Writing Life

(Or… Why’d You Go to Law School Anyway?)

cynthia_leitich_smith_age_5
Age 5, a picture book reader and library kid

It’s not a bad question.

I’ve wondered once or twice myself.

After all, the experience did result in a decent amount of stress, lost sleep, and about seventy thousand dollars in student debt (though I did meet some of my best friends and learned I could compete academically on a national level).

At the time, I’d planned to become a legal reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper. It was a great plan. There was nothing wrong with the plan.

Only problem? My heart was elsewhere.

But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s go back to the beginning….

Growing Up(ish)
When I was a kid, I spent lots of time reading books, especially library books. At age 7, I won a summer reading contest sponsored by the Mid-Continent Public Library of Grandview, Missouri.

It’s my favorite achievement.

Between third and fourth grade, I moved to Lenexa, Kansas. Through junior high, I worried too much about being a foot taller than everyone else, including the boys (they kept growing; I didn’t), and about being one of four girls in advanced placement classes (later I figured out that being smart was a bonus in life).

bridge_to_terabithiaGrowing up, my favorite books included BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA by Katherine Paterson, THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare, and FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg. These all received The John Newbery Medal, awarded by the American Library Association.

I also loved TIGER EYES and ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET by Judy Blume. Like many women of my generation, I credit Judy with helping me survive the latter elementary grades and junior high.

As for my own story, I was lucky enough to be part of a close extended family, an only child with lots of first-to-third cousins, most of us in Missouri (my dad’s home state) and Oklahoma (my mom’s home state). And, come summertime, my mom would load me and Grandma Melba into her Oldsmobile and take off from the K.C. suburbs to rural Oklahoma.

Growing up, I had Sunday afternoon iced teas with Great-Grandma Bessie, fished with Great-Grandpa Ernest, took long walks with Grandma Melba, jostled with Cousin Stacy for rights to Grandpa Clifford’s chair, and lived with Great Aunt Anne. My elders told me stories about themselves, their parents and grandparents, our extended family and friends, our respective and overlapping cultures and traditions.

In_my_grandmothers_house_grandma_dorothyIn particular, I remember hearing talk of my Grandma Dorothy and her three sisters, about how my great-grandma had died young and so the girls had to all help raise one another.

And I always had a special fascination with stories about Grandpa Ray, who died the year. I remember hearing again and again about how he was a gruff man who cried at movies, how he was deeply committed to his career in the U.S. Air Force, and how as a boy he’d grown up with his brothers and sisters at Seneca Indian School in Oklahoma.

None of my manuscripts are retellings of these people or their lives, but I’m honored if anyone can catch an echo of their voices in mine.

Exploring
cyn_teenMy love of stories inspired an interest in newspaper reporting.

In 1986, I served as editor of The Epic at Shawnee Mission West High School in Overland Park, Kansas; and later went on to major in news/editorial and public relations with a concentration in English at The William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at The University of Kansas, Lawrence.

All along, I wrote poems and short stories but didn’t seriously consider being any other kind of professional writer than a journalist.

Over the next few years, I reported for The University Daily Kansan and then various community and metropolitan newspapers. I talked to an African-American lawyer about his work in the civil rights movement, to a city alderman about his decision to run for state representative, and to a Tony award-winning actress about her guru.

In 1991, I began studies The University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor with the idea that I would become a legal journalist and then teach Media Law at a journalism school (or maybe First Amendment at a law school). During summers, I studied the French legal system in Paris, worked for a legal aid office in Hawaii, clerked for a federal appellate judge in Kansas, and reported for both The Detroit Legal News and The Dallas Morning News.

By graduation, I was writing fiction for grown-ups, too. For almost a year afterward, I worked in the law offices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and of the Social Security Administration in Chicago.

Children's and YA Writing
My mom was the one who suggested I write for children, and I thought that was a horrible idea. I was a young grown-up, and I wanted to distance myself from being a kid. Then I started to read children’s books again, and I realized I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my life.

In the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing, I felt compelled to dedicate my career to young readers. Immediately. Full time. No excuses. I did what everyone tells you not to do: I quit my day job.

I moved to Austin, Texas. I started teaching part-time at St. Edward’s University and freelance writing for a couple of parenting magazines. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. I read SCBWI publications, attended conferences and workshops, met mentors and friends. Most importantly, I took a children’s writing class at a ranch in La Grange, Texas; from author Kathi Appelt.

jingle_dancerWithin a year and a half, I sold my first book, JINGLE DANCER.

Over time, I’ve continued to write contemporary stories and children’s books but also have branched into creative nonfiction, short stories, creative nonfiction, young adult fiction, and speculative fiction.

I’ve grown into my role as a signal booster for children’s-YA literature, joined the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts and been appointed to the board of We Need Diverse Books.

My journalistic and legal education helped prepare me to write for youth readers and to pursue a competitive career in children’s-YA publishing. So did the lessons I learned from Kathi Appelt.

But the earliest, perhaps most influential, gifts I received as an author came from childhood–from family stories and picture books borrowed from my local public library.