New Voices: Kaylee Morrison and Nancy Smith on Joshua and The Biggest Fish

Nancy stands behind co-author & grandkid, Kaylee.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What an honor and joy it is to welcome debut children’s authors, Kaylee Morrison and Nancy Smith, who’re also citizens of Muscogee Nation!

Their picture book is Joshua and The Biggest Fish (Doodle and Peck Publishing, 2017). From the promotional copy:

The big fish are way out in the deepest part of the river. Will Joshua find a way to catch a really big fish? Maybe then, the men won’t see him as “cepane,” or little boy. 


A historical, coming-of-age story, based on true events.

You are a grandmother-granddaughter team. How and why did you two begin writing together? What has that been like?

KM: Growing up I was always interested in writing and my grandmother, who wrote her whole life, encouraged me to follow my talents. The older I got, the more I wanted to learn about my Muscogee (Creek) heritage.

My grandmother suggested co-authoring a book to learn about our rich past and provide a way to bring us closer in my teenage years.
The process was long, and a bit tedious at times, but that’s what comes with the territory of wanting our book to be historically accurate.

This involved many trips to the Muscogee tribal complex and talking to multiple people which lead to even meeting new family members.

NS: When my granddaughter, Kaylee, turned 16, she told me she wanted to learn more about her Muscogee Creek heritage. I was so happy to hear that.

So, we drove to the Muscogee tribal complex in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and met with Buddy Cox at the tribe’s Cultural Preservation office. He shared with us many ideas, but the subject that jumped out at us was “fish kills.”

Writing a children’s book about this part of our Muscogee Creek history and culture seemed like a wonderful project we could do together. Kaylee was in her last two years of high school, and then went away to college, so writing our book was a long journey, but so worth it.

What was the initial inspiration for Joshua and the Biggest Fish, illustrated by Dorothy Shaw (Doodle and Peck Publishing, 2017)?

KM: Initially, we both wanted to gain knowledge of our ancestors’ past. Although I have lived in Oklahoma my whole life, I knew very little about the Muscogee Nation and I feel that most Oklahomans are the same way. My little sister was about two at the time and a children’s book felt like a perfect way to teach her and many other children a little piece of Creek history.

NS: All young Creek Indian boys are nicknamed “cepane” (chee-BAH-nee), which in Creek language means “little boy.” Our book evolved as a coming-of-age story about a young Creek boy who longs to be accepted as one of the men, and who does not like being called “cepane.” The book is named after my Muscogee (Creek) grandfather, Joshua.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

KM: The idea came about when I was sixteen, and after six years of research and writing it was published in 2017. During all of this I was graduating high school and moving to college, so this also slowed up the process along the way.

We first heard of fish kills from Buddy Cox and we both found them incredibly interesting. We decided to go with it, but literature on fish kills is very slim. My grandmother came up with some creative ways to research history on fish kills that made this book possible.

NS: Our book took a total of six years to complete. This was mostly because we wanted our book to be historically and culturally accurate.

After doing research at the Oklahoma Historical Society (Oklahoma City), I discovered historic photographs of Creek Indians taken at the fish kill in the 1920s. Finding these photos was so exciting, and some are featured in our book. By the second year, the Cultural Preservation office changed managers several times, so that was a hurdle. Finding a publisher was also a challenge.

What were the challenges (emotional, logistical, research, professional) in bringing the book to life?

KM: After finishing the writing portion of the book, I think the biggest struggle was finding a publisher. Being first-time authors in a niche market was hard to sell to publishers.

My grandmother promised me from the very beginning that we would get the book published and I never doubted her; although, it is vexing to be turned down multiple times on something you have worked so hard on.

My grandmother never gave up, even through tough times, to get this book published and I couldn’t have done it without her. I am grateful for her every day.

NS: We took at least 8 to 10 trips to the Creek Nation in Okmulgee to do research, and several trips to the Oklahoma Historical Society. You must be very interested in your project, and very dedicated to work for long periods of time toward completion. One thing that kept me going was wanting to complete the book with my granddaughter, Kaylee.

What do you hope that young readers take away from the story?

KM: I want readers to learn a part of history that few know about and to spark their interest in Indian culture. There are very few Creek Indian children’s books, and I hope this book inspires more to come.

NS: I hope young Muscogee (Creek) readers will feel pride in their culture from our book, and pride in being Creek citizens. I also hope all young readers will enjoy reading about our tribe’s past and learning about our language and culture.

What did Dorothy Shaw‘s art bring to your book?


With illustrator Dorothy Shaw

KM: The first time I saw Dorothy’s artwork for the book, I was blown away and thrilled that she brought our words to life. The story would not be the same without her craftsmanship.

NS: Dorothy Shaw brought our characters to life in a wonderful and colorful way. Her beautiful illustrations along with the historic photographs provided inspiring images to our readers.

How have you celebrated the book’s release and connected it to readers, especially in the Muscogee (Creek) and larger Native community?

With Principal Chief James Floyd & Second Chief Louis Hicks

KM: We have done several book signings and hope to start having school visits soon in the Tulsa County area. The tribe has ordered and even re-ordered the book which is very exciting.

Imagining Creek citizens reading our book is a bit mind-blowing and very encouraging. After reading your own words so many times you start to not even recognize them as words, so it comes to a point where you must stop editing and get it out there or you could spend your whole life on it.

NS: We donated seven books to our tribe’s Head Start schools, to share with their young students. Kaylee also presented our Chief and Second Chief with their own personal copies of our book. “Joshua and the Biggest Fish” is carried at our tribe’s gift shop, and we have also done several book signings. Our Tulsa City-County Library has our book at seven of their library branches. I have personally contacted over 20 outlets, bookstores, etc. to market Joshua and The Biggest Fish.

What can your readers expect from you next?

KM: I currently have something in the very beginning stages that I presume will take me a considerable amount of time to finish. It’s a different genre and different age group but something that has been in the back of my head for a while.

NS: I have started working on a middle-grade historical novel about my tribe, which I’m currently doing research on.

New Voice: Dawn Quigley on Apple in the Middle

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This is a watershed year for the release of Native young adult novels.

From Eric Gansworth’s Give Me Some Truth (Scholastic, 2018), the followup to his If I Ever Get Out of Here (Scholastic, 2013), and Tim Tingle’s Trust Your Name (7th Generation, September 2018), the fourth in his No Name series, to the upcoming Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, October 2018), I’m pleased to feature a newcomer to the age market, Dawn Quigley.

Her debut novel, Apple in the Middle (North Dakota State University Press, 2018), features Apple, a teen whose mother, from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, died due to complications from her birth.

Raised by her white physician father and stepmother in an affluent suburb of the Twin Cities, Apple has never had contact with her mother’s family.

The story focuses on Apple’s experience during an extended summer visit with these unknown relatives on the tribe’s reservation located near the Canadian border in what is now north central North Dakota.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

As I was writing some poetry I found myself sharing my frustrations of how many non-Native authors were creating books which were stereotypically shedding negative light onto Native culture. Here was my inspiration, my poem, and my call for the Native world to not let others tell our stories for us:

Arise 

I am tired of seeing Indians portrayed as victims in literature.
I am tired of how Natives are dripping with alcoholism in your books.
And I am tired of images of
sexually deranged,
violently abused and
educationally-lacking characters. 

Native people, arise!
We have, and are still, climbing the mountain of injustice;
Carrying our history on our back as we tread to the top to see the vision our ancestors told us of.
But, instead of glimpsing at the majestic vista,
Too often we must listen as writers plunge our People back to the desolate valleys again.
But you only show the darkness, shutting out the light of hope, and resilience; condemning the beacon of a better tomorrow to melt away.
We Natives have lived in nightfall, but revel in the sunrise of tomorrow.
We, at times, hibernate for a season, but awake in springtime of life. 

Native people, arise!
Our stories, like of old, must reflect the balance between darkness and light; between the highs and the lows; and between this world and the next.
Our history has been one of
genocide,
tear-wrenching tragedy,
and historical trauma.
This must be remembered. This should be told.
But we also know the beauty of our culture; the history which we hold tight; and the values we pass down seven generations. 

So why, when we only have our imaginations to limit us, do we as Native writers and storytellers allow them to present only our darkness to the world?
Why do continually let
them tell our tales? 

Native people, arise!
Where are the heroic characters in our modern Native fiction?
There are too few Indigenous writers who shine the light on our culture.
But I am greedy. I want more.
Why don’t we write about our success –
Not success as the world may see it, but in our Indian way?
Tell us about your grandmother’s quilts.
Tell us why your sister worked two jobs and went to night school for her college degree.
Tell us the time when your grandfather’s teaching touched your life.
Tell us.
Tell us.
Just tell us.

Honoring author Joseph Bruchac during the Native YA Today: Contemporary Indigenous Voices & Heroes for the 21st Century panel at the American Library Association conference. Author Cynthia Leitich Smith, moderator Alia Jones, Joseph Bruchac and Dawn Quigley.


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

My greatest challenge was that I had no idea how to write a book!

In teaching middle school English and reading for most of my 18 years, I spent countless hours reading YA books for my students to select read-aloud and classroom novels.

I fell in love with reading books that could transform my students.
I began writing letters to the editors of our local newspapers, then wrote full commentary essays. I gained a lot of confidence each time something was published.

Next I branched out to poetry.
But to write a book, this was the challenge. I took a few courses at a local writer’s loft on how to sell and promote books, but not on the actual task of writing.

I did read only one book on it: Stephen King’s On Writing (Scribner, 2000). That book, and reading up to 10 books a month, were my teachers.

I would use favorite sections of a book to learn how the author crafted dialogue, the climatic parts, etc. Then I wrote roughly two pages a day for some time until I had a finished book! I didn’t outline my story at all, and this is something I will do in the future: begin with a rough frame.

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

The best moment was when I actually finished the book! I felt like a five-year-old wanting to run out and say, “Look, Ma, I wrote a book!”

Then the down side was trying to learn how to pitch and query editors and agents for my Apple in the Middle. I got many “bites” and asks for partials and fulls and also rejects, but it was one editor from North Dakota State University Press who made my writing career when the first line in her letter back to me was: “I love Apple. I love everything about her world.”

Suzzanne Kelly loved my Native coming-of-age book, and this, so far, has been another great moment.
My book has just come out, so I’m doing readings, signings, et cetera. I know I’m only beginning!

Rolling hills of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story? 

Turtle Mountain rose

I taught in K-12 grades for over 18 years, and it was challenging at times to find books and materials that reflected Native people respectfully.

As a Native teacher, I wanted to show the positive aspects of our culture. I knew that I have lived and seen these beautiful Native aspects and began to educate myself and my peers that there are books out there, but we all need to put in the effort to find, read and evaluate them.

I began this book because of a beckoning voice I kept hearing: Tell them the stories.

My first instinct was to push it away. How could I write a book? Who was I? But I felt this book was to be a legacy for my children to hear about my Turtle Mountain grandparents and what they taught me-and are still teaching me today even though their footprints are no longer on this Earth, but in my soul. And like many Native people who are storytellers, I knew that the best way to share history and life lesson is through the telling of tales.

As I was in the middle of the book, I started to wonder if this was meant to be more than just a family tale, but instead a way to let non-Native people peer through the keyhole to get a glimpse into our world. A world that is a beautiful one, but also a world that is many times misunderstood.

Cynsational Notes

Dawn Quigley, enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, North Dakota, is an assistant professor in the Education Department at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Her website offers support for educators in finding, evaluating and implementing Native American curriculum content from an indigenous perspective.

In addition to her coming-of-age Young Adult novel, Apple in the Middle, Dawn has over 25 published articles and poems, in mainstream magazines, academic journals and newspapers, including American Indian Quarterly, Yellow Medicine Review: A Journal of Indigenous Literature, Art and Thought, Indian Country Today, Hollywood and Vine magazine, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

She was awarded the St. Catherine University Denny Prize Award for Distinction in Writing and has been a finalist in both the Minnesota Loft Literary Center‘s Emerging Writer award and its Mentor Series.
Dawn lives in the metro area in Minnesota with her husband and two girls.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge Sept. 4, 2018) 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.

Author Interview: Minh Lê on Drawn Together

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Minh Lê is the author of the upcoming Drawn Together, illustrated by Dan Santat (Hyperion, June 5, 2018). From the promotional copy:

When a young boy visits his grandfather, their lack of a common language leads to confusion, frustration, and silence. 


But as they sit down to draw together, something magical happens – with a shared love of art and storytelling, the two form a bond that goes beyond words.

Minh, I have to admit that I was immediately taken with this story.

In my prior career, I worked with American Indian and Alaska elders, and intergenerational relationships are the foundation of Native Nations and families.

The experience of this boy visiting his grandfather reminded me of many elders who feel they don’t always understand the world their grandchildren or great-grandchildren are experiencing through traditional language loss, increased technology use, etc.

You dedicate the book to your grandparents. Did you all struggle to communicate and connect when you were younger?

Thank you for your kind words and thank you so much for having me on Cynsations, Traci!

Yes, Drawn Together is very much based on my experience with my grandparents, in particular my paternal grandfather.

Vietnamese was actually my first language (there is even home video somewhere to prove it), but I unfortunately let it slip away over the years.
This meant that my relationship with my grandparents was very much defined by what we could not say to each other.

Unlike the boy and his grandfather in the book, we unfortunately never managed to fully bridge that language gap before he passed away earlier this year… but in small but profound ways, we came to understand that despite everything we left unsaid, the bond between us was stronger than words. 

Minh at a school visit.

What do you hope a child reader will take away from Drawn Together? 

It takes work to truly see the person right in front of you, even those who we love the most. If our book can help inspire even one reader to discover an unexpected connection with a loved one, then my heart will be completely full.

Another quick but important point: while this book reveals the “world beyond words,” that is not meant to diminish the importance of language. If a reader is able to establish that non-verbal connection like the grandson and grandfather, my hope is that it leads to a rich relationship that also involves language. While I’ll never question the love between us, I’ll always wish that I could have had a deeper conversation with my grandfather in Vietnamese.

Dan Santat’s artwork captivated me from the front cover through the entire book. He brings another fabulous level of storytelling to this picture book with rich color and intricate drawings. Those illustrations in the middle of the book add so much impact to your words. What did you think when you first saw them? 


I’m so glad you were captivated by the artwork too, because oh my goodness: Dan’s artwork left me totally speechless.
My approach to writing is to try telling the story in as few words as possible, to basically create space for the illustrator to work their magic.

And with a story about building a “world beyond words” the success of the story absolutely hinged on the artwork. So much of the story happens through the illustrations and Dan took it to a level that absolutely blew my mind.

I am Vietnamese American, but am thrilled that Dan made this story his own by infusing it with his own experience and Thai heritage. You can tell how much of himself he poured into these pages and I will be forever grateful to him for bringing this story to life in such jaw-dropping fashion. (Note: If you haven’t seen this video about his process, you should definitely check it out.)

To what extent were you able or inclined to offer feedback while the art was in production? 

I try my best to keep a light touch on art notes, preferring to let the artist take the story and run with it.

I did have the opportunity to provide some feedback at different points along the way (always filtered through our brilliant editor, Rotem Moscovich), but it was mostly just minor observations sprinkled in with unfiltered gushing over the breathtaking artwork.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? What were the high points and stumbles along the way? What were your best decisions and those you might reconsider if you had to do it all again? 

For me, I’d say the biggest stumbling point was just getting out of my own way.

I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book, but then at the same time would laugh off that dream as “silly” and with a “but why me?” attitude.

Then one day my wife looked at me and said, “I love you… but if you’re not going to take yourself seriously, who will?” That was the wake up call I needed to stop being my own worst enemy. I was never going to get any traction if I couldn’t get past myself.

So if I were to reconsider anything or do something different… I probably wouldn’t have spent 10 years dedicated to self-sabotage before sending out my first book pitch.

That being said, I spent a lot of those 10 years blogging about/reviewing children’s books, so it wasn’t a waste of time. Immersing myself books was an invaluable education and really gave me a chance to see what was already out there and to develop and refine my own taste.

So when I finally did send out the idea for Let Me Finish! illustrated by Isabel Roxas (Hyperion, 2016)), I did so on solid ground that really helped speed things up.

From there, everything fell into place nicely, from landing my fantastic agent Stephen Barbara, getting the super-talented Isabel Roxas to collaborate with, and then of course, having the brilliant Rotem Moscovich at Hyperion acquire it. I couldn’t have asked for my path to unfold any better.

Now to follow it up with a collaboration with Dan Santat is, to put it mildly, a dream come true. So I’m just enjoying every step along the way and can hopefully keep it going!

What craft and career advice do you have for beginning writers? 

When asked for writing advice (particularly picture book writing), I always point to a quote from Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de St. Exupéry (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1939), the author of The Little Prince (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1943).

In the book he talks about building airplanes during the early days of flight and has this beautiful line:

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

I try to keep that quote in mind whenever I’m writing. Not that you have to go full Hemingway and write only in terse prose… but you should make sure that every word on the page serves a purpose.

Weigh yourself down with too many unnecessary words and there’s a good chance your story will never take flight.

What did your first book teach you that informed your second?


I think the most valuable thing I learned from making the first book was the importance of trusting the people you work with.

From the illustrator, to the editor, to the art director, and others, there are so many people who go into creating a book. While as an author it’s important to stay true to your vision, it’s just as (if not more) important to loosen your grip on the “ownership” over the idea and allow the book the space to breath and evolve.

The final version of Let Me Finish! was much stronger than what I originally had in mind because of all the different people helping to shape it along the way.

Which is also why I make it a point to always refer to it as “our book” and never “my book.” 

What do you have coming up next? 

I have some other projects with Hyperion, but nothing I can talk about yet (I always say the hardest part of publishing is all the secrets you have to keep).

Something exciting that I can talk about is that I’ll be writing a Green Lantern graphic novel for DC Comics’s new middle grade imprint, DC Zoom.

I’m particularly excited because while Drawn Together is about my grandfather, this graphic novel is inspired in part by my grandmothers. It means the world to me that I get to pay tribute to them through these books and that soon they’ll have a spot on the bookshelf.

Wonderful! I look forward to the Green Lantern novel and hearing about these other new projects when you can share them. 

Cynsational Notes

Minh Lê is the author of Let Me Finish! (an NPR Best Book of 2016), illustrated by Isabel Roxas and the upcoming Drawn Together illustrated by Caldecott medalist Dan Santat, both published by Hyperion.

He is also writing Green Lantern: Legacy, a graphic novel for the new DC Comics middle grade imprint, DC Zoom.

A member of the kidlit consortium The Niblings, Minh has written for a number of national publications, including the New York Times, HuffPost, and the Horn Book.

He is currently serving as a judge for the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards.

Outside of spending time with his beautiful wife and sons, his favorite place to be is in the middle of a good book.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Pura Belpré Award Winner & New Voice: Juana Martinez-Neal on Alma and How She Got Her Name

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Juana Martinez-Neal is a force of nature already this year.

Having won the 2018 Pura Belpré Award for her illustrations in La Princesa and the Pea, written by Susan Middleton Elya (Putnam, 2017), she now has her own debut picture book, Alma and How She Got Her Name (Candlewick, 2018).

Candlewick acquired the story in a seven-publisher auction and is releasing it simultaneously in Spanish and English.

Publishers Weekly, Booklist and School Library Journal all gave the book starred reviews.

I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful picture book and caught up with Juana as she starts a busy season of appearances to talk about her craft and the origin of Alma’s story.

Tell me what first inspired you to illustrate for young readers? 

My father and grandfather were both fine artists in Peru and I grew up in a house surrounded by art materials, easels, art studio spaces and paintings – painted by people who I knew.

How amazing is that?

At 16, and while I was still in high school, I was working on some commercial illustration for toys. That was so much fun! I illustrated until I was 21 when I was accepted to Art School for Painting in Lima. Once in art school, my pieces felt more whimsical or younger than what other students were creating, so I decided to move to the United States in search of new things and answers.

Years later, and after the birth of our second son, I realized that I had to go back to illustration.

I was living in the United States where illustrating children’s books could be a career – that was not the case when I lived in Peru.

I met some local Arizona illustrators through SCBWI who pointed me in the right direction. With their guidance, I gave myself assignments, completed new pieces done, posted my work in online portfolios, and eventually got some magazine and educational work.

Then, I was hired by some small presses and authors who were self-publishing books.

While this was happening, my work was developing. Initially I worked with colored pencils, mainly because I had two boys under the age of three running around the house. As they grew older so did my wish to explore new media, and I started playing with materials and slowly developed the mixed media technique that I use now.

Juana’s workspace

In 2012, twenty-weeks pregnant with our daughter and with this new technique, I was awarded the Portfolio Grand Prize at the SCBWI Annual Conference. I also met my literary agent, Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary.

I then worked on a few book illustration opportunities, and little by little an idea I had grew into my author-illustrator debut picture book, Alma and How She Got Her Name.

Although this is your debut picture book as an author-illustrator, you have illustrated books for other authors. Describe to me the emotions around getting the call that you had won the 2018 Pura Belpré Illustration Award for La Princesa and the Pea.


On Sunday evening, the whole family had tickets to go see “Hamilton.” My cell rang for the first time as the lights were dimming and the play was about to start.


My cell rang many, many more times. As it rang, I went from being frustrated with an unknown telemarketer to worrying that maybe something had happened to my parents or my brother.

Otherwise, why in the world would my phone ring so many times?

I had to wait until the intermission to call back.

“Hello. Someone is calling me from this number?” I said in an unusual calm and patient voice.
“Is this Juana Martinez-Neal?”
“Yes.”
“We are calling from the Pura Be…”

And that was enough to start ugly crying. I honestly don’t remember many of the details from the call.

Later, when we got home, I started doubting if or what I had won. It was a restless, long night. The best restless, long night I have had in a while.

The next morning, I watched the webcast to make sure! There were lots of emotions!

How did you come to write and illustrate Alma and How She Got Her Name?

The idea for my book and early drafts of the manuscript started with the story of how I was named by my parents in Peru.

I was born Juana Carlota Martinez Pizarro. “Juana” was the name of my grandmother, my father’s mother. And “Carlota” was supposed to be “Carla” after my mom’s uncle Carlos, who she loved very much and passed when she was 20 and he was 33 years old. This is Esperanza’s son in the book.

My dad was in charge of filling out my birth certificate. Being the man he was, he wanted a stronger name than Carla and decided to change it to Carlota. He felt that Carlota was the strong name that I needed.

For the first twenty years of my life, I couldn’t disagree more. In Peru we also use two last names – both our mother’s and our father’s last names. So I was Juana Carlota Martinez Pizarro, which is a long name and very Spanish name. Juana Carlota can sound very old-fashioned and harsh, and growing up people around me made me aware of that – especially my friends’ moms.

Interior illustration by Juana Martinez-Neal, used with permission 

I have a big family photo album which I put together many, many years ago with photos I collected from my parents, which they got from their parents, and that my grandparents got from their parents.

Every time I looked at the photo album, my head filled with many questions. Who were they? What did they love? What made them who they were?

One day, I began drawing these photographs and piecing together a story about a little girl with a really long name and how she learns about her family through those names.

The story of Alma and all her relatives began to take shape. All of Alma’s relatives in the book are based on relatives in my own extended family.

While I had been looking at my big family album for years and thinking about a story, I gave birth to my third child and first daughter in 2013, and thought about my name again and my daughter’s name.

I came back to the story and began to talk to my agent about it. Her son is named after his great grandfather and he is the fourth generation with his name. We began talking about our children’s names and how all children – really everyone – has a story behind their name. Then the story grew from there!

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?

Artistically, since much of my inspiration came from my big old family photo album. I wanted the entire book to feel like an old photo album without being one.

Interior illustration by Juana Martinez-Neal, used with permission 

The first image I created was the one of José, my dad’s dad who was an artist. It was challenging to make the characters look and feel like the relatives or capture their spirit in creative ways. While I didn’t keep all of their exact names, the names embody the essence of those family members.

I used many details in the pieces to tell more of the stories of the family members and their past, such as Esperanza, whose name means “hope,” and she is shown filled with gifts and letters by her side to symbolize that she always hoped to travel but never left home. Yet through her son’s gifts, she got to “see” the world.

Esperanza’s son is my great uncle Carlos – after whom my mom named me. He went on a cruise and never came back. His body was never recovered. This story marked me in significant ways, and I always felt that my great-grandmother stayed in her home town hoping that one day Carlos would come back home. Needless to say, Esperanza’s story was the most challenging to tell. 

Psychologically, writing Alma was a big challenge. Even though the text is short, I had to dig deep to tell the stories of the life of each one of the relatives.

In this one book, there are many stories woven through from the past along with Alma’s story happening in the present. The story is framed by Alma talking with her daddy. I am also very close to my dad, and spent many hours talking with him and my mom about the stories of our family. It was a very intense time. While writing and revising, I could only take one story at a time before I was sobbing.

Funny enough, as I found myself crying, I started to realize that I had gotten to that place where I needed to be to tell my story.

Juana signing copies of Alma at Southern California Independent Booksellers Association
Celebrating the Kids’ IndieNext Top 10 Spring 2018

As a member of a community underrepresented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to Alma? 

I am Peruvian, and I often see my people and culture underrepresented or shown in only one story often filled with stereotypes.

I’ll take advantage of this opportunity to share that not all Peruvians live in the mountains, wear chullos, and own llamas.

Alma and How She Got Her Name is all about being Peruvian—from showing the mix of traditional religion and Indigenous beliefs (that I absolutely believe), to living in a politically unstable country, to valuing or sadly not valuing our own Indigenous people.

There is a richness to Alma’s character as a Peruvian, and she is proud of herself and her family. I hope young readers see this and turn to discover pride in their own names, families, and heritage. Celebrate who they are!

Alma will be released in simultaneous English and Spanish hardcover editions.

As a native Spanish speaker, I wrote both the English and the original Spanish.

It is an honor to be able to share this story in both of my languages!

Cynsational Notes


In a starred review, Publishers Weekly described Alma and How She Got Her Name as “an origin story that envelops readers like a hug.”


The starred review from School Library Journal indicates Juana achieved her illustration goal.

“The round, stylized figure of the girl, dressed in pink striped pants and a white shirt, pops against the sepia pages (reminiscent of old, family photo albums).”

See teacher tips for using Alma in the classroom from Candlewick Press.

Juana Martinez-Neal is also the illustrator of La Madre Goose and La Princesa and the Pea, both written by Susan M. Elya and published by Putnam.

She was born in Lima, the capital of Peru, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband, two sons, daughter, puppy, and the soul of their late kitty.

Follow her on Twitter and Instagram to see her latest work.

She is represented by Stefanie Von Borstel of Full Circle Literary.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018.

The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Watch a video interview with Juana in English…

…or in Spanish.

New Voice: Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow on Mommy’s Khimar

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m delighted to share my interview with Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, a fellow Epic Eighteen debut author of Mommy’s Khimar, illustrated by Ebony Glenn (Salaam Reads, 2018)).

This cheerful and empowering story which centers on a young Muslim, African American girl who loves wearing her mommy’s khimar (headscarf) received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.

I know children will gravitate to the uplifting text and illustrations and fall in love with the little girl and story as I did. From the promotional copy:

A khimar is a flowing scarf that my mommy wears.
Before she walks out the door each day, she wraps one around her head. 

 A young girl plays dress up with her mother’s headscarves, feeling her mother’s love with every one she tries on. Charming and vibrant illustrations showcase the beauty of the diverse and welcoming community in this portrait of a young Muslim American girl’s life.



Jamilah, share with our readers your initial inspiration for writing this book. 

I wanted to write books about Muslim children and I couldn’t get the idea of doing a story about the Islamic headscarf out of my head. It felt like a necessary story but also one that could turn into a preachy, dull, or even polarizing book–none of which are good for a picture book.

Still, I couldn’t get past this idea so I tried to have fun with it.

I thought back to how I saw this religious garb as a child. As a five-year-old, I wasn’t expounding upon the merits of headscarves, but I was tying them around my neck and dashing around the room in them. That seemed like a story children could enjoy.

Khimar Wardrobe

As an author and teacher, how do your various roles inform one another?

I worked as a middle and high school English teacher for over a decade and now, in my role as a program director for a nonprofit called Mighty Writers, I help develop and teach writing workshops for youth ages 2 to 18.

I can honestly say that becoming an author has made me a better writing teacher. I can articulate the process with authenticity and empathy and I teach with an awareness that students can write for bigger audiences than the people in our workshop. Publication is possible for them because it is possible for me.

Conversely, I think being a teacher made it easier for me to become a writer. I’ve spent much of my career teaching kids how to dissect and emulate mentor texts.

When I wanted to learn how to write children’s literature, I immediately identified the mentor texts I needed and went at them in a very methodical way so I could learn the craft of them.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

Although I know the prevailing wisdom is to use contemporary books as models, I am obsessed with classics. The most useful book for me in terms of craft in general has been Swimmy by Leo Lionni  (Knopf, 1963).

When I first started learning picture book craft, I would return to this book and dissect it again and again. I love how Lionni incorporated a sense of wonder, beautiful language, a character with heart, and an engaging plot in less than three hundred words.

For language and pacing in Mommy’s Khimar, I looked to quiet books like Stars by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Beach Lane, 2011).

I saw my main character as very similar to the main character in Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch (Dial, 1991). To a certain extent, I tried to create a younger, Muslim version of the same character.

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

The best moment was absolutely getting the offer for Mommy’s Khimar. I cried tears of joy for an hour. All of the firsts since then have been emotional thrills: the first sketches, the cover, the F&G, and then holding the final copy. There’s nothing like it.

The worst? It’s hard to say and maybe, it’s because I haven’t been in the business long enough. I have had a number of rejections.

Strangely, they haven’t felt all that bad. I compartmentalize them. The worst is probably sending work I think is a perfect fit for an editor or an agent and getting a form rejection or no response at all.

Cynsational Notes


In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews wrote:

“The words are often lyrical, and the story artfully includes many cultural details that will delight readers who share the cheerful protagonist’s culture and enlighten readers who don’t.”

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow is the debut author of Mommy’s Khimar (Salaam Reads, 2018).

She is a former English teacher and now helps kids learn how to write outside of the classroom in her nonprofit work.

She resides with her family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Guest Post: N.H. Senzai on Writing About War for Middle Grade & Escape From Aleppo

By N.H. Senzai
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The reason I love writing for the middle grade audience is because at this age kids can still suspend belief and journey with you through a story as long as you create believable plots, authentic characters and dialogue that rings true.

However, you need to hook them in quickly, so my first goal is to create a story that “reels them in.”

Once they’ve signed on to follow your protagonist, you can present heavy topics, such as war and conflict, as long as it’s age appropriate and presented in a nuanced manner.

At its heart, my new novel, Escape From Aleppo (Paula Wiseman Books, 2018), is an adventure story about a girl, Nadia, who becomes separated from her family as they flee war in their home city.

Stranded alone, Nadia has to overcome her fears, make alliances with strangers and come up with creative solutions to solve the challenges she faces so that she can reach the Turkish border and find her family.

I chose to write about the Syrian war after much deliberation as it was a tremendous responsibility to accurately portray the horrors of war while also sharing the country’s rich culture and history.

But as a writer I feel that we have a moral obligation to tell our readers the truth, no matter how difficult.

With the advent of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, kids are exposed to current events and have probably heard about the Arab Spring and the conflict in the Middle East.

However, they probably don’t know much about its root causes, such as colonialism, religious sectarianism etc., that led to this terrible point in history.

But, if given the facts in the right context, they have the ability to weigh and analyze serious topics and can come up with their own conclusions.

Frankly, we shouldn’t be afraid of shocking them about how terrible humans can be to one another, whether around the globe, or in own back yards. Without sharing harsh realities, in a way digestible format for that age group, you cannot hope to dissuade a future generation from committing the same crimes over and over again.

Aleppo before and after the battle, from BBC News

When writing Nadia’s story, I didn’t want my reader’s only frame of reference of Syria to be of war and of refugees fleeing death and destruction.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, predating the Pharaohs, occupied by Alexander the Great, the Romans, Ottomans and the French. It’s a truly unique city whose destruction over the course of the war has been heartbreaking.

Through flashbacks and Nadia’s reflections as she makes her way through city, I wanted to showcase Aleppo’s beauty, architecture, culture, history and food through her eyes.

I also wanted to show how normal Nadia’s life was before the war and how she was like any other teen around the world; she had a loving family, friends, supportive teachers, a cat named Mishmish (which means apricot in Arabic) a sweet tooth, a passion for Arab Idol and a dislike of Algebra.

Carmen, Nadia’s favorite Arab Idol Contestant

In showing the two sides of the coin, life during peace and conflict, I wanted to illustrate how anyone’s normal, everyday life can be turn upside down in a matter of moments.

As Americans, whether we consciously realize it or not, we have a particular connection with refugees; at one point of time, most of our families sought refuge in this country. They arrived from all around the world, fleeing war, persecution, famine or just hoping to find a better life for themselves and their children.

If we pause to reflect on that connection I hope that we can share in a common humanity. So, even though Nadia is from a “faraway place,” my hope is that no matter how different the characters in Escape From Aleppo may appear, readers can walk in their shoes and realize that people, no matter where the live, are intrinsically the same. They have similar hopes, dreams and desire to live a peaceful, meaningful life.

Nadia is more like us than we think – at the end of the day my greatest wish is that my readers build bridges of understanding with others, rather than walls.

Cynsational Notes

See the reading group guide for Escape from Aleppo from the publisher.

Booklist gave Escape From Aleppo a starred review. Peek: “Filled with kindness and hope, but also with the harsh realities of the horrors of war, this heartbreaking book is a necessary reminder of what many people live through every day.”

N.H. Senzai‘s previous books include the award-winning Shooting Kabul (Paula Wiseman Books, 2011), Saving Kabul Corner (Paula Wiseman Books, 2015) and Ticket to India (Paula Wiseman Books, 2016).

She grew up in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and attended boarding school in London, England, where she was voted “most likely to lead a literary revolution” due to her ability to get away with reading comic books in class.

She has hiked across the Alps, road-tripped through Mexico, swum with barracudas in the Red Sea, taken a train across the Soviet Union, floated down the Nile, eaten gumbo in New Orleans and sat in contemplation at the Taj Mahal.

She also attended U.C. Berkeley and Columbia University, while pursuing her passion for writing. She once again lives in San Francisco with her husband, a professor of political science, her son, and a cat who owns them.

Gayleen says: Other titles focusing on Syria include:

  • Refugee by Alan Gratz (Scholastic, 2017) The story of three refugees: a Jewish boy in 1930s Germany, a Cuban girl on a raft bound for America in the 1990s and a Syrian boy journeying to Europe in 2015 (middle grade).

For more titles related to war and peace in children’s and young adult books, check the resources on Cynthia’s author site.

New Voice: Patricia Valdez on Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I love a good picture book biography and read so many in elementary school, especially those featuring women.

So when I learned Patricia Valdez’s debut picture book would feature the work of Joan Proctor, a zoologist researching amphibians in the early twentieth century, I knew there’d be a great story there.

Others think so too because the book has received starred reviews from Booklist, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal.

I’m thrilled to feature Patricia’s Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor, illustrated by Felicita Sala (Knopf, 2018) today on Cynsations.

Patricia, what first inspired you to write for young readers?

I’m an Immunologist, and my children always love to hear stories about the tiny armies inside their bodies.

I started out writing stories about germs invading cuts and the immune cells that came to destroy them. My kids got a kick out those stories, but they were nowhere near publication-ready.

As a woman scientist, it was always clear to me that there were not enough stories about us. The stories we did have were not particularly inspiring to me. Not that I don’t love Marie Curie, but the thought of spending my whole life in a laboratory handling lethal doses of radium was not appealing.

I decided I would find those interesting women that history forgot, and that is what started my writing journey in earnest.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This story came to me by way of a Komodo dragon.

My family loves to visit the Komodo dragon at the National Zoo. His name is Murphy and he’s so majestic. Thanks to the helpful zoo facts posted on the enclosure, I learned they were the largest lizard on the planet.

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.

I was curious to learn more, so searched online. As I scrolled through an article about Komodo dragons, one sentence jumped out at me. It said something along the lines of “Joan Beauchamp Procter was the first person to describe Komodo dragons in captivity in the 1920s.”

I immediately needed to know more about this woman scientist. And it turns out, she was as interesting as I thought she might be!

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story? 

Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor is a picture book biography about Joan Beauchamp Procter, a British herpetologist who lived in the early 1900s and designed the London Zoo’s Reptile House, which is still in use today.

Illustration by Felicita Sala, used with permission.

I was drawn to her story because it was rare to find women scientists working at that time. Women barely had the right to vote and universities didn’t allow women to earn full degrees. In a sense, Procter was a fish out of water working in a male-dominated field.

I related to her story because although my graduate school class had an equal number of women as men, I was the only Latinx out of 50 students. Like Procter, I stayed focused and succeeded.

I’m happy to report that I see so many more diverse faces in my former department’s most recent class pictures, but we still have a long way to go. I hope Procter’s story might inspire all children to pursue their passion, whether that includes the sciences, the arts, or both.

Cynsational Notes


Booklist gave Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor a starred review and wrote, “Whimsical artwork and an empowering story make this biography of a lesser-known woman scientist truly charming.”

In addition to being an author, Patricia Valdez is a scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) with a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley.

Originally from Texas, Patricia now resides in Maryland with her husband, two children, and three cats. You can find her on Twitter @Patricia_Writer.

Patricia is represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

New Voice: Interview & Giveaway: Daria Peoples-Riley on This Is It, Illustration & Diversity

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

To say that I’m thrilled to feature Daria Peoples-Riley, fellow Epic Eighteen member, today on Cynsations is an understatement.

This Is It (Greenwillow, 2018), her debut picture book as an author-illustrator, follows a young girl of color getting ready for a ballet audition. Although she loves to dance, she doubts herself as she approaches the studio.

I love Daria’s use of the girl’s shadow self to help her overcome her hesitation. The endpapers with the young ballerina demonstrating the ballet positions remind me of my own trepidation at performing during my few years taking lessons as a child.

Daria, as an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa?

For This Is It, I wrote the poem as a gift for my daughter to give to her on the day of her first ballet audition.

I didn’t intend for it to become a picture book, so I illustrated the poem after the manuscript was written, and the text really drove my ideas for the illustrations.

However, in other projects, I find that the story comes as text for some spreads and illustrations for others. Eventually, during the revision process, the pace of text and illustrations evolve organically.

Daria’s writing workspace

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time? 

I began painting as a child, alongside my dad. In high school, I took the mandatory semester of art, and fell in love with drawing, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I really started practicing. The ability to draw and paint relies on a person’s ability to see. As your visual intelligence improves, your art will as well.

I remember Marla Frazee saying that in the journey from beginner to becoming publishable, you have to just practice until your art is good enough.

Every year, I put together a portfolio and took it to SCBWI conferences. Eventually, it was good enough.

There is no magic to making publishable art. There is truth to the 10,000 hours. Whether that is in art school or at home in your living room, 10,000 hours is 10,000 hours, and it took me three years of practicing before my portfolio was good enough.

Do you have any tips for putting together a portfolio?


I’m sure there are many more qualified people to answer this question, but I think anyone who wants to be an illustrator has to create from a place of love in order for their work to see the world.

You can check the boxes of having everything in your portfolio we learn to include at intensives and conferences, work that demonstrates our mastery of skill, but if we don’t love what we are making, the work won’t evoke the emotion of the viewer, or stand out to industry gatekeepers. Absolutely love everything you include.

If you don’t love it, if it doesn’t make you laugh, or tear, or smile to yourself, take it out, and make something else.

Daria’s illustration workspace

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

The best moment was when This Is It sold. After three years of developing it, I was on the verge of moving on. Waiting is hard, but I’m learning to wait better.

The worst moment? I haven’t had one yet, but it might be around the corner, and that will be okay. It’s all a part of the journey.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

I introduced myself to Matt de la Pena at a children’s book festival, and I knew he had a daughter, so I brought a copy of This Is It to give him. When he asked me to sign it for him, I froze. I’d never signed my book before.

He was very gracious, and taught me how to sign my book. I had to laugh about it afterwards, and I was a little embarrassed, but it was definitely memorable and funny for him, I’m sure.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story? 

The physical rendering of the heroine in This Is It is very intentional.

Like me, she checks a lot of racial and ethnic boxes, and not fitting into any one box informs her lack of belonging. She looks different, but because of her differences, she is extraordinary and special. She represents the underrepresented child’s uniqueness and desire to do something in an arena where she is often the only one present.

Brown ballet dancers are underrepresented at pre-professional ballet schools and companies all over the country. I hope this book whispers, “You can do it.”

Daria talking with students

The text is the rhythm and movement of my mother’s New Orleans’ roots. New Orleans’ women are resilient with deep-loving hearts.

I wanted to portray a character who overcomes her fears by using the greatest catalyst an under-represented youth could possibly use when she feels alone in the world—-the power of affirmations spoken from within herself.

Dancing through our fears is also a metaphor for how we can choose to approach life. Whatever challenges we face, let’s surrender to the journey.

I think the strength we discover along the way will be change the trajectory of our lives forever.

Cynsational Notes

Daria Peoples-Riley’s first job was at nine years old in the children’s section of her hometown library in Paso Robles, California. She worked a little, but she mostly read picture books.

Daria loved basketball, competing in oratorical contests, drawing, and painting. Her dad gave her art lessons in their garage on Rose Lane, and Daria’s mom rescued her first self-portrait from the kitchen trash can, and had it professionally framed the next day.

Today, it hangs in her parents’ living room as a reminder that our life’s purpose almost always introduces itself to us as a child.

Daria earned a B.A. in English from U.C. Santa Barbara, where she found herself shelving books in the library once again and reading the writings of many notable authors.

After earning a Masters in Education and 10 years of teaching, Daria became a full-time author and illustrator. A companion book to This Is It will follow in 2019. She is also the illustrator of What Gloria Heard by Jessica M. Rinker (Bloomsbury, 2019), a picture book biography about the life and work of Gloria Steinem.

Daria lives in Las Vegas with her family.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Enter to win a copy of This Is It:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

No purchase necessary. Enter between 12:00 AM Eastern Time on April 12, 2018 and 12:00 AM on April 26, 2018. Open to residents of the fifty United States and the District of Columbia who are 13 and older. Winners will be selected at random on or about April 26, 2018. Odds of winning depend on number of eligible entries received. Void where prohibited or restricted by law.

Video: Rudine Sims Bishop on Mirrors, Windows & Sliding Glass Doors

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In this video from Reading Rockets, Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita from Ohio State University, speaks on Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Doors as metaphors for diversity in children’s-YA literature.

See also Rudine Sims Bishop: In Appreciation by Sam Bloom from Reading While White and Mirrors, Windows, Sliding Glass Doors & Curtains, featuring Debbie Reese, from Writing the Other.

Author-Teacher Interview: Gene Luen Yang on Writing, Teaching & the Hamline MFA Program

Lean more about Cartoonist and Teacher Gene Luen Yang.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Welcome to Cynsations. We last spoke to Dean Mary Francoise Rockcastle about the Hamline MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults back in 2006.



When did you join the faculty? What appealed to you about teaching in a low-residency program?

I joined the faculty of the Hamline MFAC program in the summer of 2012. I visited maybe a year or two before that as a guest speaker. I was only there for a day or two, but I was immediately impressed by the sense of community.

Hamline is a community centered around stories. Everyone is there to learn, and everyone is there to teach.

The low-residency program makes for an intimate experience. This past semester, for instance, I worked with three students. Some faculty take on more, of course, but not that many more.

 When you’re working at that scale, you can give a lot of individualized attention. I can get to know them as writers. I can be more invested in their stories.

What has teaching taught you about your own creative craft and process?

Laura Ruby at Hamline; cover of The Real Boy by Anne Ursu (Walden Pond)

I can give you very, very concrete answers here. This semester, one of my students wrote a critical essay on metafiction. Another wrote one about panel shapes in graphic novels. Both were thoughtful and well-researched. Both made me think differently about the project I’m currently working on.

A few semesters ago, my fellow faculty member Laura Ruby (winner of the 2016 Printz Award) gave a lecture on the objective correlative. I think about that all the time now, whenever I’m writing.

Like, all. The. Time.

And those are just a handful of examples. A community has collective wisdom, so when you’re a part of a community, you get to tap into that wisdom.

In addition, preparing and delivering a lecture forces you to really wrestle with your ideas. I’ve always worked through plot and characterization and setting by instinct, which is kind of like walking through your own room in the dark. You know where everything is, generally speaking, but you’re still going to stub your toe every now and then. Teaching plot and characterization and setting is like turning on the light.

Who else is on the faculty, and how would you describe the culture of your learning community?



I have to tell you, the Hamline faculty roster is stacked. Here’s the full list of my fellow faculty members: Swati AvasthiKelly BarnhillCoe BoothMarsha Wilson ChallMatt de la PeñaLisa Jahn-CloughEmily JenkinsRon KoertgeNina LaCourMary LogueJacqueline Briggs MartinMeg Medina, Claire Rudolf MurphyPhyllis RootLaura RubyGary SchmidtEliot SchreferSherri L. SmithLaurel Snyder, and Anne Ursu.

Learn more about Emily Jenkins.

My co-teachers have won practically every award offered by the literary world. Plus, we have folks working in every kids’ book age demographic, publishing format, and genre.

I’ve experienced Hamline to be a place that welcomes every kind of story. The MFAC folks are willing to grow and push and learn.

From your own experience (and those who came before), what growth and changes have you/they seen in your program?

I’ve seen students grow in skill, of course. They come away with better understandings of the craft itself. They learn to critique constructively. They learn to structure and revise. They learn to give from themselves through story.

And just as importantly, they learn to call themselves writers. Many of us write in isolation. Many of us are in families or friend groups that enjoy stories, but don’t really see their relevance. Many of us feel embarrassed to call ourselves writers.

Being a part of a writing community, getting to discuss the minute details of what makes a story work… if you haven’t yet given yourself permission to call yourself a writer, it may be because you need to join a writing community.

Could you describe a typical residency?

Residencies are about nine days long.

Kate DiCamillo teaches a master class at Hamline.

Most mornings, we break into small groups to critique student work. In the afternoons, we have lectures about the residency’s topic.

Topics go through a five-residency cycle: point-of-view, setting, plot, character, theme.

Faculty will sometimes lead workshops focusing on a specific skill.

 Gary Schmidt has done one on writing a great opening chapter. Swati Avasthi taught one on manipulating time.

I’ve done a workshop on writing a graphic novel script.

How about a typical advisor-advisee semester of writing and study?

At the end of the residency, students are assigned a faculty advisor. Each student meets with their advisor to talk over goals and figure out a game plan. Then, over the course of a semester, the student turns in four packets, typically one a month. Packets usually contain forty pages of writing.

Based on the previously-discussed goals, faculty will go over the packet and write a response letter. Some faculty also do phone calls. I usually have an email exchange in addition to the response letter. My relationship with my students is a bit like my editor’s relationship with me.

What do you like best about teaching at Hamline?

I love being a part of the Hamline community. I know I’m there to teach, but I feel like I learn so much.

I love hearing how other writers working in other formats and genres approach their craft. I love seeing my students grow in their storytelling prowess. I love seeing them grow in their confidence.



What would you say to a prospective children’s-YA writer who is considering graduate study?

Find yourself a writing community. Hamline isn’t right for everyone. Low-residency programs in general aren’t right for everyone. However, if you haven’t been able to find a community that suits your needs, or if anything I’ve said up to this point strikes a chord, check us out.

More personally, what was your own apprenticeship like?

I found a community. Early on, I fell in with a group of other comic book creators. We were all in our twenties. We were all at the start of our careers. We were all living in the Bay Area.

For years, we met once a week to write and draw together, and to look over each other’s work.

I never went to an MFA program, so I consider that experience my MFA program equivalent. Almost everyone in that group has now been published in one form or another.

Do you have any particular insights to share for those interested in creating graphic-format literature?



Read lots of comics.

Read lots of everything, but especially comics.

Read all of Scott McCloud‘s craft books: Understanding Comics (1993), Reinventing Comics (2000), and Making Comics (2006)(all William Morrow).

Work through Jessica Abel and Matt Madden‘s Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (First Second, 2008).

After that, give it a go. There are no rules to making comics.

You can write a script or go straight to thumbnail sketches. You can use just about any drawing implement you want to make your pictures. Pick a strategy and a set of tools – don’t worry about whether they’re the right choices because you’re not going to know until you’ve given them a try – and go.

What do you wish you had done differently? What choices were especially fruitful?

I am so, so fortunate to have had the journey I’ve had. I’m not sure I would have done anything differently, for fear of jinxing the whole thing.

I’ve just been incredibly blessed.

My most fruitful choice was joining that group of cartoonists when I was starting out. I got my first publisher through that group. Once one of us got connected, we would introduce everyone else.

What new or recent release of yours should we be sure to read?



I hope you’ll check out Secret Coders (First Second, 2017-), the middle grade graphic novel series I’m doing with my friend Mike Holmes. Mike and I are blending a mystery story with coding lessons. The fifth and sixth volumes come out this year.

I also hope you’ll check out the New Super-Man monthly comic series from DC Comics. I’m writing and Brent Peeples is doing the pencils.

We’re telling the story of a brand-new character in the DC Universe: Kenan Kong, a seventeen year old Chinese kid who inherits Clark Kent’s powers and becomes the Super-Man of China.

What about that project sparked your imagination? What did it teach you in terms of craft and process?

Secret Coders is my first explicitly educational project. I was a high school computer science teacher for 17 years, so I’ve always been interested in education. Mike and I wanted to figure out how to use comics to teach.

I’ve done some things well and some things not so well. There are a few instances when I let the educational aspect overwhelm the narrative aspect. I think balance is key. Balance is always key.

What was it like, being a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature? Is there a moment that stands out in your memory?

Serving as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature was perhaps the biggest honor of my life. I loved meeting Dr. Carla Hayden for the first time at the National Book Festival. I loved meeting young readers, young authors, and young cartoonists. I don’t care what anyone says about videogames or YouTube or whatever. Kids today love books. Kids today are absolutely hungry for stories, and they love getting their stories through the pages of a good book.



What do you hope for the children’s-YA creative community, looking into the future?

I hope for diversity in every sense of the word. I hope people from every corner of our society will tell their stories, and I hope they find folks who will listen to their stories. I hope authors will try out different publishing formats and genres. Heck, I hope authors invent new publishing formats and genres! I hope our world will be guided and nourished by good stories.