Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Survivors: David Lubar on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children's-YA Author

Revising in a Nazareth, PA; learn more about David Lubar
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Considering that I started trying to build a writing career when I was fresh out of college in 1976, sold my first short story in 1978, and didn’t sell a book until 1995, I think canyons and armed fortresses might be a more appropriate metaphor than bumps.

I guess “don’t give up” would be a pretty obvious lesson gleaned from that chronology.

One key to my success and longevity is that I married a woman who is far more tolerant of my quirks than I deserve, and was not afraid of the bumpy ride that comes with the freelance life.

(Craft note: I’ve written a dozen different versions of this sentence, and none sounds right. If this were for a book, I’d spend another half hour on it. But I’m trying to use my time more wisely, so I’m going to let it stand as is and essentially appear in public with food stains on my shirt.)

(Craft tip: If you can’t fix something, point it out.)

(Style tip: Avoid excessive parentheticals.)

She knows that when I’m staring out the window, I’m hard at work. As testimony to her awesomeness, if I show up at any meeting or conference without her, the first question I get is “Where’s Joelle?”

I’m tolerated. She’s loved.

As for aspects of my success that I can actually take credit for, I think the work ethic I was thrust into when I was programming video games, starting back in the 1980s, made a difference. A sixteen-hour day was fairly normal, as was a seven-day work week. (I don’t recommend this.)

So, working on a manuscript for eight hours feels like a half day. Though now that I’m settling into my sixties, I’m actually trying to work authentic half days once in a while. (Somebody has to sweep the neighborhood streets clear of Pokémon, for the sake of the children.)

I think my other advantage is that I love humor in almost all its forms, and this spills into my writing. I want to make people laugh. I want to delight my readers with wordplay, unexpected connections, and the prose equivalent of Rube Goldberg machines, where actions and events generate explosive endings.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I would have invested a lot of time finding the right agent. I would have toned down my leanings toward quirkiness and tried to reach a broader market. I think I could have done that without sacrificing my artistic integrity. Though artistic integrity can be one of those things you clutch out of habit, especially when you are young.

Maybe a purer answer was that I should have been less stubborn, at times, when dealing with editorial suggestions. Though I don’t regret the times when I walked away from a deal to preserve my vision for a book. (I think I just contradicted myself.)

Honestly, as much fun as it is to try to revise the past, I think if I did things differently, I would have just shifted to a new set of triumphs and tragedies.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

The top things that come to mind are eBooks, the consolidation of publishing houses, and the transition of YA from an age-market category to everybody’s hobby.

Honestly, there are times when I can talk (or write) at length about my thoughts on any topic. But right now, I don’t seem to have any insights or deep thoughts.

And, even more honestly, my insights about such things aren’t necessarily all that astute or interesting.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

If I were talking to me, I’d probably say, “Don’t get too frantic about using social media for promotion. You suck at it. Seriously. Use it for fun, if you must, but if you really want to spread the word, hit the road, do school visits, wangle invitations to school media and reading conferences.”

And, to repeat advice Bruce Coville gave me more than 20 years ago when I asked about the best way to promote my book, “Write another book.”

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

As crucial as literacy is, and as much as reading shapes the citizens of tomorrow, I wish everyone would take a step back once in a while, draw a deep breath, and remind themselves that at the core of all of this there should be pleasure, joy, delight, amusement, and even a bit of humble realization that we are both wizards and fools.

David with fellow Tor author/Pokémon player Alan Gratz
We create things that have never been, but we do it in a universe a billion times larger than we can even imagine.

On balance with that, as minuscule as we are, when we make a moment, a day, or a school year better for a young reader, or give an educator a tool to reach a student who thinks she hates reading, we loom larger than we can ever know.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I’m really having a struggle coming up with the perfect words for my tombstone. I’m pretty sure that will outlast anything else I write, unless vandals do a bit of revision by means of sledge hammers. I’ve come close to finding what I want.

I had one killer epitaph that popped into my mind while I was doing something else. It was perfect. But I neglected to write it down, and it escaped. I think there’s still time to work on it, but this is one deadline that’s definitely written in stone.

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children's-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Cover Reveal: Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

By Cynthia Leitich Smith for Cynsations

Wow! Today, BookRiot is hosting the official cover reveal for my upcoming realistic YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 2018).

Click this link for the inside scoop on my initial inspirations for the story. You can also pre-order the book from IndieboundBarnes and NobleAmazon and other book retailers.

And then keep reading here to learn more about my thoughts on the cover art itself.

From the promotional copy:

When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off immediately and dumps him over email. 

It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time on her family and friends and working on the school newspaper.

The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper’s staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school music director’s inclusive approach to casting The Wizard of Oz has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town.

From the newly formed “Parents Against Revisionist Theater” to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students—especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man.

As tensions heighten at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey—but as she’s learned, “dating while Native” can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey’s?

Cyn says:

What I adore about this cover is that it's so unabashedly casual and contemporary. Accessible and inviting.

Learn more about Cynthia Leitich Smith.
Modern depictions of Native teens, especially girls, are rare. Showing a character in a T-shirt and jeans, simply standing, comfortably relaxed, is fairly revolutionary.

Centering the T-shirt imagery is something I discussed with my Candlewick editor, Hilary Van Dusen, who was working with Pamela Consolazio, the jacket designer.

To me, the art vaguely suggests the feel of a powwow T-shirt. So, it's grounded in daily life, but intentionally not groundbreaking. You'd find a few similar Ts in my closet.

On another note, I'm glad that the design largely leaves facial casting to the young reader's imagination.

I love the covers of two of my previous novels, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) and Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007), both of which clearly show the face of the protagonist.

But prose novels are such deeply interior experiences. Sometimes it's best for young adults to envision the story, including its hero, in their own theaters of the mind.

Beyond that, I highly approved of the decision to use a teen-friendly handwriting font for "Hearts" and a firmer, more formal one for "Unbroken." When I think of real-life teens like my fictional Louise, I am optimistic about the future. Young Native hearts are strong.

Don't forget to read about the inspirations behind Hearts Unbroken!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Guest Post: Michele Weber Hurwitz on Being Pushed to Persevere

By Michele Weber Hurwitz
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

We writers know well the lessons of perseverance.
Neil Gaiman said: “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy. And that hard.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe said: “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”
And Ray Bradbury said: “You fail only if you stop writing.”
But we also know this: we can read all the quotes in the world and tape them above our desks, but sometimes, we just can’t get it together.

Four years ago, I got an idea for a middle grade novel. A fidgety, energetic kid protests the long hours of constant sitting in class (he gets school-comas) then attempts to do something out of his comfort zone to invent a solution.

Decent idea, I thought. Had potential. I got to work, adding in a cast of supporting characters, a setting, and fleshing out the plot.

Ten drafts and three years of back and forth with my agent, and I was about to abandon the project. What at first was fun and inspiring had become frustrating and burdensome. I couldn’t get it right, and didn’t know why.

I’d published two middle grade novels already – Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb, 2011) and The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb, 2014) – writing each of them in about six months. Why was this idea so problematic?

I tried all sorts of fixes during the three years. Everything writers are “supposed” to do. I put the manuscript away for a while. I went back to it with what I thought was a new perspective. I hiked, because I’d read that can help work through story issues. 

Retreat at The Writing Barn
I went on a writing retreat. I did all sorts of loosen-up-my-brain exercises. I took craft classes. 

But draft after draft, it wasn’t coming together, and deep down, I knew it before my agent read each one and told me sadly that, no, I still wasn’t there.

I admit I wanted to quit writing entirely at this point.

But something kept nagging at me. It might’ve been personal – one of my kids had trouble sitting for long hours in school – but I think it was more than that.

In one of the drafts, I’d written a line of dialogue from my main character, Ethan, where he said: “The thing is, you gotta believe, you know? If you don’t, what’s the point?”

What was the point, indeed? I thought about that line for a while.

Then! (Yes, thankfully, there’s a then.) I was cleaning out the bookcase in our family room, weeding out some books my kids had outgrown and I could donate, when I stumbled upon a worn, well-read copy of The Carrot Seed (by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson (Harper 1945)). 

This has always been one of my favorite picture books because of its simple yet powerful message. Keep at it. Have faith. Don’t listen to the doubters. A carrot will grow.


Same message of perseverance as the writing quotes, but it was coming from a little boy. That’s when I realized Ethan was a lot like the kid in the book, laid-back but determined. Why didn’t I tune everything else out and listen to him? 

I’d let the process and my aggravations fill up my head, instead of Ethan’s voice.

I abandoned every single one of the ten drafts I’d written and started fresh. Instead of Ethan narrating the story on his own, which is what I’d been doing over and over, I added in the viewpoints of Ethan’s sister, a couple of their friends, and a tough, outcast kid. 

I tried a different way of telling the story, short and snappy, like back and forth social media commentary.

I listened to not only Ethan, but the message in The Carrot Seed, and I even wove the book into Ethan’s arc. He, too, becomes inspired by the story. And as I wrote, a strange thing happened: Ethan’s perseverance in his plotline became mine as well.

I wrote draft #11 in one month. It sold to Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin imprint two months later, and Ethan Marcus Stands Up was published in September.

How gratifying it was to receive this email from a reader last week: “I get school-comas a lot! You definitely get kids. Thanks!”

And – the icing on top – Ethan told me, as I was typing The End, that he wasn’t done. Plant another carrot seed, he said. Inspired by his doggedness and persistence, I wrote up a sequel proposal.

My editor loved it. Book 2, Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark, comes out in September 2018.

A little fictional magic between character and author, and out came a book. Then a second one. Next time, I’ll listen right from the opening line.

Cynsations Notes

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of three middle grade novels, with a fourth coming fall 2018. Her most recent novel, Ethan Marcus Stands Up was published in September by Aladdin. 

Her previous novels include The Summer I Saved The World...In 65 Days and Calli Be Gold (both published by Wendy Lamb). They have been nominated for several state reading awards. 


She lives in Chicago with her family. She is an avid walker, passionate consumer of ice cream, and finds inspiration everywhere. 

For more information about her books, school visits or discussion guides, check her website

Watch the book trailer for Ethan Marcus Stands Up.



Friday, February 23, 2018

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith, Robin Galbraith,
Gayleen Rabukukk & Kate Pentecost for Cynsations

Author/ Illustrator Insights

Interview: Uma Krishnaswami on Treadmills, Knitting, and P.G. Wodehouse from The Booking Biz. Peek:
“I don’t think that inspiration is necessarily a sparkling gold-tipped wand. For me, it comes more slowly, seeps into the mind and refuses to leave me alone. I try to keep myself open to ideas. When one shows up, I test it out by writing around it and asking questions about it.” 
Young People Are Our Hope: Talking with Lilliam Rivera by Keah Brown from The Rumpus. Peek:
The Education of Margot Sanchez is a little love letter to the Bronx, to my home. I hope that when people read about it, they see one Latina story of many in the Bronx.”
Cecil Castellucci, Author of Don’t Cosplay With My Heart, on Rejected Books Opening New Doors by Jocelyn Rish from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek:
“I realized that I had a lot of stories to tell and that I didn’t have to be precious about what was going into one book. That I could use things that I had to chuck from one story down the line.”
Eric Pinder and the Perfect Pillow by Adi Rule from The Launch Pad. Peek:
“I’m a painfully slow writer, whether writing picture books or nonfiction articles or shopping lists. What I like best about picture books, and poetry, is having fun with how words sound read aloud. It’s like using the language as a musical instrument.”
Wouldn’t You Like to Know...F.C. Yee by Timothy Horan from VOYA Magazine. Peek:
“For ideas, they can come to me at any moment of the day, usually whenever I’m relaxed and not worrying about anything in particular. I have to lay a groundwork of forced brainstorming first, usually unproductively, and then that lets relevant thoughts attach themselves to the foundation throughout the day.”
Diversity & Inclusion

Native American Books for Young Readers by Art Hughes from Native America Calling. Peek:
[Debbie] Reese helps sort out the exceptional books from those that sink into stereotypes or misinformation. We’ll get her take on the best books by Native authors.” Note: Also featuring author Marcie Rendon and author-illustrator Julie Flett.
Why We Need Diverse YA Books That Represent Marginalized Characters In All Of Their Complex, Quirky Glory by Kerri Jerema from Bustle. Peek:
“...there is something more subtle at play here, too — the incorrect insistence that all people from marginalized backgrounds are only living authentically if they are dealing with pain or abuse of some kind, most often directly related to their race, religion, or sexuality.”
Eight Fantasy Must-Reads Featuring Black Main Characters by Della Farrell from School Library Journal. Peek:
“From mermaids to Marvel tie-ins and more, the following middle grade and YA fantasy novels each star Black characters as their main protagonists, and all are excellent reads.”
Black History Month 2018 from Out of the Box at The Horn Book. Peek:
“To commemorate Black History Month, we will send around a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays."
Celebrate Black History Month Every Month with Picture Books by Della Farrell from School Library Journal. Peek:
“...here are 16 recent picture books to share with little ones throughout the year but especially during Black History Month.”
Recommended by Angie Manfredi
Recommended Books with Queer Joy and Happy Endings by Angie Manfredi from Queer Books for Teens. Peek:
“Happy endings, resistance, finding your people, dreaming of future worlds, solving the mystery of self, and getting a swoony kiss with your love interest: queer readers of YA deserve to experience these moments and see mirrors of their lives in the fiction they read.”
See also Diversity and Inclusion: Themes and CommunitiesTeacher and Librarian Resources for Native American Children's and Young Adult Books.

Writing Craft

Writing a YA Kiss that Makes Readers Squeal with Joy by Kate Branden from Through the Tollbooth. Peek:
“...even the most sensuous of physical action will fall flat without character emotion. The reader wants to feel what the character feels, on both a physical and an emotional level. The emotion can be stated or shown through internal monologue, metaphor, objective correlative, physical reaction, or a combination of the above.”
Why You Should Retype Your Revision (Yes, The Whole Thing) by Holly Schindler from Writing & Publishing. Peek:
“Retyping and rethinking along the way means that you’re now rethinking literally everything about your book. Two or three chapters in, you often get hit with new revelations—not just about phrasing or line edits, but about structure and plot. And because you’re already retyping, you won’t think twice about an overhaul.”
The Role of Emotional Wounds Within Character Arc by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek:
“Of all the pieces of backstory we should understand as authors, none are more important than our protagonist’s Emotional Wound.”
What to Do When Your Creativity Hits the Wall by Tracy Hahn-Burkett from Writer Unboxed. Peek:
“Trying to solve a problem in your manuscript and you just can’t figure it out? Just say you don’t care and move on to something else. Yes, really. Stay with me on this one.”
The Porchlight Podcast with Cory Putman Oakes from The Writing Barn. Peek:
“Cory discusses her process of research for the book including watching 'Bewitched,' studying herbs, and Wiccan theology.”
See also Children's and Young Adult Writing Craft.

Publishing

So What’s Your Book About?, or, Creating the Perfect Elevator Pitch by Jennie Nash from Writers Helping Writers. Peek:
“The elevator pitch is a powerful marketing tool that you can put to use when enticing readers, reaching out to potential marketing partners, and when you meet people at a conference who ask, 'So what’s your book about?' Here are six simple steps to help you develop an elevator pitch.”
Can I Jump on the Bandwagon? by Catherine McKenzie from Writer Unboxed. Peek:
“This is one of the reasons that my biggest advice to writers and want-to-be-writers is to read. To read widely and to read now.”
The Globalization of the National Book Awards by Alexandra Alter from The New York Times. Peek:
“Starting this year, the National Book Foundation will recognize works in translation, opening up a distinctly American literary award to writers working in other languages. The new category marks a radical departure for awards, which began in 1950 ‘to celebrate the best of American literature.'’"
Authors are Not Rock Stars by Chris Barton from Bartography. Peek:
“...even allowing for a little hyperbole, I’m bothered by these characterizations because they run counter to what I see as the main purpose of my presentations to students: 1) making myself relatable to them, and 2) making a career like mine seem attainable to them.”
See also Children's-YA Book Publishing, U.S. National Awards for Children and Young Adult Literature.


This Week at Cynsations
Author Jane Kurtz

More Personally - Cynthia


Guess who is starting a new story? (And loves office supplies.)
New manuscripts! I'd done some preliminary plot and character work, but this was the week that I finally got a chance to really submerge in fresh projects. I also saw "Black Panther" (like everybody else in the world) at the Alamo Drafthouse.

Bethany and Erin
In addition, I made the scene at the book launch for Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Erin McGuire (HarperChildren's, 2017) at BookPeople in Austin.

The event included an introduction and panel both moderated by author Carmen Oliver, a PowerPoint presentation, and a short theatrical presentation from To Kill a Mockingbird, staring local (mostly young) actors.

Congrats also to Jacqueline Lipton, law professor and VCFA WCYA alum, on the sale of Law & Authors: A Legal Handbook for Writers (a guide to navigating the most common legal issues authors encounter when self-publishing or when publishing with a commercial or academic press) to University of California Press.

Jackie's agent is Jane Dystel at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. I had the honor of advising Jackie during her post-graduate semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Congratulations to Cynsations Intern Kate Pentecost, whose poem "Small Town Witches" is a nominee for the Rhysling Award, given by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association.  The poem was published in Liminality: A Magazine of Speculative Poetry.

Congratulations to Cynsations reporter Traci Sorell for receiving a First Peoples Fund fellowship.

See Writing Across Identity Elements: An Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, William Alexander and Kekla Magoon by Victor Malo-Juvera and David Macinnis Gill. from The ALAN Review. Peek: "Identity is brushstrokes, side roads, highways: Destination you and your communities. Some identity elements came with you into this world; others are born of choices you made along the way."

Link of the Week: Letters to Parkland & Beyond: "We are Authors, Teachers, Librarians and Allies in the Kidlit Community, and We Stand with the Students Speaking Out for Gun Laws. These Letters are for Them."

Reminder: This month only! Sign up for the Evolt newsletter from Candlewick Press to buy an e-edition of my YA novel Eternal for $1.99 (and for more terrific promotional opportunities)!

More Personally - Gayleen

I’m thrilled to announce I will be a teaching assistant for Mastering the Middle Grade, a weekend intensive workshop at The Writing Barn, featuring Crown Books Publisher Phoebe Yeh and author Lamar Giles (see my Cynsations interview with Lamar).

The weekend will include lectures and writing exercises focused on mastering middle grade voice. Applications are now being accepted for this opportunity to study with two award-winning publishing professionals.

Personal Links- Robin

Personal Links- Gayleen

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Organizer Interview: Laura Pegram on Kweli Conference

Laura Pegram, Kweli Journal Executive Director 
By Traci Sorell 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I am honored to showcase Kweli Journal and its Executive Director, Laura Pegram, on Cynsations.

Kweli’s The Color of Children’s Literature Conference for Native/POC emerging writers and illustrators will take place in New York City on April 6 and April 7.

I first attended this conference in 2016 just after I sold my first picture book. Meeting the legendary Joe Bruchac, who was on faculty that year, as well as other emerging Native/POC writers like myself gave me a community that I could connect with all year long. I’ve been a cheerleader for the conference ever since, especially for the networking and the information shared by faculty.

Last year, Cynthia Leitich Smith gave the keynote with even more Native writers in attendance. But this wonderful event does not happen without Laura Pegram and her vision to create a welcoming environment for Native/POC writers to learn, ask questions, network and celebrate together.

Native authors at the 2017 Kweli Conference. Back row: Brian Young (Navajo), Renee Sans Souci (Omaha Tribe of Nebraska), Alia Jones, Kevin Tarrant (Hopi/Ho Chunk) Front row: Traci Sorell (Cherokee Nation), Kara Stewart (Sappony), Anna-Celestrya Carr (Métis), Carole Lindstrom (Métis/ Ojibwe) Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee), Murriel Borst-Tarrant (Kuna/ Rappahannock Nations), Marcie Rendon (White Earth Anishinabe)

Laura, Kweli Journal focuses on supporting writers of color in a variety of genres. How did the idea of having a national conference specifically for Native and POC writers and illustrators for children and teens first come about? How long has the conference been in existence?

As an education activist and a multidisciplinary artist, I have always been guided by the NACW motto “lifting as we climb.”

Once I met with folks at Dial Books for Young Readers and had my first book contract in hand for Daughter’s Day Blues, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (2000), I looked for ways to give back to the community.

As the Acting Director of the John Killens Young Writers Workshop, I created curriculums for young children and teens enrolled in Saturday enrichment programs in Brooklyn using interdisciplinary arts (poetry, music and dollmaking, for girls and boys, to study the history of Black Cowboys and Black Indians). The program culminated with a field trip to Dr. George Blair’s New York Riding Academy on Randall’s Island and a horseback riding and grooming lesson.

As an instructor at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in Manhattan (now defunct), I designed workshops for emerging children’s book writers of color, modeled in part by the children’s literature course I took with June Jordan as an undergraduate. Notably, June’s reading list for the course was global and inclusive, a first for me. It served as a beautiful and inclusive model for Kweli years later when I was newly disabled and adjusting to life in a wheelchair.

I have autoimmune disease, and it’s on the rise in the black community. After my discharge from the hospital, I tried to be optimistic about my prognosis. From my fifth floor walk up, I joked with my at-home nurse and at-home physical therapists and listened to second-hand accounts from friends about the arts world that was now in my rearview mirror.

Then one day I realized that it didn’t have to be behind me; I could create an alternative arts community from my living room. In the summers of 2008 and 2009, I gathered three of my former students from Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center (FDCAC) to serve as editors and readers and four friends and colleagues from FDCAC to join our founding board of directors. We had our first board meeting in a Harlem brownstone, with donated food and space, wholly owning our vision for a multicultural literary community.

In December 2009, we happily pushed Kweli out into the world after a hard labor. Over the past eight years, a small army of volunteers has helped Kweli grow from a biannual journal to a thriving community organization.

Scenes from the 2015 conference with some speakers appearing via Skype.
Our first tentative steps are noteworthy. Our online literary journal and free Reading and Conversation series, presented in partnership with Black@NYT, have allowed bold new voices to share both page and stage with Hodder Fellow Cristina Garcia, MacArthur Fellow Edward P. Jones, and other notables.

In addition, our Annual Writers Conference provides emerging writers of color with tools for success as well as access to industry insiders. For those with limited resources, our scholarships provided local writers, as well as those living around the country, with tuition-free writing classes and mentorship.

Joe Bruchac (Abenaki) talking with attendees at the 2016 Kweli conference.
In 2012, we offered our first mini writers conference at La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem (now defunct). It was a multigenre conference that catered to writers of color working on books for children and young adults, as well as writers of adult fiction and poetry. But I found that children’s book writers were being given short shrift during our early conferences.

Debbie's blog.
In September 2014, I reached out to Kweli contributor Dwayne Martine (Jicarilla Apache/Navajo) about Kweli’s First Annual Children’s Book Writers conference at Poets Den Theater and Gallery in East Harlem and specifically, Kweli tuition scholarships for Native and First Nation writers.

Dwayne introduced me to Debbie Reese and she was enthusiastic. As a result of Debbie’s introductions, five Native writers were able to virtually attend our 2015 conference: Brian Young, Kara Stewart, Sarah Cortez, Kim Rogers and Andrea Rogers. Heid E. Erdrich was scheduled to join us as well but she had a conflict.

Registration fees for our Annual Writers Conference and tuition costs for our writing and photography workshops can be quite prohibitive if you are a high school student from a large lower to middle class family in East Harlem or Brooklyn, or a mother of three living in a tribal town in Oklahoma.

Attendees at a previous Kweli conference.
Kweli is committed to serving writers of color from lower to middle class income neighborhoods throughout the country.

The overwhelming number of writers who receive financial support from us to cover conference registration fees or tuition costs for workshop are mothers with young children, underemployed single women and retired women working on their third chapter in life as writers.

We also provide financial support to high school, college and graduate students. We have offered full and partial scholarships to girls and women since our inception.

What has been the most rewarding part of the conference?

It is a joy to hear writers speak to the community they have found at Kweli conferences, and to see the deep and lasting connections they have made at Kweli lead to these beautiful expanded families. It is also a joy to see our writers gain representation by literary agents as well as book deals.

This year we will have three writers who attended our 2016 Color of Children’s Literature Conference returning to #Kweli18 with debut books:


Each of them will sit on #Kweli18 panels and/or teach workshops so they will be “lifting as they climb” as well. These full circle moments make my heart sing.

The most challenging?

Kweli is run and operated by a small circle of volunteers. Grateful for each and every one of them, but sustainability is a real issue.

2018 Kweli faculty Nic Stone
We operate on small grants from Poets & Writers, NYSCA, the John Blackmon Foundation and the kindness and generosity of Victoria Sanders & Associates, friends and family. They keep us going. But nonprofits are fragile.

It is a challenge for most executive directors (of non profits), particularly in this political climate. I am disabled and live on a fixed income. For years, I have used my personal funds to cover Kweli deficits so I could honor my word and pay Kweli contributors. That is hard to do when you are able bodied, but difficult to do when you live with autoimmune disease and have spent your adult life in and out of the hospital.

With autoimmune disease, there is this ongoing fight to keep inflammation at bay. I can be fine one minute and in the hospital the next. Grateful to my doctors: they keep me going so I can keep Kweli going. But it is not easy.

Is there a general theme for the conference this year? If so, what is it and why was that chosen? If not, what will be some central areas the conference will emphasize or educate participants about?

2018 Kweli master-class faculty Rita Williams-Garcia
As a new midlist author, I often found myself stumbling in the dark about how to navigate a disproportionately white publishing industry, how to protect my voice and promote my first book while working full-time, etc.

There was no guide for writers of color like myself on navigating this new world.

The central guiding theme for Kweli is lifting as we climb: lifting up our narratives and our voices and our histories. That guides us year in, year out. Each year we try to provide concrete takeaways for emerging POC and Native writers and illustrators and we make a concerted effort to improve upon the offerings from the previous year. This year is no different.

For #Kweli18, we are offering a panel discussion on Global Storytelling moderated by Namrata Tripathi, the publisher of Kokila, a new imprint at Penguin Random House  that will focus on diverse books for children and young adults, adding “depth and nuance to the way children and young adults see the world and their place in it.”

Another panel will focus on moving the discussion from diversity to inclusion, inclusion to justice, using an article written by Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich as a starting point ("Say That to My Face: On Teaching and Learning Diverse Literature for Empowerment and Transformation").

During the conference day, we will also outline specific steps on developing a platform for published or soon-to-be-published authors in the panel, Beyond the Book Birthday. We will also be offering perspectives from authors and illustrators on their distinct approaches to revising the novel, and plotting, creating a picture book. Concrete takeaways are key.

What are you most excited about at this year’s upcoming conference on April 7th?

Angela Johnson
A number of things excite me about #Kweli18. The keynote will be delivered by Angela Johnson, a writer I admire for the lyric in her lines as well as her brave approach to storytelling.

We have more workshops for advanced writers this year, so there is full spectrum of information for artists just beginning their journey to those who are a few steps along on the path.

We will also be offering Master Classes for the first time with Angela Johnson, Rita Williams Garcia and Bryan Collier on a Friday half day.

This will be our largest conference to date and I am excited about the new venue at The Graduate Center CUNY and the opportunity to help more writers and illustrators. Last year a lot of folks had to be placed on a waitlist.

You are a published children’s book author yourself. What do you hope someone attending Kweli learns that you wish you had known about the publishing industry or craft when you first started writing and later submitting your work?

I hope that they learn how to protect their dignity and their voices. I hope that they see the beauty and benefit in reading widely and critically. I hope that they see the value of a global community like Kweli and the importance of lifting as they climb.

I also hope that they see the sky as their ceiling. That is something June taught me when I was a shy undergraduate still searching for my voice. The sky is your ceiling.

Cynsations Notes

Visit Kweli Journal’s Color of Children’s Literature Conference for registration, speaker bios, and schedule of events. Early bird registration ends March 11th! Find Kweli Journal on Twitter and Instagram @Kweli.journal.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children's-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on September 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures. In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Author Interview: Charlene Willing McManis on Mentorships & Believing in Your Work

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I first met Charlene Willing McManis at Kweli’s 2016 The Color of Children’s Literature Conference in New York City. (She's dressed in yellow below.)
Native writers at Kweli’s Color of Children’s Literature Conference in April 2016
Front: L to R: Charlene Willing McManis (Grand Ronde); Andrea Rogers-Henry (Cherokee Nation); Marcie Rendon (White Earth (Anishinaabe) Nation)
Back: L to R: Natalie Dana (Passamaquoddy); Laura Kaye Jagles (Tesuque Pueblo); Traci Sorell (Cherokee Nation); Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki); and Kevin Maillard (Seminole)
Both of us attended the conference for writers and illustrators of color and Native Nations for the first time. Her bright smile and quick wit enveloped me right away.

A few months before the conference, Charlene became a member of the inaugural class of We Need Diverse Books’ mentees and was granted a year-long middle grade novel mentorship with Newbery Honor winner Margarita Engle. Her middle grade manuscript, "Indian No More," was recently acquired by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low.

Charlene’s book highlights her childhood experience during one of the most impactful periods for Native Nations in contemporary U.S. history. The federal policy of terminating its treaty responsibilities with some tribes like Charlene’s Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in the 1950s caused major discord for tribal governments, programs and families. 

During this same era, the federal Indian relocation program, which moved Native people out of their traditional homelands and into cities, created a massive exodus of families. Charlene’s upcoming work will provide a window for Native and non-Native children to see what someone their age experienced in terms of identity, connection and family relations during this upheaval.

Charlene agreed to answer a few of my questions about her writing journey and offer advice for other writers.

How did being selected to participate the inaugural We Need Diverse Books year-long mentorship program in 2016 and working with award-winning author and poet Margarita Engle help writing this story?

Author Margarita Engle
That was so wonderful to be selected! I was so honored to work on "Indian No More" with Margarita Engle as my mentor. It was a wish come true!

She was so insightful in my work and helped me tremendously to improve my storytelling.

I definitely suggest writers to submit their work to the We Need Diverse Books’ Mentorship Program and Lee & Low Books’ New Visions Award.

I’d love to hear more details about your mentorship. Did you do one round of revision or multiple with Margarita?  What component of your writing do you think she helped you with the most?

Regarding the mentorship, after the initial shock and excitement of winning it, Margarita sent me a wonderful letter of what was in store. I kept all her letters, by the way.

We emailed regularly on my manuscript with regard to her great insight into what I was trying to say in my story. What helped me the most was her knowing my story and giving me suggestions to expand on my characters, especially the grandmother. Her suggestions brought more clarity on grandma.

She also was a big help with my Cuban friends in Los Angeles. Since we were all kids, no one really talked about politics or race. But I knew they were very proud of their heritage and that their mother was a doctor in Cuba but was a nurse in Los Angeles. She gave me insight as to why. So I feel my book was greatly improved and more colorful with her help.

You also mentioned unpublished writers submit their novels for the Lee & Low Books’ New Visions Award. Did you enter that contest? (At Margarita’s suggestion or on your own knowledge?)  Is that how Tu Books came to find your manuscript and give you an offer or did you submit it through the slush pile?

I sent my my manuscript to the New Visions Award competition later that year and was in the running but didn't win.

However, a year later, Stacy asked the for entire manuscript because she remembered reading it during the judging.

So I discovered that, even though the story didn't win the award, the editor felt the story was worthy enough to have a second look.

And a second look was all it took for her to offer a contract!

Margarita did suggest various agents to send my work to and I did. I received very nice feedback, but they did say it didn't fit what they were looking for.

What did I learn from all this? Just because the story was "rejected," it didn't mean it was bad. And that if you believe in your work, you just keep on sending it out, taking the feedback and implementing the edits and moving forward. And that editors do remember you.

What was your initial inspiration for writing the story?

The lack of history books speaking about this subject. Many events had recently been put in the forefront regarding the truth of America. 

I felt the need to make children aware that Native people didn’t disappear after the 1800s, that we were alive during the era of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. (I really desire to see Native Americans win a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy, album of the year, sport player of the year, things like that.)

What first inspired you to write for young readers?


It was by accident really. A friend needed support to attend the New England SCBWI conference and I tagged along. At a Highlights magazine workshop, everyone gave an idea for a subject matter to write in various genres. I gave powwows as an example. After the class, the instructor asked if I could write an article about powwows. I was so excited.

And that inspired me to write about termination and relocation. I discovered no [outside the experience] had heard about this historical event, which many had experienced. I wanted to bring this event to light for children and teachers.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

When I was a senior in high school, I took a creative writing class and was told I could never be a writer. That my writing was terrible. 

It is amazing how a teacher’s opinion of you can affect your psyche. I kept writing though, and attended classes on how to write, how to create characters, plotting and such. SCBWI offered so many books on the subject, which helped me tremendously. 

When I decided to write "Indian No More," it was more to have the audience understand what it is like to doubt your own heritage. I was so afraid to say I was Indian because I couldn’t prove it.

Writing the book taught me that I don’t need anyone to believe if I am Indian or not. I know who I am and now I am proud of it.

What delighted you the most about writing this book?

Editor Stacy Whitman
I loved my characters. And I do love editing and rewriting. I found joy in seeing my book come together.

I can’t wait to work with Stacy Whitman of Tu Books to help me create an even better story.

What advice do you have for beginning children's-YA writers?

Never give up. It’s all right to take a break, even to say you’ll never make it as a writer. But as long as you have the passion to write and believe in your storytelling, keep going.

It took me 10 years to believe my story might possibly be worthy of publishing. But even if it wasn’t, I was proud that I finished the manuscript. That was half the battle. 

Every time I sent my story out, I felt “Well, at least one more person now knows about termination.”

And advice for Native American/First Nations writers for young people?

Put your stories down in words! We are a very oral culture, telling our stories. We all have stories about our lives, our ancestors and our culture. We are the First People and there are too many people who don’t know we still exist or what we are about.

Also, know that you are not alone. Many Native authors were nervous about writing. They wrote anyway. And there are many Native authors who will support you. They started the path to which we can follow. That is so inspiring to know.

Hiyu Mashe (many thanks) for offering me your time to speak. I am deeply honored to be featured on Cynsations.

Cynsations Notes

Charlene Willing McManis is a tribal member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde located near Salem, Oregon. As part of the federal Indian Relocation Program, her family moved from the reservation to Los Angeles, California. 

Charlene graduated from Inglewood High in Inglewood, CA, served eight years in the Navy and achieved a Bachelor’s Degree in Native American Education from Vermont College.

She writes about her personal knowledge of Native American culture and does school presentations for Native American Heritage Month in November. 

She currently lives in Vermont with her husband, grandchildren and pets of all kinds. She believes in the saying from Sitting Bull (Lakota): “Let us put our minds together and see what future we can make for our children.”

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children's-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 18, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Survivors: Jane Kurtz on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children's-YA Author

Learn more about Jane Kurtz.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field. Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

It feels to me as if my publishing journey has been nothing but bumpy—and of course all the bumps and bangs and bruises have stabbed my writer’s heart over and over.

I started publishing at a time when smaller publishers were getting gobbled up by bigger publishers and editors were losing their jobs in consolidations. I long to have been part of a world where a long-time editor would work with and nurture a writer’s career.

One of my mantras has been Respect the Mountain. I’ve been nimble, kept my eyes open for opportunity, learned from other people around me, and cultivated my team.

What does that look like specifically?

One example: I broke into the New York publishing scene with retold folktale picture books connecting to my childhood in Ethiopia. When that door closed, I published some contemporary picture books connecting with Ethiopia.

When editors began to say to me, “We can’t seem to get any picture books set in Africa to sell,” I published picture books set in the U.S. but still connecting with Africa.

I also found ways to weave my Africa connections into other genres, editing a short story collection (Memories of Sun (Greenwillow, 2003)) with other people’s stories (including a mix of well-known and brand new authors) and publishing middle grade/YA novels like The Storyteller’s Beads (Gulliver, 1998), Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot (American Girl, 2003) and recently Planet Jupiter (Greenwillow, 2017).

I began to volunteer my time to work with artistic volunteers (many of them kids) to create local language books for Ethiopia. Having a “multicultural” story at the heart of my real life went from being an asset to a liability in terms of publishing possibilities.

It didn’t matter. I’m stubborn. I stayed determined, even though parts of that journey hurt like crazy.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I would love to have caught on earlier that readers would actually be interested in and not scornful about my childhood in Ethiopia—because it would be great to have caught the folktale wave when it was hot (in the 1980s) and not at the tail end.

The big reason I missed the wave is that I was living in a small town in southern Colorado and checking books out of the library, not knowing how to look at what was on the cutting edge.

I tell people, when it comes to picture books especially, read what’s being published now.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

I think picture books have changed the most (for me) over my lifetime of publishing.

As I entered the field, picture books were getting longer and more sophisticated, being used more widely with readers older than the (then) conventional four-to-eight-year-old reader. Now they are short, snappy, really text-and-illustration interactive, and geared (for the most part) to three-, four-, and five-year-olds.

I’m determined not to whine about the changes even though I miss getting to use all those lovely words.

Nonfiction is soaring in picture books, which opens cool worlds. Also, I was always the funny kid in my family, and I’m getting to use my humor more.

Who would think that someone who started out by publishing Fire on the Mountain (E.B. Lewis’s first foray into picture book illustration—a lovely and elegant picture book)(Simon & Schuster, 1994) would now be getting ready to publish What Do They Do with All That Poo? illustrated by Allison Black (Beach Lane, 2018).

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Don’t waste any time and longing thinking things are going to get any easier. You think that if you had published many books, your life would be easier. Probably not.

Celebrate your successes and cultivate a sense of “enough” and “arrived.” Keep reading. You’ll gather new craft skills throughout your whole life to keep going and growing as a writer.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Cate Berry, Jane and Margaret Mayo McGlynn singing at VCFA.
This has always been a generous and supportive and fun-loving community.

I wouldn’t have survived without my writers’ retreats and my author friends and the Vermont College of Fine Arts community—a smart, hardworking collection of writers serious about the craft of children’s and YA literature.

I want us to resist the inevitable fears of scarcity and look for ways to network and build each other up.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I’ve gotten to the stage where I no longer think about my literary legacy. I still want my books to do well in the world and find their readers. But I mostly want to have a creative life every day.

I want to keep writing and keep learning…oh…and getting to that stage where I feel “enough” and “arrived” would be beautiful.

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children's-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.