Author-Teacher Interview: Gene Luen Yang on Writing, Teaching & the Hamline MFA Program

Lean more about Cartoonist and Teacher Gene Luen Yang.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Welcome to Cynsations. We last spoke to Dean Mary Francoise Rockcastle about the Hamline MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults back in 2006.

When did you join the faculty? What appealed to you about teaching in a low-residency program?

I joined the faculty of the Hamline MFAC program in the summer of 2012. I visited maybe a year or two before that as a guest speaker. I was only there for a day or two, but I was immediately impressed by the sense of community.

Hamline is a community centered around stories. Everyone is there to learn, and everyone is there to teach.

The low-residency program makes for an intimate experience. This past semester, for instance, I worked with three students. Some faculty take on more, of course, but not that many more.

 When you’re working at that scale, you can give a lot of individualized attention. I can get to know them as writers. I can be more invested in their stories.

What has teaching taught you about your own creative craft and process?

Laura Ruby at Hamline; cover of The Real Boy by Anne Ursu (Walden Pond)

I can give you very, very concrete answers here. This semester, one of my students wrote a critical essay on metafiction. Another wrote one about panel shapes in graphic novels. Both were thoughtful and well-researched. Both made me think differently about the project I’m currently working on.

A few semesters ago, my fellow faculty member Laura Ruby (winner of the 2016 Printz Award) gave a lecture on the objective correlative. I think about that all the time now, whenever I’m writing.

Like, all. The. Time.

And those are just a handful of examples. A community has collective wisdom, so when you’re a part of a community, you get to tap into that wisdom.

In addition, preparing and delivering a lecture forces you to really wrestle with your ideas. I’ve always worked through plot and characterization and setting by instinct, which is kind of like walking through your own room in the dark. You know where everything is, generally speaking, but you’re still going to stub your toe every now and then. Teaching plot and characterization and setting is like turning on the light.

Who else is on the faculty, and how would you describe the culture of your learning community?

I have to tell you, the Hamline faculty roster is stacked. Here’s the full list of my fellow faculty members: Swati AvasthiKelly BarnhillCoe BoothMarsha Wilson ChallMatt de la PeñaLisa Jahn-CloughEmily JenkinsRon KoertgeNina LaCourMary LogueJacqueline Briggs MartinMeg Medina, Claire Rudolf MurphyPhyllis RootLaura RubyGary SchmidtEliot SchreferSherri L. SmithLaurel Snyder, and Anne Ursu.

Learn more about Emily Jenkins.

My co-teachers have won practically every award offered by the literary world. Plus, we have folks working in every kids’ book age demographic, publishing format, and genre.

I’ve experienced Hamline to be a place that welcomes every kind of story. The MFAC folks are willing to grow and push and learn.

From your own experience (and those who came before), what growth and changes have you/they seen in your program?

I’ve seen students grow in skill, of course. They come away with better understandings of the craft itself. They learn to critique constructively. They learn to structure and revise. They learn to give from themselves through story.

And just as importantly, they learn to call themselves writers. Many of us write in isolation. Many of us are in families or friend groups that enjoy stories, but don’t really see their relevance. Many of us feel embarrassed to call ourselves writers.

Being a part of a writing community, getting to discuss the minute details of what makes a story work… if you haven’t yet given yourself permission to call yourself a writer, it may be because you need to join a writing community.

Could you describe a typical residency?

Residencies are about nine days long.

Kate DiCamillo teaches a master class at Hamline.

Most mornings, we break into small groups to critique student work. In the afternoons, we have lectures about the residency’s topic.

Topics go through a five-residency cycle: point-of-view, setting, plot, character, theme.

Faculty will sometimes lead workshops focusing on a specific skill.

 Gary Schmidt has done one on writing a great opening chapter. Swati Avasthi taught one on manipulating time.

I’ve done a workshop on writing a graphic novel script.

How about a typical advisor-advisee semester of writing and study?

At the end of the residency, students are assigned a faculty advisor. Each student meets with their advisor to talk over goals and figure out a game plan. Then, over the course of a semester, the student turns in four packets, typically one a month. Packets usually contain forty pages of writing.

Based on the previously-discussed goals, faculty will go over the packet and write a response letter. Some faculty also do phone calls. I usually have an email exchange in addition to the response letter. My relationship with my students is a bit like my editor’s relationship with me.

What do you like best about teaching at Hamline?

I love being a part of the Hamline community. I know I’m there to teach, but I feel like I learn so much.

I love hearing how other writers working in other formats and genres approach their craft. I love seeing my students grow in their storytelling prowess. I love seeing them grow in their confidence.

What would you say to a prospective children’s-YA writer who is considering graduate study?

Find yourself a writing community. Hamline isn’t right for everyone. Low-residency programs in general aren’t right for everyone. However, if you haven’t been able to find a community that suits your needs, or if anything I’ve said up to this point strikes a chord, check us out.

More personally, what was your own apprenticeship like?

I found a community. Early on, I fell in with a group of other comic book creators. We were all in our twenties. We were all at the start of our careers. We were all living in the Bay Area.

For years, we met once a week to write and draw together, and to look over each other’s work.

I never went to an MFA program, so I consider that experience my MFA program equivalent. Almost everyone in that group has now been published in one form or another.

Do you have any particular insights to share for those interested in creating graphic-format literature?

Read lots of comics.

Read lots of everything, but especially comics.

Read all of Scott McCloud‘s craft books: Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2006)(all William Morrow).

Work through Jessica Abel and Matt Madden‘s Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (First Second, 2008).

After that, give it a go. There are no rules to making comics.

You can write a script or go straight to thumbnail sketches. You can use just about any drawing implement you want to make your pictures. Pick a strategy and a set of tools – don’t worry about whether they’re the right choices because you’re not going to know until you’ve given them a try – and go.

What do you wish you had done differently? What choices were especially fruitful?

I am so, so fortunate to have had the journey I’ve had. I’m not sure I would have done anything differently, for fear of jinxing the whole thing.

I’ve just been incredibly blessed.

My most fruitful choice was joining that group of cartoonists when I was starting out. I got my first publisher through that group. Once one of us got connected, we would introduce everyone else.

What new or recent release of yours should we be sure to read?

I hope you’ll check out Secret Coders (First Second, 2017-), the middle grade graphic novel series I’m doing with my friend Mike Holmes. Mike and I are blending a mystery story with coding lessons. The fifth and sixth volumes come out this year.

I also hope you’ll check out the New Super-Man monthly comic series from DC Comics. I’m writing and Brent Peeples is doing the pencils.

We’re telling the story of a brand-new character in the DC Universe: Kenan Kong, a seventeen year old Chinese kid who inherits Clark Kent’s powers and becomes the Super-Man of China.

What about that project sparked your imagination? What did it teach you in terms of craft and process?

Secret Coders is my first explicitly educational project. I was a high school computer science teacher for 17 years, so I’ve always been interested in education. Mike and I wanted to figure out how to use comics to teach.

I’ve done some things well and some things not so well. There are a few instances when I let the educational aspect overwhelm the narrative aspect. I think balance is key. Balance is always key.

What was it like, being a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature? Is there a moment that stands out in your memory?

Serving as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature was perhaps the biggest honor of my life. I loved meeting Dr. Carla Hayden for the first time at the National Book Festival. I loved meeting young readers, young authors, and young cartoonists. I don’t care what anyone says about videogames or YouTube or whatever. Kids today love books. Kids today are absolutely hungry for stories, and they love getting their stories through the pages of a good book.

What do you hope for the children’s-YA creative community, looking into the future?

I hope for diversity in every sense of the word. I hope people from every corner of our society will tell their stories, and I hope they find folks who will listen to their stories. I hope authors will try out different publishing formats and genres. Heck, I hope authors invent new publishing formats and genres! I hope our world will be guided and nourished by good stories.

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich SmithRobin Galbraith,
Gayleen Rabukukk & Kate Pentecost for Cynsations

Author/Illustrator Insights

The 3 Different Audiences Cherie Dimaline Wrote the YA Novel The Marrow Thieves For from CBC. Peek:

“I’m getting asked these incredibly insightful, reflective and mature questions. I had a 15-year-old in Vancouver ask me a few weeks ago, ‘How can I be a better ally for Indigenous communities without taking up space?’ And I thought, ‘Wow! Am I ever happy you’re our future!'” 

Get Inspired with Jennifer Mathieu from Blue Willow Bookshop. Peek:

“I think being an educator influences me in that it reminds me all the time of who my audience is. I’m reminded on a regular basis that teenagers are far more intelligent, compassionate, and complex than we think and that they can handle tough subjects and books that have nuance and complexity.”

Erin E. Moulton And Things We Haven’t Said by Adi Rule from The Launch Pad. Peek:

“I was tasked with weeding the teen nonfiction section and I came upon the 300s. There were some great resources on rape and sexual assault for adult readers, but far less for teen survivors. I started to wonder, what would a good teen resource look like?”

Four Questions for Varian Johnson by Emma Kantor from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“I started writing in the first-person perspective, all in the present day. But I realized…that I couldn’t do the story justice without seeing what happened in the past…This became a good opportunity to juxtapose race relations and issues in the past with …the present…”

It Gives Me a Tremendous Amount of Hope: Author Hena Khan on Kids, Tolerance, and the Universal Experience of Middle School by Melanie Boyer from First Book. Peek:

“My ultimate goal is to create layered and multidimensional characters that all types of people can relate to—male or female, young or old, from any ethnic and religious background.”

Five Questions for Winifred Conkling by Kitty Flynn from the Horn Book. Peek:

(advice for young activists today) “Stay strong. The first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920. Change takes sustained effort over a long period of time.”


The Movement Will Fail Without Intersectionality from Tracey Baptiste. Peek:

“it’s to your advantage to help others, even if in the short-term it comes at some cost to you. There are three things at work here, ‘direct reciprocity’ (I help you and you help me), ‘indirect reciprocity’ (I help you and someone else sees I’m helpful and helps me later)…”

How to Be More Inclusive of Nonbinary, Genderneutral, and Trans* People in Your Spaces from Dill Werner. Peek:

“I voiced my issues with the language used in Kidlit Women and how I felt excluded. I was heard. Grace Lin asked me to come into the private group and share ways they could be more inclusive toward nonbinary and trans* people. So, here I am.”

KidLitWomen: Combating Invisibility of Transgender Kids by Lindsay H. Metcalf and Traci Sorell from Nerdy Book Club. Peek:

“In most of the libraries where George (Scholastic, 2015) has been withheld from children, the gatekeepers have been women—usually white women. #Kidlitwomen is about making the children’s book industry better for women, but it’s imperative to realize that feminism is intersectional.”

Where Is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results from Lee & Low Books. Peek:

“The diversity problem is not the responsibility of diverse people to solve. It is a problem for everyone to solve. Now that the Diversity Baseline Survey is completed, the real work toward changing the status quo begins.”

Defying Odds and Changing Perspective: A New Kind of Intensive by Sophie Velasquez from The Writing Barn. Peek:

“‘Being marginalized means that your stories, your work, your concerns, your educational needs, your wild hopes and dreams, can often be pushed to the side, made harder to realize or even to give voice to,’ Amy Rose (Capetta) says…. ‘Even though writing appears solitary, writing craft is collaborative.’”

Letter to an Emerging Indigenous Writer by Daniel Heath Justice from Lit Hub. Peek:

“You’re part of a lineage, a tradition, a rich, vexed, complicated, troubled, and beautiful history of literary achievement. That can be a deep wellspring from which to draw strength.”

Why Kids Need LGBTQ+ Middle-grade Books by Kristin McWilliams from Intellectual Freedom Blog. Peek:

“When I read Barbara Dee’s middle-grade novel Star-Crossed (Aladdin, 2017)…I cried. All of the yearning and excitement I felt as a seventh-grade girl with a crush on another girl came back to me while reading.”

LGBTQ+ Diversity in YA Novels is Getting Better, But Queer Girls are Still Getting Left Behind by Alaina Leary from Bustle. Peek from Kayla Whaley:

“’Most queer girls in YA have historically been white, abled, and cis, so I think addressing that needs to be a major priority,” she says, “while focusing in on specifics, like the extreme paucity of traditionally published Black authors and the ways anti-Blackness operates in YA generally and queer YA.’”

Writing Craft

Writing Mysteries for Girls by Sheela Chari from Nerdy Book Club. Peek:

“If a girl knows how to wrestle an alligator, that’s fine. But we should also celebrate a range of experience, by considering quiet girls, smart girls, and girls who get things done with their wits alone. The flip side is that we should see boys inhabit these spaces, too…”

How Writers Can Bring Setting to Life Through Personification by Becca Puglisi from Live Write Thrive. Peek:

“When it comes to enhancing the setting, one of the most effective figurative language techniques is that of personification: adding human characteristics to an inanimate object. Done well, this can add a sense of movement and emotion to an otherwise sterile scene.”

Visual Thinking by Anne Greenwood Brown from Writer Unboxed. Peek:

“Mind maps are great for brainstorming all the elements you want to include in the scene and depicting how contrasting ideas will play off each other.”

Writing Compelling Novel Opening Pages by Mary Kole from Peek:

“Conflict and action hook a reader and transport them into your story. This is exactly the goal of your novel’s opening. So start in action, start with conflict. You may want to use a smaller, scene-specific conflict (or “bridging conflict“) to get readers on the bus initially.”

4 Mistakes to Avoid When Building Suspense in Your Novel by Laurence MacNaughton from Fiction University. Peek:

“Remember: suspense is all about asking questions. Building suspense in your novel is not a one-time event. It’s a constant process. You have to continually pose crucial questions throughout your book, starting in the very beginning, and keep the reader asking questions faster than you answer them.”


Women! Read Your Royalty Statements! from Jacqueline Davies. Peek:

“You can’t change how much you earn until you understand how you earn it. As an author or illustrator, you are running a business, and the details of your royalty statement give you vital information about the way your business functions.”

Women in Translation by Avery Fischer Udagawa from SCBWI. Peek:

“Only about 14% of combined Batchelder books by women were written in languages of Asia or the Middle East, and none were written in African or South American languages.”

No More All-Male Panels: A Pledge in Solidarity with #kidlitwomen from Mike Jung. Peek:

“I don’t organize events myself, I can pro-actively communicate with event organizers who extend their invitations to me. I can ask who the other presenters/panelists are, and if it’s an exclusively male lineup, I can voice my concern, and suggest names of people who aren’t men that could be added.”

No More All-White Panels: A Pledge from Laurel Snyder. Peek:

“We can’t change everything overnight, but we can refuse to participate in the marginalization of our colleagues and friends. We can hope that our example draws attention from conference and festival organizers, from publishers, booksellers, educators, reviewers, and others. If enough of us join together, perhaps diverse panels will become the rule, not the exception.”

Meet My Agent Jordan Hamessley from Caroline Leech. Peek:

“I’m getting several hundred queries a month and I request about three manuscripts a week, but it all comes down to selling me in the query and the pages.” 

An Interview with Regina Hayes by Leonard S. Marcus from The Horn Book. Peek:

“Lane [Smith], this thin, shy young man, came in with his portfolio of really astonishing artwork, but I didn’t have anything for him at the time. It required a particular type of manuscript. And he said, ‘Well, maybe you’d like this story my friend wrote.’ And he pulled out Jon’s [Scieszka] manuscript..” 

Interview With Amanda Isabel Ramirez of Simon & Schuster from Justin Colón. Peek:

“…too often that I see writers not taking into account ‘the rules’ of publishing – putting in the proper research, revising, revising, revising, writing query letters, etc….There are a lot of letters between A (write the thing) and Z (publish the thing), and you can’t expect to have a full alphabet without them.”

Going It Alone as an Austistic Woman Author from Lyn Miller-Lachmann. Peek:

“I think there are ways publishing can change to be more friendly to neurodiverse authors, and I believe that the industry can and should accommodate rather than ask us to do all the changing.”

Canceled Deals and Pulped Books, as the Publishing Industry Confronts Sexual Harrassment by Alexandra Alter from The New York Times. Peek:

“We are losing talent because of this, and we need to find a way to privilege the women who have been hurt over the men who make publishing houses a lot of money.” 

Internship Opportunities from The Texas Book Festival. Peek:

“The Texas Book Festival and the Texas Teen Book Festival offer ongoing unpaid internships designed to introduce qualified applicants to editorial, marketing and publicity, and development work, and other aspects of publishing, nonprofit organizations, and event planning.”

Submission Guidelines from Foreshadow: A Serial YA Anthology. Peek:

“We are seeking original YA short stories…The deadline to be published in our first issues of 2019 will be September 1, 2018.”

Writers for Hope Auction. Peek:

“Through this fundraiser you can bid on writing work critiques, consultation calls, signed books, signed CDs and book-related accessories and experiences.100% of the money raised by this event goes directly to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the United States’ largest anti-sexual assault organization.”


Congratulations to Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award! Peek:

“…the world’s largest award for children’s and young adult literature. The award amounts to 5 million Swedish krona (approx. $613,000 or EUR 500 000) and is given annually to a single laureate or to several.

The citation of the jury reads:
“Jacqueline Woodson introduces us to resilient young people fighting to find a place where their lives can take root. In language as light as air, she tells stories of resounding richness and depth.’” 

See also an interview with Jackie about receiving the award from ALMA.

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Giveaway

Congratulations to Linda Carpenter who won a signed copy of Love, Mama by Jeannette Bradley (Roaring Brook, 2018).

More Personally – Cynthia

I’m pleased to announce that Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) is now in its seventh paperback printing. Thanks to all for your ongoing support and enthusiasm!

It’s surreal to think back on a story that started as a scribbling draft back in 2000 and spawned–really no better word for it–a six-book prose-graphic series, three-book spinoff, and three short stories published in anthologies.

Honors included:

  • Top Ten Pick, Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) list of 2011 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults in the “What’s Cooking?” category (“tasty reads to fill your belly and warm your soul”) 
  • New York Public Library Book for the Teenage 
  • Featured Title, National Book Festival 
  • 2007-2008 Texas Library Association Tayshas List 
  • Chapters (Canada) Junior Advisory Board (JAB) Pick 
  • Featured Title, Texas Book Festival 
  • Featured Title, Kansas Book Festival 

Will you be at the Texas Library Association Conference in Dallas next week or the American Library Association Conference in New Orleans in June?

I’ll be speaking on a panel, “What’s New with Texas MG and YA Authors” (event #296), with Jessica Lee Anderson, Samantha M. Clark, TaraDairman, P.J. Hoover (moderator), Cynthia Levinson, Mari Mancusi, and Cory Putman Oakes from 2:45 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. April 3 at TLA. Come to my signing from 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. in Aisle 12 of the Author’s Area on April 4. I’ll also be participating in a ticketed event, the Texas Tea: Meet and Greet with YA Authors from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. April 5.

I also be speaking on a panel, “Native YA Today: Contemporary Indigenous Voices and Heroes for the 21rst Century & Beyond,” with Alia Jones (moderator), Joseph Bruchac, Eric Gansworth, and Dawn Quigley. It’s scheduled from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. June 23.

More Personally – Gayleen

I met author Brad Wagnon in person last weekend while he was in Austin giving a talk on Cherokees during the Civil War. (See Traci’s interview with Brad.)

Not only was it a rare treat to connect in person with the subject of a post I had formatted, but it was also enlightening to learn details of history largely ignored during both my high school and college classes on Oklahoma history.

I was also thrilled to have my essay, The Parrot featured on Rebekah Manley’s blog, Brave Tutu. Peek: “Each time we turn away from things that scare us, we give them more power. Only by taking that brave leap can we learn to soar.”

Personal Links – Robin

“Concerted Cultivation” and the March For Our Lives

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick: Let’s Make a Plan: Reminders from Early Childhood Education

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I walk into a classroom at the extraordinary early childhood center where I work, and watch a teacher kneeling or sitting at the height of one of her two-year-olds, one hand holding his, eyes meeting eyes.

Noah, I can see you’re having a hard time finding a way to play with Ari. Let’s make a plan for how you can do this. You could either play with a different toy, or wait until your friend finishes. Which one would you like to choose?

I get goosebumps listening. This signals: Important.

And there’s a lifting sensation in my chest – relief – and I see the same thing in the little one’s calmer face and body.

This kind of scene reminds me of how appreciative I am of the power of my brain to help me find pathways out of a place of confusion (What should I do now?) and frustration (I want something, but I don’t know how to get it!).

I was there this year. I’m pretty sure others have been there too (and I’m always grateful when I come across an open and honest post that describes these vulnerable part of our creative journey).

We adults find ourselves in parallel situations, not overwhelmed because we want to use the stethoscope from the doctor kit, but for other reasons that are as complex to us as the toys are to the two-year-old.

I found myself in this emotional environment this past year after an unpredictable disappointment, which I refuse to call it a disaster even though that’s how it felt at the time (I could never let myself put it in the same category as anything that involved human safety or life).

After recovering sufficiently from the shock, I put away a manuscript that was, and is, close to my heart. Then I turned on my journey to gaze into the empty spaces of Next.

And there, as I headed to the land of Next, I got lost.

Not right away, but ultimately.

At first, my brain filled with questions, all of which felt like I was digging into my own body and pulling out strings of things – anything, something! – that would be meaningful. I wrote poetry, revised picture books, wrote new work that I loved.

I took an intensive picture book writing/revision course online that kept my mind occupied every day for five weeks with reading, writing, critique, webinars, and submissions. I had two dozen verses that I thought might turn into the next big project, believing or maybe just hoping that persistence would open a door to where any of this was going.

I told myself I didn’t care, because I was writing, and that’s what mattered to me.

And while that was true to some extent, I began to grow a little impatient.

But my next project evaded me. Nothing held. Nothing embedded itself in the parts of my brain that handle the heart and the cognition that unite for what feels like passionate belief in a work in progress. Nothing needed me.

I kept writing, but I knew this would not do for much longer. As I figuratively looked around at all the options I had pulled out of myself – picture books, poetry for adults, the couple dozen verses about a loss in my younger life that could be the centerpiece of middle grade or young adult fiction, or turn into a memoir – I began to feel confused and overwhelmed with too many options.

That’s when I knew I was lost.

That’s when I knew, like the early childhood teachers I have the honor of watching every day, that the lost part of me, the little girl inside the adult, needed a plan. And more than that, I needed and wanted help to create the plan.

The minute I contacted my chosen helpers to set up time to talk, I felt relief and hope.

The difference in creating my plan was that it had to be purposeful, crafted carefully to take into account the realities of the publishing business, a full-time day job that I love, financial concerns, and my introverted personality that no one much knows about except when it comes roaring to the front lines when I attend gatherings of writers.

This plan – very different than setting “goals,” by the way – created specific steps to accomplish in a fairly clear order – gives me plenty of work to fill the next few years.

The plan itself, and the connection with my plan-mentors, nudged me forward on a new path that carried me away from the intersection where I’d been stuck. I never felt unproductive, but I’d begun to feel like my daily writing was creating a nest, rather than helping me walk forward.

My new plan does not answer the question of what my next writing project will be. But perhaps that’s because I was not really finished with the previous one.

Rescued from my files, I’m about to begin yet another revision. What will happen to it, I do not know. But I feel for the first time in many months that every day I move my own story ahead.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick’s middle grade novel in verse, Reeni’s Turn, recently won an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition
A story of resilience and self-discovery that confronts the issue of body bias for a younger readership, an early version of Reeni’s Turn was also awarded Finalist in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Award at Hunger Mountain. 
Her essays and articles on emotional resilience and the writer’s inner journey can be found in the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind as well as on Cynsations.

Intern Insights: Kate Pentecost on Four Writing Tips from My Boy Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro
(image from The Shape of Water media kit)

by Kate Pentecost 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro has been My Boy for a long time, way before his monster romance The Shape of Water took home Best Picture and Best Director at the 90th annual Academy Awards ceremony and was nominated for scores of others.

He’s My Boy in that way that some musicians are Your Boy (or Girl, or otherwise.)

I vibe with what he makes, for the most part, and immediately buy and love pretty much anything he puts out.

I love Guillermo del Toro.

My husband and I even cosplayed as characters from his recent kaiju movie, Pacific Rim.

Kate and husband cosplay Pacific Rim characters.

But Guillermo del Toro is a lot of people’s Boy. His films are beloved worldwide. They resonate with people all over the world, and as he has risen in prestige, he has proven, time and again, that “genre” films can be just as emotionally resonant and human as the most heart-tugging realistic biopic. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from him, no matter whether we write “genre” or realism.

1. Know your roots (to break with tradition in a meaningful way)

If Guillermo del Toro is one thing, it is well read in his field. Famously so.

He has spent a long time reading and appreciating important pieces of literature and watching important films in the genres in which he creates.
Because of his extensive study (notice I said “study” not “reading”) in fairy tales and fantasy, he was able to create his groundbreaking film “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a fairy tale interconnected with the Spanish Civil War.

He created a story which follows the structure of a Grimm or Perrault-style fairy tale flawlessly. But because of his study and expertise, he also successfully broke with tradition and created something really unique.

This comes with the other half of the film, which centers on the protagonist’s struggles in real-world Spanish Civil War era Spain. The story in the real world runs parallel to the story in the fairy tale world that Ofelia, the protagonist, wishes she could escape to. This blend of the classic and the new lends several more layers of meaning and a beautiful raw ambiguity to the ending.

Moral of the story: know the roots of your genre. Become an expert on the rules of whatever genre you’re working in, so you can understand when and how to break or amend them.

2. Craft monsters carefully, even human ones.

Guillermo del Toro is extremely well-known for his creature design. Just look at any of his designs from “Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Pacific Rim,” or “The Shape of Water.” But his designs aren’t just pretty. They mean something.

For example, in “Pan’s Labyrinth” (yes, I’m coming back to that for a moment) one of the most terrifying creatures is the Pale Man. Would you believe that this monster is meant to portray something larger than itself?

These are del Toro’s own words on the matter:

 “The Pale Man represents all institutional evil feeding on the helpless.
It’s not accidental that he is A) pale B) a man. He is thriving now.”
– Guillermo del Toro via Twitter. @realGDT

The Pale Man
(image from Pan’s Labyrinth media kit)

And it makes sense. He is a pale, vicious, mute creature who refuses to let anything be taken from a table heaping with more food than he could possibly enjoy.

He is a character who attacks and consumes those weaker than him whom he believes pose a threat to his table of plenty. And is that not the story of Western imperialism?

But it’s not only del Toro’s villainous monsters that we can take notes on.

“The Shape of Water” is a passion project of Guillermo del Toro’s, stemming from a love for the titular creature from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

In his creation of Amphibian Man, del Toro was able to successfully turn expectations on their heads, taking this character from monster to hero and romantic interest.
And design (or for us, description) is how he pulled it off.

Though the character is inhuman, the design focuses on expression and humanity. The character has vibrant colors and pleasing lines rather than murky, gross colors and intimidating angles. He has an expressive face and large, inquisitive eyes. (He also has a scaly six-pack, but, hey, it’s a romance.)

We are easily able to see the humanity within this creature, especially when he’s contrasted with the villain, Richard Strickland.

Strickland’s design is all hard lines and angles, all black and white (mirroring his mentality.) He is toxic masculinity personified. And what better to make that understood than to present him as a tall, classically attractive man in a suit?

This design paired with his actions (cruelty, savagery, being so afraid being seen as weak that he tries to force his severed fingers back onto his body even as they decay) helps us understand the meaning of this monster: that he is afraid of disability, afraid of change, afraid of the world being anything other than how he, a white man in a suit, demands of it.

Michael Shannon as Strickland
(image from The Shape of Water media kit)

All monsters mean something. Be sure you understand what you’re really saying with monsters and villains, and that their description and actions enhance their meaning.

3. Environment Details that Enhance the Story 

Another of the things that Guillermo del Toro is known for is really beautiful, intriguing sets—sets that often have as much of a story to tell as his characters.

In his Gothic, “Crimson Peak,” the heroine is whisked away to a mansion far away to marry a mysterious lord. But when she arrives, she sees that the mansion itself is in quite a state of advanced decay, but the lord and ladies of the house (the lord’s sister lives in the house as well) live around the decay as well as they can.

This house is really something.
Leaves and snow fall through the ceiling into the foyer (which I can’t find a good picture of!) The machinery from the lord’s inventions carve deep into the blood red clay that gives the mansion its name and the movie its title.

These details give new dimension to the “haunted house,” taking it from just a backdrop to a unique character in and of itself: a house that is also a corpse. A house whose decay (in the Gothic tradition) mirrors the protagonist’s own mental or emotional decay. The result is a set that is not just important but vital to the message of the film.

Think about your own settings. Does the baseball field in your realistic young adult novel feel sad, with its sagging, rusted chain link fence and grass so dry it’s gone almost gray? Does the home of an angry step-parent in your middle grade novel feel sharp, full of things like kettles about to boil and couches that seem ready to give way under one’s weight at any moment? Is your setting a character too? Or just a backdrop?

But the last and most important lesson we can learn from Guillermo del Toro is this:

4. Pay attention to your ending. 

Living in the world we’re in right now takes its toll on us every day. The news seems to be growing increasingly bad.

Talks of nuclear war, of shootings, of seemingly unstoppable climate change dominate the airwaves. We are the closest we’ve been to midnight on the Doomsday Clock in half a century. Fear is all but inescapable, and it is tempting to let this fear creep into our writing.

Though Guillermo del Toro is a master of horror, and someone who has seen more than his share of actual dead bodies in Jalisco, his endings are never hopeless. He never goes for the easy, nihilistic, hopelessness that I’ve seen in so many other horror films.

Instead, when asked about his endings, he had this to say:

“I think when we wake up in the morning, we can choose between fear and love.
Every morning. And every morning, if you choose one, that doesn’t define you
until the end… The way you end your story is important. It’s important that we
choose love over fear, because love is the answer.” 

Ivana Baquero as Ofelia
(image from Pan’s Labyrinth media kit)

This quote reminded me of why I write for kids in the first place: to create stories that restore faith in humanity rather than break it.

Am I saying that every ending you ever write has to be happy?

No. Guillermo del Toro’s certainly aren’t all what you’d call “happy.”

All I’m saying is that, in writing for kids in times when everything seems hopeless, it is more vital than ever that the opportunity for happiness, peace and love is present in our endings.

Because it is our responsibility to create worlds that are not hopeless. It is our responsibility to create worlds in which kids can change the world for the better, and we have to understand that above all else.

From monster-punching robots to sexy fish men, to haunted houses to labyrinthine passages into fantasy, My Boy Guillermo del Toro is out there making his mark on the world. And hopefully with these lessons, you can too.

So get out there and write what you love!

Kate Pentecost holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She is obsessed with the Romantic Poets and can be identified by the enormous tattoo of Percy Bysshe Shelley on her arm.

She lives in Houston with her husband.

Kate is the YA author of Elysium Girls (Hyperion, winter 2020).

She is represented by Sara Crowe of Pippin Properties.

Survivors: K.L. Going on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about K.L. Going.

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?

For me, it has been all about adaptation. Allowing myself to write in a broad array of genres has helped me to remain active as a writer.

This was definitely something I needed to give myself mental permission to do since the “formula” for success (if there is one!) is to write a series, or at the very least, produce the same sort of book so your readers know what to expect and you can build a strong, core audience. You can then create a marketing brand that sells you and your work. But that was never going to be me, and at a certain point I needed to let go of that ideal.

My biggest hurdle was adapting to parenthood, which completely changed not only the amount of time available for my writing, but also the quality of that time. Once I had my son, I no longer had long, quiet stretches of time, but rather short bursts.

Writing picture books is a long-term process (sometimes I work on a picture book for years), but each individual work session can be shorter. Writing novels takes me longer to get into the mind-set and to reach the point where I can write new material.

When Ashton was young, I was reading picture books aloud to him, so I was immersed in that world, but I stopped having time to read full-length novels. The realities of my life changes meant that I was ready to make a shift in what I was producing.

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

I was working on Pieces of Why (Kathy Dawson Books, 2015) when I got pregnant. I didn’t push myself to finish it before my son was born because I had very unrealistic expectations about how soon I’d get back to writing.

I had no idea the ways that being a mom would change the course of my life!

If I could go back, I would have pushed myself harder during that pre-baby time period because it was a really long while before I felt ready to write again.

For writers, our primary tool is our brain and for my brain to work at its best, I need to be well-rested, focused, and immersed in the alternate world I’m creating.

Once my son was born, well-rested went out the window, focus was a thing of the past, and I didn’t want to leave the world I lived in because I was so damn happy with my amazing little baby!

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

I think the biggest change is, of course, social media. Most writers, myself included, have a love/hate relationship to social media. On the one hand, it allows us a bit more control over our marketing, so even if we’re not one of the big name writers on a publishers list who can garner a lot of the publicity department’s time, we can still work on our own to get the word out about our books. On the other hand, marketing isn’t something many of us enjoy.

When I first started out, it was a big deal that I simply had a website. I had certain fun features I’d update periodically, but there was not any expectation that there would be new material every week or every few days. There was no Twitter or Instagram. It took very little of my mental energy.

(Beach Lane, 2017)

But over the years, social media venues have bred like rabbits and it’s hard not to get caught up in each new trail, not knowing which ones will pan out in the long run.

It’s too easy to spend all of your creative energy on coming up with clever or prolific posts instead of writing new books.

These days, there’s a much higher demand to do marketing well.

Also, feedback on your books comes instantly from many sources and it’s detailed. It feels personal.

In the past, there was a general sense of a book’s reception, but there wasn’t that kind of instant reaction from Joe Smith in Washington, D.C. who gave your book a certain number of stars.

General feedback is wonderful because it can help improve your writing skills for future books, but specific feedback can feel disproportionately important even when it shouldn’t really have any impact at all.

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

(Beach Lane, 2017)

Allow yourself more grace than you think you deserve.

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

Being a writer can be a scary career choice. You have no benefits, no job security, no retirement, and you pay your own taxes.

Not everyone can manage to pull that off long-term, and I fear that a lot of voices are silenced because of these realities.

People who don’t have enough money to sustain themselves get to roll the dice once (maybe twice) to see if your book makes it to that top echelon of the best-seller list, and if it does you’re set, but it’s a very small minority of writers who make it.

If your book doesn’t become a bestseller and you don’t have outside income, then you probably won’t choose to continue writing as a career.

There’s a lot of conversation within publishing about wanting to attract minority writers into the field, but very few of those conversations focus on the economic realities of being a writer because money tends to be a taboo subject. But I do think it plays a part in who can afford to continue publishing and who can’t.

It isn’t just skin-color that makes someone a minority voice. There are also economically marginalized people who could speak about very different ways of living within our country.

I don’t have any answers to these problems.

Is there a way to make writing and publishing into the kind of job that would offer long-term security?

Or will it always come down to who can afford to pay their own health care and invest in their own retirement, either because they are independently wealthy, have a spouse who can offer those economic benefits, or they hit it big?

I guess what I’d wish for in the future would be a health care system that works for everyone so we could take away one of the biggest roadblocks to self-employment.

That would be a great step forward.

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

I’ve been writing a screenplay adaptation of my picture book, Dog in Charge, which I’m really excited about. I hope it sells!

And there is also a Broadway version of Fat Kid Rules the World in the works.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed about both projects.

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.

Interview: Author Brad Wagnon & Illustrator Alex Stephenson on The Land of the Great Turtles

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m delighted to feature Brad Wagnon, a fellow Cherokee Nation citizen and author of The Land of Great Turtles (Rowe Publishing, March 2018). He is joined by Alex Stephenson, the book’s illustrator.

I met Brad a few years ago in Tahlequah through his work for the tribe. I enjoyed their first book, How the World Was Made (CreateSpace), published in 2015, which shares a traditional Cherokee story of the earth’s origin.

This second book, The Land of the Great Turtles, was a story that I hadn’t heard before. It centers on the consequences for Cherokee people of not listening to the Creator and the elders. 

Brad shares his version of the story given to him by Benny Smith, a revered Cherokee elder and retired counselor and teacher at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.

From the promotional copy:

When the Creator gave the Cherokee people a beautiful island with everything they could ever need, it came with only one rule – to take care of the land and the animals living there. But what happens when the children decide to play instead of taking care of their responsibilities?

Brad, what first drew you to creating books with Cherokee traditional stories?

Brad and his wife, Tanya

For about seven years, my wife has been telling me I need to write a book. I believe it was Alex that first approached me about doing a book together.

 The main thing that drives me is: I don’t want these stories to be lost to future generations. 

As I say in my dedication of the book, paraphrasing a wise friend of mine, the time when we used to sit around family fires and tell stories is almost gone for us. We need to preserve these stories while they are still in our memories.

What was the timeline between spark and publication of The Land of the Great Turtles? 

I think we’ve been working on it almost a year. We had hoped to have it out by Cherokee National Holiday last year, which is the first weekend of September. But we both agreed we wanted to see a publisher acquire it, so it has been worth the wait.

What were the challenges (personal, literary, research, logistical) in bringing the book to life? 

My personal challenge was getting past the fact that this story has always been oral tradition and has never been put into writing before (at least that I know of).

Of course Alex and I are both busy and we wanted to get it right both artistically and historically, so we took our time and made sure it was right.

Brad talks with a group about Cherokee history.

What special considerations/permissions come into play when framing a book around a traditional Cherokee story? 

Well, with this story the very first time Benny told it to me he said, “I’m giving this story to you.” So really that was his permission for me to perpetuate this story. 
Cherokee traditions belong to all Cherokee and there are most definitely things that the entire world can learn from them.

This is my version of a very old story that belongs to all Cherokee people.

What cultural elements were key to your vision for the illustrations? 

The main one was the dress of the people. I wanted it to be as historically accurate as possible and so did Alex. 
He would draw something and send it to me. I would make suggestions and he would change it to fit what I said. The dress (with minor adjustments) represents the earliest known dress for Cherokee people without the influence of European trade goods. 
Also the turtles, they needed to be beautiful and larger than life because, after all, they are the stars of this story. I think Alex did an amazing job portraying both the turtles and Cherokee life.

What do you think Alex’s art brings to the story? 

Without him, there wouldn’t be a book. No one would publish this story without his art. He was very careful and took the utmost pains to make sure that what he was drawing both looked amazing and was representative of Cherokee culture and history.

Interior art from The Land of the Great Turtles by Alex Stephenson, used with permission.

Alex, I know both you and Brad work for the Cherokee Nation in different fields. How did you two connect?

I’ve known Brad since I met my wife around 2008-2009. Brad and his twin brother Brian grew up with my wife and her sister, and were so close that my wife refers to them as her brothers.

It was actually a funny experience when my kids were trying to work out the family tree one day, and they found out that “Uncle” Brad and “Uncle” Brian weren’t actually related to us. Our families are just that close. If you were to see us all together, it would just look like one huge family.

Alex working on illustrations as his daughter watches

From an artistic standpoint, how did you approach the illustrations?

This was my seventh children’s book, but probably the most daunting one for me, because it was so important that we get it right.

I know Brad felt a lot of weight on his shoulders because (to our knowledge) this story hasn’t been made into a children’s book before.

Brad and I would meet to discuss each page, and he would tell me what certain things would look like in the traditional story (or historically for Cherokees) – things like their traditional clothes or tools they used in their daily life.

I wanted to draw this in a way that was vibrant enough to keep young children’s attention, but also in a style that was respectful of the story being told.

Brad, I know you are busy traveling nationwide educating Cherokee Nation citizens about our culture in at-large satellite communities through your work at Community and Cultural Outreach. What plans do you have for sharing it with Cherokee people as well as those outside our communities?

Alex and I had a kickoff event at Northeastern State University on March 15, the book’s release date.

Alex and Brad celebrate the launch of The Land of the Great Turtles
at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

The Cappi Wadley Reading and Technology Center hosted us as part of their Family Literacy night. About 90 children attended along with their families.

Brad signing books at the event.

We had lots of fun and got to read both of our books several times to various groups of children and parents. They also gave copies of the books to all the kids. They are talking about hosting a Festival of Books this summer for local authors and illustrators.

I have a book reading and storytelling scheduled for May 1 at Tahlequah High School for their annual cultural day, an event that I started while I was teaching there.

I am also working on details for a book reading and signing tour scheduled for May 24-28 in the vicinity of Cherokee, North Carolina. I will be at The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Bearmeat’s Indian Den, Red Clay State Park and The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.

Also June 9, Alex and I will be at the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville, Arkansas for a reading and signing event.

All of these events have been scheduled by me. I’ve done a lot of the marketing myself. Our publisher is getting more active since the book released but I handle scheduling all my appearances.

Do you all have other works in progress together? 

Brad: Yes, we are hoping to do at least one more book using a Cherokee story.

Alex and his family

Alex: Personally, I am working on another book for children that struggle with sleep.

I have two of the most amazing children in the world, but my daughter has always struggled with falling asleep and over the years we have tried different approaches to helping her.

One that always worked well was making up adventure stories to read to her while she was lying in bed.

I started thinking one day, “Other parents might struggle with this, too.”

So I decided to make a book along the same lines that they can read to their little ones as they drift off.

Cynsational Notes

Traci says: When reading a retelling of a traditional Native story, I compare how closely the story aligns to the original, see if the storyteller changed or perhaps updated the story for today’s audience and learn their reasons for doing so, and also consider how accurate are the illustrations for the tribe and cultural information centered in the story.

Reading the author’s note or interviews with the author will assist a reader, educator or librarian in determining the author’s relationship to culture keepers and storytellers in that tribal nation, if not a citizen of the tribe themselves.

Previously, there have been other traditional Cherokee story retellings in picture books that young readers would enjoy.

They include: Gayle RossHow Turtle’s Back Was Cracked (Dial, 1995) and How Rabbit Tricked Otter (HarperCollins, 1994), both illustrated by Murv Jacob; Joseph Bruchac’s The First Strawberries: A Cherokee Story, illustrated by Anna Vojtech (Dial 1998); and, Gayle Ross and Joseph Bruchac’s The Story of the Milky Way: A Cherokee Tale (Dial 1995), illustrated by Virginia A. Stroud.

Brad Wagnon  is a Cherokee storyteller and works as a technical assistance specialist for the Cherokee Nation Community and Cultural Outreach in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

He is devoted to promoting Cherokee culture and history by sharing Cherokee stories with future generations. His first picture book, How the World Was Made, shared a traditional Cherokee story of the earth’s origin.

He lives with his family in Gideon, Oklahoma on the land where he grew up.

Alex Stephenson is a licensed professional counselor, husband, and step father to two amazing kids.

He works for the Cherokee Nation at W.W. Hastings Hospital in Tahlequah, helping patients who check into the hospital for multiple mental health related issues.

He loves drawing in his spare time. As a part of this, he enjoys making comics and children’s books based on experiences he has in his life – and topics he believes other adults may use to help the children close to them.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Guest Interview: Dana Carey & SCBWI Bologna Illustration Gallery Judges

By Dana Carey
for SCBWI Bologna 2018 and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: This interview is the second in a series focusing on the Bologna Children’s Book Fair

SCBWI International Illustrator Coordinator Dana Carey talks with those who judged the Bologna Illustration Gallery

What was the first thing you looked for while judging the illustrations for the shortlist? 

Cecilia Yung: For the earlier editing process, it is a more left-brain objective analytical process. For me, before it is anything else, an illustration must be good art. It should be a compelling image with dynamic composition and a striking palette that shows a command of the technique and the medium. 

Susan Eaddy: The first thing I looked for was narrative. Even if the illustration style was not one that appealed innately to me, I narrowed the images down to telling a story first.

David Liew: I’m somewhat between Cecilia and Susan. I was looking for artwork that engaged me both aesthetically and drew me into the narrative. But it was not a zero-sum game as there were entries which had a very strong narrative element despite the style not being the first criteria for my selection.

How did you go about narrowing down the shortlist of twenty-five illustrations to ten finalists then to two honor prizes, and finally one winner? How daunting of a task is this? 

Cecilia: Once I get past the basic skills, I look for narrative art: “who, when, how, what, why.”
Distinct characters, specific settings, clear but nuanced expressions and body language transform good art into good storytelling.

Since we are dealing with children’s picture books, I also look for an image that reflects the illustrator’s understanding of children, our target audience.

For the top score, it is a more right-brain intuitive process.

I look for masterful storytelling: an illustration that comes to life and effectively conveys the mood and emotion of the scene.

I look for the “secret ingredient”—the voice, the special sensibility that is easy to spot but hard to define—magic, humor, drama, excitement or whatever it is that elicit a powerful response in the reader.

I scored based on my own objective/subjective response to the artwork. (I gave top scores to three illustrations!)

I did not select illustrations based on the categories of shortlist, honors or winners. The entries were labelled by number, so I did not vote by gender, nationality or ethnicity. My votes were then tallied with those of the other judges, so the final result was more mathematical than philosophical.

Poirot and the Kimono by Alexander Rowe, overall winner, used with permission

Susan: After I had honed the list down by narrative, I moved on to character and setting.

After that I could enjoy the craft; marvel at the medium, the lighting, composition, perspective & palette.

The final key ingredient was the emotion evoked. Whether the illustrator chose to concentrate on humor, tenderness, confusion, fear… whatever emotion it was… If the illustrator got the point across and made me feel what the character was feeling, that brought it all the way up to the top score if all of the other things were in place.

David: I took a slightly different path from my fellow judges here.

In effect, I applied somewhat the same approach I did for the shortlisting. The work had to be a good balance of the various elements that come together to make an effective book illustration.

Each entry was assessed independent of the others for their own merits. What was different from the first round was that more than two passes were made of all the entries in order to ensure internal consistency before I turned to the final pass – the somewhat abstract “X” factor that distinguishes the great from the good, and the excellent from the great.

As an art director, asking for revisions is an important part of your job. Did you imagine a tweak or two that might have made an illustration prize-worthy but without, didn’t land on your list? 

Cecilia: Illustration is communication. Even with the most beautiful artwork, clarity is often the issue.

I sometimes have trouble with the legibility of an image, and understanding the focus, the intent or the mood of a scene.

To identify this problem, an illustrator needs a degree of objectivity. To solve this problem, an illustrator needs dexterity with an illustrator’s craft.

Monster in the Dark by Toshiki Nakamura, honourable mention, used with permission.

What are some common errors illustrators make that diminish their chances in a contest like this?

Susan: I saw many pieces that were beautifully executed, had dramatic lighting and/or dramatic composition.

However, I was sorry to see that these were often only a single image, maybe even cropped from a larger illustration for dramatic effect. And without the rest of the story, they fell into the middle of the road group, because there was no clear narrative.

They would make beautiful portfolio pieces,because of the larger context. But with only one piece to judge, it had to have it all; clear narrative, characters, setting and beautiful execution.

Cecilia: It is important to take into consideration that you are represented by only one image, and that this contest is specifically for children’s picture book illustration.

That means the one piece you choose must be extremely strong, but it also needs to be much more than a pretty picture.

An image would have a better chance if it is more active and narrative (not abstract or contemplative), and reflects a child’s world and their perspective.

And to stand out, the image should showcase the specific skills and strengths for visual storytelling. For me, any weak link in the “who, when, how, what, why” spectrum would diminish the chances.

First Day by Felia Hanakata, honourable mention, used with permission.

Did you consult with the other judges while making your decisions? How did the three of you arrive at a consensus?

Cecilia: No, we are a geographically diverse group. The “consensus” was not a result of meetings or discussions but a purely democratic vote.

Susan: No, we were each on our own. That worked well, I think. We were able to take our time to really scrutinize on our own schedule and go back again and again to rethink our decisions. After that it became a purely mathematical equation in the tally.

David: Not at all. Other than saying hi to each other online and the occasional technical question, we worked independently.

One of Susan’s illustrations in progress.

As an illustrator, how did you feel in the role of a judge? Did you learn anything that you’ll apply in your own work in the future?

Susan: I found the process to be fascinating.

I was thrilled to see the quality of work from illustrators all over the world. Even when the subject matter was the same, (as in an obvious prompt) the solutions and approaches were unique.

I was inspired, and it really drove home those basic principles to me.

Story Telling, character, setting, composition, lighting, palette, execution, emotion… In order to be competitive in this world-wide arena all of those things need to be in place.

David: It was both exhilarating and challenging for me.

It was almost overwhelming to see this constellation of talent, and the corresponding galaxy of styles and treatments.

David’s Panda Steampunk, used with permission.

It was challenging in that in many ways, I was also the peer of the participants.

As an illustrator who’s a firm believer in life-long learning, this role gave me an opportunity to reaffirm aspects of my own professional practice, as well as to see new, fresh ways to approach things that I can adopt to build on my craft.

How does entering this contest benefit an illustrator?

Susan: I think this competition is especially valuable.

The fact that it is put on by the SCBWI lets you know that it is fairly judged and that you have the opportunity to challenge yourself in a world-wide arena!

I think you have to challenge yourself constantly and do things that scare you, like entering this competition. Just the act of trying forces you to “up your game.” And if you don’t win… fine… see who did… learn what they did right and apply it to yourself next time.

David: Besides the chance to have your work seen on the international stage, it’s a good reminder to us to review and reflect upon our practice.

You look at your body of work and have to ask yourself – which should I submit and why? I’m happy with all my work but I can only send one – what do I want the world to see as the showcase of who I am as an artist?

Cynsational Notes

A total of 391 entries were received for the Bologna Illustrators Gallery from 17 countries. See the 25 illustrations picked for the shortlist and read a Cynsations interview with the winners.

Cecilia Yung is art director and vice president at Penguin Books for Young Readers where she oversees illustration and design for two imprints, G. P. Putnam’s Sons and Nancy Paulsen Books.

She is fortunate to have worked with some of the major illustrators of children’s books, but the highlight of her work is to discover and develop new talent.

She is on the Board of Advisors of SCBWI, as well as a member of its Illustrators’ Committee.

Susan Eaddy works in her attic studio writing picture books and playing with clay.

She was an Art Director for 15 years, and has won international 3D illustration awards and a Grammy nomination. Her clay-illustrated books include Papa Fish’s Lullaby by Patricia Hubbell (Northword Press, 2007), My Love for You is the Sun, by Julie Hedlund (Little Bahalia Publishing, 2014) and three First Looks at Vehicles published with the Smithsonian Institution.

Her clay artwork appears regularly in Babybug, Ladybug, Click and Spider Magazines.

She is the author of Poppy’s Best Paper and Poppy’s Best Babies, illustrated by Rosalinde Bonnet, (Charlesbridge, 2018) and Eenie Meenie Halloweenie –illustrated by Lucy Fleming (Harper Collins-2020) She loves to travel and has used the opportunity to do school visits all over, including Taiwan, Brazil, Hong Kong and the US.

She lives in Nashville, Tennessee and is the Regional Advisor for the Midsouth SCBWI.

David Liew is a Singapore-based illustrator. A former junior college tutor and polytechnic lecturer, he has been described by founding members of the local Maker movement as being a bit of a polyglot.

Besides illustrating for both middle grade readers and picture books, he’s also a model-maker, occasional animator and a sculptor focusing on upcycled art from found objects.

He’s also written a middle-grade hybrid book and recently started to write picture book manuscripts. He’s the artist behind the Ellie Belly series by Eliza Teoh (Bubbly Books), and the Crystal Kite-awarded The Adventures of Squirky the Alien by Melanie Lee (MPH Group Publishing)

In 2016, he illustrated his first bilingual (Japanese-English) picture book, Monster Day on Tabletop Hill, written by Akiko Sueyoshi (National Book Development Council).

Dana Carey is an author/illustrator. She is the International Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI and the Assistant Regional Advisor for SCBWI France.

She organizes writer/illustrator retreats, regional conferences, workshops and webinars.

She earned a degree in Fine Arts and Graphic Design and later, a teaching certificate. Now she teaches English to adults and university students.

Between classes, Dana dedicates as much time as possible to writing and illustrating. She also writes reader reports for international acquisitions for French publishers.

Dana interviews illustrators for a monthly blogpost called The Postcard Post for the Sub It Club, a support group for authors and illustrators. See her illustration portfolio.

The Bologna Book Fair interview series is coordinated by Elisabeth Norton, SCBWI Regional Advisor for Switzerland.

Guest Interview: Dina von Lowenkraft & SCBWI Bologna Illustration Gallery Winners 2018

By Dina von Lowenkraft
for SCBWI Bologna 2018 and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: This is the first in a series of interviews focusing on the Bologna Children’s Book Fair

SCBWI Belgium + Luxembourg Regional Advisor Dina von Lowenkraft talks with the winners of the Bologna Showcase: Alexander RoweFelia Hanakata and Toshiki Nakamura 

Welcome, Alex, Felia and Toshi! Thank you for joining me for this discussion about your award-winning work in SCBWI’s 2018 Illustrators’ Gallery.

Alex Rowe’s piece, ‘Poirot and the Kimono’ won top honors with Felia Hanakata and Toshi Nakamura both getting honorable mentions for their works, respectively, ‘First Day’ and ‘Monsters in the Dark.’

Alex is originally from Tuscon, Arizon and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. Felia is from Indonesia and graduated from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Toshi is from Japan and also graduated from the Academy of Art University.

Felia to Toshi: I can’t believe we went to the same school! Your work is great!

Toshi: I know! Such a coincidence! We probably overlapped a year or two, I guess. Thank you for the kind word, by the way. I love your piece. Great storytelling!

What struck me looking at your winning pieces is how different they all are.

Alex, can you share a bit about your creative process and what techniques you used to make ‘Poirot and the Kimono’?

Alex: Totally, and that’s the thing I love the most about the illustration world! We all have a voice, and a vision to match with that.

It stressed me out when I first graduated, just how many talented illustrators there are out there, but each one of us out there has a story only we can tell. It’s exciting to see!

Poirot and the Kimono by Alex Rowe, used with permission.

My works are also each different because I want to work to illustrate for all ages and genres. My process is always the same: start with the thumbnail, and the first things I think of are light and color, then the character studies I’ve done prior to the piece.

My underpainting is done with the complementary colors to get me to think more about their relationship – for example, the first layer of the red kimono was lime green!

I use gouache most often, it’s by far my favorite medium!

Felia to Alex: Your winning piece is stunning! I love the mysterious atmosphere.
You mentioned that you used lime green as the underpainting. I worked and used gouache a lot in the past, but never used underpainting for it.

Did you mix both watercolors and gouache? (I love acryla gouache, I think it strikes the perfect balance between transparent and opaque.) And since you work traditionally, how troublesome is the scanning and editing process?

Alex: It was really tricky making sure that the digital file matched the traditional, but the best way to go was finding a good friend in photography who helped show me the ropes in catching a good quality image of the work. At first, the biggest challenge I had was making the images too over saturated when I first started editing, it all looked awful! Now I’m excited to mix more digital media into the creation, not just the editing.

Toshi to Alex: Your piece is gorgeous! I have some experiences using gouache, but I’ve never done underpainting. I am just wondering if you paint complementary colors underneath, would it get a bit muddy or something since gouache is water-based medium? I’d love to know your method of working.

Alex: The paint doesn’t get as muddy as you would think! The first layer of color is very thin, almost a wash, and I start getting thicker in application from there.

In some other pieces, I’ve been playing around at acrylic on top, but there are places in almost every painting where I like letting the original underpainting show through.

Felia, you mentioned that you worked with gouache in the past, what do you work with now? And can you tell us a little about your creative process for your piece ‘First Day’?

First Day by Felia Hanakata, used with permission.

Felia: I’m 100 percent digital nowadays! Except my sketchbook, which is all done in graphite.

I used to work with gouache a lot in the past and I love its opaque look, so even when I paint digitally, I try to achieve that “dry brush, texture-y” feeling.

As for the artwork itself. Whenever I feel frustrated with work I will move away and browse my sketchbook.

It was during this downtime that I found this old sketch I hadn’t got to draw yet. So I decided to work on it on weekends. I thought it’d be nice to draw something school-related and I wanted to convey that “lonely, nervous feeling” on your first day of school.

From a very small thumbnail, I moved to the actual size, creating a cleaner sketch on Photoshop. And then I would make color roughs and decide on one. From there I made the clean line art, filled in base color, and organized my layers. After that, I painted to finish. This is how I work all the time–very streamlined.

Usually the hardest part is the sketch/thumbnail part because I have to brainstorm a lot!

Toshi, what was the inspiration for your piece ‘Monsters in the Dark’?

Monsters in the Dark by Toshi Nakamura, used with permission.

Toshi: ‘Monsters in the Dark’ is actually something I made as a concept piece for an animated short film that I’ve been working on with my friends for a while. This is an early concept that I made for a director of the film as an inspirational piece, so the film is going to be a quite different look from this. As for process, the concept of this piece came up in my mind pretty quickly. I believe this was just done in a day or so.

The director of the film had a vision vaguely, so I took the idea and translated in a visual image.

Synopsis of the film is this: ‘A boy, haunted by his abused past, fears the love of his new family and runs away into a dark forest where he meets a monster that will transform his life forever.’

Making an animated film takes a huge amount of time and I wanted to produce something promptly that would inspire us to move forward and would visually explore and say ‘this could be it.’ At that time, we didn’t have any monster design established yet, so it was quite challenging for me since I’d rarely designed creatures or anything like that.

The piece was done in Adobe Photoshop. I used to do this kind of concept piece with painterly techniques and more dimensionality, but for this piece I needed to create something flat and 2D feel because background in the forest scenes was going to be in 2D although the film itself would be consisted of hybrid technique combining 2D and 3D.

For the color, I was trying to make it as visually striking as possible. It is character-driven, so making contrast between character and environment could achieve to draw attentions from viewers.

Felia to Toshi: Since you’re working for animation, how transferable are animation skills into children-book making/drawing? Molly Idle and Claire Keane were working in animation studios before, and now they have released stunning picture books! It’s always fun to see other illustrators’ backgrounds and inspirations and/or influences, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Toshi: I’m working in animation industry and I do design characters, environments and props… this is what we call “Visual Development.” Basically, what I do is to design and develop visual assets that you see in animated films or animated TV shows. These design skills might not really be necessary in children’s book making. However, early on the production, we’d create some concept art, which is an illustration/painting based on scripts/story to show what the scene or the visual style would look like. This exact skill can apply to children’s book making: to infuse story into pictures.

One of Toshi’s other illustrations, used with permission.

As far as I know, many artists working in animation studios are actually making children’s books on the side. As a matter of fact, my agency, Shannon Associates, has several artists from major studios such as Blue Sky Studios and Dreamworks Animation. I hope I can do the same in near future!

As for the work style, I can totally understand your way. I’m like you, I do work almost completely 100 percent digitally with Photoshop. So many revisions come in the way, especially working in animation, so there’s no way for me to be more efficient than working digitally. I actually love using gouache and a few of my favorite illustrations I did were done in gouache. Hopefully, I can work on some gouache illustration sometime soon!

I’m really intrigued that this comes from a short film idea, Toshi! Can you tell us a little more about how the look and feel of the film has evolved from the concept piece? The colors are very striking, especially the play of light that you have, is this something that has been kept in the animation?

Toshi: So, the story has changed quite a bit since I made this concept piece, and the monster design is also quite different now. Unfortunately we decided to go with different color instead of the bright yellow glow… but this happens in the animated production all the time, so I’m just glad that the director’s got the vision to move along with. As we’re close to finishing up pre-production and just about to start the production, we still need to figure things out when it comes to actual lighting and stuff. I wish I could tell more at this point.

Alex, I agree with Felia and Toshi – your piece, ‘Poirot and the Kimono’ is gorgeous! I wish I could see it in real life.

Alex: The piece is actually hanging at steam espresso bar in Denver, come on by for coffee if you’d like to see it in person!

Oh, I’m so jealous of everyone who is in Denver right now! What was the most challenging aspect of making this piece for you?

Alex: For this piece, the most challenging part for me was balancing the focal point for the viewer: I knew I wanted to make the scarlet kimono a big eye catcher, but also Poirot’s face of being toyed with by the murderer in the story was second to me!

I wanted to make the scene conveyed with as few elements as I could.

I’ve always loved mysteries, and so I’ve always loved illustrating them. So leaving clues and hints in each painting, just like the writers do with their stories, is a big part of work like this for Agatha Christie’s classic story.

Felia, you said you work 100 percent digital, what it is that you like about working in that medium?

Felia’s studio

Felia: I like to be efficient, and digital makes that possible. I was surprised at how much faster I’d gotten in the past year actually! Streamlining my workflow is one of the keys to that.

As I mentioned, I love the opaque and textured look of gouache so I try to achieve the same kind of feeling on my art. I absolutely love Kyle’s brushes!

Many illustrators, when thinking about a career in children’s publishing, think primarily of illustrating picture books even though there are more and more graphic novels and illustrated books for older readers. Is this something any of you are interested in pursuing?

Alex: It’s so funny you should ask, my goal growing up was to illustrate nothing but adult stories! As a kid, I loved reading Sherlock Holmes, and those illustrations were another inspiration for me, so that was my big drive.

It’s only after college that I started working towards children’s books, but I’m exited for the growth in illustrations for young adult and older audiences.

I’ve been working on a pipe dream project for years, either book or graphic novel on the Black Plague of the 1300s, so here’s hoping!

Felia: I can relate with you, Alex.

I didn’t even know the children’s book industry existed and was this big until six months before graduation. (Reading children’s books is not a
tradition in Indonesia.)

I absolutely fell in love with it.

Illustrating picture books is of course my main focus, but lately I’ve been wanting to illustrate covers and for older readers as well. In fact I’ve written some rough drafts for a young adult graphic novel, although I’m stuck with the plot at the moment.

I also got some ideas for rewriting a fairy tale, and I look forward to working on it more. I really would like to write and illustrate my own picture book/graphic novel one day!

Toshi: I think I’m one of the many illustrators you mention. As I grew up with many animated TV cartoons and films and studied animation design in school, it naturally became my passion to illustrate picture books. Though it has been my primary focus and interest in the publishing, I’m getting more interested in adult stories lately.

To be honest, I’d just be delighted to illustrate any stories that may interest kids and/or adults! I look forward to opportunities to work on both genres for sure.

 #ownvoices and diversity have been very big topics for kidlit recently. What are your thoughts on the subject and has this changed the way you work? or the way you present yourself?

Felia: I think I didn’t realize how much I wanted to see more diversity in children’s books until I read Same, Same But Different (Henry Holt, 2011) by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw a long time ago.

As an Asian, I was always enamored by the grand European castles and architecture, but I never thought I would feel glad to see other parts of the world being represented.

I think it’s especially nice for children to find something they can relate to–a part of themselves–in the book they’re reading.

I wouldn’t say it has changed the way I work because personally I draw a lot of Asians, but whenever possible, I love to draw people from different parts of the world. It’s fun to construct characters with different cultural backgrounds.

I was born and raised in Bali where tourists of many countries gather. I lived in San Francisco for nearly five years and got to see a lot of different people and their stories. This seeps into how I perceive and see things. So when I tell a story… I want it to be inclusive.


For my “First Day” as an example, I guess I want viewers to acknowledge the fact that it is okay to feel nervous about your first day of school, wherever you are, whoever you are.

Toshi: Even though I grew up in Tokyo where is globalized and many from different cultures live, living there still feels somehow closeted.

The idea of diversity really kicked in my mind when I moved to San Francisco to attend the school. As big as the issue of diversity in kidlit currently is, it is very big topic in animation industry, too.

I believe that the content of animated TV shows and feature films has been getting more diverse the past years, but I’d love to see more cultures and ethnicities involved in the animation and kidlit industry.

I agree with you, Felia. It’s fun to draw from different cultural backgrounds, and it hugely inspires me and teaches me a lot of things.

It’s great when a client chooses you for a book because you may be familiar with the content of the book because of your cultural background. It’s certainly an advantage in a way, but I also would love to work on children’s books that include any subjects and/or cultural contents because as an illustrator I think it is such an amazing thing that I can be a part of stories that may inspire and encourage kids and maybe even adults from all over the world.

Alex: What you’ve both said about how fun it is to research and show other cultures and world views really speaks true!

For all my works, the research aspect is always the most fun – in a weird way, the simple things fascinate me the most! Textiles and crafts from around the world and through time, those little details I think can make a piece, and make it feel more real in a way.

For diversity in my paintings, I think our first instinct is to draw our own experience – so for a long time, and even still – I fell into the bad habit where my portfolio is full of white men.

Alex at work in his studio

Listening to other illustrators and writers has been hugely helpful with how I want to display diversity in my work, listening to how I can still help while seeing that the best way at times is to step back and listen.

I think I’ve first had to notice my own huge bias, and then realize that the most beautiful part of this movement is that it calls for all voices to be heard – like what we said earlier, we all have a voice and have to be able to share it.

For diversity in art, Geena Davis’ work on representation of women in film comes to mind first: “if you can see it, you can be it.”

I think we don’t just need diversity in the illustrations and the stories, but in the authors and illustrators themselves. We have so many rockstar and diverse authors and illustrators in the world, it’s important for kids to see that and be able to say, “it’s not impossible! I can do it, too!”

We have to listen to each other, see stories that are different from our own, to see how connected we really are.

Moving forward in my work I see this as a challenge to live up to: to represent diversity and to check and push back my bias.

I think that illustrators especially have to include diversity, because children need examples (in fiction as well as reality) to inspire them.

The key is you have to really connect to and understand the diversity you’re trying to depict, and find common ground with your own experience: because kids especially can see if work is genuine or not!

Learn more about Laurent Linn

I’ve heard Laurent Linn, art director/designer for Simon & Schuster, say that he looks for illustrations that have an emotional connection because readers need to be emotionally invested in a book’s characters… is this something you think about when you work on an illustration?

Toshi: Absolutely. It would be much more interesting especially if you had personal history behind an image that you’d create.

As someone who has some animation background, I’ve been told the importance of ‘emotional connection’ a lot of times.

For example, I have been going to portfolio reviews by pros from major animation studios so many times the past few years since I was a student. They could tell at a glance, what draws their attentions the most, emotionally. Usually it’d turn out to be something I’d spent very much and often based off my personal story.

The term I’ve heard when animation peeps talk is ‘Believability,’ which is very essential when I work on an illustration or concept.

Realism is not something I pursue when I create an image, but realism can be replaced with believability. As a newbie in the publishing industry, I can’t say this applies always, but if I were a reader, I would definitely feel more emotionally connected to a picture that has something believable or speaks something relatable to me.

Alex: I love that phrase “believability” for work, Toshi!

I think that’s been a big struggle for me to overcome as an illustrator, when I look back on work I made in the past and even some work now if I don’t focus on this. It’s about translating that story you need to tell as an illustrator, and making that visible to the reader.

For Poirot, I let my own fears and anxiety about the “mystery” of what to do with the future try to fuel the piece. I made this piece as I was struggling to discover whether I should keep pursuing illustration as a career, and Poirot’s frustration in the Murderer leaving the scarlet kimono in his luggage to taunt him felt like the kind of teasing life sometimes throws at you. I needed his little grey cells to help me figure out my own mystery as well.

One of Alex’s pieces in progress

And just like Toshi was saying, the pieces I’ve done that I’ve loved the most have been connected to the personal, not just the surface.

I wish I learned that lesson earlier, to always let my own vision show through – for the longest time I had this rigid idea of what “art” was, and it was full of works decades or centuries old.

I think those heroes of mine kept me from being loose and free and honest about my emotions in my work. That kind of raw feeling is what I think is so stellar about illustrations today!

Felia: Great topic, I love it! I agree with both of you. Believability is very important in storytelling.

Personally I love anything fantasy or magical. I watch a ton of magical girls and superheroes shows. For the longest time, I wondered what made me drawn to them so much – and then I realized, aside from the fantastical elements, it’s the “realistic, relatable” characters that connected to me on a personal level. They had their own flaws and struggles, and they experienced the same things I did. I think strong story-telling has that.

Nowadays readers always want to find something fun, something they can easily engage with – and the fastest way to establish reader-viewer relationship is by creating something that is emotionally strong and relatable.

It’s the same with my “First Day” piece. I wanted to show anxiety and fear and loneliness. I’ve felt how it’s like to be very far from home, alone, on your first day of school, and you know no one. It can get scary. (But you’ll be fine!)

Some friends actually came to me after I showed “First Day” to them, and they said, “that feel though, I can relate. I was clinging to my mom on my first day of school when I was a kid.”

I’m always amazed at how story-telling can do so much in sequential art, and I will do my best to improve my skills as well!

Thank you all for your enthusiasm and taking the time to chat! I’ve really enjoyed our discussion and learning more about each of you and the way you see illustration. Congratulations once again – your pieces are truly beautiful!

Cynsational Notes

Alexander Rowe was born in Tucson, Arizona and has always wanted to illustrate books for young adults and middle grade kids.

As a kid, the works of Harry Clark illustrating the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, first drew him to the craft, and illustrators like J.C. Leyendecker and Brett Helnquist confirmed his love of book illustrations. 

Alex graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2013 and lived with his brother, a writer in Boston, before moving to Denver.

He is now working to build up his portfolio for children’s and middle grade books, as well as writing and preparing dummies of a few book projects and one graphic novel.

When not painting, Alex is a TA and contributor for, a barista at Steam Espresso Bar, a dog owner to the talented Amelia, and a jogger of the greater Denver area.

Felia Hanakata is an Indonesia-based illustrator represented by Lemonade Illustration Agency.

She grew up believing in magic, dragons, and all things fantastical. She was a Visual Communication Design student for two years before she decided to focus on drawing, illustrating, and story-telling more.

She went to Academy of Art University and completed her BFA in Illustration in Spring 2017. To her, storytelling breathes life and colors into the world.

Her work is inspired by anime/manga, Alphonse Mucha, Henri Matisse, and Bernie Fuchs.

When she is not drawing, she usually reads, drinks lots of coffee, plays video games, or looks for inspiration in nature and her surroundings.

Right now she lives in the sunny island of Bali, Indonesia, where she works from home as a freelance illustrator. Aside from working with clients on different projects, she also dreams of one day writing and illustrating her own picture book and graphic novel.

Toshiki Nakamura is a born and raised Japanese illustrator/designer.

He graduated from MFA in visual development at Academy of Art University in San Francisco in 2016. He was a politics major in his undergrad at university in Japan before he pursued art .

Toshiki is currently working as a freelance character designer/visual development artist in animation industry.

As much as he likes working independently, he loves to work in a team and has been working on a few collaborative animation projects as a visual development artist and character designer as well.

He’s currently represented by Shannon Associates for illustration work. Toshiki is a newbie in kidlit and very excited to work on picture books hopefully near future. When he’s not drawing, he enjoys running, cooking and playing the piano. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.

Dina von Lowenkraft is regional advisor for SCBWI Belgium + Luxembourg and a writer of YA currently working on a PhD in Cultural Studies at KU Leuven in Belgium.

Dina worked as a graphic artist for TV for seven years and as a business consultant in the fashion industry for five years.

Her doctoral research project is based in the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard (1,200 km north of the Arctic Circle), where she is studying the impacts of climate change on the community of Longyearbyen that has about 2,200 residents.

Dina spends her time between Longyearbyen, Luxembourg and Leuven.

The Bologna Interview series is coordinated by Elisabeth Norton, SCBWI regional advisor for Switzerland.

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich SmithRobin Galbraith,
Gayleen Rabukukk & Kate Pentecost for Cynsations

Author/Illustrator Insights

In Mystery, Austin Author Exposes Racism Felt By Generations of Family by Sharyn Vane from My Statesman. Peek:

[The Parker] Inheritance infuses its Westing Game-inspired mystery with explorations of identity and perception, particularly race… 

“‘While there are certainly many problems in America concerning race, I think there is also a dangerous precedent concerning what it means to ‘be a man,’ [Varian] Johnson explains.”

Why Children’s Books Should Be a Little Sad by Kate DiCamillo from Time. Peek: 

“I knew that a terrible thing was going to happen, and I also knew that it was going to be okay somehow… That was what I needed to hear. That I could bear it somehow.”

Sean Petrie on Typewriter Poetry Rodeo by Uma Krishnaswami from her blog. Peek:

“At the poetry table, there’s no such thing as writer’s block — we don’t have time. There is literally someone standing there, waiting for you to write them a poem on the spot… you just jump in, start typing, and trust in yourself.”

Emily X.R. Pan On Grief, Mental Health, & Her YA Debut The Astonishing Color of After by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek: 

“I think of this book as ‘contemporary with magical elements’ rather than magical realism, since the bit of magic that exists in the book is not in response to oppression and colonialism, which is how the magical realism genre was born.”

Is This Thing On?: Giving Voice to Funny Female Authors (Conversation with agents Susan Hawk and Erin Murphy, authors Marcie Colleen and Audrey Vernick) from Marcie’s blog. Peek: 

From Audrey: “You rarely see any funny books win awards…funny is considered less worthy, perhaps easier than a book that touches your soul in a different way.”

Cynthia and Sanford Levinson on Fault Lines in the Constitution from Mackin Books in Bloom. Peek:

“We worked out ways to explain complicated concepts, including proportional representation, the history and mathematics of gerrymandering, and the meaning of the Latin phrase habeas corpus

“We did these by telling dramatic stories (Ebola!), breaking big issues down into consumable bites, bringing the Framers’ arguments from 230 years ago to life today, and explaining how decision-making is done differently in other countries.”

Interview with Jessica Spotswood, Editor of The Radical Element by Lyn Miller-Lachmann from The Pirate Tree. Peek:

“I asked each of them to create a short story pitch. The parameters were simple: the story should be between 5000-7000 words and feel as though it could not take place anywhere or anywhen else. It should feature a girl who was an outsider in her community in some way.”


How To Be Invisible by Amitha Knight from #kidlitwomen. Peek:

“If you are a mommy with brown skin, a mommy from a minority background, a non-Christian woman, a heathen writing about childhood, you are unrelatable, unsellable, unknowable…Someday you hope your daughters will read your words… knowing how hard you fought, how big you dreamed, how far you soared.”

Mothers and Fathers: Gender Stereotyping in Picture Books by J. Albert Mann from #kidlitwomen. Peek: 

“…100% of the books featuring a mother/child pairing, showed her in a nurturing posture. None of the books had a mother at play with her child.”

Click to download the “How to” guide

How to Diversify Your KidLit-Related Lists by Chris Barton from #kidlitwomen. Peek:

“Whether you’re creating a list of your own or thinking about sharing one that somebody else made, you’ve got an opportunity to better reflect the diversity that exists among the readers of children’s and YA books.”

This Poet Wants Brown Girls to Know They’re Worthy of Being the Hero and the Author by Elizabeth Acevedo from The PBS Newshour. Peek: 

“This is for us writers, us readers, us girls who never saw ourselves on bookshelves, but still wrote poems when we talked.”

Mixed-Race YA Fantasy Herorines by Aimee Miles from BookRiot. Peek: 

“As the U.S. becomes more consciously mixed-race, stories about mixed characters become even more important. The heroines here are mixed race and have to deal with the consequences of looking mixed in worlds that want them easily categorized.”

Women: What We’re Up Against by Erin Dionne from #kidlitwomen. Peek: 

“Maybe you’re a mom with small kids…Maybe you’re single…Maybe you’re with a significant other and don’t have kids..Maybe you’re a writer of color, or a First Nations writer, or a disabled writer, or from another underrepresented group. You are all of the above…I see you.”

Animals As Characters/Subjects: Pushing Against Gender Typing by Mary Quattlebaum from Pencil Tips Writing Workshop Strategies. Peek: 

“Growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, I remember very, very few books with strong human girl and gentle human boy characters…I think I was hoping for depictions in books that better reflected some of the change I was glimpsing in the wider world.”

Writing Craft

Chronicling a Non-Chronological Story: Writing a Dual Timeline Novel by Julie Carrick Dalton from Writer Unboxed. Peek: 

“Each storyline and chapter needs to be solid on its own. Just as importantly, the moments at which I transition between them must act to move my overall narrative forward.”

Quieter Protagonists: Ways to Help Them Steal the Stage by Angela Ackerman from Writers Helping Writers. Peek: 

“..looking at real-life demographics for a second, I think there’s a lot more people on the quieter side than not… The trick with quieter characters is finding a way for them to stand out.”

Finding the Heart and Soul of Swoon- Worthy Boys by Kate Branden from Through the Toll Booth. Peek: 

“To make a universally hot boy, the writer must go deeper into the inner workings of the boy… I have identified three qualities that make a hot boy: the boy must be flawed, vulnerable, and have the traits of a hero.”

The Heroine’s Romantic Journey by Catherine Linka from Through the Toll Booth. Peek:

“I realized that romance is just the Hero’s Journey from inside the heart.”

The 5 Turning Points of a Character Arc by Janice Hardy from Fiction University. Peek: 

“Just like a plot, the character arc has several turning points that fall at specific structural moments throughout the novel. There’s wiggle room as to where, but they generally fall along the same path as the plot, since the plot is what triggers or impacts these moments.”

Marketing & Events

15 Steps to Make Your Next Author Visit the Best from The Booking Biz. Peek:

“…one snag in the organization of an author visit, and it can suck all the life, reinforcement and inspiration from the event. Here are 15 tips to make sure your next school visit will run smoothly and leave your students motivated to read and succeed in everything they do.”


How Much Should I Charge? Aiming for Transparency in Pay for School Visits by Michelle Cusolito from #kidlitwomen. Peek: 

“If you are an author or illustrator who creates books for children through young adults and you do school visits in the U.S. please take our anonymous survey…Transparency is important to removing inequities, and the results are only as good as the data we collect.”

How Do I Look? Ageism and Women’s Author Photos by Louise Hawes from #kidlitwomen. Peek: 

“As older women authors for young readers, we’ve got two strikes against us: we’re female and we’re aging.”

Image by Grace Lin

Be The Heroine of Your Story by Dawn Metcalf from #kidlitwomen. Peek: 

“Don’t be afraid to stand up, take charge, act professional and proactive because the publishing world is moving from the B World to the C World where we have taken the lessons we’ve learned together on this journey and are using them to transform what is possible for us all.”

What Would Julian Do? (and other questions from a half century of internalized misogyny) by Ali Benjamin from #kidlitwomen. Peek: 

“To that next generation…I hope someday you read this post and you have no idea what I’m talking about. I hope things described this year..#metoo posts…#kidlitwomen conversations—seem to you not merely obsolete, but unfathomable.”

The Shaming of Desire from Jacqueline Davies.  Peek:

“Daring to want. For women, it’s an act of subversion. It’s an act of resistance. And it often feels like it holds the potential to be an act of destruction.”

Calls for Manuscript Submissions from ALAN: Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE. Peek:

“In our final issue as editors of The ALAN Review, we aim to create space for reflection, contemplation, and anticipation around young adult literature. We invite you to consider where we are, what we’ve accomplished, and what we all might tackle in our collective pursuits of scholarship and teaching.”

Intern with Us! By Shoshana Flax from The Horn Book. Peek:

“We offer spring, summer, and fall internships. The next application deadline, for 2018 summer internships, is April 1. Each internship is ten hours per week (with occasional opportunities for extra hours) and pays $11 per hour.”

This Week at Cynsations

Cynsational Giveaway
Enter to win a copy of Love, Mama by Jeannette Bradley (Roaring Brook, 2018). No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on March 14, 2018 and 12:00 AM on Mar. 28, 2018. Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about Mar. 28, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

More Personally – Cynthia

I’m thrilled and honored to share news of my upcoming projects from Publishers Weekly:

Eastside Memorial Early College High School Library

Rosemary Brosnan at HarperCollins Children’s Books has bought Cynthia Leitich Smith’s untitled contemporary middle grade powwow anthology, featuring a story by Smith and stories, poetry, and art by various Native/First Nations contributors. 

“Brosnan has also acquired two untitled contemporary Native middle grade novels by Smith. The anthology and the first novel will be published in summer 2020, and the second novel will be published in summer 2021. Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown, Ltd. negotiated the deals for world English rights.” 

See also Industry Q&A with Editor Rosemary Brosnan from CBC Diversity.

Thank you to YA librarian Jill Brady and Thursday’s sixth-hour student audience at Eastside Memorial Early College High School! I greatly enjoyed speaking with y’all about my writing journey and process as well as working with you on your own characters, worldbuilding and stories.

I was matched with the school through Project WISE (Writers in Schools for Enrichment), which is “funded by the City of Austin Cultural Arts division and facilitated by the Writers’ League of Texas. Participating campuses must be public schools within the Austin city limits.”

Link of the Week: A ‘Bad’ Book Can Be Good for Readers by Elizabeth Bluemle from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“As we know from our own childhoods, for most of us, that time of unfettered innocence is a myth. Even in the steadiest of conditions and in the homes of the most even-keeled of families, children are exposed (via the news, the internet, the schoolyard, family friends, older siblings, cousins, etcetera and so on ad nauseum) to confusing, intriguing, worrisome, sad, mysterious truths that they wonder about and try to make sense of.”

More Personally – Robin

This past weekend’s 25th Annual SCBWI MD/DE/WV conference was fantastic! Check out Laura Bower’s wonderful summary with photos, tweets, and quotes.

It was a dream come true to see my friend Jonathan Roth do his first book signing. I’ve been reading his work for almost a decade now and am excited that the funny and sensitive Beep and Bob series is his debut series.

On Saturday I’m going to the Kidlit Marches for Kids in Washington, D.C. You can check out if there’s a march in your area at this link.

New Voice: Monica Clark-Robinson on Let the Children March

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I couldn’t play on the same playground as the white kids. 
I couldn’t go to their schools.  
I couldn’t drink from their water fountains.  
There were so many things I couldn’t do. 

Let the Children March (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) follows a fictional African-American girl and her family through the very real events of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in May 1963.

This beautiful picture book, illustrated by Frank Morrison and written by fellow Epic Eighteen debut author Monica Clark-Robinson, weaves children’s chants and slogans from the march into the story along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words.

Finding the timeline of the Children’s Crusade in the end pages with children holding posters showing important dates on them drew me into the story and setting right away.

Monica, what made you feel this story needed to be told and why did you feel you had to write it?

When I first heard the story of the 1963 Children’s Crusade march, I was amazed that I had never heard about it before.

Monica photographed this Birmingham statue
honoring children jailed for protesting in 1963.

Children had marched against segregation, been sprayed by water hoses, attacked by police dogs, and jailed. Why was this not common knowledge?

For weeks afterward, I asked friends, family, and acquaintances if they knew anything about it, and I got the same answer 90 percent of the time: no one had even heard of it. I was stunned. And I felt deeply the injustice that we had done to the children who marched by not teaching about their part in the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. King wrote a book the year after the Children’s March called Why We Can’t Wait (Harper, 1964). In it, he states that he believes it was the addition of the children and teens to the movement that finally turned the tide against segregation.

This story needed to be told, remembered, and repeated.

The message of what happened in Birmingham in 1963 is sadly still so relevant today.

I did some research and was surprised to find that there were no picture books about the subject—although since then, a wonderful one by Cynthia Levinson called The Youngest Marcher (illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Atheneum Books, 2017) has come out. (See Cynsations interview.)

I personally feel driven driven to write stories that are getting lost in the margins and stories that are being forgotten, or misremembered. I also want to highlight history that gives children power and agency. This story hits both of those marks—I knew I had to write it.

This sculpture, Police and Dog Attack by artist James Drake,
is located in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park.

What did Frank Morrison’s art bring to your text?

We were thrilled when Frank agreed to illustrate the book.

The emotion and vibrancy he brought to the project was just stunning to me. I cried with an odd mixture of joy and sadness when I first saw his drawings for the book. It’s a difficult subject to write and illustrate a picture book about, in many ways.

We wanted to tell the story without softening it, but also with an understanding that the readers are children. I believe Frank’s art really rode that line beautifully, showing the reality without making it too upsetting for young readers.

Interior illustration by Frank Morrison.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I wanted to write the stories that I saw a need for. The right book, at just the right moment, in the hands of the very child that needs it, can change a life–even change the world.

I remember times in my youth when a book changed my perceptions about myself, or altered how I interacted with others. I believe so strongly in the power of story and the power of children. And the magic they create together!

I can’t imagine doing anything that would fulfill me as deeply as being a writer for children.

Young readers participating in a readers’ theater performance of Let the Children March at Monica’s book launch.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

I’ve written poetry for as long as I can remember. I think I came to writing via that form, more than anything else. I am also a professional actor and have often written for my own solo performance.  So those things shaped me as a writer early on.

But then, about 10 years ago, I was working in the children’s department of Barnes & Noble, and I walked by a group of women meeting together. I listened in to their conversation, as one does, and discovered they were a critique group for children’s and teen’s literature. I begged to join, and for the next 10 years, I learned craft through that group of amazing writers.

I like to tell people I went to the University of Darcy and Carla. They are the two “grand dames” of my critique group, Darcy Pattison and Carla Killough McClafferty, both amazing authors.

I joined SCBWI, I went to conferences and intensives, I read countless books about the craft of writing–and I was a sponge for it all.

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

I have my “IRL” writing community, of course, in the amazing critique group I’ve been with so long.  But beyond that, the wide world of the children’s literature community on social media has been a wonderful support and resource.

One thing I’ve been doing for years now is following some of the “greats” on Twitter and Facebook.

Jane Yolen is a great example—she posts about her projects, her successes and failures, and how she just gets up every day and puts the words on the paper. I feel like Queen Jane is right there with me in the writing hustle, and I have been inspired by her so many times.

I’ve also joined a group of 2018 debut picture book authors and illustrators, and that has been indispensable. How did anyone do this before the internet?

For the most part, I’ve been pleased at how supportive and genuine the online children’s literature community has been. All these circles of community—with the critique group and the various online forums—can buoy us and give us clarity or a slap in the face, whichever we need the most.

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

  • Join SCBWI.  
  • Get a critique group.  
  • Write.  Write. Write.  
  • Be in the world, so the world can be in your writing.  
  • Act as if you already are a professional writer. That little change worked wonders for me.  
  • Listen to repeated criticism and make changes accordingly. That’s a big one. Lots of writers, I think, get criticism but then keep doing what they’ve always done.  
  • Submit your work, but not willy-nilly. Research the agents and editors. Do your homework.  
  • Don’t forget to play.  
  • And persevere.  Most of us take years to get our foot in the door.  Keep at it.

Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews both gave Let the Children March starred reviews. Kirkus Reviews called it, “A powerful retrospective glimpse at a key event.”

Monica-Clark Robinson is passionate about stories: writing them, acting them out on stage, and reading them, both as a voiceover artist and an avid reader. She believes the stories of our past can help us create the story of our future.

This is Monica’s debut picture book, bringing to light a part of history that can empower children to make a difference.

Monica lives in a yurt in the country with her husband, too many cats, and just the right amount of daughters.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on September 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.