Guest Post: Eric Pinder on The X Files: Why Alphabet Books Are Not as Easy as ABC

Photograph by Katie Koster

By Eric Pinder
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

A teacher once learned the hard way not to tell his college class to write a children’s book without specifying a genre and topic. He anticipated a wonderful mix of fractured fairy tales, rhyming romps, and heroes’ journeys.

A week later, almost the entire the class turned in alphabet books instead.

“It looked easy,” they explained.

The teacher, of course, was me, and I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Alphabet books do appear as easy as ABC. A constant cast of 26 characters and a familiar, orderly structure provides writers with a ready-made template, which gives the false impression that alphabet books are the literary equivalent of connect-the-dots: A is for alphabet; E is for easy; Q is for quick.

The sad truth is that the very same template that makes alphabet books so easy is to write is precisely what makes them so challenging to write well.

Ask a hundred people to complete a connect-the-dots picture, and the result always looks much the same. But an alphabet book needs to be distinct and unique, or else there would never be a need to publish new alphabet books, and we writers would never get paid.

How’s a writer supposed to be original and, more importantly, earn enough to eat when we’re all stuck using the same 26 characters?

26 characters for your perusal

I learned the answer to that question when a helpful librarian brought me an Everest-sized pile of alphabet books. I almost needed bottled oxygen to reach the top of the stack. The expedition to the top of that mountain of books taught me a lot about what works in alphabet stories, and what doesn’t.

Climbing back down, I eagerly set out to write one of my own.

Exactly 24/26ths of the way through my plot, my pen faltered.

What the heck was I supposed to do with the X?

Cat in the Clouds (The History Press, 2009)

The biggest hurdle for writers of alphabet books, but also the greatest opportunity for originality, is the letter X. Discerning book buyers often flip right to the last few pages to see how the writer has handled the alphabet’s most troublesome letter. Fail to impress the bookstore browser with letter X, and the book gets returned to the shelf, and the starving writer’s belly keeps grumbling.

Speaking of hunger pangs, the very first English language alphabet book, The Tragical Death of An Apple Pie, circa 1840 ends in a rush, with four letters crowded onto the last page: “X, Y, Z and & — they wished for a piece in hand.”

What a cheat! But a clever cheat. The sudden rhyme on the final page, linking “hand” with “ampersand,” provides a lyrical flourish and a satisfying conclusion, like the crashing of chords at the end of a song. At least the writer didn’t resort to using The Dreaded Xylophone.

The book skips several other letters altogether, a decision that may have freed the writer from thinking up six more apple-related words, but which also limits the book’s educational value.

An incomplete alphabet is not an option in today’s competitive market . . . unless, like Mike Lester in A is for Salad (Grosset & Dunlap, 2000), you make the omissions funny.

(You can break a lot of rules if you make readers laugh.)

In A is for Salad, Mike Lester declares that “X and Y are bad letters. Never use them.” An illustration shows two men carrying off the letters in stinky garbage cans.

The lack of familiar, child-friendly X-words other than the overused “xylophone” is enough to make many writers agree.

Lester’s joke works because it doesn’t come out of the blue. The book starts with silliness and a twisting of expectations right on page one, with a picture of an alligator eating a salad. So a child listening to the book already anticipates humor.

For children too young to be in on the joke, Lester’s technique plays into the collaborative, interactive, conversational nature of picture books. The image prompts questions from the child listener, and invites the adult reader to explain that the letter A is really for alligator.

By the time the reader reaches letter X, the garbage pail gag provides a change of pace, a funny, welcome break from the expected “A is for” sentence structure.

Lisa Campbell Ernst’s The Turn-Around, Upside-Down Alphabet Book (Simon & Schuster, 2004) prompts even more child-parent collaboration, in a tactile way.

Rotate the book on all four sides, and each letter, viewed sideways and upside down, looks like three different objects. The letter A morphs into a bird’s beak and an ice-cream cone.

Best of all, Ernst cleverly sidesteps the usual problem with X. No need to delve into the dictionary for child-friendly X words or resort to the xylophone cliché. Instead, she has an easier task: name some everyday objects that just happen to look like the letter X.

While many alphabet books are “list books,” others find originality by telling a simple, unique story.

In Albert’s Alphabet by Leslie Tryon (Aladdin, 1994), the school carpenter gets a note from the principal instructing him to build an alphabet-themed walking path on the playground by the end of the day. The time crunch and the worries about whether Albert has enough material to finish his task give the story momentum, and the troublesome X doesn’t appear in the text at all. Instead, X is pushed off into the illustrations, where it shows up as a waterwheel that Albert has constructed out of pipes.

Thanks to some alphabet-related carpentry and masonry and a simple plot, the writer is spared the need to rummage through volume X of the encyclopedia for useful words.

There are only so many ways to get from A to Z, and on every path, the letter X is a hurdle that can’t be avoided. Innovation, turning the alphabet book format on its head—literally, in the case of Lisa Campbell Ernst—is a must if writers hope to create unique, twenty-first century alphabet books that distinguish themselves from the pack. The first person to use a xylophone in an alphabet picture book should have been the last.

Cynsational Notes

Originally published in May 2012, this post is the fourth most popular overall in the 10-year history of Cynsations. Past posts will be sprinkled into the schedule for the duration
of Cyn’s revision deadline.

Don’t miss Eric’s picture book, If All the Animals Came Inside, illustrated by Marc Brown (Little, Brown, 2012). From the promotional copy:

The walls would tremble. 
The dishes would break. 
Oh, what a terrible mess
we would make!

If all the animals came inside, bears would run down the stairs, kangaroos would bounce on the couch, and hippos would play hide-and-seek through the halls! Join one family’s wild romp as animals of all shapes and sizes burst through the front door and make themselves right at home.

Extraordinary collage artwork from beloved illustrator Marc Brown (creator of the bestselling Arthur book and TV series) pairs with Eric Pinder’s hilarious rhyming verse to make this the perfect picture book to read aloud again and again.

Cynsational News

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Conversation about Diversity in Children’s Literature from KQED. Click below to hear  author-illustrator Christopher Myers, author Mitali Perkins, illustrator LeUyen Pham, and, from the gatekeeper community Nina Lindsay, supervising librarian for children’s services at the Oakland Public Library, former judge on the Newbery Award selection committee, as well as Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. See also Mitali’s thoughts on the panel, the challenges of doing radio interviews and what she wishes she’d said differently.

More News

How I Got Into Publishing by Mark von Bargen from CBC Diversity. Note: Senior Director of Trade Sales for Children’s Books at Macmillan.

Building a Emotional Anticipation by Mary Kole from Peek: “In fiction, the emotional groundwork you’re building should lead to things that are a big deal. Plot points. Turning points. Shifts in relationship dynamics.”

Twent Has Two Mommies: In Which an Author Responds to the Angry Mother of a Curious Child by Laurel Snyder from Medium. Peek: “I don’t expect your kid to turn gay. I don’t actually want your kid to turn gay, or Jewish, or into a magical chocolatier. I’d just like to think that when she encounters magical chocolatiers in books, you won’t scare her away from them.”

Failure Is Your Friend (Yes, Really)
from Joy Preble. Peek: “…if I never fail at things, then what that
means is that I am not stretching myself. I am not testing my limits. I
have no idea what huge things I can achieve.” See also Joy on Writing in the Suburbs: Can You Create Art While Carpooling and Buying Toilet Paper at Target?

Choosing Online Writing Classes by Vonna Carter from Dear Editor. Note: points to consider.

Mira Reisberg, Hummingbird Literary from The Whole Megillah. Peek: “I would love to find a hilarious Jewish writer who has really studied their craft and who writes non-religious, non-Holocaust related children’s books infused with Jewish culture and humor for a broad audience.”

The “Divergent” Rape Scene: Here’s Why It Matters by Beth Lalonde from Medium. Note: “Rewriting the Script on Sexual Assault and Giving Power Back to Girls.”

Is My Character “Black Enough”? Advice on Writing Cross-Culturally by Stacy Whitman from Lee and Low. Peek: “If your local writing group isn’t very diverse, you might need to branch out for beta readers who you can rely on to comment on that particular element of your story—perhaps through an online writing group, perhaps through the SCBWI.”

Getting Quiet and Letting Go of Expectations by Alyssa Archer from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “Consider developing a set of writing rituals that work much like your waking routine to propel you from the state of everyday being to that of creative master.”

Faith in Writing Redux by Lindsey Lane from EMU’s Debuts. Peek: “Faith is what gets me to sit down with the blank page. Faith gets me to leap with the smallest wing of an idea or character. Faith that what I have to say matters. Faith that the words will come. The story will come.” See also Make the Music You Make by John Vorhaus from Writer Unboxed.

This Week at Cynsations 

More Personally

Set in a small town; Spence is a visitor.

Revisions continue! I’ve finished my initial, deep character-plot sweep. Today, I’m going to write the author’s note and work on an interview. This weekend, I’ll reread to see if what I’ve done makes sense.

The post lingering on my mind this week is Joy Preble‘s on Writing in the Suburbs. I largely grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City. I’m a sense of place author, and I’ve had suburban characters like Spence from Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins) and Teghan from Feral Nights (Candlewick/Walker).

But my stories have taken place on the road, in cities and small towns. I suspect that, once I finish the Feral trilogy, that’s going to change.

Writers, how does where you live affect your stories?

I’m also thinking about Malinda Lo‘s roundup of Diversity in Publishers Weekly 2013 Bestsellers.

Cheers to Austin’s own Vanessa Lee on signing with literary agent Alexandra Penfolds of Upstart Crow, and cheers to Alexandra on signing Vanessa!

Congratulations Vanessa (in blue with author Lynne Kelly)!
I made a friend at Jeff Crosby’s Rockabilly Goats Gruff (Holiday House) Book Launch!

Recommended in NYT!

I’m honored to see my picture book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu recommended by Sharron McElmeel of McBookwords in her letter to The New York Times. Learn more about Jingle Dancer (HarperChildren’s, 2000).

Congratulations to Walker Books Australia & New Zealand for winning the Bologna Prize for Best Children’s Publisher of the Year in the Oceana Region! Note: Walker publishers my Tantalize and Feral series.

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

Join Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler in celebrating their new middle grade novels at 2 p.m. June 24 at BookPeople in Austin.

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. See also Alison L. Randall on Choosing a Writing Conference.

Guest Post: Debby Dahl Edwardson on Lens Shifting

By Debby Dahl Edwardson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by the year 2020, white people will be a minority in this country.

What this means, among other things, is that increasing numbers of people will be checking that new box on the census labeled “multiracial.” People no longer required to identify themselves as of one race only will increasingly identify as multiracial.

What does this say about the search for self, the very stuff of young adult literature? Given the nature of our changing demographics, I think it’s safe to say that the search for self will increasingly involve navigation between cultures. It will increasingly require us to be truly multicultural, able to comfortably wear different cultural lenses in different situations. It’s not about race, ultimately; it’s about culture and cultural alliance.

I think we are slow to understand the implications of this, despite the fact that most of us are well enmeshed in the nitty-gritty of it in our own lives. Our spouses, children, relatives and in-laws reflect many different races, many different cultural identities. We write from the heart of it, as it were, and should be better able, by now, to shift cultural lenses as matter of course.

Moreover, we should understand why the ability to do so is important, even imperative, in an increasingly multicultural world.

But we don’t. We still seem to subscribe to the idea that we are inevitably migrating towards a one-size-fits-all mass culture. As writers, we seem to assume that this is where young people are headed and so we are often seen racing after it with all we’ve got.

I have a problem with this. Even though the new mass culture now sports a variety of colors, it’s still largely homogenized. Regardless of the politically correct names we give it, it’s still the melting pot.

My take may be partly generational and partly situational, of course. I’m of the generation that fought for civil rights and I live in the heart of an indigenous culture that’s about as remote as it gets from the centers of mass culture, a place that holds the distinction of being the northernmost spot on the north American continent, accessible by air only—no roads in, no roads out—and a place not terribly interested in the melting pot.

And yet the tentacles of mass culture touch here, too. It’s in the books at the grocery store, in the movies everyone’s talking about and in the ubiquitous TV, the honored guest in everyone’s house.

The problem I have with it is that it reflects everyone and nobody. Young people where I live see a vision of what they are supposed to be, but they never see a reflection of who they really are. I suspect this is true for other marginalized and not so marginalized communities. Maybe it’s true for all of us.

I’m trying to puzzle out what this means from a variety of angles. I’m decidedly not trying to “preserve the purity” of anybody’s culture, including my own or my own so-called adopted culture.

I understand that when one culture comes into contact with another there is an inevitable melting, a blurring of the lines that happens naturally and is good, even healthy. It leads to new understandings, innovation.

But when a massive monolithic culture comes into contact with smaller distinct cultures there is a steamroller effect that tends to negate understanding and is not at all healthy. I see myself, as a writer, trying to stay the steamroller.

I always find myself on the edges of conversations that from my perspective reach into the heart of lens shifting. These are often conversations regarding books about Native American cultures.

Cultural insiders will review a book, saying something like, “an XXXX child would never speak that way to an elder.” The cultural outsider says, “oh, come on—are XXXX children perfect or something?”

No, not perfect, but where there are firm cultural norms, people never break with them unwittingly, the way a cultural outsider would. Even the ways in which we protest “norms” are culturally proscribed. This becomes an issue only when a writer doesn’t recognize the need to shift cultural lenses and assumes that everyone acts in relation to the writer’s own cultural norms. We call this ethnocentrism. It often comes from members of the dominant culture, so enmeshed in their own way they tend to think their perspective is culturally neutral: “I don’t have an accent! You do.”

I guess I’m saying that if you don’t know how to switch lenses you shouldn’t write about other cultures. Hell, if you don’t know how to switch lenses you shouldn’t even try to write about other genders. I listened once, to an adult male recalling how he felt totally inarticulate as a teen, how the things that were going on inside his head and the things that came out of his mouth rarely seemed to match. Having known a number of teenaged boys intimately, this felt really authentic to me and explained a whole lot of things. I took notes.

To write in today’s world, lens shifting is paramount. That’s my take. Maybe it always was. And I don’t really believe that it is useful these days to speak of “cultural insiders” and “cultural outsiders” or of “borrowed” or “adopted” cultures. We are all immersed in multiple cultures.

What exactly do the terms “borrowed” or “adopted” mean to those, such as myself, who have lived within their “adopted” cultures longer than they have lived within their own birth cultures? Or to those straddling, by blood, two or more cultures?

Twenty-five years ago I found myself in an odd position, reporting, as a young white public radio reporter, to an audience that was 90 percent Inupiaq. My white boss sent me to a workshop on minority news reporting. What did minority reporting mean to me, I wondered, reporting in a region where I was the minority?

Flash forward 20 years. The cover of my first novel, Blessing’s Bead (FSG, 2009), a novel clearly rooted in Inupiaq history, features a beautiful young girl who, when you get right down to it, looks more white than Inupiaq. She has dark hair, but…. is this another white-washed cover? Should I reject it and use it as a forum to speak out on the issue? Hey, it might sell books!

In fact the girl on the cover of Blessing’s Bead is not white—she is biracial—part white and part Inupiaq. Her Inupiaq name is Aaluk, the same name as one of the characters in the book.

She’s my daughter.

In terms of cultural identity, she strongly tied to both of her cultures.

Hers is the face of the future.

Let’s go there, shall we?

Here’s one for fun. My novel, My Name is Not Easy (Marshall Cavendish, 2011), is about the boarding school experience of Alaskan Natives.

No, that’s not a particularly fun topic. But a few years ago a funny song about boarding schools went viral throughout Native Alaska and was emailed all over the place by boarding school alumni.

The late Vincent Craig, an Navajo musician and comedian, had us on the first line of his song, “Indian Alien”—have a listen, thinking about lens shifting.

Cynsational Notes

The “video” below is sound only–no pictures; Debby received permission from Vincent’s son Dustinn for us to share the song in this post. Note: My Name Is Not Easy was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Census Data Presents Rise in Multiracial Population of Youth by Susan Saulny from The New York Times. Peek: “Among American children, the multiracial population has increased almost 50 percent, to 4.2 million, since 2000, making it the fastest growing youth group in the country.”

Originally published in November 2011, this post continues to speak to the ongoing conversation about diversity in literature for young readers. Past posts will be sprinkled into the schedule for the duration of Cyn’s revision deadline.

New Voice: Lamar Giles on Fake ID

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lamar Giles is the first-time author of Fake ID (HarperCollins, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Nick Pearson is hiding in plain sight. In fact, his name isn’t really Nick Pearson. He shouldn’t tell you his real name, his real hometown, or why his family just moved to Stepton, Virginia. 

And he definitely shouldn’t tell you about his friend Eli Cruz and the major conspiracy Eli was uncovering when he died. About how Nick had to choose between solving Eli’s murder with his hot sister, Reya, and “staying low-key” like the Program said to do.

But he’s going to tell you—unless he gets caught first….

In writing your story, did you ever find yourself concerned with how to best approach “edgy” behavior on the part of your characters? If so, what were your thoughts, and what did you conclude? Why do you think your decision was the right one?

I did have concerns. Fake ID is not the typical YA novel in a few ways.

First, the hero, Nick, is a 15-year-old African-American male. The percentage of YA books that feature an African-American male (or any person of color, male or female) as the main character is shockingly low. That alone presented an edge that I knew many publishers would shy away from.

Second, having the story be a contemporary murder mystery added another edge. Dealing with a modern, streetwise male in a town that is full of seedy figures, and trying to incorporate a noir sensibility into it all, meant themes of cynicism, violence, and for this story, sex.

All of these things can exist in the extreme in an adult novel, but in YA many folks have ideas of what you can’t do. So, it was tempting to pull punches.

However, I didn’t want to shy away from harsh language (used in moderation), or the flaws in Nick and his peers. There are plenty of books out there that soften language, or cut away from hard visuals, or give the hero an exaggerated sense of morality and social enlightenment. I’ve enjoyed many of those books, but I didn’t want Fake ID to be one of them.

Lamar’s shelves

There’s a reason why the first line in my book is, “This is how you get your ass kicked.” (A line that’s never changed over the course of five drafts) I wanted people to know what they were getting into. That way if a reader or a reader’s parent picked the book up, and took issue with the language in line 1, they could easily choose to go with something else without a lot of wasted time.

Now, was that decision the right one? Depends on how you’re judging. I have had a few readers reach out to me with concerns over the language, mainly the cursing, and some terms Nick uses that are considered sexist. I appreciate every single person who reads my work, so when I get emails about things like that I take them very seriously. It’s never my intent to demean or offend. But, I feel like I’ve been true to the character. The book’s told totally from Nick’s point of view. He’s a 15-year-old boy who uses language that feels realistic considering his culture, geography, and scene context. Unfortunately, that has the potential to draw ire.

But, I believe if you’re writing fiction with the goal of pleasing everyone who reads it, you’re writing bland fiction. Overall, the vast majority of readers have expressed appreciation for Fake ID. Even people who’ve taken issue with the language have pointed out things about the book and Nick’s character that they enjoyed. With that in mind, I think my decisions have been sound.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Follow Lamar @LRGiles on Twitter.

I approached promotion with an eight-week plan (because I’d read somewhere that was the amount of time that was feasible to promote a book after its release…not sure how true that is, but it felt solid).

The planning for those eight post-release weeks started well before Fake ID debuted, with the heavy prep taking place about four months prior to release.

First, a budget. I set aside about $1,500.00 as a baseline for promotional costs.

A small portion of that involved printing costs (bookmarks, promotional giveaway items, wardrobe items for events) and larger chunks were dedicated to travel, and the rest for online advertising opportunities.

I got these ideas from other authors who’d published before me, trying to take note of what they felt was effective or ineffective.

I’ve been using Facebook’s advertising features a lot. I don’t know many authors who’ve used those tools (not to say authors aren’t doing it…I’m just not familiar with many who are). I like the idea of running short, low budget campaigns to increase awareness around what I’m doing. I have no clue how that’s translating to sales, but I’ve been to several events where people have shown up because they’ve seen the facebook ads, so I know it’s doing something.

Anyhow, during my eight weeks, I’ve pretty much had signings, conferences, or some other form of public interaction happening every weekend, which is about the only time I can do book events due to still having a day job. I’ve yet to have a poor turnout at any events, which is a plus.

As anyone who’s involved in publishing can attest, it’s a bit of a mystery just how well your book’s selling until you see a royalty statement, so seeing enthusiastic people when you go places helps subdue some of the “am I doing okay?” anxiety.

Lamar’s work space

I’m enjoying doing promotional things, and I have several events scheduled beyond the end of my initial eight-week plan, but it can be fairly exhausting.

I attribute this to the fact that I do have a day job, so juggling that and my writing career has resulted in about four solid months of working seven days a week.

If I had any advice to give to anyone debuting in the near future, it’s that you should schedule some downtime. Build in a weekend (or two, or three) where you can completely step away from publishing duties.

Maintain your mental and physical health above all else. We all want successful careers, but we should also want to be around long enough to enjoy those careers.

No one is going to take better care of you than you.

Guest Post: April Henry on Just Add Tension: How to Make Any Book – But Especially Mysteries and Thrillers – Better

By April Henry
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When Cynthia invited me to write a guest post for her blog about some aspect of writing mysteries, I knew immediately what I wanted to write about. Tension.

The trick to writing a good mystery or thriller is to have plenty of tension. Heck, that’s the trick to writing any good book, period.

But how do you get that tension? Here are some things that work for me:

Grab them by the throat

You start right out of the gate, like these first sentences:

• “He began his new life standing up, surrounded by cold darkness and stale, dusty air. Metal ground against metal; a lurching shudder shook the floor beneath him.” – The Maze Runner, James Dashner (Delacorte, 2009)

• “I find Will facedown in the woods near Barron Creek.” – The Less-Dead, April Lurie (Delacorte, 2010)

• “When I go down to breakfast, I’m greeted by photos of bullet wounds scattered all across the kitchen table.” – Flash Burnout, L.K. Madigan (Houghton Mifflin, 2009)

• “It was the rough hand over her mouth that convinced Cassie Streng that what was happening was real.” – Shock Point, me (April Henry)(Putnam, 2006)

Make it snappy

Chapters under two thousand words make a book just zip along. I’m currently writing a book where most chapters are under a thousand.

Create a ticking clock

In a mystery or thriller, this can be a literal bomb that the reader can’t stop worrying about. It could also be an ultimatum. For example, in my thriller – Girl, Stolen (Henry Holt, 2010) – Cheyenne’s folks are given only a few hours to gather millions in ransom money after she is kidnapped.

There are many kinds of ticking clocks, from a looming big test to a much-dreaded prom. You can even give it a twist by showing the clock but not saying what it’s counting down.

John Green does this to great effect in Looking for Alaska (Speak, 2007). Chapters are titled “136 days before,” “111 days before,” etc. The reader knows something dramatic is going to happen when the countdown is finished.

Cut to the bone

Look for passages that describe the weather, the landscape, the aftermath, or travel. Then cut them. (Or at least cut them back.)

Have actions backfire

Your main character has a goal – but every action her or she takes to reach the goal should just push it further away. In Girl, Stolen, when Cheyenne fights back against the guy who is stealing her step-mom’s car, he is forced to subdue her – and ends up kidnapping her.

Raise the stakes

Our main character was already nervous about singing in class, but now she has been asked to sing at the stadium. Or for a more mystery-related example, not only will someone die if our main character doesn’t catch the serial killer, but the next victim could be his girlfriend.

Make choices painful

Force the character to make a choice between two things he or she wants desperately. Edward or Jacob? Peeta or Gale? Staying safe at home or risking life and limb?

Create kick-ass chapter endings

Chapter endings should look ahead, not behind. They need to end on a note of drama (and, if possible, a cliffhanger) rather than just summing up what has just taken place.

For excellent examples of kick-ass chapter endings, take a look at The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008):

• Chapter 4: “Which also means that kind Peeta Meelark, the boy who gave me the bread, is fighting hard to kill me.”

• Chapter 5: “But because two can play at this game, I stand on tiptoe and kiss his cheek. Right on the bruise.”

• Chapter 6: “I wonder if she will enjoy watching me die.”

And here are some from Girl, Stolen:

• Chapter 1: “Because for the last three years, Cheyenne had been blind.”

• Chapter 12: “‘Well, well, well, what have we here?’ Jimbo said. ‘How come you don’t have her tied up’?”

• Chapter 23: “Then like a man splitting a log with an ax, Cheyenne swung the wrench in its swift and terrible descent.”

These tricks can make any mystery, thriller, or novel better.

Cynsational Notes

April Henry is the New York Times bestselling author of mysteries and thrillers for adults and teens. Girl, Stolen, a YA thriller, is about a blind girl who is kidnapped. Learn more about The Night She Disappeared, The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die, and The Body in the Woods (Book 1 of the Point Last Seen series).

You can visit April at or or @aprilhenrybooks.

Originally published in December 2010, this is the highest-traffic writing craft post in Cynsations history. Past posts will be sprinkled into the schedule for the duration of Cyn’s revision deadline.

Event Report: Jeff Crosby’s Launch for Rockabilly Goats Gruff

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

My weekend highlight was author-illustrator Jeff Crosby‘s launch of Rockabilly Goats Gruff (Holiday House, 2014) at the Writing Barn in Austin.

For the celebration, the Barn was converted to the “Shimmy Shack.” Jeff hosted a 1950’s rockabilly costume contest (with art as the prize), and refreshments included musical mini cupcakes, moon pies, and floats! 

Authors, illustrators & book event planners: this launch was a huge win with fans of all ages, a hit with the creative community, gatekeepers and families.

Take a look at how reading, art, music, and yes, livestock came together to make it such a success!

Writers Carmen Oliver, Varian Johnson & Greg Leitich Smith
With Greg & a rockabilly goat!
Don Tate purchases copies from BookPeople, Austin’s own independent bookstore.
With illustrators Patrice Barton, Amy Farrier & author-illustrator Don.
Rockin’ goat ears with cakelustrator Akiko White.
Author-illustrators Divya Srinivasan & Shelley Ann Jackson
Illustrator Erik Niells & his wife Maggie model faux (but convincing) tattoos!
Jeff reads with accompanying music provided by Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers.
It’s a packed house and enthusiasm is high!
A fun event for kids & grownups!
Another rockabilly goat; photo by C.S. Jennings.
Goat on the loose; photo by C.S. Jennings.
Getting your goat; photo by C.S. Jennings.
The band plays on; photo by C.S. Jennings.
Jeff signs books; photo by C.S. Jennings.
And the troll is chased away; photo by C.S. Jennings.

Cynsational Notes

Photos by C.S. Jennings are used with permission. Also for sale were copies of Ten Texas Babies by David Davis, illustrated by Shelley Ann Jackson and Jeff Crosby (Pelican, 2014).

Support Jeff and The Rockabilly Goats Gruff: #rockabillygoats

Photo by C.S. Jennings.

Cynsational News

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Cover Reveal: Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life by P.J. Hoover (Starscape/Macmillan) from Roots in Myth.

How I Got Into Publishing by Simon & Schuster Editor Zareen Jaffery from CBC Diversity. Peek: “What people don’t tell you about publishing is that more than half your job requires being social—this is an industry based on relationships. Those ‘connections’ I had been afraid of before I started my career were more about having people vouch for your work ethic than about nepotism.”

Hands Across the Sea: “dedicated to raising literacy levels in Caribbean children.”

Seasonal Writing Disorder by Lydia Sharp from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “I am a victim of the earth’s annual weather cycle in the region that I live. It’s called seasonal affective disorder, and it pretty much rules my writing process. Does this mean I am not a professional writer? No. It means I have a mental circumstance to work around.”

10 Diverse YA Historicals About Girls from CBC Diversity: Diversity in YA. Peek: “In honor of Women’s History Month, here are 10 diverse young adult historical novels about girls.” See also 10 Great Women of Color Whose Stories You Should Know from Lee & Low.

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out: An Interview with Susan Kuklin by E.M. Kokie from The Pirate Tree: Social Justice and Children’s Literature. Peek: “…she’d tell her client about the book and about me. If they were interested, she gave them my contact information. From that point on the relationship was between the teenager and me. Everyone who called was included in the book. No one was rejected. This process – from the first queries to the first participant’s phone call – took close to a year.” See also part two.

Young Adult Mastermind Cecil Castellucci: “There’s No Way I Can Write a ‘Hunger Games'” by Sara Scribner from Peek: “I do think that writing contemporary young-adult fiction in these days in extremely difficult and I think that’s why you find a lot of books set in the ’80s, before there was Internet or mobile phones, because once you start having the technology…”

Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books? by Walter Dean Myers from The New York Times. Peek: “In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature, the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.” See also The Apartheid of Children’s Literature by Christopher Myers from The New York Times and both Diversity in Kid Lit “On Fire” at National Latino Children’s Literature Conference by Lila Quintero Weaver and the 2014 International Latino Book Award Finalists from Latin@s in Kid Lit.

Conflict Resolution: Upside Down by Eileen Cook from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: “Common feedback from editors or agents is that the story is missing enough conflict. So how do you increase it? The same techniques I use for counseling can be used in fiction, only instead of reducing conflict, they can provide a springboard to take your conflict to the next level.”

2014 Spur Awards

From the Western Writers of America: “given for works whose inspiration, image, and literary excellence best represent the reality and spirit of the American West.”

See finalists in each category. Note: Congratulations to Tim Tingle, whose How I Became a Ghost (Roadrunner Press) was a finalist in Juvenile Fiction.

See also 2014 Indies Choice, E.B. White Read-Aloud Finalists from Publishers Weekly. Source: Bookshelves of Doom.

Short Lists & Finalists

Cynsational Giveaway

The winner of Robot Burp Head Smartypants by Annette Simon (Candlewick) is Akiko in Texas.

Full Manuscript Edit Giveaway by Deborah Halverson from Dear Editor. Eligibility: fiction of any genre for any age group, including picture books. Deadline: midnight, March 22, 2014.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

This sudden, plummeting treepocalypse in the back yard missed me by literally two inches. Whew!

Piñatas of Willie Nelson & Lil Wayne, by Brian Anderson for “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

Wowed by Austin children’s author Brian Anderson‘s piñatas? Check out the Piñata Boy website!

My revision of Feral Pride (Book 3 in the Feral series) continues! It’s going well, but time is short and I have events coming up. Though mid April or so, I will be re-posting some of the best articles from Cynsations’ past, along with roundups and breaking news.

Describing Aimee from the Feral series in One Sentence from YA Series Insider.

Congratulations to fellow Austinite Chris Barton on the sale of his six-book series Super Truck to HarperCollins! See also Eliza Wright’s announcement of Our Baby by Varsha Bajaj (Nancy Paulsen).

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

The SCBWI-OK Conference
will be March 29 in Oklahoma City. Speakers are: Liza Kaplan, Editor,
Philomel; Melissa Manlove, Editor, Chronicle; Andrew Harwell, Editor,
HarperCollins; Colleen AF Venerable, Design Editor, First Second and
author of Guinea PI series; Kristin Miller-Vincent, Agent, D4EO Literary
Agency; Tricia Lawrence, Agent, Erin Murphy Literary. See more information and registration.

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. See also Alison L. Randall on Choosing a Writing Conference.

Book Trailer: Saving Baby Doe by Danette Vigilante

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Saving Baby Doe by Danette Vigilante (Putnam, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Lionel and Anisa are the best of friends and have seen each other through some pretty tough times–Anisa’s dad died and Lionel’s dad left, which is like a death for Lionel. They stick together no matter what. 

So when Lionel suggests a detour through a local construction site on their way home, Anisa doesn’t say no.

And that’s where Lionel and Anisa make a startling discovery–a baby abandoned in a port-o-potty. Anisa and Lionel spring into action. And in saving Baby Doe, they end up saving so much more.

Danette Vigilante crafts an accessible, heartfelt and much needed story for the middle grade market featuring Latino characters.

Source: Elizabeth Bird at A Fuse Eight Production

New Voice: Sara B. Larson on Defy

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Sara B. Larson is the first-time author of Defy (Scholastic, 2014). From the promotional copy:

A lush and gorgeously written debut, packed with action, intrigue, and heart-racing romance.

Alexa Hollen is a fighter. Forced to disguise herself as a boy and serve in the king’s army, Alex uses her quick wit and fierce sword-fighting skills to earn a spot on the elite prince’s guard. 

But when a powerful sorcerer sneaks into the palace in the dead of night, even Alex, who is virtually unbeatable, can’t prevent him from abducting her, her fellow guard and friend Rylan, and Prince Damian, taking them through the treacherous wilds of the jungle and deep into enemy territory.

The longer Alex is held captive with both Rylan and the prince, the more she realizes that she is not the only one who has been keeping dangerous secrets. And suddenly, after her own secret is revealed, Alex finds herself confronted with two men vying for her heart: the safe and steady Rylan, who has always cared for her, and the dark, intriguing Damian. 

With hidden foes lurking around every corner, is Alex strong enough to save herself and the kingdom she’s sworn to protect?

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I have three young kids at home and my husband travels every other week, so finding consistent time to write is…hard. I have to make it happen whenever I can. Usually at night after the kids are in bed. Tuesday and Thursday mornings there are a couple of hours when all three kids are in school, so I usually try to split up that time between shopping for groceries or running errands (going to the store without little beggars in tow is such a luxury!) and time for uninterrupted writing.

It’s always a juggling act. Whenever I have time to write when I’m home I think: I could clean and/or organize my house right now, or I could write. I could work on my photo albums that are now almost a year behind, or I could write. I could watch TV or a movie or sleep, or I could write.

The majority of the time, writing wins, because it has to.

Where I write varies on the day and time.

Sometimes I write in the café at my gym.

Sometimes I sit on my couch with the fire going.

Sometimes my laptop is on my dining table and I use my headphones to listen to my music.

Sometimes, I go hide in my room while my husband watches the kids on the weekends, and sit on my bed to write.

For Christmas this year, my husband turned our plain front room into a beautiful library/piano room, complete with a dream wall-to-wall bookshelf (that he built from scratch himself!) and a sound system I can use for my music.

I love writing in that room, with the music turned way up. I just love having my music swelling around me as I type furiously, the story just flying out of my mind to my fingers, onto the keyboard.

That is one of the best feelings in the world!

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited? 

Josh & Sara

My agent, Josh Adams, is the one who submitted Defy to Lisa Sandell at Scholastic.

I hadn’t met her before, but I was (and am) a huge fan of many books she’s edited, including The False Prince series by Jennifer A. Nielsen. That is absolutely one of my favorite reads in recent years. Jaron is such a smart, fun protagonist.

She is also Matthew Kirby and Kimberley Griffiths Little’s editor, and I love their books as well, so I knew she was an excellent editor.

And she was so incredibly enthusiastic for Defy, and still is, I was blown away by her excitement for my book and her vision of how we would go about editing it together.

And now, having worked with her, I can attest to the fact of how wonderful she truly is. The collaborative process with Lisa has been really fun, and not at all stressful, like I thought it might be working with an editor. She’s so thoughtful and conscientious. I love taking my stories to the next level with her.

She truly “gets” my characters and my stories, and that is so important in working together on something that means so much to me.

Sara & Lisa

I’ve also met her, last August, and she was just as lovely in person as
she has been through all of our communications. I feel very blessed to
get to work with her!

My agent really was right when he said he thought we’d work well together. He’s a smart guy!

Sara on vacation in a Mexican jungle

Highlights Writing Retreat Scholarship Opportunity

Courtesy of Kristy Dempsey
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In 2008, several children’s writers joined together for a retreat in Boyds Mills, Pennsylvania, the home of Highlights Magazine and the wonderful Highlights Foundation.

We were all working on different stories in different genres, and so we planned a working retreat, not one where we would meet often to learn from a speaker, but one that would allow us the time we needed to dive deep into our stories and come up for air when we needed it.

As it turned out, we usually came up for air about 4 p.m. every day, meeting together to share not only what we had written, but also a few tears and a lot of laughter.

The time we spent alone writing and the time we spent together encouraging one another was important for the stories we were working on at the time and to prepare us for the stories we would work on after our retreat at Boyds Mills. It was so important for us that we want to provide the same opportunity for another writer. The Highlights Foundation is offering Unworkshops during various dates throughout 2014. Consider it time to get away and write what your heart most wants to work on. We can’t work it out for any of us to go back right now, so we’re sending one of you!

If you are a sincere and dedicated writer who could use this focused time, our retreat group is offering a five-night’s stay at a Highlights Foundation Unworkshop, daily writing prompts/encouragement from the members of our retreat group (picture book, nonfiction, middle grade and young adult authors) for the length of your workshop and hopefully even a Skype gab session with one or more of us during your Unworkshop (depending on dates and availability.)

Highlights Foundation cabin

(You would be responsible for your own transportation to Boyds Mills.)

To qualify for consideration for this prize, send a statement by March 31 (to explaining why this retreat could be important to you as a writer/illustrator of children’s literature. Share a little about the project you would plan to work on during the retreat and your experience writing or illustrating for children. We’ll consider all entries and announce the recipient on April 15.

Happy Writing!