Guest Post: American Girl Author Lisa Yee on Aloha, Kanani & Good Job, Kanani

By Lisa Yee, author of the American Girl Doll of the Year 2011 Books

It started with a phone call from American Girl editor Jennifer Hirsch. “Would you consider writing the American Girl ‘2011 Girl of the Year’ books?” she asked. “Most likely they will be set in Hawaii.”

It took me less than a nanosecond to say “yes.”

I worked with Jennifer on the American Girl historical novel Good Luck, Ivy (2007), so I welcomed the opportunity to write for them again.

As I always do when starting a novel, I began with character. The girl would be about ten years old and embody the “aloha spirit.” I had been to Hawaii many times, and was always taken by the friendliness and generosity of everyone I met. Many of my Hawaiian friends are “hapa”—that is, a mixture of white and Asian.

My own kids are hapa, so I decided that Kanani would be, too. And when trying to create Kanani’s family, I thought it would be cool if they had a family business that had been handed down though the generations. I’ve always loved shave ice and have a huge sweet tooth, so that’s how Akina’s Shave Ice and Sweet Treats came about.

However, there was much more to Kanani than that. Family and friends are important to her, and I wondered how she would react if her relationships were tested.

So I for Aloha, Kanani, I created a New York cousin who is not at all the person Kanani was expecting.

And in Good Job, Kanani, a series of misunderstandings come between Kanani and her best friend, and Kanani finds new friendships in unexpected places.

I knew from the start that at the heart of both stories would be an animal—but which one? Dolphins? Turtles? Whales? Nene birds?

Finally I decided on the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Research led me to Kaua’i where many of the only 1,200 existing monk seals live, and it became clear that that’s where Kanani’s home would be.

As part of my research, I was sent to Hawaii for a week. (Squeeeeeeee!!!!)

You can read about that, and even see photos of me learning to surf and paddleboard like Kanani, on my blog. Because Kanani and her friends surf, I took surfing lessons. Kanani loves to snorkel and paddleboard, so I learned to do that, too. And since the Akina family owns a shave ice and sweet treat shop, I felt it necessary to eat up to six shave ice per day, and stop at every bakery and candy shop I saw. (Yes, I am that dedicated.)

But the most moving experience took place on my last day on Kaua’i. I was heading to the airport when one of the Kaua’i Monk Seal Watch volunteers called me to tell me that a monk seal had been spotted. I wasn’t sure if I should continue to the airport or see the monk seal and risk missing my plane.

I turned the car around and headed to the beach. This was a once-in-a-lifetime sighting for me. I cannot begin to describe the feelings that washed over me when I saw an the endangered Hawaiian monk seal hauled out on the sand. In Kanani’s books, she doesn’t just talk about helping save the seals, she does something about it.

I hope that girls, no matter where they live, will be inspired by Kanani and her aloha spirit.

Celebrating VCFA Graduate Meredith Davis

About thirty children’s-YA writers/illustrators gathered last week to celebrate Meredith Davis completing her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Meredith (center, front) poses with Kathi Appelt (front, side), Debbie Gonzales (middle, left), Jeanette Larson (middle, right), and Anne Bustard (back). Kathi gave the toast!

The event was hosted by fellow alumni Anne, Debbie , and Lindsey Lane at Waterloo Ice House. Greg Leitich Smith, Kathi, Bethany Hegedus, Anne (left); Brian Anderson (right).

Brian Anderson, Erin Edwards, Greg, and Kathi chat over nachos.

Julie Lake, Someone I Can’t ID, Mark G. Mitchell, Brian, Meredith’s husband Clay, and Meredith chatting as Erin (in green) looks on.

Bethany (back), Varian Johnson (back), Lindsey Lane (front, in blue), Varian’s wife, Chrystal (front).

Cynsational News & Giveaways

2010 Agatha Award Nominees from Sisters in Crime. The attendees of Malice Domestic 23, which will take place April 29 to May 1 in Bethesda, Maryland, will vote on the awards by secret ballot. The winners will be announced at the 2010 Agatha Awards banquet on April 30.

Best Children’s/Young Adult:

Finalists for the 2010 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy from Publishers Weekly Genreville:

2011 Golden Kite Winners from Alice Pope at Alice Pope’s SCBWI Blog:

More News

Why Brick-and-Mortar Still Matter by Shannon Hale from Squeetus Blog. Peek: “Without handselling, it’s harder for new authors to get published. How often do you buy a debut author’s book online? A new book is much more likely to be sold by a person in a store, where it can be propped up in a display or handed to a reader by a bookseller. “

Cynsational Tip: Think before you tweet. If blogs, for all of their blessings, are a PR landmine, then Twitter is the same tenfold. It’s so easy, so fast. Be especially careful of controversial topics or those where, for you, emotion runs high.

Magical Realism: Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary by Kimberley Griffiths Little from The Spectacle. Peek: “…a story where the author creates a very normal, regular world, populated with ordinary, regular people (no Vampires or Centaurs, Klingons or Doctor Octopus) but adding a touch—mind you, just a touch—of something surreal, fantastic or bizarre that turns the story upside down while staying very much grounded in that regular world setting.”

Interview With Erica Sussman, senior editor at HarperTeen by Robison Wells from Crowe’s Nest. Peek: “First impressions are absolutely the most important in our process. If I’m concerned that a manuscript won’t be able to immediately wow the room in it’s original state, but I love it and see a place for it, the best thing for me is to be able to take it through a revision and then show the even-stronger-manuscript to the team at Harper.”

An Agent’s View: Talking with agent Jennifer Laughran by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions: Marketing for Introverts. Peek: “Booksellers are evangelists for books that they love and handsell them to (often initially reluctant) customers. This is basically the same thing I do now, just on a different scale.” See also Jennifer on Creating the Editor Submission List.

Writing in the Woods: a retreat for children’s-YA writers May 15 to May 21 at Good Earth Village in Spring Valley, Minnesota. Peek: “We provide a safe, supportive writing environment and promise to nurture you and treat your art kindly. Our energy and practices are drawn from a deep well: over sixty years of cumulative teaching and writing experience and more than sixty children’s books among us.” Enrollment limited to eight experienced writers through application; two graduate credits available through Hamline University. Faculty: Marsha Wilson Chall, Phyllis Root, and Jane Resh Thomas. See details.

Agent Erin Murphy and author Audrey Vernick on Elevating Your Quiet Book to the Next Level from Donna Gephart at Wild About Words. Peek: “There’s no easy way to define ‘quiet books,’ but if you’ve gotten the ‘too quiet’ comment in rejection letters, this advice is for you.”

Tiny Satchel Press: seeks “…to provide readers with characters who are diverse: we are committed to providing books whose characters come from all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds, characters with a broad representation of gender or sexual orientation, characters who come from a range of religious and secular backgrounds—that is, characters with whom all our readers—boys and girls of any race or ethnicity or sexual orientation—can identify and relate.” See also Victoria Brownworth: The Activist Writer from Lambda Literary.

Goal vs. Fighting for Something Positive by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “When you have a flat scene, look for something positive for the character to fight for. Often, you’ll find more than one thing and that’s often good because it involves more struggle. The process of resolving the conflict will be interesting for the reader, it will keep them reading.”

Attention: High school students/English teachers! Teen writers are encouraged to enter the Hunger Mountain Young Writers Contest. Three first place winners will receive $250 and publication! Three runners-up will receive $100 each. Note: I’m honored to be this year’s judge. See link for more information. Hunger Mountain is the Vermont College of Fine Arts journal of the arts.

The 2011 winner of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award is: The Ink Garden of Brother Theophane by C.M. Millen, illustrated by Andrea Wisnewski (Charlesbridge, 2010), and the honor book is Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen (Houghton Mifflin, 2010). Peek: “This annual award goes to the best book of children’s poetry published in the United States in the preceding year. It is co-sponsored with Lee Bennett Hopkins himself along with the University Libraries, the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, and additional sponsor, Pennsylvania School Librarians Association.” Source: Syliva Vardell at Poetry for Children.

Editor Interview: Andrea Tompa and Kaylan Adair from Candlewick Press by Danielle Smith from There’s a Book. Peek from Andrea: “Across all genres, I’d love to see more submissions featuring diverse characters—characters who aren’t necessarily white, straight, thin, or able-bodied—without diversity necessarily being the focus of the story.”

Action Is Character by Rachelle Gardner from Rants & Ramblings on Life as a Literary Agent. Peek: “When you decide to have a character “tell” about themselves either in narrative or in dialogue, it’s most fun if we can see where their telling contradicts what we know about them from their actions.”

Kidlit Apps: Curating Children’s Book Apps and Digital Content: a new blog from literary agent Mary Kole. Peek: “I do think we should try limit ourselves, though, for now, to developers who have brought an app to market before. As we know in novels, it’s one thing to have a great concept, but execution is a whole other matter.” See also Picture Book Apps–Shorter is Sweeter by Ruth Sanderson from e is for book.

The Elements of Sexual Tension by Marissa Meyer from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek: “Sexual tension is what keeps us readers involved with a couple’s ongoing struggles. It keeps us whipping through the pages, hoping for a touch, a kiss, a proclamation. It’s what makes us tear our hair out every time that touch, kiss, or proclamation is postponed . . . again.”

6 1/2 Tips to Help You Create Picture Books with HeART by author-illustrator Janeen Mason from Donna Gephart from Wild About Words. Plus, comment at the link for a chance to win Gift of the Magpie (Pelican, 2011).

Seven Places to Find Free Money for Your Writing by Zachary Petit from Promptly at Writer’s Digest. Peek: “Now, obviously roping a grant or fellowship is never as easy as waiting in line to pick up your check or plane ticket; you have to find a fitting program, carefully draft an application, submit, triumph in a hidden but brutal campaign against other applicants, etc., etc. But the end result can be the same: Free money (or time) for your writing career.” Source: Phil Giunta.

From Highlights Foundation

Join authors Laura Ruby and Anne Ursu for the Whole Novel Workshop for Fantasy from May 1 to May 8 near Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Laura and Anne will discuss issues of craft along with issues specific to the genre, including:

• using physical details to build a vivid fantasy world;
• defining your magical system without losing a sense of wonder;
• ensuring your characters are as interesting as your world;
• communicating your world through your storytelling; and
• finding the right narrative voice.

Applications must be submitted by Feb. 25. For more information, contact Jo Lloyd at 570-253-1192, e-mail or request an application online. Applicants will be notified of acceptance by March 15.

Cynsational Screening Room

Congratulations to April Lurie, whose stage adaptation of her terrific tween novel, Brothers, Boyfriends & Other Criminal Minds (Delacorte, 2007), has been playing at the Zach in Austin.

Attention teens! You can help win up to $3,000 for your library. See video below and more information.

YA A to Z Conference

YA A to Z Conference, sponsored by the Writers’ League of Texas, will be April 15 and April 16 at the Hyatt Regency Austin (208 Barton Springs Road). Cost: $279 WLT Members, $349 Nonmembers (through March 15).

Confirmed editors/agents:

Confirmed authors:

More Personally

Enter to win one of five copies of Blessed from Young Adult Books Central. Watch the trailer below for the answer to the entry question and then go to YABC to fill out the entry form.

Author Insight: Right Book, Right Time by S.F. Robertson from Wastepaper Prose. Note: I offer my thoughts on the subject, along with 14 other youth literature authors.

Friday Favorites: a favorite book recommended by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Debbi Michiko Florence at One Writer’s Journey.

Authors of the Week: L.K. Madigan and Dori Hillestad Butler.

Links of the Week: Authors & Bloggers Give Back to Texas Teens by Jen Bigheart from I Read Banned Books; Arthur Slade on His Facebook Ad Campaign.

Cynsational Events

Jeanette Larson: Loving the Librarian” will be at 11 a.m. March 5 at BookPeople in Austin. Sponsored by Austin SCBWI. Peek: “Librarians can do a lot to help writers and illustrators do their work and get their books into the hands of readers. Learn the secrets of librarians from a ‘semi-retired’ librarian who continues to work with librarians across the country to improve services to patrons and the community. While she has written extensively for libraries, her first children’s book, Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas (Charlesbridge, 2011), has just been published and she is seeing the world from the other side of the library shelf!” Jeanette’s book launch will follow at BookPeople at noon and include refreshments and sample art pieces. See also an interview with Jeanette and Adrienne Yorinks by Donna Bowman Bratton at Writing Down the Kidlit Page.

12th Annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 19 in Fort Myers, Florida. Note: speakers include Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Book Now for 2011-2012

It’s two YA authors for the price of one! Book now for the 2011-2012 school year and beyond!

“From Classics to Contemporary:” a joint presentation offered by Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of the Tantalize series (inspired by Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)) and Jennifer Ziegler, author of Sass & Serendipity (inspired by Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)).

The authors will discuss how they were inspired by these classics, why Stoker and Austen’s themes are still relevant to teens/YAs today, the ongoing conversation of books over the generations, and much more.

Contact Dayton Bookings for more information and to schedule.

In Memory

L.K. Madigan

The youth literature community–including the kidlitosphere–is mourning the loss and celebrating the life of L.K. Madigan. See Lisa’s last blog post.

Her agent Jennifer Laughran writes: “I had the great privilege to help bring two of Lisa’s books into the world, and I hope that through those stories, many many more readers will have a chance to be touched by Lisa’s brilliance, humor, heart and generosity of spirit in the years to come.”

From The Oregonian: Wolfson’s (AKA Madigan’s) first book, Flash Burnout (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), won the William C. Morris Award, a national honor given by the American Library Association to the best book for young adults by a first-time author. It is a finalist for the Leslie Bradshaw Award for Young Adult Literature, which will be given at the Oregon Book Awards ceremony April 25.

A trust fund has been set up for her son, to pay for college expenses one day. Please make your check payable to: Nathan Wolfson Trust. Then mail it to the following address:

Becker Capital Management, Inc.
Attn: Sharon Gueck/John Becker
1211 SW Fifth Ave, Suite 2185
Portland, OR 97204

Contact source: Lisa Schroeder.

Perry Moore

Perry Moore, Author of Book About Gay Superhero, Dies at 39 by Dennis Hevesi from The New York Times. Peek: “…an executive producer of the fantasy movie series ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ and the author of Hero (Hyperion, 2007) a book about a gay superhero, died on Thursday….”

Program Manager-Awards Coordinator Interview: Hilary McCreery on PEN Center USA

Could you tell us about your professional background? What led you to PEN Center USA?

I graduated from Pitzer College in 2009 with a B.A. in Art History and English with a concentration in creative writing. I have always been interested in pursuing a career in the literary community, and so after graduating from college, I began my work at PEN Center USA as a summer intern through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission internship program.

Currently, I am the Program Manager for Membership and Development, and I also coordinate the annual PEN USA Literary Awards contest.

(Photo: 2010 Literary Awards Festival at the Beverly Hills Hotel, November 2010.)

Could you give us some insight into the history of the organization?

PEN Center USA, one of two PEN centers in the United States and the third largest in the world, was founded in 1943 and incorporated as a nonprofit association in 1981.

PEN Center USA’s membership of more than 800 writers includes poets, playwrights, essayists, novelists (for the original letters in the acronym, “PEN”), as well as television and screenwriters, critics, historians, editors, journalists, and translators.

What is its mission?

PEN Center USA strives to protect the rights of writers around the world, to stimulate interest in the written word, and to foster a vital literary community among the diverse writers living in the western United States.

The organization, therefore, has two distinct yet complementary aims: one fundamentally literary and the other having a freedom of expression mandate. Among PEN Center USA’s various activities are public literary events, a mentorship project, literary awards and international human rights campaigns on behalf of writers who are censored or imprisoned.

(Photo: James Salter, accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award.)

Could you briefly highlight those programs of special interest to children’s-YA writers and youth literature enthusiasts?

One of PEN Center USA’s most successful and wide-reaching programs is PEN in the Classroom (PITC). Since 1995, PITC has helped thousands of Southern California high school students discover the power of their unique voices by sending professional writers into their classrooms for creative writing residencies. PITC residencies emphasize the importance of language and the transcendent quality of words, while cultivating the tools young writers inherently possess. Each residency concludes with the publication of a student anthology.

Students also have the opportunity to participate in public readings and submit to our annual PEN in the Classroom Literary Contest. Response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive, with teachers, students, and writers alike expressing unequivocal support.

PEN Center USA also produces many literary events over the course of the year, including panels, readings, salons, and writers’ toolbox events.

Likewise, could you fill us in on your award program as related to children’s-YA books and authors?

PEN Center USA’s annual awards program, established in 1982, is a unique, regional competition that recognizes literary excellence in ten categories: fiction, creative nonfiction, research nonfiction, poetry, children’s and young adult literature, translation, journalism, drama, teleplay, and screenplay.

Recent award winners in the Children’s and Young Adult Literature category include: Paul Fleischman for The Dunderheads (Candlewick, 2009); Kathi Appelt for The Underneath (Atheneum, 2008); Ron Koertge for Strays (Candlewick, 2007); and Cynthia Kadohata for Weedflower (Atheneum, 2006).

Each fall, PEN USA calls for submissions of work produced or published in that calendar year by writers living west of the Mississippi River. Entries in the ten categories are reviewed and judged by panels of distinguished writers, critics and editors. Winners are announced in late summer. Each winner receives a $1,000 cash prize and an invitation to the annual Literary Awards Festival in Los Angeles.

The Literary Awards Festival includes a dinner, the presentation of the literary awards and honoree awards, and a silent auction or raffle. This gala is the only one of its scope on the West Coast and is attended by more than 500 prominent members of the literary community.

Past recipients of the Award of Honor and Lifetime Achievement Award include: Ray Bradbury, Betty Friedan, Gore Vidal, Carolyn See, and Billy Wilder.

The evening concludes with the presentation of the prestigious Freedom to Write Award, given to men and women who have produced exceptional work in the face of extreme adversity, who have been punished for exercising their freedom of expression, or who have fought against censorship and defended the right to publish freely.

Who are your members? What are the benefits of membership?

PEN Center USA consists of over eight hundred published authors (full members), as well as a number of burgeoning writers (associate members), students (student members) and booksellers (bookseller members) who support our mission.

All members share a commitment to the betterment of the literary community and advocacy of the freedom of expression both internationally and domestically. The annual dues of membership, which vary by type, provide significant financial support that allows our members to carry out the work of PEN Center USA. Additionally, they grant a crucial endorsement that gives our center the authority to advocate on behalf of all writers, wherever they are imperiled.

While the rewards of PEN Center USA membership start with the knowledge that you are helping to free imprisoned writers around the world and to defend the First Amendment, your writing career also directly benefits from your PEN USA membership.

Benefits vary by type but can include a listing in, and a copy of our Membership directory (a great source for networking and developing professional relationships in the literary community); an online subscription to EPEN, the biweekly electronic newsletter for PEN Center USA; pre-approved access to CIGNA medical insurance if you live in eligible states; invitations to PEN Center USA events as well as discounted ticket prices to select literary events, workshops, and functions; and participation in PEN Center USA’s Freedom to Write network, which works to free imprisoned writers throughout the world via petitions and letter-writing campaigns.

What’s the latest news at PEN?

PEN Center USA recently put on an event with the University of California Press and the Hammer Museum to celebrate the publication of Mark Twain’s Autobiography, one hundred years after his death.

The event featured Twain scholar Robert Hirst discussing Twain’s life and work, followed by a panel discussion with Hal Holbrook, moderated by David Kipen.

PEN Center USA is also in its 15th year for the Emerging Voices Fellowship. Emerging Voices is a literary fellowship program that aims to provide new writers, who lack access, with the tools they will need to launch a professional writing career. Over the course of the year, each Emerging Voices fellow participates in: a professional mentorship; hosted Q & A evenings with prominent local authors; a series of Master classes focused on genre; and two public readings. The fellowship includes a $1,000 stipend and is the only program of its scope in the United States.

We also recently introduced a new program, The Mark, which is a rigorous manuscript finishing program for Emerging Voices alumni.

The best way to find out more of the latest news at PEN Center USA is to subscribe to the biweekly electronic newsletter, EPEN. You can sign up on the PEN Center USA’s website homepage,, or email for more information.

What can we look forward to from PEN in the future?

More great events and one-of-a-kind programing! PEN Center USA will be releasing the call for submissions for the 2012 PEN USA Literary Awards in May, so check the website then for more details.

You can also keep up with PEN Center USA on Twitter, Facebook, and online at And as I mentioned before, don’t be shy about signing up for EPEN, it’s the best way to stay up to date on what’s going on at PEN Center USA.

The Trevor Project Partners with Jodi Picoult and The Advocate for GLBTQ Youth Literacy

West Hollywood, CA –As a special preview to The Trevor Project’s new youth-oriented online book club, New York Times best-selling author Jodi Picoult has lent her latest title, Sing You Home. The book from Atria hits shelves March 1 and will be part of a robust youth-driven reading program on The Trevor Project’s social networking site, for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth (LGBTQ) and their straight allies. The author is also donating proceeds from autographed copies of the book purchased through this link to The Trevor Project.

“We are excited for Jodi Picoult to preview the launch of the book club, which has been a program conceived of, by and for LGBTQ youth on As an author with a following that transcends age, sexual orientation and gender identity, Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home is an ideal selection to get young LGBTQ readers engaged in the topics that affect them,” said Charles Robbins, Executive Director of The Trevor Project.

Throughout the month of March, Sing You Home will not only be read and discussed by thousands of LGBTQ youth on, but Picoult will also participate directly with these youth in two live web events.

The first, on March 7 will be a virtual book-signing event produced through Livestream which will be co-broadcast by The Trevor Project and include questions sourced from LGBTQ youth. Then, on March 22, Picoult will join moderator and LGBT Young Adult book blogger Lee Wind for a live web-chat hosted by the on

An in-depth author interview with Picoult featuring questions from Wind and teen readers will launch March 4, and every day from March 4 to March 22, one book club member will be chosen at random to receive an autographed copy of Sing You Home and the companion music CD.

“I’ve volunteered for years with high school GSAs, and there’s nothing more awkward than being a teenager and feeling like you have to talk about your identity. A shared experience, like everyone reading the same book, lets conversation happen organically and builds community. That’s why I’m so excited about teaming up with The Trevor Project to make this book club a reality,” said Wind, whose blog “I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read?” has had over 450,000 visits from LGBTQ teen readers and their allies.

The online book club is conceived by The Trevor Project’s Palette Fund Interns, and with Wind’s guidance, members of the Trevor Youth Advisory Council select the titles. Each year, up to six books and authors will be featured for interviews, daily discussions, and web chats. On April 29, the book club will officially launch with David Levithan and John Green’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson (Dutton, 2010).

Other books for 2011 include Lambda Award Winner Alex Sanchez’s Boyfriends with Girlfriends (Simon & Schuster, 2011) and New York Times Best-Selling Author Ellen Hopkins’ Perfect (Sept. 2011), with more authors and titles in the works.

Sing You Home follows the story of a lesbian couple and their struggles to start a family, hitting chords with the LGBTQ community, including what it is like to grow up in a world of anti-LGBTQ harassment. Sing You Home will be published on March 1 by Atria ($28.00) and includes a compact disc of original songs created for the novel and sung by Ellen Wilber.

About The Trevor Project

Each one of us deserves a chance to dream big and achieve big, regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity. The Trevor Project is here for young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning people to help whenever you or a friend might need to talk to someone. With lifesaving programs and information, The Trevor Project works every day to make the future better for all LGBTQ youth.

Austin SCBWI Annual Conference After-Party Pics

Highlights of the week included the Austin SCBWI annual conference after party on Saturday night at the Wyndham Garden Hotel.

New York Times bestselling authors Chris Barton and Kathi Appelt.

Author and social networking guru Greg Pincus.

Authors Varian Johnson, Kimberly Willis Holt, and Greg Leitich Smith.

Author Kelly Bennett and Austin SCBWI ARA Carmen Oliver.

VCFA MFA student Amy Rose Capetta.

Delacorte Dames and Dude: (in front) Margo Rabb, Bethany Hegedus, editor Michelle Poploff, Shana Burg, (in back) April Lurie, Varian Johnson, Jennifer Ziegler.

Author-illustrators Christy Stallop and Erik Kuntz.

Austin SCBWI RA Debbie Gonzales and ARA Carmen Oliver.

Cynsational Notes

Welcome to Austin, author-illustrators Shelley Ann Jackson and Jeff Crosby!

This children’s book creator couple graduated from the University of North Texas and the School of Visual Arts. They have recently relocated to Austin from Castle Rock, Colorado, and are both represented by S©ott Treimel N.Y.

New Voice: Chelsea M. Campbell on The Rise of Renegade X

Chelsea M. Campbell is the first time author of The Rise of Renegade X (Egmont, 2010). From the promotional copy:

Damien Locke knows his destiny–attending the university for supervillains and becoming Golden City’s next professional evil genius. But when Damien discovers he’s the product of his supervillain mother’s one-night stand with–of all people–a superhero, his best-laid plans are ruined as he’s forced to live with his superhero family.

Going to extreme lengths (and heights), The Rise of Renegade X chronicles one boy’s struggles with the villainous and heroic pitfalls of growing up.

What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

The book that really helped me and that significantly helped me on my publication journey (in fact, I don’t know if I’d be published if it wasn’t for what I learned in this book) is Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel (Writer’s Digest, 2002) and Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook (Writer’s Digest, 2004)).

I’m not big on books about writing, especially since most of them are written by people I’ve never heard of who just love writing how-to books. I think it’s fair to say that most writing how-to books piss me off.

Writing the Breakout Novel, however, is awesome. It’s about challenging yourself to improve your writing and take it to the next level. It doesn’t tell you how to write, but instead asks you questions to help you improve your story, like, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to your main character? When would be the worst time for that to happen?” Things like that.

It’s all about sharpening the conflict in your novel and upping the stakes, both physically and emotionally, and it’s hard not to get excited about working on a story while reading this book.

Another thing I love about it is that it’s useful at any level. A lot of writing books are only focused on beginners, and there’s not a lot aimed at the intermediate writer who knows the basics but can’t quite get over the last couple hurdles keeping them from getting published.

Writing the Breakout Novel is great for anyone who wants to improve their storytelling, whether they’ve got a few novels under their belt but “aren’t quite there yet” or have been published for years.

I know the quality of my books jumped up quite a bit after I read this and went through all the exercises in the workbook, and the info I’ve gotten from it has been invaluable.

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?

Comedy is tough. There’s nothing worse than someone who thinks they’re funny when they’re really not. I think we’ve all had at least one class with “that guy” who thinks he’s hilarious, but everyone in the room is silently willing him to shut the hell up. Obviously, you don’t want to be that guy. But the fact that you’re even thinking about not wanting to be that guy probably means you aren’t.

I think an important element of writing comedy is to write what makes you laugh. You’ve got to do it for yourself, because if the humor isn’t honest, that’ll come through and it won’t be funny. Plus, if it makes you laugh, it’s likely to resonate with other people, too.

I tend to write humorous stories, mostly because that’s what comes out and because I enjoy making myself laugh, and The Rise of Renegade X is no exception.

Damien, the protagonist, has a pretty snarky inner commentary running through the whole novel. He says a lot of things I might think to myself but would never actually say.

When I was writing him, I’d just sit down and show what was going on through his eyes, getting his opinions of everything in there, which were usually pretty funny.

Other than funny plot elements, like a supervillain kid having to live with his superhero father, I didn’t pre-plan the jokes, I just wrote them as I experienced the story through the character’s point of view.

I think it’s difficult, but important, to trust yourself. You have to trust that when you sit down to write, something funny is going to come out. Sometimes I don’t realize what I’ve written is funny until I read it over the next day, so don’t toss anything you think is boring until some time has passed or someone else has looked over it for you.

Use humor as a tool to show a character’s personality–like everything in writing, it should move the story forward and enrich the audience’s experience with and knowledge of the characters.

As you write, put in all the jokes you can make work, and worry about weeding out the not-that-great ones that nobody gets but you later on.

Mostly, trust yourself, relax, and have fun.

How “Buffy: the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003) has influenced my writing:

I have a confession to make: I actually didn’t start watching “Buffy” until sixth season. I couldn’t imagine that a show based on that movie could be any good, and it didn’t help that anyone I knew who watched it acted ashamed and called it a “guilty pleasure.”

But now I know better, and no one should ever feel ashamed to watch something as awesome as “Buffy.” I have since then seen way more episodes and become a big “Buffy” fan. It’s fun, and it’s got a girl with superpowers who kicks serious ass while dealing with the same problems as everyone else.

One of the other things I love about it is that Buffy can’t do it alone, and even the shy nerdy girl is super useful and eventually finds her strength (I was so that girl).

Even though I tend to write about guys, every time I sit down to write a new book, my mind turns to “Buffy.” How can I make something that awesome? How can I have characters that kick ass and who have the ability to be both serious and funny at the same time? How can I create relationships that complex?

Whenever I think about blending real life and fantasy elements in my novels, my go-to inspiration is “Buffy.” Is it a coincidence that I love writing about teens who live in a world that’s part reality, part magic? I always wanted to write fantasy, but it took me a long time to realize I wanted to write about it in the real world, and that the characters I really loved writing about were teens.

It’s a pretty safe bet to say that that seed started with “Buffy,” and I don’t know where I’d be without it. It changed how I thought about fantasy and about YA.

If you’ve never seen the show, I highly recommend it. You may start out snickering at all the 90s-isms, but don’t wig too much–it won’t take long for you to get hooked.

Guest Post: Julie Chibbaro on Navigating The Past Through Real Stories

By Julie Chibbaro

One night on New Year’s eve when the century was about to turn from the 20th to the 21st, I found myself sick and lonely, scared the world was going to fall apart. According to the experts, all computers were going to crash, destroying every aspect of our society.

I was feverish, alone in my room. A friend dropped by with a book called The Alienist by Caleb Carr (Random House, 1994), a historical novel about a serial killer that took place almost exactly a hundred years before.

It changed my life.

I had been writing for a few years by then, and frankly, I didn’t know a person could learn so much while enjoying a novel. Not just about our society of the past, but also about what makes people tick and how similar we are, even though decades, millenia, separate us. The book anchored me in my own humanness.

The next day, the new century began, and we were all still alive. I decided to write historical novels, books that would tell a good story, explore the wild and unusual happenings of the past, and reassure future readers that our lives were continuous.

Let me talk a little bit about Deadly (Atheneum, 2011) and my process of putting history into fiction. Based on a true story, Deadly has at its core a medical mystery. Growing up in a most crowded and unclean NYC, I’d always heard urban myths about Typhoid Mary – that she was a mass murderer or an intentional killer.

In my research, I found out the truth about her: She was simply a cook, but she also was the first known “healthy carrier” of disease. Nobody knew about that in her time. So, how did Mary spread the disease, and how was she discovered?

I chose to tell this story through the diary of a teen girl because that very personal document helped me to dig deep into the issues. Her diary gave me a way to make her experience real for today’s readers. Prudence is a natural scientist who follows the mystery inherent in the case like a detective. Each piece of the puzzle she helps uncover is a score for both herself and for girls in general. Through her voice, I was able to explore her diverse inner conflicts: the moral issues of prejudice and public health laws, her troubles with being so different from girls her age, and the terrifying love she feels for the boss with whom she works so closely.

My research took me to the dark history of New York City – I walked the streets of the Lower East Side, thinking about the millions of immigrants who landed there virtually overnight. I went to the Tenement Museum and visited the actual tenements where a dozen people lived all together in one apartment. Books and photos from The New York Historical Society, The Museum of Transportation, and, in Washington D.C., the Library of Congress transported me back to New York at the turn of the 20th century.

I was fascinated by all the elements the story offered – the limits the scientists had to work with, the prejudice against the Irish, Mary’s refusal to ever admit there was such a thing as a healthy carrier. Over and over again, I found myself surprised by how closely this story related to epidemics like HIV-AIDS today. Our inability to understand the disease itself, as well as how to control it, still frustrates doctors.

The illustrations, done by Prudence in her diary, serve as another layer to the story. She sketches out her fascination with the body, draws flora and fauna and the ugliness of city life. She interprets the world around her through these drawings, channeled by the artist Jean-Marc Superville Sovak. They are there to help the reader to understand the life and times of Prudence Galewski in a visual way.

I feel I’ve come a long way from that last night of the 20th century. My life has changed – deepened by all the strangely true stories of our past, stories that help me to make sense of the world I live in today.

Cynsational Notes

From the promotional copy of Deadly (Atheneum, Feb. 2011):

A mysterious outbreak of typhoid fever is sweeping New York.

Could the city’s future rest with its most unlikely scientist?

If Prudence Galewski is ever going to get out of Mrs. Browning’s esteemed School for Girls, she must demonstrate her refinement and charm by securing a job appropriate for a young lady.

But Prudence isn’t like the other girls. She is fascinated by how the human body works and why it fails.

With a stroke of luck, she lands a position in a laboratory, where she is swept into an investigation of the fever bound to change medical history.

Prudence quickly learns that an inquiry of this proportion is not confined to the lab. From ritzy mansions to shady bars and rundown tenements, she explores every potential cause of the disease.

But there’s no answer in sight—until the volatile Mary Mallon emerges. Dubbed “Typhoid Mary” by the press, Mary is an Irish immigrant who has worked as a cook in every home the fever has ravaged. Strangely, though, she hasn’t been sick a day in her life.

Is the accusation against her an act of discrimination? Or is she the first clue in a new scientific discovery?

New Voice: Léna Roy on Edges

Léna Roy is the first-time author of Edges (FSG, 2010)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

After his mother dies and his father begins drinking again, Luke decides to leave New York City. Though he’s just sixteen, he finds a job and friends in fantastic, otherworldly Moab, Utah—the last place his family was happy together.

Back in New York, eighteen-year-old Ava finally admits she has a drinking problem. But life doesn’t automatically get easier when she joins Alcoholics Anonymous.

When circumstances—or fate—bring Ava to Moab as well, she and Luke both must figure out how to heal their families and themselves.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

My protagonist, Luke, was based on a 16-year-old boy I knew fleetingly when I first moved to Moab, Utah, to start an outpatient program for adolescents in the juvenile court system. I was staying at the youth hostel, and he was “living” there, in a tent.

He moved on after a few days, but I always wondered what his story was. I had an image of him “settling down” at the hostel, moving into a trailer and hanging a painting, making himself at home. In my imagination, he was running away from an alcoholic father and the death of his mother. Someday I would write his story.

And then years later, this character, Luke, figuratively tapped me on the shoulder and whispered his story to me. Why not tell the story from the point of view of both father and son?

But then Ava appeared at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where Frank was trying to get sober in New York City, and that was that. This was a very exciting moment for me – the joy, the rush of creating. Ava herself was telling me that she had to be part of the story.

I think I had to work on Ava’s character harder than anyone’s. I had to spend a lot of time listening to her. How do you “show” the very slow process of recovery in a book that spans a week?

My first draft ended up having nine different points of view, from both the adult and teen perspectives. It helped that I knew everybody’s storyline when I simplified it to just Ava and Luke. Cin’s character was at first inspired by a real person, but then developed into something different. (She stole the storyline in my first draft!) Hal, the schizophrenic, is very much based on a real person. Everybody else I discovered through using my inner ear and practicing the craft of writing.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

It is indeed daunting! I have been incredibly proactive, but then again, there are always people out there doing more, so I feel that I’m not doing enough! But that’s my ego and insecurities talking, which are not so interesting, because I am so incredibly grateful for the world that has opened up for me through having an online presence.

I started blogging about a year ago at the insistence of my agent [Léna’s Lit Life]. I was skeptical at first – don’t you have to offer something fantastic to get readers? What do I have to offer that isn’t offered by other writers? I must admit that I have fallen in love with it.

I can’t say how much it has done marketing-wise, but it has gotten me to write every day, and to share myself in an authentic way. It has helped me to discover my voice as a writer, Léna Roy, without hiding behind my characters.

I have developed a small following, and it thrills me to build a relationship with my readers. I write about the joys and frustrations of the publication process, writing, parenting, spirituality as well as stories of my grandmother, Madeleine L’Engle.

I am also a passionate writing teacher – I lead workshops for kids, tweens and teens through Writopia, so I write about that and my work with Girls Write Now.

I started using Facebook a year and a half ago, and in early November, I created a page for just Edges. That has been really fun!

I’ve been making a soundtrack and posting photos that I love of Southeastern Utah. I have only just started to appreciate Twitter due to author Katie Davis, marketing genius, who was kindly able to explain it to me. I am creating both an online and live writing community.

I lament that I hadn’t started Twitter earlier, because it is a really great way to meet and talk to people. I have done a few guest blogs (and I feel like I should do more). I have slowly been putting together my own tour of readings and workshops. I have been hosting Open Mic events at my local Borders for kids aged 8-18 – mostly comprised of my students, but opening it up for the community at-large. I want my students to get used to putting themselves out there, to learn how to read in front of an audience, and to answer questions. (I still get so nervous!)

My advice to other authors just starting out (and myself) is to focus on building community, to have fun with Twitter and other social marketing, rather than “selling” books. Start a support group of other writers.

Rebecca Stead and I started a group a year a half ago in N.Y.C. where we meet for lunch once a month. I moved to Northern Westchester over the summer and have slowly started to build community out here, too.

It only feels like a chore when my insecurities get the better of me and I feel like there’s no point, or that I’m not getting any “real” writing done.

Author and friend Deborah Heiligman goes into her “bubble” every day to write, where she is not distracted by anything, so that she can work. Then she can have fun with social media! She is my inspiration. Judy Blundell and I live about a mile away from each other and often meet at the library for Internet-free working time, to support each other.

I also love the notion of supporting each other as writers and promoting each other’s work. The YA community is so incredibly generous. There’s more than enough room for all of us!