readergirlz: Support Teen Literature Day & “Rock the Drop”

By Melissa Walker of readergirlz
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In conjunction with Support Teen Literature Day, top young adult authors, editors, teen lit advocates, and readers will “Rock the Drop” by leaving their books in public places for new readers to discover and enjoy.

In recognition of the readergirlz’s seventh birthday of promoting literacy and a love of reading among young women, our fans and followers are also encouraged to donate YA books (or time, or even monetary contributions) to seven very worthy literacy philanthropies.

Cyn supports Reading is Fundamental!

The groups include: First Book, The Lisa Libraries, Girls Write Now, 826 National, Room to Read, Reading is Fundamental, and World Literacy Foundation.

For this year’s Drop, we are also teaming up with Justine Magazine and I Heart Daily to help spread the world and build enthusiasm for this always-enjoyable kick off to spring reading season!

A nationwide effort of authors, publishers, librarians, educators, and readers

In its sixth year, Rock the Drop is part of a massive effort by librarians, young adult authors, educators, publishers, and avid readers to spur reading on a nationwide scale. The day aims to encourage teens to read for the fun of it.

Cyn is dropping…!
  • In past years, more than 100 young adult authors—including David Levithan, Sara Zarr, Libba Bray, Sarah Dessen, and Cynthia Leitich Smith—have “rocked the drop,” leaving copies of their books in public places for teens to find.
  • Publishing houses both “Big Six” and indie alike have donated tens of thousands of books to dedicated literacy philanthropies, in addition to rocking the drop, too.
  • Teens, librarians, teachers, and other fans of YA literature are also invited to rock the drop, on their own or as a group.
  • Participants are encouraged to donate to any of our seven suggested philanthropies – or one of their own! Post on the Readergirlz Facebook page to update us on some of your favorite worthy causes.

Operation Teen Book Drop aims to reach a large number of teen groups,” rgz diva Melissa Walker said. “We’re thrilled to be celebrating our website’s seventh birthday with this fun, festive day!”

How to support Rock the Drop:

Learn more!

About Support Teen Literature Day

In its sixth year, Support Teen Literature Day is April 17, 2014, and will be celebrated in conjunction with ALA’s National Library Week. Librarians across the country are encouraged to participate in Support Teen Literature Day by hosting events in their libraries. The celebration raises awareness that young adult literature is a vibrant, growing genre with much to offer today’s teens. Support Teen Literature Day also seeks to showcase award-winning authors and books in the genre, as well as highlight librarians’ expertise in connecting teens with books and other reading materials.

About readergirlz

Lorie’s new release!

readergirlz is a literacy and social media project for teens, awarded the National Book Award for Innovations in Reading. The rgz blog serves as a depot for news and YA reviews from industry professionals and teens. As volunteers return full force to their own YA writing, the organization continues to hold one initiative a year to impact teen literacy.

Launched in March 2007, in celebration of Women’s National History Month, readergirlz was cofounded by acclaimed YA authors – Dia Calhoun, Lorie Ann Grover, Justina Chen, and Janet Lee Carey. Readergirlz is currently maintained by awarded YA authors – Micol Ostow, Melissa Walker, and co-founder Lorie Ann Grover.

rgz Operation Teen Book Drop has donated over 30,000 new YA books to under-served teens.

Five Questions for Cynthia Leitich Smith from The Horn Book

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What fun it was to chat with The Horn Book about creepy cuisine, werecats and the kind of shape-shifter I’d most like to be!

Pop over to check it out and join in the conversation!

See also a review of my latest novel, Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2014) from The Horn Book. Peek:

“Debut character Kayla — level-headed, religious, but also quietly proud of her shifter nature — holds her own, nicely complementing Yoshi’s swagger, Wild Card shifter Clyde’s newfound confidence, and human Aimee’s resourcefulness. Witty banter peppered with pop-culture references keeps the tone light even as the stakes ramp up.”

Cynsational Notes 

Reminder: E-volt is having a sale on Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick) for $1.99 and Feral Nights by Cynthia Leitich Smith, $2.99–discount prices will hold through April! Listen to an audio sample of Feral Nights and read a sample of Eternal

Guest Post & Giveaway: Michele Weber Hurwitz on Musings about Comparisons

By Michele Weber Hurwitz
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I have a quote taped on the wall above my computer so it’s the first thing I see every morning when I sit down to write.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

That little gem comes from some guy named Theodore Roosevelt.

What a simple, true, and startling piece of advice. The idea that comparison is a thief, and it can steal your joy, take away your happiness.

My mother had a more delicate, loving way of putting it: “Appreciate what you have, Little Miss Smarty Pants.”

This, in fact, seems to be my life lesson. I wish I could have told it to my younger self.

In this photo of me at five years old, I must have received a gift (what are those? pants? pajamas?) and so did my friend. I’m the one closer to the door. A picture is worth a thousand words, right? There I was, caught in the moment, looking at what she got, not what I got. Comparing.

And as you can see, I’m not smiling.

In high school, I compared my unruly, crazy curly hair to girls with seemingly carefree, straight locks (oh, their swinging ponytails!). In my early twenties, as I struggled to find a job, I compared myself to friends whose careers were taking off.

And later on, when I went after my dream of writing a book, I compared myself to authors who secured an agent and got published easily and quickly, while I stumbled and made endless mistakes.

Let’s not even talk about those early query letters. Or those early manuscripts.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had many happy, non-comparing moments. And I’m sure that comparison is somewhat human nature. Heck, I bet even cave women compared their hauls when they gathered herbs and berries.

But since authors live (and write) in a world of superlatives, comparison is all too easy to fall prey to. Scroll through your Facebook news feed or your Twitter timeline or the latest Publishers Weekly. It’s all there for us comparison-junkies.

Six-figure deal! Auction! Trilogy sold in 44 countries. Starred reviews. Best-seller. Award-winning, must-read, most unbelievable book ever to be published in the history of time; plus it’s being made into a movie! OMG!

While I readily and happily applaud my fellow authors’ successes, I know I’m not the only writer out there who sometimes feels daunted. And intimidated. And like maybe it’s a better idea to spend the day under the covers.

But then I look up.


I have another quote taped next to that one: “I wish that I had duck feet.”

That’s the title of a favorite book I had when I was little, an early reader by Theo. LeSieg. It’s the humorous and insightful story of a young boy who wishes he had various animal parts, like duck feet, a whale spout, and an elephant trunk. But as he imagines the pros and cons of life with these seemingly fun but ultimately troublesome additions, he decides that he’s better off just being himself.

Good choice. That’s probably my other life lesson. And perhaps, everyone’s.

The ideas of comparison and being yourself are themes that run through both of my middle grade books, Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books, 2011) and my new release, The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb Books, 2014).

In Calli Be Gold, Calli, the youngest child in a super-achieving “golden” family, struggles with the fact that she’s a regular kid and isn’t talented at sports like her siblings. She finds out what she’s good at when she bonds with an awkward second grade boy in a peer helper program at school. In her own quiet way, Calli stands up to her intense, overbearing dad and makes him understand that talent comes in many forms.

In The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days, the main character, Nina Ross, questions whether doing good really makes a difference. She gets inspired from her eighth-grade history teacher’s parting words and spends a summer doing secret good deeds in her neighborhood and for her family, despite the fact that she knows her best friend won’t understand. Nina is confused and somewhat insecure, unsure of her “group” and where she’ll fit in to the overwhelming world of high school.

As the good deeds prompt events she wasn’t expecting, Nina has to decide whether or not to stay true to her plan and herself.

Creating and getting to know the characters of Calli and Nina has taught me, as an author, to appreciate the satisfaction in small moments.

While glowing reviews and awards are certainly wonderful, I’ve come to realize that rewards arrive in many forms, and often the best are the most heartfelt, touching, and personal.

Perhaps it’s connecting with a child at a school visit, like the boy who admitted he didn’t want to read Calli Be Gold because there was a girl on the cover, but now it’s one of his favorite books. Or the email I received from a girl who wrote that Calli “inspires me to be open and kind to everyone. She makes me want to be myself.” And the boy who was too shy to come up and have me sign his book at a recent event, and sent his friend to my table instead. When I waved to the boy, his surprised, thankful, light-up-the-room smile was absolutely perfect.

It’s these moments when I nod silently to myself and think: these are the real superlatives.


Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days by Michele Weber Hurwitz (Wendy Lamb, 2014). Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Guest Post: Cheryl Rainfield on Writing Bravely

By Cheryl Rainfield
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve always had a strong need to break the silence about abuse and oppression, and to speak my truth.

Even my abusers, who repeatedly threatened to kill me if I talked, couldn’t shut down that part of my spirit.

I just found another way to do it while they abused me—not through verbal speech, through “talking,” but through art and writing. There lay healing, release, and freedom. There lay reaching out to other people, trying to find safety—and, I found, helping others know they weren’t alone.

I didn’t think of myself as brave, though so many people told me I was over the years that I developed a resistance to it—but rather as doing something that I had to do to survive.

Scars (WestSide, 2010) is an extension of that. In Scars, I wrote about things I needed to break silence about, and hoped to bring greater compassion about—being a sexual abuse survivor, cutting to cope, and being queer.

Those are all things I’ve experienced and know firsthand—and they’re also all things that I’ve been judged, blamed, or hated for in my life.

When you’re hated for who you are or who you love, for how you cope (when it isn’t hurting anyone else), or for the trauma you experienced (and your responses to the trauma), speaking out becomes a necessity. At least, it was for me.

But writing from your own trauma and pain, exposing your vulnerability, your deepest fears and hopes—baring your soul for multitudes of strangers to see—can be frightening and hard. It takes courage to write it and courage to show it.

Yet I believe that writing that taps into our own experiences and emotional truths can be among the most powerful writing. I think that it can touch others on a deep level, evoke compassion or thought, create change. And that’s something I always want to do.

There is so much of me in Kendra, the main character of Scars. So much of my vulnerability and self doubt, my emotional wounds from the abuse, my longing for real love and safety, for an end to abuse.

I know I’ve connected with my readers; it’s incredibly satisfying to receive reader letters telling me that they feel less alone, or understood for the first time in their lives, or like I was writing about them. Those letters are a balm to some of my wounds. Just getting Scars published was.

What can be hard is to read any criticism and not absorb it, not have it be a criticism about me. To not have it trigger me into depression or echoes of my abusers’ words for hours or days at a time.

Criticism, rejection—they are all part of being a writer, and they can hurt so much. It takes courage to keep on writing in the face of that.

It takes courage to pour your soul into your work, and it takes courage to read reviews about that work. But it is deeply rewarding to write your emotional truths, to write the way you need to write, to talk about the things you need to talk about, and to know that your writing is reaching others.

I hope to always write as honestly and with such courage. And I hope you do, too.

Cynsational Notes

This post was originally published in April 2011. Past posts will be sprinkled into the schedule for the duration of Cyn’s revision deadline. 

Cheryl’s more recent books include Hunted (WestSide, 2011) and Stained (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). From the promotional copy of Stained:

Seventeen-year-old Sarah Meadows covers the walls of her bedroom with images of beautiful faces she clips from magazines–and longs for “normal.” Born with a port-wine stain covering half her face, all her life she’s been plagued by stares, giggles, and bullying, and disgust. Why can’t she be like Diamond, the comic-book hero she created? Diamond would never let the insults in. That’s harder for Sarah.

But when she’s abducted on the way home from school, Sarah is forced to uncover the courage she never knew she had. Can she look beyond her face to find the beauty and strength she has inside, somehow becoming a hero rather than a victim? It’s the only way Sarah will have any chance of escaping the prison–both seen and unseen–that this deranged killer has placed around her.

Event Report: Texas Library Association Annual Conference

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Wow! What fun I had at the Texas Library Association annual conference in San Antonio. Thank you, Texas librarians, publishers, authors, illustrators, exhibitors and teens for a wonderful event!

With fellow Candlewick YA author E.E. Charlton Trujillo
Author Nikki Loftin
Author-illustrator Don Tate
Author Donna Bowman Bratton & SCBWI Austin RA Samantha Clark
Author Joy Preble
YA Literature Goddess Teri Lesesne & author Laurie Halse Anderson
With Penguin sales rep Jill Bailey
Greg with author-librarian Debbie Leland
Greg models Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (June 2014)
Author K.A. Holt with E.E.
With Greg and children’s-YA poetry guru Sylvia Vardell
With fellow author Elizabeth Bluemle
Author Phil Bildner
Bookseller Danny Woodfill with author-illustrator Mary Sullivan
With fellow author Varsha Bajaj
Greg with fellow author Sara Kocek
With author Greg Rodgers (Choctaw)
Author Liz Garton Scanlon
Author Varian Johnson
Texas Teens 4 Libraries
With Teri
Thank you, Candlewick Press!

Cynsational News

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Cover Reveal: Shattered by Mari Mancusi (Scorched #2)(Sourcebooks, 2014). From the promotional copy:

A fiery, action-packed installment in Mari Mancusi’s heart-pounding Scorched trilogy

Trinity, Connor, and Caleb are trying to stay under the radar, holed up in an abandoned West Texas farmhouse. Their only problem is Emmy: a baby dragon that’s growing like crazy. When Emmy is caught on tape and the video goes viral, they find themselves on the run again. Their only hope comes from an old map leading to a man who has come from the future to help them. But with the government hot on their heels and Caleb’s growing addiction to spending time in the Nether world, will they be able to reach him in time? And will keeping Emmy safe end up being too high a price for Trinity to pay? 

See also Mari on Kids Don’t Read Like They Used To (And That’s a Good Thing). Peek: “These days, when a tween or teen finishes a book they enjoy, the first thing they do is Google the author or series title. They’re looking for author websites with cool downloads, fan sites with forums they can chat on, videos on YouTube to watch, Facebook pages they can ‘like,’ and secret inside information about what’s coming up next. In short, they’re looking to become a part of the world in any way they can.”

More News

Choosing Writing by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman from Emu’s Debuts. Peek: “…here are the things that kept me tethered to the writing boat while the waves crashed on top of me.”

How to Make a Killer Book Trailer (for No Money) by Amy Talkington from Adventures in YA Fiction. Peek: “They told me the best book trailers are short (a minute or less) and convey the tone of the book (versus the story). These were very useful words of wisdom.” See also Do You Need a Social Media Platform? Agents Weigh In. 

Love Every Word by Jeanne Kisacky from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “I am not thinking about word count, about cutting the work into a number of independently marketable parts, or about publishing rules/trends/standards. I am simply trying to make the work as long as it needs to be to tell the story. No more. No less.”

I Am Not Accessible by Shannon Hale from Squeetus Blog. Peek: “A few years ago, I had a choice. I could 1. answer all my emails or 2. write more books. I chose books.”

Q&A Simon & Schuster Editor Zareen Jaffery from Story and Chai. Peek: “Of the hundreds of submissions I receive, I only take on about ten new books each year, predominantly novels, and that number includes multiple works by the same writer or books by previously published writers. I signed two debut authors last year. (I edit about 20 original books a year.) What I’m getting at is that the competition to get published is fierce.” Note: topics include the publication of books with Muslim characters and themes.

Writing Mental Illness: Stigma & Story by Erin E. Moulton from CBC Diversity. Peek: “I found that I had to cull from a variety of sources to make sure that I was creating an accurate, human and non-stereotypical portrayal of the Bipolar experience. I looked to both fiction and nonfiction for help on this subject.”

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

It’s a short week at Cynsations as I’m at the Texas Library Association Conference in San Antonio and then off to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California. See details below! See also more Candlewick Author & Illustrator Public Events for April 2014.

Do yourself a favor and meet Betty X Davis in this interview by Meredith Davis from Austin SCBWI. At age 99, Betty is a founding member of the chapter, plays tennis once a week, and plays Scrabble against herself. She says, “it’s always a close match.”

Here’s the Question of the Week (and from the major national media, no less): “Where the African-American Harry Potter or Mexican-American Katniss?” by Ashley Strickland from CNN. Note: I’m honored to be mentioned in such distinguished company. Peek: “Even though young adult literature is enjoying a golden age and authors are working to diversify their stories, lead characters of color or characters who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are still slow to appear in popular mainstream young adult fiction.”

The other post lingering on my mind is Keith Cronin on How to Make Somebody Hate Reading from Writer Unboxed. As a teen, I enjoyed literary analysis and went on to get a concentration in English at The University of Kansas. However, as editor of my high school newspaper, I did choose to skip senior AP English in favor of an extra hour each day in the news room.

Reminder: E-volt is having a sale on Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick) for $1.99 and Feral Nights by Cynthia Leitich Smith, $2.99–discount prices will hold through April! Listen to an audio sample of Feral Nights and read a sample of Eternal. Check out what I didn’t plan about the Feral series from YA Series Insider.

Thanks to Debbie Reese for recommending my
picture book Jingle Dancer (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000) in her interview for How Children’s Books Fuel Mascot Stereotypes
by Aura Bogado from Color Lines.   

Cheers to Lee Bennett Hopkins, the Most Prolific Anthologist of Poetry for Children, as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Kudos to Austin author-illustrator Jeff Crosby for his new website celebrating Rockabilly Goats Gruff (Holiday House, 2014)!

Personal Links:

Cynsational Events

Meet Cynthia Leitich Smith in the author signing area from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. April 9 at the Texas Library Association conference in San Antonio. Greg Leitich Smith will be signing at that same time and date in Booth 1443 (Book Festivals of Texas). See the complete author signing listings. See also conference signings by Texas authors.

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith, along with Soman Chainani, Margaret Stohl, Laini Taylor, and moderator John Corey Whaley for “Young Adult Fantasy: The Real & the Unreal” (conversation 1095) in the Norris Theater at 4:30 p.m. (signing to follow) April 12 at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California.

Join Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler in celebrating their new middle grade novels at 2 p.m. June 14 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.

Event Report: Liz Garton Scanlon’s Launch for The Good-Pie Party

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Liz Garton Scanlon launched The Good-Pie Party, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton (Arthur A. Levine, 2014) last weekend at BookPeople in Austin.

Liz did a PowerPoint presentation about her own experiences moving from home to home around the globe and then read the book, showing the illustrations on screen.

Liz greets guests in a dessert-themed dress with lemonade, pies and veggie snacks.
Pies donated by Royer’s Pie Haven — new in Austin (2900 B. Guadalupe).
Author Greg Leitich Smith and author-illustrator Emma Virjan
Liz chats with young readers and fellow Austin authors.
Authors Sam Bond and Cynthia Leitich Smith
Austin SCBWI founder Meredith Davis and Cyn
Liz signs her book for Greg.

Cynsational Notes 

From the promotional copy:

Posy, Megan, and Mae have always been the best of friends — but now Posy has to move away. 

Only their favorite activity can comfort the girls: baking pie! 

And when they realize they can host a good-pie party instead of a good-bye party, the sad situation becomes a sweet gathering for their entire community. 

The Good-Pie Party celebrates good friends, good memories, and the joy of the just-right good-byes.

New Voice: Skila Brown on Caminar

Teacher’s Guide

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Skila Brown is the first-time author of Caminar (Candlewick, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Set in 1981 Guatemala, a lyrical debut novel tells the powerful tale of a boy who must decide what it means to be a man during a time of war.

Carlos knows that when the soldiers arrive with warnings about the Communist rebels, it is time to be a man and defend the village, keep everyone safe. But Mama tells him not yet — he’s still her quiet moonfaced boy. 

The soldiers laugh at the villagers, and before they move on, a neighbor is found dangling from a tree, a sign on his neck: Communist. 

Mama tells Carlos to run and hide, then try to find her. . . . 

Numb and alone, he must join a band of guerillas as they trek to the top of the mountain where Carlos’s abuela lives. Will he be in time, and brave enough, to warn them about the soldiers? What will he do then? 

A novel in verse inspired by actual events during Guatemala’s civil war, Caminar is the moving story of a boy who loses nearly everything before discovering who he really is.

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

a mountain in Guatemala, much like the one Carlos must climb

I think I’m like a lot of people in that I write best without interruptions, with a beautiful view, a clear head, a well-rested and well-fed brain, in a comfortable chair, and whenever the muse visits me.

But if I waited for all that to happen, I’d never finish a book. I’d frankly never even start one.

Most writers wear a lot of different hats, juggling a lot of different lives, especially when we’re new writers.

The biggest hat I wear is Mom. I have three kids who are home with me all day, every day, as we’re a homeschooling family. So the answer to this question is: I write whenever I can. And sometimes when I really can’t.

I take advantage of the waiting moments, like music lessons and swim practice, and I hide over in the corner with my notebook or laptop, writing, instead of socializing with other parents or playing games on my phone. I write early in the morning and sometimes late at night. I write after lunch, when I force the kids into an hour of quiet. I stay home and write instead of attending all kinds of events like parties and concerts and whatever else goes on around me.

First draft, written out of order & by hand

I believe firmly that no one is going to give me time and space to write. I have to take it. I also believe I have to keep that in check and constantly remind myself that I’m more than just a writer. That I need to step away from the notepad or computer and turn that part of me off for periods of time.

What works best for me is a few hours a week that are carved out for writing, and anything else is a bonus.

But there are a lot more bonus opportunities out there than we realize. I think about my novels while I’m driving, in the shower, cooking, and falling asleep. I work out a lot of issues during this time that frees me up in my official writing hours.

I also write best by hand. My first drafts are better when I jot them out by hand. It takes longer and that’s a good thing. I’m more careful with my words.

I like to write with pencil, in a variety of notebooks, journals, even scrap pieces of paper. I write out of order, which is frustrating at times, but seems to work best for so I’m trying to embrace it.

Figuring out our writing process is so important, isn’t it? And it takes a few years to really see how and what brings out our best writing.

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

I was first drawn into the period of time and the events that were happening in Guatemala around this time. I’d been reading and learning about Guatemala’s history, and specifically the way the United States impacted that, and it was all troubling to say the least.

I read about villages that were massacred and how a few people, some children, would escape such an event and what their escape would be like. I started to imagine the story of a child who survives. What he must do, how he might feel, where he might go.

During the time that I was writing I continued doing research, reading a lot of journals and interview excerpts from people who lived in the middle of this violence. I watched documentaries. I sought out the help of friends who are a part of this culture. I felt challenged to make sure what I was saying was as authentic and accurate as it could be. I was very much aware of the fact that I was an outsider to this time and place, and that I had an important task to tell the story and to tell it right.

Tim Wynne-Jones, Katherine & Shelley at VCFA

Shelley Tanaka, an editor, author and writing teacher, was inspirational to me in overcoming my angst about writing outside my culture.

She said to me that my worries about this would help me to be as diligent as I could to tell the story with respect and care.

I had the good fortune to be in a writing workshop in which Katherine Paterson was a guest speaker. Someone asked her, “You’ve written outside of your culture a lot. How do you come to terms with the fact that you’re an outsider, and that maybe you shouldn’t be writing about a culture that isn’t yours?”

Her answer was both humbling and reassuring because she made it clear that this is something she struggles with, too. I listened to her talk about this and realized the only hope for tackling this myself was to do it with humility. And that’s just what I’ve tried to do.

I recognize that it won’t be a perfect portrayal of what happened then and why. I see my own limitations as an outsider. But I also feel the story—the sadness and the hope—is an important one, and one that needs to be told.

At the end of the day, I hope I’ve done it in the most respectful manner I can.

Guest Post: Joseph Bruchac on “You Don’t Look Indian.”

By Joseph Bruchac
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

You don’t look like an Indian.

Ever heard anyone say that? It’s a safe bet that you have if you’re a contemporary Native American. Or, as my friends in Canada put it, a member of a First Nation.

And those were the exact words that I heard this past Saturday. Standing in front of a group of fifty sixth and seventh graders at Henry Hudson Middle School (And no, I shall not go into a rant about its namesake right now) in the Bronx.

I’d just finished doing my presentation to that very polite audience. Great kids. The very fact that they were here spending a sunny Saturday morning in school spoke volumes about their motivation. I’d been introduced as an American Indian author.

And as I told a story and then talked a little about my two YA novels—Wolf Mark (Lee & Low, 2011) and Killer of Enemies (Lee & Low/Tu, 2013)–which had just been given to each of those young men and women, they’d listened attentively.

“So,” I said, “any questions?”

And that was when, in the second row, the young woman wearing a scarf had raised her hand and made that comment.
“You don’t look like an Indian.”

Okay, time to explain–for anyone reading this who is not of aboriginal American ancestry—just why those six words went off in my brain like a shot from a starter’s pistol.

Native people have had to deal for decades with stereotyping. Thanks to mass media, it seems as if every non-Native person from the 19th century to today has an idea of what a “real” Indian looks like.

It’s an image involving feathers, beads, tipis, bows and arrows, hunting buffalo on horseback, long black hair and a deeply tanned skin. Lacking those accouterments may result in one’s authenticity being questioned. Or lead to the question which frequently follows such an observation: “How much Indian blood do you have?”

(Alas, I had not brought along the dipstick I sometimes have thrust into my belt which enables me to respond to that latter query by pulling said dipstick out and saying “I seem to be down by a quart.”)

My friend Drew Hayden Taylor, Canada’s most prolific (and one of its funniest) indigenous writers has responded to such comments in a highly readable collection of essay series entitled Advenures of a Blue-Eyed Ojibwa, Funny You Don’t Look Like One (Theytus, 1999-2004).

My sister Marge, currently heading the Native Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, has a routine that she used to do when she made school visits. She’d arrive in her everyday clothing with a large trunk.

“Do I look like an Indian?” she’d ask.

And the answer (despite her tanned face and long black hair), was usually “No.” Then she would reach into the trunk and pull out a necklace and put it on. “How about now?”

Following which she would extract more items of her regalia until she was finally clothed as a Native woman might be when going to a powwow, or enacting a past era. “And now?” she’d ask. And when the reply was “Yes, you look like an Indian,” she would ask them, “What was I before I was dressed this way?”

Any question, even one that seems to come from a place informed by misinformation, can provide a teachable moment.

So my reply to that young woman was careful and measured. I pointed out that Native Americans today often dress and look like other Americans of various ancestries. I talked about the cultural differences from one Native nation to another. I mentioned the fact that many of us are of mixed ancestry but are accepted by our tribal nations and identify ourselves first and foremost as members of that nation. Nationhood, in fact, is an important part of being Native, knowing our Native languages, practicing and honoring our cultures.

As I talked the image came to me of one of my favorite paintings. “Done” by Rick Hill, the Tuscarora artist and educator, I first saw it thirty years ago in the Akwesasne Cultural Center. It showed an Iroquois man from around the 17th century. Dressed in full regalia, his face was traditionally painted, his hair cut in the classic Mohawk roach. His yellow hair. The title was “The First Blonde-Haired Mohawk.”

“You can’t judge a person by their looks,” I said. “How a person appears on the outside doesn’t tell you what is in that person’s mind and heart.”

At that point one of the teachers sitting in the back chipped in. “People think I’m black,” she said. “But I belong to the Cherokee Nation. I’m listed with the tribe.”

Which led to a discussion of just how many African slaves who found their way to freedom in the American South were taken in by various Native nations, adopted, married in and lived out their lives as American Indians. Look at almost any African American whose ancestry on this continent goes back to the time of slavery and you’ll find there are American Indians in that person’s family tree. Strong roots woven together.

When I finished, that young woman had a smile on her face. Other eager hands were being raised. And I spent another half hour answering questions before moving on to signing everyone’s books. It was a great session. As I shook the hands of the students many of them asked if I’d be coming back again next year, including the young women who made that initial comment.

“I very much enjoyed all that you shared with us,” she said, adjusting her sari back over her shoulder as she spoke. “It was very interesting.”

Nice job, Bruchac. Well done. Right? Ah. . .

Rerun that comment. Consider the context. I was on the train halfway to Albany when it hit me like a dope slap.

A third of the young men and women in the class I’d just visited were typical of the demographic shift that is taking place in the American population. They were from South Asia. And that was why there was a mischievous twinkle in that young woman’s eye when she made that initial remark.

Dang you, Critoforo Colombo!

Yet another misunderstanding stemming from the Genoan navigator’s assumption that the girth of the earth was half its actual size. And that his first landfall in the Bahamas was the East Indies. What was then called India. And thus our many nations ended up being labeled as “Indians.”

That mistaken (some would say misbegotten) arrival of old Chris’s has caused a lot of confusion over the years. Which brings to mind a joke that I believe I first heard from Charlie Hill, the Oneida comedian. “It could have been worse. Columbus could have thought he’d arrived in Turkey.

Getting back to Henry Hudson Junior High and the remark that started this whole text. I really should have guessed the actual gist of her observation. After all, in the last decade I’d heard more and more often from Indian Americans, asking me what the deal was about indigenous Americans referring to themselves as Indians.

“Don’t you have any pride in your own culture?” a young man from Orissa asked me in an e-mail two years ago.
The thing is, as I explained it to him, that the word “Indian” has been part of the common parlance for so long that it’s been accepted by Native Americans. “Indian” is written into the American Constitution and found in the language of all the treaties and the legal dealings with our various tribal nations.

And it is not just in the past. The most widely distributed Native American publication is called “Indian Country News.” When the new museum reflecting the cultures or the indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere was created on the National Mall in Washington D.C. it was designated as the National Museum of the American Indian—a name chosen with the input of countless tribal advisers.

Should we prefer, nay, insist upon the term “Native American?” Consider the fact that it could (and once did) refer to anyone born in the United States. In fact there was a “Native American” movement a century ago or so that emphasized the legitimacy of “Native Americans” of white English and Northern European and demonized immigrants.

Plus, as with “American Indian,” the accepted etymology of “American” stems from the moniker of that other Italian dude, old Amerigo Vespucci. (The “feminized Latin version of his first name”—or so sayeth Wikipedia.)

(There are other theories, I must hasten to add. Such as that the name ‘Indian” came from an observation made by Columbus that the native people he encountered were living in such a state of blessedness that they were people who were In Deo, living “in God.” And that “America” stems from the supposedly native word—some say Carib—of Amerikkua, meaning something like “the Land of the Winds.” There used to be a publication named “AMERIKKUA”.)

National Museum of the American Indian

Canada, as I mentioned at the start, officially avoids both the “American Indian” and the “Native American” label. Our neighbors to the North go with First Nations, Aboriginal Nations, and so on. Though an awful lot of my First Nations friends seem comfortable with calling themselves Indian when they’re with a group of other Native people. (The name “Canada,” by the way, does come from a Native word. “Kenata” means “village” in one of the Iroquoian dialects of the St. Lawrence region.”)

What I usually suggest is to let folks tell you what they prefer in terms of the term that refers to their indigenous identity. Start first with one’s individual tribal nation before moving on to one of those blanket designations draped around the unwitting shoulders of all our nations. (Go back before going back to the blanket? Never mind.)

Anyhow, yet again, I have been reminded that there are there are so many ways one can be wrong about being right. And thus I must end this rambling discourse with the simple admission that insofar as resembling someone from the great subcontinent goes, my seventh grade friend was indeed correct when she said:

“You don’t look like an Indian.”

Cynsational Notes

Joe originally published this essay to his facebook page. It is reproduced here with permission.

Cynsational News

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Embrace the Struggles of Writing by Elisa Ludwig from Adventures in YA Writing. Peek: “No one is ever going to come to me and say, ‘Awesome. You did it. You can go home now.’ Which means that as long as I stay with this, I’m going to have to wrestle with doubts.”

Writing Humor by Yahong Chi from Project Mayhem. Peek: “Because the characters’ experience is, to a certain extent, removed from the reader’s experience, you’ll often find that readers are laughing when characters aren’t.” See also “Star Wars” Writing Lesson: Adding Humor to Life or Death Situations from Project Mayhem.

Why Are Booksellers Afraid of Children’s Poetry? by Mandy Coe from The Guardian. Peek: “No one doubts that a market for children’s poetry exists. Children relish it, parents appreciate its accessibility and infinite re-readability, and teachers who’ve unlocked its potential in the classroom swear by it.” See also On Language–Energy by Naomi Shihab Nye from E. Kristin Anderson at Write All the Words!

Dare I Tell an Agent to Hold That Offer? by Deborah Halverson from Peek: “Authors are emotionally invested in their work and can lose sight of representation being a business partnership.”

10 Tips About Process by Brunonia Barry from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “As I work, I usually find that this initial, situational question leads to a deeper, more philosophical one, which becomes the theme of the novel. I don’t try to answer that deeper question.”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Diversity in YA by Zoraida Córdova from Latin@s in Kidlit. Peek: “Let’s be friends. Reach out to someone who has a different experience as you. Read. I to this date have yet to read a YA about a teenage Ecuadorian girl. Not even a slice of life story about a girl who falls in love and there’s a nice cover of them at the beach, or lying down on a lawn. See
also White with Envy by Celeste Lim from CBC Diversity and Diverse Poetry Novels from Rich in Color. Note: scroll for summaries.

What Do Agents Like to See When They Google Writers? from Carly Waters, Literary Agent. Peek: “Blog posts that aren’t discussing the submission process in too much detail.”

Talent & Skills Entry: Archery by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “focus, perfectionism, self-controlled, studious, disciplined, patience, resourceful, observant, tenacious…”

National Poetry Month Kidlitosphere Events by Jama Rattigan from Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup.See also Introducing Students to NCTE’s Notable Poetry Titles.

Yes, Book Editors Edit by Barry Harbaugh from The New Yorker. Peek: “In a business as reliant on hope and potential as book publishing is—a business, in other words, reliant on the development of talent—the accumulation of exceptional anecdotes of perfect manuscripts does not tell the whole story.”

A Shameless Plea for More Gender Diversity on Middle Grade Author Panels by Caroline Carlson from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “I’ve been fortunate to appear on several panels with other middle grade authors, and I have often been the only woman on the panel.”

My Take on John Green, the YA World and the New York Times Bestselling List from Laurie Halse Anderson. Peek: “He is not responsible for the sudden dudification of the NYT Bestseller list, nor is it his responsibility to somehow magically fix it. The social problems and pressures that have created this mess are much older and deeper than any one person can repair. However – we…”

Presenting to School Students: Top Tips by Juliet Marillier from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “I let students know in advance that I’d be giving away copies of my books to those who asked the most interesting questions.”

Spelling Tip: there is no apostrophe in Publishers Weekly.

Looking for a Publishing Job? Lee & Low is hiring a marketing/publicity assistant, educational sales associate and a marketing/publicity intern for summer 2014.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Revisions of Feral Pride (Book 3 in the Feral series) still continue! But at least we’ve shifted from re-envision mode to polish mode! That’s progress, right? Right?

More about the TLA Conference!

Next week will you be at the Texas Library Association Conference in San Antonio or the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California? If so, please come see me! Details are below under Cynsational Events.

The post lingering on my mid this week is Laurie Halse Anderson‘s on John Green, YA Books and Bestsellers. I appreciate the shout out (thanks, Laurie!), but what I loved most about it was the call to action. Also, in case I haven’t mentioned it, I want to be Laurie when I grow up.

On a related note, I’m pondering Keeping It Real by Soho Press editor Dan Ehrenhaft from CBC Diversity. Peek: “Yes! It’s true. Overseas, The Market welcomes realistic YA fiction, as well. There is one caveat: As long as that reality is pretty much confined to white people.” Note: As someone who writes both realism and fantasy, I’m happy to see realism getting more love, but the fact that it’s for certain heroes only does concern me.

What else? I was thrilled this week when Donna Gephart informed me that I’m the author of the all-time highest traffic post at her blog, Wild About Words. See Promote Your Book Like a Pro — Cynthia Leitich Smith — Top 6 1/2 List!

Likewise, I’m thinking about Joe McGee‘s Heroes Needed: No Cape Required and Paul Greci‘s From Concept to Contract.

I’m also honored to have been quoted in “Stories in Art: Picture Books and Graphic Novels” by Katherine Swarts, which appears in Writers Guide to 2014. See cover above.

E-volt is having a sale on Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick) for $1.99 and Feral Nights by Cynthia Leitich Smith, $2.99–discount prices will hold through April! Listen to an audio sample of Feral Nights and read a sample of Eternal. Check out what I didn’t plan about the Feral series from YA Series Insider.

Reminder to Central Texans! Liz Garton Scanlon will sign The Good-Pie Party, illustrated by Kady McDonald Denton (Arthur A. Levine Books) at 2 p.m. April 5 at BookPeople.

Congratulations to Austin cakelustrator Akiko White on signing with Rising Bear Literary Agency!

Congratulations to fellow Austin author K.A. Holt on the sale of “Red Moon Rising” to Karen Wojtyla at McElderry (by Ammi-Joan Paquette at Erin Murphy Literary Agency)!

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

Meet Cynthia Leitich Smith in the author signing area from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. April 9 at the Texas Library Association conference in San Antonio. Greg Leitich Smith will be signing at that same time and date in Booth 1443 (Book Festivals of Texas). See the complete author signing listings. See also conference signings by Texas authors.

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith, along with Soman Chainani, Margaret Stohl, Laini Taylor, and moderator John Corey Whaley for “Young Adult Fantasy: The Real & the Unreal” (conversation 1095) in the Norris Theater at 4:30 p.m. (signing to follow) April 12 at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California.

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.

Get Ready to Rock the Drop on Teen Literature Day (April 17) with readergirlz.