Hearts Unbroken: Writing Teen Love, Romance, Passion!

Inspirational HS relationship.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The fourth in a series of four posts celebrating the Oct. 9 release of my realistic contemporary YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick). Spoiler alert.

Let’s talk about teen love, romance, passion!

Which of course means talking about awkwardness, three-dimensionality, and emotional resonance.

My new YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, 2018), is partly a love story about two characters, Louise Wolfe and Joey Kairouz, who first connect as staff members of their high school newspaper.

The story is very loosely inspired by my own lived adolescent experiences. But, big picture, we’re talking straight-up fiction. Romantic fiction, though not genre romance per se.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore genre romance. I spent a year reading more than 300 genre romance novels in large part to study how the authors constructed central plots – middles, especially reversals. Nobody navigates reversals better than a genre romance novelist.

That said, while I’ve written YA novels with strong romantic elements, the main page-turning question isn’t: How will the romantic leads get together?

Sure, that plotline may hook certain readers. But some teens may be more interested in finding out who is behind the harassment of IPOC kids cast in the school musical, “The Wizard of Oz.” Some may wonder whether the protagonist’s little brother Hughie ever gets his moment in the spotlight. And I suspect many YA readers will be watching how my Native hero navigates daily life in a middle class suburban setting—both Indigenous readers who see themselves (to varying degrees) reflected and non-Indians newly considering that perspective through a first-person lens.

Regardless, my first chapter opens with a romantic conflict and the last chapter ends with an optimistic romantic reconciliation—form-wise, that’s pretty much textbook romance. Except that the protagonist has changed partners for the better.

Granted, early readers have categorized the novel as a “gender empowerment” or “culturally-driven” or even an “important” story. It takes on big themes like artistic speech and freedom of the press. But love stories can do all that. It’s all in how they’re framed.

Let’s reflect on writing romantic elements. Did every one of these considerations factor into Hearts Unbroken? No, but I’m a WCYA writing teacher and a big believer in the conversation of craft. Your manuscript may benefit from a strategy that didn’t apply to mine.

Teaching a writing workshop with Rita Williams-Garcia.

Does Your YA Novel Need Romance?

Not necessarily. If you are writing a YA mystery or fantastical quest or contemporary realism rooted in, say, family dynamics or a best friendship, please do not feel pressure to sprinkle, thread or shoehorn in romantic love. “YA lit” does not per se equal “romance.”

Honor what the individual story demands rather than compromising it to fit any misconception of market expectations. I personally would love to see more platonic friendship stories.

But if romance is right for your story….

Is It Love at First Sight?

Love at first sight also is known by informal critics as “instalove” and/or “instalust.” It’s sometimes dismissed as a trope, by folks who equate tropes with trite rather than tradition.

My theory is this: All storytelling builds on all previous storytelling. You can pull apart any story and trace the origins of its various components to previous stories. And a lot of them.

What matters is not whether love at first sight has been done before (or has been done frequently) but rather what you do with it and why.

Consider, for example, “Sleepless in Seattle,” a 1993 film, written by Nora Ephron. In the storyline, she introduces the idea of love at first touch.

Tom Hanks‘s character Sam Bloom says that, taking the hand of a woman to help her out of a car, he knew they were destined to be together. He calls it “magic.”

This concept, which is analogous to love at first sight, is reinforced throughout the story. The film concludes with Sam Bloom and Annie Reed, played by Meg Ryan, leaving the top of the Empire State Building, holding hands. First touch. Presumably happily ever after.

Granted, the audience is given sympathetic (in Sam’s case) and endearing (in Annie’s) glimpses into the daily lives of the romantic leads. We’re nudged to root for their destined connection.

Why does that work? Because the protagonist is Sam’s young son, Jonah (played by Ross Malinger), who’s been striving to bring his dad and Annie together. Jonah’s quest is to find a new wife for his widowed father and a new mom for himself. Jonah has driven the story arc and achieved his goal. We believe in his happy ending.

The pesky details of the grownups’ romantic dynamic are, at best, fodder for a sequel, though I wouldn’t have recommended one and Ephron chose not to write it.

“Love Takes Time” or Does It?

Since we’re already drawing on the pop-culture models of the 1990s, let’s consider the 1990 Mariah Carey song “Love Takes Time.” She’s singing about the end of a relationship, healing a broken heart, but she could just as easily be talking about the beginning.

A slow-building, romantic relationship between two characters gives readers more of a chance to invest, to get to know each of leads as individuals before buying into the idea of the couple.

This is the approach I took with Louise and Joey. Although she’s the first-person protagonist, he gets several chapters of shared screen time before assuming the mantle of love interest.

Yes, there’s an initial attraction, but it’s at various points stalled or derailed by ghosts of past relationships, family drama and trauma, the idiosyncratic foils inherent in daily life as well as the characters’ respective insecurities and competeing interests.

What’s with All the Love Triangles?

The most common love triangles in YA literature involve two cis male characters and a cis female character.

As Carrie Ryan points out, “…a love triangle done right isn’t about a female character’s affections bouncing back and forth between two men, it’s about her internal struggle within herself as she figures out who she wants to be and what’s important to her.”

Most of the criticism of love triangles (and the typical less-than-compelling example of them) is rooted in a traditionally-gendered power dynamic.This concern comes from a long history of story in which girls and women are portrayed as prizes rather than people.

The key to transcending all that is to take Carrie’s advice and give the protagonist agency and three-dimensionality.

(In the eight years since Carrie’s post, the YA literature has begun opening up more to include a wider diversity of characters. We can extend her analysis of existing stories to apply to love triangles involving characters of all genders and orientations. That said, we need much more representation of terrific YA love stories reflecting the LGBTQIAP+ community.)

What Do They See in Each Other? Besides Looks.

I’m not suggesting that physical attributes are totally irrelevant to your writing. Describing them can help jump-start the reader’s theater of the mind. Depending on the conventionality of a given character’s attractiveness, we can often begin to extrapolate how the world responds to them, which in turn will impact their experiences and perspectives.

Moreover, a brushstroke or two detailing appearance—build, coloring, makeup, dress—can contribute to conveying a character’s personality, culture, heritage, race, etc.

But unless your story arc is centered on a character’s superficiality or bowing to peer expectations, simply categorizing a potential love interest as “hot” and then piling on the physical description isn’t likely to engage the reader’s heart.

In Hearts Unbroken, Louise is attracted to Joey’s raw energy, his focus on his photography and videography, his sense of humor, their shared rapport, and his devotion to his pet hedgehog. She empathizes with his marginalized identity, his struggle over his parents’ recent divorce, the fact that his ex-girlfriend cheated on him and that he’s the new kid in school. Does she find him physically attractive? Sure, but there’s more to it than that.

Are They Irresistibly Imperfect?

Renée Zellweger and Colin Firth

In the immortal words of Lady Gaga, “I love imperfections.”

The argument could be made that loving someone’s flaws proves the love is real. We understand, for better and worse, who someone is and we love them anyway.

Consider “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (2001). After a series of interpersonal misfires, in a pivotal scene, stuffy Mark Darcy lists Bridget’s endearing “faults” and then firmly declares that he likes her, just the way she is. There’s power in that. Staying power.

How Far Will They Go?

From holding hands to full-on sexy-fun time, there’s a wide range in the sensual and sexual nature of literary teen romances.

You can look at writing those scenes as a matter of conscience or a matter of craft.

We’ll consider both.

The key is to stay specific. What rings true to these particular characters, their relationship arc, situation and setting? (The more generic your scene is, the more likely it is to read clichéd and fall flat.) Frame the characters as complex people, not stereotypes rooted in gender or orientation.

Watch out for your own biases, avoid double standards, and be wary of judgmental-ness.

Consider the moral center. How will you frame the dynamic around consent—be it for a kiss on the lips or somewhere more intimate? Will faith-based beliefs play a role in decision making?

On a practical level, how will the text address the questions of birth control and protection from sexually-transmitted diseases?

How will the awkwardness manifest itself? Because awkwardness is a given. You’re working with inexperienced characters impacted by personal stakes. Weigh each participant’s emotional maturity.

How About the Whole Heart?

Yes, love matters…as does romance…as do tender touches…as does sexy fun. For many teens, these are rites of passage, partially defining experiences. And for many, they’re not. That may be a matter of timing and/or orientation.

According to a CDC survey, the percentage of high-school students who say they’ve had sex has declined from 47.8% in 2007 to 39.5% in 2017. But those YA readers who don’t engage “all the way” may still experience desire and/or kissing and/or petting and/or be otherwise socially or emotionally affected by their peers’ sexual relationships and related expectations.

At the same time, sex is only one aspect of life and, again, it’s not for everyone. If you’re writing a love story, that overarching romantic arc probably can’t sustain the entire book all by itself.

You should probably ask yourself:

  1. What else is going on?
  2. What’s happening with your protagonist’s and love interest’s family, friends, community?
  3. What’s happening within their heart that’s not about their significant other?
  4. How do they feel about themselves?

Happily Ever After?

Consider the possibility that one’s first love usually isn’t one’s last.

YA writers, I’m looking at you. And in the mirror, too.

I fret that in our quest to frame the highest possible stakes we’ve massively oversold first-love, wish-fulfillment stories to the point that teens have gotten the message that they should stay in relationships well past their expiration date.

Even in cases where there are abusive or other unhealthy dynamics in play.

What’s more, there’s something more layered and compelling about risking one’s heart after having to first mend it.

Here’s to more stories of second loves (and beyond) in YA literature.

Are You a Romantic?

Yes or no, I hope these questions and reflections help you craft that novel.

In “Josh Has No Idea Where I Am!” from season one of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Rebecca’s therapist, Doctor Akopian, says to her that great, defining love can be a passion rather than a person.

As for me, I often think that writing is the great love of my life.

Cynsational Notes


★ “Absorbing….Blending teen romance with complex questions of identity, equality, and censorship, this is an excellent choice…”
— School Library Journal, starred review (see also Teen Librarian Toolbox: “a must-have for all collections.”) (see also Teen Librarian Toolbox: “a must-have for all collections.”)

“Highly recommended! There’s so much love and warmth and reality all through Hearts Unbroken. And so much hope! And some absolutely terrific ground-breaking moves!” — Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature (read the whole review)

Q&A with Cynthia Leitich Smith from Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb. Peek: “The time wasn’t right for a story so unabashedly Native in politic or sensibility, and I wasn’t ready emotionally to write it yet either.”

Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith by Crystal from Rich In Color. Peek: “As I drafted scenes, I was aware of exactly how they’d resonate with many Native teens and, to varying degrees, alienate many influential, non-Indian adults. I kept typing anyway.”

The Heart of Cynthia Leitich Smith by Amanda West Lewis from Wild Things: VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Blog. Peek: “I crafted a love story juxtaposed against microaggressions and their escalation. A story that’s infused with humor and community and lived experience as a middle class Native teen.”

Let’s Indigenize Our Bookshelves and Fully Welcome Native Kids as Readers by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “I understood from a very young age that the Native part of myself didn’t seem to belong in the world of readers. (Did we send that message to all Native kids? Do we still? At what cost to them and to their non-Indian friends…).”



In addition to the release of Hearts Unbroken, Cynthia is celebrating the new paperback edition of Feral Pride, the third book in the Feral trilogy and the final book set in the Tantalize series and Feral series universe.

Hearts Unbroken: Writing Well-Rounded Secondary Characters

Writing is rewriting.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The third in a series of four posts celebrating the Oct. 9 release of my realistic contemporary YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick).

We’re all the heroes of our own stories.

The same is true of our fictional friends and foes.

In responding to my new YA novel, Hearts Unbroken, an early manuscript reader mentioned that all the significant characters—except Karishma—had their own story arc.

Not that they all had fully flushed-out stories within the novel—that would’ve diluted focus. But, for each cast member, an individual narrative was hinted at through beats and brushstrokes. A whisper of an internal and external journey. The implication that they were living real lives on- and off-stage.

You may be wondering: Who’s Karishma?

Let’s back up. The protagonist is a teen reporter, Louise, who’s partnered with a teen videographer, Joey, on a story for their high school newspaper. They’re covering the controversy surrounding the diverse and inclusive casting of the school musical, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Karishma is their editor-in-chief.

My early reader suggested that perhaps Karishma was a little more two-dimensional than the rest of the cast because she is a standard bearer. A sort of moral compass and symbolic of the best qualities of student journalism.

Such characters can work well for structure and thematic purposes. Their stability and predictability help illuminate and give measure to the growth of their more dynamic companions.

In fact, sidekick characters often are standard bearers. So are mentors, especially elders.

This is particularly the case in short forms like picture books and early readers.

But we’re talking novels. In such cases, we might ask:

(a) whether that standard-bearer approach is necessary or…

(b) whether readers might benefit from a more three-dimensional rendering, which can be especially critical when…

  1. the standard bearer is from a marginalized community, and…
  2. the protagonist is not.

Second-character Karishma is Indian American, our hero Louise is Native (Muscogee), and Louise’s love interest, Joey, is Arab American (Lebanese).

So, this wasn’t one of those frequent cases of a character of color existing as a prop for a white hero(es). Still, I wasn’t yet writing Karishma to her full potential.

What to do if we find our secondary character development insufficient?

Questions to consider:

Questions apply to short story protagonists as well!

  1. Is there an inkling that this character has an external and internal journey?
  2. What are the hints?
  3. Could they be further developed?
  4. Do we have a sense of what’s happening when that character is off-stage?
  5. What’s their backstory?
  6. What future do we imagine for them after the story concludes?

Once we have a full draft, the answers to most writing quandaries are already hinted in the text, and this is more the case with each revision. Our subconscious mind often knows first and tries to tell us.

Rereading with heightened attention to Karishma, I saw her narrative more clearly. She was the only returning staff member after the high-school newspaper had been targeted by a hostile parent group the year before. She and the Journalism teacher had persevered to rebuild the staff. She was the teen most emotionally connected to the teacher and most aware of that history. Plus, as editor, she was already driving a lot of the external plot.

Reevaluating led to my retooling a couple of scenes. Showing more emotion here, adding dialogue there, along with a narrative observation or two.

We’re talking about tweaks. But tiny changes can round out a secondary character, more fully evoke her humanity. That’s why we revise to improve our drafts. It’s why we seek early feedback, ask ourselves thoughtful questions and reimagine as needed.

Are you rethinking your secondary characters now?

Cynsational Notes


★ “Absorbing….Blending teen romance with complex questions of identity, equality, and censorship, this is an excellent choice…”
— School Library Journal, starred review (see also Teen Librarian Toolbox: “a must-have for all collections.”)

“Highly recommended! There’s so much love and warmth and reality all through Hearts Unbroken. And so much hope! And some absolutely terrific ground-breaking moves!”
— Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature (read the whole review)

Q&A with Cynthia Leitich Smith from Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb. Peek: “The time wasn’t right for a story so unabashedly Native in politic or sensibility, and I wasn’t ready emotionally to write it yet either.”

Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith by Crystal from Rich In Color. Peek: “As I drafted scenes, I was aware of exactly how they’d resonate with many Native teens and, to varying degrees, alienate many influential, non-Indian adults. I kept typing anyway.”

The Heart of Cynthia Leitich Smith by Amanda West Lewis from Wild Things: VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults Blog. Peek: “I crafted a love story juxtaposed against microaggressions and their escalation. A story that’s infused with humor and community and lived experience as a middle class Native teen.”

Let’s Indigenize Our Bookshelves and Fully Welcome Native Kids as Readers by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “I understood from a very young age that the Native part of myself didn’t seem to belong in the world of readers. (Did we send that message to all Native kids? Do we still? At what cost to them and to their non-Indian friends…).”

In addition to the release of Hearts Unbroken, Cynthia is celebrating the new paperback edition of Feral Pride, the third book in the Feral trilogy and the final book set in the Tantalize series and Feral series universe.

Hearts Unbroken: Writing (Sort Of) Timeless Contemporary Realistic Fiction

Learn more about Cynthia Leitich Smith.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The second in a series of four posts celebrating the Oct. 9 release of my realistic contemporary YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick).

We’re all living in the past, present and future.

Perhaps that’s never so true as on the page.

My 2018 YA novel, Hearts Unbroken, is set about a year after the ending of my 2001 debut tween novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins). The protagonists, Louise and Rain, are cousins. Rain’s story largely takes place the summer she’s going into ninth grade, but in Louise’s story, Rain is only a sophomore.

Both books are contemporary realistic fiction. An early manuscript reader of both commented that, despite the 17 years between publication dates, there was no jarring evidence of the time jump on the page. I’m hopeful that she’s right and interested in reflecting on how that happened.

Truth is, I’m skeptical of “timeless” realistic contemporary fiction. We should take care not to mute too much of the detail needed to form a setting that’s a credible springboard for disbelief.

I also don’t know that we can fully anticipate changes to come. For example, Macy’s once seemed like an invincible, mid-tier retail store. Then in 2016, corporate announced that 100 stores would be closed, and that process is ongoing. The survivors are being retooled to compete with T.J. Maxx for bargain shoppers.

George Seton wrote the script for “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947). Would the classic film have resonated in the same way if it had been set anywhere but Macy’s? Maybe. Could Seaton have constructed a similar, fictional setting? Sure. Should he have? The question is a slippery one.

Sometimes writing deep into the now is necessary.

We’re in the midst of a rise in political literature (#politilit) for young readers, books that respond to current events and persistent societal issues. Though it’s also a romance and family story, Hearts Unbroken arguably falls into that category.

Kids and teens need all kinds of books, including those that speak to today’s burning challenges.

That said, to the extent Rain Is Not My Indian Name still reads as contemporary (rather than as a near history), some of my success was strategic and some of it was luck.

Consider these strategies:

1) Select and frame pop-culture references thoughtfully.

I’m a geek and I tend to write geeks. In Rain Is Not My Indian Name, my protagonist, Rain Berghoff, and her big brother Fynn are sci-fi fans. Rain’s dog is named “Chewie” after Chewbacca from “Star Wars,” Fynn has a “Star Trek” mug, and Rain writes fan fiction inspired by “The X-Files.”

One of the many fine qualities of geeks is that we tend to commit comprehensively to our fandoms. It’s entirely plausible that a contemporary kid would’ve seen and even studied the 1977 “Star Wars” movie, although she might refer to it as “old school.”

Those fandom choices were iconic in American pop culture and well traveled across borders. “The X-Files” was the biggest risk. If I had to choose again, I might double down on “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” instead. However, there was a recent resurgence of the franchise. The truth really is out there.

2) Use broad strokes to sketch the tech.

I went light on the specifics, even though Rain Is Not My Indian Name was one of the first children’s-YA novels to significantly incorporate the Internet in the story. Rain’s brother owns a small web-design business, and Rain creates an online memorial in honor of her friend Galen.

That said, unlike Hearts Unbroken, cell phones are not integrated in Rain Is Not My Indian Name.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 85% of teens from age 14 to 17 have a mobile phone. Today, it’s plausible that a fictional teen doesn’t own a phone. She could be in that other 15%. But at least some other teens in their life would have phones. I would’ve at least acknowledged prevalant cell phone use with a brushstroke or two…if only I could’ve foreseen it.

Map by Mark G. Mitchell of fictional Hannesburg, Kansas, which appears in both novels.

3) Add more fiction to your realism.

I strategically made up some names as part of the world building.

Rain’s hometown of Hannesburg, Kansas, is fictional. Locally-owned businesses are more plausible in small towns than, say, suburbs or urban areas commonly overrun by national chains.

So, the names of various fictional small-town restaurants, Oma Dottie’s B&B, Garden of Roses Cemetery and Blue Heaven Trailer Park all sprang from my imagination. They’re not going out of business until I say so. The same is true of the fictional Kickapoo Blues Band, “Not Your Wild West Show,” a web client of Rain’s brother.

Seventeen years in real life.

A little over one year on the page.

How did this approach inform the writing of Hearts Unbroken?

Some of the characters (and their fandoms) repeated.

New pop-culture nods include (a) J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which have enjoyed a resurgence due to the relatively recent film adaptations, and (b) superheroes from the D.C. Universe (e.g., Wonder Woman) who have arguably risen to mythological status.

I took a risk in mentioning a national chain restaurant, The Cracker Barrel, but also peppered in a few new, fictional small businesses.

I also dared to reference email, but made sure to specify that it’s outdated tech, the default of grownups. In fact, it’s inherent in a plot point that teens generally don’t use email.

Looking back, you may regret a judgment call or two. But these tips should help hedge your bets in writing “contemporary” realistic fiction that doesn’t skew historical too soon.

Cynsational Notes

★ “Absorbing….Blending teen romance with complex questions of identity, equality, and censorship, this is an excellent choice…”
— School Library Journal, starred review (see also Teen Librarian Toolbox: “a must-have for all collections.”)

“Highly recommended! There’s so much love and warmth and reality all through Hearts Unbroken. And so much hope! And some absolutely terrific ground-breaking moves!”
— Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature (read the whole review)

In addition to the release of Hearts Unbroken, Cynthia is celebrating the new paperback edition of Feral Pride, the third book in the Feral trilogy and the final book set in the Tantalize series and Feral series universe.

Hearts Unbroken: Writing Stories “Loosely Inspired By” Your Real Life

On our way out to a high school winter dance.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

The first in a series of four posts celebrating the Oct. 9 release of my realistic contemporary YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick).

My senior year of high school, “Back to the Future” was a hot new release, Duran Duran was ruling the radio waves, and I said the worst possible thing with the best possible intentions to my high school boyfriend. It did not go over well at the time.

Not to fret. We recovered. We even dated again. And a third time after that. But the mistake lingered in my mind.

Where there is regret, there is a story.

I’m not my protagonist, Louise. He’s not her love interest, Joey. But we have a few things in common with them—the northeast Kansas suburbs of our adolescence, our respective heritages. We were both student journalists, and so are they. But his dad wasn’t a commerical pilot and mine wasn’t a dentist. His mom didn’t work for Hallmark and mine didn’t earn an MA/JD. I didn’t have a little brother, and he didn’t drive a Jeep. Unlike Louise and Joey, we didn’t live in a post-9/11 world or during the Trump administration.

What’s more, Louise and Joey’s contemporary Kansas suburbs are different than they were for us back in 1980s. In certain ways, it might be tougher for us to have grown up there today.

That said, I have a few things in common with all my protagonists—even the guardian angels, vampires and werecats from my Tantalize-Feral series universe. All authors share a bit of ourselves with every character. Not just our protagonists—our villains, our less nefarious antagonists, our sidekicks, our red-herrings—you name it. That doesn’t mean those characters are especially like us, but we had to draw on some insight, at least a flash of sensibility, to create them.

The fedora? My Laura Holt of “Remington Steele” phase.

Hearts Unbroken wasn’t the first time a real-life incident was a springboard for one of my stories, so I’ve done some thinking about all that.

Here are a few suggestions for those trying to do the same.

1) Ask permission. I wrote to my high school boyfriend, told him what I had in mind and asked if he was okay with it. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t have moved forward with the story.

I know that not everyone will agree that this is a necessary step (at least if they’re changing the names). But each of us owns our own life story. For me, asking was about courtesy, respect.

2) Don’t be otherwise restricted by what really happened (unless it’s memoir).

The only remnant of real-life dialogue that survived my experience was a couple of incredibly awkward, babbly, and inappropriate lines uttered by me and even those have been wholly revised.

Think of your personal experience as a springboard, not a roadmap.

3) Let yourself be healed. If the incident was sufficient to launch a trade YA novel, it’s probably fraught with conflict. Writing it out, changing the narrative for the better or to throw out a life preserver to readers can help you process and move on.

During my early adulthood, I deeply disliked Cindy Lou AKA Teen Me. She skipped too much of what would’ve made her happy to do what was expected by The Powers That Be.

I see her differently now.

She was sensitive and tenderhearted. Ambitious and hardworking. She loved to read and preferred heart-to-heart talks (and walks) with her best friends and cousins over cheering on the sidelines or making the weekend social scene. She spent a lot of time going through motions, being a good girl and people pleaser.

However, Cindy Lou didn’t have a fully formed brain or a whole lot of influence in her world. The pressures put on her—coupled with a lack of societal/institutional validation and support—might’ve broken another kid. It did break some kids. And none of that was their fault. Or hers.

It took decades to get here, but in part because of writing Hearts Unbroken, I’m proud of Cindy Lou. She’s the one who decided to study journalism at The University of Kansas, which led me to Michigan Law School and a career as a published author.

And all of that makes me happy. I’m grateful.

So, I encourage you to write the stories of your lived experience, the ones only you can write. Do so with thoughtful consideration for those good folks who played a role in reality, including yourself.

Cynsational Notes

★ “Absorbing….Blending teen romance with complex questions of identity, equality, and censorship, this is an excellent choice…”
— School Library Journal, starred review (see also Teen Librarian Toolbox: “a must-have for all collections.”)

“Highly recommended! There’s so much love and warmth and reality all through Hearts Unbroken. And so much hope! And some absolutely terrific ground-breaking moves!”
— Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature (read the whole review).



In addition to the release of Hearts Unbroken, Cynthia is celebrating the new paperback edition of Feral Pride, the third book in the Feral trilogy and the final book set in the Tantalize series and Feral series universe.

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

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

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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

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

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

I’m now in my fifth year as the RA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many members are in the Austin chapter? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How has SCBWI helped you in your path to publication?

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

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

Laurent Linn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samantha with other RAs at the 2016 SCBWI LA Conference

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

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

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

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

What’s the best part of being an RA?

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

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

    I could go on.

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

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

Are there any downsides? 

Well… the job is a lot of work.

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

A lot of emails…

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

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

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

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

Cynsational Notes

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

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

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

Full Cover & Author Quotes (Blurbs) for Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

click image to enlarge

My deepest thanks to distinguished authors An Na, Joseph Bruchac and Guadalupe Garcia McCall for sharing their thoughts about my forthcoming contemporary realistic novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 2018).

Here’s what they had to say:

“I loved her irreverent, hilarious, and subversive dismantling of stereotypes. Cyn’s trademark, spot-on dialogue captures the teen spirit perfectly. I want Lou to be my best friend!” —An Na, author of A Step from Heaven, winner of the Michael L. Printz Award and a National Book Award finalist

Learn more about my books.

Hearts Unbroken is a rare blend of teenage romance and social consciousness that never insults the intelligence of its readers. Truly shows what life is like for a contemporary American Indian teeenager trying to fit into the larger context of American society.” —Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), author of Code Talker

“Smart, quirky, and slightly flawed, Louise Wolfe is like a lot of teenage girls in America. Cynthia Leitich Smith has crafted a heartfelt book with an important message about loyalty, intepersonal connections, and the power of love to tear down barriers. This story will dissolve boundaries and knock down walls.” —Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Pura Belpré Author Award Winner for Under the Mesquite

Cynsational Notes

Pre-order Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Indiebound or another book retailer such as your local independent bookstore like BookPeople in Austin.

Order more of Cyn’s published books – list and links via SCBWI.

Guest Post: Ann Jacobus: Critique Group Makes Frances Lee Hall’s Publishing Dream Come True

By Ann Jacobus
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

It’s an unusual moment when our writing group is in full agreement. But in this case, we knew we had to bring our friend Frances Lee Hall’s wonderful middle grade story to young readers.

The question was how?

Frances Lee Hall

We had all just attended her memorial service. Frances died suddenly on Nov. 26, 2016.

She had also been through hell and high water, as only a writer can, with her middle-grade manuscript, Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker. We had critiqued it through more than one revision and loved her story like our own.

One of Frances’s favorite expressions was “Yaaaay!”

She had always been so supportive of each of us and we couldn’t imagine letting her dream go unrealized.

The story really begins at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) in the Writing for Children and Young Adult program.

I met Frances, a San Francisco native, there in 2005 during her first residency. We were in a workshop together and both her writing and her ability to critique others’ work made a deep impression on me.

As author Annemarie O’Brien says, “Frances would often let everyone speak, and then at the very end she’d toss out some profound comment that would make us all stop, think, and reevaluate.”

When my family moved to San Francisco in 2009, Frances and I formed a writing group. Naturally, we had to name ourselves and chose “Beyond the Margins.” Annemarie, Helen Pyne, Linden McNeilly, Christine Dowd, and Sharry Wright soon joined us.

Ann, Frances and Annemarie O’Brien

“Frances was a terrific cheerleader, role model and editor,” Helen says, and in late 2013, we celebrated with homemade fried wonton and California wine when Frances’ agent Marietta Zacker sold Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker to international publisher Egmont USA.

We had been expecting it. As her former VCFA advisor Cynthia Leitich Smith says, “Frances’ writing came from a place of light and tenderness. Throughout her process, she thought of the child readers and drew on her own inner child to inform how best to lift them up. Her work exhibited a heightened emotional intelligence and a loving respect for tradition, elders, and intergenerational relationships.”

Indeed, Frances’ protagonist Lily is a determined and energetic third-grade soccer player who finds her Grandpa, Gung Gung, and his traditional ways perplexing in their newly dependent relationship. Lily struggles to find common ground with him, and in her mounting frustration alienates some of her friends and teammates. The story is heart-felt but also very funny.

“Frances did such a great job capturing goofy kid humor,” says Helen.

Lily Lo is a universal story about family and friendship, and it’s also the kind of children’s novel Frances wished she’d had access to growing up in the Bay Area. She said that, although her elementary school was 75-to-80 percent Asian-American, she had never read a story as a child that featured a character or a family like hers.

Cynthia says, “I know the heightened challenges for authors of color and their writing weighed heavily on her. It’s something we talked about.”

Frances was an early fervent supporter of We Need Diverse Books. Cynthia continues, “My heart contracts at the thought of how much more welcome she might feel today than even a few years ago. I know she would be encouraged by progress made and delighted that her book will become a part of that rising conversation centered on inclusivity.”

In 2014, things moved very slowly at Egmont with Frances’s book, but we were all shocked when the publisher closed its U.S. operations a year later, leaving Lily Lo and other stories stranded.

Frances and Marietta re-submitted and almost sold Lily Lo a second time, only to have that fall through as well.

Frances persisted, although she was deeply disappointed. She continued working and submitting until tragedy struck. She suffered a brain aneurysm in November 2016 and died a week later leaving behind her husband Lance and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Emmie.

Everyone who knew Frances was heartbroken. So many people turned out to celebrate her life at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in Chinatown, San Francisco, a week after Thanksgiving. Friends and writers across the country celebrated her life online.

Before Frances became a children’s writer, she worked in television. We knew she had an Emmy, but she never mentioned she had won three from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for her work in TV writing and production. We learned this after she died.

Beyond the Margins, along with several other of her writer friends, decided to do something to honor Frances and her writing.

Another one of her manuscripts that we love is called Paper Son. It’s about a Chinese boy who goes alone through the San Francisco Angel Island Immigration Station in the 1930s, driven by the dream of reuniting with his father in the United States.

Helen says, “Frances’s young protagonist, Moon, suffers hardship and heartbreak, but he’s strong and resilient and an inspirational main character.”

However, as Annemarie says, “We selected Lily Lo (for publication) because it had proven debut promise and was ready, requiring no revisions beyond copyedits.”

None of us were willing to revise Frances’s stories or change her words on a deeper level. Lily Lo had been through many, many drafts and had already been revised with an outstanding editor.

With Lance’s support, Marietta followed up on a few leads for possible posthumous publication. But traditional publishers understandably proved reluctant to take on a debut without a living author behind it. So, we began a search for an alternative.

Annemarie knew of a hybrid publisher in Oakland called Inkshares. Their model involves crowd-funding with pre-orders to cover all the upfront costs of traditional publishing—or editorial development, cover and book design, sales, promotion and distribution.

Annemarie says, “Promoting Lily Lo for pre-orders was a group effort led by Ann who made it simple for us to email friends, create posts on Facebook, and tweets on Twitter. It was easy to advocate for Frances because of the support we got from her family and friends, as well as from the VCFA community.”

The original goal for was 750 pre-orders. In the funding phase, Inkshares asks $30 for a pre-order package that includes the book, an ebook, and “updates” from the author. But we soon opted for the Inkshares “Quill” path which only required 250 pre-orders.

This route is closer to a self-publishing model in that it does not include a developmental edit or cover design. But it also returns a larger percentage of net sales to the author–or her estate in this case, and specifically, her daughter Emmie’s education fund.

Rita Williams Garcia

A graphic-artist friend from Frances’ TV production days, May Key Lee, designed a dynamite cover. We funded ahead of schedule and now Lily Lo is in pre-production. Inkshares will do the copy-edits, and we provided front and back matter, blurbs (including one from Rita Williams Garcia!), forewords, and a bio.

Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker should be printed and available by late summer.

Frances’s family joins us in thanking all those who have taken part in bringing this story and its author’s memory to life. Yaaaay!

Lily Lo And The Wonton Maker is available now for pre-order at $10.99 a copy.

Cynsational Notes

Ann Jacobus writes children’s and YA fiction, blogs and tweets about it, teaches writing and volunteers on a suicide crisis line.

She’s published short fiction, essays and poetry in anthologies, journals, and magazines, and is the author of YA thriller Romancing the Dark in the City of Light (St. Martin’s Press, 2015).

San Francisco is home to her and her family.

New Voice: Laney Nielson on Peppermint Cocoa Crushes

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Scenes from Laney’s book party

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cover Reveal: Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

By Cynthia Leitich Smith for Cynsations

Wow! Today, BookRiot is hosting the official cover reveal for my upcoming realistic YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 2018).

Click this link for the inside scoop on my initial inspirations for the story. You can also pre-order the book from IndieboundBarnes and NobleAmazon and other book retailers.

And then keep reading here to learn more about my thoughts on the cover art itself.

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 over email. 


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 music 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?

Cyn says:

What I adore about this cover is that it’s so unabashedly casual and contemporary. Accessible and inviting.

Learn more about Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Modern depictions of Native teens, especially girls, are rare. Showing a character in a T-shirt and jeans, simply standing, comfortably relaxed, is fairly revolutionary.

Centering the T-shirt imagery is something I discussed with my Candlewick editor, Hilary Van Dusen, who was working with Pamela Consolazio, the jacket designer.

To me, the art vaguely suggests the feel of a powwow T-shirt. So, it’s grounded in daily life, but intentionally not groundbreaking. You’d find a few similar Ts in my closet.

On another note, I’m glad that the design largely leaves facial casting to the young reader’s imagination.

I love the covers of two of my previous novels, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) and Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007), both of which clearly show the face of the protagonist.

But prose novels are such deeply interior experiences. Sometimes it’s best for young adults to envision the story, including its hero, in their own theaters of the mind.

Beyond that, I highly approved of the decision to use a teen-friendly handwriting font for “Hearts” and a firmer, more formal one for “Unbroken.” When I think of real-life teens like my fictional Louise, I am optimistic about the future. Young Native hearts are strong.

Don’t forget to read about the inspirations behind Hearts Unbroken!

Survivors: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Shelley Ann Jackson, Chris Barton, Jennifer Ziegler, Cyn & P.J. Hoover

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Writers put so much emphasis on that first children’s-YA book sale, the debut launch—but maintaining an active publishing career is arguably a much bigger challenge than breaking into the business.

So, let’s talk about career endurance as authors of books for young readers.

I’ve invited numerous, well (and enduringly) published friends and colleagues to share their thoughts in future posts as part of this ongoing series.

You can look forward to their wisdom in the days and months to come.

Meanwhile, it’s my pleasure today to begin this conversation.

My first picture book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, was published in 2000, and my first novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name, followed in 2001 (both from HarperCollins).

Of late I’m looking forward to the release of my upcoming realistic YA novel, Hearts Unbroken, from Candlewick in January 2019. It’ll be my fifteenth book in a career that’s included both the Tantalize series and the Feral trilogy (Candlewick 2007-2015) as well as additional picture books, a chapter book, numerous short stories, creative nonfiction essays and, most recently, poetry.

As a forty-something author, I have no plans to retire anytime soon—if ever. But of late, I’ve noticed that I’m now the longest-published author at most book festivals. Even at mega-slate conferences, it’s easy for me to quickly tick off those who were active in my early days.

Why? Why–in just under two decades–would the field turn over to such an extreme degree?

Demographics and industry culture played a role.

When I started out, publishers seemed reluctant to take chances on new voices. And in the pre-Potter industry, there wasn’t the widespread idea that writing for young readers was a viable and attainable career path (or at least one with the potential to generate a livable income).

Consequently, fewer younger people were pursuing it.

As a GenXer, I also entered the field as a shockingly young writer by the standards of the day.

I knew only a couple of published authors (and only online) who were around my age. The overwhelming majority were at least fifteen years older.

Most were a full generation older.

Now, the pendulum has swung hard the other way.

Both new and young voices are plentiful, but too many fade from the stage after one or two books, including authors who’re much buzzed and—at least at first—seem to have real momentum.

What does that mean for those of us still in the game?

How about for new and up-and-coming voices?

All of this begs the question: What does it take to survive and thrive?

A couple of years ago, children’s-YA author Janni Lee Simner offered her excellent Writing for the Long Haul series.

This is an extension of that conversation, centered more on the rapid and ongoing changes in the publishing industry and how they affect us all.

Please indulge me as I answer the questions that I passed on to other established voices who’re soon to chime in.

Reflecting on your personal author’s journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

Early on, the biggest challenge was that I was writing contemporary Native fiction, rooted in Story rather than as an exercise in thinly veiled social studies.

I was writing with the assumption that #ownvoices readers—young Native readers—would be in the audience. And I cared about them, too. In fact, given a content-sensibility choice, I prioritized them over other readers. Including non-Indian editors and gatekeepers.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Native literary voices were few, and the wider world wasn’t really interested in changing that. I had a librarian tell me without blinking, “We don’t need you. We already have Joseph Bruchac.”

Joe, who is Abenaki, is a treasure–talented, knowledgeable, dedicated and remarkably prolific. But one Native voice was enough? (At the time, Joe himself was working to empower more Native voices and get their work out into the world, and he’s still a tireless advocate.)

Yes, there were a few more Native voices out there—like Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (Lakota) and Michael Lacapa (Apache-Tewa-Hopi), and while they were rightly celebrated, The Powers That Be weren’t paying nearly enough attention to them either. Put mildly, it was frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong. My early Native books didn’t fare badly. They were critically acclaimed. They’re all still in print today.

For Rain Is Not My Indian Name, I was named a writer of the year in (children’s-YA) from Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Illustrators.

But a lot of non-Indian people didn’t seem to know what to make of those titles. They weren’t historicals. They weren’t designed to teach white kids and that’s it. They dared to feature diversity within Indian Country, including urban Indians and Black Indians.

Post publication, it was easier to sell a powwow picture book than a novel set in an intertribal community and, in turn, that was easier to sell than a chapter book set in the city. Most retail buyers and gatekeepers preferred their Native characters in feathers. My initial sales figures declined from book to book. Meanwhile, the so-called multicultural boom of the late 1990s had gone bust. A major trade house marketing pro said to me, “Multiculturalism is dead. We tried it and it didn’t work.”

I also was feeling pigeon-holed. I wanted to write Native fiction—then and forever—but I had other stories to tell, too. And so, I did.

I’m a huge speculative fiction geek. Consequently, I shifted gears and began writing Gothic fantasy, right before the boom in paranormal fiction hit. I was accidentally on trend. There was a crossover audience from there to my Tantalize series, and then I shifted to fantasy-adventure for the Feral trilogy that spun off it.

The books still featured diverse characters, gender empowerment and social justice themes, but they were more commercial. The cast included some Native secondary characters and content because it was set in (sort of) this world and we are still here.

Basically, I embraced my wider interests and reinvented.

(Something I’ve noticed in my peers who’ve endured—many of them have reinvented themselves, too.)

Along the way, I contributed to numerous anthologies. I wrote short stories, creative nonfiction and poetry.

That forced me to stretch artistically and introduced my writing to a wider audience. It was a continuing education in craft. It also positioned my byline alongside fellow contributors and steadily raised my profile. It kept my name out there in the in-between-books years.

Now, I have persevered long enough to return to Native contemporary fiction in my next YA novel.

Though progress is still needed and uneven, Children’s-YA publishing is finally starting to become a little more diversity friendly and inclusive. I’m more hopeful now. When it comes to the diversity conversation, this isn’t my first rodeo. But it feels different this time.

It’s heartening, more fraught with emotion. The pushback from detractors is so much harder and more fierce, I think, because the stakes are high and the gains are real.

What did I do right along the way?

I decided to:

  • Commit to my ongoing education in the craft of writing.
  • Teach others. The necessity of repeatedly articulating various concepts, considerations and techniques allows me to better access and apply them myself.
  • Keep reading. A working writer’s knowledge of the field should be refreshed on a regular basis.
  • Commit to community. Friends offer support and perspective that I pay back and forward. They also bolster the positive reinforcement for my writing life.
  • Stay flexible. Especially if I’m pushing the creative envelope, I need to keep in mind that “not now” isn’t the same as “never.” And I can help faciliate positive change. In the meantime, write something else, something that heightens my skillset to be ready for whatever comes next.
  • Appreciate and work with the home team(s). For me, that translates to Austin SCBWI, the Writers’ League of Texas, Curtis Brown Ltd. and VCFA.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

I’ve alluded to the changes in author demographics, the ebb and flow of enthusiasm for diversity and inclusion. What else stands out? In the post-Potter world, children’s-YA publishing is a much bigger business. There’s a feeling that there’s money to be made in it, and a lot has flowed from that.

When I started out, I could name the few children’s-YA literary agents on my fingers. Authors were still debating whether representation was necessary at all. Now, I’m always hearing of new agents—some of whom don’t last long—and editors occasionally move into that role and back again.

I’ve worked with independent publicists—with my publishers’ blessings—to supplement their efforts and mine (I recommend Blue Slip Media). I’m blessed to be represented by a top-notch events agent, Carmen Oliver at The Booking Biz.

Compare that to my early days, wherein a well-established author said to me, “All you have to do—or can do—is school visits, but it’s really easy to stay in print that way.”

Fellow VCFA faculty at Sarducci’s in Montpelier, Vt.

In terms of craft, we have more MFA programs in writing for young readers and other opportunities for serious study.

I’m a faculty member on the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

We were the first fully dedicated graduate program on the scene. Now, there are over a dozen.

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

Beginning Writer, Cyn! Celebrate!

Embrace the experience and, along the way, continue to prioritize the writing itself. I mentioned stretching across age markets, genres and formats. Continue to learn, grow and take on new writing styles. Your art and career will both benefit from it.

It’s a huge adjustment, going from apprentice to published author-ambassador. Your creative time, heart, and goals may evolve, but writing should stay firmly at (or at least near) the top of your list. That doesn’t mean you must write every day or you must finish a certain number of words or pages. It means that of all the hats you wear, make sure you stay steadfastly in the habit of reaching for the one labeled “Writer.”

Be your own best cheerleader and fold into your heart the voices that lift you up. If you can learn from a critical remark, by all means, gratefully embrace that opportunity. But realize that positivity is ultimately what will fuel your forward journey. Nobody but you has the power to force you out of this field. Be affirmatively flexible. Too many writers talk themselves out of success.

News flash: All writing counts as writing. If you’re writing a speech or an article or answering interview questions, you’re still writing. Don’t count only the books and short creative pieces published, as though you’re above truly valuing or being fulfilled by anything else. Those audiences matter, too.

Supporting my local indie bookstore, BookPeople in Austin!

And, by the way, a lot of perfectly fine writers build their careers on that sort of thing. A lot of them who’re better at the craft than you are.

So, no whining about the day-job writing this career requires. It is a priviledge and opportunity to share and grow that way, too.

That said, you can do more than write. You can mentor and advocate. If you’re worried about, say, the dearth of Native voices or the lack of attention to them, make the effort to help facilitate change. And do so consistently.*

Beyond that, speak your truth to others with kindness and stand up for yourself and your friends when necessary. But forgive readily and work through whatever conflicts, if you can. Yes, there are hard-fought moments at the children’s-YA lit dinner table. But we are all still a family. A community.

We share a commitment to quality books for young readers, even if we don’t always agree on how to get there. Yes, sadly, there are people who  may not be worth your time and effort, who won’t change for the better. So what. They don’t define who you are. Call me an optimist, but I believe in our potential for excellent youth literature across the board. I believe in the kids. I believe in us.

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



I wish that we would let Story guide marketing rather than vice versa. Enough with the exhausting overwriting in middle grade and YA. Yes, more avid readers buy books than reluctant ones. But our duty is to kids—all kids—more than to the quick formula to a buck.

New release! Honored to have contributed!

If we don’t write lean, we’ll lose all but the most committed readers and give up on converts entirely.

On the flip side, brevity in a picture book can be genius or—if forced—feel like we’re simply sneezing product.

The book needs to be as long as it needs to be.

I wish that beginning “diverse” writers—defined broadly—
will be welcomed at every stage, that they won’t have to navigate so many micro (and macro) aggressions along the way. I would love for a whole month to pass without a Native writer or writer of color telling me they don’t feel safe sharing in their own critique groups.

I wish that we were all more appreciative of the global conversation of books, both within our own countries and around the planet. Embracing diversity from region to region and across borders of all kinds.

I wish that we’ll all gain an appreciation of the voices who came before us, where our own work fits into the larger conversation of youth literature, and the need to nurture future generations of writers—the kids who’re reading our books now.

And by the way, I wish everyone has terrific mental and physical health and health insurance and more financial security. Because, at the risk of stating the obvious, the first condition of surviving as an active publishing writer is surviving–period.

As a writer, what do you hope for yourself in the future?

I hope that I’ll always be at least as courageous as I am today.

Cynsational Notes

* I’m thrilled by the increase of Native and First Nations voices–newcomers like Traci Sorell (Cherokee), Daniel Vandever (Navajo), Eric Gansworth (Onondaga), ever-rising stars like Tim Tingle (Choctaw) and Richard Van Camp (Dogrib), and luminaries like Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mounain Band of Chippewa) and Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki)–among many more.

I’m also  honored to participate on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books.

At BookPeople in Austin, Texas.

Cynsational Notes

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