Career Builder: Valerie Sherrard

Follow Valerie on Twitter

By Lena Coakley
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Valerie Sherrard was born on May 16, 1957 in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Her dad was in the Air Force and so the family moved on a regular basis.

One posting was to Lahr, West Germany, where Valerie’s grade six English teacher, Alf Lower, encouraged her writing and told her she could become an author.

Although nearly three decades would pass before she began to pursue writing seriously, Valerie never forgot her teacher’s words.

(Sherrard later located her former teacher and dedicated a book to him. They remained in touch until 2007, when Lower passed away.)

Sherrard has made her home in NB since 1980. A personal tragedy led Valerie made the decision to become a foster parent. Over the years, she fostered close to 70 teens for various lengths of time. Sherrard also worked for twelve years as the Executive Director of a group home for adolescents.

It was natural, in light of those experiences, that when she began to write in earnest, Valerie chose to write for young people.

Valerie eventually gave up fostering and her work at the group home, but she still enjoys writing for teens and children. In 2008, she expanded her work to include picture books and junior novels and she enjoys the new challenges of writing for those age groups.

Valerie’s husband, Brent, is also a published young adult author (and a carpenter). Brent and Valerie live in a converted funeral home with their four bossy cats: Lilly, Thragg, Tootie and Cody.

How do you define success?

That sounds like a simple question at first. It isn’t. Success is so many things on so many levels.

On a personal level – do you try to do the right thing? Do you have a positive outlook? Are you loyal, truthful … are you kind? Personal success in my books is mostly about what kind of person you are – it hasn’t got anything to do with fame and fortune, which is so often considered a measuring stick of sorts. (And seriously – how do famous people stand the loss of privacy? It must be horrible!)

On a professional level – not a lot of writers are earning a decent living from their work. I would define professional success as being able to do what you love for a living – and actually live on it!

Anyone who truly enjoys their work – not matter what they do – is blessed.

Have you ever made an affirmative decision to alter your creative focus? What inspired this decision? What were the challenges?

Definitely. When I began writing, it was entirely for teens. They tell you to write what you know – and that’s excellent advice. It was natural for me to write for that age group, and I enjoy it a lot.

But after a while, I got worried that the books would all start to sound like each other. Even with different characters and voices, when you write exclusively for one age group, that’s a very real danger.

And, I’d had this picture book text rattling around in my head for a while – the story of a boy who believes there are invisible creatures around him. I called it, “There’s a COW Under My Bed!” and I was thrilled when it was published and immediately shortlisted for a couple of awards.

It was exciting to have a book out for young children, and I soon discovered that doing presentations to that age group was a hoot! They can be hilarious! (Recently, I visited an Ontario school and after the teacher had introduced me and told the students I had come all the way from New Brunswick, one little fellow hollered out, “Welcome to Canada!” So sweet!)

After that, I made up my mind to expand again – into the middle grade market. The voices of the characters in my first two middle grade novels were more literary in style than my teen work had been, and because they did well, I was encouraged to keep challenging myself and trying other new things. Not long after that, I took apart a young adult novel I’d written and rewrote it in free verse.

The confidence to try new things sometimes comes from the success of previous publications. On the other hand, there are times when that incentive is because of the lack of success of earlier novels.

Whatever the reason, it’s good to try new things, expand the ways and places your artistic voice can reach.

Did you ever consider giving up? What happened? What kept you going?

Sure. I don’t know many writers who haven’t thought, however briefly, about giving up. Mostly, it’s about money. You wait six months or, with some publishers, a year, to see a royalty check, and then it finally arrives (usually a month or more behind schedule) and you sit and stare at it and you can’t quite believe how small those numbers are.

I mean, you work so hard – you spend months and years on each book you produce and sometimes the financial return is nothing short of dismal. It’s hard not to become discouraged.

With Marsha Skrypuch & illustrator Wendy Whittingham

We all have books we feel will do well that go nowhere (and books we doubt will do much that prove us wrong – those are much nicer surprises). Most of us could be doing a lot of other things that would be more rewarding financially. So, it’s natural that there are thoughts of quitting.

Then you start looking at the plus column.

You love what you do. You can work at home. You love what you do. You can work in a nightie and slippers. You love what you do. You work whatever hours you prefer. You love what you do.

So, yes, it starts and ends with love, and when you look everything over, you don’t honestly want to do anything else.

It’s always a relief when you get to that place of, heck no, I’m not giving up. In my case, I’m fortunate to have a husband who works outside the house (he’s also a writer) so that gives me a certain freedom of choice that some writers might not have. I’m thankful for that, and for his constant encouragement for me to keep writing full time.

Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you should have done differently? What and why?

I didn’t get serious about writing until I was in my early 40s and there are times I wish I’d begun long before then. On the other hand, I realize that my writing is impacted by my life experiences so who knows what I would have produced if I’d started before I did.

Another occasional regret is that I don’t have an agent. I’m more than ready at this point in my career to let someone else manage my work – so that’s a search I will soon begin in earnest.

Cynsational Notes

More on Witchlanders

Lena Coakley was born in Milford,
Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high school, creative writing
was the only class she ever failed (nothing was ever good enough to
hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

She became interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto.

Witchlanders, her debut novel, was called “a stunning teen debut” by Kirkus Reviews. It is a Junior Library Guild selection and an ABC new voices selection.

See also New Voice: Lena Coakley on Witchlanders from Cynsations.

Career Builder & Giveaway: Susin Nielsen, Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Canadian Children’s Literature

By Lena Coakley
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Susin Nielsen got her start feeding cast and crew on the popular television series, “Degrassi Junior High.” They hated her food, but they saw a spark in her writing. Nielsen went on to pen sixteen episodes of the hit TV show.

Since then, Nielsen has written for many TV series, including “Arctic Air,” “Heartland,” “Cedar Cove,” “Madison,” “Ready or Not,” “Edgemont,” “What About Mimi” and “Braceface.” She also adapted author Susan Juby’s book, Alice, I Think, into a TV series, and co-created and executive produced the critically-acclaimed comedy-drama, “Robson Arms.”

Nielsen has also published three children’s books: Hank and Fergus, winner of the Mr. Christie’s Silver Medal Award, Mormor Moves In, and The Magic Beads.

Her first young adult novel, Word Nerd, was published by Tundra in 2008 to critical acclaim, and went on to win many awards, including Ontario’s Red Maple, and the Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan Young Readers’ Choice Awards.

Her second novel, Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom, hit stores in August 2010 to great reviews, and also scooped up a bunch of Young Readers’ Choice Awards.

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, published in August 2012, won The Governor General’s Literary Award, Canada’s most prestigious literary prize.

What memories of your debut author experience stand out?

My perspective is a bit different because I’d actually been writing for years, but in television. So for me, my standout experience was when my first young adult novel, Word Nerd, won Ontario’s Red Maple Award. It’s a Young Readers’ Choice Award, and there are ten nominated authors. We were all present, and all came onto the stage. We were in front of about 1200 screaming fans – for books! How amazing!

When they announced my book as the winner, I could hardly believe it. The reason this memory stands out is that it’s the first time I really understood that my book had readers. It was published in 2008; this awards ceremony happened in 2010. I hadn’t understood what a slow build books can be…I think I just assumed only a few people had read it, and that was that.

It was a profound moment, both wonderful and frightening all at once – I was glad I was deep into my second novel already, because otherwise I think I could have become paralyzed with the realization that I had readers who were actually waiting to read my next book.

Do you have a publishing strategy? If so, how has it worked?

I have had no publishing strategy. I’m so not a strategist, or a marketer. I confess I rely completely on my publisher, which probably isn’t a great thing in this world.

That said, I do remember that when I was done writing Word Nerd, I decided to “start big” in Canadian publisher terms, and approach the bigger companies first.

I also got an agent, very deliberately, to help with the process of getting my book looked at.

I’m still early enough on in my career that for my YA books at least, I’ve only been with one publisher, Tundra, because I remain very happy with them.

Would you describe your career as a hike up a mountain, a winding road, a path of hills and valleys or hop-scotching from rock to rock across the rapids? Why?

I would describe it as a path of hills and valleys. Even in my TV work, there are good years and bad years, and years that are full of disappointments. It took me a long time to gather courage to write an original YA book (I wrote four of the Degrassi books years earlier), and in fact I did write an absolutely terrible original YA book years ago, that a kindly editor told me was crap (she used nicer language than that) and she was right!

 So, if I were offering advice to a new writer I’d say, “You’ll find your own, original voice eventually – it just takes time. For most people, it takes a lot of time!”

How have you grown as a writer?

I think I know when to spot problems with plot/structure/character more readily. Does it mean it’s gotten any easier to address those issues?

Not necessarily.

I think the more you write, the harder you become on yourself. A friend of mine once said, by the time you’re writing your third book, it’s like you have to write three drafts before you’re happy with showing it to anyone else, because you know some of the problems with it … whereas with your first book, you might think your first draft is pretty darned good!

The drafts never get easier though, and in some ways each book takes longer because of this.

What are areas that still flummox you at times?

Middles. Middles will always flummox me.

How have you handled being a player in the world of youth literature? Fans, reviews, jealousies, acclaim, etc.

Ha-ha, oh I wish I could answer the question above. I wish I could be a “player!”

I have fans, but not legions, I’ve had bad reviews but also lots of good ones, and if anyone’s jealous of me, they’ve kept it quiet.

So far I’ve found that the other YA/children’s authors I’ve met have been a rousingly fun and welcoming group of people. Very generous with their time, their knowledge, and their hilarious insights into the business!

Emily Brontë (the writer) & Erwin Schrödiner (the scientist)

Cynsational Notes

Lena Coakley was born in Milford,
Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high school, creative writing
was the only class she ever failed (nothing was ever good enough to
hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

She became interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto.

Witchlanders, her debut novel, was called “a stunning teen debut” by Kirkus Reviews. It is a Junior Library Guild selection and an ABC new voices selection.

See also New Voice: Lena Coakley on Witchlanders and Author Lena Coakley Interviews Editor Hadley Dyer of HarperCollins Canada, both from Cynsations.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of five copies of The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen by Susin Nielsen (Tundra, 2012). From the promotional copy:

Darker than her previous novels, Susin peoples this novel about the ultimate cost of bullying with a cast of fabulous characters, dark humour, and a lovable, difficult protagonist struggling to come to terms with the horrible crime his brother has committed.

Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

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Career Builder: Tanya Lee Stone

Tanya as a girl; meet her today!

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Tanya Lee Stone on Tanya Lee Stone:

“I grew up on the beach on Long Island Sound, so tide pools and jetties were my playground. I always read a ton of books, and would take out more than I could carry from the library on the weekends. My dad is a professor and writer and my mom was an elementary school librarian, so books were everywhere in our house. My dad built me a kid-sized reading loft only I could climb up to–I spent hours up there! In high school, I studied music at a performing arts high school.

In college, I was an English major at Oberlin, which gave me the perfect excuse to spend all my time reading and writing. And after college, I was an editor until I moved to Vermont in 1996 and became a writer.

“I love to write about ordinary people who do extraordinary things and shine the light on their little-known stories. Change happens slowly, many times because people quietly push through barriers and move things forward until bam! someone else makes a big splash. But headline-makers often stand on the shoulders of those who first paved the way for them to follow.

“You can read about some of these trailblazers in my new books Courage Has No Color and Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? I have been very fortunate to have some of my books win awards, which helps ensure that more people will read them!”

Check out the Readers’ Guide for Courage Has No Color.

Tanya is the author of several acclaimed books for young readers, including Courage Has No Color, The True Story of the Triple Nickles: America’s First Black Paratroopers (Candlewick, 2013), Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman (Holt/Christy Ottaviano Books, 2013), The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie (Viking, 2010), Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream (Candlewick, 2009), Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (Holt/Christy Ottaviano Books, 2008), Sandy’s Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder, illustrated by Boris Kulikov (Viking, 2008), and A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl  (Random House/Wendy Lamb, 2006).

What does the writing community mean to you?

In a word: everything.

I have been writing for 16 years, and was an editor before that.

A majority of my closest friends at this point are fellow writers. We have met at conferences, retreats, and on tour, and friendships have grown and become a central focus of my life. These are the people who innately understand the ups and downs of the business side of our profession, as well as the thrills and challenges of the creative aspect.

I also have a few writer friends who are my first readers. We read for each other when needed, or asked.

And in general, this is one of the most supportive communities I have ever been in–we pick each other up when needed and cheer for each other’s successes.

How do you define success?

I think that having the luxury of being able to wake up and do what you love, and actually get paid for it, is a pretty successful thing. Not to mention the perks of working in pajamas if you’re tired, and not having to punch a clock, which are both extremely nice. I did not have those opportunities when I worked in an office as an editor!

But really, success comes in many forms, and I suppose has different levels, but for me what is at the core of feeling successful is that I love what I do, and I’m able to do it for a living. That other people actually like to read my books on top of that, is pretty fantastic! If I can continue to write the books I want to write, for as long as I want to do it, I will consider myself successful.

Would you describe your career as a hike up a mountain, a winding road, a path of hills and valleys or hop-scotching from rock to rock across the rapids? Why?

Walter Morris suited up for his 1rst jump

I would most definitely consider my career as a hike up a mountain (although I still have a long way to go to reach the top!). I have the thick folder of old rejection letters to prove it.

When I started writing professionally, I wrote a lot of linear, straightforward library market nonfiction books for kids–12 books on backyard animals, 10 books on biomes–that kind of thing. I really strengthened my skill sets doing that.

Then I tried to sell single title, less straightforward books to the trade (that’s when the rejection letters started coming in).

Even though I was a skilled writer from writing the library market books, it took a few more years to learn how to be more creative in my approach and focus on writing only what I was passionate about. Eventually, that is what worked for me.

I remember when I won the Sibert Medal for Almost Astronauts, a writer friend said to me, “You’re an overnight success! It only took 10 years.” That about sums it up!

Cynsational Snapshots

At the family farm
Tanya’s new pup, ready for his role in “Fiddler on the Roof”

Cynsational Screening Room

Courage Has No Color 90 second book trailer from Tanya Lee Stone on Vimeo.

Career Builder & Giveaway: Linda Joy Singleton

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Linda Joy Singleton on Linda Joy Singleton: “As a kid, I was always writing. During a two-week school vacation, when I was 14, I challenged myself to write a chapter a day, completing a 200 page manuscript. I kept many of my stories and show them to kids I speak to at school.

“After high school, life detoured me away from writing, until one day I heard a radio announcement about a college writing workshop which led to my joining a writing group in Sacramento.

“Two years later, I sold my first book, Almost Twins, to a small publisher.

“I was thrilled when my dream of being a series author came true when Avon published my first two series: My Sister the Ghost and Cheer Squad. More series followed: Regeneration (Berkley 2000), Strange Encounters (Llewellyn 2004), The Seer (Flux 2004), Dead Girl trilogy (Flux 2008), and my latest book Buried: A Goth Girl Mystery by Linda Joy Singleton (Flux 2012).”

What lessons have you learned from your years as a professional writer?

Linda Joy researches Sword Play
  • Writers never stop learning. “Research” is another word for embracing new adventures.
  • Another writer will understand you better than your most supportive friends/family. Who else can understand that joy in a “good” rejection?
  • Take notes. Once I asked a very wise friend why she was handwriting notes at a conference that was being taped. She said it wasn’t because she needed the notes, but that the act of writing words on paper helps focus the connection between listening and learning. Writing down information creates a learning path from ears, eyes, heart to hand. Grasping information in a way you can remember later.
  • Read books better than you think you can write. Then you’ll learn to write better.
  • Craft in writing is a concept wrapped in layers of details, rhythm, awareness and study; a fine wine of words that ripens with experience.
  • When rejection flames into anger, never reply to an editor or agent unprofessionally. Wait until the heat of hurt simmers down. Vent to a trusted friend or write down your feelings then destroy the paper. Anger never heals; it’s only another rip in a heart.
  • Always say thank you. Gratitude, like a smile, is a gift that keeps on giving. There are no rules. Rules are the figment of someone else’s imagination. But there is value in advice, learning and practice. Learn from the wisdom and experiences of others; live by the wisdom and experiences you’ll gain along your own journey.
  • There are always exceptions. Like the writer who self-publishes a book that editors assured her no one wants to read—then the book goes on to be a bestseller. Or the writer who gets an agent with his first book who enthusiastically predicts a bestseller, and instead receives poor sales or rejection. Throw the dice and roll with your own career, listening and learning and working hard.
  • Writing is not an easy job–it’s satisfying, grueling, fun, amazing, heart-breaking, heart-warming, the worst job ever and the best job ever.
  • Enjoy your writing journey. 

What advice do you have for authors experiencing a career stall?

Linda Joy, age 7, with Sandy
  • Keep on writing.
  • Be willing to put a manuscripts aside when you love it but the market doesn’t. (I have retired about seven manuscripts.)
  • Listen to advice from your writing friends. Doing this has led to new opportunities for me.
  • When rejections hurt, vent in private to your friends, never post it publicly.
  • Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. I’ve been doing a lot of that this year, and my books have improved.
  • Be flexible and ready to shift your focus and reinvent yourself when an opportunity arises.
    Change is scary, but often it’s just one door closing so you open a door leading to new exciting places.
  • Be grateful for friends, books you love, and for each “Yay!” moment of your career.
  • Pay good fortune forward with critiques, encouragement, mentoring or the gift of a book.

Cynsational Notes

Linda Joy Singleton looks forward to the release of Snow Dog/Sand Dog (Albert Whitman).

Find her on facebook and twitter and see her official author site for a link to a free short story.

Attention, teachers & librarians! Linda Joy Singleton will send you free bookmarks if you email her at with “Bookmark Request”
in the subject line. She’ll also offer a free Skype visit to the first teacher
(elementary to high school) who emails me.

Enter to win a one-page synopsis consult, plus a copy of Linda Joy Singleton‘s synopsis template (usually only available at conferences).

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Enter to win a copy of Buried: A Goth Girl Mystery by Linda Joy Singleton (Flux). Author sponsored. U.S. only.

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Career Builder & Giveaway: Caroline B. Cooney

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What memories of your debut author experience stand out?

In my twenties, I wrote eight full-length adult historical novels set in ancient Rome, none of which were ever published. You’d think I would have noticed prior to writing eight of them that nobody wanted them.

I started writing short stories instead; one was accepted in Seventeen Magazine, and out of that, eventually, came the invitation from a YA editor to write teen paperback romances.

I had found my voice. I loved writing for teens. As to the unsuccessful books,I learned so much writing them. I learned not to give up and I learned to tell a good story fast.

If you could offer advice to the new voice you once were, what would you say?

If you want to write, don’t follow my footsteps! That’s a lot of failure. The best thing for a new writer is practice. Practice writing the way you’d practice the piano or basketball.

Fifteen minutes a day is fine. You don’t have to finish anything. You’re trying to become fluid at this difficult skill.

Did you ever consider giving up? What happened? What kept you going?

I did not ever consider giving up. For reasons I can’t identify, the rejections toughened me rather than weakened me. It became a battle: me versus publishing. Now publishing is my ally.

Although the years of failure were hard, my path since then has been a delightful upward route. There haven’t been valleys and there haven’t been rapids. I was blessed with brilliant editors and good publishers. YA readers embrace every kind of book – mystery, romance, suspense, time travel, family saga, historical fiction – and my editors have allowed me to try all those.

What can your readers expect next?

I’m working on my third historical novel – out of 91 books!

I’ve put a full year into research and travel so that I can tell the story of the English children who will eventually sail on the Mayflower.

I am riveted by their lives – such drama and tragedy. It’s a privilege to write about their courage and determination. I am so excited that my readers will soon see who these amazing children are.

I’m not sure what I’ll write then. Will I return to suspense novels? Experiment with something entirely different? A different age reader or a different kind of story?

There’s still so much out there. And it’s exciting suddenly to be in a new publishing age: digital books and e-short stories.

Cynsational Screening Room

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of Janie Face to Face by Caroline B. Cooney (Delacorte/Random House). Publisher sponsored. U.S. only.

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Career Builder: Bonnie Christensen

With Chester, art from A Single Pebble (Roaring Brook, 2013).

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Bonnie Christensen is the author and illustrator of the Schneider Family Book Award winner Django, World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist (Roaring Brook, 2009) and Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People (Knopf, 2001), a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book and a New York Times Notable Book.

Her illustrations also appear in the London Folio Society’s edition of The Grapes of Wrath and nineteen children’s books.

Her other works include I, Galileo (Knopf, 2012); Plant a Little Seed (Roaring Brook, 2012); Fabulous! A Portrait of Andy Warhol (Henry Holt, 2011); The Daring Nellie Bly (Knopf, 2003);
and Rebus Riot! (Dial/Penguin, 1997).

Bonnie teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She has a grown daughter, a dog named Chester, a cat named Miss Kitty and a visiting possum named “Festus”. She is planning to put a sign over her front door that says “Dodge City.”

If you could go back in time, what would you say to your beginning writer self?

My advice to my younger author self would be: “Think about what you love, both now and when you were a child—people, activities, points in history, music, art, ideas.”

I’ve spent endless hours attempting to wrangle a large shipping container full of awful fictional stories into publishable form.

Didn’t happen. But the ideas based on a story or idea I loved, almost always, saw the light of publishing day.

The majority of my books are nonfiction, and very often sprang from history, ideas, or activities I loved as a child.

How do you define success?

Difficult question. Let’s start with what success is not, for me anyway. Success is not the “rich and famous” of People Magazine or a book signing that resembles a mob scene. Success is not Andy Warhol’s famous 15 minutes of fame.

Great reviews are reaffirming in some ways and good book sales mean books are in the hands of children and young adults, but do good reviews and sales equal success?

What if one book is successful and the next is not?

If the reviews are great, but the book doesn’t sell, is the author in success “limbo”?

I try to keep the notion of success firmly attached to process. Was I successful in constructing that sentence, in conveying a particular thought? Was the solution to a certain character’s problem successful? At the end of the day, I measure success in satisfactory lines written or drawn, and wonder what successes or failures the next day’s work will hold in store.

Chester again.

 Was there ever a time you decided giving up? What happened? How did you keep the faith?

Yes, I considered giving up after my second book was published. I’d spent days and weeks and months on self-promotion, for both writing and illustration, and the payoff was a magazine illustration job here and there.

Then the opportunity to work as a painter on a Hollywood film arose and I jumped at it. Working on the film, shoulder to shoulder with creative, funny people reminded me of my days in NY theatre. Working with people every day! Wow. I missed that, so I began making plans for the next film.

Naturally just as I’d “given up” on publishing I received an enticing book offer. That’s just like life, isn’t it? So I came running back. Over the years I’ve found that every time I consider giving up, something happens to lure me back. Maybe I’ll give up giving up one day. Or not.

Miss Kitty

What are your goals for the future?

My short-term goal is to finish writing and illustrating a picture book biography about Elvis Presley. As I work on that book, I’m trying to find a few hours each day to work on my second middle grade novel.

My long-term goal is to primarily focus on middle grade and YA novels with a picture book here and there. Having worked in the “short form” for so many years, I’m longing to stretch out and have the space to do so, while continuing to mine fascinating historical periods and characters, both real and imagined.

Cynsational Notes

The Career Builders series
offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published
books for about a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to
both the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business
landscape of trade publishing.

By Bonnie on her first day of first grade in West Virginia.
Bonnie adds her daughter’s name, Emily, to all her jacket covers. Do you see it?

Career Builder & Giveaway: Shelley Tanaka

Shelley & Fiona

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Shelley Tanaka is a writer, editor, teacher and translator. She has a B.A. in English and German from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto.

She is the author and translator of more than two dozen books for young readers. Her books have won the Orbis Pictus Award, the Mr. Christie’s Book Award, the Silver Birch Award, the Information Book Award, and the Science in Society Children’s Book Award, and she has twice been nominated for the Deutsche Jugendliteraturpreis.

She is the fiction editor at Groundwood Books and has edited more than a dozen Governor General’s Award-winning titles. She teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts, in the MFA program in writing for children and young adults.

Her recent titles include: Nobody Knows, from the film by Hirokazu Kore-eda (Groundwood, 2012); Climate Change, revised edition (Groundwood, 2012); “Ghost Town,” in Hoping for Home: Stories of Arrival (Scholastic Canada, 2011)(A Dear Canada Book); Broken Memory: A Novel of Rwanda by Elisabeth Combres, translated from the French by Shelley Tanaka (Groundwood, 2009); and Amelia Earhart: Legend of the Lost Aviator, illustrated by David Craig (Atheneum, 2008)(winner of the Orbis Pictus Award).

How do you define success?

On my more cynical days I define success as still being able to eke out a living working with books, after more than thirty years in the business. But on good (most) days I just look at my bookshelves, at all the books I’ve written (two dozen), edited (hundreds) or been associated with, and I feel happy and proud to have such wonderful mementos.

I’ve worked with Deborah Ellis on thirteen books. Eleven with Tim Wynne-Jones. Six with Sarah Ellis. I’ve been privileged to work with the very best.

Tim Wynne-Jones, Katherine Paterson & Shelley

Kids often ask me what is the best thing about writing books, and I tell them you get a great souvenir. It’s true. To have and hold the beautiful object, the physical book that has been created, designed and produced with love and care — there’s nothing better.

Right now I’m staring at a Groundwood picture book, Guacamole: Un Poema Para Cocinar/A Cooking Poem by Jorge Lujan and Margarita Sada. You simply cannot look at this book and not smile and be happy. It’s a tonic.

Inside Guacamole, used with permission from Groundwood (see cover image)

 Would you describe your career as a hike up a mountain, a winding road, a path of hills and valleys or hop-scotching from rock to rock across the rapids? Why?

The hopscotch thing. I think that’s a freelancer’s life, which means it’s a writer’s life. You abandon the idea of the straight line, winding or up and down or whatever. You see an opportunity, you hop over and go with it.

My M.O. has always been to say “yes” to practically everything. Any time I’ve done something hard or different, I’ve never been sorry.

(Doesn’t mean that taking on a new challenge doesn’t make me a nervous wreck, of course. I am not by nature a brave person.)

At the same time, I’ve been very lucky in my longstanding association with Groundwood Books. Patsy Aldana took me on more than thirty years ago. She’s a formidable role model and mentor and I’ve learned more from her than I can say — about literary taste, about social engagement and taking a stand, about not underestimating the young reader, about seeing writing and publishing in the context of what is going on in the rest of the world, about valuing writers and illustrators and their talent above everything else. I’ve been lucky to have spent my editing career in a place where that is the mindset, because it is becoming increasingly rare.

How have you grown as a writer? What skills have you seen improve over time? What did you do to reach new levels? What are areas that still flummox you at times?

Teaching has made me a better writer. I see students being brave, putting themselves out there, working so hard. It’s inspiring to me. Makes me want to step out of the Safe zone. And being a writer has made me a better editor. I’m nicer. I understand how vulnerable you are as a writer.

Cory McCarthy, Shelley & Amy Rose Capetta; Cory & Amy Rose are Shelley’s former students

Have you ever made an affirmative decision to alter your creative focus? What inspired this decision? What were the challenges?

I spent a long time being afraid of trying to write fiction. I was intimidated by the talent of the novelists I work with, and I still am. But eventually I wrote a short story (for a Scholastic Dear Canada anthology), and a novelization of a film (Nobody Knows).

Now I’m working on a longer piece of middle-grade fiction. But it has taken me a long time to build up enough confidence to do this. Baby steps.

What advice do you have for writers?

That so much of the book business is about luck and timing, and that editorial decisions are subjective. Watch for changes in personnel. If you’ve written a good book, its time will come.

In the meantime, carpe diem, as it were. That book that you’re “waiting” to write? Write it now.

I think there are enormous unexplored opportunities in nonfiction. Everything is narrative, everything is story.

Writers might think beyond biography and history to how they can turn science into story. Science, as I think David Suzuki has said, is ruling our lives. We’d better figure out how to understand it.

I’d also encourage writers to consider many different ways to cobble together a living out of writing — translating, editing, reviewing, teaching, whatever. And don’t forget to make sure you actually have a life. Get out from behind your computer and engage with the world.

Live a long time and stay healthy, because you have no pension. Ally yourself with quality. Quality publishers, quality writers.

Cynsational Notes

Amy Rose Capetta‘s novel, Entangled, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Fall 2013. Cori McCarthy‘s novel, The Color of Rain, will be released by Running Press on May 14, 2013.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of three packages of new and award-winning titles from Groundwood Books:

Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: North America only, void where prohibited.

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Career Builder: Janet Tashjian

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What memories of your debut author experience stand out?

When Tru Confessions came out fifteen years ago, I had my very first book signing at a Borders Bookstore in Cranston, Rhode Island.

(A moment of silence for Borders, RIP.)

Lots of friends and family came, but I was utterly shocked to see my tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. Harrower, there. I hadn’t seen her since I graduated from high school and I don’t know how she found out about the signing, but I just about burst into tears when I saw her. She was a truly great teacher; to this day, I remember all the figures of speech I learned in her class.

She passed away a few years later, but the photo of the two of us at that book signing sits on the desk where I work today.

Do you have a publishing strategy?

Henry Holt, 2012

I wish I had a publishing strategy! I find myself instead getting dragged along by my story ideas.

I’m the kind of writer who has a lot of ideas all vying for my attention so it’s a constant struggle to decide which stories to tell next. I envy writers with a clear cut game plan–fortunately or unfortunately, that’s never been me.

Would you describe your career as a hike up a mountain, a winding
road, a path of hills and valleys or hop-scotching from rock to rock
across the rapids? Why?

I think of the Myth of Sisyphus all the time–with Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the mountain just to watch it roll back down at the end of the day. So he gets up the next day and rolls it back up the hill again…and again and again.

I’ve been writing for so long and have so many notebooks full of pages and pages from all my books–it feels like I’ve spent my life writing words, crossing them out, then writing different words–over and over again.

But don’t think I believe that being a writer is a futile, frustrating, or thankless job–there’s something comforting about spending your time doing something tangible and predictable. I agree with Camus’ conclusion that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Have you made an affirmative decision to alter your focus?

When my son Jake started having a difficult time reading and when so many teachers and librarians began asking me on school visits to talk about reluctant readers, I shifted my focus from YA books–mostly my Larry books–and decided to go back to the world of middle grade readers for awhile.

I wanted to write about how reading might be hard for lots of kids–many of them boys–but that stories were still important. Jake had been drawing his vocabulary words for years – he’s a visual learner and that’s how he studied them – so it made perfect sense for him to do the novels’ illustrations.

I’m incredibly proud of My Life as a Book (2010), My Life as a Stuntboy (2011) and the upcoming My Life as a Cartoonist (all Henry Holt and/or Square Fish) because I not only got to collaborate with my son but have reached so many kids like him who really need visual support when they read. It was never done as a career move, just purely to help kids like Jake.

That being said, my new book, For What It’s Worth (Henry Holt, 2012), is a return to YA, a rock-and-roll book for all the music nerds.

Cynsational Notes

The Career Builders series
offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published
books for a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to both
the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business landscape
of trade publishing.

Career Builder & Giveaway: Janet Lee Carey

photo of Janet Lee Carey by Heidi Pettit

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Janet Lee Carey was raised in the redwood forests of California. In the whispering forest, she dreamed of becoming a writer.

She is the award-winning author of eight young adult novels including Dragonswood (Dial Books, 2012) which received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal. School Library Journal calls her work, “fantasy at its best–original, beautiful, amazing, and deeply moving.”

Janet’s other books include Stealing Death (Egmont USA, 2009),
The Dragons of Noor (Egmont USA, 2010), Dragon’s Keep (Harcourt, 2007), The Beast of Noor (Atheneum, 2006), and
Wenny Has Wings (Atheneum, 2002).

Janet links each new book with a charitable organization empowering readers to reach out and make a difference. She tours the U.S. and abroad, presenting at schools, book festivals and conferences for writers, teachers, and librarians. 

How do you define success?

I wrote for many years before my first book came out, so for a long time, writing success meant one thing—publication. Hooray!

“Wenny Has Wings”

After my books launched I began to measure success through sales, reviews, awards and movie deals (like the “Wenny Has Wings” movie (Sony Japan, 2008).

Now I define success in terms of personal and community connection. Personal success can mean a good writing day when I make some deep connection with the story and something magical happens on the page, or it can be the moment when I hear back from a reader whose life was touched by one of my books—a truly beautiful and humbling experience.

I also define success is in terms of community connection. It’s wonderful to be a part of the children’s/ YA book community these days. We have great organizations like the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators, and blogs like Cynsations that support and connect the children’s/YA community.

If I’m feeling out of touch with the book world all I have to do is read articles and interviews on blogs like Cynsations to feel connected again.

In 2007, I was lucky enough join three amazing authors and serve as a founding diva for the groundbreaking group readergirlz.

Photo of readergirlz by Heidi Pettit

Here are the founding divas at my Dragonswood Masquerade party. Left to right Justina Chen, moi, Dia Calhoun, Lorie Ann Grover.

Finally, for the past two years, I’ve been speaking out for the book world by spreading the word about the importance of libraries on my blog Library Lions. We interview youth librarians twice a month and roar for the outstanding programs in schools and public libraries across the U.S.

Librarians and libraries play such an essential role in the book world. They deserve a mighty roar!

Do you have a publishing strategy? If so, how has it worked and/or changed over time? If not, why not? And how has that worked for you?

I have to start with loving what I do and putting energy in every part of the process to write the best book I possibly can. When it’s time to launch a new title, I curl up in a chair and brainstorm in my journal. The key thing I’m searching for is connection.

Is there a charity that connects to the story theme?

I usually donate to a charity to celebrate each new tale and link the charity to the Giving Back page (see top nav bar) on my website. The page is designed for readers who want to reach out when they’ve finished the book.

For Stealing Death, which takes place in a drought-ridden country, I connected with Water for People and helped spread the word and raise funds for clean drinking water in Africa.

For Dragonswood I brainstormed in my journal again and kept coming up with the word “refuge.” Dragonswood is a refuge set aside to protect the dragons and the fey folk from extinction. This led to seeking out and finding Defenders of Wildlife. We adopted a snowy owl and an arctic fox in celebration of the book launch.

My publishing strategies have definitely changed over the years. I used to read marketing books with long “to do” lists and get a splitting headache over the hundreds of ways I was told to promote the book. (Um . . . when am I supposed to have time to write?) There are even more ways to promote books now.

My advice to new writers is to pick promotion you enjoy and build on that. If you’re a school visit person, go for that. If you love to travel, bring your book with you and get to know the booksellers on your trips. Highlight them and their stores on Twitter, Facebook or your blog as you visit them.

Here’s a peek into all the things I do when a new book is about to hit the stands. First, I work alongside my publisher to get the word out. I’ve already picked a charity by that point and posted it to the website. I connect with some great blog tours like Kari Olson’s The Teen Book Scene, and do interviews and book giveaways.

This year we made our first book trailer for Dragonswood, a real family enterprise. I sing in background and my husband plays the Turkish saz.

Next I throw a whopping great party and invite everyone I know to celebrate with me. Here’s a party photo from the Dragonswood Masquerade Party.

photo from Dragonswood Masquerade Party by Heidi Pettit

Along with the blog tours, I do school visits and present at children’s literature festivals and writing conferences throughout the year.

(Okay take a breath. Ah….)

After I’ve done all that, I have to let go of the outcome. Ultimately I have no control over how my book will be received.

The best antidote to the hubris of a great review is – work on the next book.

The best antidote to the sting of a bad review is – work on the next book.

It’s time to listen to the whispers that wake me up at night. Once I welcome new characters into my head, there’s no stopping the chatter. They talk to me when I’m showering or shopping. Sometimes I’m so absorbed in a new story idea I leave my shopping cart in one part of the store and fill someone else’s cart (oops!). I brainstorm, plot and plan and pretty soon I’m too absorbed in the process of birthing a new novel to look back.

How have you grown as a writer? What skills have you seen improve over time? What did you do to reach new levels? What are areas that still flummox you at times?

Being a writer means growing all the time. I have some of that green slimy stuff (what is it called, quick-grow?) in my garage to urge plants on. Writing is like guzzling that stuff. Every new book requires research (I learned more facts about witch trials and grizzly medieval torture methods for Dragonswood than I ever wanted to know).

Every new book also demands a sharper skill set. Just when I’ve mastered some aspect of the craft, I see the next mastery level lurking in the shadows, luring me onward.

Right now I’m working on smoother transitions. Leaping to the next thing less like a kangaroo and more like a ballerina.

Another challenge is to more deftly weave description and background info into action and dialogue to break up narrative chunks which gum up the story.

Writing is word weaving and the masters bring all the threads together in beautiful, rich story patterns. I plan to get better at that.

I’ve learned to trust the work to tell me what my next challenge will be, but I also rely on what I gather from my resources. First and foremost, I learn from fellow authors as I read their brilliant books. Writers read a little differently. We can’t help but notice how another author tackles a sticky plot point, reveals the finer emotional gradations of a character, writes a riveting scene or describes an outdoor setting so sumptuously you smell the tangy air.

There are a few authors like Ursula K. Le Guin that I read again and again. Lately, I’ve also been reading a lot of Juliet Marillier’s historical fantasy novels.

C.S. Lewis talks about the joys of reading a book the second or third time when you’re no longer turning pages just to find out what happens next, but to be in that world on the adventure again with the characters you’ve grown to love. The second or third read also allows me to flag pages with Post-it notes when I want to take special note of the writer’s exquisite storytelling.

What advice do you have for the debut authors of 2012-13?

Janet, age 4

First of all congratulations! Cherish the fact that your hard work
has paid off and readers all over the country, perhaps all over the
world, are reading your beautiful book!

You’re likely going crazy with
promotion for your launch and doing all you can to get the word out for
your book.

When the long launch is over, my advice is to
let the next story whisper to you (if it isn’t driving you mad already)
and get back to writing. If you’re stalled out, play a little.

The creative process is wonderful and mysterious and life giving. Fiction is a faith walk. As you journey into your next book and your next, fellow writer, walk well.

Cynsational Notes

The Career Builders series offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published books for a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to both the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business landscape of trade publishing.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win a signed hardcover copy of Dragonswood by Janet Lee Carey (Dial Books, 2012) and a bookmark! Eligibility: U.S. From the promotional copy:

In a dark time when girls with powers are called witches, Tess escapes the witch hunter and hides with a mysterious huntsman until magical voices draw her deeper into Dragonswood where she learns the secret of her birth. 

Caught between love and loyalty, Tess chooses the
hardest path of all, her own.

“A fairy tale for those who have given up on believing in them, but still yearn for happily ever after.”

–Kirkus Reviews, starred review

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Career Builder & Giveaway: Lisa Wheeler

Lisa at the release party for Boogie Knights

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Lisa Wheeler is passionate about children’s books. “I love everything about them, including the smell.”

To date, Lisa has thirty titles on library shelves, with more to follow. She’s written picture books in prose and rhyme, an easy reader series, three books of poems, and creative nonfiction for the very young.

Awards include the 2004 Mitten Award for Old Cricket, given by the Michigan Library Association, the 2005-2006 Great Lakes, Great Books Award and 2005 Missouri Building Blocks Award for Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum, the 2006 Bluebonnet Award for Seadogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta, the 2006/07 South Carolina Picture Book Award for Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum and most recently, the 2008 The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for Jazz Baby given by the American Library Association.

Her newest titles include Dino-Football, illustrated by Barry Gott (CarolRhoda), Spinster Goose: Twisted Rhymes for Naughty Children, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Simon & Schuster) and coming in February 2013, Pet Project: Cute and Cuddly Vicious Verses, illustrated by Zachariah Ohora (Simon & Schuster).

Lisa shares her Michigan home with one husband, two dogs, and an assortment of anthropomorphic characters.

What memories of your debut author experience stand out? If you could offer advice to the new voice you once were, what would you say?

I began writing seriously in 1995. I set a goal to sell a magazine story in eight months and a picture book in one year. Well, nearly eight months later I sold my first magazine story, so I felt I was on track.

Alas, it took nearly four years and all of my patience before finally selling my first picture book, One Dark Night.

Like most writers, I had dreamed of what that moment might be like. I envisioned a call from an editor during dinner, when all of the family was home. I would be shocked! Elated! Terrified! Excited!

But when the real first sale happened, it didn’t go according to any script in my head.

By that time, I had acquired an agent. He’d accepted me on the basis of a chapter book I wrote. But five months later, when he wasn’t able to sell it, I was convinced he was going to drop me.

When I submitted One Dark Night to him, he called me immediately. He loved the manuscript and was certain it would be my first sale.

Then, he simultaneously submitted it to six houses. Four of them wanted it!

An auction for the book began and I was left shocked, elated, terrified and excited.

When the dust settled, Harcourt became my first publishing house.

After over two hundred rejections in four years, I had publishers begging me to sell them my story. It was awesome!

This just goes to show that anything can happen on this bumpy road to publication. Don’t give up! The difference between an unpublished author and a published author is one day.

How have you built an audience over time?

Years ago my agent said that he felt I would be one of those authors who slowly built her reputation one book at a time. He was right!

I really think it comes down to craft. I’ve had books get starred reviews, appear on state lists, and win awards. Those things are out of my control. What is in my control is my manuscript while it is still in my hot little hands. It is up to me to make sure I am sending out my best.

If you build it, they will come.

Did you ever consider giving up? What happened? What kept you going?

Lisa with Flat Stanley.

Yes–many times. Those four years in the trenches were not fun. And I know many writers who have waited much longer for their first book contract.

I recall days when I would come home from work to find three or more of my rejected manuscripts waiting in my mailbox. (Insert funeral dirge here.) I’d whine. I’d cry. I’d get discouraged.

There were even times when I would ask myself if it was all worth it. Could I chase this brass ring forever?

But then, the next day I would get a new idea and the process would begin again.




We writers are a crazy lot.

What advice do you have for the debut authors of 2012?

I would tell them to enjoy each moment. You only get one first book.

Looking back, I realize that I never gave myself enough credit for my accomplishments (probably still don’t). When my first book came out, I was so busy working on new books, trying to sell books, and trying to come up with ideas for more books that I never stopped and smelled the roses.

On the flip side, I would also tell them that this is just the first book. You want it to be the first of many. Don’t stop working, don’t stop submitting and don’t stop brainstorming new ideas.

If this is what you love doing, keep doing it. It is that simple.

Madcap Monster Ball

Cynsational Notes

The Career Builders series offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published books for a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to both the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business landscape of trade publishing.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win an author-signed copy of Dino-Football by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Barry Gott (CarolRhoda, 2012). Author sponsored. Eligibility: U.S. only.

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