Cynsational News

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

Author/Illustrator Insights

Day 28: YA Panel and Day 28.5 YA Panel Part 2 from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek:

“Treat yourself to today’s spotlight: an industry chat with authors Justina Ireland (Dread Nation) [Balzer + Bray/ Harper Collins, 2018], Brandy Colbert (Little & Lion) [Little, Brown, 2017] and Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles) [Freeform/Disney, 2018].”

Q & A with An Na by Lynda Brill Comerford from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“The book started 10 years ago right after the birth of my daughter, when I learned my brother had committed suicide… I began reading my brother’s notebooks. It was clear through his writing that he was dealing with some pretty serious demons.”

How To Design an Inspiring School Visit Presentation by Bethany Hegedus from The Booking Biz. Peek:

“Your job as an author/presenter is to inspire your audience. It’s about them—not about you.”

Varian Johnson: The Facts Behind the Fiction by Stephanie Anderson from Shelf Awareness. Peek:

“I knew from the beginning that I wanted to include The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (Dutton, 1978) in the story, because it served as the initial inspiration for the book (and, later, a plot point).” 

Leda Schubert and Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson by Tami Brown from The VFCA Launch Pad. Peek:

“I learned about Raven when Montpelier’s Green Mountain Film Festival screened ‘Ballets Russes’…So I wrote her a letter (actual snail mail, and she still doesn’t use a computer), she responded, and I left Vermont (the horror!) to meet her in New York.”

Sharon Darrow & World Within Words: Writing and the Writing Life from The Launch Pad. Peek:

“As I was coming to the end of my teaching career at VCFA, I felt the need to do a kind of review of where I had been, what I had been thinking about, and what I had discovered during those twenty years.”


March On!: 23 Titles To Celebrate Women’s History Month from School Library Journal. Peek:

“Here at SLJ, we’ll do our bit by highlighting our most recent reviews of women-focused titles throughout Women’s History Month. Here are our most recent informational picture book reviews.”

“A character in a picture book was four times more likely to be a dinosaur than an American Indian child.”

Graphic Novels Offer Windows, Mirrors on Mental Health by Brigid Alverson from School Library Journal. Peek:

“As a visual medium, the genre can convey the emotional perspective of mental illness and the distortions of reality that sometimes occur, more effectively than words alone. Also, there’s the intrinsic appeal of the format.”

Latinx Authors Discuss Successes, Continued Challenges by Mahnaz Dar from School Library Journal. Peek:

“’Every expectation of what it means to be a Latinx child needs to be removed,’ Otheguy said. ‘These children can’t be contained, stereotyped, or reduced to any one country of origin, one social class, one skin color. I believe it is books that will help them to find their path.’”

Healthy Masculinity: 14 Books About Gentle Boys by Aimee Miles from Book Riot. Peek: 

“We strive to create well-rounded girls and women in books. Why don’t we push for broad depictions of boys and men for our sons? Why are ‘boy books’ so focused on weapons and violence? Where are the gentle, nurturing boys of literature?”

Middle-grade Author Responds to Queer-Themed Book Controversy by David Canfield from Entertainment Weekly. Peek: 

“The book is P.S. I Miss You (Feiwel & Friends, 2018) by Jen Petro-Roy, a middle-grade novel which has drawn rave early reviews and tackles timely subjects…Children need to hear these messages. They need to know that they can find support somewhere, regardless of their sexual orientation or their religious beliefs.”

2018 Internship Grant Application from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: 

“The application window for the 2018 Internship Grant Program will open on March 1, 2018 and close on May 31, 2018.”

Women Children’s Book Illustrators by Joyce Wan from Pinterest. Peek:

“In celebration of Women’s History Month, this Pinterest board (which will continue to grow) was created in honor of women children’s book illustrators with published books. Please follow to be inspired and share.”

Writing Craft

The Wrong Question from Grace Lin. Peek: 

“I am constantly asked by white writers if they can write outside their race…When it comes to writing outside ones’ race the question has never been, ‘Can I write this?’ No, the real question is ‘Should I write this?’”

Short Training for Your Long Game: How Writing Short Stories Can Help You Hone Your Novel-Writing Skills by Julie Duffy from Writer’s Digest. Peek:

“Short fiction allows you to try new styles, genres, points of view and themes without investing swaths of time on any given one. Sometimes what you think you want to write turns out not to be what comes naturally.”

7 Reasons Writers of Serious Novels Should Use Humor in Their Fiction by Dean Gloster from Writer’s Digest. Peek:

“[Humor is] like a blank tile in the game of Scrabble—useful for whatever else the writer needs: Once you include the form of a joke, it’s seen as the narrator or character being funny, while the words carry out their other tasks surreptitiously.”

 The Art of the Author Interview by Greer Macallister from WriterUnboxed. Peek:

“So many readers turn to the internet as a way to connect with writers whose work they admire or enjoy…A review implies evaluation of the work, determining whether or not it’s worth someone’s time. Interviews provide a lot of information without judgment. That’s great for writers and readers alike.”

Writing Historical Fiction by Barbara Carney-Coston from The Mitten. Peek:
“Historical fiction needs to be based on accurate information. And publishers like bibliographies. Here are a few ways to get started on the big picture idea.”


Kid Lit Community Steps Up to Support Youth Movement by Kara Yorio from School Library Journal. Peek:

“The idea is that ‘authors, illustrators, publishers, librarians, booksellers, bloggers—anyone who considers themselves a part of this amazing community’ march together behind a #KidLitMarchesforKids banner to show their support for their readers and the rest of the country’s youth trying to lead the way to change.”

Check out the website, Letters to Parkland & Beyond. Peek:

“We are authors, teachers, librarians and allies in the kidlit community, and we stand with the students speaking out for gun law reform. These letters are for them.”

Phoebe Yeh: How I Got Into Publishing from CBC Diversity. Peek:

“Now, as I reflect back, I realize that all of my book-making and book editing has been informed by learning how to edit nonfiction picture books. And there is no way I could have edited Jeffrey Brown’s graphic novel Lucy & Andy Neanderthal (Crown Books, 2016) if it hadn’t been for working on The Magic School Bus (Scholastic, 1986).”

Image by Grace Lin.

#KidLitWomen: Money from Meg Medina. Peek:

“Whether you’re represented by someone or whether you’re fielding your own requests. Tape the script to your computer and to your forehead. ‘Thank you for the invitation. Is everyone on the panel being paid the same?’” 

See also Financial Fear – And Women Writers and Artists from Nancy Werlin. Note: Use the #Kidlitwomen hashtag on social media to find many more posts.

We Need Diverse Books Internship Grant Auction. Peek:

“Bid on a critique of your query letter, synopsis, and first 20 pages with a 20-minute follow-up call. 100% of the proceeds go to the We Need Diverse Books Internship grant program. Our eight literary agents give you eight chances to win! Ends March 31, 2018.”

Some Numbers About the Role of Women in SCBWI by Lin Oliver from SCBWI. Peek:

“We looked at how women participate in SCBWI across several dimensions: leadership, grants and awards, and conference faculty…I’m hoping that the facts presented here show an organization dedicated to gender parity and promoting the work of women. Although we are proud of our record, it is not perfect.”


Congratulations to all the 2017 Cybils Winners!

Check out this year’s Juvenile Edgar Nominees at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors.

The 2018 Robin Smith Picture Book Prize by Julie Danielson from The Horn Book. Peek:

“…we hereby launch an award in her memory here at Calling Caldecott: the Robin Smith Picture Book Prize. Every year, we will choose and recognize one picture book we think Robin would have loved. A book that exemplifies what she looked for in picture books, as a devotee, teacher, parent, reviewer.”

This Week at Cynsations

Cinda Williams Chima

More Personally – Robin

Cynthia is at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in Tampa. She will be back next week to tell us all about it.

More Personally – Gayleen

On March 24, I’ll be leading a Mayor’s Book Club Youth Discussion on Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzai (Paula Wiseman, January 2018). Peek: “Mayor’s Book Club is a citywide reading initiative that invites all of Austin to read selected books around an important theme. This year, that theme is Exit & Flight: Narratives of the Refugee Experience. While most of our selections are geared towards an adult audience, we want to also include young readers in this conversation…”

Personal Links – Gayleen

Guest Interview: Author Cheryl Lawton Malone on Elephants Walk Together

By Helen Kampion
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cheryl Lawton Malone is the author of the picture book, Elephants Walk Together, illustrated by Bistra Masseva (Albert Whitman, 2017). From the promotional copy:

As calves, Asian elephants Precious and Baba roam the wild together, curious and proud. 

But when they get captured and are split up, their time together seems like a distant memory. 

Still, separated by many miles and over many years, their friendship remains, and there’s hope they will once again roam wide open spaces together.

Congratulations on your second picture book! What inspired you to write about captive elephants?

I’ve always been keen on elephants and interested in elephant conservation programs, but it wasn’t until I watched an HBO documentary narrated by Lily Tomlin and titled “An Apology to Elephants” that I was inspired to learn more about the hardships facing captive elephants.

My hope is that Elephants Walk Together will inspire others to help these amazing animals.

Interior spread from Elephants Walk Together, illustrated by Bistra Masseva. Used with permission.

You came to children’s writing later in life than some. Can you describe what you did before you started writing picture books and how you made the transition?

Before I started writing for children, I worked as a biotech attorney in the Boston area for 22 years—first as an associate in a law firm, then a staff attorney with a medical services company, general counsel to a medical device company and a science-based biotech, and finally as owner of a consulting company that launched biotech startups. The work was hard but interesting; my coworkers were fantastic.

Sometime in 2008, I decided I needed a change so I signed up for a creative writing seminar at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That week-long program engaged my imagination in a way I’d never experienced before. I was hooked!

I entered the Lesley University low-residency MFA program in Writing for Young People. Two years later, I gave up law altogether and began teaching classes in writing for children at Lesley and Grub Street (Boston Writing Center). The transition from law to writing has been difficult on many levels, but the intellectual and creative satisfaction are indescribable.

Interior spread from Elephants Walk Together, illustrated by Bistra Masseva. Used with permission.

Has your past career helped or hindered your goal of becoming a professional writer?

Both! As an efficient, productive lawyer, I was passionate about helping clients achieve their goals. My organizational skills have been a huge help in the transition to full-time professional writing.

On the other hand, the corporate world operates at light speed. As a writer, I’ve had to adjust my expectations and accept that the creative process functions in a time vacuum.

Stories are like babies. They come when they come.

I imagine the requirements for writing contracts and legal memos might not allow for much creativity. How different is writing for children?

Writing for children is as different as providing legal advice as you might expect, and yet there are overlaps.

When writing for children, I first decide on my audience. What age group am I writing for? Will my story entertain them or connect with them or even inspire them?

As a lawyer, I always focused on my clients first. What did they really want to know?

As a children’s writer, I strive for simplicity and elegance. The same was true for law.

Notwithstanding all the jokes, a lawyer who can’t communicate is not going to help anyone. Of course, the big difference is that I now get to write about whales, elephants, and wolves as opposed to product regulations and public offerings. I couldn’t be happier.

Which profession is harder? Writing for children or being an attorney?

Writing for children, hands down. The difficulty of telling a heartfelt story with a beginning, middle and end, and populating that story with lovable, unforgettable characters who entertain a four to eight-year-old plus their parents in less than 500 words tops any contract I’ve ever had to write.

What’s the easiest and hardest part of creating a book?

Nothing about writing a book is easy, but for me, the hardest part is finding the story’s emotional core—the answer to the question: What is the story about?

Before I write a single word of prose, I spend time on the structure: the characters, setting, point of view, story problem, plot and scenes.

Then I give myself permission to write horrible first, second, and third drafts.

By the fourth draft, the story typically starts to gel. That’s when the process becomes rewarding. Writing and revision becomes easier. I’m thinking: I need to place this piece here, put that piece there, I’m missing something—what is it?

I keep working until the pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Are you working on any other projects?

Currently, I’m obsessed with another fascinating, endangered species—wolves!

Lastly, tell us something quirky about your writing habits.

I get up between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., make a cup of coffee, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and get back in bed with my two dogs.

I drink the coffee, eat the sandwich, and write, with no internet, no email, until the dogs have to pee around 9 a.m. That’s the honest truth!

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews described Elephants Walk Together as “heartwarming…A sweet and sensitive encouragement of wildlife conservation.”
Cheryl Lawton Malone is a retired attorney, and professional writer and manuscript consultant. 
She taught creative writing for children at Lesley University after she received her MFA there. She now offers manuscript consults through Grub Street in Boston. 
Cheryl’s short stories and award-winning poetry have been published in numerous magazines and journals, including the Lutheran Journal, YARN, and Bumples.

Her debut picture book, Dario and the Whale, illustrated by Bistra Masseva (Albert Whitman, 2016) was recognized as a CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center) Choices 2017 selection, and a Book Best Debut Picture Books of 2016. 

She is also a professional dog trainer. Cheryl and her husband and two wheaten terriers migrate on weekends to Martha’s Vineyard where they enjoy spending time with their favorite animal neighbors.

Helen Kampion is a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College, and also holds an MBA from Boston University.

After a successful career in business, she became a writer of both fiction and nonfiction for young readers, including middle-grade novels and picture book biographies. Her picture book manuscripts have been recognized by The Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing sponsored by Hunger Mountain (“Paddy Cats,” Special Mention, 2015) and by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (“Francesca’s Funky Footwear,” Finalist, 2013).

When she’s not at her desk busy writing, you can find her helping fellow authors with marketing events targeted to get their books into the hands of new readers, volunteering at the New England SCBWI conference, or supporting The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance as Treasurer.

Guest Post: Sharon Darrow on Back-Story, Future-Story, and On-going Action: Replicating Life with Authenticity

Learn about World within Words: Writing and the Writing Life.

By Sharon Darrow
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I talk to my students about point of view and plot action and their relationship, I find myself musing about how we humans really work.

Things happen to us and around us seemingly simultaneously: we receive stimuli (things and people act in our world), and we respond, observe, talk, think, move, and emote in a blindingly fast sequence.

Not long ago, while I was speaking to a student on the phone about how to revise her long passages of back-story into ongoing action and dialogue, we got very animated about the topic.

It was an exciting conversation and we were both completely focused. Because we’d been talking for a long time while I’d been sitting at my desk, I stood and paced around the room.

I went to the door to let the dog in, along with a fresh cool breath of air, and the beauty of the world rushed into me, the rain-washed day, autumn in Vermont, all green grass and red, orange, yellow trees, black and white cows on the hillside across the valley, and the way the astonishing light traced newly sprung maroon on the heart of a green-edged leaf just outside the window.

A bright metallic blue pickup truck went by, one that I’d never seen before and I wondered about the occupants and why they’d driven down this deadend road. Something about it reminded me of my brother-in-law’s work with his son to restore an old pickup they’d painted almost the same color, the thought of which then tugged at my heart because my dad would have loved to have been a part of that work, but he’d died five or six years before.

I shut the door and felt a twinge of hunger that brought an image to mind of the cheese sandwich I planned to fix for my lunch. And you know what? My student and I were still in dialogue, still completely focused on our topic of conversation.

Sharon with Katherine Paterson at Vermont College of Fine Arts

I told her all that had been going on in and around me as we’d conversed. “That’s what I’m talking about,” I said. “The way the present and the past and the future melt into the same moment of real time.”

She completely understood. In her world the same thing had been happening, life moving around her and being reacted to by her even as we spoke so intently together.

Now, I keep reminding myself, especially in revision, that I (and my characters) live in all time at once—past, present, and future—even if our stories may proceed chronologically.

This is why the emotional journey of the character and the action of the plot are all of a piece, inseparable if what we are after is replicating life with authenticity in our stories.

We humans live only partly in the here and now; the rest of our brains are going like crazy remembering, seeing and re-experiencing snippets of visual and visceral memory, while we are processing incoming data and dreaming little daydreams of the future.

We live in the past, present, and future simultaneously and the events of our lives and our inner and outer reactions to them are intricately intertwined.

Cynsational Notes

Excerpt taken from Worlds within Words: Writing and the Writing Life (Pudding Hill Press, 2018); shared with express permission.

Author Interview: Sharon Darrow on Worlds Within Words: Writing and the Writing Life from VCFA Launchpad. Peek: “Most of these chapters began as lectures for VCFA residencies. I had written them to present in my natural voice and to an audience of students working in a rigorous academic program toward the MFA degree. The revision process was meant to change spoken lectures into written essays that would be easier to read and yet still retain something of my spoken voice.”

Survivors: Cinda Williams Chima on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing YA Author

Learn more about Cinda Williams Chima.

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?

Although I’ve been writing since third grade, I didn’t publish my first novel until I was over fifty years old. Since then, I’ve published a book a year.

On the upside, finding success later in life means there’s less time to be a has-been. On the downside, I work with the knowledge that I will never live long enough to write all of the books that are in me. That fiendish whisper keeps me in my chair day after day. Countering that is the voice that says, Never let go of a book until it is the best it can be. The culmination of limited time and high standards can be exhaustion. At least now I have the good fortune to be able to write full-time.

Writing series books is both a blessing and a curse. It allows the space in which to tell big, many-layered stories with an ensemble cast. Real life isn’t a straight-forward, linear business, and neither are some stories. Once a reader gets on board, they are with you for the journey.

On the other hand, readers engage with the characters in a series, and don’t want to let go of them at the end. Whenever I begin a new series, it causes trauma and drama, especially if I happen to, say, kill off a beloved character.

Publishers and readers are wary of the slightest change in genre, too. The Heir Series (Hyperion) is contemporary fantasy, set in Ohio. The Seven Realms (Hyperion) and Shattered Realms (HarperTeen) series are high fantasy, set in the Seven Realms and the pirate kingdom of Carthis.

Even though it’s still fantasy, my publisher is nervous, wondering if readers will follow.

Some readers are all, I just got comfortable in Ohio, and now I have to deal with a whole new world, thieves’ slang, names with apostrophes, and so on? 

I never thought I’d be saying, “I know it’s not Ohio, but give it a chance!”

So each new series takes a while to gain traction.

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

I would be a fabulously successful writer at a much younger age. Seriously, I can’t say I should have started writing sooner. Third grade seems soon enough, and I started daydreaming even earlier than that.

It’s just that it never really occurred to me that I could make a living as a writer. I had nothing to go on. In a lifetime of reading, I never met an author until I was an author.

 It wasn’t as if I frittered away the time between seven and fifty, either. I worked my way through college three different times, in fields unrelated to writing, if such a thing exists.

I worked in advertising sales and copy editing, as a dietitian, a department head, a college professor. I never stopped writing–feature articles, personal essays, scientific papers—but little to no fiction, which was my first love.

I married, and birthed two sons, and raised them to love books.

I like to believe that living life makes you a better writer. Maybe so, but if I had to do it over again, I would focus on fiction sooner, and I would take more chances. I would have ignored some advice, and listened to some that I ignored. The problem is, at the time, you can never tell which is which.

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?

For me, the most important positive change is the growing inclusion of diverse voices among creators and in story.

Rules are being broken, and boundaries falling when it comes to the kinds of stories that can be told.

When I began writing The Warrior Heir (Hyperion, 2006), I intended it for teens, but I kept stumbling over “rules” for YA lit that I was breaking.

Writing is hard enough, right?

I finally decided to write the story that was in me and see where it fit. My agent shopped it to both YA and adult publishers, and it sold to Hyperion as YA.

I absolutely love writing for the teen audience, but I was frustrated by the condescension shown about what teens can “handle” on the page. Many teens are unprotected and unsheltered in real life, so why shelter them on the page?

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

This: The most important thing you can do for your writing career is to write the very best book you can. The best social media campaign ever won’t make a bad book a bestseller.

If you have to choose, spend the time on the writing.

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

I’m hoping that the gatekeepers who keep needed books from the marketplace and out of the hands of the readers who need them find something else to do.

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

More time.

Cynsational Notes

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

New Voice: Laney Nielson on Peppermint Cocoa Crushes

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Laney Nielson is the debut author of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes (Skypony, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Sasha is so excited for her school’s Winter Variety Show! She and her best friends, twins Karly and Kevin, have been working on a song and dance routine for it, with super cute candy cane costumes. 

Sasha is sure they’ll be the best. And she’s even more confident that her secret plan — to tell Kevin about her crush on him — will go off without a hitch.

But Sasha is starting to realize that she’s overcommitted herself, between rehearsing for the show, regular dance class, after-school clubs and committees, and ever-increasing amounts of homework. 

When nothing ends up going as planned, can Sasha still step up and make the most of her moment in the spotlight?

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

When I began writing seriously (with the goal of publishing), I thought I knew more than I did. I loved children’s literature. I’d been a classroom teacher of the age group I wanted to write for. I’d taken creative writing courses and I’d participated in poetry workshops. Plus, I had a bunch of half-baked stories already on my computer. How hard could it be? Uh…I didn’t know what I didn’t know!

Joining SCBWI was a great first step. That year, I also went to my first Austin SCBWI conference.

I signed up for an intensive Lisa Yee’s taught on villains. (Side note: Millicent Min, Girl Genius (Scholastic, 2003) is one of my all time favorite middle grade novels.) By the end of the weekend, I realized this was going to be a lot harder than I’d thought. So I then moved into the phase where I will probably live forever: I know what I don’t know.

When I felt like I’d reached a plateau in my learning (and in an early manuscript), I attended the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop. There my fabulous faculty advisor, Tami Lewis Brown taught me how a character’s yearning can drive a story and how to raise questions for your reader.

Alan Gratz who was also on the faculty taught a session on structure and the hero’s journey that fundamentally changed the way I think about story. I buried (figuratively) a manuscript there but those days in Honesdale, PA were invaluable. I dream of returning!

Cynthia and the 2014 Writing Mentorship finalists. Laney is on far right.
Photo by Sam Bond.

In 2014, I again attended the Austin SCBWI conference, and that year I was awarded the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentorship.

It was a remarkable opportunity to learn from a writer I deeply admire.

On every level, Cynthia helped me grow—from rethinking word choice to turning a stereotype on its head to slimming down an overwritten first draft. She was thoughtful and generous, and I will be forever grateful for the wisdom she shared.

Along the way, I’ve read numerous craft books and shared countless first drafts with my smart and supportive critique group. The learning never ends. 
My current work in progress is very different in tone from Peppermint Cocoa Crushes and right now I’m studying Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). It’s a remarkable book and the perfect one to teach me how syntax and word choice create tone and build voice.

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

There are so many wonderful firsts: holding an ARC, walking into a book store and spotting your book face out on the shelf, having a reader say your story resonates with them. 

Scenes from Laney’s book party

I’ve loved seeing the photos people have posted of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes on social media. Like all the Swirl novels, the cover is very photogenic especially with a cup of cocoa nearby!

But getting to those firsts was definitely filled with highs and lows. When I signed with a wonderful agent in 2015, I thought I’d made it. I assumed my manuscript would sell within a matter of months. 

It did not. But as hard as being on submission and collecting passes from editors was, I had an agent, a business partner.

If this one didn’t sell, the next story would. But then my agent moved back to the publishing side of the business and that meant I no longer had an agent. My partner was gone. I had a manuscript that had never sold and a second one that needed a lot of work. It felt like I was back at square one!

It was a great lesson. Okay, it did not feel like a great lesson at the time! But it taught me to focus on what I can control (my ideas, the quality of my writing) because the rest of it? I can’t control.

Fast forward a year (or so) and my former agent turned editor, approached me about writing a novel for Sky Pony’s new line for tween readers. Yay! And that was the start of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes. 

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

  • Immerse yourself in stories. 
Read! Find mentor texts for your current project. Think about what the writer does well and how they are doing it? Study the story on every level from word choice and syntax to the character arc and theme. If something doesn’t work for you as reader, figure out why not and think about what might’ve been more satisfying. 
When you watch a movie or a favorite show on Netflix, ask yourself why does a scene work? Where is the tension? How does it raise questions that keep you engaged? 
You may want to look at stories through the lens of the hero’s journey or plots points (Larry BrooksStory Engineering, Writer’s Digest, 2011) or beats (Blake Synder’s Save the Cat, Michael Wiese, 2005). Analyze. Discuss. Or write reviews. 
Stories in all mediums are of value, but at the end of the day, a writing life is a reading life. Oh, and read poetry! Nothing teaches you the importance of word choice or truth telling like poetry.
  • Spend time developing your ideas. 
Push and pull at the premise of your stories. Ask what if and who cares and so what. Imagine and re-imagine. Before you begin a project write one-paragraph pitch for your story. Would you buy that book? Be honest. Would a stranger?
  • Write! Write! Write!
And finish that first draft. The act of making your way through the beginning, middle and end of your first story is a huge milestone. Be proud. Give it a rest. And then when you’ve had some time apart, roll up your sleeves and see what you have to work with. Let the fun begin!
  • Be open to feedback. 
Find a critique group or a critique partner. Your local SCBWI is a great place to start. When you share your writing, remember you’re not looking for someone to tell you how good it is. You want to know what’s working and what’s not. Feedback is such a gift!

If you are able to go to a conference, sign up for a critique session with an agent, editor or published writer. Listen and learn. These are industry professionals who know what works and what sells. And along the way, your skin will grow thicker. I promise.

When I received the editorial letter for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, I felt like I’d made it onto the playing field. This was what I’d been training for!

  • Remember the why
For writers seeking a traditional publication path, you can’t control when you’ll be published or what that will look like or how it will all unfold. So remember why you are writing. As with the characters in our stories, the why is always the most important part! 
Cynsational Notes

See the discussion guide for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, and the other Swirl novels from Sky Pony Press.

A Booklist review called Peppermint Cocoa Crushes “full of humor and silly mishaps…A good choice for libraries looking to add some gentle romance to their middle-grade collection.”

Laney Nielson is a former classroom teacher with a master’s degree in education. 

She is a past recipient of the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her novel, Peppermint Cocoa Crushes is part of the Swirl series, Sky Pony’s new line for tween readers.

Registration is currently open for the 2018 Austin SCBWI Writers & Illustrators Working Conference, set for April 28 and April 29.

Cynsational News

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

Author/ Illustrator Insights

How Speak Became a Graphic Novel: Three Questions with Laurie Halse Anderson by Travis Jonker from School Library Journal. Peek:

 “In the early drafts, I had too many words. I had to learn to peel away every extraneous word and trust what the art would show.”

Day 20: Liara Tamani from The Brown Bookshelf. Peek:

“I always start with something that has made an emotional impression on me, something that has touched me deeply. I recall these moments, how they made me feel, and begin constructing fiction around them.”

Author Amy Lee-Tai on Connecting with Community from Lee & Low Books. Peek:

“Whenever I share my book and give a program, I walk a fine line between educating kids about this dark chapter of American history and trying to inspire feelings of hope for their lives and our country. It feels like, and is, a tremendous responsibility.”

Four Questions for Neal Shusterman by John A. Sellers from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“After so much dystopian YA literature, I wanted to take a different approach to a futuristic story. What happens to us when we achieve all we want to achieve as a species, and attain a world without war, without poverty, without hunger or disease, and ultimately a world where we’ve conquered death?”

Kim Purcell, Author of This is Not a Love Letter, on the Fire Behind a Book from Adventures in YA Publishing. Peek:

“This was the book I had to write. A good friend disappeared two weeks before we graduated from high school…I think there was a fire behind this book, a heat, which gave me the passion to keep rewriting it.”

All Dressed up with Jen Wang by Julie Danielson from Kirkus Reviews. Peek:

“I couldn’t think of a premise that fit until I was watching ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ one day, and suddenly everything clicked. I’ve also wanted to do something fun, like a Disney princess movie but with more queer themes attached, and everything fell in line perfectly from there.”


Mermaids and Dressmakers, Gender and Fluidity by Elizabeth Bluemle from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“Last week, one school principal contacted us in search of books about gender and asked for more suggestions. Her initial list had some great titles, and we were able to add some spectacular books from this season.”

Writing Across Identity Elements: An Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, William Alexander, and Kekla Magoon by Victor Malo-Juvera and David Macinnis Gill from The ALAN Review. Peek:

“The responsibility of writers who write about characters of color, for example, is heightened because there are fewer books that represent these characters. Each of these books is received as true and broadly universal in a way that books about white characters are not.”

25 Children’s Books For African American History Month by Karina Glaser from BookRiot. Peek:

“…so many new, wonderful books have come out in the last year that I had to update my list with twenty-five more children’s books for African American History Month, which are listed below.”

Author of I Am Not a Number Speaks About Recent Controversy at South Slave School District from CBC Radio Canada. Peek:

“In an interview with Trailbreaker’s Loren McGinnis, the book’s author defended the importance of exposing young readers to honest accounts of Indigenous suffering in Canada.”

YA Authors Share 10 Diverse 2018 Must-Reads by Sona Charaipotra from BN Teen Blog. Peek:

“One bright spot in 2017 was that publishing began to make strides–to be continued, for sure–toward publishing more books by marginalized voices. And if this list is any indication, 2018 will be an even more stellar year for your bookshelves (and mine!).”

Nothing About Us Without Us: Writing #OwnVOices Fantasy in The Age of Black Panther by Sayantani DasGupta from MG Book Village. Peek:

“Middle grade (and YA) fantasy in particular has been far slower than other genres to make space for Indigenous and LGBTQIA heroes, heroes of color and heroes with disabilities. And yet, middle grade fantasy is the genre which is all about radical imagination…”

Writing Craft

In Support of the Over-50 Writer by Hilda Eunice Burgos from Project Mayhem. Peek:

“…the Karen and Philip Cushman Late Bloomer Award, which is for authors over the age of fifty who have not been traditionally published in the children’s literature field….Over 50 is not too late to begin a writing journey–I was over 50 when my first book was published.”

My MFA in Writing by Luisa Perkins from Medium. Peek:

“But while I could see improvement in the quality of my work over time, I’d hit a wall — and I couldn’t figure out how to break through it. After yoga class one day, I confessed my frustrations to Julie Berry. She asked whether I’d ever considered an MFA.”

Avoid Nagging False Suspense Questions in Your Story Opening by Peter Selgin from Jane Friedman’s blog. Peek:

“Among a novelist’s chief challenges is that of determining what information to supply when and where: how to balance the desire to arouse suspense with the need to prevent confusion.”

The Art of Invisible Movement by Maggie Stiefvater from her blog. Peek:

“I believe in scenes that appear as Nothing scenes to the reader, but are actually full of invisible movement. I have a rule for myself — insofar as I do rules — that every scene should be doing at least two things.”

Motivating the Reluctant Protagonist by David Corbett from Writer UnBoxed. Peek:

“people commonly do not change unless forced to do so. Even people who change due to some internal prompting, do so in the wake of a dark night of the soul, when some sort of personal reckoning wakens them to an internal peril.”

Check out Loon Song Writer’s Retreat. Note: Two retreats are scheduled for fall 2018, one for Native writers and one more general. Cynthia Leitich Smith is on the faculty of both. Peek:

“Imagine campfires on the beach, pontoon cruises with some of your favorite writers, casual meet-ups with a noted editor and agent in a setting so beautiful it will take your breath away.”


Penguin Young Readers to Launch New Imprint Kokila from Penguin Random House. Peek:

“Jen Loja, President, Penguin Young Readers, announced today the launch of Kokila (pronounced KO-ki-la), a new imprint which will be dedicated to centering stories from the margins with books that add nuance and depth to the way children and young adults see the world and their place in it.”

Unpacking Anne Ursu’s Survey and the Fallout, with Changes Coming to Events- Sexual Harassment in Children’s Publishing by Drew Himmelstein from School Library Journal. Peek:

“Publishing and literary organizations are now trying to regain that trust. SCBWI has developed a detailed code of conduct that its conference faculty and attendees must agree to, established multiple avenues for reporting harassment, developed protocols for investigating harassment claims and defined sanctions for those found to be at fault.”

Dispatches from the Trenches: Pitch Wars by Joanna MacKenzie from Pub Rants. Peek:

“There were a handful of projects that got snapped up right away. These had the magic combination of stellar writing, pitch-perfect positioning, and a great hook/concept…I’ve been thinking a lot about what it was that made these project stand out. Here’s my take on the most successful offerings:”


2018 Notables, American Indian Youth Lit, and More Announced by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek:

“In addition to the much-celebrated Youth Media Awards, which took place this year in Denver… there are other kid lit awards that are usually revealed around this time of year. Below is a roundup of bibliographies, finalists, and lauded titles that have received acclaim in the past few weeks.”

2018 Mathical Prize Winners Announced from Mathical Books. Peek:

“The Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) announced the 2018 winners today of the Mathical Book Prize, which recognizes outstanding fiction and literary nonfiction for youth ages 2-18.”

Congratulations to Suzanne Del Rizzo on receiving the Inaugural Malka Penn Award for Human Rights in Children’s Literature for My Beautiful Birds (Pajama Press, 2017). See a Cynsations interview with Suzanne about creating the book.

Cynsational Spotlight

Women’s History Month: 2018 by Elissa Gershowitz from The Horn Book. Peek:

Look for the hashtage #KidLitWomen, “…with the following mission: ‘calling attention to the gender inequities of our industry, uplifting the women who have not received their due, and finding solutions to reach equality.” Every day in March, people will be posting thematic articles, essays, poems, interviews, etc., to further the mission and keep the conversation going.”

Illustration by Grace Lin.

Follow #KidlitWomen on facebook.

Read Shannon Hale’s essay on “girl books” versus “boy books.” Peek:

“Have you preselected books for a boy and only offered him books about boys? I’ve done that in the past. And if not, I’ve caught myself and others kind of apologizing about it. ‘I think you’ll enjoy this book even though it’s about a girl!’ They hear that even though. They know what we mean. And they absorb it as truth.”

Read Margarita Engle’s Reflections and Poem on Ageism in Children’s Publishing from CrazyQuiltEdi. Peek:

“I imagine men must be anxious too, but how can it be the same, in this nation where old women in TV sitcoms, movies, and magazines are invariably show to be whiny, needy, and ridiculous, while aged men stride through popular culture with a stance that is tough, rugged, gritty, and wise?”

Read Gender Inequity: Caldecott by the Numbers from Christine Taylor-Butler. Peek:

“There is an old saying: ‘You get what you measure.’ Publishers tend to read trends and acquire illustrators accordingly. I’ve heard stories of women illustrators who can’t even get a second contract. Even those that get an honor award.”

This Week at Cynsations

 New Voice Caroline Leech reading at Brazos Bookstore; photo by Penny Linsenmayer.
Congratulations to Lisa Robinson,who won a copy of Snow Sisters! by Kerri Kokias, illustrated by Teagan White (Penguin Random House, January 2018).

More Personally – Cynthia

What a thrill it was this week to share the cover art and a few thoughts on my upcoming YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Nov. 6, 2018)!

Thanks to everyone who signal-boosted the image. I hugely appreciate your enthusiasm and support.

At BookRiot, you can learn about my initial inspirations for the story. Here at Cynsations, you can read my reflections on the cover itself. Again, my thanks to Candlewick for caring so much about getting it right and really engaging in thoughtful conversation with me throughout the process.

Please do consider yourself encouraged to pre-order a copyfrom Indiebound, Barnes and Noble, Amazon or another retailer. Pre-orders are important to the successful launch of a book.

Links of the Week: CCBC 2017 Multicultural Statistics from CCBlogC. Peek: “A character in a picture book was 4 times more likely to be a dinosaur than an American Indian child.”

Personal Links – Robin

Personal Links – Gayleen

New Voice: Caroline Leech on Wait for Me

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Caroline Leech is the debut author of Wait for Me (HarperTeen, 2017). From the promotional copy:

It’s 1945, and Lorna Anderson’s life on her father’s farm in Scotland consists of endless chores and rationing, knitting Red Cross scarves, and praying for an Allied victory. So when Paul Vogel, a German prisoner of war, is assigned as the new farmhand, Lorna is appalled. 

How can she possibly work alongside the enemy when her own brothers are risking their lives for their country?

But as Lorna reluctantly spends time with Paul, she feels herself changing. The more she learns about him—from his time fighting a war he doesn’t believe in, to his life back home in Germany—the more she sees the boy behind the soldier. 

Soon Lorna is battling her own warring heart. Loving Paul could mean losing her family and the life she’s always known. 

With tensions rising all around them, Lorna must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice before the end of the war determines their fate.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My Wait for Me journey back to World War II was prompted by a conversation with a friend in Wales who mentioned in passing that her father had grown up during the war on a farm which had German prisoners of war working as farmhands.

Craigielaw Farm farmhouse, where Caroline
imagined Lorna would’ve lived

The proverbial light bulb went off in my head, and I immediately started researching how these prisoners came to be working alongside British people on farms, in parks and forests.

I grew up on a reading diet of Colditz and The Great Escape-type books, so I expected all prisoners to have stayed locked up in prison camps, plotting their escape. But I quickly found out that many of these men—who were screened on arrival to weed out the hardened Nazis—were relieved to be far from the war, and from Hitler’s brutality. 

Life in Germany had been terrible for more than a decade, and many had been forced into the army under threat of harm coming to their families.

I also discovered that many of the men chose not to go home again at the end of the war, especially those who had lived in what was to become the Russian Zone and then communist East Germany. 

I found numerous stories of prisoners who had fallen in love with local girls, and once they were released, they petitioned to stay so they could get married and settle down in the place which gave them safe harbor. 
Even those who did return to Germany had made such close friendships with the British people they’d worked alongside, they would be friends for the rest of their lives. 
Suddenly, all my writer’s alarm bells were ringing and I knew I had my opening scene—a young German prisoner arrives on a Scottish farm, injured and traumatized, and receives a less than friendly welcome from the farmer’s daughter. But in time, she starts to see him less like her enemy and more like the intelligent and caring young man he is, a boy who is very far from home. And then perhaps he becomes something even more to her . . .

Aberlady Bay, the regional setting for Wait for Me

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

I was very lucky to have great sources to aid my research. 
Both my parents were involved in the war—my mother was evacuated from London as a child, and my father followed his four older brothers into the army when he turned 18 in 1944—so I was never without that primary source material. 
But what was challenging to find was the balance between historical accuracy where girls lived in a very different set of societal expectations, and writing characters who were relatable to modern readers. 
By 1945, when the book is set, young women had been liberated from domesticity only to a certain extent. They were required to go out to work as part of the war effort—often doing previously “male” jobs in factories and dockyards—but ultimately, they were still expected to get married, settle down and stay at home to look after the house and children. 
Teenage girls now, of course, rightly expect to go on to further education, have a career and financial independence, even if they do later choose to get married and become mothers. 
Therefore, I had to find a middle ground where my protagonist was assertive and confident, so she would connect to my readers today, without dismissing the reality of the rules of the society in which she lived then.

Although the same rules applied for the time period of my second book, In Another Time (HarperTeen, August, 2018), it felt quite different.

My main character is one of the girls who chose to leave school and take over a job usually done by a man, that is being a forester in the Highlands of Scotland. Maisie joins the Women’s Timber Corps—the Lumberjills—and she rather makes her own rules after that!

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

I did everything the wrong way around. Normally, you’re supposed to get your agent, who then shops your book out to editors, but I actually got my editor first.

I was still working on revisions to my WWII book when I won the Joan Lowery Nixon Award at SCBWI Houston conference. My prize was a year’s mentoring from the amazing Newbery Honor winner, Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt and Caroline
at the Texas Library Association Conference

Even though I was still working my way through revisions under Kathi’s expert guidance, I entered the first few pages into two contests with Romance Writers of America chapters in Houston. 

I was amazed to win the YA categories of both contests, the Emily and the Lone Star, and even more stunned that one of the judges—Alice at Harper Teen—emailed to say she wanted to read the whole manuscript. 
She was patient enough to wait for me to finish the revisions I was doing, and she then read it almost as soon as I sent it.

Within two weeks, she’d offered me the deal. I still didn’t have an agent, so several writer friends in Houston and Austin offered to make some introductions. 

It’s amazing how quickly agents pay attention to your emails when you approach them with a book deal in your hand! I was thrilled to sign up with New Leaf Literary & Media in New York within only a few days of getting my deal.

New Leaf’s client list includes the most stellar list of authors: Veronica RothVictoria Aveyard and Leigh BardugoJordan Hamessley is my agent, and she’s wonderfully supportive.

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

While there’s romance in the image of a struggling author sitting alone in a chilly garret, hunched over a sturdy typewriter bashing out the next great novel, it couldn’t be further from the truth. 

My books have mostly been written sitting in a Barnes & Noble café or a Starbucks, while my writing buddy, Penny, sits alongside me, working on her own novel. I find it very hard to write in my house—far too many distractions, even when no one else is there—so whenever I need to focus and write for more than an hour or so, I escape to a coffee shop, preferably with a friend or two. We keep each other focused, and only chat a little (honest!).

The other enormous influence on my writing has been my membership of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I went to my first SCBWI conference with the sole purpose of meeting one particular agent. 

It was in Austin and even though the agent gave me a big “no, thanks,” I gained so much from that weekend, not least of which meeting other writers who became great friends. I then went to the Houston SCBWI conference, too, and met even more wonderful people.

Back then, most of my new friends were still dreaming of publication; now, one by one, we have almost all got book deals, but we are all still supporting each other’s writing from “the other side of the fence.”

Caroline at the Brazos Bookstore launch of Wait for Me,
photo by Penny Linsenmayer

I can track my book deal directly from attending that first SCBWI conference, through winning the Joan Lowery Nixon competition, straight to publication, so I cannot stress how much I owe to everyone in SCBWI.

Getting a book deal is not only exciting, it is truly terrifying! 

You are suddenly thrown into a professional world, with its own jargon and unwritten rules, and it can feel incredibly intimidating. However, I discovered that I was not alone. For years, a support group for authors debuting in any given year has developed organically – the Fearless Fifteens in 2015, the Sweet Sixteens in 2016.

Since I was having my debut in 2017, I joined the Swanky Seventeens, now called the 2017 Debuts

We share our experiences, ask and answer questions about how publishing works, and lead the cheers for each other every Tuesday when a new set of debuts were released.

Now there are second books being published, and we support those, too. My second book, In Another Time, comes out in August, by which time a couple of my debut friends who write fantasy series will be on their third publication! 

Within the group, we’ve also had some very serious conversations about how race, gender, disability and sexuality are portrayed in YA and MG books, and I’ve learned so much from my fellow debuts.

I don’t know if I could have got through this last year without their support. Even though I’ve met only a few of them in person, I have made so many fantastic friends via the chat forum and our Facebook group, it feels like I’ve known some of them for years. Over the last year, I’ve been privileged to read some of the most amazing books in advance of their publication. 

What were the best moments of your publishing journey?

One of best is certainly that lightbulb moment when suddenly this new story exploded in my mind, and I had to rush to grab a pencil to get it started. 
Women’s Timber Corps memorial statue
in Aberfoyle, Scotland

And of course, I’ll never forget the moment when I received the email offering me my book deal. We were in Scotland on a family vacation and were in the middle of my daughter’s 18th birthday party. 

I knew that Alice Jerman, an editor at HarperTeen, had read my manuscript and loved it enough to take it to her bosses that day for acquisition approval, but because of the time difference between Scotland and New York, it was already mid-evening and I was still waiting to hear.

When I felt my phone buzz in my pocket, I had a quick look without making it obvious I was checking my phone during a party. The email from Alice not only said she wanted to buy that book, but wanted another one after that. 

I had never expected to get a two-book deal, so I was totally thrilled.

From across the room, my husband saw me check my phone and looked questioningly at me. He was the only other person who knew that I was waiting for news, so I nodded and forwarded the email to him, meaning that both of us were sitting on opposite sides of the room grinning madly.

But of course, we didn’t want to distract from my daughter’s birthday, so we said nothing until the very end of the evening. It was so hard to keep the secret , even if it was only for a couple of hours.

Women’s Timber Corps, also known as the Lumberjills,
photo courtesy of Women’s Timber Corps.

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

Read, read, read and write, write, write! And keep on writing, no matter how bad you think your first draft is. You can’t revise and perfect words that haven’t been written down yet, so sometimes you need to switch off your inner editor and just get the words onto the page. You can concentrate on making them pretty later at revision stage.

Also, try to find your “writing people” as soon as you can, even if it just starts out as one buddy to sit beside you as you work, someone to keep you accountable for the time you’ve promised yourself you’ll give over to writing each week. 

Also, for me, SCBWI membership is a vital tool for any children’s/teens’ writer, and I’d say don’t just join, take part! Go to meetings and conferences, so people get to know your name and face and join in the online discussion groups. By the time you get your book deal, these people will have become your biggest cheerleaders.

And finally, even when it gets hard, keep going. As you can see from my publication story, it only takes one editor to like your story for your whole life to change. That might happen next year, or it might happen tomorrow, you can’t know. But if you stop now, you will never know.

Cynsations Notes

Photo by Priscilla Dickson

Kirkus Reviews wrote of Wait for Me, “Clandestine meetings and stolen kisses will satisfy die-hard romantics, while history buffs will be drawn in by the details of war-torn…Scotland.”

Caroline Leech is a Scottish writer who moved to Texas for an adventure ten years ago. 
Her career in public relations with performing arts companies in the United Kingdom culminated with her editing a glossy photographic book, Welsh National Opera – The First Sixty Years (Graffeg, 2006).

She has written numerous feature articles on the performing arts in a number of newspapers and magazines in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Her next novel, In Another Time, will be published in August 2018. 
Caroline lives in Houston with her husband and three teenage children.

Get a peek at the Wait for Me launch party at Brazos Bookstore in Houston.