Winter outside the window,
Garden on the sill.
With a little bit of love and care, a few seeds nestled in pots, and a good windowsill, there’s no better time to make an herb garden with mom than in the dead of winter. Together, a young girl and her mother can grow everything you find in a spring herb garden, from oregano to parsley and baby greens, carefully tending their plants to watch them thrive, all while frigid snow falls just outside the window. The multiple harvests of fresh greens are just what they need to stay warm through the coldest and darkest season. When Spring finally arrives, there’s one thing on the girl’s mind: more seeds!
Take a look back at Janet’s first Cynsations visit in 2009.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
“I’ve written for adults–fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, published in small journals.
“But there have been digressions in my life: I went to graduate school, and acquired an M.S. in marine geology. I’ve been to sea. I’ve even been to the sea floor in a three-man submersible. I’ve taught middle school and high school English and would teach again gladly.
“It wasn’t until my mother passed away just after my son was born that I revisited my longing to be a writer, I guess as part of coping with mortality and what I’d like to leave behind–and what I’d like to accomplish along the way.
What were you like as a young reader? Who were your favorite authors? What were your favorite titles?
I loved Greek and Roman myths and legends, and all fairy tales. I read all of Hans Christian Anderson; I devoured C. S. Lewis and Tolkien. The Secret Garden [Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)] was a favorite, and Little Women [by Louisa May Alcott (1868-69)], and Black Beauty [by Anna Sewell (1877)]. And at one point, I read every James Bond in print (just to be anachronistic, I guess!)
I read all the time. When I was a teen, I almost burned down the house when I was supposed to be minding the stove and my head was buried in a book.
What first inspired you to write for kids?
When my son was born (he’s 17 now), I began to tell him stories. He’s dyslexic, but he couldn’t get enough of verbal storytelling. So I made up stories to try and teach him reading concepts. I wrote them up and sent them out. They were dreadful stories, but I found my passion: writing for children.
Could you tell us about your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?
Other than thinking the first thing I wrote was wonderful?
Kidding aside, I found Kathi Appelt and SCBWI very early on. Kathi is an amazing mentor: she is so generous and open to everyone she meets. She introduced me to the local group of writers who have supported me all the way. I found my critique partners at one of her workshops. And SCBWI is a fantastic community with information for everyone.
And Cyn! Take a bow, too, because at one of the early conferences I attended here, you were the speaker, and your story was such an inspiration to me, and your discussion about Jingle Dancer (by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow, 2000)) gave me critical information when I needed to understand story structure.
Looking back, what was the single best decision you made in terms of advancing your craft as a writer?
No question. It was joining a critique group. We’ve met weekly for almost ten years, and–now–we’re all published. In a couple of years, I’m betting that my experience at Vermont College will be equally important in my life. But nothing could take the place of the support and kinship of my critique partners, Kathy Whitehead and Shirley Hoskins.
Congratulations on the success of Get Organized Without Losing It (Free Spirit, 2006)! Could you tell us a little about the book?
Get Organized is a self-help guide to school issues for middle school kids. It’s packed with tips and tricks and, I hope, humor. Kids seem to really like it. In fact, it’s now selling in translation in Spain and Belgium, and well over 15,000 copies have sold.
What was your initial inspiration for the story?
Get Organized was inspired by my son’s learning differences. I had a wealth of information that I pulled from multiple sources, including ideas I’d made up on my own, to try and get him through the tough years of late elementary/middle school.
One night I had a dream (I’m not kidding) about writing a book compiling all the information. I literally had the outline completed in three days.
What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?
It was four years from conception until publication. The only publisher I queried was Free Spirit, and they expressed immediate interest. I put together a book proposal within a month. But then, between editorial changes and my own inexperience, it seemed to take forever. Yet–this is typical–it does take a long time to bring a book to life, and to get it right.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
My research was done before I began writing, since it was based on collected/invented wisdom.
I did research the market and publishing houses, and tried to aim my arrow true to target, and I think that worked. It was such a seamless process in retrospect. The editing was more difficult for me because I was inexperienced and alone and had to interpret what the publisher wanted.
In the end, it worked, I think. The illustrations are terrific, and the book has a nice feel to it, and fits within the series of similar books they market.
During the editing process, I did try and keep as much of my own voice and humor as I could. Free Spirit was great and supportive, and I would work with them again in a heartbeat.
How do you balance being a writer with the demands of being an author (contracts, promotion, etc.)?
I do school visits, but I limit them to one a month when I’m not doing conferences. I love being with kids, especially middle schoolers and teens.
I’m terrible at the whole contracts thing, and hate dealing with the business side.
What, if anything, do you wish you could change about publishing (as a business) and why?
Hmm. Maybe not about publishing but about our culture…
- I wish the arts were revered.
- I wish schools taught contemporary literature and not just the classics.
- I wish kids’ ideas were respected, and they were not expected to fit in a box.
- I wish literary fiction was esteemed.
- I wish independent booksellers were all thriving.
You’re also enrolled in an MFA program! Could you tell us about that?
Happily! I’m enrolled at Vermont College of Fine Arts, in my first semester. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. Extremely hard work and steep learning curve, combined with faculty who are some of the best children’s authors alive and who can teach. I can’t say enough great things about the experience and the program there.
Why, as an already published author, did you think getting an MFA would be a good idea?
I felt that I was at an impasse with my writing. I had been to so many conferences that they began to sound alike. I had my critique partners and my agent, but I wanted more.
The program offers a penetrating look into the craft.
And, I love teaching–I’m hoping my degree will allow me to teach at the university level.
If you could go back in time and talk to your beginning-writer self, what would you tell her?
Go for it. Just go. And for pity’s sake, write middle grade or YA since you are not a natural picture book writer!
So far, as a reader, what are your favorite children’s-YA books of 2008 and why?
Lately I’ve been trying some edgier reading, and my favorite is Ellen Hopkins‘ Identical (McElderry Books, 2008). I like Polly Horvath, and My One Hundred Adventures (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2008) is a new favorite.
What do you do outside the world of writing, reading, and publishing?
Love spending time with my family! Help my son through high school–although he is now very much independent and thriving on his own.
I garden–I have a small greenhouse.
We have a cabin in the mountains of Montana, where we hike, fish, snowshoe, and ride horses summers and holidays.
What can your readers look forward to next?
I’m excited to report that my debut novel, Faithful, will be out in spring of 2010. It’s a romance, adventure, and mystery tale that takes my protagonist from Newport’s Gilded Age society to Yellowstone National Park in 1904.
Puffin is my publisher. Jen Bonnell, my editor, also signed me for a sequel, tentatively titled Indigo Spring and due out in 2011.
I’m working on two middle grade novels, one humorous and for boys, and one fantasy for girls. And with my year plus at Vermont College yet to come, who knows!
Janet Fox writes award-winning fiction and non-fiction for children of all ages. Her published works include the non-fiction middle grade book Get Organized Without Losing It (Free Spirit Publishing 2006; in a new edition 2017), and three YA historical romances: Faithful (Speak/Penguin Group 2010), Forgiven (Penguin 2011), and Sirens (Penguin 2012).
Janet’s debut middle grade novel The Charmed Children Of Rookskill Castle (Viking 2016) received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Shelf Awareness, is on a number of state lists, and is a Junior Library Guild selection. The novel won SCBWI’s Crystal Kite award in 2017. Check out the book’s website: www.rookskillcastle.com
Her debut picture book, Volcano Dreams: A Story Of Yellowstone, illustrated by Marlo Garnsworthy, features the science behind the Yellowstone super volcano (Web of Life Books 2018). Her second picture book, Wintergarden, illustrated by Jasu Hu, is out from Neal Porter Books in November 2023.
Janet is a 2010 graduate of the MFA/Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. A former high school English teacher, former regional advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Janet lives with her family in Bozeman, Montana.
Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee citizen) is a NYT bestselling author, the 2024 South Mississippi Medallion Winner, and the 2021 NSK Neustadt Laureate. Her novel Hearts Unbroken won an American Indian Youth Literature Award. Her debut tween novel Rain Is Not My Indian Name was named one of the 30 Most Influential Children’s Books of All Time by Book Riot, which also listed her among 10 Must-Read Native American Authors.
Her recent books include Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories For Kids, an ALA Notable Book and winner of the Reading of the West Book Award for Young Readers, as well as Sisters Of The Neversea, which received six starred reviews (including one for the audio edition) and made numerous “best of the year” lists. Her 2023 release is the YA novel Harvest House, an Indigenous ghost mystery. She looks forward to the release of Mission One: The Vice Principal Problem (Bue Stars #1), co-authored by Kekla Magoon, illustrated by Molly Murakami (Candlewick, 2024), which is a Junior Library Guild selection.
Cynthia is the author-curator of Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperChildren’s and was the inaugural Katherine Paterson Chair at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program.