Guest Post: Helena Echlin on How to Write (& Rewrite) a Tale of Suspense

By Helena Echlin
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynsations Note: 

Happy Halloween! 

Yesterday we heard from Gillian French about techniques for building suspense. 

Today Helena Echlin shares her take on giving your readers goosebumps. 

And if you looking for even more ways to scare your readers, check out this post from April Henry, one of the post popular Cynsations posts ever.

And now, Helena.

One rainy Friday the 13th a few years ago, I met up for a drink with fellow novelist Malena Watrous, and complained about how hard it was to get any writing done, since we both had jobs and young children.

We recalled how we’d devoured books as kids and teens, and we wanted to write as a suspenseful story that would captivate readers in the same way. If I worked on a story like that, I was sure I’d find the time and energy to write it, whatever it took.

Malena confided her idea: a girl wakes up and finds her older sister missing from their shared bedroom. The only people who can help the girl save her sister are the mean girls at school. I was hooked. Fueled by more cocktails, we plotted out the entire story that night.

We’d both published novels already and we both taught fiction-writing.

So, we naively figured, how hard could it be to dash off a suspenseful YA thriller in a few months?

After the angst-filled life of the solo writer, it was enormously fun to get together in a café every week and rough out the next few scenes. We’d each draft a scene on our own, squeezing in a writing session while watching the kids in swim class or at the end of a long day, and then we’d bat the scenes back and forth until we were happy.

We dashed off that first draft in a mere five months, convinced we had a bestseller on our hands. Then trusted readers looked over that draft and told us that our careers writing sensitive, nuanced, literary novels hadn’t prepared us to be thriller writers well as we thought.

Yes, the novel was gripping in places, but in parts it fell flat.

So we hunkered down and rewrote our book more times than I will ever admit.

When it comes to writing a thriller, it’s essential to start with a gripping concept, but you can do much to amp up the suspense in successive drafts.

Here’s what we learned about how to captivate your reader:

Keep raising the stakes. The protagonist’s desire is what drives the plot in any novel, but in a suspense novel, it’s not enough if all the protagonist wants is to renovate his house in Nova Scotia or breathe new life into a middle-aged marriage.

If you are writing a thriller, raise the stakes higher, and keep raising them. At first, our heroine Laurel wants to find her sister Ivy. Then she realizes she has to rescue Ivy from a kidnapper and she only has a week to do so.

Then she realizes that Ivy’s kidnapper is an ancient demon. Side benefit: if you’re a busy mom who worries about things like what will your kids take for lunch other than cream cheese sandwiches, it is incredibly relaxing to write about a girl who has much bigger problems.

Hide the truth in plain sight. Readers don’t like guessing the truth too soon. They want you to mislead them along with the protagonist. But they also like to feel that in retrospect there was a trail of clues.

Your job is to plant these clues without drawing attention to them. In one of our early drafts, our villain kept offering the girls fleur-de-sel-topped caramels. Their taste was “a dreamy combination of butterscotch pudding and salted popcorn and as soon as you had finished one, you wanted just one more.”

In successive drafts, it became clear that these caramels just screamed “demonic magic,” so we had to kill that darling.

Avoid “zombie character syndrome.”
My writing students are often so focused on what happens in a story that they forget to have their characters react to it. I call this “zombie character syndrome.”

In fact, interiority—what a character is thinking and feeling—is an important way to increase suspense. It draws the reader’s attention to an approaching threat and makes it sharp and specific.

If your character isn’t scared, then your reader won’t be either. In our first draft, Laurel always “gulped” or “swallowed” when she was terrified (or sometimes had a “lump” in her chest or throat).
What a cliché. In successive drafts, we found more complex and vivid ways to show her reactions.

Book trailer for Sparked (Geek & Sundry, October 2017)

Slow down when it matters. It may seem that writing a fast-paced story means that things have to happen in quick succession, but don’t rush through climactic moments.

The reader is desperate to know what happens next and at the same time, their pleasure lies in the anticipation rather than in finding out. So slow way down.

It’s more psychologically realistic too: if a character’s adrenaline is peaking, their attention is hyper-focused and he or she will notice every detail.

At one point, a psychopath with a hunting rifle threatens Laurel and her friends while she cowers behind a log. In revision, we added in the song of a particular bird, “like the snip of scissor blades,” and have her numbly notice a pill bug on a blade of grass.

Surprise yourself. If you’re writing a tightly constructed novel with lots of twists and turns, you’re probably going to need an outline, unless you’re Stephen King. But don’t stick to it.

Often, the best ideas come from your subconscious, when you are least expecting it. Be open to those ideas and be prepared to change your story or rewrite it entirely if necessary. Remember: if you know what’s going to happen when you are writing it, so will the reader.

When we thought we were finally done, Malena had a plot epiphany at the DMV that meant we had to embark on yet one more draft. But now, when readers say they had “no idea what was coming next” or comment on the “hairpin twists and turns,” it was totally worth it.

Cynsations Notes

Malena and Helena

Helena Echlin, a native of the U.K., is the author of the novel Gone (Random House UK, 2002) and for five years wrote “Table Manners,” an etiquette advice column for Chow, the online food and drink magazine.

She has also written for the Guardian, The Times, and The Sunday Telegraph in the U.K., and Yoga Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle in the U.S.. She lives in Berkeley and teaches fiction-writing online for Stanford.

Malena Watrous co-authored Sparked. Malena also wrote the novel If You Follow Me (Harper Perennial, 2010).

She was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and helped to found the Online Writers’ Certificate, Stanford’s two-year online novel-writing program.

She teaches fiction-writing for Stanford as well as working on her own fiction, and has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times. She lives in San Francisco.

Guest Post: Gillian French on Hooking Readers: How to Build Suspense

By Gillian French
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynsations Note: 

What scares you? Snakes? Spiders? Bigfoot? It’s different for everyone. Likewise, authors use different approaches for building suspense. 

Our Halloween treat for you is a glimpse at techniques from two YA authors for upping the stakes. 

We suspect this is a topic you want to know more about, because the most popular Cynsations posts of all time is April Henry’s guest post on adding tension.

So,without further ado, Gillian French offers a plan to give your readers chills.

And tomorrow Helena Eichlin will present a different route.

Readers want to be hooked.

We’re addicted to the rush of finding a story we want to live in, characters we want to bring along everywhere—the laundromat, the commute, lunchbreaks. Broken down to its basic components, any un-put-downable story has suspense at its core. Not just footsteps-coming-up-the-stairs goosebumps, but a genuine investment in how things are going to turn out for our protagonist, and, ideally, the more peripheral characters in the book as well.

You recognize compelling suspense when you read it—but as a writer, how do you craft this vital element and keep your audience turning pages until the wee hours?

Read on for three methods I swear by:

Strong Character Motivation: This is your most important job as a storyteller: making readers care about your characters. The swiftest way to do that is to figure out what each character wants, an easily relatable standpoint. We all have something we’re working toward, something that matters to us, whether it’s being a loving mom or a world-class bungee jumper.

See also April Henry on Just Add Tension.

In my YA paranormal thriller, The Door to January (Islandport Press, 2017), protagonist Natalie wants to find out why she’s experiencing a reoccurring nightmare about an abandoned farmhouse in her former hometown. The stakes are high right out of the gate—her peace of mind and sanity are in jeopardy—making it easy for readers to invest in her pursuit of the truth. As the action unfolds and more danger is revealed, Natalie’s journey grows more perilous, and, with some luck, a page-turner is born.

Even antagonistic characters need motivation. No matter how loathsome you want readers to find your villain, he or she needs to exist in your book as more than an awfulness-producing machine.

As uncomfortable as it may be, cast yourself in that role; we’ve all had our unlovely moments, times when we’ve done things we regret. The difference is, when this character does something awful, they rarely regret it. You may be surprised by how freeing that is, and how much fun you can have playing devil’s advocate.

Timing Is Everything: Knowing when to ratchet up the suspense in your book can be tricky. Randomly dropping in action-packed or frightening scenes just because you’re worried that you’ll lose your reader can be indicative of larger structural problems or issues with character development, and probably won’t be effective.

Have faith that your audience will hang in there during the quieter sections of the book; that said, every scene must have a purpose, even if it’s a conversation between two characters over coffee. A plot needs to work as a machine with multiple moving parts, churning towards one conclusion. Easy to say, not so easy to do.

Simply put, the “big” scenes should feel natural because the pages that came before built the foundation to support them.

  • If you find that your plot sags in places, try charting out a simple chapter outline, highlighting gripping, standout scenes. If you see uneven gaps between them, you may want to consider restructuring to make the action feel more measured.
Franklin Treat House, a reportedly haunted mansion in Frankfort, Maine
near Gillian’s hometown. “I’ve heard stories about it since I was a kid.”

Tap into Your Senses: We’ve all felt anticipation and fear; the key is, remembering the finer details of those experiences and breaking it down on the page to get the strongest reaction from your reader.

  • Think of a time when you were genuinely afraid—what effect did it have on your body, how you perceived your surroundings? Was any one sense heightened, a normally mundane smell like stale coffee, or a background noise like passing traffic or a ticking clock? 
  • If it was a person you were afraid of, what was it about their body language or attitude that lingers in your memory? This is your chance to dig into an uncomfortable memory and make it work for you. Brainstorm everything about that moment, then see which details really stand out.

Also, contrasts in sensory perception can go a long way toward disquieting your readers. In The Door to January, during the first confrontation between Natalie and Jason, a boy who bullied and terrorized her when they were younger, I drew the focus in tight, contrasting the brightness of Jason’s words—“Hey, there, sunshine”—with the flat, cold expression in his eyes, trying to put both Natalie and the reader off-balance, not sure what he might do next.

We’re all engineered to seek level ground, to find certainty, and readers will fly through pages to find out when or if the characters achieve that.

Reading and writing suspense are the perfect way to experience nail-biting moments from the safety of your favorite chair. The more you finetune your craft, the stronger your grip on your audience will be—and you may be surprised when they thank you for the ride of their life.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews called The Door to January (Islandport Press, 2017), “Chilling and suspenseful, this paranormal thriller with a touch of romance will keep readers on the edges of their seats.”

Growing up in rural Maine led Gillian French to believe that the mystery of the past is all around. She uses her surroundings as a setting for the dark stories that often have a creepy twist.

While she’s never seen a ghost, she’s pretty sure she’s heard ghostly footsteps in the night.

Gillian’s short fiction has appeared in various publications and anthologies. Her first YA novel, Grit (HarperCollins, 2017) received starred reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and Booklist.

Her next novel,  The Lies They Tell (HarperCollins) is scheduled for publication in May 2018.

She holds a degree in English from the University of Maine and is perpetually at work on her next novel.

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith,
Gayleen Rabakukk & Robin Galbraith
for Cynsations

Author Interviews

The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast by Samantha M. Clark from Watch. Connect. Read by Mr. Schu. Peek:

“Reading is how we learn, explore, experience, escape. When I was little, I moved around a lot….And with each move, I became a little more quiet and shy. But with stories in books, I could be anyone in any place. My world got so much bigger…”

A Conversation with YA Author Francisco X. Stork from Latinxs in Kid Lit. Peek:

“… if the story is to pull the reader into its world, then there must be something in the characters and something in the adversity which speaks to or touches the reader in a personal way. Often this is a recognition that what the characters are experiencing is something that the reader has experienced also.”

Author Interview: Louise Hawes by Jacqui Lipton from Authography. Peek:

“Creativity is everywhere. It’s a giant river with tributaries leading off in countless, fascinating directions: for instance, I’ve always written poetry, just not necessarily for publication. I usually write a poem as an emotional touchstone for every chapter in my novels—it’s another form of free writing.”

Malinda Lo and Stephanie Perkins On Genre Hopping, Slasher Films, and More by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek from Stephanie Perkins:

“But in a slasher, plot always comes first. There was no getting around that. So this was the first time that I had to outline the entire story, chapter by chapter, before writing a single word.”


Looking Back: Musings On Diversity and Identity In Hispanic and Latin American Children’s Literature by Alma Flor Ada from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “When My Name is María Isabel (Atheneum) was published in 1993 I was delighted to see that many school…recognized that the significance that students’ names, whichever their origin, be respected…I had hoped (it) would be read as something that happened in the past, not currently. Unfortunately, this is not the case.”

Top 10 Signs of Hope for Own Voice Poetry by Margarita Engle from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “Statistics from the Cooperative Center for Children’s Books are still dismal, but even though the quantity of diverse books has not increased much, the quality is exquisite. Pending debuts, such as The Poet X by Elizabeth Azevedo, are breathtaking.”

5 of the Best Children’s Books About Disabilities by Jaime Herndon from BookRiot. Peek: “Did you know that more than 12% of the U.S. population has a disability? While its not always easy to explain disability to children, books have a way of illustrating what really matters, and bringing it to their level.”

Writing Craft

What Interiority Is and Why It Matters by Mary Kole from Kid Lit. Peek: “I define the term ‘interiority’ as a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions and how we access them, whether it’s in first person or third, a picture book or a YA novel. It is any moment when you dive into your character’s head to add context, meaning, humor, or emotion to a situation.”

Three Tips for NaNoWriMo by Kim Ventrella from Middle Grade Minded.  Peek: “Don’t be discouraged by the crappiness of your writing. It happens to everyone all the time, even writers who have already sold books. NaNo is about getting that first (or fifth) novel under your belt.”

Describing Your Character: How To Make Each Detail Count by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “Readers need a way to connect with characters and the story. But like everything else with writing craft, it’s all in the how. If we don’t choose details with care, we will miss an opportunity to draw readers deeper into the story, and our writing can come across as bland or boring.”

10 Rules for Book Editors by Jonathan Karp from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Whether the work is fiction or nonfiction, readers respect authors who deeply understand their subject. It’s apparent when a writer is in command, and this command is the surest justification for asking readers to devote hours of their time to a book.”

Using Dysfunctional Behavior to Reveal Characters’ Emotional Wounds, by Angela Ackerman from Jane Friedman. Peek: “Showing the impact of the past on a character’s psyche is best done through action because after a wounding event, behavior changes—sometimes drastically.”

Chasing Dreams, Literary Magazines, and Why Not Now? by Nova Ren Suma from Distraction No. 99. Peek: “…I discovered something: We don’t have to be helpless, especially when we work together and put our hearts into it….So I did three things: I removed my social media from my phone, logged out, and will not have to log in to those accounts until winter except if/when there is news to share.”


7 Questions For: Literary Agent Jennifer March Soloway by Robert Kent from Middle Grade Ninja. Peek:  “Writing stories is all about asking questions and solving problems—for better or worse—and there are so many directions a story can go. If something isn’t working, think about the other possible outcomes.”

When Your Publisher Closes Their Door by Amie Borst from From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. Peek: “The point is, even though things got rough, you didn’t give up. You explored your options. And you made the choice that was right for you. And only you get to decide how to measure your success.”

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

This week, I’m especially thrilled to welcome Robin Galbraith as the newest Cynsations intern. Meanwhile, Gayleen Rabakukk will continue on as an author intern, too.

Peek from Robin’s terrific first post, Giving Yourself Permission to Write:

“Writing wasn’t just for me; it showed my kids that women have dreams, too. I took writing classes and joined several critique groups. As my kids grew up, I carved out more time to write and encouraged my children to write their own stories.”

Wow! It’s an honor to be highlighted (that’s me, second from the left) on the double-page spread celebrating Austin in 50 Cities of the U.S.A. by Gabrielle Balkin, illustrated by Sol Linero (Wide Eyed Editions, 2017).

Congratulations to Laney Nielson on the release of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes (Sky Pony, 2017)! Laney was the 2014 recipient of the Cynthia Leitich Smith Mentor Award from Austin SCBWI.

Congrats to Dr. Sylvia Vardell, recipient of the Alida Cutts Lifetime Membership Award, USBBY-IBBBY in recognition of her many acommplishments in connecting young readers (and their champions) to poetry. See a video interview with Sylvia from Reading Rockets.

Gayleen & Rebekah

More Personally – Gayleen

On Sunday I was thrilled to help Rebekah Manley celebrate the second anniversary of her blog, Brave Tutu. It’s mission is to “Take courage in delight. Discover power in small moments.”

All week guest authors have contributed Brave Tutu posts. Timing by Anne Bustard particularly touched me.

We’re all on this miraculous journey of life together and sometimes changing our plans brings rewards we never even considered.

Personal Links – Cynthia

Personal Links – Gayleen

Guest Post: Sarah Albee on Brain Training: How Writers Must Learn to Shift Gears

By Sarah Albee
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

If you write for kids, chances are you are working on several things at the same time.

 Most writers of books for kids don’t have the luxury of working on one project for years and years. We are short-order cooks, juggling multiple tasks at multiple stages.

So how do we shift gears between projects?

To answer this question, I thought I’d start by giving you a tour of what’s on my own highly-organized and tidy desk today:

My laptop, which includes:

  • a first draft of a book for first graders about gorillas (just completed and sent to my editor—Boo-yah! That’s now off my desk.) 
  • A proposal for a new book that I’m readying for my agent 
On my actual desk:
  • Several books about female pirates (research for a new project). 
  • Copies of sketches for the Level Two I Can Read (History) book I wrote about Alexander Hamilton (Harper Collins, 2018). Fun fact: Unlike fiction picture book authors, who are usually not involved in the art phase of their books, we nonfiction authors get to review sketches for “historical accuracy.” 
  • My latest book, Poison (Crown Books for Young Readers), which came out Sept. 5. 
  • A hard copy of a manuscript I wrote about the California Gold Rush, just back from my editor. It’s covered with supportive and admiring editorial notes. I mean, I haven’t yet read her notes, but I’m sure she’ll tell me it’s practically perfect—and that I just need to sprinkle a little fairy dust on it. #sendfairydust 
  • “Third pages” for my book, Dog Days of History, coming out next March with National Geographic. I’ve looked at these images about 27 times by this point, as have platoons of people over at Nat Geo. And yet I just noticed “an issue” with the prehistoric cave painting on page 8. It shows hunters with their dogs, but it turns out those large stick-like things protruding from the hunters’ midsections are not swords. #heartfailure #pictureswap 
  • A folder entitled “Fall School Visits,” containing letters, contracts, and book order forms that I’m arranging with all the schools I’ll be visiting soon. 
  • A box that was just delivered, containing sixty pairs of spectacles and a large stuffed green beetle. Props for my fall school visits. 

So how do we shift gears from reviewing sketches, to writing proposals, to promoting our books, to visiting schools, to hopping on Twitter, to coming up with ideas, to entering that Deep Thinking Zone where we actually get our writing done? Let alone juggling family responsibilities and basic life-maintenance?

It happened for me only after years of training my brain. I’ve learned not to wait for environmental conditions to be perfect. If I did, I’d never get a thing written.

I’ve trained myself to enter the Deep Thinking Zone no matter where I am. I’ve written in bleacher seats. I’ve written in parking lots. I’ve written in airports.

Which is not to say I don’t get sidetracked. Heaven knows I do. But that’s the beauty of our job. Distractions can turn into books.

I usually get my best ideas for new books while I’m immersed in research for a different book. I’ll stumble over some cool fact or event that pulls me away from whatever I was researching. I’ve taught myself to harness those ideas, to write them down for later.

For instance, as I was researching my book, Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up (Bloomsbury, 2010), I was struck by the fact that so many so-called “filth diseases” were vectored by insects: malaria, typhus, yellow fever, bubonic plague, etc.

And I thought, “I should write a book about how insects changed human history.”

Which led to my next book, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, illustrated by Robert Leighton (Bloomsbury, 2014). And while I was researching that one, I discovered the fascinating history of cochineal scale insects, which were the source of the color red, a color that made Spain a world power in the seventeenth century.

And I thought, “I should write a book about the historical conditions that led people to dress the way they did.”

Which led to a book about the history behind what people wore, Why’d They Wear That? (National Geographic Books, 2015)

As for my latest book? Poison has been a lifelong fascination for me. There’s poison in practically all of my books. My challenge was deciding what poison tales to include in the book and which ones had to get cut. Luckily, there are great editors in the world. Also, I turned those extra stories into videos, like this one:

Oh, hey guess what. My email just plinked. It’s from my editor, and the subject line says: “re: first draft gorillas.” He wants revisions. It’s back on my desk.

Off to go look for that fairy dust.

Cynsations Notes

Watch the book trailer for Poison:

Booklist gave Poison a starred review and said, “While there are shocking and disgusting facts aplenty, Albee also discusses the rise of toxicology and forensic science, and the much-needed emergence of food and drug regulation. Her light tone makes this morbid, well-researched study a sinister indulgence.”

Sarah Albee is the New York Times bestselling author of more than 100 books for kids, ranging from preschool through middle grade. Recent nonfiction titles have been Bank Street College of Education Best Books selections, Notable Social Studies Trade Books, and winners of Eureka! Nonfiction Children’s Book Awards. These days she writes primarily nonfiction, and especially loves writing about topics where history and science connect.

Prior to being a full-time writer, Sarah worked at Children’s Television Workshop (producers of “Sesame Street”) for nine years. She played basketball in college, and then a year of semi-professional women’s basketball in Cairo, Egypt.
She lives in Connecticut with her husband, who is a high school history teacher and administrator, their three kids, and their dog, Rosie.

Guest Post: Karen Leggett Salutes the Children’s Africana Book Awards

By Karen Leggett
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Brenda Randolph, founder and director of Africa Access, was raised in the segregated schools and libraries of Richmond, Virginia.

“I was an avid reader, but I never encountered crude racism in children’s books,” she said. “I remember being irritated by some comments, but I never came upon viciously racist sentiments or characters. I think my African American librarians protected me by careful book selection.”

Randolph’s awareness jumped dramatically a few years after college. An African American mother strongly objected to The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle (by Hugh Lofting, J.B. Lippincott, 1922) at an elementary school in Brookline, Massachusetts where Randolph had recently been hired.

“Lofting’s book was full of the crudest racism I had ever encountered,” she said. “As a result of this incident, I read every book in the library that focused on Africa. I also read books about African Americans, Native Americans, Indigenous Australians and other people of color. I quickly discovered deep racism and ethnocentrism in many books, including award winners.”  
The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle was withdrawn for reevaluation from the Brookline school and Randolph was transformed into an activist librarian. She has devoted her career to making sure children, librarians and teachers have access to high quality books about African countries and people.

After graduate school in African Studies at Howard University, Randolph founded Africa Access to help schools and libraries build quality collections on Africa. 

Brenda Randolph

In the early 1990s, Africa Access launched Africa Access Review, a free online database, of scholarly reviews of K-12 books on Africa.

Today the Africa Access database has over 1500 annotations and reviews of children’s and young adult books.

 Africa Access also provides online bibliographies of recommended picture books, chapter books, award winners and new adult books – “accurate, balanced books that can change and expand what we know, think and feel about Africa.”

Additionally, one can also find links to lessons and other resources for teaching and learning about Africa on the Africa Access website.

In 1991, Africa Access in collaboration with the African Studies Association Outreach Council created the Children’s Africana Book Awards (CABA) to recognize authors and illustrators of outstanding books on Africa for young people. 

The first award was presented in 1992 to David Anderson and illustrator Kathleen Wilson for The Origins of Life on Earth, A Yoruba Creation Story (Sights Production, 1991). An image from that book became the seal for CABA. 
 African studies and children’s literature scholars make up the selection committee for CABA.

The judges read 30 to 40 books a year, nominated by publishers and copyrighted in the year preceding the awards ceremony.

Eligible books must be available in English in the United States. Books with content primarily about African Americans and other parts of the African diaspora are not eligible. The awards are presented in two categories: Young Children and Older Readers.

The CABA competition is open to authors and illustrators of all ethnic backgrounds.

The selection juries (which always include Africans and African Americans) evaluate books on the basis of accuracy, balance, and authenticity.

“Research is key,” Randolph said. “CABA juries are looking for books that reflect in-depth knowledge of places and people in Africa.”

The number of awards varies each year depending on the quality of what has been published. In 2015, there was only one winner. The following year there were four winners. This year there are seven.

Award judges ask the same questions teachers or librarians should ask when reviewing titles.

  • Do stories and history reflect African agency?
  • Are the details of holidays, festivals and culture presented respectfully, or are they “quaint” and “exoticized?”
  • Are country distinctions recognized? “Africa is not a country!” Randolph insists, frustrated that authors often give country-specific titles to their books, only to have publishers change to generic “Africa” for marketing purposes.
  • Does the book avoid offensive, inaccurate or biased terms, e.g. using house rather than “hut,” ethnic group rather than “tribe.”
  • Are the illustrations balanced and varied reflecting the typical rather than the rare (i.e. showing animals that Africans actually see birds, dogs, goats rather than lions and elephants)?
  • Are problems (e.g. poverty and war) presented in global and historical contexts?

“CABA juries particularly appreciate books set in urban areas,” Randolph said. “By 2025, more than half the population of Africa will be urban. More books should reflect this fact.”

“Instead of recycling colonial and exotic images of Africa,” Randolph suggested “sharing books that emphasize typical social groups (farmers and office workers) and typical activities (soccer and shopping).

“Good choices are My Rows and Piles of Coins by Tololwa Mollel, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Clarion, 1999) which features a boy saving money to buy a bike and Desmond and the Very Mean Word: A Story of Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carlton Abrams and illustrated by A.G. Ford, (Candlewick, 2013) which promotes forgiveness.

“We are also eager to evaluate more books from Africa publishers. The challenge is making sure the books are available for purchase in the U.S. Schools and libraries need to be able to purchase these titles with ease. African Books Collective — an African owned, worldwide marketing and distribution outlet — is an important partner in this regard.”

This year CABA is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a collection of more than 90 award-winning books that “do a much better job of representing Africa’s diversity,” said Randolph.

This year’s CABA 2017 winners provide choices for kindergarteners through young adults, with two best books for young readers.

Gizo-Gizo! A Tale from the Zongo Lagoon by Emily Williamson (Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2016) is a folktale with a modern setting that tackles the universal problem of water pollution.

Graduate student Emily Williamson worked with local teachers in Cape Coast, Ghana, to teach students about local water and environmental concerns. The book is the result of their dialogue, performances, art and writing exercises. 

The Storyteller by Evan Turk (Simon & Schuster, 2016) tells about a little boy who discovers the
power of storytelling in Morocco. 
Best Book for Older Readers, Amagama Enkululeko! Words for Freedom: Writing Life Under Apartheid (Cover2Cover Books, 2016) is an anthology of both famous and forgotten writers on the history of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa.

Honor books include Aluta by Adwoa Badoe (Groundwood, 2016), Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan (Putnam, 2016) and The Boy Who Spat in Sargrenti’s Eye by Manu Herbstein (Manu Herbstein, 2016) and one notable title, The World Beneath by Janice Warman (Candlewick, 2016).

The 25th anniversary CABA celebration includes an award dinner Nov. 3 in Washington, D.C., that brings together new winners with almost a dozen past winners and honors CABA founder, Brenda Randolph.

The following day, a free family CABA Book Festival will take place at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Events include book signings, art activities, storytelling and food.

Cynsations Notes

Karen Leggett is a journalist who spent many years as a news broadcaster in Washington, D.C., reviewing children’s books before writing them.

She is the author of Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books, illustrated by Susan L. Routh (Dial, 2012) which won a CABA award in 2013 and Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words, illustrated by L.C. Wheatley (StarWalk Kids Media, 2014).

Karen has led Skype sessions between American and Egyptian children and presented workshops for teachers and librarians on using picture books to build global awareness. She is a former president of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C.

Survivors: Alex Flinn on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing YA Author

Learn more about Alex Flinn.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed
to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

My first five books were realistic “problem” fiction. This was very much in vogue when my first two were published, but it became less “hot” as my career went on.

I feel like, in the early years of YA, it was assumed that YA fiction would mostly be sold to schools. But, as time went on, there were these books that sold in bookstores, and it wasn’t good enough just to sell to school and library.

They were not genres I wrote. They were mostly two genres, chick lit and fantasy. I have no real ability in chick lit, and I’m not a high fantasy person either, though I like light fantasy, the type of books that take place in the real world, but something magical happens.

At one point, I asked my publisher why my books weren’t being promoted, and they said they only promoted chick lit and fantasy to bookstores because they were the types of books that sold in bookstores. I was frustrated, but when I had an impulsive idea for a fantasy book (a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, set in modern times, from the Beast’s point of view), I embraced it.

Thus, Beastly (HarperCollins, 2007) was born.

I feel that this is what kept me going. Most of my fellow authors who strictly stuck to one genre aren’t publishing anymore. It was sort of scary to make this switch, because I had a following in realistic, and my editor was really surprised, but I feel like I would not still be published, had I not switched at that point. I think it is important to have a “brand,” like don’t write one mystery and one romance and one little kid book, etc., but once you have a few, you can branch out.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

I would not worry so much about individual reviews of my books. I used to obsess over them. I would know that, if you write something provocative, not everyone is going to like it. It’s sort of like comedy — you have to be willing to offend someone.

My first review of my first book, Breathing Underwater (HarperCollins, 2001), was really awful. The standout line was, “Teens may overlook its major flaws.”

I was devastated. But, know what? They did overlook those flaws. That book did really, really well. It was embraced by teachers and librarians and even bookstores. It is still published and assigned in schools almost seventeen years later, and I still get mail about it. Hundreds of young women have left their abusive boyfriends because of Breathing Underwater, so yes, Anonymous Reviewer Whom I May Not Even Realize I’ve Met, they did overlook those “major flaws.”

I love getting reviewed, love that people care enough to review my books — thank goodness! But I think sometimes, a reviewer just won’t be the right reader for your book. They won’t get you.

Like, maybe that reviewer didn’t know what to make of me because I was writing about dating violence from the abuser’s viewpoint.

As an author becomes more established, I think publications know, “Hey, this reviewer loves Alex Flinn’s books, so we will give it to her,” which is why more established authors are more likely to get a good review. But, even then, that reviewer may get upset if the author writes something different (such as switching genres, which I did).

As long as the book gets reviewed and isn’t all bad, you’re probably okay. I’ve had books that got so-so reviews and did well or got great reviews and did so-so.

In any case, it is something beyond my control, so if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t sweat it. Sometimes, what makes someone dislike a book is what makes another person like it.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing,
literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

Learn mroe about Beastly — the novel & film.

Well, as I said, the shift from realistic, “edgy” fiction to more fantasy and science fiction (especially vampire novels and dystopian triologies), then back to realistic fiction but maybe not as issue-oriented as it used to be.

Also, school and library has become less all-encompassing, not so much because those institutions are buying fewer books but because teens are buying more in bookstores, too.

I think it is all good because there is definitely the potential to sell more books overall than there was when I was starting. I feel like YA is more important, as a genre, than it used to be. But it is important to be aware of those changes and, if not anticipate them, at least try not to be blindsided by them.

I know several authors who were not able to budge at all on the type of books they wrote, whereas authors like Nancy Werlin keep going because they have changed.

My current books have a lot of the same “realistic” issues that my earlier books had. For example, my most recent book, Beheld (a collection of linked stories based upon fairy tales), had a teen pregnancy, peer pressure, body issues, parental drug use, etc., but just in a more historical fantasy context instead of being a problem novel.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

Advice I already took: Follow your heart, but be willing to reinvent yourself.

Read and be aware of your surroundings.

Maybe be realistic about your capabilities.

One of my great inspirations as a writer is Richard Peck, who was a huge YA writer when I was a kid, and is a big children’s book writer still.

I had the good fortune to be able to meet him when I was pre-published, and he is someone who has always really known the market. When he was younger, he wrote mostly realistic “issue” YA fiction, suicide, peer pressure, rape.

He may not have invented the “problem” novel, but he was probably its biggest contributor (I do not consider the term “problem novel” to be pejorative at all).

As the world has changed, and so has he, he switched to younger kids’ books, but he has still managed to include issues about which he feels passionate, such as gay marriage in his latest novel, The Best Man (Dial, 2016).

Richard is 83 and has been a published author since 1972, with his latest book coming out in 2016. He has published a book just about every year of that time, and I think it was that mid-career switch that allowed that to happen.

I can see where he has done as I said and wrote something that was maybe just an impulse (a book about mice or a zombie novel, for example). Those impulse novels can keep you going.

This is a career I really admire, and I aspire to have. He has won every major award, Newbery, National Book Award finalist, ALAN Award, Edgar, and the Margaret A. Edwards Award, which is given for a body of young adult work.

There are other authors where I also see their ability to genre-jump and admire that. E. Lockhart and David Lubar are two I really admire. I feel like the abilities to be flexible and work hard are very important. Also, as Nemo said in the movie, “Just keep swimming.”

It is important to continue to publish, as it shores up the older books. I guess sometimes, it is necessary to take five years between books, but it would be bette r not to.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

I hope the market will continue to grow.

I hope there will still be brick and mortar bookstores. I love indies, and we are fortunate to have a great indie in Miami, Books & Books, but I also pray for Barnes and Noble because not every town does have a great indie (I grew up near mostly crummy mall bookstores that were nowhere near as good as either BN or Books and Books), and those big bookstores carry a lot of books and have a lot to offer readers as well.

Books and Books, whose flagship store coexists maybe a block from one of the three remaining BNs in Miami, sort of shows that it is possible for these stores to fill different needs for different (or even the same) readers, but I think brick and mortar stores are important.

I did a great event this past weekend at a Barnes and Noble in Kendall. It wasn’t well-attended because it was shortly after Hurricane Irma and, therefore, people had other things going on, but the teens who showed up were really excited about reading and books.

It was inspiring really!

I just hope for more opportunities to get books to readers, and I hope schools will have money to do that as well.

Oh, and libraries. I hope that politicians will stop assuming no one uses libraries just because they, personally, do all their reading online.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

At the “Beastly” premier.

Keep being published, keep being relevant, keep connecting with readers and getting letters from them.

I got a letter last week from a girl who says she wouldn’t have survived middle school without Beastly, and that is always great.

I’ve been that kid, and I’ve raised that kid too, so that’s the dream.

I’ll admit a secret ambition to win the Margaret A. Edwards Award someday. I don’t know if any single book of mine is necessarily going to be the standout book of its year, but I hope that, over time, my books will continue to illuminate young adults’ lives.

I’m also hoping Breathing Underwater makes it twenty years because I am really proud of that book and the influence it has had on young people, especially young women.

So, basically, just keep swimming.

Alex Flinn, Marjetta Geerling & Debbie Reed Fischer at an SCBWI conference

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Cynsations Intern: Robin Galbraith on Giving Yourself Permission to Write

Would-Be Kid Writer Robin

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I tried to write my first story when I was in second grade. My family was gathered around the TV like every night. While “M*A*S*H” played in the background, I stared at my blank paper and dreamed up what I thought was a hilarious story of a girl who used every possible excuse to avoid going to bed—a subject I knew well.

During the commercials I excitedly told my mom my plans.

“Oh, hon,” my mom said. “It will never be published. We aren’t writers. That’s just something our family wasn’t born to do. Stop showing off!”

I now understand my loving mom meant well. She was just 21 years old when she had me. As the daughter of an alcoholic father and overworked mother of six, my mom was taught to “know your place.” She worked hard to care for her family and thought she was protecting me from disappointment.

However, as a child, what I heard was that writers are born, not made. I was like Beverly Cleary‘s Ramona Quimby, stubborn and curious, so I dreamed of secretly writing stories without my mom knowing. But how I could write them if I was a terrible speller?

Ramona Quimby Is Saved By Her Teacher

I was in the lowest reading, spelling, and math group until Miss Rowe, my fifth grade teacher, took an interest in me. She instructed my young mother to read me novels at bedtime, suggested I be given a journal to write in every night, recommended math workbooks for vacations, and advised my mom to use my love of acting and plays to improve my reading.

 My mom followed my teacher’s instructions with gusto. By eighth grade, I was addicted to journal writing and reading series fiction. I was even put in a few honors classes and began to see learning as something that took effort, not talent.
I continued to tell myself stories in my head but never wrote one word of those stories on paper. I was too afraid I’d discover I wasn’t a writer.

Reading: The Gateway to Writing

In high school, I was a TV addict who proudly wore a t-shirt declaring, “I’d rather be watching ‘General Hospital.’” I performed skits with my friends and created novels in my head, but still didn’t have the courage to write a single story on paper.

A neighbor encouraged me to become an elementary special education teacher because I was good with kids. I loved my students but came home exhausted each day.

My mom had discovered audiobooks, now that she was an empty nester, and peppered our phone conversations with details of her reading.

Inspired, I recovered from teaching each afternoon by reading authors like Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, and Milan Kundera before I turned on the TV.

Within a few months of regular reading I was itching to write. I still wrestled with the fear that I was “showing off,” but my urge to write was so strong I finally defied those nasty whispers inside my head and wrote my first story when I was 27 years old.

Rules for Recovering TV Addicts

When I was pregnant with my first child, I read The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin Books, 2013) and vowed my children would grow up in a home of books and writing. I slowly weaned myself off constant TV watching by making a series of rules:

  • I can’t watch TV until 8 p.m. 
  • I can only watch pre-recorded shows. 
  • I can only watch one hour of TV a day.

These rules not only gave me time to read and write, they made me a story critic. I began to analyze the stories that won my coveted one-hour slot. What captured my attention? The characters? The dialog? The plot?

A Woman’s Place Is in the Study

Tragically, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when she was only 52 years old and died in 2012 when she was just 69. As I grieved for my mom’s shortchanged future, I thought about the lessons I was teaching my two kids.

Writing wasn’t just for me; it showed my kids that women have dreams, too.
I took writing classes and joined several critique groups. As my kids grew up, I carved out more time to write and encouraged my children to write their own stories.

My writing wasn’t showing off, it was modeling good habits.

Techniques of the Selling Writer

While my stubborn streak pushed me to finish a draft of a middle grade novel, my next obstacle was learning to write well. The feedback I received from my critique group was politely positive, but I began to suspect they were holding back their criticism. I didn’t push for more honest feedback because I was afraid they’d tell me I’d never be a writer.

Ten years after I had been writing, I got up the courage to submit my work for a professional critique at a local SCBWI writing conference. My critiquer did not have any problems with politeness; she was blunt. I was taken aback at first, then I realized this was good. She took my writing seriously. She didn’t say I had no business writing. She told me what I needed to improve as if this was possible.

One of the conference speakers recommended a book on how to write scenes. I ordered Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain (University of Oklahoma Press, 1991) as soon as I got home. It was a 300-page how-to manual on writing scenes with showing, not telling.

 On my first reading, I was overwhelmed. On my second reading, I took detailed notes. For the third reading, I applied the principles to a fan-fiction story for the TV show, “Veronica Mars.”

My critique group loved my new writing style!

I now had proof that you can learn to write with hard work.

Take Joy

Just when I became comfortable with writing, I fell ill with a series of baffling symptoms that left me practically bedridden. I visited doctor after doctor, desperate to figure out what was wrong. In 2014, a physician figured out my complicated set of thyroid, parathyroid, and autoimmune issues and scheduled surgery to remove my parathyroid tumor.

That same month, I applied to the Vermont College of Fine Arts to study writing for children and young adults. The lesson I had learned from my mom was that life is too short to “know your place.”

When I studied at VCFA I met an entire community that believes in writing. My first advisor had me read Jane Yolen’s Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft (Writer’s Digest, 2006). Instead of seeing writing as a struggle, Yolen sees working on craft as a pleasure, an attitude that changed the way I looked at writing.

Four semesters later, I read my humorous young adult short story for my graduate reading to a sea of laughter and was glad I had given myself permission to write.

You matter. Your stories matter, and the journey you take to learn to write them down will be the adventure of your lifetime!

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Author Interviews

We’ve Been Waiting in the Wings Forever: A Queer Theater Story by Amy Rose Capetta from CBC Diversity. Peek: “It’s no real secret that the theater world, from the professional stages in NYC to the drama clubs in most schools are havens for creative and hardworking LGBTQIAP folks. Before I even knew I was queer, I found my people, and they shared my fervor for story-making, a heady mix of love and ambition that still drives me.”

On the First South Asian YA Novel: Born Confused 15 Years Later by S. Mitra Kalita from LitHub. Peek from Tanuja Desai Hidier: “In Bombay Blues (Push, 2014), Dimple travels to India, to experience being ‘brown among the brown’ and feels ‘beige’ at best. Part of what I wanted to explore in this book is this phenomenon of the reverse diaspora: people of Indian origin gone West now turning around and heading back East.”

7 Questions For: Author Kate Dicamillo by Robert Kent from Middle Grade Ninja. Peek: “Like Raymie Clarke, the hero of this novel, Kate DiCamillo grew up in a small southern town in the seventies with a single mother, and she, too, entered a Little Miss contest and attempted to learn to twirl a baton.”

Podcast Interview: National Book Award Finalists Rita Williams-Garcia and Ibi Zoboi from Vermont Public Radio. Peek: “When Rita Williams-Garcia read Ibi Zoboi’s application to Vermont College of Fine Arts, she knew the writer was extremely talented. Williams-Garcia then served as Zoboi’s faculty advisor at the school…. We speak with the two authors about their young adult novels, their writing relationship at VCFA and afterwards, and what it takes to write for a young audience.”

Philip Pullman Returns to His Fantasy World by Sophie Elmhirst from The New York Times Magazine. Peek: “Arranged on the desk are various objects of mystical significance. ‘I write more easily, more comfortably, with less anxiety if I’ve got my various magic bits on the table.’”


Middle-Grade Novels Featuring South Asian Characters by Suma Subramaniam from From the Mixed-Up Files. Peek: “I interact with many middle-grade readers of South Asian descent in grades 4-8, so these books are of high interest. This post is about celebrating and sharing such books that were released in 2017 and also seeking out ways to find them.”

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Bridging Between the Familiar and Unfamiliar by Lindsay Barrett from the Lee & Low Blog. Peek: “Books with relatable characters who encounter multiple layers of events and challenges can provide familiar entry points while also stretching students’ thinking. Intentionally crafted discussions can help students make the leap from thinking about their own lives to thinking about the challenges others face.”

Teaching and Writing for “Inclusive Excellence” by Megan Dowd Lambert from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: “My work as an educator and an author toward ‘inclusive excellence’ (as it was termed in a faculty training I attended led by Romney and Associates at Simmons College) is undone if I fail to support and amplify the work of Native people and people of color. So, in my storytime and professional-development practice, I always include books by diverse creators.”

Spotlight on Independent Publishers with Great Spanish Content by Christa Jiménez from Latinxs in Kid Lit. Peek: “We know that reading to our kids in their home language is the key to their academic success in that language, and that’s why Spanish-speaking parents continually seek out bilingual and Spanish books for our kids. What can get difficult is finding high quality, culturally relevant texts that support the home culture.”

#Resist: 3 Nonfiction Titles on Social Justice by Della Farrell from School Library Journal. Peek: “As the word ‘resistance’ becomes more and more incorporated into everyday language, students are bound to be curious about past and present social justice movements. The following three titles explore the ways in which young people have rallied for change around the world and across time.”

Diversity Awards and Grants for authors and illustrators by Lee Wind from SCBWI: The Blog. Includes thirteen grants and awards honoring diverse books and their creators.

We Need Diverse Books MG Short Story Contest is open for submissions. Deadline: 5 p.m. EDT Oct. 31. Peek: “This anthology will focus on tales of ordinary people who do extraordinary things, and the individuals who just might be magic. These are the stories of the risk-takers, the friend-makers, the dreamers and doers. In ways big and small, their stories motivate, inspire, make us laugh, remind us of our humanity and our resilience. These are the stories of everyday superheroes in our midst, the ones in plain sight and those yet to be discovered.”

Writing Craft

Tension — an Essential Element of Story by Sarah Blake Johnson from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “Tension is an imbalance. Stories will contain many layers of tension, and these imbalances creates a desire in the characters (and in readers) for the imbalance(s) to be corrected or rebalanced. Tension creates anxiety. It catches and maintains our attention while we turn page after page…”

How Writers Can Beat Imposter Syndrome by Nathan Brandsford from his blog. Peek: “As everyone from Eminem to Alexander Hamilton (okay, the fictional one) has said: You only have one shot. Don’t blow it. Make sure you fear throwing away your chance because you failed to go after your dreams more than you fear some random person denting your feelings.”

Brainstorming with a Partner by David Baker from Thinking Through Our Fingers. Peek: “The ground rules were simple: Listen to what I thought I had, and make suggestions based on two things: 1. How much the possible book idea would interest you as a reader. 2. How feasible the possible book idea seems to you as a writer.”

The Writerly Skills Test by Julianna Baggott from Writer unBoxed. Peek: “We lean into what we’re good at and we avoid our weaknesses….We fear our weaknesses. I get it. But if you’re naturally fearful – most writers are – you might enjoy my take that fear is a good sign. It’s an indicator that you’re pushing the work beyond your capabilities, which is a sure way to stretch those capabilities.”

Commit or Omit by Mary Kole from KidLit. Peek: “One of the most difficult decisions you make as a writer is what you include in your novel or picture book. You can’t include everything. I often reference the image of a spotlight operator when I talk about this. It is, after all, your job to direct your reader’s attention to important elements…”

Why We Can’t Talk About Diversity in KidLit Without Talking About Money by K-Fai Steele from Kidlit Artists: Tips, News and Resources. Peek: “If money is critical to success in kidlit, who can’t afford it and who can’t? Perhaps kidlit being a cost-prohibitive industry to begin with is one of the contributing factors to the lack of diverse books and diverse creators.”


How Writers Can Best Optimize Their About Me Page by Hunter Liguore from The Writer. Peek: “It’s easy to compile a list of publications and other noteworthy achievements, but if you can take the next step and create a story about your writing life – one that reflects your work and unique philosophies – you might be halfway there to creating a presence that is friendly and relatable enough to connect with readers.”

SCBWI Bologna Book Fair 2018 from SCBWI. See also How You Can Get Involved and Thoughts and Ponderings on Bologna. Note: March 26 to March 28.

The Accidental Translator by Lyn Miller-Lachmann from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “Translators are writers. We provide the words in English to a story written in another language, in a way that both captures the voice, story, and characters of the original and makes them accessible to readers from a different culture.”

My Achy-Breaky Heart Over Agents by Christine Kohler from Read Like a Writer. Peek: “First, let me be clear: I have never sold a book through an agent….However, do I want an agent? Yes. Why? Increasingly, publishers are refusing to accept unsolicited submissions and contracts are getting more complex due to e-rights and advanced technology.”

New MCPG Imprint Brings Workman Team to Macmillan by John Maher from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “The imprint, which Macmillan said is ‘centered around imaginative and innovative books that inspire kids to explore, learn, and have fun while helping them develop the skills to do so,’ will be led by publisher Daniel Nayeri, editorial director Nathalie Le Du, and creative director Colleen AF Venable.”

Teachers & Librarians

How Teachers And Schools Can Help When Bad Stuff Happens by Anya Kamenetz from  nprED. Peek: “…the stress of children’s daily lives doesn’t go away with all that’s happening in the world around us. The National Survey of Children’s Health consistently finds that nearly half of American children experience at least one adversity such as physical abuse or food insecurity, and 1 in 5 experience at least two.”

Local Heroes: Librarians Address Inequity Where They See It by Marva Hinton from School Library Journal. Peek regarding Iowa Tribal Librarian Sandy Tharp-Thee: “With donations from local businesses and other sources, plus more than 20 grants, she has transformed the library’s role in the community in many ways. The GED program she launched has benefited more than 80 people, ages 16 to 64, since 2010.”


By Lindgren nominee Sarah Ellis

Announcing the Danziger Awards for Hilarious Kids Books by Elizabeth Bird from A Fuse 8 Production at School Library Journal. Peek: “Named after the great and very funny Paula Danziger, these awards break down into different categories per year.” Includes picture book, fiction for older children, debut author, debut illustrator and memorial award, all for books published in 2017.

2017 Cybils Awards Publisher/ Author Submissions by Sheila Ruth from Peek: “Publishers, publicists, and authors: now that the public nomination period has ended, we are accepting submissions from publishers, publicists, and authors of books published within the last year.”

Congratulations to those nominated for the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the 2018 Prizes for Excellence in Science Books!

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

Still smiling! Last week was all about teaching “The Joke’s On You! The Scoop on Humor, Middle Grade Through YA” with Uma Krishnaswami and our teaching assistant, Sean Petrie.

Thanks to the Highlights Foundation, all of our terrific students and special guest speakers, Ginger Knowlton and Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown Ltd. in New York.

This week I’m back to writing fiction, focusing on a middle grade contemporary realism short story.

Link of the Week: Top 10 Signs of Hope for #Ownvoices Poetry by Margarita Engle from Nerdy Book Club.

More Personally – Gayleen

This week I’ve been leaning in to the Pomodoro Technique after hearing Sarah Aronson and Bethany Hegedus discuss it on the Writing Barn’s Porchlight Podcast.

I’d written in short bursts (25 minutes) before, but had fallen out of the habit. Setting a timer and focusing my attention on the story at hand boosted my daily word count and reignited my passion for these characters. 

Personal Links – Gayleen

Author Interview: Cynthia Levinson on Fault Lines in the Constitution

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Many of the political issues we struggle with today have their roots in the US Constitution.

Husband-and-wife team Cynthia and Sanford Levinson take readers back to the creation of this historic document and discuss how contemporary problems were first introduced—then they offer possible solutions. 

Think Electoral College, gerrymandering, even the Senate. 

Many of us take these features in our system for granted. But they came about through haggling in an overheated room in 1787, and we’re still experiencing the ramifications.

Each chapter in this timely and thoughtful exploration of the Constitution’s creation begins with a story—all but one of them true—that connects directly back to a section of the document that forms the basis of our society and government. 

Most middle grade nonfiction is either biography or focuses on a particular event. Here you’re examining the structure of our government and highlights of United States history since 1787. What inspired you to take on this monumental task?

The short answer to your question is that my editor, Kathy Landwehr, at Peachtree Publishers “inspired” us to write it by asking my husband, Sandy, a legal scholar, and me if we would. She had given her father a copy of one of Sandy’s previous books that critiques the Constitution—he writes for law students and faculty as well as adult readers in general—which he had found interesting. In talking about it, Kathy realized that there is no book like it for kids.

In a bigger sense, this question is really interesting because, even though I’ve published five nonfiction books (and written many more!), I’ve never thought about this distinction between biography, on the one hand, and event, on the other, as a way to organize nonfiction. It generally works, though it leaves out some science books. 

Melissa on Building Nonfiction Manuscripts

Melissa Stewart, an amazing author, researcher, and presenter on science topics, proposes another way to categorize the genre: narrative and expository. 

Your question has made me realize that Fault Lines in the Constitution contains some of all of these—biographies, events, narrative stories, and exposition of facts.

In that way, it does sound monumental! But, actually, because of the way the book is organized, it didn’t seem monumental while writing it (well, for the most part it didn’t). And we hope it doesn’t come across that way to readers.

You’re right that the scope might appear huge because we drop in on events in American history from the Revolution through this past summer. There probably aren’t many books that mention both the Continental Congress convening in a tavern in New Jersey and the fate of undocumented aliens under President Trump. 

Yet, Fault Lines is not a textbook. We don’t march through either American history or the Constitution. Every story and every event is closely tied to and illustrates a problem—or, fault line—in the Constitution.

You co-authored Fault Lines In The Constitution with your husband. Tell us about the collaboration process and how the book came together.

Fault Lines was very much a collaborative process. It is definitely ours, not his or hers. 

We had already joined forces in writing an article together for Cobblestone Magazine titled “Calling the Constitution’s Bluff,” in which we had ticked off three of the fault lines.

So, when we started on the book, I naively thought that I could re-read Sandy’s previous works—especially, Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) (Oxford University Press, 2006)—mine them for ideas, issues, and stories, and then summarize them. Done! Ha!

Though they’re persuasive in laying out his concerns about the Constitution, these books don’t tell the kinds of stories that draw in young readers. 

Also, Sandy’s writing style is, um, fluid and, because he’s so knowledgeable, digressive. Consistent structure and short blocks of text broken up by sidebars and illustrations are not his forte. (Nor, given his usual audience, do they need to be.) 
Furthermore, even though I had often heard him urge people to “follow the dots” from problems in the Constitution to political dilemmas today, I felt that the dots in his books needed clearer highlighting. Suddenly, I could see why our daughters, both of whom had written journal articles with him, asked me if I was really sure I wanted to take on this job!

For our middle-grade audience, I realized we had to start from scratch, and I laid out ground rules for the sections he would draft:

• No sentences longer than three lines or with more than one dependent clause.
• No extraneous words or vague phrases, like “indeed” or “in the grand scheme of things.”
• No adverbs.
• No parentheticals.

None of these ground rules was met! Here’s one brief example from an early draft of Chapter 4, which is about the filibuster:

Fortunately, as Sandy says, he has no pride of authorship. He does not mind being edited. You can see us working together in the photo. Note that I’m the one holding the red pen!

As a result, we managed to write the book in one voice. There is one exception, though: In writing the last chapter, we disagree and openly debate each other.

I’m also curious about the timeline – how long did it take to write, what was the editorial process was like?

I never know how to answer the question about how long it took me to write a book, partly because I work on several things at different stages simultaneously and partly because there are the inevitable lulls. 
In this case, the lull lasted a full year. We started sometime in 2013, and Fault Lines was supposed to come out in September 2016. But I had to postpone it when I was asked me to write a biography, Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can (Simon & Schuster, 2016), which had an obvious deadline. That delay turned out to be fortuitous, as the book evolved after the election of President Trump.

Kathy Landwehr, my editor at Peachtree Publishers for We’ve Got a Job (2012) and Watch Out for Flying Kids (2015) did her usual exemplary, thoughtful, and indefatigable job. 

She did not hesitate to take out her red pen, too! In fact, we wrote three entire stories for the book, including a moving one about a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns, all of which got axed for various necessary reasons. We recycled the story about Burns into a blog post.

One of the aspects I found most fascinating is that each chapter opens with a contemporary anecdote – the college student who successfully changed the Michigan constitution regarding public university admission seems particularly relevant to students. How did you find those stories? And, how did you decide which ones to use in the book?

Sandy knew about many of the events, including the opening one about the lynching of a black man named Richard Puckett in South Carolina in 1913. This tragic act leads to a discussion of the first fault line, bicameralism—the need for both houses of Congress to pass a bill before it can become a law. 

Through my experience writing for kids, I was able to turn historical artifacts into gripping stories. And, with additional research, I added moving details, including the fact that Puckett’s niece attended the ceremony in 2005 when 80 (but not all 100) senators apologized for the Senate’s inability to pass anti-lynching legislation.

Other stories popped up in the news. The situation you mention is a recent legal case related to direct democracy, which some state constitutions—but not the U.S. Constitution—allow. Another uses the jailing of a nurse who had treated Ebola patients in West Africa in 2014 to show that our Constitution is out of date. 

Cynthia and Gayleen at TLA conference

The ARC I received at the Texas Library Association conference in the spring had a sticker on the cover noting the date the text was approved, “but this is a book inherently influenced by current events.” 

Less than a week later, the Senate voted to change the filibuster rules. You and your publisher have a blog dedicated to posting updates to the book. 

Is the United States government changing faster now than it has in the past?

I doubt that the government is changing faster now than in the past. Conservatives who want a smaller role for government and lower taxes would argue that it changed vastly during President Franklin Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office when he pushed 15 major bills through Congress.

That perspective is a large part of the opposition to the Affordable Care Act, passed under President Obama. It is true, though, that the Trump administration is undoing this so-called “deep state” very rapidly.

Publishers Weekly called Fault Lines “exceptionally topical.” To keep up with the times and to show how much the Constitution influences current events, we blog every two weeks.

So far, as you can see in the picture, we’ve written about gerrymandering, Texas Boys State (which voted to secede!), the shooting of Republican Congressmen and problems with continuity in government, and the under-funding of the 2020 Census, among other topics.

We invite readers to join the conversation!

Given current events, I’m guessing this book has a lot of crossover appeal for adults. Have you noticed that with the events you’ve had so far?

Everyone tells us that! We’ve been invited to almost two-dozen radio interviews and talk-shows, and grown-ups are as engaged in our presentations as kids. School Library Connection even said, “While written for students, the book is a worthwhile read for adults as well.”

Cynsations Notes

Cynthia Levinson
photo by Sam Bond Photography

A discussion guide for Fault Lines in the Constitution is available from the publisher. The book has earned four starred reviews, from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.

Cynthia Levinson holds degrees from Wellesley College and Harvard University and also attended the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

A former teacher and educational policy consultant and researcher, she is the author of the award-winning and critically-acclaimed We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), along with Watch Out for Flying Kids (Peachtree, 2015), Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and The Youngest Marcher, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Simon & Schuster, 2017).

She has also published articles in Appleseeds, Calliope, Cobblestone, Dig, Faces, and Odyssey

New Voice: Jonathan Rosen on Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Jonathan Rosen is the debut author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies (Sky Pony Press, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Devin Dexter has a problem. 

Well, actually, many of them. His cousin, Tommy, sees conspiracies behind every corner. And Tommy thinks Devin’s new neighbor, Herb, is a warlock . . . but nobody believes him. Even Devin’s skeptical. But soon strange things start happening. 

Things like the hot new Christmas toy, the Cuddle Bunny, coming to life.

That would be great, because, after all, who doesn’t love a cute bunny? But these aren’t the kind of bunnies you can cuddle with. These bunnies are dangerous. 

Devin and Tommy set out to prove Herb is a warlock and to stop the mob of bunnies, but will they have enough time before the whole town of Gravesend is overrun by the cutest little monsters ever?

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

When I was a kid, the big thing for me was when my parents took me to the bookstore. Back then, there were bookstores in all the malls–sometimes two–Waldenbooks and B.Daltons. And every time we went, we’d stop in one, or more likely, both.

My parents would let me buy a book or two every single time, because I read them so fast. I always loved that excitement of buying a new book. There was nothing like it to me. My favorites, were the Choose Your Own Adventure Series (Bantam Books, 1979-1988).

Even back then, I remember thinking how great it would be to see my name on a book.

When I started writing, I wanted to try and recapture some of the magic of those stories that I loved.

I wanted kids to get excited about some of my stories because I still have vivid memories of going in and picking up favorite books. I dabbled in it, until my kids started to get to reading age, and then I made it a serious endeavor. I wanted my kids to love my stories.

My youngest has read Cuddle Bunnies a few times, and I love watching her do it.

I coach a girls softball team and they’re always telling me what books they like. And now, they’re all excited about mine.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This one, has kind of convoluted answer. I had wanted to do something fun, with a kind of dark humor. The movie “Gremlins” kept coming to mind. It was one of my favorites as a kid. I love the idea of these sweet-looking things containing a dark side, and that’s where Cuddle Bunnies came in.

At around the same time, I had just come at two different houses with a previous manuscript. Both places eventually turned it down for one reason or another, but both said they loved the humor in it.

So, while this evil stuffed animal book was fresh in my mind, I decided to go ahead and write the funniest book that I could. Evil stuffed animals were very funny to me.

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

There were so many ‘worst’ moments, that I could write a book just about those. This isn’t an easy field. You have to brace yourself for a lot of rejection. Not everyone is going to like you and your work, so you just have to accept that.

Funny enough, some of the very worst moments were after I was at the point where I felt good enough to be published, and it didn’t happen. I got so close that when I went to the brink at those two houses and then got turned down, it kind of felt like it might not ever happen.

The best, was when I signed with my agent, Nicole Resciniti. It was real validation that someone in the industry believed in my work. It wasn’t too long after that when she told me that we had an offer. Soon, we signed the contract. That was the overall, best moment, so far!

What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?

I like to remain heavily involved in the children’s writing community as well as the larger literature community. Besides being in a regular critique group, I go to as many SCBWI events as I can and read blogs to keep up to date with what’s going on in the industry.

Jonathan’s critique group, The Tuesdays

I think it’s important to know what people in the industry are looking for, who’s working where, what types of books are selling as well as just maintaining friendships within the community.

It’s always good to support others and know you have like-minded individuals, who you can confide in and who share similar experiences.

As much as writing seems like a solitary endeavor, it isn’t really. It’s very tough to make it alone.

It’s good to have people who can pick you up when you’re down. To critique your work and offer opinions. And discuss what’s happening in the writing world.

I also look all the time to see what new books are released. There’s nothing like digging into a new middle grade book!

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

I wish I could give some eye-opening, insightful, new piece of information that’s never been given before, but I’m saving that for my pay-per-view special. Truth is, my advice has been given over and over again, but it’s so true. Never give up.

Seriously, it’s so easy to give in to the rejection. Most of the time, that’s what you get.

Remember, that’s what will separate you from those who don’t get published. They gave up. Keep going. Work on your craft. Always try and get better.

And one of the most important things: don’t be stubborn when someone offers opinions or advice. Take note of everything and use what works for you. If it doesn’t, then you don’t have to follow it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen.

Cynsations Notes

Jonathan Rosen is a teacher and freelance writer who spends his “free” time being a volunteer coach for his daughter’s softball team and a chauffeur for all of his kids.

Jonathan was born in New York and is of Mexican descent. He contributes to From the Mixed Up Files…of MG Authors and Tuesday Writers.

A sequel to Cuddle Bunnies, From Sunset Till Sunrise is now available as an e-book and will be released in print in August 2018 from Sky Pony Press.

Jonathan lives with his family in sunny South Florida.