Guest Post & Giveaways: The Girllustrators

In order of heads: Patrice, Lalena, Marsha, Shelley, Amy

By The Girllustrators
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Greetings, Cynsational readers!

The Girllustrators got together to talk about art, children’s books, and inspiration, as a sort of ad-hoc interview for Cynthia’s blog, at her generous invitation.

Five of us Girlls—Shelley Ann Jackson, Marsha Riti, Patrice “Patty” Barton, Amy Farrier, and Lalena Fisher—convened around the dining table of Amy’s house in central Austin, while her dog Lloyd loitered about as groupie (at least while we had snacks on the table).

Girllustrator Emma J. Virjan (pictured below) could not make this meeting.


MARSHA: Should we talk about how we came together?

By Shelley (and Jeff)

SHELLEY: Well, I moved to Austin in October 2010 and didn’t know many people here, especially in the children’s book community. My husband (illustrator/author Jeff Crosby) and I had been collaborating for a number of years.

I am at a point now in my career where I’m trying to reinvent myself artistically because I’m once again working on my own. I could really use some feedback and support. And also for the sake of making some friends in a new city, I thought it might be nice to have a girls’ group. That’s why I initiated forming the Girllustrators.

I met Amy at an Inklings meeting (the Inklings are an Austin SCBWI illustration critique group). At the 2011 regional SCBWI conference, Amy introduced me to Marsha, and Patty introduced herself. About a month later, I met Lalena at the Picture Circus in Georgetown.

(Group is quiet)

And that’s a take!

(Group laughter)

Why did the rest of you want to get involved?

AMY: Well, I just wanted to meet with other illustrators and talk about work. We had been talking together—Marsha and I—with a different group. It’s fun to meet with other illustrators and hear what they’re working on and get new ideas.

MARSHA: And I love your work, Shelley. It’s really inspirational to see someone who works in such an exacting way, and it’s great to talk to someone else about craft, who obviously knows theirs extremely well.

PATTY: That’s what I like too; when you emailed me to ask me, you told me who else was coming, and I liked everyone’s work.

MARSHA: [To Patty] I was so excited when Shelley told me you were going to be part of the group!

SHELLEY: Yeah, that’s how I got everyone else to join! I told them you were coming!

PATTY: (Laughing) Thank you. Well, when you work at home it’s isolated, so it’s nice to get out and have someone else to talk about work with. Especially if you’re on a project and you’re stuck on something.

By Marsha

MARSHA: And not just about the work itself, but the working relationships you have with the people around you. I find it really helpful to have other people who know what’s going on, and maybe have gone through that. And are good sounding boards.

PATTY: Yeah, like “Are all art directors the same way?” Because they all have different approaches, and different publications have different approaches.

LALENA: Patty and Marsha, it’s been so interesting to see your in-progress work for your chapter books. I feel like I’m getting an inside look into the process that I wouldn’t get otherwise.

…Another thing we do at our Girllustrator meetings is show work in progress, and bounce ideas off each other. It’s helpful to get other eyes.

SHELLEY: Last week we laid out Amy’s entire portfolio on the floor to help her decide what to take to the Houston SCBWI conference.

MARSHA: What was super-exciting about that was rearranging it and realizing that just rearranging a portfolio can change the whole flow of it.

SHELLEY: And make it much more dynamic.

AMY: It helped me think about what to focus on, too.

MARSHA: It was brave of you to do that.

AMY: Oh. Well…it was brave of you guys to look at it!

(Group laughter)

It’s nice to have a group of people whose opinions you trust when you put something out on the table and say, “This is what I’m working on; what do you guys think?”

SHELLEY: I think it does make a difference that the group is all women, in that respect, and also that it’s a closed group. I’ve gotten to know you ladies well and you’re all very nurturing, so it’s a safe environment for me to be experimental in.

LALENA: But we have a “brother band.”

By Jeff

SHELLEY: Yeah, Jeff was inspired by us and formed his own group!

MARSHA: The Armadillustrators!

PATTY: I think it’s neat that sometimes we do things together with them.

MARSHA: It would be great to work together on the next conference.

PATTY: It was wonderful how they came in on the last one and brought prints for the auction.

LALENA: And it looks like we’re going to do drawing days together.

SHELLEY: One thing I was looking forward to, because I have so much going on, is a monthly meeting that helps me set goals and get work done.

LALENA: And keep up momentum when you’re trying to take your work to the next level. Because it’s actually a kind of difficult pursuit. Especially when you have—well, everybody does have—other responsibilities.

MARSHA: Well, and you and Shelley have little ones.

PATTY: And they always come first.

By Lalena

LALENA: I also like the fact that we’re at all different places in our careers, as well has have different styles. Like, some of us haven’t been published at all, some have published a lot, and some work in pencil, and some on the computer, and others in watercolor.

It’s nice to have the variety. Because you can get inspiration from unexpected places.

SHELLEY: I was kind of surprised when we first started meeting, because I learned so much about technology from you guys, which is not what I was expecting to get out of the group. At that time, I didn’t know anything about blogging.

MARSHA: I forgot that! Because now you’re really the one coordinating our blog!

PATTY: You’ve done a great job with that. It’s been really good content, and really good feedback on the content.

SHELLEY: Thank you!

MARSHA: And people are following it.

LALENA: It is much more planned and put-together than a lot of blogs out there.

AMY: I think scheduling it was a good idea.

SHELLEY: Well, Tech Tuesdays was your idea.

By Amy

AMY: It was? I forgot!

(Group laughter)

I do like a catchy title.

SHELLEY: When Austin SCBWI regional advisor Debbie Gonzales approached Jeff and me about speaking at the Tech conference (Austin SCBWI’s Storytelling in the Digital Age symposium, August 2011), I thought: “What? I don’t know anything about technology.”

And then I thought: “Well, when I have a technology question, I ask the Girllustrators! Maybe we, as a group, could talk about aspects that apply to illustrators.”

MARSHA: And that really galvanized our whole group: us being a part of the tech conference.

LALENA: Once that started, that’s when I began to come regularly. Because I felt obligated—I was taking part in something. So it ended up being a really good thing. It got me into the habit getting me into the habit of coming.

SHELLEY: And that’s when we felt we needed a logo (see below), and the Tech Tuesday blog posts—to give ourselves a bit of credibility before we got up and spoke in front of people about technology!


But it also gave us the opportunity to research other illustrators, and learn about how they used technology.

MARSHA: So it was helpful to us as well as to other people. And now the group feels really solid. Because we went through that experience together.

LALENA: We’ve been through battle!


SHELLEY: At this last regional conference, it was nice to attend together.

LALENA: We had a collective identity: “I’m not just Lalena, I’m a Girllustrator!”

MARSHA: This really leads into what we do. I think that our group has done a good job being advocates for the illustrator community. Like during the conference, Patty was instrumental in making sure that the portfolio room represented the artists as well as possible.

PATTY: At the 2011 conference, there were so many illustrators that came, and not enough room to show all the portfolios.

SHELLEY: Overseeing all aspects of the illustration room was such a monumental task; more than one person could handle.

PATTY: Mark G. Mitchell, illustrator coordinator for Austin SCBWI,
is spread too thin at these conferences. So we were thinking about how
we could help him, and meanwhile help the illustrators look more
professional. After all, we’re the “I” in SCBWI.

MARSHA: Mark does such a phenomenal job for the illustrator community here in Austin with his blog, with Inklings; he attends every SCBWI event that he can attend. He’s always there.

By Mark G. Mitchell

PATTY: He wants the very best for the illustrators, and he’s a professional. So I asked him if he would like some help, and he did.

SHELLEY: He got down on one knee…

(Group laughter)

PATTY: He said, “Thank you! Thank you!”

Jessica Lee Anderson with illustrator chair Mark G. Mitchell

So we planned it out so that everyone had a defined space, with the name card holders from Marsha. Then we worked with Mark to set the tables up so that everyone could walk around, and we got to have the auction items in the same room. He put the coffee and pastries in there, which just invited people in. You could be out in the hallway with all the bustling, and then the minute you walked into where the coffee and donuts and portfolios were, you could feel people exhale. And just mingle, and linger…it was a very inviting space.

AMY: Plus, it was a great idea to have the prints and paintings for the auction.

SHELLEY: Patty thought that another way to showcase our work and raise money for SCBWI would be for the illustrators to donate prints to the auction. I think everyone got pretty excited about that!

Another thing that was exciting was having some other chapter’s illustration coordinators attend, like Diandra Mae of Houston SCBWI and Akiko White of SCBWI-San Antonio. They were enthusiastic about our ideas too. And since Amy went to the Houston conference, they shared their plans with her. So, the idea is that we don’t have just one conference a year; we’re involved with all these cities, so we can collaborate and improve together.

2011 Austin SCBWI Regional Conference

Switching gears, something that you mentioned earlier, Lalena, that the Girllustrators do is our drawing days. We go someplace together and sketch.

AMY: I love having Harper (Shelley’s five-year-old daughter) there; there’s something about having a kid there—being super-free—that loosens me up.

SHELLEY: It’s so funny because she’ll be watching something intensely and drawing, and when she’s done you’ll ask, “What’s that you just drew?” And it’ll be some fish swimming in the ocean, and you’re like, “But you’re looking at a monkey!”

(Group laughter)

LALENA: Have you heard of the fourth grade slump?

MARSHA: No! (Everyone shakes her head)

LALENA: Apparently one of the last parts of the brain that switches on is the amygdala, which is the part of our brain controlling inhibitions. It’s in about fourth grade when it happens. And then kids are suddenly worried about: “What is it supposed to look like?” and “What are the rules?”

MARSHA: And that’s when a lot of kids stop drawing! There’s this book by Lynda Barry about that (Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book). They suddenly think they can’t draw, because what they draw doesn’t look like what they’re looking at.

PATTY: When anime came out, my son suddenly started drawing again. He was about in sixth grade, and he was drawing all this anime stuff.

And I asked him, “Why is it that you like this style?”

And he said, “Because to do a nose, all you have to do is one line here and one line here—and there’s your nose.”

So he felt like he could draw again.

LALENA: I find it hard to switch off my amygdala even now. I mean, not everything has to look realistic, but I have preconceptions, and focus way too much on the goal so that I don’t always enjoy the process as much as I should…

So, even for those of us who kept on drawing, it can still be a challenge.

SHELLEY: Once you’re able to make things look realistic, then you’re stuck in that mindset. I want to loosen up, and it’s hard.

LALENA: You form habits.

By Laura

PATTY: My friend Laura Logan has a playful style, but for one project she had to draw a tiger. She said, “I can draw a kitty, but if I draw that with stripes, it’ll just look like a kitty with stripes!”

So she looked at YouTube and got some photos of tigers, and drew them realistically for a while. Then she put those away, and went back to drawing her kitty in her style, and then tried to draw a tiger in her style.

Gradually, she worked her way back from her style, to a tiger.

MARSHA: That’s fascinating.

PATTY: She has images on her blog showing the process. So she had to learn how to draw a tiger realistically—learn what it really looked like—

LALENA: And then let go of it.

PATTY: And let go of it.

MARSHA: Amy and I met up for a drawing day, and I was trying to draw this horse. And I just got to the point where I was thinking, “I hate horses. I hate drawing horses!”

PATTY: Laura was saying that too; you get to the elbow, and then you get to the knee, and then the ankle, and you think you’re done, but—Oh no!

Gene Brenek & Girllustrator Emma J. Virjan

MARSHA: Horses have a really exacting structure. If you don’t get the horse’s structure down, then it doesn’t look like a horse.

SHELLEY: So should we sort of wrap this up? Do we want to say anything in conclusion?

LALENA: We really appreciate being part of Cynthia’s blog.

MARSHA: Hear hear.

SHELLEY: Cynthia’s awesome. If she could draw, she would totally be a Girllustrator.

MARSHA: She has beautiful hair.

Cynsational Notes

For more Girll talk—our favorite children’s books, the language of nursery rhymes, and an artist’s journey to a cohesive portfolio—meet up with us on!

Patrice Barton is a children’s
book illustrator living in Austin, Texas; with her husband, son and a few
doggies. Her clients include Alfred A. Knopf, Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
Scholastic Book Club, Ideals Children’s Books, Ladybug Magazine,
Clubhouse Jr. Magazine, Highlights, Highlights High Five, National
Geographic, and Hazelden Educational Publishing.

By Patrice

Patty’s recent books include Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine (Knopf, 2011); MINE! (Knopf, 2011); Sweet Moon Baby: An Adoption Tale (Knopf, 2010); The Looking Book (Ideals, 2009); Layla, Queen of Hearts (FSG, 2010); The Naming of Tishkin Silk (FSG, 2009); and the forthcoming I Like Old Clothes (Knopf, 2012).

Amy Farrier is an illustrator and designer with a degree in English literature. After years of working with words, she picked up a paintbrush and got hooked on watercolor. And the wonderful art and stories found in children’s books.

Inspired by morning walks, nature specials, and funny life moments (some of them involving a certain sweet dog and spicy cat that live with her), she is happily working away on some art and stories of her own.

Lalena Fisher illustrates children’s textbooks and workbooks, and designs characters and environments for children’s animation. A native Texan, Lalena recently returned home after 14 years in New York where she assisted artist Matthew Barney, created characters and backgrounds for Nickelodeon’s “Blue’s Clues” and “The Wonder Pets,” and created graphics for the New York Times.

Her current children’s clients include Oxford University Press and the Mother Goose Club. She also designs logos, posters, books, and websites.

Lalena has a Master of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute, and a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. After-hours, Lalena is currently developing several of her own children’s picture books, and a short animated music cartoon.

Shelley Ann Jackson has illustrated for clients such as the New York Times, Berkley Books, and Faces magazine. Her first picture book, Little Lions, Bull Baiters & Hunting Hounds: A History of Dog Breeds (Tunda, 2008) was awarded the 2008 Gold Medal in Juvenile Nonfiction by ForeWord magazine and received a non-fiction research grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her second book, Upon Secrecy (Calkins Creek, 2009), was selected One of the Best Children’s Books 2010 by Bank Street College of Education. Harness Horses, Bucking Broncos & Pit Ponies: A History of Horse Breeds (Tunda, 2011) is her latest release. She lives in Austin with her husband, daughter, and three pups.

By Marsha

Marsha Riti is a freelance illustrator based out of Austin, Texas. She has a BFA in studio art from the University of Texas in Austin. She loves to create and takes inspiration from early comics artists as well as some new ones with a slight mid-century twist.

Her first illustrated picture first book, titled The Picky Little Witch, written by Elizabeth Brokamp, came out in September 2011 from Pelican Press. She’s now hard at work illustrating the Critter Club series to be published by Little Simon.

Emma J. Virjan was born in Texas, under an Aries moon, on a Wednesday evening, her Dad’s bowling night. This might explain her attraction to shiny, hardwood floors and crunchy, snack bar French fries.

Her career as a graphic designer and illustrator started when she gave everyone handmade business cards for Christmas when she was five years old.

Nacho the Party Puppy, her first children’s book, was featured in the 2008 Texas Book Festival. Get to know Nacho (and Emma) at

When Emma isn’t drawing, she spends her time reading, making lists, cutting out images of the numeral 5, and collecting produce stickers.

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter for a chance to win Harness Horses, Bucking Broncos & Pit Ponies: A History of Horse Breeds by Jeff Crosby and Shelley Ann Jackson (Tunda, 2011) and/or I Like Old Clothes by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Patrice Barton (Knopf, 2012). Both giveaways are illustrator sponsored, eligibility: North America.

From the promotional copy of Harness Horses:

Thousands of years ago people living on the steppes of central Asia realized that horses could transport them long distances, help them fight their wars, pull their plows, and provide them with sport and companionship. Ever since, horses and human history have been intertwined.

The author-illustrator team of Jeff Crosby and Shelley Ann Jackson celebrates all kinds of horses in this beautifully illustrated, fact-filled book. 

From fast horses like the Barb, which traveled to Spain from Africa in the early eighth century to become a foundation for many Spanish and European breeds, to war horses like the Mongolian that gave their owners military advantage (today there are more horses in Mongolia than there are people), to the hard-working horses ranging from the tiny American Miniature to the giant Clydesdale, Harness Horses, Bucking Broncos & Pit Ponies is a treasure-trove of information. 

Today there are fifty-eight million horses in the world.

This is the perfect book for those who own (or dream of owning) a horse, who ride, or who simply like to read about these magnificent animals and the special relationship they share with humans.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

From the promotional copy for I Like Old Clothes (see cover art above):

I like old clothes, 

Hand-me-down clothes, 

Worn outgrown clothes,

Not-my-own clothes…

Originally published by Knopf in 1976 (with illustrations by Jacqueline Chwast), this poem—an exuberant celebration of hand-me-down clothes—is just as relevant and accessible today as it was over 30 years ago.

Children’s Poet Laureate Mary Ann Hoberman offers a bouncy, fun-to-read-aloud text and a refreshingly agreeable, resourceful protagonist who likes old clothes for their “history” and “mystery.” 

Illustrator Patrice Barton brings new, contemporary life to the poem, with an adorable little girl and her younger brother playing dress-up, making crafts, and happily treasuring their hand-me-downs.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Visit The Girllustrators: United for Sharing, Support & Shop Talk


Guest Post: Vanessa Ziff Lasdon on The Picture Book: A Powerful Writing Tool

Exploring the 6+1 Fundamental Traits of Good Writing through Mentor Texts

By Vanessa Ziff Lasdon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

You don’t have to be a teacher to appreciate the 6+1 Traits of Writing. Anyone studying the craft — be it a novel, short story or picture book — needs to keep these traits in mind as they write.

It’s the picture book, however, that I’d like to focus on today, because picture books and the 6 + 1 Traits of Writing are a heavenly match.

Ruth Culham, the educational pioneer behind the 6+1 Traits model, explains that, “picture books are short, carefully crafted, and the perfect example of what good writing looks like.” They are, in essence, the perfect mentor text for every age writer.

Let’s explore a few of the favorites on my shelf! (By no means a comprehensive list!)


  1. Ideas: the meaning and development of the message
  2. Organization: the internal structure of the piece
  3. Voice: the way the writer brings the topic to life
  4. Word Choice: the specific vocabulary the writer uses to convey meaning
  5. Sentence Fluency: the way the words and phrases flow throughout the text
  6. Conventions: the mechanical correctness of the piece

+ 1 Presentation: the overall appearance of the work

(Note: While I’ve categorized the following books within specific writing traits, each story holds standout secondary traits that I’ve also mentioned below.)


Fireflies! by Julie Brinckloe (Simon & Schuster, 1985).

A simple, beautiful story that celebrates a young boy’s excitement over the fireflies he captures one warm summer night. But as their glow begins to fade, the boy learns an important lesson: sometimes in order to keep something, you have to set it free.

  • Use this book to study how the smallest moments create treasured stories
  • Secondary Traits: word choice, organization, sentence fluency

The Hickory Chair by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, illustrated by Benny Andrews

A story of love between a blind boy and his grandmother. The tales Gran tells Louis make him feel as though he can see and feel all the wonders she describes. When Gran dies, Louis must search for his sense of self without her.

  • Use this book to study relationships and the power of story behind a symbolic object, like a hickory chair. Also a great story for developing a theme, like love, around that symbol
  • Secondary Traits: word choice, voice

A Quiet Place by Douglas Wood, illustrated by Dan Andreasen (Simon & Schuster, 2005)

This story, told in second-person point of view, follows a young boy who wants to escape his fast-paced, noisy city, and invites us to do the same. The secret of this book is that the best quiet place is found within our own selves. Not only is “A Quiet Place” a great reminder to step away from our “crazy busy” lifestyles, but it’s also a wonder for examining Ideas.

  • Use this book to study how to get inside a small, focused idea and make it big and imaginative, what some call “Show, Don’t Tell,” and what I like to call “Snorkeling and Scuba Diving.”
  • Go on a quiet hunt of your own and capture the places you find with words and images.
  • Secondary Traits: word choice, voice


Switch on the Night by Ray Bradbury, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Dragonfly, 2004)

In the only picture book ever written by the late, great Bradbury, we meet a boy who’s unreasonably afraid of the dark, until he discovers that when you turn off the day, you switch on the night and all its magic.

  • Use this book in a variety of ways: look at repeating refrains and how this emphasizes the main idea; make a story map of events and how they build to a resolution; notice how Bradbury begins and ends the fable
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, sentence fluency

Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of Nun’s Kung Fu by Emily Arnold McCully (Arthur A. Levine, 1998)

In this tale, young Mingyi learns the ways of kung fu from the legendary Buddhist nun, Wu Mei (“beautiful warrior”) of Shaolin in order to fend off a bully bandit and escape an abusive arranged marriage. (Note: the literal meaning of kung fu is “human effort,” and it denotes lifelong study of physical and mental wellbeing.)

  • Use this lovely book to study transitions within a narrative. McCully uses them so well the reader barely notices them as the story flows along.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, word choice, voice

Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges, book design by Kristina Albertson (Scholastic, 1999)

Bridges’ arrangement of stories, poems, essays, articles, timelines, quotations, photographs, and other source material from her childhood enables us to understand the remarkable impact of a six-year-old girl who boldly broke the color barrier during the civil rights era and went on to become a legendary activist.

  • Use this informational gem to look at research and creative nonfiction in a whole new way.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, word choice, voice, sentence fluency, conventions, presentation


The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Putnam, 2001)

Woodson is a master at sparse, heartrending storytelling. Here, she uses a fence as a metaphor for racism in a story of two girls, one white and one black, who live on opposite sides of the fence, yet become friends despite warnings otherwise. (Sitting on the fence doesn’t technically qualify as crossing over.)

  • Use this story to study a voice “slow and graceful like summer,” as Culham puts it, one whose authenticity is irresistible.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, word choice, sentence fluency

Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Harcourt, 2003)

Cesar Chavez is one of America’s most celebrated civil rights leaders, one who improved the lives of thousands of migrant farm workers. But as a boy, Cesar was shy and bullied, and his family was forced to slave in the fields to survive. This is story of a boy who spoke up for change and earned the attention of an entire country.

  • Use this biography to study how carefully chosen words spark passion on every page and in the hearts of all readers.
  • Secondary Traits: word choice

Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco (Philomel, 1994)

I dare you not to cry at the end of this Civil War book. Polacco deftly documents a story passed down in her family for generations of 15-year old Sheldon Curtis, a Union soldier, who is badly wounded and left for dead until fellow Union soldier Pinkus Aylee brings him under the care of his own sweet mother. One day, however, Confederate soldiers capture and separate the boys. Only one survives.

  • Use this story to study style and tonal shift, graceful narration, plot development, and character.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, sentence fluency, word choice, organization


A Place to Grow by Soyung Pak, illustrated by Marcelino Truong (Arthur A. Levine, 2002)

“This is seed time. This is the growing time […] all seeds travel.” Pak shows us how her father explained their move an ocean away from South Korea to America “to grow a family.”

  • Use this book to study how metaphor and repetition can create powerful images and connections in the reader’s mind.
  • Secondary Traits: voice, sentence fluency

A Story for Bear by Dennis Haseley, illustrated by Jim LaMarche (Harcourt, 2002)
In this quiet and touching story, a bear and a woman become friends as she reads to him deep in the woods using voices to match the stories she reads. Bear is entranced by the sounds that float from the woman’s mouth, and longs to decipher the magic symbols on the page for himself.

  • This story is delightful not only for its lyrical prose and quiet strength, but also for its pure celebration of the sound of language.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, voice, sentence fluency

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr (Philomel, 1987)

“If you go owling you have to be quiet and make your own heat.” In this well-known, award-winning book, a young girl and her father search through the dark, cold silence of a winter’s night for the great horned owl.

  • Yolen’s story is perfection. Study how she puts us right inside the girl’s perspective, experiencing her fear, hope, and ultimate delight as her patient pursuit for this elusive creature is finally rewarded.
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, organization, voice, sentence fluency


I’ve decided to combine the traits of Sentence Fluency and Conventions, and here’s why.

First off, I don’t believe any of us need literal lessons in grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Rather, it’s more important to absorb how these editorial essentials enrich the reading experience. Sentence Fluency is an auditory trait and Conventions are the mechanics behind the curtains that make a sentence or paragraph thrum, pop, and shimmy the way it does.

A big reason why a book fails with readers is because it isn’t enticing to read aloud. Great Conventions make text a pleasure to read. They are symbols of great care for the reader, an accuracy that enhances the reader’s immersion in the story.

Every picture book in this blog post has been meticulously edited and could easily be the focus of a discussion on Conventions. But look to the books under Sentence Fluency in particular for how Conventions support already artistically constructed sentences, and how these mechanics help to choreograph the rhythms on the page.

Tough Cookie by David Wisniewski (HarperCollins, 1999)

“They call me a tough cookie. I guess I am. Came from a good family. Regular batch. Lots of dough. Lived the high life. Top of the Jar.” In this hilarious detective story, Tough Cookie, some crumbs living at the bottom, and his girlfriend Pecan Sandy try to stop Fingers from wreaking total havoc in The Jar.

  • First of all, read this story out loud. You’ll laugh on every page. Study Wisniewski’s clipped, staccato style sentence fluency. I use the book to teach kids how to break the “rules” to create the perfect flow.
  • Secondary Traits: voice, word choice, conventions

Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Aladdin, 1997)

Mona lives in the United States. Her “Sitti” (grandmother) lives in Palestine. Despite the distance and language barriers, the two are very close. When Mona visits Sitti, who has “a thousand rivers in her voice,” to learn what life is like in her village, she learns to bake bread, make fresh lemonade, and brush Sitti’s long hair, hidden under her scarf.

I agree with Culham when she says that Nye is a “writer’s writer. She crafts and combines sentences in the same way Sitti prepares meals and stitches fabric—with utmost attention to detail.”

  • Use this heartwarming story to study how to capture a smooth and rhythmic flow in your writing
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, word choice, voice, conventions

Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott (Putnam, 2005)

“When Mathis May was seven, she got sold away. Took a star from her mama’s blanket, took a little piece of the road. Pressed it to her face when she wanted to remember back home.” Woodson’s book tells of the stories and sewing traditions that have been passed down by the women in her family since the days of slavery and Civil Rights. Each girl born into the family quilt continues to pave the way for future generations by adding a piece to the patchwork of their past, because, “All the stuff that happened before you were born is your own kind of Show Way.”

  • Woodson is my personal hero. Her writing is rich, original, unflinchingly honest, and always dead on target. Use this unique personal story to study Woodson’s lyrical vernacular voice, woven together with keenly crafted sentences that will make your heart sing hallelujah!
  • Secondary Traits: ideas, organization, word choice, voice, conventions


Picture books. Pictures. Books. Each of the choices above exemplifies the magic that comes to life when story and illustration come together. Tremendous skill and thought goes into the look of a book and how to best combine text, typeface, textures, illustration, white space, line space, and color to capture the essence of every trait throughout every page. Study the 15 books in this article and the additional one I’ve mentioned below for how art works hand in hand with story to enhance the author’s ideas.

Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa to Slavery and Emancipation by Velma Maia Thomas (Crown, 1997)

Oh, how I hold this book dear! Rich with original source materials from the Black Holocaust Exhibit in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this three-dimensional interactive book is stunning. Letters that open out of paper, crafted like a tobacco tin; maps that slide and windows that fold out; slave receipts, auction ads, and photographs; the sheer arrangement of words and symbols along each page.

  • Treasure this nonfiction book, for it’s a wonder. Study the micro text for its sophisticated story lines and brilliant blend of formats. Read every word carefully. Run your fingers along each page. Thomas has made history into powerful art that everyone can appreciate.

Try this: organize a part of your bookshelves by picture books and the 6+1 Writing Traits combined. No matter what genre or format you write, I guarantee that studying the craft from this bite-size perspective will sharpen your skills and remind you what great storytelling is all about.

Source: Using Mentor Texts to Teach Writing With the Traits: Middle School: An Annotated Bibliography of 150 Picture Books, Chapter Books, and Young Adult Novels With Teacher-Tested Lessons by James Blasingame, Ruth Culham and Raymond Coutu (Scholastic, 2010).

See also Using Mentor Texts to Teach Writing with the Traits by James Blasingame, Ruth Culham and Raymond Coutu (Scholastic Teaching Resources, 2008).

Cynsational Notes

See also Vanessa Ziff Lasdon on The Writer’s Notebook: An Essential Tool for Daily Practice & Creative Survival from Cynsations.

Vanessa Ziff Lasdon is an L.A.-based teacher, tutor, writer, and educational coach. A University of Texas, Austin and Teach for America alum, she also holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a certificate degree in Digital Journalism.

When she’s not writing, reading, or managing her biz at W.O.R.D. Ink, Vanessa serves as an in-school writing mentor with 826LA and directs Writing Adventures
summer camp.

She also loves to cook, garden, and travel, get crafty, go
green, play outdoors, make short films, surf the web, tune in to NPR,
shop for unique stuff, share and laugh often.

Vanessa has written a
middle grade novel and is working on a young adult fantasy. She is
represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.

will be launching her own weekly blog, W.O.R.D.: Write. Observe.
Revise. Discover, early this September. She invites you to join her
readership and check out her many writing services! Sign up and connect
with Vanessa on Twitter @vzlasdonwriter or by email ( Visit Vanessa online at

Book Trailer: The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves, edited by Sarah Moon, with contributing editor James Lecesne (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Life-saving letters from a glittering wishlist of top authors.

If you received a letter from your older self, what do you think it would say? What do you wish it would say?

That the boy you were crushing on in History turns out to be gay too, and that you become boyfriends in college? That the bully who is making your life miserable will one day become so insignificant that you won’t remember his name until he shows up at your book signing?

In this anthology, sixty-three award-winning authors such as Michael Cunningham, Amy Bloom, Jacqueline Woodson, Gregory Maguire, David Levithan, and Armistead Maupin make imaginative journeys into their pasts, telling their younger selves what they would have liked to know then about their lives as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgendered people. 

Through stories, in pictures, with bracing honesty, these are words of love and understanding, reasons to hold on for the better future ahead. They will tell you things about your favorite authors that you never knew before. And they will tell you about yourself.

Bookseller Interview: Rachel Heath of King’s English Bookshop

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Rachel Heath is the children’s marketing manager at The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City.

Thank you for joining us at Cynsations! Could you please tell us about The King’s English Bookshop, especially with relation to books for kids and teens?

The King’s English Bookshop opened in 1977, and in 35 years we have grown to become a leading independent bookstore in Utah with an excellent national reputation as well. We are proud members of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), Indie Bound Commerce (IBC), and Local First Utah, which our owner, Betsy Burton, helped launch and is still an active leader for.

Our children’s room is one of our strongest assets. We have a strong reputation among readers, publishers and fellow booksellers for our taste in children’s literature. We have an incredibly strong staff (all of whom read the books we sell, of course), an astute buyer (with twenty years of experience and her own national reputation among publishers), and a welcoming atmosphere, complete with a gigantic bear for snuggling.

How did you become interested in working for the shop? What background led you there?

As is the story for most anyone who works in books, I have been a reader from the very beginning. I grew up on books. My mother served with the Children’s Literature Association of Utah (CLAU) for many years so books are in my blood. Her extensive knowledge in children’s literature is one I will always aspire to. She took a job in the children’s room of The King’s English Bookshop when I was thirteen and I too considered myself an employee of sorts ever since, with frequent visits, small tasks at events and gift wrapping for the store for a number of holiday seasons.

What sorts of children’s-YA author/illustrator programming do you do at the shop?

As the Children’s Marketing Manager I get to schedule everything relevant to the children’s room: author visits, story times, book-launch parties, writing workshops, children’s book clubs… you name it, I arrange it. And I love it.

How do you connect with children’s-YA authors/illustrators — through publishers, independent publicists, etc.?

Carol Lynch Williams at The King’s English

I work with publishers and publicists from all the major publishing houses, encouraging them to send nationally known authors to The King’s English.

Utah is currently swimming in talented, local children’s and young adult authors that have sprung up here and a favorite part of my job is to make sure our local authors and illustrators are properly celebrated.

Planning a successful event is hard work. Publicists sometimes help us plan events; their help is always appreciated. But if authors, especially local authors, are willing to work on their own events, we’ll almost always say yes. An author’s efforts determine half of each event’s success.

Do you do outreach/events with the local author community? Could you tell us about the book scene in the Salt Lake City area?

For an independent store “community” is key. I work hard to establish strong relationships with the authors here. I believe it is important that they know they have someone on their side. It’s true that not every book is a match for our store; in which case we won’t invest ourselves in it. But when a local author is connected to us we will sell books for many of their off-site appearances.

Salt Lake City is very big on the YA scene right now, but we also thrive in all genres of children’s books. The King’s English is in a residential neighborhood surrounded by families who, to our great delight, value books and reading.

If you’re open to authors/illustrators contacting you directly, what’s the best way to go about that?


Ally Condie with bookseller Rachel Heath

E-mail, as opposed to a phone call or dropping by the bookshop, is the best way to introduce yourself. Tell me about your book and what your connection is to the area.

What will you do for this event and how many guests do you expect to bring on your own? Who is your publisher and how can the bookstore get access to your books? Do you have a distributor?

My e-mail address is and anyone who answers the phone here would tell you that.

How far in advance do you schedule events? How do you market them?

For a good turnout we try to plan everything at least two months ahead of time. We go through a number of different marketing techniques to try to pull in the best audience possible for each event. We start with briefings for the local media as well as in-store advertising. We print materials, set up displays and publicize through social media.

What tips to you have for authors/illustrators in planning a bookstore event?

Social media can be a wonderful thing. Our most successful author events owed a lot to the author’s work on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc. Family and friends are great resources as well. They already love you and want to support you and can be helpful in drawing a crowd.

Some authors have implemented their own marketing ideas, advertising that they will be raffling some of their own prizes and/or serving refreshments. But it all comes down to publicizing the event.

What are some innovative ideas that worked well in your store?

We use a lot of Facebook and Twitter ourselves to encourage the audience to come. Posting the right words at the right time can offer great results.

What shouldn’t authors/illustrators do?

I’ve said it a lot but it bears repeating: authors can’t expect the bookstore to be responsible for the success of their event or book sales.

A bookstore is only going to reach those who shop there or actively come to author events. If sales for the author’s book haven’t been strong there it’s illogical to expect an enormous turn out of curious, new readers. Authors have to find ways into other parts of the community and encourage them over to the shop for the event.

That being said it is also important to not over-saturate a community with author visits. If you are signing at one shop one week and the shop close by the next you can expect unprofitable turnouts as well as perturbed booksellers at each.

How should authors follow up after an event?

I love receiving thank-you notes from authors after an event. Who wouldn’t? It’s smart PR on the author’s part. It not only keeps them in my memory bank, but also encourages me to work with them again in the future.

Rachel with Dan Wells, S.J. Kincaid, Veronica Roth & Aprilynne Pike

Cynsational Notes

Interview with Book Store Owners Mitch Kaplan and Betsy Burton from C-Span video library. Peek: “Discussion with booksellers, Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books (Coral Gables, Florida) & Betsy Burton, co-owner of The King’s English (Salt Lake City, Utah).”

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Coming this fall from Strange Chemistry

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Strange Chemistry: An Introduction to Angry Robot’s New Young Adult Imprint by Alasdair Stuart from SFX. Peek: “I like my heroines to be strong, not meek, and I like my men to be interesting rather than just good-looking. If the characters are right in a manuscript, then the battle is half-won as far as I’m concerned.” Source: Gwenda Bond.

Andrea Davis Pinkney: How I Got Into Publishing from CBC Diversity. Peek: “…Vice President, Executive Editor at Scholastic. She has been named one of the ’25 Most Influential Black Women in Business’ by the Network Journal and is one of the ’25 Most Influential People in our Children’s Lives” cited by Children’s Health Magazine.'”

Celebrating Diversity with Children’s Books by Tessa Goldwasser from ALSC Blog. Peek: “I don’t know if books can save lives, but I do know that the right book, in the right hands, at the right time, can have a transformative effect on a person’s life. That’s why I am personally passionate about positive and realistic portrayals of the GLBT community in literature, especially literature for young people.”

Character Entry Trait: Determined by Angela Ackerman from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “Strong focus and ability to make decisions; having a set goal, objective or desire that is personal and important; being highly committed to an
idea or belief.”

New Stats Show Great Gains in Children’s Fiction in 2011 from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “…the increase in overall sales made the children’s category the fastest
growing segment last year, with total sales up 9.4%, to $3.3 billion.”

Why Boys Don’t Read Girls (Sometimes) from Shannon Hale.  Peek: “Without even meaning to perhaps, the adults in the boy’s life are nudging the boy away from ‘girl’ books to ‘boy’ books. When I go on tour and do school visits, sometimes the school will take the girls out of class for my assembly and not invite the boys.”

Julie Anne Peters on LGBTQ and Controversial YA Literature from Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing. Peek: “Feeling that you’re normal, and that you have a community that loves and embraces you for who you are, provides the kind of emotional well-being that we all need to survive and thrive.”

Synthesizing Feedback by Mary Kole from Peek: “Agents, however, are looking at the quality of the thing, sure, but they are also always trying to place it in the context of saleability. Because the most amazing piece of writing isn’t going to do anyone much good if it can’t be published for whatever reason…”

Open Coop Day! Hen & ink: A Literary Studio, which is usually closed to submissions, will open to them from 1 a.m. Aug. 15 to 1 a.m. Aug. 16. Note: time zone is not specified (and this agency has a particularly international bent), so shoot for the middle of the window.

Revising with Anticipation by Marissa Burt from Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing. Peek: “Sure,
I didn’t mind tweaking things a bit, but I didn’t want to cut entire characters or rewrite scenes that I already liked just fine thank-you-very-much. Maybe it was fear of messing with a good thing.I think more likely it was – to say it bluntly – laziness.”

Books Around the Table: A Potluck of Ideas from Four Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators is a new blog from Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios and Julie Paschkis.
Peek: “We are a critique group of children’s book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.”

Shine by Lauren Myracle (Amulet) is the winner of the 2012 Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, given by the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE. Peek: “Established in 2008 to honor the wishes of young adult author Amelia Eliz­a­beth Walden, the award allows for the sum of $5,000 to be pre­sented annu­ally to the author of a young adult title selected by the ALAN Amelia Eliz­a­beth Walden Book Award Com­mit­tee as demon­strat­ing a pos­i­tive approach to life, wide­spread teen appeal, and lit­er­ary merit.” Source: Thunderchikin.

Call for Papers for Kidlitcon from Jen Robinson’s Book Page. Peek: “This year the 6th annual Kidlitosphere Conference (aka KidLitCon) will be held in New York City on September 28th and 29th.” See more information from A Fuse #8 Production.

The Value of Adversity by Danyelle Leafty from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “Saying something, seeing something through the unique lens of your own
perceptions, isn’t safe. Because once you do, once you share that with
someone else, there will be plenty of people who will come along to tell
you that you’re wrong.”

Writing Adaptations by Mary Kole from Peek: “Every time you do an adaptation, you have to add value to it.”

From Blog to Book: Building an Online Platform by Erin Reel from Rachelle Gardner. Peek: “After approximately 18 months, Cheryl developed a worldwide loyal tribe of parents and grandparents of twins and multiples.” Source: QueryTracker.netBlog.

Cynsational Giveaways

Unbreak My Heart Prize Package

The winner of an author-signed copy of Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Ty Templeton (Charlesbridge, 2012) was Frances in Illinois.

The winner of Goddess Girls Super Special: The Girl Games by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams (Aladdin, 2012) has still not responded. If you entered, check your email!

This Week at Cynsations

GC movie news!

Austin Scene

Bookish highlights of the week included celebrating Robot Zombie Frankenstein! by Annette Simon (Candlewick, 2012) at BookPeople!

Annette models her new book!

Latter that day, I also greatly enjoyed a panel on children’s-YA science fiction.

Featuring speakers P.J. Hoover, Beth Revis and K.A. Holt!

Austinites! Mark your calendars: Jo Whittemore‘s release party for D is for Drama (Aladdin, 2012) will be at 4 p.m. Aug. 12. at BookPeople. See more information.

More Personally

This week’s highlight was a theatrical one! Last night I saw “Xanadu: The Musical” with fellow Austin authors Nikki Loftin, Salima Alikhan and our respective spouses at the Zach Theatre here in Austin. It was fantastically funny. The staging, lighting and costuming were amazing, and the music and acting was top notch. My highest recommendation!

Spring 2013 Sneak Previews by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Candlewick goes wild for Feral Nights by Cynthia Leitich Smith, a dark fantasy adventure for teens featuring werepossum Clyde and other characters….” Note: Feral Nights is the new title of the book previously tentatively titled “Smolder.” It will be released in January 2013.

Gate Crashers Ask: Why SCBWI? from Ink & Angst: Writers of Various Nefarious Plots. See my response and many more! Don’t miss part two.

Congratulations to Amy Rose Capetta (pictured below) on the sale of “Entangled” to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt! Congratulations to E. Kristin Anderson (pictured below) for signing with agent Christina Hogrebe! And congratulations to Alvina Ling on her recent marriage — love the dress!

Amy Rose writes at my dining room table.

Personal Links:

About Greg Leitich Smith

Review: Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith from Joseph (6th Grade Student) from Book Trends. Peek: “…phenomenal and should be read by everybody.”

Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith by Stephanie from Kiss the Book. Peek: “Students that love dinosaurs will hands down love this book.”

From Greg Leitich Smith:

E. Kristin Anderson with authors Debbie Gonzales & Jessica Lee Anderson

Career Builder & Giveaway: Brent Hartinger

Brent on Mount Townsend (6500 feet in a day)

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Brent Hartinger is the author of a number of novels for children and teenagers, including three books in the Russel Middlebrook series: (1) Geography Club (HarperCollins, 2003), (2) The Order of the Poison Oak (HarperCollins, 2005), and (3) Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies (HarperCollins, 2007).

His other books include The Last Chance Texaco (HarperCollins, 2004); Grand & Humble (HarperCollins, 2006); Project Sweet Life (HarperCollins, 2009); and Shadow Walkers (Flux, 2011).

Brent’s upcoming books include The Elephant of Surprise (Buddha Kitty Books, 2012), the latest in the Russel Middlebrook series.

Brent’s many writing honors include being named the winner of the Lambda Book Award, the Scandiuzzi Children’s Book Award, a GLAAD Media Award, and a Book Sense Pick (four times).

Also a playwright and screenwriter, Brent’s many plays have been produced in dozens of theaters nationwide (twice in New York); his screenplays have won many awards, and he currently has several scripts under option. A film version of his novel, Geography Club, starring Scott Bakula and Nikki Blonsky, will be released next year.

Do you have a publishing strategy? If so, how has it worked and/or changed over time? If not, why not? And how has that worked for you?

That reminds me of a quote I loved from Jim Hensen, who created the Muppets and did the voice of Kermit. The interviewer said, “Well, obviously, you were born to do puppets.” And Jim said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Oh, I don’t feel that way at all. I think puppets were just the creative thing that I first found success in. But I’d like think I could’ve been successful in lots of different creative endeavors.”

Maybe I’m thinking way too much of myself, but I absolutely believe that too — that publishing books for teens just happened to be the first area where I found a little bit of success.

My publishing strategy has been my “life” strategy, which has been pretty much to try and do everything involving words and story. I’ve written novels, plays, screenplays, for adults, for kids, all in just about ever genre you can think of.

I also co-founded a entertainment website, and wrote and produced two web series.

Now I’ve been more successful in some of those things than others.

The movie version of my first novel, Geography Club, just wrapped (starring Scott Bakula, Nikki Blonsky, Ana Gasteyer, Marin Hinkle, and lots of teen actors from shows like “90210” and “Hannah Montana.” How cool is this?!)

The website I co-founded,, was later acquired by Viacom in a big deal and went on to be pretty respected.

On the other hand, I have thought at one point, “I don’t need this. Writing books is just not worth putting up with this. I’d rather run a bed-and-breakfast.”

Would you describe your career as a hike up a mountain, a winding road, a path of hills and valleys or hop-scotching from rock to rock across the rapids?

Oh, definitely all of the above! It’s been a crazy crazy ride!

But here’s the thing: if you’re a writer and you’re describing your career as just one of these things (and you’re name isn’t Suzanne Collins or Stephenie Meyer), your career is probably only just starting out.

I think I’ve known hundreds of writers. I literally don’t know any writer who’s been at it a while who hasn’t gone through a rough patch — or two or three or four.

Anyone considering a career in writing, or anything in the arts, really needs to accept and internalize that it’s really up and down, and it’s really not “fair.”

Now I know the world isn’t fair, but publishing is particularly unfair. I know we all want to believe it’s a big meritocracy, that cream always rises to the top, but so many things needs to go right for a book to break out.

It needs to find an agent and an editor who both believe in it, obviously. But then that editor needs to not get fired, so the book doesn’t get orphaned (which has happened to me three times now). The buyer at Barnes and Noble needs to like it so it’s in all the bookstores. Industry reviewers need to love it. It helps a lot if it’s a “hot,” buzz-y genre, so you have a shot at the New York Times and EW.

Oh, and it needs to have a cover that doesn’t suck!

Writers don’t control any of those things. And the thing is, it can have all those things and still tank. Because no one knows anything about what’s going to hit and why. It’s partly concept and execution, but it’s also timing and, yes, dumb luck.

That said, I absolutely believe to the core of my being that the “best” writers, at least as defined by me, eventually do get published.

And these same writers tend to be the ones who have long and interesting careers.

I can think of three terrific examples of writers like this, all fantastic people, who are mutual friends of ours: Tim Wynne-Jones, Kathi Appelt, and, well, you, Cyn!

[Cyn: Me? I’m flattered to be mentioned in such great company.]

But I hope I’m not speaking out of turn when I say that we’ve all struggled with career highs and lows at some point.

How have you grown as a writer? What skills have you seen improve over time? What did you do to reach new levels? What are areas that still flummox you at times?

Like most writers, I’m embarrassed reading my earlier novels, even my published ones. I’m just mortified! I think I’m so much better now, just night and day better.

That said, I acknowledge that more “experienced” writers like myself who bemoan their terrible earlier works need to keep in mind that sometimes freshness and naivete is very appealing. It can be more “authentic” or charming somehow. That’s the kind of thing that can’t be faked.

All art is a moment in time. My books are the very best I could do, exactly what I wanted to say (assuming I had a good editor who shared my vision), at the moment in time they’re published.

How have you built an audience over time?

All the writing cliches are true, but the one I think is most true is that you should always treat everyone like you’d want to be treated.

Treat fans and novice writers like you wanted to be treated when you were a novice writer.

Treat all fellow writers, not just the really successful ones, like gold, like lightning could strike them and they could be the hottest writer alive at any minute, because that’s exactly what could happen — it does happen, all the time.

Although I must add this: I have an author friend, and we were sharing sales figures the other day (which is a very personal thing for authors! I’m more likely to tell people what kind of underwear I wear). Anyway, he mentioned a sales number, which was very respectable. And then he laughed and said, “But how is that possible?! I feel like I personally signed books for or sucked up to way more people than that!”

I busted up. I totally feel that way too! For all the talks I’ve given and personal emails I written and writers I’ve mentored, I feel like I should’ve sold millions of books. And I definitely haven’t.

I can’t possibly have spoken or written to every single person who’s read my books. But it definitely feels like I have.

Anyway, as I said, most of the reason I do all this is because it’s the right thing to do.

How have your marketing strategies changed over the years? Could you tell us about one strategy that worked and why you think it was a boon to you?

Like every author, I’m starting to wonder if the hassle of book tours (and, often, the expense, since publishers don’t always pay) is worth it. Unlike your name is J.K. Rowling, it’s increasingly difficult to draw a crowd at a bookstore — and, let’s face it, a lot of bookstores are becoming very, very discriminating. They often don’t want you!

It’s one thing to work a bookstore visit into a series of school visits or other events, but a dedicated tour? I think those things may be a thing of the past for most YA authors.

And of course, like every author, I’m interested in social media.

I’m also experimenting with indie publishing (also like every author in existence!). I got the rights back to the two sequels to Geography Club, The Order of the Poison Oak and Double Feature, and I published those as e-books.

And now I’m writing two more books to coincide with the release of the movie next year.

We’ll see how it goes. I’m not sure I’d be doing it if it weren’t for the publicity from the upcoming movie. Traditional publishing still has lots and lots of advantages, from my point of view. But so far, my experiment has been very, very worth my time.

I have just finished four projects, two novels and two screenplays, all very very different, that I think are all the absolute best writing I’ve ever done.

Two years from now, after at least some of them sell or not, I’ll either be very, very happy, or very, very bitter!

How have you handled being a player in the world of youth literature? Awards, fame, jealousy, etc.


With Kathy Griffin at a party in Los Angeles.

Jealousy used to be a problem, but then I think it’s a problem for almost every writer who isn’t Suzanne Collins. Success sometimes seems so random.

It’s really, really easy to forget that just by making your living as a writer, you’ve already won the lottery. And I’ve made my living at it, a pretty good living, for more than fifteen years.

And besides, since phenomenal, break-out success is random, it’s only a matter of time until it happens to you! Right? Right?!

Come on, Cynthia. Tell me I’m right.

[Cyn: Yes, of course, Brent! Only a matter of time.]

What do you want to say to those one-book wonders or those that feel the market has left them behind?

Change your name.

Seriously. Why not? Submit under a different name.

I hate that so many editors and publishers have become “sales figures Nazis.” Especially since a book’s failure may have as much to do with the editor and the publisher as it does with the author.

So reboot and start again. Then when you’re winning your Newbery or Printz Award, you can finally reveal your true identity! It’ll be just like the end of “Tootsie.”

But I’m actually serious about the name-change thing.

Why the hell not? They create the rules, but guess what?

Sometimes the rules aren’t fair. So change them to your advantage.

Of all of your books to date, which one are you the most proud of? Why?

Everyone always says, “My books are my babies! I can’t choose between them!”

I can. I think Grand & Humble, my 2007 mystery, is a totally under-rated gem. Well, under-rated by some — others rated it very highly.

I’m also pretty proud of the Russel Middlebrook series, especially the sequels.

Cyn, you know how hard sequels are.

[Cyn: Yes, I do!]

The last book, Double Feature: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies, tells the same story of the making of a zombie movie, but from two different points of view. They’re totally different stories, and you don’t know the “whole” story of what went on until you read both stories together. Hardest thing I’ve ever written. But I’m still extremely proud of it.

Wait. What? Is that it? No more questions? I was just getting started!

[Cyn: You’ll have to come back soon!] 

Cynsational Notes

Yep, They’re Making the “Geography Club” Movie by Brent Hartinger from Brent’s Brain. Peek: “…it was all a little surreal. I watched the filming of one scene that
had 1000 extras, and I thought, “You’re kidding! All this for a little
book I wrote more than ten years ago?” I imagine it’s a little like what
the pharaohs felt like when the the pyramids were being built…”

The Career Builders series offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published books for about a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to both the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business landscape of trade publishing.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of your choice of Brent Hartinger‘s novels! Author sponsored; eligibility: U.S. See the Russel Middlebrook series and Brent’s mystery/thriller books.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Giveaway: Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker Prize Package

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win a prize package celebrating the release of Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker (Bloomsbury, 2012). From the promotional copy: 

Sophomore year broke Clementine Williams’ heart. She fell for her best friend’s boyfriend and long story short: he’s excused, but Clem is vilified and she heads into summer with zero social life.

Enter her parents’ plan to spend the summer on their sailboat. Normally the idea of being stuck on a tiny boat with her parents and little sister would make Clem break out in hives, but floating away sounds pretty good right now.

Then she meets James at one of their first stops along the river. He and his dad are sailing for the summer and he’s just the distraction Clem needs. Can he break down Clem’s walls and heal her broken heart?

Told in alternating chapters that chronicle the year that broke Clem’s heart and the summer that healed it, Unbreak My Heart is a wonderful dual love story.

The giveaway package includes:

  • a signed copy of Unbreak My Heart;
  • a copy of Raising Eyebrows by Cameron Tuttle (a guide to your perfect brow);
  • Marie Natie natural lip gloss in Red;
  • Marie Natie natural lip gloss sample in Cotton Candy;
  • Bumble & Bumble Pin Tin (bobby pins);
  • Mad Grab Lip Balms;
  • and nail tattoos.

Author-sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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In Memory: Margaret Mahy

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Beloved New Zealand children’s author Margaret Mahy dies; Two-time Carnegie Medal winner by the Associated Press from The Washington Post. Peek: “She won the Carnegie Medal for outstanding children’s writing twice and in 2006 won the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her lifetime contribution to children’s literature. She was one of 20 living people to hold her country’s highest honor, the Order of New Zealand, and her books were translated into 15 languages.”

Margaret Mahy’s Intimate Legacy by Bronwyn Sell from The New Zealand Herald. Peek: “t was a testament to her ability to keep the child bubbling away inside her, even well into her 70s. Mahy always had a healthy appreciation for the ridiculous, as well as a musician’s sense of sound and rhythm, and a sharp mind for running what was effectively an international export business.”

What I Learned from Margaret Mahy from Blog Idle with Moata. Peek: “…what I really learned from that book, what Margaret Mahy was good enough to want to teach me, was that a part-Māori girl living in the Christchurch ‘burbs could still be the heroine of her own story. She could be brave and scared but achieve extraordinary things.”

Margaret Mahy (1936-2012) by Elissa Gershowitz from The Horn Book. Note: a compilation to her contributions to the magazine.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Stacy DeKeyser on The Brixen Witch

(McElderry, 2012)

By Stacy DeKeyser
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

We all have our reasons for wanting to be published. Some of mine: For the pure joy of playing with words. To disprove those who’ve told me it can’t be done (i.e., to be honest, out of spite).

To share something profound about the human experience.

I’m not saying books can’t be fun. Thank goodness for Dr. Seuss and for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. And yet, light, fluffy stories endure not because they’re light and fluffy, but because they are good stories.

The more I write, and read, the more I’ve come to appreciate the raw power of story. Story is ingrained in human culture, and hardwired into our brains. Beginning, middle, and end. Good against evil. Challenges presented to a hero we can root for; a hero who is, at the finish, something more than he was at the start.

Stories take life—which is random and often cruel—and give it order and meaning. To paraphrase Mark Twain, stories are better than real life because stories have to make sense. In stories, the hero wins the day. The bad guy gets his comeuppance. Those who deserve it live happily ever after.

Which brings us to The Pied Piper. Here is a tale of senseless, indescribable loss, with no happy ending in sight. So then why does it persist? Why is it part of our cherished canon of stories? Of children’s stories, no less?

Based on a true story, or so we’re told. And real life is often cruel.

But stories should make sense.

I decided to write my own version of this most sorrowful story. It didn’t need to be light and fluffy. But wasn’t there some way those kids could live happily ever after?

I read everything I could about the Pied Piper legend. (A favorite: Robert Browning’s poem, illustrated by Kate Greenaway.) I found lots of different versions, each ending more tragically than the last.

I was drawn to the versions where one child is left behind, for different reasons depending on the version. I wondered if maybe that child, at least, could live happily ever after.

And so I focused on him.

But little voices crept into my head. “You’re in way over your head, missy. Who are you to mess with a classic? Maybe all those people in the first paragraph are right: Maybe it can’t be done.”

The story stalled.

But, since we’ve established that I write partly out of spite, I tried not to listen to those voices. And here is where true, serendipitous inspiration comes in:

One day, while in the middle of Pied Piper procrastination (scanning old vacation photos), my eye caught something interesting.

Compare mountain in the photo to the one in the cover art.

A few of the photos—taken in an Alpine village, which happened to have its own legend of a mountain witch—reminded me a lot of Kate Greenaway’s Pied Piper illustrations.

That’s when everything clicked. The Pied Piper and the mountain witch invaded each other’s stories, and became The Brixen Witch.

It’s not a fluffy story. But it’s a lot of fun (I think). And (I hope) it honors the tradition that has come before.

Best of all, I found a way to give that most tragic of stories a happy ending.

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win one of three signed copies of The Brixen Witch by Stacy DeKeyser (McElderry, 2012). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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Guest Post: Vanessa Ziff Lasdon on The Writer’s Notebook: An Essential Tool for Daily Practice & Creative Survival

By Vanessa Ziff Lasdon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

So, you’re a writer. But are you living a writing kind of life? Are you writing every single day?

With all we have on our plates, many of us are missing the most essential tool for our creative survival: daily words. Where do you keep yours?

I’m a teacher by trade. My reluctant writers are those who don’t write fluently. They squirm in their seat and struggle with topics, quantities, and details. They fret over getting it right versus simply getting it down.

Recently, I’ve been wondering whether I fall into the reluctant writer category. The habit of generating the daily text I expect of my own students, significant or not, has gotten buried in my bustling life.

Habit is everything to a writer. Not just one who publishes, but one who simply writes. Habit is the process that builds fluency, and fluency shapes significance.

Well, if we want our ideas to spill over, if we want our fingers to fly when we hit the page, we have to prime the pump on a regular basis.

And so, my writer self looks to my teacher self and remembers: the most important tool for living a writing kind of life is a notebook.

It is, as author Ralph Fletcher describes, “A place where words can grow.”

Scrapbook, journal, diary, lifebook, laptop. A writer’s notebook may not be a novel idea to you, but I’d like you to consider a few craft books I use with students age eight to eighteen that provide a wealth of notebook strategies often overlooked by the adults who write for children.

Grab that notebook, organize it to your fancy, and get your hands on these powerful resources by a trio of incredible mentors: A Writer’s Notebook by Ralph Fletcher (HarperCollins, 1996)(RF), Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer’s Notebook by Aimee Buckner (Stenhouse, 2005) (AB), and Just Write: Here’s How! by Walter Dean Myers (Colins, 2012)(WDM).

Ways to Jump In

Often we just need a way to get writing already. So let’s dive in:

• Daily Pages (AB)

Aimee Buckner adopted this brilliant, no-brainer fluency strategy from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (Tarcher, 1992). Kick off your daily writing routine with a minimum of one page full of words, before you start any deep-thinking, story-related writing. All topics on deck. The purpose is to “take the trash out […] to clear the mind of clutter,” as Buckner describes, in order to get to our more creative selves.

• Write Small (RF)

Ralph Fletcher believes that the single most important lesson we can learn as a writer is to write small. I tell my students, “Notice what you notice.” Write down those hot thoughts before they cool off and drift away! Stories live within the details, and our daily world is packed with these tiny truths: a gesture, object, anecdote or snippet of sound. Fletcher likens the writer’s notebook to an incubator, “a protective place to keep your infant idea safe and warm, a place for it to grow while it is too young, too new, to survive on its own” (p. 32) Pay attention. Capture a handful of the most important sensory details each day. Crack open the adjectives and reveal the seed examples inside. Then wait…wait for imagination to take root.

• Fierce Wonderings (RF)(AB)

Think of how many questions you ponder over in a given day. How many thoughts, images, themes and memories haunt you, begging to be explored. Whatever you daydream fiercely about, big or small, serious or silly, is worth your time. Write those fierce wonderings down.

• Lists (RF)(AB)

Humans love to collect, categorize, classify. It’s one of our favorite things to do. Words, flavors, facts, places, books, titles, songs. Bests, worsts, firsts, lasts, deadlines, goals, dreams. So many lists! Hop to it!

• 3 x 3 (AB)

Buckner’s “Three Word Phrases in Three Minutes” exercise will get your fingers pumping out fresh ideas quickly. Choose a one-word topic; write it at the top of a new notebook page, set the timer, and go! (A particularly useful strategy for focusing on parts of a larger topic or issue with a character, setting or feeling, since it forces you to be selective with your words.)

• Memories (RF)

What moves you? What’s unforgettable? Search for memories that inspire you, that haunt you; that make you ask questions or make you uncomfortable. Fletcher wisely calls this, “writing that scrapes the heart,” and “writing-as-lifejacket: the writing you do because your heart will burst if you don’t write it” (p. 98). Writing from memory may mean connecting to your own history, facing hard truths, or exposing secrets. Then again, it may also mean collecting things: drawings, artifacts (Favorite pen. Date died: 5/15/92), photos, articles, and so on. Like day-to-day observations, memories fade; so make a habit of getting them on the page.

• Dialogue (RF)

Want to develop great character? Time to eavesdrop! Dialogue is one of the best ways to dive into writing. “Snatches of talk,” as Fletcher calls them, are packed with juicy details that represent the many ways we live and view the world. “Develop an ear for not just what’s said, but what someone is trying to say” (RF p. 62). Pay attention to gestures, expressions, body language, and all that is left unsaid. Notice rhythms and cadences, slang, and patterns of behavior that reflect a person’s character. Searching for more off-the-wall snippets? Catch what people say in their sleep!

• Sketches (WDM)

Walter Dean Myers offers some sage advice for sketching out characters and settings: find photographs and make a collage. Afterward, create detailed word portraits for each character or setting. Through these portraits, answer all the questions you have for that person or place. Remember: complex characters and multi-layered settings are memorable.

• Research & Inspiration (RF) (WDM)

Using part of your Writer’s Notebook to collect inspiring relics and compelling research can lead to some incredible storytelling. Not only that, but rereading these nuggets can keep you going when your energy or direction falters. Nowadays, it’s easy to take a screenshot on your computer or phone and print or send the clip to email, Evernote or Scrivener, for example. This is often the way I collect ideas, dialogue, scene openers and endings, and passages that just knock me out. Research makes our stories authentic. So go ahead: be a word hoarder! Seek out material that will make your stories authentic (WDM) and “find writing that inspires you to grow into the kind of writer you hope to be” (RF p. 119)

Reading Like a Writer

As writers, we read first for pleasure and second to hone our craft. Next time you have a great book in hand, try these quick techniques, which are some of my favorites to use in the classroom:

• Rereading (RF)(AB)

Both Buckner and Fletcher recommend reading through your notebook often and carefully to “dig out the crystals” that, once polished, will spark original writing. Star it, circle it, highlight it, flag it. Eventually, lift each of those special lines and rewrite them on their own notebook page. Now write.

• Writing Off Literature (AB)

Buckner says it perfectly: “Stories inspire stories.” Read through a poem, passage or chapter once just to enjoy it, to be affected by it, and the second time to connect to the story with your own words. Lift a line or an entire scene. Shoot for at least twenty minutes. Go all stream-of-consciousness! Who knows where things might lead!

• Writing From a Word (AB)

Similar to the idea above, only this time, immerse your self in just one word. Start with a noun. Next time a verb, an adjective, adverb, and so on. Explore the word’s sound, its meaning, its subtext, and the stories implicit within its letters.

• Try 10 (AB)

Try Ten is a handy revision strategy for leads, endings, transitions, verbs, dialogue, metaphors, and other short snippets of your work. It’s pretty self-explanatory: write your piece in question ten different ways. Vary the structure, word choice, length; you name it. Every sentence deserves our attention, and often our most creative ideas for a line are buried underneath the more obvious first five on the list. Ten is the magic number. Try it for yourself.

• Poetry & Wordplay (RF)

Poems are magical fruit to the parched writer: brief, intense, bold, intimate, satiating. Paste poems that pack a punch into your notebook and annotate them for the images they evoke, for the rhythms, cadences, and sounds they carry. Now imitate the poem. Experiment! Lose and find yourself in wordplay.

“Notebooks are…well, it’s like you have sparks from a campfire that could start a fire. They haven’t yet, but they could at any time” — Michael Ciccone, first grade

Final Thoughts

To really understand the power of a writer’s notebook, you have to give yourself permission to experience it completely. Yes, we are busy, so let’s be smart about how we invest our time. Slow is fast. Fast is slow.

While a writer’s notebook may not seem urgent compared to all the other pressing matters in our lives, it is when you consider the magnitude of value it brings to our craft and our soul. A notebook is a foundational element to living a writerly life every single day. It’s our meditative practice, our wellspring of chi.

I urge you to re-prioritize your schedule to fit a writer’s notebook of any kind into your daily blueprint.

Cynsational Notes

Fellow VCFA alumna Cindy Faughnan with Vanessa

Vanessa Ziff Lasdon is an L.A.-based teacher, tutor, writer, and educational coach. A University of Texas, Austin and Teach for America alum, she also holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a certificate degree in Digital Journalism.

When she’s not writing, reading, or managing her biz at W.O.R.D. Ink, Vanessa serves as an in-school writing mentor with 826LA and directs Writing Adventures summer camp. She also loves to cook, garden, and travel, get crafty, go green, play outdoors, make short films, surf the web, tune in to NPR, shop for unique stuff, share and laugh often. Vanessa has written a middle grade novel and is working on a young adult fantasy. She is represented by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger, Inc.

Vanessa will be launching her own weekly blog, W.O.R.D.: Write. Observe. Revise. Discover, early this September. She invites you to join her readership and check out her many writing services! Sign up and connect with Vanessa on Twitter @vzlasdonwriter or by email ( Visit Vanessa online at