Guest Post: Monica Brown on Where Art Meets Text: Reflections on the Author-Illustrator Relationship

Peek into Rafael’s process in creating the book.

By Monica Brown
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Conventional wisdom states that authors and illustrators should have as little contact as possible, especially during the creation of a picture book.

Conventional wisdom is right in the sense that illustrators need to be free to create without interference from authors, guided by conscientious feedback from talented editors and art directors.

I would, however, like to share a writer’s perspective on the confluence of words and art that creates the children’s picture book.

On the one hand, artists tell stories with pictures, but on another, passionate picture book writers infuse their words with art—images, symbols, movement, and action (not to mention rhythm and music, but that’s another topic).

When I write, it’s not in an artless vacuum. On each page, I think about illustratable action, and the ways a gifted illustrator might take my words and fly with them.

Let me take as an example two of my picture book biographies, the first—My Name is Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/Me llamo Celia: La Vida de Celia Cruz (Luna Rising), was published almost ten years ago with illustrator Rafael López; and the second, our new book together, Tito Puente, Mambo King/Rey del Mambo (Rayo/HarperCollins, 2013), which arrived March 5.

When I write, I do so for myself of course and for my imagined audience of children. But I also write for illustrators.

In the case of Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, any biography of their lives would have many musical scenes, but the illustration of these scenes would have to be varied and interesting and filled with action.

I tried to do this on the first page of My Name is Celia, when I wrote:

“Sugar! My voice is strong, smooth, and sweet. I will make you feel like dancing. Close your eyes and listen. My voice feels like feet skipping on cool wet sand, like running under a waterfall, like rolling down a hill. My voice climbs and rocks and dips and flips with the sounds of congas beating and trumpets blaring. Boom, boom, boom! beat the congas. Clap, clap, clap! go the hands. Shake, shake, shake! go the hips. I am the Queen of Salsa, and I invite you to come dance with me.”

With Tito Puente, King of Mambo I wrote:

“When the Tito Puente Orchestra played, the tambourines sounded like rain on metal roofs. The horns blew high and loud and strong and low. The claves smacked clackity clackity clack clack, and everyone’s feet went tappity tap. Best of all, Tito played the timbales . . .Tum Tica! Tac Tic! Tum Tic Tom Tom!” 

When I turned in the manuscript, I couldn’t wait to see what Rafael would come up with, and I wasn’t disappointed!

As a writer, I’ve been very fortunate (and, perhaps, unusual) in that I’ve had editors who have allowed me to be involved in each part of the process, staring with the selection of the illustrator, through notes on the first rounds of sketches, to final art (though obviously, with these talented artists, notes on final art involve expressions of gratitude and glee!).

With certain books, I’ve give feedback on candidates presented as potential illustrators, and when possible, I’ve suggested illustrators who I think will work with my manuscript.

In this way, I’ve gotten to work more than once with the same artist. My two books with Rafael López are one joyful example. Another is my two collaborations with John Parra.

Our second book together, the Christopher Award-winning Waiting for the Biblioburro (Random House, 2011) was released last year. I specifically requested John for this project because I knew he would be perfect for it, with his sweet characters and delightful depiction of animalitos.

The author/illustrator relationship can be amazing, and I’ve loved the opportunity to reunite with illustrators as we grow in parallel and non-parallel ways as writers and artists.

Monica & Rafael

In the case of John Parra and Rafael López, we’ve also found occasion to present together in various venues across the country—from academic conferences to literacy nights to school visits. This is especially rewarding as it affirms why we do this in the first place—to support literacy, put smiles on the faces of children and encourage them to find their own voices and make themselves heard.


Cynsational News & Giveaways

Cecil Castellucci on Medusa

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Five Great Books to Give to a Young Woman from CBC Books. Peek: “…awesome young female Canadian writers who have all written great books recently.”

When Pig’s Fly: The Improbable Dream of Bookselling in the Digital Age by Elizabeth Bluemle from The Horn Book. Peek: “When The Horn Book invited me to write about the joys and challenges of operating an independent bookstore in the twenty-first century, I was both honored and a bit wary: do people really want to
know the realities of bookselling? Or do they want the dream?”

Physical Attribute Entry: Hair by Becca Puglisi from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “Though hair doesn’t do much on its own, people often touch their hair to indicate certain emotions.”

National Library Legislative Day: “On May 7 and 8, 2013 ALA invites librarians to attend in Washington, DC. At this event, you will learn how to approach legislators, attend a congressional reception, and visit legislative offices. All in the name of advocating for our services and those who need them. There is also a virtual component to the day, allowing librarians to ‘attend’ from a distance.” Note: ALA asks librarians and other author/book bloggers to post in support of its lobbying efforts.

What Facebook’s New Feed Will Mean for Authors by Caitlin Muir from Author Media. Peek: “It’s time to start thinking like Pulitzer and Hearst. Scratch that. Start thinking like National Geographic. Your articles will be ignored if they don’t have photos that draw readers in. This is your time to shine.”

Should I Submit My Picture Book Dummy to Editors and Agents Simultaneously? by Sara Sciuto from DearEditor.com. Peek: “I wouldn’t suggest planning on submitting to agencies and publishing houses simultaneously while you’re trying to find an agent. Here’re a few reasons why…” See also DearEditor.com on Submitting to an Agent at the Same Agency That Previously Rejected Your Manuscript.

Industry Q&A with Matt de la Pena from CBC Diversity. Peek: “Growing up biracial, I was always trying to
figure out how to define myself racially. Was I a white kid? A Mexican kid? The problem was, I never felt I actually deserved either label. Not full time.”

What Do Amazon Sales Rankings Really Mean? by Chris Eboch from Write Like a Pro. Peek: “…the most copies sold according to BookScan, but the worst Amazon sales ranking. That suggests it sells better through non-Amazon channels.” See also How Many Copies Does It Take to be an Amazon Bestseller? by Gabe Habash from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “…a title in Amazon’s top five averages 1,094 print copies sold across all channels, including other retailers, on a typical day.”

The Trappings of Difference: Writing about Emotional and Developmental Disabilities by Lyn Miller-Lachman from CBC Diversity. Peek: “Because emotional and developmental disabilities are usually invisible, it is tempting to exaggerate behavioral differences so that readers know a character has a disability. Thus, a character with Asperger’s syndrome offers lengthy explanations, and the story grinds to a halt.”

The Most Influential Children’s Publisher You’ve Never Heard Of from Publishing Perspectives. Peek: “…most of those books are published in overlooked languages — Lao, Hindi, Tamil, Afrikaans, SeSotho, Kiswahili, Chinayanja and 20 others.”

Does It Matter What Books Your Library Has? by Elizabeth Burns from School Library Journal. Peek: “…public libraries adding ebooks to their collection that are self
published because they are easier and cheaper and more available than the big 6 titles.”

New Series: June 2013

Bruce Hale Shares Three Excellent Tips for School Visits by Lee Wind from The Official SCBWI Blog. Peek: “It’s not about you.”

25th Annual Lambda Literary Award Finalists Announced by Tony Valenzula from Lambda Literary. Scroll for the LGBT Children’s/YA book category.

Promoting a Late Author’s Debut Novel: Poison by Bridget Zinn by Alexis Burling from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “…how can a book be successfully launched without an author? In the case of the YA fantasy novel Poison (Hyperion) by debut author Bridget Zinn, who died of colon cancer in May 2011 at the age of 33, the answer is simple: with a lot of help from friends.” Note: please promote, purchase, and/or otherwise support Bridget’s Poison. See also “The World’s Fastest Librarian: A Film Made By and For Librarians.”

Does YA Fiction Need Strong Language? by Karen King from An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. Peek: “I tried to think of alternative words but ‘Oh Sugar,’ or ‘Gosh’ didn’t quite have the effect I wanted so I decided to delete most of the offending words and let the dialogue stand on its own. And to my surprise it worked.”

Author Insight: Story Starts from Wastepaper Prose. Peek: “Tell us the first sentence of your most recent book.”

Interview with Illustrator Clint Young by Patti from Illustrator’s Market. Peek: “Good lighting can make or break a painting.”

See also This Week for Writers — Pub Tips, Writing Craft, Inspiration, Books and Industry News from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing.

Cynsational Giveaways

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Today Cynsations is coming to you from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I’m teaching the 2013 Novel Writing Retreat for Middle Grade & Young Adult Authors this weekend with author Lauren Myracle and Candlewick editor Andrea Tompa. (So far celebrity sightings have included Leda Schubert, M.T. Anderson, Debbi Michiko Florence, Sarah Aronson and Cindy Faughnan.)

This week my email IN box began to glow with joy when I received this terrific pic from Eve from New York, who’s a huge fan of my Tantalize series (and looks great in that color, too)! Thank you so much, Eve, for your support and enthusiasm! Read on! Read on! It’s an honor to write for you!

(Permission granted from Eve’s mom, via her teacher, to share this adorable photo.)

The week’s highlights included a speech by Lindsey Scheibe at the Austin SCBWI monthly meeting at BookPeople. Huge thanks to Lindsey for recommending Cynsations as a resource for children’s-YA writers! I’m honored!

Lindsey with fellow Austin authors Nikki Loftin & P.J. Hoover
Me with incoming ASCBWI leadership Shelley Ann Jackson (RA), Samantha Clark (ARA) & Amy Farrier (IC).
Thank you, Shirley Smith Duke, for this shelf shot of Feral Nights (Candlewick) from Alamosa Books in Albuquerque.

Congratulations to Bethany Hegedus for signing with Alexandra Penfold of Upstart Crow Literary, and congratulations to Alexandra for signing Bethany! Note: Bethany is an Austin-based author and the creative director of the Writing Barn.

Congratulations to my one-time WIFYR assistant, Courtney Alameda, on the sale of her debut novel to Liz Szabla at Feiwel & Friends!

Personal Links

Cynsational Events 

The Art of Dr. Seuss from April 5 to April 20 at Art on 5th Gallery, 3005 S. Lamar, in Austin. Source: Austin SCBWI.

Authors/Speakers at TLA 2013 April 24 to April 27 in Fort Worth from the Texas Library Association. Look for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s signing and Spirit of Texas High School author panel.

YA lit readers! Join Cynthia Leitich Smith at 1 p.m. May 25 at Cedar Park (TX) Public Library.

Join Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith at 11 a.m. June 11 at Lampasas (TX) Public Library.

Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers will be held from June 17 to June 21 in Sandy, Utah. Note: I have taught at this conference in the past and highly recommend it.


Join authors Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, Nancy Werlin and ICM Partners literary agent Tina Wexler at a Whole Novel Workshop
from Aug. 4 to Aug. 10, sponsored by the Highlights Foundation. Peek: “Our aim is to focus on a specific work in progress, moving a novel to the next level in preparation for submission to agents or publishers. Focused attention in an intimate setting makes this mentorship program one that guarantees significant progress.” Special guests: Curtis Brown agent Sarah LaPolla, authors Bethany Hegedus and Amy Rose Capetta.

Save the Date! 5th Annual Austin Teen Book Festival by Jen Bigheart from I Read Banned Books. Note: Sept. 28, 2013.

Guest Post: Barbara Brooks Wallace on The Courage to Try

By Barbara Brooks Wallace
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Whenever anyone tells me they “have a story started but didn’t think it worth trying to go on with it,” I have a pocket full of tales to tell them.

Two agents telling me nobody would buy a book like Claudia. File and forget it. Same agents telling me nothing about witches, hadn’t been written. File and forget.

My super cool Pomona College English professor, Dr. Holmes, a “New Yorker” devotee, handing back my essays as if there was no hope for me. The important children’s book award winner telling me to forget writing. I’d never get published.

Well, I sent Claudia out myself . It was bought in ten days by an editor who said there wasn’t an editor in New York who wouldn’t have bought it.

I wrote The Trouble with Miss Switch, and a second book requested by ABC. Both became the highest rated TV shows on their popular Weekend Specials. Dr. Holmes, went on to say that my essays were “New Yorker” worthy, advising me to major in English and creative writing. As for the writer telling me I’d never get published, well, would she believe 28 books, and counting?

Is anyone listening? I mean all those who want to write and don’t have the courage to try?


When I transferred to UCLA, I had the misguided idea that that I should go overseas, have adventures and write about them, forgetting that I’d already had a rather adventurous childhood growing up in China (about which I’ve finally had the courage to write in a memoir, Small Footsteps in the Land of the Dragon: Growing Up in China). So I majored in International Relations, hated it, learned nothing, and didn’t come around to writing until my sister reminded me of what Dr. Holmes had said.

I didn’t write anything at an early age as so many writers have. I was just a skinny little kid afraid of everything. Nobody bothered telling me I was smart in school. They mostly worried about my anemia, feeding me blood squeezed in a meat press by Dosofoo, our cook. Amazing that I never grew vampire teeth!

After several modestly successful books, I drummed up the courage to send one to the person who changed my writing life. That was the “legendary” Jean Karl, who became my editor for her remaining 23 years. The book was Peppermints in the Parlor, in print for over thirty years.

This book was called “Dickensian”, as have several others (nominated for or winning Edgar awards). Boggles my mind, but there you are!

But I have to say one thing about writing. It brings wonderful, generous people into your life. Cyn, for a shining example, who is letting me blather away here. Then at the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C., Uma Krishnaswami, Elisa Carbone, and someone who wrote in my copy of Bridge to Terabithia that I had supported her when nobody else gave her a toss.

Can you imagine anybody not giving Katherine Paterson a toss?

Two lovely men from a company in California, specializing in toy licensing and films, came here to talk about my Miss Switch books.

This led to their publishing Diary of a Little Devil and Miss Switch and the Vile Villains, with plans for more books.

But all this is why I encourage everyone who talks about wanting to write to please go ahead and do it. It opens up so many wonderful doors. I mean it. Really and truly!

Cynsational Notes


From Wikipedia: “Barbara Brooks Wallace is an award-winning American children’s writer, including NLAPW Children’s Book Award and International Youth Library ‘Best of the Best’ for Claudia (2001) and William Allen White Children’s Book Award for Peppermints in the Parlor (1983).

“Wallace won two Edgar Allan Poe Awards from the Mystery Writers of America for The Twin in the Tavern (1994) and Sparrows in the Scullery (1998). Cousins in The Castle (1997) and Ghosts in the Gallery (2001) were also nominated for an Edgar Award.”

Giveaway: Greenhorn & Shlemiel Crooks by Anna Olswanger

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Greenhorn by Anna Olswanger, illustrated by Miram Nerlove (New South, 2012). From the promotional copy:

In Anna Olswanger’s middle-grade novel Greenhorn, a young Holocaust survivor arrives in 1946 at a New York yeshiva where he will study and live. His only possession is a small box that he never lets out of his sight. Daniel, the young survivor, rarely talks, but the narrator, a stutterer who bears the taunts of the other boys, comes to consider Daniel his friend.


The mystery of what’s in the box propels this short work, but it’s in the complex relationships among the schoolboys that the human story is revealed. In the end, Aaron, the stutterer, finds his voice and a friend in Daniel, and their bond offers hope for a future life of dreams realized, one in which Daniel is able to let go of his box.


Greenhorn is a powerful story, perfect for families to read together, that gives human dimension to the Holocaust. It poignantly underscores our flawed humanity and speaks to the healing value of friendship.

Anna says: 

I discovered through all those successive drafts that I was writing about family.

My grandparents’ cousins and their children who never left Eastern Europe died in the Holocaust. I am still childless. I have no children to discuss my cousins with, or even the Holocaust that wiped out not just them, but two thirds of Europe’s Jews.

Read more from Anna about Greenhorn.

Eligibility: North America. Author sponsored.

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Enter to win an author-signed hardcover copy of Shlemiel Crooks, by Anna Olswanger, illustrated by Paula Goodman Koz (Junebug, 2005). From the promotional copy:

“In the middle of the night on a Thursday, two crooks—onions should grow in their navels—drove their horse and wagon to the saloon of Reb Elias Olschwanger, at the corner of 14th and Carr streets in St. Louis. This didn’t happen yesterday. It was 1919.” So begins Anna Olswanger’s charming folktale Shlemiel Crooks, the story of Reb Elias and the thieves who try to steal his Passover wine.


Based on a true story, Shlemiel is an imaginative introduction for young children to the history of Passover, as Pharaoh and a town of Jewish immigrants play tug-of-war with wine made from grapes left over from the exodus from Egypt.


A modern-day parable, Shlemiel has a music all its own. No other children’s book has Pharaoh’s ghost coming back to “pull one over on the Jews,” nosy neighbors making a “shtuss” outside, and a talking horse that sounds like it has a “little indigestion.” In its Yiddish-inflected English, punctuated by amusing curses, young readers hear the language of a Jewish community of another time, while delighting to brilliant illustrations on every page.

Anna says:

In researching, I discovered a 1919 Yiddish newspaper article about my great-grandfather. One night, while he was at the synagogue teaching a Talmud class, two crooks tried to steal the Passover wine and liquor from his kosher store. The neighborhood woke up at the sound of the break-in, and one neighbor began shooting his revolver in the air. The crooks got scared and ran away. They not only left without the wine and liquor, but without their horse and wagon, so they left with less than what they came with! The article, combined with my desire to pay tribute to my great-grandparents, was the beginning of Shlemiel Crooks.

Read more from Anna about Shlemiel Crooks. Note: this book has a Passover connection.

Eligibility: North America. Author sponsored.

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Career Builder: Tanya Lee Stone

Tanya as a girl; meet her today!

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Tanya Lee Stone on Tanya Lee Stone:

“I grew up on the beach on Long Island Sound, so tide pools and jetties were my playground. I always read a ton of books, and would take out more than I could carry from the library on the weekends. My dad is a professor and writer and my mom was an elementary school librarian, so books were everywhere in our house. My dad built me a kid-sized reading loft only I could climb up to–I spent hours up there! In high school, I studied music at a performing arts high school.

In college, I was an English major at Oberlin, which gave me the perfect excuse to spend all my time reading and writing. And after college, I was an editor until I moved to Vermont in 1996 and became a writer.

“I love to write about ordinary people who do extraordinary things and shine the light on their little-known stories. Change happens slowly, many times because people quietly push through barriers and move things forward until bam! someone else makes a big splash. But headline-makers often stand on the shoulders of those who first paved the way for them to follow.

“You can read about some of these trailblazers in my new books Courage Has No Color and Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? I have been very fortunate to have some of my books win awards, which helps ensure that more people will read them!”

Check out the Readers’ Guide for Courage Has No Color.

Tanya is the author of several acclaimed books for young readers, including Courage Has No Color, The True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers (Candlewick, 2013), Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (Holt/Christy Ottaviano Books, 2013), The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie (Viking, 2010), Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream (Candlewick, 2009), Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (Holt/Christy Ottaviano Books, 2008), Sandy’s Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder, illustrated by Boris Kulikov (Viking, 2008), and A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl  (Random House/Wendy Lamb, 2006).

What does the writing community mean to you?

In a word: everything.

I have been writing for 16 years, and was an editor before that.

A majority of my closest friends at this point are fellow writers. We have met at conferences, retreats, and on tour, and friendships have grown and become a central focus of my life. These are the people who innately understand the ups and downs of the business side of our profession, as well as the thrills and challenges of the creative aspect.

I also have a few writer friends who are my first readers. We read for each other when needed, or asked.

And in general, this is one of the most supportive communities I have ever been in–we pick each other up when needed and cheer for each other’s successes.

How do you define success?

I think that having the luxury of being able to wake up and do what you love, and actually get paid for it, is a pretty successful thing. Not to mention the perks of working in pajamas if you’re tired, and not having to punch a clock, which are both extremely nice. I did not have those opportunities when I worked in an office as an editor!

But really, success comes in many forms, and I suppose has different levels, but for me what is at the core of feeling successful is that I love what I do, and I’m able to do it for a living. That other people actually like to read my books on top of that, is pretty fantastic! If I can continue to write the books I want to write, for as long as I want to do it, I will consider myself successful.

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?

Walter Morris suited up for his 1rst jump

I would most definitely consider my career as a hike up a mountain (although I still have a long way to go to reach the top!). I have the thick folder of old rejection letters to prove it.

When I started writing professionally, I wrote a lot of linear, straightforward library market nonfiction books for kids–12 books on backyard animals, 10 books on biomes–that kind of thing. I really strengthened my skill sets doing that.

Then I tried to sell single title, less straightforward books to the trade (that’s when the rejection letters started coming in).

Even though I was a skilled writer from writing the library market books, it took a few more years to learn how to be more creative in my approach and focus on writing only what I was passionate about. Eventually, that is what worked for me.

I remember when I won the Sibert Medal for Almost Astronauts, a writer friend said to me, “You’re an overnight success! It only took 10 years.” That about sums it up!

Cynsational Snapshots

At the family farm
Tanya’s new pup, ready for his role in “Fiddler on the Roof”

Cynsational Screening Room


Courage Has No Color 90 second book trailer from Tanya Lee Stone on Vimeo.

Guest Post: Valerie O. Patterson on To Write In Flow

Val at work with her cat Cooper

By Valerie O. Patterson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

We know it when we feel it. When the words stream onto the page, and we lose track of time. We are in the moment of the book. We are the voice of the story.

When we come to an end point, we blink. We realize the music is repeating itself; the light has gone down with the sun. A family member asks what time’s dinner? The moment is over, and we print out what we’ve written.

Later we’ll read it over and be surprised by some of what’s on the screen or page. The language is raw and from the heart. And, we don’t know if we can get in that place again.

What’s this all about?

Flow. It’s not surprising we think of creative writing (or painting or any other form of art) as being at its best in flow, as if it were in fact water. Water is fluid, shapeless, giver of life, life itself.

Psychologist Mihaly Csíikszentmihíalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience identifies certain elements critical to flow: intense concentration, loss of self-consciousness (in other words, the critic has gone home); a loss of a sense of time; and, feelings of euphoria.

Some writers say they never experience flow. Others do but then say that, when the book is finished, they can’t tell what part was written in flow, and what part was a result of “staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead,” as Gene Fowler described.

Flow may not guarantee perfect prose, but I believe it does mean we’ve tapped into our best creative selves.

Flip Flops: Getty Images, Beach: Jupiter Images

For me flow is a state when the writing is going so well I’m not thinking of anything else. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s magical when it does. I have a few techniques that seem to help me.

Writing even a little every day. This isn’t a mechanical requirement—X many words a day. Rather, it’s a spiritual one, in the same way we might approach prayer or meditation. We’re seeking those quiet moments, and we’re readying our writerly soul to be fed. When we regularly engage, we are more likely to move quicker into a scene. Jane Yolen said “way will come.”

Engage the hands. Not just for keyboarding. Try another creative outlet, such as knitting or painting. Any other creative endeavor connects us to that inner writer as well.

Take a walk. Outside. Alone. Without headphones. Physical activity combined with mental quiet gives us a chance to clear ourselves of distractions, engage the senses, and tap into that deeper part of ourselves that helps us write.

Wordless music. Try headphones when you’re writing. I recommend “wordless” music because lyrics distract me. I can’t tune out the words being sung, unless they’re in Gaelic, which unfortunately I don’t speak. (I can thank Enya for scenes definitely written in flow.)

What techniques work for you?

Cynsational Notes

Cover art by Richard Tuschman.

Valerie O. Patterson is a writer who lives in Virginia. Operation Oleander, her second novel from Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is now available. From the promotional copy:

When Jess’s dad ships out to Afghanistan, she wants nothing more than to feel close to him. They share an interest in an Afghan orphanage, so Jess and her friends form Operation Oleander, a club that collects school supplies for the orphans.

But Jess’s delight in the operation’s success turns to horror when breaking news reveals that the connection between the soldiers and the orphanage has resulted in a bombing.

With her dad injured and her best friend’s mother killed, Jess is suddenly thrust into a political and media firestorm. Was their work helping the orphanage, or making it a target?

Operation Oleander explores questions about the nature of duty, honor, and our responsibilities toward each other at home and in the larger world.

Check out the Operation Oleander discussion guide.

Visit all the stops of Valerie’s Operation Oleander Blog Tour. Highlights include:

Guest Post: James Kennedy on the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival

By James Kennedy
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival is an annual video contest in which kid filmmakers create movies that tell the entire story of a Newbery award-winning book in 90 seconds or less.

We’re now starting our third year!

We’ve received hundreds of entries from all over the world, in a
dizzying variety of styles — from a shadow-puppet version of Grace
Lin’s 2010 Honor Book Where The Mountain Meets the Moon (view) to a full-scale musical of William Pene du Bois’ 1948 Medal Winner The Twenty-One Balloons (view)


Bookie Woogie: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon from Z-Dad on Vimeo.

The film festival screens annually in New York City, Chicago, Portland, Tacoma, and other cities.

Here’s a recap of this year’s screening in New York, co-hosted by me and Jon Scieszka, with special guests Newbery winners Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux), Rita Williams-Garcia (One Crazy Summer), and Margi Preus (Heart of a Samurai), as well as Dan Yaccarino and Brian Floca. Worth checking out if you want to see Jon Scieszka sing, or arm-wrestle with Kate DiCamillo…

Here’s a recap of this year’s screening in Chicago, co-hosted by me and Blue Balliett (Chasing Vermeer). Here you
can see the questions and answers of our audience participatory game
show, “The Dark Side of the Newbery,” in which unsavory truths of
Newbery winners come to light . . .

The film festival typically screens for free at the main branch of the city’s public library. We’ve had sold-out shows right from the start, with crowds of hundreds turning out, including the young filmmakers themselves — who in some cases, get to meet in person the author who wrote the book they filmed!

Here are some of the standouts of this year’s films. Must be
seen to be believed! Feel free to embed or link to these if you want:

  • A hilarious live-action puppet reenactment of Frog and Toad Together (Arnold Lobel, 1973 Honor), by Aaron Zenz and family of Spring Lake, MI (watch).
  • A bonkers Claymation sprint through the very first Newbery winner, The Story of Mankind (Hendrik Willem van Loon, 1922 Medal) by Max and Jennings of Tacoma, WA (watch)
  • An Akira-Kurosawa-inspired, all-Japanese-language, subtitled version of Heart of a Samurai (Margi Preus, 2011 Honor Book) by Burley Elementary School of Chicago, IL (watch)
  • An ingeniously resourceful one-man-show of The Giver (Lois Lowry, 1994 Medal) done by Leo Lion of Brooklyn, NY (watch)
  • An elaborate musical of Mrs. Friby and the Rats of Nimh (Robert C. O’Brien, 1972 Medal), by Elephant & Worm Theater Company of Chicago, IL (watch)
  • One of the most interesting things about curating this film festival is seeing the different ways different groups approach the same material. Here’s another Frog and Toad Together, but this time interpreted as a Wes-Anderson-style/French ye-ye music video, by Sara Truscott of Tacoma, WA (watch)

Cynsational Notes

The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival is founded and organized by James Kennedy, author of the YA fantasy The Order of Odd-Fish.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Michelle Meadows on the release of Piggies in Pajamas, illustrated by Ard Hoyt (Simon & Schuster, 2013). From the promotional copy:

After Mama has put her kids to bed, she settles in to make some phone calls. But she keeps hearing things from upstairs. Could her little piggies be jumping on the bed or playing dress-up instead of sleeping? But every time Mama goes up to check on them, they are all tucked in…until the noises begin again!


Kids and parents alike will relate to the eternal bedtime struggle so playfully depicted in this delightful picture book.

More News & Giveaways

Duckbill Books of India from All About Book Publishing. Peek: “…a partnership between Westland, India’s fastest growing trade publishing and distribution house, Anushka Ravishankar and Sayoni Basu. ‘We look forward to building a children’s and young adults’ publishing list which will be comparable to the finest in the world. Our list will contain an eclectic mix of books for readers ranging from six-year-olds to young adults,’ said Anushka.”

If You Struggle with Plot, Here’s a Way to Think About It Differently by Stuart Horowitz from Jane Friedman. Peek: “…the best way to produce a first draft is to produce a large pile of pages and avoid trying to organize anything at all. At first.”

Kidlit Celebrates Women’s History Month: “We hope the blog will serve as both a resource and an inspiration for
librarians, educators, and parents, and all who are interested in the
intersection of women’s history and literature for children and teens.”

Behind the Books: Does Story Appeal to Everyone? by Melissa Stewart from Celebrate Science. Peek: “I strongly believe that left-brain thinkers are currently being underserved by the kidlit community.”

Choose Wisely: Metaphors in Character by Jael McHenry from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “Whether you’re writing in first person or third, historical fiction or sci-fi, war or romance, a character can’t compare something they’re encountering to something they’ve never encountered before.”

Canadian Library Association Book of the Year: A History in Book Trailers from CanLit for Little Canadians. Peek: “Just as these past winners exemplify a full range of genres and themes, so too do these creative book trailers.” See also Finalists for the 2013 Young Adult Book Award from the Canadian Library Association from Bookshelves of Doom.

2013 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer and New Illustrator Book Awards Winners Announced from Reuters. Note: congratulations to fellow Austinite and New Writer Honor Recipient Don Tate.

We Need Diverse “Diverse” Books by Shelley Diaz (assistant editor of SLJ’s Book Reviews) from CBC Diversity. Peek: “People of color are an indelible part of American history, and the books that are created and marketed in schools and libraries have to reflect that. They shouldn’t just be pigeonholed to their respective ‘Heritage’ Month, and forgotten about for the rest of the year, but displayed and celebrated with every topic covered in the curriculum.”

Lex Thomas & more on page count

Author Insight: Page Count Intimidation from Wastepaper Prose. Peek: “As a reader, is there a page count at which a book becomes daunting to you? Does this affect you as a writer?”

Being Open to Opportunities by Matthew Salesses from Glimmer Train. Peek: “I hate to turn down anyone genuinely interested in me or my work. How rare and amazing that attention is.” On the flip side, check out Closing the Door by Mette Ivie Harrison.

When You’re Writer’s Personality is Rejected by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “Many people in your life won’t like some of your creative personality. When that happens, it will feel like another form of rejection.”

Meet the Latest Newbery Winner: How Katherine Applegate Created a Modern-Day Classic by Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal. Peek: “Once a year, they open up his cage, I think, on his birthday and let people walk through, and there were tons of clippings and tons of
touching pictures from little kids and that sort of thing. So I got a pretty good picture of what his life was like.”

Interview with Literary Agent Sarah Davies from Scribe: The Writers’ League of Texas. Peek: “I’m looking for two main things. 1) A really original and arresting premise that I’ve not seen before, or which brings a fresh twist to a genre. 2) A mastery of craft and voice to bring that premise to life.” See also Interview with Writer and Instructor Brian Yansky from Scribe.

Children’s-YA Agents at 2013 Conferences from Vonna Carter. Peek: “This list focuses on agents who represent Picture Books, Middle Grade and/or Young Adult books, though many of them represent Adult works as well.”

Back in the Day: Industry Veterans Remember the Early Years by Diane Roback from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “We asked industry veterans to reflect on memorable events from their early days in publishing—most of which could never happen today.” Source: Gwenda Bond.

Award News

2013 Golden Kite Award Winners & The Sid Fleischman Award for Humor from SCBWI. Peek: “presented at the Golden Kite Luncheon, the centerpiece event of SCBWI’s 42nd Annual Conference on Writing and Illustrating for Children, taking place in Los Angeles” from Aug. 2 to Aug. 5, will be presented to the winners on Aug. 4.

See also honor books. Note: congratulations to fellow Austinite Cynthia Levinson for We’ve Got a Job: The Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree) being selected as a nonfiction honor book.

Cynsational Giveaways

Review & Giveaway: Fox Forever (Jenna Fox Chronicles #3) by Mary E. Pearson from I Read Banned Books.

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out this video featuring Marilyn Singer by Ed Spicer from Spicy Reads. Includes poetry reading.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Last week’s highlight was my author tour to Chicago and Madison!

Back in Austin, I’m preparing to teach a middle-grade-YA novel workshop with Lauren Myracle later this month at Vermont College of Fine Arts and revising book 2 in the Feral series. See also I’m Looking for a Hero (of the Asian Persuasion, Please) from Sara Fujimura.

Would you like to study writing with me (and Greg Leitich Smith and Nancy Werlin)? Check out information on this upcoming Whole Novel Workshop, sponsored by the Highlights Foundation!

Congratulations to Greg Leitich Smith on selling the sequel to Chronal Engine (Clarion)! Note: you can offer your cheers at GregLSBlog.

Personal Links

From Greg Leitich Smith:

Cynsational Events

Authors/Speakers at TLA 2013 April 24 to April 27 in Fort Worth from the Texas Library Association. Look for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s signing and Spirit of Texas High School author panel.

YA lit readers! Join Cynthia Leitich Smith at 1 p.m. May 25 at Cedar Park (TX) Public Library.

Join Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith at 11 a.m. at Lampasas (TX) Public Library.

Join authors Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, Nancy Werlin and ICM Partners literary agent Tina Wexler at a Whole Novel Workshop from Aug. 4 to Aug. 10 sponsored by the Highlights Foundation. Peek: “Our aim is to focus on a specific work in progress, moving a novel to
the next level in preparation for submission to agents or publishers.
Focused attention in an intimate setting makes this mentorship program
one that guarantees significant progress.” Special guests: Curtis Brown agent Sarah LaPolla, authors Bethany Hegedus and Amy Rose Capetta.

Save the Date! 5th Annual Austin Teen Book Festival by Jen Bigheart from I Read Banned Books. Note: Sept. 28, 2013.

Feral Nights & Solstice signing with P.J. Hoover from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in Round Rock, Texas.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Tameka Fryer Brown on Heart Matters

By Tameka Fryer Brown
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Human beings can be hard to satisfy, we writers included. Okay, me especially.

When I decided I wanted to be a children’s author, I worked really hard to learn how to write a manuscript that would be publishable. Once I sold a book, I wanted it to be well received throughout the industry, with lots of positive reviews. Then I wanted to sell another book, to prove that I wasn’t just a one-book-wonder.

Now that my second book (My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (Viking, 2013)) is officially on the market today, I want it to sell even better…and receive more attention…and win lots of awards…and…and…and….

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to set goals for attaining higher and greater achievements, but all goals aren’t created equal. Here’s a practical epiphany I’d like to share, in hopes it may save somebody stressful moments and precious creative time.

Some authors are concerned about their work being confined to the categories of “literary” or “commercial”. I, too, have fretted over this. Though my writing voice leans toward literary, I really wanted to write something that would be viewed as the next kidlit sensation. I analyzed several of the picture book bestseller lists and, at the time, there were lots of subjects such as pirates and puppies and pink. My artistic soul whispered something to me softly, but my business-educated mind noisily crowded it out. If this is what’s selling, I surmised, then this is what I need to write. I opened my computer and got to work.

D.E. Photography

I wrote a story about monsters.

I wrote a story about bugs.

I wrote a story about a puppy.

I wrote a story about a princess, too, but I knew it was awful so I abandoned it early.

The others I sent to my agent—my pull-no-punches agent—who told me that none of these stories was working.

Technically they were well written, but something was missing. The thing that makes “a Tameka Fryer Brown story,” she said, was missing.

I argued with her about the monsters. I debated with her about the bugs. By the time we got to the puppy, I knew she was right. Purposely trying to write “commercial” wasn’t working for me, and I finally realized why.

First, books don’t top lists just because of their topic; they top them because they widely capture the imaginations of children. Second, the creative process for every writer is different, and each must find what works for her. My best stories have always been organic, emerging intuitively and unbidden. My first book came to me in that twilight phase between sleep and wakefulness. 

My latest book was inspired by the simple thought, “Boy, am I in a mood.”

In my deliberately crafted, market-driven stories, I’d tried to create tales that had heart, but they didn’t. Because they didn’t come from my heart. For art to be meaningful, that matters.

Tameka and agent Jen Rofe

Does My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood hit that sweet spot between literary and commercial?

I believe so.

Will it sell really well and make lists and earn awards?

I hope so.

But what matters most is that my authentic self is reflected in its thirty-two, beautifully illustrated pages, pages that will now be turned and enjoyed by little hands and minds. And that is beyond satisfying.

Tameka’s writing space

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two copies of My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood by Tameka Fryer Brown, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (Viking, 2013). From the promotional copy:

What color is your mood?


On a really good day, Jamie feels purple like the first bite of a juicy cold plum.


And with a crayon in his hand, Jamie eases into a green feeling like a dragon dancing through a jungle made of green jello.


But when his brothers push him around and make fun of his drawings, Jamie feels graylike a dark storm brewing.


What will it take to put Jamie back in a bright-feeling mood?


Through Jamie, young readers will learn to describe how they’re feeling in a unique way.

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Book Trailer: World Rat Day: Poems About Real Holidays You’ve Never Heard Of

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for World Rat Day: Poems About Real Holidays You’ve Never Heard Of by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Anna Raff (Candlewick, 2013)(interior spread)(author interview). From the promotional copy:

From the Children’s Poet Laureate comes a year-round ode to wacky holidays just begging to be celebrated.



Nobody should ever forget Ewe on Ohio Sheep Day (July 14). No mata mata how hard they may try on World Turtle Day (May 23). If you’ve never heard of Dragon Appreciation Day, International Cephalopod Awareness Day, or Yell “Fudge!” at the Cobras in North America Day, it’s not because they don’t exist, it’s simply that they needed someone to spread the word. 

Luckily, the fantastically zany poems of J. Patrick Lewis and Anna Raff’s equally hilarious illustrations have memorialized these holidays forever. 

So get out your calendars — from Happy Mew Year for Cats Day to Chocolate-Covered Anything Day, World Rat Day (April 4) calls for a year-round celebration.