New Voice: Pat Zietlow Miller on Sophie’s Squash

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Pat Zietlow Miller is the first-time author of Sophie’s Squash, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf (Schwartz & Wade, 2013). From the promotional copy:

On a trip to the farmers’ market with her parents, Sophie chooses a squash, but instead of letting her mom cook it, she names it Bernice. 

From then on, Sophie brings Bernice everywhere, despite her parents’ gentle warnings that Bernice will begin to rot.

As winter nears, Sophie does start to notice changes…. What’s a girl to do when the squash she loves is in trouble?

With absolutely delightful text by Pat Zietlow Miller and downright hilarious illustrations from Anne Wilsdorf, Sophie’s Squash will be a fresh addition to any collection of autumn books.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Sophie’s Squash was inspired by two adorable things my youngest daughter did when she was quite small. So my challenge was to take those two true memories and add enough fictional material to turn the story into a book with an actual plot that was worth reading.

Because by themselves, the memories were sweet, but they were definitely not a story. Here’s how it all went down.

Sonia & Bernice

Memory one: I was grocery shopping with my daughter, Sonia. She was small enough where she could still sit in the front basket of the cart, and she often chose items from the main portion of the cart to hold.

When we got to the checkout line, I busily unloaded our purchases onto the conveyor belt. But I couldn’t find the butternut squash I was sure I had put in the cart. I turned around to look again and Sonia was holding it like a baby. She held it all the way home, drew a face on it and treated it like a doll until I sneaked it out of her room many days later because I was afraid it would rot. (I did take a photo for posterity first.)

Memory two: A year or so later, our cat, Lucy, passed away. We planted a tree and sprinkled her ashes around its roots. When we finished, Sonia looked at me with hopeful eyes and said, “Now, will a new kitty grow?”

My first attempt at the story focused on the first memory with my main character, Sophie, falling in love with a squash and her parents’ unsuccessful attempts to direct her affection to something more enduring.

That version got a few positive editorial comments, but it wasn’t until I added elements of my second memory – death and the hope that things we love might return to us somehow – that the story really took flight.
In the end, it was focusing on the feelings my two Sonia memories inspired rather than exactly what she did and said that led to Sophie’s Squash coming together as a viable book.

As a picture book writer, how did you learn your craft? What were your natural strengths? Greatest challenges?

I learned to write picture books because I started out knowing I didn’t know how.

I’d written a lot in my life, working as a newspaper reporter and columnist, a magazine editor and a corporate communicator. But I knew picture books had a style and structure all their own.

So, I read. I brought piles of picture books home from the library and spent weekends reading them and analyzing them. Once I found an author I especially liked, I read everything he or she had written and tried to figure out why it worked. I still do this.

My natural strengths were that I’d always had a bit of a way with words and a very strong appreciation for language and the feelings it can evoke. And, no matter what format I’m writing for, I am a stickler for tight, vivid writing.

My other natural strength was that I didn’t go in thinking writing a winner of a picture book would be easy. I was always looking to learn from other writers and apply those lessons to my writing. All that takes time, and I was definitely willing to put the time in.

My greatest challenge is probably plot. In the nonfiction writing I’d done before, I was quoting people and writing about something that had actually happened.

In fiction, you make up what happens, and it generally follows a story arc. Learning the basic story arc (initial incident, rising action, climax, falling action, dénouement) was easy enough, but adding in the items to make the story compelling – so the reader cares what happens to the characters and wants to keep turning the pages – took lots of redrafting and rewriting. Usually, just when you think you have it, you realize you don’t.

Anyhow, I’m very glad that Sophie’s Squash got to where it needed to be and is now a real book in real bookstores and on real library shelves.

Pat’s cats — Vince (gray and white) and Sunny (orange)

Cynsational Notes

Pat Zietlow on If I Were a “Glee” Librarian from Read, Write, Repeat. Peek: “Below are the books I’d give each character if I were a “Glee” librarian. Each title is a link to a post about why this book is just right for that particular person.”

In Memory: Barbara Robinson

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Barbara Robinson, ‘Best Christmas Pageant Author,’ Dies at 85 by Rocco Staino from School Library Journal. Peek: “Barbara Robinson, author of the popular children’s novel The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Harper, 1972), died on July 9, 2013. She was 85…. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever has sold over 800,000 copies and was adapted into a play…ABC television also produced a television movie of the story in 1983….”

Obituary: Barbara Robinson by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Robinson followed her passion for both drama and writing when she attended Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. She graduated in 1948…. Robinson was a Breadloaf Fellow in 1962 and wrote more than 40 short stories for newspapers and magazines, including McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal. In 1962, she published her first book for children, Across from Indian Shore (Lothrop).

Barbara Robinson, Children’s Book Author, Dies at 85 by William Yardley from The New York Times. Peek: “She was born Barbara Jean Webb on Oct. 24, 1927, in Portsmouth, Ohio. She was an only child. Her father, Theodore, died when she was 3. She was raised by her mother, Grace, who taught school, and she grew up surrounded by an extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles. Mrs. Robinson wrote poems from an early age and earned a bachelor’s degree in theater at Allegheny College.”

Guest Post: P.J. Hoover on Author Travel Tips

P.J. at the Solstice launch party

By P.J. Hoover
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

P. J. Hoover here, author of the dystopian/mythology YA novel, Solstice (Tor, 2013), and today I’m talking about travel.

Specifically traveling as an author.

I’ve been doing a fair amount of traveling lately, with pre-publicity stuff, book tour stops, conferences, and yes, even general family trips. And the thing is that traveling can be exhausting.

So why not make it as easy on yourself (and those you may be traveling with) as possible?

A few simple travel techniques can make all the difference in the world.

Before You Travel…

First, let’s talk about preparation. Spending a bit of time before the trip can make everything easier.

Start with a list.

P.J. with fellow Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels

No matter what the situation in life, a list will make it better. Travel is no exception. I keep a handful of travel lists on my computer, organized as needed.

Are you heading to ALA? Have you been before? Then it’s easy. Pull up the list you made last year, copy it to a new file for this year, and update it. Haven’t been before? Then create your list today.

I suggest organizing it in sections such as (a) toiletries, (b) book/author related stuff, (c) carry-on bag items to have handy, etc. The more you can put on this list the very first time you make it, the easier each year will be.

Side note: This list is great for family vacations, too. DisneyWorld, the beach, the parents’ house. I organize by family member, print it out, and let them gather what they need.

Travel size items

Redundancy is a great asset in the case of travel. If you always use a certain hair gel, invest in a travel size of it that you can keep in your toiletry bag. Ditto skincare products. I personally am a fan of Clinique products. So for all those skincare products, I have separate travel size items I keep in my bag. Same thing for general items like toothpaste and shampoo. It makes picking up and going so much easier.

Most grocery stores have a whole section of travel items. Buy liberally because not only will it make the packing and unpacking easier, it will way reduce the risk of forgetting that face cream you can’t live without.

Side note 1: Use Ziploc bags to pack all your toiletries. You seriously don’t want them leaking all over your carefully chosen clothes, do you?

Side note 2: If you’re trying to cram everything into a carry-on bag on the airplane, keep airports restrictions in mind.


With fellow YA author Mari Mancusi

If you’re like me, then you have either a curling iron or a flat iron. Invest in one of those curling iron travel bags . . . you know, the kind where you can put your curling iron away just seconds after using it. That way, when you finish getting ready, all you have to do is stuff the curling iron into the bag and go.

Also, unless you’re living in another century, you have a cell phone. There is something about conferences that makes my cell phone drain faster than a puddle in the Texas summer. So invest in an extra power cord and keep it in your travel bag. Ditto headphones. That way, you’ll never be without.

While Traveling…

Hopefully the actual travel portion of your trip is a short one, but no matter the length of time, it’s important to make the most of it and keep yourself happy.


Drink water. If you’re flying, buy a water bottle after you get through security or bring an empty one and fill it up. Lots of times, we get headaches when we travel because we aren’t getting enough water. Whether flying or driving, drink up. Don’t let your goal be to not use the bathroom the entire trip. Stop often.

Side note: If you see a Buc-ee’s, stop there. They have the best bathrooms in the world. And then there are the pickles. Delicious! Which brings me to the next item…

Snack Smart

P.J. at Comic Con

Traveling without giving any thought to food ahead of time can lead to unhealthy eating which will end up making you feel worse. Think about your snacks ahead of time. What do you like to eat? Is it something that you can put in your carry-on luggage? Is it something you need to bag-check? Is there a grocery store nearby your destination where you can run in and grab a couple must-have foods?

Whether it’s fruits or nuts or Twinkies that make you feel great, prepare ahead of time.

Side note: It’s also a good idea to scope out restaurants. If you must have your sunny-side-up eggs each morning, find a diner online and check the menu to make sure they have what you want.


What are you going to do while you are actually traveling? If you’re driving somewhere alone, can you use that time to listen to an audiobook? If so, download it ahead of time. If you’re on an airplane, what are you going to read? Or write? Plan it out so you can make the most of your time. And remember, you can’t e-read for those first and last fifteen minutes of a flight. What else can you do in this time?

Side note 1: I was able to download a version of Word for my iPad so I could edit on a flight without having to drag my computer along.

Side note 2: Decide which electronic device will meet your needs for the trip. Is your smart phone enough? Your iPad enough? Or does this particular trip demand your computer?

Once You Are There…

Great! You’ve made it to your destination. Now is the time to relax and enjoy the show (or conference as the case may be). But don’t think all the travel planning is behind you.

Here are a few tips for making the time at your destination that much better.

Be a considerate roomie.

Lots of times when I travel, I share rooms with other people I know. Whether this is due to friendship or cost-sharing, it’s important to be considerate of those around you.

For starters, if you are the type who has to blow dry your hair (like me), then bring your own hair dryer. Sure, most hotels supply them these days, but you aren’t the only one who needs to get in that bathroom. Take your shower, brush your teeth, and then let your roomie have the bathroom. You can blow dry your hair in the main room. (Unless of course your roomie is still sleeping. Then the most considerate path is to stay in the bathroom.)

In addition, please keep your stuff neat. Piles of dirty clothes and suitcases all over the floor aren’t going to make anyone happy. And it certainly won’t make anyone want to room with you again. So pick a spot (be it a drawer, a chair, whatever) and keep it tidy.

Side note: Silence your phone at night. I adore my “Star Trek” notifications, but my roomies may not have that same love for ST:TOS that I do.


Practicing kung fu

Right. So there could be (and should be) an entire blog post dedicated to the importance of exercise. It’s a great habit to be in and really helps relieve the stress of travel and the author life. So let’s assume for the moment that we’re all in that habit.

Don’t let travel get in the way of your amazing routine. Pack exercise clothes and shoes when you go. Almost every hotel out there has some sort of exercise room. When looking at hotels, make sure you choose wisely. And then make sure you follow through and keep your momentum going.

Side note: This is where packing those headphones for your cell phone also comes in handy. Pandora. Netflix. It’s all right there to help you stay motivated.

Be comfy

Think about what makes you more comfortable when you travel. For me, it’s a travel blanket and a light weight jacket (because my temperature threshold tends to run a bit lower than everyone else). For others it may be a favorite stuffed animal. Whatever you specifically need, bring it along.

Side note: Conferences are typically chilly. A lightweight sweater can help you concentrate on the conference and not on the goosebumps forming on your arms.

Never Leave Home Without…

Learn about the Forgotten Worlds trilogy

And there are, of course, a handful of must haves. Don’t leave home without them.

  • Irreplaceables (medications, retainer) 
  • Excedrin (for post-late night recovery and dehydration survival) 
  • Extra set of clothes (for those unexpected coffee spills while traveling) 
  • Swag (always have a business card or postcard or something to be able to hand to people) 
  • Sharpie (have one on you at all given times for book/swag signing) 
  • Breath mints (no one wants to smell your coffee breath)

Hope your travels are safe and successful in every way!

Cynsational Notes

From Cyn:

Print and pack backup copies of your itinerary and any presentation texts–one for your purse, one for your suitcase, and one for your carry-on bag. Also be sure to email yourself copies of them (that you can access online) and your visual presentation (PowerPoint, etc.).

You may also want to email your visual presentation to the event planner in advance of your trip; just be sure to emphasize that some materials are under copyright and should not be used outside of your event or without your consent.

See also Event Report: P.J. Hoover’s Solstice & Mari Mancusi’s Scorched from Cynsations.

P.J. Hoover first fell in love with Greek mythology in sixth grade thanks to the book Mythology by Edith Hamilton.

After a fifteen year bout as an electrical engineer designing computer chips for a living, P. J. decided to take her own stab at mythology and started writing books for kids and teens.

When not writing, P. J. spends time with her husband and two kids and enjoys practicing kung fu, solving Rubik’s cubes, and watching “Star Trek.”

Her first novel for teens, Solstice (Tor, 2013), takes place in a global warming future and explores the parallel world of mythology beside our own.

Her middle grade novel, Tut (Tor, 2014), tells the story of a young immortal King Tut, who’s been stuck in middle school for over 3,000 years and must defeat an ancient enemy with the help of a dorky kid from school, a mysterious Egyptian princess, and a one-eyed cat.

Event Report: P.J. Hoover’s Solstice & Mari Mancusi’s Scorched

Mari and P.J. model their novels & stuffed dragon unicorn.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Austin YA authors P.J. Hoover and Mari Mancusi debuted their latest novels this month at BookPeople. P.J.’s new release is Solstice (Tor, 2013), a mythology-dystopian, and Mari’s is Scorched (Sourcebooks, 2013), a dragon fantasy.

The event included a viewing of book trailers, tie-in refreshments, Q&A, trivia questions with prizes and a signing. Plus, attendees were encouraged to rock their mythology and dragon enthusiasm.

Joint author events can attract a wider (hopefully crossover) fan base, split up the preparatory work and expenses, and multiply the fun.

You typically want to team up with someone who has a new book with a complimentary theme or one for the same age-market. Be sure you’re on the same page in terms of budget, program, and promotion and choose someone who genuinely enjoy spending time with.

See also event photo reports from P.J. and Mari.

YA author Cory Putnam Oakes models a dragon of her own.

And so does children’s author Nikki Loftin.

Author-illustrator Emma Virjan and Cynthia Leitich Smith

Children’s author-ilustrators Frances Hill Yansky & Salima Alikhan

P.J. and Mari field questions from the audience.

Mari and P.J. sign for their enthusiastic fans!

Cynsational Notes

Check out the book trailer for Scorched by Mari Mancusi (Sourcebooks, 2013). From the promotional copy:

An ordinary Texan teen. A dragon with devastating power. 

Together they can save the future…or destroy it.

Sixteen-year-old Trinity is sure her grandfather’s “dragon egg” is a hoax, but the government agents attacking her house seem to think otherwise. And a strange boy is telling her the world as she knows it will be wiped out in a fiery dragon war—unless they work together to stop it.

All the while, the dragon inside her egg whispers to Trin, not ready to give up without a fight.

Guest Post: Melissa Stewart on Layer Upon Layer: Building a Nonfiction Manuscript

Teachers & Writers! View the NMNC interactive timeline!

By Melissa Stewart
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

One of the biggest challenges for children’s nonfiction writers is structure, figuring out the most engaging way to tell a true story or present information to young readers.

One structure that has become increasingly popular in science-themed picture books over the last decade is layered text, which offers information in two (or more) different ways.

In Move! and What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?, Steve Jenkins employs a spare main text, stunning paper-collage illustrations, and masterful design to propel readers from one page to the next. The rich back matter includes blocks of additional information written at a higher level.

In A Rock Is Lively by Diana Hutts Aston, The Bumblebee Queen by April Pulley Sayre, Wings by Sneed B. Collard, and A Place for Butterflies by Melissa Stewart, each double-page spread features two layers—a short, simple main text set in large type and longer, more challenging secondary text set in smaller type. While the main text works on its own, the secondary text enriches the presentation.

Layered text is win-win-win—a winner all around.

Publishers like it because it broadens a book’s audience—the main text is perfect for beginning readers and the secondary text offers slightly older readers additional details.

Teachers like layered text because it’s perfect for Reading Buddy programs, which pair students at two different grade levels (usually a first grader and a third grader). The younger buddy can read the larger, simpler text and the older children can focus on the longer, smaller text. As a result, each child plays a role in “digesting” the spread, and reading becomes a shared endeavor. The buddies can then look at the art together and discuss what they’ve just learned before turning the page.

And writers like this structure because they can accomplish two things at once. In my six-book A Place for . . . series, the large, simple main text running across the tops of the pages provides general information and can stand on its own. The smaller, more sophisticated secondary text provides additional background and context that fleshes out the story.

In Meet the Howlers!, April Pulley Sayre’s main text is written in delightful verse that describes a howler family’s daily activities. The more straightforward secondary text provides a plethora of fascinating information about the monkeys.

In Just Ducks!, Dolphin Baby!, Bat Loves the Night, and One Tiny Turtle by Nicola Davies, the main text has a strong narrative thread, while the secondary text is chock full of fascinating facts.

Taken together, the information presented via layered text in Dorothy Hinshaw Patent’s When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone and Sneed Collard’s Beaks!, Leaving Home, and Animals Asleep is clear, straightforward, and fascinating.

Books like An Egg is Quiet and A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston offer a lyrical main text. While the language is simple, the statements are sometimes surprising. For example, in An Egg is Quiet, the main text on one spread says, “An egg is clever.” Most children (and adults) have never thought of an egg in this way before. But after reading the secondary text scattered across the page, the meaning of the main text becomes clear.

As I was writing my new picture book, No Monkeys, No Chocolate, layered text seemed like the obvious choice. But no matter how much I wrote and revised, wrote and revised, the manuscript wasn’t coming together. Some of the complex idea needed so much reinforcing that the secondary text felt too long, too clunky.

It took more than a year to come up with a solution, and I couldn’t have done it without the help of my nieces and their Halloween costume conundrum. As the girls discussed (read ‘argued about’) the pros and cons of various costume options, I decided to break the tension with a funny story. They loved family stories, and this one starred their dad (my brother).

I told them how much we loved “The Muppet Show” as kids and provided a detailed description of my brother’s prize-winning Swedish Chef costume. I told them the oversized puffy white hat was hilarious, but the pièces de résistance was the rubber chicken that my brother frequently and vigorously smacked in the butt with one of my mom’s wooden spoons.

Maybe they should dress up as Kermit and Miss Piggy, I suggested. They looked at one another, then shook their heads in unison.

What about Statler and Waldorf, the two old guys in the Muppet balcony? As the girls laughed at my “ridiculous” idea, something clicked in my mind. That’s what my book needed—characters to comment on the text and add humor. It didn’t need two layers of text. It needed three.

But I knew two grumbling old guys wouldn’t work for my book. What would? Bookworms!

With that final piece of the book’s structure in place, it wasn’t long before No Monkeys, No Chocolate was born.

Great Books that Feature Layered Text

Actual Size by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Animals Asleep by Sneed B. Collard, illustrated by Anik McGrory (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Bat Loves the Night by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies (Candlewick, 2004)

Beaks! by Sneed B. Collard, illustrated by Robin Brickman (Charlesbridge, 2002)

Biggest, Strongest, Fastest by Steve Jenkins (Sandpiper, 1997)

The Bumblebee Queen by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne (Charlesbridge, 2006)

A Butterfly is Patient by Diana Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (Chronicle, 2011)

Dolphin Baby! by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Brita Granström (Candlewick, 2012)

An Egg is Quiet by Diana Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (Chronicle, 2006)

Here Come the Humpbacks! by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Jamie Hogan (Charlesbridge, 2013)

Just Ducks! by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino (Candlewick, 2012)

Leaving Home by Sneed B. Collard, illustrated by Joan Dunning (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)

Meet the Howlers! by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Woody Miller (Charlesbridge, 2010)

Move! by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins (Houghton Mifflin, 2009)

No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Nicole Wong (Charlesbridge, 2013)

One Tiny Turtle by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Jane Chapman (Candlewick, 2005)

A Place for Bats by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Higgins Bond (Peachtree, 2012)

A Place for Birds by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Higgins Bond (Peachtree, 2009)

A Place for Butterflies by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Higgins Bond (Peachtree, 2011)

A Place for Fish by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Higgins Bond (Peachtree, 2011)

A Place for Frogs by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Higgins Bond (Peachtree, 2010)

A Place for Turtles by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Higgins Bond (Peachtree, 2013)

A Rock Is Lively by Diana Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (Chronicle, 2012)

A Seed is Sleepy by Diana Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long (Chronicle, 2007)

What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page (Sandpiper, 2008)

When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent, photos by Dan and Cassie Hartman (Walker, 2008)

Wings by Sneed B. Collard, illustrated by Robin Brickman (Charlesbridge, 2008)

Cynsational Notes

Interactive Creative Timeline for No Monkeys, No Chocolate from Melissa Stewart. See also Innovations in Book Marketing by Melissa from the Official SCBWI Blog. Peek: “I decided to create an Online Interactive Timeline that tells the story behind the book. It’s a combination of clickable elements—videos, WIP manuscripts, an interview with my editor, sample sketches, and even ‘final’ art that didn’t make it into the book.”

Reading Buddies

In Memory: Holly Meade

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Holy Meade, Artist and Kids’ Book Author-Illustrator Dies at 56 by Karyn M. Peterson from School Library Journal. Peek: “An acclaimed artist in many mediums, Meade is perhaps best known for her intricate woodblock prints, and among children’s librarians for her more than 30 picture books.”

From The Daily News of Newburyport: “Holly Louise Meade, 56, passed away on Friday, June 28…. After illustrating her first children’s book in 1992, she began a flourishing career that followed with nearly 30 books, a number of which received recognition through awards, including a Caldecott Honor and the Charlotte Zolotow Award for Creative Writing.”

Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Holly Meade by Jules from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peek: “The majority of my illustrative work has been done in cut paper collage.”

See also The Holly Meade Memorial from Curious City. Peek: “In memory of Holly, Curious City encourages those that love her children’s book work to donate a copy or copies of her picture books to the Maine Children’s Cancer Program (MCCP) for an in-house library and for distribution to the children they serve.”

New Voice: K.A. Barson on 45 Pounds (More or Less)

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

K.A. Barson is the first-time author of 45 Pounds (More or Less)(Viking, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Here are the numbers of Ann Galardi’s life:

She is 16.
And a size 17.
Her perfect mother is a size 6.
Her Aunt Jackie is getting married in 2 months, and wants Ann to be a bridesmaid.
So Ann makes up her mind: Time to lose 45 pounds (more or less).

Welcome to the world of informercial diet plans, wedding dance lessons, endless run-ins with the cutest guy Ann’s ever seen—and some surprises about her not-so-perfect mother.

And there’s one more thing—it’s all about feeling comfortable in your own skin—no matter how you add it up!

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

Photo of K.A. by Hal Folk
More on Martine

I’d have to say that my most influential writing teacher was Martine Leavitt.

As my second semester advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts, she made me think about characters and motivation and how it relates to plot more than I ever had before.

Before I even started the semester, Martine had me write a letter to her from my main character. The letter needed to reflect the character’s voice and contain both an abstract and concrete desire.

For some reason, I always balk at writing exercises, even though historically, they’ve helped me a lot. I did it though, and it really solidified where the story was going.

In my contemporary work, I sometimes have a tendency to let my characters wander in circles and naval gaze. They may do things, but that doesn’t mean those actions have meaning or purpose in the story. Martine encouraged me to really look at not only what my characters do, but why. Now for every project I start, I ask these questions to my characters:

  • What do you want? Even when I think I know, I still need to probe deeper. What do you really want—acceptance, love, friendship? What will you do to get it? The quest for a certain feeling is the emotional arc, and the action creates plot.
  • What happens if you don’t get it? It’s the stakes that keep readers invested and turning pages. It doesn’t have to be dangerous, but it needs to be important.

Having a firm grasp on what characters want, how they try to get it, and how they react when something or someone gets in their way, helps me know what happens next.

Sometimes, though, simply asking the question isn’t enough. Sometimes I just don’t know. So that’s when those writing exercises that don’t seem like they’re going to help actually do.

Sometimes the only way to get to the heart of the story is to step out of it and spend time with the characters somewhere beyond the pages of the draft, using things like letters, interviews, journal entries, and scenes outside of this story.

In my first workshop at VCFA, another faculty member helped me discover the motivations of a secondary character that was a little flat. That workshop leader, whose initials are C.L.S., asked me to interview that character. That exercise uncovered some hidden resentment toward my main character that I didn’t know existed. Those feelings helped shape my revision. I now had reasons behind the actions.

Motivation propels the plot. Once I learned that, I found plot much less baffling. Every character wants something. If it’s in line with the main character, they’re probably an ally. If their desires are in contrast with the protagonist, they’re probably one of the antagonists.

I know this is basic stuff, but really all writing concepts are basic. It’s putting them all together that’s hard. Good writers and teachers know and do this. Because of their generosity, now I do too.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what’s funny? What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

When I’m writing, I tend to rely a lot on humor. Because my debut novel 45 Pounds (More or Less) stems from being self-conscious, a certain level of self-deprecating humor naturally arises.

The problem with humor is that it can dilute or lighten a more serious topic. With my book, I wanted to lighten the serious topic. It’s about weight and body image. I didn’t want my character to dwell in this heavy place—both literally and figuratively—the whole time.

But every time I choose funny, I lose a little of the emotional depth.

Humor needs to be carefully placed. It should give a reprieve from heartbreak or a break the tension from an emotional scene.

It’s important to allow the reader to feel the full effect of the pain before cutting it with something funny though.

What makes something funny? I don’t know if something is funny to readers, but if it makes me laugh, it usually makes it into the draft. (I say draft because it doesn’t always make it to the final round.) The unexpected is what usually cracks me up.

When writing, I try to think about what would make this scene or conversation embarrassing or different. Sometimes the characters naturally do those things based on their motivation and personality. It’s wonderful when that happens, but if it doesn’t, there are books that can help.

One is The Comic Toolbox: How To Be Funny Even If You’re Not by John Vorhaus (Silman-James Press, 1994) and How To Write Funny: Add Humor To Every Kind of Writing edited by John B. Kachuba (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001).

The latter is a collection of essays by some of funniest writers of our time. I also study sitcoms and movies.

How many other professionals can be working while being entertained and laughing?

That’s just one of the many reasons I love being a writer.

Cynsational Notes

K.A. Barson from Note: audio name reading and novel reading. See also K.A. at Skype an Author Network.

Check out this video feature with K.A. from Ed Spicer at Spicy Reads.

Guest Interview & Giveaway: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Reading & Writing Graphic Novels

Eternal: Zachary’s Story, graphic novel

By Samantha Clark,
Austin SCBWI regional advisor,
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In celebration of Austin SCBWI‘s upcoming Graphic Novel Workshop, Cynthia Leitich Smith, answers questions about her graphic novels, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story (2011) and Eternal: Zachary’s Story (2013), both illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick), and hosts a giveaway of the books.

The Graphic Novel Workshop is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at St. Edward’s University in Austin.

Registration is now open! Seating is limited. The speakers are:

You’ve written picture books, short stories and novels. What made you decide to try graphic novels?

I’ve been reading what we now call graphic-format literature—or comic books—since toddlerhood. My father worked six days a week, Monday through Saturday, but on some Sunday afternoons, he would load me into the front seat of the Oldsmobile and drive me to the local convenience store to pick up superhero and science fiction comics. (I also liked horror comics, but those were harder to find.)

A very young reader

It was an opportunity to spend time along with him, even if it was less than a half hour, while he also was trying to juggle time spent with my mother, the extended family and working on the house and lawn.

So some of my affection for the format is nostalgic—I feel for it the way a lot of adults do about the picture and prose books they read as children (as a regular school-and-public library kid, I read those, too).

After a break in high school, I began picking up comics again in college and then dived in with gusto from law school on, subscribing to more than fifty books a month. The format was finding its footing.

A greater variety of books, including more sophisticated titles, was becoming available, though I still enjoyed the art and storytelling in superhero comics—a classic American form, if there ever was one.

We tell beginning writers to read, to study form. To read hundreds of any particular type of book before trying to write one. I’d been doing that with comics for as long as I could remember. These were among the books that taught me how to read. Having consumed thousands over a lifetime, I instinctively understood how they flowed and delivered.

The Tantalize series struck me as a great fit for graphic format. The books are genre benders–Gothic fantasies with strong elements of romance, mystery/suspense and some humor. They’re high action, rich in setting – an alternative Austin; Dallas; Chicago; small-town Michigan; Montpelier, Vermont – and offer diverse protagonists and visually arresting creatures (angels, vampires, werearmadillos).

I talked to my agent Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Ltd., who pitched the idea to my editor, Deborah Noyes at Candlewick Press. I put together the first script, and—after we all consulted online portfolios—my text was matched with illustrator Ming Doyle, who had a background in comics.

Illustrator Ming Doyle

Tell us about your graphic novels and how they relate to the Tantalize series.

Tantalize: Kieren’s Story graphic novel

The graphic novels are Tantalize: Kieren’s Story and Eternal: Zachary’s Story, and they retell the prose novels, Tantalize (2007) and Eternal (2009), which I think of the gateway novels to the series.

Either Tantalize or Eternal can be read first, and then the two casts crossover in Blessed (2011), which, in turn is followed by Diabolical (2012).

All of the books can stand alone. They each have a complete arc with a beginning, middle, and end, though Tantalize and Blessed are perhaps the most tightly tied as the latter kicks off in the moment the former leaves off.

That said, the graphic novels are not simply a straight adaptation of their corresponding prose novels. In addition to showcasing Ming’s wonderful art, they also offer readers new scenes and previously existing scenes from a new point of view. Again, they’re not dependent on the series as a whole, but dedicated readers will certainly find much to reward their enthusiasm.

How did you learn how to write a graphic novel?

Again, foremost by having read and studied thousands of them over a lifetime of reading.

I also had been paying attention to the rising role of graphic format in children’s-YA literature.

Some of my favorite books are the Babymouse series by Jennifer and Matthew Holm (Random House. 2005-), Joey Fly, Private Eye by Aaron Reynolds and Neil Numberman (Henry Holt, 2009), and the hybrid prose-graphic novel So Punk Rock And Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother by Micol and David Ostow (Flux, 2009).

Format preferences vary from publisher to publisher, so Candlewick sent me a couple of models to study.

I also studied overviews of the format and how-to books by folks like Stan Lee, Alan Moore, Dennis O’Neil and Scott McCloud.

Just getting started? I recommend McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (William Morrow, 1994)

Having been a picture book writer also was helpful. I was used to writing visually and had no ego resistance when it came to putting the art at center stage. My motto: get out of the way of the illustrator!

Inside Tantalize: Kieren’s Story

What were the challenges in moving to graphic novels for the first time? And did they get easier with your second book in the format?

With Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, I originally included too much text. When the early sketches came, I wanted nothing more than to slash and condense—to leave more room for Ming’s art.

Definitely, Eternal: Zachary’s Story went smoother. I had more experience and more of a sense of Ming’s style, and how she would translate the story into art. I’d also been through the process before and had more faith and confidence in it.

In both cases, my editor and I spoke on the phone for hours, going over the sketches, panel by panel.

What has your reader reaction been like?

Tantalize prose novel
Eternal prose novel

Teen readers have been enthusiastic. The series has both male and female protagonists and attracts a dual-gender audience. Many are visual and reluctant readers.

In much the same way that the prose novels Tantalize and Eternal are gateways to the series, their graphic novel adaptations serve not only that purpose but also can encourage graphic-format readers to crossover to prose fiction.

A half dozen or more readers (all of them boys) who started with one of the graphic novels have told me that, afterward, its prose companion became the first prose novel they’d ever finished.


More have said that reading the graphic novels inspired them to read the prose versions by choice—something they previously would’ve only done if the books had been school assignments.

I’ve also heard from prose readers of the series that they were inspired to try graphic format for the first time. This is just as important.

Visual literacy, processing visual communications cues, is ever more important in our increasingly global business and cultural exchanges, in our increasingly media-centric society. It serves as a foundation for analytical and interpretive thinking. As a life skill, it’s priceless.

Frankie croons over the loudspeakers at Sanguini’s, a setting from the Tantalize series and Feral trilogy.

Do you plan to do more graphic novels?

Not in the short term. I fully enjoyed the process of creating both graphic novels, but at the moment, the projects calling loudest to me are best suited to prose format. That said, I remain an avid reader and would certainly consider another graphic-format (or hybrid project) in the future.

Would you recommend graphic novels as a format to other writers?

I would—with the caveat that it’s still relatively new territory in traditional children’s-YA trade publishing. Some great work is being done, and teens love the format. But we’re still in the process of educating the wider community of grown-ups.

Finally, can you give us a sneak peek at what you’ll teach us at the Austin SCBWI Graphic Novel Workshop on Oct. 5?

I’m leading two workshops:

“Breaking Down Story: Adapting Prose Writing to a Graphic Novel Script.” How to take already written novels and turn them into a script for a graphic novel. Note: I’ll also be sharing a few insights gleaned from other creators on collaborative graphic-format projects.

“Story Creation 101 for Illustrators, New Writers & Forgetful Authors.” A nuts-and-bolts look at how writers build story from the ground up with group exercises and participant readings/show-and-tell.

Inside Eternal: Zachary’s Story

Cynsational Notes & Giveaway

Meet Samantha Clark
Book One in Feral trilogy

Samantha Clark writes middle-grade and young adult stories and is the regional advisor for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. A journalist and editor for 20 years, she also works for Yellow Bird Editors

The Feral trilogy (Candlewick) is a spin-off of the Tantalize series, and Feral Nights (Book One)(Candlewick, 2013) is now available. The books set in this world also are available from Walker Books in the U.K. and Walker Australia and New Zealand (among other publishers from around the globe).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Authors Kelly Bennett & Nikki Loftin Win 2013 Writers’ League of Texas Children’s-YA Book Awards

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to the winners and finalists for the 2013 Writers’ League of Texas Book Awards!

Picture Books Winner

One Day I Went Rambling by Kelly Bennett

Picture Books Finalists

Alicia’s Fruity Drinks by Lupe Ruiz-Flores

Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas by Jeanette Larson 

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate

Middle Grade & YA Winner

The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin 

Middle Grade & YA Finalists

Breaking Lauren by Jordan Deen 

Chained by Lynne Kelly

Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull

 The Veil by Cory Putman Oakes

Return to the Willows by Jacqueline Kelly

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

From Latina with a Flashlight to Children’s Author: Angela Cervantes from CBC Diversity. Peek: “Even if the Latino population wasn’t growing rapidly, these stories would still be important. They have a place on the bookshelf because these books are not written just for a Latino audience; they are written for all children.”

The Shy Writer’s Cocktail Party Survival Guide by Anne Greenwood Brown from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “Arriving early…allows you to join the first small conversation group. People are usually relieved to have a new member join in.”

Letting Your Characters Go by Juliet Marillier from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “Chances are all of you who write fiction feel exactly the same when you complete a project. What can we do to ease the pain of parting?”

First Readers Vs. Manuscript Critiques by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Peek: “Some suggest a structured approach and ask readers to write in the margins something like this. B=bored. C=confused. E=emotional.”

Want to Be Successful at Writing? Take Aim and Keep Shooting by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “She has had many more sales because she has been gutsier and submitted a lot more than I have. She knows that rejection simply comes as part of the publishing package.” See also Walking the Tightrope Between Big Dreams and Realistic Expectations by Rachelle Gardner from Books & Such and Good Writing is Born of Dreams by Alissa Grosso from Adventures in YA & Children’s Publishing.

Character and Series Backstory and the Traditional Mystery by Elizabeth S. Craig from Mystery Writing Is Murder. Peek: “Characters recurring from an earlier book in the series could be quickly identified in a way that won’t be obvious or irritating to the returning reader.” See also Elizabeth on Writing Advice & Advice to New Parents.

“Storytelling is Getting Formulaic. This is an Opportunity.” from Nathan Bransford, Author. Peek: “One book, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! has become so thoroughly influential that nearly every movie made these days follows its beat by beat model.” See also The Organized Writer: Using a Chapter Framework to Manage Plots and Subplots by Rosie Genova from QueryTracker Blog.

Why We Need Diverse Literature by Crystal from Rich in Color. Peek: “…there are some diverse books being published. They are not in the numbers I would like to see, but they do exist. They can be hard to find, so we have some resources on our blog to help make it easier.” See also an audio essay by Mitali Perkins on Writing Race, What Is Personal Perspective Anyway? by A.S. King from CBC Diversity and Publishing Diverse Books Isn’t About Meeting Quotas by Stacy Whitman from Rich In Color.

Thurber House Invites Writers to Apply for the 2014 Children’s Writer in Residence from Thurber House. Peek: “The Thurber House Residency in Children’s Literature offers talented writers a month-long retreat in the furnished third-floor apartment of Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio. Besides having time to focus on his/her own writing project, each resident spends up to ten hours per week teaching children the joys of writing in both a community-based agency and as part of the Thurber House Summer Writing Camp for children.”

What Does a Literary Agent Want to See When They Google You? by Chuck Sambuchino from The Write Life. Peek: “An agent typically investigates a client before offering them representation, understandably.” See also How to Maintain a Healthy Author-Agent Relationship by Elizabeth Weed from Writer Unboxed.

Pondering Book Trailers with Live Actors by Elizabeth Bird from A Fuse #8 Production. Peek: “Worst case scenario, a live action trailer feels like a sad pale imitation of a B-List movie trailer. Best case scenario? Behold…”

Disturbing (Or Not?) Young Adult Fiction by Christina Chant Sullivan from the Horn Book. Peek: “Unlike their adult teacher, my students seemed to be immune to the very real tragedy of similar ‘dumpsite boys’ in South America, and also to the horrifying premise of The Hunger Games. In the end, no matter how realistic these novels seemed, my boys recognized them as fiction. Contrast my sixth-grade boys’ reactions to Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water…”

What’s the Beef with the Third Person Objective Point of View? by Deborah Halverson from Peek: “To avoid flat, emotionless storytelling that fails to engage readers, your ‘show, don’t tell’ craftwork needs to fire on all cylinders.”

Chaptering: Those Magical Last Lines by Ash Krafton from QueryTracker Blog. Peek: “…the perfect spot to end a chapter is the perfect place to compel a reader to keep reading. I have a flashing neon light in my head when I write, and it blinks the words ‘page turner’.”

Books & Smiles for Haiti from Chieu Anh Urban. Peek: “Please join me in gifting autographed children’s books for the lovely children in Haiti. The gift of books will brighten their day, and let them know that we are thinking of them.”

Writers’ Etiquette: Graciousness by Rosie Genova from QueryTrackerBlog. Peek: “While you are neither alone in your feelings nor in your observations about the reading market, they do not become you. And you are sadly misguided if you think to bolster your own work by denigrating the work of others. Particularly in a Public Forum.” See also Being Shakespeare by Mette Ivie Harrison.

Support the Greenhorn Film Project: “Greenhorn (NewSouth, 2012), based on a true event, is a powerful book by Anna Olswanger that gives human dimension to the Holocaust.” See a Cynsations guest post by Anna about the book.

How to Write Fight-Action Scenes That Won’t Show You’ve Never Thrown a Punch by Becca Puglisi from The Bookshelf Muse. Peek: “I always tell authors and writers to physically draw their action scenes.”

What Makes a Good Picture Book About Loss? by Thom Barthelmess from The Horn Book. Peek: “…books of bubbly humor and silliness…if we limit ourselves to that kind of material, are we suggesting to children and their families that those are the best, or only, books to read aloud? Or, worse, are we sending a message that exuberant happiness is the only emotion that picture books engage, or the only emotion to legitimately consider or experience in public?” See also Secrets of Storytime: 10 Tips for Great Sessions from a 40-Year Pro by Nell Colburn from School Library Journal.

Hiding the Controversy by Bryony Pearce from E. Kristin Anderson at Write All The Words! Peek: “I want teenagers to read my books and go away thinking about the characters, the story, the “cool” supernatural stuff. The issue I’ve really written about, well, it might just sink in without them realising it was even there.”

Query Detox by Keith Cronin from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “Some writers are obsessed with being perceived as A Serious Writer, and you can almost see their furrowed brow and feel their condescending gaze as you read their words. Often they’ll try to hit the agent over the head with how deep and brilliant their themes are.”

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: The Banning of Sex-Positive Novels by Amy Rose Capetta from E. Kristin Anderson at Write All the Words! Peek: “As a teenage girl, I was drawn to books like Judy Blume’s. I didn’t confuse being ready to read about sex with being ready to have it. I needed that safe space where I could follow what happened to characters I cared about, and figure things out for myself.”

Cynsational Giveaways

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Screening Room

NerdBait Guide to Graceling: Episode I: Chicks with Swords: YA authors Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy discuss Kristin Cashore‘s Graceling and the importance of girls owning swords. 

More Personally

Celebrating Vampire Baby by Kelly Bennett & Paul Meisel (Candlewick) at “Nightwing.”
Pass pages for Feral Curse (Book 2 in the Feral series)
Succumbed to the heat and got my hair cut short this July in Galveston.

I’m pleased to announce that I’m among the featured authors for the 2013 Texas Book Festival Oct. 26 and Oct. 27 in Austin.  I’ll update you on the schedule as details arise. See a breakout of the featured children’s-YA authors by Carmen Oliver from One Word at a Time.

Thanks to everyone who’s among my now 13,000+ followers on Twitter @CynLeitichSmith! For those who haven’t checked it out, I tweet the same sort of upbeat and useful news and resources related to children’s-YA literature, writing, illustrating, and publishing–plus a little personal news–that you typically find here. On a related note, see A Scientific Guide to Posting Tweets, Facebook Posts, Emails and Blog Posts at the Best Time by Belle Beth Cooper from TNW via Jane Friedman.

In other news, thank you to librarian Kit and the YA Book Club at Cedar Park (Texas) Public Library for your hospitality this summer! So glad you all enjoyed Feral Nights (Candlewick, 2013)!

Library Media Connection says of Feral Nights (Candlewick, 2013): “This fast-paced story, told from various points of view, captures the reader from the start. All three are well-developed, strong characters. This is a book that both genders will want to read. Fans of Smith’s previous books will be excited to see some of her characters branch out into their own series.”

Native Hoop Magazine says of Feral Nights (Candlewick, 2013): “Although Smith’s books are characterized as young adult, they’re a good read for adults who like gothic fantasy, too.”

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.

By the way, Austin is getting a new bookstore: Malvern Books.

Personal Links

SCBWI WIP runner-up Margo Rabb & Liz Garton Scanlon