In Memory: Maya Angelou

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Remembering Maya Angelou from NBC News. Peek: “The renowned poet, author and civil rights activist with the unmistakably regal voice died on May 28 at the age of 86.”

Wishing You “Amazing Peace,” Maya Angelou by Sylvia Vardell from Poetry for Children. Peek: “Maya Angelou published several works for young readers, including…”

In a Commanding Literary Voice, Maya Angelou Sang Out to the World by Elizabeth Alexander from The New York Times. Peek: “The intimate lives of such women were not considered the stuff of memoir on a grand scale until the success of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), which found a readership of millions.” Note: Maya Angelou‘s first book was published when she was 41.

The Language of Maya Angelou by Anne H. Charity Hudley from Slate Magazine. Peek: “The language in her works reflect the different social and cultural worlds that she navigated, especially as a groundbreaking Black poet with access to Standardized English, African American English, and the great diversity of both.”

Maya Angelou: A Hymn to Human Endurance by Lev Grossman from Time. Peek: “When Maya Angelou was 16 she became not only the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco but the first woman conductor. By the time she was 40 she had also been, in no particular order, a cook, a waitress, a madam, a prostitute, a dancer, an actress, a playwright, an editor at an English-language newspaper in Egypt, and a Calypso singer…”

Maya Angelou, Radical Activist by Adam Sewer from MSNBC. Peek: “History has a way of turning radicals into Hallmark cards–a task made even easier with Angelou given that she
literally wrote Hallmark cards. But behind her inspirational quotes and talent for turning a phrase was a dedicated activist, not just a witness but a fighter in the battle for black rights in America.” 

Maya Angelou’s Life in Photos from The New Yorker.

How Maya Angelou Touched a Young Teacher’s Life by Valerie Strauss from The Washington Post. Peek: “I’d been nervous to use Angelou’s memoir; there was a deep racist streak in the town, and the school itself had recently had a racially charged incident. But Angelou’s story of struggle resonated deeply with my students, and when we finished Caged Bird, they decided to continue reading as many of her books as they could.”

Food, Friends and Freedom: Nikki Giovanni Remembers Maya Angelou from CNN. Peek: “We only have to look at her life to see that she took every ounce of joy life had to offer.”

Maya Angelou Was Deeper Than a Pithy Quote by Mary Schmich from The Chicago Tribune. Peek: “Death is an occasion to get to know someone better. The publicity surrounding Angelou’s death has provided a lot of people with the occasion to look more closely at her life and her writing.”

Books in Remembrance of Maya Angelou (1928-2014), compiled by Elissa Gershowitz from The Horn Book. Peek: “We were saddened to hear of the passing of Maya Angelou. Here are some books by which to help remember the great author and poet.”

Cynsational Screening Room

Maya Angelou: 1928-2014 from the Associated Press.

Maya Angelou: Finding My Voice from Visionary Project. Peek: “…mutism is like a drug. It’s so addictive. You don’t have to do anything.”

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The Fight for Desegregation by Julie Danielson from Kirkus Reviews. Note: Focusing on Duncan Tonatiuh’s Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation (Abrams, 2014). Peek: “My artwork is very much inspired by Pre-Columbian art, especially by Mixtec codices from the 14th century. That is why my art is very geometric, my characters are always in profile, and their ears look a bit like the number three. My intention is to celebrate that ancient art and keep it alive.”

Seven Things You Need to Know About After the Book Deal by Maria E. Andreu from Latin@s in Kid Lit. Peek: “I got an editorial letter so detailed that I shut the document immediately after seeing its page count (let’s just say this: it was in the double digits) and couldn’t make myself open it for two weeks. Be prepared. It’s not about you. It’s about making the work the best it can be.”

Writers’ Anxiety by Tom Bentley from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “…the kind of anxiety I’m talking about is a nagging sore, an ache. This is lousy for anyone, but particularly lousy for writers, who often waver in their confidence. That kind of poor-mouthing of my own work has put up walls for me. But if the walls can’t be fully toppled, there are ways to peek around them.” See also Recovering the Joy in Writing by Barbara O’Neal from Writer Unboxed.

Michael Criton’s Method for Plotting Out a Story by Dorothy Cora Moore from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “Michael said he developed his 3″ x 5″ index-card method of plotting out a story while going to Harvard Medical School, and he did this before writing one word. He needed to supplement his income by writing books under a pseudonym, and this is how he did it.”

Fictional Mirrors & Childhood from Salima Alikhan. Peek: “I remember resenting the fact that every cartoon heroine was blond, and that nearly every villainess had dark hair.” See also A Place at the Table by editor Yolanda Scott from CBC Diversity.

How to Balance High Action with Deep Characterization by Deborah Halverson from Peek: “Give characters something to talk about and bond/conflict over that isn’t directly related to the plot. Then, to make sure that Something doesn’t feel random and unconnected, work it into the resolution of the story.”

Kirkus Unveils Three $50,000 Book Prizes by Ron Charles from The Washington Post. Peek: “Kirkus announced its creation of three new literary awards worth $50,000 each. The annual Kirkus Prizes, which will be among the largest cash awards in the literary world, will honor works of fiction, nonfiction and young readers’ literature. Only books that have received a starred review in Kirkus will be eligible for consideration.” Source: Bookshelves of Doom.

When We’re Forced to Work Outside Our Own Writing Boxes by Tracy Hahn-Burkett from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “I use iCal on my laptop and iPhone, and now anyone who looks can see I’ve frequently got time marked off for ‘meetings’ with people who just happen to share my primary characters’ names. I also print the calendar out each week and tape it to my desk.”

Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of The Boy Problem by Kami Kinard (Scholastic, 2014) was Jen in Massachusetts.

The winners of Homicidal Aliens and Other Disappointments by Brian Yansky were Kate in California and Charlotte in Rhode Island.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

My highlight of the week was reading a YA manuscript aloud for a fellow Austinite who’s about to send it to his agent. Some of you may want to try that strategy.

Ask a fellow writer, one who’s brand new to your text, to read it to you.

It’s a terrific way to catch typos, junk DNA (elements that made since in previous drafts but now don’t), gender-pronoun confusion, and other minor glitches that might slightly drag an otherwise agent-or-editor-ready submission.

You’ll also get a sense of when reader interest may start to flag or gear up and what touching or humorous moments really hit their mark. Beyond that, it’ll help fuel you with fresh enthusiasm, right when you’re psyching yourself up to send out the story (or, in other words, right when you need it).

Greg & Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn

I also enjoyed “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” which was far less depressing than “X-Men: The Last Stand”

Thanks to Pamela K. Witte for Author Interviews that Rock: Cynthia Leitich Smith at Ink & Angst. Peek: “…I’m reclaiming and reinventing myself right now. The future feels less certain than it’s been in a long time yet bursting with possibilities.”

Buzz is building for Greg Leitich Smith‘s Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook, June 2014)!

From Live to Read: “The characters are very witty and keep the story largely entertaining throughout the entire length of the story. All in all, this makes for a fun quick read that should prove interesting for many in the middle grade.”

From Read Write Tell: “The author does what I hope to do which is take an idea–aliens among us in this case–and give it some twisting, original good fun with characters kids will relate too. And yep, he’s got voice all over the place.”

From Book Reviews & More: “This book is a great entertaining read, humorous, quirky and full of surprises.”

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

Middle Grade Mayhem! Join Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler in celebrating their new novels at 2 p.m. June 14 at BookPeople in Austin. See more information. Don’t miss this article about Varian and The Great Greene Heist (Scholastic) from Kirkus Reviews.

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith in discussing Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2014) with the YA Reading Club at 11 a.m. June 28 at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

Guest Post & Giveaway: Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand & Emma Trevayne on Writing Prompts

By Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand & Emma Trevayne

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The Cabinet of Curiosities began in January 2013 as a spooky-stories website devised by Emma Trevayne, who invited Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, and Claire Legrand to join her.

Each month they choose a theme, from cake to love to Halloween, and each Wednesday, one of them posts a scary middle-grade story written to that prompt.

On May 27, 2014, Greenwillow/HarperCollins released a collection of those stories, The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister, which includes eight never-before-seen pieces, other new material, and art by Alexander Jansson. It has already received a Kirkus star.

The widely-scattered Cabinet curators—they live in New Jersey, Austin, London, and Zurich—gather below to talk about what they love (and hate) about writing to prompts.

Stefan Bachmann: I was actually pretty terrified to start writing with prompts. I had never done that before, and I had never tried writing one short story per month either, and I was convinced it would stifle my creativity or something.

Our prompt for the first month was “Cake”, so I started a story called “The Little Cakemaker” about a girl who bakes cakes for the people she doesn’t like and thereby brings about their weird and gruesome downfalls. And it was lame and fake, and I was like, “I can’t do this.”

So I ended up re-purposing a very old story about a dollhouse with metal spider-legs and adding a reference to cake to make it work. Basically. I cheated that first month.

But I got over the initial shock the prompts weren’t a problem anymore, and now I really like them. I like trying to think of the least obvious way to make the prompt an integral part of the story.

One of our themes coming up is keys. I’m already excited. Because what kind of keys are they? And what if someone had keyhole for eyes? What would unlock them? And keys have teeth, right? So what if the keys eat things… Ahem. And so on and so forth.

This is Stefan, roughly 86% of the time.

Katherine Catmull: Sometimes—often—my brain spins like a tire on ice. Writing prompts give me some traction, which is incalculably helpful. In fact, I began getting serious about writing when I entered the ScriptWorks (they’re an Austin-Dallas playwrights’ organization) “Weekend Fling” contest, where we write a ten-minute play to three rules in 48 hours.

I often use prompts even in non-Cabinet writing, and not always words. I’ll focus on a writing problem, then do a random Flickr search or draw a tarot card.

Once you’re deep into a book, you’d think writing to prompts would narrow you too much, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. They’re flint to spark against.

Katherine’s cat, who, like her, is curious, nervous, and frequently aghast.

Claire Legrand: You might think writing to a prompt would limit your creativity, but that hasn’t proven at all true for me. In fact, I find it as helpful as writing a novel based on an outline; the prompt gives me guidance and focuses my creativity.

Writing to a prompt also helps stretch my creativity. For example, last March we wrote to the prompt “luck.” Without that prompt, I might have never thought of writing about a demonic monster living in an old tin who, once released, grants children luck in exchange for pain—which ended up being one of my favorite stories!

The only part of Claire’s office not covered in plastic
cockroaches and cat hair. (That’s a Lyra doll, by the way, not

Emma Trevayne: The first thing I do when writing to a prompt is play word association, looking for a way in. For example, with our “cake” prompt, I thought of baking, icing, decoration, birthdays…and then I thought of how in England, where I live, small cupcakes are known as fairy cakes.

Aha. Now that had possibilities. From there, a tale of malevolent fairies who demand cake from innocent villagers as part of a yearly ritual (like a birthday!) unfolded.

Prompts are excellent for getting you moving forward creatively, and with the Cabinet, I love seeing how the four of us take one word and run forward but in completely different directions.

Emma admits that, yes, she cleaned before taking this pic.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister (Greenwillow, 2014)
signed by one of its authors! For one entry, leave a comment. For four entries, leave an extremely short (100 words or less) scary story in the comments. In honor of the Cabinet authors’ status as visitors to Cynsations, please write your story to the prompt: “visitors”. Author sponsored. U.S. only.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Guest Post: Jennifer Ziegler on How to Live Happily Ever After With Another Writer

Authors Chris Barton & Jennifer Ziegler; photo by Sam Bond Photography

By Jennifer Ziegler
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I keep getting asked: “What is it like, living with another writer?”

Chris Barton, the love of my life, who lives with me in a not-quite-big-enough house in Austin, also writes books for young people.

This shared pursuit brought us together in the first place, and had a lot to do with our courtship.

Now it’s a huge part of our marriage.

I think what people are specifically wondering about is how does it help or hinder our writing – and our marriage?

Upon reflection I’ve come up with some underlying “rules” that make our partnership work.

1) We celebrate each other’s triumphs – even if it’s “Yay, you worked out that thorny section in chapter nine!” Because we are fans of each other’s work, each other’s victories feel like our own.

But also, we know that because other rewards, like honors, critical acclaim, and, yes, money, are fleeting in this business, we need other ways to measure our success. And a hard-fought victory over a tricky section is every bit as worthy of commemoration as a major award.

In addition to complimenting each other…

Jenny & Cyn

2) We complement each other. He’s tilted toward nonfiction and I’m strictly in the made-up realm. He’s mainly picture book and I’m YA /middle grade. He’s a little bit country and I’m a little bit rock and roll.

There’s plenty of room in the writing world for both of us so it isn’t like we’re competing for the same prize.

Plus, we learn from each other. He’s great at logistics and structure. Meanwhile, I can easily steep myself in a story’s emotions and will know my main characters as if they were living under our roof.

3) We respect each other’s processes. Chris can work in one to two-hour bursts every day from inception to finish. I start out slowly and end up in deep dive where I work for several hours at a time. Near deadlines I’m pretty useless in the outside world, and will forget other obligations or details. Like dental appointments. And my name.

We do our best to understand each other’s methodologies. It’s like being a boxing trainer. You have to know when to get in there, give water, massages, and pep talks, and when to get the heck out of the ring and let the other person do what they do. Which brings me to my last item…

Learn more!

4) We know how we each take our coffee and sandwiches. Often it’s the small things, like having a grilled-cheese with a slice of fresh tomato set beside you as you work, that can keep you going through tough spots – both in marriage and writing.

Marriage and writing are somewhat similar.

You have to be committed. You have to know that when it isn’t perfect, you can always find a way to make it better. And both allow you the opportunity to create something meaningful and enduring.

Here’s to happy ever afters.

Cynsational Notes

Congratulations to Jennifer Ziegler on the release of Revenge of the Flower Girls (Scholastic, 2014)! From the promotional copy:

One bride. Two guys. Three flower girls who won’t forever hold their peace. What could go wrong with this wedding? Everything!

The Brewster triplets — Dawn, Darby, and Delaney — would usually spend their summer eating ice cream, playing with their dog, and reading about the United States presidents. But this year they’re stuck helping their big sister, Lily, plan her wedding. Lily used to date Alex, who was fun and nice and played trivia games with the triplets, and no one’s quite sure why they broke up. Burton, Lily’s groom-to-be, is not nice or fun, and he looks like an armadillo.

The triplets can’t stand to see Lily marry someone who’s completely wrong for her, so it’s up to them to stop the wedding before anyone says “I do”! The flower girls will stop at nothing to delay Lily’s big day, but will sprinklers, a photo slideshow, a muddy dog, and some unexpected allies be enough to prevent their big sister — and the whole Brewster family — from living unhappily ever after?

Middle Grade Mayhem! Join Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler in celebrating their new novels at 2 p.m. June 14 at BookPeople in Austin. See more information.

Guest Post: Gail Giles on Writing Across Mental Abilities

By Gail Giles
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Okay, so I’m going to try to write a book that fully explores the life of a special needs girl, two of them in fact. And I’m going to do in in alternating voices—in first person.

How do I get in the heads of people that I am not? Whose mental abilities are different that mine?

First, I have a background. I taught special needs (the upper end) in my classes when I taught high school.

 Some would be able to read and some never would, but they were in my reading classes nevertheless.

I saw first hand what they could and couldn’t do. What their frustrations were and were not. How tired they became when we did the same things over and again. How they needed variety just as much if not more as the higher-functioning students did.

I learned that one thing the special needs student understood is that he or she is special needs. Knew exactly what that needs was. As Biddy puts it, what her “dys” is—her dysfunction.

These students may have a hard time learning, but they have had years to learn that they are different and that is frustrating.

I learned that not all special need students are patient, naive and kind. Some have lower boiling points than others. Some resent the attitudes that the “normal” people in society have toward them. I learned that they have coping skills that give them insight that can amaze. Or sometimes have tunnel vision and anger issues that come from their disabilities.

Gail’s office

I did research, of course, but it kind of told me the same things that I saw in anecdotal form. I learned at what point in the I.Q. the idea of grammar and tense seems to form. I learned at what point in the I.Q. reading can happen. I learned that dysgraphia is the least diagnosed form of the spectrum. But possibly not the least prevalent.

I learned a lot of facts in my research, but I learned more from the students. I learned that inability to read or write or do more than simple math is not really the issue with most of the students.

It’s that people make assumptions about them that are not true. These students can become and will become and are now functioning members of society.

What they want most is to be appreciated for who they are.

I can write that. It’s not so different than anybody else.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews cheers, “A respectful and winningly told story…bravo.”

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly raves: “blunt, honest, and absorbing story…rewarding and powerful.”

Gail’s writing assistant

Gail’s take-a-break-from-writing assistant

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith for Cynsations

Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluck, illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis (Inhabit Media): a recommendation by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children’s Literature. Peek: “Kalluk’s words and Neonakis’s art work beautifully together as we learn Inuit values in which people and animals coexist as caretakers of the land.” See also Throat Singing in the Arctic and Debbie’s recommendation of Arigon Starr’s Super Indian.

All Hail Dilemmas: Why Your Characters Need to Make Tough Choices by Jan O’Hara from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “…within the limits of their world view, whenever a character is pushed out of a state of equilibrium by forces of antagonism, they will always elect to take the smallest step that can return them to balance.”

We Need Diversity in Aging, Also by Lindsey McDivett from A is for Aging. Peek: “The forgetful grandpa, the beloved grandma who dies, the grumpy old man in need of childish cheering, the sad and lonely old woman down the block—they tug at our heartstrings. More than likely that’s the reason so many of these characters live in books for kids. But they don’t truly represent the diversity of people over the age of 65.”

Developing Thematic Ideas in Your Fiction by Jack Smith from Elizabeth Spann Craig. Peek: “…there are several thematic techniques that can work seamlessly with story. You don’t have to trowel on ideas like icing on the cake.”

Interview with Sarah Ellis on Outside In (Groundwood) by Adi Rule from WCYA The Launch Pad at VCFA. Peek: “The sparks that ignited this book were two big questions about the way we live. Why are we so busy, and why are we so afraid? What if we weren’t?”

Rejection is a Pathway, Not a Dead End by Deborah Underwood from The Writing Barn. Peek: “When I read over some of my early picture book manuscripts, wow am I glad they’re not out there in the world with my name on them. Because they’re not very good. One has no plot. One has seven main characters.”

When Your Publisher Merges by Sarah Pinneo from QueryTracker Blog. Peek: “…take a deep breath. Don’t call your editor in a panic. She’s probably having a really stressful day.”

Talents & Skills Thesaurus Entry by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “While luck or terror may inadvertently enable a person to escape a serious situation, training is definitely an asset for someone who wants to effectively defend him/herself.”

Does My Mental Illness Mean Writing Is a Bad Idea? from Deborah Halverson at Dear Editor. Peek: “…self-doubt nags every writer. I do get that it’s particularly imposing for you, though, as I’ve worked with writers suffering mental illnesses and they share their ups and downs with me. Notice I said ‘ups.'”

Lee & Low New Voices Writing Contest: “now open for submissions!” Peek: “Now in its fourteenth year, the New Voices Award was one of the first (and remains one of the only) writing contests specifically designed to help authors of color break into publishing, an industry in which they are still dramatically underrepresented.”

How to Panel Like a Lit Champ by Cecil Castellucci from The Crush Library. Peek: “Authors, do your moderator a favor and have a short bio readily available on your website. One that actually talks about the highlights of your career (and not about your dog or how much you like pie.)”

NSS Trade Book

2014 Notable Social Studies Trade Books from Mitali Perkins at Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “…evaluated and selected by a Book Review Committee appointed by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and assembled in cooperation with the Children’s Book Council (CBC). They were written for children in grades K-12, published in 2013, and meet the following criteria…” See also Mitali on Three Novels to Help Us Remember Our Nigerian Girls.

Author John Green Has a Good Read on Teens, Tech by Gwenda Bond from the L.A. Times. Peek: “Having so many young people in the Nerdfighter community since the beginning has been really important, because they’ve pushed Hank and me to think harder about what are the most efficient ways to decrease what they call ‘world suck.'” See also Extra, Extra: Some John Green Interview Outtakes from Gwenda Bond.

Do Men Receive Bigger Book Advances Than Women? We Crunched the Numbers. by Jan Friedman from Scratch. Peek: “Be a woman writing YA fiction to sell your next book for a large advance.”

Activities for Children’s Book Week in Australia (Aug. 16 to Aug. 22) by Susan Stephenson from The Book Chook. The theme this year is “Connecting to Reading.”

Checklist: Eight Steps to Creating a Diverse Book Collection from Lee & Low. Peek: “…building a diverse book collection requires contemplation, research, and awareness. But the rewards are great: a truly diverse collection of books can turn children into lifelong readers and promote empathy, understanding, and self-confidence.”

Author Lisa Yee on Literary Agent Jodi Reamer

Via “Talkin’ to…” with Alan Sitomer:

Cynsational Giveaways

See also a giveaway of a signed copy of an ARC of Forbidden by Kimberley Griffiths Little (Harper) from Adventures in YA Writing. 

The winner of A Bird on Water Street by Elizabeth Dulemba (Little Pickle) was Heidi in Utah.

The winners of Feral Nights by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick) were Janet in Arizona, Jill in Florida, Marjorie in Texas, Victoria in Ohio and the winners of Feral Curse by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick) were Deena in New York, Kelly in Ontario, Vonna in Texas, and Mark in Utah. The Feral Nights bookmarks package winner was Marla in New York.


Reminder! For every copy of The Great Greene Heist (Scholastic, 2014) purchased before or during the first week of sales (next week!), author Varian Johnson will donate $1.50 to Girlstart, a nonprofit focused on increasing girl engagement in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Note: please signal boost!

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Exciting news! The rights to two of my picture books, Holler Loudly, illustrated by Barry Gott, and Santa Knows, co-authored by Greg Leitich Smith and illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (both originally Dutton) have been acquired by Into Print Publishing and will be available again later this year! Watch Cynsations for details!

What else? I had a great time this week reading a revision of “Chronal Engine: Borrowed Time” by Greg Leitich Smith, which will be published by Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015! If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the already-published companion book Chronal Engine.

I can’t share them yet, but my genius Candlewick editor did send me a sneak peek of the cover and front matter for Feral Pride (2015)(Book 3 in the Feral trilogy). I’m hopeful that readers, especially Austinites, will be wowed.

The highlights of my week included meeting YA author Pam Bachorz, newly relocated to nearby Westlake, for lunch at Z’Tejas, and author-illustrator Yangsook Choi, relatively newly relocated to Austin, for tea at Sweetish Hill.

I haven’t had the honor yet of meeting newcomer and soon-to-debut YA author Chandler Baker, but she’s here, too! I look forward to seeing her soon!

Beyond that, I continued working on my second speech for Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers in Sandy, Utah.

And I saw “Godzilla”ROAR! Which, in turn, made me ponder this: Godzilla’s Godzilla Problem: It’s Not the Screen Time; It’s the Focus.

My link of the week, though, is Why Write for Children? from Marion Dane Bauer. Peek: “…artists of every stripe are dependent on something as easily defined as energy to fuel their work, and for me—as, probably for all of us who choose to write for a young audience—that source of energy lies in my own formative years.” A close second? How Awesomely Awesome We Are by John Vorhaus from Writer Unboxed. Go ahead, read it! Need another shot of happy? Try this!

Congratulations to fellow Austin author Cynthia Levinson on the sale of a middle-grade biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton to Kristin Daly Rens at Balzer + Bray (winter 2016)!

Congratulations to fellow Austin author Mari Mancusi on the release of The Camelot Code in paperback!

Personal Links

Cynsational Events

Middle Grade Mayhem! Join Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler in celebrating their new novels at 2 p.m. June 14 at BookPeople in Austin. See more information.

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

Join Cynthia Leitich Smith in discussing Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2014) with the YA Reading Club at 11 a.m. June 28 at Cedar Park Public Library in Cedar Park, Texas.

Catch up the with Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels!

Guest Post: Nora Raleigh Baskin on Magical Realism, Setting & Subway Love

By Nora Raleigh Baskin
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Subway Love (Candlewick, 2014) is my tenth novel for young readers, my third YA, but it is my very first true magical realism.

It is also my first New York City setting. I was born in New York City, in Brooklyn, and although we moved when I was seven, I still would travel back and forth to visit my grandparents in Manhattan for many years.

The sights, sounds and smells of New York were very real to me and were easy for me to access as the setting of this book.

My familial experiences with the grown-ups in my life behaving poorly, sometimes dangerously, is also very real. In that way, not only was the physical setting easy to replicate, but the time travel piece was also very easy to create.

In a way, time travel is really no different than jumping from memory to story, from fact to fiction, from historic to contemporary. It is the allegorical bridge between reality and imagination, and by using actual autobiographical material it is something I’ve done in all my novels, whether the reader was aware of it or not.

The magic of time travel, for me, was simply the “magic” of creation, of writing, of story telling, of expression, of self-exploration, of literature itself. Time travel in this book is a literary device (magical realism) rather than a genre device (fantasy).

In Subway Love, Laura and Jonas can only see each other while on the train and on the train is where they fall in love. In this book, more than any of my others, setting itself propels the story forward, both literally and figuratively.

The New York subways of the early 70s (that I remember) were filled with graffiti, top to bottom, inside and out. It was the pinnacle of underground visual hip hop artistry. Famous “writers’ were making a name for themselves tagging trains all over the city and much of it was captured by well known photographers like Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant.

But the New York of 2013, in which Jonas lives (and, of course, I also know), graffiti has been nearly eradicated due to changes in the laws as well as innovations in the material used to construct the subway cars. So this strange and wildly colorful train is the first thing Jonas notices. Then he sees Laura. And his life is never the same. Jonas quickly figures out that following the graffiti-covered subway train is the only the way he can find Laura.

But as I was writing, not only was the New York City underground subway system important as a setting (I went on a wonderful information-gathering trip with my friend, Susan, to the Transit Museum in Brooklyn), but the art itself came to life, literally, in the form of the character Max Lowenbein a.k.a. Spike. Spike is an amalgam of many of the well-known “writers” from that era, their lives, their experiences, the creative techniques they developed for their use of spray paint.

Like Max ”Spike” Lowenbein , I am a writer; the writer of this story. When it goes out into the world, speeding by on a subway car or the pages of a book, I can only hope (as does Max) that my words, my feelings, my memories and expression, will be read, seen, heard–and maybe, just maybe felt–by a stranger, by someone I don’t know, by chance. And in that act of reading, that creation, mine creation, will be brought to life again, for a fleeting moment.

Each time.

A reincarnation of sorts, just like the love between Jonas and Laura that can’t exist but also can’t not continue to exist–because it is Beshert–destined, soul mates fated to be together, if not in this time, then in another.

Guest Post: Salima Alikhan on Private Writing Study with an Author-Teacher-Mentor

Salima at Bethany Hegedus’s Writing Barn

By Salima Alikhan
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

We’re a lucky community here in Austin to have fantastic, established local authors offering private mentorships.

When it first dawned on me that my unwieldy story was beyond the help of the wonderful critique group I’d had for years, I talked to others who had mentored with local author Bethany Hegedus. I heard glowing reviews.

One of these authors had been in my critique group, had worked with Bethany on her own unwieldy story, and had managed to unlock the puzzle of how to make it work at last.

My experience as a mentee, therefore, is limited to working with just one person, but it was exactly what I needed. I’d written fiction all my life—since I could hold a pen—but had never taken a creative writing class, nor had I done any writing workshops by the time I decided to work with Bethany.

I was relieved to find that Bethany shares my philosophy that artistic nurture and support are far more productive than harsh or shaming criticism. Yet that’s not to say I didn’t work incredibly hard in my mentoring program, and inevitably go through growing pains as a writer. Lots of reading homework, assignments on craft and structure, re-shaping the way I thought about story.

I had to wrestle myself out of old writing habits, which can be painful to break.

In terms of what it felt like to be a mentee, it was basically as though someone had reached into my mind as an invisible facilitator and asked me deep and resonant questions about what I wanted to say.

Bethany & Salima at a themed launch party for Dear Teen Me

Bethany is very concerned with characters’ emotions, desire lines, and motivations, but first and foremost, with whether those align with what you as an author want to say. That is her priority.

I also don’t know if this is due to the hallowed privacy of the mentoring process itself, or Bethany’s method in particular, but she is naturally patient and nonjudgmental in her teaching, and you’re therefore never really afraid of disappointing her—which sounds like a small thing, but I think for us tender creative minds, it’s immensely liberating.

For someone to respond with nuance, empathy and knowledge to you as a hopeful, emotional, hardworking writer feels like a miracle, especially if you’ve been wondering for a while how to make your story work.

To me, the most important thing the mentoring process offers is not only a deeply expanded knowledge of craft, but a sustained self-belief that I can carry into whatever I create next.

Watching people from all backgrounds soak up this faith and fly is a great thing to see.

It’s an essential ingredient for writers in this precarious industry, and I’m so very lucky I received it in my mentorship.

Quick Tips

Salima’s buddy Auri
  1. Word of mouth trumps all. Speak to the mentor’s clients. If I had looked at Bethany’s published books alone, I might not have known she was right for me since she writes contemporary and historical fiction, whereas I write fantasy. It was from speaking to clients of hers that I learned that she is great at serving a story regardless of genre.
  2. Ask the instructor about their teaching philosophy and approach to story criticism. Since a mentorship is a big commitment/investment, don’t be shy about first asking for a phone chat or personal meeting to gauge whether you think you can work with the instructor.

Cynsational Notes

Salima Alikhan has illustrated three picture books: Pieces of Another World (Arbordale Publishing, 2006), Rocky Mountain Night Before Christmas (Pelican, 2008), and Lawyer’s Week Before Christmas (Pelican, 2009), as well as The Pied Piper of Austin (Pelican, 2010), which she wrote and illustrated.

She is a member of SCBWI, and lives in Austin, Texas, where she is currently working on her first fantasy novel. An American Eskimo dog named Auri and a cat named Esme frequently help her in her literary journeys.

Bethany Hegedus is the author of Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010) and Between Us Baxters (WestSide, 2009). Her debut picture book is Grandfather Gandhi, co-authored by Arun Gandhi, illustrated by Evan Turk (Atheneum, 2014).

Bethany has served as the Hunger Mountain Young Adult & Children’s Editor since 2009. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults, she is the owner and creative director of The Writing Barn in Austin, Texas. Learn more about private instruction with Bethany Hegedus.

Salima’s assistant Esme (in a mood)

Guest Interview & Giveaway: Cookies for Breakfast? Janet Wong & Sylvia Vardell on Children’s Poetry

By Mysterious Anonymous Interviewer
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

An anonymous interviewer sat down this week with Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell to ask some “unusual” questions…

Is Poetry Month a good idea? I mean, by the end of April, aren’t a lot of people sick of poetry?

JW: For many people, having something—anything—every day for a month is too much. You might love cookies, but by the 20th day you’ve had enough.

SV: Having a poetry post like this one– in May— is a terrific way to increase support for poetry.

JW: It’s like having cookies for breakfast.

Cookies for breakfast? I know some kids who could get behind that. Seriously, poetry is sweet and all, but do we really need (so much of) it?

JW: Well, do we need cookies? They make us happy. Your mom gives you one, and you know you are loved. They make us feel like a child again. You can can devour it in 15 seconds or stick one in your pocket for later.

SV: And there’s such a wide variety– something for everyone. The key to keeping poetry fresh and appealing is to change things up. For example, you can use props when you share poems aloud, bring students in for an echo read, use poems to start a social studies lesson or to reinforce a science concept, or show poem movies. (Look for the poem movies posted on my blog each day last month.)

JW: Yes! We need to serve up a variety of poems, and serve them in different ways.

Image source: by:, public domain, via usa.go

Monday’s cookie (chocolate chip) with milk = poem movie

Tuesday’s cookie (shortbread) with hot chocolate = poems for your pocket

Wednesday (snickerdoodle) with ice cream = poem with a science lesson

Thursday (gluten free mini-macarons) with tea = writing a progressive poem

Friday (sugar with icing) = a whole “Take 5!” from The Poetry Friday Anthology!

What’s a “Take 5!”?

JW: It’s like a takeout dinner: good and easy and ready-to-serve and exactly what you need when you are a tired teacher who needs to deal with ELA standards. Sylvia is the genius behind the “Take 5!” mini-lessons in The Poetry Friday Anthology series, so I’ll let her explain.

SV: A “Take 5!” mini-lesson is provided for each poem in the Teacher’s Editions of our anthologies, to provide a simple and consistent way to share poems with students, emphasizing enjoyment of the poem but also covering the CCSS or state standards (such as TEKS). These are the five components of the “Take 5!”:

  1. The first step in sharing a poem is to read it aloud to the students. Experiment with different ways of making the poem come alive by pairing the poem with a prop, adding gestures or movement, trying out specific choral and dramatic reading techniques, and so on.
  2. The second step suggests how to engage students in reading the poem aloud together. There are many ways to involve students in large groups, small groups, partner pairs, and as single volunteers. One example is echo reading, asking them to repeat certain words or lines after the teacher reads the lines.
  3. The third step in sharing a poem is to provide a moment for students to respond to the poem. Try an open-ended question with no single, correct answer and encourage diversity in responses. Ask a question suggested BY the poem, rather than a question about the poem.
  4. The next natural step is to focus on a specific science skill or concept that may be present in the poem– just one. This includes the key state standards or CCSS/NGSS disciplinary core ideas. Any given poem may demonstrate many of these ideas, but it is best to focus on one key element that is particularly significant for one mini-lesson per poem.
  5. Finally, in this last step we share other related poems and books that connect well with the featured poem. Look for another poem by the same poet, another poem about the same subject, or a related book of nonfiction.

These steps can be applied to any poem in any book for a quick and meaningful way to introduce and integrate poetry and science, building literacy in incidental, but intentional ways.

Wow–thank you, Dr. Vardell!

JW: I think it’s easier just to say that a “Take 5!” is like takeout fried poems (which you can eat while reading this).

I see that you do like food metaphors. Final question: What advice do you have for parents, teachers, and librarians who want to keep kids reading this summer?

SV: Science is the summer reading theme at many public libraries across the nation this summer– and poetry is a perfect complement. Poems can enrich science learning, be part of science instruction, offer content-rich poetry lessons in reading and language arts, or simply provide fun poetry sharing.

A parent, teacher, or librarian can use the index found in poetry books such as The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science (or any of the science books listed in the science-themed bibliography of The Poetry Teacher’s Book of Lists) to identify relevant science topics in poems such as ecosystems, magnets, or recycling.

In sharing science-focused poetry, we can encourage children to think like a poet and a scientist, carefully observing the world around them using all their senses, maintaining an avid curiosity about how things work, and gathering “big words” and key vocabulary in their reading and their writing.

As Albert Einstein reminds us,

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

JW: Yes. Absolutely. (What she said!)

Cynsational Notes & Giveaway

Sylvia Vardell is a professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. Janet Wong is a poet/author who lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Together, they are Pomelo Books, the publisher of The Poetry Friday Anthology series.

Enter to win one of three copies of the teacher’s edition of The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science: Poems for the School Year Integrating Science, Reading and Language Arts (each will include a complimentary copy of a student edition). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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Videos: Help! We Need a Title! by Hervé Tullet

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out these videos in celebration of Help! We Need a Title! by Hervé Tullet (Candlewick, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Take a peek inside this book and you’ll find some characters (though they’re still a bit sketchy). They’ll be perplexed to see you, so they’ll quickly try to track down their author (who has a lot more work to do).

What you won’t find is a story, or a title, because — guess what? The book isn’t finished yet! But surely the author must have a story to tell?

In this charming “meta” picture book, children of all ages are encouraged to interact with a book still in the process of being invented. And that’s a story in itself!

What if you picked out a book to read, but the characters weren’t ready for you yet?