Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith & Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynsations

Author Interviews

Questions & Answers by Supriya Kelkar from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “…in all the books that filled my library, there was not one book featuring anyone who looked even remotely like me. I had dozens of books starring a diverse range of bears, from teddy bears to Little Bear to several types of brown bears, but not one book featuring a child with brown skin and black hair.”

Chatting With Editors Who Make It Happen (Part One) by Susan Hughes from Open Book. Peek from Patricia Ocampo, managing editor at Simon & Schuster Canada: “…my biggest pet peeve in storytelling is predictability, so it should come as no surprise that I love manuscripts that surprise me. There may be no new stories, but there are always new ways to tell them.” Also includes Jennifer Stokes of Kids Can Press and Sarah N. Harvey of Orca Book Publishers.

Q&A with Nikki Grimes, author of The Watcher from CBC Diversity. Peek: “I was invited to write a Golden Shovel poem for…a collection honoring the work of…Gwendolyn Brooks…I fell immediately in love with the form (created by Terence Hayes) and could not wait to use it again…One of the first two ideas that came to me was to apply the form to the exploration of a Psalm.”

Interview with Tim Tingle by Nikki Smith from August House. Peek: “…I grew up hearing my grandmother’s fear about anyone knowing we were Indian. I had one really good friend whose mom was Chickasaw. My mom was Chickasaw and my dad was Choctaw. We all knew that we were Indian, but no one else did.”

Interview: Amy Sarig King and Me And Marvin Gardens by Adi Rule from the VCFA Launchpad. Peek: “(Favorite nugget of craft advice:) Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Eight Rules for Writing Fiction.’….Never has anyone summed up everything I believe about writing in a half a page before. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’d say these two are tied for first place: ‘Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water’ and ‘Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.'”

Interview: Author Anna-Marie McLemore on Wild Beauty by Cecilia Cackley from Latinx in Kid Lit. Peek: “…there’s a brutal history of child immigrants doing dangerous jobs, jobs that are already dangerous if you’re a grown man….But amid that kind of brutality, there’s also family; I wanted to write characters who were looking out for each other even in a place that doesn’t really want them.”


Voices of Change: A New Series on the Brown Bookshelf. Peek: “Your lives matter. The Brown Bookshelf opens up this space to you — to young readers, to parents and caregivers, to educators, and all who work directly with children and teens. ‘What are you thinking? How are you feeling about what is happening in our towns and cities, our world? Where do we go from here?'” Readers are invited to share words and/or images to be posted on the site.

WNDB Mentorship Program & Application. Peek: “For the 2018 year, we are offering mentorships to ten upcoming voices—eight aspiring authors (or author-illustrators) and two illustrators—who are diverse or working on diverse books. This is an opportunity to be matched with an experienced children’s book creator and receive individual support and feedback on a work-in-progress.” Application deadline: Oct. 31.

Selecting While White: Breaking Out of the Vendor Box by Chelsea Couillard-Smith from Reading While White. Peek: “…it’s an oddly self-perpetuating cycle whereby the libraries with more staff, more funds…are best able to create broadly diverse collections, while those with smaller budgets…are perhaps as likely to be buying the problematic, high-visibility titles…but are less able to identify and obtain independent titles from diverse authors.”

What a Forgotten Kids’ Book Reveals About U.S. Publishing by Pooja Makhijani from The Atlantic. Peek: “Released in 1927, the poignant children’s novel Gay Neck was written by an Indian immigrant who became the first person of color to win the Newbery Medal..Yet, 90 years on, this once-celebrated book…is rarely mentioned in discussions of racial and ethnic diversity in books for kids.”


Going Bald in Public: A Story about Our Stories and Their Audiences by Anne Nesbet from Project Mayhem. Peek: “When a book goes out into the world, it is exciting and frightening, both at once. It can feel like all your secret scars are going out on parade. It is as scary as walking out onto a crowded dock when your hair is coming out in clumps.”

8 Steps to Illustrating & Designing a Great Book Cover by Cathy Thole-Daniels from Smack Dab in the Middle. Peek: “The cover should evoke the same feelings when reading the book as when looking at it, and when finishing a book, the reader should know why the cover image came to be.”

Children’s Writer-in-Residence at the Thurber House. Peek: “Candidates must have at least one middle grade (roughly 3-6 grade) book published by a traditional trade publishing house, but no more than five, and one new middle grade book under contract. Must have experience teaching/working with children in an educational setting.”

The World is Inside Out by Donald Maass from Writer unBoxed. Peek: “The real world of your life is not just what anyone would see through their eyes. It’s your concept of it. It’s the blend of the history of others and your own. It’s an impression, a puzzle, a long shot and a close up, an anxiety over status, a role-playing game, a family rock in rushing rapids, laws to ignore and principles to hold dear….”

New Release

Rosetta Press, 2017

From author Zetta Elliott:

“I wrote this story because two of my friends have autistic sons and though I try to create inclusive books, I
realized I didn’t have any stories that represent neurodiversity.  

“I have also marveled at the way my friends advocate tirelessly for their sons,
both of whom are Black and so face additional challenges in a society set on disciplining Black boys. 

“All children deserve a book that mirrors
their reality, and I wanted to center an autistic Black boy in a story that celebrates difference.”

CYN NOTE: I learned from Zetta and Debbie Reese on Twitter that Zetta’s book includes an illustration nod to Super Indian Comics by Arigon Starr, which is intrinsically awesome and also reminded me a bit of a recent cover art conversation I was involved with. More on that to come.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

This month, I’m celebrating the 10th anniversary of the launch of the Tantalize-Feral universe novels. Technically, the first book was a February release, but the highlighting them in the spoooky season feels more appropriate.

This week, I took part in the fundraising auction #PubForPR. Thank you to everyone who bid, donated or otherwise participated to raise money for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico!

I also kicked off the Survivors series, highlighting long-term children’s-YA authors offering insights into our ongoing journey. Peek:

“Stay flexible. Especially if I’m pushing the creative envelope, I need to keep in mind that ‘not now’ isn’t the same as ‘never.’ And I can help faciliate positive change. In the meantime, write something else, something that heightens my skillset to be ready for whatever comes next.”

Congrats to the finalists for the U.S. National Book Award, especially VCFA family Rita Williams-Garcia and Ibi Zoboi! Congrats also to the finalists for Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards, especially Indigenous authors/illustrators Cherie Dimaline, Aviaq Johnston, David Alexander Robertson, and Julie Flett!

Thank you to the librarians and YA Book Club at Cedar Park Library in Cedar Park, Texas. Gayleen and I enjoyed visiting with you about Tantalize: Kieren’s Story, illustrated by Ming Doyle (Candlewick, 2011). Read on!

More Personally – Gayleen

I’ve had great fun this week participating in the first-ever #MGBOOKTOBER, tweeting about the middle grade books I love.

The month-long celebration was organized & conceived by U.K. writer Annaliese Avery. The idea was inspired in part by her photographer husband who started #Filmtober last year, but also by the lack of MG in a recent best book Twitter poll by Waterstones.

Personal Links – Cynthia
Personal Links – Gayleen

2017 Europolitan Con Portfolio Winner Interview: Ana Larrañaga

By Sanne Dufft

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: SCBWI Germany/Austria‘s Illustrator Coordinator Sanne Dufft interviewed Ana Larrañaga, a winner of the portfolio contest that took place at the SCBWI Europolitan Con in Belgium earlier this year. This is the second of two articles.

Ana Larrañaga was born in San Sebastian, Spain. She grew up in the country surrounded by a huge family and a lot of animals. After studying art, she went to Scotland with the intention of staying for only one summer to improve her English; she ended up staying in the U.K. for seven years and became a writer and illustrator for children’s books. 
She moved to New York and then to Germany, were she now lives with her family. Ana has written some books and illustrated a lot of them. She likes drawing, walking and singing.

It is my pleasure to interview Ana Larrañaga, second place winner of the Europolitan Portfolio Contest. I am lucky enough to live so close to her that we were able to do this interview in person at Ana’s work space and, as it was a beautiful Summer’s day, in her garden.

Once more, I’d like to give you my warmest congratulations on your win. Stephanie Amster, Editor and Art Director at Bloomsbury (U.K.) and Laurent Linn, Art Director at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers (U.S.) were the jury. 

In their address, they emphasized they had especially been looking for portfolios featuring work which would be ready to be published in both the U.K. and U.S. markets.

As a Spanish illustrator who has lived both in England and in New York and currently lives in Germany, have you been published yet on any of these markets?

Yes, I have been published in all these countries, although never directly in Germany. But my work has been translated for the German market several times.

Can you share some of your experiences?

My first work was published in Spain but the country where I really took off as an illustrator was the U.K. The United States was much later. It is great to work with all of them.

Feeling comfortable in the language you are working is crucial.

Would you say there’s a market you personally feel most comfortable with?

I couldn’t say. In the end, you deal with individuals. But in general, people in this business are very nice people. We do it because we all love children books and that makes it a very friendly environment.

Can you tell us a bit about the creation of your portfolio? How did you pick the artwork?

That was very difficult! We were supposed to choose no more than 12 pieces, selecting the right ones was very hard. In the end, you go with your gut feeling. I tried to choose pieces that I enjoyed creating.

Do you have a favourite piece? Can you tell us a little about this?

My favourite one is The Polar Bear because the boy riding it is my youngest son and he is wearing a sweater vest that I knitted for him. He wears it all the time. 

As I understand, you work mainly digitally, but start with hand-drawn pencil sketches. Would you tell us a bit about your creative process?

I do a lot of tiny sketches in scraps of paper. Some people have beautiful sketch books.

In my case, it can be a napkin or a shopping bill. Most of it is just doodles; but when I like a character, I scan it and blow it up. 

This way I discover new details and directions to follow. I also have a lot of self-made textures and patterns in a digital folder. I use them for collage too. When I am drawing time flies, is a bit like being in a trance. And then, in the end, I have something surprising even to myself.

What was your prize?

My prize is an online meeting with Laurent Linn, art director and designer of literature for children and young adults. 

Would you tell us a little bit about how that went? 
The interview with Laurent was great. I was very nervous about it but as soon as we started talking all my shyness evaporated, because he is so friendly. Laurent showed a real interest in helping me. Was extremely kind and helpful.

We went through my web page and he gave me very clear and professional advice on what changes would improve it (now I have to do those changes!) It was quite wonderful.

Thank you so much for this interview. It’s been wonderful talking to you! I look forward to seeing your joyful illustrations in lots of kids’ books in the future.

Cynsational Notes

Sanne Dufft was born in Darmstadt, Germany. 
She studied Art Therapy in Nürtingen, Germany, and worked with children with a variety of special needs (and special gifts) in Northern Ireland.

She has illustrated several picture books, and written one. 

Sanne lives with her husband and three children in beautiful Tübingen, in the South of Germany.

Special thanks to Cynsations reporter Angela Cerrito for coordinating the Europolitan Con Portfolio Winners interview series!

2017 Eurpolitan Con Portfolio Winner: Simona M. Ceccarelli

By Angela Cerrito

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: Cynsations reporter Angela Cerrito interviewed Simona M. Ceccarelli, winner of the portfolio contest that took place at the SCBWI Europolitan Con in Belgium earlier this year. This is the first of two articles.

Simona M. Ceccarelli is a freshly hatched children’s writer and illustrator. A passion for visual storytelling and the success of her early whiteboard animation series “Drawn to Science” has actually drawn her out of a career in science to focus on creating worlds for children – with pen and pencil, keyboard and stylus.

Simona is represented by Andrea Cascardi of the Transatlantic Literary Agency. Instagram: simona.ceccarelli Twitter: @smceccarelli

Simona, Congratulation on winning the Portfolio Showcase Competition at SCBWI’s Europolitan Conference

What made you decide to enter your portfolio?

SCBWI conferences are great. You meet adults who don’t think it’s weird to talk about children’s books for hours. You can quote Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein and everybody gets it. The chance to show your work to such people – be it writers, other illustrators or industry professionals – and get their opinion is too good to pass up.

Fight and Flight – one of the illustrations Simona submitted at the Europolitan Showcase

How did you decide which illustrations to include in your portfolio for the competition?

Selecting images for a portfolio is a tough call, and, when it comes back from the printer, there is always some illustrations you wish you had included and some you would like to take out.

Luckily, you can also bring postcards – and ultimately, all your work represents you in one way or another. I picked the pieces I like most, trying to show a range of different subjects – children, animals, fantasy creatures – full scenes with background as well as vignettes and character design.

And of course a set of illustrations that show character consistency, which is very important in children’s book illustration.

Lucy’s Problem – one of Simona’s portfolio submissions for the Europolitan Showcase

Most of all, how did it feel when your name was announced by the judges Laurent Linn of Simon & Schuster (also an SCBWI Board Member) and Stephanie Amster of Bloomsbury UK

I had this sudden sense of having hopped thorough a magic portal into an alternate reality.

I often have that feeling when something good and unexpected happens to me: it must have happened to a different person…an alternate me. For a while, every time the self-doubt monster attacks (I should do a graphic short-story about that!), I can whack it on the head with this award and send it cowering to a corner.

Simona at her digital workstation. Photo by Idit Kobrini

I’m so curious about your use of Zbrush in your illustrations. The company, Pixologic, describes Zbrush as a tool for 3D painting and sculpting. What drew you to Zbrush?

I studied Visual Development for animation, where many of my teachers insisted that “the ability to visualize in 3D” is one of the most important skills an artist should have. My thesis advisor, Nicolas Villareal, wrote that in every single review: I struggled with turning characters in my head.

Photo by Idit Kobrini

ZBrush was just being introduced in the curriculum of Vis Dev artists, and I thought I would give it a try. I fell in love with it heart over heels (admittedly, I have a sweet spot for graphic software in general).

It has been a huge help in my ability to think dimensionally and for a while I experimented with introducing it into the illustration workflow. I don’t do hybrid illustrations anymore, but I still use it for character maquettes, as well as another 3D software, SketchUp, for environment models.

I love your illustrations from the 100Kids challenge. Have you done other 100 illustration challenges? Why did you decide to create 100 different, fully rendered, child characters?

When I decided to knock on the door of children’s illustration I was emerging from a two-year project designing goblins. My portfolio was full of them: good goblins, evil goblins, old and young, male and females. It didn’t take a lot of insight to realize that it was a little one-sided.

I knew that the number one thing a children’s illustration portfolio must include is children. At about the same time, I saw a video by Jake Parker talking about “design-100-thing challenges” and then the idea took flight. I decided to do full illustrations or vignettes rather than just sketches because I needed to beef up my portfolio and explore illustration styles.

Now, after nearly 70 kids, I am focusing more on stylization, so I sometimes post black and white work.

I had never done 100 illustration challenges before, but I am pretty sure I will start another one when this one is over. It´s a great experience, very impactful on many levels – and it got my social media channels rolling as well.

100 Kids – number 35

You’ve studied in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the USA. 

How has living and learning in multiple languages and cultures influenced your work?

They say “fish are the last to see water.”

I think it is the same here. When you experience a multicultural environment for a long time (actually from birth – my family is British-Italian), it’s part of you, as much as your handwriting and your gait – you don’t really notice it.

Laurent and Stephanie have paid me a wonderful compliment saying that my work appeals equally to European and American sensibility. If that is true, then maybe that is the biggest impact that living and working in different cultures has had on my work.

It’s especially nice since I was sometimes told (alternatively and by different people) that my work is either too “American” or too “European.”

At least now I can answer with some authority: “it’s both!”

My personal “Hall of fame” – the illustrators I look up to as my inspiration – live in all corners of the world.

I believe there is a common core in narrative illustration that transcends all cultural borders – storytelling is universal.

I’m drawn to The Pirates of Oz, please share more about this alternate version of The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900).

The illustration was done for an art challenge to design an alternate Wizard of Oz world. I came up with Dorothy as a pirate captain whose ship crash-lands in Oz during a storm. She hears about the fabulous treasure of the Wizard and sets out to loot it, collecting a motley crew of characters along the way – each declaring a pirate-y interest in gold, but in reality pursuing a private wish.

I never wrote the story but there is a couple of unfinished illustrations strewn around this idea. It has found a temporary home in “The Bin” – the notebook in which I confine all half-baked ideas.

Your short-story graphic novel, Inkling, is posted on your blog and you describe the project in terms of an exercise in form – inking, panels and storyboarding. 

I’m very drawn to the story itself, a fascinating look at an artist literally creating his own reality with his art. What inspired this character and his experiences?

That is a truly personal story – it has many meanings for me. Narrative artists create a world with art – even if only for the space of a film, a book, a graphic novel or even a single vignette illustration.

It is a magic and mystical act, one that should be met with wonder and humility and a bit of fear – both as a viewer and as a creator. And which artist has not fallen in love with one of his characters at some point?

Also, more pragmatically, I love graphic novels and I want to create some for children. “Inkling” was much needed hands-on training, after many online courses and books. Maybe it will take more experiments before I tackle bigger projects in this space, but it certainly is a lot of fun!

You made a dramatic career change – from research scientist to illustrator. How do you reconcile these two wildly different careers and what influence does one have on the other?

I definitely do not regret having gone into science first – it’s been a blast, and I would not be who I am without that section of my life. I have been through frazzled times, where I was leading two disconnected lives (for years I was working in a research lab during the day and struggling on my art school assignments at night).

Needless to say, many people (including me) have been puzzled by the decision to quit science for illustration and the impostor syndrome has been savagely rampant at times.

Now I sit on a boxful of ideas on how to combine science and storytelling and narrative illustration in new ways, and I am sure the two careers will end up joining forces and producing some interesting offspring.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?

I am afraid my habits are extremely unhealthy. I am addicted to books, audiobooks and animation films (at least I got clean of internet wormholes and managed to stay clean so far).

When I work, I live out of coffee and butter-spaghetti. I sleep too little and sit too much. I never learned to ski, skate or play team sports (I should get a token for every time I heard: “What? You live in Switzerland and cannot ski?”)

I’d rather stay indoors if the temperature is above 30 or below 10 Celsius (that’s 86 and 50 Fahrenheit) and my idea of fun is spending an afternoon sketching at a museum. Luckily, I am surrounded by wonderful people who take me as I am and yet coax me out of my comfort zone, so that I can get inspiration and stay healthy.

Simona at her analog workstation

My family is the center of my life. So much so, that my studio is actually a family room – the potential distraction is a fair price for the energy and inspiration I get from being around my husband and children. My kids feed me countless ideas and make it worthwhile to go biking, hiking and horse-riding (and cook dinners.…occasionally).

I have friends who don’t think it boring to talk about books for half the night and have the privilege to work part-time in a creative team with great colleagues and designers, whom I constantly learn from. And of course there are all the magnificent people I have met on the web – a particular shoutout to the fellow author-illustrators I met virtually on the SVS forum and on social media.

I collect quotes from all sources and shamelessly sprinkle them in every conversation. So I cannot let this interview be finished without including one! This is by film director Werner Herzog:

“Ideas are like uninvited guests. They don’t knock on the door; they climb in through the windows like burglars who show up in the middle of the night and make a racket in the kitchen as they raid the fridge.”

Creativity for me has very much to do with getting to know the loud intruders in front of coffee and spaghetti and turn them into friends. It takes a lot of time and energy but it’s totally worth the effort.

Cynsational Notes

Cynsations reporter Angela Cerrito is a writer, pediatric physical therapist and SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor.

Her recent novel, The Safest Lie (Holiday House), was named a Best Book of the Year by The Guardian, a Notable Social Studies Book for Young People by the Children’s Book Council and the National Council for Social Studies, and was awarded SCBWI’s Crystal Kite.

Her plays have been produced in the EU and USA. When she’s not working or writing, you may find her hanging out with her family, trying new (vegan) recipes, or volunteering at the community theatre.

Survivors: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Shelley Ann Jackson, Chris Barton, Jennifer Ziegler, Cyn & P.J. Hoover

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Writers put so much emphasis on that first children’s-YA book sale, the debut launch—but maintaining an active publishing career is arguably a much bigger challenge than breaking into the business.

So, let’s talk about career endurance as authors of books for young readers.

I’ve invited numerous, well (and enduringly) published friends and colleagues to share their thoughts in future posts as part of this ongoing series.

You can look forward to their wisdom in the days and months to come.

Meanwhile, it’s my pleasure today to begin this conversation.

My first picture book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, was published in 2000, and my first novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name, followed in 2001 (both from HarperCollins).

Of late I’m looking forward to the release of my upcoming realistic YA novel, Hearts Unbroken, from Candlewick in January 2019. It’ll be my fifteenth book in a career that’s included both the Tantalize series and the Feral trilogy (Candlewick 2007-2015) as well as additional picture books, a chapter book, numerous short stories, creative nonfiction essays and, most recently, poetry.

As a forty-something author, I have no plans to retire anytime soon—if ever. But of late, I’ve noticed that I’m now the longest-published author at most book festivals. Even at mega-slate conferences, it’s easy for me to quickly tick off those who were active in my early days.

Why? Why–in just under two decades–would the field turn over to such an extreme degree?

Demographics and industry culture played a role.

When I started out, publishers seemed reluctant to take chances on new voices. And in the pre-Potter industry, there wasn’t the widespread idea that writing for young readers was a viable and attainable career path (or at least one with the potential to generate a livable income).

Consequently, fewer younger people were pursuing it.

As a GenXer, I also entered the field as a shockingly young writer by the standards of the day.

I knew only a couple of published authors (and only online) who were around my age. The overwhelming majority were at least fifteen years older.

Most were a full generation older.

Now, the pendulum has swung hard the other way.

Both new and young voices are plentiful, but too many fade from the stage after one or two books, including authors who’re much buzzed and—at least at first—seem to have real momentum.

What does that mean for those of us still in the game?

How about for new and up-and-coming voices?

All of this begs the question: What does it take to survive and thrive?

A couple of years ago, children’s-YA author Janni Lee Simner offered her excellent Writing for the Long Haul series.

This is an extension of that conversation, centered more on the rapid and ongoing changes in the publishing industry and how they affect us all.

Please indulge me as I answer the questions that I passed on to other established voices who’re soon to chime in.

Reflecting on your personal author’s journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Early on, the biggest challenge was that I was writing contemporary Native fiction, rooted in Story rather than as an exercise in thinly veiled social studies.

I was writing with the assumption that #ownvoices readers—young Native readers—would be in the audience. And I cared about them, too. In fact, given a content-sensibility choice, I prioritized them over other readers. Including non-Indian editors and gatekeepers.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Native literary voices were few, and the wider world wasn’t really interested in changing that. I had a librarian tell me without blinking, “We don’t need you. We already have Joseph Bruchac.”

Joe, who is Abenaki, is a treasure–talented, knowledgeable, dedicated and remarkably prolific. But one Native voice was enough? (At the time, Joe himself was working to empower more Native voices and get their work out into the world, and he’s still a tireless advocate.)

Yes, there were a few more Native voices out there—like Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (Lakota) and Michael Lacapa (Apache-Tewa-Hopi), and while they were rightly celebrated, The Powers That Be weren’t paying nearly enough attention to them either. Put mildly, it was frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong. My early Native books didn’t fare badly. They were critically acclaimed. They’re all still in print today.

For Rain Is Not My Indian Name, I was named a writer of the year in (children’s-YA) from Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Illustrators.

But a lot of non-Indian people didn’t seem to know what to make of those titles. They weren’t historicals. They weren’t designed to teach white kids and that’s it. They dared to feature diversity within Indian Country, including urban Indians and Black Indians.

Post publication, it was easier to sell a powwow picture book than a novel set in an intertribal community and, in turn, that was easier to sell than a chapter book set in the city. Most retail buyers and gatekeepers preferred their Native characters in feathers. My initial sales figures declined from book to book. Meanwhile, the so-called multicultural boom of the late 1990s had gone bust. A major trade house marketing pro said to me, “Multiculturalism is dead. We tried it and it didn’t work.”

I also was feeling pigeon-holed. I wanted to write Native fiction—then and forever—but I had other stories to tell, too. And so, I did.

I’m a huge speculative fiction geek. Consequently, I shifted gears and began writing Gothic fantasy, right before the boom in paranormal fiction hit. I was accidentally on trend. There was a crossover audience from there to my Tantalize series, and then I shifted to fantasy-adventure for the Feral trilogy that spun off it.

The books still featured diverse characters, gender empowerment and social justice themes, but they were more commercial. The cast included some Native secondary characters and content because it was set in (sort of) this world and we are still here.

Basically, I embraced my wider interests and reinvented.

(Something I’ve noticed in my peers who’ve endured—many of them have reinvented themselves, too.)

Along the way, I contributed to numerous anthologies. I wrote short stories, creative nonfiction and poetry.

That forced me to stretch artistically and introduced my writing to a wider audience. It was a continuing education in craft. It also positioned my byline alongside fellow contributors and steadily raised my profile. It kept my name out there in the in-between-books years.

Now, I have persevered long enough to return to Native contemporary fiction in my next YA novel.

Though progress is still needed and uneven, Children’s-YA publishing is finally starting to become a little more diversity friendly and inclusive. I’m more hopeful now. When it comes to the diversity conversation, this isn’t my first rodeo. But it feels different this time.

It’s heartening, more fraught with emotion. The pushback from detractors is so much harder and more fierce, I think, because the stakes are high and the gains are real.

What did I do right along the way?

I decided to:

  • Commit to my ongoing education in the craft of writing.
  • Teach others. The necessity of repeatedly articulating various concepts, considerations and techniques allows me to better access and apply them myself.
  • Keep reading. A working writer’s knowledge of the field should be refreshed on a regular basis.
  • Commit to community. Friends offer support and perspective that I pay back and forward. They also bolster the positive reinforcement for my writing life.
  • Stay flexible. Especially if I’m pushing the creative envelope, I need to keep in mind that “not now” isn’t the same as “never.” And I can help faciliate positive change. In the meantime, write something else, something that heightens my skillset to be ready for whatever comes next.
  • Appreciate and work with the home team(s). For me, that translates to Austin SCBWI, the Writers’ League of Texas, Curtis Brown Ltd. and VCFA.

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?

I’ve alluded to the changes in author demographics, the ebb and flow of enthusiasm for diversity and inclusion. What else stands out? In the post-Potter world, children’s-YA publishing is a much bigger business. There’s a feeling that there’s money to be made in it, and a lot has flowed from that.

When I started out, I could name the few children’s-YA literary agents on my fingers. Authors were still debating whether representation was necessary at all. Now, I’m always hearing of new agents—some of whom don’t last long—and editors occasionally move into that role and back again.

I’ve worked with independent publicists—with my publishers’ blessings—to supplement their efforts and mine (I recommend Blue Slip Media). I’m blessed to be represented by a top-notch events agent, Carmen Oliver at The Booking Biz.

Compare that to my early days, wherein a well-established author said to me, “All you have to do—or can do—is school visits, but it’s really easy to stay in print that way.”

Fellow VCFA faculty at Sarducci’s in Montpelier, Vt.

In terms of craft, we have more MFA programs in writing for young readers and other opportunities for serious study.

I’m a faculty member on the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

We were the first fully dedicated graduate program on the scene. Now, there are over a dozen.

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

Beginning Writer, Cyn! Celebrate!

Embrace the experience and, along the way, continue to prioritize the writing itself. I mentioned stretching across age markets, genres and formats. Continue to learn, grow and take on new writing styles. Your art and career will both benefit from it.

It’s a huge adjustment, going from apprentice to published author-ambassador. Your creative time, heart, and goals may evolve, but writing should stay firmly at (or at least near) the top of your list. That doesn’t mean you must write every day or you must finish a certain number of words or pages. It means that of all the hats you wear, make sure you stay steadfastly in the habit of reaching for the one labeled “Writer.”

Be your own best cheerleader and fold into your heart the voices that lift you up. If you can learn from a critical remark, by all means, gratefully embrace that opportunity. But realize that positivity is ultimately what will fuel your forward journey. Nobody but you has the power to force you out of this field. Be affirmatively flexible. Too many writers talk themselves out of success.

News flash: All writing counts as writing. If you’re writing a speech or an article or answering interview questions, you’re still writing. Don’t count only the books and short creative pieces published, as though you’re above truly valuing or being fulfilled by anything else. Those audiences matter, too.

Supporting my local indie bookstore, BookPeople in Austin!

And, by the way, a lot of perfectly fine writers build their careers on that sort of thing. A lot of them who’re better at the craft than you are.

So, no whining about the day-job writing this career requires. It is a priviledge and opportunity to share and grow that way, too.

That said, you can do more than write. You can mentor and advocate. If you’re worried about, say, the dearth of Native voices or the lack of attention to them, make the effort to help facilitate change. And do so consistently.*

Beyond that, speak your truth to others with kindness and stand up for yourself and your friends when necessary. But forgive readily and work through whatever conflicts, if you can. Yes, there are hard-fought moments at the children’s-YA lit dinner table. But we are all still a family. A community.

We share a commitment to quality books for young readers, even if we don’t always agree on how to get there. Yes, sadly, there are people who  may not be worth your time and effort, who won’t change for the better. So what. They don’t define who you are. Call me an optimist, but I believe in our potential for excellent youth literature across the board. I believe in the kids. I believe in us.

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

I wish that we would let Story guide marketing rather than vice versa. Enough with the exhausting overwriting in middle grade and YA. Yes, more avid readers buy books than reluctant ones. But our duty is to kids—all kids—more than to the quick formula to a buck.

New release! Honored to have contributed!

If we don’t write lean, we’ll lose all but the most committed readers and give up on converts entirely.

On the flip side, brevity in a picture book can be genius or—if forced—feel like we’re simply sneezing product.

The book needs to be as long as it needs to be.

I wish that beginning “diverse” writers—defined broadly—
will be welcomed at every stage, that they won’t have to navigate so many micro (and macro) aggressions along the way. I would love for a whole month to pass without a Native writer or writer of color telling me they don’t feel safe sharing in their own critique groups.

I wish that we were all more appreciative of the global conversation of books, both within our own countries and around the planet. Embracing diversity from region to region and across borders of all kinds.

I wish that we’ll all gain an appreciation of the voices who came before us, where our own work fits into the larger conversation of youth literature, and the need to nurture future generations of writers—the kids who’re reading our books now.

And by the way, I wish everyone has terrific mental and physical health and health insurance and more financial security. Because, at the risk of stating the obvious, the first condition of surviving as an active publishing writer is surviving–period.

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

I hope that I’ll always be at least as courageous as I am today.

Cynsational Notes

* I’m thrilled by the increase of Native and First Nations voices–newcomers like Traci Sorell (Cherokee), Daniel Vandever (Navajo), Eric Gansworth (Onondaga), ever-rising stars like Tim Tingle (Choctaw) and Richard Van Camp (Dogrib), and luminaries like Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mounain Band of Chippewa) and Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki)–among many more.

I’m also  honored to participate on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books.

At BookPeople in Austin, Texas.

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.

Tantalize-Feral Verse 10-Year Anniversary

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Happy 10th birthday, Sanguini’s!

The Tantalize series features YA Gothic fantasy novels in both prose and graphic formats. These stories, set in the Tantalize-Feral universe, are suspenseful with high action and include romantic elements as well as some humor.

The first novel was released in 2007.

The Feral trilogy is a spin-off of the Tantalize series. The books are set in the same universe and feature many
overlapping characters and settings.

The Tantalize heroes appear and/or are mentioned in Feral Pride, which caps all nine books.

The novels are centered on a fictional restaurant, Sanguini’s, located on South Congress Avenue in Austin.

I began working on first book, which had a working title of “Brad: The Impaler” in 2000. The original concept behind all the books is that the events in Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula (1897) are loosely based on truth and my stories take a look at how that legacy manifests in present day.

They’re set in an international multi-monster verse, populated with vampires, a variety of shapeshifters, angels, ghosts, demons, faerie, and more.

Both series are originally published in the U.S./Canada by Candlewick Press and in the U.K. by Walker. Various other editions are available around the globe.

#PubForPR: Publishing for Puerto Rico

Compiled by Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The Publishing for Puerto Rico charity auction will feature more than 250 book- and writing-related items that may be bid upon to benefit hurricane relief efforts.

These include an Author Website and Social Media Evaluation from me, author Cynthia Leitich Smith. The package includes a one-page evaluation of current status, highlights and opportunities, followed by email Q&A exchange or half-hour phone consult (the latter available for U.S. residents only). The opening bid figure is $75.

The auction will begin at 9 a.m. Eastern Oct. 2 and end at 10 p.m. Eastern Oct. 5. Money raised will go to United For Puerto Rico and ConPRmetidos.

In the video, author Lily Meade explains the auction process and offers more information about the designated charities.