Author Interview: Kate Hosford on Theme, Re-imagined Colonialism & How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Kate Hosford to chat about How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea,
illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (Carolrhoda Books, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Each day when the Queen wakes up, three maids dress her, two more style her hair, and her butler James makes her tea. But when she grows dissatisfied with her brew, the Queen and James set out in search of the perfect cup. 

With each stop on their hot-air balloon journey, the Queen encounters new friends who expand her horizons—in the kitchen and beyond.

Can you tell me about your new release? Was it inspired by something in particular?

I started working on it in 2009 when getting my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I worked on picture books there with the extraordinary author and teacher Uma Krishnaswami.

The book was probably partly inspired by my aversion to cooking. (Both the Queen and I approach the kitchen with a certain amount of trepidation.) Aside from that, I just knew that I wanted to write about a pampered and lonely queen who yells at her butler when her tea tastes horrible, and then makes him take her around the world in a hot air balloon, searching for the perfect cup of tea.

Illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska, used with permission

I knew she would meet children along the way, and that the tea would start to taste better once she became more self-sufficient, and made some friends. However, in the early drafts, the children were still somewhat deferential, treating the Queen like royalty and giving her special gifts.

Uma really encouraged me to turn colonialism on its ear. Once I did, the story not only made more sense, but also became funnier, because the unimpressed children force the Queen to try all sorts of things that she normally wouldn’t do, like snuggle a kitty, play soccer, dance at a birthday party, and of course, make tea.

The Queen is like a toddler in some ways, experiencing a huge range of emotions in a small amount of time. Each time she visits a new land and is forced to try new things, she goes through a whole cycle of emotions: condescending, perplexed, startled, happy, proud, etc.

Gabi Swiatkowska did a wonderful job expressing all of these emotions in her incredible illustrations. She even used reference from baby faces for some of the Queen’s expressions!

Since Gabi also illustrated Infinity and Me, did the two of you end up communicating about How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea more?

Gabi & Kate

Gabi is an old friend, so we communicated a lot on both of the books. Infinity and Me (Carolrhoda, 2012) was done in a very different style with a number of different non-oil based paints.

For How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea, Gabi told me that she was going to use colored pencil and expressive line, and then occasional full page spreads just in colored pencil, which I thought was great combination for this humorous book.

I loved seeing sketches transform into finished artwork.

I’ve noticed sometimes beginning writers think picture books should have a moral or teach a lesson. How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea illustrates self-sufficiency, but this is very subtle, almost a subtext. Can you talk about this difference and how a theme emerges in a picture book?
Thank you! I hope the message about self-sufficiency is subtle and integrated into the story.

I think themes can naturally emerge from picture books when the intention behind the writing is to explore the growth of a character rather than to teach a lesson.

In this case, I tried very hard to focus on the Queen’s character. At the beginning she is lonely and impotent, even though she is a Queen.

I wanted her learning curve for making tea to be so slow that it would be funny. In Japan she can only turn on the faucet, and in India she is able to turn on the faucet and add water to the teapot. By the time she gets to Turkey, she can even boil water!

The Queen approaches each culinary task like an explorer who has discovered an intriguing but dangerous new land. I hope that after this slow build-up, her discovery of the perfect cup of tea feels earned.

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

I live in Brooklyn, and have a writing studio next door to my house.

When I look out the window,  I can see squirrels running up and down the trees in the back yard, and can sometimes hear a trumpet player practicing, and pigeons chatting.

I try to start writing at about 11:00 am after exercising and doing other household duties, and get home by 4:00 for my boys. Honestly, that means the writing day is too short, so sometimes I try to work more from home while they are doing homework.

After dinner, I’m too tired to do anything productive.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a poetry collection about the brilliant and mysterious octopus. I would also like to do a non-fiction picture book on either a classical musician, or perhaps an ornithologist.

I have a picture book coming out with Abrams next spring called Mama’s Belly, which will be beautifully illustrated by Abigail Halpin. I’m really excited about it, and can’t wait for it to come out!

Cynsational Notes

Publishers Weekly described Gabi Swiatkowska’s illustrations as “delicious, old-world pastels render
each character as a distinct individual…the details give Hosford’s round-the-world tale offbeat charm, and readers will smile as they watch the Queen shed her haughtiness and embrace her own capabilities.”

A curriculum guide and tea recipes from each of the countries the Queen visits are available online.

Kate Hosford graduated from Amherst College in 1988 with a degree in English and Philosophy. Before becoming an author, she worked as an elementary school teacher, a social worker, and an illustrator. In 2011 she received her MFA in Writing for children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Her other titles include Big Bouffant, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown (2011), Big Birthday, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown (2012) Infinity and Me, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska (2012),  Feeding the Flying Fanellis and Other Poems from a Circus Chef, illustrated by Cosei Kawa (2015). All of these are published by Carolrhoda Books, a division of Lerner Publishing.

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Where Do We Go From Here? by Pat Cummings from the Brown Bookshelf. Peek: “…until books featuring diverse characters are actively marketed to mainstream audiences, diverse books will stay a niche section of the bookstore and a niche in publishers’ marketing plans.”

A Cheat’s Guide to Writing a Synopsis by Sarah Juckes from Writers Helping Writers Peek: “The point of your synopsis is to explain the main plot to the reader. It is a technical document and doesn’t need to ‘sell’ your book – your book will do that. This is the golden rule.”

A Plea to Publishers by K. Imani Tennyson from Rich in Color. Peek: “…this year I only went to two panels…I chose not to attend them because the diversity in the panel was glaringly absent. I also did not see publishers pushing any of their authors of color…what do I mean by being ‘pushed’? I’m talking about giveaways, signage, call to action items…”

In the Age of Conventions, YA Fans Rule by Sue Corbett from Publishers Weekly.  Peek: “’Movie, TV, and comic book character cosplay has made room for literary cosplay,’ says Brett Cohen, president of Quirk Books.”

“Gray Area” Stories: Novels For Older Middle School Readers by Laurie Morrison from Project Mayhem. Peek: “I’ve rarely heard anyone say that middle grade novels shouldn’t deal with hard, sad topics; that seems to be okay, but certain language and certain kinds of crushes and romances are a no-go, many people think.”

Celebration of Humor & Women in Kidlit & YA  by Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal. Peek: “A true trickster is clever and foolish. A hero and destructive. Half the time female ‘tricksters’ are trapped in marriages and the like. That’s no life for them.”

Agent Spotlight Interview With Lorin Oberweger by Natalie Aguirre from Literary Rambles. Peek: “…it has less to do with genre and more to do with character development, plot, and theme. I love characters who demonstrate some level of agency right away. I love to experience a world that I wouldn’t have an opportunity to experience outside of the pages of the book.”

Do I Cite My Magazine Writing in My Query Letter? by Deborah Halverson  from Dear Editor. Peek: “Presuming the magazines are editorially discriminating and of professional quality, I support mentioning them in the credentials portion of your query letter. You’re seeding confidence in your professionalism and your writing chops.” See also Writing 101: The Dreaded Query Letter by Laura Weymouth from Adventures in YA Publishing.

Complex Characters and the Power of Contradiction by September C. Fawkes from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “The contradictions I’m talking about aren’t continuity errors or mistakes. They can relate to internal conflicts, but they are not internal conflicts. If you don’t like the term ‘contradiction,’ many of the things I’m about to talk about also work as ‘contrasts.'”

Sheryl Scarborough on To Catch A Killer! by Adi Rule from the VCFA LaunchPad. Peek: “…denial might be what gets us through the day. But no matter how deep down you push it, your truth is going to find its way out. Needless to say, this was exactly the depth my book was lacking and finding it made all the difference for me as a writer.”

Bookseller Suing California Over ‘Autograph Law’ by Jason Boog from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Assembly Bill 1570 requires anyone selling autographed books to provide an extremely detailed ‘certificate of authenticity’ with each book…Per the new law, booksellers must keep the certificates for seven years…”

The “And then!” Plot by Jane Lebak from the QueryTracker Blog. Peek: “It’s as though the story itself were a bunch of snapshots. Sure, the main characters keep getting together, and sure, they’ll probably have their Happily Ever After at the end, but it’s not satisfying because none of the events are related to each other…The solution to this is to figure out how to connect your plot points with ‘And therefore’ instead.”

Jenny Han on Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Melissa Walker from TeenVogue. Peek: “…you don’t see this girl — the one who stays home baking and making scrapbooks on a Friday night — represented as much in media. Lara Jean is also very content in her circumstances. She’s not struggling with Asian identity or worrying about not having a boyfriend.”

Under The Skylight: Revision by Erin Dionne from The Writers Loft Blog. Peek: “Having the ability to revise, to not be precious about your words so that you can clearly execute your book’s idea, is one of the single best skills you can cultivate as an author.”

10 Amazing Results of Author Visits from The Booking Biz. Peek: “Some children find it difficult to connect with even those who are closest to them. But characters in books can reach those children, and the authors who created them become instant friends.”

Deborah Hopkinson on Independence Cake  from Jama’s Alphabet Soup. Peek: “My new picture book…is most decidedly fiction….The real Amelia Simmons authored American Cookery, the first American cookbook….Although historians know little about her, she may have been a ‘bound girl’…the actual Amelia no doubt led a much harsher existence than her fictional counterpart.”

New Canadian Children’s Books by Kathleen Keenan from Book Riot. Peek: “Blackflies is (Robert) Munsch’s second picture book with Indigenous artist and writer (Jay) Odjick and is based on a story Munsch learned while staying with a family in northern Alberta. Munsch’s trademark humo(u)r is on display here and pairs well with Odjick’s cartoon-inspired style.”

Writers Of Color Discussing Craft – An Invisible Archive by Neil Aitken from de- canon. Peek: “Junot Diaz often comments on the fact he’s almost never asked to speak about craft, and instead always is asked to talk about race, identity, and the immigrant experience…I’m struck by how few POC-authored books on writing I’ve seen.” Note: includes resource list.

Ask the Agent by Jennifer Laughran from Tumblr.  Peek: “I haven’t heard from my agent in over two months despite a few e-mails to check in. Am I about to be dropped?”

Mary Atkinson on Tillie Heart and Soul by Adi Rule from the VCFA Launchpad. Peek: “…writing superpower? Persistence. Persistence in holding onto a spark of an idea for years…persistence in believing in myself as a writer with self-doubt always knocking at the door, persistence in showing up to do the work.”

Books and Authors: Talking with Julie Flett by Kay Weisman from Booklist. Peek: “Though my grandparents were multilingual, they did not pass their indigenous languages (Swampy Cree, Michif) on to their children. Just before my grandfather passed away, I asked him if he would speak to me in Cree. He did….this is when I really started to think about what it means to lose the language in our families.”

The Therapeutic Benefits of Writing a Novel by Jessica Lourey from Writer unBoxed. Peek: “All I knew was that my brain wasn’t spinning as much and I was beginning to feel again, even if it was the emotions of fictional characters….Through the gentle but challenging exercise of writing a novel, I was learning how to control stories, which is what our lives are—stories.”

Character Motivation Entry: Being The Best At Something by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “What does your character want? This…determines what your protagonist hopes to achieve by the story’s end. If the goal, or outer motivation, is written well, readers will identify fairly quickly what the overall story goal’s going to be and they’ll know what to root for.”

Interview with A.S. King by Inky from Inside a Dog. Peek: “….during my 15-year-long path to publication, I was turned down by many an adult publisher because my work was ‘too weird’. In the YA world, they embrace the weird. I tend to dig deep into difficult subject matter that I wouldn’t be able to write about without using surreal elements.”

Submit Your Picture Book Manuscript to the New Voices Award from the Lee & Low Blog. Peek: “Change requires more than just goodwill; it requires concrete action. The New Voices Award is a concrete step towards evening the playing field by seeking out talented new authors of color who might otherwise remain under the radar of mainstream publishing.” (Open to writers of color who have not previously had a children’s picture book published.) Deadline is Sept. 30.

Encouraging Reluctant/Dyslexic Readers  by Ela Lourenco from the SCBWI Blog. Peek: “…my best source of knowledge was from Larissa herself and my students in my children’s creative writing workshops. They explained to me what would help them become engrossed in a book and how I, as an author, could make reading not only enjoyable but easier for them.”

Puppies and Literacy by Erin Lovelace from ALSC Blog. Peek: “We serve many kids with Autism, behavioral challenges and developmental delays. This amazing pup is able to disarm them all. Their walls come down and they open up so quickly.”

Margarita Engle Named Young People’s Poet Laureate  from the Poetry Foundation. Peek: “‘Margarita Engle’s passion, knowledge of nature, and curiosity about the world make her work fascinating to children and adults alike,’ says Henry Bienen, president of the Poetry Foundation.”

European Commission’s New E-book Rules Worry Booksellers by Ed Nawotka from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “…a measure that would allow countries to set VAT for e-books at the lower levels applied to print books…. the EU has issued a new rule mandating the elimination of ‘geo-blocking of copyrighted material,’…The result is that any bookseller in the EC offering e-books will be required to fulfill orders from any customer in the EC.”

Movie Alert: ‘Everything, Everything‘  by Matia Burnett from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Though the love story between Maddy and Olly is central to Everything, Everything, the romantic element wasn’t what first led Yoon to write the novel…she developed the book following the birth of her daughter… she began thinking about what it might be like to have a child who was unusually vulnerable to the outside world.”

The We Need Diverse Books Internship Grant deadline is May 31.

Congratulations to Joy Harjo, who was awarded the 2017 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and to the 2017 Indies Choice and E.B. White Read-Aloud Award winners and the Banford Boase Award Shortlist nominees!

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

“I am Groot!”

I am not on deadline! I know, you’re shocked. It seems odd to me, too. I turned in the revision of my contemporary Native YA novel to my Candlewick editor on Friday afternoon and celebrated by going to see “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” at the Alamo Drafthouse last weekend.

Since then, I’ve been quietly productive. I’ve critiqued a picture book manuscript for one writer friend, a middle grade novel for another.

I’ve written four short articles inspired by my work in progress to be shared in conjunction with the 2018 release date.

The latter probably sounds like an early (perhaps even premature) effort, and it is. But I have a window, and I’ve found that I should take advantage when that happens.

Also, the manuscript is much fresher in my mind now than it will be after more than a year in production. Besides, VCFA packets will be incoming shortly, so I don’t have time to sink into anything else.

Reminder: In May, the ebook edition of my novel Feral Nights is on sale for only $1.99!

Personal Links

How Much Would Fictional Houses Cost? 
Nigeria exchanges 82 Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram for prisoners
Czech Girl Scout Whose Confrontation With Neo-Nazi Went Viral Now Getting Police Protection

More Personally – Gayleen

In between revising my middle grade historical fantasy, I’ve been reading Lady Mechanika by Joe Benitez, the comic my daughter picked out for me at Free Comic Book Day. And the teaser worked! I loved it and will be buying the rest of the series.

As you might’ve guessed, Lady Mechanika is steampunk, an alternative history with advanced forms of technology. My own work-in-progress is also alternative history with advanced technology and a healthy dose of unease about that technology. It’s something people worried about in the early 1900’s and it’s still with us today – perhaps even more so.

Personal Links

No Longer a Dream: Silicon Valley Takes on the Flying Car
Self-Driving Cars Could Be Here Sooner Than You Think

Author Interview: Leda Schubert on Lyrics, a Music Legend & Listen: How Pete Seeger Got America Singing

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome Leda Schubert, author of Listen: How Pete Seeger Got America Singing, illustrated by Raúl Colón (Roaring Brook Press, June 13, 2017). From the promotional copy:

There was nobody like Pete Seeger.
Wherever he went, he got people singing. 
With his head thrown back
and his Adam’s apple bouncing,
picking his long-necked banjo
or strumming his twelve-string guitar,
Pete sang old songs,
new songs,
new words to old songs,
and songs he made up.

This tribute to legendary musician and activist Pete Seeger highlights major musical events in Mr. Seeger’s life as well important moments of his fight against social injustice. From singing sold-out concerts to courageously standing against the McCarthy-era finger-pointing, Pete Seeger’s life is celebrated in this bold book for young readers.

What was your initial inspiration for writing Listen?

I had no intention of writing about Pete–until that very sad morning when I found out he had died.

Nobody lives forever, but I hoped Pete would beat the odds. I couldn’t stop crying, and before I knew it, I had started a picture book about him. Writing as a way to understand and process sadness and loss? I should have known.

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

First, Pete lived such a long life. Second, he did enough to pack into 50 lifetimes. Third, was he really as flawless has he seemed? And more.

How could I find something fresh to say, deal with McCarthyism in a picture book, and craft it for a child audience? What compromises would I have to make, if any? What would I leave out? How can music be expressed in words?

Including the song titles is pretty brilliant. Was that how you envisioned it from the beginning, or did that evolve as you worked on the project?

Ha. I wanted to include the beginning two lines of 14 or 15 different songs. I very carefully chose
songs that would reflect each section.

For example, the text says “Pete and his good friend Woody Guthrie/…/they hopped freight trains…”

Here I wanted to include the lyrics to ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’: “Go to sleep you weary hobo/Let the towns drift slowly by.”

Or, another example: “Pete said, “I love my country very deeply,”/offered to sing a song,..”

Here I wanted to include the beginning of that song: “Wasn’t that a time, a time to try/The soul of man; wasn’t that a terrible time.”

I contacted the copyright holders early on, which began a year-long (!) discussion about getting the rights. Eventually, I received permission from the family, but then learned that the permissions would be prohibitively expensive.

Lesson: don’t try to incorporate song lyrics in your work. I realized we’d have to go with the song titles instead.

Also by Raúl Colón

From there, it was in the extremely capable hands of Neal Porter (the editor), Raúl Colón (the illustrator), and Jennifer Browne (the art director). They decided to use the blue font, which I think was a brilliant decision.

What sort of research did you do?

What sort didn’t I do?  I am a research addict, and I have become over time probably the world’s best researcher. I am a naturally modest if not completely self-effacing person, but I make this claim with confidence.

So the research I did was basically to read everything that had ever been written by or about Pete and to watch videos and listen to everything he sang (almost).

Fortunately, I already knew a whole lot about Pete’s life. The problem I have with research is stopping.

Did you ever meet Pete or see him perform in person?

I did not exactly meet him, but I did shake his hand on two occasions and tell him how much he meant to me. I mention this in the notes. I was also very fortunate to see him many, many times, in concert, at folk festivals, and on pickets lines and demonstrations.

What do you hope readers take away from Listen?

I hope young readers want to listen to Pete’s music, learn more about him, and change the world as Pete did. Or at least change where they live. Pete said, as I quote in the book, “If anybody asks you where in the world is the most important place,/ tell them, right where you are.”

And I hope knowing his story will lead readers to sing more, especially with others. There’s nothing like four part harmony rising to the rafters and drifting to the stars (apparently I now quote myself.).

Also, I hope that readers will go out and buy tons of copies of the book. Then everyone will know about Pete.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

Leda reading with mentee at local school

In my journal from when I was 16, I had two wishes (other than falling in love, losing weight, having lots of dogs, etc.): to write for children and to live in Vermont.

I achieved the Vermont part in my early twenties, but it took me about thirty more years to get to the writing part. In between, I was lucky enough to always work in some way or other with children and books.

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

All the usual stuff: write, read, stay tuned in to the world.

Read your work aloud. Find a good writing group. Come to VCFA (Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children & Young Adults, low-residency MFA program).

But also this: read with children. Experiencing how children respond to your favorite books can be a mixed blessing, but worth it. And be a force for good in the universe!

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Listen a starred review. Peek: “Schubert and Colón capture with affection and respect Seeger’s remarkable lifetime of speaking truth to power through music and engaging the hearts of his audiences. A biographical timeline includes a charming selection from a boyhood letter, contemplating a banjo purchase; the generous resource list includes source notes and recommended recordings.”

School Library Journal said “Schubert’s offering is ideal for shared reading. Verdict: Buy this book and sing your heart out!”

Horn Book Magazine described the “focus not on dry facts but on helping child readers understand his essential spirit” and “the text captures the singer’s unmistakable speaking cadence.”

Leda Schubert is the author of 10 picture books including Monsieur Marceau: Actor Without Words, Gerard DuBois (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, 2012), which won the Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction, and Ballet Of The Elephants, illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker (Roaring Brook Press, 2006).

She has been a teacher, a school and public librarian, and a consultant for the Vermont Department of Education, and she holds an MFA from VCFA, where she was a core faculty member as well.

She lives in Plainfield, Vermont with her husband and two dogs, one of whom is a saint and the other a sinner.

Leda’s favorite Pete Seeger performance, with Bruce Springsteen, 
at President Obama’s “We Are One” pre-inauguration concert, Jan. 19, 2009. 

Book Trailer: Cinnamon by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Divya Srinivasan

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Cinnamon by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Divya Srinivasan (HarperChildren’s, 2017). From the promotional copy:

A talking tiger is the only one who may be able to get a princess to speak in this beautiful picture book set in a mythic India by the Newbery Medal-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman, and illustrated in bold colors by Divya Srinivasan.

Previously available only as an audio book, Cinnamon has never been published in print before, and Divya Srinivasan’s lush artwork brings Neil Gaiman’s text to life.

This stunning picture book will transport readers to another time and place and will delight parents and children alike.

See also New Voice: Divya Srinivasan on Little Owl’s Night from Cynsations.

Author Interview: Uma Krishnaswami on the Creative Life, Teaching Writing & Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Uma Krishnaswami to discuss her new MG historical novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh (Lee & Low, May 2017). From the promotional copy:

Nine-year-old Maria Singh longs to play softball in the first-ever girls’ team forming in Yuba City, California. It’s the spring of 1945, and World War II is dragging on. Miss Newman, Maria’s teacher, is inspired by Babe Ruth and the All-American Girls’ League to start a girls’ softball team at their school.

Meanwhile, Maria’s parents—Papi from India and Mamá from Mexico—can no longer protect their children from prejudice and from the discriminatory laws of the land. When the family is on the brink of losing their farm, Maria must decide if she has what it takes to step up and find her voice in an unfair world.

What inspired you to write Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh?

The history itself. I can’t help myself—little-known historical nuggets of information are irresistible to me.

About 15 years ago, I came across a documentary called Roots in the Sand by filmmaker Jayasri Majumdar Hart about this community of families in California in the 20s and beyond, in which the men were from India and the women from Mexico.

They were brought together by a perfect intersection of discriminatory laws that forbade Asians to own land, forbade people of different races to marry, and denied citizenship to people from India. And from all these incredible challenges they made a world of hope and optimism and survival. It’s a peculiarly American story. 

Once immigration from India opened up, the descendants mostly blended back into the Mexican American communities of California, but many retained a nostalgic memory of those fathers and grandfathers from India. I was totally hooked but it took me many, many tries before I could figure out how I should write this history in a way that made sense to kids.

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

I don’t think of myself as an author. That title, after all, depends on whether someone else thinks what I write has potential or marketability or whatever. 

But writing. That’s different. I am a writer. I love having an idea zing into my mind. I love the energy of a first draft, even when I know that at some point I’m going to be beating my head against it, trying to shape it into something that a reader could care about. 
I love how I can become enthralled by a story enough to keep returning to it, sometimes for years. And the thing I love best is when a work falls into place, especially after several revisions when it has felt opaque and I have felt dense and inept. Then suddenly, often overnight—as if dreaming has helped this happen—it’s all there and I can’t wait to do the work that has been revealed to me.

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

I have an office room looking out into my back yard, with a forest beyond the fence, so when I need a visual break I can see green trees. 

I can step out and walk there if I want to. But just so I don’t do that too often, I have a treadmill desk. I set it on slow when I’m writing and it keeps me on track. 
I used to write early in the morning but now I break it up—a couple of hours in the morning, a couple more in the afternoon. About four hours a day when I’m working on a project. During teaching weeks, I don’t do any of my own writing.

How does teaching inform your own writing?

It keeps me honest. I often find myself pointing out things in students’ work, then returning to my own and seeing those very problems staring me in the face. 

Why is it I couldn’t see them before? I think the way it works is this. Story (for me anyway) can often begin as something static—a snapshot, a little description, a place, a lone character, or a single idea. But the words I use to try and get at that story become prisms. They can reveal unexpected flashes of light and color. They can sparkle and create rainbows. But I can’t see that when I first use them. 
In a draft, I’m still chasing a mirage. Before I began teaching I’d often get stuck at that stage, and I left a lot of half-finished projects scattered behind me. 
Teaching forces me to put my own work away. Then when I return to that draft and hold it up at different angles, the light begins to burst through.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently juggling two nonfiction picture books with science themes and a middle grade historical nonfiction book. 

I think every book teaches you how to write that book and no other, so I feel like I’m learning all over again. 
Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews called Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, “A loving look at a slice of American life new to children’s books” and “filled with heart, this tale brings to life outspoken and determined Maria, her love for baseball, and her multicultural community and their challenges and triumphs.”  
Uma Krishnaswami is the author of more than twenty books for young readers, including Book Uncle and Me, illustrated by Julianna Swaney (Groundwood Books, 2016) selected as one of the best children’s books of 2016 by Kirkus Reviews, NPR Book Concierge’s Guide and USBBY Outstanding International Books List.

She teaches in the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born in New Delhi, India, Uma now lives and writes in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. 

Podcast: Pat Mora, Cynthia Leitich Smith & Don Tate

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What an honor to be interviewed for a podcast also featuring author Pat Mora and author-illustrator Don Tate by Professional Book Nerds.

Peek from my segment:

“It [writing for kids] was a heart decision, not a head decision and part of that heart decision wasn’t just about my work.

“It was about the power and importance and necessity of bringing goodness into the world, specifically goodness for kids, and so I was going to do what I could to uplift all storytellers and young readers.”

Click here to listen.

Cynsational Notes

About Professional Book Nerds: “We’re not just book nerds: we’re professional book nerds and the staff librarians who work at OverDrive, the leading app for eBooks and audiobooks available through public libraries and schools. Hear about the best books we’ve read, get personalized recommendations, and learn about the hottest books coming out that we can’t wait to dive into.”

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Illustrator Elisa Chavarri on the Art of Rainbow Weaver/Tejedora Del Arcoiris by Keilin Huang from the Lee & Low blog. Peek: “I worked digitally, but I’ve included an example of some of the sketches, and the early character design concept art, (before I figured out the appropriate dress), and some unused artwork/ideas.”

Imagine Yourself a Young Reader in the Margins #OwnVoices: Three Takes by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas from School Library Journal. Peek: “Those of us who hold literacy to be a transactional social practice believe that meaning is never located solely in texts, but instead is made through the work of readers as they relate to, interact with, and understand stories.”

Two NY Teens Fight School Assignment Requiring Defense of Genocide by Liza Wiemer from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: “For both young adults, the idea of advocating for the extermination of a people should never be legitimized by intellectual debate. As an alternative assignment, Archer and Jordan presented … a four-page plan, suggesting extensive analysis of non-fiction and fiction Holocaust books to promote critical thinking.”

Up-And Comers On Their Best Publishing Moments by Kelly deVos from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek: (Gloria Chao, American Panda, Simon Pulse, Spring, 2018) “Suddenly, there was a real possibility that my book could help a teen feel accepted and seen. Of course, I couldn’t have gotten there without other favorite moments like deciding to write my Own Voices story….”

Spells, Palls, and Poisoned Apples by Donald Maass from Writer unBoxed. Peek: “The main difference between the spells, palls, and poisoned apples that befall us and those that befall characters in stories is that we mostly brush those things off.  For us, those things pass.  In stories, they don’t. Or shouldn’t.”

Member Interview: Jessica Lee Anderson from  Austin SCBWI blog. Peek: “While I’m not a native Texan, Texas feels so much like home that it often becomes the setting in my various novels. I’ve created fictional Texas towns like I did in my young adult novel, Border Crossing, and I have researched real Texas treasures like Uncertain, Texas when I was drafting Uncertain Summer (CBAY Books, September 2017).

Celebrating Small Publishers: An Array of Remarkable 2017 Titles from the Smallest Houses by Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal. Peek: “While they (The Big Five publishers) have the capital and resources to wine and dine the masses, loads of independent presses are out there making a living, scrambling about, and generally filling in all those gaps the biggies ignore.”

How Can Picture Book Readers Feel It If I Don’t Tell It? by Deborah Halverson from Peek: “I understand the desire to convey a sensual experience. I generally encourage picture book writers to avoid statements that explicitly tell how the character feels….The beauty of telling stories via the picture book format is that the art and page turns do part of the work.”

It’s a Brave New World for Teachers and Librarians by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: (Lorena German, High School English Teacher, Austin, Texas) “…we are currently reading Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese….and we are learning about the Asian-American experience in the U.S., stereotypes, microaggressions, the model-minority myth, and more. It is my job to go beyond literary and academic preparation and equip my students to be loving, intelligent, critical thinkers in our world.

Want to Grow As a Writer? Transform Your Critique Group by Michael Hauge from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “It took me a long time to realize, but my best coaching always occurs when I listen….outstanding critique groups want to know how the writer sees her own story.”

Are You Clear About Your Writer Persona? Going Public by Design by AM Carley from Jane Friedman‘s blog. Peek: As writers, we don’t always know how much of ourselves to share with the public. I believe it behooves each of us to create and curate an author persona—the public face for our work.”

Eisner Award Nominee

Congratulations to Americas Award winners and honorable mentionsEisner Award nominees. See also the International Literacy Association’s Choices Reading Lists.

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Sale & Screening Rom

An everyday girl, a dashing werecat and an awkward wereopossum (with a secret even he doesn’t know)! In May, the ebook edition of Feral Nights is on sale for only $1.99. See more information!

“Smith’s blend of supernatural suspense, campy humor, and romantic tension is addictive; allusions to both pop culture (‘Thriller,’ Monty Python) and literature (The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Most Dangerous Game) add to the fun.” — The Horn Book

“Smith’s fantasy smoothly switches between the three protagonists’ perspectives, while expertly blending the mythical and the modern. The story’s sharp banter and edgy plot make for an entertaining and clever story about loyalty and reconciling differences.” — Publishers Weekly

More Personally — Cynthia

Wonderful Gayleen

Thanks to my wonderful intern, Gayleen Rabakukk, for reading my revised YA manuscript (Candlewick, 2018) aloud to me this week.

There’s a point in the process when I honestly can’t see typos or missing words any more, and right now that’s close to where I am when I’m reading quietly to myself. For me, reading aloud helps.

Someone else reading aloud, especially someone who hasn’t read it before is key. She brings fresh eyes and voice to the process. Errors leap up and wave their hands for attention.

I’ve already keyed out a letter to my editor, Hilary Van Dusen, thanking her for her insightful feedback on the initial draft and detailing my revision journey.

The manuscript has been much changed. Basically, I began by deleting about 16,000 words of navel-gazing and boring-ness and then retooled tone and deepened character while reconfiguring plot scaffolding. It’s fascinating to me, though, that the seeds of those changes were largely already present in the existing draft.

My friend and VCFA faculty colleague Tim Wynne-Jones speaks about the “inner genius” and the importance of reading yourself. Don’t let the word “genius” throw you; it’s essentially about trusting your subconscious to plant clues and encouraging your conscious mind to embrace those opportunities.


And–I am so excited!–2018 will be the biggest year ever for Native YA girl protagonists!

Huge congratulations to Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa), whose debut YA novel, “Apple in the Middle” (2018), is the second manuscript accepted for the Contemporary Voices of Indigenous Peoples Series at North Dakota State University Press!

From the publisher: “Dawn Quigley recently received the Denny Prize for Distinction in Writing. She is published in more than twenty-five Native American and mainstream magazines, academic journals, and newspapers, with a forthcoming piece in American Indian Quarterly. She works as assistant professor at a Minnesota university, and she is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota. She is also a consultant on Native American literature for the Minnesota Department of Education, and she hosts a blog about Native literature.”

Personal Links

More Personally – Gayleen

My daughter and I had a great outing Saturday doing the Austin Bookstore Crawl, part of Independent Bookstore Day. According to Publishers Weekly, 458 stores participated nationally. In Austin, a list of scavenger hunt tasks was posted the night before that required taking a picture in each store.

At BookWoman we need to take a picture with an inspiring children’s book. I chose Liz Garton Scanlon‘s All the World (Little Simon, 2015) board book. Scavenger hunt rules then required posting the photos to social media, tagging the bookstore and using #atxbookstorecrawl. Participants who visited at least three stores were entered into a drawing for books and swag from all the stores. I don’t have sales statistics, but clerks at all the stores I visited said they were busier than usual.

Personal Links

Guest Post: Lindsey Lane on Marketing & Paperback Release of Evidence of Things Not Seen

By Lindsey Lane

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

What are you supposed to do when your debut novel releases in paperback?

a) Nothing

b) Heave a sigh of relief

c) Let everyone know

d) All of the above

Ahhh, the conundrums of marketing.

Guess what? There is no prescribed method for marketing our books. There is no must-do, have-to do, should-do list. There is no recommended amount of time you spend doing marketing.

And guess what else? Marketing is counter-intuitive to every thing we love to do as writers: stay home in comfy attire and create imaginary worlds. Marketing is a little too real world, right?

So of course, I was tempted to let the paperback release of Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014) slip into its soft cover without much fanfare.

I chose not to do that because I’ve always had this vision of Evidence passing from hand to hand in the hallways of high schools and I always saw it happening in soft cover format. Certainly the paperback price point made that vision more attainable.

So what to do? 

Lindsey & Cyn at the Turkey Trot in Austin

Because I live in Austin, I have the luxury of going out to lunch with friend, mentor, colleague and super kidlit guru Cynthia Leitich Smith.

“Why not reblurb it?” she said.

“Wait?! I can do that?” I asked.

She explained that because Evidence has been out since 2014, lots of other writer pals have read it, liked it and probably want to support it. 

I loved this idea because part of what makes sense about marketing for me is building community. No community is better than the children and young adult literature community. We cheer our releases, our successes and our causes. 
I reached out to three young adult writers Jennifer Matthieu, Conrad Wesselhoeft and J.L. Powers, all of whom had loved Evidence, and asked them to write a few lines.

Here’s what they said:

“This is the kind of book you tuck in with and escape into, and it will stay with you long after you finish the last lines. Haunting and beautiful.” Jennifer Mathieu, author of The Truth About Alice (Roaring Brook Press, 2014), Devoted (Roaring Brook Press, 2015), Afterward (Roaring Brook Press, 2016) and the forthcoming Moxie (Roaring Brook Press, 2017).

“Ever look at a pearl and notice that its one color is, in fact, many colors? That’s the beauty of Evidence Of Things Not Seen, the stunning debut novel by Lindsey Lane.”Conrad Wesselhoeft, author of Adios Nirvana (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), Dirt Bikes, Drones and Other Ways To Fly (Harcourt Brace, 2014).

“The narrative jiggers between unexpected opposites—joy and fear, love and violence, grief and hope—all the while holding forth the constant idea that the world offers us credible evidence of what seems impossible if we only know where to look.” J.L. Powers, author of Amina (Allen & Unwin, 2015), This Thing Called The Future (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011), and the forthcoming Broken Circle (Black Sheep, October 2017).

What happened after I received those new blurbs was like sprinkling fairy dust on me and my book. I got reinvigorated.

Let me explain. 

When your book debuts in the world, it begins a journey, which is somewhat separate from me (think kid going off to college). People would ask me how Evidence of Things Not Seen was doing. Other than royalty statements, I didn’t know. 

I imagined my book toddling around the world perched on book shelves, cradled in someone’s lap or passed to a friend with, hopefully, an urgent recommendation. Yes, I had school visits, speaking engagements and signings but really after your book is out in the world, it has its own experience with readers.

After receiving those blurbs, I researched advertising and book tours. 

Advertising is a bit of a gamble. One time in Publishers Weekly or Booklist is hugely expensive. But Facebook is doable. It’s cheaper, effective and targeted. If there is one reason to have an Author page, it is being able to run these kinds of ads.

As for blog tours, I decided to try out LoneStar Literary.

I’d been receiving their newsletter for a few months and noticed that their content and readership was growing. It was also Texas-based and helmed by women (always a plus).

Because Evidence is set around Blanco alongside US 281, I decided LoneStar Literary would be a great fit. For a very affordable price, I had a 10-stop tour, which included four new reviews and a giveaway.

It was a blast. Great exposure. A lot of fun. Terrific support on Facebook and Twitter. Apparently, it
was a successful tour because Evidence had the most giveaway entries so far for a LoneStar Book Blog Tour. Here is a link to the complete tour.

Promoting the paperback release of Evidence was like taking a honeymoon trip with my book. Even though I am currently engrossed in a new world and its characters, I remembered why I wrote Evidence and why I loved that world and its characters.

Putting together a little hoopla for the paperback release was unexpectedly fun. Highly recommended.

Book Trailer

Cynsational Notes

Lindsey Lane is the author of the young adult novel Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014) and the award-winning picture book and iTunes app Snuggle Mountain (Clarion/PicPocket Books). She is represented by Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Before she received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2010, Lindsey was a features journalist (Austin Chronicle and Austin American Statesman) and an award-winning playwright (The Miracle of Washing Dishes).

Lindsey is a featured presenter at schools and conferences and universities and also teaches writing at Austin Community College, Writers League of Texas, and the Writing Barn.

She lives in Austin, Texas but loves to travel, especially to the ocean. She loves books, films, good food and her cadre of dear friends. Her idea of a perfect evening is having a dinner party at her home with friends from around the world and discussing everything under the sun while eating, drinking, and laughing.

Author Interview: Laurie Wallmark on Clarifying Complex Topics & Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome Laurie Wallmark to discuss her new picture book, Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, illustrated by Katy Wu (Sterling Books, May 16, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Who was Grace Hopper? A software tester, workplace jester, cherished mentor, ace inventor, avid reader, naval leader—and rule breaker, chance taker, and troublemaker. 

Grace Hopper coined the term “computer bug” and taught computers to “speak English.” Throughout her life, Hopper succeeded in doing what no one had ever done before. 

Delighting in difficult ideas and in defying expectations, the insatiably curious Hopper truly was “Amazing Grace” . . . and a role model for science- and math-minded girls and boys. 

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I think it’s important to write about our passions, and I love STEM (science, technology, engineering, math).

I’m also passionate about making sure that all children, regardless of race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, etc., realize that they can become scientists and mathematicians. By highlighting the achievements of woman in these fields, I’m showing both girls and boys, that you don’t have to be male to be a computer scientist like Grace Hopper.

What aspect of the subject surprised you most? 

I knew about Grace Hopper and her many accomplishments, but never realized how personable and funny she was. While researching the book, I watched many videos of her, and she always made me laugh.

Illustrations by Katy Wu. Here, a moth caught in the relay caused a malfunction.
“Ever since then, because of Grace’s sense of humor, computer glitches have been called ‘bugs.'”

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

The standard advice for those starting out is to read extensively the types of books you want to write. But, as Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) taught us, it takes more than a surface reading to understand what goes into making a good book.

You have to study and practice the craft techniques before you’re able to include them in your own writing.

As an author-teacher, how do your various roles inform one another? 

Although I teach at the college level, my day job helps hone my ability to make sure my audience truly comprehends what I’m teaching. The instant feedback of a classroom setting lets you know when you’re on the right track.

If I’m not clear in my writing, I hear that imaginary student, now a seven-year-old, saying, “I don’t get it.” In STEM nonfiction books at the picture book level, you need to make unfamiliar and difficult ideas understandable to an elementary-school child.

My critical thesis for my MFA was on how to explain complex STEM topics in picture books. In my studies, I discovered many possible techniques to use.

In Grace Hopper, I chose to describe how a compiler works rather than use the technical term. “(Her program) translated MULTIPLY and the other commands into instructions the computer could understand.”

In Ada Lovelace and the ThinkingMachine (illustrated by April Chu, Creston Books, 2015), I gave a technical word and immediately defined it. “Ada decided to create an algorithm, a set of mathematical instructions.”

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

I workshopped this book twice while I was at VCFA. The first time, it was written in verse. Doing this allowed me to include much more detail than is usual in a picture book.

That was the positive. The negative? It just wasn’t working. I rewrote the story in prose and brought it back for another workshop. The comments of faculty and my fellow students helped me find my way to the final book.

I’m pleased that one of my poems remained as part of the published book.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Grace Hopper Queen of Computer Code a starred review. Peek: “Wallmark’s tone is admiring, even awestruck, describing Hopper’s skill, inventiveness, and strength of character in straightforward, accessible language, introducing a neglected heroine to a new generation of readers. Wu’s strong, bright digital illustrations perfectly complement the text…”

Laurie Wallmark has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. When not writing, she teaches computer science at Raritan Valley Community College.

Her debut picture book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (Creston Books, 2015), received four starred trade reviews (Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal). It also won several national awards, including Outstanding Science Trade Book and the Eureka! Award from the California Reading Association. It is a Cook Prize Honor Book.

Discussion and curriculum guides are available for both of Laurie’s books.

Book Trailer: The Absoluteness of Nothing by C.G. Watson

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The Absoluteness of Nothing by C.G. Watson (Simon Pulse, May 2017) releases today in paperback. From the promotional copy:

Caleb Tosh has suffered one personal trauma too many, but this last one – the sudden departure of his mom – has pushed him down a dark and disorienting path.

His favorite video game, the Boneyard, becomes his go-to coping mechanism, and Tosh gladly gets lost in the maps of the game rather than moving through the landscape of his own grief. 

As Tosh falls further and further down the rabbit hole of abandonment and loneliness, he doesn’t see that there are others fighting both virtual and real-life battles alongside him. 

What will it take for Caleb Tosh to leave the safety of the Boneyard, rejoin reality, and deal with the wreckage of his actual life?

Cynsational Notes

C.G. Watson is an author, youth activist, and veteran teacher from Northern California. In 1986, she earned a Spanish degree from California State University Chico, a teaching credential the following year, and a masters in education in 1994.

In 2000, C.G. was given a life-changing opportunity: to bring anti-bullying and conflict resolution programs to the high school where she taught. For five years, she coordinated the powerful Challenge Day program, and created and ran a successful student mediation program as well. These have become the heart of her work as both a YA author and youth activist.

C.G. Watson co-founded Never Counted Out, a non-profit organization that provides books and creative mentorship for students, schools, and youth programs whose access to both books and mentorship is limited. C.G.’s debut novel was Quad (Razorbill, 2007) and her novel Ascending The Boneyard (Simon Pulse, 2016) is re-released today in paperback under a new title, The Absoluteness Of Nothing.