New Voice: Jen Petro-Roy on Epistolary Novels & P.S. I Miss You

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Jen Petro-Roy is the debut author of P.S. I Miss You (Feiwel & Friends, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Evie is heartbroken when her strict Catholic parents send her pregnant sister, Cilla, away to stay with a distant great aunt. All Evie wants is for her older sister to come back. Forbidden from speaking to Cilla, Evie secretly sends her letters. 

Evie writes about her family, torn apart and hurting. She writes about her life, empty without Cilla. And she writes about the new girl in school, June, who becomes her friend, and then maybe more than a friend. 

Evie could really use some advice from Cilla. But Cilla isn’t writing back, and it’s time for Evie to take matters into her own hands.

I’m always fascinated by epistolary novels and was very eager to talk with Jen about her process.

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

One of the most interesting parts of revising P.S. I Miss You was how complicated the calendar year would prove to be!

Because all of Evie’s letters are dated, I had to make sure that the contents of her letters aligned with the dates given on the top of every letter. If Evie mentioned that she would be doing something on a Friday, then that later letter and its events had to align with the appropriate day of the week.

Since Evie comes from a very Catholic family, I also had to make sure that the religious holidays fell on the correct day of the specific calendar year I used to crosscheck.

Then I had to make sure that I gave enough time for her older sister Cilla to write back, and that Cilla’s letters weren’t commenting on something from a letter that wouldn’t have been received yet. It made my head spin after a while!

Another challenge was the unique nature of writing a novel in letters.

I concentrated on making sure that while most of the letters were written in a genuine “letter writing” way, with Evie talking about her feelings and what happened on a certain day, that I also balanced those musings with dialogue in appropriate places—and especially dialogue that didn’t feel forced in letter format. 

Young Jen reading at the beach.

What model books were most useful to you and how? 

While writing and revising P.S. I Miss You, I was initially inspired by Beverly Cleary’s classic, Dear Mr. Henshaw, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (HarperCollins, 1983). Re-reading that book gave me the idea to write my debut novel in letters.

I loved the concept of two loved ones being separated for some reason (I just had to figure out the reason!) and using letters as a device to express that longing and sense of disconnection.

The amazing Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons (HarperCollins, 1994) also showed me that middle grade readers can handle serious issues, and that these issues can be incorporated into stories in a way that is honest and true.

One of my author inspirations is Kate Messner, who throughout her career, especially in the realm of middle grade fiction, has demonstrated how to infuse stories with gravitas while also balancing that “realness” with warmth, humor, and hope.

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

My relationship to the children’s-YA writing community first started when I was a librarian.

Before I decided to concentrate on making my dream of publication a reality, I was a children’s/teen librarian for about five years. I selected the YA books for my library, I booked author visits, and I interacted a lot with people in the library world on Twitter and social media.

As I started to think more seriously about actually revising some of my messy first drafts or finishing my many half-drafts, I began following more authors on Twitter. Agents and publishers were soon added to my list, and I started interacting with them all, learning about the business of publishing and gathering helpful writing tips through blog posts and comment threads.

I think this sense of community is so crucial to our profession since it can be so solitary. Yes, we do research and talk to people, and yes, we go to conferences and schmooze (or do as much as we can, as so many of us are introverts!), but most of my time is spent at the keyboard, either writing or staring into space.

It’s so nice to be able to reach out to my peers and learn from our community when I’m online. Cultivating those relationships helped make my publication process a lot less stressful.

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

Honestly, this transition has been more difficult than I expected.

Like many, I always had this pie-in-the-sky belief that once I was published, everything would be perfect. I think it’s that belief that gets so many struggling writers through the stressful process of querying, revising, submitting, and more.

You believe that you will make it.

Jen with first finished copy of P.S. I Miss You.

You believe that things will someday be wonderful. And, yes, publication is wonderful. It’s thrilling to see P.S. I Miss You on bookshelves and to know that my peers and (more importantly!) actual kids are reading my words. But I didn’t realize how much I would still question myself.

I have a history of getting anxious about certain things, and I tend to compare myself to others a lot, even though I know it’s not helpful or even merited.

I don’t begrudge anyone their success, and it’s not even about what I “don’t have.” It’s that insistent voice inside my head that has haunted me for so long (and which I’m incorporating into my 2019 fiction and nonfiction books, Good Enough and You are Enough, both Feiwel & Friends) that sometimes tells me (if now only in a whisper rather than a yell) that I’m not performing to the best of my ability.

Launch party cake

That’s when I need to stop and remind myself that I wrote a book. That I published a book. That I’m proud of it and that I’m continuing to write. That I love what I’m doing. I love the art of it. I love constructing sentences and creating stories and characters.

That that is good enough, whatever my official “job title” is now.

Cynsational Notes

Jen Petro-Roy was born, raised, and still lives in Massachusetts, even though she rejects the idea that snow and cold are ever a good thing.

She started writing in third grade, when her classroom performed a play she had written. It was about a witch and a kidnapped girl and a brave crew of adventurers who set out to save the day. As a kid, numerous pictures of Jen often featured Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins books clutched in her hand, so it was just a matter of time until she started writing her own books for children.

In the past, Jen has worked as a teacher and a teen and children’s librarian. She loves running, board games, trivia, and swimming, and has a mild obsession with the television show Jeopardy!

New Voice: Patricia Valdez on Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I love a good picture book biography and read so many in elementary school, especially those featuring women.

So when I learned Patricia Valdez’s debut picture book would feature the work of Joan Proctor, a zoologist researching amphibians in the early twentieth century, I knew there’d be a great story there.

Others think so too because the book has received starred reviews from Booklist, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal.

I’m thrilled to feature Patricia’s Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor, illustrated by Felicita Sala (Knopf, 2018) today on Cynsations.

Patricia, what first inspired you to write for young readers?

I’m an Immunologist, and my children always love to hear stories about the tiny armies inside their bodies.

I started out writing stories about germs invading cuts and the immune cells that came to destroy them. My kids got a kick out those stories, but they were nowhere near publication-ready.

As a woman scientist, it was always clear to me that there were not enough stories about us. The stories we did have were not particularly inspiring to me. Not that I don’t love Marie Curie, but the thought of spending my whole life in a laboratory handling lethal doses of radium was not appealing.

I decided I would find those interesting women that history forgot, and that is what started my writing journey in earnest.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This story came to me by way of a Komodo dragon.

My family loves to visit the Komodo dragon at the National Zoo. His name is Murphy and he’s so majestic. Thanks to the helpful zoo facts posted on the enclosure, I learned they were the largest lizard on the planet.

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.

I was curious to learn more, so searched online. As I scrolled through an article about Komodo dragons, one sentence jumped out at me. It said something along the lines of “Joan Beauchamp Procter was the first person to describe Komodo dragons in captivity in the 1920s.”

I immediately needed to know more about this woman scientist. And it turns out, she was as interesting as I thought she might be!

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.

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

Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor is a picture book biography about Joan Beauchamp Procter, a British herpetologist who lived in the early 1900s and designed the London Zoo’s Reptile House, which is still in use today.

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.

I was drawn to her story because it was rare to find women scientists working at that time. Women barely had the right to vote and universities didn’t allow women to earn full degrees. In a sense, Procter was a fish out of water working in a male-dominated field.

I related to her story because although my graduate school class had an equal number of women as men, I was the only Latinx out of 50 students. Like Procter, I stayed focused and succeeded.

I’m happy to report that I see so many more diverse faces in my former department’s most recent class pictures, but we still have a long way to go. I hope Procter’s story might inspire all children to pursue their passion, whether that includes the sciences, the arts, or both.

Cynsational Notes

Booklist gave Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor a starred review and wrote, “Whimsical artwork and an empowering story make this biography of a lesser-known woman scientist truly charming.”

In addition to being an author, Patricia Valdez is a scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley.

Originally from Texas, Patricia now resides in Maryland with her husband, two children, and three cats. You can find her on Twitter @Patricia_Writer.

Patricia is represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group.

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

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

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

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

Survivors: Brent Hartinger on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing YA Author

Learn more about Brent Hartinger.

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?

Oh boy, this is such a great topic!

There’s so much discussion of getting published, but much less about staying that way, and making a living over the long-term. I also love that it’s a reoccurring feature, because I’ve loved reading what others have had to say on this topic, too.

First, I completely agree that maintaining a career is as much a challenge as getting published in the first place. And, weirdly, I think it boils down to control. Or, more specifically, the lack of it.

Nutshell? We writers don’t control how our projects are received. But I think that lack of control is something writers need to accept.

I’m a multi-hybrid author — part screenwriter, part traditional novelist, part self-publisher. And all these mediums and platforms allow different degrees of author input, and in all of them, the writer always has control over what he or she writes in the first place.

No one can force you to write anything. Even in screenwriting, you can leave a project you truly don’t agree with the direction it’s taking (or at least have your name taken off of it, if you still want to get paid).

So yeah, we have control in that respect.

But ultimately, no one can predict or control how a project will be received by the world. Art is literally an “art,” not a science. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: no one knows anything.

When it comes to books, even reviews and awards are not good predictors of sales or financial success,

I think this simple fact is what drives most writers crazy, and what burns so many people out.

Well, that and the unrelenting rejection, but the two things are related.

People want predictability, but it doesn’t exist in the arts.

In my own career, I’ve had projects that I thought were some of the best work I’ve ever done, and they didn’t sell well — a few times, they didn’t even sell to publishers! They never saw the light of day. Some probably weren’t as good as I thought, but I still think others were. Others were published, but just fell through the cracks.

Of course, I’ve also had a few hits, but those aren’t necessarily the projects I think are my best.

This is the story of almost every long-term author I know.

So when it comes to a long-term career, the lack of control really is the thing to be reckoned with. Successful debut novelists may not understand this, because they obviously think they’re work is good, and it was successful, so naturally the system must reward good work.

Sometimes it does. But sometimes it doesn’t.

So many things are as important, or more important, than the book itself: things like past sales, current trends, your relationship with industry insiders (or your editor and publisher’s relationship with industry insiders!).

It’s hard to overstate how important timing is to a project’s success. But since no one can predict the future, and because books take so damn long to produce, timing is something we writers have — you guess it! — almost no control over.

At best, we can hope to catch a wave, which is what I did with my first book, Geography Club (Harper, 2003). It was a big hit, and I remember thinking at the time, “Authors always complain about how hard it is to get attention for your book, but that’s not true. It’s easy!”

Woo boy! What I didn’t know then could fill a library.

Honestly, the more time I spend in this industry, the more real breakout success mostly seems like random chance to me.

That’s hard for some people to accept. It’s been hard for me to accept!

People don’t talk about this very much. The American ideal is that we’re in charge of our own destinies. We all control our own fates. If you work hard, you’ll be rewarded! And in almost every non-artistic field, I think this is true.

Not so much for us artists. And there’s definitely something to be said for just accepting this reality.

It’s kind of a “zen” thing. It can save you a lot of heartache.

But lest someone think I’m all depressed and hopeless, let me hasten to add I don’t think that means artists are powerless. We can’t control how our books are received, but we can still find control in other areas.

For me, that’s meant being nimble and adaptable as a writer. Whenever my novel-writing career flagged, I’d turn to writing screenplays. Once when I couldn’t seem to get a traditional publishing deal, I tried self-publishing (to pretty great success, I might add!).

I think the secret to my career is that I’ve diversified.

I dedicated myself to a life of writing fiction decades ago, and I have never wavered from that. But my career goals have never ever ever been about any “one” project, or genre, or medium.

I’m lucky that I actually enjoy writing so many different kinds of projects.

And when things got tough financially, I sometimes did half-steps over into writer-adjacent careers. I taught writing for a year (at your invitation, Cyn!), and even once co-founded a website that we ended up selling to Viacom (for some very big bucks, thank you very much). But don’t try this today.

As usual, it was all about timing.

Basically, I’ve tried to stay true to my career goals, even as I’ve stayed open to all kinds of possibilities.

I found control in other areas too, but I’ve obviously blathered on way too long on this, the very first question!

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

Regrets? Yeah, I’ve had a few.

I said before that we artists have to accept that we don’t have much, or any, control over how our projects are received. But I also said that doesn’t mean we’re completely powerless. Here are ways I had control over my writing career, but I didn’t know it until after it was too late.

If I had to do it over again, I’d stick to one genre for at least my first three books (and/or write under a pen name). Or I’d write a series! Geez, why didn’t I do that?

Anyway, I’d establish myself as a crystal clear brand.

Your brand is your single greatest marketing tool, and you’re probably an idiot if you squander it and blur it all to hell, as I have done repeatedly. This is an area where my eagerness to write in different genres has really hurt me, I think.

Second, I’ve let people treat me poorly. Agents and editors, I mean. It’s important not to be a diva — that might be even more of a career-killer than being a doormat, and I do see diva behavior among successful authors (although mostly it’s the middling-successful ones). But in my case, I’ve been much more likely to be the doormat than the diva.

I say now that if something feels off with an agent or editor, give it a year, maybe two. That’s a long time. If it still isn’t working out, there’s probably something fundamentally bad going on, so make a break.

Yeah, yeah, I know that it’s terrifying to leave an agent with no one else lined up. But just do it, okay?

A bad or unenthusiastic agent really is worse than no agent. I’ve signed nine screenwriting options in my life, and contracts for at least ten books, and exactly none of them were the result of an unenthusiastic agent. They were all either the result of a passionate advocate, or I basically hustled up the deals myself and brought them to my reps.

(Incidentally, I’ve never been happier with my representation than I am right now, Uwe Stender at TriadaUS.)

Anyway, as much as possible, surround yourself with people you’re passionate about, and who are passionate about you.

There’s one other mistake that I don’t think I’ve made, but I think a lot of writers do. For long-term success, it’s really, really important to learn the craft. But when I say learn the craft, I mean really learn the craft.

In the short run, quirkiness and gimmicks can totally get you a book deal. This is a creative industry, and all creative industries totally turn on gimmicks and quirks — and every now and then, some writers even take real risks and make actual artistic steps forward. This is literally how a lot of books and movies get attention for themselves, by feeling like something fresh and different. That’s how you break out, so naturally that’s what publishers have a keen eye for.

But gimmicks and quirks will only get you so far, especially after that first book.

Unless you can come up with another equally good gimmick, you’re eventually going to have to prove yourself as an actual writer. Because that’s what will sustain a career.

No matter how funny your quips or beautiful your prose, after a book or two, it will start to seem like you’re repeating yourself.

I’ve always been fascinated by plot and structure. It’s why I was originally drawn to screenwriting.

I’m not always sure critics and award committees care very much about plot and structure, but I think readers and audiences do. So learn it, along with voice, and theme, and characterization. And learn how to take criticism and revise.

I think I can tell a pretty good story. You know, with a coherent theme, and a beginning, a middle, and an ending that is somehow both unexpected and satisfying?

Books and movies like this aren’t as common as you’d think. But I do think story still matters, at least a little.

Anyway, I’d like to think the fact that I can tell one is part of the reason why I’m still selling books and screenplays after twenty years.

And while you’re at it, learn discipline. I know there are mercurial types that manage to create and sustain long careers in the arts despite being unable to keep to a schedule or deadline. More power to ’em!

But I think my own writing life has been made much easier by being disciplined and self -motivated. I’ve never missed a deadline, and never will. Everyone says I’m a good reviser. I’d like to think editors and agents appreciate all this.

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?

Oh, the increased diversity, obviously. It’s so fantastic, and so overdue. Like everyone, I’m worried it’s a “trend” not a “change,” but it’s started to feel more like a sea change these past few years.

I guess I was sort of a pioneer in LGBT YA fiction (back in the early ’00s, when I caught that first wave), and it blows my mind how diverse that sub-genre has become.

With all the bullcrap I went through, I would not have predicted it.

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

Relax. Realize the experience with your first book will be a predictor of absolutely nothing, that every book is different, and you can’t control almost any of it, but that’s okay because it’ll all probably work out in the end.

No single thing is as important as you think it is at the time, and that’s true of everything from bad reviews to major awards.

Oh, and GoodReads! Please ignore that completely. It’s for readers, not writers, and it doesn’t matter anyway. The same goes for all those “best of” lists that the YA world loves so much.

Basically, try not to panic so much.

But it probably wouldn’t matter if I had given that advice to myself, because being published is so weird, so completely bizarre, that there’s no way to prepare for it. It’s like trying to prepare for parenthood. Or sex. Or death.

You can’t know it, or understand it, until you do it. (And now I’m being pretentious, aren’t I?)

I guess I would say this though: If you’re lucky enough to find real success, try really, really hard to enjoy it as much as possible. Because it might not happen again for a while.

Oh! And absolutely don’t compare your book or your degree of success to other authors. That is absolutely the worst trap you can possibly fall into. No matter what your level, there will always be someone more successful, more lauded, so you’re completely doomed to always feel bad about yourself, to feel like the world isn’t “fair.”

I said before that artistic success is mostly random?

Well, the downside to that is that it’s mostly random. But the upside is that eventually you’ll have your time in the spotlight.


At least if you follow my other advice about trying to relax and be zen, not being a diva, learning the craft, and surrounding yourself with people who are passionate about you and your work.

It also helps to have something to say. I hope that goes without saying. Ha!

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

Well, it sounds funny at a time when everyone is talking about opening YA up to college-age characters, but I kinda wish the genre would focus more on actual teen readers. I get that a lot of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings love YA, and I’m always happy when anyone is passionate about my books or the genre I write in. Plus, it’s cool that a genre I like is culturally relevant.

But if I’m honest, it feels like a lot of authors are already basically writing twentysomething characters, and just calling it YA. They say things like, “Teens are really sophisticated these days!” Which is true, but isn’t really the point.

The issues teens face are different than the issues twentysomethings face, and the sensibility is different too. It sometimes feels like twentysomething readers have overwhelmed the genre. It’s a little like how female authors of gay male romance have turned gay fiction into something different than fiction for and about gay men.
But that’s definitely a longer discussion.

Anyway, that’s my wish. That more YA authors would pay more attention to actual teen readers, and less to twentysomething book bloggers.

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

My goal has always been to support myself as a writer of fiction, and I’ve managed to do that for twenty years now. I’m really proud of that fact. I’ve even had mortgages!

I also love that I’ve developed a passionate following, even if it may not be massive. I really do have the world’s best fans.

But I confess that before I die, I’d love one huge, splashy, unqualified, culturally relevant break-out success. Is that selfish?

Anyway, in the meantime, my husband and I sold our house, and now we’re traveling the world for several years.

We started in Seattle, and we’re in Miami now until May when we’re moving to London for the summer and fall. After that, we’re not sure, but New Zealand, Thailand, and Costa Rica are all on the table to live in eventually.

Which I actually think is relevant to this whole discussion about finding lasting success in a writing career. Here’s the real secret. Work your hardest, do your damnedest, learn from your mistakes, and never give up.

But then? Accept that after that, some things really are ultimately out of your control. And then go out and live your best possible life, trying as hard as possible to be happy.

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: Lori Mortensen on Writing Story Endings & If Wendell Had a Walrus

By Lori Mortensen
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Story beginnings are so important, it’s no wonder they get a lot of attention.

Writers not only have to come up with a fresh idea, they have to nail an opening hook that sets up the main character, grounds the reader in a specific setting, and gets a compelling story problem rolling. It’s a big bite of the story-writing apple.

However, story endings are just as important as story beginnings. After readers devour each page, they’re expecting a satisfying ending that’s often described as “unexpected, yet inevitable.”  A conclusion that fulfills the story’s promise in a surprising, yet emotionally fulfilling way.

Readers want to read that last page and say, Ahhhh…

When stories miss the mark, it’s like running a race, only to find that there’s no finish line. Whaat? Or, coming to the end of a scrumptious meal, only to find a stale graham cracker for dessert. You can taste the disappointment.

So what makes a satisfying ending?

At first, simply solving the story problem might seem like the obvious answer. For example, if Sally wants a pet, she gets a pet. If Sam wants to be a superhero, he becomes a superhero.

In my rhyming picture book, Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion, 2013) Clyde wants to catch his dog for a bath.

The obvious ending would be Clyde catching his ol’ dirty dawg and giving him a bath, right? But that ending doesn’t feel satisfying. There has to be more than Clyde just getting his way.

Instead, I showed Clyde trying to catch his dog, each attempt more comical and disastrous than the last. Clyde would get so frustrated he would ….

What would he do? I wondered.

I was delighted when I instantly realized things would get so bad, Cowpoke Clyde would scrap the whole idea.

Oh, no! I thought gleefully.

How was Clyde going to scrub his dog now? I was just as eager to find out what would happen as I hoped future readers would be. Moments later, I knew what my satisfying ending would be.

Clyde would not only scrap the idea of catching Dirty Dawg, he would decide to take the bath himself.

Whoa! I didn’t see that coming, but it felt absolutely perfect. As Cowpoke Clyde scrubbed and crooned in the tub, Dirty Dawg joined him with a tremendous splash!  At this point, I realized the story wasn’t about Clyde checking off a laundry list of chores.

It was about them. Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg.

Once Clyde stopped trying to finagle his dog into the tub, the duo discovered that taking a bath was something they both enjoyed. I avoided a didactic ending where Cowpoke Clyde showed Dawg who was boss and turned it into a satisfying friendship story that drew Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg together. 

In my original counting picture book story Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin (Bloomsbury, 2016) mice arrive at a ball in ascending numbers from one to 10.

At the climax, a cat shows up and scares them away in descending order back to one.

A fun idea, but after several rejections, I knew it needed a more satisfying ending. But what?

I decided the solution rested with the cat.

Instead of arriving as a threat, the cat shows up only wanting to dance. This unexpected twist gave the story a new meaning and level of satisfaction.

It wasn’t simply a book that counted mice up and down. It became a story about friendship and inclusion.

On April 17, my picture book If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by Matt Phelan (Henry Holt) will hit the bookshelves. In this story, a boy named Wendell wants a walrus.

The obvious ending? Wendell getting a walrus.

However, as I wrote along, a different ending came to mind. As soon as I wrote it, I knew it was perfect.

  • Unexpected. 
  • Inevitable.
  • Satisfying.

Would Wendell get a walrus?

What do you think?

Illustration by Matt Phelan, used with permission.

So once you’ve got that all-important story beginning under your belt, remember that endings are just as important as beginnings.

Don’t be satisfied with the first idea that comes to mind. Play around a little and come up with something unexpected.

You’ll not only have more fun writing it, readers will have more fun reading it. And when they finally come to the last tantalizing page, they’ll sit back and say …


Cynsational Notes

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 70 books and over 350 stories and articles.

Other recent releases include Chicken Lily, illustrated by Nina Victor Crittenden (Henry Holt), and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range, illustrated by Michael Allen Austin (Clarion) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013.

When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life.

For more information about her books, teacher activities, critique service, events, and upcoming releases, visit her website.

In Memory: Russell Freedman

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Russell Freedman, 88, Writer of History for Young Readers, Dies by Neil Genzlinger from The New York Times. Peek:

Russell Freedman, who brought readable, relatable history to young readers in dozens of well-researched, generously illustrated books, died on March 16 in Manhattan.”

“The prolific nonfiction author — winner of the 1988 Newbery Medal for Lincoln: A Photobiography (Clarion, 1987) — wrote over sixty books,” reported the Horn Book in Russell Freedman (1929-2018).

His children’s literature career spanned more than 50 years and he wrote about the evolution of nonfiction standards in a 2014 essay for the Horn Book, Changing Times. Peek:

“Back in the 1950s, the popular Landmark books had no illustrations. None. And while skillfully written by notable authors, those books had no bibliographies, and, heaven forbid, no chapter notes! Today’s nonfiction for kids, abundantly illustrated, meticulously documented, is, I believe, more inviting than ever before, and more authoritative.”

After earning an English degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1951, Freedman served in U.S. counter intelligence during the Korean War.

Afterward, he returned to San Francisco and became a reporter and editor for the Associated Press before moving to New York to work in advertising.

His first book, Teenagers Who Made History (Holiday House, 1961), was inspired by an article he read in The New York Times about a 16-year-old who invented a Braille typewriter, according to Shannon Maughan’s Obituary: Russell Freedman in Publishers Weekly.

He went on to write more than 60 additional nonfiction books, earning him the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in 1998 and the National Humanities Medal in 2007.

In a 2007 interview with Daniel Scheuerman for the National Endowment for the Humanities, Freedman said he considered In Defense of Liberty (Holiday House, 2003) his greatest personal success.

“’What is more important than the Bill of Rights to America?’ he asks. ‘Nothing! And I got to try to convey this information to a new generation.’” 

He also called the book one of his biggest challenges.

“’You’re dealing with legalisms, to some extent, and abstractions, and you have to put them into human terms.’”

In Russell Freedman Brought History to Life For Kids from School Library Journal, Kara Yorio said:

“Freedman’s books continue to be topical and are often found on recommended reading lists. We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistance Movement that Defied Hitler (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), and Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) all discuss important people and movements that readers can connect to current events.”

A memorial service is planned for Oct. 11 in New York City on what would have been his 89th birthday.

Cynsational Notes

Gayleen: It’s impossible to know how many young readers Russell Freedman inspired during his half-century career, but I know for certain I was one of those readers.

During elementary school I read an old copy of Jules Verne: Portrait of a Prophet (Holiday House, 1965) and remember finding his descriptions of Verne’s adventure stories much more exciting (and accessible) than the actual Verne books.

Though as a fourth grader, I never made the connection that the biographer who led me to the creator of Around the World in 80 Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth was also an author himself.

My conscious appreciation for Russell Freedman began during my first semester at Vermont College when my advisor Jane Kurtz suggested his work as a model for nonfiction.

Since then I’ve read many of his books and continue to be awed by his attention to detail and ability to transport the reader into historic events.

Cynsational News

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

Author/ Illustrator Insights

Donna Janell Bowman and Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words! By Adi Rule from The Launch Pad. Peek:

“Initially, I was a bit nervous about shining a light on an event that Lincoln himself was ashamed of, until I read his law partner’s recollection that Lincoln complained that biographies magnified perfections and suppressed imperfections.”

Author Q&A With Mystic Writing Debbi Michiko Florence by Nancy Burns-Fusaro from The Westerly Sun. Peek:

“I love mochi, a Japanese chewy treat! Knowing that traditionally, it is the men who pound mochi and the women who roll the mochi, I wondered what would happen if a little girl wanted to do the man’s job of pounding the mochi? Would her family allow her to?”

Michelle Leonard: Author and Bookseller at Quail Ridge Books from Emily Colin. Peek:

“It’s very exciting when your book’s available for preorder, but consider suggesting that friends, family, and fans order from their local bookstore or yours. You can locate local bookstores through Indiebound. Consider contacting local bookstores first and share their preorder links… instead of Amazon’s. Ask others to do the same.”

 Interview with Neal Shusterman from the Cybils. Peek:

“I write very visually. I tend to see the book like a movie in my head. The great part about writing a novel, however, is that you can really get into the character’s minds, and you can use language in a way you can’t in films.”

Rita Williams-Garcia

StoryMakers with Rita Williams-Garcia from KidLit TV. Peek:

“Award-winning author Rita Williams-Garcia chats about her new book Gone Crazy in Alabama and shows us her very own childhood diaries!”

Coffee and Conversation with Laura Shovan! By Laura Bowers from As the Eraser Burns. Peek:

“I joined SCBWI in 2003 and signed with my agent in 2014. It [path to publication] was slow, and then very fast. Two weeks after I signed with Stephen Barbara, we had offers on my debut novel.” 


2018 Walter Award Book Giveaways from We Need Diverse Books. Peek:

“Our next book giveaway for classrooms is online now through April 30th, 2018.”

A New Generation of African-American-Owned Bookstores by Alex Green from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“After a steep decline, the number of black-owned independent bookstores is growing.”

Submissions Now Open For Our New Voices And New Visions Award Writing Contests for Authors of Color from Lee & Low. Peek:

“This year, we’re opening submissions for our nineteenth annual New Voices Award and our sixth annual New Visions Award a month early. That means submissions for both awards are now open!”

Patrice Caldwell Believes Book Publishing Needs More People of Color, So She Founded an Organization to Make It Happen by Kerri Jarema from Bustle. Peek:

“The founder of the organization People of Color in Publishing — which started as a closed Facebook group for people of color who are working or want to work within book publishing — works each and every day to give POC the resources they need to make headway in the industry.” 

CCBC 2017 Statistics on LGBTQ+ Literature for Children & Teens from CCBlogC. Peek:

“In 2017, we expanded our CCBC diversity statistics to include books with LGBTQ+ content and/or characters, and the results have been both fascinating and eye-opening.”

A Culturally Responsive Approach to Earth Day: Key Questions for Classroom Discussion by Lindsay Barrett from Lee & Low. Peek:

“…an important element of both culturally responsive teaching and research-based practices for encouraging activism in students is to establish connections between students’ learning and their own lives and communities.”

Writing Craft

Make Your Writing Anxiety Disappear By Thinking Small by Jane Anne Staw from Jane Friedman. Peek:

 “Leaving too much time allowed the anxiety to creep in, and to avoid that feeling, I did anything but write.”

How Will Your Setting Affect Your Fight Scene by Jenilyn Collings from Thinking Through Our Fingers. Peek:

“…a martial arts class…pulled out the ground mats to simulate fighting on top of a building. The rules were that the first person to step off the mat lost..(fell off the building). Suddenly these boys, who had spent years kicking and punching together, completely changed their fighting styles.”

When You’re Not Okay: A Mental Health Checkup for Writers by Kim Bullock from Writer Unboxed. Peek:

“…writers in particular were common among sufferers of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and substance abuse, and were almost fifty percent more likely to commit suicide than the general population.”

How Writing in Chunks Can Make You a More Productive Writer by Janice Hardy from Fiction University. Peek:

“Writing in chunks is a nice mix of plotter and pantser that pulls the best from both drafting styles. It allows you to be as spontaneous as you want, and or organized as you want, while still maintaining a framework to write in.”


Delaying an Agent Submission by Mary Kole from Kid Lit. Peek

“Writers are humans. They are, whether you want to think so or not, vulnerable to the quirks of human nature. And one of those foibles is impatience.”

How to Handle An Offer of Representation by Nathan Bransford from his blog. Peek:

“Don’t immediately yell, ‘Yes, Dear Lord, Yes’ even if you really want to. Take your time to make sure it’s the right fit.

If Graphic Novels Are Hip for Adults, Why Not Picture Books? by Bruce Handy from The New York Times. Peek:

“…the best picture books, far from being baby food, display a pictorial sophistication that puts many graphic novels to shame; think of them as visual haiku, an art form of juxtaposition and implication, bright colors notwithstanding.”

There’s No Female Conspiracy in Publishing —Your Book Might Just Not Be Good by Lauren Spieller from The Guardian. Peek:

“…I’m rejecting their books because they aren’t ready for publication in my eyes, or because the book simply isn’t my cup of tea.”

Skyhorse Reorg Results in Cutting of Children’s Staff by Emma Kantor from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“As part of the restructuring, the publisher is cutting its workforce by approximately 20%, eliminating 16 full-time positions out of 77, including all four full-time editors who worked exclusively at its children’s imprint, Sky Pony Press.”

Cyn Note: Our condolences to all those who lost their jobs and those whose books are orphaned.


The Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2018 Edition from Bank Street. Peek:

“The Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College of Education strives to guide librarians, educators, parents, grandparents, and other interested adults to the best books for children published each year.”

This Week at Cynsations

Enter the Giveaway!
More Personally- Cynthia

Thank you for your ongoing readership of Cynsations! March 2018 was the all-time second highest traffic month (74,290 page views) after an all-time high in October 2014 (81,706 page views).

Have you been following our popular Suvivors Interview Series, featuring insights from children’s-YA authors who’ve actively published over the long haul?

I love this quote from our latest installment with author Martine Leavitt (shown above):

“I have had the privilege of writing what I needed to write, saying what I needed to say, playing my brains out, and putting whatever graffiti I wanted on the wall of the universe.

“My work is witness. That is the only success I can truly say I own, but I own it with my whole soul.”

Rock on with your awesomeness, Martine!

Attention, SCBWI Members! It’s time for round one of the vote for the Crystal Kite winner from your region. Login to the website, click on “My Home,” and then click “Vote in the Crystal Kite Awards” at the bottom of the left column. Good luck to all the nominees!

Personal Links- Robin

New Voice: Interview & Giveaway: Daria Peoples-Riley on This Is It, Illustration & Diversity

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

To say that I’m thrilled to feature Daria Peoples-Riley, fellow Epic Eighteen member, today on Cynsations is an understatement.

This Is It (Greenwillow, 2018), her debut picture book as an author-illustrator, follows a young girl of color getting ready for a ballet audition. Although she loves to dance, she doubts herself as she approaches the studio.

I love Daria’s use of the girl’s shadow self to help her overcome her hesitation. The endpapers with the young ballerina demonstrating the ballet positions remind me of my own trepidation at performing during my few years taking lessons as a child.

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

For This Is It, I wrote the poem as a gift for my daughter to give to her on the day of her first ballet audition.

I didn’t intend for it to become a picture book, so I illustrated the poem after the manuscript was written, and the text really drove my ideas for the illustrations.

However, in other projects, I find that the story comes as text for some spreads and illustrations for others. Eventually, during the revision process, the pace of text and illustrations evolve organically.

Daria’s writing workspace

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time? 

I began painting as a child, alongside my dad. In high school, I took the mandatory semester of art, and fell in love with drawing, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I really started practicing. The ability to draw and paint relies on a person’s ability to see. As your visual intelligence improves, your art will as well.

I remember Marla Frazee saying that in the journey from beginner to becoming publishable, you have to just practice until your art is good enough.

Every year, I put together a portfolio and took it to SCBWI conferences. Eventually, it was good enough.

There is no magic to making publishable art. There is truth to the 10,000 hours. Whether that is in art school or at home in your living room, 10,000 hours is 10,000 hours, and it took me three years of practicing before my portfolio was good enough.

Do you have any tips for putting together a portfolio?

I’m sure there are many more qualified people to answer this question, but I think anyone who wants to be an illustrator has to create from a place of love in order for their work to see the world.

You can check the boxes of having everything in your portfolio we learn to include at intensives and conferences, work that demonstrates our mastery of skill, but if we don’t love what we are making, the work won’t evoke the emotion of the viewer, or stand out to industry gatekeepers. Absolutely love everything you include.

If you don’t love it, if it doesn’t make you laugh, or tear, or smile to yourself, take it out, and make something else.

Daria’s illustration workspace

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

The best moment was when This Is It sold. After three years of developing it, I was on the verge of moving on. Waiting is hard, but I’m learning to wait better.

The worst moment? I haven’t had one yet, but it might be around the corner, and that will be okay. It’s all a part of the journey.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

I introduced myself to Matt de la Pena at a children’s book festival, and I knew he had a daughter, so I brought a copy of This Is It to give him. When he asked me to sign it for him, I froze. I’d never signed my book before.

He was very gracious, and taught me how to sign my book. I had to laugh about it afterwards, and I was a little embarrassed, but it was definitely memorable and funny for him, I’m sure.

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

The physical rendering of the heroine in This Is It is very intentional.

Like me, she checks a lot of racial and ethnic boxes, and not fitting into any one box informs her lack of belonging. She looks different, but because of her differences, she is extraordinary and special. She represents the underrepresented child’s uniqueness and desire to do something in an arena where she is often the only one present.

Brown ballet dancers are underrepresented at pre-professional ballet schools and companies all over the country. I hope this book whispers, “You can do it.”

Daria talking with students

The text is the rhythm and movement of my mother’s New Orleans’ roots. New Orleans’ women are resilient with deep-loving hearts.

I wanted to portray a character who overcomes her fears by using the greatest catalyst an under-represented youth could possibly use when she feels alone in the world—-the power of affirmations spoken from within herself.

Dancing through our fears is also a metaphor for how we can choose to approach life. Whatever challenges we face, let’s surrender to the journey.

I think the strength we discover along the way will be change the trajectory of our lives forever.

Cynsational Notes

Daria Peoples-Riley’s first job was at nine years old in the children’s section of her hometown library in Paso Robles, California. She worked a little, but she mostly read picture books.

Daria loved basketball, competing in oratorical contests, drawing, and painting. Her dad gave her art lessons in their garage on Rose Lane, and Daria’s mom rescued her first self-portrait from the kitchen trash can, and had it professionally framed the next day.

Today, it hangs in her parents’ living room as a reminder that our life’s purpose almost always introduces itself to us as a child.

Daria earned a B.A. in English from U.C. Santa Barbara, where she found herself shelving books in the library once again and reading the writings of many notable authors.

After earning a Masters in Education and 10 years of teaching, Daria became a full-time author and illustrator. A companion book to This Is It will follow in 2019. She is also the illustrator of What Gloria Heard by Jessica M. Rinker (Bloomsbury, 2019), a picture book biography about the life and work of Gloria Steinem.

Daria lives in Las Vegas with her family.

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

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

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

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

Enter to win a copy of This Is It:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on April 12, 2018 and 12:00 AM on April 26, 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 April 26, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

New Voice: Jessie Janowitz on Finding a Literary Agent & The Doughnut Fix

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Jessie Janowitz is the debut author of The Doughnut Fix (Sourcebooks, April 2018). From the promotional copy:

Tristan isn’t Gifted or Talented like his sister Jeanine, and he’s always been okay with that because he can make a perfect chocolate chip cookie and he lives in the greatest city in the world. 

But his life takes a turn for the worse when his parents decide to move to middle-of-nowhere Petersville–a town with one street and no restaurants. It’s like suddenly they’re supposed to be this other family, one that can survive without bagels and movie theaters. 

His suspicions about his new town are confirmed when he’s tricked into believing the local general store has life-changing, chocolate cream doughnuts, when in fact the owner hasn’t made them in years. 

And so begins the only thing that could make life in Petersville worth living: getting the recipe, making the doughnuts, and bringing them back to the town through his very own doughnut stand. 

But Tristan will soon discover that when starting a business, it helps to be both Gifted and Talented, and it’s possible he’s bitten off more than he can chew… 

As an admitted doughnut lover, I was very excited to interview Jessie about her writing journey and this delicious middle grade novel.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book? 

The Doughnut Fix was inspired by a sign. It’s in the window of a small market in a very small town I drive through all the time.

It always made me laugh and wonder what the story behind it might be. There was something about the store, one that had seen better days, that made me suspect that it didn’t actually have chocolate cream doughnuts, which made the sign so much better, not as a potential doughnut source, of course, but as story material.

A lying sign really got my imagination going. What kind of character would advertize selling something he or she didn’t have and why? What kind of character would would go gaga over chocolate cream doughnuts, and what would he or she do if it turned out there were none to be had?

I was off and running…

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 joined SCBWI! I went to two winter and two summer conferences and participated in the Round Tables where I received feedback on first pages. I did manuscript and query critiques.

And finally, when I felt I had a fully revised, finished manuscript, I participated in the amazing Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (“RUCCL”) One-on-One Conference which pairs you with an agent, editor, or author for feedback on first pages, synopsis, and query letter.

Unlike SCBWI conferences, the sole purpose of the RUCCL conference is to help aspiring authors get published.

As a result, the application is fairly extensive (cover letter, excerpt, synopsis), and only ninety applicants are selected.

I was fortunate enough to be accepted on my first try and was paired with a junior agent from New Leaf Literary. The conference does not guarantee that your mentor will be looking for the kind of project you’ve submitted, and in my case, my mentor did not represent middle grade.

However, she did pass my query along to another agent at New Leaf who did, and she requested a full manuscript.
In November of 2015, after incorporating the feedback from the RUCCL conference, I began querying in earnest.

I’d send out five queries at a time and kept a spreadsheet cataloguing when the email was sent, the specific agent’s response policy, and the response I received. After receiving similar feedback from multiple agents, I revised both the manuscript and my query letter.

Two valuable tools in my search for an agent were Publishers Marketplace (“PM”) and the #MSWishlist.

#MSWishlist allowed me to identify agents who were looking for the kind of story I was writing. Ultimately, the agent who offered me representation was one I identified through PM.

Though you must pay to use PM, I would argue that it’s worth the subscription fee because you can see all the books than an agent has sold, so you really get a sense for the kinds of books and writers that interest him or her. You also have access to data on how actively an agent is selling, for example, how many books he or she has sold in the past twelve months, in what categories and genres, and to which editors.

In total, I sent queries to thirteen agents. I sent my initial query to my agent, Carrie Hannigan at Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency, in December of 2015 and received a reply with a request for a full manuscript on April 29, 2016!

I am not, by nature, a patient person. Querying taught me patience. Carrie offered me representation a week after I sent her the manuscript. We submitted it to editors in June and had an offer for The Doughnut Fix and a sequel in October.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

As a parent and aspiring middle grade writer, I was blown away by the timeless appeal of Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (Dutton, 1972). I observed my kids and others read this book again and again, more than any other with the exception of Harry Potter. What is it about Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing?

To answer that, I read the book myself and listened to the audiobook along with my kids more times than I can count. There are so many marvelous things about the book, but for me, the element that really draws kids in is the voice.

The narrator Peter has a great sense of humor, but it’s not just that, it’s his humor combined with something else, something unexpected: vulnerability.

In only the second paragraph, Peter admits to the reader that he “felt bad” that he didn’t get a goldfish like the other kids at the party. It is this honest, confessional quality that makes kids feel like a friend is telling them deep, dark secrets. It’s the combination of humor and vulnerability that is the voice’s secret sauce.

In experimenting with humorous voices, I had learned that they can sometimes veer into sarcasm or snark, thereby alienating readers, but what I learned from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing was that endowing a humorous voice with vulnerability allows the character to be more relatable.

I realized that if you could get that balance just right, the middle grade reader would follow your narrator anywhere.

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

I wrote an “apprentice novel.” It is very long and deeply flawed. It isn’t sure what genre it is, and not in an intentional how-cool-is-that, genre-bending way. It is simply confused, because I was.

There is magic in the story, but the rules of that magic are unclear. My characters are in their heads too much. The plot is predictable. The personal stakes feel manufactured.

One might argue that this project was an expensive “mistake,” writing multiple drafts of a three-hundred-page novel that simply sits on my hard drive. Couldn’t I have just read a craft book? Couldn’t I have taken classes and solicited feedback?

I did, and I do, but I could have read every craft book there is and had Pulitzer Prize-winning mentors, I was never going to learn to write a novel without just doing it. I cherish that unpublished book and all the mistakes in it for all they taught me.

What would you have done differently?

I think I could have improved (and could continue to improve!) my writing faster by doing less wordsmithing and more writing. Polishing is what I do when I’m chickening out on the hard stuff.

As an MFA in Writing student, how did that experience impact your literary journey? 

As a current MFA student in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I am grateful for a space that encourages me to take risks and try new things. I have found incredible mentors and peers who have pushed my writing to the next level and have offered invaluable guidance on both craft and career.

In addition, the program provides structure and community in a profession where those can be hard to come by. Writing can feel incredibly isolating, and when that writing is not going well, that isolation can be hard to bear.

VCFA is, and will remain long after I graduate, my antidote both to that isolation and to figuring out how to push through the rough patches.

Cynsational Notes

Photo of Jessie by Amanda Chung

Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Tristan is a charmer; he’s earnest, loving, wistful, and practical, and he narrates his own tale without guile.”

Jessie Janowitz fell in love with the French language (and French pastry) in high school. When she went to Princeton, she majored in comparative literature because it allowed her to study French and all the other things she was interested in, including creative writing.

She has taught in a French public high school for cooking and restaurant service, worked with translations rights for a publishing house and studied law.

She is currently a student in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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

Learn more about Martine Leavitt.

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 had to think for a minute when I read the word career. Had I really had a career in writing? And if it wasn’t a career, what was it?

Certainly, it was something much more demanding, insistent and darker than a hobby. It had elements of an addiction, though it had no physiological symptoms. It might have come close to a calling, though one is leery of blaming everything on God.

It has seemed to me that career had the connotation of something slightly more refined that a job – newspaper delivery, for example, is a job, but it wouldn’t be a career because it doesn’t pay that well and doesn’t seem to offer a whole lot in the way of advancement.

Per hour, my writing has probably paid me about the same as a newspaper delivery person. And it hasn’t offered much in the way of promotions. Maybe my writing was a job?

So I looked it up, and it appears that a career is “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life.” So, yes, that would be me. If you count the beginning of my career from the publication of my first book, I’ve been in the business for 26 years.

I suppose that is rather a commitment.

The thing is, I made choices at every juncture of my life that narrowed my options until the saying became true for me: I’m a writer because I can’t do anything else.

When I became a single parent of six children and had no education beyond high school, I enrolled in university. I could be practical and study nursing, or I could study English literature. Literature won out. After completing my undergrad degree, I could choose to attend law school, or I could get an MFA in writing. The MFA won out. After graduating, I could work as an editor for a technology company and make a very good salary, or I could teach college, and make… well, good memories. College won out.

If I’ve been hanging on by my financial fingernails, I’ve nobody to blame but myself.

One could say, “What a miracle to have always done what you loved! No matter you were paid less than a newspaper delivery person! You have taken joy in every minute of your work as a storyteller and teacher! Yes, you gambled on the big advance that never came, but oh well!”

One could say that. One often has.

But that is a rather big “oh well.” I think any young writer reading this should be made aware.

If you are like me, you may one day come to a point, 26 years into a respected career, and face up to the fact that you weren’t able to help your children get their educations, that they may be paying off student loan debt well into their forties. You will be adept at the little prayer one offers to the car gods, asking that the old gal makes it one more day. You will watch “House Hunters” and realize you will never know the peculiar and life-changing joy that seems to come with a new kitchen makeover.

You may one day realize your friends are all looking at retirement, and there shall be no retirement for you. You will work until you drop into the grave.

It’s only fair to warn you.

On the other hand, what a way to go.

Some writers make so much money they don’t have to care what anybody thinks about their stories.

Some writers made so little money they don’t have to care what anybody thinks about their stories.

I have been among the latter. I have had the freedom to write the stories I wanted, the stories that felt like truth. That is not to say that I disparage a good review – Lord knows they have been my consolation.

But I have had the privilege of writing what I needed to write, saying what I needed to say, playing my brains out, and putting whatever graffiti I wanted on the wall of the universe.

My work is witness. That is the only success I can truly say I own, but I own it with my whole soul.

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

If I had been more self-promoting, I would have sold more books. On the other hand, if I’d been busy doing that, I may not have been at my writing notebook one quiet morning when the most important revelation of the book came.

The truth is, some writers do the world a favor by not foisting themselves on their reading public. Some writers do better to just stay home and shut up, let the work speak for itself.

Well, thank goodness we can’t go back in time and change the past, fix all the bad stuff that happens to us…. It would be like extreme plastic surgery of the soul, erasing all the mistakes we made, avoiding all the pain and disappointment… we’d become infantile, without moral fibre, without capacity for compassion or judgment… they’d have to build institutions for the care of those who had no self-context…

It might become trendy to have a life without alterations… of course, that would drain some of the tragedy out of things… I’ll stop now.

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?

Yoko Ono, 2007; photo by Aleksandr Plyushchev

I saw an interview with Yoko Ono once. She was asked, “To what do you attribute the extraordinary success of The Beatles?”

People have written doctoral theses about the success and phenomenon that was The Beatles, so I was intrigued to think what she might say.

She answered simply, “They wrote good songs.” Ultimately, that’s what it comes to: they wrote good songs.

In the field and body of literature, trends will come and go. Long ago it used to be that kidlit was considered a sneaky way to indoctrinate children. We eventually became appalled by such an approach. But now I worry that we are creeping once again toward an ideology in which books for young people are expected to teach correct cultural practice.

Kids don’t care much about the field and body of literature. They don’t want to be manipulated. In the end, for them, it’s all about a good story. An honest story.

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

Sometimes put your pen down and close your eyes and practice radical empathy. Be that character, that homeless boy, that teenaged prostitute, that schizophrenic boy.

Inhabit their bodies, know their souls.

Then open your eyes and respect your reader.

Give your young readers a multiverse to dream in.

What would I tell my beginner self?

Just tell a good story. If you do, even a non-existent retirement plan isn’t going to bother you for long.

Cynsational Notes 

Announcing Martine Leavitt’s New Official Author Website! See her thoughts on writing fantasy, novels in verse, voice, grammar, theme, metaphor and finding time to write.

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: Agent-Author Tracy Marchini on Page Turns in Picture Books

By Tracy Marchini
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve been thinking a lot about page turns in picture books recently, and all of the amazing things they can do, including:

  • Show the passage of time 
  • Create humor 
  • Dictate pacing 

Show the passage of time 

Using page turns to show the passage of time is probably the usage that everybody is familiar with. The story progresses as you turn the page, and with each page turn some time has elapsed.

In a book like Chicken Wants a Nap, illustrated by Monique Felix (The Creative Company, 2017), only a few minutes may have elapsed between each page turn.

But a page turn can also represent the passage of whole seasons, as we’ve seen in a number of picture books that quickly take us through Fall, Spring, Summer and Winter, or through years – as we’ve seen in a number of nonfiction biographies.

In every picture book, a page turn brings us forward in time – be it by a second or by a decade.

Create humor

In my own picture book, Chicken Wants a Nap, the page turns are vital for creating humor in the story. On the first spread, we’re introduced to Chicken and her primary goal – getting a nap.

The text reads:

“It’s a good day to be a chicken. The sun is up. The grass is warm. And Chicken wants a nap.” 

Illustration by Monique Felix, used with permission

With a page turn though, everything shifts, and suddenly Chicken’s nap isn’t looking so likely. The next page reads:

It’s a bad day to be a chicken. The rain is falling. Her feathers are wet. Chicken cannot nap.” 

Illustration by Monique Felix, used with permission

With each page turn, the tone of the story shifts – it’s a good day and Chicken’s problem is solved! It’s a bad day and Chicken’s solution is ruined. The humor needs a ‘pause’ in between each shift in order to work – and that would be completely lost if, for example, it was a good day on the left page and a bad day on the right. (More on the pause later!)

Page turns can also bring the humor in escalation – particularly when you’re working in the traditional picture book structure of three tries and fails until a success.

With each attempt, there should always be an escalation. So if a character wants to build a sandcastle, they’d start with a shovel, move on to a bucket and then maybe end with a bulldozer. And each escalation would come with a page turn – a pause to sit with the character’s current idea before the surprise on the next page.

Dictate pacing

One of my favorite spreads in Chicken Wants a Nap is the one where Chicken is interrupted by the cow. In the art, Monique Felix has Chicken on the left side of the page looking oh-so-annoyed, and the cow has its head turned towards her.

Illustration by Monique Felix, used with permission

In this spread, the art is subtly telling the reader to linger by having the cow turned away from the bottom right corner and instead back towards the page that’s already been read. It subtly asks the reader to take just one more good look at that chicken (and her hilarious expression!)

In this way, the artwork puts a “pause” on turning the page, and those two work in tandem with the text to help dictate the pace of the story.

When I’m writing my own work or editing a client’s picture book, I like to think of page turns as a “beat” of their own.

When I submit picture book manuscripts, I don’t include spread numbers, because I know that the publisher and/or illustrator will work those out on their own.

But when formatting a manuscript, I think it’s safe to give a little “nudge” by how you break down the text itself. (Usually this means separating intended spreads with an extra space between lines – so you create a pause yourself while an editor or agent reads.)

 As an agent, I’m always on the hunt for more humorous picture books!

I love humor that plays with juxtaposition of text and art, or a clever/witty reversal of expectations. And – of course – manuscripts that can make excellent use of a page turn!

Cynsational Notes

Tracy Marchini is a Literary Agent at BookEnds Literary, where she represents both debut and award-winning authors and illustrators of fiction and non-fiction for children and teens.

To get a sense of what she’s looking for, you can follow her Twitter #MSWL, see her announced client books, and read her submission guidelines.

As an author, her debut picture book, Chicken Wants a Nap, was called “A surprising gem” in a starred review from Kirkus Reviews.

She’s been accepted for publication in Highlights Magazine and has won grants from the Highlights Foundation, the Puffin Foundation and La Muse Writer’s Retreat in Southern France.

She holds an M.F.A in Writing for Children from Simmons College and a B.A. in English, concentration in Rhetoric.