Over the past couple of weeks, children’s-YA author Cynthia Leitich Smith put out a call for questions from readers on Cynsations and Twitter. Here are those she elected to tackle and her responses. A few questions were condensed for space and/or clarity.
See also a previous Cynsations reader-interview post from November 2010. Cyn Note: It’s interesting how the question topics shifted, both with my career growth and changes in publishing. Back then, readers were most interested in the future of the picture book market and online author marketing.
What’s the one piece of advice you think would most benefit children’s-YA writers?
Read model books across age levels, genres, and formats. For example, a novelist who studies picture books will benefit in terms of innovation, economy and lyricism of language.
Writing across formats has its benefits, too. No, you won’t be as narrowly branded. But you will have more options within age-defined markets that rise and fall with birth rates. You will acquire transferable skills, and, incidentally, you’ll be a more marketable public speaker and writing teacher.
Are you in a critique group? Do you think they’re important?
Not right now, but I have been in the past.
These days, I carry a full formal teaching load. Each year I also tend to lead one additional manuscript-driven workshop and offer critiques at a couple of conferences. That leaves no time for regular group meetings or the preparation that goes into them—my loss.
For me, participation offered insights (by receiving and giving feedback) as well as mutual support related both to craft and career.
From a more global perspective, considerations include: whether the group is hard-working, social or both; the range of experience and expertise; the compatibility of productivity levels; and the personality mix.
The right combination of those ingredients can enhance the writing life and fuel success. A wrong one can be a serious detriment. If you need to make a change, do it with kindness. But do it.
What can an MFA in writing for kids do for me?
First, my perspective is rooted in my experience as a faculty member in the low-residency Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
|With Kathi at the Illumine Gala|
You don’t need an MFA to write well or to successfully publish books for young readers.
I don’t have an MFA. My education includes a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Kansas and a J.D. from The University of Michigan Law School. I also studied law abroad one summer in Paris.
Beyond that, I improved my children’s writing at various independent workshops, most notably those led by Kathi Appelt in Texas.
That said, you will likely develop your craft more quickly and acquire a wider range of knowledge and transferable skills through formal study.
My own writing has benefited by working side-by-side with distinguished author-teachers. Only this week, I heard Tim Wynne-Jones’s voice in my mind—the echo of a lecture that lit the way.
You’ll want to research which program is best suited to your needs.
Your questions may include:
- Do you want a full- or low-residency experience?
- What will be the tuition and travel/lodging costs?
- What financial aid is available?
- Are you an author-illustrator? (If so, Hollins may be a fit.)
- Are you looking for a well-established program or an intimate start-up?
- What is the faculty publication history?
- How extensive is the faculty’s teaching experience?
- How diverse is the faculty and student body?
- How impressive is the alumni publication record?
- How many alumni go on to teach?
- How cohesive–active and supportive–is the alumni community?
Talk to students and alumni about the school’s culture, faculty-student relationships, creature comforts and hidden expenses.
Across the board, for children’s-YA MFA programs, the most substantial negative factor is cost.
In terms of marketing, what’s one thing authors could do better?
Provide the name of your publisher and, if applicable, the book’s illustrator in all of your promotional materials, online and off. If you’re published by, say, Lee & Low or FSG, that carries with it a certain reputation and credibility. Also, readers will know which publisher website to seek for more information and which marketing department to contact to request you for a sponsored event.
Granted, picture book authors usually post cover art, which includes their illustrators’ names. But we’re talking about the books’ co-creators, and they bring their own reader base with them. Include their bylines with yours and the synopsis of the book whenever possible. It’s respectful, appreciative and smart business.
What’s new with your writing?
I’ve sold two poems this year, one of which I wrote when I was 11. How cool is that?
I’m also working steadily on a massive update and relaunch of my official author site, hopefully to go live for the back-to-school season.
What are you working on now?
Like my tween debut, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), the upcoming book features a Muscogee (Creek)/Native American girl protagonist, is set in Kansas and Oklahoma, and is loosely inspired by my own adolescence.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to take a look at my recent contemporary realism, check out the chapter “All’s Well” from Violent Ends, edited by Shaun David Hutchinson (Simon Pulse, 2015).
What’s next for your Tantalize-Feral books?
For those unfamiliar with them, the Tantalize series and Feral trilogy are set in the same universe and share characters, settings and mythologies. These upper YA books are genre benders, blending adventure, fantasy, the paranormal, science fiction, mystery, suspense, romance and humor.
A new short story set in the universe, “Cupid’s Beaux,” appears in Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves, edited by Ann Angel (Candlewick, 2015).
I don’t have immediate plans for more stories in the universe, but it’s vast and multi-layered. While I’m focusing on realistic fiction now, I’ll return to speculative in the future.
How do I make sure that no one will go public with a problem about my diverse book?
First, you can’t (and neither can I).
To fully depict today’s diverse world, we all have to stretch–those who don’t with regard to
protagonists will still be writing secondary characters different from
Writers of color, Native
writers and those who identify along economic-ability-size-health-cultural-orientation spectra are not exempt from the responsibilities that come with that.
I’m hearing a lot of anxiety from a lot folks concerned about being criticized or minimized for writing across identity elements. I’m also hearing a lot of anxiety from a lot of folks concerned with “getting it right.”
For the health of my head space, the latter is the way to go. My philosophy: Focus on doing your homework and offering your most thoughtful, respectful writing.
Focus on advocating for quality children’s-YA literature about a wide variety characters (and their metaphorical stand-ins) by a wide range of talented storytellers.
I make every effort to assume the best.
By that, I mean:
- Assume that when people in power say that they’re committed to a more diverse industry and body of literature, they mean it and will act accordingly.
- Assume they’ll eventually overcome those who resist.
- Assume that your colleagues writing or illustrating outside their immediate familiarity connect with their character(s) on other meaningful levels.
- Assume that you’ll have to keep stretching and connecting, too.
- Assume that #ownvoices offer important insights inherent in their lived experiences.
- Assume that being exposed to identity elements and literary traditions outside your own is a opportunity for personal growth.
- Assume that a wider array of representations will invite in and nurture more young readers.
- Assume that your voice and vision can make a difference, not only as a writer but signal booster, advocate and ambassador.
If only in the short term, you risk being proven wrong. You risk being disappointed. At times, you probably will be. I’ve experienced both, but I’d rather go through all that again than to try to effect positive change in an industry I don’t believe in. I choose optimism.
I’ve been a member of the children’s-YA writing community for 18 years. Experience has taught me that I’m happier and more productive when I err on the side of hope and faith.
Do you think that agents are reluctant to sign POC writing about POC after Scholastic pulling A Birthday Cake for George Washington?
No need to panic. As the diversity conversation has gained renewed momentum, many agents have publicly invited queries from POC as well as Native, disabled, LGBTQIA writers and others from underrepresented communities. For example, Lee Wind at I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? is hosting an interview series with agents on that very theme.
I can’t promise that every children’s-YA literary agent prioritizes or, in their heart of hearts, considers themselves fully open to your query. But those who don’t aren’t a fit for you anyway.
When you’re identifying agents to query, consider whether they have indicated an openness to diverse submissions and/or take a look at who’s on their client rosters. This shouldn’t be the only factor of course, but one of many that you weigh.
On your blog, you feature a lot of trendy type books (gay) we didn’t have in the past.
Not a question, but let’s go for it. If I’m deciphering you as intended, I disagree with the premise. Books with gay characters aren’t merely a trend or, for that matter, new in YA literature.
Nancy Garden’s Annie on my Mind was published in 1982. Marion Dane Bauer’s anthology Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence was published in 1994. Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club was published in 2003. One place to find recent ALA recommendations is the 2016 ALA Rainbow Book List.
Cynsations coverage is inclusive of books with LGBTQIA characters. In addition, gay and lesbian secondary characters appear in my own writing.
The blog was launched in 2004. Over time, I’ve noticed fluctuations in social media whenever I post LGBTQIA related content. I lose some followers and gain others. Increasingly, I lose fewer and gain more. My most enthusiastic welcome to those new followers!
(Incidentally, I used to see the same thing with regard to books/posts about authors and titles featuring interracial families or multi-racial characters.)
You sometimes tweet about TV shows. What do you watch?
In typical geeky fashion: “Agent Carter;” “Agents of Shield,” “Arrow;” “Bones;” “Castle;” “The Flash;” “Grimm;” “iZombie;” “Legends of Tomorrow;” “The Librarians;” “Lucifer;” “Once Upon a Time;” “Supernatural.”
|Created by Rob Thomas, who has also written several YA novels.|
Typically, I watch television while lifting weights or using my stair-climber. I love my climber. I do morning email on it, too. It’s largely replaced my treadmill desk.
While I write, I use the television to play YouTube videos, usually featuring aquariums, blooming flowers, butterflies or space nebulas, all set to soothing music.
Trivia: Probably I’ve logged the most small-screen time with David Boreanaz due to “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Bones.” I know nothing about the actor beyond his performances (I’m not a “celebrity news” person), but I like to think he appreciates my loyalty.