Career Achievers: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Shelley Ann Jackson, Chris Barton, Jennifer Ziegler, Cyn & P.J. Hoover

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Writers put so much emphasis on that first children’s-YA book sale, the debut launch—but maintaining an active publishing career is arguably a much bigger challenge than breaking into the business.

So, let’s talk about career endurance as authors of books for young readers.

I’ve invited numerous, well (and enduringly) published friends and colleagues to share their thoughts in future posts as part of this ongoing series.

You can look forward to their wisdom in the days and months to come.

Meanwhile, it’s my pleasure today to begin this conversation.

My first picture book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, was published in 2000, and my first novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name, followed in 2001 (both from HarperCollins).

Of late I’m looking forward to the release of my upcoming realistic YA novel, Hearts Unbroken, from Candlewick in January 2019. It’ll be my fifteenth book in a career that’s included both the Tantalize series and the Feral trilogy (Candlewick 2007-2015) as well as additional picture books, a chapter book, numerous short stories, creative nonfiction essays and, most recently, poetry.

As a forty-something author, I have no plans to retire anytime soon—if ever. But of late, I’ve noticed that I’m now the longest-published author at most book festivals. Even at mega-slate conferences, it’s easy for me to quickly tick off those who were active in my early days.

Why? Why–in just under two decades–would the field turn over to such an extreme degree?

Demographics and industry culture played a role.

When I started out, publishers seemed reluctant to take chances on new voices. And in the pre-Potter industry, there wasn’t the widespread idea that writing for young readers was a viable and attainable career path (or at least one with the potential to generate a livable income).

Consequently, fewer younger people were pursuing it.

As a GenXer, I also entered the field as a shockingly young writer by the standards of the day.

I knew only a couple of published authors (and only online) who were around my age. The overwhelming majority were at least fifteen years older.

Most were a full generation older.

Now, the pendulum has swung hard the other way.

Both new and young voices are plentiful, but too many fade from the stage after one or two books, including authors who’re much buzzed and—at least at first—seem to have real momentum.

What does that mean for those of us still in the game?

How about for new and up-and-coming voices?

All of this begs the question: What does it take to survive and thrive?

A couple of years ago, children’s-YA author Janni Lee Simner offered her excellent Writing for the Long Haul series.

This is an extension of that conversation, centered more on the rapid and ongoing changes in the publishing industry and how they affect us all.

Please indulge me as I answer the questions that I passed on to other established voices who’re soon to chime in.

Reflecting on your personal author’s journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Early on, the biggest challenge was that I was writing contemporary Native fiction, rooted in Story rather than as an exercise in thinly veiled social studies.

I was writing with the assumption that #ownvoices readers—young Native readers—would be in the audience. And I cared about them, too. In fact, given a content-sensibility choice, I prioritized them over other readers. Including non-Indian editors and gatekeepers.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Native literary voices were few, and the wider world wasn’t really interested in changing that. I had a librarian tell me without blinking, “We don’t need you. We already have Joseph Bruchac.”

Yes, there were a few Native voices out there—like Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (Lakota) and Michael Lacapa (Apache-Tewa-Hopi), and while they were rightly celebrated, The Powers That Be weren’t paying nearly enough attention to them either. Put mildly, it was frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong. My early Native books didn’t fare badly. They were critically acclaimed. They’re all still in print today.

For Rain Is Not My Indian Name, I was named a writer of the year in (children’s-YA) from Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Illustrators.

But a lot of non-Indian people didn’t seem to know what to make of those titles. They weren’t historicals. They weren’t designed to teach white kids and that’s it. They dared to feature diversity within Indian Country, including urban Indians and Black Indians.

Post publication, it was easier to sell a powwow picture book than a novel set in an intertribal community and, in turn, that was easier to sell than a chapter book set in the city. Most retail buyers and gatekeepers preferred their Native characters in feathers. My initial sales figures declined from book to book. Meanwhile, the so-called multicultural boom of the late 1990s had gone bust. A major trade house marketing pro said to me, “Multiculturalism is dead. We tried it and it didn’t work.”

I also was feeling pigeon-holed. I wanted to write Native fiction—then and forever—but I had other stories to tell, too. And so, I did.

I’m a huge speculative fiction geek. Consequently, I shifted gears and began writing Gothic fantasy, right before the boom in paranormal fiction hit. I was accidentally on trend. There was a crossover audience from there to my Tantalize series, and then I shifted to fantasy-adventure for the Feral trilogy that spun off it.

The books still featured diverse characters, gender empowerment and social justice themes, but they were more commercial. The cast included some Native secondary characters and content because it was set in (sort of) this world and we are still here.

Basically, I embraced my wider interests and reinvented.

(Something I’ve noticed in my peers who’ve endured—many of them have reinvented themselves, too.)

Along the way, I contributed to numerous anthologies. I wrote short stories, creative nonfiction and poetry.

That forced me to stretch artistically and introduced my writing to a wider audience. It was a continuing education in craft. It also positioned my byline alongside fellow contributors and steadily raised my profile. It kept my name out there in the in-between-books years.

Now, I have persevered long enough to return to Native contemporary fiction in my next YA novel.

Though progress is still needed and uneven, Children’s-YA publishing is finally starting to become a little more diversity friendly and inclusive. I’m more hopeful now. When it comes to the diversity conversation, this isn’t my first rodeo. But it feels different this time.

It’s heartening, more fraught with emotion. The pushback from detractors is so much harder and more fierce, I think, because the stakes are high and the gains are real.

What did I do right along the way?

  • Commit to my ongoing education in the craft of writing.
  • Teach others. The necessity of repeatedly articulating various concepts, considerations and techniques allows me to better access and apply them myself.
  • Keep reading. A working writer’s knowledge of the field should be refreshed on a regular basis.
  • Commit to community. Friends offer support and perspective that I pay back and forward. They also bolster the positive reinforcement for my writing life.
  • Stay flexible. Especially if I’m pushing the creative envelope, I need to keep in mind that “not now” isn’t the same as “never.” And I can help faciliate positive change. In the meantime, write something else, something that heightens my skillset to be ready for whatever comes next.
  • Appreciate and work with the home team(s). For me, that translates to Austin SCBWI, the Writers’ League of Texas, Curtis Brown Ltd. and VCFA.

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?

I’ve alluded to the changes in author demographics, the ebb and flow of enthusiasm for diversity and inclusion. What else stands out? In the post-Potter world, children’s-YA publishing is a much bigger business. There’s a feeling that there’s money to be made in it, and a lot has flowed from that.

When I started out, I could name the few children’s-YA literary agents on my fingers. Authors were still debating whether representation was necessary at all. Now, I’m always hearing of new agents—some of whom don’t last long—and editors occasionally move into that role and back again.

I’ve worked with independent publicists—with my publishers’ blessings—to supplement their efforts and mine (I recommend Blue Slip Media). I’m blessed to be represented by a top-notch events agent, Carmen Oliver at The Booking Biz.

Compare that to my early days, wherein a well-established author said to me, “All you have to do—or can do—is school visits, but it’s really easy to stay in print that way.”

Fellow VCFA faculty at Sarducci’s in Montpelier, Vt.

In terms of craft, we have more MFA programs in writing for young readers and other opportunities for serious study.

I’m a faculty member on the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

We were the first fully dedicated graduate program on the scene. Now, there are over a dozen.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Beginning Writer, Cyn! Celebrate!

Embrace the experience and, along the way, continue to prioritize the writing itself. I mentioned stretching across age markets, genres and formats. Continue to learn, grow and take on new writing styles. Your art and career will both benefit from it.

It’s a huge adjustment, going from apprentice to published author-ambassador. Your creative time, heart, and goals may evolve, but writing should stay firmly at (or at least near) the top of your list. That doesn’t mean you must write every day or you must finish a certain number of words or pages. It means that of all the hats you wear, make sure you stay steadfastly in the habit of reaching for the one labeled “Writer.”

Be your own best cheerleader and fold into your heart the voices that lift you up. If you can learn from a critical remark, by all means, gratefully embrace that opportunity. But realize that positivity is ultimately what will fuel your forward journey. Nobody but you has the power to force you out of this field. Be affirmatively flexible. Too many writers talk themselves out of success.

News flash: All writing counts as writing. If you’re writing a speech or an article or answering interview questions, you’re still writing. Don’t count only the books and short creative pieces published, as though you’re above truly valuing or being fulfilled by anything else. Those audiences matter, too.

Supporting my local indie bookstore, BookPeople in Austin!

And, by the way, a lot of perfectly fine writers build their careers on that sort of thing. A lot of them who’re better at the craft than you are.

So, no whining about the day-job writing this career requires. It is a privilege and opportunity to share and grow that way, too.

That said, you can do more than write. You can mentor and advocate. If you’re worried about, say, the dearth of Native voices or the lack of attention to them, make the effort to help facilitate change. And do so consistently.*

Beyond that, speak your truth to others with kindness and stand up for yourself and your friends when necessary. But forgive readily and work through whatever conflicts, if you can. Yes, there are hard-fought moments at the children’s-YA lit dinner table. But we are all still a family. A community.

We share a commitment to quality books for young readers, even if we don’t always agree on how to get there. Yes, sadly, there are people who  may not be worth your time and effort, who won’t change for the better. So what. They don’t define who you are. Call me an optimist, but I believe in our potential for excellent youth literature across the board. I believe in the kids. I believe in us.

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

I wish that we would let Story guide marketing rather than vice versa. Enough with the exhausting overwriting in middle grade and YA. Yes, more avid readers buy books than reluctant ones. But our duty is to kids—all kids—more than to the quick formula to a buck.

New release! Honored to have contributed!

If we don’t write lean, we’ll lose all but the most committed readers and give up on converts entirely.

On the flip side, brevity in a picture book can be genius or—if forced—feel like we’re simply sneezing product.

The book needs to be as long as it needs to be.

I wish that beginning “diverse” writers—defined broadly—
will be welcomed at every stage, that they won’t have to navigate so many micro (and macro) aggressions along the way. I would love for a whole month to pass without a Native writer or writer of color telling me they don’t feel safe sharing in their own critique groups.

I wish that we were all more appreciative of the global conversation of books, both within our own countries and around the planet. Embracing diversity from region to region and across borders of all kinds.

I wish that we’ll all gain an appreciation of the voices who came before us, where our own work fits into the larger conversation of youth literature, and the need to nurture future generations of writers—the kids who’re reading our books now.

And by the way, I wish everyone has terrific mental and physical health and health insurance and more financial security. Because, at the risk of stating the obvious, the first condition of surviving as an active publishing writer is surviving–period.

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

I hope that I’ll always be at least as courageous as I am today.

Cynsational Notes

I’m thrilled by the increase of Native and First Nations voices–newcomers like Traci Sorell (Cherokee), Daniel Vandever (Navajo), Eric Gansworth (Onondaga), ever-rising stars like Tim Tingle (Choctaw) and Richard Van Camp (Dogrib), and luminaries like Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mounain Band of Chippewa)–among many more.

At BookPeople in Austin, Texas.


10 thoughts on “Career Achievers: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

  1. This is such a terrific post. Thanks for sharing, Cyn.

    As a writer of science-themed nonfiction, I've had many parallel experiences and faced similar struggles since my first book was published in 1998. I have two notes tacked to the bulletin board above my computer.

    "Be open to opportunities for growth. Show up!"

    "Don't be afraid to reinvent yourself."

  2. Wow, this is wise and wonderful. It lifts my heart.

    You have this gift, Cyn — I don't know how you do it — of bringing a listener home to self. Talking about your own experience, you illumine that of others. I enjoyed examining my own long journey in this light.

  3. Well said!

    And when you invite other people to post their experiences, I hope you will include those you allude to the introduction — that is, those who had that one book and whose careers DIDN'T last.

    Too often — in history as well as in other fields — we hear only the stories of those who endured and won. It's not the message anyone wants to hear, but there are also those who tried and stuck with it but didn't win. Their stories are important, too.

    And not just because I am (so far, anyway) one of those people!

    Thanks for posting about this topic. And whether you follow my suggestion or not — I will be reading the others!

  4. My first book (Vampires Don't Wear Polka Dots was co-authored with Marcia Jones) came out in 1990. I wanted to write books for reluctant readers in 2nd and 3rd grade. Fast forward 27 years and my newest book is Ready, Set, Goal! (Mermaid Tales #17) and I'm still striving to write books that will appeal to kids who may be reluctant readers. I think that has helped me to keep trying!

  5. This is such a great post, Cynthia. I, too, want more discussion about this. Along with Janni Lee Simner's Long Haul posts, we've talked about this in the Creative Conversations posts on my Dreamwalks blog, first with Janni and then with other authors. Those of us who have been at it a while know the ongoing challenges of creating new work year after year, along with the career ups and downs we all face if we stick with it. Thank you!

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