Jingle Dancer

“Sing like no one can hear you. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like no one is watching.” –from a plaque designed by artist Christina Holt; available from Signals

“As Moon kissed Sun good night, Jenna shifted her head on Grandma Wolfe’s shoulder. “I want to jingle dance, too.” –JINGLE DANCER by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow, 2000)

I read an article on MSN this week reporting that singer/actress Jennifer Lopez, age 34, had announced that she was moving into Phase II of her life and, therefore, nothing she’d done in Phase I counted. Clean slate.

How liberating!

While I believe history is ignored at one’s peril, I do like the idea of renewal, starting fresh, looking forward. So, I’m going to try the same thing. I’m not sure I’d call it Phase II (childhood and adolescence each merit their own phase, I think, if only to set farther back some questionable boyfriend choices–but then again, if J. Lo is okay with hers….). In any case, I’d like to move ahead with more vigor.

First, though, it seems important to look back. Writing-wise, I’d like recall the writing journeys that brought me here today. I won’t bore you with the stories behind the manuscripts that didn’t sell–no blog is big enough to hold all those. But rather I’ll focus on those that did eventually find an audience.

The first of my books was an illustrated children’s picture book for ages four to seven, titled JINGLE DANCER.

I scribbled the first draft of the manuscript in blue ink on a torn envelope while waiting to tutor my next student in English composition at St. Edward’s University. I worked there for a semester, shortly after Greg and I moved to Austin for the first time (ours, not his), tutoring freshmen in the migrant farm family students’ program. All the kids were ESL speakers/writers; all were tremendously inspirational. It was a fantastic experience.

In any case, I started with the story of two sisters, one of whom was named “Kenna.” I can’t make out the other name on the envelope anymore. It didn’t have any arc whatsoever, but rather was a slice-of-life piece about two young girls getting ready to go to powwow.

Suffice it to say, I quickly realized that, say, conflict and rising action might be a good idea. And so I revised, narrowing the focus on one girl, and changing her name to “Jenna” because it sounded good with “jingle dancing,” which is a lovely ladies’ dance. Though Rain from RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME has a big brother, Fynn, I usually write characters who’re only children like I was. Sad to say, but for focus reasons, Jenna’s sister had to go.

I revised the manuscript, then tentatively titled “Jenna, Jingle Dancer, a total of 83 times–I still used to bother to count back then. I always mention that to kids, who so often groan when a teacher marks a mistake on their paper or–gasp–makes them rewrite once. Writing is rewriting, or so goes the saying. And thank heavens, or boy, would I ever be in trouble.

The truth is I hate writing first drafts but adore revising. I’m open to at least trying any suggestion that might make the story better. In fact, one rule I have for rejecting an idea outright is that I must be able to articulate a reasoned, literary reason for not giving it a fair shot. It protects my work from my ego.

Up until “Jenna, Jingle Dancer,” I’d had a great system for handling submissions. I sent the manuscript to an editor. The editor’s assistant sent me a form rejection. I filed the form rejection in a big, white three-ring binder. I sent the manuscript to someone else. Sometimes I revised first.

Occasionally, I got a scribbled note saying something like–“very promising” or “send more work.” I gloried in and celebrated those. A Houghton Mifflin editor named Margaret Raymo was the first editor to write something encouraging on one of my decline letters. I continued writing by the glow of her words for months.

Following this course, I’d submitted “Jenna, Jingle Dancer” to Rosemary Brosnan, who was then the head editor at Lodestar. She’d been interested in another picture book manuscript of mine, “Something Bigger” (a fishing story about a boy and his grandfather that years later was rewritten to become the last short story in INDIAN SHOES).

I also submitted it for critique at a couple of SCBWI regional conferences–one in Houston and one in Brazos Valley. Imagine my surprise when I walked into the Houston conference and found out that Simon & Schuster editor Kevin Lewis thought my manuscript was wonderful–“just the kind of thing we should be doing with multicultural books,” he said and hugged me. (Keep in mind, at this point in my life, editors were not people who hugged me. They were mysterious, all-powerful, and a bit scary. This, actually has changed for the better). Then, at the Brazos Valley conference, editor Liz Bicknell (now of Candlewick Press) had quite flattering things to say as well. Right about the same time, I signed with my agent, and in the end, the manuscript sold to Rosemary at Lodestar, where it had particularly caught the attention of her then editorial assistant, named “Jenna.”

For a short while, all was well. My friends fussed over me and sent flowers. I skipped through the streets of Chicago. But then Lodestar was downsized in one of those many publishing buyouts that were so frequent at the time (and still, let’s face it, are always a danger). Rosemary took another job at Morrow Junior shortly after, but then–eek!–Morrow was bought by Harper and downsized, though they kept some of the contracts, including mine, and some of the editors, including Rosemary. Woo woo! We were in business.

But in sum, JINGLE DANCER is a book that was originally sold to one company, produced at a second, and distributed by a third. That’s a volitile industry!

The title was changed from “Jenna, Jingle Dancer” to JINGLE DANCER, I think because it looked better on the cover art. As for the rest of the book itself…

Post-acquisition edits were unusually mild, the addition of one clause (“As light blurred silver…”). I’m sure never again will edits on one of my books be so minor. I also added the author’s note and brief glossary, mostly for the convenience of teachers, librarians, and parents. (I doubt kids of the book’s target age read author’s notes.)

JINGLE DANCER has been noted for the following qualities:

(1) inclusion of biracial Native characters in the illustrations without it being an issue in the text, particularly Black Indians;

(2) its strong girl/woman relationship emphasis, which cuts against the false stereotype of Native women being secondary to Native men or otherwise undervalued;

(3) the juxtaposition of traditional (like storytelling) and contemporary (like a TV in the family room) images in a Native American setting, which sends a clear signal that we are still here (to paraphrase the Lerner series by the same name).

(4) showing of Native characters of all generations, not just children and elders;

(5) showing of a woman in a professional role (Cousin Elizabeth is a lawyer);

(6) building a story on the number for instead of three (as in three wishes, three billy goats gruff, three pigs as is so popular in the European tradition);

(7) Grandma Wolfe–the subtle suggestion of Wolf as Grandma instead of, well, the bad guy who eats grandma. Yikes! (Another Native versus Euro perspective quirk).

Arguably these qualities repeat in some of my work that followed, though honestly I didn’t put much thought into any of this at the time. I just wrote the world I saw.

Probably no aspect of the final book was as pleasing to me as Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu’s original watercolor illustrations. JINGLE DANCER was the first book they had done that didn’t reflect either of their own backgrounds (Neil is African American; and Ying is Chinese American). They were tremendously concerned about accuracy and solicited several suggestions for what to include in a contemporary Okie Indian household. Rosemary was considerate enough to let me double check the illustrations, and I was able to make a few comments that led to revisions which reflected Jenna’s world with more storytelling precision.

Generally speaking, authors and illustrators are kept separate, but in this case, it made sense for me to offer feedback because I was the subject-matter expert.

That said, only Neil and Ying could’ve brought the characters to life with such warmth and love. I’ll be forever grateful for their talent, consideration, and grace.

Of course, long after a writer’s efforts on a particular tale are finished, the story lives on. On bookshelves, in the hearts and memories of readers. It makes me smile to think of Jenna, forever dancing.

See also:


Jingle Dancing With Cynthia Leitich Smith by Julia Durango of By the Book. Short interview with includes information about Cynthia’s first two books and some of her favorite books as a reader. Fall 2000.

“Native Now: Contemporary Indian Stories” by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Book Links, December 2000).

Meet the Author: Cynthia Leitich Smith “Jingle Dancer” by Joanne Spataro from Families-First.com Fresh Air TeenZine. Spring 2000.

An Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Taylor Fogarty from American Western Magazine. Spring 2000.


Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies and a Selector’s Choice for 2001; Named to the 2001 2 x 2 Reading List of twenty books recommended for children ages two through second grade by the Texas Library Association; One of five finalists for the children’s/YA division of the Oklahoma Book Award; Runner-up for the Storyteller Award from the Western Writers Association; Named a CCBC Choice for 2001; Debuts That Deliver (Book Magazine); Editor’s Choice, Library Talk); featured in GREAT BOOKS ABOUT THINGS KIDS LOVE by Kathleen Odean; 2002 Read Across Texas Bibliography (Texas State Library and Archives Commission).

note: back then I didn’t read reviews at all, so I can’t easily pull any. But I think they were pretty positive.

Brain Ooze

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” –H.G. Wells

I’m not sure about that, but if you want to really complicate the issue…. Ever try copy editing for your spouse?

Greg is on deadline to send his final draft of TOFU AND T.REX (Little Brown, spring 2005) to Amy, who by the way has a food company named after her. Her last edits were pretty minor–some confusion about the fact that school starts in Texas sooner than in Chicago (the sooner to practice football, my dear) and what not.

Mostly, we’re just combing through for little, picky stuff because any time you tweak anything, you open the door to glitches and ripples.

Or really bad lines like “open the door to glitches and ripples,” which pretty much proves my point.

Yes, Amy herself will go over it and so will the copy editor. But we can’t let anything leave the house looking icky.

So, anyway, TOFU is smart, hilarious, classic G. But the tedium of copy editing has never been my passion, hence my leaning toward reporting rather than editing in J-school. So…brain ooze.

In other news, two darling blond chicks took me out for Chinese food and showered me with celebratory gifts. I love my friends. (More on that later; it’s part of a much bigger story to come).

Turkey Burger & Ghosts

As you know, I’ve given up all meat except fish/fowl, and so I had the turkey burger on wheat at Hyde Park Bar & Grill tonight. It was a “meeting” of my crit group, which involved no actual critting. That will be reserved for Sunday when we meet to hear G read TOFU out loud.

(By the way, ignore the customer comments on citysearch; only the cranky bother to post).

Stopped after for a glass of red at the Driskill, which by the way is Austin’s most haunted hotel. I learned all about it last fall on the ghost tour with Brian Yanskey, author of MY ROAD TRIP TO THE PRETTY GIRL CAPITOL OF THE WORLD (Cricket, 2003). Spooky!

But I emerged from the ladies’ room unscathed.


“One shoe can change your life.” –Cinderella, as quoted on a pillow at Emeralds.

I’m a “Cynthia” now, but once upon a time, I was–gasp–a “Cindy Lou.” Perhaps because I’ve heard every version–none of them clever–of “Cinderella, dressed in yella…,” I have something of an issue with the princess. I dislike the character, especially the Disney version (though the mice are darling) with only a few exceptions.

(A few exceptions: JUST ELLA by Margaret Peterson Haddix; ELLA ENCHANTED by Gail Carson Levine; CINDERELLA by Ruth Sanderson; and “Ever After,” starring Drew Barrymore).

I was mulling over the mythology as I picked my purchases: black-and-white slides; black with rhinestone thong; cream thong with silk flower at toe; pink thong with silk flower at the toe (what can I say? they were the most comfortable); 2″ heels.

But the clear plastic psuedo “glass” slippers pinched at the toes.

However, I’m completely enthralled with the idea of a fairy godmother. I’ve always wanted one. Children’s literature has one, you know. Her name is Esme Raji Codell, and I have complete faith that she is magic personified.

I also believe in wishes come true, and today, my feet look pretty sassy. So, maybe I’ll cut the princess a little slack. Sometimes we all need a little help with our transformations.

Site I’m surfing right now: Publisher’s Lunch: Published Daily. Except When Not.

Book I’m reading right now: IDA B by Katherine Hannigan (Greenwillow, 2004).

Speak To Me

Received a picture book in the mail today: SPEAK TO ME (AND I WILL LISTEN BETWEEN THE LINES) by Karen English, illustrated by Amy June Bates (FSG, 2004). I don’t know Karen, but her debut novel, FRANCIE, was wonderful and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. No information on Amy, except that it says on the flap that she’s from Ann Arbor, which is where I went to law school. The book features alternating point of view poems in the voices of young African American characters.

FSG is one of the few national publishers still doing multicultural literary trade picture books. Clarion (particularly with Asian American) and Charlesbridge are still hanging in there, too. There’s another house or two, I’m sure…but their names are just on the edge of my mental facilities. Boyds Mills, that’s one. Small lists, but the quality and diversity are there.

I realize multicultural publishing is fraught with challenges. No way around it, though. African American children’s and YA books are definitely the strongest of the historically underrepresented groups, though Hispanic/Latino and Asian (by which I mean Chinese and Korean American) are coming up strong. Books featuring Jewish characters and gay/lesbian characters are on the rise, but the topics are still somewhat limited.

As for the rest, the numbers are still pretty awful across the board. Native, Southeast Asian, Arab and so forth, we should perhaps look to the African American children’s book community as a model.

Maybe start by checking out: BLACK BOOKS GALORE! by Donna Rand, Toni Trent Parker, and Sheila Foster (John Wiley & Sons, 1998). Features descriptions of 500 books, award listings, tips for encouraging young readers, and highlight articles on a sampling of African American authors and illustrators.

Multicultural Humor, Seriously

My husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, and I had agreed to give one of the keynote presentations at Reading The World in San Francisco in March 2004. Since humor plays a role in our work and the conference’s focus was multicultural, we decided to talk about the interplay between the two in children’s and young adult literature.

Only problem?

The number of humorous multicultural books published was insignificant. Not that we did a statistical study, but via the Internet, we did call on the cumulative wisdom—of authors, librarians, reviewers, university professors, booksellers, elementary and secondary teachers, and so forth—to offer titles that we might highlight. And the results were fairly sparse, especially when talking about comedies as opposed to books with some humor in them.

This inspired us to conduct a survey of our own, sending a query to twenty particularly well-read professionals. We began by asking for recommendations.

“I didn’t know the genre even existed in children’s books,” wrote illustrator Don Tate. “There must not be many in the area of books featuring African Americans.”

In response to our query for multicultural humor recommendations, most of left the question blank. Author Uma Krishnaswami listed twelve. Author Joseph Bruchac offered nine titles, but none that involved human characters. Everyone else suggested one to three. On the assumption that there simply had to be more, a university professor of language arts education wrote to say that she had been negligent in her studies.

In fairness, a handful of authors like Gary Soto, Walter Dean Myers, and Lensey Namioka have been writing funny books for years, though they’re more common at the picture book than novel level. Yet considering the thousands of books published annually, it was clear that it would be a challenge to meaningfully address the topic. So, why did we persevere?

Though multicultural humor was rare, we nevertheless were convinced it was on the rise. Lisa Yee’s debut novel, Millicent Min: Girl Genius—recently named the 2003 Sid Fleischman Humor Award winner via the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators—is an excellent example of a comedy with an Asian American protagonist, and young adult novelist Nancy Osa’s Delacorte Prize winner Cuba 15 sparkles in part because of the humor in it. Perhaps Christopher Paul Curtis’ Newbery Honor Book, The Watsons Go To Birmingham—1963, will stand as the book that heralded an increase in the publication of multicultural humor. But despite such positive signs, the children’s and young adult literature community has barely begun to graze our potential in this area.

Author Joseph Bruchac told us, “It has got to change. We need laughter to survive, and our children need it more than they ever have before.”

The idea of laughter as essential resonated with us. So, we set out to find out what the challenges were in publishing multicultural humor. The answers we found were rooted in the writing itself, in the history and politics, in often misguided perceptions, and perhaps most of all in our grown-up psyches.

Ironically, one of the biggest challenges in publishing not only multicultural humor but any kind of humor seems to be adults’ need to have others take us seriously.

Perhaps because of our own insecurities, our need for societal approval, we apparently overcompensate. We write, illustrate, publish, and herald a disproportionate number of serious books at the expense of their funny brethren.

This tendency may be even greater with authors of multicultural books and those from historically underrepresented communities. Just labeling a book or author “multicultural” is sometimes seen as divisive, even diminishing. So, we’re more likely to write about what’s deemed “significant” by the whole in hopes that the significance will rub off on us, will have a positive effect on how our work is received.

Put another way, it’s tempting to write the umpteenth book about the Japanese American internment because most people will rush to agree that’s inherently a valuable topic. It matters, so we must matter, too. Our book must matter, too.

But at schools and libraries, young readers from communities of color are telling us again and again that while they appreciate a title about, say, the internment, slavery, Trail of Tears, or immigrant persecution, a steady reading diet of those books gets a little depressing after a while. As one African American young reader asked, “Why is it that it’s only the white kids in books who seem to laugh and have fun?”

The answer from author Rukhsana Khan was that: “It all comes back to trying to publish something ‘worthy.’ With prestige. They don’t take comedy as seriously as ‘literature’ because comedy is like a needle that pricks the balloon of ego.”

Which of course begs the question of, if not just the authors, who “they” are.

Author Carolyn Crimi explained, “The industry as a whole doesn’t reward funny books with any kind of serious recognition. I think many believe funny books are ‘easier’ to write and should therefore be taken less seriously when, in fact, humorous fiction is incredibly difficult to do well.”

While it’s impossible to talk about multicultural humor without incorporating concerns related to humor more generally, we also wondered if there might be some considerations that were inherent about writing comedy about specific cultural communities or characters from diverse backgrounds.

“The big problem,” author Johanna Hurwitz said, “is trying to be funny without making fun of an ethnic group in any way.”

Historically and sometimes still today, reactions to diversity have not always been a source of the kind of laughter most of us would like to encourage. So, what to do?

How does one know when the humor laughs at or laughs with?

We have to know what we’re talking about. That doesn’t mean we have to be a member of the reflected group, it does mean we’re enough at ease to tell them a joke in their own language, so to speak, and know it will be well received. That can be a challenge for the author, but it can be an even bigger one for cross-cultural readers.

“Some comedy (a lot of Indian comedy),” clarified Joseph Bruchac, “doesn’t make much sense to the average white person.”

Maybe that’s okay. Maybe the only way sense of humor will translate is by continued exposure, by trusting our readers to try harder when it doesn’t come easily.

To have faith.

Because sensibilities vary so greatly, even within communities, we have to do so knowing that the jokes may fall flat. We also have to risk possibility offending someone.

If it seems like too much to ask, perhaps now is the time to ask anyway. Author Uma Krishnaswami said, “[I]t’s time for children’s literature to begin looking at culturally based stories as stories about grounded communities rich in relationships and not just about sad, struggling people who miss other places and times, and whose journeys are about trying to fit into/understand the American way! That’s a shift in perspective that allows humor to emerge.”

We will and must continue to publish books that ask the tough questions and reflect the hard times. But we should also make more of an effort to inspire a smile, a chuckle, and in thoughtful literary ways.

After all, as author Carmen T. Bernier Grand wrote, “Music, dance, art, tears and laughter connect us as human beings. They are silk ribbons—sometimes hemp ropes—that spool us into each other.”

Note: though humor is the above topic, this same article could’ve focused just as directly on multicultural genre fiction (fantasy, horror, science fiction, mystery), etc. just as easily. Really, the more global picture is that we’ve offered a completely disproportionate amount of serious, realistic fiction for children and teenagers rather than a mix of serious, funny, realistic, and fantasy/genre. Our point is that balance is a good thing.

TV, Baby!

Finally got up the courage to watch the tape of my Project Smart interview. The PS people all rule–very nice and very professional. Me, I actually–gasp–sounded like I knew what I was talking about. Only problem, in my last-minute quest to wear something in a solid (not blue), I ended up in this red top that was about four sizes too big. I remember trying to tuck it behind my back before the taping started. Worse, the chair was red and my aforementioned red shirt totally blends so… I admit it. I look like Clifford The Big Red Chair. But oh well. Whaddya gonna do? Otherwise it was all good.

Mail, Glorious Mail! (Also known as bilingual, Walker, and Roaring Brook)

Received a postcard today from Salina Bookshelf, which is publishing in English/Navajo. They seem to have two picture books and four board books. I’m very interested in this…the publication of bilingual books in Native languages. It definitely gets across the idea that these are living languages, and language preservation is of course so important. Children’s Book Press has been doing bilingual multicultural books for some time in a variety of languages, and I believe both Arte Publico and Cinco Puntos Press publish English/Spanish (as, by the way, does my publisher HarperCollins under the Rayo imprint). But Native/English books are rare.

Hmmmm….. Consider this a hint from Cyn to the universe.

By the way, if you’re interested in small, multicultural presses, also surf by Lee and Low, which publishes a diversity of titles, and Polychrome Books, which has an Asian American emphasis and, by the way, was established by Greg‘s childhood neighbor.

At a time when multicultural picture books are fewer and fewer on the major publishers’ lists, these smaller companies are stepping up to fill the gap.

On another note, today’s mail (yes, I love mail; yes, I know this makes me an odd duck) brought the Roaring Brook and Walker catalogs.

Walker is a great company; they publish Anna Myers, an Oklahoma author whose books I’ve long admired. And on that note, I see her that Anna’s TULSA BURNING is now available in paper.

The Walker catalog does a good job of promoting the backlist, which is unusual. That said, front list books that caught my eye include A WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Jane Dyer (which came with a button that I’m now wearing–very effective promo item; timely title); LUCKY LEAF by Kevin O’Malley (a picture book with a psuedo-graphic-novel-esque appeal), JUNGLE GYM JITTERS by Chuck Richards (check out the debut illustrations on this one); and OUTSIDE AND INSIDE BATS by Sandra Markle (all Austinites love bats).

Roaring Brook is a a new fave. Do they have a Web site? I can’t find one. For those of you not deeply embedded in the business, they were recently bought by the same people who own Henry Holt (German company; I forget what it’s called). The seller was Millbrook as part of the bankruptcy I mentioned in a previus post. Despite all this financial trauma, RB is a tremendous innovator, the kind of publisher that gives me hope and inspires. They also have really cute catalogs–small and hip, just like the house.

Among my checked many requests are UNEXPECTED DEVELOPMENT by Marlene Perez; DEATH BY EGGPLANT by Susan Heyboer O’Keefe (middle grade; looks really hilarious), and A FAST AND BRUTAL WING by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson.

And finally I’m off to go take a bath and read my SCBWI July-August Bulletin. Hey, you have your definition of fun. I have my definition of fun.

Woo woo!

People on my mind today: Debbie Leland, Dianna Hutts Aston, Tanya Lee Stone. Also Jean Gralley has a new Web site.