Monday, April 30, 2018

New Vision: Melanie Linden Chan on Finding Your Path & Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I love picture books, especially the ones like Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong's Work for Sustainable Farming (Tilbury House, 2018) that combine beautiful art and help me learn something new.

Debut illustrator and fellow Epic Eighteen member, Melanie Linden Chan creates a gorgeous visual scrapbook to convey the work of the late Chinese scientist Pu Zhelong, who helped villagers in China learn about pesticides and sustainable farming.

The story, written by Sigrid Schmalzer, professor of history, and her first book for children, is based on her academic book, Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Melanie, welcome to Cynsations. I can’t wait to hear more about your work.

Tell me what first inspired you to illustrate for young readers.

For as long as I can remember, I have always been an artist. I have lived and breathed the creative life. As a kid, I told everyone I knew that I was going to go to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and then become a Disney animator. I was an AP art student in high school.


I chickened out on going to the big art school in the “big” city (I was a shy girl from the suburbs), so I went to my local community and state colleges instead and got a fine art degree. But after graduation, it was like all my creativity had stopped.

I wasn’t making art like I wanted to, or selling my paintings like I had hoped I would. Somewhere along my journey, I got lost and found myself in the woods, so to speak.

Then I got this great idea for a YA fantasy novel. The story idea completely consumed me. I started reading more, and writing more, and researching my ideas. But my story wasn’t getting anywhere, and I sort of got stuck again. (Probably because my binder’s worth of notes was massive!)

One day, back in 2009, as I was reading one of the Percy Jackson books (by Rick Riordan, Hyperion), I realized how cool the cover art was. And I thought, hey, I could do that, right? I could paint cover art.

(This is how deep in the woods I was. I didn’t even see the big picture just yet.) So I looked up the artist, John Rocco, and saw that he had illustrated picture books as well.

(Still didn’t see the big picture.)

Then I saw that he had gone to RISD, my old dream school. I thought, hey, if I can write a book like I’ve always wanted to, I could go to the school I dreamed of! I looked up what sort of programs they offered for continuing education, and then I saw it (finally, the big picture!):

Children’s Book Illustration!

I’ll never forget that moment, staring at the computer screen, and realizing what was missing in my life.

All of my most beloved childhood memories flooded back to me: they were about books. Picture books! As a child, I had studied them, read and reread every one of the ones I owned (often in one day), and I even created my own little Post-It Note books and stories just for fun.

When playing “store” with my siblings I’d always be the book maker and seller and my favorite moments in grade school were when we were asked to make our own books, and edit them in turn as a class. I guess it never occurred to me that I could make a career out of this kind of art- my absolute favorite kind.

I immediately signed up for the Children’s Book Illustration Continuing Education program at RISD, and I have been pursuing a career in illustrating children’s books since then.

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time? 

I learned how to draw by mimicking Disney characters, Ed Emberely, and Hannah Barbera cartoons. I was also obsessed with comic strips.

I took AP art through high school and got a BFA in college. But by the time I had completed college, my style, although often on the fun (or funky) side, took a classical turn and I moved away from the cutesy cartoons I had loved, and instead focused more on painting florals and nature scenes in oils, as well as the occasional pet portrait.


After my Life epiphany of epic proportions, I started illustration courses at RISD and had to reaquaint myself with pen and ink, watercolor and designing characters of my own. I got ahold of every book on the topic of Children’s Book Illustration that I could find.

I fell in love with Trina Schart Hyman’s work, as well as Arthur Rackham, W.W. Denslow and some of the other oldies-but-goodies I had never known about before.

With every new assignment, I learned something new, whether it be about the craft, the materials, or about myself. I read more picture books and mimicked their different styles.

I learned that sometimes the things that I liked to look at were not the same things that I enjoyed creating. Eventually I discovered that I like to work in a few different styles, as each story has its own personality and I like to match that personality with the right look. I now have three different ways I like to illustrate- one is a flat, comic-like vectorized look; another style has ink line work and watercolor, and the last is a textured acrylic method.

During the creation of Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean, I continued to learn more about myself and my style. For this particular project, I used pen nibs and brushes for my various ink lines, and water color for my hues, and then I incorporated different textures through a digital collage method.

What about this manuscript called to you as an illustrator?

The Chinese culture, the setting, and the book’s theme.

My husband’s family is Chinese. They own a Chinese restaurant, and I have been working there with the family since I was 16.

Over the course of our relationship, I have learned so much about the culture, from food, to superstitions, to family life. During my college years, I often preferred to take Asian studies courses to those about other countries.

I have learned how to speak basic Cantonese without any formal training. But most of all, my biggest inspiration and influence came from our trip to China in 2005. We visited the village where my father-in-law law grew up.

Photo from Melanie's China Visit
So when I read the manuscript, I got really excited, because I had actual photographs I could use as reference material for the setting.

And on top of that, the environmental theme of the book really spoke to me. I had been working for a couple of years on a middle graphic novel/journal hybrid about the water cycle, and the importance of the balance of ecosystems. So this was right down my alley.

Fields in China
What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life? 

I was surprised at how many challenges I had to overcome during the production of this book. Just the act of going through all the proper motions and deadlines was a new challenge to me.

I hadn’t had a real deadline for anything in ages!

The next challenge I came across was all of the research.

The art had to be historically and scientifically accurate, as we were telling a story about a real scientist’s life and work. It was difficult because in 1950’s rural China, there wasn’t a lot of access to fancy things, such as cameras and film. So there were very limited visual references I could use to make sure I was drawing the clothing, village, and laboratory tools correctly.

One such challenge included this crazy saw that Professor Pu would have used to cut wood. Thankfully, my husband’s uncle was visiting us around the time I was drawing this saw, and he was able to help us find images of some antique saws from China.

The biggest challenge of all was my home life during the creation of this book. When I signed the contract, I was pregnant with my first baby and we had just moved into our brand new home.

So my entire home and studio were all boxed up, and my mind was all over the place. Trying to concentrate on art when one is in “nesting” mode is nearly impossible. I also didn’t know that pregnancy hormones can affect a mother’s eyesight, so that was a challenge.

One day I found myself drawing with my nose practically to the paper and I couldn’t understand what was suddenly wrong with me!

My son was due before my deadline, so thankfully my publisher, (God bless that man, Jonathan) extended my deadline.

So the last few months finishing the book included moments of awkward painting during pumping sessions, constant interruptions by a fussy baby, and some calmer days of working while baby wearing.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey? 

By far the worst moments are the rejections.

They say that one should celebrate each rejection because it means you’re putting yourself out there. But it hurts! It really does!

As an artist, generally I like to make the art because it makes me happy. And often, if you’re lucky, it makes others happy, too. But when you send your picture book manuscript and art samples to art directors and agents, and they say no to your hard work, well. That hits you hard in the self-esteem.

Self-doubt is an awful critter, and it can really get in the way of one’s creative mojo. It even visited me multiple times during the creation of Moth and Wasp, and if it weren’t for my amazing critique group members, I probably wouldn’t have made it through unscathed. (Jeanette, Jennie, and Anne, you saved me!)

The best moments? Getting that phone call to say that my art was wanted. Me! My art. It’s crazy. Other awesome moments were sharing the news with family and friends, and customers at our family restaurant, and that I was going to be a published illustrator.

The best feeling of all wasn’t when the book came in the mail. The best feeling came before that. When I realized I had accomplished so much over the course of the past year- bringing a life into the world, and bringing a world to life.

With all the challenges I had faced, I somehow did it all. I haven’t been more proud of myself.

Cynsational Notes


Melanie Linden Chan has a Bachelor in Fine Arts from the University of Rhode Island, participated in RISD's Children's Book Illustration Certificate Program and is a member of SCBWI.

She works in a variety of media including watercolor, acrylic, and pen and ink to create books for children that open their minds to other cultures and ways of life.

Her goal is to make the world a better place, one book at a time!

She lives in Rhode Island with her family.

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.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

LoonSong: A Writers Retreat & LoonSong: Turtle Island

LoonSong: A Writer's Retreat is scheduled for Sept. 6 to Sept. 10 at Elbow Lake Lodge in Cook, Minnesota.

Faculty include children's-YA authors Nikki Grimes, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Bruce Coville, Marion Dane Bauer, Jane Buchanan, Sarah Aronson, and Debby Dahl Edwardson as well as agent Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary and editorial director and publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. Note: author Susan Cooper, who was previously listed on the site, will not be able to make the event.

See more on the faculty. Peek:
"We offer a smorgasbord of activities for writers to pick from: stimulating lectures and panel discussions, writing prompts and workshops, readings and one-on-one marketing, agent, and editorial consultations. 
"There will also be lots of 'fresh air'—space to simply write and retreat, kayak, canoe and connect, informally, over a campfire or on a pontoon cruise, with other writers. Participants will be invited to read their own work. 
"An agent and editor will be present at all readings. Our presenters include seasoned writers, an agent, and an editor who will help you grow your career, develop new approaches to craft, and think deeply about the writing life."

LoonSong Turtle Island is scheduled from Sept. 11 to Sept. 14 at the same location. Faculty include authors Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee (Creek)), Tim Tingle (Choctaw) and Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe), author-editor-publisher Arthur A. Levine of Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic and editorial director and associate publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. See more on the faculty. Peek:
"...a writing retreat for Native American writers only, a place where writers can come together with a talented faculty of published Native writers and industry professionals to share their writing, spark their imaginations, and make the kinds of connections that help set a career on course."
Please note that a few publisher-sponsored scholarships are available. Thank you, Candlewick and Charlesbridge!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

In Memory: Anne Rockwell

By Gayleen Rabukukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Author and illustrator Anne Rockwell died on April 10 in Stamford, Connecticut. She was 85.

Obituary: Anne Rockwell by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek:
"Christy Ottaviano... worked with Rockwell on four books....describing her as '...a visionary in her ability to reach young children through her thoughtful, clever, and wide-reaching books. She had such a keen understanding of the picture book form and how it could open up a child’s world.'"
On her author page, Rockwell described buying picture books when her first daughter was born in 1958.
"Sharing the joy of reading with her was one of the greatest pleasures I’ve ever had. I was sure that creating books for children was what I was meant to do. By some strange miracle, the first publisher who saw it published my first effort..."
That effort became Paul and Arthur Search for the Egg (Doubleday 1964), the first of nearly 200 books for children. During the 1970s and '80s, she collaborated with her husband, Harlow Rockwell, on several books.

Then Rockwell began collaborating with another family member:
"After he died in 1988, our daughter Lizzy (Rockwell) illustrated a picture book I’d written for him, Apples and Pumpkins (Simon & Schuster, 1989). This book has become a classic, enjoyed in homes, schoolrooms and library story hours as soon as there’s a nip of fall in the air."

Anne and Lizzy created many more books together, including their most recent release Zoo Day (Aladdin, 2017).

On her website, Lizzy writes about growing up in a children's literature family:
"...our parents were always talking about current and future books, and often our vacations took us to wonderful places like Block Island and Europe for their inspiration or research. Our home was filled with my parents' fine art. Mom created oil paintings, bronze sculptures, etchings and needlepoint tapestries."


The Rockwells were profiled by Leonard S. Marcus in Pass It Down: Five Picture Book Families Make Their Mark (Walker, 2006).

Friday, April 27, 2018

Cynsational News

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

Author/Illustrator Insights

Mama’s Belly by Kate Hosford by Adi Rule from The Launch Pad. Peek:
“In the winter of 2009, I did an amazing picture book semester with Uma Krishnaswami...The gestation period for this book was very long—nine years, from first draft to publication—but finding the right publisher, editor and illustrator was worth the wait.”
Tracy K. Smith and Jacqueline Woodson Talk Reading, Race and Spreading the Gospel of Literature by Maria Russo from The New York Times. Peek:
“I think the way poems are taught to high school students is completely counterintuitive; it sets up this sense of being the poem’s adversary. The poem is sort of sneakily trying to outsmart you. Whereas children live in this sense of perpetual metaphor."
Lee Bennett Hopkins Celebrates Eight Decades and Two New Anthologies by Sally Lodge from Publishers Weekly. Peek:
“When it comes to creating his own poetry, Hopkins unequivocally stated, ‘It’s struggle time. A struggle with each syllable, word, line. Draft after draft after draft, and I’m ready to go shopping! Is a poem ever finished? Ah, eventually it tells you it is."
Josh Funk's Guide to Writing Picture Books from Josh Funk. Peek:
 “I've compiled a handful of lessons along with links to other resources covering some of the most important things I've learned.”
Five Questions for Tomi Adeyemi by Elissa Gershowitz from The Horn Book. Peek:
 “I am an extremely visual writer. I have a CBB Pinterest board of over nine hundred pictures, and I like to pull images from everywhere when I’m writing. I use real settings and real places as my foundation, and then I 'paint' over them with my imagination to create the world.”
Four Questions with Martha Brockenbrough by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek:
“Exploring President Donald Trump’s life story felt like a logical next step for Brockenbrough following her biography of Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary (Feiwel and Friends, 2017))... ‘I could never get away with these plot twists in fiction. My editor would say, ‘You know, that’s just really too much.’”
Diversity

Lee & Low Writing Contests. Peek:
“...two annual writing contests that encourage writers of color and Native/Indigenous writers to submit their manuscripts to a publisher that takes pride in nurturing new talent. Winners of each contest receive a cash prize of $2,000 and a standard publishing contract with Lee & Low Books.”
Also Apply to Lee & Low’s Summer Internship.

Native Interpretations: Symposium Speaker Says Popular Culture Keeps Radical Stereotypes Alive by Grant D. Crawford from Tahelquah Daily Press. Peek:
“The noble savage and ideal Pocahontas depictions have since transformed into different, but similar misrepresentations, as westward expansion continued. However, Francis and Native Realities are creating their own narrative, as the company is a Native American and Indigenous pop culture company that produces comic books, graphic novels, games, toys and collectibles.”
Kweli, The 3rd Annual Color of Children’s Literature Conference by Andrea L. Rogers from Man Made Monsters. Peek:
KWELI is the creation of Laura Pegram. Laura has suffered as an artist in isolation. This experience led her to create KWELI-an online community for those writers of color working alone...Laura has also made it part of her work to create an online community for Indigenous writers.”
Interview: David Bowles + Guadalupe García McCall on Translating a Novel into Spanish from Lee & Low. Peek:
“The trick was to capture the rhythms and nuances of Border Spanish (as spoken in Eagle Pass/ Piedras Negras) while also retaining the literary flair of the English original.” 
Writing Craft

The Importance of a Private Writing Habit by Barbara O’Neal from Writer Unboxed. Peek:
“The problem is that offering every thought up for public consumption often drains them all of depth. Another problem is that those polished jewels you’ve tossed out to Twitter/etc have used up a bunch of creative energy you might have spent on your actual writing.”
Nothing to Say, No Skill in Saying It by Brian Yansky from Diary of a Writer. Peek:
“You have to have faith that you will find the right words and the lightning to guide you. It will likely take many drafts. Push On. Push On.
11 Ways Revising a Novel is Like Remodeling a House by Janice Hardy from Fiction University. Peek:
“Over the last twelve weeks I’ve been revising a novel while remodeling my house, and I’ve noticed a surprising number of similarities.”
Theft by Finding by Catherine McKenzie from Writer Unboxed. Peek:
“You take something from life—maybe yours, maybe someone else’s—and you make it into art.”
VCFA Auction 2018: Bid on 70 different items including manuscript critiques, writing retreats and handmade crafts. Peek:
“This year 100% of the auction proceeds will fund scholarships for students in both programs, with the Glover Fund for Writers, Authors, & Publishers, VCFA’s invested scholarship fund which will grant writing students’ scholarships for years to come.
Publishing

Interview with Agent Natascha Morris from Johnell Dewitt. Peek:
“Natascha is a new agent at Bookends Literary and a former editorial assistant for Simon & Schuster. She is open to submissions for picture books, middle grade, and young adult across multiple genres: contemporary, mysteries, thrillers, fantasy, historical fiction, and narrative nonfiction.”
Meeting the Authors in Our Neighborhood by Meghan Dietsche Goel from Publishers Weekly. Peek:
“As a community bookstore, I firmly believe that including the voices that make our city unique and vibrant makes our store better.”
A Personal Tale of #MeTo in Kid Lit by Bethany Hagen from Publishers Weekly. Peek:
“The truth is that one anonymous comment is not what led agents and publishers to cut ties with some of the abusers named. Those abusers had records of harmful patterns stretching back years, and the climate has forced industry professionals to stop making excuses for these patterns…"
The Underneath Tenth Anniversary Giveaway. Peek:
“Fifteen lucky winners will receive an autographed paperback copy of The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008)....one Grand Prize winner will win a classroom set of 20 copies of the book plus a 30-40 minute Skype visit for her/his school, classroom, or library with award-winning author Kathi Appelt.”
It’s Not Complicated by Donalyn Miller from Nerdy Book Club. Peek:
“Ensuring that all of our children have access to books 365 days a year may not get you in the local paper or earn you superintendent of the year, but it is one act that communicates you care about what kids really need to succeed personally and academically.”
Find Your Perfect Agent Match by Jamie Krakover from Middle Grade Minded. Peek:
“...start assembling a list of questions to ask. I had been compiling questions I saw on Twitter and blog posts for literally years.”
Awards


Congratulations to Jason Reynolds for winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature for Long Way Down (Atheneum, 2017)!


This Week at Cynsations


Cynsational Giveaways

Are you on Twitter? Are you reading this before noon on April 27? Are you based in the United States?

Children's-teen author Debbi Michiko Florence is giving away an advanced reader copy of Cynthia's upcoming novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 9, 2018).

If you RT this tweet and follow @CynLeitichSmith by noon PST April 27, she will enter you for a giveaway of the book. Eligibility: U.S. only.

Note: Hearts Unbroken is now available for pre-order. See purchase links at Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or another bookseller, such as your local independent bookstore's website like BookPeople in Austin.

Congratulations to Denise Morse, winner of our previous Cynsational Giveaway, Rabbit & Possum (Greenwillow, 2018) by Dana Wulfekotte! Don't miss Traci Sorell's interview with Dana about the importance of developing your own artistic voice.

More Personally - Cynthia

On the mend from oral surgery, I'm first-drafting of a new middle grade novel. I'm often asked by non-writers about how I handle editorial feedback. Truth is, I'm incredibly grateful for feedback. I love to revise whole drafts. Especially because that means I actually have a whole draft to work with.

What is toughest for me is the first draft.

Early iterations of scenes suffer by comparison to whatever previously finished piece is in production at the publisher.

I've been through this before with 14 books and 13 shorter manuscripts. I have faith that once anything is on the page, I can make it better--if only by cutting it! But for now, the key is to just keep typing.

Thank you, Donna Janell Bowman, for these lovely flowers.
What else? I look forward to the Austin SCBWI Regional Conference this weekend.

With the caveat that it's the substance of one's social media content and interactions that matters, I did notice that as of this week that more than 20,000 folks are now following me @CynLeitichSmith on Twitter and more than 1,000 at cynthialeitichsmith on Instagram (my newest network; I'm not an early adapter).

Thanks to all who've joined in the conversation!

Please consider following on either platform, if you haven't already, and/or check out my lively official author page on facebook, which also passed the 6,500 "like" mark this week.

Celebrate Children's Day, Book Day (Día)

"Children’s Day, Book Day, in Spanish, El día de los niños, el día de los libros (Día), is a year-long commitment to celebrating all our children and to motivating them and their families to be readers, essential in our democracy. Culminating April celebrations are held in libraries, schools, homes, parks, etc., often on or near April 30."



Link of the Week What #MeToo Means to Teenagers by Wendy Lu from The New York Times. Peek:
“Research shows that 43 percent of middle school students experience sexual harassment from their peers. And a third of teenagers report experiencing relationship abuse. Rates may be even higher in kids with disabilities and those who identify as L.G.B.T.Q.” 
More Personally - Gayleen

I'm having a blast as the teaching assistant for the Writing Barn's Out of the Box Picture Books class with Adam Lehrhaupt!

It's great to step out of my usual genre (middle grade) to learn something new and different. An added bonus is that most meta fiction is super funny, so the homework always makes me laugh.

Through the wonders of technology our class includes writers from literally across the country (Florida to California) studying picture books together in real time and the creative boost it has given me is fantastic. I love my writer life!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

New Voice: Kim Ventrella on Improving Your Writing Skills & Skeleton Tree

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Kim Ventrella is the debut author of Skeleton Tree (Scholastic, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Stanly knows the bone growing in his yard is a little weird, but that's okay, because now he'll have the perfect photo to submit to the Young Discoverer's Competition. 

With such a unique find, he's sure to win the grand prize. But, oddly, the bone doesn't appear in any photos. Even stranger, it seems to be growing into a full skeleton . . . one that only children can see. 

There's just one person who doesn't find any of this weird — Stanly's little sister. Mischievous Miren, adopts the skeleton as a friend, and soon, the two become inseparable playmates. 

When Miren starts to grow sick, Stanly suspects that the skeleton is responsible and does everything in his power to drive the creature away. 

However, Miren is desperate not to lose her friend, forcing Stanly to question everything he's ever believed about life, love, and the mysterious forces that connect us.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

I wrote a lot of manuscripts, and I kept writing. This one summer in particularI had reluctantly returned to my hometown because of moneyI was in a job I didn’t love and I was desperate to do something more meaningful with my life. 

I wrote four novels in a row that summer and fall. They were all completed manuscripts, but nothing that I could honestly say constituted a good story. 

Then, early the following year, I wrote this weird, creepy middle grade manuscript called "Quimby," and that was the first time I’d ever written something that felt to me like a ‘good’ book. I submitted it to agents, but I didn’t stop writing. 

I ended up getting a request to revise and resubmit "Quimby" from one of my top agents, and she also said she’d be happy to read anything else I’d written. I sent her Skeleton Tree, which I’d started writing as soon as I’d finished "Quimby," and she signed me on that story.

Halloween in Naryn City, Kyrgyzstan, hometown of Kim's favorite character in Skeleton Tree, Ms. Francine.
Kim served in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan from 2010 to 2012. (She's the one holding a cleaver.)
What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

I planned a launch party for Skeleton Tree at a local bookstore, but when I arrived nothing was set up like it was supposed to be. 

The staff members were rushing around to help me get everything ready on time, and they broke this huge wooden table. And that wasn’t even the funniest part. The table was covered in those hardcover special editions of classic books, the really heavy ones.

It was basically a book avalanche, but thankfully my friends and family pitched in and we got everything set up on time, though just barely.

Kim with her critique group: Gwendolyn Hooks, Pati Hailey, Todd Hardin and Regina Garvie
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
  • Understand and embrace the failure-success cycle. 
In order to master a skill, you have to try, fail, learn from your failure and repeat. If you’re not failing sometimes, then you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to improve.
  • Make sure that you’re continuously learning and evolving as a writer. 
Learning expert Eduardo Briceño has this awesome TED Talk where he says that the way to get better at the things you love is to spend time in the learning zone in addition to the performance zone.


The performance zone is where writers live when we’re actively crafting stories in order to meet deadlines. There’s high pressure, high stakes and a looming deadline. 

It’s important to operate well in this zone for sure, but that’s not how we grow as writers.

We also need to make time for the learning zone, where we break writing down into its component parts and work on improving our ability in each of these areas. That might involve analyzing the work of other authors, doing focused writing exercises, reading for enjoyment, practicing our observational skills, etc.
  • Emphasize the process rather than the outcome. 
Kim's dog and co-writer, Hera
You write because you love it (maybe even more than you love yourself), and chances are that the part you love most is creating something new and magical that has never existed in the world before. 

Focus on those exhilarating moments of creation when it feels like the Muse has slipped into your body and taken control of your fingers.

That’s the joy of writing and the part that you can control. The outcome (whether it sells, fails or totally tanks) is completely out of your hands, and it won’t make you happy anyway. 

Author Elizabeth Gilbert's amazing TED Talk, Success, Failure and the Drive to Keep Creating, elaborates on this very topic.

Basically, write because you love it, and if you do that, then you’ll never be shut down by outside forces.

Cynsational Notes

See the discussion guide for Skeleton Tree.

Kirkus Reviews wrote, "(An) emotional roller coaster tempered by a touch of magic and a resilient, likable protagonist."

Kim Ventrella is the author of the middle grade novels Skeleton Tree (Fall 2017) and Bone Hollow (Spring 2019), both with Scholastic.

She loves sharing weird, whimsical stories with readers of all ages.

Find her on Twitter @KimVentrella.

See the book trailer for Skeleton Tree, created by SCBWI Oklahoma Illustrator Coordinator Jerry Bennett and Zac Davis.



Wednesday, April 25, 2018

New Voice: Brenda Maier on Making Picture Books Do Double Duty & The Little Red Fort

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I’m overjoyed to feature The Little Red Fort by author Brenda Maier and illustrator Sonia Sánchez (Scholastic, 2018) here on Cynsations.

This new picture book is a contemporary retelling of The Little Red Hen, featuring spunky Ruby and her three brothers who are not interested in helping her build a fort.

I love how Ruby takes matters into her own hands and figures out what needs to be done with a little help from her mother and grandmother.

School Library Journal selected the book for its February 2018 Popular Picks. Scholastic distributed it through its Book Fairs prior to the official March 27 publication date.

I agree with reviewers that it is a great read aloud and the contemporary and lively mixed media illustrations pulled me right into the action. The examples of forts kids can build in the back matter transported me right back to my own childhood.

Let’s hear from Brenda now!

What sparked the idea to write this book?

I have five children (now ages 10-18), and the inspiration for The Little Red Fort came from them. My youngest child was in a Little Red Hen phase, so every day we read that classic folktale before his nap. The Little Red Hen was just lingering in my brain.

One day during this period, I tucked him in and went to check on the other kids in the back yard. They had requisitioned some boards and lattice and worked together to construct a structure they called their ‘fort.’

Those two ideas—the classic tale and my kids’ fort endeavor—converged to become an idea: What if the hen was a girl who wanted to build a fort? The story started there.

Brenda and Traci at 2017 SCBWI L.A. Summer Conference
As an author-teacher/librarian/agent/publicist/editor, how do your various roles inform one another? 

I’m a debut author, but I’m also a teacher and a mother of five. Not surprisingly, both parenting and teaching are essential to my writing. Specifically, I hear and see things that could trigger a story idea.

As a parent, I have always looked for books that have the ability to reinforce the things I value as a parent. Would this one be good for a snuggly bedtime story? Would this one help reinforce the idea that we should be kind and generous? Does this book show that all people are important?

Some of these parent must-haves overlap with my day job, but there are differences.

Tracy Mack from Scholastic summarizes The Little Red Fort

Teachers have to be very efficient with their time, so if I can hit upon something they need to teach or address anyway, that’s a huge bonus.

What connections does this story have to the curriculum? Can I use it to kill two birds with one stone? The Little Red Fort is perfect for comparing and contrasting to the classic folktale, The Little Red Hen.

As a teacher, I know this can be done with a Venn Diagram, a paragraph, or even an essay. There is also a literacy link to multiple STEM options, including inviting the kids to collaborate, design, and build their own scale model forts.

This means this story has value for me as a teacher, because I can use it to launch a writing assignment or an interdisciplinary fort-building challenge. I try to ensure that all of my stories have something that will be important to the parent side of me and the teacher side of me.

Oklahoma SCBWI authors Kim Ventrella, Brenda Maier and Tammi Sauer
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers? 

The single best piece of advice I can give aspiring authors is to read.
  • Read widely in the genre you write. 
  • Join in the writing community. Write manuscripts and join critique groups with the goal of improving your manuscripts. 
  • Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and attend craft workshops and conferences. 
  • Always be on the lookout for story ideas, and write them down immediately. These efforts are not optional. 
  • Be not only willing, but eager to put in the work and time that will be required.
Brenda at Kansas-Missouri SCBWI Conference with Sue Gallion, Jess Townes and Tara Luebbe
What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

Children’s publishing is such an emotional roller coaster. There are plenty of ‘downs.’ For me, the worst moments are when a manuscript I see a real need for gets rejected.

It’s been good for me to learn how to focus that energy on the next project instead of dwelling too much on things I may not be able to control. With each new submission, the anticipation builds again, and I’m on another one of the ‘up’ moments.

The best moments have been whenever readers expresses how important this book is to them. That’s mind blowing. I have also noticed that as I’m in the maelstrom of interviews and book events with readers—things I’ve dreamt of doing—it can be very easy to forget to stop and savor the moment.

I saw a posted photo of a firefighter in Connecticut reading The Little Red Fort aloud to a group of kids and I thought, “Wow. Somewhere far away there is a real life hero talking about how much the kids liked a book that I wrote.”

The ability to make a connection with people you’ve never met is definitely an ‘up’ moment.

Cynsational Notes


Publishers Weekly said, "Maier keeps her prose spare and preserves the rhythms and taglines of the original.... Ruby’s satisfaction is palpable, and readers won’t fail to grasp the message of self-sufficiency."

As a young child, Brenda Maier had a grand total of six books; consequently, she spent her summers walking to the local library to get more.

Now she spends her summers driving her own children to the local library, where you may find her in a corner with a stack of picture books. If she's not there, she's probably at a bookstore, adding to her much-larger-than-six-books collection.

Brenda lives in Oklahoma with her husband and their five children, who provide endless inspiration for more stories.

She also works with gifted children at a large, local school district.

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.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

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

Learn more about Louise Hawes.
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?

I’d say the first and most severe “bump” in my writing life was…success!

Because I met with one version of “fame and fortune” early in my career, I nearly lost sight of my own convictions about what it means to be a truly successful writer.

When I joined the stable (yes, we were legion!) of authors creating the bestselling Sweet Valley Twins books (Batam/Random House) under the pen name, Jamie Suzanne, I had published only two novels for middle graders—humorous, literary books whose sales figures hardly made a dent in my single-mom budget.

But the Sweet Valley books? Their royalties were staggering; enough, at only a few percent, to put my son and daughter through college! And as to fame?

If I happened to let slip—at a conference, in a cab, during casual conversation—that I was partly responsible for the adventures of identical twins, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, I achieved instant rock-star status, complete with worshipful jaw-dropping, pledges of undying love for the books that had been passed from bunk to bunk at summer camp, and requests for autographs.

What was wrong with this picture?

Unfortunately, I didn’t stop to ask myself that question until I’d begun to lose what little artistic freedom and integrity I’d acquired via the normal route—submitting, being rejected, persisting.

Instead, I fell into the insidious habit of writing formula fluff (sorry, beloved fans of Jessica and Elizabeth, but if the shoe fits, I can’t call it by another name); of consulting a “cast bible” to find out how characters would react in any given situation; of perpetuating a white-bread world where pimples on prom day were as bad as it gets; and yes, of letting the checks roll in.

But no, I haven’t enjoyed “continued success,” at least not the kind that’s measured via sales figures or income. And it’s my students who taught me the way out of Sweet Valley.

You see, once I started working with new writers, beginners who modeled courage and risk-taking, I couldn’t very well stay stuck in that fictional California town, where it never rains and happiness is a new sundress with spaghetti straps.

I’ve heard folks in academia complain that reading student work drains their creative spirit. All I can say is that, so far as the students I’ve been privileged to work with at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, it’s been life-giving. And story-saving.

Because now what motivates my writing is what sparked it in the first place—the need to fuel fiction with my own pain and joy, to transmute them into something larger and more redemptive through the alchemy that is art.

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

When we look back over the years, most of us can usually see the way our mistakes, like black stars, have lit the way to who we are.

So while I’m not sure I’d untie any of those tangles, I wish I’d valued myself and my writing a lot more. I wish I’d been strong enough to realize that almost no advance is worth signing away your own voice.

That would have saved me seven years of struggling to reclaim it.

(Once you settle repeatedly for clichés and stereotypes, it gets harder and harder to remember the sound of your unique truth.)

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

Margaret K. McElderry, 2017
In a career that’s spanned twenty years, I’ve seen a lot of changes, but two stand out. One is, perhaps, inevitable: it’s gotten rough out there!

In terms of the sheer volume of submissions to publishers, a new writer today is facing much more difficult odds than I did when I began. Which makes it much less likely that new work will find a publishing home without an agent.

(I worked for decades without agency representation, using a literary attorney to vet contracts, but relying on connections, dumb luck, and the work itself for all the rest. Today? I wouldn’t think of jumping into the fray without my agent’s contacts and publishing savvy behind me.)

The second change isn’t really new; it’s Sweet Valley redux.

“High concept” has become increasingly important to many publishers and agents, and with this emphasis, characterization sometimes takes a back seat to premise.

As publishers continue to buy each other out, the audience each serves grows exponentially, and the temptation to make one book fit all grows.

So while I see the increased competition and the rise of agents as an historical imperative, I sure hope publishing can make more room to accommodate “quiet” books and stories written without one eye on the market.

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

Above all? Take the time to actually enjoy this year.

Have you noticed the way debut authors are forming internet sites and going on tour together? Join with some writer friends, so you can share advice and appearances (and parties!) Your first galleys to proof, your first author’s copies, your first bookstore signing, your first school or conference gig—these won’t ever come again.

Vertigo, 2013
First reviews? If you’re strong of stomach and sure of who you are, you may be able to read them. If not, ask your agent or publisher to filter and summarize!

But above all....

Slow down.

Savor.

Have fun.

Oh, and give thanks.

You’ve achieved what thousands of writers are still wishing, hoping, and sweating bullets for!

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

I wish children’s writers increasing respect for one of the most important jobs in the world. YA has gained a kind of grudging acknowledgment from the rest of publishing, as its sales figures have risen.

My hope, though, is that the talent, imagination, and courage of authors for children also get recognized; that their impact on young readers is accepted for what it is: life-changing and future-shaping.

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

As I've grown older, I’ve become more at home with saying, “I don’t know!” Coupled with, “but I’d like to find out,” this limitation has actually proved to be a freedom.

It’s opened doors to new ways of being a writer in the world.

Louise with fellow author David Almond.
Collaboration among arts and artists, for example, is something I find more and more exciting and invigorating.

Which may be why in the last few years, I’ve written my first graphic novel (a collaboration with four other authors for DC Comics); published a novel in prose, poetry, and play scripts; made electric blues an integral part of my most recent book launch; given a creativity workshop with my three sisters (a painter, a musician, and a film animator); and done my last poetry reading with backup singers.

What do I wish ahead?

More books, of course. And more juicy, cooperative mixed-media adventures!

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, April 23, 2018

Guest Post: N.H. Senzai on Writing About War for Middle Grade & Escape From Aleppo

By N.H. Senzai
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

The reason I love writing for the middle grade audience is because at this age kids can still suspend belief and journey with you through a story as long as you create believable plots, authentic characters and dialogue that rings true.

However, you need to hook them in quickly, so my first goal is to create a story that “reels them in.”

Once they’ve signed on to follow your protagonist, you can present heavy topics, such as war and conflict, as long as it's age appropriate and presented in a nuanced manner.

At its heart, my new novel, Escape From Aleppo (Paula Wiseman Books, 2018), is an adventure story about a girl, Nadia, who becomes separated from her family as they flee war in their home city.

Stranded alone, Nadia has to overcome her fears, make alliances with strangers and come up with creative solutions to solve the challenges she faces so that she can reach the Turkish border and find her family.

I chose to write about the Syrian war after much deliberation as it was a tremendous responsibility to accurately portray the horrors of war while also sharing the country’s rich culture and history.

But as a writer I feel that we have a moral obligation to tell our readers the truth, no matter how difficult.

With the advent of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, kids are exposed to current events and have probably heard about the Arab Spring and the conflict in the Middle East.

However, they probably don’t know much about its root causes, such as colonialism, religious sectarianism etc., that led to this terrible point in history.

But, if given the facts in the right context, they have the ability to weigh and analyze serious topics and can come up with their own conclusions.

Frankly, we shouldn’t be afraid of shocking them about how terrible humans can be to one another, whether around the globe, or in own back yards. Without sharing harsh realities, in a way digestible format for that age group, you cannot hope to dissuade a future generation from committing the same crimes over and over again.

Aleppo before and after the battle, from BBC News

When writing Nadia’s story, I didn’t want my reader’s only frame of reference of Syria to be of war and of refugees fleeing death and destruction.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, predating the Pharaohs, occupied by Alexander the Great, the Romans, Ottomans and the French. It’s a truly unique city whose destruction over the course of the war has been heartbreaking.

Through flashbacks and Nadia’s reflections as she makes her way through city, I wanted to showcase Aleppo’s beauty, architecture, culture, history and food through her eyes.

I also wanted to show how normal Nadia’s life was before the war and how she was like any other teen around the world; she had a loving family, friends, supportive teachers, a cat named Mishmish (which means apricot in Arabic) a sweet tooth, a passion for Arab Idol and a dislike of Algebra.

Carmen, Nadia's favorite Arab Idol Contestant

In showing the two sides of the coin, life during peace and conflict, I wanted to illustrate how anyone’s normal, everyday life can be turn upside down in a matter of moments.

As Americans, whether we consciously realize it or not, we have a particular connection with refugees; at one point of time, most of our families sought refuge in this country. They arrived from all around the world, fleeing war, persecution, famine or just hoping to find a better life for themselves and their children.

If we pause to reflect on that connection I hope that we can share in a common humanity. So, even though Nadia is from a “faraway place,” my hope is that no matter how different the characters in Escape From Aleppo may appear, readers can walk in their shoes and realize that people, no matter where the live, are intrinsically the same. They have similar hopes, dreams and desire to live a peaceful, meaningful life.

Nadia is more like us than we think – at the end of the day my greatest wish is that my readers build bridges of understanding with others, rather than walls.

Cynsational Notes

See the reading group guide for Escape from Aleppo from the publisher.

Booklist gave Escape From Aleppo a starred review. Peek: "Filled with kindness and hope, but also with the harsh realities of the horrors of war, this heartbreaking book is a necessary reminder of what many people live through every day."

N.H. Senzai's previous books include the award-winning Shooting Kabul (Paula Wiseman Books, 2011), Saving Kabul Corner (Paula Wiseman Books, 2015) and Ticket to India (Paula Wiseman Books, 2016).

She grew up in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and attended boarding school in London, England, where she was voted “most likely to lead a literary revolution” due to her ability to get away with reading comic books in class.

She has hiked across the Alps, road-tripped through Mexico, swum with barracudas in the Red Sea, taken a train across the Soviet Union, floated down the Nile, eaten gumbo in New Orleans and sat in contemplation at the Taj Mahal.

She also attended U.C. Berkeley and Columbia University, while pursuing her passion for writing. She once again lives in San Francisco with her husband, a professor of political science, her son, and a cat who owns them.

Gayleen says: Other titles focusing on Syria include:
  • Refugee by Alan Gratz (Scholastic, 2017) The story of three refugees: a Jewish boy in 1930s Germany, a Cuban girl on a raft bound for America in the 1990s and a Syrian boy journeying to Europe in 2015 (middle grade).
For more titles related to war and peace in children's and young adult books, check the resources on Cynthia's author site.