Guest Post: C.J. Bott on Words — One Weapon We All Own

By C.J. Bott

Words are powerful. They are learned early, and they bruise forever. Who would have thought that combinations of 26 letters could cause so much pain, humiliation, and violence? But they do. Words hurt and when that preschooler learns that first powerful word—“stupid”–the pattern is established. Childhood words grow into permanent labels and into hate slurs.

Nearly all forms of bullying contain some verbal harassment in either oral or written form. It is hard to bully someone you have never talked to or about. The Internet has simply given us another way to deliver the message.

Words carry good messages too. Many authors of children’s and teen books are using their words to talk about bullying and have given us hundreds of books that provide an objective way to talk about bullying. Here are some titles.


In Trudy Ludwig’s picture book, Just Kidding, illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Tricycle, 2006), D.J. and his very wise dad role-play ways to handle Vince’s putdowns.

Chico, whose migrant family moves around California picking fruit, is frequently judged in words from his second language in First Day in Grapes by L. King Pérez, illustrated by Robert Casilla (Lee & Low, 2002).

With orange hair, thick glasses, and a distinctive choice in clothes, Trudy enters a new school and become a target in Trouble for Trudy by Teddy Slater (Scholastic, 2007).

In I Get So Hungry by Bebe Moore Campbell, illustrated by Amy Bates (Putnam, 2008), Nikki hears names like “Super-Size” and “Nikki Thicky.”


In Nothing Wrong With a Three-Legged Dog (Yearling, 2001), Graham McNamee gives readers Keath, the only white kid in his fourth grade class, who’s called “Whitey,” “Va-nilla” and “Mayonnaise,” and his best friend Lynda hears “Zebra” because she has a black mother and a white father.

Fifth grader Amelia says, “Sometimes the line between news and gossip seems pretty thin to me” in Amelia’s Guide to Gossip by Marissa Moss (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

Middle School

The Misfits by James Howe (Atheneum, 2001) has four main characters: Bobby, Skeezie, Joe and Addie—together they are called 70 names. That book has started a national movement against name-calling. (For more information, go to

Jupiter Jason Glazer, formerly of Russia, wants very badly to be accepted but knows first he has to lose his accent in Losers by Matthue Roth (Push, 2008).

High School

Jujube finds a way to end the sexual harassment in whispered hallway slurs and bathroom graffiti in Sticks and Stones by Beth Goobie (Orca, 2006).

In Whale Talk (Greenwillow, 2001), Chris Crutcher presents T.J., an adopted young man with a many-cultures heritage, and his swim team of kids who do not fit into the “norm.”

With bug eyes, pinched face, hearing aids, and a rounded back, David hears the word “Freak” hundreds of time each day—until the principal decides David is the problem at school in Defect by Will Weaver (FSG, 2007).

Alma Fullerton’s In the Garage (Red Deer, 2006) centers on the friendship between BJ and Alex that grew after Alex rescued BJ from the verbal attack of fifth graders. In high school Alex is attacked and killed by homophobic classmates.

Having been bullied about her weight since she was five, Daelyn, now in high school has tried to commit suicide before, but this time she is determined to succeed in Julie Anne Peters’s book, By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead (Hyperion, 2010).

Words created a false reputation, built by boys’ egos and spread by jealous girls, destroyed Hannah Baker’s life, but she finds a new way to her tell her story after she commits suicide in Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (Razorbill, 2007).

The best time to talk about bullying is before it starts.

Cynsational Notes

C.J. Bott is the author of The Bully in the Book and in the Classroom (Scarecrow, 2004) and More Bullies in More Books (Scarecrow, 2009). C.J., “a retired high school English teacher, is an educational consultant on problems of bullying and harassment.”

Bullies in Books: the official website of C.J. Bott, educational consultant on using children’s and young adult’s literature to start the discussion on bullying. Site includes Annotated Bibliography of Bully Books for Grade Levels, Annotated Bibliography of Books by Bullying Behavior, Professional Books Bibliography, and much more.

New Voice: Gayle Brandeis on My Life With The Lincolns

Gayle Brandeis is the first-time children’s author of My Life With The Lincolns (Henry Holt, 2010)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Mina Edelman believes that she and her family are the Lincolns reincarnated. Her main task for the next three months: to protect her father from assassination, her mother from insanity, and herself—Willie Lincoln incarnate—from death at age twelve.

Apart from that, the summer of 1966 should be like any other. But Mina’s dad begins taking Mina along to hear speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago. And soon he brings the freedom movement to their own small town, with consequences for everyone.

Gayle Brandeis has written a novel that is at turns laugh-out-loud funny and wise, acute, and compassionate. In My Life with the Lincolns, she gives us the unforgettable Mina Edelman, a precocious girl who faces, along with saving her family, the puzzling experience of growing up.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

I love research, so I approached it with great excitement and enthusiasm. I spent a lot of time in the library and online looking up Lincoln lore, since my character Mina thinks her family is the Lincoln family reincarnated and is quite obsessed with the Lincoln family.

I was sure to copy down information that made me laugh (such as learning about Tad Lincoln riding around the East Room of the White House in a goat-drawn cart) as well as information that made my heart pound a bit (such as reading about Abe Lincoln opening up his son’s coffin so he could see his beloved Willie one last time.) If I read something that gave me strong feelings or just seemed especially interesting, I was sure to take special notice (since I knew Mina would also take special notice) and find a way to weave into my narrative.

When I was already deeply immersed in the first draft, I remembered that there was a Lincoln Memorial Shrine about 15 minutes away in Redlands, California; which has a great Lincoln library and lots of Lincoln memorabilia (including some strands of his hair), so that became a cherished place to do research.

It’s important to me to research with my senses as well as my mind—it helps me write in a more vivid, engaged way—so I also went to Springfield, Illinois; and spent time in the Lincoln family home, Lincoln’s law office and the family tomb, as well as the fabulous new Lincoln Museum and Library there, and it helped me feel much closer to the Lincoln clan.

I would say my greatest research coup was learning about the Chicago Freedom Movement. I knew I wanted to set the story in Chicago (my hometown), and I knew I wanted the story to address issues of civil rights, so that Mina’s story would resonate with all the social change that happened during Lincoln’s time. I did a Google search on “Chicago” and “civil rights” and learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. had come to Chicago in 1966 to bring the civil rights movement North and address issues of housing discrimination.

I plunged myself into researching the Chicago Freedom Movement and realized it was the perfect setting for the story. I’m very grateful to Google for that find.

I can’t say I hit any roadblocks with the research—there was lots of great, readily available information about both the Lincolns and Chicago in 1966. I was even able to speak with a couple of people who had been involved in the open housing campaign, which was incredibly helpful.

Perhaps the only roadblock to speak of was the sheer amount of information and the time it took to sift through it for the shiniest nuggets (but I enjoyed that process, so it’s hard to think of it in a negative way.)

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

I’ve often told people that being a writer and a mom is like being a mermaid, being amphibious. I’ve likened writing to diving deep underwater; then, when I’m needed as a mom, I swim back up to the surface. My day would be a constant leaping in and out of the water.

I think I may need to find a new metaphor now that I have a new baby who requires most of my attention. My older kids are 19 and 16, so I had gotten used to having more time to myself, more time to spend in the depths of the sea. Now, with the baby, I’m pretty much a landlubber. When I have time to myself, sometimes I’m too exhausted to dive into my writing.

I need to figure out the balance all over again, grow new glistening scales.

The advice I’d give to other writers is really the advice I need to give myself right now—if writing is important to you, you can find a way to fit it in to your day. Even if it’s just writing a couple of sentences while you’re in the bathroom or nursing your baby. The writing will nurture you just as you nurture your little ones.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Congratulations to author Audrey Vernick and illustrator Don Tate on the release of She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story (Balzer & Bray, 2010)(interior illustrations). From the promotional copy:

Effa Manley always loved baseball. As a young woman, she would go to Yankee Stadium just to see Babe Ruth’s mighty swing. But she never dreamed she would someday own a baseball team. Or be the first — and only — woman ever inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

From her childhood in Philadelphia to her groundbreaking role as business manager and owner of the Newark Eagles, Effa Manley always fought for what was right. And she always swung for the fences.

From author Audrey Vernick and illustrator Don Tate comes the remarkable story of an all-star of a woman.

More News & Giveaways

What’s an Imprint? by Stacy Whitman from Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire. Peek: “First off, let’s distinguish between a smaller company and an imprint. Big and small publishers will both have imprints. You may have an advantage getting published with a smaller press because they’ll often be able to give more personalized attention from the editorial stage on through production and promotion—though that can depend, too.” Read a Cynsations interview with Stacy.

An Interview with Diane Muldrow, Children’s Book Author and Editorial Director of Golden Books by Kimberly Gee from Where the Sidewalk Begins. Peek: “…so many aspiring writers don’t think visually enough as they plan and plot and write their picture book manuscripts.”

Children’s Writer-in-Residence: Thurber House invites authors to apply for the 2011 residency in children’s literature. Peek: “The Thurber House Residency in Children’s Literature offers talented, emerging writers a month-long retreat in a lovely, quiet living and working environment in James Thurber’s home in Columbus, Ohio. Besides having time to focus on his/her own writing project, the resident will teach writing-based activities to middle-grade children in a variety of community settings, including the Thurber Summer Writing Camp.”

Congratulations to P.J. Hoover on the release of The Forgotten Worlds Book 3: The Necropolis (CBAY/Blooming Tree, 2010)! From the promotional copy: “The situation in Lemuria is rapidly deteriorating. In fact teleportation between the hidden continent and the outside world has become so dangerous, all agents and their families have been recalled. Although Benjamin is pleased to be living in Lemuria full time, he knows he needs to find his last sibling soon. However, between classes, a murderous half-brother, and complications with his friend Heidi, Benjamin can barely focus. Besides, there’s only one place left they haven’t searched – the hidden continent of Atlantis.” See a guest blog by P.J. and Jessica Lee Anderson on Sophomore Novels.

Walking the Edge by Sarah Bromley from The Slanted Mirror. Peek: “In my opinion, edgy is more ground-breaking than gritty. Gritty is more often a dark tone and a pervasive seediness, a moral ambiguity, that flows throughout the story. But edgy is the subject matter at the heart of the book.”

10 Rules for Writing About Cops by Joe McKinney from Stet! Peek: “If I could give you one metaphor for police work, it would be this. Imagine standing in the middle of a huge river and being told you have to drink every drop of water that comes by. Every drop that does get by is a case that goes unsolved.” Source: April Henry.

The Shrinking Violet Online Personal Workshop Week One, Week Two: The Many Layers of You, Week Three: Connecting the Dots from R.L. La Fevers. Peek: “…helping you create an internet presence that you are comfortable with, that makes you accessible, and doesn’t feel like shilling. The workshop isn’t only about creating a new presence, but can also be used to refine, tweak, or revamp an existing one.”

Oh Boy, Books: Helping Parents Find Perfect Books and Encourage Their Kids Love of Reading: a new blog in the kidlitosphere.

Inspiration vs. Writing Every Day by Tabitha Olson from Writer Musings. Peek: “I write on the days that I can, and don’t write on the days I can’t. For this reason alone, I don’t have the luxury of waiting around for inspiration to strike because I can’t sit down to write anytime I want.”

Trends in Children’s Publishing: A Panel: a report by Mary Kole from Peek: “Rosemary [Stimola] made sure to point out — and some writers disagree with this, but I completely enforce this idea — that publishers aren’t printers. They’re purveyors of content. And no matter the platform, whether ebook or printed book or app, people will always need stories, art, and content.” Read a Cynsations interview with Mary.

A Graphic Take on Homer: Gareth Hinds’ The Odyssey by Kate Culkin from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “With The Odyssey, published on October 12 by Candlewick, Gareth Hinds continues his project of reinterpreting classic texts in the graphic novel format. With this 256-page work, in watercolor and pastel, he hopes to find a wide audience in schools and libraries, while still appealing to adults.”

The Temptation of Thinking Someone Has Made It by Nathan Bransford – Literary Agent. Peek: “We keep striving no matter how high we’ve climbed, even those who have climbed the highest. Pressure can cut into satisfaction, and the spotlight can be uncomfortable.” Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan.

Writers Digest “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest: Young Adult Division from Chuck Sambuchino from Guide to Literary Agents. Judge: Tamar Rydzinski of Laura Dail Literary Agency in NYC. Note: “…online contest with agent judges and super-cool prizes.”

Writers Links: Promotion: resources for connecting a book to young readers from Cynthia Leitich Smith Children’s-YA Literature Resources.

Cynsational Screening Room

Happy Teen Read Week, Oct. 17 to Oct 23, celebrating Books with Beat! Teens are invited to vote for the 2011 Teen Read Week theme. Check out the 2010 Teens Top Ten. Share how you celebrated at the Teen Read Week wiki. Watch this video of Nikki Grimes talking about reading, writing, and how libraries began a refuge and inspiration to her as a teen!

Hope for Haiti: “Read a book [for free online] today and help share a book with a young child whose family is still recovering from the earthquake in Haiti.” Or you can purchase a copy of Hope for Haiti by Jesse Joshua Watson (Putnam, 2010); “a donation from each book is made to the Save the Children’s Haiti Emergency Relief Fund.” Source: Kirby Larson.

Check out the book trailer for The Lost Children by Carolyn Cohagan (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

Check out the book trailer for The Mermaid’s Mirror by L.K. Madigan (Houghton Mifflin, 2010):

Check out the book trailer for Tell Us We’re Home by Marina Buhos (Atheneum, 2010).

Native Heritage Month

Native American Heritage Month is coming in November! My related books include Jingle Dancer (ages 4-up), Indian Shoes (ages 9-up), and Rain Is Not My Indian Name (all HarperCollins).

Check them out, and then continue to celebrate Native youth literature throughout the year.

Jingle Dancer: a recommendation by Steven R. McEvoy from Book Reviews and More. Peek: “This book is a wonderful story of culture, tradition, love and family.”

Don’t miss the teacher guide for Jingle Dancer, free readers theater, reading group guide, and new word-search puzzle for Indian Shoes as well as the chapter activities, reading group guide, and new word-search puzzle (PDF) for Rain.

See also Native American Themes in Children’s-YA Books and Teacher & Librarian Resources for Children’s & YA Books with Native American Themes.

More Personally

In 2010, I’m celebrating my tenth anniversary as an author for young readers! If you would like to ask me a question about my past decade in youth literature, please feel free to write me at my website or comment/message me on any of my blogs/networks. Note: Blogger readers may comment at Cynsations at LiveJournal. I’ll choose several to answer next month.

Publishers Weekly calls my prose in Holler Loudly (Dutton, 2010), “as raucous as its protagonist” and cheers, “This effervescent collaboration…has sass aplenty.”

Santa Knows: a recommendation by Steven R. McEvoy from Book Reviews and More. Peek; “The story by Greg and Cynthia is very funny and the illustrations by Steve Bjorkman bright, vibrant and very engaging.” Note: Santa Knows is available from

Thank you to Jama Rattigan for the bookstore shelf shot of Tantalize (Candlewick, 2008) and Eternal (Candlewick, 2010) paperback on in her recent post Hawai’i Book Sightings.

Look for Blessed (PDF) on pages 24 and 25 of the Candlewick Press spring-summer 2011 catalog.

Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith Review and ARC Giveaway by Insert Book Title Here. Peek: “The world of Tantalize and Eternal combine in Blessed (PDF) to create an amazing story that is captivating. I loved both of the previous novels, but Blessed has blown them both out of the water. This is Cynthia at her best.” Note: U.S. and Canadian citizens are eligible to win. Deadline: midnight Oct. 31. Enter here.

Cynsational Giveaway Reminders

Enter to win a copy of The Wish Stealers by Tracy Trivas (Aladdin, 2010)! To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and type “The Wish Stealers” in the subject line LiveJournal, Facebook, JacketFlap, MySpace, and Twitter readers are also welcome to just privately message or comment me with the name in the header/post. I’ll write you for contact information, if you win. Deadline: Oct. 31. Sponsored by Simon & Schuster; U.S. entries only. Read a Cynsations interview with Tracy. Note: the email link was broken on previous announcements of this giveaway. It should work now. Please try again. My apologies for the inconvenience.

Cynsational Events

“Beyond Feathers and Fangs: Crossing Borders in Realistic and Fantasy Fiction, with Cynthia Leitich Smith” at The 33rd Annual Mary Calletto Rife Youth Literature Seminar – Kalamazoo Public Library. The seminar costs $40 (lower student rates are available) and is scheduled for 8 a.m. to 4 p.m Nov. 5. Note: Maria Perez-Stable and Beth Amidon will also present a book talk, and additional speakers are Gillian Engberg, Booklist editor, and Debbie Reese, UIUC professor. See more on the speakers. Note: I’ll also be speaking on Nov. 4 in a public event at the Kalamazoo Public Library!

Guest Post: C.J. Omololu on Writing “Issue” Books

By C.J. Omololu

I didn’t set out to write an “issue” book. As it involves a dead mother and a house filled to the ceiling with garbage, in hindsight that was probably a little naïve.

I wasn’t trying to put a face to an important worldwide problem. I didn’t want to become the point person for people who grew up in hoarded homes. I just wanted to tell one girl’s story. In the end, what I got was much more than that.

I got the idea for Dirty Little Secrets (Walker, 2010) while I was on an airplane minding my own business. The only time I get to read “girly” magazines is on airplanes, and an article in Marie Claire caught my eye. It was called “I Grew Up In This,” and it was about women who had grown up in hoarded homes (I ended up working closely with several people who were featured in the article), and it got me thinking about how that would affect a teenager. A lot of research and horrid drafts later, Lucy’s story was born.

All writers have a responsibility to tell the story as well as they can. Reviews will come in and people will love your story. Other people won’t.

If you write about an issue – hoarding in my case, or suicide, eating disorders or abuse for example – it helps to be prepared in several other ways.

1. Do Your Research. If you get a fact wrong, someone will call you on it. Work with as many experts as you can to make the situation as realistic as possible. The best compliment I can get is when a child of a hoarder tells me that they felt like I had a camera on their life.

2. Don’t Preach. If you’re writing about drug abuse, suicide or teen pregnancy, it is disturbingly easy to wander into the realm of parental nagging. Teens will sniff this out in a nanosecond, so make sure you stay in the head of your main character and away from the public service announcements.

At the same time, it can be a good idea to put some sort of contact information in the back of the book so that people who want more information about the issue have a place to start. I put the website for Children of Hoarders in my acknowledgments because that is a great resource for people with hoarding in their families.

3. Get Ready. Once your book comes out, you will get a lot of emails. Some will be from people who have been touched in real life by the situation in your book. The most heartbreaking email I’ve gotten so far was from a college freshman who had finally escaped the hoard and was terrified to go home for summer break.

You need to have some ready answers – often you are the first person these people are reaching out to, and you have a responsibility (yes, I said the R word) to point them in the right direction.

Other letters will be from people who demand to know how you dared to write about this subject. They might think you’re disgusting, your ending is unconscionable, and that your books shouldn’t be available to teens. Feel free to delete those emails.

Even though I hadn’t completely realized what was involved in writing about an “issue,” it’s been a wonderful experience. Writing about a difficult subject has put me in touch with amazing people that I would have never met otherwise.

If you have an idea for a book with a difficult theme, I say go for it – not only will it change your life, you might change a reader’s as well.

Cynsational Notes

C.J. lives in Northern California; with her husband and two sons.

New Voice: Ryan Potter on Exit Strategy

Ryan Potter is the first-time author of Exit Strategy (Flux, 2010)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Looming above Zach Ramsey’s hometown of Blaine are the smokestacks of the truck-assembly plant, the greasy lifeblood of this Detroit suburb. Surrounded by drunks, broken marriages, and factory rats living in fear of the pink slip, Zach is getting the hell out of town after graduation. But first, he’s going to enjoy the summer before senior year.

Getting smashed with his best friend Tank and falling in love for the first time, Zach’s having a blast until he uncovers dark secrets that shake his faith in everyone–including Tank, a wrestler whose violent mood swings betray a shocking habit.

As he gets pulled deeper into an ugly scandal, Zach is faced with the toughest decision of his life–one that will prove just what kind of adult he’s destined to be.

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

Exit Strategy is a realistic story geared toward older teens. I based the gritty, blue-collar setting largely on what I observed growing up in a similar community outside of Detroit. There’s plenty of alcohol use and cigarette smoking in the story among both teens and adults.

As a writer, I think you run into trouble if you start sounding preachy about the dangers of such “edgy” behavior. On the other hand, it’s real behavior. Many teens smoke. Many teens drink. Some kids experiment and decide they’ll live without that stuff. Others end up with lifelong habits. These are facts of life. In that sense, I decided nicotine, alcohol, and steroid use were important topics I wanted to explore in this book.

Teens are smart readers. What they don’t want is a health lesson disguised as a novel. For example, in my book, bad things happen whenever the main character decides to drink, but I never come right out and say that.

It’s the story that counts, so I say, make your characters as edgy as you want, but be honest about it. In other words, stay away from the moral bully pulpit. You can teach a lesson, but don’t be too blunt about it. It’s a fine line. You learn how to handle it effectively through practice and feedback.

Exit Strategy has been out for a few months now, and some of the most consistent praise I’ve received is in regards to how I handled the drinking, smoking, and drug use. I didn’t make those issues take center stage in the story. Rather, I used them to add depth and definition to the characters.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

I connected with my original agent in 2006. After polishing Exit Strategy the best I could, I learned how to write a good query letter. I can’t stress the importance of first impressions, and that query letter is the first impression you give to any agent who reads it. That’s the top piece of advice I can give to new writers seeking representation. Write a knockout query letter. Everything you need is one Google search away.

After my query was ready, I spent countless hours narrowing down the twenty or so agents and agencies I thought made good matches for my story. This leads me to the second most important piece of advice for writers seeking the right agent. Know whom you’re querying! Don’t send some massive email blast to thousands of agents gleaned from a list you find on a website.

It’s tempting, I know. I’ve been there. The problem is most of the agents on the receiving end of an email like that probably won’t have an interest in your work. It’s best to take the time to find agents who represent works comparable to yours. Aim high, by all means, but do it right!

Of the twenty or so queries I sent, three or four agents requested the first three chapters. I ended up signing with Michelle Andelman of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She moved on to other things a couple of years ago, but she sold Exit Strategy to Flux and, for that, I’ll always be grateful. My current agent is the outstanding Jen Rofe, also with the Andrea Brown Agency.

I love the Andrea Brown Agency. The agents have great track records and provide valuable feedback on all phases of the publication process. I recommend them highly, and I’m living proof that they represent unknown, first-time writers!

Guest Post: Cherie Foster Colburn on Our Shadow Garden

By Cherie Foster Colburn

“What do you want from your dream?”

It was a good question. Technically, it was not the dream itself that was the subject of my husband’s question.

What came from that night’s dream was a story: Shadow Garden. It always had a name, but it hadn’t been a real place except to those I chose to visit it with me, reading what I’d scribbled after my time in the garden that night.

I’d been seriously ill when I had the dream. Reading or writing about nature was all I could do at the time, too sick to be in my own garden or continue my work as a professional landscape designer.

After writing and re-writing and re-writing, I entered Shadow Garden in a contest. It won first place. Publishers contacted me. With my experience designing learning gardens and curriculum for schools, I assumed the publishers would be thankful for my input on the illustrations and educational sidebars for the book. They were not.

So Shadow Garden was filed in a drawer labeled “writing.” But my health restored, the story was resurrected by a request from my teen daughter when I asked her what she wanted my legacy to be. “Publish the stinkin’ book, Mom!”

I was addressing Christmas cards when a discussion with my husband turned to my story. “Sarah wants me to send out Shadow Garden. I have such a clear view of the book though. My friend teaches art at the middle school. Her students could illustrate it.”

“You can’t do that. Too many liability issues.”

“You always think the worst.”

“I am usually right. Get those kids to illustrate your story,” he said, pointing to our Christmas cards from his favorite charity, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Proceeds of cards and other products directly benefit the children in treatment at the hospital. And actually, he is usually right–one of the few things I dislike about my husband.

I emailed the Children’s Art Project at M.D. Anderson with the idea, assuming they would be thrilled with the prospect. They were not.

“We don’t really do books. Well, we put out a book about every ten years, but we don’t have the children illustrate it in their art classes. We take their art and make a book out of it, not the other way around. But thank you for your support.”

Now what? What did I want from my dream?

Walking through that nighttime garden of my dream is still vivid, a relapse into childhood and to my grandmother’s garden, a magical place made even more so at night. No worries crowded my head. The plants and animals, the sounds and smells brought back memories I’d long forgotten. And I was not sick.

I wanted readers to witness my Shadow Garden just as I had that night, a place of wonder and hope and healing.

The next day I got an email from the director of the Children’s Art Project at M.D. Anderson. It had been ten years since their last book. “Send me your manuscript,” she said.

In a couple of weeks, I met their board. Then I was invited to see archives of the program’s last twenty years, art from children long gone, their work hidden away, fermenting, improving. Each piece of art was scanned and the individual pieces collaged to tell the story of a nighttime garden, my dream breathed to life.

Some of the children whose art I picked lost the battle against their illness. But many went on to a full life, often choosing professions and dedicating their lives to help other children fight cancer.

One day I got a call from another publisher, this one hired by M.D. Anderson to print Our Shadow Garden (Bright Sky, 2010). “What else have you written? I love your idea of adding educational sidebars to the story.”

That is what I wanted from my dream.

Cynsational Notes

A landscape designer and garden writer, Cherie has implemented learning gardens at elementary and middle schools throughout Texas. Whether speaking or writing, her joy is in discovery and leading students to that rebirth experience, the “ah-ha” moment when the child in each of us sees a piece of our world with new eyes.

15th Anniversary of the Texas Book Festival

This past weekend was the 15th Anniversary of the Texas Book Festival at the state capital and surrounding streets in Austin. Thank you to the staff, volunteers, authors, booksellers, exhibitors, Penguin Young Readers, and everyone who turned out to celebrate books!

Attendance was up this year! I attended sessions where latecomers were turned away due to fire-code restrictions.

Here’s P.J. Hoover with Ann Angel, author of Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing (Amulet, 2010). Ann is one of my former writing students; I worked with her during a post-grad semester in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. P.J. is the Austin-based author of The Necropolis (CBAY, 2010)–new in stores!

This weekend I met Austin debut author James Crowley for the first time. James is the author of Starfish: A Novel (Hyperion, 2010).

Laurie Halse Anderson at her signing. I heard more than one star-struck person say how much they admire Laurie and how really pleased they were to discover that she’s every bit as thoughtful and genuine in person as they imagined her to be.

Austin’s own Brian Yansky with Newbery Honor author Ingrid Law. I loved Brian’s T-shirt tie-in to his novel Alien Invasions (and Other Inconveniences) (Candlewick, 2010) and found myself touched by Ingrid’s devotion to getting her settings just right. Her latest book is Scumble (Dial, 2010).

In the exhibitor tent, author-illustrator Emma J. Virjan shows off Nacho the Party Puppy (Random House, 2009).

I enjoyed chatting with Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier in the “green room” tent.

Author-illustrator Frances Yansky and author Cinda Williams Chima. Cinda’s newest book is The Exiled Queen (A Seven Realms Novel) (Hyperion, 2010).

Author Greg Leitich Smith moderated a panel, “Portals to Imagined Worlds” with Carolyn Cohagan, Ingrid, Brian, and Cinda. Carolyn is the debut author of The Lost Children (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

Texas author Tim Tingle talks about Saltypie: A Choctaw Journey from Darkness Into Light, illustrated by Karen Clarkson (Cinco Puntos, 2010).

Authors M.T. Anderson and Liz Garton Scanlon looking a little spooky with the back lighting.

Other highlights included driving Andrea Cremer and Heather Brewer to the children’s-YA author party at the home of literary director Clay Smith and sharing some guacamole after the Sunday programs at the Roaring Fork with Greg, M.T. Anderson, Varian Johnson, April Lurie, Jennifer Ziegler, Matt de la Pena, and Amy Rose Capetta.

In addition, I heard Deborah Noyes speak on her novel (for grown-ups), Captivity (Unbridled Books, 2010).

I participated in the children’s tent, reading Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010). Huge thanks to Hildi Nicksic’s third grade class from River Place Elementary for the wonderful introduction!

Thanks also to everyone who attended my signing! I was honored and thrilled that Holler Loudly sold out in the children’s signing tent–more money for Texas libraries! Hooray!

New Voice: Bethany Hegedus on Between Us Baxters and Truth with a Capital T

Bethany Hegedus is the author of Between Us Baxters (WestSide, 2009) and Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010). From the promotional copy of Truth with a Capital T:

Lots of families have secrets. Little-Known Fact: My family has an antebellum house with a locked wing—and I’ve got a secret of my own.

I thought getting kicked out of the Gifted & Talented program—or not being “pegged,” as Mama said—­was the worst thing that could happen to me. W-r-o-n-g, wrong.

I arrived in Tweedle, Georgia, to spend the summer with Granny and Gramps, only to find no sign of them. When they finally showed up, Cousin Isaac was there too, with his trumpet in hand, and I found myself having to pretend to be thrilled about watching my musical family rehearse for the town’s Anniversary Spectacular. It was h-a-r-d, hard. Meanwhile, I, Maebelle T.-for-No-Talent Earl, set out to win a blue ribbon with an old family recipe.

But what was harder and even more wrong than any of that was breaking into the locked wing of my grandparents’ house, trying to learn the Truth with a capital T about Josiah T. Eberlee, my long-gone-but-not-forgotten relation.

To succeed, I couldn’t be a solo act. I’d need my new friends, a basset hound named Cotton, the strength of my entire family, and a little help from a secret code.

With grace and humor and a heaping helping of little-known facts, Bethany Hegedus incorporates the passions of the North and the South and bridges the past and the present in this story about one summer in the life of a sassy Southern girl and her trumpet-playing adopted Northern cousin.

Are you a plotter or a plunger? Do you outline first, write to explore first, or engage some combination of the two? Then where do you go from there? What about this approach appeals to you? What advice do you have for beginning writers struggling with plot?

Like in life, I am a plunger. I sometimes wish this were not true, that I was methodical, precise, but I tend to go with my gut and my gut doesn’t speak to me in logical, precise terms.

My gut speaks to me in bold moves: like moving from New York City to Austin (and moving to NYC in the first place from Augusta, Georgia), like working two years on a novel and then ditching every word except the character names.

I write to discover. I write to explore. I write to tell myself the truth, and sometimes that truth takes quite awhile to figure out. Other times, the truth rises to the surface quicker.

With Between Us Baxters, which I first began when I knew nothing about story or craft, I spent a year connecting with Polly. I met her, lived with her, fought with her and got to know the racial climate of the late 1950s in her rural Southern town.

I knew there would be racial violence and intolerance. I knew I wanted to explore the “exception” and not the rule of black and white relationships during this time, but my first draft was too black and white. I had villains and victims, but for me, there wasn’t truth there, not enough at least. My gut told me that.

My gut also told me to take the plunge and apply to Vermont College of Fine Arts, after only hearing one person mention it, knowing no one who was a graduate or a current student. I went to learn structure and structure I did learn.

Along with my plunging nature, I learned to be methodical and precise in my word choice, when to depict action and when to use exposition. I learned to trust my gut and to work my mind. (Thanks to my mentors Norma Fox Mazer, Marion Dane Bauer, Sharon Darrow, and Tim Wynne-Jones.)

I came out of the program with a newer, truer story for Polly and her best friend Timbre Anne. It was a cross of my original gut instincts and my questioning and analytical thoughts. I developed my own process: part plunge, part analysis, part patient, part impatient, and a mix of many shades of grey.

I took what I learned through my time at VCFA and my work on Between Us Baxters and put it to work when plunging in to transform a picture book manuscript, once entitled “The Honky Tonk Blues,” into a middle grade novel.

Again, it took time for me to figure out the real story, but right away again I had my characters: Maebelle T. Earl, Granny, Gramps (Gramps I brought back from the dead, as I had a mystery around his death in an earlier version), and a dog named Cotton.

The Truth with a Capital T again was a mix of forging ahead; seeing a plot choice to the end of a draft and then scrapping the whole thing. But this time I had help.

My agent had sent the manuscript to Michelle Poploff at Random House. Michelle had been interested in Between Us Baxters but turned it down because she already had an exceptional civil rights era novel about to hit the shelves. (That book was A Thousand Never Evers (Delacorte, 2008) by the incredible Shana Burg. And as fate would have it, my move to Austin landed me in a critique group with Shana. How lucky am I?)

I was thrilled to hear Michelle again liked my work and saw the potential in it, but she wanted more focus on the kid characters and a bit less on the adult figures. This is something I had heard before, and it was something I wanted to explore. She asked for a revision letter on how I would handle the refocusing of the story more so on Maebelle and her adopted cousin Issac and if she liked my ideas and her assistant, Rebecca Short did, too, a contract offer might be forthcoming.

We passed a few letters back and forth, and in the end, a book contract came. I was thrilled (and still am!) Michelle truly is one of the best editors around. She works her authors hard, expects a lot, and has such insight into character and story movement.

My advice to new writers and yet-to-be-published folks is to find what works for you: plotter, plunger or a combination thereof. Process is personally specific. It is about embracing your strengths and strengthening your weaknesses.

I expect mine to continue to morph and change, but now that I have added the analytical skills to my personal desire to plunge, to sweep, to make big moves I am more comfortable in tackling changes in my work and changes in my life, knowing my gut has a good friend and companion with my mind.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what’s funny? What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

I don’t primarily see myself as a comedic writer, but humor and humorous moments are an important part of my work.

In Between Us Baxters, there needed to be some levity amid the tension. I didn’t intend to have readers crying one moment and smiling the next and don’t believe there are any scenes that combine those two aspects of catharsis (laughter and tears are both a release, aren’t they?) back to back, but I do have humorous scenes.

Early on in the book, when Polly is getting tormented by a girl her age for wearing Timbre Ann’s “colored castoffs,” Polly wishes she could hit Sallie Jean, and just as she winds up to “give her the biggest fat lip in the history of Holcolm County,” one of the birds chittering above lets loose on Sallie Jean.

The humor here adds to my ability to characterize both girls. Polly sees it as justice being enacted by the heavens, and Sallie Jean tries to blame the incident on Polly.

When I meet with young readers, I lead them in a characterization exercise, getting them to pull from real-life moments they have lived. I read this scene and ask the audience if they think I ever got hit with bird doo. They debate it. Some think, yes—some think, no—and it is with a combination of embarrassment and pride that I admit that I did have a bird doo number two in my hair at the age of thirteen. I turned a cringe-moment from my own teen years and used it to my advantage.

That’s a place humor can spring from: an all-too-human moment.

In Truth with a Capital T, the tone is lighter and the novel is contemporary (though it does have a historical fiction angle as Maebelle investigates whether her family owned slaves or were a part of the abolitionist movement).

Humor is more infused amid all the scenes than in mere moments. This is, in part, because I love southern Gothic literature—the characters of Flannery O’Connor still stand out in my mind.

I love exploring these kinds of folks, and in the town of Tweedle, Georgia; the setting for Truth, odd balls abound. Maebelle’s grandparents are larger than life Honky Tonk legends, whose Winnebago horn blares their top hit. Her parents are self-help relationship gurus who mortify Maebelle with their televised “breathing and being” exercises, and Maebelle’s new friend Ruth is obsessed with TV talk shows and receiving her first kiss.

In Truth, and in my new WIP, humor is found in the hard moments. In self-discovery, in making wrong choices, in attempting to find what one is good at, and in the mistakes made when trying to bond with others.

Humor, to me, is necessary and essential, and it doesn’t have to be over the top to be funny. Humor can pull at the heartstrings—seeing the dichotomy between hopes and reality—can be humbling and painful while at the same time glorious and joyful. I want my humor to embody a range of feelings.

For any writer wanting to showcase human emotion, much can be discovered by investigating and incorporating humor. I say start with a combination of your own funny and humbling experiences and add that to who you know your main character to be and see where it leads. Humor is spontaneous, and magic may happen.

If not, keep at it. Humor, like everything, is a muscle that can be developed.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

I was referred to my agent, Regina Brooks, President and Founder of Serendipity Literary Agency, by my first agent.

This first agent relationship, I believe, didn’t work out as I signed too early in my development as a writer, without knowing who I was or what my true voice was.

At the time, I was more of a picture book writer and had several manuscripts that got as far as acquisitions meetings but came out without any offers. I then enrolled at VCFA and worked on perfecting my development as a novelist (which also made me a stronger picture book writer), and when my novel was ready to shop, together my agent and I discovered we weren’t a fit. While we respected one another and liked one another as friends, we were ready to do the hard work of letting go.

During this decision making process, I began doing research, seeing who I may be a better fit for and who might be a better fit for me. My first agent graciously offered to refer me to other agents as she saw my potential. (A classy move and something I am forever grateful for.)

So I began to ask around. There was one agent I had my eye on as I liked the work she represented, and that was, indeed, Regina.

With authors on her list like Marilyn Nelson (a genius of a poet and author) and Tonya Cherie Hegamin, I had a feeling Regina would “get” my civil rights era novel, the importance of racial friendships in all my work—not just in Between Us Baxters—and in general me.

A friend of mine, Sundee T. Frazier, author of Brendan Buckley’s Universe (Delacorte, 2008) and The Other Half of My Heart (Delacorte, 2010), had signed with Regina a year or so earlier. I emailed Sundee, and she answered my questions and gave Regina a total thumbs up as an author advocate and agent.

Once Regina read my work and liked it, we had a lengthy phone discussion. I was worried that my having been represented prior to being with her would stamp me as a “reject,” but that was never the case. We discussed Between Us Baxters, which hadn’t yet been shopped and decided to move forward.

I am so glad we did. I adore Regina. She has such energy and vibrancy. She is frank, smart, savvy, and when we don’t see eye-to-eye, we hash things out and then get back to work. She believes in me and I believe in her, and that to me is foundation of what makes our author/agent relationship work.

In seeking representation, or in ending an agenting relationship and searching for a new one, what is most important is having a firm sense of who you are as an artist, of where you see your work going, and being able to communicate that when that all-important agent makes contact.

And don’t be afraid to reassess and discuss and evaluate your joint and individual goals. The agent/author relationship is a special one, and like any relationship, it takes communication, but knowing someone has your back in this business is a godsend.

Cynsational Notes

Bethany is co-editor of the Young Adult and Children’s Literature literature section of Hunger Mountain–VCFA Journal of the Arts.

Check out the book trailer for Truth with a Capital T. Note: you may need to turn up the sound on your computer.

Writing Across Formats: Tanya Lee Stone

Learn about Tanya Lee Stone.

What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?

Since I didn’t set out to write across forms in a deliberate way, I’m not sure there was any one moment of inspiration linked to that outcome. However, I do recall having a moment in which I gave myself permission to switch gears.

My career began as an editor of children’s nonfiction, primarily for the school library market–and those were the kinds of books I naturally wrote first when I transitioned from editor to writer.

And then there came a point when I needed to stretch as a writer and find my own stories to tell–what was I passionate about–what was I yearning to say?

Then it became about the right form for the right story. Sometimes that is picture book, and sometimes it is a longer form.

What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?

I tell my college students that all of your present writing will inform your future writing, and that has been true for me.

Fiction has taught me to embrace point of view in my non-fiction. If I’m investing tons of time and energy into telling a complicated piece of history, for example, there must be a compelling reason for me to do so. It is the “why is this story important to you?” question I always kept in the forefront of my mind for fiction that I now let be the driving force in my nonfiction as well.

And the short form of picture books has taught me how to capture an essence of a person or an emotion, which is certainly helpful in any form of writing.

What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?

Well, I’m resistant to pressure of any kind, so….

But for me, I suspect that some people do now connect me with a certain kind of book; for example, I often write about strong women or issues of female empowerment.

It’s not branding in the traditional sense of the word, and it came about organically, but that is probably the closest I will ever come to that concept.

Cynsational Notes

The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.

In the video below, Tanya talks about engaging reluctant readers from Vermont Public Television:

Guest Post: Brian Yansky on Being Unreasonable

By Brian Yansky

I’ve written elsewhere that my first short-story, “Santa Claus and the Twenty-seven Bad Boys,” which was written in the first grade, neatly outlined my material for a lifetime of fiction writing: it had a stubborn fascination in the mythological and supernatural creatures that haunt and enliven our culture, an affection for odd and strange characters, and a desire to be both comic and serious.

While this is surely true, I don’t think I found the complete expression of it until I wrote Alien Invasions and Other Inconveniences (Candlewick, 2010)(chapter one PDF).

What I mean is this: though writing quirky novels was nothing new to me, the fantastical elements in those novels was never central to them. The novels were rooted in realism and the fantastical events were appendages added to them in various ways for various purposes. I’d published two of these novels. Both of them had received mostly good reviews and one had won a prestigious award, but neither had sold particularly well.

After those, I’d written my next novel, and that novel had been rejected by my editor and several other editors. After those rejections I have to admit, rightly or wrongly, to a feeling that I was doing something wrong. And I have to admit I had no reason to believe there would be a line of publishers interested in my next manuscript if it were like the others. So what I thought at that point was I needed to try writing a more conventional novel. I needed to reel in my quirky characters and mute the fantasy element. I needed to try something different.

With this in mind, I started a novel. It died after twenty or thirty pages. I started another and same thing happened. This went on for a while. I did what writers in a bad place must do, I kept writing. Eventually I started one that began, “It takes less time for them to conquer the world than it takes me to brush my teeth.” Okay, I thought. Kind of funny. Kind of weird.

But not more conventional.

Not following the plan.

I was about to erase the line when another came. “That’s pretty disappointing.”

I had a voice. I couldn’t deny I had a voice. Every writer loves when they feel they have a voice, a narrator who speaks distinctly. But this was still not the novel I had planned. This was definitely not that novel. My finger hovered over the DELETE key.

But, come on, I had a voice.

I remember thinking to myself, “Really? You’re really going to write this novel? This totally unsellable even-weirder-than-usual novel? Really?”

Be reasonable, I thought. A novel takes a year. Maybe more. No on gets that many of those.

But I had a voice. I had a character. What could I do?

(Let me interject here that there are many wonderful conventional novels, but that, for me, writing a conventional novel is like trying to write in a strait jacket. I couldn’t do it if I tried. I did try. I couldn’t.)

This novel that I wrote thinking no one would buy is the novel that sold to one of the best publishers around, Candlewick. If I’d listened to the voice of reason, I wouldn’t have written it.

Sometimes we writers have to be unreasonable. Sometimes, even though there are many good reasons not to, we have to write what we have to write. And, for me, the writing of Alien Invasions and Other Inconveniences taught me a lot about what I want to write and how to write it. So that leap in the dark, that to “hell with it,” that unreasonable act, made, as Mr. Frost once said about a certain less-traveled road, all the difference.