Friday, May 29, 2015

Cynsational News, Giveaways & Summer Hiatus

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Thanks so much for being a Cynsational reader! 

I appreciate your enthusiasm for and interest in the world of books for kids and teens.

Breaking news: Effective immediately, Cynsations is going on summer hiatus until September. 

In the meantime, you can keep up with children's-YA books news on my author facebook page and @CynLeitichSmith on Twitter.

See y'all in the fall!

More News  

Recommended on the We are the People List
We're the People Summer Reading List of 2015 from Facebook. Peek: "Are you looking for books to add to your summer reading list? Ones written or illustrated by Native Americans or people of color? Ones that include characters that are Native? People of color? Disabilities? LGBTQ? Take a look at these!" Note: Download a PDF (list of titles; annotated list) to take with you to the store of library.  See more information about the list from Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children's Literature.

Romanticizing Mental Illness by L. Lee Butler, S. Jae-Jones and Alex Townsend from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: "Ideally there would be plenty of stories within and outside of the perspectives of mental illness. Because lots of outsiders don’t really relate until they hear a story from the outside perspective."

Mary E. Cronin's Workshop on Gay (LGBT) & Questioning Characters in Middle Grade from Lee Wind at I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? Peek: "There may be GLBT people in the character’s family, or they may have no role models or reference points at all. These factors will have a huge impact on a character’s trajectory."

The Mystery of the Hardy Boys and the Invisible Authors by Daniel A. Gross from The Atlantic. Peek: "If writing seems like a lonely profession, try ghostwriting children's books."

How to Secure a Traditional Book Deal by Self-Publishing by Jane Friedman from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "By far, the No. 1 consulting request I receive is the author who has self-published and wants to switch to traditional publishing. Usually it’s because they’re disappointed with their sales or exposure; other times, that was their plan all along."

What Makes a Picture Book a Mega Hit? by Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal. Peek: "With that in mind, today I’m going to talk about some of the top picture book blockbusters to come out in the last ten years. Please note that I’m avoiding picture books with TV or other media tie-ins. These are the folks who got where they are on their own merits."

Interview: Jackie Morse Kessler on the Riders of the Apocalypse Series by Katherine Locke and Alex Townsend from Disability in Kid Lit. Peek: "I’m a former bulimic, and I still have self-image issues. The protagonist Lisabeth is inspired by someone I knew when I was younger; she’d been a very close friend, and she was the one who introduced me to bulimia." Note: This series is highly recommended.

The Connection Between Emotional Wounds and Basic Needs by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "...she still feels the pain associated with the loss of her esteem and will subconsciously take steps to meet that need or make sure that it isn’t threatened again. Maybe she’ll throw herself into education, sports, or the arts as a means of gaining recognition for herself, since she feels unable to compete physically."

Emotional Wounds Thesaurus: A Parent's Abandonment by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: "This negative experience from the past is so intense that a character will go to great lengths to avoid experiencing that kind of pain and negative emotion again. As a result, certain behaviors, beliefs, and character traits will emerge."

One Tweet Reminds Us Why Judy Blume Was the Sexual Revolutionary We Needed by Kate Hakala from Connections.Mic. Peek: "The children and teens of Blume's books didn't only normalize sexuality for so many young kids, they illuminated the more embarrassing, secret parts of sex — the blood, the touching — that many readers were too afraid to bring up in school or to their parents."

Industry Q&A with Charlesbridge Editor Alyssa Mito Pusey from CBC Diversity. Peek: "When I was recently looking up Asian and Asian American biographies, I was shocked all over again at how little there is out there—Lee & Low seems to be the only publisher consistently putting out these books."

Children's Book Council to Receive BookExpo America's Industry Ambassador Award by Yolanda Scott from CBC Diversity. Peek: "While this is the first year that the award is being bestowed on an organization in place of an individual, BEA show organizers note that the Children’s Book Council’s work is both personal and special for its dedication to fostering literacy, diversity and education, making it eminently qualified to receive the award."

Case Cracked: The Process of Editing Mystery Novels by Stacy Whitman from Lee & Low. Peek: "...we discussed how the inciting incident—the moment that gets Claire to veer her course to investigating whether her father and her stepdad ever knew each other—might be complicated and how those complications would have a ripple effect that would improve multiple other plot points, and increase the pacing." See also: Wouldn’t You Like to Know . . . Valynne E. Maetani by Stacey Hayman from VOYA.

The Godzilla Effect: How Climaxes, Twists, and Turning Points Work (and How They Don’t) by Harrison Demchick from Project Mayhem. Peek: "The climax, then, is the inevitable result—eventually, the effect—of that incident two hundred or three hundred or however many pages ago. It needs to be an organic development of the story."

Six Tips from Six Years of School Visits by Chris Barton from Bartography. Peek: "If you’ve got multiple books, don’t assume that your host wants you to focus on your newest one. Your host might not know much about it, and in fact may have led their students to expect something else."

Breaking Barriers: Alvina Ling, Editor-in-Chief of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers from TaiwaneseAmerican.org. Peek: "...ideally we have a nice balance between books that may have award potential, and books that are more commercial and have bestseller potential (although books that are both are even more ideal!). We also don’t want to have all fantasy books or all historical fiction, for example, so I help guide our acquisitions process and identify needs and gaps to our editors to keep in mind as they are reading submissions and acquiring."

Cynsational Awards

2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Winners from School Library Journal. Peek:

"The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee (Simon & Schuster) has won the 2015 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for best picture book, while Katherine Rundell’s Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms (Simon & Schuster) took best fiction title and Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Russia (Schwartz & Wade) was named best nonfiction book." See honor books and more information.

2015 South Asian Book Awards:

See honor books and more information.

Cynsational Giveaways
The winner of a set of signed books by Claire Legrand was Christina in Kentucky.

See also a giveaway of an author- and illustrator-signed copy of The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate (Eerdmans, 2015) from Fat Girl Reading.

This Week at Cynsations


More Personally

My Memorial Day view of Highway One; hang in there, Texas & Oklahoma!
At "Pretty in Pink" with authors Cory Putnam Oakes, P.J. Hoover & Mari Mancusi at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz.
Happy Summer! Congratulations to spring 2015 graduates!

As all y'all can tell from my events listed below, I'm going to be coming and going for the next few months. I hope to see many of you on the road or here in Austin, and online you can catch up with me at my author facebook page and @CynLeitichSmith on Twitter.

So embrace the summer. Read, write, illustrate, champion books for young readers, and with each new day, remember to be the heroes of your own life stories.

Thanks again for being Cynsational readers! 

Link of the Week: How Insane Amount of Rain in Texas Could Turn Rhode Island Into a Lake by Christopher Ingraham from The Washington Post.

Central Texans! Summer Road Trip Release Party: Join Margo Rabb (Kissing in America) and Liz Garton Scanlon (Great Good Summer) at 2 p.m. May 30 at BookPeople in Austin.

Personal Links

Now Available!

Cynsational Events

Join Cynthia at 11 a.m. May 30 in conjunction with the YA Book Club at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

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

Cynthia will speak from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. June 28 on an Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC) program--"We Need Diverse Books: How to Move from Talk to Action Panel"--at the 2015 Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco.

Learn more!
Cynthia will teach on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts from July 8 to July 19.

Join Cynthia from July 30 to Aug. 2 at GeekyCon in Orlando, Florida. See more information.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will lead a YA Writing Retreat for A Room of Her Own Foundation from Aug. 10 to Aug. 16 at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Cynthia will lead a breakout session on "Diversity in Children's and YA Literature" Aug. 22 at East Texas Book Fest at the Harvey Hall Convention Center in Tyler, Texas.

Cynthia will speak Sept. 19 at the Mansfield, Texas Book Festival.

Cynthia will speak Sept. 29 at Richardson Public Library in Richardson, Texas.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

New Voice: Laura Woollett on Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show On Earth

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Laura A. Woollett is the first-time author of Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show On Earth (Chicago Review Press, 2015). From the promtional copy:

Big Top Burning investigates the 1944 Hartford circus fire and invites readers to take part in a critical evaluation of the evidence

The fire broke out at 2:40 p.m. Thousands of men, women, and children were crowded under Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s big top watching the Flying Wallendas begin their death-defying high-wire act. Suddenly someone screamed “Fire!” and the panic began. 

By 2:50 the tent had burned to the ground. Not everyone had made it out alive.

With primary source documents and survivor interviews, Big Top Burning recounts the true story of the 1944 Hartford circus fire—one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history. 

Its remarkable characters include Robert Segee, a 15-year-old circus roustabout and known pyromaniac, and the Cook children, Donald, Eleanor, and Edward, who were in the audience when the circus tent caught fire. 

Guiding readers through the investigations of the mysteries that make this moment in history so fascinating, this book asks: Was the unidentified body of a little girl nicknamed “Little Miss 1565” Eleanor Cook? Was the fire itself an act of arson—and did Robert Segee set it? 

Big Top Burning combines a gripping disaster story, an ongoing detective and forensics saga, and World War II–era American history, inviting middle-grades readers to take part in a critical evaluation of the evidence and draw their own conclusions.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Laura at the circus
When I wrote the first draft of Big Top Burning, a nonfiction account of the 1944 Hartford circus fire, I had only dipped a toe into the giant pool of research that was to inform the final book.

I began the project in graduate school as an independent study in writing nonfiction for young people. That summer, I researched and wrote the entire first draft!

Of course, this was before I was married, before I owned a house, and before I had a child. My research consisted of reading the three (at the time) nonfiction books for adults on the subject, and reading every newspaper article on the fire from 1944 to date that I could find – mostly from the "Hartford Courant" and the now defunct "Hartford Times."

The best thing I did was to interview a few survivors of the fire. They’d been children at the time and were so gracious in sharing the stories of their narrow escapes.

The interviews were gold. However, the newspaper articles, while primary sources, often held inaccurate information. The disaster happened quickly, and as reporters rushed to get information to the public, all sorts of false information found its way into their stories. And the adult books were secondary sources. I needed to form my own conclusions about the tragedy and the mysteries that surrounded it.


Then in 2009, I won the SCBWI Work In Progress grant for nonfiction, and that gave me the inspiration to keep going and to dig deeper. I used the money to travel to Hartford where I discovered the extensive circus fire archives at the Connecticut State Library. I spent several weekends at the library, diving into boxes of police records and witness statements, looking at crime scene photos, and even listening to a tape-recorded interview with the suspected arsonist, Robert Segee.

I’d be immersed for five hours at a time, and when I left I was exhausted, hungry (no food allowed in the archives area), and feeling victorious every time. I truly felt like a detective, collecting the clues to form a complete picture of the events that happened at the circus that day. Thank goodness for the librarians who collected and cataloged boxes and boxes of materials on the circus fire. It’s really due to them that authors like me are able to write such complete accounts of the tragedy.

As I continued to revise and send my manuscript to various agents and publishers, I interviewed more survivors. Interestingly, they seemed to appear wherever I went.

At the Boston Public Library, a gentleman who saw my research materials spread out on a table stopped to tell me his tale of survival. When my father was recovering from heart surgery at Hartford Hospital, he discovered his roommate was a survivor. My high school chemistry teacher (who always told us to keep our backpacks out of the aisles) shows up in one of the photos in my book. And I was able to interview my fifth grade teacher, who had been in the hospital having his tonsils out when they brought the first burn victims in.

I feel honored to be entrusted with their stories and proud to have written a book that will pass on the story of the Hartford circus fire to future generations.

Memorial to the Hartford circus fire victims, built on the former circus grounds. The bronze medallion indicates the location of the center pole of the big top tent.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited?

When I sent out my manuscript on submission, I had done my research. (I’m a member of SCBWI after all!) I began by querying agents who represented nonfiction authors, and I looked specifically at those who had worked with narrative nonfiction for older readers. I got some great feedback but no takers.

I turned to querying editors directly, trying all my contacts through writer friends and through SCBWI. Still lots of lovely rejections.

But I had my eyes open. I snoop in the backs of books to find out the names of the author’s agent and editors, which are often listed in the acknowledgements. I read quite a few blogs about writing and books for kids and always make note of agents or editors who publish work similar to mine, or work I think I’d like to write in the future.

It was on Cynsations that I found a New Voices post by editor Susan Signe Morrison, who with author Joan Wehlen Morrison, wrote Home Front Girl (Chicago Review Press, 2012), a diary of everyday life of an American girl growing up in the years leading up to WWII.

Because the book was for an older audience, nonfiction, and about the same era as mine, I thought I’d query her acquiring editor, Lisa Reardon at Chicago Review Press.

Two months after my query, Lisa sent me an offer letter.

After this experience I truly believe that if you write a good book, you will find a home for it—you just have to keep your eyes open and stay persistent. I wrote the first draft of Big Top Burning in the summer of 2005 and just a mere ten years later, I’m incredibly proud of its debut in 2015!

Cynsational Notes

For more information on the Hartford circus fire, visit circus fire historian, Mike Skidgell.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Giveaway: Kissing In America by Margo Rabb

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win Kissing in America by Margo Rabb (HarperCollins, 2015). Author sponsored. U.S. only. From the promotional copy:

In the two years since her father died, sixteen-year-old Eva has found comfort in reading romance novels—118 of them, to be exact—to dull the pain of her loss that's still so present. Her romantic fantasies become a reality when she meets Will, who understands Eva's grief.

Unfortunately, after Eva falls head over heels for him, he picks up and moves to California without any warning. Not wanting to lose the only person who has been able to pull her out of sadness—and, perhaps, her shot at real love—Eva and her best friend, Annie, concoct a plan to travel to the West Coast to see Will again.

As they road trip across America, Eva and Annie confront the complex truth about love.

In this honest and emotional journey that National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr calls "gorgeous, funny, and joyous," readers will experience the highs of infatuation and the lows of heartache as Eva contends with love in all its forms. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Guest Interview: Helen Wang on Children's Book Translation

Wenxuan's Bronze and Sunflower, translated by Wang
By Avery Fischer Udagawa
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

What do old coins, the British Museum, and Chinese novels have in common?

Helen Wang.

Wang is Curator of East Asian Money at the British Museum and also translates Chinese literature into English. Among her works are the middle grade novels Jackal and Wolf by Shen Shixi (Egmont, 2012) and Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (Walker Books, 2015).

Wang has discussed these books in a virtual school visit, an essay, and an in-depth chat with Playing by the Book. Bronze and Sunflower is current Book of the Month at A Year of the Reading the World.

Helen Wang e-conversed with me for Cynsations about how she came to translate, and about the challenges of rendering two very different middle grade titles.

How did you cultivate the skills needed to translate from Chinese?

I did a B.A. in Chinese at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in the 1980s. I’d done French, German and Spanish A-levels in secondary school, and was thinking about archaeology or art history, but ended up doing Chinese instead. As for translation skills, those came later. I translated some short stories in the early 1990s, but then started working at the Museum and earning a Ph.D. (in archaeology) and having a family and didn’t really have time for translating fiction until a few years ago.

Translation is different from research or everyday communication in another language. Recently, I was one of the judges for the U.K.’s Writing Chinese Translation Competition, and there were 88 entries! The best were those in which the translators had got inside the story and understood exactly what the author was trying to do, and then conveyed this in sharp, crisp English in a consistent and appropriate style. It takes time and effort to get to that level and to maintain it.

Let’s talk about your middle grade novels. Jackal and Wolf is a 282-page novel focused on a female jackal. Her prey alone includes crab, cobra, swan, deer, muntjac, bharal, chicken, boar, partridge, rabbit, mouse, frog, porcupine, gazelle, and vole—and these are just some of the animals in the book! Did you spend lots of time researching animal names, traits and terms in order to translate it?

Cover art by Chen Wen
I did spend some time on the animals, trying to find out precisely what kinds of noises they make and double-checking that I was using the right verbs for the various actions. A good friend who knows a lot about wild animals read through an almost final draft and made some very helpful suggestions.

Did you find you had to add details about less-known animals, or were the fascinating explanations part of Shen’s original? (“Now snow foxes are smaller than jackals, and don’t have their sharp claws or teeth, nor their courage.”)

It’s very much Shen Shixi’s style to explain these things as he goes along. I don’t think I added any details. If anything, I reduced them a bit, to prevent repetition and to avoid saying that the females of a species were “always” smaller and weaker than the males, for example. I toned these down because it’s not “always” true, and because the impact is probably more sexist in English than Shen consciously intended in the original Chinese.

In Jackal and Wolf, the jackal Flame forms a bond with a sworn enemy: a wolf named Sweetie. What did you think of the ties and interactions in the story?

Although this is an animal story, and there are plenty of episodes and descriptions of animal life, there’s also a lot of human behaviour in the story too. Some of the fighting scenes are quite graphic and intense, but it was the psychological behaviour that I found more disturbing, especially where Flame tests a potential suitor.

How did Jackal and Wolf come to be published? Will more of Shen Shixi’s works be translated?

Egmont had a project to publish Jackal and Wolf —and another book, An Unusual Princess by Wu Meizhen, translated by Petula Parris Huang—in eight different languages and to launch them at the London Book Fair in 2012, when China was guest of honour. So Petula and I translated from Chinese into English, and our English versions were then translated into Russian, German, Polish, Turkish, Czech, Swedish and Bulgarian. I don’t know of any plans to publish more of Shen Shixi’s animal stories in English, but he’s written a whole range of bestselling animal books. It would be wonderful to see them translated.

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan is set in rural China as well, but features humans: a boy and girl coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution. How did the translation come about?

Cover art by Meilo So
Bronze and Sunflower is a modern classic in China, and the French edition was very well received. Walker Books won a PEN Translation Award to publish it. The PEN awards support the publishers: when publishers apply to English PEN for an award, they have to submit a copy of the original book, which is then read by an expert in the source language, who writes a report to the English PEN committee, who choose which titles to support. So, a huge amount of work went into the English PEN endorsement on the front of Bronze and Sunflower! Someone recommended me to Walker Books, probably because they knew I had translated Jackal and Wolf.

Bronze and Sunflower unfolds in a small village called Damaidi, and begins when a city girl, Sunflower, needs a country boy, Bronze, to save her from danger. Bronze is mute yet possesses vast knowledge and strength. Was it hard to render him faithfully without seeming to overdo it?

When I first read the book, I was more concerned about Sunflower being too good than about Bronze’s credibility. Sunflower is a sweet-natured child and almost too kind, helpful and thoughtful to be true, especially when we consider the trauma she’s experienced in her short life: her mother died of illness, she was uprooted with her father to move from the city to the countryside, her father is presumed drowned but his body is never found, she has to wait under a tree being gawped at by the entire village until Bronze’s family eventually takes her in, and so on.

Bronze may be the only son of the poorest family in the village, but his family is incredibly strong and resourceful. Instead of going to school, he has spent his formative years with his grandmother, a very determined old lady, and as soon as he was old enough, he was out grazing the family’s water buffalo. He’s used his eyes and his ears and knows his environment better than most of the villagers.

This novel, too, must have required research—on everything from the feel of reed shoes, to the look of cogongrass, to the appeal of arrowhead corms. How did you explore new objects and concepts?

It’s brilliant to be able to go online and look things up. Google Images is a godsend! For things that are completely new to me, I’ll play around online and do quite a lot of cross checking to make sure I’ve understood. If I can’t work it out for myself this way, or if I don’t feel I’ve understood it properly, then I’ll ask for human help.

Helen Wang
For example, when a photographer comes to Sunflower’s school in Damaidi, and she knows the family can’t afford to buy her portrait, she tries to hide her disappointment behind a little song. This song is essentially about a married woman with an elaborate hairstyle, and an unmarried girl with a childish hairstyle, who are role-swapping and having fun. But there are so many complex cultural references packed into the four lines!

I found lots of amazing pictures of Chinese hairstyles with elaborate names (e.g. these), but it would have been impossible to explain them in four short rhyming lines in English. I must have tried a hundred variations. None of them worked. To keep the song short, I needed to cut some of the detail.

But I needed to know how far I could go. If the song was as well known as a nursery rhyme in English, then I needed to know which parts I absolutely had to keep. So I asked around, and I learned that it was more of an obscure old song than a popular nursery rhyme. I grew confident enough to improvise a song that would work in a similar way for the English reader—without drawing undue attention to the complex historical terms for hairstyles.

What was it like to translate suffering in the story: a locust plague, near-starvation?

My main concern was to convey in English what Cao Wenxuan was saying in Chinese. Those particular scenes brought home how cut-off the villagers were and how self-reliant they had to be. They were also a poignant reminder that this is what famine is like for people across the world when crops have failed.

You carve out time for translating children’s books from a busy life. What do novels in translation bring to young readers of English?

Good novels are good novels whichever language they were originally written in! But the world is a much more diverse and contemporary place than most English-language bookshops and libraries suggest. Young people all know this, and it’s wonderful to see campaigns like #WeNeedDiverseBooks gathering pace. I translate children’s books in the hope that it makes a difference, and also because I enjoy it!

Cynsational Notes

Helen Wang maintains a profile page at Paper Republic and co-tweets with translator Nicky Harman as ChinaFictionBookClub: @cfbcuk.

Avery Fischer Udagawa contributes to the SCBWI Japan Translation Group blog and is SCBWI International Translator Coordinator. She translated the historical middle novel J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani.

Monday, May 25, 2015

New Voice: Stefanie Lyons on Dating Down

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Stephanie Lyons is the first-time author of Dating Down (Flux, 2015). From the promotional copy:

At Café Hex, Samantha Henderson can imagine being the person she really wants to be. 

It’s her place to daydream about going to art school and getting away from her politician father. It’s her place to imagine opening herself up to a new kind of connection, away from her family and the drama of high school.

Enter X—the boy she refuses to name. He’s older, edgy, bohemian . . . in short, everything she thinks she needs. 

Her family and friends try to warn her that there may be more to him than she sees, but still she stays with X, even as his chaos threatens to consume them both.

Told in waves of poetry—whispering, crashing—Dating Down is a portrait of exhilaration and pain and the kind of desire that drives a girl to risk everything.

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best 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?

I did struggle with how much to tell. My story is about a girl who spirals downward while in a bad relationship. It’s odd because—as far as the drugs and partying—I didn’t feel I needed to censor. But the sex, well, that was the part I wrote around for many edits until finally realizing it just wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t go there. So I did. And it hasn’t been a problem out in the real world with readers.

I guess my new mantra is anytime I take off my seventeen-year-old hat and put on my writer’s hat, I’m doing a disservice to the story.

As someone with a MFA in Writing for Children (and Young Adults), how did your education help you advance in your craft? What advice do you have for other MFA students/graduates in making the transition between school and publishing as a business?

My MFA made all the difference. I was a sponge while I was at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Time there is an endless source of creative inspiration and information: The lectures and discussions. Talking about books. Why you did or didn’t like a particular one. Turning something in on a monthly basis and knowing someone’s on the other side ready to read it and help you make it better.

All these things gave me “aha” moments. And the people I met were super talented and supportive. I didn’t just gain a degree, I gained lifelong writing friends.

As for advice for other MFA students making the transition, I’d definitely say, know that when you’re creating something that is the creative process. Once you create it and turn it over to an agent or editor that is the business process.

The creative process is personal. The business process isn’t. Learn to separate the two and you will have a much easier time.

Ruby is a vital part of the creative process.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Cover Reveal & Interview: Author Ashley Hope Pérez & Editor Andrew Karre on Out of Darkness

By Ashley Pérez and Andrew Karre
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

From the promotional copy of Out of Darkness (Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner, Sept. 2015):

New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them.

“No Negroes, Mexicans, or dogs.”

They know the people who enforce them.

“They all decided they’d ride out in their sheets and pay Blue a visit.”

But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.

“More than grief, more than anger, there is a need. Someone to blame. Someone to make pay.”

Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history— as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

The starred Kirkus review of Out of Darkness called it “a powerful, layered tale of forbidden love in times of unrelenting racism,” and Elizabeth Wein, best-selling author of Code Name Verity, had this to say: “The beauty of Pérez’s prose and her surefooted navigation through the dangerous landscape of the East Texas oil field in the late 1930s redeem the fact that anyone who dares read this agonizing, star-crossed love story will end up in about six billion numb and tiny pieces. Absolutely stunning.”

Read on for a conversation between Ashley and her editor, Andrew Karre, who is now executive editor of Dutton Books for Young Readers. 

Ashley and Andrew talk about book covers, challenging boundaries in YA, what happens in the woods of East Texas, and the author-editor collaboration that made Out of Darkness possible.

Ashley Hope Pérez: Since this is also the cover reveal for Out of Darkness, can we start there? I love that we arrived at this design. What do you think it signals to readers?

Andrew Karre: I think it does the jobs of a book cover very well: it is visually arresting from the shelf, and it rewards deeper looks after you’ve read on in the book.

The image of the braid is lovely and intriguing, but once you’ve read the book, the layers begin to emerge.

I also love the uncomfortable separation in “Darkness.” It is not a comfortable cover—and it shouldn’t be.

AHP: I love that you mention the absence of comfort—right now I’m writing an article about the role of discomfort in YA reading experiences. So let’s linger for a moment on the topic of narrative elements that don’t sit easily with readers’ expectations.

Your particular vision of YA—which I’ve always taken as being focused on engaging or deconstructing various ideas of adolescence—gave me license to write the book without worrying about fitting it to a particular YA mold. You’ve never been interested any kind of filter for writing “at” teen readers and instead have gained this incredible reputation as an editor for choosing unusual, boundary-pushing works.

Did Out of Darkness give you a chance to scratch anything off of your boundary-pushing bucket list?

AK: I definitely got to put a check in the box labeled “historical YA that portrays teenagers acting on recognizable sexual appetites.”

AHP: Glad to have helped on that front. I think I was at least a little bit influenced by the workshop on sex in writing that you and Carrie Mesrobian did with teens last year and the insights that came from that.

I took a few items your compelling piece and the list Carrie compiled, and I thought about how they intersected with the private worlds and identities of my characters.

Portraying teen sexuality as a real part of the past was one of the contributions I wanted to make in Out of Darkness.

This is in addition to my general adamancy about the fact that teens are sexual people regardless of how they act on that fact. I find it maddening when people assume that the relative silence around sex in times past somehow amounted to a magical chastity or innocence among teens. That’s an assumption that especially gets applied to women in depictions of the past, I think. I enjoyed researching sexual matters of the period from the book.

AK: I distinctly remember my own delight at discovering some vintage condom packaging.

The kind of tins that held condoms in the 1930s. Image from www.collectorsweekly.com.

AHP: As do I… I think you gleefully tweeted a link to this article full of handy details about prophylactics of the past. For me, beyond the period particulars, there was also the pleasure of thinking about logistics for my characters. The woods in East Texas are notorious for being where you go to do things you don’t want others to know about, but I loved the chance to also show it as a space where a particular kind of possibility unfolds: an interracial love with a definite sexual intensity.

Although I didn’t want to idealize the physical aspect of Wash and Naomi’s relationship, which has an intensity that can be parasitic on their emotional connection at times, there’s also a sweetness to what they give each other.

So, we did some important work around the idea of teen sexuality in days gone by. What other boundaries do you see Out of Darkness testing?

AK: Well, the book pushed a bit at my personal definition of YA, which is novels about people experiencing the various social constructs of teenageness. For example, I don’t think Wash and Naomi are teenagers in the sense of your typical YA character. Because of their races, they’re not afforded the leisure we associate with teenagers. They are adults in many significant ways, but they do overlap with modern teenage-ness (in the form of all the white high school kids) and I found this deeply fascinating and illuminating. Your execution of these characters casts a bright light on the white privilege at the heart of that teenage-ness.

I also saw that you had set yourself an enormous challenge with the character of Naomi’s stepfather Henry. The book would fail if you let him simply be a racist monster. You had to make him a deeply flawed human who behaves monstrously—a considerably taller order and one that makes the book harder for some readers, though I think ultimately more satisfying.

AHP: I remember several important conversations with you that helped me to find and capture the humanity, however distorted, in Henry. I went through a similar process to uncover the complex character of the pastor who initially encourages him to bring the kids to East Texas and then has to buoy him up repeatedly in the role of father. The evolution of characters is more memorable, maybe, but the editorial back and forth was just as critical to the development of the narrative and stylistic choices that make this book what it is.

You’ve managed to be my ideal reader three times now. Each time we’ve worked on a book, the questions or challenges you presented me with opened the right doors for me in revision so that I could help the story grow into what it was supposed to be. Dark magic aside, how do you do that?

AK: I have no idea, but it’s my only useful skill, so I’m glad it works. Good editing is about building a little space where an author’s best work can happen. (And it has to be a little space, because books don’t happen by committee.) The minimum qualifications are understanding, nurturing, and—when necessary—reminding the author of the original vision.



AHP: That little space is a gift to writers. I think you must also have a kind of special sight that allows you to see submerged possibilities, both in a manuscript and in the writer herself. I feel like this was especially true in how you responded to Out of Darkness. I mean, it was such a different case from What Can’t Wait (2011) and The Knife and the Butterfly (2012)(both Carolrhoda Lab), both of which are contemporary realistic fiction and arrived to you somewhat resembling their final form. And then there was Out of Darkness…

AK: Out of Darkness is the best of what can happen when an author and an editor have a good working relationship. Honestly, if at any point after our first two books you’d told me about the school explosion and your eagerness to use it as an entry point for a story about race and class and love and family, I would have been in. I knew we could work well together, and I wanted to do so again.

At least 294 people were killed in the New London, Texas, school explosion. Chaos after the explosion and the destruction of all school documents made an exact count impossible. Image from the London Museum archives.

AHP: It’s true that you didn’t even flinch when my agent sent you a manuscript that filled a ream of paper. Or at least you didn’t let on that you flinched. I think the first complete draft weighed in at 200,000 words.

AK: I’m glad that you sent those 200,000 words. Even though I knew we were years away from a book, the scale of that draft gave me a sense of how committed you were to a project somewhat more ambitious than our first two. And I knew you would match my effort, so I didn’t worry about how much work it would be or whether you were prepared to explore some difficult places.

AHP: There was some serious cutting, reshaping, and expanding that happened over those years… and a ton of collaboration to develop the vision for what the novel would become. Did your expectations evolve over those years we went back and forth?

AK: I don’t think my expectations evolved much, given how high they were to begin with. This is a book that could obviously only exist on a fairly significant scale and scope.

As you know, I dearly love short, circumscribed stories of unusual individuals. This was never going to be such a book—or maybe better said it was several such books tightly braided together and making a still greater whole. My job was to see that from the beginning and work like hell to make sure we never compromised. (We didn’t.)

AHP: I’m grateful for that. I felt all along the way that I had just enough space to grow to be the writer who could handle whatever challenge we’d set for a round of revision.

Looking back, I realize that you probably read this manuscript at least five times as we were working through that process. Am I some kind of crazy outlier, or do you find yourself going through comparable iterations with other authors?

Ashley’s writing process. Crucial tools: writer’s notebook, Scrivener, paper, pen, scissors, and tape.

AK: You’re not a crazy outlier, except perhaps in terms of length of first draft.

With some authors, I’ve gone through more drafts, others fewer. Ideally, they all get a similar level of attention, but sometimes that attention takes different forms.

AHP: You also do this thing where you don’t force a change but you plant a seed that makes it possible for me, on my own, to wholly embrace that change. That probably happens dozens of times in a book, but I distinctly remember at one point discussing the author’s note for Out of Darkness.

There was this line in it that more or less sounded to you like an apology for the intensity and tragedy of the novel, and you gave me the courage to cut it. I think you said something like, “you shouldn't apologize for making your readers feel deeply.”

AK: The longer I do this, the more I’m convinced that the only reliable indicator of a book’s durability and quality is whether it elicits strong feelings in the reader. Whatever those feelings may be, if they are present, then the book is doing something right.

I get more upset by indifferent reviews than I do by strongly negative ones. A.S. King and I were talking just a couple weeks ago about a Goodreads review for her first novel, where the reviewer thinks she’s angry at the book—thinks she’s writing a bad review—but by the end of the review both of us agreed that the reviewer got exactly what we’d hoped from the book: very strong feelings. We didn’t take issue with a single point from the review.

Polite people generally apologize for causing emotional distress in others, so I’m never surprised to see a line like the one you cut. But I always try to remind the author that emotional distress is what the reader is paying for.

AHP: There’s an intensity and darkness to Out of Darkness that connects it to The Knife and the Butterfly, but I also feel like both novels leave room for hope, too. Does that resonate with you? Or do you see the works differently?

AK: I do absolutely find a hopeful quality in all your books. It’s hard earned and never more so than in this book. Brokenness and injustice are things I find in your work, but you also have a faith in human resilience that balances the brutality. That’s hope.

AHP: Hope is a thing with me. It’s literally my middle name, so how could it not be?

There are some books, like Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2014), that are so full of promise and hope that you can’t miss it. I mean, that’s a novel set in the 1980s where two gay, Mexican-American boys discover and embrace their love for each other in part because of the support they receive from their parents. Ben finds ways to tell stories that get to the heart of growth and healing without being sentimental.

In Out of Darkness, I’d say that the possibility for hope depends on a certain kind of commitment from the reader. Or maybe what the novel does is create an appetite for hope—an authentic desire for life possibilities that go beyond what the characters achieve. My characters improvise wholeness, cobble together a family, but it can’t hold.

AK: There is something so, so gorgeous in the magical little family Wash, Naomi, Cari, and Beto make for themselves. Yes, it cannot possibly survive, but the short spring of that incredible family is unbearably and eternally beautiful.

Sabine River and the East Texas woods where Wash, Naomi, and the twins improvise a family. Image by Michael Gras.

AHP: That does sound like grounds for hope. Readers might only wish for things to be different for Wash, Naomi, and the twins as they’re reading, but maybe that wish can turn into something like a broader awareness that an unconventional family can have a rightness to it that is just as fundamental as any biological family. That’s one possibility I see in the novel when I think about it as a reader or lit professor rather than a writer. I try not to do that too much because it’s not the lit professor in me who runs the show when I’m writing.

My academic work has a place in my heart and my brain, but the novels I’ve written take up a lot more space. They’re like houses I once lived in but have had to leave behind. Each one is unique, and I have a distinct sense of what it felt like to be inside them, what the building and repairs and maintenance cost me.

I have favorite spaces, too, passages that, at least in my imagination, are where I felt most at home as a writer, most myself.

Is there anything comparable for you when you think about the books you’ve edited? What’s their afterlife like?

AK: I find myself remembering the process more than the book itself. I mean, I can recall the books as needed, but the pleasant memories that come unbidden are more about the experience of working on the book—the editing on my own, the phone conversations, the emails, the lunches. It’s as close as I get to old army buddies.

AHP: I look forward to reenlisting for another tour of duty. I’ll take the pen over the sword any day.

Cynsational Notes 

Find Ashley online at www.ashleyperez.com, where her blog is full of writerly and readerly insights, or at www.latinosinkidlit.com, where she’s part of a team of bloggers working to get the word out about awesome kid lit by Latina/o authors or about Latina/o experiences.

Follow her on Twitter (@ashleyhopeperez) and on Facebook.

Also follow Carolrhoda Lab on Twitter (@CarolrhodaLab) and Facebook for news and reviews of Out of Darkness and other fantastic Carolrhoda Lab titles.

Andrew Karre keeps us all entertained and informed from Twitter via @andrewkarre.

Librarians, bloggers, booksellers, reviewers, and teacher types: don’t forget to go to netgalley.com by the end of July to request an advance read of Out of Darkness.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover for Borrowed Time by Greg Leitich Smith (Clarion, Nov. 2015). From the promotional copy:

In this exhilarating time-travel adventure and sequel to Chronal Engine, Max Pierson-Takahashi and his friend Petra find themselves whisked back to the treacherous, dinosaur-packed Cretaceous Period.

Soon they discover they have more to worry about than dinosaurs when they encounter a girl from the 1920s with a revolver and one thing on her mind—to avenge the death of her father, Isambard Campbell, whom she believes was killed by Max.

Meanwhile, Max’s then-thirteen-year-old uncles, Nate and Brady, have inadvertently time-traveled from 1985 and have problems of their own as they face mosasaurs, tyrannosaurs, and other dangers. The two pairs must not only fight for survival, but join forces to find their way home to their respective decades. Mind-bending time twists and white-knuckle encounters with deadly creatures plus a realistic peek into the age of the dinosaurs make this a perfect choice for anyone looking for a survival story with nonstop action.

Congratulations to Greg, whose novel Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook, 2014) has been nominated for the Rhode Island Children's Book Award!

More News & Giveaways

Bombing Through It by Dave King from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "The actual process of getting the story down on paper has a unique intimacy and particularity. Stories are organic. You’ve got to let them grow as you write, even if you’ve already built a trellis."

The Symbiosis of Science & Poetry by Sylvia Vardell from Poetry for Children. Peek: "...people who feel uncomfortable with science often feel very comfortable with language arts, so a poem might be the perfect way to introduce a science topic."

How to Read with Rising Kinders and First Graders This Summer by Jill Eisenberg from Lee & Low. Peek: "...the ultimate goal here is to show our beginning and soon-to-be readers how reading can be a joyful, positive experience. This mindset will set them up for the best start to their school journey." See also Let the Summertime Reading Hoopla Begin by Frances Lee Hall from ReaderKidz.

Lee & Low Announces 16th Annual New Voices Award Contest from Lee & Low. Peek: "The Award will be given for a children’s picture book manuscript by a writer of color. The Award winner receives a cash prize of $1000 and our standard publication contract, including our basic advance and royalties for a first time author. An Honor Award winner will receive a cash prize of $500."

Depression Has No Straight Lines, Only Lies by Kelly Jensen from Disability in Kid Lit. Peek: "Depression feels like it needs a cause or a destination. The truth is, though, that depression is chemical; it’s a brain misfiring and miswiring in ways that don’t have an easy-to-point-to reason for happening."

Nancy Sondel's 13th Annual Pacific Coast Children's Writer Workshop & Retreat will take place Oct. 2 to Oct. 4 in Santa Cruz, California. Faculty: HarperCollins executive editor Kristen Pettit and agent Stephen Barr of Writers House.

Writing During Summer Travels by Kristi Holl from Writer's First Aid. Peek: "You may have activities planned (or planned for you) that don’t seem to show any gaps of free time. If so, look again."

Cynsational Giveaways


Don't miss the Kissing In America (by Margo Rabb (HarperCollins, 2015)) Audio Tour & Giveaway!

This Week at Cynsations


More Personally

What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig (HarperCollins) with Emma J. Virjan & Greg Leitich Smith.
The lovely & brilliant author-illustrator!

Congratulations to Varsha Bajaj (Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (Albert Whitman, 2014)), SCBWI's Crystal Kite winner for the Texas/Oklahoma region! See the full list of winners.

Congratulations to Vicky Lorencen for signing with Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, and congratulations to Erin for signing Vicky!

Personal Links

TX/OK Crystal Kite Winner!

Cynsational Events

Join Cynthia at 11 a.m. May 30 in conjunction with the YA Book Club at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

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

Cynthia will speak from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. June 28 on an Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC) program--"We Need Diverse Books: How to Move from Talk to Action Panel"--at the 2015 Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco.
Learn more!
Cynthia will teach on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts from July 8 to July 19.

Join Cynthia from July 30 to Aug. 2 at GeekyCon in Orlando, Florida. See more information.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will lead a YA Writing Retreat for A Room of Her Own Foundation from Aug. 10 to Aug. 16 at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

Cynthia will lead a breakout session on "Diversity in Children's and YA Literature" Aug. 22 at East Texas Book Fest at the Harvey Hall Convention Center in Tyler, Texas.

Cynthia will speak Sept. 19 at the Mansfield, Texas Book Festival.

Cynthia will speak Sept. 29 at Richardson Public Library in Richardson, Texas.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Guest Post: Amy & David Axelrod on The History of Magic & The Bullet Catch: Murder by Misadventure

See facebook page, excerpt  & educator guide.
By Amy Axelrod & David Axelrod
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

When we began, we knew that we wanted to write a novel about a down-and-out magician during World War I.

We knew the setting would be New York City and that this washed-up magician, who we named Barzini, would be involved with a roster of famous illusionists of the time. And finally we knew we would have a young protagonist, named Leo, whose life would serendipitously change from being a petty criminal to a stage magician.

Both of us had interest in the history of stage magic and its legendary personalities. The early 1900s was an exciting and innovative period in the history of magic. But it was also a time of intense competition, jealousies and theft.

When trying to come up with a plot for the book, we kept circling around one magician in particular: Chung Ling Soo.

He was an American named William Ellsworth Robinson who masqueraded as a Chinese conjurer and became a world-wide sensation. His signature illusion was the bullet catch, which would ultimately kill him during a performance. Chung Ling Soo became Barzini’s nemesis, and Leo became entangled in their rivalry.

Writing an historical novel is like being on a treasure hunt. One clue leads to another and another.

We read and cross-referenced many Internet sources, biographies on Houdini and books on illusion written by magicians of the golden era.

Chung Ling Soo (Ransom Center, U.T., Austin)
One particular gem was a book written by Harry Houdini in 1906. The Right Way to Do Wrong: An Exposé of Successful Criminals, was intended to be a handbook educating the public on the ways of criminals. Instead, it read as a primer on how to commit crime, and was taken out of print. This book proved helpful when creating Leo, a pickpocket, and his gang of thieves.

We also researched the magicians’ collection and Houdini’s private scrapbooks at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

Other books used in researching The Bullet Catch (Holiday House, 2015):

Jay, Ricky. Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women. New York: Warner Books, 1986.

Jay’s Journal of Anomalies. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001.

Celebrations of Curious Characters. San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books 2011.

Steinmeyer, Jim. The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the Marvelous Chinese Conjurer. Boston: de Capo Press, 2006.

Cynsational Notes 

Follow Amy @amy_axelrod & David @chunglingwho at Twitter

Amy Axelrod has written many picture books, including The Pigs Will Be Pigs Math Series (Simon & Schuster), and the middle-grade novel Your Friend in Fashion, Abby Shapiro (Holiday House).

David Axelrod works in publishing and has written numerous YA novels under pseudonyms.

Read more about their research and collaboration at Amy's blog at Goodreads.

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