Cynsational News

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

Author/Illustrator Insights 

Art, Selfishness & the Sinking Ship by Anne Nesbet from Project Mayhem. Peek: “The very language we use to talk about writing (those of us who aren’t full-time writers–or those of us who have families to take care of) is telling: we ‘steal time,’ or we ‘sneak in some words.’ Lurking in these phrases is the idea that we are somehow cheating when we write….”

J.L. Powers and Broken Circle! by Adi Rule from VCFA The Launch Pad. Peek: “I sort of knew I wanted to direct this book towards an independent press. Cinco Puntos and Akashic are friends and allies, and it was very natural for me to see if Akashic wanted to publish this book. I couldn’t be prouder that they did!”

Interview with Tony Abbott by Michelle Houts from From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. Peek: “The Summer of Owen Todd may be one of the first middle-grade stories to talk this way about the sexual abuse of a boy, but what is still needed is a book for younger boys who are very much the prey of molesters.”

The Power of the Picture Book: Don Tate from Kids Talk Kid Lit. Peek: “When I was a kid, books didn’t attract or hold my attention. I struggled with comprehension. I couldn’t always remember what I’d read. Plus, reading had to compete with what I loved best—drawing and making things with my hands.”

Children’s Author & Poet Kwame Alexander on Comedy Central. Note: video clip with interview and poem recitation.


Field Notes: Lucha Libros: Bilingual Battle of the Books by Annmarie Hurtado from The Horn Book. Peek: “Lucha Libros started in response to the growing body of research on the importance of bolstering kids’ reading skills by third grade, and from hearing so many parents (especially non-English-speaking parents) tell me how hard it was to motivate their children — boys in particular — to read.”

Dear Social Media: Thank You For Dear Martin by Rebecca Marsick from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “The students I work with care deeply about many social issues, but they don’t often come into contact with people who are different from themselves. Therefore, when I encounter a book like Dear Martin by Nic Stone (Crown, 2017), I can barely contain my excitement.”

Diversifying the Canon of Inspirational Book Quotes by Ann Foster from Book Riot. Peek: “Inspirational book quotes are great for so many things: cute mugs, framed poster prints, wedding vows, bullet journals, and more. When we started noticing that the go-to quotes tend to be from the same group of primarily white male authors, we looked around for some more diverse options.”

Best Multicultural Children’s Books of 2017 from Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature, compiled by Dr. Claudette Shackelford McLinn, Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, Lettycia Terrones, and Patricia Miranda.

Writing Craft

(Too) Close Third Person by Jeanne Kisacky From Writer Unboxed. Peek: “But characters, to come across as alive and fully-realized, have a will of their own….And in my case, deep third person let the characters show me where I’d been a jailor, boxing them into the story, rather than setting them free to find their way to the end on their own terms.” See also Overcoming Reader Resistence to Suspension of Disbelief by Donald Maass and Three Ways to Discover Your Character’s True Motivation by Jim Dempsey from Writer Unboxed.

How to Write a Plot Sentence by Irene Latham from Smack Dab in the Middle. Peek: “One of the writing workshops I do with students is called Top Ten Things Writers Need To Know About Plot. The presentation is jammed with tips I’ve learned the hard way. And it culminates with the students putting all those tips into action and writing their own plot sentences.”

Writing Sequels: 7 Rules for Writing Second Installments by Brent Hartinger from The Writer’s Digest. Peek: “Resolving lingering plotlines and character arcs from the first project is the least important part of a sequel. What you want are new plotlines and new character arcs.”


Anonymous Survey: Sexual Harrassment in Children’s Book Publishing from Anne Ursu. Peek: “I am collecting data on sexual harassment in the children’s/YA publishing to get a handle on the scope of the problem. If you have experienced sexual harassment within the industry (or at an industry event), please share your story below. Please do not use names anywhere, and answer only the questions you wish to answer. The responses themselves may be made public in some form, and may be used in an article/essay.”

How to Make a Living as a Children’s Book Author by Hannah Holt from her blog. Peek: “Across the children’s literature spectrum (picture books – young adult) most authors don’t earning a living wage. Only about 45 percent of young adult authors earned more than $20,000 last year. 35 percent of middle grade authors and 15 percent of picture book authors made the $20,000 income threshold.” See also the results of Hannah’s new survey on Writing for Young Adults: A Look at the Publishing Numbers.

How and Why to Edit an Anthology: Addressing the Naysayers by Margot Kahn from Jane Friedman’s blog. Peek: “Sign with the right press. This almost goes without saying for any project, but perhaps particularly for an anthology because the reputation of your press will make an impact on writers you solicit who don’t know you personally.”

Five Tips for Making the Most of a Convention by Dori Butler from From the Mixed-Up Files. Peek: “The first time I went to one of these conventions, I did what I was there to do, then basically hung out in my room the rest of the time. I didn’t know there was more to do. Now I understand that conventions are an opportunity for personal and professional networking. “

Writers! Five Survival Tips for the Holidays by Kristin Nelson from Pub Rants. Peek: “The natural delays during the submission process are agony enough for authors, and the whole waiting game gets even worse as we move into the winter holiday season. But there are some things you can do to help yourself feel like progress is being made, no matter what stage your writing project might be in!”

Get Noticed, Gain Business, Be Awesome! Five Tips for Mastering a Magical 2018 Marketing Plan by Maria Dismondy from The Mitten. Peek: “Have 100 ideas in your head? Before you get overwhelmed, just pick two 2018 goals for your business and start there…Whatever your top two goals may be, check them against the SMART Goal Formula to ensure they are: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time Bound.”


Congratulations to the finalists for YALSA’s 2018 William C. Morris Awards:

Congratulations to 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Winners via Cynsations Reporter Christopher Cheng. Peek: “A group of 15 judges across three expert panels made recommendations to the Prime Minister on the shortlists and winners….(the) Awards demonstrate the Government’s continued support for the literary arts…over the past ten years and $4,750,000 in prize money has been awarded.” Children’s joint-winners: Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr (Allen & Unwin, 2016) and Home in the Rain by Bob Graham (Walker Books, 2016) and YA winner: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley (Pan Macmillan, 2016).

Announcing the Mary Carolyn Davies/Wishtree MG Write. Submit. Support. Scholarship sponsored by Katherine Applegate from Bethany Hegedus at The Writing Barn. Peek: “Katherine is a writer’s writer….her desire to honor Mary Carolyn Davies, who worked her entire life to be true to her creative soul…remind(s) all of us, that the work matters most when it comes to pursuing a literary life. We are honored beyond belief to grant this scholarship to one or two middle grade writers” to study with bestselling author and Vermont College alum Carrie Jones. Application deadline: Jan. 10.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

Thanks, Mom!

It’s the end of the semester at the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and so suffice it to say that Teacher Cyn is in full gear.

I’m grading the last monthly round of students’ creative and critical writing and, from there, I’ll continue straight on to write their reviews.

Consequently, Author Cyn is busy working with her agent and a co-writer on future manuscripts. Speaking of which, I already have a full book-events calendar for 2018, but with Hearts Unbroken coming out in early 2019, planners are welcome to contact The Booking Biz if they’d like to get me on their 2019 calendar now.

YA copyedits are now in to my editor at Candlewick Press, and I’ve had the opportunity to peek at the interior page designs. It’s all so exciting! I look forward to sharing the novel with the world. I’m told that advance reader copies should be available in time for the Texas Library Association conference in April in Dallas. Looking forward to seeing many of you there!

My only long-distance trip this month is a personal, family one, celebrating the winter holidays, but as Cynsational readers know, I’m a frequent author traveler. Consequently, my mom was kind enough to gift me with this terrific, lightweight Baggallini (“designed by flight attendants”) to aid me on my many trips around the U.S. and the globe. Thanks, Mom!

Reminder: Pre-order Lily Lo and the Wonton Maker by Frances Lee Hall to help ensure it will be posthumously published in an effort being coordinated by her writing group. Note: Frances was a tremendous writer, a lovely person and one of my VCFA advisees.

Link of the Week: Interview with Rita Williams-Garcia on Clayton Byrd Goes Underground (HarperChildren’s) by Roger Sutton from  Notes from The Horn Book. Peek: “I don’t mean that the forces of evil are against every child and that children have no outlet. But as a child, you have a certain amount of understanding that you are subject to whatever circumstance your parent or guardian will give you. And there are always moments when you feel that you are not big enough to withstand what is being given to you.”

Personal Links – Cynthia

Chiming in at ACHUKA to celebrate Daniel Vandever, Will Alexander & Cory Putnam Oakes!

More Personally- Robin

Artspace in Shreveport, Louisiana

I visited my friend Jennifer Hill in Shreveport, Louisiana. She gave me the full Shreveport tour including a visit to Artspace—this fantastic local art gallery where I learned about their artistic director William Joyce. He’s the author-illustrator of more than 50 children’s books and a filmmaker who co-created the Shreveport-based Moonbot Studios.

Robin checks out
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore,
inspiration for Moonbot Studio’s
Academy Award-winning short film.

Tim Tingle Named 2018 Recipient of Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Earlier this week the Oklahoma Center for the Book announced Tim Tingle as the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award winner for 2018.

The award honoring a body of work contributing to Oklahoma’s literary heritage, was named for Oklahoma historian Arrell Gibson, who served as the first president of the Oklahoma Center for the Book.

Tim is an award-winning author and storyteller and citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. His great-great grandfather, John Carnes, walked the Trail of Tears in 1835, and his paternal grandmother attended a series of rigorous Indian boarding schools in the early 1900s.

In 1993, he retraced the Trail of Tears to Choctaw homelands in Mississippi and began recording stories of tribal elders.

He received his master’s degree in English Literature at the University of Oklahoma in 2003, with a focus on American Indian studies.

While teaching writing courses and completing his thesis, “Choctaw Oral Literature,” he wrote his first book, Walking the Choctaw Road (Cinco Puntos Press, 2003). It was the selected book for the Centennial “Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma” program in 2005 and was also selected for Alaska’s One Book–One State program.

His children’s book, Crossing Bok Chitto: A Chotaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom (Cinco Puntos Press, 2006), garnered over twenty state and national awards including the 2007 Oklahoma Book Award, and was an Editor’s Choice in the New York Times Book Review.

In June of 2011, he spoke at the Library of Congress and presented his first performance at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C. (A video of that performance appears at the end of this post.)

Tim was a featured author and speaker at the 2014 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., based on critical acclaim for How I Became a Ghost (Roadrunner Press, 2013), which won the 2014 American Indian Youth Literature Award.

In February of 2016, his novel House of Purple Cedar (Cinco Puntos Press, 2013) won the American Indian Youth Literature Award, and was a finalist for the 2015 Oklahoma Book Award in fiction and made the finalist list for the Dublin Literary Award in 2016.

Tim’s other books include:

His next book, A Name Earned will be released in January, 2018 by Native Voices.

In a starred review of A Name Earned, Kirkus Reviews said, “In Bobby and Lloyd, Tingle highlights the resilience that young people have as they navigate family challenges. What is most special is the bond that develops between Bobby and his father, a father-son relationship that defies the odds, depicting a healed father on the other side of sobriety.”

As a visiting author and performer, Tim reaches audiences numbering over 200,000 annually. He has completed eight speaking tours for the U.S. Department of Defense, performing stories to children of military personnel stationed in Germany.

Tim also coordinates the Doc Moore Storytelling Guild that meets monthly at the Bulverde Library  to celebrate and encourage the art of storytelling.

He is represented by Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary Agency.

The Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented at the Oklahoma Book Award ceremony on April 7 at the Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City.

Tim Tingle and D.J. Battiest performance 
at the Kennedy Center for the Library of Congress

In Memory: Sheila Barry

Photo courtesy of Heather Camlot; used with permission.

By Melanie Fishbane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

On the 21st of November, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre held its annual Canadian Children’s Book Awards, an evening devoted to awarding the best in children’s literature. Among the always decadent dishes and clinking glasses, there was feeling that something was missing—or someone.

A little less than a week before, on the 15th of November, Groundwood’s publisher, Sheila Barry, had died from complications from her cancer treatment. One of Canadian children’s publishing’s strongest advocates for diverse, quality children’s books that never strayed from telling challenging stories, Sheila believed, “Whatever sequence of events it describes should be seen from a child’s point of view. The book should depict children as active participants in the story. And it should emphasize the fundamental human rights all children are entitled to, even if it also shows that sometimes those rights are not respected by adults.”

I never had the chance to work closely with Sheila, but I did get to have lunch with her once a number of years ago. We chatted about books (of course), how she had decided that she wanted to learn the piano, and then she asked me: “What would the perfect day in your life look like?”

The question, so pointed and so relevant, forced me to stop and consider, well, everything.

Over the years, I’ve often thought about Sheila’s question, particularly during challenging periods, and, weirdly, my days are starting to look like how I mused during that afternoon lunch.

I imagine that it was this type of question that made Sheila an incredible editor. She could hone in on what it was you were trying to do, asking exactly what you might not necessarily have the right answer to, but hoping that maybe you might get close.

I asked a few people I knew who had worked with Sheila if they would be open to sharing their experiences working with her. Here is what they said.

Editor-author Shelley Tanaka, who worked alongside Sheila, wrote: “Sheila deftly carried on the legacy that Patsy Aldana had built, publishing books that speak to a child’s sense of joy and wonder while continuing Groundwood’s commitment to books that are about something, that reflect a commitment to social justice and diversity issues, and children’s engagement with the world and with each other. She also had a great gift for friendship, and for collaboration. She really represented what we all love most about children’s book publishing.”

Author and creative producer Jon-Erik Lappano said: “Sheila was unafraid in her approach to stories. In conversations we had, she wasn’t primarily concerned with how well a story would sell. It didn’t need to fit neatly into a genre or have wide audience appeal. Sheila trusted in stories that needed to be told, and was confident that those stories would find an audience. She was also tough – she knew what you were capable of and would delicately push you until you found it in yourself. She invested time in crafting stories together.

Author Nadia Hohn added: “Sheila handled my stories with care. She gently took them and like Malaika’s Costume rinsed them with ‘rose water’ so they could shine through. She was a patient and caring editor.”

Sheila took chances. On stories, on people, and on ideas. She was bold, and her boldness brought so many beautiful and diverse stories into the Groundwood portfolio to share with readers everywhere.
I am deeply grateful for the chance she took on our story and for all the stories Sheila helped to tell children and adults here in Canada and around the world.”

Here in Toronto on a cool November night, Shelagh Rogers, a radio host for the CBC’s program “The Next Chapter,” and master of ceremonies for the Canadian Children’s Book Awards, took a moment at the beginning of the ceremony to pay tribute to Sheila.

In response, we spontaneously gave our missed friend a standing ovation.

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

Learn more about Shutta Crum.

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?

Well, the first big bump was wasting approximately eighteen years before I really buckled down and educated myself as to the process of breaking into print. (This was well before the ease of self-publishing that we have today.)

What happened was that I had been a children’s librarian for more than a decade and loved the books I worked with. So one day, prompted by a wonderful poem I’d read, as well as Cynthia Rylant’s great book When I Was Young In the Mountains (Puffin, 1982), I thought Dang! They’ve written my history. Mine! 

So to make a long story short, I wrote My Mountain Song (Clarion, 2003) and sent it out. It got one nicely handwritten rejection from Paula Morrow. (Little did I realize that hand-written notes were not the norm.)

I thought, okay . . . so maybe I just wasn’t meant to be a children’s book author. I put that manuscript in a drawer and did not pull it out for almost eighteen years!

(It was eventually published by Clarion and it became my fourth book.)

When I began to look forward to retirement from the library, I thought what do I want to do for the rest of my life? Write, of course.

So I began researching how one goes about getting a book published. At approximately the same time I came across a comment by Jane Yolen online. She’d posted that she’d just had seven rejections. Seven rejections! And she had over 200 books out at that time. (Many more today.)

Suddenly, it hit me . . . I’d put my manuscript away because I’d gotten one rejection. One. And here was Jane getting rejections almost every week!

Who the heck am I to get all bent out of shape about one rejection?

I learned that authors are rejected all the time—and, abracadabra, it wasn’t personal any more. I decided then and there that I’d join SCBWI, go to conferences and damn the rejections. I wouldn’t care how many I got. I got a lot! I ended up with over 300 rejections on a number of manuscripts before I got my first acceptance. Whew!

I still get rejections—all the time. But I try to look below the surface of those rejections, evaluate what the editor says and either revise, or move on. For one of my books I kept getting rejections that said something like this is a perfectly nice bedtime story, but how will it stand out among the thousands of other bedtime stories available?

I gathered all the rejections, studied them, and then reset my story in Canada under the northern lights. When I sent it to a Canadian publisher it was bought right away! It’s important to remember that often rejections can be learning opportunities.

Being stubborn is a good trait for an author (there are famous family stories about my stubbornness), and it certainly contributed to my now having sixteen books out in sixteen years. (Some years with none, some years with several being published.) However, I also owe a great deal to my supportive husband, family and writing colleagues.

 I think it’s essential to surround yourself with folks who want to see you succeed. It’s so hard to weather rejection from the publishing world. One has to have a sunnier, hopeful world to be in the rest of the time. I’d say this is essential to a writing career.

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

First of all, I wouldn’t have wasted 18 years before I educated myself about this new career I wanted. After all, I worked in a library. I could have started this journey earlier.

But then, what have I got to complain about? It’s been a wonderful ride thus far.

Perhaps, the one thing I have to remind myself of is that I do know the field, the books that are coming out, the writers kids love.

And I do know how to write. I need to trust my gut and not second guess myself so much when I’m dithering about something.

Should this be in first person point of view or third? Does this novel need a prologue? Is this picture book rhythm/plot overly complicated?

It seems to me that I spend a lot of time arguing with myself . . . but maybe it’s no more than any other writer. In the end, it’s all good.

If nothing else, I’m educating myself about myself and how my writing makes it to the page. (Though that tends to change with each book. Ha!)

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

The big change, of course, has been the electronic revolution in publishing; eBooks, PODs, self and independent publishing, all that. Wow!

I sold my first book at the tail end of 1998. At that time you could self-publish, but the cost was high, you had to do massive print runs and you had to warehouse your own books. And, of course, you had to do your own advertising and soliciting of reviews, etc. Too much to deal with!

I told myself that my books had to be published by a traditional publisher or no one. However, since all this new technology has evolved, I’ve changed my mind about a few things.

I do see that there might be a reason for me to independently publish—for example, a book that had its day in the limelight but is now out of print. Out-of-print books have been vetted by an editor, etc., and the prices to self-publish have come down drastically.

 Also, I’ve seen big changes in YA and in picture books, as well as the advent of the category “New Adult.” YA or teen books seem to ride popular waves these days—more so than when I was a working librarian. (I retired from the library in 2004.)

We always considered YA novels as “problem novels,” full of angst. Well, there’s still angst and conflicts, but these are delivered through more layering of genres. These titles are no longer simply contemporary, fantasy, science fiction, or mystery. They can be dystopian vampire comedy mysteries!

Sometimes it makes my head spin—perhaps this is why I don’t write a lot of what I would consider true YA. I do have one novel for sixth through ninth grade readers, but it only inches upon the whole varied world of YA. And I do like the occasional use of New Adult as a term for those readers in their early twenties, late teens—crossover readers.

In picture books I’ve seen so much creativity lately! There’re plots upon plots, metafictional books for little ones, breaking of the fouth wall, and physical interaction with books beyond pop-ups. This is just to name a few of the wonderful techniques being applied to picture book stories these days.

Have you seen Dan Santat’s Are We There Yet? (Little, Brown, 2016)? It’s a doozie that thoughtfully deepens the dreaded road trip with a child into a real experience by manipulating the book to tell the story. And Press Here by Hervé Tullet (Chronicle, 2011) was such a fun winner of a book. So simple, yet so creative!

I love all this experimenting that is going on in the world of picture books. And the illustrators! OMG!

There’s so much experimentation going on there. I adore Shaun Tan’s surrealistic illustrations. I could go on and on.

It’s a wonderful era for picture books—though it may make it more difficult for the newbie to break in. What they are up against is formidable.

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

I’d certainly join SCBWI as soon as I could! And I’d make sure I had a critique group who cared for me and my goals, so that they feel comfortable being honest with me when critiquing. A good crit group requires trust . . . and sometimes that takes a while to build up.

I’d tell myself—over and over—these long waiting periods are par for the course. I’d remind myself to enjoy the scenery every time I got lost in the rough.

Simply putt, I’d allow myself to worry less, and play through.

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

I’d wish for a whole lot of things for writers in the future!

Oh, things like better advances and royalties (writers can rarely live solely on their earnings), more money for the publishers, lots of publicity backed by publishing houses, easier routes to recognition, and a whole slew of kiddies with their arms and hearts open ready to hold you and your books.

In addition to all that, how about attentiveness? I’d wish that on all writers.

Folks who want to write for kids—at any level—really need to do their homework and read, read, read!
(Not just the books, but the criticism of them.)

And they need to be attentive to the world around them and recognize movements like We Need Diverse Books, and #MeToo. (I’m waiting for a YA to come out with that title.)

Books are born into a cultural context—just like we are—not a vacuum.

For readers I’d hope that the concern for diverse books doesn’t die out. We need the proverbial mirrors and windows so that all kids can find themselves while losing themselves in books.

Also, I’ve just read about a new Navajo dictionary that’s being created. Wonderful!

So many languages have fallen along the wayside . . . and so many more are endangered. I love words! We need words! There is room in this world for all.

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

Can I have all those goodies I listed in my answer to the question above?

Plus more venues to spread the good word. (I do speaking gigs, folks!)

I also want more wonderfully inventive picture books that I can read aloud and laugh over—or cry over. I want novels that invite me in and then surprise me while leaving footprints on my heart.

And I want even more writing buddies! Children’s book writers and illustrators are the best! I want to continue celebrating the successes of my colleagues and good books everywhere.

(Okay…now I’ll put down my cheerleader’s bullhorn. But not my purple pomp pomps. You can’t make me. No…back off….)

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 Voice: Gaye Sanders on The Survivor Tree

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Gaye Sanders is the debut author of The Survivor Tree, illustrated by Pamela Behrend (RoadRunner Press, 2017). From the promotional copy:

A family plants an American elm on the Oklahoma prairie just as the city is taking root—and the little tree grows as Oklahoma City grows until 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, the day America fell silent at the hands of one of its own.

As rubble from the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is cleared, the charred tree—its branches tattered and filled with evidence—faces calls that it be cut down. The only obstacle: a few people who marvel that, like them, it is still there at all.

The next spring when the first new leaf appears proving the tree is alive, word spreads like a prairie wildfire through the city and the world. And the tree, now a beacon of hope and strength, is given a new name: The Survivor Tree.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I have been an elementary teacher for 35 years, teaching second, third, and, most recently fourth grades. I’ve loved all of the ages, but fourth is by far my favorite. A few years ago, I began to think about my life after retirement, wondering what I could do.

To say I’ve always been a book nerd is an understatement, and I’ve consistently used literature in my teaching. I realized that I knew more about children’s literature than anything else, and made the decision to dive into this thing, writing for children, head first.

Important note: sometimes when you dive head first you hit rock bottom. I might not have hit rock bottom, but I wasn’t successful. That is, until I found SCBWI.

Being a member of SCBWI has helped me immeasurably in my writing career. In fact, I venture to say, had I not found this organization, I might have given up the dream by now.

Survivor Tree in New York City

All that aside, the most inspiring thing is seeing the looks of wonder on the faces of those children when you share a story with them.

 In the hard times, that’s what keeps me going. It’s not about me, it’s about them.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

When you are a writer, you rotate between writing, editing, and revising. But you are also, at all times, thinking about what your next story will be.

Many times, we choose the story we are writing. We may get a spark of an idea, and work to develop it into a full story. But sometimes, in those rare moments, a story finds us.

Almost four years ago, on a visit to New York City, my sister and I got to experience the 9-11 Memorial. During our visit to the gift shop, I discovered a book about the 9-11 Survivor Tree. Until that moment, I had not realized they had a survivor tree.

Their tree has a much different story than ours. It was recovered from some of the rubble and replanted, nursed back to health and transplanted to the grounds when the memorial was finished.

I decided to buy that book, and then find the book about our Survivor Tree. I came home and began to look for one, and that was when I discovered there wasn’t one.

There needed to be.

That idea sat on my heart for a couple of years. The seed of the idea planted itself there, and wouldn’t go away. And,I knew that a story had found me. A story that needed to be told.

Gaye at the Oklahoma City Memorial with Survivor Tree in the background.

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

My biggest challenges were in keeping to the heart of the story of this tree, telling the story of what happened, without putting the focus strictly on the bombing itself. I wanted this to be a story of hope, and how love conquers hate.

The text doesn’t mention the names of those responsible. We didn’t want the book to be about that. However, it does state that they were caught and would face the consequences. We wanted to make sure the children understood that.

At the same time, I didn’t want to gloss over the details too much, nor water it down. When the bombing happened, we, as a city and state, promised to never forget. This book is an offering to that promise.

There are no accounts of survivors or medical personnel individually, but the story does talk about how they came to help. In the list of those killed, the nurse who died as a result of injuries she sustained while serving in rescue is listed specifically for that.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial was more than helpful in allowing my research. I was honored to spend an entire day in the archives, going through photos, evidence lists, FBI notes, and more. It was a crucial part of the research.

But, you can’t research something like this without feeling it from deep within. I lived here when this awful travesty occurred, I knew people who lost family members, and I knew others who survived. So, needless to say, I shed more than my share of tears through this journey.

As an unagented author, how did you identify your editor and connect the manuscript with the publishing house?

After I wrote my story, I began subbing it out to agents. Most agents quickly responded with the standard reply of “While your writing is strong, this is not what we are looking for at this time…”

A fellow SCBWI (Oklahoma) member suggested I look into submitting to RoadRunner Press, a local traditional publisher. RoadRunner has published high quality children’s literature for nearly a decade, and several of their books have won the Oklahoma Book Award. I sent my submission and received an immediate response of yes!

Jeanne Devlin, the editor of RoadRunner, just so happened to be on the staff of Oklahoma Today when the bombing occurred. The magazine ran a special issue a few weeks after the bombing called 9:02 (the moment of the explosion). That issue is still sold, and has been a cornerstone for information about the hours and days following April 19, 1995.

Gaye and illustrator Pamela Behrend with the Survivor Tree at a book signing at the Oklahoma City Memorial.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

Gaye’s writing space

Teaching and writing are both careers that demand a lot out of you, but at least they’re compatible with one another. Transitioning from writer to author has required me to learn to compartmentalize, be organized, and commit.

By compartmentalize, I mean that when I’m teaching, I do my best to keep my focus there. I stay at school at least an extra hour every day so I can be on top of things, while not bringing home papers to grade or lesson plans to complete.

When I’m home, I devote a chunk of whatever time I have left to writing and revising, (because we are always moving on to the next manuscript.)
But in that time, I prioritize.

 If I have interview questions, book signings, or revisions from my editor, those take up a portion of my writing time. Plus, I know that the marketing and social media aspect are crucial in this day and age, and in this competitive world of being an author and selling books.

The committing is the tricky part. And sometimes, you have to forgo all the best intentions, and take some “me” time.

Read something just for pleasure, get out and take a walk, go see a great movie or live theater, go to an art museum, take a day trip. As writers, we all need those times. It’s how we “fill the well” of our creativity!

Cynsational Notes

Gaye Sanders teaches fourth grade at Mustang Public Schools, a suburb of Oklahoma City, and makes it a point to share the historic story of the Oklahoma City bombing with her students every year.

Born and reared in Fritch, Texas, she earned an associate’s degree from Frank Phillips Junior College and a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Oklahoma Panhandle State University.

She is an active member of SCBWI, and also a member of the National Education Association and the Oklahoma Education Association.

The mother of two grown sons, Gaye makes her home in Yukon, Oklahoma.

Cynsational News

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

Author/Illustrator Interviews

An Interview with Author Christina Soontornvat by Michele Weber Hurwitz from Smack Dab in the Middle. Peek:

“At its heart, a story has to be about what these characters want and need, deep in their souls, and the ways they overcome many obstacles to get there. So in that way, I think fantasy and realistic fiction are very similar!”

Allen Say: Pictures that Come Straight from the Heart by Julie Danielson from BookPage. Peek:

“Starting a new book is always exciting and scary. In this one, there was more scare than excitement…I had to find out how a child without hearing or speech—and possibly autistic and dyslexic—had managed to teach himself to draw and succeeded in producing a vast body of artwork from reclaimed wastepaper trash bins.”

The Chat with Governor General’s Award Winners David Alexander Robertson & Julie Flett by Trevor Corkum from 49th Shelf. Peek:

“I remember reading through the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action early in 2016, and how they called for Residential School history to be taught from kindergarten all the way to Grade Twelve. I knew there were excellent books about the history out there, but a lack of resources for very young learners.”

Picture Book Month: Why Picture Books Are Important from Picture Book Month champions (continued)


Some Truths, but Lots of Lies: Indigenous Peoples in Children’s Literature by Debbie Reese from ASU Libraries. Peek:

“I believe the books Native students read in school play a significant role in how Native students fare. Teachers and librarians have a role to play, too, in the success of Native students. For me—and I hope for you—that means selecting books that accurately portray Native people and our nations.” See also, Debbie’s Best Books of 2017.

The 2018 Ultimate List of Diverse Children’s Books by Mrs. G from Here Wee Read. Peek:

“I’m definitely looking forward to sharing most (if not all) of these books with my little readers. I tried to target books that will likely have: stunning illustrations, read aloud appeal, a kid-friendly theme – or all three!”

Four Native and Indigenous Creators and Comics You Should Know by Andrea Ayres from The Beat. Peek:

Native Realities Press is committed to producing and amplifying comics about, by and for Native and Indigenous people, something that is desperately needed.”

Where You Can Find Bilingual and Spanish Children’s Books by Sarah Ullery from Book Riot. Peek:

“Almost all public schools in the United States have an ESL (English as a Second Language) program, but it’s also equally important that English-speaking students are exposed early to a second language.”

Writing Craft

3 Ways to Boost Your Word Count Every Writing Session by Janice Hardy from Fiction University. Peek:

“Boosting your word count and increasing your productivity is easier than you’d think. A few small changes in your process can lead to big results.”

How Reading Rewires Your Brain for More Intelligence and Empathy by Derek Beres from Big Think. Peek:

“Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence as well. You make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.” 

When a protagonist goes missing… from A.B. Westrick‘s blog. Peek: from author Lindsey Lane:

“I like story structures that have space for the audience to enter in and make connections….As writers, we can ask the audience to lean in and make connections. We don’t have to spell everything out.”


7 Questions For: Public Relations Expert Fauzia Burke by Robert Kent from Middle Grade Ninja. Peek:

“Start early! Many authors come to me seeking advice a few weeks before publication, but I recommend authors begin building their online platforms (social media, blogging, website, etc.) at least 18-24 months before their book releases.”

Women Lead the Independent Publishing Movement by Cheryl Willis Hudson from CrazyQuiltEdi (part of the When Women Speak series). Peek:

“Because diverse communities have long hungered for authentic and self-affirming books for their children and because statistics have shown that books by people of color are only a small fraction of the books published by the industry as a whole, we knew that Just Us Books could not wait for larger publishing companies….”

Is It Too Late to Start Writing After 50? by Julie Rosenberg from Jane Friedman‘s blog. Peek:

“The depth of my experiences—both personally and professionally—have informed my world view and, with it, my writing.” 

2018 Writing Retreat

Join authors Cynthia Leitich Smith, Nikki Grimes, Bruce Coville, Debby Dahl Edwardson, Sarah Aronson, agent Michael Stearns and more for LoonSong: A Writers Retreat Sept. 6 to Sept. 10 in Minnesota. Peek:

“We offer a smorgasbord of activities for writers to pick from: stimulating lectures and panel discussions, writing prompts and workshops, readings and one-on-one marketing, agent, and editorial consultations.

“Participants will be invited to read their own work. An agent and editor will be present at all readings. Our presenters include seasoned writers, marketing specialists, an agent and an editor who will help you grow your career, develop new approaches to craft and think deeply about the writing life.”


Congratulations to winners of the TD Children’s Literary Awards, and nominees for the 49th NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens and Children!

We Need Diverse Books Names Its ‘Bookseller of the Year’ by Claire Kirch from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Sara Luce Look, the co-owner of Charis Books & More in Atlanta, is the winner…She is passionately devoted to building a better world through books and she does her research, making sure that each book on the shelf is not tokenizing a group or identity but deeply reflective of that group or culture’s true lived experience.” Note: Congratulations to Austin’s BookPeople, one of four finalists.

Call for Submissions: 2017 Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Canadian Picture Book Award.

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

Kekla, Cyn & E at Savannah Children’s Book Festival

On Nov. 17 and 18th, I had the honor of participating in the Savannah Children’s Book Festival. The 17th was dedicated to a teen event, and I appeared on a YA panel with fellow authors Kekla Magoon and E. Lockhart (pictured to either side of me).

Our teen audience was outstanding–attentive and thoughtful in asking questions. The librarian hosts were top notch and absolutely lovely to visit with. And I adored Savannah.

It’s a gorgeous, friendly city and offers up some of the best (and richest) food in the nation. Kekla and I stayed an extra day at the hotel to work on manuscripts on the hotel veranda.

Since then I’ve been busy with copyedits on my upcoming YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, January 2019). I dropped off my marked-up copy to go out via FedEx yesterday morning.
It was a fairly straightforward process, though I did need to include a copy of a newspaper quote from the 1890s and struggled a bit with my own style of capitalization, influenced in part by high school newspaper style, which is thematic to the story.

Meanwhile, I’m reflecting on the memory of Frances Lee Hall, one of my former advisees in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Frances died in 2016, and the grief is still fresh. She was a wonderful writer and a lovely person.

Her agent, Marietta B. Zacker, sold her middle grade novel manuscript, “Lily Lo and the Wonton Maker,” to Egmont USA in late 2013. Unfortunately, the international published closed its U.S. operations about a year later and canceled the contract. Frances didn’t live to see her book published.

But her writing group is working to make her dream come true now. You can pre-order a copy (or two or three) from Inkshares. If they don’t make their 750 order mark, all money will be refunded. If the book goes to print, proceeds will go to a scholarship fund for Frances’s daughter Emmie.

The musical production of “A Christmas Carol” at Austin’s Zach Theater is recommended!

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (HarperCollins) featured on picturebooks4learning.

6 YA Books To Celebrate Native American Heritage Month by Kristen Carter from BookRiot. YA books by Native American authors about Native American characters including Feral Nights (book one in the Feral trilogy) by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick).
More Personally – Gayleen 

Robin and Gayleen; Bethany Hegedus with students at The Writing Barn.

The Cynsations interns (AKA Cynterns) enjoyed an afternoon together with Cynthia in Austin. We talked books, writing and blogging. Lots of fantastic posts in the works!

I was also very inspired by young writers this week. On Tuesday, I had the honor of assisting Bethany Hegedus at The Writing Barn, hosting a sixth grade field trip. The students’ enthusiasm and excitement about how they could Be The Change gave me hope for the future! On Wednesday, I shared a few ARCs and writing tips with a high school Girl Scout troop completing their Novelist badge.

Personal Links – Cynthia