New Voice: Colleen Gleason on The Clockwork Scarab: A Stoker and Holmes Novel

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The Clockwork Scarab: A Stoker and Holmes Novel (Chronicle, 2013) is Colleen Gleason‘s debut young adult novel. She has previously published novels for grown-ups.

What inspired you to choose the point of view featured in your novel? What considerations came into play? Did you try the story from a different point of view at some point? If so, what made you change your mind?

When I sat down to write this book, Mina Holmes’s voice popped into my head and I began to write in her proper, Victorian voice, in first person.

But because Evaline Stoker is just as important a lead character as Mina is, I also wanted to write scenes from her point of view.

At first, I wrote her scenes in third person. I thought it would be easier for the reader to differentiate between the two perspectives if I did one first person and the other third person. But my editor felt strongly that I should do them both in first person…which was a little more of a challenge.

Before writing this YA novel, I’d never written in first person (for publication), and definitely not in two very different voices. So not only did I have to create a strong voice for Mina Holmes, but I had to create a second strong voice for Evaline Stoker…while at the same time, keeping their language free of anachronisms and true to the relatively stilted Victorian tone I was attempting to replicate.

That was a great challenge, and I actually ended up making a chart that delineated each girl’s particular voice: structure and vocabulary, as well as any motivations or subtext that would drive from her character. I’ve now finished writing the second book in the series, and while I found it much easier this time around, I still had to go back and clean up some of the chapters to make the voices more distinct. I tend to slip into Mina’s voice more easily than Evaline’s (Mina’s is more stilted and pedantic—very much the flowery yet proper Victorian tone, while Evaline’s is more modern and terse), and when I got into the throes of a scene, I would sometimes “lose” the voice a little.

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first–character, concept, or historical period? In whichever case, how did you go about building your world and integrating it into the story? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration or support?

Kate & Co. Photography

I have always loved historical settings. The majority of the two dozen novels I’ve written are set in either a historical setting or a dystopian/post-apocalyptic world (which in my mind is like a historical setting for many reasons).

Even though I set my book in an alternate historical world, needed to incorporate quite a bit of historical accuracy and detail for this quasi-Victorian setting in order to make it “real,” so I did a significant amount of research. In particular, I researched things like crime-solving techniques (what’s known as the Bertillon concept to identify perpetrators by measuring parts of their body and comparing it to clues left on-scene) as well as the political and cultural aspects of late Victorian London.

Some of my favorite resources when I do historical research is images. I’m a very visual person, and seeing a picture of London in 1880s really gives me something to build on. Whether it’s a photo, a drawing, or a painting, pictures give me a solid foundation for my world—and also provides details I might not get from other resources. I also like to look at advertisements—which help me as I “invent” the wild and often superfluous steampunk devices in my world—as well as newspapers.

One of the nice things about researching Victorian London, as opposed to, say, Medieval England (the setting for four novels I’ve written), is that I can actually find accurate images (photos, printed objects, etc.).

As far as worldbuilding and incorporating it into my story: I take both a macro and a micro approach.

In other words, I look at the world at a very high level: who’s in charge politically, what does the actual landscape/geography look like, are there any supernatural/unnatural elements or creatures, etc.

And then I look at it on a micro basis: what do my characters do for fun, what’s their slang, what do they wear, what sort of occupations might they have. And then I begin to fill in the middle. Some of the details included in the Stoker and Holmes world are true to history, but many others are little things that I made up as the story developed.

And that’s how I generally work with worldbuilding: most of it happens as I write, once I get the macro picture. Usually whatever the big picture is what drives at least part of the conflict and/or character development. The micro stuff is just plain old fun, and I often research it on the fly!

Book Trailer: The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Abigail Halpin

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Abigail Halpin (Atheneum, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Dini is back from India—with Bollywood star Dolly in tow! But life in the States isn’t all rose petal milk shakes…

Dini and Maddie, very best friends, are back in the same country at the same time! Better still, Dolly Singh, the starriest star in all of Bollywood, is in America too.

Dini’s only just returned from India, and already life is shaping up to be as delicious as a rose petal milk shake. Perfect. Then why can’t she untie the knot in her stomach? Because so much can go wrong when a big star like Dolly is in town.

Check out book 1!

All Dini has to do is make sure Dolly has everything she needs, from a rose petal milk shake to her lost passport to…a parade? And an elephant?

 Uh-oh… It’s time to think. What Would Dolly Do? If Dini can’t figure it out, Dolly might take matters into her own hands—and that will surely lead to the biggest mess of all!

A Junior Library Guild selection and CCBC Book of the Week.

Don’t miss the downloadable Activity Kit!

See also Uma Krishnaswami on Reinventing Your Children’s Writing Career.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Hazel Mitchell on One Word Pearl

By Hazel Mitchell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I was so excited when Charlesbridge’s imprint, Mackinac Island Press, approached me to illustrate One Word Pearl by Nicole Groeneweg, because it’s all about words!

Immediately, I started thinking how to use words in the images.

I had a ton of fun cutting out words from magazines and anything I could find (just like Pearl), doing collages, making up little stories for the backgrounds. I even got to write a ‘stream of consciousness’ for a couple of the images.

I wanted to give the surface of the printed book a textured, papery feel. To get the ‘grainy’ look I overlaid layers of paper that I’d scanned – rice paper, crumpled brown paper, handmade paper with flecks and specks. I used paper torn from a spiral notepad.

 I really wanted to give the reader lots of visual interest. And I had a great time doing it too!

The drawn elements of the book were by hand in pencil and watercolor and then scanned into Photoshop, coloured digitally with added textures and layers. Some of the pages had over 150 layers.

I’ve been using Photoshop since 1988 (when I was a graphic designer in the Royal Navy), and I’m hooked. I find it hard to imagine illustrating without it and my Wacom pad.

Pearl’s a departure from books I’ve illustrated in the last four years (which is when I got serious about chidren’s illustration – I’d worked in commercial design since leaving art college in England. It was only after I moved to America that I begin seriously pursuing my dream. I count myself lucky to work in this industry!)

One Word Pearl gave me chance to experiment with technique and be much freer. That’s something that I had been working on.

Years working in graphics meant I was extremely tight. Looking back at my fine art work from college I was so loose! Every time I did a looser piece in my portfolio, it’d get attention from art directors and editors. I figured that was the way to go.

Trying to find your style mystifies a lot of illustrators when they start out. For a while, you go through phases of trying to me like someone else, to follow a trend, it’s a necessary part of learning to be an artist.

For me, my voice came through when I’d forgotten all about it. When you don’t think about it anymore and you just draw. It’s an unconscious thing.

I have to say I can’t see me sticking to just one style. For one, I would be bored and I think it depends on the manuscript. There are always elements of your work that connect with each other. As long as the illustrations are right for the book, that’s what matters.

Of course, composition, subject, content, interacting with the manuscript, those are all conscious things. But if you are searching for your style, it will be there when you stop worrying about it.

And the only way to do that is Draw! Draw! Draw! (and have fun!)

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win illustrator-signed giclee print!

Enter to win…

Grand Prize: an illustrator-signed copy of One Word Pearl and one signed giclee print from the book (pictured above).

Runner-up Prize: an illustrator-signed copy of One Word Pearl.

Illustrator sponsored. Eligibility: international.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

New Voice: Stephanie Watson on Psyching Yourself Up to Write, the Craft of Picture Books & The Wee Hours

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Stephanie Watson is the first-time author of The Wee Hours, illustrated by Mary GrandPré (Disney-Hyperion, 2013). From the promotional copy:

What if the wee, small hours of the morning weren’t just hours, but playful creatures instead? 

And what if those creatures came out in the early-morning hours, to make mischief while you sleep? 

The Wee Hours, this new brand-new picture book, imagines just that.

How do you psyche yourself up to write and to keep writing?

I use lots of tricks to keep on keepin’ on with the writing. Here are five of my current favorites:

  1. Drink pots and pots of highly caffeinated green tea. It gives me courage and stamina. 
  2. Blast “I Am Superman” by R.E.M. before I sit down to write. I do a jumpy-spinny-punchy dance in my office and get all pumped up to do the day’s work. 
  3. Watch YouTube interviews with writers and artists that inspire me (see: Quentin Blake, Lynda Barry, Daniel Handler, Mo Willems and Kate DiCamillo). 
  4. Make other kinds of art. I draw and paint and knit and collage and hot glue things to other things. Crafty projects are great palate cleansers to writing, especially when they’re not particularly fancy or difficult. Right now, I’m really into making things with Perler beads. 
  5. Go for quantity, not quality. Daily word count goals are easier to meet than objectives like “Write something awesome.” If I sit in my chair and work with 1000 words each day, I’m golden, I win, I pat myself on the back. The less pressure I put on the quality, the better the writing seems to go. Funny how that works.

The thing about tricks is that they eventually wear out. Like, the magic of “I Am Superman” will fade soon, and then I’ll have to pick another power anthem to jump and spin and kick to. Always developing new ways to con myself into being courageous enough to write—this is just part of the job.

Stephanie & “I Am Superman”

How did you learn the craft of picture book writing? What are your strengths? What has been your greatest challenge?

I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to my writing teachers over the years, but I’ve learned the most about writing picture books by reading them. I love to sit at the library and consume 20 picture books in a sitting.

By reading lots of this type of book, you quickly get a sense of what works, what’s funny, what falls flat, what a strong page turn feels like, what a satisfying ending feels like.

I love re-reading the classics, like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 1963) as much as I love looking at new stuff, like Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem (Disney-Hyperion, 2009).

I think one of my strengths as a picture book writer is that I’m always up for following a strange idea to see where it might lead. In an early draft of The Wee Hours, the creatures that came out to play started pulling things from the sleeping child’s dream. I wasn’t sure if that could work, but I was intrigued.

I played with the idea and gave it some space to either grow into something cool or explode into a horrific mess. I got it to work, and it added a nice dimension to the story.

Challenges? Well, it can be hard to muster the endurance necessary to rewrite a piece over and over. I did 15+ drafts of The Wee Hours, and it’s only 375 words long. I put both of my 35,000-word novels through ten rewrites apiece.

For me, writing is a marathon. Sitting down day after day to work on something you are not sure will ever see the light of day: That can be hard. But hey, that’s what I Am Superman and green tea are for, right?

Cynsational News & San Diego Zoo Pics

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Cover Reveal: Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj (Albert Whitman, 2014). From the promotional copy:

What’s the one thing you want most in your life? Abby Spencer wants a life of excitement!

Well, sort of. Actually, that’s a lie. All Abby really wants is to meet her father. It’s not that she’s ungrateful for what she has – nice mom, adorable grandparents, great friends – but she feels like something’s missing. And she’d never tell anyone that.

Abby knows her dad lives in India, but she’s never met him and doesn’t know much else about him. But Abby’s mom realizes it’s time to have the big talk. It’s time for Abby to finally meet her father.

But does he want to meet her? Is Abby ready for the truth? Abby’s about to find out that her dad lives a very different life in a very different country and she’s going to experience it all, for better or worse. This is what happens when all your wishes come true…

Craft of Writing: Not Thinking About Characters by Brian Yansky from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: “Ultimately, characters are the heart of fiction for me. I don’t think you can think them into existence with charts and outlines though. You have to create the character from inside the character and you will make the right choices because you’re acting and reacting from this other place within. You are the character in a sense.”

Craft Talk Tuesday with Amy Rose Capetta, Author of Entangled from Bethany Hegedus at The Writing Barn. Peek: “I loved ensemble casts, and I still do. But as a writer, I had to admit that while some stories work without a protagonist at the center, most of the ensemble stories I love still tend to have a central character. So it became a challenge of learning how to craft protagonists that I cared about, who weren’t just pushing the reader through the story at a forced march while the rest of the characters put on the real show all around them.”

Review of Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl Klein from Harold Underdown at The Purple Crayon. Peek: “This is not a writing guide–though it contains a sizable amount of very helpful material for writers–because it goes beyond being a writing guide to get its readers thinking about the elements of good children’s and YA literature, and to provide insight into the publishing process and the interests and personality of one particular editor.”

Making a Picture Book Text Dummy by JoAnn Early Macken from Teaching Authors. Peek: “At first, I thought “dummy” meant one of those pages of little boxes that illustrators use to create storyboards. I’m not an illustrator, so I couldn’t see the point. I could never fit all my text into those teensy little squares!”

Attention Librarians: Apply for an ALSC Día Family Book Club Mini-Grant from Children’s Book Council. Peek: “Up to 15 mini-grants will be awarded at $2,000 each to public libraries that demonstrate a need to better address diversity within their communities through Día Family Book Club programs.” See more information.

What Makes a Good Urban YA Novel? by Randy Ribay from The Horn Book. Peek: “Urban literature for young adults puts human faces to the lives behind the statistics, reminding teen readers — both those of whom live in the inner city and those who don’t — that people are people above and beyond their zip codes and the constraints by which society attempts to define them.” Note: The current label “urban” as a label isn’t spot on, but you’ll get the idea.

Bridget Jones, Allegiant and Fans by Elizabeth Burns from A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy. Peek: “I’ve found that overall I enjoy the viewing and reading experience when I don’t judge the story on what I wish to happen, but on whether what does happen makes sense for the story and the characters.”

Tweep Tip: @JoWhittemore is posting writing tips on a regular basis. Visit her Tweet deck to read them all.

The SCBWI Website has been revamped and relaunched with new features and opportunities for members. Registration for the 2014 Winter Conference opens today at 10 a.m. PDT. Peek: “You can register online at or by phone (323-782-1010). You must be a current SCBWI member at the time of registration to be eligible for the member’s discount.”

Neil Gaiman Reading Agency Lecture 2013

See also the text of the speech from The Reading Agency. Source: YA Books and More.

This Week at Cynsations

With Deborah Halverson and her sons at the new Central Library

More Personally

Apologies, Cynsational readers! This week’s roundup is abbreviated as I’ve been in touring around with One Book, One San Diego (for Kids!). However, I am attempting to make up for it with pictures of adorable koalas, a baby giraffe, and a cougar (see below) from the San Diego Zoo.

Congratulations to chidren’s author-illustrator Katie Davis on the sale of her first young adult novel to Diversion Books. Note: Katie began working on this story at WriteFest, a novel writing workshop at the Leitich Smith home in 2005.

Thank you to librarian Julie Salvato & Lampasas High School for your hospitality during last week’s school visit!

Personal Links:

Even More Personally

Highlights of this week included a visit to the San Diego Zoo.

Not a real bear

Koala cuteness

Giraffes come in small, medium and large.

Cougar, panther, puma, inspiration.

Cynsational Events

Cynthia Leitich Smith joins featured authors at the Texas Book Festival Oct. 26 and Oct. 27 at the State Capitol Building in Austin. She will speak at the “Girl Power(s)” session with Kami Garcia, P.J. Hoover and Jessica Khoury from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Oct. 26 in Capitol Extension Room E2.014, with a book signing immediately following. Moderator: Sean Petrie.

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith at the Illumine Award Nov. 8 at the downtown Hilton in Austin, Texas.

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith at the Kidlitosphere Conference Nov.  9 in Austin, Texas. Check out the program and register today!

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.

Event Photo Report: One Book, One San Diego (for Kids!)

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

I’m in San Diego, celebrating my first book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying Hwa-Hu (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) in conjunction with One Book, One San Diego (For Kids!). The school-and-library programs consisted of author talk, reading, and performances by the Soaring Eagle Dancers.

Huge thanks to Clare at KPBS & everyone with One Book, One San Diego!

Huge thanks to Sam Bond, for coordinating my author photo on the fly!
New San Diego Central Library (thank you, children’s librarian, Bill!)

Welcome to the YA section (sort of!)

Scribbled on the shelves

The YA section

On the 9th floor with Greg Leitich Smith

Soaring Eagle (jingle) Dancers

Soaring Eagle Dancers

Soaring Eagle (grass) Dancers

Soaring Eagle Dancers
Thank you, Rosa Parks Elementary!

At Rosa Parks Elementary
Soaring Eagle (shawl) Dancers — bravo & thank you to the whole troop!

Thank you, Lemon Grove Branch Library

Can’t resist one more dance photo!

Hooray! Thank you, San Diego!

Guest Post: Ron Bates on Tips for Writing Humor for Kids

By Ron Bates
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

A couple of years ago, my niece’s teacher invited me to come speak to her second-grade class about poetry. Since I’d recently put out a book of children’s poems and enjoy being the tallest one in the room, I said I’d be honored.

“I’m Chloe’s uncle and I like to write poetry,” I told the kids. “I understand your teacher has been reading you some of my poems this week.”

They nodded.

“Do the poop one,” a kid in the front row said.


“The poop one,” he repeated. “Read the poem about poop.”

“The poop one!” the class then screamed with a force that sent me retreating to the chalkboard. Apparently, you only get so many opportunities to use this word in an educational setting and they wanted to make the most of it.

I gulped.

Before I go any further, I should explain that I did not write a poem about “poop.” I wrote a poem about Rice Krispies. But all that mattered to the sweet little faces in front of me was that the rhyme scheme included a reference to every child’s first four-letter word.

“The Poop One,” as it is now universally known, goes like this:

The baby ate the Rice Krispies
The baby ate every bite
The baby ate the Rice Krispies
We hope that he’ll be all right.

We wouldn’t mind if he’d eaten the Pebbles
Or tore open a box of Froot Loops
But he ate the Rice Krispies
And when he drinks milk
He snaps. Then he crackles. Then poops.

Clearly, this poem is a prime example of the first rule of humor writing: when in doubt, use funny words.

It’s not my rule. It goes back to prehistoric times when some cave comic decided to call that noise he made with his armpit “Pffffft.” Ah, the classics.

This concept is explained perfectly by aging vaudevillian Willy Clark in Neil Simon’s play, “The Sunshine Boys.”

“Words with a ‘k’ in it are funny,” Willy says. “Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a K. L’s are not funny.”

If you’ve ever seen the movie, you know this line is hysterical but not because of what it says — it’s because of who says it. Even now, even though I’m reading it off a page, I hear the words in Walter Matthau’s voice. That alone makes me laugh.

Simon’s genius is not in writing punchlines, it’s in creating real, funny characters. And that, my friends, is the dirty little secret of humor writing — half the work is done by your audience.

Make a character likable and funny and the reader will laugh because they expect to laugh. More importantly, they want to laugh.

When I started writing How to Make Friends and Monsters (Zondervan, 2013), I struggled with the first page for days. It seemed flat. That’s when it hit me: I’d written it in third-person.

The individual telling the story was some nameless, unknown narrator describing life and kids and monsters at a place called Dolley Madison Middle School. Who was this person? Were they funny? Old? Young? British? Was it a man? Did he have a mustache? Was it a woman? Did she have a mustache? I didn’t know.

And if I didn’t know, neither would anyone else.

So I started over. This time, I let my main character, Howard Boward, tell his story. It changed everything. Howard was someone I knew–I could see his face, I could hear his voice. I understood he had a quirky sense of humor and a tendency to be the butt of his own jokes. But the best part was that Howard is one of those kids who says things and, for some reason, they just come out funny.

Now, obviously, every humorous story doesn’t have to be told in first-person. But even a nameless narrator needs a personality. So my advice to humor writers is to give us a wonderful, likable storyteller who could read a phonebook and still make us laugh.

And if that doesn’t work, write “poop.”

Guest Post: Sarah Aronson on “It’s Okay If You Don’t Like My Unlikeable Protagonist”

Sarah’s cover story from Melissa Walker

By Sarah Aronson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Last August, editor Cheryl Klein shared her thoughts on likeability and protagonists. She wrote, “In the children’s and YA world, we can sometimes be so anxious that children or teenagers will like reading or like one particular book that we make likeability a requirement, forgetting that most children and young adults are born with a taste for honesty before a taste for sweetness….”

She suggested that unlikeability is a tool in the writer’s toolbox.
Not two weeks later, Anna Gunn, the actress who plays Skyler White in Breaking Bad wrote about the vitriolic responses to her morally compromised character

Right away, I heard from some of my students. We love talking about things like this, especially since they knew my new novel, Believe (Carolrhoda Lab, 2013), featured an unlikeable protagonist. They wanted to know: what actually makes a character unlikeable? When creating an unlikeable protagonist, are there unique tools or obligations that must be accessed and considered—or is it is no different than creating an appealing character? Can a character be too unlikeable? Or are unlikeable protagonists simply characters with flaws we can forgive? Does the writer of YA fiction have a particular responsibility to offer hope?

Many writers have discussed these questions already. I have notebooks full of advice to prove it! And most of them urge us to keep the characters likeable and appealing—to make sure they are not entirely loathsome.

It’s not bad advice. A likeable protagonist draws the reader in. We cheer for a likeable character to succeed. As Cheryl remarked, some level of likeability is often the key to selling a story.
There are times when I love books like this. I love reading stories where the human spirit triumphs.

But just like Cheryl, that’s not all I want to read. Most of the time, I prefer “different” over “beautiful.” I want to read stories that offer me something much less safe and perhaps, a little more real or edgy with lots of moral ambiguity. As a reader, I enjoy entering the world of someone who in real life I would despise, despicable characters, characters that are not all that nice, complete with endings that leave me more unnerved than content.

Books like Tenderness by Robert Cormier (Delacorte, 1997), The Rag and Bone Shop, also by Cormer (Delacorte, 2001), Shattering Glass by Gail Giles (Roaring Brook, 2002), The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp (Knopf, 2008), Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt (St. Martin’s, 2013), Family by Micol Ostow (Egmont, 2011), and How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr (Little, Brown, 2011).

These books challenge my view of the world and my comfort zone. They make me squirm. Best of all, they make me think. They stay with me.

That’s what I set out to do when I wrote Believe.

From the beginning, I knew Believe was not going to be an easy story to write. Its themes, faith and fame, are as volatile as the character I envisioned. As I sat in my director’s chair, I envisioned how a girl would live her life under the spotlight, even though she had not accomplished anything.

After reading about a number of real life sole survivors, I decided to make my character the survivor of a suicide bombing. I knew this was sticky territory, but the intersection of faith and fame interested me. It troubled me. I decided I might as well jump all the way in.

Let’s just say: my first readers begged me to make Janine nicer. Smarter. Kinder to her friends. The problem was: the nicer she was, the less tension she created and the less my themes mattered.

Worse, she became less authentic. Her story unraveled. I think this is how you know you have to take the leap and let a protagonist be unlikeable. Nice Janine’s story became didactic. Nice Janine’s story was boring. This book only made sense if she was difficult, if she was struggling, if she wasn’t worried about teaching anyone anything. Like a lot of real life celebrities, she attracted scorn.

When I look back at the journey, creating an unlikeable character required the same intention and attention as likeable characters. I asked the same questions (see below). I had to step back and reimagine the plot many times.

That said, I don’t think Janine’s story would ever have found its way into print if it hadn’t been for the support of my editor, Andrew Karre.

From the moment he read this story, he understood Janine. He allowed me to take chances with likeablity—to bend the rules. He pushed me to create a character that might not be likeable but was more interesting and authentic.

With his support and inspiration, I challenged myself to write about a character with lots of real rough edges, a famous girl who lived in our world right now: a world of rubberneckers. In front of the public eye, she is resentful that God watched her suffer. She is selfish. She is often shallow. And yet, she is admired. She is a survivor. She has goals. Friends. Beliefs of her own.

In this book, I answered my questions: what if a girl who was famous for nothing suddenly thought she had healing powers? What might happen to a girl like that? What if everyone in her world wanted something from her?
The result?

An honest, unlikeable character. The only problem? I’m still a writer who, like everyone else, would really like to be liked.

Today, many of us are preoccupied with our images and what others say about our work. We know that in today’s world—Janine’s world—we have access to what our readers think of our creative decisions. Here is the big problem: if we let it infect us too much, it will hurt our work.

It takes nerve to write unlikeable protagonists. You need to be brave to write this way, to risk polarizing readers. When you write a book with an unlikeable protagonist, you will face the criticism of readers who want to protect young minds, even though I have seen time and time again: young minds don’t need that. They are ready to read what they choose.

Like me, some of them want real. They want honest. Perhaps, even, they want to spend some time in a body that they would never want to be in real life.

I hope readers will talk about Janine and our own role in the stories of people like her. (The great people at Lerner came up with an amazing discussion guide.)

When I wrote this story, discussion and conversation was what I hoped for.
So it’s okay with me if readers don’t like her. I just hope that everyone who looks at this book will find her interesting and complicated. I hope they question her actions—and the trends in our world.

I hope her story gives readers something to talk about.

Craft Corner

Here are the questions I ask to understand my characters, especially the protagonist.

They aren’t unique to unlikeable narrators. But without these questions, I could not have moved forward.

  1. What does your character want? Why? What is your character’s controlling belief? What are her/his mottoes? How have they backfired?
  2. How does your character respond to stress? What is she/he obsessed with?
  3. What is your character’s main occupation? Who is she/he? And most important, who is she/he in you?

Guest Post: Marissa Moss on Creston Books – a New Children’s Press is Born

By Marissa Moss
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

As a long-time successful author-illustrator, why start a new press? The same thing that sparked my career as a writer: a love of children’s literature.

When I wrote Amelia’s Notebook in 1995, the format was too quirky for traditional publishers. Where would libraries shelve it, with picture books or middle-grade fiction? How would booksellers respond to this odd handwritten book with its jumble of words and pictures?

Not willing to take a risk on something so unfamiliar, every major publisher passed. But Tricycle, the children’s imprint of small Ten Speed Press, took it on. Now with more than twenty titles in the series (published by Simon & Schuster after a stint with American Girl), it’s hard to imagine that books like The Diary of a Wimpy Kid or The Dork Diaries would be around without Amelia.

When Tricycle Press died last year, the children’s book community lost a vibrant voice willing to take creative risks. That absence became the genesis for Creston Books, a children’s press dedicated to strong story-telling, whatever form it takes.

I started with authors I knew, asking for books they’d long wanted to write. It didn’t take long for word to spread and submissions poured in. The first list, Fall 2013, includes two debut authors and two established ones, a mix I’d like for future lists.

Authors who’d given up on New York (or felt New York had given up on them) are returning to print with Creston. New authors, daunted by the high gates of major houses, are finding a home.

All four of the titles on our debut list have garnered glowing reviews, including a Kirkus star for Rotten Pumpkin: A Tale of Rot in 15 Voices by David Schwartz and Dwight Kuhn. The title alone tells you clearly – this is not your average picture book.

It’s daunting to learn this side of publishing, but also exciting. I’m seeing the sausage being made, but rather than feeling appalled, I’m broadening my understanding of what makes a good book.

As I write my own stories, that sense creeps into my work now. Not during the messy first draft, when I just pour my ideas out, without worrying about any possible audience, listening only to what the characters and plot demand, but later, during the many revisions.

Then I start thinking of how would a reader react, a reviewer? How would a salesperson pitch this book? And that kind of responsibility isn’t a bad thing.

I’m also aware more than ever of the importance of good, old-fashioned editing. In these days of blogs and self-publishing, anyone can be a writer.

Whether they’re a good writer depends on how much revising they do, whether they have a writers’ group to provide essential editorial guidance, and whether they’re humble enough to admit that writing is hard work and that there’s no such thing as a perfect first draft.

Which is why there will always be a place for publishers. At their best, they provide assurance of some kind of quality control, of care taken so that the book you read is the writer’s best possible version.

One of Creston’s debut books is a first book for the author. Called Lola Goes to Work: a 9-5 Therapy Dog, the picture book introduces Lola, a tiny terrier with dreams of a big job.

If Lola can make it in a world of Great Danes and Labradors, so can anybody who’s feeling like a runt.

These days I feel a little like Lola, a small dog with a very big job. But I’m proud of each book and excited to work on the Spring 2014 list. Like Lola, I know I can do it.

Launch party for Creston Books at Books Inc.

Author-Illustrator Video: Eric Carle Discusses The Artist Who Painted a Horse

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out this video of Eric Carle discussing his picture book, The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse (Puffin/Penguin. From the promotional copy:

A brilliant Eric Carle picture book for the artist in us all!

Every child has an artist inside them, and this vibrant new picture book from Eric Carle will help let it out. 

The artist in this book paints the world as he sees it, just like a child. There’s a red crocodile, an orange elephant, a purple fox and a polka-dotted donkey. 

More than anything, there’s imagination. 

Filled with some of the most magnificently colorful animals of Eric Carle’s career, this tribute to the creative life celebrates the power of art.