Enter to Win an Author Visit Via the Mixed-Up Middle-Grade Skype Tour

From Hillary Homzie and Tami Lewis Brown

A group of noted middle-grade authors hits the virtual highway this month as the huge Mixed-Up Middle-Grade Skype Tour begins cruising through cyberspace. Destination…maybe a town near you!

Every month for the next year, classrooms, book clubs and groups will have the chance to win a free, 45-minute Skype visit with a noted middle-grade author simply by entering at From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle-Grade Authors, a group blog of middle-grade writers.

“As far as we know there’s never been another Skpe tour with so many authors, so many potential destinations, and so many winners!” says tour organizer Tami Lewis Brown.

The contest works like this: each season a group of five or more authors will set off in the Mixed-Up Middle-Grade Skype Tour Bus. You’ll have about a month to enter your class, club, or group to win a Skype visit from one of that season’s authors, along with a copy of their book, and more. For every retweet and/or Facebook reposting, you’ll get another entry.

To increase your class or group’s chances, invite other adults–parents, teachers, or group members to leave comments. Each entry must be made in a separate comment.

At the end of the month, a winner will be drawn for each Skype author visit. You’ll have six months from that date to schedule and conduct the visit. Authors and winners are paired randomly–you don’t enter to win a visit from a particular author. The winning entry will also receive a copy of the author’s book.

The first group of authors to hit the virtual highway will be:

Later drawings will feature:

The tour is sponsored by the From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle-Grade Authors, a group blog of middle-grade authors celebrating books for middle-grade readers. For anyone with a passion for children’s literature–teachers, librarians, parents, kids, writers, industry professionals–the blog offers regularly updated book lists organized by unique categories, author interviews, market news, and a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a children’s book from writing to publishing to promoting.

The promotion will last a full year, kicking off in April 2011. “We’re excited about drawing winners every month,” says Tami. “We plan to load the winners up with as much author swag as possible. And of course an unbelievable encounter with a celebrated author that will boost excitement about reading and writing.”

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win an autographed copy of Odd Girl In by Jo Whittemore (Aladdin, 2011)! To enter the giveaway, comment here or email me (scroll and click envelope) and type “Odd Girl In” in the subject line.

From the promotional copy:

Alexis “Alex” Evins is a first-class prankster.

When she plays a particularly disastrous prank (hair + fire=bad), her dad sends Alex (and her older brothers) to a character-building after-school program. There, the Evins siblings are faced with the ultimate test of teamwork, leadership, and responsibility.

Can the “Evil Evins” pass the course in one piece, or are they destined for an epic fail?

Kirkus Reviews calls Odd Girl In a “…witty, laugh-out-loud romp. Whittemore handles not only the comedy but deftly portrays Alex’s and her brothers’ advancement into a more mature state of mind. It should keep middle-schoolers laughing from start to finish. Funny and perky.”

Deadline: midnight CST April 15. Note: Author sponsored; U.S.-Canadian entries only.

Not: Jo (right) will launch Odd Girl In at 2 p.m. April 10 at BookPeople in Austin.

Giveaway Reminder

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas by Jeanette Larson, illustrated by Adrienne Yorinks (Charlesbridge, 2011). To enter the giveaway, comment here or email me (scroll and click envelope) and type “Hummingbirds” in the subject line. Deadline: midnight CST April 8. Note: author sponsored; U.S./Canada entries only. Read this week’s Cynsations new voice interview with Jeanette.

On a related note, the winner of an autographed copy of Throat by R.A. Nelson (Knopf, 2011) was Vivien in New Jersey! Congratulations, Vivien, and thanks, R.A.!

More News

7 Rs of Positivity for the Unpublished Novelist by Lydia Sharp from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “Writing fiction is emotionally taxing work. When you’re feeling especially low, remove yourself from everything.” Source: An Englishman in New Jersey.

Vermont College of Fine Arts invites published authors with teaching experience to apply for part-time visiting faculty positions in its highly-acclaimed MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program. The College seeks a number of prospective faculty members who can be hired in the coming years to meet expected growth. Faculty positions require presence, readings, lectures, and leading workshops on campus for 11-day residencies every six months. Faculty oversee independent study work for the six months between residencies, thus allowing educational work to be interwoven with the activities of home, community, and personal artistic practice. Applications will be reviewed on criteria including publications, teaching experience, literary nominations and awards, and education. An advanced degree is preferred but not required.

Folktales and Fairy Tales–for Teens by Chris Eboch from The Spectacle. Peek: “To update a traditional folk or fairytale, she (Natalie M. Rosinsky) suggests setting the story in a new location. You might also change the point of view, for example telling a princess story from the prince’s viewpoint. Humor is another bonus.”

Zen and the Art of Manuscript Submissions by Jeannie Mobley from EMU’s Debuts. Peek: “Submission is the part of the process that completely and utterly exposes us all to the most brutal noise and clutter in the world– the voices of self doubt and criticism that come shrieking in like Valkyries onto the bloodied battlefield of our creative minds (because what fruit salad is complete without some Old Norse Paganism?). But here is my point…” Source: Liz Garton Scanlon.

Attention: Schools, Libraries, Book Clubs! From The Mixed-Up Files, a middle-grade book club, is giving away Skype visits with 20 middle grade authors! See details!

5 Tips for a Successful Reading by Marianna Swallow from Chuck Sambuchino at Guide to Literary Agents. Peek: “When presenting, reading from plain paper is easier than reading from a book. And when you do, speak from your gut.” Note: with books for young readers (versus adults), I’d say a two-to-three minute reading is long enough–maybe five, if you’re theater trained. You can go longer, presenting with illustrations, but it’s okay to edit down even a picture book text for length.

Without Boundaries: Selling Children’s Magazine Articles to International Markets by Ruth Schiffmann from the Institute of Children’s Literature. Peek: “If your effort is apparent, a publisher will likely meet you half way. I sold a personal experience piece to a teen magazine in Ireland. After all attempts to make the piece ‘universal’ the contract still included a note that said, ‘We may need to change some language slightly to account for cultural differences.'”

Check out the new giveaways at TeensReadToo!

Q&A with Author Carrie Ryan by Cyndi Hughes from the Writers’ League of Texas. Peek: “When I first started writing with the goal of making a career out of it I gave myself ten years in which I’d write, revise and submit and then move on to the next project. After ten years, if I still wasn’t published then I could re-evaluate my plan.” See also An Original Carrie Ryan Short Story Available as an E-book from Random House via The Compulsive Reader.

Agent Advice: Holly McGhee of Pippin Properties by Ricki Schultz from Chuck Sambuchino at Guide to Literary Agents. Peek: “As a parent and as a writer, it’s our duty to prepare kids for the world. That means telling and talking the truth.”

Elements of a Successful Fiction Platform by Christina Katz from Writer’s Digest. Peek: “What does a successful platform really look like for a fiction writer?”

The Pirate Tree: Social Justice and Children’s Literature: a new blog from Ann Angel, Nancy Bo Flood, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Peter Marino, and J.L. Powers.

Attention Teachers, Librarians, Book Clubs! Randy Russell, author of Dead Rules (HarperTeen, June 2011) have teamed with independent bookstores across North America to giveaway $2,000 in free books to Support Teen Reading. You can participate here to receive a free pinback button for early participation (while supplies last) and be eligible for new books from your nearest indie bookstore (not to mention the iPod nanos and $200 in iTunes credit).

Once Upon a Backstory by Stina Lindenblatt from Query Tracker. Peek: “…figure out what past events made them who they are today or shaped their behavior. Only then will your characters have depth, and their actions will be realistic to who they are.”

Readergirlz and Figment will Rock the Drop in honor of Support Teen Lit Day, next Thursday, April 14th. Find out how you can join in here!

Kidlit for Japan Auction

Kidlit4Japan is hosting a children’s-YA literature auction to benefit victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. A daily auction preview appears weekdays at 8 a.m. EDT. New items appear hourly from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Items include signed books, advance reader copies, artwork, critiquing services, book-related swag, author visits, the chance to name a character in an upcoming book, etc.” Currently available items include:

Cynsational Screening Room

Concubines, Eunuchs, and Fury by Cindy Pon from Diversity in YA Fiction. Peek: “Much of Fury of the Phoenix (HarperTeen, 2011) takes place in the inner court of the Palace of Fragrant Dreams, where the concubines reside, inspired by the actual concubine quarters of ancient China. When I was revising the novel with my editor, she actually crossed out ‘thousands’ once and wrote ‘hundreds?’ above it.”

Bringing an Elevator Speech to Life by Christine Hurley Deriso from Crowe’s Nest. Peek: “Writing the trailer script helped me distill 273 pages worth of thoughts, plots and character development. It helped me avoid the blank stare I’ve come to refine when people ask, “So what’s your book about?” Check out the book trailer for “…Then I Met My Sister (Flux, 2011).

More Personally

Thank you to Elizabeth Wrenn-Estes and her Library and Information Science class at San José State University for your hospitality during our online visit on Tuesday night! Special thanks to Mardi Veiluva for tech training and assistance!

So What’s It Like to Live with a Writer? from Salima Alikhan. Note: my husband (and sometimes co-author) Greg Leitich Smith and I chime in.

Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Maureen McGowan from Get Lost in a Story. Peek: “My series includes not only werewolves, but also werecats, wereopossums, werebears, weredeer, and werearmadillos. If you could shift to any animal form, which would you choose and why?” Discuss at the link.

Thanks to Debbie Reese for this shelf shot of Blessed (Candlewick, 2011) at the Urbana (Illinois) Free Library! Debbie blogs at American Indians in Children’s Literature.

Links of the week: Check out Smokey the Purring Cat (going for the world record in loudness)! I think he’s a kindred soul to Holler Loudly! See also YA Books to Movies List compiled by Naomi Bates from YA Books and More.

Cynsational Events

The annual Texas Library Association Annual Conference will be April 12 to April 15 at the convention center in Austin. Check out the list of Austin author signings. Notes: (a) Take a Chance on Art and enter a raffle to win the illustration “Space Age” by Melanie Hope Greenberg to benefit the TLA Disaster Relief Fund; see more information; (b) Cynthia Leitich Smith will be signing Blessed and other titles at 11 a.m. April 13 in the Author Signing Area.

Erin Murphy Literary Agency Wine Social will be at 3 p.m. April 16 at BookPeople in Austin. Peek: “Come meet Erin Murphy as well as some of the authors she represents.”

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). See more information. Note: conference faculty includes Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith. Cynthia will serve as the interviewer at “Meet the Author: Gail Giles” and as a panelist on “Going Graphic: Writing Graphic Novels” with Hope Larson, moderated by K.A. Holt. Last call! Register today!

New Voice: Carole Estby Dagg on The Year We Were Famous

Carole Estby Dagg is the first-time author of The Year We Were Famous (Clarion, 2011). From the promotional copy:

With their family home facing foreclosure, seventeen-year-old Clara Estby and her mother, Helga, need to raise a lot of money fast—no easy feat for two women in 1896. Helga wants to tackle the problem with her usual loud and flashy style, while Clara favors a less showy approach.

Together they come up with a plan to walk the 4,600 miles from Mica Creek, Washington, to New York City—and if they can do it in only seven months, a publisher has agreed to give them $10,000.

Based on the true story of the author’s great-aunt and great-grandmother, this is a fast-paced historical adventure that sets the drama of Around the World in Eighty Days against an American backdrop during the time of the suffragist movement, the 1896 presidential campaign, and the changing perception of “a woman’s place” in society.

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?

It helped that I was born nearly 20 years closer to 1896, the year of Great-aunt Clara Estby’s 4,000-mile walk with her mother, than to the current day. I have lived a good part of my life in houses built soon after the time of my story, with flour bins, wood stoves, and closets that assumed you had only three changes of clothes. I also had my own memories of Clara, who narrates The Year We Were Famous.

Intrigued by wondering what it was like to walk across America then, I spent a lot of time with old railroad maps that showed every whistle stop. Reconstructing a mile-by-mile, 232-day itinerary was tedious, but inspired several plot points.

Why, for instance did they detour to Cripple Creek when they knew they were behind schedule? How would they have felt about walking across the Umatilla Indian Reservation?

Newspapers articles were my greatest story prompts. Even with the help of librarians across the country I only found a dozen articles, but what tantalizing tidbits they contained! One-liners mentioning shooting an assailant, meeting President-elect McKinley and his wife in their home, nearly losing their lives in a flash flood, being lost for days without food or water, demonstrating their curling iron to Indians they met along the way—all blossomed in my imagination to whole chapters.

Pictures on the internet and in books and seeing some of the places Clara saw also inspired scenes. For instance, a postcard of Mrs. William McKinley in her parlor that I purchased off the Internet gave me the setting for the scene where Clara and her mother meet the next president.

Driving part of the route, I stopped by a little museum in Rawlings, Wyoming, where I found out about an early woman doctor who inspired my Dr. Holmes in another chapter.

As an old-time librarian, I used to think of research as something you did with books. In writing The Year We Were Famous, I discovered that material is where you find it, on-site with your camera, tiny museums, the Internet, and even e-Bay.

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first – character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

What inspired me first were the real-life characters, Clara Estby and her mother Helga, my great-aunt and great-grandmother. In 1896, they walked from their farm in Mica Creek near Spokane, Washington, to New York City to win money to save the family’s farm—and to prove women could do it. It took them over seven months, wearing out 32 pairs of shoes between them. That story needed telling!

As I started research, I realized what a pivotal time 1896 was. It was three years after the Panic of 1893, which was as disastrous as the Great Depression. It was the year of the historic presidential race between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley.

By then, four states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho) had just allowed women to vote and the suffrage movement was gathering momentum.

To get into that world, I made an enormous sacrifice. For a year, I forswore all reading by living authors and read only books Clara might have read for high school classes or for pleasure. I read diaries of women of the 1800s. I put on white gloves to page through the fragile pages of women’s magazines of the 1890s. I even read dime novels which I found in entirety on the Internet. That florid dime-novel writing informed the style Clara adopted for writing about shooting an assailant in Oregon and helping her mother demonstrate a curling iron to Ute Indians they camped with.

From first rejection slip through publication was fifteen years. My inspirations for not giving up were Clara and Helga, who just kept walking one step at a time until they reached their goal.

New Voice: Jeanette Larson on Hummingbirds

Jeanette Larson is the first-time author of Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas (Charlesbridge, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Hummingbirds are fascinating little creatures that have captured the imagination of people for thousands of years. Since they are only found in the Americas, the stories about this tiny bird originated from the peoples of North and South America.

These native cultures wrote stories to offer explanations for the behavior and physical characteristics of this graceful species: Why does the hummingbird drink nectar? What accounts for its amazing flying abilities? Why is the hummingbird attracted to the color red?

Jeannette Larson and Adrienne Yorinks have compiled facts and folklore about these intriguing fliers that will answer these questions and many more. Readers will also get a glimpse into the different cultures that have been transfixed for centuries by this bird, as well as learn many interesting scientific facts discovered by modern-day ornithologists.

Adrienne’s bold and unique mixed-media quilts illustrate the hummingbird in nature and the mystery of these birds in ancient folklore.

Substantial back matter includes an index, a glossary of terms, suggested further reading and websites, a bibliography, sources, resources, and a list of hummingbird sanctuaries.

What is it like, to be a debut author in 2011? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? What came as the biggest surprise? In each case, why?

In some ways I don’t think of myself as a “debut author” because I’ve written for librarians and I worked on Quilt of States by Adrienne Yorinks (National Geographic, 2005). So it kind of surprises me that this really, really is my debut book for children.

I love the feedback I’m getting about the book, and I love seeing people enjoying the book. As a librarian, I delight in seeing the right book in the hands of the right person.

The biggest surprise has been the reaction from adults. Although the book was written for readers in grades three through six, a lot of people are buying copies for parents and grandparents who love hummingbirds. So I guess I’m surprised by the wide audience range.

The biggest challenge for me is talking about my own book. For much of my career I’ve “sold” other people’s books and it’s much harder to talk about my own work.

As a nonfiction writer, what inspired you to take on your topic? What about it fascinated you? Why did you want to offer more information about it to young readers?

As a librarian I was often asked if I wanted to be a writer. I really didn’t have any story that I wanted to tell.

As I got closer to “taking my pension” from the library, I did start to think about topics that interested me.

Adrienne Yorinks and I really wanted to do a book together, but I wanted a topic that would really work with her fabric art.

My husband and I took a little vacation weekend in Rockport, Texas and when I walked out of the hotel I was surrounded by hummingbirds. It was Texas HummerBird Celebration weekend. I don’t know exactly how the hummingbirds know which weekend to show up in Rockport, but they do!

I started thinking about the birds and recalled from my anthropology studies (The University of New Mexico) that many of the indigenous peoples in the Americas had stories about hummingbirds. I learned that these little dynamos only live in the Americas.

I’ve always liked birds, and we have a lot of hummers in our garden. I started thinking about them and their lives and how far they fly to migrate and how adaptable they are, even though they are so small and delicate.

So I decided to combine facts and folklore as a way to provide information about these unique and beautiful creatures.

Cynsational Notes

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas. To enter the giveaway, comment here or email me (scroll and click envelope) and type “Hummingbirds” in the subject line. Deadline: midnight CST April 8. Note: author sponsored; U.S./Canada entries only.

Guest Post: Elise Broach on Writing Likable Characters

“You can always have charm.
“It’s better than beauty. It lasts longer.”

By Elise Broach

There are many ways for a book to succeed with readers—through a compelling idea, an original voice, an engaging humor or poignancy or pace—but surely the most reliable is through the creation of a likable main character.

Nothing in a story keeps readers as enthralled as a character who has won their hearts.

But when you come right down to it, what does “likable” mean? Certainly, what’s likable to me isn’t necessarily likable to you or anybody else.

When we think about how specifically we choose our friends—the lovely, particular alchemy of attachment between two people—the task of creating a character with appeal to a large and diverse crowd of readers seems nearly impossible.

And yet it happens all the time. Think Wilbur. Or Junie B. Jones. Or Harry Potter. These three characters could hardly be more different from each other in personality–from Wilbur’s gentle yearnings to Junie B.’s brashness to Harry’s stoic determination–yet they’ve attracted legions of devoted readers, of every conceivable stripe.

One thing they have in common in their respective stories is that they’re all in big trouble. Wilbur is facing the butcher’s knife; Junie B. is endlessly courting mischief and meriting punishment; and Harry is the moving target—across seven books and thousands of pages—of the Dark Lord’s murderous wrath.

Which brings me to my first thought on creating a likable character: it helps to have him or her in dire straits early on in your story.

I remember reading once that if you want readers to bond with your main character, put him in love or in trouble on the first page. The reason isn’t hard to fathom: it makes the character vulnerable, and readers are instinctively drawn to, interested in, and protective of vulnerable characters. A difficult situation with a high emotional investment for the character sows the seeds of compassion and affection in the reader.

This one trick of circumstance can compensate for a whole host of off-putting personality traits.

Thus, as writers, we want to create the hurdles, the enemies, the risks and the consequences that will form the bonds of attachment between the reader and our character.

But what about personality traits? Will some traits guarantee a character’s likability? I think so, though you can probably come up with counter-examples for everything I list here.

In a main character, readers tend to warm up to: spunk; persistence; courage; kindness; ingenuity; loyalty. We adore humor, and a character who is truly funny can get away with a truckload of vices just by virtue of making us laugh.

Certain otherwise negative traits can seem very likable in a main character. For instance, we are fond of poor judgment or inappropriate risk-taking in a main character, since it creates fertile ground for thrilling suspense and bad outcomes.

Another way to look at the conundrum of the likable character is to ask what makes a character unlikable. Generally, readers can’t stand boring or predictable characters. Characters who are overly earnest or preachy or self-pitying soon become tedious company. Whiny isn’t good. Passive is frustrating. Cruel?

A character who is mean to animals is nearly impossible to redeem.

That said, we can all think of plenty of stories with characters we like almost in spite of ourselves. That was my purpose in quoting Coco Chanel at the beginning of this post; more important than individual personality traits in the construction of character is the elusive quality of charm. It can make up for a passel of flaws.

I find this lesson driven home again and again in movies and television shows with characters who should be downright unlikable, yet still manage to catch us in their spell.

Think: Alicia Silverstone’s character in “Clueless” (1995)(based on Jane Austen’s Emma (1815)). She’s flighty, vain, unapologetically superficial, largely uninterested in the world’s complexity and suffering… but she has the ineffable quality of charm. We believe in her; we root for her; we’re on her side.

Think: Owen Wilson in almost any of his films–as the self-centered, perpetual house guest of “You, Me, and Dupree” (2006) or the shallow narcissist of “How Do You Know” (2010); in both cases, his immaturity is strangely endearing.

The character of Michael Scott on “The Office” (2005-2011), played by Steve Carrell, is another good example. Michael is hopelessly boorish and insensitive, a constant source of bigoted commentary, full of self-delusions, willing to lie, steal, or cheat to pursue his goals—a man seemingly without a moral compass. And yet he has charm. He wins us over.

How? Well, there isn’t a formula; but all of these characters do share a kind of innocence, laced with humor and good intentions, that makes up for their many vices.

One final point about likable characters: readers don’t want to see characters who are likable in the same way over and over again. Right now, especially in middle-grade chapter books, “sassy” is in; which means, in no time, sassy will be overdone.

In fact, my friend Elizabeth Bluemle, author and bookseller extraordinaire, told me she’d read so many books with plucky, back-talking main characters that she was beginning to think there should be a new narrative voice, in addition to third person and first person, called “first-person sassy.”

If the sassy main character—however engaging—becomes too common and familiar in children’s fiction, readers will quickly become bored.

As readers, we want likable characters, but we also want to be surprised. For writers, the challenge is not only to give readers a likable character, but also to introduce them to someone new.

Since I opened with a quote from one icon of the fashion industry, I’ll close with a quote from another. Miuccia Prada once said that whenever she considers a new design, she asks herself three questions: “Do I like it? Is it new? Will it sell?”

They are good questions to ask in thinking about characters, too.

99 Cent E-book Features 30 Children’s Poets

Just in time for National Poetry Month, look for the first ever electronic-only poetry anthology of new poems by top poets for children (ages 0-8), PoetryTagTime, compiled by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong and available for only 99 cents at Amazon.com.

This collection of 30 new, unpublished poems range from the humorous to serious, about tongues, turtles and toenails, in acrostics, quatrains, and free verse written by 30 of our best children’s poets:

And the “connections” between poems as the poets voice how their poems are interconnected adds another layer of fun and meaning. You’ll be able to share brand-new poems and poetry tips with children all month long for pennies a day!

Note: Sylvia and Janet are pictured in that order below.

How do you play tag with poetry?

In PoetryTagTime, each poet has tagged the next poet and explained how her/his poem connects with the previous one, in a chain of poets, poems, and play.

PoetryTagTime encourages appreciation of children’s poetry by making it an affordable 99-cent “impulse buy” that is easy to find, easy to own, and easy to read aloud (whenever the mood strikes and an e-reader, computer, or cell phone is handy). A teacher might read a poem aloud to start each morning. A family on a road trip might read poems aloud to pass the time.

Some estimates say that 10 million Kindles have already been sold; there were over 10 million Kindle ebook sales last December alone.

We bet that at least a tenth of those Kindles belong to adults who spend a significant amount of time each day with children. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could bring a million Kindle readers to children’s poetry?

Even if you don’t own a Kindle, you can download the free Kindle app for a number of devices, including your Windows or Apple computer, iPad, iPhone, BlackBerry, or Android-powered phone. Also, be sure to check out our web site (PoetryTagTime.com) and companion blog (PoetryTagTime.Blogspot) for strategies for sharing each of the 30 poems in the book, rolling out one per day throughout the month of April.

Cynsational Notes

Author Interview: Sylvia Vardell on Poetry Aloud Here! Sharing Poetry with Children from Cynsations. Peek: “Picture book collections of poetry have been around a long time, but the illustrations in this format are continuing to evolve, with double-page spread art becoming the norm with the poems superimposed on the images, rather than with drawings supplementing the verses. Now we have to be careful that the art doesn’t overwhelm or derail the poetry!” See also Poetry for Children.

Author Interview: Janet Wong on the Dumpster Diver from Cynsations. Peek: “I’ve written themed-collections on mothers, driving, dreams, superstitions, and yoga. But I have a ton of poems that would be hard to fit into a themed book–and so, for now, those poems sit in my computer or on little scraps of paper scattered throughout the house.”

New Voice: Chris Rylander on The Fourth Stall

Chris Rylander is the first-time author of The Fourth Stall (Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Do you need something? Mac can get it for you. It’s what he does—he and his best friend and business manager, Vince. Their methods might sometimes run afoul of the law—or at least the school code of conduct—but if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can pay him, Mac is on your side. His office is located in the east wing boys’ bathroom, fourth stall from the high window. And business is booming.

Or at least it was until this particular Monday. It starts with a third grader in need of protection. And before this ordeal is over, it’s going to involve a legendary high school crime boss named Staples, an intramural gambling ring, a graffiti ninja, the nine most dangerous bullies in school, and the first Chicago Cubs World Series game in almost seventy years. And that’s just the beginning.

Mac and Vince soon realize that the trouble with solving everyone else’s problems is that there’s no one left to solve yours.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid meets “The Sopranos” in this laugh-a-minute mystery from an exciting new talent.

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

At first, I’m definitely a plunger. (Ha ha, I just reread that, and I never thought I’d ever write that sentence.) Anyway, most of my stories and manuscripts have started with either the opening sentence or just the barest hint of an idea. And then I kind of “wing it” from there.

However, as I move further and further into the story, I typically do start to make more and more notes to myself, and by the time I’m roughly halfway through the story, I have developed an outline of sorts for the rest of it.

What appeals to me is the idea that I can start any story I want whenever I want without having to do any “work” beforehand. I feel like this really keeps ideas flowing, this feeling that I don’t ever have to adhere to any set outline or ideas.

Like, my debut, The Fourth Stall, started with a simple first few sentences that I thought were cool, and after page one, I had absolutely no idea what kind of story I was going to write or who the characters would be or anything, and that’s what appeals to me. The constant idea that I can do whatever I want in my stories.

I sort of view writing as the truest form of freedom that we have, in that you really can create whatever and whomever you want anytime you want and those things you create can do whatever you want them to.

It’s almost kind of starting to sound creepy to me when I describe it this way, but it’s that idea that I think can really help anyone struggling with plot.

Just keep reminding yourself: I can do whatever I want; it’s my story… so if you’re stuck, then unstick yourself. You’re the only one with control and power within your own story to do so! (I so wish that unstick was really a word, it would be a fine word, it really would.)

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

I’ve always found that my voice for middle grade and young adult writing has come pretty naturally. And I feel like it’s always been my biggest asset. Because an editor or agent can help you with your plot, or your characters, or your structure, or even help you find your theme or heart of your story. But it’s much harder for them to help you find your “voice.” Which has been great for me since I needed a lot of help in all of the other areas, being that I don’t have an English degree and didn’t take any creative writing or English classes in college outside the minimum requirements.

To find my voice, really all I did was tap into my inner kid, which was easy for me since I still feel like a 12-year old most of the time.

I was only 23 when I started The Fourth Stall, and I grew up in the video-game age. So I feel like I already had a pretty strong connection to modern kids. I still love to do all things that most kids do: play video games; play and watch sports; watch movies; download tons of music, etc.

I mean, at risk of sounding completely immature, I’ll admit that I even still have a Nerf gun collection! So finding my voice was as easy, writing what entertained me. I thought back to what I would have found fun as a kid, which is more or less the same stuff that I find fun today. So that really helped, I think.

Also, I think another key is to let go of your filters. I don’t mean to just start cursing like a grizzled gold prospector, but so much of growing up and becoming adult involves censoring your imagination and personality more and more as you get older. There are a bevy of social rules that we’re always expected to follow, and as you enter the workplace there’s that ultimate kill-joy of “professionalism” hanging over our heads at all times.

But when you’re writing for kids, you really need to let all of that go. Be weird. Be crazy. Have fun. Just let everything you’ve been holding back at those formal dinner parties or work meetings or on the bus or wherever, just let all of that go when you’re writing. I think tapping into your “unfiltered” personality is one way of finding your true writing voice.

The Fourth Stall Blog Tour

2010 Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature

2010 Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature recognize the following winners and honor authors:

Picture Book Winner

Ann Malaspina for Yasmin’s Hammer, illustrated by Doug Chayka (Lee and Low, 2010). See also Exploring Bangladesh with Ann Malaspina and Doug Chayka from Lee & Low.

Picture Book Honor

Roseanne Thong for Fly Free! illustrated by Eujin Kim Neilan (Boyds Mills, 2010).

Children’s Literature Winner

Margi Preus for Heart of a Samurai (Abrams, 2010).

Children’s Literature Honor

Mitali Perkins for Bamboo People (Charlesbridge, 2010). See the official book site and discussion guide.

Young Adult Literature Winner

N. H. Senzai for Shooting Kabul (Simon & Schuster, 2010). Read a Cynsations interview with N.H. Peek: “In 1970s Saudi Arabia, there wasn’t much for a kid to do, especially in 100 degree plus heat. There was very little television to watch, or other entertainment options. So the library at our school, Jubail Academy, became our refuge.”

Young Adult Literature Honor

Barbara Bazaldua for A Boy of Heart Mountain, illustrated by Willie Ito (Yabitoon, 2010).

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Attention Writers! Send a photo of yourself with a dinosaur (a museum skeleton, recreation, gas-station logo, made from Legos, whatever) to Greg Leitich Smith for inclusion in his upcoming blog series, Writers and Dinosaurs. You don’t have to be published to participate! See link for details. See also Greg on The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.

Making the Most of Writer’s Conference Critiques by Jennifer Ziegler from Chasing Tales. Includes insights from agent Erin Murphy, editor Stephanie Elliott (formerly with Random House/Delacorte Press, now with Sparknotes), former Austin SCBWI regional advisor Meredith Davis, author Dorothy Love, and Writers’ League of Texas executive director Cyndi Hughes. Peek from Erin: “It’s perfectly fine to talk it out with the critiquer to solidify your ideas, or to ask if you can have a moment to make a clear note to yourself so you don’t lose the train of thought and can go on to make use of all the time in your session.”

Cynsational Blogger Tip: Respect authors’ copyright. Keep quotes to under 5o words or ask permission to post a longer excerpt.

A comprehensive list of U.S. college- and university-sponsored or -hosted children’s and young adult literature conferences, festivals, and symposia compiled by Chris Barton from Bartography.

Adam Gudeon Author/Illustrator: official site of the debut author/illustrator of Me and Meow (HarperCollins, 2011). Peek: “Born in Manhattan, raised on Long Island, and art schooled in Brooklyn, Adam now resides in the beautiful Berkshires of western Massachusetts.” Check out his portfolio and shop Adam Gudeon on Etsy.

Creative Confidence by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: “You are the only person on this planet who is going to care the most about your creative output and your career. Sure, you will get people in your corner, like your agent, your editor, your mentors, your friends and family, you cat, and your fans, who will care about your books or whatever else you do, but nobody will care about it half as much as you.”

Interview with Translator Laura Watkinson by Sarah Blake Johnson from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “…if a foreign-language publisher is trying to sell something like a YA novel, it makes little financial sense for them to have the whole book translated and time is also an issue, so they’ll usually have just an excerpt translated to take along to the book fair. An excerpt is typically around twenty pages…may be packaged with extra information about the author, such as a bibliography and perhaps an interview.”

Your Platform Equals Opportunity by Greg Pincus from The Happy Accident. Peek: “Every time you create content, every time someone visits your blog while you’re asleep, every time you have an interaction…opportunity is created. You form a relationship, sometimes very brief and sometimes one that builds and builds.”

Check out the new cover for Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by Carrie Jones and Megan Kelley Hall (HarperTeen, Aug. 23, 2011). Note: contributions include “Isolation” by Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Why Love Matters by Danyelle Leafty from QueryTracker. Peek: “…do you want just any old agent? Someone who might enjoy your story without ever having loved it?”

Publishing Industry News compiled by Kathy Temean from Writing and Illustrating. Peek: “Abrams will launch its third imprint Appleseed Books, a new imprint geared towards babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, in Spring 2012.” Round-up includes recent job appointments/promotions, a new interactive online book club for tweens from Simon & Schuster, and more.

Congratulations to Frances Lee Hall for signing with Marietta Zacker of Nancy Gallt Literary Agency, and congratulations to Marietta for signing Frances!

New South Asian Book Award by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: “The award will be given in recognition of a recently published work of fiction, nonfiction, poetry or folklore, from early childhood to secondary reading levels, published in the United States, Canada or United Kingdom, in English (translations into English will also be accepted) which accurately and skillfully portrays South Asia or South Asians in the diasporas, that is the experience of individuals living in South Asia, or of South Asians living in other parts of the world. The culture, people, or heritage of South Asia should be the primary focus of the story.”

Reminder: Teen writers/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.

Cynsational Giveaways

Last Call: Enter to win a signed copy of Throat by R.A. Nelson (Knopf, 2011). To enter the giveaway, comment here or email me (scroll and click envelope) and type “Throat” in the subject line.

Deadline: midnight CST April 1. Note: Author sponsored; U.S. entries only.

25 Days of Giveaways: Day 20: Tantalize Series by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Bookaholics Book Club. Giveaway includes:

-plush bat toy;

-chubby bat stickers;

-author-autographed postcard for Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (featuring not-yet-public cover art for the graphic novel, illustrated by Ming Doyle);

-Sanguini’s button;

-Sanguini’s magnetic menu wipe board.

Eligibility: U.S. only. Deadline: 7:17 p.m. Friday, April 1. See link for entry form and more information. Note: Sanguini’s is the fictional vampire-themed restaurant that appears in Tantalize, Blessed, and Tantalize: Kieren’s Story.

Cynsational Screening Room

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Knopf. Source: Liz Garton Scanlon.

Consider donating to Poetry: Spread the Word: a Kickstarter project by Greg Pincus. Peek: “If Poetry: Spread the Word is funded, over the course of the next year (roughly May, 2011 through April, 2012), I will put 100 original poems up on my blog and out into the world for free and do 40 school visits (via Skype or, if it works out, in person) at no cost to the schools. I’ll also create a collection, described in more detail below, that will celebrate and document the visits and the poetry.” See more information. Note: Greg is really excited about the possibility that other children’s authors/illustrators could replicate this campaign to finance their speaking in tough budget times.

“Roxie’s a-MAZE-ing Vacation Adventure,” an app for the iPad, will be available, developed by OCG Studios in the Netherlands this month. Peek: “It’s not just an animated enhanced e-book with voice-over, but a truly interactive maze, including counting and finding elements.” Learn more about the creation of the app.

Check out this author video interview with Jennifer Lynn Barnes from RT Book Reviews. I had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer and hearing her speak at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival. Learn more about her novel, Raised by Wolves (Egmont USA, 2010).

At the SCBWI-Wisconsin novel retreat in Madison last weekend (details below), I had the pleasure of connecting with one of my favorite YA authors, Deborah Lynn Jacobs. Check out her trailer for Choices (Roaring Brook, 2007).

More Personally

I’ve had a few questions of late about traveling to writing/books events with only a backpack for trips under four days.

Here’s the scoop: Traveling by air, I’ve had to deal with missing luggage for up to five days.

If I’m on the road, that leaves me with only the outfit I’ve got on. (Even if shopping sounds appealing, author-speaker schedules are such that I may not have an opportunity to do so.)

Plus, most airlines are charging fees for checked bags. I’d rather not deduct that from my earnings, and I’m reluctant to pass that cost onto my hosts.

So, I pack my toiletries in a Ziploc bag (making sure to squeeze the air out), roll up mostly travel-knit garments, and plan to wear no more than two pairs of shoes on the trip. I also tend to take outfits that can be hand-washed and hanger-dried overnight.

From there, I slip in whatever is necessary–printed speeches, schedules, giveaways, manuscript, etc. The pack still fits beneath the seat in front of me, which is key with regional jets. Beyond that, I recommend using both shoulder straps. The pack will be heavy, and you’re less likely to pull a muscle.

What else? After a fair number of such long-distance treks, I’m returning to writing (and more events) here in Central Texas for the next few months. Check out the schedule below.

But first, I’d like to offer a huge thanks to everyone at Lee County Library System in Fort Myers, Florida for your hospitality at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival! Thanks also to those folks who turned out for my presentation and/or signing!

Personal highlights included meeting Alice Hoffman, Eric Litwin, and Jennifer Lynn Barnes (see video above) as well as reconnecting with Phil Bildner. I also had the opportunity to catch Sara Shepard and Rosemary Well‘s talks.

I had such a terrific time at An Evening with the Authors at the Royal Palm Yacht Club, an affiliated event, and staying the Hotel Indigo–lovely with excellent service. Beyond that, Fort Myers is one of the friendliest towns I’ve ever visited!

Another mega thank you goes out to the coordinators and participants at last weekend’s SCBWI-Wisconsin novel retreat at the Bishop O’Connor Center in Madison!

Special thanks to RA Pam Beres, ARA Judy Bryan and Ann Angel for bringing me in to teach the workshop. I’m still wowed by the writers I met, consider myself their forever cheerleader, and came home with warm memories.

Mundie Moms gives Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002) five stars and says: “This is such a delightfully charming story. Through the little mishaps both Ray and Grampa Halfmoon have, I loved seeing how their love and support for each other kept getting stronger and stronger…. Indian Shoes is a fabulous book to have and I highly recommend picking it up. It’s a great edition for any classroom and personal home library.” Read the whole review.

School Library Journal says of Blessed (Candlewick, 2010): “Off-handed humor, clever wordplay, and a host of supernatural beings will delight fans of Smith’s Tantalize (2007) and Eternal (2009, both Candlewick), the two novels that precede this one, though Blessed can certainly be enjoyed as a stand-alone novel.”

Links of the Week: Fight Multiple Sclerosis with author Lindsey Leavitt, Don’t You Need a Gown Made of Golden Books?

Cynsational Events

Erin Murphy Literary Agency Wine Social will be at 3 p.m. April 16 at BookPeople in Austin. Peek: “Come meet Erin Murphy as well as some of the authors she represents.”

The annual Texas Library Association Annual Conference will be April 12 to April 15 at the convention center in Austin. Check out the list of Austin author signings. Notes: (a) Take a Chance on Art and enter a raffle to win the illustration “Space Age” by Melanie Hope Greenberg to benefit the TLA Disaster Relief Fund; see more information; (b) Cynthia Leitich Smith will be signing Blessed and other titles at 11 a.m. April 13 in the Author Signing Area.

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). See more information. Note: conference faculty includes Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith. Cynthia will serve as the interviewer at “Meet the Author: Gail Giles” and as a panelist on “Going Graphic: Writing Graphic Novels” with Hope Larson, moderated by K.A. Holt. Spaces are still available! Register today!

Jo Whittemore will be signing Odd Girl In (Aladdin, 2011) at 2 p.m. April 10 at BookPeople in Austin. Note: Odd Girl In is now available! Congratulations, Jo! See In the Writer’s Studio: Jo Whittemore on Odd Girl In from Bethany Hegedus at Writer Friendly, Bookshelf Approved.

Liz Garton Scanlon will be signing Noodle & Lou, illustrated by Arthur Howard (Beach Lane, 2011) at noon April 23 at BookPeople in Austin. See curriculum guide.