Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Survivors: Melissa Stewart on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children's Author

Learn more about Melissa Stewart.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success? 

A piece of paper on the idea board above my desk says:

“Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.” 

Those six simple words are a constant reminder of a lesson I learned the hard way at the beginning of my writing career.

My first book, Life Without Light: A Journey to Earth’s Dark Ecosystems (Franklin Watts), was published in 1998—twenty years ago.

At the time, I was working as a science editor for Franklin Watts and Children’s Press, two nonfiction imprints that had been independent children’s publishing companies for decades, but had recently merged with encyclopedia giant Grolier Publishing Company.

(Today, Watts, CP, and Grolier are all owned by Scholastic.)

Book #1 
I continued to work at that job until 2000. By then, I had published two more nonfiction books, and I had six additional titles under contract with companies that published for the school and library market.

I was confident that I could support myself as a writer.

But (you knew it was coming, right?) two things I never could have predicted happened in 2001.

There was an economic recession, and Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. These events along with the rise of the internet, which made straightforward, kid-friendly information widely available for free, spelled disaster for the school and library publishing market.

Some publishers went bankrupt.

Others adjusted their publication schedules, pushing books that were supposed to come out in 2001 to 2002, 2003, even 2004.

They stopped acquiring new titles for several years. There was no work. Period.

I was single and had bills to pay, so there was only one option: I had to reinvent myself.

I joined the SCBWI, found a critique group, and began learning about other areas of the children’s publishing market, especially the trade market. I wrote magazine articles for adults.

I taught writing at a local community college. I worked as a substitute teacher.

Most of all, I realized how foolish I’d been to put all my eggs into one publishing basket.

Book #186, Sept. 2018
I needed to diversify by writing for as many different markets as possible, and, going forward, I needed to pay close attention to how nonfiction writing for children changed over time. I needed to be flexible and adaptable.

I needed to always be on the lookout for new opportunities.

Since that time, nonfiction for children has continued to shift and change, and, luckily, I’ve been able to evolve along with it.

Sometimes I spotted opportunities and actively pursued them. And to be honest, sometimes opportunities fell into my lap, and all I had to do was say, “Yes.”

Some of the projects I’ve been involved with failed miserably. Early sales didn’t live up to publishers’ expectations, and books-in-progress were cancelled midstream. But enough of them worked out that my 186th book, Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis (Peachtree, 2018), entered the world in September.

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

Like all writers, I’ve faced my share of obstacles and setbacks, but it’s hard to have regrets when you get to spend your life doing something you love.

Maybe I should have worried less, but even with twenty years of experience, I still worry.

Maybe I’ll never get a great book idea again.

If I do get a great idea, maybe I won’t be able to find the information I need to write it.

February, 2018
If I do find the information, maybe I won’t be able to write a manuscript that lives up to my vision.

If I do write a manuscript I’m happy with, maybe no one will acquire it.

If an editor does acquire it, maybe it will get terrible reviews and it won’t find its audience.

I’m constantly reminding myself that I need to relax and enjoy the ride, to savor the time I spend digging up fascinating facts and presenting them in a way that will delight as well as inform my young readers.

The creative process is what really matters, and time spent “in the flow” is a gift to be treasured.

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

When I began working as an editor in early 1990s, there was just one kind of nonfiction—what we now call traditional nonfiction. But since then, nonfiction has transformed in dramatic and exciting ways.

Today, there are five distinct categories of nonfiction, which I described in this recent article, Understanding and Teaching the Five Kids of Nonfiction (School Library Journal, April 2018).

The following visuals summarize the characteristics and publication opportunities for each category:


Not every nonfiction book fits snugly into one of these five categories. For example, some titles are a blend of narrative nonfiction and expository literature. Others are a mixture of traditional nonfiction and browsable books. But understanding these five basic categories can help book creators, educators, and young readers begin to understand the wide world of nonfiction.

Thanks to that piece of paper tacked to the idea board above my desk—you know, the one that says: “Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself.”—I’ve written books in all five categories, and that diversification has allowed me to continue doing a job I love for twenty years.

Thanks to Common Core, nonfiction is finally having its moment in the sun.

Right now, today, is the golden age of nonfiction. And even though Common Core is on its way out, the state educational standards replacing are still emphasizing nonfiction reading and writing.

That’s good news for nonfiction creators.

Melissa's Critique Group:
Top, l to r: Deborah Kops, Mary LaPointe-Malchik,  Steve Anderson, Betsy Uhrig, Joannie Duris, Heather Lang, Sam Kane;
Middle, l to r: Sharon Abra Hanen, Jeanne Bracken;
Bottom,  l to r: Melissa Stewart, Sarah Brannen.
What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Stop and celebrate! It’s not easy to publish a book, so don’t take your accomplishment for granted. Savor every moment of the journey and all the small successes along the way.

Celebrate the acquisition. Celebrate when the book heads off to the printer. Celebrate every review that doesn’t suck. And, of course, celebrate the launch.

But don’t stop there. If the book receives an honor or an award, celebrate some more. And if you’re lucky enough to get fan mail, celebrate that, too.

It means kids are connecting with your work, and that’s the best reason of all to celebrate.

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

Research in Hawaii.
Right now, educational leaders like Donalyn Miller, Lucy Calkins, Pernille Ripp, Teri Lesesne, John Schumacker, Colby Sharp, Jillian Heise, Susannah Richards, Alyson Beecher, and Frankie Sibberson are emphasizing the importance of using finely-crafted fiction and nonfiction children’s books in the classroom.

As read alouds. As mentor texts for writing instruction. As part of text sets for teaching science and social studies.

They’re also encouraging student choice in reading materials and recommending that educators develop large, robust classroom and school libraries with a range of titles that can meet all students’ needs.

My hope is that their voices will be heard, and schools will allocate the funds necessary to purchase plenty of high-quality books for their students. The kids will benefit, but so will book creators.

Publishers will be more willing to take risks, which means creators can be more innovative.

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

I hope that I can continue to stretch and grow as a writer and evolve with the market. And I hope that my writing continues to delight as well as inform young readers.


Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children's-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Monday, September 17, 2018

In Memory: David R. Davis

for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

David R. Davis died May 24 as Cynsations was beginning summer hiatus.

Author David Davis Was a Friend, wrote Glenn Dromgoole for The Eagle. Peek:
"I'm sad to report that David Davis, one of my favorite Texas children's authors and a good friend, died May 24... 
"David had a wonderful sense of humor and often teamed up with fellow Fort Worth children's author Jan Peck to put on delightful programs for schools, libraries and book festivals."
From Jan Peck:
"My favorite story David told in schools was about how he hated math and got in trouble when he was a kid:
When Grandpaw heard about me not studying my math, he didn’t get mad at me. he just took me fishing at Cibolo Creek in San Antonio.We got out in the lake and Grandpaw said, 'Dave, what’s this I hear about you not studying your math?'
I said, 'Aww, Grandpaw, I don’t like math! I just like to draw.'
A school visit poster David created that includes Jan and David's book titles.
'Come over here, boy. I want you to feel my hands.'
I felt my grandpa’s hands, 'They’re rough as a corn cob, ain’t they?'
'Yes, sir,' I said. 'I’ve had to work like a rented mule my whole life because I didn’t get an education. I don’t want that for you, Dave. Listen, you study hard and learn all you can because a man that can read can teach himself anything else.'
And that’s what I did, I read everything. I read about drawing, and I taught myself to draw cartoons. I learned to write and got to do picture books and I learned my math.
Then David would turn to the kids and say, "You have this wonderful school with all these caring teachers and your good librarian. Use your library and read these books about things you’re interested in for at least five minutes a day. And by the time you grow up, you’ll be an expert in what you have learned."
In addition to 16 picture books, David published pen and ink artwork, cartoons, poems, humor, and short stories.

His short story, "Black Diamond," won the Writer's Digest Short Story Contest.

He also self-published several humor books, including Travels With Grandpaw: A Texas Memoir (Amazon Digital, 2011), his venture into nonfiction writing for adults.

He was an active speaker and presenter at educational conferences and schools. He did programs from Pre-K all the way to graduating teachers at college level.

He presented at many book festivals and appeared on TV, radio, and as a featured author at the Texas Book Festival.

David was my partner in rhyme, my soul-brother and my friend, my writing/art/music soulmate, and my playmate (we were like kids).

We did millions of school visits together and even wrote together, The Green Mother Goose (illustrated by Carin Berger, Sterling, 2011).

He always makes me laugh, even through tears. I love him with all my heart forever! Rest in Peace, David!

From Alan Fearl Stacy:
"It is a fact that you never really get anywhere in life without close friendships. 
I met David Davis at an SCBWI conference through mutual friends. After looking at my art, he recommended I try to get book illustration work with Pelican Publishing.
A few books later with another publisher, David asked me if I would like to illustrate a book he was working on, Texas Zeke and the Longhorn (Pelican, 2006).
Before working on the illustrations, I asked David if there were any suggestions he had. He replied “no” and said that was entirely up to me. I showed him some color sketches of the character of Texas Zeke.
'Is that me?' he asked with a gleam in his eyes. I was a little embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t help see him as Texas Zeke. 'Oh, that’s great! I can use that.' He ran off with a grin like a kid who was given a Christmas present.
He had such a great wit that I dubbed him the Mark Twain of children’s literature."
From Diane Roberts:
"As I've said a zillion times, laughter is the best medicine of all and when I was around David Davis I simply felt better just being with him.
He loved his work, his family, the kids he wrote for, and he was as happy as a duck in water with a pencil in his hands. He hit life head-on and didn't dilly dally around wasting time. 
He read a million books and love to quote Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury
One afternoon as we all lingered at our 4 Star Critique Den, I asked him how could I overcome my writer's block. I couldn't believed I'd published two middle grade novels, (taking 50 years to get in print) and I was so stuck on my next book. 
He jumped right in with a solution and quoted Ray Bradbury: 'Living at risk is like jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down,' he told me. He encouraged me to just dive in and write. 'Take a risk,' he'd say. 'It's worth it.' 
It's true. I have taken lots of risks, some work and some didn't but at least I've done it. 
David was an honest-to-the-core author. He never met someone he couldn't open up a conversation with. We all miss him but so blessed to have been in his circle of friends."
From Mark Leeds:
"David Davis guided us all toward deep insights made simple. Minute to learn, lifetime to master insights like 'cut it down and flesh it out.'
He taught me this 10 years ago in my first critique with him and I’m still trying to do this every time I write and re-write. What can I cut from this chapter that really isn’t necessary? What cannot be cut because there is something profound about it? How do I make that thing even better?
But more than anything he ever said about writing, David made us better writers by bringing his own writing to critique group.
We saw a lifetime of craftsmanship in whatever he brought and we were all the better for having heard it, the artistry of his storytelling inspiring us to come back the next week, better than we were the week before.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith,
Robin Galbraith, & Gayleen Rabukukk
for Cynsations

Awards

Congratulations to winners and finalists of the Writers' League of Texas Book Awards, including Austin authors Laura Creedle and Chris Barton, who won in the middle grade/young adult and picture book categories, respectively.

We recently spoke with Laura about the inspiration behind her debut novel, The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). She said:
"I had never written romance, so I went looking for romantic texts throughout history for inspiration.

"I found the Letters of Abelard and Heloise, and they floored me. So passionate and intelligent and nerdy (if you can call someone from the 13th century a nerd). I loved the letters so much, I decided they would quote each other sections of the letters. Lily are Abelard are not great at talking in real life, so I wanted their relationship to develop through text.

"I absolutely love a deep dive into research. I reread the letters over and over until I had whole sections memorized. 
"I’m ADHD and Dyslexic, and a lot of Lily’s experiences are my own. The novel really started with an unfortunate graduate school experience. I’d always wanted to learn to teach dyslexic students how to read and so I enrolled in a certified academic language therapist program. I loved the course work, but I couldn’t read the rubric, and ultimately I failed the class. I’m not good with abbreviations, different type faces, colored paper—the kind of stuff teachers don’t always think about. 
"I knew that a lot of neurodiverse people have this kind of experience in school. Hard enough when you’re an adult, but devastating when you are a kid."
Look for more of our interview with Laura about her unique path to publication later this fall.

Congrats, Melanie!
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray) is the winner of 2018 Amelia Elizabeth Walden Book Award from ALAN. Finalists were:
Peek: "...the award allows for the sum of $5,000 to be presented annually to the author of a young adult title selected by the ALAN Amelia Elizabeth Walden Book Award Committee as demonstrating a positive approach to life, widespread teen appeal, and literary merit."

See more information.

Congrats to all and a shout out to VCFA WCYA alum (and my former advisee) Melanie Crowder!

Diversity

The Movement to Not Italicize Foreign Words by Lee Wind from SCBWI: The Blog. Peek: “...think about how you handle non-English words in your manuscript. Are you unnecessarily ‘othering’ the people who speak that language? It's a practice worth taking another, more critical, look at.”

Publishing Mentorship Program Focuses on Representation by John Maher from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “‘It came out of some conversations that we were having here at Penguin Young Readers about how we could improve diversity by attracting more diverse talent and becoming a more inclusive company as a whole,’ said Joanna Cárdenas, an editor at the new Kokila imprint.”

‘Dire Statistics’ Show YA Fiction is Becoming Less Diverse, Warns Report by Alison Flood from The Guardian. Peek: "Study finds that fewer books for young adults by black and minority ethnic authors have been published in the U.K. since 2010, despite rise in #diversity initiatives...."

Interview: Traci Sorell.
11 Lessons I Learned From a Comic Book About Using Correct Pronouns by Melody Schreiber from Book Riot. Peek: "When should I open a group discussion encouraging people to mention their pronouns? Is it okay to ask what pronouns someone uses? What happens if you ever slip up?"

Picture Book Recommendations: First/Native Nations by Jillian Helse from Heise Reads & Recommends. Peek: “I am concerned about the number of teachers I see recommending books... that are problematic in their representations of First/Native Nations cultures... many educators just don't know...To help with that, I decided to make a post compiling a few picture book recommendations…”

Educators Can Help Migrant Children Who Were Separated from Their Parents by Kara Yorio from School Library Journal. Peek: “For [migrant] kids who remain in America, educators and librarians will become some of the first adults charged with regaining their trust and helping repair the damage done by the separation and detention.”

Marketing

Five Ways to Sell More Books for the Holidays by Penny Sansevieri from Jane Friedman. Peek: “I used to laugh at the ‘Christmas-in-July’ ads until I promoted my first holiday-related book. We actually started the promotion in July, and July turned out to be the perfect time.”

How to Create an Unforgettable Author Visit by Erika Liodice from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “Even though you, the author, may be the main attraction, the experience isn’t really about you; it’s about them—the students, their parents, and the school’s faculty, staff, and event coordinators."

Publishing

New Children’s Book Award Celebrates Latino Talent from Arte Público Press. Peek: “...the inaugural Salinas de Alba Award for Latino Children’s Literature...seeks to address the need for more culturally relevant, bilingual reading materials for Hispanic children ...The award will be given on an annual basis to one manuscript for a children’s picture book.” Manuscript deadline: Dec. 31, 2018.

Chronicle, Trustbridge to Launch Chinese Children’s Book Imprint by Calvin Reid from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “San Francisco publisher Chronicle Books is partnering with Trustbridge Global Media to launch Chronicle Bridge, a new imprint that will publish and distribute Chinese-language editions of selected Chronicle children’s books in China.”

The Rewards and Challenges of Self-Publishing Children’s Books: Q&A with Four Authors by Sangeeta Mehta from Jane Friedman. Peek: “As the traditional book publishing landscape becomes increasingly complex and competitive, more writers are considering independent paths. But given their audience, children’s book authors who self-publish face very different challenges from those who write for adults, especially in terms of design, production, and promotion.”

Newly Updated! Children's-YA Agents on Twitter and Children's-YA Editors on Twitter from Debbie Ridpath Ohi.

Foreshadow YA: A Serial YA Anthology, Published Digitally. Peek: "to offer a unique new online venue for young adult short stories, with a commitment to showcasing underrepresented voices, boosting emerging writers, and highlighting the beauty and power of YA fiction. Each month, for one full calendar year, we will publish a new issue featuring three stellar YA stories."

Writing Craft

On Writing a Novel that People Call Political by Natalia Sylvester from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “As an immigrant and a Latina whose recent novel deals with family sacrifice, love, generational trauma, secrets, marriage, adolescence, borders, and immigration, I’m often told...the topic of immigration is very relevant right now….to me and millions like me, immigration is not a ‘topic’ but a lived experience.”

Twenty Years of Writing: The Stats by Caroline Starr Rose from Project Mayhem. Peek: “The writing life (and the publication process) is a long-road, long-view, long-term journey. There's no other way to look at it."

Words When There Are No Words by Donald Maass from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "Human experience is more than the five senses..... It is grasping what cannot be held, seeing what is invisible, walking where there is no road, dwelling in spaces that don’t exist."

Five Steps to Writing a Verse Novel by Jennifer Gennari from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “Writing in verse has all the challenges of a novel—plot, character, voice, setting—plus rhythm and lyrical language. And it has to make sense for your character….To get started, follow these five essential steps.”

Let Me Tell You by Cecilia Tan from Uncanny Magazine. Peek: “I have a beef with ‘show, don’t tell,’...The power to ‘show, not tell’ stemmed from the writing for an audience that shared so many assumptions with them that the audience would feel that those settings and stories were ‘universal.’”

Writing a Picture Book? Focus on Your Character’s Emotional Story - Advice from Jim Averbeck by Lee Wind from SCBWI. Peek: "...I discussed the emotional underpinning of the story with the book's editor (@NealPorterBooks)...the resulting editorial direction made a book that is deeper and more poignant for it."

Is Collaborative Writing on the Rise? And Making the Most of It by Heather Webb from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...from a writer’s standpoint, collaboration carries quite a few pros and cons, so you choose to go down this road, it’s important to weigh all the factors."

The Every-Novel-Is-Wildly-Different Guide to Revision by Julianna Baggot from Writer Unboxed. Peek: "...when someone asks me – and it’s a common question – how many drafts I usually write of a novel, I know they’ve likely never written a novel and definitely haven’t written two of them."

Author/Illustrator Insights

Carmen Oliver & Don Tate in Conversation from the Highlights Foundation. Peek from Don: “There is no one path, there are many. We’re all headed to the same place–book publishing!–but each of us will take a slightly different road. Some roads will be more smooth….Others will take you down through the valley, up over mountains, through long patches of potholes. ”

Member Interview: Cate Berry from Austin SCBWI. Peek: “The best stories come from noticing what’s right in front of you. A recent sale of mine (not announced yet!) was born right out of my backyard...You just have to train your mind to pay attention. And always have a notebook handy.”

A Conservation with Dhonielle Clayton, “Belles” Author and 2018 Teen Live! Keynoter by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek: “ My teenage journals and my obsessions with beauty and makeup were my inspiration for The Belles.”

Native YA: Four Native American Authors on Their Messages for Teens by Alia Jones from School Library Journal. Peek: “I’d advise educators to be aware of their own biases, even if they might be perceived as positive ones. I’ve been struck by the number of people who project a spiritual quality onto me, because they believe Indians are inherently more spiritual.”

Illustrating a Difficult Subject by Brian Lies from 24 Carrot Writing. Peek: "I didn’t set out to write a story about grief. Sometimes a story idea comes to you and won’t leave you alone. This was one of those ideas."

What Is It About a Good Ghost Story That Fascinates Me So Much? By Nova Ren Suma from YA Interrrobang. Peek: “Writing into the unknown can be terrifying. But go on and distract me with a ghost story and that makes the fear tangible. It takes shape.”

Interview: Adib Khorram by Edi Campbell from CrazyQuiltEdi. Peek: "...a big part of it was remembering my own teenage years, trying to navigate high school and friendships while also managing my own depression."

Libraries

From Libraries to Laundromats: Learning in Non-Traditional Spaces in Detroit from Libraries Without Borders. Peek: “‘Wash & Learn,’ a summer learning program that creates pop-up library spaces...transforms laundromats into informal learning spaces where patrons can access high-quality early learning and literacy materials as they wait for their clothes to wash and dry.”

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Events

2018 Texas Book Festival Author Reveal Reception in Austin
Cynthia Leitich Smith will be speaking and/or signing books at the following fall events:
More Personally - Cynthia

Hello, children's-YA writers, readers, and book lovers of all stripes! Welcome back to Cynsations! We have a terrific line up of posts already in the queue and look forward to sharing them with you. Today, I'm on my way home from LoonSong in Minnesota - more on that later.

Exciting news! My upcoming YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick), will be released Oct. 9.

"Highly recommended!" says Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children's Literature. Peek: "There’s so much love and warmth and reality all through Hearts Unbroken. And so much hope! And some absolutely terrific ground-breaking moves!” Read the whole review.

"This insightful, complex take on a difficult topic...," says Catherine Thureson in a review from The Foreword. "Even considering its seriousness, the novel is fun to read, with charming characters and a nicely balanced teen romance. Thought-provoking and engaging, Hearts Unbroken will leave its young adult audience with a great deal to consider."

Booklist reflects: "In a time when #ownvoices stories are rising in popularity among YA readers, this brings an insightful story to the conversation...this is truly a thought-provoking and educational novel."


Pre-orders are really important to the success of books. To show my appreciation to anyone supports my writing in that way, between now and Oct. 8, if you pre-order Hearts Unbroken from my independent bookstore, BookPeople, or from another bookseller and fill out this form, you'll receive an autographed copy and a little swag, too!

Please also considering pre-ordering the paperback edition of Feral Pride (Book 3 in the Feral trilogy)(Candlewick, Oct. 2018). Thank you.

Thank you to Alia Jones, Joseph Bruchac, Dawn Quigley, Candlewick Press and everyone at ALA - New Orleans!
Giveaways! Are you a high school teacher, YA librarian or Native teen group leader? Check out this classroom-set ARC giveaway of Hearts Unbroken on Twitter! Are you a YA reader? Enter to win one of 10 hardcover copies of Hearts Unbroken from YA and Kids! Book Central.

2018 Summer Middle Grade & YA Book List by Naomi Bishop from the American Indian Library Association. Deeply honored to see Hearts Unbroken on this list.

Hardcover giveaway!
11 Diverse Rom-Com Novels That Need to Be Made Into Movies ASAP by Kerri Jarema from Bustle. How fun to see Hearts Unbroken on this list!

27 New Young Adult Books That Need to Be On Your Radar by Kerri Jarema from Bustle. PEEK: "...there is nothing more fun as a reader than making a seasonal TBR of all the books you are pumped to read in the coming months, but especially when there is so much to choose from... These books are the absolute must-reads." Another Hearts Unbroken mention!

Cynthia Leitich Smith - Hearts Unbroken Unraveled from Travis Jonker from The Yarn at School Library Journal. A podcast interview.

Native America Calling: Writing for Young Adults: Listen to me, fellow author Dawn Quigley and editors Arthur A. Levine of Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic and Monica Perez of Charlesbridge discuss writing and publishing Native YA literature.

More Personally - Gayleen

I spent a large chunk of the summer sharing the joys of creative writing with elementary school students through the Austin Public Library Foundation’s Badgerdog writing program.

Working with these students - many of them avid middle grade readers - gave me laser focus and inspiration that jumpstarted my own writing, making for a very productive summer.

A note from one of my students that melted my heart!
In July, I became the Assistant Regional Advisor for our Austin SCBWI chapter.

More Personally- Robin

My summer book highlight was visiting Hooray for Books! in Alexandria, Virginia to get a stack of sports-themed middle grade novels signed by local authors  Laura ShovanJ.H. Diehl, and Hena Khan.

I can't wait to give out these fantastic books at Halloween!

Laura Shovan, J.H. Diehl, and Hena Khan at Hooray for Books!
Personal Links- Cynthia

The Tyranny of the Exclamation Point
Inside the Cartoonists of Color Database
What Does an Indigenous Superhero Look Like?
Austin Central Library in Time Magazine's World's Greatest Places 2018

Personal Links- Gayleen

Alienation Proves Fertile State of Mind for Lauren Groff by Colleen Walsh from The Harvard Gazette. Peek: “Can you talk about your process and how you manage work and family? …until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.​”

Personal Links- Robin

The Enduring Appeal of the 'Fake Relationship' in Rom-Com
10 Books to Read After Watching To All The Boys I've Loved Before
If Goodreads Users Reviewed Your Life The Way They Reviewed Your Book

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Intern Insights: Highlights of SCBWI LA 2018

Lin Oliver interviews Lois Lowry at SCBWI L.A. Conference
By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

In August, I attended my very first SCBWI international summer conference. It was truly an amazing experience, but also a bit overwhelming with nearly 1,200 people in attendance.

Thankfully, we all share a love of children's books, making it much easier to talk with people than typical social situations.

I came home with both inspirational and practical advice, and have a few highlights to share.

By far the most magical aspect of the conference was SCBWI Co-founder and Executive Director Lin Oliver’s lunchtime chat with Lois Lowry. She thoughtfully reflected on her 40-year career with humor and humility as she addressed questions many of us who create for children continually ask ourselves.

When The Giver (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) was published, some people thought the subject was too dark for a children’s book. One website even called her “the Antichrist.”

None of it changed Lowry's philosophy about what topics should be covered in children’s literature: dark subjects exist in life and need to be dealt with and written about with sensitivity.
“I don’t think there’s anything that shouldn’t be written about,” she said. 
Lowry also talked about the book’s genesis. Her father’s battle with Alzheimer's Disease made her think deeply about memories and ask the question, “what if there were a way to manipulate human memory to forget pain?”

Like so many writers, Lowry admitted she wonders if she’ll have another good idea and also mentioned writing “a book that was unpublishable (but we won’t dwell on that.).” Even her casual asides are full of sage wisdom!

Her next book, On the Horizon, is due out in 2020. It addresses the familiar theme of human connections in a global way, exploring our relationships to each other around the world.

She gave an example of global connections, explaining how she discovered at a 1994 awards ceremony that she and author/illustrator Allen Say lived in the same Japanese town following World War II. They had seen one another, but never had a conversation or discovered the connection, until winning the Newbery and Caldecott awards in the same year.

An interesting thread I found in several of keynotes were references to music.


Daniel José Older used The Killers' 2003 song Mr. Brightside to illustrate a number of writing insights:
  • the importance of a good beginning 
  • “good books are made of bad decisions” 
  • trust the reader 
  • earn your metaphors 
  • end the story when the story is over
  • "words are supposed to sound good when you put them together"
  • He urged everyone to read their work out loud before submitting it.

My volunteer duty at the conference was to assist authors Deborah Heiligman and Deborah Halverson during the autograph party. So much fun chatting with the Deborahs and those getting books signed!

Lynda Mullaly Hunt talked about vulnerability being a double-edged sword and how The Last Song, written by Bernie Taupin, performed by Elton John was the catalyst for her to open up to a fellow teacher who ended up becoming a mentor in several aspects of life and writing.

Brian Pinkney played the drums on stage and talked about how drumming and dreaming helped him discover the text for Max Found Two Sticks (Simon & Schuster, 1994). Napping as part of the creative process sounds too good to pass up!

Andrea Davis Pinkney starts each day by walking up and spending 30 minutes with her eyes closed thinking about things that make her happy. Then, because writers write every single day, she writes from 4:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. before exercising and heading off to her other job as editor at Scholastic.

Other creative advice came from Mike Curato: “Make things that make you smile” and eat cake, and ice cream. He went on to say, making a book is about discovering who we are.

During the agent panel, Jenny Bent offered a bit of advice in wake of recent events: request publishing contracts with split payments, so the publisher sends royalties to both creators and agents, rather than all funds going to the literary agency first.

In addition to the keynotes, I also met some fabulous people during the breakouts and social events.

Illustrators Manelle Oliphant and Gladys Jose, both new members of their SCBWI Regional Teams. Manelle is the illustrator coordinator in Utah/Southern Idaho, while Gladys is assistant regional advisor in Florida.


SCBWI co-founder and Executive Director Lin Oliver and SCBWI board member Arthur A. Levine of Scholastic.

I was very excited to meet Cynsations Reporters Angela Cerrito, (Europe) and Christopher Cheng
 (Asia, Australia & New Zeland). 




Wednesday, September 12, 2018

New Voice: Traci Sorell on We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga

Traci & Frane in Tahlequah (Cherokee Nation Capital), June 2017
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Traci Sorell is the debut author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) is a word that Cherokee people use to express gratitude. 

Beginning in the fall with the Cherokee New Year and ending in summer, follow a full Cherokee year of celebrations and experiences. 

...this nonfiction look at one group of Native Americans is appended with a glossary and the complete Cherokee syllabary, originally created by Sequoyah.

What first led you to begin writing for young readers?

I decided to start writing for children when my son was four. I had collected picture books since my undergraduate days, particularly those featuring Native Nations. Having cycled through my books and those at my local library, I had difficulty finding any trade-published contemporary picture books featuring Cherokee children to read to my young son.

My tribe, the Cherokee Nation, is the largest in the U.S. with over 350,000 enrolled citizens. How could I not find a picture book about our present-day life and culture? It made me think that other Cherokee parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents must be facing a similar problem.

I contacted a friend from graduate school who I knew had trade published books for children for advice. I attended my first SCBWI conference about writing for children in October 2013 and decided to work toward a full-time career as an author in 2015.

For me, the biggest challenge was making sure I understood the craft, so I could execute the writing. I’ve written in many different formats previously, but I’ll admit writing for children is more difficult than writing a legal brief or code.

Writing sparse, lyrical text for a picture book to capture and hold the attention of discriminating younger readers is a challenge. They will put down the book, walk away, and turn their attention elsewhere when the story starts to drag – either from the words or the art. They have no sense of “I should finish this, so I’ll trudge on through it.” If they aren’t interested, it’s over.

Knowing that invigorates me to write at a higher level, knowing every word has to be precise to evoke the emotion, convey the information or provoke the question that I want reader to experience, understand or ask.

Thankfully, I have wonderful people – fellow authors, my agent and editors - who keep me on track if I stray from that.

Please share with us the story of your literary apprenticeship. How did you master the craft of picture book writing?

I read a lot of picture books written in the last three years to learn what the market wanted. That helped me shape and edit my own voice to write sparse, lyrical texts that sell in the marketplace.

I benefitted from reading Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books (Writer's Digest, 2009) and connecting with published authors in my local KS-MO chapter of SCBWI who provided solid critiques and guided to me beneficial workshops to further develop my voice and craft.

From there, I expanded my network to connecting with other authors via social media, including you!

Congratulations on the release of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018)! What was the timeline between your creative inspiration and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Traci & Charlesbridge editor Karen Boss
I wrote We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga in November 2015 because I won a free Skype critique for a nonfiction picture book from award-winning author Suzanne Slade through Picture Book Builders and had nothing to submit!

After revising based on her direction, I submitted the second draft with a few minor tweaks to some wording to ten publishers a month later. Then I sold it to Charlesbridge through the slush pile (unsolicited/unagented) in March 2016.

After Charlesbridge bought it, my editor Karen Boss did not have any substantial changes. She moved some text around based on the design layout that she wanted for the book, but otherwise the text was finalized quickly.

Karen asked if I had any illustrators in mind. I gave her a list of Native and non-Native illustrators. Frané was on that list. I was so overjoyed when she was selected.

The whole debut process has gone so smoothly, and I’m so thankful to work with such a wonderful team of people.

What did Frané Lessac’s art bring to your text? To what extent did you work together?

Her artwork takes the text to a different level. The detail, color, humor, and vivaciousness she creates in the book humbles me. I am in awe of what she envisioned and subsequently painted for all readers to enjoy.

Initially I sent her links to a variety of webpages and videos with information about the Cherokee Nation, its citizens, culture, and history to help her start her research.

Unless you’ve been to the Cherokee Nation (in the northeast corner of Oklahoma), you don’t have a feel for the people, landscape, flora and fauna. It’s not like anywhere else I’ve ever been in all my years of living, studying and traveling elsewhere on this continent and abroad.

Even though she didn’t receive the research travel grant she applied for, she traveled to the Cherokee Nation from Western Australia last summer anyway. So we actually got to meet and spend a few days together in late June 2017.

I introduced her to fellow Cherokee citizens who work in our cultural and museum programs. She shared her rough sketches and sought their input to make sure she had details correct.

We traveled with Will Chavez, the Assistant Editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, our tribal newspaper, where he showed her a number of historic sites, types of foliage and animals common in the area. He also provided photos from his extensive collection for her to consult later as she created the final artwork. My brother, a trained chef, prepared bean bread and hominy soup (both mentioned in the book) for her to sample.

So I like to think she enjoyed the hospitality that Cherokee people are known for, while also working to gather the information she needed to tell her part of the story.

Tell us more about how you decided to weave Cherokee words into the story and your approach on what to include in the back matter.

For me, this was integral. I was elated when Charlesbridge wanted the book because they had published the picture book, Itse Selu: Cherokee Harvest Festival (1994), featuring Cherokee words unitalicized throughout the text. It had served as an early model for me as a writer that including my tribe’s language would be welcome.


We decided to add the Cherokee syllabary next to the English phonetics at the bottom of each page where a Cherokee word appears because that’s how Cherokee people actually read and speak the language. They are not learning and speaking it from the English phonetics.

Regarding the back matter, I knew I needed to provide a little more context to some of the text and artwork. Given how little people know about contemporary Cherokee life, adding the Definitions section allowed me to amplify any reader’s understanding of what they read and saw on the page.

The Author’s Note explains my reasons for writing this nonfiction picture book.

Including the Cherokee syllabary as it is currently taught in the Cherokee Nation helps readers to know that this language continues to be spoken and is the foundation of our cultural identity as Cherokee people.

As a Native author, how does that identity element inform your writing and your role in the children’s-YA book community?

It’s the foundation of my voice and everything I write. I can’t separate it. My educational and professional backgrounds have also been focused on Native Nations, their citizens, culture, history, law and policies and how those have been impacted under the colonial regime of the United States.

When I research primary and secondary sources or read children’s literature for example, I notice what voices and experiences are included, who is left out and how that shapes the narrative and information the reader receives.

Right now, I feel like I have three main roles in the children’s-YA book community besides getting my writing out in the world.

First, I want to bring additional awareness to invisibility of Native people in the text as well as omissions of accuracy, so other writers recognize the importance of doing the work to get it right. We all are responsible for this.

Second, I want to recruit other Native creators – writers and artists – to create great works for children. You have been extremely supportive of me and other Native creators coming into the field, and I strive to emulate that. We have amazing storytellers in word and art in our Native Nations. I want children to know about and experience the stories those creators have to share. It’s imperative to recruit, educate and encourage others to make that happen.

Third, covering Native/First Nations authors, illustrators, and publishers for your Cynsations blog allows greater visibility for the craft of Native creators in the industry. I enjoy showcasing what their stories and artwork are offering for children and teens in this field. I appreciate you asking me to assist in this way.

What advice do you have for new Native or First Nations writers, starting out?

We Are Grateful poster
I believe it’s important to read broadly across the various genres of children’s literature and determine which one resonates most with your voice as a writer. I gravitated to writing picture books first because I have always loved poetry, sparse use of language, and beautiful artwork. Any writer new to this field needs to make that same determination for themselves.

Then, I recommend studying books published within the last three years within that chosen genre. You’ll be expected to know and state what are comparable titles when you submit your manuscript for consideration. So anticipate that and be prepared.

Next, try to find fellow writers in your genre at the level just above your skill set to read and critique your work. This will pay dividends because your writing will be elevated more quickly with trained eyes providing feedback.

It is extremely helpful if some of these writers are also Native creators. In my experience, finding fellow Native creators will be a huge boost of encouragement and support as you embark on this journey.

What can your readers look forward to next?

Since Charlesbridge bought We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, I’ve sold two other picture books, At The Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Fall 2019) and Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Myles (Charlesbridge, Spring 2020). Both are fiction. I’m looking forward to those being out in the world alongside We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. I also have two picture book biographies, several other fictional picture books, a novel-in-verse and some poems in progress.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Survivors: Stephanie Greene on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children's Author

Learn more about Stephanie Greene.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I sent my first manuscript to ten editors (the big houses were open to unsolicited submissions back in 1993), nine of whom rejected it. Fortunately for me, Dinah Stevenson at Clarion discovered it in the slush pile. (I don’t think publishers have those anymore.)

As I remember it, Dinah said she liked it very much but … so I went about revising it. I may have revised it twice before she accepted it.

I was extremely lucky in ending up with Dinah. She was, and still is, a tough, but brilliant, editor who asked the perfect questions that led me to the solutions to whatever areas she felt needed work. She rarely told me what to do or change; she merely asked questions and sometimes made comments.

Her attention to detail was meticulous. I’ll always remember her writing, “’Private’ is not a place” in the margin where I’d written “Can I talk to you in private?” I never forgot it. Or made the same mistake again.

So I started out having to live up to the best, and that’s been the way I’ve gone on. I’ve had good/tough editors who made me revise as many times as it took. They made me a better, tighter writer. I was extremely fortunate in being able to find ideas everywhere: newspapers, photographs, overheard conversations, things witnessed, paintings – you name it.

I also think I had a sort of innate sense about plot structure because I was a ravenous reader as a child and had absorbed the way plots are structured. At least, that’s the way it felt to me when I started to write.

The worst time in my career came shortly after my middle grade novel The Lucky Ones (Greenwillow) was published in the fall of 2008. It came out the same month as Lehman Brothers fell and the Great Recession began.

TLO, as we called it, was remaindered in six months, when HarperCollins was getting rid of inventory as fast as Wall Street was shedding stock brokers.

That one broke my heart for a while. It set me back. The book was important to me and it didn’t feel as if it had been given a fighting chance. (They also remaindered a Christmas book of mine after only one Christmas.)

I guess those books count as my bumps.

The road still isn’t necessarily smooth. Last year, my agent told me that a picture book biography I had written and re-written time and again still wasn’t good enough to send around, so I shelved it. That was discouraging.

At the same time, a nonfiction picture book my agent submitted to several editors without success was eventually turned down by an editor who I greatly admire. He gave me the classiest rejection I’ve ever received by saying, “While I like this enormously, I don’t love it enough to publish it.”

I had to respect that.

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

Interesting question. I’m not sure I would have done anything differently. I don’t think I could have. I wrote every day in a disciplined way and revised and revised, when needed.

I might have tried harder to develop a knack for writing from plot, however. I tend to write from character, and while that has worked well for me, I’m now trying to write a mystery, and that’s very plot-directed.

I’m heartened however, to have discovered in a new biography about Agatha Christie, the best of the best, the statement that “… plot, for Agatha, meant distillation of character. It did not exist in a vacuum. It was the people who interested her, always.”

It had always been the people who interested me, too.


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

The increase in the number of people trying to write for children has been astonishing. It led to the large publishing houses eventually closing their doors to un-agented material, for one thing, which, in turn, led to the proliferation of self-publishing.

More and more small presses have opened door for writers, which is great. Writers still have to run a publishing gauntlet to be accepted by them; having to survive that process makes for strong writers and better books.

Another change is the fact that editors have become so overwhelmed, they have less time to edit and expect to see manuscripts in near-publishable shape. More and more, agents, too, want their clients’ manuscripts to be near-perfect.

To my mind, this has led to an unfortunate economic inequality in the industry: writers who can afford to hire book doctors and whole novel critiques by freelance editors have a leg-up over those who can’t.

Overall, it seems to have become a more knee-jerk, reactionary industry than it was when I started. If a series or a novel is a hit, there are immediately dozens more like it. More and more writers I know are writing for hire. It’s a reality: publishers need them and writers need the income.

The most positive change is the call for books and authors from other cultures. I love the multi-faceted country we’ve become, and see so many children from different countries on school visits. I believe in the right of all children to see themselves in books.


Could you talk to us about how you choose each future project, what goes into your creativity- and career-building strategy?

I hate to admit it, but my career-building strategy over twenty-plus years has been pretty un-scientific. I started out writing the books I wanted to write.

The first book I sold was an Owen Foote book, which I sold to Clarion (1996-2004). I was so excited about the little boy I’d created that I immediately told Dinah Stevenson I had a second book about Owen.

In her measured way, she said, “Let’s wait and see how the first book does.”

Happily, it did well enough for her to ask for five more Own books. The lucky part for me was that the chapter book genre was new. As one review said, “A welcome addition to a much-needed genre.” I had no idea that what I’d written was a chapter book.

I was also working on other books during that time. (I have always worked on several projects at the same time.) I wrote four books for Marshall Cavendish about Moose & Hildy (2000-2006), a moose and his best friend, a pig. Those were light-hearted and fun. I had no idea what genre they’d slot into when I wrote them.

Throughout my career, I’ve written what came to me, without thought for genre. That’s the way things used to work. When it reached a time where everyone was talking about what genre they were writing and I asked Dinah Stevenson what genre my first Sophie Hartley book (2005-2013) would be considered, she said, “Why don’t we just call it a ‘book’?” (That four-book series was eventually deemed middle grade.) I still love that statement.

Today, the genre requirements have become so varied and vague, I always advise writers whose work I’m critiquing to just write the book and figure out the genre after. Too many times, I’ve critiqued a manuscript the writer declares is an early chapter book, say, but in which the protagonist is ten or eleven. Or talks like a fifth grader when he’s in the second grade. Simple mistakes people make because they’re either not familiar with the genre, or they’re trying too hard to fit their book into a genre where it doesn’t belong.

As for career-building, I’ve been remiss in attending to that, too. It’s much more of a recent phenomenon than it was when I started writing in the late '90s and early 2000s. Even my agent didn’t press me to plan my career. She said, if you write it, I can sell it. (Those were the days …)

Now, much more career-building goes on, and even the need for branding or creation of a platform before a writer has sold their first book. I consider myself fortunate to have led much of my career in simpler times. Knowing myself, having to pay attention to all of those other things would have proved a tremendous distraction from the act of actual writing.

I still believe that writers need to write their book first, do the best job they can with it, and then worry about the rest. But that goes against the contemporary grain, I know.

Stephanie's bulletin board of ideas.
You're the author of a number of successful series. For many writers, that's a dream. How did you come to be a series writer? What advice do you have for up-and-comers interested in doing the same?

I never set out to write a series, but having written four, I’ve learned something about doing that along the way.

My first bit of advice would be to write one good book. Don’t start out with the idea of writing a series. Devote your energies to writing the best book you can.

There are different kinds of series, of course. If you have a character in mind who you believe will appeal to enough kids that they can successfully carry a series, develop that character to the best of your ability in the first book.

Three of my series have been character-driven. I first created a character who I liked. In every case, it was my editor who asked for more.

(There are countless character-driven series; read as many of them as you can, especially in the genre in which you want to write. Study them. Figure out what makes the character appealing to children.)

Another approach is to come up with a unique concept around which a series can be developed. The Magic Treehouse series by Mary Pope Osborne (Random House, 1992-) are a prime example. Not only do a brother and sister get carried to a different time period or country in a really cool way in every book, but they – and the reader – learn something about history.

If you have a concept, develop it in one book and see what happens.

Another approach is to develop a “hook.” That’s a feature about the character that can be repeated in subsequent books. Many series employ this device. The trick is to make it an intricate part of the story and not a superficial tag-on.

I inadvertently created my Princess Posey (G. Putnam's Sons, 2010-2018) series of early chapter books because I gave the character in the first story - what was meant to be a stand-alone book – a hook: Posey’s pink tutu makes her feel brave. It was my editor’s decision the tutu concept could carry a series.

If the book you create is series-worthy, your agent and/or editor will most likely recognize it.

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

I wish them the discipline needed to revise and revise and revise until their book is as good as it should be.

I wish that they really do read the 1,000 books that authors at conference after conference, and most books about writing, tell them they need to read before they write. And that they not only read the books, but study them for what makes them work, and how the author did what he/she did.

(Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (HarperCollins, 2006) is a great book for writers.)

I wish them an endless flow of ideas and great joy in doing what they do.

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

I wish that I get to experience that incredible, breathless yes! Feeling I get when I know I’ve hit it right; that I’ve placed exactly the right words, in precisely the needed position, to create the effect I wanted. Writers know what I mean. There’s nothing like it.

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children's-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.