Thursday, March 26, 2015

Guest Post & Giveaway: Ann Angel on The Power of Secrets in Things I’ll Never Say

Ann Angel
By Ann Angel
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Right about the time I pitched my first anthology, a writer friend said she’d hate that sort of work.

“It would be so time-consuming to read all those stories,” she said. “I can’t imagine having to edit all that content and you’ll have to write all that front and back matter and it will take away from your own writing.”

Even though everything she said is true, I love editing anthologies. The reading can sometimes feel overwhelming and selecting stories is time consuming; editing requires right-brained analytic work and lots and lots of analyzing and thinking and rethinking.

While editing anthologies takes huge chunks of time away from personal writing time, there are so many good reasons to take them on.

Anthologies provide diverse viewpoints on a single topic, and they provide broad and unexpected stories in a single volume.

The best reason I choose to edit an anthology is that I get to take a topic that has far reaching consequences and bring varied perspectives into the world of young adults. This varied perspective provides young adults the benefit of observing a variety of responses to a single concept while also helping them figure out how they might think about and respond to the concept themselves.

That wider view is what motivated me to take on media’s perspective of beauty with my first anthology, Such a Pretty Face, Short Stories About Beauty (Abrams, 2007).

More recently, after volunteering at a writing workshop for survivors of domestic violence and trafficking, I was motivated to take on the idea that secrets shape who we are and who we will become in the anthology Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves (Candlewick, 2015).

The best part of reading stories for this project was to realize the many layers of secrets. It appears some secrets can be innocent while others hold us hostage to the person whose secret we share. Secrets can be playful and funny or dark and dangerous.

I had expected some of the stories of secrets to show that keeping secrets can shame us into permanent silence.

But I was delighted to receive funny and sweet stories. Cynthia Leitich Smith wrote about an angel falling in love with her tale of Josh in “Cupid’s Beaux.” Although the humor was a bit darker, Ron Koertge’s “Call Me” developed the California voice of a wild teen girl who hides a slew of secret boyfriends from one another.

In contrast, I was heartbroken by the story of a girl who hides her mother’s hording in “The We-Are-Like-Everybody-Else Game” by Ellen Wittlinger. Other heartbreaks portraying the power of our secrets can be found in Louise Hawes’ “When We Were Wild” and Kerry Cohen’s “Partial Reinforcement.”

I learned the power of reporting a secret to protect a friend in “A Thousand Words,” from Varian Johnson. Chris Lynch’s “Lucky Buoy” showed that the darkest secret’s power is diminished if you reveal it to just one person who cares, while Mary Ann Rodman’s “Easter” was a sensitive portrayal of a teen choosing to keep the secret of adoption for his baby boy.

Ann with fellow author P.J. Hoover at Texas Book Festival
Another reason I like editing anthologies is that each call for stories allows me to glimpse inside each writer’s diverse creative process around a singular topic or similar concept.

While writers might all begin heading toward a similar plot problem, I’ve observed that the most cliché idea takes on a new un-clichéd life through distinct characters or in the way the story is set and carried out.

For instance, two writers might take on a secret surrounding sexuality, but the story takes on new life if it’s set in a fantastical world which occurs in Katie Moran’s “Little Wolf and the Iron Pin” as well as in Zoe Marriott’s “Storm Clouds Fleeing from the Wind.”

Other times writers push the envelope on a story so that readers get a glimpse inside the most dysfunctional—and well hidden--moments in a family which is what E.M. Kokie did with her story “Quick Change,” Kekla Magoon accomplished in “For a Moment Underground,” and J.L. Powers did in “A Crossroads.”

In observing how different writers’ work their minds around a problem, and in closely observing how they craft action and scene around the concept, it shouldn’t be a surprise that each writer brings his or her own sensibility to a story, almost always turning it into an intensely personal experience that resonates with readers.

With fellow alumnae Sarah Aronson at VCFA
One of the most pleasant surprised about this anthology was seeing the cover for the first time. Created by collage artist Wayne Brezinka, this cover made me tear up over the rich and layered depiction of our secret stories.

This anthology also demonstrated the power of sharing our gifts and secrets. The teaching authors included were asked to invite one past student to submit a story for possible selection.

In the end, the selected story is the heartbreaking tale of a girl who parents her own mother and protects her little sister from a family secret. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to erase the image of a teenager dancing a slow waltz to Meatloaf songs with her drunken mother. While erica l. kaufman’s “Three-Four Time” may be one of her first publications, watch for this talented writer’s future work, as it won’t be her last.

Finally, I wrote a story based upon an idea that came out of the workshop that spawned this anthology. “We Were Together” looks at what happens when a boy loves girls too much. I have to admit I was seriously pleased when one of Candlewick’s editors responded that it’s refreshing to read something from the jerk’s perspective.

I hope you find each story refreshing, emotionally resonant and a great joy to read.

Cynsational Notes

Ann Angel loves the world of young adults and writes both fiction and nonfiction for this group. She is the author of the 2011 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award winner Janis Joplin, Rise Up Singing (Abrams, 2010) among many other biographies.

Her most recent biography, for younger audiences, is Adopted Like Me, My Book of Adopted Heroes (Kingsley, 2013). Previously, she served as contributing editor for the anthology Such a Pretty Face, Short Stories About Beauty (Abrams, 2007).

A graduate of Vermont College’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Ann directs the English Graduate Program and teaches writing at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee where she lives with her family. She was drawn to this idea of Things I’ll Never Say because she believes that the secret self is often the true self.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of  Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves by Ann Angel (Candlewick, 2015). Publisher sponsored. U.S. only. From the promotional copy:

Fifteen top young-adult authors let us in on provocative secrets in a fascinating collection that will have readers talking.

A baby no one knows about. A dangerous hidden identity. Off-limits hookups. A parent whose problems your friends won’t understand. 

Everyone keeps secrets—from themselves, from their families, from their friends—and secrets have a habit of shaping the lives around them. 

Acclaimed author Ann Angel brings together some of today’s most gifted YA authors to explore, in a variety of genres, the nature of secrets: Do they make you stronger or weaker? Do they alter your world when revealed? Do they divide your life into what you’ll tell and what you won’t? 

The one thing these diverse stories share is a glimpse into the secret self we all keep hidden.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

New Voice: Paul Greci on Surving Bear Island

Paul Greci
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Paul Greci is the first-time author of Surviving Bear Island (Move, 2015)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

How did you approach the research process for your story? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

The research for Surviving Bear Island was very hands on and spans twenty-five years. Since my teenage years, I have always been drawn to remote places. I have worked in roadless areas on the North and West Coasts of Alaska doing field biology. I have witnessed 12,000 walrus hauled out on a beach, 120,000 caribou crossing the tundra, and Killer Whales hunting and eating a porpoise.

Even though none of the above experiences are directly in this book, my long history of extended wilderness travel permeates the story on many levels.

sea lions

In 1991, I went on my first sea kayaking trip, which was a nine-week, 500-mile journey in Prince William Sound on the South Central Alaska Coastline where Surviving Bear Island is set.

Since then I have returned almost every year to paddle part of the Sound, doing trips ranging from one week to one month both solo and with friends.

kayak

On my wilderness trips I have always kept journals. When I decided to try to write a story set in Prince William Sound, my journal entries became much more detailed regarding what I was experiencing at both the sensory and emotional levels.

On one trip my wife and I spent several days circumnavigating an island and that island became the template for the fictional Bear Island in my story. I took very detailed setting notes and was able to use them, sometimes word for word, in parts of the story.

Without creating spoilers for people who may read Surviving Bear Island, many of the experiences that the main character has are inspired by experiences that I have had. Basically, I used my experiences as springboards for some of the trials that Tom faces in the story.

"a terrific thrill on the page." -- Kirkus Reviews
As I started to add new incidents not inspired directly by my experiences, I tried to experience or replicate what I was writing. For example, Tom has an emergency blanket that in damaged in a fire. For research, I burned part of an emergency blanket to see how it would respond to fire and it turned out to be quite different than how I imagined it. Instead of bursting into flames, it melted and made crackling noises.

I have been fortunate to have witnessed bears fishing for salmon, to have paddled a kayak in large stormy seas without disaster, to have spent extended periods of time in remote places cut off from all other human contact so where you are becomes your whole world and you can experience a place deeply and without distractions.

The main roadblock I ran into when writing Surviving Bear Island was how to write a story with primarily one character and have it have authentic emotional depth and complexity. Early drafts of my story were very plot heavy and episodic.

As the years went by and I wrote other stories where characters were interacting with each other, I developed my skills for exploring emotional depth, and also for writing in first person. I think those other manuscripts I wrote gave me the tools I needed to transform a single-character third-person narrative into a single-character first-person narrative that was much more character-driven and emotionally authentic.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

My identity as a writer has informed my identity as a teacher in significant ways. I have spent most of my teaching career working with struggling and reluctant readers and writers. As a writer teaching writing, I brought to my teaching a passion and enthusiasm for something I love, coupled with experience. I tried to design writing activities that as a writer were meaningful.

Paul writing on his treadmill desk.
When I was teaching fiction writing to my fifth graders, I did every pre-writing and writing activity that I required my students to do, with the end result being that each student would write, edit and revise a short story.

Each morning during writing time I would start by sharing how I had completed the assignment that I was about to give them. I would show them what I had done and answer questions and then they would apply whatever the lesson was to the story they were writing.

When I taught high school English in an alternative school for students who had exhausted all their other public school options, a job I held for fifteen years, I tried to honor student differences and strengths by using more of an open format for teaching writing.

As a writer, I wrote what moved me, and as a teacher I let my students write what moved them. Some wrote science fiction stories, some wrote essays about challenges in their lives, others wrote poetry. There were some writing assignments tied to the reading/literature part of the class, but for the straight writing I gave my students room to roam and tried to support their interests.

Many experiences of being a teacher have also informed the part of me that is a writer.

When I worked as a Naturalist for a few different outdoor education programs, I had my students build shelters for a survival activity weekly. Years later, when I was writing Surviving Bear Island I mined those memories and used them to inform my writing when Tom, the main character, needed to build shelters.

Prince William Sound

Teaching in an alternative high school setting for fifteen years helped me to stay in touch with the issues and challenges that young people face daily. I also got to witness how incredibly strong individuals can be even when they are facing circumstances that are overwhelming, like homelessness, changing foster homes on short notice, or dealing with an abusive family member. I developed a deep respect and compassion for students who were going through difficult times.

My students were my greatest teachers, and I hope the characters I create are as complex as the amazing people I’ve been fortunate to interact with as teacher over the years.

a rare warm day


Cynsational Notes

Surviving Bear Island is a Junior Library Guild selection.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Guest Post & Giveaway: Jean Reagan on Writing from the Hole in Your Heart

Jean's children, John and Jane
By Jean Reagan
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Many years ago in a writing class, Kathi Appelt said, “Write from the hole in your heart.”

At the time, I had just received sketches for my first picture book, Always My Brother, illustrated by Phyllis Pollema-Cahill (Tilbury House 2009).

This story about sibling loss is told from the perspective of the surviving sister, and it mirrors our own family tragedy.

Of course, I connected with Kathi’s wise words immediately. But she challenged us to tap this "hole in our heart" for all of our writing, not just for stories about devastating trauma.

Fast forward: Two hundred rejections later, my books, How to Babysit a Grandpa and How to Babysit a Grandma, both illustrated by Lee Wildish (Knopf, 2012, 2014 respectively), made the NYT bestseller list. And now, a third book in this How-To series, How to Surprise a Dad, is out.

Jean Reagan
A sibling pair advises, "Shhhhhh. If you want to surprise a dad, you have to be tricky."

Then after tips on How-to-Hide-this-Book, they share everyday surprises you can "make, do, or find."

Finally, they instruct the reader on how to pull off a big, special day surprise, including what to do if a dad gets suspicious.

I'm thrilled the publisher embraced my request for a racially-diverse family. (And, yes, once again, Lee Wildish's illustrations steal the show.)

Race or ethnicity is not pertinent to the story, but I wanted to question the "assumption of white."

So, how is Kathi's advice relevant to silly, funny books like these?

I've come to believe her challenge is even more compelling. Humor, without heart, is empty. Shallow humor is merely a one-line joke that doesn't beg repeating or re-reading. The characters don't resonate on first encounter, and you don't carry them with you after closing the book.

Jean with her sister, Katherine Paterson
The "hole in your heart" needn't be a fresh, gaping wound.

Rather, tap childhood worries, fears, and longings that still linger. Did you feel left out? Unnoticed?

As a shy child who struggled to learn to read, I have a lifetime of material. And I was (still am) an expert worrywart to boot.

No doubt you also have plenty to mine from your childhood as a powerless, tender soul.

What about the specific hole created by the death of my son, John?

Well, I make sure every book I write has glimpses of him. Including him is a gift to myself, my family, and hopefully to my readers as it helps to deepen the humor.

When John was five he asked if jails had carpeting because he didn't want "the bad guys to skin their knees if they fell down." This kind of tenderness I strive to portray in my books, especially in my silly ones.

There are three more books in production in my How-to series. Hopefully they will also convey humor with heart.

Thank you, Kathi, for your sound advice so many years ago.

Cynsational Notes

Jean Reagan was born in Alabama but spent most of her childhood in Japan. She now lives in Salt Lake City with her husband. In the summers, they serve as wilderness volunteers in Grand Teton National Park, living without electricity or running water. 

At the ranger cabin
Enter to win one of five copies of How to Surprise a Dad by Jean Reagan (Knopf, 2015). From the promotional copy:

So you want to surprise your dad? 

You’re in luck! The pages of this book are full of tips on how to become a super dad surpriser, including tips for things you can make, do, or find—just for your dad.

Be sure to read up on:


  • Yummy treats and presents for a dad
  • What to do if he starts getting suspicious
  • How to prepare for the big moment (where to hide everyone, and how to practice whispering “Surprise!”)

From the author-illustrator team behind the New York Times bestsellers How to Babysit a Grandpa and How to Babysit a Grandma comes an adorable, funny, surprising celebration of dads!

Publisher sponsored. U.S. only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, March 23, 2015

Guest Post: Author-Librarian Amy Bearce on Knowing Your Young Readers

By Amy Bearce
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

One thing I learned while earning my Masters of Library Science and my school librarian certificate is that if you try to censor a book, librarians will Take. You. Down.

“Don’t make me get my gloves out.” (Boxing Glove by Janusz Gawron via freeimages.com.)

Censorship and First Amendment rights are hot-button issues for librarians. Prior to my degree, I had no idea, but I loved it: librarians as righteous warriors for freedom of speech! Yes!

However, I write mostly upper-middle grade stories. For me, this means walking that fine line between being honest without censoring and also keeping in mind the needs of my tween and young teen readers. It’s a tough call sometimes.

“Balance is necessary.” (Tightrope Walker by Kristin Smith via freeimages.com)

The American Library Association says:

“Constitutionally protected speech cannot be suppressed solely to protect children or young adults from ideas or images a legislative body believes to be unsuitable” (2008).  

However, school librarians, like teachers, are seen as “in loco parentis,” giving them a unique responsibility to protect their students’ emotional and physical well-being (Chapin n.p; Duthie 91, Coutney, 18). At the same time, school librarians are also charged with defending their students’ First Amendment right to intellectual freedom.

As it turns out, this dual role of the school librarian is a good representation about how I feel about my role as a writer for tweens and young teens. I want to both help young people think about new ideas and push boundaries while honoring their age and maturity levels.

I am strongly anti-censorship, but when I was revising Fairy Keeper (Curiosity Quills, 2015) after graduating with my library science degree, I decided to focus on the needs of my target audience.

When my publisher and I decided my book would work better as an upper-middle grade novel, not YA, I wanted certain things in the story to be tempered. Not changed, not faked—just softened, without sacrificing any excitement or edginess.

Tweens and young teens can be incredibly worldly and savvy, but still easily bruised.

Because of this reality, some elementary and intermediate schools with fifth graders will carry Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008) while others will not. Some middle school libraries will carry Crank by Ellen Hopkins (Simon Pulse, 2004). Others will not.

The line between selecting age-appropriate books and self-censorship truly is a blurry target. There are so many excellent books, with a huge range in how those books handle difficult topics.

As a writer, I took note. Was I censoring myself, or was I choosing material wisely for my audience?

Let me be clear. I’m not advocating avoiding difficult issues such as death, drugs, or violence. Tweens and teens can handle a lot and don’t need rainbows and unicorns.

“Although who wouldn’t want a rainbow unicorn?” (Unicorn by Sarah at Totally Severe via Flickr.com.)

But I now approach those topics very thoughtfully when writing for middle grade readers, even at the upper middle grade range. Some writers will feel okay including topics others might not— just as some school libraries carry books others don’t.

What it boils down to is: know your readers. This is true for librarians, but also for writers. When I write now, my students from the library are in the back of my mind. The books I’ve read are there, too, whispering what’s been done, what worked, and what didn’t work.

And hopefully, all of that has resulted in a stronger story, because I’m not just writing for the heck of it. I want to connect with my readers. And that means they deserve some special consideration as a group of people in their early adolescence, a group of people that I’m proud and thrilled to write for.

About Amy

Amy Bearce
Amy writes stories for tweens and teens. She is a former reading teacher who now has her Masters in Library Science along with a school librarian certification.

As an Army kid, she moved eight times before she was eighteen, so she feels especially fortunate to be married to her high school sweetheart. Together they’re raising two daughters and are currently living in Germany, though Texas is still where they call home.

A perfect day for Amy involves rain pattering on the windows, popcorn, and every member of her family curled up in one cozy room reading a good book.

About Fairy Keeper 

Excerpt
Most people in Aluvia believe the Fairy Keeper mark is a gift. It reveals someone has the ability to communicate and even control fairies.

Fourteen-year-old Sierra considers it a curse, one that binds her to a dark alchemist father who steals her fairies’ mind-altering nectar for his illegal elixirs and poisons.

But when her fairy queen and all the other queens go missing, more than just the life of her fairy is in the balance if Sierra doesn’t find them. And Sierra will stop at nothing to find them, leading her to a magical secret lost since ancient times.

The magic waiting for her has the power to transform the world, but only if she can first embrace her destiny as a fairy keeper.

Fairy Keeper is now available in paperback and e-book.

Cynsational Notes

American Library Association. "Free Access to Libraries for Minors; An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.” 2008. Web. 18 July 2012. < http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/freeaccesslibraries>.

Chapin, Betty. "Filtering the Internet for Young People: The Comfortable Pew is A Thorny Throne." Teacher Librarian 26.5 (1999): 18. Library Literature and Information Science Full Text. Web. 17 July 2012.

Coatney, Sharon. “Banned Books: A School Librarian’s Perspective.” Time U.S. Sept 22, 2000. Web. 17 July 2012. 

Duthie, Fiona. "Libraries and the Ethics of Censorship." Australian Library Journal 59.3 (2010): 86-94. Library Literature & Information Science Full Text. Web. 17 July 2012.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong on the release of The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations (Pomelo, 2015) from Janet Lee Cary at Library Lions Roar! Peek:

JW: There are two huge differences between this book and our other books. First, the subject matter: 156 holidays. Second: it’s bilingual! The 156 English poems all appear with Spanish versions alongside them.

SV: There’s another big difference. The Poetry Friday Anthology for Celebrations highlights picture books alongside the poetry. Each of 156 holiday poems (in English and Spanish) has a picture book pairing in Tip #4 of the Take 5! section.

More News & Giveaways

Consulting Services & Lecture Fees for Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children's Literature. Peek: "Do you have a Native character in your manuscript? Is the character the main one? Or a secondary one? Are you, in some way, incorporating Native content? A character's ancestry, perhaps? If you want me to give you feedback on your manuscript, let's talk."

Why I Love to Read Sad and Dark Books to Children (and Why You Should, Too) by Jill Eisenberg from Lee & Low. Peek: "Using books with dark themes or settings in the classroom can give students the language to express their emotions, models for how to discuss and engage on these topics with adults and peers, and a safe space to explore difficult topics."

You Don't Have to Like Them and Other Truths About Characters and Storytelling from Joy Preble. Peek: "I don't have to like Alice for me to read and enjoy and savor this book. I don't have to like her for me to think that Julie Murphy's written an awesome novel. I simply have to find her authentic and consistent within the fictional boundaries and character arc Murphy has created. And I do."

Categorizing the Human Condition: Redefining Who We Think We Are by Ann Dye form CBC Diversity. Peek: "'Why do we assume that the natural response from adults who don’t share a commonality with a diverse character in any respect aren’t hungry to expand their horizons a bit through their nighttime reading?'"

Black Authors and Self-Publishing by Zetta Elliott from School Library Journal. Peek: "Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander self-published his first thirteen books and acknowledges that there’s a 'long history' of self-publishing in the Black community."

Brian Yansky on Novelists & Passion for Writing by Brian Yansky from Brian's Blog - Writer Talk. Peek: "The praise a person gets in school isn't going to sustain him/her as a writer once out and the teacher and student audience is gone and the larger one not yet materialized. What sustains a writer is that passion, that learned love of the act of writing."

To Save Yourself from Marion Dane Bauer. Peek: "We latch onto story ideas because there is something about an idea that draws more ideas the way a magnet pulls in iron filings."

April Is Autism Awareness Month: Partner Up to Reach Families in Your Community by Ashley Waring from ALSC Blog. Peek: "One way to get families with children with all types of disabilities into your library is to offer an informational program for parents and caregivers."

The Role of the Professional Reviewer in Today's Publishing World: Interview with Henrietta Verma of Library Journal by Samantha Knoerzer from Bibliocrunch. Peek: "...87 percent of its (ALA) members are white. A majority of that size of any ethnicity is of concern. It affects which books are bought for libraries and, I’m sure, how welcome minorities who are under-represented in librarianship feel in in the profession and as patrons, and which direction library hiring committees, subconsciously or not, lean."

On Illustration Notes by Liz Garton Scanlon from Eastern Penn Points. Peek: "Why the general no-no vibe around authors peppering their manuscripts with helpful hints for would-be editors and illustrators?"

Cynsational Giveaways


Enter Diversity in YA's 2015 Anniversary Giveaway. Peek: "With generous donations from publishers and authors, we are thrilled to be giving away 100 books with main characters who are of color, LGBT, and/or disabled." Note: includes Cynthia Leitich Smith's Feral series (Candlewick, 2013-2015).

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

I'm deeply honored to have been featured in a personality profile by editor Sterling Cosper that appears in the latest issue of my official tribal newspaper, The Muscogee Nation News:

Citizen Leaves Legal, Journalism Professions to Pursue Literary Career. Peek:

"Eat while you’re listening—everything is better with home-cooked food. Connect with a creative and personal community. It’s all about the tradition and circle of storytelling; not just your one voice in it,' Leitich Smith said."


Thanks to everyone who turned out for (or stopped by) my signing table at Costco in Selma, Texas; last Saturday! I was charmed by the warmth and friendliness of the community, and it was a delight to connect so many Feral novels--include numerous full trilogy sets--to teens!


Congratulations to author-illustrator and fellow Austinite Salima Alikhan on being admitted to the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults!

Link of the Week: We Need Diverse Books -- Movers & Shakers 2015: Change Agents from Library Journal.

Personal Links


Cynsational Events

Now Available
Cynthia will appear from April 14 to April 17 at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Texas Library Association in Austin.

Join Cynthia from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. May 2 at Saratoga Springs Public Library for a celebration in conjunction with Saratoga Reads! at Saratoga Springs, New York. Note: Cynthia will be presenting Jingle Dancer (2000), Rain Is Not My Indian Name (2001) and Indian Shoes (2002)(all published by HarperColllins).

Cynthia will serve as the master class faculty member from June 19 to June 21 May 2 at the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency in Montpelier, Vermont.

Cynthia will speak from June 25 to June 30 on a We Need Diverse Books panel at the 2015 Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

New Voice: Stacey Lee on Under a Painted Sky

Stacey Lee
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Stacey Lee is the first-time author of Under a Painted Sky (Putnam, 2015)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

An unforgettable story of friendship and sacrifice.

Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life.

With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush.

Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. 

With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

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

Stacey's office
I write in the evening into the wee hours of night, and go to bed typically at 1:30 am.

With two kids, I'm too distracted to do much during the day, so I must wait until everyone is in bed. It's hard for me to write with any noise around me, so I rarely listen to music when I'm at my desk.

As a historical fiction writer, how did you capture the voices of the era? What resources did you turn to? What advice do you have for other authors along these lines?

I read a lot of pioneer diaries! I always gravitated toward books/film from the 19th century, so the voices weren't hard for me to hear. I love the 'formal' way they spoke during that time period.

The trick is to immerse yourself in the 'culture' you're writing about as much as possible, the way you would learning another language. You can't help picking things up.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

Under a Painted Sky
I researched agents through Writer's Digest, and identified Kristin Nelson as someone who might be a good fit. I was looking for someone who knew her stuff, and she ran a popular blog called Pub Rants that many writers, including myself, used to understand the in's and out's of publishing. She actually rejected the first book I subbed to her.

Several years later, I wrote Under a Painted Sky, and she was one of the first agents I queried.

I think it's important that writers find an agent who not only can make a sale, but someone who will continually advocate for their writers during the entire process.

Publishing is not just about selling the book. You want someone who takes a holistic view of your writing career.

Cynsational Notes

Stacey Lee is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys. She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul.

A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall. After practicing law in the Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because she wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain. She plays classical piano, wrangles children, and writes YA fiction.

Find Stacey at Twitter @staceyleeauthor, Facebook and Pinterest.

Stacey contemplates her plot as she walks along this path.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Giveaway & New Voice: Melody Maysonet on A Work of Art

Excerpt
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melody Maysonet is the first time author of A Work of Art (Merit, 2015)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Tera is seventeen, shy, and artistically gifted. Her hero and mentor is her father, a famous graphic artist who also protects her from her depressed, overly critical mother. 

But Tera’s universe is turned upside down the day the police arrest her father for an unspeakable crime. 

Tera desperately wants to believe his arrest is a mistake, and since her mother is no help at all, Tera goes into action, searching for legal counsel and sacrificing her future at art school to help him. 

But under the surface of her attempts at rescue, there are rifts in Tera’s memories that make her wonder: Could he be guilty?

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how best to approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

The main character in my novel is a seventeen-year-old girl named Tera. During the course of the novel, she has sex for the first time, experiments with drugs, and nearly gets caught up in a threesome—all while dealing with stifled memories of sexual abuse by her father (who, by the way, has been arrested for a sexual crime).

For a YA book, it doesn’t get much edgier than that.

My first attempts at writing the abuse scenes only touched the surface of what Tera went through. In the back of my mind, I was constantly aware of a teenage audience. How far could I go before I crossed a line? At the same time, I had to recall my first sexual experiences and my own experiments with drugs. I couldn’t help wondering what my friends and family would think of me.

And then I took a writing workshop taught by Jamie Morris and Joyce Sweeney. I remember Jamie talking about how we had to explore the depths of our psyches and go deep within ourselves to find what’s raw. I remember Joyce saying how every one of us has a story that only we could tell—and if we say to ourselves, “I’m never going to write about that,” then maybe that’s what we need to be writing.

Writers are readers.
It was during this workshop that I wrote my first flashback chapter, where nine-year-old Tera is being photographed by her father in a way that no child should ever be photographed.

During the workshop, we all read aloud what we had written. My hands literally shook as I read my piece. I got choked up while I was reading, and when I was done, I wanted to bawl. That’s when I knew I’d nailed it.

After that, I still worried that my book would be deemed inappropriate for teens, but reading Crank by Ellen Hopkins (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2010) and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 1999) helped alleviate those fears. So did finding an agent who believed in the story and an editor who wanted to publish it.

More recently, I got another form of validation when I attended a workshop led by Andrew Karre, then editorial director of Lerner Publishing Group (now at Dutton). His topic? “Don’t Overthink Audience.” According to Karre, we shouldn’t write for readers of a certain age.

Instead, we should write about characters of a certain age—because if you write a good story, the audience will sort itself out.

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

When I started writing A Work of Art, finding the right voice was the thing I struggled with most.

Maybe that’s because my novel was originally intended for an adult audience. My early drafts were in third person, and my main character was nineteen.

Comments on voice
When my critique group convinced me that my story might be more relevant if I made the main character younger, I took their advice and changed Tera’s age to seventeen.

Pretty soon, I discovered that writing from a seventeen-year-old’s point-of view is a lot harder than it seems—at least it was for me. After all, I hadn’t been in high school for more than twenty-five years. My son was still in single digits. And no matter how many teen conversations I eavesdropped on, my character’s voice wasn’t ringing true.

I tried imitating the sarcastic teenage voice that popped up in so much YA fiction, but it came off sounding unnatural. I also tried capturing my inner teen, and although that helped, I still found myself slipping into the voice of a forty-something-year-old woman.

The whole time I was trying to pin down my character’s voice, my critique group kept telling me that my protagonist felt distant and maybe I should write the book in first person.

I resisted, mostly because I’d already written and rewritten the first hundred pages and I couldn’t stomach the thought of rewriting them yet again. (Yeah, I know.) Finally, though, I took their advice and wrote my next chapter in first person.

Wow, what a difference! So I finished the draft in first person and then went back to the first hundred pages. Converting from third person to first person was a lot harder than changing all the “she’s” to “I’s.” Suddenly phrases like: “I gazed at my father’s painting” sounded way too adult.

Melody's office
Somehow, I needed to completely immerse myself in the head of a teenage girl.

That’s when I started reading as much young-adult fiction as I could get my hands on.

Two books that broke something open in me were Ellen's Crank and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (Macmillan, 1986). There are others, but these two books in particular transported me into the heads of much younger people and I found myself studying how the authors did it.

As I wrote and revised A Work of Art, I never stopped studying voice, whether through reading YA fiction, taking workshops, or eavesdropping on teen conversations. I knew I’d made progress, but I still felt that voice was my weakest area.

While I was still revising, an editor from a YA publishing house critiqued my first chapter. The editor went through his checklist, commenting on dialogue, plot, point-of-view…

When he got to voice, I braced myself for the worst.

“The voice comes through strongly,” he told me.

Really? Did he just say that?

A few months later, another editor told me the voice was “great.” And while both of these editors passed on publishing my book, they gave me two things I very much needed: the confidence to keep going, and the drive to keep learning.



Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three copies of A Work of Art by Melody Maysonet (Merit, 2015). Author sponsored. U.S. only.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

2015 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Translator Laura Watkinson

By Mina Witteman
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Translator Laura Watkinson founded the Dutch chapter of the SCBWI. She also translates books into English, from Dutch, Italian and German. Her literary interests vary and her projects range from children’s picture books to adult novels and comics.

Her translation of Bibi Dumon Tak’s Mikis and the Donkey, illustrated by Philip Hopman (Eerdman's), won the American Library Association’s Batchelder Award 2015 for a translated children’s book.

In 2012, her translation of another one of Bibi Dumon Tak’s books, Soldier Bear for Eerdmans, also illustrated by Philip Hopman, also won the American Library Association’s Batchelder Award, and in 2014 she won the ALA’s Batchelder Award with her translation of Mister Orange by Truus Matti (Enchanted Lion Books).

On top of that, her translation of The War within These Walls by Aline Sax, with illustrations by Caryl Strzelecki (Eerdmans), was named one of the three Batchelder Honor Books 2014. The latter book had already won the National Jewish Book Award and the Sydney Taylor Book Award.

Laura’s translation of the Dutch children’s classic The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt for Pushkin Children’s Books has been well reviewed in the U.K.

Laura's part of the SCBWI Europolitan Conference faculty. The conference will take place April 4 and April 5 in Amsterdam.

Welcome, Laura! I am so happy that you could join us for this interview. Let me start with a big hoorah! You must be thrilled to bits that another one of your translations won the ALA’s Mildred Batchelder Award. This time Bibi Dumon Tak’s Mikis and the Donkey. Your translations seem to strike a chord in the U.S. What is the significance of this award for you, for your translations and for Dutch children’s books?

Thanks, Mina! Yes, I couldn’t be more delighted that Bibi’s book won the Batchelder Award this year. So much of it is down to great little publishers with big ambitions and dedication to children’s literature from all over the world. The people at both Enchanted Lion and Eerdmans Books for Young Readers have fantastic taste and select great books for translation.

It’s wonderful that the ALA encourages books in translation with this award, as it means young readers have an opportunity to find out what children in other countries are reading. It’s all about bringing new and interesting voices to a different readership.

It’s not so much a question of exporting Dutch and Flemish culture, but more about the skill of these writers and illustrators. After all, Mikis and the Donkey was set in Greece, Soldier Bear was about a group of Polish soldiers and their mascot, and, while Mister Orange was about Dutch artist Mondrian, it was actually set in New York.

Great stories are universal. It’s wonderful to have that recognized by publishers and readers who are interested in books from other countries.

You translate not only from Dutch but also from German and Italian. You must have a love for languages. Could you tell us a little about that love?

I gravitated towards languages at school, partly because I had such enthusiastic language teachers, but also because I feel that there’s a certain magic in learning a new code and suddenly being able to communicate with other people by using different words and sounds. I went on to study languages at university.

As a translator, it’s great to be able to convey something of a country’s culture by transporting its literature into a new language and a new environment.

How did you decide on a career in translation?

I never really thought too hard about what sort of job I might have after university.

I was fascinated by the subject I was studying, so I enjoyed the experience of being a student and traveling to study abroad, and didn’t really focus too much on what might come next.

I later spent a few years as a language teacher and also did occasional translation jobs, but it took me a while before I moved into full-time translation.

As a student and a teacher, I lived in a variety of places in Europe: Aberdeen, London, Milan, and a number of different cities in Germany, before moving to The Hague and now Amsterdam.

As I moved around, I came to realize just how flexible translation and writing is as a career. If you have a laptop, you can take your job wherever you want. Translation’s really the ultimate in portable careers.

Most importantly, translation is a constant challenge and a puzzle, so there’s always something interesting going on. Every book and every text has its own quirks, and I enjoy the process of getting to know them and working out how to handle their intricacies.

You translate a wide range of books, from picture books to graphic novels and more literary texts. What type of books do you most enjoy translating? Are there particular challenges associated with different texts?

I particularly enjoy working on picture books, as they’re so much fun. I translated a couple of very nice titles for Book Island in New Zealand: Annemie Berebrouckx’s Bernie and Flora and Sir Mouse to the Rescue by Dirk Nielandt and Marjolein Pottie. Those two books are both bubbly and full of life, and they’re great tales for little ones who are new to stories. It’s important to keep the tone light and to make the story easy for parents to read aloud. So, with those translations, I’ll read them out loud to myself (and anyone else who will listen) over and over again.

It can be tricky when the words relate to some visual gag that’s elaborated in the illustrations. If it’s a joke that doesn’t work in English, you have to go back to the drawing board and create a new English version that matches what’s going on in the pictures. The illustrations are there to stay, so you have to craft the words accordingly, while respecting the spirit of the original text.

You translated a Dutch classic, Tonke Dragt’s De brief voor de koning (The Letter for the King), which first came out in 1962 and is a book that generations of young Dutch readers grew up with. It took over 50 years for this book to be translated into English. Can you tell us a little about how Pushkin Press made the decision to publish the book, and how you came to translate it?

The Letter for the King really is a book that should have been translated into English a long time ago. As you say, it’s a classic in the Netherlands and, in 2004, it was even voted the best Dutch children’s book of the previous fifty years.

It had been translated into many other languages, but the English breakthrough somehow never came. Who knows why? It’s a classic for very good reasons.

The project finally took off when Pushkin Press’s new children’s imprint arrived on the scene. I gave Pushkin publisher Adam Freudenheim a sample and he was really enthusiastic, as were his children. So, finally, the book has made it to the U.K. It’s doing well there, and I’m hopeful that this will help lead to more children’s classics finally appearing in English translation.

In other news, I’m just working on the edits to the sequel of The Letter for the King. Expect to see The Secrets of the Wild Wood in bookshops this autumn...

You founded the Dutch chapter of the SCBWI in 2008. Why? And what do you think are the most important reasons to become a member? 

I had some friends who had joined the SCBWI in the U.K. and they were all so enthusiastic about the society that I really wanted to become a member too. For me, it was mainly about meeting other people who were interested in writing, illustrating and, of course, translating children’s books, so that we could encourage one another and pass on tips.

So that was my motivation for setting up the chapter in the Netherlands, and I still feel that those connections and that support and friendship are the most important reasons for joining.

We’ve had so much fun since then – and a lot of success stories within the group. It’s great to know that we’re connected to other children’s book lovers and publishing professionals all over the world, and that’s something I believe only the SCBWI can offer on such a scale.

The SCBWI has recently set up a new initiative for translators, led by Avery Udagawa. There’s a lively forum and plenty of enthusiasm for children’s books in translation. Let’s hope it leads to even more great books in translation!

Thanks so much to you, Mina, for taking over the group and providing so much energy and enthusiasm. Here’s to the next few years!

You can find out more about Laura Watkinson on her website, or follow her on Twitter.

Cynsational Notes

Mina Witteman is a published author, writing in Dutch and English. She has three adventurous middle grade novels, over 40 short stories, and a Little Golden Book out in The Netherlands.

The first volume of a three-book middle grade series, Boreas and the Seven Seas, is scheduled to come out in April 2015. She is the Regional Advisor for The Netherlands and Chairman of the Working Group Children’s Books of the Dutch Authors Guild.

In addition to writing, Mina teaches creative writing. She is a freelance editor and a mentor to budding writers. She is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Follow her on Twitter @MinaWitteman.
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