Author Interview: Samantha Mabry on Being Unique & All the Wind in the World

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Samantha Mabry is the author of All the Wind in the World (Algonguin Young Readers, 2017). It was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. From the promotional copy:

Sarah Jac Crow and James Holt have fallen in love working in the endless fields that span a near-future, bone-dry Southwest, a land that’s a little bit magical, deeply dangerous, and bursting with secrets. 

To protect themselves, they’ve learned to work hard and—above all—keep their love hidden from the people who might use it against them. Then, just when Sarah Jac and James have settled in and begun saving money for the home they dream of near the coast, a horrible accident sends them on the run. 

With no choice but to start over on a new, possibly cursed ranch, the delicate balance of their lives begins to give way—and they may have to pay a frighteningly high price for their love.

All The Wind In The World is so lush with atmosphere. Do you have a personal connection to the southwest settings in the novel?

I do! My husband and I both teach college, so we have summers off. For the last five years, we’ve spent a good chunk of those summers out in Marfa, Texas, which is about an eight-hour drive west from where we live in Dallas. I love it out there, but it’s hard to describe exactly why.

It’s very dry and quiet and windy. There are mountains in the distance, and trains that roll through (breaking the silence). I spend a lot time outside, on walks or reading in a hammock. I always knew I wanted to set a story there because I hoped to explore the layers beneath that quiet and seemingly simple landscape. 

You touch on complex social issues, like marginalized communities and the balance of power in societies and relationships. What drew you to those topics?

While A Fierce and Subtle Poison (Algonquin, 2016) was my book about culture, I wanted All the Wind in the World to be my book about class. 

And yeah, I wanted to explore power imbalances –from the way the ranch owner and higher-ups manipulate their workers to the way a young couple’s relationships starts to teeter and tilt. These power imbalances cause ranch life to unravel.

Natural phenomena meld with mutinies; people start to look for answers in the supernatural. There’s a lot to mine in a system and a setting that’s unfair.

I didn’t want to make this world too much of a dystopia, though. Even though it’s set in the future, I wanted to make it as reflective of working conditions in the past and present as I could.

I can’t really say what drew me to these topics. I studied Marxist theory all throughout college and graduate school, and thus have always been keen on viewing texts and stories in terms of what’s happening with power dynamics and economics and how those aspects affect everything else.

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

I just always try to look at people (and characters) as being full of complexities. 

My mother is Mexican American, and my dad is half-Puerto Rican and half-white. So, I’ve always generally been interested in (and will probably always be interested in) people who are of mixed heritage and how those people both shape and are shaped by their identities. 
In A Fierce and Subtle Poison, culture and identity were very front and center –the characters spoke often about their heritage. It was such a central part of that novel. 
In All the Wind in the World, the main character is often defined by others (she’s referred to as having “mixed blood” on a couple of occasions), but her bloodline is not something she thinks about often. She’s not reflective in that way.

I’ll probably always explore the shades of Latinidad and try to show that there are myriad authentic ways to be Latinx.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

I didn’t become a writer until I was in my late twenties because I was intimidated and had no idea how to even start. It took me a long time to realize what kind of writer I wanted to be and how I fit in.

I try to encourage beginning writers to figure out where they fit in a tradition. Like, are they wanting to write thrillers like Author X or horror novels like Author Y? Or are they wanting to do some hybrid genre, inspired by both Author X and Author Y? 

Then, with their favorite, most inspirational authors as touchstones, I’d ask these beginning writers how they are going to be different. Like, how are they going to fit in with the tradition without being derivative or copycats? 
I’m a huge fan of honoring tradition and wearing my influences on my sleeve, but I also think an author needs to consider how their contribution is going to be unique and different, not just in terms of writing a different kind of story, but in approaching a genre with fresh eyes, a new point of view, and/or a new stylistic angle.
Cynsations Notes

Samantha by Laura Burlton Photography
Booklist gave All the Wind in the World a starred review and wrote, “In aching, luminous prose, Mabry crafts a story impossible to forget, infused with southwestern folklore and magical realism. The harsh desert is exquisitely, painfully rendered, and the characters are flawed and wholly real. A gripping, fablelike story of a love ferocious enough to destroy and a world prepared to burn…”
Samantha Mabry grew up in Texas playing bass guitar along to vinyl records, writing fan letters to rock stars, and reading big, big books. 
She credits her tendency toward magical thinking to her Grandmother Garcia, who would wash money in the kitchen sink to rinse off bad spirits. 
She teaches writing and Latino literature at a community college in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband, a historian, and her pets, including a cat named Mouse. 

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

Learn more about Arthur Slade (here at a comic con).

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

It’s curious. I always envisioned the writer’s life as reaching a series of plateaus: First publication. First bestseller. First American book deal (I’m a Canadian). First International deal. And I believed that I would just keep climbing that imaginary literary ladder.

But as I look back on the last twenty years it’s really more of an up and down process.

My fourth book Dust (Wendy Lamb, 2003) brought me awards [including the Governor General’s Literary Award] and sales and an American deal (selling somewhere over 60,000 copies in the first few months). But my next book only sold half that amount. The follow up to that sold somewhere between the two.

I then penned a series called The Hunchback Assignments (Wendy Lamb, 2009 – 2012) and received a six figure deal and sold the rights to several countries. Success again!

But the last two books in that series didn’t sell as well as the first two, which meant the next time publishers looked at my work they’d take those sales numbers into account. And that meant not being able to find an American publisher.

So to replace that income, I concentrated on self-publishing my books that were out of print and original work (I have a fun self published series for YA/New Adult called Amber Fang: Librarian Assassin Vampire.. (Dava Enterprises, 2016) I’m really pleased with the reaction to it so far).

So that ladder I’d envisioned is more of a Snakes-and-Ladders type scenario. Or one of those video games where you step on a riser and go up. And on the next one you go down. And the next one drops you in a lava pit. Thankfully authors have nine lives!

I think my successful moments come because I’m willing to adapt, and not afraid of putting on a salesperson’s hat. That’s why I once rented a 1930s era movie theatre to launch my silent film era book Flickers (HarperCollins Canada, 2016). I sent a notice out to schools and packed the theatre with 500 kids. Every parent got a link to buy the book.

Or I’ll willingly throw myself at Kickstarter to produce a graphic novel. Or voice audiobook versions of my books. And I’ve spent far too many hours learning to understand Facebook/Bookbub/Amazon advertising and developing subscribers to my newsletter.

All of those efforts help to fill in the blanks when a book doesn’t do as well as I’d like it to.

And, of course, the most important thing is to create a book that I’d be happy to read myself. And proud of.

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

If I was wise, I’d only write in one genre and become known for that. I’m one of those odd writers who loves writing history novels, fantasy, science fiction, horror, realistic novels and even a bit of nonfiction. But each time I switched genres, a large portion of my audience didn’t follow me. I had to keep re-introducing myself (or my work, I should say) to readers.

Also, I’d have worked harder to save money. Not that I’m a big spender, but this is certainly an amazingly precarious industry in terms of income. When publishers only pay you every six months (or divide your advances into three or four payments, ugh!) then it is hard to plan.

With self-publishing, at least you get paid every month, but the difficulty is getting that amount to be a liveable amount.

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?

Ebooks are the obvious big change, though for middle grade and lower writers it had a much smaller impact (kids still read paper books!). It was a much bigger splash in the YA market.

What I like about them is that, with self-publishing, writers now have more choice and, arguably, more power. We can choose to step away from traditional publishers altogether. Or to become hybrid authors (like myself). That is not a choice we really had when I was starting out (not without a huge financial investment and a lot of hand selling of self-pubbed books).

The other change is that the market has become ever more numbers oriented. It’s always been that way, but it is much harder for the middle-of-the-road authors to be successful. Publishers just don’t have the financial patience to wait for a good author to write that next hit.

This is an advantage to newcomers because they do get a closer look (though partially because publishers know they can pay them less).

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

Look carefully at your genre and whether or not you can be successful with a traditional publisher or by self-publishing.

And, if you do sign a contract, make sure it’s a good one.

The rights we give up as authors can be “exploited” in so many ways—audiobooks, graphic novels, movies—that you really want to keep as many of your rights as possible.

And be sure that there are clear terms as to when the rights return to you.

We are in a glorious time where it is relatively easy to create audiobooks, special print-on-demand editions of our work, even T-shirts with our sayings on them.

So I’d suggest not aiming to make your money from one source (RE a publisher) but from several “trickle down” sources.

It will help your bottom line overall.

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

Arthur at a school visit.

Happiness and no writer’s block!

In an ideal world, I’d love all these fresh young writers and even the not-so-fresh writers (like me) to meet our financial and literary goals. And be able to put our feet up once in awhile and read each other’s work. Sounds glorious!

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

A yacht. Wait, what would I do with that on the prairie?

Actually, just a clear three or four hours a day, uninterrupted, to write. That would be heaven.

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.

Relaunching a Bestselling Series: Trying to Hit #1 from Arthur Slade. Peek:

“So Mission Clockwork won the title bout. It seems counter-intuitive to give up all the years of website mentions, reviews, etc that feature The Hunchback Assignments. But these would be new readers I was targeting about a series they’d never seen before.”

Guest Post: Kim Purcell on The Alternate Epistolary Novel

By Kim Purcell
from Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There are so many types of epistolary novels, and I love the ones that play with the form. In my second novel, I tried to shift the traditional epistolary novel format.

In This Is Not A Love Letter (Hyperion, 2018), Jessie writes her missing boyfriend an account of what they’re doing to find him, entirely in her head. The reason I chose to do it this way is rooted in what happened to me when my friend went missing in high school.

My friend Al stopped by a barbecue in the middle of a run and I talked to him, said he should stay, and he said he’d be back. He never made it home.

I searched through the woods, in the pouring rain, thinking of what I’d tell him when we found him.

In real life, we feared a hate crime, since he was one of the only African-Canadians in our small mill town in Northern British Columbia. Finally, the search was called off, and I returned to school to do finals, talking to him in my head, worrying he was missing them.

For that whole summer, I ran every day, and every time I ran, I imagined him running beside me, grinning at me, making wry comments, or just listening to me talk.

Those runs taught me how to tell this story.

Apparently, talking to people in your head isn’t strange. A lot of people experience this when someone drops out of their life all of a sudden due to a disappearance, death, or a sudden break-up.

It’s jarring. The brain just can’t adjust. For sure, my brain couldn’t adjust. I couldn’t believe that I’d never see him again.

At first, I wrote this story as a traditional epistolary novel, one long letter that started with Dear Chris. It was written in the past. No dialogue. But this version had one major drawback of a traditional epistolary novel that I wanted to avoid: a lack of immediacy and tension.

So, I rewrote the book in several short letters, which Jessie wrote at the end of each day as she searched for Chris. The struggle in this rewrite was in figuring out when she’d write the letters.

Then, I thought it could be in journal form, written at various points throughout the day with time stamps, but who’s going to pull out a journal in the middle of a search for her boyfriend?

Finally, I swung back to the way I wrote to my friend, in the moment, in my head. This was the only true way I could tell this story. I rewrote this book from scratch, again, in the present tense. I could interweave Jessie’s moment-to-moment story, and keep the reader in her body, and in her emotional journey. Also, the reader could stay in her thought process when a song or an object would throw her into a memory of Chris or into an ESP communication with him.

I could also incorporate other alternate epistolary forms within the narrative, such as text messages from the friends to one another, old texts from him, an old voicemail message, and one love letter from him that Jessie finds after he’s missing. In this way, the reader gets to peruse the pieces of evidence that give clues to what happened.

Kim’s writing companions

In shifting to an alternate epistolary model, my hope was to provide a challenge to the reader and increase the suspense. Because Jessie writes the love letter in her head, the reader is essentially living in her brain, seeing what she hopes to share with Chris when he returns.

The reader very likely sees the answer before Jessie sees it, and this also increases the tension, because the reader is calling to Jessie through the pages, interpreting the evidence.

It turned out this was the only way for me to write this story, and I think that’s when epistolary novels work best, when there’s some underlying emotional reason to write the story in that format.

In the end, you have to write a book for your own heart, and hope it connects to others.

For me, it was a love story to my friend. And I like to think he’s looking down at me, and saying, “Hey, I love you back.”

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave This is Not a Love Letter a starred review and wrote, “Purcell handles the nuances of interracial relationships with a remarkably sensitive and observant eye and challenges readers to view racism under a broader category of generalizations.”

Kim Purcell grew up in British Columbia, Canada, and now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two kids, two dogs, and three cats.

She has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

She loves loud laughter, random elevator dancing, cold bodies of water and hot chocolate with extra whipped cream.

Cover Reveal & Author Snapshot: Journey of the Pale Bear by Susan Fletcher

By Cynthia Leitich Smith for Cynsations

Check out the cover of Journey of the Pale Bear by Susan Fletcher (McElderry, Oct. 2018). From the promotional copy:

A runaway boy befriends a polar bear that’s being transported from Norway to London in this lyrical and timeless adventure story about freedom, captivity, and finding a family.

The polar bear is a royal bear, a gift from the King of Norway to the King of England. The first time Arthur encounters the bear, he is shoved in her cage as payback for stealing food. Restless and deadly, the bear terrifies him. Yet, strangely, she doesn’t harm him—though she has attacked anyone else who comes near. 

That makes Arthur valuable to the doctor in charge of getting the bear safely to London. So Arthur, who has run away from home, finds himself taking care of a polar bear on a ship to England.

Tasked with feeding and cleaning up after the bear, Arthur’s fears slowly lessen as he begins to feel a connection to this bear, who like him, has been cut off from her family. But the journey holds many dangers, and Arthur knows his own freedom—perhaps even his life—depends on keeping the bear from harm. 

When pirates attack and the ship founders, Arthur must make a choice—does he do everything he can to save himself, or does he help the bear to find freedom?

Based on the real story of a polar bear that lived in the Tower of London, this timeless adventure story is also a touching account of the bond between a boy and a bear.

From author Susan Fletcher:

Journey of the Pale Bear is based on the true story of a polar bear given by King Haakon IV of Norway to King Henry III of England in the year 1252.

When you put a polar bear at the heart of your novel, you’re almost guaranteed a good cover. I mean: a polar bear. Those guys are inherently gorgeous and magnificent.

Still, it took me a moment to catch my breath the first time I saw the jacket art. I wasn’t prepared for just how stunningly beautiful it would be.

It’s the light—the puddles of light on the surface of the water, the streaming undersea light, the tips of light on the polar bear’s snout and neck and crown.

It’s the texture of the bear’s fur. It’s the masses of intense underwater blue.

It’s the expressions of the bear and the boy—worried but not hopeless, setting off on an adventure not of their own choosing, straddling the boundary between documented history and some kind of dream.

I love this cover, and I’m very grateful to everyone who helped to make it happen, especially my editor, Karen Wojtyla, and illustrator Shane Rebenschied.

Cynsational News

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

Author/Illustrator Insights

An Na, Author of The Place Between Breaths, on It Being Okay to Be Slow and Tinker by Jocelyn Rish from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek:

“I learned that I am slow and I like to tinker and that is okay. So many writers I know produce more quickly, but I learned to be good with the kind of writer that I need to be in order to produce the best story that I can write.”

Why Couldn’t I Just Be More Like Them? They Didn’t Crash Diet and Binge and Purge by Alyssa Sheinmel from YA Interrobang. Peek:

“I thought a lot about whether or not we feel that we deserve to talk about our problems while I wrote my new book, R.I.P. Eliza Hart…With Ellie, I wanted to write a character who would eventually see asking for help as a sign of strength, rather than weakness.”

Interview with Jen Petro-Roy, Author of P.S. I Miss You by Jonathan Rosen at From the Mixed-up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. Peek:

“I got an idea, wrote a book, wrote and rewrote, and actually got an agent….I was going to be published, right? Nope. Two books went on submission and didn’t sell… I wanted to give up many times, but I couldn’t stop writing.”

The Fallacy of the Strong Female Character from Erin Dionne. Peek:

“I realized that by labeling our characters as ‘strong,’ by lumping together those active decision-making characteristics, we have set the expectation that all other female characters are weak. After all, only the ones who are labeled strong must be strong!”

Interview with A.S. King by Julia Shelton from Pine Reads. Peek:

“The only advice I have is: the only way you’ll know if it’s a crappy idea is if you finish it and once you finish it, you can always fix it…None of this can happen if you’re not writing.”


Indigenous #KidLitWomen by Debbie Reese from American Indians in Children’s Literature. Peek:

“I’d ask you to name a picture book about a Native woman or girl… Next time you’re at the bookstore, reach for books written by Indigenous women! …I made an Indigenous #KidLitWomen pdf for you that has book titles on it, plus some gorgeous covers!”

A Preponderance of Pink: A Conversation with Kathleen T. Horning by Elissa Gershowitz and Martha V. Parravano from The Horn Book. Peek:

“I have found boys to be just as interested in female characters as male ones if the story grabs them…But adults often make assumptions about children’s interests and make those choices for them. I think we often sell boys short in this regard.”

The Alienating Lack of Disability Representation in Literature by Grace Lapointe from Book Riot. Peek:

“It might seem ironic for me to mention examples in which disabled people are not included, but our exclusion is significant. My elementary school had mentally and physically disabled students of many different ethnicities, but books didn’t reflect that diversity.”

Black Books for Black Kids by Elizabeth Bluemle from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“While we work towards providing more diverse books for children of color and native kids, let’s be sure to read, teach, recommend, and sell them to white kids as well. This is how we build a better world.”

Where to Start with Bi & Lesbian YA by Danika Ellis from Book Riot. Peek:

“So you want to read sapphic young adult books! That’s fantastic! Luckily, you have tons to choose from. LGBTQIA YA has come a long way, and bi and lesbian YA, while still not as common as I’d like, has expanded considerably recently.”

Living in a Fantasy World by Gwenda Bond from #kidlitwomen. Peek:

“The more successful a book by a man is, the more he’s treated as worthy of serious attention or at least serious treatment. The more successful a book by a woman is, the more likely it is to become the reference for a snarky aside in an article about how great X book by X dude is.”

Writing Craft

Tips to Hook Your Reader’s Emotions by Anna Elliott from Writer Unboxed. Peek:

“I’ve read loads of books that open with a super high-stakes, thrilling action scene, and yet it falls flat…What’s missing? Emotion. You can have all the action in the world, but if your character is just moving through the motions like a robot, readers still aren’t going to care.”

100+ Creative Writing Exercises for Fiction Authors from Reedsy. Peek:

“This curated directory of creative writing exercises was conceived thanks to a collaboration between the top writing blogs of 2018.”

The Difference Between a Sequel and a Scene by Janice Hardy from Fiction University. Peek:

“A scene is where the action is and something happens to the character. A sequel is how the character processes what just happened to them and decides what to do next.”

Huge Mistakes Ruining the Romantic Relationships in Your Book by Bella Pope from The Write Life. Peek:

“Make sure your relationships are written consensually. Think about how you’d feel and act given the situation you’re putting your characters in. A general rule is, if you’d be appalled by someone being treated that way in real life, it’s not right.”


Image by Grace Lin

More Voices, More Faces: A Challenge for Educators, Conference and Festival Organizers, and Authors and Illustrators by Kate Messner from #kidlitwomen. Peek:

“We see conference panels that promote ‘Five Funny Men!’ and ‘Adventure Books For Boys,’ all by white male authors. When girls and people of color see these lineups over and over again, it sends a persistent and insidious message.”

Determining Our Own Value and Worth: It’s Valuable and Worth It! by Emma D. Dryden from #kidlitwomen. Peek:

“Putting a monetary value on ourselves is something women don’t do at all well…We tend to say ‘yes’ more than we say ‘no.’ And we tend to apologize when we ask for what we want. Men in my experience, don’t have a problem with any of this at all.”

Getting Published Is Just the Beginning: Financially Making It, or Not, as a Full-Time Writer by Marie Myung-Ok Lee from The Business of Being a Writer. Peek:

“Many friends were forthright that they weren’t making a living [from writing], especially if they were primary caregivers for children. … At least half the people I interviewed who lived in NYC received help from their parents.”

What is Hybrid Publishing and Is It an Option? The New IBPA Standards by Lyn Miller-Lachmann from her blog. Peek:

“I have a few questions for IBPA and the Authors Guild, questions any writer should ask before going with one of these new hybrid publishers.”

Where the Women Are: Tough Questions About the Gender Disparities in Children’s Publishing by Emma Walton Hamilton from #kidlitwomen. Peek:

“Women in positions of power should actively seek ways to support and advocate for other women, in the workplace and beyond. Let’s look at our client lists, committees, datebooks and more, with a keener eye — and make some adjustments where needed.”

Why Blog- From the Writer Who Said Goodbye to Blogging by L. L. Barkat from Jane Friedman. Peek: 

“This is introvert heaven. I can explore what I need to explore when I need to explore it, on my own terms. I can breathe again, letting background technology do the heavy lifting.”

Also check out Cynthia’s updated page Children’s-YA Book Publishing Links for Writers.

Austin 2018 Writers & Illustrators Working Conference: March 24 is the last day to sign up for manuscript and picture book dummy critiques.

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.


Congratulations to Austin Book Award winners Elizabeth Crook, Varian Johnson and Nate Blackeslee! The awards are given by Friends of the Austin Public Library.

More Personally – Cynthia

Sunset in Tampa, Florida

Breaking news! The publication date for my upcoming YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick), has been moved up to Oct. 9!

You can pre-order the book from Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, Amazon or your local independent bookstore.

Last week’s highlight was traveling to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Tampa, Florida.

I had the honor of speaking on two panels, one about writing for young readers and feminism with Sarah Aronson, Kekla Magoon, Laura Shovan, and Tricia Springstubb, the other about the craft of writing dialogue with David Macinnis Gill and Kekla.

See Sarah on The Future is Female: A Conversation at AWP.

This week has been all about teaching. My students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts program in Writing for Children and Young Adults are in their second round of packets. I also enjoyed lunch with author Carmen Oliver, owner of The Booking Biz.

Will you be at the Texas Library Association Conference in Dallas in April 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.

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 – Robin

On Saturday, I’ll be attending the annual Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia SCBWI conference.

On Sunday, I’m excited to attend the book signing of local Maryland author Jonathan Roth for his fun new chapter book Beep and Bob: Too Much Space.

Personal Links – Gayleen

My link of the Week: Joy Thief by Rebekah Manley from Brave Tutu. Peek: “‘Comparison is truly the thief of joy’…Without even realizing it, I can easily shift into thinking, ‘Rebekah, what is taking you so long?'”

Guest Post: Ann Jacobus: Critique Group Makes Frances Lee Hall’s Publishing Dream Come True

By Ann Jacobus
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

It’s an unusual moment when our writing group is in full agreement. But in this case, we knew we had to bring our friend Frances Lee Hall’s wonderful middle grade story to young readers.

The question was how?

Frances Lee Hall

We had all just attended her memorial service. Frances died suddenly on Nov. 26, 2016.

She had also been through hell and high water, as only a writer can, with her middle-grade manuscript, Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker. We had critiqued it through more than one revision and loved her story like our own.

One of Frances’s favorite expressions was “Yaaaay!”

She had always been so supportive of each of us and we couldn’t imagine letting her dream go unrealized.

The story really begins at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) in the Writing for Children and Young Adult program.

I met Frances, a San Francisco native, there in 2005 during her first residency. We were in a workshop together and both her writing and her ability to critique others’ work made a deep impression on me.

As author Annemarie O’Brien says, “Frances would often let everyone speak, and then at the very end she’d toss out some profound comment that would make us all stop, think, and reevaluate.”

When my family moved to San Francisco in 2009, Frances and I formed a writing group. Naturally, we had to name ourselves and chose “Beyond the Margins.” Annemarie, Helen Pyne, Linden McNeilly, Christine Dowd, and Sharry Wright soon joined us.

Ann, Frances and Annemarie O’Brien

“Frances was a terrific cheerleader, role model and editor,” Helen says, and in late 2013, we celebrated with homemade fried wonton and California wine when Frances’ agent Marietta Zacker sold Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker to international publisher Egmont USA.

We had been expecting it. As her former VCFA advisor Cynthia Leitich Smith says, “Frances’ writing came from a place of light and tenderness. Throughout her process, she thought of the child readers and drew on her own inner child to inform how best to lift them up. Her work exhibited a heightened emotional intelligence and a loving respect for tradition, elders, and intergenerational relationships.”

Indeed, Frances’ protagonist Lily is a determined and energetic third-grade soccer player who finds her Grandpa, Gung Gung, and his traditional ways perplexing in their newly dependent relationship. Lily struggles to find common ground with him, and in her mounting frustration alienates some of her friends and teammates. The story is heart-felt but also very funny.

“Frances did such a great job capturing goofy kid humor,” says Helen.

Lily Lo is a universal story about family and friendship, and it’s also the kind of children’s novel Frances wished she’d had access to growing up in the Bay Area. She said that, although her elementary school was 75-to-80 percent Asian-American, she had never read a story as a child that featured a character or a family like hers.

Cynthia says, “I know the heightened challenges for authors of color and their writing weighed heavily on her. It’s something we talked about.”

Frances was an early fervent supporter of We Need Diverse Books. Cynthia continues, “My heart contracts at the thought of how much more welcome she might feel today than even a few years ago. I know she would be encouraged by progress made and delighted that her book will become a part of that rising conversation centered on inclusivity.”

In 2014, things moved very slowly at Egmont with Frances’s book, but we were all shocked when the publisher closed its U.S. operations a year later, leaving Lily Lo and other stories stranded.

Frances and Marietta re-submitted and almost sold Lily Lo a second time, only to have that fall through as well.

Frances persisted, although she was deeply disappointed. She continued working and submitting until tragedy struck. She suffered a brain aneurysm in November 2016 and died a week later leaving behind her husband Lance and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Emmie.

Everyone who knew Frances was heartbroken. So many people turned out to celebrate her life at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in Chinatown, San Francisco, a week after Thanksgiving. Friends and writers across the country celebrated her life online.

Before Frances became a children’s writer, she worked in television. We knew she had an Emmy, but she never mentioned she had won three from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for her work in TV writing and production. We learned this after she died.

Beyond the Margins, along with several other of her writer friends, decided to do something to honor Frances and her writing.

Another one of her manuscripts that we love is called Paper Son. It’s about a Chinese boy who goes alone through the San Francisco Angel Island Immigration Station in the 1930s, driven by the dream of reuniting with his father in the United States.

Helen says, “Frances’s young protagonist, Moon, suffers hardship and heartbreak, but he’s strong and resilient and an inspirational main character.”

However, as Annemarie says, “We selected Lily Lo (for publication) because it had proven debut promise and was ready, requiring no revisions beyond copyedits.”

None of us were willing to revise Frances’s stories or change her words on a deeper level. Lily Lo had been through many, many drafts and had already been revised with an outstanding editor.

With Lance’s support, Marietta followed up on a few leads for possible posthumous publication. But traditional publishers understandably proved reluctant to take on a debut without a living author behind it. So, we began a search for an alternative.

Annemarie knew of a hybrid publisher in Oakland called Inkshares. Their model involves crowd-funding with pre-orders to cover all the upfront costs of traditional publishing—or editorial development, cover and book design, sales, promotion and distribution.

Annemarie says, “Promoting Lily Lo for pre-orders was a group effort led by Ann who made it simple for us to email friends, create posts on Facebook, and tweets on Twitter. It was easy to advocate for Frances because of the support we got from her family and friends, as well as from the VCFA community.”

The original goal for was 750 pre-orders. In the funding phase, Inkshares asks $30 for a pre-order package that includes the book, an ebook, and “updates” from the author. But we soon opted for the Inkshares “Quill” path which only required 250 pre-orders.

This route is closer to a self-publishing model in that it does not include a developmental edit or cover design. But it also returns a larger percentage of net sales to the author–or her estate in this case, and specifically, her daughter Emmie’s education fund.

Rita Williams Garcia

A graphic-artist friend from Frances’ TV production days, May Key Lee, designed a dynamite cover. We funded ahead of schedule and now Lily Lo is in pre-production. Inkshares will do the copy-edits, and we provided front and back matter, blurbs (including one from Rita Williams Garcia!), forewords, and a bio.

Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker should be printed and available by late summer.

Frances’s family joins us in thanking all those who have taken part in bringing this story and its author’s memory to life. Yaaaay!

Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker is available now for pre-order at $10.99 a copy.

Cynsational Notes

Ann Jacobus writes children’s and YA fiction, blogs and tweets about it, teaches writing and volunteers on a suicide crisis line.

She’s published short fiction, essays and poetry in anthologies, journals, and magazines, and is the author of YA thriller Romancing the Dark in the City of Light (St. Martin’s Press, 2015).

San Francisco is home to her and her family.

New Voice: Interview & Giveaway: Jeanette Bradley on Love, Mama

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I am pleased to shine the spotlight on a fellow Epic Eighteen debut picture book, Love, Mama by author-illustrator Jeanette Bradley (Roaring Brook, 2018). From the promotional copy:

When Mama leaves her young penguin Kipling, he knows she’ll return home soon—yet he still can’t help but miss her. 

After all, Pillow Mama won’t read, Picture Mama won’t laugh, and Snow Mama is too cold to cuddle.

But then Kipling receives a special delivery from Mama, including a note that reads:

My love for you stretches across the wide ocean,
through day and night,
from earth to sky
and back again.

And Kipling knows that no matter where Mama is, he is loved. Soon, Mama comes home, and Kipling ends the day where he belongs—right in her arms.

Jeanette’s story about young Kipling, a penguin in the Antarctic, missing his mama away at work features a beautiful color palette of red, blue, and gray that immediately drew my eye to the illustrations.

One of the other aspects I appreciated and she talks about in our interview below is that Kipling stays home with a caregiver which could be anyone – the other parent, a grandparent, older sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle, or babysitter.

Many children have this experience when a parent is away working, so I appreciated that portrayal in addition to the deep longing Kipling has to be in Mama’s arms again.

Jeanette, as an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa?

I started out studying painting, and then illustration. I was sending out postcards, trying to get noticed in this highly competitive industry, when a wonderful thing happened.

My father told me that he had run into my eighth grade English teacher and told her that I was doing illustration and that she had asked him to convey to me a message. The message, delivered with her intonation, was: “Don’t forget that You. Are. A. Writer. Too.”

Teachers really do change lives. I am grateful that Mert Smits changed mine more than once. She was absolutely right, and I got serious about learning the craft of writing picture books. Three years later, here I am.

Interior illustration from Love, Mama

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?

Love, Mama is fiction with anthropomorphic animal characters, but I rooted the story in science.

I researched the location and spoke with Antarctic scientists about the animals that migrate in the Southern Ocean, the types of boats that are used in the sea ice, and what souvenirs are available in Antarctic gift shops. I used a lot of reference photos to create the fictional island that Kipling lives on.  I wanted to create the sense that Kipling lives in a real, but alternate Antarctic.

If you type “do penguins have” into Google, you will discover that many other people struggle with the existential question of “do penguins have knees?”

When designing an anthropomorphic character, there is always a tension between the animal elements and the human elements. It’s a challenge to combine those in a way that is cute and appealing, instead of falling into the “uncanny valley” of psychologically disturbing not-humanness.

The most difficult part of drawing the cuddly penguins in Love, Mama was figuring out how they sat on a sofa. (Penguins do have knees, but you can’t see them, because they are hidden by their belly flaps. Real penguins would not be able to sit on a sofa. This is my public service announcement for science.)

Jeanette at Book Launch party

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

My book has been released out in the world for two days, and the best part has been seeing photos of kids all over the country enjoying Love, Mama. So much love!

The runner-up best moment was when my agent Emily Mitchell sent me an email telling me that not only had she sold my book, she had sold it to Connie Hsu. I wouldn’t say that Connie was my dream editor, because it hadn’t occurred to me to dream that big. I felt like Cinderella, except visited by the fairy godmother for introverts.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

I queried my agent because her bio made me laugh. Seriously, its funny, go look at it.

(Traci – Jeanette and I actually have the same agent and I couldn’t agree more.)

What advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators or author-illustrators?

In art school I was taught to draw from the masters, which is the best way to really get inside someone else’s visual thinking. So, I read a lot of recently published picture books. I choose a few to analyze more deeply, and type them out and/or sketch from them.

Interior illustration from Love, Mama

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

There are so few picture books in which my children can see their two-mom family mirrored that aren’t books explicitly about family structure. I wanted to write a book about family which the family structure was not the point of the book, but was also not locked into a mother, father, and child. I wanted to leave space for children who live with a grandparent or a single parent or who have same-sex parents to read their own family into the book.

Love, Mama is focused on the relationship between mother and child, and the ability of love to transcend distance. But the toddler-like main character felt too young to leave home alone, so I needed to create another adult without shifting the focus of the story or closing the space I had created.

I solved this by creating another adult penguin with no identifying characteristics, who is never mentioned in the text.

Some children will assume Blank Slate is a babysitter, others will map a parent or grandparent onto that penguin. (I have already witnessed a debate between kindergartners about Blank Slate’s true identity!)

Whatever the reader brings to the story, the focus remains on the deep emotions of missing a parent when she is gone, even if someone else is home with you.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews wrote of Love, Mama, “The artwork works with the spare text to keep the focus on how Kipling is feeling; readers are sure to empathize. This will provide both reassurance to children missing their own loved ones and ideas for staying connected.”

Jeanette Bradley has been an urban planner, an apprentice pastry chef, and the artist-in-residence for a traveling art museum on a train. Her debut picture book contains no cities, pastries, or trains, but was made with lots of love.

She currently lives in Rhode Island with her wife and kids. To see more of her art, follow her on Instagram @jea_bradley.

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.

Enter to win your own copy of Love, Mama!

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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.

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

Learn more about Lisa Wheeler.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I think the biggest bump (aside from pre-publication days when I was gathering all my rejections) came during the recession.

I know I am not alone in this.

During that time, I had one editor retire and two leave for other houses. This made selling a manuscript even more difficult, and it seemed everything I wrote for about five years (except for the Dino-Sports series with CarolRhoda which continued throughout this time period) got rejected.

I was fortunate to have that series during that dry spell because it gave me deadlines and I still felt like a “real” writer.

I also took a writing job for Pearson. I wrote four short stories for use in our state testing program. These were pay-per-project, but I didn’t think twice about taking the job. The money was decent and it kept my brain occupied while also allowing me to be creative.

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

Hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it? I wish I hadn’t stressed so much. I wish I would’ve believed more in myself and my abilities.

I tend to turn inward when things go wrong and point fingers of blame at myself, my talent, etc.

In truth, looking back, lots of writers had trouble selling during this time. It was a market thing, combined with being orphaned at three publishing houses.

I should have listened to my agent who kept assuring me that things would turn around. He was right!

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 have seen picture books get shorter and flashier.

I used to tell the folks who participated in my Picture Book Boot Camps that they had to keep their word count at 1000 or less. Now I advise keeping it below 500.

I also think that social media has played a huge part in making some books very successful. People are celebrities now because they have an online presence.

Twenty years ago, the internet was a new world and I never foresaw how it would change our world.
I am uncomfortable with all the social media showy marketing stuff and actually have mini panic attacks when I try to sit in on workshops about this topic. It’s all so out of my comfort zone.

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

Hire someone to handle your social media.

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

As always, I wish them successful careers and many book sales.

I also hope that children’s books will continue to be made with real paper.

With Deb Aronson and Lisa Rose at Book Beat in Oak Park, MI.

I love that this medium allows families to take their eyes away from the screens, experience the feel and smell of real printed books, see art that isn’t backlit, slow down, ask questions, discuss story. . .oh, all things I recall from reading aloud to my kids when they were small.

Such a precious memory!

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

Like I tell the kids, I will continue to write books until my brain or body breaks down. I hope neither thing happens anytime soon.

I love my job!

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Guest Post: Mari Mancusi on A Once and Future Book

Mari Mancusi pulls the sword from the stone.

By Mari Mancusi
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Fourteen years ago, when I began my publishing journey, I was under the assumption that if you wrote it (and it was good) it would sell.

Sell to a New York publisher. Be stocked at bookstores. Be discovered by readers. Happily ever after, the end.

And it certainly seemed that way when my tween YA time travel novel, The Camelot Code, sold to Dutton/Penguin at auction in 2007. It was a sweet two-book deal and the editor was very excited about the project.

The gist was this: a teen King Arthur ends up in our world, Googles himself and finds out his true destiny, then decides he’d rather play football than pull the sword from the stone. And it’s up to our intrepid 21st century hero and heroine, Stu and Sophie, to fill in for the Once and Future King and get him back where he belongs, before history is changed forever.

All was going well, until, through a series of events, a change was made. The editor asked if I would do the second book in the contract first—as it seemed more “timely” – (and, of course, a time travel novel is supposedly timeless.) So I did—writing Gamer Girl (Dutton, 2008) instead. And when that was finished I went back to my precious Camelot Code, excited to finally finish it and get it out there at last.

But at that point, a year and a half after the original deal was made, the YA market had changed. Publishers had realized there were profits to be made on the so-called crossover audience (the adult readers) and YA started growing up—growing edgier and darker and deeper. And when my editor read my version of The Camelot Code, she realized she could not publish this book as it was and asked for a major revision.

Mari talks about reading, writing and presents her books to young readers.

To make matters worse, as I was revising, my editor moved houses. Then Dutton reorganized into a boutique publisher that put out only a few titles a year. Many of the current authors were sent to Dial to finish out their contracts.

Me and my ill-fitting book, however, were dumped.

“No problem!” I said at the time. “I’ll just sell it to someone else!”

Certainly a novel that sold at auction the first time would have some takers the second time around.

But I was wrong. No one wanted it. Everyone said, “It’s not quite middle grade, it’s not quite young adult. We don’t have a place for this book in our line.” This was a tween book—and there was no tween market out there anymore.

I refused to give up at first—scouring the internet for YA publishers I might not have heard of and forwarding them to my agent. To her credit, she was intrepid, sending out manuscript after manuscript, long after I’m sure she gave up on the book.

Mari and Avalon

But the rejections still came in. Each one a knife, twisting in my gut. The worst part, I think, was that I knew it was a good book. The problem was the market.

No one was buying light, funny, tween. They wanted the next Hunger Games (by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008)). And I was not going to sell this book by sheer force of will.

I felt like a failure. I felt like I’d wasted years of my life. I lost faith in the publishing world, and I felt adrift in my career. If a book I felt so strongly about couldn’t sell, what made me think I could ever master this publishing thing?

Yes, in the meantime, I was selling other books to other publishers, but The Camelot Code remained a big Excalibur in my side.

Then one day my husband took me aside. He brushed away my tears and reminded me of all the good The Camelot Code had brought me. The original advance money had allowed me to move to New York City, a lifelong dream, and the place I met him. When the manuscript was rejected by my editor and I realized I wasn’t getting paid, I ended up moving in with him to save money, bringing us closer than ever.

And eventually, out of this cursed book, came the most precious blessing of all. My six-year-old daughter Avalon. Imagine—an entire human being—on this planet—all because of a publishing deal gone south. Of course I had to give her an Arthurian-inspired name, right?

Publishing can be a brutal industry. But roses can still grow in the cracks in the pavement. And it’s important for authors to look at the big picture. To remember that sometimes it’s just timing or trends or an editor having a bad day—not a reflection of the quality of your book.

Sometimes good books just don’t fit the mold or the timing is wrong. And we can’t let that break us or cause us to lose faith in our work and ourselves.

And while not every publishing story has a happy ending (and that’s okay!)—I’m pleased to say The Camelot Code finally did end up with a full-on Disney happily ever after—from Disney itself!

A full ten years after its original sale to Dutton, Disney Hyperion scooped up The Camelot Code and a sequel, with my new editor helping me revamp the book to perfectly fit a middle grade audience at last.

This book of my heart—the book that changed my life in so many ways—the one I could never walk away from—the one that led to my beautiful daughter’s birth—will now be on store shelves and stocked in libraries around the country starting in October.

I have an amazing editor and it feels as if all my writer dreams have finally come true.

I think back to all the tears shed, the sleepless nights, the endless revisions—and kind of wish I could time travel myself. To let past-me know that it will all pay off in the end. (And even if it hadn’t, the journey would still be worth it.)

When I do school visits, I always tell the kids, the only secret to publication (or anything else worth doing) is perseverance. And after this experience? I truly believe it.

Cynsational Notes

Mari cosplays “Princess Rey”

Mari Mancusi always wanted a dragon as a pet.

Unfortunately the fire insurance premiums proved a bit too large and her house a bit too small–so she chose to write about them instead.

Today she works as an award-winning young adult author and freelance television producer, for which she has won two Emmys.

When not writing about fanciful creatures of myth and legend, Mari enjoys traveling, cosplay, snowboarding, watching cheesy (and scary) horror movies, and her favorite guilty pleasure—playing videogames.

A graduate of Boston University, she lives in Austin, Texas with her husband Jacob, daughter Avalon, and their two dogs.

Author Interview: Bethany Hegedus on Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Just about a year ago, I became a Writing Barn Fellow, which means I serve as a teaching assistant and provide logistical support for classes and workshops.

It also means that I’ve gotten to know author Bethany Hegedus better and I couldn’t pass up the chance to interview her about her new picture book biography, Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, illustrated by Erin McGuire (HarperCollins, 2018). From the promotional copy:
Nelle Harper Lee grew up in the rocky red soil of Monroeville, Alabama. From the get-go she was a spitfire.

Unlike most girls at that time and place, Nelle preferred overalls to dresses and climbing trees to tea parties. Nelle loved to watch her daddy try cases in the courtroom. And she and her best friend, Tru, devoured books and wrote stories of their own. More than anything Nelle loved words.

This love eventually took her all the way to New York City, where she dreamed of becoming a writer. Any chance she had, Nelle sat at her typewriter, writing, revising, and chasing her dream. Nelle wouldn’t give up—not until she discovered the right story, the one she was born to tell.

Finally, that story came to her, and Nelle, inspired by her childhood, penned To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). A groundbreaking book about small-town injustice that has sold over forty million copies, Nelle’s novel resonated with readers the world over, who, through reading, learned what it was like to climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it.

What drew you to Harper Lee? Did you feel a kinship with her?

The Writing Barn Players appeared as Jem,
Scout and Dill at BookPeople book launch

To Kill a Mockingbird was and is my favorite book. I read it over and over, each summer, for about 20 years.

In my childhood mind, Scout was Beverly Cleary’s Ramona, set in a different time—and I wanted to be both of those girls. And in some ways I was: outspoken, an ally, a questioner—but even though I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s I missed out on pageboy haircuts both Scout and Ramona don.

I always wanted to write about Harper Lee. I read anything and everything that came out about her—which wasn’t much—since she chose to live a very private life. 

I first became interested in her as a subject because of learning about the parallels to who she was a child and who Scout was.

Writing for children, I greatly believe our childhoods matter. They matter when we are young. And they matter as we grow older and are told to leave our childhoods behind. 

Nelle, which was the name Harper Lee was born with and that family friends still used, knew that childhood was a time of exploration– moral discovery internally—as well as learning about the outside world. That fascinates me and continues to fascinate me.

I lived in New York City during some of the years Harper Lee lived there, before returning home to Monroeville for good. I used to imagine bumping into her as I once did my mentor Norma Fox Mazer in Grand Central. I never bumped into Harper Lee—but the imaginary conversations we shared over cups of black coffee still do.

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

The challenges are always numerous when beginning a picture book biography and here I knew I was not going to have any first-person sources since Harper Lee did not grant interviews and stopped speaking about her enormously successful novel in the 1960s before I was born. 

However, I was able to find Harper Lee’s last interview about To Kill a Mockingbird with Roy Newquist from 1964. He surely didn’t know it would be Harper Lee’s last interview. And I don’t believe Nelle knew it would be either.

Another challenge was circumvented when Balzer + Bray/Harper Collins made a pre-empt offer on Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird as they are the publishers of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchmen (HarperCollins, 2015), and my manuscript was contracted a number of months before Harper Lee’s death.

After Nelle’s passing, we went back into the manuscript and edited the ending to include the death and the publication of Watchmen.

I wasn’t Harper Lee’s friend but as a long lover of her work, I felt a connection to both her fiction and her desire to leave the South, but also stay connected to the South. Psychologically, this helped me dig into her life’s story and to find the arc of a writer who “lived a life of her own design.”

Bethany and Illustrator Erin McGuire at BookPeople for the launch of Alabama Spitfire.

I’ve heard you call yourself an “accidental biographer,” can you explain that and tell us about the threads of connection in your nonfiction books?

Yes! I am an accidental biographer—one who writes novels—and had two published and hopefully more soon—so I feel strongly rooted in story, not research. 
My hat always goes off to the real researchers. Folks like Donna Janell Bowman and Cynthia Levinson, who are friends and whose work astounds me.

But being an accidental biographer, has come to mean this to me, and I teach this when I teach biography; my flawed and beating heart needs to overlap somehow with the subject I am researching and sharing. We have to have a heart connection. And in telling their life story in book form, I am also subtextually telling my own life story.

I am not a journalist. I don’t believe in being impartial and removed from the subjects I am writing about. 

But, notice the word subtextually…while my heart, and my writer heart, may find common ground with my subject I am not making things up, or inserting myself into the story, but I am psychologically there—just as I am with my fiction. Voice, word choice, scenes to depict, narrative arc—those are all decisions innately made or consciously decided by me the author.

I said it this way in an editorial letter to one of my picture book biography mentees:

And what I am attempting to do with picture book biography is take someone who has lived a day, many days, many years, and to find their through line and to tie it to mine, with where I personally need to grow or heal or with what I want to offer and give to the world. I am the centerpoint. And I believe where the throughline begins is by seeing where the author may make his or her connection.

In fact, this personal desire to heal is where my desire to create non-fiction started. 

I heard Arun Gandhi speak a month after 9/11, where I was a fire searcher on the 31st floor of World Financial Center, where I worked as a receptionist, a writing receptionist. 
I witnessed all there was to witness that day and I went to Arun Gandhi’s talk hoping to heal myself. And his talk did heal me. And in hearing him speak about the two years he lived with his grandfather at the Sevagram ashram in India I knew I wanted to share his stories with picture book readers. 
Arun’s story and mine intersected when I heard his words. About how his grandfather taught him how anger is like electricity and it can be destructive when reactive like lightning but if channeled and transformed it can shed light like a lamp. About how his grandfather, the Mahatma, believed we were all one and how each of us could make a difference in the world, by being the change we wished to see.

I didn’t meet him that night, I didn’t shake his hand and it was months later that I asked him to work with me on what would become, over 10 years later, Grandfather Gandhi (Atheneum, 2014) and Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story (Atheneum, 2016), both illustrated by Evan Turk.

How does being the Creative Director at The Writing Barn and teaching classes inform and influence your work as an author?

I think one of the secrets to being a productive and prolific writer is you never stop learning and when you couple that with community—wow—the learning intensifies.

It is a gift to get to create programming for writers all over the country, and to create opportunities for their craft-tool boxes and living a literary life skill sets to grow and grow. 

And when I am teaching myself, it’s like school visits—it may take a ton of energy and time—but what I get out always inspires me. Even with the busyness around Alabama Spitfire, I’ve carved out the time to teach a half-day on-line class: Uncovering the Narrative Arc in Picture Book Biographies in mid-March to keep me engaged and that always means headed back to the page.

Tell us what you’ve got coming up at the Writing Barn that you’re most excited about.

Gosh, I am loving our online programming, which has allowed writers who have flown into Austin to study with us at intensives, the chance to do it again—now from home. Or for Austinites who don’t want to brave the traffic. This also allows us to work with artists from around the country: the amazing YA author Melanie Crowder, funny man Adam Lehrhaupt who is teaching an outside-the-box six-week picture book class, and more.

Intensive-wise, Lamar Giles, A New York Times bestseller who has a middle grade  book coming out on Kwame Alexander’s Versify imprint is heading the Mastering the Middle Grade faculty with Phoebe Yeh, who heads up Crown this May. 

And in fall, we have our Complete Picture Book Biography Intensive with Alyssa Eisner Henkin (RJ Palacio’s agent) who is actively seeking picture book bios. And we are super excited to have our inaugural Rainbow Weekend Intensive for writers on the LGBTQIAP+ spectrum.

Our Porchlight Podcast just wrapped Season One with episodes featuring Katherine Applegate, Sara Pennpacker, Jessixa Bagley and Jason Gallaher. And Season Two will feature my favorite middle author of the last year, Linda Williams Jackson and others!

And we launched our Write. Submit. Support. Six-month programs and those will be ongoing with the next set beginning in this summer for both picture book writers and novelists.

Can you tell us about the other books you have coming up?

You have to sit on announcements as a picture book biographer for so long. I have one I still can’t publicly chat about that is also set to release in 2019, but here is info on the one I can talk about. 

A picture book biography of my childhood President, Jimmy Carter!

And I’d like to thank the kidlit communityfor participating in the #BeASpitfire campaign where each Tuesday we post a video featuring a kidlit creator doing extraordinary work with kids!

Cynsational Notes

Publishers Weekly called Alabama Spitfire, “an affectionate ode to a writer who ‘carved out a life of her own design,’ as Hegedus eloquently puts it.”

Bethany Hegedus’ books include the award-winning Grandfather Gandhi and Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story, both co-written with Arun Gandhi, grandson to the Mahatma and illustrated by Evan Turk.

Bethany writes about the South in her picture book Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird and her middle grade novels Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010) and Between us Baxters (West Side Books, 2009).

Her novels are known for gracefully handling issues of race, class, and cross-group friendships.

A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults, Bethany is prior editor of the literary journal Hunger Mountain. She is the owner and creative director of The Writing Barn, a writing retreat, workshop and event space in Austin, Texas.