Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

The Power of Representation by Ellen Oh from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “In books, you can be anything you want. A rock star, an astronaut, a warrior queen…. Books allowed me to escape from the hardships of real life….But I didn’t know that it also helped me develop a complex. You see, all I ever read were books about white kids.”

The Convenient Indian: How Activists Get Native Americans Wrong by Melanie Benson Taylor from the Los Angeles Review of Books. Peek: “Indians have been in all the headlines about the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline….The narrative here is so timeworn as to be banal: every epoch of American history has featured the callous removal of indigenous obstacles to the expansion of corporate capitalism.”

Angie Thomas Says The Hate U Give, Proves There’s a Market for Books With Black Characters by Victoria Sanusi from BuzzFeed. Peek: “‘Publishing does have a diversity issue…It’s easier for a young black boy in America to pick up a gun than to find a book where the main character is a young black boy and that’s a problem.”

Dhonielle Clayton on How The Belles Allowed Her to Explore Teen Issues by Nivea Serrao from Entertainment Weekly. Peek: “I write about things that bother me and this is something that Teenage Me was very bothered by: my body, it’s limitations, and why it didn’t look like magazines. I wanted to talk about a world where if you could change yourself down to your bones, what would it be like and what could you do?”

Children’s Institute Talks Diversity and Numbers by Judith Rosen from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “’We believe our work with We Need Diverse Books, the Children’s Book Council, and the Children’s Institute sponsors, whose event scholarships help broaden participation, is working toward the important goal of greater diversity.’”

Cover Reveal: Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton by Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal. Peek: “…apparently during World War I it was believed that if you painted a ship in a dazzle pattern it could make it difficult for an enemy to estimate the correct range, speed, and heading. In other words, the perfect subject for a work of nonfiction by Chris Barton.”

Terry Pierce and Mama Loves You So! by Adi Rule from The VCFA Launch Pad. Peek: “My son Greg, and a song, were the inspiration. I got the idea when he was a baby (he’s now 32!)…..after hearing the song ‘Longer,’ by singer Dan Fogelberg, I thought that someone should write a children’s book using nature as a metaphor to show a mother’s love for her baby.”

Third Person Narration: Using the Zoom Lens by Sarah Callender from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: “Likewise, in fiction with third person narration, we have control over the distance between the narrator and the reader. Sometimes we want to snuggle the reader inside the head of a character. Other times, like when I am trying to work in a coffee shop, a more distant narration is preferred.”

The Importance of a Strong Opening Scene by Hallie Ephron from Jane Friedman‘s Blog. Peek: “Your opening scene can be long or short. It can be action packed, or moody and rich in description, or skeletal and spare….Regardless of what’s in that scene, the reader should have some idea of what the novel is going to be about after reading it, or at least have a good sense of the theme. Most of all, when they finish, readers should be eager to keep reading.”

The Most Common Entry-Level Mistake in the Writing Game by Larry Brooks from Jane Friedman’s Blog. Peek: “By far the most common entry-level mistake in the writing game, the thing that can get a perfectly good story rejected by an editor on the first page, is overwriting: a writing voice that is laden with energy and adjectives, that tries too hard, that is self-conscious in a way that detracts from the story….”

Q&A With Rebecca Van Slyke by Deborah Kalb from Book Q&As. Peek: “I love playing with words, and I’ve always wanted to be a cowgirl. Putting the two together just seemed natural! I was on a road trip over the mountains when the phrase “word wrangler” popped into my head….Her name, Lexi, came easily: it’s Greek for word!”

Is Your Character’s Face the Window to Her Soul? by David Corbett from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: “To know the face is to know the person. Our faces are the roadmaps of our lives—they reveal our lingering innocence and hard-won experience, our openness and suspicion, our capacity for laughter, our bitterness, our anxiety, our lightness of heart.”

Planning the Perfect Love Triangle by Roz Morris from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “Consider why the lovers are attracted. For the cheating character, it’s usually something missing or unsatisfied. What does the lover add? It might be a dash of excitement or danger in a life that’s become too routine, but it might be the other way round.”

The Do’s and Don’ts of Query Letter Writing by Mark Gottlieb from Elizabeth Spann Craig’s blog. Peek: “A query letter that reads well is usually a good indication to the literary agent that the manuscript will similarly read well, inclining the literary agent to request a manuscript. Often the query letter can go on to become the publisher’s jacket copy, were the publisher to acquire the manuscript via the literary agent.”

Learning to Outsource and Then Let Go by Sharon Bially from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: “…I’m convinced it’s incredibly important for writers to learn to let go. True, as writers we value our solitude and the control we have over our work. But for our work to have broader appeal, to speak broadly to readers and to transcend our immediate networks, we will have no choice but to outsource at least certain core tasks at some point.  After all, it takes a village to create a great book and bring it out into the world.”

Illustrator Catia Chien On Failing by Mel Schuit from All The Wonders. Peek: “In early 2012 my life fell apart. I guess you can say it was a long time coming. I was raised in an emotionally and physically abusive family….I was working, illustrating two children’s books simultaneously. And I was trying to carve out some kind of life for myself. I was spread thin.”

How Are Children’s Publishers Talking About President Trump by Paula Willey from School Library Journal. Peek: “Only with a vast amount of context, much of which requires sophisticated analysis, can these elements be faithfully explained. Further, Trump’s public record is typified by negative, disputed, and sometimes vulgar statements. How do you fit that into 32, 60, or 100 pages using a low unique word count?”

Teaching a Novel by Teri Lesesne from Professor Nana’s Blog. Peek:”…when I read a number of tweets and posts about ‘teaching’ a novel, it simply set my curmudgeon teeth on edge. I teach students, not novels. My children’s lit class reads ore than 75 books a semester. The YA class reads about 25 books. I do not teach any of them. Students read the books. They respond to the books on a blog they create. They tie in other books, trailers, and the like. I do not take any title and ‘teach’ it.

Bookshare’s Free Ebook Library Making a Difference for Students with Print Disabilities by Omar Gallaga from the Austin American Statesman. Peek: “…before technology such as Bookshare, schools typically had the option of setting up a reading-disabled student with a ‘buddy reader’ student assistant, or sending the student to a content-mastery room, isolating them from the classroom. ‘Bookshare has allowed those students to be back in the classroom.’”

Congratulations to the winners of the 2017 Bank Street Children’s Book Awards! The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones by Wendelin Van Draanen (Knopf, 2016) received the Josette Frank Award, Ada’s Violin by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and March by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell (Top Shelf Books, 2016) and Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson (Carolrhoda, 2016) won the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award. When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Julie Morstad (Roaring Brook Press, 2016) won the Claudia Lewis Award. See also, the complete list of  Best Children’s Books of the Year.

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Screening Room

More Personally – Cynthia

How blessed am I? Last weekend, I had the opportunity to keynote at two diversity-focused children’s-YA literature/writing conferences–the Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State in Ohio and Kweli: The Color of Children’s Literature in Manhattan (NYC). At both, I spoke on my journey as a Native author, the importance of #ownvoices, writing across identity elements and how the conversation of books has evolved over the past twenty years.

Thank you so much to my hosts, especially those of you who came through with delicious dining and warm outwear for this naturalized Texan who’d forgotten about April snowstorms. Most appreciated!

Now, I’m joyfully polishing my YA novel in progress for my mid-May deadline. At this point, it’s mostly a matter of line-level work, though I have expanded a few scenes. Huzzah!

Carole Boston Weatherford & Don Tate at the Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University.

With Native writers and illustrators at Kweli: The Color of Children’s Literature Conference in New York.

Personal Links

More Personally – Gayleen
At last week’s Austin SCBWI meeting, I was honored to see the F&G’s (folded and gathered) of Paige Britt‘s upcoming picture book, Why Am I Me? illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls (Scholastic, September 2017). 
Several months ago, I had a writing meet-up with Paige and saw a few digital copies of the illustrations. That made it even more exciting to witness the next step in the publishing journey of this story.  

Personal Links

SCBWI Initiative: Lin Oliver on Books For Readers

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators recently announced a new initiative: Books for Readers. To learn how this program would get books into the hands of more young readers, I interviewed SCBWI’s Executive Director Lin Oliver.

So, each region will be nominating an organization, and then the SCBWI Board of Advisors and staff will pick one or two organizations that will receive the books, right?

Most of our SCBWI regions have been doing book drives for local organizations for a long time. The idea for SCBWI Books for Readers came from our desire to join our regions’ individual efforts to make a greater national and worldwide impact on the lives of readers in need. 

This initiative will advance our mission, as an organization of children’s book creators and literacy advocates, to place good books in the hands of all children.

Our regions will nominate organizations from their local communities. A selection committee made up of members of our Board of Advisors will select two recipients who will receive a library of books from SCBWI authors and illustrators, along with a big celebration party for the kids who are receiving the books.

We always want kids to associate books with a joyful experience. Presently, our members are in the process of nominating their top causes or organizations that are in need of books. The selection committee will begin their deliberations at the end of this month.

Can you tell us some of the factors the selection committee will be considering?

The SCBWI Books For Readers selection committee will choose two organizations or causes, based on their immediate need for books, and their ability to benefit from receiving a large donation of children’s books.

The collected books will be curated prior to the donation based on the type and number of books desired. Surplus books will be donated to other causes and/organizations who were nominated.

Tell us about the logistical aspects of this – members send their books to SCBWI Headquarters in L.A., then what? Have you rented a warehouse to store them? 

We are asking all interested SCBWI members to send no more than three copies of each of their books to our SCBWI HQ in LA. We will be renting a storage unit to house the books until we deliver them to the selected recipients.

The announcement mentioned, “soon to be out-of-print titles that could be donated instead of being pulped or remaindered.” Have any publishers stepped up to contribute their remainders to this effort, or should individual authors initiate this conversation directly with their editors or marketing staff?

We’ve made a change where this point is concerned. In order to make this a finely curated shipment of books to the recipients, we will not be taking large numbers of books either through remainders or those that will be pulped.

The mission of the Books For Readers initiative includes promoting SCBWI authors, illustrators and their books; can you tell me more about that aspect? What sort of promotion do you envision? 

Participating members’ names will be printed in an official SCBWI Books For Readers program, and all members are encouraged to attend the distribution events!

There will also be extensive publicity and promotional efforts surrounding the book drive, the donors and donations, and the distribution and celebration events on a national and regional level.

These efforts will focus on shining a light on the crucial need to increase book access for readers in need worldwide, to spotlight our donor members and their books, and to highlight SCBWI as a professional organization of book authors, illustrators, and literacy advocates.

Supporting literacy efforts seems like a natural fit for the book creators of SCBWI (our Austin region does a much smaller version of this – collecting books at our holiday party and donating them to a local organization) Has the larger organization been involved in an effort like this before? Is it something you hope to make an annual event?

Yes, yes, and yes!

Yes, it is a natural and organic fit. We create books for readers. There are so many kids who are in need of books, and we’d like to help change that. Yes, it is our first literacy initiative, and Yes, we plan to make this an annual event.

For more information, you can visit SCBWI Books For Readers. Thanks for your interest, for your help in spreading the word, and for all you do for children’s literature and our community!

Cynsations Notes

Nominate an organization from your region before the April 30 deadline.

Lin Oliver is the co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

For much of her career, she was an executive in the film and television industry, including being the Executive Vice President of MCA Universal Studios for over 12 years. She is the writer and executive producer of over 300 episodes of television and three feature films directed at the family audience.

During her career in film and television, she served as Executive Director of the SCBWI as a volunteer spending nights and weekends and vacations in the service of SCBWI while earning her living in filmed entertainment.

Since 2000, she has not only led the SCBWI as Executive Director but simultaneously has pursued her career as a children’s book author, publishing more than 35 books for children including a best-selling series about a child with learning differences.

She also manages staff and personnel matters, establishes programs with partner organizations (such as First Book or We Need Diverse Books or The American Library Association) and oversees much of the work of the regional advisors.  She has a BA in English from the University of California, Berkley, a Masters in Educational Psychology from UCLA, and has completed course work for an doctorate in Education from UCLA. She is recognized as a leading voice in promoting literacy and children’s literature.

New Voice: Hena Khan on Amina’s Voice

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Hena Khan, a well-published picture book author makes her novelist debut with Amina’s Voice (Salaam Reads, March 2017). From the promotional copy:

A Pakistani-American Muslim girl struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community.

Amina has never been comfortable in the spotlight. She is happy just hanging out with her best friend, Soojin. 

Except now that she’s in middle school everything feels different. Soojin is suddenly hanging out with Emily, one of the “cool” girls in the class, and even talking about changing her name to something more “American.” 

Does Amina need to start changing too? Or hiding who she is to fit in? While Amina grapples with these questions, she is devastated when her local mosque is vandalized.

Amina’s Voice brings to life the joys and challenges of a young Pakistani American and highlights the many ways in which one girl’s voice can help bring a diverse community together to love and support each other.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I was working as a communications specialist for an international public health organization when I unexpectedly got the opportunity to first write for kids back in 2001. 
I had a very good friend who worked as an editor with Scholastic’s continuity department. She was editing a series called Spy University and, since we had worked together on our high school newspaper, asked if I could help out with the writing. 
It was perfect timing for me because I was looking to transition out of a full-time job that required international travel as a new mother. I thought it could be the perfect stay-at-home alternative and a great way to balance my consulting work.

I soon realized that writing for kids was far harder than I had imagined! 

I’d grown a bit tired of writing and editing jargon- and data-filled technical documents with the aim of making them more accessible to lay audiences. 
And I thought that writing for kids would be a welcome change, which it was, but it took hours of practice for me to finally nail the lighthearted tone and fun style of the series. 
I had to learn to write in an upbeat, pun-filled manner, and to present a serious theme (espionage) in a kid-friendly and appropriate way. 
It was challenging at times but it helped to have an amazing mentor.

In the end, I loved writing those initial children’s books, and went on to write for three other series before my first trade-published picture book, Night of the Moon came out in 2008 with Chronicle Books.

What was your initial inspiration for writing Amina’s Voice?

I first thought about and started writing Amina’s Voice more than four years ago. 

I had published two picture books about Muslims, and wanted to write something for a middle-grade audience. Since books spoke to me the most when I was a middle grader myself, I loved the idea of connecting with that age group.

Also, parents often asked me to recommend mirror books for their tweens and I struggled since so few of them existed.

I wanted to write a story with a protagonist who was an “every girl” who happened to be an American Muslim. I hoped that readers of all backgrounds would be able to relate to her as much as I did to the characters I had grown up reading and loving—none of who had resembled me in any way. 

At the time, Islamophobia was growing in our country, and I was alarmed by reports of anti-Muslim campaigns, and an increasing number attacks on Islamic centers, bullying of Muslim kids, and hate-motivated crimes. 
I wanted to offer a Muslim friend to people who didn’t have one through storytelling, and a window into my often misunderstood and misrepresented faith and culture.

Amina is a girl that struggles with common challenges—friendship changes, family conflict, finding confidence. 

Yet the story also allows readers to get to know a Pakistani American family, gain access to an Islamic center and Muslim traditions, and to perhaps see how they’re not as different as they might have imagined. 
At the same time, the story introduces the idea that Muslims are not a monolith, and that there are variations in the way we approach our faith and integrate it into our daily lives, which is an important if subtle idea in the book.

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

The biggest challenge for me was trying to make sense of the various feedback I received from editors who initially passed on the book. 

Some said they loved the writing, connected with Amina and were emotionally moved by her story, but that it wasn’t the right fit for their list. Others said they didn’t connect with Amina’s voice enough or find her story compelling. Others said the book was too “quiet,” which was a term that was new to me, or—perhaps the hardest to hear—that they felt the book didn’t reflect the type of diversity that they were seeking. 
No one actually said what they recommended I do to “fix” the story or make it work better.

I was determined to tell the story I wanted to tell, even if it wasn’t likely going to be an extremely commercial book. 

After sitting with all the opinions for a while, and getting some helpful comments from my writers group, I finally realized what was missing in the story. 
We knew all the things Amina was afraid of or didn’t want, and not enough about what she did want. She was too much of a bystander in her own story. 
When I set about to change that, and give her more of a presence, I felt that she lost her sweet quality and had a personality change. So then I rewrote the book in the first person voice, which allowed me to really get into her head, see things from her perspective and get the voice right. 
I was also able to shed unnecessary details and edit out the 40-year old woman voice that had snuck in from time to time. But the story remained essentially the same.

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

As a child of Pakistani immigrants who was born and raised in America, and now as a mother to third generation American Muslims, I have a diverse background that also feels very common. 

I grew up witnessing my parents struggle to both assimilate and hold on to their culture, balancing two cultures myself, and reconciling my American identity with my Pakistani heritage and my faith. 
My children, who in many ways are much more grounded and comfortable with their identity that I was at their age, understand that they are as American as anyone else, no matter what they might hear. I like to think that growing up in a fairly diverse community, and having exposure to diverse books from a young age helped in that regard.

In a nutshell, what I essentially bring to my writing is an example of the amazing American immigrant experience, from a Pakistani American Muslim perspective. 

Pakistani Americans make up the largest percentage of immigrant Muslims in America, but the story I tell and the family I describe in Amina’s Voice is very familiar to people from a variety of cultural backgrounds and faiths. 
To me it was important to create a character who is unashamed of her culture or faith, who is unapologetically American and Muslim. It means a great deal to me for kids like mine, and all others, to be able to identify with, empathize with, and root for a character like Amina.

Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal, Booklist and Kirkus Reviews all gave Amina’s Voice starred reviews.

Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Khan deftly—and subtly—weaves aspects of Pakistani and Muslim culture into her story, allowing readers to unconsciously absorb details and develop understanding and compassion for another culture and faith. Amina’s middle school woes and the universal themes running through the book transcend culture, race, and religion.”

School Library Journal called it, “A universal story of self-acceptance and the acceptance of others. A welcome addition to any middle grade collection.”

Booklist wrote, “Khan gracefully balances portraying the unique features of Amina’s cultural and religious background with familiar themes of family, belonging, and friendship worries, which should resonate with a wide range of readers. Written as beautifully as Amina’s voice surely is, this compassionate, timely novel is highly recommended for all libraries.”

New Voice: Andrea Page on Sioux Code Talkers of World War II

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Andrea M. Page is the first-time author of Sioux Code Talkers of World War II (Pelican Publishing, 2017). From the promotional copy:

In World War II, code-making and code-breaking reached a feverish peak. The fabled Enigma Cipher had been broken, and all sides were looking for a secure, reliable means of communication.

Many have heard of the role of the Navajo Code Talkers, but less well-known are the Sioux Code Talkers using the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota dialects.

Told by the great-niece of John Bear King, who served in the First Cavalry in the Pacific Theatre as a Sioux Code Talker, this comprehensively informative title explores not only the importance of the indigenous peoples to the war, but also their culture and values. The Sioux Code Talkers of World War II follows seven Sioux who put aside a long history of prejudice against their people and joined the fight against Japan.

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

Great question. When I really set my mind to writing this story for publication, I enrolled in children’s writing courses at our local Writers and Books. I remember the first course was Writing Children’s Picture Books.

When starting out, I really thought the story would make a fine picture book. Very quickly, the instructor, Jennifer Meagher, gently informed me that the story was not a picture book and suggested a middle grade format. 
I tried fiction, then nonfiction, and over time, she helped me frame my book based on some mentor texts we located. Once I accepted the lengthier format, I knew what parts needed more research. 
In addition, I joined our local writing group, the Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators (RACWI) and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

 I formed a critique group, then another, and a third one with Jamie Moran and Kathleen Blasi. We added a few more writers to the group. People came and went, leaving Kathleen, Elizabeth Falk, Keely Hutton, and me. 

During all this time, I devoured every craft book I could find. I attended SCBWI conferences, including the one in New York City. Then I landed on a novel idea- the online course. I took a non-fiction writing course from Laura Purdie Salas and began to look at myself as an author-in-training.

Eventually, I sent a round of query letters out and Pelican Publishing Company responded. After reading my manuscript, editor Nina Kooij explained they might be interested if I doubled my word count. 

I was excited, but at that time, I had no idea how to double my word count. I knew I put all my solid research in the manuscript, I didn’t know what to do. But, I was not going to give up.

I took a self-imposed sabbatical to study the craft of writing. 

I studied mentor texts, I joined online writing groups, and heard tips about other intriguing books on author’s craft. I read and I wrote. And then one day, I found the Call of the Writer’s Craft (Simon & Schuster, 2009) by Tom Bird. His technique opened the door for me. 
Basically, you access the right brain, write fast, and write a lot. I stopped editing lines and wrote about topics in my book in no particular order. I filled a huge, blank sketchbook. (I still write this way today) I found my voice while piecing together the chapters in my book. 
Mailing final version of manuscript
In a few months, I more than doubled my word count. Revisions were easier. I resubmitted to Pelican Publishing Company five years later. I had more tasks to complete before I received a contract. But my contract finally came!

I still take online courses, most recently from Joyce Sweeney and attend writing conferences with my critique partners. I’ve enjoyed writing retreats with other writing buddies like Sharon Lochman, Leah Henderson, Patricia Miller, Agatha Rodi, Janie Reinart, Kristin Gray, Jenna Grodzicki, and Julie Rand.

 One cannot do this job alone. Having lots of writing friends helps raise the bar, sets high expectations, and keeps me moving forward.

I’ve had many opportunities at RACWI meetings to meet and learn from established authors. Studying the craft under mentors like Carol Johmann, Vivian Vande Velde, Linda Sue Park, Marsha Hayles, Ellen Stoll Walsh, Robin Pulver, M.J. Auch, Peggy Thomas and many others has been quite a gift over the years.

It’s been quite a journey from novice to published author. I’ve been blessed with wonderful writing friends who stand by me, cheer me on, and encourage me to dedicate my life to the craft of writing because that is who we are- writers and readers.

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

I encountered many hurdles while writing this book.

While researching at first I couldn’t find any documentation about the Sioux Code Talkers. Back then and even today, people are well aware of the Navajo Code Talkers. (There are a few reasons for that, which I explain in my book.)

My uncle’s unit only had seven men used as code talkers and their orders were top secret, so they couldn’t talk about their service for many years. 

By the time the papers were declassified, several men had died. I had the opportunity to interview one several times, but I wasn’t asking the right questions and his memories were vivid but not detailed enough for me to follow a solid trail.

Once I had a path to follow, I ran into other obstacles. 

Service records were destroyed in the St. Louis fire years before, historical records for the unit were minimal since the 302nd Rcn Troop was an unusual unit. Most members never attended the Cavalry Associations reunions. I did manage to meet the commanding officer of the unit at one reunion. We became close and he started sharing copies of his documents.

Literary & Logistical Struggles

I mentioned my determination to become a better writer in the previous answer. One added hurdle was trying to figure out the best way to tell this story. I kept planning, organizing and revising. 

One revision meant that I pulled everything apart, reorganized and wrote again – 35 different ways over 20 years.


There were many times over the course of 20 years that I had negative, internal thoughts: 

What if I’m not meant to do this? What if I get it wrong? I’m not a history person, I’ve never been in the military. So many people are expecting me to get this right. I’m a terrible writer. I’m too shy to put myself out there in the world. What if nobody likes my writing? I know I have no style or writing voice. I’m so tired- this is taking too long. 
This is where critique partners and a writing group are needed. They helped me re-frame these negative thoughts and keep moving forward. They are my biggest cheerleaders and I am theirs. 
We all know what we (writers) are going through with each low point as well as each highlight. We are connected to each other and share the highs and the lows together.

What would you have done differently?

I tried to stay organized by recording names, dates, all the citation information as best I could. 

Research bins
However, I wish I would’ve logged the details right from the beginning. 
When I was going through my final edits, I realized I couldn’t find one source for a quote. I looked through my nearly 10 bins of research, but couldn’t locate the quote’s documentation. I had to bail on that quote and find a similar one that could be cited in the bibliography. 
The second quote was adequate but not as powerful. So, I learned a valuable lesson as a nonfiction writer.

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

Watching historical movies became part of my research process. My teenage daughter sat down with me one night to watch, eventually asking, “Why aren’t we learning this stuff in school?”

I thought that was a great question. Our schools teach about historical events, but often times from the non-Native point of view. I hope my book opens the eyes of students and teachers to the two points of view. Both sides need to be studied. This is part of our history as a country.

Growing up in two worlds myself (Native and non-Native) as well as learning about different cultures (Lakota Sioux, German) made me knowledgeable and accepting of many differences and cultural viewpoints. 

Mary Monsees (Andrea’s mom), John “Teton Jack” Gibbons Langan & Andrea at Yellowstone. Jack was the first person to confirm the use of Lakota language in coded messages by the 302 Rcn Troop. As a member of the First Cavalry Division, he witnessed the use of the Code Talkers sending and receiving the top secret messages. He pushed Andrea to tell the story of the Sioux Code Talkers.  He died in 2002 and did not have the opportunity to see the finished book.
We were blessed with determined, hard-working parents who took us on many trips to South Dakota, Germany, and Australia to visit our family members. Many times, these experiences opened our eyes to the way people connected with each other, good and bad. We learned both sides and became stronger, more resilient people because of our experiences. This is my hope for my readers as well.
Code Talkers were awarded Congressional
Medals in November 2013
Lastly, I wanted to share a story about a Congressional hearing that took place in Washington D.C. Veterans provided testimony in support for the Code Talker Recognition Act. Some elders testified in their own language. 
Since the hearings are recorded, this may be the first time testimony was documented in Lakota. I heard the pride in the veterans’ voices when they explained this, and it made such an impression on me that I pursued trying to have some of the code messages translated. 
The incoming and outgoing messages are documented in the military files and I asked an elder who knew how to read and write the language if she would translate for me. Therese Martin worked tirelessly to complete this task for me. 
Once I typed the messages, I wanted to make sure that the language was authentic and readable from another source. I contacted another elder, Vernon Ashley, who verified the coded messages. I’m pleased and thrilled that these two elders supported the efforts to include the Lakota language in the book.
Mary Monsees, Andrea’s daughter Alana and Andrea with Law Honoring Code Talkers
Andrea and her mom, Mary Monsees with the Gold Medal honoring
John Bear King for his service in World War II.
Cynsations Notes
Andrea M. Page is a sixth-grade English Language Arts teacher and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Her interest in her great-uncle’s story began in 1994 when a family member found a newspaper article about John Bear King, revealing his previously unknown World War II service. For 20 years, she gathered information on his story through interviews and research. 

She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, The Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators and the New York State United Teachers.
Kirkus Reviews said Sioux Code Talkers of World War II is “an engagingly written, deeply researched account of a little-known part of World War II” and “Page explores not only the importance of these soldiers to the war, but also their history, culture, and values.” 

Book Trailer

Author Interview: Michelle Markel Explores the Birth of Children’s Literature

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Each January the kidlit community celebrates the Newbery Medal and Honor Books awarded by the Association of Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. Some even have gatherings to watch the webcast of the awards presentation, but do we know about the man the award was named for?

Michelle Markel offers insight in her new picture book: Balderdash!: John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, (Chronicle, April 2017). She recently shared more about Newbery and her research and writing process.

Why were you drawn to the story of John Newbery?

He wanted to spread knowledge, encourage reading, and offer kids informative and delightful books. Me too!

Newbery’s first publication for children, A Little Pretty Pocket Book, had letters from Jack the Giant Killer, and was sold with a ball or pincushion. A book and a toy- in 1744! That was forward thinking.

In those days, children’s literature consisted mostly of fables and grim texts on manners or religion (think: New England Primer, “While youth do cheer, death may be near”).

Interior illustration by Nancy Carpenter

Can you tell us about your research?

The highlight was checking out Newbery’s antique little books at UCLA’s Special Collections Library. It was like holding the crown jewels!

Special Collections

For details about the setting, and printing presses in particular, I looked at 18th century paintings and illustrations. I read novels, primers, books of manners, and collections of street cries- this gave me a feeling for the language of that era.

An exhibit on Samuel Johnson (one of Newbery’s acquaintances) at the Huntington Library was helpful too.

Was there anything you learned that surprised you?

Newbery was a clever advertiser. Some of his publications for children cross reference each other. So Woglog the Giant, who is a villain in Lilliputian Magazine, later changes his ways and shows up in Fables in Verse, where he visits a bookshop to read some of Newbery’s little books.

Product placement. Metafiction!

I was also surprised by the kid appeal in The History of Little Goody Two Shoes. One of my favorite characters is Ralph the Raven, who is rescued by Little Goody, then taught to speak and spell. He perches on the heroine’s arm and recites poems.

Do you typically visualize the illustrations for your picture books? What about this one?

I may have a general notion about the style, but the editors and art directors are far more talented at choosing illustrators than I am (my writing students are appalled when I tell them this).

For Balderdash- I envisioned old timey artwork, and I think Nancy Carpenter nailed it. Her pen and ink artwork captures the playfulness of the text, and adds lots of treats for the kids to discover.

Interior illustration by Nancy Carpenter

What might readers take away from the book?

They might get a sense of how culture changes over time, and how trailblazers like Newbery and one of his influences- John Locke- advance new ideas.

I hope young readers will understand how much books were loved and treasured in the 18th century- and I hope that’s contagious.

Michelle’s writing buddy

Do you have any tips for nonfiction writers?

1. At some point the research can become overwhelming- you can’t see the forest for the trees. There are so many delicious facts- how to decide which to include?

That’s when it helps to revisit a clean, concisely written nonfiction book (one of my favorites is Diego by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Jeanette Winter (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).

2. Remember the age of your audience.

Pick a subject you deeply believe in- and that young people can relate to. Then blow their minds. Pour some love into the story – No holding back!

Cynsations Notes

Michelle Markel is the author of many books for young readers, including Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Balzer & Bray, 2013), an Orbis Pictus Honor Book for 2014 that also received the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for Nonfiction from Bank Street.

Balderdash! is a Junior Library Guild selection for 2017.

It also received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. Peek: “…Markel’s enthusiastic narration pays its own homage to Newbery’s belief that children should have ‘delightful books of their own.’

A teacher’s guide for Balderdash! is available from Chronicle Books.

Michelle lives in West Hills, California and is a founding member of The Children’s Authors Network. She teaches classes in writing for young people through the UCLA Extension’s Writer’s Program.

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Not So Simple by Susan Tan from CBC Diversity. Peek: “Then came a question on race…. I quickly found my answer and carefully chose my spot—halfway between the group of students who identified as white and the group who identified as Asian….I was shocked when my teacher disciplined me in front of the class…chastising me for choosing two groups when her survey allowed her to tick only one box.”

Gene Luen Yang Comic Available for Download by Kathy Ishizuka from School Library Journal. Peek: “To share this graphic lesson on empathy with the greater community beyond our subscribers, we’re pleased to provide a high-res PDF version. It’s freely available to download and use, with Mr. Yang’s kind permission.”

On Impractical Urges by Ayana Mathis from Guernica. Peek: “Why would the nation rally against a government that didn’t support public schools, social programs, or make any attempt at improving the conditions of poor and black folk when every available representation of those people showed them to be irremediably degenerate? And what were we—young black people raised on a steady diet of images that showed us as unworthy, ugly, peripheral—to think of ourselves?”

Outlandish: Braving New Perspectives Through Books in Translation by Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal. Peek: “But the fact of the matter is that talking about diverse children’s books goes above and beyond the familiar. Sure we need windows and mirrors, but don’t those windows need to look out at something besides our own backyards?” See also, Even More Outlandish: Further Thoughts on the Role of Translation and Children’s Literature.

With This Publisher, Native American Superheroes Fly High by Megan Kamerick from All Things Considered. Features Jon Proudstar, creator of Tribal Force (Mystic Comics, 1996), the first comic featuring a team of Native American superheroes. The series is being rebooted by Native Realities Press. Peek: “These are things that we face in our community and we still need superheroes…. We need people that are going to be there to be protect us, that are going to be there to help us out.”

Writing Haiku with Curtis Manley, Author of the Crane Girl by Keilin Huang from the Lee & Low Blog. Peek: “Keeping notes of what you’ve been doing (whether in journal format, as lists, or as poetry) might lead to a poem that means something to you. Sometimes when you are writing, your thoughts will go off on a tangent that you didn’t expect; when that happens, keep writing and see where you end up!”

Dear Cisgender People who Write, Publish, and Read “Trans” Books by Constance Augusta Zaber from BookRiot. Peek: “’Dear cis people who read books about trans characters, who write about trans characters, who turn manuscripts about trans characters into books about trans characters: when do trans lives become too boring for you to read about?’ This question comes out of the number of ‘trans’ books I’ve read with completely interchangeable plots.”

The Social Model of Disability in the Children’s Area by S. Bryce Kozla from the ALSC Blog. Peek: “…people who subscribe to this model operate with the assumption that if quality of life is reduced for disabled people, it is due to a world that has been designed without us in mind. People who understand disability through this lens acknowledge that there is a lot society can do to break down barriers to a quality life as a disabled person, and each disabled person does not need to be fixed.” Note: approximately 20 percent of the population has at least one disability.

Marianna Baer and The Inconceivable Life of Quinn by Lisa Doan from the VCFA Launch Pad. Peek: “Quick fact: I have a Word file titled ‘Deleted Scenes’ for this book that is 64,675 words long. And that is only one of three files of deleted material!”

Interview: Gary Golio by Edi Campbell from Crazy QuiltEdi. Peek: “When most people think of Billie, they think of her talents and her troubles. But she was also a very courageous person, and her singing of ‘Strange Fruit’ proves that. She was insulted, assaulted, spat upon and shunned because she championed a song about lynching, and she served the message of that song until the end of her life.”

Penny Parker Klostermann Finds Ideas in the Clouds from The Booking Biz. Peek: “My inspiration comes from opening my imagination to characters, situations, or settings…I have always loved that book (There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly) and hoped I could come up with a character who would be as much fun as the old lady. One day this was on my brain and I was walking before sunset. I saw a cloud that looked just like a dragon. It was beautiful. I thought about a dragon and all the fun things he could swallow.”

Member Interview: Cynthia Levinson from Austin SCBWI. Peek: “There are two things that feed my work—curiosity and deadlines. The former amounts to my antennae. I’m always listening and reading for possible stories to delve into. And deadlines keep me rooted to my desk.”

10 Year Celebration and a Fond Farewell by Lorie Ann Grover from Readergirlz. Peek: “In light of the ease and accessibility today to find, follow, and enjoy connections between authors and readers, the co-founders, divas, and support team are returning to their own work fully, ending readergirlz…..The readergirlz website will be active through the end of 2017. The blog is complete, archiving our past, and it will remain accessible but not active.”

Casting the Spell by Donald Maass from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: “From the darkest horror to the frothiest comedy, novels can immediately put us under a spell but too often they don’t. The voice relating the tale is far off, timid, or false; a huckster’s voice selling us a sideshow trick or the phony intimacy of a presumptuous stranger.”

Can Acting Make You a Better Writer? by Nick Cross from Notes from the Slushpile. Peek: “You can write without being fully engaged, but it’s unsatisfying and very stop/start, because the rational side of your brain keeps interrupting the creative side. Drama and acting forces you to be directly in the moment, to go with your gut instinct and to improvise.”

4 Freelancing Myths That Are Holding You Back by Linda Formichelli & Diana Burrell from Jane Friedman‘s blog. Peek: “Location may be all-important in real estate, but you’re selling ideas, not land—and ideas can be written about from anywhere. Stop worrying that you can’t make it big as a writer if you’re not in New York. You can succeed in writing from anywhere, except if you’re totally off the grid.”

Is Your Fiction Big Enough by James Scott Bell from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: “There are techniques that apply to the things we can do, and others that help us identify things we ought to avoid. I call this latter group ‘speed bumps.’ The reader may not notice them consciously, but in subtle ways they interrupt the fictive dream.”

What’s an “objective correlative,” huh? by A.B. Westrick from A.B. Westrick’s blog. Peek: “The essence of the technique is this: in order to communicate to readers what your character might be feeling, describe an object, situation, or set of circumstances that correlates with the character’s emotion. Don’t identify the emotion; let the reader infer it.”

Hidden Emotions: How to Tell Readers What Characters Don’t Want to Show by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “One of the struggles that comes with writing is when a character feels vulnerable and so tries to hide their emotions as a result…. But where does that leave writers who still have to show these hidden emotions to the reader (and possibly other characters in the scene)?” See also, The Efficient Writer: Using Timelines to Organize Story Details.

Submitting to Literary Agents Who Have Already Rejected Your Work by Mary Kole from Peek: “Agents do remember people who’ve submitted to them, even a few years on. Most use email inboxes that make your previous submissions easy to find. And if you’re submitting to them and you have a history of previous submissions, you do want to mention that they’ve previously seen your work in your query.”

Writer Shame vs. Writer Guilt by Erika Robuck from Writer UnBoxed. Peek:”If you are a writer, rejection is a certainty. Every single writer at every single step of the process has and will experience it….Those authors who make a career out of writing aren’t necessarily more talented than unpublished writers, but they are more stubborn. More positively: they adapt and move on. They understand rejection is not personal, or the work isn’t ready, or the timing isn’t right.”

Wild Rumpus Named 2017 PW Bookstore of the Year by Judith Rosen from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “For the first time since the PW awards were launched nearly 25 years ago, a children’s bookstore has been named winner by a panel of industry judges. Wild Rumpus Books in Minneapolis….is celebrating its first quarter century in 2017….”

Hints from the Pros: More Book Tour Tips by Greer Macallister from Writer UnBoxed. Peek: “Always, and I really do mean always, check the spelling of every name before you inscribe. Even the most innocent and simple-sounding names have improbable variations – and the most surefire way of coming across these is to launch into the dedication without checking first.” And, “Always use your own pen to sign books. Other people’s pens are covered in other people’s germs.”

How You Can Save Federal Funding for Libraries & Help Teens from the Lee & Low Blog. Peek: “…through IMLS (Institute of Museum & Library Services), every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories receive funding to support their state’s libraries and museums. In FY14 the total funding IMLS distributed to states and territories was $154,800,000.” See also, YALSA’s Advocacy page for more action items.

Congratulations to Jiton Sharmayne Davidson, winner of the Illinois SCBWI Diverse New Member Pathway AwardCrystal Chan serves as the inaugural Guide to introduce Jiton to SCBWI and the kidlit community.

Upcoming  #DiverseKidLit chat on Twitter, 8-9 p.m., Eastern Time, April 10, more details on The Logonauts blog.

Cynsational Screening Room

2017 Walter Dean Myers Award winners and honorees Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell, Meredith Russo, Marina Budhos and Nicola Yoon on why We Need Diverse Books. Plus, applications are still open for 2017 WNDB Internship grants.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

At Home, Speech-Prep Station

It’s a whirlwind, author-speaker weekend as I’m giving keynotes a the 33rd Annual Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State in Ohio and The Color of Children’s Literature Conference, sponsored by Kweli Literary Journal at the New York Times Conference Center in Manhattan.

A challenge to speech preparation is doing enough so that you’re ready but not so much that you blow out your voice.

I focused on finishing the text and PowerPoint presentations last weekend and then tweaked while rehearsing each speech once a day on Monday through Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the YA novel in progress is largely on hold. But not completely.

I’ve been adding about 150 words a day from notes that came to me as I was falling asleep. I text them to myself in bed, which isn’t great for shut eye, but there’s something about the connections the mind makes in that hazy in-between place.

Those 150ish words are snippets of dialogue, brushstrokes of setting or secondary character development. They don’t always fit anywhere the next morning, but they’re worth recording to try.

Personal Links

More Personally – Gayleen

I always learn things while editing and formatting each week’s Cynsations posts, but this week particularly resonated with me.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s advice to notice and appreciate the little things and the incredible detail of Suzanne’s feather illustrations inspired me to slow down and savor my hot tea, the amaryllis blossom in my flowerbed and the elegance of words on the page.

As a Writer Mama, Bethany’s balancing strategies hit home, and were echoed by Mike’s discovery of “the 25-minute gap between when the last kid left for school and before I had to race out the door for work.”

For many years I slipped writing time into the crevices of my life, between a day job, numerous volunteer commitments and family obligations.

Now I revel in putting it front and center. In fact, my writing meet-up this week stretched from our normal two hours, into almost five.

I’ve discovered my family doesn’t really care if the laundry gets folded later, or if dinner ends up being a salad rather than a time-consuming effort involving a main dish and two sides. I smile more, and they like that a lot!

Also happy to report that I’m now an official member of the Texas Library Association and am looking forward to the upcoming conference.

Personal Links

New Voice: Michael Merschel on Revenge of the Star Survivors

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Michael Merschel is the first-time author of Revenge of the Star Survivors (Holiday House, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Middle school meets the Dark Side in this painfully funny survival story of social misfit Clark Sherman. 

When Clark crash-lands on the inhospitable planet of Festus Middle School, he soon learns the natives don’t take kindly to newcomers . . . particularly ones who practice Jedi mind tricks and follow nerdy TV shows like Star Survivors. 

As he faces a conspiring group of violent bullies, browbeaten teachers and a fiendish principal, Clark knows he’ll be lucky just to survive eighth grade.

Then, hope appears on the horizon: there is Les, the enigmatic boy who seems to disappear at will; Ricki, a fellow Star Survivors fan; and the independent-minded librarian, Ms. Beacon. 

When Clark and his newfound allies are imperiled, he gathers his courage and the consequences of his actions ripple through the galaxy in life-altering ways.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

To be honest, when I started, I didn’t know that I was writing for young readers. I had an idea for a story, and I decided I would try telling it, and see what happened. It was only after I submitted to an agent, and she said she’d be happy to represent my middle-grade novel, that I realized, “Oh. I’m a middle-grade novelist.”

I was fine with that, for a couple of reasons.

One of my intellectual heroes is Chuck Jones, who directed many of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons. (This might give you an idea of exactly how much of an intellectual I am, but I digress.)

 I loved him as a kid — it’s because of him that I learned to pay attention to the opening credits on Saturday morning cartoons, because I figured out that if his name was listed, it was going to be a good one. And I love him as an adult, because anybody who can create art that’s still beautiful and funny 60 or 70 years on apparently knew what he was doing.

Anyhow, I remember hearing an interview with him where he said that he never created for children. He just created work that he and his colleagues enjoyed. I just found this quote from him — “You have no right to ‘write for children.’ You do the best thing that you can do. …. There’s only one test of a great children’s book, or a great children’s film, and that is this: if it can be read or viewed with pleasure by adults, then it has the chance to be a great children’s film, or a great children’s book. If it doesn’t, it has no chance.”

I feel the same way. A book is either good, or it’s not. Age doesn’t really enter into it.

Another intellectual godparent to this book would be Judy Blume. I loved her so much as a boy.

I heard her speak a few years ago, and I realized: People loved her because she told us the truth. I have done my best to emulate that spirit in my book.

One final thing that inspired me, once I realized what I was doing, is the memory of how I inhaled books when I was between third and eighth grades. I’d read my favorites eight, nine, ten times over a couple of years.

I think my nervous system was rewired around some of those books. It’s an honor, and a little scary, to realize than I’m now one of those authors. Though lightning may strike me if I dare compare myself to Judy Blume as anything more than a source of inspiration.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Mike in sixth grade,
wearing his favorite shirt 

Well, I suppose the initial inspiration was when my family moved when I was in seventh grade.

It was a real shock to me at the time, and I convinced myself, in the way that a lot of 13-year-olds do, that my experience had to have been the worst of all time. But as I grew up, I realized — lots of people feel awkward, and alienated, in their junior high years. Whether they moved or didn’t. Whether they were popular or not.

It’s just sort of a universal experience. By comparison to a lot of people, I had it really easy.

So I convinced myself — there’s nothing to write about there. It would be a terrible cliche.

But then, my oldest daughter entered seventh grade. I was up at her junior high for orientation. It looked about the same as my own junior high, which made me feel a little edgy.

I was probably extra edgy because we were standing by the gym, and to be honest, the main reason I have gone to church was so that I do not have to spend eternity in a place that looks like a junior high gym.

Anyhow, I’m standing there, and down the hall comes this gaggle of eighth-grade girls. They were dressed rather … aggressively, and they were headed straight toward me. And I literally jumped out of their way — pressed my back against the wall, tried to become invisible — because they scared me. Even though I was about 30 years older than they were.

I realized later that they had been part of some kind of skit intended to show how not to dress and behave, but the fearful feelings I had were so intense I decided, “Maybe there is something I could write about here.”

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

Finding the time. I have a full-time-plus job and had three kids and did not have an office with a door that could be closed.

I started off thinking, “I really need at least a few hours in a quiet room, with an inspirational view and the right mood music playing, to craft my art.”

By the end, I had learned that I could get a lot done at the kitchen table in the morning during the 25-minute gap between when the last kid left for school and before I had to race out the door for work. (I should note that I have an extremely supportive wife who did a lot of hard work on nights weekends when I was locked in my bedroom staring grumpily at the computer screen. Thanks, honey.)

Mike with C3PO and Anthony Daniels (photo by David Woo)

That has a direct connection to my subject matter, though. When I was searching for ideas for a
novel, I knew that I needed to choose a topic that would not need a lot of in-depth reporting. And nerdy, science-fiction-obsessed outcasts? I did not need to research that.

I did end up doing research to understand the characters, though. I read a bit about the psychology of bullying. I tried to absorb a lot of material on racism and microaggressions. And electronics.

I’m not an expert on any of those things. But I hope I learned enough to get it right.

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

I had a very clever plan for finding an agent. I’m fortunate that in my day job, editing book reviews for The Dallas Morning News, I get to work with a lot of people in the publishing world, and I asked a couple of them for advice. One was a client of Sarah Burnes’.

I spent a few days Google-stalking her, saw that we had some common nerdy interests — I knew I would need an agent who spoke fluent nerd — and our mutual friend agreed to forward my material along. And Sarah agreed to look it over.

Now, I honestly had no expectation that she would take me on as a client. She has some really amazing clients, and I knew my work was not yet at their level. But I thought — if a rock star agent like her can give me feedback as she rejects me, I can just use her advice, make revisions, and then find someone else willing to take me on.

Several months went by, and the long wait made me think — obviously, she’s got zero interest.

To compress the story, after about six months, I finally got her evaluation. It began with a critique of all the things that were wrong with my manuscript, and I thought, “Yep, just as I suspected — she’s rejecting me.” But she ended by saying that if I was willing to make changes, she’d be happy to take me on.

I told her — in my business, that’s what we call “Burying the lead.”

I would not be here right now without her. She’s a brilliant editor, a font of optimism and a clever guide who led me through two rounds of submissions and eventually connected me with an editor and publisher who have been very good to me, Kelly Loughman of Holiday House.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

I’m going to answer that by talking about two sets of writers who taught me much of what I know about writing.

The first was the set of features writers and editors I worked with when I edited the Sunday Living section of The Dallas Morning News.

They were gifted wordsmiths, and we had the luxury of talking about what makes a piece of writing work. And we had the time to go back and rework pieces until we got it right. Before I worked with those people, I thought that good writing was something that came off the top of your head. They taught me that it’s actually something that usually doesn’t show up until the fifth draft, if you are lucky.

In 2006, I started editing books coverage at the paper. Which meant I got to interview a lot of writers, and listen to even more at places such as the Texas Book Festival and the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

I probably stole some nugget of advice from every person I listened to. It was a real gift, something I highly recommend to any aspiring writer. Or accomplished one, for that matter.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

There was a point, after the manuscript had been revised, submitted, rejected, re-revised, re-submitted and re-rejected that I had given up hope.

And while I prayed that I was wrong, I felt particularly awful not for me, but for my characters. I had put them through a lot. I didn’t want them to have suffered so much and consigned to being stuck in my brain.

Much later, late in the editing process, my editor started giving me enthusiastic feedback from other people who had read it.

I was confused — “How did this total stranger know anything about my story, which has been living in my head and shared with only a few people?” That’s when I started to realize — “Oh. This really is going to be a book.” It was a good feeling.

Young fans at the launch party, including Mike’s son on the left (photo by Amy Gutierrez)

Guests give the Star Survivor salute at the launch party

What would you have done differently?

Started sooner. I always had an excuse to not write. In retrospect, they were all terrible excuses. That’s not to say I was ready to start a novel when I was, say, 22. But I wasn’t ready at 42, either.

You learn by doing. I hope people have fun with what I came up with.

Cynsational Notes

(Photo by Christopher Wynn)

Michael Merschel is the books editor and assistant arts editor at the Dallas Morning News where he’s interviewed Norton Juster and William Shatner, just to name a few.

He lives in Texas with his wife and three kids, who tell him he is not all that funny, usually.

Publishers Weekly said, “Merschel uses Clark’s SF passions—from everything from ‘Star Wars’ to his favorite (fictional) show, ‘Star Survivors’—as a smart metaphor for coping with change, but the real heart of the story is in its complex characters, tongue-in-cheek tone, and emotional honesty.”

See also his recent essay from The Dallas Morning News on what he learned about writing fiction. 

New Voice: Author-Illustrator Suzanne Del Rizzo

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

While a well-published illustrator, Suzanne Del Rizzo celebrates her authorial debut with My Beautiful Birds, which she also illustrated (Pajama Press, March 2017). From the promotional copy:

Behind Sami, the Syrian skyline is full of smoke. The boy follows his family and all his neighbours in a long line, as they trudge through the sands and hills to escape the bombs that have destroyed their homes. But all Sami can think of is his pet pigeons—will they escape too? 

When they reach a refugee camp and are safe at last, everyone settles into the tent city. But though the children start to play and go to school again, Sami can’t join in. When he is given paper and paint, all he can do is smear his painting with black. He can’t forget his birds and what his family has left behind.

One day a canary, a dove, and a rose finch fly into the camp. They flutter around Sami and settle on his outstretched arms. For Sami it is one step in a long healing process at last.

What inspired you to write My Beautiful Birds?

The Syrian civil war has just entered its sixth year. My school-aged children had been asking about the conflict, so I went online to search up some child-friendly resources to share with them. 

Being an often scary and unsettling issue, I wanted to ensure I approached the topic from an age-appropriate and safe way such that my kids would be left feeling empathetic and reflective yet informed. 
Ontario Library Services book signing

I came across some good articles and information including a short article featuring a young boy who was raising a variety of wild birds in the Za’atari refugee camp. I thought to myself how important it was to have picture books that act as windows into the world, providing a safe opportunity for children to learn about other children’s circumstances and issues.

My Beautiful Birds was inspired by that little boy, his struggle with displacement and the universality I think all children have with their affinity to animals. 

Displacement is something many children face, from forest fire evacuation, to moving house, to fleeing war, and the struggles they encounter to reacclimate can be very hard. 
Likewise, all children, regardless of nationality, gender, or religion- they all love to play, learn and make new friends. It is my hope that these commonalities presented in My Beautiful Birds resonate with all children.

Once you wrote the story how did your writing group help you?

BAM! (Burlington Authors Mafia): Jennifer Mook-Sang,
Deborah Serravalle, Gisela Sherman, Jennifer Maruno, Sylvia McNicoll.
Seated: Suzanne and Rebecca Bender. Not pictured: Lana Button
Gillian Chan, Wendy Whittingham, Judith Robinson.

My writers group meets up about two times per month. They are a great group of talented ladies with diverse and extensive writing backgrounds and interests. 

We are all about providing a friendly, encouraging environment with honest, thoughtful feedback (and sometimes yummy treats), so we can feel comfortable sharing our first awkward drafts, and know every comment and critique comes from a good place. 
I read my first few drafts of this manuscript to my group (and two of my other writerly friends, Monica Kulling, and Lisa Dalrymple) and they critiqued it thoughtfully, pointing out niggle-y areas and offered great suggestions to help me strengthen my story.

What was the editorial process like?

Managing editor Erin Alladin and Suzanne

Ann Featherstone, senior editor at Pajama Press, was my editor for this project. She lives in British Columbia, so although weren’t able to meet in person we talked over the phone or via email to discuss the manuscript. 

We went through a few rounds of edits, to work out some areas that were initially a bit confusing. Ann was wonderful to work with as an editor. She was very open and helpful knowing this was my first time as an author-illustrator.

What are the similarities/differences in working with an editor versus an art director?

I found the experience to have more similarities than differences actually. 
Doing edits on a manuscript feels, to me at least, quite similar to making art changes based on art direction. With each you are fine tuning your creation to best suit the project, and maybe because I am such a visual thinker, the words I write are so intertwined with my images in my head, it is hard to totally separate them. 
I quite enjoy the collaborative approach with both editing/writing and art direction/illustrating as the brainstorming sessions of both leave me invigorated to create or tweak my writing/illustrations.
Editorial feedback or art direction really helps me to focus my ideas and it pushes me in unexpected directions that I might not have achieved on my own.

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?

I wanted this book to not only depict beautiful and thought-provoking illustrations but I wanted to ensure that the artwork accurately and respectfully portrayed the Syrian people living in refugee camps.

Work-in-progress photo of Syrian landscape – note research photo, upper right

 Although I didn’t have to opportunity to travel to a camp myself, I did my best to research as much as I could from as many sources as possible to ensure I was informed and educated before beginning my illustrations. 

Work-in-progress of family fleeing their village
My publishing team at Pajama Press and I were very deliberate in our decisions about how to depict the scarier moments, in the book. For example, in the pages depicting Sami escaping during the bombing of his village, we decided to put the village and plumes of smoke and fire in the background to give some visual separation from these images to ensure even the most sensitive of readers would feel safe and secure.

Artistically, because many aspects of the book speak to the main character’s connection with the sky and his birds, I chose to illustrate in a more painterly style to evoke this emotional connection on a subconscious level. 
My art director, Rebecca Bender also suggested I used a limited colour palette, which I think worked very well. I envisioned sweeping desert landscapes and windswept clouds in colorful sunset or sunrise skyscapes, so I chose various shades of purple, violet, pinks, grey, and beige. 
Work-in-progress illustrations – note Sami’s blue hoodie
I used blue specifically in only two places: Sami’s hoodie and in the dove and pigeon. 
Overall, I think the artwork compliments the text well, and together the interplay of the text and illustrations enhances the reader’s connection to the main character, his struggles, and his avian friends.

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from beginner level to publishable?

I suppose my illustration apprenticeship could be best described as unconventional and “immersive.” 

I did not actually attend art school but I have taken various art classes throughout my life and as electives during my time at university where I earned a B.Sc.H in Life Sciences. 
I have been creative and a “maker” since I was small. After leaving a job in medical science research to have my four children, I decided to make the switch to children’s book illustration. I had always loved sculpting and was particularity drawn to the books featuring dimensional illustrators like, Barbara Reid, Janette Canyon, Euginie and Kim Fernandes
I immersed myself in picture books, poured through the wealth of awesome online kidlit resources while my kiddos napped, and joined SCBWI and CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers). I worked away on my art until I felt I was ready to put together a portfolio and send out postcards to publishing houses.

I still can’t believe how the stars aligned…only a few months after sending out my first postcard mailers (with fun bookmarks), I received a call and eventual offer from publisher and children’s editor, Christie Harkin at Fitzhenry & Whiteside to illustrate my first picture book, Skink on the Brink, written by Lisa Dalrymple (Fitzhenry & Whiteside 2013).

How has your style evolved over time?

One thing that I greatly enjoy about each picture book project is exploring and finding just the right mix of mediums to best illustrate that particular project. 

Maybe I’m getting a bit braver in my approach, with each new book, I hope so. I just love the interplay of different materials and the visual textures that come about. 
Polymer clay colors
used in My Beautiful Birds

With Gerbil Uncurled, by Alison Hughes ( Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2015) since the book centered around a family of gerbils, I used real wood chips and nibbled papers along with plasticine in my illustrations. 

In Sky Pig, by Jan Coates (Pajama Press, 2016), I incorporated actual watch gears, cogs, map papers and real milk-weed fluff into my illustrations- so fun! 
In My Beautiful Birds, as I mentioned previously, I wanted to use a more painterly approach, due to the subject matter.

I experimented with polymer clay, which looks pretty much like plasticine but has one major difference- it can be hardened by baking it.

Work-in-progress photo of rose finch

For this project I created my illustrations in polymer clay, baked them in the oven to harden them, then added paint or glaze treatments overtop to create depth, and simulate the dusty conditions of the Jordanian desert.

Close-up of rose finch feathers

Work-in-progress photo of children painting

I also incorporated hand-painted art from my children and their friends for the mural illustration near the end of the book. I set them up at the kitchen table with their art supplies and gave them the prompt: “how would you feel if you had to leave your home and all that you love?” 

Suzanne’s children painting the mural images 

These fabulous painting are also featured on the endpapers of the book. I scanned each painting then worked out the overall mural image in Photoshop, next I printed it out on t-shirt transfer paper, pressed it onto raw, thin sheet of polymer clay and baked the whole thing to transfer the image. 

This technique was also used for the kites and smaller children’s artwork throughout the book.

Cynsational Notes

Suzanne Del Rizzo began her career in picture books as the illustrator of Skink on the Brink, written by Lisa Dalrymple. It won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for Canada and was shortlisted for the 2014 Rainforest of Reading Award.

My Beautiful Birds has been named a Junior Library Guild selection for 2017 and received a starred review from Quill and Quire.

The Horn Book said, “Del Rizzo uses polymer clay and acrylic paint to create vibrant pictures of Sami, his family, the refugee camp, and the swirling pink-and-purple sky. Most of all, she creates birds for which every feather and color looks real. Beauty and sorrow sit side by side in this compassionate and age-appropriate depiction of contemporary refugee life.”

Pajama Press has a complimentary teachers guide for My Beautiful Birds, along with additional resources for learning more about the Syrian crisis.

Suzanne lives with her four children and husband in Oakville, Ontario.

Guest Post: Bethany Hegedus on Writer Mama Survival Guide

By Bethany Hegedus
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There are craft books on writing and parenting books galore, but nothing on how to be a “Writer Mama.”

I’ve watched many friends make the transition, somehow blurry-eyed making it to the page in between breast feeding and diaper changes. 
I’ve witnessed my friends with kids in elementary school put in longer hours, taking their laptops with them to doctor appointments and school pick-ups. My friends with teens write with them at coffee shops, each one blissfully zoning out but still in each other’s company.

Still, I wondered—how exactly do we do this thing: write for a living or with a passion (passion earns us a living, I promise) and mother? 

My son is almost seven months old. I am not an expert and doubt I ever will be, but this is what I have cobbled together as my own Writer Mama Survival Guide.

1. Podcasts: In the first few months of life, babies spend six to eight hours a day feeding. Your hands and breasts may be busy but your mind needs stimulation. Find a podcast you love! (Bonus if it is about writing and creativity.) 

I loved the form so much, I began The Writing Barn’s Porchlight podcast.

2. Hunt for the Time: Friend and mentor, Kathi Appelt said when her kiddos were little she’d write in 15 minute increments. This is doable. 

Also, hunt for longer time. Hire a babysitter and go to a coffee shop. Breathe deep.

The clock is ticking—but even so the first torn moments away feel so heavy. Push through the worry and guilt and do the work you love. Craft one sentence then another. 

You will start to feel yourself returning and that is both good for you and your little one.

3. Enlist Help: My husband and I made the tough decision about childcare, finding a home daycare we love. 

As we are both freelancers, it was necessary. Do what you need to do for your family, your work, and your own peace of mind.

4. Circle of Creative Friends: As an older mama, I don’t have many friends with little ones—but I do have friends. 

Creative friends. Writer friends. Yes, we do talk about the baby, but we also still talk about books, deadlines, the industry, their work, my work, our mutual and separate struggles. 
Don’t isolate. Keep up your writer’s group if you can. If really brave, take a class. Or in my case, teach a class. The communion of other creatives feeds you. Bring that energy back to mothering.

5. Don’t Do It All: I have a full co-parent in my partner and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Nor would he. But no matter what the load is on your shoulders, don’t take it all on. I may have a cluttered living room for the next 15 or so years but I will have books on the shelves—or scattered across the floor—that this writing mama wrote.

Co-writer Arun Gandhi holding Taru

6. Look for Inspiration: I am a children’s writer. You don’t have to be a parent to be one. Now or ever—but if you are, use it. Seeing the world through my son’s eyes is changing my work, just as it has changed me.

7. Change Form: I am a novelist and picture book writer. I will continue to do both but since my son’s birth I’ve been crafting more creative nonfiction than working on novels.

I am finding pleasure in finding the through lines in the lives of my chosen subjects, as I give my guy his beginning.

8. Gold Stars: This one isn’t from me—as my son’s chores consist of drooling and pooping and making me laugh and surge with love—but it is from Printz-Honor author and mother of two, Ashley Perez.

Keeping a chart for her son, nightly he asks her, “Did you write your five pages, Mama?” And he watches her put a gold star next to her name.

9. Trial and Error: Anne Lamott has a saying I love: “Scooch, scooch, stall.” Trying is trying and tiring.

I prefer to take baby steps. And rest. Lots and lots of rest.

10. Be Real; Not Realistic: Just as there is societal pressure on women, there is societal pressure on mothers.

Know the pressure is out there—and in here. Feel it and then let it go. Talk about the joys and struggles both—with your partner, your friends, and even with the page. Be real. Your writing and mothering will be all the better for it.

There is no one-sized fits all for anything in life, being or becoming a writer mama included. Write your own list—you have your own wisdom to share, with yourself and others.

Additional resources and links:

Cynsations Notes

Bethany Hegedus, mom to now 19-month-old Taru, has sold three picture book biographies, since becoming pregnant. Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, illustrated by Erin McGuire (Balzer + Bray) releases in January 2018. She hopes one day to have enough brain power to write another novel.

She is also the owner and creative director of The Writing Barn, a writing retreat workshop and event space in Austin, Texas.

Her books include the award-winning Grandfather Gandhi (Atheneum, 2014) and Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Atheneum, 2016), both co-written with Arun Gandhi, grandson to the Mahatma, and illustrated by Evan Turk. Her pre-motherhood novels are Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010) and Between Us Baxters (West Side Books, 2009).

She is also a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and the former editor of the literary journal Hunger Mountain.

Taru now

In Memory: Amy Krouse Rosenthal

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Children’s Author and Filmmaker, Dies at 51 by Sam Roberts from the New York Times. In addition to 28 children’s books and two memoirs, she also wrote many essays, including the recent You May Want to Marry My Husband, published just 10 days before her death. When her obituary was published March 13, 2017, the Times reported it had been read online 4.5 million times.

The dating profile-style essay about her husband, Jason Brian Rosenthal, shared learning she had ovarian cancer in September 2015 and the changes that diagnosis triggered. “This is when we entered what I came to think of as Plan ‘Be,’ existing only in the present,” Amy wrote.

What Amy Krouse Rosenthal Taught Me by Tom Fields-Myer from the Jewish Journal. Peek: “All of her work inspired two reactions: (a) it made you start noticing little things and moments and appreciating them in new ways, and (b) it made you want to be friends with Amy.”

Early in March, when Sherry Richert Belul learned of Amy’s illness, she started the Plant a Kiss Kindness Project for AKR and shared it on Facebook where more than 100 people pledged to offer an act of kindness to celebrate Amy’s loving spirit. Peek: “Being in this community over the past couple weeks has helped ease the grief. I hope these stories help keep Amy’s kind heart alive in spirit.”

Always Trust AKR by Justin Kaufman from WGN Radio. Justin worked with Amy on a show called “Writers Block Party” and several other radio, video and performance projects. Peek: “I’ve had a hard time articulating Amy’s strength as a writer. Maybe cause it’s not really about writing. Amy was on a mission. And that mission was to get us all to stop, for just a second, and recognize that there was beauty nearby.”

Amy Krouse Rosenthal Brought Wonder into Our Lives by Melissa Northway from Dandelion Moms. Peek: “I am so saddened that this beautiful soul has left us. If you haven’t seen her short films please check them out. It will give you the reminder and nudge to embrace the here and now and live life to it’s fullest.”

Amy’s film 17 Things I Made, see also The Beckoning of Lovely Story (from start to finish-ish)
Amy’s Ted Talk: 7 Notes on Life

Amy Krouse Rosenthal, We Wished You More by Victoria Rock on the Chronicle Books blog. Introduced the hashtag #loveforamykrouserosenthal and provided a card to print and share. “So please be inspired by Amy; tell those around you what you wish for them,” Victoria wrote.

How Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Daughter is Carrying on Her Legacy by Elise Sole from Yahoo News. Paris Rosenthal posed on Instagram that she would be continuing her mother’s Project 1,2,3 on Instagram. Amy started the project on Dec. 3, 2016, challenging herself “to come up with something new every day that can be expressed in a list of 3” to be posted daily at 1:23 p.m. for 123 days.

Amy reached 61 posts on Feb. 1, 2017 when she wrote that she had to pause the project. “There are other things I need to be tending to, creating, and focusing on with my limited time.”

Now each day at 1:23 p.m., Paris is posting “a photo that represents something about Amy Krouse Rosenthal” @akr.par on Instagram.

Musician Sam Hawksley recorded a song based on Amy’s I Wish You More, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld (Chronicle, 2015)