New Voice: Suzanne Lazear on Innocent Darkness

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Suzanne Lazear is the first-time author of Innocent Darkness (Book 1, The Aether Chronicles)(Flux, 2012)(author blog), a YA fairytale steampunk story. From the promotional copy:

Wish. Love. Desire. Live. 

Sixteen-year-old Noli
Braddock’s hoyden ways land her in an abusive reform school far from
home. On mid-summer’s eve she wishes to be anyplace but that dreadful
school. Her wish sends her tumbling into the Otherworld. 

A mysterious
man from the Realm of Faerie rescues her, only to reveal that she must
be sacrificed, otherwise, the entire Otherworld civilization will perish.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

Way back in graduate school I wanted to write a story about a girl who moves into a falling apart house with a crazy old tree and gets sucked into the Realm of Faerie. I was going to call it “Queen of the Broken Tree.” The very first manuscript I ever finished started with that premise and ended up a story about an elven princess, a vampire, and a human sorceress going to Harvard. (I think only one person has ever read that particular story.)

I still really wanted to write that original premise, so a few years later I went back to it and created the story that would eventually become Innocent Darkness. That was where Noli (my main character), V (her best friend), and Kevighn (the anti-hero), first emerged.

They’ve always been Noli, Steven (the nickname V came later), and Kevighn, even before the story was steampunk and named “Innocent Darkness.” (For all those wondering, Kevighn is pronounced like Kevin).

But it wasn’t until I sat down and actually wrote the first draft that I discovered so many things about them. Noli really changed personality wise, and I discovered she wanted to be a botanist.

When I first started writing, I had no idea Kevighn had a sister, that V loves the book Nicomachean Ethics, or that Noli’s older brother was an air-pirate. I just love discovering things about my characters as I write—it’s like magic.

The first draft was also where I got to know James and Charlotte, two secondary characters that I adore, one of which didn’t even exist before I started writing the story on paper.

Innocent Darkness still isn’t really that exact original premise – though it does involve a big tree and the Realm of Faerie. Queen of the Broken Tree just didn’t fit as a title either, but one day, maybe I’ll write a story that does fit it.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. Every single day. Regardless of whether you want to or not. Even if it’s only fifteen minutes. It’s the only way you’re going to do it.

I have a family, a full time job, and three hours of commuting every day. I also write every single day.

It comes down to priorities. Obviously, some things have to give. Only you can decide that things you’re willing to cut out to make time for writing (and your family) when you’re not working. For me it was TV, pleasure reading (which hurt, but I couldn’t read one or two books a week and still write. I traded them for audio books to listen to in the car), and house cleaning.

I never really liked house cleaning anyway. Okay, I do clean; someone has to.

I write at lunch, every day, taking my lunch box and my laptop to a quiet corner instead of going out or being social. Often it’s the only good writing I get done during the week.

On Saturdays everyone knows that’s Mommy’s Day to write in her PJs until noon, then we do stuff as a family, housework, etc. I do some writing at night after my daughter goes to bed, but I make time for the hubby, too. A lot of it is about creative time management and balance. I plot and drive (so don’t drive behind me, okay?).

Discover what works for you, because what works for one person may not work for another, and go for it. Try to set a daily goal that works for you, where it’s writing for an hour, writing five pages, or writing 1,000 words.

Also, don’t neglect your family—even on deadline. Make them understand that Mommy needs to get work done, but schedule time for them, too. I do a lot of, “let me finish this chapter, then we’ll color.” Or “how about I take my laptop outside and write while you climb the tree.” (Timers are your friend).

They’re your biggest fans, writing is tough work and you need them.

Another thing I learned is to forgive yourself. If you don’t meet your goal for the day, it’s okay. But, the next day you have to get back to it. Keep going and don’t compare yourself to other people.

Most of all, don’t give up. It might take awhile, but you can do it.

Cynsational Notes

Suzanne Lazear writes steampunk stories for adults and teens. She always plays with swords, is never described as normal, and has been known to run with bustles. Suzanne lives in Southern California with her daughter, the hubby, a hermit crab, and two chickens, where she’s currently attempting to make a ray gun to match her ballgown.

Career Builder: Carolyn Crimi

Carolyn Crimi, pirate queen

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Carolyn Crimi received her MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College in 2000.

She has published thirteen books, including Don’t Need Friends, Boris and Bella, Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies, Where’s My Mummy?, Principal Fred Won’t Go To Bed, Dear Tabby, Rock and Roll Mole, and Pugs in a Bug.

This year Carolyn was quite pleased to be awarded The Prairie State Award for her body of work.

Carolyn enjoys giving Author Talks to elementary schools all over the country. Her website gives more details about her books and her background. Students, moms, teachers and librarians are also welcome to post letters about their pets on Carolyn’s blog, Dear Tabby.

Did you ever consider giving up? What happened? What kept you going?

I consider giving up my writing career just about every year. I have long, drawn out fantasies about what my life would be like if I did something else. I strategize about how I’ll gradually slip out of the children’s book world so that no one will notice. I tell myself it will be just like leaving a party without saying goodbye. No big deal. Happens all the time.

One of my fantasies involves a perfume store. I love perfume and have often dreamed of opening a small perfume boutique. I was in one of those “I’m-quitting-writing” moods, and I started to run the numbers on this boutique. I scouted locations and brainstormed a few names.

Now I happen to know that on any given weekday in my town the tiny shops are empty. When the bored store owner greets me with a little too much enthusiasm, I know she probably hasn’t had a customer all day. I wondered what I would do on boring days like that.

I remember looking out my window and saying out loud, “Well, I guess I could always write.”

So yes, I am stuck with this writing thing. And hey, it could be a lot worse. What keeps me going is the writing itself. I don’t care for the marketing part of it or the publishing part.

In fact, when the reviews start pouring in for a new book I feel like crawling inside a small, dark hole with a box of Pop Tarts. What I really enjoy is the writing. No matter what happens with my career, I will always write. And maybe open a perfume store, too….

How do you stay inspired? Describe your dance with the muse.

I mix it up! While most of my published books are picture books, lately I’ve been having a lot of fun working on a novel for adults. I must admit, it’s fun to write about characters who swear. This novel may never get published, and that’s fine. I’m having a blast.

I’ve also been working on illustrating a few books for the very young. I have found that illustrating is even more fun than writing is! Who knew?

Again, I don’t know if I’ll ever publish these books. I think, actually, that that’s what makes them so much more fun to work on. I have no idea what I’m doing. None! I don’t know why that makes these projects more fun than my usual picture books, but it does. Try it!

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?

I don’t really do much marketing at all. I’m not particularly proud of this fact, but I have found over the years that telling other writers this often makes them feel better about themselves.

I have, on occasion, hired publicists to market books that I felt might benefit from an extra push. I hire them because I hate to do it myself, and I wind up not doing anything at all.

Many of my books have gone out into the world without even one small book signing. Many! The weird thing is, I think those books have done just as well as my books that I have promoted.

So. Whatever.

I enjoy doing school visits and see them as my way of “marketing.” I can sell over 400 books at just one school visit. That’s about 395 more books than I usually sell at a book signing. I also get paid to do school visits, so it’s a win-win. And come on, what’s more fun than making kids laugh?

But no, I’ve never promoted my school visits either. Never even had a brochure. I’ve just made it into this incredibly exciting event and have depended entirely on word of mouth. I do between 30 and 50 a year, so I guess that strategy is working.

I always give my school visit presentation 100 percent. I remind myself that while I’ve heard it hundreds of times, these kids are hearing it for the first time and they deserve the best I can give them. I’ve seen too many authors sleep walk through their presentations.

I get it. School visits are hard. Focus on that one kid who can’t even breathe she’s so excited and you’ll get your energy back.

What advice do you have for the debut authors of 2012?

My favorite career quote of all time came from Tom Cruise.

Yes, Tom Cruise!

I read an interview with him once and when the interviewer asked him how he dealt with all the craziness of being famous he said, “I remind myself to keep my head down and do the work.”

Keep your head down and do the work. I am not famous, but I repeat this to myself all the time. Step away from Publishers Lunch, my friends. It will only make you crazy.

Conferences with big name authors are just like high school and can, at times, make you feel as though you are still the nerdy kid with braces with no one to sit with at lunch.

Do them if you must, but seriously, if you keep your head down and do the work you’ll be way ahead of the game.

Cynsational Notes

The Career Builders series
offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published
books for 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.


Guest Post: Vanessa Ziff Lasdon on The White-Hot Center of Story

Courtesy of Vanessa Ziff Lasdon

By Vanessa Ziff Lasdon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Where Stories Come From

Before I ask my fifth grade students to consider a moment in their lives that has changed the way they view the world, we discuss two fundamental questions: Where do our best stories come from? 
What shapes our voice as writers?

Interesting ideas, experiences, observations, memories, my fifth graders decide.

Then we dig deeper. I suggest to them that maybe the origins of a writer’s art are not rooted in the ideas of the mind, nor in literal memory, but in the unconscious, in “the place from where you dream,” as Robert Olen Butler explains. “Story comes from the white-hot center of you.”

After a few confused glances are exchanged, we begin to explore Voice and the narrative power we all possess through two memoir collections of award-winning children’s writers, both edited by Amy Ehrlich, titled When I Was Your Age: Original Stories About Growing Up (Candlewick).

In these volumes, twenty different award-winning writers recount their own childhood memories, as well as contribute notes about how they made their selection and what in their lives led them to be writers.

Karen Hesse writes about an abusive mother and the neighbors who turn a blind eye.

Rita Williams-Garcia and her siblings concoct an elaborate plot to outsmart their mother, Miss Essie.

Sid Fleischman uses humor to examine his own affliction with Chronic Stature Deficiency.

Some stories are witty, others sad, but all are inspiring, because they honor childhood and capture the honest truths about growing up.

A Memory’s White-Hot Center

The stories in these memoir collections are particularly poignant because they are not literally true in every detail. Rather, they are each a journey back in time to the writer’s favorite haunts; the familiar spaces they call home, places of white-hot memories and personal transformation.

Young writers at work; courtesy of Vanessa Ziff Lasdon

My class considers the revelation that maybe if the authors had drawn strictly from memory, the magic of the moment, the mysterious unconscious from which they extracted their stories, might have otherwise given way to a less exciting story, something too prescriptive; fixed ideas of the past versus felt impressions that resonate with readers of all ages.

The best memoirs are a physical and emotional venture. They are a study of the “story behind the story,” the true change within the main character that a reader can also discover within his or herself. This emotional nuance is another reason why Ehrlich’s memoir collections work.

Each represents what Butler explains as the Three Fundamentals of Fiction: “First, that fiction is about human beings; second, that it’s about human emotion […] and the third element […] has to do with the phenomenon of desire.”

By desire, Butler means a yearning for something—an object, experience, entitlement—that when cracked open, reveals an essential human need: courage, acceptance, respect, love, safety, control, friendship, imagination, or joy from those who are at the center of our young worlds: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, and, always, ourselves.

Everything Will Be Okay

Out of the many memoirs I’ve shared with students, two remain fixed in my mind: James Howe’s (of Bunnicula fame) “Everything Will Be Okay” and Mary Pope Osborne’s (Magic Tree House series) “All-Ball.” In Everything Will Be Okay, Howe finds a lost kitten and longs to keep it, but his older brother forces him to live by a code of toughness pervasive in the family that flattens Howe’s (and the kitten’s) vulnerability.

In what Butler would describe as a “burst of waking dream,” Howe simultaneously relives the past and glimpses into the future when he says, “Then all of a sudden […] I know some things so clearly that I will never have to ask an older brother to help me figure them out. / I will never work for Dr. Milk. / I will not go hunting with my father. / I will decide for myself what kind of boy I am, what kind of man I will become.”


In “All Ball,” eight-year-old Mary Pope Osborne remembers back to the weeks before she got the “really bad news”: her father would be leaving for a tour of duty in Korea.

Osborne tries to regain a semblance of normalcy by keeping a daily list of things to do: “Wash hands / Play with dolls / Practice writing / Practicing running / Cry for Daddy,” but she soon finds herself crying, “even when it wasn’t scheduled,” and keeps a close watch on her father, “because I felt I had to store up enough memories of him to last throughout the coming year.”

When Osborne’s father gives her money at a five-and-dime, she scours for “an object worthy of the last-fifty-cents-my-father-gave-me-before-he-went-to-Korea”: a softball-sized rubber ball with such spunk and bounce that she names it All-Ball. The two are immediately inseparable. Osborne uses her time with All-Ball to act out stories of families “in which everyone stayed together.” She falls in love with a ball. One can only imagine what happens to her beloved friend before the story’s end and the swell of emotions that follow. Ultimately, Osborne must accept “the complications of the moment” and the departure of those she loves most dearly; she must hold onto hope and face the unknown.

In her Afterward, Osborne explains that she decided to share this story because “it speaks to the hardest thing about being a child: the fact that most things in your life are out of your control. On the other hand, it also shows one of the best things about being a child: the fact that you can use your imagination to help ease your troubles.”

The Truth

New! 2012 Edition (Vol. I & II)

Myriad themes course through the childhood stories of When I Was Your Age and speak to every kind of reader: the need to be tough, to receive approval, to do well, to be loved, to show courage in the face of danger or cruelty; also, resourcefulness, self-confidence, and, of course, the essential question of Identity, “what it is and how you get it” (Ehrlich).

These stories remind us of the parameters by which we define ourselves, and how we eventually break away from these assumptions to “carve out new identities all our own.”

In the end, however, the most powerful undercurrent beneath these twenty voices is as Ehrlich describes, “the transformation of suffering through art,” through language, and its connection across generations and geographical locations. For after all, it is our differences that make us human, and in echoing the words of Amy Ehrlich to my room of fifth graders, “if we tell the truth, we will be understood.”

I invite you to explore When I Was Your Age: Original Stories About Growing Up (Candlewick, 2012). Use the collections to springboard into your own writing reflections: revisit the childhood memories that come from the white-hot center of you, the ones that reveal your deepest yearnings, that have shaped your unique voice, and that beg to be told.

Cynsational Notes

Authors featured in the anthology: Avi; Francesca Lia Block; Joseph Bruchac; Susan Cooper; Paul Fleischman; Karen Hesse; James Howe; E. L. Konigsburg; Reeve Lindbergh; Norma Fox Mazer; Nicholasa Mohr; Kyoko Mori; Walter Dean Myers; Howard Norman; Mary Pope Osborne; Katherine Paterson; Michael J. Rosen; Rita Williams-Garcia; Laurence Yep; Jane Yolen.

Visit Vanessa Ziff Lasdon

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

Book Trailer: The Vicious Deep by Zoraida Cordova

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for The Vicious Deep by Zoraida Cordova (Sourcebooks, 2012). From the promotional copy:

When an unnatural riptide sweeps lifeguard Tristan Hart out to sea for three days and then dumps him back on the shore of Coney Island, it’s the start of the Sea Court claiming its own. 

Suddenly, Tristan’s girlfriend dramas and swimming championship seem like distant worries as he discovers the truth: he’s a Merman.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Jo Whittemore on When the Going Gets Tough & What to Do About It

By Jo Whittemore
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

“What do you do when you’re stuck in your writing?”

This is a popular question asked of authors.

In reply, the author will usually stroke his/her beard thoughtfully and say, “I step away from the page for a few days to clear my head.”

But there’s more to it than that.

Before you can clear your head, you have to figure out what’s clogging it, right?

So what is it for you?

Fear? Frustration? Drain hair?

Tell Cousin It that he’s banned from our bathroom.

Whenever you’re stuck, ask yourself these five questions:

  1. Is the story going the way I’d hoped? 
  2. Is the story as riveting as I’d hoped? 
  3. Are the characters as awesome as I’d hoped? 
  4. Is the story as awesome as I’d hoped? 
  5. Am I as awesome as I’d hoped?

Well, which one is it?

Chances are one of these five doubts has been filling your mind.

1. If you fear your story isn’t going the way you’d hoped, you’ve got plotting issues. Consider what’ll happen following the logic of what you’ve already written (Elephant falls from tightrope, killing thousands of clowns trapped in car).

Compare that to what you wanted to happen (Elephant becomes famous tightrope walker). Where did the disconnect occur? Did the elephant miss some lessons that need to be written in? Does it never receive the all-important balancing umbrella?

2. If you fear your story isn’t as riveting as you’d hoped, you’ve got action/description issues. The reader won’t be drawn into your world because you haven’t made it interesting or exciting. If a sentence doesn’t move the story forward or paint a picture of your world, cut it.

3. If you fear your characters aren’t as awesome as you’d hoped, you’ve got character development issues. Reveal more of their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears. Add depth. Make them memorable. Make them human (or elephant).

4 & 5. If you fear a lack of awesome in the story or yourself, you’re doing one of the major no-no’s of the writing world…comparing what you’ve got to what someone else has.

The story you’re going to tell is different than the story someone else would tell, because it’s jam-packed with your emotions and experiences. Of course it’s awesome. Because it’s uniquely you!

See my big sister? She’s
all, “Whatevs. You can have your bear. I’m awesome.”
Be like that!

And take heart…the fact that you’re stuck is a good thing. It means you’re putting thought into what goes on the page, and you want it to be your best.

If all else fails, come see your old pal Jo and we’ll share some tea and writing time.

Cynsational Notes

Attention Central Texans! Join Jo at 4 p.m. Aug. 12 to celebrate the release of D Is for Drama (Aladdin, 2012) at BookPeople.

Photos courtesy of Jo Whittemore.

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win a set of signed copies of Jo’s books, Front Page Face-Off (Aladdin, 2010), Odd Girl In (Aladdin, 2011) and D Is for Drama (Aladdin, 2012). Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

From the promotional copy of D Is for Drama: 

Sunny Kim is done with one-line roles at Carnegie Arts Academy, but even with an acting coach, she doesn’t snag the lead in Mary Poppins. 

Desperate for a solution, Sunny convinces the school to let her produce a one-woman show, which other rejected kids soon beg to join. 

Before long, Sunny is knee-deep in curtains and cat fights as her one-woman show turns into the hit musical “Wicked.” 

Can the show come together in time for opening night?

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

We Need to Talk about the Mid-list by Ellen Caldecott from An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. Peek: “No-one ever sets out to become a mid-list writer, such dreams would be more getting texts from friends saying ‘I was in Coventry Waterstones and they don’t have your book’; being able to reserve your book only via the inter-library loan system; typing in the early hours before you go off to your day job.”

Meograph Launches 4D Storytelling Platform by Joyce Valenza from School Library Journal. Peek: “The intuitive, browser-based interface prompts users to create moments by setting up dates (and times if they are meaningful) and locations and then adding media and links to external articles.”

Join Shana Burg on the Laugh with the Moon Blog Tour from The Pirate Tree: Social Justice and Children’s Literature. Peek: “…I knew the next book would be set in Malawi. I was passionate about sharing stories about the people I’d met there–people who are resourceful and resilient and manage to laugh despite the extreme poverty, people who taught me so much.” Note: Attention Central Texans! Shana will be signing at 2 p.m. Aug. 4. at Barnes & Noble La Frontera Village in Round Rock.

Character Crisis by Amy Goldman Koss from Amy Koss Blog Thang. Peek: “…am I to tell them that if they want readers to recognize and sympathize with their characters they should write caricatures?” Amy has joined the faculty of the 41rst Annual SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles.

Writing and Selling Sci-Fi & Fantasy for Kids and Teens through Live Webinar registration, featuring literary agent John Cusick of Scott Treimel NY, from Writer’s Digest Shop. Peek: “What makes some stories stand out, and others unsuccessful, cliché, or—worst of all—left buried in the slush pile? How can you define your craft to create novels at once lasting and fresh? How does writing for kids and teens differ from writing for adults? How can you capture the attention of an agent in this rich and extremely competitive market? In other words, how can you give your story the best chance to get published?”

Alex Sanchez on LGBTQ and Controversial YA Lit from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing. Peek: ” I believe our responsibility as adults is better carried out not by teaching young people what to think but rather how to think. One powerful way to do that is through stories.”

Two Words by Annemarie O’Brien from Quirk and Quill. Peek: “Mining our childhood memories for material and translating them truthfully onto the page opens up the kind of vulnerability in our
writing that pulls readers in.”

How Long Should It Be? by Arthur Plotnik from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “…form is key.”

On Having Figured Out the Twist from John Green. Peek: “I stand with Rosenblatt in celebrating anticipation over surprise.”

Andy Sherrod on Boy Readers from Janet Fox at Through the Wardrobe. Peek: “…the activity is as important as the gender of the main character.”

Promoting Your Book Starts with Your Query by Nicola Furlong from Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing. Peek: “Writing good queries is hard; it’s both art and craft.”

2012 Kidlit Con Registration Has Opened from educating alice. Peek: “at the New York Public Library no less, Sept. 28 to Sept. 29, 2012.” If you can get there, go! It’s free.

Time Out for Monsters Book Birthday Party: Jean Reidy is celebrating the release of her latest picture book Time Out for Monsters! with month-long party and she has something for everyone, including Time Out for Teachers – Free Skype Visits and Resources for Teachers and Librarians for the 2012-13 School Year, Tales from the Time Out Corner – A fun video contest (through 8/31/12) with a chance to win $100 and more. A Time Out for Picture Books Critique Contest, a GoodreadsGiveaway and more.

On My Week Without Exclamation Marks by Larissa Theule from Quirk and Quill. Peek: “I went a week without using exclamation marks. Not a single happy stick
and dot in any emails, text messages, or reminder notes to myself or
anyone else.”

Interview with Author Lisa Yee by Marjorie Coughlan from PaperTigers. Peek: “I think that most kids (and adults) feel like an outsider at some point
in their life. But because we don’t talk about this, many think that
they are the only person who is invisible.”

Essays on Education, Reading, Teaching and Literacy by Professor Nana from The Goddess of YA Literature. See L is for Literacies, Content and Content, E is for Environment, and more.

Attention, Austinites! BookPeople is hiring — full-time, evenings and weekends. Fill out this application by 11 p.m. Aug. 5.

Cynsational Giveaways

 The winner of Starcrossed by Josephine Angeline (HarperTeen, 2011) was Gaby in Georgia.

New curriculum guide for Think Big!

The winner of Think Big by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Vanessa Newton (Bloomsbury, 2012) was Katie in Maryland.

The winners of two sets of Ron Koertge’s bestselling books were Dawn in Illinois and someone who has yet to claim the prize (check your email!), and the winner of a first chapter critique by Ron was Christina.

The winner of Goddess Girls Super Special: The Girl Games by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams (Aladdin, 2012) was Margaret in New York.

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Screening Room

Bookmark: We Believe in Picture Books! at Reading Starts Here! from Candlewick Press.

More Personally

Diabolical is now available from Walker Books in the U.K.; see more info!

Congratulations to the SCBWI 2012 Amazon Work in Progress Grant Winners, Runners-up, and Letter of Merit Honorees, including fellow Austinite Donna Bowman Bratton.

Donna at Varian Johnson‘s Saving Maddie launch!

Even More Personally

Last week’s highlight was a trip to nearby Round Top, Texas, which is one of the top small arts towns in the world. If you love craftsmanship, fine antiques, and the visual and performing arts, this is a must-see destination, which attracts visitors from around the globe.

Greg and I stayed at The Belle of Round Top Bed & Breakfast Retreat Center.
Here’s a peek at our room. The B&B has our highest recommendation!
Brazos Belle Restaurant in nearby Burton; a world-class dining experience (really).
And we saw “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Shakespeare at Winedale.

See Greg’s report, The Play’s The Thing.

Personal Links:

From Greg Leitich Smith

Celebrating Poetry: Margarita Engle

By Kate Hosford
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American author of young adult novels in verse. Most recently, The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012). The Surrender Tree: Poem’s of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom (Henry Holt, 2008) received many awards, including the first Newbery Honor granted to a Hispanic writer.

Margarita has received two American Library Association Pura Belpré Awards, and two Pura Belpré Honors. Her books have been honored by the International Reading Association, the Library of Congress, and the International Youth Library in Munich.

She lives in central California, where she enjoys helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs.

Congratulations on the release of your latest novel in verse, The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012). Could you tell us a bit about the evolution of this project?

Thank you! I’m really excited about The Wild Book. It was inspired by stories my grandmother told me about her childhood. She was born in 1901, and grew up on a farm in Cuba during the chaos that followed U.S. occupation of the island after the Spanish-American War.

She also suffered the inner turmoil of dyslexia, so I wanted to write about her struggle to learn to read, and her fear of being kidnapped by bandits.

I tried to portray traditional rural aspects of Cuban culture. For instance, poetry was an essential part of daily life on farms at that time.

What was your connection to poetry as a child?

I was a bookworm, constantly reading. I copied poems out of books and tried to memorize them, although I was never great at reciting. I’m more of a silent reader and writer than a performer.

My love of books led to writing poetry while I was very young. Later, during my teen years, I experimented with all sorts of complex rhymed forms, eventually discovering that I love the simplicity of Japanese forms. Free verse now seems to combine complexity and simplicity in a way that feels natural to me.

Almost all of your books are set in Cuba. What is your personal relationship to that country?

At a Havana book fair with old books representing research.

My parents met when my American father traveled to my Cuban mother’s hometown after seeing pictures of the colonial architecture in National Geographic Magazine. He’s an artist, so he decided to paint the quaint town. They met on his first day there, which happened to be Valentine’s Day. They didn’t speak the same language, so they communicated by passing sketches back and forth.

I was born and raised in my father’s hometown of Los Angeles, but during long summer visits to Cuba, I grew close to my mother’s extended family and fell in love with Cuban culture. My passion for tropical nature eventually led to the study of botany and agriculture, but I never stopped writing.

Tragically, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba broke down during one of my childhood visits, in 1960, right around my ninth birthday. Two years later, after the Missile Crisis, travel restrictions isolated the island. I was unable to visit again until 1991, but since then, I have been back many times, to visit relatives.

I live with constant hope that someday soon, travel and diplomacy might be normalized.

All of your novels are historical fiction written in free verse. Why is free verse the right vehicle for your books?

There’s something about the flow of emotions that fits the form. Free verse has a lot in common with dreaming. Things happen that aren’t expected, even by the author. Images that don’t seem to belong together suddenly join: The Poet Slave of Cuba, The Surrender Tree, Tropical Secrets, The Firefly Letters, Hurricane Dancers, The Wild Book.

All my titles feel as if they’ve emerged from dreams, when really, they just come from the flow of visual images.

I love the way writing a historical novel in verse allows me to distill complex situations down to their emotional essence. I hope to offer an un-crowded page that will invite reluctant readers, while at the same time tackling the mature themes that young adults deserve. They don’t need baby books. They’re bursting with ideas and emotions. They can understand history.

I love it when middle school students send me letters telling me they think my books are easy to understand. The stereotype of poetry as difficult to understand is a relic of the past.

Besides the connection of setting, what are some of the other themes that you see emerging in your body of work?

No matter what story I tell, I usually discover, somewhere along the way, that I’m writing about freedom, whether social, emotional, or spiritual. All my stories have hopeful endings. If I research a topic that I find fascinating, but I find that in real life it had a depressing outcome, I don’t choose that story as one for young people.

When I find real life people who were far ahead of their time, such as Juan Francisco Manzano in The Poet Slave of Cuba, Rosa la Bayamesa in The Surrender Tree, Fredrika Bremer in The Firefly Letters, or Maria Merian in my picture book, Summer Birds, then I know that those are great role models for young people. They are people who became independent thinkers while they were young, rather than accepting unjust concepts taught by the adults around them.

There is also a common theme of nature. Cuba is tropical, lush and green. Everything in the hot, wet tropics grows swiftly, and rots swiftly. There is a duality that suits my perception of human cruelty in places of great natural beauty. Paradise lost, in a sense, yet always with hope.

Your books are filled with descriptions of nature, and I see you also have a background in agriculture and botany. What role did nature play in your childhood?

There were two great contrasts between my life in Los Angeles, and those childhood visits to Cuba. One was contact with my mother’s extended family, the Spanish language, and Cuban culture. The other was nature.

In Los Angeles, I was forced to live as a city mouse, but I always felt out of place. I am a country mouse at heart. In Cuba, I was in the small town of Trinidad, and on a nearby farm, where every plant fascinated me, every animal, every bird…I just couldn’t get enough of nature.

I am still the same way. I became a botanist. My husband is an entomologist, and a volunteer trainer/handler for wilderness search and rescue dog programs.

On a typical Saturday morning, I hide in the Sierra Nevada forest, so our dogs can practice finding a “lost” hiker.

My next picture book is When You Wander, a Search-and-Rescue Dog Story (Holt, March 2013). It will help children understand how to stay found in the woods, and what to expect if a dog is coming to the rescue.

What are some of the daily rituals that feed your poetry?

I love peace and quiet. I write best when the weather is pleasant enough to be outdoors a lot, walking or swaying in a hammock, pen and paper in hand. I’m a morning person. I like to write as soon after dreaming as possible, during that phase when magical realism works its way into the mind, and onto the paper.

For later drafts, I have to come indoors and work at a computer, but at that point, it starts to feel like real work, not just daydreams. Also, I dread deadlines.

I work best when I pretend that time does not exist.

Historical novels in verse require a great deal of research. What was your most difficult research project?

Definitely Hurricane Dancers! The farther I moved back in time, the less reliable information I found.

In the case of this first-encounter tale of Cuban Indians and a shipwrecked pirate, the only first person accounts of the native culture were by Spanish priests. Without a written language, the indigenous point of view has survived only as legend, so I tried to combine what is known with what I feel free to imagine.

Halfway through the research process, I was invited to become a subject of the Cuban DNA Project, and discovered that my maternal mitochondrial DNA is Amerindian. In other words, I learned that I am a descendant of the people I was writing about, Ciboney or Taíno, both considered “extinct” for nearly five hundred years. I carry Haplogroup A, the same genetic marker found in Plains Indian tribes.

Essentially, five centuries of history books were wrong. This not only shows how little we know about history, but also how powerful the survival of a few individuals can be, in an era of genocide. For me, it made the writing of Hurricane Dancers extremely emotional.

I’m so grateful that the book has received the American Library Association’s Pura Belpré Honor, is on the International Youth Library’s White Ravens List, and on Oct. 5, will receive the Américas Award at the Library of Congress.

You were recently invited to speak at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore. What was it like to know that your books have traveled so far from home?

It was amazing. The conference was truly multicultural, with participants from all over the world. This year’s regional theme was the Philippines, so I had the chance to meet teachers who are using The Surrender Tree in their classrooms. There is a shared love of poetry, and also the shared colonial Spanish history.

I also had the chance to visit some wonderful museums in Singapore, and learn a bit about the local cultures, and since my husband was with me, we took the opportunity to spend a few days in Sarawak, on the Malaysian side of Borneo.

Seeing orangutans in the rain forest was one of the most magical wilderness experiences of my life.

Would you like to tell us about a project you are working on presently?

My next novel in verse is The Lightning Dreamer (Harcourt, March 2013), about the childhood and youth of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Cuba’s great nineteenth century abolitionist/feminist poet.

Unlike male abolitionists, she paired her anti-slavery views with a campaign against arranged marriage, which she regarded as the marketing of teenage girls.

While she was very young, she wrote a daring interracial romance novel that was published eleven years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and was far more influential in Europe and Latin America.

I’m also working on a search-and-rescue dog middle grade chapter book in verse that grew out of my story, Trail Magic, which is included in Ann Martin’s anthology titled Because of Shoe and Other Dog Stories (Holt, 2012).

I was amazed when Ann Martin asked me to expand it into a full-length book, to be published by Holt.

I don’t know the exact publication date yet, but it is a contemporary setting in the California mountains, not Cuba, so it was a challenge, an opportunity that was both difficult and thrilling.

What advice do you have for emerging children’s poets?

Never give up. Summer Birds sat in a drawer for thirty years before I pulled it out and finally got it published. Only submit your best work for publication. Think of the rest as practice.

Writers need to rehearse, just like dancers or musicians. We don’t like to admit this, because writing is so slow, but we really do need to practice, so don’t rush. Be calm.

Cynsational Notes

Kate Hosford grew up in Waitsfield,
Vermont, and graduated from Amherst College in 1988. She was happy to
return to her home state to attend Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults in 2011.

Before becoming a writer, Kate worked as a foster care worker, a
teacher, and an illustrator. Kate is publishing three picture books with
Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group: Big Bouffant
(spring, 2011), its sequel, Big Birthday (spring 2012), and Infinity
and Me (fall, 2012). She loves writing picture books, children’s poetry
and middle grade novels.

She has lived in India, Germany and Hong Kong, but presently resides in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two sons.

Diabolical by Cynthia Leitich Smith is Now Available from Walker Books (U.K.)

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Prepare for a Hell of a Ride

Diabolical, the fourth prose novel in the Tantalize series, is now available from Walker Books in the U.K. (It was released in the U.S. and Australia/New Zealand last winter.)

The story unites the four protagonists — Quincie, Kieren, Zachary, and Miranda — from the previous installments, and is in many ways mostly a sequel to Eternal (in the way that Blessed was mostly a sequel to Tantalize).

The series also includes a graphic novel, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle, and the forthcoming Eternal: Zachary’s Story, also illustrated by Ming.

In addition, free downloads of two short stories set in the universe, “Cat Calls” and “Haunted Love” are available from major book etailers.

Check out curriculum tie-ins for the Tantalize series, developed by the Texas Library Association. Highlights include Vote for Your Favorite Character, an Evening at Sanguini’s and Origins of Our Myths.

U.S. edition

You can purchase the U.K. edition or the U.S. edition from Book Depository and receive free shipping around the world or you can buy an autographed copy from my local independent bookstore, BookPeople of Austin, Texas (there will be a shipping fee).

“…this captivating story combines action, suspense, and romance
with just the right touch of humor to keep it entertaining. A great
finish to an original and satisfying series.” —School Library Journal

“It’s a considerable challenge for a series not to lose steam by
the fourth book, but this one runs full force on the fires of hell and
the sword power of heaven.”—The Horn Book

Career Builder & Giveaway: Candice Ransom

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Candice Ransom is the author of 115 books for young people, in every genre, from board books to young adult literature.

She holds an M.F.A. in writing for children from Vermont College and an M.A. in children’s literature from Hollins University. Currently she teaches in the M.F.A./M.A. children’s literature program at Hollins University.

A ninth generation Virginian, Candice writes about her home state and life in the South (which she has boiled down to the three F’s: food, family, and funerals). She lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia (“America’s Most Historic City”) with her husband Frank and cats Winchester and Persnickety.

Her latest releases are Iva Honeysuckle Discovers the World and Rebel McKenzie (both Hyperion, 2012). Check out the publication day party for Iva and Candice’s insights on the book from Children’s Literature Network.

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?

How about a hike up a mountain that has a winding road at the top?
Sometimes that road goes downhill, other times it leads nowhere.

Candice, age 13

I started so early, at age 15, so the mountain was steep and rocky because I knew nothing and had no talent, only strong desire. Because I was young, I just pushed myself from handgrip to handgrip.

In those days there were no writing classes, no groups, very few books on writing. My only guide was Writer’s Digest magazine (actually digest-sized), which I read at the library.

I made lots of mistakes, like sending my very first poem to The New Yorker, without an SASE—the person who got my little offering wrote me a note, setting me on the right track. And there was the picture book I wrote and illustrated with colored pens and sent grandly off to Albert Whitman.

Gradually, I figured out what I was doing. It was still a long scrabble, but I was a “pro” by age 24 when I sold my very first piece to Highlights. I landed my first book contract at age 29. Near the top of the mountain, at last.

From the second book on, I’ve been on a very long winding road. For years I wrote between four and six books a year—the road seemed like a straightaway with no end in sight. But there were significant curves, such as when my first editor, the one who kept me busy so many years, retired and my work for my major publisher sank like a stone.

As time wound on, I negotiated more curves: editors that quit or were fired, imprints that disappeared, publishers that went bankrupt, good reviews, stinker reviews, years with more money than I could count, years in which I thought I’d have to sell pencils on a street corner (like this one).

I’m not sure where the true top of the mountain is or if I’d recognize if I climbed that high. I’m a Thursday’s child, for one thing, which means I’ll never get where I’m going anyway. But that’s fine—it’s all about the journey.

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?

Candice, at age 7, reading 

Since I started as a kid, with no education, I’ve done nothing but grow! I had to learn everything! One lesson I learned early on—write what you like to read.

Although I would totally forget this with my first “real” novel, which was a rip-off of Daniel Pinkwater, Dungeons and Dragons, and riots at rock concerts.

After the huge failure of “The Doomsday Kid” (an apt title), I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong. My work lacked heart and plot. Plot I prayed would come, but heart I could fix by turning to my past, jotting incidents from my childhood that I would later parlay into books or parts of books. I learned to draw upon authentic emotions and add authentic detail.

Then I fell into a stretch of what I call “Boxcars and Biographies.” I had great success writing series books and nonfiction. But after a while I felt my “soul” work fading.

One day I sat down to write something of my own and found the words had dried up. I was in a rut and needed help getting out. I applied to Vermont College. I’d had 80 books published when I arrived and people (including some of my advisors) didn’t know what to make of me.

I left Writer Candice at home and became Student Candice at Vermont. It was hard, continuing to write contract books while pulling myself through the creative knothole. I worked on contract books five days a week and did my program work on weekends. When I graduated, there were eleven books in my thesis. I sold five of them (three while I was still in the program).

Sometimes you have to go to extraordinary lengths to reach new levels. My time at Vermont helped me deepen my work. I followed my M.F.A with an M.A. in children’s literature at Hollins. That degree helped me figure out the work I was meant to be doing.

As for areas that still need tightening, plot! Every day when I go to my computer, I pray to the god of plot to send me one!

Have you ever made an affirmative decision to alter your creative focus? What inspired this decision? What were the challenges?

Candice’s vintage Trixie Belden collection

In high school, I was going to be a writer and an illustrator of children’s books. I could teach myself to write, but realized I’d need to go to art school to learn illustration.

After I became a full-time writer, I hung around illustrators more than writers. Though we were both in the same field, the level of competition was different. Plus illustrators had better stuff. Gradually, I let go of my dream to be an artist. It wasn’t going to happen.

Then one day I walked into a store devoted to scrapbook supplies, found a group of women who worked on their albums every Friday night, and fell down that rabbit hole without a backward glance. I was never a very good scrapbooker, instead spent my Friday nights creating mixed media projects related to children’s literature.

While I worked with my hands, my brain mulled over problems in my writing. It was a wonderful experience discovering my right and left brains could actually work together.

Since I always seem to do things out of sequence, or go through the back door, I used my Friday-night skills to illustrate my own (unpublished) board books with cut-paper collage. Thinking visually opened up a new avenue in my writing. If I got stuck, I’d doodle or draw or cut paper shapes. I made maps. I created scrapbooks and illustrated journals for my characters. The process of making things or fiddling with illustration-like things fed into my writing.

Now I always include some sort of visual project with my novels. I cover my notebooks with collages. When my latest book, Rebel McKenzie, included my own crude comic strips (supposedly created by a seven-year-old boy who’s not too bright, my level of art!), I was beyond thrilled.

The challenge was letting myself dream again. You realize after a certain age you can’t do everything. And then a few more years roll by and you realize maybe you can. Just try one more time.

How have you built an audience over time?

Candice’s desk and reading nook

Pffffft! What audience? Years ago, when my contemporary fiction was in book clubs and in bookstores and libraries, I had quite an audience. Fan mail kept me busy every Saturday morning. Fans actually came to my door. But those were kids who bought my books themselves through the school book clubs or in the paperback section of bookstores.

Then I began writing picture books and my audience sort of shrank. It’s hard to reach the little kids. And then all sorts of things happened: bookstores disappeared, libraries had budget cuts, and other things like video games vied for kids’ attention. I wrote books that didn’t draw huge, adoring audiences—nonfiction, biographies. I wrote under pseudonyms.

To be honest, I don’t know where my audience is. I write mostly mid-grade now. Unlike YA audiences, kids 8 to 12 aren’t that tuned into the Internet, aren’t that influenced by blogs. I still go to bookstores, though not as much simply because there aren’t as many, and still do school visits, though not as many as I used because of slashed author-visit budgets.

But I’m still writing. I know the kids are out there. Somewhere.

Have you ever considered giving up? What happened? What kept you going?

Candice’s office.

I’ve flirted with giving up many times, but those were mostly snits that I got over. But once I did give up. Nobody noticed because I was still working and still publishing.

In the mid-90s, I had a spate of bad luck: seven books (with different publishers) were canceled, some right before publication. My long-term editor left and my long-term publisher had no use for me any more, despite twenty-plus books, including many bestsellers.

I’d been toiling in the field for nearly 15 years and felt disillusioned. Hurt, actually, as if the publishing world had turned its back on me.

So I turned my back on it. I stopped going into the children’s section of bookstores, ignored the children’s section of the library. But those were my two favorite places and it was painful for me to shut myself away from the world I’d loved my whole life.

At the time, adult cozy mysteries were taking off and I thought I’d switch careers in midstream. The fact I’d never written for adults, except for articles, didn’t bother me. I tried to learn the new field, hung around mystery writers (professional lunches were so much fun, talking about murder instead of how to nurture the young child’s mind). After I wrung out half of a really bad mystery novel, my adult agent and my adult editor told me, “Don’t bother finishing.”

I stayed away from children’s publishing at least four years, though I still cranked out series books. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, I wrote letters. As midnight neared, I wrote a long letter to myself. Basically I told myself to get over myself and go back to the thing I loved most.

And so I did.

On January 1, 2000, I leaped out of bed, eager to be in my field again.

I was a born-again children’s book writer.

Share an aspect of your process.

I always create notebooks for each project. This is the notebook for the sequel to Iva Honeysuckle. I buy binders with a clear-view window, make a collage, and slip it inside the window. I also cover composition notebooks in a similar theme to carry with me.

And I always have “icons” for each book. This book has a beach theme–the bracelet was mine as a child.  The postcard is of a house we used to rent at Ocean City when I was a child.

Authentic details make my work . . . well, authentic.

How have you handled being a player in the world of youth literature? Fans, reviews, jealousies, acclaim, etc.

Candice’s office

Dealing with acclaim and a gigantic bunch of fans has been like finding dinosaurs in my backyard—hasn’t happened yet. Probably won’t happen.

But jealousy, bad reviews, and all that other tawdry stuff, yes, I’ve had more than my fair share. Once upon a time, I read all my reviews. I’m prone to obsessive thinking, and the bad ones would send me off on a tangent that lasted for days.

If I heard about someone I knew getting a multi-book contract for millions of dollars when I hadn’t broken the $5000 advance mark, I’d sink into a decline (I’m a Southerner, we are very good at declines). Worse, these things disrupted my work. I couldn’t do anything about a bad review or someone else’s huge success.

So I simply shut off the flow of information. I stopped reading my reviews, good and bad. If I believed in the good ones, I had to believe in the bad ones (if a review is really good, I tell my editor to send it on). I quit reading about other people’s successes.

But then along came the Internet and Facebook and again I was barraged with things I didn’t want to know. So I cut them off, though it’s not easy.

While I’m happy for other writers—and I am, really—I need to have the news when I’m ready for it. First thing in the morning when I’m starting my work, no. At a luncheon or a conference or in emails when my work day is done, yes. 

Where do you want to go from here? What are your short-and long-term goals? Your strategies for achieving them?

Winchester — world’s most photogenic cat

Since I’ve quit writing to trends, it’s been pretty quiet in my world. I’ve had lots of time to think. After more than a hundred published books, I’m thinking more about what I want to do with the time I have left.

I don’t write as fast as I did. My projects are longer and deeper. If I write a book a year, I’m doing well. I want to continue on my current path, writing funny Southern novels (something I know about!). It’s enough I keep working, staying the course.

I’d like to create a long-term workshop or write a book (or both!) on what I’ve learned over the years as a writer. I love teaching and feel I have much to pass along.

I’d call it the Turkey Buzzard School of Writing. Turkey buzzards aren’t much to look at on the ground, but when they fly . . . they are wizards in the air. They don’t even flap their wings.

The nuts and bolts of writing aren’t very glamorous, but when a piece works . . . you don’t detect a single wing-flap.

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

I’m most proud of Rebel McKenzie, my latest book, and not because it’s my latest.

Rebel was a book I wrote to satisfy myself, not an editor or publisher (though it was nice they liked it!).

I began with an episode from my life (yes, that’s me in the seven pairs of underpants with the leeches on my ankles, getting advice from a convict), then moved into a sort of endless summer from my teenage years, using people and places from memory.

But then the first lovely thing happened. The character became not-me and the story became not-mine. It grew into its own wonderful self.

The second lovely thing was figuring out how to tell all the characters’ stories without slowing down the plot or using flashbacks: Rudy drew comic strips, Bambi sent unsolicited beauty advice newsletters, Rebel kept a field notebook.

The third lovely thing was that the big cross-eyed kink-tailed Siamese cat, Doublewide, tried to run away with the book. It was so much fun chasing him.

Cynsational Notes

The Career Builders series offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published books for 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 Rebel McKenzie by Candice Ransom (Hyperion, 2012). Author sponsored, U.S. only.

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