Guest Interview & Giveaway: Translator Cathy Hirano (Pre AFCC 2016 Con)

By Misa Dikengil Lindberg, Alexander O. Smith and Avery Fischer Udagawa
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This month, the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore will feature Cynsations’ own Cynthia Leitich Smith speaking on “The Irresistible Fantastical Supernatural: Writing a World that Beckons.”

Also featured at AFCC 2016 will be Cathy Hirano, a leading translator of Japanese children’s literature into English. Hirano’s translation of the middle grade realistic novel The Friends (by Kazumi Yumoto) won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and a Mildred L. Batchelder Award. Her translations of the YA fantasy novels Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit and Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness by Nahoko Uehashi won the Batchelder Award and a Batchelder Honor, respectively, and paved the way for Uehashi to win the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing. This honor is often dubbed the Nobel Prize for children’s literature.

In addition, Hirano translated a YA fantasy novel by Noriko Ogiwara that went out of print, but drew such a fan following that it was republished with a sequel. The results are Dragon Sword and Wind Child and Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince.

Members of the SCBWI Japan Translation Group have admired Hirano for years. Three members of the group—Misa Dikengil Lindberg, Alexander O. Smith and Avery Fischer Udagawa—interviewed her for Japan-focused publications and here combine their efforts in a “pre-AFCC 2016 omni interview.”

To learn more about the topics discussed in this piece, please follow the links below it to the three source interviews. And don’t forget to enter the Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit giveaway!

Avery Fischer Udagawa: Cathy Hirano, you work as a translator in fields such as anthropology, sociology, architecture and medicine, and you live in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture, Japan. Where did you grow up, and how did you come to study Japan and Japanese?

Cathy Hirano

Cathy Hirano: I grew up in Vancouver, Victoria and Winnipeg and came to Japan in 1978 when I was 20. I was not directly interested in Japan at the time but was invited by a Japanese-Canadian friend. My image of Japan was of a highly populated, highly polluted country that manufactured cars and cameras—not a very attractive picture. I had very little idea of Japan’s history or culture and saw traveling here as a stepping-stone to other countries in Asia, and then to the rest of the world.

But my interest in Japan and the Japanese language began as soon as I arrived in Japan. I got lost in Tokyo on my second day here and realized that if I did not acquire reading, writing and speaking skills, I would be lost forever in more ways than one.

I studied for a year in Kyoto at a private language school called Nihongo Kenkyu Center. It was very small with creative teachers who were always experimenting with new methods. I fell in love with kanji [ideograms] at that time. The concept that a “letter” could be a picture with meaning was fascinating. To help memorize them, I used to make up my own stories about how each part of a kanji combined to make the meaning of the whole. In 1979, I went on to study anthropology at International Christian University in Tokyo, which had a fantastic Japanese language program.

How did you discover and cultivate your skills as a translator?

I think it was my Japanese teachers in Kyoto and at ICU who first pointed out to me that I had some ability in this area. Reading has always been a great source of pleasure, inspiration and comfort, and when we had to do translation exercises in class, I wasn’t content with just a literal translation. I had to play with it until it sounded as natural and literary as the Japanese.

Cultivating my translation skills was very much a hit-and-miss, learning-on-the-job experience. I was hired as a translator by a Japanese engineering consulting company after I graduated.

I didn’t know any other translators when I started out, and as far as I knew there were no courses in translation. So I read as much as I could in English about whatever subject I was translating to get a feel for the right language, consulted the Japanese engineers I worked with frequently to make sure I understood, used the dictionaries and references in their library and got native speakers (including my father, who is an engineer) to read what I had written and give me feedback.

This is still the approach I use today for any type of translation. The only difference is that with the Internet, I no longer need to accumulate reference books and dictionaries. Thanks to email, I also have an extended network of friends and relatives, both Japanese- and English-speaking, who I can consult for different subjects.

You have translated a number of picture books—most recently Hannah’s Night by printmaker-illustrator Komako Sakai, for Gecko Press—as well as novels. What attracted you to children’s literature?

I fell into children’s literature entirely by accident. A friend and fellow graduate of ICU who worked in publishing asked me to review English-language children’s books for possible translation into Japanese, a dream job for someone who loves reading. She would give me a stack of books, and when I had finished reading them I would meet her in a coffee shop and tell her what I thought.

She then began asking me to translate Japanese picture books for promotional purposes. My publications of picture books started out as byproducts of the promotional translation: English-language publishers liked the translations and asked for permission to use them.

Meanwhile, when my friend’s company published an award-winning novel by Noriko Ogiwara, I agreed to read it and write a summary. This was followed by a request for a sample and finally to translation and publication of Dragon Sword and Wind Child. This then led to translating three novels by Kazumi Yumoto for Farrar, Straus and Giroux—including The Friends.

Alexander O. Smith: An essay you wrote for The Horn Book about The Friends has become a classic description of Japanese-to-English literary translation. To follow on that discussion, how do you position yourself as translator with regards to the work, the author, and your audience?

I think that my approach as a translator differs significantly for bread-and-butter translation and for literature. With the former, I am more objective. I keep a clear picture in my mind of the target reader and I focus on conveying the intent and meaning of the Japanese rather than on the style, sometimes extensively editing and rewriting the original.

With literary translation, however, I find the translation process more personal and subjective. The author has written the book for me and I’m translating it so that others can enjoy the same experience. In the initial stages in particular, I don’t worry about the readership and instead focus far more on the author, on his or her style, choice of words, rhythm—on the voice. I’m quite faithful to the original.

It is only when I go back and reread it, that I regain some objectivity and become rather ruthless. But I am still trying to convey an experience rather than just content or meaning.

Misa Dikengil Lindberg: Your first novel translation, of Dragon Sword and Wind Child, got republished with a sequel after it fell out of print. How did that come about?

I loved Noriko Ogiwara’s Magatama series and was therefore very disappointed when Dragon Sword and Wind Child went out of print.

Then my daughter grew up and fell in love with Ogiwara’s books as a teenager. Searching the Internet, she found that the English translation had received nothing but five-star reviews on Amazon. She also found used copies selling for up to five hundred dollars and one young reader who had made a website dedicated to the book. This person had even typed the entire out-of-print English translation to put on the site! I was stunned. People had actually liked the book as much as I had!

I contacted the Japanese editor to see if there was a possibility of re-doing it, although I knew most American publishers would be reluctant to publish a book that hadn’t done well before. The editor, who also loves the book, began putting out feelers.

Although we did not know this, around the same time, VIZ Media had decided to branch out into publishing translated Japanese literature and was looking for good Japanese books. One of their editors had read Dragon Sword and Wind Child when she was young and loved it.

When the editing team tried to get a copy of the English translation for review, they found that the majority of library copies had been stolen, which actually made them more interested in the book, indicating as it did how popular the book was. They eventually got a copy and decided to republish it. The original English-language publisher agreed to give them the right to publish it but not the rights to my translation. When the VIZ editor contacted the Japanese publisher, she put them in touch with me and they asked if I would “re-translate” it. Of course, I was thrilled!

Alexander O. Smith: What was it like revisiting the first volume fourteen years after your first translation? 

It was fun, embarrassing, unnerving, confirming. I started by reading it aloud to my kids and their cousins, who by then were in their mid and late teens. They loved it, thank goodness! But they also had some good laughs about some of my word choices while I found myself cringing in places where the language I’d used was stuffy and stilted.

I then went through the translation line by line against the Japanese and caught things I had missed or misunderstood—not as many as I had feared, but still. After rewriting all the trouble spots, I did a final pass through the whole book.

Although it was embarrassing to see the mistakes I had made, it was also confirming to see that I have evolved somewhat as a translator in those 14 years and that I still love to escape into Ogiwara’s world!


How was it to do the sequel?

In a nutshell, the knowledge that people were waiting to read Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince is what kept me going. Readers have power!

Misa Dikengil Lindberg: Nahoko Uehashi’s ten-volume Moribito series, about the adventures of a young female bodyguard, is the winner of numerous literary awards and has become hugely popular in Japan, even spawning anime, manga, and TV series. How did you first encounter Uehashi’s work?

Japanese and English covers

My first exposure to Ms. Uehashi’s work was in 2004, when I was asked to do a summary and sample of Beyond the Fox’s Flute. I was attracted by Uehashi’s writing style and by the fictional world she created. Around the same time, a Japanese friend told me about her Moribito series, and I found it intriguing that a children’s fantasy series was so popular even with people my age (fifty).

Before I had a chance to read the series, however, the Japanese publisher contacted me to do a summary and sample translation of the first book for overseas promotion.

This led to publication of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit and later Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness by Arthur A. Levine Books.

How closely did you work with your editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, Cheryl Klein? What were some of the problems you worked to overcome?

Cheryl Klein is the most thorough editor I have ever worked with. She edited the translation as if it were a new manuscript submitted by an English-language author, which made some of her suggestions extremely radical. As Ms. Uehashi is also one of the most thorough and involved authors I have ever worked with on a translation, the result was definitely a team effort.

Probably the biggest problem was fitting the history of New Yogo (the fictional empire in which the story takes place) into the book in a more natural way.

When I first read Moribito in Japanese, the history stuck out awkwardly in the third chapter, slowing everything down. Until that point, the action is fast-paced and the story gripping. Then suddenly the text switches to an unnamed narrator, jumps back in time, and then jumps back to the present again.

It’s quite abrupt and would have sounded unnatural in English. So when I did the initial sample translation, I took it out (with the author’s and publisher’s permission) and tacked it on as a prologue with a note explaining that this would need to be solved during the editing process.

After playing with several ideas, the three of us finally agreed that the history basically belonged in its original location but that English readers needed more of a transition to ease them into it and keep them from getting impatient during that section.

Ms. Uehashi rewrote certain parts of the history, replacing the unnamed narrator with the more personal voice of Shuga, one of the Star Readers. So the English version is actually different from the Japanese but still written by the author.

Alexander O. Smith: The Moribito series and the Magatama series are interesting to me in that they both fit snugly within a very western fantasy genre and yet their stories and worlds are influenced by Asian history and myth. How did you navigate the process of bringing these worlds into English without losing the flavor of the original? Were you inspired, stylistically or otherwise, by any other books in English?

A hard question! For me, it’s a very intuitive process and I’m never sure if I really have succeeded in keeping the flavor of the original. One thing I try to do is read the translation out loud once I get it to a more polished state. That helps me see whether it “feels” the same.

What I’m looking for at a gut level is whether the English grabs me in the same way as the Japanese. To me, Uehashi’s voice is fast-paced, powerful, compassionate, clear and deceptively simple. Ogiwara’s voice, though just as powerful, is completely different. Her rich, lyrical images and sweeping descriptions vividly convey the emotional atmosphere. She has a knack for capturing a focal point or detail that draws in the reader and for mirroring the inner worlds of her characters’ minds and hearts in the outer world. However, this style, which is very Japanese, is less compatible with the English language than Uehashi’s.

To give one example, Uehashi’s battle scenes are graphically detailed. You know exactly when and how each bone is broken, whose bone it is and what it feels like (ouch!!). This brings home the reality of life for the bodyguard Balsa.

As for what books inspired me during the translation process, I actually strive not to be influenced stylistically by other authors so that I can remain true to the original. At the same time, however, I do read books in the same genre because exposure to good English helps me avoid an excessively literal translation.

While translating the Moribito books I found myself rereading Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series. I think what appealed was their common themes such as the search for meaning, the painful journey of self discovery and acceptance, and the fact that their voices both evoke the oral tradition of story-telling.

When translating Ogiwara, on the other hand, I was drawn to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Again, it wasn’t the style but the story’s epic nature and the use of humor to lighten a serious tale that resonated.

Avery Fischer Udagawa: Are you at work on any children’s or young adult projects now?

Yes, I am getting a start on The Beast Player (Kemono no soja), a fantasy novel by Andersen laureate Nahoko Uehashi.

Cynsational Notes: Interviewers & Source Interviews

Misa Dikengil Lindberg is a freelance writer, editor and translator. She translated the new adult novel Emily by Novala Takemoto and the story “The Dragon and the Poet” by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), one of Japan’s most beloved writers, for the anthology Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories. Her full interview with Hirano, Young Adult Fantasy in Translation: An Interview with Cathy Hirano, focuses on Dragon Sword and Wind Child and Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit.

Alexander O. Smith is the translator of thirty novels from the Japanese, including Brave Story and The Book of Heroes by Miyuki Miyabe, The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, and the Guin Saga series by Kaoru Kurimoto. He is also known for localization and production of video games, and is co-founder of publisher Bento Books. His full interview with Hirano, Catching Up With Cathy Hirano, focuses on Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince.

Avery Fischer Udagawa translated the middle grade historical novel J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani. She serves as SCBWI Japan Translator Coordinator and SCBWI International Translator Coordinator. Her full interview with Hirano, Children’s Book Translation: An Interview with Cathy Hirano (PDF, pp. 7-9), focuses on ways to get started in translation.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a hardback edition (now a collector’s item) of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano. Eligibility: International.

The design of this volume is described here by editor Cheryl Klein of Arthur A. Levine Books: Behind the Book: Moribito Guardian of the Spirit.

See also: Moribito: Editing YA and Children’s Literature in English Translation: An Interview with Cheryl Klein by Sako Ikegami (PDF, pp. 4-7.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Guest Post: Amy Bearce on World-Building Woes (& Wows)

By Amy Bearce
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Confession: I have a terrible time with world-building. So, naturally, I consistently write fantasy, where world-building is critical.

You gotta be kidding me! Credit: Pixabay, mintchipdesigns, CC0

In real life, I’m not very observant about the space around me. I notice people’s emotions, but not what they are eating or what they are wearing. But in writing, all those little details make a place come alive. And in a fantasy story, they are even more important because readers must trust you to be their guide through an unknown world.

Right this way, please. Credit: Pixabay, InspiredImages, CC0

My first book, Fairy Keeper (Curiosity Quills, 2016), and the sequels are set in the world of Aluvia, full of magical creatures and beasts. Through writing these books, I’ve learned a lot about how world-building works best for me.
When writing about a fantastical world, the phrase, “Write what you know” now has yet another meaning. One way to create new magical creatures is to extrapolate what you know from the real world and tweak it.

My fairies were inspired by bees and have a lot in common with them. My merfolk are bioluminescent like deep sea squid and jellyfish, and in book 3, dragons are awakening from a long hibernation like giant wild bears with wings (and flames.)

As a girl of the plains, I had to watch a lot of documentaries to get a better idea of what was in the deep ocean. As it turns out…pretty amazing stuff! Credit: Pixabay, emdash, CC0

Originally, I had only considered fairies. But as I wrote about my fairy keeper character, soon I had merfolk and dragons and fauns…and had to decide details about each of them. It became apparent that while my world had magic, it was pretty broken. My magical creatures were less magical than many of their traditional representations. But I didn’t start off knowing that.
Essentially, world-building sneaked up on me.

This stealthy kitty is hunting dragons, mermaids, and fairies. Credit:
Pixabay, rihaij, CC0

Others writers build an encyclopedia of knowledge first. Google
“World-Building Tips” and you will receive an avalanche of questions to
answer.

How do people live here? What foods do they eat? What is their religion? Have there been wars? What economic system is used?

Here’s my secret: I hate those questions worse than a pop quiz in math. They almost hurt to ponder.

My expression when trying to answer “world-building questions.” Credit: Gratisography, CC0

I don’t know most of the answers until they suddenly appear in my story. I’m not saying it’s the best way to do it. I do it because creating details about a new world does not come naturally to me. But when my character is walking from point A to B, as I’m writing, my mind fills things in, and it mostly works. Mostly.

There always comes the moment my husband reads it and says, “Hey, these parts don’t make sense.” And he’ll be right. So I change things.

The cost of this build-as-you-go approach means that I often end up with a draft full of contradictory information. There’s a lot of clean up involved. I’m sure it would be easier to build the world before writing anything. But for me, it’s exactly that little stuff that trips me up. Every. Single. Time.

World-building: My own personal banana peel. Credit: Pixabay, stevepb, CC0

The good news is that if I can create an imaginary world with consistent magic rules and an actual map inside the book, you can, too. Don’t let overwhelming questions stop you. Try writing some scenes and see where they take you.

 Be patient, keep writing, and don’t be afraid to change things if you need to. Turn your woes to wow! After all, you are the master of your universe! Own it! Write it! And have fun with it!

Sing it with me: “I’ve got the power!” Credit: Pixabay, Skitterphoto, CC0

Cynsational Notes

Amy Bearce writes stories for tweens and teens. She is a former reading teacher with a Masters in Library Science.

As an Army kid, she moved eight times before she was eighteen, so she feels especially fortunate to be married to her high school sweetheart. Together they’re raising two daughters and are currently living in Germany, though they still call Texas home.

A perfect day for Amy involves rain pattering on the windows, popcorn, and every member of her family curled up in one cozy room reading a good book. Her latest release is Mer-Charmer (Curiosity Quills, 2016).

From the promotional copy:

Fourteen-year-old Phoebe Quinn is surrounded by magic, but she can’t muster any of her own. Her sister is a fairy keeper. Her best friends are merfolk. And all she does is dishes and housework.

When Phoebe finds out a terrible sea creature is awakening that preys upon the gentle merfolk, she resolves to help them, even though it means risking her life deep in the ocean.

Beneath the waves, Phoebe learns she’s more like her sister than she realized. The merfolk are drawn to her, and she can sense the magic of the sea all around her. Magic is finally at her fingertips, but that’s precisely why the stirring dark power under the waters decides it wants her most of all.

Now she must not only help the peaceful merfolk escape this ancient enemy, she must master her out-of-control powers. If she fails, she will die, and darkness will rise to enslave the merfolk once more. But embracing her full power could cost her the very people she loves the most.

New Voice: Kurt Dinan on Don’t Get Caught

Educator’s Guide

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Kurt Dinan is the first-time author of Don’t Get Caught (Sourcebooks Fire, 2016). From the promotional copy:

10:00 tonight at the water tower. Tell no one. -Chaos Club

When Max receives a mysterious invite from the untraceable, epic prank-pulling Chaos Club, he has to ask: why him?


After all, he’s Mr. 2.5 GPA, Mr. No Social Life. He’s Just Max. And his favorite heist movies have taught him this situation calls for Rule #4: Be suspicious. But it’s also his one shot to leave Just Max in the dust…


Yeah, not so much. Max and four fellow students-who also received invites-are standing on the newly defaced water tower when campus security “catches” them. Definitely a setup. And this time, Max has had enough. 

It’s time for Rule #7: Always get payback.


Let the prank war begin.

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

Having a full-time teaching job, papers to grade, and four children under the age of ten, let’s just say that writing time (or any free time for that matter) is pretty sparse. So basically, I’m a anytime/anywhere possible type of writer.

I write in the mornings before my students arrive, on my lunch break, in the fifteen minutes before I head home to get the kids, during my kids’ practices, or in the time after the kids go to bed if I’m not too tired and my brain is still functioning.

It can be a very piecemeal process, but I’m not too hard on myself and have a very realistic goal–500 words a day. When I get that finished, I don’t stress out about my writing the rest of the day.

That’s nice in that it allows me to focus my efforts and energy in other places they are needed.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

Follow @kurtdinan on Twitter

Other writers have good-naturedly ribbed me for having a secret “in” to the world of teenagers, and I suppose I do. I’m surrounded by them all day, and I hear their conversations, their worries, their humor, etc. I get to use all of that when I’m writing.

Being a writer has helped me immensely in the classroom though because kids love my honesty about how hard writing can be, about revision and brainstorming techniques I’ve learned, and about how you want to write something you’re proud of, not just something you’ve finished.

 Basically, I’m not just someone forcing them to write, I’m someone going through a lot of the same struggles they are, and a lot of them appreciate that.

Interview: Author Carole Boston Weatherford & Illustrator Jeffery Boston Weatherford

By Carole Boston Weatherford
& Jeffrey Boston Weatherford

From Carole

Set during World War II, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen (Atheneum, 2016) follows the training, trials and triumphs of the U.S. military’s first African American pilots.

The book pairs my poems with scratchboard illustrations by my son, Jeffrey Boston Weatherford.

The title is our first collaboration and Jeffery’s publication debut. The book, which includes a detailed timeline and links to primary sources, connects to both the language arts and social studies curricula.

You Can Fly had a long incubation period. The egg may have been laid during a family trip to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. The earliest version of the text was for a picture book written in second person.

After I was unable to sell that manuscript, I sat on the egg for a few more years. Then I began re-envisioning and reshaping the manuscript as a poetry collection for middle grades-up. I switched the point of view to first person under the title “The Last Tuskegee Airmen Tells All.” Still not satisfied, I changed to third person. Finally, I settled on second person.

Around that time, Jeffery came on board. During a summer internship in children’s book illustration, he created digital art to accompany my poems. We sold the package, but just before the book was about to hatch, the flight got cancelled.

Carole & Jeffery in 2000

I began to wonder if the book would ever leave the nest. I continued to
revise the manuscript and to add poems. Jeffery and I decided to scrap
the digital art in favor of scratchboard illustrations.

Armed with a
revised manuscript and sample drawings, we sold the package to Atheneum.

In the subsequent year, Jeffery completed the illustrations and I added
a few new poems.

In mid-April, Jeffery and I received our comp copies.

Our first book together finally has wings.

Fly, little book, fly!

Author & Illustrator Interview

Jeffery and I recently interviewed each other about You Can Fly.

Jeffery: Why did you want to write this book?

Carole: The Tuskegee Airmen’s saga moved me personally. It is powerful—historically, politically and emotionally. I thought the story begged for a poetic treatment.

Carole: You were a serious gamer growing up. Did gaming influence how you illustrated the battle scenes?

Jeffery: Yes, absolutely. I had lots of residual visual references from battles across galaxies. I played everything from Halo to Call of Duty.

Jeffery: When did you first notice my artistic talent?

Carole: Your kindergarten teacher prodded you to finish coloring and work up to potential. By third grade, I was concerned that you were doodling planes, cars, weapons and anime characters in your notebook rather than paying attention.

Around middle school, I realized that your drawings were good. I put you in studio art classes, starting with cartooning. By high school, you were taking private art lessons with the assistant principal who became a mentor.

Carole: What is your favorite illustration from the book?

Jeffery: My favorite is of the boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. It’s a closeup scene from their historic rematch.

Jeffery: What’s yours?

Carole: The one where two planes on a mission have bombed an enemy aircraft. The explosion is so animated; like a comic book.

Jeffery: What is your favorite poem from the book?

Carole: It’s “Head to the Sky,” the first poem in the book and also the first that I wrote—early on when the project was envisioned as a picture book. “Head to the Sky” reflects the power of a dream fueled by self-determination.

Carole: Tell me about your first flight.

Jeffery: I had a window seat and was looking outside. As the plane sped down the runway, I said, “We’re blasting off!”

Carole: That was hilarious. Well, your career as a children’s book illustrator is off to a flying start. How did it feel when you first saw the printed book?

Jeffery: Like a child at Christmas.

From the promotional copy:



I WANT YOU! says the poster of Uncle Sam. But if you’re a young black man in 1940, he doesn’t want you in the cockpit of a war plane. Yet you are determined not to let that stop your dream of flying.



So when you hear of a civilian pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute, you leap at the chance. Soon you are learning engineering and mechanics, how to communicate in code, how to read a map. At last the day you’ve longed for is here: you are flying!



From training days in Alabama to combat on the front lines in Europe, this is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the groundbreaking African-American pilots of World War II.

Video: Grace Lin on Windows, Mirrors & Children’s Books

From Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

“What your child reads sets the path for their own self-worth as well as how they see others. Grace Lin is a children’s book author/illustrator whose book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Little, Brown), received the Newbery Book Honor. She shows how the books that are not on your child’s bookshelf are just as important as those that are.

“Grace is an author and illustrator of books for children and teens. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was a NY Times Bestseller and a Newbery Honor Book. Ling & Ting, was honored with the Theodor Geisel Honor.

“Grace’s books typically focus on the Asian-American experience. She believes, ‘Books erase bias, they make the uncommon every day, and the mundane exotic. A book makes all cultures universal.'”

Guest Post: Mary E. Cronin on Writing Children & Teens with LGBTQ Parents

Mary E. Cronin and Bonnie Jackman

By Mary E. Cronin
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Life is just different for kids of LGBTQ parents.

They navigate awkward questions, tricky social situations, and hetero-normative language on a daily basis.

My wife Bonnie Jackman and I shared sparks for inspiration as well as seeds of conflict for writers in “Re-imagining Families: Writing about Characters with LGBTQ Parents” at the New England SCBWI Conference on May 1.

Here are a few points from our presentation:

  1. Kids of LGBTQ parents have to explain their existence all the time. Who’s your real mom? Where’s your dad? What do you mean your dad’s a she? There are many dissonant moments our kids deal with as a matter of course in their daily lives. How does this affect their character, their quest, their relationships, their resilience? This is rich material for character development.
  2. In a diverse country such as ours, with LGBTQ rights and protections shifting in real time, geographical setting is critical to any story with LGBTQ characters. Setting can be an antagonist, a support, a mix of the two. Think about where your character/family lives and consider the political/social climate for LGBTQ people there. There are wide variations, and it will have an impact on the landscape of your character and his/her family.
  3. How “out” is the family? Are the parents activists, or do they tend to be more low-key? Where are their children on this spectrum? Age is critical here. A kindergartner may delight in having her two moms come into the classroom for a celebration; an older kid might ask to be dropped off two blocks from school.
  4. Writing about LGBTQ-parented families gives us the opportunity to portray socio-economic diversity. Not all “gay families” have furniture from Pottery Barn and lots of disposable income, as often portrayed in mass media. Consider widely-known statistics about women’s earning power in the U.S. in relation to men’s, and then think about the impact of that on families parented by two moms. Trans adults are at a greater risk of discrimination at the workplace; this may impact a family greatly.
  5. School is a place where kids of LGBTQ parents may experience all kinds of dissonance. Mother-daughter book clubs, father-daughter dances, forms with mother/father blanks on them, questions and misunderstandings from teachers, administrators, the school nurse… this is rich territory to explore in character development. How does your character respond to these “micro-aggressions,” when the world around them seems to constantly make hetero-normative assumptions?
  6. Statistics have shown that same-sex couples (with or without children) are much more likely to be interracial or inter-ethnic. This presents writers/illustrators with the opportunity to portray very diverse families and to consider the concept of intersectionality.  

Our New England SCBWI session was dynamic, punctuated by great questions, comments, and resource sharing.

Bonnie is a seasoned therapist and school counselor with lots of anecdotes, developmental info, and insights to share. I brought the craft perspective to the conversation.

It was a fun and lively session, and I’m happy to share the high points with Cynsations readers.

Cynsational Notes

For more insights, Mary recommends:

See also Mary’s blog.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Illustrating Lonnie Johnson’s Story: Whoosh! from Don Tate. Peek: “…unlike many other subjects I’ve written and/or illustrated about…Lonnie Johnson is still living. He lives and works today in Atlanta, Georgia, at his company, Johnson Research & Development Co. For that reason, being just a phone call or email away, I thought illustrating his story would be easier. Well, it was. And it was not.” See also Don Tate on Whoosh! Researching & Texting with Lonnie Johnson.

Writing Suspenseful Fiction: Reveal Answers Slowly by Jane K. Cleland from Jane Friedman. Peek: “Writing that engenders reader questions creates suspense.”

Writing as a Small Sturdy Boat by Bethany Reid from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “What does writing feel like to you?”

Vulnerability by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: “It will get the reader on the character’s side. Just like in real life, in fictional life, an apology or owning up to a mistake go a long, long way.”

Linda Camacho: Agent Looking for Diversity from Lee Wind at I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read?  Peek: “I’d love a fantasy set in a non-European setting and, of course, a story featuring a plus-size protagonist (contemporary is fine, but bonus points for another genre!).” See also New Literary Agent Alert: Alexandra Weiss of Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency by Chuck Sambuchino from Writers Digest.

Teamwork: Pictures in My Head by Ann Rider from The Horn Book. Peek: “Do I always see pictures in my head when I read a picture-book manuscript? Yes, pretty much. If I don’t, it is often a sign that I might not be the right editor for the text. ” Note: “Ann is an executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.”


10 Favorite Titles of American Indians in Children’s Literature by Debbie Reese from VOYA. Note: Honored to see Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2001) included in such distinguished company.

Writing from Color and Native Voices: “This contest will feature queries and the first 300 words of completed, polished manuscripts written by Native authors and authors of color. The entry window will be open from 12 a.m. (midnight) Eastern June 12 until 11:59 p.m. Eastern that same day.”

Author Interview: Anne Bustard from Austin SCBWI. Peek: “I love Hawaii. So it was incredibly difficult for me to cast it as the antagonist at the beginning of the novel. I was most relieved when that changed by the end.” See also SCBWI Student Memberships.

SpeakLoudly: Book Banning & Justifications by Teri Lesesne from The Goddess of YA Literature. Peek: “…confronting difficult topics and situations in books is so much safer than having to confront them in real life. In addition, books can be a comfort in a time of grief or distress.”

Diversity 102: Ageism in Children’s Literature by Laura Reiko Simeon from Lee & Low. Peek: “As increasing numbers
of people live healthy, vibrant, active lives ever later in life, we need more of these types of picture books that reflect the true gamut of roles older adults play in our society.”

Umaking the White Default: Writing About Race by Vicky Smith from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: “…I’ve felt more and more that naming race and identity is one of the duties of a reviewer. Parents and caregivers of children of color want books that reflect their children, as do librarians and teachers serving children of color.” See also Vicky on The Road to Heck: Misreading Race in a Children’s Book from Kirkus Reviews.

Author Interview: Julie Berry on The Passion of Dolssa from Sarah Johnson at The VCFA Launchpad. Peek: “I’ve seen a handful of bloggers say things like, ‘Julie Berry is unafraid to make her characters suffer.’ Another curious accolade. Is sadism a superpower? I know what they mean, though, and I guess I’ll take it.”

Most Diverse? Verse! Five Easy Steps for Promoting Diversity with Poetry by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong from CBC Diversity. Peek: “Poetry is the ideal vehicle for promoting diversity in children’s literature.I It can be read in just a few minutes, but holds great depth, beautiful language, and much feeling.”

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Giveaways

More Personally

Happy Children’s Book Week! Between the Austin SCBWI Regional Conference, the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, VCFA grading and working on my novel, May is jam packed. Fortunately, I have a lot of help.

Personal Links

Definitions: “Native Americans” vs. “People of Color”
M.T. Anderson on What’s Next?
Off the Reservation: A Teachable Moment 
Using Family Diversity & Structures to Teach Empathy

Learn more about the AFCC

Guest Post: Greg Leitich Smith on Hapa Characters: Asian-White Biracial Representation

By Greg Leitich Smith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

As with a lot of aspects of creative media these days, Disney movies have been criticized for their lack of diversity.

While such criticism is necessary, I think it’s important as well to give praise where it’s due and acknowledge things done right.

So I want to hand it to Disney for featuring resonant Asian-white characters in several of its recent animated movies, something you rarely see in any media.

The characters Hiro and Tadashi from “Big Hero Six;” Wilbur Robinson from “Meet the Robinsons;” and Russell from “Up” are all Asian-white (this in a field that’s largely #whitewashedOUT, and note that all of these films were financially successful).

One of the things about these portrayals that I particularly liked, too, was that while the characters are clearly the products of their backgrounds, their ethnicities were not the be all and end all of their existences.

In other words, they are fully developed characters – persons – with individual wants and needs that have nothing to do with their heritage.

Being of German and Japanese descent myself, I tend to notice this sort of thing.

Portraying Asian mixed-race characters as mainstream with idiosyncratic wants and needs is something I’ve striven for in my books.

My first novel, Ninjas, Piranhas and Galileo, pokes some fun at the “caught between two worlds” motif: Shohei O’Leary (one of three co-protagonists) is of wholly Japanese descent and has been adopted by parents of Irish descent. Still, he is first and foremost a kid who has to deal with his specific wacky parents.

By Blake Henry from Chronal Engine

In Tofu and T.rex, the protagonist, Hans-Peter Yamada (whose family owns a German delicatessen and butcher shop), has to deal with a vegan cousin who comes to live with them.

Although both Shohei and Hans-Peter are Japanese American, their ethnicity informs their background rather than wholly defines it (like their being Chicagoans informs their backgrounds rather than wholly defining them).

Similarly, the protagonist, Max Pierson-Takahashi, and his siblings in Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time (both Clarion) are, like Hans-Peter, hapa. They’re Asian and white. (Their friend Petra is Mexican-German American.)

Max is focused on surviving encounters with Tyrannosaurus rex and surviving being caught between the contemporary world and the world of dinosaurs (literally),  as opposed to being “caught between two [ethnic] worlds.”

This is all to say, when it comes to animated hapa boys: Good job, Disney.

Now about live-action kids, other identities-intersections, and hapa girls

Cynsational Notes

Check out the educator guides for Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time. See also the Chronal Engine Activity Kit.

Greg is currently booking for fall 2016 and the 2017-2018 school year. Contact The Booking Biz to invite him to your event.

Greg uses the term hapa to refer to someone of biracial (Asian) heritage. He learned it from his mother, who is Japanese-American, originally from Hawaii.

Author Interview: Donna Gephart on Lily and Duncan

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

From the promotional copy of Lily and Duncan by Donna Gephart (Delacorte, 2016):

Lily Jo McGrother, born Timothy McGrother, is a girl. But being a girl is not so easy when you look like a boy. Especially when you’re in the eighth grade.


Dunkin Dorfman, birth name Norbert Dorfman, is dealing with bipolar disorder and has just moved from the New Jersey town he’s called home for the past thirteen years. This would be hard enough, but the fact that he is also hiding from a painful secret makes it even worse.


One summer morning, Lily Jo McGrother meets Dunkin Dorfman, and their lives forever change.

How would you describe your body of work for young readers? Are there themes you frequently revisit, and if so, what about them fascinates you?

I write for the lonely child I was when I visited the Northeast Regional Library in Philadelphia, looking for a friend inside the pages of a book. I often write on the themes of loneliness and feeling like you don’t quite fit in. My books broach difficult topics, like bullying and grief, but always, always conclude on a hope-filled note.

Congratulations on the release of Lily and Duncan! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Thanks! I write about the genesis of both Lily’s and Dunkin’s story in the author’s note at the back of the novel. Lily’s story stemmed from an unforgettable documentary I saw about a trans girl, and Dunkin’s story emerged from a promise I made to our older son, who deals with bipolar disorder.

What was the time between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I saw the documentary that inspired me to write the novel in 2012. Recently, I was looking through my mountain of notes for the project and discovered that in 2012 I had written the ending of the novel . . . and that ending remains unchanged from the version that comes out May 3. It took all the time in between to figure out how to get to that ending — lots of research and deep thinking.

Would you elaborate on your research process?

I spent years researching this novel — talking to experts, watching documentaries, reading books, articles, memoirs and novels, etc.

How did you approach balancing the characters as joint heroes of the story?

This novel is told in alternating perspectives from each of the two characters. I had such familiarity with the mental health piece of this novel that I needed to remind myself to make Dunkin’s story as strong as Lily’s. When a reviewer recently said Dunkin’s story almost eclipses Lily’s, I know I have succeeded.

In this dual narrative, each character has a unique voice and tells their story from that very personal perspective. I felt this was the best way to get readers inside the heads and hearts of each character as they navigate very difficult terrain in their eighth grade lives.

What were the other challenges (literary, logistical, emotional, etc.) in bringing the story to life?

This was a difficult story to write because of the emotional intensity of each character’s journey, but it was a story I felt strongly needed to be told to help encourage empathy and understanding and end stigma.

What advice do you have for authors in approaching stories with similar elements?

It’s important to research thoroughly and tell the emotional truth. And don’t forget the humor. Humor has a way of shining light in the darkest of places.

Your co-protagonists are in eighth grade, and the book is marketed to ages 10+. This developmental/literary category sometimes gets lost between middle grade and YA. 

Why should we pay more attention to tween-agers and books that reflect them?

Tween-agers deal with some difficult issues before the adults in their lives are ready for them to do so. I’ve already had teachers and counselors from elementary and middle schools tell me that students from their schools were transitioning. I know when I was teaching writing to young people, these tween-agers were dealing with some very difficult things that most adults would never have imagined.

It’s important that these books be available for those young readers who need them — which is all young readers, to increase empathy, understanding and kindness.

The more we know, the better we do.

What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

Taking long walks, jogs or bike rides in nature always renews me. I love coming across wild turkeys or peacocks strutting around. And I enjoy cooking (and eating!) creative vegan meals. One of my favorite YouTube channels is Cheap, Lazy Vegan.

Guest Post: Skila Brown on Having Fun With Writing

By Skila Brown
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Skila Brown is the author of verse novels Caminar and To Stay Alive, as well as the picture book Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks, all with Candlewick Press. 

She received an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Kentucky and Tennessee and now lives in Indiana where she writes books for readers of all ages.

We all reach a point when writing doesn’t feel very fun. Maybe because we’ve read too many rejection letters. Or maybe because we’ve revised so much we can’t recognize our story. Or maybe because we’re under a deadline and the pressure to finish takes away all the enjoyment.

October, 2016

But remember why we started doing this? It wasn’t because we wanted to get rich quick. (Ha!) Or because it was the only job we could do. Or because anyone was making us write. It was because it was fun.

The art of creating story was fun. We became writers because we like telling stories—we like making up details, researching history and narrating events. All of that was fun.

Six years ago, I got serious about becoming a writer and applied to an MFA program. When I got a call from the admissions office saying, “Hey – we’re doing this intensive picture book semester and we have room for one more student. Would you like to try it?”

I thought, That could be fun. And I soon found myself immersed.

Six months of reading almost nothing but picture books. Dozens of picture books. Hundreds of picture books. Rhyming ones, silly ones, concept books, fairy tales. Biographies, bedtime stories, wordless books and—poetry.

The thing about sitting down at the library and reading through a knee-high stack of poetry books is that after reading a dozen, two dozen, I started to see really fast what makes a certain one good. I really liked the ones that were centered around a theme, with varied types of poetry and bonus little nonfiction facts sprinkled on top.

 I should try to do that, I thought. Being enrolled in a class that expected me to produce many picture book drafts in a short period of time didn’t let me dwell on whether it was a good idea or not. It just demanded that I try it out. That I play with it.

And I did. It was fun to research shark breeds and learn about sharks I’d never heard of before. (Hello, cookie-cutter shark!)

I spent a lot of time on YouTube watching sharks swim and thinking about their rhythm and shape and how that would feed into a poem. It was fun to learn new stuff. And it was really fun to try my hand at writing all different types of poems.

To challenge myself to make sure the next one didn’t rhyme or the next one was a concrete poem or the next one was a haiku. Not all of the experimenting worked. But every bit of it was fun.

As writers we need to remember what drew us to this field to begin with and do whatever we can to find the fun again. Here are 4 quick ways you can find the fun in writing this week:

  1. Be a spy. Go outside and find an animal or a plant and just sit and watch it for 10 minutes, writing down whatever comes to mind. See if you can take that and shape it into a poem when the time is up. 
  2. Play a game. Find a Mad Libs. Caption a funny photo.  
  3. Have fun with first lines. Opening sentences can be really fun to make up. Write a list of ten of them and then send the list out to your critique group. Let them vote on one that you’ll turn into a short story. 
  4. Write something that is completely out of your comfort zone. If you normally write YA contemporary, try writing a scene of a middle grade historical novel. Write the end of a story. Write in second person. Do something new and fresh that shakes it up a little in your routine.

It’s worth it to take a break from the WIP and play a little. Remembering what’s fun about writing will improve your energy level on your current project.

But that’s not why you should do it. You should do it because it’s fun.

Cynsational Notes

Educator’s Guide

Skila’s new book, Slickety Quick: Poems About Sharks, was illustrated by Bob Kolar (Candlewick, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Fourteen shark species, from the utterly terrifying to the surprisingly docile, glide through the pages of this vibrantly illustrated, poetic picture book.

These concrete poems about a selection of sharks will tickle the fins of many an aspiring marine biologist. —Booklist
All in all, it’s a book that ought to leave many readers fascinated—and perhaps a little unsettled—by the diversity of sharks that exist beneath the waves. —Publishers Weekly
An inviting format to spark shark discussions. —Kirkus Reviews