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

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

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

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

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

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

I’m now in my fifth year as the RA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many members are in the Austin chapter? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How has SCBWI helped you in your path to publication?

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

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

Laurent Linn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samantha with other RAs at the 2016 SCBWI LA Conference

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

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

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

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

What’s the best part of being an RA?

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

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

    I could go on.

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

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

Are there any downsides? 

Well… the job is a lot of work.

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

A lot of emails…

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

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

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

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

Cynsational Notes

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

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

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

New Voice: Caroline Leech on Wait for Me

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Caroline Leech is the debut author of Wait for Me (HarperTeen, 2017). From the promotional copy:

It’s 1945, and Lorna Anderson’s life on her father’s farm in Scotland consists of endless chores and rationing, knitting Red Cross scarves, and praying for an Allied victory. So when Paul Vogel, a German prisoner of war, is assigned as the new farmhand, Lorna is appalled. 

How can she possibly work alongside the enemy when her own brothers are risking their lives for their country?

But as Lorna reluctantly spends time with Paul, she feels herself changing. The more she learns about him—from his time fighting a war he doesn’t believe in, to his life back home in Germany—the more she sees the boy behind the soldier. 

Soon Lorna is battling her own warring heart. Loving Paul could mean losing her family and the life she’s always known. 

With tensions rising all around them, Lorna must decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice before the end of the war determines their fate.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My Wait for Me journey back to World War II was prompted by a conversation with a friend in Wales who mentioned in passing that her father had grown up during the war on a farm which had German prisoners of war working as farmhands.

Craigielaw Farm farmhouse, where Caroline
imagined Lorna would’ve lived

The proverbial light bulb went off in my head, and I immediately started researching how these prisoners came to be working alongside British people on farms, in parks and forests.

I grew up on a reading diet of Colditz and The Great Escape-type books, so I expected all prisoners to have stayed locked up in prison camps, plotting their escape. But I quickly found out that many of these men—who were screened on arrival to weed out the hardened Nazis—were relieved to be far from the war, and from Hitler’s brutality. 

Life in Germany had been terrible for more than a decade, and many had been forced into the army under threat of harm coming to their families.

I also discovered that many of the men chose not to go home again at the end of the war, especially those who had lived in what was to become the Russian Zone and then communist East Germany. 

I found numerous stories of prisoners who had fallen in love with local girls, and once they were released, they petitioned to stay so they could get married and settle down in the place which gave them safe harbor. 
Even those who did return to Germany had made such close friendships with the British people they’d worked alongside, they would be friends for the rest of their lives. 
Suddenly, all my writer’s alarm bells were ringing and I knew I had my opening scene—a young German prisoner arrives on a Scottish farm, injured and traumatized, and receives a less than friendly welcome from the farmer’s daughter. But in time, she starts to see him less like her enemy and more like the intelligent and caring young man he is, a boy who is very far from home. And then perhaps he becomes something even more to her . . .

Aberlady Bay, the regional setting for Wait for Me

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

I was very lucky to have great sources to aid my research. 
Both my parents were involved in the war—my mother was evacuated from London as a child, and my father followed his four older brothers into the army when he turned 18 in 1944—so I was never without that primary source material. 
But what was challenging to find was the balance between historical accuracy where girls lived in a very different set of societal expectations, and writing characters who were relatable to modern readers. 
By 1945, when the book is set, young women had been liberated from domesticity only to a certain extent. They were required to go out to work as part of the war effort—often doing previously “male” jobs in factories and dockyards—but ultimately, they were still expected to get married, settle down and stay at home to look after the house and children. 
Teenage girls now, of course, rightly expect to go on to further education, have a career and financial independence, even if they do later choose to get married and become mothers. 
Therefore, I had to find a middle ground where my protagonist was assertive and confident, so she would connect to my readers today, without dismissing the reality of the rules of the society in which she lived then.

Although the same rules applied for the time period of my second book, In Another Time (HarperTeen, August, 2018), it felt quite different.

My main character is one of the girls who chose to leave school and take over a job usually done by a man, that is being a forester in the Highlands of Scotland. Maisie joins the Women’s Timber Corps—the Lumberjills—and she rather makes her own rules after that!

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

I did everything the wrong way around. Normally, you’re supposed to get your agent, who then shops your book out to editors, but I actually got my editor first.

I was still working on revisions to my WWII book when I won the Joan Lowery Nixon Award at SCBWI Houston conference. My prize was a year’s mentoring from the amazing Newbery Honor winner, Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt and Caroline
at the Texas Library Association Conference

Even though I was still working my way through revisions under Kathi’s expert guidance, I entered the first few pages into two contests with Romance Writers of America chapters in Houston. 

I was amazed to win the YA categories of both contests, the Emily and the Lone Star, and even more stunned that one of the judges—Alice at Harper Teen—emailed to say she wanted to read the whole manuscript. 
She was patient enough to wait for me to finish the revisions I was doing, and she then read it almost as soon as I sent it.

Within two weeks, she’d offered me the deal. I still didn’t have an agent, so several writer friends in Houston and Austin offered to make some introductions. 

It’s amazing how quickly agents pay attention to your emails when you approach them with a book deal in your hand! I was thrilled to sign up with New Leaf Literary & Media in New York within only a few days of getting my deal.

New Leaf’s client list includes the most stellar list of authors: Veronica RothVictoria Aveyard and Leigh BardugoJordan Hamessley is my agent, and she’s wonderfully supportive.

What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?

While there’s romance in the image of a struggling author sitting alone in a chilly garret, hunched over a sturdy typewriter bashing out the next great novel, it couldn’t be further from the truth. 

My books have mostly been written sitting in a Barnes & Noble café or a Starbucks, while my writing buddy, Penny, sits alongside me, working on her own novel. I find it very hard to write in my house—far too many distractions, even when no one else is there—so whenever I need to focus and write for more than an hour or so, I escape to a coffee shop, preferably with a friend or two. We keep each other focused, and only chat a little (honest!).

The other enormous influence on my writing has been my membership of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I went to my first SCBWI conference with the sole purpose of meeting one particular agent. 

It was in Austin and even though the agent gave me a big “no, thanks,” I gained so much from that weekend, not least of which meeting other writers who became great friends. I then went to the Houston SCBWI conference, too, and met even more wonderful people.

Back then, most of my new friends were still dreaming of publication; now, one by one, we have almost all got book deals, but we are all still supporting each other’s writing from “the other side of the fence.”

Caroline at the Brazos Bookstore launch of Wait for Me,
photo by Penny Linsenmayer

I can track my book deal directly from attending that first SCBWI conference, through winning the Joan Lowery Nixon competition, straight to publication, so I cannot stress how much I owe to everyone in SCBWI.

Getting a book deal is not only exciting, it is truly terrifying! 

You are suddenly thrown into a professional world, with its own jargon and unwritten rules, and it can feel incredibly intimidating. However, I discovered that I was not alone. For years, a support group for authors debuting in any given year has developed organically – the Fearless Fifteens in 2015, the Sweet Sixteens in 2016.

Since I was having my debut in 2017, I joined the Swanky Seventeens, now called the 2017 Debuts

We share our experiences, ask and answer questions about how publishing works, and lead the cheers for each other every Tuesday when a new set of debuts were released.

Now there are second books being published, and we support those, too. My second book, In Another Time, comes out in August, by which time a couple of my debut friends who write fantasy series will be on their third publication! 

Within the group, we’ve also had some very serious conversations about how race, gender, disability and sexuality are portrayed in YA and MG books, and I’ve learned so much from my fellow debuts.

I don’t know if I could have got through this last year without their support. Even though I’ve met only a few of them in person, I have made so many fantastic friends via the chat forum and our Facebook group, it feels like I’ve known some of them for years. Over the last year, I’ve been privileged to read some of the most amazing books in advance of their publication. 

What were the best moments of your publishing journey?

One of best is certainly that lightbulb moment when suddenly this new story exploded in my mind, and I had to rush to grab a pencil to get it started. 
Women’s Timber Corps memorial statue
in Aberfoyle, Scotland

And of course, I’ll never forget the moment when I received the email offering me my book deal. We were in Scotland on a family vacation and were in the middle of my daughter’s 18th birthday party. 

I knew that Alice Jerman, an editor at HarperTeen, had read my manuscript and loved it enough to take it to her bosses that day for acquisition approval, but because of the time difference between Scotland and New York, it was already mid-evening and I was still waiting to hear.

When I felt my phone buzz in my pocket, I had a quick look without making it obvious I was checking my phone during a party. The email from Alice not only said she wanted to buy that book, but wanted another one after that. 

I had never expected to get a two-book deal, so I was totally thrilled.

From across the room, my husband saw me check my phone and looked questioningly at me. He was the only other person who knew that I was waiting for news, so I nodded and forwarded the email to him, meaning that both of us were sitting on opposite sides of the room grinning madly.

But of course, we didn’t want to distract from my daughter’s birthday, so we said nothing until the very end of the evening. It was so hard to keep the secret , even if it was only for a couple of hours.

Women’s Timber Corps, also known as the Lumberjills,
photo courtesy of Women’s Timber Corps.

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

Read, read, read and write, write, write! And keep on writing, no matter how bad you think your first draft is. You can’t revise and perfect words that haven’t been written down yet, so sometimes you need to switch off your inner editor and just get the words onto the page. You can concentrate on making them pretty later at revision stage.

Also, try to find your “writing people” as soon as you can, even if it just starts out as one buddy to sit beside you as you work, someone to keep you accountable for the time you’ve promised yourself you’ll give over to writing each week. 

Also, for me, SCBWI membership is a vital tool for any children’s/teens’ writer, and I’d say don’t just join, take part! Go to meetings and conferences, so people get to know your name and face and join in the online discussion groups. By the time you get your book deal, these people will have become your biggest cheerleaders.

And finally, even when it gets hard, keep going. As you can see from my publication story, it only takes one editor to like your story for your whole life to change. That might happen next year, or it might happen tomorrow, you can’t know. But if you stop now, you will never know.

Cynsations Notes

Photo by Priscilla Dickson

Kirkus Reviews wrote of Wait for Me, “Clandestine meetings and stolen kisses will satisfy die-hard romantics, while history buffs will be drawn in by the details of war-torn…Scotland.”

Caroline Leech is a Scottish writer who moved to Texas for an adventure ten years ago. 
Her career in public relations with performing arts companies in the United Kingdom culminated with her editing a glossy photographic book, Welsh National Opera – The First Sixty Years (Graffeg, 2006).

She has written numerous feature articles on the performing arts in a number of newspapers and magazines in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Her next novel, In Another Time, will be published in August 2018. 
Caroline lives in Houston with her husband and three teenage children.

Get a peek at the Wait for Me launch party at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. 

Survivors: Joy Preble on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Joy Preble, Heather Demetrios & Renee Watson at Texas Book Festival.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.

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

Ha! Oh the bumps. So many bumps. Some have been the things that no author can control, such as an editor leaving in the middle of a project.

With the Dreaming Anastasia series (Sourcebooks, 2009-2012), I had four different editors over a three-book series. As you can imagine, this kind of turnover is no one’s friend, and not only because subsequent editors have to work with a series they didn’t acquire and that probably isn’t a good match for their tastes.

It also meant that the only true continuity editor for the three-book saga was me. The first book had been an unplanned breakout–this extremely miraculous event that came from a combination of timing, luck, and an in-house publicist who happened to like me and decided to work very, very hard and savvy with me and on my behalf.

Thus, book one sold very well and is still the book for which I’m best known.

The initial plans for book two were focused and big. But when the publicist left just as book two was coming out, all those plans basically fell apart or didn’t materialize, and so I had to figure out how to keep promoting the series in the ways I felt would be best.

With Jenny Moss & Jennifer Ziegler at the Texas Library Association con.

I realized that I could either moan about it all or try to do something. Make my own luck, my own connections. It wasn’t perfect, but it kept me in the game.

We all know the truth. It’s tough to make any book a success without consistent and substantive publisher support.

So much of what gets books noticed starts happening a year or more before publication and continues its game plan right up to publication.

All those conference and book festival pitches, all that print promo, those personal notes to booksellers, the ads and the media whatevers, they add up.

Without that support, it’s a trickier thing.

Trickier being a euphemism for “good luck to you.”

So I built my own support system with authors and librarians and booksellers. Because I might not be able to get that broader publicity, but I could still get my name and my books out there.

This took many forms. I pitched panels and workshops to the numerous regional school librarian conferences around Texas, both individually and with fellow authors. I attended and networked at SCBWI conferences not only in Houston but also in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and more.

I went to TLA each year, sometimes paid for by publishers, sometimes paid for by me.

I supported other authors and independent bookstores because this business is about community, about supporting the art and the stories, about being part of the conversation.

I contacted all the Houston YA authors I knew– some debuts, some mid-listers like me, some NYTimes bestsellers and created a loosely structure author co-op we call the YAHOUs (YA Houston), designed to help us signal boost and support and pool our various opportunities.

I said “yes” to as much as I could. I kept at it.

I put my name out there.

I pitched for school visits and did more librarian networking and developed programs to present.

I kept up — and still do–with many of the authors in my 2009 debut class.

I also found my own niche–the things that work for me and my books and my skill set: Presenting workshops on craft and the writer life. School visits that are writing workshops or some hybrid that also includes talking about never giving up and tenacity. Keynote speeches when I get them. Author panels both as participant and moderator.

I have come to grudging terms with the fact that some of the big-name festivals might never be offered to me for a variety of reasons. But many, many are.

Lasting in this business means understanding when to reinvent yourself, when to stick to your brand, and when–to paraphrase that song from “Frozen”–just let something go.

We can’t all be all things, so:

  • Keep your eyes on your paper. 
  • Find your villages. 
  • Be kind. 
  • Be aware of the opportunities that do come your way.

Mostly, I keep writing. That’s been its own bump. After seven books in seven and a half years and a few manuscripts that didn’t sell, I hit a wall with the book I’m finally getting right.

I started over more than once. Gave up the notion that it would be the option book for one of my publishers. Wrote it again. And now I’m writing it one more time.

It’s the book it should be. But it means there will be a gap. I’m trying to be good with that.

Joy on a panel with Mari Mancusi, Jessica Lee Anderson & Madeline Smoot at Brazos Bookstore.

Having a new job at an independent bookstore is helping. I’ve learned much about the industry from this side of things. I’ve been reminded about all the amazing small books by small publishers that are simply brilliant, and it’s an honor to hand-sell these books that otherwise would have little or no noise around them. The push to persist has ultimate always been the same: I can’t imagine my life without writing. I have stories to tell.

And that Dreaming Anastasia series that went through all those editors and all those bumps?

It’s still selling, still being reviewed by readers and amazingly, being referenced in numerous scholarly papers about retellings of Russian fairy tales! They’re still the books I’m best known for. In fact, there’s been talk about repackaging the series. So you just never know.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

For sure, I would have persisted earlier, as far back as college when I started writing what would have been a YA novel but didn’t ever finish it.

I would have treated writing as a business earlier, although I will say that it was harder to do that in the pre-Internet days, which may or may not be a valid excuse.

I would have sometimes pushed harder to make sure Marketing was defining my books as I wanted them to be defined.

Beyond that, I honestly have no regrets. This journey has been in many ways a miracle. And if that’s overstating things, let me rephrase.

My character Leo in Finding Paris (Balzer + Bray, 2015) says something at the end of the novel that I truly believe– that she understands not everyone gets the life they want.

Of course Leo hopes this won’t be true for her, hopes she can move forward now that she has finally told her devastating truth.

I know I’m lucky to have gotten a chance at the artist’s life I probably should have been living long before I finally realized that’s what I was supposed to do.

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

Children’s-YA publishing feels much more big deal/dollar driven than it did back when I first signed with an agent and sold my first novel in 2006-2007. Not that money wasn’t a focus.

Publishing is, of course, a business.

But the competition is greater, the desire for debut authors who will break out and make it big with that first book rather than a slower build of a career is much more intense–and it certainly does drive the promotional aspect of things.

In YA literature, there seems to be a large push for signing authors who can be promoted as sort of analogues for their books and I’m not always sure what I think about that. It makes promotion easier. But I worry that it shoehorns certain authors into writing only that one thing and I do believe that at some point, this becomes, at best, formulaic and, at worst, detrimental to their growth as writers.

That being said, I am heartened by the focus on #ownvoices, heartened that in kidlit we are committed to making sure that representation of marginalized groups is done authentically and with the proper nuance and awareness of potential, even if unintended, bias. I am glad for sensitivity readers.

Joy launches The Sweet Dead Life at Blue Willow Bookshop.

In my previous life as a high school English teacher, I was frequently disheartened at curriculum choices that limited, for example, African-American characters to a study of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) and Jewish characters to Night by Elie Wiesel (1956) or Diary of Anne Frank (1947).

“But we’ve got this great unit,” teachers would say. “The students love it.”

And I would have to say, “Yeah. Okay. But listen. If the only books students read about Jews and People of Color focus on those people as victims then what subliminal lesson are we teaching?”

Often I’d be met with blank looks.

So I’m glad to see us collectively working to the write the books that need to be written.

I am glad we are being tough on each other.

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

Have faith in yourself.

Tune out the noise.

Write the stories you need to write. Don’t follow the trends.

Make sure you have critique partners who challenge you and who are the right ones to help you raise the bar.

Remember that once a book is out in the world, it’s no longer yours. Which means that Goodreads is for readers, not for you. Peer at it at your own peril. Remember that sometimes readers will read the book they think it is, not the one you’ve written. Learn what you can from this, but don’t fret.

Keep writing.

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

I will borrow from Cynthia’s own answer to the question: I want Story to be the main focus of books. The focus needs to be on telling the stories you are best able to tell.

Identity needs to be organic to the story and when it’s not, there’s sometimes a fill-in-the-blanks feel that diminishes the power of the story. This is a tough job, that balance.

I’m writing a Jewish character, for example, and I’m Jewish so you’d think easy, right?

But it’s not always easy because that identity is not just about surface things like holidays or food but all the nuances of how this specific Jewish character sees the world.

So how do we make sure editors see all that and then readers? How much should we worry about? And I think at the end of the day, it comes back to making sure we focus on Story first.

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

Most immediately, I want to finish the book I’m working on and move it toward publication. Hopefully that will have happened by the time you read this!

I think that’s enough of a goal for now!

Cynsational Notes

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

Children’s-YA Literature Community Joins in Hurricane Harvey Relief Efforts

Gayleen Rabakukk

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Last week, I ached seeing the images of flooding and devastation in Houston and surrounding areas along the Gulf coast. With reports of record-setting high water also came amazing stories of people helping each other. I couldn’t be more proud of my newly-adopted state!

For those in the kidlit community, once the immediate needs of food and shelter are met, the next priority is books. Our community has stepped up with aplomb to meet that challenge.

This post outlines a few of the initial efforts to restock libraries and classrooms in the affected areas. As we learn of other recovery projects, we’ll be sharing those with you in the coming weeks and months. In a recent press release, the Texas Library Association said the most accurate metaphor for this recovery might be an “ultra-marathon combined with an ultra-triathalon.”

Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston has made it easy for those who would like to donate books to be delivered to shelters and affected libraries in the greater Houston by purchasing a gift card online and marking it as “Hurricane Harvey Books.”

Complete instructions can be found on the Hurricane Harvey Relief page on their website. If you live outside the area, this not only saves you shipping costs, but also contributes to the Houston economy – a positive impact that’s greatly appreciated right now.

On Saturday, the store was featured on Harper Collins Book Studio 16, the video store tour with owner Valerie Koehler is available here.

Author-illustrator Bob Shea promoted Blue Willow’s donation efforts by offering to send a unicorn drawing to each person who donated at least $20 over the holiday weekend.

Author Kate Messner organized the KidLit Cares Auction to benefit the Red Cross and Global Giving relief efforts for those affected by the hurricane. Agents, editors, authors and illustrators donated manuscript critiques, author visits, books and other services for the winning bidders who will make donations directly to either of the relief funds. In all there are 201 entries in the auction; bidding on some items ends Sept. 5, but others continue through Sept. 7.

Second-grade teacher Kathryn Mills of Katy, Texas organized the Hurricane Harvey Book Club on Facebook with the goal of giving her students a distraction while they were stuck in their homes or shelters. Since then the group has grown to include more than 72,000 members from all over the world, with adults and children reading books in English, Spanish and sign language. As word of the Book Club spread, it’s been featured in national media and Publishers Weekly.

Kathryn shared this message with the group members and gave us permission to publish it on Cynsations.

“The publishers have been so gracious and sweet. They have been amazingly supportive of this precious book club, understanding and knowing that it was a project for a season and a reason.  

“Thank you does not seem enough for the companies who allowed this project to even exist. This project started as a heart project, a small grain of sand and it grew into a mighty mission. It became a vessel for readers of all ages to come together from all over the world, simply for the love of people and the love of reading. This little book club allowed a gentle distraction for some and an act of service for others.”

She announced the Facebook group will end on Sept. 10, but she has challenged the members to “grow friendships through the pages of your books” by setting up book clubs in communities, schools and playgroups. “There is love and joy in the pages of books.”

Many teachers and students in the Houston area will be going back to school Sept. 11.

Kathryn told us, “My school and classroom fared very well. I am so glad that other flooded schools have been able to make connections for donations and support on this page.”

The Book Club’s T-shirt fundraiser has raised more than $22,000 to replace books lost during the hurricane. Sales benefit Books Between Kids, a non-profit in Houston founded in 2012 to put books in the hands of children. T-shirt sales will continue through Sept. 13.

After Sept. 10, the Hurricane Harvey Book Club will continue on Twitter as @HHarveyBookClub as forum “to bring joy & normalcy to so many currently dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey through storytelling.”

The Texas Library Association’s Disaster Relief Fund directly assists libraries through grant awards to aid in recovery efforts. Since TLA operates as a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization, all donations are tax deductible. Coloring books including illustrator artwork benefiting the Disaster Relief Fund are also available for purchase.

The Texas Book Festival has compiled Ways to Help After Hurricane Harvey. Peek: “Best-selling YA author Marie Lu (a headlining author at the 2017 Texas Teen Book Festival), as well as Leigh Bardugo, Joelle Charbonneau, and Kevin Hearne are pledging matching donations to and running the campaign for the Global Giving Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.”

The Houston SCBWI Conference set for Oct. 7 & and Oct. 8 at the Marriott Houston Westchase will take place as planned.

Regional advisor Vicki Sansum let us know that the hotel had no damage during the storm and all scheduled speakers will be attending.

“Locally though, many of our members had their houses flooded which is heartbreaking,” Vicki said. “To lose the majority or all of your possessions is overwhelming to say the least.

“Our keynote speaker is Bruce Coville who has published over 100 books. He is also giving a three-hour novel-writing intensive on Sunday called ‘At the Corner of Plot and Character.’ We are excited to have Bruce as a speaker, he is passionate about writing for kids and is generous in sharing his knowledge and expertise. His series Aliens Ate My Homework (Aladdin, 1993) is being made into a live-action movie with William Shatner.”