2017 SCBWI Europolitan Con Interview: Dina von Lowenkraft & Elisabeth Norton of Team Europolitan

By Angela Cerrito

Note: SCBWI Regional Advisors Dina von Lowenkraft and Elisabeth Norton were interviewed by Angela Cerrito about the upcoming SCBWI Europolitan Conference. This is the first in a series of six articles.

Angela: May 2017 will be the third time the Europolitan is being held, what do you think makes it unique?

Elisabeth: There are several ways in which I think the Europolitan is unique.

First, there’s its size. With approximately 65 attendees (including the volunteers working behind the scenes to make the conference happen), the faculty: attendee ratio is the smallest of any conference I’ve attended. This results in smaller groups in the breakout sessions, more chances to get to know other attendees and even chat with faculty members on breaks or at socials.

Secondly, we realize that we have a diverse membership whose publication goals may vary, so we have faculty from more than one publication market. This year we have publishing industry professionals from both the U.S. and U.K. markets. And one of our PAL faculty members is coming all the way from Australia!

Another thing I love about the Europolitan and that I think is unique to this conference is the number
of opportunities for attendees to get to know each other, not just at the conference, but through optional pre- and post-conference activities like the Scrawl Crawl, pre-conference dinner, and post-conference critique meeting. Many friendships and critique partnerships have been formed as a result of past Europolitan conferences!

Paris Scrawl Crawl, photo by Kirsten Carlson

Dina: There are so many ways in which the Europolitan is unique! 

As Elisabeth pointed out, we have a diverse membership with unique needs. Many of our members are ex-pats, living in countries where the language they write in (English) isn’t the language of the country they live in. 
Other members are writing in English as a second (or third) language. And for our illustrators and author/illustrators the type of illustrations that are being published in the country they live in may or may not correspond to the market they are/would like to publish in. Because of this, we feel it is essential to offer our members insight into both the U.K. and the U.S. markets – markets that are different from the ones where our members live.

Given the diverse nature of our regions, where many of our members can’t easily come together for a critique group or social event, the Europolitan offers a unique opportunity to network and create friendships with fellow creatives. 

In order to encourage this, we have from the very first Europolitan in Paris in 2013, held pre- and post- conference events that are free and open to all attendees who can come. The resulting camaraderie amongst attendees who participated in the pre-conference Scrawl Crawl and group dinner, right from the start of the conference on Saturday, was amazing – and exhilarating. Walking through the halls of the art school where the event was held, you saw familiar faces.

That random person sitting next to you at a breakout session wasn’t a stranger. And because of the many joyful greetings and relaxed atmosphere, even those who couldn’t attend the pre-conference events were quickly brought into the group. The energy was explosive!

And, as Elisabeth pointed out, the fact that our conference has such a high ratio of faculty to attendees (this year we expect approximately a 1:5 ratio, excluding volunteers), means everyone gets a chance to know our faculty on a human level.

Europolitan Conference in Paris, photo by Tess Krűss

For me, this is one of the most important things people get from our Europolitan conference – an understanding of the people behind the often romanticized idea of ‘agent’ or ‘editor’ or ‘art director.’ As with any industry, each professional is unique – making their list, their way of interacting with clients, their view of what works or isn’t working their own. 

Understanding that, chatting with professionals about other topics than what they are working on, helps members to understand that working with a professional isn’t just a contract for a book, it’s a relationship. And a relationship around a creative piece is a long term investment.

The other thing that makes the Europolitan unique is its moving venue. 

Since there are 5 participating countries hosting it, we rotate through France, the Netherlands, Belgium+Luxembourg, Switzerland and Germany+Austria. We hope this means attending will be easy for all members at some point! Besides – it’s great fun to get to discover a new city or get to know another country better each time.

Angela: I agree with you 100 percent about the energy and sense of community. Tell us about the origins of the Europolitan Conference.

Dina: When I became Regional Advisor in 2012, three fellow Regional Advisors aka ‘RAs’ (Tioka Tokedira in France, Kirsten Carlson in Germany-Austria and Mina Witteman in the Netherlands) had just begun discussing ways of creating a larger event than any one of us could host on our own with the idea that such an event would be beneficial to all of our members. 

I remember the excitement of my first discussions with them at the Bologna Book Fair. Not long after this, Jay Whistler became RA for Switzerland and joined in the discussion. From Tioka, Kirsten and Mina’s original idea, the Europolitan with our 5 participating regions was born.

Just about a year later, the first Europolitan was held in France in April 2013 right after the Bologna Book Fair. The idea was to capitalize on potential U.S. faculty who would already be in Europe as well as to invite U.K. faculty. The first Europolitan was a resounding success.

Amsterdam Scrawl Crawl, photo by Monika Baum

Mina took up the challenge of creating the second Europolitan in the Netherlands two years later. As I mentioned previously, some of what I feel are the key elements of the Europolitan have been in place since the beginning: the desire to create a community across Europe and to give our small regions a special conference that will help members not only learn more about craft and the marketplace but will also promote long-term friendships and provide the opportunity to interact with industry professionals.

Our current team, with myself in Belgium+Luxembourg, Tioka Tokedira in France, Patti Buff in Germany+Austria, Melanie Rook Welfing in the Netherlands and Elisabeth Norton in Switzerland, continue to believe in these ideas and have worked hard to create the third edition of the Europolitan in Belgium. In fact, we’ve even taken the idea of collaboration one step further and now work together in-between conferences as well.

Angela: How do you collaborate across borders?

Elisabeth’s desk

Elisabeth: The host region has a lot to do related to the local aspects of hosting the conference – finding a suitable venue, figuring out meals, hotels, etc. 

The official planning committee consists of the Regional Advisors from the country that hosted the previous conference (in this case, The Netherlands), the host of the current conference (Belgium-Luxembourg), and the host of the next conference (Switzerland). That said, the reality is that the Regional Advisors from all five regions spend many hours working together via video conference and email to collaborate on every detail of the conference – from the website to the program schedule.

Dina: The original idea was to make the planning committee the trio Elisabeth mentioned. But I think each Europolitan reflects the host country and I prefer a broader, more inclusive approach. 

I’ve always included the other four RAs in all my discussions and they have each participated and helped in different ways. The conference is a team effort – or rather it is the result of the efforts of multiple teams. 
In addition to the planning team of RAs, there is the Local Team consisting of myself, the Belgian Illustrator Coordinator (I.C.), Gabriela Nicole Gonzalez and our U.K. coordinator, Catherine Coe. During the conference, there will also be the Volunteer Team consisting of the ICs and ARAs of our 5 regions. 
Chateau-du-Cheneau in Braine l’Alleud

Because of the nature of the venue (a manor house in Braine l’Alleud) I also have a duo of volunteers, SCBWI members Rose Deniz and Jeannine Johnson-Maia, to help me on site. In total, there are 14 people who have volunteered their time and collaborated to make this event happen. 

So even if the host country is the one to orchestrate the event, no Europolitan can come into existence without the help and support of all of the member regions.

One thing that has come out of our five-region collaboration is, not surprisingly, a desire to find other ways to offer our members even more. As I mentioned earlier, in between the conferences we continue to build on our team efforts. 

For example, we’ve requested and been granted an official page on the scbwi.org website. We’ve brainstormed about the needs of our members and the kinds of offerings we can give. 
We’ve maintained a WebEx platform to facilitate crit groups and to be able to offer webinars. And we even have a few exciting things in the works for our ‘off’ years in between conferences. But shhh… more about that to be announced at the Europolitan in May in Belgium!

Angela: How did your team arrive at this year’s theme: Pens, Pencils & Partnerships?

Dina: One of the things that has struck me from the beginning with SCBWI is the way people come together and share – be it on craft, on industry insights or on creating events to help others. 

Writing and/or illustrating are often solitary activities – but being part of SCBWI has shown me just how much more fulfilling it is when you can share that path with fellow creatives. I have also learned over the years that even if you do write your manuscript on your own, you don’t get it out to market on your own. 
Every step along the way includes various forms of partnerships, be it crit partners, an agent, an editor, a cover artist or a publicist… and the many ways you interact with others is part of what makes this industry so special. Because of that, and because of the collaborative nature of how the Europolitan is run, I felt that paying homage to this theme was a nice way of sharing with everyone one of the values I personally believe in: respect – because you can’t have a partnership without it. 
And although I didn’t plan it (the idea first came up in early 2016), I feel that the idea of working together, of respect and giving everyone the freedom to create according to their own vision, is timely.

Gemma and Natalie

One of the things we tried to do when looking for faculty was to find industry professionals and creatives who are currently working together. Some of our first faculty members were agent Gemma Cooper of The Bent Agency, and her client, author Robin Stevens. We were then lucky enough to be able to invite Natalie Doherty, commissioning editor at Penguin Random House Children’s, who published Robin’s books.

One funny, and very Europolitan anecdote, is that when I reached out to our previous faculty member Jill Santopolo, editorial director of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, she suggested I contact Kendra Levin, executive editor at Viking Children’s Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House – who it turns out has collaborated with Natalie Doherty on various projects between the U.K. and the U.S.

Jill Santopolo, photo by Alison May

And since the agent-client relationship is so important, we also decided to bring in an agent-illustrator
duo with Penny Holroyde, co-founder of Holroyde-Cartey, and author/illustrator Chris Mould.

These are just some of the many relationships we have threading through this year’s Europolitan and some of the facets we will explore in our panels on Working Together, whether it be in terms of relationships within the industry or in the terms of the actual process of how a book gets from idea to reader.

I’d also like to point out that even this interview is a fun expression of the many roles and relationships we all have because you, Angela, are also one of our faculty members and a fellow SCBWI volunteer.

Angela: Thank you, Dina, another obvious partnership is Cynsations. After attending and volunteering at many SCBWI international conferences, I’m honored to be part of the Europolitan faculty this year. The Europolitan certainly creates a community. It strikes me that the community begins to form even before the event and lasts long after. Can you speak to the webinars that are offered before the conference as well as the lasting connections from attending Europolitan?

Dina: Yes, it’s true – the community starts to come together well before the conference, even before the Scrawl Crawl!

Amsterdam Europolitan Conference, photo by Mina Witteman

The webinars are something we started for the second Europolitan in Amsterdam in 2015. It’s a nice way of kick-starting the conference, bringing the community together and getting to know the faculty. Our webinars are always small and they feel more like a workshop than an impersonal web lecture. Everyone has video – from faculty to the SCBWI host to the attending members – which means we can all see each other, making it feel more like being together. 

We always start the session half an hour early and encourage members to log on then so that we can check for any technical issues. We then chat and catch up before the faculty member joins us. I really appreciate having that extra time and chance to hear what everyone is working on, what good news they have to share or what craft issue they have been working through.

Faculty members have really enjoyed our smaller, more intimate format – and even if we are each on our own computer in a number of different countries, it always feels like we have shared a moment together. 

Members can ask questions themselves instead of typing in their question as one has to do with the larger webinars and we’ve often had some really interesting discussions. Running these webinars is something I really enjoy doing – not only does it allow us to get into the Europolitan feeling early, it also allows those who can’t attend the conference to still benefit from the fabulous line-up we have. 
We’ve also scheduled two webinars for after the conference, which we hope will help people keep up their motivation and the connections they made at the conference.

I love how we are able to create a community feeling across borders – and know it is so much nicer to show up at an event already knowing other people and having exchanged with them. It’s also why we are so happy to have the opportunity to do these interviews – it helps members get to know our faculty members and the people behind the making of the Europolitan.

Elisabeth hiking at Zermatt

Elisabeth: I think the sense of community starts to form as soon as people announce on social media that they have registered, and talk about how excited they are to be attending. This continues as people start talking about accommodations, looking for roommates and/or travel buddies. 

For example, through social media we’ve learned that (so far) there are five Swiss SCBWI members flying to Brussels on the same flight! Just knowing that we’ll be traveling together heightens our anticipation, and of course the conference, writing and illustrating will be our primary topics of conversation as we travel.

There are some people that only see each other in person at the Europolitan conferences, but between conferences, they keep in touch via email and social media. Personally I have critiqued for people that I’ve met at Europolitan, and it’s great to know that when I’m ready, they will critique my manuscript.

I love initiatives like the webinars. As Dina said, they enable people who are unable to attend the conference to participate in one aspect of the conference initiatives. And I’m excited about some of the other initiatives that we have up our sleeves! 

By combining the efforts of five smaller regions, we’ve managed to put some amazing opportunities out there that not only members of our own regions, but from the entire SCBWI and greater Kidlit community can benefit from.

Angela : SCBWI members come to Europolitan with various levels of experience (from newly starting out to multi-published), creating a wide variety of content (writers, illustrators, picture books, non-fiction, graphic novels, middle grade, young adult, interactive media and more) as well as being diverse in many other ways including language and culture. How do you manage create an event that offers something for everyone?

Dina: That’s a great question, Angela! And an issue that isn’t easy to juggle, as you can imagine. 

Dina and daughter with pony

One of the things we look for when we start looking for faculty are professionals who themselves cover a wide spectrum of the industry – that and being fun people who are passionate about what they do! By finding faculty who themselves juggle many types of children’s content, we are able to ask them to offer several different topics for their presentations, workshops and/or webinars. 

We also set up the Europolitan to have several presentations and workshops at any given moment so people can choose which one suits them best – which unfortunately often means people want to be in several places at once. I know I do… there are so many wonderful topics being covered that I myself don’t know which session to attend!

One of the tremendous opportunities we have at the Europolitan – and perhaps that which makes it the most unique – is the opportunity to discover both the U.K. and the U.S. markets all in one place. Even if both markets are in English, the culture difference is certainly there for both illustrations and manuscripts. The Europolitan is a wonderful opportunity for our members to learn about both markets and to see where their work might fit. 

I also think it’s fun for our faculty to share their experiences with their homologues (and sometimes work partners!) from across the pond. The Europolitan is small enough we can really share. It’s a unique opportunity for all of us to get together and discuss that which we all love – children’s books.

Elisabeth: You’ve hit on one of the biggest challenges we face! As we evaluate program content and presenters, we are always aware of the diversity of creators who will be attending the conference. 

Angela Cerrito

As Dina said, the key is finding presenters with a broad range of industry experience, and finding
topics that can apply to more than one demographic. I think the great thing about taking these things into consideration is that it pushes us to think creatively about our programming. 

A larger conference can have more presenters and program opportunities, enabling them to offer a more specialized approach to discussions of craft and the industry, whereas we need to take a broader approach.

I think this year’s theme is a perfect example: by talking about the partnerships within the industry, there will be content meaningful to members no matter where they are in their publishing journey: for someone not-yet agented, they may key in on the agent-creator relationship. 

For authors or illustrators who are agented, but not-yet published, the discussions about the editorial process might resonate with them. Those already published might gravitate towards discussions about marketing or discussions about craft. 
I think that regardless of what stage of their career attendees are at, they will come away with insights that will help them as they work toward the next stage.

Angela: SCBWI Europolitan is certainly all about relationships and offering support for creating content for children and teens. Thank you both for this insightful interview!

A few impressions from prior faculty:

Heather Alexander,
photo by Marcy Pusey

“The SCBWI Europolitan conference was a very special and totally unique experience. It was held in an art school in Paris, which was pretty marvelous, and the talent from around the world became people I’d never forget. It was fascinating to see how the different children’s book markets from around Europe influenced each writers’ style, and the mix of faculty from Europe and the U.S. helped bring those differences into focus. Not to mention chic Parisian dinners before and after–perfect for getting to know each other and the city.”

Heather Alexander
Editor and founder of Heather Alexander Editorial
faculty at Europolitan 2013 in Paris

I had such a remarkable time getting to know the writers who attended the Europolitan conference in 2015. Their experiences living outside of the United States lent themselves to fascinating stories that offered different points of view and a variety of traditions and customs. And getting to eat Stroopwaffels and visit the Van Gogh Museum was an added bonus…”

Jill Santopolo
Editorial Director of Philomel Books
faculty at Europolitan 2015 in Amsterdam

Marrietta Zacker,
photo by Doug Zacker

“Hearing the perspectives of writers and illustrators from other countries and those living abroad was so valuable. I would recommend the conference to anyone, regardless of where they are in their career. The conference was well-planned and well-run and the sessions were fun and informative for both the faculty and the attendees. We had the time and the space to learn about one another, and because we were looking at the industry with different lenses, our discussions were vibrant and enlightening.”

Marietta Zacker
Partner at Gallt and Zacker Literary Agency
faculty at Europolitan 2015 in Amsterdam

Born in the U.S., Dina von Lowenkraft has lived on 4 continents, worked as a graphic artist for television and as a consultant in the fashion industry. Somewhere between New York and Paris she picked up an MBA and a black belt. Dina is currently the Regional Advisor for SCBWI Belgium & Luxembourg, where she lives with her husband. She has two college-going daughters, two horses, a cat and multiple stacks of books to be read. Dina’s happy spot is a thousand kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.

Elisabeth Norton was first published at age 16 when she had no idea what an “unsolicited submission” was. Seeing her byline on the subsequently published magazine article ignited her desire for a career as an author.  Once she realized she wanted to write for children, she joined SCBWI and has served as Regional Advisor for Switzerland since early 2014. Originally from Alaska, she now lives in Switzerland between the Alps and the Jura with her family and two dogs, a 16-year-old Poodle and a 13-year-old Westie. When she’s writing, she can be found at her desk with a poodle lying on a pillow underneath it. When she’s not writing, you can find her spending time with her family hiking, biking, playing board games, and watching Star Trek.

Angela Cerrito is an author and a playwright. Her recent novel, The Safest Lie (Holiday House, 2015), was named a Best Children’s Book of the Year by The Guardian, a Notable Social Studies Book for Young People, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book and SCBWI’s Crystal Kite Award. She speaks about history, research, writing and early literacy to students, teachers and parents.

Cynsational Note:

Huge thanks to Elisabeth Norton for organizing and coordinating the Europolitian Conference Interview series for Cynsations! All week we have in-depth interviews with agents, editors and art directors sharing industry insights (even if you can’t make it to Belgium in May.)

Elisabeth Norton

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

A Weird Place to Be by Hena Khan from her blog. Peek: “I drew from my personal experience when I imagined the community in Amina’s Voice (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster, March 2017)….I never in my worst nightmares imagined ever being in her shoes and actually having to grapple with those emotions in real life. But today, in an alarming rash of threats across the country targeting mosques and Jewish centers and schools…”

11-Year-Old Starts Club for Young Black Boys to See Themselves in Books by Taryn Finley from The Huffington Post. Peek: “Sidney Keys III. started his own reading club for boys called Books N Bros to show his peers that reading can be fun.” Boys in St. Louis meet monthly to discuss a book they’ve picked featuring a black protagonist. Ty Allan Jackson, author of Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire, illustrated by Jonathan Shears (Big Head Books, 2010), joined their first meeting via Skype. Sponsorship from Serving With The Badge, a St. Louis community group, allows club members to take the books home.

Judging Books by Their Covers by Laura Reiko Simeon from The Open Book, Lee & Low. Peek: A parent asked her son how he picked books “to borrow and he said that he looked for books ‘with brown people on the cover.’ I was deeply moved because despite the fact that we still have a long way to go in terms of achieving equity in the publishing industry, there actually are enough diverse books out there for this to work as a selection strategy…. “

Día – El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day) resources are now available for download from the American Library Association and the Association for Library Services to Children. Add your Dia event to the national registry, get a press kit to let the community know about the celebration, and check out programming and activity guides. See also Día founder author and poet Pat Mora will receive the Texas Institute of Letters Tinkle Award for Lifetime Achievement.

How Diversity Makes Us Smarter by Katherine W. Phillips from Scientific American. Peek: “Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective…when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us.”

Reading Without Walls: A Conversation with Gene Luen Yang by Roger Sutton from The Horn Book. Peek: “I knew that I wanted to do something that was related to diversity, and I was particularly interested in the diverse interpretations of the word diversity, so we ended up landing on three different ways of thinking about it: diversity in terms of people, diversity in terms of topic, and diversity in terms of format. See also readingwithoutwalls.com.

It’s Not About Us by Donalyn Miller from the Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “The most important part of our connection to the children’s and young adult literature world lies in helping kids find their own stories. It’s not about us. It’s about them.”

On Fiction, History, and Wishing the World Were Otherwise by Anne Nesbet from Project Mayhem. Peek: “…the power of a historical fantasy like A Crack In The Sea (by H.M. Bouwman, Putnam, 2017) depends very much on the reader knowing … that in real life, these real people died terribly–and we wish so much that that could be otherwise that we are willing to write stories in which something else happens.”

Margaret Peterson Haddix on Uprising by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing With a Broken Tusk. Peek: “I felt like I heard a voice telling me, ‘They thought we didn’t matter’….I also stopped thinking about how I was different from the workers and started thinking instead about how much I had in common with them.”

In Conversation: Laura Amy Schlitz and Brian Floca from Publisher’s Weekly. Author and illustrator discuss Princess Cora and the Crocodile (Candlewick, March 28, 2017) (Brian) “Croc never gave me trouble…. he was so busy giving other people trouble, and other people’s trouble is fun to draw….I knew who he was from the moment Cora first sees him, and exclaims, ‘An alligator!’ to which he….replies, ‘Guess again!’….the sort of writing that makes an illustrator’s life easy.”

Books on Film: Shannon Hale, Jerry Pinkney, and Raina Telgemeier on Literacy by Travis Jonker from the School Library Journal. Library of Congress videos from kidlit authors at the National Book Festival. Peek: (Shannon Hale) “…literacy directly affects the quality of people’s lives in terms of jobs…85 percent of incarcerated youth are illiterate.”

SCBWI Books For Readers by Lee Wind from SCBWI: The Blog. Peek: “It’s SCBWI’s new literacy initiative, aimed at increasing book access, promoting SCBWI authors and illustrators, and advancing the mission of SCBWI: to support the creation and availability of quality children’s books around the world.” Nominate a local cause or organization that connects children with books by April 30, 2017.

The Benefits of Having a Day Job by Margaret Dilloway from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: “If you give up your day job, the myth goes, you have it made. Yet I find myself having a lot of hours to fill once I’m done with my work. And giving an anxiety-prone writer too much free time can be bad.”

100 Mostly Small But Expressive Interjections by Mark Nichol from Daily Writing Tips. Peek: Interjections may “seem disreputable” but “actually do a lot of hard work and are usually pretty persnickety about the tasks to which they are put.” Includes spelling variations and definitions.

What Does It Mean To “Raise the Stakes”? by Jami Gold from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “Low stakes—such as when there are no consequences or failure would be no big deal—can create problems with our story’s conflicts, tension, and pacing, as well as weaken motivations and make goals seem less important.”

Learning From Reading: Change Up Your Patterns to Gain More by Annie Neugebauer from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: “As with any endeavor, routine can build good habits, but it can also become mundane. It’s harder to find inspiration when you know exactly what to expect, and it’s harder to be surprised when you’re doing exactly what you always do. So my suggestion for writers today is this: change up your reading habits”

Congratulations to Texas Institute of Letters Award winners: Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee for Maybe a Fox (Atheneum Books, 2016), Phillippe Diederich for Playing for the Devil’s Fire (Cinco Puntos Press, 2016) and Dianna Hutts Aston for A Beetle is Shy (Chronicle, 2016). Meet Kathi in person at the Austin SCBWI Writers & Illustrators Working Conference, May 20-21.

Illustration by Kyle McBride


This Week at Cynsations

Cynsations Giveaway

More Personally – Cynthia

Best Kong movie ever! A pleasant surprise.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all who celebrate it!

SXSW has descended on my city–sunny Austin, Texas! A perfect week for this creative local to hunker down and write.

I have progress to report! After a major plot reconfigeration, the new scenes are now all first-drafted, and I’m doing that sort of global hollistic revision necessary to smooth transitions, forge connections–essentially nudge the small elements into a resonate story that makes sense.

In the short term, that means one more read-through. As of this moment, I’m about 50 pages into that. I’ll finish and key in another round of changes to pass off to my next genius reader this weekend and then turn my full attention for the following week to VCFA packets and speech writing.

The manuscript is still running tight. All those years of having to streamline to integrate seamless fantasy worldbuilding are impacting–for worse or better–my contempo realism work.

Cynsational Events

Cynthia is honored to speak on the faculty with one of her heroes, Pat Mora!

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

I was inspired by P.J. Hoover‘s talk at the Austin SCBWI meeting: 10 Reasons to Never Give Up. Reason 4 – Time: You own your time. I put this into practice this week, dialing back television viewing in favor of more revision time. You’d be surprised how much writing you can accomplish in an hour!

Personal Links

Guest Post: New Voice Katie Bayerl’s Path to Publication

By Katie Bayerl

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Katie Bayerl is the debut author of A Psalm for Lost Girls (Putnam, March 2017).

From the promotional copy:

“Tess da Costa is a saint — a hand-to-god, miracle-producing saint. At least that’s what the people in her hometown of New Avon, Massachusetts, seem to believe. And when Tess suddenly and tragically passes away, her small city begins feverishly petitioning the Pope to make Tess’s sainthood official. Tess’s mother is ecstatic over the fervor, while her sister Callie, the one who knew Tess best, is disgusted – overcome with the feeling that her sister is being stolen from her all over again.

The fervor for Tess’s sainthood only grows when Ana Langone, a local girl who’s been missing for six months, is found alive at the foot of one of Tess’s shrines. It’s the final straw for Callie.

With the help of Tess’s secret boyfriend Danny, Callie’s determined to prove that Tess was something far more important than a saint; she was her sister, her best friend and a girl in love with a boy. But Callie’s investigation uncovers much more than she bargained for: a hidden diary, old family secrets, and even the disturbing truth behind Ana’s kidnapping.”

I wasn’t the girl who dreamed of becoming a writer.

I loved reading, though, and I loved being around young people and being part of social change—so I found my way into a career as an urban teacher. In my classroom we talked about books, filled notebooks with big ideas, and wrote impassioned essays and heart-cracking personal narratives.

My first career didn’t go the way I expected.

First year at Boston International High School

Being a full-time teacher took a toll. I stockpiled anger at a system that treated my students as disposable. Daily injustices battered my heart badly. I was young, discovering my limits. When my mental health nose dived, I faced a choice: turn down the volume of my heart to survive or step away from the career that I’d believed was my calling.

I chose to walk away (a messy decision and the bravest of my life). My sleep schedule was erratic in the aftermath, and I found myself up late one night watching Lifetime version of Speak (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson.

And oh. A revelation.

Young adults and books. The two great loves of my life. I should be writing for teens! I drafted an outline of my first young adult novel that night.

I poured my wounded heart into that first story. And the next one. And the next.

10 years passed.

Dorm room at VCFA

I got a bit of recognition, discovered I still had a lot to learn, pursued an MFA, began submitting my work, found I still had things to learn.

You know this story. The writer who faces rejection, persists. Except I’d always been impatient. I went full blast at the things that came easy. When things got hard, I found an out.

I couldn’t quit again, though, not after the last defeat. Also, I could sense that the pieces were beginning to click. My stories were changing, becoming deeper, more true to me.

Things started to happen.

First, an agent. Then, a book deal. My born-again author career was suddenly becoming real.
But—plot twist—over the same period, my first calling had wormed its way back into my life. I picked up creative writing classes at GrubStreet and found that, in smaller doses, teaching teens still filled my heart in a way nothing else did.

I wondered: Was being a writer enough?

I’d been watching other writers carefully, noticing how they braided their work as authors with their deepest-held concerns. I looked to Kekla Magoon, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Dana Walrath, among others.

I wanted a career that could incorporate all sides of me.

I found myself circling around an idea that had been planted in grad school—a few of us had a notion that Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) could become a hub for diverse young writers. We had a solid idea. All we really needed was someone who had the time, passion, and persistence to make it happen. Passion I had. Persistence I’d learned. Time I could make.

VCFA Young Writers Network Kickoff event with author Kekla Magoon.

Shortly after my book deal became public, we announced the launch of the VCFA Young Writers Network.

It’s a balancing act.

Leading this work means I won’t be a book-a-year author. I’m ok with that. I want to be in the business of cultivating stories, plural, and elevating voices, most especially young writers from marginalized groups. I feel this as a white author in a severely unbalanced field and as an educator who still feels the tug toward social justice.

Last fall, I returned to the role of student. 

The Launch Lab, designed for soon-to-be-published authors, helped me get clear about my goals and weed-whack through the clutter of promotional activities to find those that can help me become the writer, teacher, and change-seeker I want to be.

There are still many questions about how this will go, what comes next. But if 10 years as a writer has taught me anything it’s how to stay the course.

Cynsational Notes

When Katie Bayerl isn’t penning stories, she coaches teens and nonprofits to tell theirs.

She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has taught creative writing in schools and a variety of community settings. She currently leads the VCFA Young Writers Network and teaches classes for teens at GrubStreet.

Katie has an incurable obsession with saints, bittersweet ballads, and murder.

Publishers Weekly gave A Psalm for Lost Girls a starred review, describing it as “richly and evocatively written.” Peek:”Through these two perspectives—alleged saint and grieving sister—debut author Bayerl unspools a gripping story of loss and grace.”

Kirkus called it “packed with vivid cultural scenery, this ambitious debut offers readers a journey worth taking.”

Enter for a chance to win one of five copies of A Psalm for Lost Girls in a giveaway from the publisher.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on March 13, 2017 and 12:00 AM on March 27, 2017.  Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about March 29, 2017. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

In Memory: Josanne La Valley

Compiled by Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Josanne La Valley obituary from The New York Times.

Peek: “Josanne received degrees from St. Lawrence University, Smith College and Vermont College of Fine Arts. She worked in arts management and as a professional musician before she turned to writing.”

A few members of the children’s literature community shared their thoughts about Josanne.

From Laurie Calkhoven:

I first met Josanne at a children’s writing class in 1998. We rode the M66 crosstown bus home together, and about halfway through our six-week course she mentioned that she and another writer, Shirley Danko, were planning to start a writer’s group and would I like to join them?

I liked the idea of a group, but it was a commitment to people I barely knew. I said yes, promising myself that I could make up an excuse and drop out if it became too much of a burden. That group did more for me than I ever could have dreamed. Not only was it the beginning of a 19-year friendship with Josanne, having the group to go to week after week to read my chapters kept me going through the early years of rejection.

Shirley left the city, and other writers came and went. Josanne and I were the two steadfast New Yorkers, the Thursday-nighters. We learned how to write together and how to critique together, and as happens when you’re laying yourself bare on the page week after week, we shared joy and heartbreak and became the best of friends.

Josanne was the first person to celebrate when someone else in the group had a success—always with champagne. She never complained that her journey to publication took a little longer. She was a traveler as well as a writer and found her voice in northern China, getting to know the Uyghur people. She published a middle grade novel with with Clarion about that community and lived long enough to see her second published and to read its very good reviews.

No one ever believed in me the way Josanne did—with optimism, enthusiasm, and a belief that I could break out of my comfort zone and dig deeper. I miss her generosity of spirit, her loving kindness, and especially her fierce commitment to making her words the best they could be.

The Champagne Sisters: Kekla, Josanne, Laurie and Bethany

From Bethany Hegedus

In 2001, I met Josanne LaValley at the Rutgers-One-on-One Conference and we began chatting in earnest as we waited for the train back to New York City.

Soon after I joined a critique group Josanne and Laurie Calkhoven had started. We met on Thursday night’s twice a month and then increased to once a week. Always Thursday nights. Always a pot of peppermint tea no matter whose home we met in.

In 2002, Josanne started her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She was in the class above me. Maybe this was a sign I would follow Josanne anywhere.

She was a trailblazer: smart, sophisticated, kind and in my mind, an ageless and timeless Eileen Fisher model. She was worldly and well-traveled. I hadn’t yet traveled out of the United States and in an earlier incarnation had lived in a trailer in the rural South as a young military wife.

Josanne and I couldn’t have been more opposite but we formed a deep friendship as we worked on our writing, week after week, with pot after pot of peppermint tea.

There were other rituals—writer’s pajamas—bought for Laurie when she transitioned out of her Scholastic editing job to be a full-time writer.

Champagne when one of us had a sale—and ever after we became known as the Champagne Sisters. The celebrations, hard work and sales continued as Kekla Magoon joined our group.

Josanne was the last in the group to publish. She landed her dream agent, Marietta Zacker, and the two sold her first novel The Vine Basket to Dinah Stevenson at Clarion, the right and perfect publishing home for Josanne. The book won an Amelia Bloomer award and appeared on many state lists. Josanne’s main character Mehrigul was inspired by one of her trips to China and depicting the Uyghur people’s hardships and hope was an integral part of who Josanne was.

Josanne’s second novel released this January, Factory Girl. I have a copy proudly on display at The Writing Barn, now forever without Joasanne’s signature—but more than an autograph in a book—Josanne La Valley, my friend and champion, autographed my life: teaching me what diligence, fierce intellect, and true kindness can achieve.

From Kekla Magoon

Josanne was consistently one of the most supportive people in my writing life. From the time we met as students at Vermont College of Fine Arts over a decade ago, she took me under her wing.

Kekla, Laurie, Bethany and Josanne

Our writing group, which we dubbed The Champagne Sisters, brought out the strengths in each of us, but Josanne’s warm and welcoming spirit clearly stood at the heart of our circle.

She refused to tolerate any self-deprecation, self-doubt, or hesitation about putting oneself out there, both personally and professionally. Her quiet but insistent encouragement fueled me through a lot of difficult decisions early in my publishing life.

It was always easier to go out into the world, knowing that Josanne had my back. I trust that she still does. I will miss her greatly, but her inspiration and influence remain in my heart, and will be reflected in my work for the rest of my life.

From Tim Wynne-Jones

“I had the great pleasure of working [as VCFA faculty] with Josanne on her creative thesis. She was such a warm person with such a lovely smile — a good soul and a good writer, too. I’m so sad to hear of her passing.”

Cynsational Notes:

Josanne’s most recent novel, Factory Girl (Clarion, 2017) focuses on Roshen, a 16-year-old Uyghur girl from northern China who is sent to work in a textile factory in the south. Kirkus Reviews  described the book as “A thought-provoking look at oppression and the power of words from a viewpoint not often heard.”

Josanne’s first book, The Vine Basket (Clarion, 2013) followed the story of Mehrigul, a 14-year-old girl forced to leave school to work on her family’s farm. School Library Journal gave The Vine Basket a starred review. Peek: “The realistic and satisfying resolution will resonate with readers, even as they learn the fascinating details of an unfamiliar culture.”

Author Interview: Longy Han on Crowdfunding Books

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Longy Han is the author of two books, Gusto & Gecko Travel to Kenya, illustrated by Elinor Hagg (Longy Han, 2015) and Gusto & Gecko Travel to New Orleans, illustrated by Elinor Hagg (Longy Han, 2016).

Her publication journey began as a crowdfunding project, and the second book was recently picked up by Scholastic Reading Club.

What was the initial spark for your book?

My love for travel to exotic places, my appreciation for different cultures, and my desire to bring the world to young children!

Children’s books played a big part in my childhood – when I first arrived in Australia, I didn’t speak a word of English (and neither did my parents). So I submerged myself in reading children’s books before eventually catching up to other kids my age. It made learning English so much more exciting.

What was the timeline from spark to publication?

A little under two years. The first version of Gusto & Gecko Travel to New Orleans dates back to May 2015, and I successfully crowdfunded the project in November 2015.

A year later, I had a launch party for the book at Harvard Graduate School of Education, was accepted into the Venture Incubation Program at the Harvard Innovation Lab and now, Scholastic Reading Club is distributing it online. Yay!

How did the Scholastic distribution come about?

A friend of mine recommended my books to them and they got in touch with me. I believe the sales of my first book got them interested in my second book!

What were the major challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) along the way?

Distribution, by far, is the biggest challenge for self-publishers.

It’s so difficult to reach your target market especially if you don’t have a marketing budget or existing distribution network. It’s everyone’s dream to sell directly to end customers but very few authors have achieved this.

On some days, I want to just throw in the towel because nothing seems to work. On other days, when I receive fan mail from kids with their scribbles of Gusto & Gecko, that just sends me over the moon and makes all the struggles worthwhile.

Which opportunities and challenges were unique to crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding is a great way to 1) test your idea, 2) build your fan base, and 3) raise the initial capital to self-publish.

One major misconception people have about crowdfunding is that the campaign starts on the day it goes live online.

That is false. Successful crowdfunding campaigns “launch” weeks before – you should have scheduled all your social media posts, told all your friends and family about the project, reached out to kidlit bloggers, etc.

A good rule of thumb is: the campaign needs to raise 50 percent of its funding target within the first 48 hours (otherwise it will most likely fail). If interested, this is a reflective piece I wrote about my experience.

Why did you decide to go that route?

Back in 2014, I spoke to an editor of a large publishing house about my first book, Gusto & Gecko Travel to Kenya, and she told me that they weren’t considering new authors for at least two years because their pipeline was already filled with published authors.

I’m not someone who sits around and wait for things to happen, and I guess the rest is history.

What did you learn from the process?

Persist until you succeed. And trust me, you will.

What advice would you give to someone else taking that route?

Look up other projects that have been successful and learn from them.

Look up Facebook pages on crowdfunding and get feedback from others in the community.

Remember, crowdfunding isn’t easy money but if you are committed, you can make it work.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

This is where I give a plug about Gusto & Gecko right?

But seriously, my email address is gustoandgeckoatgmail.com. If any readers of this amazing blog want some advice or got more questions about crowdfunding, feel free to contact me.

Cynsational Notes

Longy Han is a lawyer turned children’s book author.

Naturally curious and mildly adventurous, she has traveled independently across seven continents, visited 40 countries and 100 cities. Longy has kissed a giraffe in Kenya, eaten rooster testicles in Budapest, swam with fish at the Great Barrier Reef and flirted with penguins in Antarctica.

She is currently studying for a master of education in technology, innovation and education at Harvard University. You can find her on Twitter @LongyHan. Watch the Gusto & Gecko crowdfunding videos on their YouTube channel.

Bookseller Interview: Gauri Manglik on Connecting Children with South Asian Culture

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Co-founders Gauri Manglik & Sadaf Siddique

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

KitaabWorld is a new online bookseller focusing exclusively on South Asian and diverse children’s

titles. I interviewed founder Gauri Manglik about their unique niche, how the business got started and their Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign.

KitaabWorld is a great resource for finding children’s books with South Asian connections. Tell us more about how it got started.

Like many new ventures, it all started with a personal problem. 
As our own children were growing up, we started to see the struggle in trying to raise them with an understanding and sense of rootedness in Indian culture, while they were growing up in America. We looked around libraries and bookstores and barely found any books, toys and games to expose our kids to Indian culture. 
I recall once I was at our local public library, and we were thrilled to see a book called Hot Hot Roti for Dadaji by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min (Lee & Low, 2011). We eat rotis (an unleavened flatbread similar to wheat tortillas), and my son was thrilled to see a book which talked about something so familiar – hot rotis! 
Another time we were visiting India, and my then four-year-old would keep comparing his life in the U.S. with the world he saw in India. He said, “In the U.S., there are stop signs, but in India, there are none. In the U.S., cars go really fast on freeways, but in India, they don’t go as fast.” We came back and again, after much searching, found Same Same But Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw (Henry Holt, 2011) – it provided many of these comparisons with lovely visuals and conveyed a beautiful message! 
Around the same time, I was a corporate lawyer advising startups every day who were working on “the next big thing” – often when I asked my clients how did you think of this idea – they would say, “At my previous company, I noticed this problem and I realized I could solve it, so I decided to quit and start my own company.” 
These cumulative experiences inspired me to do something to solve my own problem – I had a few ideas on how I could do it, so decided to take the leap!
How did you come up with the name? Does it have a special meaning?

It took a while for us to land on the name – we wanted it to appeal to the most, if not all, of the South Asian diaspora, but yet be something that was relevant and interesting to the mainstream audience.

The word kitaab means book in many languages – Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Persian, Nepalese to name just a few. Other languages have similar words – see kitap (Turkish), kitabu (Swahili) and katav (Hebrew). We wanted to create a gateway into a world of diverse children’s books, so “KitaabWorld” felt ideal.

How long did it take to get up and running? What were the challenges?

It took us about three long months to get up and running – from incorporation of our LLC to getting the website designed and ready to go. 

We were new to the bookselling game, but knew we wanted to curate a strong collection, so it was lot of research to find the right books, and set up distribution channels, especially for books from South Asia.  We’re still learning the tricks of the trade but it’s been fun. 
My years of experience negotiating corporate deals definitely has come in handy! Marketing is always a challenge for a start-up, but we were pleasantly surprised with a lot of traffic and customers we acquired through word of mouth. 
Also, in the mainstream conversations around diverse books and representation of diversity, we felt that South Asians were missing or very scattered. Right from the beginning, we knew we wanted to create easily accessible frameworks for parents, teacher and educators to include South Asian perspectives into their discussions on identity, race and representation – it felt like a gargantuan task in the beginning, but we’re proud now to see we’ve made good progress on this front.

For perspective, what is the South Asian publishing industry like? How many children’s publishers are you working with and approximately how many books are they producing each year?

The South Asian publishing industry has been very active, especially over the last decade. Most of the books are published in English, given that’s sort of the unifying language throughout South Asia, though we actively scour for bilingual or books in regional languages. 

We sell books on Kitaabworld published by around 10 different publishers in South Asia right now, and are actively working with new ones to review and stock their books in the coming months. We don’t have exact data, but I am quite sure over a 1,000 books are being published every year in South Asia.

How did you and co-founder Sadaf meet?

Gauri and Sadaf at a Holi event at the
Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose

Sadaf and I go back a long way – our husbands went to the same school and knew each other since kindergarten. We were good friends and would often meet up for playdates, coffees and mom’s night outs. 

When I felt the urge to start Kitaabworld, I reached out to Sadaf to brainstorm ideas with her – she and I complement each other very well in our skill sets, and I felt she would be the perfect partner to work with on Kitaabworld. I was delighted when she agreed to work on it with me, and we’ve not looked back since!

Corporate lawyer to bookseller seems like a big leap. Were there events and experiences in your background that helped prepare you for this?

Indeed it is, but definitely a fun one! Reading children’s books seems so much more fun than those 100 page agreements in size 10 Times New Roman filled with legalese. 

Having said that, I don’t think anything could have prepared me better for starting Kitaabworld than my many years of legal experience – well, I take that back – maybe some digital marketing experience would have been helpful! 
I was always an avid reader, and so introducing my kids to books was a given. I saw the power of children’s books as I was raising my own son – through books, we were able to calm his stranger anxiety, teach him how to share, understand how life would change when his baby brother arrives, and so many other life lessons. 
I realized how crucial books are for young children, and that convinced me even more to make the switch.

How do you promote your books or raise awareness about South Asian children’s literature?

At Kitaabworld, we wanted to be able to bring South Asian characters, books, issues, authors and those interested in South Asia under one umbrella – or at least to one place. One way we spread awareness is through curated book lists. For example, we published a round-up of best of 2016 South Asian children’s literature, a round of books celebrating mothers for Mothers’ Day, or books on Buddhism. 

Another way is through our curated book bundles, where we create topic-based book bundles such as Folktales of South Asia Book Bundle (for elementary schools) or our South Asian Book Award book bundles sorted out age-wise. These bundles help discovery of books that a prospective customer may not know exist on our website.

Tell us about the Counter Islamophobia Through Stories Campaign. What inspired it, how did you implement it, and what response have you had?

Like most of us, Sadaf and I were closely watching the political environment while working on Kitaabworld. When the Republican government won, we were really stunned – we did not realize the extent of divisiveness in the country.

We wondered what we could do as a children’s bookstore to contribute – we decided we could play a key role in changing perspectives of young children and ensuring they were more open and receptive to people who were unlike them. 
We felt that a key element missing from children’s literary landscape was positive representations of Muslims, especially Muslim kids. Since we had actively sourced a number of books keeping just that parameter in mind, we wanted to create multiple access points for people to engage with stories on and about Muslims. This was the genesis of our Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign.

We decided to break it down into four curated booklists around four different themes: Muslim Kids as Heroes, Inspiring Muslim Leaders, Celebrating Islam and Folktales from Islamic Traditions

We worked really hard at it – focused on the books we wanted to feature, the authors we wanted to interview, the stories we wanted to share. We brainstormed with some teachers and parents as to the best way to implement it. 
The response has been truly overwhelming – we have sold many books, and are excited to see them reach so many children all over the US. We are grateful that we were able to make a difference, and so thankful for the support we have received from parents, teachers and the community. 
We are now working with teachers and other community organisers to take the campaign offline through schools and into the hands of children. We hope that in our own small way, we can work together to plant the seeds of change.

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Writing Past The White Gaze As A Black Author by L.J. Alonge from NPR Code Switch. Peek: “… I found a video of Toni Morrison talking about the white gaze — the assumption that the reader is white and the resulting self-consciousness in your thinking and writing. Stories you know to be true and interesting somehow become distorted and unfamiliar.”

AICL’s Best Books of 2016 by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children’s Literature. Includes comics and graphic novels, board books, picture books, middle grade and young adult titles.

When Google Translate Gives You Arroz con Mango: Erroneous Espanol and the Need for #ownvoices by Celia C. Perez from the Horn Book. Peek: “The fact that these mistakes keep slipping through various cracks — from author, to editor, to copyeditor, to reviewer — speaks to the low number of Latinxs in writing, publishing, reviewing, and librarianship. And this lack of representation… has, inadvertently, become an invitation for non-Spanish-speaking authors to fill this void, even when they know little to nothing about the culture or the language.” See also: Helen Wang, Winner of the 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, interviewed by Nanette McGuiness from SCBWI: The Blog.

The #OwnVoices Gap in African-American Children’s Books by K.T. Horning from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center blog. Peek: “We can see that there are a whole lot of books being written about African Americans these days by people who are not African American….more significantly, this means we are not seeing African-American authors and artists being given the same opportunities to tell their own stories….” In 2016, only 71 of the 278 (25.5%) books about African-Americans were written and/or illustrated by African Americans.

Biographies: Black Women by Edi Campbell from Crazy QuiltEdi. Peek: “It does young girls good to know that women rulers have always existed…”

Interview With Whitney Gardner about You’re Welcome, Universe by Andrea Shettle & Natasha Razi from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: “I was interested in refreshing my ASL while writing this book, so I hired a deaf tutor. Once a week we would meet and chat and practice ASL. She also ended up reading the book and offering her insights.”

We Need Diverse Books Announces the Opening of Applications for the 2017 Internship Grants. Peek: “Five $2,500 grants are available to diverse publishing and literary agency interns. New this year, WNDB will include a metro stipend to each intern….An internship is an important gateway into positions at publishing houses and agencies, but the expense of living in New York City can be a barrier to many well qualified candidates.” See also, Free Diverse Picture Books For Elementary Schools: WNDB is giving away 30 sets of diverse picture books to elementary school libraries. Application deadline: March 15.

The Professional Writer Skill Set by Heidi Fiedler from SCBWI: The Blog. Peek: “And remember growing as a writer is about more than practicing writing. It’s about growing as a human being. So be gentle with yourself. Being human isn’t always easy.”

SCBWI-Illinois Launches Diverse New Member Pathway, intended to increase diversity among children’s book creators and among members of SCBWI. One winner will receive a year’s free membership in SCBWI and be guided by author Crystal Chan. See also, the SCBWI Amber Brown Grant for schools that need funding help for author visits.

Cover and excerpt from Libba Bray’s new book by Dan Heching from Entertainment Weekly. Peek:”Taking place in 1920s New York City, Before the Devil Breaks You (Little Brown, Oct. 3, 2017) sees the Diviners pitted agasint a brand new malevolent force – ghosts, with mysterious and dangerous links to the Man in the Stovetop Hat.”

Changes in New York Times Children’s Books Coverage by Emma Kantor from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Young adult coverage in particular has increased in frequency to reflect the genre’s popularity among both teens and adults. Coverage of teen books will remain separate from children’s coverage in print, in an effort to reach more readers.”

Five questions for Cynthia Levinson by Elissa Gershowitz and Katie Bircher from The Horn Book. Peek: “As I wrote, I could hear Audrey and Jan talking (in my head), so Audrey’s personality comes through. Also, the story is told in a mix of third person and first person, which allowed me to both provide background information and channel Audrey’s sass and grit.”

Conflict and Suspense Belong in Every Kind of Novel by James Scott Bell from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “While there those who say plot comes from character, I say Bosh. Character comes from plot. Why? Because true character is only revealed in crisis.”

The Daily Practice of Growing Your Audience by Dan Blank from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “I frame the process as crafting a gateway that leads people to your writing, opening the gate to your ideal readers, and then leading them through your gateway in meaningful ways. It is a process filled with joy, not spammy marketing tactics.” See also: Help From the Pros: Book Tour Tips by Greer Macallister from Writer UnBoxed.

Una Belle Townsend

Congratulations to author Una Belle Townsend! The Riverside Elementary School Library in El Reno, Oklahoma; was recently named in her honor. Una Belle taught at the school and successfully wrote grants that helped expand the library. She is the author of seven books, including Grady’s in the Silo, illustrated by Bob Artley (Pelican, 2003), winner of the Oklahoma Book Award.

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Screening Room

More Personally – Cynthia

Last week, I mentioned trimming 15,000 words from my novel in progress. This week, I’m writing new scenes. Whereas the previous plot was all about character, this is where getting to know those fictional people pays off in plot–I hope. Cross fingers for me, Cynsational readers!

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.

Also teaching Highlights workshop: Uma Krishnaswami!

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

I enjoyed a great literary lunch with Anne Bustard and Varsha Bajaj followed by an afternoon of writing. We were having so much fun talking books and stories, that I forgot to take pictures….

Personal Links

Guest Post: Susanna Reich & Gary Golio on Social Justice, Music & Picture Book Biographies

Susanna Reich and Gary Golio, photo by Laura Golio
By Susanna Reich and Gary Golio
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

From intern Gayleen Rabakukk

The power of music to inspire action is explored in two non-fiction picture books out this month: Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seger, Folk Music and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Bloomsbury, March 2017) and Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio, illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb (Millbrook Press, March 2017).

Husband and wife authors Susanna Reich and Gary Golio interviewed each other about the songs and inspiration behind their new books. 

Gary: Why a book about Pete?

Susanna: Pete Seeger had long been on my list of possible subjects when my agent connected me with Mary Kate Castellani, an editor at Bloomsbury. Her enthusiasm for Pete fired me up, and soon I was burning through every book I could find by and about him.

The fun of researching a musician, of course, lies in the perfect excuse it gives you to watch music videos on YouTube when you’re supposedly “working.”

Susanna: Where did you get the idea to write about the song “Strange Fruit”?

Gary: In this case, I was fascinated by the story of how three people–the songwriter (Abel Meeropol), the singer (Billie Holiday), and the club owner (Barney Josephson)–each played their part in bringing a unique work of art–the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit”–to the world.

Collaboration is often overlooked in the process of artmaking, yet the debut of this remarkable song depended completely on a combination of talents and resources.

Gary: Reading your book, it’s clear that you felt a strong personal connection to Pete, his music, and the work he did. Did you ever see or hear him in person?

Susanna: If you grew up in the Hudson Valley in the mid-20th century, it would have been hard not to hear Pete sing. He was constantly performing at local libraries, summer camps, waterfront festivals and political rallies.

I always knew that he and I had in common a love of the Hudson River, and that we both came from musical families with left-leaning politics.

As I did my research, my appreciation for him really grew. He was fierce and uncompromising in his dedication to the causes he believed in and had an amazing gift for bringing people together and lifting them up with music.

Susanna: So what’s your personal connection to Billie, Abel, Barney, and the song they brought into the world? By way of collaboration: how do you find a balance as an author between expressing your own vision and working with an illustrator and editor to make a picture book?

Also by Charlotte

Gary: Fortunately for me, the process of creating a book thwarts my natural If I Were King impulse, and the books are all the better for it. You have to become part of an orchestra.

Fortunately, I’ve also had great editors (like Carol Hinz) and illustrators (like Charlotte Riley-Webb), who aren’t afraid of bold subjects.

As for my connection with Abel, Billie, and Barney, I’ve always considered myself an outsider, and there’s nothing that irks me more than injustice directed against a group of innocent people. The good news is that something like a song can address injustice, and even catalyze social change.

Gary: So Pete was a pretty self-effacing guy – what do you think he’d make of your book, and being the heroic subject of a bio for kids?

Susanna: I think he would’ve been okay with it, since the point of the book isn’t to turn him into a hero but to show how he used music in pursuit of social justice.

He played a role in the great social movements of the 20th century–speaking out for unions and civil rights, opposing McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, advocating for the environment and an end to nuclear arms. This is history that kids need to know, and understanding how he combined art and politics is important and timely.

Susanna: Your book shows the intersection of art and politics too. What do you hope kids will take away from it?

Gary: That people need each other to make something bigger than themselves.

Look at Charlotte Riley-Webb’s images for the book–I truly believe that Billie would be immensely gratified to see a woman artist promoting the message of “Strange Fruit” with brushes and paint. Art is storytelling, and Charlotte’s work speaks to our time, both as Art and Politics.

Illustration by Charlotte Riley-Webb from Strange Fruit

Susanna: Speaking of art, I especially appreciate illustrator Adam Gustavson’s attention to period detail in Stand Up and Sing!, and his brilliant idea to create a background texture reminiscent of a calfskin banjo head.

His exquisite paintings really enhance the emotional impact of the text and make a beautiful music all their own.

Illustration by Adam Gustavson from Stand Up and Sing!

Cynsational Notes

Susanna Reich has been writing books for children since 1994. Her first book, Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso (Clarion, 1999) won an Orbis Pictus Honor, was an ALA Notable and Best Book for Young Adults and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. She’s also written biographies of dancer Jose Limon, artist George Catlin and the Beatles, as well as two MG novels. Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, illustrated by Amy Bates (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2012) was named a CCBC Choices Best Book of the Year and received critical acclaim. Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music and the Path to Justice has been named a Junior Library Guild selection.

Gary Golio gravitates to musical subjects for his picture book biographies. His first book, Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow, A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe (Clarion, 2010) became a New York Times Bestseller and was named to the Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Books for the Year. His other titles include When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan, illustrated by Marc Burckhardt (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2011), Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez (Clarion, 2012) and Bird and Diz: Two Friends Create Bebop, illustrated by Ed Young (Candlewick, 2015), named an ALA Notable book and Junior Library Guild Selection. Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song received a starred review from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

Author Interview: N. Griffin on Creativity, Mysteries and Writing a Series

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

N. Griffin is the author of Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of the Missing Goop, illustrated by Kate Hindley (Candlewick, 2016). The cheerful middle grade mystery is the second in a series featuring a diverse pair of clever student detectives.

What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?

My favorite thing about being an author is that I get to spend great hanks of time in my pajamas.
I have discussed this before elsewhere, but I do think it’s worth mentioning again that I always wear complete suits that make me feel like I am Lucy Ricardo.

I think pajamas are one of the great gifts of civilization and rue the day the hostess pajama fell out of fashion.

The other part about being an author I love is that I get to think up people and then spend great hanks of time with them (in my pajamas).

I always feel so much love toward my characters, even the ones that are tough to like, and that makes me feel lucky.

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

Good coffee cup because it is huge and fits
a lot of coffee and has a pig on it. I love pigs.

Generally I write in the early early (and I mean early, like four) hours of the morning because that is when my body insists on waking up and subsequently that is when there is coffee a’brewing.

I always wake up ready and clearheaded and in a good mood, so that’s the best time for me to be productive.

On a good day, and I mean a really good one, when the writing is going well and the good coffee cup is clean and ready to use and I feel a song in my heart, I’ll write all day.

On a bad day, I will poke at the keyboard with one finger in a maddish, desultory way and give up after an hour.

I firmly believe you have to give it an hour.
I have a wonderful study to write in but usually wind up crouched on the floor on the living room with dogs walking all over my papers and keyboard.

Somehow that spot tricks me into writing better than the quiet of the study.  Though I love my study.

Could you tell us about your new release? 

I surely can! It’s called Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of the Missing Goop and it came out in December with Candlewick Press.

SMcPatMotMG is the sequel to Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of Room 11 (Candlewick, 2015). A tale of third-grade sleuthery in which the hectic, kind-hearted Smashie and her level-headed, intelligent best friend, Dontel, work together to solve the mystery of their missing class pet.

In this sequel (you don’t have to have read the first one to enjoy the second), Smashie and Dontel are in hot pursuit of a thief who is taking their special hair goop—goop that is integral to the Third Grade Hair Extravaganza and Musicale their class is putting on.

This Goop lengthens and molds the hair into the wild styles they need for the show and even as they investigate the disappearance of the goop, Smashie and Dontel are hard at work choreographing sixties go-go dances to go along with the numbers in the musicale. So they have a lot on their plates.

I got the idea for the book from lots of places.

I always knew I wanted to do a book with hairstyles in it because haircutting has usurped flower-selling as my fantasy occupation when writing is not going well for me.

And it was also partly inspired by a hair guy I used to go to who was just terrible. I came home after every cut looking like he’d chewed my hair off in chunks with his own teeth. But he told great stories while he hacked at my head so I kept going. For years.

And it turned out to be worth it because I gave those bad haircutting skills to the mother of Charlene. Charlene herself is one of the characters at the forefront of the story because she helped her mother invent the wondrous goop the class needs for the show.

Also I wanted to do a book that would involve code-cracking (there is code-cracking in the book, too. It is a very packed book) and thought it would be hilarious to pair that thinkiness with sixties go-go dancing.

What appeals to you about the mystery genre? 

I love writing mysteries because the structure of them is so clear and that helps me as a writer because plotting is such a big challenge for me. Also I love mysteries and clues and sleuthing and truths being unveiled at the end. It is a very satisfying genre. I like to think I am preparing the next generation for Nero Wolfe (the oldest ones in that series. Not the later ones where Archie becomes sort of womanizy).

You’ve written for both YA and MG – were there any challenges in shifting to write for younger readers? 

Nicole is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Not at all!

 I had so much fun writing Smashie and found it worlds easier than writing YA, probably because the Smashie books, while they have their sticky situations, are in the main very cheerful and my YA tends to be less so.

Smashie is a bit less taxing on the soul.

What are the craft challenges of writing series books? What are the craft benefits of writing series books? 

Craft challenges abound. In mysteries, anyway, once you’ve set your sleuths up to be in a particular third grade class, suspects become limited unless you take that class places where there are other people (that was a hint about the forthcoming third Smashie book!)

But the benefits far outweigh any plot finagling that needs to happen because I love Room 11 and spending time with those children and their wonderful teacher, Ms. Early. So I can get right into the writing and I know how everyone will react to things and that part is the easy part of writing, which is good that there is an easy part since everything else about writing is so challenging for me!

Can we look forward to more books in the Smashie series?

Yes, indeed! As I said above, there is a third one coming and, while I tend to keep pretty mum about upcoming projects, I will say there is a rocket in it.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus said Smashie McPerter and the Mystery of the Missing Goop “subtly attacks stereotypes with her (Griffin’s) multi-ethnic group of hugely likable kids. Dontel’s dad is a dentist, and a Latina student’s mom is a patent attorney – a fact that also figures into the plot.”

N. Griffin is the author of The Whole Stupid Way We Are (Atheneum, 2013), for which she was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Flying Start Authors of 2013, as well as the Smashie McPerter series from Candlewick.

She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives outside of Boston with a crew of canine companions.

Author Videos: Angie Thomas on The Hate U Give

Compiled by Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Check out these videos from debut author Angie Thomas on The Hate U Give (Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins, 2017). Peek: “I was inspired to write the novel in 2010, right after the Oscar Grant case…I wanted a way to find hope and I wanted to show the human side of all these cases. I look at books as being a form of activism because a lot of times, they show us a side of the world that we may not have known about.”

Cynsational Notes

The Hate U Give received a starred review from Kirkus. Peek: “Thomas cuts to the heart of the matter for Starr and for so many like her, laying bare the systemic racism that undergirds her world, and she does so honestly and inescapably, balancing heartbreak and humor.” It’s also received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist and School Library Journal.

Discussion Guide is available for teachers.

Angie Thomas was born, raised, and still resides in Jackson, Mississippi. She is a former teen rapper whose greatest accomplishment was an article about her in Right-On Magazine. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from Belhaven University. The Hate U Give is her first YA novel.