Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Teen Books by Native Writers to Trumpet Year-Round by Debbie Reese from School Library Journal. Peek: “…don’t confine the use of books by and about Native people—or any other group—to a single day or month. We are here, it must be said, all year-round—just like everyone else. The following works for young adults should be read, displayed, and celebrated in every collection.” Note: I’m honored that my Feral trilogy (Candlewick) was recommended.

Racial and Ethnic Justice in the College Writing Course by Joy Castro from Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. Peek: “I create a larger context for our work by consistently alluding during class discussion to literature by writers of color. There is a literary tradition, and you’re invited to contribute, this strategy implicitly asserts to students of color.”

Aces Out: Laying the Cards on the Table by Zach J. Payne from Gay YA. Peek: “Asexuals don’t face a lot of the terrible things that our gay, lesbian, and trans friends do. We don’t stand out, but we are targets.” See also My Furious Brown Girl Child Response and the Difficulties of the “Diversity” Umbrella by Mitali Perkins from Mitali’s Fire Escape. Note: Don’t miss the continuing conversation in the comments.

Of Moons and Magic with Melanie Crowder by Julie Danielson from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: “If every element of the story is working on multiple levels, the manuscript naturally gets tighter. Fortunately for me, I am matched with an editor who allows a story to be what it wants to be, even if that means it stands apart from industry trends.”

U.S. Children’s-YA Literature Conferences at Colleges/Universities: a list by Chris Barton from Bartography.

Get Ready for Readukkah: Association of Jewish Libraries First Reading Challenge by Heidi Estrin from The Whole Megillah. Peek: “You pick the book – any reading level, fiction or nonfiction, Jewish in any way you choose to define it.”

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Giveaways

More Personally

Cynsations is late (and a bit abbreviated) this morning due to a central Texas storm and the fact that Cyn consequently spent an hour or so in the under-stairs restroom during a tornado warning.

Austin area readers, stay safe! Many roads are flooded and, even where they’re not, visibility is dicey at best.

Congratulations to the We Need Diverse Books Walter Dean Myers Grant Recipients, including Yamile Saied Méndez (who was in my last WIFYR workshop and is now a student at VCFA).

Likewise, congratulations to the authors and illustrators of the 2015 New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books, including Duncan Tonatiuh.

Cynsational Links

In Memory: Actress Maureen O’Hara
“Dracula” by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand
“Mockingjay, Part II” Trailer
Capitol Couture (“Hunger Games” In-World Fashion Magazine)
Happiest U.S. Companies Have Female C.E.O.
Panda Cubs Make Debut
Where Is Luke Skywalker?
World’s Largest LEGO Exhibit
“Sherlock” Christmas Trailer
The Homework for Choosing a College
Dad Creates Halloween Costumes for Kids in Wheelchairs

Last Call! WNDB Mentor Program

From We Need Diverse Books

The deadline for the WNDB™ mentorship program is Oct. 31. We are offering mentorships to four aspiring authors and one illustrator who are diverse or working on diverse books. This is an opportunity to work with some experienced and talented members of our community, and receive individual support and feedback on a work-in-progress.

What: WNDB™ is offering five mentorships, one in each of the following categories – Picture Book text (PB), Middle Grade (MG), Young Adult (YA), Nonfiction (NF), and Illustration (IL). The winners will communicate with the mentor for approximately one year in a mentor/mentee custom-defined program. This mentorship period will run from Jan. 15, 2016 to Dec. 15, 2016.

The mentors for this program are Nikki Grimes (PB), Margarita Engle (MG), Malinda Lo (YA), Patricia Hruby-Powell (NF) and Carolyn Dee Flores (IL).

Eligibility: These mentorships are available to diverse writers or any writers or illustrators who submit a manuscript for children or teens featuring a diverse main character or diverse central subject matter. (See the WNDB™ mission statement page for our inclusive definition of “diverse”).

Applicants may only apply for one of the five mentorship categories, so it is up to the applicants to research each mentor and decide which mentor/category is most suitable for their work. Applicants who do not comply with submission rules will be disqualified.

Judges’ Criteria: The first-round judges will select a pool of final applicants based on merit. Mentors will select their mentee based on merit, compatibility, and readiness/need for the mentorship as outlined in their essay. Applicants who do not comply with submission rules will be disqualified.

Cost: Free.

See Submission Guidelines & FAQ.

Book Trailer: Little Tree by Loren Long

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Little Tree by Loren Long (Philomel, 2015). From the promotional copy:

In the middle of a little forest, there lives a Little Tree who loves his life and the splendid leaves that keep him cool in the heat of long summer days. 

Life is perfect just the way it is.


Autumn arrives, and with it the cool winds that ruffle Little Tree’s leaves. One by one the other trees drop their leaves, facing the cold of winter head on. 

But not Little Tree—he hugs his leaves as tightly as he can. Year after year, Little Tree remains unchanged, despite words of encouragement from a squirrel, a fawn, and a fox, his leaves having long since turned brown and withered.

As Little Tree sits in the shadow of the other trees, now grown sturdy and tall as though to touch the sun, he remembers when they were all the same size. And he knows he has an important decision to make.


From #1 New York Times bestselling Loren Long comes a gorgeously-illustrated story that challenges each of us to have the courage to let go and to reach for the sun.

Giveaway: Author-Signed Poster & The Caretaker’s Guide to Fablehaven by Brandon Mull, illustrated by Brandon Dorman

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win one of two copies of The Caretaker’s Guide to Fablehaven by Brandon Mull (Shadow Mountain, 2015) and an author-signed Fablehaven poster.

Caretakers of magical preserves need to visually identify dozens of mythical and magical creatures. This book will open your eyes to a secret world most humans know nothing about. Study these pages and learn about the many magical artifacts, potions, and weapons that could potentially save your life.


Furthermore, a smart caretaker will need to know how to recognize (and stay away from) the more nefarious creatures found in this book. Most importantly, The Caretaker’s Guide to Fablehaven will give you the inside scoop about other magical preserves around the world, including the most magical and powerful creatures known to ever exist—dragons!


Scattered throughout the book are tidbits of wisdom and counsel from previous caretakers. For example, “Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real smart ones learn from the mistakes of others.”


Immerse yourself in the secret knowledge that has been handed down through the generations by reading the handwritten updates and notes scribed in the margins by the former (and current) caretakers of Fablehaven, including Patton Burgess, Grandpa Sorenson, Kendra, and Seth. Fully-illustrated, this unique encyclopedia has gathered the world of Fablehaven into one volume.

Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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Guest Post & Giveaway: Beth Revis on: Paper Hearts: Some Writing Advice

 By Beth Revis
 for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Beth Note: Don’t miss out on the giveaway at the end of this post. And remember all orders of Paper Hearts made before Nov. 15 from Malaprops will come with a special gift–see details below! 

 

You can win a journal with this cover!

I wrote Paper Hearts: Some Writing Advice for the writer I used to be. The questions I used to have plagued me when I was starting this career path.  

How do I get to the end? What’s the proper way to structure a novel–is there even a proper way? How do I make my book stand out from all the other ones on submission?

Now, fifteen years, eleven unpublished books, three New York Times bestsellers, one self published book, and countless hours working on craft and working with other professionals, I think I finally have the answers that I needed way back then.

Unfortunately, I can’t travel back in time.

But what I can do is try to help others. I’ve been compiling articles on the things I’ve learned about writing, publishing, and marketing for years, first informally on blog posts, then collectively on Wattpad.

After hitting 100,000 reads, I realized that I should take Paper Hearts more seriously…and that I had not one book, but three.

Fully revised and expanded, the Paper Hearts series will feature three volumes, one each on writing, publishing, and marketing. Paper Hearts, Volume 1: Some Writing Advice will be out on November 1, with the other two following in December and January.

Pre-order it now from: Independent Bookstore ~ Amazon ~ BN ~  Kobo ~ Smashwords

About the Book

Your enemy is the blank page.

When it comes to writing, there’s no wrong way to get words on paper.
But it’s not always easy to make the ink flow. Paper Hearts: Some
Writing Advice won’t make writing any simpler, but it may help spark
your imagination and get your hands back on the keyboard.


Practical Advice Meets Real Experience
With information that takes you from common mistakes in grammar to detailed charts on story structure, Paper Hearts describes:
  • How to Develop Character, Plot, and World
  • What Common Advice You Should Ignore
  • What Advice Actually Helps
  • How to Develop a Novel
  • The Basics of Grammar, Style, and Tone 
  • Four Practical Methods of Charting Story Structure
  • How to Get Critiques and Revise Your Novel
  • How to Deal with Failure
  • And much more!
Plus, more than 25 “What to do if” scenarios to help writers navigate problems in writing from a New York Times Bestselling author who’s written more than 2 million words of fiction.

Beth Note:
if you pre-order the print copy from my local indie bookstore,
Malaprops, you’ll also get a chapbook of the best writing advice from 12
beloved and bestselling YA authors included for free!


Paper Hearts Excerpt

Write What You Know

Probably the most clichéd and oft-used phrase for any writer is the old adage, “write what you know.”

So how did I end up writing a novel that takes place hundreds of years in the future, on a spaceship populated by genetically modified people heading to a planet that might not really exist? It’s definitely not something I “know.”

Typically, we don’t really “know” our stories. Or, at least, I don’t. I’ve never been the youngest person on a spaceship, but I do know what it’s like to not fit in. I’ve never had my parents cryogenically frozen, but I still remember that moment when I realized that I’d grown up and was no longer under their safe protection.

Many times it seems that people who aspire to write teen fiction are more focused on writing teenagers than on writing characters who behave realistically. They will often do research on the outward appearances: clothing, slang, mannerisms. Very often, this is where they trip up, because that’s not the important stuff.

Focus on the stuff you know—the stuff everyone knows. We have all experienced the same things most teens have experienced: first love, first heartbreak, betrayal and fear, joy, sorrow.

This is what the writer must know—and if the writer knows this, then everything else—the characters, the plot, the world—will fall in place.

Find the beating heart of the story. Invention is a wonderful thing—a necessary thing when it comes to writing. You need to have invention, but, somewhere beneath everything that you create, you also have to write what you know. Not literally. Emotionally.

Cynsational Notes 
Beth Revis is the New York Times bestselling author of the Across the Universe trilogy, as well as The Body Electric, Paper Hearts, and the forthcoming A World Without You.

She lives in the Appalachian mountains with her boys: one husband, one son, and two very large dogs.

Find out more on Facebook, Twitter, or online.

Sign up for her newsletter.

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Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Q&A of R. Gregory Christie, author and illustrator of Mousetropolis, by Chris Barton from Bartography. Peek: “…my motivation is to bring ethnic groups together and in some ways to bring balance to historical lesson plans.”

Depression and The Writer’s Mind by Lucy Coats from An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. Peek: “How can this job of writing, which I love, turn on me like a monstrous beast, snarling and snapping amid the greyness, leaving me unable to go near it, tearing at and trying to destroy the creative source of the words which normally come to me so easily?” See also When Dark Emotions Threaten Your Writing by Jan O’Hara from Writer Unboxed.

Am I Locked Into a Character’s Nickname Once I Use It? by Deborah Halverson from Dear Editor. Peek: “Even devices intentionally deployed can hurt instead of enhance.”

The Product or the Pitch by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: “There are a million resources on how to improve your product. Unfortunately, a novel isn’t a widget. It has 50,000-100,000 moving parts.”

We Need Diverse Books Mentor Program from WNDB. Reminder: The deadline to apply is Oct. 31. Peek: “…five mentorships, one in each of the following categories – Picture Book text (PB), Middle Grade (MG), Young Adult (YA), Nonfiction (NF), and Illustration (IL). The winners will communicate with the mentor for approximately one year in a mentor/mentee custom-defined program.”

2015 Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers Award Winners by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children’s Literature. Peek: “These books celebrate Native life and lifeways, showing the realities of who we are, but infusing those realities with love and the perseverance that characterizes us as a people.”

How Did YA Become YA? by Anne Rouyer from New York Public Library. Peek: “…it all starts with a young, passionate, pioneering children’s librarian named Anne Carroll Moore.”

Always an Author by Peni Griffin from Idea Garage Sale. Peek: “…just because I live in professional limbo right now doesn’t mean I’m not the woman who wrote The Ghost Sitter and Switching Well – and other things less likely to generate fan mail.”

The Thrill and Horror of Things That Go “Bump” In the Night by Chris Eboch from Project Mayhem. Peek: “The best horror also goes beyond the merely spooky or grotesque, and touches some deep truth.”

Growing Up Cuban: Laura Lacámara and Meg Medina from Latin@s in Kidlit. Peek: “I have never set foot on the island, but in a way, I have been there every day of my life. But how do we talk about Cuba as phantom limb?”

The Many Faces of Diversity by Candy Gourlay from Notes from the Slushpile. Peek: “…from here the other side of the pond, the bookshelves of America look incredibly diverse – I always marvel at the faces of all hues smiling out of the children’s departments of bookstores and libraries I visit in America. But this is apparently deceptive.” See also The White Boy in the Third Row by Brenda Kiely from Reading While White.

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Giveaways

The winner of Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott is Bev in Ontario.

More Personally

Last week’s highlight was the 20th anniversary of Texas Book Festival in Austin.

Discussing Ann Angel‘s Things I”ll Never Say with Shelley Ann Jackson & Varian Johnson.

My Monday morning surprise? Being mentioned by Allie Jane Bruce among Some Swoon-Worthy Women in Children’s Literature at Reading While White. The title is light, but the post isn’t. Peek: “Good-looking men in this field, particularly White men, go straight to the top and cash in…. It’s true of authors, illustrators, and librarians.” A frank discussion about race, gender and career impact.

Attention Austin! Liz Garton Scanlon (In the Canyon) and Susan Kralovansky (Twelve Cowboy Ropin’) will celebrate their new releases at 2 p.m. Oct. 25 at BookPeople.

Reminder! Want to read something spooky? The electronic editions of Diabolical and Feral Curse (both Candlewick), are on sale this month for $1.99!

Personal Links:

Slightly Fewer Americans Are Reading Print Books
“Star Wars” Lets Princess Leia Age Realistically
103 Year Old Dresses as Wonder Woman for Birthday
Jobs in the “Uber” Economy
“Sesame Street” Adds Character with Autism to Cast
What Did “Back to the Future II” Get Right?

In Memory: Vera B. Williams

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith for Cynsations

Vera B. Williams, 88, Dies; Brought Working Class to Children’s Books by Margalit Fox from The New York Times. Peek “Vera B. Williams, a writer and illustrator for young people whose picture books centered on the lives of working-class families, a highly unusual subject when she began her work in the 1970s, died on Friday at her home in Narrowsburg, N.Y. She was 88.”

Acclaimed Children’s Author Vera Williams Passes by  Fritz Mayer for The River Reporter (“upper Delaware River Valley region”). Peek: “Williams was born in 1927…. Her parents were immigrants, her father from Russia and her mother from Poland. She and her sister Naomi went to the Bronx House, a cultural and arts center started by wealthy individuals, women in particular, to help immigrant families adapt to American life.”

Vera B. Williams (1927-2015) by Martha V. Parravano from The Horn Book. Peek: “Both A Chair for My Mother and “More More More,” Said the Baby were Caldecott honor books (in 1983 and 1991, respectively), and they stand out among their fellows for their contemporary, unglossy settings, their sense of inclusiveness, and the forefronting of the loving relationships they portray.”

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Giveaway: Mysteries of Cove, Vol. 1: Fires of Invention by J. Scott Savage

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Enter to win one of two copies of Mysteries of Cove, Vol. 1: Fires of Invention by J. Scott Savage (Shadow Mountain, 2015). From the promotional copy:

Trenton Colman is exceptionally creative with a knack for all things mechanical. But his talents are viewed with suspicion in Cove, a steam-powered city built inside a mountain. In Cove, creativity is a crime and “invention” is a curse word.


Kallista Babbage is a repair technician and daughter of the notorious Leo Babbage, who died in an explosion—an event the leaders of Cove point to as an example of the danger of creativity.


Working together, Trenton and Kallista learn that Leo Babbage was developing a secret project before he perished. Following clues he left behind, they begin to assemble a strange machine that is unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. They soon discover that what they are building may threaten every truth their city is founded on—and quite possibly their very lives.

Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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Guest Interview: Translator Marian Schwartz on Playing a Part

Marian Schwartz

By Avery Fischer Udagawa
For Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

Marian Schwartz is a master translator of Russian literature into English. Active in PEN and past president of the American Literary Translators Association, she has translated more than seventy books including the bestseller The Last Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky and a re-translation of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

Recently she has added to her oeuvre the YA novel Playing a Part by Daria Wilke, edited by Emily Clement and published by Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. Clement discovered the title by reading an article in The Atlantic, which has since been expanded upon by Publishing Perspectives.

Schwartz emailed with me for Cynsations from her home office in Austin, Texas.

Thank you for accepting this interview. How did you develop and cultivate your love of Russian?

First, I fell for the literature. In high school in the 1960s I studied Chekhov’s play “The Seagull,” which has remained one of my favorites, and was also obsessed with the dark side of human nature, always drawn to books about concentration camps, for instance.

But I was also a budding linguist, and once I started Russian at Harvard, I was already farther gone than even I knew.

What led to becoming such a prolific literary translator?

After graduate school I worked in publishing in New York. During those two years in house I learned how to copyedit and translated and published my first book. By then it was clear that I would not fare well in an office environment, so I went freelance, paying the bills by copyediting in the beginning. It’s much easier to be as prolific as I’ve been if you spend the entire day translating.

Playing a Part unfolds in a Moscow “combined theater,” which features both traditional puppetry and a company of actors. The main character, Grisha, has grown up here, and to him the theater is nearly a person—one who blinks, squints, smells, sighs, and even laughs. It was wonderful to meet this theater through your translation!

Thank you!

This novel spotlights traditional puppets, especially the Jester in a version of Cinderella. Is the lexicon of puppets embedded in everyday Russian, or did you have to learn from scratch about gesso and leg yokes, ruches and chiton, controllers and crossbars?

I knew nothing about the technical aspect of puppets when I began this project, but that’s one of the perks of being a translator: the research required to make a translation correct and complete. It’s easy to get (happily) lost learning about a new field. I read books about puppetmaking and consulted with puppeteers. I did extensive Internet image searches. There are books that require no research at all, but they’re very rare.

How did you find it rendering this novel in present tense, with jumps in voice between the first and second person? (“My heart thuds to my feet, which are suddenly heavy and weak. You want to go somewhere, but can’t.”) Is this common in Russian storytelling?

The “you want to” construction is one way English renders impersonal constructions. An alternative would be to say, “one wants to”—but that would give the text the wrong tone in this case. Russian narratives treat tenses quite differently than English-languages stories do, so tense is an important question to be decided for each text. In this case, I wanted the immediacy of the present tense for the basic story line and used the past tense for events recounted that occurred prior to the main action.

Did you linger over how to convey Russian names and nicknames? (Filipp/Filka, Lyolik/Lyonechka, Anton/Tokha.)

Russian has an extensive system of nicknaming that has to be conveyed differently in English. The English reader doesn’t know what the difference is between “Sasha” and “Sashenka,” for example. Both are nicknames, and a Russian reader knows that “Sashenka” is more pointedly affectionate, but if it’s translated that way, the English reader loses that information. To render this nuance, the translator needs to modify “Sasha”—“dear Sasha,” “my Sasha”—or demonstrate the implied affection in some other way. The possibilities are limitless.

So the emotions associated with nicknames can and should be conveyed to the English-language reader without introducing the confusion wrought by having multiple names for the same character.

How would you describe your process of translating this book?

My translating process is essentially the same, no matter what I’m translating and involves four stages: the “inspirational” stage, when I write down every idea that pops into my mind; a cross-check, when I make sure I’ve understood and rendered everything “correctly,” compile my queries, and find answers to them; a third stage, when I set the Russian aside and focus on the English; and a fourth stage, when I ask someone to read the translation to me out loud while I follow along with the original. For some books, that means a total of four passes, but some books require more than one pass at each stage.

The character Grisha in Playing a Part is probably gay, and he admires the actor Sam who is gay—and emigrating to Holland, due to lack of acceptance. Grisha’s grandfather voices this lack of acceptance, calling homosexuality a misguided choice, “popular with you theater people.” The grandfather’s rejection of gays, actors, and even a tomboy teen girl named Sasha is so complete as to sometimes seem absurd. Did he prove tricky to render?

Unfortunately, his attitude is all too common in Russia. I’ve had ample opportunity to contemplate this worldview.

I love a scene in the novel where Grisha and Sasha take handstand lessons, acting like children again—“Like when you just lived without thinking whether you were one way or another.” Did you find this to be a central scene as well?

I agree. This scene was a delight, and I particularly recall it rolling it off my keys and onto the screen. There was something true and transcendent about that moment in time that came out directly in English.

I understand that this book has been restricted to adult sections of bookstores in Russia, though to me it reads like a book for tweens. Do you know how the response has been among Russian-language readers?

I asked Wilke the same question, and she wrote: “While we were preparing to publish, I made friends with the children from Children-404 (an Internet project for homosexual teenagers that helps children who have become aware of their own homosexuality with consultations, advice, and so forth. The police have brought charges against the project many times and they’ve been taken to court to be shut down, but so far, thank goodness, none of this has come to pass), and they made the book the talisman of their movement. Later, they arranged a philanthropic action, buying up copies and sending them to children in outlying regions who needed the book but had no opportunity to buy it.”

What can you tell us about the author, Daria Wilke? Did you and she collaborate?

Wilke was very generous about answering my questions and clarifying various points, but she and I have never met. I was approached to translate the book by the publisher.

You have spoken up about rights for translators, supporting the PEN America model contract for literary translators, for example. Can you give us some background on translator rights, and explain how translators can provide more access to world literature?

Translator rights are based on the notion that the translation is written by the translator, not the author or publisher, and, therefore, the translator has a moral claim on the copyright to that English-language work.

Translators themselves are only able to provide more access to literature for works that are in the public domain, because translation rights are secondary to the overarching right to publish a work in a given language. So, for example, if Playing a Part were in the public domain—which it most emphatically isn’t!—I could seek a publisher for my translation and help get it distributed to more children. In practice, this is a rare situation.

In a way, your work reminds me of Grisha’s quiet choice to be himself in Playing a Part. “In life, as onstage, if you do nothing, then nothing happens.” What are some “somethings” you recommend translators do to increase the amount of world literature available in English?

Translators have two approaches available to them. First, they can choose books that are more likely to resonate with English-language readers and then translate them very very well. Second, they can draw attention to their own and others’ translations by writing reviews, for example, or giving interviews, keeping a blog, participating in readings and other literary events, doing outreach to schools—pretty much the same avenues for publicity open to all writers.

Translators tend to be introspective and can be shy of social media and what they see as self-promotion in general. My solution to this temperamental dilemma is to conceive of the effort as an act in support of the author and the book.

Avery Fischer Udagawa

Do you plan to translate any more titles for teen, tween, or younger readers?

I already have (when I have the details you’ll be the first to know!) and am now considering yet another. Both books were written for the tween reader, much the same audience as for Playing a Part.

Cynsational Notes

Marian Schwartz maintains a website and contributes to Words Without Borders and Subtropics, among many other publications.

Avery Fischer Udagawa contributes to the SCBWI Japan Translation Group blog and is SCBWI International Translator Coordinator. She translated the historical middle grade novel J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani.

Guest Post & Illustration Giveaway: Julie Chibbaro on Writing in Black & White

Teen Julie

By Julie Chibbaro
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I was six years old, my big sister pulled me aside and whispered in my ear.

“I learned a bad word today.”


I asked her, “Is it terrible?”


“It’s awful, horrible.”


I smiled gleefully. She always shared the best bad words, but this one had her worried.


“What is it?” I asked.


She said, “Prejudice.”

She told me it meant to judge someone by their outside skin or where they came from. We lived in a factory neighborhood right next to the projects, where you could find every skin shade in the Crayola box.

We were misfit kids, an unwanted trio, daughters of a mentally ill mother and a violent father. Our clothes didn’t fit, what we had of them, and we ran wild in the empty lots next door. I knew, even at that young age, if I were ever to be judged by what I looked like on the outside, I’d be in serious trouble. From the moment I learned that word, I vowed to make my best attempt to understand people by their inside skin.

With JM, where they met (Prague), and daughter Samsa.

As an adult, I ended up falling in love with a black man. He walked up to me one night on a bench in a foreign country, took out his art portfolio, and showed me the inside of his mind, a gorgeous place to be.

He had pages of drawings – people he watched on the street, scarab beetles he studied in the museum – brilliant renderings that showed me a whole layer of the world I had not known existed.

Over the years, we helped each other grow as artists, trying out different paths and mediums.

Both of us struggled with the labels society put on us, “black artist” for him – he was expected to make art out of his own racial experience, and for me, “woman writer,” an assumption that my writing would somehow be more feminine than a man’s.

We thought if we could examine these labels, and what they did to people, we might come to some answers about why they existed.

I began to create the characters of Ror, a white girl artist who meets Trey, a black street artist (oh, that I have to use labels to describe them!). They both grow up in odd circumstances, making them outsiders. Their shared talent and passion lets them see beyond color, into their true inside skin, the place where they fall in love.

But society’s already gotten to Trey. In a discussion at the modern art museum, while they are looking at the 20th century female Mexican artist (wow, labels) Frida Kahlo’s paintings, Trey relates his beliefs about museums to Ror:

“[T]his place ain’t for us. Not while we alive, at least.”


“How do people get into a museum, anyway?” I wondered.


“You gotta be rich, white, friends with the right people,” he said. “Or you gotta be dead. We ain’t dead yet.”


“I’ve got one out of four,” I said.



“Yeah, but you’re a girl. You may’s well be black like me.”


“Frida Kahlo’s a girl.”



“Married to a famous dude.”



I stopped short. “So that’s what I’ve got to do to get in a museum? Marry a famous dude? I can’t do it on my own?”


“You dream ’bout bein’ in the museum till you dead, Ror. I’ll take bein’ the revolutionary. Let history worry about me,” Trey said.



I didn’t like that answer. Not one bit.

Enter to win print of this illustration below!

Ror confronts the local art supply store owner who tries to encourage her away from doing graffiti with Trey, even though that’s what she thinks is beautiful. She doesn’t believe she can even get into a gallery or museum, not till she’s dead, anyway, because she’s a girl. Jonathan refutes her fiercely:

“There’s plenty of living artists, and they’re in galleries that anybody can go into…look at Audrey Flack and think about what got her there. Go to SoHo. Go down the Village and look at young painters just coming up, like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat…those guys started on the street, but they didn’t stay there.”

His words filter down through her, and get her thinking about her own power and the extent of her talent.

Ultimately, she comes to the bottom line question, the main part of art-making that’s in her control: Is this piece of art in front of me the best I can make it?

As a black artist and a woman writer, JM and I struggle to transcend labels, but for Into the Dangerous World (Viking, 2015)(excerpt), we had to look straight at them to expand the range of the story, to actually talk about these concerns we regularly face.

Reality is tough, and prejudice is a persistent monster, but we dealt with it head-on; through Ror’s drawings and her adventures with Trey, we hoped to show our readers the value of digging into the beliefs of the people who surround us, and see what’s really true within ourselves.

 

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Enter to win an 8.5 x 11 print of an illustration from the book. Author-illustrator sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

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