Guest Post: Tara Dairman on Making Connections in a New State

By Tara Dairman
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations


Moving 1,000 miles was not the way I anticipated kicking off 2017, but hey, not much about the last year has been predictable. So when my husband received a new job offer in January, we found ourselves relocating from Colorado to Austin, Texas, in a few short weeks.

Austin has a well-established kidlit community, and I was lucky to have a few friends here already. But still, it was hard for me to leave Colorado, where I had strong bonds with local authors, indie bookstores, and librarians.

Now—and with a brand new middle-grade novel on the way—I needed to start all over again??

Yep. But a few steps I took made the landing much softer than it could have been.

Here’s how I linked up with the writing, bookselling, and library communities in my new hometown—tips that I think would also apply to debut authors looking to get more connected wherever they live.

An Erin Murphy Agency gathering in Austin with authors Dan Richards and Lindsey Lane, along with Tara’s husband and daughter, standing: agent Tricia Lawrence, authors Sean Petrie, Liz Garton Scanlon and Tara.


1. Seek out other local authors.
Kidlit authors are among the friendliest and most supportive colleagues a person could wish for. But how do you find them?

If you’re agented, ask your agent if she has other clients in your area. (I didn’t know a soul when I first moved to Colorado, but quickly made some of my best writer friends through agency connections!)

Take advantage of social media. Someone in your network probably knows someone they can connect you with.

Attend events at your local bookstore. Kidlit authors tend to turn out en masse for each others’ launch parties and panels, making the bookstore a great place to meet folks in person.

Austin authors Samantha Clark, Donna Janell Bowman, Tara & her family
at a BookPeople book launch. (photo by Dave Wilson)



2. Connect with local booksellers. Speaking of bookstores, one of the first things I did upon moving to Austin was reach out to the children’s bookseller at local indie BookPeople.

Along with another author who was also new to town, I set up a coffee meeting at the store–which I’d recommend if you and the bookseller have time, since it’s always nice to get to know each other in person!

In this case, I wanted to make sure that the bookseller knew about both my already-published titles and my upcoming one, and that meeting even led to my partnering with the store for this preorder campaign for The Great Hibernation (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, Sept. 12, 2017).

Sometimes you can even set up a system for signing book orders on demand throughout the year, which is what I did with my local indie where I used to live in Colorado.

But also, remember that it may take some time for a bookstore to warm up to you if you’re new in town or a debut author, and try not to be offended if they’re not suddenly stocking your entire back catalogue the day after you first introduce yourself.

It may not be until after you’ve held a launch event there and brought in a nice crowd that a store will be willing to stock your titles regularly or recommend them.

3. Attend a conference (even if it’s on your own dime). One of the biggest perks of moving to Texas is its statewide network of librarians, who come together each year at the massive Texas Library Association conference.

I sent myself this year so that I could participate in a kidlit “speed-dating” event, where I got to meet lots of librarians—and thanks to that, I’m now on the radar of the organizer for the “What’s New With Texas Authors?” panel, which I hope to participate in at next year’s conference.

And it’s always smart to ask your publisher if they’ll send you; even if they won’t spring for all your travel expenses, they’ll usually at least set you up with a badge so you can attend sessions and wander the exhibit hall for free.

Another conference I made sure to attend soon after moving to Texas was our Austin SCBWI conference. Even though I wasn’t presenting, it was a great way to meet local authors, get my books out in front of members at the bookstore and silent auction, and—most importantly—get inspired by all the amazing craft talks.

If the stress of moving and/or debuting has put you into a writing rut, then attending a local creative conference can be a great way to jumpstart a new project.

Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal said The Great Hibernation “explores some rather important political ideas about individuality and the need for a balance of powers in governance. A strong selection for most middle grade shelves.”

Tara Dairman is the author of the All Four Stars middle-grade foodie series (Penguin Random House)—the first of which was an Amazon Best Book of the Month and SCBWI Crystal Kite Award winner.

She has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Dartmouth College and—thanks to an epic round-the-world honeymoon—has visited more than 90 countries.

New Voice: Jenn Bishop on The Distance to Home

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Jenn Bishop is the first-time author of The Distance To Home (Knopf, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Last summer, Quinnen was the star pitcher of her baseball team, the Panthers. They were headed for the championship, and her loudest supporter at every game was her best friend and older sister, Haley.



This summer, everything is different. Haley’s death, at the end of last summer, has left Quinnen and her parents reeling. Without Haley in the stands, Quinnen doesn’t want to play baseball. It seems like nothing can fill the Haley-sized hole in her world. 

The one glimmer of happiness comes from the Bandits, the local minor-league baseball team. For the first time, Quinnen and her family are hosting one of the players for the season. Without Haley, Quinnen’s not sure it will be any fun, but soon she befriends a few players. 

With their help, can she make peace with the past and return to the pitcher’s mound?


Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an “ah-ha!” moment in your craft? What happened, and how did it help you?

After querying two projects and having plenty of full requests but no offers, I felt stuck in that place I’m sure many other writers have found themselves in. You’re so close, but still not there yet.

There’s something holding you back, but no one has been able to articulate it. And since you’re the writer, you don’t have the capacity to objectively evaluate your own finished product. Of course the story works for you; you wrote it!

It was at this point in my writer’s journey—after feeling frustrated with being so close and still not there yet, that I applied to Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

The ah-ha moment for me came during the first residency, and was followed by many ah-ha moments in the subsequent ones.

Coming in 2017

In workshop, each time we met, two writers had their work critiqued by the group. You might think my ah-ha moment came during my own critique, but as I remember, it came from looking closely at the work of my peers.

Suddenly, it started to click—what all those agents had been trying to tell me, but which I had failed to see. I wasn’t letting the reader along on the journey with the character, not entirely.

You see, on the surface there was nothing wrong with my writing. Like so many English lit majors, I knew how to write at the sentence level. But what I didn’t know—what I was only just beginning to learn—was how to tell a story. Maybe still that language is not perfectly precise.

What I was failing to do was let the reader in on the journey of the story. I was trapping the reader outside of it; it wasn’t a lived, breathed experience for them.

I could see this difference as I read my peers’ work. Some of us were still in the same stage as me; perfectly suitable writing, but not a lived experience. And others, with interiority and voice, had allowed the reader to become an active participant in the story.

Later in the program, Rebecca Stead came as a visiting writer and lectured on this participant quality. She spoke of how writing is providing the 2+2 of the equation, and letting the reader put that together to make four.

Like so many beginning writers, I was always writing out the full equation. Not letting the reader to inhabit the story and do the work.

This revelation was one that shook the big picture. It didn’t allow for an easy or quick fix. What it meant was that I had to start all over in my thinking of how to tell a story, what to share with the reader and how.

Like so many things in writing, it was just the beginning.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

Coming from a librarian background, I tend to have the long haul in mind. The truth is most books will have longer shelf lives in libraries than they ever will in a bookstore. Who wouldn’t want their book to be serendipitously discovered by a teen three, five, ten years after it was published?

As a teen librarian, I assessed the teen fiction collection annually, having to—gulp—discard the books that were no longer circulating to make room for new books.

In truth, some books don’t have a long shelf life because they are so technology-obsessed that they date themselves within a few years.

As a middle grade writer, I have it a little easier than YA authors, with technology being not quite as big a part of a ten-year-old’s life. That said, there are certain technologies that don’t seem to be going away, and it’s not in my interest to avoid anything my characters would be using in real life.

In The Distance To Home, text messaging plays a key role in the plot. While I’m a little wary of using branded applications, like Facebook and Twitter, whose purposes and uses have evolved quite a bit in the past five years, it’s important at the end of the day to be true to your reader’s world.

Anytime you avoid their reality, you risk the chance of a reader feeling jolted out of the story by something that feels inaccurate or false.

This revision kitty always rests on freshly printed manuscripts.

Cynsations Intern: Gayleen Rabakukk on Unique & Creative State Book Awards Programs

KS William Allen White Award winner Chris Grabenstein with 6-8 graders

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In updating the Awards for Children’s and YA Literature By State for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s author website, I discovered several programs and librarians taking unique or creative approaches to build interest in the books.

Here’s a closer look at a few of those programs:

Emporia State University hosts a Read-In and Sleepover for students to meet the winners of the William Allen White Award (named in honor of the Kansas newspaper editor whose autobiography won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947.)

About 80 students meet the winning authors, play board games and go swimming in the campus pool. Sleeping bags are spread out on the floor of the rec center where there’s a lights-out-at-10-p.m. policy, but with so many avid readers in attendance, there’s sure to be lots of flashlights under the covers.

On Saturday morning, about 500 students attend the Celebration that includes art activities provided by the Emporia Arts Council, skits from ESU theater students, and a school spirit competition. A ceremonial presentation of the William Allen White Book Award by student representatives follows.

KS William Allen White Award winner Sharon Creech with 3-5 graders

State budget cuts in recent years have made it impossible for some schools to attend the ceremony. Kappa Delta Pi (ESU’s student honor society) is putting together a travel grant program to make it possible for more schools to attend.

Georgia Children’s Book Awards hosts a two-day conference aimed at showing teachers and librarians ways the books can be used in the curriculum, along with presentations by authors and illustrators. For those who can’t make the conference, an outline of curriculum ideas.

The conference also includes the final round of the Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl. In 1986, library media specialist Helen Ruffin developed a competitive game format to question students about content of the nominees. She envisioned teams of students from different schools competing to test their knowledge. The competition grew and renamed in her honor following her retirement.

In 2004, a committee composed of Georgia Association of Educators and Georgia Library Media Association members set out to take the program statewide. Today, more than 600 schools across the state compete in regional, then division competitions before the finals are held at the conference.

Competition is also a reading incentive in Hawaii’s Children’s Choice Book Award, the Nene (in honor of Hawaii’s state bird.) Students compete in Kahoot! games or Nene Jeopardy. (Kahoot is a free game-based learning platform for creating a collection of questions on a specific topic. Learn more about it here.)

Pearl Harbor Elementary Librarian Denise Sumida started using “Jeopardy” games with her library classes in 2005 to build excitement about the nominees. She is also a Nene committee member.

She said, “Starting in 2008, I began video conferences with other schools as a way to promote the books, connect with other libraries/students, and to advocate for the Nene Award program.”

Games played in October, November and December are based on the winning book, while January, February and March games focus on the nominees.

Nene Awards, honoring students for Kahoots, digital & poster contests

Video conferencing allows schools to compete against one another without leaving the classroom, easing scheduling issues and eliminating travel costs.

“In general, students love to see themselves on camera and Google Hangouts allows us to view the broadcasts on YouTube,” Sumida added. “The Nene nominees are usually really popular at my school and the extra incentive of participating in a video conference encourages the students to read from the list.”

She’s seen an increase in reading participation since introducing the video conferencing with other schools. Last year, they began using Kahoot to focus on individual student knowledge of the Nene winner and the top three scorers were recognized at the Nene Ceremony.

Sumida advises other librarians thinking about introducing games to start small. She said:

  • “I did video conferences with other Nene Committee librarians’ schools first. Only two schools connecting at a time.
  • “If time permits, test out ‘Jeopardy’/Kahoot questions on your students to make sure they are clear and developmentally appropriate.
  • “Test video conference connections ahead of time. This seems simple, but if the video conference time is 30 minutes and it takes 15 minutes to connect, that’s only 15 minutes of playing time. With updates to computers, software, and cameras, it’s best to test it out without the students there waiting and getting frustrated.”

In addition to the games, the Nene award also features an art contests for an animated film or a comic strip related to the winning book.

Rolla, Kansas students celebrating the White Awards at Emporia State University

What does your school or library do to get students excited about the book awards in your state?

We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Cynsational Notes

Gayleen Rabakukk holds a master of fine arts in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She co-moderates the middle grade book club for Austin SCBWI and loves making discoveries – both on and off the page.

Always eager to track down a story, she has worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and freelance writer. Gayleen is married and has two caring and outspoken daughters. Their Austin, Texas home is filled with books and rescue dogs. You can find her online at  or on Twitter @gayleenrabakukk

Congratulations to Gayleen on recently signing with Andrea Cascardi at Transatlantic Agency!

New Voice: Shari Schwarz on Treasure at Lure Lake

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Shari Schwarz is the first-time author of Treasure at Lure Lake
(Cedar Fort, 2016). From the promotional copy:

An epic adventure—that’s all Bryce wants this summer. 

So when he stumbles upon a treasure map connected to an old family secret, Bryce is determined to follow the map, even if it means risking his life and lying to his grandpa while they’re on their wilderness backpacking trip. 

Bryce must work together with his difficult big brother, Jack, or they…and the treasure…may never see the light of day again.

What was the one craft resource book that helped you most during your apprenticeship? Why? 

How would you book-talk it to another beginning writer in need of help?

One of my very favorite craft resource books is Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole (Writer’s Digest Books, 2012).

I took it everywhere with me for a few months and read through it twice as I was writing Treasure at Lure Lake. One thing I struggled with in my book was giving the brothers, fourteen-year-old Jack and twelve-year-old Bryce, the right level of interiority, as Mary Kole calls it, which is access to the character’s thoughts and feelings about what is going on.

I wrote Lure Lake from the perspective of two boys, and if you’ve ever spent a lot of time around teenage boys, they aren’t always the first to share their emotions and deep thoughts. Of course, there are some that do—I do have four boys myself—but it was definitely a challenge for me to get into each of the boys’ heads and get their internal voices just right in my story.

Mary Kole’s book teaches about the importance of interiority.

She writes, “First we should see characters in action, and then we get some Interiority to really drive home the author’s intentions…With this one-two punch we can move on with a solid understanding of what we’ve just witnessed and learned.” (p. 59)

Another lesson I learned the hard way (through many revisions and trial and error) was how to make the reader care about Jack and Bryce at the beginning of the book. If the reader doesn’t care about their journeys very early in the story, then what would be the point of reading it? On p. 90 Kole writes, “…introduce not only a great character but a character with Objectives and Motivations. Then imbue the character’s life with enough conflict, both internal and external, to really get the story engine humming.” And, of course, there has to be interiority if we are to know the character’s goal, objectives and motivations.

Shari’s boys

I also listened carefully to my own boys and their friends. I listened to anything that would point to their hopes, dreams, goals and motivations. It is still a constant learning process to perfect these story elements that make or break a good book.

Another element is creating a complex, layered character. One who seems real. There are books I’ve read where I was certain that the story was biographical, in large part because the main character was so invested in the plot.

Mary Kole not only stresses interiority, objectives/motivations to create a real character, but she also helps writers by taking them through creating a character with a complex core identity full of strengths, weaknesses, virtues, roles, emotions, responses, boundaries etc… She writes on p 109, “If you can create a strong character with a strong sense of core self, then thrust him through a plot that attacks those pillars of identity, and surprise the reader with some of his choices, you will have an amazingly layered protagonist on your hands.” And she doesn’t leave it just at protagonists. She advises the same for the antagonist.

I highly recommend this book for all writers, those new to the craft and also those who are well-experienced. I can’t imagine that anyone has “arrived” when it comes to writing. I know I will be writing and revising and learning over and over again with each new book I write.

It’s a challenging but inspiring process, and I’m thankful for the inspiration found in books like Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole.

As a librarian-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a librarian has been a blessing to your writing?

Cody (Corgi) and Jasper (puppy)

Before I started writing seriously, I received my elementary teaching degree with an emphasis in literacy, and then I worked as an elementary school librarian. I had the privilege to study children’s literature in-depth for my teaching degree which carried over into being a librarian where I was able to share with children my love of reading.

I didn’t begin writing Treasure at Lure Lake until a couple of years later. I think being a librarian allowed me to see and understand in general what kids love to read. There are those books and series that a lot of children gravitate towards, but they’re not for everyone. There are always at least a few outliers who don’t follow the trends and find their own niche in books they love.

There is also a difference between books that adults want children to read and books that children themselves want to read. Yes, there is a bit of a crossover, but there are many books that children love that adults roll their eyes at or worse.

As a librarian, my job was to connect readers with books. And the only way to do that is to find books they love based on their interests, reading level, prior books read and sometimes just a bit of luck. Part of connecting children to books meant that I needed to be up to date on new books coming out. How could I gush over a book to a student if I’d never read it?

American Lakes, Northern Colorado

Reading so many children’s books also helped me in writing Lure Lake. There is such a wide variety of readers which is one of the reasons why there are so many different types of books out there.

As a new author, it can strike fear in my heart to think that some people will not like my book. Some people may judge it harshly. Of course! No book is the perfect book for every reader out there. This has helped me realize that my book will not be for everyone which is a good reality check. But there are children who identify with parts of my story, whether it is the plot or the characters or the themes…and that is who I wrote my book for.

Being a librarian allowed me to have numerous conversations with students who loved reading. They would tell me about why they loved the books they did, what they wanted to read next and how the book impacted them.

I also was able to listen as students told me about what made a book hard for them to get through or why it was boring. And, best of all, I was able to work with those students who just hadn’t found a love for reading yet. They were the children who came back, week after week, still searching for a book that they might finally like.

There isn’t anything more gratifying as a librarian than to finally find that one book that makes a reader’s eyes light up for the first time. Seeing a reluctant reader finally devour a book, especially if it’s part of a series, is an amazing process to watch and the greatest blessing of all in being a librarian.

One of my own sons struggled with reading throughout elementary school. But when I placed The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (Hyperion, 2005) in his hands when he was in fifth grade, he was hooked for the first time and read straight through that series and into the next.

Helping a child find the joy of reading is why I started writing Treasure at Lure Lake in the first place. I wanted to write a fun, exciting adventure that would be easy to read and would hopefully catch the imagination and hearts of reluctant readers that resonate with its story.

Guest Post: Author-Librarian Amy Bearce on Knowing Your Young Readers

By Amy Bearce
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

One thing I learned while earning my Masters of Library Science and my school librarian certificate is that if you try to censor a book, librarians will Take. You. Down.

“Don’t make me get my gloves out.” (Boxing Glove by Janusz Gawron via freeimages.com.)

Censorship and First Amendment rights are hot-button issues for librarians. Prior to my degree, I had no idea, but I loved it: librarians as righteous warriors for freedom of speech! Yes!

However, I write mostly upper-middle grade stories. For me, this means walking that fine line between being honest without censoring and also keeping in mind the needs of my tween and young teen readers. It’s a tough call sometimes.

“Balance is necessary.” (Tightrope Walker by Kristin Smith via freeimages.com)

The American Library Association says:

“Constitutionally protected speech cannot be suppressed solely to protect children or young adults from ideas or images a legislative body believes to be unsuitable” (2008).  

However, school librarians, like teachers, are seen as “in loco parentis,” giving them a unique responsibility to protect their students’ emotional and physical well-being (Chapin n.p; Duthie 91, Coutney, 18). At the same time, school librarians are also charged with defending their students’ First Amendment right to intellectual freedom.

As it turns out, this dual role of the school librarian is a good representation about how I feel about my role as a writer for tweens and young teens. I want to both help young people think about new ideas and push boundaries while honoring their age and maturity levels.

I am strongly anti-censorship, but when I was revising Fairy Keeper (Curiosity Quills, 2015) after graduating with my library science degree, I decided to focus on the needs of my target audience.

When my publisher and I decided my book would work better as an upper-middle grade novel, not YA, I wanted certain things in the story to be tempered. Not changed, not faked—just softened, without sacrificing any excitement or edginess.

Tweens and young teens can be incredibly worldly and savvy, but still easily bruised.

Because of this reality, some elementary and intermediate schools with fifth graders will carry Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008) while others will not. Some middle school libraries will carry Crank by Ellen Hopkins (Simon Pulse, 2004). Others will not.

The line between selecting age-appropriate books and self-censorship truly is a blurry target. There are so many excellent books, with a huge range in how those books handle difficult topics.

As a writer, I took note. Was I censoring myself, or was I choosing material wisely for my audience?

Let me be clear. I’m not advocating avoiding difficult issues such as death, drugs, or violence. Tweens and teens can handle a lot and don’t need rainbows and unicorns.

“Although who wouldn’t want a rainbow unicorn?” (Unicorn by Sarah at Totally Severe via Flickr.com.)

But I now approach those topics very thoughtfully when writing for middle grade readers, even at the upper middle grade range. Some writers will feel okay including topics others might not— just as some school libraries carry books others don’t.

What it boils down to is: know your readers. This is true for librarians, but also for writers. When I write now, my students from the library are in the back of my mind. The books I’ve read are there, too, whispering what’s been done, what worked, and what didn’t work.

And hopefully, all of that has resulted in a stronger story, because I’m not just writing for the heck of it. I want to connect with my readers. And that means they deserve some special consideration as a group of people in their early adolescence, a group of people that I’m proud and thrilled to write for.

About Amy

Amy Bearce

Amy writes stories for tweens and teens. She is a former reading teacher who now has her Masters in Library Science along with a school librarian certification.

As an Army kid, she moved eight times before she was eighteen, so she feels especially fortunate to be married to her high school sweetheart. Together they’re raising two daughters and are currently living in Germany, though Texas is still where they call home.

A perfect day for Amy involves rain pattering on the windows, popcorn, and every member of her family curled up in one cozy room reading a good book.

About Fairy Keeper 

Excerpt

Most people in Aluvia believe the Fairy Keeper mark is a gift. It reveals someone has the ability to communicate and even control fairies.

Fourteen-year-old Sierra considers it a curse, one that binds her to a dark alchemist father who steals her fairies’ mind-altering nectar for his illegal elixirs and poisons.

But when her fairy queen and all the other queens go missing, more than just the life of her fairy is in the balance if Sierra doesn’t find them. And Sierra will stop at nothing to find them, leading her to a magical secret lost since ancient times.

The magic waiting for her has the power to transform the world, but only if she can first embrace her destiny as a fairy keeper.

Fairy Keeper is now available in paperback and e-book.

Cynsational Notes

American Library Association. “Free Access to Libraries for Minors; An Interpretation of the
Library Bill of Rights.” 2008. Web. 18 July 2012.
< http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/freeaccesslibraries>.

Chapin, Betty. “Filtering the Internet for Young People: The Comfortable Pew is A Thorny
Throne.” Teacher Librarian 26.5 (1999): 18. Library Literature and Information Science Full Text. Web. 17 July 2012.

Coatney, Sharon. “Banned Books: A School Librarian’s Perspective.” Time U.S. Sept 22, 2000.
Web. 17 July 2012. 

Duthie, Fiona. “Libraries and the Ethics of Censorship.” Australian Library Journal 59.3 (2010):
86-94. Library Literature & Information Science Full Text. Web. 17 July 2012.