Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich SmithGayleen RabakukkStephani EatonSuma SubramaniamBree Bender and Gail Vannelli for Cynsations

Spotlight Image: The First Blade of Sweetgrass by Suzanne Greenlaw and Gabriel Frey, illustrated by Nancy Baker (Tilbury House Publishers, 2021).

Author/Illustrator Insights

Book of the Month: Healer of the Water Monster: An Interview With Brian Young on Native America Calling. Peek: “As Young says, his [main character’s] kindness makes him the true hero of the story inspired by a dream the author had when he was seven. ‘You can also be a hero…of the story.’”

First Second

Middle Grade Examines the Constitution! by Robyn Gioia from From The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. Peek: [Cynthia Levinson:] “Although it might seem that the Constitution has nothing to do with middle-graders, that’s not such a tough question. Our government—especially, the way it fails to operate these days, thanks to our Constitution—affects kids’ lives from what they eat for lunch…to whether they have to be vaccinated…to whether they can vote….”

What Makes a Book “Appropriate” for School? by Nikki Grimes from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Perhaps some have forgotten the purpose and power of Story. Story is more than [a] repository of fact and fiction. Story is poultice, is salve designed to mitigate pain and stimulate the healing of wounds, especially those festering beneath the surface unseen. But this meticulously crafted treatment only works when applied.”

Q&A With Saadia Faruqi, Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero by Alana Ladson from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “Kids often can see when adults are doing things that are wrong or inadvisable or not the way kids think they should be, but they often don’t have the voice or intuition to do something about it….[S]ometimes you do have to be a hero even though that’s the harder choice.”

Margaret K. McElderry Books

Sarah Raughley Aimed To Tell the Entire Truth About the Victorian Era With The Bones of Ruin by Karis Rogerson from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “I write because at the end of the day, it’s fun and it makes me happy…Maybe, if you can just push everything else out, delete the extraneous stuff and get back to those basics, you’ll be in a good position to handle things when those tough times come.”

Grief Can Transform Us and Our Stories by B.J. McDaniel from School Library Journal. Peek: “The more I write, the more I appreciate the ways that grief can transform us and our stories….If my imagining and reimagining of grief and how to grieve can open up new spaces for expression and release for readers of all ages, I think I want to keep going with it for a while.”

Comic Books Don’t Count As Reading & Other Lies People Tell You by Lucas Maxwell from Book Riot. Peek: “The lie: comics don’t count as reading….In reality, comic books actually expand a student’s word bank. With the combination of images and text, it provides unique context for the reader to acquire new language skills….Comic books give a sense of accomplishment….Having this feeling of achievement is crucial in getting students coming back for more.”

Feiwel & Friends

How Picture Books Can Normalize Anxiety and Make Kids Feel Understood by Manka Kasha from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “[S]ometimes seeing a character in a similar situation can help kids open up about what they are going through. ‘What is this character feeling?’ ‘What could possibly cause it?’….‘What can be done to help them?’ Asking such questions and discussing them with a parent, caretaker, or teacher might help children…feel seen and safe and accepted….”

Equity & Inclusion

Q&A With Meredith Ireland, The Jasmine Project by Sara Conway from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “I, like many POC writers, first wrote white characters because that’s what I grew up reading….[T]he representation did improve but too often I pick up a book with an adopted MC and it’s all about finding and longing for birth parents….[T]he representation is often poor—that we’re not whole…because we don’t know our biological parents.”

Q&A With Peyton Thomas, Both Sides Now by Alaina Leary from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “A trans person’s inner life can be so rich and well-defined, and, at the same time, so at odds with their exterior appearance, and so incomprehensible to everyone around them. What does it do to a person when you don’t let them tell you who they are?…Or describe their experiences and be understood, heard, believed?”

Harry N. Abrams

Jordan Ifueko’s Redemptor Allows Black Girls, Even Heroines, To Ask for Help When They Need It by Chinelo Ikem from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “It was very important to me that I wrote a Black female heroine that was empowering to readers, but that also got to display a lot of vulnerability. Which I don’t often see…[A] lot of Black female characters…are either nonexistent or…portrayed as strong to the point where they don’t need any kind of protection.”

Q&A With Leah Scheier, The Last Words We Said by Aleah Gornbein from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “I had never seen Orthodox characters portrayed in YA…[E]ven in non-young adult media, its portrayal tended to be the extreme Ultra Orthodox sector…[I]t was important to me to show that Modern Orthodox Jews in America consider themselves Americans. They don’t try to isolate themselves…At the same time, their Judaism is really important to them….”

A Case for More Girls’ Sports Teams in YA, A Guest Post by Emma Kress by Amanda MacGregor from School Library Journal. Peek: “I hope we see more books that feature…diverse teams of athletic girls working together to achieve their goals….What better way to examine intersectional feminist friendships than through a sports team? Let’s see girls of color, trans girls, body-positive girls, queer girls, and girls from varied socio-economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds on the same teams.”

Mascot Books

Bismarck Mom Turns Son’s Experience Being Bullied Into Children’s Book, Teaching Moment by Jody Kerzman from KFYR-TV. Peek: “[Joelle Bearstail’s] son was bullied for his long hair….Her son’s experiences were all the inspiration Bearstail needed to write her first children’s book….She hopes the story…might give other young Native American boys the confidence and courage to keep their hair long and help others understand their culture.”

Writing Craft

Almost There and Almost Not by Linda Urban by Amanda Elend from On Lines. Peek: [Linda Urban:] “[A]lmost every first line of almost every piece I’ve published is exactly the same in the published book as it was in the very first draft. The first lines…show up with a particular voice and set of questions…I spend the next two or so years figuring out whose voice that is and what the answers…are.”

Q&A With Aden Polydoros, The City Beautiful by Aleah Gornbein from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “During the drafting process, I essentially rewrote the story several times over. My first revision involved changing the second half of the book entirely, and over the 6+ revisions I did, I likely deleted 150,000 words….[T]he hardest part…was trying to balance the supernatural elements with the murder mystery aspect of the plot.”

Nancy Paulsen Books

Q&A With Padma Venkatraman, Born Behind Bars by Thushanthi Ponweera from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “Many of my characters are based on real people…Ultimately, at the final stage of writing, it was as though they had taken over my being, as if I temporarily was inside their minds and hearts…[T]hat, for me, is one of the most exquisite (and at times also excruciating) aspects of my writing process.”

MacKids Spotlight: Amber McBride from MacKids School and Library. Peek: “Read widely, vastly and furiously. Read intentionally—outside of your favorite genre and read diverse books. Realize there is something to learn in every book, even from books you don’t like. Last, give yourself time and space to write/practice your craft badly. You must make mistakes so in the future you can make better mistakes.”

Illustrator Spotlight: Loris Lora [May Your Life Be Deliciosa] from KidLit411. Peek: “I was thrilled about the project…Mexican traditions, making tamales, and nostalgic imagery….One of the first things I did was surround myself with colorful Mexican folk art, inspiring photographs from the time periods, and tamales!…Inspired by the text, I then drew out scenes—developing the characters, environment, and the overall flow of the book.”

Neal Porter Books

Behind the Scenes: Yuyi Morales on the Making of “Bright Star” from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Bright Star began with a question: ‘How do we heal something that feels irreparable?’.…I wrote and made drawings from answers people gave me…and of the things I was learning. Some of these notes even sounded like songs to me. It was time to create a book!…My stories start from not knowing. So I search.”


Children’s Book Imprint Focuses on Contemporary Native Stories by Rachel Kramer Bussel from Forbes. Peek: [Cynthia Leitich Smith:] “The erasure of Native people from the curriculum and the false myth of extinction are depriving kids from the truth of our citizens and tribal nations….[W]e’re able to correct that while providing page-turning, engaging reads that—through their specificity and universal qualities—speak to the hearts, minds and imaginations of our important audience.”

Veteran Editors on Their New Children’s Imprints by Claire Kirch from Publishers Weekly. Peek: [Rosemary Brosnan:] “[W]ith Heartdrum, we are doing something new and very exciting, focusing only on Native and First Nations creatives. We have published five books under the Heartdrum imprint so far, and together they have garnered 19 starred reviews.”

Rosemary Brosnan and Cynthia Leitich Smith at HarperCollins/Heartdrum have bought Rez Ball by Byron Graves (Ojibwe). This YA debut tells the story of an Ojibwe basketball player who must navigate social landmines and manage the heavy weight of community expectations, all while grieving the loss of his big brother.

They have also acquired Circle of Love by Monique Gray Smith (Cree-Lakota), illustrated by Nicole Niedhardt (Navajo). This picture book tells the story of a Cree girl who reflects on and inclusively celebrates many types of loving relationships at an urban, intertribal community center gathering.

Merriam-Webster, Inc.

Merriam-Webster Launches Imprint for Loquacious Kids by Alex Green from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “More than two centuries after Noah Webster published the first American dictionary…the publishing house that bears his name is developing a line of books for children…[The] publisher announced the forthcoming release of two titles that will launch Merriam-Webster Kids….[T]he publisher intends to follow with a series of activity books, illustrated dictionaries, and storybooks.”

Children’s Institute 9: David and Nicola Yoon on Life, Love, and Launching an Imprint by Claire Kirch from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “The ninth annual ABA Children’s Institute kicked off virtually for the second year …[The] keynote feature[d] David and Nicola Yoon in conversation with…the editor at Delacorte Press who is working with the couple on their new teen romance imprint, Joy Revolution…[It] will launch in spring 2023 with books about BIPOC characters written by BIPOC authors….”


2021 SCBWI Conference: Significant Market Transformation Due to Covid-19 by Sarah Yung from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Deborah Halverson…provided industry context centering the dramatic marketplace shift that has developed over the past 16 months….[R]eading increased among people 15 years and older by 21%… [T]he backlist has risen, and it’s an e-commerce world…Halverson believes that a hybrid practice will prevail, with in-store events equipped with virtual streaming options.”


Book People presents Indigenous Peoples’ Day Panel, Featuring Heartdrum Authors Christine Day, Dawn Quigley, Cynthia Leitich Smith and Brian Young online via Zoom on Oct. 7 at 4 p.m. pacific, 6 p.m. central, 7 p.m. eastern. Free registration here. Signed bookplates available!

Children’s Institute 9: Sales and Moods Up as Conference Draws to a Close by Alex Green and Claire Kirch from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “[T]rends show continued, significant growth in children’s book sales…Sales of children’s books are up 9% year-to-date over 2020, which was itself a banner year…Some individual categories are even higher, including fiction sales, which are up 15%, and kids’ comics and manga, which are up 17%.”


New PLA Survey Illustrates Critical Digital Role Played by Public Libraries by Andrew Albanese from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “In a…new survey, the Public Library Association found that libraries are continuing to expand their roles as technology providers. But the report also found the need for significant investment, as lagging broadband infrastructure is impeding access in too many communities…[The] 2020 Public Library Technology Survey provides a…snapshot of how libraries serve as ‘digital equity’ hubs.”

Education/Other Resources/Events


Kansas State University presents Indigenous Presence, Indigenous Futures: From The Marrow Thieves to Rutherford Falls, a virtual lecture by Dr. Lisa Tatonetti, on Sept. 21 at 2 p.m. pacific, 4 p.m. central, 5 p.m. eastern. Register here.

Kansas State University presents a virtual panel discussion, Nothing About Us Without Us: The Importance of Indigenous Perspective in All Things Indigenous, on Sept. 16 at 5 p.m. pacific, 7 p.m. central, 8 p.m. eastern. “Dr. Debra Bolton (Ohkay Owingeh/Diné/Ute), Dr. Brandon Haddock (Tsalagi Cherokee), and LaVerne Bitsie-Baldwin (Diné) will covers historical myths of Native/Indigenous lives and culture when narrated by non-Natives.” Register here.

Free Youth Native Artist Professional Development Workshops hosted by First Peoples Fund Youth Development Team, will take place virtually September 13th, 20th, and 27th, at 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. pacific, 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. central, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. eastern each day. “The goal of the program is to provide resources to young artists to build upon their artist development and financial literacy skills so that they can have the self-determination and control in guiding and preparing themselves for their future goals.”

Scholastic, Inc

CrayolaPenguin Classroom and Crayola Education are presenting a free Facebook live event, The Art of Learning through Stories, with children’s author Derrick Barnes, and Director of US Programs at Worldreader, Kristen Walter, on Sept. 16 at 4 p.m. pacific, 6 p.m. central, 7 p.m. eastern. Barnes will read his book, The King of Kindergarten, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Scholastic, Inc., 2020) and guide viewers through a colorful activity. Walter will share the power of stories to build children’s confidence.

Research on Diversity in Youth Literature has announced a call for papers for a special issue focused on diversity in graphic novels. The issue is scheduled for publication the summer of 2022, and will be guest edited by Dr. Jung Kim and Dr. Laura Jiménez. Essays are due Jan. 10, 2022.

Reading Is Fundamental to Launch Nationwide Initiative “Rally to Read 100” by Reading Is Fundamental from NPR. Peek: “Reading Is Fundamental announced…the launch of Rally to Read 100—a six-month initiative that runs from September 1, 2021 to March 2, 2022 that unites classrooms and communities…to inspire and motivate children to read 100 books during this time….Each month features topics ranging from nature and diversity to compassion and community….”

Virtual BookFest @ Bank Street will take place Oct. 16 and will feature authors, illustrators, editors, reviewers, and scholars from the children’s literature community. Cost: $35. Peek: “The Center for Children’s Literature is delighted to celebrate this half a century old event with the wonderful Jerry Craft as its 2021 keynote speaker. Jerry is the 2020 Newbery, Coretta Scott King and Kirkus Prize winner….” Register here.


Margaret Wise Brown Board Book Award Announced by Gilcy Aquino from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “The Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College of Education has announced the creation of the Margaret Wise Brown Board Book Award for excellence in literature for the youngest readers, named after former Bank Street pioneer and author Margaret Wise Brown. With this award, the committee hopes to honor Brown’s contributions to children’s literature.”

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has created a new marketing award, the OMA Award (Out From the Margins) for underrepresented creators of children’s literature (Black, Indigenous and people of color [BIPOC/BAME], disabled, and LGBTQIA+). Eight winners will be selected to be part of a cohort that will “provide a pathway to visibility for creators who might otherwise not be seen or heard.” The award package includes a $5,000 award to put towards markeing, group sessions, mentorship, free SCBWI membership, and more. Submissions will open soon.

2021 Carle Honors Recipients Announced. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art announced this year’s honorees for the annual Carle Honors, “which celebrates individuals and organizations for their work in children’s books.” The honorees are: Artist: illustrator Raúl Colón; Angel: Every Child a Reader, represented by Carl Lennertz; Bridge: rare and collectible children’s book dealers Dennis M. V. David and Justin G. Schiller; and Mentor: children’s book publisher Patricia Aldana. A virtual awards ceremony will be held Sept. 23 at 4 p.m. pacific, 6 p.m. central, 7 p.m. eastern.

Scholarships & Grants

We Need Diverse BooksEmergency Fund for Diverse Creatives in Children’s Publishing is accepting new applicants and has updated their eligibility criteria so more diverse creators can apply for grants in these challenging times. Grants range from $500 to $1,000. Access the online application here.

This Week at Cynsations

Uma Krishnaswami

More Personally – Cynthia

Wow! What a summer it’s been. My personal highlights were teaching the summer residency of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and the We Need Diverse Books Native Children’s-YA Writing Intensive. Both were held online. I also went on mini writing retreats to a cabin in the Texas Hill Country and a bed-and-breakfast in central Austin. My creative focus has been on book two of The Blue Stars series, co-authored by Kekla Magoon, illustrated by Molly Murakami (Candlewick, 2022-2024).

For those following my writing and related conversations, a quick catch up from the summer:

My middle grade novel, Sisters of the Neversea (Heartdrum, 2021) was published June 1. It’s received five starred reviews, the most recent from Shelf Awareness and School Library Journal. The novel was also recommended in summer-reading roundups by Washington Parent/The Washington Post, Ms. Magazine, and Publishers Weekly. Here’s a related brief interview with me from Karen McCoy.

★ “Full of fantastic storytelling, thrills, and humor, this book is a recommended purchase for all upper elementary and early middle school collections.” —School Library Journal

★ “Socially conscious readers may most appreciate Smith’s supportive portrayal of blended families and Native youth, but any reader looking for a brilliant, suspenseful fantasy adventure should also find Sisters of the Neversea thrilling and tremendously fun.” —Shelf Awareness

“We highly recommend Sisters of the Neversea and hope it becomes part of school curriculum and home libraries for as long as the source material has been around! Shonabish!” —Alexis and Charlie, Indigo’s Bookshelf: Voices of Native Youth

“[Katie Anvil] Rich’s warm tones and fervent pacing bring out the heart and intensity in this stunning adventure.” —AudioFile

My spring 2021 release, the anthology Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids (Heartdrum, 2021), was recommended among Top 10 Short Story Anthologies for Teens by Kasey Short from Nerdy Book Club and recommended for middle grade readers celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Month by CBC Radio-Canada. Plus, it was recommended by Leah Cole at Teaching Social Justice with Children’s Books. Peek: “Universally relatable emotions are brought to life in stories that carry readers all the way to Michigan to experience a powwow themselves.”

More Personally – Gayleen

In June I had the honor of teaching an online, three-week writing workshop for Austin Public Library Foundation’s Badgerdog program. Participants, who dubbed themselves The Super Writing Warriors @ Book Crush.Ink, read and discussed Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Indian Shoes (and especially loved performing the reader’s theater version of “Don’t Forget the Pants!” developed by Sylvia Vardell). The group used the book as an inspirational mentor text before writing their own poems, short stories and scripts.

And, I’m looking forward to Bethany HegedusCourage to Create Community beginning a new season next week (more on that tomorrow on Cynsations). Courage to Create and my writing buddies have helped me stay positive through a very difficult year.

More Personally – Stephani

This week I watched The Writing Barn’s webinar “Connecting Our Past to the Present Through Art and Writing: Honoring, Remembering, and Teaching about 9/11.” The webinar featured the authors Bethany Hegedus, Amanda Davis, M.O. Yuksel, and Marcie Colleen. I found it really inspirational and informative, especially as my husband and I prepare to attend a 9/11 20th anniversary event with the colleagues he worked with at the Pentagon on and after 9/11.