Summer Hiatus & Publishing Preview

Gayleen and Cynthia at the Austin SCBWI conference

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynsations is now officially on summer hiatus. We will return in the fall with more inspiration, insights and information on children’s-YA writing, illustration, literature and publishing.

In the meantime, keep up on all those topics with Cynthia Leitich Smith on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Cynsational Queries

If you have an idea for a Cynsations post, please email Gayleen to discuss options: CynsationsIntern(at)

Guest posts are approximately 500 words of inspiration and information with real reader, writer, gatekeeper takeaway. Debut authors are eligible for the New Voices interview series, and established authors are welcome to suggest ideas for topic series or interviews about new releases and/or the craft of writing, the writing life, and/or publishing.

For your reading pleasure, we asked a few authors with books publishing this summer to tell us:

What makes your book a great summer read?


(Middle Grade novel)

K.A. HoltGnome-a-geddon, illustrated by Colin Jack (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, available now) makes a great summer read because it’s a crazy adventure that we all wish for during those lazy, hot days of the summer doldrums.

Buck and Lizzie get pulled into the world of their favorite books, and they have to figure out what to do when everything they think they know turns out to be just a little bit… off.

It’s a fast-paced fun read with an ending that you might not see coming.

(Middle Grade Novel)

Sheela Chari: If you love mysteries, Finding Mighty (Abrams, May 30, 2017) is a perfect way to spend a warm summer day.

In this middle grade novel, set north of New York City, follow twelve-year-olds Myla Rajan and Peter Wilson as they team up to find Peter’s missing brother, Randall. It turns out Randall is after something, too: a cache of missing diamonds that might clear the mystery behind his father’s death.

With graffiti clues, parkour moves, and a daring climb along one of NYC’s oldest bridges, this book has something for everyone. Using Myla’s lists, Peter’s secret black book, and Randall’s smarts, see if you can figure out where the missing diamonds are hidden before they do.

Join Sheela at the Hastings-On-Hudson Multicultural Book Fair June 15, and for her book signing from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. May 27 at Books of Wonder in New York City.


(Middle Grade Novel)

Leah HendersonOne Shadow On The Wall (Atheneum, June 6, 2017) takes place during the summer months in Senegal, West Africa. So it would be a wonderful way for young readers in the States to draw parallels between their summer experiences and that of my main character, Mor, who has to spend his summer choosing between what is right and what is easy to keep is family safe while honoring a promise he made to his father.

For me, great summer reads are books that I can spend lazy afternoons getting lost in while discovering new things. And I think, within the pages of this story, readers may find themselves strolling a dirt path in no time with the sun glimmering over their heads as salty air clings to their skin.

Those interested in a book that peeks into another culture, focuses on family, friendship, and self-reliance might find One Shadow on the Wall the right book to get lost in.

Join Leah at her book launch and presentation at 6 p.m. June 6 at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Richmond and a book signing, hosted by Politics & Prose, at 7:30 p.m. June 8 at the Takoma Park Library in Takoma Park, Maryland. Also, a book celebration and family craft event 11 a.m. on June 10 at Old Fox Books in Annapolis, Maryland.

(Young Adult Novel)

Kayla Olson: The Sandcastle Empire (Harper Teen, June 6, 2017) was inspired, in part, by my longing for a beach vacation.

The island setting sprung out of that—a desire to spend imaginary time in the sand, the sun, the waves—all of which call to mind the feeling of summer.

I’ve also heard from numerous people that it kept them up late into the night, so if you’re looking to get lost in a book while on summer vacation, this might be a good fit for you!

Join Kayla for her book signing at 5 p.m. June 10 at BookPeople in Austin.

(Young Adult Novel)

Bonnie Pipkin: What better way to cool down this summer than with a book that takes place in the dead of winter?

Aftercare Instructions (Flatiron, June 27, 2017) may not seem like an easy breezy summer beach read at first glance: seventeen-year-old, Genesis Johnson is abandoned at the Planned Parenthood in Manhattan by her boyfriend during the procedure to terminate her unwanted pregnancy.

But the book isn’t all heavy duty, grief reconciliation. It’s also romance, and re-discovering what makes you feel whole and complete and cared for. It’s about letting go of what weighs you down in order to find your place center stage. Those are themes for any season!

Join Bonnie at her book launch at 7 p.m. June 27 at the Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn.


(Picture Book)

Emma J. Virjan: Start your engines!

What your summer reading list needs is a pig in a wig, rushing to her a car, dashing into place, ready to start the cross-country race!

Pig zooms off and takes the lead! But oh, no! There’s a rumble, a pop, and a hiss, and Pig gets stuck in the mud.

Will she be able to get back on track and finish the race?

Whether you’re sunbathing on the beach or on your lawn chair in the back yard, What This Story Needs is a Vroom and a Zoom (HarperCollins, July 4, 2017), the fifth book in the Pig In A Wig series, will fill your summer days with catchy, rhythmic text, bold illustrations and tons of laughter.

See activity pages and book trailers for the series on Emma’s website.

(Young Adult Novel)

A Very Terrible Witchtown Summer Poem – Cory Putman Oakes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 18, 2017)

In the shade or in the sun,

Witches are always lots of fun!
At the beach or at the pool,
Witches are always totally cool!
Mystery, magic, spells galore,
Witchtown has them all—and more!
Moonstones, pizza, a poltergeist,
A lonely girl who can only plan heists.
Magical plants, a goth, a baker,
A really cute boy (but he might be a faker).
A mean girl, a murder, a troubling past,
Locusts, lessons, and spells to be cast.
A mother and daughter, always in strife
Trust me, you want this book in your life.
So sit yourself down and grab a brew,
The witches can’t wait to entertain you!

Cory has a summer solstice recipe for Lemony Herb Scones and will have a launch party for Witchtown at 3 p.m. on September 10 at BookPeople in Austin.

(Picture Book)

Jason Gallaher: Whobert Whover, Owl Detective, illustrated by Jess Pauwels (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, July 18, 2017)

Whobert puts a little mystery back into your summer! We all know that the sun will be shining, the temperatures will be rising, but what in the heck happened to Perry the Possum?

Whobert will make your summer one of sunshine and strengthening those sleuthing skills.

Join Jason at his book launches at 7 p.m. July 18 at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, Washington, and at 2 p.m. July 22 at BookPeople in Austin.


(Middle Grade Novel)

Deborah Lytton: Ruby Starr (Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky, Aug. 1, 2017) is the perfect summer read because:

  • It’s a book about books.  (If you love books as much as Ruby loves them, this is all you need to know.)
  • Summer is a time to set your imagination free, and Ruby’s imagination is so powerful that it sometimes takes her right into the pages of a story.
  • Ruby’s very best friends are characters from her favorite reads. With her honesty and humor, Ruby just might become one of your very best friends.
See reading guide on Deborah’s website. This is the first book in a series.

Signing set for noon on August 5 at Barnes & Noble, 160 S. Westlake Blvd. in Thousand Oaks, California.

(Picture Book)

Liz Garton Scanlon: Another Way to Climb a Tree, illustrated by Hadley Hooper (Roaring Brook Press/Neal Porter Books, Aug. 8, 2017).

It’s a great summer read because it’s about an avid tree climber living life to the fullest!

Until she’s stuck inside with the flu and has to figure out how to love the trees from there….

(Picture Book)

Tracy Marchini: The chicken in Chicken Wants a Nap (Creative Editions, Aug, 15, 2017) just wants to sit in the warm grass for an afternoon snooze. And in the summer, that’s what I love to do too! There’s nothing quite like stretching out on a picnic blanket with a good book on a bright summer day.

Chicken is fun and funny, and Monique Felix’s pastel illustrations are warm and inviting. And fortunately for readers, they’re far less likely to be interrupted by cows and other barnyard animals than our poor Chicken!

Last – but not least – as a picture book, Chicken Wants a Nap is short enough that you won’t even have to reapply your sunscreen!

(Picture Book)

Don TateStrong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became The Strongest Man On Earth (Charlesbridge, Aug. 22, 2017) is a fun story for everyone anytime of the year. It’s especially a great book for summer as kids head outside to run, jump, swim, and play.

Young Sandow loved to do all of these things, but most times, he was too sick and weak to play. Through exercise, he built himself up to become known as the “Strongest Man on Earth!” And he had the biceps and a six-pack to prove it.

Everyone will want to get into better physical shape and become “As Strong As Sandow.”

See Don‘s classroom discussion guide and more about Sandow – including historic photos available online.

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Spotlight on Latina Illustrators by Cecilia Cackley from Latinx in Kidlit. Peek from Alyssa Bermudez: “Picture books are important because it allows children to visualize and understand their own stories as they grow up. They can see their lives reflected in this way. The world is an exciting and colorful place full of adventure, and picture books highlight this to kids and adults.”

How Much Should You Personalize a Query Letter by Jane Friedman from her blog. Peek: “There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules as to what’s ‘too much,’ but don’t try to affect an intimacy that doesn’t exist. Especially if you’ve never met the person in question, tread carefully—it’s easy to come off as creepy if you’ve been stalking someone online…” See also, Surviving the Query Trenches by Laura Weymouth from Adventures in YA Publishing.

Three Lesser Known Archetypes by Becca Puglisi from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “Having a broad range of character types is like having a palette of different colors to paint with. Each archetype offers a different perspective and point of view. They provide unique insights into your story that you would be unable to achieve by clinging only to the ‘tried and true’ characters.”

Writing in Turbulent Times: Strategies by Mary E. Cronin from Project Mayhem. Peek from Joanna Marple: “I cut back on social media presence in general because too much daily bad news was robbing me of hope and peace….I realized my biggest voice probably remains with my influence on the next generation as a teacher and writer, so I have been concentrating even more on my writing.”

Last Call for We Need Diverse Books Internship Grant, deadline May 31.

Teaching the Diverse Narratives of U.S. History by Tami Charles from the Lee & Low Blog. Peek: “We can model the genuine purpose of history curriculum by exposing our students to diverse narratives in a way that allows them to generate their own opinions and rationalize complex viewpoints….Books like Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh…addresses hidden narratives students should be learning.”

The “Hole” in KidLit by Tracey Baptiste from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek: “The school and library market is very interested in diversifying their offerings, and having a book selected for an anthology means kids all over the country will read your work. It’s a big deal. And I know there are authors of color who also like science topics. So, what are you waiting for?”

The Authors Who Helped Us Grow Up from The New Yorker by Erin Overbey & Joshua Rothman, archivists. Peek: “The best children’s authors have always been a little rebellious. They defy the conventions of the genre—and the expectations of adults.” Includes Among The Wild Things, Nat Hentoff’s interview with Maurice Sendak from 1966.

Survival Pack or How to Keep Writing No Matter What by Julia Munroe Martin from Writer unBoxed. Peek: “Life gives us all challenges, but these are obstacles and not dead end/road block/turn back now signs. You can make a plan—a survival plan—for (almost) every eventuality that can get in the way of your writing.”

Why You Should Never, Ever Go On a Destination Writing Retreat by Christina Delay from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “It’s been proven that change is one of the scariest things out there. And it’s also a fact that travel changes us. We cannot come home the same person again. Once a thing has been seen or heard or experienced, it cannot be undone. Traveling will broaden your world perspective.”

Classics, Colonization & A Call for Change by Padma Venkatraman from The Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “Re-reading ‘children’s classics’ I realized how much I myself had forgotten. Though I had vague memories of feeling upset or angry when I read certain books as a child, as an adult I was astounded by the plethora of negative ideas perpetrated by brilliant authors of the past.”

#OwnVoices Representation: Native American Authors by Sarah Carter from YA Interrobang. Peek: “For years, marginalized young adult readers have demanded their identities be represented in the fiction they consume. The call has gain a spectacular amount of momentum recently.” Includes author bios from Cynthia Leitich SmithJoseph BruchacAaron PaquetteTim TingleEric GansworthErika WurthDrew Hayden Taylor and Richard Van Camp.

Changes to Richard Scarry Book to Keep Up With the Times by Laura Willard from Upworthy. Peek: “The original has a woman (bunny) in the kitchen, while the updated cover has both a man and a woman (still bunnies) in the kitchen. Also: The ‘policeman’ bear changed to a woman, and the label changed to ‘police officer.’ The word ‘mailman’ became ‘letter carrier,’ and a female farmer was added.”

Letting Go When the Book Isn’t Working by Barbara O’Neal from Writer unBoxed. Peek: “I know how to do this. I’m not being arrogant, just factual….And yet…..after 6 or 7 or 10 rewrites of the first 200 pages, trying to find the story over two solid years, I finally had to admit that my agent was right. The book was fatally flawed in some way I couldn’t locate.”

How Culturally Responsive is Your Library by Veronica Schneider from the Lee & Low Blog. Peek: “We need to think critically about how these books reflect the diversity of our students, their backgrounds, and the communities in which we live while exposing them to new ideas and concepts.”

Series Authors Should Stop Writing the Sequel by Jessica Faust from BookEnds Literary blog. Peek: “By writing the sequel before you’ve sold the first book you’ve potentially limited yourself from selling two books, especially if rejections on the first book are based on the idea or the hook and not the writing.”

Persistence Twitter thread from Jacob Sager Weinstein, debut author of Hyacinth and the Secrets Beneath. Peek: “I started writing #kidlit in 2005. In the 12 years it took me to get published, I got dozens of rejections. I didn’t give up.”

The True Story Behind Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler & Her Mixed-Up Files by Patrick Sauer from Smithsonian. Peek: “‘When we were in grade school, Mom would write in the morning. When the three of us kids would come home for lunch, she would read what she wrote,’ says Paul Konigsburg, 62. ‘If we laughed she kept it in. If not, she rewrote it.'”

Disability on Campus by Farah Mendlesohn from Times Higher Education. Peek: “I am also going deaf….Since this issue, too, is invisible, I often have to choose between pretending I am not disabled and making a fuss (‘Yes, I do mind if you don’t use the microphone – and, by the way, one in four of the population has hearing loss, so why are you even asking?’)”

Art Preview of New Spider-Man Novel by Nicole Herviou from Mashable. Peek: “Miles is half black, half Puerto Rican; his culture is extremely important to him as a character. He’s also a teenager trying to make it through high school in one piece while also keeping New York City safe….Award-winning YA author Jason Reynolds….has penned Miles Morales: Spider-Man.” Note: illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Marvel Press, August 2017).

Russia & Children’s Literature: A Storied History by Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal. Peek: “The relationship between Russia and America in U.S. children’s literature separates neatly into the following sections: Russian Modernism Children’s Books of the 1920s, The Communist Movement in America, The Red Scare, Eloise.”

Revising & Re-imagining Picture Book Manuscripts, an online summer class with Harold Underdown & Eileen Robinson. Focus is on practicing craft and strengthening picture book writing skills, including techniques to identifying problems, reshaping and polishing prior to submission.

Ilyasah Shabazz & Kekla Magoon on Their YA Novel About Teenage Malcolm X by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek from Kekla Magoon: “I was so excited to be considered for such an interesting project….We initially spoke about Ilyasah’s vision for the novel in terms of its impact for future readers. I listened to the story she wanted to tell and her perspective on her father’s life. The story was already there.”

Portraits of Librarians Celebrate America’s Bookish Unsung Heroes by Claire Fallon from Huffington Post. Peek from Susan K. McClelland, adult & teen services librarian at Oak Park Public Library: “Librarians are warrior princes and princesses wielding book love like words! We are ever vigilant, curious, intelligent, and kind. Libraries are the banners that we carry proudly into the fray! Forward, ever Forward!”

ASL: Writing a Visual Language by Laura Brown from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: “The first challenge with using a sign language is simply how to express a 3D language in written words. ASL is so beautiful and rich. I can show emphasis with my hands in how a sign is formed. When I translate to the page some of that beauty and magic is lost.”

Kindness: Pass It On by Leslie Hawkins from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “I watched a roomful of young children watch and listen with rapt attention to a story set in a country none of them had ever heard of…they also came away with a feeling of hope and empowerment that they….can do concrete things to make the world a better place.”

This week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

Kudos to the Cynthia Leitich Smith Mentor Award finalists (with Kathi Appelt and Bethany Hegedus).
Image by Sam Bond Photography; used with permission..

This week’s highlight was attending the Austin SCBWI regional conference. Tremendous thanks to our leadership–Samantha Clark, P.J. Hoover and Christopher S. Jennings, the faculty and volunteers.

Beyond that, I focused on all those invisible things authors do, most notably creating a schedule for my upcoming Highlights Workshop on Humor with Uma Krishnaswami and Curtis Brown Ltd. literary agents Ginger Knowlton and Elizabeth Harding. Join us!

On the creative front, I received an update from my Candlewick editor, who’s finishing up her notes on my YA contemporary novel revision. She said I’d receive further direction today or Tuesday (and she used words like “excellent” and “well done!” so I am not hyperventilating). Huzzah!

Links of the Week: From the Moon to the Spoon: 5 Picture Books to Celebrate Ramadan by Hannah Ehrlich from Lee & Low. See also Ramadan is coming! Ramazan Mubarak! from Kitaab World.

Personal Links

More Personally – Gayleen

Paige Britt and Gayleen at Austin SCBWI conference
with VCFA student Mercer Black in background.
Photo by Sam Bond Photography.
Over the weekend, I attended the fantastic Austin SCBWI Conference. I’m not sure what inspires me more: getting tips and insight from industry professionals, or catching up with writing friends and making new ones. 
I was also fortunate to help with a Wine & Words event at The Writing Barn, featuring Misha Blaise discussing This Phenomenal Life (Lyons Press, March 2017). 
Come write with me! I’ll be leading the Write Away Day at The Writing Barn on July 19 and also serving as teaching assistant for Donna Jannell Bowman‘s Nonfiction Picture Book Class beginning June 11. 

Personal Links

Guest Post: Padma Venkatraman on Voice: Writing Lean, Spare or Lush, Rich

Padma writing on the dock

By Padma Venkatraman
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

One of the most vital aspects of timeless writing is voice. Every serious reader, every writer has (or must develop), a strong sense of what voice is. Yet, like time, voice eludes definition.

Of course, I’m going to try and define it. To me, voice is the promise of the first page – the texture of the writing. It’s like the background music in a movie – or the wash an artist lays down to prepare the painting – something that isn’t entirely visible and yet pervades the creation.

What’s the best way to develop your own voice?

Here are three tips I hope will help.

1. Read, read, read the voices of others. Immersing yourself in books with rich voices will help you hone your own.

While I don’t for a mini-second suggest that any writer try to copy another writer’s voice – I do recommend, strongly, that every writer read as much as is humanly possible.

The best way to get a feel for voice and to develop your own is to tune in to the music of the written word – by reading writers with strong voices.

Here are some books written in powerful voices that I highly recommend (and, as with all lists, I’m sure I’ll leave out some favorites, but these wonderful books for young people come to mind at the moment):

2. Experiment with sentences and paragraphs, if not entire stories.

Padma writing on the deck

Each of your characters has a different voice. Unless the novel is written from multiple points of view, however, you usually spend most of your time narrating in the voice that, most likely, comes closest to your own.

This is fine. 

But by briefly experimenting with telling the story in another’s tone and seeing the story through another’s voice, you may be able to more clearly define the narrator’s voice that you naturally gravitate toward.

If you are writing close third or first person point of view, try switching bodies. 

Write an important scene or two in another character’s voice. This will not only help you enhance your understanding of this character, it will also give you a greater appreciation for your main character’s voice.

If you tend to write long, luxurious sentences, try writing a paragraph with short sentences and sentence fragments. And the other way around.

My second novel, Island’s End (G.P. Putnam, 2011), is written in lush, rich prose.

My third novel, A Time To Dance (Nancy Paulsen, 2014) is written in lean spare prose. I learned a great deal by journeying from one style to another – and I love both, I’ll admit.

I also love the in-between, which is where, I think, my debut novel, Climbing The Stairs (G.P. Putnam, 2008) fits.

3. Respect your heart, not just your head.

I was an oceanographer. Now I’m a writer. I can attest to the fact that not even scientists are always objective.

Padma working on a research ship

The field of literature is largely if not entirely subjective. Thus, it’s only natural that we often subjugate our own responses to a piece in favor of revered reviewers’ opinions.

Yet if you wish to carve your own unique niche, you must let yourself love whatever you love. 

There’s no shame in loving a book that has been deemed ridiculous or at least one that hasn’t received the attention you think it deserves. 
It’s important to seek out such books, books that haven’t got a lot of hype, and asking yourself whether you think they deserved more (or less). 
It’s also important to question and pause and discover which books you adore, deep inside, regardless of whether they won acclaim and awards or not.

When you discover these lesser known books and less celebrated authors, you begin to celebrate your own opinions. And as you grow comfortable with your individual taste, your confidence as a writer also grows. 

You start respecting your ideas, your sense of strength. And you must realize what you truly love (regardless of what the world says you should love) if you wish to write in a voice that is powerful – which is to say, a voice that is uniquely your own.

Cynsational Notes

Padma Venkatraman is the author of three novels, which together garnered 12 starred reviews, and were included in over 50 shortlists. 

In addition, her books have won several awards (such as the Paterson Prize, the South Asia Book Award, the Julia Ward Howe Award, and the ASTAL RI Book of the year award), and received many honors, including ALA notable, ALA BBYA, Booklist BBYA, Kirkus BBYA, NYPL Book for the Teen Age, Bank Street Best Book amd CCBC Notable. 
She has spoken and provided workshops and keynote addresses at national and international conferences and festivals. 

Guest Post: Linda Joy Singleton on Novels to Picture Books, the Long & Short of Writing for Children

By Linda Joy Singleton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I joined SCBWI, my biggest dream was to sell a middle-grade novel. I attended as many workshops as I could and was excited when there were speakers who wrote MG or YA.

But often I had to sit through talks on writing picture books.

It seemed like writers all around me were in love with the picture book genre. I enjoyed reading picture books to my kids, but I was writing for the kid in me and preferred thrilling middle-grade mysteries.

My most exciting day ever was when I got The Call. Yay!

My middle-grade novel Almost Twins sold to a small publisher. More sales followed, mostly YA and MG paperback series.

I was living my writing dream!

All along, I kept going to SCBWI conferences and learning everything I could about the industry— which usually included many, many workshops on picture books.

I learned so much that I could give a talk on writing picture books. Still, writing short seemed like a magical talent I lacked. So, I happily continued writing longer books.

And then it happened—I got the itch to write a picture book.

My picture book friends encouraged me and critiqued my first attempts. I rewrote and cut and rewrote then submitted.

The rejections rolled in, smothering me in disappointment. While my friends thought my picture books were great, editors were not impressed.

Years passed, and while the ups and downs of writing MG and YA series often frustrated me, I kept selling novels.

I’d made nearly 40 book sales, when a photograph changed my career course.

My writing friend Verla Kay, came to visit and I tagged along to her school talk. She gave a power point presentation, starting off with photo of herself as a child. The photograph showed two girls building a snow dog. This photo stuck in my head—and words followed:

“More than anything, Ally wanted a dog, but dogs made her ACHOO.”

The next day, I was driving to a writing conference when more words danced in my head. I couldn’t ignore them.

When we stopped for lunch, I grabbed a pen and scribbled the first draft of Snow Dog, Sand Dog, illustrated by Jess Golden (Albert Whitman, 2014) on a napkin.

Now I’d love to say this book sold immediately, but it went through many rewrites and two agents before it was published five years later by Albert Whitman.

Still I thought it was a fluke.

“I’m not really a picture book author,” I’d say because writing picture books was so challenging and I was in awe of talented picture book author friends.

Delighted with the sale, I considered myself very lucky. And soon I was working on my 7th series for older kids, Curious Cat Spy Club (Albert Whitman, 2015).

Then a money game I created for my grandson, inspired me to write another picture book, Cash Kat, illustrated by Christina Wald (2016) which I sold to Arbordale. And a year later, A Cat Is Better, illustrated by Jorge Martin (June 13, 2017) sold to Little Bee.

I started thinking maybe I did have some picture book skills, especially when my agent sold two more of my picture books: Lucy Loves Goosey, illustrated by Rob McClurkan (Simon & Schuster, 2017) and Crane And Crane (2019).

Now I consider myself a novelist and a picture book author.

These genres seem opposite with word counts around 50,000 words for novels and usually under 200 words for picture books. But the genres complement each other, too.

Here are some thoughts on being a multi-genre author:

  • Writing short can be more difficult since every word counts. But to be honest, I spend about six months of daily writing on a novel and probably only a few weeks on a picture book. The challenge for me with a picture book is coming up with a good idea.
  • Inspiration is a big difference in genres. If I waited for inspiration for a novel, I’d never finish the book. Instead, I have a routine of writing most mornings until the novel is done. But with picture books, inspiration is elusive. If I force a picture book idea, it’s rarely any good. I like to tease that I’ve averaged one good picture book idea a year. So, when that idea strikes, you can bet I stop everything to write it down.
  • Word play is part of the fun with picture books. Sometimes I find myself playing with words in my novel writing, too. Smash, crash, boom! I can’t resist using fun sound words, poetic rhythm and even alliteration in longer fiction. 
  • Fun fact: My longest novel, Memory Girl (CBAY Books, 2016), was nearly 100,000 words. My shortest picture book, Crane & Crane (2019), sold with just 19 words.
  • Don’t limit your creativity. Genres are just boxes that shape the story. For a long time, I told myself I wasn’t a picture book author, but then I became one. Make a routine of writing, and say “yes” when inspiration strikes. And you can become the writer you want to be.

Cynsational Notes

Linda Joy Singleton wrote her first story when she was eight about a mischievous kitten.

Two decades later, she pursued a career in writing and joined SCBWI. She’s sold over 45 books, including series: Curious Cat Spy Club, The Seer (Llewellyn/Flux), Regeneration (Berkley Books) and Dead Girl trilogy (North Star Editions).

Two new picture books come out in 2017: A Cat Is Better, illustrated by Jorge Martin  (Little Bee Books, June 13, 2017) and Lucy Loves Goosey, illustrated by Rob McClurkan (Simon & Schuster, December 2017.)

Book Trailer: This is How We Do It by Matt Lamothe

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for This is How We Do It by Matt Lamothe (Chronicle, 2017). From the promotional copy:

This is How We Do It follows the real lives of seven kids from Italy, Japan, Iran, India, Peru, Uganda, and Russia for a single day. 

In Japan, Kei plays Freeze Tag, while, in Uganda, Daphine likes to jump rope. But while the way they play may differ, the shared rhythm of their days—and this one world we all share—unites them. This genuine exchange provides a window into traditions that may be different from our own as well as a mirror reflecting our common experiences.

Inspired by his own travels, Matt Lamothe transports readers across the globe and back with this luminous and thoughtful picture book.

Guest Post: Melissa Stewart on Concept Picture Books

By Melissa Stewart
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Most people in the children’s literature community are familiar with picture book biographies, but did you know that there’s a second major category of nonfiction picture books?

It’s time to shine some light on concept picture books.

A concept picture book explores an abstract idea or process, and in many cases, offers a unique perspective or new way of seeing things.

This approach works well for authors interested in focusing on patterns and cycles in the natural world, animal behavior and adaptations, and math concepts.

Picture book biographies have a narrative writing style and a chronological sequence structure.

In contrast, concept books usually employ an expository writing style. And they can feature any of the six major text structures now being taught in most schools (description, sequence, compare & contrast, question & answer, cause & effect, problem & solution).

Sometimes they make clever use of a unique text structure that perfectly matches the book’s topic.

Here are some examples:

In most cases, a picture book biography has a third-person point of view, and the voice is either lively or lyrical, depending on the subject’s personality. Once again, concept picture books offer greater diversity.

The voice can fall anywhere along the lively-to-lyrical continuum.

The point of view can vary, too. Plenty of concept books have a second-person point of view, and a few recent titles boldly employ a first-person point of view. One of my favorites is The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea by Brenda Z. Guiberson, illustrated by Gennady Spirin (Henry Holt, 2015).

With so many choices, how do writers narrow their options? It isn’t easy.

What it comes down to for me is finding the best possible way to delight as well as inform young readers. Once I stumble upon the special bit of magic that allows me to accomplish this goal, I take out my writer’s toolbox and start tinkering.

I consider various text structures and writing styles. I think about voice and point of view and the best way to use language devices. Then I plunge into the writing and see where the ideas swirling in my head take me.

For Feathers: Not Just for Flying (illustrated by Sarah Brannen) (Charlesbridge, 2014), I crafted a lyrical voice that I hoped would awaken the young reader’s sense of wonder.

The strong compare-and-contrast text structure assists children in making connections among the sixteen different examples in the book.

For Can an Aardvark Bark?, illustrated by Steve Jenkins (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, June 13, 2017), I took a different approach.

The book features an intriguing title, fabulous illustrations by the uber-talented Steve Jenkins, and an interactive question-and-answer text structure that makes it perfect for read alouds.

Secondary text supports and expands on the book’s main ideas, allowing readers to thoroughly explore how and why animals use sounds to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

If you’re interested in gaining a deeper understanding of concept picture books, I encourage you to read and analyze a broad range of the books listed above, considering (1) what makes them special and (2) what tools the authors employed as they crafted the texts.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Can an Aardvark Bark? a starred review. Peek: “Prolific science writer Stewart always chooses appealing facts, but what makes this collection work so well is the skillful presentation by both author and illustrator.”

A curriculum guide, storytime guide and activities are available from the author. A book trailer is available on Vimeo.

Melissa Stewart is the award-winning author of more than 180 science books for children, including Can an Aardvark Bark?; No Monkeys, No Chocolate; and Feathers: Not Just for Flying.

She is the co-author, with Nancy Chesley, of Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2014) and Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, 3-5 (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016).

Melissa maintains the blog Celebrate Science and serves on the board of advisors for the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. 

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Friendship, Family & Food: Hena Khan & Karuna Riazi on Writing for Salaam Reads by Kiera Parrot from School Library Journal. Peek from Karuna Riazi: “Fantasy has always been my first love and has always been the primary genre I write within. It’s also what I grew up on—particularly the plethora of marvelous girl-power centered narratives that cropped up in the 90s: Ella Enchanted [by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins, 1997)], Diana Wynne Jones’s body of work.”

Choosing When to Chuck a Joke by Deborah Halverson from DearEditor. Peek: “Plot advancement is a crucial gauge for keep-it-or-chuck-it choices. Just don’t let good intentions regarding plot advancement take you on some joke-axing rampage that squelches your humor in service of brevity and focus.”

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi: A Personal Recollection by Tim Wynne-Jones from the Horn Book. Peek: “…[Chris] Van Allsburg was a primary influence in starting my own career as a children’s book author…It was the magic of the book’s art that did the trick. The shock of a lavish picture book in black and white.”

The Story in Nonfiction Picture Books by Uma Krishnaswami from Writing With a Broken Tusk. Peek: “Pay attention to what
Me…Jane  (by author-illustrator Patrick McDonnell (Little Brown, 2011)) doesn’t do. It doesn’t try to plunk everything one might know about this life into the small container of the picture book. Instead the story builds internally, in the small and comfortable world that the child Jane inhabits.” See also Uma on Citizenship, Culture and Community from the Lee & Low Blog.

Want to be Creative on Purpose? Schedule It by Carl Richards from The New York Times. Peek: “This notion to wait around in the rain until you get struck by lightning to make art (or anything) doesn’t mesh with my experience at all. What comes much closer is the famous Chuck Close quotation: ‘Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.'”

Outsiders Author S.E. Hinton Still Gold After 50 Years by Gwen Ihnat from A.V. Club. Peek: “I’ve always been an observer. There’s people who do things and people who watch, and I’m a watcher. I was very well aware of what was going on.”

Using Real-World Locations to Ground Your Story’s Setting by Sara Letourneau from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “By learning how a real-world location ‘functions’ above and underground, as well as why it functions in this manner, we can ensure that our story’s depiction of that setting is not only realistic, but also factually accurate.”

Cinnamon Illustrator Explains How She Brought Neil Gaiman’s Story to Life by Nivea Serrao from
Entertainment Weekly. Peek from Divya Srinivasan: “This was my first time illustrating a book for someone else’s story. The books I’ve written and illustrated have been for much younger children, and so have a lot less text than Cinnamon’s longer story. Breaking up the text into pages was my first step.”

How to Write Dynamic Secondary Characters by HarperChildren’s editor Rosemary Brosnan from Epic Reads. Peek: “When you are writing, you will sometimes tend to focus solely on your main character, to the detriment of other characters in the book, which can make for flat secondary characters.” Note: Includes writing prompt aimed at creating believable, rounded secondary characters.

A Writer’s Worst Fear by William Kenower from Jane Friedman. Peek: “If you have ever shared even one thing you have written with another person, you are an author. The moment you surrender this thing you wrote in the supreme privacy of your imagination to the unknown of another person’s mind, your relationship to your writing changes.”

Caroline Carlson and The World’s Greatest Detective by Adi Rule from the VCFA Launchpad. Peek: “When I reach the end of reading a mystery story, I want to guess the true solution to the mystery only a page or two before it’s revealed, and I don’t want to feel cheated. As a writer, it’s impossible to ensure that every reader has this experience…”

Must-Visit American Writers Museum in Chicago by Esther Hershenhorn from Teaching Authors. Peek: “…this one-of-a-kind museum does so much more than engage and celebrate. It inspires and educates while honoring what all writers do. Writers across all genres, formats and publishing designs, from Cotton Mather to Dr. Seuss.”

How to Write With Feeling – Finding the Still Points of a Turning World by Addy Farmer from Notes from the Slushpile. Peek: “…writing for children is a remembrance of not just what happened but crucially how it felt when it happened. As adults we carry baggage…but as writers we should be able to rummage around and find the bit which takes you to a place or a person or event when you felt something….”

A Muslim YA Author on Belonging At A Tennessee Book Festival by Sheba Karim. Peek: “…I sometimes feel like I’m on and off a soapbox, reminding audiences of the dangerous divisiveness of Islamophobic rhetoric, explaining that Muslims are a diverse group of people who defy any stereotype.”

How to Prepare for a TED-style Author Talk by Deanna Cabinian from Writer unBoxed. Peek: “The talks I gravitated toward included some very personal stories so I knew I had to include some in my own talk. Make a quick list of all the possible story lines you can tell about yourself as a writer.”

How Real Books Have Trumped E-Books by Alex Preston from The Guardian. Peek: “…after reaching a peak in 2014, sales of e-readers and ebooks have slowed and hardback sales have surged. The latest figures from the Publishing Association showed ebook sales falling 17 percent in 2016, with an 8 percent rise in their physical counterparts. At the same time, publishers’ production values have soared…”

The Workout Writer: Perceived Weakness by Kathryn Magendie from Writer unBoxed. Peek: “There is a perceived weakness that keeps us from realizing our potential, when we don’t recognize that potential and falter in the face of what masks itself as failure.”

The Face in the Mirror by Zetta Elliott from her blog. Peek: “…privilege is bidirectional; you can’t unfairly advantage one individual without simultaneously disadvantaging someone else…children of color and the Indigenous child have only one mirror each; their mirrors diminish in size, corresponding with the limited number of books published about their group.”

On Seeing & Being Seen: The Difference Between Writing with Empathy & Writing with Love by Alicia Elliott from Room. Peek: “Empathy has its limits—and, contrary to what some may think, it is possible to both have empathy for a person and still hold inherited, unacknowledged racist views about them.”

Author Interview: Emily X.R. Pan by Shenwei from Reading (AS) (I)AN (AM)ERICA. Peek: “My grandmother lives in Beitou and she was such a huge inspiration for the story that I knew I wanted to draw from her neighborhood….All the (non-historical) steps that my characters take, I actually walked myself in effort to really capture the atmosphere.”

Rachel Bateman on Someone Else’s Summer by Tara Hackley from YA Interrobang. Peek: “I really thought about how grief works – sometimes it seem to completely consume you, like that’s all there is in your life. But other times it fades away, and before you know it, you’re having fun and enjoying life again for a moment.”

The People Shall Continue by Simon J. Ortiz Returns to Print by Hannah Ehrlich from the Lee &
Low Blog. Peek: “Told in the rhythms of traditional oral narrative, this powerful telling of the history of the Native/Indigenous peoples of North America recounts their story from Creation to the invasion and usurpation of Native lands.” Note: Cynsations host Cynthia Leitich Smith blurbs and supports this title wholeheartedly; see link for quote.

Why’s One-Click Sales Can Cost Authors Dear by Danuta Kean from The Guardian. Peek: “A week ago, buyers on, the U.S. site, began seeing heavily discounted secondhand copies of books sold by third-party sellers being presented as the default buying option, instead of new copies supplied to Amazon by publishers.” 

How the Redesigned Judy Blume Covers Avoid Nostalgia & Embrace Universal Adolescent Angst by Constance Grady from Vox. Peek from Debbie Ohi: “When Justin Chanda, my editor at S&S, invited me to audition to be the illustrator of the reissued books, I immediately said yes….I knew there was no guarantee that Judy would pick me as the illustrator, but even the chance to be rejected by the Judy Blume was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Gwenda Bond on Young Lois Lane by Nivea Serrao from Entertainment Weekly. Peek: “There’s probably more of me in Lois than any character I’ve written… My parents were both high school principals, which is not exactly like having an army general for a dad, but it will bring out your authority issues!”

Woman-owned and Independent: An Inside Look at Peachtree Publishers. Peek from publisher Margaret Quinlin: “I strongly believe that publishing is an important cultural endeavor and as such, diverse voices across the country committed to publishing books for all kinds of readers is critically important.”

The TBR Stack(s) The Fire Took by Tirzah Price from BookRiot. Peek: “Books will wait for you. That’s what I tell customers who always worry that they have too many unread books at home. Maybe that’s not always true, and if I could apologize to all of the unread books I lost, I would. I’d say, I’m sorry that the fire got to you before I did, but I’m still here.”

This is What Happens to Your Brain When You Read Poetry by Cody Delistraty from New York Magazine. Peek: “Their neurological responses, however, seemed to be unique to poetry: Scans taken during the study showed that listening to the poems activated parts of participants’ brains that, as other studies have shown, are not activated when listening to music or watching films.”

Childhood, Summers in China & The Emperor’s Riddle by Kat Zhang from CBC Diversity. Peek: “The scene in Riddle where Mia flips through old photobooks of her mother’s childhood pictures is pretty much pulled from my own eagerness as a kid to know more about my own parents’ lives so very long ago. Their childhoods in 1960’s China always seemed like another world, one so very removed from my own growing-up years in the U.S.”

Sarah Ellis & Waiting for Sophie by Adi Rule from the VCFA Launchpad. Peek: “For me, time gallops. (Another birthday! Didn’t I just have one?) For children, time crawls. (How many sleeps?) So I asked myself what children have to wait for and I came up with the one human event that technology has not managed to speed up, waiting for the birth of a baby.”

Congratulations to SCBWI Crystal Kite Winners! See Cynsations interviews about a few of the winning books with Debbie Levy, Gwendolyn Hooks and Janet Fox.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

Happy Friday! This is a MFA teacher week. I’m about halfway done with the fourth (of five) round of manuscript and critical writing packets from my Vermont College of Fine Arts students, and I look forward to attending the Austin SCBWI 2017 Writers & Illustrators Working Conference this weekend. I also lunched with author pals Kathi Appelt, Liz Garton Scanlon and April Lurie.

No word yet from my editor on the revision, and I’m in no hurry. After I finish my packets this weekend, my plan is to work on my summer residency lecture.

Reminder: the ebook edition of Feral Nights is on sale this month for $1.99; see book trailer.

Personal Links

More Personally – Gayleen

Donna Jannell Bowman

I’m thrilled to be assisting fellow VCFA alum Donna Jannell Bowman as she teaches a six-week class at the Writing Barn on Picture Book Nonfiction beginning June 11.

I took an afternoon class on nonfiction PBs with Donna last fall and can’t wait to delve deeper into the subject with her. Thanks to Bethany Hegedus, creative director of the Writing Barn for giving me this opportunity!

Personal Links

Author Interview: Gwendolyn Hooks on Inspiration, the Writing Journey & Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Gwendolyn recently won the
NAACP Image Award for Tiny Stitches

When I saw Jimmy Kimmel’s recent monologue about his son’s surgery, I remembered Gwendolyn Hooks’ picture book biography, Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas, illustrated by Colin Bootman (Lee & Low, 2016).

I tweeted about the book, in hopes Kimmel might invite Gwendolyn to be a guest on his show.

Since I have a little more pull with the Cynsations blog, I interviewed Gwendolyn about the story behind the book, which is also pretty amazing.

How did you get the idea to write about Vivien Thomas?

One night in 2010, Anna Myers (author, regional advisor for SCBWI Oklahoma and friend of 20 years) texted me, “Are you up?” I told her I was, so she called me. 
Her voice had a quality that struck my heart – I worried she was about to tell me someone had died. 
Instead she said, “I just saw a movie about the man who saved Little Will’s life (Anna’s grandson), and Gwen, you’ve got to write a book about him.”
The movie was Something the Lord Made, about Vivien Thomas, the man who developed the surgical procedure to repair Tetralogy of Fallot, a four-part heart defect. Vivien focused on one defect. He found a solution to the heart pumping oxygen-poor blood throughout the body.

Anna & Gwendolyn

I thought, she’s just out of her mind. I can’t write well enough to tell that story.

Anna sent me the DVD and I watched it. I kept thinking, “How did I not know this story?”

Vivien Thomas is the perfect inspiration to show what you can do once you’ve made your mind up. His life is a beautiful story of setting goals and working to figure things out.

This seems like a very complex subject. Do you have a medical background?

I took biology in college, but that was years ago, and we didn’t learn much about medical science. Basically, I had to learn it all.

Vivien Thomas himself inspired me to tackle the project. He only had a high school education and he didn’t know anything about working in a medical research lab. When Dr. Blalock interviewed him for the job, he asked questions about all the equipment and how it was used. Dr. Blalock recognized his sharp inquisitive mind and hired him as his research assistant.

I was a teacher for many years, mostly I taught seventh grade math, which by the way was my most
difficult year as a student. My teacher was young and enthusiastic, but I didn’t understand much of what she told us. When I was teaching and a student would tell me they didn’t understand, I would take a step back and remember how I felt that year, then try to find a different way to explain it.

That happens a lot with writing too. Sometimes a story may not be working and we have to step back and think about it in a different way. I’m always looking for a different approach to write something so young readers will understand and enjoy reading it.

Tell us about your research and what you did to make sure you got the story right.

Vivien Thomas wrote an autobiography that included lots of details about his research. Dr. Blalock advised him to write everything down – every step of an experiment. He took that advice to heart, and that helped me a lot.

PBS did a documentary on the procedure and included Vivien Thomas’ work.

I contacted doctors and residents who worked with him and interviewed them. They all said he was a generous person who really took the time to explain things. If you didn’t understand the first time, he would find a different way to frame it to make sure it was clear.

I also talked to his nephew who is now an orthopedic doctor with a sports team in Florida. He didn’t know what his uncle did until he attended Johns Hopkins as a medical student and saw his uncle’s picture on the wall.

Whenever the nephew had visited Baltimore in the summers, Vivien just told the kids he worked with dogs. He was humble about his accomplishments.

Vivien did an interview in the 1980s, I listened to the recording, but the sound quality made it difficult to hear well. Fortunately there was a transcript.

I really wish I’d had the chance to interview him myself.

Vivien Thomas portrait
at John Hopkins

I also read journals and articles written during his lifetime to get a sense of the challenges he faced. Both Nashville and Baltimore were segregated cities at the time. I was doing a school visit recently and we talked about his hardships and how he didn’t get credit for his accomplishments. The students were very vocal about how unfair that was, so that was very good to hear.

I watched a YouTube video done by a doctor at the Mayo clinic explaining the procedure. It was a video he showed patients and families, so it was very understandable.

I included the video in the resource section and when I was checking to make sure the link worked, I discovered the doctor had left the Mayo Clinic – and moved to Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City.

I emailed him, not really expecting to hear back, but he responded and ended up reading the book to make sure the science was correct. I dedicated the book to him and sent him a copy. He said he was happy to share it with his kids so they would understand what he does at work.

Gwen with Will, who was saved by Vivien Thomas’ procedure

That’s a great bit of serendipity. Did you find that one bit of research led you to the next?

Sometimes the path led me astray. There were so many stories I wanted to include, but I knew I couldn’t include them all.

I really wanted it to be accessible to upper elementary/lower middle school students and wanted them to see his determination and his ability to follow through.

Tell me about shaping the story.

The manuscript was about 2,500 words to start with and it ended up being about 1,100. I did several rounds of revision with the editor to cut it down. It’s a challenge to eliminate words and still keep the heart of the story.

What advice do you have for other writers?

My advice is to read the books being published now in the genre you’re trying to write. A lot of times I get a manuscript from another writer and they tell me it’s a picture book or a chapter book, but then when I read it, it’s not that at all.

Were there model books that helped you?

Author Barbara Lowell sent me Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (Henry Holt, 2013). It’s a different style, but it was interesting to see what information she included.

I read a lot of picture book biographies.

I lived at the library and read at least one or two every week (52 weeks x 5 years = 260 at least). Writing friends also loaned me books.

I didn’t limit myself to science books. I was reading them for writing techniques too.

Blizzard: The Storm That Changed America (Scholastic, 2006) by Jim Murphy. I love the way he can write nonfiction and make you feel like it’s fiction.

A couple of how-to books I found helpful were Yes! You Can Learn to Write Successful Children’s Books by Nancy I. Sanders (Createspace, 2013) and Anatomy of Nonfiction (Institute for Writers) by Margery Facklam and Peggy Thomas. (See Cynsations post about Anatomy of Nonfiction.)

Other picture book biographies I love (and this list doesn’t include the ones I checked out of the library!):

Cynsational Notes

Booklist gave Tiny Stitches a starred review. Peek:”(Vivien Thomas’) life and work are vivid in the pages of this picture book biography, in which Hooks details how his youthful work in fine carpentry, paired with his desire to become a doctor, propelled Thomas in his pursuit of his goals.”

A teacher’s guide is available from the publisher.

Gwendolyn Hudson Hooks was born in Savannah, Georgia. Her father was in the Air Force, so Gwen and her family moved a lot when she was a child. Her first stop in every new city was the local library where she got her new library card.

She is the author of 20 books for children, including the Pet Club Series from Capstone. Gwen now lives in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, with her husband and their three children.

Author Interview: Jennifer Ziegler on Inspiration, Confidence & Revenge of the Happy Campers

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Jennifer Ziegler to discuss the third book in her MG series featuring the Brewster triplets, Revenge of the Happy Campers (Scholastic, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Mother Nature Meets Sister Nature

Dawn, Darby, and Delaney Brewster are always up for an adventure, whether it’s ruining a wedding (for good reasons!) or turning a Christmas pageant tradition on its head. But now they’re about to go where they’ve never gone before: Camping!

They’re spending spring break with their beloved Aunt Jane at the same campground she and their mom used to go to as kids. But the first morning there, they run into a trio of boys, and one starts bragging about his plan to become the President of the United States. Clearly this is Dawn’s destiny, and the two, well, don’t become fast friends.

Between the fierce competition to see who’s the best leader and some unfortunate encounters with nature, this camping thing is sure looking like a bad idea. And when their final contest puts them in real danger, it might take six future leaders of the country to keep this from being the worst trip in history.

Camp can be such an exciting adventure. Did your childhood experiences inspire Revenge of the Happy Campers?

Definitely! I never went to “away camp,” but I had many outdoor adventures with my dad over the years, since camping and fishing are pretty much his favorite things to do.

Jennifer’s daughter, Renee, son Owen (right), and their cousin
Gabe (middle) after a successful day of camping & fishing.

Pappy Camp might not fit the standard definition of fun for a modern young person, but it was always a great experience.

I remember very primitive lodgings, fishing mishaps, bad weather, and critters visiting in the night. But I also remember the beautiful scenery, the sightings of wildlife, the thrill of reeling in a big fish, and how great food tastes when it’s cooked in the open air.

Mostly, though, I recall that sense of triumph. Every time I went on a camping trip, I came away feeling bigger, stronger, and more capable.

Renee holds up a mangrove snapper that she caught.

This is the third book in the Brewster triplets series. Were there challenges in keeping everything that happened in previous books straight, or by now do you feel like you know the girls as well as your own family? (and can readers start with the third book without feeling lost?)

Right before I started work on Happy Campers, I reread the first two books to remind myself of the pacing and rhythm and make sure I kept certain details straight.

I still had the characters’ voices in my head, so that part wasn’t very difficult. In fact, it’s going to take some serious effort to get their voices out of my head when I write a non-Brewster book.

The girls do seem like family to me now. I talk about them as if they really exist and often wonder how they’d react to world events. I find myself making remarks like, “Oh, the Brewsters would hate this,” or I’ll describe an actual person as being “like Delaney.”

It’s a magnificent feeling — and also a little alarming — when people you’ve imagined seem to have come to life.

I do think readers could start with the third book. It’s a complete story that doesn’t build off of the previous books’ plots, and background is given when needed.

Of course, those who’ve read the first two novels would recognize certain references and understand characters and relationships from the get-go.

Will there be more Brewster triplet books?

There will be! I’m currently writing Book Four in the series. I can’t say too much about it yet, except that the girls are twelve now and facing some new challenges — at home and elsewhere. I’m hoping it will be out fall of 2018.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

The first inspiration? Probably the relationship I had with reading while growing up.

I think when you are young, the bonds you have with favorite stories and characters are stronger and more special than the ones you form as an adult. You’re experiencing ideas and feelings for the very first time and learning about yourself and the world. So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say these beloved stories can help shape you into the person you become — or help you tap into parts of yourself you never realized were there.

The tales that enchanted me early in life (Judy Blume novels, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series, the first Star Wars trilogy) wove into the matrix that is me. Their worlds will always seem like cherished places I’ve visited, and their characters will always feel like old friends.

It’s similar to love. No … it is love. That’s what I recognized as a young reader. And I came to believe that if I could create stories that allowed young people to recognize themselves and understand life a little better, it wouldn’t just be fun, it would also be an important, almost sacred calling.

Competition is an underlying theme in Revenge of the Happy Campers. What advice do you have for writers about competition?

I feel strongly that with writing, the real competition has to be with yourself.

There do exist official literary competitions that result in fancy dinners and your name etched on a plaque — and don’t get me wrong, such honors feel fantastic  — but they can’t be what motivates you.

Owen & Renee hiking at Enchanted Rock in Texas.

What really matters is pushing yourself to do better in some way and succeeding. If, by the time you’ve finished a project, you have grown as a writer — that’s a win.

Perhaps you’ve honed your process or attempted a new style or genre. Maybe you’ve identified a bad habit that you can now avoid or learned a trick that can help you tackle writer’s block.

Such achievements won’t get you a shiny trophy (unless you give yourself one, and that’s okay), but they’re the stuff that will keep you fueled and focused for the next writing challenge. It’s proof that you can handle the demands of this calling.

Confidence. Faith in your abilities. Belief that you can overcome the fear and doubt (which never go away). I think those are the real rewards that can change you, and your craft, for the better.

Cynsational Notes

Jennifer & Chris lead horses with Fletcher & Renee 
on a camping trip.

Reviewer Sharyn Vane of the Austin American-Statesman wrote, “Ziegler’s young democratic-process aficionados are as appealing as ever, brimming with confidence and problem-solving savvy. They’re empathetic enough to notice that their aunt is saddened by the state of the campground she remembers visiting each summer….full of real-world adventures, both wise and witty.”

Like the Brewster triplets, Jennifer Ziegler is a native Texan and a lover of family, history, barbecue, and loyal dogs.

Although she only has one sister, she does know what it is like to have four kids living in the same house.

She is the author of several books for young people, including Sass & Serendipity (Delacorte, 2011), and How Not to Be Popular (Delacorte, 2008). Jennifer lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, author Chris Barton, and their four children.

Book Trailer: Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

Illustrated by Frank Morrison

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia (HarperChildren’s, 2017).

The first chapter comes to life as Clayton Byrd plays harmonica alongside his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and the Bluesmen.

From the promotional copy:

From beloved Newbery Honor winner and three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner Rita Williams-Garcia comes a powerful and heartfelt novel about loss, family, love, and the blues.

Clayton feels most alive when he’s with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and the band of Bluesmen—he can’t wait to join them, just as soon as he has a blues song of his own. But when the unthinkable happens and Clayton’s mother forbids Clayton from playing the blues, Clayton knows that’s no way to live.

Armed with his grandfather’s brown porkpie hat and his harmonica, he runs away from home in search of the Bluesmen, hoping he can join them on the road. But on the journey that takes him through the New York City subways and to Washington Square Park, Clayton learns some things that surprise him.

Video credits: Rita Williams-Garcia, Ferdinand Leyro, Kenneth “Chop” Alston, Mark “Blue Salim” Edwards, Timothy “Breeze” Winston, and Zuberi Zoboi.

Cynsational Reviews

★ “Clayton’s love of his grandfather and his music is wonderfully drawn, as is his grief when he loses them…. Strong characterizations and vivid musical scenes add layers to this warm family story.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Congratulations, Rita! You’re amazing!

★ “With the precision of a surgeon, Williams-Garcia lifts and examines layers of Clayton’s hurt and anger: the loss, but also the inability of his dismissive mother to understand… The book’s through line, though, is the music, and Garcia-Williams skillfully finds melody in words.” — Booklist (starred review)

★ “This slim novel strikes a strong chord… [A] holistic portrait of a family in pain, a realistic portrait of grief and reconciliation, and a reminder that sadness and loss are wrapped up in the blues.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

★ “An appealing, realistic story with frequent elegant turns of phrase. The third-person voice helps to keep Clayton’s story from becoming self-absorbed, as he learns to navigate the literal and figurative underworld and then find his way back to the everyday world of family, friends, and school.” — Horn Book (starred review)

★ “Williams-Garcia packs a lot of story in this slim book… This complex tale of family and forgiveness has heart.” — School Library Journal (starred review)