Cynsational News

By Cynthia Leitich Smith,
Robin GalbraithGayleen Rabukukk, & Stephani Eaton
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Chris Barton, author of What Do You Do With a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (Beach Lane, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Even as a child growing up in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, Barbara Jordan stood out for her big, bold, booming, crisp, clear, confident voice. It was a voice that made people sit up, stand up, and take notice. 

So what do you do with a voice like that? 

Barbara took her voice to places few African American women had been in the 1960s: first law school, then the Texas state senate, then up to the United States congress. Throughout her career, she persevered through adversity to give voice to the voiceless and to fight for civil rights, equality, and justice. 

…a remarkable picture book biography about a woman whose struggles and mission continue to inspire today.


Interview with Nicole Resciniti, President of The Seymour Agency by Jonathan Rosen at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. Peek:

“The MG market is still strong. I think we largely have librarians, booksellers, and teachers to thank for that.”


35-Point Checklist for a Great Author Visit from The Booking Biz. Peek:

“Setting up a great author visit is a big job, but the more organized you are up front, the better the event will be. To help, we’ve compiled a handy checklist so you can make sure all your bases are covered.”

10 Ways to Build Traffic to Your Author Website or Blog from Jane Friedman. Peek:

“…an author’s website, whether it gets much traffic or not, is foundational to your career. It offers readers as well as the media the official word on who you are and the work you produce.”

7 Presentation Tips for Speaking Online in a Virtual World from Gigi Rosenberg. Peek:

“So much public speaking nowadays happens not out in public but right from your computer…The most flattering angle for the camera to capture your face is from the same level or a little above your face.” 


Professor Writes First Novel About A Coming-To-Age Story Inspired By Her Own Native American Identity by Amy Mullowney from St. Catherine University. Peek:

“‘I’m tired of the negative stereotypes,’ says [Dr. Dawn] Quigley. Often times, the darker aspects of Native American characters are highlighted. ‘It’s not something we need to wash over…but I wanted to bring out the Native humor and the strong family ties that I grew up with—and they were really positive.’”

A Tale of Disruption: Teaching the Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, by Emily Visness from Nerdy Book Club. Peek:

“Disrupt texts, you ask? Here’s some background: A group of educator-leaders… started a hashtag to discuss the importance of including culturally relevant books in ELA classrooms, #DisruptTexts, and that hashtag has grown into a movement.”

Episode 23! Conversation with Lyn Miller-Lachmann by Karen Blumenthal and Lyn Miller-Lachmann from Kidlit Women.* Peek:

“…but the reason that I wanted to write this essay was to present my experience as an autistic writer…I wrote an Own Voices novel, and I faced a lot of challenges in the publishing industry, both because of my communication style and also the emphasis upon self-promotion.” 

10 Positive Things About Aging We Need to Show Kids in Books by Lindsey McDivitt from Nerdy Book Club. Peek:

“The fact is—we all have lots of living to do beyond age 18, yet the images of growing older in books for kids are often skewed to portray negative stereotypes as truth. Adulthood is frequently ignored and late life is often seen as sad.”

12 Picture Books That Showcase Native Voices by Debbie Reese from School Library Journal. Peek:

“The old saying that ‘a picture is worth 1,000 words’ is particularly important when the only pictures non-Native children see of indigenous peoples are sepia-toned ones set in the past that show us in traditional clothing.” 

In the Wake of Trump, YA Novels Highlight Immigrant Narratives: In Praise of a Sorely Needed Addition to the Genre by Holly Genovese from Lit Hub. Peek:

“These stories are equally important towards understanding that there is no one monolithic immigrant experience for teenage girls. Taken together, they demonstrate that varied immigration narratives are important, because immigrants are not just one thing.” 

WNDB Mentorships from We Need More Diverse Books. Peek:

“For the 2019 year, we are offering mentorships to 11 upcoming voices—ten aspiring authors (or author/illustrators) and one illustrator—who are diverse or working on diverse books…Applications for the 2019 cycle will be open from Oct. 1 to Oct. 31….”

Carnegie Medal Promises Immediate Action Over Lack of Diversity by Alison Flood from The Guardian. Peek:

“There is bias – even though it may be unconscious – every step of the way. It is the responsibility of those with a voice in the publishing industry to seek out diverse books and help to create the awareness that will lead to change.”

Writing Craft

Writing a Proactive Protagonist by Mary Kole from Kid Lit. Peek:

“Novels are hampered when a ‘main character’ takes a backseat to action. Higher concept plots are often vulnerable to this. (Because, remember, high stakes can be tricky.)”

4 Ways to Keep Your Sentences From All Sounding the Same by Janice Hardy from Fiction University. Peek:

 “One of those challenges is writing sentences that don’t all sound the same… We’re focused more on getting the information down than crafting compelling prose, so the writing ends up sounding list-like or monotonous.” 

Volunteer Chronicles: Gayleen Rabakukk from Austin SCBWI. Peek:

“I’m not good at finishing craft books, but I do have one that’s become a mainstay of my daily writing practice: Walking on Alligators: A Book of Meditations for Writers by Susan Shaughnessy. Each page of the book starts off with a quote related to the writing life..” 

The Invention Process: Ten Strategies for Producing Writing by Brenta Blevins from Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Peek:

“This blog post lists ten invention strategies for ‘pre-writing’ or getting un-stuck when the words won’t flow. Regardless of when the need occurs or whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, short stories or books, invention exercises can help.”

Tips for Managing Writing and Chronic Illness by Alyssa Hollingsworth from Fiction University. Peek:

“Most of us are familiar with the Spoon Theory…begin asking yourself, ‘How many spoons do I have today? How many do I need to save for this week?’ This helps you modify your expectations for yourself into a doable spectrum.” 

Children’s Writer-In-Residence from Thurber House. Peek:

“Every year, we offer one talented, emerging middle grade author a month-long residency in the furnished third-floor apartment of Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio…The deadline to apply is Friday, Nov. 16, 2018.”

Author/Illustrator Insights

7 Authors Discuss Complicated Families, Epic Love Stories, and More in October’s YA Open Mic by Michael Waters from BNTeenBlog. Peek from Cynthia Leitich Smith:

“My hope is that the story, loosely inspired by ours, opens minds and makes it safer and easier for teens to share who they are.”

Interview: New Voices Award Winner Rita Lorraine Hubbard on Writing a Picture Book Biography from Lee & Low Books. Peek:

“Once it was decided that I would re-write this as nonfiction, the challenge was to strip away those fictional elements I had fallen in love with and conduct some deep research that would fill in the gaps about William’s life and how he was able to accomplish the things he did.”

Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs: Double the Authors, Double the Fun by Shannon Maughan from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“We developed a process whereby we wrote every chapter together, we edited each other and wrote over each other, so it’s really hard to tell at this point who wrote what sentence in any particular chapter. It really is a joint effort, down to the word choice.”

Four Questions with Marie Lu by Sara Grochowski from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“ I have to remind myself that these kids are growing up during a time of such rapid change. It’s not that we don’t all live through change, but the pace has grown faster and faster, which is both fascinating and really terrifying.” 

Curiouser and Curiouser with Melissa Stewart from Bookology. Peek:

“I usually work on at least a half dozen books at a time. I might be writing the rough draft of one and revising one or two others…Each day, before I stop working, I make a list of what I plan to work on the next day.”


Author-illustrator Carolyn Dee Flores & Lupe Ruiz-Flores

Congratulations to the 2018 winners of the SCBWI Work-in Progress Awards: Teddi Ahrens, April Jo Cervetti, Lupe Ruiz-Flores, Joanne Durham, Angie Chan and Stacy Allen!

Congratulations as well to the 2018 winners of the SCBWI Don Freeman Illustration Grant: Sandra Salsbury and Cristina Lalli!

Children’s Book Council Debuts Diversity Awards by Emma Kantor from Publishers Weekly. Peek:

“The Children’s Book Council, the nonprofit trade association for children’s publishers in North America, has revealed the winners of the inaugural CBC Diversity Outstanding Achievement Awards… are as follows…Saracia J. Fennell…Jennifer Loja…Jason Low…Beth Phelan…Phoebe Yeh..We Need Diverse Books.”

This Week at Cynsations

More Personally – Cynthia

Watch the Book Trailer!

October is a month of celebration at Cynsations!

The paperback edition of Feral Pride (Candlewick, 2018) is now available! From the Horn Book:

“Since this Feral trilogy–ender also wraps up its companion series Tantalize, several major characters from those books appear here, but Clyde, Aimee, Yoshi, and Kayla ably carry this series right up to its bittersweet conclusion. 

“Kayla’s full acceptance of her animal self, and the courage she gains in that acceptance, is particularly compelling.  

“With its sharp humor and fully realized characters, this urban fantasy will leave readers hoping for another series from Smith—and soon.” 

From Booklist:

“Smith’s ability to mix the paranormal and the divine with sexy, wisecracking humor, youthful optimism, and fast-paced action has been a hallmark of this entertaining series. Fans will not be disappointed. 

“High-demand Backstory: Smith’s fantasies have earned her an army of fans, and this trilogy-ender—that connects two series, no less—will have high visibility.”

In related news, you can subscribe to Candlewick’s Evolt Newsletter and purchase e-copies of Eternal (2009) and Feral Nights (2013) on sale for $1.99 – this month only!

We’re at four days and counting down to the release of my upcoming YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, 2018).

In a starred review, School Library Journal says:

 “Absorbing….Blending teen romance with complex questions of identity, equality, and censorship, this is an excellent choice…”

Last call! Pre-order your signed copy of Hearts Unbroken from my local independent bookstore, BookPeople in Austin, Texas. Note: Oct. 9 is the U.S. and U.K. release date. The novel will be available from Walker Australia on Jan. 1, 2019.

15 Exciting New YA Books for October 2018 by Kate Oldfield from United By Pop. See also October MG & YA Releases from CrazyQuiltEdi.

10th Texas Teen Book Festival Features Nic Stone, Marissa Meyer by Sharyn Vane from The Austin American-Statesman. Peek:

“…attracts top-notch talent from across the country, as well as Austin’s own robust literary community. Now under the aegis of the Texas Book Festival, the free event draws more than 35 authors and thousands of fans to St. Edward’s University, the festival’s venue since 2014.  

“…Austin-based Cynthia Leitich Smith is a doyenne of children’s literature…. curating the nationally acclaimed Cynsations blog….” 

Cyn Note: I’m looking forward to the fest this weekend and am honored by the mention, both personally and on behalf of all of Team Cynsations.

More Personally – Robin

I stocked up on books for my Halloween book project at a book signing with my former VCFA housemates Brendan Reichs and Ally Condie. Their new novel, The Darkdeep, sounds like the perfect book to give out for Halloween!

Personal Links – Gayleen

U.S. Supreme Court Keeps Ban on Uranium Mining at Grand Canyon

Personal Links – Robin

Expository Nonfiction: Display It in Classroom Libraries and Read It Aloud

Personal Links – Stephani

School Library Journal: Newbery/Caldecott 2019: Fall Predictions

Kids’ Fantasy Novels That Make Heroes Out of Underdogs

Personal Links – Cynthia

In light of the paperback release for Feral Pride, please check out the trilogy book trailer.

Intern Insights: How to Set Up a Halloween Book Project

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The Problem

Like many writers, I have a lot of books.

One of my favorite social activities is going to a friend’s book signing and buying their fabulous book. I also love keeping up with the newly published children’s and young adult offerings and buying those amazing books.

This leads to a problem—the danger of being swallowed up by books.

Even if I buy some books in eBook format, I find myself wanting to share my favorite books. If I love a book, I want to give it to a kid or teen that will enjoy it. Amazing books should be read  – not hoarded on an eReader.

Also, because of health issues, I haven’t been able to eat candy for the past five years. So I was feeling weird giving out something on Halloween that made me so ill. Plus, I couldn’t eat the leftovers but didn’t want to throw them away either.

The Solution 

One day I read a Facebook post where someone mentioned giving out books for Halloween, instead of candy. I instantly knew this was something I wanted to do!

Giving out books was the perfect solution for me, combining all the things I love: books, sharing good books with kids and teens, and dressing up for Halloween.

A New Approach To Book Signings 

Instead of having the author write a note to me, I explain my Halloween book project at the signing and have the author write Happy Halloween on the title page.

This way a child gets a signed book from an author that celebrates the fact that they acquired the book on Halloween. It also makes for a fun conversation with the author at the signing.

Places to Buy Inexpensive Books 

Buying lots of books at book signings can get expensive, so to supplement my book supply I turned to local used-book sales. My local high school has an annual used-book sale in March. On the last day of the sale they sell a bag of books for $10 dollars. Now I stock up for Halloween books in March.

My library also has its own on-going Friends of the Library used-book sale on a couple of shelves in the library branch near me. They also run a couple used-book stores in nearby towns. I was able to round out books in the age levels that I was missing at those stores.

The Book Witch’s Count Down Sign

Now that I had a solid book supply, I was ready to figure out the Halloween details. I decided I would dress up as a witch to give out books since I already had a witch costume.

It was hard to predict how many kids might come to my block on Halloween though. Some years we’ve had a good number of kids and other years we’ve had only a few. To encourage more kids to venture to my block, I decided to do a little pre-Halloween advertising.

On October first I put up a countdown sign. I used the frame from an old political sign and covered it with a pillowcase (slit at the bottom) that I decorated using sharpies.

Each day I changed the number on my countdown with tape covered Post-it notes. This way word of mouth could spread and I would be sure at least a few kids would come to my house. It also made me commit to the project so I wouldn’t back out.

On Halloween day I changed the sign to say the Book Witch is coming from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Halloween Preparations

I bought Halloween-themed lights, a cauldron, and other props in October. I also looked over my collection to make sure that I had a good selection of picture books and novels.

My spouse suggested using hay bales as a way to display the books. On Halloween day, he moved the car to the street and set up the hay bales on the driveway.

I set up the books in piles on and around the hay, changed into my costume and was ready to be the Book Witch.

The Response

The kids and parents who came to my house loved this idea!

I had just one kid who told me they didn’t “do books,” even graphic novels. Most kids were thrilled to get to pick out a book, though, and even more excited when I showed them books by local authors.

One kid even said, “This is the best thing ever!”

Evening Wrap Up 

At the end of the night, I brought the few leftover books back inside, washed my costume, and packed up all my props. I put everything in a box labeled “The Book Witch” so it would be easier to do the project again the next year.

What I Plan To Do Differently This Year 

The hay bales didn’t work very well. The books kept sliding off them. This year I’m planning to put out tables with boxes and sort the books by age and format (picture books, graphic novels, nonfiction, novels, etc.)

Last year, I also didn’t take any inventory ahead of time, so I had no idea how many books I gave out. I was afraid if I made the project too time consuming I’d never actually do it. So I was glad I didn’t make a list the first year.

I ran out of novels midway through the night, though, because kids tend to trick-or-treat in my neighborhood until ninth or tenth grade.

Turns out there is a big need for novels in my area, which I think is terrific!

This year I plan to create a list of all the books I give out and will check off what’s left at the end of the night. That way I’ll have a better feel for what books I’ll need next year.

I feel up to that challenge this year, since I’ve already done the project once, and know how much fun the night will be.

Other Halloween Book-Themed Ideas

A couple of writing friends have mentioned fun twists on my Book Witch idea. Laurel Abell suggested being a Book Fairy. Angele McQuade suggested setting up a haunted library and being either a ghost or zombie librarian. She wants to have some adult books for interested parents, too, and possibly also bookmarks/swag from author friends, We Need Diverse Books, and other bookish resources.

I love all these ideas and can’t wait to see a sea of photos on social media of the many, many types of Halloween book projects out there this year, and in the years to come!

Guest Post: Lee Wind: From Kickstarter to Book – The Wild Roller Coaster of Publishing My Debut YA Novel

Learn more about Lee Wind

By Lee Wind
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There’s a saying that a work of art isn’t complete until it has been witnessed.

So the book I wrote that would have completely changed my life if I’d read it as a fifteen-year-old wasn’t complete. Not until it had readers.

Over six years, the manuscript for Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill had been written and re-written, eight full revisions in all, with the final polish under the brilliant editorial direction of National Book Award-winner M.T. Anderson at a Highlights Foundation workshop. It was ready, but with no readers, it wasn’t complete.

My agent at the time told me it had been submitted, over a period of two years, to more than twenty editors. In all that time, it had only received five rejections, with the rest not even bothering to respond. No book deal meant no readers.

I didn’t doubt the merit of my story. I didn’t doubt that I’m a good writer. I did doubt the courage of traditional publishing to put out a story that would be controversial, as the novel’s hook is a closeted teen boy discovering a secret from history—that Abraham Lincoln wrote Joshua Fry Speed letters that could prove the two men were in love. Romantic love.

This doubt was strengthened by what happened to the nonfiction book for young readers that I had sold to an imprint of Simon & Schuster in 2015. The Queer History Project: No Way, They Were Gay? included five chapters on men who loved men in history, and Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Fry Speed were one of those chapters. Everything was going great until two weeks after Trump’s election, I got a phone call. Suddenly, they absolutely couldn’t publish my book.

I got the rights back in January of 2016, and my agent at the time told me it was so strong she’d sell it in three weeks… It was sent, I was told, to eight editors. Nine months passed, and no responses. Not even a “no, thank you.”

I was sure I was being preemptively banned by a traditional publishing industry too afraid to rock the cultural boat that was suddenly, with the election of our 45th President, in stormy seas.

Now I’ve been blogging about books, politics, and culture for LGBTQ kids and teens since 2007. I’m Here. I’m Queer. What The Hell Do I Read? has done well, gaining an audience across the world that’s built over time—The blog passed 2.5 million page loads in July 2018. So I thought, maybe one way to reach readers would be to post chapters on my blog.

Starting in September of 2017, over 32 weeks, I serialized the entire novel. I knew people were reading it, and I liked the idea of it being available for free, forever.

But the experience of reading the manuscript, clicking for each chapter, felt different than reading a polished, published book with copyedited text, interior design, an author’s note, discussion questions, and all the other great stuff that makes a book in your hands such a transformative experience. How could I create that? How could I reach more readers?

Lee visited with the Pasadena City College Queer Alliance in May 2018.

Publishing a book professionally is expensive. Copyediting, design, cover art, setting up printing and wholesale fulfillment—it’s thousands of dollars if you’re doing it right. $5,600 was what I needed to cover those expenses. And wouldn’t it be amazing if in addition to having the money to do that, I could have the money to donate copies of the book to LGBTQ teens, as my book is a story that could empower them?

That’s where the idea of crowdfunding came in. A friend argued with me that it sounded like a lot of work for what wasn’t in the big scheme of things that much money. Couldn’t I take a loan, or ask two or three wealthy friends?

But I loved the idea of crowdfunding being a barn-raising. Of the community coming together to not just help me professional publish Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill but to also raise enough money to donate some dramatic number (I settled on 400 copies) of the book to LGBTQ and Allied teens.

In January 2018 I launched the Kickstarter project, and we fully funded in six days! The campaign went on for a full thirty days, and by the end 182 people had donated enough money to give away 810 copies of the novel to LGBTQ and Allied teens!

Now with the funding secured, the publish date was set, and I put on my publisher hat and got to work. I sent the manuscript out asking for blurbs. I held a cover design contest. I hired a book designer. I tested out copy editors, found a great one, and had them do their thing. I printed ARCs. I submitted the book for reviews. I printed up bookmarks, and started using them instead of business cards. I signed up for marketing programs, to let librarians and the rest of the trade know about my book.

And I gave away the first 260 copies of the ARCs to LGBTQ teens at four summer sessions of Camp Brave Trails.

Lee speaking to teens at Camp Brave Trails

I got a curve ball thrown at me when on July 25, 2018 it was revealed that my agent at the time had lied about submissions, and rejections, and two book offers that were ‘pending.’ She lied to about 60 other clients as well.

The book I’d decided to crowdfund and author publish may never even have been seen by any editor! I hadn’t been preemptively banned by a publishing industry in need of courage, I’d just been preemptively screwed over by a criminally manipulative agent! (Needless to say, Danielle Smith is no longer an agent, and I’m now represented by the ethical and wonderful Marietta Zacker.)

But the train had left the station: 182 people were waiting for their copies of Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill. I’d committed to give away 810 copies to LGBTQ teens. And I was already getting strong trade reviews! Librarians were interested! I’d started booking some events! And I’d told the world that I was publishing this book. That couldn’t change now.

So Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill publishes on Tuesday October 2, 2018 (BookBaby).

It’s the story of Wyatt, who is fifteen, and nobody in his homophobic small town of Lincolnville, Oregon, knows that he’s Gay. Not even his best friend (and accidental girlfriend) Mackenzie.

Then he discovers a secret from actual history: Abraham Lincoln was in love with another guy!

Since everyone loves Lincoln, Wyatt’s sure that if the world knew about it, they would treat Gay people differently and it would solve everything about his life.

So Wyatt outs Lincoln online, triggering a media firestorm that threatens to destroy everything he cares about—and he has to pretend more than ever that he’s straight. . . . Only then he meets Martin, who is openly Gay and who just might be the guy Wyatt’s been hoping to find.

And here’s hoping it reaches readers.

Lee signing ARCs of Queer As a Five Dollar Bill
for librarians at the ALA Conference in June 2018.

Survivors: Sharon G. Flake on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Sharon G. FlakeHomewood Library, Pittsburgh

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 guess it makes sense that my career always felt a bit magical. For gosh sakes, I began as a Disney Hyperion author. Prior to the publication of The Skin I’m In (Hyperion, 1998), Disney flew several newly published authors and illustrators to New York where a small cast of “The Lion King” performed for us. There was champagne as I recall, a high-ranking Disney executive to welcome us—and Disney theme park trips to follow.

But this writing life ain’t all princess gowns and fairy tales.

Like it or not, bitter apples (let’s call them bumps in the road) appear now and again. But, it’s what you do with them that determines your staying power in the industry.

I was in the business ten years, before I hit a bump in the road. Seven books into my journey my editor left the business all together. Change was afoot I suppose, because the publisher left not long afterward—or did she go first?

I really liked those women. But life happens. And sometimes the bumps keep coming.

My new editor and I didn’t work out. I’ll just say this publicly, I apologize to her. My momma raised me better.

I was fortunate. I was able to choose my editors. So, in walks another editor of my choosing. I’d heard great things about her. She was also responsible for significantly increasing my advancements prior to becoming my editor. Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before I began to think she didn’t like my style; how I wrote. Perhaps it was her 12-page critique that led me to that conclusion.

Sharon at a book festival in Florida

At this time in my career, I had won many accolades and awards. Teachers cried when they spoke to me about the impact of my work. But for the first time in my career, I questioned my abilities and talent. I overthought things; tripled checked my work; wrote and rewrote until I couldn’t recognize my own story.

At some point, my editor was fairly satisfied with the 200-plus novel I turned in. But I was on a roll. For the next round of edits, I turned the manuscript into a 400-plus novel that I deemed perfection. My editor and agent thought otherwise. It took me a while to see the light. And boy, did it sting.

Not long afterward, my editor was offered a position with another house. She asked if I wanted to come with her.

Really? I thought. You serious? Nah.

Her invitation did, however, make me realize that she did indeed value me and my work. We just weren’t the best fit.

After my next editor left the publishing house, (I swear, they weren’t all running from me), my agent decided to take the book to another publisher.

My novel was ultimately published. It didn’t win awards, but it was named a Booklist Top Ten Book of the Year and earned three stars. Not bad for such a difficult birth.

Bumps in the road show up in everyone’s life. They can slow you down, stop you or help propel you forward. But who you choose to be along the way is what will help you stay the course.

I kept writing no matter what. I shifted. I discovered I have many gifts. I began to teach and mentor. I developed my work into stage plays; went from only writing realistic fiction to also writing picture books, historical fiction, and now books in verse.

That bump in the road did me a favor. It helped me expand inside and out. All along I held tight to my love of writing, and the young people I write for. Both have remained my North Star, my biggest reasons for doing what I do.

Writing at the dining room table.

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

I hadn’t realized I was on an island by myself, until I hit the proverbial bump in the road.

I was part of this incredible children’s writing community, but not part of it, you know? I knew authors and people in this business across the nation. They knew me. We liked and respected one another. But I hadn’t established many close, deep, I-got-your-back-you-got-mine, relationships.

When that bump trips you up, you realize things like that.

I wasn’t comfortable asking for advice or favors. I was used to helping others; lending a hand whenever I could. But there I was in new territory, in many ways, needing to reach out. But how? 

21 printings, almost a million copies in print

There’s this introvert in me that would rather not. Besides, I was raised to turn to family in times of need. But how could they help me? They weren’t in this business.

It was difficult, but I pushed past my insecurities and pride and reached out to folks in the writing community locally and nationally. I opened up and shared my truth: Struggling through that book for a number of years scarred me some; left me uncertain of myself as an author.

I went looking for connection with like-minded folks. I joined a critique group, which is so not like me.

No judgement, please. I sought feedback on my work in ways I hadn’t before. Formed deeper ties with my agent; established closer relationships with authors I already knew, and developed a very close relationship with one author in particular. To this day, we read one another’s work, give and take each other’s advice, laugh often.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Skin I’m In, I formed a committee, reached out to
author friends, editors and other folks in the business. Ten years ago, I would not have done any of that. Do it yourself or leave it alone, was a big part of my philosophy then.

That bump freed me up. Allowed me to be as vulnerable with adults, as I’d always been with my teen audiences in person and in the books I write. I’m grateful for that.

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 biggest stand-out change has to be the industry’s efforts to be more diverse and inclusive. We Need Diverse Books played a huge role in pressuring them to right the ship when it comes to diversity and inclusion. But they did not do it alone.

Black Lives Matter; the browning of the nation; the murder of black people and the political climate for LGBT and cis communities; along with women’s rights issues, all helped give WNDB the wind they needed to sail into publishing houses, conventions, media outlets, etc., and demand, work for, and push for change in children’s publishing.

Our community still has a very long way to go. But when I see black and brown people with books on The New York Times Bestseller lists; earning top awards and prizes; heading imprints like Salaam Reads or Versify; breaking new ground with books like The Hate You Give (by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)), We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices (by Wade Hudson, Cheryl Willis Hudson (Crown, 2018)), and Long Way Down (by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum, 2017)), then I know we’re headed in the right direction.

But we can’t get comfortable. There are folks who want us to return to yesterday.

Here’s hoping none of us will let that happen.

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

Don’t worry, God’s got you.

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

My hope is that they understand that new voices and new ways of seeing and being are necessary to the survival of any organization or group of people.

Change makes us all uncomfortable. But change we must, for it’s the only way progress happens.

Learn more about Sharon G. Flake.

Cynsational Notes 

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

New Voices: Kaylee Morrison and Nancy Smith on Joshua and The Biggest Fish

Nancy stands behind co-author & grandkid, Kaylee.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What an honor and joy it is to welcome debut children’s authors, Kaylee Morrison and Nancy Smith, who’re also citizens of Muscogee Nation!

Their picture book is Joshua and The Biggest Fish (Doodle and Peck Publishing, 2017). From the promotional copy:

The big fish are way out in the deepest part of the river. Will Joshua find a way to catch a really big fish? Maybe then, the men won’t see him as “cepane,” or little boy. 

A historical, coming-of-age story, based on true events.

You are a grandmother-granddaughter team. How and why did you two begin writing together? What has that been like?

KM: Growing up I was always interested in writing and my grandmother, who wrote her whole life, encouraged me to follow my talents. The older I got, the more I wanted to learn about my Muscogee (Creek) heritage.

My grandmother suggested co-authoring a book to learn about our rich past and provide a way to bring us closer in my teenage years.
The process was long, and a bit tedious at times, but that’s what comes with the territory of wanting our book to be historically accurate.

This involved many trips to the Muscogee tribal complex and talking to multiple people which lead to even meeting new family members.

NS: When my granddaughter, Kaylee, turned 16, she told me she wanted to learn more about her Muscogee Creek heritage. I was so happy to hear that.

So, we drove to the Muscogee tribal complex in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and met with Buddy Cox at the tribe’s Cultural Preservation office. He shared with us many ideas, but the subject that jumped out at us was “fish kills.”

Writing a children’s book about this part of our Muscogee Creek history and culture seemed like a wonderful project we could do together. Kaylee was in her last two years of high school, and then went away to college, so writing our book was a long journey, but so worth it.

What was the initial inspiration for Joshua and the Biggest Fish, illustrated by Dorothy Shaw (Doodle and Peck Publishing, 2017)?

KM: Initially, we both wanted to gain knowledge of our ancestors’ past. Although I have lived in Oklahoma my whole life, I knew very little about the Muscogee Nation and I feel that most Oklahomans are the same way. My little sister was about two at the time and a children’s book felt like a perfect way to teach her and many other children a little piece of Creek history.

NS: All young Creek Indian boys are nicknamed “cepane” (chee-BAH-nee), which in Creek language means “little boy.” Our book evolved as a coming-of-age story about a young Creek boy who longs to be accepted as one of the men, and who does not like being called “cepane.” The book is named after my Muscogee (Creek) grandfather, Joshua.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

KM: The idea came about when I was sixteen, and after six years of research and writing it was published in 2017. During all of this I was graduating high school and moving to college, so this also slowed up the process along the way.

We first heard of fish kills from Buddy Cox and we both found them incredibly interesting. We decided to go with it, but literature on fish kills is very slim. My grandmother came up with some creative ways to research history on fish kills that made this book possible.

NS: Our book took a total of six years to complete. This was mostly because we wanted our book to be historically and culturally accurate.

After doing research at the Oklahoma Historical Society (Oklahoma City), I discovered historic photographs of Creek Indians taken at the fish kill in the 1920s. Finding these photos was so exciting, and some are featured in our book. By the second year, the Cultural Preservation office changed managers several times, so that was a hurdle. Finding a publisher was also a challenge.

What were the challenges (emotional, logistical, research, professional) in bringing the book to life?

KM: After finishing the writing portion of the book, I think the biggest struggle was finding a publisher. Being first-time authors in a niche market was hard to sell to publishers.

My grandmother promised me from the very beginning that we would get the book published and I never doubted her; although, it is vexing to be turned down multiple times on something you have worked so hard on.

My grandmother never gave up, even through tough times, to get this book published and I couldn’t have done it without her. I am grateful for her every day.

NS: We took at least 8 to 10 trips to the Creek Nation in Okmulgee to do research, and several trips to the Oklahoma Historical Society. You must be very interested in your project, and very dedicated to work for long periods of time toward completion. One thing that kept me going was wanting to complete the book with my granddaughter, Kaylee.

What do you hope that young readers take away from the story?

KM: I want readers to learn a part of history that few know about and to spark their interest in Indian culture. There are very few Creek Indian children’s books, and I hope this book inspires more to come.

NS: I hope young Muscogee (Creek) readers will feel pride in their culture from our book, and pride in being Creek citizens. I also hope all young readers will enjoy reading about our tribe’s past and learning about our language and culture.

What did Dorothy Shaw‘s art bring to your book?

With illustrator Dorothy Shaw

KM: The first time I saw Dorothy’s artwork for the book, I was blown away and thrilled that she brought our words to life. The story would not be the same without her craftsmanship.

NS: Dorothy Shaw brought our characters to life in a wonderful and colorful way. Her beautiful illustrations along with the historic photographs provided inspiring images to our readers.

How have you celebrated the book’s release and connected it to readers, especially in the Muscogee (Creek) and larger Native community?

With Principal Chief James Floyd & Second Chief Louis Hicks

KM: We have done several book signings and hope to start having school visits soon in the Tulsa County area. The tribe has ordered and even re-ordered the book which is very exciting.

Imagining Creek citizens reading our book is a bit mind-blowing and very encouraging. After reading your own words so many times you start to not even recognize them as words, so it comes to a point where you must stop editing and get it out there or you could spend your whole life on it.

NS: We donated seven books to our tribe’s Head Start schools, to share with their young students. Kaylee also presented our Chief and Second Chief with their own personal copies of our book. “Joshua and the Biggest Fish” is carried at our tribe’s gift shop, and we have also done several book signings. Our Tulsa City-County Library has our book at seven of their library branches. I have personally contacted over 20 outlets, bookstores, etc. to market Joshua and The Biggest Fish.

What can your readers expect from you next?

KM: I currently have something in the very beginning stages that I presume will take me a considerable amount of time to finish. It’s a different genre and different age group but something that has been in the back of my head for a while.

NS: I have started working on a middle-grade historical novel about my tribe, which I’m currently doing research on.