Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

How Jumanji Inspired Karuna Riazi’s Novel The Gauntlet by Nivea Serrao from Entertainment Weekly. Peek:”…as a Muslim author writing in this really horrible political climate where a lot of Muslim kids are not made to feel welcome or at home, or no longer have a physical home to turn to, it was amazing that this architecture felt like welcoming people home. It was a beautiful thing to imagine — someone coming and seeing Moghul architecture from other areas of the world….and feeling more welcomed and recognized there.”


The CCBC’s Diversity Statistics: A Conversation with Kathleen T. Horning by Martha V. Parravano from The Horn Book. Peek: The 2003 showed 88 percent of children’s books about Native Americans were created by non-Native writers and illustrators. “That number plummeted the following year and has held steady since then at about 60 percent. I believe that is due to the hard-hitting criticism from the Native organization Oyate and, more recently, Debbie Reese at her blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. They have made authors and publishers aware of how little outsiders generally know about individual Native nations, or Native Americans in general.”

Kar-Ben Testing Jewish Chapter Book Waters: interview with publisher Joni Sussman from The Whole Megillah. (Kar-Ben is a division of Lerner Publishing Group.) Peek: “We’re more interested in MG than YA, as that’s the age group on the next step up the ladder from picture books…..I don’t solicit manuscripts as we already receive many manuscripts for both picture books and chapter books, over 800 submissions a year to fill about 20 publication slots per year.”

How Asperger’s Powers My Writing by Tom Angleberger from The Guardian. Peek: “I direct the word flow into a computer and write books about kids who fold/draw/watch ‘Star Wars’ and have awkward situations/humiliations/meltdowns. (And, since it’s fiction, they also have triumphant victories on a regular basis!)”

We Stories’ Aims to Get White Families Talking About Race, Racism Through Children’s Books by Kelly Moffitt from St. Louis Public Radio. Peek: “As Lancaster and Horwitz explained, they wanted to focus their efforts on white families because they tend to talk about race and racism less with their children. Families of color, on the other hand, talk about race and racism as a necessary part of parenting and raising children to confront a world that won’t treat them fairly.”

Let’s Talk About Star-Crossed: Why We Need Bisexual Kids Books, Backlash or Not by Danika Ellis from Book Riot. Peek: “LGBTQ people are not ‘adult’ topics. LGBTQ children exist. In the crowds of hundreds of children that Barbara Deen talked to, there were bisexual kids listening.”

Adventures in Comics and the Real World by George Gene Gustines from The New York Times. Peek: “America Chavez, a Latina and lesbian superhero, saves an alien planet, enrolls at Sotomayor University and punches Adolf Hitler in the first issue of her new Marvel comic book series. But what’s being celebrated as most fantastic in this comic is that Gabby Rivera, a young-adult author who is gay and Latina herself, is writing the adventures of America.”


How to Rescue a Book in Danger of Dying by Jennie Nash from Writers Helping Writers. Eight steps to help you save your manuscript. Peek:”Who else will care about what you’re writing? Be very specific about your ideal reader. Describe him/her in two sentences. Think in terms of what keeps them up at night, what they are afraid of, what they most want in the world.”

Starting a Novel with Setting Description by Mary Kole from KidLit.com. Peek: “I would say that the sweet spot would be….a strong sense of setting which is essential for the beginning of a novel or a beginning of a chapter, but you can’t rest on your laurels with a really strong setting. You have to do a little bit more. You need to introduce the character….It gives you a much stronger foot up in the beginning of your novel.”

How to Get Violence Right in Your Fiction by Fred Johnson from Jane Friedman‘s blog. Peek: “If you’re writing a fight or battle scene in genre fiction, detailed description will be the way to go nine times out of 10. This is because a fight scene of any scale and duration is likely to involve two or more people tied up in an incredibly fast-paced and complex process. Detailed description serves to guide the reader through the confusion and helps your readers suspend their disbelief.”

Varian Johnson Joins Vermont College of Fine Arts Faculty this summer. He is the author of six novels, including the Jackson Greene middle-grade series. The first novel in the series, The Great Greene Heist, was an ALA Notable Children’s Book Selection, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, and has been named to over twenty-five state reading and best-of lists.

Is Writer’s Block a Real Thing, or Just a Figment of the Imagination by Oliver Burkeman from The Guardian. Peek: “The most important step in overcoming writer’s block, then, may be cutting it down to size: grasping that it’s just a situation, not an underlying condition, and that it’s solved, by definition, the moment you write anything. You could keep a dream journal, as Graham Greene did, or do ‘morning pages’: three pages of whatever comes to mind first thing. Give up writing in binges, and focus on doing a tiny amount, very regularly, including stopping when time’s up.”

Are You Tired of Writing? by Catherine McKenzie from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: “There’s the time before you start publishing and the time after, and they just aren’t the same. And all the things that pushed you to publish in the first place, well, unless your career gets knocked out of the park, it can feel like a letdown.”

On Tastemakers and Making by Nell Boeschenstein from Jane Friedman‘s blog. Peek: “Instead of taste as the aspirational fixed endpoint described by (Ira) Glass, a more apt analogy may be the horizon line – always ahead, never reached. This may sound defeating; it doesn’t have to. Is fulfilling one’s artistic ambitions not a recipe for a kind of complacency to be approached with as much skepticism as an inspirational quote?”

How to Spot, and Avoid, ‘Pay to Play’ Publishing Contracts by Susan Spann from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: “If a contract lets the publisher deduct the costs of editing, publishing, and distribution of the work before calculating the author’s royalty share, that means the author is paying some of the publishing costs. Even though the contract may not require the author to pay the publisher out-of-pocket, this kind of language is still inappropriate in a traditional publishing deal.”

Hand-Selling: How to Kill It at Book and Comic Conventions by Andy Peloquin from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “Of course the story is going to be good (you’ve labored hard to make it so), but when it comes to selling face-to-face, your passion is going to be the most appealing thing. People love to see someone excited about something. If your tone of voice, facial expression, body language, gestures, and overall bearing show your enthusiasm and passion (by telling the story you love), people will identify with that and respond positively.”

Lynda Mullaly Hunt on Connecting with the “Middle-Grade Psyche” by Karen Yingling from School Library Journal. Peek: “I have met kids who had not heard of foster care or dyslexia and have learned to empathize with others’ struggles. I have heard from many, many kids who have learned to cut themselves a break by reading my books; I consider this to be the greatest gift of this author gig. It’s important for us all to remember that by avoiding difficult topics in children’s books, we do not eradicate the questions kids ask. We eradicate the answers.”

Jack Jones Literary Arts Retreat at the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Two-week retreat is open exclusively to women of color. Nine fully funded scholarships are available in a variety of categories. Application deadline is May 1.

Applications are still being accepted for the We Need Diverse Books Internship Grant for students from diverse backgrounds (people of color, people with disabilities, people from the LGBTQIAP+ community, and other underrepresented groups) who wish to pursue a career in children’s publishing.

If Fiction Changes the World, It’s Going to be YA by Emily Temple from Lit Hub. Peek: “In trying times like these, the notion of a novel as a form of activism seems only natural: everyone must respond to the current political, social, and emotional moment in their own way, and for writers, that way is on the page.”

Publishing Factual Books in an “Alternative Facts” World by Jason Low from School Library Journal. Peek: “Publishing children’s books is serious business. We have the responsibility of informing young minds. The stories we tell will leave lasting impressions on children, and we do not take this obligation lightly.”

Cynsational Screening Room

In the video, author Lamar Giles discusses his new mystery novel, Overturned (Scholastic, 2017).




This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

VCFA family united in Austin to welcome authors Marion Dane Bauer, Kathi Appelt and Susan Fletcher, all of whom have served on our MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults faculty.

Cyn with Marion Dane Bauer (Kathi Appelt chats with alumni, including Donna Janell Bowman, in the background)

Susan, Cyn & Gayleen, alumi Debbie Dunn, Shelley Ann Jackson, students Holly Green & Salima Alikhan.

Writing is ongoing! Having finished VCFA grading for March, I began to integrate feedback from my brilliant readers into my YA work in progress. At this point, it’s all about fleshing out and polishing. Smoothing logic, making sure what’s in my head mostly comes through on the page. I don’t anticipate any problem making my mid-May deadline. I may even send the document early. Whew.

Beginning today, though, I must set aside the manuscript again to put on my author hat.

I’ve written original keynotes for next weekend’s conferences, but only one of the PowerPoint presentations is finished. Both talks need to be practiced.

I’ll see how far I get with that by Sunday night and then, if all’s well, do one more manuscript read Monday and Tuesday before running through the talks again on Wednesday. That would be ideal.

My days are long–typically I work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. But I try to feed the muse with art and friendship whenever I can. Of late, I’ve seen two movies: the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” and “Hidden Figures.” Disney’s latest version of fairy tale is still somewhat plagued by the construct of the original, but it’s interesting to see how the rewrite addressed plot holes and changing societal sensibilities. Plus, the animation is mind blowing.

“Hidden Figures,” on the other hand, is absolutely required viewing. You must see this film. At least twice. The writing and performances are phenomenal.

Cynsational Events

Cynthia Leitich Smith will be a keynote speaker for the 33rd Annual Virginia Hamilton Conference on April 6 and April 7 at Kent State University in Ohio.

In addition, she will deliver the keynote address at The Color of Children’s Literature Conference from Kweli Literary Journal on April 8 at the New York Times Conference Center in Manhattan.

She is also a faculty member for the Highlights Foundation Workshop: The Joke’s On You! The Scoop on Humor for MG and YA writers, Oct. 12 – 15. She will teach with author Uma Krishnaswami, writer-poetic-comedian Sean Petrie and Curtis Brown Ltd. agents Ginger Knowlton and Elizabeth Harding. Note: this program is: (a) a rare opportunity to gain insights from top writing teachers and Curtis Brown vice presidents: (b) both for comedy writers and those writing more serious works that include some comic relief.

Personal Links

For Activists in Training

More Personally – Gayleen

When I attended the recent VCFA event, I lugged along my old copy of What’s Your Story for Marion to sign. 
I discovered the book post-VCFA and it became indispensable the summer I taught writing workshops at Girl Scout camp. The book served as my guide for helping the girls find their own stories. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing someone discover the power of story. 
I loved having the chance to thank Marion in person for writing What’s Your Story and to tell her about how it helped me on those hot July days.
Personal Links

Author-Illustrator Interview: Chieu Anh Urban on Developing Interactive Board Books

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Congratulations on Color Wonder: Hooray for Spring! (Little Simon, 2016) This is your third novelty book. 


Cynsations readers may remember your debut Raindrops: The Color of Showers (illustrated by by Viviana Garofoli, Sterling, 2010) and the creative process you described then.

Thank you for having me back; it’s hard to believe seven years have gone by. I’m excited to still be working on novelty books, and appreciate the opportunity to share my process with you and the creative children’s book community.

Tell us about the Color Wonder series. How did this idea develop? What was your inspiration?


This story was a dream come true. Every fall, I begin working on my holiday card to send to publishing editors and art directors. My cards focuses on a special interactive format, and each one is hand-assembled.

A few years ago, I sent out a holiday card featuring sea creatures, embracing the holiday spirit with an interactive wheel format that showcased the concept of color-mixing. The editor at Little Simon was very excited about it, and that is how Color Wonder became a series.

Holiday card with interactive wheel format.

Were there things you learned working on your previous books that helped you with this project?

I am always working on my craft and developing ideas. I’ve learned to be patient and let my designs slowly evolve, until I feel they are ready for me to start layering format and concept together.

My color-mixing wheel format was sketched out in my art book over four years ago. Every now and then I would return to the drawings to improve the design, and develop story concept ideas that would compliment the interactive experience.

Interior spread from Hooray for Spring!

When you’re thinking about an interactive novelty board book, what are the top priorities for creators to keep in mind?

Chieu’s art work space

My goal is to develop a format that will provide fun learning, interactive story-time experiences. I want my novelty format to serve a purpose that works with the story and concept. The interaction with format and story should be fun and satisfying to the child and reader.

My biggest challenge is to keep printing production and cost in mind. Often times, I develop a project that I’m very excited about, but is cost-prohibitive, or difficult to manufacture.

You wear a lot of hats in creating these books: author, illustrator, graphic designer and novelty format designer. Can you tell us more about these roles and the creative skills you call upon to make interactive novelty board books?  


I have a background in communications art and design. I think visually first, with my designer hat on.

I often start my projects with a concept idea, for example, colors. I begin with sketches of how I envision the layout, format, and design to look. From there, the art and story starts to play a role. I work in all these pieces and see what transpires.

How does being a novelty format designer make your work stand out?

Chieu’s computer work space

I focus on creating a format that is inventive and unique, a design that is fun and fresh.

I also think about reinventing common novelty elements, such as die-cuts and wheels.

Being a designer helps me approach art and story in a different perspective.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve been busy preparing art for my upcoming novelty books. This fall, Winter is Here! (Little Simon, October 2017), the second book in the Color Wonder series with color-mixing wheels will be published.

Quiet as a Mouse, and Other Animal Idioms (Sterling, 2017) is a fun guess-who novelty book with die-cuts, that will also be available in the fall.

In 2018, 123 GO! will make its debut. It is a number and counting novelty book with sliding vehicles on every page. I currently have a few novelty projects I am developing. Hopefully they will come together nicely.

Cynsations Notes

Chieu Anh Urban holds a BFA in Communications Art and Design from Virginia Commonwealth University School of Arts in Richmond. She began her career as a graphic designer and now works from her studio in suburban Maryland.

Activities, coloring pages and party collections associated with Hooray for Spring and Away We Go! are available on her website and her blog includes pre-school appropriate crafts related to her titles.

Chieu and her daughter at Hooray for Spring Launch Party

Interview: Lee & Low New Voices Award Winners

Roberto Penas

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lee & Low Books recently announced Roberto Penas of Olathe, Kansas won the 17th annual New Voices Award.


His manuscript, “Pedro Flores: The Toymaker,” is a biography of the inventor of the modern yo-yo.


In the early 1900s, Flores emigrated from the Philippines to the United States, where he pursued an education and his entrepreneurial ambitions. He redesigned the toy and named it “yo-yo” (Tagalog for “come back.”)


Roberto Penas has a master’s degree in Philippine history and is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI.)


He is a second-generation Filipino-American, and became interested in the story after learning Flores was also Filipino. Roberto admired the way Flores valued education and became a successful entrepreneur during a time when many immigrants worked as agricultural laborers. Roberto will receive a $1,000 prize and a publication contract.


Roberto recently shared more about the inspiration behind his manuscript.

Tell us about how you discovered Pedro Flores and what about him made you want to share his story?


I don’t recall exactly how I stumbled upon his name, but I know it was accidental, for he is sadly not included in most lists of notable Filipino-Americans.

What I found inspiring is how his example dispels the usual story of Ilocano immigrants laboring in fields for the sake of their descendants. While it is true, for a Filipino to become a financially independent entrepreneur in the early 1900’s is inconceivable – and it happened!

Keep in mind, America back then was reacting against foreigners, making immigration more restrictive (targeting Eastern Europeans and Asians). And there were the infamous Stockton riots against Filipinos in California, too.

What sort of research did you do to learn more about him?





I
t was difficult, for there is little about Flores, he is practically obscure. There are no books about him but I gained valuable information indirectly through books concerning his invention (and of course, the inventor).

Fortunately, the Yo-Yo remains a highly popular toy to this day. I also used the Internet but one has to be careful – what I learned as a historian is that credible sources are everything.

So I double-check, triple-check all data: newspapers, archived articles, (there was a Washington Post rebuttal correcting an article in the New York Times), obituaries, university and industry sites, associations, blogs.


How long have you been working on this story?

On and off for a couple years. I started writing August 2014, didn’t do anything for a while, then came back to it the following spring and summer where I worked up three versions.

I even have a Word document called “Lee and Low version D” for September 2015 but I didn’t think it was ready, so the project lay fallow again. Then when I heard about the New Vision contest in 2016, I decided it was a now-or-never moment and got serious, submitting the manuscript a couple weeks before the deadline.

Were there particular classes or workshops you’ve taken that have helped you hone your craft?

I have been a member of the SCBWI for five years and classes in their conferences have been useful.

I also have books on writing but with picture books, articles on the Internet helped me more, especially when agents, editors and authors share their own tips.

The best education however is reading picture books. Personally, I love them for their gorgeous artwork – when you compare them to any other book in the store, the level of creativity and talent is simply outstanding.

But what probably helped me most was a short story group I belonged to eight years ago, where our stories couldn’t exceed 1,500 words. When you have a 1000-2000 word count in picture books, every word really counts – a chapter in middle grade would be only two pages in a picture book. Maximum.

Illustration by Dayne Sislan

Are you part of a critique group?

I was in a critique group via SCBWI, though currently the group is reorganizing. I found the group indispensable; unless you get feedback, you can’t objectively know how you’re doing. By submitting work – and critiquing that of others – over the years, (usually a chapter at a time, though we allowed for an entire picture book since it’s short), I have grown in my writing.

Have you entered the New Voices contest before?

No, this was my first time, through I was aware about it before. I actually had my sights set on the New Visions award for middle grade. But in the end, I felt what I had wasn’t ready.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a middle-grade novel, the one I got cold feet submitting for the New Visions Award last year.

Similar to Pedro Flores, I feel there is a dearth of Filipino-American characters – in fact, I can’t think of any except a good book that came out last year by Erin Entrada Kelly.

So my work features a Filipino-American girl trying to find her place in the American heartland, where I live, flyover country. It’s got loads of fantasy, adventure and humor and I’m having fun doing it – I want it to be totally magical for the reader.

Gloria Amescua

Gloria Amescua of Austin,Texas, received the honor award. Her manuscript, Luz Jiménez, No Ordinary Girl, is a story in verse about a Nahua educator and art muse in Mexico.


As a young girl Luz dreamed of becoming a teacher, but the Mexican Revolution left Luz’s family struggling to survive. Luz supported her family by working for various artists, sharing stories about her experiences and inspiring important works of art.


She went on to become a teacher and served as a living link to the Aztecs, preserving her Nahua culture and language.


Gloria is a poet and a member of SCBWI’s Austin chapter. She was inspired to write Luz’s story after reading about Luz and the obstacles she overcame. Gloria admires the message in Luz’s story: dreams may come true in ways that are unexpected. She will receive a prize of $500.



Gloria recently shared more about her writing journey and how she discovered Luz Jiménez.

Tell us about how you discovered Luz Jiménez and what about her made you want to share her story?

Pamphlet from Ransom Center at UT

Several years ago while visiting the University of Texas Ransom Center, I found a pamphlet entitled Luz Jiménez: Symbol of a Millennial People.

The symposium described in the pamphlet had actually taken place several years before, so I’m not sure why it was still available. I’m lucky it was.

As I read about this incredible woman, I knew I had to write about her, but I wasn’t sure how until I took some picture book courses a couple of years later.

I was greatly affected by Luz Jiménez’s story because of the many obstacles she overcame, including the shaming of her native language when she was a child, as has happened in this and other countries.

It was important to me to tell the story of this Nahua (Aztec) girl who, despite the difficulties in her life, achieved her dream of becoming a teacher by honoring her culture.

What sort of research did you do to learn more about her?

I searched online and ordered two books based on Luz’s Nahua stories.

The most important find was a dissertation published online, part of which was about Luz Jiménez. I contacted the professor at the University of Texas who offered to lend me two relevant DVDs and who put me in contact with Luz’s grandson in Mexico.

Her grandson also connected me with a professor of Nahuatl in Mexico who specializes in the same dialect that Luz spoke. I greatly appreciate their time and helpfulness.

How long have you been working on this story?

Bethany Hegedus

I first wrote a draft for a Picture Book II course at the Writing Barn in Austin.

I spent about two years doing further research.

Then I signed up for Bethany Hegedus’s Nonfiction Picture Book course last summer, which helped me get through many, many revisions. The instruction and feedback from teachers and participants was invaluable.

I noticed it is a “story in verse” – tell us about your poetry background and how that influences your writing.

I have been writing poetry since I was a child and throughout my life while I was an English teacher and in other positions in education.

In the 1990s, I became more active in the poetry community: meeting regularly with other poets, attending and giving workshops, participating in readings and getting work published.

In poetry, each word counts as it does in picture books. My love of metaphor and sensory details also influences the emotional impact of my current writing.

Cynsational Notes

Established in 2000, Lee & Low’s New Voices Award encourages writers of color to submit their work to a publisher that takes pride in nurturing authors who are new to the world of children’s book publishing. Submission period for the award takes place each summer.

Past winners include It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate, winner of the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award Honor, Bird by Zetta Elliott, an ALA Notable Book, and, most recently, Juna’s Jar by Jane Bahk, a Spring 2015 Junior Library Guild selection.

2017 Europolitan Con: Agent Penny Holroyde & Author-Illustrator Chris Mould

By Catherine Coe

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: This is the final installment of our series focusing on the SCBWI Europolitan Conference. Author Catherine Coe interviewed agent Penny Holroyde and her client author-illustrator Chris Mould.

Agent Penny Holroyde started her career in publishing over twenty years ago working in the rights department at Walker Books and selling picture book co-editions across the world.

She then relocated to Massachusetts and worked as Director of Rights and Licensing for Candlewick Press before relocating to the United Kingdom and starting life as an agent.

After 10 years with the Caroline Sheldon Agency she founded Holroyde Cartey in 2015 with Claire Cartey, former art director at Hodder Children’s Books.

Chris Mould was born and raised in West Yorkshire where he still lives with his family.

He is one of twenty studio artists at the prestigious Dean Clough Mills arts and business complex. His published work ranges from picture books to young fiction, and throughout a long career he has also produced theater posters, editorial cartoons for major newspapers and character development work for animated features.

Chris has won the Nottingham Children’s Book Award and the Swiss Prix Enfantaisie Best Children’s Novel Award, and has been short-listed for numerous others including the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Sheffield Children’s Book Award.

Chris is the author/illustrator of many picture books and young fiction, including the hugely successful Something Wickedly Weird series, and he also illustrates for others, such as Matt Haig‘s A Boy Called Christmas (Canongate, 2015) and The Girl Who Saved Christmas (Canongate, 2016). He occasionally shares illustrations and publishing news on blog.

Penny, can you tell us about how you and Chris first met, and what attracted you to his work?


As soon as I saw the words ‘My name is Chris Mould’ in my inbox I was looking up train times to Halifax. I would need to bring my A-game because, as a talent seeking new representation, he would not be short of suitors. I already knew I loved his work and when we met, we got along really well plus we shared the same strategy for how his career should progress.

And, Chris, what drew you to Penny?


Although Penny was an ‘ideal world’ choice for me I’d never be so presumptuous as to say I chose her because it has to be a mutual agreement of two people deciding to work together and matching up their skills. But her reputation goes before her.

She has a publishing background that means she completely understands the foundations of children’s publishing and why, when and how it works, both at home and abroad. She can wrestle a contract into the ground and she will do it in a way that shows that she’s human and enjoys working with the people that she negotiates with. She’s always 100-percent respectful of publishers and their respective teams when she talks to me privately and I like that.

But what’s hugely and equally important to me is that we get on tremendously and we’re like-minded on the creative front. You should hear us nattering in the pub. We’re like two old men.

Penny, many of your clients are illustrators and/or authors of younger fiction, such as Chris. Is this an intentional direction for you, or has it just happened that way? When considering illustrators, do you look for those who can write too, or do you find that comes later?


This does appear to have become Holroyde Cartey’s brand and although this has not been a conscious thing, it reflects my and Claire’s respective fields of interest and has actually become a kind of USP for the agency. We don’t insist that illustrators can also write though.

Chris, how did you get into children’s books? Were you an illustrator or a writer first?

Illustration was my first port of call. I was in art schools for six years after struggling through school, directionless.

When I found what I loved they couldn’t get rid of me. From then on I dived head first into publishing. But the sketchbook process is a big part of what I do and it lead to me creating written content.

I’d draw characters and give them names or just write odd sentences that floated around mid-air but that definitely had the opportunity to develop into something. It grew from there.

I always say I don’t really separate words and pictures. Integrated text and image makes for more coherent storytelling and I love the idea that the two can seamlessly merge.


Penny, in your day-to-day working life, how does teamwork play a part? 


It would be weird if 10 days went by when Chris and I didn’t talk on the phone. He is always busy so there is always stuff to discuss. Part of what I really respect about our working partnership is the trust. I might explain where I’m at with a contractual technicality and he will diligently listen and say that he trusts me to do the right thing.

We had a situation recently where he was approached for a high profile (read, celebrity) fiction series and we worked out our position, together, and stuck to it.

Chris’ work space in his Dean Clough Mills studio 

Chris, are there other partnerships – aside from illustrators, your agent and your publisher – that are important to you in your creative work?


My studio sits in a large complex which is a mixture of art and business. We have art space, galleries,
restaurants and cafes mingled with office space that is home to over 150 companies.

It’s huge and it has a great vibe and the whole idea of it initially was that it would encourage business and art to mingle and mix and enthuse one another. It works well for me and it means that there’s a certain dynamic that allows and assists inspiration, creative thinking and interesting input from people connected, and not connected, to the arts.

Sometimes inspiration comes in the form of a sandwich and a coffee in the cafe. I’m a big believer in that.

Penny, before becoming an agent, you worked in international rights (for Candlewick in the US). How has that affected what you do and how you approach agenting? Do you always think internationally?


Yes, I do, particularly when it comes to picture books. My background in rights gave me a lot of field knowledge but I learned the most about contracts, rights, and technicalities (which I think are essential skills for an agent) whilst working with Caroline Sheldon for 10 years.

Chris, your books have been translated into over 20 different languages. Do you take into account the potential for international book deals when developing ideas? 


Outside of publishing, people don’t realise how reliant we are on selling foreign rights and how small the U.K. market is. It’s not something you’d need to consider. And there are many things you’d like to ignore when you’re creating content because the whole idea of doing just that is that you can go anywhere you want to within your imagination.

But you do become conscious of what will travel and what won’t.

Pirates are a good example. Always a sure seller in the children’s market. Everlasting appeal guaranteed. And then consider the countries that have problems with modern day piracy and you can strike them off of your list of foreign rights options.

Penny, can you give us an insight into your professional mindset and what drives you as an agent?


I’m so happy to be running a business with Claire Cartey and, nearly two years in, we have some good successes and our client list is building very nicely. In terms of what drives me, I think it’s that thing of seeing a book go from a germ of an idea during a phone conversation with a client, right through to holding the finished book in my hand.

Chris, what drives you as an author/illustrator? Do you have any ambitions as yet unrealized? Is there anything you’d really love to work on/anyone you’d love to work with?


What drives me is the need (not the desire or the love of) but the need to draw and paint and tell stories.

It’s something we’ve always done. It’s as old as time and I’m endlessly fascinated by it. I always say I’d love to see something go to screen but being in this industry I am realistic. It’s about handing your work to someone else and very possibly feeling lukewarm about what comes back. So although that interests me and I’ve already got a waste bin full of popcorn on reserve, I’m acutely aware of the reality.

Also there are plenty authors I’d love to work with. I guess that’s fairly normal for most people like me. And I need to do a graphic novel.

Chris, you’re both an author and an illustrator, so in a way you’re your own partnership! Does that mean that when you’re working on a book you’re both writing and illustrating that your creative process is fairly solitary? Or do you still involve others – your agent/publisher? – and in what way? 

I’d say I’m very solitary in the early stages until I roll something out there. I’ll harbour my thoughts in my sketchbook and then it would probably extend into excited conversations over the phone with Penny.

Usually I’d send her drawings and ask her what she thinks and we will talk about why something may or may not work before she takes it anywhere. Maybe with some adjustment aforehand. Sometimes we talk about ideas before there’s any content if it happens that way. Usually this needs wine or beer.

Penny, how involved do you get with Chris’s early ideas and the development of his projects? 


When Chris and I started working together, Pocket Pirates was pretty much fully-formed and since then, he hasn’t had much time to work on his own ideas as he’s always being approached!

His sketch book is a cornucopia of delights and we keep promising each other that one of these days we’ll find a quiet corner of a pub and dig through for new ideas.

Chris, how do you find that writing informs the illustrating side of your work and vice versa? Where do you usually start when developing a new project? Do you experiment with different illustration styles depending on the concept? 

It’s back to that idea of trying not to separate words and pictures. And just letting thoughts out and not being self-conscious of what something is before it’s formed into something concrete.

I always try and start with something that just interests me. But it can be something very simple. A written line, a character, even just words that I like the sound of and start playing around with. It’s a very back to front and inside out process. So yes, in answer to your question they do inform each other and I think, subconsciously, that’s why I work in the way I work.

Penny, do you think it’s the words or the illustrations that are more important to a publisher when considering a submission from someone who does both, such as Chris?

Chris reads a lot in his free time and so he has a good gut instinct about whether a text (someone else’s) is for him when he’s offered it.

He’s currently working on a very exciting new non-fiction book that was born when a publisher saw something in his sketch book. The publisher then worked up the idea and attached a non-fiction author to it so that was a very collaboratively process.

Chris, you’re best known for your Something Wickedly Weird series. Can you tell us where the idea for that came from and how you developed the concept? 

Something Wickedly Weird was the beginning of me putting artwork and narrative together and at the time it was really just a vehicle for me to add all the elements to a story that I wanted to draw.

So, for example, I was always fascinated by all those animated sequences of people turning into werewolves in horror movies. I loved the idea of a character becoming another character within a plot.

I also loved the idea of a completely invented place away from anywhere else where anything could happen without cause for explanation. And I had to weave pirates in there just because they make for great characters and children love the sinister ones.

So it was a jumble of all the things knocking around in my sketchbook and all the nonsense in my head that I wanted to include and it became a process of weaving them into a coherent storyline.

Penny, why do you think Something Wickedly Weird has been so successful? 

A hugely likeable hero in Stanley Buggles, recognizable fantasy worlds featuring pirates and three-legged dogs, etc., the writing is strong and perfectly pitched for the age group, plus, of course, Chris’s amazing pictures.

Chris, some of your most recent work has been illustrating Matt Haig’s Christmas novels – A Boy Called Christmas and The Girl Who Saved Christmas. Can you tell us about how that came about and how the partnership works? Are there difficult things about illustrating someone else’s work? Is it easier or harder to illustrate someone else’s work because you are also a writer?


Canongate had looked around for an illustrator who would make visual sense of the Christmas books and needless to say we were very excited by the prospect when we were approached. I’d always wanted to do a book about Father Christmas and here on a plate was a ready-made tale by a significant author. And a strong one at that. A Christmas gift, in the middle of May!

Matt and Canongate are both great to work with because they weren’t prescriptive about how things should appear visually.

Sometimes authors can be very specific in this sense. That’s fine. It just means they have a clear view of the whole look of that world in their head when they’re writing. But obviously that makes the process a bit more backwards and forwards and less free for the visually creative side.

But the team embraced the visual interpretation with open arms and allowed me to develop it in the way I saw it, which was great for me and made the process all the more enjoyable.

I really believe that to get the best out of illustrators you have to let them do what they do. Myself and Matt also seem quite well matched in that we aren’t overly sentimental and we are both happy to deal with the darker side of things.

I love that his Father Christmas origin story has trolls in it. And that someone’s head explodes. Who’d have thunk it??

Someone said to me that they could tell that when my reindeers aren’t ‘in shot’, they’re round the back of the sleigh shed, having a cigarette.


Penny, can you give us your thoughts on why Chris and Matt make such a great combination?


Chris is a perfect choice for Matt’s Christmas novels and Canongate’s publishing of this franchise has been very talented. Chris is very good at portraying poignancy in dark situations, and Victoriana and the Gothic are very much his metier.


Thanks, Penny and Chris, for talking to me today and giving such interesting insights into your work. I’m very much looking forward to seeing you both at the Europolitan conference.


Catherine Coe is a children’s book editor and author with over 15 years’ experience. Having worked in-house for many years, most recently as senior commissioning editor at Orchard Books, Catherine went freelance in 2011.

Since then she has authored over 30 books, including The Owls of Blossom Wood (Scholastic, 2015), The Unicorns of Blossom Wood (Scholastic, 2016), and the Kid Cowboy (Orchard Books, 2012) series.

Editorially, Catherine’s clients include many major and independent publishers and agents, and she also works directly with writers, offering consultancy, mentoring and editing services.

When Catherine’s not reading or writing with a cup of Earl Grey in hand, you’ll most likely find her out running the waterside paths of Stockholm, the city she now calls home. On Twitter she’s @catherinecoe.

Cynsational Notes


Huge thanks and appreciation to the amazing Elisabeth Norton, for organizing, coordinating and making the SCBWI Europolitan Con series of articles possible! Without her generous assistance, we would not have been able to share these in-depth interviews with you.

Elisabeth Norton

2017 Europolitan Con: Art Director Laurent Linn of Simon & Schuster

By Gabriela Nicole Gonzalez


Laurent Linn, Art Director for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, began his career as a puppet designer/builder in Jim Henson’s Muppet Workshop, creating characters for various productions, including the Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island films. With Henson for over a decade, he worked primarily on Sesame Street, becoming the Creative Director for the Sesame Street Muppets, winning an Emmy Award.

Currently, at Simon & Schuster, Laurent art directs picture books, middle-grade, and teen novels, collaborating with illustrators and authors such as Tomie dePaola, Patricia Polacco, Bryan Collier, E. B. Lewis, Raúl Colón, Debbie Ohi, and Taeeun Yoo.

Laurent is on the Board of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and is Artistic Advisor for the annual Original Art exhibit at the Society of Illustrators in New York.

He is also an author: his debut illustrated teen novel is Draw the Line (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2016). 



Note: SCBWI Belgium Illustrator Coordinator Gabriela Nicole Gonzalez interviewed Laurent Linn. This is the fifth in a series of six articles about the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan Conference.


Laurent, can you share some of the many types of partnerships you’ve developed throughout your career?

Every aspect of what I’ve been involved in throughout my career has required partnering with others. I love creating characters and worlds, and in the ways I’ve done that (theater, TV, films, books, conferences) it’s always a collaboration, which makes it a richer experience.

With books, of course, the partnership I have with illustrators is essential and we’re able to bring our
individual expertise together for the best art for each particular book. I also work closely with editors, copyeditors, production people, and others at my publishing house to bring our books to life.

Laurent with Debbie Ridpath Ohi

And within the design group I work with, by sharing the projects we each design, we learn from each other and bounce off ideas – it’s essential to have a peer group to learn with (and have fun with!)

What is the importance of working together in the publishing journey for you?

We are creating stories and illustrated worlds that are bound in books and need to get out in the world and into readers’ hands. If we didn’t all work together, and respect the expertise and experience we each bring to the process, then we wouldn’t have any books at all. The very nature of making literature is a collaborative process, and it’s essential for us all to grow creatively and to make the best books possible.

I’m an author and illustrator myself, and without my writing group, agent, editor, designer, etc., my novel Draw The Line would never have seen the light of day (and wouldn’t be nearly as good.)

And, as an art director, working with illustrators is my joy, and helping solve artistic problems, encourage artists to grow, and directing the art to be the best it can be are the greatest things about collaboration.

I think many are curious to know how authors and illustrators work together and if there are any common challenges. Could you tell us a bit about what goes on behind the scenes?

Actually, authors and illustrators don’t work together.

There are a few rare instances where they do, of course, but the vast majority of picture books are created without the author and illustrator ever meeting, which is a good thing. Here’s why: a picture book is a shared vision, and we want to be sure that both the writer and illustrator each have the freedom to bring their own vision to the book.

After we acquire a manuscript, I usually give it to the illustrator hired for that book without any art notes at all (unless the book is nonfiction, in which case art notes can be very important.) We hire an illustrator for their unique talents and the way they would interpret the story on their own.

Understandably, an author feels ownership of the story, but an illustrator must also feel ownership and not be hindered in any way from bringing their magic to the book. I have heard countless authors’ reactions after seeing the illustrations for their books, and they are always amazed at how the illustrator brought a vision and ideas to the book that the author could never have dreamed.

What comes first, the words or pictures?

If the writer is one person in the illustrator another person, then the words come first. The manuscript of a picture book comes to our publishing house first either from the writer or their agent.

After an editor acquires a manuscript, it is brought to the art department where I will look for an illustrator for that particular book. However, if the author and illustrator are the same person, there is no rule. Some creators sketch the concepts first and others write them first. Everyone is unique!

Laurent with Tomie dePaola

What advice can you give to authors and illustrators trying to make it into the market? Are there any common mistakes people make?

Certainly, there is no resource better then SCBWI! The organization is not only fantastic for the connections and vast information, but also for being a part of our community and allowing us to learn from each other. Everyone is at a different point in their careers and there is much to learn from what others have experienced.

Along those lines, peer groups can be fantastic. Whether a writing group or an illustration group, working out your craft with others who are doing the same thing can really help us grow.

As for common mistakes, I would say that educating yourself about how both the business and creative sides work before submitting art samples or manuscripts can make all the difference. Not only will you be submitting your art or stories in the correct ways, but it will save you much time and energy as well.


How can authors and illustrators learn from one another?

This may seem obvious, but the absolute best way without a doubt is to read and look at books! 


I’ve learned more from other authors and illustrators myself by reading their books and pouring over their illustrations than any other way. Of course, conferences are also fantastic because you get to hear about different experiences and personal journeys.

Gabriela Nicole Gonzalez is an illustrator and graphic designer based in Brussels, Belgium. She earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the the Maryland Institute College of Art in Illustration and is currently pursuing a second degree in Advertising and Digital Design.

She writes and illustrates for children and serves as the illustrator coordinator for SCBWI Belgium.

When she’s not working her interests include traveling, learning languages and collecting illustrated chickens. Inspired by new faces and new places, she loves creating and ultimately living a life full of curiosity.

In Memory: Nancy Willard

Compiled by Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Nancy Willard, Prolific Children’s Book Author, Dies at 80 by Sam Roberts from the New York Times. Peek: “‘Nancy Willard’s imagination — in verse or prose, for children or adults — builds castles stranger than any mad King of Bavaria ever built,’ the poet Donald Hall wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1981. ‘She imagines with a wonderful concreteness. But also, she takes real language and by literal-mindedness turns it into the structure of dream.'”

Her picture book, A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, illustrated by Alice Provensen and Martin Provensen (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982) became the first poetry book to receive the Newbery Medal and was also named a Caldecott Honor book. She published 40 other children’s books and several works for adults including novels and essays on writing. Her complete bibliography is available at the Poetry Foundation

Several members of the children’s literature community shared their thoughts about Nancy online:

Megan Whalen Turner posted: “She built William Blake an Inn and invited all of us Inside.”
Jan Godown Annino at Bookseedstudio met Nancy at a creative writing seminar. Peek:”When she learned my thesis for Hollins University included serious poems about bears in history, she suggested I look up the work of her poet friend, Galway Kinnel….I feel fortunate to have been touched by Nancy Willard’s magical presence that summer.” 

Katie Fitzgerald at Read-At-Home Mom took a class, “The Writing of Children’s Books” from Nancy at Vassar in 2000. Peek: “This was a class where the weird and magical things that happened to us as kids were not just appreciated, but enjoyed and used as inspiration.”

Professor Ronald A Sharp worked alongside Nancy during part of the time she taught creative writing and children’s literature at Vassar. He remembered her creative spirit in an article for the Kenyon Review. Peek: “Nancy would often construct physical models of objects and characters in her work from a wide range of materials—from chewing gum to plaster of Paris, paper clips to ornamental buttons of a hundred varieties and colors.” Her poem, A Hardware Store As Proof of the Existence of God is available from the Kenyon Review.

Illustrator Richard Jesse Watson gave permission to share his condolence comments: “Nancy Dearest. Thank you for introducing me to your angels. For visiting me in my dreams when storms raged. Thank you for sending me all those letters and cards when I was trying to get those angels to hold still.

You brought the lightest of feathers to this heavy world.

AND, before our very eyes showed us how to make fire out of words, and stories out of pain.

You the rider of burning tigers in the forests of the night,

‘What immortal hand or eye 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?'”

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

New Crop of Young Adult Novels Explores Race and Police Brutality by Alexandra Alter from The New York Times. Peek: “Teachers and librarians across the country have embraced the new body of children’s literature dealing with racial bias and injustice.”

Ibi Zoboi: At the intersection of broke and broken by Alice Cary from Book Page. Peek: “‘I’m kind of —not literally—driving down American Street on Google maps and I come across a Joy Road. . . . . I see that there are these little shotgun houses very close together, and it hit me right then and there. It’s real: There is an American Street intersection. It was just perfect.'”

Ellie Terry Talks Tourette Syndrome and its Representation by Mishma from Chasing Faery Tales. Peek:”…some of the inspiration came from my oldest daughter, who also has T.S. She loves to read and I was searching for middle-grade novels with characters with T.S. to share with her, so she wouldn’t feel so alone. I found exactly… one. And it had been written twenty years earlier. (There may be more that I am not aware of.)”

Guest Post: Marc Aronson and the Design and Flow of Nonfiction by Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal. Peek: “…in really good photo-illustrated nonfiction books text, image, and design are as carefully and narratively linked as in a 32 page picture book – yet we cannot create any images, images generally need to fall in chronological (as well as visual) sequence, and we must work out the design over 100, 200, even 300 pages.”

Stan Yogi & Laura Atkins on Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing With a Broken Tusk. Peek: (From Stan) “His story is all the more important now with threats to Muslims, immigrants, refugees, communities of color, women and LGBT people. Kids need to know that we can organize and fight against injustice, just like Fred.”

Industry Q&A with Alvina Ling by Kheryn Callender from CBC Diversity. Peek: “Go to book events. Meet authors, illustrators, agents, editors, publicists, etc. You never know where opportunities will come from. And, of course, read like crazy and know the market. That’s so crucial, no matter what department you’re in.”

Bologna 2017: Agents Talk Children’s and YA Trends by Diane Roback from Publishers Weekly. Peek: Agent Barry Goldblatt says he’s seeing more queries from #OwnVoices writers. “I’ve been making a concerted effort to reach out to marginalized writers, and I’m sure that is impacting the number who are querying me. We’ve still got a really long way to go, but the efforts of groups like We Need Diverse Books, and the high-profile successes of authors like Nicola Yoon, Angie Thomas, Sabaa Tahir, and others feels like it’s not just opening doors, but smashing down walls.” See also BolognaFiere to Launch Rights-Oriented Trade Show in 2018 in NYC.

Embracing Perseverance by Vaughn Roycroft from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “…though the word change might seem to contradict the phrase continue in a course of action, I believe change, or at least adaptability, is essential to maintaining any worthy pursuit. And that the ability to maintain a pursuit is essential to growth.”


Q&A with Laini Taylor by Krystyna Poray Goddu from Publishers Weekly. Peek: Laini began “crafting complicated worlds and crafting beautiful sentences” early, but had difficulty with full drafts. “Now I understand that it was a paralyzing perfectionism that kept me from ever actually writing. I know so many people with these same issues—they give up writing because they think it should come more easily and more naturally. They don’t realize it’s hard.”

Character Motivation Thesaurus Entry: Pursuing Justice for Oneself or Others by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “If you read enough books, you’ll see the same goals being used for different characters in new scenarios…..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.”


Researching for Truth in a Tale of Fiction by Charlotte Bennardo from Middle Grade Ninja. Peek: “Just because you’re writing a fantasy/animal/adventure/whatever story doesn’t mean there’s no research. If anything, you have an unspoken obligation to be as factual as possible because you’re writing for readers who may not know fiction from absurdity.”

For Middle Grade Writers: 5 Gems from a School Counselor by Mary E. Cronin from Project Mayhem. Peek: “…kids at this age turn themselves into ‘porcupines,’ using distancing behaviors like eye rolling and sarcasm to hold adults at bay….At the same time, ‘as soon as you step around their defenses, you realize that every kid needs connection’…..consider: how does my character both crave connection and create distance from sources of support…?”

How to Produce an Emotional Response in Readers: Inner Mode, Outer Mode, and Other Mode by Donald Maas from Jane Friedman’s blog. Peek: “All three paths to producing emotional responses in readers are valid, but all three have pitfalls and can fail to work. To successfully use each, it’s necessary to understand why each is effective when it is.”

School Author Visits 2.0 by Vicki Cobb from The Huffington Post. Peek: “How could we make research, love of content and the creation of works to be shared with others—the motivation behind our careers—become something students do? Children’s authors have hard-won skills; we must make difficult concepts accessible, we must be engaging, we must build the motivation to learn into the craft of writing.” Cobb founded  iNK Think Tank, an organization of award-winning children’s nonfiction authors. Its Authors-On-Call division uses interactive videoconferencing to bring authors into classrooms.

Please Don’t Talk About Your Book by Barbara Dee from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “‘This is a politically polarized community,’ …Teachers have been advised to be ‘careful,’ so that they don’t inflame tensions which may have been exacerbated by the recent election….’We thought it was great when you spoke about inclusion and tolerance and the need for diversity in kidlit….We just want you to keep it general.’”

2017 Anna Dewdney Read Together Award Finalists Announced by Emma Kantor from Publishers Weekly. Peek: Penguin Young Readers, the Children’s Book Council (CBC) and Every Child a Reader have teamed together for this award honoring the late author and illustrator of the Llama Llama (Viking) series. “The award will be given to a picture book published in the U.S. during the previous five years that inspires empathy and connection and makes for an exceptional read-aloud.” Author and illustrator will share a $1,000 prize from the CBC, and Penguin will donate $5,000 worth of copies of the winning book to an organization chosen by the winner.

Texas Teen Book Festival 2017 Fiction Writing Contest is now accepting submissions from young Texas writers (11-18 years old). Entries accepted until July 1. Texas Teen Book Festival will take place Oct. 17 in Austin.


This Week at Cynsations: 2017 SCBWI Europolitan Con Series

More Personally – Cynthia


Wearing my writing teacher hat, I’ve just hit SEND on three VCFA student packets today and have only my second post-graduate student to read this week. (This semester I’m working one-on-one with six graduate/PG students total.)

Mozart’s Coffee Shop in Austin, Texas

Grading days are long, quiet and thoughtful. My personal highlight was sharing a picnic table with fellow faculty member Liz Garton Scanlon at Mozart’s Coffee Shop on Lake Austin.

Not to worry, my YA manuscript is still actively in the works, though my part of that is largely jotting down the occasional note on a hardcopy of the manuscript. It’s off to two terrific readers, though–both well versed in literary craft and, equally importantly, possessing of sensitive and intuitive hearts. I look forward to receiving comments this weekend and diving back in next week. Meanwhile, I’m writing recommendation letters and keynotes for upcoming conferences (see below).

I hope your writing, illustrating, educating, publishing, book-loving life is as productive and satisfying, with the understanding that we all experience our ebbs and flows.

My Link of the Week is: A Creek Woman Visits Andrew Jackson’s Tomb by Stacy Pratt from Indian Country Today. Peek: “His spirit lived on in boarding schools and urbanization, in poverty and suicide, in court cases and unsolved murders. In a Creek girl standing at his grave, unable to explain herself in a language her ancestors would understand.”

Cynsational Events

Cynthia Leitich Smith will be a keynote speaker for the 33rd Annual Virginia Hamilton Conference on April 6 and April 7 at Kent State University in Ohio.

In addition, she will deliver the keynote address at The Color of Children’s Literature Conference from Kweli Literary Journal on April 8 at the New York Times Conference Center in Manhattan.

She is also a faculty member for the Highlights Foundation Workshop: The Joke’s On You! The Scoop on Humor for MG and YA writers, Oct. 12 – 15. She will teach with author Uma Krishnaswami, writer-poetic-comedian Sean Petrie and Curtis Brown Ltd. agents Ginger Knowlton and Elizabeth Harding. Note: this program is: (a) a rare opportunity to gain insights from top writing teachers and Curtis Brown vice presidents: (b) both for comedy writers and those writing more serious works that include some comic relief.

Personal Links

More Personally – Gayleen

The library has always been one of my favorite places. On average, I visit twice a week and usually end up checking out more than I can possibly read before the due date.

I justify this by telling myself books being circulated more shows city leaders the library is being used. I’m always pleased when I find something unexpected. This week my surprise treasure was a “sunlight calculator” to measure whether my flowerbed is “partly shady” or “mostly shady.”

Yesterday I was very excited to learn the ALA is having a Virtual Library Legislative Day so I can let Congress know how important libraries are too.

Personal Links

2017 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Authors Angela Cerrito & Susanne Gervay

By Tioka Tokedira

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: Angela and Susanne were interviewed by SCBWI France Regional Advisor Tioka Tokedira about the upcoming Europolitan Conference. This is the fourth in a series of six articles.


Angela Cerrito

Angela Cerrito is an author and a playwright whose work explores issues of identity and cultural perceptions. Her latest novel, The Safest Lie (Holiday House, 2015), was named a Best Children’s Book of the Year by The Guardian, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and a Notable Social Studies Book for Young People.

Prior to publication, The Safest Lie was awarded the Kimberly Colen Memorial Grant from SCBWI which supported interviews and historical research in Warsaw Poland. She volunteers as the Assistant International Advisor for SCBWI.

In addition to writing, Angela is always eager to speak to students about writing, research and the child rescues from the Warsaw ghetto.

Awarded an Order of Australia, Susanne Gervay is recognized for her writing on social justice. An award winning short story writer, she is widely published in literary journals and anthologies including the Indian-Australian, Fear Factor, Terror Incognito (PanMacmillan, 2009) alongside Sir Salman Rushdie and Thomas Keneally.

Susanne Gervay

Her books are translated into many languages and include her young adult Butterflies (Kane/Miller Book Publishers, 2011) recognized as Outstanding Youth Literature on Disability and rite-of-passage anti-bullying I Am Jack books (Kane/Miller Book Publishers) which have been adapted into a play touring Australia and the United States.

Susanne’s picture books address disability, inclusion, multiculturalism, while Elephants Have Wings (illustrated by Anna Pignataro, Ford Street Publishing, 2014) engages with peace, in development as an animation.

Susanne’s books are endorsed by Room to Read, Cancer Council, Alannah & Madeline Foundation, Variety, Children’s Hospital Westmead, Life Education and many organizations.

An acclaimed international speaker, Susanne is Regional Advisor SCBWI Australia East & New Zealand, Writer Ambassador for Room to Read and Books in Home, patron Monkey Baa Theatre, former Chair of NSW Writers Centre, Australia Day Ambassador.



Susanne, can you describe your dream partnership?

Susanne: My dream partnership is a mature, professional relationship with my publisher. Ideally it is a relationship where we work together not only on the crafting of the novel, but the promotions and marketing.

Barriers to that relationship at the beginning of your career, are the imbalance. The publisher holds the power over your manuscript, from acceptance of the work, editorial direction, delivery, marketing and sales. As a consequence, it made me voiceless and the relationship was one sided.

There was also a disconnection in the process of what you can do. Will the publisher approve? Will they work with you? You also do not understand the drivers in the publishing house. The Publishing house may decide to cut their list, or increase their list. They may decide to submit you to festivals to speak or not. They may decide to promote your book or not. It is like working in the dark and falling into holes that are a mighty struggle to climb out of.

So why do you value this relationship?

When I began working with my publisher, I knew nothing. With my first book, I was unimportant in the scale of author status. I did not realise that authors were allocated positions of priority depending on brand, potential sales and awards.

My relationship changed over the years, with new books being accepted, higher profile and putting in a great deal of work in supporting my books. My publisher became my voice in the publishing house, participating in the development of story ideas, and the direction of my career.

Angela: A dream partnership for me is finding someone who will push me to make my writing better. It has changed, if I’m honest (and what’s the point if we’re not honest, right?)

Early on I was seeking praise. I joined critique groups and sent my work off to critique partners over the internet simply seeking positive feedback. I wanted someone –anyone- to say, “You can write!” or “This is great!” or “I want to read more of your work.”

The way this has changed for me is when I received a professional critique at an SCBWI conference and I realized that the editor didn’t understand my story. At a very basic level she didn’t get it. And it was my fault. My POV was weak and the writing was really weak.

Responsibility hit me like a ton of bricks. Because, if a reader can’t understand my story, there is only one person responsible in that equation. It was a powerful lesson for me. It is my responsibility to write in such a way that the reader, any reader, will understand.

What is the most surprising thing that you’ve learned from one of your partners?

Angela: This was really interesting for me. I remember hearing Susan Jeffers talk at an SCBWI conference. She said that one of her best mentors actually got into her art.

Got into it as in he said, “Not that way. Do it like this…” Then he dipped a brush in paint and swished it around her canvas, changing it. This surprised me to no end –that a mentor would do such a thing and that she said it was what she needed and it made all the difference. (Aside: I’m not an artist, but I can only imagine.)

Well, I had a similar and very valuable surprise at yet another SCBWI critique session. This time it was with Stephen Roxborough. He showed me the pages and said simply. “Don’t do this. Don’t write like this.” And struck a line through many, many, many, many of my words in that sample.

I know myself and I tend to overwrite. So the strikethrough wasn’t such a surprise, but his word choices were. This was an individualized lesson in tightening prose. Reading it again –anew—without the extra words was very powerful for me. It’s a lesson I try to re-live every time I revise.

Susanne: The most surprising thing I have learnt is that even the most successful creator, is torn by doubts. The support of partners and community becomes more important than publication at times.

Can you tell us about one of those moments of doubt?

Susanne: I always thought writing would become easier, but it doesn’t. I finish a chapter and think that I can’t write another one. But in the end, I do.

I am writing a new children’s novel called ‘Louie at the Hughie’ at this moment. I have written 20,000 words and have stopped. There is another 10,000 words that I must write to complete the journey, but I am torn by doubt. The novel is so important to me, as it is set in The Hughenden Hotel, my Sydney family hotel and Centennial Parklands across the road. My children grew up in the hotel and for 25 years it has been integral to my life.

The hotel has just been sold and as I go through the seven stages of grief, I have been unable to write. I am now reaching acceptance and I will write again. Regain my belief in my work. Life always melds with writing. At times, it inspires me to race ahead. At other times, it makes me reflect. At other times, it makes me doubt that I can write.

What kind of partner are you to other writers, and why?

Angela: This question has really brought to light how many people I am a partner to with my writing. For books this includes my agent, my editor and publisher as well as readers.

For plays this extends to the directors, actors and production crew who dedicate so much time and talent to bring a play to the stage, as well as the audience. I feel the best partner I can be as a writer is honest and responsive. I’m always learning.

I’m also a partner in SCBWI, of course. As the Assistant International Advisor, I hope to be a valuable resource to SCBWI members worldwide. For years the focus was bringing awareness about international chapters, publishers, awards and opportunities to members of the U.S. and answering questions from members outside the U.S. about the US market.

Now this is more of a two-way conversation thanks SCBWI’s new initiatives such as translators (Avery Udagawa SCBWI’s Translator Coordinator), Spanish Language efforts expanding from the Spain and Mexico chapters to the U.S. (LaCometa SCBWI’s Spanish Language Bulletin put out by Judy Goldman, RA Mexico and Melana Alzu, SCBWI’s Spanish Language Coordinator) and members all over the world eager to participate in the Bologna Illustrator’s Gallery and SCBWI Bologna’s Digital Catalogue.

Susanne: As a partner in SCBWI, I am committed to the children’s book community. It is integral to my creative life and is one of the important strands in my days. I support many authors and illustrators and help them in their careers. It has brought me great pleasure to see new writers and illustrators reach publication and more.

Susanne with editor
of student paper in Istanbul

As a partner with the publishing industry in Australia, I support initiatives such as Public and Educational Lending Rights where authors are paid each year by the government for books in libraries. I meet industry bodies such as the Australian Society of Authors to gain benefits for SCBWI members. I work with publishers to shares their knowledge with the SCBWI community here.

It has connected me with extraordinary creators and the publishing industry and I love it.

As a partner with my publisher(s), it is about friendship, sharing of knowledge, development of my own creative work. I meet for dinner, coffee, socially and professionally.


How has SCBWI been a valued partner to you?

Angela: How much time do you have?

SCBWI has been my education in writing for children, in writing really. I’m very fortunate to have found SCBWI early on when I was searching for writing opportunities and learning the market.

Susanne: SCBWI is extraordinary. As a novice writer, I was three years in the wilderness. I had no idea about how to enter this career. It was painful and filled with rejection and dead ends.

Angela: It’s pretty amazing how much you learn from SCBWI. When you start reading the Bulletin, going to conferences and meeting mentors. They key is that they combine craft based education with professional information and submission opportunities. There’s so much to learn!

Susanne: SCBWI is truly the light. It gives information, friendship, support, guidance and more. It is like a safe place to enter the changeable world of publication. I love my SCBWI community and the talented, funny, amazing authors and illustrators who partner me in my creative life.



Susanne and Angela, thank you for sharing your thoughts on partnerships with us today.

Tioka Tokedira has been the SCBWI France Regional Advisor since 2007 and was one of the organizers for the first Europolitan Conference.

Tioka loves helping others tell their stories. She’s worked as a teacher, writing festival coordinator, literacy consultant for international governments, and documentary television producer.

She currently reviews books for Hachette Livre.

2017 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Editors Kendra Levin of Viking & Natalie Doherty of Penguin Random House

Kendra Levin

By Patti Buff
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: SCBWI Germany & Austria Regional Advisor Patti Buff interviewed Kendra Levin and Natalie Doherty about the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan Conference. This is the third in a series of six articles.

Kendra Levin is an Executive Editor at Viking Children’s Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, where she has spent 11 years working on a wide range of children’s literature from picture books to young adult novels.

She has edited Theodor Seuss Geisel award winner Don’t Throw It to Mo! by David A. Adler, illustrated by Sam Ricks (Penguin Young Readers, 2015) Society of Illustrators Gold Award winner The Lost House by B.B. Cronin (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2016), and the work of authors including Janet Fox, Julie Berry, Alwyn Hamilton, and others.

Kendra also helps writers as a teacher and certified life coach, and is the author of The Hero is You: Sharpen Your Focus, Conquer Your Demons, and Become the Writer You Were Born to Be (Conari Press, 2016), a grounded self-help guide to a healthier writing process. She’ on Twitter @kendralevin.

Natalie Doherty

Natalie Doherty is Commissioning Editor for Fiction at Penguin Random House Children’s.

She began her publishing career in Rights and Contracts at Hodder, and moved into Editorial – and into children’s publishing – in 2010.

Since then she has acquired, edited and published a large number of wonderful and hard-working authors, including Robin Stevens (the Murder Most Unladylike series), R.J. Palacio (Wonder), Tom Fletcher (The Christmasaurus) and Moira Fowley-Doyle (The Accident Season).

As a lifelong fan, she is privileged to be Jacqueline Wilson’s editor.

First off, thank you both so much for taking the time out of your busy schedules for this interview. 

As you know, the theme of this year’s SCBWI Europolitan Conference is Pens, Pencils and Partnerships. Could you explain first the variety of partnerships an editor has during the life of a book and second how these partnerships contribute to making the best book possible?






Kendra: The collaborative nature of being an editor might be my favorite aspect of the job.

As an editor, you really are the author’s partner in creating the best possible finished book, and the best author-editor relationships are those that benefit from a shared level of trust and respect. A book has the potential to be so much better if both author and editor listen to one another and build on each other’s ideas.

For an author, the primary partnerships are with your editor and your agent, and sometimes your art director, but an editor needs every person in the entire book-creation chain to work in partnership.

So that level of trust and respect needs to be present in the relationship between the editor and art director, designer, copyeditor, managing editor, the production folks, the people drawing up the contracts, the marketing team, the sales force, the folks in subsidiary rights—anyone whose hands touches the book needs to work in partnership with the editor to create a finished product that matches the author’s vision, or comes as close to it as possible, and to get it out in the world and into readers’ hands.

Kendra’s bookshelf

It’s also very important for the editor and publisher—the editor’s boss—to have a relationship built on trust and respect. Just the way the editor advocates for the book, a good publisher advocates for both the book and the editor, paving the way for the book, the author’s future career, and the editor’s other books all in one fell swoop.

Editors’ relationships with their colleagues are also an important part of the process. I can’t speak for every publishing company, but Viking is an extremely collaborative imprint and I can’t think of a single book I’ve edited that didn’t get some input from one of my fellow Viking editors at some point during the process. This sharing strengthens the books, unquestionably.

Really, you could say that creating strong partnerships is at the very core of being an editor. And it’s what makes the job fun for me: that opportunity to swap complementary skills and make art together.

Natalie: I would completely echo Kendra’s point about the mutual trust and respect needed in all the partnerships in the publishing process. It’s so vital.

As an editor, you’re responsible for seeking out the books and projects that will shape the list, shape

the company’s reputation – and on a purely day-to-day level, that influence how you and your colleagues will spend their working day.

That’s one of the reasons editors are so careful and selective about new acquisitions. Every time it happens, it’s a huge decision. You’re asking your colleagues to place a huge amount of trust in your taste and vision – particularly if there’s not very much material to go on, or what you want to buy needs a huge amount of editorial work.

Natalie’s bookshelf

Similarly, I love knowing that I can trust my colleagues to use all their skill, talent, knowledge, creativity and passion to help bring a book I love to life. The best publishing teams are full of individuals who have a shared purpose and passion, and who will trust one another to use their individual expertise in the best possible way.

I’m not a designer, for instance, and I’m not very good at picturing what a cover might look like, even when I know the plot and the characters inside out. But I love sitting down with a member of our brilliant design team to discuss a story, to look at mood boards or artwork samples, and then waiting to see what magic they work with whatever brief we’ve settled on together.

Patti: I’m glad you both mention trust as one of the main factors in a successful partnership as I also find that a vital part of any partnership. Another way of interpreting the conference title is that the pen represents the author and the pencil the editorial team. In your experience, how important is it for both parties to share the same vision? What are some of the challenges to reaching a shared vision?


Kendra: When I’m considering acquiring a manuscript, I nearly always ask the agent if I can have a phone call with the author, mainly because I want to see if we do have the same vision for the project.

If we don’t, no matter how much I love the piece, I’m probably not the right editor for it. As a writer, it is your right to have an editor who completely gets what you are trying to do and who wants to help you take it there—not someone who has a great idea about a direction it could go in that may be interesting but isn’t in alignment with your vision.

This doesn’t mean you should have an editor who just tells you what you want to hear. But when your editor tells you something that’s hard to hear, it should be because deep down, a part of you knew all along that this aspect of the piece wasn’t working, but another part of you hoped you could sort of rearrange the furniture over it and nobody would notice.

It’s your editor’s job to notice those spots that need a more thorough going-over—one that you’re totally capable of once you sit down and do the work.

More of Natalie’s bookshelf

Natalie: Like Kendra, I would almost always want to speak to an author when I’m considering acquiring a new manuscript. (It’s even better to meet an author in person, although of course it’s not always possible, depending on where the author is.).

It’s really important for both parties to find out if you share that vision – it can be a painful process if you don’t.

A sign for me that I’m really excited about any new project is an itchiness to start scribbling down questions about a storyline, or thinking about ways a story could be reshaped or tweaked in some way – a vision, as Kendra says, about what its very best form could be.

It’s really important that you both want to the take story in the same direction, so it’s always so important to be honest at that moment.

Of course, when you get into the nuts and bolts of the edit, later down the line, you almost always stumble across details you might not agree on – but the big, overarching vision for the project needs to be one you share.

I also like to talk to authors about the publishing journey and what else being an author entails, aside
from the writing part. Touring, school events, festivals and social media are not for everyone, and we would never ask an author to put themselves in a situation where they don’t feel comfortable. But those things are increasingly important in children’s publishing – they’ve made a huge difference to the success of someone like Robin Stevens, who has worked incredibly hard to promote her books – so it’s an important thing to discuss at that early stage.

Robin Stevens at the Royal Ballet School

I’m also looking for a spark of chemistry from that first meeting. The author-editor partnership might last for years, even decades – one of our wonderful publishers, Annie Eaton, has worked with some authors, including Jacqueline Wilson and Malorie Blackman, for over twenty-five years. It really helps when you think, ‘I like this person and I’d love to work with them!’

Patti: I have to laugh about authors rearranging the furniture in order to hide flaws as I think that is so common and although authors may hope no one will notice and that they will get away with it, deep down I think we really do want an editor to point out those flaws so we can fix them. Both of you work with a fairly large editorial team. How closely does the team work together in pulling together a list of titles to be published? And if several editors work together on a project, how does that change the editing process?

Natalie’s desk

Natalie: We’re a large team, but we’re a very tight-knit and collaborative team, and we work very closely together on shaping our list and acquiring new titles.

Every potential new acquisition is shared and discussed with the whole fiction team, before the decision is made to take it to an Acquisitions meeting, with every editor – from Publishing Director to Editorial Assistant – having the opportunity to share their thoughts.

Our editorial discussions are rigorous and thorough – no one is ever afraid to challenge someone, or to be really honest – but it’s always respectful and supportive.

One really key part of making a large team work is knowing one another’s tastes very well, and we tend to share submissions with other editors within the team based on who we feel will be the perfect fit for a particular voice or story.

Agents often ask us how they can be sure of submitting a manuscript to the right editor.

We always try to be clear about what we’re looking for as individual editors, and we’ve recently created a guide to each editor that describes our editorial tastes and the books we’ve acquired previously, which will hopefully be helpful. But whenever we do receive a submission, we always think hard about whether we’re necessarily the right person to take it on, and if there’s someone else in the team who we know is falling over themselves to publish a new middle-grade fantasy about dragons (for example!), then we’ll always pass it on.

Kendra’s desk

Kendra: Viking is collaborative in much the same way. Penguin Random House in the U.S. is a bit more siloed than it is in the U.K., at least for now—Penguin and Random are still in separate buildings in different neighborhoods, and the children’s divisions of each part of the company have their own leadership and their own atmosphere.

Penguin Young Readers Group is big, maybe 200 people, but each imprint is independent in many ways and has its own culture, and if there’s one adjective I’d use to describe Viking’s editorial culture, it’s “collaborative” (followed closely by “karaoke-loving”).

We know one another’s tastes pretty well and are always happy to pass projects along if they seem like a better fit for someone else. And we’re always happy to brainstorm and offer advice to one another.

Natalie: Fairly often, editors will work in pairs.

A brilliant Editorial Assistant, Tom Rawlinson, now works with me on our Robin Stevens publishing, and we constantly bounce ideas off one another for titles, cover copy, editorial suggestions, troubleshooting, and new ways to reach more readers with Robin’s books.

It’s a fantastic way for new editors to hone their skills and to be exposed to conversations about publishing strategy.

And it’s double the creativity, double the passion, double the brainpower – and for the author, it’s double the in-house support.

Patti: A tag team of editors sounds both lovely and scary at the same time, but I can see how the pros would outweigh the cons. And speaking of tag teams, I’ve heard both of you are working on a project together. Could you tell us a little about it and what some of the challenges and benefits have been to working cross-continentally?

Natalie: I’m very lucky to be working on the brilliant second novel by Martin Stewart, The Sacrifice Box (Penguin, Jan. 2018).

Martin’s first novel, Riverkeep, received extraordinary reviews, and was one of my favourite books of 2016 – so when his editor Shannon Cullen went on maternity leave and I was given the chance to work with Martin in her absence, I felt like I’d won the author jackpot.

It’s an incredibly atmospheric story about a group of five kids who discover a mysterious stone box in the forest one summer, and decide to each place a personal item inside it – a teddy bear, a diary, etc – as a promise of friendship to one another.

Cut to four years later, when the group has grown apart – and suddenly their sacrifices begin coming back to haunt them. Think Stephen King meets Stranger Things, with a hint of Patrick Ness and Neil Gaiman. I absolutely love it.

This has been my first experience of working with the brilliant Viking team and it’s been a real treat.

Kendra and her colleagues Ken Wright and Leila Sales read the manuscript alongside me, and we then had a phone call to discuss our thoughts and what we wanted to suggest to Martin.

Having more than one pair of eyes on a story at an early stage can be hugely productive – you’re all invested in wanting to make the book as strong as it possibly can, and you’ll all have ideas for areas of improvement that will almost certainly be helpful to the author. You’re also much more likely to spot plot problems!

A challenge when working in this way can sometimes be that one editor feels very strongly about a certain point – a character isn’t working/is a creation of genius, a plot point doesn’t make sense, etc – and the other feels quite differently. Obviously, editing is often such a subjective process and there usually isn’t a right or wrong answer.

Another challenge around cross-continental editing can be that in one part of the world, a particular topic, detail or even phrase might not be familiar to a reader, whereas a reader in another country might have no problems with it at all. In these situations, I like to talk everything through in detail and ask lots of questions, and aim to get to a point where I think we’re both comfortable with what we’re going to put to the author.

With The Sacrifice Box, I wrote a detailed editorial letter which I then shared with Kendra’s team for their approval and input, and then sent to Martin. When the new draft comes in, we’ll again talk about our thoughts and ideas.

Our U.K. team works closely with our U.S. counterparts at Penguin Random House (PRH) on a number of authors and titles, from Roald Dahl and John Green to Nicola Yoon and Jennifer Niven.

I work with a number of U.S.-based authors who are also published by PRH U.S., including R J Palacio (Wonder, Knopf, 2012) and Lauren Wolk (Wolf Hollow, Dutton, 2016). I also work very closely with Kathy Dawson at PRH U.S. on Irish writer Moira Fowley-Doyle (The Accident Season, 2016).

Co-editing does not always happen, depending on a number of factors: whether an author has an existing and very strong relationship with one editor; whether there’s physically time in the schedule; etc. But when it’s possible, it can be hugely rewarding, productive and creative.

Kendra: I’ve now had the pleasure of co-editing a number of projects with U.K. editors, many of which were PRH collaborations, and they always leave me feeling like I’ve just taken a course to refresh my skills. I learn so much from having another set of eyes on the manuscript and getting to see another editor’s perspective, and I’m certain the books are stronger for it.

Puffin U.K. editor Shannon Cullen and I edited an entire six-book series together, and I shudder to think what it would’ve turned out like without her insights! We’ve really come to rely on one another.

Plus, it’s so much more fun to have a partner in crime. It’s like going from being an only child to having a sibling—somebody else who knows the author the way only the editor can!

Patti: That does sounds like a lot of fun and I can’t wait to read The Sacrifice Box (by Martin Stewart, Penguin, 2018) when it comes out. Was there a partnership in your work you didn’t expect to develop before you became an editor, either within house or without? And did that help you grow as an editor in any way?


Kendra: Before I became an editor, I didn’t know how closely I would wind up working with
designers and art directors, and that has been a wonderful learning experience in so many ways.

I always feel a little insecure around designers because, unlike editors, they actually went to school for training in the specific area in which they now work. Editors come from all kinds of disciplines—I’ve known editors who majored in, beyond the common English or creative writing, psychology, anthropology, all different kinds of disciplines including playwriting/screenwriting, my own major in college. Editing is an apprenticeship-learned job.

Designers learn by apprenticeship, too, but after four years of training in their field. So they come into the role with very different qualifications than editors have, and a totally different knowledge base. I’m fascinated by learning from them and seeing how they do their work.

Natalie: Agreed – the partnership between editorial and design is so important, and I also hadn’t realized how closely I’d work with designers before I became an editor.

I also love the close collaboration between an editor and a publicist – it’s especially important when you’re launching a debut. I’m always amazed by our publicity team’s passion and creativity, and I love seeing all the inventive ways they take a new book and run with it.

Patti: I’m so glad you both mentioned designers as I’m always amazed at how a great cover feels like the perfect match to a story as though one couldn’t exist without the other. Finishing up, is there a question on partnerships you wished I’d asked? If so, what?

Kendra: Well, another partnership I think is interesting is the one between the agent and editor.

The agent is, at the heart of things, loyal to the author; the editor is, at the heart of things, loyal to the
company that employs the editor. But in practice, both typically want what’s best for the author and the book. Because of this, sometimes the partnership is easy and sometimes it can become oppositional or even antagonistic.

Agent Gemma Cooper with Natalie

The agents I love to work with don’t see me as an enemy; they see us as allies trying to get the book and author the best possible care, which is truly what I want. The agents who try to make everything into a fight, I’m disinclined to work with again.

Natalie: I couldn’t agree more with this!

In the best scenarios, I see the agent as a key part of the same team – someone who I can get on the phone with at any time of day to share good news and exciting updates, but also problems or disappointing updates.

My favourite agents are the ones who I can talk to honestly about any challenges we’re facing, and who will work with me to reach a solution. It can be difficult and disheartening working with agents who are constantly critical or negative.

Having said that, I have so much respect for agents who question the decisions of a publishing house at the right moments. They sometimes make life a bit harder, but it’s always good to be challenged – especially if they force you to reassess your plans and realize there might be an even better approach to a problem than the one you had in mind.

Patti: How interesting to hear about this from an editor’s point of view! I think it’s good to remember that not all partnerships can be smooth all the time and that there will be bumps in the road. What’s important is what happens afterwards. And finally, I’d like to end with something a bit more practical. Is there one piece of advice you would give authors about how to prepare for working with an editor/editorial team?

Natalie: Be open. I love working with authors who are open to ideas, suggestions and questions.

Editing can be a sensitive process sometimes; editorial letters can look long, daunting, and negative, and I have a huge amount of respect for any writer who’s willing to share their work and receive comments and criticisms from an editor – I can imagine it must feel like baring a bit of your soul.

But being published is a partnership, and any good editor only ever has the book and the author’s best interests at heart – we’re always on the same team and we both want to make the book as brilliant as it can possibly be. So I’m always appreciative of an author who will listen to my thoughts, read my suggestions, consider them seriously, and enter into a conversation about them with me – even if they decide they disagree with me about some points, which is always absolutely fine by me.

I’d never dream of forcing through changes that an author isn’t happy with.

Kendra: I completely agree! Being open doesn’t mean doing everything your editor tells you to do—we don’t want you to agree to anything that doesn’t feel right to you.

As Viking’s longtime publisher Regina Hayes used to say, know which hills you want to die on—pick the points that you feel very strongly about and, if you and your editor disagree, you can find a way to preserve what’s essential to you. But don’t try to die on every single hill or both you and your editor will get battle-weary very quickly!

Cynsational Notes


The tenth child out of eleven in a family that took in hundreds of foster kids, Patti Buff learned early that if she wanted some peace and quiet she better put her nose in a book. A native Minnesotan, she now lives in disgustingly beautiful Germany with her husband and two teenagers.

Her YA novel Requiem was recently featured in the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices 2016 anthology. Due to that, she was lucky enough to snag Hannah Sheppard of DHH Literary as an agent. Patti’s newest book, No Direction Home is now on submission.

Patti is also the Regional Advisor of SCBWI Germany & Austria and is on Twitter @pattibuff.

2017 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Agent Gemma Cooper & Author Robin Stevens

Agent Gemma Cooper

By Melanie Rook Welfing
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations


Note: Gemma Cooper and Robin Stevens were interviewed by SCBWI Netherlands Regional Advisor Melanie Rook Welfing for the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan conference. This is the second in a series of six articles.

Gemma Cooper started her publishing career in New York, then spent several years working in London, and now lives in Chicago. She joined the Bent Agency in 2012, where she works with authors and author/illustrators based all over the world who write for every age of children – from picture books to young adult, fiction and non-fiction.

Gemma has a soft spot for all types of middle grade fiction, young adult romance, funny chapter books and animal protagonists. She also loves a good punny title and book with a big hook that can be summed up in one line.

Her monthly wishlist appears on the agency blog, Bent On Books and she loves working with SCBWI members.

Robin Stevens was born in California and grew up in an Oxford college, across the road from the house where Alice in Wonderland lived.

She has been making up stories all her life. When she was twelve, her father handed her a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (by Agatha Christie, William Collins, Sons, 1926) and she realised that she wanted to be either Hercule Poirot or Agatha Christie when she grew up.

She spent her teenage years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, reading a lot of murder mysteries and hoping that she’d get the chance to do some detecting herself (she didn’t). She went to university, where she studied crime fiction, and then worked in children’s publishing.

She is now a full-time writer, and her books, the Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, are best-selling

and award-winning. Robin lives in London with her husband and her pet bearded dragon, Watson. She’s @redbreastedbird on Twitter and Instagram and Robin Stevens on Facebook.

Gemma, you represent Robin. Can you describe the start of your relationship? What was it about Robin’s work that drew you in?

It’s always funny when I look back to the start of agent/author relationships to see how formal and business-like they are.

Of course they do continue to be professional relationships, but over time they evolve to dropping the ‘Dear Robin’ at the start of emails, to signing off with an ‘x’ – you become more informal in the way you communicate as you become more familiar with each other.

I always try to meet or video call new clients before I offer representation as I think you get a lot more out of a face-to-face chat.

So our relationship started with that first meeting – me telling Robin how much I loved her book, and then telling her all my editorial thoughts! I offered rep on the basis that she would be happy to make those changes, and asked her to take a day or so to think it over, me nervously hoping that I hadn’t said anything to make her turn me down!

I didn’t thankfully, so the next stage was me sending over my first editorial letter and a marked up manuscript. We would then have agreed a timeline for Robin sending it back to me, and probably arranged a few phone calls to discuss any questions she had during the edits.

Robin’s book was one of the first things I signed when moving to the Bent Agency, and as a massive murder mystery fan, it was exactly the book I was looking for. I remember being sucked into the voice from page one – Hazel saying she is much too short to be the heroine.

I got to page 10 and forwarded it to my colleague Molly Ker Hawn saying ‘This book is amazing, right?’

I just knew it was special and that I loved it – that terrible unhelpful agent saying of “you just know when you know.” So the voice pulled me in, and mystery kept me turning the pages.


Robin, what prompted you to query Gemma?


Robin wins the Waterstone Prize

I queried Gemma for one huge reason: she was looking for the book I’d written!

She’d made a list on the Bent Agency website of all of the projects that she’d most love to see in her inbox, and one of them was basically ‘Poirot for 8-12 year olds, a historical mystery story’.

I’d already sent Murder Most Unladylike (Corgi, Random House, 2014) to several agents, but I’d never seen anyone who so clearly was interested in the kind of book I was working on.

I knew Gemma was the agent for me – and I hoped that she’d feel the same way.

When she asked to meet with me, I was just as nervous as she was. But I saw that she got my book, and had amazing ideas of what to do with it. And she was clearly a smart, driven businesswoman, too.

I was confident she’d do right by me, and I knew she was someone who I’d be happy working with. And I’ve been proven totally correct!

At the Europolitan Conference in Brussels you will both participate in a panel on “Working Together: Relationships.” What does working together as an author and agent entail?

Gemma: Nearly every part of the publishing process has the agent and author in discussion first before coming to a consensus on a response to external parties. We discuss edits, covers, publicity, marketing, events, next book deals, new ideas, foreign offers, etc.

Working together really means just that – I’m involved in everything Robin is involved in. Even if I’m just cc’ed into an email, I still know what is going on. We tend to talk once a week, and email every few days, depending on what is going on.

Robin: I work very closely with Gemma on all aspects of my books. We don’t just talk about edits, we discuss covers, marketing and publicity directions, foreign offers – she’s my sense-check and my sounding-board, and helps me feel like I’m not in this on my own.

Authoring can be a strange and confusing business, so it’s wonderful to have an agent to turn to!

Has anything surprised you in this relationship?

Gemma: I introduced Robin to her husband!

Gemma Cooper & her clients, Ruth Fitzgerald, Mo O’Hara
Harriet Reuter Hapgood and Robin Stevens 

Something that I’m not surprised at, but that I’m very grateful for, is how Robin and my other clients are all now friends.

They cheer each other on and cheer each other up when things aren’t going well. Seeing them all congratulating each other on a book deal or prize on social media really makes me smile.

This team/collegial approach is something I’d dreamed of fostering, but in the competitive nature of publishing, I’d worried it couldn’t work. To have it work so well is a constant pleasure to watch.

Robin: It’s true! Through Gemma I’ve met friends, colleagues and, as she says, even my husband (thanks, Gemma! I owe you). Being part of Team Cooper is a lifestyle, not just a book deal, and I’m so proud of the way we all support each other.

How has it developed or changed since you first started working together?

Gemma: As mentioned above, we have a very easy style of communication now. The whole relationship is comfortable and familiar!

That means when harder conversations need to happen, there is no awkwardness or treading on eggshells. We are honest with each other and have become friends over the last four years.

Of course, there is a fine line keeping professional boundaries, but I feel we navigate that well.

Robin: Absolutely. We’re able to be honest with each other, which is really helpful. We know each other very well.

A good agent should be for life, not just for Christmas, and this is why – your relationship will improve with every project you work on together. But you do always have to remember that you’re professional friends: an agent is a colleague, not a member of your family, no matter how much you chat on WhatsApp!

Gemma, I’ve read in another interview that you like taking a hands-on, editorial approach with your authors. What are some of the challenges with that? Do you ever disagree on editorial matters, and if so, how do you resolve them? Robin, your thoughts?


Gemma: Yes, I’m a very editorial agent. It’s a hard market, so my aim is always to get a book in the best shape I can before sending it to publishers.

Gemma at Bologna Children’s Book Fair
with foreign editions of Robin’s books

I tell potential new clients my editorial thoughts before offering rep, so if there is something they are
not keen on they can walk away or find another agent who is a better fit for their vision.

I have to go into meetings with the confidence that this is the best book ever, so I have to believe that. The challenge sometimes is time – a good editorial letter takes a big chunk of a week to craft, and then the author has to take time to edit. So when you take someone on, you might not be submitting their project for 3-6 months, sometimes even longer.

If I do disagree with a client on editorial matters, ultimately it’s still their name on the book, so I will defer to them.

It’s a subjective business, and I’m not always right! If it were a bigger issue and I didn’t feel I could confidently sub the book, we might talk about the future of our relationship. The editorial process, like so many other parts of the journey, is all about communication.

Robin: I’ve always been reassured by Gemma’s directness.

If she doesn’t like a project idea, or a plot line, or a character, she will say. So you really do know when she’s behind your work! She gives me feedback on my first drafts, and gets very hands-on with shaping the plot. However, she never insists on a particular change being made. She can suggest strongly, but at the end of the day we both know that it is my book.

I can’t recall any time when I’ve really ignored her comments, though! She has a great eye for what works, and why.

Robin, you will be leading the keynote on “Better Together,” on how your writing has improved with every new connection you’ve made. How has your partnership with Gemma improved your writing? Gemma, your thoughts?

Gemma and Natalie Doherty (Robin’s editor)
visiting MMU in the shops on publication week

Robin: Gemma has been my introduction to the world of publishing.

Without her I’d never have found my editor, my publishers and my readers – it’s just impossible to over-estimate how much a good agent can change your life. But in terms of Gemma herself … she was the first person who forced me to think about my writing as being for a specific audience.

Murder Most Unladylike was 80,000 words when she first saw it, just because no one had ever told me that I needed to make sure that I was telling an exciting story as well as creating nice scenes.

She helped me cut the slack and remind me that I’m writing to entertain. She loves my characters as much as I do, and so she wants the best for them (and me).

She’s an invaluable voice, critical in the best way – I know that she won’t ever flatter me for the sake of it, and so I trust her judgment implicitly!

Gemma: Robin is so great at taking feedback, thinking it over, and then responding to it thoughtfully.

So often the gut reaction can be to go on the defense when receiving critical feedback. But Robin learnt early on that my feedback is given in the spirit of wanting to make the book stronger. Because of how she responds, I never have to worry about how I phrase things – I know I can be honest and she understands and doesn’t take it personally. It makes it a quicker process for me.

Her first drafts now are a world away from that 80,000-word version of Murder Most Unladylike. She’s learned so much, and improved with every book.

Getting to read her first drafts so early when I know her fans are chomping at the bit is one of the best benefits of my job!

Robin Stevens visiting Trafalgar Primary School

What other partnerships are essential to the aspiring author? And how best can those meaningful connections be made? (Conferences? Social media? Critique partners?)


Robin: I think it’s crucial to be part of the publishing world, but never to be totally lost in it.

Conferences, launch parties and social media can all help you find the support network that every author needs. Make sure you have trusted critique partners, mentors (authors who are further along than you in their publishing careers) and peers (authors who you can share stories of woe or triumph).

Celebrating the American publication of Robin’s first book with
Gemma’s clients Harriet Reuter HapgoodSibeal PounderBeth Garrod & Robin

Remember that no one will ever have exactly the same publishing trajectory as you, and so comparing yourself closely to anyone else will end in despair, but it’s vital to keep talking to people who share your strange career!

If you are under contract with a publishing house, try to keep speaking to them and communicating questions and ideas.

My attitude is that my publishers are my colleagues – by working together closely we can produce the best results. There’s nothing to be gained by not talking through issues!

And finally, stay connected to your family and your non-publishing friends. Sometimes you need a break and a perspective check, and they’re the only people who can provide that.

Gemma: I agree with all of this. It’s important that you make connections in the publishing world, but you still need your own life outside of it.

I love groups like SCBWI for new and published authors alike, especially their conferences. You can also reach out to other clients of your agent’s, or other authors at your publishers – if you are nice and collegial in your support of others, they will support you.

Critique partners are a godsend, even once you are published. Everyone should have at least one crit partner!

Cynsational Notes

At the age of 12 Melanie Rook Welfing’s life ambition was to be part-time author, part-time roller skater. The skating dreams died, along with the 80s hair, but the author dream lives on.

Melanie writes primarily for middle graders and has had stories published in Highlights and other magazines.

Originally from Canada, Melanie now lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two daughters. She is the Regional Advisor for SCBWI in the Netherlands.