In Memory: Dianne de Las Casas

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

Author Dianne de Las Casas died Aug. 21 while Cynsations was on summer hiatus.

A ‘Magnetic Personality’: Author, Storyteller Killed in Harvey House Fire by Jonathan Bullington from The Times-Picayune. Peek: “An award-winning author, Casas published more than two dozen books. She founded Picture Book Month, celebrated in November and recognized by the American Association of School Librarians.”

Dianne Christine Casas Obituary from The New Orleans Advocate. Peek: “Dianne Christine Casas died on August 21, 2017 in Harvey, LA, at the age of 47…She always said that ‘life is too short not to sparkle,’ and she will live on in the sparkle of people’s hearts the world over. “

Tribute to Dianne de Las Casas from The Booking Biz. Peek: “We were honored to have Dianne as a client. Not only was she a wonderful storyteller and presenter, she was a warm, caring and generous person. Dianne’s passion for children’s books was unlimited, and she went the extra mile to help children in every appearance she did. She inspired us every day…”

Remembering Dianne de Las Casas, Founder of Picture Book Month by Rocco Staino from School Library Journal. Peek: “Three hundred friends and family members gathered in Metairie, LA, on August 26 to celebrate the life of Dianne de Las Casa….’Dianne’s enthusiasm for children’s literature was boundless,’ (Tara) Lazar says. ‘Dianne was a spark plug, and the electricity she brought to our community will be sorely missed.'”

Remembering Dianne de Las Casas from SCBWI’s Lin Oliver. Peek: “A longtime member of SCBWI, she was an avid supporter of SCBWI, spoke and performed at many conferences, and astounded us all with her love for children’s literature, her dynamic personality and her ebullient  spirit….Dianne was a shining light for us all, a vessel of love.”

From author Lindsey Lane:

“I only got to meet (no, wrong verb), experience (better), be in the presence of (yes, that’s it) Dianne once. It was indelible. 

“We were in McAllen, Texas doing school visits and the McAllen Book Festival in 2015. She and John were newly and seamlessly together. Dianne burbled with life whether she was talking about books or writing or children or her daughters or John. 

“I remember thinking, ‘That woman is tapped into a fountain of effervescence.’ I can hardly believe she is gone. I suppose she isn’t, really, because that indelible presence she left in the form of books and love in her loved ones’ hearts will never go away. And I will always remember you, dear Dianne.”

Celebrate Dianne de Las Casas is a campaign set up by Dianne’s daughter Soleil to raise funds for any associated service costs, with the remainder donated to First Book, an educational equity organization that transforms the lives of children in need and elevates their quality of education.

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Author Interviews

Five Questions for Liz Garton Scanlon, Author of Caldecott-honored Book from the Writers’ League of Texas. Peek: “I think in my transition from poet to children’s author, the biggest leap was, ‘Why does something always have to happen?’ I’m only sort of kidding. I felt so bullied by plot. But I’ve come to a much fuller understanding of where good plot originates — from deep inside a character…”

Devdutt Pattanaik on Telling All Kinds of Stories to Children from Kitaab World. Peek: “Morals and values come from parables, not mythologies. Mythologies provide a framework to make sense of life. Most people confuse the two.”

Interview with Author JoAnne Whittemore from Supergirl.TV. Peek: “I often say that the difference between middle grade and young adult is perspective. In middle grade, it’s about how the world affects you; in young adult, it’s about how you affect the world.”

Writer Monique Gray Smith Takes Readers on Reconciliation Journey Across Canada by Emilee Gilpin from The Tyee. Peek: “As soon as we get into judging another person’s journey, we get into that colonial mindset about what’s right and what’s not right. I think it’s a personal journey for everyone and some people will never take it, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.”

Author’s Notebook: Kathy Kacer and Jordana Lebowitz on To Look a Nazi in the Eye by Barbara Krasner from The Whole Megillah. Peek: “I was intrigued with the notion of bringing a Nazi war criminal to trial in my time… I wanted to write about the trial but was struggling to figure out a way to do that for the young audience that I usually write for. Then I read an article in a local paper about Jordana and her trip to Germany to be an observer at the trial.”

Kelly Starling Lyons New ‘Jada Jones’ Chapter Book Series for Young Readers by Sarah Lindenfeld Hall from WRAL. Peek: “Children’s literature scholar Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop says that books can be ‘windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors.’ You can look through books into other lives. You can see yourself. You can feel like you’re transported into the story world. Readers need all of that.”

The Message YA Novelist Cherie Dimaline Has for Young Indigenous Readers by James Henley from CBC Books. Peek: “I wanted Indigenous readers to feel strong and powerful. I wanted them to see a narrative that actually is reminiscent of my own understanding of being an Indigenous person: That no matter what happens, you always belong to our land, we’re always going to belong to each other and we’ll seek each other out.”

Shenaaz Nanji and Ghost Boys by Adi Rule from the VCFA Launch Pad. Peek: “I, Queen of Melodrama, still make the mistake of writing dramatically. Sad people burst into hot tears….I know I must not run away with my emotions but I find it terribly hard to find the right balance of emotion; too little and readers feel no empathy for characters, but too much, and the scene becomes melodramatic.”

See also Will Alexander and a Properly Unhaunted Place from the VCFA Launch Pad. Peek: “American ghost stories are strange. Why? Maybe because of the way we look at history. Maybe because we teach history as though it were over. But history is happening. We are still haunted by it. We need to be haunted by it. Virginia Hamilton said that ‘the past moves me and with me, although I remove myself from it.'”

See also Martha Brockenbrough and Love, Santa! When You’re Ready to Share the Beautiful Trip About Santa from the VCFA Launch Pad. Peek: “She’d hinted around the topic for a while, so I asked her if she really wanted to know. She was emphatic. My response was posted on a blog, and then published by The New York Times, then it became a Facebook and Pinterest sensation (and someone with a weak sense of irony plagiarized it and made it religious).”


How to Be a 50% Mexican-American, 25% Puerto Rican, 25% White Girl by Samantha Mabry from YA Highway. Peek: “I thought my Mexican American grandmother was kind of weird with all her candles and pictures of Jesus on the walls, and I distanced myself from her. I spent my girlhood aware of my heritage, but much like the young woman in my signing line, I was disconnected from it. The older I get, however, the more it seems like my personal history–my cultures and my bloodlines –demands to be re-discovered.”

Getting Tweens To Think (and Act) Globally | Nonfiction Notions by Jennifer Wharton from School Library Journal. Peek: “I wanted to showcase books that would expand tweens’ ideas and knowledge of the world, especially about the experiences of kids from communities different than their own.”

Looking for Queer Girls on the Shelves by E.M. Kokie from The Horn Book. Peek: “Compared to novels for young people featuring male queer characters, it has felt like novels featuring queer girls have lagged behind somewhat, often stuck in the tragedy and sadness of queerness. But the last two years, especially, have seen a bit of a girls-loving-girls boom in young people’s literature…”

Mentioning Sexual Orientation in an Elementary Assembly by Marc Tyler Nobleman from Noblemania. Peek: “Every adult has a responsibility to model empathy for every child. There may be kids at this school who have an openly gay parent or two gay parents. There are definitely kids at this school who are gay themselves, even though they may not know it yet.”

The 2017 We Need Diverse Books MG Short Story Contest from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “…Phoebe Yeh, VP/Publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House, has acquired publication rights to a middle grade WNDB Anthology titled Heroes Next Door. Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, advisory board member of WNDB, will edit the anthology, which will have a Fall 2019 release date.” Open to diverse writers who have not published a short story or novel. Entry deadline is Oct. 31, 2017.

Accept, Don’t Just Tolerate by Padma Venkatraman from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: “To eradicate religious stereotypes, we must break the silence surrounding them. Our nation is secular, but our culture is uncomfortable with public religious discourse.”

Writing Insights

Historical Novels—Your Research To-Do List by Lydia Kang from Writer unBoxed. Peek: “Poach bibliographies. If nonfiction books are the trees, bibliographies are the roots. Dig deep, but be wary of interesting yet haphazard side trips that aren’t helpful for the task at hand. I used often, which has free online books from the last several centuries.”

Chasing Bears by Eric Pinder from Around Concord Magazine. Peek: “Tell a story about an ordinary person or a dog running up that same sidewalk into town, and unless the dog has rabies and the person is planning to rob the store with Chekhov’s gun, no one will care…Put a bear in the story instead, and suddenly you have their rapt attention.”

Melissa Stewart: A Look at Expository Literature from Betsy Bird’s A Fuse 8 Production at School Library Journal. Peek: “Besides being meticulously researched and fully faithful to the facts, expository literature features captivating art, dynamic design, and rich, engaging text. It also includes some or all of the following text characteristics: strong voice, carefully-chosen point of view, innovative text structure, and purposeful text format.”

Great Writing/Publishing Podcasts by Mary E. Cronin from Project Middle Grade Mayhem. Peek: “Having the provisions to go the distance, to weather the hard knocks and enjoy the triumphs, takes a variety of resources. One of my go-to resources is podcasts.” Includes Plotcasters by author David Macinnis Gill and Minorities in Publishing from Jenn Baker.

How Picture Book Pagination Keeps Readers Turning the Pages by Carol Hinz from the Lerner Blog. Peek: “Ultimately, a picture book text isn’t going to exist as a text on its own. If a text feels fully complete without any accompanying images . . . it may not be a picture book.”

What Writers Can Learn from Goodnight, Moon by Joe Fassler from The Atlantic. Peek: “So much of writing is about finding ways to trick yourself into letting go.”

Creating Compelling Consequences for Characters by Mary Kole from Kid Lit. Peek: “We can all sit around and agree that trouble and tension are the fuel of the story engine. You can’t get very far without them. But when it comes to actually executing them and letting your character suffer? Many writers are simply too nice.”


NLA Read and Critique for Hurricane Relief organized by Nelson Literary Agency. Peek: “All funds raised through this auction will be donated to the pubic libraries and independent bookstores devastated by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and now, quite possibly, Maria.” Includes agent and author critiques. See also Authors Spearhead Hurricane Relief.

The 10 Most Challenged Books of 2016 by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “’In 2015, nine out of the 10 books were by and about diverse populations,’ (James) LaRue (American Library Association) says, ‘and this year still half of them are, with a continued focus on LGBT and particularly transgender.’” See also Banned Books Week: Why Are Illustrated Books Being Challenged More Than Ever? by Michael Cavna from The Washington Post and Sex in YA by K. Imani Tennyson from Rich in Color.


The Hidden Dangers of Short-Form Publishing Deals by Susan Spann from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “Failure to deal with all of the relevant issues creates ambiguities, and in short-form deals, many of those ambiguities cut in the publisher’s favor.”

Vermont College MFA graduate and query whisperer Melissa Baumgart is now offering query and synopsis critiques, as well as admission essay coaching.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

Highlights of my week included attending the launch of Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt, illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls (Scholastic, 2017) at BookPeople in Austin.

The event had a lovely sense of occasion, including a heartfelt introduction by fellow Austin children’s author Donna Janell Bowman.

Then Paige shared the story behind the story of the book, her early concerns that such a short, existential text might struggle in the marketplace and her joy at having received four starred reviews (and counting).

On another thrilling note, one of my former Vermont College of Fine Arts advisees, Kate Branden, received the 2017 SCBWI Work-in-Progress grant in YA Fiction for her manuscript, “The Locksmith.”

I had the pleasure of reading the story during Kate’s second semester, and it’s fantastic. This national award is much deserved!

Congratulations, Kate! Wowed by you! Cheers also to her fellow honorees!

100 Books by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: “Before trying to write any character outside one’s lived experience, I recommend reading at least 100 books* by authors from that community. One hundred books—to start.”

Reminder! Saturday is the deadline for applications for a Cynsations intern, and there are a couple of spots still available for my October humor writing workshop with Uma Krishnaswami at Highlights!

More Personally – Gayleen

I’m currently in the middle of a six-week class at The Writing Barn, Perfecting the Picture Book with fellow VCFA alum Cate Berry.

As teaching assistant I’m diving deep into the titles we discuss in class, which means my library card is even more full than usual. But what I love most is hearing a dozen different opinions about what a text passage or image means – a strong reminder that each reader interprets a book differently.

Personal Links – Cynthia

Personal Links – Gayleen

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The endings of so many wonderful stories – our own and others’ – are different than what protagonists imagine they might be.

And our lives hand us some of the same twists and turns.

As writers and illustrators, there are times we must move through more than the usual vicissitudes.

Something may go terribly wrong and leave us feeling like doors are closing, possibilities are evaporating, and our creative work will forever remain in computer files or portfolios.

I had an experience this year that felt that way. It challenged my learned and well-practiced optimism to a degree that I hadn’t felt in years.

The first thing I did was a completely natural tendency: I tried to figure out how and why the experience had happened. Luckily, I’ve learned that it’s unlikely that we ever figure out the reasons for things completely out of our control. I also know for sure that spending time this way may be a natural way to mourn what is lost, but it’s also a definite mood and productivity sinker.

I won’t call it a total waste of time, but I will call it a bridge from despair to energy that I wanted to keep as short as possible. My experience left my middle grade novel in verse up in the air. The direction forward couldn’t be immediately clear.

Get busy on your next project in the meantime, I thought. That’s what we all tell one another, right? And it’s such a good plan!

But no big ideas came. No little ones, either.

I wondered whether my hard-won resilience had met its match. I definitely didn’t want to believe it had. Looking forward, I was not feeling tremendously optimistic.

But I don’t believe in writer’s block.

So I meandered forward more slowly than I might have wished, but I stayed patient.

Ideas came, and I jotted down verses. The ideas didn’t take hold, and I turned elsewhere, pulling out a picture book draft for revision.

I was writing, but I couldn’t detach my best writing self from the novel in verse that had been a story I had had to write, and did. I was collecting ideas that would or wouldn’t go anywhere.

That’s all I knew. I didn’t have a clue where my meandering would take me. I was fairly successful with staying patient, but I won’t say it was easy. I just wanted to keep writing.

Then an online course popped into my email – an intensive, homework-heavy, webinar-filled picture book course that appealed to my need to dive into something deeply. I read the syllabus, and any other time, it might have felt even overwhelming, because it was that filled with a bounty of information and peer and professional critiquing. It was going to be intense. Could I handle it?

I decided I could. At this moment in time, the intensity of the course offered a door off my meandering path, and I was ready to head through it.

Deep into dissecting components and aspects of a favorite picture book text during the five weeks of the class, I knew I had moved forward just by focusing on, and doing, the work. Thoughts came and went, and came again, about how I wanted to proceed with my novel in verse. I spoke with colleagues, a mentor, a friend. I began to research options for submission.

By the end of the course, I thought about the process I’d taken myself through: Without planning it or thinking about it, I’d used reliable techniques from past experiences. These come naturally to me now, but they were originally learned behaviors:

  • Trusted my feelings, let them come and go without judgment – the initial shock and disappointment, the interest in moving on along with the uncertainty of how I would do that, the pleasure in writing every day even if it “went nowhere,” the ultimate excitement about immersing myself in a new project.
  • Trusted the process – that if I nudged myself gently with interest rather than impatience, with a brain open to stimulation, my meandering and daily writing would lead me somewhere meaningful, or be meaningful for its own sake.
  • Worked hard to reframe any negative language (which equals negative thinking, and then a negative mood, decreased productivity, decreased creativity, and more) into neutral, and then positive language replacements.

All three “activities” kept my brain open and able to take in new information and possibilities, creative solutions to problems, and positive emotions.

For me, being a resilient optimist means that sometimes I see the worst possibilities, then begin to do whatever I can to at least try to have those possibilities not come true. And as I do, all kinds of opportunities open up right in front of me.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick writes middle grade fiction, award-winning picture book manuscripts, and poetry, as well as regular guest columns for Cynsations and the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind.

Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and consultant/educator, she writes extensively about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience.

Her middle grade novel in verse, “Reeni’s Turn,” currently out on submission, inspired the award-winning film, “La Folia,” and was named a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize at Hunger Mountain.

New Voice: Ismée Williams on Water In May

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Ismée Williams is the debut author of Water In May (Amulet Books, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Fifteen-year-old Mari Pujols believes that the baby she’s carrying will finally mean she’ll have a family member who will love her deeply and won’t ever leave her—not like her mama, who took off when she was eight; or her papi, who’s in jail; or her abuela, who wants as little to do with her as possible. 

But when doctors discover a potentially fatal heart defect in the fetus, Mari faces choices she never could have imagined.

Surrounded by her loyal girl crew, her off-and-on boyfriend, and a dedicated doctor, Mari navigates a decision that could emotionally cripple the bravest of women. But both Mari and the broken-hearted baby inside her are fighters; and it doesn’t take long to discover that this sick baby has the strength to heal an entire family.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I love reading young adult literature. I love the fast pace and the fact that no matter what happens over the course of the story, there is hope at the end as the characters are young and change is possible.

In much the same way, I was drawn to pediatrics when I was in medical school. Kids are just so much more fun and interesting than grown ups! And kids are strong. Even when they are very sick, they have a higher chance of pulling through than us old(er) folks.

Also, I vividly remember what it was like to be a teen. I can still feel the excitement, the acute awareness of approaching potential. I spent so much time dreaming. There was so much I wanted to do with my life. The time that is on the cusp between childhood and adulthood is special and unique. I naturally believed it would be the most interesting time in my characters’ lives.

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

I didn’t set out to write about a Latina character. I set out to create a story that would move the reader.

It just so happened that I am a half-Cuban pediatric cardiologist who took care of a number of young Dominican/Dominican-American women pregnant with babies with heart defects. I was one of the only Spanish-speaking fetal cardiologists at my hospital, so these women tended to come to see me.

I remember the exact moment I thought of the premise for Water In May.

I was coming up out of the 168th Street subway, mulling over a scene in my first manuscript. My brain switched to my upcoming patients for the day. I stopped dead on the sidewalk outside the hospital front entrance. Throngs of people in scrubs passed me, headed for the glass doors.

What if there were a young Latina who wanted a baby desperately? Who wanted someone who would love her and not leave? What would she do if the baby had a heart defect and might not survive? That would make a great story.

Ambulance bay at hospital where Ismee worked.

I wasn’t ready to put my first manuscript aside. But when I got home that evening, I jotted down some notes. And I thought of that character, that strong Latina woman, over the next few years.

When I was ready, I sat down and wrote the novel in three months. This was fast for me and I think it was because I had such a strong grasp of my protagonist. Mari wasn’t based off any single patient. She was a mix of many of them, and of me as well.  Her contrary, feisty nature is me unfiltered.

But I do believe my Cuban abuelos, who took care of my brother and I growing up as both our parents worked, gave me stronger insight into my Latina patients that went beyond the common language. I understood how crazy they were about babies.

My abuelos, my mother and I were the same. And in Cuban and Dominican culture, family is muy importante. Which makes Mari’s wound of feeling abandoned by her parents and her grandmother even more acute.

Ismee’s mother, her Abuelo and teenage Ismee.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

Perhaps the funniest moment of my publishing journey was the day my agent, the illustrious Jim McCarthy, called to offer me representation.

I was working in the library, immersed in another manuscript, when my phone buzzed. I ran out to the hallway, murmuring, “Please hold on,” so I wouldn’t disturb my fellow library-mates.

The connection was so poor I could barely hear what Jim was saying. Perhaps only every third word came through. I was running up and down the stairs of the old building, trying to find a spot with good reception, my heart hammering.

Silent curses against my cell phone carrier and the very loud thunderstorm that was no doubt disrupting service streamed through my mind. After trying for a few minutes, Jim hung up!

But then he emailed me explaining that he normally likes to make the offer verbally but email would suffice. It all worked out in the end, but it was nerve-wracking while it was happening!

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

First of all, attend as many writers’ conferences as you can. I live in New York City and was able to attend the SCBWI Winter conferences five years in a row.

I attended breakout sessions with agents and editors where I learned the do’s and don’t’s of writing a query letter along with practical writing tips such as cutting extraneous scenes that do not move the plot forward.

The keynotes speeches from established authors were equally influential. Who knew that famous authors spent years trying to get published, working menial jobs or living off significant others or parents while fine-tuning their writing? That they, too, submitted to hundreds of agents and editors before finally breaking into the publishing world?

These conferences gave me the desire and hope to keep plugging away along with concrete tips on how to fine-tune my craft.

My second piece of advice is to join a writers’ critique group. I was starving for feedback for a very long time, not realizing I was surrounded by people who could help me. Find local authors/aspiring authors who write in the same genre as you do. Share your work. Offer up feedback and they will do the same. The experience is invaluable. I found my critique partners online through SCBWI.

Cynsations Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Water in May a starred review. Peek: “Full of spot-on cultural texture and packing an emotional punch, this is an unusual take on the teen-pregnancy problem novel. Mari’s is a voice and path that are often dismissed or derided, but Williams presents her experience in a way that demands not pity but respect….”

Ismée Williams is a pediatric cardiologist who worked at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City for fifteen years.

As the daughter of a Cuban immigrant, partially raised by her abuelos, her background helped her understand the many Maris she met along the way. She lives in New York with her husband, three book-loving kids and a dog who looks like a muppet.

Guest Post: Candice Ransom on Working Backwards & Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten

By Candice Ransom
for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

People always ask writers how they get their ideas. Ideas are everywhere—people should ask how does a book come about? 

Over my 36-year career as a writer of children’s books, I’ve written a dozen picture books.

Normally, an idea comes to me and over a period of months, I’ll write the text. If the manuscript is acquired, the editor finds an illustrator, who then gets busy on the art.

In the spring of 2015, Frances Gilbert (associate publishing director, Random House, Golden Books, Doubleday Books for Young Readers) emailed me about a panda girl character created by illustrator Christine Grove.

Outside and in-house attempts to write a picture book to go with Amanda Panda didn’t work. Would I give it a try? I said yes (and then gulped).

The character, I was advised, should be less glitzy and girly, more independent and childlike, like Frances the Badger (by Russell Hoban).

I asked to see the illustrator’s sketches. I fell in love with Christine Grove’s round-headed, little-eared characters instantly! A little boy panda crying fountains of tears made me laugh out loud!

I decided that Amanda is a kindergartener. I always use my own life experiences, even if only for emotion, but I never went to kindergarten.

 I watched neighborhood children at the bus stop. The kindergarteners seemed so small and young, yet when I was five, I couldn’t wait to go to school like my big sister.

Next, I read character-driven picture books: Fancy Nancy (by Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (HarperCollins, 2005)), Ladybug Girl (by Jacky Davis, illustrated by David Soman (Penguin Random House, 2008)), Vampirina Ballerina (by Anne Marie Pace, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Disney Publishing, 2012)).

I took notes and typed out manuscripts to separate the words from the art. I studied and thought and read for weeks.

It had seemed so easy to say, “Yes, I can write this book,” yet it wasn’t. What did my character want?

Where was the story?

 I drafted weak and even ridiculous story ideas, like having Amanda try to cram an entire week into one day because she was impatient. Aside from being too abstract, that story would have been an illustrator’s nightmare.

Finally, I stopped trying to be too clever and let Amanda tell me who she is:

  • Her favorite color is brown. 
  • She wants to be a school bus driver when she grows up. 
  • She has a rock named Hartley. 
  • She knows exactly what will happen on the first day of kindergarten because she has an agenda. 

 Amanda Panda, I realized, is me in a nutshell.

Young Candice reading a book

I wrote a lengthy character sketch and a summary of the book. To my astonishment, another character appeared. Bitsy is everything Amanda is not, little and girly, but with her own agenda to find a best friend and she lights on Amanda.

Frances liked the direction I was taking and gave me her blessing.

Buoyed by her enthusiasm, I wrote the manuscript. In only five days. This flabbergasted me—I’m an excruciatingly slow picture book writer.

 The book isn’t any good, I thought, but a few weeks later, Frances Gilbert offered to publish it.

 I was over the moon! I hadn’t written a picture book in many years. Plus, this would be my first with animal characters!

Frances and I did minimal revisions, then Christine Grove began working on the illustrations. A little less than two years later from that original email, the book landed in the stores on June 20.

The process of writing a book based on a sketch of a character is backwards to my normal process. I figure that its up-ended nature turned my sometimes sluggish writing method upside-down, too. It made me look at characters and stories in a whole new way, more visually, less cerebral.

Change is good! Even this far into my career, I’ve learned it pays to be flexible and take chances.

The experience has been so great, the three of us are doing it all over again! Last summer Frances and I talked about a sequel, I wrote a new manuscript last fall, and Christine is drawing and painting. Look for Amanda Panda Doesn’t Do Birthdays in the summer of 2018!

Cynsations Notes

See also Popular Author Candice Ransom Chats About New Book, a video interview with Candice.

Publishers Weekly said, “Ransom sensitively addresses the challenges of handling expectations in new circumstances, as well as the roundabout path to friendship.”

Kirkus Reviews said, “…empathy and kindness are just as important as ABCs and 123s, and Amanda gives readers a good lesson.”

Candice Ransom only ever wanted to be a children’s book writer. She is the author of over 125 books for kids and young adults and teaches in the children’s literature program at Hollins University. She lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with her husband and her cats, Faulkner and Edison. She blogs about writing and travel at Under the Honeysuckle Vine.

Author Interview: Clete Barrett Smith on Writing Challenging Stories & Mr. 60%

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Clete Barrett Smith, discussing his new novel, Mr. 60% (Penguin Random House, 2017). 

I heard Clete read the opening chapter several years ago for his graduate reading at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It gave me chills, and I’m so happy the book is now out in the world.

From the promotional copy:

Matt Nolan is the high school drug dealer, deadbeat, and soon-to-be dropout according to everyone at his school. His vice principal is counting down the days until Mr. 60% (aka Matt) finally flunks out and is no longer his problem. 

What no one knows is the only reason Matt sells drugs is to take care of his uncle Jack, who is dying of cancer. 

Meet Amanda. The overly cheerful social outcast whose optimism makes Matt want to hurl. Stuck as partners during an after-school club (mandatory for Matt), it’s only a matter of time until Amanda discovers Matt’s secret. 

But Amanda is used to dealing with heartbreak, and she’s determined to help Matt find a way to give life 100 percent.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I took a leave of absence from my teaching duties to enroll at the Vermont College of Fine Arts to pursue my dream of writing for young readers. 

Shortly after that, my then-wife’s uncle got in touch to let us know that he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and had been given six months to live. We invited him to come and live with us.

This was a man who I adored; he was a talented, funny, friendly, charismatic mess of a guy. And I did not have much previous experience with the process of dying—especially not up close—and as I was at home instead of at work, I became one of his primary caregivers.

College Hall at Vermont College of Fine Arts

The experience fundamentally changed me. My relationship with death had mostly been through stories, where people offer pearls of wisdom on their deathbed and stoically accept their fate.

This is not what I was seeing. This man was furious that he had cancer. He was not “ready” to die and he did not feel like giving anybody any pearls of wisdom. It was messy and scary and heartbreaking.

And when it was over I knew that I had to tell this story, for one reason because it was the book that I wanted to see on the shelves and had not found, and also because writing it helped me find some closure.

At the same time I had been kicking around an idea about a YA book told from the perspective of a high school drug dealer.

I knew some of these kids from my teaching career—they flew under the radar and would never cause any problems with teachers, because getting in trouble would raise red flags and limit access to their teenage clients. I got to know a few of these kids (as much as they would let a teacher get close, anyway) and couldn’t stop wondering about what their lives were like when they left school at the end of the day. I ended up combining the two ideas for Mr. 60%.

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

The challenges were mostly psychological. 

Many of the difficult scenes that happen in Mr. 60% are basically exactly what happened when I was caring for this man. Some of the dialogue is verbatim from real life. 
So when I would sit down at my writing desk for the day I knew that I would be reliving some very painful memories in very vivid detail.

As an MFA in Writing student/graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

I don’t think this book would exist without my experiences in the MFA program at VCFA. 

Uma Krishnaswami & Clete

First off, everyone there was encouraging people to “write the book that scares you.”

Well, the idea of this book certainly scared me.

I was used to writing funny, lighthearted middle grade stuff, and even thinking about this book took me way out of my comfort zone.

I was lucky to have a wonderful advisor in my second semester. When I initially met with Uma Krishnaswami, she asked what I would be working on. 

It was the first time that I had admitted out loud that I would be tackling this project, and as soon as I opened my mouth I just started bawling. Uma came around the desk, put her arms around me, and told me it was going to be all right. She was so helpful and supportive, not just with the writing, but with the emotional toll of writing the book.

I remember early in the process, I was going to give up and go back to writing lighthearted stuff. It was just too painful to dredge up all of these memories, and I felt very alone at my writing desk. 

Well, on the day I was going to give up, Uma called me up. It was rare for advisors to call students, at least for me—this is the only time I can remember it happening in my two years in the program—and she was calling to say that she had found a song that reminded her of the character in my book who had terminal cancer, and she sent me a link to the song.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about the song, as I didn’t really connect with it in the same way. 

But that phone call made all of the difference. I didn’t feel so alone when I sat down at my writing desk anymore, and I swear I could feel Uma’s arms around me again during the really tough parts of the writing process.

After that, I have never written a book so fast. The bulk of what became the final manuscript was written over three “packets” (which is three months in real time).

With Uma’s support and encouragement, it just sort of came pouring out of me.

How was your approach to writing this book different than your previous work?

My first three novels were for middle grade and they had a first-person POV narrator who was lighthearted and fairly open about discussing the struggles he was facing as he moved from boy to teenager.

So for this one I thought it would be an interesting challenge—and fitting for this particular character—to have a main character that told the reader nothing at all about himself. This is an extension of the fact that he tells the other characters in the book nothing about himself—he has built his walls tall and sturdy.

So I really wanted to use a spare, minimalist approach, where the reader has to infer everything through words and actions.

It’s also a very emotional story, though, although nothing is explained for the reader. I am hoping that the result is emotionally resonant.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews said Mr. 60% “is well-structured, moving quickly between beats but not rushing” and calls Matt “a compelling central character.”

Clete Barrett Smith is the author of the middle-grade Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast series (Disney) (Aliens on Vacation, Alien on a Rampage and Aliens in Disguise), as well as Magic Delivery (Disney, 2014). 

A lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, Smith taught English, drama, and speech at the high school level while continuing to write. 

In Memory: Jan Andrews

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Author and storyteller Jan Andrews died Sept. 2, while Cynsations was on summer hiatus.

Obituary Note: Jan Andrews from Shelf Awareness. Peek: “British-born storyteller and children’s author Jan Andrews, who immigrated to Canada in her 20s and ‘wrote books for children of all ages, often inspired by the people and landscape of her adopted home,’ died September 2, Quillblog reported. She was 75.”

Jan Andrews, Canadian children’s author and storyteller, dies after a fall by Shanda Deziel from Quill & Quire. Peek: “’Jan’s experience as a storyteller gave her a particularly strong voice as a writer, and she used her strong and passionate voice to write honestly and without condescension for child readers,’ says Sheila Barry, president and publisher of Groundwood (Books).”

In 2016, Jan was appointed to the Order of Canada for her contributions to Canadian culture both as an author of children’s books and for her contributions to Canada’s storytelling movement.

In 2002, she founded StorySave, “a project of Storytellers of Canada-Conteurs du Canada that records the voices of elders from the Canadian storytelling community.” She was also a founding member of Storytellers of Canada – Conteurs du Canada, and received their Storykeeper award in 2013. See also Jan’s Storytelling Club.

In Memory: Robin Smith

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Teacher and picture book expert Robin Smith died in June while Cynsations was on summer hiatus.

Robin Smith (1959-2017) from The Horn Book. Peek: “A second-grade teacher at Ensworth School in Nashville for the last twenty-four years, she was a longtime Horn Book contributor and reviewer and a founding co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog. She also reviewed for BookPage and Kirkus.”

Editorial: The Incomparable Robin Smith by Martha V. Parravano for The Horn Book. Peek: “Robin was a passionate advocate of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee and its mission. She served on the jury, but she didn’t stop there: she urged people to join the organization; when she saw a lack of diversity on other ALA book committees, she encouraged CSK members to run for election.”

Reviewer Salute: Robin Smith by Lynn Green from BookPage. Peek: “With her warm, vibrant personality, Robin has a knack for building bridges between authors and readers and connecting various members of the children’s book community….A self-described ‘award committee addict,’ Robin has served on the selection committees for the Caldecott Medal (2011), the Coretta Scott King Book Awards (2010), the Geisel Award (2008) and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award….”

Robin Lynn Smith — In Memoriam from Children’s Literature New England. Peek: “For many years, Robin joined Deb Taylor in presenting ‘Books Not on the Reading List,’ a discussion of books related to the theme of each CLNE symposium but not included on the required or recommended reading lists. After attending this session, CLNE participants were eager to read all the books they reviewed!”

Remembering Robin Smith by Vicky Smith from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: “I think of all these roles the one she cherished most was second-grade teacher, as she applied her decades of expertise with 8- and 9-year-olds to all the rest…we sometimes talk about book people and child people as if they are two different types—and often they are—but Robin was the perfect intersection of both.”

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Author Interviews

Q&A with Tracey Baptiste by Sara Grochowski from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “I decided to make the setting a generalized Caribbean island because I wanted to have a lot of Trinidadian influences and wanted to embrace the islands as a whole. So anyone reading it from the Caribbean could read it as their native.”

A Conversation with Cynthia and Sanford Levinson from Peachtree Publishers. Peek: “When we started working on the book in June 2012, we actually did know that it would be timely and relevant. We just didn’t anticipate in what ways it would be timely or how interested the public would become in the Constitution.”

Chris Barton talks with Paige Britt, Sean Qualls, Selina Alko from BookPeople’s Blog. Peek: (from Selina) “When Sean and I first read the manuscript for Why Am I Me? we fell in love with the idea of creating a picture book asking life’s biggest questions by our littlest people. Right away we connected with the themes of empathy and wonder.”

Mining Memories With Patricia MacLachlan by Julie Danielson from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: “I’ve always had a true and abiding respect for the intelligence and honesty of children. I have seen their creative teachers using books in the classroom in incredibly inventive ways. Children have ‘reading buddies’ from the older grades…Children read to dogs. They write books of their own.”

Interview: Axie Oh, Author of Rebel Seoul by Jalissa Corrie from The Open Book at Lee & Low. Peek: “…I had read a lot of dystopias set in the west, but I hadn’t read any YA Sci-Fi books set in East Asia. I wondered what that would be like, considering how different the East is from the West in terms of ideology, history and culture.” Note: Axie Oh won Lee & Low’s New Visions Award for Authors of Color in 2014, submission deadline for the latest New Visions Award is Oct. 31.

Erika L. Sánchez On Unlikable WOC Protagonists & I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek: “It’s tough growing up bicultural. It often feels like you don’t belong anywhere. It was important for me to portray this identity because it’s a very common experience for young people, and it’s rarely depicted in mainstream literature.”


A Letter from Young Adult Readers to Latinx Writers About Race, Gender, and Other Issues by Marilisa Jiménez García from Latinxs in KidLit. Peek: “Students noted that many of the protagonists in award-winning and popular books are light-skinned Latinos, while Afro and Indigenous Latinxs characters tend to be marginalized as the supporting characters, in problematic tropes such as the servants and slave characters, and even the bullies.”

Dyscalculia and ADHD: A View From the Inside by David Howard from Disability in Kidlit. Peek: “People with dyscalculia have trouble learning and understanding numbers and mathematics, as well as difficulty with spatial reasoning, telling time, and dealing with quantified information. It’s analogous to dyslexia, only relating to numbers instead of letters, and to math instead of reading.”

Discuss Race, Racism & Resistance.

26 Children’s Books to Support Conversations on Race, Racism & Resistance from Embrace Race. Peek: “Children’s books are one of the most effective and practical tools for initiating these critical conversations; and they can also be used to model what it means to resist and dismantle oppression.”


What’s More Important: Author Websites or Social Media? by Jane Friedman from her blog. Peek: “I may be in the tiny minority of people who happen to think social media isn’t 100% critical for an author’s online presence…..These days, I get more noticeable results from my website and blogging efforts, email newsletters, and in-person networking than I do from social media.”

Phil Bildner Launches the Author Village Booking Agency by Claire Kirch from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “One of the benefits of his service, Bildner explained, is that if a requested author or illustrator is already booked, another author or illustrator can quickly be recommended to the client. ‘We strongly feel that every kid deserves an experience with an author visit to their school,’ Bildner said of his commitment to facilitating school visits…”

Writing Life

If You Write a Book That Nobody Reads, Are You Really a Writer? by Susan Wolfe from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “When our readership falls far short of our dreams, what if anything keeps us writing? Should we try to dial our hopes back?…If a tree falls in the forest, how many people need to hear it for the tree to have really fallen?”

Writing Insights

Say a Little Less, Mean a Little More by Kathryn Craft from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “Understatement invites your reader’s active participation by leaving small gaps into which the she can insert understanding from the vast warehouse of images in her own mind.”

The Writing Lesson I Never Forgot: Write with Kindness by Claudia Mills from Smack Dab in the Middle. Peek: “It’s not enough to see ‘through’ our characters. We need to see ‘into’ them. We need to understand not only how they are, but why they are this way.”

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally — Cynthia

Madeline and Jessica talk about their new releases at BookPeope in Austin.

This week’s highlight was the launch party for Uncertain Summer by Jessica Lee Anderson, illustrated by Jeff Crosby and The Monsters in Your Closet, edited by Madeline Smoot (both CBAY Books) at BookPeople in Austin.

Cakelustrator Akiko White‘s “Baby Bigfoot” cake in celebration of Jessica and Madeline’s new releases; see video!

I’m taking applications for a Cynsations intern, and there are a couple of spots still available for my October humor writing workshop with Uma Krishnaswami at Highlights!

Congratulations, Métis author Cherie Dimaline, one of six finalists in the young readers’ literature category for the $50,000 Kirkus Prize!

More Personally — Gayleen

Lately my life has been a whirlwind of classes, writing and book launches. (Special shout-out to my agent sister, Jessica Lee Anderson!)

I also attended an SCBWI critique group. At first I planned to go mainly because librarian and writer Gail Shipley would be there to collect books for a Houston school library destroyed by Hurricane Harvey.

As the week went on I decided why not also participate in the critique? I contacted the group’s organizer, Susie Kralovansky to find out how many pages/copies to bring. I got good feedback on my manuscript, enjoyed spending time with other writers and had delicious barbecue. (Yes, the group meets at a barbecue joint! But then, this is Austin.)

Perhaps most wonderful of all, I met illustrator Judith Stanfield, who solved my looming anniversary dilemma when she said several of her lovely sketches are available as cards. You just never know what kind of awesomeness will happen when a bunch of kidlit folks get together!

Illustration by Judith Stanfield, used with permission.

Personal Links – Cynthia

Learn more.

Personal Links – Gayleen

New Voice: Ruth Freeman on One Good Thing About America

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Although Ruth Freeman has authored several picture books, she made her debut as a novelist earlier this year with One Good Thing About America (Holiday House, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Is it ever easy being new?

Anaïs was the best English student in her class in Africa. Now in Crazy America she feels she doesn’t know English at all. Nothing makes sense…chicken fingers

In letters, she writes to her grandmother back home about Halloween, snow, mac ‘n’ cheese and princess sleepovers. She misses her father and brother and hopes the fighting is over soon. 

In the meantime, she writes about the weird things Crazy Americans do, and wonders if she will ever feel at home in this strange new country.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

When I found that I could read chapter books, it was like falling in love. My seven- or eight-year-old self wouldn’t have known to call it that, but it absolutely was. I couldn’t believe the places I could go and the people I could meet, all between the covers of a book! Words melted away on the page, time stopped, and I would go off with fairies, pioneer girls, knights or rabbits. Being so absorbed and transported at that age was as close to real magic as I will ever get.

I think when you’re young and fall in love with reading, it never leaves you. You’re hooked.

As I got older, the notion of recreating the magic I found in books began to take hold. I wanted to reverse the process. Could I weave words together in such a way that the picture in my head would show up (similar but different) in someone else’s head? How cool would that be?

Of course, it’s one thing to catch the desire to write and another thing to do it, as I found out. But that’s another story (see below).

Students reading at Ruth’s school

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Two words: my students. I teach English language learners (ELL) at an elementary school in Maine, so everyday I work with young people, some of whom arrived in this country a week ago, some of whom were born here but speak another language at home.

It takes five to seven years to become fluent in English, both the basic conversational language as well as the academic language.

As ELL teachers, we often work with the same students over several years, which means we get to know them, hear their stories, answer their many questions and meet their families.

I wrote this book for two reasons. The first was so that my students, and students like them, could see themselves in a book. There aren’t enough children’s books about the experiences of newcomers. At least, not yet.

The second reason was so that all readers could get a glimpse of what life might be like for a girl new to this country.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, I write that there’s no way I can truly understand the experience of a refugee or asylum seeker but my hope, and expectation, is that one day my students, and others like them, will write their own stories…and I can’t wait to read them!

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

Because I was writing from the protagonist Anaïs’ point of view, the biggest challenge was to make her writing, her voice, sound authentic.

I limited the words I could use to the ones used by a typical newcomer.

I added a few expressions she might have picked up such as, “for sure,” “for goodness’ sake,” and “crazy” to describe anything that didn’t make sense (which was a lot of things!). She uses “cool” and “bingo” she hears from her teacher. Because her vocabulary is still growing, she repeats words for emphasis, such as “I am not happy. Not not not happy.” Other vocabulary lessons spill over into her writing, too, such as her use of comparative adjectives: “big, bigger, biggest.”

Anaïs’ grammar and spelling was also a challenge. I wanted her writing to look as realistic as possible, so I decided it shouldn’t be perfect. I tried to include enough misspellings to make it authentic but still keep it legible.

As time goes by, her spelling, verb tenses, grammar and vocabulary improve. I worked long and hard to make the progression plausible (though her improvement is probably faster than it would be in real life). It was tricky remembering what words she had learned and what misspellings she had corrected as the story unfolded!

A fourth grade class decorated their door as the cover.

Using an entirely epistolary format must have been particularly challenging, but it works beautifully. Can you tell us what drew you to this format?

I have to admit I had never thought about writing a story in letters before. The idea for a “school” story was rolling around in my head, but that was as far as I’d gotten with it.

One spark came when I was helping some ELL students in a 2nd grade classroom. The class was writing persuasive letters, first having to state an opinion, then writing a letter to persuade someone to their point of view.

However, it wasn’t until later that the letter writing and the “school” story idea came together.

I had these bits and pieces in mind, but in the end, it was my students’ voices that made everything click. I can often hear their distinctive voices and accents in my mind long after we’re together, and it was these voices that I wanted to preserve on paper.

I felt the best way to do this was writing from my character’s point of view through letters she was writing home to her grandmother.

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

If you have a burning desire to write for young people, try it! Even though I had wanted to write for a long time there came a point when I felt time was passing and it was now or never!

But…there’s always a but…be prepared for a long, slow, hard slog. If you want it badly enough, you will stick with it. If it’s not for you, you’ll find that out and discover some other wonderful creative path to follow. It’s a journey, right?

But, if you get more and more determined to write, here are a few tips from one (and only one) writer:

Ruth in her elementary school library.

Read children’s/YA books! Haunt your local library, make friends with the children’s librarian, ask what everyone is reading, but don’t forget to read the classics as well.

Learn about the publishing business. One excellent way is to join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). They have a lot of information online, they hold great conferences, and they can hook you up with local chapters and writers groups.

Find what works for you in the way of writing. You can read everyone else’s tried and true methods, but in the end, you have to figure out which way is best for you.

For example, I cannot wake up at 4 a.m. and write! I work full-time at the moment, so I take notes and glean ideas during the week and carve out Sundays for writing. And I work hard on stories in the summer when I’m not teaching. It is not easy. When I had small children, I wrote nonfiction picture books partly because I could do the research whenever I could find the odd moment of free time.

Write about what grabs you and you’re passionate about–not, I repeat not, what you think will sell and make you a million dollars. Your heart won’t be in it. Don’t get hung up on “brands” and “platforms.” Keep it real.

Lastly, when you are ready to plunge into your first draft, learn to banish the critics sitting on your shoulders (they keep coming back, so keep shooing them away), take a deep breath and enjoy making a mess!

You have the freedom to write whatever you want…and it in no way has to be perfect!

Keep an image of a mud puddle in mind.

Later, you can make everything pretty.

In the beginning, it is time for delight, freedom, creativity, humor and the joy of being subversive. Readers come later. In the beginning, you’re writing just for you. Go for it!

Ruth Freeman
(photo by Molly Haley)

Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal called One Good Thing About America “highly recommended for libraries seeking timely stories about the immigrant experience.”

An educator’s guide is available from the publisher.

Ruth Freeman grew up in rural Pennsylvania but now lives in Maine where she teaches students who are English Language Learners, including many newly arrived immigrants. She’s worked with students from every continent except Australia and Antarctica. She has also authored several nonfiction picture books on subjects ranging from hairstyles to the history of chocolate.