Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Authors, Editor & Illustrator Interview: Fred Korematsu Speaks Up (Fighting for Justice)

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi are the co-authors of Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, illustrated by Yukata Houlette (Heyday, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Fred Korematsu liked listening to music on the radio, playing tennis, and hanging around with his friends—just like lots of other Americans. 

But everything changed when the United States went to war with Japan in 1941 and the government forced all people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes on the West Coast and move to distant prison camps. 

This included Fred, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Japan many years before. But Fred refused to go. He knew that what the government was doing was unfair. And when he got put in jail for resisting, he knew he couldn’t give up.

Inspired by the award-winning book for adults
Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California by Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi (Heyday, 2009), the Fighting for Justice series introduces young readers to real-life heroes and heroines of social progress. 

The story of Fred Korematsu’s fight against discrimination explores the life of one courageous person who made the United States a fairer place for all Americans, and it encourages all of us to speak up for justice.

Today we welcome the co-authors, editor and illustrator to share with Cynsations readers a glimpse into the creative process behind the book.

Stan, can you talk about the inspiration behind the book and series?

Fred Korematsu
I wish I could claim credit for initiating the book and series, but they are the brainchildren of Heyday’s founder and retired publisher, Malcolm Margolin.

He thought a children’s version of Wherever There’s a Fight, the book I co-wrote with Elaine Elinson about the history of civil rights in California, would inspire kids.

That initial idea morphed into a plan for a series of books about civil liberties heroes and heroines.

Fred Korematsu is one of my heroes. So I’m delighted that the series is launching with his story.

He stood virtually alone against a powerful government he knew was violating the rights of Japanese Americans. His fight for justice was difficult. But he ultimately prevailed.

He dedicated the final decades of his life to ensuring that others would not suffer the same unfair discrimination Japanese Americans endured during World War II.

His story is all the more important now with threats to Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and LGBT people. Kids need to know that we can organize and fight against injustice.

Laura, white headband, seated far end of line, blockading
Lawrence Livermore Lab. She was arrested soon after. 
Laura, what inspired you to work on this project?

I was delighted to be asked to come on board!

Molly, our editor at Heyday, approached me and asked if I could get involved as a person with children’s book experience, to help Stan create a story pitched at our middle grade readership. It was a dream project for me.

I love that the book, and the series, focus on people who have fought for social justice and civil liberties in California history.

I grew up as the child of activist parents, and got involved in activism myself in middle school and high school, including getting arrested as part of anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid protests.

I learned from my family and from my peers, that my own happiness and well-being is connected to other people’s, and that when we fight for everyone’s rights, we make the whole world better.


I am so excited that we were able to create a book that will hopefully inspire young people today to feel like they can have a voice, and the power to speak up when they see something unfair.

We are in a time when basic civil liberties are being threatened and undermined.

I hope that our story will help kids to understand more about what happened to Fred Korematsu, and how 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were put in jail during WWII just for looking like the enemy.

This can help them to reflect on issues today — a potential registry of Muslim Americans along with the travel ban for people from predominently Muslim countries, anti-immigrant attitudes, and other forms of discrimination — and consider how they can have the power, and the ability, to speak up themselves.

Molly, how did the editorial process for this book work? Was it similar to other books you’d worked on or different?

I feel very fortunate to have been part of this project, working with a group of such thoughtful and caring creative people to share Fred Korematsu's story.

As we built the book from the ground up, the editorial process was more collaborative than that of any other project I've worked on.

We spent many afternoons together talking about Fred's experiences and how to best convey them to young readers, and it was nice that we all lived in the Bay Area and could brainstorm in person.

Stan and Laura did amazing work collaborating on the writing front, melding their different strengths, and Yutaka thought about illustrations that would complement the themes of each chapter, then beautifully realized them.

Meanwhile, we gathered photos, art works, news headlines, and other documents to help extend Fred's story.


On a basic level, the challenge was helping readers understand and relate to Fred's story, which
involves a complicated legal fight.

There was a constant balancing act of keeping things simple enough for our audience while presenting the complexity of topics accurately. Our conversations ranged from discussing how to talk about racism with this age group to how to present the fact that the U.S. government lied during Fred's trial.

Through the lens of his story, we talked about many important and difficult subjects that are increasingly relevant today.

From the text to the visuals, our process involved discussing possibilities, trying out ideas and approaches, and gathering input.

We were grateful to have had the help and guidance of Fred's children Karen and Ken Korematsu, local teachers and librarians, a focus group of fourth-grade students, and staff at several nonprofits and historical societies.

Slowly, the book began to take shape, coalescing more and more until it "came into its own" as the book it is today, a book that feels, to me, like a real community project, and one that will continue to expand beyond its covers as kids start to read and interact with it.

I hope readers are moved to have the same kinds of important conversations that we had while making the book, and that Fred's example moves all of us to act when we see others treated unfairly.

Yutaka, what was your process for thinking about and creating the artwork?

I had never worked on a narrative project that involved so many drawings before, and honestly, I was a bit overwhelmed at first.

To try to make the project less daunting, I tried to plan as much as I could before diving too deep into any one drawing. Planning involved things like creating a color-palette, gathering reference images and trying to work out the compositions for as many of the rough sketches as I could.

The color-palette was inspired by kamishibai illustrations from the 40s and 50s.

Kamishibai, or 'paper-theater' was a popular Japanese form of storytelling for kids that took place outdoors. The illustrations for 'kamishibai' were intended to be eye-catching even from afar, so the colors often have a bright, pop-art feel to them. But many of the remaining 'kamishibai' from the 40s and 50s are a faded and worn out from heavy use in the outdoors. I was hoping this mix of bright and faded colors would subtly evoke an older time without feeling musty.

Because the story takes place in specific times and places, there were many reference images to find, like Fred's old high school, barbershops from the 40s, and Tanforan. 


Molly and Diane from Heyday helped out a lot by giving me some reference books about life in the
internment camps. I was also inspired by the artworks of Miné Okubo and Chiura Obata, who were both imprisoned at Topaz.

I think that in any art-form, once you introduce more than one element, the relationship between the elements becomes impossible not to think about.

So it was important for me that the drawings worked well individually but also in relation to each other. When creating rough sketches, I tried to vary the compositions from one drawing to the next to try to make them flow together but also to not be too redundant.

Once most of the planning was done, I started work on the final drawings, which is the most fun. I used a drawing tablet for the line work and a combination of watercolors, color-pencil and Photoshop for coloring.

Cynsational Notes
Yutaka, Laura, Molly and Stan


Fred Korematsu Speaks Up received a starred review from Kirkus. "Written in free verse, Fred's story engages in powerful bursts and shows how speaking out brings complex consequences. Enhanced with pictures and archival materials, well-researched and approachable historical essays interspersed throughout Fred's account offer context, while Houlette's reverent illustrations give humanity to Fred's plight."

Laura Atkins is an author, teacher and independent children's book editor with more than 20 years editorial experience. She recently completed an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts and also holds an MA in children's literature from Roehampton University.

Stan Yogi managed development programs for the ACLU of Northern California for 14 years. In addition to Wherever There's a Fight, he also coedited two literary anthologies. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, MELUS, Los Angeles Daily Journal and several anthologies.

Yutaka Houlette is a Japanese-American illustrator and front-end engineer based in Oakland, California. He designs and builds user interfaces for CommitChange, a fundraising platform for nonprofits and social good companies. His illustrations have also appeared in Smithsonian Magazine and Orion Magazine.

Molly Woodward is a freelance editor and the former children's acquisitions editor at Heyday, an independent, nonprofit publisher. Heyday promotes widespread awareness and celebration of California’s many cultures, landscapes, and boundary-breaking ideas.
Insets in the book provide broader historical context, timelines, definitions
and questions for readers to reflect on their own contexts.





Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Author Interview: Cynthia Levinson on The Youngest Marcher

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Cynthia Levinson's most recent book has a direct correlation to one of her previous titles. I talked with her recently about writing her first picture book, social justice and biscuits.

Tell us about the process of transforming We've Got A Job into a picture book.

You’re right—The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton (Atheneum, 2017) evolved out of We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree Publishers, 2012).

When my agent, Erin Murphy, called to tell me about interest in the book proposal I’d written on this remarkable event, she said there were two offers—one for a picture book and the other for a middle grade. What did I want to do?

My instincts told me the story needed multiple perspectives, and I opted for a book for 10 to 14 year olds.

The idea for a picture book, though, never went away. But, how could I reduce a 176-page volume about four children who protested segregation, a vicious police chief who aimed fire hoses and snarling dogs at them and 3000 others and then sent them to jail down to a 40-page illustrated book for six- to ten-year-olds? What could I leave out? What could I leave in?

One of those four children was only nine years old. With a protagonist the same age as my readership, Audrey Faye Hendricks instantly became the “main character.” So, her experiences drove the story. She didn’t know that Martin Luther King spent time in solitary confinement. She knew him as her parents’ friend Mike, who came for dinner and wolfed down her momma’s Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter. So, the famous Letter from Birmingham Jail got chucked, and the rolls stayed.

This also meant that Audrey’s voice had to narrate. She and her momma “coo-ooked!” At church meetings, she “sang and swayed…her voice spirited and spiritual.” Marching to protest, she knew she was going “to j-a-a-il!”

Also, just about everything had to come in the traditional picture-book threes. “Front-row seats, cool water, elevators with white-gloved operators—laws said those were for white folks.”

But, can you send a nine-year-old to jail in a picture book?

Yes. Because Audrey was actually sentenced to jail—for a whole week. She was even threatened with solitary herself.

Yet, kids instinctively know that nine-year-olds triumph. And that’s what really makes this a book for them.

The timing of this book couldn't be more perfect - millions of people have been out marching for a cause recently. How did you manage that?

Well, of course, I didn’t! Timing is pretty much out of the control of authors and illustrators. And this book was no exception.

The Youngest Marcher was originally slated to publish in January 2015. But, Vanessa Brantley Newton is, for good reasons, a hugely popular artist. After she agreed to take on this book, she received offers to illustrate several others, which took precedence. So, ours was delayed twice, for a year both times.

I admit I was a little grumpy! This was my first picture book, and I couldn’t wait to see how she was going to bring Audrey to life. But, you’re right again—the timing could not be more fortuitous. The book came out at exactly the right time, though in a way no one could predict.

Our country is bitterly divided—nearly in half—over what our government should and should not do, over who is president and how we pick her or him, over immigration, race relations, possible terrorism, and much more. Protests since the president was inaugurated in January have been larger and more persistent even than ones I remember from the civil rights period and the anti-Vietnam War era.

Audrey not only inspires people to raise their voices—she inspired me to go to Washington, DC for the Women’s March!—she also gives them hope that protest works.

On some level, your books all have a social justice tie-in. When you started writing for children, did you see yourself as a social justice writer? 

Yes, they do all relate to social justice. But, no, I didn’t intend that to be the case. In fact, when the first book, We’ve Got a Job, came out, I didn’t know if I’d ever write or publish another book. But, I should have guessed that, if there was one, it would somehow be related.

The second book was Watch Out for Flying Kids! How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community (Peachtree Publishers, 2015).

It’s about social justice through circus arts. Basically, youth circus programs bring together kids who would not otherwise meet—and, in fact, if they did, they might well be enemies—and have them perform such dangerous tricks that they have to support each other!

In this case, the kids I highlight are Jewish Hebrew-speakers and Muslim Arabic-speakers in Israel (including a hijab-wearing contortionist!) as well as white, black, poor, and wealthy Americans in St. Louis. Some are even gang members, and there’s an uncanny connection between them and tribes and clans in the Middle East.

It’s undoubtedly my most diverse book.

But, remarkably, the kids all get along so well that, while I was writing it, I was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough conflict to keep readers interested! For better or worse, there were tiffs, accidents, crime, and derring-do to make things lively.

Many people might disagree but my biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton, subtitled, Do All the Good You Can, (Balzer + Bray, 2016) focuses on her Methodist drive to do good in the world. I think that’s literally what has made her run.

Of course, the book also looks into her mistakes, including those that set the country back, such as the healthcare debacle. But, she truly cares about young people and families.


The next book, too—as yet untitled—could be said to have a similar slant. At the suggestion of my Peachtree editor, I’m co-writing it with my husband, Sandy, and it’s on the problems with the U.S. Constitution.

He has written for many years—and convinced me—that the Constitution is the source of many injustices in the country. One of our examples is the Senate, which gives every state, regardless of its size, two senators; as a result, small states and their needs outweigh large states in Congress. Another of our examples is the Electoral College, which is also affected by the two-senators-per-state arrangement.

The book after that? Who knows?!


Cynsational Notes:

Kirkus called The Youngest Marcher "a vivid reminder that it took a community to fight segregation and the community responded." Simon & Schuster produced a  Common Core curriculum guide prepared by Myra Zarnowski, and Alyson Beecher and Michele Knott developed a classroom discussion guide.

Vanessa Brantley Newton recently did a live illustration for the New York Times and talked about Audrey with Maria Russo, children's book editor, as she drew.

The launch party for The Youngest Marcher included making protest signs and singing protest songs. Several Austin children's authors and their families helped celebrate the event.

Shelley Ann Jackson and Jeff Crosby assisted with sign making. Harper and her classmates
shared what they learned from a recent school visit as part of Cynthia's presentation. 

Christina Soontornvat and her family made signs too.
Cory Putman Oakes and her daughter make a sign.







Monday, February 20, 2017

New Voice: Sue Lowell Gallion on Pug Meets Pig

for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Sue Lowell Gallion is the debut author of Pug Meets Pig (Beach Lane, 2016), illustrated by Joyce Wan. From the promotional copy:

Meet Pug. Pug is one happy pup. He has his own yard, his own bowl, and his own cozy bed. That is, until Pig moves in! Pig eats from Pug's bowl, interrupts Pug's work, and, worst of all, sleeps in Pug's bed. Will Pug and Pig ever learn to live together as friends? 

With adorable illustrations from Joyce Wan, this sweet and silly story about a darling duo shares the timeless themes of embracing change, being kind to others, and finding friends in unlikely places.

What first inspired you to write for kids? Could you tell us about your path to publication?

I was one of those kids who read when I was supposed to be practicing the piano. I’d play the left hand part and prop a book up on the music stand. I was always surprised when my mom figured it out.

My path wound through a journalism degree from Southern Methodist University, writing for hospitals and energy companies, a bunch of moves, two kids, and finally, about 10 years ago, a class in children’s literature at a local community college. Our final assignment was writing an ABC book. I was hooked.

Congratulations on the release of Pug Meets Pig, illustrated by Joyce Wan (Beach Lane, 2016). Such a cute idea! What was your initial spark of inspiration?

A friend told me about the rescue pig adopted by her daughter’s family. Unfortunately, the new pig addition was not welcomed by the family pug, whose name was Charlotte. The family eventually found a different home for the pig, who they had named Wilbur (of course!)

Literary destiny, perhaps?

What was the timeline between spark and publication and what were the major events along the way?

I started writing the story as an early reader in 2011. I sent it out in various versions (early reader and picture book) and it collected a variety of rejections. In 2013, I attended the SCBWI LA and purchased a manuscript critique. Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books critiqued Pug Meets Pig, and we had an encouraging editorial conversation. I revised the manuscript, and it sold to Beach Lane two months later. Joyce Wan agreed to illustrate it the next month. It’s still unbelievable to me.

I see there's already a sequel in the works, Pug & Pig Trick or Treat (Summer 2017). Huzzah! Picture book sequels are rare, especially if they're under contract prior to the release of the book. How did this come to be?

In October 2014, the little terrier mix that lived next door appeared outside in a skintight glow-in-the-dark Halloween costume. The immediate reaction of my dog (a black lab mix) was that the terrier in costume was an embarrassment to all of dog-dom. Watching the two of them got me thinking about how Pug and Pig would react to wearing costumes.

I wrote the manuscript, shared it with my critique partners, and my agent sent it on to Andrea Welch at Beach Lane, even though we knew that the chances of selling a seasonal book featuring Pug and Pig at that time were really remote. Surprise – they bought it right away!

What did Joyce Wan's art bring to your text?

Joyce Wan brought Pug and Pig to life with such warmth and expression. I think the world she created for them truly helps kids relate to the characters and their changing feelings. I am so fortunate to be partners with her and Beach Lane Books in the Pug and Pig books.

You've been the SCBWI Kansas Regional Advisor for several years. Tell us about your region. What Kansas/Missouri-authored or –illustrated books should we seek out?

The Kansas and Missouri SCBWI regions just merged at the beginning of 2017, so we stretch from the Colorado border to the Mississippi River now. We’re excited about the expanded opportunities for our writers and illustrators.

It’s impossible to pick out just a few books, but there are some great combinations of Kansas/Missouri author and illustrator members, like Bridget Heos and Jennifer PlecasI, Fly (Henry Holt), and the upcoming The Twelve Days Of Christmas In Missouri (Sterling 2017) written by Ann Ingalls and illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith. Daniel Miyares' Bring Me A Rock! (Simon & Schuster, 2016), is one of our members, and he spoke at our 2016 Middle of the Map conference in Kansas City. He’s illustrating a book by another Kansas/Missouri member, Jody Jensen Shaffer, A Chip Off The Old Block (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin), releasing in 2018.

Tucker
What's it like, being RA? What are your responsibilities? What are the challenges, and what do you love about it?

The best part about being an RA? Helping to build the community of children’s book creators, and offering opportunities for people to advance their craft. Being a creative person can be lonely. We need other creative people to encourage us to be brave, to share our work, and to keep striving to make it better.

This winter I’ve been reading Danielle Krysa’s Your Inner Critic Is A Big Jerk and Other Truths About Being Creative (Chronicle 2016). In her chapter titled Creating in a Vacuum Sucks (isn't that a great title?), she says, “Creativity requires warmth and nurturing from trusted sources in order to flourish. . . The quest to find your people may seem daunting, but it delivers a huge reward.”
Exactly! I step down as RA in April, but I’ll continue to be involved with SCBWI.

What do you do outside of your writing life?

Tucker sits by my desk while I work and begs for walks, so we do a lot of that. My 15-month-old grandson lives nearby, aren't I blessed? Watching him grow and change is a wonder.

And I believe in baking therapy. There's nothing like the smell of molasses crinkles fresh from
the oven.

Cynsational Notes:

Pug Meets Pig received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Peek: "Gallion wisely lets the reward of selflessness speak for itself, while Wan's pert, roly-poly characters look like something lifted out of reader's own toy boxes."

Additional resources include an activity kit, a Common Core/state standards aligned discussion and activity guide and coloring sheets.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

45 Books to Counter Islamophobia Through Stories from Kita B World. Peek: "...we invite you to fight fear with knowledge. In the same spirit of solidarity, we ask - can you help us take these books to as many children as possible in homes, schools, libraries and communities? We are a small team but with these resources, we are offering you a way to have conversations about diversity, address fears, and create a sense of belonging and respect as we all raise the next generation of leaders."

CCBC Multicultural Statistics for 2016 from the Cooperative Children's Book Center, analysis of approximately 3,400 children's books published last year. Peek: "Two broad categories--Asian/Pacifics and Latinos--saw a notable jump in numbers this year for both 'by' and 'about.' The numbers for African and African Americans and First/Native Nations remained disappointingly static or dropped. Those mixed numbers reflect our mixed feelings: It’s both an both an exciting and frustrating time for multicultural literature advocates."

Nine Statistics That Writers Should Know About Amazon from Jane Friedman. Peek: "Since 2013, the traditional book publishing industry has enjoyed about a 3% increase in print book sales. However, print book sales have grown largely because Amazon sold more print books."

On the Use of Sensitivity Readers in Publishing by Christine Ro at Literary Hub, including perspectives from writer Becky Albertalli, reader Sangu Mandanna and publisher Stacy Whitman of Tu Books at Lee & Low. Peek: "Whitman advises authors to plan enough time with sensitivity readers early enough in the writing process so that major developmental changes can be made if needed. Otherwise, a sensitivity read could become a bandage, applied retroactively, when preventive medicine would have been more appropriate."

Day 13: Ibi Zoboi at the Brown Bookshelf. Peek: "Why not a blockbuster book featuring a black girl that not only saves herself or her community, but saves the world? How about a love story featuring two black characters where no one dies?"

Want to raise empowered women? Start in middle school by Phyllis Fagell for the Washington Post. Peek: "It’s important that parents encourage girls to take credit for their work....girls worry about coming across as arrogant and just want to fit in, but the problem is that they start to believe their own rhetoric and experience self-doubt."

Priscilla Chaves and the Art of Designing Book Covers by Sarah Johnson on Through The Tollbooth. Peek: "...I research ideas and look for images and typography that will work well on the cover."

Brazos Valley Blooms: Celebrating Our First 25 Years Creating for Kids from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 4 in College Station, Texas.

Not Writing for Writers by Allie Larkin from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "Many of the writers I know have hobbies and habits that fuel their writing either directly or indirectly. And, because I love talking to writers about how they tick, I reached out to some friends to ask how their non-writing time fuels their writing."

Long-awaited Philip Pullman series The Book of Dust revealed by Heloise Wood for The Bookseller. Peek: "Pullman said the book was neither a prequel or a sequel. 'In fact, The Book of Dust is… an ‘equel’. It doesn’t stand before or after His Dark Materials, but beside it,' he said. 'It’s a different story, but there are settings that readers of His Dark Materials will recognise, and characters they’ve met before.'

Cynsational Awards

Congratulations to NAACP Image Award winners Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Colin Bootman (Lee & Low, 2016) and Jason Reynolds As Brave As You (Simon & Schuster, 2016). See also, Black Scientists who Changed the World by Gwen Glazer, a biography list from the New York Public Library.

This Week at Cynsations
Cynsational Giveaway





More Personally


With my literary agent, Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Ltd.
Wow! What a whirlwind week! I'm home again, after a wonderful time visiting second graders in conjunction with An Open Book Foundation, dining with my VCFA family at AWP, and touristy trips to the National Museum of the American Indian, National Air and Space Museum, and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Social Media panel with Martha Brockenbrough, Travis Jonker & Matthew Winner 
From there--after two Delta flights cancelled for weather--I hopped onto Amtrak for the 18th Annual SCBWI Winter Conference in New York City, where I spoke at a a PAL program session on Career Building, participated in a panel on Social Networking, and led a workshop on writing diverse characters and topics. It was a wonderful experience all around, filled with learning, inspiration and connecting with old and new friends. See my tweet deck for quotes and more photo coverage.

Thanks to Open Book, VCFA, SCBWI, and everyone who attended my programs! See also Twitter Highlights & Resonate Moments of #NY17SCBWI by Lee Wind and Cynthia Leitich Smith & Ellen Hopkins Workshop by Martha Brockenbrough from The Official SCBWI Blog

Now, I'm happy to be reading for my graduate students and rebooting my life here in Austin.

In other news, Bethany Hegedus will mentor the winner of the 2017 Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award. Critiques submitted for the annual Austin SCBWI conference are considered by conference faculty who nominate a manuscript for the award. The nominated writers make up the finalists announced at the conference. Finalist manuscripts are then submitted to Bethany, who will choose the winner.

Reminder: Entries are still being accepted for the Katherine Patterson Prize, being judged this year by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Deadline is March 1.

Personal Links

More Personally - Gayleen Rabakukk


The Lego Batman Movie helped me get in touch with my inner child.
Personal Links

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Guest Post: Crossing the Bar: Or a YA Fiction Writer Tries Out Adult Non-Fiction

By Marianne Monson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Up until the publication of my most recent book, Frontier Grit: The Untold True Stories of Pioneer Women (Shadow Mountain, 2016), I’ve primarily considered myself a young adult fiction writer.

When my editor asked me to take on this project, I protested that I wasn’t a historian, but she insisted that she wanted the book to have a strong narrative voice. The concept she proposed was a collection of pioneer biographies with particular relevance to contemporary society. I accepted the project with the caveat that I be able to define a “pioneer” as a historical woman who explored beyond the boundaries of her own culture, thereby allowing the inclusion of Native American and Mexican American perspectives, which don’t often appear in a genre dominated by westward expansionism.

Though I have always been fascinated by pioneer history and had written two historical fiction novels set in the time period, the transition from YA novel to adult non-fiction required adjustment. Surprisingly, one of the least painful aspects was being required to document my sources. I’ve long wished for an uncluttered way to do exactly that in a young adult novel, so the ability to use a footnote without interrupting the text offered great relief.

Donaldina Cameron House, built in 1874
as the Presbyterian Mission Home 
Inevitable gaps in research proved more problematic, however. In a novel when I come across something research can’t resolve, I invent an informed, likely detail to suit the story’s needs; this practice is not so encouraged in adult non-fiction, of course. Faced with occasional contradictory sources, I took refuge in explanatory footnotes where I simply explained the varying points of views.

One challenge I didn’t expect was that writing about real women left me with a daunting awareness that I was presenting a person’s life. Though I tried my best to be true to the facts, I also wanted to stay true to the values that each woman herself found most important. For example, as I struggled to fit the lengthy, incredible life of Donaldina Cameron (a woman who fought the sex trafficking of Chinese girls in San Francisco for forty years) into one chapter, I initially included a fair amount about her love life (because, hey, for both YA and adult readers, romance is fun). But as I worked my way through revisions, I found myself paring back the romance, and then paring it back once more.

Bricks twisted by fire
With additional room in the chapter, I was able to include the story of an abduction of one of Donaldina’s girls by a criminal ring aided and abetted by local officials instead. Though I have no proof, I believe Donaldina would have been pleased with my revision. After all, in her older years she loved to tease, “I am glad I did not settle for matrimony. If I had my life to live over again, I’d do it the same way. Only I’d be better prepared.”

I also wrestled with trying to understand how the voice of the book would be different targeting adult readers, rather than young adults. During the course of researching Donaldina’s chapter, while considering this question, I visited the building where she lived and worked for forty years. The bricks of the building’s façade are warped and twisted, charred remnants of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906—a fire Donaldina braved twice—once to bring her girls to safety, and once, later, when she returned to rescue their records.
Some buildings are haunted by the presence of the lives they once housed, as if portions of their being has seeped into the very walls. The Cameron Home is such a place. Walking across scratched hardwood floors; marveling at the secret cupboards where girls were hidden for their protection; walking the length of the stage where young actors once performed plays for Theodore and Eleanor Roosevelt—all of it was like spending an afternoon in Donaldina’s presence.

As I strived to listen to the silent spaces between the walls, in order to tell her story with greater truth, I grew aware of the myriad ages who had lived within that space, and the concern over the lines between young adult, fiction, and non-fiction at last dissolved. Left behind was simply an awareness of story and the storyteller’s duty to reveal it—a reminder to tell each tale in a way that the intended audience, no matter the age, is beckoned close to the fire.
Cynsational Notes

Marianne Monson is the author of nine books, including a picture book about fairies, a YA novel, a chapter book series, and the recently released: Frontier Grit: The Untold True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women. She teaches Creative Writing at Portland Community College.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Author Interview & Giveaway: Sebastian Robertson on Writing His Father's Rock and Roll Biography

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

My love of music outweighs my love of the written word. So, I am delighted when I find children’s
book biographies written about any of my favorite musicians. I rush to devour them and learn more about the creative geniuses whose beautiful lyrics and magical melodies have lifted my spirit or given me comfort throughout my life.

I am honored to shine Cynsations’ spotlight today on Sebastian Robertson (Mohawk/Cayuga), a children’s book author, musician and composer doing that work.

Sebastian has written about rock and roll legends - including his father, Robbie Robertson, the award-winning lead guitarist and primary songwriter for The Band. In Rock and Roll Highway (Henry Holt, 2014),

Sebastian chronicles his father’s musical path as a child playing guitar with his First Nations relatives in Canada to playing on the road professionally by age fifteen. The picture book biography also talks about Buddy Holly’s advice for Robbie, recording and touring with Bob Dylan, and having The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, filmed by Martin Scorsese.  

Sebastian graciously agreed to share thoughts about his work and give away two signed copies of Rock & Rock Highway to Cynsations’ readers.

What excites you about writing children’s literature? 

As a teenager I taught Mommy and Me classes and felt a really strong connection with the kids. It wasn’t just a job it was a passion of mine for many, many years. In fact, it was through my experience teaching that the idea for Legends, Icons and Rebels was birthed.

Monitoring how the children reacted to and engaged with the music that we would play during class time was a lot of fun, especially when I could get them grooving to some James Brown or Aretha. Tapping into a mind that isn’t jaded or isn’t already made up is probably the most exciting aspect of writing for children.

Which do you enjoy writing the most – fiction, nonfiction, picture books, novels or something else? 

At this point, my three works consist of non-fiction with a focus on music and history. It’s just where I’ve ended up. I didn’t strive for this specific type of storytelling but it’s most certainly a good fit for me. I do have a couple fiction ideas up my sleeve that I’m pretty excited about, though.

What was it like writing about your father’s life in Rock and Roll Highway? 

It was a blast. It kind of took me back to a more child-like place as if I were doing a book report on my dad. We would meet for lunch and I would ask him all kinds of questions.

When I was near completing the book I realized how important this interviewing process was so I asked the publisher if I could include a short Q&A in the back of the book. They agreed, and if I could convey any message through that book, it would be for children to interview their parents.

As parents we sometimes forget relatable details that I found extremely interesting. Little things, like who was your best friend, what was your favorite thing to eat and how much homework did you have?

Tell me about the relationship between writing books and music in your life? 

The relationship has become that I’m always looking for a musical angle to tell kids about in my books. It’s what I do and it’s what I know so coming from a place of that much passion feels very intuitive.

What is your writing process?

I try not to think too much. My truth is that more often than not, my first idea is the best one. For instance, in Rock And Roll Highway, my first thought was to mirror The Last Waltz and begin the book at the end of the story. It felt right, I got a charge from it so away I went, full steam ahead. That and a lot of staring at a blinking cursor.

What has been the most challenging part of being a writer?

The balance between my music career and my writing career can make things difficult. Time management! I wish I was more disciplined.

An indigenous writer? 

Being indigenous has provided more opportunities for me at this point. It has opened up the world of possibilities creatively. After collaborating with my dad on Hiawatha And The Peacemaker (Abrams, 2015), I am now looking at writing more books based on my heritage.

The importance of indigenous culture is not a priority in our country, which is a travesty. Without sounding grandiose, if I can contribute on any level to bringing this culture more to the forefront it will be an incredible success for me.

Have you seen your writing evolve over the years? 

Most definitely, I’m not as terrible as I used to be.

What are you writing now? 

I have two books I’m currently developing but I’ve gotta’ keep ‘em on the down low. One is a non-fiction inspired by my First Nations background and one is a fiction idea that is based in music. Who would’ve guessed?

Sebastian Robertson,
photo by David Jordan Williams


Cynsational Notes

Before Rock and Roll Highway, Sebastian Robertson co-authored Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed the World (Tundra Books, 2013), with his father, Jim Guerinot, and Jared Levine. It introduces young readers to 27 pioneering musicians and singers across several genres of music and includes two CDs with a classic track from each artist with the hardcover version.

When he’s not writing children’s books, Sebastian works as a composer and songwriter. He has written music for many major television series, ads, video games and films. He lives with his family in Los Angeles.

Although Traci Sorell had heard many of Robbie Robertson’s iconic songs with The Band, she did not know of him until she bought his 1994 third solo album, Music for the Native Americans, which is still one of her favorites. Since then, she has enjoyed sharing his music and Sebastian’s books with her family and friends.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Guest Post: Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick on Co-Writing Picture Books

By Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick
Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick

for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

“Writing is a solitary occupation and one of its hazards is loneliness.” – Joyce Carol Oates

“The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement.” – Will Self

“Writing is an antisocial act.” – Martha Grimes


Writing.

Solitary, lonely, antisocial – except for when it’s not.

Erin, Audrey and Liz at the Writing Barn
Most of us choose to write partly because we don’t mind (read: are desperate for) some alone time. But even antisocial writers wearing sweats and old socks know that sometimes, two heads are better than one.

A few years ago, we were agent-mates with a mutually gushy appreciation for each other. Before long, we became accountability and commiseration partners. Then one day, our agent (Erin Murphy) said something about the two of us having a book baby together, and we were off to the races.

A lot of collaborators are married folks who write together over the kitchen table. Our method is more platonic and long distance. Wondering how that works?

Well… here are a few FAQs!

Do we use Google Docs? We do not.
Do we use the edit mode in Word? We do not.
Do we hash out each and every change over the phone? Nope. We don’t do that either.

This is what we do do:

We know for sure Matt did all the illustrations
One of us gets a brilliant idea and tosses it out to the other over email. It’s generally received with great enthusiasm because we’re game like that. Next comes maybe a title and a few lines in a Word doc – a beginning. And from then on, we’ve both got full-on freedom to make of the manuscript what we will. We take turns adding, omitting, and rearranging lines and phrases – without permission, explanation or conversation.

It’s kind of mad-cap. It’s kind of brutal. It’s kind of fun and insanely liberating.

Several days or weeks later, twelve or twenty-two drafts later, we have this shiny new thing that is neither hers nor mine, but ours.

And here’s one of the great and unexpected results of this practice: Somehow, we both find it easier to love that final product – maybe because we’re a little less hard on each other than we are on our own solo selves, maybe because someone else did half the work, or maybe just because we had such a good time all the way along.

Even still, lots of our originally brilliant ideas end up on the cutting room floor. Which is why we’re particularly tickled to be celebrating the debut of Bob, Not Bob (Disney-Hyperion, 2017), illustrated by Matthew Cordell today. (Dear Substitute, illustrated by Chris Raschka, follows next year, also from Disney-Hyperion).

Now, who wrote what bits of those books – or what bits of this post? We wish we could stay to reveal that but we’ve got to back to our solitary, antisocial efforts now.

Thanks for having us!

Cynsational Notes

Bob, Not Bob received a starred review from Publishers' Weekly. Peek: "Scanlon and Vernick
understand the way that being sick makes kids need comfort that they don't usually need, how it makes them unrecognizable even to themselves, and the comfort a mother's presence brings. Every page offers a giggle."

Liz Garton Scanlon is the author of numerous beloved books for young people, including the highly-acclaimed, Caldecott-honored picture book All the World (Simon & Schuster, 2009), illustrated by Marla Frazee, and her debut novel for middle grade readers, The Great Good Summer (Simon & Schuster, 2015). She is a poet, teacher, and presenter at schools, libraries and conferences and a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Colorado and Wisconsin, and now lives with her husband and two daughters in Austin, Texas.

Audrey Vernick is the author of books for young readers, including the award-winning Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team (Clarion, 2012), illustrated by Steven Salerno and the acclaimed novels Two Naomis (Balzer + Bray, 2016), co-authored by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Screaming at the Ump (Clarion, 2014) and Water Balloon (Clarion, 2011). She has also published more than a dozen picture books and speaks at conferences and elementary schools around the country. She lives near the ocean in New Jersey with her family.




Monday, February 13, 2017

In Memory: Anna Dewdney

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Anna Dewdney Dies; Author of 'Llama Llama' Books Was 50 from the New York Times.

Anna illustrated a number of books in the 1990s, then became an author/illustrator with the publication of Llama, Lama Red Pajama (Viking, 2005). Since then, Llama Llama and his Mama have appeared in 18 additional titles and sold more than 10 million copies. A Netflix series based on Dewdney's books is expected later this year.

Publishers Weekly shared thoughts from Jen Loja, president of Penguin Young Readers, "The entire Penguin Young Readers family is heartbroken. And as we grieve, we also celebrate Anna's life, in dedicating ourselves to carrying forward her mission of putting books into as many little hands as possible. We will miss her so, but consider ourselves to lucky to be her publishing family and her partner in her legacy."

Anna recently completed Little Excavator (Viking), which will be released June 6, 2017. 

In 2013, Anna wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal: How Books Can Teach Your Child to Care. Peek: "When we read with a child, we are doing so much more than teaching him to read or instilling in her a love of language," she wrote. "We are doing something that I believe is just as powerful, and it is something that we are losing as a culture: by reading with a child, we are teaching that child to be human. When we open a book, and share our voice and imagination with a child, that child learns to see the world through someone else's eyes."

Anna requested those wishing to honor her should read to a child.


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