Guest Post & Giveaway: Sarah Frances Hardy on Paint Me!

By Sarah Frances Hardy
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Paint Me! (Sky Pony Press, 2014) is about a little girl who begins the day painting a portrait of her dog, but she quickly discovers the joy of colors and lots of messy paint.

At the end of the day, all is well after a bath and goodnight kiss.

It’s for preschoolers and toddlers who are beginning to learn their colors. And since it finishes as a bedtime story, it’s a good one to read to wound-up kids at night to get them to settle in and go to sleep.

Here’s the blurb from my publisher:

Red, blue, and yellow are just the tip of the iceberg when you have a good imagination. 

In this colorfully illustrated story, a young girl makes her way through the day–first painting a portrait of her dog, and then painting anything and everything she can find. 

With a simple, affectionate plot that teaches colors and embraces the “creative process” for many kids, Paint Me! offers a message of love and discovery.

Don’t miss Sarah’s previous book!

This book is special to me for so many reasons. First of all, when I was a toddler, I was the little girl in the book. I tended to get carried away whenever I started any art project, and I never let neatness get in the way of creativity.

Also, just like the mom in the book, my mom kept me supplied with lots of paint, and she didn’t get too upset when I was overly expressive!

In fact, I dedicated the book to her because she spent a lot of time cleaning up my spilled paint (or sending me outside to work on projects!).

And since I identified so strongly with the little girl in the book, I decided to add my childhood dog Tam the schnauzer as a main character.

He lived to be seventeen years old, so he was around throughout most of my childhood. I loved being able to bring him back in my book.

Here he is on the title page!

Another reason that I love this book so much is that I had such a wonderful time doing the artwork. It’s not every day that I get to channel my inner Jackson Pollock and sling paint! It’s very therapeutic.

This is my favorite spread! When my daughter saw it, she said that it reminded her of when you play in the sprinkler and see rainbows in the water. What a wonderful image! “Like playing in the sprinkler with paint!”

And speaking of slinging paint …. I am fortunate enough to have a “room of my own” just off our garage. When we were working on our house, I decided to make a studio across the back of the garage where most people have a storage room. My space is small, but it works just fine. Having a dedicated work space where I can leave out my work (and yes, get a little messy) is heaven.

My art desk was my fifteenth birthday gift. I’ve got an easel set up behind it as well as my computer and scanner. I still do artwork the old-fashioned way–with paint on paper–but with this book, I scanned in the images and edited them using photoshop.

Working this way, I felt like I could be even more creative because I knew I could easily fix a mistake digitally without having to redo an entire painting. It allows me to do a little more playful experimentation.

These days, as well as traveling to schools and bookstores to promote Paint Me!, I’m busy working on the final artwork for my next release from Sky Pony called Dress Me! It’s about a little girl who tries on lots of different outfits (and personalities) until she finds just the right one. Look for it in the spring of 2015.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed copy of Paint Me! by Sarah Frances Hardy (Sky Pony, 2014). Author-illustrator sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

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Event Report: Middle Grade Mayhem

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Wow! This weekend’s highlight was Middle Grade Mayhem, a joint launch event featuring authors Varian Johnson (The Great Greene Heist (Arthur A. Levine Books)), Greg Leitich Smith (Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook)), and Jennifer (“Jenny”) Ziegler (Revenge of the Flower Girls (Scholastic)) at BookPeople in Austin!

What worked about this event?

  • Three authors are better — and more dynamic — than one!
  • With the unifying “middle grade” age category, hello crossover fans!
  • Delicious (healthy and special treat) refreshments!
  • Lots of photo ops (photo booth & readers’ theater with props)!
  • A charming M.C. (Tim Crow) and helpers too numerous to list here (it takes a village, people)!
  • Three fun and funny readers’ theaters to offer the audience sneak peeks!
  • Keeping it short–the whole program ran only 40 minutes, including Q&A!
  • Signing with giveaway bling (GGH bookmarks, glow-in-the-dark LGM wrist bands and mini figurines, bubble formula & wands, plus patriotic temporary tattoos)!
  • A children’s book loving community and world class independent bookstore!

The new releases are loaded on the cart and ready for the signing.
Catering by Whole Foods, wedding cake provided by Jenny & chocolate chip cookies by Nikki Loftin
Varian, Greg & Jenny pose in the LGM/dance photo booth, ready for mayhem.
Austin librarian Michelle Beebower serves herself a cup of–what else?–Tang!
Pro photographer Dave Wilson; see his (much better) pics on GregLSBlog.
San Antonio author Peni R. Griffin hands out LGM glow-in-the-dark wrist bands
Austin SCBWI RA Samantha Clark (with Bethany Hegedus) scheduled a local chapter meet-and-greet on the third floor BookPeople to end right before the second-floor event.
The refreshments table (complete with flower girls’ wedding cake!) is popular.
Author-librarian Julie Lake, author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell pose with writer Meredith Davis in the photo booth.
Dallas writer Stephanie Parsley Ledyard poses with LGM and Greg.
Author-illustrator Yangsook Choi meets Cynthia Levinson
Introducing M.C. & Educator Tim Crow
The crowd gathers in anticipation.
Varian, Greg and Jenny take the stage.
Readers’ theater of The Great Greene Heist (Arthur A. Levine)
Readers’ theater of Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook)
Readers’ theater of Revenge of the Flower Girls (Scholastic)
Jenny steps to the mic during the Q&A session.
Authors Sara Kocek & Nikki get to know soon-to-debut Chandler Baker in the signing line.
Book signing & bling giveaway (GGH bookmarks, ROTFG temporary tattoos & glow-in-the-dark LGMs)
Me with three little green men (well, sort of)

 Cynsational Notes

Author Interview & Giveaway: Greg Leitich Smith on Writing Realistic vs. Speculative Fiction from Cynsations. See also Middle Grade Mayhem Event Report from GregLSBlog.

In Memory: Frances Foster

Children’s book editor Frances Foster with author Barbara O’Connor

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith for Cynsations

Obituary: Frances Foster by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Editor Frances Foster, whose celebrated tutelage of numerous award-winning authors and illustrators earned her placement in the top echelon of children’s book industry luminaries, died on Sunday, June 8. She was 83. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where Foster led her eponymous imprint beginning in 1995….”

Beloved Children’s Book Editor Frances Foster Dies at 83 by Mahnaz Dar from School Library Journal. Peek: “Foster went on to work with authors such as Kate Banks, Roald Dahl, Helen Frost, David Klass, Louis Sachar, Phillip Pullman, Barbara McClintock, and Peter Sís, among others.”

SLJ Talks to Legendary Book Editor Frances Foster by Rocco Staino from School Library Journal. Peek: “When I got my first publishing job, we used manual typewriters. The electric typewriter represented a big advancement and introduced more speed and efficiency.”

An Interview with Frances Foster by Leonard S. Marcus from The Horn Book. Peek: “She looked somewhat surprised when I told her why I was there, and I was waiting for her to say, ‘You can’t just walk in off the street and get a job.’ Instead, she said, ‘An angel must have sent you,’ and went on to explain that only that morning her assistant had announced that she was pregnant and would soon be leaving. She hired me on the spot.”

For Frances by Barbara O’Connor from Greetings From Nowhere. Peek: “It was my honor and privilege to have worked with her on ten books during those years. She was smart, funny, gracious and wise.”

Cynsational Note

From Publishers Weekly: “The family requests that any donations in her memory go to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, 125 West Bay Road, Amherst, Mass. 01002…”

By John Phelan

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Kathi Appelt on the release of Mogie: The Heart of the House, illustrated by Marc Rosenthal (Atheneum, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Mogie is a real-life Labradoodle with a special talent: he always knows just what a sick kid needs! Get to know this passionate pup with this story by a Newbery Honoree.

Give that dog a puddle and he’d splash. Give him a whistle and he’d roll over. Give him a rule and he’d break it.

One day a passel of puppies was born. Each puppy was designated for a Very Important Job, like Service Dog, or Search and Rescue Dog, or Groomed for the Show Ring Dog.

Each puppy, that is, except Mogie. Mogie was a ball-chasing, tail-wagging, moon-howling pup. Not the kind of pup for any of those jobs!

But there is a place that is just right for Mogie: a very special house where sick children and their families can stay while they undergo long-term treatment. A place with children who NEED a ball-chasing, tail-wagging, moon-howling pup.

And there’s one little boy in particular who needs Mogie. And Mogie is about to prove he’s the best darn pooch in the passel. 

Based on a true story, this heartwarming picture book is published in conjunction with the Ronald McDonald House.

Cyn Note: Houston children’s book fans! Join Kathi for the official book launch at 1 p.m. June 14 at Blue Willow Bookshop! See also Kathi Appelt and Mogie! by Tami Lewis Brown from WCYA The Launch Pad from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

More News & Giveaways

Graphic Novels for Middle Schoolers by Katie Bircher from The Horn Book. Peek: “From poignant historical fiction to introspective coming-of-age tale, hilarious space caper to action-packed superhero story, four new graphic novels for middle-schoolers showcase the range of the graphic novel format.”

Being Brave: A Challenge for Writers in Particular and Humans in General by Christine Hayes from Emu’s Debuts. Peek: “…I let it fuel all the other things I don’t like about myself until I’m one big ball of self-pity and guilt: about my weight, about not being a Pinterest-perfect mother, about not writing often enough, about the stupid crumbs on the floor and dishes in the sink. And let’s not even touch the whole issue of ‘my writing isn’t good enough.’ Yeeesh.”

Character Talent & Skills: High Pain Tolerance by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “Pain from injuries can fog the mind and break the body, so developing a high tolerance level for it can greatly enhance one’s performance and endurance in most situations.”

Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2014 Edition from the Bank Street College Center for Children’s Literature. Peek: “includes more than 600 titles chosen by the Children’s Book Committee as the best of the best published in 2013. In choosing books for the annual list, committee members consider literary quality and excellence of presentation as well as the potential emotional impact of the books on young readers. Other criteria include credibility of characterization and plot, authenticity of time and place, age suitability, positive treatment of ethnic and religious differences, and the absence of stereotypes. Nonfiction titles are further evaluated for accuracy and clarity.” Source: Educating Alice.

Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions to Transform Them by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “So what type of emotions are the best fit to encourage this necessary shift toward change? And are they positive emotions, or negative ones? Let’s experiment!”

ATTN Writers of Color and Native Writers! Submit Your Novel to Tu Books’ New Visions Award Program from Lee and Low. Peek: “it’s obvious that readers want to see more writers of color represented. It is our hope that the New Visions Award will help new authors begin long and successful careers and bring new perspectives and voices to the science fiction, fantasy, and mystery genres.”

Marketing African-American Titles by Kirsten Cappy from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: “Using a combination of small grant funds, school partnerships, and community sponsors like the NAACP, we launched the exhibit by flying Claudette Colvin in for a
preview. After a lifetime of silence and before publication would make Claudette’s story national, this was the first time she had seen her words in print.”

The False Divide Between Book Promo and Author Promo by Sharon Bially from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “promoting yourself as an author does help spread the word about your work. In fact, an author-focused platform will most likely sustain over time far beyond any book’s moment in the spotlight, keeping your name out there and increasing the chances that whatever you write next will have an audience and find a home in readers’ hearts.”

Industry Q&A with Author Crystal Chan from CBC Diversity. Peek: “Diversity is a tricky word. Personally, I don’t really like that word – it conjures up images of everyone of different colors holding hands and singing. Diversity is hard work, plain and simple, and it means giving up a bit of your defined world to be able to let others in, to see the ‘other’ as just as human as you are.”

10  Books for Kids Who Hate to Read by Lisa Graff from The Huffington Post. Peek: “Do you have a kid like Albie who would rather eat Brussels sprouts than read a single page of “fine literature?” Here are ten amazing books — some well-known, others less so — sure to grab even the most reluctant of readers.” Note: Congratulations to Lisa on the release of Absolutely Almost (Philomel, 2014), which has received four starred reviews!

Don’t Write the World’s Best Fantasy Novel by Beth Fantasky from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: “I didn’t have to write The World’s Best Novel. I had to be the mentally tough person who had the guts to get knocked down by rejection, pick myself up, and try again.”

Donald F. Montileaux’s Tasunka: A Lakota Horse Legend (South Dakota State Historical Society): a recommendation by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children’s Literature. Peek: “One of the things I look for when reading a traditional story rooted in a Native Nation is an attribution of where the story was heard, and from whom. In Tasunka: A Lakota Horse Legend, Montileaux gives us that information right away in a two-page introduction.”

Cynsational Screening Room

Check out the book trailer for Hope’s Gift by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Don Tate (Putnam, 2012). From the promotional copy:

It’s 1862 and the Civil War has turned out to be a long, deadly conflict. 

Hope’s father can’t stand the waiting a minute longer and decides to join the Union army to fight for freedom. He slips away one tearful night, leaving Hope, who knows she may never see her father again, with only a conch shell for comfort. 

Its sound, Papa says, echoes the promised song of freedom. 

It’s a long wait for freedom and on the nights when the cannons roar, Papa seems farther away than ever. But then Lincoln finally does it: on January 1, 1863, he issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves, and a joyful Hope finally spies the outline of a familiar man standing on the horizon.


Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win!

The winner of a signed copy of The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister by Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand & Emma Trevayne (Greenwillow, 2014) is Yvonne in Virginia.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally

Cynsations Interview with Greg!

Another busy week! I’m focusing on critiquing my student workshop manuscripts for the upcoming Writiing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference in Sandy, Utah, and helping Varian Johnson, Greg Leitich Smith and Jennifer Ziegler prepare for their “Middle Grade Mayhem” joint launch party on Saturday afternoon at BookPeople!

Behind the scenes, we’ve been twice to Party City to pick up cups, plates, napkins and bling. After dinner at 24 Diner on Monday night, two of the three featured authors, plus author-spouse Chris Barton and M.C. Tim Crow met at Chez Leitich Smith to plan and rehearse their Mayhem.

I retired upstairs so that the show would come as a surprise; however, I did hear mention of wedding cake, bubble wands and a prop on loan from fellow Austin author Lindsey Scheibe that’s so big it will require a gigantic flatbed truck to transport.

Speaking of which, my most enthusiastic congratulations to Greg Leitich Smith on Tuesday’s release of Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook, 2014)! Don’t miss his thoughts on writing realistic vs. speculative fiction for middle graders!

The Austin American-Statesman raves, “‘Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn’ swerves and accelerates into madcap places — rumors, conspiracy theories and government coverups…Smith has a sure hand with atmosphere, drawing us into Aidan’s world from the opening…And though plot twists will likely be the main appeal of ‘Green Men,’ there’s a gentler bonus to Smith’s story of the truths that bind us together — human and alien. Simple yet evocative illustrations from Andrew Arnold accent the text.” See the article by Sharyn Vane in Sunday’s Book Section for more.

See also: To Infinity and Beyond by Cynthia K. Ritter from The Horn Book. Peek: “The twisty plot and engaging setting of Greg Leitich Smith’s Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, along with Andrew Arnold’s retro cartoon spot art, work well with the wacky characters and situations.”

Congrats to Bethany Hegedus on the launch of Grandfather Gandhi (Atheneum) at BookPeople!

Last weekend’s bookish highlight was the release party for Bethany Hegedus‘s launch of Grandfather Gandhi, co-authored by Arun Gandhi, illustrated by Evan Turk (Atheneum, 2014) at BookPeople in Austin! See my full report on the event! See also Grandfather Gandhi with Bethany Hegedus by Jessica Hincapie from The Writing Barn.

Catching up with former Austin SCBWI RA & VCFA grad Debbie Gonzales at El Mesón in Austin.

Speaking of Debbie, congratulations to her on “Whistle Punk” being selected as a middle grade finalist in the Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest and to both Hamilton Beazley (“Nowhere to Be” and Krissi Dallas (“Icarus Flight School) for being selected as finalists in the YA division!

My link of the week is Something New by Meredith Davis from Stories in the Streets. Lovely.

Personal Links

New from Philomel!

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) and this interview with Jennifer Ziegler from Kirkus Reviews.

Breaking news! Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith will speak at the Writers’ League of Texas 2014 Agents and Editors Conference to be held at the Hyatt Regency Austin from June 27 to June 29 in Austin, Texas.

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: Helen Ketteman on Making Picture Books Sing

By Helen Ketteman
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Are you aware that books can sing?

I learned this in the second grade when an aunt gave me a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. That book sang to me–it was magic! Those musical words drew me back to read those stories over and over.

Growing up in the south, I did a lot of listening.

I listened to the way people talked and told stories. Their words were full of rhythm and music. In my picture books, I work to make my language sing, paying attention to every word, every phrase, every sentence.

Language can make a story memorable, and with a few simple poetic tools, a writer can create language that is so magic, it will draw that young reader back to your story again and again.

 Here are a few of my favorite tools.

Simile – an exact comparison using like, as, or than. A simile paints a strong image in a few words. Avoid similes that have become clichés and come up with something fresh, making sure the simile fits the story.

In my book Bubba, The Cowboy Prince, illustrated by James Warhola (Scholastic, 1997), a retelling of Cinderella, Miz Lurleen wants to find a feller.

“…One who loves ranching as much as I do. And it wouldn’t hurt if he’s as cute as a cow’s ear.” 

When Bubba’s wicked stepbrothers leave him home to go to the ball, they laugh.

“Why, Bubba, you’re sorrier than a steer in a stockyard.” Bubba “…felt lower than a rattlesnake in a gully.”

Alliteration – using similar letters or sounds to give a sense of unity to a set of words, or to give a feeling of rhythm to the words.

From The Three Little Gators, illustrated by Will Terry, (Albert Whitman, 2009):

“One day, Mama said, ‘It’s time you young’uns set out on your own. Make sure you build houses strong enough to keep you safe from Big-Bottomed Boar. Tasty tender gators are his favorite treat.” 

In Armadilly Chili, illustrated by Will Terry (Albert Whitman, 2004), Miss Billie goes out to gather the ingredients for her chili, and her tarantula friend, Tex, comes by. She calls:

“Hey, Tex! I’m making a pot of armadilly chili! How’s about tapping your toes this way and helping me gather a boxful of beetles?”

Rhyme – Children love rhyme, and make up rhymes all the time. Rhyme should flow, like good prose, and never be forced. Rhyme can come at the end of a sentence, or it can be internal rhyme within the sentence, to add rhythm.

In Three Little Gators, First Gator “scrambles through the brambles” to Second Gator’s house. Then, after Big Bottomed Boar bumps the next house to pieces, both gators “rush through the brush” to First Gator’s house.

In Goodnight, Little Monster, illustrated by Bonnie Leick (Amazon, 2010), a mother monster readies her little one to bed, going through the many of the same rituals most children do, including checking under the bed for “scary” things:

“Hop into bed, Little Monster. There’s nothing to fear.
“See? No scary children lurk under here.”

Repetition – the heart and soul of music and poetry. Children lie in wait for the moment that familiar phrase comes back into the story. It’s like the chorus of a song – everybody knows the words, and they love to sing along. Many of my books have these phrases.

In Senorita Gordita, illustrated by Will Terry (Albert Whitman, 2012), a retelling of The Gingerbread Boy, Senorita Gordita runs away from all of the critters who want to eat her…

“with a flip, and a skip, and a zip-zoom-zip.” 

 In The Three Little Gators, each little Gator calls out:

“Go away, Big-Bottomed Boar! I’ll never open up my door!” And Big-Bottomed Boar in turn says, “Then I’ll wiggle my rum with a bump, bump, bump and smash your house!” 

My latest book, There Once Was A Cowpoke Who Swallowed An Ant, illustrated by Will Terry (Albert Whitman, 2014), a retelling of The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (with a fun twist at the end!) is practically all repetition, each page adding to the repeated list.

These are only a few language tools I use when constructing picture books. There are many more. If you take time to learn how to use these poetic tools, you can make your book sing. It’s magic!

Cynsational Notes

Look for Helen’s upcoming picture books:
Go To School, Little Monster, illustrated by Bonnie Leick, (Two Lions, fall 2015); The Ghosts Go Haunting, illustrated by Adam Record (Albert Whitman, fall, 2014); and
At the Old Haunted House, illustrated by Nate Wragg (Two Lions, fall 2014).

New Voice: Adriana Brad Schanen on Quinny & Hopper

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Adriana Brad Schanen is the first-time author of Quinny & Hopper (Hyperion, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Quinny and Hopper couldn’t be more different. They’re an unstoppable team. But when summer ends, things suddenly aren’t the same. 

Can Quinny and Hopper stick together in the face of stylish bullies, a killer chicken, and those brand new Third Grade Rules – especially the one that says they aren’t allowed to be friends anymore?

What inspired you to choose the particular point of view featured in your novel? What considerations came into play? Did you try the story from a different point of view? If so, what made you change your mind?

Quinny & Hopper alternates between the first-person voices of two polar-opposite eight-year-olds, whose intense summer friendship runs smack-dab into the uncertainties of a new school year.

I haven’t seen a ton of early middle grade fiction written in first-person (let alone in dual first-person). I suppose the thinking goes that it can be too immediate, maybe too emotionally claustrophobic for newly-independent readers. And it doesn’t offer the same opportunity for the writer to pull back and show context or convey a lesson (thank goodness for that).

But something told me to forge ahead with this structure. The idea of putting the reader in someone else’s shoes—or brain, rather – felt compelling to me. Why not go there?

Who says rising third graders are too young?

And I couldn’t think of a better way to encourage kids to put themselves in someone else’s shoes than by actually doing it myself.

Oliver stares at Adriana as she types.

It also seemed that toggling back and forth between these two characters’ voices would create a bit more breathing room, and make for less of a hothouse feel than a solo first-person point of view.

I liked how two voices playing off each other can spark comedy, conflict, momentum, and foster empathy and perspective-taking.

Of course I did experiment and try third person – which felt more appropriate and authorly, and would probably have been easier to structure.

But it also felt like I was setting the narrative at an emotional remove. It just felt colder. I was creating distance, when I wanted the reader to be this close to the story.

So I went back to my intuition and wrote this young middle grade story in dual first-person voices. For me, it was the most visceral way of exploring the main characters’ psyches, and their blooming but fragile, ripped-to-shreds-and-stitched-back-together friendship.

In a way, their friendship is the book’s true main character. I watched it grow and falter due to misunderstandings, fear, outside pressures. I watched it survive and strengthen. I watched it all through the eyes of the two main characters themselves.

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

I love connecting in a personal way with educators, parents and kids. Just chatting about books and life with actual people in the real world. Maybe that’s not really “marketing,” but I’m putting it in that category because, honestly, the over-the-top pushy stuff makes my skin crawl.

Meet Adriana Brad Schanen.

I’m guest-blogging a bit near my release date, but not going crazy. For early middle grade fiction, it doesn’t seem to be as impactful as things like school visits.

I think a great discussion/teacher’s guide is important – and thinking critically and creatively about all outreach to schools/libraries.

I’ve been reaching out with swag to independent booksellers.

In an age of mass emails, I love getting and sending personal notes.

As for social media in general, I don’t relish the idea of putting on a virtual sandwich board and hawking my literary wares online.

So I try to look at it as just another way to connect with and learn from others. Keep it low-key, not a stressor. I enjoy following educators, booksellers and writers on twitter – it’s a great way to expand my to-read list. I devote a couple of hours weekly (max!) to keeping up on industry news and a handful of blogs.

And instead of maintaining my own blog, I’m working on my next book. Which I keep hearing is the best thing a writer can do to market her/himself, anyway.

So basically I’m trying to keep promoting in its place: essential, but secondary to the writing itself. The fact is, so much of it is out of our control anyway. Someone will rip your book to shreds on Goodreads, someone will rave about it on Twitter. It’s all in a day.

You can’t let it distract or derail you — you have to move past all the noise, good and bad, and hold onto your own true internal motivation for doing the work.

Now doesn’t that sound easy?

Author Interview & Giveaway: Greg Leitich Smith on Writing Realistic vs. Speculative Fiction

Greg at Hogwarts

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations on the release of my favorite of your books, Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook, 2014)! What was your initial inspiration for the novel?

Broadly speaking, I drew on my childhood experiences of summer vacations in Florida.

When I was a kid, my parents packed themselves and my brother and me up into the station wagon and we’d drive to Cocoa Beach, where my parents’ best friends (and their adult children) owned a motel. We fished, we swam, we went to the theme parks and Kennedy Space Center and saw space shuttle and rocket launches. It was always a great time.

But the spark for the actual novel came when I was working on another project that I’d been cycling on for a while and that I hadn’t gotten right yet.

So as a sort of thought experiment, I tried to write a character who was completely different, came from a different world, than the protagonist in that book. The character was Aidan, and all I really knew about him at the time was that he lived at a motel in Cocoa Beach.

But then he and the motel sort of came to life in a way that none of the characters in the manuscript that he was supposed to be for actually did.

The tone was more dry and funny and had voice and a terrific setting, and I knew at that point that it was too good to waste on that other project.

And then, for some reason, I wrote “And then he sees a UFO,” and everything cascaded from there.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way? What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Early on, I made three important decisions, only two of which made it all the way through to publication.

The first that made it through was to make the story humorous, but with some serious underlying themes.

It’s sort of a mashup of 1930s-1940s screwball comedies with UFO conspiracies and coverups.

Kind of, “Arsenic and Old Lace” (or maybe “Bringing up Baby”) meets “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In middle school.

The second to make it through was that I wanted the motel itself to really come to life. The novel is light sci-fi, but any time you have a fantastical element, I think it’s important to have a grounding.

I wanted the motel to really feel almost like a character in its own right, in the same way that, say, Hogwarts Castle feels like a character in the Harry Potter books. So the Mercury Inn is loosely based on my parents’ friends’ motel, but with a sort of retro-50s contemporary upgrade. And a koi pond.

The one that didn’t make it through was that the story was initially told from the first-person points of view of Aidan, the kid who lives at the motel, and Louis, his friend who helps out and is a UFO conspiracy enthusiast: Together they befriend a girl named Dru Tanaka (whose family is staying at the Mercury Inn) and, along with all of Florida, they see a UFO over the motel on the day of a space shuttle launch. From there, Aidan deals with troubles and mysterious goings-on at the motel, while Louis has issues at home and begins to uncover a bigger and bigger government conspiracy.

This was the version I sent out and it made it to acquisitions committee a couple times. Both times it was rejected because of concerns that middle graders don’t like alternating point of view and, besides, the voices were blurring. (I disagreed, because I’d already written two alternating point of view novels and figured I knew how to give characters distinctive voices).

Then my agent sent it to Deirdre Langeland at Roaring Brook, and Deirdre suggested that the Louis-coverup storyline really took away from the novelty of the motel storyline. Also, she wondered if there was a need for alternating point of view at all, and that the Louis scenes did not appear to be working independently.

I mulled this over for a while, but was somewhat resistant because I figured the plotlines were so intertwined that it would be extremely difficult and time-consuming to disentangle them.

In the end, I decided to give it a go and it took me all of two weeks, which was simultaneously disagreeable and gratifying.

Now, the story is much better and is told from Aidan’s point of view only, with the focus on the events at the motel and the zaniness that ensues when word spreads that theirs was the place with the UFO encounter. The government conspiracy is toned down, and the information that Louis acquires is now folded into the experiences at the motel. Overall, the flow is better and the themes are more focused and it’s a whole bunch funnier and thematically coherent.

The other really big event to happen along the way was the decision by my editor to include illustrations by Andrew Arnold and I could talk about them a whole lot, but a picture is worth a thousand words.

Copyright Andrew Arnold.

Suffice it to say that they’re absolutely terrific and add a lot to the look and feel of the book.

Your Peshtigo School companion novels–Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo and Tofu and T.rex–originally published by Little, Brown, have been re-released by IntoPrint. For those new to your comedic writing, could you fill them in on these books? How are they different from your more recent work?

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Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo is a romantic science comedy courtroom drama — the story of three friends who take part in their school science fair and end up in their student court because of it. It’s sort of based on the story of Galileo.

Tofu and T.rex is the story of a girl who’s a vegan who goes to live with her cousin’s family who own a German delicatessen and butcher shop.

Both are comedies set at the fictional Peshtigo School of Chicago.

They’re both set in the “real” world, but a world in which everything is taken up a notch of extremes…

Overall, the tone is less dry, slightly less frenetic, and perhaps more zany than in Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn.

You write both realistic and fantastical fiction. How is it different to tackle each? What did one teach you about the other?

The key to any kind of fiction is to be honest with the reader and true to the characters.

Basically, it requires obeying the laws of the universe.

In contemporary realism, of course, that involves making sure that what goes on the page is “real,” whether it’s, say, school procedures or traffic laws or the laws of thermodynamics. If you break them, you’ll lose the reader.

In fantastical fiction, you can make up at least some of the laws of your universe, but you can’t break them without alienating the reader.

Now in paperback! See Activity Kit!

In Chronal Engine (Clarion, 2012), for example, I wanted to create a realistic world of dinosaurs, portraying humans encountering a world that represents our understanding of the Late Cretaceous. This meant only using plants and animals from that era and geographical location.

If I’d thrown in, say, a saber toothed tiger just because it was cool, the reader would’ve been thrown out of the reality of the Cretaceous. (Of course, in that book, I also had to pick my laws of time travel and stick to them…).

In Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, I created a world with a quirky motel in which UFOs exist and aliens walk among us, so I tried to make the science and engineering aspects of that reasonably plausible; if suddenly a flying unicorn appeared for no apparent reason, the reader’s inclination might be to throw the book at the wall.

That said, with the contemporary realistic humorous work, I tend to think that comedies inhabit the same universe as musical theater. We all know that a group of nuns is not going to burst into song when trying to figure out “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” but it’s okay when they do. In the same way, with comedy, there are going to be situations that may be real but not realistic, but it’s okay because it may be true to that reality.

Matching humor with the fantastical was really the most difficult. As a reader, I’ve found that mixing genres in that way can be problematical, in that sometimes the humor can draw the reader out of the fantastical world.

With Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, the humor is intertwined and really as much of the world and characters as the fantastical, perhaps because it’s based on the real world, but with the addition of the aliens….

Your books all feature diverse casts, including characters who share your Japanese- or German-American heritage. You’ve also, in Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, written a disabled hero. What are your thoughts on the current discussion around diversity in youth literature?

Follow @GLeitichSmith

I find it gratifying that the conversation has finally reached the point that what we’re discussing is essentially the notion that multicultural is mainstream.

This is an approach I’ve been arguing for some time and which is reflected in my novels.

With the possible exception of Shohei in Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo, all of my characters have elements in their backgrounds/back-stories that could be characterized as diverse or multicultural, but the stories of their ancestries or their diversities per se are not thematic or the focus of the books.

And I think that reflects my young readers. There’s more to kids today than being descended from the oppressed or the oppressor. They have a right to stories reflecting their realities.

What are you working on now?

At the moment, I am finalizing the sequel to Chronal Engine.

Titled “Chronal Engine: Borrowed Time,” it takes up where Chronal Engine left off and continues the story of Max and his friends as they travel back to the Cretaceous and encounter previous generations of their family.

Thanks for being the official chef of Chez Leitich Smith. What’s for dinner tonight?

Pan roasted chicken thighs and roasted broccoli. Also, chilled baby squirrels, simmered in orange brandy, bathed in honey cream sauce.

Sounds delicious!


Cynsational Notes & Giveaway

“In this gleefully absurd tale, Smith (Chronal Engine)
unfurls a series of alien-inspired hijinks at a space-themed motel on
Florida’s Space Coast…Arnold’s skillfully drafted spot cartoons give
this offbeat story a lively layout and match Smith’s light and breezy
tone, grounded by the occasional serious moment. The result is an
engaging, humorous look at humans learning that they’re not alone in the
universe.” –Publishers Weekly  (For the complete review, click here)

“The Mercury Inn…shelters a colorful cast
of characters…in a plot that twists and turns like a roller coaster
through the engaging setting. The book design and spot cartoon art with a
retro space-age feel work well with the wacky characters and situations
of this enjoyably beach-y sci-fi escape.” –The Horn Book

“The quirky setting and diverse characters add originality.  An accessible and whimsical read, this should have wide appeal.” –School Library Journal

Copyright Andrew Arnold.

To Infinity and Beyond by Cynthia K. Ritter from The Horn Book. Peek: “The twisty plot and engaging setting of Greg Leitich Smith’s Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, along with Andrew Arnold’s retro cartoon spot art, work well with the wacky characters and situations.”

A native of Chicago, award-winning author Greg Leitich Smith now lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, author Cynthia Leitich Smith, and their cats. His middle grade/tween novels include: the Parents’ Choice Gold Award-winning and Junior Library Guild Selection, Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo (Little Brown/IntoPrint); its companion Tofu and T.rex (Little Brown/IntoPrint); the Junior Library Guild Selection Chronal Engine (Clarion); and Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook). He is also published in the picture book and YA short story.

Although he’s never seen a UFO or built a time machine, he holds degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois and the University of Texas, and a degree in law from the University of Michigan. Find him @GLeitichSmith and  GregLSBlog.

Enter to win one of two signed copies of Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn by Greg Leitich Smith (Roaring Brook) and glow-in-the-dark LGM wrist bands. Author sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

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New Voice: Maria E. Andreu on The Secret Side of Empty

Resources (Discussion Guide)

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Maria E. Andreu is the first-time author of The Secret Side of Empty (Running Press, 2014). From the promotional copy:

As a straight-A student with a budding romance and loyal best friend, M.T.’s life seems as apple-pie American as her blondish hair and pale skin. But M.T. hides two facts to the contrary: her full name of Monserrat Thalia and her status as an undocumented immigrant.

With senior year of high school kicking into full swing, M.T. sees her hopes for a “normal” future unraveling. And it will take discovering a sense of trust in herself and others for M.T. to stake a claim in the life that she wants.

Author Maria E. Andreu draws from her personal experience to tell a story that is timely, relevant, and universally poignant.

Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft? What happened, and how did it help you?

The first few drafts of what would later become my debut novel was written as a memoir. Like the protagonist in The Secret Side of Empty, I too was undocumented as a child and teenager. For years I worked on it, refined it and sent it off to agents. For years, I collected lovely and gracious rejections.

Young Maria

I worried that maybe I was just unpublishable. I often wondered if I was kidding myself thinking my book could be on bookshelves. I wanted it but I felt totally unworthy of it. The mounting rejection slips seemed to corroborate my fears.

Then, determined to get to the bottom of why I got so many rejections that said, “Love the voice but I’m going to pass,” I signed up for a pitch conference in New York City.

 A pitch conference (or “pitch slam” as it is sometimes called) is an opportunity to sit face-to-face with agents and pitch them your idea. Terrifying, but necessary, dangling as I was just with a few inches of writing hope left to grasp.

The day of the conference I could barely eat. The agents, legendary creatures, each sat at round banquet style tables.

 In front of them, a gaggle of about eight hopefuls clustered grasping query letters in sweaty hands, reading them aloud one by one.

After each, the agent gave his professional opinion.

Most of that day is hazy in my memory. I was miserable most of it, dreading my turn to speak. Also, when I looked out over the ballroom full of aspiring writers I was suffused with a vast hopelessness. “There is no way I’m going to make it when so many people are trying and are better than I am.”

There they were, solid and real, a crowded ballroom full of reasons why it would always be impossible to break through.

My last assigned agent was one whose name I’ve forgotten and whom I almost didn’t meet at all. Her bio said that she was looking for young adult titles. Since I wanted to write for grown-ups, I had no interest in her feedback. But I’d promised myself that I’d be open to the whole experience, no matter how painful or seemingly pointless. So I sat at her table. I wasn’t even nervous for this one, like I wouldn’t have been with a cookbook agent or a bicycle repairperson.

I read her my pitch. She asked me a few questions about particulars.

Finally she said, “It’s a great idea. I think the issue is that you’re trying to sell this as a book for grown-ups, but all the action happens when the protagonist is a teenager. This would make a great YA novel.”

I thought (but didn’t say), “When you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Then I thanked her politely and proceeded to completely ignore her advice.

Months later my daughter, who was 12 at the time, wanted to read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Square Fish, reprint 2011), a YA book that I thought might be too mature for her.

I decided to give the book a quick read, thinking I’d either ask her to save it for later or that I’d be ready for her questions when they did come.

Within a couple of pages I was absorbed by the beauty of the writing and the expert pacing of the story. My a-ha moment, months overdue, happened right then. Of course.

Who was I to think I shouldn’t write in this genre? I would be honored… no, humbled… to be included in a genre that contained words this beautiful and a book this well-done.

I reworked my idea into YA fiction. Looking for an agent, I opened up Speak and the other big YA book I could think of: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (Little Brown, 2005). I was surprised to learn they were both with the same agency. I pitched them (and only them), then braced for the rejection.

Instead, what came was an offer of representation so beautiful that a copy of it still sits framed in my living room.
Extra bonus? Anderson and Andreu are very close together alphabetically. When my book finally hit bookshelves, there it was, face-out and pretty next to Anderson’s latest on the New Teen Reads shelf. What had seemed impossible had finally come to pass in the most magical way.

Follow Maria on Twitter @WriterSideofM

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

I’m kind of an obsessive planner, and I had plenty of time to study book promotion while I was getting rejections from agents. I read 1,001 Ways to Market Your Books by John Kremer (Open Horizons; 6th Edition, 2006) cover to cover. I scoured the internet, bookmarking sites. I created timelines and lists of ideas.

The conventional wisdom seemed to be that, even if you do get traditionally published, you should be prepared to promote your book as if you’re self-published. Because at the time I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to get traditionally published, I took that advice to heart. Either way, I’d have to learn to promote a book, so I might as well get started.

It was helpful because it taught me about the business. Later, when I was lucky enough to land with a very supportive publisher, I was delighted to learn that they would do a lot of the heavy lifting, like sending out review copies and setting up a blog tour. But my extensive research helped me know what questions to ask.

I decided early on that the motto for my debut year would be, “The answer is always ‘yes.’”

Library visit? Yes.

Blog post? Yes.

Every opportunity big and small got a “yes” without exception.

Was it exhausting? Absolutely. But if I had it to do over again I’d do exactly the same thing.

I have two reasons for that: one, I’ve learned a ton about book promotion, much of which will help me be choosier in what I do the next time around. But how would I know that a blog interview is much easier to do than a guest post unless I’d slogged through guest post after guest post, racking my brain trying to figure out how to clever and inventive?

How would I know that a school visit in which the kids have read the book tends to be a whole lot more fun for all involved than one in which the kids haven’t unless I’d tap-danced my way through both?

The experience has been invaluable.

The second reason is that when you’re just starting out you’re just an unknown entity in a crowded world. Book buzz is built by people. Readers, yes, but also librarians and booksellers, reviewers and bloggers. Every opportunity to interact with one, busy as they all are, is a gift.

I did one event where only three people showed up in the rain. But I put on a show like we had a standing room only crowd. One of those people turned out to be a high school librarian that spread news of my book to her school and brought kids from her reading club to a subsequent (much better-attended) event that I did. Because you never know where things can lead, give it your all every time.

Probably one of the best things I did before my book came out was join an online group of authors whose debut books were scheduled to come out the same year as mine (OneFourKidLit). There are lists like this one for every debut year. Even if you haven’t yet sold your book, you can find similar communities at places like SCBWI and online writing communities.

OneFourKidLit has been great for me because, although I have an amazing support system, sometimes the people who care about you don’t understand everything about publishing. So when I’m stressing trying to juggle writing my new book and promoting my first one or trying to figure out how to get booked on book festivals, it’s great to have a group of people who are in the same boat. Otherwise it can be a pretty lonely and stressful boat!

Celebrating with the family!

I do love book promotion.

Having a chance to talk about a labor of love that it took me years to bring into the world?

What’s not to love?

If I had one bit of advice for people both aspiring to be published and those newly so, it is this: Never lose your sense of wonder. Writing, figuring out meanings and how to convey them, learning to connect with your readers, this is the important work of life. The rest of it: Deadlines, bad reviews, rejections, grumpy book people, they’re just details.

Hold on to the feeling that you’re doing what you’re here to do.

What can be more important than that?

Maria’s Writing Assistants

Event Report: Bethany Hegedus & Grandfather Gandhi

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What a thrill it was yesterday to attend author Bethany Hegedus‘s launch of Grandfather Gandhi, co-authored by Arun Gandhi, illustrated by Evan Turk (Atheneum, 2014) at BookPeople in Austin!

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

Live music both before and after the presentation.

Henna tattoo table.

Henna tattoo.

An array of both healthy and sweet refreshments.

Modeling Grandfather Gandhi with Bethany.

Cakelustrator Akiko White begins assembling the masterpiece.

Akiko and Bethany

Authors Shana Burg, Nikki Loftin, Cynthia Levinson and Liz Garton Scanlon.

Author-illustrator team Tom and Janice Sheffleman with author Cynthia Levinson.

Author-illustrator Frances Hill Yansky with YA authors Brian Yansky and April Lurie.

Authors Anne Bustard, Greg Leitich Smith, April and newly agented mega talent Vanessa Lee.

Author-librarian Julie Lake and author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell.

Author Jessica Lee Anderson (and family) with author-illustrator Jeff Crosby.

Bethany shared the personal back-story behind Grandfather Gandhi.

Bethany led children in a readers theater presentation; event also included children’s art display.

A closer look at the cake by Akiko.

Author Greg Leitich Smith, author-illustrator Don Tate and author Varian Johnson.

Bethany signs for author Lindsey Scheibe.

Bethany and Nikki

Cynsational Notes & Screening Room

Participating children were gifted with books by authors like Varsha Bajaj and Uma Krishnaswami. Bethany’s the event team, critiquers and other significant supporters were gifted with journals and glass bangle bracelets from Bethany’s recent trip with her husband to a family wedding in India.

This year BookPeople will continue working with Bethany in conjunction with the Austin Independent School District to integrate the book into its curriculum.

Check out the gorgeous book trailer for Grandfather Gandhi from Curious City.

Grandfather Gandhi creators Arun Gandhi, Bethany Hegedus and Evan Turk share their insights into the story behind the book and its illustrations from Simon & Schuster.

Guest Author Snapshot: D.J. MacHale

D.J. with Casey; follow @DJMacHale

By Laini Bostian (and Omar Elbulok)
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Librarian Laini Bostian blogs at The Made Up Librarian. 

This winter, Omar Elbulok, one of my library’s teen advisors, and I had the pleasure of talking with author D.J. MacHale. He challenged us to ask him something he had never been asked. 

We enjoyed our Skype/telephone visit, and we definitely learned more about him.

On Teen Voice

D.J. said he didn’t try too hard to make his characters sound young by using current slang or pop culture references. It is “all about attitude,” he explained.

D.J. noted that he had an “uncanny ability to remember what things were like back at that age [in his teens]” and that he had in fact recently penned a 12-page letter to a friend about events that had happened 40 years prior.

D.J. emphasized that teens are confident and arrogant about what they know, that they maintain an attitude of “the older I get, the less I know.” Then he admitted that not all teens are arrogant, but they try to hide their uncertainty, and he writes his characters from that perspective.

D.J. considered himself “painfully mediocre” in his teens, but was also “comfortable” in his own skin. This is how the main protagonist, Tucker Pierce, from D.J.’s book, SYLO, comes across.

On Romance

D.J. said that he tries to write about all of the types of relationships characters “old enough to get around on their own” have and that he would be remiss not to mention the boy-girl stuff happening at that age.

He did note that he “almost shot himself in the foot” when he started out the book Merchant of Death, first in the Pendragon series, with Bobby, the main protagonist, kissing a girl.

He risked boys “putting the book down, thinking it was going to be a mushy girl book.”

D.J. wants girls to read and relate to his stories as well..and he has gotten lots of fan mail from girls who loved the sixth Pendragon book, Rivers of Zadaa, most. D.J. also noted that once a boy gets to eighth or ninth grade, he is generally not put off by romance in a book.

On Fan Mail

D.J. said that he was consistently surprised at how many teens wrote to him with heart-wrenching stories about what was going on in their lives and let him know that his books got them through those rough times.

He also recalled a piece of hate mail, an e-mail he got from a woman questioning his use of “foul” language in his stories. This particular woman was upset that he’d written “fell on my ass.”

D.J. wrote back, letting the woman know that he respected her views, and that what was right for one person to say was not right for everyone. However, he did want the voice of the character to sound real, and this language was part of an internal thought train the protagonist had. It was not something he said out loud.

The woman did not accept this answer however, writing back and stating that C.S. Lewis did not need to use this type of language in his Chronicles of Narnia books.

D.J. tells his 10-year-old daughter that using curse words makes one look stupid. However, he doesn’t believe you can have “bad words” in books, and there are times where situations are extremely unpleasant in a story and it feels appropriate for characters to respond with more extreme language.

What was most interesting to D.J. was that the woman was not bothered by the fact that, in the same book the woman was writing to him about, a homeless man flung himself in front of a speeding subway. She just seemed so intensely focused on a few words.

On Influences

D.J. has difficulty watching or reading things that are similar to what he likes to write. He finds it particularly challenging to watch without thinking about things like why a writer was making certain decisions from a plotting point of view.

He called this “writer brain,” and went on to say that he did not read Harry Potter, for instance, because then, if he came up with an idea similar to one he had read about in that book, he would not use it. By steering clear, he could use all of his ideas.

On Being an Author

D.J. loves coming up with a new idea and typing up the end of a first draft after “pulling teeth” at times to get it all down on paper. He loves when someone comes up to him and simply says “I loved your book.”

He loves it even more when someone gives him a specific about what they enjoyed in a story, such as a line of dialogue. He works hard on every word of it, and said, “it is nice to know you are not the only one amused by it.”