Guest Post: Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick on Co-Writing Picture Books

By Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick

Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

“Writing is a solitary occupation and one of its hazards is loneliness.” – Joyce Carol Oates

“The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement.” – Will Self

“Writing is an antisocial act.” – Martha Grimes


Solitary, lonely, antisocial – except for when it’s not.

Erin, Audrey and Liz at the Writing Barn

Most of us choose to write partly because we don’t mind (read: are desperate for) some alone time. But even antisocial writers wearing sweats and old socks know that sometimes, two heads are better than one.

A few years ago, we were agent-mates with a mutually gushy appreciation for each other. Before long, we became accountability and commiseration partners. Then one day, our agent (Erin Murphy) said something about the two of us having a book baby together, and we were off to the races.

A lot of collaborators are married folks who write together over the kitchen table. Our method is more platonic and long distance. Wondering how that works?

Well… here are a few FAQs!

Do we use Google Docs? We do not.
Do we use the edit mode in Word? We do not.
Do we hash out each and every change over the phone? Nope. We don’t do that either.

This is what we do do:

We know for sure Matt did all the illustrations

One of us gets a brilliant idea and tosses it out to the other over email. It’s generally received with great enthusiasm because we’re game like that. Next comes maybe a title and a few lines in a Word doc – a beginning. And from then on, we’ve both got full-on freedom to make of the manuscript what we will. We take turns adding, omitting, and rearranging lines and phrases – without permission, explanation or conversation.

It’s kind of mad-cap. It’s kind of brutal. It’s kind of fun and insanely liberating.

Several days or weeks later, twelve or twenty-two drafts later, we have this shiny new thing that is neither hers nor mine, but ours.

And here’s one of the great and unexpected results of this practice: Somehow, we both find it easier to love that final product – maybe because we’re a little less hard on each other than we are on our own solo selves, maybe because someone else did half the work, or maybe just because we had such a good time all the way along.

Even still, lots of our originally brilliant ideas end up on the cutting room floor. Which is why we’re particularly tickled to be celebrating the debut of Bob, Not Bob (Disney-Hyperion, 2017), illustrated by Matthew Cordell today. (Dear Substitute, illustrated by Chris Raschka, follows next year, also from Disney-Hyperion).

Now, who wrote what bits of those books – or what bits of this post? We wish we could stay to reveal that but we’ve got to back to our solitary, antisocial efforts now.

Thanks for having us!

Cynsational Notes

Bob, Not Bob received a starred review from Publishers’ Weekly. Peek: “Scanlon and Vernick
understand the way that being sick makes kids need comfort that they don’t usually need, how it makes them unrecognizable even to themselves, and the comfort a mother’s presence brings. Every page offers a giggle.”

Liz Garton Scanlon is the author of numerous beloved books for young people, including the highly-acclaimed, Caldecott-honored picture book All the World (Simon & Schuster, 2009), illustrated by Marla Frazee, and her debut novel for middle grade readers, The Great Good Summer (Simon & Schuster, 2015). She is a poet, teacher, and presenter at schools, libraries and conferences and a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She grew up in Colorado and Wisconsin, and now lives with her husband and two daughters in Austin, Texas.

Audrey Vernick is the author of books for young readers, including the award-winning Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team (Clarion, 2012), illustrated by Steven Salerno and the acclaimed novels Two Naomis (Balzer + Bray, 2016), co-authored by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Screaming at the Ump (Clarion, 2014) and Water Balloon (Clarion, 2011). She has also published more than a dozen picture books and speaks at conferences and elementary schools around the country. She lives near the ocean in New Jersey with her family.

In Memory: Anna Dewdney

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Anna Dewdney Dies; Author of ‘Llama Llama’ Books Was 50 from the New York Times.

Anna illustrated a number of books in the 1990s, then became an author/illustrator with the publication of Llama, Lama Red Pajama (Viking, 2005). Since then, Llama Llama and his Mama have appeared in 18 additional titles and sold more than 10 million copies. A Netflix series based on Dewdney’s books is expected later this year.

Publishers Weekly shared thoughts from Jen Loja, president of Penguin Young Readers, “The entire Penguin Young Readers family is heartbroken. And as we grieve, we also celebrate Anna’s life, in dedicating ourselves to carrying forward her mission of putting books into as many little hands as possible. We will miss her so, but consider ourselves to lucky to be her publishing family and her partner in her legacy.”

Anna recently completed Little Excavator (Viking), which will be released June 6, 2017. 

In 2013, Anna wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal: How Books Can Teach Your Child to Care. Peek: “When we read with a child, we are doing so much more than teaching him to read or instilling in her a love of language,” she wrote. “We are doing something that I believe is just as powerful, and it is something that we are losing as a culture: by reading with a child, we are teaching that child to be human. When we open a book, and share our voice and imagination with a child, that child learns to see the world through someone else’s eyes.”

Anna requested those wishing to honor her should read to a child.

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

How Attending the SCBWI National Conference Can Help Writers/Illustrators of Color by Andrea J. Loney on Don Tate‘s Blog. Peek: “Spending three days with so many published writers really shifted my thinking about my career. It was at that first conference that I really saw myself as a professional. I sold my first book five months after that weekend.”

12-Year-Old Marley Dias Is Publishing An Activism Guide For Children And Teens from Bustle. Peek: Scholastic announced Marley’s book, “will be presented as a relatable ‘keep-it-real’ guide” in which the founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks movement will discuss how kids can make their dreams come true and how they can use their passion to capture the attention of the media and policy makers to change the world.

The Brown Bookshelf: 28 Days Later Campaign: featuring a different Black children’s-YA author or children’s illustrator every day in February.

Writing About Pain by Aunt Scripty at Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “For your characters, at its worst the pain can be all-consuming. For your readers, though, it can become a grind.”

How Ten Years Producing “Car Talk” Helped Me Deal with Rejection by Louie Cronin on Writer Unboxed. Peek: “While I have never worked at a literary magazine, agency, or publisher…I know for sure they are screening – not just for good stories, but for variables we writers may never be able to anticipate. In many ways, they have the same challenging job I had at Car Talk: to slog through a mountain of submissions and come up with an artful, seemingly effortless mix.”

My Beautiful Birds by Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, reviews My Beautiful Birds (Pajama Press, March 2017) by author and illustrator Suzanne Del Rizzo. Peek: “Del Rizzo writes in an arresting first-person, present-tense voice, the story coming straight from the boy’s point of view (Sami, a Syrian refugee) and giving us a glimpse into his inner turmoil.” See also, Julie’s Kirkus essay, Refugee Odysseys.

Hena Khan on Countering the Narrative, part of the Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign at Kitaab World. Peek: “Stories are powerful tools for fostering acceptance and understanding, and highlighting diverse stories can expose children early on to people who are different from them. Inviting children into the lives of Muslim characters helps to demystify a community that is often misunderstood and misrepresented. See also, Open Call for Submissions from Muslim Writers, organized by agent Clelia Gore. Peek: “Literary agents are in a unique position to help contribute by bringing more empathy, compassion, understanding and tolerance into this world through books. We seek out unheard voices so that others can hear them.”

We Need Diverse Books is now accepting nominations for Bookseller of the Year. Does your local bookseller/bookstore promote diversity through their in-store displays and on social media?

Congratulations to those chosen for the Outstanding International Book List by the United States Board on Books for Young People, including recent New Voice interviewee David Wright.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia Leitich Smith 

Cynthia has been traveling this week. Here she is sharing Jingle Dancer (HarperCollins, 2000) with students at Friendship Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. in conjunction with An Open Book.

She also visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and caught up with Vermont College of Fine Arts friends in town for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference.

She is currently at the SCBWI National conference in New York City speaking about career building, social media and diversity in children’s-YA writing.

Cynthia has also been selected to judge the Katherine Paterson Prize for Hunger Mountain, the VCFA Journal for the Arts. Entry deadline is March 1.

Personal Links

More Personally – Gayleen Rabakukk

I’ve been embracing bibliotherapy this week, enjoying works by Zetta Elliott, Jason Reynolds, Kelly Barnhill and Simon Winchester. And I’m feeling inspired by this Scholastic News article about my hometown, Oklahoma City, and kids who stood up (or rather, sat down) to change the world.

Personal Links

Cover Reveal & Author Snapshot: Uncanny by David Macinnis Gill

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Check out the cover of Uncanny by David Macinnis Gill (Harper, Sept. 5, 2017). From the PW announcement:

Uncanny tells the story of Willow Jane Conning, who on her 16th birthday, gains strange powers and begins witnessing unnerving events, including evil spirits rising from the dead and time inexplicably standing still.

Was there any particular element that you had strong feelings about the way it would be depicted?

Black birds — crows, ravens, magpies, starlings, grackles — play an important part in the plot of Uncanny and also in various characters’ histories. They also help set the creepy, mysterious mood of the novel.

David Macinnis Gill

We wanted to make sure the birds were depicted in a way that shows both their beauty and the fearful emotions they can evoke. The designer of the jacket did a great job of using understatement to bring these qualities out and to show the feathers’ beautiful iridescence.

Why is there blood on the bird’s wing? You’ll have to read to find out!

Cynsational Notes

David Macinnis Gill has been a house painter, cafeteria manager, bookstore schleper, high school teacher, and college professor. He now lives on the Carolina coast with his family and two rescued dogs. He is a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Uncanny is now available for pre-order.

New Voice: David Wright on Away Running

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

David Wright is the debut YA author of Away Running (Orca Book Publishers, 2016) (discussion guide) (first chapter). From the promotional copy:

Matt, a white quarterback from Montreal, Quebec, flies to France (without his parents’ permission) to play football and escape family pressure. Freeman, a black football player from San Antonio, Texas, is in Paris on a school trip when he hears about a team playing American football in a rough, low-income suburb called Villeneuve-La-Grande.

Matt and Free join the Diables Rouges and make friends with the other players, who come from many different ethnic groups. Racial tension erupts into riots in Villeneuve when some of their Muslim teammates get in trouble with the police, and Matt and Free have to decide whether to get involved and face the very real risk of arrest and violence.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

As a young man, trying to figure out how to become a writer, I espoused the whole Hemingway “write what you know” thing. You know, you go out and have adventures that you can mine for material, all that. And so I did. I worked development in the Ivory Coast and hitchhiked from Brazil to the US — things like that. My base of operations, like Hemingway’s, was Paris, and the way I supported myself was by playing American football. I’d grown up in Texas and had played in college and I missed football.

Europe was still a distant land in 1987, strange

and exotic and remote from the United States. American Football in Europe was unexpected and particular. It’s a club sport there, and semi-pro. Only the Americans (three per team, by rule) get paid. Where the average Frenchman is usually thought to be about as big as a pubescent girl, many of the players in the premier division have good size. They had good soccer speed, but that’s different from football speed. So here were these grown men playing a game for boys with the grace of dump trucks and the temperaments of chain saws. And there I was, twenty-two years old, just a year out of college and with this, the only prospect of me ever playing again.

Playing football for the Flash, my team in suburban Paris, was stranger still. La Courneuve, the suburb where the team was based, was more the bland concrete and metal poverty of Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes than the chic café culture of the Left Bank. The working- and lower-class blacks, North Africans and whites who made up the team were the people who got followed by security guards in stores, who got hassled by the police during “random” stops to check ID papers. The French call this demographic of their society, “les marginaux” — marginals. But my teammates refused the label. They defined themselves as having been forced to the margins.

For them, American models displayed the
how-to of anti-establishment behavior. Many wore replica letterman’s jackets and baseball caps, a rebuff of France’s culture of fashion. Two players restored and drove big 1950s American cars. They all greeted each other with soul handshakes, and one player once explained to me that seeing the blaxploitation classic Shaft as young men had profoundly marked them. They associated American football, an in-your-face, violent game, with African-American culture, and they embraced it as another way to distinguish themselves from the larger French society.

Eventually, the two things — the attempt to become a writer and my experiences playing football in La Courneuve — began to merge.

When I came back to the US and enrolled in the MFA program at UMass, I knew I wanted to write about my five years abroad. Away Running began there. It was a long road after that, but it started there.

As an unagented author, how did you identify your editor and connect the manuscript with the publishing house?

Away Running’s journey to print was long, serpentine, and frankly, at times kind of odious. Every author has at least one story about the difficulty and pain of becoming a published writer. Ours — my coauthor’s and mine — had tinges of racism to it.

Luc Bouchard

The book began as a dual-voiced memoir chronicling Luc Bouchard’s and my experiences playing American football in the working-class and poor, immigrant communities surrounding Paris, a new slant on the long tradition of North American expatriate narratives. The manuscript circulated among New York publishing houses. One editor commented that she thought the story would make a great movie. But none accepted the book.

It was my agent at the time, a friend and former student, Paul Rodeen, who suggested that Luc and I transform it into a young adult novel. He told us about the lack of books aimed at what the mainstream publishing industry dismissively calls “reluctant readers” — that is, boys. I did a little research and realized that not just boys tend to be overlooked by mainstream publishing, but children of color, broadly, and particularly boys of color. I wrote an essay, “Invisible Boys,” that appeared in American Book Review in July 2013, to call attention to this ongoing and shameful legacy, and Luc and I decided to re-imagine Away Running as YA.

Penguin initially bought the idea based on a written proposal but later orphaned the project when Luc and I refused to cut the black point-of-view character and tell the story uniquely from the white boy’s perspective. The black character, Freeman, is a working-class kid from San Antonio, a high school football player who excels in school as well as on the field. But in trying to deal with his father’s death in Iraq, he resents his Muslim teammates in his new community outside Paris (a place like La Courneuve). Though he doesn’t realize it yet, he views those brown boys in ways that mirror how he was treated as a black boy growing up in the Texas.

Our editor at Penguin, who was white, disparaged our characterization of the black boy. He called the complex aspects of his personality “ugly” and “unattractive,” and referred to his voice as “slang.” He found it unbelievable that a boy who spoke this way with his friends (though the character code-switches to standard English with his mother and teachers) could master French sufficiently to function in France. (That the main white character can speak both English and French raised no red flags for him.)

After Penguin orphaned us, the other mainstream houses, maybe predictably, also passed on the manuscript.

From its founding in 1984, Orca Book Publishers, out of Vancouver, has been committed to diversity and inclusiveness and has pioneered publishing books for so-called “reluctant readers.” Last year, it released a book on LGBT history for young readers, Pride:Celebrating Diversity & Community. Paul and I had parted ways professionally (though we are still friends!), so I queried Orca myself, and they took an immediate interest in Away Running. They proved to be a great fit. Our editor, Sarah Harvey, was great, asking the right questions, pointing us in good directions to find solutions to the manuscript’s problems.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

I’d never read YA before writing Away Running, not even when I was a YA myself. As strange as it may sound, the book that may have most influenced me in writing Away Running is North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent (William Morrow, 1973), this 1970s roman à clef about the Dallas Cowboys of the 1960s. I read it when I was fifteen, traveling overnight on a Greyhound from West Texas to Kansas City, where my father lived, and it surprised me in a way that no book had surprised me before. The movie had just come out and all my teammates and I had found a way to see it, even though it was rated R. I had stumbled upon a copy of the paperback at a garage sale with my mom not long after seeing it and thought it might make the fifteen-hour bus ride go by faster.

David on a YA panel at the Texas Book Festival

Where the movie depicts this rowdy and raunchy bacchanalia about pro football, the book is just as much a telling study of post-sixties America. Like every other high school player, I dreamed of going pro, and like every single Texan, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the Dallas Cowboys. They may have been America’s Team but Texans venerated them as downright saintly. But the book takes an unflinching look at the racism and misogyny at the heart of the team and the society that reveres it. Football creates and rewards conformity, but the book tells the story of this free-thinking individualist caught up in football culture because he loves to play the game.

North Dallas Forty was one of the few books I took with me when I went abroad at twenty-two, and in certain moods, I’d always return to it. I saw something of myself in the main character, and I came to recognize my teammates on the Flash as nonconforming fellow travellers.

My Flash teammates were misfits but proud, loyal, and community-oriented. La Courneuve, La Courneuve had a mairie rouge, a “red” city council, with its mayor and other elected officials members of France’s Communist Party. Most poor municipalities in suburban Paris did (and do). At its origins, the Flash was a collaboration between the township and the team intended to provide an outlet for local young men other than street-life. Two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, none of my teammates saw any irony in the fact that their township was sponsoring their American football club.

So when I started thinking about writing about the Flash, aspects of North Dallas Forty echoed in my imagination. Luc and I wanted Away Running to be more about the society the characters live in than about the sport they play. But we also recognized that we were writing about boys and girls, primarily for boys and girls. Since our book had not started out as YA, we spent one spring day sitting under the Egg in Millenium Park in Chicago and read the entire manuscript aloud. Luc read Matt, I read Free, and we made sure that every dirty word, every incidence of violence, every seemingly risqué scene (there is only one) was warranted and belonged.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

Luc is Francophone and doesn’t write in English. I’m a black guy who grew up in West Texas. We met working together in a Parisian suburb that was largely North African and Muslim. This was central to what we wanted to get at with Away Running. Because more than a story about playing football in France, it’s a novel about race and class and identity — about the common thing at the core of all of us.

That’s why, from the book’s very conception, Luc and I insisted upon a dual-voiced narrative, one black and one white. The very point of the novel is dialogue because, at heart, the element that seems notably missing from our public conversations about race is the actual conversation. In what passes for racial dialogue today, a voice from one group speaks — typically, from the historically underrepresented and oppressed one — and the other group listens, often feeling guilted into silence. The character of the speech is usually exhortatory and admonishing (think, Ta-Nehisi Coates), and as a result, too often the so-called conversation is one-sided.

Don’t get me wrong: black folks, as a historically oppressed and silenced community, need an opportunity to have a public voice about the black experience and about the black view on the American experience. We need to be able to publically and proudly claim our black identity. The work of black forebears (Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells, Zora Hurston, James Baldwin, so many more), leading up to the Black Arts Movement and since, have gotten us — and the U.S., as a society — to the point where we can do this.

But what happens then? How do we bring other voices into the conversation? Too often the supposed conversation is merely each different group casting its own unique view. At a certain point, the conversation has to move away from monologue and become truly dialogic.

In Away Running, neither Luc nor I wanted to narrate the story of a person from one particular group describing racial oppression. We wanted a back-and-forth between a black person and a white person, dramatizing the complex roots and motivations that contribute to and result in racism and oppression.

And personally, collaboration on this particular project was really attractive. I was really drawn to the possibilities of what I might learn from working with Luc on it. Because if writing is a sort of conversation between an author and an audience — and for me, it is —then the dialogue is opened up and made more immediate for the writer when working collaboratively. It’s not just me, alone at my desk. Having a different viewpoint interacting with mine added a texture and complexity to my understanding of the subject matter that I’m not sure I would have reached otherwise. The “write what you know” thing can be very limiting. Working collaboratively with Luc, who is white and Canadian (“Quebecois,” he’d insist), helped me begin to move past it.

What would you have done differently?

I’m not sure… I’d like to say to you that I feel so certain in my “vision” that I’ve known all along that what Luc and I were attempting to do was right, and the mainstream publishing industry bedamned! But I’m not sure I’m that confident in myself to make such an assertion.

I am sure of the lacking that I and others have recognized in book publishing, and especially in
children’s book publishing. And I’m proud of how Luc and I went about attempting to confront it — which is to say, by writing a book featuring two voices, one black, one white, taking on the issues head-on.

Another book appeared at about the same time as ours with a strikingly similar approach and theme. All-American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds (Atheneum, 2015) is a dual-voiced narrative about two boys, one black and one white, and addresses the problem of police brutality against young men of color. Strikingly similar! I enjoyed their novel, but what I most remarked about it is how the two narratives run parallel to one another rather than truly speaking to each other. I don’t mean this as criticism, it’s just an observation about the choice that Kiely and Reynolds made.

Luc and I wanted something that looked more like interconnectedness rather than just interrelatedness. I hope we achieved this.

Guest Post: Writing Across Gender Lines: Fiction that Appeals to Boys and Girls

By Yona Zeldis McDonough
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve alway thought of myself as a girly-girl writer. Although I’ve written bios for kids that appeal to both boys and girls—many of them in the popular Who Was series (Grosset & Dunlap) —my real love is girl-friendly stories. I like dolls—no fewer than five of my children’s books have had the words doll or doll house in the title—and all the girly stuff that goes with them. I also like kitties, pretty dresses, and tea parties, and all these things find their way into the fiction I write for kids.

I never saw this as a particular problem or even issue to be addressed. As the fans of mystery, dystopia, humor and fantasy can happily attest, subsets in the field of children’s books abound, and there are many ways to make readers happy. So writing books that appealed chiefly to girls didn’t seem like an issue to me.

But a chance meeting with an editor from Boys’ Life made the first chip in my frilly, feminine facade. We had been invited to speak on a panel together and when it was over, she encouraged me, strongly, to consider writing fiction for the magazine. I was flattered but didn’t think I was the right person for the job. I felt like I was too far out of my comfort zone and I wasn’t confident I could do it. But an invitation from an editor is something to take seriously, so I began to play around with some ideas, eventually settling on a story set in 1941 that was slated for the December 2016 issue. That was the 75th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and in my story, a 12-year-old boy finds himself defending his best friend, Kenzo, a boy whose Japanese family had arrived in the United States some 10 years prior. It was about the need for facing down prejudice and bigotry and it advanced a message of tolerance and acceptance. The editor liked what I had written and asked for more stories, which I was happy to provide.

So when I was tapped by an editor from Scholastic to write what eventually became The Bicycle Spy (Scholastic, 2016), I had already taken some tentative, baby steps across the gender line. Scholastic wanted a book about a 13-year-old boy who lives in the Southwest of France during World War II. His parents own the bakery in town. Unbeknownst to him, they are members of the French Resistance and he’s been delivering the messages that they have baked into loaves of bread. He’s also an avid cyclist and fan of the Tour de France—suspended during the war years—and bicycling was to play a major role in the story. And he had a new friend in school; when he learns the truth about her family, he is called on to help them escape. These were the bare bones—the rest was up to me.

I was now faced with writing a book whose primary audience would be boys, a much more challenging and complex task than writing a 1,200 word magazine story. If I was going to succeed, I needed to widen and expand my range as a writer. This made me very nervous. Yes, I had written boy protagonists, but always in the short run. Could I sustain a boy’s point of view and hope to engage boy readers for a whole chapter book? I sure hoped so!

To my surprise, I found the task less daunting and more exciting than I expected. I wanted to make my protagonist Marcel appealing and relatable, so I turned him into an unlikely hero: small for his age, bespectacled and the unhappy target of the class bully’s teasing and aggression. Marcel loses to his best friend in a game of chess, flubs the occasional answer in class and dreams constantly of being stronger, taller and faster—like the winners of the bicycle race he reveres. And yet, for all his flaws, he’s also shown to be brave, loyal and determined.

As Marcel’s story evolved in my mind, I realized I wanted it to include a female component, something that would appeal to girls as well as boys. And so I began to develop the character of Delphine Gillette, the new girl at school who loves cycling as much as he does and is revealed, midway through, to be Jewish. Her family has fled Paris and is hiding out in this small town, protected by the false papers her father has been able to procure. But when the Nazi presence intensifies, Marcel learns that the papers of the residents, particularly those newly arrived, are going to be scrutinized carefully. Delphine and her family are no longer safe. They will need to flee again and it is Marcel who is instrumental in the daring plot to help them find their way to freedom.

As I wrote, I tried to keep the concerns of both boys and girls
balanced in mind. I knew that boys would like the suspense aspects of the story, the coded messages, and the workings of the Resistance movement, as well as the descriptions of both the occupying soldiers and the French gendarmes who supported them. I also made sure to include details about Marcel’s relationship to his parents—his mother’s worry and occasional tendency to nag, his father’s pride in his courage—as well as the push-and-pull with his school friends.

For the girl readers, I explored Delphine’s experiences as the new girl in town, her efforts to fit in and be liked, but also her spunk and her courage. I added references to the clothes she wore—because yes, girls do care—and her affection for her pet cat.

But as I got deeper and deeper into the story, I also began to notice a certain softening of gender lines and began to realize that the concerns of these two characters were more alike than different. They both loved cycling, worried about their place in the social pecking order, and had to deal with parental expectations. Both faced the awful upheavals of war and both feared an uncertain and potentially devastating future.

I had started out believing that boys would relate to Marcel, and girls to Delphine; I came to see that each of these characters would have appeal for the other gender. It’s a revelation that I hope to carry with me when I approach my as-yet-unwritten next book. Writing for boys taught me something about writing for girls and I am glad to have discovered that that universe of fiction is far broader—and more inclusive—than I had formerly imagined.

Cynsational Notes 
The Bicycle Spy was recently named a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries

In Memory: Tom Shefelman

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Austin architect contributed modernist buildings to city’s landscape by Michael Barnes from The Austin American Statesman. Peek:

Thomas ‘Tom’ Shefelman, who helped design several of Austin’s outstanding modernist buildings…. Seattle-born Shefelman, a graduate of the University of Texas School of Architecture and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, also illustrated children’s books and painted watercolor scenes from his travels, often in tandem with his wife, Janice Shefelman, who survives him.”

Note: Tom was 89.

A few members of Austin’s children’s-YA writing community shared their thoughts about Tom.

Author Lindsey Lane:

“I will never forget the time I opened up the arc of I, Vivaldi (Eerdmans, 2008) and saw Tom’s drawing of Saint Mark’s Square. I gasped. I felt like I was there. The heart of it. The movement of it. The soul of it.

“‘Tom…’ I whispered. ‘This is holy.’
” He smiled. We didn’t say much. He looked pleased that his work had touched me.

“Tom was such an elegant man in the way he put his heart and soul and vision into his work.

“The work was the satisfaction. That it touched me was the smile on his face.

“Tom, the essence of him, makes me think of the First Corinthians:

‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’

“Thank you, Tom, for being that presence of love in everything you did.”

Author-Illustrator Shelley Ann Jackson: “I feel honored to have had work hanging alongside his in an Austin SCBWI show and grateful for the beautiful books we have to remember him by.”

Meredith Davis interviewed Tom and Janice, for an Austin SCBWI member profile last year. The couple talked about their process of creating books for children together. Tom said he hoped his illustrations would provide young readers with “a visual experience outside their own, which enlarges their world and makes them tolerant of differences.”

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

“We Need Diverse Books,” They Said, and Now A Group’s Dream Is Coming to Fruition by Ron Charles from The Washington Post. Peek: “an impressive new milestone for We Need Diverse Books. Oh, the group’s chief executive and president, has edited and published WNDB’s first anthology: Flying Lessons and Other Stories, published by Crown Books for Young Readers. The book, aimed at readers between ages 8 and 12, features 10 stories by a who’s-who of contemporary YA literature….”

Graphic Novelist Urges Kids to Reach Beyond the Comfort Zone by Jeffrey Brown from PBS Newshour. Audio interview with Gene Yang, national ambassador for young people’s literature. See also Reading Without Walls.

How Character Attributes and Flaws Work within a Character Arc by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “Until the character sees how fear is steering his life and how flaws limit his ability to connect with people and work against him as he tries to achieve meaningful goals, he will never be fully happy or satisfied.” See also Tips for Weaving Romance Into Your Novel by C.S. Lakin.

Educators Roundtable by Allie Jane Bruce from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “I have not met a single teacher who is hostile or disagrees with my intent. They are enthusiastic and genuinely want to do the right thing. So why had they taught into the tsunami of harmful stereotypes?”

RWW Interviews: Debbie Reese by Ernie Cox on Reading While White. Peek: “I’m thrilled to see a growing awareness of our sovereignty!…I love that Tim Tingle‘s How I Became a Ghost (RoadRunner Press, 2013) has ‘Choctaw Nation’ on the very first page, and I love that Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) has information about the Muscogee Nation in the author’s note. This matters!” See also How This Man Formed a Friendship with a Choctaw Ghost by Joy Diaz from The Texas Standard. Audio interview with Tim Tingle.

Interview: Richard Sobol on Coexistence, Travel & Capturing the Perfect Moment by Jalissa Corrie from Lee & Low. Peek: “Once I learned of the Mirembe Kawomera coffee cooperative—and the idea that it was created to show Muslims, Christians, and Jews working together—I knew it was a story that was important to share. Since I had done a lot of work in Uganda and knew that life can be very challenging there, I felt that this was a unique opportunity to present a hopeful message from a rural village in Africa.”

Six Tested Tips for Keeping Your Writing Resolutions by Kell Andrews from Project Mayhem. Peek: “The best plans have flexibility built in. If you skip a day or fall behind, you are not a failure. Just begin again.”

Hypermobility & Representation by Laura Noakes from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: “Hypermobility syndrome is a condition that means that my joints move beyond the normal scope for joints, and my ligaments are really stretchy. Whilst this can be cool, since I’m really flexible and have loads of bendy party tricks, it also has its horrible moments.”

Got a “Fix” for Stiff Dialogue by Deborah Halverson from Dear Editor. Peek: “I’ve got something for you to try out: repetition.”

The Brown Bookshelf: 28 Days Later Campaign: featuring a different Black children’s-YA author or children’s illustrator every day in February.

When Bilingual Dreams Come True by Margarita Engle from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “Latino family literacy is a challenge that can only be met by providing a wide variety of books in both languages, so that older and younger generations can read and discuss the same poems and stories. That wide variety should include—but not be limited to—books by Latinos.”

Author Interview: Greg Leitich Smith from Austin SCBWI. Peek: “I tend to be very much a place writer and I think with that also comes a sense of the sensibility of the inhabitants, which may be why it took me twenty years to write a novel set in central Texas (Chronal Engine and Borrowed Time). And even then, most of those occur seventy million years ago and most of the native Texans are dinosaurs (literally).”

Registration is now open for the Oklahoma SCBWI Conference, March 24-25, featuring author Ally Carter, along with two editors, two agents and an art director.

Cynsational Awards

Children’s-YA book awards received more mainstream press coverage this year, thanks to March: Book Three (Top Shelf, 2016) by Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell. It’s the first time a single book has been recognized with three American Library Association Awards: the Coretta Scott King Book Award, the Michael L. Printz Award and the Robert F. Sibert Information Book Award. March also won the National Book Award in the fall. Congratulations to all the ALA winners!

Finalists were recently announced for the Cybils Awards and the Edgar Awards. If you write mysteries, be sure to check out the Helen McCloy Scholarship from the Mystery Writers of America. The $500 scholarship offsets tuition for writing workshops, seminars or university writing classes. Deadline is Feb. 28.

See also Five Questions for Coretta Scott King Jury Member Martha V. Parravano from The Horn Book.

Author Spotlight: Crystal Allen

Who Is the Magnificent Mya Tibbs and Why Should I Care? by Crystal Allen from CBC Diversity. Peek: “When I was asked to create an African American Ramona Quimby/Clementine-type character, I wasn’t sure how my character should act. Both Clementine and Ramona are memorable for their personalities, families, and storylines. However, there is nothing about their characters or their stories that is race-driven. So why would I make Mya Tibbs any different?”

See also Crystal on Don’t Judge a Book by Its Color from HarperChildren’s. Peek: “this was probably a time when I should have said something, but I was so heartbroken that I couldn’t speak. I wasn’t just hurting for myself. I hurt for Mya, and for all the characters in this book that the little girl would never meet.”

Cynsational Queries

If you have an idea for a Cynsations post, please email Gayleen to discuss options: gayleen.rabakukk(at) Guest posts are approximately 500 words of inspiration and information with real reader, writer, gatekeeper takeaway. Debut authors are eligible for the New Voices interview series, and established authors are welcome to suggest ideas for topic series or interviews about new releases and/or the craft of writing, the writing life, and/or publishing.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally — Cynthia Leitich Smith

The Essex Culinary Resort and Spa

Welcome back, Cynsational readers! You may have already noticed that intern Gayleen Rabakukk is taking a more active role on the blog this spring. Huge thanks to her for her efforts to date. She’s an absolute gem!

As for me, I spent three weeks in snowy Vermont, first at the winter residency of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults in Montpelier, and then at Kindling Words East in Essex. At VCFA, we hosted guest author Kathryn Erkine and guest author-illustrator Don Tate. We also welcomed a new visiting faculty member, Martha Brockenbrough.

At Kindling Words, I spoke in conjunction with a former VCFA advisee (turned Printz honor author!), Julie Berry. Our topic was voice–she focused on the manuscript page and I addressed authorial voice more broadly, through one’s body of work, on the platform, podium and through the more personal persona.

Now, I’m packing again for an event through An Open Book Foundation and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Washington, D.C., and then for the SCBWI Annual Winter National Conference in New York City. Hope to see many of you soon!

Later this spring, I look forward to speaking at the Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University April 6 and April 7 as well as keynoting at the KWELI Annual Writers Conference April 9 in Manhattan.

Looking for a craft-building opportunity? Join me, fellow author Uma Krishnaswami, comedian-poet Sean Petrie and literary agents Ginger Knowlton and Elizabeth Harding from Curtis Brown Ltd. at “The Jokes on You! The Scoop on Humor in MG & YA,” a Highlights Foundation Workshop.

With Kekla Magoon in the College Hall Chapel at VCFA, discussing X: A Novel

Personal Links


More personally — Gayleen Rabakukk
Gayleen and Cynthia Levinson

I started the New Year off with a healthy dose of inspiration from author Bethany Hegedus, who talked about leading a literary life at our monthly Austin SCBWI meeting. I tried to apply that information by meeting other writers at a lunch and learn program on researching at the Texas State Library and Archives and celebrating the launch of Cynthia Levinson‘s The Youngest Marcher (Atheneum, 2017) at BookPeople.
Congratulations to my VCFA classmate, Mary Cronin on being selected for the Eileen Spinelli Scholarship from the Highlights Foundation to attend the Picture Books and All That Jazz workshop.
Our Austin kidlit community has had a lot to celebrate recently:
Cynthia joins me in congratulating the winners and wishing all our Cynsational readers a great reading/writing/illustrating week!

New Voices: Sarah Johnson on Crossings

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

Sarah Johnson is the first-time YA author of Crossings (Cedar Fort, 2017). From the promotional copy:
Eliinka has been able to hide her deepest secret…until now. Her only choice is to make a perilous crossing to a foreign land where she’ll discover the truth about a powerful legend and the hope for peace after centuries of conflict.

Immerse yourself in this enchanting fantasy world and take heart in Eliinka’s journey of sacrifice, romance and intrigue.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The two main characters woke me up one dark Finnish morning, around 4 a.m. They propelled me out of bed to the computer, and I wrote so I could find out what would happen.

How does your expat life influence your writing?

The most obvious influence is settings. For example, the setting in my book, Crossings, is influenced by my years living in Brazil and Finland. Another completed novel is set in Brazil. Some countries I’ve lived in, such as China, Nigeria, and Egypt, haven’t yet shown up in a story.

Real-life adventures and experiences don’t appear in my stories, as I write fiction. But my experiences as an expat emerge in the themes, deep questions, and struggles that my characters experience.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

I came to writing in a surprising way, at least it surprised me. I always have loved reading and story, but never wrote much and becoming a writer was never something I had considered.

Then one day characters arrived in my mind, and a story emerged as I quickly wrote an exploratory draft. I expanded the skeleton scenes into my novel, Crossings. I had never planned to write a novel, yet the characters demanded that their story be written.

Sarah and Rose

As I looked at this first draft, I knew the story needed revision and the writing needed improvement. I read books on my shelves, looking at how sentences were crafted, how chapters were formed, and how stories were structured.

I met other writers on LiveJournal and traded manuscripts with a few of them, and from their feedback, I revised, and my writing continued to improve.

Rose Green is a writing friend who I’ve traded my stories with from that time. We’ve met a few times in person and when we meet we typically go hiking and, of course, we talk about writing and books.

After a couple years of writing, I stumbled across information about a conference that was scheduled when I would be in the States. At that conference I met Martine Leavitt and found out about Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), where she began teaching the following year.

Next, I attended VCFA and worked toward my MFA as I worked closely under the guidance of many amazing writers. Those couple years were huge in my growth as a writer. After graduation, I continued to work on my writing craft.

As an MFA in Writing graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

When I think of my experience at VCFA, I think of creative energy. It was intense and exciting and fun to be with others who love writing stories, and the energy spilled over into my own writing.

The opportunity to interact with and learn from the community of writers in such a supportive atmosphere made my growth as a writer much more rapid than I could have imagined. During the program I took advantage of learning all that I could, and I wrote everything from picture books to short stories to nonfiction; a novel was my creative thesis.

VCFA has continued in my writing life after graduation, and I contribute to an official VCFA blog, the Launchpad. I stay in contact with friends I made while attending residencies.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

Find a writing community where you can connect with other writers and nurture your craft. This could be a writing partner or a critique group. You can meet either in person or online.

There are many places to meet other writers such as classes, a conference, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) or other writing organizations.


Author Interview: Zetta Elliott on Ghosts, Magic & Imperialism

Zetta Elliott‘s last Cynsations interview was in 2009. Since then she’s published more than two dozen

books and nearly twice as many essays, like Decolonizing the Imagination for The Horn Book (March 2010).

I’ve been thinking a lot about the lasting effects of Imperialism and how it influences both society and literature. When I learned Zetta’s latest MG novel explores those themes – and includes castles and ghosts – I had to know more!

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

There was a time when almost everything I wrote could be traced back to something I saw on PBS. These days almost everything I write can be blamed on what I don’t see on PBS!

I love period dramas, but people of color are usually erased or marginalized even though we’ve always been present in – and contributed to – the eras being depicted.

I also wanted to address the issue of harm and reparations in a way that children could understand; I grew up in a “former” British colony (Canada) and so consumed a fair amount of literature and television programming that in no way reflected my own reality.

I’ve written elsewhere about my struggle to “decolonize” my imagination, and The Ghosts in the Castle (Rosetta Press, 2017) is really my attempt to heal some of the wounds caused by the erasure or misrepresentation of Black children.

It’s the book I wish I’d had as a child: a Black princess, a Black prince, and a haunted castle in England. All that’s missing is the dragon!

It’s also the book I wish my father had had when his Caribbean grandmother forced him to stay indoors and read Alice in Wonderland (which he loathed). That experience turned him off fiction for the rest of this life, and today I regularly meet kids of color who aren’t enthusiastic about reading because there aren’t enough books where they get to have magical adventures. This book is for them.

What were the challenges in bringing the text to life?

I’ve written several historical fantasy novels and the biggest challenge is always balancing fact and fiction. The research process can be time-consuming and rather tedious – especially when I know that I’ll probably only use 10 to 15 percent of it in the book. There’s nothing worse than info-dumping, no matter how interesting some facts may be, they only belong if they somehow advance the narrative or help with world-building.

Because I write speculative fiction, I also allow myself to bend history sometimes. For me, the story always comes first.

The internet made researching this book a lot easier. In 2015, I came across some elegant antique photographs of Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843- Aug. 15, 1880) on Facebook; that led me to At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic, 1999).

I decided to write a story about Sarah (Myers’ book is nonfiction) and for some reason thought she had spent time at Kensington Palace.

When I finally got my facts straight, I found out that another African child had a connection to Queen Victoria. Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia (April 23, 1861 – Nov. 14, 1879) is actually buried at St. George’s Chapel, and so I headed to London in October 2015 with the intention of visiting Windsor Castle. I went back in February 2016, and slowly the story began to take shape.

Photography isn’t allowed in the castle or chapel, so I took notes, but also reached out to the Windsor Castle library and a very kind archivist there answered some questions that helped a lot.

A neighbor with expertise in Ethiopian history and culture assured me I’d respectfully and accurately represented the prince’s sad story.

I wrote the book off and on over a year, but tried to honor the earliest chapters I’d written back in 2015. Initially, the two children didn’t get along, and when I reread those passages months later, I wondered whether I should change that. But I’m happy with the book’s resolution and their reconciliation.

I try to honor my initial impulses when I’m writing a book because they’re largely intuitive and not informed (limited) by subsequent research.

As an author/scholar how do your various roles inform one another? (Did this influence your decision to write this story for a MG audience?)

I wear a lot of different hats, but I definitely think about how the books I write could be used to start a conversation between kids and adults at home or in the classroom. My dissertation was on literary representations of lynching, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about trauma and its impact on Black people. I feel quite strongly that I have a responsibility to “teach the youth the truth” and that’s one reason I self-publish.

The Ghosts in the Castle is a book that likely would not appeal to corporate publishers and neither would Billie’s Blues (Rosetta Press, 2015), which gives lynching as one of the reasons for the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South. When I told my college students that I wanted to write a picture book about lynching, they were shocked. Yet many of those same students were furious that they’d never learned about lynching until they reached college. Children are taught about the Holocaust and some kids learn about slavery in the U.S., but many textbooks are sanitized or decontextualized.  
There’s a real fear within the dominant group that if children know the ugly truth about the country’s history, they’ll become embittered and “unmanageable” (to borrow a term from Frederick Douglass). But I think young people are empowered by the truth, and so my challenge is to make events and figures from the past relevant to contemporary kids who think Harry Potter novels have taught them all they need to know about England.
You have both self-published and traditionally trade published books. What are the challenges and benefits of self-publishing?
Illustration by Charity Russell

The benefits include telling my story my own way without needing the approval of someone who’s not from my community and not familiar with my culture(s). I’d already collaborated on two books with Charity Russell and so immediately went to her when I was looking for an illustrator. She’s brilliant and put in the time it took to get all the details right.

Last summer I wrote a book that would have been the third in the City Kids Series, except my agent – against all odds – managed to sell it to Random House. I won’t have a final say over the illustrator that’s selected and I can’t do anything about the Fall 2018 publication date.

But that sale prompted me to finish The Ghosts in the Castle. I wrote a thousand words a day for most of November until the book wrapped up at 25,000 words. Charity whipped out the illustrations and we got the book ready for publication in about two months.

I was at the Brooklyn Public Library last month and a youth librarian said, “Wait – you’re Zetta Elliott? A parent came in the other day asking for more easy readers by you.”

That parent and her child don’t matter to corporate publishers who need to sell thousands of books, but I can respond to that need within my community. I can act on the sense of urgency that I feel, and that kind of autonomy is really empowering. I know some folks will complain that I’m not following the conventions of other series: I don’t use the same protagonists in every book, and the reading level and length vary, but I’m not trying to mimic anyone else. To me, what connects the three books is the way they blend Black history with Black magic. I subvert some conventions and preserve others in a way that reflects the rupture and continuity that defines the African diaspora.
The challenge now, of course, is that most review outlets (including bloggers) won’t accept self-published books. So I have to rely on social media to get the word out.
Cynthia has supported me as a hybrid author from the very beginning and so I wasn’t afraid to approach Cynsations. But when I surveyed blogs that focus on middle grade fiction, most were closed to indie authors. So the marginalization and exclusion I’m writing about in my novels plays out in real life, too. But I’ve connected with some folks in the U.K. and they’re not snobbish about self-published books, so I’m hopeful that my book will find a home!