Profiles of Persistence: Lisa Bierman, Meredith Davis, and Jill Donaldson on Committing Long-Term to Children’s Writing

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Part One: The Writer’s Heart

Many hard-working, committed, persistent, and resilient writers forge ahead with their writing journeys in spite of obstacles, disappointments, “almost-there” moments and plenty of what I call “Beautiful, buts.”

This two-part interview explores the experience of being a long-time, determined writer who has not yet had a book published.

Writers Lisa Bierman, Meredith Davis, and Jill Donaldson hail from different parts of the United States, and have different personalities, habits, writing choices, and ways of shoring up resilience. But one thing they have in common is this: nothing will deter them from continuing to write and submit their stories.

Our writing journeys vary in results, but all of us, whether published or not-yet-published, know that the joy is in the journey.

As you reflect on your writer’s journey, what are the major “bumps” or obstacles you’ve encountered (internal as well as external), and how have you managed to handle them while still remaining committed? 

Meredith: The biggest, most persistent bump is what I’ve perceived as failure – failure to achieve goals, find an agent, get published by the time I was forty.

The fallacy in this thinking was that I based those goals on others’ achievements. Once I recognized what I was doing, I readjusted my success barometer.

As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I began to trust that I was on a path designed just for me, and all those things I wanted – the agent and the publishing contract and the awards will come at the right time.

I can’t force it, and don’t want to force it.
I continue moving forward, writing and editing and submitting. I count the bumps and hurdles of rejections as part of the journey that will make an even better story to tell in the end.

What’s a story without some tension? I remind myself that the journey is just as important as the destination.

Lisa Bierman

Lisa: I have had many time periods when I did very little writing, and [these periods] could last months.

The biggest internal barrier for me has always been the lack of an imposed deadline. 

External events – a lot of family health issues – have intervened over the years as well.
Having fellow writers I adore motivates me to keep returning to manuscripts.

Nothing beats the fun of having a character you begin to love or a string of rhyming stanzas that are really coming together.

Another factor that has helped me is that I often have new story ideas, and I enjoy brainstorming, but I’ve also learned that pursuing ideas that don’t have enough unique qualities can turn into unproductive time.

Jill: I started learning the craft of writing for children and teens in 1999 when I joined SCBWI. I found my writing soulmates and joined a critique group.

A few years in, one of my picture book manuscripts caught the eye of an editor at Random House and we went through several revisions. At that time, Random House merged with several other companies and my editor lost her job. The new editor did not do picture books, so my heart was broken. [A part of me felt like giving up, but instead] I began focusing on magazines and novels.

Not long after, my first article appeared in AppleSeeds.

Many of my other “bumps” have been external. Around that time, my family and I moved to Missouri for my husband’s job. Over the next six years, we moved three times, I continued to raise two active sons, complete my bachelor’s degree, and work full-time.

In 2011, we settled back home in Oklahoma, and I reconnected with old friends and my critique group and started taking my writing career seriously again. In 2015, a tornado damaged our house, and we were homeless for nine months.

In 2016, I faced a big emotional obstacle – the fear of losing my oldest son, who had joined the military and was deployed to war zones.

But I continued to volunteer for SCBWI throughout all of this time.

Oklahoma SCBWI Regional Team Jill Donaldson (regional advisor), Jerry Bennett (illustrator coordinator), Anna Myers (regional advisor emeritus), SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver and Helen Newton (former regional advisor).

I learned to channel frustration, fear, happiness, and peace into my stories, and that has given me the strength to persist in my passion of writing.

I am so happy that I have never given up or quit writing because I recently signed with Stephanie Hansen at Metamorphosis Literary Agency.

What are your top three pieces of advice for developing and maintaining the resilience necessary to persist in a difficult business? 

Lisa:

  1. Remember how many fine writers have a fat rejection file. Probably all of them.
  2. We are told that the publishing industry is highly competitive, and it is. But make peace with the fact that some published books will seem unworthy to you, and you might puzzle endlessly about why certain books “made the cut.” I suggest you focus on the books you are jealous of, that make you swoon. What can you learn from those lovely books? Probably a lot.
  3. Only write things that you really enjoy thinking about.

Jill:

  1. Connect and develop relationships with other kid lit writers and illustrators.
  2. Work at maintaining a balanced lifestyle, so your creativity is at its max when you sit down to write or illustrate.
  3. Keep your mind and heart open to learn and create in new ways. It is soul-satisfying when you have a breakthrough in your writing or illustrating.

Meredith:

  1. Keep reading. Great books continue to remind me why I’m writing and pursuing publication. I want to share stories and move others with my words the same way I’m moved by great writing.
  2. Keep learning. It’s part of the fun of being a writer. It’s exciting to try a new plotting technique or go to graduate school or attend a conference. I’m not just a writer so that I can have a published book. I’m a writer because I actually enjoy writing, and when I learn new things my writing improves. It’s like a woodworker using a new saw or a computer programmer learning a new language. Learning gives me tools to explore new ways of writing and keeps my process fresh.
  3. Keep nurturing relationships with other writers. The relationships I’ve made with other writers are life-giving. They encourage me and they inspire me. Other writers edit my work and they help me navigate the ups and downs of the writing life. They understand how hard it can be, so they can celebrate or commiserate authentically.

E.B. White writes of Charlotte,

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

These relationships are precious.

How do you handle questions about “what is out on submission” (from writing colleagues) or “what have you published?” (from non-writer acquaintances) 

Meredith’s writing community: Anne Bustard (seated),
Meredith, Betty X. Davis, Kathi Appelt and Jane Peddicord.

Meredith: For a long time I didn’t tell people outside my writing circle that I wrote children’s books, but it was hard to stay incognito. I wrote Christmas letters and blog posts and long emails.

People told me they liked my writing, and so I got brave. I began to admit that I wrote children’s books, too, and then came the inevitable question.

Sometimes it was the double whammy: “Where can I buy them?” They assumed not only that I was published, but that I was published many times. As if that is no big deal!

Sometimes I try to explain about publishing, how it’s hard, editors move, the market is fickle, and I’m an unknown. But when I see eyes begin to glaze, I realize a quick “I’m not published yet, but I’m working on it,” works just fine.

Usually whomever I’m talking to has already moved on to new topics of conversation. Non-writers don’t realize they’ve exposed our insecurities, but other writers understand how hard it is and don’t judge.

The children’s writers I’ve met are kind and generous and they’re often rooting for me. We are a friendly bunch, so I try not to be intimidated and keep Dorie’s mantra from “Finding Nemo” playing on repeat in my head: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”

I move on, and, “Just keep writing, just keep
writing.”

Lisa: I give very brief answers. I’m honest. I’ll say that I’ve been beating my head
against the wall.

Jill: When I’m asked about submissions, I try to make it an opportunity to pitch my current work. Their reactions or lack thereof is helpful in knowing how I can be better.

When I’m asked about what I have published, I let them know what success I have had and then tell them that I don’t have any books published yet.

Part Two: Writing Craft


What are your favorite resources for improving your writing skills? 

Lisa’s favorite craft books.

Lisa: Reading books in my genre – that’s the most fun way to improve my own work. When I see a picture book that is clever and delights me, it can also help me think, “I have concepts that are as good as these…My voice is similar…,” and those are the times I get excited again and want to keep the fire going.

Jill: I try to attend as many kid lit related critique meetings, writing workshops, and webinars as possible.

Meredith: I love a good conference or workshop, when I am surrounded by creative people and inspired by either a lecture or a writing exercise, but perhaps the most helpful tool for me is a story well told. It can be a book, a movie, a podcast, even a grandma at the dinner table.

I love trying to figure out what makes a story work, and then trying it out in my own work. What builds tension? How to best set up a scene? How to paint a character so she seems real? My favorite books are all marked up and highlighted with notes for what works and what doesn’t.

What strategies (internal and external) do you use for improving your craft?

Meredith: My best “honing” happens during revision. One of the most important things I can do to revise well is to leave my manuscript alone for a while.

When it’s time for a big revision, I need some space to gain perspective and let go of some of the details I can’t seem to pry my fingers off of when it’s still close and present and on my mind daily.

Internally, this means filling up with someone else’s words, reading a book that’s so good it distracts me from my work.

Externally, it means going out and engaging in the real world for a while, meeting a friend for coffee or lunch. This makes no sense. How can I be working on my craft by ignoring it? It works because when I come back to it, I see it through new eyes.

Sometimes I’ll try laying a construct on it, like Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder (Michael Wiese, 2005) or the “snowflake method” or the “sticky-note method” or whatever fun plotting game has come across my radar.

I look at my story as a puzzle instead of precious words I’ve woven together. Honing implies detail work, and getting to the root of what makes a scene and an entire story work. This can only be done with an objective eye, and I’m most objective when my affections are no longer entirely focused on my manuscript.

Jill: I study recently published kid lit books, create an organized comfortable working space, and play wordless music.

Lisa: Getting feedback as often as I can afford to, money-wise and time-wise.

What craft advice would you give to beginning writers?

Lisa: It takes a very long time for most of us to develop to a truly professional level.

You must enjoy the actual writing, not just the idea of having a book to sell. Don’t stay wedded to an idea too long, especially if an editor tells you in a critique that they see a lot of similar stories. If you’re going to do a common book theme, like a bedtime book, ya gotta shoot for being better than Jane Yolen

Meredith: Light a candle. You can get really caught up with word count and how many pages you’ve written in a day, but the most important thing is making progress.

Meredith’s writing space with lit candle.

We kid ourselves if progress only means meeting a designated and arbitrary word count. Sometimes progress looks like staring out the window or scribbling ideas on notecards or even deleting a bunch of pages that no longer work but were necessary to write to figure out your story.

This is all progress, though it may feel unsatisfying without physical proof of a hard day’s work.

My advice is to put a candle on a plate and light it when you start paying attention to your manuscript.

Measure your progress by the puddle of wax that accumulates instead of word count. You’ll have a physical manifestation of the time you’ve spent with your work in progress.

When someone asks how your writing went that day, you can proudly (and cryptically) reply, “about the size of a salad plate.”

Jill: First, learn about the different kid-lit industry standards.

Second, learn about yourself. What are your writing strengths and weaknesses? Focus on improving your weakness. For example, if you don’t have a good grasp of grammar rules, then teach yourself with workbooks, online classes, and tutorials.

Third, train yourself to take and give constructive critique about your manuscript. Even the master writer, Jane Yolen said, “It’s never perfect when I write it down the first time, or the second time, or the fifth time. But it always gets better as I go over it and over it.”

Thanks to Lisa, Jill, and Meredith for sharing so much about your inner journeys and your thoughts about commitment to your craft! 


As short or as long as our journeys are, it’s so important to call ourselves by our name – Writer – and to stay focused on the work, challenge, and joy of telling the stories we hold in our hearts and minds as beautifully as we can.


Cynsational Breaking News & Notes

Meredith Davis has sold what will become her debut book, Chance Comes Once, co-authored by Rebeka Uwitonze, to Scholastic.

Meredith founded the Austin chapter of SCBWI in 1995, the same year her daughter was born. She birthed an additional two children in subsequent years, worked in an independent children’s bookstore, and earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes middle grade and picture books, fiction and narrative nonfiction, and looks forward to announcing her first book contract, a product of many puddles of wax. In the featured photo, she is shown with Betty X. DavisAnne BustardKathi Appelt, and Jane Peddicord.

Lisa Bierman spent 17 years as a marketing research analyst. Then she had two sons who, thankfully, did not want to hear the same picture books over and over.

Lisa was hooked on the beauty and possibilities in the world of kids’ books. She has written (and not published) many picture book and chapter book manuscripts. Her poetry has appeared in kids’ magazines.

Meanwhile, she has done freelance business writing, volunteered extensively for SCBWI-Illinois, for local public schools and for AYSO soccer.

Jillene Donaldson (Jill) creates stories for children and teens and is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Inc.

She grew up in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma with three siblings, several dogs, and a cat that climbed walls. She’s had run-ins with a mean bull, an electric fence, monster dogs, toe-eating mice, and bullies who once double-dog dared her to eat a white grub, which she did.

Jill graduated as valedictorian; completed an AA in English Literature for which she won the Geraldine Burns Award for Excellence in English; and then earned a BA all while working full time and raising two awesome boys with her husband.

She loves putting frozen fruit in drinks and most anything with cheese or chocolate. She lives with her husband in Oklahoma City.

Carol Coven Grannick writes picture books, poetry and middle grade fiction. Her work has appeared in Cricket, Ladybug, Highlights and Hunger Mountain.

Her middle grade novel-in-verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,” addresses body image-issues for the younger audience, and won an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript competition. It also was a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Award from Hunger Mountain.

Carol chronicles the writer’s inner journey with a focus on resilience for Cynsations and the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

See her previous posts: Let’s Make a Plan: Reminders from Early Childhood Education; Life, Writing & A Word In Praise of Emotional Safety; Into the Scary for the Sake of Joy; and Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist.

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

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

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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

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

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

I’m now in my fifth year as the RA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many members are in the Austin chapter? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How has SCBWI helped you in your path to publication?

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

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

Laurent Linn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samantha with other RAs at the 2016 SCBWI LA Conference

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

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

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

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

What’s the best part of being an RA?

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

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

    I could go on.

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

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

Are there any downsides? 

Well… the job is a lot of work.

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

A lot of emails…

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

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

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

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

Cynsational Notes

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

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

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

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 Voice: Laney Nielson on Peppermint Cocoa Crushes

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Laney Nielson is the debut author of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes (Skypony, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Sasha is so excited for her school’s Winter Variety Show! She and her best friends, twins Karly and Kevin, have been working on a song and dance routine for it, with super cute candy cane costumes. 


Sasha is sure they’ll be the best. And she’s even more confident that her secret plan — to tell Kevin about her crush on him — will go off without a hitch.

But Sasha is starting to realize that she’s overcommitted herself, between rehearsing for the show, regular dance class, after-school clubs and committees, and ever-increasing amounts of homework. 


When nothing ends up going as planned, can Sasha still step up and make the most of her moment in the spotlight?

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

When I began writing seriously (with the goal of publishing), I thought I knew more than I did. I loved children’s literature. I’d been a classroom teacher of the age group I wanted to write for. I’d taken creative writing courses and I’d participated in poetry workshops. Plus, I had a bunch of half-baked stories already on my computer. How hard could it be? Uh…I didn’t know what I didn’t know!

Joining SCBWI was a great first step. That year, I also went to my first Austin SCBWI conference.

I signed up for an intensive Lisa Yee’s taught on villains. (Side note: Millicent Min, Girl Genius (Scholastic, 2003) is one of my all time favorite middle grade novels.) By the end of the weekend, I realized this was going to be a lot harder than I’d thought. So I then moved into the phase where I will probably live forever: I know what I don’t know.

When I felt like I’d reached a plateau in my learning (and in an early manuscript), I attended the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop. There my fabulous faculty advisor, Tami Lewis Brown taught me how a character’s yearning can drive a story and how to raise questions for your reader.

Alan Gratz who was also on the faculty taught a session on structure and the hero’s journey that fundamentally changed the way I think about story. I buried (figuratively) a manuscript there but those days in Honesdale, PA were invaluable. I dream of returning!

Cynthia and the 2014 Writing Mentorship finalists. Laney is on far right.
Photo by Sam Bond.

In 2014, I again attended the Austin SCBWI conference, and that year I was awarded the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentorship.

It was a remarkable opportunity to learn from a writer I deeply admire.

On every level, Cynthia helped me grow—from rethinking word choice to turning a stereotype on its head to slimming down an overwritten first draft. She was thoughtful and generous, and I will be forever grateful for the wisdom she shared.


Along the way, I’ve read numerous craft books and shared countless first drafts with my smart and supportive critique group. The learning never ends. 
My current work in progress is very different in tone from Peppermint Cocoa Crushes and right now I’m studying Gary Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). It’s a remarkable book and the perfect one to teach me how syntax and word choice create tone and build voice.

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

There are so many wonderful firsts: holding an ARC, walking into a book store and spotting your book face out on the shelf, having a reader say your story resonates with them. 

Scenes from Laney’s book party

I’ve loved seeing the photos people have posted of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes on social media. Like all the Swirl novels, the cover is very photogenic especially with a cup of cocoa nearby!

But getting to those firsts was definitely filled with highs and lows. When I signed with a wonderful agent in 2015, I thought I’d made it. I assumed my manuscript would sell within a matter of months. 

It did not. But as hard as being on submission and collecting passes from editors was, I had an agent, a business partner.

If this one didn’t sell, the next story would. But then my agent moved back to the publishing side of the business and that meant I no longer had an agent. My partner was gone. I had a manuscript that had never sold and a second one that needed a lot of work. It felt like I was back at square one!

It was a great lesson. Okay, it did not feel like a great lesson at the time! But it taught me to focus on what I can control (my ideas, the quality of my writing) because the rest of it? I can’t control.

Fast forward a year (or so) and my former agent turned editor, approached me about writing a novel for Sky Pony’s new line for tween readers. Yay! And that was the start of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes. 


What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

  • Immerse yourself in stories. 
Read! Find mentor texts for your current project. Think about what the writer does well and how they are doing it? Study the story on every level from word choice and syntax to the character arc and theme. If something doesn’t work for you as reader, figure out why not and think about what might’ve been more satisfying. 
When you watch a movie or a favorite show on Netflix, ask yourself why does a scene work? Where is the tension? How does it raise questions that keep you engaged? 
You may want to look at stories through the lens of the hero’s journey or plots points (Larry BrooksStory Engineering, Writer’s Digest, 2011) or beats (Blake Synder’s Save the Cat, Michael Wiese, 2005). Analyze. Discuss. Or write reviews. 
Stories in all mediums are of value, but at the end of the day, a writing life is a reading life. Oh, and read poetry! Nothing teaches you the importance of word choice or truth telling like poetry.
  • Spend time developing your ideas. 
Push and pull at the premise of your stories. Ask what if and who cares and so what. Imagine and re-imagine. Before you begin a project write one-paragraph pitch for your story. Would you buy that book? Be honest. Would a stranger?
  • Write! Write! Write!
And finish that first draft. The act of making your way through the beginning, middle and end of your first story is a huge milestone. Be proud. Give it a rest. And then when you’ve had some time apart, roll up your sleeves and see what you have to work with. Let the fun begin!
  • Be open to feedback. 
Find a critique group or a critique partner. Your local SCBWI is a great place to start. When you share your writing, remember you’re not looking for someone to tell you how good it is. You want to know what’s working and what’s not. Feedback is such a gift!

If you are able to go to a conference, sign up for a critique session with an agent, editor or published writer. Listen and learn. These are industry professionals who know what works and what sells. And along the way, your skin will grow thicker. I promise.

When I received the editorial letter for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, I felt like I’d made it onto the playing field. This was what I’d been training for!

  • Remember the why
For writers seeking a traditional publication path, you can’t control when you’ll be published or what that will look like or how it will all unfold. So remember why you are writing. As with the characters in our stories, the why is always the most important part! 
Cynsational Notes

See the discussion guide for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, and the other Swirl novels from Sky Pony Press.

A Booklist review called Peppermint Cocoa Crushes “full of humor and silly mishaps…A good choice for libraries looking to add some gentle romance to their middle-grade collection.”

Laney Nielson is a former classroom teacher with a master’s degree in education. 

She is a past recipient of the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her novel, Peppermint Cocoa Crushes is part of the Swirl series, Sky Pony’s new line for tween readers.

Registration is currently open for the 2018 Austin SCBWI Writers & Illustrators Working Conference, set for April 28 and April 29.


Book Trailer: Cinnamon by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Divya Srinivasan

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Cinnamon by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Divya Srinivasan (HarperChildren’s, 2017). From the promotional copy:

A talking tiger is the only one who may be able to get a princess to speak in this beautiful picture book set in a mythic India by the Newbery Medal-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman, and illustrated in bold colors by Divya Srinivasan.



Previously available only as an audio book, Cinnamon has never been published in print before, and Divya Srinivasan’s lush artwork brings Neil Gaiman’s text to life.



This stunning picture book will transport readers to another time and place and will delight parents and children alike.

See also New Voice: Divya Srinivasan on Little Owl’s Night from Cynsations.

SCBWI Initiative: Lin Oliver on Books For Readers

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators recently announced a new initiative: Books for Readers. To learn how this program would get books into the hands of more young readers, I interviewed SCBWI’s Executive Director Lin Oliver.

So, each region will be nominating an organization, and then the SCBWI Board of Advisors and staff will pick one or two organizations that will receive the books, right?

Most of our SCBWI regions have been doing book drives for local organizations for a long time. The idea for SCBWI Books for Readers came from our desire to join our regions’ individual efforts to make a greater national and worldwide impact on the lives of readers in need. 

This initiative will advance our mission, as an organization of children’s book creators and literacy advocates, to place good books in the hands of all children.

Our regions will nominate organizations from their local communities. A selection committee made up of members of our Board of Advisors will select two recipients who will receive a library of books from SCBWI authors and illustrators, along with a big celebration party for the kids who are receiving the books.

We always want kids to associate books with a joyful experience. Presently, our members are in the process of nominating their top causes or organizations that are in need of books. The selection committee will begin their deliberations at the end of this month.

Can you tell us some of the factors the selection committee will be considering?


The SCBWI Books For Readers selection committee will choose two organizations or causes, based on their immediate need for books, and their ability to benefit from receiving a large donation of children’s books.

The collected books will be curated prior to the donation based on the type and number of books desired. Surplus books will be donated to other causes and/organizations who were nominated.

Tell us about the logistical aspects of this – members send their books to SCBWI Headquarters in L.A., then what? Have you rented a warehouse to store them? 


We are asking all interested SCBWI members to send no more than three copies of each of their books to our SCBWI HQ in LA. We will be renting a storage unit to house the books until we deliver them to the selected recipients.

The announcement mentioned, “soon to be out-of-print titles that could be donated instead of being pulped or remaindered.” Have any publishers stepped up to contribute their remainders to this effort, or should individual authors initiate this conversation directly with their editors or marketing staff?

We’ve made a change where this point is concerned. In order to make this a finely curated shipment of books to the recipients, we will not be taking large numbers of books either through remainders or those that will be pulped.

The mission of the Books For Readers initiative includes promoting SCBWI authors, illustrators and their books; can you tell me more about that aspect? What sort of promotion do you envision? 

Participating members’ names will be printed in an official SCBWI Books For Readers program, and all members are encouraged to attend the distribution events!

There will also be extensive publicity and promotional efforts surrounding the book drive, the donors and donations, and the distribution and celebration events on a national and regional level.

These efforts will focus on shining a light on the crucial need to increase book access for readers in need worldwide, to spotlight our donor members and their books, and to highlight SCBWI as a professional organization of book authors, illustrators, and literacy advocates.

Supporting literacy efforts seems like a natural fit for the book creators of SCBWI (our Austin region does a much smaller version of this – collecting books at our holiday party and donating them to a local organization) Has the larger organization been involved in an effort like this before? Is it something you hope to make an annual event?

Yes, yes, and yes!


Yes, it is a natural and organic fit. We create books for readers. There are so many kids who are in need of books, and we’d like to help change that. Yes, it is our first literacy initiative, and Yes, we plan to make this an annual event.

For more information, you can visit SCBWI Books For Readers. Thanks for your interest, for your help in spreading the word, and for all you do for children’s literature and our community!

Cynsations Notes


Nominate an organization from your region before the April 30 deadline.

Lin Oliver is the co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

For much of her career, she was an executive in the film and television industry, including being the Executive Vice President of MCA Universal Studios for over 12 years. She is the writer and executive producer of over 300 episodes of television and three feature films directed at the family audience.

During her career in film and television, she served as Executive Director of the SCBWI as a volunteer spending nights and weekends and vacations in the service of SCBWI while earning her living in filmed entertainment.

Since 2000, she has not only led the SCBWI as Executive Director but simultaneously has pursued her career as a children’s book author, publishing more than 35 books for children including a best-selling series about a child with learning differences.

She also manages staff and personnel matters, establishes programs with partner organizations (such as First Book or We Need Diverse Books or The American Library Association) and oversees much of the work of the regional advisors.  She has a BA in English from the University of California, Berkley, a Masters in Educational Psychology from UCLA, and has completed course work for an doctorate in Education from UCLA. She is recognized as a leading voice in promoting literacy and children’s literature.

Author Interview: P.J. Hoover on Creating Promotional Tie-In Extras For Your Book

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I first read P.J. Hoover‘s Cynsations post that mentioned video games related to Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life (Starscape, 2014), I thought, “She’s an electrical engineer. That’s not something someone like me could actually do.”

Still, it’s  a very intriguing idea.

We hear all the time about kids playing video games instead of reading books. What if the video games could actually make them want to read?

When I heard there would be a sequel to Tut, I decided it was time to learn more about the intersection of books and gaming to share with Cynsations readers.

Tell us about the extras you created to go along with Tut. 

Thanks so much for having me here! I’m thrilled to talk about the extras to Tut! I’ll split them into traditional and non-traditional.

For traditional extras, it started when my editor asked for a “bonus chapter” to put at the end of the actual printed book.

I didn’t love the idea of a bonus chapter because I didn’t see it as a big selling point for middle grade. So instead, I sat down at my computer, put together some extras, and sent them off to her. These included:

• A glossary
• A note to readers about King Tut
King Tut’s Guide to immortality
A Tomb-Builders Guide

The short story is that she loved them! She loved them so much, that for the sequel, she asked for more. So I sat down at my computer again and came up with:

King Tut’s Most Excellent Guide to all Things Shabti
Caring for your Sumerian Monster
Henry’s Phrontistery

(Note that these make a bunch of sense once you’ve read the book.) Again, she loved the extras!

But these still all fell in the range of traditional extras, and being the tech-savvy person that I am, I decided to come up with some more not-quite-as-traditional extras.

The first of these was a game I developed in Scratch (a website developed by MIT that teaches kids to program by having them design games).

Scratch is widely used in schools which is where I first learned about it. Over the course of the next few months, I coded Escape From King Tut’s Tomb, a 10-level video game to go along with the book. It’s actually really hard to get through all 10 levels, so on my website, I included “cheats” to go along with the game.

After the Scratch game, I latched onto the Minecraft craze.

One of P.J.’s Minecraft
Tomb Builders

Minecraft popularity has died down a bit in the last couple years, but at the time of the release of Tut: The Story of my Immortal Life, it was the hottest thing.

So I hired some Minecraft developers (in the form of my kids and their friends), rented server space, and we created the Minecraft Tut world.

I was so excited at this point, and so into creating extras to go along with Tut (since they were so much fun), that I sat down and wrote out a Choose Your Own Adventure inspired game to go along with my book.

It’s called Pick Your Own Quest, and in it, you play the role of King Tut. The choices you make determine if you save Egypt from an awful threat, or if you make the wrong choice, you die some horribly grizzly death instead.

I think there are about forty-two different ways to die.

When it was time for book 2, I knew I wanted to write another Scratch game.

Here’s the thing. King Tut himself was a gamer.

Yes, it’s true! In his tomb they found many copies of a very popular ancient Egyptian board game called Senet.

This game is featured in the sequel, Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World (Starscape, 2017). So I coded up Senet in Scratch to go along with book two. Kids can play against a friend or against King Tut himself.

Warning: King Tut is very hard to beat. He also taunts you the entire time you play. For those who don’t know how to play Senet, there is an easy mode and a hard mode. There are also downloadable instructions on my website and information in the back of the published book.

What has the response been from teachers and students?
Both teachers and students love these extras!

I have gotten such great response, from seeing librarians at conferences eyes light up when they hear me mention Scratch, to kids cheering when they find out about the video games.

They love that I’ve taken the world of reading and crossed it over in these unique ways to combine technology.

Kids adore playing video games, and when they hear about how they’re related to a book, it’s like they feel like they’ve been given permission to play. Also it gets them very excited to read the books. I’ll see hundreds and hundreds of hits on my website for the extras, and it just makes smile.

Have the extras led to more school visits?
One hundred percent yes!

In addition to my standard author presentation, I also offer a breakout “Coding Chat” where I’ll talk to kids in technology classes or coding clubs about ways I use technology in my job as an author. I’ll also focus on Scratch and help them get started. I have some “starter” projects that kids can take and easily modify. 

So many schools these days have coding clubs, and the program they almost all start out using is Scratch. So I offer them not only the ability to talk about books and writing, but the vision in seeing how they can take their love of a book and express it creatively.
In addition, and it’s so hard to believe this is still the case, we are still seeing a huge drop in females in technical classes and careers. Lots of schools love that I provide the role model of a strong technical female to their students. I’ve been invited to specifically visit girls-only schools for this reason.
I have information about in-person and Skype author visits on my website.
Have the extras help boost sales? Have you heard from readers who discovered the book because they found one of the games first?
Though it’s hard to determine this exactly, I believe the extras have helped the Tut books gain visibility and stand out in the market when otherwise they might not have.

Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life was chosen for both the Texas Lone Star List and the Spirit of Texas Middle School list.

In addition, I’ve also seem my game being used as an example in computer science classes around the country, both at the high school and college levels. 

Scratch also provides a way for me to connect with kids directly.

It’s like its own social networking site. Kids can comment on my games, like them, favorite them. I can chat back with them about the games. Overall, it’s a win.

Which of the games you created is the most popular?
P.J.’s original Artificial Intelligence project

Of the Scratch games, Escape From King Tut’s Tomb is by far the most popular. It’s the main one connected to the book, and the first one kids will find on my Scratch page and my website. 

Of the non-Scratch extras, the Pick Your Own Quest adventure is hugely popular. Kids will go through the paths, trying to find a safe way to save Egypt over and over again. They probably go through seeing how many ways they can die also.
My personal favorite is a game I coded in Scratch.

Back when I was in college, I took a class called Artificial Intelligence, and in the class, we had a project assigned. I wrote a game called Castle Of Doom.

I loved the game! Of course that was back in 1991 and the game was on a (most likely defunct) floppy disk for DOS.

I recoded the game in Scratch, and now I can play whenever I want!

P.J.’s game, recoded in Scratch

Tell me about the timeline of creating the extras. Did you do it all at once? Or is it something you are continually growing?

I tend to do my extras in batches, before the release of the books. That way, when possible, I can get information on the extras into the printed books themselves.

For example, the Pick Your Own Quest game is featured in the print books with a QR that links directly to the website page for it. 

The Scratch games take a while to write. I’ll try to spread this out over the course of a couple months, taking my time, so I don’t rush through anything and make mistakes (through I’m sure there are still some bugs in there somewhere!). It’s nice when I do Scratch, because I can hang out with my kids at the kitchen table with my laptop, and it encourages them to create games of their own at the same time. 
If an author wants to make a game, what are the basic steps for getting started? (is one platform more user friendly? have better graphics or sound effects?)

There are two different ways to approach this. 
PJ Hoover with Cynthia Leitich Smith at Texas Book Festival

If an author just wants a kick-butt video game to go along with their book, there is no reason to use Scratch.

In fact, there may be many reasons to not use it. The graphics are not the best (they don’t scale up great). It can be slow loading. It does not have all the functionality a skilled programmer would want.

If the goal is to just have a game that kids can play, any platform can be used.

My reasons for having a game were a bit different.

In addition to giving kids a game to play, I really wanted to tie into the technology curriculum at schools and allow educators to combine the use of my games and my books.

I was really trying to hook those kids who loved math and science but didn’t love reading and writing quite as much. For this reason, I went with Scratch. Almost every single educator out there has heard of it. Many schools have required Technology classes or lessons. Scratch is the number one go-to when teaching kids to code. 

As for getting started, having a programming background helps. But anything is possible if there is a vision and the motivation to make that vision become a reality. 
Are there costs associated with creating the extra content?
My cost was only my time. But it was fun time, time well spent, and I loved every minute of it! Also, now I have some really fun games that even I love to play.
Tell us about Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World.
I’m so excited for this book! It feels like it’s been forever since book 1, Tut: The Story Of My Immortal Life, came out. And it has been two-and-a-half years! The story picks up a few months after the end of the first book. And because they did such a great job of summarizing it, I’ll go with my publishers blurb:
Meet Tut! He used to rule Egypt. Now he’s stuck in middle school.

Having defeated his evil uncle and the Cult of Set, who tried to send him to the afterlife, the perpetually fourteen-year-old King Tut is looking forward to a relaxing summer vacation. But then Tut discovers that his brother Gilgamesh has been captured by the Egyptian god Apep, Lord of Chaos. Gil helped to vanquish Apep thousands of years ago, and now Apep is back for vengeance.

It’s up to Tut and his friends, Tia and Henry, to find Gil and stop Apep before he succeeds in his scheme to swallow the sun and plunge the world into darkness forever….

Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World will appeal to fans of fast and funny mythological fantasy. Don’t miss Tut’s first epic adventure, Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life.
Thank you so much for having me here! It is such an honor!

Cynsational Notes

P.J. with Nefertorti. Her other
tortoise is named King Tort.

P.J. Hoover wanted to be a Jedi, but when that didn’t work out, she became an electrical engineer instead. After 15 years of designing computer chips, she decided to start creating worlds of her own.

Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World, her sixth book, releases today.

When not writing, P.J. spends time with her husband and two kids and enjoys practicing kung fu, solving Rubik’s cubes, watching “Star Trek” and playing too many video games.

She is also the assistant regional adviser for Austin SCBWI

In Memory: Tom Shefelman

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Austin architect contributed modernist buildings to city’s landscape by Michael Barnes from The Austin American Statesman. Peek:

Thomas ‘Tom’ Shefelman, who helped design several of Austin’s outstanding modernist buildings…. Seattle-born Shefelman, a graduate of the University of Texas School of Architecture and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, also illustrated children’s books and painted watercolor scenes from his travels, often in tandem with his wife, Janice Shefelman, who survives him.”

Note: Tom was 89.

A few members of Austin’s children’s-YA writing community shared their thoughts about Tom.

Author Lindsey Lane:

“I will never forget the time I opened up the arc of I, Vivaldi (Eerdmans, 2008) and saw Tom’s drawing of Saint Mark’s Square. I gasped. I felt like I was there. The heart of it. The movement of it. The soul of it.

“‘Tom…’ I whispered. ‘This is holy.’
” He smiled. We didn’t say much. He looked pleased that his work had touched me.

“Tom was such an elegant man in the way he put his heart and soul and vision into his work.

“The work was the satisfaction. That it touched me was the smile on his face.

“Tom, the essence of him, makes me think of the First Corinthians:

‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’

“Thank you, Tom, for being that presence of love in everything you did.”

Author-Illustrator Shelley Ann Jackson: “I feel honored to have had work hanging alongside his in an Austin SCBWI show and grateful for the beautiful books we have to remember him by.”

Meredith Davis interviewed Tom and Janice, for an Austin SCBWI member profile last year. The couple talked about their process of creating books for children together. Tom said he hoped his illustrations would provide young readers with “a visual experience outside their own, which enlarges their world and makes them tolerant of differences.”

Guest Post: Brian Anderson Collaborating with His Daughter Amy on Space Dictionary for Kids

By Brian Anderson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Have you ever wondered why the spacecraft that carried the first U.S. astronaut into space in 1961 was named the Freedom 7? Was George Lucas already planning six prequels, or what?

When my daughter Amy turned 21 years old in July 2014, she was doing summer research in astrophysics at Baylor University. Her birthday coincided with a stargazing party at Meyer Observatory, so I offered to make a piñata and have the star party double as a birthday party.

I started making custom piñatas when Amy was five years old, and over the years her birthday party piñatas had grown increasingly elaborate.

“How about a black hole piñata,” I joked. I imagined one round balloon, decorated all black. She would never agree to that.

“That’d be fantastic!”

I knew right away something was wrong. I told her nothing escapes the gravity of a black hole, not even light. It’s just a black dot in space. That’s when she told me about accretion disks and X-ray emissions and Hawking radiation. Apparently, I had a lot to learn about black holes, and now I also had a challenging piñata to make.

The following summer my friend and fellow Austin children’s book author Christina Soontornvat told me that Prufrock Press was looking for an author to write an astronomy dictionary for kids.

Christina and I are both science educators as well as children’s book authors, and she thought I’d be perfect for the job. But after the way that black hole piñata joke backfired on me the summer before, I knew I didn’t know enough astronomy to write a book about it.

But I knew someone who did.

Brian & Amy–back in the day.

Amy had just graduated from college and was taking the summer off before starting graduate school in the fall.

When I suggested we write it together, her first question was the same as mine – isn’t there something like this already available online for free?

Her search turned up the same thing mine had: some highly technical glossaries that were clearly not intended for kids, and a scattered collection of incomplete and sometimes incorrect astronomy glossaries for students.

My nine-year-old self was screaming at me that space-loving kids needed this book. Amy felt the same way, and agreed to help write it. We have liftoff!

We compiled a word list of about 450 terms, grouped them into five subject areas, then dived into researching and writing.

The fact that Amy understood the science content much better than I did is part of the reason our collaboration on Space Dictionary for Kids (Sourcebooks, 2016) worked so well. She brought content mastery and I brought a learner’s perspective.

Together we were able to create an astronomy dictionary that’s both scientifically accurate and understandable to young readers.

Collaborating with my daughter will always be one of the highlights of my writing career, and Amy taught me a lot of astronomy along the way. I finally understand retrograde motion!

I already knew quasars were the brightest objects in the universe, brighter than an entire galaxy of stars, but until I started working with Amy I never knew exactly what a quasar was. And I also learned (a little too late) that I should have offered to make Amy a black dwarf piñata instead of a black hole piñata.

Cynsational Notes

To answer the opening question, each of the Project Mercury astronauts, known collectively as the Mercury 7, was allowed to name the ship that would carry him into space, and each ship’s name would end with the number 7. In addition to Freedom 7, the other Mercury spacecraft were Liberty Bell 7, Friendship 7, Aurora 7, Sigma 7, and Faith 7. If you’re keeping score, you probably noticed that that was only six. To find out what happened to the seventh Mercury astronaut, flip to page 144.

New Voice & Giveaway: Donna Janell Bowman on Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Donna Janell Bowman is the first-time author of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016). From the promotional copy:

A Horse that can read, write, and do math?

Ridiculous! 

That’s what people thought until former slave and self-taught veterinarian Dr. William Key, with his “educated” horse Beautiful Jim Key, proved that, with kindness, anything is possible. 

Over nine years of exhibiting across the country, Doc and “Jim” broke racial barriers, fueled the humane movement, and inspired millions of people to step right up and choose kindness.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This question ties so perfectly into my belief that there’s a piece of us in everything we write.

In 2006, I read a book about Beautiful Jim Key, authored by Mim Eichler Rivas (William Morrow 2005/Harper Paperbacks 2006). It was a given that I would be drawn to a horse book. I grew up on a Quarter Horse ranch, where life revolved around raising, training, and showing horses, and caring for the myriad livestock and other animals. I have always been an animal lover, and I know firsthand how powerful the human-animal bond can be—how the combination of time, trust, and affection can create such synergy that you can practically read each other’s minds.

Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives.

That kind of relationship bonded William “Doc” Key and his horse, Beautiful Jim Key. While the horse was what drew me to the story, I was immediately awed by Doc. His greatest historical contribution was an unmistakable message about kindness, in a time of extreme racial prejudice, and brutal treatment of animals.

How could I not love the story of a man who overcame so much to make a real difference in the world?

Thanks to Doc, “Jim,” the horse, became a sort of poster child for the emerging humane movement, while Doc overcame injustices, broke racial barriers, and helped change the way people thought about and treated animals. Doc was awarded a Service to Humanity Award, and Jim was awarded a “Living Example” award.

So, back to your question, Cyn, about what inspired me to write this story—it spoke to my heart. I dived into research with zeal.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

There were a number of challenges to writing this story, but three that most stand out:

First, the research. It was claimed that Beautiful Jim Key could read, write, calculate math problems, compete in spelling bees, identify playing cards, operate a cash register, and more. I had to get to the bottom of how this could be possible.

I used the adult book as my jumping off point, but I wasn’t satisfied to rely solely on somebody else’s research.

This is a story that straddles the 19th and 20th centuries, so I read a great deal about the period, including slavery, the Reconstruction Era in the distinct regions of Tennessee, the history of the humane organizations; the related World’s Fairs, Doc’s business interests, etc.

Emotionally, the most difficult part was reading about how animals were treated in the 19th century, and, more importantly, how enslaved people were often treated with similar brutality. Only a tiny fraction of my research appears in the book’s back matter, but it all deeply affected my approach to the story.

I visited the Shelbyville (TN) Public Library and skimmed through their microfilm. Then I spent some time at the Tennessee State Archives, donning white gloves as I perused the crumbling scrapbooks from the BJK collection.

During that 2009 trip, I also visited the humble Beautiful Jim Key memorial in Shelbyville, TN, and Doc’s grave site at the Willow Mount Cemetery. (I might have shed a few sentimental tears.) We then tracked down what I think was Doc’s former property, though the house is long gone.

This kind of onsite research, along with old photos and local news accounts, allowed me to imagine the setting of Doc’s hometown. Back home, I collected binders-full of newspaper articles, playbills, and promotional booklets. Through these, I got a feel for how people thought about Doc and Jim.

And, most importantly, I found some of Doc’s explanations for how he taught the horse. What became clear was, though we may never know exactly how the horse was able to do so many remarkable things, the countless news reporters and professors who tried to prove trickery or a hoax, never found anything beyond “education.” Jim only rarely made mistakes.

Ultimately, what Doc and Jim did for the humane movement is even more significant than what the horse performed on stage.

Originally, I had planned the story for middle grade audiences until my agent (who wasn’t my agent yet) suggested that I try a picture book version. I already had half of the chapters written by this time, so I was aghast at the thought of starting over. And I didn’t know how to write a picture book biography. I spent the next two years analyzing and dissecting a couple hundred picture book biographies to figure out how they work.

I decided to blog about some of my craft observations, using the platform as a quasi-classroom for myself and anyone else who might happen upon my site.

Many, many, many drafts later, I had a manuscript that attracted the attention of a few editors. Lee and Low was the perfect home for Doc and Jim.

There was a built-in challenge in writing this story about a formerly-enslaved African American man. Because I don’t fit any of Doc’s descriptors, it was doubly important that I approach the subject with respect and sensitivity.

I couldn’t merely charge through with the mindset that I’m just the historian sharing documented facts.

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

It is so exciting to finally be crossing the threshold into this new role. The past nine years, which is how long I’ve had the story in my head and in my heart, have felt like the longest-ever pregnancy.

There’s a mixture of joy, relief, and fear during this delivery stage. Fortunately, so far, very nice starred reviews have praised the book, and each reviewer wisely sings the praises of Daniel Minter’s spectacular lino-cut acrylic art.

As I think ahead to marketing and promotion, I’m planning for the Oct. 15 release, the Oct. 23 launch party, and how the book might raise awareness of the need for more kindness in the world—not only toward animals but toward each other.

From my very first draft, nine years ago, I knew I’d revive the original Beautiful Jim Key Pledge—originally signed by two million people during Doc and Jim’s time.

I plan to incorporate the pledge into my author presentations, and it will be downloadable from my website soon. I also hope to align with some humane organizations to help them raise awareness.

I have two more books under contract, several others on submission or in revision, and a novel-in-progress.

In 2018, Peachtree Publishers will release En Garde! Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler, followed in 2019 by King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson.

Such is the author’s life, right? We write, we rewrite, we revise, we sell, we wait, we celebrate, then we do it all over again. Because we can’t imagine not writing something that moves us. And we can’t imagine not writing for young people.

Cynsational Giveaway

Book Launch! Join Donna Janell Bowman at 3 p.m. Oct. 23 at BookPeople in Austin. Donna will be speaking and signing.

Fundraiser: Step Right Up and Help The Rescued Horses of Bluebonnet Equine Human Society: “They are horses, donkeys, and ponies that are helpless and hopeless. And they are hurting. The lucky ones land at Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society. Under the loving care of professional staff and volunteers, the animals are medically and nutritionally rehabilitated, then placed with trainers to prepare them for re-homing/adoption.” See also Interview: Step Right Up Author Donna Janell Bowman by Terry Pierce from Emu’s Debuts.

Enter to win two author-signed copies of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016).

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