New Voice: Send Me a Sign by Tiffany Schmidt

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Tiffany Schmidt is the first-time author of Send Me A Sign (Walker-Bloomsbury, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Mia is always looking for signs. A sign that she should get serious with her on-again, off-again soccer-captain boyfriend. A sign that she’ll get the grades to make it into an Ivy-league school. A sign that the summer before senior year will be the best one yet.

But when Mia is diagnosed with leukemia, the only sign she wants to see is that she will survive cancer and still be the girl she’s always been—top student, top cheerleader, and top of the social food chain.

Until she’s better, Mia doesn’t want anyone to know she has cancer. She doesn’t want her friends’ pity. And she certainly doesn’t want to start feeling something more than friendship for the one person who knows her secret, her best friend, Gyver. But the sicker Mia gets, the more she realizes that not even the clearest signs offer perfect answers, an in order to discover what will happen in her life, she will have to find the courage to live it.

Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

Emily and Tiffany

There have been so many people who supported me and pushed me along this path to publication, but here I’m going to focus on one: Emily Hainsworth.

Emily and I met on Twitter—way back in 2008. I was teaching sixth grade and directing the school musical. I’d tweeted something about having the songs to “Annie” permanently looping through my head and @Emily_ya responded by tweeting a lyric. I don’t remember which—if I’d known this was going to be the beginning of such a treasured friendship, I’d have favorited the exchange.

We started tweeting pretty consistently—to the point that my husband would ask if I was talking to “Emily Why Aye” every time I was at the computer – and in March of 2009, she suggested swapping pages of our respective works in progress.

I didn’t sleep that night. First, because I was kept up reading her fabulous pages. Second, because I was so worried about what she’d think of mine… what she’d think of me!

I just searched my inbox way back to those first emails and pulled some snippets from Emily’s response:

I really do like your writing – it’s like a comfortable pair of pajamas: I get into it easily, and feel comfortable with it. Yay!

I’D LOVE to keep CP’ing w/ you! There are so many things to worry about in finding a CP – Will we like each other? Will we be interested in the stories we’re each trying to tell? Do we like each others’ style? Will we get constructive feedback we can find a way to use?

So far, I’m just nodding YES, YES, YES, YES!! 😀

Isn’t it obvious why I adore her?

The work in progress she was reading was Send Me A Sign. I could only give her chunks, because the book wasn’t done. Her encouragement made me want to finish it, pushed me to write more, faster, because I wanted her feedback and encouragement.

Em and I have each had very different roads to publication, but we’ve been constants in each other’s journeys. She’s the first person I called when I got an offer of representation from my dream agent, and she was also the person I called, emailed, texted after every rejection.

I remember whisper-squealing when her book, Through To You (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins), sold—the whispering only because I was holding a sleeping infant. I wanted to shout hooray at the top of my lungs. And this spring she held her newborn and whisper-squealed for me when I called to tell her that my second book, Bright Before Sunrise, had sold.

I can say without a doubt that I wouldn’t have made it to this point with Emily. The fact that we were both scheduled to be Fall 2012 debuts made the process even more special—it’s been fabulous to have to have someone going to commiserate and celebrate with as I deciphered copy edit code, brainstormed revisions, planned release parties, saw my first reviews… – and then Emily’s release date was changed…

…to the same date as mine!

So on 10/2/2012, I get to celebrate twice as hard— once for Send Me A Sign, and once more for Through to You.

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, 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?

I was five months pregnant with twins when Send Me A Sign went out on submission in September 2010. I was also setting up my classroom and getting ready to start another year teaching sixth grade. Or, at least part of a year… the twins were due mid-January, so I had originally hoped to teach until the winter break.

Nope. My doctor had other ideas. He insisted I stop working at 28 weeks, which was okay with me. I was over-the-moon about the idea of having twelve weeks of full-time writing before my Schmidtlets arrived.

Nope. On my first day out of the classroom, I learned that those ‘little twinges’ I’d been feeling for the past month were actually contractions. I was put on bedrest. The only time I was to leave the space between my headboard and footboard was to go to the bathroom and go to the doctors.

It took a little while to get used to being trapped in a bed. As someone who fidgets and fusses and does her best drafting on a treadmill desk, lying still and writing were not compatible activities. But a month into bedrest I was starting to get the swing of things. I had lofty goals of finishing my second novel’s revision…


The Schmidtlets continued their pattern of interrupting any plans I’ve dared to make by arriving eight weeks early. They spent a month in the NICU and came home with all sorts of medical accessories—monitors that false-alarmed constantly and had me jerking from pseudo-sleep to see if they were still breathing.

It was chaos—it still is chaos. They’re nearly two now. A hundred percent healthy. Tearing up my house and getting into whatever mischief they can manage.

It would be a lie to say I enjoy every minute of it – cleaning applesauce off puggle #2 this morning wasn’t particularly fun – but they are the loves of my life.

This is not to say they are my life. It’s so important to me that while “mother” is a cherished part of my identity, it is not my whole identity. Writing has been a passion of mine since long before they were born, and it will still be one of my passions after they’ve grown up and moved out (sniffle).

So, how do I do both? It’s changed a lot over the past twenty-one months – It used to be that I could snuggle a baby in the sling while simultaneously walking on my treadmill desk and working on a book. It used to be that I could read whole chapters aloud and they’d stare at me with Momma-is-Magic eyes. It used to be that I could rock a napping baby with one foot, pat a sleepy back with one hand, and use my free hand to mark up revision pages.

Now I don’t want pens or markers anywhere near toddler hands.

But, naptime is magic. From the time I put them in their cribs until the time I take them back out is sacred. This means setting myself up to make the most of those precious minutes. It’s not time for Twitter or texting—those can be done in stolen seconds while I fill sippy cups or wait for someone to be “all done” on the potty seat.

It also means mentally preparing—since I can recite Moo, Baa, La La La by Sandra Boynton (Little Simon, 1982) in my sleep, I can use the morning’s fourth (or eighth) read to think about what I want to get done in my own book once they’re asleep.

Same with strolls around the neighborhood, as the Schmidtlets chatter back and forth in a hybrid version of English and twin speak, I mentally plan the scene that I’ll throw onto paper once they’re in cribs.

And I jot notes everywhere. On my phone. On papertowels and receipts. I keep notepads in all the diaperbags, the car, their stroller, their nursery, and their playroom—occasionally this leads to I thought I wrote that scene. Didn’t I? when I can’t remember where I wrote something down. I’ll also record voice notes on my phone. Or call and leave myself a voicemail message with something I don’t want to forget.

I don’t have any magic answers—if your kiddos are anything like mine, they seem to delight in changing things up as soon as you’ve mastered a functional routine. And what works for my family, probably won’t work for the unique challenges of someone else’s.

But, for me it comes down to a simple statement: I need to write. It would be easy to make excuses, but I want it too badly. So, instead, I make the most of the opportunities and time I have.

And I think the fact that the twins say, “Momma book,” whenever they see the cover to Send Me A Sign is their way of saying they’re proud of me too.

Cover Reveal! Eternal: Zachary’s Story by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover for Eternal: Zachary’s Story by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, Feb. 2012). From the promotional copy:

Reckless guardian angel Zachary has an unusual assignment. He’s meant to save the soul of Miranda, high-school theater wannabe turned glamorous royal vampire. 

Completely devoted to Miranda, Zachary takes his demotion to human form in stride, taking a job as the princess’s personal assistant. 

Of course, this means he has to balance his soul-saving efforts with planning the Master’s fast-approaching Deathday gala.

Vivid illustrations by Ming Doyle elevate this darkly funny love story to a new dramatic level with bold black-and-white panels.

Cynthia Leitich Smith’s New York Times bestseller is reimagined as a graphic novel seen through the eyes of Zachary, teenage guardian angel. 

Cynsational Notes

Read the prose novel first!

Eternal: Zachary’s Story is told from Zachary’s point of view and includes new scenes not seen in the preceding prose novel Eternal (Candlewick, 2009, 2010).

Read an excerpt of the prose novel from Candlewick.

Check out curriculum connections for the Tantalize series from the Texas Library Association and a reader’s guide from Cynthia Leitich Smith’s official author site.

Reminder! “Cat Calls” and “Haunted Love,” two YA short stories (set in the Tantalize universe) by Cynthia Leitich Smith are available for free download from U.S. and U.K. e-retailers.

Career Builder: Janet Tashjian

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What memories of your debut author experience stand out?

When Tru Confessions came out fifteen years ago, I had my very first book signing at a Borders Bookstore in Cranston, Rhode Island.

(A moment of silence for Borders, RIP.)

Lots of friends and family came, but I was utterly shocked to see my tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. Harrower, there. I hadn’t seen her since I graduated from high school and I don’t know how she found out about the signing, but I just about burst into tears when I saw her. She was a truly great teacher; to this day, I remember all the figures of speech I learned in her class.

She passed away a few years later, but the photo of the two of us at that book signing sits on the desk where I work today.

Do you have a publishing strategy?

Henry Holt, 2012

I wish I had a publishing strategy! I find myself instead getting dragged along by my story ideas.

I’m the kind of writer who has a lot of ideas all vying for my attention so it’s a constant struggle to decide which stories to tell next. I envy writers with a clear cut game plan–fortunately or unfortunately, that’s never been 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 think of the Myth of Sisyphus all the time–with Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the mountain just to watch it roll back down at the end of the day. So he gets up the next day and rolls it back up the hill again…and again and again.

I’ve been writing for so long and have so many notebooks full of pages and pages from all my books–it feels like I’ve spent my life writing words, crossing them out, then writing different words–over and over again.

But don’t think I believe that being a writer is a futile, frustrating, or thankless job–there’s something comforting about spending your time doing something tangible and predictable. I agree with Camus’ conclusion that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Have you made an affirmative decision to alter your focus?

When my son Jake started having a difficult time reading and when so many teachers and librarians began asking me on school visits to talk about reluctant readers, I shifted my focus from YA books–mostly my Larry books–and decided to go back to the world of middle grade readers for awhile.

I wanted to write about how reading might be hard for lots of kids–many of them boys–but that stories were still important. Jake had been drawing his vocabulary words for years – he’s a visual learner and that’s how he studied them – so it made perfect sense for him to do the novels’ illustrations.

I’m incredibly proud of My Life as a Book (2010), My Life as a Stuntboy (2011) and the upcoming My Life as a Cartoonist (all Henry Holt and/or Square Fish) because I not only got to collaborate with my son but have reached so many kids like him who really need visual support when they read. It was never done as a career move, just purely to help kids like Jake.

That being said, my new book, For What It’s Worth (Henry Holt, 2012), is a return to YA, a rock-and-roll book for all the music nerds.

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: Karen Rock on Let’s Hear It for the Boy(s)!

By Karen Rock
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Writing books that appeal to boys is a joy and a challenge.

Here are some “boots on the ground” perspectives from readers, teachers, and librarians, as well as invaluable insights shared by children’s authors Darren Shan, Ellen Hopkins, Tim Wynne-Jones, and break-out debut novelist, Scott Blagden on how to reach this important readership.

Darren Shan, international bestselling author of such series as Demonta and Cirque du Freak, cautions writers not to care too much about writing what is ‘good for boys’ or ‘good for reluctant readers’. “What I do is try to remember what I was like as a teenager, then write a story that I think the teenage me would have loved.” In fact, according to Darren, “It’s not a case of trying to work on their level, which is a mistake a lot of writers make — because teenagers, like adults, work on all sorts of different levels.”

Eighth-grader Brian Rivera is currently reading the Cirque du Freak series. A selective reader, he pointed out that Darren’s novels appeal to him because of their unique, relatable characters, surprise plot twists and non-stop action.

Tim Wynne-Jones, best-selling children’s author and the 2012 Arthur Ellis Award winner for his juvenile/YA crime book, Blink and Caution, agrees that action is critical in capturing the young male demographic.

When a second grade teacher told him a reluctant reader read his YA thriller, The Boy in the Burning House, he was impressed the child had read such challenging material and thought, “Maybe what he craved was action. Not just rock ’em-sock ’em action, but things actually happening.”

In fact, Tim believes that action-driven novels deserve as much respect as character-driven novels, particularly when it comes to appealing to boys. He recalls his youthful enthusiasm for The Hardy Boys series which eventually lead him to read Ian Fleming and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “Give a character, male or female, a good strong motivation for getting off his butt and doing something and I’m there.”

Gavin Fritz, an eighth-grade student, gives a book about five to ten pages before deciding to continue. If he’s not drawn in by a relatable character, a compelling idea, or fast-paced action, he moves on, one of the reasons he prefers reading series to single titles. For Gavin, a series provides a level of reassurance that if he likes the initial book, he’ll have sequels he can count on enjoying in the future.

Joshua Balan, a home-schooled seventh grader, couldn’t agree more. He’s an avid reader who frequently purchases audio books so that he can, “play my video games and follow a (favorite) book series at the same time.”

In the context of his multitasking generation, his actions make perfect sense. Why wouldn’t he listen to a novel while IM chatting with internet videogame teammates, tweeting, Skyping, and checking his iPhone for texts? It’s certainly a consideration when looking at audio book production, distribution, promotion, and usage.

Literature Club Notebooks

Stafford Middle School librarian, Russell Puschak, observes that boys tend to gravitate towards topical nonfiction works as often as they do fiction. Many are information driven readers when the subject interests them, such as cars, wars, technology, sports, science…. the topics are as unique and as varied as the individuals who read them. Good news in the wake of new Common Core Standards that emphasize the need for more nonfiction.

Gross-out books, human interest stories, and sports pieces are perennial favorites for boys in instructor Jeanne Damone’s fifth grade classroom in Canajoharie, New York. The books are highly sought after and to the victor goes a prized spot on her orange “reading spot” couch where the other boys huddle, laugh, and discuss.

But don’t count out female protagonist driven stories either, Jeanne contends. Her male students rave about class read, Sahara Special by Esme Raji Codell. They identify with its main character, Sahara Jones, regardless of her gender, because she is funny, relatable, and as prone to mistakes and trouble as they.

Ellen Hopkins, bestselling, award-winning author of YA verse novels such as Burned, Crank and Identical, would agree with Jeanne’s assessment that gender is not a major factor in creating protagonists that appeal to boys, a fact proven by her loyal male fan base.

She says, “I think boys like my books for the same reason my girl readers like them. I respect my readers enough to write honestly–the absolute truth as I see it. I don’t sugarcoat the issues or tie everything up in a nice, neat bow. The characters I write read ‘real,’ and because I don’t rely on extraneous language or descriptions, readers are drawn into the story. If I were to give advice to a writer wanting to reach a boy audience, it would be not to hold back. To write the absolute truth, even within fiction. To create multi-layered characters and relationships that matter, because that’s what we’re all looking for, isn’t it?”

Fans of Ellen Hopkins

Cody Fulmer, a high school junior and aspiring YA novelist, seeks out authentic books written by authors such as Ellen and John Green. “I like (characters) to be a bit…mature. I like when we can hear everything that runs through the character’s mind – whether they are thinking appropriately or not. It adds a sense of humor to the book. Censorship in a piece, to me, doesn’t make it realistic. I think the YA author would really have to get into the mind of a modern day teenager to have that accurate description. If you can’t get directly into the mind of a teenage boy – you probably won’t sell well to that demographic.”

Debut YA author Scott Blagden wrote Dear Life, You Suck (Harcourt, March 2013) with those factors in mind. “To me, the most important aspect of writing stories for teen boys is voice,” he says. “The voice has to be authentic. No teen boy wants to listen to some out-of-touch adult pretending to speak their language. It’s obvious and it’s hypocritical and kids hate it. All kids, not just boys. Teen boy voice is often (not always) profane, sarcastic, angry, ridiculing, defensive, judgmental, gross, inappropriate, and over the top. Even if the reader doesn’t talk that way, they love to read about snarky characters who do. Especially if it’s done in a funny way.”

Gender generalizations are perilous at best. While boys’ tastes are as eclectic and varied as they are, one universal truth holds true. They seek authors who speak to them through relatable characters, meaningful action, and authenticity.

It’s time to get those fingers tapping; you’ve got a conversation to start!

Cynsational Notes

More on Karen Rock

In a quest to provide her eighth grade students with quality reading material,
English teacher Karen Rock read everything out there and couldn’t wait to add her voice to the conversation of books.

Now a debut YA series author, Karen is thrilled to pen stories that teens can relate to. When she’s not busy reading and writing, Karen is downloading live versions of favorite songs, watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” marathons, obsessing over reality TV contestants (Adam Lambert you were robbed!), cooking her family’s delizioso Italian recipes, and occasionally rescuing local wildlife from neighborhood cats.

She lives in the Adirondack Mountain region with her husband, her very appreciated beta-reader daughter and two King Charles Cavalier Cocker Spaniels who have yet to understand the concept of “fetch,” though they’ve managed to teach her the trick!

Check out her website, her co-author website, her Facebook page, and follow her on twitter @karenrock5.

Book Trailer: Everneath by Brodi Ashton

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Everneath by Brodi Ashton (Balzer + Bray/HarperTeen, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Last spring, Nikki Beckett vanished, sucked into an underworld known as the Everneath. 

Now she’s returned—to her old life, her family, her boyfriend—before she’s banished back to the underworld . . . this time forever. 

She has six months before the Everneath comes to claim her, six months for good-byes she can’t find the words for, six months to find redemption, if it exists.

Nikki longs to spend these precious months forgetting the Everneath and trying to reconnect with her boyfriend, Jack, the person most devastated by her disappearance—and the one person she loves more than anything. 

But there’s just one problem: Cole, the smoldering immortal who enticed her to the Everneath in the first place, has followed Nikki home. Cole wants to take over the throne in the underworld and is convinced Nikki is the key to making it happen. And he’ll do whatever it takes to bring her back, this time as his queen.

As Nikki’s time on the Surface draws to a close and her relationships begin slipping from her grasp, she is forced to make the hardest decision of her life: find a way to cheat fate and remain on the Surface with Jack or return to the Everneath and become Cole’s queen.

Everneath is a captivating story of love, loss, and immortality from debut author Brodi Ashton.

Book Trailer: Mary’s Song by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Mary’s Song by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn (Eerdman’s, 2012). From the promotional copy:

On that first Christmas night, the Earth bursts with praise at the Savior’s birth. Donkeys bray, sheep bleat, horses neigh, and shepherds come from nearby fields. 

But Mary simply wants to be alone with her sweet babe. When quiet finally falls, Mary cradles her son and sings her mother-song.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Diversity and Difference in YA from Megan Crewe. Peek: “If you flesh out all your characters and avoid making one characteristic the entirety of that character’s ‘personality,’ you’re a lot less likely to end up with a stereotype.” See also Why We Need Diversity in YA Fiction from Cheryl Rainfield.

A Visit to Chronicle Books by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Note: a photo report.

A Corollary to NaNoWriMo, or, Why I’m Prouder of 600 Words than 10,000 from Beth Revis. Peek: “I was getting close to 10k words. And then, on Day 5, I realized: that was the wrong 10k words. So I deleted them all.” Source: Gwenda Bond.

How to Critique and Still Have Friends by Mary Ann Rodman from Teaching Authors. Peek: “At the start of a session I remind the writer that he is already a writer; working together, he will become a better writer.”

How to Host an Author, From an Author: a Q&A with Cynthia Leitich Smith from The Outreach Librarian. Peek: “Is there a threatened closing, a recent death in the faculty/student body—really anything that might impact our choice of words and/or

YA Bookstore Opens Within General Bookstore in St. Paul from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Mayer, a librarian with the St. Paul public school system, previously worked for three different Twin Cities bookstores, including Micawber’s, where he wrote the children’s portion of the store newsletter. He also has served on the board of the University of Minnesota’s Kerlan Collection of Children’s Literature.”

Top 10 Historical Picture Books by Sherry York from PaperTigers.Blog. Peek: “These titles represent ten of my picks of authentic historical picture books.  They all present U.S. history from points of view not often seen in ‘mainstream’ lists.”

Reminder! Kid-Lit Cares: Superstorm Sandy Relief Auction from Kate Messner. Peek: “…an online talent auction to benefit the Red Cross relief effort for Sandy. Agents, editors, authors, and illustrators have donated various services to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, with donations being made directly to the Red Cross disaster relief fund.” Note: round 2 kicks off Nov. 12 from Joanne Levy. See also Kid Lit Community Giving Back to Benefit Red Cross (auction items in sidebar) from Jen Malone Writes.

Surviving Sandy: Stories from the Publishing World by Diane Roback from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “A common refrain heard during the party: if you have to be stranded somewhere, you could do much worse than Austin.”

Outlining: Write with the End in Mind by Yahong Chi from Project Mayhem: The Manic Minds of Middle Grade Writers. Peek: “…saves you from wandering through your middle in one direction, only to realize that your story actually ends up over there — and thereby rendering your first 10,000 words useless.”

Do YA Authors, Editors & Librarians Promote the Idea that Books Can Do Good, But Reject the Idea that They Can Do Harm? by Daniel Nayeri
from CBC Diversity. Peek: “…any workshop or football coach will tell
you, don’t accept the compliments if you won’t believe the criticism.”

Learn about Rain Is Not My Indian Name.

“Clean” Reads for Multicultural YA Girls by Stacy Whitman from Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire. Peek: “Feel free to suggest titles that
might not be shelved in a church library only if they’re
borderline, i.e., something my friend my suggest the girls look up on an
individual basis if she feels they’re ready for them).” Note: post
updated; see list at Pinterest.

How to Handle Picture Book Back Matter During Submission by Deborah Halverson from Peek: “That supporting material is a component of your project, which should be considered in full.”

Author Insight: Writing Roadblocks from Wastepaper Prose. Peek: “What’s the biggest consistent obstacle in your writing process? How do you overcome it?”

Transformational Journeys: Working with Archetypes by Robin LaFevers from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “The transformative part comes in when we take that grief or bitterness
or suffering and let it be the catalyst that impels us to a new state of
being; that instead of experiencing our emotions as random stepping
stones, we allow ourselves to see the path that is forming at our feet
and dare to take it, follow it to a new awareness.”

Looking for more publishing news and resources? Try The Publishing Pulse from QueryTracker.netBlog.

Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of Dragonswood by Janet Lee Carey is Selena in Wisconsin.

See also YA Book Releases in Stores 11/10-11/17 and four-book giveaway from Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing.

This Week at Cynsations

Library Jubilee

This week’s event highlight was Library Jubilee: The Quest for Imagination in Waco, Texas!

Greg & Cyn, photo by Joy Preble
Loved the tie-in decorations to the fantasy theme!
Dear Teen Me panel with E. Kristin Anderson, K.A. Holt, Jessica Lee Anderson, P.J. Hoover & Mari Mancusi
“Imagine New World” panel with Nikki Loftin, Lynne Kelly & Shana Burg

More Personally

This week, I unveiled the cover to Feral Nights (Book One in the Feral series)(Candlewick, 2013). Thank you to the remarkable design team at Candlewick Press for a wonderful job (it beckons, don’t you think?), and thanks to all who’ve passed on and cheered the cover! Your support means so much! (Don’t miss the ARC giveaway!)

Personal Links:

Cynsational Events

Shelley Ann Jackson and Jeff Crosby will speak on Rhythmic Syncopation at 10 a.m. Nov. 10 at BookPeople in Austin in conjunction with Austin SCBWI. Following the meeting (at 11 a.m.), check out the open critique group meeting on the third floor or basic Photoshop assistance with Marsha Riti in the first-floor coffee shop.

Central Texans, don’t miss the Dear Teen Me Launch Party at 6 p.m. Nov. 10 at The BookSpot in Round Rock.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will sign from noon to 2 p.m. Dec. 1 at The BookSpot in Round Rock.

2013 Novel Writing Retreat for Middle Grade and Young Adult Writers will be March 15 to March 17 at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Study with Cynthia Leitich Smith, Lauren Myracle and Candlewick editor Andrea Tompa. 

Guest Post: Janet S. Fox on Core Emotions and Writing from the Heart

By Janet S. Fox
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Janet being “hooded” by VCFA faculty member Julie Larios

When I was a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts I had the privilege of listening to Marion Dane Bauer’s retirement lecture. She said she’d discovered that a core emotion formed in her childhood resided at the heart of all her stories. In her case, abandonment was her core emotion; every one of her stories addressed the fear of abandonment or rescue from abandonment.

I’ve thought about this lecture a lot, thinking through and around the issue of my own core emotion.

Our best writing comes when we write from the heart: when we open our souls and expose our deepest feelings – that’s when we give our readers the freedom to feel empathy and catharsis and to revel in insight.

So what, I’ve asked myself (going on three years), what is my core emotion?

Janet (right) with her dad and sister.

My own childhood was somewhat idyllic.

My favorite childhood reading (like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series) didn’t offer immediate hints.

Not so long ago, as I was wrapping up the final edits of my new release, Sirens (Speak/Penguin, 2012), I found it.

No, I’m not going to just come out and tell you. But here are some hints.

When I was young my parents sent me to dancing school. I learned to dance, but mostly I learned how to be a wallflower. It wasn’t until late in high school when I learned to let go and dance.

I was struck during the years we lived in Texas when younger people (particularly younger men) addressed me politely as “ma’am.” I tried to teach it to my son; it was consummate verbal charm. Why, then, did it grate on my nerves?

I’ve built four houses over my lifetime (including designing three), so I know a thing or two about building. Once, I deselected a general contractor who insisted that I knew nothing about construction and derisively called me the “little lady.”

Are you getting a picture here?

Even if you are, what the heck does this have to do with writing?

My core emotion, I’ve come to realize, revolves around empowerment. It particularly centers on the power – or the powerlessness – of girls and women.

Through most of human history, and throughout much of the world today, women have served a subordinate function to the roles of men. Abused, subjugated, prevented from marrying for love, prevented from voting, forced to bear children, forced out of education – girls and women were and are often powerless to change their condition. Even when society elevated women to polite deference (“ma’am”) they were bound in strangling corsets and married off.

Somewhere along the way – and I credit my parents here, as well as Lucy Pevensie,
who did provide an example after all – I was given to know that I had
the power to make my own choices.

But also somewhere along the way I was
given the feeling that I didn’t really have that power except by
accident of birth.

Now we get to writing. I give all of
my characters, male or female, young or old, the choice to become
powerful. Not all of us in life have the chance to grasp power; but when
we do we all have the choice. By letting my characters understand that
they can take charge of their particular circumstance I release my own
heartfelt belief that we should all have that choice, and that the
action of reaching out and taking control is brave, often dangerous, but
also extraordinary.

That’s the heart of my matter.

Cynsational Notes

Visit Janet’s blog and Pinterest.

New Voice & Giveaway: Kim Baker on Pickle: The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kim Baker is the first-time author of Pickle: The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School (Roaring Brook, 2012)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

This is the story of The League of Picklemakers

Ben: who began it all by sneaking in one night and filling homeroom with ball-pit balls.

Frank: who figured out that an official club, say a pickle-making club, could receive funding from the PTA.

Oliver: Who once convinced half of the class that his real parents had found him and he was going to live in a submarine.

Bean: Who wasn’t exactly invited, but her parents own a costume shop, which comes in handy if you want to dress up like a giant squirrel and try to scare people at the zoo. 

Together, they are an unstoppable prank-pulling force, and Fountain Point Middle School will never be the same.

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

Visit Kim Baker

I don’t think anything influenced the formation of Pickle more than thinking about what the younger me would want from a story.

I was a voracious reader as a kid. I always have been, but during the “middle grade” years I read everything I could— from classics like The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Frederick A. Stokes, 1911) and Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (Harper, 1952) to tons of series and mass-market stuff, with everything in-between.

My parents were really great about providing books and letting me have pretty free reign with a library card.

My elementary school librarian, Mrs. Schuster, recognized me as a book lover and gave me a “job” helping out in the school library after school while my mom was working. She would give me tasks around the library like tidying up and shelving, and we’d talk about books. Having that kind of “after hours” access to the stacks and a children’s book expert really helped me find my tastes as a reader.

There were some rough patches in that phase of my life, and I tended to steer toward books with fun and irreverence. I developed an early appreciation for humor. I was a semi-inadvertent troublemaker and so are the characters in Pickle. I wanted to make a story about goodhearted troublemakers, more mischievous than mean-spirited. The secret prank club starts out as a creative way to have fun, but when a rogue prank threatens their new alliance they use their unorthodox skills to push back.

Hopefully, it’s subtle, but there’s an underlying theme of standing up for individuality. As a young reader, anytime the kids in the story became empowered somehow, it was a plus. And if they beat an unfair system? It blew my mind.

I think I would have really been drawn to a book like Pickle as a young reader. And apart from the humor and shenanigans, I would’ve been really excited about a Mexican-American protagonist.

Kim’s workspace

There was, and is, a huge void of books with Latino characters. Last year, Mitali Perkins pointed out that Latinos make up over 16% of the U.S. Population, but less than 2% of kid/YA books are written by Latinos or about Latino characters. That’s crazy!

I’m a mash-up of a Mexican-American Californian mom and an Anglo-Texan dad. I grew up in Wyoming and we’d spend summers in urban Los Angeles with my mom’s side of the family.

As a young reader, I could find books on practically anything in the library, except one that reflected aspects of my cultural identity.
I tried to create something that my kid self would’ve been really excited to find on the library shelf: diverse characters in a story filled with silliness, friends, covert operations, creativity, and protest. That fits younger me down to the core. It pretty much sums me up presently as well.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

It was tricky, because I wanted the characters to use technology in their exploits, but I was worried about dating the story. I didn’t include any gadgetry beyond basic computers for two reasons. Electronics are the best example of how quickly technology can change. Just look at the shift from push-button style cell phones to smart phones over the last couple of years. If I’d mentioned the old style of texting that was more common while I was writing Pickle, it would be out of date by now. And secondly, my characters are middle schoolers from mostly working class families. They probably wouldn’t be that wired into the newest tools.

But, I wanted my characters to use the Internet to their advantage and create a hole in the wall where the story ends and the real world starts. The group creates a website for their pickle-making club, Pickles Forever. But like the club itself, it’s a front. If you click on the fizzy pickle soup recipe and then the word “simmer” there will be a new page with a password prompt. Enter “cheese” and it opens up another website with information and pranks for the P.T.A. (Prank and Trick Association) “maintained” by the characters. Kids can log their own pranks or comment on others. There’s a map feature to mark a new chapter and a decoder wheel for encrypted messages.

Kim’s workspace

We tried to think of fun things kids could do while staying within the COPPA regulations (not collecting any identifying information on minors). The good thing about the website is that it can be adapted as times change. My husband is a programmer, so that definitely helps.

One of the characters has a website, Cat vs. Dude, that she works on during the story.

Kids like going out of the book to see evidence of the characters online. Technology is changing all the time, but websites are going to be around longer than other aspects.

It’s just another way of breaking down the fourth wall and looking at adapting our storytelling with new outlets. I think there’s a lot of potential for multi-media storytelling by working technology into the story in an organic way that expands beyond the page.

Cynsational Notes

Great Examples of Humor in Kid Lit & YA: a bibliography compiled by Kim Baker. Organized by format and age-market category.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three copies of Pickle: The (Formerly) Anonymous Prank Club of Fountain Point Middle School by Kim Baker (Roaring Brook, 2012). Author sponsored. Eligibility: international.

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Cover Reveal & Giveaway: Feral Nights by Cynthia Leitich Smith

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover for Feral Nights (Book One in the Feral series) by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, Feb. 2012). From the promotional copy:

Fans of the Tantalize quartet will thrill to see werepossum Clyde and other favorite secondary characters — plus all-new ones — take to the fore in book one of an all-new series.

When sexy, free-spirited werecat Yoshi tracks his sister, Ruby, to Austin, he discovers that she is not only MIA, but also the key suspect in a murder investigation.

Meanwhile, werepossum Clyde and human Aimee have set out to do a little detective work of their own, sworn to avenge the brutal killing of werearmadillo pal Travis.

When all three seekers are snared in an underground kidnapping ring, they end up on a remote island inhabited by an unusual (even by shifter standards) species. The island harbors a grim secret and were-predator and were-prey must join forces in a fight to escape alive. 

Fans of best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith Tantalize quartet will thrill to see favorite sidekick characters–together with all-new ones–take to the fore in this wry, high-action entry in an exciting new series.

Enter to win an advanced reader copy of Feral Nights by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, Feb. 2012). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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