My Dream Job: Embracing the Full-Time Author’s Life

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

I didn’t used to like thinking about contracts.

As a law student, Contracts was the only class in which I earned a C. “Earned” being an interesting choice of verb. And to be candid, I received that C largely by the grace of Professor St. Antoine—a legend in his field who truly deserved more of my attention.

I could point to the fact that this core requirement at The University of Michigan Law School was scheduled at 8 a.m., and until my thirties, I didn’t believe in doing anything before 10 a.m.

I could also point to my staggering absentee rate for the first hour of my first year. I believe there are new attendance rules that no longer permit such lackadaisical behavior.

But nevertheless, there it was. The C. Which, even at a school that sneered at rampant grade inflation, was a sign of a less-than-good performance. A far from stellar one.

Certainly, nothing to bank on.

It’s perhaps a sign of God’s sense of humor—or sense of irony—that these days I make my living by securing one contract after another to connect my manuscripts to readers.

I have an absolutely fantastic agent, who handles my negotiations (and so much more). But it seems only logical that I pay attention to the business side of my, well, business. So I do my best to keep up so I can ask thoughtful questions, make the occasional suggestion, and pinpoint (or at least stumble upon) new opportunities.

Focusing on publishing as an industry takes precious time. It’s occasionally boring, sometimes tedious, and in the current economic climate, too often discouraging. Moreover, it wasn’t part of my dream of becoming a full-time writer.

Don’t get me wrong, I was never one of those people who wanted to have written instead of dedicating myself to writing as a process.

Some writing days are more challenging for me than others, but ultimately, they’re what make the creative journey more satisfying.

I also realized early on, that for everyone who thought they had a book in them, only a relative handful of us had the gumption and work ethic to make that happen. I was determined to be in the roaring minority who could finish a competitive manuscript.

What I hadn’t realized was how many fronts I’d have to tackle after an editor said “yes” and offered–you guessed it–a contract to seal the deal.

Yes, suddenly, a contract had become a reason for celebration! A contract seemed like the most wonderful thing in the world! But before long, I wasn’t only a writer any more. I was an author, too.

As an author, I’m still writer. But I’m also a publicity, marketing and public relations professional, a public speaker, a teacher, and a student of a rapidly changing industry. Doing all that gradually led me to more than double the time I allocated to my career. Meanwhile, the challenges of building an audience required me to pick up the pace on the creative front. Since I broke into publishing just over a decade ago, expectations for authors have risen across the board.

Of late, I’ve prepped for the release of my first graphic novel, chatted with an app developer, and done market research on the use of QR codes. I’ve also reviewed publisher art notes for my second graphic novel, continued rough drafting my next prose novel, read a handful of manuscripts by other writers, and I’m reviewing first-pass pages this week.

At some point I realized that if I was going to do this full-time (and eat), I’d have to continue to push myself to grow in my job.

And that’s what it is: a job.

It’s not merely a dream, it’s my day-to-day responsibility.

Among other things, that means I have to say “no” to a lot of other competing opportunities. It means I have to sometimes disappoint people who don’t understand that working for yourself means that you typically give much more than if you worked for someone else.

I’ve learned to make the most of the blessing of flexibility while shouldering the burden of being my own boss. And I’ve learned that those who’re truly rooting for me understand and support that.

I may not enjoy every moment of it, but I can think of countless ways that other hard-working people make a living that I’d prefer less.

In fact, there’s absolutely nothing in the world than I’d rather do than write books for young readers.

It’s not a purely creative pursuit, and it forces me out of my comfort zone. But I still love it.

I know I love it because I’m willing to work at it, because I’m willing to accept that I have to change sometimes, too, and because it welcomes me again and again into the magical world of books and the people who care about them.

Come to think of it, this job is my dream come true.

Cynsational Notes

You don’t have to write full-time to be a successful author. What’s more, you don’t have to be a published author to be a successful writer. There are a myriad of journeys and opportunities in a writing life; it’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

I’m a little intense, which is how I ended up at law school in the first place.

My choices are informed by my own goals, the fact that I’m not independently wealthy, and those areas in which I elect to focus my attention.

In fact, my own strategies have changed over the years and, I’m sure, will continue to do so. For example, I’m on an extended leave from the Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty and only taking the occasional private student. However, I’ve taught part-time in the past and will do so again.

Or, put more succinctly, your experience and priorities may vary, and that’s totally okay.

I will now refer to myself in the third person…

Photos by Cynthia Leitich Smith, class of 1994, of The University of Michigan Law School.

Cynthia is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, as well as the forthcoming Tantalize: Kieren’s Story and Diabolical. Her award-winning books for younger children include Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, Rain Is Not My Indian Name and Holler Loudly. She also has published several middle grade and young adult short stories. Her very cute husband is author Greg Leitich Smith.

Blessed Is Now Available on Audio from Listening Library/Random House

Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith, read by Kim Mai Guest is now available on audio from Listening Library/Random House.

From the publisher: “Kim Mai Guest (pictured) has been voice acting for several years. She’s worked on a variety of animated shows including ‘Rocket Power,’ ‘Rugrats,’ and ‘Hack’ and ‘Justice League.’ She has also voiced dozens of video games, commercials, and numerous Books on Tape and Listening Library audiobooks.”

Learn more about Blessed, and check out this excerpt of Kim reading from the novel as the voice of Quincie P. Morris:

Guest Post: Jennifer A. Nielsen on Losing Your Audience? Do This, Not That.

By Jennifer A. Nielsen

If you’ve spent any time speaking to a group, then you’ve experienced it: the awful feeling of losing the audience’s attention and not knowing how to get it back.

This happens to everyone from novice to professional speakers. However, the complication we often face as writers is that public speaking is not what we signed up for with this career. We chose a profession that is notoriously private, largely solitary, and that rivals cave dwelling for the way it caters to introverts.

Then suddenly we have a book deal, and the pressure to publicly promote it begins.

There are a lot of blogs with general tips for public speaking. So to be more specific here, if you find yourself speaking to a group and losing their attention, here are some of my favorite DOs and DON’Ts.

DO: Have a message worth sharing. The audience will listen when they want to know what you have to say. So find a message you feel passionate enough about that you can speak with genuine conviction, enthusiasm, and confidence. As I visited schools last year, my main message is that it’s within every person to become extraordinary. It’s something I truly believe in, and that I very much want all children to understand. That single fact made it easier to hold their attention than any amount of training I’ve had as a speaker.

DON’T: Talk louder. When you go louder, it only makes the whispers louder. Instead, go quieter, or even go completely silent. Calmly wait for the attention to return to you, ask for it if necessary, then continue on. There’s no point in talking over a whispering audience. When you do, it confirms to them that you’re not saying anything important.

DO: Avoid attention failures happening in the first place by knowing your audience. Young children won’t sit through long lectures. In contrast, although a lot of silliness is entertaining, it’ll distract the children as they chat about it with their friends. And if you fail to offer enough meat to adult groups, expect them to turn to a round of Angry Birds instead of listening.

More about this book.

DON’T: Come alone. If you can bring visual aids (props, PowerPoint, video clips, etc), do it, especially when working with children. This is a multimedia generation, and if you can engage them visually, holding their attention becomes much easier.

DO: Move. Whenever possible, you should never hide behind a podium or stand in one spot to speak. So if you can move about, walk closer to the areas where attention is lagging. That simple act will greatly improve your audience’s attention.

DON’T: Make an attention-getting promise you can’t fulfill. Such as, “And then the most amazing thing happened!” Sure, you’ll grab attention for a moment, but if you’re not about to say the most amazing thing, you’ll have cheated your audience. And they’ll know it.

DO: Use humor. If this comes natural to you, then great! If not, plan in advance a few funny lines or funny props to help recapture attention when necessary.

DON’T: Become frustrated. Audience management is part of the job for all public speakers. Since this happens to everyone, it’s not a personal reflection of how you’re doing. So take it in stride and continue on. But if you become flustered, angry, or panicked, nothing gets better. Stay calm, and bring them back to you.

More about this book.

DO: Have fun. Public speaking offers you the opportunity to genuinely impact people’s lives. As long as you have something worth saying, then enjoy your moment. Because no matter what your skill level as a speaker, if you are having fun, then the audience will too.

Cynsational Notes

Jennifer A. Nielsen is a Communication Education major and author of The Underworld Chronicles series. The second book in that series, Elliot and the Pixie Plot, was just released with Sourcebooks Publishing. In April 2012, she will release The False Prince with Scholastic. Jennifer is a frequent presenter at schools and adult writing workshops.

Holler Loudly is a Finalist for the Writers’ League of Texas Children’s-YA Book Award

I’m honored to report that my latest picture book, Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott, is a finalist for the Writers’ League of Texas Children’s/YA Book Award.

From the League: “Winners in each category receive a $1000 cash prize, a commemorative award and an appearance at the 2011 Texas Book Festival. The 2011 contest is open to American authors of books published in 2010. Authors are not required to be members of the Writers’ League of Texas.” Note: the 2011 award program is sponsored by University Co-op.

Here’s the whole list:

Shark Vs. Train by Chris Barton

A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata

Holler Loudly by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy

Betti on the High Wire by Lisa Railsback


Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber

Cynsational Notes

What a thrill to see Holler Loudly (interior page) featured in such distinguished company! See interviews with illustrator Barry Gott and education writer Shannon Morgan, who wrote the teacher guides. See also teacher guides for pre-K, kindergarten, grade 1 and grade 2.

New Voice: Ashlee Fletcher on My Dog, My Cat

Ashlee Fletcher is the first-time author-illustrator of My Dog, My Cat (Tanglewood, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Readers learn the differences between dogs and cats and the way that love can bind even the most different of creatures together.

Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

When I got “the call” that my children’s book was being published I was going to the mall with my mom.

I was just pulling up into the parking lot when Peggy Tierney, the editor at Tanglewood Press, called. Peggy had emailed me about a week before and had warned me that she would be calling sometime early the following week. I parked my car and quickly answered the phone!

Peggy told me: “congratulations, you’re now a published author and illustrator!”

I was absolutely ecstatic and even more happy that my mom was there for that great moment in my life. I cried, and she cried. We hugged and hopped out of the car.

We celebrated by first calling all of my family and friends. Then proceeded into the mall where I bought a very cute yellow dress to match a pair of yellow shoes I had at home already.

As an author-illustrator, you come to children’s books with a double barrel of talent. Could you describe your apprenticeship in each area, and how well (or not) your inner writer and artist play together? What advice do you have for others interested in succeeding on this front?

I am first and foremost an illustrator. I have always loved to draw, paint, doodle, sketch—you name it really—but what inspires me to be an artist is writing.

Both of my talents really feed off of each other. In order for me to illustrate, I need to have a great story, and in order for me to write, I need to express myself visually.

I grew up wanting to be an artist, and that is what I love to do the best. I did art throughout high school and continued my studies at Laguna College of Art & Design in Laguna Beach, California. I studied there for four years and completed my bachelor’s degree in 2009.

In college, I studied fine art and illustration ranging from traditional figure and landscape painting to graphic design and printmaking. I really got into designing and writing children’s books after I took a picture book illustration course at school. We learned how to layout, design and construct a full children’s book in a semester, and I was hooked.

If I was going to offer anyone advice on how to be a children’s book writer or illustrator, I would say sketch, doodle, use your imagination and just be creative.

One of the things I was most thankful for was making a schedule for myself. I wrote everything down I wanted to accomplish in my calendar and was very sure to complete everything on the list. I studied up on each and every publisher’s submissions guidelines and made certain to cater to each company’s standards. I submitted my dummies and manuscripts and waited, but while I waited, I was productive on keeping up my website and designing new books.

I guess my main advice would be to be positive and stay productive!

Cynsational Notes

Valley publisher Peggy Tierney’s business has been booming Tanglewood Press has published more than 35 titles by Brian M. Boyce from Tribune-Star in Terre Haute, Indiana. Peek: “A No. 1 title on the New York Times bestseller list, The Kissing Hand (by Audrey Penn, illustrated by Ruth E. Harper) sells about 100,000 copies a year and has sold 3.3 million copies to date.”

Guest Post: Mark Jeffrey on The Rules About Rules

By Mark Jeffrey

When you create a fantastical world, the rules of that world must be consistent and have an inbuilt, self-logic. So long as you maintain that internal consistency, your readers will buy into your world and believe in it. But if you slip up, if you establish a rule and then break it later, your readers will cry foul.

This is a pretty difficult thing to do, especially the more material you produce. Imagine something like “Star Trek” or “Doctor Who,” franchises with hundreds or thousands of episodes spanning 30 to 40 years. Writing new episodes that respect the established internal consistency is a nightmare.

And this is why the current custodians of those brands came up with reboot plot devices that effectively nullified the entire past: in the case of “Star Trek,” the latest movie established an entirely new timeline as a result of time travel. With “Doctor Who,” a villain known as The Silence was introduced: these beings can only be remembered when you are looking directly at them. Look away, and you forget they even exist. And they have been influencing human history “since the wheel and the fire.” Now anytime something is inconsistent, the Silence can always be used to “retcon” it: Oh, it was the The Silence in the past who actually changed this and that, but nobody remembers because they’re The Silence.

In my most recent novel, Max Quick: The Pocket and The Pendant (HarperCollins, 2011), I introduce a concept known as The Pocket. As the novel opens, time stops all over the world—except for certain kids. But in this time-stopped world—which the kids name the Pocket—physics are different. All energy is amplified. You can run at super-speeds, for example. But you are not suddenly Superman: you are still flesh and blood. If you hit a wall running at 60 miles per hour, you are going to severely injure yourself or even die.

My thinking here was that force = mass x acceleration; since acceleration is a function of time, if time tends towards zero, then force tends toward infinity. So I had to be careful to apply this rule consistently. For example, when the kids try to start a car, the engine immediately seizes up and dies. This is because the engine is meticulously designed to operate within normal physics: the amplified physics of the Pocket throw it out of whack.

Now here’s a little secret: when I initially wrote this scene, I had the kids find a motorcycle and ride it. And it was only later that I realized that I’d violated my rule of amplified physics: objects can be pulled out of stopped time and “heated up,” but once they are, then they are subject to Pocket physics the same as everything and everyone else—and, thus, mechanical things would certainly not work.

Now, some people have asked me about light in the Pocket. If time were stopped, wouldn’t light be stopped as well? Well, technically, yes. Everything would be pitch black, I suppose. But this wouldn’t make for a very good story, now would it?

Which brings me to the second points: romantically correct versus really correct. I watched a “making of” DVD extra with George Lucas where he related that the way Yoda’s cape epically flowed as he fought was not actually correct according to physics. The tech who worked on the CGI Yoda argued for the cape to conform to actual physics, but Lucas insisted it remain “romantically correct,” as it looked cooler.

And this same principle can apply to science in fantastical settings. Yes, light probably would be stopped in the Pocket. But that is not romantically correct because it would make the story lame.

The same goes for “Star Trek” episodes where people are “out of phase” and can thus walk through walls—why don’t they just fall through the floor? Because then there would be no story.

Here’s the thing: scientifically speaking, if you could walk through walls, you should also fall through the floor (assuming there is gravity). These two facts are inconsistent with one another, they are irreconcilable. But in fiction, if you make it a rule that, in your universe, characters do not fall through the floor, and you stick to that dogmatically, you can get away with it.

Just don’t break those rules later. Don’t randomly have someone fall through the floor to neatly tie up the plot.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

How Writing About Terrible Things Makes Your Reader a Better Person by Donna Jo Napoli from The Official SCBWI Conference Blog. Peek: “‘Characters who are hopeful and hold onto their dignity show readers a way to live decently in their world–even if it’s only inside their heads,’ she says. ‘These books are of crucial importance to the unprotected child.’ It’s even more important for the protected child….” See the rest of the conference coverage. See also 6 Social Media Steps to Take After a Conference or Big Event by Greg Pincus from The Happy Accident.

Ladies, Don’t Let Anyone Tell You That You Or Your Female Protagonist Isn’t Awesome by Sarah Rees Brennan from Sarah Tells Tales. Peek: “Talking about girls in this way is not useful. It just helps along the mindset that girls can’t be awesome, the lie all girls get told, whispered in their ears over and over again, all through their lives.” See also Ladies, Ladies, Ladies from Holly Black.

Superheroes for All: African-American Comic Book Artists Push the Envelope by Ann Brown from The Network Journal. Peek: “African-Americans in the comics industry may be a rare concept, but they are making more than a little noise. In fact, while their contributions may go unnoticed by the general public, they have helped changed the face of the field.

” Source: Bowllan’s Blog at SLJ.

How to Celebrate Book Week 2011: One World, Many Stories from Aug. 20 to Aug. 26 in Australia from The Book Chook. Peek: “This is a great theme to introduce your children to literature from other cultures. I thought I’d help you get organized ahead this year, so you can plunder the library and plan your celebrations!”

Stephanie Brown’s Intrinsic Importance to the Bat-verse by J.L. Bell from Oz and Ends. Peek: “Both within the fictional DC Universe and within the fan culture around that universe, Stephanie Brown came to symbolize someone who wasn’t getting any breaks.”

I (Won’t Let Myself) Get Satisfaction by Michelle Ray from EMU’s Debuts. Peek: “Being published has been one of the best things in my life, yet it’s fraught with emotional challenges.”

How Does Your Story Sound? by Cambria Dillon from Adventures in Children’s Publishing. Peek: “My point is that you have to consider how your words sound when someone else reads them aloud. Someone else who isn’t trying to dissect your dialogue for awkwardness or scoff because you used ‘blaze’ when ‘inferno’ would’ve been a better choice.”

Relationships Focus Characters by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “Asking about relationship seems easier to me than asking about how to characterize. It’s interactive, as one character does something, the other must respond. If I can find a central thing around which I can center conflict and reveal character with that, it will work.”

Author Interview: Amy Lim from Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind. Peek: “I would say any children’s literature generated locally would constitute Singapore children’s literature for me…. There have been recent strides in terms of support, with the First Time Writers and Illustrators Initiative doing a great job in kickstarting several of us into the realm of published writers.”

Thoughts from Picture Book Peeks: The Picture Book Pitch by Jean Reidy from A Totally Random Romp. Peek: “…a one-sentence summary is just as important for picture books. Why?”

How Big is the Writing Community? by Shelli Cornelison from Shelli’s Soliloquy. Peek: “The next time I hear a writer talk about the ‘community’ I think it will have a much deeper meaning for me. I never really took the time to sit and ponder the awesomeness of it before.”

The Art of Revision: Micro Revising by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: “Micro revision is all about the scene. Is the scene—the building block of my novel—working? Is it carrying its weight? Has it earned its place in the story?”

Bookish Ways in Math and Science: a blog about integrating children’s literature in elementary math and science from Tricia of The Miss Rumphius Effect Fame.

Publishing Gives Hints of Revival, Data Shows by Julie Bosman from The New York Times. Peek: “Juvenile books, which include the current young-adult craze for paranormal and dystopian fiction, grew 6.6 percent over three years.” Note: hug a paranormal/dystopian writer. Source: Gwenda Bond.

Books-A-Million to Replace Borders in Sumpter, South Carolina from Business Wire. Peek: “The Company presently operates 231 stores in 23 states and the District of Columbia. The Company operates large superstores under the names Books-A-Million and Books & Co. and traditional bookstores operating under the names Bookland and Books-A-Million.”

Picture Book to Novel Checklist by Kathy Temean from Writing and Illustrating. Peek: “Ask these questions after your first draft and each revision draft. You should be using this list many times before submitting your manuscript to an editor or agent. The most often mistake writers make is to send their writting in too early.”

Figuring Out Your Strengths and Weaknesses by Danyelle Leafty from QueryTrackerblog.net. Peek: “…how do you discover what you need to work on and what you’re good at, but could amp up?”

Behind Jo Knowles’ Pearl by Gordon West from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: “When someone you love dies unexpectedly, there are naturally many regrets and questions. I think there’s a natural progression of uncovering things you didn’t know about the person as you strive to make sense of his or her life.” See also the “deleted scene” from the interview from Jo.

Do It Yourself: Making a Book Trailer by Christine Norris from Kathy Temean at Writing and Illustrating. Peek: “I spent about four hours of my time (most of that listening to music tracks and rearranging slides) and zero dollars to put this trailer together. And hey, if I can do it, you can too!”

Don’t Feel Guilty About “Playing” Around Online from Jane Friedman. Peek: “If your play is building stronger connections to other people, opening your mind up to new possibilities, spreading the word about what you do, or helping you understand things about yourself and your writing, then continue to play.”

The First Filipino Reader Conference is scheduled from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sept. 14 at the SMX Mall of Asia (Metro Manila, Philippines), Meeting Room 2. See more information from Asia in the Heart, World on the Mind.

FuseNews: a youth literature new round-up by Elizabeth Bird at A Fuse #8 Production from School Library Journal. Peek: “Cynsations is created by author Cynthia Leitich Smith, and is so exhaustive that I wonder how she has time to write her YA fiction.” Note: thanks for the shout out!

WriteOnCon

The second annual summer WriteOnCon is a 100 percent free, interactive online Writer’s Conference, scheduled Aug. 16 to Aug. 18. Peek: “WriteOnCon is also not exclusive to kidlit writers. In order to stay organized, the curriculum is focused on picture book, middle grade, and young adult writers. However, much of the information provided applies to all writers, and many of the publishing professionals who participate cross over.” Check out the faculty.

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win a signed copy of Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri (Candlewick, 2011)! To enter, comment at this link or email me and type “Ghetto Cowboy” in the subject line. Extra entry if you share your best close encounter with a horse or a true life event that inspired you to write about it. Author sponsored; U.S./Canada entries only. Deadline: midnight CST Aug. 22.

Enter to win an autographed copy of Blood Ties, book 6 of the Blood Coven Vampires series by Mari Mancusi, newly released by Penguin.

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 me directly with “Blood Ties” in the subject line. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada entries only. Deadline: midnight CST Aug. 13.

The winner of an author-signed bookmark and copy of Bumped by Megan McCafferty (HarperTeen, 2011) was Ashley in Ohio. Congratulations to Ashley! Thanks to Megan and all who entered!

This Week’s Cynsations Posts

Support Schools in Joplin with Books & More

Superintendent C.J. Huff explains some of the ways you can get involved in helping students and teachers in Joplin, Missouri following the tornado. See more information from Caroline Starr Rose.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out this book trailer for The Poisoned House: A Ghost Story by Michael Ford (Albert Whitman, Sept. 2011). See also Victorian YA: Teen Heroines Kicking Down the Pedestal by Michelle in Marketing from Boxcars, Books, and a Blog: Albert Whitman Co.

Revenge is Best Served Loud by Vicky Smith from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: YA author Lara Zielin and Kirkus punch, counter-punch, and walk away friends. See also Editing Letter.

How to Get the Most Out of a Manuscript Critique: an Interview with Agent Jill Corcoran from Lee Wind at the Official SCBWI Conference Blog.

Celebrating Sean Petrie

About 20 Austin children’s-YA writers and illustrators gathered Aug. 5 at Rounders Pizzeria in Austin to celebrate Sean Petrie, who graduated this summer with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. (Yes, that’s Frankie and Sammy in the background.) Photos courtesy of Bethany Hegedus.

Sean shows off his graduation gift from Christy Stallop.
YA authors Mari Mancusi and Varian Johnson, who’s also a VCFA grad.
Author & VCFA grad Lindsey Lane with semester 1 student Elizabeth White.
Rounders Pizzeria pepperoni & mushroom.

More Personally

Highlights of the week included 2011 Literacy Texas Annual Conference, which took place Aug. 8 and Aug. 9 at the Austin Westin at the Domain.

Friendly faces included library & literacy goddess Jen Bigheart.

I presented a workshop with the dynamic and inspiring Judy Blankenship Cheatham, vice president, Literacy Services, for Reading Is Fundamental. Judy is shown here with Debbie Johnson, executive director of Literacy Texas.

In our session, Judy talked about using Jingle Dancer to build literacy.
On the creative front, I received my first pass pages for Diabolical.

YA Novel Tantalize: Adapted to Graphic Novel from New POV by Zack Smith from Newsarama. An Interview with author Cynthia Leitich Smith and illustrator Ming Doyle. Peek from Ming: “…one of the things I liked most of Tantalize on my first read through was how much it reminded me of a Holmesian adventure, with a healthy and intriguing dose of the mythical and bizarre thrown in for good measure.”

Book Review: Tantalize (the prose novel) by Cynthia Leitich Smith from The Obscure Vixen. Peek: “Huge kudos to Cynthia Leitich Smith for giving me the refreshing, amazing read that I needed! This story takes off at the first page, and just keeps going. It has everything: romance, deceit, suspense, vampires and werewolves…” Note: 5 out of 5 stars! 

Personal Links:

From Greg Leitich Smith

Find Cyn: Author Site; Blogger; Facebook; Google Plus, JacketFlap; LiveJournal; Twitter; YouTube.

Cynsational Events

Attention, Houstonians! Please join Cynthia Leitich Smith for a discussion and signing of Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (Candlewick, 2011) at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston.

Note: “This event is free and open to the public. In order to go through the signing line and meet Cynthia Leitich Smith for book personalization, you must purchase Tantalize: Kieren’s Story from Blue Willow Bookshop. A limited number of autographed copies of Cynthia’s books will be available for purchase after the event. If you cannot attend the event, but would like a personalized copy of her book, please call Blue Willow before the event at 281.497.8675.”

Guest Post: Goddess Girls authors Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams on Sustaining a Series Over Time

By Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Goddess Girls started out as a four-book series for ages 8-12 that puts a modern spin on classic myths and follows the ins and outs of divine social life at Mount Olympus Academy.

We hoped that if the series was successful, our publisher, Aladdin, would request additional books. We hoped this, but we didn’t expect it. We’d each written other series that didn’t go beyond the original number of contracted books.

As we write, the sixth book in this series, Aphrodite the Diva, is just out. Book 7: Artemis the Loyal will be published in December, and Book 8: Medusa the Mean releases in April 2012.

And we’ve just contracted to write four more: a Super Special with a tie-in to the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympics, followed by three more for a total of twelve.

To allow room for growth, we structured Goddess Girls in an open-ended way. Though the first seven books were narrated by one of our original four main goddessgirls—Athena, Persephone, Aphrodite, and Artemis—you can tell by the title for Book 8 that we’re branching out to feature other girl characters who’ve thus far played minor roles in previous books.

Every book is populated by a familiar cast of Greek gods, goddesses, demigods, and mortals—all students at Mount Olympus Academy. Sometimes, as with Book 6, we also bring in characters like the Egyptian goddess, Isis, from other pantheons. All the books have an actual Greek myth or two at their cores.

Factors contributing to the success of Goddess Girls are difficult, if not impossible, to tease apart. Nevertheless here are our thoughts:

(1) We picked the right topic at the right time.

Goddess Girls published soon after Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series came out. His series created a hunger for Greek Mythology-based fiction. Our series was able to capitalize on that interest, plus our books appeal especially to girl readers.

(2) We’ve promoted this series much more than our earlier books. 

A lot of this promotion involves social media. We do blog tours and Blog Hops that include book and swag giveaways. We both have Facebook pages, blogs, and author websites. We connect with our readers daily on our Goddess Girls Facebook page.

Joan tweets. Suzanne doesn’t. (But Suzanne does speak at schools, and at conferences for teachers and librarians.)

We’ve also started to do more virtual visits with classrooms and book clubs through Skype Authors. And we both do occasional in-store book signings too.

(3) It’s just possible that we write middle grade books better as a team than we do as individuals.

A favorite reviewer of ours thinks so, and she could be right. Two heads are better than one.

The big secret to successful collaboration is: Choose the right co-author! Someone who meets deadlines and has a writing style similar to your own.

Whatever the reasons for the Goddess Girls series success so far, we are loving it and plan to keep writing the books for as long as we can!

Cynsational Notes

Guest Post: Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams on the Goddess Girls series from Cynsations (April 2010). Peek: “We tossed our egos out the window and mercilessly rewrote each other’s work until the series began to sound as if one author had written it.”

Author-Educator Interview: Katie Monnin on Teaching Graphic Novels to Young Readers

From Maupin House: “Katie Monnin is an assistant professor of literacy at University of North Florida in Jacksonville. She has presented nationally at conferences on teaching graphic novels in the classroom, image and print-text literacies, and new media. Katie is the co-editor of Florida Reading Quarterly.”

How did you come to be so interested in graphic literature for young readers?

Great question! But I have to backup a bit in history to give you the answer.

Unlike many people whom I admire and now work with, I was not a comic or graphic novel kid. I never read comics or graphic novels growing up, which, looking back now, fuels my now-passionate desire to get more kids to read comics and graphic novels, for comics and graphic novels can open up an entirely new format of reading for younger kids whose strong suit might not be print-text, traditional literacies.

So here’s what happened to lead up to being interested in graphic literature for young readers. At twenty-three, I had both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, both in English Literature and Creative Writing. But I just felt like something was still missing. I couldn’t fill some sort of void I had in my heart for defining literature on a more modern, global scale.

Then, one day, Maus by Art Spiegelman literally fell off a bookshelf and hit my square in the head. Being somewhat superstitious, I opened it up and said: “A graphic novel? This isn’t really reading.”

Despite my objections, however, a greater force had gotten the best of me, and I sat down to read it anyway, preparing in my mind only to make fun of it from my literary-ignorant-poise I thought my degrees in English and Creative Writing had given me permission to project out into the world.

Boy was I wrong! As I read Maus, my young and arrogant idea of what counted as literature dissolved into the past. This graphic novel was not only literary, but also brilliant! It operated on two literary levels; both the image and the words fit every single definition of literature I had ever thought of.

And it was with that realization that I felt my heart fill with an intense passion to share my new found golden treasure with others. I spent the next eleven years reading, studying, and thinking about how literary comics and graphic novels really are.

That said, and as I prepared to earn my PhD in Education, I had two specific long-term goals. Those long-term goals ended up being Teaching Graphic Novels (Maupin House, 2010), which is for middle and high school young adults, and Teaching Early Reader Comics and Graphic Novels (Maupin House, 2011), which is for kindergarten through sixth grade readers.

How has the use of graphic literature in classrooms changed over the course of your career?

Since 2001, I have noticed that more and more teachers are receptive to teaching a more contemporary literacy stage. As the world outside of school building has continued to be influenced by more and more screen- and image-based technologies that ask readers to be competent readers of what Gardner’s multiple intelligences identifies as verbal-linguistic (print text) and visual-spatial (image text) literacies, classroom teachers are no longer wondering whether or not these “new literacies” should be taught in classrooms. The world outside of school has already decided.

The future of reading rests in reading with print text and image text literacies together; for instance, some of the most popular modern reading experiences occur with iPods, iPads, email, the Internet, ereaders, hypermedia, film, television, and, of course, graphic novels.

In order to keep pace in what many literacy scholars are calling the greatest communication revolution of all-time, contemporary teachers must make the transition to teaching print text literacies alongside image text literacies. In fact, many literacy scholars now argue that, if teachers fail to make this transition to a more shared literacy stage, they risk creating the greatest disservice in the history of education.

In my opinion, the biggest change is that teachers are now more aware of the enormous and positive impact they can make at this specific moment in time. It’s an exciting and monumental time in the history of communication to be a teacher right now, for the future of reading is really in their hands. They hold the potential and the power to empower the most advanced generation of readers to date.

What is the appeal of graphic literature?

Honestly, I think there are various factors that influence what a reader finds appealing or not appealing. From working with so many children and studying what motivates them to read or not to read, the biggest overlying feature I have noticed is that appeal is in the eye of the reader.

Thus, I tend to think of the appeal of graphic novels like a visit to a renowned art museum. Just like each section or room of an art museum has its own style or appeal, each graphic novel has its own style and appeal as well. The reader or visitor can decide whether or not that appeal and/or style is a place where he or she wants to spend little or a lot of time.

How does this format facilitate literacy among young readers?

Today’s literacy world demands that students be competent readers of both images and print-text literacies. The graphic novel provides that exact reading format, and, in doing so, facilitates a lifelong love of reading for them in a format that matches the literacy world in which they live and love.

In fact, young adult graphic novel sales are at the top of the sales market when it comes to contemporary literature. Young adults are not only reading, but also buying graphic novel. And I think that is because the graphic novel format facilitates and offers a modern reading environment that young adults find appealing and comfortable.

Congratulations on the success of Teaching Graphic Novels! Could you tell us what to expect from the book. What was your overriding philosophy, and what were your areas of emphasis?

Teaching Graphic Novel’s philosophy is grounded in reaching out to middle and high school teachers and their secondary, higher education teacher educators.

The main idea of the book is to explore and explain why graphic novels qualify as valuable and literary-level 21st century texts.

That said, the book is also very practitioner friendly and has three primary areas of emphasis:

  • Theoretical insight on why today’s teachers should teach print-text literacies alongside image literacies with graphic novels
  • Recommended, thematically identified, and age appropriate graphic novels for middle school and high school students
  • Sample graphic novel lesson plans and teacher-friendly handouts for middle school and high school teachers

Congratulations of the release of Teaching Early Reader Comics and Graphic Novels! Could you tell us what to expect from this book? And again, what was your overriding philosophy, and what were your areas of emphasis?

Teaching Early Reader Comics and Graphic Novels is pretty much a sister-book to Teaching Graphic Novels.

In the case of TERCGN, however, the focus is on elementary language arts teachers. The audience is then elementary teachers and elementary teacher educators, and has a very structured format. It offers elementary teachers three primary areas of emphases as well:

  • Theoretical insight on why elementary teachers should begin to teach the reading process with both print-text literacies and image literacies, like those found in graphic novels
  • An in-depth cross-index of recommended, thematic, and appropriate grade level graphic novels
  • Structured guided reading and guided writing lesson plans for all K – 6 grade levels, with extra chapters and lesson plans on multicultural graphic novels and graphic novels for emerging readers

With regard to both books, what do you hope your readers take away?

When I originally proposed both of these books to my publisher, I told her that I had essential takeaways in mind for the book.

First, it was extremely important to me that teachers and teacher educators not only leave the texts with a better understanding of why they should value comics and graphic novels in 21st century classrooms, but also leave the texts with hands-on, teacher-friendly lesson plans and handouts for doing so.

Are there any significant considerations that separate using graphics with young versus older students?

Yes and no. Whenever we use image literacies in any type of school setting we need to be sensitive to the intended student audience. However, this is not to say that there is necessarily a difference between what we show older or younger readers.

I guess what I am trying to say is that teachers know their students best, and, out of respect for their professional expertise, I think that teachers are the best judges of what types of literacies – whether print-text or image text – their students will be and are ready to handle.

For instance, I often find teachers who have third grade students who read on a sixth or seventh grade level. These students are probably more ready for more advanced literacies, whether that be with print text or graphic text.

Conversely, I also encounter teachers of ninth or tenth grade students who read on a primary grade level. These students may need a more introductory approach to reading with print-text literacies alongside graphic literacies.

In sum, it all depends on how well a teacher knows his or her students and their reading level abilities.

What should we know about teaching graphic-format fiction versus nonfiction?

With graphic nonfiction, the images used by the artist need to be very carefully chosen. And when I say that I am thinking about historical accuracy with graphic novels on two fronts.

Is this a creative nonfiction graphic novel (like Spiegelman’s Maus, which is filtered through Spiegelman’s own creative lens and perspective of his father’s historical storytelling)?

Or, are we talking about an informational, historical graphic nonfiction novel (like C.M. “Chris” Butzer’s Gettysburg, which uses letters, diaries, Lincoln’s speech, and first hand accounts to document its historical findings).

What do you mean by media literacy? And how does that fit in?

For me, media literacy is a critical reading theory. It poses a specific list of questions of each text, asking students to see the texts through those lenses.

For instance, the questions ask student to think about some of the following ideas regarding the intentions of the creators or publicists who produce any media text or message (graphic novels count as a media literacy text):

  • Who is composing this text? 
  • What are their beliefs? And motivations in creating this message?
  • What is the message? 
  • How is it constructed? 
  • Why? 
  • When was the text made? 
  • Is the text factual, someone’s opinion, or something else?

For more information on teaching media literacy messages or text, teachers, parents, and librarians can visit the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) website.

What new directions are we saying in graphic-format literature?

One of the most significant new directions is in early reader graphic novels. Publishers are realizing that younger readers not only want to read texts that equally emphasize print-text literacies and image literacies, but also need to be able to read such texts (in order to prepare them for their future lives as liteterate, 21st century multi-literacy citizens).

What do you long to see?

Great question! I long to see comics and graphic novels overcome and passionately negate the negative stigma that they were given by Wertham’s 1950s publication of Seduction of the Innocent.

And, in all honesty, I think that the evolution of modern literary thought is already making that transition in terms of comics and graphic novels.

Comics and graphic novels are high-quality, literary-level texts that not only engage readers, but also challenge and enhance the contemporary reading experience.

Let’s say a teacher/library media specialist asked you, “What are the five must-haves for elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools respectively?” What would you tell him/her? Briefly, why would you include each book on the list?

First, let me say that these lists are in no particular order. They are just the must-must-must haves for the various grade level teachers and/or library media specialists.

Elementary School

a. Benny and Penny in Just Pretend by Geoffrey Hayes
b. Little Lit, edited by Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman
c. Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, edited by Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman
d. Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty
e. Tuesday by David Wiesner

Middle School

a. Bone series by Jeff Smith
b. Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi
c. Foiled series by Jane Yolen and Michael Cavallaro
d. Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel
e. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

High School

a. Maus I and II by Art Spiegelman
b. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
c. AD New Orleans by Josh Neufeld
d. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
e. Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale by Belle Yang

If I were to offer a brief explanation for each, I would probably fail to be brief. Each of these graphic novels are not only the best and most popular examples of the graphic novel format for these grade level, but also the best examples of just how high-quality and literary the graphic novel can be.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

The only thing that I would like to add is that I am thankful for the time you and your readers have taken to learn more about the value of graphic novels in contemporary classrooms.

I would love to take any questions or comments from your readers and offer the following email address for those inquiries: k.monnin@unf.edu.

Guest Post: G. Neri on On the Trail to Ghetto Cowboy & Signed Book Giveaway

By G. Neri

I’ve always said truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction can sometimes dig into that truth a bit more clearly. That’s why I write fiction inspired by real life.

My newest book Ghetto Cowboy, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson (Candlewick, August 2011) began when a series of arresting photos in LIFE magazine literally stopped me in my tracks.

The article showed a neighborhood in the worst part of North Philadelphia—an inner city rife with gang violence. But this wasn’t your ordinary low-income neighborhood.

It had black cowboys.

Black cowboys in the ‘hood? Really?

But there it was. The photos showed generations of horsemen, from elders to kids. Apparently, this had been going on for decades.

In the early part of the last century, many of the best horse trainers and jockeys on the east coast were black. When a horse was no longer earning, it was either put out to breed or put down for slaughter. Some of these black trainers, who’d grown to love these animals, started taking them home instead of letting them die.

They kept the horses in back yards and make-shift stables. When that proved too difficult, they began to lay claim to long-abandoned public land that the City of Philadelphia wanted nothing to do with. Their neighborhood was considered so beyond help that when the City built a freeway, it passed over the neighborhood with no exits.

So the horsemen turned that wasted land into stables and corrals—places where the elders could pass on their traditions by teaching the young’uns the art of raising horses.

When gangs took over the area and the neighborhood took a turn for the worse, horses became a way of saving lives. By getting boys interested in raising a horse rather than killing another human being, these cowboys gave the youth something positive: father figures, focus, and the ability to stand tall.

Well, suffice it to say, I was amazed that I had never heard about this unique subculture of American life. Even people in other parts of Philadelphia didn’t seem know about them—until they became news.

A few years ago, the city, like a lot of big metropolitan areas, became interested in gentrifying the neighborhood and taking back that neglected public land for new development possibilities. All the big cities were doing it—when the hipster classes moved into blighted areas because that was all they could afford, the money soon followed.

But what the City didn’t realize was that they were up against cowboys who wouldn’t back down. They had a battle on their hands, and that became news. The horsemen had squatters rights—they’d occupied the land for so long, they had a claim on it.

The City had no option but to get them on supposed health and safety violations, performing dramatic raids for the media to prove these guys were a danger to the animals.

The allegations proved to be false, but not before they began tearing down their homemade structures. The horsemen fought back, proving their love and loyalty to these animals and their culture, but with little money and no one representing their cause in the media, it became a losing battle of attrition. And so, even as the good fight continued, the tradition was slowly dying.

It seemed like a modern-day western to me: cowboys vs the land barons, the good guys struggling to defend a way of life against the oncoming modernization of a city. And in the middle of it, black men acting as family, spreading values and traditions in the only way they knew how: the Cowboy Way.

I knew immediately that I needed to write about this. It was too vital a culture to let pass unnoticed. The story came quick to me: a young boy abandoned on the doorstep of a father he’s never known—a black cowboy. The boy, Coltrane, feels alone and trapped in a world he’s never seen before. Scared and searching for a way to get back home, but unwanted by both the mother who left him and the father forced to take him on, young Coltrane struggles to find his footing in a world filled with stirrups.

Ghetto Cowboy started to percolate, but information and access was hard to come by. I was in far-away Florida, and it wasn’t like I could just waltz into the inner city of Philly and say “Hey, I want to write a book about y’all!”

But with a lot of digging online, from articles to local message boards and blogs, I started to make connections, and started to find out the truths and details of this hidden world.

My main character, Coltrane, became my eyes into this world. He was a fish out of water, and so was I. Every new revelation, I experienced through him, and together, we slowly found our way.

I’d been wanting to write kind of a timeless father-son story, particularly one where an animal helps to bring them together. With Ghetto Cowboy, I think I achieved that.

After writing a few stories where the fathers were less than noble and often absent, it was nice to have a story where the father was a role model (though reluctant).

Recently, I looked through my list of favorite teen novels, and I didn’t see any books with these elements. It’s about time we showed the positive power of having an older male figure in a young man’s life.

This book has been an amazing experience for me. For once, everything seemed to fall in place. When I finally visited the real neighborhood in person, it felt like I’d just walked into my own novel. I knew who a lot of folks were, along with their stories. And here they were, living and breathing, like the characters who’d been dancing in my head all this time.

Sometimes a story ropes you in and doesn’t let go.

In this case, I was more than happy to go along for the ride.

Cynsational Notes

G. Neri

Ghetto Cowboy has been named a Junior Library Guild selection.

See photo 1 and photo 2 of the community featured in the story.

See also G. Neri on Beginning the Journey to a Finished Novel

Cynsational Book Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri (Candlewick, 2011)! To enter, share your best close encounter with a horse or discovery of some true life event that inspired you to write about it. Comment at this link or email me (scroll and click envelope) and type “Ghetto Cowboy” in the subject line. Deadline: midnight CST Aug. 22. Note: Author sponsored; U.S./Canada entries only.

Check out the book trailer for Ghetto Cowboy from Candlewick Press.


G. Neri’s “Ghetto Cowboy” book trailer from Greg Neri on Vimeo.

The video below is: This American Life: Horses in North Philly.