Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith, Gayleen Rabakukk, Stephani EatonSuma Subramaniam, and Gail Vannelli for Cynsations

Spotlight Image: Off to the Sea by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2021).

Author/Illustrator Insights

Feiwel & Friends

Q & A With Randi Pink by Sanina Clark from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “How can teens now take initiative in their communities even in a pandemic? Whether you’re a writer or not, write….[W]rite about this moment. Get a journal, open a Therapy folder on your laptop and write…Maybe it’s not going to help right now, but in the future you’ll certainly be happy you did it.”

South Asian Storytelling: Author Interview With Rajani Narasimhan LaRocca by Suma Subramaniam from From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. Peek: “There are stories that only you—you, with your own experiences, perspective, and skills—can write. So write them. Write them first for yourself, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Because the more specific and emotionally true a story is, the more universal it can become.”

We Need Diverse Books: Writing Advice from Meg Medina from YouTube. Peek: “What I say to young people is that you’re enough, what you lived is enough, what you know is enough for a story…And then persevere, because in writing, the first thing is that it’s hard…[I]t takes some time to get your craft going…You have to keep at it and not take no.”


Marie Arnold Writes So Immigrant Readers Feel Seen by Alaina Lavoie from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “[I]t’s the difference between running a marathon by yourself as opposed to being part of a group that gets the baton…With writing novels, it’s just you. That’s great, and it’s also scary. It’s just you, you have to be brave about it, go the long distance by yourself. It’s a solitary endeavor.”

Four Debut YA Authors on Getting Published in a Pandemic and Staying True to Yourself by Melanie Kletter from School Library Journal. Peek: [Marti Leimbach:] “I want young people to know that they don’t have to be good at everything. You can be good at one thing and make it your life’s work. And you don’t need a million friends to be happy…One or two close friends is enough. If you stay true to yourself, you’ll find your people.”

Equity & Inclusion

Black History Month Resources Roundup by Jalissa from Lee & Low Books. Peek: “For Black History Month, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite resources for readers and educators alike. Though this month is dedicated to uplifting Black history, culture, movements, and gamechangers, we must remember that Black history IS American history and should be celebrated all year round. [Chart:] Black Representation in the Publishing Industry.”


Yesenia Moises—Stella’s Stellar Hair with Matthew Winner from The Children’s Book Podcast. Peek: [Yesenia Moises:] “I was socialized to think that big hair was a little bit too much—it needed to be tamed, smoothed, so it looked professional…. I realized there was something really wrong with having such negativity towards the hair that naturally grew out of my scalp…. I wanted to create a story that changed those perceptions.”

True Story: Alberta Teen Pens Grant Application to Bring Diversity to Her School Library from CBC News. Peek: [Sofia Rathjen:] “Students of colour—and all people of colour—can see their stories represented authentically and unapologetically and written by authors who understand those experiences…. And non-people of colour can understand things that we go through…. I experienced a lot of micro-aggressions…so I just thought about how I could change that.”

Why White Children Need Diverse Books by Drew Himmelstein from School Library Journal. Peek: “In majority-white communities…it’s crucial that diverse books are put in front of white children. Books can dispel stereotypes and offer a more balanced view of the world to kids who grow up in homogeneous environments…. [Amy Weir, children’s librarian:] ‘[They] need books that will help them understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in….’”

Crown Books for Young Readers

How “Tiny Pretty Things” Writer Dhonielle Clayton Is Bringing More Diversity to Publishing by J.D. Myall from Ms. Magazine. Peek: “A lot of books about marginalized kids focus on racism and the trauma kids of color sometimes face. Those stories are important, but…aren’t the only stories kids should have. Kids of all shades deserve…books that mirror their experiences or [are] about someone that looks like them going on an adventure and saving the world.”

Judy Allen Dodson by Kelly Starling Lyons from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: “With [industry professionals’] overwhelming show of support and the need for community, a Black writers’ and illustrators’ group was formed, #blackcreatorsinkidlit. It’s [a]…hub of weekly instruction from industry professionals offering tips, craft sessions, and marketing advice…. It’s a positive step toward righteousness when we can write and illustrate our stories about our own lived experiences.”

Great Joy and Self-Love: Renée Watson on “Love Is a Revolution” by Renée Watson from School Library Journal. Peek: “I am intentional about writing stories where Blackness is not a burden. I want young readers to have books where Black teens go on summer excursions, have sweet first kisses, and stay up too late binge-watching their new favorite show…. [T]his is important not only for Black readers but for non-Black readers as well.”

Writing Craft

Norton Young Readers

Jerome Pumphrey, Jarrett Pumphrey by Don Tate from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: [Jarrett Pumphrey:] “We used a mix of traditional and digital media…The process starts with sketches. Then we turn those sketches into stamps…. Next, we make prints with the stamps. We use black ink to maximize contrast. We scan the prints into the computer to composite the final images. And then we add final details and color.”

Joy Jones by Crystal Allen from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: “[A]s a young adult trying to become a writer, I was plagued with writer’s block…I discovered…that being authentic is a large part of being a good writer…. I had to learn to be okay with having the real me revealed on the page. Once I came to grips with that truth, writing got easier.”

Five questions for Frank Morrison by Elissa Gershowitz from The Horn Book. Peek: “My thought process is…about what is the big picture, and then I layer in the characters. I used to be a [movie/video] break dancer…I’d dance, stop, wait, then dance again…. As the director of the page, I want my characters’ emotions to stop, smile, pose, give the reader some attitude, and dance off the page.”

HMH Books for Young Readers

Four Questions for Jacqueline Davies by Sally Lodge from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Early chapter books are a fascinating writing space. You need to write a story with a really engaging plot—plot is super important for this age reader—but sometimes the characters…can be one-dimensional. I wanted to see if I could write characters that had some complexity—without losing readers…still working on their reading skills.”

Author Interview: Desmond Hall by Rachelle Saint Louis from Educated Negra. Peek: “I’m a voracious outliner. I pretty much wake up outlining, trying to blend characterization and plot by putting my characters in greater and greater difficulties. Like…Robert McKee said, the only way to express the deepest truths about humanity is by making your characters take risks [by] putting them in successive pressurized situations.”

Laura Freeman by Don Tate from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: “It starts with a manuscript. It’s better if it’s broken down into what goes on what page. It’s even better if the publisher gives me a rough layout. That way I have an idea of how much space the text will take up on each page…Initially I spend a lot of time on research.”


Influencer Marketing Tips and Trick for Authors by Corrine Pritchett from Books Forward. Peek: “[T]here is an entire community of influencers who make posts that center around books…There is an entire social media world…that focuses specifically on books. As an author searching for an audience, it is crucial and beneficial to tap into that!…Twitter’s #BookTwitter, TikTok’s #Booktok, Youtube’s ‘Booktube’ and Instagram’s ‘Bookstagram’ accounts are popular platforms….”


Henry Holt and Co.

PRH and Collab to Amplify Black Voices from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “For Black History Month, and news platform Rolling Out are collaborating with Penguin Random House to promote recent books about Black culture with the hashtag #AmplifyBlackStories. [PRH Anthony Key:] ‘Our collaboration will allow us to propel the awareness of Black literary excellence and introduce more stories by Black authors to a diverse group of readers.’”

Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster Extend Open License to June 30 by Kathy Ishizuka from School Library Journal. Peek: “With remote learning looking like the continued state of play, publishers have extended permissions for readalouds of their titles….The new Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster policies appear in [this article]. These are included in SLJ’s full COVID-19 Publisher Information Directory.”


Black-Owned Independent Bookstores Face Unique Challenges by J. Nailah Avery from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “The Open Education Database reports that there are around 10,800 independent bookstores operating across the United States. Of this number, a mere 6 percent of those are Black-owned…. Black bookstores have been an important pillar of Black communities for decades…. Black bookstores have served as the gathering place for…activities that have strengthened and empowered Black communities.”

Indie Bookstores Embrace E-Commerce…and It Pays Off by Alex Green from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Few observers could have predicted that 2021 would begin with indie bookstores at the forefront of an unprecedented online shop local movement. But the temporary store closures…forced them to take a bold leap into the world of e-commerce. Their embrace of internet sales appears to have paid off, allowing them to meet surging demand….”


YALSA Names Recipients of Its 2021 Volunteers of the Year Award from American Library Association. Peek: “The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) has named the recipients of its 2021 Volunteers of the Year Award. The award acknowledges the contributions of an individual YALSA member, YALSA chair or team lead, and YALSA group who have demonstrated outstanding service to the mission, goals and work of YALSA….”

Why 2021 Is Setting Up to Be a Pivotal Year for Digital Content in Libraries by Sari Feldman from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “[T]he Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the digital content market…. [P]ublishers moved to increase flexibility in licensing to help library budget dollars go further…. Publishers have also helped libraries respond to the extraordinary increase in demand for digital programming by offering extended blanket permissions to record and host online readings.”

Education/Other Resources/Events

Delacorte Press

Mysterious Galaxy, an independent bookstore that specializes in fantasy, science fiction, young adult, mystery, and horror, hosts free virtual author events that you can register for here. Events are currently scheduled through April 28. Past event replays are also available to watch. Some of the hosted authors include Namina FornaNeal Shusterman, and Amélie Wen Zhao.

CBC and Every Child a Reader Unveil 2021 Children’s Book Week Superpower Theme by Pamela Brill from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “This year’s [Children’s Book Week] celebration, hosted by Every Child a Reader and the Children’s Book Council, will follow the theme ‘Reading Is a Superpower,’ as a nod to the educators, librarians, booksellers, and caregivers who have encouraged kids to continue reading during the pandemic. The [first] event will take place May 3–9.”

U.S. Book Show: Call for Submissions from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “PW is putting together a rich slate of programming for the upcoming U.S. Book Show. A big piece of that is a series of PW editor picks panels highlighting important books publishing this fall….[E]mail us with a proposal outlining your major titles publishing August 1-Dec. 31. Deadline…is Feb. 26.” The virtual U.S. Book Show will be held from May 25 to May 27.

Balzer + Bray

Little Free Library is giving away 10 bundles of books from We Need Diverse Books. Each bundle includes six books that are winners or honorees of the 2021 Walter Dean Myers Awards for Outstanding Children’s Literature. The entry period ends 9:59 p.m. pacific, 11:59 p.m. central, 12:59 p.m. eastern on Feb. 28. Enter here.

Teachers and librarians! Enter for your chance to win a collection (eight books) of ALA Award winners! The entry period ends 8:59 p.m. pacific, 10:59 p.m. central, 11:59 p.m. eastern on Feb. 23. Enter here.


Congratulations to the finalists for the Golden Kite Awards in the categories of Middle Grade/Young Readers, Picture Book Text, Nonfiction Text for Young Readers, Picture Book Illustration, Nonfiction Text for Older Readers, Illustrated Books for Older Readers, and Young Adult. Congratulations also to the finalists for the Sid Fleischmann Humor Award. The winners and honors will be announced at the Golden Kite Gala at the SCBWI Winter Conference at 4:30 p.m. pacific, 6:30 p.m. central, 7:30 p.m. eastern on Feb. 19.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Congratulations to the winner of the 2021 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction: All He Knew by Helen Frost (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2020).

Congratulations to the winners and honor authors/illustrators of the 2021 Children’s Africana Book Awards. The winners of Best Books for Young Children are Nana Akua Goes to School by Tricia Elam Walker, illustrated by April Harrison (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2020) and Idia of the Benin Kingdom by Ekiuwa Aire, illustrated by Alina Shabelnyk (Our Ancestors, 2020). The winner of Best Book for Older Children is Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko (Amulet Books, 2020).

LeVar Burton Named Inaugural PEN/Faulkner Literary Champion by John Maher from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “LeVar Burton, the actor and longtime host of Reading Rainbow, has been named the inaugural PEN/Faulkner Literary Champion, a new annual commendation that will ‘recognize devoted literary advocacy and a commitment to inspiring new generations of readers and writers’…Burton will be honored in a virtual celebration on May 10.”


Congratulations to the winners of the 2021 In the Margin Book Awards (overall top titles and Top Ten List). The selections are “inclusive of stories written for youth between the ages of 9 and 21, in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, and advocacy…The committee’s charge is inclusive of youth living a marginalized existence, with specific focus on narratives and informational text that address the disproportionality of injustices experienced by BIPOC youth….”

Scholarships & Grants

Creative Writing Fellowship: The National Endowment for the Arts is offering $25,000 grants in prose (fiction and creative nonfiction) and poetry to published creative writers. Applications must be received no later than 8:59 p.m. pacific, 10:59 p.m. central, 11:59 p.m. eastern on March 10. You can apply here.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

Photo courtesy of Christina Soontornvat.

Wow, what a week! Thank you to everyone who joined me, acclaimed author (and moderator) Ellen Oh of We Need Diverse Books, and Heartdrum authors Christine Day, Dawn Quigley, and Brian Young for the launch of the Heartdrum imprint with Birchbark Books and the National Indian Education Association!

If you missed the launch event, no worries! You can watch a recording of the panel discussion, courtesy of HarperCollins and WNDB.

We’re also celebrating the release of Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, the repackaged releases of Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu; Rain Is Not My Indian Name, with new cover art by Natasha Donovan; and Indian Shoes, with new cover art by Sharon Irla and interior illustrations by MaryBeth Timothy (more about the repackages)! Shall we check out the latest reviews?

BookPage raves about Ancestor Approved:

“Much of American children’s literature has for too long relegated Indigenous people and their stories to the category of historical fiction…shines a long overdue spotlight on a joyful aspect of Native life in America today.”

AudioFile praises Ancestor Approved and the performances of audio edition voice actors Kenny Ramos (Barona Band of Mission Indians (Diegueño Iipay/Kumeyaay) and Delanna Studi (Cherokee):

“Ramos narrates the boys’ stories in a lively and youthful voice, capturing their nerves and excitement over joining the festivities. Studi expresses the energy and emotions of the girls and is especially skilled at portraying older loved ones. Both smoothly narrate words in multiple Indigenous languages.”

Kelly at Kids Ask Authors With Grace Lin chimes in:

“I liked this book because it taught me about Native American traditions. Before I read this book, I did not know what a powwow was!”

Interested in a peek behind the curtain, be sure to look for “Behind the Scenes with Heartdrum,” an interview with me and Heartdrum editor Rosemary Brosnan from BookPage. Peek:

“We’ll publish mostly contemporary fiction—realistic and fantastical—that centers young Native heroes. Why? Because we are still here, and that’s where the biggest need is in the body of literature. To a lesser extent, we’ll also offer 20th-century historical fiction and narrative nonfiction.”

And would you like to hear the story behind so many stories (and poems!) coming together. Read “A Book Invites Young Readers to the Powwow” by Laura Simeon from Kirkus Reviews. Peek:

“It’s important that we get to know characters whom we can see as friends and whom we can identify with as representative of shared parts of ourselves.”

What else? Check out my interview with Time for Kids as well as 5 Indigenous People You Should Teach Your Kids About from Parents Together.

And huge gratitude to Reading Middle Grade Books for Kids and Grownups, Colorful Pages, From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors, The Nerd Daily, BookPage, Colorlines, Publishers Weekly, Children’s Book Council, The Toy Insider, BuzzFeed, and MinnPost for all the buzz!

More Heartdrum News

Congratulations to Heartdrum creatives Dawn Quigley and Tara Audibert on their starred review from Kirkus Reviews for Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend! Peek: “A joyful book about growing up Native in a loving community—not to be missed.”

Congrats, Kim & Welcome to Heartdrum, Jonathan!

More Personally – Gayleen

Fostering writing community connections has been especially difficult in the midst of the pandemic, but I’ve loved the support and camaraderie in Bethany HegedusCourage to Create Community. It’s literary life coaching, goal setting, plus industry insight from editors and agents who offer submission opportunities. Sign-up window for the next six-month session is open through Feb. 28.

More Personally – Suma

The international travel restrictions this past year has made me miss India a lot. I loved re-reading A Time To Dance by Padma Venkatraman (Penguin Random House, 2015) recently. It is a powerful story about disability, loss, recovery, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Veda’s story transported me to South India, where I spent my childhood years, and let me experience the memories on the streets of Chennai through her eyes.