Guest Post: Mitali Perkins on Diversity, Power & Good Humor

By Mitali Perkins
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Excerpted from the introduction to Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices, edited by Mitali Perkins (Candlewick, 2013).

Humor has the power to break down barriers and draw us together across borders. Once you’ve shared a laugh with someone, it’s almost impossible to see them as “other.”

Poking fun at my own marginalized life also sets readers free to see the funny in their own lives, a key to surviving the stressful experience of becoming an adult.

I do have some ground rules, however, for what I consider good humor, especially in a tension filled arena like race.

Here they are, take them or leave them:

1. Good humor pokes fun at the powerful—not the weak. Using a gift of wit to pummel someone less gifted physically, socially, emotionally, or intellectually may win a few initial laughs. Soon, though, audiences sense the power flexing of a bully behind the humor, and they’ll stop listening.

The most powerful person of all, of course, is the storyteller (see rule #3), so no holds barred when it comes to humbling that target.

2. Good humor builds affection for the “other.” At the close of a story, poem, or joke about race or ethnicity, do we feel closer to people who are the subject of the humor? If not, even if the piece is hilarious, it’s not good funny.

Sometimes comedians use wit to alienate the “other” from us instead of drawing us closer to one another. Again, they may get a few laughs, but they’re cheap laughs. Of course, I don’t like any humor where someone gets hurt—I rooted for Wily Coyote, winced at the Marx brothers’ physical (painful) humor, and stand stony-faced while my sons guffaw over videos of people falling and crashing into things.

So take rule #2 with a caveat: if watching someone take a hit or a blow makes you like them better, you might appreciate some humor that I don’t. And that’s okay.

3. Good humor is usually self-deprecatory (note: not self-defecatory, although it can feel like that). While I usually don’t like edicts about who can write about whom, in a post-9/11 North America where segregation, slavery, and even genocide aren’t too far back in history, funny “multicultural” stories work best when the author shares the protagonist’s race or culture.

Funny is powerful, and that’s why in this case maybe it does matter who tells a story. Writing that explores issues of race and ethnicity with a touch of humor might need to stay closer to memoir than other kinds of fiction on the spectrum of storytelling.

Some writers and comedians have succeeded in poking fun across borders, but it’s challenging for most “outsiders” to tell jokes about “insiders” in today’s mine-filled conversations about race.

Go ahead if you want to try, I tell them, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. And as for who gets to be an “insider”—well, that’s a whole other discussion where I hope to listen and learn.

Okay, enough with the rules. In Open Mic, we tried to provide lighthearted storytelling about the between-cultures life. I’m thrilled about the authors who contributed to this anthology.

Some pieces, like Cherry Cheva’s “Talent Show,” Debbie Giraud’s “Foreign Exchange,” and David Yoo’s “Becoming Henry Lee,” make us chuckle; others, like Greg Neri’s “Berlin,” Francisco Stork’s “Brother Love,” my “Three Pointer,” and Varian Johnson’s “Like Me” may bring a rueful, ouch-filled smile.

Gene Yuen Yang’s “Why I Won’t Be Watching The Last Airbender Movie,” Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s “Confessions of a Black Geek” and Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Lexicon” make us feel like we’re exchanging a knowing glance of shared humor with the storyteller or poet—much like viewers feel when cast members on popular sit-coms catch the camera’s eye for a moment.

All in all, it’s a start. As the conversations continue, and laughter fills the room, we’re hoping that others will step up to the mic. Share your “between-cultures” funny story on our facebook page.

Cynsational Notes

Mitali recommends Craig Ferguson’s monologue about Britney Spears with regard to using humor about the powerless.

Book Trailer: Bully by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Bully by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (Roaring Brook, 2013).  From the promotional copy:

Bully doesn’t have a kind word for any of his friends. When the other animals ask him to play, he responds in the way he’s been taught:

Chicken! Slow poke! You stink!

Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s bold, graphic artwork, along with her spare but powerful words, make for a tender, hilarious, and thoughtful tale.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Cover Stories: Sophie’s Mixed-up Magic by Amanda Ashby from Melissa Walker. Peek: “…a few weeks later I got an email from the girl on the cover of the books. She was so lovely and I swear she is even more excited about the books coming out than I am!”

Writing Talent: What Is It? from Marion Dane Bauer. Peek: “Freshness of perspective is helpful. And because writing is not so much an imitation of life as it is an imitation of other writing, freshness of perspective can be hard to come by.” See also Thoughts on Intelligence, Effort and the Myth of Talent by Janni Lee Simner from Desert Dispatches.

Why Should Children’s-YA Authors Totally Rock a Book Trailer? by Pamela K. Witte from Ink & Angst. Several authors chime in with their thoughts.

Rita Williams-Garcia on Writing about Female Genital Mutilation for Teens from The Guardian. Peek: “I planned to place friendship between the characters at the centre of the novel to make the story relatable to readers and to hopefully generate interest about children beyond my readers’ safe borders.”

Defining Diversity More Expansively by Crown editor Phoebe Yeh from CBC Diversity. Peek: “We can continue publishing the books if people are buying them. All of us who wish to see more diversity in publishing are collectively responsible. So borrow the books from local libraries or purchase them. Fewer sales, fewer books. It’s that simple.” See also First, Know Yourself by Diana López and Checking Boxes and Filling in Blanks: Diversity and Inclusion in Children’s Literature by Cory Silverberg.

Cloak, Cape or Hood: Consistent Fiction by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “I am doing a final pass through of a novel and finding tons of inconsistencies. For example, the main character shows up in a cloak and a scarf wrapped around her head. But at the beginning of the next scene, which is a direct follow-up, she throws back her hood and takes off her cloak. In another scene, she is described as wearing a cape.” See also Darcy on Ebooks vs. Book Apps.

Gwenda Bond on Reinventing Legends from E. Kristin Anderson at Write All the Words! Peek: “I knew I wanted the book to be set in D.C., and that I wanted a (no longer) secret society, but I also wanted to add my own twists to those things. There’s a big difference, to my mind, of being aware of mental real estate and engaging in lazy storytelling because it’s easier to default to the familiar.”

Signing the Book Contract: Not Your Typical ESPN Moment by Donna Bowman Bratton from Emu’s Debuts. Peek: “Honestly, nobody could have told me how twisty and arduous this journey could be. Maybe it’s enough to know that we change and grow between our Freshman writing stage and our first sale.”

What to Do (& Not To Do) When You Get a Rejection by Debbie Ridpath Ohi from MiG Writers. Peek: “It drives me a little crazy when people call me an overnight success, partly because of my many years of rejections but mostly because it sends the wrong message to others who are still struggling to get published. I believe there is no such thing as an overnight success.” Source: Amy Farrier.

Where Are Platonic Friendships Between Girls in YA Literature? by Emilia Plater from YA Highway. Peek: “I’m 98.72% sure my friends and I didn’t come out of the womb thinking this way. In society as I’ve experienced it, teenage girls are encouraged to believe – whether by the media, their peers, or other forces – that they’re not whole without a love interest.”

So You Want to Win the Newbery? (Part I) and (Part II) by Travis Jonker from School Library Journal. Peek: “April is the month when the most Newbery winners were released (in the last 30 years).” See also Travis on What are the Chances You’ll Win Another Newbery?

Portfolio Tips from SCBWI MidSouth Members Susan Eaddy and Mary Uhles from The Official SCBWI Blog. Peek: “Illustrators, check out this excellent (under 7 minute) video on putting together your portfolio.”

Tips to Writing a Sequel by Lea Nolan from YA Highway. Peek: “The sequel needs to be bigger in every way possible. Not necessarily longer, but bolder, darker, have higher stakes. You name it, it’s got to be larger than that first book.”

The Butt-In-Chair Strategy: What Is It? by Gail Gauthier from Original Content. Peek: “Is it possible that butt-in-chairers follow some time management strategies they’re not aware of? Do some of them, for example, take a break for coffee every hour or so, inadvertently breaking their time into units and thus tricking their minds into believing they’re starting out fresh when they go back to their desks with their cups?”

To Outline or Not to Outline? by Brian Yansky from Brian’s Blog. Peek: “My method is something of a hybrid.” See also Kendra Leighton on Visualizing the Tension in Your Story by YA Highway.

I’m Your Neighbor: Children’s Books & Reading Projects Building Bridges Between New Arrivals and Long-term Communities: “…a project which promotes the use of children’s literature featuring ‘new arrival’ cultures and groups to engage the entire community in a discussion of commonalities and differences. The project features a recommended list of books and an evolving list of engagement projects for educators, librarians, and community organizations who seek to build bridges.”

Are Series Giving Way to Stand-Alones in Middle Grade (& YA) Fiction? by Deborah Halverson from Peek: “The current middle grade fiction market is more open to stand-alone books than it’s been in recent years.”

Persons of Interest: The Untold Rewards of Picture Book Biographies by Barbara Bader from The Horn Book. Peek: “Style matters. Style of drawing, style of storytelling.”

The Cart That Carried Martin: An Interview with Don Tate by Carmen Oliver from ReaderKidZ. Peek: “My editor for that project, Yolanda Scott, inquired about my interest and availability for the Eve Bunting book, and I was on board immediately. Then she told me about the subject matter: The day of Dr. King’s funeral, with a focus on the cart that carried his casket. I paused.”

A Plea for Book Censors to Stand Down by James Blasingame from The Washington Post. Peek: “The bottom line in terms of court precedents is basically that while parents do indeed have the right to the final say on what their children read in school, no parent has the right to determine what other people’s children read in school.”

To Look Forward, Start by Looking Back by Sarah Aronson from Uma Krishnaswami at Writing with a Broken Tusk. Peek: “My rabbi seemed to be reading my mind, because what she said next really made sense for the holiday as well as the writing process and plot development—things I’m always thinking about. She said, ‘Before we can look forward, we must look back. We must examine where we have been. Only then can we see where we are going.’”

Branding 101: What Is Your Brand? from Jane Gold. Peek: “…our brand is simply what other people think of us.” Via QueryTracker.

Cynsational Giveaways

See also Four Book Giveaways + New Releases from Adventures in YA Publishing and Giveaway: A Kite That Bridged Two Nations: Homan Walsh and the First Niagara Suspension Bridge (Calkins Creek, 2013) from Teaching Authors.

The winners of Smash: Trial by Fire by Chris & Kyle Bolton (Candlewick, 2013) are Karl in Arizona and Jennifer in Washington, and the winner of Promise Me Something by Sara Kocek (Albert Whitman) is Brook in Iowa.

Candlewick, Feb. 2014

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Take 5: Mouth Watering Reads: Foodie Fiction for Teens
from Teen Librarian’s Toolbox. Peek: “Foodie Fiction are those yummy
reads that somehow manage to incorporate food into the story.” Note: I’m
honored to see my novel Tantalize (Candlewick) on this list.

Congratulations to Cynsations reporter Karen Rock on the release of her adult romance, Wish Me Tomorrow (Harlequin, 2013)!

With a ghostly traveler at the Galveston Railroad Museum.

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

Delve into the world of graphic novels on Oct. 5 with a Graphic Novel Workshop, featuring author/illustrator Dave Roman, author Cynthia Leitich Smith and First Second Books Senior Editor Calista Brill; sponsored by Austin SCBWI.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will speak Oct. 17 at Lampasas ISD in Lampasas, Texas.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will offer several presentations the week of Oct. 20 in conjunction with Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) being the featured title for children as part of the 2013 One Book, One San Diego campaign, sponsored by KBPS, more details forthcoming.

Cynthia Leitich Smith joins featured authors at the Texas Book Festival Oct. 26 and Oct. 27 at the State Capitol Building in Austin.

Cynthia Leitich Smith (Feral Nights) and P.J. Hoover (Solstice) will sign their new releases from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 9 at the Barnes & Noble in Round Rock, Texas.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will speak at the Florida Association for Media in Education Conference Nov. 20 to Nov. 22 in Orlando.

The Craft & Business of Writing: Everything You wanted to Know About Writing,
a fundraiser featuring C.C. Hunter, Miranda James and Lori Wilde for
the Montgomery County Book Festival, on Nov. 16 at Lone Star College
Montgomery Campus in Houston. Fee: $100. Registration deadline: Nov. 10.
See more information. Register here.

Guest Post: Jane Kurtz on Picking Self Up, Dusting Self Off & Facing Down Terror

By Jane Kurtz
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

What happens when things just don’t work out?

About five years ago, I joined the ranks of authors who’ve worked on a long, complicated novel-length project—this one under contract and everything—without being able to make it pop.

It doesn’t matter how many times a person has been successfully able to fly, I think. There’s always the thought…maybe not this time. Maybe my wings have shriveled. Maybe I dropped the magic feather.

Part of me bravely dug in to the next project, creating a character for American Girl’s Doll of the Year. But part of me hid under the bed and whimpered.

One day, I had a chance to have coffee with my editor and I was horrified to hear these words come out of my mouth: “How short a novel could I write?”

Ha. Just like my writing students who asked, “How many pages?”

I can’t actually remember what she answered. But I had loved my three-hour signings for Lanie, my American Girl character. Loved meeting those girls and talking to them about bugs and butterflies and back yards.

 I vowed to write a short middle grade book that would hit something of the same sweet spot, and I pulled out a manuscript that had almost been published long ago.

Teaching in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program had really, really deepened my understanding of the craft of writing fiction, so I thought I’ll bet I can polish this up and send it off.

I was so wrong.

A lot of the big structure of that story remains. Anna is a preacher’s kid (as I was, as my kids were). She moves from Colorado to Kansas (as our family sort of did). She’s terrified for her cat. That’s real life. She encounters a tornado watch and thinks about the “The Wizard of Oz” and how she practically had to staple her eyes open to keep watching. Ditto. Real Life.

My editor loved Anna from the beginning. Her funny observations about church. Her plaintive cry (straight from my nine-year-old heart) that Gandhi wouldn’t make her sleep in a pink room. But who, exactly was Anna?

One of the hardest thing was exactly pinning down my main character’s character. Dakar in my novel Jakarta Missing (Greenwillow, 2001) was a worrywart. I knew I was kind of dancing in the same territory, but not exactly. One day, I was flailing around with writer friends and I said that I was bold as a kid. And I was scared as a kid. What is that personality?

As a child in Africa, Jane was afraid of roads and…

One of my friends commented that when she was in about the fourth grade and they studied about the Ice Age, she was immediately making plans for her family’s survival.

I thought, that’s it!

Even though I had several drafts of the novel already written, that’s when the Safety Club was born. Anna has utter confidence in her ability to prepare for utterly everything.

And whenever she can’t?
That’s what prayer and angels are for.


I’ve been a searcher as far back as I can remember. It’s terrifying and exhilarating to expose my questions…and a few puny answers…for the world to see.


Cover Reveal: Feral Curse by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Coming February 2014!

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the gorgeous cover for my upcoming novel Feral Curse (Book 2 in the Feral series)(Candlewick, Feb. 2014)!

From the promotional copy of Feral Curse:

The second installment of New York Times best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith’s thrilling Feral series delivers danger, romance, and suspense in an all new action-packed adventure. 

Book 1 is now available!

The adopted daughter of two respectable human parents, Kayla is a werecat in the closet. All she knows is the human world.

When she comes out to her boyfriend, tragedy ensues, and her determination to know and embrace her heritage grows. Help appears in the lithe form of sexy male werecat Yoshi, backed up by Aimee and Clyde, as the four set out to solve the mystery of a possessed antique carousel while fielding miscast magic, obsessive strangers, and mounting species intolerance.

Fans will go wild for this rousing second Feral adventure.

Feral Curse is largely set in a fictional small town, loosely based on Bastrop, Texas.

More Breaking News! Audio editions of both Feral Nights and Feral Curse will be available from Brilliance Audio/Candlewick in spring 2014!

See also Guest Interview & Two-Book Giveaway: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Reading & Writing Graphic Novels by Samantha Clark from Cynsations. Highlighting Tantalize: Kieren’s Story and Eternal: Zachary’s Story, both illustrated by Ming Doyle from the Tantalize series.

Note: the Feral series is published by Candlewick Press in North America, Walker Books in the U.K., and Walker Books Australia and New Zealand.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Ellen Booraem on Kill Your Fears By Writing About Them! (Yeah, Right.)

By Ellen Booraem
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I was a wee girl in Massachusetts, I woke up one morning to find a Ginormous Hairy Spider dangling inches from my face, legs waving.

(Actually it wasn’t hairy at all and probably was a half-inch in diameter, legs included. But I’m not a fantasist for nothing.)

This was the start of a lifelong aversion. Objectively, I know that spiders are beautiful and an important part of our ecosystem. But they’re sneaky—they appear out of nowhere. I don’t like the way they scuttle. You never know where they’re going.

If you swat one, your name goes on the revenge list in the collective spider unconscious. I’ve been swatting for a lot of years. There’s an arachnid fatwa out on me, I just know it.

Some time ago, now living in Maine, I was varnishing a bookcase, my nose an inch from my brush, when a Ginormous Hairy Spider lunged at me from a back corner of the shelf. There was no mistaking the malice. My partner Rob heard my shriek even though he was outside with an idling chainsaw in hand.


Similarly, I do not like snakes (they ooze), heights (I’m afraid I’ll jump), or closed-in spaces (hey, I use a lot of oxygen).

I am not proud of my fears—they’re irrational, and I want them gone. So, as I developed Texting the Underworld, my latest middle-grade fantasy, I gave all of them to my hero Conor O’Neill. I figured researching and writing about them would illuminate my psychological shadows with the glorious light of science.

Talk about irrational.

Although it’s funny a lot of the time, Texting the Underworld is about fear. A young banshee (an Irish harbinger of death) turns up in 12-year-old Conor’s bedroom to say that someone in his family’s about to die, and she’ll just sleep in his closet and wait for it. Conor, timid by nature, gets his courage up to visit the Underworld in an attempt to head off the death.

At various points, the poor kid confronts spiders, snakes, heights and closed spaces. And all because he chose the wrong author.

To get Conor through his troubles, I needed to know how it would feel if a tarantula crawled onto your hand. At the same time, I was fooling around with another story that required an intimate knowledge of spider anatomy. The opportunities for my self-improvement were endless.

At first, Google was a godsend. Terrified that my authorial conscience might drive me to actually touch a tarantula, I was ecstatic to find that some fool out there had let one of the hairy monsters crawl onto her hand. She described this in great detail. Once I stopped shuddering and compulsively hand-washing, I was grateful to steal her experience.

I was less happy about my anatomical research. Google “spider” and hit “images,” and suddenly—like a spider lunging at you from a dark bookcase—your screen is full of pincers and multiple eyes and hairy legs. Turns out spiders are even scarier at an intimate distance.

More hand-washing. Also hair-brushing.

Researching Conor’s (and my) other fears, I watched a video of a Burmese python eating a rabbit. I peeked over cliffs, took a harrowing car ride through Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. I shut myself into a dark closet.

I emerged no more rational than I was before—in fact, knowledge had made me worse. I now knew what horrors lurked beneath those scuttling legs. And I still had poor Conor to contend with. At every turn in his story, I had to imagine a spider encounter, being way up high, being closed in. A snake attacking a rabbit.

I’m shuddering as I type this.

My life continues to be constrained by my fears. I kill every spider I meet, sure that it is an agent of the fatwa. I whimper when a small, innocent garter snake slithers through the garden. I will never get to hang-glide, and will never visit the Carlsbad Caverns.

And yet, the experiment was not a total failure. It left me with one solid fact:
I will never write about zombies.

Cynsational Notes

Ellen Booraem’s Texting the Underworld
(Dial, 2013) is a middle-grade fantasy about a scaredy-cat South Boston boy and a
determined young banshee.

Her earlier middle-grade fantasies are Small Persons with Wings (Penguin/DBYR, 2011) and The Unnameables
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).

She lives in coastal Maine with an
artist, a dog, and a cat, one of whom is a practicing curmudgeon. She
blogs at The Enchanted Inkpot.

See also Ellen Booream on World Building: Undertaking an Underworld from Cynsations.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of two copies of Texting the Underworld by Ellen Booraem (Dial, 2013). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

New Voice: Amy Christine Parker on Gated

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Amy Christine Parker is the first-time author of Gated (Random House, 2013)(author blog)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

Do the gates keep the unchosen out or the chosen in?

In Mandrodage Meadows, life seems perfect. The members of this isolated suburban community have thrived under Pioneer, the charismatic leader who saved them from their sad, damaged lives. 

Lyla Hamilton and her parents are original members of the flock. They moved here following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, looking to escape the evil in the world. Now seventeen, Lyla knows certain facts are not to be questioned:

Pioneer is her leader.

Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react? How did you celebrate?

Since there was interest from several publishing houses for Gated, my agent held a best bids auction. This means that she asked the interested editors to come up with their best bid for the book and send it to her by 4 p.m. the day of the auction. At that time she and I were supposed to go over any/all offers and decide which one would be best for the book.

It’s a pretty exciting and heady thing to know that your book is wanted by more than one publishing house, but also very nerve-wracking since you have no idea until the end of the auction day who your publisher might be or if the interested publishers will actually offer.

I remember having this wild fear that none of the ones who’d said that they really wanted it would respond to the auction and instead of having more than one offer to consider, I’d have none.

But then the first offer came in early in the day, and it was a good one. I was the kind of excited that feels a little like being sick…my hands were shaking and I could barely think straight.

I had been sort of Twitter stalking the editor of this particular house and really liked what I knew about her, but truth be told, I still had my eye on another house (one who’d published many of my favorite authors and had expressed strong interest in Gated’s sequel which I very much wanted to write). I was really, really hoping that they’d come in with a competitive offer.

But as the day went on and other houses responded, this house was very, very silent. I started to worry that maybe they’d changed their minds and were pulling out of the auction.

When three thirty rolled around and it was time to pick up my kids and still no word was in from my favored house, I was really excited that the book would be published for sure, but a little disappointed that this particular house hadn’t put in a bid.

I was sitting in front of my kids’ school listening to them call out car rider numbers when my agent called at five ‘til four—and I’m not exaggerating here at all, it really was that close.

“Did you get my email?” she asked.

“No, I’m picking up my kids, why?” I answered.

I was sure that we were going to just go over accepting that first strong offer of the day. This meant Gated would be published, but there would definitely not be a sequel since this editor felt the book was perfect on its own. I was nervous about officially saying yes, a little sad that my characters wouldn’t be getting to appear in one more book, and completely excited to finally know who my publisher was.

“Random House made an offer,” my agent said instead, totally throwing me for a loop. It came in a few minutes ago.

She proceeded to tell me what it was for and at first I thought the advance amount was for both books, and it was an amazing number, my dream number. “That much for both, wow!” I said, my heart beating a mile a minute.

And I remember she sort of laughed and said, “No, no, for each.”

At which point I almost dropped the phone.

It was so much more than what I was expecting, but as it turns out, almost exactly what my agent thought it would sell for…she just hadn’t admitted it to me so that I didn’t get my hopes up too high.

I have no idea how the phone call ended, but I do remember trying to be calm until we hung up and then screaming my head off as I drove up to the pickup spot to get my kids. It is the one and only moment in my life that absolutely felt like something out of a movie, surreal and utterly wonderful.

When my kids got into the car I was shaking so hard, they thought I wouldn’t be able to drive home, but somehow I did. My husband brought me home some flowers and we celebrated that night by going to a Teppanyaki place for dinner (my family’s go-to food for big occasions).

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

Tapping into my protagonist, Lyla’s, voice wasn’t easy at all. She’s a girl who’s grown up in an apocalyptic cult who’s very much a reluctant fighter at first which is very, very different from who I am as a person, so at first I didn’t understand her very well.

Actually, it was my very struggle to understand her point of view that made me want to write Gated in the first place.

What helped me most in finding Lyla’s voice was figuring out her back story and how she came to be in this cult. Once I knew how that happened I had a better sense of what she was feeling and how she would react to those around her.

As for her actual speech patterns…she isn’t a typical teenager. She lives in a world that’s pretty isolated, so she’s not up on current slang. The only slang she does know she got from watching the few movies that her cult’s leader allowed the group to watch, all of which are from before 2010, so her teenage-speak is a cross between a very adult tone and very, very common/older slang.

As for the possibility of magic having a place in the development of her voice…I suppose it sort of does. There is something mysterious that happens, at least for me, as I write where my character goes from being a name on the page to almost real—at least as real as someone can get without actually appearing. I think it comes from spending so much time trying to see things the way they would, from picturing what they look like and their go to expressions/gestures, and from meditating on that character for hours and hours every day for months, if not years. There isn’t really a way to tap into it, it just grows organically.

The one thing I always do that really helps me is to create a character profile and fill it with back story, a picture of what they look like to me, their hobbies, music/movie/book preferences, clothing, and food favorites. I don’t use everything I put in the profile in the book, but I do reread it often to remind myself of who they are when I’m stuck while drafting.

Guest Post: Franny Billingsley on Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: Connecting Character & Plot

Photo of Franny by Miranda Pettengill

By Franny Billingsley
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Franny Billingsley writes fantasy novels for young-adult and middle-grade readers. 

Her most recent novel is Chime (Dial, 2011), a National Book Award Finalist. She was on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts until the summer of 2012, when she moved to Mexico. 

She now works with private students and offers a semester of private study, modeled on the low-residency MFA programs, in addition to manuscript critiques. In addition, Franny has a particular interest in speaking to school groups in Texas. To contact Franny, please email

I’d planned to begin by quoting Henry James on the plot-character connection, but I soon realized I’d better clarify something: Henry James isn’t the old dog I refer to above. I am. I’m old and I’m dogged—old enough to have first read the James quote about twenty years ago, dogged enough to have explored it ever since.

Here, then, are James’s famous words. “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”

Over the years, I’ve developed a schema that helps me analyze the plot-character connection. It examines, among other things, the character’s “controlling belief,” which is what the character believes about herself and/or about her world. It’s best illustrated by example.

Let’s look at Briony, the protagonist of my most recent novel, Chime (Dial, 2011). Let’s look at her history.

 She was led to believe she’s a witch. She was led to believe that in a fit of jealousy she called upon her witchy powers and injured her sister. It is Briony’s history that gives rise to her controlling belief, which is that she’s wicked, dangerous, cold.

Briony not only filters her view of the world through the lens of this belief, she acts on it: Her controlling belief (character) drives the narrative (plot).

So here I am, the old dog, gnawing on the plot-character bone. What, then, is the new trick?

About six months ago, I worked on a YA fantasy with a student who’d used my schema to analyze her character. She had a pretty good bead on her character’s controlling belief and how it shaped the plot, but there was something about the manuscript that eluded me. There was something about the crisis moment that wasn’t quite working.

I chewed on it, and slept on it, and one morning I awoke with an idea.

What if, in the crisis moment, the character were to act against her controlling belief? That could be a powerful turning point in a novel, moving the plot ahead while showing how the character has changed.

Franny’s bookcases

I then realized that Briony does exactly that. I hadn’t planned it—some sense of structural rhythm must have led me there—but indeed, in the crisis moment of Chime, Briony does act against her controlling belief. It’s a strong plot development; I’ve since come to think it’s a big part of what makes the novel work.

To explain: In the chapters leading up to the crisis, Briony is forced to reveal she’s a witch. This revelation, in turn, forces her to flee her village—if she’s caught, she’ll be hanged. But her path intersects with that of the romantic hero, who’s been mortally wounded. She could leave him to die or she could take him back to the village and save him. If she listened to her controlling belief (Wicked! Selfish!), she’d leave him to die. But instead, she takes him back to the village, where (as she thinks) she’ll be hanged.

As it turns out, it’s this very action that unlocks the truth about her past.

During the last six months, while I’ve been learning this new trick, I’ve also been working on my new novel. But it wasn’t until this past week (while I’ve been writing this guest post) that I realized something kind of horrifying: I haven’t thought about whether I should turn my new character against her controlling belief. I haven’t contemplated it for even a second.

So I played out the possibility: Yes, good things would happen if my character were to act against her controlling belief. Well, they’d be bad for the character but good for the story.

The door to Franny’s study

Event Report: Readers Theater with Kathi Appelt, Susan Fletcher & Uma Krishnaswami

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Last week’s highlight was a readers theater event, featuring authors Kathi Appelt (The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp), Susan Fletcher (Falcon in the Glass) and Uma Krishnaswami (The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic, The Girl of the Wish Garden) at the Unitarian Universalist Church in College Station, Texas.

event featured cover-art cakes, live music, a readers theater, a book
sale (in conjunction with a local indie seller) and a book signing.

readers theater is an excellent alternative to a traditional reading.
It’s lively, engaging and leaves fans clamoring for more. To
prepare, modify the text for the ear and performance, and be sure to
practice in advance! See also Readers Theater Tips from Aaron Shepard.

Austinites Carmen Oliver, Greg Leitich Smith and Frances Hill Yansky study the program.

The band plays during the welcoming reception and, later, during the book signing.

Uma drafts Greg as a special guest reader for The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic.

Featured author Susan with fellow Vermont College of Fine Arts faculty member April Lurie.

Featured authors Kathi and Uma

Greg, Uma, Kathi and Susan perform the readers theater.

Kathi, Uma, and Susan sign for their fans.

I’m celebrating with College Station author-librarian Debbie Leland

and Houston children’s author Varsha Bajaj!

Cynsational Notes 

The three featured authors are members of the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and Uma is the faculty chair.

Congratulations to Kathi Appelt on being named to the 2013 National Book Award Longlist for Young People’s Literature.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

“I’m Just Like Everybody Else” – Believing in Yourself as a Writer, Despite Naysayers by Kelly Braffet from Books for Better Living. Peek: “I was 17, and I told her my dream, and she told me to give it up.” See also Ten Things Emerging Writers Need to Learn.

Interview with Jessica Young, Author of My Blue Is Happy, by Gayle Rosengren from OneFour Kidlit. Peek: “Looking back, I counted eighty-nine revisions of My Blue, not including the ones I didn’t save. There were so many directions I tried taking it, and I feel incredibly lucky to have had the help of wonderful crit partners and my fantastic agent and editor to support me in getting to the final version.”

Sneaking Telling Into Questions by Mary Kole from Peek: “We tell because we desperately want that information out there in black and white instead of leaving it as a delicious little gray area clue for the reader to find. There’s tension in the latter, though, there’s intrigue, there are even higher stakes…” See also Expand. Contract.: Mapping Out Story Slashing by Rachel Wilson from Quirk and Quill.

Likeability in Novels by Cheryl Klein from Brooklyn Arden. Peek: “When I’m in this mood, I don’t mind if people are unlikeable so long as they’re real, and presented with full histories and friends and enemies and contexts, so I can find sympathy through understanding and empathizing with them rather than needing to be entertained or pleased by them.”

Chop! Chop! Writing in 20 Minute Slices by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “I pick a task–not necessarily in the order listed–set my timer, and get going! Since getting started has always been my biggest hurdle, the list goes a long way toward getting me over that hump.”

Children’s Space Stories are Ready to Take Off Again by S.F. Said from The Guardian. Peek: “Publishers have been wary of this kind of science fiction for years, but it’s set to thrill a new generation.”

Diversity in Writing by Ellen Oh from Peek: “…people are afraid of being called a racist. So they avoid diversity because of it. However, let me reassure you that by not including diversity, you are also being called a racist. Maybe not to your face, but you are. And guess what? Being called a racist is nowhere near as painful as dealing with actual racism.” See also Transgender Characters in Teen Literature: An Interview with Ellen Wittlinger from The Hub and Taking the Risk, Taking the Heat by Patricia McCormick from CBC Diversity.

The Route to Publishing as an Author-Illustrator by Eliza Wheeler from Peek: “You can send your promotion to everyone within a publishing house (where-as with a manuscript it is not acceptable to submit to more than one editor in the same house at a time). This gives illustrators the advantage of having wide exposure to their work.”

Physical Attributes: Muscular Characters by Angela Ackerman from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “Muscular individuals are not that way naturally, and so either go to the gym or work in an environment that requires strength, building them up over time.”

Is It Perilous to Pitch the Whole Series? by Deborah Halverson from Peek: “Series can do well in most markets, so publishers buy them when they see marketable concepts and strong writing from authors who can consistently deliver.”

Stepping into the Void by Sarah Jamila Stevenson from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing. Peek: “…there are countless sources of fear for any creative person, from the fears that well up from deep inside our innermost selves to those that bombard us from outside, but what they all have in common is they keep us from creating, keep us from producing.”

Don’t Let Words Get in the Way of What You Write by Brian Yansky from Brian’s Blog: Writer Talk. Peek: “…telling us it is raining is fine but going on and on about it because you like the sound of words often leads to indulgence and bad choices.”

Sign. Query. Submit. with Literary Agent Tina Wexler from I Write for Apples. Peek: “I know I want to sign an author when I’m reading their manuscript and the names of editors who must read it start coming to me.” See also Successful Schmoozing with Agents at Conferences by Jenny Bent from Bent on Books.

Giveaway ABCs by Stina Lindenblatt from QueryTrackerBlog. Peek: “If the goal is to increase book sales, giving away copies of your book will help.”

I’m Your Neighbor: Children’s Books and Reading Projects Build Bridges Between “New Arrivals” and “Long-term Communities.”

Unpacking Why Adults Read Young Adult Fiction from Malinda Lo. Peek: “A lot of reception studies focus on how consumption of a media product (TV show, book, etc.) is tied into an individual’s identity formation. Watching a show or participating in a fandom is part of your construction of who you are.” Source: Gwenda Bond.

Native YA Protagonists: Three Recommended Reads by Audrey from Rich In Color. Note: I’m honored to see my own debut novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), among the recommended titles, which I likewise endorse.

Five Reasons to Use a Facebook Profile (Not a Page) to Build a Platform by Lisa Hall-Wilson from Jane Friedman. Peek: “While there’s a 5,000-friend limit on Profiles, there’s no limit to Followers (previously known as subscribers). Many professional athletes and other media personalities—journalists for instance—are using this option instead of maintaining a Page.” See also How (and Why) to Create a Pinterest Board for Your Book by Dee Garretson from Project Mayhem.

IBBY Appeal for Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon from IBBY: Sharing Books, Bridging Cultures. Peek: “The Lebanese Board on Books for Young People (LBBY) is a registered organization that is concerned with the well being of children and the promotion of reading. It has participated in the development and installation of numerous school libraries.” Donations welcome.

Jane Addams Legacy: An Interview with Author Susan C. Griffith by E.M. Kokie from The Pirate Tree. Peek: “The Jane Addams Children’s Book Award (JACBA) is an honor given annually by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Jane Addams Peace Association to children’s books of high literary quality, published in the United States, that best engage young readers in thinking about peace, social justice, world community and equality of all sexes and races.”

How Old Should My Middle Grade Protagonist Be? by Deborah Halverson from Peek: “Consider the sophistication of your concept, themes, and storytelling style as you determine where your project falls.”

SCBWI’s New Spark Award

The SCBWI is pleased to announce the creation of the Spark Award, an annual award that recognizes excellence in a children’s book published through a non-traditional publishing route. The award is open to current writer and/or illustrator SCBWI members who have independently-published a board book, picture book, chapter book, middle grade, or young adult novel through an established self- publishing enterprise or individually self-published. Submissions must be submitted in traditionally bound form, contain an ISBN number, and provide evidence of Copyright registration.

Entries may not have been previously published in any print or digital form prior to the self-published form and SCBWI reserves the right to disqualify books published by enterprises that we believe, in our discretion, operate in a predatory or unprofessional manner.

One winner and one honor book will be chosen by a panel of industry professionals and will focus on quality of writing and concept, quality of illustrations (if applicable), professional presentation, and editing and design.

The winner will receive a Spark seal to display on their book, a commemorative plaque, have their book featured in the SCBWI online bookstore and marketed on SCBWI social networking sites, and receive the opportunity to sell their book at the SCBWI Summer or Winter Conference in Los Angeles or New York. See more information.

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Giveaways  

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

More Personally

Wowza! I’m honored to be the recipient of the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation’s 2013 Illumine award for excellence in literary achievement in the category of young adult fiction. The honorees in other categories are Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg and Stephen Harrigan. See recipient biographies, and check out the whole scoop from Austin SCBWI. Note: I’ll post photos after the gala in November.

Don’t miss Samantha Clark’s interview with me about reading and writing graphic novels (includes giveaway) from earlier this week!

Congratulations to Kathi Appelt and her fellow authors named to the 2013 National Book Award Longlist for Young People’s Literature.

Stalked by velociraptors at Moody Gardens in Galveston.
Picabu, the king penguin from my Penguin Encounter
The painting Picabu created with her feet!

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

Katherine Paterson and Katherine Applegate Headline Authors to Appear at National Book Festival Sept. 20 and Sept. 21 at the National
Mall from the Library of Congress.

Delve into the world of graphic novels on Oct. 5 with a Graphic Novel Workshop, featuring author/illustrator Dave Roman, author Cynthia Leitich Smith and First Second Books Senior Editor Calista Brill; sponsored by Austin SCBWI.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will speak Oct. 17 at Lampasas ISD in Lampasas, Texas.

Cynthia Leitich Smith will offer several presentations the week of Oct. 20 in conjunction with Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) being the featured title for children as part of the 2013 One Book, One San Diego campaign, sponsored by KBPS, more details forthcoming.

Cynthia Leitich Smith joins featured authors at the Texas Book Festival Oct. 26 and Oct. 27 at the State Capitol Building in Austin.

Cynthia Leitich Smith and P.J. Hoover will sign their new releases from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 9 at the Barnes & Noble in Round Rock, Texas.

Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will speak at the Florida Association for Media in Education Conference Nov. 20 to Nov. 22 in Orlando.

The Craft & Business of Writing: Everything You wanted to Know About Writing, a fundraiser featuring C.C. Hunter, Miranda James and Lori Wilde for the Montgomery County Book Festival, on Nov. 16 at Lone Star College Montgomery Campus in Houston. Fee: $100. Registration deadline: Nov. 10. See more information. Register here.