An Interview With Cynthia Leitich Smith

by Dianna Hutts Aston

note: first appeared in the Austin SCBWI chapter newsletter.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is to children’s literature what a cheerleading captain is to the team. Few roar louder for children, children’s books, children’s authors, librarians and others more loudly than this longtime Austin SCBWI member. Although she holds degrees in journalism and law, Cynthia heeded the persistent voices of the witch of blackbird pond, Judy Blume’s Margaret, and Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and approached children’s writing as a full-time career. Recently, we asked Cynthia to share her knowledge and insight in a question-and-answer interview, and she graciously agreed.

“The community of children’s literature creators is strongest when it stands together. Stand together now.” — Cynthia Leitich Smith

Have you always approached writing for children as a full-time career?

Yes, I quit my full-time law job to become a children’s writer, which at the time seemed like a fairly dramatic decision. But I have no regrets. None. I write my own books, and I also promote the body of literary trade books as a whole, via my Web site (, media interviews, and speaking engagements. I critique manuscripts for other authors, mentees. I also teach on occasion.

What are the components of your life as a writer, besides writing time?

One of the most difficult adjustments I’ve made was from full-time writer to full-time author, which carries with it additional opportunities/responsibilities. I recognize the importance of supporting my titles, nurturing them in the market place. And I recognize the role of the author as an ambassador for children’s literature, children’s literacy. Sometimes, especially women in the arts, feel as though we should defer, that we’re too much ladies to say what we wish was being said. Maybe being a recovering lawyer means my inner lady has been crushed, but I really want the world to know that good books matter, that they can change and save lives, that children are no lesser an audience because of their youth. And I take every opportunity to proclaim that.

But it is crucial to balance this against the creative work. Which in my case means the fiction. After some trial and error, what works for me is a months-on, months-off plan. From September to November and February to April, I tour, speak, and promote my books as well as others’. Occasionally, I make time for an additional local event, but those require little to no travel and reap small toll on my artistic energies. Occasionally, I make time for a national event that I just can’t resist. But mostly, I’m in balance, writing, which feels good and right and true. And sometimes, I even write on the road.

Part of me would adore spending all my time immersed in story. I’m a hearty reader, a hearty writer and rewriter. I do truly love the work.

But another part needs to connect with fellow book lovers, interact as a member of the children’s book community, and serve as a voice for myself and others doing quality, literary writing. I adore telling the media about new voices, those from under-represented communities, talking up books that have no real publisher support. I do what I can for libraries and bookstores, and I roar for children whenever I can.

I also spend a fair amount of time nurturing beginning writers. When I first entered the field, authors Jane Kurtz and Kathi Appelt made a special effort for me to know that someone believed in my voice, that I had someone to turn to with questions, for encouragement. I’m a big believer in paying that forward, and I’ve made good friends who’ve become fellow authors by doing just that.

What is your best advice for writes who are either newly published or close to publication, given the soft picture book market? Is it as hard to sell a middle grade novel now as it’s been in years past?

Forget hard. Everything’s hard. If you want an easy job, sign up with a temp service and answer phones.

Write a novel. Write a chapter book. Write a picture book. Does this sound like contrary advice? Okay, then hear this: write the story that only you can write in the best format for telling it. This is a lousy time to try to sell a picture book, a better time to try to market a novel.

But you know what? When I started a few years back, everyone told me, “multicultural is dead.” “Black and brown kids don’t read.” “Nobody cares about Native Americans.” And though it’s not the only contribution I hope to make, I ignored them and brought my quirky, contemporary, GenX voice to Native American children’s literature. Don’t follow trends, set them.

That said… So many potentially amazing novelists psyche themselves out of that art form…. It’s intimidating, the novel. A beast of sorts. To them I would say… Live without regrets. If you want to dive into this ocean, reveal yourself as only a novel can reveal, then trust in this: in the end, the book you are writing is for you above all others. But if you can touch someone else, what a tremendous gift.

Writers fret reviews, awards; think instead about bringing one child back from the abyss. Focus on your story, your audience. Forget everyone and everything else.

How do you — an Austin-based writer — see the current market? Trends, caveats, predictions?

Ah, the market will change before I finish typing this sentence. The celebrity books will get worse. Mass market will play a bigger role. Big chain bookstores have increasingly taken over the role of libraries. Humor is still on the rise. Mysteries. Dark fantasy. Genre fiction is coming back strong. Picture books are about to recover–it’s cyclical. Never forget that. Everything is cyclical. Never panic. Regional presses will become more important, more nationally competitive. Authors will be increasingly pressured to brand – to define themselves in one market niche as a humor novelist, a fantasy writer, a rhyming picture book writer, etc. And we will increasingly buck that pressure. All that said, what does it mean to anyone? You write the story the muse gives you or else you’re selling out.

Caveat: if you do sell out, by all means, don’t settle for fewer than six figures, and please do invite me to the party. Who am I to judge?

Which parts of your career bring you joy? Fear/nervousness? Boredom?

I spent an extraordinary amount of time worrying about writing the book that everyone else wanted me to write. I spent less time writing the book I actually wanted to read. Until lately. By which I mean the last year and a half. Then I just unleashed. And now I’m happy. So, I guess, others’ expectations have been something of a burden. But writing brings me joy. Even when I’m extraordinarily frustrated in the process, it’s joyous. I used to have fear. I used to fear that what people might think if I did what I wanted to do. Wrote what I wanted to write. I no longer care. Nervous. I suppose I’ll be nervous again. But I’ve been in the business now seven years. Had sales and rejections, good reviews and bad, awards for books that got bad reviews, and miraculously stayed in print. Watched two publishers bought out, downsized. Had dinner with some of the most remarkable people. Survived. I’m a little battle hardened. But I must say, I’m never bored.

When you feel stumped or uncertain, who or where do you turn for support or advice?

My fellow authors are a godsend, angels on earth. They guide me, and if that doesn’t work, offer chocolate (which always does).

When you feel stressed, how do you handle it?

I dance in the dark to Olivia Newton John’s “Xanadu” album. [Editor’s note: This is absolutely true. No hyperbole.]

What presentations are you working on now? For which groups?

I’m working on a keynote address, to be jointly presented with Greg at Reading The World in San Francisco to an audience of about 500. The topic is humor in multicultural children’s literature. We’re also doing a breakout session on interracial family themes in children’s books. I also have three visits to prepare for Northern California schools. Although I have something of a standard presentation, it has to be adapted a bit to each age level, audience. One is with Greg, and two are on my own, which also changes up the dynamic. We’d like to try something more interactive this time, really get the kids started on their own stories–if at all possible. Meanwhile today, I’ve also fielded an informational query on Asian American children’s books from a CNN correspondent, swapped notes with a University of North Dakota professor about her children’s literature course, filled in a fellow author from Florida on the going rates for events in Texas, and –ah ha! — answered questions for an interview to appear in the Austin SCBWI newsletter. This is fairly typical of the days immediately preceeding the fall or spring speaking season. I still will write today, but probably not until Greg begins his daily writing, between seven and ten o’clock. About three days will be like this before I leave, at such a high intensity, then it’ll settle back down to just doing the actual travel, speaking, writing. I’m pushing ahead on preparation early because I’ve found that reduces stress quite a bit. Also, it allows me time to make copies, pick up props, double check with coordinators, etc.

You’ve written articles for such publications as the PTA’s Our Children, Horn Book Magazine, Book Links, and Once Upon A Time. Is this another avenue for children’s writers to act as ambassadors for the industry?

Yes and no. For say, the PTA magazine, Our Children, yes. Anything that reaches beyond the children’s literature insiders. It’s a wonderful opportunity to educate. For those publications that reach colleagues, like Horn Book Magazine, writing articles is one way in participating in the dialogue about children’s literature. It allows for your voice to be heard among fellow book lovers and offers you an opportunity to share with them your own perspective. Because of my family background and particular body of work, I’ve been grateful to such venues as ways to raise awareness about, for example, Native literary techniques, the need for books portraying interracial families, and how children connect to literature. When it comes to such contributions, there will be writers or illustrators who participate wholeheartedly and those who must preserve all their time for crafting their own titles. Both are the right decision, so long as they work for that individual. Don’t ever feel pressured to do such work, but don’t be intimidated by it either. I try to write an article or two a year, which isn’t a great burden to me, especially because I have a journalism background. My goal is not to flood the market with my thoughts, but merely to nudge where I think they can make a positive difference.

How has your background in law helped you in your work as a writer and author?

Two levels: one practical, one psychological. First, the law is in many ways about logical story structure, connecting events to support a persuasive argument. In a sense, fiction is the same, except more subtle, and the gist of it goes to theme. In sum, a legal background is helpful in plotting. In addition…being from a lower middle class family, first generation college… A legal education was a confidence builder. I’d already done more than anyone had ever expected of me before I became an author. That helped me to shake off doubts and believe in my ability to compete on a national level. However, my journalism background was probably even more helpful. It facilitated my overcoming my shyness, communicating with others, finding the drama in the everyday and the heroes in all of us.

What advice to you have for writers who are presenting to schoolchildren? to librarians?

For children’s events… First and most importantly, wash your hands a lot. Seriously. You do not want to lose a week of work to the flu because you took a day to do a school visit. Work to plan with a school librarian, preferably not a PTO volunteer. This is serious academic programming. You really want someone who knows what they’re doing. Set a competitive rate. You will be treated better if you charge more, and the event itself will receive more support from the school. I’m not saying you can’t be flexible on your rate for your own children’s school or so forth, but do let them know that they’re getting you at a discount. Above all else, emphasize that the children be prepared. If they don’t know about your books ahead of time, they might as well be listening to a plumber. There is so much that can be said about working with schools. Members should feel free to check my site for links to related quality articles.

In particular I recommend: TERRIFIC CONNECTIONS WITH AUTHORS, ILLUSTRATORS AND STORYTELLERS: REAL SPACE AND VIRTUAL LINKS by Toni Buzzeo and Jane Kurtz (Libraries Unlimited, 1999).

Beyond that – beyond the grown-ups, that is – talk from the heart to children. From the child in you to the child in them. Story is perhaps humanity’s most inspiring tradition. Bring them into the circle. Let them know their voices are welcome. Let them know that reading can be a joy, a comfort, a consolation, an inspiration, a friend. Let them know that writing is more than diagrams and modes of thought. It’s expression. It’s what connects us all.

Note: I donate my time to public libraries because I feel strongly that public children’s librarians are a primary reason that I lead a happy, stable, and successful life today. However, I’ve never felt anything but treasured in response by these librarians.

For librarians… Ah! Librarians! Do whatever you can for librarians. They are your defenders, your advocates, your resource, your gift in a sometimes otherwise unappreciative universe. Librarians love books and are interested in every aspect of the book world. They love hearing how stories come to life. They’re interested in your journey as a reader, as a writer. Be as generous as you can with them. Giving of yourself and your work. And let them know your thoughts, your questions, your concerns about the industry. Most of all, let them know they’re appreciated.

But regardless of whom you’re talking to: make sure you have water, visual, aids, fun! And send a thank-you note!

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the author of JINGLE DANCER, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu; RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME; and INDIAN SHOES. Her work is also includes “The Gentleman Cowboy,” PERIOD PIECES: STORIES FOR GIRLS edited by Erzsi Deàk and Kristin Litchman (HarperCollins, February 2003); “The Naked Truth,” IN MY GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE: AWARD-WINNING AUTHORS TELL STORIES ABOUT THEIR GRANDMOTHERS edited and illustrated by Bonnie Christensen (Harper, 2003). Her forthcoming work includes “A Real-Life Blond Cherokee And His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate,” MOCCASIN THUNDER, edited by Lori Carlson (HarperCollins, fall 2005), which is set in near South and Central Austin; and “Riding With Rosa,” Cicada magazine, issue TBA, 2005. She and husband Greg Leitich Smith, author of NINJAS, PIRANHAS, AND GALILEO and TOFU AND T.REX are also frequent speakers wherever librarians and teachers are gathered.

Dianna Hutts Aston is the author of WHEN YOU WERE BORN, illustrated by E.B. Lewis; LOONY LITTLE, illustrated by Kelly Murphy; and BLESS THIS MOUSE, illustrated by John Butler.