Video: Rudine Sims Bishop on Mirrors, Windows & Sliding Glass Doors

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In this video from Reading Rockets, Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita from Ohio State University, speaks on Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Doors as metaphors for diversity in children’s-YA literature.

See also Rudine Sims Bishop: In Appreciation by Sam Bloom from Reading While White and Mirrors, Windows, Sliding Glass Doors & Curtains, featuring Debbie Reese, from Writing the Other.

Cynsational News

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

Author/Illustrator Insights

Islandborn Author Junot Diaz on Representation in Children’s Books by Denise Balkisson from The Globe and Mail. Peek:

“I myself think that it’s important to give children their due, to acknowledge their sophistication and their ability to hold complex, painful truths in ways that don’t leave them damaged or despondent or scared. Young people are incredibly smart. They can tell that there’s a story behind the story.” 

Of Kitchen Tables, Stovetops, and Scales: The Stories We Tell Ourselves about Our Writing Lives from Megan Dowd Lambert. Peek:

“Envisioning this symbolic stovetop helps me…As I imagine it, with dials to control two big burners and two little ones, just like the real stovetop in my kitchen, this metaphor instead suggests approaching life as an ongoing process of making adjustments.” 

Complicity from Laura Ruby. Peek:

“…the male glance not only hampers our ability to evaluate good art, it also hampers our ability to make good art…The white gaze does the same thing—limiting art, twisting it, crushing it to fit well-worn, limiting, even damaging tropes about people of color.” 

Interview with Stephanie Burgis from the Cybils. Peek:

“This was the first time I ever wrote a book set in a high fantasy world… I loved the freedom and flexibility it gave me…I started automatically writing the council members as being all-male but then thought: Wait! Why should it be all-male, or even mostly-male?”

Debbi Michiko Florence: Creating the Drumming Mochi Queen, Jasmine Toguchi by Melanie Boyer from First Book. Peek:

“I do feel like being a writer allows me to channel my many passions, but, even better, I feel like all my experiences feed my writing. Pieces of my life definitely work their way into my stories.” 


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

“In a world of wildly talented authors and illustrators of color, there is simply no reason for an all-white panel, ever. If you agree with me, I hope you’ll make this pledge, by leaving a note in the comments below.” 

Going It Alone as an Autistic Woman Writer from Lyn Miller-Lachmann.Peek:

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

#KidLitWomen: An Open Letter to Well-Meaning White Women from Booktoss. Peek:

“…in children’s literature and other spaces, we deal with what I like to call Well Meaning White Folks (WMWF) who deal with social justice issues by gaslighting, tone policing, and outright hypocrisy… WMWF who support change as long as that change in no way calls for self reflection or action.” 

The Choices We Make from Linda Sue Park. Peek:

“Beyond the economic implications of supporting marginalized writers with our dollars, creators of children’s literature have another important incentive for examining our choices. As writers, what we read goes into our work on many levels, including the subconscious. The books we read matter to the children we write for.” 

YA Women of Color Authors to Add to Your Reading List by Andrea Ruggirello from Shondaland. Peek:

“… the importance of women of color getting to tell their own stories cannot be understated — because the powerful girls of today grow into the powerful women of tomorrow, and no one is better suited to tell their truth than they are.”

Under the Gaydar’ YA Novels Are Meant For Teens Who Can’t Be Open About Their Sexuality — And They’re Just As Necessary As Ever by Meaghan O’Brien from Bustle. Peek:

“We need books that can be really easily found, books that show that queerness is present and great and that queer characters get stories too, and we also need books that are safe for queer kids under hateful scrutiny to bring home.” 

Writing Craft

Characters in Cars Thinking, or, How to Deal with the Passage of Time by Jennie Nash from Writers Helping Writers. Peek:

“The next time you find yourself making a little loop back in time in story present, stop. Ask yourself if the important information is happening off stage – if you are just telling the reader what happened and dumping it in.” 

Should Your Main Character Be Likable by Margaret Dilloway from Writer Unboxed. Peek:

“Perhaps that’s the key—audiences like to see those difficult females actually do love certain people and transform.”

Deepening Character Complexity with the Help of Psychology by Tamar Sloan from Writers Helping Writers. Peek:

“Psychology allows us to delve into this backstory with a deeper level of nuanced understanding. This is because psychology knows there are biological, psychological and social factors that impact on our personality and behaviours.” 

Big Issues. Small Stories by Nancy Johnson from Writer Unboxed. Peek:

“Writing an issues book feels like the world’s on fire and we’re trying to snuff out the flames with a garden hose. Our stories and characters seem too small to carry such big topics. But they aren’t.” 

Avoiding Transition Words in Writing by Mary Kole from Kid Lit. Peek:

“Instead of introducing that action is coming, then describing the action–take a shortcut. Simply describe the action. For the most part, transitional words and phrases are filler.” 


#Kidlitwomen at the Crossroads of Rage and Hope from Laurie Halse Anderson. Peek:

“As more women gain enough confidence to speak up about being sexually assaulted or harassed, I’ve begun to see and hear some disdainful muttering from women my age. There seems to be a generational divide between what women in my cohort (older than 50) believed constitutes harassment and how younger women see it.” 

Literary Agents of Color: Empowering Authors & Agents to Succeed by Jessica Strawser from Writer’s Digest. Peek:

“Moore’s brainchild is the new online directory Literary Agents of Color—which includes bios and submission guidelines for around 50 such agents, and growing.” 

A Guide to Social Media for Authors by Nathan Bransford from his blog. Peek:

“One of the most under-appreciated elements of being active on social media is that it’s a terrific tool for learning more about the publishing industry. Follow the agents who represent your favorite books. Follow your favorite authors. Follow publishing experts. Participate in discussions.” 

A School Librarian’s Thoughts on #Kidlitwomen & #Equalityinkidlit by Joanna Marple from Miss Marple’s Musings. Peek:

“As gatekeepers, book-buyers, author-champions and readers, we hold a surprising amount of power in making change in the industry, even if it doesn’t feel like it.” 

Why China’s Children’s Book Industry is Growing So Fast by Hannah Johnson from Publishing Perspectives. Peek:

“Another factor that has led to a growing children’s book industry is the sheer number of children in China—there are now 370 million children under the age of 18, according to Li.” 

A Smarter Author Platform for the Digital Era of Publishing by Jane Friedman from Writer Unboxed. Peek:

“…digital media should make you smarter in identifying how to best grow your platform. Once you’re active on Twitter or Facebook, or have Google Analytics installed on your website, you have actionable information about who you’re reaching, where you’re reaching them, and how to reach more and reach better.” 

Cynsational Screening Room

Mama’s Belly by Kate Hosford, illustrated by Abigail Halpin (Abrams, April 17, 2018). 


Congratulations to the Winners of the Global Read Aloud Choices 2018! Peek:

“With an emphasis on perspective, on understanding others, on connecting and change, I feel that all of the books and picture book authors chosen will help us see the world in a new light.” 

Congratulations to Cynthia Levinson, Laura Atkins, and the rest of the winners of the Carter G. Woodson Award from National Council for the Social Studies!

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

Thank you, TLA Dallas 2018!

Thank you to everyone who came to my panel, “What’s New with Texas MG and YA Authors,” with Jessica Lee AndersonSamantha M. ClarkTaraDairmanP.J. Hoover (moderator), Cynthia LevinsonMari Mancusi, and Cory Putman Oakes at the Texas Library Association Conference this week in Dallas.

Thanks also to those who swung by my signing or attended the two author-librarian “speeddating” events I participated in.

Finally, thank you to my publisher, Candlewick Press, and author-librarian Susie Kralovansky.

I counted, and it turns out that I gave some version of my “pitch” for Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, 2018) eighteen times in three days. (And I now have it memorized!).

Will you be at the American Library Association Conference in New Orleans in June? I’ll be speaking on a panel, “Native YA Today: Contemporary Indigenous Voices and Heroes for the 21rst Century & Beyond,” with Alia Jones (moderator), Joseph Bruchac, Eric Gansworth, and Dawn Quigley. It’s scheduled from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. June 23.

The #WritersForHope auction raises money for RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline. Bid on Item #21: 10-Page MG/YA Critique by me through April 6.

More Personally – Gayleen

I had a great time at Texas Library Association‘s annual conference, attending panels, meeting librarians and authors and scoping out upcoming book releases.

There’s so much to take in, it’s like running a marathon!

I especially enjoyed catching up with my Vermont College of Fine Arts roommate, Cori McCarthy and celebrating her awesome new book, Now A Major Motion Picture (Sourcebooks, 2018).

New Voice: Interview & Giveaway: Dana Wulfekotte on Rabbit & Possum

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today I’m pleased to shine the Cynsations’ spotlight on Dana Wulfekotte, a fellow Epic Eighteen member. Her debut picture book, Rabbit & Possum (Greenwillow, 2018), features the antics of these two friends hoping to share a snack but having to overcome an obstacle first.

I love Dana’s use of illustrated thought bubbles and her experience as an animator comes through in the book’s artwork.

Kirkus Reviews stated, “Friendship, loyalty, and determination come through in this well-paced exploit.” I couldn’t agree more.

From the promotional copy:

Rabbit likes to leap before she looks.Possum is a little more cautious.So when Possum accidentally gets stuck in a tree, he fears he’ll be trapped forever. Everything is ruined!Luckily, Rabbit won’t give up till she rescues him.With a little creativity—and a big surprise—she just might be able to save the day.After all, that’s what friends are for.

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

It’s still funny to think of myself as a writer, because my whole life I’ve been focused on my art. When I first started writing Rabbit & Possum, and even going through the revision process with my editor, I sometimes felt like I had no idea what I was doing. But I think having all of that experience as an artist is helping me find my footing as a writer.

My learning process is also about how to make the art and writing work best together, and what to say in the text versus what to show in the art.

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

Early sketch of Rabbit & Possum by Dana Wulfekotte,
used with permission.

I’ve been drawing my whole life, but as an adult I’ve been working in animation since I graduated from college in 2005. I think that gave me an advantage when I took the leap into publishing, since I already had a background in visual storytelling.

The biggest hurdle was developing my own artistic voice. When you work in animation, you’re working on teams and you’re often asked to mimic all different kinds of artistic styles. When I decided to move into children’s illustration, I knew I would need my own unique style.

I also had a webcomic that I worked on with my best friend for many years, but it had a look that wouldn’t really work for a picture book.

I started drawing almost every day again, filling up sketchbooks and doing drawing challenges like Inktober while also working full-time at an animation studio. It took about a year or two from there to develop my work to the point where it was publishable. Even now that my style is more consistent, I’m very indecisive and I still experiment a lot with my process. 

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

The best moment was definitely getting the message from my agent that I had gotten an offer on my book. It was a real turning point in my life and making children’s books has been the most creatively fulfilling work I’ve done so far. 

When I was little, I saw “Beauty and the Beast” and decided that I wanted to be a Disney animator when I grew up. As I got older, I realized I didn’t want to move out to California. I’m too much of a cranky East Coaster. So now I get to tell stories and make art for children while living in New York City, which is pretty much the best outcome I could have hoped for.

I haven’t had any truly bad moments in publishing, aside from the usual rejections and bad reviews that everyone experiences. It’s not that I enjoy those things, but they’re a normal part of working in most creative fields.

A spread from the Rabbit & Possum dummy that Dana sent out on submission.
Used with permission.

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

I’ve seen so much good advice from other artists and I don’t really have anything new to add, but I’ll reiterate some things that I feel are important: The most successful artists I know are also the most determined and the hardest working. Some people may have advantages that you don’t have, but focus on what you need to do to reach your goals and don’t worry about anyone else. 

Similarly, don’t compare where you’re at in your career to other artists (I know this is much easier said than done, but nothing good ever comes of it!).

Cynsational Notes

Dana Wulfekotte is a children’s book author-illustrator and freelance animator. 

was born in Korea, raised in New Jersey, and now lives in Queens with her
boyfriend and two pet rabbits. 

Dana has also illustrated another picture book, The Remember Balloons by debut author Jessie Oliveros, that will be published in August by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

As an animator/designer, she has worked on various animation projects for HBO, PBS, Google, and many others. 

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 your own copy of Rabbit & Possum.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on April 5, 2018 and 12:00 AM on April 19, 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 19, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

Interview: Lee Francis IV on Native Publishing, Bookstores & Indigenous Comic Con

Lee Francis IV

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lee Francis IV is CEO/Publisher of Native Realities, owner of Red Planet Comics & Books store in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Organizer of Indigenous Comic Con.

Native Realities swept the Middle Grade category of 2018 award winners from the American Indian Library Association.

First, Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers, the 2016 comic book wins the category!

(Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers was edited by Arigon Starr (Kickapoo) and featured the work of Theo Tso (Las Vegas Paiute), Jonathan Nelson (Diné), Kristina Bad Hand (Sičháŋǧu Lakota/Cherokee), Roy Boney Jr. (Cherokee), Lee Francis IV (Laguna Pueblo), Johnnie Diacon (Mvskoke/Creek), Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva), Renee Nejo (Mesa Grand Band of Mission Indians) and Michael Sheyahshe (Caddo)).

And then The Wool of Jonesy, a 2016 wordless comic takes the Honors category.

Lee, I’m so excited for you! Tell me what it was like getting that news.

Thanks so much! It was so exciting!

I got the news a bit early and we had to keep it under wraps, so it was kind of excruciating. But the fact that the books were recognized was incredibly moving.

The work that Arigon Starr and Jonathan Nelson put into each book was absolutely worth recognition. They are amazing artists and colleagues and I am so honored to have been a part of the publication of their work.

Share with us some about your history with Native literature and publishing.

My family has a long background with Native lit.

My dad was an historian and published Native Time back in the early ’90s and was the founder of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers.

My aunt (dad’s sister) was Paula Gunn Allen. His other sister was Carolee Sanchez. And our Laguna cousin is Leslie Marmon Silko. So Native lit runs in the blood, I suppose.

I spent a number of years as the office support staff for Wordcraft and had the chance to meet and interact with a number of Native literary icons throughout the 90s.

In 2003, when my dad crossed over, I began working as the Director of Wordcraft and continued to expand the work, networking and doing workshops with Native youth.

We moved into publishing in 2012 with our first comic: INCs Universe and I never looked back. It’s been amazing to be a part of the Native literature movement, especially as all these new voices are being published, both by us and by a number of new and mainstream publishing houses who understand the value of including Native voices in the literary cannon.

Why did you decide to found Native Realities? Give us an idea of your journey and some of the challenges you’ve encountered in doing so.

We started the company in 2015 and have published 10 titles to date. When we started, the idea was to fill the gap in Indigenous literature.

There are great children’s books and some young adult and then a whole bunch of adult lit but not anything that would help bridge the gap for those readers who might need more graphics.

We also wanted, and still want, to work in changing the perceptions and representations of Native people by presenting stories of Native people as superheroes and unlocking the Indigenous imagination.

I am tired of our people being portrayed as “tragic stereotypes” in pop culture media and I figured I could do something to change that.

The biggest challenges have been learning how the publishing industry works from the publisher-side.

I had been a writer and had worked with writers for many years, so I had a basic understanding. But really digging into contracts, publishing schedules, layout, editorial decisions and whatnot has been eye-opening.

What else does Native Realities have coming up that readers can look forward to?

Sixkiller, my comic is set to release end of March. Illustrated by the incomparable Weshoyot Alvitre, it is the story of Alice Sixkiller and her quest to get revenge for the murder of her sister.

After that, we have the next issues of Tribal Force and Hero Twins. We also have a Water Defenders book we will take to Kickstarter here in the next few months. And we hope to finish our American Indians of Texas comic, a project we started several years ago and have been building out for a while. Of course, there may be more surprises along the way!

Native Realities booth at the American Library Association Conference

What kind of work is Native Realities looking to acquire? How should authors, illustrators or agents get in touch with you, find submission guidelines, etc.?

Right now we are really only looking for illustrators to help bring our in-house projects to light. If folks have completed work that they feel is good enough to publish we also look at those but they are on an up-or-down basis, i.e. we’ll either accept or reject.

People can contact us at Just to note, any work must be Indigenous-centric and must be led by a (self-identified) Indigenous person.

In the words, the Indigenous team lead can bring in whomever they choose to help create the books but they must be the artistic drivers as one of our other goals is to help professionalize/support the careers of Native creators.

Red Planet Books & Comics is one of the few Native-owned independent bookstores that I know of in the United States. What prompted you to open the bookstore in downtown Albuquerque last June? What do you enjoy most and what is most challenging?

We opened Red Planet so we could keep the party going on all year-round!

Ha! No, seriously, we needed office space to be able to distribute the growing number of publications and we figured that at the same time we could continue to sell our work, as well as the work of other Native writers cause I have a huge selection of used Native books.

It is also an extension of the Comic Con, i.e. rather than just a weekend when you could get some cool Indigenerd stuff, we could have a location where you could purchase throughout the year. The final reason was so that we could control the distribution and sales from end to end.

As Native folks, our work is often crowded out in the marketplace. This way there would be a dedicated shop to promoting Native works, as we are only one of three shops in the United States that focus almost exclusively on Native works.

Lee greets visitors on opening day at Red Planet Books & Comics

Tell me about Indigenous Comic Con. You’ve now hosted it for two years in a row. This year, it’ll be held Nov. 2 to Nov. 4, 2018 at the Isleta Resort & Casino, just south of Albuquerque. What do you have planned for this year’s event? Give us the scoop!

It’s been an amazing event for the past two years and this year we are hoping to continue our push toward making it a go-to event for Native country. We are planning on continuing to focus more on the overall experience and separating what we do from the standard-type Comic Cons.

We want to try and build a whole narrative that ties all the pieces together, vendors, performers, guests, and give folks, especially Native youth, a unique experience that is immersive and completely engaging. We’re hoping to work with more artists to help us conceive this over the coming months.

We also hope to land a few new guests this year, as well as bring back some of our old friends.

It should be another amazing year for us and we hope to see everyone in New Mexico in November!

Cosplayers at ICC 2017

Any writing for children and teens that we’ll see from you soon that you’d like to share?

I’m currently working on a Pueblo Futurisms YA book, hopefully it will be published in the near future. That’s about all I can say right now.

Anything else you’d like to add for our readers?

Please continue to support the work of Native creators. It’s great to like and share but we have to keep providing resources so we can continue to create. Help us continue to unleash the Indigenous imagination!

Cynsational Notes

Dr. Lee Francis IV (Pueblo of Laguna) is the Head Indigenerd and CEO of Native Realities, the only Native and Indigenous pop culture company in the United States.

Native Realities is also the host of the Indigenous Comic Con and Red Planet Books and Comics.

Native Realities has published 10 titles to date with more on the way.

His hope is to change the perceptions of Native and Indigenous people through dynamic and imaginative pop culture representations.

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: Barry Lyga on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Barry Lyga.

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?

When you first invited me to be a part of this amazing series, I warned you that my schedule meant I would have to come late in the process. The problem with that, of course, is that the folks who’ve come before me have made so many powerful points with such clarity and perspicacity that I fear I have nothing worth contributing.

Fortunately, that’s never stopped me from running my mouth anyway.

I wish I knew how I’ve made it this far. I mean, I have my suspicions and some ideas, but nothing confirmed. It’s not the sort of conversation you can have with people like editors and publishers without sounding like you’re fishing for a compliment. “Hey, why do you think I’m so long-lived? Feel free to use words like ‘genius,’ ‘compelling,’ and ‘devastatingly handsome’ in your response.”

I think that it comes down a few things, though.

First of all, I have an agent who is an absolute pit bull when it comes to my career. It takes a lot to make her give up on a project of mine.

We just recently made a deal to have one of my books turned into a movie in Korean — that deal took three years of her life and many, many midnight conference calls to Seoul. I would have given up somewhere in the first year. She never did.

She’s also willing to hang on for the ride when I decide to go from, say, literary coming-of-age fiction to superhero novels. It doesn’t faze her and she’s fine with it. She’s never tried to cram me into a box or constrain my writing.

Before I signed with her (13 years ago!), I said to her, “I may not always write this kind of book. Are you okay with that?” and she responded, “If you write it, I’ll sell it.”

She’s been as good as her word all these years. So my takeaway there is: agents matter. A lot.

Then there’s the writing itself. I’m not the greatest writer in the world, but I’m good enough that publishers seem interested in seeing what I can do for them. I’ve been given opportunities to try new things because Publisher X or Y looks at my work and thinks, “Hey, I wonder what he could do if we gave him some slack in the rope?”

And there’s me. I’m not the easiest person to work with, but I have a couple of things going for me: first, I’m a really fast writer. That’s a reputation that has, I believe, helped me immensely, especially for certain projects that require fast turnarounds.

Second, I think the things I tend to raise a stink over are things that publishers find it easy to either surrender on or work around.

Finally, at the risk of sounding immodest, I tend to turn in first drafts that don’t need a huge amount of revision. I don’t think I’ve ever gone beyond two rounds of revision and often only need one.

This makes it easier to work with me and means less stress for the publisher…which can compensate a lot for lackluster sales or my persnickety attention to details that no one else cares about.

And lastly, this: In a 12-year career, I’ve missed exactly one deadline. And even then, it was only by a week.

You add this all up and I think publishers look at me and think, “We know the book will come in on time, in decent shape, and it will sell a certain base level. Sometimes, he gets lucky and knocks one out of the park, but at the very least, his work usually gets good reviews.”

And in publishing, a wildly inconsistent industry where it’s anyone’s guess how a book will sell or how readers will react to it, that means a lot.

I’m not a sure thing, but I’m a relatively safe gamble. I’m a known quantity. And I’m professional AF.

As to bumps… Sometimes it feels like this business is all bumps, but that’s okay— smooth roads are boring. Truly, every single book I’ve published has had some kind of drama attached to it.

My very first book was supposed to get a great review by a well-known media personality in a highly regarded newspaper (how’s that for being cagey?).

It was dropped because it turns out the personality and I had a mildly personal connection that made him feel uncomfortable reviewing the book. That same book was supposed to get end-cap exposure at a major retail chain, but the person who issued the command to do so left the company…and the replacement never saw the memo.

Who knows what might have happened with that book if one or both of those things had happened?

And yet… And yet that book did really well! For a little while there, it was outselling Looking for Alaska (Dutton, 2005). (The one and only time in my life I can say I outsold John!)

The biggest bumps come from within, though, which sounded pithy when I first typed it, but looks oddly medical now.

Anyway, the second-guessing and stressing and constant internal battles over whether or not to push your publisher on this or that are the worst. They outweigh any external bumps in the road because they’re under your control and yet that doesn’t make them less potent — it makes them more potent.

You make your decision and then you realize that you can’t take it back and you’ll never really, truly know if it was the right decision, and you only have yourself to blame.

I was raised Catholic. Can you tell?

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

There’s a temptation to say “Nothing.” After all, even my mistakes led to my present situation, which — while not what I expected or planned for — is pretty damn good. And even though I can identify certain moments in retrospect where I wince at my past self, who’s to say that “fixing” those moments wouldn’t somehow backfire and put me in a worse situation than the one I’m currently in?

Still, let’s respect the question and think on this. Truthfully, I think the biggest thing I would do differently is this: I would have either not written my third book — Hero Type (HMH Books, 2009) — or I would have written it very differently.

It’s not that it’s a bad book and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just that after Boy Toy (HMH Books, 2007), I had a certain reputation and there were certain expectations.

Boy Toy sold horribly. I have to be sure to mention that — it just absolutely tanked in the market. But it got a lot of critical attention and I didn’t know that it had tanked until a year later, when I got my first royalty statement.

So, I had this rep as the guy who wrote a very ballsy book about male victims of molestation, a graphic, unsparing account. And I followed it up with a political treatise, which is not what people wanted or expected.

The problem was that I was very much in a mode of thinking that went like this: If I do what people expect, then I’m falling into a trap in which I have to care more about what the reader wants than what I want. And that means that I end up in this very special hell in which I’m trying to second-guess not just readers, but the readers of a year or two hence, when the book I’m writing will come out.

So I decided to “teach” readers to expect the unexpected from me. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have made that third book so radically different from the second.

I might also have not been quite so prolific. Don’t get me wrong — I love my books and I’m glad I wrote them.

But one time I was bemoaning that no one seemed to be excited about my new book and my wife said, “You had a new book out nine months ago, too. You never went away, so people don’t get the chance to miss you.”

There’s a truth to that. If you have books coming out constantly, well, familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt, but it sometimes midwives apathy.

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

I think YA is in the process of changing from marketing category-cum-genre into a political movement. I can’t think of another example of this sort of transmogrification in the art-space and I’m very curious to see where it leads.

That’s right now, though. Over the past dozen years, I’ve watched as YA went from “no one’s watching — let’s have fun!” to “Everyone is watching. Let’s do whatever it takes to make lots of money.”

It’s very weird. My first publisher went to great pains to tell me that she didn’t care what my book sold when it came out — she cared about what it would sell over ten or twenty years. She wanted something with that sort of longevity.

I think publishers still want that kind of longevity, but they want a big opening weekend, too. They want a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s very different than how it used to be.

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

Find a level of social media engagement that is sustainable for you in the long term.

It’s easy to get caught up in the relative fame of social media in the beginning and to spend way too much time on it…which then sets people up with the expectation that this is how you will always be on social media.

But the fact of the matter is that social media is like anything else, where you get bored or you drift away for a little while, which inevitably disappoints people.

Also: Come up with a plan for a newsletter that is, again, sustainable in the long-term. I’ve launched and relaunched mine something like four times.

I haven’t figured out the formula yet for timeliness and interest combined with what I’m capable of doing on a regular basis.

Lastly: Enjoy this! This is your dream come true (in part, at least), to launch a publishing career.

There are a million disappointments coming your way, but try to bat them aside and enjoy the many, many thrilling and unexpected surprises that will surface as well.

It’s easy to get distracted by the business stuff, and I’m not saying to ignore that — you do so at your peril! — but make time to sit back and bask in the fact that, yes, this is happening!

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

Great books. Diverse books. Books that challenge. An industry that finds a way to support smaller titles that may not ever sell in the millions, but deserve a bigger audience than what they have.

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

Little, Brown, 2017

Is it crass to say “More sales?” Probably. But at the end of the day, that’s what matters. Not merely from a gross money standpoint, but rather from the perspective of proving to publishers that it’s okay to keep taking a risk with me.

Yeah, every book sold is money in my pocket, but more importantly it says, “Hey, keep publishing this guy!”

And that’s all I’ve ever wanted, is to keep publishing books.

I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me — they’re going to be really boring if I can’t tell people stories.

Oh, and a good night’s sleep. That would be awesome.

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: Lindsey Stoddard on Just Like Jackie

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lindsey Stoddard is a Vermont College of Fine Arts alum and our time there overlapped, so I jumped at the chance to interview her about her debut middle grade novel, Just Like Jackie (HarperCollins, 2018). From the promotional copy:

For as long as Robinson Hart can remember, it’s just been her and Grandpa. He taught her about cars, baseball, and everything else worth knowing. But Grandpa’s memory has been getting bad—so bad that he sometimes can’t even remember Robbie’s name.

She’s sure that she’s making things worse by getting in trouble at school, but she can’t resist using her fists when bullies like Alex Carter make fun of her for not having a mom.

Now she’s stuck in group guidance—and to make things even worse, Alex Carter is there too. There’s no way Robbie’s going to open up about her life to some therapy group, especially not with Alex in the room. 

Besides, if she told anyone how forgetful Grandpa’s been getting lately, they’d take her away from him. He’s the only family she has—and it’s up to her to keep them together, no matter what.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I grew up loving reading, and from a very young age it was my dream to be a teacher and to write books. I used to line up my stuffed animals and read out loud, and then I’d write my own stories and try them out on my animal class.

Little Lindsey with baseball glove

I majored in English at Carleton College and took every creative writing class I could, and continued to be involved in workshops in New York City when I moved to Washington Heights to be that middle school English teacher I dreamed of being when I was reading to my animals.

It wasn’t until I met my first class of students that I knew I wanted to write for kids. I love that middle school age. They are really starting to figure out who they are, and their sense of justice is high— “That’s not fair! That’s messed up! That’s not right!”

They can be moody and defiant and emotional, but all of this makes for excellent questions and discussions and points of view.

I spent 10 years teaching English in that middle school in Washington Heights, and in the middle of those years, I pursued my writing career more purposefully, and received my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts

Being on that campus, surrounded by such incredible mentors and inspirations, confirmed for me what my students in New York City taught me. I wanted to be a part of this community who writes for kids.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I spent much of my time at VCFA working on my creative thesis, a novel that was inspired by a student of mine. 

In fact, most of my writing for kids had been stories I wrote for my students. I wrote a story for Malcolm, and Franmy, and Anthony, and José, and Ilcy. 
During my second semester, my advisor, Tim Wynne-Jones, told me that I couldn’t just write for my students and that I’d benefit from tapping into my own stories. That I should try writing for my own ten-year-old self.

Just Like Jackie came from taking the time to reflect on the things that made me feel big emotions when I was young. 

First was the time I spent with my own grandpa, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s.

I remembered feeling uncomfortable and sad when he couldn’t finish his own sentences. I didn’t know if I should guess at its end, and finish it for him, pat his hand as if to say it’s okay, or just change the subject. I wondered what it might be like if he had been the person taking care of me, how scary it would be, and how protective I might become.

Lindsey spent a lot of time with her grandpa in his sugarhouse in the Vermont woods.

The second was a time when I felt such rage that, like Robbie, I balled my own fists in anger.

A neighborhood boy swung his whiffle ball bat at my backyard tree and knocked from its branches a perfect robins nest, full of eggs I was watching and waiting to hatch. I remember the eggs splattering on my lawn, and before I knew it my fist connected with his face.

These emotions and memories from my own ten-year-old self, as Tim advised, led to Robbie’s story.

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?

The first manuscript I submitted to agents was my creative thesis from VCFA. I made a list of middle grade books I loved and admired and thought had a similar writing style to my own. 
Lindsey writing at her favorite cafe. She was
working on revisions when her son was born.

Then I found the agents of those authors, and, in each query letter, wrote a couple lines about that one special book and how I thought my manuscript might reach the same type of readers.

Though most wanted to read the full manuscript, I was very kindly rejected by every single agent. The comments were similar: my writing was strong, and full of voice, but the story wasn’t for them.

This was when I returned to Tim’s comment about writing for my own ten-year-old self. It was so hard to put that first manuscript in a drawer, and to refer to it as my practice book, but that’s what I had to do to make way for Just Like Jackie.

People say that a writer has been writing her first book her whole life, and that is definitely true of Just Like Jackie. When I finally put the pen to the page, Robbie’s story came easily. It felt honest and right and the whole time I felt like I was writing my way home.

I submitted Just Like Jackie to mostly the same list of agents who had previously rejected my work, and this time I heard many yesses. 

My agent, Stephen Barbara’s yes, was the most confident I-love-this-just-as-it-is yes. I met a couple agents face to face and my time with Stephen confirmed what I thought— that his confidence in my book was exactly what I needed going forward. He compiled a list of editors he thought would love Robbie the same way he did, and submitted my manuscript. 
Lindsey at the launch party for Just Like Jackie.

There were many yesses, but my editor at HarperCollins, Erica Sussman’s yes, was the most enthusiastic I-cried-on-my-couch-the-whole-way-through-and-have-to-have-this-book yes that I received.

I met several editors face to face and some on the phone and I just loved the way Erica spoke about Just Like Jackie and I immediately felt comfortable with her.

I’m so thankful for Tim’s comment all those years ago at VCFA. He helped me find an authenticity in my writing that I think will connect with readers, and it helped me learn the hard lesson that sometimes a whole book, that took years and years to write and revise, was just practice. Excellent practice.

Cynsations Notes

Just Like Jackie received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews.

“Stoddard debuts with a quiet but powerful narrative that gently unpacks Alzheimer’s, centers mental health, and moves through the intimate and intense emotional landscape of family—what seems to break one and what can remake it. Validating, heart-rending, and a deft blend of suffering and inspiration,” wrote Kirkus Reviews.

Lindsey Stoddard was born and raised in Vermont, where she loved to play in the snow and ski, learned to boil sap in her grandpa’s surgarhouse, and began her lifelong love of reading.

She always wanted books to be a big part of her life, so when she graduated college she moved to New York City, where she taught middle school English for 10 years.

She loves reading and writing with middle schoolers, hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

She received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.