Author & Illustrator Interview: Kallie George & Abigail Halpin on The Melancholic Mermaid

Kallie George is an author, editor and speaker living in Vancouver, B.C., near the sea. She is the co-creator of the award-winning Simply Small board book series, and author of the art book, Mr. M: The Exploring Dreamer (Red Leaf) and author of the picture book, The Melancholic Mermaid (Simply Read).

When she’s not writing or editing picture books, she’s teaching creative writing workshops to children around the world and picture book writing workshops to adults.

She has her Masters of Children’s Literature from the University of British Columbia. She loves picture books, fairy tales, beautiful art and music, and baking cookies. 

Abigail Halpin is an illustrator living in beautiful (albeit snowy) New Hampshire. Her illustrations are a blend of traditional and digital media, mixing watercolor, ink, pencil, scanned textures, typography and more.

Most recently, her illustrations appeared in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami (Atheneum, 2011). She is inspired by all things vintage, good music and strong coffee.

Kallie, what was your initial inspiration for the book?

Kallie George

My dad used to tell me fairy tales about me when I was little. As I grew up and began creating my own stories, he helped me bring them to life—editing them with me, helping me with ideas, and even, when I was in elementary school and high school, he helped self-publish them for me so I could give them out as Christmas presents. So it is no surprise that he is the inspiration behind this story.

It happened like this: I was really upset about something–I can’t remember exactly what now–and he took me to White Spot (a non-glamorous restaurant) for a coffee and ice cream pick-me-up. But it didn’t work. I began to cry about whatever I was upset about.

In an attempt to distract me, he asked me this question: “If I were a mermaid, would I be crying?” (He knew how much I loved–and still love–mythical creatures.)

I replied that I didn’t think so, because mermaids live in water so their tears would just become part of the ocean… But then I thought maybe mermaids’ tears would be bubbles.

I was excited by the visual image of a mermaid crying bubbles and I began doodling and writing down the idea on the restaurant napkin and I was completely distracted. My dad’s plan had worked! Little did he know it would become this book!

To both, could you describe the book in your own words?

Early concept sketch.

K: That’s a tough question! Basically, it’s a fairy tale for older kids (either to read themselves or to be read to over a couple nights), about two misfits accepting themselves, finding each other and discovering friendship. To me, it’s also a book about getting stuck in sadness and finding the strength to pull oneself out of it.

Maude is sad/melancholic because she is teased because she is different. Ultimately, nothing can rescue her–not even her new friend Tony, until she takes charge of her own life and rescues herself.

A: The Melancholic Mermaid is a fantastical story of mermaids and misfits, with lots of undersea adventures and circus tales. But at its core, The Melancholic Mermaid is a story of friendship and belonging, which I think anyone can relate to. I know I can!

Kallie, could you describe your writing process? How did the text evolve over time?

K: I am a strong believer in editing—especially since I am an editor myself! I had so much help honing the story. First, from my dad, then from my classmates in the UBC children’s book creative writing class. And I had one of my best friends, and my writing soulmate, Vikki Vansickle look over it. We email work back and forth every month, and it keeps us focused and motivated. Finally, I had the marvelous help of Tiffany Stone, who is one of the best picture book editors around. So… I had a ton of help making it the story it is now.

I would say, however, that the fundamental parts of the story and even its structure didn’t change much throughout the editing process.

One thing that was a bit of a struggle was to make Maude a little less of a passive character. This was hard because she is depressed, after all, until the end of the story. Something quite major that changed was that at, one point, Tony’s mitten was caught under the rock and Maude rescued it when Tony is cleaning the tank (instead of Tony’s webbed hand being caught under the rock). I made that change on the advice of Tiffany to give the scene more impact.

Abigail, how did you come to connect with the manuscript? What drew you to Kallie’s text?

Abigail Halpin

I was contacted by Dimiter Savoff, the publisher at Simply Read Books. He asked if I was interested in illustrating a story about a mermaid.

One read through the manuscript, and I knew the answer was yes. I’ve lived most of my life near the ocean, so was immediately drawn to the story Kallie had written. And Maud and Tony’s struggles to fit into the world really spoke to me, because I think at one time or another, we all feel like the odd man out, the one that just can’t fit in.

Abigail, could you please describe your illustration process?

My illustration process for The Melancholic Mermaid involved reading the story through a few times, after which I let it percolate in my head for awhile. There was so much terrific imagery to work with in the story, that it was tough to narrow down what I wanted to illustrate.

I spent a lot of time researching the circus, ocean life and mermaids in folklore, so that I’d have a visual vocabulary to reference. From here, I worked on sketches, refining, then final art.

For the final art, I did pen and ink drawings with watercolor. These illustrations were then brought into Photoshop, where I built up more colors and shading digitally.

Kallie, how did Abigail’s art expand your vision?

K: Abigail’s art is absolutely perfect, I think. I was so worried about how someone could illustrate a two-tailed mermaid and still make the mermaid look pretty, and Abigail achieved that. Before I saw Abigail’s art I used to have nightmares about how the two-tailed mermaid might look. I really like pretty illustrations.

Also, I never concretely placed the book in the 1930s era, but I love that era and Abigail’s art and especially the clothing of the characters created such a sense of time and place.


Also a very funny thing happened because of Abigail’s art—it helped me overcome my fear of owning a fish.

The fear began because when I was young I had a pet fighter fish that died tragically.

I came home one day from school, and I thought the fish was dead because it wasn’t moving at all. I even poked it a few times with my pencil trying to get it to move, but it wouldn’t.

I had heard somewhere that when a fish dies you flush it down the toilet, so I took my fish bowl to the bathroom, dumped it in the toilet and flushed.

Just when the water began to spin down… my fish began to swim up! I was so startled I couldn’t do anything except watch, horrified, as my fish was sucked away. I couldn’t get over how I had flushed away my live fish!

I hadn’t bought a fish since, until I saw the cute pictures of the little red fish that seem to hang around Maude in Abigail’s illustrations. My boyfriend liked the fish, too, and he decided to make it the star in the animation he made for me for the book trailer… and then he and I decided to actually buy a little red fish. We named him Jupiter (Jupi for short).

To both, do you have any mermaid-related memories?

K: Like many girls, when I was young I would spend much time in the pools and ocean pretending to be a mermaid.

But probably my most vivid memory of mermaids is seeing Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” It was the first movie I remember seeing in the theatres. I think that the first movie you see in the theater is a big thing. I was with my mom. I remember we both cried at the end. I also vividly remember seeing soon after that an animation/movie of the real The Little Mermaid story when I was with my aunt and uncle—I was very scared at the end when the mermaid turned to foam.

A: Growing up near the ocean, an awareness of mermaids was inevitable. I remember making sand mermaids at the beach, decorating them with seaweed hair and shell-studded tails. And I was absolutely mesmerized by Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” when that came out.

To both, what is it about mermaids that fascinates us so much?

K: I think there are many reasons people are drawn to mermaids: their beauty, their danger (as some folktales say, mermaids songs lure fishermen to death), their ability to live underwater. One reason, too, is that they are misfits. They are neither human, nor fish. I am personally attracted to characters that are misfits as I have often felt like a misfit myself (bookish, too bubbly). I think that most people are attracted to misfit characters, because most people, at one point or another, feel like they don’t fit in. Of course, I made Maude even more of a misfit—she is a misfit among mermaids.

A: The ocean is this beautiful, magical expanse, but at a moment’s notice can become terrible and deadly. The idea that this delicate, mythical creature could inhabit such a volatile environment really captures the imagination. And then there’s the whole being-able-to-swim-under-water thing that appeals to anyone who’s ever tried to hold their breath for longer than 30 seconds!

To both, what do you do when you’re not writing/illustrating?

Abigail’s drawing space.

K: Too many things! Mostly I edit and teach kids creative writing, and I love to read (no surprise there).

In the summer I teach a lot of creative writing camps for kids. I also love, love, love yoga and spending time outdoors, baking and hanging out with my boyfriend. We spend a lot of time being kids: making up goofy songs, dancing around the house, watching kids’ movies, building pirate ships and papermache sea creatures (in particular a seahorse named Poky).

A: Outside of illustrating, I am a die-hard knitter and love to sew (especially vintage patterns). I’m also a big reader, with a weakness for graphic novels and old whodunits.

To both, what can your fans look forward to next?

K: I have a few projects in the works—one is an early reader series, the other is story in a similar fairy-tale vein as The Melancholic Mermaid but it is about winged horses. I see a lot of magical creatures in my future at this moment!

A: I’ve just finished final art for Andrea Cheng‘s The Year of the Book, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). It’s a lovely story and I’m very excited about its release next year.

Cynsational Notes

Don’t miss the animated book trailer for The Melancholic Mermaid.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Congratulations to Lena Coakley on the release of her debut novel, Witchlanders (Atheneum, 2011)! From the promotional copy:

High in their mountain covens, red witches pray to the Goddess, protecting the Witchlands by throwing the bones and foretelling the future.

It’s all a fake.

At least, that’s what Ryder thinks. He doubts the witches really deserve their tithes—one quarter of all the crops his village can produce. And even if they can predict the future, what danger is there to foretell, now that his people’s old enemy, the Baen, has been defeated?

But when a terrifying new magic threatens both his village and the coven, Ryder must confront the beautiful and silent witch who holds all the secrets. Everything he’s ever believed about witches, the Baen, magic and about himself will change, when he discovers that the prophecies he’s always scorned—

Are about him.

“Exquisite storytelling plus atmospheric worldbuilding equals one stunning teen debut.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Plot twists unfold at a riveting pace, the boys’ characters are compellingly sketched, and Coakley explores her subject matter masterfully without falling prey to safe plot choices.”

Publishers Weekly (starred)

Check out Lena’s interviews and guest posts on the Witchlanders Blog Tour (hurry; ends Sept. 9), and answer a question at any stop for a chance to win this beautiful Kindle 3 Wifi and a copy of Witchlanders that Lena will give away Sept. 13 (see rules).

Note: Lena is a Cynsations international reporter, covering the Canadian children’s-YA book scene.

More News

Interview with Author-Agent A.J. Paquette by Carmen Oliver from Following My Dreams…One Word at a Time. Peek: “Flaws humanize characters—and, okay, they help advance the plot, too! But more than that, they make people so much more interesting.”

DEBTastic Reads: author interviews and book buzz in middle grade and teen fiction from Debbi Michiko Florence.

Transformative Change by R.L. LaFevers from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: “A mere realist would batten down the hatches and hold on. But the act of adjusting the sails, of preparing yourself to accommodate what life is about to send your way, is a much more profound act of acceptance.”

Scottish Children’s Book Awards Shortlist 2011 from Michael Thorn, editor at ACHUKABLOG. Peek: “The number of children taking part continues to grow every year, which is proof of the huge appetite for reading in Scottish schools and libraries.”

Shaun Tan at Seven Stories in Newcastle (U.K.) by Marjorie from PaperTigers Blog. Peek: “…he wouldn’t call his work surreal per se: rather, the unexpected juxtaposition of familiar objects in his work is what is surreal.” See also A Delectable Taster of Picture Books from Singapore by Myra Garces-Bacsal, also from PaperTigers.

Cynsations U.K. contributing editor Laura Atkins is offering an end of summer sale on children’s picture book manuscript critiques. Quote “Cynthia” and get 10% off. Laura spent seven years in editorial departments in the U.S. She worked at Children’s Book Press and Orchard Books, and as an editor at Lee & Low Books. Currently a senior lecturer at the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Roehampton University in London, Laura is also a freelance children’s book editor. Full details are on her website.

Literature Connections to 9/11 from TheTeachingBooks.netBlog. Peek: “As we reflect on the 10 years since the attacks on the United States of America of September 11, 2001, we recognize that many children in school today might not remember much about that day. offers a handful of books and multimedia resources that can expand conversation and insights.”

Interview with Cinda Williams Chima by Cindy Pon from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek: “I wrote sixty pages and gave them to my agent, who wanted to pitch a three-book deal. He said, ‘Great, now can you give me an outline of each of the three books?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Well, how about a paragraph for each book?’ And I said, ‘Do I have to stick with what I write?’ And he said, ‘No, once we have the money, do whatever you like.'”

Has Rejection Turned You Into Someone You’re Not? from Jane Friedman. Peek: “…when you work on the inside of a publishing house, and you see how decisions get made day to day, you realize there’s nothing about it that any author ought to take seriously.”

Too Much Skin? (Or…Book Covers Gone Wild!) by Michelle Ray from EMU’s Debuts. Peek: “It’s a clear message to anyone looking for a stodgy re-telling of ‘Hamlet’ to move on. It’s also clear to parents that the content is for older kids. I’m glad about this. As a parent and a teacher, I like to know what a book might be offering up.”

The Death of Books Has Been Greatly Exaggerated by Lloyd Shepherd from The Guardian. Peek: “Radical change is certainly producing some alarming symptoms – but much of the doomsayers’ evidence is anecdotal, and it’s possible to read a much happier story.” Source: Phil Giunta.

Random Acts of Publicity: a week-long celebration of authors cheering books by fellow authors, plus in-depth interviews with top children’s-YA publicists and marketing consultation giveaways from Darcy Pattison at Fiction Notes. Note: most of the giveaways were one-day only, but check to see what opportunities are available Sept. 9.

The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, established by renowned author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats, has awarded over half a million dollars in grants to public schools and libraries in all 50 states and the U.S. Commonwealth since the Minigrant program was started in 1987. The deadline for submission of proposals for the $500 Minigrant award is March 15, 2012. Proposals will be read directly after the March deadline, and winners will be announced starting on May 15. Applications are available exclusively online at the Foundation’s website.

Achieving Breakout Success in Today’s Market with agent Donald Maass and author Bruce Hale. Peek: “Running into roadblocks on your way to bestseller-dom? Join Bruce Hale on Sept. 15 as he interviews top New York agent Donald Maass on how to get published in today’s market and what it takes to craft a breakthrough novel. Don’t miss this one-time teleseminar event!”

The Vanishing Veena by Arthur J. Pais from India Abroad. Peek: “In Sheela Chari‘s mystery novel, the heroine is a Boston desi who travels to India to locate her prized musical instrument.” Read more from Sheela about the interview.

On Being a Novelist by Karen Kincy from Crowe’s Nest. Peek: “Oh, I thought. This is a job. Also, I have to keep writing books. I can’t just sit on my butt—ahem, laurels—and expect praise, riches, and unadulterated happiness.”

Using Cliffhangers for Better Pacing by Chris Eboch from Write Like a Pro! A Free Online Writing Workshop. Peek: “To build up truly dramatic cliffhanger chapter endings, give the reader clues that something bad — or excitingly good — is going to happen.”

Writers and Depression by Nancy Etchemendy from Horror Writers Association. Peek: “The steady drum of rejection slips is a part of life for every writer, even the most successful. The courage it takes to deal with rejections and keep going may fail us at times. Without courage, we become fair game for depression.” Note: I run this article periodically. Take care of yourself and each other.

Best Articles for Writers This Week from Adventures in Children’s Publishing.  More of the bets of the Web, plus links to even more roundups.

More Cheers

Congratulations to author Nicola I. Campbell and illustrator Kim LaFave on the release of Grandpa’s Girls (Groundwood, 2011)! From the promotional copy:

A young girl delights in a visit to her grandpa’s farm. She and her cousins run through the fields, explore the root cellar where the salmon and jars of fruit are stored, swing on a rope out the barn loft window, visit the Appaloosa in the corral and tease the neighbor’s pig. The visit is also an opportunity for this child to ask Grandpa what her grandmother, Yayah, was like, and to explore the “secret room,” with its old wooden trunk of ribbons, medals and photos of Grandpa in uniform.

There is a wonderful blend of fun and family history in this visit to a grandparent, and the realization that there can be some things about the people we know and love that will always remain a mystery. But above all, there’s nothing like being with Grandpa.

In her two previous picture books, Shi-shi-etko and Shin-chi’s Canoe, Nicola Campbell worked with elders and survivors of residential schools, documenting the tragic experiences that many endured. This new book, based on her own childhood memories, is a sunny, joyful story, vibrantly illustrated by Kim LaFave.

Source: Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature.

This Week’s Cynsations Posts

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win Liar, Liar and Flat Broke by Gary Paulsen (Random House, 2011). To enter, comment on this post (click link and scroll) 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 “Paulsen” in the subject line. Publisher sponsored. Deadline: Sept. 16. U.S. readers eligible.

Enter to win one of three Snuggle Mountain apps (IPhone and IPad users only). To enter, comment on this post (click link and scroll) 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 “Snuggle Mountain app” in the subject line. Author sponsored. Deadline: Sept. 26.

For extra entries (itemize efforts in your entry comment/email with relevant links):

  • Blog about this giveaway
  • Share the link to this post on facebook
  • Share the link to this post on Twitter
  • Share the link to this post on Google+ 
  • Like Lindsey’s Facebook author page

The winner of an advanced reader copy of The Vision by Jen Nadol (Bloomsbury, September 2011) was Linda in Illinois.

The winner of the Tantalize: Kieren’s Story Howling Giveaway Package is Dawn in Oklahoma.

Enter to win a copy of Tantalize: Kieren’s Story by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, 2011) from Black Nailed Reviews. Deadline: 11:59 p.m. EST Sept. 13. Enter here.

Enter to win one of two advanced reader copies of Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by Carrie Jones and Megan Kelley Hall (HarperCollins, 2011) from Melissa Walker. Enter here, and learn more about the book below.

Cynsational Screening Room

Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by Carrie Jones and Megan Kelley Hall (HarperCollins, 2011) is now available! See also Authors share their experiences in book of letters called ‘Dear Bully’ by Carol Memmott from USA Today. Note: My essay, “Isolation,” appears in this anthology on page 186-187. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Stamp Out Bullying. See Writers Reflect on Childhood Torment in Dear Bully from National Public Radio or listen below.

Congratulations to Divya Srinivasan on the release of Little Owl’s Night (Viking, 2011)! Attention Austinites: the book launch party is at 2 p.m. Oct. 15 at BookPeople.

More Personally

I’m honored to report that my Twitter following has passed 7,000. Thanks to everyone who’s reading my tweets! If you’re looking for me, I’m @CynLeitichSmith

Cover Reveal: Check out the dinotastic cover of Chronal Engine by (my very cute husband and sometimes co-author) Greg Leitich Smith (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, spring 2012)! Comment with your cheers to Greg, and learn more about the book.

2011 Texas Book Festival Authors include Jill S. Alexander, Jay Asher, Chris Barton, Rosemary Clement-Moore, Kate DiCamillo, Kate Hosford, Jeanette Larson, René Saldaña, Jr., Liz Garton Scanlon, Elaine Scott, and Cynthia Leitich Smith. The festival will take place Oct. 22 and Oct. 23 at the state capitol building and alongside the capitol grounds in Austin.

Dear Bully: Cynthia Leitich Smith Interview/Giveaway from Black Nailed Reviews. Peek: “Ultimately, being bullied made me realize the importance of reaching out to others in positive ways. You never know when someone needs a kind word, hug, or unexpected show of solidarity.” Note: Enter to win a copy of Tantalize: Kieren’s Story by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, 2011) from Black Nailed Reviews.

Blessed (Tantalize series, Book 3) by Cynthia Leitich Smith: review from Jessica Moody, Olympus Jr. High Media Center at Granite Media: Library Media Program, Granite School District (Utah). Peek: “A fun, action-filled vampire book for paranormal fans. The characters are intriguing. The story is a little long, but fans of this genre as well as apocalyptic fiction will relish reading this book.” Note: 4.5 stars!

Here’s a terrific book talk about Tantalize and some other awesome YA novels:
SchoolTube – Author’s Purpose

Reminder: After a summer of reading, teens are now invited to vote for YALSA’s Teens Top Ten List! Vote here, and see the annotated list. I’m that my novel Blessed (Candlewick, 2011) is among the 25 titles nominated for YALSA’s Teens’ Top Ten!

Personal Links:

Even More Personally

My very cute husband (and sometimes co-author) Greg Leitich Smith joined me in celebrating our wedding anniversary over Labor Day weekend at Donna Bowman Bratton‘s family house in Kingsland, Texas.

The home is on a private cove at Lake LBJ.

We didn’t have Internet access, which meant that we could relax into our creative work. Some of the most productive writing days I’ve ever had were in that chair at that table shown above.

When you’re out of your normal space, it often opens up your imagination. Not being able to log into the Web helps with focus, too, though of course I later paid for it back home with two full days of catch-up correspondence. That said, I still felt more relaxed, even in that damage-control mode.

I had the pleasure at staying at the house once before for a terrific writing weekend with Donna and fellow Ausintites Julie Lake and Bethany Hegedus. You can contact Donna about renting the house with your writing partner or group for a weekend retreat.

Greg cooked lobster and chicken in a pot with broccoli and rice pilaf for our anniversary dinner. (It’s a dish we first had at Le Cinq in Paris, and he’s been periodically trying to replicate it ever since–the lobster was particularly good this time.) However, we also enjoyed a couple of wonderful meals at Junction House Restaurant. The food was delicious, the service excellent, and the prices (especially for the Sunday lunch buffet) quite reasonable, at least from our big-city point of view.

The restaurant and The Antlers bed-and-breakfast next door are owned by Barbara Thomas, the former owner of Austin’s much mourned children’s independent bookstore, Toad Hall. It’s a remarkable lake property with historic homes, cabins, and train cars available for overnight guests.

Junction House Restaurant also was the filming location for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974).

The weather cooled down to the 90s, which felt terrific after a record-breaking summer of 100+ degree days. We watched the sunset from the dock of the lake home.

But there was a heavy price to be paid for the cooling wind. On the way home, our route along Highway 71 had been cut off due to wildfires. Substantial areas of Central Texas have been devastated. Subdivisions and parkland has gone up in flames. Members of the children’s-YA book community have been personally affected by evacuations and the loss of homes.

A few ways to offer support include donating to Austin Pets Alive, which took in animals that had been in a Bastrop shelter, making a purchase at BookPeople (donating a portion of sales through Sept. 9; shop online), and praying for rain. See more suggestions for donations from KVUE. Word is that baby food and dog food are in great demand. Source for donations information: Martha Wells.

See also A Weekend at the Lake and Fire and Brimstone from Greg Leitich Smith. 

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.”

Austin Teen Book Festival is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 1 at Palmer Events Center in Austin. The event is free! No need to register, just show up! Students do not need to be accompanied by an adult.

Meet Ming Doyle!

Illustrator Ming Doyle will be signing Tantalize: Kieren’s Story at 2 p.m. Oct. 2 at Brookline Booksmith (279 Harvard Street) in Brookline, Massachusetts. Guests are invited to participate in a vampire/werewolf costume contest. See another interior illustration from the graphic novel from her blog.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will be appearing at Austin Comic Con, scheduled for Nov. 11 to Nov. 13 at the Austin Convention Center.

Guest Post: Melissa Walker on Writing True Characters (Versus Writing “Likeable” Characters)

By Melissa Walker

Writing my latest book, Small Town Sinners (Bloomsbury, 2011), was daunting. It tackles religion—always a touchy subject—and the whole story takes place in an Evangelical Christian town. The main character is the daughter of the children’s pastor, and she’s finally turning 16 and getting her chance to star in the church’s Hell House production.

In case you aren’t familiar with Hell Houses, here’s a rundown: They’re “haunted houses of sin” productions where the youth of the church act out various “sins,” like Gay Marriage, Suicide, Domestic Abuse and Abortion. At the end, you meet the devil before Jesus comes to save you.

It’s a self-proclaimed “scare-‘em-to-God” performance, and the ones I’ve been to seem to deeply affect both those involved and the audience who walks through them. (You can find more info here.)

However you feel about Hell Houses, they undoubtedly create discussion. And in Lacey’s world, they’re just what you do. At the start of Small Town Sinners, she has her heart set on the part of Abortion Girl—it’s the lead role.

Small Town Sinners is a far cry from my Violet on the Runway series (Berkley Trade), about a gawky, awkward girl who becomes a successful fashion model, and my last book—Lovestruck Summer (HarperTeen)—about an indie rock girl who falls for a country cowboy.

I worried that my readers would think I was being too serious, too weird, too… religious.

I knew that if I got the characters right, readers would follow them into the story even if they didn’t share the same belief system. I had to focus not on my characters’ “likeability” (which is something I often see discussed in reviews), but on their realness.

That shift—from creating a likable character to creating a true character (not that they’re mutually exclusive, just that I felt somewhat challenged to make Lacey both of those things)—made me wonder what other writers and readers thought about this.

Certainly we read and write characters we don’t “like” all the time—people we wouldn’t want to be friends with, people who deceive or cheat or hurt others, or people who are just plain annoying, because real people run the whole range of the likable scale, right on down to despicable.

While this topic was top of my mind, I had the following exchange with Youth Services librarian Kelly Jensen, who blogs at Stacked.

More about Melissa Walker.

Melissa: I’ve been thinking a lot about “likability” in characters, and I have to admit to myself that–especially as a teen–I wasn’t that likable. I was self-involved and often able to compartmentalize and ignore serious things. But do we expect more of YA characters than we do of our real-life selves? I think I do in my books, somehow. Is that fair?

Kelly: It’s something worth thinking about from the adult and teen perspective too. I wonder how much teens think about the likeability of a character versus how much they’re invested in the story. Do they worry as much about whether they like a character or are they more invested in knowing people like that exist and they’re either someone like them or like someone they know?

Kelly’s comment got me thinking about how I read, both as a teenager and now, and I came to the conclusion that as long as I relate to the characters in some way—if I can see some inner part of myself or my friends or my world in the pages, even if much of the book is foreign to me—I’m in. So there’s a truth I’m looking for that trumps the likable factor.

I’d love to hear from readers and writers on this topic—what if a character isn’t likable? What makes you invest your time and emotions in them anyway?

New Voice: Michele Weber Hurwitz on Calli Be Gold

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the first-time author of Calli Be Gold (Random House/Wendy Lamb Books, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Observant but quiet fifth grader Calli Gold doesn’t seem to fit in with her loud, rushing family. 

Calli is the youngest child in a funny, endearing yet somewhat misguided suburban family that places high importance on achievement. Calli’s older brother Alex is a basketball star and her sister Becca is on a synchronized skating team, but 11-year old Calli thinks she’s a failure because she’s flopped at everything she’s tried.

In the Gold family, everyone needs to be “golden” and that means winning medals and placing first. But Calli is different. She likes to watch the world around her, and think about things. Plus, she’s not so sure she wants to be a star…inside, she feels content with who she is—an average fifth grade kid. But how to get that point across to her dad, who thinks his kids have to “do” something special in order to “be” somebody.

Calli’s dad signs her up for an acting class, hoping this will be it for his daughter and she’ll find her talent at last. But when Calli meets second grader Noah Zullo through a peer helper program at school, she begins to discover what her true passion might be…and it has nothing to do with acting, or for that matter, kicking a soccer ball or doing pliés or flipping on a balance beam. Noah has some issues, and Calli is drawn toward helping him and understanding what makes him tick. 

As the story unfolds, Calli, in her own quiet way, prompts her family to consider what achievement really means. Calli Be Gold is a heartwarming story about standing up for who you are and finding your own rightful place within a family.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2011, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

The truth is, nothing about my journey seemed inevitable. In fact, sometimes, I still can’t believe that I really published a book! Getting here took about three and a half years, and there were many bumps along the way when I doubted myself and this story.

Before I wrote Calli Be Gold, I had written two other middle grade manuscripts that never got published (probably because they weren’t very good), but now I realize that was part of the journey for me.

When I came up with the idea for Calli’s story, I did a lot of thinking about the theme, plot, and characters before I sat down to write. I love to walk (without my phone, music, or a friend — just by myself) and I learned that this is my best thinking time, something that’s essential for my writing process. A way to clear my head and let those ideas materialize.

So after I did all this walking and thinking, the writing of the manuscript took only about four months. When I finished, I sent a query letter to four agents, and all of them asked to see the manuscript. That was one of the first moments I thought I might have something here!

The first two agents didn’t take on the book, but the third called before she even finished reading — and asked to represent me. I thought okay, this is it, woo hoo, I have an agent, I’ll be published in no time! But this was when the economy was suffering, and some publishers were consolidating or downsizing, so it ended up taking about a year for my agent to sell the book.

This was a hard period of time. My agent kept reassuring me that she loved the story, and it was a matter of connecting with the right editor who would love it too, but we were so close so many times, only then to get a rejection, I admit it was frustrating. I am thankful that my agent didn’t give up and kept sending it out.

So how did I keep the faith? I’m lucky to have one very sane, patient, and even-tempered husband, and three kids who keep me laughing and busy. In the acknowlegements section of Calli Be Gold, I call them my four anchors, and thank them for keeping me afloat. It’s entirely true — without them, I might have sank!

Also, though, I kept hearing Calli’s voice in my head. She’s the main character in the book. I’m not crazy (well, maybe a little), but I’m definitely one of those authors who dreams about my characters and feels like they’re real. I just felt this girl in my heart and knew I couldn’t give up on her.

 I do have to add that also, at one point during the submission process, I took a look at all the comments we received from editors and went back to the manuscript and did a revision on my own. I added a couple of chapters and changed a few scenes. I think that helped make the book more marketable.

When the “call” finally did come, it was worth the wait. My agent called as I was driving to the grocery store and told me to “pull over,” that she had something big to tell me. The big thing was that Random House — Wendy Lamb Books — had made an offer.

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

There were a couple of factors that I think helped me find the voice of Calli Gold. First, I had been in mother-daughter book clubs with both of my daughters for several years. That’s when I fell in love with the middle grade genre.

I read so many wonderful books, including So B. It by Sarah Weeks (Harper Collins, 2005), and Love, Ruby Lavender by Deborah Wiles (Sandpiper, 2002). The depth and poignancy of these stories really touched me.

I had always wanted to write a book, but it wasn’t until I started reading middle grade books that I became motivated to give it a try.

Being in the book clubs was, for me, more helpful than participating in an adult writers’ group, although I did that too. I listened to what the girls liked and didn’t like about the books we read, how they reacted to characters and plot, and when they felt unsatisfied with an ending. They taught me a great deal!

The second helpful factor in finding Calli’s voice is that when I wrote the book, my youngest daughter was eleven, the same age as Calli. Like many writers, I’m a huge observer and listener. I think my kids call that stalking! But truthfully, having a child the same age as the character I was writing about helped me create a believable, realistic girl. In fact, my daughter was actually the first person to read the manuscript and she was a great reality check for me. She told me if the dialogue didn’t ring true or something didn’t make sense to her. I had a fifth grade editor right in my house!

Lastly, much of Calli’s voice was just inside me. That’s probably the magic part. It’s hard to describe how it happens. I did draw on some of my own childhood experiences for Calli’s story. Calli is the youngest child in an intense, achievement-oriented family and she can’t seem to find a talent or measure up to her superstar siblings, nor please her helicopter parents, who only want her to succeed at a sport or an activity. The family motto is to “be Gold!”

Not that my experience was exactly the same, but I grew up with two younger brothers who were very into sports and highly competitive. My dad coached them in baseball summer after summer, and my mom brought the lemonade and snacks to every game. A quiet, shy kid, I really didn’t share my family’s love of baseball or competition. I definitely felt some of the same frustrations Calli has about not fitting in with her family.

A peek at Michele’s writing space.

While I was writing, I didn’t do character exercises, but I am a big note scribbler. I carry a pad of paper in my purse, and have one next to my bed, in the bathroom, in the kitchen — pretty much everywhere. I was constantly jotting down thoughts about each character in the book, scenes I envisioned, and dialogue that popped into my head.

The trick then was sitting down and compiling all of my scribbles! I do have a laptop that would make my note process much more efficient, but probably because my background is in journalism, I’ve just always been more comfortable with a notepad and pencil.

Aside from all my notes, I’m a firm believer in feeling a story, not just writing it. I think it has to come from your soul, from your heart. Sounds cliche, I know. But it’s true! When it’s there, when you feel it, then the writing just flows.

Cynsational Notes

Michele makes her home in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.

Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories Is Now Available

Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by Carrie Jones and Megan Kelley Hall (HarperCollins, 2011) is now available!

From the promotional copy:  

You are not alone. 

Discover how Lauren Kate transformed the feeling of that one mean girl getting under her skin into her first novel, how Lauren Oliver learned to celebrate ambiguity in her classmates and in herself, and how R.L. Stine turned being the “funny guy” into the best defense against the bullies in his class.

Today’s top authors for teens come together to share their stories about bullying—as silent observers on the sidelines of high school, as victims, and as perpetrators—in a collection at turns moving and self-effacing, but always deeply personal. 

Look for the essay “Isolation” by Cynthia Leitich Smith, pages 186-187.

A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Stamp Out Bullying.

Contributing Authors

New Voice: Michelle Ray on Falling for Hamlet

Michelle Ray is the first-time author of Falling for Hamlet (Little, Brown/Poppy, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Meet Ophelia, high school senior, daughter of the Danish king’s most trusted adviser, and longtime girlfriend of Prince Hamlet. 

She lives a glamorous life, has a royal social circle, and her beautiful face is splashed across magazines and TV. But it comes with a price — her life is dominated not only by Hamlet’s fame and his overbearing royal family but also by the paparazzi who hound them wherever they go.

After the sudden and suspicious death of his father, the king, Hamlet spirals dangerously toward madness, and Ophelia finds herself torn between loyalty to her boyfriend, her father, her country, and her true self.

This is a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” from Ophelia’s point of view filled with drama, romance, tragedy, and humor. 

And this time, Ophelia doesn’t die.

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

As a kid, I wasn’t like many writers I know: constantly reading and with dreams of becoming a writer. I was smart and always loved books, but I had varied aspirations. I dreamt of being a pediatrician, a teacher, a women’s rights activist, a crossing guard (seemed glamorous to my kindergarten self – all that power).

Eventually, theater became my thing. My novel, a modern retelling of “Hamlet” from Ophelia’s point of view, is probably a bridge between my desire to write and my roots in drama. I always loved fast-paced stories that involved tragedy, and Falling for Hamlet has both.

My love of Shakespeare has lasted for decades. My first Shakespeare memory involves watching “Romeo and Juliet” on TV with my parents when I was little. It was gorgeous and romantic, and it made my entire family cry! The power of the story overwhelmed me. What truly amazed me was that, even though I couldn’t understand all of the words, I still got it.

I try to tell my students not to get caught up in every word, but to get the gist and let the feelings wash over them.

Another memory I have of loving Shakespeare is being taught “Hamlet” in fifth grade. I loved it so much that I named the parakeet I got that year “Polonius” (Ophelia’s dad). Nerdy, but true.

In middle school, I had tremendous English teachers who brought Shakespeare alive. One teacher did things like gather fallen leaves from the balcony outside the classroom and spread them on her desk for Juliet’s funeral bier. Wow!

As a reader and an audience member, I love Shakespeare’s genius in creating believable romance, drama, and revenge, as well as the challenge of the solving his word puzzles to make meaning of the whole thing. Plus, the language is beautiful and dirty and romantic and daring and just plain awesome in the truest sense of the word.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

I do not consider myself especially tech-savvy, but technology absolutely had to be a part of my story. First of all, I know that my students and their peers are constantly texting, emailing, and posting to Facebook (actually, when I began Falling for Hamlet, Facebook wasn’t a thing, so it didn’t make its way into the story). But not to include multiple forms of technology in a contemporary story about teen life would be absurd.

Additionally, technology allowed Ophelia to witness many important moments that she was not privy to in the original play, “Hamlet.” For instance, in my novel, she watches video surveillance tapes, overhears conversations via cell, and receives texts and email updates on Hamlet’s mental status from their best friend, Horatio. My favorite plot point is when Ophelia’s dad breaks into her email account and downloads love poems from Hamlet.

The danger, of course, is that technology does change so quickly. Consider movies from the 1990s when people pull out their cell phones and they’re as big as bricks. We all laugh and point. But as a writer, it’s terrifying to think of writing in the equivalent of the two-hands-needed mobile phone.

Two big things have changed dramatically in the years since I began writing Falling for Hamlet: the iPod and video chat.

1) I wrote about Horatio nervously fiddling with the iPod wheel, and a copy editor suggested changing it since those were vanishing and she didn’t want the book to seem dated. Carrying music on phones and on other devices wasn’t a possibility when I began, and it shocked me how quickly it happened.

2) I needed Ophelia to see a climactic incident while talking to Horatio, but she couldn’t be there. Originally, they were talking via cell and the event was televised, but that needed to change. I had an idea for video chat on their cell phones, and contacted a friend who works in the tech industry to find out if such technology existed. She said it was coming and sent me to a website that was advertising this new capability.

In a draft, I wrote about it, and got this comment on the manuscript: “Please explain. I don’t understand how this works.”

I added something like, “Ophelia, it’s like Skype, but on your cell phone. You’ll be able see what’s happening here, and I’ll be able to see you.”

Well, by the time we were doing final revisions, the technology was being advertised around the clock and it seemed everyone’s phones could do it. I frantically emailed my editor and we deleted the line. A small fix, but my greatest fear of being out of step could have been realized.

Skype Authors Debuts, Pledging 25% of Virtual School Visit Fees to Charities

Skype Authors connects noted children’s book authors to schools and book clubs while benefiting Camfed in 2011-2012.

Noted authors Suzanne Williams, Martha Brockenbrough, Dia Calhoun, Janet Lee Carey, Mary Casanova, Lorie Ann Grover, Joan Holub, Deb Lund, Claire Rudolf Murphy, Lisa L. Owens, and Trudi Trueit have launched Skype Authors, an author-visit-booking site that will aid schools, book clubs, and educational charities.

Inspired by Skype An Author Network, Skype Authors desires to provide similar services while additionally targeting philanthropic causes.

“We believe children benefit from the chance to talk with authors about books and reading, and we also believe in supporting educational efforts in impoverished countries,” said founder Suzanne Williams.

In these difficult economic times, schools have limited access to funds for traditional author visits, which can cost 10 times as much–if not more. Virtual visits offer a low-cost method for classrooms and authors to connect. Students can directly inquire about book characters, a current work in progress, or a story’s inspiration.

Additionally, a portion of the proceeds from each visit will benefit Camfed, an organization that educates girls in Africa.

The idea was born when Williams’s adult son challenged her to “think global” about her charitable giving and to find a way to magnify her support for a cause she felt passionate about.

“I was convinced that if I felt passionate about supporting education in the developing world, I could find other like-minded authors who felt the same way,” she said.

This is how the group chose Camfed, which educates and empowers girls in rural Africa, helping break the cycle of poverty and disease.

Skype Authors includes the novelist and poet Lorie Ann Grover, founder of readergirlz, a National Book Award-winning organization that promotes teen literary.

“Skype Authors is directly in line with the philanthropic focus of readergirlz. Not only is there a rich author-reader exchange, there’s life changing outreach through the fee donation,” Grover said.

In celebration of the launch of Skype Authors, a Half and Half Contest is open now. The entire fee for two half-priced virtual visits will be donated to the 2011-2012 charity, Camfed.

With the intention to expand, current Skype Authors include:

Martha Brockenbrough is author of the forthcoming picture book, The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy, and the forthcoming novel, Ten Commandments for the Dead (both Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic). She is a teacher who founded National Grammar Day and the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar.

Dia Calhoun won the Mythopoeic Award for Children’s Literature (Aria of the Sea (FSG, 2003)). and has authored five YA fantasy novels. She will make her debut as a middle grade verse novelist in 2012.

Janet Lee Carey author of seven YA novels including The Dragons of Noor (Egmont, 2010) and Dragon’s Keep (Harcourt, 2007). Her blog, Library Lions, roars for youth library programs.

Mary Casanova has written more than 25 books for children, from picture books to series, from books for American Girl to adventure novels.

Lorie Ann Grover
has authored three young-adult novels (On Pointe (McElderry, 2008)) and three board books (Bedtime Kiss for Little Fish (Cartwheel, 2009)). She co-founded readergirlz and readertotz.

Joan Holub is the author and/or illustrator of over 130 children’s books (Goddess Girls series (Aladdin); Vincent van Gogh: Sunflowers and Swirly Stars (Grosset & Dunlap, 2001).

Deb Lund wrote Monsters on Machines (Harcourt, 2008), her celebrated dinoseries (Harcourt), and many more children’s books.

Claire Rudolf Murphy has written more than fifteen books for children, from picture books through middle grade books, fiction and nonfiction.

Lisa L. Owens has written more than 75 works for children using the pen name L. L. Owens. She also writes and edits K–12 curriculum materials, and edits books for all ages.

Trudi Trueit is the author of more than 70 fiction and nonfiction children’s books, including the Julep O’Toole series (Penguin) and Secrets of a Lab Rat series (Aladdin).

Suzanne Williams is the author of more than 30 books for children (Goddess Girls series with Joan Holub (Aladdin), Library Lil (Dial, 1997), Ten Naughty Little Monkeys (HarperCollins, 2007), Fairy Blossoms (HarperCollins) and Princess Power series (HaperCollins)).

Yacinta’s Story: ‘The lengths I went to get an education’ from Camfed on Vimeo.

Happy Labor Day

Bread and Roses, Too by Katherine Paterson for Sept. 5 from Anita Silvey’s Children’s Book-A-Day Almanac. Peek: “As a well-known poster proclaims, ‘The Labor Movement. The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.’ But almost nothing exists in books for children to help explain the events of the first part of the twentieth century, when workers fought for fair pay and rights.”

Literature Connections to 9/11 from TheTeachingBooks.netBlog. Peek: “As we reflect on the 10 years since the attacks on the United States of America of September 11, 2001, we recognize that many children in school today might not remember much about that day. offers a handful of books and multimedia resources that can expand conversation and insights.”

Last call! Enter to win an advanced reader copy of The Vision by Jen Nadol (Bloomsbury, September 2011). To enter, comment on this post (click link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or email Cynthia directly with “The Mark” in the subject line. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada entries only. Deadline: midnight CST Sept. 6.

Vote for the Teens Top Ten; Blessed is a 2011 Nominee

Looking for this week’s round-up of the most useful and inspiring links in the kidlitosphere? It’s at Cynsational News & Giveaways–packed with awesome info and the most giveaways ever!


After a summer of reading, teens are now invited to vote for YALSA’s Teens Top Ten List!

Vote here, and see the annotated list.

I’m that my novel Blessed (Candlewick, 2011) is among the 25 titles nominated for YALSA’s Teens’ Top Ten!

From YALSA: “Teens’ Top Ten is a ‘teen choice’ list, where teens nominate and choose their favorite books of the previous year!

“Nominators are members of teen book groups in sixteen school and public libraries around the country. Nominations are posted on Support Teen Literature Day during National Library Week, and teens across the country vote on their favorite titles each year.

“Readers ages twelve to eighteen will vote online between Aug. 22 and Sept. 16; the winners will be announced during Teen Read Week.”

Hear an audio excerpt from Listening Library..