Author & Editor Interview: Jessica Lee Anderson, Madeline Smoot on Uncertain Summer

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’ve always had a fascination with Bigfoot; the idea that an ape/human creature could be secretly living in the woods both intrigued and terrified me as a child.

So when I got the opportunity to chat with the author and editor of Uncertain Summer by Jessica Lee Anderson (CBAY, 2017), I couldn’t pass it up. First, the promotional copy:

For decades something has lurked in the swampy lakes of East Texas. Could it be the elusive Bigfoot?

Everdil Jackson thinks so. Her whole life she’s grown up listening to the stories of the Bigfoot sightings around Uncertain, Texas. 


When a TV show offers a million dollars to the person that can provide conclusive proof of Bigfoot, Everdil, her brother, and two friends form a team to snap a picture of the beast. 


With any luck, they’ll prove the impossible and win the money Everdil’s family badly needs. But tracking a monster, especially one nobody’s been able to catch, proves trickier than Everdil expected. 

With each new adventure, Everdil seems to create more problems with her friends and family than she solves. In the end, she has to hope that her brave, foolish actions will ultimately make things right with everyone, including Bigfoot.


Jessica – author

Patterson-Gimlin Sasquatch image and Jessica’s dog, JoJo 

Jessica, what first sparked the idea for this book?


I’ve always been intrigued by cryptid tales, and it was after watching the Patterson-Gimlin film that I looked over and felt like Bigfoot was lurking in my living room.

It was just my old terrier, JoJo, staring at me—she resembles a mini-Sasquatch.

The experience fired up my imagination and I knew I wanted to write story featuring Bigfoot with a twist of course.

(As an aside, the Patterson-Gimlin film is now over 50 years old, and folks are still debating if it is real Bigfoot footage or not!)

Have you had a Bigfoot encounter?


I can now say that I’ve eaten Bigfoot!

The amazingly-talented Akiko White created a Bigfoot cake for the book release party.

Baby Bigfoot created by Akiko White
(see creation video at the bottom of this post)

I did spend some time out in Uncertain, Texas and searched for Bigfoot while hiking and exploring the area. I smelled some skunk-like odors in the air that made me think that there was certainly the possibility that Bigfoot was lurking around a woodsy corner.

Scenes from Uncertain, Texas

How do you navigate that fine line between spooky fun and too scary?

This seemed to come naturally for me because I tend to get spooked easily when it comes to scary books and movies. My imagination seems to run overtime (even while I’m sleeping)!

After writing the first draft, I layered in extra adventure and upped the stakes as well as the spooky fun aspects of the story. I enjoy writing, and I love the revision process…most of the time.


Do you have any writing tips to offer?


Gayleen & Jessica at Texas Library Association conference

My path from idea to publication took about seven years.

If I were to go through the whole process again, I would sit down and create a detailed outline that would offer direction yet still leave much room for creativity during the actual writing process. The story lacked much shape in the earlier drafts.

So, advice? I would say find a process that helps you as a writer to be the most efficient, and spend the time getting your manuscript in the best shape possible.

Keep fighting for your story even if there are some bumps along the path! I’m so glad I didn’t give up on this book.

I noticed you’ve done a lot of travel and school visits to promote this book. How do you balance promotion/writing/being a mom?

My background is in education, and before my full-time writing days and being a stay-at-home mom, I was a teacher. I love spending time in the classroom and in various libraries to get kids fired up about reading and writing!

It feels like such a gift to be able to travel around Texas as well as out of state to inspire and be inspired! When booking various events, I try to be as mindful of writing deadlines as possible as well as various happenings with my daughter, though life certainly happens.

I’ve learned to write on the go as much as possible, and I’ve gotten much better about asking for help when needed. I’m grateful for such caring family and friends as well as my understanding daughter!
 
Madeline Smoot – editor/publisher

Jessica (left) and Madeline at  BookPeople
for the launch of Uncertain Summer.

What appealed to you about this story?

There are so many wonderful aspects to Uncertain Summer.

I loved the adventure and mystery surrounding the cryptid. I liked how the characters were relatable.

I thought Jessica had crafted a dynamic book that would appeal to a large number of kids for various reasons.

Could you tell us a little about CBAY and how your acquisition process works?

Like most publishers, we are initially approached by authors or agents with a query.

In an effort to avoid becoming overwhelmed, CBAY is rarely open to unsolicited submissions. However, if authors have met me at a workshop, conference, SCBWI meeting, etc or if they are referred to me by a CBAY author or some other professional acquaintance, I am willing to consider their query.

If the query looks promising, I’ll request the full manuscript. From there I consider each season’s list and any holes I may have, and I will also look at the financial side for each potential title. 
If it is a book I wouldn’t mind reading at least eight times, and if the numbers work out, I’ll then make an offer and hopefully acquire it.

This is exactly how it worked for Uncertain Summer. Jessica is a veteran author, and her book was in excellent shape.

However, I primarily work with debut authors, and often their books needs some revising before I’ll make an offer. I generally only make an offer on books that are ready (or very close to ready) for the market.

Uncertain Summer interior illustration by Jeff Crosby, used with permission.

Uncertain Summer has lovely interior illustrations that enhance the story, something we don’t always see in MG books. How do you decide if you’re going to include additional illustrations? Is this something you see as a developing trend in MG?

Younger middle grade often has some illustrations, and I personally have always been a fan of illustrations used in the chapter headers. A famous example of this would be all of the small spot illustrations at the beginning of each Harry Potter chapter.

I am more likely to have interior illustrations if I have hired an illustrator to produce the cover artwork than if I used stock illustrations for the cover.

Illustration by Jeff Crosby, used with permission.

How do you select an illustrator?


I rely more on stock images rather than illustrators for many of our projects, but I do enjoy getting to work with an illustrator when the project calls for it.

Every illustrator I have ever worked with is one that was referred to me by a trusted source. In each case I had a vague stylistic idea of what I wanted the book to convey, and then I hired the illustrator with a similar aesthetic.

What else do you have out/coming up?

In the spring we have our “Princess” season with two middle grade novels and one YA anthology where all the books feature a princess.

Once Upon a Princess by Christine Marciniak debuts in April and revolves around a princess forced into hiding with her family when their country experiences a revolution. 

The second book, Royal Trouble: The Sinister Regent by Hope Erica Schultz follows a princess and her royal cousins and friends as they try to thwart a plot against their respective crowns. 
Finally, Perilous Princesses is a 10-story anthology with contributions by various authors where the princesses aren’t in danger—they are the danger. Includes stories by Susan Bianculli, Lori Bond, Alison Ching, Steve DuBois, Jeanne Kramer-Smyth, Ameria Lewis, Christine Marciniak, Kath Boyd Marsh, Hope Erica Schultz, and Madeline Smoot.



Cynsational Notes

Jessica Lee Anderson is the author of Trudy (Milkweed, 2005), winner of the 2005 Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature, Border Crossing (Milkweed, 2009), a Quick Picks Nomination and Cynsational Book of 2009, as well as Calli (Milkweed Editions 2011),  a 2013 Rainbow List Final Nomination and 2011 YALSA’s Readers’ Choice Booklist Nomination.

She’s published multiple chapter books for Rourke Educational Media including Brownies with Benjamin Franklin, Case of Foul Play on a School Day, and Runaway Robot.

She’s published also fiction and nonfiction with Heinemann, Pearson, Seedling Publications, Six Red Marbles, and a variety of magazines including Highlights for Children.

Jessica graduated from Hollins University with a Master of Arts in Children’s Literature and previously instructed at the Institute of Children’s Literature and St. Edward’s University.

She is a member of The Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels and hopes to be more sweetheart than scoundrel.

She lives near Austin, Texas with her husband, daughter, and two crazy dogs.

Madeline Smoot is the publisher of CBAY Books and former Editorial Director for Children’s Books of Blooming Tree Press. She blogs about writing at Buried in the Slush Pile and is the author of several writing guides, including Story Slices: How to Make Story Plotting a Piece of Cake. 

Madeline lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband, son, a cat, a dog, and more books than should fit in any normal person’s house.

See the Baby Bigfoot Cake by Akiko White

New Voice: Lisa Bunker on Felix Yz

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Lisa Bunker is the debut author of Felix Yz (Viking, 2017). From the promotional copy:

“If it wasn’t for the fused-with-Zyx thing, I suppose I would just be normal—whatever that means.”

When Felix Yz was three years old, a hyperintelligent fourth-dimensional being became fused inside him after one of his father’s science experiments went terribly wrong. 


The creature is friendly, but Felix—now thirteen—won’t be able to grow to adulthood while they’re still melded together. 


So a risky Procedure is planned to separate them . . . but it may end up killing them both instead.

This book is Felix’s secret blog, a chronicle of the days leading up to the Procedure. Some days it’s business as usual—time with his close-knit family, run-ins with a bully at school, anxiety about his crush. But life becomes more out of the ordinary with the arrival of an Estonian chess Grandmaster, the revelation of family secrets, and a train-hopping journey. 


When it all might be over in a few days, what matters most?

Told in an unforgettable voice full of heart and humor, Felix Yz is a groundbreaking story about how we are all separate, but all connected too.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?


It might sound a touch dramatic, but it’s true: when I was a child, stories saved my life. I was a quiet, shy, word-geeky kid carrying the secret burden of an unexpressed gender identity, and I found refuge and solace and strength in the books I loved.

Those books also showed me my purpose in life, which is, I believe, to pay it forward by creating as many more such stories as I can—particularly stories that offer refuge and solace and strength to other young LGBTQ+ humans who are just beginning to figure out who they are, and maybe feeling alone in that.

Gender-neutral pronouns Lisa used in Felix Yz.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

Whatever else I was doing, I also just kept on writing. I wrote pastiches of stories I loved. I started dozens of stories and novels I never finished. I filled notebooks with character sketches and plot outlines and drafts of scenes.

And, I paid attention to how the makers of stories that touched me managed to do that. Not just books: TV and movies and theater too.

I still do. Whatever story I’m taking in, part of me is just enjoying it, feeling all the feels, and another part is like, oh, see how they used foreshadowing there. Effective story-craft give me no end of geeky glee.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

Not so much funny ha-ha as funny heart-warming coincidence.

My partner and I had planned to spend a few days in New York City just before Christmas, so we arranged to meet our agent, Bri Johnson (she represented both of us at the time), for a get-to-know-you lunch.

A few minutes before our scheduled meeting, Bri got the email from Viking with a pre-empt offer for Felix Yz, my first book. So as the last thing before her holiday break, Bri got to tell an author in person about an offer, which she said she had never gotten to do before. And of course it was my big break, so it was a magical day all around.

Lisa giving a reading of Felix Yz.

How are you approaching the journey from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?


I actually really enjoy the business-y half of authorship. I’m an organized person and a hard worker, and I understand and accept that the creation of an author persona and platform is a valuable part of the work.

Especially since, as a transgender person, I feel a sense of mission around authorship. I feel called upon to put myself out in the world.

There are so many people who have never met a trans person, and there are many more with only glancing familiarity.

I want to meet as many of these folks as I can and offer myself to them as a memorable, positive example of a human person just like them who is navigating life with a trans identity. (See Lisa’s article, Writing While Trans, a conversation with Alex Myers from the Huffington Post.)

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


No matter what, just keep writing.

Cynsations Notes


Kirkus Reviews gave Felix Yz a starred review, “Above all, it’s about Felix’s voice: acutely perceptive, disarmingly witty, devastatingly honest, and utterly captivating. Joyful, heartbreaking, completely bonkers, and exuberantly alive.”

Felix Yz also earned a star in Publishers Weekly, “Set against a countdown to the unknown, Felix’s story is a love letter to anyone who feels out of place and a testament to the beauty of being ‘different.'”

Lisa Bunker has written stories all her life. Before setting up shop as a full-time author and trans activist she had a 30-year career in non-commercial broadcasting, most recently as Program Director of the community radio station in Portland, Maine.

Besides Maine she has made homes in New Mexico, southern California, Seattle, and the Florida panhandle. She currently lives in Exeter, New Hampshire with her partner.

She has two grown children. When not writing she reads, plays piano, knits, takes long walks, does yoga, and studies languages. She is not as good at chess as she would like to be, but still plays anyway.

Her next novel, Zenobia July, about a teenage trans girl with a troubled past who solves cyber-crimes, will be published by Viking in Spring 2019.

Guest Post: Beth Bacon on Honoring Reluctant Readers with Author & Illustrator Charles Johnson

By Beth Bacon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

This post is the first in a series honoring reluctant readers.

Reading is the closest thing we have to magic in the real world.

Is there any other explanation for the way those small, squiggly symbols on the page transform into meaning in our minds?

Scientists can provide technical explanations of the way our eyes and brains make reading happen. But I’m talking about the way a book can move us to tears or spur us to action. Reading conjures actual emotions. It transports us to places that are as real as any we’ve been to in person.

Reading is enchantment. Writers, editors and educators have the honor of introducing this power to young people. But reading can be difficult to learn.

Many children struggle to read or are reluctant to spend time with books. In this series on emerging readers, I spoke with editors, authors and educators who are thinking deeply about the issues our young people face when learning to read.

Charles Johnson with his grandson and daughter
Author, illustrator, teacher and philosopher Charles Johnson who recently wrote and illustrated a series for children, The Adventures of Emery Jones Boy Science Wonder (Libertary Company, 2015).

Johnson is a creative writing professor (emeritus) at University of Washington and received the National Book Award for Middle Passage (Scribner, 1998). He also is a preeminent voice on literature and race and a practicing Buddhist who’s written many books about the philosophy.

Beth Bacon: You’ve written a couple of children’s books. Can you talk about your motivations? Did you have someone in mind when you wrote them?

Charles Johnson: According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, and in 2012 only 3 percent of children’s books published in America had “significant African or African-American content.”

And, of course, few of these books were produced by black American authors and illustrators.

As both a storyteller and a cartoonist/illustrator, part of my motivation is obviously to correct this dearth of books for children of color to read.

At the time my daughter Elisheba and I co-authored Bending Time and The Hard Problem, the first two books in The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder series, we had my grandson Emery in mind—that’s where the protagonist’s first name comes from.

I care very much about this issue of reading material for our children. You know, of course, about the special issue of The American Book Review (September/October 2014) that I guest-edited titled, “The Color of Children’s Literature,” because you kindly reviewed Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America, by my friend, the prolific, award-winning children’s book author Tonya Bolden (Abrams, 2014).

Something else—perhaps the most important thing of all about the Emery Jones books—is that we want to get kids around middle school age interested in STEM learning and fields. To see the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math as exciting and fun.

So Emery in the books is a scientific whiz kid who finds himself flung into different adventures—saving a bully who gets stuck in the prehistoric period, saving the world from aliens and AI robots gone amuck in the second book.

In the next book we do, he’ll save the future from a disaster.

As a writing instructor, do believe there is a difference in writing for children who struggle to read and writing for those who like to read?

Yes, I think there is a difference. And you know what? Many adults today struggle to read.

The lack of literacy is a well-documented and very serious problem, especially for high school students who can’t read a newspaper op-ed and tell you what the argument is, or adults who can’t read and understand the instructions on their prescription medication.

Humanities Washington has a long-running and important program that addresses this, called Mother Read/Father Read. These are a series of books aimed at helping parents learn to read as they read to their children.

How is writing novels for young people different than writing for adults?

As an academically trained philosopher, I write very complex, multi-layered, language rich philosophical novels that dramatize the quest for the Good, investigate the nature of the self, the experience of the middle passage or north Atlantic slave trade, and the philosophical dimensions of Martin Luther King Jr. as a theologian/activist.

But for the Emery Jones books my daughter and I select subjects close to the experience of a middle school-aged child. For example, the experience of being bullied or of first love. I rely on my daughter for this because she is closer to those experiences of young people than I am.

Do you remember learning to read? Did you like to read as a child? What kinds of books influenced your childhood?

I don’t remember when I learned to read. But as an only child, books were my refuge (along with drawing) from boredom.

In high school I read one book a week, sometimes three, and they ranged from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels to westerns to Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

My mother was in several book clubs and kept our house full of interesting titles, and I was in a science fiction book club, receiving a new title every month.

I describe this early reading experience in the chapter titled “In the Beginning” in The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (Scribner, 2016).

You are a cartoonist, how does this inform your writing?


Well, every picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and our nation’s cartoonists (and graphic novel illustrators) are storytellers, too.

In others words, I’ve always had since childhood a very strong visual imagination, and I’m sure that shows in the descriptive passages in my novels, where I work for as much granularity of detail and specificity as possible.

A blank writing page is for me like a painter’s blank canvas—and that is a beautiful thing, a white surface onto which I can project images that hitherto existed in my head where no one could see them.

An illustration from Charles Johnson’s Emery Jones series

Can you talk about the differences in reading, writing and books over the three generations (your childhood, your daughter’s experiences, and now reading to your grandson, Emery).

In the early 20th century, and into the early 1970s (a period still suffering from racial segregation), white, mainstream commercial publishers seldom published black writers and artists. That’s why what we call the “black press” (Ebony, Jet, Negro Digest, Players, Johnson Publishing Co. in Chicago) came into existence.

As a cartoonist in my teens and early twenties, I published drawings and one book (Black Humor, 1970) with black publishers, then from 1974 until today with so-called “mainstream” publishers.

So the publishing situation for black writers and artists became somewhat freer since the 1980s than during my childhood. But today, sadly, and as I mentioned in my response to your first question, we still have a situation described eloquently by author and illustrator Christopher Myers in his essay “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” (New York Times, 2014):

“Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination…at best background characters, and more often than not absent. …They recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves within the lines.”

So our goal with the Emery Jones books is to break down those borders and lines, and free the imagination of as many young readers (of all backgrounds) as possible.

Beth Bacon: Freeing the imagination was one goal I had in mind when writing I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read (Pixel Titles, 2017).

Children who find reading difficult—whatever the reason—face real barriers. Not just barriers on the page, but challenges from parents, obstructive comments from peers, and isolation at school.

What if we authors for children approached our writing projects asking, “How can I include struggling readers within the boundaries of this text?”

My two books for struggling readers are barrier-breakers. They break the barriers of linear narrative; the barriers of a single authorial voice; the rules of separating words and pictures. And that’s just the form.

The content of the books break barriers, too, by directly acknowledging the experience of reluctant readers and honoring those kids whose feel like they’re on the outside in their own classrooms.

Sometimes writers have to go beyond the margins of a book to reach the readers on the margins. Let’s acknowledge and address the experience of young readers as they develop the magical skill of reading.

Cynsational Notes


Beth Bacon is the author of books for reluctant readers including I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2008, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read, illustrated by Jason Grube and Corianton Hale (Pixel Titles, 2017).

She earned an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Beth has won the VCFA Candlewick Award for Picture Book Writing, the Marion Dane Bauer Award for Middle Grade Writing, and is a PSAMA PULSE Award Finalist for marketing. 

Author Interview: Cynthia Levinson on Fault Lines in the Constitution

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Many of the political issues we struggle with today have their roots in the US Constitution.

Husband-and-wife team Cynthia and Sanford Levinson take readers back to the creation of this historic document and discuss how contemporary problems were first introduced—then they offer possible solutions. 


Think Electoral College, gerrymandering, even the Senate. 

Many of us take these features in our system for granted. But they came about through haggling in an overheated room in 1787, and we’re still experiencing the ramifications.

Each chapter in this timely and thoughtful exploration of the Constitution’s creation begins with a story—all but one of them true—that connects directly back to a section of the document that forms the basis of our society and government. 

Most middle grade nonfiction is either biography or focuses on a particular event. Here you’re examining the structure of our government and highlights of United States history since 1787. What inspired you to take on this monumental task?

The short answer to your question is that my editor, Kathy Landwehr, at Peachtree Publishers “inspired” us to write it by asking my husband, Sandy, a legal scholar, and me if we would. She had given her father a copy of one of Sandy’s previous books that critiques the Constitution—he writes for law students and faculty as well as adult readers in general—which he had found interesting. In talking about it, Kathy realized that there is no book like it for kids.

In a bigger sense, this question is really interesting because, even though I’ve published five nonfiction books (and written many more!), I’ve never thought about this distinction between biography, on the one hand, and event, on the other, as a way to organize nonfiction. It generally works, though it leaves out some science books. 

Melissa on Building Nonfiction Manuscripts

Melissa Stewart, an amazing author, researcher, and presenter on science topics, proposes another way to categorize the genre: narrative and expository. 

Your question has made me realize that Fault Lines in the Constitution contains some of all of these—biographies, events, narrative stories, and exposition of facts.

In that way, it does sound monumental! But, actually, because of the way the book is organized, it didn’t seem monumental while writing it (well, for the most part it didn’t). And we hope it doesn’t come across that way to readers.

You’re right that the scope might appear huge because we drop in on events in American history from the Revolution through this past summer. There probably aren’t many books that mention both the Continental Congress convening in a tavern in New Jersey and the fate of undocumented aliens under President Trump. 

Yet, Fault Lines is not a textbook. We don’t march through either American history or the Constitution. Every story and every event is closely tied to and illustrates a problem—or, fault line—in the Constitution.

You co-authored Fault Lines In The Constitution with your husband. Tell us about the collaboration process and how the book came together.

Fault Lines was very much a collaborative process. It is definitely ours, not his or hers. 

We had already joined forces in writing an article together for Cobblestone Magazine titled “Calling the Constitution’s Bluff,” in which we had ticked off three of the fault lines.

So, when we started on the book, I naively thought that I could re-read Sandy’s previous works—especially, Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) (Oxford University Press, 2006)—mine them for ideas, issues, and stories, and then summarize them. Done! Ha!

Though they’re persuasive in laying out his concerns about the Constitution, these books don’t tell the kinds of stories that draw in young readers. 

Also, Sandy’s writing style is, um, fluid and, because he’s so knowledgeable, digressive. Consistent structure and short blocks of text broken up by sidebars and illustrations are not his forte. (Nor, given his usual audience, do they need to be.) 
Furthermore, even though I had often heard him urge people to “follow the dots” from problems in the Constitution to political dilemmas today, I felt that the dots in his books needed clearer highlighting. Suddenly, I could see why our daughters, both of whom had written journal articles with him, asked me if I was really sure I wanted to take on this job!

For our middle-grade audience, I realized we had to start from scratch, and I laid out ground rules for the sections he would draft:

• No sentences longer than three lines or with more than one dependent clause.
• No extraneous words or vague phrases, like “indeed” or “in the grand scheme of things.”
• No adverbs.
• No parentheticals.

None of these ground rules was met! Here’s one brief example from an early draft of Chapter 4, which is about the filibuster:

Fortunately, as Sandy says, he has no pride of authorship. He does not mind being edited. You can see us working together in the photo. Note that I’m the one holding the red pen!

As a result, we managed to write the book in one voice. There is one exception, though: In writing the last chapter, we disagree and openly debate each other.

I’m also curious about the timeline – how long did it take to write, what was the editorial process was like?


I never know how to answer the question about how long it took me to write a book, partly because I work on several things at different stages simultaneously and partly because there are the inevitable lulls. 
In this case, the lull lasted a full year. We started sometime in 2013, and Fault Lines was supposed to come out in September 2016. But I had to postpone it when I was asked me to write a biography, Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can (Simon & Schuster, 2016), which had an obvious deadline. That delay turned out to be fortuitous, as the book evolved after the election of President Trump.

Kathy Landwehr, my editor at Peachtree Publishers for We’ve Got a Job (2012) and Watch Out for Flying Kids (2015) did her usual exemplary, thoughtful, and indefatigable job. 

She did not hesitate to take out her red pen, too! In fact, we wrote three entire stories for the book, including a moving one about a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns, all of which got axed for various necessary reasons. We recycled the story about Burns into a blog post.

One of the aspects I found most fascinating is that each chapter opens with a contemporary anecdote – the college student who successfully changed the Michigan constitution regarding public university admission seems particularly relevant to students. How did you find those stories? And, how did you decide which ones to use in the book?

Sandy knew about many of the events, including the opening one about the lynching of a black man named Richard Puckett in South Carolina in 1913. This tragic act leads to a discussion of the first fault line, bicameralism—the need for both houses of Congress to pass a bill before it can become a law. 

Through my experience writing for kids, I was able to turn historical artifacts into gripping stories. And, with additional research, I added moving details, including the fact that Puckett’s niece attended the ceremony in 2005 when 80 (but not all 100) senators apologized for the Senate’s inability to pass anti-lynching legislation.

Other stories popped up in the news. The situation you mention is a recent legal case related to direct democracy, which some state constitutions—but not the U.S. Constitution—allow. Another uses the jailing of a nurse who had treated Ebola patients in West Africa in 2014 to show that our Constitution is out of date. 

Cynthia and Gayleen at TLA conference

The ARC I received at the Texas Library Association conference in the spring had a sticker on the cover noting the date the text was approved, “but this is a book inherently influenced by current events.” 


Less than a week later, the Senate voted to change the filibuster rules. You and your publisher have a blog dedicated to posting updates to the book. 


Is the United States government changing faster now than it has in the past?

I doubt that the government is changing faster now than in the past. Conservatives who want a smaller role for government and lower taxes would argue that it changed vastly during President Franklin Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office when he pushed 15 major bills through Congress.

That perspective is a large part of the opposition to the Affordable Care Act, passed under President Obama. It is true, though, that the Trump administration is undoing this so-called “deep state” very rapidly.

Publishers Weekly called Fault Lines “exceptionally topical.” To keep up with the times and to show how much the Constitution influences current events, we blog every two weeks.

So far, as you can see in the picture, we’ve written about gerrymandering, Texas Boys State (which voted to secede!), the shooting of Republican Congressmen and problems with continuity in government, and the under-funding of the 2020 Census, among other topics.

We invite readers to join the conversation!

Given current events, I’m guessing this book has a lot of crossover appeal for adults. Have you noticed that with the events you’ve had so far?

Everyone tells us that! We’ve been invited to almost two-dozen radio interviews and talk-shows, and grown-ups are as engaged in our presentations as kids. School Library Connection even said, “While written for students, the book is a worthwhile read for adults as well.”

Cynsations Notes


Cynthia Levinson
photo by Sam Bond Photography

A discussion guide for Fault Lines in the Constitution is available from the publisher. The book has earned four starred reviews, from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.

Cynthia Levinson holds degrees from Wellesley College and Harvard University and also attended the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

A former teacher and educational policy consultant and researcher, she is the author of the award-winning and critically-acclaimed We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), along with Watch Out for Flying Kids (Peachtree, 2015), Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and The Youngest Marcher, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Simon & Schuster, 2017).

She has also published articles in Appleseeds, Calliope, Cobblestone, Dig, Faces, and Odyssey

New Voice: Jonathan Rosen on Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Jonathan Rosen is the debut author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies (Sky Pony Press, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Twelve-year-old Devin Dexter has a problem. 


Well, actually, many of them. His cousin, Tommy, sees conspiracies behind every corner. And Tommy thinks Devin’s new neighbor, Herb, is a warlock . . . but nobody believes him. Even Devin’s skeptical. But soon strange things start happening. 


Things like the hot new Christmas toy, the Cuddle Bunny, coming to life.


That would be great, because, after all, who doesn’t love a cute bunny? But these aren’t the kind of bunnies you can cuddle with. These bunnies are dangerous. 


Devin and Tommy set out to prove Herb is a warlock and to stop the mob of bunnies, but will they have enough time before the whole town of Gravesend is overrun by the cutest little monsters ever?


What first inspired you to write for young readers?

When I was a kid, the big thing for me was when my parents took me to the bookstore. Back then, there were bookstores in all the malls–sometimes two–Waldenbooks and B.Daltons. And every time we went, we’d stop in one, or more likely, both.

My parents would let me buy a book or two every single time, because I read them so fast. I always loved that excitement of buying a new book. There was nothing like it to me. My favorites, were the Choose Your Own Adventure Series (Bantam Books, 1979-1988).

Even back then, I remember thinking how great it would be to see my name on a book.

When I started writing, I wanted to try and recapture some of the magic of those stories that I loved.

I wanted kids to get excited about some of my stories because I still have vivid memories of going in and picking up favorite books. I dabbled in it, until my kids started to get to reading age, and then I made it a serious endeavor. I wanted my kids to love my stories.

My youngest has read Cuddle Bunnies a few times, and I love watching her do it.

I coach a girls softball team and they’re always telling me what books they like. And now, they’re all excited about mine.



What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This one, has kind of convoluted answer. I had wanted to do something fun, with a kind of dark humor. The movie “Gremlins” kept coming to mind. It was one of my favorites as a kid. I love the idea of these sweet-looking things containing a dark side, and that’s where Cuddle Bunnies came in.

At around the same time, I had just come at two different houses with a previous manuscript. Both places eventually turned it down for one reason or another, but both said they loved the humor in it.

So, while this evil stuffed animal book was fresh in my mind, I decided to go ahead and write the funniest book that I could. Evil stuffed animals were very funny to me.


What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

There were so many ‘worst’ moments, that I could write a book just about those. This isn’t an easy field. You have to brace yourself for a lot of rejection. Not everyone is going to like you and your work, so you just have to accept that.

Funny enough, some of the very worst moments were after I was at the point where I felt good enough to be published, and it didn’t happen. I got so close that when I went to the brink at those two houses and then got turned down, it kind of felt like it might not ever happen.

The best, was when I signed with my agent, Nicole Resciniti. It was real validation that someone in the industry believed in my work. It wasn’t too long after that when she told me that we had an offer. Soon, we signed the contract. That was the overall, best moment, so far!

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

I like to remain heavily involved in the children’s writing community as well as the larger literature community. Besides being in a regular critique group, I go to as many SCBWI events as I can and read blogs to keep up to date with what’s going on in the industry.

Jonathan’s critique group, The Tuesdays

I think it’s important to know what people in the industry are looking for, who’s working where, what types of books are selling as well as just maintaining friendships within the community.

It’s always good to support others and know you have like-minded individuals, who you can confide in and who share similar experiences.

As much as writing seems like a solitary endeavor, it isn’t really. It’s very tough to make it alone.

It’s good to have people who can pick you up when you’re down. To critique your work and offer opinions. And discuss what’s happening in the writing world.

I also look all the time to see what new books are released. There’s nothing like digging into a new middle grade book!

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

I wish I could give some eye-opening, insightful, new piece of information that’s never been given before, but I’m saving that for my pay-per-view special. Truth is, my advice has been given over and over again, but it’s so true. Never give up.

Seriously, it’s so easy to give in to the rejection. Most of the time, that’s what you get.

Remember, that’s what will separate you from those who don’t get published. They gave up. Keep going. Work on your craft. Always try and get better.

And one of the most important things: don’t be stubborn when someone offers opinions or advice. Take note of everything and use what works for you. If it doesn’t, then you don’t have to follow it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen.


Cynsations Notes

Jonathan Rosen is a teacher and freelance writer who spends his “free” time being a volunteer coach for his daughter’s softball team and a chauffeur for all of his kids.

Jonathan was born in New York and is of Mexican descent. He contributes to From the Mixed Up Files…of MG Authors and Tuesday Writers.

A sequel to Cuddle Bunnies, From Sunset Till Sunrise is now available as an e-book and will be released in print in August 2018 from Sky Pony Press.

Jonathan lives with his family in sunny South Florida.

Book Trailer: Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the book trailer for Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh (HarperChildren’s, 2017). From the promotional copy:

We Need Diverse Books founder Ellen Oh returns with Spirit Hunters, a high-stakes middle grade mystery series about Harper Raine, the new seventh grader in town who must face down the dangerous ghosts haunting her younger brother. 


A riveting ghost story and captivating adventure, this tale will have you guessing at every turn! 


Harper doesn’t trust her new home from the moment she steps inside, and the rumors are that the Raine family’s new house is haunted. Harper isn’t sure she believes those rumors, until her younger brother, Michael, starts acting strangely. 


The whole atmosphere gives Harper a sense of déjà vu, but she can’t remember why. She knows that the memories she’s blocking will help make sense of her brother’s behavior and the strange and threatening sensations she feels in this house, but will she be able to put the pieces together in time?

New Voice: Ruth Freeman on One Good Thing About America

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Although Ruth Freeman has authored several picture books, she made her debut as a novelist earlier this year with One Good Thing About America (Holiday House, 2017). From the promotional copy:


Is it ever easy being new?

Anaïs was the best English student in her class in Africa. Now in Crazy America she feels she doesn’t know English at all. Nothing makes sense…chicken fingers


In letters, she writes to her grandmother back home about Halloween, snow, mac ‘n’ cheese and princess sleepovers. She misses her father and brother and hopes the fighting is over soon. 

In the meantime, she writes about the weird things Crazy Americans do, and wonders if she will ever feel at home in this strange new country.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

When I found that I could read chapter books, it was like falling in love. My seven- or eight-year-old self wouldn’t have known to call it that, but it absolutely was. I couldn’t believe the places I could go and the people I could meet, all between the covers of a book! Words melted away on the page, time stopped, and I would go off with fairies, pioneer girls, knights or rabbits. Being so absorbed and transported at that age was as close to real magic as I will ever get.

I think when you’re young and fall in love with reading, it never leaves you. You’re hooked.

As I got older, the notion of recreating the magic I found in books began to take hold. I wanted to reverse the process. Could I weave words together in such a way that the picture in my head would show up (similar but different) in someone else’s head? How cool would that be?

Of course, it’s one thing to catch the desire to write and another thing to do it, as I found out. But that’s another story (see below).

Students reading at Ruth’s school

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?


Two words: my students. I teach English language learners (ELL) at an elementary school in Maine, so everyday I work with young people, some of whom arrived in this country a week ago, some of whom were born here but speak another language at home.

It takes five to seven years to become fluent in English, both the basic conversational language as well as the academic language.

As ELL teachers, we often work with the same students over several years, which means we get to know them, hear their stories, answer their many questions and meet their families.

I wrote this book for two reasons. The first was so that my students, and students like them, could see themselves in a book. There aren’t enough children’s books about the experiences of newcomers. At least, not yet.

The second reason was so that all readers could get a glimpse of what life might be like for a girl new to this country.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, I write that there’s no way I can truly understand the experience of a refugee or asylum seeker but my hope, and expectation, is that one day my students, and others like them, will write their own stories…and I can’t wait to read them!

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

Because I was writing from the protagonist Anaïs’ point of view, the biggest challenge was to make her writing, her voice, sound authentic.

I limited the words I could use to the ones used by a typical newcomer.

I added a few expressions she might have picked up such as, “for sure,” “for goodness’ sake,” and “crazy” to describe anything that didn’t make sense (which was a lot of things!). She uses “cool” and “bingo” she hears from her teacher. Because her vocabulary is still growing, she repeats words for emphasis, such as “I am not happy. Not not not happy.” Other vocabulary lessons spill over into her writing, too, such as her use of comparative adjectives: “big, bigger, biggest.”

Anaïs’ grammar and spelling was also a challenge. I wanted her writing to look as realistic as possible, so I decided it shouldn’t be perfect. I tried to include enough misspellings to make it authentic but still keep it legible.

As time goes by, her spelling, verb tenses, grammar and vocabulary improve. I worked long and hard to make the progression plausible (though her improvement is probably faster than it would be in real life). It was tricky remembering what words she had learned and what misspellings she had corrected as the story unfolded!

A fourth grade class decorated their door as the cover.

Using an entirely epistolary format must have been particularly challenging, but it works beautifully. Can you tell us what drew you to this format?

I have to admit I had never thought about writing a story in letters before. The idea for a “school” story was rolling around in my head, but that was as far as I’d gotten with it.

One spark came when I was helping some ELL students in a 2nd grade classroom. The class was writing persuasive letters, first having to state an opinion, then writing a letter to persuade someone to their point of view.

However, it wasn’t until later that the letter writing and the “school” story idea came together.

I had these bits and pieces in mind, but in the end, it was my students’ voices that made everything click. I can often hear their distinctive voices and accents in my mind long after we’re together, and it was these voices that I wanted to preserve on paper.

I felt the best way to do this was writing from my character’s point of view through letters she was writing home to her grandmother.

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


If you have a burning desire to write for young people, try it! Even though I had wanted to write for a long time there came a point when I felt time was passing and it was now or never!

But…there’s always a but…be prepared for a long, slow, hard slog. If you want it badly enough, you will stick with it. If it’s not for you, you’ll find that out and discover some other wonderful creative path to follow. It’s a journey, right?

But, if you get more and more determined to write, here are a few tips from one (and only one) writer:

Ruth in her elementary school library.

Read children’s/YA books! Haunt your local library, make friends with the children’s librarian, ask what everyone is reading, but don’t forget to read the classics as well.

Learn about the publishing business. One excellent way is to join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). They have a lot of information online, they hold great conferences, and they can hook you up with local chapters and writers groups.

Find what works for you in the way of writing. You can read everyone else’s tried and true methods, but in the end, you have to figure out which way is best for you.

For example, I cannot wake up at 4 a.m. and write! I work full-time at the moment, so I take notes and glean ideas during the week and carve out Sundays for writing. And I work hard on stories in the summer when I’m not teaching. It is not easy. When I had small children, I wrote nonfiction picture books partly because I could do the research whenever I could find the odd moment of free time.

Write about what grabs you and you’re passionate about–not, I repeat not, what you think will sell and make you a million dollars. Your heart won’t be in it. Don’t get hung up on “brands” and “platforms.” Keep it real.

Lastly, when you are ready to plunge into your first draft, learn to banish the critics sitting on your shoulders (they keep coming back, so keep shooing them away), take a deep breath and enjoy making a mess!

You have the freedom to write whatever you want…and it in no way has to be perfect!

Keep an image of a mud puddle in mind.

Later, you can make everything pretty.

In the beginning, it is time for delight, freedom, creativity, humor and the joy of being subversive. Readers come later. In the beginning, you’re writing just for you. Go for it!

Ruth Freeman
(photo by Molly Haley)

Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal called One Good Thing About America “highly recommended for libraries seeking timely stories about the immigrant experience.”

An educator’s guide is available from the publisher.

Ruth Freeman grew up in rural Pennsylvania but now lives in Maine where she teaches students who are English Language Learners, including many newly arrived immigrants. She’s worked with students from every continent except Australia and Antarctica. She has also authored several nonfiction picture books on subjects ranging from hairstyles to the history of chocolate.

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.

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

Yolanda Ridge and her sons

By Yolanda Ridge 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cynsational Notes

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

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

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

New Voice: Leah Henderson on One Shadow On the Wall

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Leah Henderson is the debut author of One Shadow On the Wall (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, June 6, 2017). From the promotional copy:

An orphaned boy in contemporary Senegal must decide between doing what is right and what is easy as he struggles to keep a promise he made to his dying father in this captivating debut novel laced with magical realism.

Eleven-year-old Mor was used to hearing his father’s voice, even if no one else could since his father’s death. It was comforting. It was also a reminder that Mor had made a promise to his father before he passed: keep your sisters safe. Keep the family together. 


But almost as soon as they are orphaned, that promise seems impossible to keep. With an aunt from the big city ready to separate him and his sisters as soon as she arrives, and a gang of boys from a nearby village wanting everything he has—including his spirit—Mor is tested in ways he never imagined. 


With only the hot summer months to prove himself, Mor must face a choice. Does he listen to his father and keep his heart true, but risk breaking his promise through failure? Or is it easier to just join the Danka Boys, whom in all their maliciousness are at least loyal to their own?

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

Their endless imaginations.

The imagination of a child is unparalleled. They are willing to take journeys many adults are not. They have a critical eye and I love that they will question anything that doesn’t seem quite right. Young readers challenge writers to be better in ways most adult readers never could or would.


So, I write for children because I want every child to see their inherent potential through their own imaginations, their varied possibilities, and to encourage them to believe they can be the stars of their own adventures. I write for them because I want every child to experience the diversity of our world.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

During a trip to Senegal, I saw a young boy sitting on a beach wall and wondered what his day might be like. 

I had no idea at the time I would try to create a story out of that question. But all through the day, the image of that boy sitting tall on that crumbling wall stayed with me. And when I saw him again later, a short story started to form. 
Of course I had no clue where it was going, but that didn’t matter. I was curious about his experiences that were probably so different from mine (though I did also wonder what might’ve been the same) and attempted to recreate a snippet of an imagined day. 
It really wasn’t meant to go any further than the ten pages I ended up writing, but one of my graduate school professors read it and had another idea. Regardless of my doubts, she thought it should be a novel. And so the journey began . . .

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

The main challenge was believing I could tell this story about a boy and a circumstance I knew little about. I did not want to assume I knew this young boy’s life or what his dreams looked like. 

I did not want to do harm. We have had enough of that in books already. 
What would you have done differently?

Surprisingly, not much. 

The journey I’ve taken in creating this book, with all its pitfalls, frustrations, smiles, and tears, is the journey we were meant to take together. 
But I do wish I could have whispered in my own ear long, long ago to trust the wonder of revision, to be kinder to myself about my writing, and to get out of my own way so the story could figure itself out. That would have been a tremendous treasure back then!

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?


I think more than anything I brought a level of compassion and fear to this project that some who have not seen themselves misrepresented in books time and time again might not understand. 
I was overly mindful of the damage that could be done if I did not take the time to do the research, ask questions, and have people of the Senegalese community read my words.

Every day that I worked on this story, I reminded myself how important it is for kids who look, sound, and live like my characters do to be able to hold their heads high when they read my words or see someone else reading them. 

I do not want them to feel like caricatures as we have in so many other instances. 
I want them to feel as if they really are seeing themselves on the page and can be proud of what they see.
As an MFA in Writing graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

Writing can be a very solitary experience, so to instantly be a part of a community that understood what I was feeling—my apprehensions, my need to write, my love of stories—it was wonderful. 

I didn’t have to explain to anyone why I stayed glued to my chair all day writing when no one was forcing me to. Or why I was picking out clothes for a character I had created in my mind (okay, sometimes I still had to explain that one), but for the most part, I entered into a community that instantly understood and welcomed me in. 
The level of support, encouragement, and instruction I received was priceless. In a way, my experience gave me a (much needed) nod that it was okay to try and tell my stories.
Cynsational Notes
Kirkus Reviews said, “In her debut, Henderson paints a detailed picture of life in Senegal. The author’s experience, research, and sensitivity shine, making this distinctive novel a valuable addition to the literature.”

Leah Henderson has always loved stories—short ones, long ones, sad ones, funny ones, and all those in between. 
When she is not frantically scribbling down the adventures of the characters jabbering in her head, she is off on her own adventures. Traipsing around the globe, venturing down meandering paths, soaking up the vibrancy of tantalizing souks and making lasting friendships. 
Many of the hopes, struggles, and traditions she witnesses on her travels find a home in her stories and color her and her characters’ lives.
Leah holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University and calls Washington, D.C. home.