Career Builder & Giveaway: Rita Williams-Garcia

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Rita Williams-Garcia is the author of several acclaimed novels for young adults: Blue Tights (1987), Every Time a Rainbow Dies (2001), Fast Talk on a Slow Track (1991), Like Sisters on the Homefront (1995), No Laughter Here (2004), and Jumped (2009).

Like Sisters on the Homefront was also a Coretta Scott King Honor Book.

In addition, Rita’s middle grade novel One Crazy Summer (2010) was recognized as a Coretta Scott King Book Award and a Newbery Honor Medal recipient, among many, many other honors.

She also has published a picture book, Catching the Waiyuuzee, and numerous short stories.

Rita is a faculty member in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Jamaica, New York.

What memories of your debut author experience stand out? If you could offer advice to the new voice you once were, what would you say?

I remember wanting to say so much in Blue Tights. I wanted to talk about all the repercussions of low self-esteem waiting to trap teenage girls.

I’d tell the emergent me to have faith in the true arc of the character. This debut novel won’t be my last story. Focus.

How do you define success?

I’ve defined success differently with each stage of my career, but I’m going to say the word no artist dare speaketh: money. I’ve had praise for my work and acknowledgement, but it’s when you can fully think in story, research, promote and write that you experience the grail of all writers: freedom.

I don’t worry if my forthcoming novel will find its audience or win any medals because its older sister has done all the hard work. The sibling novels can run about and simply be read.

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? Why?

It’s been more of a desert with occasional cool springs along the way, only to find a sunny resort with a five-star chef, cabana boys offering umbrella drinks with dark rum at the other end of all that sand.

It took eight years to sell my first novel—two of those eight with agents before I went on my own.

Each novel received some praise, a few stars and have made lists, but it never occurred to me that I’d quit my job and try to write nearly full-time.

I think the reviewing community has always respected my work but that wasn’t enough to guarantee book sales, and honestly, I wasn’t too concerned with book sales at the time.

I just wanted to write what I thought were important, hard-to-tell stories.

 It wasn’t until I quit my job with health benefits that I had begun to think about writing a novel that might cast a wider reading net.

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?

I’ve always challenged myself to do something different in each novel, whether it was through taking on subject matter or trying a new craft approach. I’ve never written a sequel, let alone trilogy so I studied what it would entail and I’m now on book three of my One Crazy Summer trilogy.

I’ve never engaged my adventure/geek side, so I began another trilogy with a different voice, world and rules. It’s harder for me because I don’t lean on character in the same way and I’ve had to build everything from the games in the novel, the rules, the world’s history and the world itself.

I don’t like staying in the same place for too long, but I’m learning as a writer how to derive more from my initial story premises.

I’m known more for my language than anything else. I think the hardest thing is spending a lot of time doing something interesting with structure, character or paradox only to hear the same thing over and over: “It has a great rhythm and it’s easy to dance to.”

Okay, that’s what my ears hear.

I’d love to grow as a picture book writer. I hear it’s a glutted market out there, but this doesn’t stop me from trying my hand at writing or selling them.

My current mission is a story set in Brazil to the beat of a samba tom-tom. Okay. You can say it. It has great rhythm and it’s easy to dance to.” Actually, it is!

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

Kekla Magoon
Also recommended.

For me, the decision to write for younger readers, ages 9-12, changed my entire world. For one thing, I do more school and library visits.

I just happened to write about the Black Power Movement, a period that has received little coverage outside of Kekla Magoon’s The Rock and The River (Aladdin, 2009). It allowed educators to bring a different aspect of Civil Rights into the classroom.

The challenge was to write a novel with historical content but to not allow the Black Panthers to hijack the story from the central characters. There was so much research. So many historical comments to make, but I constantly cut away to stay within the heart and perceptions of character. Either I did it myself or my editor would ask me to do it later.

How have you built an audience over time?

Oh dear. You’re looking at a marketing “don’t.” I fall short on the self-marketing side and that is a definite “don’t” in this day and age. My audience has come, gone, and a new audience has sprung up.

It’s important to me to offer this new audience more of what attracted them to me in the first place, but to keep the stories unique. It does help to have three novels revolving around the same characters for the fans of the flagship book.

My school visits have brought the readers to me with their questions and their picks for what should happen next in my stories. I might not follow their suggestions, but my readers still have some impact on my choices. I learn what’s important to them and I’m hoping those readers will follow me down other paths.

I’m particularly aiming at boys as an audience for my next book, The Place of All Games. This would bring yet another new audience to my work.

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?

Rita’s first promotional brochure & fan letter

Marketing strategies, you say…

Uh…I’m playing catch-up. I’m really learning everything from writers and debut novelists hurling their books and presence out into the world. What did we do before book trailers, Twitter and Facebook?

I’ve engaged a team to tackle that for me with The Place of All Games. There will also be an app for one of my games! How cool is that? It paid to have worked with programmers in my other life.

 I’m definitely putting on my Lieutenant Uhura uniform and boots, and I’ll be taking my show to Comic-Con when my book comes out.

For PS Be Eleven, I’ll be putting together a trailer and leaving little PSBE notes on Facebook and Twitter. Giveaways will be involved.

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

I was looking into training as a radiology technician just before One Crazy Summer went crazy. In spite of getting good reviews for Jumped, I had a hard time staying afloat.

When I told my editor I might be leaving children’s books to find employment plus benefits, she kept saying, “Keep the faith.” She had a real feeling about One Crazy Summer.

I had one foot planted in poverty and possible eviction when I learned the book had been named the Coretta Scott King (Author) Award winner and a Newbery Honor Medalist. That meant I’d get a royalty check, my teeth fixed, and I’d breathe.

How have you handled being a player in the world of youth literature?

As a child, Rita wrote 500 words a night.

The readers have been incredible! It’s great to have written a good book. Even better to have written one that readers love to read.

I’ve actually seen someone reading my book. It never gets old. I do the inner shriek, as not to scare them.

A player? I don’t know about all of that, but I’ve been treated to some pretty savory dinners and lunches at conferences. I try to blurb emerging writers when I can.

I’ve felt more support and love from the writing community. There’s been a few cracks about the medals, but honestly, I have no say in those decisions. It was all a huge surprise.

There’s a video of me jumping around when I learned One Crazy Summer was named a National Book Award finalist. In spite of the buzz, I was shocked by it all. There are so many stellar books out there that don’t get spotlight or sales. It’s all very fickle. No one is guaranteed a thing.

And if someone thinks an award is a foregone conclusion because they’ve won previously or because they have good hair, they’ll only be disappointed.

I’ve had my time in the spotlight and I’m incredibly grateful. It saved me. It saved my writing career.

Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you should have done differently? What and why?

Early draft of Blue Tights

I didn’t get a degree in creative writing or take a lot of writing courses as an undergrad at Hofstra. With the exception of master classes I took with Richard Price and Sonia Pilcer, it didn’t occur to me to sit in a classroom and study writing. I just thought, “write every day and read really good books.”

I didn’t want to know about craft in academic terms. Instead I wanted to write and make my own discoveries about craft. All of that is all well and good, but geez. I wouldn’t have eaten up so much time discovering “psychic distance” only to learn later that John Gardner had beaten me to it.

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

My advice is hypocritical, but it is still good. Put at least one third of your energy into creating your online presence when your book comes out.

I know, I know. I shrink from blogging, I tweet modestly, and you won’t catch me on radio. But do these things, anyway.

While you’re doing that, you should be deep in the throes of writing your next book. Write 40,000 good words every year. Always have a story going.

What do you want to say to established mid-list authors about staying in the game? 

I’ll pass on what my editor said to me. It’s always just at that point that you’re ready to toss it all in that your breakthrough comes.

It helped me a lot to switch audiences and to write about a period that I remembered with fondness and passion.

What changes are you willing to make to be seen? How close is it to your passion?

What do you want to say to those who call themselves “one-book wonders” or those who otherwise feel the market has left them behind?

Stop watching the market and write a story that excites you. Isn’t that what you want to do in the first place—write a novel that’s impossible to put down? The market loves the market (books that all don the same jacket).

We’re back to passion, but tap into your passion and cultivate readers who share that passion. Who knows? The trend could be following you.

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

I’m most proud of No Laughter Here, which is still available electronically. Even though this book won no medals and made no lists that I’m aware of, I still hear from readers who’ve needed this book.

I’ve heard from those who are awaiting extradition to their ritual-practicing countries and from those who’ve escaped to safer shores. They are holding onto No Laughter Here for comfort.

One Crazy Summer might have saved my career, but No Laughter Here has an incalculable reach. I’m glad to offer it.

Cynsational Notes

Find Rita at facebook and Rita at Twitter (@OneCrazyRita).

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 one of three paperback copies of Rita’s One Crazy Summer. Publisher sponsored. U.S. only.

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New Voice & Giveaway: Debbie Ridpath Ohi on I’m Bored

By Lena Coakley
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m Bored by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi (Simon & Schuster, 2012). From the promotional copy:

There is nothing boring about being a kid, but one little girl is going to have to prove it in this anything-but-boring picture book from comedian Michael Ian Black.



Just when a little girl thinks she couldn’t possibly be more bored, she stumbles upon a potato who turns the tables on her by declaring that children are boring. 

But this girl isn’t going to let a vegetable tell her what’s what, so she sets out to show the unimpressed potato all the amazing things kids can do. Too bad the potato is anything but interested….


This tongue-in-cheek twist on a familiar topic is sure to entertain anyone who’s ever been bored—or had to hear about someone else being bored—and is filled with comedian Michael Ian Black’s trademark dry wit, accompanied by charismatic illustrations from newcomer Debbie Ridpath Ohi.


Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft? What happened, and how did it help you?

Photo by Jeff Ridpath

Without a doubt, the conference that changed everything for me was the 2010 SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles. I decided to submit one of my novels-in-progress for the manuscript critique consultation: a middle grade novel that had small illustrations imbedded throughout. Sadly, it was rejected because I had misread the critique rules.

Happily, rejection turned out to be a good thing. At that time, you could enter either the manuscript critique or the Portfolio Showcase, but not both.

An illustrator friend of mine, Beckett Gladney, suggested that I enter the Showcase and also helped me put my first portfolio together.

To my shock, I ended winning one of two Honor (runner-up) Awards for the overall showcase as well as being selected for the Mentorship Program, in which six industry experts each selected an artist whose portfolio showed promise.

The SCBWI Illustration Mentor who chose me was Cecilia Yung, who is Art Director at Penguin USA. I met with her as well as the five other Mentors (David Diaz, Rubin Pfeffer, Priscilla Burris, Pat Cummings, Bridget Strevens-Marzo). When we all met the following morning, we new Mentees were each asked to introduce ourselves and say what art training we had received.

When it was my turn, I had to confess that I had majored in Computer Science at the University Of Toronto and that I used to be a computer programmer/analyst.

Instead of looking down on me for my lack of art schooling, however, I’ve had tremendous support and encouragement from my Mentors as well as the other Mentees and have learned so much from all of them. I continue to be in touch with the other Mentees, and we launched our own website at KidLitArtists.com.

The conference was also significant because that’s where Justin Chanda found me. Justin is the publisher at Simon &Schuster in charge of three imprints: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, Atheneum & Margaret K. McElderry Books. During the conference, Justin told me about Michael Ian Black‘s book, and that he thought I’d be the perfect illustrator.

At Simon & Schuster: Debbie, Laurent Linn (art director), Justin Chanda (editor/publisher); photo by Dani Young

Justin’s interest led to a book contract and then two more book contracts with Simon &Schuster. Working with Justin and Laurent Linn (S&S art director) has been a joy, and I have improved as both a writer and illustrator as a result. For those interested, I’m blogging about my experience working with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers.

Debbie tapes sketches and drawings to her ceiling so she can see them better.

But back to the “aha” factor.

I include the details above to help show how I came to certain realizations. They were particular to my situation, yes, but I list some of them below in case they help others out there:

  • Don’t let rejections keep you down. Give yourself a day to feel sorry for yourself but then move on. If you let yourself get sucked into defeatist/negativity mode, then you may miss out on other opportunities.
  • Seek out and appreciate those who inspire and encourage you. I will always be grateful to my friend Beckett for nudging (okay, pushing) me to overcome my insecurities and try something completely new.
  • Don’t give up. Keep working on your craft. Get out and meet other creative people.

As for getting my novels published, I haven’t given up. Last year, I submitted a YA novel-in-progress for the SCBWI conference manuscript critique, was hugely encouraged by Jen Rofé‘s feedback, and my manuscript was nominated for the Sue Alexander “Most Promising Work” Award. It didn’t win, but it was a sign to me that I should keep working on my novel projects in addition to picture books.

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

I’ve been writing and drawing forever. I wrote my first chapter book
when I was in second grade (see photo above). I recall being so excited
about using a new word I had discovered in the dictionary:
“horrendous.” Sadly, I managed to misspell it in my story, and it got
red-lined by my teacher.

Although I’ve had a number of short pieces published in print and online venues as well as a book, my only published writing credit for young people so far is the illustrated short story I did for Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction: An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories, a teen anthology edited by Holly Thompson and published by Stone Bridge Press.

My first writing mentor was Lee Wardlaw, a West Coast writer, and I learned a great deal from her critiquing. Nowadays, my main writing critique group is MiGWriters.

By Ruth Ohi (Annick Press)

In illustration, I’ve learned the most from my sister, Ruth Ohi. Ruth has over 50 books published, and her continuing support and encouragement have helped me so many times. More recently, I’ve gained much more knowledge about the craft and business of illustrating children’s books from Laurent Linn, my art director at Simon & Schuster BFYR. And as I’ve mentioned earlier, the SCBWI Illustration Mentorship Program has been amazing for both advice and mutual encouragement.

The biggest piece of advice I can give those who write and illustrate: let your inner artist and writer out to play regularly, together as well as separately.

I do some web comics purely for the fun of it, plus I try to do a daily sketch. Some I post online, some I don’t.

I think it’s especially important for illustrators to do regular aimless doodling. Some people knit or do other needlework while they watch a movie or listen to music at home. I doodle. You never know what your subconscious is going to do or how it’s going to express itself, and who knows? You may come up with a character idea or story fragment that could spark a project down the road.

Sample notes for one of the spreads
Final version.

 How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut illustrators and for those in the years to come?

My approach to promotion mainly focuses on connections I’ve made in the past as well as new connections. I’m hoping that some of the people who have been following me via my blogs or social media feeds or past projects will be intrigued enough to buy the book or help me promote it via word-of-mouth. I’ve never been a big fan of the hard sell, though I know it does work for some people.

To clarify: my approach won’t work for everyone. I’m also not saying that this is the best approach — for the book to sell really well, it needs to sell to total strangers who have no idea who I am. For me, though, the more personal approach feels the most natural and suits my personality.

I’m lucky in that I have publicists and a marketing team at Simon & Schuster in the U.S. and Canada who are going to be helping promote I’m Bored, but I know there’s a ton I can do on my own as well.

My advice for authors and illustrators who have a debut book:

  • Discover what works for you. Don’t force it. You don’t have to be on Twitter or Facebook or have a blog, if that type of venue makes you super-uncomfortable or you find them too much of a challenge. There are so many other ways to promote your book. Focus on your strengths and interests.
  • Also, think about what prompts you to buy a book. Make a list. Then go over the list and figure out which factors you can influence and which you can’t.
  • I’m giving a presentation at the SCBWI Niagara Canada East conference in 2013 about Networking and Promotion For Introverts, for anyone interested.

As for whether I’m enjoying the process of promoting I’m Bored, the basic answer is: yes. I do admit that I enjoy some types of promotion more than others. I’m not as comfortable with live interviews as I am with written, for example, and still get nervous when I have to do any public speaking in front of large groups.

But I’m super-excited about I’m Bored and very happy with how it turned out, and that makes promotion so much more fun. Here are just a few of the ways I’m promoting I’m Bored:

  • Book launch! Scheduled for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sept.18 at Type Books on Queen Street in Toronto. More details to be posted on the I’m Bored Facebook Page.
  • A song loosely based on the book, co-written with my friend Errol Elumir, and made into a music video (see below!).
  • Showing how I’m Bored was created in a process blog, with sketches and photos.
  • Comics about how I’m Bored was created: 

Dani Young (Editorial Assistant), Laurent Linn (Art Director), Justin Chanda (Editor & Publisher), Debbie

Photo credit: Navah Wolfe

Cynsational Notes

Don’t miss the I’m Bored Bonus Pages, including teacher’s guide and ready-to-print activity pages!

Greg Leitich Smith cheers I’m Bored: “With expressive illustrations and a hilarious point-counterpoint, a
little girl demonstrates that children are less boring than potatoes. 
And there are waterfowl, too.  Really.”

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

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

Witchlanders, her first novel, was called “a stunning teen debut” by Kirkus Reviews and was the winner of the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for the Americas region. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto.


I’m Bored Music Video (inspired by the new picture book from Simon & Schuster BFYR) from debsanderrol on Vimeo.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of I’m Bored by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi (Simon & Schuster, 2012). Illustrator sponsored. Eligibility: international.

Breaking News! Debbie Ridpath Ohi has added a hand-drawn doodle to the I’m Bored giveaway! 

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Book Trailer: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Blue Sargent, the daughter of the town psychic in Henrietta, Virginia, has been told for as long as she can remember that if she ever kisses her true love, he will die. 

But she is too practical to believe in things like true love. 

Her policy is to stay away from the rich boys at the prestigious Aglionby Academy. The boys there — known as Raven Boys — can only mean trouble.

Cynsational Notes

Animation & music by Maggie Stiefvater, music performed by Maggie Stiefvater, Kate Hummel, & Matt Montoro.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Mari Mancusi on the release of Blood Forever! From the promotional copy:


Sunny and Rayne McDonald have had their lives turned upside down thanks to the Blood Coven. But when the past itself is changed, the sisters will do anything to get back what they’ve lost…


After making a deal with the devil, Rayne and her twin sister Sunny have been given the chance to go back in time—preventing that fateful night when Sunny was bitten by Magnus from ever happening. But while Sunny has been offered a vampire-free existence, she finds she doesn’t want to live without Magnus by her side. And although Rayne puts up a stoic front, she secretly wishes that vampire Jareth was back in her arms.


To reclaim their lives, Sunny and Rayne team up to figure out a way to change history for the better. Problem is, Jareth and Magnus aren’t that eager to help two unfamiliar girls who somehow know everything about their vampiric organization. Now, if the twins can’t get the boys on their side, history may spiral out of control—destroying not only the Blood Coven, but quite possibly the entire human race…


Mari–along with fellow YA fantasy authors Sophie Jordan and Tera Lynn Childs–will be launching the novel at 3 p.m. Sept. 16 at The Book Spot.

It’s Complicated

Join in the latest “It’s Complicated” conversation at CBC Diversity, this one focusing on book covers:

More News & Giveaways

Charlesbridge, 2012

Debut Author Interview: Natalie Dias Lorenzi on Flying the Dragon by Carmen Oliver from One Word at a Time. Peek: “As an ESL teacher and someone who has lived overseas both as a child and an adult, I knew from the start that the ‘finding your place in the world’ theme would be a dominant one in the story.”

Character Trait Entry: Peacemaker by Becca Puglisi from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “Since they value the happiness of others, they’re usually
people-oriented and sacrificial, deferring to others in order to
maintain good relations.”

Villains: The Guys You Love to Hate by Ash Krafton from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “… sometimes, I root for the bad guy.”

Sounds Like Teen Speak by Karen Rock. Peek: “To know our audience, we need to learn about them and here’s how.”

L Is For Librarians by Professor Nana from The Goddess of YA Literature. Peek: “We need classroom libraries. We need to make sure kids have good
libraries in the school, too. The public library is as essential.”

The Prism of Roles: Another View of Character Identity and Narrative by Sarah Blake Johnson from Hunger Mountain. Peek: “…interactions between characters reflect their beliefs about their roles;
characters view each other not with a mirror or through a window, but
through a prism.”

Writing Big or Going Home by Nikki Loftin from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing. Peek: “If you’re writing adventure, raise the stakes sky-high – or make the
reader identify so much with your main character that even a dropped ice
cream cone feels like a loss of epic proportions. Go there. Go big. Or your manuscript may never go anywhere.”

Organizational Tips for Your Writing Retreat by P.J. Hoover from The Writing Barn. Peek: “It’s important to have a group that will get along well. I’m not saying
everyone has to be BFF with everyone else, but the retreat will include
tons of bonding time, and there is no place for divas or people holding
grudges.”

Without Delay by Donald Maass from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “While reading a well-reviewed novel, have you ever felt both awed and bored?”

New YA Book Award: the Burt Award for First Nations, Metis, and Inuit Literature “established by CODE with
the generous support of philanthropist William Burt and the Literary
Prizes Foundation that recognizes excellence in First Nations, Métis and
Inuit literature for youth and provide engaging and culturally-relevant
books for young people across Canada.” See Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature for more information.

Interview with Flux Editor Brian Farry by Laurie Boyle Crompton from Emu’s Debuts. Peek: “What I typically tell people (and this scares them) is: I know after 1
page if you can write, I know after 10 pages if I’m going to keep
reading, I know by page 50 if I’m going to finish.”

How to Make a Book Trailer Using Animoto by Laura Bowers. Peek: “…it’s a great website for daunted, clueless, overwhelmed people with limited funds.”

Looking for more links? Try Seeing Creative and Publishing Pulse from QueryTracker.netBlog.

Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of Tris & Izzie T-shirt, love potion necklace and signed copy of Tris & Izzie by Mette Ivie Harrison was Beverly in Pennsylvania, the winner of Torn by Margaret Peterson Haddix (Simon & Schuster) was Lillian in Ohio, the winner of a Let’s Go Rambling Kit, celebrating One Day I Went Rambling by Kelly Bennett (Bright Sky Press, 2012) was Heidi in Utah, and the winner of a signed paperback edition of Flutter (Puffin, 2012) and a signed ARC of Tracing Stars (Philomel, 2012), both by Erin E. Moulton was Debbi in California.

Back-to-School Giveaway from Donna Gephart at Wild About Words. Includes: an autographed hardcover of Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, signed paperback copies of How to Survive Middle School and As If Being 12-3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President!; a free 30-minute Skype visit with the author, 30 signed Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen bookmarks and a $25 gift card for Books-A-Million.

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Screening Room

Congratulations to Cynsations Canada reporter Lena Coakley on the release of Witchlanders (Atheneum, 2012) in paperback!

More Personally

Happy Friday! It’s a catch-up week here. Please hold off on any non-critical correspondence for a few days. A wave of folks send email after holiday weekends, and it takes a while to respond to it all.

Congratulations to Austinite Sara Kocek on the sale of her debut novel, What Happened at Talmadge Hill, to Albert Whitman!

Last week’s highlight was four days, three nights at the Hyatt Lost Pines.
I love how the hotel honors Texas musicians and writers (like Brian Yansky).
Water fowl were in abundance.
Wildflower season is the best time to go, but the stained glass is lovely, too.
I don’t have to partake of the chocolate fountain to love the world more because it exists.
Saw this and thought of The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy.
Enjoyed the rustic activities.
Final art by Ming Doyle for Eternal: Zachary’s Story (Candlewick, 2013).

Personal Links

From Greg Leitich Smith

Cynsational Events

Nikki Loftin will be speaking on “Love-Inspiring Queries, Pitches, and Synopses” at 10 a.m. Sept. 8 at BookPeople in Austin, sponsored by Austin SCBWI.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will be part of the mass reading of “Buried Treasure” at 2 p.m. at the O. Henry 150th Birthday Crawl Sept. 15 at the O. Henry Museum in Austin, Texas.

Join Newbery Honor author Marion Dane Bauer for a free live teleconference at 7 p.m. EST Sept. 19. She will also be offering a free live webinar on “Point of View in Fiction” at 7 p.m. EST Sept. 26. See more information.

Author Interview & Giveaway: Martine Leavitt on My Book of Life by Angel


By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Martine Leavitt has written several award-winning novels for young adults, including Keturah and Lord Death (Front Street, 2006, Boyds Mills, 2012), a finalist for the National Book Award, and Heck Superhero (Front Street, 2004), a finalist for the Governor General’s Award.

Martine holds an honors B.A. in English from the University of Calgary and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also is a mother of seven and grandmother of 12. She lives in Alberta, Canada. Sources: IndieBound and VCFA.

Welcome to Cynsations, Martine! What’s new in your writing life?

My Book of Life by Angel (FSG, 2012) is coming out in September, and I harbor a secret wish that this book will change the world.

What are your typical sources of inspiration?

I don’t know. God. When I was writing Tom Finder (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2003) and Heck Superhero, both novels about homeless boys, I knew I would, and that I must, someday write about a homeless girl.

I knew it was unlikely that I could write that book honestly without touching on the topic of prostitution. I put this book off as long as I could, and then she wouldn’t wait any longer.

Why did you choose to write the novel in verse?

M.T. Anderson, Martine & Nancy Werlin (photo via Nancy)

I intended to write poetry for a workshop submission, but every poem was about Angel.

When I saw how the poetry and the content were informing one another, I let it be. I had to mess up the poetic form in order not to distract from the story, but the two had to be together.

My Angel does not think in a straight line, logical and linear. She is erratic and mercurial and in withdrawal, and the poetry complemented that. I wanted the punctuation to be visibly and noticeably absent, and the line breaks to serve as big punctuation when I needed it. I wanted the lack of quotation marks to indicate airlessness and voicelessness, the lack of italicized titles to mean a rejection of convention, the lack of capitals to reflect a questioning of what is proper in a proper noun. None of this would have worked as well in prose.

In addition, I needed the elevated form of poetry to reflect the beautiful souls of these girls I was writing about.

Please describe your usual writing day.

If I don’t do it at 5 a.m., it may not get done. Six of my seven children are adults now, but I pour all of my fierce maternal instincts into the unfortunate one still at home.

Also, I am a neat freak, and a faithful church-goer, which can be ever-so-brilliantly time-consuming. I can’t work in the evenings ever since my husband bought a big-screen TV and I became addicted to CNN and HGTV. I watch CNN and get sad, and then I watch HGTV and fantasize that all the world’s problems could be solved if only everyone could get a simple kitchen makeover.

Martine’s family, minus the newest grandbaby (and there’s another one on the way)!

Did you have an unhappy childhood?

Yes, which explains my chosen vocation. Oddly, my brothers and sisters, raised the same way I was, and by the same wonderful parents, had remarkably happy childhoods. Interpret this how you will.


What is your writing process like?

Each book has its own variation on the following theme:

  • I get an idea.
  • I am happy. This will be my best book ever.
  • I begin to write. I am still happy, but surprised that having the best idea ever does not mean the writing is easy.
  • I continue writing. Now it’s hard. I tell myself not to edit myself.
  • I continue writing. I acknowledge that this will probably not be my best book ever.
  • I continue writing. I tell myself no one but me ever has to see this book.
  • I get about a hundred pages and I figure out what the real story is. I am happy again.
  • I throw away most of the hundred pages, calling it “the experimental draft” and begin again with what I call “the first draft.”
  • I begin to write. I am still happy, but surprised that knowing the real story does not mean the writing is any easier.
  • I continue writing. Now it’s really hard. I tell myself not to edit myself.
  • I continue writing, telling myself no one has to ever see this book.
  • I finish a draft. I decide to call it “the experimental draft.”
  • I begin to write what I call “the real first draft.” I am happy. Sort of.
  • I get to the end again, keeping some of the experimental draft, but cutting and rewriting until it is beyond recognition.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat. (number of repetitions depends on book)
  • I begin to pray that I won’t die until the book is done because so much work has gone into it.
  • I despise the book.
  • I adore the book.
  • I rewrite some more.
  • I allow kids and my two first-reader friends to read the book.
  • I tinker.
  • I send it to the agent/editor.
  • I rewrite.
  • I rewrite a bit more.
  • Repeat. (number of repetitions depends on book)
  • It is published.
  • I see it in a store. It is like an abandoned child. I feel in equal parts:

I should have done better by you.

Who are you anyway?

Yes, I gave birth to you, but now it is up to others to love you.

I wish I could have edited you one more time.

Why don’t you give me money?

Who is your agent?

Brenda Bowen at Sanford J. Greenburger. She was an editor for twenty years before she went to the dark side. She is smart, perceptive, enthusiastic, understanding and well-connected.

You’re a Canadian, yes?

I am. I am also a U.S. citizen. I am immensely proud of both of my countries and refuse to observe the 49th parallel.

How would you describe yourself as a writer?

I am a fantasy writer. I also write contemporary realism, magic realism and, most recently, an animal story. I do not observe genre borders very well, either.

As a mother of seven children, how did you balance your writing career and motherhood?

Badly. That’s the short answer. The long answer is that for many years it was a juggling act of great consequence and often I dropped balls and flaming batons.

One evidence of the existence of God is that none of my children grew up to be axe murderers, although some are young and still have time.

My family is and has always been the most important part of my life, but I always knew I could be a better mother if I could get away and battle dragons of one sort or another and be back by the end of nap time. Giving up my writing would not have made me a better mother. Not having children would have taken away any reason I had to write.

I wasn’t the best at balancing, but I did need them both and love them both and so I had to neglect one or the other of them by turns.

What advice do you have for novice writers?

Read every day. Write every day, even if it’s just a sentence or two. Chip away, chip away, chip away. Don’t give up.

Do not even mildly concern yourself with money, what’s popular, what’s selling, what you think kids like, and especially do not concern yourself with reviews or awards.

Write the story for the child in you, and in the most beautiful and imaginative way you can. You will have done your job and pleased God.

Do you have another job?

Yes, I am on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier in Vermont. It is a short-residency MFA program that has a remarkable reputation for turning out some of the best writers for children and young adults in the business. It is Brigadoon for writers for young people.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of five copies of My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt (FSG, 2012). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: North America (U.S./Canada).

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Career Builder & Giveaway: Lupe Ruiz-Flores

Betty Boop & Lupe

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Author Lupe Ruiz-Flores was once an aerospace engineering technician. In her heart, however, she was always a writer. She has worked as a staff writer for a local newspaper and has ghost written short stories for a national magazine. Some of her poetry has been published in anthologies as well.

Lupe’s books include Lupita’s Papalote (kite), illustrated by Pauline Rodriguez Howard (2002); The Woodcutter’s Gift, illustrated by Elaine Jerome (2007); The Battle of the Snow Cones, illustrated by Alisha Gambino (2010); Alicia’s Fruity Drinks, illustrated by Laura Lacámara (2012); Salsa is Not Just for Eating, illustrated by Robert Casilla (Fall 2012); and Lupita and El día de los Niños, illustrated by Gabhor Utomo (Spring 2013). These bilingual picture books are all published by Piñata Books, Arte Público Press.

She’s twice been a featured author at the Texas Book Festival in Austin. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Society of Latino & Hispanic Writers of San Antonio and The Writers’ League of Texas.

At present, she is the newsletter editor for the Southwest Texas SCBWI chapter’s online newsletter. A native Texan, she has also lived in Thailand and Japan. She loves to travel and has visited Italy twice. She is presently working on a middle-grade novel.

What memories of your debut author experience stand out?

I remember walking into a Barnes & Noble for my first book signing and seeing a poster of myself with my book at the entrance of the store. I almost cried. I never thought it would happen. It was a very emotional time for me, especially when my family and friends showed up to support me.

If you could offer advice to the new voice you once were, what would you say?

My advice would be to take a leap of faith, which is what I did. In my heart, I had always wanted to write, but life happened and I almost gave up that dream.

When the opportunity presented itself years later, I had a lot of doubts. Would anyone be interested in what I wrote? Why did I think I could be a writer?

The doubts started fading when I entered writing contests to test the waters. To my amazement, I placed in a few of the contests. That gave me the self confidence I needed.

How do you define success?

New release

To me, success is having the freedom to do something in life that you really enjoy and letting others share in that joy.

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?

Since I do not have a background in creative writing, I have immersed myself in the writing process. I joined SCBWI and other professional writers’ organizations. I attend writing workshops, conferences, and have joined critique groups, both local and online.

I buy books on writing and subscribe to writing magazines to keep abreast of what’s happening in the publishing world. I research publishing houses before I send anything out. I follow their guidelines.

To date, three of my middle-grade novels are making the rounds. I have had four bilingual picture books published and two more coming out soon. That is truly amazing to me.

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? Why?

I would describe my writing career as a winding road full of surprises at every turn.

When I first started, I wasn’t aware of all that goes with being an author, i.e., the invitations for school visits, speaking engagements at writers’ clubs, national writers’ conferences, meeting famous authors, traveling quite often, and making friends with peers who are just as passionate about writing as you are. It’s a whole new world out there and I love it!

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?

I have learned that first drafts are just that—first drafts. “Revision” is my middle name now.

When I write, I want my story to be an experience for the reader. I want my books to have “spirit,” and for the reader to “feel” something.

Skills where I have improved: learning when to cut words, scenes, or dialogue if they don’t move the story forward. Pacing a story so that it flows well.

Reach new levels: I started taking myself seriously as a writer and being professional about it.

Flummox: That there aren’t enough houses publishing multicultural books.

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

I walked into a poetry class at a local bookstore by mistake. I almost walked out, but the instructor encouraged me to stay. I started reading and writing poetry and found out I really enjoyed it. I even had some poems published in an anthology. That freed my creative juices even more.

How have you built an audience over time?

I created my own web site and blog to build an audience. I also do many school visits and presentations throughout the year all across Texas. I do interviews for other blogs. I attend TLA and ESC regional events to meet librarians and other educators.


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

No. Once I started, I kept going. The way it happened was a total surprise to me. When I wrote my first picture book, I had no idea where to send it or how. I saw an ad in the paper for a one-day writing seminar at a local university. I went. It changed my life. The keynote speaker mentioned a publisher and guidelines. She gave details on the submission process. I sent in my story. About three months later, I had a contract. I was shocked!

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

I absolutely am in awe of authors who write youth literature. I am a fan. There is no jealousy.

I know how hard it is to get published, so I admire the authors and their work. We are all in this business to support one another.

Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you should have done differently? What and why?

Regrets? I consider myself a late bloomer so maybe my one regret is that I should have started earlier. But maybe I wouldn’t have been ready. Things happen for a reason, I believe.

The time is right for me now.

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

Believe in yourself. Nurture yourself spiritually and as a writer. Connect with other writers. Find out what works for you and write.

Take advantage of the opportunities that are out there, i.e., SCBWI, The Writers’ League of Texas, and other professional writers’ organizations.

It is never too late to realize your dream. Never give up.

What do you want to say to established mid-list authors about staying in the game?

Do not give up. You’ve made it thus far. Keep going. We need your books.

Lupe and Mark Twain

What do you want to say to those who call themselves “one-book wonders” or those who feel the market has left them behind?

You are not a one-book wonder and the market has not left you. Maybe you need to write in another genre.

I started out writing non-fiction for a magazine, then poetry, then picture books, and now I’m focusing on middle-grade. It’s a growing process.

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

I would like to have my middle-grade novels published. My strategy is to attend writers’ conferences and meet editors and agents and be able to submit my work. Hopefully, some editor will like my novels and then who knows?

What’s the secret of your success?

Passion. If your heart is not in it, I don’t think you can succeed. You have to love what you do.

Cynsational Notes

Visit Lupe’s blog! Check out a radio interview with Lupe from classical 91.7, Houston Public Radio!
See also an alternate link for that interview.

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

U.S. readers! Enter to win the following prize package:

  • a signed copy of Lupe’s bilingual picture book, Alicia’s Fruity Drinks/Las aguas frescas de Alicia
  • a small “Hope” note pad
  • a Charlotte Bronte journal 
  • a business card holder

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Book Trailer & Giveaway: Never Enough by Denise Jaden

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Never Enough by Denise Jaden (Simon Pulse, 2012) and then enter to win a copy below. From the promotional copy:

Loann’s always wanted to be popular and pretty like her sister, Claire. So when Claire’s ex-boyfriend starts flirting with her, Loann is willing to do whatever it takes to feel special…even if that means betraying her sister.


But as Loann slips inside Claire’s world, she discovers that everything is not as it seems. Claire’s quest for perfection is all-consuming, and comes at a dangerous price. 

As Claire increasingly withdraws from friends and family, Loann struggles to understand her and make amends. Can she heal their relationship—and her sister—before it’s too late?




Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of Never Enough by Denise Jaden (Simon Pulse, 2012) and a couple of signed bookmarks. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S./Canada.

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