In Memory: Cynthia Chapman Willis

Compiled by Alison Ashley Formento
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Middle grade author Cynthia Chapman Willis left this world on March 3.

According to her family, she didn’t want anyone to be sad at her passing. That embodies the kind of woman and giving author friend Cindy was to so many, and those that knew her could not help but be dazzled by her lovely smile and giving nature. Her determination and strength to beat cancer and continue writing never wavered.

She was a founding member of The KidLit Authors Club and always had a natural, friendly connection with readers she met at author appearances. She loved animals and writing, and the best way to honor this memory of this special author is to read her wonderful middle grade books Buck Fever and Dog Gone (Feiwel & Friends).

From My Central Jersey: “Cynthia Chapman Willis, 52, passed away on Monday, March 3, 2014. Born in Mount Vernon, NY, she resided in Whitehouse Station until moving to Neshanic Station nine years ago. Cynthia enjoyed yoga, swimming, and traveling. Her passion was horseback riding and riding competitions. Cynthia had a love for all animals, especially Siamese cats. She volunteered her time to organizations that helped animals.”

More Thoughts & Memories

“Cynthia Chapman Willis, full of heart and always in our hearts.” –The KidLit Authors Club

“Cindy was the lightbulb before Edison invented it. She lit up any room she entered. Her writing reflected her warmth and the beauty of her soul.” –Wiley Blevins

“Cindy joined the Chudney Agency way back in 2003, and I so enjoyed working with her. She was a terrific writer and was getting better and better with each novel. 

had a really tough time placing her first novel, Dog Gone, but I loved it and we persevered and we were finally so pleased with it’s publication with Liz Szabla at Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, who also published her other novel, Buck Fever. 

was hard working, always open to listening to thoughts about her writing, and never shied away from revisions. She had a great sense of humor and we had many good laughs. 

“I know she will be missed.” –Steven Chudney

“It’s an honor to have known Cynthia. She had an inner (and outer) spark and a special ability to truly to connect with others. She always encouraged me, through tough rejections and revisions, to keep doing the work. She will continue to inspire me.” –Alison Ashley Formento

“I never met Cynthia, but in the few email exchanges we had, her grace and generosity of spirit shone through. As it does in her photographs, with that warm, beautiful smile of hers.”-Kit Grindstaff

“Cindy was a wonderful critique partner, always generous with her knowledge, celebrating when I had success, and commiserating when I received rejections. My life and my writing are better for having known her.” –Shannon Hitchcock

“Cynthia and I interacted mostly through our writer blogs. She always left warm, thoughtful, encouraging feedback–for me and for my guest bloggers.” –Jennifer R. Hubbard

“The first time I met Cynthia, I was sitting next to her at a B&N signing. I was new to the game and feeling discouraged by the slow traffic through the store—also wondering if it was going to be a competitive scenario at this group event. But Cynthia quickly showed me that it was anything but.

“Warm and gentle, she was a reassuring presence as she very honestly shared her own experiences and encouraged me to be persistent and patient. Whenever I saw her after that, it was Pavlovian—I instantly felt a sense of calm and belonging. She pretty much epitomized everything that is lovely and wonderful in the kid lit world.” –Elisa Ludwig

Photo: ESA/Hubble; see memorial by Cynthia’s sister Carey.

“I met Cynthia when Dog Gone first came out and she was speaking to teachers about how it could be used in the classroom. Her warm smile and lovely manner captivated us all.

“In the years that followed, Cynthia was a wonderful asset to the KidLit Authors Club, and anyone she met instantly became a good friend.” –Nancy Viau

“Cynthia and I once did a signing event at a B&N in Pennsylvania where no one bought any of our books or even spoke to us. We had a wonderful time just chatting.” –Tim Young

More tributes to Cynthia may be found on her Facebook page; see also RIP Cynthia Chapman Willis from Shannon Hitchcock’s Pen and Prose (featuring a wonderful blog post with Cynthia’s sweet vlog about her book Dog Gone). You can learn more about her work at her official author site.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

On Neutral Characters and Relating to the Specific by Shannon Hale from squeetus blog. Peek: “Why can’t someone like Maisie be worthy of a story too? I’ve encountered similar opinions over the years and began to come to an uncomfortable understanding, one that others before me have also discovered.”

On Diversity Within Diversity by Ava Jae from Writability. Peek: “Sometimes we forget that the community of that one sect of people is just as beautifully diverse as the world as a whole. Diversity within diversity.”

On the Care & Feeding of Writers by Julianna Baggott and David G.W. Scott from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “Your writer is practicing empathy and understanding of her characters; you can have that same empathy for her.”

Why Talking About Girl Reading Matters by Kelly Jensen from Stacked. Peek: “Girls, on the other hand, are unlikable. They have girl problems. They have girl drama (drama, always drama). They are girls in crisis, rather than girls living through the challenges they have to confront in order to be their best selves. In so many of the books that tackle these challenges, girl is a qualifier.”

Writing Emotions: Does Your Hero Shrug, Smile & Frown Too Much? by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “Are these types of descriptors all bad? Certainly not. The fact is, each of these is a real way people express their emotion. It’s only when we rely on a clichéd rendition of showing these cues or we turn to them again and again throughout the story that they hurt our writing.”

2014 Nonfiction Award Nominees from YALSA. Peek: “In addition to the finalists and award winner, YALSA publishes a list of vetted nominations for the Nonfiction Award.” See also Carla Killough McClafferty on Revealing Your Heart in Nonfiction from Cynsations.

Maybe You Could Do More from Jo Knowles. Peek: “Sometimes, opening my file, or putting on my sneakers, is actually the hardest part of getting back to the task at hand. It’s the final commitment to starting again. Starting from what feels like the bottom of a very steep hill. So I told myself: Just write one sentence. It can be terrible.

Writing Tips & Diversity Points at the SCBWI Winter Conference by Cindy L. Rodriguez from Latin@s in Kid Lit. Note: includes seven tips from Katherine Tegen editor Anica Rissi on writing contemporary fiction, Knopf editor Nancy Siscoe on writing for middle grade readers, and PEN America‘s Susanna Reich on banned books and diversity.

Why Is Historical Fiction Important? by Bobbi Miller from Children’s Literature. See also Bobbi on The Conversation of Historical Fiction Continued. Peek: “For some, historical fiction is first and foremost fiction, and therefore anything goes. Others condemn the blending of invention with well-known and accepted facts and consider the genre contradictory at the very least and, at most, it is a betrayal.”

A comprehensive list of U.S. college- and university-sponsored or -hosted children’s and young adult literature conferences, festivals, and symposia by Chris Barton from Bartography. Peek: “In 2011, I was looking for such a list, wondered why I couldn’t find one, and decided to just go ahead and make one myself. Since then, I’ve periodically updated and reposted it, and I plan to continue doing so. If I’ve missed any, or included some that no longer exist, won’t you please let me know?”

Rejecting Rejection: With a Little Bit of Luck by Sarah Aronson from The Writing Barn. Peek: “Four years after reading the manuscript, she remembered some of the details. She asked me what had happened to the story. I almost fell over. As soon as I got home, I opened the file and read that manuscript. And you know what?”

2014 Illustrators Gallery at the SCBWI Bologna Book Fair from SCBWI. Peek: “There were 105 entries submitted and, from these…judges have chosen these 34 finalists. The overall winner and four runners-up will be announced on this page at the start of the fair.”

Where Do Boys Belong in Women’s History? by Jill Eisenberg from Lee & Low. Peek: “Alongside our girls, boys need the language of equality and a broader view of history. Women’s contributions advanced our society and continue to impact all of us. We need to teach that gender totally does matter and, at the same time, totally doesn’t matter.”

Writing for the Long Haul: Quitting Writing by Kelly Bennett from Janni Lee Simner at Desert Dispatches. Peek: “…publishing can wreak havoc on our writing lives. It did mine. Having a ‘career’ requires us to split ourselves in two: part creative writer, part business-minded author.”

Interview with Literary Agent Steven Malk of Writers House from Casey McCormick at Literary Rambles. Peek: “I do think that smaller publishers can be incredibly effective. There are pros and cons with just about any house, but there have been several instances over the last few years of smaller houses publishing books that have enjoyed phenomenal success.”

Filmmakers! Check out this contest for a 30 second to three minute video celebrating children’s-YA literature from Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers.

Interview with Adi Rule on Strange Sweet Song by Leah Cypress from The Enchanted Inkpot. Peek: “To make it in classical singing, you have to be tenacious and ferocious. But at the end of the day, you also have to captivate an audience, and there’s a certain sensitivity — and vulnerability — that goes along with that.” See also an interview with Adi by Janet S. Fox from Through the Wardrobe.

What to Do When Your Story Feels Rushed by Deborah Halverson from Peek: “…work in setting details with language that conveys an atmosphere, have the characters act upon and react to props unique to the spirit of that place, and include smells and textures that engage readers’ senses.”

Migas, Confetti and Martha Stewart by Diana López from Latin@as in Kidlit. Peek: “…’I hate when people tell me I should add more cultural interest to my books.’ In other words, I don’t like these details to be forced. They have to feel natural, and as long as I’m not consciously adding them, they will be. Sure, my characters eat migas, but they eat pizza, too.”

Here’s What Both Pantsing and Plotting Miss: The Real Story by Lisa Cron from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “What drives your protagonist forward is her internal agenda: she arrives on page one already wanting something very badly, and with an inner issue – a misbelief – that she has to overcome in order to have a chance of getting it.”

Call the Reading Police from Gwenda Bond. Peek: “Being really well-read in one genre or in all sorts of genres is a beautiful thing. Most of my favorite people on earth are. But…I have zero patience for reader shaming or for making people feel lesser or unwelcome or clueless because they haven’t read the same things you have from some inevitably problematic canon checklist.”

NAACP Outstanding Literary Work Awards

Children’s Award: Nelson Mandela by Kadir Nelson (HarperCollins)


Youth/Teens Award: Courage Has No Color, The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick)


This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win a signed and personalized copy of Robot Burp Head Smartypants! by Annette Simon (Candlewick, 2014) and a set of alphabet-and-numbers foam stickers. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Enter here. Note: scroll through the photos to the entry form at the bottom of the post. 
Don’t miss Seven Book Giveaways from Adventures in YA Publishing.

Austin SCBWI

This week’s highlight was hearing P.J. Hoover speak on world building at Austin SCBWI‘s monthly meeting at BookPeople. In addition to offering great information, P.J.’s presentation was a terrific example of an author presentation. She did a wonderful job with visuals, incorporating humor, and encouraging interaction in a kid- (and grown-up-) friendly way. P.J. is a top author speaker!

Hat & umbrella — Austin in late winter/early spring.
Cheering on P.J. Hoover (blonde in blue) with Marsha Riti, Amy Farrier, Samantha Clark & Jeff Crosby.
Marsha & Greg Leitich Smith (notice how he’s wearing more vests lately)

More Personally

Hibiscus tea & “Downtown Abbey” at South By Southwest

I’ve working steadily on my revision of Feral Pride (Book 3 in the Feral series) on my sleeping porch with bands from South By Southwest playing in the background.

Despite living in Austin some 15 years, I’ve never had a chance to embrace the festival in a big way because it typically coincides with a novel deadline or author travel.

I’m so sorry to hear of the injuries and lives lost due to the drunk driving incident on Wednesday night. My thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones. See also Blood Donors Needed After SXSW crash.

My revision is going well. I thought I’d do a sweep to streamline the antagonists’ construct and then revisit my alternating protagonists, but I’m finding that much of the character work is coming naturally along the way.

Everybody writes differently, but I encourage y’all not to cling to your process, especially when it’s not conducive to productivity. Especially if you are transitioning from apprentice to published professional (with its industry demands), you may have to stretch in new ways. Or, if like me, you’re an established pro with an ever-faster-moving schedule, then you may have to find a way to do that, too.

Ellen Oh’s post on Sexism in Publishing

On Cynsations, there’s been a lot of buzz around Ellen Oh’s post on Sexism (prejudice by women against women and female characters). Don’t miss it or the continuing conversation in the comments. See also the post Ellen recommends by Sarah Rees Brennan on the portrayal of female friendships in YA fiction. Note: Ellen reports having lost 53 Twitter followers in the immediate wake of her post–you know, for being against sexism. You can follow her @elloecho.

I’m also thinking about How Do Authors Know When Their Manuscripts Are Ready? at Sub It Club and Janni Lee Simner’s thoughts On the Amtrack Residency: Residencies Versus Contests, Dreams Versus Desperation. See also Writers Say, “Not So Fast, Amtrack Residency.”

Congratulations to Teresa Runnels (Sac and Fox Nation) of Tulsa City-County Library for being featured as one of Library Journal’s Movers & Shakers 2014!

Personal Links

Deleted Scene from Blood Coven Series

I disagree with banning language, but we should reconsider how we use “bossy.”

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.

Video: Kwame Alexander Riffs on Librarians & The Crossover

Follow Kwame on Twitter.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out this fantastic author video by Kwame Alexander, promoting The Crossover (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Why is it so great?

Kwame’s irresistible combination of humor and charm, along with a call to action and a preview of the book to come.

Peek from the promotional copy:

“‘With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is sizzling. My sweat is drizzling. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering, ‘ announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell. 

“He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood from Kwame Alexander. 

“Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story’s heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family.”

Guest Post: Ellen Oh on The Ongoing Problem with Sexism

By Ellen Oh
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Recently I have been talking with several other women authors about how hard it is to be a female writer. Many stressed how ironic it was given the fact that there are more women in publishing, more women writers, and more women readers.

But why, many asked, does it feel like women authors are never treated at the same level as male writers?

This unleashed a huge firestorm of discussion where authors brought up numerous examples of sexism that they have encountered not only from men, but from other women. And this is what I want to focus on.

Why are women so hard on each other? Why do we criticize women authors and women characters so much? We can’t be too strong. We can’t be too weak. We can’t be too girly. We can’t be too tomboyish. So much criticism.

I think it is because we all have some level of internalized sexism that doesn’t allow us to look objectively at other females. Before you rail against me that you are a proud feminist, let me explain.

I’m not criticizing you, I’m criticizing our society.
We live in a world that bombards us with images and rhetoric of how women need to constantly improve. Feminist empowerment articles can be found in the pages of our magazines that are covered with photoshopped pictures of beautiful, unrealistically figured women and posts about how to catch and keep your man.

Take a look at this fantastic Pantene commercial:

Yes, I understand the irony of a commercial that uses feminist messages to push a beauty product. But the message of the commercial is so true. We are always labeled by the society we live in. Nothing we do can be as good as what a man does.
But what is internalized sexism?

Cultural Bridges to Justice defines it as the “belief by girls and women that the lies, stereotypes and myths about girls and women that are delivered to everyone in a sexist society are true. Girls and women…hear that women are stupid, weak, passive, manipulative, with no capacity for intellectual pursuits or leadership. …are taught to act out the lies and stereotypes, doubting themselves and other females…).”

What happens when we have internalized sexism is that we are more critical of other women than men. We have accepted the belief that society has pressed upon us that women are not as good, smart, capable, and strong as men, and we vilify those who step out of line.”

Penny Rosenwasser, author and feminist, calls this a type of self-loathing. She says “Internalized oppression is an involuntary reaction to oppression which originates outside one’s group and which results in group members loathing themselves, disliking others in their group, and blaming themselves for their oppression – rather than realizing that these beliefs are constructed in them by oppressive socio-economic political systems.”

I don’t know if I would go that far. After all, “self-loathing” is a strong term. But I think it is time for all women to take a good hard look at ourselves. No matter how feminist you are, you’ve internalized some sexism.

How could you not? It has been brainwashed into our heads since we were children. Our mainstream media consistently produces sexist and stereotypical portrayals of women.

A 2012 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center “analyzed 855 top 30 box-office films from 1950 to 2006…women have been consistently underrepresented as main characters for at least six decades.” Bleakley, the author of the paper states that “Movie-going youth…repeatedly exposed to portrayals of women as sexual and men as violent, may internalize these portrayals.”

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media researchers have found that “gender stereotyping is an inherent problem in today’s entertainment landscape, and children are the most vulnerable recipients of depictions that send the message that girls are less valuable and capable than boys. …female characters who are lucky enough to garner speaking roles tend to be highly stereotyped.”

And this leads me back to my original point. Why are women so much harder on other women? Why are we so hard on female characters?

We need to understand that how we portray women in literature and film and television is a reflection of our role in society. The more we provide diversity of characters in these mediums, the more we show a fair view of who we are in the world. Because women come in all shapes, all sizes, all types, all races, all religious backgrounds, and a vast diversity of personalities.

 We must recognize how society has played a part to keep us down. To brainwash us against one another. To find acceptable only one type of women over others.

So I challenge all women to recognize their own inherent sexism and to face it head on and step beyond it. For we can never be truly treated as equals if we don’t take that first step within ourselves.

New Voice: Whitney A. Miller on The Violet Hour

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Whitney A. Miller is the first-time author of The Violet Hour
(Flux, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Some call VisionCrest the pinnacle of religious enlightenment.

Others call it a powerful cult.

For seventeen years, Harlow Wintergreen has called it her life.

As the adopted daughter of VisionCrest’s patriarch, Harlow is expected to be perfect at all times. The other Ministry teens must see her as a paragon of integrity. The world must see her as a future leader.

Despite the constant scrutiny, Harlow has managed to keep a dark and dangerous secret, even from her best friend and the boy she loves. She hears a voice in her head that seems to have a mind of its own, plaguing her with violent and bloody visions. It commands her to kill. And the urge to obey is getting harder and harder to control…

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

The Violet Hour was the second novel I attempted to write, so I wasn’t completely naive. I knew that a first draft was just the beginning of a very long process, but woah mama…did this book ever have it in for me!

In the beginning stages, I didn’t really know what the book was about. I had this amazing main character (Harlow Wintergreen), this iconic cult-like religion (VisionCrest), and this edgy, pop-culture altiverse in which it all existed. But I didn’t have a story just yet – details shmeetails.

At that time I never wrote with an outline so I meandered about the manuscript, surprised and delighted by every crazy left turn Harlow took. I’ve since learned my lesson on that front, but as I once said in an early draft of The Violet Hour to explain away a plot that made no sense, that is a story for another day. I would throw in wacky details because they sounded cool or seemed spooky – a mysterious necklace! a sinister voice! a Cambodian temple!

But then when I had to tie it all up with a bow at the end, I realized I had created a monster.

Whitney’s workspace

That puppy was going to require major revision….like, 10 drafts’ worth before it went out for sale.

It was a process. One that could have been significantly shortened by a little bit of pre-planning. But I’m a hard-way learner, what can I say?

During the time that it was out on submission, I came to realize that the last third of the book just didn’t feel right. At that point I had stripped the story down to the studs multiple times, torn it into shreds and put it back together until my fingers bled and my eyes crossed (okay, maybe I’m being melodramatic).

I was exhausted. I didn’t even want to look at it anymore, much less tear it apart again. But once it sold (oh happy, happy day!) I knew I owed it to myself and my future readers to make the story the absolute best it could be.

So, I ripped it apart once again, this time with the expert guidance of my editor. I took things out, added new stuff in, and fixed all the things that I knew didn’t work but hadn’t wanted to admit before. And then I revised it, and revised it, and revised it some more.

I lost count, but I was finally finished around draft 17. And I was really proud of it. The story I wanted to tell was finally on the page, and I didn’t give up before I got there.

So what did I learn from this and what advice would I give to other writers around revision?

Here it is:

  • Do a little pre-work. You don’t have to have a detailed outline, if that doesn’t work for you (it doesn’t for me). But a one-page synopsis can help you think the story all the way through before you throw in a magical necklace that has no business being there.
  • Take breaks between drafts. My rule of thumb is at least two weeks, but more is better. Renew. Refresh. Get some perspective. Then dive back in.
  • If you have a lot to fix, break it down into bite-sized pieces. Do a pass through for a certain element (say, fixing a specific plot thread). Consider that a draft. Then, after a break, come back for something else. Thinking about it as a whole can be daunting – just take it one step at a time.
  • Give yourself the gift of time. This isn’t a race. There’s no prize for finishing fast, but there might be one for finishing strong.
  • Hang in there! Persevere! Commiserate! Most writers will tell you that revision is a big part of their process, and some will tell you they’ve even come to enjoy it.
  • Enjoy it. Seeing your manuscript improve, become even better than you imagined it could be, is one of the most gratifying parts of the process. The journey is the reward!

As a horror writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

Visit Whitney A. Miller

I didn’t think about this consciously, like “I’m going to make this specific issue my real world parallel because that’s what a horror book must do.” That said, there are many social, political, and cultural parallels in the book – things that really intrigue me.

For example, I am curious about belief in all its forms. Religions. Cults. Science. Politics. The process of deciding that a certain thing or person holds the answers to the unanswerable is one I’ll never tire of exploring.

As human beings, we are often willing to believe the most outlandish, unseeable things and simultaneously incapable of believing the clear and obvious (if there is any such thing).

What makes us think our perception is the only reality? What creates certainty in the absence of evidence? What happens when those things occur? These are the things that were always present in The Violet Hour, and became honed over the lengthy process of revision.

At a certain point I had to ask myself: okay, this is a cool story but what am I trying to say? That’s when I really got down to the meat of it.

I hope the result is a rich subtext that both fascinates and frightens.

Guest Post: Linda Joy Singleton on Jumping Age Markets: How a Multi-Published Author Became a Debut Author

By Linda Joy Singleton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Blame it on the SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators).

When I joined SCBWI over two decades ago, I’d already sold a middle-grade and was interested in writing young adult books, too. Yet most of my writer friends wrote picture books.

Whenever I went to SCBWI conferences, I attended many presentations by talented picture book authors and illustrators. I listened to so many picture book talks that I joked I could teach a picture book writing class myself.

But write a picture book?

Nope. Not interested.

2009 was the year I sold my 37th book, Buried, a YA mystery (Flux)—and the year I wrote a picture book. This picture book idea struck with no warning—like summer rain or falling in love.

I was driving to a SCBWI retreat with authors Verla Kay, Danna K. Smith and Linda Whalen when my thoughts jumped to the childhood photo Verla had showed me of a snow dog.

Inspiration Photo

A word storm of inspiration flooded my head. When we stopped for lunch, I grabbed a napkin and wrote a story that began:

More than anything, Ally wanted a dog—but dogs made her achoo. So Ally drew pictures of dogs….

37th Book by Linda Joy Singleton

Jump five years and that napkin-scribbled book is now my debut picture book, Snow Dog, Sand Dog, illustrated by Jess Golden (Albert Whitman). And my box of author copies arrived last month (Yay!). But it’s not like I stopped writing middle grade/YA. I still do that, too.

How did this age-market hopping happen?

Thinking it over, it’s more of a surprise that I resisted writing picture books for so long. Whether I’m writing for big or little kids, I love the rhythm of lyrical, active and funny words. Studying the art of picture book writing has actually strengthened my novel writing. Sentences roll and sway like songs from thoughts to finger-tips.

For example (from a middle grade work-in-progress):

I’m squashed like a human pretzel and struggling not to sneeze at dog hair or freak out as I imagine creepy crawlies creeping and crawling all over me.

This is a sentence from a middle-grade book, yet fun words like “sneeze,” “creepy” and “crawling” create a rhythm like when I’m writing picture books.

From Snow Dog, Sand Dog:

They heated popcorn and played fetch with straw brooms. They napped with a scarecrow then danced to the music of wind chimes.

I love the craft of word play; molding words like clay until they’re shaped into sentences that make children smile. Writing words for children brings out the child in all of us—and it’s fun.

Snow Dog & Sand Dog

But it’s hard work, too. I consider picture books the hardest format to write. There’s no room for even one sloppy word. Every word counts, and the story arc should rise and fall with character growth like a novel.

It took five years for Snow Dog, Sand Dog to become a published book. It went through editors, agents, rejections and rewrites. I rode a roller coaster of disappointments and hopes.

The day it sold, my agent told me, “You’re now a picture book author.”

And this middle grade/YA author is very proud to be a picture book author.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Carol Lynch Williams on the release of The Haven (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014). From the promotional copy:

For the teens at The Haven, the outside world, just beyond the towering stone wall that surrounds the premises, is a dangerous unknown. It has always been this way, ever since the hospital was established in the year 2020.

But The Haven is more than just a hospital; it is their home. It is all they know. Everything is strictly monitored: education, exercise, food, and rest. The rules must be followed to keep the children healthy, to help control the Disease that has cast them as Terminals, the Disease that claims limbs and lungs—and memories.

But Shiloh is different; she remembers everything. Gideon is different, too. He dreams of a cure, of rebellion against the status quo. What if everything they’ve been told is a lie? What if The Haven is not the safe place it claims to be? And what will happen if Shiloh starts asking dangerous questions?

Powerful and emotional, The Haven takes us inside a treacherous world in which nothing is as it seems.

More News & Giveaways

How to Write YA by Seth Fishman from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “…how do adult writers, so far away from the source, successfully manage to create believable teen characters? …I’ve written a couple YA novels now and have a few handy hints for those aspiring writers who want to give it a go.”

Five Agents Share What Makes Them Stop Reading Sample Pages from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek from Suzie Townsend: “This might sound harsh, but I stop reading when I’m not hooked. Which means: I read the first line. If I’m interested, I read the second line. If I’m still interested, I read the third line, and so on.”

Black History Month: Interracial Teens in Historical Fiction by Diane Colson from YALSA. Peek: “These mixed race children have had to work out their place in society for hundreds of years. The books listed below focus on the choices available to teens of mixed white and black heritage.”

Ten Positive-Aging Picture Books for Pre-schoolers by Lindsey McDivitt from A is for Aging, B is for Books. Peek: “…internalizing positive images of getting older is more strongly linked to longevity than a low-fat diet or daily exercise, especially when we begin in childhood.”

Embracing Failure by Ginger Johnson from Quirk and Quill. Peek: “Rejection can be a slippery slope into a deep chasm of self-doubt and fear. As a matter of self-preservation, we’re advised not to dwell on our failures, our rejections, our bad reviews. That’s good advice. However…” See also When Publishing (Or Life) Has You Down on the Mat, Answer the Bell by Tiffany Trent from Adventures in YA Publishing.

Giving Up Our Stories from Marion Dane Bauer. Peek: “My best stories aren’t the ones that give answers, the ones that support my most passionately held certainties. They are the stories that ask the hardest, most-difficult-to-entertain questions.”

Illustrated by Shadra Strickland

Do Great Work and the Rest Will Follow by Shadra Strickland from The Horn Book. Peek: “…interviewers would ask questions like, ‘Why do you only paint black people?’ To which I would reply: My choice of characters isn’t what defines my style; it’s how I paint them and the world around them. Would you ask a white male artist why he doesn’t paint black people?'”

Multicultural Children’s-YA Books Action List from CCBC-Net Discussion, compiled by Sarah Hamburg (with additions by Debbie Reese) from American Indians in Children’s Literature. Peek: “…how people could advocate for more books that are representative of all the peoples who, in some way, are part of the United States.”

Surviving the Cancelled Contract by Nicole Maggi from The Writing Barn. Peek: “…I’d been asked to do endless (unnecessary) edits and my acquiring editor had left. I never felt like my new editor was on board. So it wasn’t a huge surprise to get that awful call from my agent. But it was devastating.”

Interview with Renowned Publisher Neal Porter on the Current State of Picture Books by Leonard S. Marcus from The Horn Book. Peek (on picture e-books): “I think they are not going much of anywhere. The fact remains that there has yet to be a platform that is as effective from a cost point of view as well as from a delivery point of view as the physical book.”

You Are Not Lazy from Elizabeth O. Dulemba. Peek: “They’ve said I’m not lazy…and I relish the declaration. But it’s only true when it comes to those things, because those are the things I care about. And for them, I will never have enough time and never put in enough effort. Whereas for somebody else, it might be drudgery.”

How Manuscript Auctions Work by Deborah Halverson
from DearEditor. Peek: “The agent contacts the chosen publishers,
pitches the project, and explains the rules and timeline. It’s usually
blind, with the editors knowing the number of houses involved but not
the names.”

CLA Book of the Year for Children Short List

Short Lists Announced for the Canadian Library Association 2014 Book Awards from The Canadian Children’s Book Centre. Peek: “…shortlists for its three Canadian children’s book awards — the CLA Book of the Year Award for Children, the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator’s Award and
the CLA Young Adult Book Award.” Note: Ten books are listed for each award.

Why Playing It Safe May Be the Most Dangerous Game of All by Emma D. Dryden from Dryden Books. Peek: “Where but in stories can we allow our youngest readers to not play it safe, to try new things, to explore, to roam, to make mistakes and make amends, to reach higher, deeper, and further than we ever thought possible? And where but in stories can we allow ourselves the very same?”

If Writers Wrote Every Scene Like a Sex Scene by Jane Lebak from QueryTracker. Peek: “…let’s talk about details and at what point your reader stops reading and starts noticing that you’re cramming every sentence with far too many of them.”

Connecting Science and Poetry by Sylvia Vardell from Poetry for Children. Peek:”Pairing science-themed nonfiction or informational books and poetry may seem to be an unlikely partnership at first, but these two different genres can complement one another by showing children how writers approach the same topic in very different and distinctive ways.”

After the Call: a blog series from Caroline Richmond. Peek: “…chronicles what happens after you get an offer of representation from a literary agent. For instance, how do you choose between multiple offers? How do you communicate with your new agent? And what is the revision process like?”

SCBWI Golden Kite & Sid Fleischman Awards

Golden Kite Award Winners

Golden Kite Honor Recipients

Sid Fleischman Award for Humor: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg (Arthur A. Levine)

Note: “The Golden Kite Awards and the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor will be presented to the winners at the Golden Kite Luncheon during the Society of Children’s Book Authors & Illustrators’s Annual Conference on Writing and Illustrating for Children, taking place in Los Angeles, California. An Honor Book plaque is also awarded in each category.”

2014 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award

Winner: Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet, written by Andrea Cheng, with woodcuts by the author (Lee & Low).

Honor Books:

Note: “This prestigious award is named for Lee Bennett Hopkins, the internationally renowned educator, poet, anthologist and passionate advocate of poetry for young people. Selected by a panel of teachers, librarians and scholars, the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award was the first award of its kind in the United States. The Pennsylvania Center for the Book, the Penn State University Libraries and Lee Bennett Hopkins share joint administration of the annual award.” See more information.

Lambda Literary Award Finalists

Note: “Now in their twenty-sixth year, the Lambda Literary Awards celebrate achievement in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) writing for books published in 2013. Winners will be announced during a ceremony on Monday evening, June 2, 2014, at The Great Hall at Cooper Union (7 East 7th Street, New York City 10003).”

Children’s Africana Book Awards

Best Books for Older Readers

Best Books for Young Children

Note: “Collectively CABA winners show that Africa is indeed a varied and multifaceted continent. CABA titles expand and enrich our perspectives of Africa beyond the stereotypical, a historical and exotic images that are emphasized in the West.” See more information. Source: Monica Edinger.

Scottish Children’s Book Awards

From Scottish Book Trust: “A record breaking number of votes – over 38,000! – were cast to choose the winners, who took to the stage at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library on 5 March to present their books and receive their prizes.” See more information. Source: Bookshelves of Doom.

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win a signed and personalized copy of Robot Burp Head Smartypants! (Candlewick, 2014) and a set of alphabet-and-numbers foam stickers. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. Enter here. Note: scroll through the photos to the entry form at the bottom of the post.

Check out the OneFour Kidlit Preview & Seven-Book Giveaway at Adventures in YA Publishing.

Check out the One-Year Anniversary Giveaway from Diversity in YA. Seventeen winners will each receive a prize pack of four books. Eligibility: U.S. addresses only. Deadline: March 31.

Cover Reveal & Giveaway: The Only Thing to Fear by Caroline Tung Richmond (Scholastic) from YA Highway. Peek: “What if Hitler Had Won World War II?”

More Personally 

Lucky me! I had a terrific lunch on Ash Wednesday with Austin SCBWI RA Samantha Clark and author Lesléa Newman at Z’Tejas on 6th Street in Austin.

See Lesléa‘s recent post, In Writing I Trust.

This week’s big event was the launch party for Varsha Bajaj‘s debut novel Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood (Albert Whitman, 2014) at Blue Willow Books in Katy/Houston, Texas.

With Varsha Bajaj; see more pics & learn more about the novel!
Clowning around at Mabis Patisserie in Houston.

I’m on a revision deadline for Feral Pride (Book 3 in the Feral series). First, I’m streamlining the antagonists’ logistical situation and then I’ll move to my protagonists’ interpersonal dynamics.

Congratulations, Laney!

Congratulations to Laney Nielson winner of the Austin SCBWI Cynthia Leitich Smith Mentor Award and cheers to all the finalists!

Congratulations to Clint G. Young — Illustrator on his new official website. If you’re not already a fan of Clint’s work, you should really click the link and be wowed. Really, it’s breathtaking.

Cheers to Read Across America and World Book Day!

Interview with Bestselling Author Cynthia Leitich Smith by Brittney Breakey from Author Turf. Note: Get the scoop on my preferred apocalypse, legacy, hidden messages, theme song and more!

What Surprised Me in Writing the Feral Series? Find out from YA Series Insider.

Personal Links

Typewriter Cake by Akiko White
Preview the new Feral Curse & Feral Nights audio books (Brilliance) from Ambling Books.

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.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Annette Simon on How a Bookseller by the Sea Influences a Book Maker at Her Desk. And Vice Versa.

Visit Annette!

From Cynthia Leitich Smith:

Do you wear more than one hat in the children’s-YA book world? There are a lot of us. Writers who also are teachers or librarians. Illustrators who do promotional design. Retired librarians who work as consultants.

Today we welcome indie bookseller and author-illustrator Annette Simon, who has boldly decided to split herself into three people (the third of whom is a special guest reporter at Cynsations) and interview herself. Or herselves? Read on to discover for yourself.

By Annette Simon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Reporter AS: I’m glad we could all get together. Where do each of you work?

Bookseller AS: My work is play in a lovely independent, The BookMark, in Neptune Beach, Florida.

Writer/Artist AS: I play in my studio, at my kitchen table, and on whatever paper scraps are handy.

Reporter AS: You both love books. How does it feel to be surrounded by them?

Bookseller AS: Pretty much like heaven, except without the time to read them all.

Writer/Artist AS: Both inspired and intimidated. All those fantastic, new books! But a store’s never-ending supply makes getting published look easy.

Bookseller AS: Booksellers know otherwise. Besides, we champion the creators of those fantastic, new books.

Writer/Artist AS: Really? Bet we champion you more….

Reporter AS: I take it, reading is both a privilege and a job requirement?

Visit BookMark.

Bookseller AS: Of course. Also, fun.

Writer/Artist AS: Ditto. And ditto. Hey, remember ditto paper?

Bookseller AS: The smell of third grade! Remember when our teacher’s sub –

Reporter AS: Ladies, what’s the best part of your job?

Bookseller AS: Talking with people who love books. Matchmaking people and books. And when someone comes back for more? That reluctant reader now reads? Just … joy.

Writer/Artist AS: I’d say it’s those moments of creating when you’re in the zone, almost outside of yourself. But copy that about talking and reading. Nothing beats knowing your work matters to someone.

Bookseller AS: Icing on the cake is when that book was created by a friend.

Writer/Artist AS: Aww…. Uh, we’re friends, right?

Download the Activity Kit.

Reporter AS: So you share the same mission: connecting with readers.

Bookseller AS: It’s our reason for being.

Writer/Artist AS: Absolutely.

Reporter AS: What’s something you learned on the job that surprised you?

Bookseller AS: That there is no perfect book.

Writer/Artist AS: Are you kidding me? I can name several right now. How ‘bout –

Bookseller AS: I mean, there is no one book that’s perfect for everybody, every time. Its connection will depend on a person’s reading level, time, interests, desires, life story, mood, and goals at that moment, which can and will vary any day of the week.

For children’s books, the buyers are also the gatekeepers, so add their goals for the reader. However, these are also the reasons why most good books will probably connect with someone, at some point.

Writer/Artist AS: Hmm … I hadn’t thought of that. Okay. It relieves a bit of pressure. My book will not be for everybody, all the time, and that doesn’t mean it is (or I am) a failure.

More likely, my book will connect with someone, somewhere. I’ll channel Mr. Dean Martin….

Reporter AS: Tell me about the bookseller/author relationship. How do you best work with each other?

Bookseller AS: As I said, booksellers love writers and artists.

Writer/Artist AS: And we love booksellers. Also, librarians and media specialists.

Bookseller AS: We do, too. But, Esteemed Authors, please don’t just stroll into a store and expect folks there to drop all to see Your Fabulous Creation.

Unless, of course, you’re Harper Lee, J.K. Rowling, John Green, Judy Blume, my parents, or the President.

Then, please. And by all means!

Writer/Artist AS: So what do I do if I’d like to see my book in your store?

Bookseller AS: Please visit the store’s website, and contact appropriately. If you’re a regular customer (and we hope that you are), please say so. If you’re visiting the area and can sign stock, let us know. But please, never tell indie booksellers that they can purchase your book from that giant online store.

Reporter AS: That happens?

Bookseller AS: More than you’d think. If you’re traditionally published, our source is your publisher. If you’re not, make sure your book is available through a reputable distributor.

Also, when you’re visiting the store, please don’t yammer on all “me, me, me.” Talk with the sellers, ask about business or favorite titles. And once your book is on the shelf, please consider a link to the store on your author website. It’s just good business, you know?

Reporter AS: Parting thoughts?

Bookseller AS: Um … I’ve become addicted to spine poetry.

Writer/Artist AS: I may have had a hand in that. Wanna share one we made together?

Bookseller AS: With pleasure. ‘Cause it’s true.

Reporter AS: Thank you, Annettes. I couldn’t have said it better, myself.

Cynsational Event Report

Last weekend, writer/art gal Annette Simon launched her new picture book, Robot Burp Head Smartypants! (Candlewick, 2014), at bookseller Annette Simon’s store.

Check out how it went, and enter to win a copy of her new release:

“We’re on the store’s events board!”

“Books in the house! Er, store.”

“Prime real estate: a store window.”

“Event prizes included foam numbers and alphabet puzzles, and sticker packages made by Annette and her mother-in-law.”

“Party treats included iced cookies.”

“Annette recruited store colleague and Duval County reading specialist Pat Laurence to play the green robot (and wear its tie).”

“Why we do what we do.”

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed and personalized copy of Robot Burp Head Smartypants! (Candlewick, 2014) and a set of alphabet-and-numbers foam stickers. Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Laney Nielson Wins Austin SCBWI Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award

Laney Nielson

By Samantha Clark of Austin SCBWI
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Congratulations to Laney Nielson, who won a year’s mentorship with the inaugural Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award, at the Austin SCBWI 2014 Writers & Illustrators Working Conference last month.

Laney was one of eight nominees chosen by the conference’s critiquing faculty for their high-level writing. She wins a year’s mentorship, this year with Cynthia herself.

“Laney’s manuscript, ‘Shattered,’ was chosen as the winner due to its charm, humor, and kid appeal,” said Cynthia. “The quality of finalists’ writing, obvious potential, and wide variety of their works made for a difficult decision.”

Laney Nielson is a writer who lives in Plano, Texas. A former upper elementary school teacher, Laney has taught in both suburban Virginia and inner city Boston. She has her Masters in Education.

Laney is a member of a critique group formed through the North Texas Chapter of SCBWI. She has attended the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop and many regional events, including the Austin SCBWI conference for the past three years.

Cynsational Notes

At the Illumine Award Banquet

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author the Feral series and the Tantalize series (Candlewick).

Cynthia is also the author of several children’s books, including Jingle Dancer, Rain Is Not My Indian Name and Indian Shoes (HarperCollins).

Cynthia was named a Writer of the Year by Wordcraft Circle of Native
Writers and Storytellers in recognition of Rain is Not My Indian Name. She has been twice featured at the National Book Festival. 

Recently, she was
named the first Spirit of Texas Young Adult author by the Young Adult Round Table of the Texas Library Association and the first young adult author to be honored with the Illumine
Award by the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation. 
In 2013, the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers
and Illustrators instituted the Cynthia Leitich Smith Mentor Award in
her honor.

Guest Post: Lorie Ann Grover on Gendercide & Firstborn

By Lorie Ann Grover
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

37 million girls missing…in China alone, due to the One Child Policy.

The United Nations estimates 200 million girls are missing worldwide.

What is this systematic killing of girls called?


Reading these statistics I was appalled. How could this be happening today?

“It’s a Girl” movie, now on Instant View on Netflix, made the atrocity even clearer.

How can we turn away from the woman who says she killed eight daughters while waiting to conceive a son? She stands, pointing to the eight mounds of dirt in her yard.

How can we not respond to parents crying because hospital staff have murdered their newborn daughter in the night?

How can we not grieve over rooms of women awaiting forced abortions? Either the mothers can’t afford to pay the fee for another child or they simply are carrying girls.

We can’t look away.

I wrote Firstborn (Blink, 2014) in response to gendercide. Sometimes the power of a fictional story can be used to draw awareness, attention, and action to a real cause.

My character Tiadone is a firstborn female. In her society, her father has the choice to leave her in the elements to die or declare her a male and suppress all her feminine traits with an amulet. He chooses the latter, and her role is set for the rest of her life.

Everyone knows Tiadone was born female. Everyone knows she is a declared male.

As initiation draws near, she begins to wonder over the power of the amulet. If it is powerless, it will mean her death. Tiadone’s heroine’s journey will take her to see the value and worth of a female, newborn or grown.

 As Firstborn takes flight, I hope readers are outraged by gendercide.

I hope they watch “It’s a Girl” movie, visit All Girls Allowed, and grow familiar with the Global Gendercide Advocacy Awareness Project.

As I share imagery across social media for 30 days, beginning on Valentine’s Day, I hope more hear of gendercide and experience the same rage I felt and continue to feel.

As we say at readergirlz, I hope they read, reflect, and reach out—to their sisters: those carrying a female child, the unborn child herself, and the newborn daughter. May they all be allowed to live.