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

On our way out to a high school winter dance.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

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

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

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

Where there is regret, there is a story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see her differently now.

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

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

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

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

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

Cynsational Notes

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

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

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

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick: Let’s Make a Plan: Reminders from Early Childhood Education

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I walk into a classroom at the extraordinary early childhood center where I work, and watch a teacher kneeling or sitting at the height of one of her two-year-olds, one hand holding his, eyes meeting eyes.

Noah, I can see you’re having a hard time finding a way to play with Ari. Let’s make a plan for how you can do this. You could either play with a different toy, or wait until your friend finishes. Which one would you like to choose?

I get goosebumps listening. This signals: Important.

And there’s a lifting sensation in my chest – relief – and I see the same thing in the little one’s calmer face and body.

This kind of scene reminds me of how appreciative I am of the power of my brain to help me find pathways out of a place of confusion (What should I do now?) and frustration (I want something, but I don’t know how to get it!).

I was there this year. I’m pretty sure others have been there too (and I’m always grateful when I come across an open and honest post that describes these vulnerable part of our creative journey).

We adults find ourselves in parallel situations, not overwhelmed because we want to use the stethoscope from the doctor kit, but for other reasons that are as complex to us as the toys are to the two-year-old.

I found myself in this emotional environment this past year after an unpredictable disappointment, which I refuse to call it a disaster even though that’s how it felt at the time (I could never let myself put it in the same category as anything that involved human safety or life).

After recovering sufficiently from the shock, I put away a manuscript that was, and is, close to my heart. Then I turned on my journey to gaze into the empty spaces of Next.

And there, as I headed to the land of Next, I got lost.

Not right away, but ultimately.

At first, my brain filled with questions, all of which felt like I was digging into my own body and pulling out strings of things – anything, something! – that would be meaningful. I wrote poetry, revised picture books, wrote new work that I loved.

I took an intensive picture book writing/revision course online that kept my mind occupied every day for five weeks with reading, writing, critique, webinars, and submissions. I had two dozen verses that I thought might turn into the next big project, believing or maybe just hoping that persistence would open a door to where any of this was going.

I told myself I didn’t care, because I was writing, and that’s what mattered to me.

And while that was true to some extent, I began to grow a little impatient.

But my next project evaded me. Nothing held. Nothing embedded itself in the parts of my brain that handle the heart and the cognition that unite for what feels like passionate belief in a work in progress. Nothing needed me.

I kept writing, but I knew this would not do for much longer. As I figuratively looked around at all the options I had pulled out of myself – picture books, poetry for adults, the couple dozen verses about a loss in my younger life that could be the centerpiece of middle grade or young adult fiction, or turn into a memoir – I began to feel confused and overwhelmed with too many options.

That’s when I knew I was lost.

That’s when I knew, like the early childhood teachers I have the honor of watching every day, that the lost part of me, the little girl inside the adult, needed a plan. And more than that, I needed and wanted help to create the plan.

The minute I contacted my chosen helpers to set up time to talk, I felt relief and hope.

The difference in creating my plan was that it had to be purposeful, crafted carefully to take into account the realities of the publishing business, a full-time day job that I love, financial concerns, and my introverted personality that no one much knows about except when it comes roaring to the front lines when I attend gatherings of writers.

This plan – very different than setting “goals,” by the way – created specific steps to accomplish in a fairly clear order – gives me plenty of work to fill the next few years.

The plan itself, and the connection with my plan-mentors, nudged me forward on a new path that carried me away from the intersection where I’d been stuck. I never felt unproductive, but I’d begun to feel like my daily writing was creating a nest, rather than helping me walk forward.

My new plan does not answer the question of what my next writing project will be. But perhaps that’s because I was not really finished with the previous one.

Rescued from my files, I’m about to begin yet another revision. What will happen to it, I do not know. But I feel for the first time in many months that every day I move my own story ahead.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick’s middle grade novel in verse, Reeni’s Turn, recently won an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition
A story of resilience and self-discovery that confronts the issue of body bias for a younger readership, an early version of Reeni’s Turn was also awarded Finalist in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Award at Hunger Mountain. 
Her essays and articles on emotional resilience and the writer’s inner journey can be found in the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind as well as on Cynsations.

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Does Expecting the Worst Make You a Pessimist? Confessions of a Learned Optimist

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The endings of so many wonderful stories – our own and others’ – are different than what protagonists imagine they might be.

And our lives hand us some of the same twists and turns.

As writers and illustrators, there are times we must move through more than the usual vicissitudes.

Something may go terribly wrong and leave us feeling like doors are closing, possibilities are evaporating, and our creative work will forever remain in computer files or portfolios.

I had an experience this year that felt that way. It challenged my learned and well-practiced optimism to a degree that I hadn’t felt in years.

The first thing I did was a completely natural tendency: I tried to figure out how and why the experience had happened. Luckily, I’ve learned that it’s unlikely that we ever figure out the reasons for things completely out of our control. I also know for sure that spending time this way may be a natural way to mourn what is lost, but it’s also a definite mood and productivity sinker.

I won’t call it a total waste of time, but I will call it a bridge from despair to energy that I wanted to keep as short as possible. My experience left my middle grade novel in verse up in the air. The direction forward couldn’t be immediately clear.

Get busy on your next project in the meantime, I thought. That’s what we all tell one another, right? And it’s such a good plan!

But no big ideas came. No little ones, either.

I wondered whether my hard-won resilience had met its match. I definitely didn’t want to believe it had. Looking forward, I was not feeling tremendously optimistic.

But I don’t believe in writer’s block.

So I meandered forward more slowly than I might have wished, but I stayed patient.

Ideas came, and I jotted down verses. The ideas didn’t take hold, and I turned elsewhere, pulling out a picture book draft for revision.

I was writing, but I couldn’t detach my best writing self from the novel in verse that had been a story I had had to write, and did. I was collecting ideas that would or wouldn’t go anywhere.

That’s all I knew. I didn’t have a clue where my meandering would take me. I was fairly successful with staying patient, but I won’t say it was easy. I just wanted to keep writing.

Then an online course popped into my email – an intensive, homework-heavy, webinar-filled picture book course that appealed to my need to dive into something deeply. I read the syllabus, and any other time, it might have felt even overwhelming, because it was that filled with a bounty of information and peer and professional critiquing. It was going to be intense. Could I handle it?

I decided I could. At this moment in time, the intensity of the course offered a door off my meandering path, and I was ready to head through it.

Deep into dissecting components and aspects of a favorite picture book text during the five weeks of the class, I knew I had moved forward just by focusing on, and doing, the work. Thoughts came and went, and came again, about how I wanted to proceed with my novel in verse. I spoke with colleagues, a mentor, a friend. I began to research options for submission.

By the end of the course, I thought about the process I’d taken myself through: Without planning it or thinking about it, I’d used reliable techniques from past experiences. These come naturally to me now, but they were originally learned behaviors:

  • Trusted my feelings, let them come and go without judgment – the initial shock and disappointment, the interest in moving on along with the uncertainty of how I would do that, the pleasure in writing every day even if it “went nowhere,” the ultimate excitement about immersing myself in a new project.
  • Trusted the process – that if I nudged myself gently with interest rather than impatience, with a brain open to stimulation, my meandering and daily writing would lead me somewhere meaningful, or be meaningful for its own sake.
  • Worked hard to reframe any negative language (which equals negative thinking, and then a negative mood, decreased productivity, decreased creativity, and more) into neutral, and then positive language replacements.

All three “activities” kept my brain open and able to take in new information and possibilities, creative solutions to problems, and positive emotions.

For me, being a resilient optimist means that sometimes I see the worst possibilities, then begin to do whatever I can to at least try to have those possibilities not come true. And as I do, all kinds of opportunities open up right in front of me.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick writes middle grade fiction, award-winning picture book manuscripts, and poetry, as well as regular guest columns for Cynsations and the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind.

Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and consultant/educator, she writes extensively about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience.

Her middle grade novel in verse, “Reeni’s Turn,” currently out on submission, inspired the award-winning film, “La Folia,” and was named a finalist for the Katherine Paterson Prize at Hunger Mountain.

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.

Author Interview: Jenn Bishop on Stormy Middle Grade Emotions

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Today we welcome author Jenn Bishop to talk about her upcoming middle grade novel, 14 Hollow Road (Alfred A. Knopf, June 13, 2017). From the promotional copy:

The night of the sixth-grade dance is supposed to be perfect for Maddie; she’ll wear her beautiful new dress, she’ll hit the dance floor with her friends, and her crush, Avery, will ask her to dance. 

Most importantly, she’ll finally leave her tiny elementary school behind for junior high. But as the first slow song starts to play, her plans crumble. Avery asks someone else to dance instead–and then the power goes out. 

Huddled in the gym, Maddie and her friends are stunned to hear that a tornado has ripped through the other side of town, destroying both Maddie’s and Avery’s homes.

Kind neighbors open up their home to Maddie’s and Avery’s families, which both excites and horrifies Maddie. Sharing the same house . . . with Avery? For the entire summer? 

While it buys her some time to prove that Avery made the wrong choice at the dance, it also means he’ll be there to witness her morning breath and her annoying little brother. Meanwhile, she must search for her beloved dog, who went missing during the tornado. At the dance, all she wanted was to be more grown-up. 

Now that she has no choice, is she ready for it?

What inspired you to write this book? Have you experienced a tornado?

Much like Maddie, the main character in 14 Hollow Road, as a kid growing up in Massachusetts, about the last weather disaster I expected to experience in my home town was a tornado.

Blizzards: been there, done that. Hurricanes: yup. But a tornado?

Well, in June of 2011, a series of strong thunderstorms rolling across western and central Massachusetts spawned an EF-3 tornado.

Tornado damage near Jenn’s home the following winter

I was living in Boston at the time, but my parents still lived in my childhood home, and I remember getting a call from my mother. Apparently while my dad was in his office in Springfield, he saw the funnel cloud forming over the river. There were a lot of frantic phone calls that afternoon between the three of us, as it was clear that a tornado was on the ground, taking essentially the same path my dad was taking home from work.

While most homes in Massachusetts do have basements, we do not have tornado sirens, so you really have to stay on top of severe weather yourself. My dad made the smart choice to pull off the road and stop in at my grandmother’s apartment.

Meanwhile, as my mom huddled in the basement with her cat, the tornado, still a mile-wide at the time, crested the top of the hill where I lived and crossed my street about a half-mile from my parent’s house.

When I return home for a visit, I’m still startled every time to see how bare the top of the hill is now.

While the events of that day certainly served as inspiration for the book, I think I was equally inspired by my own memories of junior high.

It’s such a fraught age, filled with so much change and uncertainty: shifting friendships, crushes, cliques–all while your body is managing mood swings and hormones and growth spurts. I joked that 14 Hollow Road was basically a tornado of tweenage emotion.

What appeals to you about writing middle grade?

Everything?! The funny thing is that I came into writing middle grade almost accidentally.

I started out writing YA, having been a teen librarian, and only decided to try out middle grade on a whim while a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts and fell in love with it.

I love the brevity of middle grade — the economy of prose and storytelling and audience expectations that put middle grade in that 40,000 to 60,000 word sweet spot, instead of 80,000 plus, like most YA these days.

I love the audience — school and Skype visits with 4th-6th graders are so much fun. There’s such an energy to that age.

It’s still okay to be yourself and unabashedly love things– the self-consciousness of the teen years is only just starting to arrive. Most of all, when I think of middle grade, I think of the stories that made me a reader. The books that I read at that age held such a power over me. And the truth is, they still do.

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

The surprise of it, I think.

There are good surprises–and occasionally bad surprises–but I think the one constant in the life of an author is that you can’t really predict much.

While that can be terrifying for some, I’ve been trying to appreciate the positive aspects of it. Your next creative idea could come from the place you least expected it.

What are you working on next?

Weirdly enough, I’ve been trying my hand at writing picture books!

I don’t know where this will lead, but I’ve spent the last month intensely reading and studying them and it’s been such a breath of fresh air.

If you want to see the world from a new angle, try reading 100 picture books aloud in a month. I guarantee it will change you.

Cynsational Notes

A Booklist review of 14 Hollow Road said, “Bishop nails the tween voice: Maddie is a realistic heroine who deals with typical middle-grade problems amidst disaster, and she navigates upheavals with occasional grace and more frequent missteps. Tornado or not, growing up is a tempestuous business.”

Jenn Bishop grew up in a small town in rural Central Massachusetts.

A lifelong reader, she was formerly a youth services and teen librarian. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago, where she studied English, and Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. 
Along with her husband and cat, Jenn lives in Cincinnati, where she roots long-distance for the Red Sox. Her debut novel, The Distance To Home (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) was described as a “piercing first novel” by Publishers Weekly.

Author Interview: Marianna Baer on the Twisty Turns of Becoming a YA Author

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

We welcome Marianna Baer to talk about her new YA novel, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn (Amulet, April 2017). From the promotional copy:
Quinn Cutler is sixteen and the daughter of a high-profile Brooklyn politician. 

She’s also pregnant, a crisis made infinitely more shocking by the fact that she has no memory of ever having sex. Before Quinn can solve this deeply troubling mystery, her story becomes public. Rumors spread, jeopardizing her reputation, her relationship with a boyfriend she adores, and her father’s campaign for Congress. 

Religious fanatics gather at the Cutlers’ home, believing Quinn is a virgin, pregnant with the next messiah. Quinn’s desperate search for answers uncovers lies and family secrets—strange, possibly supernatural ones. 

Might she, in fact, be a virgin?
What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I never grew out of my childhood love of picture books and novels for kids/teens, but it wasn’t until my 30s that I discovered my passion for writing them—through a somewhat circuitous route!

In college and after, I was all about visual art—I both made art myself and was the director of a gallery in New York City. On a bit of a whim, I took a class in editorial cartooning at the School of Visual Arts

At the end of the semester, the teacher asked if I’d considered illustrating children’s books – he thought my style would lend itself well to them. Despite my love of children’s lit, this possibility hadn’t occurred to me before. Taking his advice, I moved onto classes in illustrating kids’ books, taught by the wonderful Monica Wellington (a mentor to many in the field).

One of Marianna’s illustrations

Monica had us write stories so we could practice illustrating complete narratives. 

After the class ended, I continued writing and illustrating book dummies. I still didn’t consider myself a Writer—I just wanted to have dummies to show publishers my illustration abilities. 
To strengthen my stories, I took an online class in writing for children of all ages. At the end of the semester, the teacher told me she thought my YA voice was particularly strong and that I should give a novel a try. 
Uh…what??? I had never considered myself capable of writing a novel. But, hey, what did I have to lose? I came up with an idea and started writing a draft.

And I never looked back. As much as I loved picture books and considered myself a visual artist, writing YA felt like coming home. (Not to mention that novels are easier than picture books. After 15 or so years of trying, I still haven’t written a great picture book!)

So, long story to say that while I always loved literature for kids, my path to writing for young readers was shaped by following my interests, listening to teachers, trying new things, and staying open to where I was led.

What inspired you to write this book?

I saw the Virgin Mary.
Well, sort of. There was this girl I used to see running in the park near my house, and something about her intrigued me. She looked like a “good girl” who was dealing with some difficult things behind the façade of perfection. 
Around that same time, I saw a painting of the Virgin Mary by Caravaggio at the Met. And it was the girl from the park! Caravaggio’s Virgin Mary from 1610 looked exactly like her. 
I thought to myself, “Aha! So that’s what the ‘good girl’ is dealing with!” A contemporary virgin pregnancy in Park Slope, Brooklyn. 
I knew it was a book I wanted to write.

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

Ha! This question made me laugh, as an easier one to answer would be “What wasn’t a challenge in bringing the text to life?”

Everything was a challenge! Finding the right point of view, figuring out what the character would do in this very strange situation, crafting the mystery, handling the religious aspects thoughtfully…

So, yes, I’m actually going to answer the alternate question, “What wasn’t a challenge?” 

What wasn’t a challenge in bringing this book to life was maintaining my interest in the story. 
It was nine years from conception to publication, and while I wasn’t working on it that whole time, there were many years of labor and many challenges involved. And I can’t think of a moment when I lost my sense of engagement with the story. 
Sure, there were times when I wanted to give up because I felt like I couldn’t do it. But I never lost the desire to get the story out of my head and onto the page. 
I can’t say I love every single word in the book – I’m the type of writer who will lie in her grave wishing she could edit the words on her headstone – but I do love the story.

I understand you already knew your editor before she acquired The Inconceivable Life of Quinn? What was it like working with a friend?

It was great!

Marianna with editor Maggie Lehrman
I knew Maggie from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where we both got our MFA in writing for children and young adults. 
Looking back, I’m surprised I wasn’t nervous that having a previous friendship with my editor might cause sticky situations. But, in any case, the nerves would have been misplaced. 
Knowing Maggie made me comfortable communicating with her, helped me trust her advice (because I already knew how smart she was), and generally made me feel that my book was in very, very good hands.

And can I just give a shout out to the entire team at Amulet/Abrams? 

During the whole publication process, I felt like they cared so much about the book. For example, not only is the cover the most gorgeous cover ever (thanks largely to the illustration by Christopher Silas Neal), but the book is beautiful without the jacket, too! 
And instead of using black ink in the interior, they used deep blue! I will never stop being amazed by how beautiful the whole thing is as an object. 

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

This is all very common advice, but it can’t be said enough:

1. Read! Read widely and voraciously in your genre—classics and contemporary, best sellers and award winners, books recommended by librarians and booksellers…. 

When you fall in love with a book, tear it apart. Figure out why you love it. Analyze every aspect. If it’s a picture book, type out the text to see what that reveals. If it’s a novel, type out a scene to feel the rhythm of the prose. 
I think reading widely and critically is the single most important thing a beginning writer can do.

2. Get feedback on your stories. Not from your kids and family members. Or, at least, not only from them. Find other writers in your area or online and join a critique group. Take a class if you can.

3. Know that the process of writing and revising a book, and the process of getting published, can take a verrrrrrry long time. Don’t be in a hurry. It’s like any skill—you need to put in the hours to get where you want to be. 

In some ways, no matter what happens in your career, your pre-publication days of experimentation and learning will be glory days—enjoy them!

Cynsational Notes

Marianna Baer received an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a BA in art from Oberlin College.

She also attended boarding school, where she lived in a tiny dorm called Frost House, the inspiration for her first novel, Frost (Balzer & Bray, 2011). She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, the setting for The Inconceivable Life of Quinn.

Publishers Weekly gave The Inconceivable Life of Quinn a starred review. Peek: “In a suspenseful and thought-provoking novel, Baer tackles the illusiveness of memory (especially in regard to trauma), media firestorms, fear of the unknown, and the complexities of faith, without ever turning didactic or allowing Quinn’s story to fall into melodrama.”


Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on “Into the Scary for the Sake of Joy”

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve been musing about what project I will work on next. Of my numerous ideas, which will take me into the challenging and blissful intellectual, emotional, psychological environment that I’ve been in for more than two years with my middle grade novel in verse, now on submission through my agent?

While I’ve written and revised it many, many times without having the thought of whether or not it would ever be published hovering close to me, now that it’s with an agent, it’s pretty hard to keep it on a back burner.

Of course, not knowing whether or not it’s truly “finished” inhibits me some from beginning a big, new project. And I also tend to rock gently in the hammock the wonderful Norman Lear has described – one that exists in the space between “over” and “next.”

But I try to tell myself the truth – the whole truth – about what I’m going through. It’s best for me, and it’s the best way to communicate with readers of my posts.

And when I wonder with interest (not judgment) about what keeps me from moving forward with a new, intense project, I know that it’s partly because the experience is not just meaningful and joyful. 

It’s also scary.

Because the best of my work includes letting myself sink deeply into the inner life of my character, and her longings, pains, struggles, become my own. That feels wonderful…and also pretty uncomfortable at times.

And I don’t think that’s unusual for us writers. Because the writing I love – others’ writing – takes me to those profoundly intense (joyful and painful) places, too.

As I was musing, an SCBWI-Illinois colleague, Darcy Zoells, posted on our listserv about her new etsy shop – Perilous Places.

The name sent an electric shiver from my stomach to my brain and back down again. “Perilous Places” – what a wonderful, intriguing, serendipitous title for what I had on my mind!

I clicked on Darcy’s link and immediately saw this:

I fell in love, and in my mind, heard the words, “perilous places” as I stared at, and then purchased, the beautiful print. This piece captures the peril and the joy of taking risks, and I could afford to own it.

Because I felt such an instant kinship with this piece of Darcy’s work, I asked her if she’d answer some questions for this guest post about entering that wonderful and yet scary place.

I love her comfort with the process of creating without knowing exactly where she may be headed. Here’s some of what she told me about Morning, which is the actual title of the work above.

Darcy Zoells

The piece, Morning, that you’re referring to, is one of a series that I am working on in collaboration with Dutch composer Sebastian Huydts. These are illustrations for his CD, Delicias de Blancanieves, which is a series of what he calls “Spanish fairy tales for the piano.” Though the title translates to “Snow White’s Delight,” he has said that it’s not referring to any specific fairy tales, so I approached the music with a mind wide open to possibility. 

As an illustrator, I’m always telling a story. In this case, I had no text to start with, only the music, which is infused with Spanish character, so I started looking at visual motifs from Barcelona or Spain (architecture, tiles, fabric). 

I also watched Spanish films. The whole time I was sketching. I kept coming back to the imp and the girl with the wheel. 

There are so many opposites in this image and I guess that reflects a certain philosophy of balance. Life is delicate. There’s a sense of hope, but the figure is also on a precipice. 

I didn’t think of this at the time, but looking at it now, it seems to me that one character is dealing with internal struggles and the other with external challenges. 

I’m still not sure what my next project will be, and I’m not sure from where or when the moments of perilous experience for the sake of joy will come. It’s impossible to know, or to plan.

But Darcy’s work hanging above my desk, reminding me that I want it to be a perilous and joyful place, and that deep work does not allow one without the other.

Darcy’s words express another belief that accompanies the longing to be deeply involved in the intensity (comfortable and uncomfortable) of deep writing – a receptive mind and a comfort with the journey, knowing that it may be uncomfortable and joyful:

Although I have taken classes, I don’t have…art school training, so I don’t think I learned any rules. In many ways this has made my way more difficult and longer. However, sometimes when you don’t have a roadmap and you get lost, you find yourself in a more interesting place than you could have imagined in the beginning. 

So my journey toward the next project continues, into the scary for the sake of joy.

Cynsational Notes

Carol Coven Grannick has been a writer since before her fourth grade teacher told her she was one. Her poetry, essays, and articles have appeared in numerous print and online venues.

She began writing for children in 1999, and her poetry and fiction have appeared in Highlights for Children, Ladybug, Cricket and Hunger Mountain. Her picture book manuscripts have won several awards, and her middle grade novel in verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,” was named a finalist in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children’s Writing at Hunger Mountain.

Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and consultant/educator, Carol also writes extensively about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience. Her column, “The Flourishing Writer,” is archived in the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

Carol lives with her husband in Chicagoland and treasures her family, friends, and works at an extraordinary early childhood center.

Guest Post: Carol Coven Grannick on Life, Writing & A Word In Praise of Emotional Safety

By Carol Coven Grannick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This morning I see a child on the early side of toddler, snuggled like a well-placed puzzle piece in his daddy’s arms.

He smiles at me, reaches out with one arm, as if I will be a wonderful new discovery. I reach back…

But, no. The minute I do, he pulls his hand away, squishing himself into the soft corners of a neck, shoulder, chest.

He’ll reach back when he’s ready. Right now I’m too new, too scary.

He’ll begin devoting a great proportion of his time to toddling out into the world, crawling or leaping into courageous experiences, taking risks, feeling exhilarated, yet vulnerable, and then scooting back into the safe spaces of his life for a rest, reassurance, and renewal.

Are we adults really much different?

For me, I’d say the answer is “no” – certainly not when it comes to needing a calm, comfortable, even neutral emotional space between encouraging myself to be courageous, vulnerable, emotionally and intellectually risk-taking in relationships and art.

A Culture of Courage

The concepts of finding the courage to make yourself vulnerable, break out of comfortable patterns and take risks, and create resilience and strength after failure, are not new – but have become increasingly familiar.

When I first heard this kind of language many decades ago in New York psychoanalytic circles, the concept of safety – AKA “comfortable” – was a pejorative term. Safety was a place to challenge, leave behind with other neurotic behaviors, cast aside as one leaped into learning to be vulnerable, take emotional, intellectual, job- and relationship-related risks.

I’d hear things like, You’re in a ‘safe’ job (not challenging yourself) and You’re in a ‘safe’ relationship (too comfortable) – as if there was something cowardly (or neurotic) about being in a certain kind of situation.

At the time, I didn’t have the courage to question this. But inside, I didn’t understand how the need for safety was “bad”. It puzzled me. I certainly understood it intellectually. But emotionally?

Not so much. I’d longed for a sense of safety as a child, and was even more aware of the need for it as an adult…That is, the feeling that I was protected, safe, comfortable – who could ask for more?


As I matured (and learned to trust my own beliefs, capacities, and strengths), I found and tried to sustain the courage to be vulnerable, take emotional and intellectual risks, and use disappointments and failures, in relationships and in my writing life, to grow stronger and clearer about myself and my work.

There’s no question that having the courage to experience vulnerability, take emotional and intellectual risks, work hard to find and maintain resilience after disappointments and failures, can be exhilarating, nourishing, deeply meaningful, and exquisitely rewarding.

It can also be terrifying, discouraging, and occasionally even depleting.

So in between the leaps into experiences that may frighten – but ultimately reward – us, I like to think that seeking safety or comfort is important, too.

I believe equally in the benefits of courageous vulnerability and risk-taking in our work and our lives, and the need for emotional safety. I try not to judge one as better than the other, but instead view them as a unit, better together than they are apart.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked hard to be courageous and to be a risk-taker in my life and my work. I just don’t want to disregard, dismiss, or disparage, the need for safety, for comfort – between the minutes or days or months of being courageous.

Between “Over” and “Next”

I love those times of safety, during which I often focus on nourishing my spirit and intellect. I heard a replay of an NPR interview with the magnificent Norman Lear. Many of you may have heard or read the original interview.

“I think what I’m saying – and it’s something I’ve come to over a number of years – is I do enjoy the moment,” he continues. “There are two little words that couldn’t be more true – ‘over’ and ‘next.’

“When something is over, you gotta get used to knowing that it is over. Nothing is going to bring it back. It is just a memory. What about ‘next’?

If there’s a hammock in the middle, then that’s what they mean about living in the moment.

I think of that hammock as a safe, comforting place. A place to rock in between periods of intense, deep, vulnerable, and risk-taking work.

Not a place of denial of or defense against being courageous, but a place between.

And, like the little one I saw this morning, cuddling into his parent’s body, I embrace it.

I hold on as long as I need to, gazing out at what might be “next” – then, leap.

Cynsational Notes

More on Carol Coven Grannick

Carol Coven Grannick has been a writer since before her fourth grade teacher told her she was one. Her poetry, essays, and articles have appeared in numerous print and online venues.

She began writing for children in 1999, and her poetry and fiction have appeared in Highlights for Children, Ladybug, Cricket and Hunger Mountain. Her picture book manuscripts have won several
awards, and her middle grade novel in verse manuscript, “Reeni’s Turn,” was named a finalist in the 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize for YA and Children’s Writing at Hunger Mountain.

Drawing from her skills and experience as a clinical social worker and consultant/educator, Carol also writes extensively about the psychological and emotional aspects of the writing journey, and the essential skills for creating and maintaining emotional resilience. Her column, “The Inside Story,” appears regularly in the Illinois SCBWI Prairie Wind.

Carol lives with her husband in Chicagoland and treasures her family, friends, and work at an extraordinary early childhood center.

Guest Post: David Jacobson on Trusting the Illustrator & the Publishing Process

By David Jacobson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

For the last eight years, I have worked for a small Seattle book publisher called Chin Music Press.

I’ve done everything from fact checking and copy editing to developmental- and line-editing, from setting up book tours to reading through the slush pile (a task I actually enjoyed).

But during all that time, my name never appeared on the cover of a book.

That changed this September with the release of my first title, Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. A picture book, it’s both biography and anthology of a much-loved Japanese children’s poet, whose work has yet to be introduced to English-language readers.

Becoming an author, I learned, is a humbling experience. I had to endure the red-penciling of my not-so-flawless prose (something I used to dish out myself), and the frustration of waiting for each cog in the publishing machine to take its spin—editing, illustrating, book designing, leveling, printing, marketing, reviewing, even mailing—as deadlines came and went.

The experience opened my eyes to the anxiety authors feel as they lose more and more control over their creation, something that had not really dawned on me despite my years working in publishing.

As a staff member at a publisher, I had dealt with authors who continued to rework small details of their text until the bitter end, who agonized over each cover illustration, or who fretted over how their book page appeared on Amazon. Indeed, the degree to which authors continued “meddling” in their books sometimes affected how well we worked with them.

But being on the author side of the equation taught me just how important it is to give up control, regardless of the anxiety it might cause. That was particularly true of my interactions with Are You an Echo? illustrator Toshikado Hajiri.


When it came time to decide which cover to use, I requested multiple cover sketches, asking for one thing after another to be changed. But I couldn’t get satisfied.

 Finally, since I was unsure of how to proceed, I asked our book designer Dan Shafer for advice. He recommended limiting how much I was trying to steer the illustrator. Illustrators, he said, do their best work when they have freedom to react to the text in their own way.

Ultimately, I left Toshi to his own devices and he ended up producing a glorious painting of Misuzu and her daughter at sunset.

We went with that.

During my time at Chin Music, there have been many occasions when interactions between writer and editor, or writer and designer have produced unexpected results.

Current author A. V. Crofts tells of her own positive experience of letting go how she thought the cover of her book should look. In another of our titles, Todd Shimoda’s Oh! a Mystery of Mono no Aware, book designer Josh Powell brilliantly conceived of the idea of printing the entire book (both text and illustrations) in shades of black-and-white except for the very end.

Photo credit below.

Though initially intended to reduce the cost of the book, his solution resulted in a final explosion of color that dramatically enhanced the conclusion.

Writing is often thought to be a solo activity where one can wield total control over ones craft.

Oddly enough, its twin, publishing—the business of connecting writers to readers—is more of a team sport, requiring the combined input of different players with different skills and sensibilities.

So, as an author, don’t try to control everything in your book. Find really good people to join your team. Then let your editor, illustrator, designer, or translator bring something of him or herself to the process.

The result may surprise you.

interior illustration from the book

Cynsational Notes

Photo of Misuzu, Courtesy of Preservation Association of Misuzu Kaneko’s Work.

Review of the Day: Are You An Echo? by David Jacobson from Elizabeth Bird at A Fuse #8 Production. Peek: “I hope that the fame that came to Kaneko after the 2011 tsunami will take place in America, without the aid of a national disaster. And I hope that every child that reads, or is read, one of her poems feels that little sense of empathy she conveyed so effortlessly in her life.”

Guest Post: Ann Angel on The Sandbox & The Suck Pond

By Ann Angel
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Hummingbird’s Daughter (Little, Brown, 2006), perceives drafting as something far more glamorous than me, and so I’m inspired by his words:

“Writing rules. Everything else sucks. Writing is a big sandbox and it’s full of Tonka Trucks and plastic Godzillas.”

Have you experienced that creative space? It’s when your writing feels most fluid and free.

You become so emotionally attached to the imaginative world that, at the end of the day, you struggle to return to reality. You might look up and realize starving people are in your kitchen. And you might think, who are these hungry people?

They’re not the characters you’ve played with all day.

I’ve been there with my four kids and husband who have all wondered, more than once, how writing can be so engrossing that I melted a pan of food to the burner of my stove.

But there are other times when writing is a total suck pond. You’ve probably experienced that too. It’s when you can’t decide if you want to slap the smile off a smarmy character or toss her from a moving car – I chose a moving truck myself. From there, you admit it isn’t just the characters. The plot is unwieldy. The rising action lacks motivation and falls flat. The tone is all wrong. You stop writing.

I’ve been there, too. About a year ago, I was so mired in muck that I feared I’d never finish another novel. The first draft can be, as Cynthia Leitich Smith reminds me, “Drafty.”

Those drafty drafts bring out the worst fear in all of us. Although I made myself sit down to write, it was a tortuous experience. Then I realized this is not writing fear I suffer, it’s the fear that I’ve lost it; I’m no longer good enough.

This is thick as mud fear arrives every time I start something new or go back to revise a work that’s in that drafty stage.

The only cure is to sit down to write every day—or almost every day. But I’m here to tell you that, after spending too much time in the suck pond, the creative sandbox doesn’t always fill easily.

The sandbox is especially evasive when I’m writing about oppression and other soul-wrenching issues which are typical of YA literature. Rising out of the suck pond becomes a serious struggle.

That’s when we need consciously seek inspiration.

I’ve been working on a novel about suffocating hate and xenophobia, and so I can speak from the bottom of the suck pond. Writing comes so slowly because I really don’t like what some of my characters are doing. It’s seriously depressing being inside some of their heads.

Every day that I work on this novel I have to trick myself into beginning. I have gathered an arsenal to make this happen.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the newly christened guru of creativity, is no slouch with ideas for creative life in her book Big Magic (Riverhead, 2015). She cautions, “Don’t abandon your creativity the moment things stop being easy or rewarding—because that’s the moment when interesting begins.”

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (Tarcherperigee, 2002) has always been a mainstay. I recently picked up It’s Never too Late to Begin Again: Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond  (Tarcherperigee, 2016).

As always, Julia recommends long walks and writers’ dates—both good reminders that we can’t find creative inspiration if we’re always staring at a blank screen.

These are good ways to clear my head before and after a day of writing about the wicked side of the world. I’ve been rewarding myself for writing with artist dates.

Julia’s artist dates are permission to visit museums, beaches, art galleries, the zoo—where I recently witnessed giraffes wrapping their necks around one another to flirt.

Julia also advises, “Keep writing. If you keep writing, you will have a breakthrough.”

Through Julia’s suggestions, writers are more likely to create details that come from the observed world. In turn, the details layer and enrich characters, making it possible to write of human goodness even in the lowest moments.

Mary Karr’s, The Art of Memoir (Harper, 2015), helps writers look back into the history of our own crazy lives which are a great source of specific detail. In my life, parents warned the girls I attended Catholic school with not to hang with those wild Bonness girls (my maiden name), said as one word by mothers who must have believed the very mention of our names would taint their daughters. Karr gets that our lives are the stuff that makes stories come alive. I’ve developed some greatly cool friendship scenes around the close wildness of growing up one of seven sisters.

My cache of magic writing has been pulled together from my experience of consistently sinking into the suck pond. I had an editor once tell me my writing had serious potential.

So I made a poster that says, “Serious potential happening here.” Of course I colored outside the lines when I filled in the letters to hang it above my computer.

Sometimes I play with poetry while I write. Different forms help resolve a variety of issues. A sestina is a great tool to learn more about developing characters, often providing an “a-ha!” moment in which a character takes charge of a sudden turn. Sonnets help me figure out what my character loves and hates. Found poetry and erasure poetry help uncover the details of a character’s private world. So I play with poetry a lot when I’m writing. It can trick me into that place of fluid writing.

A good resource to begin practicing poetry is The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms by Ron Padgett (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2002).

No matter where we turn for creative inspiration, it’s good to remember that serious potential is happening every time we excavate the world of our craft. So dig into that suck pond. If you stay at it long enough, you’ll find that sandbox overflowing with imagination.