Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Jeff Crosby on the release of Rockabilly Goats Gruff (Holiday House, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Three rockin’ billy goats turn a grumpy troll into the biggest rockabilly fan at the honky-tonk, putting a fun twist on the classic fairytale.

Through the hills and hollows, three Billy goats are rollin’ to a gig at Nanny Gruff’s Shimmy Shack, home of the best barbecue and boogie music around. But to get there, the billies have to cross a bridge…and deal with a mean old troll. 

As each billy zooms up, the troll threatens to smash his instrument to smithereens. But that old square gets a heaping surprise when the rockin’ billies take him to Nanny’s, where he tastes her famous barbecue and hears that rockabilly beat. 

Before long, the troll hits the dance floor to rock and roll at every Rockabilly gig from that night on!

More News

Lessons from a Debut Author’s Year by Megan Shepherd from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: “It’s just the beginning of a new journey, one fraught with even more perils. Instead of competing with other aspiring writers, now you’re competing with other published authors, many of which are more successful, smarter, and better at marketing than you are.”

The School of Happy Endings by Anna Elliott from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “One viewpoint I’ve heard sometimes is that happy endings are less ‘realistic’ than sad ones. Which honestly strikes me as doubly odd– because no ending is especially realistic, really.”

11 Tips for Making a Book Trailer by Stina Lindenblatt from QueryTracker Blog. Peek: “Whether you need one is up to you. They can be an effective method to promote your book, or they can be a waste of money with no returns. If you do decide to make one, here are some tips for making the most out of yours.”

The Art of Aging and Writing from Marion Dane Bauer. Peek: “That narrowing has given me power, exactly the way flowing water becomes a torrent when confined between banks . . . so long as the banks don’t become so confining as to form a dam. We are fortunate that there are so many ways to keep the stream flowing.” See also Marion on The Origins of Inspiration.

Writer Diagnosis: Failure to Thrive by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “The opposite of those symptoms would include feeling hope, having mental and emotional vitality when you write, being energized by your writing, delighting in your writing life, and feeling ‘alive’ when you are able to get in the flow! That would define ‘flourishing.'” See also Writing Fears & Doubts: See You Later, Alligator by Bruce Black from wordswimmer and Don’t Quit Before the Miracle by Robin Constantine from Adventures in YA Publishing.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words: On Screen and On the Stage by Dawn Lairamore from Project Mayhem. Peek: “I think the subtlety of this is just brilliant. Pages and pages of dialogue replaced by less than thirty seconds at the most—and the tension in the marriage is still perfectly conveyed by the scene!”

Inscription: A Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for Teens: “We actively seek diversity for our stories — strong female characters, characters of color, and characters of a wide range of ethnicities, religions, sexualities, gender identities, and abilities. All authors deserve to be paid for their work, so we pay professional rates for all the fiction we publish.”

Reasons and Methods of Killing Characters–and One Reason Not To from Elizabeth Spann Craig. Peek: “Does this character have star quality?”

10 Rules for Rewriting History by Jennifer Cody Epstein from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “I’ve now published two novels of historical fiction, and am just starting on my third. Here are some ‘rules of thumb’ that have helped me in the process…”

Walking: A Universal Drug for Creativity by Katherine Longshore from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: “My first reaction was: Are you insane? I’m on a deadline, here! But then I closed my document, shut down my computer, and went for a walk.” See also The Health Hazards of Sitting by Bonnie Berkowitz and Patterson Clark from The Washington Post.

How Morals and Basic Needs Influence a Character’s Positive Traits by Becca Puglisi from Elizabeth Spann Craig. Peek: “Every character—protagonist, villain, sidekick, mentor, etc.—lives by a moral code. His beliefs about right and wrong are deeply embedded in his psyche and will influence his decisions, day-to-day actions, the way he treats people, how he spends his free time—they will impact every area of his life, including his personality.” See also Talent and Skills Entry: Hospitality by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers.

Cover Stories: Torn by Stephanie Guerra from Melissa C. Walker. Peek: “I also like the model because I can see both Latina and Eastern European characteristics in her face, and Stella is biracial Mexican and Croatian…”

VCFA/Goldblatt: Angela Johnson Scholarship for New Students of Color or Ethnic Minority by Anna J. Boll from Creative Chaos. Peek: “…the agent Barry Goldblatt established a scholarship in honor of Angela Johnson, the critically acclaimed African American poet and author of more than 40 books for children and young adults. She has won the Coretta Scott King Award three times, the Michael L. Printz Award, and received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003. Her work explores the lives of characters of color of all ages, in historical and contemporary settings and celebrates a myriad of experiences growing up in America.”

Approaching Large Revisions from Elizabeth Spann Craig. Peek: “This is a process for someone who really, really needs a process or has become frozen because there is so much to do and she doesn’t know where to start. It could work for someone with really limited time and a demanding day job. Or someone who has tried other methods without success.” See also Eight Tips to Get Your Manuscript to the Finish Line by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers.

The Craft of Writing: Writing a Series by Mindee Arnett from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: “…given the fact that the early books are already in print by the time I’m writing the later ones, this presents all kinds of challenges in creating a cohesive story arc.”

The Diversity 101 ALA Midwinter Conversation by Connie Hsu from CBC Diversity. Peek: “[Editors’] Fear of criticism should not be one of the challenges in bringing good, diverse books to the world, and while we are always aiming for authenticity and top-notch literary value, sometimes we have to step back and relax a little.” See also Industry Q&A with Publisher Donna Bray from CBC Diversity. Peek: “…I can’t help but look back with chagrin on the many beautiful, original, well-reviewed books I’ve published in this vein which have languished. Discoverability, an issue for so many books, seems to be that much more of a hurdle when it comes to diverse books.”

Revising Historical Friction by Laurel Synder from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “As a kid I could handle any amount of bullying, aloneness, or family drama, because I had one real best friend. One person who thought I was the most awesome person in the world. Even if my jeans were cheap and I was no good at kickball.”

Authors Are Real People from Mette Ivie Harrison. Peek: “Authors whose books are made into TV shows or movies likely do not get any say in the adaptation. Complaining to them is not only hurtful, but useless.”

Do We Need Bridge Characters in Global Books for Kids? by Mitali Perkins from Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “…this literary premise of needing ‘bridge’ characters may be the reason why (a) global books don’t sell well without a big gatekeeper push, and (b) I got rejected for years and years because I was submitting books without them.” See also 10 Great Resources for Writing Cross-Culturally from Tu Books.

Book Promotion on Twitter from Janet Reid, Literary Agent. Peek: “Subtle promotion is a better strategy for the long haul. And Twitter is long haul promotion.” Source: QueryTracker Blog.

Agent-judged Pitch + Page Contest from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: “We will take the first 100 Middle Grade/Young Adult/New Adult entries submitted after noon on Feb. 15.”

Children’s-YA Book Awards & Lists

ALA Youth Media Awards from the American Library Association. Note: official mega round-up with photos and video. See also Top 10 Things You May Not Know About the Newbery by Monica Edinger from Nerdy Book Club and The Givers: What It Takes to Serve on the Newbery, Caldecott Committees by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal.

Amazing Audio Books for Young Adults 2014 from YALSA.

2014 Recipients of the American Indian Youth Literature Award from Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature. Winners: Caribou Song by Tomson Highway, illustrated by John Rombough (Fifth House); How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Novel by Tim Tingle (RoadRunner); and Killer of Enemies by Joseph Bruchac (Tu). Honor Books: Danny Blackgoat: Navajo Prisoner by Tim Tingle (7th Generation) and If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth (Scholastic).

2014 Amelia Bloomer List from the Feminist Task force of the American Library Association’s Social Responsibility Round Table.

2014 Notable Children’s Books from the Association of Library Service to Children.

Bo at Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill Wins Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction from The Horn Book.

Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children from the National Council of Teachers of English. Winner: A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Knopf).

Outstanding Science Trade Books from the National Science Teachers Association.

Cheers to Austinite Mary Sullivan on her Geisel & Notable!

2014 Rainbow List — GLBTQ Books for Kids & Teens from the Rainbow Project Committee.

2014 Sydney Taylor Book Awards Announced by Association of Jewish Libraries: Laurel Snyder, Catia Chien (The Longest Night: A Passover Story), Patricia Polacco (The Blessing Cup), and Neal Bascomb (The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi) Named Gold Winners from The Whole Megillah. Click for details and Honor Books.

2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults from YALSA.

Lemony Snicket’s The Dark Takes 2014 Charlotte Zolotow Award by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Click for Honor Books and Highly Commended titles.

See We’ll Never Know (post-award speculation) from The Horn Book and Book Awards: Four Questions from the Margins by Mitali Perkins from Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “Do any of the winning books or honorees feature a main character belonging to a group that has endured oppression in North America due to race or culture?” Note: look beyond those awards tied to ethnicity/culture.

See also ALA Youth Media Awards You May Not See Elsewhere from Crazy QuiltEdi, Thoughts on the Newbery This Year by Monica Edinger from Educating Alice (a former committee member finds out what it’s like to dream about “the call”) and Medal Worship: How I Stuck My Head in the Clouds and Got Crushed from Don Tate. Peek: “…my thoughts will also be will be with those who are predicted to win, but ultimately will not. Ever think about those people? Here is my story…”

2014 Asia Pacific American Award for Literature

Given by the Asian/Pacific American Library Association:

Source: 2014 ALA Midwinter Cognotes. Thanks to Rich in Color and Angie Manfredi. Note: broken out because an online listing for the award was challenging to link.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Releases Feb. 11!

Whew! How’s this for a roundup? It’s been a huge week in children’s-YA publishing. Congratulations to the award winners and honorees! Thanks to the committee members who made it all possible.

FYI, it’s also eleven days until the North American release of Feral Curse and the paperback edition of Feral Nights from Candlewick Press. I’m not too proud to ask for love–go crazy with those pre-orders!

For those wondering if I’m ever coming out of the deadline cave, I’m pleased to report that I’m printing Feral Pride for this weekend’s read aloud before sending it to my editor early next week. So there.

What else? Each year Cynsations features debut children’s-YA authors and
illustrators in a New Voices/Visions interview series, which kicked off
again yesterday with Len Vlahos’s interview about The Scar Boys (Egmont, 2014).

Invitations to participate are extended to members of cooperative groups for first timers. It’s a way to reward them for becoming active in the children’s-YA writing-art community and to introduce them to fellow professional creatives in the industry.

Just for fun! Austin Zoo & Animal Sanctuary (not a real cow)

However, if you are a trade published debut author/illustrator and not involved in one of those organizations, I still welcome you to let me know if you’re interested in taking part.

Please send an email with your name, title, publisher, publication date and a link to more information. I’ll take a look and get back to you. If your debut title was released in 2013, I still consider that new, too.

Note: While independently published authors and illustrators occasionally appear at Cynsations, they’re not typically featured in conjunction with this particular series.

Interested in African-American children’s-YA literature? Check out: Shining the Spotlight: 28 Days Later 2014 Honorees from The Brown Bookshelf. Be sure to follow the celebration next month! On a related note, check out Top 10 Black History Books for Youth from Booklist.

In case you missed it, trending all over the Web is “The Fault in Our Stars” official movie trailer, based on the YA novel by John Green. And if you skipped it above, reconsider reading Revising Historical Friction by Laurel Synder. It’s the link that lingers with me this week.

Oh, and check out author Heather “Auntie Heather” Brewer’s new hair and editor Cheryl Klein’s photos from her honeymoon in India.

And for something off-topic, Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad won’t make you want beer. It’ll make you want a puppy and a horse. Or a puppy and several horses.

Congratulations to Janet S. Fox for signing with Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency and to Erin for signing Janet! 

Janet (far left) with me, Greg & Bethany Hegedus!

Interview with Bestselling Feral Series Author Cynthia Leitich Smith by Henry L. Herz from Kidlit, Fantasy & Sci Fi: Feed Your Head. Peek: “For me, it’s been a treat to interact with authors who were publishing when I was a young reader. Judy Blume once gave me a pep talk at a writing conference. I had a short story featured in the same anthology as Beverly Cleary. Magic.”

Even More Personally

More from a recent research trip to Austin Zoo & Animal Sanctuary (it’s a rescue zoo).

One of these is not a bear.

I’ve set a scene in Feral Pride (2015) outside this enclosure.

Personal Links

Cover Reveal (Chronicle, 2014)

Cynsational Events

The 2014 Austin SCBWI Writers & Illustrators Working Conference will be held Feb. 8 to Feb. 9 at the Marriott South Austin. Keynote speakers: YA author Matt de la Peña and author-illustrator Kelly Murphy.

Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers will be held June 16 to June 21 at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah. Keynote speaker: James Dashner; faculty includes Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith. Learn about the WIFYR Fellowship Award.

New Voice: Len Vlahos on The Scar Boys

Meet Len on his ongoing book tour!

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Len Vlahos is the first-time author of The Scar Boys (Egmont, 2014). From the promotional copy:

A severely burned teenager. A guitar. Punk rock. The chords of a rock ‘n’ roll road trip in a coming-of-age novel that is a must-read story about finding your place in the world…even if you carry scars inside and out.

In attempting to describe himself in his college application essay–help us to become acquainted with you beyond your courses, grades, and test scores–Harbinger (Harry) Jones goes way beyond the 250-word limit and gives a full account of his life.

The first defining moment: the day the neighborhood goons tied him to a tree during a lightning storm when he was eight years old, and the tree was struck and caught fire. Harry was badly burned and has had to live with the physical and emotional scars, reactions from strangers, bullying, and loneliness that instantly became his everyday reality.

The second defining moment: the day in eighth grade when the handsome, charismatic Johnny rescued him from the bullies and then made the startling suggestion that they start a band together. Harry discovered that playing music transported him out of his nightmare of a world, and he finally had something that compelled people to look beyond his physical appearance. 

Harry’s description of his life in his essay is both humorous and heart-wrenching. He had a steeper road to climb than the average kid, but he ends up learning something about personal power, friendship, first love, and how to fit in the world. 

While he’s looking back at the moments that have shaped his life, most of this story takes place while Harry is in high school and the summer after he graduates.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2014, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

The journey from the beginning of the concept behind The Scar Boys to its anticipated publication on January 21, 2014, has been long. Really long. Really, really long. Longer than the Thirty Years War. Longer than the entirety of recorded human history. Longer than the Protozoan Age, and I’m not even really sure what that is.

Okay, I might be exaggerating (a little), but you get the idea. Now let me give you specifics:

“Woofing Cookies”

I dropped out of NYU film school in the mid 1980s to play guitar in a touring punk-pop band called “Woofing Cookies.” We put out our own record, booked a coast-to-coast tour, bought a van, and off we went.

Eleven days into the two-month tour, the van—a Ford Econoline that we had, for reasons now long forgotten, named Barney—broke down near Spartanburg, South Carolina. We used what little money we had left to have Barney towed to the site of our next gig in Athens, Georgia. We wound up canceling the tour and living in Athens for months while we worked to earn enough money to get the van fixed and go home.

Playing in a touring band and getting stranded in Georgia was a transformative period in my life, and I spent many years trying to tell that story. I wrote mediocre screenplays, not very relevant essays, and even one meandering novel. None of it worked and the project went on a shelf, both literally and metaphorically.

Photo by Kristen Gilligan

Flash forward to 2007. I was at a baseball game in Los Angeles with some bookseller friends (I work in the book industry). One of the people in our group was Allison Hill, now President and CEO of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. Allison, it turned out, was a writer too, and she and I spent most of the game talking about writing.

Something in me clicked, and when I got back to my hotel that night, I started writing a story, not about Woofing Cookies, but about a disfigured boy who is saved by music. The experience of the touring band became the backdrop, not the centerpiece of the story.

It was the magic moment I needed. This wasn’t my story at all, this new story belonged to Harbinger Jones and his friends. And it worked.

Sort of.

In early drafts, The Scar Boys was an adult novel. Forty year-old Harry is on his way to a reunion of the Scar Boys (the fictional band in the book) and is recalling his time on the road. The chapters alternated between past and present.

One publisher was very interested in the manuscript and for a brief moment, it looked like it might actually get published. But it was not to be. That episode was followed by a series of really wonderful and flattering rejection letters. Really. They were wonderful. And flattering!

I was getting ready to tuck the book away in the back of my sock drawer when Kristen, my wife and partner in all crimes and misdemeanors, said to me “why do you insist on jamming that forty year-old character into your young adult novel?”

“Young adult novel?”

“Yes, young adult novel.”

It took three days of me grousing at the idea to realize that Krissy was absolutely right. Harry’s story was very much a story about and for teens. I dusted off the draft, and started writing anew.

Finally, in late 2011, I had a draft for my agent, the wonderful Sandra Bond, to sell, and sell she did. And so the journey ends.


Len’s workspace

As noted earlier, I have spent my professional career working in the book industry, most of it at the American Booksellers Association, a trade group representing the interests of indie bookstores.

When Egmont signed the book in spring of 2012, they wanted to wait and launch the book at a major indie bookseller conference held each winter. It was too late for the 2013 event, so January 2014 was targeted as the publication date.

Given my relationships with indie booksellers, it was the right idea, but it also meant waiting almost two years from contract to publication. Yikes!

But now, finally, this journey that started when Ronald Reagan was still President, that started when I was still a teen myself, is finally and truly over. Almost.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

Not being a big fan of horror as a genre, I’m not usually drawn to books by Stephen King. I do, however, love his book On Writing (Scribner, 2000). I took a lot of sage advice away from that tome, the best of all being to “write every day.”

Let me say that again. Write. Every. Day. It is, for me, the second most important principle in the craft of writing. And it’s easier said than done.

When I was writing the original draft of The Scar Boys, I was getting up early in the morning and writing before work. It was a regimented, predicable schedule and I followed it religiously.

I have a lot of writer friends who work when inspiration hits, what I think of as binge writing. I’ve never understood that. If I don’t write on a schedule, I feel too much pressure to produce when inspiration finally finds me. Working at the same time every day seems to tune my brain to a kind of literary, temporal harmonic. I am the writing analog of Pavlov’s dog. (Woof woof.)

After my kids were born, and my mornings were no longer my own, I floundered for a bit. I tried writing late at night, but too often I fell asleep with my computer on my lap. That’s when I discovered the commute.

I take a train every day from Stamford, Connecticut to New York City for my day job (which is still in the book trade). The ride is about an hour. It’s quiet, I have no access to the Internet, and no one calls me. My time is completely my own. At first I was self-conscious about people looking over my shoulder, but that anxiety was short lived. I now write five days a week on the way to work, and I love it. It’s an incredible way to start a day. (In fact, I’m writing the answers to these questions on the train! We just passed New Rochelle.)

Will this work for everyone? Am I saying you should write on a train? No. Well, not unless you want to. The point is that you need to find the time and environment that suits you best. And whatever that environment is, write every day.

As for weekends, I tend to edit when I can find time, and truth be told, it’s not nearly as productive. And that brings me to number three on my no longer secret list of writing principles: “Don’t look back.”

When I sit down to write a story, I try very hard to push forward without looking back. If I try to make every word perfect, nothing ever gets done. At the start of each new day, I may re-read the last few hundred words, just to reacquaint myself with how the story was flowing, but even that small indulgence can pull me off track if I’m not careful; it’s too easy to spend too much time wordsmithing. One of my favorite bosses, who was really more of a mentor than a boss, once told me that the “perfect is the enemy of the good.” I subscribe that theory.

“But Len,” you might be asking, “shouldn’t you want the work to be, well, you know, perfect?”

Yes, which takes us to number four: “All good writing is rewriting.”

Once I get through a draft, I go back to the beginning and start editing. I take two or three passes on the computer, then I print out a copy and edit it on paper. I rework parts of the story wholesale—the ending may change (beginnings are easy, endings are hard!), old characters are abandoned, new characters are born, timelines are examined. It’s an invigorating and sometimes excruciating process. But it’s where a story really comes to life.

So that’s when and how I write. As for all the other things one needs to do to build a career as a writer—and holy crap there are a lot of them!—thank God for evenings. After Kristen and our kids have gone to bed, I answer email, work on my author website, engage in conversations about books, write for blogs (like this one!), and play the guitar. Play the guitar? Yes, play the guitar. The Scar Boys is a rock and roll coming of age story, and my guitar is coming with me on the book tour.

The bottom line is that writing and all that goes with it is a time consuming endeavor. And it’s hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it. (Cliché alert!) Unless you know something (or someone) I don’t, if you want food and clothes and health care and a place to live, you’re going to need a job while you’re starting your writing career. But fret not, you can do both. It’s all a matter of discipline.

So thanks for reading—

Daddy’s groupie

“Len, WAIT!”


“Okay Mr. Smarty Pants, we’re on to you. You told us your second, third, and fourth principles of writing, but what’s number one.”

Good for you, Grasshopper, give yourself a point for paying attention. No, give yourself two, because the number one skill for any writer to master—for any human being to master—is to listen.

That’s it. Just listen. Stop talking and listen. Hell, stop writing and listen.

Listen to the people you know and really try to understand what they’re saying. If you and they disagree, listen harder.

Listen to people you don’t know, and try to hear the rhythm in their conversation.

Rhythm and music are hidden around every corner and if you listen hard enough, you can hear them.

Listen to the ambient noise of the world—trains and traffic and wind and helicopters and seagulls and air conditioners and everything else. Stop, open your ears, and let the world come to you. It has a lot to say.

Cynsational Notes

Check out Len’s current tour cities, dates and details.

Video: Children’s-YA Authors Read Negative Customer Comments

Marc Tyler Nobleman

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Marc Tyler Nobleman invited children’s-YA authors (including several of my friends) to read from customer comments (not professional reviews) about their books on the Internet.

Here’s the result! It’s all in fun. You’ll notice that most of these folks are well-established pros, which no doubt gives them plenty of experience in processing this sort of thing. On a related note, some of you may want to check out this link:

An Open Love Letter to Debut Authors About Hurtful Online Reviews by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Cynsations. Peek: “Negative reviews in general don’t matter in the long run, let alone mean-spirited ones. Besides, not every voice is of equal/any influence. In particular, anyone calling themselves ‘anonymous’ is way at the bottom of the movers-and-shakers list.”

Note: these videos are for teens and grown-ups (not younger kids).

Guest Post: Elizabeth O. Dulemba on the Hollins MFA in Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books

2013 Children’s Literature programs students and faculty

By Elizabeth O. Dulemba
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I am thrilled to announce that Hollins University now offers the first and only MFA in Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books in the country.

This is in conjunction with the already established MFA in Children’s Literature and Certificate in Children’s Book Illustration programs. (I teach Design in the certificate and now the MFA program, too.)

As a writer/illustrator myself, it has been a long time wish of mine for a program like this to come into existence.

How ironic and wonderful that I help teach it as Visiting Associate Professor of Design!

Illustration students & faculty at ‘the signpost’

The program will begin in Summer 2014 and will be a marriage of the four Illustration Certificate courses currently offered, six appropriate Children’s Literature courses, one independent study in art, and a creative thesis accompanied by a critical essay situating the student’s work in the historical and critical context of children’s literature and illustration.

Sixty credits will be required, achieved during the summer semesters of six weeks each.

The program is expected to take four years to complete. (The Illustration Certificate program takes two years to complete.)

I highly recommend this program and can attest to the intellectual, inspiring, and magical environment that Hollins creates each summer on the pristine campus in Roanoke, Virginia – right in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. It is where my brain goes to expand and play among peers who happen to be some of the most successful names in children’s literature.

Cynsational Notes

Elizabeth O. Dulemba is an award-winning author/illustrator of two dozen
books, Illustrator Coordinator for the SCBWI Southern Breeze region,
and a Board Member for the Georgia Center for the Book. She teaches
creating picture books at various venues, including Hollins, and enjoys
speaking at book festivals and events. Her “Coloring Page Tuesday”
images garner over a million hits to her site annually, and she will
celebrate the release of her debut historical fiction mid-grade, A Bird on Water Street (Little Pickle Press, 2014), this May.

Hollins Campus

Crave Diversity? It’s (Partly) a Matter of Dollars & Sense

A “diverse” book edited by Donna.

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In honor of Multicultural Children’s Book Day, please direct your attention to an Industry Q&A with Publisher Donna Bray from CBC Diversity:

“…while I do agree that there ought to be more, I can’t help but look back with chagrin on the many beautiful, original, well-reviewed books I’ve published in this vein which have languished.

“Discoverability, an issue for so many books, seems to be that much more of a hurdle when it comes to diverse books.”

Make noise. Vote with your dollars. Read more.

Cynsational Notes

The American Library Association Youth Media Awards were announced this morning. At the time of this posting, online coverage is still spotty. Look for links to these and more award announcements in the upcoming weekly roundup at Cynsations.

VCFA/Goldblatt: Angela Johnson Scholarship for New Students of Color or Ethnic Minorities from Anna J. Boll at Creative Chaos. Peek: “Many people think that the answer is in enrolling more people of color at great MFA programs like VCFA. To that end, the agent Barry Goldblatt established a scholarship in honor of Angela Johnson, the critically acclaimed African American poet and author of more than 40 books for children and young adults.”

Learn more about Multicultural Children’s Book Day!

Book Trailer: If It’s Snowy and You Know It, Clap Your Paws! by Kim Norman & Liza Woodruff

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Where do writers get their ideas? Check out the story-behind-the-story book trailer for If It’s Snowy and You Know It, Clap Your Paws! (Sterling, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Kim Norman and Liza Woodruff, the team behind the delightful Ten on the Sled, have created another irresistible winter-themed romp. 

This humorous variation on the classic song “If You’re Happy and You Know It” introduces a group of adorable animals playing joyfully in the snow. They tumble on the tundra, catch snowflakes on their tongues, sculpt snowcritters, and make a frosty fort. But can they go with the flow when their wild adventure drifts in a surprising direction? 

Young readers will laugh and sing along!

Guest Post: Lee Edward Fodi on Maps, Menus & Myths: Three Techniques to Improve World Building

Griffin sleeping on a manuscript

By Lee Edward Fodi
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

“Writing fantasy is easy; you just make it all up.”

It’s something I hear all the time in my travels as an author and educator. I’m not sure if it’s meant as a slight about my chosen genre, but my response is always the same:

Writing fantasy is hard.


Because you have to make it all up.

As they say, the devil is in the details, and that’s where I think a lot of us stumble. In fact, I find that a lot of creators approach world building like they’re riverboat gamblers. They just go all-in without a lot of planning, hoping it will all just work out by the end.

It might. But I doubt it.

So, when it comes to world building, where to start? There are so many aspects to consider: language, fashion, transportation, geography . . . the list goes on. But I think the three below offer the most immediate (and fun) entry into a new world.


Drawing a map may seem obvious, but it has to be done right. It’s not just about mapping out where your characters go, but where they don’t go.

If you can figure out the boundaries of your world and force yourself to fill in all empty spaces with towns and landscape features, then you will begin to give your world some history.

Personally, when I invent a town, I invent a story to go with it, about how that name came to be. I’ve written stories for the towns such as Glum Puddle, Owl’s Hoot, and Hag’s Claw—places where none of my characters will ever go in my Kendra Kandlestar books.


Most readers want to read fantasy because they want to escape reality. And food is one thing everyone can relate to—so it seems to me that it’s an essential ingredient (pun intended!) for building a unique and imaginative environment.

The characters I have created for the Land of Een are all vegetarians, so this informs their way of life. They have a variety of foods: some quite pedestrian like carrot soup (Kendra’s favorite meal), and some that sound a bit more fun: fudgery pie, squibbles and pip, and glum pudding.

I don’t think it’s necessary to launch into an in-depth description of invented dishes (after all, you don’t want to slow down the story), but I do think that readers relish in these sort of details.

After all, you don’t need to look much further than Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans in Harry Potter for proof of that.


This is something that can really give a world weight. It’s about building history, culture, and symbolism. Essentially, it makes the world feel real. I write many legends and myths for my imagined worlds. The key here is that they usually don’t often make it word-for-word into my actual books (if at all). There are no prologues in my books (personally, I’m not sure how readers care about a myth until they understand how it connects to the protagonist). My own approach is to let the myths inform my characters along the way.

One great technique I use to help writers develop myths for their worlds is to ask them to design a crest, a flag, or coat of arms. This activity naturally prompts them to think about symbols and myths—once these things are in place, they have a platform on which to begin building a world.

In my own books, stars, braids, and owls all serve as important cultural touchstones for the characters.

Essentially, I think world building comes down to making up a series of “rules”—and then living by them. Taking the time to construct the logic of a world can take some time—but it ultimately makes the overall writing process flow more smoothly. And in the meantime, it’s just plain fun.

In Memory: Ned Vizzini

Ned’s website

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Ned Vizzini, 32, Dies; Wrote Teenage Novels by Ned Yardley from The New York Times (Dec. 20, 2013). Peek: “Ned Vizzini, a precocious and highly praised writer of popular young-adult novels that often dealt with themes of teenage anxiety and depression — and still made readers laugh — died on Thursday in Brooklyn.”

Ned Vizzini, author of ‘It’s Kind of a Funny Story,’ commits suicide at 32 by Faith Karim from CNN. Peek: “In his books, Vizzini openly talked about his struggle with depression… Vizzini started writing for New York media at 15, and published his memoir, Teen Angst? Naaah at age 19. The young author won accolades for his book, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, for its portrayal of teenage depression. His other novels included Be More Chill and The Other Normals.”

Ned Vizzini dies at 32; author wrote openly about his depression by David Colker and Carolyn Kellogg from The LA Times. Peek: “‘Everybody thinks that after you make it as an author, you’re set for life,’ he said in a 2006 interview with the Richmond (Va.) Times Dispatch. ‘But I had plenty of concerns about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. And there’s always pressure to do the next thing and to always be better.'”

Ned Vizzini dies at 32: Fans mourn It’s Kind of a Funny Story writer by Eun Kyung Kim from Today. Peek: “‘Ned was a preternatural talent — a brilliant, insightful writer and a dazzling storyteller who was one of the leading pioneers of YA literature as we know it,’ Alessandra Balzer, co-publisher of HarperCollins’ Balzer + Bray, said in a statement.”

It’s Kind of a Funny Story author Ned Vizzini dies at 32 by Hillary Busis from Entertainment Weekly.

“‘What I would like young adults to take away from It’s Kind of a Funny Story is that if you’re feeling suicidal, call a hotline,’ Vizzini said in an interview with Strength of Us, an online community developed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, after the film version of Funny Story was released. ‘Suicidal ideation really is a medical emergency and if more people knew to call the suicide hotline we’d have less suicides. One number, as related in the book, is 1-800-SUICIDE.’”

Note to Readers

My sympathies to Ned’s family, friends, and colleagues.

If you would like to share links to other memorial posts, please do so in the comments. The roundup above features mainstream media, but I’m sure there are more personal reflections on the Web.

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Making Deals with the Writing Gods by Nora Raleigh Baskin from Janni Lee Simner at Desert Dispatches. Peek: “I’m terrified I can never do it again. I will run out of ideas. I’ll be too old. My brain will rot. I won’t sell enough and no one will offer me a contract again. I’ll get such bad reviews no one will want to publish me again. It really was a fluke after all. I am fraud and fake and it’s just a matter of time before everyone figures it out.”

How to Market a Book Series by Anna Staniszewski from Literary Rambles.Peek: “When the first book comes out, there’s a lot of excitement involved, but there’s also anxiety about finding an audience.” See also The Overwhelmed Writers Two-Step Process for Staying Connected to Readers by Dan Blank from Writer Unboxed, How Do You Know Which Blogs To Tell About Your Book? by Lee Wind from The Official SCBWI Blog, and Fighting Blog Burnout: An Infographic from Jen Robinson’s Book Page.

Writing/Critique Group Rules by Claudia Mills from Smack Dab in the Middle. Peek: “…we must be doing something right, or we wouldn’t still be together two decades later, with well over a hundred published books to our credit. So what are we doing right?”

Seeking New Challenges by Betty G. Birney from Janni Lee Simner on Desert Dispatches. Peek: “It wasn’t easy to switch to writing
narrative fiction after writing in script format so long, but I finally sold a couple of picture books. Success–right? Wrong! After those two books, it was nine years before I sold another book.”

What’s the Story: Issues of Diversity and Children’s Publishing in the U.K. by Laura Atkins from E-rea. Note: Laura is a former editor at Children’s Book Press, Lee & Low, and Orchard. Much of what she says within applies to both the U.K. and U.S. markets (and includes input by me). See also Windows and Mirrors: Reading Diverse Children’s Literature by Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen from Gazillion Voices, Top 10 Native American Books for Elementary School by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children’s Literature and 2014 Kids of Color: Things are Looking Up by Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal.

Cover Reveal: Evidence of Things Not Seen by Lindsey Lane from MacTeenBooks. Note: scheduled for fall 2014; learn more about Lindsey Lane.

Scene Transitions AKA “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch” by Dave King from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “…how do you manage these transitions subtly? Remember, your critical point doesn’t have to involve your protagonist tied to the railroad tracks. It could be anything that opens up new possibilities in the story – anything that will make your readers willing to wait to see how it turns out.”

Everything I Know About Storytelling, I Learned from Soap Operas by Rosie Genova from QueryTracker Blog. Peek: “Now you may snicker, perhaps even sneer, but hear me out. For starters, understand that my work is mass market fiction, as in ‘mass appeal’—that’s the hope, anyway, of both my publisher and me. Good commercial fiction has to have mass appeal. And appealing to the masses is something that the soaps understand.”

Writing Out of Sequence by Darcy Pattison from Fiction Notes. Note: Wrapping up the Feral trilogy, this method makes perfect sense to me. See also Begin in the Muggle World: Opening Scenes.

Talents and Skills Thesaurus Entry: Wilderness Navigation by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “For a slightly more technologically advanced society, compasses, astrolabes, sextants and other tools can be used.” See also How to Build a Fictional World by Kate Messner from TEDEd.

Letting Go After Your First Manuscript Sale: A Cautionary Tale for Control Freaks from Donna Bowman Bratton. Peek: “While writing, the world on the page is mine, mine, mine! I am in control. Mwahahaha! Until I am not.” See also Donna Bowman Bratton’s Birthdayographies.

The Road to Publishing: One Take on Working with Rock-star Editor Andrew Karre by Ashley Perez from Latin@s in Kidlit. Peek: “I’ve benefited from his ability to see subterranean connections that invited development as well as other missed opportunities. So even what might have been ‘pain’ in the process invariably felt crucial to the mission of making the book what it was meant to be.” See also The Road to Publishing: a Q&A with Andrew Karre of Carolrhoda Lab.

Flying High (and Sometimes Low): The Transition to Full-time Author-Illustrator from Don Tate. Peek: “Anticipating layoffs, I went part-time. This allowed more time to focus on developing my dream. With less time in the newsroom, I could hone my speaking skills. I could develop a school visit program. I had more time to write.” See Don’s art, recently featured in “The New York Times”, and learn more about him from SoulCiti.

Kate DiCamillo Named Next National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature by Sue Corbett from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “DiCamillo plans to promote the idea of community reading with her platform, ‘Stories Connect Us.'”

After the Final No (Rejecting Rejection) by Bethany Hegedus from The Writing Barn. Peek: “We all wanted the text to be stellar. It needed to be universal and yet specific. It needed to capture Gandhi as a world leader but also as a human being, as a man who cared about his grandson and a grandson who was having trouble living up to the peacemaker’s name. This revision was my last chance.” See also Meredith Davis on Rejecting Rejection.

What Do You Want from Your Writing in 2014 and Beyond? by Dan Holloway from Jane Friedman. Peek: “Why you write is always the key to what you want from your writing.” See also 2013: A Learning Year: Managing Expectations by from Jessica Spotswood.

More Personally

Welcome back to Cynsations!

The post most on my mind this week: Battle of the Sexists (AKA Let the Self-Promotion Roll, Ladies) from Gwenda Bond. Note: she also recommends Authors, Self-Promotion & Doing It for Yourself from Saundra Mitchell at Making Stuff Up for a Living (and so do I).

I’m also still contemplating A Note on Historical Romance Sales from Courtney Milan, much of which applies to print trade publishing across the industry.

Cheers to P.J. Hoover on the paperback release of The Navel of the World (CBay, 2013) and to Nikki Loftin on the paperback release of The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy (Razorbill, 2014).

Congratulations to Akiko White, winner of the 2014 Tomi dePaola Award and to Sylvia Liu on the 2013 Lee & Low New Voices Award.

Hooray for Julie Berry and the other nominees for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards, and kudos to Ann Angel for her role in the Janis Joplin stamp. Congratulations to the VCFA MFA in C&YA winter 2014 graduating class, the Magic Ifs

Cheers to Jo Whittemore on the six-book deal for her middle grade series with HarperCollins and to Varian Johnson on the sale of To Catch a Cheat to Arthur A. Levine Books and to Donna Bowman Bratton on the sale of En Garde! Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words to Peachtree.

Congratulations to Greg Leitich Smith on the release of the audio edition of Chronal Engine (Audible, 2014). Listen to an excerpt. Look for Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn by Greg Leitich Smith (Roaring Brook) in the Macmillan Kids spring 2014 catalog.

Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Meredith Davis from Austin SCBWI. Peek: “In law school, I was sued in a case that was covered by ‘Playboy’ magazine and ended up on the front page of the ‘The New York Times.'” Note: It in no way involved me being naked.

What Do Children’s-YA Authors (Including Me!) Wish For in 2014? from Ink & Angst. 

I missed y’all! Did you miss me? (Notice how I’m wearing more color?)
My most successful gift for Greg Leitich Smith; fans of “The Big Bang Theory” will understand.

Personal Links

  • My newest personal fandom is “Firefly.”

    Harry Potter Cloaks: Quest for Invisibility Not All Fantasy

  • Real-life Hobbit House Built in Pennsylvania
  • Artist Grows Stunning Crystals on Classic Books
  • 2013 Children’s Lit: The Year in Miscellania
  • How Reading Improves Brain Function
  • Writers and Their Typewriters
  • Triumph of the English Major
  • 12 Literary Themed Restaurants and Bars Across America
  • Public Libraries are Better Beloved than Congress, Baseball & Apple Pie, Say Americans  
  • Write a House is Giving Writers Free Homes in Detroit
  • Art of The University of Michigan Law Quad
  • Might I Suggest this Doll House for Your Stay in Paris?
  • An Engineer’s Guide to Cats 2.0 
  • 5 Things Janni Lee Simner Loved About “Frozen”
  • “Sherlock” Mini Episode
  • 10 Pop-culture Robots That Shaped the Future 
  • Cynsational Events

    The 2014 Austin SCBWI Writers & Illustrators Working Conference will be held Feb. 8 to Feb. 9 at the Marriott South Austin. Keynote speakers: YA author Matt de la Peña and author-illustrator Kelly Murphy.

    Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers will be held June 16 to June 21 at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah. Keynote speaker: James Dashner; faculty includes Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith. Learn about the WIFYR Fellowship Award.