New Voice: Liara Tamani on Calling My Name

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Liara Tamani is the debut author of Calling My Name (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2017). From the promotional copy:

This unforgettable novel tells a universal coming-of-age story about Taja Brown, a young African American girl growing up in Houston, Texas, and it deftly and beautifully explores the universal struggles of growing up, battling family expectations, discovering a sense of self, and finding a unique voice and purpose.

Told in fifty-three short, episodic, moving, and iridescent chapters, Calling My Name follows Taja on her journey from middle school to high school. 

Literary and noteworthy, this is a beauty of a novel that deftly captures the multifaceted struggle of finding where you belong and why you matter.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I started writing Calling My Name to explore and heal the wounds of my teenage self. 

Like Taja, the protagonist of Calling My Name, I grew up in a very loving and religious family. My family was always in church—Bible study, choir rehearsal, Sunday services, Vacation Bible School, Church conventions—you name it, we were there. Also like Taja, I had a lot of doubts and questions about religion but quickly learned that I wasn’t supposed to have these doubts and questions, that their presence meant I might not be saved. So I dealt with them internally, fighting against the fear of hell, which was very real to me at the time. 
And when I became sexually active in my later teenage years, my fears were compounded by guilt and shame. Let me tell you, it wasn’t fun.

While Calling My Name is not my story, it was definitely born out of my experience. And I wanted to share my truth, to give voice to the struggle of sexual shame and guilt (which a lot of teenagers deal with, especially girls), and to speak to the terrifying experience of departing from one’s family and community teachings to find one’s own way.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

Because Calling My Name is written in vignettes, I mostly studied novels that were composed of interrelated vignettes and short stories. 

I read any short-story cycle or novel-in-vignettes I could get my hands on, but my favorites were The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros ( Arte Público Press, 1984), Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (Harper & Brothers, 1953), and Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997). I loved the lyricism, economy of language, voice, and characterization in these books. I love their liberated story structures. 
I studied their linking devices and transition techniques. These books taught me how to construct relationships between my vignettes and stories in order to connect them and move the larger story forward. 
They taught me how to take the images, observations, ideas, and threads of dialogue in my individual vignettes and stories and expand them within the larger social, cultural, and emotional context of my book.

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

I wrote Calling My Name during my MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I started the first piece at the very end of my first semester, fell in love with the voice, and spent the next year and a half adding to the novel piece by piece. Upon graduation, I had a finished, polished book. I didn’t plan it that way, but I was very fortunate to have it happen that way.

It was great to have each new chapter of my novel critiqued every month by an adviser. It was also nice to be able to dedicate the critical analysis part of the program to studying books and techniques that would help me write Calling My Name. And the structure and discipline of the MFA program was invaluable. I don’t think I would have written Calling My Name so fast without the deadlines.

Obviously, an MFA isn’t essential to becoming a fiction writer. There are so many paths, but this one was the right one for me. And one of the best things about the program is the lifelong community of writers it creates. 

I can’t tell you how much inspiration and support I’ve received by being connected to the VCFA community. And that inspiration and support has been vital to me through all parts of my publication journey.

Dream Keepers YA Authors Panel with Renée Watson, Nic Stone,
Liara Tamani, Jacqueline Woodson, Ibi Zoboi, and Vashti Harrison 

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

Taja is a young African-American girl, and her culture is on full display in this book; it’s embedded in the story. Some issues with race come up because race is always a factor for black people, and I wanted to be honest about the ways it’s a factor in Taja’s life. 

One issue involves the time when the neighborhood families of Taja’s white friends move away when the neighborhood starts becoming too black. Another issue surrounds the hard time Taja has with the new black girls at school who thinks she talks too white.

These issues are present, but they aren’t the focus. While books that explicitly deal with America’s race problem are very important (especially in these times), books that remind readers that black people and people of color have more than race problems, that we are whole human beings, with the whole spectrum of human problems and human joys are equally as important. 

Taja is African-American, but she is also just a teenage girl who is trying to figure out her path in life—a human experience so many of us can identify with.
Cynsational Notes

Booklist gave Calling My Name a starred review, “An excellent portrayal of African American culture, gorgeous lyrical prose, strong characters, and societal critique make Tamani’s debut a must-read.”

Liara Tamani lives in Houston, Texas with her daughter.

She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College and a BA from Duke University.

Read about how illustrator Vashti Harrison designed the cover for Calling My Name at Epic Reads. 

Survivors: Nancy Werlin on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing YA Author

Learn more about Nancy Werlin.

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?

I apologize in advance, because this is a big question and I have a lot to say. This isn’t a topic that can be reduced to a few pithy lines—at least, not yet, and not by me.

I don’t know that I have advice, exactly. I have experience to share, though.

I published my first YA novel in 1994. I just now in 2017 published my tenth novel, and I feel like I’m halfway through the career I plan and hope to have. Yes, I want a 50 year career.

During the first half, I’ve watched many other writers’ careers grow and change. I’ve also watched many writers’ careers disappear. The disappeared are usually good writers and sometimes their books were great. Some were lauded and won prizes. Some were on bestseller lists. Some got startlingly large advances. Some had publishers who were ecstatic about them; sent them on tours; poured marketing money upon them. But none of those “wins” were necessarily predictive of a long career.

With shocking, terrifying speed, one year’s darling could become “Who?”

This was true even when a writer’s craft got better and better over time . . . sometimes the audience simply would not follow; sometimes the publisher found newer fish to fry. Whatever.

Often there was no rational explanation. Things change.

That’s life.

There’s a computer programming class I took in college, in a bizarre coding language called APL that required you to think in multiple dimensions.

The professor said to us, “Look to your left. Now look to your right. Only one of the three of you will still be here by the end of this course.” (I wasn’t, by the way. I didn’t care enough about APL to fight, to learn.)

My point is that being a writer with a long career requires you to develop multi-dimensional thinking and planning and—both inside your soul and outside in the world—to fight for it.

When I look at the writers who are still here, those with a ten-year career or better, I find them to be determined and adaptive and persistent and lucky—by which I mean both that they’ve had some genuine random luck, but also that they have figured out how to make their own luck when things didn’t go their way.

(An aside about genuine random luck—I believe that if you stick with it, some luck with find you. It probably won’t be the luck you expected and it won’t arrive when you expected or for the book you expected—but it’ll show up. Sometime. Eventually.)

Moving on to discuss what I mean by fighting.

Nancy at her day job.

I believe you need to have a good financial plan for living. Different people come up with different solutions. I’ve kept a day job this whole time (as a technical writer at a software company), which gives me financial flexibility and choice; it means that money from publishing does not rule me or constrain my choices.

(My corporate overlord does rule me, but that is the choice I have made and I did it with my eyes open. Some people couldn’t stand to do this. For me, it’s easy.)

I do not see many successful long-term writers who aren’t pragmatic about money. If they didn’t start out that way, they become that way, simply because multiple years at it either teaches you to adapt, or wears you out. “Do what you love, and the money will follow” turns out to be—at best—incomplete advice. Long-term writers figure out–sometimes kicking and screaming and unhappy about it—how to make it work financially.

I have found that the only stable thing in the writer’s life is your desire to tell stories. Beyond that, you have to take responsibility for yourself and for your choices if you are to survive.

Often, you have to make choices when you’re blind to their ultimate impact, because you will be affected later by random and uncontrollable factors that change the results of your choices.

Your publisher fails or is acquired. Your editor leaves to have a baby and never comes back. Your husband loses his steady job with the health insurance. You have to get a new agent. Family illness means you can’t write for a while. The list of things you can’t foresee goes on and on. Among them are delightful things too, by the way. Life, again.

But even though there’s a lot you can’t foresee, but there are yet some things you can take action on—and you need to be in charge of those things.

Mostly, your control is about your own self. I believe that a writer has to face the facts about who she is—about the kind of work she does, about her process, about her reception in the world, about the ways in which she grows her craft, about what makes her happy in life, about her financial reality, about her family situation, about what she’s willing to stand up for and fight for, and about what is not worth fighting about.

She must understand the structure of her own self and work with it—similarly to the way you’d work to write a sonnet within the limitations of its defined form. You cannot be who you are not. You must make the very best of who you are.

My husband Jim McCoy, who’s a life coach, calls this “Playing the You game.”

Who am I, creatively? I write one book at a time, slowly, sometimes painfully, and only with regard to what story is pulling at me—which is usually something that is thematically personal.

I always struggle to find time (yes, my day job cuts me here), mental space, and faith to write and revise, over the three-to-four years that each book takes. A salesperson at my publisher told me recently that she liked that I “never borrowed from myself” from one book to the next. I had never thought of this before, and while I think it’s true, I must add that I see there has been a cost to this approach, in an industry where many publishers and readers are eager to see a new book from an author in a few months, not a few years.

But still, this is who I am. My creative rhythm isn’t in synch with the market, and neither is my compulsion to write individual rather than series books.

(I just mentioned that my day job cuts me in terms of time. But it saves me, too, because I don’t have to finish a book too soon in order to receive a check.)

In terms of managing a bumpy career, I have to say: What long-term career is not bumpy? None.

That said, in mine, I have had an extraordinarily spectacular piece of luck: my editor, Lauri Hornik. She was an assistant editor at Houghton Mifflin when she bought my first novel. She has published every book since, and she is now President and Publisher at Dial.

Lauri is creative, smart, and sane; I trust her taste and her heart and her advice and her leadership. She kept me over the years, and I have kept her. This means that her presence has softened the bumps. Sometimes my books have sold well for her, and sometimes they have not. Sometimes my books have gotten raves from the critics; sometimes they have gotten pans.

I haven’t had to walk this path alone.

I don’t know what the future holds. I have seen many good writers be “let go” by their publishers, and many good editors lose their jobs, and many other things happen in our industry, so I can’t take my partnership with Lauri for granted.

What I do know is that I will fight for it.

Ginger Knowlton

What does that mean? It means that I work to keep our lines of communication open; I will take an active role in discussing business matters directly with Lauri rather than stepping back to let my agent handle it, especially when the topic is sensitive (yes, money).

To further manage the bumps, I try to divide my creative soul from my business soul.

For that, another long-term relationship has been vital, with my agent, Ginger Knowlton. But I need my agent to handle business, not creative issues—and as I said below, I still keep my hand in on business issues. I am a person who needs whatever control I can get. I honor that need.

All of this makes me suddenly realize something: That my long-term career has been full of long-term relationships, period. This also means my long-term friendships with other writers who are on this same path of sustaining a writing life through the downs and ups. I work hard to keep up these relationships and to keep friendships alive.

Being a good friend and having good friends is important to me.

Lastly—and I’ve gone on a while, eh?—you asked about bumps to the heart. My heart is a road full of potholes and cement patches. But I work to remember the good things that have happened, the readers who have appreciated my stories and my own delight in them.

But I need to be careful. I have learned to keep my head down when I’m writing a book and also after I’ve published it, and to obey this rule above all: to love my book and to honor who I am and what I have achieved.

This means that I do not compare myself to others. For example—being truthful—I used to almost enjoy beating myself up with the specter of Laurie Halse Anderson. I would say to myself: “Laurie works harder than you! Laurie is more gifted than you! Etc.”

A few years ago, I confided in Laurie that I did this. She was horrified, and having that conversation helped heal me. I suddenly saw how wrong it was to use the avatar of another writer as a way to punish myself for my perceived shortcomings. Wrong and unfair, to me and to her. Her heart is as pockmarked as mine. She is not on some pedestal of achievement. She is a real person.

Everyone is.

But as I think about my heart, what I come back to is how much I love creating stories, and how important I think stories are. Lots and lots of different stories.

There’s a sort of fable I tell myself. I imagine that a single reader has picked up one of my books for free at the city dump. The book has lost its cover and front matter, so that there’s no sign of my name anywhere. The reader reads the book. The reader loves the book—for a while, it’s her favorite and her friend. She never knows who I am, and I never know about her. And let’s suppose further that this is the only reader there ever is, for that book. Let’s say that nobody else ever liked it. But for this one reader, for whatever reason, this was the book.

In terms of my purpose in the world, this has to be enough.

And in terms of my inner creative life, the joy I get from persisting on my storytelling path, and my knowledge that I am honing my craft, has to be enough, too.

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

It’s not that I think I have made no mistakes. I believe I have. But I can’t see very clearly down any other paths I might have taken. Sometimes I do wonder about what would have happened if I’d quit my job and thrown myself emotionally at the job of making a living from writing, without a regular paycheck. Would I have found a way to write faster? Would I have taken on work-for-hire projects that would have surprised me by being delightful to work on? Would I have decided to be a teacher?

But when I think about that Nancy, she isn’t me. I say of myself, “I can’t let go of the side of the pool.” I am a conservative manager of my life. I have been playing the Nancy game as best I can.

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?

Many, many, many more books are published in the YA field now than previously. It used to be that perhaps there were twenty debut authors a season, tops. Now, there are dozens.

This means that in the world of traditional publishing, there are even more bodies by the side of the road than there used to be. There’s more competition. This means publishers expect more failures—they account for it upfront, and in most cases, they don’t care too much if it’s you. They move on.

But there is also more opportunity. One change I absolutely love is the rise of indie publishing. It’s wonderful to have the option of complete control over your work. I used to say: Nobody can ever stop me from writing. Now I can add: Nobody can ever stop me from publishing.

Even though traditional publishing works for me now, it gives me enormous pleasure to see the freedom that is possible if you are an indie writer. I notice especially how empowering this has been for romance writers.

The other big changes are how visible and accessible both writers and readers are today, with social media. Social media pressure can have huge impact on a writer’s career, for good and for ill.

Honestly, I don’t know how to judge this. I don’t have time in my life to participate in social media, and I don’t even know how to follow a conversation on Twitter. I see things I love happen out there sometimes, and I see things that make me quail. I don’t have any wise analysis about it, though. I just don’t know enough. Someone else will have much better analysis on this big issue.

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

I’m going back (predictably) to money. Work to get your financial house in order so that you can have a long career. Don’t indulge in magical thinking. Don’t decide that being an artist means you can be irresponsible about money.

Take care of yourself.

Use both sides of your brain.

Make lots of friends! And Nancy?

Get a little more exercise.

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

New suspense-thriller–now available!

I wish for a publishing environment that gives writers less stress and less fear.

I wish for all to have sufficient time to write each book the way they want to write it, without feeling as rushed and as scared as I sense writers feel in the current climate.

 But even as I write that wish, I suspect I’m thinking back to a time that never really was . . . that writers have always felt rushed and anxious. And that we always will.

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

To write each book slowly and carefully, until I am fully satisfied with it.

To grow my craft with each one, trying new things, loving the work.

To have Lauri publish them and have Ginger do the contracts.

To turn then to the next story.

To go on working alongside my writer friends, both the old ones like you, and the new ones that come into my life and delight me.

To always find the time and space somehow to write, even as the world outside does what it does, and even as my life changes as it does.

My home is where I am.

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.

Book Trailer: Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos by Monica Brown, iIllustrated by John Parra

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos by Monica Brown, illustrated by John Parra (NorthSouth, 2017). From the promotional copy:

The fascinating Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is remembered for her self-portraits, her dramatic works featuring bold and vibrant colors. 

Her work brought attention to Mexican and indigenous culture and she is also renowned for her works celebrating the female form.

Brown’s story recounts Frida’s beloved pets—two monkeys, a parrot, three dogs, two turkeys, an eagle, a black cat, and a fawn—and playfully considers how Frida embodied many wonderful characteristics of each animal.

New Cynsations Reporter Traci Sorell

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Traci Sorell joins the Cynsations team as a reporter covering children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators.

Traci writes fiction and nonfiction for children featuring contemporary characters and compelling biographies for the trade and educational markets. She has been an active member of SCBWI since August 2013.

In April 2016, Charlesbridge acquired her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, from the slush pile. It will be published on September 18, 2018.

The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She grew up in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is a first-generation college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

She also has a Master’s degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. Previously, she taught at the University of North Dakota School of Law and the University of New Mexico.

She also worked as an attorney assisting tribal courts nationwide, advocated for national Native American health care, and directed a national nonprofit serving American Indian and Alaska Native elders. She now lives in the Kansas City area and is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram @tracisorell.

Cynsational Notes

Traci’s Reading Chair

Why I Speak Out? by Traci Sorell from Edith Campbel at CrazyQuiltEdi. Peek:

 “…there is an education process that must happen with many editors, art directors, agents and other publishing industry staff, who, like most people in this country, know little about Native/First Nations sovereignty, culture and people. 

“Thankfully in my experience thus far, everyone I’ve worked with has been hungry to learn and has been open to my feedback and that of others in the Native community featured in my stories.”

Cynsational News

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

Picture Book Month: “Every day in November, there is a new post from a picture book champion,” explaining why they think picture books are important. This initiative was founded by author-storyteller Diane de Las Casas, who died earlier this year and is dearly missed.

See 2017 posts by Picture Book Month champions (and more to come!):

Author/Illustrator Interviews

Jane Kurtz and Planet Jupiter by Adi Rule from the VCFA Launch Pad. Peek:

“I’m constantly learning new craft skills. When I was revising Planet Jupiter (HarperCollins, 2017), it was the concept of microtension (including the book The Fire in Fiction [by Donald Maass, Writer’s Digest Books, 2009]) that handed out some great advice about how to make the reader uneasy and curious.”

Five Questions for Malinda Lo by Katie Bircher from The Horn Book. Peek:

“I find it interesting that authors of fantasy and science fiction novels are rarely asked if their books are based on their personal experiences, because all writing is based on personal experience.”

Member Interview: Lynn Rowe Reed from Austin SCBWI. Peek:

“I think my stubborn perseverance and work ethic are the things I’m most proud of. We all know how daunting the task of publishing is, and those of us who refuse to quit are definitely tough.”


Zetta on why Nice Is Not Enough

There Is a Minefield and You Will Become a Demolitions Expert by Justina Ireland from CrazyQuiltEdi. Note: On women of color (and, by extention, Native women) raising their voices, however forcefully or gently, in the conversation of books for young readers. Peek:

“It doesn’t really matter what you’re talking about, your words will be catalogued, critiqued, dismissed. People may smile and nod but what they’re really doing is considering their own opinion and response, their feelings over yours.”

See also When Women Speak: “Nice Is Not Enough” from Zetta Elliott and Laura Atkins at CrazyQuiltEdi. Note: Click links on preceding names to read. Peek from Laura:

“As a White person who has made an effort to listen to POC friends about their experiences, and also taken part in an equity circle at my daughter’s school, I’ve experienced a shift as I’ve just started to recognize what White privilege is, how my life is defined by it, and how differently POC move through, and are treated by, our society. 

“Mostly, I’m aware of how much I don’t know.”

Tips for Choosing Culturally Appropriate Books & Resources About Native Americans by Dr. Cathy Gutierrez-Gomez from Colorín Colorado. Peek:

“Prepare units about specific tribes, rather than units about ‘Native Americans.’ …Ideally, choose a tribe with a historical or contemporary role in the local community. Such a unit will provide children with culturally specific knowledge (pertaining to a single group) rather than over-generalized stereotypes.”

Why Is Society Intent on Erasing Black People in Fantasy and Sci-fi’s Imaginary Worlds? by Ashley Nkadi from The Root. Peek:

“In these fictional worlds, anything could happen: magic, dragons, travel through space and time. Anything, that is, except diversity. The more I read and watched the genres, the more I felt just the way I had at school. As if I did not belong.”

Reading Recs for Classics by Amanda Rawson Hill from Thinking Through Our Fingers. Peek:

“While there is something to be said with having students read books that they will be expected to know, we also need to continue to expand that list of books and bring it into the 21st century with relevant topics and diverse authors and characters.”

“As a Sappony person, I’ve done a lot of stereotype busting in the schools. Instruction is driven not just by data, but also by popular literature, resources, and what people think they know, and when those concepts are inaccurate and full of stereotypes, so is the instruction and hence, the learning.”

Writing Craft

Pantser, Revised from Janet Fox. Peek:

“I needed to understand deeper motivation and theme, I had to expand my character analysis, and I wanted to be certain that the plot was not only clear but also included the twists and turns that I love to incorporate in my stories. So I wrote a ‘treatment.’ It’s the kind of thing that filmmakers write as they are about to begin storyboarding.”

Writing a Memoir by Sophie Masson from Writer unBoxed. Peek:

“Memoir is written usually in subjective first person; but you need the third-person objective eye, too, if it is to communicate to readers and succeed as a work of art.”

Writing Active Character Reaction by Mary Kole from Kid Lit. Peek:

“The most compelling protagonists not only move action forward, but they remain plugged into the action as it progresses. They act on the plot, and react to the plot, in other words. They are…wait for it…proactive and reactive protagonists.”


Three Keys to Selling a Children’s Picture Book Biography by Michael Mahin from Writers Digest. Peek:

“The trick to structuring a picture book biography, and all nonfiction for that matter, is being true to historical events while making sure the story stakes escalate in a way that builds to some sort of satisfying climax.”

Unpublished Writers and Websites: Should You Have One and What Should It Say? by Jane Friedman from her blog. Peek:

“Your website serves as an online home and hub for everything that you do, whether in real life or in the digital realm. You fully own and control it, tell your own story, and connect directly with the media, readers or influencers.”

The PW Publishing Industry Salary Survey 2016 by Jim Milliot from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“In 2015, men earned an average of $96,000, compared to an average of $61,000 for women. Furthermore, 72 percent of men reported that they earned $70,000 or more compared to only 41 percent of women.” See also Writing Under a Male Name Makes You Eight Times More Likely to Get Published by Jess Denham from The Independent.


Congratulations to Robin Benway, winner of the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature! Watch the 2017 Finalists’ Readings from the National Book Foundation.

See Robin Benway Wins 2017 National Book Award by Rocco Staino from School Library Journal. Peek:

“Asked about inspiration by one of the teens, Benway said that she got the idea for Far From the Tree from a song lyric. While sitting in a Costco parking lot, she was listening to ‘Cosmic Love’ by Florence + the Machine. ‘A falling star fell from your heart and landed in my eyes’ became the spark for her story.”

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

Greetings from Georgia!

I dearly hope to see some of you today and tomorrow in conjunction with Savannah Children’s Book Festival.

Last week’s highlight was “An Evening with the Authors,” hosted by Friends of Northside Libraries at Harlan High School in San Antonio.

It was an author speed-dating style event, in which paired author moved from table to table of book enthusiasts (heavy on the writer-teacher-librarian community) to briefly offer an overview of our work and answer questions.

Every year, I try to do a couple of local-ish literary events that are wholly about supporting school and public libraries. I highly encourage my fellow national trade published authors to consider doing the same.

I loved meeting so many enthusiastic book lovers and reconnecting with fellow authors-illustrators like Mari Mancusi, Tracy Deebs, Greg Leitich Smith, Joy Fisher Hein, and Jessica Lee Anderson.

More Personally – Gayleen

I had a fantastic weekend at the Austin SCBWI Novel Writing Retreat!

Huge thanks to Samantha Clark and P.J. Hoover for organizing the event and to agent Natalie Lakosil and editor Deirdre Jones for sharing their insights! I left excited and energized with a fresh start on my projects.

And then, on Wednesday evening, my daughter, Anna Langthorn, was interviewed by Rachel MaddowDemocrats Feeling New Energy, Flipping Seats in Red Oklahoma.

Personal Links – Cynthia

Personal Link – Robin

Survivors: Joy Preble on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Joy Preble, Heather Demetrios & Renee Watson at Texas Book Festival.

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, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Ha! Oh the bumps. So many bumps. Some have been the things that no author can control, such as an editor leaving in the middle of a project.

With the Dreaming Anastasia series (Sourcebooks, 2009-2012), I had four different editors over a three-book series. As you can imagine, this kind of turnover is no one’s friend, and not only because subsequent editors have to work with a series they didn’t acquire and that probably isn’t a good match for their tastes.

It also meant that the only true continuity editor for the three-book saga was me. The first book had been an unplanned breakout–this extremely miraculous event that came from a combination of timing, luck, and an in-house publicist who happened to like me and decided to work very, very hard and savvy with me and on my behalf.

Thus, book one sold very well and is still the book for which I’m best known.

The initial plans for book two were focused and big. But when the publicist left just as book two was coming out, all those plans basically fell apart or didn’t materialize, and so I had to figure out how to keep promoting the series in the ways I felt would be best.

With Jenny Moss & Jennifer Ziegler at the Texas Library Association con.

I realized that I could either moan about it all or try to do something. Make my own luck, my own connections. It wasn’t perfect, but it kept me in the game.

We all know the truth. It’s tough to make any book a success without consistent and substantive publisher support.

So much of what gets books noticed starts happening a year or more before publication and continues its game plan right up to publication.

All those conference and book festival pitches, all that print promo, those personal notes to booksellers, the ads and the media whatevers, they add up.

Without that support, it’s a trickier thing.

Trickier being a euphemism for “good luck to you.”

So I built my own support system with authors and librarians and booksellers. Because I might not be able to get that broader publicity, but I could still get my name and my books out there.

This took many forms. I pitched panels and workshops to the numerous regional school librarian conferences around Texas, both individually and with fellow authors. I attended and networked at SCBWI conferences not only in Houston but also in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and more.

I went to TLA each year, sometimes paid for by publishers, sometimes paid for by me.

I supported other authors and independent bookstores because this business is about community, about supporting the art and the stories, about being part of the conversation.

I contacted all the Houston YA authors I knew– some debuts, some mid-listers like me, some NYTimes bestsellers and created a loosely structure author co-op we call the YAHOUs (YA Houston), designed to help us signal boost and support and pool our various opportunities.

I said “yes” to as much as I could. I kept at it.

I put my name out there.

I pitched for school visits and did more librarian networking and developed programs to present.

I kept up — and still do–with many of the authors in my 2009 debut class.

I also found my own niche–the things that work for me and my books and my skill set: Presenting workshops on craft and the writer life. School visits that are writing workshops or some hybrid that also includes talking about never giving up and tenacity. Keynote speeches when I get them. Author panels both as participant and moderator.

I have come to grudging terms with the fact that some of the big-name festivals might never be offered to me for a variety of reasons. But many, many are.

Lasting in this business means understanding when to reinvent yourself, when to stick to your brand, and when–to paraphrase that song from “Frozen”–just let something go.

We can’t all be all things, so:

  • Keep your eyes on your paper. 
  • Find your villages. 
  • Be kind. 
  • Be aware of the opportunities that do come your way.

Mostly, I keep writing. That’s been its own bump. After seven books in seven and a half years and a few manuscripts that didn’t sell, I hit a wall with the book I’m finally getting right.

I started over more than once. Gave up the notion that it would be the option book for one of my publishers. Wrote it again. And now I’m writing it one more time.

It’s the book it should be. But it means there will be a gap. I’m trying to be good with that.

Joy on a panel with Mari Mancusi, Jessica Lee Anderson & Madeline Smoot at Brazos Bookstore.

Having a new job at an independent bookstore is helping. I’ve learned much about the industry from this side of things. I’ve been reminded about all the amazing small books by small publishers that are simply brilliant, and it’s an honor to hand-sell these books that otherwise would have little or no noise around them. The push to persist has ultimate always been the same: I can’t imagine my life without writing. I have stories to tell.

And that Dreaming Anastasia series that went through all those editors and all those bumps?

It’s still selling, still being reviewed by readers and amazingly, being referenced in numerous scholarly papers about retellings of Russian fairy tales! They’re still the books I’m best known for. In fact, there’s been talk about repackaging the series. So you just never know.

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

For sure, I would have persisted earlier, as far back as college when I started writing what would have been a YA novel but didn’t ever finish it.

I would have treated writing as a business earlier, although I will say that it was harder to do that in the pre-Internet days, which may or may not be a valid excuse.

I would have sometimes pushed harder to make sure Marketing was defining my books as I wanted them to be defined.

Beyond that, I honestly have no regrets. This journey has been in many ways a miracle. And if that’s overstating things, let me rephrase.

My character Leo in Finding Paris (Balzer + Bray, 2015) says something at the end of the novel that I truly believe– that she understands not everyone gets the life they want.

Of course Leo hopes this won’t be true for her, hopes she can move forward now that she has finally told her devastating truth.

I know I’m lucky to have gotten a chance at the artist’s life I probably should have been living long before I finally realized that’s what I was supposed to do.

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?

Children’s-YA publishing feels much more big deal/dollar driven than it did back when I first signed with an agent and sold my first novel in 2006-2007. Not that money wasn’t a focus.

Publishing is, of course, a business.

But the competition is greater, the desire for debut authors who will break out and make it big with that first book rather than a slower build of a career is much more intense–and it certainly does drive the promotional aspect of things.

In YA literature, there seems to be a large push for signing authors who can be promoted as sort of analogues for their books and I’m not always sure what I think about that. It makes promotion easier. But I worry that it shoehorns certain authors into writing only that one thing and I do believe that at some point, this becomes, at best, formulaic and, at worst, detrimental to their growth as writers.

That being said, I am heartened by the focus on #ownvoices, heartened that in kidlit we are committed to making sure that representation of marginalized groups is done authentically and with the proper nuance and awareness of potential, even if unintended, bias. I am glad for sensitivity readers.

Joy launches The Sweet Dead Life at Blue Willow Bookshop.

In my previous life as a high school English teacher, I was frequently disheartened at curriculum choices that limited, for example, African-American characters to a study of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) and Jewish characters to Night by Elie Wiesel (1956) or Diary of Anne Frank (1947).

“But we’ve got this great unit,” teachers would say. “The students love it.”

And I would have to say, “Yeah. Okay. But listen. If the only books students read about Jews and People of Color focus on those people as victims then what subliminal lesson are we teaching?”

Often I’d be met with blank looks.

So I’m glad to see us collectively working to the write the books that need to be written.

I am glad we are being tough on each other.

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

Have faith in yourself.

Tune out the noise.

Write the stories you need to write. Don’t follow the trends.

Make sure you have critique partners who challenge you and who are the right ones to help you raise the bar.

Remember that once a book is out in the world, it’s no longer yours. Which means that Goodreads is for readers, not for you. Peer at it at your own peril. Remember that sometimes readers will read the book they think it is, not the one you’ve written. Learn what you can from this, but don’t fret.

Keep writing.

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

I will borrow from Cynthia’s own answer to the question: I want Story to be the main focus of books. The focus needs to be on telling the stories you are best able to tell.

Identity needs to be organic to the story and when it’s not, there’s sometimes a fill-in-the-blanks feel that diminishes the power of the story. This is a tough job, that balance.

I’m writing a Jewish character, for example, and I’m Jewish so you’d think easy, right?

But it’s not always easy because that identity is not just about surface things like holidays or food but all the nuances of how this specific Jewish character sees the world.

So how do we make sure editors see all that and then readers? How much should we worry about? And I think at the end of the day, it comes back to making sure we focus on Story first.

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

Most immediately, I want to finish the book I’m working on and move it toward publication. Hopefully that will have happened by the time you read this!

I think that’s enough of a goal for now!

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.

Guest Post: Beth Bacon & Marianne Murphy on Conveying Meaning With Meta Fiction & Concrete Poetry

By Beth Bacon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This is the third post in a series honoring reluctant readers.

Writing conveys a full spectrum of experiences and emotions—but are there limits to what words alone can do? When digging deeper into the building blocks of literacy, you realize that letters and words are more than the ideas the represent. They’re physical entities too. Their shapes and designs can contain meaning.

One way to reach emerging readers is with a visual approach to storytelling. Authors who explore the relationships between words and images have a rich set of tools at their disposal.

Words can have shapes that enhance their meaning. Shapes and symbols can add new ideas to the words on the page.

Young people today are in many ways highly visually literate.

In my work, I use of imagery to help emerging readers make meaning. In this third article in my series for relucant readers I spoke with another author whose work employs visual elements to make meaning, Marianne Murphy. 
Marianne came up against some of the limitations of traditional writing conventions while working on a memoir about her childhood. Murphy turned to concrete poetry to squeeze more meaning out of our alphabet. The result is her new title, Bad Thoughts (Amazon Digital, 2017), which is now available as an ebook. Her unique use of of letters as visuals adds to the mood of the story. Her sentence design contributes to the voice.

Perhaps more authors should take a visual approach to writing. The additional meaning conveyed by the imagery aids emerging readers in their quest for understanding. But more than that, it allows writers to express themselves in new ways.

Marianne Murphy

Beth Bacon: You’ve written a memoir about your struggles with OCD as a child. Why did you choose to use the concrete poetry form to convey the story?

Marianne Murphy: I knew that I wanted to express my experience, because it was a very isolating time period for me and there isn’t a lot of narrative representation of childhood and adolescent OCD. But I was having a really hard time expressing my story in a traditional way, because that linear, logical, structured path is not how I was processing my thoughts at the time. 

I didn’t think people would be able to recognize their own experiences in my story if I forced the story into an uncomfortably linear narrative.

It became clear to me that it had to be visual because some parts of the experience were indescribable through words alone, and I found that the chaos of concrete poetry helped me access and recall a lot of the rawness of the experience. 

The concrete poetry form sometimes utilizes the repetition of words to create a deconstruction of meaning, and I found that repetitiveness naturally reflected how my brain felt during the times when my OCD was really intense. 
Beth Bacon: Visual literacy is the ability to make meaning from images. Stories that present information visually can help emerging readers.

Can you talk about how the visuals in your story make meaning?

Marianne Murphy: One of the first visuals that came out while I was writing was the repeating Y to represent obsessive thoughts. 

It first occurs during the main character’s obsessive prayer, where the word “Sorry” deconstructs, and the Y’s break off and overwhelm the page. 
The sensation of abstract concepts being broken down into meaningless tasks and clouding my focus was one of the most exasperating and indescribable parts of OCD, and for me there wasn’t a clear way to express that sensation through words alone. 
I think some concepts need to be conveyed visually, and some people absolutely find it easier to relate and project their own experience onto a visual narrative.

A page of concrete poetry from Bad Thoughts.

Beth Bacon: You say you weren’t a reluctant reader as a child. What was your relationship with books when you were young? How often did you read, what types of books, and why? Did you perceive your reading habits as different from other kids?

Marianne Murphy:The biggest problem I encountered as a child was a lack of understanding and vocabulary to explain my experience and seek professional help, so abstract and surreal visuals were the only way I could even try to convey what was going on. That is still partially true today.

Beth Bacon: Meta fiction techniques break a book’s conventions. They are any self-referential elements that disrupt the text or boundaries of the book, refer to themselves, invite interactivity, and mock the rules of reading we work so hard to teach. For readers who feel marginalized, meta fiction can be affirming and empowering.

As a child, I used reading to escape from my reality, did you?

Marianne Murphy: I read all the time! For the most part I alternated between very visual, meta picture books like The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales by Jon Scieszka (illustrated by Lane Smith, Viking Press, 1992), and nonfiction like arts-and-crafts books, joke books, and biographies. 

I was really obsessed with Ellen Degeneres’s and Whoopi Goldberg’s adult memoirs, and I was also really drawn to books that were aware of their own structure, like Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School (illustrated by Adam McCauley, HarperCollins, 2003).

Beth Bacon: Books can be powerful allies to kids who feel like outsiders for any reason. There’s something very personal about the relationship between a reader and a book. And meta fiction draws attention to this relationship. 

The Book No One Wants to Read
makes a deal with the reader.
When a book behaves differently in its structure, format, or content, it’s as if the book and the reader make a secret, rebellious pact.

In my new title, The Book No One Wants To Read, the book/narrator makes a deal with the reader: “What if you just sit here and turn my pages and we just goof off? I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.” 

What conventions did you work with while writing Bad Thoughts?

Marianne Murphy: For the most part, I wanted the fiction I read to be very visual and to have a strong word/image connection and balance, and I wanted the nonfiction I read to be strictly technical, structured, and real. 

I noticed that I stayed in the realm of picture books a lot longer than other kids, though my reading level was advanced. 
I didn’t really use reading to escape reality, because due to my obsessions I always felt very isolated from reality. I think I was reading to try to perceive my own reality more clearly.

Beth Bacon: Can you talk about how you wrote this story? Did you write it out in straight sentences first then create the art? Did you sketch the designs from the start? What tools (software programs?) did you use to manipulate the sentences? What were your challenges artistically and technically?

Marianne Murphy: Every page started as a concrete poem! 

I made it entirely in Photoshop without sketching first, and strictly in Times New Roman 12 pt. font, primarily using the pen tool although I made custom brushes of some of the letters so that I could scatter them more easily. 
I made the pages out of order first, sort of just going with my gut to recall the experiences and get everything down that I needed to, and then worked with my advisor Will Alexander at VCFA (Vermont College of Fine Arts) to come up with a good way to order the pages, add a couple transitions, organize the story, and turn the collection into something of a narrative. 
It was very hard to keep the rawness when I was working on something so technical like page design and in such a strict font. I noticed pretty early on that if the page wasn’t literally physically painful to write, then the emotion wasn’t going to come across.

Letters take on new meaning in Bad Thoughts.

Beth Bacon: One theme in your story is the perception of being different from others. The amazing thing is, however, this story brings up universal feelings we all share.

Marianne Murphy: Thank you! The biggest surprise to me after showing this piece to friends and ultimately releasing the book was the fact that people could identify with parts of it or recognize these behaviors in their family members, especially since I’d felt so completely isolated about it for such a huge chunk of my life. 

I think that it’s very hard for people to recognize and own their darker thoughts, let alone express them, but that we find it very cathartic to see those thoughts represented even abstractly in someone else’s work, with a layer of psychic distance. I think the visual elements help create some safe distance, too.

Beth Bacon: Marianne, you’re a writer unafraid to go beyond the conventions of YA novel in order to tell your story. 

Even though I didn’t experience life as Marianne did, I had a deep connection to the characters in Bad Thoughts. I think that’s what happens when an author taps into Truths (with a capital T) we all share. Marianne addresses the Truths about the difficulties and absurdities of learning to be a person in the world. 
In my work, face the Truths about the difficulties and absurdities of learning to decode written English language. We both needed to break the “fourth wall” of writing to express ourselves. The boundaries may be internal or external, but ultimately, the disruption is an act of freedom and hope.

Cynsational Notes

Huge thanks to Beth Bacon for putting together this three-part series focusing on reluctant readers!

Beth Bacon is the author of books for reluctant readers including I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2008, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read, illustrated by Jason Grube and Corianton Hale (Pixel Titles, 2017).

She earned an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Beth has won the VCFA Candlewick Award for Picture Book Writing, the Marion Dane Bauer Award for Middle Grade Writing, and is a PSAMA PULSE Award Finalist for marketing. 

Guest Post: Beth Bacon & Editor Tracey Keevan on Encouraging Reluctant Readers

by Beth Bacon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Editor Tracey Keevan
This is the second post in a series honoring reluctant readers.

Two out of three fourth graders in the United States failed to read with proficiency, according to a 2015 Kids Count survey.

The fundamental skill of reading is not an easy one to master.

Writers, editors and educators need new ways of addressing this humbling fact.

In the second installment of my series about reluctant readers, I ask: What does it take to create a book that appeals to emerging and reluctant readers?

And who better to ask than the editor of some of the most beloved books—among reluctant readers as well as kids who enjoy books. 

Tracey Keevan is an executive editor at Disney-Hyperion. She has worked with a number of best-selling, award-winning authors and illustrators beloved by many struggling readers, including Mo Willems, Dan Santat, Laurie Keller, Charise Mericle Harper, Tony DiTerlizzi, Bryan Collier, and Nate Powell among others.

Tracey herself is an Emmy-nominated writer whose children’s fiction has been featured on Nickelodeon as well as in books and magazines. Tracy’s perspective offers powerful insights into the art of reaching out and appealing to reluctant readers.

Tracey Keevan: Reading a book has always felt a lot like running a race to me. Nervous anxiety hits my gut at the starting line. So far to go. So alone.

So many people who will finish faster, easier, stronger than me.

The first chapter, the first mile, sets that pace. I’m either in the zone, confident and charged, or I’m way out of the zone—struggling through each page, each tenth of a mile, wondering if I can make it to the end. 

Worse: wondering why I’m trying to make it to the end at all. The dreaded Quit Demon starts bouncing up and down on my shoulder: Quit. Quit. Quit.

As an editor of books for kids and teens, I hunt for those “quit moments.” They need to be stomped all over.

Those are the places that make or break a book for reluctant and emerging readers. It’s where the writer—that invisible voice on the sideline—needs to step up and cheer her head off: Go! Go! Go!

Beth Bacon: When creating books for kids who struggle with reading, one can’t assume your audience is going to be an eager one. Humor is one strategy. Every kid loves to laugh.

What writing techniques do you look for?

Tracey Keevan: There is no magic formula, of course. Humor helps. Word choice helps.

So do an active voice, authentic dialogue, relatable characters, and relevant themes. 

But I think the answer is more complex than story mechanics or book format. I think it’s an artist’s respect for the reader (especially the struggling one) that keeps her going. 
  • It’s choosing clarity over cleverness. 
  • It’s about trusting and inviting the reader to share in the storytelling. 
  • It’s about letting the reader know you’re in it together. 
Beth Bacon: When kids read a book, without struggling too much, and they’ve enjoyed themselves, that’s thrilling to me. I feel I’ve succeeded as a writer when kids want to read another book—any book—after they’ve finished mine. What’s your definition of success?

Tracey Keevan: Success with all readers, to me, is a feeling of inclusion. When a reader is connected to the experience, she’ll power up the hills, sprint to finish, and carry that finisher’s medal with her for the next time.

Beth Bacon: What was your experience with reading as a child?

Tracey Keevan: Reading can be terrifying. I know. I was not a “book kid” in grade school or middle school. 

It was no mystery to me why, either. I was paralyzed with fear of failure while reading aloud in class. I struggled with spelling and sight word recognition—I still do today. 
And while I could usually parse out meaning when I was reading to myself, the embarrassment of sounding out words and being corrected in front of my classmates left me feeling insecure, anxious, and isolated. Books were not my friends. I was afraid of them.

Beth Bacon: Fear is something authors don’t like being associated with books! But the truth is, struggling readers certainly feel fear. I address that fear by talking directly to the reader. 

In my new book, The Book No One Wants To Read, the narrator is the book itself. It bends over backwards (literally) to help the readers enjoy their time. How do you address this fear?

Encourages readers to relax & enjoy reading.

Tracey Keevan: I remind myself of that fear often. What would have helped me? Well, not having to read aloud for one. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. 

Shorter sentences would have helped. Scaffolding and repetition would have helped too.

[Scaffolding is a strategy used by reading instructors to address issues blocking the path to literacy by building scaffolds of support like monitoring comprehension and employing pre-reading and post reading activities.]  

Mostly, though, understanding that reading wasn’t a competition, with winners and losers, but a tool to share, learn, grow and be a part of something bigger than myself—that would have helped the most. 
The writers and illustrators who share the fun win kids like me over. (Thank you, Judy Blume!) It’s simple, but true.

Beth Bacon: Sharing the fun—that’s one way authors can help emerging readers get through their required reading sessions. 

As with anything, reading takes practice. So our books need to keep these kids turning the pages. No one knows that better than Tracey Keevan, who has worked in children’s media for over 20 years as an editor, writer, and producer. She also acquires and edits picture books, early readers, chapter books, graphic novels, middle grade and young adult fiction. 

Thanks, Tracey, for your insights!

Cynsational Notes

Beth Bacon is the author of books for reluctant readers including I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2008, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read, illustrated by Jason Grube and Corianton Hale (Pixel Titles, 2017).

She earned an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Beth has won the VCFA Candlewick Award for Picture Book Writing, the Marion Dane Bauer Award for Middle Grade Writing, and is a PSAMA PULSE Award Finalist for marketing. 

Guest Post: Beth Bacon on Honoring Reluctant Readers with Author & Illustrator Charles Johnson

By Beth Bacon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This post is the first in a series honoring reluctant readers.

Reading is the closest thing we have to magic in the real world.

Is there any other explanation for the way those small, squiggly symbols on the page transform into meaning in our minds?

Scientists can provide technical explanations of the way our eyes and brains make reading happen. But I’m talking about the way a book can move us to tears or spur us to action. Reading conjures actual emotions. It transports us to places that are as real as any we’ve been to in person.

Reading is enchantment. Writers, editors and educators have the honor of introducing this power to young people. But reading can be difficult to learn.

Many children struggle to read or are reluctant to spend time with books. In this series on emerging readers, I spoke with editors, authors and educators who are thinking deeply about the issues our young people face when learning to read.

Charles Johnson with his grandson and daughter
Author, illustrator, teacher and philosopher Charles Johnson who recently wrote and illustrated a series for children, The Adventures of Emery Jones Boy Science Wonder (Libertary Company, 2015).

Johnson is a creative writing professor (emeritus) at University of Washington and received the National Book Award for Middle Passage (Scribner, 1998). He also is a preeminent voice on literature and race and a practicing Buddhist who’s written many books about the philosophy.

Beth Bacon: You’ve written a couple of children’s books. Can you talk about your motivations? Did you have someone in mind when you wrote them?

Charles Johnson: According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, and in 2012 only 3 percent of children’s books published in America had “significant African or African-American content.”

And, of course, few of these books were produced by black American authors and illustrators.

As both a storyteller and a cartoonist/illustrator, part of my motivation is obviously to correct this dearth of books for children of color to read.

At the time my daughter Elisheba and I co-authored Bending Time and The Hard Problem, the first two books in The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder series, we had my grandson Emery in mind—that’s where the protagonist’s first name comes from.

I care very much about this issue of reading material for our children. You know, of course, about the special issue of The American Book Review (September/October 2014) that I guest-edited titled, “The Color of Children’s Literature,” because you kindly reviewed Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America, by my friend, the prolific, award-winning children’s book author Tonya Bolden (Abrams, 2014).

Something else—perhaps the most important thing of all about the Emery Jones books—is that we want to get kids around middle school age interested in STEM learning and fields. To see the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math as exciting and fun.

So Emery in the books is a scientific whiz kid who finds himself flung into different adventures—saving a bully who gets stuck in the prehistoric period, saving the world from aliens and AI robots gone amuck in the second book.

In the next book we do, he’ll save the future from a disaster.

As a writing instructor, do believe there is a difference in writing for children who struggle to read and writing for those who like to read?

Yes, I think there is a difference. And you know what? Many adults today struggle to read.

The lack of literacy is a well-documented and very serious problem, especially for high school students who can’t read a newspaper op-ed and tell you what the argument is, or adults who can’t read and understand the instructions on their prescription medication.

Humanities Washington has a long-running and important program that addresses this, called Mother Read/Father Read. These are a series of books aimed at helping parents learn to read as they read to their children.

How is writing novels for young people different than writing for adults?

As an academically trained philosopher, I write very complex, multi-layered, language rich philosophical novels that dramatize the quest for the Good, investigate the nature of the self, the experience of the middle passage or north Atlantic slave trade, and the philosophical dimensions of Martin Luther King Jr. as a theologian/activist.

But for the Emery Jones books my daughter and I select subjects close to the experience of a middle school-aged child. For example, the experience of being bullied or of first love. I rely on my daughter for this because she is closer to those experiences of young people than I am.

Do you remember learning to read? Did you like to read as a child? What kinds of books influenced your childhood?

I don’t remember when I learned to read. But as an only child, books were my refuge (along with drawing) from boredom.

In high school I read one book a week, sometimes three, and they ranged from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels to westerns to Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

My mother was in several book clubs and kept our house full of interesting titles, and I was in a science fiction book club, receiving a new title every month.

I describe this early reading experience in the chapter titled “In the Beginning” in The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (Scribner, 2016).

You are a cartoonist, how does this inform your writing?

Well, every picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and our nation’s cartoonists (and graphic novel illustrators) are storytellers, too.

In others words, I’ve always had since childhood a very strong visual imagination, and I’m sure that shows in the descriptive passages in my novels, where I work for as much granularity of detail and specificity as possible.

A blank writing page is for me like a painter’s blank canvas—and that is a beautiful thing, a white surface onto which I can project images that hitherto existed in my head where no one could see them.

An illustration from Charles Johnson’s Emery Jones series

Can you talk about the differences in reading, writing and books over the three generations (your childhood, your daughter’s experiences, and now reading to your grandson, Emery).

In the early 20th century, and into the early 1970s (a period still suffering from racial segregation), white, mainstream commercial publishers seldom published black writers and artists. That’s why what we call the “black press” (Ebony, Jet, Negro Digest, Players, Johnson Publishing Co. in Chicago) came into existence.

As a cartoonist in my teens and early twenties, I published drawings and one book (Black Humor, 1970) with black publishers, then from 1974 until today with so-called “mainstream” publishers.

So the publishing situation for black writers and artists became somewhat freer since the 1980s than during my childhood. But today, sadly, and as I mentioned in my response to your first question, we still have a situation described eloquently by author and illustrator Christopher Myers in his essay “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” (New York Times, 2014):

“Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination…at best background characters, and more often than not absent. …They recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves within the lines.”

So our goal with the Emery Jones books is to break down those borders and lines, and free the imagination of as many young readers (of all backgrounds) as possible.

Beth Bacon: Freeing the imagination was one goal I had in mind when writing I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read (Pixel Titles, 2017).

Children who find reading difficult—whatever the reason—face real barriers. Not just barriers on the page, but challenges from parents, obstructive comments from peers, and isolation at school.

What if we authors for children approached our writing projects asking, “How can I include struggling readers within the boundaries of this text?”

My two books for struggling readers are barrier-breakers. They break the barriers of linear narrative; the barriers of a single authorial voice; the rules of separating words and pictures. And that’s just the form.

The content of the books break barriers, too, by directly acknowledging the experience of reluctant readers and honoring those kids whose feel like they’re on the outside in their own classrooms.

Sometimes writers have to go beyond the margins of a book to reach the readers on the margins. Let’s acknowledge and address the experience of young readers as they develop the magical skill of reading.

Cynsational Notes

Beth Bacon is the author of books for reluctant readers including I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2008, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read, illustrated by Jason Grube and Corianton Hale (Pixel Titles, 2017).

She earned an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Beth has won the VCFA Candlewick Award for Picture Book Writing, the Marion Dane Bauer Award for Middle Grade Writing, and is a PSAMA PULSE Award Finalist for marketing.