SCBWI Bologna 2012 Agent Interview: Erzsi Deak

By Mio Debnam for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Erzsi Deak is the founder and president of literary salon and agency Hen & ink, which she established in November 2010, bringing with her more than twenty-five years of publishing experience.

Erzsi is eager to find new talent but has a request for all potential clients:

“Please note that unless you meet me at the Showcase or a workshop, are referred by a client or other publishing professional, you’ll need to wait until we announce Open Coop Day to submit. We’re still getting back to everyone who has submitted in the last year. Thanks for your understanding. We want to give everyone the professional courtesy they deserve and appreciate your patience.

“Open Coop Days are random days when Hen&ink is open to submissions. We will announce them on the Hen & ink site, the Facebook Hen&ink Literary page (if you aren’t already a fan, please click LIKE on the page to receive updates and news), Twitter and anywhere else we can think of.”

Congratulations, Erzsi, on a successful first year as a literary agent! What’s been the best, worst and most surprising thing you have encountered in your agenting journey so far?

Outside of lamenting the still-overflowing submissions, I’d say that it’s been, far and wide, a positive experience.

When Siobhan Curham told me, in the very beginning, that (a) it was my bad bird jokes that won her over and, later, we (b) signed the first deal for her book…those were pretty good “bests”!

Other bests are the fabulous letters I get back from writers, even those I’ve declined to represent.

Worst thing? I hate closing submissions. As a writer, I know what it’s like to put your baby on the block, as it were, and then hear nothing. Many in business have adopted a laissez-faire attitude wherein no one bothers to let you know your submission arrived and no one bothers to ever let you know, well, anything.

This lack of politesse in communication is very likely due to the excess that the Internet allows — mass mailing v. targeted submissions, for example — but it would seem that with technology, sending auto-responses and some notification would also be made easier.

As long as we have submissions at Hen&ink, we aim to respond to everyone with more than a form letter. And that takes time. I say we, but until recently, it was I.

Luckily, Beatriz Caicoya knocked on my door, thanks to Lawrence Schimel’s introduction. She will be in Bologna this year and is taking on the Scouting and Submissions side of Hen&ink, which is a huge relief!

The most surprising thing? Maybe how much fun we’re having in the coop — or perhaps it was when we got a very ugly (to the point of beautiful) warty plush toy chicken from Barbara McClintock and her son? No, wait, the ugliest prize goes to the rubber chicken handbag that Hen&ink chick Mima Tipper sent me. I may need to bring that bird to Bologna…

Following the SCBWI South Africa conference in October, Erzsi & her daughter Esmee traveled from Cape Town (thanks to Marjorie and Johann van Heerden) to the Sanbona Wildlife Preserve (54,000 hectares and the only free self-sustaining White Lions in the world). Erzsi & Esmee were lucky to have these giraffes frame their photo and also to see the
white mother lion reunited with her cubs after days apart, which was “seriously amazing,” Erzsi says. All-in-all it was a spectacular trip. Erzsi & Esmee say, “Thank you, SCBWI SA, for making it possible!”

I know you are accepting manuscripts for everything from picture books to adult nonfiction, but what type of book makes you cluck with excitement?

I love the Ariol French comic book for younger readers. I thought the original Olivia was brilliant and rather perfect as a picture book.

I look for story and not anecdote. I want a beginning, middle, and a satisfying end no matter the genre, and my authors will tell you that they have bony fingers but stronger manuscripts after I’ve made them go through a number of revisions.

Mostly, it’s sharing a good Story (with a capital S) with Characters I Care About. If I don’t care about the character, if I can’t hear the voice of the characters nor the work overall, I’m “outta there”.

So, I guess the message is: Surprise me with a fantastic story that is original about a character I care about and has a voice that sings.

These days YA seems very genre driven. Is there any genre of YA novel you definitely don’t want submitted, however well written?

Not really. Anything original. Nothing derivative, please. If the voice sings, I’ll listen.

Obviously a good book has to have a balance of story, character, voice and craft etc, but which one (or more) of these facets does an imperfect manuscript absolutely have to have, before you’ll take the chance on it?

Author-illustrator Paddy Bouma (whom Erzsi met in Greece at the SCBWI conference on Hydra in 2001) kindly escorted Esmee & Erzsi to the Spier Cheetah sanctuary and conservation project in Cape Town. There are over 20 cheetahs at the sanctuary, most of which were born in captivity and all of which could not survive in the wild. The idea is that these cheetahs are ‘ambassadors’ for wild cheetah. The aim is to educate and raise awareness among the public so that wild cheetahs can be conserved. “We had, I think three minutes, for the photo shoot and lots more time looking at the babies and a few older cheetahs through the fence,” Erzsi says. “The man in the photo is keeping the cheetah calm while we goofy tourists had our picture taken. Beautiful animals.”

After my comments above, you probably know the answer: voice. The voice of the character, of the work, has to grab me and want me to hang on for the ride.

And action. The worst thing a writer can do is bore the reader.

I’m an impatient reader and get bored easily, so I need emotional and physical action (in plot lines, language, general story); this doesn’t mean I’m looking for an endless chase scene; it means showing rather than telling and keeping me hooked.

In addition, as I’ve said elsewhere, I need light with my dark, so if you are writing a grim war story, I need some irony or sunshine for balance or the story will die a lonely death as I put it aside. I don’t mind tears, but I’m not all about grim-getting-grimmer (unless it’s tongue-and-cheek).

I’m looking for the perfect combination of pain and humor told in an original way with a voice that makes me want to stay up all night listening. 

I’ve been following the success of your client, Sarah Towle, with her iPhone app ‘Beware Madam la Guillotine’. Was it originally pitched to you as a book? Are you interested in more submissions for non-traditional media projects?

Before Hen&ink I knew Sarah’s project as a book project. We are now looking at ink-on-paper version; short story collection; film; and virtual eTours for her project. I’m interested in seeing original submissions, whether words on paper or otherwise.

These days, the words ‘building a platform’ seem to be on everyone’s lips… What advice would you give to a yet-unpublished author on building a platform?

Content is the royal flush. First advice is just to write.

And then, when you have something to write about you can start building a platform. It’s definitely good to have a platform, but doesn’t help you much if that’s all you have.

When I was a journalism major, I realized I’d have a lot more to write about as a history major, so I built some content, if-you-will, as a history major and then put it to work as a journalism minor.

My client, Barbara Younger, came to me with a non-children’s project and I suggested that she develop a platform to support it. Thus was born This has been one fun success story — lots of guest blogging going on!

We’re sharing the book proposal at The London Book Fair in April and looking forward to finding a home (in all possible forms) that is supported by the ongoing blog. 

You will be hearing pitches at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair this year. In your opinion, what makes a good pitch? Do you have advice for writers struggling to come up with a perfect pitch for their project?

Think of the famous elevator pitch — you have two minutes to tell me:

Who you are, the title and genre of your book, and if it’s complete. You can include the word count if it’s on the tip of your tongue.
Who the main character is, what s/he wants and why s/he can’t have it (tell me what happens).
Use active words and breathe.

Breathing is key to a good pitch.
Then, let the listener (agent, editor, etc.) ask questions — don’t feel like you have to fill the empty space.


“My name is J.J. Jones and my completed middle-grade book, The Princess Diet, is about a dragon named Dragoondo who doesn’t want to eat princesses and the princess who changes his mind. It’s a live-action drama with a sense of purpose — and fire-breathing humor.”

I’d probably respond,

“Nice to meet you J.J. [Are you breathing?] This sounds fun. I’m, of course, curious to hear about the princess that changes Dragoondo’s mind to the point that he does want to eat princesses — what’s that about!? Send me the first chapter embedded to [this] address and if I’m hooked, I’ll ask for the rest and a submissions history. Would you also include your author bio? Thanks for thinking of Hen & ink!”

More on the Agency

More on Siobhan

Hen&ink, a Paris-based literary agency, marks its first year with major announcements for Siobhan Curham (U.K.) and Tom Llewellyn (U.S.).

For Siobhan, the agency has just signed a two-book deal with Egmont UK for Shipwrecked, and there’s already strong TV interest reported for the book.

This follows previous deals for Siobhan, whose Dear Dylan is now a lead title for Egmont, and Finding Cherokee Brown, which Hen&ink sold to Egmont, which was then sold to publishers in France and Germany.

Hen&ink is also pleased to announce that Tom Llewellyn’s novel, The Tilting House , in a deal brokered by co-agent Thomas Schlueck agency, has just been acquired by Theinemann, one of Germany’s oldest publishers of books for young children.

Hen&ink founder, Erzsi Deak, is now also adding to her staff with translation specialist, Beatriz Caicoya, who’s been brought in to handle translations, scouting and permissions.

Erzsi started Hen&ink because she saw the need for an internationally-focused agency that could specialize in handling authors, illustrators and creative talent interested in broadening cultural awareness and in crossing transmedia borders.

The agency now represents more than thirty authors, including bestselling author/illustrator Doug Cushman, author and award-winning app developer Sarah Towle, and authors and illustrators Jennifer Dalrymple, and Jeanne de Sainte Marie (France); Mina Witteman and Sandra Guy (Netherlands); Bridget Strevens-Marzo and Jacqui Hazell (U.K.); and Maria Lebedeva (South Africa).

In the U.S., Hen&ink has clients in more than a dozen states: Angela Morrison (AZ), Andrea Zuill and Ann Jacobus (CA), Whitney Stewart (LA), J.M. Lee (MN), Barbara Younger and Candy Dahl (NC), Claudia Classon (NJ), Connie Fleming (NM), Anna Angelidakis and Vicky Shiefman (NY), Cece Hall and Katherine M. Dunn (OR), Janine Burgan (PA), Hannah R. Goodman (RI), Rae Ann Parker (TN), Monica Shaughnessy and Melissa Buron (TX), Caryn Caldwell (UT), and Kathryn Kramer and Mima Tipper (VT).

Award credits for their books already include New York Times Best Illustrated and bestselling titles. Hen&ink represents Red Fox Literary outside of North America and Thomas Jeunesse outside of France.

Erzsi Deak has spent more than twenty-five years on the international stage, connecting individuals and companies with those around the globe who can make things happen. She’s the author of Period Pieces: Stories for Girls (HarperCollins), and since 2009 has worked as a consulting editor with La Martinière Groupe.

Erzsi is also well-known throughout the literary world for her work on behalf of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), where she ran the organization’s international arm for nearly ten years. In that time, she developed and mentored writers, illustrators and publishing programs in twenty-eight countries.

Now with Hen&ink, Deak manages a growing list of prize-winning clients, marketing their books to publishers worldwide, including at the Bologna, London and Frankfurt rights fairs. She’s also established key partnerships for Hen&ink with Sheepscot Creative and Raab Associates, companies that share her international and creative goals.

Cynsational Notes

See an SCBWI Bologna interview with author-app creator Sarah Towle and a guest post by Siobhan Curham on Daring to Dream.

Mio Debnam
is currently working as a writer and an editor of children’s books,
having ‘retired’ from the world of journalism, where she worked as the
Editor in Chief of two daily children’s newspapers for several years.

She has had short stories and articles for both adults and children
published, as well as a middle grade fantasy novel, four picture books,
and several educational readers.

The first six in her kidsGo! series of travel guides for kids were published in 2011.

started on her present career path early, editing and writing stories
for school and university newspapers; getting her hands inky learning
how to print the old fashioned way.

After a decade working in the
financial markets in London and Hong Kong, she returned to her first
love and has been working with words ever since.

Mio Debnam

To get inspiration for
her writing, and to keep up with ‘what’s hot’, Mio has become expert at
eavesdropping on her children’s conversation, as well as those she
encounters at school visits and the creative writing workshops she runs.
She is the Regional Advisor of the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators, Hong Kong Chapter.

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-Illustrator Interview: Miri Leshem-Pelly

Miri Leshem-Pelly meeting some of her characters.

By Liz Steinglass
for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Miri Leshem-Pelly is a published author and illustrator of children books. Her favorite topics are nature and animals. She has created 26 books so far, including several bestsellers in Israel, one book published in the U.S. and two books that won illustration awards.

Her artwork has been shown in several solo exhibitions and many group exhibitions. Miri is invited for many school visits and also guides special tours for children, based on her nature books.

Miri is the regional advisor of the Israeli chapter of SCBWI.

You have published 12 books as an author/illustrator and illustrated 14 books for other writers. How do you find the two experiences compare?

The first big difference is the starting point. Working as an illustrator for other writers I’m given a text—the writer chooses the topic, the mood, the characters, and I respond to his creation.

But when I’m an author/illustrator I can choose my favorite topics, and I’m responsible for the whole creation, and I find that process much more fulfilling.

Luti & Tery the Otter Cubs

On my own books, I also start by writing the text, and illustrating comes second. But the illustrator in me has a lot of influence on the writer, and sometimes she can make the writer choose a certain animal for a character just because she really wants to draw it.

Lon-Lon’s Big Night is your first book published in the U.S. in both Hebrew and English. How was it for you to work in English? Did you find any expressions in Hebrew that were more challenging to translate into English?

Working on the translation to English for “Lon-Lon’s Big Night” was an exciting experience. I did it together with a friend – Angelika Rauschning from Germany. We have been internet friends for many years, but we’ve never met. Angelika writes for children in English, and she suggested we do it together. She doesn’t know Hebrew, so I did the first translation and added in brackets explanations for words and expressions I didn’t know how to translate.

We did this project for a long time over email until both of us were happy with the result. Angelika had some very good ideas, which sometimes made me change the Hebrew text accordingly. The two texts had to be similar because they appear on the same page and could be used for American students learning to read Hebrew. That made the project even more challenging.

To research Lon-Lon’s Big Night you went on a night tour of the desert animals of Hai-Bar Zoo near Eilat, Israel. What did you get from seeing the animals in a naturalistic environment? Do you always do this kind research in preparation for your books?

I love doing that—using my author hat to get permission to enter animals’ cages. This has become a hobby of mine. The night trip to the Hai-Bar Zoo gave me the opportunity to see the night animals at their most active time. During regular visiting hours, you usually get to see them sleeping, but I was invited to come at night when the zoo was closed.

When I got there, the zoo worker asked me if I would like to enter the sand foxes’ cage! What can be better than that? I could take really good close-up photos, which helped me when I got to the illustrations. And being so close made me notice and feel things very differently.

Sand fox.

When I’m writing about an animal, I try to “enter” its skin and see the world though its eyes. Getting very close to the animals helps a lot with this task. I was also inside the otters’ cage, the lemurs’ cage, swam with dolphins and caressed tapirs. These are the kind of things that make my day!

Miri with lemurs

You went on a book tour throughout the United States sharing Lon-Lon’s Big Night with audiences around the country. How did American children respond to the book? Did anything surprise you about their responses? What enables American children to connect to a sand fox from Israel?

Before I left Israel, many people told me that it would be difficult for me to communicate with American children because of cultural differences. But I discovered this is not true. Children are children wherever you go!

Miri at a school visit in Los Angeles

I do a lot of school visits in Israel, and I must say the children’s responses were exactly the same. They laughed at the same moments and became very silent at the same parts of the story. They were connected to the story because they cared about the character—the curious, innocent, brave little fox. The fact that the story takes place in the Israeli desert and is full of strange unknown animals made it more exciting and exotic for them. They asked me many questions about nature in Israel.

Isn’t that what books are for? To sit on your sofa and let the book take you to exciting new places you’ve never been before?

Of all of your books, do you have a favorite? And why?

Oh, oh, that question! I always fear it, and I get it all the time on my school visits.

Illustration from the best seller book “Pizponteva – the tiny nature professor”

What can I say? I love them all. They are all my sons.

Well, maybe I do have a soft spot for Lon-Lon. There is something about this little guy. And I’m grateful to him for taking me with him on this trip to the U.S.!

But seriously, I’m always more involved with my next book, the one I’m working on, because the process of creation is the biggest thrill. So I can say my favorite book is always the next one to come!

What media do you prefer to work with?

I have three media I love to use—colored pencils (on colored paper), watercolor and acrylics. I try to match the right media for each story I’m illustrating.

For example, when I illustrated Lon-Lon, I wanted to get the sandy look of the desert, so I chose colored papers with grainy texture and made the drawings with colored pencils.

You say that your preferred subjects are nature and animals. What draws you to these topics? 

It all begins with my childhood. I grew up in a nature-loving family. We went on numerous trips, and nature became a part of who I am. I always loved animals and found this subject fascinating.

Live drawing of birds in the field

In my youth, I discovered Gerald Durrell‘s books and read them all. I was deeply inspired by his writing and his actions towards saving endangered species.

I create my books with the hope that they will get children a bit closer to nature.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new picture book that I’m writing and illustrating. This time I wrote the book in English. This is a story about four families of wild animals from around the world—from Antarctica to Canada, from the Asian jungle to the Sahara desert. The story comes to show how all families around the world are basically very much alike.

I’m coming to the Bologna book fair this year to look for a publisher for this book-in-progress, so wish me luck!

Cynsational Notes

Liz Steinglass lives and writes in Washington, DC. Her poems “Which Water?” and “A Book” have appeared in Babybug and Ladybug Magazines. She regularly posts original poetry on her blog Growing Wild.

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Securing Online Reviews by Mary Lindsey from Peek: “I researched and found a great fit with a teen book tour site. I did a 120-stop blog tour
that included video interviews, written interviews, previews, live chats, character interviews, this or that lists, essays relevant to the book and, of course reviews. Lots of early reviews.”

Character Trait Entry: Cautious from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “Cautious people are observant, connected to their environment and are aware of shifting dynamics. When emotions are high, cautious characters
can restore balance and apply reasoning techniques to bring people back to a place where they can make decisions with a clear head.”

The 10 Best Writing Tips I Ever Received by Rhonda Stapleton from Just Your Average Crazy Writer. Peek: “Your story is not sacred. It’s not a baby. After you draft, you have to be willing to make it as strong as it can be. Cut those passages that may be beautiful but unneeded.”

IBBY Announces the Winners of the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Award from Raab Associates. Peek: “María Teresa Andruetto from Argentina is the winner of the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Author Award and Peter Sís from the Czech Republic is the winner of the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Illustrator Award.” See also IBBY Announces the Winners of the 2012 IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award.

Writing Steamy in YA by Stina Lindenblatt from Seeing Creative. Peek: “The focus should be on the introspection (something I still need to work on) and not on the choreography.”

First Annual Writing & Illustrating for Young Readers Writing Competition & Fellowship Award. Peek: “In conjunction with The Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference (WIFYR) and its goal to educate and assist aspiring authors, one full-day conference attendee will receive $1000, intended to further the recipient’s work in the writing field. The winning recipient will exhibit gifted writing ability, consistent long-term dedication to the craft, and demonstrate financial need. Submissions for the $1000 merit and need-based award will be accepted beginning (and no sooner than) March 20 and no later than midnight, MST April 20.” Note: Faculty includes Cynthia Leitich Smith, teaching “Writing the Paranormal or Fantasy Novel,” and Greg Leitich Smith, teaching an advanced class.

Day One in Bologna: First-Timers and Vets Weigh In
by Diane Roback and John A. Sellers from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “‘People are coming in with a positive attitude,’ said Candace Finn, subsidiary rights manager at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ‘I’m hearing less gloom and doom. People are saying ‘Show me everything,’ not just ‘Show me your bestsellers.’'” See also Bologna Book Day, Pictures from Day One and Bologna Book Fair: SCBWI Dueling Artists from PaperTigersBlog and Shortlist for the 22nd CBI (Children’s Books Ireland) Book of the Year Awards from Inside Ireland.

On Publishing: Six Aspects of Writing YA That Surprised Me by Carrie Ryan from Magical Words. Peek: “It’s not at all uncommon for YA authors to rewrite large chunks of their books several times during the editing process.  I don’t think this is exclusive to YA, but I’ve definitely talked to a few adult authors who were surprised by this schedule when they moved into writing for teens.”

Storytime to Go: Libraries Try to Reach Kids Who Aren’t Being Read to at Home by Christian Davenport from The Washington Post. Peek: “Edwards takes her act beyond the hush of the stacks to community centers, Head Start classrooms, and, as on this day, day-care centers.”

Your Launch Party is Not Your Wedding by Robin Bridges from The Class of 2012. Peek: “A launch party is something I’d dreamed about for years as an aspiring writer.  I made more plans for an imaginary launch than I ever made for my wedding:  trying to imagine what I would wear, what food to serve, even what entertainment there would be.”

Cynsational Author-Blogger Tip: Before you cross-post the interviews you do for someone else’s blog to your own, ask permission. It’s typically preferable (and more gracious) to point your readers to the blogger kind enough to host you, with your thanks.

What Is an Author’s Marketing Responsibility with a Traditional Publisher? An Interview with Avery Monse and Jory John from Jane Friedman. Peek: “We’re always a little surprised when we hear about authors who are passive about the book that they put a ton of work into upfront. We really subscribe to the philosophy that nobody cares as much about your book as you do, and for good reason.”

Humor for Writers by Kim Baker from Crowe’s Nest. Peek: “Kids use humor as an indirect way of coming to terms with issues and situations that are most important to them, and/or too emotionally stressful for them to deal with directly.” See also Three Examples of Sharpening Humor for Kids by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes.

Author Danyelle Leafty is heading a fundraiser called “Kindles For Kids.” She is taking her royalties from The Fairy Godmother Dilemma: Catspell from March 12 to March 31 and purchasing Kindle Fires for the Utah Valley Hospital’s pediatric unit in an effort to pay it forward.

Talent: Who Needs It? by Brian Yansky from Brian’s Blog: Diary of a Writer. Peek: “If you have some talent, you have to turn that into more by struggling through the process of learning to write, learning the basics first and then the intricacies of plotting and character and language. Only through this lengthy struggle can you do more and more of what you want without thinking about it when you’re doing it.”

2012 Golden Kite Award Interviews: Melissa Sweet (Picture Book Illustration for Balloons Over Broadway) from Lee Wind from The Official SCBWI Blog. Peek: “I try to limit my options and choose ways of telling the
story that are repeated as design elements so the materials feel cohesive. In the end, the book is just a fraction of all the things I made.”

Staying in Point of View by Chris Eboch from Write Like a Pro! A Free Online Writing Workshop. Peek: “…be
careful also about describing your main character’s appearance. For
example, ‘Her blue eyes widened.’ Granted, she knows she has blue eyes,
and she may realize when she’s widening them. But would she really be
thinking about the color of her eyes? That’s authorial intrusion, where
the writer is trying to shove in some character description.”

What to Do With Advanced Reader Copies by Sarah Enni from YA Highway. Peek: “…ARCs are, above all, marketing tools used to sell more books. That’s why what you do with an ARC when you’re done reading it is actually an ethical question.”

Cheerios’ Spoonfuls of Stories® program is celebrating its 10-Year Anniversary. Cheerios will once again provide six million bilingual children’s books from award-winning authors free inside specially-marked boxes of cereal. In addition, to help mark the 10-year milestone, this year Cheerios will be giving 50,000 children’s books to First Book, an award winning literacy nonprofit that provides children from low-income families the opportunity to own new books.

Cynsational Giveaways

Cat not included.

Enter to win a signed copy of Chronal Engine and a T-rex puppet!

Runner-up prizes: two more signed copies of Chronal Engine. 

To enter, comment on this post and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email me
directly with “Chronal Engine giveaway” in the subject line. Note: For extra chances to win, blog, tweet (hashtag: #chronalengine), facebook or Google+ this giveaway and list your efforts in your entry!

Author-sponsored. Eligibility: North America. Deadline: March 31.

Looking for another chance to win a copy of Chronal Engine? Surf over to DEBtastic Reads!

One more? Try Review – Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith (+ Giveaway) by Jen Bigheart from I Read Banned Books.

Reminder! Enter to win one of two signed copies of Meltdown! The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future by Fred Bortz (Twenty-First Century/Lerner, 2012). 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 “Meltdown!” in the subject line. Deadline: March 26. Publisher sponsored. U.S. entries only.

Reminder! Enter to win ongoing Cynsations giveaways:

five ARCs of Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood for YA literature fans

(eligibility: U.S.; deadline: March 26);

and the Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen by Donna Gephart Prize Package for middle grade book lovers

(eligibility: North America; deadline: March 26).

See also the Hunger Games Giveaway from Susan Kaye Quinn: Conjuring Tales for Young Minds.

This Week’s Cynsations Posts

2012 SCBWI Bologna Series

More Personally

Greg at Dinosaur Park in Bastrop, Texas

This week has been all about celebrating the release of Greg’s latest novel, Chronal Engine (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). It’s about three kids who go back to the  age of the dinosaurs to rescue their sister and solve a family mystery. Central Texans and visitors, don’t miss Saturday’s launch party at 2 p.m. at BookPeople!

Chronal Engine on the “new releases” shelf at BookPeople.

For those who missed it, check out my author event report from my recent trip to Albuquerque and Tucson. On the plane rides, I also read Gwenda Bond‘s soon-to-debut novel, Blackwood, and, later, sent her the following blurb: “This haunting, romantic mystery intrigues, chills, and captivates.”

Recent local highlights included Cynthia Y. Levinson‘s launch for We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012). Here, she’s pictured with former child marcher, Washington Booker III, who co-presented the book with her at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center earlier this month. Note: sorry for the light quality.

The one downside of my recent tour? I missed hearing Houston children’s author Varsha Bajaj speak at the Austin SCBWI monthly meeting at BookPeople.

Here, she is pictured with one of the chapter’s inaugural members, Betty X. Davis. Note: Congratulations to Varsha, who is a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Children’s Book! Cheers also on TIL honors to local author-illustrator Divya Srinivasan!

And, finally, this video of Don Tate totally made my week! You should watch it, if only to learn how to do “The Happy Dance”! Then check out his debut picture book, It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Learned to Draw (Lee & Low, 2012).

“Focus on the Characters and Let Them Lead the Way: An Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith from All About Book Publishing. Peek: “Rough drafts are especially challenging to me, in a hair-and-teeth
pulling kind of way. Every word you put down is a decision, and every
single one costs you energy. But first drafts also are exhilarating,
like skydiving (not that I would ever skydive). I tend to have a few
weeks of doubt, wondering if my idea is truly ‘novel worthy,’ and then I
see the threads start to flow together.”

Personal Links

About Greg Leitich Smith

  • Author Interview & Giveaway: Greg Leitich Smith on Dinosaurs, Time Travel & Chronal Engine from Cynsations. Peek: “I was and am willing to read books about people of all shapes, sizes,
    colors, and creeds, and even some about hobbits. Although I did (and
    do) find the fact that the latter didn’t wear shoes to be somewhat
  • Process Talk: Chronal Engine (Culture, Humor & Time)(part 2): an interview by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing with a Broken Tusk; see also part one (Setting, Genre, Audience)
  • Greg Leitich Smith: an interview and Chronal Engine giveaway from Debbi Michiko Florence at  DEBTastic Reads. Peek: “…I ended up dusting off my math and physics and doing quite a bit of research on the science of time travel – my background is in electrical engineering so I’ve taken more courses than I care to remember on calculus and differential equations and relativity and quantum mechanics, but I’ll admit I’m a little rusty.”
  • Author Profile: Greg Leitich Smith by Steven R. McEvoy from Book Reviews and More. Peek: “I’ll make a five-column table, assign one cell per chapter/scene, and write a brief description in each cell of what happens in the corresponding chapter/scene. If I put it down to 8 point type, I can see the entire novel on one page, which helps to see character arc, where things slow down, and if it makes any sense at all.”
  • Review: Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith (+ Giveaway) by Jen Bigheart from I Read Banned Books. Peek: “…a fast paced, middle grade adventure perfect for boys and girls that love history, dinosaurs, and time travel.”
  • Chronal Engine: a recommendation by Debbie Gonzales from ReaderKidZ. Peek: “An intriguing time travel adventure, cleverly crafted characters which appeal to both genders, and dinosaurs!”

From Greg Leitich Smith

Cynsational Events

Greg Leitich Smith will launch Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2012) at 2 p.m. March 24 at BookPeople in Austin. The program will include an author presentation and dinosaur cookies, cupcakes and other refreshments. 

Cynthia will appear at the Texas Library Association Annual Conference:

  • April 18: 1 p.m. to 1:50 p.m. “Connecting Teens and Authors: Teen Book Festivals and Awesome Author Visits.” 
  • April 20: 8 a.m. to 8:50 a.m. “Introducing the Spirit of Texas Reading Programs.” 
  • Signing coordinated by Candlewick Press and TLA. See program for details. 

Note: Greg Leitich Smith also will be signing at the conference.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will appear at A Festival of Authors, which will take place from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. May 12 at Reagan High School in Northeast Austin.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will appear June 30 at Bastop Public Library in Bastrop, Texas.

Interested in taking a class with Cynthia this summer?

Note: Due to volume, I can’t feature the author/illustrator events of all of my Cynsational readers, but if you’re Austin bound for an appearance here, let me know, and I’ll try to work in a shout out or two.

SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author Interview: Christopher Cheng

Visit Christopher Cheng

By Resham Premchand
for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Walk us through your typical day.

I wake up early in morning. In summer, I go for a walk but in winter not so early. Then after breakfast and kicking my wife off to work (teacher-librarian at primary school), it is down to the business of writing, lots of emails to other creative folks overseas and agents and publishers, etc.

Then at around 9 a.m. the creative work begins and continues right through to lunchtime … with a break in the middle to make a pot of tea, and a walk around the house.

After lunch and a stretch and a read of the newspaper (digital or in print), it is back to the computer, sometimes to review the morning work, sometimes to do more business … websites, blogs, communication with folk … and of course SCBWI things.

In the afternoon, when my wife returns, it is again time for another pot of tea (I really like making tea) and then chitchatting – a bit more writing, maybe some reading of other authors books (important for reviewing) and then time to prepare for dinner and unwind for the evening.

I cook the dinner. … and then it’s reading and bed!

With your success in producing picture books and YA novels, have you found similar or different speed bumps and how so?

I guess the big hump is that picture books take so long to come out after I have written and had the manuscript accepted. It takes time for those hugely talented illustrators to add their own part to my words to make it a joint creation!

For novels, and I love writing historical fiction – the problem is knowing when to stop the research and start the writing. So, in both situations, it is a time thing!

Please describe how you think the market for children’s literature has changed in Australia in the past 10 years and how distinct it is from America?

In Australia, we have seen lots of wonderful titles continue to be produced. Definitely the children’s book market has continued to be a strong seller for publishers.

We have had a huge drop in retailers with the collapse of the RED group, and so that has meant that there have been fewer places to sell the books. This of course that has also meant that some of the independents have flourished.

On the publishing front, there has been an increase in the number of smaller boutique publishers, the ones who often take the risk on titles only to find that it thrives while some of the other publishers have been absorbed into the aprons of larger publishers. It’s a cyclical thing!

And then there is the digital explosion. This is wonderful! It is another means for readers to unite with the word. I love it! And SCBWI has become a real cog in the Australian literary scene. It is thrilling to be part of it and see it explode down here, not only as a support network for other creators but also as a network of folks with knowledge about the industry.

With your writing commitments, keeping your blog- up-to-date, continuously being updated yourself and workshop engagements, how you have the time to write or have space for your own creativity? 

I do have to schedule in when I will write. I don’t have a big slot of time (read that as months and months) to write a novel as I am doing a lot of festivals both here in Australia but more so internationally.

It is a privilege, and I take the opportunity when it arises.

I speak on not just my own titles but also the titles of other creators that are being published here.

I also chitchat, too, about the digital side of publishing, I love that!

But back to writing novels, I need to be uninterrupted for quite a while to write the longer work but I continue the research and work on smaller projects – especially picture books which are so rewarding – especially when you see what the illustrator creates from my stimulus!

What are the next challenges or goals for you as a writer?

Grab more time to write.

Get more in-tune with the digital side of publishing. I love where that is leading and how we creators can be part of it. My latest picture book is just ripe for animation, and I want to be part of it!

Continue to support and continue to shout out about the wonderful kids’ books that are produced.
I want to see kids’ books being regularly featured in the mainstream media, not as an aside but as of vital importance and “have you read this ripper book”.

Grab some more time to write.

But now I have to go and finish my packing for the Hong Kong Literary Festival and then Bologna.

What was that I mentioned about grabbing some more time to write?

Cynsational Notes

Christopher is blogging the Bologna Book Fair–day by day!

Don’t miss his blog, New Kids Books in Oz: The Latest Australian Books to Arrive in Bookstores.

Resham Premchand is a keen life-long student of literature and enjoys playing with words.

She is an active member of Hong Kong and Singapore SCWBI groups and enjoys learning from critique groups. Resham is a primary school teacher and loves working with children!

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations.

To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-App Creator Interview: Sarah Towle

By Whitney Stewart
for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I met Sarah Towle in Paris in 2007 when she was looking for a publisher for her children’s story/travel-guides to Paris. 

Her early concept was fantastic, so when she launched a Kickstarter campaign to take her new company, Time Traveler Tours, digital and interactive, I pledged a donation. 

Now Sarah’s App, Beware Madame La Guillotine: A Revolutionary Tour of Paris, about a French noblewoman who murders a revolutionary leader, is one of School Library Journal’s top ten apps for 2011. Sarah’s transformation from writer to entrepreneur is as exciting as her digital tales.

Sarah, you’ve morphed very quickly from educator and linguist to a cutting-edge app creator and entrepreneur. Is your head spinning? What has been the best and worst part of your transformation? 

Spinning. Yes, that is indeed the appropriate word. Never in my life did I imagine myself as an entrepreneur, or the recipient of such praise from School Library Journal. Perhaps miracles really can happen!

The absolute best part, as for any author, was seeing the dream come to fruition. From my editor’s final sign off, to the designer’s first ideas, to the testing of the final builds, to the earning of a top 10 distinction, it was a bumpy but thrilling ride.

Although the highlight moment was not willing my shaking, sweaty hands to tear off the postal wrappings without damaging the jacket of the just-received virgin hardcover book; it was not gazing down upon my creation while holding it in my hands for the first time.

Rather, it was witnessing, while on “vacation” in Mexico with my family and our dearest friends, Beware Madame la Guillotine, A Revolutionary Tour of Paris go live in the App Store.

Unfortunately, the absolute worst part came just seconds later when I first grasped that I now had to sell the darn thing!

No sooner had I taken that first sip of terrible Mexican bubbly than I burst into floods of tears. Twin thoughts suddenly occurred to me: What if no one likes it? What if no one finds it?

In the ensuing days, I had to force my peeps to go out exploring the Mexican landscape without me so that I could face the Sisyphean task otherwise known as marketing.

It was like giving birth to a first child and spending the entire pregnancy focusing on the birthing plan without putting any thought at all to how you intend to feed and diaper the tike once it pops out!

Another “best part” was the development process. It was uber-creative and forced me to bring to bear many skills, both old and new. Organizing words and phrases to give life to a living, breathing, feeling character that demands her audience to sit up and take notice was only the beginning.

I then had to build a team of talented editorial, technical, and graphical artists; I had to rewrite the manuscript as a storyboard, mapping out where each image and interactive element would go and how they would flow in and around the narrative. I had to record and master the audio narration in English, then translate the entire text – interactive elements and all – and re-record and re-master the narration in French.

All the while, I had to build an online platform, including website, blog, Facebook page, Twitter handle, LinkedIn account, and learn how to use these tools – not an easy task for one prone to introversion. I had to tackle such legal matters as trade marking and incorporation as well as issues of branding, like logo and slogan creation, and make the acquaintance of all kinds of heretofore unknown creatures, such as search engine optimization.

But it was also exhausting having to face a new learning curve every month non-stop for several years straight. Even when I finally thought I saw the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, and made plans for a family vacation to Mexico, I found I still had to keep working.

And during the two years spent developing the first app – another “worst part” – I didn’t get a lot of good, new creative writing accomplished.

I’m exhausted just reading about what you had to accomplish and what you put aside. Do you see yourself ever going back to the print medium? Could your apps become books? 

I dream of the day when I see my stories in print!

Unfortunately, Beware Madame la Guillotine and my other StoryApps now in development, don’t lend themselves to the print medium very comfortably due to the high level of interactivity.

That’s why I decided, two years ago now, with the help of the 48 thirteen-to-fourteen-year-olds who piloted the print mock-up, that the project was never meant to be a book but could make a killer series of apps.

However as iOS apps, my stories can only be discovered and enjoyed, at present, by those who own an Apple mobile device. Yes, these are a lot of people, and the numbers are growing everyday. But it’s still a small percentage of the world’s gazillions of readers.

So my agent, Erzsi Deàk of Hen & ink Literary, and I are currently brainstorming ideas for adapting the stories for use in multiple formats. For example, I am working on creative nonfiction treatments of each story to produce as middle grade illustrated histories.

It’s been suggested that Beware Madame la Guillotine would make a great screenplay. And the StoryApps could easily be made into virtual tours for use as desktop apps in home or educational settings, if one had the right technology and budget. Wink.

In fact, I think it’s an imperative of the new paradigm born of the digital revolution that all authors seek to publish on multiple formats. The reason is that audiences can now engage with story in many more ways – print, eReader, film, mobile app – and they are developing preferences.

Therefore, to reach as many people as possible, we have to make our voices heard across platforms. We have to be a part of the trend toward “transmedia story telling.” The opportunities are greater than ever before. Print, far from dead or dying, is now just one possible medium for story publication and dissemination. And I can’t wait to play there, too!

Your first digital book-app is about a French murderess. What does your choice of character say about you?

Gosh! I never thought about that before – about how my choice of Charlotte Corday as a character reflects on me as a person. What a fascinating question!

It’s true that I’ve always tended to root for the underdog. Perhaps it was this attitude that informed the initial mission of the Time Traveler Tours project in general: To reveal history through the stories of those who lived it and whose actions contributed to shaping their time.

I wanted to give voice to history’s lesser known or completely unknown players, not the Marie-Antoinettes and Napoleon Bonapartes we’ve already heard from hundreds of times.

As I searched for the perfect character to tell the story of the French Revolution, Charlotte was always there, lurking in the shadows, alluded to but never fully fleshed out. I noticed her, but didn’t really pay her attention.

Then, one day I was on a guided tour of the Palais Royal – yes, taking guided tours is part of my job description! Isn’t that fabulous?! – and our facilitator took us to the address of a once famous cutlery shop. Can you guess what made it so? It was where Charlotte Corday bought the knife she used to kill Marat.

There she was again, this time she’d jumped right out of the past and grabbed me by the collar. She begged me to let her tell her story, finally, as she had never been able to do in life. So I did.

You could also say that this choice of character reveals that, like Charlotte, I can be quite determined, even stubborn, when I set out to accomplish something. Convinced that Jean-Paul Marat was to blame for the Reign of Terror, and that committing a violent crime was justifiable if done at the service of peace, Charlotte determined to murder him, come what may. Similarly, once I got it into my head that I could produce this project myself, there was no turning back. Come what may.

(Note: Charlotte Corday. Original steel engraving drawn by A. Lacauchie, engraved by
Roze, 1849. Digital image courtesy of

I can’t wait for your next app release. They’re fun for adults too. Could you give us a sneak preview of your upcoming protagonist?

Sure! Whitney, I’d like you to meet the narrator/tour guide of the Time Traveler Tours StoryApp iTinerary currently in production: Day of the Dead, A Spectral Saunter through Napoleon’s Paris…

Bonjour! The name is Jean-Philippe Toulier.

Before you extend your hand, you might like to know that I was a gravedigger by profession. In truth, I come from a family of gravediggers. My father was a gravedigger, as was my grandfather for a time, and so too my sons. But we weren’t the kind of gravediggers you’ve likely just brought to mind. No.
We didn’t dig new graves to put the dead in – not at first.

We dug graves up to pull the dead out.

I’m planning a trip overseas and wish you had a tour app for every major city on this planet. Do you imagine a worldwide explosion for Time Traveler Tours?

Yes. That’s exactly the idea. The sky’s the limit with Time Traveler Tours. Our story-based Paris App Tours are only the starting point, chosen because it’s the city in which I live and whose history I know best. As it happens, lucky me, it’s also the world’s most visited tourist destination.

But in addition to Day of the Dead, I hope to add a London App Tour to the list this year, for release in time for the summer Olympic Games. Then, next year, another Paris and London StoryApp tour each, and…whadda ya say…New Orleans?

New Orleans? Yes! I’m ‘bout it, as they say in this gritty town where we have loads of historical drama. And what’s next for you, Sarah? Will you continue to write your own digital tales, or will you occupy the producer role and employ a team of writers, designers, and techies?

I hope to do both. My favorite part of this process is researching and writing the stories. But working alone, I have no hope of producing new content fast enough to establish the momentum sufficient to build Time Traveler Tours as a business. Also, I don’t really know any other locations as intimately as I know Paris except New York City. So I’d rather offer other writers a vehicle for publication. And I relish the idea of working with others in creative collaboration.

At this point, the only thing standing in my way is lack of financing. I don’t have sufficient funds to pay my collaborators, who thus far have contributed their time and talent for eventual revenue split.

It will be some time, probably years, before Beware Mme la Guillotine begins to show a return on initial investment. I was lucky, and gratified – my thanks again to you for your support! – to have achieved my Kickstarter campaign goal of $5000. In fact we raised $6,000. But it covered only a fraction of the total cost to build and launch the first app.

So if anyone out there wishes to join the fun, to bet on the future success of Time Traveler Tours, as I have, and to invest their writing, design, and/or programming talent for present experience and future gain, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Writers often say that marketing is the toughest part of the business because it takes time away from writing. You had to do this on vacation in Mexico. How do you manage this on a daily basis? What are your techniques?

This is definitely my greatest challenge. Marketing does not come easily or naturally to me. Yet, how to find balance between marketing (left-brain activity in extremis) and writing (right-brain all the way) has certainly become the eternal question for creative people trying to make a living in the twenty-first century. I can’t claim to offer any magical solutions, but here are a few things I try to do, even if I’m still far from perfecting them in practice:

Start each workday with your craft. I am in the enviable position of living several hours ahead of my development partners. This means that, in theory, I can begin my day chatting with my characters without worry of interruption. It never ceases to amaze me how much I can accomplish in relatively little time if I am disciplined and willing to give my total focus to writing first thing every day. Once done, I can turn to the research or production or business tasks at hand in the afternoon, when my right brain is both relaxed and exercised, and with a completely clear conscious.

Set up a social media platform based on your needs and abilities. It is no longer merely important to have an online presence as a creative person. It is now essential. And the invention of social media makes it easier and possible for all of us to be networking from the comfort of our desk chairs. But the plethora of platform choices can be overwhelming, paralyzing even!

Just remember, you don’t need to be on every platform. And you don’t need to start using them all at once. Best to choose your tools based on whether you prefer to communicate in words (blog, Twitter) or images (Facebook, Pinterest, Flicker, Instagram); whether you wish to communicate with a young audience (Facebook) or a professional one (LinkedIn).

I got my feet wet with a blog, eventually waded in with Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, and only more recently dove in with Facebook. Next up for me: Google+.
Always be linking, liking, commenting, thanking.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, marketing was about promoting products in the hope of achieving sales. Today, of course, we still want sales, we want people to buy our stories, but the means to obtaining that goal has shifted.

Now, according to Guy Kawasaki in his book, Enchantment, it’s about developing relationships with your once and future audience. You do this by revealing yourself as a trustworthy authority in your field or niche. So when you come across an article you feel contributes to your professional discussion, share the link (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+); tell others if you like it (Facebook); post a comment saying why you do, or don’t (blogoshpere); and announce your news (everywhere) so that folks can share it and link back to you.

By virtue of the things you like and information you share, you start to “tell” your story and attract like-minded friends and followers. When they, in turn, link to, like, or comment on your platform, be sure to thank them. Then, when you have news—the coming release of your new book or app—they are ready to receive and, hopefully, act upon it: i.e., share it, shout out about it, buy it!

Rule of thumb: try not to self-promote more than about 20% of the time, less is even better; the rest of the time, promote the contributions and news of others. Social networking is all about karma – what goes around, comes around. Spreading the love is key!

Limit your social networking time. Circling back to my first point above, resist the temptation to start your day with social media marketing. You may never pull yourself out! Strategy is everything. Have Twitter days, Facebook days, blogging days, etc. Finally…

Don’t underestimate the power of good old-fashioned email. ‘Nuf said.

All helpful information, Sarah. What advice do you have for other writers who are thinking of creating book apps? What are the pitfalls?

The main pitfalls are the cost to build vs. the current customer expectation that apps should be cheap to purchase. In present digital culture, the smaller the screen size, the cheaper the price.

Of course this is completely lunatic because it costs much more to build an interactive app than it does to produce an eBook, for example. Yet, despite the fact that you can get much more from a StoryApp, eBooks can fetch a higher price.

The earliest apps – simple games, tools and utilities – set the precedent for free or close to free apps before anyone really understood what mobile could be harnessed to do. App pricing conventions will inevitably change, as they have with eBooks, and apps like Beware Madame la Guillotine will eventually be valued at closer to their actual worth. But this will take some years, and in the meantime, app pricing is determined more by what people are willing to pay rather than the quality of the content and programming costs.

Also, apps need constant updating as the operating systems they live in are being continually improved upon. So be sure to factor maintenance costs and responsibilities into your negotiations with any potential programming partner. You don’t want them disappearing when you need them the most. Believe me, it happens!

Finally, keep in mind that there are a lot of programmers out there, but not a lot of good ones; and even the good ones might not be the right ones for your project. You must take your time, do your research carefully, talk to a lot of people, and choose your partners wisely.

On your website you’re running a writing competition for a three-dimensional children’s story set in London. I assume that you’d like to turn the winning story into an app. Describe your dream submission.

The dream submission will contain all the elements encountered in Beware Madame la Guillotine, A Revolutionary Tour of Paris: it will not be simply an engaging and well-researched story focused on a specific historical era narrated by a compelling central character who lived at that time, but it will also be woven around a London walking tour comprised of sites relevant to the story.

The author will have a sense of the period art and or artists that can be used to illustrate the tale. He or she will have indicated in the manuscript where the story can be expanded to include More Info links and Treasure Hunts, Orientation Games, and Trivia Challenges, all the interactive elements introduced in Beware Madame la Guillotine. I wouldn’t expect for these things to be fully formed upon submission, but they should be suggested.

You must eat, drink, and breathe French history in order to create your apps. Did you have a past life in France or something? Who were you?

Who knows, maybe I did! If so, I was probably someone who rebelled against authority and injustice, like Olympe de Gouges, but I can hardly imagine myself being as brave as her.

Olympe was amazing – a late 18th century writer and political activist who advocated publicly for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. In 1791, she self-published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in an ironic attempt to expose the Revolution’s failure to achieve gender equality, evidenced by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. She was guillotined in 1793 for her views, in particular for attacking the radical regime of Danton and Robespierre.

Sarah, I love how you flesh out these amazing historical figures. And now for my final question—your interview readers will be insanely jealous of your life in Paris and your success in the digital world. Throw us a bone, please. Anything…

Nearly five years ago, in June 2007, I read aloud in front of a group of writers for the first time. This was during your workshop on writing creative non-fiction for children and teens at The American Library in Paris. Do you remember?

It was a formative moment. My hand shook so much as it held the paper that my eyes – downcast for fear of meeting disapproving glances – could not focus on the words. It didn’t matter, because I had the text memorized. So I forced myself through this simple 250-word reading despite near-total loss of control over my vocal cords.
I finished with palms and forehead burning from certain embarrassment, sensations quickly extinguished by your reaction, and by the reaction of all the participants that night.

You, Whitney, were so spontaneously positive that I left the workshop feeling like a writer, for the first time. The confidence you offered that night sustained me for the next three years as I took my little project into the workshop and planed away at the edges.

Three years later, in 2010, I re-emerged, packed my suitcase with hope, a proposal, and three finished manuscripts, and boarded a plane to Bologna, to the SCBWI conference and Children’s Book Fair. I was determined to find a publisher of what by now I had determined would be a series of interactive StoryApps. But at that fantastic fair, five football fields wide, the number of people talking digital could be counted on one hand.

One was Stephen Roxburgh of namelos, who I had to good fortune to meet. He loved Charlotte’s story, too. He said my proposal was the most exciting thing at the Fair. His encouragement gave me the confidence to produce Charlotte’s app myself, rather than wait for the industry to catch up. And here I am, two years later, app in hand and an SLJ Top 10 distinction to boot!

But guess what?

It’s time to return to the workshop, and start all over again!

Late at night, Sarah Towle wonders if she had been in Charlotte’s shoes, would she have used the knife? She doesn’t let this keep her up til dawn, however, as she has other stories to tell and apps to create. Her second title, also with a death theme, Day of the Dead, is due for release this summer. Sarah is represented by Hen&ink Literary Studio.

Cynsational Notes

Whitney Stewart publishes award-winning non-fiction and fiction, from picture book to young adult. Her latest novel manuscript, “River Voice,” now on submission, is the story of a troubled boy in post-Katrina New Orleans, and is represented by Hen & ink literary studio. Follow her on Twitter at @whitneystewart2.

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-Illustrator Interview: Lesley Vamos

By Stephanie Ruble
for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lesley Vamos studied at both the College of Fine Arts where she earned a Distinction in their B.A. of Digital Media degree and was on the vice chancellors list after a year studying Design at Curtin University of Technology in Perth.

Since leaving university, she has broadened her artistic influences by enrolling in various online and short courses both in Sydney and Los Angeles (where she exchanged at the University of California, Irvine and at the completion of her degree spent a year getting experience) and keeping track of various international influences online.

In fact, if you search for her name online, the majority of the hits come from the comments Vamos has left on the blogs of fellow artists and designers that both encourage and inspire her.

The children’s book you illustrated, The Anything Shop, came out last fall. How was that different than working on the other books you’ve illustrated?

Well, at the time, it was actually the first book I had illustrated, so I couldn’t really compare it with other experiences.

When I think about it though, every project I get is so different it’s very hard to compare. Depending on who you’re working with and the nature of the subject matter, each book comes with something different to learn or a new process to work through, which is one of the big reasons I love my job; you never get stuck doing the same thing.

Does your work in animation and licensing help or influence your work in children’s books, or does working in so many areas make it harder to focus on one type of art?

For me, having other avenues to push my creativity or drawing skills really helps me stay inspired so I think it’s definitely important I keep choosing clients from all different fields to work with.

It can get tricky though when you have six different clients at the one time all asking for different things. For example, at the moment, I’m working on illustrations for magazines, comics, designing apps and websites as well as personal and external commissions.

So, by Friday, my head is spinning a bit. However, if deadlines aren’t yet a factor, it’s nice to wake up in the morning and (depending what you feel like drawing) have a few different things to choose from.

How do you juggle all the projects you’re working on, and what percentage of them are children’s illustration vs. other types of illustration?

Good time management…something I say but don’t always achieve. But I try to stay organized, write “to do” lists and keep regular contact with each client regularly during the process.

At the moment, the only children’s books I’m working on are my own, but as I mentioned before, there are plenty of other types of work keeping me busy!

You post a lot of great sketches on your blog. What’s your process for taking those sketches to final art?

It’s funny you should say that. I actually only recently started posting my sketches online, mostly because I have no time at the moment to go through the process of taking them to final line work and colour. Not to mention about 80 percent of my sketches aren’t good enough to finish, not because they are bad drawings, more that I spend a lot of time sketching, to either get a chance to draw, or to work through topics I don’t get the chance to while working, or I’m re-interpreting something that’s already been done, to see what I can learn by doing it.

But when I do decide something is worth seeing in colour (I’m very picky, as coloring takes me so long), I start by scanning it. Then I take the scan into Photoshop and going over the line with a simple black brush (I use my cintiq for this).

I colour it in grey scale first, to get a better idea of with elements I want to make stand out. After this, I find a colour scheme online or make it myself based around the general mood of the piece or feelings I want people to have when they see it – figure out each colours grey scale placement (something I learnt to do at uni. It basically involves a lot of squinting).

Then from there it’s basically a colour by numbers. A few touch ups and shadow is laid down. Then I see if any effects will enhance it and I’m done.

Are you interested in writing children’s books in addition to illustrating them, and if so, have you started working towards that goal?

I am and do.

I’ve written one picture book that I’m in the process of illustrating and am in the middle of writing a YA fiction book loosely based on my days in the school band. I’ve also got a few other picture book ideas that my agent and I are developing, which is a lot of fun. I just wish I had more time!

I also write short stories and poems for my blog that started as a sort of author-illustrator challenge for myself. I’ve always loved telling stories, so it’s been a lot of fun to find more than one way to do it!

Who influenced your style, and who are you influenced by these days?

Oh man, that’s very hard to pinpoint. I spend a lot of time trolling the net and commenting, favouriting and “liking” pretty much everything and anything I can get my hands on.

I’d say, though, if you looked at the stats, you’d probably find majority of the art I’m looking at at the moment comes from France.

I love French illustrators. There is something in the water there. I’m sure that helps them breathe so much life and love into their shapes, colours and characters!

Other than that, there’s friends, print, movies and generally living life. In fact, trying new things, going different places and meeting new people, is probably the best way to be influenced and inspired.

What upcoming projects can we look forward to from you?

Unfortunately, I can’t discuss many of the projects I’m working on at the moment, but
hopefully, my picture book I Hate Bow Ties will be coming out this year as well as a few travel plans, which include having a table at this year’s San Diego Comic Con.

Cynsational Notes

Find Lesley at Deviant Art and Twitter. See also Lesley at Children’s Illustrators. She is represented by Kelly Sonnack from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

Stephanie Ruble is an author and artist. She has been drawing and painting ever since she could hold a crayon and making up stories since she learned to talk. She’s currently making art and working on a project with a bunch of unruly chickens. Find Stephanie at Twitter.

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-Illustrator Interview: Serena Geddes

By Liz Steinglass for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Serena Gedes is a Sydney-based illustrator and started her career working in animation for Walt Disney Australia.

In 2009, she secured her first contract and has illustrated 14 books, ranging from picture books – Samuel’s Kisses to junior fiction – Totally Twins.

Serena’s imagination is endless, and her ease with pen and ink is evident in her creative characters. Serena has an eye for humour with an extra dash of quirkiness.

When you trained and worked at Walt Disney Animation Australia you were surrounded by colleagues. Now that you are working as a children’s book illustrator, you more often work alone. How do you find the two environments compare? Do you still share your work with fellow illustrators?

I can’t say I was ‘well prepared’ for the changes that came with working for yourself. I had a slight glimpse of it with a roommate who pursued writing as a career, but it’s not until you are sitting in your studio starring at your inbox or phone that you realize the lack of interaction.

Grabbing a coffee with work colleagues or a simple dash to the kitchen for a cup of tea involves conversation. That I do miss. Disney was a buzz of talent and a mix of personalities (some a little stronger than others!), but I can now see the benefits of working around creative people. You bounce your ideas around, develop your creativity, find inspiration and make some pretty amazing friends.

I am a member with several associations and try to attend meetings or coffee catch-ups with fellow illustrators and authors. At times, I share my work with other illustrators, as more often than not, they will see something you have overlooked. It’s not uncommon to miss the obvious when you have been starring at the same illustration for days.

You illustrate both picture books for younger children and chapter books for young readers. Does your thinking or process differ when you sit down to do one or the other?

Not the thinking necessarily, more so with the process. Sometimes having more text allows me to pick and choose the illustration I feel will enhance the story or develop the character’s personality.

With a picture book, you may have only a couple of sentences to develop one illustration that has to capture it all.

You write that sometimes your illustrations are inspired by conversations with an author. What do you discuss during these conversations? Does your vision ever differ from that of the writer? What happens then?

Not much happens until I have a coffee in hand–number one priority of course! I find talking with the author is a great way to pick up on their characters and story, the mood and emotion, the themes and, overall, the author’s enthusiasm. I find gaining an insight into how they see the characters gives me a base, which I then develop with my own interpretation.

The illustrator’s ideas can differ from an author’s, though the publisher will give the direction of the story so any possible differences tend to get ironed out then.

It’s not overly common that the author and illustrator talk in depth about a manuscript unless the author is after something very specific, but the illustrator brings a different level of imagination and visual imagery to a story that sometimes words alone can’t capture. It’s important to allow the illustrator to tap into their creativity and add their voice to a story.

Looking at your illustrations, I am struck by how expressive and humorous you make the characters with only the simplest lines. What have you done before that final drawing that enables you to express so much so simply?

I think it comes from playing with body poses to enhance an emotion and using the eyes to exaggerate the feeling. I scribble rather loosely which seems to allow a freer feel and movement to the illustrations.

Of the 14 books you have illustrated which is your favorite and why?

I really enjoy the Totally Twins Series (by Aleesah Darlison). Other than being full of humour and dealing with every 11-year-olds deepest fear, I instantly connected with the twins and their personality (having a sister 18 months younger also helped).

I have enjoyed the freedom that has come with the three books. With each book, I seem to get away with a little more.

This just allows me to illustrate the twins in more embarrassing, humorous situations.

In addition to illustrating, you are also available for school visits and workshops. What’s your favorite activity to do with students? What do you hope the kids take away from your time with them? 

My favourite activity is creating a character based on the class’ description. They often come with unflattering features and odd personality traits that the students love seeing come to life in front of them.

I enjoy showing the students that everyone can draw and there is no limit to what you can do. The biggest reward, aside from the buzz I get, is seeing their excitement and enthusiasm showing each other what they just created.

You’ve had a very busy three years since you launched your career. What artistic and career-building advice do you have for illustrators who are just starting out?

Be prepared for obstacles: they come in the form of rejection letters and emails, negative opinions, peoples’ views on the industry and everyone wants to get into the publishing world.

I think it’s important to be aware of peoples’ opinions or experience, especially if it comes from an industry professional, but don’t get overwhelmed by it. If you believe it, you will do it.

I had well over 40 rejections, and they still happen today even with 14 books behind me. But I stayed focus and took on criticism as creative development, went to conferences and joined associations in the industry to meet people (you would be surprised how many publishers are there).

Keep creating. Not only is it good to follow-up with publishers with fresh new work; it also betters your own skills. When I first started out, I would wander the bookshops and libraries picking up books that I felt were similar in style or that I could do, and then contacted the publisher with a sample of my work.

What are you currently working on?

A holiday.

Actually I have the fourth book in the Totally Twins Series to do on my return and a children’s book called ‘Gracie and Josh’ (by Susanne Gervay) about a brother and sister creating a movie that is the celebration of the community of children who live with serious illness.

And lastly, I am working on my first author-illustrated children’s book.

Cynsational Notes

Serena Geddes Gives Us a Tour of Her Creative Space from Sophia Whitfield Children’s Book Publisher.

Liz Steinglass lives and writes in Washington, D.C. Her poems “Which Water?” and “A Book” have appeared in Babybug and Ladybug magazines. She regularly posts original poetry on her blog, Growing Wild.

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations.

To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

Here’s one more sketch from Serena…

SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-Illustrator Interview: John Shelley

By Mio Debnam
for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

John Shelley studied at Bournville School of Art, then illustration at Manchester Polytechnic under children’s illustrator Tony Ross.

Debuting as a freelance illustrator in London, by 1984, he’d co-founded the artist’s collective Facade Studios with designer Andy Royston and illustrators Jane Ray and Willie Ryan.

Fascinated by Japanese art, in 1987, he moved to Tokyo in search of the missing link between samurai and Sony, making it his home for the following 21 years.

In Japan his award-winning illustrations have been used in everything from animated TV ads, poster-and-newspaper campaigns to character merchandising and editorial illustration. With a unique insight into the Japanese creative market, he has stood as a committee member of JAGDA (Japan Graphic Designer Association) and presented at colleges across the country.

Shelley’s work for publishing follows a more elaborate vein of pen and watercolour. His first major picture book The Secret in the Matchbox was shortlisted for the Mother Goose Award, after which his children’s illustrations have continued to gain steady recognition in East and West.

As an author, his own published stories include Hoppy’s New House (Fukuinkan Shoten) and The House of the World (Benesse).

John’s upcoming books are The Halloween Forest (Holiday House, U.S.) and his own retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk (Fukuinkan Shoten, Japan), both scheduled for release in fall 2012.

Bilingual in Japanese, Shelley returned to the U.K. in 2008, but still maintains close associations with Japan. John is a member of The Society of Authors, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and Picture Book Artists (PBA)

John, apart from being a successful commercial artist, you are the illustrator of over 40 books, but it’s a lesser-known fact that you’re also the author-illustrator of three picture books published in Japanese. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of illustrating someone else’s words as opposed to your own, and can we look forward to any more books both written and illustrated by you in the future?

There are pros and cons to both sides. I love the sense of discovery when illustrating other people’s texts. I approach the work as a reader does, a visitor entering an imaginative kingdom, where (if it’s the right text) my own imagination can respond, explore and expand on the world created by the writer.

It’s a process of discovery, though does of course depend on the story. Some texts I can really fly with; others are more sedate. I particularly enjoy the challenges to adapt my interpretation to match and enhance the world of the writer. For these reasons, I really love illustrating imaginative novels in black and white, though it works for picture books, too.

I tend to approach my own texts from a different angle, as quite often the visual tone of the story is fixed visually in my mind before I write a single word.

As pictures are natural for me, there’s always the danger that the story is subservient to images–something I’m constantly battling to avoid.

Some illustrators are adept at using their images as a starting point for their stories, and sometimes it can work for me too, but on the whole I try to create stories around texts. The illustrations come naturally!

Yes indeed, I do intend to work on more of my own stories, though at the moment I’ve a full plate of commissioned books.

You’ve mentioned in the past that you like to create children’s book illustrations using pen and ink, with a watercolour wash. However, as computer tools and programs become increasingly sophisticated and versatile, have you found yourself being lured into creating art digitally, or do you already use the computer for any part of the creative process?

Actually, I’ve used computers with illustration for many years (though everything starts with a hand-drawn scanned image). Most of my work for advertising in Japan is coloured mechanically, originally with mark-ups for four-colour process, latterly using Photoshop, etc.

I have a love-hate relationship with computers. For the level I use them in my illustration work, I lean more towards simplicity – flat colour, for the graphic dynamism that works well for posters and other advertising/editorial work.

A lot of my children’s books, however, are more atmospheric and intuitive. I aim to create subtleties of tone that I would find a challenge using digital means. Some artists are able to create digital work of incredible depth and texture, but I don’t have the software, or technical patience for that; it’s not a natural tool for me. Children’s books are from the heart, at least the ones I like to paint in watercolour – and I find it tough to achieve a level of natural authenticity with digital art.

That’s not to say I don’t use computers at all with my children’s illustrations – some of my simpler picture books in Japan were coloured digitally. Even with my watercolours my Mac is invaluable for research, resizing and arranging sketches and other preparatory work.

Ultimately, computers are just a tool like any other, and I’m looking for the most effective way to get the job done, whether digital or analogue. If the task requires a clean graphic edge, I’ll work digitally.

I’d like to explore ways of adapting my “commercial” illustration techniques to my children’s books, certainly for younger readers, but for the more elaborate books, I’ll probably always stick to watercolour. The day I’m able to create them as effectively digitally as I am with watercolour I’ll certainly change, but until then, I prefer a tool that I’m in command of, no matter how flawed and messy, than one that I struggle to use intuitively.

Flawed and messy for me is what makes watercolour so ‘human’! 

At the Bologna Fair 2010, I was lucky enough to watch you do lightning quick sketches to illustrate a story which was being read out to you live. I was impressed that you were able to depict the scenes from different angles and interesting viewpoints at such speed. Do the ideas come to you that quickly normally?

Making pictures is problem solving. Sometimes the solution comes to mind immediately. Sometimes it takes a bit of thought. The sketching duels are unusual and can be very challenging because time is one thing you don’t have! Quick thinking is essential.

Sometimes the answers are visual puns – commercial/editorial illustration is often like this. How do words fall together or clash? Two elements put together can create a fun illustration. For children’s books, the tone can be established by the characters or through composition, and may go through a series of development stages.

My first sketches are usually very rough and ready, establishing areas of detail and space, light and dark, which gradually come into focus as the work develops. Or images can grow from a single element that expands on the page – my sketchbook is full of odd drawings where I just take a pen for a walk to see what develops.

I bet your quick sketch abilities come in useful in school visits! Do you do many? And what’s your favourite aspect of a school visit?

I’ve only ever made one school visit. It’s not something I actively go looking for, though I’d be interested in doing more. The one visit I made went off very well. I was rather nervous of dealing with children, but they were gentle with me! I’ve lectured and presented to adults and art students many times though, in various countries.

Can you talk us through an average work day?

Though in the past I always had a separate studio, nowadays I work at home. I have a dedicated studio room in my house. This has it’s advantages and disadvantages. It’s certainly convenient, yes, but getting enough exercise can be a problem when you’re in the same property all day!

I start work at 9.00 after walking my daughter to school, and usually spend an hour (sometimes two) answering emails and other clerical business before beginning work in my studio. I’m trying to cut down computer-time lately as sometimes it can eat up my morning completely. Afternoons I work until collecting daughter at 3.15, then usually squeeze in another couple of hours work before dinner.

When my wife was alive and I had a studio, I would sometimes work in the evenings, but nowadays as a single parent that’s difficult. By the time I’ve tucked in daughter I’m pretty useless for anything else except a few emails and bed myself. That’s an average day, though naturally things become intense as deadlines approach!

Can you tell us about your latest book project?

Recently completed is a picture book written by Marion Dane Bauer, The Halloween Forest, due for autumn 2012 release by Holiday House in the U.S.. I’m very excited about this book; some images are on my website.

Right now I’m finishing work on a 44-page picture book of Jack in the Beanstalk for Fukuinkan Shoten in Japan, retold in my own words. I’m also working on a 32-page picture book on Michelangelo’s statue of David, The Stone Giant for Charlesbridge (U.S.). So things are very busy!

And finally, what advice would you give to an aspiring illustrator who lives outside of the U.K./U.S., who wants to break into those markets?

I think you need to have an astute head and an intuition for tastes. Its key to hold onto the things that truly inspire you and not be distracted too much by the short-term demands of the market, however at the same time understanding that market is key to knowing how your vision and talent will fit in.

It can seem daunting to approach an overseas market, but on the other hand you have the advantage of appreciating the ‘bigger picture’. You may find it easier than local illustrators to stand back and see where your work may slot in.

Research is absolutely essential. Don’t try to emulate art that is popular in those countries, that would be like “taking coals to Newcastle” – i.e., why would a publisher employ someone overseas who’s work is just like someone on their doorstep?

You need to isolate what it is in your own unique background, your own style, that will fit in and find you a niche in those foreign markets. What is it about you that is different from the locals that nevertheless hits a nerve with those markets?

Get to the core of what works there, not through style, but through deep-seated aesthetic tastes in those markets. Isolate that and you’re on course.

Cynsational Notes

Visit John’s website, portfolio, facebook page, tweet deck and both his blogs (English & 日本語).

A Yen for Drawing: John Shelley on Illustrating Books for Japan from Picture Book Den. Peek: “Japanese children’s books are often strong on fantasy, some inhabit a fairy-tale escapism described as meruhen, from the German word ‘marchen’. Western editors are sometimes at a loss to understand these books, as, compared to UK titles, they seem to be slower-paced, ‘quiet’, or lightweight, are less driven by plot, and more about space and atmosphere.”

Mio Debnam is currently working as a writer and an editor of children’s books, having ‘retired’ from the world of journalism, where she worked as the Editor in Chief of two daily children’s newspapers for several years.
She has had short stories and articles for both adults and children published, as well as a middle grade fantasy novel, four picture books, and several educational readers. The first six in her kidsGo! series of travel guides for kids were published in 2011.

Mio started on her present career path early, editing and writing stories for school and university newspapers; getting her hands inky learning how to print the old fashioned way.

After a decade working in the financial markets in London and Hong Kong, she returned to her first
love and has been working with words ever since.

To get inspiration for
her writing, and to keep up with ‘what’s hot’, Mio has become expert at eavesdropping on her children’s conversation, as well as those she encounters at school visits and the creative writing workshops she runs. She is the Regional Advisor of the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators, Hong Kong Chapter.

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

Author Interview & Giveaway: Greg Leitich Smith on Dinosaurs, Time Travel, Heritage & Chronal Engine

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Welcome back to Cynsations, and congratulations on the release of Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2012)! What are your childhood memories of dinosaurs? As an adult, what fascinates you about them?

I was (and am) extremely blessed by having parents who supported reading and education.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of going to the Hild Library in Chicago and coming home with grocery bags full of books. Others include my parents taking my brother and me and our friends to the city’s fantastic zoos and museums: the Lincoln Park Zoo; the Brookfield Zoo; the Museum of Science and Industry; the Adler Planetarium; the Shedd Aquarium; the Art Institute; and the Field Museum.

Outside the Field

Although I was a little creeped out by the mummies at the Field, I remember being fascinated by the dinosaurs – the brachiosaur in the main hall, alongside the fighting elephants and the Pacific Northwest totem pole. This was stuff that was so different from my everyday experience, but the extraordinary thing was that they were real. How can you not be captivated?

Beyond that, one or my biggest memories of dinosaurs was reading Butterfield’s The Enormous Egg, the story of a boy in Maine whose hen lays an egg that hatches into a Triceratops. It was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. Probably by the time I was five, I could’ve told you the names of every dinosaur out there.

After a while, though, I didn’t really think a lot about dinosaurs. I sort of paid attention when there were news reports and suchlike, but had other interests, and there wasn’t a lot of fiction about dinosaurs.

But when I was in high school, at the old Kroch’s and Brentano’s bookstore down on Wabash under the train tracks, I picked up a copy of Robert Bakker’s The Dinosaur Heresies.

In it, he talked about dinosaurs being warm-blooded and related to birds, and I was absolutely thrilled.

And, by the early 90s, the news was exciting: in addition to Spielberg producing “Jurassic Park,” there was news that paleontologists had found feathered dinosaurs. And that birds were descended from dinosaurs. (Of course, I was a little blasé about this since, after all, I had already read The Enormous Egg…).

So that piqued my interest again, and I’ve been trying t go to every natural history museum and see every decent TV documentary and read every “National Geographic” article about dinosaurs ever since… 

How about time travel? What are your favorite related stories and why?

For time travel, I want to blame “Star Trek,” but I’m not really sure. “The City on the Edge of Forever” is one of the best science fiction TV episodes ever. “Star Trek,” of course, did a lot of time travel thereafter, too, and I was a big “Star Trek,” fan so I guess I kind of absorbed a lot of it.

I also remember that, every Sunday, WGN would have a movie hosted by Frasier Thomas called “Family Classics,” and one of the movies they’d show regularly was “The Time Machine,” based on H.G. Wells’ novella. Granted, the Morlocks were a little weird, but it might have been one of my first introductions to time travel and future dystopias.

I read a ton of science fiction – Heinlein, Bradbury, etc. — and time travel tends to be an important sub-genre. The “takes” on it are not necessarily clear or even logical sometimes, but they tend to be a lot of fun and thought provoking. Also, when I was in high school, “Back to the Future” was one of my favorite movies, for its sheer exuberance and hilarity.

I never really thought about writing a time travel novel, per se. But when you’re talking dinosaurs, really, that’s one of only two ways you can go…

What inspired your departure from realistic fiction to science fiction? Were you a big science fiction reader as a kid? Today? What sci fi do you enjoy from other media?

My first two novels are contemporary comedies, but they still have science or science related themes, so I guess the thought has always been there. But I didn’t jump into “speculative fiction” until I had a story that justified it.

That said, when I was a kid, I read a lot of nonfiction and a lot of genre fiction, and I still do. Although I read just about every major mystery writer out there, I was biggest on science fiction and fantasy. I remember reading Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in grade school and loving it (and not being really crazy about the movie. On the other hand, I  loved the ride at Disney World and am still somewhat disturbed it’s been replaced by “Finding Nemo.”)

As a teen, I read almost everything by Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, McCaffrey, just to name a few. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books ever. And, of course, there’s “Star Trek,” although I suppose technically it’s science fantasy rather than science fiction. “Star Wars,” even more so.

Cyn Note: I fail to see how “Star Wars” is any more a fantasy than “Star Trek.” Really.

Today, I do read science fiction, although I haven’t been reading the newer adult authors, mostly the middle grade and teen authors. Much of the science fiction of late is of the dystopian variety, though, which isn’t really my first “go to.” (Even as I say that, I should note that I’m looking forward to the movie “Ender’s Game” and I enjoyed Dashner’s Maze Runner and Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy and am looking forward to that movie, too). Also, ever since I read Alas, Babylon, I’ve really enjoyed a good post-apocalypse novel. (Even better if it involves an alien invasion).

Due to the world building, heightened logic and research burdens, I could make an argument that there’s no category more challenging than historical speculative fiction. What advice do you have for writers on that path?

You have to get both the historical part and the speculative part right. Or as close as close to right as you can.

I tell people that, when researching historical (or any other kind, really) of fiction, you have to do enough research that you get to know all the things you don’t know. Also, you should be aware of the assumptions you make going in.

An early draft of Chronal Engine has a whole bunch of “really cool” dinosaurs together in a rather unique ecosystem that could never have realistically existed. Once I had my research down, I had to give up a few of them.


Sadly, there is no strong evidence that spinosaurus ever existed in North America…

How about those writing time-travel stories?

Time travel is perilous because you have to sort of pick your poison. You need to at least consider whether it’s a universe in which you can change the past (and therefore the future).

Of course, this leads to the grandfather paradox. And, if you can go back, is there a butterfly effect or, in contradistinction, do changes you make asymptotically dampen the farther back you go?

And, really, if you can change the past, then you have to be changed with it when you come back, but if you’re changed, then you couldn’t have gone back, and…

Or, are there multiple universes and does everything you change cause the “creation” or another universe? In which case, the characters can come back to the “present,” but never their present.

Or, are there closed time loops, which leads to the “two objects” paradox when you take an object to the past and leave it there only to find it, except that now you have two of them (and which I invoked in Chronal Engine)?

Field Museum in Chicago

The key, I think, is that you have to make it consistent. Or at least as consistent as you can.

In Chronal Engine, I tried to make it at least somewhat ambiguous, though, because I don’t think that they (the main characters) would know what the rules of time travel in their universe are. The character Professor Pierson might, of course, but he’s another story entirely.

Chronal Engine features interior illustrations by Blake Henry. What did his art bring to the book?

I was absolutely thrilled when my editor told me the book was going to be illustrated.

One of the hardest things to convey when talking about dinosaurs is the sense of scale. Blake’s illustrations manage to do that and to juxtapose the familiar with the Cretaceous, terrifically.

Reproduced with permission (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

He also captured the characters’ personalities, in both the quiet moments and in the action sequences.

There’s been some discussion in the kidlitosphere of the need for more books that feature protagonists and main characters of color, especially in areas like speculative fiction where they’re particularly underrepresented. How is that kind of diversity reflected in your story, and what is your thinking—as a reader and a writer—on this topic?

My protagonist, Max is the youngest of three children who are hapa haole. Their parents are ethnically Japanese (“Takahashi”) and Caucasian (whatever “Pierson” is). Their friend Petra, who is the daughter of their grandfather’s nurse/housekeeper/major domo, is of Mexican and German heritage. This is not dwelled on in the novel, not made an “issue” of, and indeed, not particularly important to the story.

So why did I make a point of including it? The easy answer is that, while they are unique persons, in some sense, they represent modern reality and the modern and historical reality of Central Texas.

Particularly when you’re writing a time-travel novel, you have to be cognizant of such things. To me, the willing suspension of disbelief extends to the ethnic makeup of the characters.

There is, however, a little more to it.

I am of German and Japanese descent (My father (German American) is an immigrant, while my mother’s (Japanese American) family has been here in the States for several generations).

Greg in middle school (loving the 1970s shorts!)

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no dearth of depictions of Japanese and Germans. Of course, they were usually trying to bomb Pearl Harbor or London, respectively.

(And then-contemporary Japanese were nefariously trying to take over the world with high-quality, fuel-efficient automobiles and cheap DRAMs.).

There generally were no depictions of hapa folks, except in a “caught-between-two-worlds” trope sense.  (For this, I blame “Star Trek.” And Mr. Spock.).

And you know what? It didn’t really (often) matter to me. Part of it, of course, is that while I am of German and Japanese descent, I’m also American by birth and, to a large extent, culture.

There is no way, for example, that I could go to Japan or Germany and not have everyone instantly know that I’m not a native.

Also, I was and am willing to read books about people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds, and even some about hobbits. Although I did (and do) find the fact that the latter didn’t wear shoes to be somewhat alarming.

At the same time, my ears did (and do) tend to perk up a bit when I hear that someone in the public eye or a fictional character is hapa.

It doesn’t make me absolutely rah-rah for them — there is no force on earth, for example, that could make me argue that Keanu Reeves deserved an Oscar for his role in “The Devil’s Advocate” or that Dean Cain deserved an Emmy for “Lois & Clark” (regardless of the fact that my wife finds them attractive).

But there’s still something, and I really haven’t been able to come up with a logical non-emotive sense of why.

It comes down to a gut sense that, with regard to diverse depictions in media, generally speaking, I think there is virtue in the familiar, whether it’s racial or cultural or regional.

For example, I grew up in Chicago back when very few movies were made there. I remember how I and other people reacted when we first saw movies set and filmed in the city. Some of my friends’ parents actually took them to see “The Blue Brothers,” even though they were technically too young for it, simply because it’s set in Chicago and shows places they were familiar with.

Do I think this sort of insider/behind-the-scenes knowledge is necessary for the enjoyment of books and other media? No. But it’s nice to know that, sometimes at least, it’s there.

So, yes, I think it can enhance the literary or cinematic experience to see reflections of yourself in books and movies, especially — and I think this is really the key — when you’re not used to it.

Cyn Notes: (1) Keanu and Dean, please disregard the
previous comment about your work. (2) Greg, you are every bit as cute as Keanu and Dean.
There is no need to begrudge them their well-deserved awards. 

You write both within and across culture lines in crafting your characters. What advice do you have for writers trying to do the same/either?

I think regardless of where characters stand with reference to the culture line, you have to treat them as real people. They’re not just poster children for particular ethnicities or skin colors or exemplars of -a social studies lesson. And they can and should react in non-typical ways.

Growing up, my brother and I reacted in what would probably be considered non-typical ways to our (often overseas) relations:

When we first saw kimonos given to us by our Japanese American grandparents, our reaction was “Where are the pants?”

When our German grandmother sent us lederhosen for Christmas one year, our reaction was, “Those are pants?!”

Really, I think the best thing anyone can do when writing across or about the culture lines is to keep a sense of humor.

Imagine you have been given a Chronal Engine. Would you use it at all? Why or why not? And if so, where would you go and why?

If I had evidence it had been used before, absolutely.

If not, that might mean there was danger of screwing up the space-time continuum, so I don’t know.

Still, probably yes. And probably to the Cretaceous. And maybe the Jurassic…

Let’s say you have to go to the Cretaceous. What are the first three things you have to do to survive?

Realistically, probably the same things you would need to survive if you were plunked down in the Serengeti or in the middle of the Amazon. So, something to make sure you could have pure water and could start a fire. And, something to defend yourself with.

And a way back…

About Chronal Engine

  • A Junior Library Guild Selection

When Max, Emma, and
Kyle are sent to live with their reclusive grandfather for the summer, they’re dismayed to learn he thinks there’s a time machine in the basement.

But when Grandpa Pierson predicts the exact time of his own heart attack, and when Emma is kidnapped by what can only be a time traveler, they realize he was telling the truth about the Chronal Engine. And if they want their sister back, they’ll have to do it themselves.

So Max and Kyle, together with their new friend Petra, pack up their grandpa’s VW and follow Emma and the kidnapper back in time, to Late Cretaceous Texas, where the sauropods and tyrannosaurs roam. Can the trio find Emma and survive the hazards of the Age of Dinosaurs, or are they, too, destined to become part of the fossil record?

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Chronal Engine and a T-rex puppet!

Runner-up prizes: two more signed copies of Chronal Engine.

Cat not included.

To enter, comment on this post and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address. Or you can email me directly with “Chronal Engine giveaway” in the subject line. Note: For extra chances to win, blog, tweet (hashtag: #chronalengine), facebook or Google+ this giveaway and list your efforts in your entry!

Author-sponsored. Eligibility: North America. Deadline: midnight CST March 31.

Check out the Chronal Engine Activity Kit

Process Talk: Greg Leitich Smith on Chronal Engine (Setting, Genre, Audience) by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: “I’ve always been interested in this idea of what would happen to people without their modern amenities.  Part of this is that I grew up on family stories of my parents and grandparents living without indoor plumbing, electricity, air conditioning.  And my father and a lot of
friends of the family were refugees during World War II, so I also heard some rather harrowing stories about scrabbling for survival.” Don’t miss part two, Process Talk: Greg Leitich Smith on Chronal Engine (Culture, Humor, Time).

Greg Leitich Smith: Dinosaurs, Writing & Research by Sarah Blake Johnson from Explorations. Peek: “…that’s basically the thing that draws people to dinosaurs:  they were
real.  Not monsters, not dragons, but real flesh-and-blood animals that walked the earth.  Even better, they’re a kind of science that’s easy for laypeople to participate in, at museums or even hunting for fossils on their own…”

Writers and Illustrators and Dinosaurs: a celebration of children’s-YA authors, illustrators, and other book lovers–each photographed with a dinosaur or other prehistoric beast. Want to join in the fun? Send Greg a picture of yourself with the paleo beastie of your choice! See examples featuring Kathi Appelt, Debbi Michiko Florence, David Ostow, Tim Wynne-Jones, Jane Yolen & more!

Cynsational Event

Greg Leitich Smith will launch Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2012) at 2 p.m. March 24 at BookPeople in Austin. The program will include an author presentation, signing, and refreshments. 

Videos: the 60th Anniversary of Charlotte’s Web

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

From HarperCollins Children’s Books: “Sixty years ago, on October 15, 1952, E.B. White‘s Charlotte’s Web was published. It’s gone on to become one of the most beloved children’s books of all time.

“To celebrate this milestone, the renowned Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo has written a heartfelt and poignant tribute to the book that is itself a beautiful translation of White’s own view of the world—of the joy he took in the change of seasons, in farm life, in the miracles of life and death, and, in short, the glory of everything.

“We are proud to include Kate DiCamillo’s foreword in the 60th anniversary editions of this cherished classic.”