Cynsations Return & Author Update: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Writing, New Releases, Native Voices & Allies

Learn more about Cynthia Leitich Smith.

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

As an New York Times bestselling author and the creator of Cynsations blog, Cynthia is well known to many. But after reading her upcoming YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 9), this summer, I believe readers gain more insight into her earlier years.

The novel draws in part on her experience as a Muscogee (Creek) teen growing up in the suburbs of Kansas City and as a reporter and, later, editor-in-chief on her high school newspaper.

The fictional, contemporary story follows Louise, a senior forced to reconcile how bigotry and racism are coming to a head in her community through her various roles as a tribal citizen, sister, student, reporter, friend and, most definitely, girlfriend.

Cynthia, I welcome you to Cynsations, your own wonderful creation!

From the promotional copy:

When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off immediately and dumps him. It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time on her family and friends and working on the school newspaper.


The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper’s staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school musical director’s inclusive approach to casting “The Wizard of Oz” has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town.



From the newly formed “Parents Against Revisionist Theater” to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students—especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man.



As tensions heighten at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey—but as she’s learned, “dating while Native” can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey’s?



Pre-order a signed copy from BookPeople or order at your local store & request a signed bookplate & goodies!

Let’s start with the genre – you’ve crafted a contemporary, realistic young adult novel whereas your more recent novels have been YA fantasy. What prompted the return to a novel with a contemporary Native American teen and her family as the focus? 

I have this theory that where there are secrets, lies or regrets, there are stories. Think about it, in each case, there are stakes, there is nuance and competing interests. Conflict and reversals.

Hearts Unbroken began with a regret, as a novel-length apology to a high school boyfriend. I was an awkward teen (hey, I’m an awkward adult!). When I’m nervous or exhausted, I still babble a bit even though I can absolutely rock a podium with proper preparation.

Bottom line, I said the wrong thing, and I was sorry for decades. There’s a story in that and it’s not all in the book, which is only loosely inspired by what really happened.

How would you describe the story?

It’s a love story wrapped around a school-journalism story, written in an Indigenous style and sensibility. Or at least a hybrid style with strong Indigenous elements.

Enter to win 1 of 10 hardcovers!

The novel is thematically about speech, nodding to journalistic speech, religious speech, political speech, interpersonal speech, hate speech and microaggressions.

Or, put another way, it’s about speech, its blessings and its costs.

Early Native readers have mentioned to me that they see it as about empowering cultural voice, especially given the inclusion of Indigenous language in a daily-life reclamation context.

Big picture, the plot is infuriating and funny and representative and romantic. It’s also a little geeky. All of my stories are at least a little geeky. There’s also terrific kissing.

The narrative goes all in, fully submerging the reader in a Native teen perspective and suburban experience. The depiction of the family relationships is central. Meanwhile, the subplot, centered on the protagonist’s brother, (hopefully) offers more mainstream appeal.

Why did you decide to focus your protagonist on high-school journalism?

Again, personal experience. I was the editor of my high school newspaper and went on to major in news/editorial at the White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. As a student at The University of Michigan Law School, the First Amendment was a major focus of my studies. In my third and final year, I did an independent study on the right to speak (and the right not to) with Professor Lee C. Bollinger, who’s now the president of Columbia University in New York.

No, I didn’t set out to write Hearts Unbroken because news journalists are unfairly under attack right now, but I’m glad it’ll be out there for teens today. I hope it encourages at least a few readers to consider a career in reporting, editing, photo and/or videography.

You are always encouraging Native writers entering the industry. What craft and career advice do you have for those just starting out on this journey?

Get in touch with Native children’s-YA authors who’re agented and/or actively publishing. Read what’s already out there by members of our intertribal community. You’ll be able to gain an up-to-date, in-depth overview at Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature.

Native authors at Kweli, 2016

Visit your local SCBWI regional chapter – attend a conference or workshop or both. They vary from place to place. Hopefully, it’ll be a fit. If not, look for another one that’s driveable.

Make an effort to attend Kweli: The Color of Children’s Literature Conference.

Embrace the study of craft. Seriously, commit. Enroll in workshops – there are a variety on and offline at various price points. Find a solid critique group or partner.

If you want to get an MFA in writing for young readers, write me and we’ll discuss whether it’s the right choice for you. See also my writer resources.

For those who’re allies, how can they support Native voices?

Foremost, be respectful of Native people and cultures in working with young readers. Assume that there are Native kids in your classrooms and communities. They’re everywhere, and so are their peers, who interact with them based on what they learn from the larger society, from you.

Set aside everything you picked up from Hollywood. Treat the political noise out of Washington, D.C. with a hefty amount of suspicion. Forget those construction-paper headdresses you made in first grade for Thanksgiving.

Chris Evans, Hemsworth & Pratt 

Are you used to thinking of yourself as the hero of the story? We routinely see the underrepresentation of some folks but also the overrepresentation of others.

Three of the Marvel superheroes in the last Avengers movie were played by white dudes named Chris. Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, Chris Evans as Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor.* And, hey, I enjoyed all of their performances. But no way around it, that’s seriously hefty representation.

Meanwhile, can you name any three on-screen Native girl or women characters from your entire history as a moviegoer? (Bonus points if they’re not animated.)

All of which is to say, when it comes to Native people, you may need to gut check your instinct to cast yourself as the savior.

Understand that you don’t know the history and are probably underestimating the complexity, not only regarding Native cultures but also Indigenous governmental structures and literary forms. The oral tradition is vital, but we have our own relationship to the written word, too.

What else? We’re a growing but small creative community with precious few gatekeepers of our own. Give us a chance to speak and not only about Native and diverse literature, though when we do talk about all that, listen carefully and reflect deeply.

Signal boost our new and existing releases. Advocate for our inclusion throughout the curriculum and book-events circuit, and integrate our titles not only in your Native Heritage Month celebrations but all year long.

Have you ever read a YA novel by a Native woman? Check out Apple in the Middle by debut author Dawn Quigley (North Dakota State University Press, 2018). In no particular order, also be sure to read books by Joseph Bruchac, Tim Tingle, Traci Sorell, Carole Lindstrom, Art Coulson, David A. Robertson, Cheryl Savageau, Lisa Charleyboy, Lee FrancisMonique Gray Smith, Erika T. Wurth, Jenny Kay Dupuis, Richard Van Camp, Arigon StarrKate Hart, Eric Gansworth, Louise ErdrichCherie Dimaline, Daniel Vandever…. I could go on and on, and there are more writers and illustrators on the horizon. See my teacher and librarian resources.

* Just to geek out: Chris Evans also played The Human Torch. Additional white guys named Chris who played superheroes include: Christopher Reeve as Superman; Christian Bale as Batman; Chris O’Donnell as Robin; and I’m giving partial credit to Chris Pine, as Captain Kirk because he also played Steve Trevor in “Wonder Woman” and appeared in “A Wrinkle in Time.”

Is there anything you’d like to say more broadly to writers from any underrepresented group?

In Memory: Nancy Garden

Offer private and public support to one another, especially those of you who’re bigger, more established names or members of groups with a stronger presence.

Years ago, I wrote a Horn Book article about Native humor and storytelling, and Nancy Garden sent in a letter to the editor in support. She was a very early, important voice in the LGBTQ writimg community and understood what it’s like when your numbers are small.

The fact that she took the time and made the effort? It meant the world to me. Still does.

You’ve been a leader in the conversation around diversity during both its ebbs and flows. What aren’t we talking about that we should be? 

From a writing craft perspective, we should focus more on secondary characters and intersecting subject matter. Every single writer must write across identity elements in those contexts. It’s not all about protagonists and the nonfiction focal topics.

More broadly, those of us in children’s-YA writing need to wrap our minds around the fact that we’ve been defaulting to the same white and male storytelling constructs for generations. More than that, those of us who’re writing teachers have been largely insisting upon them. Meanwhile, content-wise, let’s not settle for bite-sized nuggets of representation, tailored to mainstream comfort and expectations. Let’s embrace diversity for real.

This fall marks the paperback release of Feral Pride (Candlewick, 2015, 2018). Could you tell us a little about that story?

Sure! It’s the cap to the Feral trilogy and crosses over its heroes with those from the Tantalize series, which is set in the same universe.

The governor of Texas has been kidnapped by demon snakes and furry hominids (kind of like Bigfoot) and the scoundrels have blamed our heroes, who’re shapeshifters, for the crime.

This is a fantastical construct in which shapeshifters battle bigotry and oppression parallel to what marginalized groups experience in our real world. So, yes, it’s funny and romantic and action-packed and super geeky, but it also speaks through metaphor to ongoing real-world dynamics.

Why did you first launch Cynsations, and how has it evolved over the years?


As I mentioned above, I’m a recovering journalist, and I always wanted to cover good news.

Pre-order Feral Pride in paperback.

(When writers are thinking about where their voice fits into the conversation of books, it’s worthwhile to consider what they enjoy doing and where their strengths lie.)

I entered the field at a time of low morale in the creative community. Publishers weren’t taking many chances on new voices. Celebrity books were all the rage. Madonna said on late-night television that she wrote a children’s book because there weren’t any good ones.

Meanwhile, I was trying to raise awareness of contemporary Native children’s books in a society that had decided Native people were all extinct. (I’m told that’s the answer Texas school children are supposed to provide on standardized tests to any questions asked about Native people: Extinct.)

So, I figured I’d get really 21rst century with it. Show by example that Native people have a present and future.

So, I fired up Cynsations to illuminate new voices, mid-career authors, living legends. Writing by authors and illustrators from underrepresented communities. The business of publishing. The writing life. Craft. The idea was to reach out to writers in a more-than-a-guidebook kind of way, in an encouraging and ongoing conversation.

What do you have coming up next?

My immediate focus is on middle grade projects. I’m especially excited about an anthology of stories by new and established Native voices, set around a contemporary powwow. As for my current novel writing, we’re talking middle grade speculative fiction. I also have another middle-grade realistic short story coming out in another anthology and a couple of poems that will be featured in picture books. Meanwhile, I’m putting thought into what my next project for teens might be.

Beyond that, I’m committed to supporting and signal boosting other voices – underrepresented and/or new and/or reinventing and/or long-established voices, too.

So, write on, Cynsational readers! I believe in you.

Cynsational Notes


Look for Cynthia’s upcoming YA release, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 9). If you’d like a signed copy, you can pre-order it from her local independent bookstore, BookPeople, of Austin, Texas. Or, if you’ve already pre-ordered, request a signed bookplate and goodies. The paperback of Feral Pride (Book 3 in the Feral trilogy)(Candlewick, Oct. 2) is available for pre-order, too.

Giveaways! Are you a high school teacher, YA librarian or Native teen group leader? Check out this classroom-set ARC giveaway of Hearts Unbroken on Twitter! Are you a YA reader? Enter to win one of 10 hardcover copies of Hearts Unbroken from YA and Kids! Book Central.

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.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge Sept. 4, 2018) is her first nonfiction picture book and a 2018 Junior Library Guild Selection. The story, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, 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.

See also an interview with Traci from Picture Book Builders. Peek: “First, it needed to be colorful because it’s a four seasons book—so bright and not muted was what I pictured in mind. Second, the illustrations must be culturally accurate. I got my two criteria met and so much more!”

Cynsational Return

From Cynthia Leitich Smith

Sunset at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Welcome back to Cynsations! We hope you had a wonderful summer. My highlights included teaching at the residency of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier and speaking at the annual convention of the American Library Association in New Orleans. Right now, I’m at LoonSong: A Writer’s Retreat in Cook, Minnesota.

Here on the blog, we’ll once again be hosting insights from writers at every stage of their creative journey. We’ll look at books that cross borders, publishing as an industry and new releases. We’ll consider various aspects of a writing life.

This semester, we’re moving to more flexibility between four- and five-day posting weeks. But we’re sure you’ll still find plenty to read and reflect on.

Thank you to Cynterns Gayleen Rabakukk and Robin Galbraith for their ongoing efforts.

Thanks to all for returning to Cynsations. We hope you’ll find fruitful inspiration and information in the posts to come.

Cynsations Intern: Robin Galbraith on Giving Yourself Permission to Write

Would-Be Kid Writer Robin

By Robin Galbraith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I tried to write my first story when I was in second grade. My family was gathered around the TV like every night. While “M*A*S*H” played in the background, I stared at my blank paper and dreamed up what I thought was a hilarious story of a girl who used every possible excuse to avoid going to bed—a subject I knew well.

During the commercials I excitedly told my mom my plans.

“Oh, hon,” my mom said. “It will never be published. We aren’t writers. That’s just something our family wasn’t born to do. Stop showing off!”

I now understand my loving mom meant well. She was just 21 years old when she had me. As the daughter of an alcoholic father and overworked mother of six, my mom was taught to “know your place.” She worked hard to care for her family and thought she was protecting me from disappointment.

However, as a child, what I heard was that writers are born, not made. I was like Beverly Cleary‘s Ramona Quimby, stubborn and curious, so I dreamed of secretly writing stories without my mom knowing. But how I could write them if I was a terrible speller?

Ramona Quimby Is Saved By Her Teacher

I was in the lowest reading, spelling, and math group until Miss Rowe, my fifth grade teacher, took an interest in me. She instructed my young mother to read me novels at bedtime, suggested I be given a journal to write in every night, recommended math workbooks for vacations, and advised my mom to use my love of acting and plays to improve my reading.

 My mom followed my teacher’s instructions with gusto. By eighth grade, I was addicted to journal writing and reading series fiction. I was even put in a few honors classes and began to see learning as something that took effort, not talent.
I continued to tell myself stories in my head but never wrote one word of those stories on paper. I was too afraid I’d discover I wasn’t a writer.

Reading: The Gateway to Writing

In high school, I was a TV addict who proudly wore a t-shirt declaring, “I’d rather be watching ‘General Hospital.’” I performed skits with my friends and created novels in my head, but still didn’t have the courage to write a single story on paper.

A neighbor encouraged me to become an elementary special education teacher because I was good with kids. I loved my students but came home exhausted each day.

My mom had discovered audiobooks, now that she was an empty nester, and peppered our phone conversations with details of her reading.

Inspired, I recovered from teaching each afternoon by reading authors like Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, and Milan Kundera before I turned on the TV.

Within a few months of regular reading I was itching to write. I still wrestled with the fear that I was “showing off,” but my urge to write was so strong I finally defied those nasty whispers inside my head and wrote my first story when I was 27 years old.

Rules for Recovering TV Addicts


When I was pregnant with my first child, I read The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin Books, 2013) and vowed my children would grow up in a home of books and writing. I slowly weaned myself off constant TV watching by making a series of rules:

  • I can’t watch TV until 8 p.m. 
  • I can only watch pre-recorded shows. 
  • I can only watch one hour of TV a day.

These rules not only gave me time to read and write, they made me a story critic. I began to analyze the stories that won my coveted one-hour slot. What captured my attention? The characters? The dialog? The plot?

A Woman’s Place Is in the Study

Tragically, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when she was only 52 years old and died in 2012 when she was just 69. As I grieved for my mom’s shortchanged future, I thought about the lessons I was teaching my two kids.

Writing wasn’t just for me; it showed my kids that women have dreams, too.
I took writing classes and joined several critique groups. As my kids grew up, I carved out more time to write and encouraged my children to write their own stories.

My writing wasn’t showing off, it was modeling good habits.

Techniques of the Selling Writer

While my stubborn streak pushed me to finish a draft of a middle grade novel, my next obstacle was learning to write well. The feedback I received from my critique group was politely positive, but I began to suspect they were holding back their criticism. I didn’t push for more honest feedback because I was afraid they’d tell me I’d never be a writer.

Ten years after I had been writing, I got up the courage to submit my work for a professional critique at a local SCBWI writing conference. My critiquer did not have any problems with politeness; she was blunt. I was taken aback at first, then I realized this was good. She took my writing seriously. She didn’t say I had no business writing. She told me what I needed to improve as if this was possible.

One of the conference speakers recommended a book on how to write scenes. I ordered Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain (University of Oklahoma Press, 1991) as soon as I got home. It was a 300-page how-to manual on writing scenes with showing, not telling.

 On my first reading, I was overwhelmed. On my second reading, I took detailed notes. For the third reading, I applied the principles to a fan-fiction story for the TV show, “Veronica Mars.”

My critique group loved my new writing style!

I now had proof that you can learn to write with hard work.

Take Joy

Just when I became comfortable with writing, I fell ill with a series of baffling symptoms that left me practically bedridden. I visited doctor after doctor, desperate to figure out what was wrong. In 2014, a physician figured out my complicated set of thyroid, parathyroid, and autoimmune issues and scheduled surgery to remove my parathyroid tumor.

That same month, I applied to the Vermont College of Fine Arts to study writing for children and young adults. The lesson I had learned from my mom was that life is too short to “know your place.”

When I studied at VCFA I met an entire community that believes in writing. My first advisor had me read Jane Yolen’s Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft (Writer’s Digest, 2006). Instead of seeing writing as a struggle, Yolen sees working on craft as a pleasure, an attitude that changed the way I looked at writing.

Four semesters later, I read my humorous young adult short story for my graduate reading to a sea of laughter and was glad I had given myself permission to write.

You matter. Your stories matter, and the journey you take to learn to write them down will be the adventure of your lifetime!

Cynsations Readers Interview Cynthia Leitich Smith

By Cynsations Readers
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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

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

Craft 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Kathi at the Illumine Gala

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your questions may include:

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

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

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


Career

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

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

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

What’s new with your writing?

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

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

What are you working on now?

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

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

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


What’s next for your Tantalize-Feral books?

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

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

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

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

Diversity

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

First, you can’t (and neither can I).

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

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

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

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

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

I make every effort to assume the best.

By that, I mean:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Personally 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynsations Call for Interviews, Guest Posts, Giveaways, Book Trailers & More

2016 Holiday

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Happy New Year!

Cynsations will officially return from winter hiatus in late January.

In the meantime, consider this an invitation to query me about potential future interviews, guest posts, giveaways, book trailers, and more.

Cynsations was launched in 2004 and is considered one of the flagship blogs of the children’s-YA literature industry and community.

The national Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, School Library Journal, The American Library Association and Writer’s Digest have recognized it for its large, consistent readership and/or quality. On a less formal basis, the blog is assigned in various children’s-YA literature classes and cited in academic papers and both national and university critical review publications. Where the number of active blogs (and readers) has slowly decreased across the board, Cynsations continues to attract a steady increase with each passing year.
 
Cynsations’ audience is made up of a spectrum of devoted readers from
children’s-YA literature core community as well as layperson fans and
young readers–especially teens with a strong interest in reading and
writing. The tone is upbeat. Sensitive topics are welcome. Profanity is not.

Posts should be inspirational or informational with real writer/illustrator/reader/gatekeeper takeaway. My focus is the children’s-YA book market only, by which I mean the international market with an emphasis on North America. While I agree that many books published for grown-ups may be enjoyed by teens, they are outside my area of concentration.

2016 Holiday

Interested contributors (or their representatives) should contact cynthia@cynthialeitichsmith.com to discuss possibilities.

Posts are scheduled on a rolling basis once all text, links and images are received (in the same submission) and approved.

I reserve the right to edit, largely for consistency of style, however no additions will be made without express approval of the contributor. I seldom decline a post, though it has happened, either because the topic was not a fit or the overall quality fell short. I do occasionally ask for minor revisions.

Traditionally trade published debut children’s-YA authors, illustrators and author-illustrators are eligible for the New Voices/Visions interview series. These posts involve a choice of available questions and a request for a couple of tie-in images in addition to book creator(s) photo(s) and book cover. Independently published debuts also are eligible, but require a more extensive vetting process.

I also routinely feature interviews with more established children’s-YA book creators as well as agents, editors (corporate and independent), translators, critics/commentators, marketing/publicity/PR professionals, book event planners, teachers, librarians, university professors of library science and education, creative community and conference/workshop leaders, MFA educators and administrators, literacy and literacy nonprofit advocates, diversity advocates, children’s-YA literature bloggers, and other book lovers/leaders of all stripes.

Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (Austin, Texas)

These interviews can be long (two-part), short (two thoughtful questions and answers) and various lengths in between. They may be conducted by me or another member of the youth literature community. For example, authors may interview each other, especially if they have, say, books with related topics or set in the same historical time period or featuring the same diversity element. A new author may interview her writing mentor (or vise versa). An established author may interview his agent (ditto). An up-and-coming illustrator may interview her art director (capiche?). The combinations are endless.

Guest posts may be submitted by those in the above mentioned categories as well. These should run approximately 500 words.

Topics related to the craft of writing, techniques of illustration, the creative life and heart, the business of publishing, and literary diversity–defined broadly–are especially welcome.

Pitches may also be submitted for a week-long or occasional series of posts on, say, YA horror or children’s poetry or the faculty of an upcoming workshop or winners and honor recipients of a particular award.

In addition, the blog also features book trailers, cover reveals and giveaways for new releases as well as links to quality content similar to its own (including links to reader/teacher guides and classroom activities and various online tie-ins (like, say, an interactive map of a high-fantasy setting).

Thank you for your consideration. It’s an honor to participate in the conversation of books for young readers. I look forward to rebooting in a few weeks.

Author Interview & Giveaway: Angela Cerrito on The Safest Lie

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

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

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

How did you approach the research?

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

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

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

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

Excerpt & Educator’s Guide

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

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

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

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

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

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynsational Notes

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

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

Cynsational Giveaway

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

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Cynsations Launches Mirror Site at LiveJournal; Cynsations and Spookycyn Redesigned

Previously, I have had online ties to the LiveJournal community through syndications of Cynsations and Spookycyn from here at Blogger. However, occasionally errors or blocks occur.

So, I’m launching a mirror Cynsations on LiveJournal. My hope is that–tech gremlins aside–one or the other system will always be running.

You are welcome to read there or here at the original Blogger blog. However, you may want to bookmark both in case of future freezes or other difficulties.

In other news, visitors will notice that I have used the nifty Blogger format upgrade to make some design changes. My hope is that Cynsations now matches my official site better and Spookycyn is, well, a little spookier. Along these lines, I’d like to thank Karl at Blogger for helping me through the last stages of upgrade–most appreciated!

Thanks to Colleen Cook, Jo Knowles, and Sara Zarr for helping me announce these changes.