Cynsational Readers Take Over and Interview Cynthia Leitich Smith

In 2010, I’m celebrating ten years as an author of children’s-YA literature. My first book was Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow, 2000) and my most recent release is Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010)–now available!

Of late, I’ve invited Cynsations readers to send in questions for me to answer. Here goes!

What was your first reading like? What are readings like for you now?

My first reading was magical! It was at the launch of Jingle Dancer at Toad Hall Children’s Bookstore in Austin. Sadly, the store is one of those great indies that’s no longer with us. But I can close my eyes and remember being there. It was an amazing place.

I’m a more confident public reader now, less stressed about hitting every note just right. I’ve read Holler Loudly at a couple of school visits and the Texas Book Festival, and it was a big hit.

I try to involve the kids as much as possible in the reading, to draw them into the story.

I much prefer indoor readings to outdoor ones. That said, I’ve read with sirens blaring, dust blowing, and part of the surface of my eye torn off. Ow!

It’s all part of the job. You deal with what may come, and it’s on with the show!

How did you break through the wonderful world of publishing?

I began writing youth fiction in my late twenties. I read voraciously—across formats, age levels and genres. I attended every writing conference I could and poured over the Children’s Writers Market Guide (Writer’s Digest, 1996) with a yellow highlighter.

For a couple of years, I had a process down. I’d send a manuscript, the rejection letter would come, and I would file it. It was a terrific method. I was comfortable with it and knew exactly how it worked.

Then, with Jingle Dancer, I ended up with nibbles from an editor on a regular submission (who eventually bought it) and two who’d read it at Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators regional conferences here in Texas.

Fortunately, at about the same time, I signed with agent, Ginger Knowlton, who expertly steered me to my editor at Lodestar (then Morrow, then HarperCollins) for the final sale.

My question to you is to describe your transition from writing picture books in the beginning (of course, Jingle Dancer is my favorite picture book) to your leap to young adult novels. Do you plan on staying with the YA audience or plan to go back and forth?

My new book, Holler Loudly, is an original southwestern tall tale picture book. So, as much as I love writing YA fiction, I’m still a proud and dedicated author for children, too.

My next two books will be a prose YA novel, Blessed (Candlewick, Jan. 25, 2011), and my first YA graphic novel, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, Aug. 2011). So, even within YA literature, I’m diving into a new format.

By the way, you may be interested in the Writing Across Formats series that’s running this year at Cynsations, featuring conversations with authors who successfully do just that.

When will you publish another story with Native American characters?

I’m thrilled about the forthcoming publication of “Mooning Over Broken Stars” in Girl Meets Boy, edited by Kelly Milner Halls (Chronicle, spring 2012). My story is a companion to one by distinguished Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac.

Has writing with your husband changed your individual writing style?

I don’t have an individual style so much as one for each manuscript. Certainly, my upcoming southwestern tall tale picture book is much different than my upcoming YA Gothic fantasy.

But I do adore writing with Greg Leitich Smith. Together, we’ve published a picture book, Santa Knows, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2006) and a short story, “The Wrath of Dawn,” which appeared in Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci (Little, Brown, 2009, 2010).

I’m also thrilled about Greg’s upcoming novel, tentatively titled, The Chronal Engine: Ahead of Time (Clarion, 2012).

It’s a mystery-adventure time-travel story about three teens who use their reclusive grandfather’s time machine to travel back to the Age of Dinosaurs to rescue their kidnapped sister and solve a family mystery.

Could you tell me about Blessed and how it fits into your YA series?

Blessed is the latest book in a series that I began working on in late 2001/early 2002, when people were saying that only boys read books about monsters.

The novel crosses over the casts of Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) and Eternal (Candlewick, 2009, 2010) and picks up right where Tantalize leaves off.

I spent a few years building what is essentially a multi-creature verse—populated with a diversity of humans, demons, old-and-new school vampires, two kinds of angels, and a variety of shapeshifters—not only werewolves and werecats but also the ever-fascinating wereopossum, weredeer, and werearmadillo.

Tantalize came out in 2007, and in 2009, its companion Eternal became an early entry in the rising choir of angels in YA lit. The guardian angel Zachary, one of the most popular characters in the series, is a co-protagonist in Eternal and a major character in Blessed.

Big-picture, my inspiration was Abraham Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Each book in my series moves closer from our world to Bram’s. Though readers don’t have to be at all familiar with his classic to enjoy my novels, I’ve heard from teens that have run to read the novel Dracula—in part trying to predict where my storyline is going next.

Bram’s themes—like the “dark” foreigner (which used to mean “Eastern European”), invasion, plague and gender dominance—are still so much with us today, and my series tackles those to varying degrees.

For many readers, Blessed will simply be a steadily building race against a monster to save the world as we know it—a hopefully suspenseful, funny, romantic, touching, horrific story. Others may see beyond that. All of them are reading it right.

A couple of people asked which of my books/works is my favorite. My favorite book is always the one I’ve most recently finished. So, right now, Blessed is it.

I heard you say once that you have a mission statement that sums up your philosophy and plan for your blog, and I thought, I need one of those. Can you talk more about that? How do you approach all this?

Sure, the mission of Cynsations is to inspire, uplift, and inform. It’s a writer blog, and much of my content is geared to fellow writers, though I heartily welcome all children’s-YA literature enthusiasts.

Writers are also readers, and I love talking books with fellow book lovers. So, I routinely invite new and established authors and illustrators, editors, and youth literature scholars to share their thoughts. I encourage them to go deep, especially as related to the craft of writing.

Beyond that, I write at a professional level (as do many of my blog readers), so I provide interviews and guest posts featuring agents, publicists, and other publishing insiders as well as related links of interest from throughout the kidlitosphere.

I take an encouraging tone, root for my audience, and try to offer folks information and insights that will add something positive to their art, careers, and blog rolls.

What else? Cynsations is really focused on children’s-YA writing and publishing per se. When I touch on current events or larger societal concerns, I stay true to that lens. For example, with regard to bullying, especially as related to GLBTQ teens, it made the most sense for me to feature an “It’s Gets Better Video” by one of our own, Cheryl Rainfied, author of Scars (WestSide, 2010) and a guest post by C.J. Bott on Words – One Weapon We All Own, highlighting books that could be used as springboards for discussion.

It’s not a 100-percent focused approach. I occasionally will blog a peek at, say, my spring wildflowers or one of Greg’s culinary masterpieces. But that strategy helps me to choose content and may help build an audience because readers have some idea of what to expect.

And yet, as a reader myself, some of my favorite blogs take a more organic, varied, and personal voice. So, while what I do works for me, it’s definitely not the only way to go about it.

On a side note, I take comments only at Cynsations at LiveJournal and MySpace. I do want to hear from the readers at Blogger, and I periodically remind them that they can comment at the other locations. But each month, the Blogger interview pages and some others are added as core links to the children’s-YA literature resources section or writer resources section of the main website. As much work as my web designer/master does, she really can’t mock up another twenty-plus pages pages each month, and that seems especially unnecessary (not to mention cost prohibitive) after I’ve already taken time to code/format them.

If I had to do it again, I’d try to come up with a different, better solution. I fret that not offering a comment opportunity on every outlet may put off some readers. But that’s how it goes with hindsight. There’s so much about blogging and the kidlitosphere that I couldn’t foresee when I started in 2004. I hope that my readers will keep that in mind and realize I’m doing my best.

Could you offer some advice on framing a children’s and YA author brand online?

Ah, the “B” word. It’s something I’ve thought about–how to welcome, say, eight-year-old and eighteen-year-old readers to the same online destinations.

If you look at my various blogs and network customizations (to the extent such things are possible), you’ll see that they’re hopefully inviting but neither especially little-kid-ish or especially YA-ish.

My amazing web designer, Lisa Firke of Hit Those Keys, took this to the next level with her re-envisioning of the official author site. Consider the regular pages versus YA pages. They flow, but each has a different feel.

This isn’t a question so much as a comment. Thank you for including a lot of posts by and about people of color and multicultural books.

Seeing “by and about,” I’m guessing you’re someone who follows the CCBC numbers on Children’s Books Published By and About People of Color.

Here’s my thought: some excellent writers and stories spring from groups that are underrepresented in the body of literature. I’m happy to highlight them.

I also understand that the success of such titles is largely dependent on word of mouth. For the most part, sales expectations for multicultural titles tend to be lower and marketing dollars tend to be allocated to mainstream books seen as having more commercial appeal.

If the success of a writer of color–focusing on art that reflects her community–is entirely dependent on traditional channels, she’ll likely have a short-lived career.

This is especially true if her work doesn’t have a strong curriculum connection. But even that coupled with, say, multiple starred reviews won’t generate sales if institutional buyers believe that (a) brown people don’t read or (b) kids only want to read about people who’re like themselves when it comes race/culture/religion/orientation/region, etc. And their belief is justified every time such a book that doesn’t circulate. So, I make some noise. I cheer! I highlight!

Beyond that, by embracing a diversity of representations in youth literature, I hopefully let all of my Cynsational readers know that people like them matter to me and in the world of books.

We’ve seen some backlash on the Web against authors who market heavily. You have a big online presence, but you’re often held up as a positive model. What do you think about all this?

Thank you. I don’t think of what I do as marketing. I think of it as participating in the conversation of books and the craft of writing and the publishing industry.

When I started out, I was writing primarily about Native characters and themes, and there were precious few support systems for voices along those lines. I decided to do something positive and showcase titles by and about American Indians on the Web—not just my own books but those by other authors, too.

Over time, I expanded that to include voices from other underrepresented groups. Meanwhile, didn’t those quality mid-listers deserve more attention? How about the risk takers, busting their brands? Look, graphic novels are on the rise! Oh, and I adore genre fiction!

Fact is, I love being a cheerleader. It’s inherent in my personality.

I’m less inclined to talk about myself. In fact, I’ve been known to take this too far.

After some years of being active on the Web, I began receiving emails from folks who’d regularly visited my main site for years and had no idea that I was also a children’s author. They were thrilled for me and very interested to learn more.

At that point, I decided that modesty was one thing and hiding in the shadows was another. Besides, I put a lot of love and caring into my books and wanted to share them with others—especially those who’d be excited about the whole thing.

And to be candid, I’m not a trust-fund baby. I make a living from my books/speaking/teaching, etc. Publishers won’t continue to sign up my work if it doesn’t sell because I’m too self-conscious to mention it exists.

So, I have made my author-ness more clear on my online outlets and included a more prominent professional biography. I also offer a short section in my weekly round-ups that highlights my own book updates and, every once in a great while, feature a whole post about some big breaking news in my writing life. Like, say, this tenth anniversary interview.

I find that these are the posts my readers respond to most enthusiastically, though I suspect that may be in part because they’re rare.

As for what other authors are doing, I can point to a lot of terrific models. Take a look at Mitali Perkins, Esme Raji Codell, Cynthea Liu, Laurie Halse Anderson… I could go on.

It’s key in encouraging youth to read that a number of authors connect with them and their champions online. For those interested in participating, everyone’s formula will be different. I would be less visible on the Web if I were a children’s author who didn’t also publish for teens.

However, I would especially encourage authors of color and/or authors of multicultural books in particular to do what you can to facilitate word of mouth. Please consider yourself welcome in the conversation. We value your insights and want to know more about what you do.

For, say, a writer with small kids and/or a full-time day job, just keeping her blog updated with her own major publishing news may be a small miracle. Maybe she doesn’t have the time or energy to even think about anyone else’s books or to craft a thoughtful essay.

As someone blessed with supportive publishers and readers, I’m not inclined to judge others in their approach—no matter if they’re sporadic in their efforts or especially assertive.

I will say, though, that I personally find it most effective to own that I’m an author but also respect those I connect with online and off as colleagues, friends, and fellow writers/readers rather than members of a target market per se. I’ve met many of the people I care about most through the kidlitosphere.

What advice do you have for fellow authors online?

I’m assuming this doesn’t apply to personal blogs that don’t reference one’s professional writing and authors who’d rather not have an official online presence.

First, ask yourself why you’re online at all and via what outlets/venues.

For example, I’m a trained journalist who loves to report good news. Blogging feeds that part of me. I’m also a writing teacher, a serious book lover, and someone who’s fascinated by the industry. I enjoy talking about the craft of writing, great reads, and the business of books. So, again, blogging is a good fit.

What, if anything, do you want to do? Why? What do you enjoy?

Finally, feel free to step away from the Internet. I do so periodically when I’m traveling or on an especially tight deadline. I just say I’m on hiatus, and that’s that.

What shouldn’t authors do?

So much is about personal style and comfort zones.

The main thing to keep in mind is that you are a public figure. It doesn’t really matter if your post or profile is marked private so long as it’s in any way evident that the person behind it is the one who wrote your books.

Editors and agents will check you out online, and so will parents, readers, and other industry professionals. It’s really easy to copy, paste and forward. Before you hit “publish,” keep that in mind.

How on earth are you doing all this Web stuff?

It’s not just me! Lisa Firke at Hit Those Keys is the designer and webmaster of the main site. My very cute husband and sometimes co-author Greg Leitich Smith writes most of the recommendations blurbs for the bibliographies.

Beyond that, I work way ahead. Posts are typically formatted up to three months in advance. Right now, they’re pre-scheduled through mid February. That means that I’m less flexible and responsive to breaking conversations in the kidlitosphere, but it protects my writing time and ensures a steady flow of quality content.

I try to compensate for the timeliness issue via my weekly round-up.

What do you think about facebook fan/like pages?

My author page on facebook gives folks who want to talk about my books or writing or publishing a place where they can contact me on the network (without clogging my personal page/stream with business-related posts).

On a related note, a number of YA teachers and librarians have mentioned that they don’t feel comfortable sending teens to authors’ personal pages. I can imagine why, though I think the vast majority of my colleagues do a great job of staying young-reader friendly.

At the same time, it’s almost impossible to discourage readers from posting about my books to my personal page, and I’m not inclined to scold them. (“How dare you be excited about my books!” You see, it’s ridiculously cranky sounding.)

That said, I’m inclined to approve a friend request from any book lover. I tend to approve much, much more often than solicit, and I do sometimes point folks to my author page if it seems that their interest in me is on that front. I don’t send out friend requests with the intent that those folks will become a target market, and I’d never spam someone else’s wall with an announcement related to my books.

My author page is home to fair amount of discussion, not just about my books but the field more generally. I suspect that many, if not most, of those who hit “fan”/ “like” were showing their interest in reading, writing, or publishing, rather than in me as an individual author. In fact, I lose a few who don’t want to scroll through posts about books by other authors. I’m okay with that.

What’s the hardest thing for you about being an author?

Saying “no.” Over and over and over again. Well over 50 times a day, every day, I’m asked by someone–often someone with a personal relationship to me–to do something that will cost me time or money. Sometimes both. Upwards of half of my 300-plus emails a day are labeled something like “favor.” And of course requests come in person, too.

Even folks who commiserate about my need to say “no” may nevertheless assume that it shouldn’t be said to them. Especially those with a personal connection. But you have to be vigilant about protecting your writing or it simply won’t get done.

Fortunately, I’m blessed with a supportive writer husband and writer pals who understand, cheer me on, and don’t take it personally when I’m not available. I’ll make it to that lunch someday–maybe in June? And I really am looking forward to it!

I’m a 2012 debut author, and I’ve read Cynsations for years to find out what to do. But can you tell me anything I shouldn’t be doing.

I’ll hit two points quickly.

Don’t return to your hometown and open with, “Wow, I’m glad I made it out of here!” Every place has its charm and its dedicated book people. Embrace wherever you may be.

Don’t abandon your back list. I’m not saying you should always emphasize a book like you do during its launch season–assuming you’re a promotional/speaker-oriented author. But realize that you are that book’s primary ambassador for its life in print (and perhaps reprint).

Authors (and publishers) fare best with a strong back list behind them, and in any case, your sales figures will follow you into the future. Why quit when your book is still in the game?

Are picture books dead? Should I give up?

No, picture books are not dead. Great picture books are being published every season. Publishers are being more selective. They probably should’ve been more selective earlier.

At the same time, I believe in stepping up to be an advocate for the picture book. The recent New York Times article pointed to parents wanting to push their children to higher reading levels, and this rings true to my experience. For all the hand-wringing about edgy content, I far more often find myself chatting with moms and dads who feel their 10-year-olds should be reading my YA novels marketed to ages 14-up.

Part of it may be bragging rights, wanting the world to think that your child is smarter, more advanced. Part of it may be kids wanting to grow up sooner. The pressures of limited time for reading together. But we need to educate book buyers that age level isn’t just about vocabulary or “edgy” content. It’s also about which books speak most to which readers at what point in their development.

From an industry outsider’s perspective, it’s complicated. Picture books are published for toddlers, early elementary readers, and later elementary readers. Some may be a good fit for readers of all ages, including teens and adults.

The burden is on us to sort through and explain all that. Librarians are a godsend. Well versed booksellers are critical on so many levels, including the prosperity of the bookstore itself.

That said, I understand why you’re frustrated. Quality picture books still flow into the body of literature. But at the same time, fewer and fewer agents will sign picture book writers, fewer contracts are offered, and both advances and royalty checks shrinking. Then there’s the reduced allocation of shelf space in bookstores.

Do this: take your writing to the next level, break new ground, write something that kids will beg to hear, and be a smart business person. Do your industry homework, and keep up with what’s going on. Get your grrr on, and get back to work!

More personally, take care not to spend too much time cycling on bad news in the kidlitosphere. There’s a tendency to share outrage, to focus on the negative. Some of that is smart and healthy, to put matters in perspective and offer a thoughtful response. Some writers are heartened by that, and it inspires them to new heights as advocates and in their work.

However, if you’re an especially sensitive person—and many of us in the arts are—it may only serve to unnecessarily discourage you. Step away from the Internet.

When you look back on your last ten years as an author, what are the changes that stand out?

I sometimes refer to myself as a pre- and post-Potter author because I see the success of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic, 1997-2007) as being symbolic shorthand for many of those changes.

The biggest was a relative shift in focus from the school-library market (though it’s still absolutely critical) toward the bookstore market. A few more quick contrasts:

The year I was a debut author, I didn’t know of another one. Writers were grumbling that publishers didn’t seem interested in taking chances on anyone new. In 2010, so many first-time authors have been published that it’s a challenge to keep them all straight. I do my best to highlight debut voices on the blog and have found that a tremendous (albeit fun and rewarding) task.

Published authors were well-established grown-ups, the first timers typically between age 45 and 55. When I began working with my first editor in my late 20s/early 30s, I could count on one hand the people I knew of my generation. None of them lived in my city or state.

At the time, I knew of only five well-respected agents who took on children’s-YA authors. I’d guess more than five new youth lit agents have entered the field so far this year.

The conventional wisdom was that you didn’t need an agent, but it was nice to have one. Many houses were open to unsolicited submissions.

I remember the Publishers Weekly article announcing that there were now children’s authors with websites. It was a novelty. Also, a few editors expressed concern that authors were talking to each other on the Internet, and therefore could acquire independent knowledge about the business and strategize accordingly.

New authors traditionally debuted after a solo journey or shepherded by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. However, in the past few years, there’s been a huge boom in YA novels published by members of the Romance Writers of America.

Back then, those inclined to sneer directed their disdain at literary realistic contemporary fiction. Too overdone, too depressing, too brainy and adult and self-indulgent, they said. We were driving readers away.

Different things were being pronounced dead and for different reasons.

YA literature was dead. Teens read adult books.

Fantasy was dead. Kids didn’t read fantasy anymore. They were too sophisticated for that.

Multiculturalism was dead. We tried it, and it didn’t work.

The undead were dead. R.L. Stine‘s Goosebumps series (Scholastic) was so over (or might as well have been), and those were boy books.

The picture book was dead. The CD-Rom was going to put the picture book out of business.

We’re never lacking in a loud voice with a Nostradamus complex.

Fellow authors who came of age in the industry at about the same time likely had different experiences and perceptions. But those are memories that spring to my mind.

The one constant is change.

My best recommendation is to take care of yourself, your writer pals, and cultivate a sense of humor. Advocate for libraries, support bookstores, and stretch yourself in your art. Keep in mind that what you’re doing is magical. That magic comes from you.

Thank you for your interest and enthusiasm. Thanks for the thoughtful questions.

It’s been a fascinating decade in the world of books!

Cynsational Screening Room

Holler Loudly Book Trailer:

Eternal Book Trailer:

Tantalize Book Trailer:

Rain Is Not My Indian Name Book Trailer: