Guest Post: Karen Kane on Analyzing Feedback

By Karen Kane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

How you use feedback can make or break your story.

Which feedback do you follow?

Which feedback do you ignore?

Most importantly, how can you make sure the feedback you do use deepens your writing, and not derails it?

Here’s what I know about feedback: you are in charge.

You are the gatekeeper for your stories. But to be a discerning gatekeeper—to know what feedback to use and what feedback to discard—you need to know yourself.

For me, knowing myself meant recognizing I didn’t yet have what researchers Carol Dweck and Ellen Leggett call a “mastery-oriented mindset.”

Dweck and Leggett studied how children handled putting together a difficult puzzle. Some children had a fixed mindset in regard to their abilities. Those children had pre-determined their skill level, and decided they were helpless to change that skill level and improve. But other children, also not good at solving the puzzle, were determined to become good at it.

Difficulties for mastery-oriented children were simply challenges to surmount; where as children with a fixed mindset “viewed their difficulties as failures, as indicative of low ability, and as insurmountable.”

I realized I had a fixed mindset about my writing skills.

When I received critical feedback, I often felt frustrated and helpless.

What was I supposed to do with feedback that wasn’t prescriptive? How was I supposed to make my story better with feedback if my writing skills were immutable?

Learn more about Charlie & Frog
(Hyperion, April 2018)

Learning about Dweck and Ellen’s research was a paradigm shift for me. I decided I could and would learn the craft skills needed to become a better writer. I would figure out what was working and what wasn’t working in my stories. I would have a mastery-oriented mindset.

Here’s something else I recognized in myself: I tended to abdicate my power to other people.

I wanted others to find what was wrong in my writing, and (most importantly) tell me how to fix it.

How you do anything is how you do everything—and I began to notice how this trait showed up in other areas of my life. It manifested in how I looked to other people to tell me the right way to parent or eat or decorate my home.

I didn’t believe I could make the right choices for myself. I didn’t trust myself to live my own life. Once I started thinking in terms of “mastery-oriented mindset” rather than a “fixed-mindset,” I began to feel empowered.

I saw that other people don’t have the “right” way—just their own way. And I, too, could figure out my own way, in my life and in my stories.

What do you need to know about yourself to figure out your own feedback process?

Start looking within yourself. You are the window into your writing.

Still, maybe you receive feedback and you aren’t sure if it’s right or wrong for your story. Or you don’t know (yet) how to change what’s not working.

Take that feedback you are not sure about and change it into questions about your writing. Similarly, if something isn’t working in your story, ask yourself why it isn’t working.

Write those questions on sticky notes. Keep them with you during the day as you do laundry, commute to work, eat lunch. Tell the universe you are listening. You are open for answers.

Sometimes I write down a plea—“Help me! I don’t know what to do about X.”

Then I wait. It’s hard to stay with the questions and not force answers. We are so programmed to know and to know Now.

But expectant waiting is part of the journey. Not knowing can be a good thing.

Listen to what poet Wislawa Szymborska says about people following their passion:

“Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’”

Sometimes the best stuff emerges when we say, “I don’t know,” and face this not knowing with an open and curious mind. What are we not seeing? What can help us see?

When needed, it’s imperative you are gentle with your writing and with yourself. Let your writing and yourself get stronger before you allow critical minds to delve in. Remind yourself that you have to write badly first into order to write well.

Telling myself that is the only way I can write. Otherwise I would be paralyzed.

Part of your job of gatekeeper is to only let in feedback that your story (and you) can handle at each stage.

Jane Kurtz,
photo by Jen Candor

Writer Jane Kurtz, when working on a new story, will sometimes say to a reader, “I only need to hear what’s working at this stage,” and “which parts would make you keep reading?”

Eventually, of course, the time must come for a writer to open herself up to what Peter Elbow calls that “cold critical eye . . . ruthlessly discarding or changing anything that is not right.”

But that’s when you will use your mastery-oriented mindset as you sift through this critical feedback: figuring out what to keep, what to discard, and changing comments into questions.

Now you are using feedback to find the true essence of your writing, the true essence of what you are trying to say.

Lev Vygotsky said, “Through others, we become ourselves.”

Through others, our stories can also become themselves—as long as we are attentive gatekeepers, allowing our stories to be deepened, and not derailed, by feedback.

Cynsational Notes


Kirkus Reviews described Charlie & Frog (Hyperion, 2018)  as, “An enjoyable read that artfully mixes adventure, heart, and cultural competence.”


Karen Kane’s path to Charlie & Frog led her from a small village near Rochester, New York, to the bustle of Washington, D.C. The people she met along the way inspired her writing with their warmth and humor, especially those in the Deaf community.

Karen graduated from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

When she’s not writing, Karen spends her days as a sign language interpreter at Gallaudet University or lost in the stacks of her local library.

Charlie & Frog is her first novel.

Author Interview: Samantha M. Clark on Being a SCBWI Regional Advisor & the Austin Chapter

Learn more about Samantha M. Clark,
photo by Sam Bond.

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we take a peek behind the curtain at the planning and preparation required to organize a successful Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators chapter.

I chatted with Austin’s Regional Advisor, Samantha M. Clark to get the inside scoop.

How long have you been the Austin RA and what prompted you to take the position? 

I’m now in my fifth year as the RA.

I really love doing it, but it was not something I could do before. I’ve volunteered for SCBWI for the past 10 years, first running a critique group for the Houston chapter and, when we moved to Austin, coordinating the critiques for the conference, among other tasks.

When the former RA left, author Bethany Hegedus, a good friend and generally wonderful person, said I would make a good RA, to which I responded that there was no way I could do the job.

Author-illustrator Shelley Ann Jackson ended up taking over from the former RA, but she asked me to be her assistant. I was a little nervous, but ultimately thought it would be an amazing challenge and experience. And I was right, I loved it.

A few months into the job, however, Shelley was finding a big squeeze on her time. She was doing her MFA (in Writing for Children and Young Adults) at Vermont College of Fine Arts at the time, so she called me up one day and said, “You should be the RA.” I told her no and that she was doing great, but at every meeting she kept saying the same thing.

So finally I said that if she was serious, I was open to it. Even though I never imagined that I’d head up an SCBWI chapter, I’ve found that it’s something I really enjoy.

Amy Farrier, Samantha and Shelley Ann Jackson, Austin SCBWI’s leadership team in 2013.

How many members are in the Austin chapter? 

We have close to 330 members, which is double the number when I first took this job. I’m astounded at the growth we’ve had in the last few years and always excited to see so many first timers at our monthly meetings and conference. Come on, join us!

Tell me about the local conference. When do you start planning it? How do you choose speakers? 

I do love our local conference. When I took over as RA, I revamped the (now two-day) conference and gave it the name Austin SCBWI Writers & Illustrators Working Conference.

I had envisioned a blend of a retreat and a conference, and while we’ve never ended up with alone working time in the schedule, like at a regular retreat, we do try to offer sessions that go deep and get attendees working.

Our goal is the same every year—and we tell our faculty this when we send out invitations: For our attendees to go home able to lift their work to the next level.

We try to have something for writers and illustrators at all levels, from beginners to advanced, and we try to cover both craft and career.

For our Saturday breakouts, we have tracks for writers (picture books, novels or both), illustration and professional development for the business side. We also have keynotes that are geared at being more inspirational as well as learning, a panel with our speakers from the publishing side to answer attendee questions about the industry, and, on Sunday, intensives for picture books, novels and illustration.

A few years ago we added a panel of local authors and illustrators to kick off the whole weekend. I especially like this because everyone on the panel was once in the audience and I want all the attendees to know that, with hard work and perseverance, they could be the ones on the stage soon. 

We start planning at least a year in advance—I’m working on 2019 now but also thinking about 2020—and after organizing five conference, I’m starting to feel like I’m getting a handle on it.

It begins with deciding who our out of town faculty will be. We bring in one author, one illustrator, two editors, two agents and one art director. We aim to be as diverse as we can, with ethnicity as well as what they create. So, if we have an author who writes fantasy one year, we’ll try to get someone who writes a different genre the following year. Same with illustrators and their styles and mediums.

With agents and editors, we try to bring in people from different publishing houses/agencies, big and small, from year to year, as well as match agents and editors so that collectively, they represent as many age groups and genres as possible.

It takes a lot of planning, and we have to invite people early because speakers’ schedules fill up fast. We often have to do multiple invitations because people are busy, so to create the best faculty possible, it takes a lot of research and time.

While we’re looking for the out of town faculty, we also open up for proposals from our local faculty. We use a proposal system because we have so many amazing authors and illustrators in our local area and they have much better ideas about sessions than we do.

We do try to share the spots from year to year, so we can showcase as many of our local creatives as possible. But ultimately, we look at all the proposals along with the sessions from our out of town faculty and choose ones that combined will make a balanced conference that covers many different topics.
It’s a lot of planning, but my hope is that through it, we’ve got a conference that is living up to its mission to help attendees lift their work to the next level.

There are several scholarships connected to the conference. Can you tell me about those? 

Yes! I’m very proud of our scholarships and awards. Through our Betty X Davis Young Writers of Merit Award, named after our oldest member, who’s now 102 and a huge inspiration, we honor three young writers every year, giving a $500 scholarship to the high school student when they start college. We hear these writers read their work at the conference and I’m always so impressed.

Betty X. Davis with the 2017 Young Writers winners and Lindsey Lane,
SCBWI volunteer. Photo by Sam Bond.

Our Creators of Diverse Characters Scholarship offers one full scholarship and one half scholarship to a picture book writer, novel writer and an illustrator to go to our annual conference. This is designed to encourage the creation of diverse worlds, in race, sexuality, religion, etc. We’re also working on a program that will award scholarships to writers and illustrators in marginalized groups and hope to begin that next year.

We also have two-year-long mentorships, one for writers and one for illustrators. Our newest is the Emerging Voice Illustrator Mentorship. The winner is chosen from the Portfolio Showcase at our conference. We rotate the mentors, and this year, it’s Don Tate, who’s a wonderful author-illustrator.

For illustrators at the conference, we also have a Portfolio Showcase Contest, which awards two honors with gift certificates and a winner with gift certificates and a free year’s membership to SCBWI.

On the writers’ side, we have the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award, named after Cynsations’ own Cynthia Leitich Smith to honor how generous she is to those starting out. The mentorship is modeled after the Houston SCBWI chapter’s Joan Lowery Nixon Memorial Award.

I won the mentorship years ago with the manuscript that will be published by Simon & Schuster next month, The Boy, The Boat, And The Beast (June 26, 2018), so it was really important to me that Austin have a similar program to help other writers.

Cynthia was our first mentor for the award, and since then, other local authors have been the mentors on a rotating basis.

Our 2018 mentor is Jennifer Ziegler, who is choosing her mentee from manuscripts nominated by our conference faculty from their critiques.

How has SCBWI helped you in your path to publication?

I could write a whole blog post on this question alone!

SCBWI has helped me enormously, with learning at conferences, meeting people, making friends… But I can give you a specific example with the journey of my debut book, The Boy, The Boat, And The Beast.

Laurent Linn

I started writing the manuscript when I was volunteering for the Houston SCBWI critique group. They helped me hone the opening pages.

The manuscript won the Houston chapter’s Joan Lowry Nixon Award, which was a year’s mentorship with the fantastic Newbery Honor author Kathi Appelt.

I was recommended to my agent, Rachel Orr of Prospect Agency, by agent Liza Pulitzer Voges, who had met me at the first Austin SCBWI conference I organized. Liza loved my work, but said she wouldn’t be the right agent for it. She recommended me to Rachel, and after being in the query trenches more than two years, the manuscript finally found its agent home.

Coincidentally, the art director we had brought in for that same conference, Laurent Linn with Simon & Schuster, is now the art director for my book. I had told him about the book at the conference.

Four years later, when he heard my editor talking about it in a production meeting, he remembered the story and asked to work on it. I couldn’t be more grateful for the work he has done to make it beautiful.

All of these things I can directly point to SCBWI, but as I said, over the years, I have learned so much at SCBWI conferences, webinars, books, podcasts, articles…

And, perhaps, most important are the friends I’ve made through SCBWI. The organization promotes support and encouragement, and its members follow suit. I’ve made friends in the chapters where I’ve been a member and, as an RA, I’ve made friends with chapter volunteers from around the world. SCBWI has been and continues to be my teacher, my guide, my cushion. I wouldn’t have a career without it.

Samantha with other RAs at the 2016 SCBWI LA Conference

Are there other Austin events beyond the monthly meeting and the annual conference?

Oh, yes! We stay busy. We have webinars at various times throughout the year, but we also organize workshops, networking events, and new since last year, retreats.

Last year, we held our first Novel Writing Retreat, with workshops, roundtables and lots of writing and social time. This year, we’re working on our first Picture Book Retreat, Sept. 14-16.

We also have Online Book Clubs for PB, MG and YA, where members can discuss and analyze books to help their own work. We have critique groups all over the Austin area and more being organized all the time. And from time to time, we try to arrange a lunch with an author or illustrator so people can ask questions.

What’s the best part of being an RA?

This is a fun question because there are so many best parts of being an SCBWI RA:

  • Working with our fantastic Assistant Regional Advisor P.J. Hoover and Illustrator Coordinator C.S. Jennings, as well as our other wonderful volunteers.
  •  Meeting new writers and illustrators—I feel like I gained a huge friendly family when I took on the job.
  •  When one of our members says they learned something or made a positive connection through one of our events.
  •  Getting thank you emails from members after I’ve helped them in some way. Everyone is seriously so nice!
  •  When one of our members signs with an agent or gets a book deal that came out of a connection or advice received at one of our events…

    I could go on.

Being an RA is a lot of work, but the rewards are endless.

C.S., Sam and P.J. planning Austin SCBWI events.

Are there any downsides? 

Well… the job is a lot of work.

Outside of what our members see, the events require a lot of organization and brainstorming, much of which is time consuming. Plus, the RA has to submit a number of reports to the SCBWI HQ, keep up with what’s going on with international SCBWI programs as well as other chapters, and respond to emails from members, prospective members and people seeking information about kidlit.

A lot of emails…

Being an RA is a voluntary position and I have a lot of commitments outside of that—especially right now, with next month’s release of The Boy, The Boat, And The Beast—so I have to fit in all the SCBWI work when I can.

But I try to get as many volunteers involved as possible, which I think is key for two reasons:

  1. If I have less to do, I can do more for the chapter with the little time I have. And, perhaps more importantly, 
  2. It’s important for our members to feel like it’s their chapter and they’re contributing as part of the greater family. 

We give lots of perks to our volunteers to thank them for their time, but people sign up to volunteer because they want to get involved and meet other members. Volunteering is the best way to do that, so to me, having lots of people involved is the best all around.

Cynsational Notes

Samantha M Clark has always loved stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. After all, if four ordinary brothers and sisters can find a magical world at the back of a wardrobe, why can’t she? While she looks for her real-life Narnia, she writes about other ordinary children and teens who’ve stumbled into a wardrobe of their own.

In a past life, Samantha was a photojournalist and managing editor for newspapers and magazines. She lives with her husband and two kooky dogs in Austin, Texas.

Samantha is the Regional Advisor for the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, and explores wardrobes every chance she gets. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Author Interview: Tim Tingle, Choctaw Storyteller & Author

Tim Tingle (right) with his son, Dr. Jacob Tingle,
photo courtesy Oklahoma Center for the Book.

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

On April 7, 2018, author Tim Tingle received the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Named in honor of an author who served as Oklahoma Center for the Book‘s first president, the award is presented annually  for a body of work contributing to Oklahoma’s literary heritage.

Congratulations, Tim! What a wonderful honor. Tell me what it was like getting that news. 

I have attended several Oklahoma Center for the Book Award ceremonies, as Crossing Bok Chitto (Cinco Puntos, 2006) won Best Children’s Book, and Walking the Choctaw Road (Cinco Punto, 2005) and House of Purple Cedar (Cinco Punto, 2014) were finalists in their categories.

I was there when a dear and admired friend of mine, Rilla Askew, received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

When I received the phone call letting me know I was selected as the 2018 recipient, my first response was disbelief. I had studied most of the previous American Indian recipients in lit courses
at grad school at the University of Oklahoma (OU). “I am so far from that level,” I thought to myself.

When I hung up the phone I decided that I still have maybe 15 years of writing ahead of me (I’ll be 70 years old in November), and I will dedicate the remainder of my life to earning this award—the award now hanging next to my fireplace in Canyon Lake, Texas.

I called my son first, Dr. Jacob Tingle of Trinity University. I had been asked to select someone to introduce me at the awards ceremony, and Jacob agreed.

Roadrunner Press, my publisher of the How I Became A Ghost series (2015-), purchased a table of eight for my family and friends. I invited Dr. Geary Hobson, a Cherokee poet and my lead professor during my OU days, and his wife, Dr. Barbara Hobson, former Chair of Native American Studies there.

My son told of riding with me one summer in the Maxwell House Coffee truck, as I repaired coffee machines at small town restaurants in the Texas Hill Country. He shared anecdotes I would never have remembered, and how my work ethic and respect for working people was evident in all that I did.

During my acceptance speech, I told of Dr. Hobson, and how without his encouragement I would never have written a single book. His wife later told me he sat at the table and cried.

The circle of friends that evening will always remain very special to me, and among them was Gene Burks of Dallas. He spotted Doc Moore and I telling stories at Six Flags Over Texas in 1994 and invited me to share Choctaw stories in the Garland school district, where he was on the school board. That was the beginning of my full-time storytelling career, and eventually lead to the publication of Walking the Choctaw Road (Cinco Puntos, 2005).

I closed my speech by singing “Shilombish Holitopama, Amazing Grace” in Choctaw, and George Nigh, a former governor of Oklahoma and the evening’s emcee, sang in English from his chair on the stage behind me.

Governor George Nigh with Tim at Oklahoma Book Awards,
photo courtesy Oklahoma Center for the Book.

Which came first? Your work as a storyteller or as a writer? What have you done to hone both crafts? 

I began writing when I was in the second grade at South Houston Elementary School. I had read several Hardy Boys books (1927-2005) and listened to my Uncle Kenneth tell backyard stories about my Choctaw Mawmaw’s tough life growing up in the racial quandary of 1890s Oklahoma.

My teacher, Mrs. Palmer, tapped her knuckles on the desk and said, “Everyone listen. Free time, so pull out your Big Chief tablets, your crayolas, and draw. I will be grading tests.”

Photo by Lisa Reed

I decided to go with “free time” rather than crayolas, and I began a screenplay for “Zorro” (1957-1959), my favorite television show. Mrs. Palmer spotted me, snatched the unfinished first page, and tossed it in the trash. “Never do that again, not in my class,” she said. So I didn’t.

For forty years, I kept my writing to myself and told oral stories. But before that, in my mid-twenties, I went from college basketball player to modern dance soloist with the Michael Sokoloff Ensemble, a touring group back when the National Endowment for the Arts was well-funded.

As I moved with the rhythm when I danced, I now write with my headset and music. For the past decade my soundtrack has been The Chieftains, an Irish folkish group.

Doc Moore and I co-wrote three Texas ghost story books, published by Texas Tech University Press, before I decided to focus on Choctaw history and stories, with fictional twists and turns.

Most of the stories in my first book, Walking the Choctaw Road, were originally oral stories, performed at festivals and schools throughout the United States, Canada, Germany, Ireland, and Mexico.

At the age of 50, I realized my oral stories would be buried with me someday, so I took a hiatus from performing and attended graduate school in Native American Studies at the University of Oklahoma, where I earned an M.A. degree and completed Walking The Choctaw Road.

I feel that the spoken word experience gives strength to the first person narrative, and use it often in my writing.

Tim at Sequoyah’s Cabin with Fort Smith high school teachers
who were teaching House of Purple Cedar in their classrooms. 

You have two more books out this year in the No Name young adult series, No More No Name (2017), A Name Earned (2018) and Trust Your Name (2018)(7th Generation). What gave rise to the character of Bobby Byington, a Choctaw basketball player? 

See Kirkus Reviews

When my editor called and said she very much enjoyed the premise to “No Name,” the original book in the series, but “the idea of a boy digging a hole in his backyard and living in it when his alcoholic father was home—that’s so unrealistic.”

I took a deep breath before answering.

“If my big brother were still alive, he could tell you. That’s how we survived. We dug a hole in the field behind our house and dragged an old junkyard door over it. My dad never found our hiding place.”

My brother played basketball for the University of Houston Cougars, along with Elvin Hayes and Clyde Drexler, and I played junior college basketball on a scholarship.

We were also warned by my grandmother never to tell any of our friends we were Choctaw, for fear of what might someday happen.

The racism and bullying in the No Name series were always just around the corner of my youth.

The long-awaited sequel to your award-winning middle grade novel, How I Became A Ghost, is finally here. Any pressure in writing When A Ghost Talks, Listen (Roadrunner, Aug. 7, 2018), knowing how well the first one was received? What challenged you the most in writing this second book? Will there be more books in this series? 

I so love the characters of this series that popping on my headset, flipping the music button, and entering the world of shape-shifting panthers, rattlesnakes and soaring ghosts was and is a joy.

Pre-order When a Ghost Talks, Listen 

I know rattlesnake Stella. She is based on an elderly Choctaw friend of mine, Stella Long, who gave me permission to use her name. I later told her she was on the cover of the book, and imagine her surprise when she saw her “rattlesnake-self” grinning back at her.

I have maybe eight shelves of Choctaw and Southeastern Indian books surrounding my writing desk, fiction and nonfiction both.

I spent a few years researching the facts behind book two, including two trips to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The questionable death of Chief and United States Army General Pushmataha was a strong inspiration in the writing process. I still feel him standing over me, watching, nodding, and wiping away a few tears.

I do plan on continuing the How I Became A Ghost series, with a World War I Choctaw Codetalker book (in book two, we learn that Choctaw ghosts can time-travel) and a book moving back and forth from the Trail of Tears to the Irish Famine in the future.

As I learned during a trip to Ireland a few years ago, “historical” accounts of the causes and death tolls related to the Famine are as false as most popular Trail of Tears narratives.

I hope to keep Isaac alive (as alive as a ghost can be) for at least another decade, accompanied by his bilingual dog, Jumper.

Tim speaking at the Smithsonian

Any writing for children and teens that we’ll see from you in 2019 or beyond that you’d like to share?

Yes, I’ll have two new book releases in 2019.

From Lee & Low comes Stone River Crossing, a 250-page middle grade novel based on my picture book, Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom (Cinco Puntos, 2008). The narrative follows the family of escapees from a pre-Civil War plantation. As they are rescued by nearby Choctaws, the battle ensues over “ownership.”

What the western world labels as magic realism, but what we Choctaws recognize as everyday life abounds.

Also, the first book in a series from Scholastic Press arrives in 2019, Timmy the Choctaw Detective and the Graveyard Treasure, a middle grade novel of a twelve-year-old youngster, our narrator, who sees himself as the best detective in town.

The lead detective of the local police force gives Timmy his first cell phone for his birthday, and they become partners in crime solving.

Timmy’s neighbor is Doc, an elderly man living by himself with advancing dementia, accompanied by acute observational skills.

Timmy discovers that Doc’s maid is also an aide at a nearby nursing home, and part of a gang that steals only from the elderly. And where does the gang bury their ill-begotten loot? In the centuries-old mausoleum of the town cemetery. And when does he make this discovery? After midnight, of course, with a gang member looking over his shoulder.

Wow, Tim, you’ve already got me looking forward to 2019 and these great books you’ve written. We appreciate the preview.

Cynsational Notes

Tim Tingle is an award-winning author, much sought-after storyteller, and an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

His great-great grandfather, John Carnes, walked the Trail of Tears in 1835 and passed-down memories of this family epic that fueled Tim’s early interest in writing and storytelling.

He has twice been honored with the American Indian Youth Literature Award, for How I Became a Ghost in 2014, and again in 2016 for House of Purple Cedar (Cinco Puntos, 2013).

He is represented by Andrea Cascardi of the Transatlantic Agency.

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.

In Memory: Charlene Willing McManis

Charlene Willing McManis,
photo by Pam Vaughn

By Katherine Quimby
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

If the collective noun for writers is a plot, then several subplots are mourning the loss of one of their own.

Charlene Willing McManis died May 1, 2018, at home in the small Vermont town where she had lived for the past 30-plus years. In addition to her family and friends, Charlene leaves a Vermont writing community, a Native American writing community, and a forthcoming middle-grade novel, Indian No More, to be published by Tu Books in fall 2019.

Born in Portland, Oregon, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (Umpqua), Charlene moved to California with her family.

After graduation from Inglewood High School and a brief stint in banking, Charlene joined the U.S. Navy. That she would choose this branch of the service made a lot of sense, because Charlene loved the ocean.

While stationed on Guam, she met fellow service member Roger McManis. Such was the depth of her love for Roger that when they left the service in 1986, she moved to land-locked Vermont and made it home for the rest of her life.

Charlene was only 64 years old—and how she would have disputed that “only.” Charlene’s approach to life was unfailingly positive and she lived life fully. First came family: She and her husband had five children—four from his first marriage and one together—and seven grandchildren, and she loved nothing more than to be surrounded by as many of them as possible.

Charlene was also deeply involved in her community. On the veterans’ side, she was a member of the American Legion and VFW. On the artistic side, she directed musical theater and theater at a number of central Vermont venues, served briefly on the board of the League of Vermont Writers, and never failed to volunteer for the New England SCBWI conferences she attended.

Charlene (right) volunteering at the registration table
for 2014 New England SCBWI conference, photo by Pam Vaughn 

If Charlene was sitting, her hands were busy with handwork, including Native beadwork and crafting Native dolls. In her last months, Charlene completed graduation feathers for her grandchildren.

Education was most important to Charlene. She made sure students at her local elementary school had the energy to learn by starting the breakfast program there; that breakfast program led to the school’s hot lunch. In 2011, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Native American Education from Union Institute and University’s Vermont College.

She also served three years as a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, and was always ready to contribute a Native American perspective—when “We are all immigrants” was filling social media, Charlene provided the succinct reminder, “Some of us were already here” when the first Europeans landed.

Charlene, The Writer 

Storytelling was another of Charlene’s talents, and while she was working in schools, she began to write.

Kate Ross, a long-time educator and one-time co-worker, remembered,

“We shared stories about our young daughters and about life in general. I knew Charlene’s heart was in the right place—caring about the well-being of children and others, filling bellies and souls. She shared her cultural background, passing valuable information on to next generations. Years later, we were both pleasantly surprised to meet at the NESCBWI conference, where we began writing adventures and our critique group together.” 

Kate was one of the first, if not the first, to see the story that would become Indian No More.

Charlene talked Kate into attending one of the early Writing the Novel for Children and Young Adults retreats held at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I met them both.

Vermont is a small state, and plenty of children’s writers call it home, but in the days before social media, it wasn’t always easy to find “your people.”

Charlene began her open mic with: “My name is Charlene and I am a writer. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and I can’t get it out of my head. I have to get up and write it down.” Her confessional had us all howling with laughter and recognition, and at that moment, I knew I needed to know her better.

Charlene, Kate and I met for coffee and to talk writing several times, but eventually life got complicated, as it often does when children are teenagers, and our meetings ceased. Most years we’d catch up at New England SCBWI conferences, which Charlene attended regularly.

Charlene not only volunteered at conferences, but gave wonderful critiques and was generous with her praise and laughter. When news of her death went out on the regional listserv, she was also remembered for her kindness.

Sarah Rosenthal hosted a more recent local writers’ group Charlene belonged to. Sarah recalled:

“I remember reading her first draft of Indian No More and thinking that it was a story that needed to make it into classrooms throughout the United States. Written from the perspective of a young girl, Charlene crafted a beautiful story of Indian identity during the tribal termination in the fifties.” 

Encouragement and Success

When We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) announced its inaugural mentorship contest in 2016, Sarah immediately sent the information to Charlene, who applied.

Sarah said,

“Several months later, I received a text from Charlene that she had won the middle grade division of the contest and was matched with author Margarita Engle. This began Charlene’s journey into revisions and reshaping her novel.” 

As Charlene told author Traci Sorell (Cherokee) in an earlier Cynsations post,

“I was so honored to work on ‘Indian No More’ with Margarita Engle as my mentor. It was a wish come true! She was so insightful in my work and helped me tremendously to improve my storytelling.” 

The pairing with was particularly apt, because, in addition to basic writing advice, Margarita could provide the perspective of Charlene’s Cuban-American classmates, who faced their own difficulties and challenges.

Margarita Engle

When she learned of Charlene’s passing, Margarita wrote,

“I love her like a sister, and I love her book. I learned as much from her as she learned from me.” 

Encouraged by the validation of the mentorship, Charlene took another chance and submitted her manuscript to Lee & Low Book’s New Visions Award. She also signed up to attend the 2016 Kweli Color of Literature Conference.

Charlene with Laura Kaye Jagles (Tesuque Pueblo/Western Shoshone/Paiute) (seated), Marcie Rendon (White Earth Anishinabe), Traci Sorell (Cherokee), Natalie Dana (Passamaquoddy), Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), Andrea L. Rogers (Cherokee)  at #Kweli16 conference.

At Kweli she found a welcoming community. Laura Pegram, executive director, Kweli Journal & The Color of the Children’s Literature Conference, wrote:

“Charlene was such a bright light and generous spirit. I am so very grateful that I had the chance to meet her at #Kweli16. I gained another sister that day.” 

Laura’s words are echoed by playwrite, poet and freelance writer Marcie Rendon’s (White Earth Anishinabe):

“From our first meeting Charlene was a warm and generous person.” 

And Traci, who is a Cynsations reporter, wrote,

“Charlene brightened any space she entered. Her smile, warmth and authenticity embraced you and made you feel welcome.” 

Charlene at #Kweli16

At the same time, writer Andrea L. Rogers (Cherokee) noted,

“In the brief time I spent with Charlene, her passion for telling her nation’s story was clear. She emanated with a kindness and a devotion to teaching using her talents and knowledge.” 

Traci spoke for a host of Charlene’s friends when she wrote:

“I grieve the loss of her physical presence deeply. But I take comfort that her book, Indian No More, will be part of her legacy in addition to the love and encouragement she gave to those who knew her.” 

At Kweli, Charlene also met Stacy Whitman, publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low. Charlene’s manuscript didn’t win a New Visions Award, but Stacy remembered,

“I was drawn to the book, as I’d been actively looking for Indigenous voices. There are so few books out there about Native Americans from a Native perspective that I gave it a second look just knowing she was Umpqua, and hoping the book would be good. I took a second look at her book after the contest for that year was over and asked her if she’d like to send me the full manuscript outside the contest.” 

Stacy Whitman

Charlene did. Stacy’s reaction was strong:

“Knowing what I know about Native American history and how the U.S. treated Indigenous people—and how little I was taught about this in school—reading this book hit with a gut punch. 

“I did not know about tribal termination, despite the remedial reading I’d done over the years, and to hear about the personal experience of it from the point of view of a young girl who doesn’t quite know who she is yet, or why the government is telling her she can’t be Indian anymore, was just such a powerful read. 

“This is such an important book—I can’t wait to share it with the world.” 

Stacy sent the manuscript to Elise McMullen-Ciotti (Cherokee), Native freelance editor/sensitivity reader. Elise said,

“I was asked, ‘Would you let us know what you think about this?’ I printed it out, stapled it together like a book, sat on my couch, and read it almost clear through in one sitting. Because I read with a pen, I began marking the margins with hearts and ‘love’ and ‘true,’ and stars and underlining. 

“There were times when I cried, sitting with the manuscript next to me just to be with it for a while. There was still work to be done, I marked that, too. But I knew that this was what I call ‘true true.’ A true representation of our history and present lives without trope or stereotype for Non-Natives, and a heart-true story for Natives—a mirror, a knowing.” 

Charlene’s friends rejoiced when the announcement appeared in the Oct. 30, 2017, Publishers Weekly.

Indian No More is slated for publication in Fall 2019.

Charlene’s Legacies

Charlene’s life on this earth may have ended May 1, 2018, but the ripple of her impact runs far and deep. She leaves a loving family and friends, and memories of generosity, warmth, laughter, and caring.

Stacy recalled,

“I only met her the one time at Kweli, but as she was dying of cancer, she was as concerned about the health issues I was dealing with as she was with her own situation.” 

It was so like Charlene to be concerned for someone else’s welfare. 

Marcie speaks for me and for so many of Charlene’s friends when she said,

“I was humbled and honored to be included in her journey as she beautifully showed all of us how to fully embrace the life we live each day and how to graciously and generously shift worlds.” 

These are intangible legacies. Charlene leaves tangible ones as well.

Laura Pegram, editor-in-chief of Kweli Journal, recently announced:

“Kweli plans to honor Charlene’s memory with a scholarship in her name for emerging Native writers interested in attending the Color of Children’s Literature Conference.” 

The next conference will be held in spring 2019.

Charlene also leaves her book baby, Indian No More, scheduled for publication in fall 2019.

As Traci said,

“Charlene’s book will help educate others about the impact of two federal policies—termination and relocation—on Native American tribes and their citizens nationwide. Unfortunately, this is not a well-known area of our national history. But Indian No More, drawn from some of her own childhood experiences, shines a light on this era and the ramifications of those policies that we still live with today.” 

Elise recalls a line from the book:

“Chish, Regina’s grandmother, says, ‘Regina, just remember this. It is your heart that makes you Indian. It is our stories that keep you Indian.’” 

Charlene kept the stories, and shared them. Sarah Rosenthal said:

“As we say good-bye to a woman who kept her culture alive through her writing, we welcome the birth of her book Indian No More into the world. I look forward to next year, when I can revisit my friend again in the pages of her book.” 

If you live near Charlene’s beloved ocean, next time you are at the shore, honor the final wish she posted on Facebook: “I will become the ocean. When you see the ocean, please think of me.”

And when Indian No More comes out in 2019, please join us in celebrating Charlene’s achievement.

Cynsational Note

Author Interview: Charlene Willing McManis on Mentorships & Believing in Your Work by Traci Sorell from Cynsations.

Guest Interview: Lin Oliver on the Global Future of Children’s Literature

By Tioka Tokedira
for SCBWI Bologna 2018 & Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: To wrap up Cynsations coverage of the 2018 Bologna Children’s Book Fair, Tioka Tokedira, Regional Adviser for SCBWI France, talks with SCBWI co-founder Lin Oliver about trends in publishing for children and young adults.




In today’s digital world, in what ways do you see the rights of authors and illustrators and readers expanding, becoming more global? Are there any words of caution that you’d offer? And what makes you optimistic? 

Years ago, there was concern that screens would replace books in children’s lives. This has not proved to be true. The book continues to thrive, even in a world when there is so much digital competition for children’s attention. There is no replacing the experience of a parent reading a book to a child, or of a child snuggling in bed with a book.

The digital world does provide us with tremendous opportunities to promote our books and help them be discovered by readers. As digital markets and formats expand, creators must make sure to arm themselves with knowledge of digital rights so that our intellectual property is always within our control.

You’ve met with authors and illustrators and publishing professionals all over the world. What have you come across that seems to be universal? 

Lin signing in the SCBWI booth at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

I believe that we all love our work. I have literally never met anyone involved in children’s publishing that doesn’t feel lucky to be in this profession.

It is obviously so important in shaping the ideas, values, hearts and minds of the next generation.

We don’t have to search for meaning, it is right there in our daily work.


What vision did you have for SCBWI when you and Steve (Mooser) started the association? What are some of the dreams that you have for its future? 

I don’t think we ever projected that SCBWI would become the world-wide force that it is today. A surprise, and very gratifying outcome, is the sense of community and friendship that exists among our members.

The SCBWI is much more than a professional organization, it is truly a very bonded community of friends, where people support each other personally and professionally. I could never have dreamed that the strength of these friendships would be so powerful.

For the future, I want our members to continue to feel those bonds, to know that they are in the midst of kindred spirits. And my hope, too, is that SCBWI will become a unified voice of children’s book creators, supporting a vision of our society that is peaceful, diverse and representative of all cultures.

There are so many issues that writers and illustrators are facing today. Is there one in particular that you’d like to address?

Lin and Kwame Alexander at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

Diversity is on everyone’s mind, and for good reason.

As people, we are trying to build a world culture of acceptance, of appreciation of differences, of freedom of expression.

We want all children to see themselves reflected in literature. This is a big goal, but a crucial one. 

Each of us can contribute in our own way, by authentically expressing our own experiences and by supporting others who are doing the same thing.

A second issue we are all contending with is the effect of digital communication and social media on our ability to get and process information and feelings.

I think we are only now beginning to realize how the digital age is affecting our ability to gather information, to process what is true and what is false, and to interact with people and ideas in a personal and meaningful way.

We want to use technology to improve the human condition, and yet due to the pervasive and intrusive nature of social media, I believe we are now in danger of tampering with what is the essence of our humanity, the person-to-person interaction.

You’ve been immersed in the children’s literature world for a long time. Can you share a piece of wisdom that might help a writer or illustrator through their moments of doubt? 

Henry Winkler and Lin

Make sure your work comes from the heart.

If you try to write to a trend or to the marketplace, you will always be disappointed.

If you are creating something for children that reflects what you truly believe, and values that are central to you, your passion for that process will carry you through moments of doubt and frustration.

It’s inevitable that one generation creates the stories for the next. What do you think the books that we are creating today convey to young people? 

I hope that we are communicating the need to honor individual differences and choices, with an emphasis on celebrating rather than rejecting what is unique about each of us.

I hope our stories today honestly reflect the problems of our society, and explore ways we can be better.

Past eras have often tried to present to children a cleaned-up vision of the world, sweeping the problems and difficulties under the table in an effort to preserve children’s “innocence.”

But I think this generation of children’s book creators is more willing to call out problems where they see them, and provide hope that is tempered by reality.

I believe we are in a golden age right now, and that the books being written for children and young adults are outstanding examples of enduring literature.

Cynsational Notes

Lin Oliver is a prolific children’s book author. With Henry Winkler, she writes The New York Times bestselling book series, Hank Zipzer: World’s Best Underachiever (Grosset & Dunlap) Their chapter book series, Here’s Hank (Penguin Workshop), is also a New York Times bestseller.

Her two collections of poetry, both illustrated by Tomie dePaola, are the highly praised Little Poems for Tiny Ears (Nancy Paulsen), and the newly released Steppin’Out: Jaunty Rhymes for Playful Times (Nancy Paulsen).

Her newest work is a chapter book series, The Fantastic Frame (Grosset & Dunlap), five illustrated adventures set in the world’s great paintings.

Lin is the co-founder and Executive Director of SCBWI, a world-wide organization of over 25,000 writers and illustrators of children’s books. She is a recipient of the prestigious Christopher Award and the Eric Carle Mentor Award. Find Lin on Twitter or on Instagram.

Tioka Tokedira has been the SCBWI France Regional Advisor since 2007 and was one of the organizers for the first Europolitan Conference.

Tioka loves helping others tell their stories. She’s worked as a teacher, writing festival coordinator, literacy consultant for international governments, and documentary television producer.

When she’s not emailing the SCBWI France Board in the middle of the night about their next great event, she’s a YA acquisitions reader and trying her hand at writing series fiction for a book packager in London.

Guest Interview: Chris Cheng & Sarah Baker on Publishing Trends & Bologna 2018

By Melanie Rook Welfing
for SCBWI Bologna 2018
and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: This is part of a series focusing on the Bologna Children’s Bookfair.




SCBWI Netherlands Regional Adviser Melanie Rook Welfing talks with SCBWI booth organizers Chris Cheng and Sarah Baker.

Chris Cheng…

Sarah Baker is the Director of Illustration and Artist Programs at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, where she manages and develops the illustrator grants, awards and scholarships, advises and mentors SCBWI illustrator members, and serves as the designer and art director for the Bulletin and all other SCBWI publications.

Before coming to SCBWI, Sarah designed children’s books at Penguin Young Readers Group

Hi Chris and Sarah! Thank you both for participating in the 2018 SCBWI Bologna Book Fair interview series. 


Before we dive into SCBWI’s role, I’d like to ask about one of the bigger trends in children’s publishing. Chris, can you comment on reports saying the publishing industry in China is putting more emphasis on Chinese writers, instead of just seeking translated work? Is this having an impact on the amount of translated work, or is there room for both? 

Learn more about Chris Cheng.

Chris: China was the country of focus this year at Bologna and that market is booming.

China is definitely promoting Chinese writers and illustrators and their works. Some promote work in more traditional Chinese style (art) while others have entries that are very influenced by published work outside of China.

There are now quite a few new China-based competitions that are focused solely on Chinese-created work. These are being promoted to Chinese creators. Some of these are also open to international creators as well and the SCBWI will be promoting some of these as the time draws near for those initiatives.

At the same time as publishing their own Chinese-created and -themed work, Chinese publishers are seeking titles created in other countries that are suitable for both translation and to be printed in English. I talked to a number of publishers who wanted the original book – not for translation but to publish in English. And they were engaging work that was relevant to Chinese children. But they very much also wanted to have the titles originating in China with Chinese themes and creatives to be published in English-speaking countries.

Since our last attendance at Bologna in 2016 there were quite a few new Chinese publishers of children’s books. Some of these are publishing less traditional Chinese titles while others are publishing very traditional Chinese titles. There were also new publishers who publish solely for the Chinese education market as well.


What is the role of SCBWI at Bologna? Can you share a bit about the history of the SCBWI booth at Bologna, how has it changed, and plans for the future? 

Chris: SCBWI Bologna is all about showcasing the recently created PAL works of our global membership, whether they be authors or illustrators.

The first showcase, under the magical leadership of Erzsi Deàk, was held in 2004 in conjunction with a conference. That conference has now morphed into the Europolitan conference that is held in our non-Bologna years.

Our physical booth doubled in size in 2016. We also created our first digital catalogue that is now distributed to publishers in our global database.

Our showcase has always displayed the art from our illustrator members, but last year this evolved into a digital gallery that was judged by industry experts – the finalists were then on display on large panels having in our booth – providing not only an attractive appearance but also enticing publishers. 

Members were able to showcase their work at the booth, and the illustrators creating art were a huge draw. Some of our members seen creating works at the showcase were then snaffled up for publication.

There were presentations from SCBWI at the author and illustrator cafes at the fair – these are always hugely popular.

But our author members were not left out.

This year we created the Dueling Illustrators Manuscript contest, where members were able to submit an unpublished picture book manuscript.

These were then judged by Emma Ledbetter (senior editor, Atheneum), and the top six manuscripts were read aloud for our extremely popular Dueling Illustrators Competition.

Also new this year was a team creating our Social Media Presence. We had Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – all under the name of SCBWIBologna. Just search for #BBF18SCBWI and see what we were up to.

Our Bologna presence is always evolving, but crucial is the showcasing of our member’s recent PAL creations.

Learn more about Sarah Baker.

Sarah, you’ve participated in the Dueling Illustrators Competition that Chris mentioned. Can you tell us about that? 

Sarah: What I can tell you is it was very nerve-wracking!

Until we actually got started drawing, that is, and then it was so much fun.

I had never drawn in front of people live before, much less while being timed and competing with someone else.

But once we got started, it was an enjoyable challenge to quickly decide how to tackle each scene, and to just go with your gut and follow through with each idea, since there’s no time to change your mind.

It was also really fun to see how I and the other illustrator, Susan Eaddy, came up with different ideas on how to compose the scene and interpret the text.

It was great to watch the Dueling illustrators at the 2018 booth!

What are your roles on the SCBWI Bologna team? How do you work together? 

Chris Cheng’s notebook
(full of Bologna plans)

Chris: My role in our Bologna presence is to work with the team that presents the Bologna showcase. I coordinate many of the activities – I like spreadsheets and task lists – but the team creates Bologna.

We have an enormous number of emails swapping ideas and enhancing activities from previous fairs, and we also discuss the showcase at the New York and Los Angeles conferences. 

Sarah: This year, I got more involved with the logistics of the booth, and bringing along “swag” like totebags, buttons, and postcards.

There is a lot of planning beforehand, meetings at various conferences, and lots and lots of emails! At the fair, it’s so fun to experience how everyone helping out at the booth works so well with each other.

It’s a great opportunity for members of SCBWI from all around the world to meet face to face and get to know one another better. Everyone does a great job of supporting our members participating in the booth with showcases, as well as informing the international publishing world about SCBWI.

Why should a member of SCBWI go to Bologna? What are the benefits? Writers versus Illustrators? 

Sarah: Attending the Bologna Book Fair is an amazing opportunity for children’s book creators.

They can get a sense of the children’s book market worldwide, meet people from the industry, and get a huge dose of inspiration. It’s truly eye-opening to see all the books and publishers from around the world, and see that books and trends are different in various countries.

And for SCBWI members, visiting the fair during a year when the SCBWI booth is on (every other year) gives them a nice homebase. While visiting the fair is beneficial for anyone creating children’s books, there is a distinct focus on illustration.

It’s somewhat easier for illustrators to bring postcards and pass them around to people they meet, which can lead to all sorts of opportunities after the fair. A great benefit for SCBWI members is that they can be represented at the fair even if they aren’t attending, by participating in the SCBWI Bologna Rights Catalogue and Showcase.

What tips can you give to new attendees on navigating the fair?

Sarah: The fair is huge and can be very overwhelming!

Make sure you check out the schedule ahead of time and pick out which events, workshops, and interviews you don’t want to miss. Also, give yourself ample time to roam around freely and take it all in.

Don’t ignore the halls housing booths from countries and continents that are very foreign to you. It’s an opportunity you don’t want to miss. Also, check out this wonderful blog post by SCBWI Andy Musser for great tips on visiting the fair.

Thank you, Chris and Sarah, for your time and insight. I’m already looking forward to SCBWI Bologna 2020! 

Cynsational Notes

At the age of 12 Melanie Rook Welfing’s life ambition was to be part-time author, part-time roller skater. The skating dreams died, along with the ’80s hair, but the author dream lives on.

Melanie writes primarily for middle graders and has had stories published in Highlights and other magazines.

Originally from the west coast of Canada, Melanie now lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two daughters.

She is the Regional Advisor for SCBWI in the Netherlands.

Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich SmithRobin GalbraithGayleen Rabukukk & Kate Pentecost for Cynsations

Author/Illustrator Insights

Mark Does YA: The Prolific Critic and Creator Talks About “Anger Is a Gift” by Shelley Diaz from School Library Journal. Peek:

“A lot of this book is wish fulfillment on my part. What if my parents had been accepting of my sexuality? So, despite that this is a contemporary novel, a lot of imagination went into the construction of these character arcs.”

Interview with Deborah Heiligman from the Cybils. Peek:

“When I begin my research for a book, I start with primary sources. I read letters, diary entries, autobiographies, etc. and hold off reading any secondary sources as long as possible.”

Real-Life Drama: Kate Messner on Her New Novel, Breakout by Kiera Parrott and Lisa Goldstein from School Library Journal. Peek:

“In the case of Breakout…I’m fascinated by the idea that two people can be in the same room, see the same event transpire, hear the same conversation, and come away from it with completely different interpretations of what’s just happened.”

Rob Sanders Talks with Roger by Roger Sutton from The Horn Book. Peek:

“I wanted to tell this story not so much from a biography standpoint — there are several children’s biographies about Harvey Milk — but none about the flag itself. It was a unique opportunity for me to talk about symbols.” 

Meet Kate Pentecost, The Genderqueer Writer Changing the Young Adult Fiction Game by Kirk Loftin from Spectrum South. Note: Kate is a Cynsations Intern. Peek:

 “‘If there were more books with LGBTQ characters when I was young, it would have been so empowering,’ Pentecost adds on the need for more queer representation in young adult fiction. ‘I was really, really starved for characters who were like me.’”

Member Interview: Jason Gallaher from SCBWI. Peek:

“In both my picture book and middle grade work I write about whimsical or fantasy worlds. So I guess my everyday life feeds my work by me fantasizing about how much better life would be with magic, or with fashion-forward pandas, or with Easter bunnies turned dinosaurs.”

Hannah Moderow on Writing Lily’s Mountain from Uma Krishnaswami. Peek:

“Lily’s Mountain was rejected by 47 editors. 47! There’s no magic in that. But I pressed on, buoyed by the wisdom of VCFA, and the friendships and mentorships that I received there.”

On Wildness, Cracked Worlds, Monsters, and the Odd Nature of the Short Story from Kelly Barnhill. Peek:

“A short story… is an encounter. We cannot look it in the eye. We have to see with our skin and hear with our bones. A short story is a crack in the world; it is tooth and claw; it is the choice between attack and retreat. Nothing is wasted.”

Writing Craft

Writing Tension Instead of Teasing by Mary Kole from Kid Lit. Peek:

“There is a big distinction between writing tension and merely teasing the reader along. Unfortunately, a tease is not enough and doesn’t respect your audience.”

Three Dialogue Don’ts (and Their Fixes) by Dean Gloster from Through the Tollbooth. Peek:

“In real life, we don’t answer, we evade—we joke, distract, change the subject, interrupt, counterattack, or answer the real question underneath what was asked. (Or a different question that we’d prefer to answer.)”

A Five-Page MFA by Abigail Hing Wen from Through the Tollbooth. Peek: “Another favorite variation on Show-Not-Tell. Instead of telling your reader the answer is ‘2,’ give them the two separate components, and trust them to add them up on their own.”

How to Write an Epistolary Novel in Ten Not-So-Simple Steps by Sheila O’Connor from Smack Dab in the Middle. Peek:

“Remember in a letter, every writer will both reveal and withhold.”

How to Survive Your Editorial Letter: 10 Simple Tips by Catherine Linka from Through the Tollbooth. Peek:

“…how do you get from denial to the acceptance you need to be able to revisit, reimagine and revise your work?”

Marketing

The Key to Book Marketing: Do What You’re Best At from Nathan Bransford. Peek:

“Don’t make yourself miserable doing what you think you should be doing, do what you enjoy doing.”

10 Best Packing Tips for Authors by Gail Carriger from Fiction University. Peek:

“Whether you’re published (yet) or not, odds are you’ll attend a writing event at some point in your writing journey. For those requiring overnight stays, some special packing just might be in order.”

Publishing

The Resonant Roar of Quiet Books by Emma Dryden from The Mitten. Peek:

“When a manuscript’s rejected for being too quiet, it’s often because a story hasn’t explored these themes at all or has only touched on these themes too quietly, too cursorily.”

Cate Berry on a Full Heart and a Cozy Snuggle by Amanda West Lewis from The Launch Pad.

“That’s the thing about publishing. You can’t control when it’ll be your turn. The stars have to be aligned ten thousand different ways for it to happen and that’s the truth. But it’ll never happen if you don’t cast your stories into the grind of the business.”

SLJ’s Average Book Prices for 2018 from School Library Journal. Peek:

“The numbers you put to work every year are here—the list of average book prices for 2017 and 2018 to date, produced in partnership with Follett. We know this data helps you make sound decisions.” 

Gina Gagliano Has Big Plans for Random House Graphic by Brigid Alverson from School Library Journal. Peek:

“I feel that it’s important to get kids reading comics as soon as they are reading independently, so I want to go from ages 5 to 18–19—do younger books and middle grade, do YA, really, all the way across that span.”

Diversity

Living Beyond Tragedy by Lee Francis from Medium. Peek:

“…understand our histories as Sovereign people and subsequently work to dismantle all the structures that enable the continued marginalization and extermination of Indigenous peoples. This includes representations in popular culture.”

39 Great Indigenous Stories to Read and Share with Your Kids by Selena Mills from Today’s Parent. Peek:

“ From beautiful board books to compelling tales to trenchant reads, here are great stories about Indigenous culture and issues to add to your bookshelf.”

2018 Summer Reading List from We’re the People. Peek:

“Are you looking for a curated summer reading list that celebrates diversity and all its intersections? The team at We’re the People select books that are by and about IPOC (Indigenous and People of Color), people with disabilities and people from the LGBTQ+ community.” 

 Schools See Steep Drop in Librarians, New Analysis Finds by Sarah D. Sparks and Alex Harwin from Education Week. Peek:

“American schools—particularly those serving black and Latino students—have seen a precipitous drop in their school librarians since the Great Recession.

A Closer Look at 2017 African/ African American #OwnVoices Books by Madeline Tyner from Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Peek:

“With the ever-growing call for #OwnVoices books in youth publishing, we delved deeper into the CCBC’s 2017 diversity stats, with a particular focus on #OwnVoices books. In this post, we examine the African/African American #OwnVoices books and consider creator roles, book type, and countries and cultures that are represented.”

Awards




Congratulations to the 2018 Forest Reading winners! 164,000 Ontario kids voted for books by these authors or illustrators: Vikki VanSickle , Danielle Younge-UllmanJess KeatingMarta Álvarez MiguénsAlex LyttleElizabeth MacLeod and Joanne George.

This Week at Cynsations

Don’t miss the ongoing SCBWI Bologna Interview series.

 More Personally – Cynthia

Watch the video (caution: spoilers!).

Buzz is starting to build for the Oct. 9, 2018 release of my upcoming novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 9, 2018). See a video book talk by teacher Colby Sharp from SharpRead. Caution: spoilers. Peek:

“I devoured this book. End of the school year, and I still devoured it. It’s that awesome…. This book needs to be in all of the high school classrooms around the world.”

Cynsations Intern Kate Pentecost will be on two panels and one roundtable at Comicpalooza Con in Houston this weekend. Peek: “Living legends, industry icons, creative geniuses, space cowboys, and scientific marvels, that’s who’s coming to Comicpalooza. May 25-27 the pop culture festival will open its doors once again at the George R. Brown Convention Center….”

More Personally – Gayleen


The highlight of my week (okay, probably the year) was spending the weekend at The Writing Barn with this fantastic group talking about middle grade novels. I did a Cynsations interview with Lamar Giles last year about writing mysteries and his most recent YA novel, Overturned (Scholastic, 2017) so it was great to meet him in person and hear more about his upcoming MG fantasy, The Last Last-Day of Summer (Versify, Spring 2019).

Sarah Yasutake, Gayleen, Erin Sewell, Editor Phoebe Yeh (Viking Books for Young Readers), Lamar Giles, Meredith Counts, Jacquetta Feldman, Megan Hoyt, Brenda Panella, Erin Golden and April Jo Murphy. Photo by Bethany Hegedus.

Author Interview: Eric Gansworth on Give Me Some Truth

Eric Gansworth signing Give Me Some Truth
at 2018 Texas Library Association conference.

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Eric Gansworth is the YA author of Give Me Some Truth (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, May 29, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Carson Mastick is entering his senior year of high school and desperate to make his mark, on the reservation and off. 


A rock band — and winning the local Battle of the Bands, with its first prize of a trip to New York City — is his best shot. 


But things keep getting in the way. Small matters like the lack of an actual band, or the fact that his brother just got shot confronting the racist owner of a local restaurant. 


Maggi Bokoni has just moved back to the reservation from the city with her family. She’s dying to stop making the same traditional artwork her family sells to tourists (conceptual stuff is cooler), stop feeling out of place in her new (old) home, and stop being treated like a child. 


She might like to fall in love for the first time too. 


Carson and Maggi — along with their friend Lewis — will navigate loud protests, even louder music, and first love in this stirring novel about coming together in a world defined by difference. 

This novel drew me immediately into the world and characters Eric crafted. So I had to know more about how his writing process.

Eric, I want to start with the title, taken from a Beatles song. It seems to dovetail perfectly with your characters’ experiences in the book. Explain how you landed on that. 


Thanks! I am obsessed with overarching structure and continuity within my fiction.

That said, writing novels is for me a strange and mysterious activity. The move from blank page to completed page is always unexpected, like entering someone else’s house invisibly and seeing their lives behind closed curtains.

I’m a strong believer in allowing new things to influence work in progress–serendipity, if you want to be fancy about it.

I have a superstition, though, and whatever file folder I create for a new book, I leave the original title on that.

If I Ever Get Out of Here (Arthur A. Levine, 2013) had a different, neutral title for most of its development before Paul McCartney became a central thematic force.

After that shift, it went through several possibilities. When the right title hit, I could never see another possibility.

I knew the second book would be Lennon themed, and initially it was called “We All Shine On.”

It had very different themes, as you might guess with that title. Lewis and Marie were the protagonists, it had different plot developments, etc.

After three years of writing the wrong book, enough of the correct book had seeped into the narrative that I knew I had to start from scratch. Considering the more confrontational personalities of Carson and Maggi, “Give Me Some Truth” was a better fit.

In some ways, that command became the novel’s driving force.

I’d love to delve deeper into your process for creating such rich characters. There isn’t one in the book whose back story or motivations felt unknown to me. 


Did you begin the first novel envisioning these characters and their adolescence on the rez would carry beyond one book? Might we see Maggi or any of the other characters in a future work? 

Thank you. I may have answered part of this above. I decided early in my writing career that all of my characters would exist in the same fictional universe. I have an imaginary version of the reservation where I was raised, and I’ve given homes to characters that remain consistent.

I’m often surprised in the early stages of development, to see where the characters live. Their grounding on that imaginary map anchors part of their lives early on.

Eliot Schrefer and Eric Gansworth at YALLWEST,
photo by YALLWEST, used with permission.

Growing up, I did not have much access to a car, so I walked the Rez a lot, and you get to know a place really well when you experience it on such an intimate level.

When this novel was going to be about Lewis and Marie, I had a good sense of them, because I’d lived with them for several years.

I have a novel for adults done (but that needs revision) that has Carson as a major character, and its plot involves a long span, maybe twenty years, so I knew a lot about him. I was surprised when he wound up intruding into Lewis’s story, and then even more so here, where he eventually hijacked this novel, becoming a protagonist.

Maggi was a little harder to get to know. When I recognized the other protagonist couldn’t be Marie, I had to figure out what Maggi’s story was going to be. At the beginning, I knew she had to be 15 and feel very displaced everywhere she turned. She needed to be both jaded and naïve.

At 15, I felt strongly that I was already an adult and was eager to make adult decisions. The truth is, of course, that I wasn’t an adult at all, and made my own series of poor, or uninformed choices. I can not remember why I felt she needed a twin brother, and even asked myself in the first revision if Marvin needed to exist.

As I read it with an eye toward making the book shorter, I was surprised at the complex role he played as a harmony voice in their household. Even giving myself the permission to yank him and give the character his own novel at some point, I couldn’t see a way for him not to be there. To lose him would cause irreparable damage.


You are a visual artist. Your paintings are included in both of these novels. When you submitted the novel for consideration, did you include your artwork with the text or was that discussed later as a design element? Do you create the paintings while you’re writing or do those come to you at a different time in the creative process?

My book images come organically during development. I trust there is some other process operating that I’m not aware of.

While working on If I Ever Get Out of Here, I had a clear idea of what the paintings would look like. They’re satires of iconic Beatles/McCartney album covers, using the novel’s characters and situations for anchors.

I only realized after the novel was deep in production that a minor subplot involved Wacky Packages, (satirical trading card stickers popular when I was a kid). It turned out those paintings were more or less Wacky Package versions of those albums.

In this case, I knew the paintings would similarly be drawn from Beatles/Lennon album covers, but Wacky Packages were not a part of this story. I needed a different anchor.

Maggi is an inventive beadworker, in a traditional arts family. I’ve always loved this tension and know many beadwork artists who play with reinventing ideas and themes from popular culture. I thought it would be neat to re-cast those iconic images as if rendered in traditional materials: beadwork, soapstone, cornhusk dolls, and the like.

In a few cases, I retitled a section, because I wanted to use the image, so it’s very much an organic process.

What craft and career advice would you offer for beginning Native writers of young adult fiction?



Three things, really, feel important to me.

  • First: remember what your experiences feel like and give yourself permission to write about events that are complex.

I keep an open informal document for every book I work on, where I just talk to myself, asking questions, noting memories, speculating about ramifications of ideas. I do not edit this document, but I do date entries so I can keep track of how ideas evolve.

It’s not an exact process and there are gaps, for sure, but it’s been very helpful during development for the last four novels. Not every idea makes it to the book, and this document allows me to keep those decisions straight, as I finish revising and get ready for a new project.

  • Second: Don’t worry about what people will like.


I grew up in a very specific Indigenous culture, and the details of our lives are not necessarily resonant with others, even other Indigenous readers. I write about those meaningful cultural details, even if they don’t meet the expectations of others about Indigenous fiction.

Have faith that readers are coming to your work to see what you have to share, so don’t agonize about what you think someone might or might not want to publish. You can’t possibly know so worrying seems pointless, and I suspect some wonderful ideas get set aside because of this concern.

  • Third: writing involves talent but it also involves craft, and a lot of hard work.

Editorial feedback is real and is about making your story more accessible to an audience unfamiliar with your kinds of experiences. Often, beginning writers find this part of the process alienating and threatening, and express concerns about editorial feedback “contaminating the work.”

Editors are not supervillains rubbing their hands together, trying to make your life miserable. I’ve had occasion over the last couple of years to revisit some of my work that had been published with a very light editorial hand. I wish I could pull that work back and start over. It definitely would have benefited from a more rigorous editorial philosophy, and now I’m stuck with it out there in perpetuity.

What do you have coming out next that we can look forward to reading?

I’m working on the third book with these characters. You can read an early chapter published as a short story this summer in the lovely We Need Diverse Books anthology, Fresh Ink, edited by Lamar Giles (Crown, Aug. 14, 2018).

I have some poems and paintings coming out in POETRY this summer, some other poems in Heid Erdrich’s anthology New Poets of Native Nations (Graywolf, July 10, 2018), and a story in Kenyon Review this coming winter.

If you’re an audiobook sort, I recorded Carson’s half of the Give Me Some Truth audio, with Mohawk actress Brittany LeBorgne reading Maggi’s chapters, and I’ll be recording my story for the Fresh Ink audiobook too.

Well, Eric, I can say definitively that I’m eager to read the third book. And I’m happy to know that we’ll all get a preview this summer in the Fresh Ink anthology.



Cynsational Notes



Eric Gansworth Sˑha-weñ na-saeˀ (enrolled Onondaga, Eel Clan), a writer and visual artist from Tuscarora Nation, works at Canisius College.

His books also include:

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.

Author Interview: Minh Lê on Drawn Together

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Minh Lê is the author of the upcoming Drawn Together, illustrated by Dan Santat (Hyperion, June 5, 2018). From the promotional copy:

When a young boy visits his grandfather, their lack of a common language leads to confusion, frustration, and silence. 


But as they sit down to draw together, something magical happens – with a shared love of art and storytelling, the two form a bond that goes beyond words.

Minh, I have to admit that I was immediately taken with this story.

In my prior career, I worked with American Indian and Alaska elders, and intergenerational relationships are the foundation of Native Nations and families.

The experience of this boy visiting his grandfather reminded me of many elders who feel they don’t always understand the world their grandchildren or great-grandchildren are experiencing through traditional language loss, increased technology use, etc.

You dedicate the book to your grandparents. Did you all struggle to communicate and connect when you were younger?

Thank you for your kind words and thank you so much for having me on Cynsations, Traci!

Yes, Drawn Together is very much based on my experience with my grandparents, in particular my paternal grandfather.

Vietnamese was actually my first language (there is even home video somewhere to prove it), but I unfortunately let it slip away over the years.
This meant that my relationship with my grandparents was very much defined by what we could not say to each other.

Unlike the boy and his grandfather in the book, we unfortunately never managed to fully bridge that language gap before he passed away earlier this year… but in small but profound ways, we came to understand that despite everything we left unsaid, the bond between us was stronger than words. 

Minh at a school visit.

What do you hope a child reader will take away from Drawn Together? 

It takes work to truly see the person right in front of you, even those who we love the most. If our book can help inspire even one reader to discover an unexpected connection with a loved one, then my heart will be completely full.

Another quick but important point: while this book reveals the “world beyond words,” that is not meant to diminish the importance of language. If a reader is able to establish that non-verbal connection like the grandson and grandfather, my hope is that it leads to a rich relationship that also involves language. While I’ll never question the love between us, I’ll always wish that I could have had a deeper conversation with my grandfather in Vietnamese.

Dan Santat’s artwork captivated me from the front cover through the entire book. He brings another fabulous level of storytelling to this picture book with rich color and intricate drawings. Those illustrations in the middle of the book add so much impact to your words. What did you think when you first saw them? 


I’m so glad you were captivated by the artwork too, because oh my goodness: Dan’s artwork left me totally speechless.
My approach to writing is to try telling the story in as few words as possible, to basically create space for the illustrator to work their magic.

And with a story about building a “world beyond words” the success of the story absolutely hinged on the artwork. So much of the story happens through the illustrations and Dan took it to a level that absolutely blew my mind.

I am Vietnamese American, but am thrilled that Dan made this story his own by infusing it with his own experience and Thai heritage. You can tell how much of himself he poured into these pages and I will be forever grateful to him for bringing this story to life in such jaw-dropping fashion. (Note: If you haven’t seen this video about his process, you should definitely check it out.)

To what extent were you able or inclined to offer feedback while the art was in production? 

I try my best to keep a light touch on art notes, preferring to let the artist take the story and run with it.

I did have the opportunity to provide some feedback at different points along the way (always filtered through our brilliant editor, Rotem Moscovich), but it was mostly just minor observations sprinkled in with unfiltered gushing over the breathtaking artwork.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? What were the high points and stumbles along the way? What were your best decisions and those you might reconsider if you had to do it all again? 

For me, I’d say the biggest stumbling point was just getting out of my own way.

I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book, but then at the same time would laugh off that dream as “silly” and with a “but why me?” attitude.

Then one day my wife looked at me and said, “I love you… but if you’re not going to take yourself seriously, who will?” That was the wake up call I needed to stop being my own worst enemy. I was never going to get any traction if I couldn’t get past myself.

So if I were to reconsider anything or do something different… I probably wouldn’t have spent 10 years dedicated to self-sabotage before sending out my first book pitch.

That being said, I spent a lot of those 10 years blogging about/reviewing children’s books, so it wasn’t a waste of time. Immersing myself books was an invaluable education and really gave me a chance to see what was already out there and to develop and refine my own taste.

So when I finally did send out the idea for Let Me Finish! illustrated by Isabel Roxas (Hyperion, 2016)), I did so on solid ground that really helped speed things up.

From there, everything fell into place nicely, from landing my fantastic agent Stephen Barbara, getting the super-talented Isabel Roxas to collaborate with, and then of course, having the brilliant Rotem Moscovich at Hyperion acquire it. I couldn’t have asked for my path to unfold any better.

Now to follow it up with a collaboration with Dan Santat is, to put it mildly, a dream come true. So I’m just enjoying every step along the way and can hopefully keep it going!

What craft and career advice do you have for beginning writers? 

When asked for writing advice (particularly picture book writing), I always point to a quote from Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de St. Exupéry (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1939), the author of The Little Prince (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1943).

In the book he talks about building airplanes during the early days of flight and has this beautiful line:

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

I try to keep that quote in mind whenever I’m writing. Not that you have to go full Hemingway and write only in terse prose… but you should make sure that every word on the page serves a purpose.

Weigh yourself down with too many unnecessary words and there’s a good chance your story will never take flight.

What did your first book teach you that informed your second?


I think the most valuable thing I learned from making the first book was the importance of trusting the people you work with.

From the illustrator, to the editor, to the art director, and others, there are so many people who go into creating a book. While as an author it’s important to stay true to your vision, it’s just as (if not more) important to loosen your grip on the “ownership” over the idea and allow the book the space to breath and evolve.

The final version of Let Me Finish! was much stronger than what I originally had in mind because of all the different people helping to shape it along the way.

Which is also why I make it a point to always refer to it as “our book” and never “my book.” 

What do you have coming up next? 

I have some other projects with Hyperion, but nothing I can talk about yet (I always say the hardest part of publishing is all the secrets you have to keep).

Something exciting that I can talk about is that I’ll be writing a Green Lantern graphic novel for DC Comics’s new middle grade imprint, DC Zoom.

I’m particularly excited because while Drawn Together is about my grandfather, this graphic novel is inspired in part by my grandmothers. It means the world to me that I get to pay tribute to them through these books and that soon they’ll have a spot on the bookshelf.

Wonderful! I look forward to the Green Lantern novel and hearing about these other new projects when you can share them. 

Cynsational Notes

Minh Lê is the author of Let Me Finish! (an NPR Best Book of 2016), illustrated by Isabel Roxas and the upcoming Drawn Together illustrated by Caldecott medalist Dan Santat, both published by Hyperion.

He is also writing Green Lantern: Legacy, a graphic novel for the new DC Comics middle grade imprint, DC Zoom.

A member of the kidlit consortium The Niblings, Minh has written for a number of national publications, including the New York Times, HuffPost, and the Horn Book.

He is currently serving as a judge for the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards.

Outside of spending time with his beautiful wife and sons, his favorite place to be is in the middle of a good book.

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: E. Lockhart on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about E. Lockhart AKA Emily Jenkins

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 want to be honest about the biggest reason I have weathered tough times: I have some financial security.

I have published approximately 45 books in 21 years, and a huge factor in my remaining a working writer was a gift of money from my in-laws.

My spouse and I used it to purchase real estate. That purchase meant our overhead was (and remains) low. We could thus have a family in New York City without the vagaries of my income jeopardizing our housing. I don’t want to ever pretend my career has been all hard work and creativity. It has been hard work and creativity – but with the cushion of an apartment purchased with money I did not earn myself.

It has helped me to publish in multiple age categories. I write under two names and can have a couple of books a year. I co-author a series, and that helps too – we can write the series books while having other projects on the go.

I publish with multiple houses. Penguin Random has much of my backlist and my bigger books, but in 2017 I did books with Candlewick, Scholastic and Farrar, Straus & Giroux – and it’s pretty much always been like that. The publishers haven’t always been happy about the competition, but I’m employed.

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


I would write A Fine Dessert (Schwartz & Wade, 2015) differently.

On a practical note, I should not have been so wide-ranging at the start of my writing career. I published two picture books, a book of essays for adults, a novel for adults, and a middle grade. Then I couldn’t figure out why my career had no momentum.

Ha! Of course it didn’t. I hadn’t built a reputation in any one area, and I hadn’t sustained relationships with editors.

The smart thing would have been to focus tight at first and to build longer-term connections — and to find a community of writers. I didn’t have any writer friends, really, until nine years after my first book came out.

Now, those relationships are essential to the longevity of my creative life. I don’t know how I managed before.

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 adore the emergence of LGBTQ+ YA stories into mainstream popular consciousness. On bestseller lists. Made into films! (As I’m answering these questions, “Everyday” and “Love, Simon” are in theaters.) There’s LGBTQ+ fantasy, adventure, dystopian, historical and science fiction as well as realistic contemporary. Makes me happy.

Queer YA has been around since 1969, of course. And there are still more people to include, more intersections to examine, more ways of feeling and living to be represented and more voices to be heard.

But things have changed and expanded hugely in the thirteen years I’ve been writing YA and so many of the books are spectacular.

I also adore the emergence of the graphic novel as a major and respected art form. There are MacArthur winners, National Book Award winners, and hilarious young middle grade books that grab the most reluctant readers.

I grew up reading comic books and the interplay of image and text was the subject of my dissertation. I feel lucky to be making books at such a fertile time for graphic stories.

Have you finished a draft of your next book?

The actual publication of a book doesn’t feel so great to me. Satisfaction must come from making things you are interested in and are proud to have made, from the exciting process of collaboration, from storytelling. You’ll keep your head straight if you’re thoroughly involved in that experience of creation when your book arrives in bookshops.

You’re also a writing teacher. What led you to join the Hamline MFA faculty, and how does teaching inform, influence and intersect with your writing life?

After getting my doctorate, I taught creative and scholarly writing for some years, adjuncting at NYU, Barnard and Columbia. I enjoyed the work, but those jobs didn’t provide me with colleagues or a department — I just showed up and did my courses, held my office hours, and went home.

At some point I began to want more: to be able to create new classes, to bring in visiting lecturers, to work with other teachers who stretched my understanding of my field, to contribute to the shape of a program and to be part of conversations about how best to teach fiction writing and literature.

I couldn’t do that as an adjunct, and I began to feel bored. I left those jobs and wrote full time.

Some years later, I saw an ad in The Horn Book looking for an experienced college teacher who wrote both picture books and YA. I thought, Oh, that’s me!

I applied, but during the resulting interview, I realized (to my embarrassment) that I had done so cavalierly. I had a small baby. I couldn’t leave her for 11-day residencies! What had I been thinking?

Up-front I told Mary Rockcastle, the program director, that I would be interested in working at Hamline if she wanted to come back to me in a couple of years — and she did. Then I was able to take the job.

Being there has been the formal fiction-writing education I never had. When I first arrived, I didn’t have any of the creative writing vocabulary used by my colleagues. Over the years I have had the chance to learn from some of the best people making books for children.

In particular I have returned to insights from lectures by Meg Medina, Matt de la Peña, Ron Koertge, Laurel Snyder and Nina LaCour.

In the lecture hall, am often struck by ideas for projects, or strategies for revision.

Another thing I love is getting to work intimately with students on long-form projects and in multiple drafts on picture books. I get to see my students grow and develop in hugely significant ways. And I feel useful. I love team-teaching workshop, too.

 I have run class with Laura Ruby, Anne Ursu, Marsha Qualey, Kelly Easton and Claire Rudolph-Murphy, and in each case I got so much out of seeing the way my co-teacher worked with a student text — total paradigm shifts from the way I might have approached it, sometimes. And wonderful.

Last, I have spent a huge amount of time working on the Required Reading List we assign at Hamline. Our List Committee tossed out our old list in late 2015 and re-imagined what we wanted our students to read and why, putting together a pedagogical mission, learning outcomes, all that — and a list of amazing books.

Then each year we have done small updates to that list, often with new Committee members circling in to keep the list fresh and evolving as our departmental needs evolve.

Sherri Smith is co-leading us this year and she is amazing. Serving on this crew means I read books that I might not have picked up, otherwise — and I get to discuss them with my colleagues, too. That reading has broadened my mind and my writing.

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

Emily with Paul O. Zelinksy

I hope our community can practice radically better inclusivity in publishing.

I’d like the editors, art directors and publicity teams to reflect the gorgeous range of people we publish books for.

I hope we will continue to support freedom of speech and of the press.

If we can make that big change and hold onto that central value, I think we’ll make beautiful, funny, touching, wonder-filled books.

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

I want to try new forms. I might take courses cartooning and see what that does to my thinking about image and text, both for picture books and graphic novels.

I like it when I don’t know how to do my job.

The best work bubbles up when I have no idea how to tackle this new thing that I want to write.

Cynsational Notes 

In the photo above, Emily and Paul are on a walking tour for All-of-a-Kind Family Hannukah (Schwartz & Wade, Sept. 2018).

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.

The Texas Library Association issued A Statement on Questions Over A Fine Dessert and tie-in resources, including those for teaching the related criticism and controversy.