Guest Post: Karen Kane on Analyzing Feedback

By Karen Kane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

How you use feedback can make or break your story.

Which feedback do you follow?

Which feedback do you ignore?

Most importantly, how can you make sure the feedback you do use deepens your writing, and not derails it?

Here’s what I know about feedback: you are in charge.

You are the gatekeeper for your stories. But to be a discerning gatekeeper—to know what feedback to use and what feedback to discard—you need to know yourself.

For me, knowing myself meant recognizing I didn’t yet have what researchers Carol Dweck and Ellen Leggett call a “mastery-oriented mindset.”

Dweck and Leggett studied how children handled putting together a difficult puzzle. Some children had a fixed mindset in regard to their abilities. Those children had pre-determined their skill level, and decided they were helpless to change that skill level and improve. But other children, also not good at solving the puzzle, were determined to become good at it.

Difficulties for mastery-oriented children were simply challenges to surmount; where as children with a fixed mindset “viewed their difficulties as failures, as indicative of low ability, and as insurmountable.”

I realized I had a fixed mindset about my writing skills.

When I received critical feedback, I often felt frustrated and helpless.

What was I supposed to do with feedback that wasn’t prescriptive? How was I supposed to make my story better with feedback if my writing skills were immutable?

Learn more about Charlie & Frog
(Hyperion, April 2018)

Learning about Dweck and Ellen’s research was a paradigm shift for me. I decided I could and would learn the craft skills needed to become a better writer. I would figure out what was working and what wasn’t working in my stories. I would have a mastery-oriented mindset.

Here’s something else I recognized in myself: I tended to abdicate my power to other people.

I wanted others to find what was wrong in my writing, and (most importantly) tell me how to fix it.

How you do anything is how you do everything—and I began to notice how this trait showed up in other areas of my life. It manifested in how I looked to other people to tell me the right way to parent or eat or decorate my home.

I didn’t believe I could make the right choices for myself. I didn’t trust myself to live my own life. Once I started thinking in terms of “mastery-oriented mindset” rather than a “fixed-mindset,” I began to feel empowered.

I saw that other people don’t have the “right” way—just their own way. And I, too, could figure out my own way, in my life and in my stories.

What do you need to know about yourself to figure out your own feedback process?

Start looking within yourself. You are the window into your writing.

Still, maybe you receive feedback and you aren’t sure if it’s right or wrong for your story. Or you don’t know (yet) how to change what’s not working.

Take that feedback you are not sure about and change it into questions about your writing. Similarly, if something isn’t working in your story, ask yourself why it isn’t working.

Write those questions on sticky notes. Keep them with you during the day as you do laundry, commute to work, eat lunch. Tell the universe you are listening. You are open for answers.

Sometimes I write down a plea—“Help me! I don’t know what to do about X.”

Then I wait. It’s hard to stay with the questions and not force answers. We are so programmed to know and to know Now.

But expectant waiting is part of the journey. Not knowing can be a good thing.

Listen to what poet Wislawa Szymborska says about people following their passion:

“Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’”

Sometimes the best stuff emerges when we say, “I don’t know,” and face this not knowing with an open and curious mind. What are we not seeing? What can help us see?

When needed, it’s imperative you are gentle with your writing and with yourself. Let your writing and yourself get stronger before you allow critical minds to delve in. Remind yourself that you have to write badly first into order to write well.

Telling myself that is the only way I can write. Otherwise I would be paralyzed.

Part of your job of gatekeeper is to only let in feedback that your story (and you) can handle at each stage.

Jane Kurtz,
photo by Jen Candor

Writer Jane Kurtz, when working on a new story, will sometimes say to a reader, “I only need to hear what’s working at this stage,” and “which parts would make you keep reading?”

Eventually, of course, the time must come for a writer to open herself up to what Peter Elbow calls that “cold critical eye . . . ruthlessly discarding or changing anything that is not right.”

But that’s when you will use your mastery-oriented mindset as you sift through this critical feedback: figuring out what to keep, what to discard, and changing comments into questions.

Now you are using feedback to find the true essence of your writing, the true essence of what you are trying to say.

Lev Vygotsky said, “Through others, we become ourselves.”

Through others, our stories can also become themselves—as long as we are attentive gatekeepers, allowing our stories to be deepened, and not derailed, by feedback.

Cynsational Notes


Kirkus Reviews described Charlie & Frog (Hyperion, 2018)  as, “An enjoyable read that artfully mixes adventure, heart, and cultural competence.”


Karen Kane’s path to Charlie & Frog led her from a small village near Rochester, New York, to the bustle of Washington, D.C. The people she met along the way inspired her writing with their warmth and humor, especially those in the Deaf community.

Karen graduated from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

When she’s not writing, Karen spends her days as a sign language interpreter at Gallaudet University or lost in the stacks of her local library.

Charlie & Frog is her first novel.

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

Learn more about Jane Kurtz.

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?

It feels to me as if my publishing journey has been nothing but bumpy—and of course all the bumps and bangs and bruises have stabbed my writer’s heart over and over.

I started publishing at a time when smaller publishers were getting gobbled up by bigger publishers and editors were losing their jobs in consolidations. I long to have been part of a world where a long-time editor would work with and nurture a writer’s career.

One of my mantras has been Respect the Mountain. I’ve been nimble, kept my eyes open for opportunity, learned from other people around me, and cultivated my team.

What does that look like specifically?

One example: I broke into the New York publishing scene with retold folktale picture books connecting to my childhood in Ethiopia. When that door closed, I published some contemporary picture books connecting with Ethiopia.

When editors began to say to me, “We can’t seem to get any picture books set in Africa to sell,” I published picture books set in the U.S. but still connecting with Africa.

I also found ways to weave my Africa connections into other genres, editing a short story collection (Memories of Sun (Greenwillow, 2003)) with other people’s stories (including a mix of well-known and brand new authors) and publishing middle grade/YA novels like The Storyteller’s Beads (Gulliver, 1998), Saba: Under the Hyena’s Foot (American Girl, 2003) and recently Planet Jupiter (Greenwillow, 2017).

I began to volunteer my time to work with artistic volunteers (many of them kids) to create local language books for Ethiopia. Having a “multicultural” story at the heart of my real life went from being an asset to a liability in terms of publishing possibilities.

It didn’t matter. I’m stubborn. I stayed determined, even though parts of that journey hurt like crazy.

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

I would love to have caught on earlier that readers would actually be interested in and not scornful about my childhood in Ethiopia—because it would be great to have caught the folktale wave when it was hot (in the 1980s) and not at the tail end.

The big reason I missed the wave is that I was living in a small town in southern Colorado and checking books out of the library, not knowing how to look at what was on the cutting edge.

I tell people, when it comes to picture books especially, read what’s being published now.

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

I think picture books have changed the most (for me) over my lifetime of publishing.

As I entered the field, picture books were getting longer and more sophisticated, being used more widely with readers older than the (then) conventional four-to-eight-year-old reader. Now they are short, snappy, really text-and-illustration interactive, and geared (for the most part) to three-, four-, and five-year-olds.

I’m determined not to whine about the changes even though I miss getting to use all those lovely words.

Nonfiction is soaring in picture books, which opens cool worlds. Also, I was always the funny kid in my family, and I’m getting to use my humor more.

Who would think that someone who started out by publishing Fire on the Mountain (E.B. Lewis’s first foray into picture book illustration—a lovely and elegant picture book)(Simon & Schuster, 1994) would now be getting ready to publish What Do They Do with All That Poo? illustrated by Allison Black (Beach Lane, 2018).


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

Don’t waste any time and longing thinking things are going to get any easier. You think that if you had published many books, your life would be easier. Probably not.

Celebrate your successes and cultivate a sense of “enough” and “arrived.” Keep reading. You’ll gather new craft skills throughout your whole life to keep going and growing as a writer.

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

Cate Berry, Jane and Margaret Mayo McGlynn singing at VCFA.

This has always been a generous and supportive and fun-loving community.

I wouldn’t have survived without my writers’ retreats and my author friends and the Vermont College of Fine Arts community—a smart, hardworking collection of writers serious about the craft of children’s and YA literature.

I want us to resist the inevitable fears of scarcity and look for ways to network and build each other up.

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

I’ve gotten to the stage where I no longer think about my literary legacy. I still want my books to do well in the world and find their readers. But I mostly want to have a creative life every day.

I want to keep writing and keep learning…oh…and getting to that stage where I feel “enough” and “arrived” would be beautiful.

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.

Guest Post: Cate Berry on VCFA at Bath Spa University

By Cate Berry
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Looking back on your undergraduate years, do you have remorse? What got away?

Mine is easy. I regret not spending a semester abroad.

Enter my grad school: Vermont College of Fine Arts. I graduated this July with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, but not without savoring a wonderful and rich residency in Bath Spa, England the previous summer. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Corsham Court
Summer Residency in England is now in it’s third year. A select group of VCFA students in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program travel to Bath Spa each summer for a week of scholarship, study and cultural immersion alongside fellow children’s writers, who’re attending Bath Spa University.

Suma Subramaniam, Michele Prestininzi, Tricia McLaughlin Carey, Cate Berry & Ginny Dukek

Bath, England is a tidy one-hour train ride from London. As I speed past quaint English villages, I caught myself humming the “Downton Abbey” theme song and counting sheep dotting the countryside.

Donna Janell Bowman at Jane Austen Centre

The elegant city of Bath is my retirement fantasy. It holds all the necessary requirements: small population, ample bookstores, lush English gardens, great restaurants and a bustling artistic scene.

The Jane Austen Centre boasts rare portraits of the author, her history and fabulous period clothing you can actually try on.

We toured the Roman Baths during our stay and dined at The Pump Room. Also, the world famous Thermal Baths (not to be missed if you attend residency) are situated discreetly downtown.

On our first day of residency, we traveled to Corsham Court where Bath Spa University is located. This is a real castle inhabited by a real duke.

As our bus arrives, peacocks strut around the manicured grounds.

The vastness and beauty of the estate left us gob-smacked.

We were going to study here?

David Almond and Louise Hawes

Esteemed Bath Spa faculty David Almond, Lucy Christopher and Julia Green greeted us along with the current Bath Spa writing students. Throughout the week faculty shared lectures, readings and group discussions, alongside our own two VCFA faculty members, Jane Kurtz and Louise Hawes.

In previous and post years, VCFA faculty Martine Leavitt, Tim Wynne-Jones, Sharon Darrow and Tom Birdseye led and attended residencies.

Julia Green, one of the Bath Spa University faculty members, commented on mixing workshops with students from both programs.

“It was a great experience, working with the MFA students from VCFA alongside our MA Writing for Young People students at Bath Spa University. 

“We found the exchange of ideas about the selected picture books, middle grade and YA novels from either side of the Atlantic an enriching experience.

“For me, there was something truly exciting about bringing together people from around the world, from different backgrounds and cultures, and finding how much we had in common, as passionate, committed writers for young people. 

“This is surely how we change the world, create understanding, and help create a more peaceful and compassionate society—for ourselves and for young people.”

Since this was part of our accredited residency at VCFA, we also attended writing workshops with our own faculty, Jane Kurtz and Louise Hawes.

Michele Prestininzi and Jane Kurtz at the Pump Room

Compared to residencies in Vermont, our group of students were smaller and more intimate. “It was great to have the same small group of writers seeing everything together,” Jane reflected. “Being part of the same lectures and readings, doing workshop together–I think the intimacy built a feeling of trust so we could all let go a bit more and play and let our creativity zing.”

In Oxford, next to the Narnia Lamppost 

Quickly, we bonded as our own group: “The Bath Goddesses.” Our workshops were generative. We tromped outside gathering sensory objects and honing our critical “observing” eye. Jane and Louise gave powerful and provocative lectures.

Gardens at Oxford University

As a writer, being so far away and immersing myself in craft and culture for a week resulted in a brand new project. The following semester, these “pages” became my creative thesis and resulted in a finished novel by graduation.

Illustration from The Hobbit.

Perhaps my favorite part of the week was our excursion to Oxford University. Our guide took us on a specific Children’s Literature tour, pointing out the colleges of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis among others.

High Table at Oxford University

We had lunch and conversation at the High Table with acclaimed novelist Meg Rosoff. And finished our day with a tour of the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe.

VCFA alum Anita Fitch Pazner said: 

“Oxford was one of my favorite stops on the Bath Spa journey. Not only did we get to walk near Alice’s Wonderland and Harry Potter’s dining hall, but we also got a glimpse of the original Narnia map.”

At the end of the week, flying back for a few treasured days on the main campus at VCFA, I thought back on my Bath Spa experience.

Bath at dusk

Did I still have remorse about missed opportunities abroad as an undergraduate?

Nope.

VCFA and the Summer Bath Spa Residency gave me the luxury of marrying an intensely satisfying learning experience with a cultural feast. Thanks, VCFA!

Cynsational Notes


Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Summer Residency in England: “Students seeking an international experience have the opportunity to attend the program’s summer residency abroad in Bath, England. This alternative residency is open to students entering their second semester or above, as well as alumni.”

About the VCFA MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Program: “The Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts allows students to earn a 64-credit MFA degree over a period of two years through a combination of ten-day, on-campus residencies followed by six-month semesters of self-created study, [each] supported and guided by a faculty mentor.
A semester’s study may focus on a particular area such as picture book, middle grade, or young adult and include in-depth reading and critical writing of the wider field, including poetry and nonfiction.”

Cate Berry is a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adult MFA program (July/2017), receiving her Picture Book Intensive Certificate in the process.

Cate is an active member of SCBWI and the Austin children’s literature community. She teaches numerous picture book classes at the Writing Barn in Austin, including the upcoming Picture Book III, starting November 1.

Her debut picture book, Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! (Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins) releases in May, 2018.

She lives in Austin with her husband and two children.

Guest Post: Jane Kurtz on Bringing Books Into the World

By Jane Kurtz

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Giving birth to a book is hard. I know. I know. Whine whine whine. Anyway, labor pains are almost over. The new middle grade novel is almost out in the world.

On the verge of my book’s birthday, I returned to the Portland school where my brother and fellow author, Chris Kurtz, was teaching third grade the year I was revising Planet Jupiter (Greenwillow, 2017) —and where I got to read the whole manuscript, chapter by chapter, week after week, to those third graders.

As I struggled to understand my own story and its implications, we talked about Jupiter, my busking, kick-ass protagonist and how she seemed to confident and bold and in charge, but how she was desperately missing her dad (while claiming she wasn’t).

We discussed the stuff that was going to bring her down–her adopted Ethiopian cousin and her new, quirky Portland neighborhood and what it costs us when we flex our muscles and boast that “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” We sang. My brother and his students even made up a song about Portland bridges for my book.

This month, when I returned to the school, I showed the students a picture of me interviewing a girl from Chris Kurtz’s classroom the year before I read to them. She came up to me at a reading appreciation night and made me laugh by the way she talked about being a twin. I asked her if I could interview her for the middle grade novel I was writing—and lo and behold it happened.

“So,” I said. “I was working hard to write my first draft when you all were in second grade. And now you’re in fifth grade!”

I have more than thirty books published. How can it take me so dang long to write-revise-revise-revise a novel?

But it does.

And honestly I also love it that the craft is so demanding. That’s one reason I teach at Vermont
College of Fine Arts MFA in Children’s and YA literature: I want to be a student of the craft of writing for my whole life, constantly filling myself up with new ways to think about writing and reading and what it means to tell a compelling and zingy story.

Suma Subramariam and Jane

A few years ago at a VCFA residency, I mentioned in a lecture that I was thinking about creating some ready-to-read books (something I’ve dabbled in for two U.S. publishers) for Ethiopian kids.

I learned to read in Ethiopia. I’ve helped start an NGO that has been exploring the question of what it means to have a “reading culture” and how readers and writers can support each other around the globe.

Now Ethiopians are starting to write children’s books. But this easy reader category is its own beast. I haven’t seen those in Ethiopia yet.

And they’re vital.

After my lecture, I sat with Suma Subramariam, one of my VCFA students, who emigrated from India and supports a school there, at a picnic table. She encouraged me to be more specific.

I told her I knew I didn’t want to commit to production and distribution. I only wanted to see if I could create colorful, appealing, culturally appropriate, local language books that would maybe inspire some Ethiopian artists and writers to try their hand at this particular type of book—one that seems simple but isn’t, one that is a first bridge to reading. Otherwise, I was pretty vague.

My idea took a big step forward a year ago when I traveled in Ethiopia with two professional American painters, two professional Ethiopian painters, two photographers, and another writer.

We went off the grid to the remote part of Ethiopia where I have my best childhood memories.

Jane and her siblings in Maji

When we returned to Addis Ababa, we experimented with a bookmaking day.

The Ethiopian artists read aloud a couple of stories that volunteers had helped translate into Amharic, one of Ethiopia’s languages. Ethiopian and American kids sat at a table and drew and painted.

One of the American artists took the work done that day, scanned it, and showed me what a book could look like:

 Pretty cool!

When we got home, my sister and I tried more simple stories, most of them inspired by Ethiopian terets or wise sayings like, “When spiders unite, they can stop a lion.”

An illustrator friend did thumbnails to show how illustrators start their work.

Then I organized another bookmaking day in Portland, Oregon, where I live and where Cecile—who was about to start middle school—studied those thumbnails and created most of the art for a second book.

Figuring out every step for our first ten Ready Set Go Books has also been haaaaard.

I’m a volunteer, after all, and so is almost everyone else who’s participated. I’ve had to learn about illustration and page turns and layout and digital design.

And then there’s the question of who will handle production and distribution. Last month, several NGOs paid a small Portland printer to print up 900 copies in three different languages and carried them to rural Ethiopia.

Liz McGovern, Executive Director of WEEMA International said, “I can’t tell you how much the kids absolutely LOVED the books! I have never in my life seen kids so engrossed and so determined to read. It was such a beautiful thing!”

Ethiopian students reading Ready Set Go Books

Author Edith Wharton said that to be a writer is to dream an eagle and give birth to a hummingbird. Who knew that something as tiny as a hummingbird would cause such despair and exasperation and make me feel—at times—like such a failure? And yet…

There’s power in creating something that captivates another human.

When I read Charlotte’s Web (by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams, Harper & Brothers, 1952) to my brother, he cried, and the tween that I was got it.

Words make us feel things. Words make us imagine ourselves into the skin of other people and even spiders.

Portland students and Jane excited about Planet Jupiter

Now, it moved me to hear that even two years later, those students remembered how much Jupiter wants her dad back, how hard it is for her to quit travelin’ on, to be vulnerable, to even sit still long enough for a little moss to grow.

What else is there?


Cynsational Notes

Planet Jupiter releases tomorrow from Greenwillow Books, a division of HarperCollins. Publishers Weekly said Planet Jupiter had “a playful yet introspective narrative” and called it an “engaging, empathic story” with “a host of quirky and appealing supporting characters.”


Kirkus Reviews described it as “a solid middle-grade family story” with vivid characters and fascinating urban village….holding readers’ interest throughout.”

Jane in Maji, photo by Jeri Candor

Jane Kurtz was born in Portland, Oregon, but when she was two years old, her parents moved to Ethiopia. Jane grew up in Maji, a small town in the southwest corner of the country.

Since there were no televisions, radios, or movies, her memories are of climbing mountains, wading in rivers by the waterfalls, listening to stories, and making up her own stories, which she and her sisters acted out for days at a time. When she was in fourth grade, she went to boarding school in Addis Ababa.

By the time Jane came back to the United States for college, she felt there was no way to talk about her childhood home to people here. It took nearly 20 years to finally find a way – through her children’s books. Now she often speaks in schools and at conferences, sharing memories from her own childhood and bringing in things for the children to touch and taste and see and smell and hear from Ethiopia.

She is also a co-founder and member of the board of Ethiopia Reads that works to bring books and literacy to the children in Ethiopia. She is a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program, and the author of more than 30 books for young readers.

Ethiopia Reads

From author Jane Kurtz:

“Pennies promise poetry.
Dollars deliver dreams.
A buck can buy a book and books change lives.

“Instead of asking ‘a penny for your thoughts,’ we’re asking you to put your two cents in by donating a dollar to Ethiopia Reads during the month of May help in celebration of our fourth anniversary.

“Ethiopia Reads was founded in May 2003 by Yohannes Gebregiorgis after he realized how much even one book changed his life. Our mission is to develop a reading culture in Ethiopia by connecting children with books.

“Be a part of our efforts to put books into the hands of every Ethiopian child by participating in our give a buck campaign. That same dollar may not travel far here, but just imagine all the stories it can tell in Ethiopia.

“Thank you. Amesegenallo.”

For more information: visit www.EthiopiaReads.org. See also an interview with Jane Kurtz on the Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation.

You can donate to Ethiopia Reads and its current and future projects by visiting the EthiopiaReads.org website and donating through Paypal. The Paypal button is on the left side of the page. Your donation will be secure and is tax-deductible as allowed by law.

If you prefer you can mail your donation to:
Ethiopia Reads
50 South Steele Street, Suite 325
Denver, Colorado 80209