Author-Illustrator Interview: Bridget Strevens-Marzo

By P.J. Lyons
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Bridget Strevens-Marzo is an illustrator-author who combines her love of color, painting and play in creating books for younger children.

She is sought out for her talent for inventing visual sub-stories, with warm, lively and original characters such as the little hippo in the award-winning international co-edition, Kiss, Kiss! (Little Hare/Egmont/Simon & Schuster U.S.) and her cast of animals in her French children songs and in Bridget’s Book of Nursery Rhymes.

She is also at home with both story and concept books. Her graphic Big Book for Little Hands (Bayard/Tate Gallery U.K./Abrams U.S.) was shortlisted for the British Book Design Award, and the most recent U.S./U.K. book she illustrated, Mini Racer (Bloomsbury) added another star to a good collection of reviews.

Bridget also enjoys weaving her own stories and playful paths around pictures. She has learnt from working in an international children’s multimedia start-up and later for Bayard Press, that working with a publishing team is like having a party with a purpose. She also enjoys sharing her work with young and old at book events and workshops across the world.

She is represented by Hen & ink Literary. See Bridget’s blog.

What words of advice do you have for emergent illustrators?

Well, I myself feel like I am perpetually emerging! Every book is a new beginning.

Publishing is also as much about relationships as it is about talent or a big new idea…there’s a dose of luck too.

Joining SCBWI can help to demystify the book world and make it more humane, best of all by observing publishing professionals talk at SCBWI events.

People are as readable as books. Those you like the look and feel of, are the ones you can think about approaching later.

Is there something you know now that you wish you had known when you first started illustrating?

I wish I had had the courage and sense to start out by approaching the publishers whose books I loved the most. As I needed to earn money urgently, I took on whatever commissions fell into my lap. I put my heart into ephemeral outlets and often with no good art direction.

Good art directors and designers are precious and really help make your work stand out. They can really help launch a career. 

Although parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, do you have a favorite book you’ve worked on? What makes it special?

My favorite book is always the one that is coming to life slowly in my sketches.

I live mostly in the ‘now’. I don’t like looking back at my previous work. Every book is special when I am working on it.

How do you think your unique life experiences (a Catalán mother, a painter father, traveling, living in France then returning to England) have influenced your art?

The very first books I wrote and illustrated, came out of my experience of traveling as a child with my parents, and coming to terms with unfamiliar ‘close up’ things like food, and local currency.

I still love French artists like Bonnard, Vuillard, late Monet and Matisse – I couldn’t talk about how they’ve influenced me but I often go back to them to refresh my eyes from time to time.

Before I could read or write, as a small child I had a little easel in my father’s studio. I’d paint away quietly in a corner or look at his old books. He never taught me directly – but I learnt concentration and I often watched him paint. It must have helped me gain a facility at drawing.

In my early teens at school, my art teacher told everyone that yes, Bridget could draw very realistically but that wasn’t “art”. She made me feel that I had to start over, if not stop altogether.

After that, I spent years studying art history, translating art books and doing all kinds of jobs until a friend suggested I try earning a living from what I really loved doing. Back to the drawing board!

I moved to London last summer, and it’s now an incredibly stimulating international city. It’s rinsing my eyes and making me want to try out new things in my work.

Cycling through the city reminds me of my father who worked from the age of 14, as a poorly-paid messenger boy there. To work as an artist must have seemed like an impossible dream for the eldest of a large family with very modest means. However did he manage it? Another story to tell…

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a French commission – illustrations to a story about a little wolf decides to be vegetarian.

Since I’ve started working in a shared studio, I’m sketching a lot more ideas out and writing again too.

Getting stories and sketches ready to show publishers is a much longer process than illustrating other people’s stories.

In 2003, you had posters from Popi magazine, small dummies of concept books ideas, and drawings by and photos of your children on your wall. What’s on your walls these days? 

A fine giclée print that looks like an original gouache painting, of a runaway alligator by Tibor Gergely, the wonderful Golden Books artist, sketches of my new characters, and behind my computer screen, a map of London.

What current trends have you noticed in children’s illustration?

One trend is the reprinting of books from over 40 years ago – John
Burningham and more Golden Books for example.I love them – just hope
it’s not taking up space for new talent.

I’ve seen a
smattering of 1960s and 1970s ‘avocado’ greens and ochre wallpaper
design elements in picture books – U.K. ones at least – for no real
reason than to appeal to a vintage trend.

However it is really exciting to see more illustrated older fiction for children – and there is every reason for books to be getting more beautiful as objects. They make a nice complement to e-books.

In the work I like best, I’m finding an exciting combination of the very best of traditional and digital media – more vibrant color, looser, more inventive drawing, greater invention.

The joyous surge of bold color alongside interesting drawing patterns and expressive shapes that I first noticed on a big scale in the French Children’s Book Fair in late 2008 was still visible in some of this year’s Bologna illustrator exhibitors – fingers crossed this continues!

Cynsational Notes

P.J. Lyons has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College and an art major from Calvin College.

She is the author of Little Lamb’s Bible, Little Lion’s Bible, and The Wonderful World that God Made.

Her earliest memories are of telling stories to her stuffed animals while cutting and pasting

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Conkling, Toniuh Co-winners of the Thomás Rivera Book Award from Texas State University. Peek: “Winifred Conkling’s Sylvia and Aki (Tricycle), and Duncan Tonatiuh’s Diego Rivera: His World and Ours (Abrams), have been named the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award recipients for works published in 2010-2011. The award, established at Texas State University-San Marcos in 1995, is designed to encourage authors, illustrators and publishers to produce books that authentically reflect the lives of Mexican American children and young adults in the United States.” Read a Cynsations interview with Winifred.

Experience is Important for Writers by Elizabeth S. Craig from Mystery Writing Is Murder. Peek: “What I think practice and experience gets you are personal strategies for advancing a story and the confidence to complete one.”

What Makes a Good Picture Book App? by Katie Bircher from The Horn Book. Peek: “What distinguishes a picture book app from a traditional picture book or
an e-book is the integration of interactive elements. But these should
be used wisely, as too much interactivity can overwhelm or distract from
the narrative.”

Children’s Picture Books about Gardening by Elizabeth Kennedy from Peek: “These children’s picture books about gardens and gardening celebrate the joys of planting seeds and bulbs, cultivating a garden, and enjoying the flowers and vegetables that result.”

The Writer’s Life is Full of Second Chances (or: Abandon Despair, All Ye Who Enter Here) by R.L. LaFevers from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “Sometimes, when you have nothing left to lose is when you finally have the courage to stop holding back.” Note: required reading.

2012 Green Earth Book Awards from the Newton Marasco Foundation. The winners are Arthur Turns Green by Marc Brown (Little, Brown)(picture book); The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families by Cindy Trumbore and Susan L. Roth, illustrated by Susan L. Roth (Lee & Low)(children’s nonfiction); Wild Wings by Gill Lewis, illustrated by Yuta Onoda (Atheneum)(children’s fiction); and Gaia Warriors by Nicola Davies, illustrated by James Lovelock (Candlewick)(YA nonfiction). See honor books.

Character Trait Entry: Brave by Angela Ackerman from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “Brave characters are often viewed as heroic and are willing to face hardship and danger because it is ‘the right thing to do’.”

On Fear and Beginnings by Leila Austin from YA Highway. Peek: “The shininess! Did I mention the shininess? But there are also lots of things which are less good and more, well, terrifying.”

Open Letter to the Overwhelmed Writer Who Just Learned of a Parent’s Illness by Jan O’Hara from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “I hope you know that’s what you’re experiencing at first: simple, honest grief.”

Congratulations to Donna Bowman Bratton on signing with Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, and congratulations to Erin on signing Donna!

Q&A with author Kate DiCamillo from JSOnline. Peek: “You can coax a character out but you can’t shove him from behind or make him move around. They have to be their own

CBC Book Shop: Rachel’s Video Round-up of Titanic Books from The Children’s Book Council. Note: highly entertaining.

Little, Brown Editor Connie Hsu: How I Got Into Publishing from CBC Diversity. Peek: “I knew I wanted something that had permanence, that I wanted to create, and that I loved children and their quick, clever little minds.”

Macmillan Children’s (U.K.) Launches Literary Prize by Tom Tivnan from The Bookseller. Peek: “…a £10,000 literary prize to be judged by independent booksellers and their customers. Write Now! is aimed at unpublished fiction authors, who can win the
chance to be published by Macmillan Children’s Books, as well as the
cash prize.” See link for details. Source: Achockablog.

Guys Lit Wire is Hosting a Book Drive for the Ballou High School Library in Washington, D.C.

The Bumpy, Twisty, Pot-hole Ridden Journey to My New Agent from Donna Bowman Bratton. Peek: “It doesn’t seem fitting to simply say that I’ve got an agent. Sometimes
the journey is as sweet as the destination. The highlights of mine went
something like this…”

Congratulations Texas Institute of Letters Award winners Elaine Scott for Space, Stars and The Beginning of Time: What the Hubble Telescope Saw (Clarion, 2011) and J.L. Powers for This Thing Called the Future (Cinco Puntos, 2011).

The Breaking Point (and Beyond) by Carolyn Kaufman from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “Going There is what intrigues me. Not what happens when the hero gets
there in the nick of time, but when the worst the hero can possibly
imagine happens.”

From Hunger Mountain: a VCFA Journal of the Arts

Cynsational Giveaways

Last call! Enter to win one of two Robot Zombie Frankenstein! prize packages.

Each includes: a signed book, plus build-a-bot foam stickers, robot
chest panel iron-ons, and other kid-sized story-related bling: a Robot
Zombie Frankenstein mini-notebook; a Robot Zombie Frankenstein pirate
hat, eye patch and hook; a Robot Zombie Frankenstein pirate
superhero-in-disguise disguise; Robot Zombie Frankenstein pirate
superhero-in-disguise outer space invader glow-in-the-dark stars; and a
Robot Zombie Frankenstein pirate superhero-in-disguise outer space
invader chef hat and apron.

To enter, comment on this post (click previous link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted
like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email
address. Or you can email Cynthia
directly with “Robot Zombie Frankenstein!” in the subject line.
Author-illustrator sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada.
Deadline: 11:59 CST April 23.

Note: Robot Zombie Frankenstein by Annette Simon (Candlewick, 2012) is a spring Indiebound Kids’ Next Pick.

Enter to win a signed, personalized copy of Puzzled by Pink by Sarah Frances Hardy (Viking, 2012). To enter,
comment on this post (click previous link and scroll) and include an email address (formatted like:
cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) or a link to an email address.
Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST May 2. Note: Plan your own Puzzled by Pink Birthday Party, featuring party plans, tips, crafts, activities, printable invitation and more!

The winner of Angel Burn and Angel Fire, both by L.A. Weatherly (Candlewick, 2012) was Keisha in Ontario, Canada.

The winner of a signed copy of A Million Suns by Beth Revis (Razorbill, 2012) was Stephanie in Wisconsin.

For more children’s book giveaways, visit Fish for a Free Book from Lori Calabrese and Full to the Brim from Brimful Curiosities,

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

My Texas Library Association conference report is still forthcoming, but I greatly enjoyed seeing “The Hunger Games” at the iPic Theater at the Domain (yes, for the irony) Friday night in north Austin. I found the movie largely true to the spirit of the book and those changes that were made seemed fitting, or at least necessary for age-level ratings, given film as the new storytelling medium.

Bigger, Riskier Things: A Visit with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Rebecca Donnelly from The Chained Library. Peek: “Early performance is not necessarily a predictor of eventual success:
Cynthia mentioned getting a lot of ribbons for participation in poetry
as a child.”

Personal Links:

From Greg Leitich Smith:

The Timeless Draw of Dinosaurs and Space from the International Reading Association. Peek: “Perhaps
it seems ironic that reading about creatures of the past and futuristic
technology should be two of the biggest sources to inspire young minds
toward science. But I think that what connects both is a sense of wonder
that can be nurtured through the pages of books.”

Cynsational Events

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will appear at A Festival of Authors,
in celebration of 100 Years of School Libraries in Austin, 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?

New Voice: Richard Ungar on Time Snatchers

By Lena Coakley
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations
Richard Ungar is the author and illustrator of four children’s picture books, but he’s switched gears to debut his first novel, the middle-grade time travel, Time Snatchers (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012).

From the promotional copy:

The year is 2061, and Caleb’s world is crashing down around him. The small group of orphans who were also “adopted” by Uncle used to feel like family, but both the competition to be the top time snatcher and the punishment for failure have gotten fierce. 

Time traveling to steal priceless objects can be a thrill, but with bully Frank trying to steal his snatches, his partner Abbie falling for Frank’s slimy charms, and Uncle planning to kidnap innocent kids to grow his business, Caleb starts thinking about getting out. 

But there is no place on earth, past or present, that is safe from Uncle’s tentacles, and runaways get the harshest punishment of all. Will Caleb risk everything to fight for the future he dreams about?

You are a published picture-book author, but Time Snatchers is your first novel. What made you decide to switch genres and what did you learn in the process?

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of time travel and I wanted to write about it.

In its earliest stages, Time Snatchers started as a writing exercise in one of Peter Carver’s writing classes. The exercise was to write a story based on one of the images in Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (Houghton Mifflin, 1984). I chose the picture called “Another Place, Another Time,” showing a group of boys riding a sail-propelled handcar along a railway track that seemed to go on forever. For whatever reason, that picture screamed “Time Travel” to me.

So if I was classifying Time Snatchers in terms of genres, I’d say it started off as a short story and then evolved into a novel.

The difference I find between writing a picture book versus writing a novel is that picture books are more like solving puzzles. Once you have everything in place (including the right ending, which I find to be the toughest) everything clicks and the writing flows. But writing a novel is like organizing an unruly mob – everyone’s going off in a different direction and someone put me in charge of bringing them all together – an impossible task.

Well, almost impossible I guess since I did (eventually) get it done.

Richard’s picture books

I love that analogy!

You mentioned the editor Peter Carver, who has recently retired from teaching writing for children at Mabel’s Fables Bookstore. Those classes have turned out so many published authors that they’ve become something of a legend in Toronto. Can you talk about your experience with Peter?

Peter Carver – editor & writing teacher

Peter has been a wonderful mentor to me (as well as a number of Canadian writers for children) over the last ten years. He really cares about the writing, and he also sees the job of writers for children as an important one.

Peter has a knack for identifying what makes a piece of writing work (or not) and he has always been respectful in the way he communicates that to his community of writers. You can’t help but be affected by Peter’s passion for children’s writing.

The other thing that I like about Peter is he didn’t mind too much when I messed up stacking the chairs after class.

When I heard that Peter was about to retire, I wanted to do something special for him. So on a frigid, snowy day in February I trudged over to Mabel’s Fables and I sketched all afternoon from a little alcove across the street.

Over the next couple of months, working in my home studio from my sketches and also photos taken on location, I completed the watercolor painting “On the Way to the Bookstore” and presented it to Peter at his last class before retirement.

If any of your readers are interested, I’m selling posters of the painting, with the proceeds going to charity. All the details are on my website.

Time Snatchers is also your first book with a large U.S. publisher. Can you talk a little bit about how you landed your agent, Josh Adams, and how you made your U.S. sale?

I went about my agent search fairly systematically – first compiling a list of agents who handled middle grade science fiction or fantasy. I consulted a couple of great websites to make my list: and LitMatch (now I also borrowed a couple of years worth of “Guides to Literary Agents” from the library.

Once I had my list, I started emailing queries. Some agents wanted a query letter only, some a synopsis and letter, some three chapters and a couple the whole manuscript.

For every ten rejections I received (and believe me, the rejections came in fast and furious!), I sent out ten more queries.

At about the 50 query mark, I got a call from Josh Adams of Adams Literary who said he loved the manuscript – theirs was one of the few agencies that had requested the entire manuscript.

 After I revised the manuscript with Josh Adams and Quinlan Lee (my other great agent at Adams Literary) they sent it out and within a couple of weeks it was sold at auction in a two-book deal to G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

I was thrilled of course and celebrated with a tall glass of root beer (three ice cubes).

Fifty rejections! Your persistence is inspiring, Richard!

Can you talk in a little more detail about the revision process, both with the two agents and with your editor?

Richard Ungar

I worked for a few months with Josh and Quinlan, rounding out the story, developing the characters and world-building. The process intensified once the manuscript was acquired and I went through probably three significant revisions with Putnam.

I have a wonderful editor there – Susan Kochan, and under Susan’s guidance, I reworked much of the novel – i.e. relationships between the main characters, setting and especially the rules for time travel. If word count is any indication, when I first submitted the manuscript to Adams, the wordcount was around 30,000 and by the time I finished the book it had tripled to 90,000!

Caleb, your protagonist, is a wonderful character and thing he wants most throughout the novel is a family. I know you have two sons of your own: Did they inspire the character at all?

I can’t say that my sons directly inspired the character of Caleb, but it is helpful to live with two teenagers when you are writing about teenagers. Of course the downside of living with them is that all the good stuff in the pantry disappears really fast.

Actually, Caleb is a combination of different people I know (including a more adventurous version of myself). He really showed himself to me when, in the early days, I changed the point of view from third person to first person.

Caleb is a time traveler from our future, so you have a lot of fun imagining New York in 2061. How did you go about building that world?

This was one of the toughest parts of the process for me…to create a future world that was original and not done a million times before. My imagining began with two words: “New Beijing.”

Once I had the name, I began to imagine how a city with that name, a composite of Beijing and New York City, might have come to be. Eventually (no bolt of lightning here, unfortunately), I imagined the Great Friendship Treaty between China and the U.S. and how this new friendship affected day-to-day life in New York City, or as it was renamed, “New Beijing.” In the process, I did a lot of fascinating reading about Beijing and also about ancient China.

Caleb also has to travel to many different time periods to steal artifacts and treasures from key moments in history. Did you do a lot of historical research? How accurate did you feel you had to be?

I did quite a bit of historical research which was a lot of fun. With some stuff, the research was easy (there is quite a lot of material out there on how the first photograph was made) but with other things, e.g. the process of firing porcelain in a kiln in ancient China, knowledge was a bit tougher to come by.

I tried to be as accurate as I could with the historical elements of the story but at the same time I gave myself permission to imagine certain elements to better suit the storytelling.

I have to admit though, I got caught a couple of times on some of my loose handling of some of the facts. For example, in one scene Caleb and Abbie are in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1871. I was describing in the scene how a balloon had freed itself from the bunch and floated up into the air. It was a beautiful moment until a copy editor reminded me that balloons weren’t in widespread circulation in 1871!

What’s next and what are you working on now?

Right now (well not this instant but you know what I mean) I’m feverishly working to finish the first draft of the sequel to Time Snatchers. I have much of the draft written but my characters keep wanting to go off and do other things…they hardly ever listen to me. What an unruly mob!

At the same time, I’m working on promoting Time Snatchers, organizing my upcoming (May) “West Coast Tour” of school and library visits in Vancouver and Seattle and planning a book launch!

I’m so glad to hear that there will be a sequel. Best of luck with your tour – and with that unruly mob of yours!

Cynsational Notes

Lena Coakley was born in Milford, Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed (nothing was ever good enough to hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

She became interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto.

Witchlanders, her debut novel, was called “a stunning teen debut” by Kirkus Reviews. It is a Junior Library Guild selection and an ABC new voices selection. See also New Voice: Lena Coakley on Witchlanders from Cynsations.

Colorfully Bookish Celebration

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Celebrate in glorious colors!

Colorful Raindrops Book Party! by Courtney from Pizzarie: Entertain in Style. Overview for how to throw a celebratory event, inspired by Raindrops: A Shower of Colors by Chiêu Anh Urban, illustrated by Viviana Garofoli (Sterling, 2010). See more photos and information. Read a Cynsations interview with Chiêu Anh Urban.

Cynsational Notes

What a gloriously fun idea for a party (and brilliant marketing idea, too)!

New Voice: Eve Marie Mont on A Breath of Eyre

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Eve Marie Mont is the first-time author of A Breath of Eyre (Kensington, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Get lost in a good book. Literally.

Emma Townsend has always believed in stories—the ones she reads voraciously, and the ones she creates in her head. Perhaps it’s because she feels like an outsider at her exclusive prep school, or because her stepmother doesn’t come close to filling the void left by her mother’s death. And her only romantic prospect—apart from a crush on her English teacher—is Gray Newman, a long-time friend who just adds to Emma’s confusion. But escape soon arrives in an old leather-bound copy of Jane Eyre…

Reading of Jane’s isolation sparks a deep sense of kinship. Then fate takes things a leap further when a lightning storm catapults Emma right into Jane’s body and her nineteenth-century world.

As governess at Thornfield, Emma has a sense of belonging she’s never known—and an attraction to the brooding Mr. Rochester.

Now, moving between her two realities and uncovering secrets in both, Emma must decide whether her destiny lies in the pages of Jane’s story, or in the unwritten chapters of her own…

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

When I was a child, our home was always filled with great books. My parents are classicists and teachers, so the study of history and language was an integral part of our upbringing.

But my parents were no intellectual snobs. They read Dr. Seuss along with the Greek myths, Winnie the Pooh along with the Bible. As my brothers and I grew older, my parents shared with us their own beloved favorites: Little Women and Nancy Drew for my mom, Sherlock Holmes and James Herriot for my dad.

I can attribute my love of reading today to the way I was taught to love and appreciate books as a child. And while my mother was the one who usually read us our bedtime stories, my dad was the one who took us to the library. I loved to explore the stacks, reading the blurbs on the back jackets, eyeing the fascinating covers, and adding to my stack until it was so high I couldn’t see over the top.

It was there at my local library that I discovered “Choose Your Own Adventure” books and Sweet Valley High, Judy Blume and Lois Duncan, Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. My love affair with books has been one of the most enduring and enriching of my life.

Given this passion for books, I’ve always wanted to do a Wizard of Oz-type story about a shy, studious girl who gets transported into one of her favorite books. And like Dorothy she comes away from the experience changed, having learned lessons about friendship and personal strength.

I think many of us develop our core identities not only from our families and friends, but also from the books we read and the characters we love. And Jane Eyre is the ultimate heroine: strong, intelligent, moral, and not afraid to speak her mind. I knew I wanted my protagonist, Emma, to step into her shoes as she awakens to first love and discovers her own strength of character.

Did you have a sense of how events/themes in your fantasy might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

A Breath of Eyre doesn’t really comment on any particular social trend or movement; it does, however, respond to the need for escapism in a world that is becoming increasingly terrifying.

In my experience, there are two artistic responses to a world gone mad—to reflect it, as in the case of dystopian literature, which often poses a “worst case” scenario; or to provide a literary escape from it.

In that way, I would argue that dystopians and paranormals serve similar purposes: they help us deal with the fears of our own era, provide hope, and above all, entertain us.

So while my book won’t bring about any massive social change or disturb the order of the universe, it will (I hope) offer a temporary escape from the troubles of the world or the aggravations of ordinary life. When I was a kid, books were my salvation, my passport to another world. My main character Emma so longs to escape her life that she loses herself in her favorite book. Literally.

If only we could all do the same.

Cynsational Notes

Twice Told Tales by Eve Marie Mont from Cari’s Book Blog. Peek: “The thought that I was “playing around” with a treasured classic caused
me plenty of sleepless nights. But ever since I read the novel in high
school, I guess you could say I’ve been obsessed with Jane and
Rochester’s story. I wanted an excuse to linger in its pages, to
consider the characters and their decisions from a modern perspective.”

Reading Is Fundamental: Book People Unite

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Reading Is Fundamental has “brought together some of our most beloved literary characters to
rally people behind the Book People Unite movement and help get books in
the hands of kids who need them the most.

“Join the movement at

“Starring: Pinocchio, Madeline, Greg (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), Rip Van Winkle, LeVar Burton, Three Blind Mice, Humpty
Dumpty, Curious George, Big Bad Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood, Raggedy Ann & Andy, Goldilocks and the three bears, Captain Ahab, Three Pigs, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Babar the Elephant, Mr. Men, Little Miss, Mr Tickle, Little Miss Chatterbox, Mr Tall, Peter (The Snowy Day), The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Black Beauty.”

Guest Post: Carolee Dean on Can I Write If I Can’t Read?: Famous Poets Who Overcame Reading Disabilities

By Carolee Dean
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

William Butler Yeats is considered one of the great poets of the 20th century, and yet he struggled with one of the most basic skill needed for his craft, the ability to read.

An article by Marylou Minder and Linda S. Siegel in the 1992 (Vol. 25, Number 6) issue of the Journal of Learning Disabilities, entitled “William Butler Yeats: Dyslexic?” sites several examples from The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats that indicate that he may have suffered from this reading disability.

The authors begin the article with a quote from his book:

“Several of my uncles and aunts had tried to teach me to read, and

because they could not, and because I was much older than children

who read easily, had come to think, as I have learnt since, that I had

not all my faculties.” (Yeats, 1965, p. 14)

The article goes on to describe how Yeats reports having significant difficulty remembering what he read, but a keen recollection of and fascination with spoken language, in particular, the fairy tales, folk tales, and poems of his mother.

In my occupation as a speech-language pathologist I’ve worked with many struggling readers. I also write novels for young people. In my second novel, Take Me There (Simon Pulse, 2010), I explore the story of a seventeen-year-old boy who can’t read or write, but dreams of becoming a poet and escaping a life of crime and poverty. (The correlation between incarceration and illiteracy rates is disconcertingly high, especially for teen offenders.)

Dylan Dawson, the teen protagonist of Take Me There, was exposed to poetry as a young boy by his mother who read to him from a collection by W.B. Yeats. After a botched gang initiation, Dylan goes to Texas to reconnect with his father who is in prison. He wants to find out if badness is in his blood, or if it is something he can outrun. He soon becomes convinced that his father couldn’t have committed the murder for which he’s about to be executed. It is Dylan’s love of poetry and his mother’s three favorite Yeats poems that help him solve the murder.

Ironically, I didn’t know Yeats struggled with reading when I wrote the
book. I stumbled upon the article much later. I did draw inspiration
from another poet though. Before leaving for Texas, Dylan’s reading
tutor gives him a collection of poems by Jimmy Santiago Baca, an Albuquerque poet who taught himself to read and write in prison. 

His autobiography, A Place to Stand, is filled with stories of his struggles to read and write. It was overcoming these obstacles and finding comfort in the written word that helped him survive the chaos of prison.

In his book he states:

“Poetry became something to aspire to, to live up to. It informed how I saw the world and my purpose in it.”

It’s important to remember that poetry began as, and still is, primarily an oral art. Bards and storytellers often created entire epics in their heads. It was the meter and rhythm of verse that helped them remember their stories.

It’s no wonder that poetry and novels in verse are such great ways to engage teen readers. Each poem encapsulates a complete concept so a reader doesn’t have to struggle through an entire chapter before thinking about the main idea. Sentences tend to be spare, rather than complex. Punctuation encourages frequent pauses. The amount of white space on the page is much less daunting than a dense text. Even so, these stories don’t come across as “easy readers.” Literary devices such as simile, metaphor, and personification abound.

One verse novel I frequently explore in the classroom is Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate (Square Fish). We use it at the high school where I work because it integrates with the ninth grade study of African culture. It’s the story of a boy named Kek who comes to America from a refugee camp after his father is killed.

Another fabulous verse novel is May B. by former middle school teacher, Caroline Starr Rose (Schwartz & Wade). Mavis Elizabeth Betterly is a twelve-year-old girl who finds herself spending the winter alone in a sod house on the 19th century Kansas prairie.

Reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder, May has to struggle for her very survival, but her isolation is compounded by the fact that she cannot read.

All of my novels contain original poetry, but I recently tried my hand at writing a novel completely in verse. Forget Me Not (Simon Pulse) is the story of a high school filled with ghosts and a fifteen-year-old girl’s desperate attempt to fit with the in-crowd, no matter what it costs her.

If you’ve never read a book from this fun and exciting genre, check one out.

They are often fast and easy reads, but don’t be fooled, they are more complex, beautiful, and fascinating than they sometimes appear.

Author Interview: Liz Kessler on Writing, Time Travel & Social Networking

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Could you tell us about your path to publication, highlighting any curves, bumps or ah-ha! moments?

I started writing The Tail of Emily Windsnap whilst I was taking an M.A. in Novel Writing. At that time I was also doing some freelance editing work.

A colleague of mine from the editing company happened to be having lunch with an agent who had recently started taking on children’s authors and mentioned my book to her.

The agent – Catherine Clarke – liked the sound of my book and asked me to send the manuscript to her. She got me the book deal with Orion Children’s Books, and I have been with the same publisher and the same agent ever since.

Congratulations on the recent release of A Year Without Autumn (Orion/Candlewick)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this novel?

My inspiration for this book has to do with my fascination for time slip stories, and also for the idea that our lives turn in very big ways on very small moments. My father’s history includes one such moment, which I think deep down is a major part of my inspiration. (I wrote about this in a blog a few months ago. If you’re interested, you can read it here.)

A Year Without Autumn explores what might happen if we could go back to one of those small moments and change it. I love films like “Sliding Doors,” “Groundhog Day” and “It’s A Wonderful Life.” I wanted to have my own go at writing a story that dealt with those kinds of issues. And the most exciting thing for me is that it’s the first of three stand alone books which all deal with different elements of time travel.

What were the challenges of bringing it to life?

Author video & sample chapter.

When I first wrote A Year Without Autumn, it was quite different. There was an issue of one of the main characters having an accident that had paralysed her. After many discussions with my editor, we both realised that it would be impossible to tell the story in the way I wanted to tell it without it coming across as saying that being in a wheelchair is ‘bad’. We both felt that it was hugely important to avoid sending out a message like that.

The biggest challenge was figuring out how to deal with this problem and come up with something different.

Once we’d worked out how to do it, I think the book became much stronger for it in every way. And that’s the advantage of having a brilliant editor!

What thoughts do you have for other writers interested in crafting a time-travel story?

For me, the most important thing is working out the plot and making sure that it holds together. It’s very easy to get caught up in impossible loops when you’re writing a time travel story. So I would say the number one thing is to plot your story out and make sure that your timelines and all the characters’ movements (and attire, etc!) are accurate.

And then make sure you have at least one person who you trust to read it and tell you if it makes sense. As the author, I think it’s often hard to distance yourself from your own plot.

With a time travel book, this is even harder because sometimes you find that you’ve made certain links in your head without realising you haven’t actually put them down on paper!

You are also the author of an ongoing series, the Emily Windsnap books, and a completed trilogy, the Philippa Fisher books. What advice do you have for writers interested in crafting a series/trilogy? 

The funny thing is, I never actually set out to write a series. Both of these kind of emerged and developed as I went along – so I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask about this!

What I would say, though, is whenever you start a new book in your series, make sure to re-read all the previous ones as it’s all too easy to forget the small details about your characters or locations or minor plot points, and you can be sure that even if you have forgotten them, there’ll be someone out there who hasn’t and they’ll be happy to remind you!

Also, if the series is a success, be prepared to write more of them than you were ever planning to!

What can we expect from Emily Windsnap next?

Emily Windsnap and the Land of the Midnight Sun comes out in the autumn in the U.K., and next spring in the U.S. In her fifth adventure, Emily is off to the arctic on a dangerous mission set by none other than King Neptune! As usual friendships, relationships and courage will be put to the test…

What insights do you have for other writers interested in “creature building”–creating or reinventing a mythological being for story purposes? How did you go about it in your own books? 

Again I’m not sure I’m the one to ask about this. I’ve always seen Emily Windsnap first and foremost as an ordinary, contemporary girl. She just happens to become a mermaid when she goes in water. I don’t have a massive interest in or knowledge of a range of mythological creatures.

The thing about mermaids for me is that they represent the magic and mystery of the sea – and that’s what excites me.

Liz’s local beach — “for mermaid inspiration.”

If I could give one piece of advice, though, I would say if you are creating a new kind of world or new kind of creatures, make sure you know your own boundaries for these. They can be as fantastical as you like; the important thing is that once you have made your rules, you must stick within them.

You’ve had an author blog and are now associated with a team blog. What insights do you have to share as an author blogger? What’s your philosophy? How do you feel about it?

Liz’s first published work.

If you are writing your own blog, you should really update this at least once a week and more if possible. I have found that any less than this and people will lose interest.

The thinking seems to be if you look like you can’t be bothered to do it very often, people will find they can’t be bothered to visit it either!

I was terrible at keeping my own blog up to date! The ABBA blog suits me perfectly because I only have to write a blog once a month – and I can just about manage this! It’s also lovely to feel part of a community and to share, and hopefully extend, our own and each other’s readership.

I wouldn’t say I have any particular philosophy about blogging, but I do like to write about things that feel meaningful to me, and hopefully inspire people to stop and think about some aspect of writing or life.

How about Twitter? (Follow @lizkesslerbooks.)

Twitter. Hmmm. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Twitter. In terms of feeling part of a wider writing community, and networking, and finding ways of telling people about your books and your activities – it’s absolutely fantastic.

I do find some of it quite difficult, though. I think it can be hard sometimes for any of us to read scrolls and scrolls of links and announcements about how wonderfully someone is doing – especially if you’re not having a great day yourself!

I also sometimes find it hard to think of things to say. Does the world really need to know that I have just walked my dog again? And do I really need to know that someone else has just had their third cup of coffee and is now off to the shops?

Sometimes it seems that there’s a little too much of this, and it makes me feel a bit odd about what exactly we’re all doing here! But once you get beyond that, Twitter definitely has a place in the world today – and I am glad to be part of it. After all, it led me to meeting you and doing this interview! 

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Walk the dog! I also love surfing, swimming and bodyboarding, although I don’t do any of these often enough. I love to curl up with a great book. I love hanging out with my friends, and when it’s the middle of a cold winter, I love to get immersed in a great box set or some good films.

What do you love most about the writing life?

Liz’s writing space

If I was to sum up what I love most about the writing life, I’d say the freedom and flexibility of it. That might mean the freedom to spend all day working in my pyjamas. It might mean the freedom to take my MacBook and go to work in a café. It might even mean the freedom to look out of the window, see that it’s a beautiful day and decide to take the day off and work double the hours the next day instead.

I love the fact that my job enables me to do these things, and I am honestly grateful for this fact every day.

Other than that, I adore the moments in creating a book where a piece of the plot suddenly comes together in a chills-down-the-spine kind of way.

Most of all, I love the fact that I get to do something I absolutely love every day – and call it work!

Cynsational Notes

Visit Liz Kessler.

New Voice & Giveaway: Author-Illustrator Sarah Frances Hardy on Puzzled by Pink

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sarah Frances Hardy is the first-time author of
Puzzled by Pink
(Viking, 2012)(author-illustrator blog). From the promotional copy:

Not every girl loves pink . . .

Izzy hates pink as much as her sister, Rose loves it. So when Rose plans an all-pink birthday party with the guests dressed in fairy costumes, Izzy decides to giver her own alternative party in the attic, where the guests will be monsters, spiders, ghosts, and the pet cat. 

But some powerful magic triggers the appearance of yet another guest–an unexpected one. 

This will be a party nobody forgets! 

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

People (by “people” I mean non-children’s book writers) are always surprised when I tell them that the revision process for the text of my picture books takes as much work as the illustration revisions.

For some reason, people understand that it takes a long time to get illustrations for a picture book polished up, but they think that writing the words is the easy part.

Not true! They both take an equal amount of mental energy.

Puzzled by Pink began with a simple sketch that I drew of a “Wednesday Addams” character named Izzy. I immediately connected with this little girl, and I wanted to know her story. So I spent a lot of time brainstorming, writing, and having my manuscript critiqued at conferences.

The early drafts of my manuscript were only about Izzy, but after an SCBWI critique session, I added a pink sparkly little sister to the story so that my main character would have a conflict. Yes. I’m embarrassed to say that I had originally written a story with no conflict.

When I had a basic story arc laid down with words, I started drawing thumbnails and then I made a sketched book dummy. I couldn’t believe how much I needed to change the words of the story once I started figuring out the illustrations. For example, I had the line “Rose leapt into the room” in my manuscript. I got rid of that unnecessary text by drawing Rose leaping into the room! And there were examples of words and phrases like that throughout the manuscript.

So that’s one thing picture book writers who aren’t also illustrators need to keep in mind when they’re doing their own revisions and cutting–if you can show it in the illustrations, don’t put it in the text. Ever! This is true especially if you have some very specific ideas about how you want the story to be illustrated–don’t box your illustrator in with unnecessary descriptive language. You really need to leave room for the illustrator to do his or her thing.

Anyway, in 2009, I began shopping the manuscript around with agents and based on some feedback that I was getting, I knew I had a good concept but I could tell that there were some problems with my story. I signed with a fabulous agent who is very editorial and I loved her ideas about how to fix Puzzled by Pink. I was grateful for her input and she got me over a very big hump.

I did about six more months of revisions with her–both on the text and the sketches–before we submitted my manuscript to publishers. I was really happy with the submission, and I felt like it was as shiny as it could be.

Visit Sarah Frances Hardy

When Viking Children’s Books bought my book, I was thrilled beyond belief and waited for that first editorial letter. It came. And I was less than thrilled.

I think this was because for the first time in the journey of my book, after the intense revisions with my agent, I had gotten it to a point that I was really happy with it. It was done. Somebody bought it. All of the other times I had gone through revisions, I knew my story needed work.

This time I wasn’t so sure.

My editor at Viking suggested that I change pages around, shift the ending, and change some language that I was very attached to.

I allowed myself to panic (briefly), and then I decided to tackle the changes, doing every single thing that my editor suggested.

I figured that I would try the changes and when they didn’t work, I could say “well I tried and here’s why it just can’t be written this way.”

But a strange thing happened . . . I made all of the changes, and not only did they work, they made my manuscript better. Much better.

I had a second round of revisions with Viking of both the words and sketches, and those went about the same way. I started out reluctantly working through them, but when it was all said and done, I not only had a better book–I had a more marketable book. Now I know beyond a shadow of doubt that agents, editors and art directors are brilliant people who push you to think bigger and more creatively.

So my advice to other writers and illustrators when faced with a daunting revision is this: try everything that people suggest (especially if they are other writers, editors or agents), even if at first it doesn’t ring true to your feelings about your story. You owe it to yourself and your story to try new approaches and flip everything upside down. You never know where revisions will take you, and if you don’t like your new manuscript, you can always go back to your original version. But if your experience is anything like mine, you won’t!

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

Sarah has had her drafting table since 9th grade.

I’ve always first and foremost considered myself an artist. I majored in studio art at Davidson College and I studied for two summers at Parsons School of Design in New York and Paris. For years, I showed my paintings in galleries and landed some major corporate clients.

About eight years ago, when I decided to pursue a career in children’s writing and illustration, I was completely unprepared for how hard it would be to make the shift from painting landscapes and flowers to illustrating a story. First of all, I was accustomed to unconstrained freedom in my paintings. If I needed an extra limb or two on a tree to balance the composition, I just painted them in. No one would ever know. But with illustrations, I can’t just add a couple of extra toes to my main character if I need to balance things out!

The other thing that I had to learn was to draw a set of characters consistently throughout a thirty-two page book.

One of the most helpful things for me was looking at tons of comic books and graphic novels and studying the ways that comic book artists draw their characters. It took pages and pages of sketches for me to learn how to be consistent with my characters’ proportions and likenesses.

Most importantly, though, suddenly I was bound by a written story which, to some extent, dictated what the pictures had to be. I couldn’t be lazy and not draw some important detail because it would be difficult (nor could I shy away from writing that difficult scene!).

And I had to find a way to make my illustrations add something to the text. In effect, the illustrations need to tell their very own supplemental story, and the sum of the writing and illustrating need to be bigger than each would be standing on its own–like salsa with chips or a cupcake with icing.

Sarah’s writing chair & “crazy-quilt” ottoman

I have to say that my inner writer and inner artist play very well together. Because I think visually, I’m always crafting illustrations in my head as I write.

And it really helps me when editing. It’s much easier to cut a big chunk of text when I know that I can replace it with something in an illustration.

And I really love using facial expressions to establish emotions that would sound clunky if written out–no need for words like “happily” or “angrily” or “sleepily”. I can illustrate a big smile, frown or yawn. And it makes my inner writer happy to know that those emotions will be shown–especially since I have to cut so much text to get my word count as sparse as it needs to be for a modern picture book (around 500 words these days).

As for advice, I would say to only pursue publication as a writer-illustrator if you are confident that you are equally strong in both areas because essentially you are giving an editor two reasons to reject you.

So get lots of feedback from people and be sure that you aren’t weak in one area. You don’t want your brilliant manuscript to be rejected because you thought you could try your hand at illustrating it or vice versa.

But the good news is that it is easier for an author-illustrator to find an agent–there are more agents out there who are willing to represent author-illustrators because you won’t be splitting royalties. And picture book editors tend to favor author-illustrators because their work sells a little better.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed, personalized copy of Puzzled by Pink. 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. Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Deadline: midnight CST May 2.

Plan your own Puzzled by Pink Birthday Party, featuring party plans, tips, crafts, activities, printable invitation and more!

Sarah’s desk–made of cypress planks