Cynsations Readers Interview Cynthia Leitich Smith

By Cynsations Readers
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Over the past couple of weeks, children’s-YA author Cynthia Leitich Smith put out a call for questions from readers on Cynsations and Twitter. Here are those she elected to tackle and her responses. A few questions were condensed for space and/or clarity.

See also a previous Cynsations reader-interview post from November 2010. Cyn Note: It’s interesting how the question topics shifted, both with my career growth and changes in publishing. Back then, readers were most interested in the future of the picture book market and online author marketing.

Craft 

What’s the one piece of advice you think would most benefit children’s-YA writers?

Read model books across age levels, genres, and formats. For example, a novelist who studies picture books will benefit in terms of innovation, economy and lyricism of language.

Writing across formats has its benefits, too. No, you won’t be as narrowly branded. But you will have more options within age-defined markets that rise and fall with birth rates. You will acquire transferable skills, and, incidentally, you’ll be a more marketable public speaker and writing teacher.

Are you in a critique group? Do you think they’re important?

Not right now, but I have been in the past.

These days, I carry a full formal teaching load. Each year I also tend to lead one additional manuscript-driven workshop and offer critiques at a couple of conferences. That leaves no time for regular group meetings or the preparation that goes into them—my loss.

For me, participation offered insights (by receiving and giving feedback) as well as mutual support related both to craft and career.

From a more global perspective, considerations include: whether the group is hard-working, social or both; the range of experience and expertise; the compatibility of productivity levels; and the personality mix.

The right combination of those ingredients can enhance the writing life and fuel success. A wrong one can be a serious detriment. If you need to make a change, do it with kindness. But do it.

What can an MFA in writing for kids do for me?

First, my perspective is rooted in my experience as a faculty member in the low-residency Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

With Kathi at the Illumine Gala

You don’t need an MFA to write well or to successfully publish books for young readers.

I don’t have an MFA. My education includes a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Kansas and a J.D. from The University of Michigan Law School. I also studied law abroad one summer in Paris.

Beyond that, I improved my children’s writing at various independent workshops, most notably those led by Kathi Appelt in Texas.

That said, you will likely develop your craft more quickly and acquire a wider range of knowledge and transferable skills through formal study.

My own writing has benefited by working side-by-side with distinguished author-teachers. Only this week, I heard Tim Wynne-Jones’s voice in my mind—the echo of a lecture that lit the way.

You’ll want to research which program is best suited to your needs.

Your questions may include:

Gali-leo
  • Do you want a full- or low-residency experience? 
  • What will be the tuition and travel/lodging costs?
  • What financial aid is available?
  • Are you an author-illustrator? (If so, Hollins may be a fit.)
  • Are you looking for a well-established program or an intimate start-up?
  • What is the faculty publication history?
  • How extensive is the faculty’s teaching experience?
  • How diverse is the faculty and student body?
  • How impressive is the alumni publication record? 
  • How many alumni go on to teach? 
  • How cohesive–active and supportive–is the alumni community?

Talk to students and alumni about the school’s culture, faculty-student relationships, creature comforts and hidden expenses.

Across the board, for children’s-YA MFA programs, the most substantial negative factor is cost.


Career

In terms of marketing, what’s one thing authors could do better?

Provide the name of your publisher and, if applicable, the book’s illustrator in all of your promotional materials, online and off. If you’re published by, say, Lee & Low or FSG, that carries with it a certain reputation and credibility. Also, readers will know which publisher website to seek for more information and which marketing department to contact to request you for a sponsored event.

Granted, picture book authors usually post cover art, which includes their illustrators’ names. But we’re talking about the books’ co-creators, and they bring their own reader base with them. Include their bylines with yours and the synopsis of the book whenever possible. It’s respectful, appreciative and smart business.

What’s new with your writing?

I’ve sold two poems this year, one of which I wrote when I was 11. How cool is that?

I’m also working steadily on a massive update and relaunch of my official author site, hopefully to go live for the back-to-school season.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a contemporary realistic, upper young adult novel. It’s due out from Candlewick in fall 2017.

Like my tween debut, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001), the upcoming book features a Muscogee (Creek)/Native American girl protagonist, is set in Kansas and Oklahoma, and is loosely inspired by my own adolescence.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to take a look at my recent contemporary realism, check out the chapter “All’s Well” from Violent Ends, edited by Shaun David Hutchinson (Simon Pulse, 2015).


What’s next for your Tantalize-Feral books?

For those unfamiliar with them, the Tantalize series and Feral trilogy are set in the same universe and share characters, settings and mythologies. These upper YA books are genre benders, blending adventure, fantasy, the paranormal, science fiction, mystery, suspense, romance and humor.

Feral Pride, the cap to the Feral trilogy, was released last spring. It unites characters from all nine books, including Tantalize protagonists.

A new short story set in the universe, “Cupid’s Beaux,” appears in Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves, edited by Ann Angel (Candlewick, 2015).

I don’t have immediate plans for more stories in the universe, but it’s vast and multi-layered. While I’m focusing on realistic fiction now, I’ll return to speculative in the future.

Diversity

How do I make sure that no one will go public with a problem about my diverse book?

First, you can’t (and neither can I).

To fully depict today’s diverse world, we all have to stretch–those who don’t with regard to
protagonists will still be writing secondary characters different from
themselves.

Writers of color, Native
writers and those who identify along economic-ability-size-health-cultural-orientation spectra are not exempt from the responsibilities that come with that.

I’m hearing a lot of anxiety from a lot folks concerned about being criticized or minimized for writing across identity elements. I’m also hearing a lot of anxiety from a lot of folks concerned with “getting it right.”

For the health of my head space, the latter is the way to go. My philosophy: Focus on doing your homework and offering your most thoughtful, respectful writing.

Focus on advocating for quality children’s-YA literature about a wide variety characters (and their metaphorical stand-ins) by a wide range of talented storytellers.

I make every effort to assume the best.

By that, I mean:

  • Assume that when people in power say that they’re committed to a more diverse industry and body of literature, they mean it and will act accordingly. 
  • Assume they’ll eventually overcome those who resist. 
  • Assume that your colleagues writing or illustrating outside their immediate familiarity connect with their character(s) on other meaningful levels.
  • Assume that you’ll have to keep stretching and connecting, too.
  • Assume that #ownvoices offer important insights inherent in their lived experiences. 
  • Assume that being exposed to identity elements and literary traditions outside your own is a opportunity for personal growth. 
  • Assume that a wider array of representations will invite in and nurture more young readers. 
  • Assume that your voice and vision can make a difference, not only as a writer but signal booster, advocate and ambassador.

If only in the short term, you risk being proven wrong. You risk being disappointed. At times, you probably will be. I’ve experienced both, but I’d rather go through all that again than to try to effect positive change in an industry I don’t believe in. I choose optimism.

I’ve been a member of the children’s-YA writing community for 18 years. Experience has taught me that I’m happier and more productive when I err on the side of hope and faith.

Do you think that agents are reluctant to sign POC writing about POC after Scholastic pulling A Birthday Cake for George Washington?

No need to panic. As the diversity conversation has gained renewed momentum, many agents have publicly invited queries from POC as well as Native, disabled, LGBTQIA writers and others from underrepresented communities. For example, Lee Wind at I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? is hosting an interview series with agents on that very theme.

I can’t promise that every children’s-YA literary agent prioritizes or, in their heart of hearts, considers themselves fully open to your query. But those who don’t aren’t a fit for you anyway.

When you’re identifying agents to query, consider whether they have indicated an openness to diverse submissions and/or take a look at who’s on their client rosters. This shouldn’t be the only factor of course, but one of many that you weigh.

On your blog, you feature a lot of trendy type books (gay) we didn’t have in the past.

Not a question, but let’s go for it. If I’m deciphering you as intended, I disagree with the premise. Books with gay characters aren’t merely a trend or, for that matter, new in YA literature.

Nancy Garden’s Annie on my Mind was published in 1982. Marion Dane Bauer’s anthology Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence was published in 1994. Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club was published in 2003. One place to find recent ALA recommendations is the 2016 ALA Rainbow Book List.

Cynsations coverage is inclusive of books with LGBTQIA characters. In addition, gay and lesbian secondary characters appear in my own writing.

The blog was launched in 2004. Over time, I’ve noticed fluctuations in social media whenever I post LGBTQIA related content. I lose some followers and gain others. Increasingly, I lose fewer and gain more. My most enthusiastic welcome to those new followers!

(Incidentally, I used to see the same thing with regard to books/posts about authors and titles featuring interracial families or multi-racial characters.)

More Personally 

You sometimes tweet about TV shows. What do you watch?

In typical geeky fashion: “Agent Carter;” “Agents of Shield,” “Arrow;” “Bones;” “Castle;” “The Flash;” “Grimm;” “iZombie;” “Legends of Tomorrow;” “The Librarians;” “Lucifer;” “Once Upon a Time;” “Supernatural.”

Created by Rob Thomas, who has also written several YA novels.

Comedy-wise: “Awkward;” “The Big Bang Theory;” “Blackish;” “Crazy Ex-girlfriend” (I’m a sucker for a musical); “Fresh off the Boat;” “The Real O’Neals;” “Superstore.”

I’m trying “Community” and still reeling from the “Sleepy Hollow” finale.

I have mixed feelings about “Scream Queens,” but I’m fan of Jamie Lee Curtis and Lea Michele, so I’ll keep watching it. Ditto “Big Bang” with regard to Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch.

“Lucifer” sneaked up on me. As someone who’s written Lucifer, I watched it out of curiosity as to the take. I keep watching it because it surprises me and because Scarlett Estevez is adorable.

Typically, I watch television while lifting weights or using my stair-climber. I love my climber. I do morning email on it, too. It’s largely replaced my treadmill desk.

While I write, I use the television to play YouTube videos, usually featuring aquariums, blooming flowers, butterflies or space nebulas, all set to soothing music.

Trivia: Probably I’ve logged the most small-screen time with David Boreanaz due to “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Bones.” I know nothing about the actor beyond his performances (I’m not a “celebrity news” person), but I like to think he appreciates my loyalty.

Guest Post: Alexandria LaFaye on Acting Your Age: Writing Across the Ages of Young Readers

By Alexandria LaFaye
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Kicking, screaming, and spinning tantrums are appropriate in a picture book—though surprisingly sparse in children’s literature for how prevalent the are in the life of most children, but we don’t expect to see a teenager spinning on the floor throwing a fit because the “‘rents won’t extend curfew.”

Know your audience when you write across the ages/genres of children’s and young adult literature.

(Harcourt, 2001)

For instance, when does a child learn “conservation” and how does that affect the readers ability to know when a repeated image of a child learning to play or crawl is really just one kid and not a whole group of them?

And when do children start to understand abstractions that would allow them to comprehend that two people can have different opinions and still both be right?

How does this new emerging skill affect the psychology of a middle grade novel?

The answers to these questions illustrate the essential need for understanding the psychological and cognitive development of children and adolescents.

Too bad they don’t have a Child Psychology for Dummies—oh wait, they do (Child Psychology for Dummies).

(2011)

Seriously though, you can learn so much about the psychology of kids from raising them, working with them, visiting schools, and various other essential interactions with your target audience.

These relationships are key to our own happiness and the development of a natural and organic understanding of what it means to be a kid or a teen in our society today.

It’s important that you consider the “today” component because writers for young readers are often writing to rescue or relate to their own childhood self when our childhood is world’s away from the experiences of today’s child. The current six year olds were born in a world that can’t recognize a landline phone, has probably never used a point-and-shoot camera, and can’t remember a world when there weren’t 40,000 television channels targeted to children, often watched on a game system or tablet.

We need to know the kids of today by getting to relating to real world kids in their own environment. Personal connections are a must. But you can also pick up a lot by watching their shows, reading their magazines, studying fellow authors, watching videos until far too late at nigh.

Family (l. to r.): Jeron, Regan, Dean (husband), A. LaFaye, Adia, Kyler, Katie

I’m all for the organic—understanding of young people, dialogue and imagery in writing, and food, but there is something to be said for academic/book knowledge or that’s just the geek in my talking and quite frankly it never shuts up, so listen here, if you want to know more about child psychology—don’t take my word for it. Learn a thing or two from a specialist in the field, realizing that three specialists will have at least six different opinions so read up on what folks have to say.

Here are a few suggestions:

To be truthful, I probably only picked this because the author said “geeked out”

A veritable panoply of books to choose from. Which I of course chose so I could say “panoply.”

And most importantly, read the work of writers who get kids—what they like, what they want, what they need. Don’t just read the most popular books for teens because those books most often address the wish fulfillment , adrenaline rush, romantic-angst-driven elements of teen life. You also need to study the writing that addresses the deeper social issues of teen life.

@artlafaye

I’m even a bigger fan of YA World Literature because, perhaps it’s just me, but it seems that too much of the YA literature in the U.S. focuses on me, myself, and my friends versus what the next generation could do to make the world a better place.

Internationally, adolescent literature focuses less on how a teen can become an individual and more on how a teen can learn to contribute to society. But that’s my “taking care of the world” bias coming out again. I just want to take care of everybody.

Speaking of everybody, which is much easier than speaking to everybody, but as a writer you’re trying to do both—portray the world as it really is, address as wide an audience as possible, and provide an authentic , accurate, and compelling look at the diversity in our society today, not just in the U.S., but globally.

You’re writing realism and the reality is our world is very diverse and that diversity should be reflected in our writing from books for babies to novels for teens. For instance, Everywhere Babies is an adorable celebration of infants and their families and it shows an enormous range of diversity, but I wonder, where are the parents with tattoos? The folks who live out in the country? The immigrants who wear the clothes they grew up with?

No book can show the whole world. Each book can only be a window into part of the world, but it helps to know not only the “universals” of youth development, and to learn how class, religion, ethnicity, gender orientation, and other cultural elements influence a child’s development.

We are, after all, a society of artists—writers, illustrators, readers, and critics, who are engaging our world one word, one line, one book at a time.

Good luck! And remember, let your characters act their age!

Cynsational Notes

Alexandria LaFaye, is an author of a baker’s dozen of books for young readers.

These include Walking Home to Rosie Lee (Cinco Puntos, 2011), a picture book about the reunification of African American families at the end of the Civil War, to the young adult novel-in-verse, Pretty Omens (Anchor & Plume, 2015), a retelling of the myth of Cassandra in a coal mining community in Virginia in 1911.

She’s also an associate professor of creative writing for Greenville College and the Hollins University Children’s Book Writing & Illustrating MFA.

Author Interview & Giveaway: Angela Cerrito on The Safest Lie

“The Power of Poetry,” an award-winning play!

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Welcome back, Cynsations reporter Angela Cerrito, and congratulations on the release of The Safest Lie (Holiday House, 2015). Could you tell us a little about the novel and what inspired you to write it? 

The Safest Lie follows the fictional Anna Bauman attempting to hide her Jewish identity and pass herself off as Anna Karwolska in Warsaw Poland during WWII. She confronts many of the same hardships and horrors children actually faced during the war. 

I was inspired to write about Anna when I learned of Irena Sendler’s covert operations to rescue children from the Warsaw ghetto.

How did you approach the research?

First, I read everything I could get my hands on in English. Next, I relied on translators to help me translate documents from Polish and German.

I applied for and was awarded an SCBWI grant that allowed me to travel to Poland for research. In Warsaw, I was able to study primary sources including testimonies of children recorded when they were staying at a home for Jewish children immediately after the war. Those first-hand accounts, documented so close to the actual events, were extremely valuable to me as a writer.

I was also able to meet and interview Irena Sendler and her biographer Anna Mjeszkowska. Reading extensively prior to the interviews was a great help because it allowed me to go deeper into the subject matter and clear up inconsistencies in my research. Also, like most biographers, Ms. Mieszkowska was very passionate about her work and eager to share research that wasn’t included in the published biography.

What were your biggest challenges in terms of craft and framing the story for young readers?

Excerpt & Educator’s Guide

You’ve asked the question I repeatedly asked myself while writing this novel. How can I possibly write this story for such young readers?

I was determined to be honest, completely honest, yet it was important that I use language and experiences appropriate for young readers. This was a difficult balance. 

Some of the early versions were too bleak. Yet, there were some things I couldn’t change and still portray what children actually faced.

Over time I was able to have Anna learn about things that happened to other children rather than experience them herself. Also, as the many revisions turned into an actual novel, there was more of Anna’s past, before the war.

The turning point for me was when one of my versions introduced Jacob as a more significant character. This prompted me to explore more of Anna’s past and helped give the book the balance of honest yet hopeful.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?

Advice for historical fiction writers would be the same as advice for any writer: write what you want to write in your very own way. No one else can feel your stories, no one else can imagine your words. Write.

How was writing your sophomore novel different from writing your debut, The End of the Line (Holiday House, 2011)?

I actually wrote the first draft of The Safest Lie before I finished The End of the Line. The writing process wasn’t significantly different, although The Safest Lie required many more drafts. And obviously from the long time from start to finish I took many breaks from the novel along the way.

Though the two novels are very different: The End of the Line is contemporary and features a boy protagonist at a school for troubled youth while The Safest Lie is historical and follows a girl protagonist hiding in plain sight.

They have much in common. Both characters long for their family and are struggling with identity. Robbie and Anna are both trying to find a way to be the person they were before. In Robbie’s case, he can’t forgive himself for Ryan’s death and wants to be, in his words, normal again. Anna, wishes she could be her true self though her very life depends on hiding her identity. I enjoy exploring the internal emotional conflicts of characters and their struggles with identity.

You’re involved in SCBWI International and the Bologna Book Fair! Can you tell us more about your related efforts? 

The Bologna Children’s Book Fair is very special to me. It was the very first SCBWI event that I ever attended. The SCBWI presence in Bologna has grown and we now have an exhibitor’s booth where SCBWI members, from anywhere in the world, can display their recently published PAL books. There is also an SCBWI Bologna Illustrators’ Gallery.

In 2016, we will display the top illustrations and for the first time ever we will have a People’s Choice Award where visitors to the SCBWI exhibit at the fair will vote on their favorite illustrations.

Cynsational Notes

Angela Cerrito (@angelacerrito) is an author and playwright. Her newly released novel, The Safest Lie (Holiday House, Fall 2015) is based on research in Warsaw, Poland including interviewing Irena Sendler, a mastermind spy in the Polish Resistance who rescued 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto. 

Her debut novel, The End of the Line (Holiday House 2011), about a boy coming to terms with his role in the death of a friend, received many awards including VOYA’s Top of the Top Shelf, a YALSA Quick Pick and a Westchester Fiction Honor Award. Her play, “The Power of Poetry,” was awarded the Best Play Audience Choice award at the 2015 IMCOM Europe new play festival. Angela is a Cynsations reporter, covering Europe & beyond.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a bookplate-signed copy of The Safest Lie by Angela Cerrito (Holiday House, 2015). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: U.S.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Guest Post: Author-Librarian Amy Bearce on Knowing Your Young Readers

By Amy Bearce
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

One thing I learned while earning my Masters of Library Science and my school librarian certificate is that if you try to censor a book, librarians will Take. You. Down.

“Don’t make me get my gloves out.” (Boxing Glove by Janusz Gawron via freeimages.com.)

Censorship and First Amendment rights are hot-button issues for librarians. Prior to my degree, I had no idea, but I loved it: librarians as righteous warriors for freedom of speech! Yes!

However, I write mostly upper-middle grade stories. For me, this means walking that fine line between being honest without censoring and also keeping in mind the needs of my tween and young teen readers. It’s a tough call sometimes.

“Balance is necessary.” (Tightrope Walker by Kristin Smith via freeimages.com)

The American Library Association says:

“Constitutionally protected speech cannot be suppressed solely to protect children or young adults from ideas or images a legislative body believes to be unsuitable” (2008).  

However, school librarians, like teachers, are seen as “in loco parentis,” giving them a unique responsibility to protect their students’ emotional and physical well-being (Chapin n.p; Duthie 91, Coutney, 18). At the same time, school librarians are also charged with defending their students’ First Amendment right to intellectual freedom.

As it turns out, this dual role of the school librarian is a good representation about how I feel about my role as a writer for tweens and young teens. I want to both help young people think about new ideas and push boundaries while honoring their age and maturity levels.

I am strongly anti-censorship, but when I was revising Fairy Keeper (Curiosity Quills, 2015) after graduating with my library science degree, I decided to focus on the needs of my target audience.

When my publisher and I decided my book would work better as an upper-middle grade novel, not YA, I wanted certain things in the story to be tempered. Not changed, not faked—just softened, without sacrificing any excitement or edginess.

Tweens and young teens can be incredibly worldly and savvy, but still easily bruised.

Because of this reality, some elementary and intermediate schools with fifth graders will carry Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008) while others will not. Some middle school libraries will carry Crank by Ellen Hopkins (Simon Pulse, 2004). Others will not.

The line between selecting age-appropriate books and self-censorship truly is a blurry target. There are so many excellent books, with a huge range in how those books handle difficult topics.

As a writer, I took note. Was I censoring myself, or was I choosing material wisely for my audience?

Let me be clear. I’m not advocating avoiding difficult issues such as death, drugs, or violence. Tweens and teens can handle a lot and don’t need rainbows and unicorns.

“Although who wouldn’t want a rainbow unicorn?” (Unicorn by Sarah at Totally Severe via Flickr.com.)

But I now approach those topics very thoughtfully when writing for middle grade readers, even at the upper middle grade range. Some writers will feel okay including topics others might not— just as some school libraries carry books others don’t.

What it boils down to is: know your readers. This is true for librarians, but also for writers. When I write now, my students from the library are in the back of my mind. The books I’ve read are there, too, whispering what’s been done, what worked, and what didn’t work.

And hopefully, all of that has resulted in a stronger story, because I’m not just writing for the heck of it. I want to connect with my readers. And that means they deserve some special consideration as a group of people in their early adolescence, a group of people that I’m proud and thrilled to write for.

About Amy

Amy Bearce

Amy writes stories for tweens and teens. She is a former reading teacher who now has her Masters in Library Science along with a school librarian certification.

As an Army kid, she moved eight times before she was eighteen, so she feels especially fortunate to be married to her high school sweetheart. Together they’re raising two daughters and are currently living in Germany, though Texas is still where they call home.

A perfect day for Amy involves rain pattering on the windows, popcorn, and every member of her family curled up in one cozy room reading a good book.

About Fairy Keeper 

Excerpt

Most people in Aluvia believe the Fairy Keeper mark is a gift. It reveals someone has the ability to communicate and even control fairies.

Fourteen-year-old Sierra considers it a curse, one that binds her to a dark alchemist father who steals her fairies’ mind-altering nectar for his illegal elixirs and poisons.

But when her fairy queen and all the other queens go missing, more than just the life of her fairy is in the balance if Sierra doesn’t find them. And Sierra will stop at nothing to find them, leading her to a magical secret lost since ancient times.

The magic waiting for her has the power to transform the world, but only if she can first embrace her destiny as a fairy keeper.

Fairy Keeper is now available in paperback and e-book.

Cynsational Notes

American Library Association. “Free Access to Libraries for Minors; An Interpretation of the
Library Bill of Rights.” 2008. Web. 18 July 2012.
< http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/freeaccesslibraries>.

Chapin, Betty. “Filtering the Internet for Young People: The Comfortable Pew is A Thorny
Throne.” Teacher Librarian 26.5 (1999): 18. Library Literature and Information Science Full Text. Web. 17 July 2012.

Coatney, Sharon. “Banned Books: A School Librarian’s Perspective.” Time U.S. Sept 22, 2000.
Web. 17 July 2012. 

Duthie, Fiona. “Libraries and the Ethics of Censorship.” Australian Library Journal 59.3 (2010):
86-94. Library Literature & Information Science Full Text. Web. 17 July 2012.