Interview: Crystal Allen, Co-Director Shares Her Vision for Kindling Words Retreat

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

I’m excited to welcome Crystal Allen, author and co-director of Kindling Words, who shares with Cynsations readers her vision for the retreat as well as her thoughts on writing.

Congratulations on being named co-director of Kindling Words! First, can you tell us a little bit about the Kindling Words retreat and its history?

Kindling Words (KW) is an outstanding retreat designed for traditionally published children’s book creators and children’s book professionals. If you’ve ever felt like you needed time, space, and the opportunity to do nothing but work on your craft, KW is your retreat!

One price provides housing, incredible food, workshops, group conversations, yoga, outings, walks, bonfires, and did I mention huge blocks of “silence” time to empty out your creativity without interruption?

Yeah. It’s like that.

Our retreats have been all over the world! Besides places like Taos, New Mexico; Breckenridge, Colorado; Marble Falls, Texas; Burlington, Vermont; Whidbey Island, Washington, we’ve traveled as far away as the U.K., and even booked a castle in Scotland for a seven-day retreat!

No. I’m serious.

Breckenridge, Colorado

There are two opportunities to attend Kindling Words: Kindling Words East is traditionally held during the last week of January. It is a four-day retreat with just under 100 people attending, and we do keep a waitlist. Authors, illustrators, and editors sign up for this unforgettable experience. For 2021, KWE will be virtual, and we will open up registration to many more than usual.

Kindling Words West is a smaller, artist-colony style. It runs for a full week in early spring at the incredible Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island in Washington.

Whidbey Institute

I began attending KW in 2010. Since that time, I rewrote the entire novel The Laura Line (Balzer and Bray, 2013), created Mya Tibbs – Wall Of Fame Game (Balzer and Bray, 2017), and revised Mya Tibbs – Mya In The Middle (Balzer and Bray, 2018). I have also made amazing strides in my current work in progress, Between Two Brothers (Balzer and Bray, 2022), during my time at Kindling Words East and West.

What drew you to this position?

I received a call from co-director, Tanya Lee Stone. She had been strongly moved by the current events and state of our industry. Instead of just shaking her head, she chose to do something. That “something” was to step down as co-director, and encourage someone of color to take her position in order to invite, encourage, and educate more creators of color who may or may not be aware of the opportunities offered at KW.

She contacted me, wholly believing that I would have more access and knowledge of creators of color who may be flying under the radar, or in need of peer-guidance or a supportive place to write. I answered the call, and have already begun my journey to help unite our community, and encourage more creators of color to attend.

Because KW attracts such a broad spectrum of children’s book professionals, the work we do here has the potential to impact the entire children’s literature community.

Can you tell us about your vision for Kindling Words moving forward?

My vision is so huge that I may need a pair of those old Bootsy Collins glasses just so I can see everything! It is not that KW is veering from its amazing structure, it’s just now, the offerings will be amplified, with more variety, more support for #ownvoices, more opportunities for our creative community to unite as a community for all creators.

I’m extremely excited to be a part of a new Think Tank that will explore the tough questions around discrimination, diversity and healing. This will not be a “one and done” event. KW chooses to continue these tough conversations every year in an effort to promote healing in our literary community.

We hope to start bringing new solutions to the table, so that we can push the conversation forward for everyone.

You are the author of several middle-grade books including The Magnificent Mya Tibbs series. What appeals to you about writing in this age market? What are the challenges?

This age group is oblivious to race and gender. It is not uncommon to see a third or fourth grade boy reading a book with a girl on the cover. It is not uncommon to see a third or fourth grade Caucasian girl reading Mya Tibbs.

If we could extract the beauty and acceptance of this age group, and sprinkle it on the rest of the world, we’d be in great shape!

I believe my challenges are making sure I stay relevant to the needs of middle graders. I don’t want them to read my books because they have to.

What advice do you have for writers?

You will always hear two voices in your head. One will tell you that you can’t, or that you’re not good enough. The other voice will tell you to strive on, you will succeed, because the race is not won by the swift.

One of these two voices is your voice of truth. Only listen to that one.

Cynsational Notes

Crystal Allen is the author of five middle-grade books, all published by Balzer and Bray/HarperCollins. Her accolades include: the 2018 SCBWI Sid Fleischman Humor Award for The Magnificent Mya Tibbs: The Wall of Fame Game; starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal; inclusion in Kirkus Reviews Best Books and Chicago Public Library Best Books; and books on multiple summer reading and state book award lists, including the Texas Bluebonnet list.

She is a committee member of The Brown Bookshelf, co-director of Kindling Words, and an inspiring speaker for numerous conferences, workshops and retreats. Her forthcoming book, Between Two Brothers (Balzer and Bray/HarperCollins), will release in the Fall of 2022. Crystal lives in Sugar Land, Texas with her husband, Reggie, and two sons, Phillip and Joshua. 

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency.