Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations 

Lessons Lived by J. Anderson Coats from EMU’s Debuts. Peek: “She grabbed two of us by the forearms and said, “Look, guys.  We’re in New York.  They want us to dance with a Broadway cast.  When do you think this is ever going to happen again?”

How to Install IndieBound Reader on Kindle Fire by Samantha Clark from Motivation for Writers. Peek: “While the default settings for the Kindle Fire don’t allow the installation of apps that are not in the Amazon Store, including the IndieBound Reader app, there’s a quick and easy way to allow your Kindle Fire to accept these outside apps.”

Disability in Children’s Books Part 1 by Renee Grassi from ALSC Blog. Note: annotated bibliography of recommended reads.

List of Wordless Picture Books: recommendation from Gathering Books.

Drawing from Memory by Allen Say recommended by Elizabeth Bird from A Fuse #8 Production. Peek: “Allen discovers something about himself and his own past every time he draws from his own memory.”

Marketing Books by agent Chip MacGregor from Chip’s Blog. A ten-post (and step) series of insights and recommended strategies. Peek: “Balancing opportunity and threat, strength and weakness — that’s where you’ll start your marketing plan. Focus on your strengths.” Source: April Henry.

What I’ve Learned about Writing Nonfiction by Cynthia Levinson from EMU’s Debuts. Peek: “Trust my editor. Her probing questions—’Is it really accurate to say that the civil rights movement was failing?’, ‘Why does it matter who was the mayor?’—led to revisions and expansions that were absolutely essential.”

Read Veronica’s blog.

Updated Young Adult Dystopian List by Amy H. Sturgis from Redecorating Middle-Earth in Early Lovecraft. Peek: “I am intentionally casting a wide net by defining ‘dystopian’ works as those that imply a warning by describing a world gone wrong: utopias that took a bad turn, worst-case scenario post-apocalyptic societies, post-disaster tales that focus more on the undesirable communities that develop after the disasters than on the disasters themselves, etc.”

Contains Strong Language by Ash Krafton from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “Perhaps the most valuable advice I’d found was the simplest concept: word choice. The strength of a word determines the effect it will have on the reader.”

Books into Apps: An Author’s Perspective by Roxie Munro from ALSC Blog. Peek: “We hired a graduate student for six months to do marketing (very important!). Regular book review venues are not always helpful with apps. You have to reach individual parents, and the audience is worldwide. The maze apps sell in 64 countries (no language issue) and the Doors app, which is in English, sells in 24 countries.”

Are Your Dreams Big Enough? Shooting for the Moon by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “I’m big on goal setting. And I’m not trying to set you up for a big fall. However, I sometimes wonder if all of us achieve less simply because we start out with ‘reasonable, achievable’ goals instead of reaching for the stars.”

List of Picture Book Agents by Heather Ayris Burnell from Frolicking through Cyberspace. Peek: “As a picture book writer I know it can be difficult to track down which agents represent picture book authors. Not author/illustrators (how I wish I could illustrate!), but authors only.”

Highlighting Five Middle Grade Novels of 2012 by Caroline Starr Rose from Project Mayhem: The Manic Minds of Middle Grade Writers. See also The Ten Middle Grade Novels I’m Looking Forward To in 2012 by Betsy Bird from A Fuse #8 Production.

A Year of Thinking About Diversity by Malinda Lo from Diversity in YA Lit. Peek: “…after a year of working on Diversity in YA, my own awareness of diversity has shifted immensely. I think about books differently. I think about writing differently. I actively notice whether a book is about a person of color or not. I’ve seen where my own fears and assumptions have limited me, both in my writing and in my everyday engagement with race and sexual orientation/gender identity.” Note: thank you to Malinda and Cindy Pon for their efforts this past year.

Diversity: Wow, It’s Complicated by Brent Hartinger from Brent’s Brain. Peek: “We all need to be aware of this issue — in our own works and in the works of others. If the characters you’re writing (and reading) are exactly like you, it’s worth asking yourself, ‘Why might that be?'” Note: check out Brent’s newly redesigned author website.

Show and Tell by Danyelle Leafty from Peek: “… I think show, don’t tell is more about balance than choosing one thing or the other. There will be some places in the story where telling works more effectively than showing, but the trick is figuring out which ones.”

An Awarding Adventure: Serving on a Student Choice Award Committee by librarian Laura Randolph from ALSC Blog. Peek: “Every once in a great while, you find a book that is so meaningful, you want to buy a whole box of them, stand on a corner and hand them out to everyone who passes. This is that book!”

Jewish Children’s Books by Marjorie Ingall from Tablet. See also Marjorie’s extended list. Source: A Fuse #8 Production.

The Dance of Avoidance by Jennifer R. Hubbard from writerjenn. Peek: “…don’t let the character wriggle out of this scene without taking a risk.”

Cover Stories: Witch Eyes by Scott Tracey from Melissa Walker. Peek: “People tell me that my book is dark – I don’t see it that way, but I definitely think of it as ‘serious.’  As serious as a book about a gay witch cursed with magic eyes who walks into the middle of a feud between powerful warlocks can be, at least.”

Lisa Yee’s Newly Redesigned Website: newly redesigned by Lisa herself.  Pages include Creating a Cover and All About Peepy.

Year-end Feature: Children’s Poetry Titles Published in 2011 from Poetry at Play. Peek: “Brave volunteers Sylvia Vardell, Diane Mayr, Rebecca Davis, and Lee Bennett Hopkins (with help from Steven Withrow) took on the challenge of creating as comprehensive a list of poetry titles as we could make: all books of poetry published for young people ages 0-18 in English in 2011. We even tried to include books from outside the United States, adding some titles published in Canada and the UK. If we missed any, we welcome further recommendations.”

Environment, War and Fantasy: Janni Lee Simner’s Bones of Faerie and Faerie Winter by J.L. Powers from The Pirate Tree: Social Justice and Children’s Literature. Peek: “When I started writing the Faerie books, I think a part of me wanted straightforward answers. I wanted my characters to eventually find a way of saying, ‘And now, with all we’ve learned, we’re going to see to it for certain that tragedies like the war never happen again’–even though we’ve never yet managed that in our own world.But my characters, who so often understand my stories better than I do, wouldn’t let me get away with that.”

Revision Strategies – A Chapter Worksheet by Dee Garretson from Project Mayhem: From the Manic Minds of Middle Grade Writers. Peek: “Once I have a draft I’m fairly happy about, I go back and revise by chapters, trying to ensure each chapter holds together as a unit itself and adds to the story as a whole.”

Creative Cajones by Sara Zarr from Good Times and a Noodle Salad. Peek: “I’m very glad to be making my living as a writer, and know how fortunate I am to do so, and believe artists should be paid. I just don’t want to cling to my situation so tightly that I forget to make at least some choices based on passion and joy and the desire for adventure, growth, challenge. To take a chance now and then.” Source: Janni Lee Simner at Desert Dispatches.

The Excitement of a Small-town Setting by Elizabeth S. Craig from Writing Mystery is Murder. Peek: “When everyone knows everyone else, you feel the need to hide things that you don’t want the whole town knowing about.”

On Responding Graciously by Phoebe North from YA Highway. Peek: “I’ve finally figured out how to be gracious—how to take a compliment and not be rude in response.”

Goal-setting for Writers by Jane Lebak from Peek: “Without goals, we lack a means to judge our performance. In setting goals, however, we must be careful to make ‘us-dependent’ goals rather than ‘them-dependent’ goals.”

E-reader for the Holidays?

Reminder: “Haunted Love,” a short story by Cynthia Leitich Smith is now available for free download from Barnes & Noble (U.S.), Books on Board, (U.S.) and (U.K.). It will be available from additional e-retailers soon. From the promotional copy:

Spirit, Texas, is a town of secrets, and as the new owner of the local haunted movie theater, Cody Stryker is juggling more than his fair share. 

When a mysterious new girl comes to town and runs afoul of the ghost that lives in his theater, Cody’s caught in the middle and needs to figure out exactly who he can trust.

“Haunted Love” is a short story by New York Times Bestseller Cynthia Leitich Smith — featuring new characters and set in the same Gothic universe as her novels Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, and Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle.

Note: “Haunted Love” has been in the top 10 in Youth and YA at Books on Board for the past four weeks! Thank you for your support!

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win Dreaming Anastasia and Haunted by Joy Preble (both Sourcebooks)! 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 “Joy Preble” in the subject line. Publisher-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST Dec. 31. See also Joy Preble on Embracing Risk.

Enter to win an ARC of Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin, Book 1) by Robin LaFevers from Brodie at Eleusinian Mysteries. Eligibility: international. Deadline: 11:59 p.m. Jan. 2. Note: highest recommendation.

Elevensies Giveaway Featuring Books by 2011 Debut Authors from Anna Staniszewski. Peek: “The winner of the giveaway will get to choose one of the Elevensie books released in October, November, or December of this year…” Eligibility: international. Deadline: midnight Jan. 11.

This Week’s Cynsations Posts

Cynsational Screening Room

Lauren Oliver talks about the Delirium trilogy (HarperCollins). Source: YA Books Central.

More Personally

My initial deadline on Smolder and the release of Diabolical are both at the end of January, so I’ve been revising my work-in-progress and setting up promotional initiatives for the launch.

On the manuscript front, I have one major character shift to make–a secondary character is being rewritten from a twelve-year-old female werecat to a forty-five-year-old male human attorney. Otherwise, the story seems to be working in the whole.

What it needs right now is to be more–more suspenseful, more mysterious, more romantic, funnier, and sharper in its surprises.

With regard to the launch, my wonderful publisher, Candlewick Press, does the heavy lifting. I’ll be showing off my new bookmark and announcing tour dates soon. But I am pitching in here and there, as we authors tend to do. On a related note, COS Productions is distributing my Diabolical trailer, and I’m shopping for next month’s Diabolical mega giveaway.

Review of Diabolical by Cynthia Leitich Smith from MaryAnn and Gabrielle at Chapter by Chapter. Peek: “Smith has a writing style that is so addictive! With all the different twists and turns throughout the book…omgosh! Sooo good. How many more plot twists can Smith come up with? Just when I think that there couldn’t possibly be anything else she can come up with, I’m foiled yet again! I just love, love love (!) her writing so much…”

School’s Out: Holiday Reading for Your Young Charges by Debbie Reese from Native American Fair Commerce Coalition. Peek: “…try Cynthia Leitich Smith’s vampire trilogy.” Note: watch for book 4, Diabolical, releasing in January from Candlewick Press.

Personal Links:

More Than That… by students at Todd County High School Mission, South Dakota. A response to “Children of the Plains” on “20/20” (Oct. 2011). See also Teacher and Librarian Resources for Children’s and YA Books with Native American Themes.

From Greg Leitich Smith:

Even More Personally

My holiday reports (and movie picks) from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Cynsational Events

See Cynthia’s upcoming events in Austin, Albuquerque, Tucson, Sandy (Utah), Southampton (New York), and Montpelier (Vermont). Note: the date of the multi-author fantasy panel at BookPeople in Austin is Feb. 10.

Guest Post: Keir Graff on The Other Other Felix: How I Titled My Book

Excerpt & Preview

By Keir Graff
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I became a children’s book author by accident. And I very nearly ruined the title of my debut.

Here’s what happened.

When my older son was four years old, he was plagued by nightmares for two weeks. Night after night, he woke up crying that he was being chased by monsters in a really scary place. I did what parents do: I told him that the monsters weren’t real and couldn’t hurt him, that the dreams were just his mind working overtime, and that the nightmares wouldn’t last forever.

This, of course, did nothing to reassure my son. His dreams were terrifying and they were happening every night.

He wanted help right now.

Fortunately, he solved his own problem. One night, he dreamed about a little boy who looked just like him, right down to the orange hair, who also had the same name: Felix.

This other Felix knew how to fight monsters.

My Felix’s bad dreams ended with a dramatic battle in which the last monster was flung from a great height and entombed in ash. I think he had seen something about Pompei in National Geographic.

When he told me all this, I thought it was amazing fodder for fiction. I walked out of his room, sat down at my desk, and made some notes.

I was planning to write a short story, about ten pages or so, which I would read to Felix and his little brother, Cosmo.

I have published four novels for adults, so I know a little bit about storytelling, but writing for kids seemed way too hard. I just wanted to entertain my sons with a personalized story.

But once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. I had been freed from the shackles of grown-ups’ expectations and was having way too much fun.

By the time I finished, I had a short novel.

I thought, You know, this isn’t bad. I showed it to my friend and colleague, Ilene Cooper, who knows a thing or two about writing kids’ books. She told me I could probably publish it if I was willing to revise it.

Was I ever. Ilene gave me some smart notes and I did another draft. I still hadn’t shown it to Felix and Cosmo, though. Once my own imagination took flight and I pictured myself as a children’s book author, I decided it would be much more fun to read to them from a handsome hardcover edition.

After still more revision, the manuscript made its way to Roaring Brook Press. They were enthusiastic enough to offer me a two-book deal. A story that began in a little boy’s bad dreams was now a dream come true.

Now, the title of the book had always been The Other Felix. And that made perfect sense when I was just writing for Felix and Cosmo. But now that the book was going to go out into the world, I began to have doubts.

I worried about bringing unwanted attention to my son. I worried that I would take bad reviews of my book as an attack on my own flesh and blood. I also worried that Felix would get a big head and think he was famous.

I tried maybe a hundred other names—The Other Aaron, The Other Albert, The Other Alex, The Other Avram, and so on—but none of them worked. To me, The Other Felix was perfect. (I admit I’m biased.) Exhausted, I decided to keep the title as it was, but I still wasn’t sure I had made the right decision. Of course, Felix solved that problem, too.

“You realize that this book isn’t about you,” I said one day. “Really, it’s like there are three Felixes: you, the Felix in the book, and the Other Felix.”

He looked at me like I wasn’t very bright. “I know that, Dad.”

At least he didn’t say duh.

It takes a long time to publish a book. This spring, when Felix was six, nearly seven, I finally received an advance copy. I couldn’t wait any longer: I read it to him and his little brother.

They both liked it. Felix told me it was his favorite book. But, honestly, I think he likes The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe by Theodore Gray (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2009) better. Felix is a science guy at heart. Heck, I think he likes the Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney better.

And I couldn’t be more relieved.

(Astute readers will have noted the presence of my younger son, Cosmo, in this narrative. There’s a lot riding on the next book!)

Cynsational Notes

Check out The Other Felix facebook page.

Guest Post: Mary Casanova on the Author-Illustrator Collaboration (Creating with Ard Hoyt–Again!)

Mary Casanova and Ard Hoyt

By Mary Casanova
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

A picture book is a true blending of skills, of storytelling through words and pictures.

Yet most picture book authors don’t get to work with their illustrators. In most cases, authors interact with only the editor, who in turn works with the illustrator.

In contrast, illustrator Ard Hoyt and I work with editors, but we also collaborate closely on each book together, including our newest release, The Day Dirk Yeller Came to Town (FSG, 2011).

Though I live in Minnesota and Ard lives in Arkansas, that hasn’t kept us from e-mailing each other or having face-to-face visits at conferences regarding our books. Ard likes to tell audiences that my books “illustrate themselves,” but I know One-Dog Canoe (FSG, 2003), Utterly Otterly Day (Simon & Schuster, 2008), and Some Dog! (FSG, 2002) brim with energy because of Ard’s endearing and whimsical illustrations.

All stories have their origins, and my most recent picture book, The Day Dirk Yeller Came to Town, dropped into my lap. A gift. On a trip to New York City to visit editors, I woke up at midnight in my hotel room with these words rolling through my head: “The day Dirk Yeller came to town, the wind curled its lip, cattle quit lowin’ and tumbleweeds stopped tumblin’ along.” I wrote down the words, went back to sleep, and in the morning wrote the first draft of the story.

Before this story was under contract, I e-mailed the manuscript to Ard on the inkling that he might be the perfect illustrator for this story. But was he interested? He immediately replied with: “You have to let me illustrate this book!”

Early sketch–“too superhero-ish.”

Ard, little to my knowledge, had kept an ongoing love of all things western and couldn’t wait to illustrate this story. Shortly after, we signed up the book with FSG in New York.

We discussed Dirk Yeller as a character. He had to be “rough and tumble” but “redeemable” by story’s end.

I shook my head at the first image of Dirk Yeller. Nope. Too super-heroish. Nope.

The next image I saw was of a war-covered Dirk with lizards and toads crawling off his head. Nope. This character had to become someone Miss Jenny, by story’s end, could fall for.

Eventually, Ard came up with the right blend of the two, and there is now only one Dirk Yeller.

When Ard asked me what kind of horse I envisioned for Dirk Yeller, I sent him photos of majestic friesans. But Ard had something a little less regal in mind, so I sent him a photo of my husband’s horse, Midnight–a cross between a Belgian and Morgan. This time, Ard thought the horse was perfect for our outlaw.

An illustrator always brings more to the story than the author delivers in text. Ard does this in spades!

In The Day Dirk Yeller Came to Town, for example, Ard added a subtext story of a cat chasing mice, who end up by story’s end, chasing the cat. And he brilliantly extended the story with the end pages.

The opening displays a poster that reads: “WANTED: Dirk Yeller, Extremely Dangerous” and the last end pages show newspaper clippings in the same sepia brown with these captions: “Announcement: Local Librarian Weds Former OUTLAW” and “Overdue Books & Fines are Not Tolerated! –Dirk Y.”

Together, we’re working on three more picture books, in various stages of development. I realize that my author-illustrator experience is atypical. I wish that weren’t so because sharing the co-creative process with Ard Hoyt is richly satisfying.

Ultimately, one word comes to mind: Joy.

In Memory: Simms Taback

Simms Taback, age 79, died at his home on Dec. 25.

From his official author bio:

Among the 40+ childrens books he wrote and/or illustrated, Simms’ books have won many awards, including the prestigious Caldecott Medal for Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.

Simms received a Caldecott Honor for There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, one of two books designated as New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book, and the Children’s Book of the Year selection from The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA).

He also received several Notable Book designations from the American Library Association, Parents’ Choice Gold awards, and the Sidney Taylor Award.

Simms was a lifetime member of The Society of Illustrators and The Graphic Artists Guild.

Cynsational Notes

A retrospective of Simm’s work is currently on display at the Museum of Ventura County, Ventura California, until Feburary 12.

Caldecott Winner Simms Taback Dies at 79 by SLJ staff from School Library Journal. Peek: “Taback died from pancreatic cancer, which he had been fighting for over a year, but he managed to fulfill his dream of traveling to Israel and London before his death.”

New Voice: Prudence Breitrose on Mousenet

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Prudence Breitrose is the first-time author of Mousenet, illustrated by Stephanie Yue (Hyperion, 2011)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

When ten-year-old Megan helps her uncle invent the Thumbtop, the world’s smallest computer, mice are overjoyed, and they want one for every mouse hole.

The Big Cheese, leader of the Mouse Nation, has orders: follow that girl—even if it means high-tailing it to Megan’s new home on the other side of the country. While Megan struggles as the new girl, the mice watch, waiting for their chance. But when they tell Megan the biggest secret in the history of the world—mice have evolved, and they need her help—she isn’t sure anyone will believe her. 

With all of Mouse Nation behind her, Megan could become the most powerful girl alive, but just how will she create a Thumptop for every mouse?

Brought to life with whimsical illustrations, Prudence Breitrose’s debut novel is full of charm and adventure and will captivate today’s computer-savvy middle-graders.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

In a sense, the research process approached me in a dream that confused computer mice with the real thing. That led me almost seamlessly into the world of the rapidly evolving Mouse Nation, with its complex systems of governance and education and communication.

True, where mice were concerned, I positively avoided biological research so that I wouldn’t have to face up to certain inconvenient truths, such as their short lifespan and their inability to discipline poop. But I wanted everything else in the book to be as fact-based as possible–to give my speculative fiction the most solid of foundations.

With the help of Google, I scoured airplane and Greyhound timetables to make sure my characters’ travel plans made sense; checked height limitations at the Great America theme park to verify that my Megan was tall enough to ride the Demon; found the correct names of local newspapers; and knew the venue where rock groups perform in Eugene, Oregon.

I even annoyed my editor by pointing out that in an illustration showing a Thumbtop computer strapped to the back of a mouse, the Velcro was only about 1/8th of an inch wide whereas–according to my research–the Velcro company made nothing narrower than 1/4th of an inch. (She won that round).

My most intensive research involved climate change, which is a major theme of the book. I don’t include much hard environmental science, but the book does assert as a given (through the Big Cheese, my mouse leader) that climate change is happening, and that human activity is responsible. To back up my mouse, I worked my way through a half-dozen climate books, and my computer is set to produce instant facts about (say) the melting rate of Greenland glaciers, or why the Medieval Warm Period wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

That’s not because I doubt the wisdom of the Big Cheese (mice know everything) but in case I have to defend him: I had visions of climate-skeptics complaining noisily that children were being brain-washed (by Disney, no less) into believing unproved theories that in their view had been cooked up by Al Gore and his scientist cronies to make money.

Please note that my main goal in adding the environmental theme was not to provoke. I fervently want to help children accept the facts about climate change and know that they can do something about it. But a little provoking wouldn’t hurt.

Consider The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (Simon & Schuster, 2006). All it took for that book to be banned in certain school libraries (and celebrated on NPR and in the New York Times) was the mention of one dog scrotum. Surely climate change could get Mousenet a little of the same treatment? Rush Limbaugh? Glenn Beck? Anyone?

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them?

No offense to my agent, who is the best, but I didn’t do a lot of deciding. After years of rejection from almost every children’s agent in the business, I would have agreed to be represented by a ham sandwich. Any “deciding” was on the other side.

When I’d finished the first draft of my book in 2003, and considered it perfect, I sent off query letters to six children’s agents. Five replied with rejections, but one asked for the first 50 pages. On the strength of that sample, he asked for the complete manuscript which I sent without an SAE because hey, the book was as good as sold. Right?

Prudence’s writing space in her kitchen.

I heard nothing for weeks. Months. At this time, let it be said, I was working in a ridiculous state of isolation. I hadn’t joined a critique group because I thought criticism could squash the fragile flower of my creativity. I wasn’t reading current children’s books because I was afraid that a) I might inadvertently plagiarize or b) I would be so intimidated that the fragile flower of my creativity would wilt. I didn’t even dare try out the book on the nine-year-old next door, because what if she didn’t like it?

And I didn’t dare e-mail the agent to ask what he’d thought of the book. My response to him (as to all subsequent agents who turned me down) was internal. Surely he must have disliked such and such an angle in my story? No problem, I could fix that. Maybe he didn’t like that particular character? I’d throw her out.

In six months, I’d corrected the imagined faults so that now the book was really perfect, and in the fall of 2003 I e-mailed the agent with that great news. Yes, he remembered that book. By all means, send the new version along,

And so I did. And again, silence for months and again, I thought my way into his brain. Maybe he would have liked more adventure? No problem. I could add adventure. A visit to the Headquarters of the Mouse Nation–that would provide the oomph that was missing.

In the spring of 2004 I was still busy adding adventure when the agent’s assistant called to ask if the manuscript was still available. Was it ever! She gave me her own comments–the mice were fine but my humans weren’t sufficiently differentiated. No problem! I spent a month differentiating humans and off went the manuscript again. Surely this time, with extra adventure and better humans?

And indeed there was a response this time, in the form of a rejection letter: “While I am impressed by the storyline changes, ultimately this just isn’t ringing true for me.”

Yes, she liked the mouse world “that you have imagined so vividly,” but “the characters and the dialogue, while improved, are still not on the level that I think is necessary.”

This letter should perhaps have been the signal to give up. If I, as a human, couldn’t write humans, was there any real hope? Was it time to try a picture book? Tiptoe into the fertile fields of YA? Find a co-author for Mousenet who could help me with the human thing?

But I thought it worth one more try, even if that turned into several more tries. Once a year, more or less, I would discover a new angle, or shoehorn a new adventure into the plot, or have my humans try on new personae. And with each version I would invent new ways to approach agents. “I see your agency has moved to Palo Alto. What a co-incidence, that’s where I live!” Or “I see in a profile of you that you have red hair. What a coincidence–so does my protagonist!” And sometimes these agents would consent to read the first chapters, but no more.

Socially, these years had their awkward moments when I had to admit that, yes, I was still working on that mouse book. The looks were pitying.

I was known as a good writer, inventing crisp new ways to get health information into people. But a mouse book might be beyond me. Just a nice hobby that kept me off the streets.

Seven years after I’d started the book, my husband and I were passing through Amsterdam, and had dinner with an ex-student of his, a woman of the new age persuasion.

Like most people who are not agents, she was fascinated by the outline of my story, and asked the simple question: once mice prevailed upon my ten-year-old human to help them get computers, wouldn’t they then have a fantastic opportunity to do good? How could mice best make use of all that power?

Once I thought about it, the answer was obvious, because I’d been deeply influenced that year by “An Inconvenient Truth,” and had followed it up by reading a couple of climate books. Mice would slow down the rate of climate change. Once I had that environmental thread to weave gently through Mousenet, a crisper plot clicked into place.

And there was something else. Either I’d spent enough time with the characters to know them inside and out, or I’d finally taught myself to write, or both. My humans came alive.

Six months after Amsterdam I had a new version with a sprightly new title: Megan Saves the Planet. I e-mailed the original agent. Could he bear to see it, one more time? Sure, he wrote. One more time. I sent off the manuscript but again heard nothing for almost three months.

Then came the phone call on a Thursday evening with my husband away at an academic meeting in Brazil and only the dog to freak out with me as the agent said, “What happened? It’s great! We don’t want to change a word, except for that terrible title, which has to go.”

He handed me off to a new junior agent* so I had the best of both worlds: a big name agency, plus the energy of someone with all the time and enthusiasm in the world. And she sold Mousenet a few weeks after she started trying.

Cynsational Notes

*Prudence says: “This agent moved to Europe and I am now with a senior woman in the agency who is perfect.”

Silicon Valley’s second acts can lead to surprises by Mike Cassidy from the Mercury News. Peek: “The promise of Silicon Valley is that it’s a place for second acts and reinvention; a place where age doesn’t matter, as long as you’re creative enough; a place where believing in yourself is half, OK maybe one-quarter, of the battle. Prudence Breitrose knows all of this. She just published her first book — at age 77.”

New Voice: Kimberly Marcus on Exposed and Scritch-Scratch: A Perfect Match

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kimberly Marcus is the first-time novelist behind Exposed (Random House, 2011). From the promotional copy:

Sixteen-year-old Liz is Photogirl – sharp, focused, and confident about what she sees through her camera lens. Confident that she and Kate will be best friends forever.

But everything changes in one blurry night. Suddenly, Kate is avoiding her, and people are looking the other way when she passes in the halls. 

As the aftershocks from a startling accusation rip through Liz’s world, everything she thought she knew about photography, family, friendship, and herself shifts out of focus. 

What happens when the picture you see no longer makes sense? What do you do when you may lose everything you love most?

Told in stunning, searingly raw free verse, Exposed is Kimberly Marcus’s unforgettable debut.

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?

When I first began writing with the goal of publication, some ten years ago, I knew I had a lot to learn. I had always loved to write, but there was much to be figure out about craft and the sometimes-crazy world of publishing. Still, I believed that, if I kept working at it, I would someday be published.

Four years earlier, I had left my job as a child therapist to raise a family. I was now a stay-at-home mom with two busy toddlers. I spent a ton of time pouring over wonderful picture books with my little ones, drooling over beautiful illustrations, soaking up the words. Then I began writing my own picture books, hoping to one day see them on the shelves of libraries and bookstores.

I wrote a lot, most of it bad. I wrote more.

I dog-eared my copy of The Children’s Writers & Illustrators Market, sent perfectly formatted stories to carefully targeted editors, and piled up rejection letters. I joined SCBWI and enrolled in a year-long graduate program in picture book writing at Emerson College.

My husband was a godsend, leaving work early twice a week to care for the kids while I drove over an hour each way to Boston (and fighting rush hour to get there) for courses in both the history of children’s literature and the craft of picture book writing.

I learned. I wrote. I rewrote. I revised for editors who ended up passing. I kept writing. I was constantly in search of the best words to service my stories. I joined a critique group, attended writing conferences, and made connections with others within the fabulous community of writers for children.

On my son’s tenth birthday, in November of 2006, Susan Kochan from G.P. Putnam’s Sons left a message saying that she loved the revision I had sent her and wanted to publish my first book.

Learn more about Scritch-Scratch: A Perfect Match

Fast forward to April 14th, 2011, when that book, Scritch-Scratch A Perfect Match, hit the shelves.

Happy Day!

Though that picture book was the first book I sold, it was not the first book of mine to be published.

At around the same time as I got “the call” from Susan, and at the encouragement of an editor I had met a SCBWI conference, I decided to try my hand at writing a novel.

I loved writing picture books, still do, but wanted to see if I could pull off a longer work of fiction.

Many years and many revisions later, that work of fiction became Exposed, my first novel for young adults.

Exposed started out as the story of Kate Morgan, a high-school senior trying to cope after being raped by her best friend’s brother. Having work with trauma survivors, and having experienced trauma myself, I felt I could write this story with some authority.

Although Kate’s story was not my story, I could visualize her story arc – where she was at the beginning of the novel, and where I thought she would be at the end.

As I was writing, however, I found myself more and more intrigued by Liz, Kate’s best friend. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be in her position, caught between two people she loved. For a while, to explore this more, I wrote the story in alternating chapters, from both points of view.

As I’ve mentioned, I felt as though I knew Kate’s story from the outset. It was Liz’s story that sent me stumbling and, the more I wrote, the more I knew that this novel was meant to be hers, and hers alone.

I needed to know what it would be like to be that girl.

I never do things the easy way, and I had no clue at all how Liz’s story would evolve, so I had to write the novel to find the answer. I kept the faith throughout the writing process because I felt I owed it to Liz to get her story right.

In addition to the change in my point of view character, I also changed the form in which the novel was written. This story began in standard prose. As I was writing, I became stuck on the best way to show the core emotion of my character in one particular scene.

A writer friend, who knew of my love of poetry, suggested I try writing the scene as a poem, as an exercise to get “unstuck.”

I did it and it worked. I tried the same approach the next few times I was stuck and found that writing in free verse allowed me to capture snapshots of emotion, much in the way my main character used photography to capture snapshots of people.

With that realization I made the decision to write the entire novel in free verse form.

After many revisions and much hair-pulling, I sent the novel to an agent, Tracey Adams. Lucky for me, she saw something in my writing and signed me on as her client. Tracey sent the novel to Shana Corey at Random House. Shana acquired the book and, with her guidance and support, helped me shape it into the book that is now on the shelves.

Do you plan to continue writing both picture books and novels for young adults? Is it difficult to switch between writing for younger children and writing for teens?

I do plan to continue writing for both audiences, and feel as though each presents its own challenges for me as an author.

With picture books, I try to leave space for the illustrator to take the text and add something to it that will bring the book to a higher level.

Since many of my picture book texts are written in rhyme, I work hard to ensure that the words flow easily and fit well within the context of the story, and I avoid near-rhyme at all costs.

With novels, I try to make sure that each scene feels intrinsic to the story, and that the scenes serve a purpose by illuminating relevant aspects of my main character’s journey.

I love the balance I’ve found in writing funny, read-aloud picture books and novels that deal with tough issues that today’s teens might face. I hope I can continue to publish books for both audiences for a very long time.

Cynsational Notes

Learn more about illustrator Mike Lester.

Christmas at Chez Leitich Smith

Here’s my Christmas tree, all lit up, next to the dining room table, which is currently home to Greg‘s electric train. You’ll also notice the Santa salt and pepper shakers in the foreground in front of a crystal bowl of ornaments. The illustration hanging on the wall is from Jingle Dancer, a gift from illustrators Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu.

My presents from Greg included a couple of thoughtful nods to the Tantalize series–an amethyst angel and The New Annotated Dracula by Bram Stoker, with commentary by Leslie S. Klinger and introduction by Neil Gaiman (W.W. Norton: October 2008).

Mercury says cats prefer playing with the tissue paper!
Holiday cheer from Santa Cat!

Christmas Day Menu
Roasted Corn Soup
Heart of Palm Salad
Chicken and Lobster in a Pot
Roasted Asparagus
Spinach Artichoke Casserole
Sliced Apples and Cheese

Don’t Miss

A Cretaceous Christmas Feast by Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog.

More Cynsational Notes

It’s a rainy, cold Christmas here in Austin, but nobody minds. What with the drought, we’re happy to see the grass green and water back in Shoal Creek.

Greg and I did most of our shopping at BookPeople and the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar.

Our holiday week activities also included seeing movies at Alamo Drafthouse Village and Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar respectively.

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” — wonderful! Better than the original!

“The Adventures of Tintin” — great boy adventure! Spielberg is such a genius. I hope he’ll someday pour himself into a film that resonates in the same way with girls.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Read the First Chapter of Magic of the Moonlight by Ellen Schreiber. Available free for preview (PDF). Novel on sale Dec. 27. From the promotional copy: “Beware of a bite under a full moon . . . It will complicate your love life. Celeste has more to worry about than a secret romance with a hot guy from the wrong side of town. That guy, Brandon, is a werewolf. With gossip and hostility swirling at school, it’s time to find a cure for his nocturnal condition, and perhaps the one person who can help is his scientist father. But what if a ‘cure’ makes things worse and Brandon becomes a werewolf full time?”

Writing Through Hard Times by Shawna Lenore from Art Is My Religion. Peek: “…Peter Beagle tells this story—which I think is the best description of what it really means to be an artist that I have ever heard—about his uncle who was a painter. Everyday this guy would get up, go to his studio and do the work, just like…wait for it…it was his job! In other words, he didn’t wait around for inspiration to strike. He would paint and sometimes it would go well and sometimes it wouldn’t.”

The Heroine’s Romantic Journey by Catherine Linka from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “…romance is just the Hero’s Journey from inside the heart.”

Hooray for Jean Reidy, whose Light Up the Library Auction and fundraiser, met its goal for Libraries of Life — Peace Corp Uganda and joined forces with another Books for Africa Uganda project (More than Pages), which together will provide the financing to send a 40-foot container of books to Uganda.
Eleven Reasons to Give Books as Gifts by Jennifer R. Hubbard. Peek: “They require no assembly or batteries, and they don’t beep or squawk or whistle.” See also When the Villain Outshines the Hero.

Skater Boy by Mari Mancusi, originally published in 2005, is now available as an e-book for $3.99.

Melissa Marr is Giving 236 Books to Libraries; see details.

Nine Tips on Finishing That Novel by Anna Staniszewski from Anna’s Roundup of her Top Posts of the Year.

Imagination by Elizabeth Partridge from Write at Your Own Risk. Peek: “…I live with my 94 year old dad who has been a photographer all his life. Now he’s having a little trouble with things like focusing the camera, and grabbing the right chemical off the shelf in the darkroom. He keeps exploring new ways to stay engaged.”

SCBWI Pre-conference Interview with Literary Agent Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown Ltd. by Jolie Stekly from Cuppa Jolie. Peek: “Seek advice and camaraderie, and be open to listening as well as sharing. Go outside your comfort zone! Remember Eleanor Roosevelt’s wise words—’Do one thing every day that scares you.'”

The Bright Literary Agency (U.K)., Part of Bright Group International by Addy Farmer from Notes from the Slushpile. New agent Gemma Cooper’s favorite children’s book is When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2009).

Voices You Should Hear: Author-Librarian Leda Schubert by Janet Fox from Through the Wardrobe. Peek: “My Caldecott committee was one of the professional highlights of my life. The quality of discussion, the brilliance of the committee members, the respect for artists and authors, and the leadership provided by our chair changed my life. I’m a better person for that experience, I hope.”

Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Don Tate by Jules from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: “Recently, I illustrated a series of chapter books. The subject matter and the ages of the kids were more mature, ages 11 or 12+. But the story used very simple language, appropriate for a younger reader. I chose to use a style more appealing to a younger reader — less realistic, clean, whimsical. Almost cartoony.”

Congratulations to Vermont College of Fine Arts alum Melanie Crowder on signing with Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary Agency and congratulations to Ammi-Joan on signing Melanie!

Congratulations also to April Lurie and Matt de la Peña, both newly hired faculty members at VCFA.

YA Houston: Houston area authors writing for teens.

2011 Recommended Books about the Writing Craft by Donna Bowman Bratton from Simply Donna. Note: not necessarily published in 2011.

Why Do Teens Love Fantasy? by Suzy McKee Charnas from Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing. Peek: “… teens can use these fantasy-arenas to try on terrible futures in relative safety, and explore ways that kids might survive, thrive, and even conquer even among the ruins.”

2012 Founders Workshops from the Highlights Foundation. Topics include: whole novel workshop, writing for magazines, screenwriting for the children’s-YA audience, nature writing, science writing, creating an authentic cultural voice, poetry, fantasy, the business of publishing and being an author and much more!

Stocking Stuffers for Writers: Description by Becca Puglisi from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “A sad woman’s hairbrush is heavy, rough, and drags through her hair like sickly fingers. The same brush in the hands of a child? Glittery, prickly, and made in Santa’s workshop.” Note: “a series for the writer/blogger this holiday season.” See also Emotion.

Multicultural E-Books: a Reading List to Get Your Started by PaperTigers. Peek: “Here is a far from conclusive set of suggestions for initial forays into the multicultural children’s e-book world, arranged approximately by reading age, youngest to oldest.”

We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Y. Levinson: recommended by Diane Chen of Practically Paradise at School Library Journal. Peek: “This is the story I have been missing all my life as it takes an importance series of children’s protests to explain the events of the Civil Rights movement and how individuals affected the greater movement.”

Open Call for Submissions to YA Humor Anthology by Mitali Perkins from Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “I’m privileged to be editing an anthology published by Candlewick Press tentatively called OPEN MIC, a compilation of funny short pieces written by some of today’s best YA authors, people who grew up along the margins of race and culture in North America. One of my dreams has been to introduce one or two fresh, relatively unknown voices in this anthology, so…”

The Christmas Coat by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve: recommended by Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature. Peek: “With Christmas 2011 a few days away, children all over the US are filled with wants, and needs, too. As such, the story will resonate with children and their parents, too.” Note: don’t miss the photo of Debbie playing Santa!

SLJ Nonfiction Best Book by Donna Jo Napoli

Best Books of 2011: Nonfiction from School Library Journal. See related Cynsations posts: Karen Blumenthal on the Power & Challenges of Using Photos & Cartoons in Nonfiction and Carla Killough McClafferty on The Many Faces of George Washington.

Do You Need a Publisher Anymore? from Writers Digest. Peek: “We protect authors’ intellectual property through strict anti-piracy measures and territorial controls.”

Attention Texans and Chicagoans! Mark your calendars for Alex Flinn’s Upcoming Tour.

Congratulations to Anna Staniszewski, whose agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, has sold My Way Too Fairy Tale Life and Happily Fairy After, creating a trilogy with My Very Unfairy Tale Life, to Sourcebooks Jabberwocky

The Secret to Having Time to Write, Promote, and Still Have a Life by Jane Friedman from Writer Unboxed. See also Jane’s Best Advice for Writers 2011 and must-read articles of the year

This Week for Writers: Our Favorite Articles and Blogs from Adventures in Children’s Publishing.

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win Dreaming Anastasia and Haunted by Joy Preble (both Sourcebooks)! 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 “Joy Preble” in the subject line. Publisher-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST Dec. 31. See also Joy Preble on Embracing Risk.

Kimberly from Arkansas is the winner of a signed copy of Home for the Holidays: Mother-Daughter Book Club #5 by Heather Vogel Frederick (Simon & Schuster, 2011)(excerpt).

This Week’s Cynsations Posts

Cynsational Screening Room

Holiday greetings from the lovely and creative folks at Chronicle Books.

“Winter Wonderland,” performed by a various YA authors.

Check out the book trailer for There Goes Ted Williams: The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived by Matt Tavares (Candlewick, 2012); available for pre-order.

Check out the book trailer for Bloodrose by Andrea Cremer (Penguin); on sale Jan. 3. Source: YABC Blog.

More Personally

Happy Holidays! Last week’s highlight was signing Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott (Dutton, 2010) at the Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony at LBJ State Park.

First daughter Luci Baines Johnson, LBJ and Miss Lady Bird’s younger girl.
Luci shares a secret with Santa Claus.

My favorite book about the Johnson family is Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein (HarperCollins, 2005). See also Hill Country Christmas from GregLSBlog.

Congratulations to Greg Leitich Smith, whose upcoming novel, Chronal Engine (Chronicle, 2012) is a Junior Library Guild Selection for March-September 2012! Central Texans (and visitors): mark your calendars for the Chronal Engine launch party at 2 p.m. March 24 at BookPeople in Austin.

On “Great Books to Give” from Tell Me More at National Public Radio, former ALA President and University of Texas professor Dr. Loriene Roy highlights the Tantalize series, especially Tantalize: Kieren’s Story by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, 2011) along with Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite by Anna Harwell Celenza, illustrated by Don Tate (Charlesbridge, 2011), The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, illustrated by Ellen Beier (Holiday House, 2011)(illustrator interview), and Sass & Serendipity by Jennifer Ziegler (Delacorte, 2011).

Powwows in Literature: Books that Offer a Look Inside the World of Powwows from Indian Country Today. Peek: “Jingle Dancer (Harper/Morrow, 2000) by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Creek…with a curriculum guide—a boon for teachers frustrated by the dearth of Native studies materials.”

Girl Meets Boy, edited by Kelly Milner Halls (Chronicle, 2012) from Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts. Peek: “I love how the stories in this book don’t just tell simple stories of kids in love. They show complex stories of how love crosses boundaries and what one person can mean to another. I know high school students who would devour these stories and identify with the emotions that are experienced by the characters.” Note: also offers curriculum support for my paired story with Joseph Bruchac‘s.

Thank you to Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing for the shout out for Cynsations and other 14 recommended blogs! Peek: “…one of the best out there with publishing information, writer resources and inspiration, bookseller-librarian-teacher appreciation, children’s-YA book news and author outreach.”

Personal Links:

Cynsational Events

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

Guest Post: Joy Preble on Embracing Risk & Two-Book Giveaway

By Joy Preble
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Was out with a friend the other night: sushi, sake, good conversation. Somewhere near the end of the evening, she observed, “I’m glad I traveled widely when I was in my early twenties. Because now that I’m older and a mom and aware of my mortality, I don’t know if I’d go on that safari with someone I didn’t really know all that well.”

Which explains why I’ve decided that I’m probably never going to sky dive. Because I have passed the point where I can fool myself into believing that once I jump out of that plane I won’t break something on the way down.

That said, I am still a firm believer in risk. Writing for publication requires huge leaps of faith. The risk is enormous. But so is the payoff, and you don’t get one without the other.

At Comic Con this fall, a guy in an amazing steampunk costume asked me what motivated me to move beyond “I think want to write” to “I’m going to finish a novel and get it published.” He was a writer, he told me. But he had never finished any project that he started.

What I told him was this: I’d decided that I needed to jump out of that plane anyway. Because the alternative was to continue doing what I’d been doing, which while good enough, was not great.

We make all sorts of excuses for ourselves, and many of them are even legitimate: my family, my kids, my day job…

Jump anyway.

In the spirit of full disclosure, it is probably more accurate to say that I was pushed. The year I wrote what would become Dreaming Anastasia, I was having the worst year at work that I have ever had. From an unsupportive administration to cranky colleagues to a mold issue in the physical building, I would come home each day exhausted, demoralized, done. The kind of bone-deep tiredness that stops you from even looking for another job.

I wrote in spite of it. I wrote because somewhere around page fifty I realized that I couldn’t imagine my life without writing. Some weeks I wrote only a page. But I kept writing.

Even now, even with the above explanation, I can’t really say what changed, what switch flipped.

Part of it was watching colleagues who every single day talked about retirement even though they were decades from it. I did not ever want to be that kind of walking dead.

Part of it was listening to mom friends who had nothing to talk about but their children. They all, I noticed, used the pronoun ‘we’ – as though they had kicked that soccer goal themselves.

Writing is in fact the riskiest thing I’ve ever done professionally. I put a piece of myself on each page and send it out into the world: to readers, to editors, to publishers, to my agent. They see who I am through those pages – not everything, but enough. It is a scary and wonderful thing.

If they read enough of what I have to say, they will learn how I see the world: my take on love and loss and grief and passion and fear and joy.

So jump.

Make sure your parachute is working (I’m not an idiot; I didn’t quit the day job until this past fall and even with that, I’ve got contingency plans).

But jump. The view is awesome.

Cynsational Notes

Joy is the author of Dreaming Anastasia and Haunted (both Sourcebooks) She looks forward to the release of Anastasia Forever (Sourcebooks, Fall 2012) and The Sweet Dead Life (Soho Press, 2013).

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win Dreaming Anastasia and Haunted! 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 email Cynthia directly with “Joy Preble” in the subject line. Publisher-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST Dec. 31.