Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Looking for ALA Award Predictions? Try Fuse #8 at School Library Journal and Educating Alice. See also Notable Children’s Books, 2013 Discussion List from ALSC Blog.

Children’s-YA Book Awards: A Demographic Survey by Mitali Perkins from Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “…to generalize, last year’s award-winning books were mostly about white people and created by white people.”

Fantasy and Originality or Tolkien Stole My Idea by Katherine Catmull from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek: “I want you. Not your surface politeness or charm, not your bland social
gestures, not what you think I want to hear. I want your meat. I want your juice. I want your weirdness, your voice, your truest thing.”

Find Someone Who Is a Stakeholder in Your Writing Life: Find a Few Someones by Kate Gale from Glimmer Train. Peek: “Find someone who believes in you. The kind of stakeholders you need fall into three categories…” Source: Jane Friedman.

Marketing Strategies: Who? Access? Willing by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “Basically, the agent–and ultimately the publisher–want to know a couple simple things. Who do you know, what access do you have to potential readers (online or offline), and what are you willing to do?”

Why You Should Critique Other People’s Queries by Sarah Pinneo from QueryTracker.netBlog.  Peek: “It is the rare query which contains only mistakes I’m past making for myself. There’s always something to learn.” See also Query Letters from Mette Ivie Harrison.

Top Ten Things One Writer Learned About Social Media by Colby Marshall from Mystery Writing Is Murder. Peek: “Social media doesn’t create a fan base–it keeps one.”

Dramatic Point of View in Historical Fiction Picture Books from Donna Bowman Bratton. Peek: “Whereas most picture books are written in close third person point of view, allowing the reader to get inside a character’s head, dramatic point of view is more from the narrator’s vantage point, as if he/she is telling a story as it unfolds, and taking us along for the ride.”

Outside Author Control from Wastepaper Prose. Peek: “What behind the scenes process that authors don’t usually have a hand in but affects how your novel is represented, such as audiobook narration, cover design or marketing, scares you most?”

Diversity 101: Not Injun Joe by Joseph Bruchac from CBC Diversity. Peek: “You can also turn to well-prepared Native American people themselves, teachers, librarians and writers, tribal leaders and respected representatives of their own nations. (But do not make the mistake of assuming that any random Native American will know everything about Indians or even about his or her tribal nation.)”

The Children’s Digital Market: Still Uncharted Territory by Gale Habash from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “The Bowker study had some surprises, most notably: 84% of YA books were purchased by consumers 18 or older – and a full 35% of YA books were bought by consumers aged 18-29, by far the largest demographic.”

Embrace the Naked by Robin LaFevers from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “…if you think that it’s scary to intentionally put more and more of
yourself on the page, to become more and more vulnerable, you’re right.”

International Book Giving Day is Feb. 14. Get ready!


The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is announcing the publication of The Book: The Essential Guide to Publishing for Children.

Formerly known as the SCBWI Publications Guide, the new book is a completely revamped and updated edition, with a new look, new name and a full complement of current, essential articles on all aspects of the children’s book publishing industry.

New and relevant articles feature such topics as maximizing social media, creating book trailers, best practices in independent publishing, and grassroots promotion.

A highlight of The Book is the up-to-the-minute Market Survey, which includes a comprehensive house by house listing of editors, art directors and key personnel. Other useful surveys are The International Market Survey, The Book Reviewers Directory, The Agents Directory, and a unique feature called Edited By, in which editors have been personally surveyed to provide a history of their recent acquisitions. Key resources include an annotated bibliography of essential reference books for any aspiring children’s book author or illustrator, as well as a current listing of bloggers, reviewers, grants and awards.

The 300-page comprehensive, hands-on tool is designed to guide children’s book writers and illustrators through their publishing careers. The Book is available in hard copy and online to SCBWI members.

Egmont U.S.A.

Egmont U.S.A. this week announced the appointment, effective immediately, of Andrea Cascardi to the new combined role of Managing Director and Publisher.

Andrea joins Egmont U.S.A. from the Transatlantic Literary Agency, where she has represented many bestselling and award-winning authors and illustrators, including Newbery winner Clare Vanderpool, Mary Casanova and Mary Nethery. Prior to that, Andrea was a highly respected children’s publisher, beginning in the editorial department at Houghton Mifflin and most recently as Associate Publishing Director at Random House Children’s Books for the Knopf and Crown imprints.

Cally Poplak, Managing Director of Egmont Press, who has been managing the U.S. business from London, said: “I’m delighted that Andrea is joining us to take on this new combined role. She has the strategic vision, business experience and creative background to accelerate Egmont’s growth in the US, and I’m very much looking forward to working with her to build on our first few years.”

As this role encompasses the M.D. and Publisher, there will no longer be a separate Publisher role, and Elizabeth Law is therefore leaving after five years with the company.

“Elizabeth has made a tremendous contribution to building Egmont’s list, and we are enormously grateful for the passion she has put into the business,” said Poplak.

This Week at Cynsations

Austin SCBWI

Newly agented Meredith Davis spoke on “Holding Onto the Heart of Your Story” at the Austin SCBWI monthly meeting last week at BookPeople. Meredith is the founder of the chapter and a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Me with Meredith Davis & Betty X Davis (no relation)
Austin SCBWI members hard at work on a writing exercise.
Incoming RA Shelley Ann Jackson and illustration chair Amy Farrier.
Writers and illustrators gather at Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar after the meeting.
With outgoing ARA Carmen Oliver
Celebrating Meredith signing with Alyssa Eisner Heinken of Trident Media Group.

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

Study with me in snowy Vermont!

Join Cynthia (and many more!) Jan. 19 at Young Adult Keller (Texas) Book Festival (YAK Fest) in Keller, Texas. See more information from I Read Banned Books.

Join Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith (and many more!) Feb. 2 at Montgomery County Book Festival. Check out the art contest; deadline: Jan. 18.

2013 Novel Writing Retreat for Middle Grade and Young Adult Writers will be March 15 to March 17 at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Peek: “This year’s retreat will feature faculty Cynthia Leitich Smith, Lauren Myracle, and Candlewick editor Andrea Tompa.”

New Voice: Erica Lorraine Scheidt on Uses for Boys

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Erica Lorraine Scheidt
is the first-time author of Uses for Boys (St. Martin’s Press, 2013)(blog; see also). From the promotional copy:

Anna remembers a time before boys, when she was little and everything made sense. When she and her mom were a family, just the two of them against the world. But now her mom is gone most of the time, chasing the next marriage, bringing home the next stepfather. Anna is left on her own—until she discovers that she can make boys her family. 

From Desmond to Joey, Todd to Sam, Anna learns that if you give boys what they want, you can get what you need. But the price is high—the other kids make fun of her; the girls call her a slut. 

Anna’s new friend, Toy, seems to have found a way around the loneliness, but Toy has her own secrets that even Anna can’t know.

Then comes Sam. When Anna actually meets a boy who is more than just useful, whose family eats dinner together, laughs, and tells stories, the truth about love becomes clear. And she finally learns how it feels to have something to lose—and something to offer. 

Real, shocking, uplifting, and stunningly lyrical, Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt is a story of breaking down and growing up.

Who has been your most influential writing/art teacher or mentor and why?

Pam Houston. Hands down. She’s the most generous reader I’ve ever known. Listening to her read from an essay or a story or a novel she admires is powerful. It makes you lean in and listen. It’s in how she reads a sentence. The attention she brings to it. Absolutely.

Pam Houston taught me how to read.

I spent two years in the graduate writing program she runs at University of California at Davis and I think it was no one thing, no particular workshop or piece of writing. It was watching her work on Contents May Have Shifted (W. W. Norton & Company, 2012) and teach and make her life and be an artist in the world that had such a profound impact on me.

And even now, four or five years later, she says things that speak directly to my own struggles. She recently posted this:

I just sent this to one of my favorite writing students who has been wrestling hard with a novel this summer and is getting a little beat up: “You are in the vertiginous, vomit-inducing forest of not knowing. It is supposed to suck in there. But you already know that. You also know it is the good news.” I realized I was writing to myself, as well as him, as I begin the terrifying next project.

And I think about that all the time. I think about it every time I get to the vertiginous, vomit-inducing forest of not knowing. But I know it’s the good news. That’s what I learned from Pam.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

I’m not a teacher but a teaching artist and I feel exceptionally
fortunate to work with young writers. The six years or so that I spent
volunteering at 826 Valencia have
changed what I believe is possible—both in terms of writing and in
creating community. Every day a young writer shares his or her writing
for the first time and that moment changes everything. 

Imagine! Things start tumbling out after that. You are not alone! You made a beautiful thing! You put language together in surprising and truthful ways!

I’m awed by it every time.

And then, young writers surprise themselves. They’ll fight against rewriting, they’ll think it’s impossible to come up with anything else, but once they do, they’re amazed by what they can create.

What comes from working on a piece of writing is always so much more than either of us could have foreseen.

I get a lot out of preparing for a workshop. It pushes me to read closer and think about why a story works. What is it about the first sentence? What promise is made about the story? Why did the writer end it there? What can we learn from this?

And selfishly, an hour with a group of teens—who unlike adults often write to write, not to get published—is the perfect antidote for my myriad writer’s insecurities and worries and my little library of hurts. I always come out of a workshop like, hell yeah, let’s go write a sentence!

Downtown High School Students from 826 Valencia

Cynsational Notes

Erica has a studio at Headlands Center for the Arts.

Signed Books Giveaway: Keeping Up with the Smiths

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Keeping Up with the Smiths Book Giveaway!

The Montgomery County (Texas) Book Festival (Feb. 2) is giving away a signed copy of Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Diabolical (Candlewick, 2012) and Greg Leitich Smith’s Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2012)! One set of entries per person. Eligibility: U.S. only. Deadline: Jan. 20.

Enter here!

About the Montgomery County Book Festival

Listen and speak with more than 40 authors. There will be an opening keynote speaker and a closing keynote, with a special presentation during the lunch hour. Ten different panels will each repeat twice during three breakout sessions.

There will be a Teen Zone where teens can go to mingle with authors, make crafts and pick up prizes and freebies.

The event also will include concessions, pizza lunch, book vendor, and D.J.

Closer to Dallas?

Reminder: Join Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith Jan. 19 at Young Adult Keller (Texas) Book Festival (YAK Fest). See more information from I Read Banned Books.

New Voice: Lenore Appelhans/Jennewein on Level 2 & Chick-o-Saurus Rex

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lenore Jennewein is the author of Chick-o-Saurus Rex, illustrated by Daniel Jennewein (Simon & Schuster, 2013). From the promotional copy: 

The humorous story of a little chick who proves his mettle to the farm’s big bullies when he discovers he has a very mighty lineage. 

Lenore Appelhans is the author of Level 2 (Simon & Schuster, 2013)(teacher’s guide). From the promotional copy:

In Level 2, the liminal place between our world (Level 1) and heaven, seventeen-year-old Felicia Ward spends her days in her pod reliving her
favorite memories – until she gets broken out by
Julian, a boy she knew when she was still alive. 

There’s about to be an
uprising in Level Two, and Julian wants to recruit her to the cause. 

unsure whether she can trust Julian, and still in love
with her boyfriend Neil on Earth, she finds herself torn between two
loves—and two worlds.

In case you haven’t guessed, Lenore and Lenore are the same person.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2013, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Not only am I debuting a novel (Level 2) in January, I am also debuting a picture book Chick-o-Saurus Rex (under the name Lenore Jennewein) with my illustrator-husband Daniel Jennewein.

The novel has somewhat of a charmed history, but the picture book was a long time in coming.

Daniel and I started working on our first picture all the way back in 2004. It was our learning book, and we tinkered with it for years (on weekends since we both had demanding full-time jobs) before we discovered SCBWI.

It was through SCBWI that I discovered I could submit this picture book for a professional manuscript critique. The critique stung because it showed us that we needed to do another complete overhaul on it before we could submit it to editors.

Eventually, we realized that as much as we loved this first book, we had to move on. Some books are never meant to be published, and this was one of them. We began developing a second project, one that got some good feedback from art directors at several publishers, but unfortunately never sold.

It was the SCBWI Bologna conference that put things in motion for us. Daniel’s artwork caught the eye of HarperCollins Art Director Martha Rago which eventually led to his first book contract for Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? written by Audrey Vernick (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, 2010).

As for me, the conference got me interested in YA and I started blogging about books at Presenting Lenore. For the next few years, I read hundreds of YA novels – which gave me a sense for what works and what doesn’t. I also met many authors, several of whom became like mentors to me, and were very encouraging when I started writing Level 2.

The next pivotal event was the SCBWI New York conference 2011. I participated in the round table event, which led to an agent offering rep for the picture book Daniel and I were collaborating on (our third project together).

We ended up signing with a different agent, one who knew I was also working on a novel. He read it, loved it and sold it by the end of March. Meanwhile, Daniel and I had developed our fourth picture book and he sold that too.

So here I am with two debut books coming out in 2013 and I couldn’t be more thrilled, surprised and grateful.

As a paranormal writer, what first attracted you to that literary tradition? Have you been a long-time paranormal reader? Did a particular book or books inspire you?

Teacher’s guide to Level 2

My novel, Level 2, is set in the afterlife, so that automatically classifies it as paranormal, though I never really thought of it that way. It’s a bit of a mash-up actually, because about one-third takes place in this sort of sci-fi afterlife and the other two-thirds take place within the main character’s memories – her contemporary life back on earth.

I do tend to prefer novels with paranormal elements rather than those with full-blown paranormal universes. I enjoy that twist on the familiar – the examination of a world similar to ours except for “the thing that (subtlety or not) changes everything”.

I think that’s why I’m so drawn to high-concept dystopian novels.

What would our society look like if love were outlawed? (Delirium by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins 2011)).

What would be important to us if we knew we’d die by 20 years old? (Wither by Lauren DeStefano (Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2011)).

How would our relationships change if only teen girls could get pregnant? (Bumped by Megan McCafferty (Balzer + Bray, 20110).

The afterlife world of Level 2 was inspired by my love of dystopian literature (I’ve dedicated six entire months on my blog to dystopian novels). I’d been playing with an idea for awhile that incorporated memories as currency in the afterlife, but I was stumped as to how to implement it.

My a-ha moment was the thought: “What would a dystopian afterlife look like?”, and everything developed from there.

In Memory: Gerald McDermott


By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Obituary: Gerald McDermott from Publisher’s Weekly:

“Author, illustrator, and filmmaker Gerald McDermott died on December 26 at age 71. McDermott was a devoted, lifelong artist and was avidly interested in world mythologies.

“Early in his career, he created animated short films based on folklore and was a friend and colleague of mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell, becoming the first fellow of the Joseph Campbell Foundation.”

‘Anansi the Spider’ Author/Illustrator Gerald McDermott Dies at 71 from School Library Journal:

“His first children’s book, the Caldecott Honor Anansi the Spider (Holt, 1972), based upon his animated film, retold the traditional West African tale of the clever and mischievous trickster…”

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Author Insight: Writerly Conveniences from Wastepaper Prose. Peek: “Outside of the internet, what’s your biggest writerly convenience?”

Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Stephen Savage by Jules from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: “Linoleum block printing and the computer. Sketchbooks are an integral part of my process, too, and I usually have a pocket sketchbook with me at all times. I find that my best ideas start as thumbnails in those books.” See also Laying a Foundation for a Great Picture Book.

Five Bad Things Radio Guests Do (& Seven Ways to Rock on Radio) from Jane Friedman. Peek: “Although many experienced hosts are adept at ‘plugging’ whatever you want promoted, some aren’t. So it’s up to you to mention that information a few times throughout the interview.”

Three Vs of Fiction: Vision by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “Three things are essential in today’s crowded marketplace: vision, voice and vulnerability. In this three-part series, we will examine these essentials.” See also Three Vs of Fiction: Voice.

How’s the Weather in Your Middle Grade? by Dawn Lairamore from Project Mayhem. Peek: “As a lover of stories…I embrace tempestuous weather and all the exciting and mysterious possibilities that come with it.”

Resolved: Writing Is a Job by Ann Patchett from The Washington Post. Peek: “I don’t know why this struck me as such a radical concept, but it did — time spent working equals output of work. Amazing!” See also A Real Job by Cory McCarthy from Through the Tollbooth.

Are You Listening? by Jeanette Larson from ALSC Blog. Peek: “…following a pretty thorough and interesting history of children’s audiobooks, Burkey deals with the question, Why Listen?, before moving on to an overview of the path written material follows as it becomes an audiobook.”

Ask About the Numbers by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “…if the stories you are given to write are longer or take more thought, your ‘production’ quotas will look lower to others. Find a way to be okay with this, or it will plague you throughout your career.”

Writers and Resolutions by Ash Krafton from QueryTracker.netBlog. Peek: “While promoting gets my stories out, it does seem like I spent more time on promoting than I did on writing new ones.”

What Makes a Strong Author’s Visit — A Teacher’s Perspective by Jillian Terry from Angela Ackerman at The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “Let’s take a look at some of the ways how an author could make their visit to a classroom benefit students.”

Bringing the Past Into the Future by Mary Kole
from Peek: “If an event or relationship doesn’t progress from what has already been established, you are not using it to its full potential.”

Lalicki to Retire from HarperCollins by Diane Roback from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Executive editor Rosemary Brosnan has been promoted to editorial director.”

Jacqueline Woodson Wins 2013 Charlotte Zolotow Award by Professor Nana from The Goddess of YA Literature. Peek: “Each Kindness, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E. B. Lewis, is the winner of the sixteenth annual Charlotte Zolotow Award for outstanding writing in a picture book. The award is given by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and will be formally presented on April 6, 2013 in Madison…”

Anneographies: Picture Book Biographies from Anne Bustard:
celebrating the subjects’ birthdays with books. Highly recommended,
especially to teachers, school librarians, and writing students of the
picture book and/or picture book biography.

Power Writing: Strategies to Help You Reach Your Goals and Watch More Bravo TV by Karen Rock from Harlequin Heartwarming. Peek: “Hide. Seriously. Find a spot in the house where you won’t be located, sniffed out, or hollered to. I’ve even written in the backseat of my garage-parked car during NFL playoffs.”

John Cusick joins Greenhouse Literary. Peek: “John Cusick joins us from Jan 14 as a new U.S. agent, developing his own client list in middle grade and young adult, both fiction and nonfiction. John was previously an agent with Scott Treimel in New York. And Greenhouse is now moving strongly into picture books for the first time…open to submissions from both U.S. and U.K. picture book authors from next week.”

Cynsational Giveaways

Don’t miss Retrospective Headdesk from Laini Taylor; source: Gwenda Bond.

See also New YA Lit Releases and Five Giveaways from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

This week’s highlight was a Twelfth Night Party for the Austin children’s-YA writer community at Nikki Loftin‘s house in Dripping Springs, Texas.

With Frances Yansky.
With Nikki, Salima Alikhan & Donna Bowman Bratton

Congratulations to my dear friend Meredith Davis, VCFA grad and founder of Austin SCBWI, for signing with signed with literary agent Alyssa Eisner Henkin at Trident Media Group, and congratulations to Alyssa for signing Meredith!

Congratulations to Alex Brown, Mary Louise Sanchez, and Sandra Headen, winners of the On-the-Verge Emerging Voices Award from SCBWI!

Congratulations to fellow Austin YA author Varian Johnson, celebrating five years in print for My Life as a Rhombus (Flux, 2008)!

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

Watch the Chronal Engine LEGO Trailer

Join Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith Jan. 19 at Young Adult Keller (Texas) Book Festival (YAK Fest). See more information from I Read Banned Books.

Join E.B. Lewis at 4 p.m. Feb. 10 at BookPeople from Austin SCBWI. Note: “food, drinks, and conversation.” Space is limited, RSVP required. See link for more information.

Highlights Foundation’s Whole Novel Workshop: applications are being accepted for the workshop from March 3 to March 9 with Candlewick editor Kaylan Adair, and writers Alan Gratz, Alexandria LaFaye, and Tami Lewis Brown. Special guest is editor Molly O’Neill, with Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books. For more information about the Whole Novel Workshop, contact Jo Lloyd at 570.253.1192, email or visit to request an application.

An Open Love Note to Debut Authors About Hurtful Online Reviews

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Originally published in 2009, this is one of the highest-traffic posts of all time at Cynsations. 

I’m sharing it again today because it’s a new year and we have new debut authors.

Hey there,

I’m so sorry you’re feeling blue.

Please know that:

(1) it’s not exclusive to you. Our most critically acclaimed writers have fielded rather clueless, self-indulgent, overly personal, and unprofessional attacks on their fine work.

What’s more, over the past couple of years, I’ve received several phone calls and emails from distraught first-time authors about mean-spirited online reviews and comments. In addition to their publishing debuts, many were dealing with personal challenges ranging from divorce to lost day jobs to living without health insurance. All had poured their souls into their manuscripts and made substantial sacrifices in pursuit of their writing life and career goals.

(2) not all of the “noise” matters. Negative reviews in general don’t matter in the long run, let alone mean-spirited ones. Besides, not every voice is of equal/any influence. In particular, anyone calling themselves “anonymous” is way at the bottom of the movers-and-shakers list. Really.

(3) you don’t have to follow everything said about your work. Turn off your Google Alerts. A lot of successful people do. Exhibit: the very successful (by anyone’s measure) Sara Zarr.

(4) maybe rethink comparing responses to your book with those to other books. It’s impossible to get a global bead within the first year anyway, and you’re too close to it to see the big picture.

(5) a lot of interesting, quality work that advances the body of literature generates the most extreme (positive and negative) responses; it’s probably less stressful to shoot for bland writing that doesn’t challenge, but is that really what you want to do?

(6) move on to your next project, and put your focus, energy, and emotion into it instead.

(7) if it’s hard to have faith in yourself, remember it’s not all about you. Don’t forget your home team–your early readers, your agent, your editor, your publisher. Believe in their judgment, their contributions, their faith in you. (And, hey, didn’t you get some positive reviews too?)

(8) you are player, a contributor to the conversation of books, an exciting newcomer to a circle of storytellers that stretches back before the first fireside gatherings. Draw strength from that tradition.


(9) if tomorrow or the day after that, you’re still feeling blue, please feel free to email me or another writer pal for a pep talk. It’s not a matter of skin, thin or thick. You survived all the rejection that comes before getting published. You’re tougher than you realize, and you’ll get through this, too.

(10) focus on becoming your own best cheerleader. Take care of you!

Cynsational Notes

This post was adapted from my comment on a stellar debut author’s locked post and shared with permission.

Certainly, more seasoned writers also might feel stung by overly personal and malicious online reviews, but it’s mostly the new voices that I’m hearing from. Mostly.

Photo by Vera Kratochvil at

New Voice: Lisa Jenn Bigelow on Starting From Here

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lisa Jenn Bigelow is the first-time author of Starting From Here (Amazon Books, formerly Marshall Cavendish, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Sixteen-year-old Colby Bingham’s heart has been broken too many times. Her mother is dead, her truck driver father is always away, and her almost girlfriend just dumped her for a guy. 

When an injured stray dog lands at her feet, she decides to care for it, against her better judgment. But new connections mean new opportunities for heartbreak. 

Terrified of another loss, Colby bolts at the first sign of trouble, managing to alienate her best friend, her father, the cute girl pursuing her, and even her dog’s vet, who’s taken Colby under her wing. 

Colby can’t start over, but can she learn how to move on?

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

It takes a fair amount to make my “edgy detector” go off, so I have to remind myself that all readers have different sensibilities.

Personally, I don’t think of Starting from Here as particularly “edgy.” There’s no drinking or drugs, in large part due to Colby’s best friend Van, who identifies with straight edge punk culture and has a lot of influence in Colby’s life. The profanity is pretty spare, too, since I think a little goes a long way when it comes to establishing character and emotion.

What some readers are more likely to find a sticking point, unfortunately, is that so many of the characters fall on the LGBTQ spectrum. Colby’s closest friends belong to her school’s Gay/Straight Alliance, and while many of them are still exploring their identities, and not all of them are “out” to their families, they’re not ashamed or shy about who they are.

And they follow their hormones. There’s kissing, groping, clothing removal, and innuendo. There’s probably sex, but I’m not 100% sure, because that scene fades to black. I’ve been a little startled when readers bring up the sexual aspects of the book as dicey areas. Love and lust are so visceral and entwined that I can’t imagine writing a romantic relationship with no physical passion.

There was never any question of toning down Colby and her friends or making them straight. Like Colby, I grew up in a mid-size town in Southwest Michigan, which was and continues to be a pretty conservative area. In the early to mid 1990s, virtually nobody was “out” at school, which was very isolating. LGBTQ literary options geared toward teens were also very limited.

I didn’t get my hands on the groundbreaking lesbian YA novel Annie on My Mind, by Nancy Garden (FSG), until my senior year of high school, by which point I’d been grappling with my sexual identity for several years.

Almost twenty years later, so much has improved—in publishing and elsewhere. But queer characters are still such a tiny, underrepresented piece of the publishing pie. Authors who care about improving the sociopolitical climate for LGBTQ people owe it to the world to write more of them.

Some libraries may choose not to purchase Starting from Here and some readers may be uncomfortable with the book due to its LGBTQ content.

Then again, who knows? So far I’ve only heard remarks objecting to Colby’s dad leaving her alone so much—which to me says their priorities are in the right place.

Young Lisa and her books

As a librarian-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a librarian has been a blessing to your writing?

Before my publishing contract, being surrounded by children’s books for eight hours a day was a double-edged sword. When I was frustrated, I’d think, “There are so many books here, some of them awful, so why does my good book keep getting rejected?” Other times, I’d think, “So many books, books for every kind of reader. Surely mine will find a home one day, too.” And, eventually, it did.

Teen Lisa

Interacting with readers is the biggest advantage to being a librarian as well as writer. I learn which books kids are seeking out—which books are popular, which books move them, which books are part of school curricula. On a daily basis, I see how books touch lives, which is an inspiring reminder of why writing is important.

Reading reviews and industry blogs and journals is another part of being a librarian, so I know what’s up and coming. I see new books before they’re put on the shelf.

I also have what I think is a realistic but healthy perspective on a book’s “success.” Schools and libraries collect a broader variety of books from all sizes of publisher than stores—especially big box stores—do. So while a less commercial book from a small press may not be stocked in stores or get big sales figures, if it gets good reviews, it will still find readers through schools and libraries.

Finally, working in a library—a public library, anyway—teaches me how ephemeral books are. My library is not an archive with an interest in preserving books indefinitely. It is a public browsing collection. We order books that get good reviews and/or that patrons ask for.

If they don’t circulate well after a few years, or if they get damaged beyond repair, we withdraw them. In doing so, we make shelf space for a new load of beautiful books.

It’s a natural part of the life cycle of a book.


Jo Knowles (& Maurice Sendak) on Living Your Life

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

For the last couple of days, I’ve stepped away from my YA fantasy manuscript in progress while Greg Leitich Smith reads it to offer his insights and feedback.

I took advantage of that opportunity to catch up on the kidlitosphere and came across this inspiring post by the glorious gift to the world that is author Jo Knowles.

Check it out. Take some time with it. Watch the embedded video interview with Maurice Sendak. Ponder Jo’s thoughts. Grab a tissue or three, just in case.

It’s absolutely required reading/viewing. Again, here’s the link:

Live Your Life: A Theme and Challenge for 2013
from Jo Knowles. Peek: “A desperate plea to anyone who would listen:
Don’t wait until you are aging to fall in love with the world.” Source: Carrie Jones.

Author Interview: Lauren Oliver

By Karen Rock
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Beloved, bestselling, YA author Lauren Oliver, stopped by to chat with us about her contemporary novel Before I Fall, dystopian series, Delirium, and her exciting, upcoming projects.

Here’s what she had to say about her eclectic writing journey:

As a successful writer of both realistic and dystopian fiction with Before I Fall and your Delirium series, what elements are important to you, regardless of genre, in appealing to readers?

I think people read novels to learn, essentially, about people. So it’s important for me to create realistic and well-rounded characters and to show them undergoing transformations.

The story structure of Before I Fall is one of the most unique, memorable, and effective formats I’ve read. Would you discuss your thought-process in telling the story this way? How did it help you fulfill the goals you had for the novel? 

I’m not sure it was totally conscious; I needed to find a way for Sam, the main character, to begin to perceive the consequences of her actions. I thought of it in terms of a physical analogy: a person orbiting around a single set of events and seeing them from different angles.

Some might question if a popular, self-absorbed, charmed
protagonist like Samantha Kingston would be relatable to readers. Why
was she the right narrator for Before I Fall? How did you transform her
into the sympathetic character we root for by the end of the novel?

I always felt that although Sam was not particularly likable, she was deeply recognizable.

And from the beginning I tried to give hints that there were aspects of her character that could were redeemable. She’s not a bad person. But she’s a very, very careless and afraid person at the start of the novel. She moves toward a kind of bravery and integrity over the course of the book.

To what degree do you feel chance versus choice determines our destiny? How does this issue factor into Before I Fall?

Well, I think Before I Fall is ultimately a book about choice, although there are some ultimate “limits” to what we can influence (i.e., Sam cannot ultimately control her death). At the same time, I believe choice, personal choice, has tremendous impact in our lives.

What drew you to a dystopian series project after writing Before I Fall?

I didn’t originally conceive it as a “dystopian” project; that’s a label that
was applied to the book afterward. I was drawn to the concept and the
character of Lena, and I was very clear about the fact that I wanted to do something quite different from BIF.

What real world issues served as inspiration when imagining Delirium’s dystopian world?

I was definitely inspired by places in the world where issues of love and
sex are rigorously controlled and where access to free information is

The question of whether giving up personal control is needed for a
stable society is one Lena learns to question in Delirium and challenges
in its sequel, Pandemonium. 

What further realizations and/or character
growth can we expect for Lena in the next novel in the series, Requiem…
and any chance that release date is moved up from March, 2013?

In Requiem, Lena begins to question whether such a thing as free choice truly exists, or whether we are always influenced by the confluence of external circumstances. And sadly, the release date has not yet moved up!

I’ve heard that Requiem will be told in alternating points of view. What prompted your exciting decision to change the narration of the series? What can you share about it with your fans?

In order to keep pushing myself as a writer, I feel I need to keep challenging myself to try different perspectives, different kinds of projects, different voices. So I really wanted Requiem to push the boundary in terms of what I’d already tried.

Thanks for answering our questions, Lauren! Your diverse tastes keep your fans intrigued and guessing. What upcoming projects can we look forward to seeing from you? 

I’m working on a realistic YA called Panic, and after that, I have a book for grownups coming out. I’ll keep doing YA and middle grade and all of it, if I can!

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. Then check out Camp Boyfriend.