Publisher Interview: Peggy Tierney of Tanglewood Press

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Peggy Tierney on Peggy Tierney:

“I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I attended community college part-time. I transferred to the American University of Paris in 1990 and received a degree in Comparative Literature in 1992. I then moved to London to marry a man I met in Paris, had a baby, and got my break in publishing as an Americanization editor for Usborne Books.

“In 1999, we decided to try life in the States and moved to Washington, D.C., where I was an editor and then publisher, running the Child Welfare’s League book publishing program.

“After four interesting years, we decided to do a major lifestyle change and moved to Terre Haute, Indiana, where my son could live around extended family and we could try a slower lifestyle. 

“During a farewell luncheon with bestselling author Audrey Penn, she offered to let me publish a pirate novel she had written if I started my own company. We had become quite close, as editor and author often do, and she knew I loved her book, which was important to her. How could I say no to Audrey Penn?

Tanglewood is now seven years old, having published around thirty books.”

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

Plainly put, I have had a mad passion for books since I learned my alphabet. Books have done so much in my life. They’ve entertained me and educated me. They have been my friends. I have laughed with them and cried with them. I hugged them tight, and they whispered answers to my secret questions. They have given me so much, and I loved them for it. I still do.

I publish for kids because I share the belief of many that reading makes us better people. And books can often help kids. It gives them a safe place to explore issues, an escape from life when they need it, and also, for some kids, the message they need the most, which is that they are not alone in the world. That can be a lifesaving message.

Certainly, a good reader will very likely be a good student, and education has the power to transform lives. It did mine–leading me, a blue-collar girl from Oklahoma, to a scholarship at the American University of Paris, a decade of living in Europe, and a career in book publishing.

And beyond that, young readers will hopefully get all the joy, all the lessons, all the messiness and exuberance of life captured in great literature and in lives lived well.

On a less earnest note, I still love reading children’s books, even picture books.

I laugh every time I read Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Simon & Schuster). I smile at the sight of Olivia by Ian Falconer (Atheneum, 2000).

When the last volume of Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic) came out, I let my family know that they could fend for themselves, because I was going to be in an armchair until I reached the end.

Could you tell us about Tanglewood Press? Its history, mission, and growth?

I was working in Washington, D.C. as an editor and then publisher for a large children’s nonprofit there.

When my husband and I decided to move to the Midwest in 2003, Audrey Penn, who is best known for The Kissing Hand (Tanglewood, 2006), offered to let me publish a pirate-themed novel she had just written if I would start my own company. I loved the novel because I knew kids would love it – even if parents didn’t.

And kids did love it. I have more than one story of that book converting a non-reader into a reader.

I want to publish kidcentric books. I want books that speak to kids, whether it’s in a funny or dramatic way. I want smart books–books that respect kids.

Adults are always underestimating just how smart and savvy kids really are. Sure, they love poop and fart books, but they also love irony. They like silliness, but they are also, even from a very young age, looking at the bigger issues in life–who they are going to be, where they belong in the universe.

Kids are amazing.

I want to publish personally–one book at a time for one reader at a time. Every author and illustrator, everyone at Tanglewood, takes personal pride in our books. This is the great advantage of being a small house. I never want to lose sight of that.

I had a wonderful retreat for authors this summer. One author gave a workshop on social media; another two gave workshops on doing school programs. We did a lot of fun stuff, too, like a weenie roast and a hike in a beautiful state park nearby. Just as much as learning some marketing strategies, I think creative people are energized by other creative people, and I wanted to create a space and time to nurture that creativity and those professional bonds. My authors are an incredibly talented and just plain nice bunch of people. It was wonderful.

Tanglewood Press

You’re based in Indiana, yes? How does that give you a different perspective than, say, an east coast U.S. publisher?

It was a bit difficult in the beginning because I didn’t come from a N.Y. house and no one knew me, so I had to establish some credibility. Because I’ve lived in such a variety of places, from Tulsa to Paris to London to Washington, D.C. and now the Midwest, my preferences or tastes are not necessarily dictated by my current location.

That said, when I first moved here and looked for kids to try things out on, I worried that their taste would be quite different than, say, a kid from California or New York. Instead, I found the opposite. From movies to books to music to clothes, American teens are in sync, regardless of location. Maybe it’s the Internet or maybe it’s television, or maybe it’s the universal subconscious. I don’t know.

How has your list changed and grown over the years?

I have published a few not-very-good books and a few very good books with not-so-good covers, which pretty much doomed them. But I feel like I’ve learned a few things from every book we’ve published. Like other publishers, I’m backing away from picture books and trying to move into middle reader and YA books more.

I published one autobiography, and I’d love to find more nonfiction that is interesting and different, especially biographies or history books on an intriguing, unexplored subject. Overall, though, I’m pretty much looking for the same things I always looked for: books that kids and teens will love.

What are a few of your success stories?

I don’t judge success strictly by numbers, though I’ve certainly had success in that way. It’s when I’m told, without asking, that a Tanglewood book has become a child’s favorite, and has had to be read over and over and over.

I’ve heard that the most about It All Began with a Bean by Katie McKy, illustrated by Tracy Hill (2004) and The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Freres by Marie Letourneau (2007).

Or when yet another parent or child tells me how much The Kissing Hand enriched their lives.

Or the time when a teen looked through all my picture books, slowly and carefully, and then looked up and asked, “Where were you when I was young?”

Or when a blogger said about Ashfall by Mike Mullin (2011) that if she could marry a book, that would be the book. Another said it was one of the best books ever.

Or the times when I heard that a book like Mystery at Blackbeard’s Cove by Audrey Penn (2004) had turned a non-reader into a reader. That happened with my Barnes & Noble sales rep’s daughter. It certainly gave the rep a passion for the book that helped her sell it into the stores.

As much as I love books, a lot of what I do day-to-day isn’t all that fun. The hope of publishing books readers will love is what keeps me going. Corny but true. I’m very prone to earnestness.

What’s new and exciting?

I was so lucky to have some great books to publish this fall. Audrey Penn wrote her first Kissing Hand board book for the little ones, which I think is adorable – A Bedtime Kiss for Chester Raccoon, illustrated by Barbara Leonard Gibson (2011). All of Audrey’s Chester Raccoon books should be a staple on children’s bookshelves.

My Dog, My Cat by Ashlee Fletcher (Tanglewood, 2011) is so young and fresh. It is my designer’s two-year-old daughter’s new favorite.

Wild Rose’s Weaving by Ginger Churchill and illustrated by Nicole Wong (Tanglewood, 2011) is a sweet, beautifully illustrated story of a girl learning to weave a rug from her grandmother, but it’s about so much more: creativity, the interplay of life and art, and the gifts that women pass down to daughters and granddaughters.

Chengli and the Silk Road Caravan by Hildi Kang (Tanglewood, 2011) is a middle reader about an orphan boy joining a Silk Road caravan; it’s a great adventure inspired by the author’s own trip down that trade route. I love finding a book that I think both boys and girls will enjoy.

And then there’s Ashfall by Mike Mullins (Tanglewood, 2011). A book this good doesn’t come along often, and I do think it’s a truly exceptional book, probably one of the best I will ever publish. It’s a dystopian YA about the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano. It is just so gripping and so real and so true. Readers love–I mean really love–the characters. The author, Mike, is so hard-working, so talented but humble, such a nice guy and funny, too.

 And he is so generous with other authors–he has championed some other Tanglewood novels he admires and feels need more attention, like Chengli above, and Two Moon Princess by Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban (Tanglewood, 2009). I am one lucky publisher, for all of the above.

Have you adjusted your marketing strategies during the economic downturn?

I am not doing less marketing overall, just different marketing. I’m doing more ads and mailings and trying to use any opportunity that arises. Like other publishers, I’m going to have to learn how to market directly to readers due to the growth of e-books. Assuming that I won’t have any additional money to do it, it’s going to be challenging.

Please describe your dream children’s author, illustrator, or author-illustrator.

I have several dream authors in real life. But overall, the dream author will be unafraid to promote him/herself, will share in the task of marketing.

Unfortunately, a lot of authors think that writing the book is the end of their duties, but it’s not. Publishing is a collaboration, a partnership, and both sides have to work all the way through the process. Authors can market to the general public in ways that I can’t: write a blog or Twitter, ask for an endorsement, do a signing or a school visit.

Publishers are not interesting to most people. But authors are!

Peggy’s office

I have to do a lot of things that are behind the scenes, to bookstores and librarians, that authors never see. I have actually read published authors talking about how their publishers are only doing the “normal” stuff – taking the book to shows, sending it out on a media mailing, sending out samples. They have no idea how much money and time those activities take. For the record: a lot.

For an illustrator, the two biggest things are meeting deadlines and being open to input, to change. I’ve had two books sabotaged by the illustrators missing deadlines. I’ve had new illustrators become overly defensive and difficult to work with. They just didn’t get that it’s not like a college art project where everything is totally their vision. Again, it’s a collaboration, and they need to be open to that or they need to be in a different area of art.

Do you accept unagented work?

Yes, we do accept unagented work. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people trying to get published out there. I had to hire an acquisitions editor to help, it was so overwhelming. In spite of our small size, we get probably several thousand manuscripts a year. Out of those, I might sign one or two.

But it is what it is. I try to tell everyone who writes a story to please keep it, bind it, and put it safely away for their grandchildren to discover. It will be a family heirloom. It’s never time wasted.

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

I think it’s tragic that the picture book is being sidelined. Kids love picture books, even when they get older. There are so many wonderful, interesting picture books published each year – and not nearly enough get on bookstore shelves or into schools and libraries.

Kids are being pushed to read chapter books at a younger age, which I also think is tragic. When a child is pushed to read before they are ready, it causes all kinds of problems that are long-term and very harmful. I didn’t even learn my alphabet until I was six, yet I became a very advanced reader.

Tanglewood conference room

New Voice: Shirley Reva Vernick on The Blood Lie

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Shirley Reva Vernick is the first-time author of The Blood Lie (Cinco Puntos, 2011)(teachers’ guide). From the promotional copy:

One autumn afternoon in 1928, a Christian girl disappeared near her home in a small upstate New York town. By chance, it was the day before Yom Kippur. 

Someone started a rumor – that the Jews had kidnapped the child, murdered her, and drained her blood to use in their holiday foods. 

People bought the lie. The police bought the lie. And they decided to take action.

That is the true story of the blood libel that happened in Massena, NY, just a few years before Hitler took power in Germany and began using the blood libel to help justify the oppression and ultimate slaughter of the Jewish people. 

The Blood Lie is a novel inspired by the events in Massena. Delving into the minds of both the perpetrators and the casualties, it’s a story about hate crimes and loving acts, despair and hope, loss and redemption.

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

Being a debut author is a wild, sometimes frustrating, often surprising, somehow always life-affirming ride. I don’t know if that feeling is 2011-specific, but I’m guessing it’s not.

For me, the best part is the actual writing — that gritty process of using words to create characters, settings, emotions and, ultimately, cohesive stories. I love to sit with my laptop and my muse (a dog named Twinkles) and make a narrative happen. The selling part, on the other hand, is the price I have to pay to do what I love.

I think the biggest challenge for new authors nowadays is the state of the economy, as reflected in the closing or shrinking of bookstores. Still, I’m lucky to be writing YA at a time when this age market is so popular.

My biggest personal challenge has been to thicken my skin against rejection. It’s easy to equate “no” with “you are a lousy writer,” or “it’s not my cup of tea” with a slap in the face. And, let’s face it, in a bad economy, rejections are more plentiful. I’ve developed a whole set of affirmations to remind myself that I can write well, that I’m more than my writing, that I will get to “yes,” etc.

My biggest surprise? Actually, I came into it thinking nothing would surprise me. As a journalist, I already knew the importance of revising, for example, and that facts can be tricky to track down. What I didn’t know was how magnified those truths become when you’re writing a book-length piece based on events from decades past.

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

At the risk of sounding mushy, it’s my mother! I’ve always loved writing, even before I could write. I used to sit on Mom’s lap and scribble something on paper, and she’d tell me what it “said.” It was always something brilliant, of course!

As I got older, she encouraged me to follow my dream of becoming an author, even when others advised me to do something more practical. She gave me much-appreciated pep talks, as well as some tough love, and it made all the difference in the world. She also instilled a love of reading in me.

Even though Mom isn’t here any longer, I still have — and cherish — the motivation and enthusiasm she engendered in me.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Mothering is challenging. Making a writing career is challenging. Doing both is uber-challenging.

I do it by compartmentalizing my time. I write when my daughters are at school or asleep; otherwise, it’s all kid stuff.

This works only when I respect Murphy’s Laws for writers. First, writing projects always take longer than expected. Second, parenting responsibilities frequently and unexpectedly dash your plans to write (think late-night fevers, cancelled play dates, snow days).

You’ve got to take these realities into account when negotiating deadlines — even when the only person you’re negotiating with is yourself.

If you have a spouse, relative or friend who’s willing/interested in helping with childcare, go for it!

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

Shirley’s work space, featuring Twinkles.

I decided early on to become actively involved in promoting The Blood Lie. I’m using social media, including a Facebook author page and a website. I’m contacting book reviewers and author interviewers who publish online or in print (newspapers, magazines). I’m also reaching out to relevant historical and library associations. And, of course, I’ve been telling all my friends and family!

My wonderful publisher has also been promoting the book through posts on their website, tweets, a book trailer, and networking with media, libraries, and other pertinent organizations.

I already knew a fair amount about promotion from my early work in public relations. But I was/am a neophyte when it comes to social media. Fortunately, my husband is a computer guy and has been instrumental in this endeavor. I have to say — and I guess I already did say — that I don’t love doing promotion. It’s not that people are mean to me — they’re surprisingly kind, once you reach them — but I just don’t enjoy the process. If I did, I probably would have stayed in public relations!

Fellow debut authors, do devote some time to promoting the book you worked so long and hard to get out there. But work smart — you need to start working on your next project!

When it comes to print media, keep in mind that many city newspapers only cover authors who have a local connection (you live there, you’re doing an event there, your book takes place there).

Finally, try to think of it all as a training ground for promoting your second book, which, with any luck, you’ve already got brewing!

Guest Post: Peggy Thomas on Baring All – Anatomy of Nonfiction & Critique-Book Giveaway

By Peggy Thomas
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

As a nonfiction writer I am, by profession, a nosy person. I root around scrutinizing other people’s lives and work.

But when Margery Facklam, my mother and award-winning children’s author, suggested that we collaborate on a how-to guide for writing nonfiction, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be scrutinized.

Although I’ve taught writing for years in workshops and through the Institute of Children’s Literature, this was going to be different. Did I have the guts to bare all in a book?

The first job was to remember what it was like when we began. What were our greatest hurdles? Where did our ideas come from? How did we develop them into viable projects? How were we able to catch an editor’s eye?

Basically, what do we know now that we wished we knew then? Those were the tips we wanted to share with our readers.

Like the good little archaeologist that I trained to be in college, I sifted through the detritus of past book projects: old manuscripts with editorial notes, query letters (ones that worked and ones that didn’t), floppy disks I could no longer access, and cassette tapes of interviews with scientists that I thought I conducted professionally, but now make me cringe because my voice sounds so young and naïve.

But those tapes reminded me that I do have information to share, some of it learned the hard way. For instance, Tip # 1 – Make sure a spouse, neighbor or grandparent is watching your toddler while you conduct a phone interview. I still remember that moment of panic when my daughter poked her head into the office just when the expert was finally divulging the good stuff. The professor kindly excused me so I could deal with my daughter’s playdough issues, but I felt as if I had been caught in the act of pretending to be a real writer. Here was my chance to save others from that embarrassing fate.

Peggy’s Office

And speaking of embarrassing, what about the time an interviewee became enraged because I didn’t tell her I was taping the conversation. I actually wasn’t (I was writing notes), but that didn’t seem to matter. Another lesson learned. Tip # 2 – Always tell your interviewee if you are recording the conversation and how you are recording it.

I feel I need to redeem myself for a moment. There are anecdotes in the book that relate some of my successes, too. Like the time I sold an article to Cricket Magazine, and the editor loved it so much he asked for a recipe. Unfortunately, the article was about eating insects. Tip # 3 – Bake mealworms in a pan with sides so they don’t crawl off and commit suicide on the bottom of your oven.

Peggy and Margery

But we didn’t want a narcissistic book that was just about our process; after all, there is no single correct way to write. So we picked the brains of dozens of other nonfiction writers.

Carla Killough McClafferty shared tips on photo research, Jim Murphy outlined his research process, Jan Fields talked about revision, and Trudi Trueit offered advice on writing self-help books.

We even let editors weigh in on subjects like voice, marketable ideas, writing to themes, and what they like to see in cover and query letters.

After five years of research, we discovered that writers of children’s nonfiction have two important characteristics in common – a penchant for learning and an enthusiasm to share that knowledge.

I’m sure there are many more writers out there who fit that description, and our hope is that this book will help them hone their craft, so, someday they will become the authors we interview for the second edition of Anatomy of Nonfiction (Writers Institute Publications, 2011).

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win a critique by Peggy of a nonfiction picture book manuscript or the first three chapters of a longer nonfiction manuscript and a signed copy of Anatomy of Nonfiction by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas (Writers Institute Publications, 2011). To enter, comment on this post and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly with “Anatomy of Nonfiction” in the subject line.

Author-sponsored. Deadline: Dec. 12. Eligibility: international. Anyone can enter! However, the manuscript must be written in English.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Won Ton – A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin (Henry Holt) has won the Cat Writers’ Association Muse Medallion for Best Children’s Book and the Fancy Feast/Purina Love Story award for the book that best captures the magic of the loving relationship between cats and their owners. See also Kit Lit: Cat-Themed Picture Books.

Believability or Bust by Stina Lindenblatt from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “To avoid the issue of lack of believability, always ask yourself: “Have I given enough set up to the story so my readers are able to believe this event can happen this way?” See also Perspiration: Self-Study in Writing Children’s-YA Books.

In Which Award-Winning Author Han Nolan (Inadvertently) Calls Me a Scaredy Cat by Natalie Dias Lorenzi from EMU’s Debuts. Peek: “She said that it can be hard once you sell that first novel, because now there are expectations.” See also Inspiration in Writing Children’s & YA Books.

We Are The Youth Book Club: from “a photographic journalism project chronicling the individual stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in the United States.” See Q&A with Nick Burd, The Vast Fields of Ordinary (Dial, 2009). See also Exploring Diversity: Themes & Communities.

Stimulus and Response: The Writer’s Path through Story by Martina from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing. Peek: “Pulling the reader by the heart from the beginning of the book to that climax, scene by scene, is the key to successful writing. Ultimately, a book isn’t about beautiful descriptions or sparkling prose. It’s about action and reaction, which is all a response to conflict.”

“Love Loves Difficult Things”: Peter Sis’ Conference of the Birds by Jules from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Post includes a video interview with Peter from BEA 2011. See also Children’s Picture Books A-L and M-Z.

Michael Kusugak on Storytelling: an audio interview from CBC Radio Canada. Highly recommended. See also Sarah Ellis’s related thoughts at Silence in the Igloo from Write at Your Own Risk. See also Native American Authors & Illustrators: Picture Books.

This week Lisa Schroeder is offering free signed-and-personalized bookplates to folks giving her books as holiday gifts.

Author-illustrator Kadir Nelson talks with Horn Book editor Roger Sutton from Denise Johnson at The Joy of Children’s Literature. Peek: “I wanted to tell this great American story as if it were a story, not a series of facts.” See also Children’s Literature Guides.

Five Things to Know about Publicity Before You’re Published by Crystal Patriarche from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “Publicity doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it’s a very long-term and strategic process.” Source: Phil Giunta. See also Writers Links: Promotion.

Congratulations to author Jenny Moss for signing with Tricia Lawrence of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, and congratulations to Tricia for signing Jenny! See also Agent to Agent Interview: Erin Murphy and Tricia Lawrence on Social Networking for Children’s-YA Authors and Writers Links: Agents.

The National Book Awards: A Judge’s View by Will Weaver from The Huffington Post. Peek: “For a National Book Awards judge, lurking behind the sheer volume of reading is, always, the math. My group needed to read three-to-four books each day, every day, to stay on schedule.” See also U.S. Awards for Children’s-YA Literature.

Top Five Writing Tips the Grinch Stole by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “Take a page from Dr. Seuss. Be nasty when you create characters. Try different physical descriptions, motivations, typical ways of moving, common phrases and specific actions.”

Author, Not Illustrator: My Perspective on the Caldecott Honor by Liz Garton Scanlon from ALSC Blog. Peek: “I was allowed to celebrate the prize, and the incredible, jaw-dropping art that won the prize, without being the center of attention.”

Platform and Social Media Must Not Be Your Center by Christina Katz from Jane Friedman. Peek: ” I want to help you cultivate creative confidence and express literary ability through writing. This is what belongs at the center of your writing career. Period. Here are three tips on author platform that give you an idea of my philosophy.”

What is Voice, and How Do I Get It? by Chris Eboch from Write Like a Pro! A Free Online Writing Workshop. Peek: “I would say my voice is simple, lively, and brisk, and that’s true whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, for children or for adults.”

The Life Cycle of a Book from Publishing Trends. Source:, which offers its own weekly links roundup, via SCBWI Blog.

Writing Dreams Fulfilled by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “…create a detailed image of your future perfect writing life. What are some projects you’d love to work on? What are your secret writing dreams? Make a list.”

Picture Book Month

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win Lala Salama by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Candlewick, 2011)!  To enter, comment on this post (click preceding 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 “Lala Salma” in the subject line. Publisher-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST Nov. 30. Note: View an inside spread.

This Week’s Cynsations Posts

Cynsational Screening Room

School Library Journal Day of Dialog 2011: “Diversity in YA Literature,” featuring Paul Griffin, Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon and Rita Williams-Garcia and moderated by Liz Burns from A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy. Source: Amy Bowllan at Writers Against Racism. See also Exploring Diversity Through Children’s & Young Adult Books: Background Reading.

“12 Things to Do Before You Crash and Burn,” directed by Chris Hartlove and highlighting the novel of the same name by James Proimos (Roaring Brook, 2011). Source: A Fuse #8 Production.

Check out the book trailer for The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler. Source: Lynne Kelly Hoenig.

More Personally

Cheers to my amazing web designer Lisa Firke on the luscious facelift for my official author site and Children’s-YA Literature Resources! Lisa has worked her magic on the typefaces and added substantial content updates to my author section, children’s-YA literature resources, goodies for writers and more. Consequently, I’ll be featuring the various relevant pages on a more regular basis here at Cynsations!

Highlights of the week included attending illumine 2011, a ceremony recognizing excellence in literary achievement and advocacy, with Gene Brenek, Debbie Gonzales, and Greg Leitich Smith at the Hilton Austin Downtown. The event, hosted by the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, included a silent auction, dinner, and live music. Celebrity sightings included author Ruth Pennebaker and professor Loriene Roy of the University of Texas.

In addition, I was treated to a day of writing with fellow Austin author Jo Whittemore! Jo’s latest release is Odd Girl In (Aladdin Mix, 2011).

Jo brought holiday chocolate chip cookies.

Greg Leitich Smith AKA the Chef and I also played hosts to a group of friends at Thanksgiving.

Here’s author-illustrator Divya Srinivasan, author Salima Alikhan and her husband Sam, and authors Jenny Moss, Anne Bustard and Chris Barton. The menu included crudités (chopped celery, broccoli florettes and baby carrots) with homemade cheese and spinach dip, a roasted turkey, stuffing, shrimp potato salad, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, whipped cauliflower, corn and cornbread, followed by pumpkin cheesecake and macadamia nut pie. See also Greg’s report.

I arranged the flowers!

On the writing front, I’ve dived back into Smolder. My immediate goal is to do a straight read through and write myself a critique letter. I’ve also been working on a book trailer for Diabolical with Shayne Leighton. I’m very excited about our progress and look forward to sharing it with you.

Holiday Shopper Alert! CWDkids is selling a Shark Train PJ and Book set! Note: learn more about Shark vs. Train by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld (Little, Brown).

YA Lit Ramblings says of Diabolical: “ takes a special something to make one stand out as this one does.  Plenty of action and suspense with great characters!”

Thanks to PaperTigers Blog for the shout out about Holly Thompson’s guest post on setting earlier this week at Cynsations.

Even More Personally

Author-illustrator Don Tate and authors Greg Leitch Smith and Chris Barton at the Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning in Austin.

Personal Links:

From Greg Leitich Smith:

Cynsational Events

Holiday Tree Lighting and Author Signing at LBJ State Park! Join Cynthia Leitich Smith for the tree lighting ceremony at LBJ State Park from 4:30 p.m. Dec. 18. Cynthia will be signing Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010). Lucy Johnson will be speaking briefly at the event, and Santa may make an appearance, too. See more information.

See also Cynthia’s upcoming events in Austin, Albuquerque, Tucson, Sandy (Utah), Southampton (New York), and Montpelier (Vermont).

About Cynthia

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of the Tantalize series for young adults and several acclaimed children’s books, most recently including Holler Loudly. Her most recent release is the YA graphic novel, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story. Cynthia makes her home in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Chronal Engine author Greg Leitich Smith, and four writer cats. For more news and conversations in children’s-YA literature, read Cynsations.

In Memory: Anne McCaffrey

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Anne McCaffrey, Author of ‘Dragonriders’ Fantasies, Dies at 85 by Margalit Fox from The New York Times: “Anne Inez McCaffrey was born in Cambridge, Mass., on April 1, 1926. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Slavonic languages and literature from Radcliffe, and trained as an actress and opera singer before her writing life transported her to operatic worlds of another kind.”

See also rgz Newsflash Anne McCaffrey Passes.

Happy (American) Thanksgiving

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
from Cynsations

Here’s to a bountiful harvest season!

Cynsational Notes

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of the Tantalize series for young adults and several acclaimed children’s books, most recently including Holler Loudly. Her most recent release is the YA graphic novel, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story. Cynthia makes her home in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Chronal Engine author Greg Leitich Smith, and four writer cats. For more news and conversations in children’s-YA literature, read Cynsations.

Guest Post: Holly Thompson on the Perfect Setting & Orchards

By Holly Thompson

Orchards (Delacorte, 2011) actually developed from research for an adult novel set on a mikan (mandarin orange) farm in a Japanese village. I’ve lived in Japan for sixteen years, and I’d written an article years ago on female migrant laborers in Kanagawa Prefecture. From that experience, I’d drafted a short story about an American woman marrying into a Japanese mikan farming family, but the story threatened to become a novel.

So after my first novel, Ash (Stonebridge, 2001), was finished and published, I decided to tackle this adult mikan farm novel.

Did I know anything about mikan cultivation?


Did I live in an agricultural village?


Even more absurd, I imagined the ideal village setting for my novel then set out to find such a village. I studied maps and searched Japan coasts within a couple hours from home, and by chance one weekend when I was camping with my children, I happened upon a mikan growing district—with its telltale slopes of terraced groves—amid finger-like valleys on the northern coast of the Izu Peninsula.

I’d stumbled upon my perfect village.

But in Japan, connections are everything. You can’t just waltz into a village and expect a welcome. I asked friends and colleagues and my husband’s friends and colleagues if anyone knew anyone in that tiny corner of Japan. Ultimately, through one of my husband’s former colleague’s husband’s elementary-school friend’s wife’s journalist friend’s cousin’s friend’s cousin (whew!), I was introduced to a farm family in the village, and I arranged to work with the farmer for a year, learning everything I could about mikan cultivation.

That year morphed into 18 months, with me traveling from my home to the farm (about two hours each way) once or twice a week. I’d depart at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., work a full day at the farm, drive home, then deal with kids and homework and teaching responsibilities.

“Mount Fuji early in the morning as I arrived in the village for work.” – HT

At the farm I learned planting, grafting, pruning, harvesting, storage, shipping…. I loved the work high on hillsides overlooking the bay and Mount Fuji. Eventually, tired of commuting, I rented rooms in a neighboring village and moved there for several months with my daughter who attended the district elementary school. My absurdly supportive husband went along with this arrangement.

About a year into my mikan work, the farmer’s American-born niece visited. By then I felt at home in the village, and it was intriguing to see the niece, an insider by blood, clearly feeling like an outsider. I began to think of a YA story of a bi-cultural girl sent to a mikan growing village for the summer.

That explains the setting, and the seed for my character, but the plot of Orchards derived from darker, sadder experiences—the deaths by suicide of a friend’s fourteen-year-old daughter after she’d been ostracized and bullied; of my brother-in-law; and of a dear friend’s wife.

“The view from the rooms my daughter and I rented.” – HT

Suddenly I was aching to write a story in the voice of a survivor trying to make sense of things, a survivor coping with grief, anger, fear, despair and identity all at the same time. I set aside the adult mikan novel, and put all my energy into creating the character of Kana, a bi-cultural girl from New York sent to her grandparents’ farm in Japan after the death of a classmate.

Orchards was a tough story to write. I consulted counselors and survivors. I wept my way through every draft as I forced myself to get inside Kana’s head. I overwrote then scaled back trying to distill the verse.

My hope is that through Kana’s story, dialogues will open up in classrooms, in homes, and among friends about the issues that Kana confronts—bullying, teen depression, suicide prevention.

And I hope that as they follow Kana through her summer at the farm as she addresses her dead classmate, readers will take a journey and dip their toes into the world of a small Japanese farm village.

“Mikan ready for harvest high on a hillside.” – HT

Cynsational Notes

Book trailer by Ellen Yaegashi.

Guest Post: Kristen Tracy on Where Does Humor Come From?

By Kristen Tracy

I discovered that readers found my writing funny after I published my first novel, Lost It (Simon Pulse, 2007), and multiple reviewers used the word “hilarious” in their evaluations of the story. I thought, Cool. I’m a funny writer. That makes sense. I’m a jokey person.

But this realization soon gave way to something else.


How can I be a humor writer?! I haven’t taken a class in that! (I have an M.A. in American Literature, an M.F.A. in poetry, and a Ph.D. in English, so obviously education is my favorite resource).

Okay. So I attended a class on humor writing with the great hope of uncovering the nuts and bolts of comedic writing so I could make my writing process and life easier (because I think it goes without saying that if I understood the formula for humor writing, my books would basically write themselves).

That didn’t happen. The panel was smart and hilarious. But they said things like, “There is a rule that things are funny after they are repeated three times. But that rule is crap. I’ll repeat something 14 times, because at some point it becomes funny again.” Or, somebody else would say, “The only reason you go into a life of comedy is because you never got your father’s approval.”

Thought-provoking stuff, but it wasn’t really nuts and bolts.

This is where my guest blog post gets very real.

Listen. When it comes to humor writing, I’m flying blind. I use my intuition. I start building my story by creating an interesting and often freethinking character. But I don’t really think that’s where my humor comes from. I think I plant my humor around events.

I attended a conference a couple of years ago and had a great critique with C. Michael Curtis, the fiction editor of The Atlantic Monthly. I gave him a couple of short stories that I’d written for adults that had child protagonists.

I was braced for brutal feedback. But that didn’t happen. He was delightful! And he told me something that really stuck with me. He said, “You think your stories are about your characters. But they’re not. They’re about situations.” And he was right.

In The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter (Delacorte, 2011), my character faces the challenging waters of middle school.

And guess what? Surprising things happen. Surprising things that are also funny.

A lot of people will say that my voice is funny, but I think the more accurate comment is that my voice is sincere. Or at least it’s trying to be. When I’m writing middle-grade fiction, I do everything I can to inhabit the mindset of a tween. And if I nail that mindset, the humor will arrive.

Because that not-quite-developed-into-a-mature-person lens, that I-am-twelve-and-impulsive-and-want-to-stalk-my-gorgeous-high-school-neighbor persona will carry a lot of humor into the story. Then, add a school bus, a P.E. class, a hall monitor, three psycho-bullies, a disastrous haircut, a malfunctioning vending machine, a mascot contest . . .

With these situations how can you not wind up with a humorous story?

I still haven’t found a formula for writing comedy, though I do tend to ingest quite a bit of it. I like watching stand-up comedy. I like reading funny books. But I also like dramas. And devastatingly tragic stories that make me feel alive in a different way.

Do I have any advice? Don’t write what you think will make a tween laugh. That’s not sincere. Write what makes you laugh.

If it helps, think of yourself at that age. I do that. Let your humor be personal.

My love of animals, especially bears, often finds its way into my stories. This is true not only for The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter but also the sequel (due out in March 2012!!) Bessica Lefter Bites Back. Again, I start with a character with lots of comedic potential, but it’s the events she goes through–those funny situations–that in my mind deliver the most laughs.

New Voice: Katherine Battersby on Squish Rabbit

Katherine Battersby is the first-time author-illustrator of Squish Rabbit (Viking, 2011)(blog). From the promotional copy:

Squish is just a little rabbit. But being little can lead to BIG problems. Sometimes Squish is hard to hear, and see. And it isn’t easy making friends. 

But no matter how little Squish is, one thing is certain…he has a very large heart.

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

I was a hungry reader. Hungry for words and images and stories of characters living lives more exciting than my own. I inhaled books as if their words alone would keep me breathing.

When I was a wee little thing, my mum would take my brother and I to the local library once a fortnight. The building looked so big, and I remember being in awe of all the shelves of towering books inside. All those colours, spine-out. All those musty flickering pages.

We could choose up to ten books each to loan, which for me was like some amazing gift – it felt like Christmas all throughout the year.

I adored picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (Penguin Putnam, 1969) and an Australian classic: Edward the Emu by Sheena Knowles, illustrated by Rod Clement (HarperCollins, 1990).

Once I was at school, I quickly discovered I had access to a whole new library. My mum worked long hours so I was often dropped at school long before the other kids, and learnt that the library was nearly always open. I began picking out books by random, reading my first chapter book about a little glider possum and another about unicorns. I loved fantasies and adventures the most.

Over the years, the school librarian got to know me and steered me towards new books she’d brought in (I love an enthusiastic librarian!). We also had a library cat that curled up on my lap as I read amongst the cushions.

My first picture book, Squish Rabbit, is about a very little rabbit with a big heart, and I often get asked why I like rabbits so much. I suppose this is fair, considering I grew up in Queensland, Australia, where rabbits are not only rare but also illegal to own as pets (due to farming).

So I’ve had to ponder this: why are there always rabbits hopping around the warren of my mind and gnawing their way into my stories? One of the obvious answers comes from the books I grew up reading. The first hard cover series I was given was a set of little Beatrix Potter books, my favourite of course being Peter Rabbit (Warne, 1902). I also loved Dick Bruna’s books, and not surprisingly found a favourite in his Miffy series (Big Tent Entertainment, 1955).

I have my grandparents to thank for much of my early reading also, as their house was full of old English tales and comic books that my dad and his brothers once read.

My dad was British, so I spent chunks of my childhood in England visiting his family. Memories of my times over there are quite dreamlike, almost as if I was wandering through some kind of storybook.

England was where I went to visit my grandparents in their funny little cottage with their ancient cat, where tea and toast were served morning and night. They had wild animals in their backyard that were new and fascinating to me, like snow-white rabbits and twitchy little squirrels (both of which feature in Squish Rabbit). The countryside was lush and green, and home to the kind of tangly forests where adventures were sure to happen.

It is no wonder to me that now as a writer and illustrator for children, when I need to escape to the storytelling part of my mind, this is where I go – back down the rabbit hole.

As a picture book writer, you have succeeded in a particularly tough market. What advice do you have for others, hoping to do the same?

I think one of the most valuable lessons in writing is something I was first told as a young writer, which is to write what you know. I have discovered over time that this is not meant to be taken literally, otherwise we wouldn’t have stories about vampires or magicians or tales set on Mars. If you could only write about things you had actually experienced then I certainly wouldn’t have been able to write a picture book from the point of view of a rabbit.

What is actually meant by this phrase is something I believe wholeheartedly, which is to write to your emotional truths. Write to the feelings that you know and understand. If you write about emotions you have sat inside of, then your characters and stories will be that much more alive to your readers.

Katherine’s Office

Looking back on my childhood, Squish Rabbit certainly captures my emotional truths. I recall vividly what it was like to feel small in a big world. I remember the first time I lost my mum in the supermarket. The panic was so big it filled up my small body, so that I honestly believed I would never see her again. I remember having important things to say, in a world where big people get listened to first. I recall having questions and thoughts and ideas bubbling up inside of me, and yet having no clue how to say any of it.

This is ultimately why I started writing and drawing – to express all those things I had trouble voicing.

I think another thing that is captured really beautifully in my favourite picture books is voice. That elusive element that makes one writer’s words stand out over another’s. Finding your unique voice is something you can’t force – it takes time to develop. Time and lots of writing.

I’d recommend giving yourself permission to play around. Write stories of different styles and genres. If you’ve always written serious stories, try on humour for a change. If all your picture books are written in third person, try writing from a first person perspective.

Writing muscles need stretching and challenging – regularly. It’s also rare that someone would immediately fall into the exact style of book they’re best suited to writing. I initially began writing quite dark tales, and although this is still a part of my writing, I’ve discovered I have many stories in me that come with a lighter, quirkier tone.

Finally, I would also urge writers to seek out other creative people. If you’re reading this blog then that’s an excellent start! Four years ago, when I first started attending writing workshops and meeting other writers and illustrators, my writing output tripled. There’s something about being around others that bubble with ideas and a passion for stories that increases your own drive.

Through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I also met my critique partner, who I’ve been working with for many years. She reads nearly everything I write (including proof reading this article!) and there’s no way I’d be published without her support and wisdom.

Also, if you can track one down, find a pet that can help with your editing – my pup is brilliant at eliminating wayward adverbs…

Join Austin SCBWI & Friends of the Bastrop Public Library in Outreach for Fire-Striken Community

Remember the wildfires that ravaged Texas in September?

The Bastrop Public Library didn’t burn, but much of its collection was lost along with the homes of the kids and teens that had checked out books.

Here’s how you can help:

The Friends of the Bastrop Public Library and the Austin Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators are accepting book and monetary donations in conjunction with a Bastrop Public Library Open House on Dec. 10.

The Friends will give each participating young reader two books, tied with a ribbon, and are accepting monetary donations to be used to further promote and advocate for the library. 

Austin SCBWI is collecting money and book donations through Dec. 8.  Donations of all age-market books–picture books through YA books–are welcome. See more information.

Bastrop fires destroyed over 400 homes and over 17500 acres. Source: Austin YNN.