Editor Interview: Lyn Miller-Lachmann on MultiCultural Review

Learn about Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author and the editor-in-chief of MultiCultural Review.

How did you come to devote your professional life to literature for young readers?

I attended graduate school in the late 1970s to become an academic historian, but I quickly realized I didn’t enjoy academic writing, and I spent more time in the library talking to friends than conducting research.

So I quit and became a high school history teacher in the New York City public schools. I loved teaching at the high school level and getting to know the kids and their stories, discussing books and movies with them, and thinking up creative ways of teaching history.

History, taught well, can feel like living inside a novel. And listening to my students gave me ideas for my own writing.

My first young adult novel, Hiding Places (Square One Publishers, 1987), about a teenage runaway in New York came from one of my students who told me how he was going to run away to live with his sister. But the sister didn’t know about his plans, and I suspected that she wasn’t in a position to take him in, which became the premise of the novel.

Hiding Places was published after I left New York City to live in Wisconsin, where my husband had found a job. But I returned often to the city to conduct writing workshops.

My interest in multicultural children’s literature grew out of my original teaching in New York and the successful workshops I led after the publication of Hiding Places.

As I moved from writing young adult books to becoming a critic of both young adult and children’s books, I had the support and guidance of Ginny Moore Kruse and K.T. Horning from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I received my master’s degree in library and information studies.

Ellen LiBretto, then the YA Coordinator at the Queens Library and the sponsor of many of my workshops, asked me to write a chapter for the third edition of her reference book The Hi/Lo Handbook (R.R. Bowker, 1990).

When R.R. Bowker, the publisher of the Hi/Lo Handbook, wanted a reference book on multicultural children’s and YA literature, she recommended me as its editor, and that led to my compiling the award-winning multicultural bibliography Our Family, Our Friends, Our World: A Annotated Guide to Significant Multicultural Books for Children and Teenagers (R.R. Bowker, 1992).

Could you tell us a bit about the history of the journal? Its mission?

Brenda Mitchell-Powell, the onetime editor of Small Press magazine and Multicultural Librarian, founded MultiCultural Review in 1991 to publish articles and reviews on aspects of diversity in the United States and around the world.

The first issue debuted in spring 1992. Originally, the quarterly journal was published by the Greenwood Publishing Group–a publisher, primarily, of reference books. In 2002, Greenwood decided to concentrate on its core mission and sold MCR to the Goldman Group in Tampa, which publishes both consumer magazines and professional journals.

The mission of MCR, which is on all our letterhead, is “dedicated to a better understanding of ethnic, racial, and religious diversity.” Over the years, we’ve expanded that mission to include sexual orientation and persons with disabilities/differently-abled to the extent that there is a culture surrounding different abilities, such as Deaf culture.

Who is the intended audience?

MCR is a professional journal for educators and librarians from early childhood to college. Our articles are written to be accessible to practitioners as well as scholars.

What led to your becoming Editor-in-Chief of MultiCultural Review?

After finishing Our Family, Our Friends, Our World, I became a reviewer of children’s and young adult books for MultiCultural Review under Brenda Mitchell-Powell. When she stepped down as Editor-in-Chief at the end of 1994, the folks at Greenwood asked me if I was interested in taking over the editorial position.

What do you love about it and why?

I love working with all of the journal’s feature writers and reviewers. I learn so much from them. I also enjoy shaping each issue, finding common themes, and working with authors to make their articles the best that they can be.

Rather than waiting for articles to come to me, I go out and find interesting things that are happening. I attend conferences, read blogs, and am always on the lookout for new perspectives on current and controversial issues.

What do you wish you could change about it and why?

I wish I could have more staff. I’m constantly behind in my work, and my office is a nightmare with piles of books I have to send out and papers I have to process and file.

Also, I work alone, and it would be fun to have someone else in the office, though it may mean both of us get less work done.

Why is there a need for a journal specifically focused on multicultural books?

Librarians and educators need a source devoted exclusively to diversity issues, with expert reviews and articles that cover books and other materials from mainstream publishers, independent publishers, and even those who have self-published.

Due to the historical marginalization of diverse cultures, major publishers were slow to present their stories and too often published inaccurate and stereotyped books written by outsiders.

Until the 1990s few authors of color were able to find mainstream publishers, and many broke into the industry by self-publishing–the late E. Lynn Harris being the best-known example.

MultiCultural Review considers all titles submitted for review on an equal footing, whether they’re published by a large house, a small house, a university press, or self-published.

We’re one of the few trade journals that will consider self-published books, and while we only review self-published books that we recommend, we review more than a dozen each year. It’s part of our mission to cover diverse groups and all perspectives within them.

How do you select the books to be reviewed in the magazine?

First, publishers have to send me review copies of the books. And the books have to fit into the scope of the journal. They have to address some aspect of ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural diversity. In the case of religious books, they can’t have an exclusively theological focus but rather should address life as a member of that faith tradition, or the interaction of multiple faith traditions.

MultiCultural Review reviews both adult and children’s books. About a third of our reviews are of children’s and young adult books, though more than half of our feature articles address some aspect of children’s/young adult literature and/or teaching at the K-12 level.

With the adult books, we look for books that appeal to a general readership rather than those that address a narrow specialty–the exception being theoretical and practical guides to multicultural education and multicultural librarianship.

All of the review copies come to the editorial office, and I assign them to reviewers.

Occasionally, a reviewer will contact me to review a given book, and if I haven’t already assigned the book, I usually let him or her do it. Some publishers don’t send me review copies, which is very frustrating and unfair, especially to authors of color, who still have a tough time finding acceptance in the marketplace and risk getting dropped if their books don’t sell well.

How do you select your reviewers? What credentials are necessary, preferred?

Most of our reviewers are educators-K-12 teachers, college professors, and graduate students–and librarians who specialize in the grade level and subject area. We also have many authors. In all, about 200 people have volunteered to review for MultiCultural Review.

We prefer that our reviewers are members of the group themselves or have a strong academic background in the history and culture of the group they cover. Many of our reviewers serve on awards committees related to the group or subject area, such as the ALA Coretta Scott King Book Awards committee.

What opportunities exist for writers to contribute to MultiCultural Review? Could you offer examples of articles for study?

We publish three-to-five feature articles per issue, and about half the issues focus on specific themes. Many of our articles are regular features, such as Isabel Schon‘s roundup of recommended books in Spanish for children and teenagers, or commissioned pieces.

However, about half of our articles are unsolicited or developed from queries. Recent articles that illustrate the variety of what we publish are Jane Mahar’s interview with Tonya Bolden in the fall 2009 issue, Sandhya Nankani‘s excellent bibliographic essay on historical YA novels about India and the Indian Diaspora in the summer 2009 issue, and an annotated bibliography on picture books depicting biracial/multiracial heritage, forthcoming in our winter 2009 issue.

More globally, what are the most significant changes you’ve seen in multicultural children’s-YA book publishing over the course of your career, and why do they matter?

There are many more opportunities for writers of color and writers of all backgrounds depicting diverse experiences. Although the situation isn’t perfect, it’s far better than in 1965, when Nancy Larrick published her groundbreaking essay “The All-White World of Children’s Books.”

Awards like the Coretta Scott King and the Pura Belpré have launched the careers of African-American and Latino authors respectively. It’s important to have these awards, which recognize outstanding books by authors of color, because it provides important name recognition that can move an author from the margins to the center.

In fact, when the Pura Belpré Award debuted in 1996, many of the winners were published by small ethnic publishers; since then, those and other winners have received the support of mainstream houses.

These changes matter because for young people of color multicultural literature serves as a mirror, reflecting their heritage, experiences, and achievements. Books honor their struggles–past and present, present role models, and encourage the development of new voices.

For those who have grown up with a sense of privilege, multicultural books offer crucial perspectives–essential for the development of empathy and critical thinking, as well as the capacity to live in a global world where white, English-speaking people are the minority.

Although there have been many gains over the years, the struggle continues. Today publishers and booksellers are fighting over a market that seems to be shrinking and changing in unpredictable ways (the rise of e-books being the most notable example), and thus sales to the largest possible audience and name recognition are increasingly crucial.

If multicultural books are seen as a niche market, many of the authors and titles will once again be relegated to smaller ethnic publishers and even university presses, which are starting to move into children’s books.

If that is the case, activism on behalf of multicultural literature may move to the level of reviewers and book buyers (both individual and institutional) to give equal consideration to independently published books in what will become–as it already has in the recording industry–a highly fragmented marketplace.

Since its inception, MultiCultural Review has taken this approach, and I’ve been heartened by the critical reception my own novel, Gringolandia (Curbstone Press, 2009), has received, as well as the reception of Benjamin Alire Sáenz‘s Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood (Cinco Puntos Press, 2004; HarperCollins, 2006) and Marge Pellegrino‘s new middle grade novel about a family of Mayan refugees in 1980s Guatemala, Journey of Dreams (Frances Lincoln, 2009).

In addition to editing the journal, you’re also a writer in your own right. What advice do you have for fellow writers who’re trying to craft a cross-cultural topic/character/story?

Immerse yourself in the culture about which you write. Along with researching the culture through works of nonfiction and fiction, you should spend time with people from that culture. They should be your friends, and you should listen to their stories and observe carefully the details of their lives.

Then, before you send your cross-cultural writing out into the world, people from that culture should read it, and if they make suggestions-including “don’t!”-you need to listen to those suggestions. This is even more critical if the experiences you seek to depict are painful ones.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I’d like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to write about MultiCultural Review and to let your readers know about this important journal. I’m fortunate to have a job I love and where I feel I can make an impact.

Last year I wrote an essay on my website/blog about the role of thirty years of multicultural education in making possible the election of the first biracial President of the United States. Even so, there’s much more work to be done to guarantee every person in this country the same opportunity while embracing our diverse backgrounds and all that makes us unique.

Craft, Career & Cheer: Mahtab Narsimhan

Learn about Mahtab Narsimhan, and read her blog.

How do you psyche yourself up to write and to keep writing?

I set a reward before I start writing and will allow myself that reward only if I finish the quota for the day.

Normally that entails surfing the Net or writing a nice long e-mail to a friend; stuff that usually makes me feel extremely guilty if I have written nothing on any given day!

I’m very strict with myself. No quota=no reward.

On the other hand, when I finish the word count for the day and go a little over, that itself is a huge reward. I’m then compelled do it all over again the next day, just to feel that same sense of relief and accomplishment.

What is the one craft book that you refer to again and again? Why?

I find it difficult to limit it to one, so I’ll mention two which I really like. They are Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Faith by Anne Lamott (Pantheon, 1994) and The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White (Pearson, 1919).

The former because it has the most practical (and amusing) advice I have ever read and the latter because it sums up all those common grammatical and other stylistic errors, succinctly.

However, no book can compare to the interaction with a mentor, especially one who is quite accomplished! I want to mention two stellar mentors I worked with last year and the one memorable piece of advice they gave me.

First, Tim Wynne-Jones. The first time I heard him quote Annie Dillard from The Writing Life (Harper, 1989), I thought it was lovely. I found it on Google, stored it someplace and forgot about it.

When I started working with him on a manuscript almost a year later, he again reminded me of it in reference to my plot. I still did not get it.

Only when I finished the course, put the manuscript away and looked at it again after a few months that I really and truly understood, what he was trying to say. Here’s the quote:

“One of the few things I have learned about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now….”

[Cyn Note: the quote continues gloriously, but its length exceeds fair use; get a copy of the book and read it for yourself.]

Next, Uma Krishnaswami.

I worked with Uma on the sequel to The Third Eye (Dundrun, 2007) titled The Silver Anklet (Dundrun, 2009). In the letter accompanying the very first packet, she asked me if I wanted to get off the ride. The critiques would be really tough; was I up to it?

I was, and they were tough…but it was one of the best learning experiences of my life.

Of all the advice she gave me, this bit I will never forget:

When in doubt, go deep instead of wide.

There is so much depth in that simple sentence. Another ball I must remember to keep in the air during the juggling act of writing.

Now when I rewrite, I look for opportunities to deepen a character rather than introduce another one that does little. It works, and the story is so much stronger.

Advice from a book or a mentor is just that: advice, until you internalize it, until the writing becomes instinctive, like riding a bike. I’m still practicing but find that I have to write fewer drafts with each successive novel.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I’m an early bird and do most of my writing from 6.30 am to about 8.30 am. These couple of hours are enough to complete my daily quota of 1,500 words. On weekends, I push myself to about 2,000 words a day.

In the summer, I write in my basement. Sometimes I’ll put on instrumental music and sometimes I write in silence. In winter, I’m normally in front of the fireplace looking out at my snow-covered backyard trying to pummel a story into existence.

I love the fact that on a good day, I’m done with my word-count, my homework, first thing in the morning, and then I have the rest of the day free to do other things! It’s also reassuring to know that if I’m behind on the word count for any reason, I have the rest of the day to catch up.

So far, what has been the highlight of your professional career? Why?

The day I stood in front of a crowd of 30,00 screaming kids at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto and accepted the Silver Birch Fiction Award for my debut novel. 250,000 students participated in this Forest of Reading program across Ontario. It is a moment I have relived often, especially on the days when the words don’t come easily.

This award is special because it was voted as best book by the very audience I was writing for. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my writing career.

Writing this first book was hard; it took four years, countless rejections and more than my body weight in chocolate. I came very, very close to giving up. Now of course I’m glad I didn’t.

In your own words, could you tell us about your latest book?

The following is the back-copy for The Silver Anklet:

What if the only way to get rid of your worst enemy was to sacrifice your brother?
When hyenas snatch Tara’s brother, Suraj, and two other children from the local fair in Morni, Tara and her newfound companions decide to rescue them on their own. Tara soon discovers that Zarku, her nemesis with the third eye, is back and intent on revenge.

A deadly game of hide and seek ensues, and Tara and her companions must work together to survive. But it is soon clear that Zarku is only after Tara; the others are dispensable.

Should Tara risk the lives of her friends? Or can she once again defeat Zarku and save her brother, armed only with belief in herself and a silver anklet?

This book once again draws on the theme of believing in yourself, of the strength within if only you can trust yourself.

To me, this also applies to the process of writing. Each novel is a new journey, a new adventure, and at the start I’m so afraid that I won’t be up to the task. I’ve just finished writing the third novel in this trilogy and started out with that same sense of unease and doubt looming over me. But by breaking down the task to a daily word count, I have a workable (and #$%*!) first draft. I’m happy.

Here’s my favourite quote and something I strive to live by:

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” —Les Brown

Here’s a video of Mahtab at the Forest of Reading Festival, talking about her award-winning debut novel.

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

WBBT: Writing the True with Cynthia Leitich Smith from HipWriterMama & CLS Book-of-Your-Choice Giveaway

WBBT: Writing the True with Cynthia Leitich Smith: an interview by Vivian at HipWriterMama. Note: Check out my deep thoughts on my publishing background, writing across formats, Native youth literature, writing cross-culturally, girl power & Gothics, true love, and a myriad of other topics.

Peek: “I’m always vaguely flabbergasted by folks who begin as fantasists because the burden is so much higher. You have to succeed at all of the same elements as you do in realistic fiction and, at the same time, craft a resonant, integral, and internally consistent fantasy element.”

Thank you, Vivian! See Vivian’s previous WBBT interviews with Jacqueline Kelly and Megan Whalen Turner. See a listing of all of today’s WBBT interviews from Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray. Note: being called a “literary firecracker” by Colleen totally made my week!

Cynsational WBBT Giveaway

In celebration of the Winter Blog Blast Tour, I’m offering a signed copy of any of my books (winner’s choice) to one of the folks who thoughtfully comments at my WBBT interview and then emails me to let me know (so I have your contact information). Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 22.

Author & Illustrator Feature: Aaron Reynolds & Neil Numberman on Joey Fly, Private Eye

Aaron Reynolds is a human, not a bug, but he often writes about bugs. He is the author of: Chicks and Salsa, illustrated by Paulette Bogan (2005); Superhero School, illustrated by Randy Rash (2009); Buffalo Wings, illustrated by Paulette Bogan (2007)(all Bloomsbury); and, of course, the Joey Fly, Private Eye graphic novels (Henry Holt, 2009).

Neil Numberman is a termite currently residing in New York City. Joey Fly, Private Eye (Henry Holt, 2009) is his first graphic novel, but he is also the author-illustrator of the picture book Do NOT Build a Frankenstein (Greenwillow, 2009).

What was the spark for Joey Fly, Private Eye (Henry Holt, 2009)?

Aaron: I love bugs and I love mysteries, so this seemed to be a great smash-up of those two ideas.

What challenges did this graphic novel present?

Aaron: For me, the biggest challenge has not been with this book, or even the second (Joey Fly #2 is finished, and Neil is in the process of illustrating it now). It’s been deciding where I want to take these characters from here. Developing a series is tricky, because I want each book to stand alone, yet to mesh and gel with where the characters have been before.

Neil: For me, this was the biggest project I’ve ever been involved in by a long shot. The most I had ever done before this was some four-page comics and a thesis in school that involved about twenty pieces.

Making sure to keep the character design consistent throughout was a tedious process, too. To really polish a character, it can take hundreds and hundreds of drawings, because you need to work out all the aspects of that character that aren’t working.

Look at the early “Simpsons”! They look so weird!

So I tried to draw Sammy and Joey as much as I could before I started the pages.

How does writing and illustrating a graphic novel differ from writing and illustrating, say, a prose piece or traditional illustrated chapter book with black-and-white interiors?

Aaron: The writing is much different because I don’t write a manuscript like I would for a picture book. I write a script. Like, for a play or a movie. It looks like this:

Caption: And I was about to dig into a day-old corned leaf on rye, extra mayo…

Sammy: You gonna eat that?

Joey: Slow down, dustbuster. I haven’t even started yet.

Sammy: Just asking. (A shadow blocks our view)

Caption: …when a shadow fell across the table.

Shadow: You are Mr. Fly?

Caption: The shadow was eight-legged and fuzz-covered.

Caption: It had the stench of death…or maybe it was the week-old aphids on the all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s so hard to tell the difference sometimes.

That’s a sneak peek from Joey Fly 2: Big Hairy Drama. I write the whole book like that, including stage directions and details about the action along the way. Then I break the scenes into panels, the way I think each shot makes sense for the telling of the story…like this:

Panel
Joey: Slow down, dustbuster. I haven’t even started yet. Sammy: Just asking.

Panel
(a shadow blocks our view)
Caption: …when a shadow fell across the table.

Shadow: You are Mr. Fly?

So, the writing is much different than a picture book. The genre gives you much more room to stretch out and tell the story, much like a writer of novels must feel. But I get a better chance to develop a vision for the end product, because I know I’ll have picture telling the story too. So I can also include stage directions, character descriptions, descriptions of action sequences that come about through the story…stuff the reader will never see, but which guide the illustrator. It’s much more like writing a movie.

Neil: With spot illustration in prose, I get to select an important part of the story, and put a broad visual take on it. In a graphic novel, it’s important to the story to get everything across while pacing it well.

[Here’s an interior from Joey Fly, Private Eye; used with permission.]

What advice you have for other authors/illustrators on the creative front?

Aaron: For my unpublished friends, I would say: Persistence is everything.

I got over 250 rejection letters (on different manuscripts, not all on the same story!) before I landed my first deal. And, even now, I still get them (371 to date, and counting). Got one last week, in fact (though, these days, my agent gets them instead of me!).

Rejection isn’t this horrible thing that you hope doesn’t happen, it is the way to publication. The path to successful publication is paved with rejection…I firmly believe that.

Neil: Know going into it that getting a book deal or a piece in a magazine can take a very, very long time. The first couple years might produce absolutely nothing except more personal pieces and free work, and the next couple years might still be spotty, and the next couple years after that might be grunt work, then some real work might come in, but maybe not!

If you love it, and it’s really what you want to do, then just enjoy going through the ringer.

What were the challenges of placing this project?

Aaron: Well, it wasn’t accepted by Henry Holt as-is. It was originally a short novel. But the editor saw it as a graphic novel, and I liked that idea since I had worked on graphic novels before on my series Tiger Moth, Insect Ninja (Capstone) (lots of bugs in my book, I’m realizing). So, I had to re-write the whole book as a graphic novel.

Sometimes you are asked to do a lot of work before you even have a deal, so you have to make sure you really like the new idea before committing all the time on something that could just as easily end up a rejection.

For me, this was a no-brainer. Joey Fly was meant to be a graphic novel, and as soon as my editor suggested it, I knew it was right.

Neil: Henry Holt just knew we’d be a good fit for this project, and I couldn’t be happier!

How did you two get connected?

Aaron: Like most book arrangements, it was through the publisher. I never met, spoke, or even e-mailed to Neil until after the book was released.

In fact, when I first saw Neil’s illustrations…I was not in love with them. I had my doubts about whether a main character who has no mouth and no pupils in his eyeballs could sustain a whole graphic novel. Thankfully, my editor p’shawed my objections and went ahead with Neil anyway.

I’m so glad she did! I can’t imagine Joey any other way…Neil’s handle on the characters and the world he’s created for them is so spot on! You learn to trust the process, your editor, and these other gifted artists that you get thrown into the mix with. It’s a cool thing.

How are you going about connecting the final book to kids and gatekeepers like educators, parents, and teachers?

Aaron: I love being with kids and hearing from them and getting their reactions. So I do as many school visits as I can. Visiting librarians and teachers, either at conferences or on blogs like this are also great chances to connect folks to the book.

I’m thrilled to see the embrace that librarians are giving graphic novels these days as a vital and valuable genre. To see libraries opening up whole sections for this exciting visual book medium is very exciting.

Neil: I’ve been traveling all over place getting the word out about Joey Fly, from small book stores in Connecticut to libraries in Hawaii. I love getting kids to draw Joey and Sammy, and then creating their own bug characters for Bug City!

What can your fans can expect from you next?

Aaron: More Joey Fly is on the way! I also have a mock-horror picture book coming out called Evil Carrots about a bunny who thinks he’s being stalked by sinister root vegetables.

Neil: Well, my first picture book just came out in time for Halloween, called Do NOT Build a Frankenstein! (Greenwillow, 2009), and I’m currently hard at work on Joey Fly 2, which I’ll be wrapping up soon!

Cynsational Notes

Joey Fly Activity Guide (PDF file) from Macmillan.

Follow Joey Fly and Sammy Stingtail on Twitter.

Watch the Joey Fly: Creepy Crawly Crime Book Trailer. Really, you’ll love it.

Craft, Career & Cheer: Debby Dahl Edwardson

Learn more about Debby Dahl Edwardson.

What do you love most about your creative life? Why?

What I love most about writing is that wonderful alchemy that turns words on a page into complete worlds, places that become so real we can smell the trees and hear the voices.

I especially like it when a character jumps right off the page and says or does something that takes me, the writer, by surprise. This is the part of writing that most excites me.

Like our readers, we writers learn things through our own writing, things we may not have come to otherwise.

When teaching writing courses, I like to quote poet William Stafford who said, “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought if he had not started to say them.”

The fact that writing is a journey, not a destination, is what keeps me writing, I think. Even as writers, we often don’t understand certain things about our books and their relationship to our lives until long after we’ve written them.

In On Writing by Stephen King (Scribner, 2000), King remembers writing The Tommyknockers (Putnam, 1987) as he struggled with addiction. It’s a story about alien creatures who get into peoples’ heads giving them energy and superficial intelligence in exchange for their souls.

“It was the best metaphor for drugs and alcohol my tired overstressed mind could come up with,” King realizes in retrospect.

I like that. I like the fact that our work takes on a life of its own and makes commentary on our world–and the world or our readers—in ways of which we, in our conscious ramblings, are sometimes only dimly aware, if we are aware of it at all. This is very powerful and ultimately quite hopeful, I think.

We tend to get so caught up in the insecurity of writing as a business, that we lose sight of the bigger picture. It’s important to find joy in the process, learning the lessons it has to offer.

And to speak for a moment specifically about writing for children and young adults, I have to say that part of the reason I love writing for this audience is because I remember, vividly, my own experience as a young reader, spending days gloriously lost in books, an experience that gets harder and harder to replicate as I become older, more care-ridden and more craft conscious.

I remember being told, repeatedly, “get your nose out of that book!” The implication was that I was so busy reading I was missing life, when in fact reading, for me, was life—heightened life, life condensed into its essential elements.

It’s taken me over fifty years, in fact, to understand the deep reaching effects that certain childhood books have had on who I am and what I believe. To be one of the ones writing for this audience is, quite simply, an incredible honor.

So far, what has been the highlight of your professional career? Why?

In thinking about this, I have to say the highlight of my career has been the apprenticeship I served as a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I don’t say this to make a plug for VCFA, but only to acknowledge that working with the caliber of people I worked with at Vermont has been, and will likely remain, the highlight of my career.

Writing is a lonely business. Before you publish, it feels like a guilty secret, and even after you publish, it’s still a very private thing, a thing “normal” people sometimes just don’t get. Now I’m part of a writing community that spans the world, and the feeling of connection this gives is critical for me.

In my graduation speech at VCFA, I quoted Kurt Vonnegut, who said once that, “every human endeavor is about the search for family.” Finding a writing family is crucial work for a writer and finding the right family is, indeed, one of the highlights of one’s career.

As a young public radio reporter in 1983, I covered an award ceremony for the Alaskan Women’s Commission in which an elderly Inupiaq woman, Sadie Neakok, was being recognized for serving her community as a magistrate for many years. “The support of my townspeople,” she said, “that was the most important thing.”

I remember this quote vividly all these years later, because I recognize the impulse. The town gets bigger and bigger but that support continues to be the most important thing.

In your own words, could you tell us about your latest book?

Blessing’s Bead (Melanie Kroupa Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) grew from another interview I did as a radio reporter.

I was covering a meeting of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference in 1986. ICC represents the Inuit of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia, and 1986 was the first year the Russian Inuit had been allowed to attend.

An elderly Yupik woman I interviewed remembered how, when she was a small child, the Russian Inuit had visited her village annually. Some of the people of the village had married Siberian Inuit and gone to live in Russia. By the time I interviewed her, there were families that had been separated for nearly 40 years.

This woman left me with an image I never forgot: the image of old women, standing on the western shores of an arctic island, gazing towards Russia with tears in their eyes. This image became the impetus for Blessing’s Bead, which is a novel told in two parts.

The first part tells of two sisters, separated by marriage. The year is 1917, the eve of great influenza pandemic and the narrator is the younger sister.

The second part of the book is narrated by the Nutaaq’s great granddaughter Blessing, whose life is in the midst of upheaval. The year is 1986.

Simply put, Blessing’s Bead is story is about the healing power of family and culture.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have just finished a novel told in linked stories and many voices about the Alaskan boarding school experience entitled, My Name is Not Easy. I’m also working on a novel entitled No Word for Goodbye, which employs what might be labeled as the techniques of magical realism.

In my mind, though, it’s a novel that uses traditional Inupiaq beliefs, which are still very real, to tell a contemporary story that has mythic elements. The main character is a biracial boy who is dealing with issues very familiar to me as the mother of seven biracial children.

Cynsational Notes

Debby has joined the faculty of Writers.com, teaching First Steps: Introduction to Writing for Children and Picture Book Workshop: Writing Text for Children’s Picture Books. See more information.

Debby and fellow author Nancy Bo Flood hosted a week-long discussion of Native Characters & Themes in Youth Literature from Nov. 9 to Nov. 15 at Through the Tollbooth. Posts include Native American Spirituality in Children’s Books.

Uncommon Sense- Author Debby Dahl Edwardson and Her Process from Tami Lewis Brown at Through the Tollbooth.

Blessing’s Bead: An Interview with Debby Edwardson by Carol Brendler at Jacket Knack.

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Guest Post: Elizabeth O. Dulemba on Writing Bilingual Books

By Elizabeth O. Dulemba

The demographics in America have changed, especially in my corner of the world. Atlanta now hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the nation, and I love it. I am surrounded daily by different languages, foods, and customs. Of course, one of the most prevalent languages in my area is Spanish. Which is why I wanted to learn it.

I had a background in French, but it’s not something I can use every day. I was about to turn 40 (a time to realize goals) and a big fan of Jack Tales, when Raven Tree Press (specialists in bilingual picture books) approached me to illustrate an adaptation of “Jack and the Beanstalk”: Paco and the Giant Chile Plant ~ Paco y la planta de chile gigante (written by Keith Polette).

I took intense Spanish lessons at the Latin American Association for two years in preparation for the release of Paco (I couldn’t have a bilingual book and not speak Spanish!), and the bilingual picture book industry moved high on my radar. Happily, the book did so well, Raven Tree wanted more work from me. This time as the author too, for Soap, soap, soap ~ Jabón, jabón, jabón.

Writing a bilingual picture book is similar to all-English with a few new requirements thrown in. With Raven Tree’s books, the Spanish is embedded in the text so the reader can decipher the meaning of words through context–that can create an interesting puzzle to write.

The Spanish term and its English translation can’t be too far away from each other or the association loses its relevance. For instance, in Soap, soap, soap, the opening line is “…his mamá…handed him some money. ‘Here’s some dinero…’” Hence, “dinero” means “money.”

Repetition also helps so the reader has more than one chance to absorb the new vocabulary. In Soap, soap soap, the line “Soap, soap, soap! Jabón, jabón, jabón!” is repeated throughout the text (and is lots of fun with an audience). By the end of the book, the reader surely won’t forget that “jabón” (pronounced “habon”) means “soap”!

Because of my Spanish lessons, I was able to write most of the bilingual version of Soap, soap, soap on my own (it also comes in all-English), but Raven Tree works with a translation company to make sure everything is correct (or to translate for authors who don’t speak Spanish). We didn’t have to make many changes, but there were some amusing hurdles. There are phrases we use in English which simply don’t translate, and visa versa. Those had to go. And there were some terms that had several options. For instance, the ditch that Hugo jumps over in Soap, soap, soap is called “la zanja.” It also could have been “el arroyo,” but “la zanja” was more specific. Of course, I have to pronounce it correctly when reading aloud, or ‘la zan-ha’ ends up sounding like “lasagna”!

Marketing a bilingual book is a bit different as well. Obviously there are regions of our country where the books will be more popular, like mine.

I’ve had the pleasure of occasionally speaking to all-Hispanic audiences – that’s a treat. I’m not fluent, but I have received amazingly warm reactions to my attempts to speak Spanish. In fact, I’ve often felt flat-out adopted by the Hispanic people I’ve dealt with and their extensive families!

Because, whereas my typical audiences will often be made up of one or two parents with their children, an Hispanic audience will more likely be made up of the entire family–parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, you name it. And they often all participate in the activities I hand out.

The first time I gave out my bilingual word find puzzle (sopa de palabras) to an all-Hispanic audience, I looked up to see adults who, I knew, didn’t speak much English, working out my puzzle right along with the kids. It had become a literacy tool! I about cried with joy.

The head of the Alliance Theatre’s Teaching Artist’s program flipped over Soap, soap, soap after seeing a galley at a recent SCBWI conference. Turned out she’d been scouring bilingual picture books for ones with repetition and embedded Spanish, for the very reasons I mentioned above, and there just weren’t that many to choose from. Soap, soap, soap is now one of the main titles in their programming this year. I’m thrilled!

The need for bilingual picture books is so strong right now, publishers and book buyers alike are scrambling to meet the demand. And it’s not just for Hispanic audiences. I’ve signed books for parents who are raising their children to be bilingual–giving them a strong advantage in our changing society. And because of the educational element of bilingual picture books, they tend to scale up and be used by older children, even adults, trying to learn English. Ironically, they are also being used by Spanish speakers who can’t write in Spanish.

Many publishing houses also now have bilingual or Hispanic imprints to meet this need, but I particularly like Raven Tree’s approach. They especially like folk tales because a familiar story or structure can give a reader something to embrace and offer one less thing to stumble over when trying to learn a new language.

Even the economy hasn’t been able to squelch the momentum for bilingual books. The top Spanish-Language book guide (for English speakers), Críticas, recently folded . . . for about three months. The public outcry was so fierce, I’m happy to say it is back and one of the main resources for teachers, librarians, and book buyers to use when trying to find new bilingual or Spanish titles.

For me, writing (and illustrating) bilingual picture books has opened a new world with rewards I never could have imagined. It is a distinct honor to share some of my favorite stories with a new audience, but better yet, I feel I’ve been embraced by a group of people I have come to adore.

Cynsational Notes

Hispanic? Latino? Or What? Notes from the newsroom on grammar, usage and style. From Philip B. Corbett of The New York Times. Peek: “While both ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ are generally acceptable, some people have a strong preference. We should respect those preferences as much as possible in referring to individuals and groups; reporters and editors should routinely ask.”

Here’s Elizabeth at The Multicultural Minute from Shen’s Books:

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win a copy of The Twelve Days of Christmas in Texas by Janie Bynum (Sterling, 2009)! From the promotional copy:

Welcome to the 12 days of Christmas in Texas! Ready to greet you are 9 leapin’ lizards, 8 grazin’ longhorns, 7 bass a-swimmin’, 6 flags a-flyin’… and much more from the Lone Star State.

José is so excited about his cousin Ashley’s visit with him in Texas that he gives her one of these VERY unusual gifts on each of the twelve days of Christmas, and Ashley writes lively letters home to tell her mom and dad all about her trip. Lucky readers are in for a wild Christmas countdown!

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “The Twelve Days of Christmas in Texas” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message me with the name in the header; I’ll contact you if you win).

More Giveaways

Reminder: Enter to win one of two author-signed copies of Soap Soap Soap Jabón Jabón Jabón by Elizabeth O. Dulemba (Raven Tree, 2009), one of three author-signed copies of My Father’s House by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Raul Colón (Viking, 2007), an author-bookplate-signed copy of Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French (Amulet, 2009) and a contributor-signed copy of Immortal: Love Stories with Bite, edited by P.C. Cast (BenBella, Oct. 2009)!

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type “Soap Soap Soap Jabón Jabón Jabón” and/or “My Father’s House” and/or “Operation Redwood” and/or “Immortal” in the subject line (Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are welcome to just privately message me with the name in the header; I’ll contact you if you win). Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 30.

Read a Cynsations interview with S. Terrell French. See also a PDF excerpt of Immortal which highlights my short story, “Haunted Love.” The story is set in the same universe as Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) and Eternal (Candlewick, 2009) and features new characters.

More News

Congratulations to Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Arlene Hirschfelder on the release of A Kid’s Guide to Native American History: More than 50 Activities (Chicago Review Press, 2009)! From the promotional copy:

“Hands-on activities, games, and crafts introduce children to the diversity of Native American cultures and teach them about the people, experiences, and events that have helped shape America, past and present.

“Nine geographical areas cover a variety of communities like the Mohawk in the Northeast, Ojibway in the Midwest, Shoshone in the Great Basin, Apache in the Southwest, Yupik in Alaska, and Native Hawaiians, among others. Lives of historical and contemporary notable individuals like Chief Joseph and Maria Tallchief are featured, and the book is packed with a variety of topics like first encounters with Europeans, Indian removal, Mohawk sky walkers, and Navajo code talkers.

“Readers travel Native America through activities that highlight the arts, games, food, clothing, and unique celebrations, language, and life ways of various nations. Kids can make Haudensaunee corn husk dolls, play Washoe stone jacks, design Inupiat sun goggles, or create a Hawaiian Ma’o-hauhele bag. A time line, glossary, and recommendations for Web sites, books, movies, and museums round out this multicultural guide.”

More Links

Holiday High Notes from the Horn Book Magazine. Reading recommendations. Note: Santa Knows by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman was a HHN and is available through Scholastic Book Club; see ordering information.

Guide to Gift Books: An Annotated List of Books for Youth from The Bulletin from the Center of Children’s Books. More recommendations. Source: the Horn Book.

Top 10 Arts Books for Youth: 2009 by Gillian Engberg from Booklist. A bibliography of recommendations. Note: congratulations to Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, author of Diego: Bigger Than Life (Marshall Cavendish, 2009) and VCFA alumnae Micol Ostow, author of So Punk Rock and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother (Flux, 2009).

Congratulations to author-illustrator Annette Simon for signing with literary agent Brenda Bowen and to Brenda for signing Annette!

The Writing Life by Sherryl Clark at Books and Writing. Peek: “You are on a journey that will never end as long as writing is your life. You will stumble, even fall. You will find others on the same journey at different times who will help you up. You will carry on with scabbed knees because the scars will also help make you a better writer.” Source: Kristi Holl at Writer’s First Aid.

Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2009 by The New York Times Book Review. Note: special congrats to Austin’s own Liz Garton Scanlon, author of All The World (Beach Lane, 2009)!

Crossing the country in search of a cure: Libba Bray’s picaresque novel takes a new direction: interview by Gavin Grant from BookPage. Peek: “This ‘temptation to drift off into solipsism’ was what Bray wanted to investigate in Going Bovine (Delacorte, 2009).”

Q&A with Bobbi Katz from Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: “We talk about what makes poetry different than prose: rhythm, frequent use of rhyme, and most important (and usually without using the formal terms) poetic devices such as metaphor, simile, and personification. We usually write collaborative list poems.”

Once Was Lost (by Sara Zarr) and The Expressologist (by Kristina Springer) Giveaway from Tabitha Olson from Writing Musings. Deadline: Nov. 28. Read a Cynsations interview with Sara.

Interview with Justine Larbalestier
from Color Online. Peek: “For ages I thought writing and activism were separate things. I was a writer, not an activist. But then readers started thanking me for writing about teens who weren’t white, girls who liked maths, boys who like clothes. I learned that representation is extraordinarily important.” Read a Cynsations interview with Justine.

How To Write About…(Pick a Place or People) by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: “Look at any of half a dozen YA novels set in South Asia and you might conclude that all the girls in the region are trying desperately to flee oppressive marriage or widowhood or sexual exploitation. You will feel pity for them and more, you will be grateful that you are not in their place. The thing is, you can’t see people as fully human if all you can feel for them is pity.” Read a Cynsations interview with Uma.

Interview with Sara Zarr by Tabitha Olson from Writer Musings. Peek: “Finding publishing success doesn’t solve the basic problem: how do I translate an imaginative vision into language?”

Children’s Book Illustrator Mike Benny: official site features gallery and bio. Mike’s latest book is The Listeners, written by Gloria Whelan (Sleeping Bear, 2009), and he makes his home in Austin, Texas. Find more Austin Children’s-YA Authors & Illustrators at IndieBound.

Filipino Books for Children: Old and New Favorites by Neni Sta. Romana Cruz from papertigers. Peek: “Although these books were originally meant for Filipino children, the universality of their themes and the English text (not always available in Philippine publications) allow them to be enjoyed by English-speaking children anywhere in the world.”

The Movement You Need Is On Your Shoulder by Christine Deriso at Crowe’s Nest. Peek: “Think hard enough, rearrange your words enough, bolster your vocabulary enough, be willing to start from scratch enough, and you’ll eventually complete such an exacting writing task by feeling not that you’ve created something new, but that you’ve plucked an existing, exquisite star right out of the heavens. I love that feeling.”

Kid/YA Books About Forgiveness from Mitali Perkins at Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “As the year comes to a close, I want to compile a list of novels published in 2009 for children and teenagers that illuminate the difficult task of restorative justice and forgiveness. Any suggestions?” Read a Cynsations interview with Mitali.

The Writers’ League of Texas welcomes new staff members Jan Baumer, Bethany Hegedus, and Kate Meehan. Note: “Established in 1981, the Writers’ League of Texas is a nonprofit professional organization whose primary purpose is to provide a forum for information, support, and sharing among writers, to help members improve and market their writing skills, and to promote the interests of writers and the writing community. With approximately 1,500 members nationwide, we are composed of published and unpublished writers as well as those who recognize the written word as art and simply love to read.” Note: see cute pics of the WLT staff below!

Help YA Author Janni Lee Simner Name Her Characters from Janni at Desert Dispatches. You may win a signed book! Deadline: late January, but earlier entries may have the advantage. Read a Cynsations interview with Janni.

2009 Cybils Nominees: Fantasy/Science Fiction compiled by Sheila Ruth from Wands and Worlds. Note: a first-rate reading list for speculative fiction fans; I’m honored to see Eternal (Candlewick, 2009) in such amazing company.

“Get the Indians Out of the Cupboard” the first in a week-long series of posts about reflections of Native people in youth literature from Nancy Bo Flood and Debby Edwardson. Read a Cynsations interview with Nancy.

Children’s and YA Books With Contemporary Native Themes from Cynthia Leitich Smith Children’s Literature Resources. An annotated bibliography. Peek: “…we need to open our hearts to excellent stories that reflect contemporary Native American Indian experiences, and I hope to see more of them published in the years to come.”

An Interview with Alisa Libby by Pam B. Cole from ALAN Online. Peek: “Her first YA novel, The Blood Confession, is based on the life of Countess Bathory, a Hungarian countess who murdered young virgins and bathed in their blood, hoping their blood would preserve her youth. Her second YA novel, The King’s Rose, is a historical account of the life of Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of King Henry VIII.”

Marvelous Marketer: Author Alyson Noel: an interview by Shelli at Market My Words. Peek: “…with books getting such a short shelf life these days, the best way to ensure yours books maintain their space is to keep ‘em coming, to build up a nice backlist for your readers to explore and for bookstores to reorder with each new release.”

Vampires and Centaurs and Werewolves, Oh My!: An Interview with Francesca Lia Block by Jennifer Hubert Swan from VOYA (PDF). Peek: “I know for myself art has literally saved my life and I see it healing the lives of many of my readers and students. Love, art, and creative expression animate us and make us truly alive.”

Books for Military Children & Teens
: “I am a children’s librarian. I created the basis for this site in 2003 as a project for the children’s literature class, LIS 303, taught by Betsy Hearne.”

Book Giveaway and Guest Teaching Author Interview with Carolyn Marsden by JoAnn Early Macken from Teaching Authors: Six Children’s Authors Who Also Teach Writing. Peek: “The most common problem is being too abstract or general in the writing. I address this by pressing for details. For example, if the student is writing about a flower, I ask what kind of flower? If it’s a daisy, I ask what color? If it’s a white daisy, I keep inquiring…” Giveaway deadline: 11 p.m. Nov. 14.

Congratulations to new Brown Bookshelf board members Olugbemiosola Rhuday-Perkovich, author of middle grade debut, Eighth-grade Superzero (Arthur A. Levine, 2010), and Tameka F. Brown, author of Around Our Way (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010)!

The Book of the Maidservant by Rebecca Barnhouse (Random House, 2009): a recommendation from Greg Leitich Smith. Peek: “…apparently based on the 15th century Book of Margery Kempe, the first autobiography in the English language.” See also Greg’s recommendation of I Want to Live: The Diary of a Girl in Stalin’s Russia by Nina Lugovskaya (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).

Interview with YA author Jo Knowles from Debbi Michiko Florence. Peek: “Everyone has a story and it’s so rarely the one we assume before we get to know them. I think this is why I love books so much. They make us realize that people are rarely who they seem at first glance. None of us can be put into simple categories.” Read Cynsations interviews with Jo and Debbie.

Spellbinders: “Three Young Adult Authors Publish a Monthly Newsletter for Teachers and Librarians to help create lifelong readers. Interviews, curriculum ideas, new book buzz, literacy in the community, and lots more!” November issue includes Kimberley Griffiths Little’s peek at books that have attracted Printz Award Buzz. Note: subscribe to the Spellbinders mailing list.

Guest Post by Literary Agent Wendy Schmalz from Children’s Author David L. Harrison. Peek: “For my entire career in publishing people have been predicting the death of books. First it was CD ROMS (Boy was everyone wrong about that one!). Now people predict e-books as the beginning of the end. I think it’s the beginning of an expansion of reading, especially for older middle grade and YA novels.” Note: Learn more about Wendy from Publishers Marketplace.

Cover Stories: Vamped by Lucienne Diver from Melissa Walker at readergirlz. Peek: “I don’t know if the girl on the Vamped cover was hired specifically for this photo shoot or whether the art department used a photo from their arsenal which they modified; hard to come by natural fangs, at least in a model that actually shows up on camera!” Read a Cynsations interview with Lucienne.

Fragmented? Or Focused? by Kristi Holl at Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “I need to accept the fact that (except for the lessons and critique), none of the other things will get finished today. I need to make my to-do list reflect this, and yet move each project closer to completion.”

When Is a Good Time to Submit? by Kim Norman at Stone Soup. Peek: “Well, here’s good news – about December and summer, anyway. Some big sales have happened during those months, so don’t be daunted by nay sayers.” Read a Cynsations interview with Kim.

Austin Scene

Local childrens-YA literature lovers gathered at Mangia Pizza on Lake Austin Boulevard last week to celebrate authors Ellen Howard, a fellow faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Austin’s latest YA author, Bethany Hegedus, who recently moved to town from New York.

Ellen makes her home in Salem, Oregon, and her latest book, The Crimson Cap (Holiday House, 2009), is a historical novel set in Texas.


Jan Baumer is the new publicity & programming manager at the Writers’ League of Texas, and Bethany is the new office manager.

Cyndi Hughes is the executive director of the League.


Bethany with author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell and author Lindsey Lane.


Authors Jessica Lee Anderson, Debbie Gonzales, and Greg Leitich Smith.


Author-illustrator Emma J. Virjan with Greg and the BookPeople BookKids’ super staffers Mandy Brooks (kids events), Meghan Dietsche Goel (kids buyer), and Topher Bradfield (YA events).


Illustrators Mary Sullivan and Eric Kuntz.


Jill Sayre is a VCFA graduate who studied with Ellen.

VCFA student Meredith Davis with writer Erin Edwards and Jessica.

More Personally

Why Cynthia Leitich Smith Is So Awesome…: a post- Spooky Cynsational October Giveaway follow-up report by winner Courtney Lewis, Director of Libraries at Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School in northeastern Pennsylvania from The Sassy Librarian. Peek: “The coolest cover award goes to How to Be a Vampire: A Fangs-On Guide for the Newly Undead by Amy Gray (Candlewick, 2009)–what must the publisher have gone through to make one so cool?” Notes: (1) after a day of vexing revision, it was lovely to be greeted by that post headline; (2) see two Courtney’s LAB members posing with their prize; (3) Courtney also includes some lovely thoughts about Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008); (4) it’s so happy-making to see great books find a loving home!

Cynthia Leitich Smith on living in a multicultural world from Tu Publishing. Note: I talk about influences, my journalism background, favorite foods and new authors, world-building, writing cross-culturally and more. Peek: “To the extent possible, step into your fictional world. Walk the streets (or their models) that your characters walk, find wardrobes for them, sketch or identify a physical model for each.”

Thanks to Liz B at A Chair, A Fireplace, and A Tea Cozy for featuring the Native American Youth Literature Widget on her blog this month! The support is appreciated.

Cynsational Events

Texas Book Festival 2009 Recap from YA author Jennifer Ziegler. Terrific pics, including a peek at one of Austin’s smokin’ hot children’s-YA writer critique groups. Peek: “It was another beautiful fall day–the gentle breezes flowed, the trees rained down leaves, and book lovers of all ages came out in droves.”

Destination Publication: An Awesome Austin Conference for Writers and Illustrators is scheduled for Jan. 30 and sponsored by Austin SCBWI. Keynote speakers are Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson and Caldecott Honor author-illustrator Marla Frazee, who will also offer an illustrator breakout and portfolio reviews. Presentations and critiques will be offered by editor Cheryl Klein of Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, author-editor Lisa Graff of FSG, agent Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary, agent Mark McVeigh of The McVeigh Agency, and agent Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown, Ltd. Advanced critique break-out sessions will be led by editor Stacy Cantor of Bloomsbury. In addition, Cheryl and author Sara Lewis Holmes will speak on the editor-and-author relationship, and Marla and author Liz Garton Scanlon will speak on the illustrator-and-author relationship. Note: Sara and Liz also will be offering manuscript critiques. Illustrator Patrice Barton will offer portfolio reviews. Additional authors on the speaker-and-critique faculty include Jessica Lee Anderson, Chris Barton, Shana Burg, P.J. Hoover, Jacqueline Kelly, Philip Yates, Jennifer Ziegler. See registration form, information packet, and conference schedule (all PDF files)!

2010 Houston-SCBWI Conference is scheduled for Feb. 20, 2010, at the Merrell Center in Katy. Registration is now open. The faculty includes author Cynthia Leitich Smith, assistant editor Ruta Rimas of Balzer & Bray/HarperCollins, creative director Patrick Collins of Henry Holt, senior editor Alexandra Cooper of Simon & Schuster, senior editor Lisa Ann Sandell of Scholastic, and agent Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc.

Craft, Career & Cheer: Nikki Grimes

Learn more about Nikki Grimes and her recent releases, Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel and Rich: A Dyamonde Daniel Book, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (both G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009) and Voices of Christmas, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Zonderkidz, 2009).

How do you define professional success?

The notion of professional success is a sticky-wicket. It is almost always defined by those outside of ourselves.

I prefer to focus on defining and achieving personal success, and I judge that in a few ways.

Am I reaching my intended audience? By and large.

Am I having a positive impact on the thinking of my readers? Yes.

Am I introducing reluctant readers to the joy of literature? Yes.

Do I enjoy the respect of my peers? Thankfully.

In the world’s eyes, of course, the most important proof success is that I’m making a living at my chosen profession and that I have achieved a degree of acclaim in doing so. But I think anyone who steps out in faith to answer the call of her heart can consider herself on the road to success, because that is where true success begins.

Could you tell us about your writing community—your critique group or critique partner or other sources of creative support?

I belong to a unique arts fellowship called Montage. We’ve been together for about 22 years, so long, in fact, that we now have a second generation of members. A few children of our original members are now budding artists themselves, and have joined our circle as equals! That is very exciting.

Montage is not a writers’ group, though. It is a community of artists crossing many mediums. Members include composers, filmmakers, visual artists, performing artists, columnists, essayists, poets, and children’s authors. Some of us are professional, but not all.

Ours is a refreshing mix of genres and ages. That mix serves us well. In particular, it benefits me. When I ask for critique of a work in progress, I enjoy feedback from artists who are also teachers as well as artists who are students.

It’s an amazing piece of luck for a young adult author to have an articulate 16-year-old in the room when she reads a chapter of her newest YA manuscript.

In addition to Montage, I have a small circle of readers I rely on to critique entire manuscripts. A few of them are members of Montage, but others are writers and literature professors outside of that group.

I cannot imagine achieving the same level of success in my manuscripts without such support! Montage, in particular, is critical to my artistic development in that it encourages members to explore mediums outside of our natural genres.

As a result, I’ve ventured into the realm of visual art. Whether or not I ever illustrate a book, I am enriched by art, and that cannot help but enrich my writing as well.

What can your fans look forward to next?


There are two new books I’m excited about. One is the second title in my new chapter book series, Rich: A Dyamonde Daniel Book, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Oct. 2009).


The second is Voices of Christmas, illustrated by Eric Velasquez (Zonderkidz, Oct. 2009)–the story of the first Christmas told in the voices of those who participated in it. This book marks a first for me. It comes with an audio CD of my reading the book, along with vocal artist Craig Northcutt.

This will be a great book for family sharing, I think. At least, I hope so!

Cynsational Photos


Here’s Nikki (above) with fellow author Linda Sue Park at the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles.


Nikki (above) signs a copy of Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope, illustrated by Bryan Collier (Simon & Schuster, 2008) in D.C. during the week of the presidential inauguration.

Nikki (right) steps out with a friend on the way to the NAACP Image Awards earlier this year.

She won for Outstanding Literary Work, Children for her biography of now-President Obama.

From the promotional copy: “Ever since Barack Obama was young, Hope has lived inside him. From the beaches of Hawaii to the streets of Chicago, from the jungles of Indonesia to the plains of Kenya, he has held on to Hope.

“Even as a boy, Barack knew he wasn’t quite like anybody else, but through his journeys he found the ability to listen to Hope and become what he was meant to be: a bridge to bring people together.

“This is the moving story of an exceptional man, as told by Nikki Grimes and illustrated by Bryan Collier, both winners of the Coretta Scott King Award. Barack Obama has motivated Americans to believe with him, to believe that every one of us has the power to change ourselves and change our world.”


Cynsational Notes

Voices of Christmas – Nikki Grimes: a video from Zonderkidz. From the promotional copy: “New York Times Bestselling Author Nikki Grimes beautifully composes the unfolding Christmas story through the voices of those who witnessed the Messiah’s birth. Listen to Joseph’s struggle…Rejoice with Elizabeth and Zachariah…Worship with the magi…Hear the fear in Herod’s voice…Receive the blessing of Simeon and Anna…and like the shepherds, shout for joy! Illustrated by Eric Velasquez.” Note: a peek at Nikki’s gorgeous new picture book.

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.