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.

Cynsations Intern: Kate Pentecost

Learn more about Kate Pentecost.

By Kate Petecost
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

“So, wait, you’ve been doing this for how long?” People often ask when I tell them how long I’ve been writing.

“Since the fourth grade,” is the answer. That was the grade in which I learned that I wanted to be a writer—specifically a writer for children.

I learned then that there was nothing that felt better to me than being around children’s books. Discussing them, holding them, reading them, and, most of all, writing them. I wrote my first book when I was 12 and began submitting it when I was 13.

My first rejection letter (a physical one! back when we were still in the snail mail days) came from Scholastic Press.

I framed it, because it meant that I was officially On My Way to becoming a published author. The book itself was about a mercenary who slew monsters and who helped a princess return to her rightful throne—after falling in love with her, of course. (It was pretty derivative, but hey! I was twelve!)

I did not get published at twelve (thank God!) but I did learn that a book can be written and, moreover, that I can write one. I learned that all I wanted was to learn how to tell—really tell—the stories that were in my mind. So I focused my life toward learning how to be a writer.

The path, as it turned out, was filled with both beauty and tragedy that would shape my writing forever. The tragedy, however, is another story for another time, and one that I do hope to address here at Cynsations, so I’ll focus on the beauty for now.

I went to the University of Houston, where I focused on Creative Writing, of course.

I remember being the only one in the program who wanted to write for children—something that seemed to confuse my peers and professors at times. Most of my peers were working on short stories geared toward adults, and writing short stories is an entirely different beast, indeed. But alongside them, I learned invaluable things about style and method. Also about art.

My illustration flourished, and I’m finally fairly happy with it.

Houston is where I became accustomed to hurricanes and floods and unending summers, where I learned what “genderqueer” meant, and that it applied to me.

It is where I made most of my lasting friendships. It’s where I tried drag for the first time, and learned that I make a pretty good Freddie Mercury and a pretty good John Waters (shown here with my best friend, Austin drag queen, Honey St. Clair.)

It’s also where I met my husband, who is the best person in the entire world, and without whom I don’t know where I’d be.

From there, I applied to my dream school, Vermont College of Fine Arts, one of the only places that has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

When I got in, I actually screamed—something I’d never usually do. It was an amazing, incredibly worthwhile experience that helped inform my writing and my character in more ways than I can describe.

Kate (right) with classmate Autumn Krause, who recently signed her first deal with HarperTeen!

VCFA was, for me, the first place I felt as though I was where I needed to be, the first place I felt like I could completely and utterly be myself and celebrate the art I love so much with like-minded people. It is, in a word, perfection.

Since then, I’ve worked in many different aspects of writing, literature, and education.

Selling books at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan. Trying to keep banned and challenged books on the shelf with the National Coalition Against Censorship. Editing and Performing for a regional publisher in Texas.

And, of course, my day job, teaching American and British Literature at a Title 1 high school in Houston. (Where I get art like this on tests about the Romantic Poets.)

I am now represented by my dream agent, Sara Crowe of Pippin Properties, and am doing my best to balance work and life and love and writing.

Ultimately, however, I have learned that there is nothing better and more rewarding than writing for children. It is what has saved me, and I sincerely hope that I can help others who needed it as much as I did.

Cynsational Notes

Kate has sold the YA manuscript that will become her debut novel, Elysium Girls, to Hyperion for publication in winter 2020.

Guest Post: Yolanda Ridge on Writing Across Gender & Inside Hudson Pickle

Yolanda Ridge and her sons

By Yolanda Ridge 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

When my stepdad finished reading my debut novel, Trouble in the Trees (Orca Book Publishers, 2011), he told me he enjoyed learning about my childhood.

(He also proudly proclaimed to have read it in two straight hours – a compliment that missed the mark since it had taken me over a year to write the book – but that’s a different post.)

The main character is nothing like me, I protested, easily dismissing the idea because he’d met me in my thirties.

But when I started writing my new release, Inside Hudson Pickle (Kids Can Press, Sept. 5, 2017), I realized he was more right than I’d wanted to admit.

Telling a story from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl (who may not be me, exactly, but definitely the person I wanted to be when I was that age) was so much easier than trying to get inside the head of a thirteen-year-old boy.

In the early drafts of Inside Hudson Pickle, I focused on plot, drawing on my previous career as a genetic counselor to portray a family dealing with Alpha-1, a genetic disorder that increases the risk of liver and lung disease. 

I chose basketball as Hudson’s sport (because I’ve actually played it) rather than hockey (because I’ve only watched it). I did research to fill the gaps in my knowledge on asthma and house fires.

But when it came to character development, web searches didn’t cut it. I didn’t grow up with brothers and though I do have two sons, they were too young to provide insight on puberty. 

What was it like for a young athlete to go through a growth spurt? How do boys deal with voice changes?

I turned to my male critique partners for help. He’d be angrier, one suggested. You haven’t captured his growing pains, said another. 

I went back and tried to fold these things into the manuscript. But it was like mixing oil with water.

Giving the manuscript some time to rest, I read middle grade adventure books – a few of my favorites are The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel (Simon & Schuster, 2014), the Rex Zero series by Tim Wynne-Jones (Farrar Straus Giroux) and Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt (Clarion, 2015).

I watched family sitcoms. I listened to music recommended by my friend’s sons. I eavesdropped on conversations in the library, on the bus, at the skateboard park.

Returning to the manuscript, I peppered it with “boyness.” But in the end I had to admit: Hudson was still a lot like me.

In talking to other writers I now understand that we all incorporate bits of ourselves into our characters. 

I could give Hudson large doses of testosterone and his heart would essentially remain the same. Emotional reactions aren’t dictated by sex or age or skin color. Everyone is more complex than that, including our characters (if we’re doing it right).

I hope what I’ve captured in Inside Hudson Pickle is how one person might cope with the turmoil of health issues, family secrets, changing friendships and the simple desire to make a school basketball team. 

Sure, Hudson’s big feet get in the way at times. But overall, his experience is not male; it’s human.

Cynsational Notes

Inside Hudson Pickle is a Junior Library Guild Selection and School Library Journal said, “fans of novels about sports and family drama, such as Kwame Alexander‘s The Crossover (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), will appreciate this realistic tale.”

Yolanda Ridge is the author of three middle grade novels. With a master’s degree in science and ten years of experience working as a genetic counselor, she’s adept at making complex concepts understandable — a skill she uses when crafting middle-grade novels, teaching and author visits.

She lives in the mountains of British Columbia in a log house brimming with boys, including one husband, two twin sons, one dog and one cat.

Author Interview: Courtney Stevens on Faith in Lit & Life

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Courtney Stevens to discuss her upcoming YA novel, Dress Codes for Small Towns (Harper Teen, August 22, 2017). From the promotional copy:

The year I was seventeen, I had five best friends…and I was in love with all of them for different reasons.


Billie McCaffrey is always starting things. Like couches constructed of newspapers and two-by-fours. Like costumes made of aluminum cans and Starburst papers. Like trouble. 


This year, however, trouble comes looking for her. 


Her best friends, a group she calls the Hexagon, have always been schemers. They scheme for kicks and giggles. What happens when you microwave a sock? They scheme to change their small town of Otters Holt, Kentucky for the better. Why not campaign to save the annual Harvest Festival we love so much? They scheme because they need to scheme. How can we get the most unlikely candidate elected for the town’s highest honor?


But when they start scheming about love, things go sideways.

In Otters Holt, love has always been defined one way—girl and boy fall in love, get married, buy a Buick, and there’s sex in there somewhere. For Billie—a box-defying dynamo—it’s not that simple. Can the Hexagon, her parents, and the town she calls home handle the real Billie McCaffrey?

Could you tell us about Dress Codes for Small Towns? What inspired you to write this book?

Hmm. 80’s movie antics plus 90’s rom-com heart plus a faint Women’s March beat?

When I began Dress Codes, I described it as “Ferris Bueller meets ‘The Breakfast Club'” for lines like this, “The year I was seventeen, I had five best friends—a pixie, a president, a pretender, a puker, and a douchebag—and I was in love with all of them for different reasons.”

Now, I usually describe Dress Codes as sexually fluid “Footloose.” Preacher’s daughter. Reluctant small town. A pack of kids to change their hearts.

My inspiration was walking barn beams and climbing on top of old elementary schools and wearing my older brother’s clothes. You know, #girlstuff.

Is Otters Holt similar to the town you grew up in?


If you picked up Matchbox car sized Bandana (my hometown) in the palm of your hand and plucked it down alongside the Kentucky Dam, you’d have Otters Holt. Well, if you added a forty-foot Molly the Corn Dolly roadside attraction. And I personally think you should.

Bandana (Courtney’s hometown)

Faith is a subject that doesn’t show up very often in YA books, especially books that explore the gray areas of love, gender and sexuality. How did you create the delicate balance in exploring those subjects?

I’ve spent nearly all my adult life working with teens and here is what I’ve learned: every young adult has a spiritual life. Some exercise that life through churches or organized religion; some through atheism; some through questions brought up reading The Kite Runner (by Khaled Hosseini, Riverhead, 2004) or playing Grand Theft Auto or watching footage from the news.

So, very basically, I love to include faith because students are thinking about it.

As for the gray areas, I have two beliefs that guide my writing. One, people are never ever just one thing. And two, it is not my job to draw conclusions—for the church or this generation—but to love them enough to have the conversation.

What appeals to you about writing for young adults?

Young adults will always be the next generation of world changers. Writing for them gives me a chance to partner with them, which I consider a privilege and an honor.

What are the craft challenges of writing for this age group?

Writing is gloriously, wonderfully hard, regardless of audience. I am currently drafting an “adult” book and there appear to be very few, if any, challenges that aren’t present in both crafts.

I like to say that I write coming-of-truth novels rather than coming-of-age novels. So, the thing that makes the adult book “adult” is the protagonist comes of truth in adulthood rather than in her teen years.

With either audience, the bar is the same: write something that makes a reader love reading more today than they did yesterday.

What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?

I’m mostly in it to see how many tattoos I can inspire.

No, seriously, there is a moment near the beginning of every draft when I realize Why I’m writing the book I’m writing—the reasons do vary widely—and I feel like I’m doing what I was made to do in the universe.

That deep connection of purpose and intention fuels my career and joy.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I often say, I type sitting down, but I write standing up.

If you want to know when and where I type: in my personal office on long binges that rival a Netflix addiction of Stranger Things.

Next writing episode starts in 15, 14, 13, 12 …

If you want to know when and where I write: when I’m rock climbing, or walking The Narrows in Utah, or assembling scaffolding to cover a skylight at church, or asking a librarian if I can drive my sports car through the hallway of a school, or walking 1,000 miles last summer, or planning how I will build a 40-foot roadside attraction in my yard, or ….

Next life episode starts in 15, 14, 13, 12 …

When you look back on your writing journey, what are the changes that stand out?

Looking back, I can see several cairns that marked my path:

  1. Joining SCBWI as a baby writer
  2. Meeting my critique partners
  3. Swapping from fantasy to contemporary (but back to fantasy soon.)
  4. Prioritizing the continual study of craft

What are you working on next?

My next book (working title: BOOM), my fourth contemporary novel with HarperTeen, follows four teens who are the soul survivors of a bus explosion.

Cynsations Notes


Courtney “Court” Stevens grew up among rivers, cornfields, churches, and gossip in the small town south.

She is a former adjunct professor, youth minister, and Olympic torchbearer. She has a pet whale named Herman, a bandsaw named Rex, and several novels with her name on the spine: Faking Normal (Harper Teen, 2014),  The Lies About Truth (Harper Teen, 2015), and the e-novella The Blue-Haired Boy (Harper Teen, 2014).

As an educator and author, she visits schools, designs retreats, and teaches workshops on marketing, revision, character development, and Channeling Your Brave. She also likes chips and queso and feels deeply sorry for the lactose intolerant.

Guest Post: Writing Across Gender Lines: Fiction that Appeals to Boys and Girls

By Yona Zeldis McDonough
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve alway thought of myself as a girly-girl writer. Although I’ve written bios for kids that appeal to both boys and girls—many of them in the popular Who Was series (Grosset & Dunlap) —my real love is girl-friendly stories. I like dolls—no fewer than five of my children’s books have had the words doll or doll house in the title—and all the girly stuff that goes with them. I also like kitties, pretty dresses, and tea parties, and all these things find their way into the fiction I write for kids.

I never saw this as a particular problem or even issue to be addressed. As the fans of mystery, dystopia, humor and fantasy can happily attest, subsets in the field of children’s books abound, and there are many ways to make readers happy. So writing books that appealed chiefly to girls didn’t seem like an issue to me.

But a chance meeting with an editor from Boys’ Life made the first chip in my frilly, feminine facade. We had been invited to speak on a panel together and when it was over, she encouraged me, strongly, to consider writing fiction for the magazine. I was flattered but didn’t think I was the right person for the job. I felt like I was too far out of my comfort zone and I wasn’t confident I could do it. But an invitation from an editor is something to take seriously, so I began to play around with some ideas, eventually settling on a story set in 1941 that was slated for the December 2016 issue. That was the 75th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor and in my story, a 12-year-old boy finds himself defending his best friend, Kenzo, a boy whose Japanese family had arrived in the United States some 10 years prior. It was about the need for facing down prejudice and bigotry and it advanced a message of tolerance and acceptance. The editor liked what I had written and asked for more stories, which I was happy to provide.

So when I was tapped by an editor from Scholastic to write what eventually became The Bicycle Spy (Scholastic, 2016), I had already taken some tentative, baby steps across the gender line. Scholastic wanted a book about a 13-year-old boy who lives in the Southwest of France during World War II. His parents own the bakery in town. Unbeknownst to him, they are members of the French Resistance and he’s been delivering the messages that they have baked into loaves of bread. He’s also an avid cyclist and fan of the Tour de France—suspended during the war years—and bicycling was to play a major role in the story. And he had a new friend in school; when he learns the truth about her family, he is called on to help them escape. These were the bare bones—the rest was up to me.

I was now faced with writing a book whose primary audience would be boys, a much more challenging and complex task than writing a 1,200 word magazine story. If I was going to succeed, I needed to widen and expand my range as a writer. This made me very nervous. Yes, I had written boy protagonists, but always in the short run. Could I sustain a boy’s point of view and hope to engage boy readers for a whole chapter book? I sure hoped so!

To my surprise, I found the task less daunting and more exciting than I expected. I wanted to make my protagonist Marcel appealing and relatable, so I turned him into an unlikely hero: small for his age, bespectacled and the unhappy target of the class bully’s teasing and aggression. Marcel loses to his best friend in a game of chess, flubs the occasional answer in class and dreams constantly of being stronger, taller and faster—like the winners of the bicycle race he reveres. And yet, for all his flaws, he’s also shown to be brave, loyal and determined.

As Marcel’s story evolved in my mind, I realized I wanted it to include a female component, something that would appeal to girls as well as boys. And so I began to develop the character of Delphine Gillette, the new girl at school who loves cycling as much as he does and is revealed, midway through, to be Jewish. Her family has fled Paris and is hiding out in this small town, protected by the false papers her father has been able to procure. But when the Nazi presence intensifies, Marcel learns that the papers of the residents, particularly those newly arrived, are going to be scrutinized carefully. Delphine and her family are no longer safe. They will need to flee again and it is Marcel who is instrumental in the daring plot to help them find their way to freedom.

As I wrote, I tried to keep the concerns of both boys and girls
balanced in mind. I knew that boys would like the suspense aspects of the story, the coded messages, and the workings of the Resistance movement, as well as the descriptions of both the occupying soldiers and the French gendarmes who supported them. I also made sure to include details about Marcel’s relationship to his parents—his mother’s worry and occasional tendency to nag, his father’s pride in his courage—as well as the push-and-pull with his school friends.

For the girl readers, I explored Delphine’s experiences as the new girl in town, her efforts to fit in and be liked, but also her spunk and her courage. I added references to the clothes she wore—because yes, girls do care—and her affection for her pet cat.

But as I got deeper and deeper into the story, I also began to notice a certain softening of gender lines and began to realize that the concerns of these two characters were more alike than different. They both loved cycling, worried about their place in the social pecking order, and had to deal with parental expectations. Both faced the awful upheavals of war and both feared an uncertain and potentially devastating future.

I had started out believing that boys would relate to Marcel, and girls to Delphine; I came to see that each of these characters would have appeal for the other gender. It’s a revelation that I hope to carry with me when I approach my as-yet-unwritten next book. Writing for boys taught me something about writing for girls and I am glad to have discovered that that universe of fiction is far broader—and more inclusive—than I had formerly imagined.

Cynsational Notes 
The Bicycle Spy was recently named a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries

Summer Girls & Women in Children’s-YA Lit Roundup

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

How “Girl Books” Could Save the World (Or at Least Help Out) by Jen Malone
from Nerdy Book Club. Peek: “Guess who’s not being exposed to these main characters? Boys. That’s a problem, because their female counterparts are only too happy to read books featuring male central characters, meaning those girls’ empathy for and understanding of the opposite gender grows, while the reverse isn’t necessarily happening.”

Teen Girls Have a Right to Roam, Too by C.J. Flood from The Guardian. Peek: “Was it responsible, I asked my publicist and editor, to show teenage girl friends creeping from their bedrooms after dark, to wander their home turf in the moonlight?”

On Gendered Book Covers and Being a Woman Designer by Jennifer Heuer from Lit Hub. Peek: “What topics are women interested in? All of them. How about that book about sports (and not just one about a female athlete)? History (not just one about suffragettes)? A crime thriller (not just one with “girl” in the title)?”

The Heroine’s Journey: How Campbell’s Model Doesn’t Fit by B.J. Priester from Fangirl. Peek: “Putting too much weight on old myths with antiquated, if not downright misogynistic, attitudes toward women will only reinforce sexist limitations from a sexist time in human history.”

Girls Growing Up in Middle Grade Fiction by Yamile Saied Mendez from Project Mayhem. Peek: “…here are some titles that have used this time in a girls life as an opportunity to create memorable characters and premises.”

The Problem with Female Protagonists by Jo Eberhardt
from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “I took my son by the hand and went to find
out whether his assertion that we mostly (because “always” was clearly
an exaggeration) read about female protagonists was true.” See How I’ve Helped Teach Boys That Girls Are Boring an Unimportant by Kasey Edwards from Daily Life.

Summer Children’s-YA Lit Diversity Conversations

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Over the summer, the children’s-YA book community has continued discussing diversity, decolonization, authenticity and representation both throughout the body of literature and the industry. Here are highlights; look for more in quickly upcoming, additional update posts.

Mirrors? Windows? How about Prisms? from Uma Krishnaswami. Peek: “…cultural content in children’s books needs to be woven into the story so the authors intention is not stamped all over it.” See also Uma on Tolstoy Was Not Writing for Me.

Twelve Fundamentals of Writing The “Other” and The Self by Daniel Jose Older from Buzzfeed Books. Peek: “Every character has a relationship to power. This includes institutional, interpersonal, historical, cultural. It plays out in the micro-aggressions and hate crimes, sex, body image, life-changing decisions, everyday annoyances and the depth of historical community trauma.”

Diversity in Book Publishing Isn’t Just About Writers — Marketing Matters, Too by Jean Ho from NPR. Peek: “For past projects, she has researched segmented audiences ranging from retired African-American women’s books clubs, South Asian soccer organizations, Trinidadian-interest media outlets both stateside and abroad, to extracurricular programs geared toward South Bronx teens.”

Looking Back: Diversity in Board Books by Joanna Marple from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “…that children as young as six months can judge others by the color of their skin. Even if a caregiver never mentions race, children may well use skin color on their own, along with other differences, to judge themselves and others.”

Drilling Down on Diversity in Picture Books from CCBlogC. Peek: “We’re keeping track of the things people want to know. Just how many picture books have animal, rather than human, characters? How many books about African American characters are historical? How many feature LGBTQ families? Or Muslims? Or people with disabilities? How many are by first-time authors or illustrators?”

Children’s Books and the Color of Characters by Kwame Alexander from The New York Times. Peek: “They all believe I am writing about them. Why is this so much harder for the grown-ups? Is race the only lens through which we can read the world?”

On White Fragility in Young Adult Literature by Justine Larbalestier from Reading While White. Peek: “…we white authors can support Indigenous authors and Authors of Color by reading their books, recommending their books, blurbing their books, and recommending them to our agents. When we’re invited to conferences, or festivals, or to be in anthologies, make sure they’re not majority white.”

When Defending Your Writing Becomes Defending Yourself by Matthew Salesses from NPR. Peek: “Here is a not uncommon experience. Writer Emily X.R. Pan was told by the white writers in her workshop that the racism in her story could never happen — though every incident had happened to her.”

There Is No Secret to Writing About People Who Don’t Look Like You: The Importance of Empathy as Craft by Brandon Taylor from LitHub. Peek: “The best writing, the writing most alive with possibilities, is the writing that at once familiarizes and estranges; it’s writing that divorces us from our same-old contexts and shifts our thinking about ourselves and the world around us.”

How Canada Publishes So Much Diverse Children’s Literature by Ken Setterington from School Library Journal. Peek: “Considering that the entire Canadian market is about the size of the market in California alone (roughly 36 million), publishers must rely on sales
outside of the country.”

Biracial, Bicultural Roundtable (Part One, Part Two) by Cynthia Leitich Smith from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “According to a 2015 Pew study, 6.9 percent of the U.S. population is biracial. According to the 2010 Census, between 2000 and 2010, the number of people identifying themselves with more than one race rose from 6.8 million to 9 million.”

Cynsational Screening Room

Related Links

Author Interview: Heather Lang on Fearless Flyer & Writing Strong Women

Visit Heather Lang’s official author site & @Hblang

By Helen Kampion
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Congratulations on your new picture book biography Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine (Calkins Creek, 2016) and the starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal! 

I was captivated by your account of Ruth Law’s record-breaking flight from Chicago to New York City one hundred years ago, and Raúl Colón’s illustrations are magnificent.

You are creating a wonderful collection of books about strong women from our past. How do you choose the women you write about?

I love to read and write about lesser-known women, who dream big, pick themselves up when they fall, and stay persistent.

These women might face poverty, racial or gender discrimination, disability, or other hardships. They’re not afraid of failure. They inspire me to step outside my own comfort zone and be brave.

What drew you to this story about Ruth Law?

Sometimes I’m drawn to writing about topics I fear. With fear, there’s always fascination—like when you don’t want to watch a scary movie, but you can’t help yourself.

I’m a nervous flyer, so I’ve always been intrigued by those who dared to fly the flimsy biplanes made in the early 1900s. Ruth Law opened doors for women aviators like Amelia Earhart to enter this male-dominated field.

I loved how Ruth immersed herself fully in flying, even mastering the mechanics of her plane. She could tell what was wrong with her motor by the sound of it!

Her passion and personality came through in her words—she had a lovely voice. I wove her words into the text, so Ruth helps tell her own story.

It’s clear a lot of research went into Fearless Flyer. Can you talk a little about your process? 

Every book I write is a treasure hunt. I never know where a clue might take me. My initial research involved reading a lot of newspaper articles, and in one of those articles Ruth mentioned she kept a scrapbook. I tracked it down at the National Air and Space Museum archives.

Heather researching Ruth Law’s scrapbook

Her enormous scrapbook was stuffed with newspaper articles, mementos, photos, and her own handwriting. It was a goldmine.

While I was there I visited the early flight exhibit at the museum, educated myself about her biplane, and learned about the evolution of flight. A lot of questions popped up about her plane and how she operated it, so I found a retired Navy Commander who pilots and builds these old-style biplanes. He had incredible insights.

I also consulted with the folks at the Glen H. Curtiss Museum and the National Air and Space Museum.

I am always amazed how generous people are with their time and how eager they are to help.

What is one of your favorite things about writing for children?

Other than being able to wear sweat pants or pajamas all day, I’d have to say one of my favorite things about my job is the community. I can’t imagine a more supportive group of people than writers, teachers, and librarians. We all have the same primary goal—to have a positive impact on children, giving them books they can relate to and books that open them up to new people and places and dreams.

From Heather’s The Original Cowgirl, illustrated by Suzanne Beaky (Whitman)

I’m in two critique groups. We share the highs of clever endings, successful revisions, and accepted submissions. We share the struggles of faulty plots, poor reviews, and rejection. I rely on them tremendously for support.

What are you working on now?

with Alice Coachman

I’m launching a blog focusing on Girls With Grit and having a blast creating the content.

It will include real-life stories, psychology and science, classroom activities, interviews with authors, and of course children’s books with strong female characters.

I’m also adding supplemental materials to my website so readers can get to know even more about Ruth Law and her flying machine.

What do you have coming out next?

I’m really excited about my next picture book biography, Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, illustrated by Jordi Solano (Albert Whitman, 2016), about an amazing shark scientist AKA “The Shark Lady.”

Sadly, Genie (as she liked to be called) died last year at the age of 92. I had the thrill of interviewing her in person in 2014, and hearing about her remarkable adventures. Genie also reviewed the manuscript for me.

I look forward to sharing this amazing woman with kids everywhere.

Cynsational Notes

Helen’s muses

Helen Kampion is a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College.
She writes both fiction and non-fiction for young readers, including middle-grade novels and picture book biographies.

Her picture book manuscripts have been recognized by The Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing sponsored by Hunger Mountain (“Paddy Cats,” Special Mention, 2015) and by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (“Francesca’s Funky Footwear,” Finalist, 2013).

When she’s not at her desk busy writing you can find her helping fellow authors with marketing events, volunteering at the New England SCBWI conference, or teaching creative writing workshops for children. Helen also serves on the on the Board of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. Find her on Twitter @helenkampion.