New Voice: Cate Berry on Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime!

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m so pleasured to feature my interview with Cate Berry, debut picture book author of Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime, illustrated by Charles Santoso (Balzer + Bray, 2018).

Publishers Weekly described it as “…a buoyantly subversive antibedtime tale,” and I couldn’t agree more.

The witty repartee between Penguin and Tiny Shrimp, coupled with the digital artwork of Charles Santoso make this 2018 Junior Library Guild selection a fun and engaging read for little ones.

My visit with Cate yielded lots of helpful takeaways for those new to the field and some salient thoughts on when to ask for help.

Kate, what advice would you share with beginning children’s-YA writers? 

Personally, I urge my new students to read at least three hundred picture books before even beginning a manuscript (or at least while you begin drafting).

Picture books are like learning a new language. There is a rhythm, a vibe, and implicit rules are attached to the form. Taking a class or reading a craft book is great, but reading a heap of picture books is even better.

Cate’s students at The Writing Barn discuss picture books.

So reading more than you are writing is my advice, especially with picture books. You want the form to wash over you; the economy of words, the give-and-take with the illustrator, the brilliant idea, the strong beginning, the twist endings.

After you read a jillion of them, their residue is left behind and it’s easier to get out of the way and write something uniquely fresh and your own. I think every kid (and editor!) is looking for this in your next picture book.

Cate with VCFA faculty member A.S. King

I’d also say it’s very important to pay it forward. There are writers who have been so generous with their time and talent towards me over the years and continue to be so. I will never forget it.

I write a new mission statement for my writing each year and I always end it with “give back as much as I receive.” I hope I can encourage beginning writers to remember this unspoken tradition in our community and pay it forward as they move along in writing and publishing.

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

I love this question. You’ve made me think about it a lot. There is a lot of change right now. There are school visits, conferences, panels, social media and blog posts where there was once just writing time.
I’m not someone who believes in balance, which isn’t very on trend right now.

I don’t do yoga. I meditate until I have to stop and jot down “a very important note.” I like moving at full speed, falling into a project and not coming up for air until it’s done. I also like saying “yes” to everything. But all this isn’t very realistic.

So, I’ve incorporated two things into my life during this transition from writer to author. The first is asking for help from amazing women, in all fields, who are a step or two ahead of me.


I’ve watched successful men, including my dad, ask for assistance when they need it. Why shouldn’t I? A friend of mine in women’s marketing offered to be my project manager. She’s brilliant, helping me organize my new book/author commitments and not get overwhelmed with the process.

One of my students is helping me with the extra social media that comes along with launching a new book. And I’ve enlisted the help of another writer who is much farther along in publishing than myself to critique new manuscripts for me each month so my writing remains on the front burner.

And speaking of burners, I don’t want to burn out. That leads me to my second life change: making downtime a priority.

It was suggested I do this everyday and my first thought was, That’s nuts. There’s too much to do! I can’t stop until it’s done (see above paragraph)!

But, I want to be writing for many years. It’s a slow burn not a hot mess— this business of long-time book making. Taking twenty minutes a day to curl up with my cat isn’t going to slow me down at all.

In fact, I’m finding I’m more productive with less time on the days I keep this commitment of regular downtime.

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

A week after I was accepted into the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program, I signed with my agent.

Some writing friends were scratching their heads at my decision to attend because, yes, MFAs are expensive and demanding. And hey, you just got an agent. Do you need to do this? I also knew it would be hard on my family.

But my mentor at the time gave me great advice: getting an MFA will put you on a fast track with your writing and ultimately your career. At the time I thought, Great! I will gain a degree along with accruing a lot of publishable work.

Turns out, I misunderstood her completely. To be clear, I don’t believe you must gain an MFA to write or publish, many writers I admire don’t have one. But for me, it allowed me to claim my space as a writer.

Is it Hogwarts or Narnia or Wonderland or Brigadoon?
Vermont College of Fine Arts is a low residency MFA and comes with a grueling schedule of critical writing, creative writing and an enormous amount of reading every month. We all know life gets in the way when you try and write. Going to VCFA took away any excuse for not putting writing at the top of my To Do list. And now I feel that commitment is embedded in my DNA.

I think that’s what my mentor really meant. It was a fast track, for me, in that it cemented my writing process.
One thing that surprised me is that working towards an MFA at VCFA was not linear.

Looking back, it’s strange how much I learned without academic scaffolding holding everything in place (ex. detailed curriculum uniformly followed by all students). I had four completely different advisors throughout my two years in the program, and I gleaned four different skill sets under their wings.

One semester was spent entirely on picture books. I had experience writing in this genre so I was able to dive deep, annotating hundreds of picture books and writing three to five drafts each month as well as revising and working intimately with my advisor and five other students through an online forum.

I received a certificate at the end of that semester which felt a little like “The Wizard of Oz” ending. Ultimately, it’s just a piece of paper, and yet, it gives me strength and confidence when I glance at it (which I do often!) knowing the effort behind it.

I will admit I was intimidated and frustrated by all the critical writing at first. But after some guidance, I grew to love it. My critical thesis and lecture were based around humorous picture books. I made time to delve into humor theory and research, applying it to currently published picture books, which now informs my daily writing. More importantly, it sharpened my analytical skills.

Why is this important for creative writing? Well, how can you write a great novel or picture book without being able to pull apart the mechanics of the story and embed your heart into it at the same time?

In the end, the greatest gift from my master’s program was understanding and valuing the long game. Faculty member Cynthia Leitich Smith’s inspired series on longevity and publishing in children’s writing also highlights these sentiments.

Sometimes life happens no matter how much you plan for an uninterrupted writing day.

This past week my son had the flu—pfft —I lost four days. But you can always keep your finger in the creative pie.

Even on the crazy days, I’ll jot down a poem or a new picture book title. My advisors, whom (lucky me) are now some of my writing pals, taught me about attending my work with care and dedication because we are writers for life, not sprinters in a writing contest.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews said of Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime!:

“Ironic counterpoint abounds in this humorous picture book, which sees the eponymous characters rejecting typical bedtime-book activities and accouterments through speech-balloon text, as all the while humorous, expressive, digital illustrations doggedly present them…. A definite do for bedtime.”

Cate Berry is a faculty member with the Writing Barn in Austin, Texas and an active member in the SCBWI and Writers’ League of Texas.

She also speaks at schools, libraries and conferences year round on such topics as “Gender Stereotyping and Poetic Devices” and “From Stand Up to Sit Down: Funneling Surprise and Stand-Up Comedy into Humorous Picture Books.”

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.

New Voices: Inside Scoop on Debut Author Groups with J.H. Diehl, Lauren Abbey Greenberg, Jonathan Roth & Deborah Schaumberg

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

After years of writing you finally have your very first book deal! Now what? How do you promote your debut novel? I talked to four Maryland debut authors from the Electric Eighteens to get the inside scoop on how debut groups for young adult and middle grade authors work.

Deborah Schaumberg, J.H. Diehl, Lauren Abbey Greenberg, Jonathan Roth
Let’s start with some basic introductions. Tells us about your book and your publishing journey.


J.H. Diehl: Tiny Infinities (Chronicle, 2018) is a contemporary novel for ages 10 and up. It’s about a competitive swimmer whose dedication to her sport, unlikely new friendships, and science experiments with fireflies all combine to help her navigate the tough summer she turns thirteen, when her parents split up and her mom suffers from depression.

I’ve published picture books, leveled readers and short fiction in literary journals. Tiny Infinities is the first novel for young readers. After many revisions, I’m grateful it found a perfect home with Chronicle Books.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: The Battle of Junk Mountain (Running Press, 2018) is a middle grade contemporary novel that tells the story of a friendship in peril, a grandmother who’s a hoarder, and the danger of trying to hold on too hard to one’s past.

I was a documentary scriptwriter for about ten years before trying my hand at novel writing, and from there, it took another ten years before I got a book deal.

Jonathan Roth: I write and illustrate a humorous chapter book series, set in space school, called Beep and Bob (Aladdin, 2018). Books one and two released (Beep and Bob: Too Much Space! and Beep and Bob: Party Crashers) March 13, book three (Beep and Bob: Take Us To Your Sugar) releases in September.

I wrote many picture books and middle grade novels before discovering that the sweet spot for me seems to be the six-to-nine-year-olds right in the center.

Deborah Schaumberg: The Tombs (Harper Teen, 2018) is a young adult historical fantasy set in 1882 New York. It is about a young aura seer who must free her mother from the Tombs asylum where seers are being experimented on and used against their will.

My publishing journey began many years ago with a middle grade novel. After tons of rejections I started over, writing for young adults, and finally found an agent through a SCBWI conference.

Who are the Electric Eighteens?



Jonathan Roth: The Electric Eighteens are a merry band of international debut middle grade and YA (and some chapter book, like me) authors who support each other online and in person through the highs and lows of the publishing process, through networking, reading advance copies of each other’s books, attending launch events, and dozens of other large and small ways.

Unlike earlier debut groups, we do not have any specific marketing requirements. It is more about helping each other as we are each able.

Deborah Schaumberg: [It] is essentially a support group. It’s like holding hands to jump in the pool!

J.H. Diehl: The group is run by volunteers, who put up and maintain a website, a closed Facebook group, a complicated set of ARC tour spreadsheets and a wonderful series of weekly member interviews.

Smaller sub-groups have organized ‘pods’ on Instagram and meetups at conferences, festivals and launch events.

How did you find out about the Electric Eighteens?

Deborah Schaumberg: Word of mouth. I found out about the Electric Eighteens from someone in a new critique group that participated in the Sweet Sixteens when her book was published.

J.H. Diehl: In August 2017, when my book’s final edits were nearly done, and I allowed myself to think ‘this is really happening’, I did an online search for a 2018 YA/middle grade debut group. I’d seen prior year debut groups and thought it would be great to join one. I didn’t know just how great until I became part of the EEs.

Jonathan Roth: I was a member of the Swanky 17s (rebranded as the 2017 Debut Group) and like many from that group, had my release date bumped to 2018. So I promptly applied and jumped over.

Though having to wait six months longer for what already felt like an eternity was initially a bit of a downer, I find having two groups of new friends has turned out to be a real blessing. Don’t fear the bumper!

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: Jonathan set up a monthly local SCBWI get-together, and it was there where I met him and Deborah and learned about the group.

Deborah invited me in and introduced me and instantly I had tons of people welcoming me, complimenting my book cover – it was an amazing feeling.

How have the Electric Eighteens helped you in promoting your book and how has it help you build a local community?


Lauren Abbey Greenberg: We follow and support each other, not only on Facebook, but on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.

The ARC tour is extremely effective because often an EE member will post a picture of your cover with either a shout-out or a full review and you can share that across all your social media platforms for maximum exposure.

I do feel a kinship between us four local authors, all from the same county, and I enjoy seeing them face-to-face once a month.

Jonathan Roth: Beyond the typical online sharing, I have attended many ’17 and ’18 debut book events in the D.C. area, and was thrilled to have a number of debuts attend my launch.

Though I greatly appreciate being able to connect online with other 18s around the country and world, being able to sit around a table or chat at conferences with people is my preferred method of networking.

Also, I suspect most promotion is actually invisible (when I talk up books to fellow teachers and media specialists at the school where I teach, for example).

J.H. Diehl: Some EE members who are bloggers or librarians (or both!) have reached out to the group to offer opportunities to circulate advanced reader copies to teen reading groups or to participate in blog interviews. Likewise, some established book bloggers have reached out to the group to offer guest blog opportunities.

There have been some helpful threads in the Facebook group about book swag.

Thanks to the EEs I found a terrific designer for bookmarks and other items, YA author Kristen Rae, a member of a previous YA-middle grade debut group.

What have you learned about book promotion from being in the Electric Eighteens?

Jonathan Roth: Though we share all sorts of helpful tips with each other, my main take away about promotion is that no one actually knows the proven path, but we’re all stumbling down it together.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: I’ve learned about a whole community of librarians and teachers that are active on social media and willing to review and share ARCs. They are an awesome resource, especially for middle grade authors, because if they like your book they will shout it from the rooftops!

Deborah Schaumberg: I’ve learned so much from my fellow Electric Eighteens!

As someone that is not particularly tech-savvy, I can watch to see what other people do. As a result, I have created a book trailer, learned what a GIF is, and learned how to post on Instagram. We discuss what is working and what isn’t.

What surprised you about being in the Electric Eighteen group?


Deborah Schaumberg: How close I feel to many of the Electric Eighteens members.

Writing is such a solitary endeavor; we usually don’t have people around us when we write.

And as an introvert, I’ve been to events where I was too shy to talk to people I didn’t know.

At a recent conference I met another EE for the first time. I immediately hugged her hello because I felt like I knew her already from all the online sharing.

Lauren Abbey Greenberg: The flood of information surprised me. Your Facebook newsfeed becomes inundated with advice, questions, musings, good and bad news.

At first, it was overwhelming. I had to remind myself that I didn’t have to like or comment on every single post.

There’s also a tendency to fall into the comparison game. Why didn’t my book didn’t get a starred review? Why am I not booking as many events as so-and-so?

You have to pull back sometimes and remind yourself that each publishing journey is unique.

What advice would you pass on to future groups like the 2019s, 2020s, etc? 


Lauren Abbey Greenberg: Embrace this opportunity. Learn from each other. Share. Support. Cheerlead. It’s a special club, and I’m proud to be a member.

J.H. Diehl: Go into to it knowing you can participate as much or as little as you feel comfortable with, and get ready to be surprised and humbled by the support you’ll experience from the other debut authors in the group.

Go into it knowing it’s a great opportunity to give support to your fellow writers and also to experience tremendous gratitude.

Deborah Schaumberg: Also, the way the administrators of the Electric Eighteens structured the group works really well. I think past groups had lots of rules about how many advanced reader copies each member had to read and so on.

We are a support system only, all promotion is voluntary, and we are respectful and inclusive. I never feel pressured to do more than I can handle and I participate as much as I want.

Jonathan Roth: The groups grow to up to 200, so it’s pretty impossible (at least for me) to bond with everyone and/or read all their books. Like so much in life, you get out what you put in, but be selective and realistic. And most of all, be excellent to each other (and party on, debuts)!

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

Learn more about Carolyn Crimi.

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, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

My kneejerk reaction to that question is, “What success?”

So I suppose one way I’ve managed to stay in the game is redefining what that word means and how important it is to me.

Sometimes success means writing the next page, or figuring out a sticky plot problem, or exploring a new genre.

Those are the successes that get you through your tough days. Because there will be tough days, I know that now.

While I’ve won some nice awards, I consider the acceptance of my first novel (Weird Little Robots (Candlewick, 2019)) my biggest success simply because I honestly thought I couldn’t do it.

It was incredibly challenging, but I amazed myself by actually completing and then selling the dang thing. I’m still gobsmacked.

I was able to do that by telling myself that even if this novel was never accepted, writing it was worth it. As a picture book author, I found the idea of spending so much time on a longer project daunting. But what if I just did it for the joy of writing and completing a novel? Of really throwing myself into a project for…fun?

5/14, “Edge of Tomorrow”

I put all thoughts of selling it aside and dived in with my whole heart. It was exhilarating, nerve-wracking, gut wrenching, and absolutely the highlight of my career.

I also have a motto, which I’m embarrassed to say I heard from Tom Cruise (yup!): “Keep your head down and do the work.”

If that means leaving Facebook for a while, do it. There will always be people more successful than you are. Big deal.

Just keep your head down and do the work.

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

I’d have a book signing party for my first book. I felt funny and shy about doing that way back in 1995, but I now realize I’ll never have a first book published ever again!

Overall, I’d celebrate more and agonize less.

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?

Picture books are much, much, shorter than they used to be when I started out. Back in the ’90s, you could get away with a 900 word picture book. Nowadays they’re usually about 500 words or less.

I’m often asked to trim something down so much that I’m left with a manuscript that’s mostly dialogue.

While I love splashy, gorgeously illustrated picture books, I also love and appreciate lyrical language. And yes,I know that the reader will understand a lot of what’s going on the through the pictures, but a few well-chosen words that are fun to say can only add value.

I’m a bit tired of snark. It’s so easy to do, and seems to have been done to death lately. In this political climate, I’d like to see a little less snark and a little more kindness.

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

Save some money from your advance and hire a publicist. They are not cheap but they’re worth it. I plan on using one for Weird Little Robots, my first novel that’s coming out with Candlewick in 2019. (And yes, I will be throwing myself a huge party!)

Like most writers, I dislike marketing and promoting intensely. I’d much rather spend my time writing my next book.

Also? Know that there will be many ups and downs in this career. If you manage to climb back up after being in a writing funk, remember how you did it so that you can do it again. Because you will be in a funk again. And again.

Know that it happens to everyone and that the people who stick with it are the ones who have strategies for pulling themselves out of that muck.

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

Courage to write the story they’re aching to write.

Courage to try a new genre.

Courage to write about what scares them.

And joy!

There’s nothing like that fizzy feeling you get after a good writing day. I would send gallons of that feeling to all my friends if I could.

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

I’d also like a healthy dose of courage to keep going in this topsy-turvy publishing environment.

Cynsational Notes 

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

 

Pura Belpré Award Winner & New Voice: Juana Martinez-Neal on Alma and How She Got Her Name

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Juana Martinez-Neal is a force of nature already this year.

Having won the 2018 Pura Belpré Award for her illustrations in La Princesa and the Pea, written by Susan Middleton Elya (Putnam, 2017), she now has her own debut picture book, Alma and How She Got Her Name (Candlewick, 2018).

Candlewick acquired the story in a seven-publisher auction and is releasing it simultaneously in Spanish and English.

Publishers Weekly, Booklist and School Library Journal all gave the book starred reviews.

I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful picture book and caught up with Juana as she starts a busy season of appearances to talk about her craft and the origin of Alma’s story.

Tell me what first inspired you to illustrate for young readers? 

My father and grandfather were both fine artists in Peru and I grew up in a house surrounded by art materials, easels, art studio spaces and paintings – painted by people who I knew.

How amazing is that?

At 16, and while I was still in high school, I was working on some commercial illustration for toys. That was so much fun! I illustrated until I was 21 when I was accepted to Art School for Painting in Lima. Once in art school, my pieces felt more whimsical or younger than what other students were creating, so I decided to move to the United States in search of new things and answers.

Years later, and after the birth of our second son, I realized that I had to go back to illustration.

I was living in the United States where illustrating children’s books could be a career – that was not the case when I lived in Peru.

I met some local Arizona illustrators through SCBWI who pointed me in the right direction. With their guidance, I gave myself assignments, completed new pieces done, posted my work in online portfolios, and eventually got some magazine and educational work.

Then, I was hired by some small presses and authors who were self-publishing books.

While this was happening, my work was developing. Initially I worked with colored pencils, mainly because I had two boys under the age of three running around the house. As they grew older so did my wish to explore new media, and I started playing with materials and slowly developed the mixed media technique that I use now.

Juana’s workspace

In 2012, twenty-weeks pregnant with our daughter and with this new technique, I was awarded the Portfolio Grand Prize at the SCBWI Annual Conference. I also met my literary agent, Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary.

I then worked on a few book illustration opportunities, and little by little an idea I had grew into my author-illustrator debut picture book, Alma and How She Got Her Name.

Although this is your debut picture book as an author-illustrator, you have illustrated books for other authors. Describe to me the emotions around getting the call that you had won the 2018 Pura Belpré Illustration Award for La Princesa and the Pea.


On Sunday evening, the whole family had tickets to go see “Hamilton.” My cell rang for the first time as the lights were dimming and the play was about to start.


My cell rang many, many more times. As it rang, I went from being frustrated with an unknown telemarketer to worrying that maybe something had happened to my parents or my brother.

Otherwise, why in the world would my phone ring so many times?

I had to wait until the intermission to call back.

“Hello. Someone is calling me from this number?” I said in an unusual calm and patient voice.
“Is this Juana Martinez-Neal?”
“Yes.”
“We are calling from the Pura Be…”

And that was enough to start ugly crying. I honestly don’t remember many of the details from the call.

Later, when we got home, I started doubting if or what I had won. It was a restless, long night. The best restless, long night I have had in a while.

The next morning, I watched the webcast to make sure! There were lots of emotions!

How did you come to write and illustrate Alma and How She Got Her Name?

The idea for my book and early drafts of the manuscript started with the story of how I was named by my parents in Peru.

I was born Juana Carlota Martinez Pizarro. “Juana” was the name of my grandmother, my father’s mother. And “Carlota” was supposed to be “Carla” after my mom’s uncle Carlos, who she loved very much and passed when she was 20 and he was 33 years old. This is Esperanza’s son in the book.

My dad was in charge of filling out my birth certificate. Being the man he was, he wanted a stronger name than Carla and decided to change it to Carlota. He felt that Carlota was the strong name that I needed.

For the first twenty years of my life, I couldn’t disagree more. In Peru we also use two last names – both our mother’s and our father’s last names. So I was Juana Carlota Martinez Pizarro, which is a long name and very Spanish name. Juana Carlota can sound very old-fashioned and harsh, and growing up people around me made me aware of that – especially my friends’ moms.

Interior illustration by Juana Martinez-Neal, used with permission 

I have a big family photo album which I put together many, many years ago with photos I collected from my parents, which they got from their parents, and that my grandparents got from their parents.

Every time I looked at the photo album, my head filled with many questions. Who were they? What did they love? What made them who they were?

One day, I began drawing these photographs and piecing together a story about a little girl with a really long name and how she learns about her family through those names.

The story of Alma and all her relatives began to take shape. All of Alma’s relatives in the book are based on relatives in my own extended family.

While I had been looking at my big family album for years and thinking about a story, I gave birth to my third child and first daughter in 2013, and thought about my name again and my daughter’s name.

I came back to the story and began to talk to my agent about it. Her son is named after his great grandfather and he is the fourth generation with his name. We began talking about our children’s names and how all children – really everyone – has a story behind their name. Then the story grew from there!

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

Artistically, since much of my inspiration came from my big old family photo album. I wanted the entire book to feel like an old photo album without being one.

Interior illustration by Juana Martinez-Neal, used with permission 

The first image I created was the one of José, my dad’s dad who was an artist. It was challenging to make the characters look and feel like the relatives or capture their spirit in creative ways. While I didn’t keep all of their exact names, the names embody the essence of those family members.

I used many details in the pieces to tell more of the stories of the family members and their past, such as Esperanza, whose name means “hope,” and she is shown filled with gifts and letters by her side to symbolize that she always hoped to travel but never left home. Yet through her son’s gifts, she got to “see” the world.

Esperanza’s son is my great uncle Carlos – after whom my mom named me. He went on a cruise and never came back. His body was never recovered. This story marked me in significant ways, and I always felt that my great-grandmother stayed in her home town hoping that one day Carlos would come back home. Needless to say, Esperanza’s story was the most challenging to tell. 

Psychologically, writing Alma was a big challenge. Even though the text is short, I had to dig deep to tell the stories of the life of each one of the relatives.

In this one book, there are many stories woven through from the past along with Alma’s story happening in the present. The story is framed by Alma talking with her daddy. I am also very close to my dad, and spent many hours talking with him and my mom about the stories of our family. It was a very intense time. While writing and revising, I could only take one story at a time before I was sobbing.

Funny enough, as I found myself crying, I started to realize that I had gotten to that place where I needed to be to tell my story.

Juana signing copies of Alma at Southern California Independent Booksellers Association
Celebrating the Kids’ IndieNext Top 10 Spring 2018

As a member of a community underrepresented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to Alma? 

I am Peruvian, and I often see my people and culture underrepresented or shown in only one story often filled with stereotypes.

I’ll take advantage of this opportunity to share that not all Peruvians live in the mountains, wear chullos, and own llamas.

Alma and How She Got Her Name is all about being Peruvian—from showing the mix of traditional religion and Indigenous beliefs (that I absolutely believe), to living in a politically unstable country, to valuing or sadly not valuing our own Indigenous people.

There is a richness to Alma’s character as a Peruvian, and she is proud of herself and her family. I hope young readers see this and turn to discover pride in their own names, families, and heritage. Celebrate who they are!

Alma will be released in simultaneous English and Spanish hardcover editions.

As a native Spanish speaker, I wrote both the English and the original Spanish.

It is an honor to be able to share this story in both of my languages!

Cynsational Notes


In a starred review, Publishers Weekly described Alma and How She Got Her Name as “an origin story that envelops readers like a hug.”


The starred review from School Library Journal indicates Juana achieved her illustration goal.

“The round, stylized figure of the girl, dressed in pink striped pants and a white shirt, pops against the sepia pages (reminiscent of old, family photo albums).”

See teacher tips for using Alma in the classroom from Candlewick Press.

Juana Martinez-Neal is also the illustrator of La Madre Goose and La Princesa and the Pea, both written by Susan M. Elya and published by Putnam.

She was born in Lima, the capital of Peru, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband, two sons, daughter, puppy, and the soul of their late kitty.

Follow her on Twitter and Instagram to see her latest work.

She is represented by Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary.

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.

Watch a video interview with Juana in English…

…or in Spanish.

Full Cover & Author Quotes (Blurbs) for Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

click image to enlarge

My deepest thanks to distinguished authors An Na, Joseph Bruchac and Guadalupe Garcia McCall for sharing their thoughts about my forthcoming contemporary realistic novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 2018).

Here’s what they had to say:

“I loved her irreverent, hilarious, and subversive dismantling of stereotypes. Cyn’s trademark, spot-on dialogue captures the teen spirit perfectly. I want Lou to be my best friend!” —An Na, author of A Step from Heaven, winner of the Michael L. Printz Award and a National Book Award finalist

Learn more about my books.

Hearts Unbroken is a rare blend of teenage romance and social consciousness that never insults the intelligence of its readers. Truly shows what life is like for a contemporary American Indian teeenager trying to fit into the larger context of American society.” —Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), author of Code Talker

“Smart, quirky, and slightly flawed, Louise Wolfe is like a lot of teenage girls in America. Cynthia Leitich Smith has crafted a heartfelt book with an important message about loyalty, intepersonal connections, and the power of love to tear down barriers. This story will dissolve boundaries and knock down walls.” —Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Pura Belpré Author Award Winner for Under the Mesquite

Cynsational Notes

Pre-order Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Indiebound or another book retailer such as your local independent bookstore like BookPeople in Austin.

Order more of Cyn’s published books – list and links via SCBWI.

Bookseller Interview: Nicoletta “Nico” Maldini of Libreria Trame Bookstore in Bologna, Italy.

By Angela Cerrito
for SCBWI Bologna 2018 and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Note: This interview is part of a series focusing on the Bologna Children’s Book Fair


SCBWI Assistant International Adviser Angela Cerrito talks with Nicoletta “Nico” Maldini, a partner in the Libreria Trame Bookstore in the heart of Bologna, Italy. 

Tell us about Liberia Trame, what inspired you to open the bookstore?

I started working in a bookstore since 1990, after my second degree in liberal arts and many years in my father’s menswear store.

After working at three different companies, I decided to start a new business, together with two friends. I opened Trame in December 2005; it’s an independent bookstore with a selection of books for children and adults, open Mondays to Saturdays, and all December Sundays.



The SCBWI community recognizes Liberia Trame for the SCBWI dance parties during the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. What other events do you offer at the store?

We love our common SCBWI Biennial Dance party, but you are correct we have much more going on at Trame’s.
In 2017, we had 120 events in the store, mostly book signing with authors, and conferences about new books, novels, poetry or essays, and sometimes classics.

We also hosted seven exhibitions, photographs, or illustrations.
We have a resident reading group and collaborate with three more. Also, we collaborate with cultural associations and Bologna University. Last year, we supported with books or press conferences more than 80 events out of the store.

One of the many successes of Libreria Trame is the sense of community. Your newsletter promotes events bringing together people from literature, drama, all areas of the arts and politics. How have you managed to attract such a diverse group of patrons to the store?

I’ve always liked the opportunity to offer different occasions of encounters. I’ve been working for a public radio for more than 20 years, and I’ve just started, with a bunch of friends, a new web radio called Neu Radio. Books offer so many ideas and people like to join together for a good conversation and a glass of wine.

What advice do you have for anyone considering opening a bookstore in their home town?

Maybe I would suggest first to check if it’s possible to cooperate with an existing one, it being not an easy moment to start a new business. And to study deeply the location and the relation with the scholastic community, starting from children and families as these customers could guarantee a better life for the store.

Nico has always loved books

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?

I like cinema and music, classical jazz and rock. And, of course, I’m an early reader; I started at three and never stopped.

I’m a good eater, which being Italian is quite common, too.

Cynsational Notes

Nico Maldini is a partner in the Libreria Trame Bookstore, located at Via Goito 3/c, a side street of the Via Indipendenza.

Born in Bologna, she is a traveler and a book lover.

Angela Cerrito is an author and playwright.

Her latest novel, The Safest Lie (Holiday House, 2015) was named a Notable Social Studies Book for Young People by the National Council for the Social Studies, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book from the Association of Jewish Libraries, and received SCBWI’s Crystal Kite Award.

She serves as the Assistant International Advisor for SCBWI and a co-organizer of SCBWI at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. She also is the Cynsations reporter for Europe.

This interview is part of the SCBWI Bologna Interview series coordinated by Elisabeth Norton, SCBWI Regional Advisor for Switzerland.

Cynsational News

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

Author/Illustrator Insights

3 Questions with Sylvia Vardell from Children’s Book Council. Peek:

“ …I’ve always found that kids love poetry—it’s the grownups (who buy books) who have the mental blocks about what they think poetry is or should be.”

Finding Your Way Out of the Margins by Caleb Roehrig from CBC Diversity. Peek:

“… it was just around that same time that I finally discovered the works of David Levithan, and saw that gay characters maybe did have the right to shine after all.”

List of the Week: Ladies Characters Study STEM in YA by Lauren James from YA Interrobang. Peek:

“It was also rare to find a character studying science who felt realistic to me. Most of the time they were wildly absurd – geniuses in not just their field but everything, who knew how to hack any server, recreate any molecule…”

Varian Johnson and The Parker Inheritance by Suzanne McCabe from Scholastic Reads Podcast. Peek: “Varian talks about his inspiration for the book, the research it took to dig back into his own hometown’s past, and about social justice — how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.”

Diversity


YA A to Z: The Long Road to Gentrification by Author Lilliam Rivera by Karen Jensen from Teen Librarian Toolbox. Peek:

“What seems so sudden is actually an economic system placed to improve an urban neighborhood at the cost of the families living there… I’m sharing books that might help readers understand the history of gentrification as well as young adult novels that dig deep on how this can shape a young person’s life.”

Diversifying Middle Grade Books by Emma Kantor from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“Spurred on by the We Need Diverse Books movement, a crop of new imprints and initiatives reflect publishers’ ongoing efforts to expand the middle grade category, seeking out traditionally underrepresented voices and stories.”

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

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

Walter Grant Submissions from We Need Diverse Books. Peek:

“The Walter Grants were established to amplify and elevate diverse writers as well as their diverse works…we will award five grants of $2000 each. Applications are open from May 1 to May 31, 2018. If you’re interested in applying for a grant, please read over our submission guidelines and FAQ.”

Children’s Day, Book Day from Pat Mora. Peek:

 “In 1996, I learned about the Mexican tradition of celebrating April 30th as El día del niño, the day of the child. I thought, ‘We have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. We need kids’ day too, but I want to connect all children with bookjoy, the pleasure of reading.’”

Writing Craft

Keep Your Characters Consistent by Jim Dempsey from Writer Unboxed. Peek:

“…it’s easier than you might think to introduce character inconsistencies into your writing. You could have had a long break between writing chapters because, well, that’s how life goes.”

A Tip for Getting Through Hard-to-Write Scenes by Janice Hardy from Fiction University. Peek:

“When faced with a sticking point in your writing, it’s helpful to just write the elements you can and move on. They won’t be the best scenes, and they’ll need work, but at least they’ll be down on paper and you can fix them later.”

A Writer’s Life Revealed by Kathryn Benson from Laura Ojeda Melchor. Peek:

“There’s nothing wrong with setting up schedules and systems (normally I love schedules and systems) but, when you feel adrift and you don’t have room in your life for deadlines or word count goals, it’s okay to write simply because you need to, because writing helps you remember who you are.”

What to Write When You’re Not Writing by Gargi Mehra from Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Peek:

“Here’s what I usually do when I don’t feel like writing something new, but my fingers are itching to put something down on paper nevertheless.”

7 Methods for Writing Your First Draft by Ross Raisin from Lit Hub. Peek:

“One of the quiet pleasures of writing fiction is that each project spawns its own storytelling rulebook…There are, nonetheless, certain elements of craft to discover and to practice—to reject, sometimes—but, firstly, to understand.”

LoonSong: A Writer’s Retreat & LoonSong: Turtle Island


LoonSong: A Writer’s Retreat is scheduled for Sept. 6 to Sept. 10 at Elbow Lake Lodge in Cook, Minnesota.

Faculty include children’s-YA authors Nikki Grimes, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Bruce Coville, Marion Dane Bauer, Jane Buchanan, Sarah Aronson, and Debby Dahl Edwardson as well as agent Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary and editorial director and publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. Note: author Susan Cooper, who was previously listed on the site, will not be able to make the event. See more on the faculty. Peek:

“We offer a smorgasbord of activities for writers to pick from: stimulating lectures and panel discussions, writing prompts and workshops, readings and one-on-one marketing, agent, and editorial consultations. 

“An agent and editor will be present at all readings. Our presenters include seasoned writers, an agent, and an editor who will help you grow your career, develop new approaches to craft, and think deeply about the writing life.”

LoonSong Turtle Island is scheduled from Sept. 11 to Sept. 14 at the same location.

See video.

Faculty include authors Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee (Creek)), Tim Tingle (Choctaw) and Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe), author-editor-publisher Arthur A. Levine of Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic as well as editorial director and associate publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. See more on the faculty.
Peek:

“…a writing retreat for Native American writers only, a place where writers can come together with a talented faculty of published Native writers and industry professionals to share their writing, spark their imaginations, and make the kinds of connections that help set a career on course.” 

Please note that a few publisher-sponsored scholarships are available. Thank you, Candlewick and Charlesbridge!

Publishing


When to Follow Up with a Literary Agent from Nathan Bransford. Peek:

“In this post, I’ll give you some guidelines on when and when not to follow up with an agent based on different stages in the publishing process.”

In the #MeToo Moment, Publishers Turn to Morality Clauses by Rachel Deahl from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“…publishers are increasingly inserting…morality clauses—that allows them to terminate agreements in response to a broad range of behavior by authors. And agents…say the change is worrying….”

Marketing Middle Grade Books by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“The marketing of middle grade is trying to balance between speaking directly to the readers and to the gatekeepers, as you need to be able to get both groups excited about a book or series.”

Once-Endangered Bookstores Are Booming Again from CBS News. Peek:

“Between 2009 and 2015, more than 570 independent bookstores opened in the U.S., bringing the total to more than 2,200; that’s about a 35 percent jump after more than a decade of decline.”

Awards

Congratulations to Gordon C. James and Daria Peoples-Riley for winning the 2018 Sonia Lynn Sadler Award for Children’s Book Illustrations!

This Week at Cynsations

Cynthia Leitich Smith & Marion Dane Bauer.

More Personally – Cynthia


Congratulations to the finalists for the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award! Best wishes to all of you on your creative journey, and I know the winner will have a wonderful learning experience with this year’s mentor, Jennifer Ziegler.

My apologies for my absence to the writers whose manuscripts I critique for last week’s Austin SCBWI Conference. I had every intention of attending, but was waylaid by an unforseen health glitch. Please do feel free to contact me with any questions and/or to discuss your writing and publishing career momre generally.

In other news, I was excited to receive a complimentary copy of Typewriter Rodeo:  Real People, Real Stories Custom Poems by Jodi Edgerton, David Fruchter, Kari Anne Holt and Sean Petrie (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2018). You can find the poem written for me by Sean on page 168. It was ordered for me by fellow author and pal Kekla Magoon at a book launch for author-illustrator Don Tate at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center in Austin.


More Personally- Robin


Last week I went to the book signing for the middle grade novel Charlie & Frog by Karen Kane (Disney, 2018). Charlie’s lonely life picks up when he meets Frog, a deaf girl with a passion for mysteries. The book signing at Solid State Books near Gallaudet University was presented in both English and American Sign Language. I started reading the novel this week and am totally charmed!

Author Karen Kane and Illustrator Carlisle Robinson

More Personally – Gayleen


Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be at the New Fiction Confab at Austin’s Central Library. Readings and panel discussions will take place from 2-5 p.m. at the free event sponsored by the Austin Library Foundation.
I had a blast at the Austin SCBWI Conference last weekend, catching up with old friends and making new ones. We kicked off the event with a volunteer and faculty party at the home of Assistant Regional Advisor P.J. Hoover. Here’s a photo of the set-up team before the guests arrived.
Stephanie Pellegrin, Cory Putman Oakes, Jessica Lee Anderson,
Madeline Smoot, Gayleen & P.J. Hoover.

New Voice: Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow on Mommy’s Khimar

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m delighted to share my interview with Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, a fellow Epic Eighteen debut author of Mommy’s Khimar, illustrated by Ebony Glenn (Salaam Reads, 2018)).

This cheerful and empowering story which centers on a young Muslim, African American girl who loves wearing her mommy’s khimar (headscarf) received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.

I know children will gravitate to the uplifting text and illustrations and fall in love with the little girl and story as I did. From the promotional copy:

A khimar is a flowing scarf that my mommy wears.
Before she walks out the door each day, she wraps one around her head. 

 A young girl plays dress up with her mother’s headscarves, feeling her mother’s love with every one she tries on. Charming and vibrant illustrations showcase the beauty of the diverse and welcoming community in this portrait of a young Muslim American girl’s life.



Jamilah, share with our readers your initial inspiration for writing this book. 

I wanted to write books about Muslim children and I couldn’t get the idea of doing a story about the Islamic headscarf out of my head. It felt like a necessary story but also one that could turn into a preachy, dull, or even polarizing book–none of which are good for a picture book.

Still, I couldn’t get past this idea so I tried to have fun with it.

I thought back to how I saw this religious garb as a child. As a five-year-old, I wasn’t expounding upon the merits of headscarves, but I was tying them around my neck and dashing around the room in them. That seemed like a story children could enjoy.

Khimar Wardrobe

As an author and teacher, how do your various roles inform one another?

I worked as a middle and high school English teacher for over a decade and now, in my role as a program director for a nonprofit called Mighty Writers, I help develop and teach writing workshops for youth ages 2 to 18.

I can honestly say that becoming an author has made me a better writing teacher. I can articulate the process with authenticity and empathy and I teach with an awareness that students can write for bigger audiences than the people in our workshop. Publication is possible for them because it is possible for me.

Conversely, I think being a teacher made it easier for me to become a writer. I’ve spent much of my career teaching kids how to dissect and emulate mentor texts.

When I wanted to learn how to write children’s literature, I immediately identified the mentor texts I needed and went at them in a very methodical way so I could learn the craft of them.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

Although I know the prevailing wisdom is to use contemporary books as models, I am obsessed with classics. The most useful book for me in terms of craft in general has been Swimmy by Leo Lionni  (Knopf, 1963).

When I first started learning picture book craft, I would return to this book and dissect it again and again. I love how Lionni incorporated a sense of wonder, beautiful language, a character with heart, and an engaging plot in less than three hundred words.

For language and pacing in Mommy’s Khimar, I looked to quiet books like Stars by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane, 2011).

I saw my main character as very similar to the main character in Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch (Dial, 1991). To a certain extent, I tried to create a younger, Muslim version of the same character.

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

The best moment was absolutely getting the offer for Mommy’s Khimar. I cried tears of joy for an hour. All of the firsts since then have been emotional thrills: the first sketches, the cover, the F&G, and then holding the final copy. There’s nothing like it.

The worst? It’s hard to say and maybe, it’s because I haven’t been in the business long enough. I have had a number of rejections.

Strangely, they haven’t felt all that bad. I compartmentalize them. The worst is probably sending work I think is a perfect fit for an editor or an agent and getting a form rejection or no response at all.

Cynsational Notes


In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews wrote:

“The words are often lyrical, and the story artfully includes many cultural details that will delight readers who share the cheerful protagonist’s culture and enlighten readers who don’t.”

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow is the debut author of Mommy’s Khimar (Salaam Reads, 2018).

She is a former English teacher and now helps kids learn how to write outside of the classroom in her nonprofit work.

She resides with her family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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: Marion Dane Bauer on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Marion Dane Bauer.

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?

My first response to that question was . . . how can I talk about bumps? I have been so darned lucky! In 1976, the first novel I ever attempted to write was published, and in the more than forty years that have followed I’ve seen 100 more books into the light.

And yet, of course, there have been bumps.

I’ll talk about just one, though, the one I’ve found most important to overcome in order to “defy the odds.” That bump is isolation. Complete and utter isolation.

When I made the decision to take this writing habit seriously, to attempt actually to produce something publishable, I was a young mother and clergy wife living in Hannibal, Missouri.

In our society in that period—the 60s and 70s, a time of stay-at-home moms almost completely without support systems—motherhood was profoundly isolating.

Being a clergy wife then, when clergy wives were seen as their more important husband’s unpaid assistants, deepened the isolation and gave it a fish-bowl quality.

And living in Hannibal . . . well. I’ll say only that during the years I lived there I was aware of a Mark Twain roofing company and had tried Mark Twain fried chicken, but I knew no one else who was attempting to do the writing thing Mark Twain had made the town famous for. For that matter, I knew no other adult who had the smallest interest in children’s books.

What did I do with that isolation?

First, I found the Hannibal Public Library. I went back and forth and back and forth bringing home armloads of books. My children were young, so I was already filled to the brim with the picture books of the time, but I knew nothing of contemporary novels for young people. The novels of my own youth had come from my mother’s childhood home, most of them written in the nineteenth century.

At the library I encountered a shelf labeled Newbery. The Newbery Award had been around for a long time, of course, but I had never heard of it. The elementary school I attended didn’t even have a library of its own, and, of course, the English professors at the colleges where I studied never spoke of children’s literature. But I figured somebody liked these books, so I took some home . . . and I fell in love.

Not with the award—I still didn’t know what the Newbery Medal meant—but with the books those award committees had chosen.

I fell in love with what a children’s book can be, with the deep honesty those books demonstrated. I needed that kind of honesty to tell my stories, and I needed to know such honesty could be received before I could put my first words down on paper.

The second thing I did with that isolation was eventually to move to a larger, more literary community, Minneapolis/St. Paul. (Actually, my husband was called to a church there, and the children and I were part of the package, so that was another piece of luck.)

There I actually began to meet other writers, and equally important, I found opportunities to teach writing. I set out to teach other aspiring writers even though I had yet to be published myself except in the most minor ways.

Teaching broke through my isolation. At last writing wasn’t just some odd activity I did in a hidden corner of my house; it was something I could talk about with other adults. Teaching legitimized my own writing by bringing in family income, too. Money made my efforts serious, real, especially—and this is what mattered most—in my own mind.

Defining, again and again, what makes a manuscript work, explaining point of view and voice and story trajectory, examining the field I was entering and bringing my findings back to my students, I taught myself to write. I taught myself to write by writing, of course, but my process was energized, amplified, augmented by my teaching. In defining for others what makes a manuscript work, I learned how to make my own manuscripts work.

My teaching was part time—I have always been a writer who teaches, not a teacher who writes—and after fifteen years of intense work on the writing side of the equation, I had published five novels. 

Combining my teaching and writing income I had in all those years never come close to earning an income that would support me, but I left my marriage anyway, desperate to keep my writing front and center. I left with $2,000 in my pocket and not a clue where the next penny was coming from.

It was a bit like leaping out of the fourteenth floor of a burning building.

That was also the moment, completely coincidentally, that my novel On My Honor (Clarion, 1986) received the Newbery Honor award. (Both the timing and the fact of that award represent another enormous piece of luck.)

Receiving a Newbery Honor brought increased writing income for a time and also more opportunities to earn money by lecturing around the country. But always I continued to teach, because I needed the connection to other writers that teaching brought me.

I taught in many different adult-education venues in the Twin Cities, including the University of Minnesota and The Loft Literary Center, and spent my final teaching years in the low-residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts as one of the founders and the first Faculty Chair of their Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

The teaching saved me. It made my career possible. It brought me out of my isolation. It gave me soulmates.

Few of the people close to me have ever understood or appreciated this compulsion that is writing, even after that writing began to show results. I empathize with them. It must be hard for non-writers to live with us.

My partner will sometimes say to me with just a touch of exasperation in her voice when we are riding in the car or sitting outside on the deck, “Are you writing?” But my students and my fellow teachers share my world without explanation or apology.

Of course, teaching isn’t something that comes naturally to every writer. I taught literature and composition both in college and high school before I turned to teaching writing to adults. But learning comes naturally to all of us, and in front of the class or in it, much the same is accomplished.

A chance to discover others who are on the same journey, to analyze the process, to evaluate others’ work and carry that evaluation back to our own. It’s the best way I know out of the isolation in which all writers exist while still serving our writing. Isolation is a part of our journey. Few of us could produce without it. But when the isolation grows too deep, it’s difficult to keep our bearings.

Marion speaks with students at LoonSong.

I’ve retired from formal teaching through VCFA, but these days I have a once-a-year opportunity to return to the company of other writers and to the stimulation of teaching. It’s a writers’ retreat called LoonSong that meets on the shore of a pristine lake in the wilderness of northern Minnesota. 

The retreat was created by National Book Award finalist and VCFA graduate, Debby Dahl Edwardson, and joining it each September is part of what keeps me “defying the odds.” LoonSong keeps me fresh and energized and connected.

My advice, find your own LoonSong or try ours or seek out an MFA program or a writers’ group or teach a class yourself. Isolation is a writer’s greatest hazard.

 Bumps are less bumpy when navigated in company.

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

One thing. I would have found an agent, the right agent, and stayed with him or her.

In these days when most writers work through an agent because access is difficult if not impossible without one, the emphasis is not on agent-or-no-agent but rather on what makes the right agent.

I started out with an agent, a woman so long established in the field that I never met anyone who remembered a time before she was a fixture. She placed my early novels with a publisher who remained my publisher for many years and did little more for me.

I left her after two incidents. One, my editor said to me one day, “You know, Marion, A. has never done anything for you.”

Curious, I talked to an unagented writer publishing with the same house and discovered that she had been offered an escalation clause and I had not. Presumably my editor expected an agent to ask. Mine hadn’t.

The second, while I was still with that agent, I spent a couple of years working on an adult novel. She presented it to an editor at Random House who expressed interest but wasn’t yet ready to make an offer.

The editor had suggestions, though, and I revised. When we presented the novel again, however, the editor said, “Frankly, I liked the first version better.”

I lost faith, told my agent I was going back to children’s books, and did.

Later, too much later for me to be able to resurrect my energy for the adult novel, my agent made a comment to a friend who reported it to me. She said, “It’s too bad Marion put that novel aside. It would have been an important book.”

But she never said it to me!

I want two things from an agent: knowledge of what a reasonable contract should cover and complete and unflinching honesty.

I worked without an agent for many years after that. In fact, when discussions came up at Vermont College of  Fine Arts, about agent or no agent, I always argued on the no-agent side. It’s hard enough to earn a living writing without having 15% skimmed off the top.

I have, in fact, over the years encouraged some of my friends to leave their agents, not because I didn’t think they should have one but because they complained so often about their agents’ failure to communicate.

And that is my third and perhaps my greatest requirement for an agent, communication.

I refuse to share my royalties with someone who pretends in between royalty checks that I don’t exist.

Marion with authors Gary Schmidt & Candace Fleming

Why then did I decide, more than thirty years and many book sales later, that I needed an agent? And why do I regret not finding him or someone like him sooner?

The first and most obvious and probably least important reason is that my brain goes soft when I read contracts. Especially when the elements of contracts surrounding e-books were in flux I got overwhelmed. And I wanted not to have to think about it.

But there were more important factors, and these are the reasons for my regret.

In my early publishing years, things were pretty simple. You began with a certain house, and that was your publisher. Your first editor pretty much owned you and decided what kind of work you could publish. If you took a manuscript to another house, you were a whore.

My first editor told me, “Marion, you are not a picture book writer,” and therefore through those early years I could not be a picture book writer.

Eventually, rules changed, though, and I found access on my own to different publishers, large and small, and I began to sell different kinds of work. Board books, picture books, fiction and non-fiction early readers, non-fiction books on writing, novels. I found many open doors.

Why an agent, then?

Candlewick, Sept. 11, 2018; more @ Elizabeth Bird

Because one day I walked through one of those doors to an editor I had a good working relationship with and handed her a manuscript I loved. It was a serious literary story, a story about mortality, in fact. It was the first thing I wrote after my son’s death.

This editor’s list, however, was not meant to be serious and literary, and the book came out titled and jacketed to look light, even frivolous. Not only did the book miss its mark, but I received furious letters from teachers and librarians who had used the book as a read aloud, presuming it was just something fun. I knew they had a right to their fury (though I wondered at their not reading the book themselves before deciding to read it to their kids). I also knew I was not serving my work well.

Once I did sign on with an agent again, I discovered not only that having an objective eye on decisions about where a manuscript should go is a good thing but that there are a great many editors out there I had never met, a great many doors I wouldn’t have found on my own.

Had I had a good agent throughout my career, some things would have been different. Maybe they would have been important things, maybe just a better decision here or there. But I am grateful these days to have another mind, another perspective to support my own.

My agent, by the way, is Rubin Pfeffer and he is a dream. He spent many years on the editorial and administrative side of publishing. He knows the field and the people in it inside out and is known and respected in return.

He is always honest.

And he communicates!

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?

The most obvious change is that publishing has finally opened its doors to diversity, and long may that door stand open. The changes have been too slow to come, but now that they are coming I can’t imagine publishers/book sellers/writers/teachers ever backtracking on our commitment to producing and supporting books for the world as it is, not the world we once chose to acknowledge.

White writers are inevitably feeling the squeeze of that shift. We’re accustomed to the dance floor being ours alone. But while the transition is sometimes a difficult one for everyone, we are heading toward a good place. No, a great place.

I feel blessed to have been in this field long enough to witness such a profound awakening!

There is another shift, though, one that impacts all of us, though I seldom hear it mentioned. The number of books being published every year has grown exponentially.

In 1976, my first novel, Shelter from the Wind (Clarion), was published along with 2,209 other books meant for children and young adults. (Or what was being called YA in that time, then meaning books for eleven to thirteen-year-olds.)

In 2015, 15,032 children’s and YA books were published. That breaks down, now that young adult is truly young adult and more legitimately its own publishing category, to 12,988 children’s books and 4,338 YA.

Even if we eliminate all of today’s YA books as a category that didn’t quite exist in 1976, those numbers represent nearly a six-fold increase over the numbers published forty years ago.

And that doesn’t count all the self-published books indistinguishable from traditionally published books on sites such as Amazon.com. Nor, of course, does it consider the thousands of books available in publishers’ backlists.

All seeking buyers.

In this market, fine books emerge every day only to slip into oblivion. With so many more books being published, I presume it is growing easier to bring our books into the light of day, but it is definitely getting more difficult to get them noticed once they are out there.

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

Cynthia Leitich Smith & Marion Dane Bauer.

Ah . . . advice to the self. I wonder if I would have taken it.

Relax more. Don’t quit working, but take more breaks.

Laugh more. Truth can sometimes be told better with laughter.

Exercise a whole lot more. Don’t take your strength and mobility for granted. (This from someone about to enter her ninth decade.)

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

Just more wonderful, thoughtful, funny, entertaining, sad, truthful books. Write them. Read them. Love them. Share them.

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

Every now and then I read an obit in the Authors Guild Bulletin that says, “He was writing a few hours before he died.”

That’s the way I want to go. Writing and reading every single day until it’s time to say good bye!

Cynsational Notes 

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


Marion Dane Bauer is a co-founder of LoonSong.

LoonSong: A Writer’s Retreat is scheduled for Sept. 6 to Sept. 10 at Elbow Lake Lodge in Cook, Minnesota.

Faculty include children’s-YA authors Nikki Grimes, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Bruce Coville, Marion Dane Bauer, Jane Buchanan, Sarah Aronson, and Debby Dahl Edwardson as well as agent Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary and editorial director and publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. Note: author Susan Cooper, who was previously listed on the site, will not be able to make the event.

See more on the faculty. Peek:

“We offer a smorgasbord of activities for writers to pick from: stimulating lectures and panel discussions, writing prompts and workshops, readings and one-on-one marketing, agent, and editorial consultations. 

“An agent and editor will be present at all readings. Our presenters include seasoned writers, an agent, and an editor who will help you grow your career, develop new approaches to craft, and think deeply about the writing life.”

See video.

LoonSong Turtle Island is scheduled from Sept. 11 to Sept. 14 at the same location. Faculty include authors Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee (Creek)), Tim Tingle (Choctaw) and Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe), author-editor-publisher Arthur A. Levine of Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic and editorial director and associate publisher Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge. See more on the faculty.
Peek:

“…a writing retreat for Native American writers only, a place where writers can come together with a talented faculty of published Native writers and industry professionals to share their writing, spark their imaginations, and make the kinds of connections that help set a career on course.”

Please note that a few publisher-sponsored scholarships are available (thank you, Candlewick and Charlesbridge).