Hendricks instantly became the “main character.” So, her experiences drove the story. She didn’t know that Martin Luther King spent time in solitary confinement. She knew him as her parents’ friend Mike, who came for dinner and wolfed down her momma’s Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter. So, the famous Letter from Birmingham Jail got chucked, and the rolls stayed.

This also meant that Audrey’s voice had to narrate. She and her momma “coo-ooked!” At church meetings, she “sang and swayed…her voice spirited and spiritual.” Marching to protest, she knew she was going “to j-a-a-il!”

Also, just about everything had to come in the traditional picture-book threes. “Front-row seats, cool water, elevators with white-gloved operators—laws said those were for white folks.”

But, can you send a nine-year-old to jail in a picture book?

Yes. Because Audrey was actually sentenced to jail—for a whole week. She was even threatened with solitary herself.

Yet, kids instinctively know that nine-year-olds triumph. And that’s what really makes this a book for them.

The timing of this book couldn't be more perfect - millions of people have been out marching for a cause recently. How did you manage that?

Well, of course, I didn’t! Timing is pretty much out of the control of authors and illustrators. And this book was no exception.

The Youngest Marcher was originally slated to publish in January 2015. But, Vanessa Brantley Newton is, for good reasons, a hugely popular artist. After she agreed to take on this book, she received offers to illustrate several others, which took precedence. So, ours was delayed twice, for a year both times.

I admit I was a little grumpy! This was my first picture book, and I couldn’t wait to see how she was going to bring Audrey to life. But, you’re right again—the timing could not be more fortuitous. The book came out at exactly the right time, though in a way no one could predict.

Our country is bitterly divided—nearly in half—over what our government should and should not do, over who is president and how we pick her or him, over immigration, race relations, possible terrorism, and much more. Protests since the president was inaugurated in January have been larger and more persistent even than ones I remember from the civil rights period and the anti-Vietnam War era.

Audrey not only inspires people to raise their voices—she inspired me to go to Washington, DC for the Women’s March!—she also gives them hope that protest works.

On some level, your books all have a social justice tie-in. When you started writing for children, did you see yourself as a social justice writer? 

Yes, they do all relate to social justice. But, no, I didn’t intend that to be the case. In fact, when the first book, We’ve Got a Job, came out, I didn’t know if I’d ever write or publish another book. But, I should have guessed that, if there was one, it would somehow be related.

The second book was Watch Out for Flying Kids! How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community (Peachtree Publishers, 2015).

It’s about social justice through circus arts. Basically, youth circus programs bring together kids who would not otherwise meet—and, in fact, if they did, they might well be enemies—and have them perform such dangerous tricks that they have to support each other!

In this case, the kids I highlight are Jewish Hebrew-speakers and Muslim Arabic-speakers in Israel (including a hijab-wearing contortionist!) as well as white, black, poor, and wealthy Americans in St. Louis. Some are even gang members, and there’s an uncanny connection between them and tribes and clans in the Middle East.

It’s undoubtedly my most diverse book.

But, remarkably, the kids all get along so well that, while I was writing it, I was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough conflict to keep readers interested! For better or worse, there were tiffs, accidents, crime, and derring-do to make things lively.

Many people might disagree but my biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton, subtitled, Do All the Good You Can, (Balzer + Bray, 2016) focuses on her Methodist drive to do good in the world. I think that’s literally what has made her run.

Of course, the book also looks into her mistakes, including those that set the country back, such as the healthcare debacle. But, she truly cares about young people and families.


The next book, too—as yet untitled—could be said to have a similar slant. At the suggestion of my Peachtree editor, I’m co-writing it with my husband, Sandy, and it’s on the problems with the U.S. Constitution.

He has written for many years—and convinced me—that the Constitution is the source of many injustices in the country. One of our examples is the Senate, which gives every state, regardless of its size, two senators; as a result, small states and their needs outweigh large states in Congress. Another of our examples is the Electoral College, which is also affected by the two-senators-per-state arrangement.

The book after that? Who knows?!


Cynsational Notes:

Kirkus called The Youngest Marcher "a vivid reminder that it took a community to fight segregation and the community responded." Simon & Schuster produced a  Common Core curriculum guide prepared by Myra Zarnowski, and Alyson Beecher and Michele Knott developed a classroom discussion guide.

Vanessa Brantley Newton recently did a live illustration for the New York Times and talked about Audrey with Maria Russo, children's book editor, as she drew.

The launch party for The Youngest Marcher included making protest signs and singing protest songs. Several Austin children's authors and their families helped celebrate the event.

Shelley Ann Jackson and Jeff Crosby assisted with sign making. Harper and her classmates
shared what they learned from a recent school visit as part of Cynthia's presentation. 

Christina Soontornvat and her family made signs too.
Cory Putman Oakes and her daughter make a sign.







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