Guest Post: Deborah Halverson on Why Perfectly Nice People Make Perfect Bad Guys

By Deborah Halverson

There I was, sitting on my couch with my computer on my lap, desperately trying to focus on the piece I was writing, when the neighbor’s dog started barking. Wildly . . . and for an extended period of time. A really long extended period of time. The neighbor’s dog rarely barks, especially for long stretches. This was not a normal event.

But then, this was not a normal day. It was crazy rushed day, and a particularly hot one so my window was open and thus the barking seemed particularly loud and distracting, which was particularly frustrating because I had a particularly unyielding deadline and my sons were due home any minute and I really really had to make this deadline and I just couldn’t take the barking anymore and, oh my gosh, for the love of Pete, “Lilo, shut up!”

No, I didn’t say it out loud. I certainly didn’t put my face to my window screen and holler it like I’d wanted to at that moment. I just thought it. And then I froze.

Wow, I thought. I’m a perfectly nice person. And that’s a perfectly nice dog. Yet for an instant there I could have been perfectly happy doing something very not nice to that sweet animal. How in the world does that happen?

Because perfectly nice people sometimes have bad thoughts, that’s how. They just don’t act on those thoughts. Normally. But what about on those abnormal days, under those abnormal circumstances, when all the right buttons are being pushed or they feel threatened in some manner or stressed out or they’re particularly hot or they need or want something very, very badly? Indeed, sometimes, when all the factors are just so, nice people can and do act on bad thoughts.

Which is precisely why nice people can make such great antagonists in fiction.

Think about it. Some antagonists seem perfectly nice when you first meet them. They can have very obvious moral centers. They might even be friends with the protagonist—or would be, under different circumstances. But in the circumstances you devise to get and keep your story rocking, that character provokes your protagonist, challenges him or throws roadblocks in his path or pushes him into situations of actual physical peril. The antagonist causes wonderful, juicy conflict even if he still seems inherently nice otherwise.

This duality makes that antagonist intriguingly complex, and intriguingly complex antagonists are tremendous fun to read. These are the Bad Guys you remember long after you’ve finished a book.

If you want your antagonists to be stick with readers, they should be drawn as deeply as your main characters. Never settle for stereotypical antagonists, or those who antagonize simply because it’s their job to do so. You’ve worked hard to populate your story with rich characters; don’t let a cardboard cutout villain slip in. Strong antagonists are layered, unpredictable, and even sympathetic characters. They give readers something to chew on.

How can you make your antagonist believably sympathetic? Here are five ways:

Give your antagonist goals and dreams.

The best antagonists are those who hinder not because they’re stereotypes with jobs to do but because they’re pursuing their own dreams and struggling with their own inner conflicts. They’re not necessarily trying to crush anyone; they’re simply trying to attain their own goals. The protagonists are just in their way.

Let your antagonist think he’s being good.

A good bad guy needn’t be despicable; he may just have conflicting or intrusive goals that pit him against your protagonist. A well-meaning father, for example, may want his son to join the safe, financially rewarding family business, whereas the son wants to be a rock star. Dad’s no ogre—but he is a powerful antagonist.

Give your antagonist a higher purpose.

Maybe Bad Guy thinks being harmful to one person is okay because he’s acting for the sake of the greater good. Consider a cadet in a military prep school who wants to weed out the “bad eggs” for the sake of his school and his fellow loyal cadets. It’s good to uphold your school’s values and reputation, right? Only if you’re the one doing the weeding.

Skew his values.

Maybe your antagonist has a different value system than other characters and doesn’t see what he’s doing as wrong. That doesn’t make him a criminal. It does, however, make him a detriment to the protagonist. Consider the young lady in the first-class cabin who runs her young maids ragged through the entire voyage. To her, that’s just how you treat the help. To your maid heroine, that spoiled brat is a force of evil.

Let him give in to the Dark Side.

Antagonists often embody traits that readers struggle with themselves, allowing readers to see what would happen if they were to give in to the bad impulses and emotions. Like, say, hollering ridiculously at the sweet dog next door for barking about a bunny in the bushes.

Not everyone can keep their halo straight all the time. And honestly, sometimes it feels good to give in to the bad impulses. Sometimes it serves our ends. Only, for some people, “sometimes” can become “always.” It’s powerful to watch an antagonistic character degenerate morally through the course of the story.

Antagonists are valuable tools for pushing your protagonist toward triumph or a new shade of wisdom. Both readers and writers can come learn as much from these so-called bad guys as they do from the star—and have a particularly great time along the way.

Cynsational Notes

Deborah Halverson is the author of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies and founder of the writer’s advice website

Deborah edited children’s-YA fiction with Harcourt Children’s Books before picking up a pen to write the award-winning teen novels Honk If You Hate Me (Delacorte, 2007) and Big Mouth (Delacorte, 2008).

Deborah’s new book Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies hits stores July 5, and articles include “Cynthia Leitich Smith on Paranormal Fiction: More Than the Monsters.”

Deborah is celebrating the release with a seven-day virtual book launch on starting today.

From June 29 to July 5, she’s offering daily “Free First Chapter Critique” giveaways, free downloads, excerpts from the book, and profiles of the 13 authors (including Cynthia Leitich Smith), editors, and agents who contributed sidebars to the book.

As the grand finale, she’s giving away a “Free Full Manuscript Edit” on the final day of the launch.

Click over to to check it out.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two signed copies of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies. To enter, comment on this post, and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly with “Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies” in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Deadline: July 15. This giveaway is for U.S.-Canada readers.

Guest Post: J.L. Powers on Writing a Foreign Culture: Research for This Thing Called the Future

By J.L. Powers

My just-released young adult novel, This Thing Called the Future, a coming-of-age story set in South Africa (Cinco Puntos, 2011)(excerpt), dives deep into African culture, including traditional healing through the spirits of the ancestors. It deals with the HIV-AIDS epidemic rampant among young Zulus.

It takes place in a world utterly foreign to 90% of the people who will likely read it.

Here are just a handful of the things I did while researching it:

• Camped out for three days and nights on a mountainside with 5000 Zulus, all converts to a healing cult.
• Got dog sick on that mountain. There were no latrines to take care of my problem privately. Learned humility.
• Traveled with HIV-AIDS activists to clinics where they taught newly diagnosed HIV-positive individuals how to take their medicine.
• Took hundreds of photos of a variety of condom boxes and HIV-AIDS billboards for a NGO that needed my help—or maybe just my camera.
• Sat through several sessions with Zulu sangomas (traditional healers), including one who talked to her ancestors for/about me. What she said they said made the hair on the backs of my arms stand up.
• Stayed with families of all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.
• Learned how to clean the floor by smearing it with cow dung.
• Got robbed, unfortunately by the son of a close friend.
• Learned fear.

If going to a foreign country or a strange place to research your novel seems daunting, here are a few things I found helpful to get me started and to keep me going.

Leocardia pictured in white, Jessica in pink.

1) Find out everything you can about the subject and the place in the United States. The public library is usually inadequate. Try to obtain access to a major university library.

2) Before traveling, contact everybody you knew remotely connected to the country, every academic whose research touches on your topic, and the directors of non-profit organizations based there. Because I did this, I never lacked for people to talk to and interview while I was in South Africa.

3) Jump on every opportunity you have to do something local. I didn’t stay in hotels—I stayed with local families, usually ones I met through friends and friends of friends. If I got invited to do something, even something mundane, I went. It was all about experiencing as much as possible, even if it didn’t make it into the book, or didn’t seem to relate directly to the book.

South Africa has the reputation for crime and violence. This reputation is deserved. But in my multiple, lengthy trips there, I discovered a country rich with hospitable people who welcomed me and made me feel like I was home. It was an adventure.

Likewise, if you’re interested in writing a book that takes place somewhere else, especially somewhere outside of the comfort zone of the western world, you’ll find the same kind people no matter where you go. I promise.

New Voice: Nathan Bransford on Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow

Nathan Bransford is the first-time author of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow (Dial, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Space travel is all fun and games until someone breaks the universe.

Jacob Wonderbar has been the bane of every substitute teacher at Magellan Middle School ever since his dad moved away from home. He never would have survived without his best friend Dexter, even if he is a little timid, and his cute-but-tough friend Sarah Daisy, who is chronically overscheduled.

But when the trio meets a mysterious man in silver they trade a corn dog for his sassy spaceship and blast off into the great unknown. That is, until they break the universe in a giant space kapow and a nefarious space buccaneer named Mick Cracken maroons Jacob and Dexter on a tiny planet that smells like burp breath.

The friends have to work together to make it back to their little street where the houses look the same, even as Earth seems farther and farther away.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year?

When I was younger I was really drawn to book where kids were thrust into difficult situations on their own and had to figure out how to be responsible and/or survive, and that was really important to me as I wrote Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow.

When you’re in the 8-12-year-old age range, I feel like you’re just beginning to think of yourself as your own person and beginning to look ahead to what life will be like when you’re a grownup and making decisions and being able to survive on your own.

With that new sense of self, I think kids are also really beginning to have a thirst for exploration, excitement, and confronting danger.

At the same time, you’re still a kid! And kids at that age have a tremendous appreciation of fun and wackiness. Your imagination is still a powerful part of who you are as a kid, and you’re still willing to suspend your disbelief. The world (or should I say universe) really seems like a place where anything is possible.

So all of those things came together for me with Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow. I tried to infuse it with a sense of fun and wackiness and the universe is a place where you can blast off into space and get marooned on a planet where the days are just a minute long, but underlying the silliness is some seriousness, as Jacob is wondering if his absent dad could be in space. As much as the kids want to have fun adventures, real life can’t help but intrude.

While I was writing, I was most influenced by the books I liked at that age, Roald Dahl especially, whose entire canon I read when I was in fourth and fifth grade, and whose protagonists were often orphans or had terrible parents. Underlying the flights of fancy was an escape from life’s painful realities.

I also loved the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip by Bill Watterson, and the title of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow is a bit of an homage to “Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie,” the book that Calvin always demanded his parents read him at bedtime.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

It’s not easy! I find it especially difficult to come home after a long day at work and then sit down at the computer to write into the night. So I try and carve out days on the weekends, but that also can be challenging, because it’s difficult to recharge for another week if you’re never taking a break.

For anyone juggling jobs and family obligations and a social life, I feel like life as a writer is a perpetual search for balance, and it’s not easy to find.

I guess the most important thing I’ve learned over the last few years is that family and friends have to come before writing. Writers are dreamers, and I think we can talk ourselves into the idea that getting published or having your book take off is going to make your life complete and if you can just do that it will make all of the other problems in life go away and then you can calm down and be happy.

But it’s really not the case – if you’re not living a happy life prior to being published, being published is not going to be the thing that suddenly makes you happy. Yes, it’s something you’ll be always proud of and something no one can ever take away from you, but it’s not a magic elixir that cures everything.

At the same time, we write because we love it, and the satisfaction of sharing part of yourself and completing a novel and having people read it is something that can’t be replaced. It’s worth making time for. It’s worth late nights and early mornings and spending time in front of a computer when you’d rather be out frolicking in the sun.

Just as long as it doesn’t stop you from living a happy life outside of writing.

Cynsational Notes

Nathan’s blog offers extensive information on publishing as a business, finding an agent and query letters, working with agents and editors, and the writing process.

Guest Post: Maureen Crane Wartski on Yuri’s Brush With Magic

By Maureen Crane Wartski

Is there such a thing as magic?

Not the sleight-of-hand, smoke-and-mirrors type of magic, but the real deal, the mysterious something that brings chills to the spine and a joyous shiver to the heart?

In me, you have the true believer, for magic is the cornerstone on which Yuri’s Brush With Magic (Sleepy Hollow, 2010) was written.

Not convinced?

First, there is the magic of memories. While I was writing this book, memories crowded around me of my aunts–young then, beautiful and full of life–singing a song of old Japan or encouraging me to explore new ways to end a folktale.

Of course, it could have another ending. Why not? When you tell a story, you change it in some small way because you see it with different eyes….

Then there is the magic of words themselves. To me, words have been and always will be the most extraordinary things in the universe. From the time when I sat–an entranced five year old–listening to my uncle read from “Julius Caesar,” I understood the power of words.

With words, one could do anything. Create anything. And there were a million possibilities for combining words into stories.

The natural world is full of magic, too. Anyone who has seen a sunset must agree! When I walk the beach at Emerald Isle and see a new sea turtle nest site, I experience the same thrill that I felt when the idea for Yuri first popped into my brain. Sea turtles, which have been around for 200 million years, are pretty magical, too.

If there were a wand to wave so that these elements could come together, that would be tremendous. There is work instead. Nothing magical in that, I have often groused as I sat down to face a blank screen. We writers have all been in this place before—sitting with an outline, pages of notes, and a handful of unformed characters who must somehow be given definition and enough personality to carry the story.

In the case of Yuri, though, the work wasn’t too hard. I had only to close my eyes and remember. I had only to tell the story in my own words, let it become a part of me…and find the right words. I had only to let the song sung to me…oh, so long ago…fill my mind like sunshine, and the story wrote itself.

Perhaps that is magic, too.

Cynsational Notes

Maureen Crane Wartski was born in Ashiya, Japan, in a house by the sea. She has written many middle-grade and young adult novels, among them the award-winning A Boat to Nowhere (Penguin, 1981)(Bank Street College Award, 1980) and the critically acclaimed Candle in the Wind (Fawcett, 1995).

With themes of Japanese folklore, the power of nature, and the longing for home, Wartski’s newest offering for Yuri’s Brush with Magic (Sleepy Hollow, 2010), is a middle grade story about a young Japanese American girl whose sea turtle rescue work soothes fears about her mother’s recovery.

Wartski lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Facebook or send a note to her blog.

Cynsational News, Turkish-Language Rights, U.S./Canada Release Dates

The World’s A Stage, Or Is It? by Sarah Rees Brennan from Diversity in YA. Peek: “…it is something I feel like writers should do: write what they want and feel called to write, and write about the world the way it is. Writers should give every story in them a voice and a time to speak.” Note: U.S. cover (left); U.K. cover (right).

The Pubbed Writer’s Seven Deadly Sins by Therese Walsh from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “…at least for most of us, is that each book presents with its own lessons and challenges. You’re still going to want to rip your hair out at times, and need another writer’s fresh eyes on your work, and decide on occasion that you’d much rather have been a banker.” Source: Elizabeth Scott.

Cynsational Author Tip: Be sure to mention the publisher and publication dates for each of your books on your author website. ISBNs also are helpful.

Four Ways to Get Your Family to Support Your Writing Career from Jody Hedlund. Peek: “We can’t let other activities crowd out scheduled work time or get to it only if nothing else is on the calendar. If we treat it like a hobby and drop it for our other interests, then our families will expect us to drop our writing for their activities.”

Illustrator Interview: Diane deGroat on Charlie the Ranch Dog from Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup. Peek: “The editors felt it was too realistic and that the style should be more playful. I was given another chance. Eventually, I was able to fine tune Charlie until he became the character we see in the book.”

Wind in the Willows Sequel Due in 2012 by Sally Lodge from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “It was [Jacqueline] Kelly who lobbied to have fellow Austin, Tex., resident Clint G. Young illustrate her sequel. The author spotted samples of Young’s artwork at a local SCBWI conference and, she remarks, ‘I thought they were the most wonderful illustrations I’d seen in a long time.'”

A Writer and His Father and “A Barrier Between Us” from National Public Radio. Peek: “Walter Dean Myers grew up in Harlem, the son of a janitor. He became an author, writing young adult fiction that’s especially popular with teenage readers. But as he tells his son, Christopher, there was one person Myers always wanted his writing to impress: his dad.”

Three Key Items You Can’t Afford to Leave Out of Your Twitter Bio by Lauren Dugan from All Twitter. Source: Alice Pope’s SCBWI Market Blog. See also Mitali Perkin‘s lists of children’s-YA editors, agents, and bloggers on Twitter.

A More Theatrical Approach to the “Author” Reading at a Book Event by Troy Howell from Crowe’s Nest. Peek: “Since the story is first-person narration by Kat, it was natural that a girl read it. She dressed in character, which included a gold tooth and Denver Nuggets basketball cap. To nudge the listeners’ imaginations, I held up a mask I’d made as I read the parts of Ye.”

Reflecting Today’s World in Our GLBTQ Fiction by E.M. Kokie from E. Kristin Anderson at The Hate-Mongering Tart. Peek: “We as writers need to keep writing YA and MG novels with LGBTQ characters — including, but not limited to, coming out stories – but we need to do our research and make sure the stories we are telling accurately reflect the world today’s LGBTQ adolescents face.” Note: includes reading recommendations.

Selling Yourself and Selling Yourself Short by Jennifer Laughran from Jennifer Represents. Peek: “If you are saying it because you are being coy, or because you don’t want to come off as braggy, or because you really think that you aren’t a writer unless you are published, I have news for you: Writers write.”

Interview with Susan Van Metre, vice president and publisher, Abrams Books for Young Readers/Amulet Books by Nancy Sondel from the Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Workshop. Peek: “Because we are a relatively new house, I would say we publish probably 40 percent debuts.” See also an interview with Joan Slattery, literary agent, Pippin Properties and an interview with adjunct/teen faculty Mandy Robbins Taylor, both also by Nancy.

Slime Kids: “Packed with book trailers and educational games, School library media Kids is designed to provide an interactive online experience to help get students motivated to learn, to read, to think and to make choices. SlimeKids also showcases an array of exceptional literacy-related resources such as author and book review websites as well as superb learning tools including reference works and search engines.”

Listen to Your Gut: Tips on Avoiding Signing with the Wrong Agent by Stina Lindenblatt from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “You need one who will be the best advocate for your project, and one who shares the same passion for it as you do.”

Ebook Price Point Discussion by Mary Kole from Kidlit Apps. See also 7 Ebook Price Points Defended from Galleycat and Ebook Pricing vs. Revenue from Evil Genius Chronicles.

Creating Suspense to Strengthen the Narrative Arc by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “What happens in a story is conflict; without something bad happening you don’t have a story. Suspense is the reader’s worry about what will happen because of that conflict.”

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy: an interview from Uma Krishnaswami at Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: “Maybe boys and girls aren’t as different as some in the children’s literature community would have us believe. It seems to me that the struggle to capture a character’s voice is about understanding who that character is as a person, regardless of gender.”

First Steps: Introduction to Writing for Children: an eight-week online class taught by Debbie Dahl Edwardson from will begin July 5. Cost: $295. Peek: ” See also schedule in the sidebar. Peek: “This class is for those who have read children’s books as readers, parents or teachers, but have never tried to write one, those who want to write for children but are unfamiliar with children’s literature, those who are just beginning to work on stories for children, and those who have tried and are feeling stumped. We will discuss the variety of forms within this genre, and learn the basics of writing for young readers.”

Remember author Janet Nolan’s guest post on The Firehouse Light? Check out this video celebrating the 110th anniversary of the light (and look for Janet).

YA Rita Finalists

From the Romance Writers of America. Source: YA Fresh.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out: Authors & Illustrators Unite: “It Gets Better.” I’m honored to be part of this project.

The Emotion of Promotion by Grace Lin from Grace Notes. Peek: “The things that I do now feel more like sharing and thanking people who enjoy my books.” Check out the trailer for Grace’s Ling and Ting (Little, Brown) below.

J.K. Rowling on Pottermore.

More Personally

Turkish language rights to Tantalize and Eternal have sold to Alfa Basim Yayim Dagitim in Istanbul, Turkey! Thanks to my new publisher and my literary agency, Curtis Brown, Ltd. of New York. Incidentally, the character Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (of Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)) references Turkey as “Turkeyland” in the classic novel. Dracula is the inspiration book for the first four books in the Tantalize series.

U.S./Canada release dates! Diabolical, book four in the Tantalize series, will be published in January 2012, and the paperback edition of Blessed will be released on that same spring 2012 list from Candlewick Press in the United States and Canada.Note: Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, the graphic novel illustrated by Ming Doyle, will be available from Candlewick in August 2011.

Look for mention (and covers!) of the first three books in the Tantalize series in “School’s Out: Summer Reading for Your Young Charges” in the June 22 issue of This Week from Indian Country Today magazine.

Thank you to Bee Cave (TX) Public Library, my co-presenter Jennifer Ziegler, and everyone who turned out for last Saturday’s book-pizza party!

May I present an incredibly awesome present from YA reader Louisa in celebration of Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008)? She’s created her own version of the Sanguini’s menus.

From Greg Leitich Smith:

Personal Links:

Cynsational Events

Cynthia Leitich Smith will speak to the Cedar Park Teen Book Club at 11 a.m. June 25 at Cedar Park (TX) Public Library.

On a final note, I enjoyed seeing “X-Men First Class” last weekend. Here’s the trailer.

Cynsational Events

Cynthia Leitich Smith will speak to the Cedar Park Teen Book Club at 11 a.m. June 25 at Cedar Park (TX) Public Library.

Jeff Crosby is launching Weiner Wolf (Hyperion, 2011) at 11:30 a.m. July 2 at BookPeople in Austin. Peek: “The Central Texas Dachshund Rescue will be here handing out information on how you can adopt a darling dachshund yourself – and will be bringing one of those wiener dogs for us to meet! We’ll have hot dogs to snack on, crafts to do, balloon animals, a costume contest, and cupcakes! Wiener Wolf, Granny, and a wolf might even make an appearance.” Don’t miss it! See also Jeff’s blog and learn more about him and the book from Mark G. Mitchell at How to Be a Children’s Book Illustrator. Here’s a quick promo video!

The Perils of Self-Publishing with Jerry Wermund: a program at 11 a.m. July 16 at BookPeople from Austin SCBWI. Peek: Jerry Wermund has bravely traveled down the self-publishing trail and will generously share his experience with us – the good, the bad, and his keys to success! In his presentation, Jerry will discuss visualizing your product and its place in the market, the advantages of owning total control of your product, the need to become an enterpreneur first and a writer second, as well as the stigma associated going the self-publishing route.

Jenny Moss will be signing at 2 p.m. July 16 at the Barnes & Noble Arboretum in Austin. Her latest book is Taking Off (Walker, 2011).

Jennifer Ziegler is hosting a launch party for Sass & Serendipity (Delacorte, 2011) at 2 p.m. July 23 at BookPeople in Austin.

10th Anniversary of Rain Is Not My Indian Name: Reflections on a Debut Novel

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

When I was writing my debut novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins & Listening Library, 2001), I was in my early thirties.

I’d sold my first picture book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000), and I’d set aside a novel manuscript with elements common to Rain, titled “Two Wings to Fly.”

I lived in a loft apartment near Printers Row in the near south loop of Chicago and had only one cat, Mercury Boo.

Today, I’m in my early 40s. I’ve sold fourteen books and nine individually-published short stories. I just finished Diabolical (Candlewick, Jan. 2012), the latest addition to the Tantalize series, and I’m waiting to work my way through the copyedits. My first graphic novel, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle (also Candlewick) will be released in August.

I live in a 1920s bungaloid in central Austin, and I have four cats—Mercury Boo, plus Bashi, Leo, Blizzard.

On the tenth anniversary of the release of Rain Is Not My Indian Name, it seems appropriate to reflect on the book’s journey.

Grief, Healing, and 9-11

“What ever you do, don’t talk about the death part,” the event host implored me.

It was fall 2001, and I was speaking to tweens about my debut novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name. The story is about Cassidy Rain Berghoff, a mixed-blood Native girl who–after the unexpected death of her best friend–slowly reconnects to her family and intertribal community through the lens of a camera.

I had been inspired to write the book in part by the sudden demise of a boy at my real-life high school. I recalled the adults of the time wanting to gloss over what happened. It was almost as though an untimely death was something to be embarrassed about. Hardly anybody really talked to the teenagers there and then. My mother made an effort, but I felt obligated to reassure her. It was the Kansas suburbs in the 1980s, and everyone was supposed to appear cheerful and well adjusted.

[The spirit of Cassidy Rain’s friend Galen was represented in the novel by his gray tiger cat, modeled after Mercury Boo.]

In the decade or so between my adolescence and beginning the novel, I had been under the impression that society had shifted. I’d assumed that we routinely deployed therapists to schools. I’d expected that grown-ups in general made more of an effort to connect emotionally and intellectually with teens on the big questions. I was right. And wrong.

Loss was a huge topic in fall of 2001, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11.

I’ve always felt as though we should err on the side of preparing rather than protecting young people when it comes to life’s challenges, especially when experienced in the pages of a book.

But given that I was being repeatedly asked not to talk about “the death part,” I did my best to honor my hosts’ wishes and respect that they had a better understanding of their individual communities than I did. Because the emphasis of the story is more on healing than the first brushstrokes of grief, I was able to accommodate these requests while staying true to the story.

However, if a young reader asked an on-point question about my inspiration or shared a personal experience, I honored that with the full attention and honest response it deserved.

Looking back, my theory that we’d see a huge upswing in fantasy for young readers seems to have come true. Yes, the then-recent success of Harry Potter was a critical factor. But beyond that, for many, the reality of life and especially death felt too real in 2001.

[Mark G. Mitchell depicts the setting, Hannesburg, Kansas.]

Military Family

In the early days of a new war, Cassidy Rain’s family was a military family. Her father is in the Air Force, stationed overseas, and she’s being largely raised by her grandfather.

Over the years, I’ve received a fair number of notes from military families who appreciated seeing folks like themselves depicted in the pages of a tween story, though many wondered why such books are so rare.

Native American

Speaking of rare, Rain Is Not My Indian Name remains one of the few children’s-YA novels featuring a Native protagonist that’s set in modern day.

Cassidy Rain’s heritage is important to her, and she is grounded in it. She is also a photographer and little sister and sci fi fan. She’s a real girl, so to speak.

The craft of the novel reflects Native American/American Indian writing traditions and addresses both the insider and outsider audience, arguably favoring young Native readers–if only because we all write first for the child within.

Today I’m glad I resisted the traditional market pressure to either: (a) dole out cultural nuggets that did not serve the story strictly for educational consumption or (b) streamline cultural references so as not to challenge/stretch some non-Indians. That’s where we still need to go with Native youth fiction–with “multicultural” fiction in general.


Rain Is Not My Indian Name was one of the first books in which the Internet played a role. Not a huge one, and it revolved around building websites. I recently re-read it, and that aspect stands up pretty well.

That said, I don’t overly fret dating a story. I don’t think you can write convincing contemporary settings without occasionally taking that risk.

It was more important to underscore Native Americans as people of living nations with a past, a present, and a future—both intrinsically and because it was the future that Cassidy Rain would have to ultimately embrace.

Big Picture

When I talk to aspiring authors, I tell them that you have to be passionate about what you write, if only because it might be published, and then you’ll have to live with it for a long time. To each new reader, it’s a new book, and you remain its ambassador.

I’m happy to have lived another decade and grown enough in my writing to look back at parts of my first novel and find them charming. I’m equally pleased to have lived and grown enough to look at other parts and cringe. It’s an affectionate cringe, if you will.

Early on, I decided that my overriding goal would be to improve, to keep pushing myself. That’s why I write across genres and formats. That’s why I write humor and horror and romance and suspense. That’s why I write across age and race and region and gender and species.

Rain Is Not My Indian Name is a symbol of that growth. As a published novelist, it’s the place I began. Every novel I’ve published since has been more popular, but Rain has its loyal followers. I’ve heard from kids who insisted it was their favorite book and a few who said it had helped them to heal after a great loss.

I love that. And I love to think of Rain, forever fourteen in a little fictional town called Hannesburg, Kansas.

Rain Reviews & Resources

In honor of my work on Rain Is Not My Indian Name, I was named a 2001 Writer of the Year by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers.

Audio File says: “Rich with sorrow and the longing for resolution in a life diminished by loss, the story of Rain’s journey toward her own identity is captivating and exceedingly hopeful.” Check out the unabridged download from Listening Library.

Kirkus Reviews calls it: “Tender, funny, and full of sharp wordplay…”

School Library Journal said: “It is one of the best portrayals around of kids whose heritage is mixed but still very important in their lives. It’s Rain’s story and she cannot be reduced to simple labels. A wonderful novel of a present-day teen and her ‘patch-work tribe.'”

Publishers Weekly: “…readers will feel the affection of Rain’s loose-knit family and admire the way that they, like the author with the audience, allow Rain to draw her own conclusions about who she is and what her heritage means to her.”

See also the Readers Guide and Chapter Insights. Read an excerpt from HarperCollins.

My other books with Native protagonists include a picture book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow, 2000)(ages 4-up), and a chapter book collection of short stories, Indian Shoes, illustrated by Jim Madsen (HarperCollins, 2002)(ages 7-up).

My short stories with Native protagonists include: “A Real Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate” from Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today, edited by Lori M. Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005) and “Riding With Rosa” from Cicada literary magazine (Vol. 7, No. 4, March/April 2005).

I look forward to the publication of “Mooning Over Broken Stars” in Girl Meets Boy, edited by Kelly Milner Halls (Chronicle, spring 2012). My story is a companion to one by distinguished Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac.

Assistant Director Interview: Marina Tristán on Piñata Books (Arte Público Press)

Marina Tristán is the assistant director of Arte Público Press. She is responsible for day-to-day operations, with a particular emphasis in marketing and promoting the press’ books, authors, and programs.

A native Texan, she has worked for Arte Público Press for 25 years. Prior to working at Arte Público, she worked for the USA Today Houston Bureau and the Houston NBC affiliate. She is a graduate of the University of Houston, with a degree in journalism and Spanish.

From the publisher: “Piñata Books is Arte Público Press‘ imprint for children’s and young adult literature. It seeks to authentically and realistically portray themes, characters, and customs unique to U.S. Hispanic culture.”

What inspired you to focus your career on books, especially those published for young readers?

I didn’t consciously seek to focus my career on the book business, though I was an avid reader as a child and I remain a lover of books of all sorts, whether for children or adults. I, like so many people, found myself in the right spot at the right time.

I had just graduated from the University of Houston and was taking graduate courses in Spanish while working at USA Today’s Houston Bureau and at the Houston NBC affiliate.

I went to talk to my professor, Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, the founder and director of Arte Público Press, about a paper I was writing for his class, and he encouraged me to apply for a job with the press.

Could you tell us about Arte Público / Piñata Books?

Arte Público Press’s mission is the publication, promotion and dissemination of Latino literature for a variety of audiences, from early childhood to adult, through the complete gamut of delivery systems, including personal performance as well as print and electronic media.

Arte Público Press is committed to reforming the national culture to more accurately include, value, and reflect Hispanic historical and contemporary contributions.

A program of the University of Houston, Arte Público Press is the oldest and largest Hispanic press in the country. In addition to publishing contemporary literature for adults, Arte Público’s imprint for children and young adults, Piñata Books, publishes children’s literature that authentically portrays themes and customs unique to U.S. Hispanic culture.

Arte Público also has a research and development program called Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project; it works to locate, identify, preserve and make accessible in a variety of formats the literary contributions of U.S. Hispanics from colonial times through 1960 in what today is the United States.

How do you address diversity within U.S. Hispanic culture?

The authors of our books are as diverse as the Latino population in the United States. We publish books by all the groups of Latinos found here, including Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, Central Americans, and others from Latin America.

Another way that we address diversity is through language. We publish books in English, Spanish, and bilingual formats, so our books are available to Hispanics who have lived here for generations and to recent immigrants more comfortable in their native Spanish language.

Could you share with us some history of the line?

Arte Público Press grew out of a literary journal started by our founder and director, Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, who was teaching at Indiana University – Northwest. He realized that his Hispanic students didn’t have the same opportunities as non-Latinos to have their creative work published, so he started a literary magazine, Revista Chicano-Riqueña, in 1972.

The first book, a poetry collection called La Carreta Made a U-Turn written by Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera, was published in 1979. Piñata Books was launched in 1994.

What is its relationship with the University of Houston?

In 1980, Dr. Kanellos was invited to join the faculty at the University of Houston and to bring the press along with him. Arte Público is a university affiliated press in that the university doesn’t decide what gets published but it does provide space and services.

The press benefits by receiving office and warehouse space, utilities, and services (from university departments such as Human Resources, Purchasing, Legal, etc.), and the university benefits from our work in terms of awards, recognition, and funds raised.

Does being based in Houston give the house a different point of view than, say, a NYC-based publisher? If so, how?

Probably more important than our geographic location is our mission, as a non-profit organization, to publish and promote Latino literature and culture. We work with Mexican Americans in the Southwest, from California to Texas; Puerto Ricans in the Northeast; and Cuban Americans in the Southeast.

How would you describe the list now?

Our list has definitely expanded in terms of the types of books we publish and the audience for which they are appropriate. Each season we publish original creative fiction for adults in English; non-fiction books for adults in English that run the gamut from history to public policy; translations into Spanish of creative fiction by U.S. Hispanic authors; bilingual picture books for kids; contemporary fiction in English for teens; and bilingual chapter books for intermediate readers.

Are there any particular books for young readers that you’d like to highlight?

We’re very excited about all of the Piñata Books on the Fall 2011 list. We have books coming out by my favorites, young adult authors René Saldaña, Jr. and Ray Villareal and children’s authors Monica Brown and Diane Gonzales Bertrand.

And we are extremely proud to be publishing Judith Ortiz Cofer’s very first picture book for children, ¡A bailar! Let’s Dance. It is a lyrical, warm look at one community’s love of salsa, both the music and the dance.

What new directions should we know about?

The response to our bilingual “flip” books for intermediate readers has been phenomenal. We’ve published about ten books in this format, that is, one side has the English version, flip the book over and there’s a Spanish version.

The second book in René Saldaña’s Mickey Rangel Mystery series, The Lemon Tree Caper / La intriga del limonero, is being published in this format and it will be released October 31, 2011.

The first book in the series, The Case of the Pen Gone Missing / El caso de la pluma perdida, was a huge success, so we expect a similar response to the new book.

Big picture, what makes Arte Público / Piñata Books special?

Our books are unique because they’re original stories written by U.S. Hispanic authors and they reflect the lives of Hispanics in this country. That is, they’re not translations of stories that have no meaning for Latino kids.

For instance, one of our most popular picture books is called Pepita Talks Twice / Pepita habla dos veces. A young girl struggles with having to translate for the grocer, her teacher, etc., so she decides to quit speaking Spanish. She doesn’t realize that this means she can’t sing songs with the neighbors, talk to her grandmother, and worst of all, her dog Lobo won’t respond when she calls him Wolf. But in order to save Wolf’s life, she has to speak Spanish, and she realizes that it’s a good thing to be bilingual.

All immigrant kids, whether Latino or not, can relate to translating for their parents.

Could you speak to the need for youth literature that reflects the U.S. Hispanic experience?

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is hearing stories from teachers and librarians about the impact our books have on their students. We are frequently told that our books are the ones that disappear and need to be re-ordered over and over again. And while I don’t condone stealing books, it does make me happy that kids want our books.

I’ll never forget a story an English teacher told me years ago while I was exhibiting our books at the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference. She had a confirmed non-reader, a kid who had never read a book. And one morning, she found him on the steps of the school, reading one of our books, Mexican Ghost Tales of the Southwest. Not only was he reading, but he was reading for pleasure on his own time.

Stories like that make everything we do worthwhile. Kids need to see themselves reflected in books; they need to know that their culture, language, family, etc. are valuable and worthy.

How about the need for bilingual books?

Obviously, there are lots of uses for bilingual books. But one story I heard from a teacher confirms that our books create a bridge from school to home. A teacher in New York City had a Puerto Rican student who loved one of our books, Estrellita se despide de su isla / Estrellita Says Good-bye to Her Island, which is about a Puerto Rican girl who leaves her island for the Mainland. The girl was constantly checking the book out to take home to read with her mother. Finally, the teacher bought the book to give to the girl so she would have her own copy.

The power of books never ceases to amaze and thrill me.

How do you connect children’s-YA titles to teachers and librarians?

We do a number of things to make sure teachers and librarians know about our books. We exhibit our books at annual conferences of the Texas Library Association, the American Library Association, the National Association of Bilingual Educators, and the National Council of Teachers of English.

We produce and mail brochures focusing on our Piñata Books for children and young adults and we submit books to numerous recommended reading lists sponsored by teachers and librarians. We also facilitate and support author visits to schools, libraries, community centers, etc. We also actively engage with teachers and librarians via social media marketing such as Facebook, Scribd, and Twitter.

Have your marketing strategies changed during the recent economic downturn? If so, how and what is your rationale?

Like everyone these days, we have had to be much more careful with our expenditures. We have found ways to save money in regards to the cost of printing and mailing our brochures; we have eliminated some conferences from our schedule; and unfortunately, we have had to reduce our contributions to author travel. Our authors actively work to promote their books all over the country, and these days they have to incur more of the costs to do these events.

Where your house description reads “realistically,” should we take that to mean that you’re closed to speculative fiction?

Well, I don’t think we should ever say “never,” but the reality is we haven’t—up to now—published any science fiction or speculative fiction. That doesn’t mean we won’t, if the right project comes along.

When it says “authentically,” should we take that to team that you’re exclusively looking for book creators personally raised in the U.S. Hispanic culture or are you also open to folks writing/illustrating cross-culturally?

Again, never say never, but in general, our mission is to provide publishing opportunities to Latino authors. We have, over the years, published a handful of books that were not written by Latinos.

Specifically, we published two biographies about Latino baseball players that weren’t written by Hispanic authors: The Orlando Cepeda Story and The Tall Mexican: The Life of Hank Aguirre, All-Star Pitcher, Businessman, Humanitarian.

Do you accept unagented work?

Definitely! Most of our authors don’t have agents.

What recommendations do you have for children’s-YA book creators in the submissions process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

I think all authors who want to see their works published need to be careful to submit their manuscripts to houses that publish similar material. It’s frustrating to receive thousands of submissions each year that don’t fit the parameters of our publishing program. Those authors are wasting their time and money (printing of manuscript, postage to mail it, etc.) and our time as well.

So my recommendation is to always do your research. Make sure you’re submitting appropriately. Follow the publisher’s submission guidelines.

For instance, the guidelines on our website clearly state that all manuscripts should be submitted online, but we still receive tons of manuscripts in the mail. Which is fine; we will certainly review the manuscripts that we receive in the mailbox. But it’s definitely cheaper, easier, and more efficient for author and publisher if manuscripts are submitted online per our guidelines.

Are there any special considerations in submitting a bilingual book?

It’s great to work with authors that are able to translate / provide both English and Spanish versions of their text. Most of the writers we work with aren’t that bilingual, so they submit their story in one language, and then we work with a team of translators to provide the second language.

There’s been a lot of discussion of late about the current state and future of the picture book. What do you think?

I don’t think picture books, or any kind of books for that matter, are going away. Books’ formats are definitely evolving, and a lot of people are adding digital books to their reading experience.

I admit to reading on devices (both a Kindle and an iTouch), but I also read physical books and I listen to audio books in the car. I’m enjoying books and reading in as many ways as I can, and none of these formats is exclusive of the other.

If I’m traveling by plane, I prefer to carry one physical book and several digital books. It lightens my load. If I’m traveling by car, I like to have several audio books on hand and a physical book or two as well.

I think parents with the economic means to add digital books to their kids’ reading mix will do so. The kids we can’t forget about are those who don’t have access to Kindles, Nooks, iPhones, iTouches, etc.

Guest Post: Gretchen Woelfle on the Perks of an Itinerant Writer

By Gretchen Woelfle

Remember those vocational quizzes they gave us in grade school? You write down what you like to do, and your perfect career pops up. I can’t remember what they told me I should become, but I figured it out on my own, decades later.

After many jobs circling the book-writing field – copyeditor, researcher, picture researcher, book and art reviewer, scriptwriter – I stumbled upon writing for children, thanks to a job layoff. And it fit me perfectly.

Two of my passions are reading and traveling the world (with a side order of hiking and cycling), and I shamelessly indulge them all on the job. The reading never ends. Before, during, and after writing a book, I continue to read books about my subject. The traveling usually comes before I begin writing.

My latest book, a middle grade novel, All the World’s A Stage: A Novel in Five Acts, illustrated by Thomas Cox (Holiday House, 2011) takes place in Shakespeare’s theater company in 1598-1599.

I took several trips to explore the Elizabethan footprint of the City of London, the original walled square-mile of the present-day metropolis. My daughter lived in London at the time and loaned me her extra bicycle.

The City, teeming with people in 1599, today houses financiers during the day and virtually no one at night. Bicycling through the deserted streets on a Sunday evening, trying to find relevant sites for my story, was an eerie experience. It felt like an Elizabethan time-traveler might round any corner and lure me into a hidden alley.

Guided London Walks took me to forgotten corners of Shakespeare’s London. The archivist of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters, housed on the same ground since 1429, led me to the library at Guildhall, scene of a frolic in my novel.

Not much sixteenth century architecture is left in London, so I took a twenty-five mile cycling trip to the Elizabethan Hunting Lodge in Epping Forest to soak up atmosphere.

Much of All the World’s A Stage takes place backstage in Shakespeare’s theatre. I took the normal tour of the new Globe and visited its museum, but that didn’t get me backstage. A phone call to the press office revealed that the theater was dark only one afternoon a week, but yes, they would give me a personal tour then.

I even managed to climb up to “heaven” (above the balcony) from where the gods descend. Essential to my research, of course, was my attendance at all the Shakespeare plays I could fit in. The company at the Globe is magnificent. Will would revel, I trow, in both its traditional and contemporary productions.

Any writer will tell you that only a small part of his/her research ends up in the final book. The Elizabethan Hunting Lodge didn’t make the cut in All the World’s A Stage, nor did the history of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters. But an unrelated (so I thought) trip to Aldebugh, Suffolk’s Moot Hall and a stunning skyscape that afternoon, did.

My first book, The Wind at Work: An Activity Guide to Windmills (Chicago Review Press, 1997) meant a trip to the Netherlands for on-the-ground research.

I visited the usual suspects: Zaanse Schans, a cool tourist destination with lot of working windmills; and the Kinderdijk for a boat ride past nineteen water pumping mills (which inspired my second book, Katje the Windmill Cat, illustrated by Nicola Bayley (Candlewick, 2006)).

Also tax deductible were days cycling to the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Rembrandt’s House, all of which contain marvelous paintings, drawings, and etchings of windmills, some of which ended up in the book, and one (Rembrandt) on my office wall. No need to call Interpol – it’s a reproduction.

Most intriguing was my visit to one of seven hundred Volunteer Windmillers, all trained and licensed by their Guild, as he ran a restored windmill one Sunday afternoon. No other tourists around, just me and my windmiller discussing the finer points of history and engineering as the giant wooden gears creaked and groaned.

I learned things that no book had told me: Every self-respecting miller hung a lump of rancid pork fat from a rafter, to grease the gears. And to keep out woodworm, my windmiller ran his mill every weekend. The ubiquitous creaking and groaning makes Mama Woodworm avoid the mill and seek a still, quiet site to lay her eggs, which would otherwise hatch, eat the wooden gears, and destroy the mill.

A different sort of adventure awaited me back home in California: a private tour of a wind turbine factory in Tehachapi and a windy hike through a nearby wind farm on the Pacific Crest Trail. Those turbines are enormous and beautiful: sculptures in the landscape.

Some wind farm opponents bemoan the ruination of the view, but the Dutch windmills that we find so charming now, endured the same complaints when they were built. I’ll be writing an updated edition of The Wind at Work this summer, and searching out more wind turbine adventures.

I’m now writing biographies, and, while I didn’t choose my subjects for their places of residence, I have tracked them from Virginia to Nova Scotia, to the English countryside, and on to Paris, France. Tough job, I know, but hey, it’s my destiny!

Cynsational Notes

In the photo above, Gretchen and her illustrator, Thomas Cox, are standing at the Globe Theatre in London.

From the promotional copy of All The World’s A Stage:

Suddenly a hand gripped the back of his neck. “Cutpurse!’ Kit is caught!

Twelve-year-old orphan Kit Buckles, seeking his fortune in Elizabethan London, has bungled his first job as a pickpocket at the Theatre Playhouse where the Lord Chamberlain’s Men are performing. To avoid jail, Kit agrees to work for the playhouse and soon grows fond of the life there: the dramas on- and offstage. Things get truly exciting when Kit joins the plot to steal the playhouse from the landlord who has evicted the company.

Based on fact, this coming-of-age story offers a vivid picture of life behind the curtain at Shakespeare’s theater.

Summer Reading: Blessed Giveaway & Tantalize: Kieren’s Story Winner

Nancy, a middle school librarian in Texas, is the winner of Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, a graphic novel by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, Aug. 2011), plus a magnetic Sanguini’s wipe board!

Note: Sanguini’s is the fictional restaurant that appears in Tantalize and Tantalize: Kieren’s Story.


Enter to win a copy of Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2011) from A Simple Love of Reading. Deadline: midnight EST, June 22. This giveaway is for U.S.-Canada readers. Enter here.