Cynsational News

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

Author/Illustrator Interviews

Cherie Dimaline On Ersaure, the Power of Story, and The Marrow Thieves by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek:

“I very strongly believe that with the current state of the world, one of the best options we have as the human race is to start globally valuing the traditional and ecological knowledges that are held by the original inhabitants of the land.”

A Story of Images for a Story by Sara Kahn from YouTube. Peek:

“I always wait and read the story at a good time because this is when I get the main images in my mind.”

Meet National Book Award Finalist Ibi Zoboi by Emily Temple from LitHub. Peek:

N.K. Jemisin told me to get robots: a Roomba, a dishwasher, a crockpot. These would allow me the physical energy and time to get words down on the page.”

Tackling the Personal Narrative, Part 2 by Melissa Stewart from Celebrate Science. Peek: Explores Sarah Albee’s Cynsations post as a tool for teaching personal narrative essays.

“The idea of describing what’s on my desk seems boring to me. After all, I see those items every single day. But am I curious to know what’s on another writer’s desk? You bet! …Young writers, many of whom have read Sarah’s wonderful books, will be curious too.”

7 Questions For: Author Katherine Applegate by Robert Kent from Middle Grade Ninja. Peek:

“I aim for two hours a day writing and read as much as I can, whenever I can. It’s so important to connect with work daily, if possible, even if it’s only for five minutes.”

What Really Matters by Tillie Walden from Diversity in YA. Peek:

“I tell them about moments in Spinning (First Second, 2017), about how I knew I was gay when I was five…about how art gave me a connection to myself and a career at the same time. And I talk about how publishing a memoir is so healing because it lets others hold your memories with you.” 


We Need Diverse Books by Linda Sue Park. Peek:

“Donations to WNDB have enabled us to fund grants for 25 publishing internships over the past three years. Fully half of those interns have gone on to obtain full-time jobs in publishing, and they’re already bringing greater diversity to children’s books, promoting affirmation and empathy for all kids.”

We Need Diverse Series by Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan from Nerdy Book Club. Peek:

“The characters in series books become part of our lives for many weeks or even months. Readers get to know the characters in series books deeply as they experience many situations and life circumstances together. Here are ten great series that have diverse characters.”

The Lotterys Plus One is the Queer Happily-Ever-After We Deserve by Alyssa Eleanor Ross from BookRiot. Peek:

“That means what we get from the Lotterys is a happily-ever-after—not one where everything is always perfect, but one where a queer family faces messy, mundane, heartbreaking, hilarious, entirely normal problems. It’s the kind of happily-ever-after that’s really just the beginning.”

Writing Craft

Ties that Bind and Define – The Family of Your Protagonist by John J. Kelley from Writer Unboxed. Peek:

“…depictions of family can offer a window into a protagonist’s core character. … fictional families, not unlike real ones, can challenge a protagonist unlike any other external or internal force.”

The Time It Costs to Write by Natalia Sylvester from Writer Unboxed. Peek:

“Writers are always seeking it out, longing for more of it, waiting for a window of its uninterrupted bliss to present itself, or chasing it in tiny bits, catching whatever we can of it, in hopes of making what we can with it.”

Confessions of a Recovering Plotter by Anna Elliott from Writer Unboxed. Peek:

“After writing several books, though, I noticed something: no matter how much I outlined and plotted and planned in advance, a certain percentage of my outlined plot points never made it into the book, because…I would come up with something that actually worked better…”

The Art of Distraction by Lee Conell from Glimmer Train. Peek:

“…even if I turn off the WiFi connection, I find myself pulled between the page and the weird spiral of my thoughts, which rarely constrain themselves to the story at hand. For a long time while I was supposed to be writing, I would find myself thinking about the news and feeling depressed.”

6 Things to Consider Before Writing a Series by Janice Hardy from Fiction University. Peek:

“A series where every book is a complete stand-alone tale will have a contained plot every book. A series with a longer story arc that moves a little in every book will likely have more subplots and series-arcing plots that don’t get resolved every book.”


A Basic Guide to Getting Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter from Jane Friedman. Peek:

“Determining what’s fair use is a gray area, and depends on your risk tolerance. To eliminate all possible risk, then it’s best to either ask for permission or eliminate use of the copyrighted material in your own work. Here’s a flowchart that can help you evaluate what you might need to ask permission for.”

Interview: Debbie Reese on Native Identity, Voices & Depictions in Books for Young Readers by S.E. Smith from Bitch Media. Peek:

“The same resistance we’ve always had, no matter where we speak, which is an unwillingness to hear the voices of people who say ‘This is not okay’ when nobody has ever challenged you on that before. A good example is mascots. People say, ‘Why didn’t you object 50 years ago?’ to this or that mascot. How do they know we didn’t?”

Donna Janell Bowman

Cynsational Awards

Congratulations to all authors and illustrators whose books were named to the Texas Bluebonnet Award List! See Cynsations interviews with Hena Khan, Donna Janell Bowman and Yona Zeldis McDonough.

Cynsational Events

Attention, Georgia book lovers! Join Cynthia Leitich Smith at the 2017 Savannah Children’s Book Festival, which will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 18 in Forsyth Park.

Cynthia also will be on the critique faculty of WriteOnCon: A Totally Interactive Online Writers Conference from Feb. 9 to Feb. 11.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

With my brililiant editor, Hilary

I’m happy to announce that Our Story Begins: Your Favorite Authors and Illustrators Share Fun, Inspiring, Occasionally Ridiculous Things They Wrote and Drew as Kids, edited by Elissa Brent Weissman (Atheneum) was named among the Best Nonfiction Children’s Books of 2017 by My contribution to the book is “Dreams to Write.”

On a related note, see also For Young Readers: Four Books That Celebrate the Wonders of Books, and Writing by Abby McGanney Nolan from The Washington Post.

Last week’s highlight was attending the Kirkus Reviews Prize reception with my Candlewick editor, Hilary Van Dusen, on Thursday evening at the penthouse of the Four Seasons Residencies in Austin.

Hilary edited one of the must-read finalists, Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan, translated by Helen Wang, illustrated by Meilo So.

Huge congratulations to the winner in Young Readers’ Literature, Cherie Dimaline for the Marrow Thieves (DCB)! It’s heartening to see a First Nations woman win such a prestigious (and hefty cash) prize.

More Personally – Gayleen

What is it about book festivals that turns reserved writers into giddy social butterflies?

I enjoyed the 2nd Annual Texas Authors’ Summit at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission with Gloria Amescua, Erin Sewell and Cate Berry, along with many other members of the Austin children’s literature community.

The event was organized by Rebekah Manley, Texas Center for the Book coordinator, and kicked off a weekend devoted to the celebration of books and literacy.

Texas Book Festival attendees made donations to buy 370 books for Houston Reading Rock Star students. Each donation was matched by a donation from the Texas Book Festival and the Tocker Foundation, which means 1,110 students will be receiving books thanks to the support and generosity of the literary community.

Also, the Texas Library Association recently announced $102,600 in disaster relief grants to 25 libraries. TLA is still accepting donations to fund future grants.

Personal Links – Cynthia

Personal Links- Robin

Guest Post: Author Deborah Lytton & Agent Stacey Glick on Middle Grade Series Proposals

By Deborah Lytton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Thanks to Gayleen and Cyn for having us on Cynsations. It’s always such a pleasure to be here!

Today, I have asked my agent and friend, Stacey Glick to join me to discuss the Middle Grade series proposal.

Stacey is Vice President at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret Literary Management and has been my agent for over 12 years. Stacey and I share a background as child actors, although we never worked together as kids because she was on the East Coast and I was on the West Coast. 
Hi Stacey, thanks for chatting with me today.

Stacey: So happy to be here! I’m thrilled to talk about Debby, one of my favorite people, and her books!

Deborah: Thanks, Stacey. You’re one of my favorite people, too. Before we discuss books though, we have to talk about being child actors. (I’m including our acting headshots here. I really love my 80’s red vest and tie!)

How do you think your acting background helped you become a literary agent?

Deborah’s acting headshot

Stacey: I think my ability to network and schmooze with almost anyone stems from my experiences as a child actor.

That skill has served me very well in my almost 20 years as a book agent!

Deborah: That’s so true! Speaking about books, it’s so exciting to see the first book in the Ruby Starr (Sourcebooks, 2017) series released.

Creating the series proposal was such a collaborative process between us and the proposal was an effective selling tool for the manuscript.

Why do you think it helps so much?

Stacey: I think when you are talking about a series with a protagonist who has a big personality, like Ruby or Junie B. Jones (by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus, Random House), it’s important to map out not only the plots for the proposed books in the series, but also the characters and the arcs they will follow throughout the series.

Deborah: The first step was to come up with an idea for a book that could extend into multiple stand-alone books.

My other published books have been stand-alone titles, and I have also written some manuscripts for trilogies, but a series is really different from a trilogy where you leave certain storylines unfinished to extend the threads through the second and third books. With a series, each book stands alone and is connected through the character and the setting.

What do you think the important differences are?

Stacey: I think it’s just what you said. A series like Ruby Starr is really about a group of characters working through a very different story and set of circumstances in each book. A duology or trilogy is really one story that continues over the course of two or three books.

Stacey’s acting headshot

Deborah: Once I had the idea for the series, I wrote the complete manuscript for Book 1.

Then after you read it, you suggested writing a proposal as well. I remember it was really helpful when you sent me an outline for the proposal because it gave me an idea of what I needed to include.

There was a short synopsis of the series, a character list, a list of multiple other stories, and then a section about me.

If we were pitching the series again, would you add anything to the proposal?

Stacey: No, I think the proposal we put together was really perfect to show the scope of the series and your ability to write it. All of the components put together made for a very strong sales pitch for the series.

Deborah: You told me that I could be creative within the format and change things around if I wanted to convey the personality of my series but still create something that editors would be able to read easily.

The most flexible section was the information about the book. I used some of the wording from the manuscript and then shared my vision for the market age range for the book. I also added a section about similar books.

Why do editors and agents like to hear comparisons in order to consider a book?

Stacey: It’s so important for agents and editors to get a sense of how you see your work in the marketplace. You need to highlight books that will appeal to the same audience as your book. This will help you and your agent and publishing partner work together to effectively market and promote the books to the right audience.

Deborah: We spent a lot of time working on the books to follow the first so that the theme of the series was really consistent and the whole package focused.

What is your tip for writers who are working on a proposal without an agent to guide them?

Stacey: Do your research and find resources online. There are a lot of sample proposals available and, if you follow the guidelines you suggested above for a series proposal, including the manuscript for Book 1, it should be more than enough for agents to be able to consider the work.

Deborah: Stacey, thanks so much for chatting with me today!

Stacey: I loved it too. And hope you all have a chance to read the Ruby Star series. She’s adorable and so much fun!

Cynsations Notes

Kirkus Reviews wrote: “Peppered with references to her favorite books, Ruby’s fresh, humorous, first-person, present-tense account of her fifth-grade traumas, her real and imaginary friendships, and her supportive family rings true…amusing saga of primary-school friendships with a clever pro-reading subtext.”

Book 2 in the Ruby Starr series, The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists, is now available for pre-order and will be released May 1, 2018. Ruby and the other Unicorns are involved in a new adventure to save the school library.

Deborah Lytton is the author of Jane In Bloom (Dutton Children’s Books, 2009), which was selected for several state reading lists and chosen by Chicago Public Library as one of the Best of the Best Books of 2009. See Deborah’s Cynsations Interview About Jane in Bloom.

Her YA novel, Silence (Shadow Mountain) was a nominee for the Florida Teens Read Program. See Deborah on What’s True to You from Cynsations.

Deborah resides in Los Angeles, California with her two daughters and their Papillon, Faith. She is active in the writing and blogging community and is a member of SCBWI.

Stacey Glick joined Dystel, Goderich & Bourret in 1999 after working in film and television development for five years.

Stacey grew up just outside of Manhattan and is a former child actress who appeared on television, in theater, and in feature films. She now lives in New Jersey with her husband and four daughters (the youngest are identical twins), and enjoys cooking and baking, sipping wine and cocktails, taking pictures, shopping, theater, going to Mets games and eating chocolate, cheese and spicy tuna hand rolls (not necessarily in that order) when she can find the time.

She represents young adult, middle grade, nonfiction and picture books.

Guest Post: Don Tate on Proactive Promotion & Strong As Sandow

By Don Tate
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

My newest book babe, Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth (Charlesbridge, 2017), published earlier this fall.

To welcome “Sandow” into the world and to provide my new book babe with tools needed to flourish, I planned a full marketing blitz.

Marketing a new book is a shared effort between a book’s creators and its publisher. My publisher supported our book in many ways. For instance, they sent me to various conferences to promote and sign “Sandow.” But I want to be sure I do my part, too.

Here is a look at how I launched Strong As Sandow into the world:

Stand-alone Website:

Sources for telling Sandow’s story were like a gold mine of visual gems.

There were books, photographs, collectible items, old-time physical culture magazines. Unlike previous subjects I’d written about—Bill Traylor, George Moses Horton, people who were enslaved and therefore few records and/or photographs available— there was a good deal of visual information out there on Eugen Sandow.

In the end, however, much of the research got chopped out, left on the cutting board. With a stand-alone website, I could include some of those resources that didn’t make the book. What a great tool for teachers and librarians.

Strongman Sandow website

Friend Erik Niells of Square Bear Studio, created the site using WordPress. Basically, he created a shell of a site that I could easily personalize and update. Adding new information is as simple as creating a new blog post.

On the site, I celebrate receiving author copies of Strong As Sandow. I talk about other picture books on the topic of strongmen . I discuss the process of creating the book’s cover. And I include many of the photos and videos that I used to bring the story to life.

The site is linked from my main website, and I advertise it on my bookmark swag.

In addition to the website, I created a Pinterest page with even more visual references.

Curriculum Guide

My publisher had a very nice discussion guide created as a free download. It is aligned to the Common Core, nationwide academic standards used in classrooms. Having a Common Core-aligned guide adds value to your book.

I loved the guide, but I also hired Debbie Gonzales of  Guides by Debbie to create a second educator’s guide. It is Common Core aligned, too, but also incorporates a lot of what I’ve offered on the stand-alone site—making the site and the guide an extra nice pairing with the book.

My favorite part of Debbie’s guide is the fitness plan, where kids can log their weekly exercise goals and accomplishments. We made the guide available on Sandow’s launch day and promoted it heavily.

Educator’s guide from Guides by Debbie

Book Teaser & Trailer

By far, the fitness video was the most fun aspect of my Sandow marketing efforts. I’d already created a short teaser for the book using iMovie. For that video, I used the original art, panning and zooming, in what is called the “Ken Burns effect.” For drama, I used royalty free music found on the web. And I recruited my friend, Maggie Gallant, to record a voiceover.

We released the the teaser several months ahead of publication day to create anticipation.

The trailer turned out nice, but I also wanted a longer video where I could go deeper into Sandow’s story, emphasize the importance of exercise, while highlighting my own fitness journey—especially since I participated in natural bodybuilding myself many years ago!

For this, I commissioned Kirsten Cappy of Curious City. She and her husband, Mark Mattos, flew to Austin where I live. They spent an entire day interviewing and videotaping me at my local YMCA, while I exercised in the weight room, swam laps in the pool, and practiced yoga.

Needless to say, I was all nerves. It’s one thing to work out in busy weight room. It’s another thing to work out with a cameraman following me around, with a huge microphone, an interviewer, and the director of the YMCA.

We caused such a stir that some teenagers tried to sneak into our filming, thinking we were shooting some kind of celebrity reality TV show. (Watch until the end; don’t miss the after-credits scene!)

We debuted our “Nothing In Moderation” physical fitness video along with an interview at “Watch. Connect. Read.” a blog hosted by John Schumacher (AKA Mr. Schu).

The video has been uploaded to YouTube and TeacherTube, and will sit on the internet indefinitely, serving two purposes. For one, it will continue to promote my book well into the future. Two, it will support future author visits, offering students a glimpse into the life of the author-illustrator who will visit their school.

At a recent visit, many students had watched the video, and they had all sorts of questions about Strong As Sandow, physical fitness, and—how much could I bench press!

Check out the site, but don’t forget to see the bloopers and outtakes!

Social Media Blitz

On the week leading up to book release day, I posted interesting and inspirational tidbits of information about historic, little-known physical fitness figures, like Professor K.V. Iyer and Mlle LeZetora —bodybuilders, weightlifters, strongwomen, with the hashtag #Strong_As_Sandow.

I also had a drawing where I gave away copies of of the book to those who shared my social media posts.

The idea was that while people may not remember the name of my book, they might remember that Don Tate has a new book out on the subject of a bodybuilder, health, fitness.

Launch Party

During the year leading up to my book’s release, I’d made arrangements to have a launch party at the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports in Austin.

It features classical statues and paintings of Greek and Roman athletes. It also features the Joe and Betty Weider Museum of Physical Culture. The Stark Center has what is probably the largest collection of Eugen Sandow artifacts in the country. This research and sports museum was the perfect place to launch a book like Sandow.

But there were hurdles. Many hurdles. And a hurricane.

The Stark Center is on the campus of the University of Texas—it’s a huge bureaucracy! There were parking issues. There were book-selling restrictions. Since the book would publish during football season, there were more challenges.

Thankfully, the librarian there came to my rescue. She jumped all the hurdles—even kicking some down. She made sure the event could happen  . . well, except that two days before my launch party, the “hurricane of Biblical proportions” caused me to have to cancel.


Two weeks later at BookPeople, though, we launched Strong As Sandow with a cake, topped with “The Sandow” statuette. We partied with raw food and health guru (and strongman) Andrew Perlot. We gave out healthy treats and played games designed to get the kiddos moving their bodies.

Akiko White, cake illustrator

While the party was meant to celebrate the birth of my new book, it also served as promotion and book buzz. I had a lot of photos taken, which were captioned and sent to “Publishers Weekly”—who then publicized my party in their “In-Brief” section.

Andrew Perlot lifts author Lindsey Lane during book launch.
Standing-room only crowd at book launch.

On her blog, Debbie Gonzales described me as a “master marketer.”

I’m not. I just do my best to support my book babes.

Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal gave Strong as Sandow a starred review, calling it “An excellent introduction to a historical figure that will appeal not only to children already interested in sports and fitness but also to those in need of encouragement.”

In The Horn Book‘s starred review, Patrick Gall wrote, “Tate’s chronological narrative depicts an ambitious, hardworking showman with a drive for excellence — from ‘feeble’ boy to acrobat, strongman, fitness guru, and creator of the first organized bodybuilding contest.”

Don Tate is the author of Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree,2015); It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started To Draw (Lee & Low Books, 2102), both books are Ezra Jack Keats award winners.

He is also an award-winning illustrator of numerous critically acclaimed books for children, including Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton (Charlesbridge, 2016) The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton (Eerdmans, 2015); The Cart That Carried Martin by Eve Bunting (Charlesbridge, 2013); Hope’s Gift by Kelly Starling Lyons (Penguin, 2012), many others.

Don is a founding host of the The Brown Bookshelf –a blog dedicated to books for African American young readers; and a member of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority narratives in children’s literature.

He lives in Austin, Texas, with his family.

Survivors: G. Neri on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about G. Neri.

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?

This November marks a month of many momentous events in my life: It was ten years ago in November 2007, that my first book, Chess Rumble, was published by Lee and Low. This November, my tenth book in ten years comes out: Tru & Nelle: A Christmas Tale (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). And also this November, I will be in the middle of the biggest and most exciting research trip of my writing career: to the bottom of the world, in Antarctica!

That’s a lot of big milestones for someone who never planned on being an author.

Twenty years ago, not only did I not think it possible, it wasn’t even a speck of a notion in my brain that this was something I would do or could do. So extreme of an idea was it that if I was able talk to myself from 20 years ago and show him (me) the books I’d written and the places I’d traveled because of it, I’m pretty sure he would think I was high!

I am an accidental writer in every respect and I have an unexpected career because of it.

How have I survived this long? My training was in filmmaking, which taught me storytelling and endurance. I was part of an innovative entrepreneurial program in college, which taught me the art of branding, pitching and raising money. I was head of production for two internet design agencies which taught me budgets and schedules, and planning for success. My time in animation taught me that story production was all about momentum and energy.

And I’m stubborn as hell and won’t give up.

I have had many ups and downs in this unexpected journey into writing.

While I have ten books in the can and several projects I am working on in different capacities, I also have a good four novels with drafts that I had to abandon for reasons I don’t have time to go into.

I have lost several editors I loved due to layoffs or babies. I’ve had a couple publishing experiences turn ugly to the point I almost quit.

I’ve had many doubts as to my worth as a writer, knowing full well that my refusal to write only one kind of book keeps me away from the bestseller list.

On the plus side, nobody has ever told me what to write, I have an agent who sells whatever I give him, and I get to explore different genres between novels, graphic novels and picture books for audiences of different ages, classes and races.

I may not ever get rich from it, but I am a working writer with a fairly steady income and a continuing source of travel around the U.S. to speak at schools, libraries and conferences.

But the thing that really keeps me going is the readers. Those kids, teachers and librarians that I meet along the way, that’s where the magic happens. It keeps my heart pure, sparks my imagination and beats down the cynicism.

From the beginning, because my books spoke to urban kids, reluctant readers, non-readers, and especially boys, I started getting invited to come speak at schools. It reached a tipping point early on where I didn’t have to do anything but say yes– which seemed crazy to me since I wasn’t, like, famous or anything.

But I was able to connect with my niche and I’ve traveled all over the country (and sometimes to other countries) to tell my story and the stories of others that inspire my books. It’s is a direct and deep connection.

The people and places I visit and the real life stories I stumble across feed my inspiration and motivation. They take me to the most unexpected places in writing. I follow my heart, not the money.

Anytime I ever tried to follow the money didn’t end well. I can only do what my gut tells me. It won’t make me rich but I’ll stand behind every book on my list because of it.

My choices constantly surprise people all the time (He did that?) but all my books are connected: my protagonists are outsiders and my stories spring from real life.

It is the only way my brain seems to work.

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?

So, what has changed in ten years? It feels like the industry is getting smaller. Borders is gone…. And yet–people still read.

Books survived e-books. Physical books are still being sold, sometimes more than ever. Indies are surviving and doing well. Conferences seem full, schools still buy books and invite me out.

Writers come and go. Some I started with are going strong. Others have slowly disappeared from the landscape or just take longer between books.

Me, I just try to stay fluid. Do as many different kinds of books and hope they will find homes. Because my career started as an accident, I feel lucky to get this far and stay in the game.

The fact that I have more books in the works than ever is astounding but there it is. Have I improved over the ten years (well, more if you count the buildup)?

I can write a novel much faster. I still feel like I have no idea what I am doing when I start one, but I let go and the pages tend to turn up. I stopped trying to predict the future of both publishing and myself. I always think– this is it, the end of publishing is here! But somehow, it still happens.

One thing I’ve seen and always gives me hope is that everyone’s path is different. There is no one way to break in and no one way to survive or be successful. There is only your way. Your vision, along with your guts and refusal to give in are yours.

I heard recently, with all the technological advances slowly taking over jobs, creativity is the one thing that cannot be truly replicated by artificial means.

That magic you hold inside you has real power and you should brandish it like a sword.

It is your weapon for good.

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

In reflecting back, I don’t regret anything. Yes, mistakes were made, things didn’t always work out, but nothing is ever lost.

Experience matters. It makes you deeper and stronger and you’d be the lesser without it.

So no, I wouldn’t change anything if I could–even if I wanted to in the moment.

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

If I were starting today?

God I don’t know. Sometimes I feel “if only I’d published five years earlier…” but hey, every year if different, everything’s always in flux and you just gotta roll with it.

In Canada, where I’m living at the moment, there are loads of bookstores still and tons of graphic novels, which may be why I have two in the works and a third that is some kind of hybrid.

I try not to hold onto the past and I don’t try to predict the future.

I try to stay present, let the stories tell me how they want to be told. Try to make them unique enough where they might stand out as different and fresh. And keep moving ahead, one step at a time.

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

If you keep moving forward, you will end up someplace new.

Where will my journey take me in the next ten years? Who knows. But the unknown is part of the terror…and the fun.

What I wish for everyone is this: may your travels take you to new and unexpected places in your life. You never know what you’ll find there.

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.

Cover Reveal: Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Debut author Cate Berry interviews illustrator Charles Santoso about Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! (Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins, May 2018)

Cate: Hi, Charles! I’m here with Penguin and Tiny Shrimp to talk about—

Penguin: Hey, Charles! Love the cover, but what’s with the pajamas?

Tiny Shrimp: We don’t do bedtime, Charles. (Although I love my nightcap and I’m keeping it.)

Cate: Guys! Let’s slow down here! I want to talk about the cover for our new book Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! (J’dore, Swoon, Applause!).

Charles: Hi, Cate! Hello, Penguin! Hello, Tiny Shrimp! Thank you for the kind words about my work.

Cate: You’re such a versatile illustrator. I’ve fan-girled over your books I Don’t Like Koala (by Sean Ferrell, Atheneum, 2015), Ida Always (by Caron Levis, Atheneum, 2016) and Peanut Butter and Brains (by Joe McGee, Abrams, 2015) just to name a few.

You don’t seem afraid to try new styles.

Can you talk about this as it relates to our book and the cover?

Charles: Yes, I’m weird like that. I always try different styles for different books I’m illustrating.

I try to “listen” to the story carefully and let my gut feelings guide me towards finding the right style for the book. I want to make sure the words and illustrations blend in and compliment each other as much as possible. It’s all about the story!

Cate: Yes! It’s always about the story! Hey, speaking of story, can we get a glimpse into the illustrator’s life and peek at your studio?

Penguin: Yes!

Tiny Shrimp: Ooooo, where the magic happens.

Charles: Here you go. My other pictures are unfortunately super messy.

Charles’s studio

Cate: Hey, don’t knock messy. I love how sly Penguin and Tiny Shrimp’s expressions are on the cover. There is so much there. They seem indignant—

Penguin: We are indignant. We’re not sleeping.

Tiny Shrimp: Dial back the big words, lady.

Charles: There you go, Cate! I told you they would evolve on their own!.

Cate: It sure seems so! The cover makes me laugh. When I teach, I like showing how humor is a mix of something serious with something silly. You have to find the balance. Does this come into play with illustrating for you?

Charles: I have to care about the characters. When I said that I “listened” to the story, I really meant knowing how both characters sound for me personally.

Both Penguin and Tiny Shrimp say things that might be funny to us but they are 100 percent sincere! So I have to make sure I’m portraying them genuinely— as close to their unique characters and personalities as I hear and see them in my mind.

Cate: That’s so neat. I love what you say about listening. I feel that’s true with the whole picture book making process. It’s like a duet at first, writer and illustrator. I’m writing and discovering these characters. And then you listen and have them come to life through your art. Then it’s a quartet when the editor and art director collaborate with us. Making picture books is so amazing.

Penguin: Hey, let’s get back to basics!

Tiny Shrimp: Did he ever answer about the pajamas?

Cate: Oh! You’re right, Tiny Shrimp! Let’s talk about those adorable red striped pajamas.

I love the entire color palette throughout the book. Can you talk a little about the choices you made?

Charles: Penguin and Tiny Shrimp love things that are fun! Full of energy! But, I did want them to go to sleep too, so I added more night colours to balance things out.

Cate: What else should we know about the cover?

Charles: The illustrations are done digitally but with the same attention to detail as I normally do with traditional media. It was time consuming, but I’m happy with the result.

Cate: I’d love to hear about something that’s unique to our book. Something you discovered along the way that shows up on the cover?

Charles: Penguin and Tiny Shrimp weren’t looking like they do now. I went and did lots and lots of explorations before finding the final look.

Cate: Did I miss anything else other than…

Penguin: Shhh! Don’t spill!

Tiny Shrimp: They have to read the book!

Charles: I don’t know what you’re talking about, Cate… Ha!

But, yes! Go read the book when it’s out!

Cynsations Notes

Charles Santoso (Chao) loves drawing little things in his little journal and dreaming about funny, wondrous stories. He gathers inspiration from his childhood memories and curiosities he discovers in his everyday travels.

He has illustrated several picture books, including The Snurtch (Atheneum, 2016) and I Don’t Like Koala (Atheneum, 2015) – both written by Sean Ferrell, Ida, Always by Caron Levis  (Atheneum, 2016), Peanut Butter & Brains by Joe McGee (Abrams, 2015) and Spy Guy: The Not-So-Secret Agent by Jessica Young (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

He worked at Animal Logic as a concept artist/art director and was involved in various animated feature film and tv commercial projects.

His work has been exhibited in Sydney and also internationally in North America and France. He currently lives and works in Sydney, Australia.

Cate Berry is a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adult MFA program (July/2017), receiving her Picture Book Intensive Certificate in the process.

Cate is an active member of SCBWI and the Austin children’s literature community.

She teaches numerous picture book classes at the Writing Barn, including the upcoming Perfecting the Picture Book II, starting January 8, 2018.

She lives in Austin with her husband and two children.

Cynsational News

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

Author/ Illustrator Interviews

Meet National Book Award Finalist Rita Williams-Garcia by Emily Temple from Lit Hub. Peek:

“How do you tackle writer’s block? I box, knit, write, and read. Physicality helps to jar me out of my mental state. It shakes things free.”

An Interview with Alan Gratz, Author of Ban This Book by Dorian Cirrone from From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. Peek:

“…the ALA thinks that 85-95 percent of books challenged or banned each year go unreported. 85-95 percent!… That means that thousands more books just disappear from shelves every year, and no one hears about them because no one makes a stink about them.”

Pretty Peacock! Big Book! by Bethany Hegedus from Brave Tutu. Peek:

“…why small moments matter: simple ah-ha’s, breaths in, breaths released, moments spent engaged deeply in our work and with our loved ones. A life well lived is is spent moment to moment. It’s the moment that matters.”

April Pulley Sayre and Full of Fall by Adi Rule from WCYA The Launch Pad From Vermont College of Fine Arts. Peek:

“I’m unusually good at coming up with titles and poetic and alliterative language. I think it’s like a muscle, though, and improves with use. Despite my early signs of talent in this area, it also helps that I just goof around and have done this work for over twenty years.”

Meet National Book Award Finalist Erika L. Sánchez by Emily Temple from Lit Hub. Peek:

“I think poets often make strong prose writers because we pay obsessive attention to image, rhythm, and sentence structure. I write prose very slowly because of this. In fact, I printed out the first draft of the novel and rewrote it entirely.”

Interview: Dianne White on Teaching, Learning & Books from The Booking Biz. Peek:

“I definitely didn’t imagine a career as a children’s book author. It was really my experience as a classroom teacher that introduced me to a world of children’s books I hadn’t realized existed.”

Writing About Addiction for Kids by Kate Messner from School Library Journal. Peek:

“Heroin addiction wasn’t something that happened in my upper middle-class neighborhood…Looking back, I’m ashamed of that reaction. It embodies nearly every stereotype about who’s affected by the opioid epidemic, when in reality, the crisis is affecting all kinds of families, including the one next door.”


10 Ways to Be An Anti-Racist Reader by Laura Sackton from BookRiot. Peek: “…but there are lots of other ways you can weave racial justice into your reading life. From using books to help you navigate hard conversations about race to providing the kids in your life with diverse books, here are ten suggestions on how to be an anti-racist reader.”

The Importance of “Mirror Books” in the Classroom by Anna Nardelli from Lee & Low Blog. Peek: “Mirror books give children the chance to see a representation of themselves in a book. For some children, this is not a common occurrence, but when it happens it lets them know that this world is full of people who are just like them. Window books give children another outlook on the world.”

Writing Cross-Culturally Workshop March 15-19, 2018 from Madcap Retreats & We Need Diverse Books. Faculty includes Laurie Halse Anderson, Marie Lu and other authors. Scholarships are available for writers from “marginalized” communities. Application deadline is Nov. 15.

#IndigenousReads by Indigenous Writers: A Children’s Reading List from Medium. Peek: “Indigenous people are very much a part of today’s society. With their stories, Indigenous writers share the range of their lives, past and present….curated by The Conscious Kid Library and American Indians in Children’s Literature, in partnership with Brooklyn Children’s Museum.” Note: Includes Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (HarperCollins, 2000).

Writing Craft

Transforming a Short Story Into a Novel by Mary Lynn Bracht from Writer’s Digest. Peek: “I was limited in the number of events I could include in the short story, so it was an easy task to list all of the scenes I wished I could have written.”

5 Tips on Writing a Cliffhanger by Heather Kaczynski from Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. Peek: “Cliffhangers are a bit of a double-edged sword – you do it right, you get your readers chomping at the bit for the next book in the series. Do it wrong, and you alienate and confuse them.”

Bringing Dead Characters to Life by Mary Kole from KidLit. Peek: “Character relationships are crucial. But there’s a fly in the ointment if your character is no longer around, dead, missing…. How do you create a rich and compelling relationship with someone who isn’t there? The most important first step is to think about this point instead of glossing over it.”

Describing Your Character: How To Make Each Detail Count by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “Description should be deliberate, with each detail pushing the story forward rather than holding it back via a bloated word count. This means making careful selections, and only describing things that are meaningful.”


Publishing Uncovered: The World of a Literary Scout–and International Rights by Parul Macdonald from Writer unBoxed. Peek: “At any one time, a good Scout can tell you the top 10 books editors or agents are reading ; their job is to know. But they are human and, as in the case of J.K Rowling’s secret, there are things that simply can’t be known.”

Inclusive Children’s Publisher ‘Knights Of’ Launches by Caroline Carpenter from The Bookseller. Peek: “Former Scholastic employees Aimée Felone and David Stevens are launching a new children’s publisher that will focus on commissioning writers and illustrators from a diverse range of backgrounds. The London-based venture…will publish commercial fiction for five to 15-year-olds that will be distributed through the U.K., Ireland and Europe.”

How to Write a Synopsis for a Novel by Nathan Bransford from his blog. Peek: “A synopsis is slightly different from a query letter, which includes biographical information, and it’s also different than jacket copy, which is more oriented to selling a book and avoids spoilers.”

Q&A: Jill Corcoran of the Jill Corcoran Literary Agency from Kirkus Reviews. Peek: “I think there is a greater emphasis on unique and authentic concepts and voices than ever. Today, the trends are fresh ideas, characters, and plotting. Discoverability is a huge obstacle, so the more marketing hooks publishers can use to help readers find your book, the better.”

This Week at Cynsations


Congratulations to the winners of the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Awards! Particularly, Cherie Dimaline for The Marrow Thieves (Cormorant Books, 2017) and David A. Robertson and Julie Flett for When We Were Alone (Portage & Main Press, 2017). See Cynsations interview with David A. Robertson.

More Personally – Cynthia

Wow! What a wonderful time I had last week at For The Love of Reading at Zermatt Resort in Midway, Utah via Utah Valley University’s Forum on Engaged Reading.

Kelly, April & Denise on the conference stage.

I had the honor of sharing a keynote address and a breakout talk, as did my fellow keynoters author-illustrator Denise Fleming, author-poet-photographer April Pulley Sayre, and Newbery author Kelly Barnhill. Thanks to the planning committee, especially Nancy Peterson (UVU elementary education).

What I loved most about the conference was its emphasis on the joy and positive power of reading. It was such a delight to visit informally and in-depth with teachers, librarians, fellow children’s book creators and other book lovers. This was definitely one of my all-time favorite book events.

In other news, I’m delighted to welcome Melanie J. Fishbane to Cynsations as our reporter covering children’s-YA book creator, writing community and publishing news in Canada.

Check out WriteOnCon: a children’s literature conference for writers and illustrators Feb. 9 to Feb. 11, 2018. Note: I’m offering first-10 pages critiques.

Congrats to Native writer Charlene Willing McManis on her debut sale of her historical middle grade novel Indian No More to Stacy Whitman at Tu Books!

Links of the Week

Eliana de Las Casas And Her Mama’s Bayou from Picture Book Month. Peek: “My mom, Dianne de Las Casas, had a big heart and big dreams. Ever since she was a little girl, she wanted to write books. She was fascinated by picture books and how they could change children’s lives.”

Defining Success: Authors Weigh In by Caroline Starr Rose from Project Mayhem. Peek: “I asked some friends, from the newly to the broadly published, how they defined success (anonymously, so they could be candid). There is so much wisdom here.”

More Personally – Gayleen

I was thrilled to join Austin Authors Lindsey Lane, Meredith Davis, Anne Bustard, Greg Leitich Smith, Gene Brenek, Liz Garton Scanlon, Sean Petrie, Donna Jannell Bowman and Rebekah Manley (not pictured) for a tour of the new Austin Public Library.

It’s a fantastic center for literature and community and seeing it for the first time with fellow writers made it even more amazing!

More Personally- Robin 

For my 2017 Halloween Book Witch Project, I collected all the books I’d bought over the year at book signings and to support author friends and gave them out for Halloween, instead of candy.

Several kids told me this was “the best thing to happen on Halloween ever!”

I’m already planning next year’s Book Witch project.

Personal Links – Cynthia

Personal Links – Robin

Survivors: Uma Krishnaswami on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s Author

Learn more about Uma Krishnaswami.

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? 

I was a writer before I knew it.

When I was a child growing up in India, I read just about all the time and in between books, I’d dash off stories and poems and little fragments of stuff that came right out of my solemn little heart.

Fast-forward twenty years from those early masterpieces to a graduate degree, a husband, a home in suburban Washington D.C., a new baby, and a renewed yearning to write.

My first effort at a children’s book was swiftly accepted, and then quickly orphaned when the acquiring editor left the publishing house. So that was a bump right away.

Then the publication of that first book was followed by a year or so of rejections, which felt bumpy but, in retrospect, constituted a kind of schooling. I started getting better and better at reading those letters, at decoding what they seemed to be saying to me. I learned to be grateful for the personal rejections in my burgeoning collection.

In fact, I became something of a curatorial expert at rejection letters. I even wrote one of my own. (See For Writers and scroll to the bottom of the page.)

And I kept on writing. I took a class here and there.

I wrote magazine stories and pretty soon some of them began to get published.

Then the wonderful Diantha Thorpe at Linnet Books/The Shoe String Press in Connecticut accepted my traditional story collection, The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha (1996, re-released by August House, 2006).

Diantha was a woman of tact and skill and an amazing editor. She was wise and knowledgeable and so very kind. I learned so much from her!

At the same time, I came to treat the traditional retold tale as an apprenticeship in plot. And most of all, I kept on writing.

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

One thing for sure. I’d let go my precious intentions for my work faster than I did.

I’d be bolder. I’d speak up more.

I used to attend children’s book events and feel quite intimidated by the giants in the field, I think especially because, for many years, I wasn’t seeing any writers of color among them.

In all, I’d probably do more or less what I did, but I’d be more courageous about it. I’d trust my own instincts more than I did. I had to learn to do that, and sometimes it was a steep learning curve.

For one thing, everyone kept telling me about the so-called “universal story,” the structure that our brains are supposedly wired to recognize. Study the Joseph Campbell model, they said.

I did, quite earnestly, but something always felt wrong to me. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time to express that discomfort in a way that anyone else might have understood.

Only later, when I read folklorists’ critiques of Campbell, did I understand my own gut reactions. If I could do it over, I’d want to speed up the understanding and deepen the confidence.

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?

One huge change that I see is a long process that has culminated in the present furious public conversation about diversity, especially in YA. It’s fierce and impassioned and, like so much else in the online world, it can wear you down.

Sometimes I get impatient with it, but in all I think it’s good, because it has forced publishers and reviewers to take notice.

It’s a groundswell movement (take We Need Diverse Books as an example), and it’s made the corporate world pay attention. How often does that happen?

At another level, it’s been amazing to see the growth and tenacity of independent publishers like Lee & Low Books, Cinco Puntos Press, Enchanted Lion, and others who have pushed the conversation in terms of diverse books as well as international and translated books.

It’s a challenging time to be a writer, but it’s also an exciting time.

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

I would tell myself to steel my nerve. I’d tell myself to keep the faith, let each book go into the world free from my anxiety about its worth.

I’d want my beginner self to know that I have many stories in me, that the well is not going to run dry.

“You will reinvent yourself many times over as a writer,” I’d tell myself.  

“You will write in many forms; you will push yourself to try new ways of seeing and feeling. Some will fit you and others won’t, but you will become capable of transforming your work again and again into something new. 

“Each time you shift what you write, you will become a better writer.”

Oh, and I might say what I tell students. That publication is good. It is the point of it all, but it is not the source of joy. That comes from the work itself.

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

I wish for books of all kinds for all kinds of readers.

I wish for books that make young people think, see the truth, and reach for their own better selves. And laughter. I wish us laughter.

I wish us all, and our readers, a world that is capable of getting beyond the fractiousness and hatreds of today.

I wish for a healed planet, because I think that in the end we’re not just saving ourselves with story, or our readers.

I wish us all the ability to save the world with story.

It may be the only weapon we have left, but I trust in its power with all my heart.

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

I wish for clarity of vision.

I wish to keep doing what I do and keep finding joy in it.

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.

New Cynsations Reporter: Melanie J. Fishbane

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melanie J. Fishbane joins the Cynsations team as a reporter covering children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news originating in Canada.

Melanie J. Fishbane holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an M.A. in History from Concordia University.

With over seventeen years’ experience in children’s publishing, she lectures internationally on children’s literature. A freelance writer and social media consultant, her work can be found in magazines, such as The Quill & Quire.

Melanie also loves writing essays and her first one, “My Pen Shall Heal, Not Hurt”: Writing as Therapy in L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside and The Blythes Are Quoted,” is included in L.M. Montgomery’s Rainbow Valleys: The Ontario Years 1911-1942 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). And, her short story, “The New Girl,” was published in the Zoetic NonBinary Review.

Her first YA novel, Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery, was published by Penguin Teen in 2017.

The novel was featured on the Huffington Post’s Summer Reading List, a top pick for the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading Kids Summer Reading pick and winner of Hamilton Public Library’s Next Top Novel.

Melanie lives in Toronto with her partner and their very entertaining cat, Merlin.

Read an article by Melanie about Earning & Celebrating Success. Peek:

“What had Lynne seen in my writing that made her think I could do this? Sure, I had been lecturing on L.M. Montgomery at conferences, and had wanted to write historical fiction for kids ever since I learned it was a thing you could do…but there had to be other, way more established authors, who could do this better than I.

“Lynne asked me to put together a proposal with an outline and a few sample chapters that would demonstrate my vision for the novel. Three months later, I sent a ten-page proposal and the first forty pages and waited. And waited.”

Follow Melanie on Twitter @MelanieFishbane and like her on Facebook. Photo by Ayelet Tsabari.