Saturday, March 31, 2018

Author-Teacher Interview: Gene Luen Yang on Writing, Teaching & the Hamline MFA Program

Lean more about Cartoonist and Teacher Gene Luen Yang.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Welcome to Cynsations. We last spoke to Dean Mary Francoise Rockcastle about the Hamline MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults back in 2006.

When did you join the faculty? What appealed to you about teaching in a low-residency program?

I joined the faculty of the Hamline MFAC program in the summer of 2012. I visited maybe a year or two before that as a guest speaker. I was only there for a day or two, but I was immediately impressed by the sense of community.

Hamline is a community centered around stories. Everyone is there to learn, and everyone is there to teach.

The low-residency program makes for an intimate experience. This past semester, for instance, I worked with three students. Some faculty take on more, of course, but not that many more.

 When you're working at that scale, you can give a lot of individualized attention. I can get to know them as writers. I can be more invested in their stories.

What has teaching taught you about your own creative craft and process?

Laura Ruby at Hamline; cover of The Real Boy by Anne Ursu (Walden Pond)
I can give you very, very concrete answers here. This semester, one of my students wrote a critical essay on metafiction. Another wrote one about panel shapes in graphic novels. Both were thoughtful and well-researched. Both made me think differently about the project I'm currently working on.

A few semesters ago, my fellow faculty member Laura Ruby (winner of the 2016 Printz Award) gave a lecture on the objective correlative. I think about that all the time now, whenever I'm writing.

Like, all. The. Time.

And those are just a handful of examples. A community has collective wisdom, so when you're a part of a community, you get to tap into that wisdom.

In addition, preparing and delivering a lecture forces you to really wrestle with your ideas. I've always worked through plot and characterization and setting by instinct, which is kind of like walking through your own room in the dark. You know where everything is, generally speaking, but you're still going to stub your toe every now and then. Teaching plot and characterization and setting is like turning on the light.

Who else is on the faculty, and how would you describe the culture of your learning community?

I have to tell you, the Hamline faculty roster is stacked. Here's the full list of my fellow faculty members: Swati AvasthiKelly BarnhillCoe BoothMarsha Wilson ChallMatt de la PeñaLisa Jahn-CloughEmily JenkinsRon KoertgeNina LaCourMary LogueJacqueline Briggs MartinMeg Medina, Claire Rudolf MurphyPhyllis RootLaura RubyGary SchmidtEliot SchreferSherri L. SmithLaurel Snyder, and Anne Ursu.

Learn more about Emily Jenkins.
My co-teachers have won practically every award offered by the literary world. Plus, we have folks working in every kids' book age demographic, publishing format, and genre.

I've experienced Hamline to be a place that welcomes every kind of story. The MFAC folks are willing to grow and push and learn.

From your own experience (and those who came before), what growth and changes have you/they seen in your program?

I've seen students grow in skill, of course. They come away with better understandings of the craft itself. They learn to critique constructively. They learn to structure and revise. They learn to give from themselves through story.

And just as importantly, they learn to call themselves writers. Many of us write in isolation. Many of us are in families or friend groups that enjoy stories, but don't really see their relevance. Many of us feel embarrassed to call ourselves writers.

Being a part of a writing community, getting to discuss the minute details of what makes a story work... if you haven't yet given yourself permission to call yourself a writer, it may be because you need to join a writing community.

Could you describe a typical residency?

Residencies are about nine days long.

Kate DiCamillo teaches a master class at Hamline.
Most mornings, we break into small groups to critique student work. In the afternoons, we have lectures about the residency's topic.

Topics go through a five-residency cycle: point-of-view, setting, plot, character, theme.

Faculty will sometimes lead workshops focusing on a specific skill.

 Gary Schmidt has done one on writing a great opening chapter. Swati Avasthi taught one on manipulating time.

I've done a workshop on writing a graphic novel script.

How about a typical advisor-advisee semester of writing and study?

At the end of the residency, students are assigned a faculty advisor. Each student meets with their advisor to talk over goals and figure out a game plan. Then, over the course of a semester, the student turns in four packets, typically one a month. Packets usually contain forty pages of writing.

Based on the previously-discussed goals, faculty will go over the packet and write a response letter. Some faculty also do phone calls. I usually have an email exchange in addition to the response letter. My relationship with my students is a bit like my editor's relationship with me.

What do you like best about teaching at Hamline?

I love being a part of the Hamline community. I know I'm there to teach, but I feel like I learn so much.

I love hearing how other writers working in other formats and genres approach their craft. I love seeing my students grow in their storytelling prowess. I love seeing them grow in their confidence.

What would you say to a prospective children's-YA writer who is considering graduate study?

Find yourself a writing community. Hamline isn't right for everyone. Low-residency programs in general aren't right for everyone. However, if you haven't been able to find a community that suits your needs, or if anything I've said up to this point strikes a chord, check us out.

More personally, what was your own apprenticeship like?

I found a community. Early on, I fell in with a group of other comic book creators. We were all in our twenties. We were all at the start of our careers. We were all living in the Bay Area.

For years, we met once a week to write and draw together, and to look over each other's work.

I never went to an MFA program, so I consider that experience my MFA program equivalent. Almost everyone in that group has now been published in one form or another.

Do you have any particular insights to share for those interested in creating graphic-format literature?

Read lots of comics.

Read lots of everything, but especially comics.

Read all of Scott McCloud's craft books: Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2006)(all William Morrow).

Work through Jessica Abel and Matt Madden's Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (First Second, 2008).

After that, give it a go. There are no rules to making comics.

You can write a script or go straight to thumbnail sketches. You can use just about any drawing implement you want to make your pictures. Pick a strategy and a set of tools – don't worry about whether they're the right choices because you're not going to know until you've given them a try – and go.

What do you wish you had done differently? What choices were especially fruitful?

I am so, so fortunate to have had the journey I've had. I'm not sure I would have done anything differently, for fear of jinxing the whole thing.

I've just been incredibly blessed.

My most fruitful choice was joining that group of cartoonists when I was starting out. I got my first publisher through that group. Once one of us got connected, we would introduce everyone else.

What new or recent release of yours should we be sure to read?

I hope you'll check out Secret Coders (First Second, 2017-), the middle grade graphic novel series I'm doing with my friend Mike Holmes. Mike and I are blending a mystery story with coding lessons. The fifth and sixth volumes come out this year.

I also hope you'll check out the New Super-Man monthly comic series from DC Comics. I'm writing and Brent Peeples is doing the pencils.

We're telling the story of a brand-new character in the DC Universe: Kenan Kong, a seventeen year old Chinese kid who inherits Clark Kent's powers and becomes the Super-Man of China.

What about that project sparked your imagination? What did it teach you in terms of craft and process?

Secret Coders is my first explicitly educational project. I was a high school computer science teacher for 17 years, so I've always been interested in education. Mike and I wanted to figure out how to use comics to teach.

I've done some things well and some things not so well. There are a few instances when I let the educational aspect overwhelm the narrative aspect. I think balance is key. Balance is always key.

What was it like, being a National Ambassador for Young People's Literature? Is there a moment that stands out in your memory?

Serving as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature was perhaps the biggest honor of my life. I loved meeting Dr. Carla Hayden for the first time at the National Book Festival. I loved meeting young readers, young authors, and young cartoonists. I don't care what anyone says about videogames or YouTube or whatever. Kids today love books. Kids today are absolutely hungry for stories, and they love getting their stories through the pages of a good book.

What do you hope for the children's-YA creative community, looking into the future?

I hope for diversity in every sense of the word. I hope people from every corner of our society will tell their stories, and I hope they find folks who will listen to their stories. I hope authors will try out different publishing formats and genres. Heck, I hope authors invent new publishing formats and genres! I hope our world will be guided and nourished by good stories.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Cynsational News

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

Author/Illustrator Insights

The 3 Different Audiences Cherie Dimaline Wrote the YA Novel The Marrow Thieves For from CBC. Peek:
“I'm getting asked these incredibly insightful, reflective and mature questions. I had a 15-year-old in Vancouver ask me a few weeks ago, 'How can I be a better ally for Indigenous communities without taking up space?' And I thought, 'Wow! Am I ever happy you're our future!'" 
Get Inspired with Jennifer Mathieu from Blue Willow Bookshop. Peek:
“I think being an educator influences me in that it reminds me all the time of who my audience is. I'm reminded on a regular basis that teenagers are far more intelligent, compassionate, and complex than we think and that they can handle tough subjects and books that have nuance and complexity.”
Erin E. Moulton And Things We Haven’t Said by Adi Rule from The Launch Pad. Peek:
“I was tasked with weeding the teen nonfiction section and I came upon the 300s. There were some great resources on rape and sexual assault for adult readers, but far less for teen survivors. I started to wonder, what would a good teen resource look like?”
Four Questions for Varian Johnson by Emma Kantor from Publishers Weekly. Peek:
“I started writing in the first-person perspective, all in the present day. But I realized...that I couldn’t do the story justice without seeing what happened in the past...This became a good opportunity to juxtapose race relations and issues in the past with ...the present…”
It Gives Me a Tremendous Amount of Hope: Author Hena Khan on Kids, Tolerance, and the Universal Experience of Middle School by Melanie Boyer from First Book. Peek:
“My ultimate goal is to create layered and multidimensional characters that all types of people can relate to—male or female, young or old, from any ethnic and religious background.”
Five Questions for Winifred Conkling by Kitty Flynn from the Horn Book. Peek:
(advice for young activists today) “Stay strong. The first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920. Change takes sustained effort over a long period of time.”
 Diversity

The Movement Will Fail Without Intersectionality from Tracey Baptiste. Peek:
“it’s to your advantage to help others, even if in the short-term it comes at some cost to you. There are three things at work here, 'direct reciprocity' (I help you and you help me), 'indirect reciprocity' (I help you and someone else sees I’m helpful and helps me later)...”
How to Be More Inclusive of Nonbinary, Genderneutral, and Trans* People in Your Spaces from Dill Werner. Peek:
“I voiced my issues with the language used in Kidlit Women and how I felt excluded. I was heard. Grace Lin asked me to come into the private group and share ways they could be more inclusive toward nonbinary and trans* people. So, here I am.”
KidLitWomen: Combating Invisibility of Transgender Kids by Lindsay H. Metcalf and Traci Sorell from Nerdy Book Club. Peek:
“In most of the libraries where George (Scholastic, 2015) has been withheld from children, the gatekeepers have been women—usually white women. #Kidlitwomen is about making the children’s book industry better for women, but it’s imperative to realize that feminism is intersectional.”
Where Is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results from Lee & Low Books. Peek:
“The diversity problem is not the responsibility of diverse people to solve. It is a problem for everyone to solve. Now that the Diversity Baseline Survey is completed, the real work toward changing the status quo begins.”
Defying Odds and Changing Perspective: A New Kind of Intensive by Sophie Velasquez from The Writing Barn. Peek:
“‘Being marginalized means that your stories, your work, your concerns, your educational needs, your wild hopes and dreams, can often be pushed to the side, made harder to realize or even to give voice to,’ Amy Rose (Capetta) says…. ‘Even though writing appears solitary, writing craft is collaborative.’”
Letter to an Emerging Indigenous Writer by Daniel Heath Justice from Lit Hub. Peek:
"You’re part of a lineage, a tradition, a rich, vexed, complicated, troubled, and beautiful history of literary achievement. That can be a deep wellspring from which to draw strength."
Why Kids Need LGBTQ+ Middle-grade Books by Kristin McWilliams from Intellectual Freedom Blog. Peek:
“When I read Barbara Dee’s middle-grade novel Star-Crossed (Aladdin, 2017)...I cried. All of the yearning and excitement I felt as a seventh-grade girl with a crush on another girl came back to me while reading.”
LGBTQ+ Diversity in YA Novels is Getting Better, But Queer Girls are Still Getting Left Behind by Alaina Leary from Bustle. Peek from Kayla Whaley:
“'Most queer girls in YA have historically been white, abled, and cis, so I think addressing that needs to be a major priority,” she says, “while focusing in on specifics, like the extreme paucity of traditionally published Black authors and the ways anti-Blackness operates in YA generally and queer YA.'”
Writing Craft

Writing Mysteries for Girls by Sheela Chari from Nerdy Book Club. Peek:
“If a girl knows how to wrestle an alligator, that’s fine. But we should also celebrate a range of experience, by considering quiet girls, smart girls, and girls who get things done with their wits alone. The flip side is that we should see boys inhabit these spaces, too…”
How Writers Can Bring Setting to Life Through Personification by Becca Puglisi from Live Write Thrive. Peek:
“When it comes to enhancing the setting, one of the most effective figurative language techniques is that of personification: adding human characteristics to an inanimate object. Done well, this can add a sense of movement and emotion to an otherwise sterile scene.”
Visual Thinking by Anne Greenwood Brown from Writer Unboxed. Peek:
“Mind maps are great for brainstorming all the elements you want to include in the scene and depicting how contrasting ideas will play off each other.”
Writing Compelling Novel Opening Pages by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek:
“Conflict and action hook a reader and transport them into your story. This is exactly the goal of your novel’s opening. So start in action, start with conflict. You may want to use a smaller, scene-specific conflict (or “bridging conflict“) to get readers on the bus initially.”
4 Mistakes to Avoid When Building Suspense in Your Novel by Laurence MacNaughton from Fiction University. Peek:
“Remember: suspense is all about asking questions. Building suspense in your novel is not a one-time event. It's a constant process. You have to continually pose crucial questions throughout your book, starting in the very beginning, and keep the reader asking questions faster than you answer them.”
Publishing

Women! Read Your Royalty Statements! from Jacqueline Davies. Peek:
“You can’t change how much you earn until you understand how you earn it. As an author or illustrator, you are running a business, and the details of your royalty statement give you vital information about the way your business functions.”
Women in Translation by Avery Fischer Udagawa from SCBWI. Peek:
"Only about 14% of combined Batchelder books by women were written in languages of Asia or the Middle East, and none were written in African or South American languages."
No More All-Male Panels: A Pledge in Solidarity with #kidlitwomen from Mike Jung. Peek:
“I don’t organize events myself, I can pro-actively communicate with event organizers who extend their invitations to me. I can ask who the other presenters/panelists are, and if it’s an exclusively male lineup, I can voice my concern, and suggest names of people who aren’t men that could be added.”
No More All-White Panels: A Pledge from Laurel Snyder. Peek:
"We can’t change everything overnight, but we can refuse to participate in the marginalization of our colleagues and friends. We can hope that our example draws attention from conference and festival organizers, from publishers, booksellers, educators, reviewers, and others. If enough of us join together, perhaps diverse panels will become the rule, not the exception."
Meet My Agent Jordan Hamessley from Caroline Leech. Peek:
“I’m getting several hundred queries a month and I request about three manuscripts a week, but it all comes down to selling me in the query and the pages.” 
An Interview with Regina Hayes by Leonard S. Marcus from The Horn Book. Peek:
“Lane [Smith], this thin, shy young man, came in with his portfolio of really astonishing artwork, but I didn’t have anything for him at the time. It required a particular type of manuscript. And he said, ‘Well, maybe you’d like this story my friend wrote.’ And he pulled out Jon’s [Scieszka] manuscript..” 
Interview With Amanda Isabel Ramirez of Simon & Schuster from Justin Colón. Peek:
“...too often that I see writers not taking into account ‘the rules’ of publishing – putting in the proper research, revising, revising, revising, writing query letters, etc....There are a lot of letters between A (write the thing) and Z (publish the thing), and you can’t expect to have a full alphabet without them.”
Going It Alone as an Austistic Woman Author from Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Peek:
"I think there are ways publishing can change to be more friendly to neurodiverse authors, and I believe that the industry can and should accommodate rather than ask us to do all the changing."
Canceled Deals and Pulped Books, as the Publishing Industry Confronts Sexual Harrassment by Alexandra Alter from The New York Times. Peek:
“We are losing talent because of this, and we need to find a way to privilege the women who have been hurt over the men who make publishing houses a lot of money.” 
Internship Opportunities from The Texas Book Festival. Peek:
“The Texas Book Festival and the Texas Teen Book Festival offer ongoing unpaid internships designed to introduce qualified applicants to editorial, marketing and publicity, and development work, and other aspects of publishing, nonprofit organizations, and event planning.”

Submission Guidelines from Foreshadow: A Serial YA Anthology. Peek:
“We are seeking original YA short stories...The deadline to be published in our first issues of 2019 will be September 1, 2018.”
Writers for Hope Auction. Peek:
“Through this fundraiser you can bid on writing work critiques, consultation calls, signed books, signed CDs and book-related accessories and experiences.100% of the money raised by this event goes directly to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the United States' largest anti-sexual assault organization.”
Awards



Congratulations to Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award! Peek:
"...the world’s largest award for children’s and young adult literature. The award amounts to 5 million Swedish krona (approx. $613,000 or EUR 500 000) and is given annually to a single laureate or to several. The citation of the jury reads: “Jacqueline Woodson introduces us to resilient young people fighting to find a place where their lives can take root. In language as light as air, she tells stories of resounding richness and depth.'” 
See also an interview with Jackie about receiving the award from ALMA.

This Week at Cynsations
Cynsational Giveaway

Congratulations to Linda Carpenter who won a signed copy of Love, Mama by Jeannette Bradley (Roaring Brook, 2018).

More Personally - Cynthia

I'm pleased to announce that Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) is now in its seventh paperback printing. Thanks to all for your ongoing support and enthusiasm!

It's surreal to think back on a story that started as a scribbling draft back in 2000 and spawned--really no better word for it--a six-book prose-graphic series, three-book spinoff, and three short stories published in anthologies.

Honors included:
  • Top Ten Pick, Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) list of 2011 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults in the “What’s Cooking?” category (“tasty reads to fill your belly and warm your soul”) 
  • New York Public Library Book for the Teenage 
  • Featured Title, National Book Festival 
  • 2007-2008 Texas Library Association Tayshas List 
  • Chapters (Canada) Junior Advisory Board (JAB) Pick 
  • Featured Title, Texas Book Festival 
  • Featured Title, Kansas Book Festival 
Will you be at the Texas Library Association Conference in Dallas next week or the American Library Association Conference in New Orleans in June?

I'll be speaking on a panel, "What's New with Texas MG and YA Authors" (event #296), with Jessica Lee Anderson, Samantha M. Clark, TaraDairman, P.J. Hoover (moderator), Cynthia Levinson, Mari Mancusi, and Cory Putman Oakes from 2:45 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. April 3 at TLA. Come to my signing from 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. in Aisle 12 of the Author's Area on April 4. I'll also be participating in a ticketed event, the Texas Tea: Meet and Greet with YA Authors from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. April 5.

I also be speaking on a panel, "Native YA Today: Contemporary Indigenous Voices and Heroes for the 21rst Century & Beyond," with Alia Jones (moderator), Joseph Bruchac, Eric Gansworth, and Dawn Quigley. It's scheduled from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. June 23.

More Personally - Gayleen

I met author Brad Wagnon in person last weekend while he was in Austin giving a talk on Cherokees during the Civil War. (See Traci’s interview with Brad.)

Not only was it a rare treat to connect in person with the subject of a post I had formatted, but it was also enlightening to learn details of history largely ignored during both my high school and college classes on Oklahoma history.

I was also thrilled to have my essay, The Parrot featured on Rebekah Manley’s blog, Brave Tutu. Peek: “Each time we turn away from things that scare us, we give them more power. Only by taking that brave leap can we learn to soar.”

Personal Links - Robin

"Concerted Cultivation" and the March For Our Lives

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick: Let's Make a Plan: Reminders from Early Childhood Education

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I walk into a classroom at the extraordinary early childhood center where I work, and watch a teacher kneeling or sitting at the height of one of her two-year-olds, one hand holding his, eyes meeting eyes.

Noah, I can see you’re having a hard time finding a way to play with Ari. Let’s make a plan for how you can do this. You could either play with a different toy, or wait until your friend finishes. Which one would you like to choose?

I get goosebumps listening. This signals: Important.

And there’s a lifting sensation in my chest - relief - and I see the same thing in the little one’s calmer face and body.

This kind of scene reminds me of how appreciative I am of the power of my brain to help me find pathways out of a place of confusion (What should I do now?) and frustration (I want something, but I don’t know how to get it!).

I was there this year. I’m pretty sure others have been there too (and I’m always grateful when I come across an open and honest post that describes these vulnerable part of our creative journey).

We adults find ourselves in parallel situations, not overwhelmed because we want to use the stethoscope from the doctor kit, but for other reasons that are as complex to us as the toys are to the two-year-old.

I found myself in this emotional environment this past year after an unpredictable disappointment, which I refuse to call it a disaster even though that’s how it felt at the time (I could never let myself put it in the same category as anything that involved human safety or life).

After recovering sufficiently from the shock, I put away a manuscript that was, and is, close to my heart. Then I turned on my journey to gaze into the empty spaces of Next.


And there, as I headed to the land of Next, I got lost.

Not right away, but ultimately.

At first, my brain filled with questions, all of which felt like I was digging into my own body and pulling out strings of things – anything, something! – that would be meaningful. I wrote poetry, revised picture books, wrote new work that I loved.

I took an intensive picture book writing/revision course online that kept my mind occupied every day for five weeks with reading, writing, critique, webinars, and submissions. I had two dozen verses that I thought might turn into the next big project, believing or maybe just hoping that persistence would open a door to where any of this was going.

I told myself I didn’t care, because I was writing, and that’s what mattered to me.

And while that was true to some extent, I began to grow a little impatient.

But my next project evaded me. Nothing held. Nothing embedded itself in the parts of my brain that handle the heart and the cognition that unite for what feels like passionate belief in a work in progress. Nothing needed me.

I kept writing, but I knew this would not do for much longer. As I figuratively looked around at all the options I had pulled out of myself – picture books, poetry for adults, the couple dozen verses about a loss in my younger life that could be the centerpiece of middle grade or young adult fiction, or turn into a memoir – I began to feel confused and overwhelmed with too many options.

That’s when I knew I was lost.

That’s when I knew, like the early childhood teachers I have the honor of watching every day, that the lost part of me, the little girl inside the adult, needed a plan. And more than that, I needed and wanted help to create the plan.

The minute I contacted my chosen helpers to set up time to talk, I felt relief and hope.

The difference in creating my plan was that it had to be purposeful, crafted carefully to take into account the realities of the publishing business, a full-time day job that I love, financial concerns, and my introverted personality that no one much knows about except when it comes roaring to the front lines when I attend gatherings of writers.

This plan – very different than setting “goals,” by the way – created specific steps to accomplish in a fairly clear order – gives me plenty of work to fill the next few years.

The plan itself, and the connection with my plan-mentors, nudged me forward on a new path that carried me away from the intersection where I’d been stuck. I never felt unproductive, but I’d begun to feel like my daily writing was creating a nest, rather than helping me walk forward.

My new plan does not answer the question of what my next writing project will be. But perhaps that’s because I was not really finished with the previous one.

Rescued from my files, I’m about to begin yet another revision. What will happen to it, I do not know. But I feel for the first time in many months that every day I move my own story ahead.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick’s middle grade novel in verse, Reeni's Turn, recently won an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition

A story of resilience and self-discovery that confronts the issue of body bias for a younger readership, an early version of Reeni's Turn was also awarded Finalist in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Award at Hunger Mountain. 

Her essays and articles on emotional resilience and the writer’s inner journey can be found in the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind as well as on Cynsations.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Intern Insights: Kate Pentecost on Four Writing Tips from My Boy Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro
(image from The Shape of Water media kit)
by Kate Pentecost 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro has been My Boy for a long time, way before his monster romance The Shape of Water took home Best Picture and Best Director at the 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony and was nominated for scores of others.

He’s My Boy in that way that some musicians are Your Boy (or Girl, or otherwise.)

I vibe with what he makes, for the most part, and immediately buy and love pretty much anything he puts out.

I love Guillermo del Toro.

My husband and I even cosplayed as characters from his recent kaiju movie, Pacific Rim.

Kate and husband cosplay Pacific Rim characters.
But Guillermo del Toro is a lot of people’s Boy. His films are beloved worldwide. They resonate with people all over the world, and as he has risen in prestige, he has proven, time and again, that “genre” films can be just as emotionally resonant and human as the most heart-tugging realistic biopic. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from him, no matter whether we write “genre” or realism.

1. Know your roots (to break with tradition in a meaningful way)

If Guillermo del Toro is one thing, it is well read in his field. Famously so.

He has spent a long time reading and appreciating important pieces of literature and watching important films in the genres in which he creates. Because of his extensive study (notice I said “study” not “reading”) in fairy tales and fantasy, he was able to create his groundbreaking film "Pan’s Labyrinth," a fairy tale interconnected with the Spanish Civil War.

He created a story which follows the structure of a Grimm or Perrault-style fairy tale flawlessly. But because of his study and expertise, he also successfully broke with tradition and created something really unique.

This comes with the other half of the film, which centers on the protagonist’s struggles in real-world Spanish Civil War era Spain. The story in the real world runs parallel to the story in the fairy tale world that Ofelia, the protagonist, wishes she could escape to. This blend of the classic and the new lends several more layers of meaning and a beautiful raw ambiguity to the ending.

Moral of the story: know the roots of your genre. Become an expert on the rules of whatever genre you’re working in, so you can understand when and how to break or amend them.

2. Craft monsters carefully, even human ones.

Guillermo del Toro is extremely well-known for his creature design. Just look at any of his designs from "Hellboy," "Pan’s Labyrinth," "Pacific Rim," or "The Shape of Water." But his designs aren’t just pretty. They mean something.

For example, in "Pan’s Labyrinth" (yes, I’m coming back to that for a moment) one of the most terrifying creatures is the Pale Man. Would you believe that this monster is meant to portray something larger than itself?

These are del Toro’s own words on the matter:
 “The Pale Man represents all institutional evil feeding on the helpless. It’s not accidental that he is A) pale B) a man. He is thriving now.” - Guillermo del Toro via Twitter. @realGDT
The Pale Man
(image from Pan's Labyrinth media kit)
And it makes sense. He is a pale, vicious, mute creature who refuses to let anything be taken from a table heaping with more food than he could possibly enjoy.

He is a character who attacks and consumes those weaker than him whom he believes pose a threat to his table of plenty. And is that not the story of Western imperialism?

But it’s not only del Toro’s villainous monsters that we can take notes on.

"The Shape of Water" is a passion project of Guillermo del Toro’s, stemming from a love for the titular creature from "The Creature from the Black Lagoon."

In his creation of Amphibian Man, del Toro was able to successfully turn expectations on their heads, taking this character from monster to hero and romantic interest. And design (or for us, description) is how he pulled it off.

Though the character is inhuman, the design focuses on expression and humanity. The character has vibrant colors and pleasing lines rather than murky, gross colors and intimidating angles. He has an expressive face and large, inquisitive eyes. (He also has a scaly six-pack, but, hey, it’s a romance.)

We are easily able to see the humanity within this creature, especially when he’s contrasted with the villain, Richard Strickland.

Strickland’s design is all hard lines and angles, all black and white (mirroring his mentality.) He is toxic masculinity personified. And what better to make that understood than to present him as a tall, classically attractive man in a suit?

This design paired with his actions (cruelty, savagery, being so afraid being seen as weak that he tries to force his severed fingers back onto his body even as they decay) helps us understand the meaning of this monster: that he is afraid of disability, afraid of change, afraid of the world being anything other than how he, a white man in a suit, demands of it.

Michael Shannon as Strickland
(image from The Shape of Water media kit)
All monsters mean something. Be sure you understand what you’re really saying with monsters and villains, and that their description and actions enhance their meaning.

3. Environment Details that Enhance the Story 

Another of the things that Guillermo del Toro is known for is really beautiful, intriguing sets—sets that often have as much of a story to tell as his characters.

In his Gothic, "Crimson Peak," the heroine is whisked away to a mansion far away to marry a mysterious lord. But when she arrives, she sees that the mansion itself is in quite a state of advanced decay, but the lord and ladies of the house (the lord’s sister lives in the house as well) live around the decay as well as they can.

This house is really something. Leaves and snow fall through the ceiling into the foyer (which I can’t find a good picture of!) The machinery from the lord’s inventions carve deep into the blood red clay that gives the mansion its name and the movie its title.

These details give new dimension to the “haunted house,” taking it from just a backdrop to a unique character in and of itself: a house that is also a corpse. A house whose decay (in the Gothic tradition) mirrors the protagonist’s own mental or emotional decay. The result is a set that is not just important but vital to the message of the film.

Think about your own settings. Does the baseball field in your realistic young adult novel feel sad, with its sagging, rusted chain link fence and grass so dry it’s gone almost gray? Does the home of an angry step-parent in your middle grade novel feel sharp, full of things like kettles about to boil and couches that seem ready to give way under one’s weight at any moment? Is your setting a character too? Or just a backdrop?

But the last and most important lesson we can learn from Guillermo del Toro is this:

4. Pay attention to your ending. 

Living in the world we’re in right now takes its toll on us every day. The news seems to be growing increasingly bad.

Talks of nuclear war, of shootings, of seemingly unstoppable climate change dominate the airwaves. We are the closest we’ve been to midnight on the Doomsday Clock in half a century. Fear is all but inescapable, and it is tempting to let this fear creep into our writing.

Though Guillermo del Toro is a master of horror, and someone who has seen more than his share of actual dead bodies in Jalisco, his endings are never hopeless. He never goes for the easy, nihilistic, hopelessness that I’ve seen in so many other horror films.

Instead, when asked about his endings, he had this to say:
“I think when we wake up in the morning, we can choose between fear and love. Every morning. And every morning, if you choose one, that doesn't define you until the end... The way you end your story is important. It's important that we choose love over fear, because love is the answer.” 

Ivana Baquero as Ofelia
(image from Pan's Labyrinth media kit)
This quote reminded me of why I write for kids in the first place: to create stories that restore faith in humanity rather than break it.

Am I saying that every ending you ever write has to be happy?

No. Guillermo del Toro’s certainly aren’t all what you’d call “happy.”

All I’m saying is that, in writing for kids in times when everything seems hopeless, it is more vital than ever that the opportunity for happiness, peace and love is present in our endings.

Because it is our responsibility to create worlds that are not hopeless. It is our responsibility to create worlds in which kids can change the world for the better, and we have to understand that above all else.

From monster-punching robots to sexy fish men, to haunted houses to labyrinthine passages into fantasy, My Boy Guillermo del Toro is out there making his mark on the world. And hopefully with these lessons, you can too.

So get out there and write what you love!

Kate Pentecost holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She is obsessed with the Romantic Poets and can be identified by the enormous tattoo of Percy Bysshe Shelley on her arm.

She lives in Houston with her husband.

Kate is the YA author of Elysium Girls (Hyperion, winter 2020).

She is represented by Sara Crowe of Pippin Properties.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Survivors: K.L. Going on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children's-YA Author

Learn more about K.L. Going.
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?

For me, it has been all about adaptation. Allowing myself to write in a broad array of genres has helped me to remain active as a writer.

This was definitely something I needed to give myself mental permission to do since the “formula” for success (if there is one!) is to write a series, or at the very least, produce the same sort of book so your readers know what to expect and you can build a strong, core audience. You can then create a marketing brand that sells you and your work. But that was never going to be me, and at a certain point I needed to let go of that ideal.

My biggest hurdle was adapting to parenthood, which completely changed not only the amount of time available for my writing, but also the quality of that time. Once I had my son, I no longer had long, quiet stretches of time, but rather short bursts.

Writing picture books is a long-term process (sometimes I work on a picture book for years), but each individual work session can be shorter. Writing novels takes me longer to get into the mind-set and to reach the point where I can write new material.

When Ashton was young, I was reading picture books aloud to him, so I was immersed in that world, but I stopped having time to read full-length novels. The realities of my life changes meant that I was ready to make a shift in what I was producing.

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

I was working on Pieces of Why (Kathy Dawson Books, 2015) when I got pregnant. I didn’t push myself to finish it before my son was born because I had very unrealistic expectations about how soon I’d get back to writing.

I had no idea the ways that being a mom would change the course of my life!

If I could go back, I would have pushed myself harder during that pre-baby time period because it was a really long while before I felt ready to write again.

For writers, our primary tool is our brain and for my brain to work at its best, I need to be well-rested, focused, and immersed in the alternate world I’m creating.

Once my son was born, well-rested went out the window, focus was a thing of the past, and I didn’t want to leave the world I lived in because I was so damn happy with my amazing little baby!

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 the biggest change is, of course, social media. Most writers, myself included, have a love/hate relationship to social media. On the one hand, it allows us a bit more control over our marketing, so even if we’re not one of the big name writers on a publishers list who can garner a lot of the publicity department’s time, we can still work on our own to get the word out about our books. On the other hand, marketing isn’t something many of us enjoy.

When I first started out, it was a big deal that I simply had a website. I had certain fun features I’d update periodically, but there was not any expectation that there would be new material every week or every few days. There was no Twitter or Instagram. It took very little of my mental energy.

(Beach Lane, 2017)
But over the years, social media venues have bred like rabbits and it’s hard not to get caught up in each new trail, not knowing which ones will pan out in the long run.

It’s too easy to spend all of your creative energy on coming up with clever or prolific posts instead of writing new books.

These days, there’s a much higher demand to do marketing well.

Also, feedback on your books comes instantly from many sources and it’s detailed. It feels personal.

In the past, there was a general sense of a book’s reception, but there wasn’t that kind of instant reaction from Joe Smith in Washington, D.C. who gave your book a certain number of stars.

General feedback is wonderful because it can help improve your writing skills for future books, but specific feedback can feel disproportionately important even when it shouldn’t really have any impact at all.

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

(Beach Lane, 2017)
Allow yourself more grace than you think you deserve.

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

Being a writer can be a scary career choice. You have no benefits, no job security, no retirement, and you pay your own taxes.

Not everyone can manage to pull that off long-term, and I fear that a lot of voices are silenced because of these realities.

People who don’t have enough money to sustain themselves get to roll the dice once (maybe twice) to see if your book makes it to that top echelon of the best-seller list, and if it does you’re set, but it’s a very small minority of writers who make it.

If your book doesn’t become a bestseller and you don’t have outside income, then you probably won’t choose to continue writing as a career.

There’s a lot of conversation within publishing about wanting to attract minority writers into the field, but very few of those conversations focus on the economic realities of being a writer because money tends to be a taboo subject. But I do think it plays a part in who can afford to continue publishing and who can’t.

It isn’t just skin-color that makes someone a minority voice. There are also economically marginalized people who could speak about very different ways of living within our country.

I don’t have any answers to these problems.

Is there a way to make writing and publishing into the kind of job that would offer long-term security?

Or will it always come down to who can afford to pay their own health care and invest in their own retirement, either because they are independently wealthy, have a spouse who can offer those economic benefits, or they hit it big?

I guess what I’d wish for in the future would be a health care system that works for everyone so we could take away one of the biggest roadblocks to self-employment.

That would be a great step forward.

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

I’ve been writing a screenplay adaptation of my picture book, Dog in Charge, which I’m really excited about. I hope it sells!

And there is also a Broadway version of Fat Kid Rules the World in the works.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed about both projects.



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.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Interview: Author Brad Wagnon & Illustrator Alex Stephenson on The Land of the Great Turtles

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I’m delighted to feature Brad Wagnon, a fellow Cherokee Nation citizen and author of The Land of Great Turtles (Rowe Publishing, March 2018). He is joined by Alex Stephenson, the book’s illustrator.

I met Brad a few years ago in Tahlequah through his work for the tribe. I enjoyed their first book, How the World Was Made (CreateSpace), published in 2015, which shares a traditional Cherokee story of the earth’s origin.

This second book, The Land of the Great Turtles, was a story that I hadn’t heard before. It centers on the consequences for Cherokee people of not listening to the Creator and the elders. 

Brad shares his version of the story given to him by Benny Smith, a revered Cherokee elder and retired counselor and teacher at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.

From the promotional copy:

When the Creator gave the Cherokee people a beautiful island with everything they could ever need, it came with only one rule - to take care of the land and the animals living there. But what happens when the children decide to play instead of taking care of their responsibilities?

Brad, what first drew you to creating books with Cherokee traditional stories?

Brad and his wife, Tanya
For about seven years, my wife has been telling me I need to write a book. I believe it was Alex that first approached me about doing a book together.

 The main thing that drives me is: I don’t want these stories to be lost to future generations. 

As I say in my dedication of the book, paraphrasing a wise friend of mine, the time when we used to sit around family fires and tell stories is almost gone for us. We need to preserve these stories while they are still in our memories.

What was the timeline between spark and publication of The Land of the Great Turtles? 

I think we’ve been working on it almost a year. We had hoped to have it out by Cherokee National Holiday last year, which is the first weekend of September. But we both agreed we wanted to see a publisher acquire it, so it has been worth the wait.

What were the challenges (personal, literary, research, logistical) in bringing the book to life? 

My personal challenge was getting past the fact that this story has always been oral tradition and has never been put into writing before (at least that I know of).

Of course Alex and I are both busy and we wanted to get it right both artistically and historically, so we took our time and made sure it was right.

Brad talks with a group about Cherokee history.
What special considerations/permissions come into play when framing a book around a traditional Cherokee story? 

Well, with this story the very first time Benny told it to me he said, “I’m giving this story to you.” So really that was his permission for me to perpetuate this story. 

Cherokee traditions belong to all Cherokee and there are most definitely things that the entire world can learn from them.

This is my version of a very old story that belongs to all Cherokee people.

What cultural elements were key to your vision for the illustrations? 

The main one was the dress of the people. I wanted it to be as historically accurate as possible and so did Alex. 

He would draw something and send it to me. I would make suggestions and he would change it to fit what I said. The dress (with minor adjustments) represents the earliest known dress for Cherokee people without the influence of European trade goods. 

Also the turtles, they needed to be beautiful and larger than life because, after all, they are the stars of this story. I think Alex did an amazing job portraying both the turtles and Cherokee life.

What do you think Alex’s art brings to the story? 

Without him, there wouldn’t be a book. No one would publish this story without his art. He was very careful and took the utmost pains to make sure that what he was drawing both looked amazing and was representative of Cherokee culture and history.

Interior art from The Land of the Great Turtles by Alex Stephenson, used with permission.

Alex, I know both you and Brad work for the Cherokee Nation in different fields. How did you two connect?

I’ve known Brad since I met my wife around 2008-2009. Brad and his twin brother Brian grew up with my wife and her sister, and were so close that my wife refers to them as her brothers.

It was actually a funny experience when my kids were trying to work out the family tree one day, and they found out that “Uncle” Brad and “Uncle” Brian weren’t actually related to us. Our families are just that close. If you were to see us all together, it would just look like one huge family.

Alex working on illustrations as his daughter watches
From an artistic standpoint, how did you approach the illustrations?

This was my seventh children’s book, but probably the most daunting one for me, because it was so important that we get it right.

I know Brad felt a lot of weight on his shoulders because (to our knowledge) this story hasn’t been made into a children’s book before.

Brad and I would meet to discuss each page, and he would tell me what certain things would look like in the traditional story (or historically for Cherokees) – things like their traditional clothes or tools they used in their daily life.

I wanted to draw this in a way that was vibrant enough to keep young children’s attention, but also in a style that was respectful of the story being told.

Brad, I know you are busy traveling nationwide educating Cherokee Nation citizens about our culture in at-large satellite communities through your work at Community and Cultural Outreach. What plans do you have for sharing it with Cherokee people as well as those outside our communities?

Alex and I had a kickoff event at Northeastern State University on March 15, the book’s release date.

Alex and Brad celebrate the launch of The Land of the Great Turtles
at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
The Cappi Wadley Reading and Technology Center hosted us as part of their Family Literacy night. About 90 children attended along with their families.

Brad signing books at the event.
We had lots of fun and got to read both of our books several times to various groups of children and parents. They also gave copies of the books to all the kids. They are talking about hosting a Festival of Books this summer for local authors and illustrators.

I have a book reading and storytelling scheduled for May 1 at Tahlequah High School for their annual cultural day, an event that I started while I was teaching there.

I am also working on details for a book reading and signing tour scheduled for May 24-28 in the vicinity of Cherokee, North Carolina. I will be at The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Bearmeat’s Indian Den, Red Clay State Park and The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.

Also June 9, Alex and I will be at the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville, Arkansas for a reading and signing event.

All of these events have been scheduled by me. I’ve done a lot of the marketing myself. Our publisher is getting more active since the book released but I handle scheduling all my appearances.

Do you all have other works in progress together? 

Brad: Yes, we are hoping to do at least one more book using a Cherokee story.

Alex and his family
Alex: Personally, I am working on another book for children that struggle with sleep.

I have two of the most amazing children in the world, but my daughter has always struggled with falling asleep and over the years we have tried different approaches to helping her.

One that always worked well was making up adventure stories to read to her while she was lying in bed.

I started thinking one day, “Other parents might struggle with this, too.”

So I decided to make a book along the same lines that they can read to their little ones as they drift off.

Cynsational Notes

Traci says: When reading a retelling of a traditional Native story, I compare how closely the story aligns to the original, see if the storyteller changed or perhaps updated the story for today’s audience and learn their reasons for doing so, and also consider how accurate are the illustrations for the tribe and cultural information centered in the story.

Reading the author’s note or interviews with the author will assist a reader, educator or librarian in determining the author’s relationship to culture keepers and storytellers in that tribal nation, if not a citizen of the tribe themselves.

Previously, there have been other traditional Cherokee story retellings in picture books that young readers would enjoy.

They include: Gayle RossHow Turtle’s Back Was Cracked (Dial, 1995) and How Rabbit Tricked Otter (HarperCollins, 1994), both illustrated by Murv Jacob; Joseph Bruchac’s The First Strawberries: A Cherokee Story, illustrated by Anna Vojtech (Dial 1998); and, Gayle Ross and Joseph Bruchac’s The Story of the Milky Way: A Cherokee Tale (Dial 1995), illustrated by Virginia A. Stroud.

Brad Wagnon  is a Cherokee storyteller and works as a technical assistance specialist for the Cherokee Nation Community and Cultural Outreach in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

He is devoted to promoting Cherokee culture and history by sharing Cherokee stories with future generations. His first picture book, How the World Was Made, shared a traditional Cherokee story of the earth’s origin.

He lives with his family in Gideon, Oklahoma on the land where he grew up.


Alex Stephenson is a licensed professional counselor, husband, and step father to two amazing kids.

He works for the Cherokee Nation at W.W. Hastings Hospital in Tahlequah, helping patients who check into the hospital for multiple mental health related issues.

He loves drawing in his spare time. As a part of this, he enjoys making comics and children’s books based on experiences he has in his life - and topics he believes other adults may use to help the children close to them.

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 Sept. 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.