Guest Post: Linda Boyden on How Do I Write?

Linda reflecting on her writing life.

By Linda Boyden
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

How do I write?

With deepest apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Dr. Seuss, let me count the ways:

with pencil, pen or quill,
from a picture, if you will,
on a napkin, in the dark,
 at the ocean, on a walk,

at a desk, from my dreams,
at a keyboard, near a stream:
the Muse attacks and I succumb, writing words one by one.

It may start anywhere, anytime without invitation. A spark leaps across one brain cell to another and I must write. I must capture the word/phrase/sentence on paper or in a text file so I can hold it hostage before this elusive gift evaporates.

During school visits, I tell my student audiences; this idea-generating stage of writing comes from something I refer to as the
Cosmic Goo, a Nether-World place where ideas wait to be used.

Cosmic Goo (it’s a technical term)

Once an idea has introduced itself, I enter the pre-writing phase, where I begin to translate images into slightly more tangible things, words. I want to see, touch, taste them; more importantly, I want to hear them.

I read all my work aloud, from rough draft to finished products, particularly important for picture book or poems. By doing this, I can test their word rhythms. I want to pair every idea with its perfect word mate; doubly important if the draft insists upon being rhymed.

Rhymed or in prose, rhythm is key. If I can’t hear the intrinsic word melodies that rhythm produces then neither will my readers.

A stop in word rhythm will slow or stop the reader’s flow, and potentially keep them from reading more.

For revising and editing most of my manuscripts, I proceed in two ways: I work a piece to the ground or I abandon it…for a night, a week, a year, or even completely. Separation has definite advantages.

Often, I will go to sleep ruminating on an irksome line, paragraph or scene and awake with its solution, or at least with the way to proceed. In contrast, a longer incubation period allows me to discover that not all pieces deserve to survive. I have learned to use the delete key.

Grandchildren (at a younger age) featured with blessings.

However, if a piece does deserve serious revision, then it deserves the best I can provide.

Good revision is much like good parenting: it starts from your heart.

You invest time in the improvement of your words or art; you encourage and nudge them to shine to become their best; last, you send them on their way and step back.

Will the words and illustrations you love ring true in the Big World?

Will your hard work pay off?

Like adult kids on their own, books mutate from your plans. A few make the New York Times Best Sellers List. Many speak to the hearts of librarians and teachers.

If you are lucky, truly lucky, your book will touch the one child it needed to help, the one who will fall asleep with your work tucked in her or his arms.

That’s the beauty and importance of writing and illustrating books for children.

Cynsational Notes

“I write. I teach. I color in or outside the lines. I spoil kids and
grandkids….

“Poetry gives
voice to our silent songs.”

Author/illustrator/storyteller/recovering-teacher/poet, Linda Boyden has written six and illustrated five picture books:

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The Latest Trend: Beautifully Illustrated Nonfiction Picture Books by Vicki Cobb from The Huffington Post. Peek: “Great illustration should have a balance – a reduction to the essence, as well as visual interest and a seductive charm – dare I even say, beauty?”

The Book Monster: When Writing Gets Hard by Kate Moretti from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “I was pushed to finish this book because of a contract and a deadline. If I’d been on my own, I might have put it away.” See also Finding Confidence as a Writer by Allie Larkin.

Giving Characters (& Readers) Too Little Information by Mary Kole from Kidlit.com. Peek: “They don’t want to simply unload all of the necessary information all at once when the protagonist lands in the new world. The downside of this approach, however, is that it leaves the protagonist in limbo.”

Trimmer Named Head of Holt Books for Young Readers; Godwin to Get Imprint by Diane Roback from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Christian Trimmer has been named editorial director of the imprint; he is currently executive editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers…. Laura Godwin, v-p and publisher, will launch her own imprint, called Godwin Books.”

SMP Launching Crossover Imprint, Wednesday Books by Rachel Deahl from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “…will publish YA and adult titles focused on coming-of-age themes. SMP said the line will focus on ‘bold, diverse, and commercial voices in fiction and nonfiction who speak to readers looking for stories in and beyond the YA category.'”

The History That’s Not In Textbooks by Guadalupe Garcia McCall from Lee & Low. Peek: “No one can ever do justice to the retelling of the extent of the horrific atrocities committed during that time with complete accuracy and authenticity because so much of it was concealed, poorly recorded, or swept under the proverbial rug.”

Out and Proud vs. Hiding In Plain Sight by Tirzah Price from Book Riot. Peek: “This new consideration inspired me to take a closer look at the lesbian hand cover trend, and some of the considerations that authors and publishers (but mostly publishers) have when creating these covers. How are they approaching these covers, and what, if anything, has changed in the last two years?”

Steve Matin: A “Wild and Crazy” Role Model by Sarah Callender from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “A writer’s professional road is long and unpredictable, quite simply because we writers don’t have full control over how our work is received in the world.”

Interview With MG Authors Audrey Vernick and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich by Darlene Beck Jacobson from Smack Dab in the Middle. Peek: “I think I base just about all of my characters on people I know or have met, a lot of the time I don’t do it consciously.”

YA Authors Turn Advocates by Sarah J. Robbins from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “…we speak with authors of recent books about what motivated each of them to take on an especially tough topic. We asked them to talk about the challenges and responsibilities of walking the line between artistry and advocacy, both during the writing process and after publication, once their work reaches its audience.”

Congratulations to VCFA WCYA alum Stephen Baker, the Karen Cushman Late Bloomer Award winner, from SCBWI! Stephen graduated in summer 2016.

Creating Unforgettable Settings: Choosing the Right Setting by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “…there should be places within that setting that are important to the character. Melinda’s janitorial closet in Speak. Or the forest outside District 12 for Katniss in The Hunger Games.”

This Week at Cynsations

Book Giveaway!

More Personally

A quiet week of teaching here, as I’ve reviewed the third-round packets from my students at the VCFA MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults.

However, I did take a break to reward myself for turning in my manuscript with a detoxifying mud wrap at Ann Web Skin Clinic.

(Austinites! Ann Webb is a school, so treatments are substantially less expensive than you’d pay at a traditional spa. But the services are excellent, and it feels like spa experience.)

Ready for a mud wrap!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of self-care, hence my post this week (Election Reflections & Caring for Your Creative Heart).

It’s not selfish to look after your own physical and especially your own mental health. If our glass is empty, we have nothing to give. Nothing to give our friends and families, nothing to give our communities and our literary art. Nothing to give ourselves. Fill the well, book lovers! Fill the well!

On another note, my official facebook author page has been liked more than 6,000 people. Please feel free to join me there if you haven’t already. Much like Cynsations, the focus includes but goes well beyond my own work to children’s-YA writing, illustration, literature, education and publishing more globally. Along the same lines, please consider yourself invited to join my nearly 18,000 followers @CynLeitichSmith on Twitter.

Personal Links

Guest Post: Carol Lynch Williams in Memory of Rick Walton

By Carol Lynch Williams
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In the early part of last year, Rick Walton, one of my best friends and a prolific picture book writer, was diagnosed with a terminal and aggressive brain tumor.

For many years before this diagnosis, Rick battled early-onset Parkinson’s disease.

Recently, the tumors returned (after a surgery that left Rick partially paralyzed) and as I write this, my friend, my hilarious, clever, word-twisting friend, lives out his last days.

I’ve wandered around the house crying far too much, visiting Rick when I can.

This world of grief is something we all experience in one way or another. No one is exempt from sorrow. It makes up a part of who we are and so grief finds its way into many of my novels. My characters grapple with love lost, death, abuse. I write about life. The sad part.

Writing about grief, telling the true story of a sorrowing character, is tremendously important.

 Readers need examples of survivors. But what happens when that grief becomes too much for the writer?

These last few weeks, as Rick has become more and more sick, has found me not wanting to write unless I must. I don’t believe in the muse nor do I believe in writer’s block. Writing is hard work and we must work to get words on the page.

I do think, however, there are drags on our creativity—events that can eat up our words almost before they are formed. That’s where I am now.

Many years ago, it seemed my worlds crashed around me. I went through a divorce, lost the home I’d raised my girls in, ended up moving every few months trying to find a place for my children and me to settle. I was desperate for a place to call home.

At the same time, four people in my life died, money became more and more scarce, a close relative experienced two psychotic breaks, a drugged neighbor kept trying to break into our rented house . . . and when I thought I could bear no more, I went to two unrelated funerals in two days.

I felt overwhelmed with grief. At one point I finally cried out to my God, “I believe in you but do you believe in me?” That accumulated sorrow led to my young adult novel Waiting (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 2012).

But

but

there were other times

other events

HarperCollins, 2016

other devestations

when my heart and my body, and my spirit even, felt unable to do anything, including write.

There were times when I wept alone and in the open.

Times when I wondered if I could draw in a breath.

Then, I despaired.

I found myself hoping for courage and the ability to do what I had to do: write.

Here are a few things, past the hoping, that helped me get the courage to do the hard thing of finishing a novel.
I:

  1. Prayed. Talking to God is an important part of who I am. I spent hours talking, weeping and talking some more.
  2. Exercised. I took off walking, and talking, alone. This exercise permitted my body to breathe and to relax, to rid myself of layers of grief.
  3. Shared the pain. There seemed a time when even a grocery store checker asking me how I was brought on my sharing. That speaking up lightened the load, made it feel possible for me to keep going.
  4. Gave myself room and time. It’s okay if the words don’t come right away. They will come.
  5. Trust yourself. You will write again. It will happen. The next thing you know you’ll find yourself allowing new characters in your life, then wrestling in that awkward middle part of the novel, then typing those triumphant words, THE END. 

Every day since the news that Rick will soon die, I’ve gone to see him. I hold his hand, talk to him about my own life, read him messages from those who love him and can’t travel to Utah to tell him goodbye themselves.

But I haven’t written.

S&S/Paula Wiseman, 2016 (a funny ghost story)

Nothing creative.

Not my blog, not either of the two novels I should be rewriting, not on the mid-grade or YA novel I started this summer.

I’m waiting.


For words.

For peace.

For the sorrow to not be as heavy.

I wish you all could have known Rick Walton as he was years ago. You’d love him like I do. He’s pretty darned fantastic.
I’m going to miss him.

My best friend. My Rick.

More from Carol

Rick Walton passed away peacefully, with his mom and sister by his side, three days after I completed this writing.

Cynsational Notes

Rick Walton’s books included Frankenstein: A Monstrous Parody, illustrated by Nathan Hale (Feiwel & Friends, 2012); Girl and Gorilla: Out and About, illustrated by Joe Berger (HarperCollins, 2016), and Bullfrog Pops! An Adventure in Verbs and Objects, illustrated by Chris McAllister (Gibbs Smith, 2011).

A legacy of inspiration, remembering Utah children’s book author extraordinaire Rick Walton by Ann Cannon from The Salt Lake Tribune. Peek: “In the end, the people
Rick inspired will go on to inspire others who will inspire others who will inspire others. And because he adored people as much as he adored words, his circle was large. His influence will be felt by individuals who may never know his name.”

See also How Writer Rick Walton Inspired Utah’s Literary Wellspring by Rachel Piper from The Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Children’s Authors Build a Community from Publishers Weekly and Rest Well, Rick Walton by Scott from Utah Children’s Writers.

About Carol
 

Carol Lynch Williams, who grew up in Florida and now lives in Utah, is an award-winning novelist with seven children of her own, including six daughters.

She has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College, and won the prestigious PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship.

The Chosen One (Griffin, 2010) was named one of the ALA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers and Best Books for Young Adult Readers; it won the Whitney and the Association of Mormon Letters awards for the best young adult novel of the year; and was featured on numerous lists of recommended YA fiction.

Carol’s other novels include Never Said (Blink, 2015), Glimpse (Simon & Schuster, 2010), Miles From Ordinary (Griffin, 2012), The Haven (St. Martin’s 2012), and Signed, Skye Harper (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 2015). See also Sisterhood, Body Image, and Sexual Abuse | Carol Lynch Williams on “Never Said” by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal.

New Voice & Giveaway: Donna Janell Bowman on Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Donna Janell Bowman is the first-time author of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016). From the promotional copy:

A Horse that can read, write, and do math?

Ridiculous! 

That’s what people thought until former slave and self-taught veterinarian Dr. William Key, with his “educated” horse Beautiful Jim Key, proved that, with kindness, anything is possible. 

Over nine years of exhibiting across the country, Doc and “Jim” broke racial barriers, fueled the humane movement, and inspired millions of people to step right up and choose kindness.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This question ties so perfectly into my belief that there’s a piece of us in everything we write.

In 2006, I read a book about Beautiful Jim Key, authored by Mim Eichler Rivas (William Morrow 2005/Harper Paperbacks 2006). It was a given that I would be drawn to a horse book. I grew up on a Quarter Horse ranch, where life revolved around raising, training, and showing horses, and caring for the myriad livestock and other animals. I have always been an animal lover, and I know firsthand how powerful the human-animal bond can be—how the combination of time, trust, and affection can create such synergy that you can practically read each other’s minds.

Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives.

That kind of relationship bonded William “Doc” Key and his horse, Beautiful Jim Key. While the horse was what drew me to the story, I was immediately awed by Doc. His greatest historical contribution was an unmistakable message about kindness, in a time of extreme racial prejudice, and brutal treatment of animals.

How could I not love the story of a man who overcame so much to make a real difference in the world?

Thanks to Doc, “Jim,” the horse, became a sort of poster child for the emerging humane movement, while Doc overcame injustices, broke racial barriers, and helped change the way people thought about and treated animals. Doc was awarded a Service to Humanity Award, and Jim was awarded a “Living Example” award.

So, back to your question, Cyn, about what inspired me to write this story—it spoke to my heart. I dived into research with zeal.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

There were a number of challenges to writing this story, but three that most stand out:

First, the research. It was claimed that Beautiful Jim Key could read, write, calculate math problems, compete in spelling bees, identify playing cards, operate a cash register, and more. I had to get to the bottom of how this could be possible.

I used the adult book as my jumping off point, but I wasn’t satisfied to rely solely on somebody else’s research.

This is a story that straddles the 19th and 20th centuries, so I read a great deal about the period, including slavery, the Reconstruction Era in the distinct regions of Tennessee, the history of the humane organizations; the related World’s Fairs, Doc’s business interests, etc.

Emotionally, the most difficult part was reading about how animals were treated in the 19th century, and, more importantly, how enslaved people were often treated with similar brutality. Only a tiny fraction of my research appears in the book’s back matter, but it all deeply affected my approach to the story.

I visited the Shelbyville (TN) Public Library and skimmed through their microfilm. Then I spent some time at the Tennessee State Archives, donning white gloves as I perused the crumbling scrapbooks from the BJK collection.

During that 2009 trip, I also visited the humble Beautiful Jim Key memorial in Shelbyville, TN, and Doc’s grave site at the Willow Mount Cemetery. (I might have shed a few sentimental tears.) We then tracked down what I think was Doc’s former property, though the house is long gone.

This kind of onsite research, along with old photos and local news accounts, allowed me to imagine the setting of Doc’s hometown. Back home, I collected binders-full of newspaper articles, playbills, and promotional booklets. Through these, I got a feel for how people thought about Doc and Jim.

And, most importantly, I found some of Doc’s explanations for how he taught the horse. What became clear was, though we may never know exactly how the horse was able to do so many remarkable things, the countless news reporters and professors who tried to prove trickery or a hoax, never found anything beyond “education.” Jim only rarely made mistakes.

Ultimately, what Doc and Jim did for the humane movement is even more significant than what the horse performed on stage.

Originally, I had planned the story for middle grade audiences until my agent (who wasn’t my agent yet) suggested that I try a picture book version. I already had half of the chapters written by this time, so I was aghast at the thought of starting over. And I didn’t know how to write a picture book biography. I spent the next two years analyzing and dissecting a couple hundred picture book biographies to figure out how they work.

I decided to blog about some of my craft observations, using the platform as a quasi-classroom for myself and anyone else who might happen upon my site.

Many, many, many drafts later, I had a manuscript that attracted the attention of a few editors. Lee and Low was the perfect home for Doc and Jim.

There was a built-in challenge in writing this story about a formerly-enslaved African American man. Because I don’t fit any of Doc’s descriptors, it was doubly important that I approach the subject with respect and sensitivity.

I couldn’t merely charge through with the mindset that I’m just the historian sharing documented facts.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

It is so exciting to finally be crossing the threshold into this new role. The past nine years, which is how long I’ve had the story in my head and in my heart, have felt like the longest-ever pregnancy.

There’s a mixture of joy, relief, and fear during this delivery stage. Fortunately, so far, very nice starred reviews have praised the book, and each reviewer wisely sings the praises of Daniel Minter’s spectacular lino-cut acrylic art.

As I think ahead to marketing and promotion, I’m planning for the Oct. 15 release, the Oct. 23 launch party, and how the book might raise awareness of the need for more kindness in the world—not only toward animals but toward each other.

From my very first draft, nine years ago, I knew I’d revive the original Beautiful Jim Key Pledge—originally signed by two million people during Doc and Jim’s time.

I plan to incorporate the pledge into my author presentations, and it will be downloadable from my website soon. I also hope to align with some humane organizations to help them raise awareness.

I have two more books under contract, several others on submission or in revision, and a novel-in-progress.

In 2018, Peachtree Publishers will release En Garde! Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler, followed in 2019 by King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson.

Such is the author’s life, right? We write, we rewrite, we revise, we sell, we wait, we celebrate, then we do it all over again. Because we can’t imagine not writing something that moves us. And we can’t imagine not writing for young people.

Cynsational Giveaway

Book Launch! Join Donna Janell Bowman at 3 p.m. Oct. 23 at BookPeople in Austin. Donna will be speaking and signing.

Fundraiser: Step Right Up and Help The Rescued Horses of Bluebonnet Equine Human Society: “They are horses, donkeys, and ponies that are helpless and hopeless. And they are hurting. The lucky ones land at Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society. Under the loving care of professional staff and volunteers, the animals are medically and nutritionally rehabilitated, then placed with trainers to prepare them for re-homing/adoption.” See also Interview: Step Right Up Author Donna Janell Bowman by Terry Pierce from Emu’s Debuts.

Enter to win two author-signed copies of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Guest Post: M.T. Anderson on the Premier of “The Great Gilly Hopkins” Film

By M.T. Anderson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The Vermont children’s book community had an incredible treat on Oct. 7 at the Stowe Cinema 3Plex in Stowe, Vermont:

We all descended on a movie theater in Stowe where Katherine Paterson had opted to hold the premiere of the film adaptation of her National Book Award-winning middle-grade masterpiece, “The Great Gilly Hopkins” from Lionsgate. It was a formal champagne and popcorn kind of event.

(Begging a question: What Would Gilly Do? Somehow I see Mountain Dew hitting the screen during the touching scenes.)

Several generations of Patersons were there, including Katherine’s sons David (who wrote the screenplay) and John (who produced).

It’s a wonderful movie, with a cast that includes Glenn Close, Octavia Spencer, Kathy Bates, and, in a delicious little cameo, Katherine herself. Fans of the book will be delighted to see how much of the original dialogue has been lovingly retained – one of the benefits of having the author’s son as screenwriter.

Pic of MT by Leda Schubert

Afterwards, Katherine admitted that Kathy Bates will now play Maime Trotter permanently in her head, and I think many of us would agree. The way she inhabited that iconic character was flawless and deeply moving.

The screening was followed by a panel with Katherine, David, and John talking about the genesis of both the book and the movie. They reminisced about the two children whose stay with the Paterson family in the late seventies led more or less to Katherine’s conception of the novel – and to her vision of Gilly’s rage at her situation. And they talked about how they’d maneuvered the project through Hollywood, trying to keep the story intact.

At the same time, they spoke frankly about why certain details differed from the book to the movie … the swapping of the case-worker’s gender, for example. (It would be a fun class discussion to have!)

It was a real delight to see the movie and then, immediately, hear these three talk about it.
The evening was organized by Vermont College of the Fine Arts as a benefit for Tatum’s Totes, a charity which provides emergency bags filled with clothes, blankets, and toys for foster kids in transit.

By the way,, the movie is apparently available for streaming online at all the usual venues (iTunes, Amazon), if it’s not showing at your local theater. Though that service doesn’t come with as many Patersons.

Election Reflections & Caring for Your Creative Heart

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

This week I’ve caught myself for two minutes here, five minutes there, reading a scene from my manuscript in progress.

Not to edit it. Not because I’m nervous about what my new editor will say (that won’t kick in for another couple of weeks).

Not because I don’t have other things to do. I’m busy teaching and writing speeches.

This week I’m reaching for my work in progress because it comforts me. It’s tangible proof that I’m working steadily to the best of my ability to offer something positive to this world, to its future.

I feel a need for tangible proof right now. I’m holding myself accountable and weighing my efforts.

Of late, several writers and illustrators have thoughtfully spoken with me about navigating the dialogue around the current U.S. presidential election.

Here are my thoughts:

First, engage in nurturing self-care. As creative people, we must be courageous and empathetic. That makes us vulnerable. As a creative community, we must take emotional and mental health seriously.

Especially for diverse writers–more so for those who’re also women, the landscape is precarious and allies too often undependable.

So, again, please take care of yourself and each other.

That said, no, you don’t have to surrender your freedom of political speech for your career. If you believe that your democracy is at stake, your community is at stake, know that publishing as an industry is not going to punish you for saying so.

As for the gatekeepers and the general public, yes, it’s possible that you may not sell a copy or, for that matter, two hundred copies of your book, if you speak out. It’s possible you may not be invited to a particular event or win a particular award because a given individual disagrees with you.

In a traditional partisan contest, with its typical rhetoric, it may be worth weighing whether to raise your voice or let your books do the talking, especially in cases where those particular books could save kids’ lives.

But, my friends, I seriously doubt any of that’s in play this time.

We’re talking about a national dialogue in which Tic Tac felt the need to issue a statement: “Tic Tac respects all women.”

You know, in case you were worried about the position of a mint company on gender.

We are neck deep in the surreal.

So, don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re triggered or baffled or or disheartened or outraged. Everyone I talk to keeps apologizing for having feelings. Of course you have feelings!

My suggestion: Participate in a way that preserves, reflects and/or affirms your creative life. If what’s best for you is to be quiet and go vote, okay. That’s fine. If you want to engage on Twitter and then go vote, that’s an option, too. But regardless, focus on your own work.

Continue to craft great books for children and teenagers. Maybe not this minute or this week, if you’re not up to it. But when you’re ready.

This is the world we’re giving to future generations, and those of you who create (produce, champion and connect) literature for young readers are among my heroes. Hang in there.

I believe in you.

Cynsational Notes 

Switch to Indigenous People’s Day by Yvonne Wakim Dennis from The Buffalo News. Peek: “While not a perfect panacea, a nationwide Indigenous People’s Day could be a powerful ‘first step’ to righting some of the wrongs indigenous peoples have suffered.”

See also Italian Americans Who Fought for Justice from Teaching a People’s History.

Indigenous People’s Day YA Collection from Lee & Low. Peek: “This Young Adult collection highlights indigenous cultures and the issues they face. These paperback and hardcover books for both on-grade level and struggling readers are sure to engage and offer a range of complexity to meet all students’ needs.” See also Interview: Shana Mlawski on the History Surrounding Christopher Columbus.

Best Books About Native Americans/First Nations by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children’s Literature.

Book Trailer: Three Truths and a Lie by Brent Hartinger

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Three Truths and a Lie by Brent Hartinger (Simon Pulse, 2016). From the promotional copy:

A weekend retreat in the woods and an innocent game of three truths and a lie go horribly wrong in this high-octane psychological thriller filled with romantic suspense by a Lambda Award–winning author.



Deep in the forest, four friends gather for a weekend of fun.



Truth #1: Rob is thrilled about the weekend trip. It’s the perfect time for him to break out of his shell…to be the person he really, really wants to be.



Truth #2: Liam, Rob’s boyfriend, is nothing short of perfect. He’s everything Rob could have wanted. They’re perfect together. Perfect.



Truth #3: Mia has been Liam’s best friend for years…long before Rob came along. They get each other in a way Rob could never, will never, understand.



Truth #4: Galen, Mia’s boyfriend, is sweet, handsome, and incredibly charming. He’s the definition of a Golden Boy…even with the secrets up his sleeve.



One of these truths is a lie…and not everyone will live to find out which one it is.

Book Trailer: Teen Frankenstein by Chandler Baker

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Teen Frankenstein by Chandler Baker (Feiwel & Friends, 2016). From the promotional copy:

High school meets classic horror in Teen Frankenstein, Chandler Baker’s modern re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel.



It was a dark and stormy night when Tor Frankenstein accidentally hits someone with her car. And kills him. 

But, all is not lost―Tor, being the scientific genius she is, brings him back to life…



Thus begins a twisty, turn-y take on a familiar tale, set in the town of Hollow Pines, Texas, where high school is truly horrifying.

Cynsational News & Giveaways

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Social Justice Books to Teach Kids About Global Issues from What Do We Do All Day? Peek: “Social justice, whether it be environmental, political, gender oriented, or economic is a crucial subject and we must discuss it with our children if we want them to grow up to be compassionate global citizens.”

We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Program & Application from WNDB. Peek: “…ten mentorships, two 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.” See also We Need Diverse Books Launches Curated Book App by Claire Kirch from Publishers Weekly.

Character Motivation Thesaurus: To Rescue a Loved One by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “Through this thesaurus, we’d like to explore these common outer motivations so you can see your options and what those goals might look like on a deeper level.”

With Thanks to an Unforgettable Teaching Author & Mentor by Esther Hershenhorn from Teaching Authors. Peek: “Simply put, Barbara Seuling respected each of her writer’s capacity to become, including this writer, and for that I remain forever grateful. She held the bar High, because we write for children.” See also In Memory: Barbara Seuling from Cynsations.

SCBWI Jane Yolen Mid-List Author Grant: “You must be a current member who has published at least two PAL books, but has not sold anything for at least five years.” Note: Two winners will share the $3,000 grant.

Why Laurie Halse Anderson Writes for Children: “Literature Is The Best Gift We Can Share With Them” by Sadie L. Trombetta from Bustle. Peek: “…this revelation was the most offensive. ‘America – the beacon of freedom for the world – was built on the backs of enslaved American families. It’s time for us to own up to that.’ And Ashes, along with Chains and Forge, attempts to do just that by sharing the stories of two slaves struggling for their own freedom, liberty, and justice alongside a young nation trying to accomplish the same thing.”

Four Kinds of Pacing by Donald Maass from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “In fiction terms, who says that has to apply only to plot events? There are other ways to pace a novel. There are many kinds of steps through which you can put your characters and readers.”

2016 Finalists for the National Book Award (Young People’s Literature): Kate DiCamillo, Raymie Nightingale (Candlewick); John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell (Artist), March: Book Three (Top Shelf); Grace Lin, When the Sea Turned to Silver (Little, Brown); Jason Reynolds, Ghost (Atheneum);  Nicola Yoon, The Sun Is Also a Star (Delacorte). Note: Congrats also to Jacqueline Woodson, finalist in Fiction for Another Brooklyn (Amistad).

Thinking and Learning about Cultural Appropriation by Monica Edinger from Educating Alice. Note: Highlights key recent links on the conversation within children’s-YA literature.

Nine Books to Put You in the Halloween Mood by Audrey from Rich in Color. Peek: “…here’s a list of nine YA books by and/or about people of color that I think would be perfect for getting you ready for the upcoming holiday. We’ve got ghosts, monsters, witches, superheroes, and much more!” See also Plan-Your-Month Roundup: October Holidays from Lee & Low.

Cynsational Screening Room

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Penny & Jelly: The School Show (2015) Penny & Jelly: Slumber Under the Stars (2016) by Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Thyra Heder (HMH Books). Eligibility: U.S. only.

More Personally

Can you find me on the back? Do you see my pencil drawing on the front?

Cover Reveal!

I’m honored to be a contributor to Our Story Begins: Children’s Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, and Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids, edited by Elissa Brent Weissman (Atheneum, 2017)(ages 8-up). From the promotional copy:

From award-winning author Elissa Brent Weissman comes a collection of quirky, smart, and vulnerable childhood works by some of today’s foremost children’s authors and illustrators—revealing young talent, the storytellers they would one day become, and the creativity they inspire today.

Get ready for the readergirlz #RocktheDrop Oct. 14!

Link of the Week: Just Say Yes! by Cathy Yardley from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “A ship in harbor is safe – but that’s not what ships are built for.”

Personal Links

YALSA’s #TeenReadWeek: Oct. 9 to Oct. 15

New Voices: Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer on The Season

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer are the first-time authors of The Season (Viking, 2016). From the promotional copy:


She can score a goal, do sixty box jumps in a row, bench press a hundred and fifty pounds…but can she learn to curtsy?



Megan McKnight is a soccer star with Olympic dreams, a history major, an expert at the three Rs of Texas (readin’, ridin’, and ropin’), but she’s not a girly girl. 

So when her Southern belle mother secretly enters her as a debutante for the 2016 deb season in their hometown of Dallas, she’s furious—and has no idea what she’s in for. 

When Megan’s attitude gets her on probation with the mother hen of the debs, she’s got a month to prove she can ballroom dance, display impeccable manners, and curtsey like a proper Texas lady or she’ll get the boot and disgrace her family. 

The perk of being a debutante, of course, is going to parties, and it’s at one of these lavish affairs where Megan gets swept off her feet by the debonair and down-to-earth Hank Waterhouse. 

If only she didn’t have to contend with a backstabbing blonde and her handsome but surly billionaire boyfriend, Megan thinks, being a deb might not be so bad after all. But that’s before she humiliates herself in front of a room full of ten-year-olds, becomes embroiled in a media-frenzy scandal, and gets punched in the face by another girl.


The season has officially begun…but the drama is just getting started.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

The Season is a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen set in Texas in 2016 so our main character, Megan McKnight, is based on Elizabeth Bennet.

 We really examined that classic, well-loved character and asked ourselves: What traits make her who she is? What makes her the woman Mr. Darcy falls in love with? The woman we all fall in love with?

We literally made a list of important traits: Brash, forms strong opinions, speaks her mind, loves to read, more physically active than other women, witty, fiercely loyal, loves the outdoors, isn’t as interested in men as other young women her age, her singularity. Things like that. Then we tried to imagine what a modern young woman, who embodied all those traits, would be like.

We decided she’d be a history major and an athlete and we chose soccer as her sport. She’d be the kind of girl dedicated to practicing and playing even if it meant she was a little intimidating to guys and didn’t have much time for dating. She’d be more interested in fueling her body for athletics than in fitting into a size two. She’d throw her hair in a ponytail, put on some Chapstick and pull on track shorts rather than care about makeup and fashion. She’d be funny and snarky, but so much so that it would get her into trouble sometimes. She’d be more loyal to her sister and her teammates than to any guy.

And also, like Elizabeth Bennet, she’d have no idea how to be coy. While other girls (like her sister) might hide their feelings, she just wouldn’t be capable of keeping her opinions to herself.

As you can see, we had a really strong blueprint to build our main character from, which is a wonderful. But the kinds of questions we were focused on are no different when you’re creating a character from scratch.

I think the most helpful thing with any character is to know where you want them to end up. What lesson must they learn by the end? If the lesson, as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet and our Megan McKnight, is to not form knee-jerk opinions about things, then you better start that character as far away from that point as realistically possible. You have to allow every character, not just your protagonist, room to grow, and change.

A book is not a journey for the reader if it’s not a journey for the characters.

And so, the same method applies to all our secondary characters as well. We found modern ways for them to embody the traditional Austen characters’ traits. Our Mrs. Bennet is a social climber trying to set he daughters up for success, our Jane Bennet is the embodiment of the perfect young woman, albeit a contemporary one, and our Mr. Darcy is proud and aloof.

Real people always play a role in characterizations, too. Sometimes we think of certain real people that we know or even famous people to help us envision a certain character. I’ve always found it easier to describe a setting if I’ve seen it, and the same holds true for people.

 Of course, you always add and take away from reality when you’re creating fiction, but you often end up with characters who are an amalgamation of people who really exist.

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what’s funny? What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor in them?

Writing comedy is so hard. Humor is in the eye of the beholder and because of this, and perhaps more all other types of writing, it cannot be done in a vacuum.

Like most things having to do with writing, it starts with observation. You know what you think is funny to you and your friends. Start there. Make notes. Have little booklets full of funny conversations you’d had and witty things you’ve said. Research isn’t just dry reading about some place you’ve never been or some historical period. Research is about watching human behavior, listening to speech patterns, and being tuned in to what makes people laugh.

Stephen and I have the benefit of having each other. But we had already been together for seven years when we accidentally discovered that we were good writing partners.

I was an actress and was starting to do stand-up comedy in New York City. I was writing my stand-up material and would try things out on him at home in the evenings. He was my sounding board and was almost always able to build on what I had, and make it better.

We started working on all my material together, cracking each other up in the process. It’s a really good example of how having a someone to be your sounding board is so important with comedy.

Maybe that’s why sitcoms and “Saturday Night Live” fill hire six-to-fifteen writers who work together or why so many of the old screwball comedies were penned by a two-person writing team.

But even if you don’t use a partner to write comedy, you got to find that person or people to give you a gut-check.

To answer the most important question: Is this funny to anyone besides me?

So whether it’s your best friend, or an online writing group, or just one other writer who understands your genre, find those Beta Readers.

And if they are good, be good to them. If you can’t offer a quid pro quo of also reading their work, then small gifts are a really nice way of saying thank you and keeping them in your corner.

The other important factor in writing comedy is just to do it, and do it often. Your funny bone isn’t a bone at all, its a muscle!

Okay, it’s really a nerve but that doesn’t fit into my metaphor so just go with me. The point is, if you want it to be strong, you have to exercise it! The funnier you are, the funnier you will be. I have never been funnier than when I was doing stand-up because I was doing it every day. My mind was just set to that channel!

If you are writing a comedic piece, you need to immerse yourself in comedy. Hang out with your funny friends! Watch funny shows and movies. Go to a comedy club.

Basically, put yourself in a funny world so you have something to play/write off of.