Cynsations Return & Author Update: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Author Events, Balance, Social Media & What She’d Change About Publishing

Thank you, Cynsations readers, for joining us in the 16th year of this blog! We are so grateful to you all for reading, sharing and supporting our efforts. You’re the whole reason we’re doing this.

Thanks also to those of you who submitted questions for Cynthia over our winter hiatus. Full disclosure: Some of the wording was changed to fit the style of this blog. E.g., no profanity, even when  used in enthusiastic praise. Kids as young as 10 years old routinely visit this site on their own and in conjunction with author-study projects.

By Cynsations Readers

You’re active on the author-speaker trail. Over the last twenty years, what’s changed for the better? For the worse? What do you want to change? What can we do to facilitate a successful event?

The Better

Probably the biggest public improvement has been the shift from featuring BIPOC authors/illustrators primarily on “multicultural panels” to an integrated approach throughout book-creator programming, even keynoters (!), and including authors/illustrators from additional marginalized and/or underrepresented voices in the mix.

That said, this isn’t yet applied universally or always successfully, so it’s more of a work-in-progress improvement. And we still need to do a better job at passing the mic to voices of people with disabilities, those from the 2SLGBTQIAP+ community, and more.

Uma Krishaswami, whose bookish bench is not going anywhere.

Reflecting back, though, I made wonderful friends—like the brilliant Uma Krishnaswami—while appearing at event after event on “multicultural panels,” and I also must give a shout out to those thirty-to-fifty teachers and librarians per session who, year after year, showed up to support us.

To y’all from back in the day, I’m still grateful for you!

The Worse

We’re in a social climate wherein comments that once seemed at least impolite and at most hateful are rising with more frequency, both online and in person.

And unfortunately, there are a handful of people even within the creative community who’re dismissive, minimizing and/or passive-aggressive when it comes to equity and inclusion.

On the upside, their voices may be louder these days, but their numbers are steadily on the decline.

Potential Changes

As in all aspects of life, we’re going to have to embrace environmentally proactive strategies. I enjoy author travel, for example, but I wish so many of us weren’t constantly on airplanes. The travel-intensive model can also sideline author/illustrator-speakers who’re, say, people with disabilities and/or whose socio-economic status prevents them from leaving home.

(Consider the personal and financial costs of child or elder care, of missing time at day jobs. Not all costs are reimbursed. More on that below.)

Event planners! Please consider passing the mic to your regional speakers. There’s this odd tendency to overlook local voices in favor of those from out of town. Some of this is about prestige or popularity or exposure (scarcity = perceived value), but a lot of it is mystifying.

Consider the benefits of featuring a new or lesser known local voice. Or, hey, the bestseller who happens to live down the street. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s famed analogy can be effectively applied to hometown role models, too.

Success Strategies

Huge topic, and you’re the experts on book-event planning. So, I’ll share these terrific resources and highlight a couple of reoccurring podium and panel considerations.

Schedules sometimes go awry. Tech snafus cause delays. Announcements and/or previous speakers run too long. But when an author-speaker is presenting on a deeply sensitive or nuanced topic, please don’t cut their time allotment. You want them to have prepared, to have chosen their words thoughtfully. To say what they need to say the way it needs to be said.

Editing at the podium on the fly is perilous on several levels. Plus, it takes courage to raise your voice against injustice, pushback is not uncommon, and your speaker may feel especially vulnerable in that session.

Give them an extra five minutes if they need it.

My favorite picture book of 2019.

On a related note, Native authors are writers, not cultural spokesmodels. When it comes to, say, panel questions, please be sure to ask us about the craft of writing, about children’s-YA literature, and the about dynamics around working for young readers.

No, those don’t have to be the only topics we’re talking about, but they should usually be centered and/or at least in the mix.

When I’m on, say, fantasy panels, I’m often asked about worldbuilding, character creation, story structure. Those of us writing Native literature can speak to those subjects, too.

There is also a sophisticated conversation to be had about Native literary traditions and idiosyncratic craft conversations. Quickly point the audience to sources of basic information and keep the conversation moving.

Don’t miss out by cycling on Indian 101.

How do you do it all? You have this blog, publish a lot of books, speak at book events, teach at VCFA, run an imprint, and whatever else. You’re a tireless advocate. How do you balance everything?

My work is only possible because of the Cynterns, my literary and events agencies, the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program staff and my fellow faculty, as well as my publishers. Not to mention the writer/illustrator pals who meet up with me for (hopefully mutually) supportive chats over breakfast, lunch, and iced tea.

Also, I am by no means tireless. I am often cheerfully tired. I love writing and the world of children’s-YA books, and I’m honored to work for young readers and those who connect books to them. But I’m also one human being who puts in an extraordinary number of hours and has done so for more than twenty years. I’m grateful for the opportunity to live many of my dreams, but of course it can take a toll.

That said, I’m also by no means unusual. It’s simply that the components of the equation (and degree to which they’re perceived from the outside) varies from author to author.

Just like with any other career, there are those who’re raising children or nursing a family member, who’re juggling an additional career or side gig, who’re pursuing graduate study or engaging in activism or volunteerism or…. I could go on, but you get the idea.

That said, industry expectations are heightened. Free time is in short supply. That’s not just authors; it’s modern life.

I’ve been watching the TV show, “Younger,” which is set in publishing, and there was a scene built around Dolly Parton’s anthem “9 to 5.” The characters marveling over the timelessness of the lyrics with one exception—their awe that anyone used to only work from 9 to 5 (with the obvious caveat that plenty of folks have always worked long hours, both inside and outside the home).

The best personal decision I made was to adopt a feisty, loving shelter dog. Her name is Gnocchi, and she’s a long-haired Chihuahua. She takes me for a walk every four or five hours. She knocks my phone out of my hand when I’ve had too much screen time.

Gnocchi in her winter sweater over the holidays.

You have a big presence on social media. What advice do you have for writers on the networks?

Sign off social media and get back to work on your manuscript. Read books, not tweets. Also, if you’re inclined to compare and despair and/or vulnerable to bot manipulation, consider deleting your account. It’s perfectly valid to prioritize your productivity, your mental and emotional state.

Or take a more moderate approach. There are blessings to social media. I learn a lot and connect with fellow book lovers. Various initiatives are conducive to success for those seeking an agent, for example. Having a strong online presence can boost name recognition and, to some degree, sales, especially for mid-list authors, by which I mean almost all of us. Just be sure to get your writing done first because you can get lost in bunny holes.

And keep in mind that if your accounts are part of your professional platform, they’re, well, part of your professional platform. Fair or not, profanity may be a red flag for author-event planners (and children’s-YA publishers who target the school/library market). Venting in personal terms about professional rejections may likewise put off prospective editors/agents. It can be a judgement call, deciding what we must or should never say, but there will be real-world career impact, either way.

If it helps, my social media posts typically reflect my writing, reading, teaching, related topics and pop-culture interests. My personal guideline is to stay positive, but that doesn’t mean I’m a Pollyannaish. Related topics (often reflected in my writing) include Native issues, equity and inclusion more broadly, intergenerational dynamics, military families/veterans, etc. That said, I’m mindful about conserving focus and energy for the page.

I’m always very aware that young readers are finding me online, and I post knowing that kids as young as third grade might be reading my words or whatever I’m sharing.

For me, that doesn’t mean that the material (words, images, video, etc.) should necessarily be tailored to them, but it shouldn’t be disheartening or damaging either.

They’re coming to me as a children’s-YA author. I work for them. I’m especially sensitive to the online experience of kids from underrepresented and/or marginalized communities, including Native kids, kids of color, and kids with anxiety and/or depression.

You’re a glass-half-full person, so I’m curious. Do you have any publishing pet peeves?

I wish people would not call manuscripts “books,” if the work is not (yet) published. It’s not that I think books are necessarily superior to manuscripts. Obviously, there are brilliant manuscripts in progress (or resting) that could eclipse many finished books. It’s more that when someone says “book,” there’s a whole different dynamic and conversation around it. E.g., I may want to seek out the book and/or raise awareness of it.

I’m also not fond of the use of “pre-published” to describe beginning writers. If the conversation is about craft and process, “writer” is the common identity element.

I’m a big believer in the power of encouragement. I appreciate that it’s intended to communicate a show of faith that the writer will eventually achieve publication. But even that makes a lot of assumptions about the writers’ goals and may foster stress that ultimately interferes with their success, however a given individual may define “success.”

Probably it’s the mentor-teacher in me, but when it comes to beginners, I fret the emotional implications of publication being so heavily emphasized in self-/community identification. It prioritizes (a) product over process and (b) outcomes that are to a great extent beyond our control.

Better to focus on creativity, learning and growth.

That’s not in any way to diminish dreams or progress toward publication. Of course it’s valid to connect your work to its intended audience and to be compensated for it. I am 100 percent in favor of creating finished books for kids and getting paid for hard work. But it’s also okay to set aside the goal of publication to embrace the writing life for a while. To develop your art. And, for that matter, to write for pleasure, for yourself and/or it share it only with your family and friends.

What do you wish you could improve about publishing?

I love so much about the industry, but of course we can all think of areas in need of improvement. There’s not time and space here to thoughtfully share many of my thoughts on systemic inequities. So, I’ll zero in on a couple of points.

Gender-Language Inclusiveness

When we advocate against the “girl books” versus “boy books” default, which is problematic paradigm (books don’t have genders), we should take care with our word choices to be inclusive of kids of all genders. Too often when making the point about inclusion, there’s a tendency to default toward binary language, which only results in more marginalization.

Financial Equity

I wish that it wasn’t so challenging to break in and stay in a children’s-YA writing and illustration career without substantial outside financial support. With a full-time day job, it’s very difficult to write regularly, let alone to navigate the increasing requisite travel, speaking, and marketing expectations.

Then there are the educational costs of the preceding writing apprenticeship, the time and effort put into learning your craft so it’s competitive in the market and worthy of its young audience. Workshops, conferences, and degree programs are costly.

Meanwhile, many authors and illustrators without highly compensated day jobs—even if they are actively publishing—have insecure/substandard access to health care and housing. Some of our most talented, goodhearted creatives fall through societal cracks or are at serious risk of doing so. The stress of navigating daily life and an art life can feel overwhelming at times.

(This concern applies to many literary agents, booksellers, freelance, small-press and new publishing pros, etc., too.)

The intersecting systems that underpin the society, including the publishing industry, heavily favor those with financial means. That affects who is able to publish, at what level and for how long.

You’ve done a lot of very different kinds of books. How has your writing changed over the years?

The variety keeps me fresh creatively and builds transferrable skills. I am a devoted children’s-YA book geek who enjoys many types of writing and who is artistically invested in young readers at every stage of development, picture books to YA.

That said, I tend to regularly revisit certain themes. If you consider the body of work in the whole, you’ll find a centering of heroes across identity elements, especially Native heroes, along with gender empowerment, intergenerational relationships, equity, culture, faith, family, friendship, and community. I also have a strong contemporary bent, tend toward the romantic, and am fascinated with the conversation between books over time.

Sometimes these themes rise in waves. In my early Native books, it’s easy to identify my reoccurring focus on regalia and clothing. The jingle dress and so forth in Jingle Dancer (Harper, 2000), the moccasins (and high tops!) in Indian Shoes (Harper, 2002), the tear dress in Rain Is Not My Indian Name (Harper, 2001).

One of my cousins jokingly called that the “take back the wardrobe” phase of my writing wherein I was using realistic, culturally-grounded narratives to push back against disrespectful costuming and rampant appropriation.

More recently, I’m arguably reflecting on the canon of children’s literature and broader media from an Indigenous perspective. This came through in the storyline around L. Frank Baum in Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, 2018), and it’s even more evident in my work in progress.

Classic books are of varying quality and content. They’re not sacred or untouchable texts. It’s okay to question, to talk back, to reimagine, and to ask for more from yourself, the literary community, and the young audience, too. To reconsider those titles, reinvent or even reject them.

I have a tremendous fascination with the conversation of books over time. Consider, for example, the deep relationship between Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and my Tantalize series (Candlewick, 2007-2013). It’s an update, a reinvention, a conversation with Stoker. There’s much I love about his writing, but I had a perspective to share, too.

In terms of craft, I’d say the biggest improvement has been the worldbuilding in my realistic fiction—thank you to my Tantalize and Feral fantasy series (and my beloved former YA fantasy editor Deborah Noyes) for all that y’all taught me! That’s really coming through on the work I’m doing with contributors for the anthology, Ancestor Approved (Heartdrum, 2021). I’m better at making connections on the page.

An illustration of Cynthia Leitich Smith by Molly Murakami

I’m also really enjoying collaboration, working with Kekla Magoon on our upcoming Blue Stars graphic-format middle-grade series (Candlewick, 2022-), which will be illustrated by Molly Murakami. We’ll share more about that as the release nears, but the process is in some ways like Improv theater.

My writing also continues to benefit from my teaching in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I learn so much from my fellow faculty members and the students, too.

Teaching has also prompted me to try new forms, like poetry, which I doubt I ever would’ve written if it weren’t for ongoing exposure and craft insights at VCFA.

But mostly, I’m loosening up—becoming more courageous and innovative. Much of that is earned confidence over time, always trusting my editors to ask useful questions and continuing to center kids.

I also readily attribute it to support from my creative and literary communities, including friends from “Native Kidlit” and SCBWI (I’ve been a member of the Austin chapter for many years, and it’s blessed me with several of my dearest friends.)

To my fellow writers, I’d respectfully suggest that you make an effort to challenge yourself. Try new formats, age markets, literary devices. All of my novels had been written in the first person until the one I’m working on now, and that felt scary at first, but it’s also an opportunity for growth.